Friday, March 31, 2006

The Censure Resolution

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold:
"If Congress doesn’t have the power to define the contours of the President’s Article II powers through legislation, then I have no idea why people are scrambling to draft legislation to authorize what they think the President is doing. If the President’s legal theory... then... all of the supposed protections for civil liberties contained in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act that we just passed are a cruel hoax, and any future legislation we might pass regarding surveillance or national security is a waste of time and a charade. Under this theory, we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three co-equal branches of government, we have a monarchy.

"We can fight terrorism without breaking the law. The rule of law is central to who we are as a people, and the President must return to the law. He must acknowledge and be held accountable for his illegal actions and for misleading the American people, both before and after the program was revealed. If we in the Congress don’t stand up for ourselves and for the American people, we become complicit in his law breaking. A resolution of censure is the appropriate response – even a modest approach."
More on today's Judiciary Committee hearing here and here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Riverbend On Prize List

Via The Diplomatic Times Review we learn that the anonymous Riverbend's superb Baghdad Burning blog and the compilation of her evocative blog posts is in contention for the BBC-4's annual Samuel Johnson Prize for best non-fiction.

Last year, the blog also had a short run Off-Browdway in the form of a play. "Not a very good play," Times' drama critic Jason Zinoman wrote at the time, "but it's worth your attention for two reasons. It's the only political drama in New York written from the point of view of an Iraqi who lived through the American invasion, and, for better or worse, it inaugurates an entirely new (and seemingly inevitable) theatrical genre - the blog play."

Now that the traditional barriers are coming down and you don't have to publish an actual book or stage play to win a literary prize, do you suppose Katherina Harris is hoping her Senate campaign wins a Tony Award for Best Comedy of the Year?

P.O.'d Patricia Coming Our Way

If you haven't had a Morning Martini with "Pissed Off Patricia," you can do it person this week somewhere along the Volusia County beaches. She's heading for Florida to count piping plovers.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Iraq Predictions

American Street links to two particularly alarming reports from and about Iraq.

The first, by Zeyad, is direct from Baghdad:
"Today it was all out war in Baghdad.

"Please don’t ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war yet or not. I have never experienced a civil war before, only regular ones. All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions. I see governmental forces openly taking sides or stepping aside. I see an occupation force that is clueless about what is going on in the country. I see politicians that distrust each other and continue to flame the situation for their own personal interests. I see Islamic clerics delivering fiery sermons against each other, then smile and hug each other at the end of the day in staged PR stunts. I see the country breaking into pieces. The frontlines between different districts of Baghdad are already clearly demarked and ready for the battle. I was stopped in my own neighbourhood yesterday by a watch team and questioned where I live and what I was doing in that area. I see other people curiously staring in each other’s faces on the street. I see hundreds of people disappearing in the middle of the night and their corpses surfacing next day with electric drill holes in them. I see people blown up to smithereens because a brainwashed virgin seeker targeted a crowded market or cafĂ©. I see all that and more."
The second is from John Robb's Journal at the group blog known as Global Guerrillas . Robb has been prettty much spot-on when it comes to Iraq since the war. Here's what he offers by way of a "likely scenario for how this will play out":
"... deeper entrenchment within US bases (to limit casualties) and pledges of neutrality (Rumsfeld) will prove hollow. Ongoing ethnic slaughter will force US intervention to curtail the militias. Inevitably, this will increase tensions with the militias and quickly spin out of control. Military and police units sent to confront the militias will melt down (again), due to conflicting loyalties. Several large battles with militias will drive up US casualties sharply. Supply lines to US bases from Kuwait will be cut. Protesters will march on US bases to demand a withdrawal. Oil production via the south will be cut (again), bringing Iraqi oil exports to a halt. Meanwhile, the government will continue its ineffectual debate within the green zone, as irrelevant to the reality on the ground in the country as ever. Unable to function in the mounting chaos and facing a collapse in public support for the war, the US military will be forced to withdraw in haste. It will be ugly.

UPDATE: After I wrote this, there was news that the US intervened by attacking a gathering point for Sadr's militia in Baghdad. An Imam was killed along with 16 others. There was also a raid on an Interior Ministry prison (Badr). The scenario begins..."

Harris Face-Off

"She said Goodman was still with the campaign and said 'it was wrong' of her to say he leaked information.

"'I shouldn't have said that,' she said.

"Harris could not explain the change or make clear why she had first refused to say whether Goodman was still working with her.

"'I don't even know,' she said. 'That is so not like me.'"

-- Orlando Sentinel, March 26, 2006

Sunday, March 26, 2006

House Cooling

"If you 'take out' all the warm weather days, Pensacola would be Fargo."
"New Home Sales Plummet," reads the headline across Friday's news wires and in the New York Times. New U.S. Commerce Department data show "that sales of new homes nationwide plunged 10.5% in February, about five times the drop analysts predicted." It's the steepest drop in 9 years.

"[T]he number of properties on the market rose," too. Bloomberg News takes this as "evidence the national housing market is cooling after a five-year boom. * * * The size of the monthly decline was the biggest since April 1997."

"Land of the Open House" is the title of a related article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. The subject is how the housing bubble has burst in the quaint valley town of Merced, California. Homes for sale there have soared by a factor of 20 compared with last year, and prices have plummeted. In Merced, "a house will fetch 20% less today than it did last summer."

The Gulf Coast isn't immune. As we mentioned just last week, Leslie Conn of the Pensacola News Journal found in Gulf Breeze "Flooded Market, Dried up Dreams." She wrote:

Last week, the Pensacola Association of Realtors listed 5,642 properties for sale -- a five-year high and nearly four times more than the 1,487 homes listed in March 2005. As surplus has mushroomed, selling prices slowly are beginning to drop, witnessed by the many "Reduced" signs that are being added to the "For Sale" signs throughout the two-county area.

Some real estate brokers, like a fellow named Bill Sheffield in today's PNJ, are urging us to wear blinders so they can put an optimistic spin on the facts. Employing the same slick tone he probably uses while showing a 'handyman special' Sheffield writes, "If you take out all waterfront homes, properties for sale on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, and new homes for sale there are just over 2,800 homes for sale."

What? "Take out" all waterfront properties" in Pensacola and there's no housing glut?

Yeah, that's probably true. And if you "take out" all the warm weather days, Pensacola would be Fargo.

Harris: 'Just Joking'

"I'm going to take his legacy that he gave to me, everything I have, and I'm going to put it in this race," she told Sean Hannity. "I'm going to commit my legacy from my father -- $10 million."
"On ABC this week, she said by the end of the campaign, "I won't have anything left."

Katherine Harris was just joking. She didn't really mean to say she would spend her inheritance.

What she actually meant to say was she'll use "money from liquidating her personal assets, which she says total $10 million." But she's keeping her inheritance after all.

It can get worse. And it will.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

News? Not.

George W. Bush simply will not accept the fundamental American notion that no man is above the law. As the Boston Globe reports, he reiterates that with his latest 'signing statement' --an "addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers."

Glenn Greenwald at Unclaimed Territory explains why this isn't news:
"Yesterday, I received numerous e-mails from people asking why I had not written about this report from the Boston Globe, which reported:
When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.
"The reason I didn't was because, as extraordinary as this signing statement is in one sense, it really reveals nothing new. We really do have an Administration which believes it has the power to break all laws relating, however broadly, to defending the country. It has said this repeatedly in numerous contexts and acted on those beliefs by breaking the law -- repeatedly and deliberately. They are still breaking the law by, for instance, continuing to eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by FISA.

"This is not theory. The Administration is not saying these things as a joke. We really do live in a country where we have a President who has seized the unlimited power to break the law. That's not hyperbole in any way. It is reality. And the Patriot Act signing statement only re-iterates that fact."
Read more here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Right-Winger Resigns

Friday afternoon, the Washington Post announced that serial plagiarist Ben Domenech -- who was hired to fill a newly created, explicitly "conservative" columnist position -- has resigned after less than one week on the job.

Clary's 'Modest Proposal'

"[A] child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds. I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."
-- Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
Chumukla blogger Bryan of Why Now? makes the acute observation that state senator Charlie Clary's proposal to force tenants to give away two months' extra rent to Florida landlords not only is terrible public policy, but it will undermine our troops, since "they are subject to being deployed on minimum notice."

It's hard to fathom why Clary is sponsoring a new law that would bring financial ruin and hardship on so many of his modest-income constituents. Many of these are attached to area Air Force and Navy bases and live on reduced military benefits. Then again, it was Clary who almost single-handedly prevented statewide Florida building standards from being applied to Northwest Florida before Hurricane Ivan exposed the fallacy of the exemption and left nearly half of his constituents homeless.

Senator Clary was educated as a doctor, a course of study which does not generally offer the broadest education in literature or the humanities. So we have to ask: Is it possible Charlie Clary misunderstood Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal? Has he by any chance mistaken that satire for a good legislative idea?

Cheaper Hurricane Hunting

Yesterday's Miami Herald carried a little-noticed item titled, "Storm tours: Our disaster is their thrill."

The subhead discloses more of the story: "A new breed of tourist may be heading to Florida, and they aren't in search of sun and sand. They want wind and rain, and are paying big bucks to find it.

In this case "big bucks" is --
"$1,500 and more for three days of little sleep, canned tuna and crackers and miserable weather. Customers are on a 48-hour e-mail notice list. They fly out to the site of a predicted landfall, jump in vans decked out with reclining seats and The Weather Channel and drive miles to a parking structure to wait for the storm.

After it passes, the tours wander around to see the damage."
We know a number of Pensacola Beach families who will gladly take in hurricane chasers for less than $1,500. Just show up a few days before landfall. Be sure to bring, say, six sheets of plywood, a sack full of batteries, a week's supply of munchies, and a team of trial lawyers who specialize in suing insurance companies.

WaPo Stumbles, Falls Again

The once great Washington Post keeps falling on its face in its constant campaign to cosy up to the Republican right-wing. Or, maybe it just looks that way every time the Post sinks to its knees in front of the White House and imitates the love techniques of Fox News.

First, the Post continues to bury the news scoops of its own investigative journalist, Walter Pincus, in its back pages, just as it has done since the run-up to the Iraq war when Pincus was practically the only Post reporter whose military, diplomatic, and intelligence sources were raising serious doubts about White House claims over W.M.D. and the eventual consequences of an Iraq evasion.

Next, the Post hired as its new ombudsman a washed-out Minneapolis Star retread by the name of Deborah Howell. Howell immediately sank to her knees and shamelessly began loving up the White House while sniping at the only dot-com WaPo political reporter who isn't in thrall to the White House, Dan Froomkin. When Howell got her facts wrong and was called on it by readers, WaPo simply shut down the reader comment pages.

Now, it seems, the Post's dot-com side has hired a con artist who may be the worst addition to the world of journalism since Jason Blair. WaPo columnist Howard Kurtz today offers a succinct summary of the week-old flap.

The short version is: WaPo Executive Editor Jim Brady hired a callow, home-schooled , ankle-biting right-wing blogger named Ben Domenech. That's his official name, anyway, the one his mother gave him. Unofficially, under other names he gave himself it now appears that Domenech has been authoring articles and columns elsewhere which reveal him to be a serial plagiarist, an outright racist, and an outrageous liar.

If you want some non-succinct versions, check out Firedog Lake, Joe Conason in Salon, and Atrios' Eschaton, whose reader-commenters have been busy compiling examples of Domenech's stolen 'work' written by others. It's quite an oeuvre, ranging from film reviews to obituaries and humor to politics, all shamelessly lifted from other sources.

The Post is embarrassed. But following the protocols of its love object, George W. Bush, it will not acknowledge its mistake, it will not apologize, and it will not change its present course.

Maybe it also will leave this mess for "a future" executive editor.

Amplification Dept.

Even the right-wing American Thinker has had enough: "If we conservatives have any claims to promoting honesty and decency, there will be more calls on the right for Mr. Domenech to do the honorable thing and save himself and his employer the embarrassment of being fired by resigning immediately."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Expressio Unius Farce

"It's some Latin term, isn't it?"
-- Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist

The St. Petersburg Times called attention last week to a movement by Florida legislators to rob public school coffers in order to finance their pet voucher plans for private, primarily religious, schools. Voucher vultures now are trying to amend the state constitution to forbid the courts from ever again using a long-settled common law rule of construction known as expressio unius est exclusio alterius ("the mention of one thing is to the exclusion of others.")

The Latin-language name affixed to the doctrine gives you some idea of how old and hallowed the expressio unius judicial rule of interpretation is. It's been employed by all Western courts for centuries in a wide variety of contexts. It's one of a panoply of well-settled objective legal principles relied upon by judges to sort out the true meaning of the parties to an ambiguously written contract; the root meaning of inartfully worded statutes; and the reach of constitutional provisions when someone seeks to apply them to new and unforeseeable circumstances.

First-year law students are taught about the expressio unius doctrine just about as early as first year medical students learn to say "navel" instead of "belly button." So, you would think the Florida Attorney General -- the highest-ranking lawyer in the state -- would have a thing or two to say about this most basic legal maxim.

Wouldn't you? Nope.

Yesterday, Florida Attorney General (and candidate for governor) Charlie Crist was 'stumped' when asked about the legal maxim:
He added that he was unfamiliar with the expressio unius phrase. "It's some Latin term, isn't it? Res ipsa loquitur and ipso facto, one of those?" he joked... .
On top of this, as Matt Conigliaro points out on his estimable legal blog, Abstract Appeal, supporters of the constitutional amendment know so little about what they're doing that they wound up writing up the constitutional amendment to say the exact opposite of what they intended.

The whole thing would be great farce, if the ultimate stakes -- the distinctly American democratic idea of free public education for all -- weren't so important.

Master of the House

Master of the house
Keeper of the zoo
Ready to relieve 'em
Of a sou or two
Watering the wine
Making up the weight
Pickin' up their knick-knacks
When they can't see straight
Everybody loves a landlord
Everybody's buxom friend
I do whatever pleases
Jesus! Won't I bleed 'em in the end!

* * *
Residents are more than welcome
Bridal suite is occupied
Reasonable charges
Plus some little extras on the side!
Charge 'em for the lice
Extra for the mice
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice
Here a little slice
There a little cut
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut
When it comes to fixing prices
There are a lot of tricks he knows
How it all increases
All those bits and pieces
Jesus! It's amazing how it grows!

Northwest Florida state senator Charlie Clary once again is bravely taking up the cudgels for the rich and privileged against the poor and powerless.

Now, he's sponsoring new legislation that would allow residential landlords to stick a "liquidated damages" clause into residential lease contracts -- even the pre-printed kind that are never really 'negotiated' but wind up being signed, unread, by people who live paycheck to paycheck. The result would be that tenants who leave before the term is up would be liable for at least two months' rent even if the landlord lost no money because another tenant moved in.

Under current law, a landlord has the right to claim any loss of rent when a tenant terminates early. But he can't sue for money when he hasn't lost anything. If a tenant leaves early and the landlord loses nothing, no lawsuit. Everybody goes their own way.

Under Clary's bill, however, landlords could sue for at least two months' rent even though they haven't lost a cent.

The first trouble with Clary's proposal is it will adversely affect mostly low- and moderate-income people who have a hard enough time as it is finding decent and affordable housing in Florida's over-heated rental market. The second problem is it gives landlords a windfall when they haven't suffered any loss. None. Nada.

You'd think a good "Christian" "tort reform" advocate like Charlie Clary would want to eliminate wasteful and expensive lawsuits where no one has suffered any loss, instead of encouraging them.

Jesus! How his hypocrisy persists!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

New and Moving Blogs

There's another new blog on the block: Truman's Conscience ("Since March 11, 2006"). It comes to us out of Duval County, Florida.

And our friend and occasional guest blogger here, Bryan, has had it with's quirky and unreliable servers. He's moving Why Now? to handsome new digs. It's a good-looking site, but we can't really believe Bryan looks like the photo, shown below.

Since when did he start wearing glasses?

Liar or Fool?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Great Wall of Iraq

From George W. Bush's speech, March 20, in Cleveland:
They built an eight-foot high, 12-mile long dirt wall that ringed the city. This wall was designed to cut off any escape for terrorists trying to evade security checkpoints.

* * *
The example of Tal Afar gives me confidence in our strategy because in this city we see the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for.
From Peter Baker, Washington Post, March 21:
Reports from the streets of Tall Afar, half a world away, offer a more complex story. U.S. forces last fall did drive out radicals who had brutalized the mid-size city near the Syrian border. But lately, residents say, the city has taken another dark turn. "The armed men are fewer," Nassir Sebti, 42, an air-conditioning mechanic, told a Washington Post interviewer Monday, "but the assassinations between Sunni and Shiites have increased."

* * *
Hashim said he has also seen indications lately that the insurgents have begun "seeping back in" to Tall Afar now that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment has rotated home and been replaced by another Army unit. And given the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Tall Afar, he said, it is quite possible that the city could succumb to civil war, along with the rest of the country.

A Washington Post employee interviewing residents of Tall Afar found continuing anxiety in the streets. "Al-Qaeda has started to come back again," said Jaafar al-Khawat, 33, a tailor. "They have started to kill Shiites and Sunnis who cooperate with the Americans. Last Wednesday, they killed a truck driver because he worked with the Americans."

Yasir al-Efri, 23, a law student at Mosul University, said al-Qaeda pamphlets began appearing on the biggest mosque in Tall Afar in the past two months claiming credit for attacks. "The Tall Afar mission failed," he said. "The city will turn back to how it was before the battle within two months. The Americans are busy putting cement barriers and barbed wire around their bases and no one is taking care of the infrastructure."
From Wikipedia:
[M]ilitary historians are generally dismissive of the net value of this great wall. It was astonishingly expensive to build, maintain and garrison. The money the Ming spent on the wall could have been spent on other military capabilities such as European style artillery or muskets. The fact remains that the great wall was of no help at all in the Ming dynasty's fall.

Monday, March 20, 2006

General Eaton: 'Fire Rumsfeld'

Josh Marshall points to yesterday's op-ed piece by Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (Ret.). Just a year ago, General Eaton was being touted by the Pentagon as the 'Father of the Iraqi Army.' Today, Eaton is calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically." Worse, he says, "Donald Rumsfeld seems incapable of learning."

Meanwhile, George W. Bush isn't learning much, either. Think Progress reports:
After getting frustrated at the length of the Q&A session of his speech in Cleveland today, Bush blurted out, “Anybody work here in this town?”
Turns out "economic conditions in the city have worsened considerably during Bush’s presidency." So the answer is, "A lot of people in Cleveland don’t work because they can’t find jobs. "

Coastal Conflict

"You've got to admire Lee's pluckiness and determination, even if you think Mrs. Shrewsbury has the better of the argument."

Larry Wheeler in the Ft. Myers News-Press today wraps up in two companion articles what he describes as "a three-month examination" of U.S. coastal development policies by Gannett Corp., fueled by the question whether "two years of record-setting hurricanes might prompt a retreat from the shore... ."

The short answer is: No.

The short reason is: As species go, we don't seem to be very bright.

If you need any proof, it's to be found at Cape San Blas, once the center of "Florida's Forgotten Coast." Wheeler describes this once-impoverished Gulf Coast community east of Pensacola Beach as undergoing a "land-rush destination for the wealthy." According to Gannett's D.C. Bureau reporter, Cape San Blas --
is so exposed and so vulnerable, homeowners can’t even get insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program. But that doesn’t stop them from buying and building and purchasing coverage privately, policies underwritten by insurance giant Lloyd’s of London.

Private insurance for a beach house with a $1 million mortgage could cost $30,000 a year.
A more detailed list of the conclusions reach by the Gannett Corp.'s "examination" might be put this way: More and more people are driven to live in and near the coast. It's bad for the coast, bad for the environment, and bad for the people.

But the people don't care. They keep on coming. They keep on buying. They keep on building.

In what could be a parody of John Kennedy's ringing call to action, 'we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, insure any property, oppose any zoning to keep our piece of the beachhouse dream.'

Why? Reporter Wheeler turns to one Pensacola Beach leaseholder for an answer:
"It's just a wonderful place to be," said Lee Shrewsbury, 57, a Nashville resident who owns a house in Pensacola Beach.

"My wife might say she wouldn't mind just getting rid of it and becoming renters and tourists, but I want to live down there full time when I retire."

To rebuild would take all of the $250,000 of insurance coverage Shrewsbury said he carries on the home and then some.

"It's always going to be worth rebuilding," he said.
You've got to admire Lee's pluckiness and determination, even if you think Mrs. Shrewsbury has the better of the argument. We know many couples along the Gulf Coast who are similarly divided in their opinions.

Pouring money into rebuilding your house every 2.9 years in the face of Mother Nature is one thing. Doing it in the teeth of a spouse's opposition is true courage.

Words of One Syllable Dept.

"Mr. Bush talked about the war in a two-minute statement to reporters on Sunday when he returned to the White House from Camp David, urging Iraq to form a unity government, and saying, "I'm encouraged by the progress." Then he entered the White House with his wife, Laura.

He offered no answers to questions about the gap between his expectations three years ago and the realities of Iraq today, seemingly underscoring the problem the White House has faced in explaining the war."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

'Hellish' Storm Hits Australia

Credit Bryan at Why Now? for alertly passing along news that earlier today a typhoon of historic strength began pounding Queensland, Australia, where it is now late summer.

Remember: Just 72 shopping days left until it's our turn for Hurricane Season!

Housing Glut

Sunday's Pensacola News Journal includes a report by Lesley Conn on what locals know: There's a housing glut in greater Pensacola.
"Last week, the Pensacola Association of Realtors listed 5,642 properties for sale -- a five-year high and nearly four times more than the 1,487 homes listed in March 2005."
Conn identifies a number of reasons. Among them are two years' of unremitting storms, still-unresolved insurance claims, discouraged homeowners looking to move farther inland, lack of available contractors and work crews, frustration over long delays in getting building permits, inexperienced realtors over-pricing homes, etc. etc. etc.

The over-arching explanation is that supply exceeds demand. The unanswered question is whether this is a temporary situation or more long-term.

The coming hurricane season will answer that, we're guessing, either by improving demand --or reducing the supply.

TV As It Was Intended

Sick and tired of commercial cable news channels anchored by shallow fashion models and dyspeptic, self-promoting cranks? Ready to throw a shoe at those phony TV "experts" who are always shouting at you between endless advertisements for mood-altering drugs, high-priced credit cards, mountain-climbing gas guzzlers, and jeans for puerile teens?

Looking for an authentic politician who stands on principle?

Give a listen to Friday's Charlie Rose interview with Russ Feingold, now available on the web.
  • Direct, well informed, challenging questions delivered in a conversational tone of voice
  • Direct, informative, and candid answers -- also delivered in a conversational tone
  • Nobody's shallow 'talking points' to demean your intelligence
  • No commercial interruptions
  • 30 minutes of television the way it should be
Bonus interview: Christopher Buckley, author of the hilarious novel (just released as a movie) titled, "Thank You For Smoking." He's interviewed along with producer David O. Sacks and lead actor Aaron Eckhart (extensive clips from the new film included).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Boo! It's the Bird Flu!

Bird Flu Public Education Poster in China

Saturday's Pensacola News Journal has an old-fashioned boogeyman article about planning in Northwest Florida for a potential bird flu epidemic.

Reporter William Rabb apparently was detailed to attend one of those "influenza preparedness" workshops being staged by FSU's Robert McDaniel for county agencies and businesses around the state. What's really scary about his article is the paucity of useful health preparedness information Rabb shares. The closest the reporter comes to suggesting practical preventative measures is to ask a few rhetorical questions:
"Are you prepared to:
  • Wear a surgical mask all day, every day at work?

  • Keep the children out of school for two months?

  • Be locked in your own home by law enforcement if you're sick and won't voluntarily stay away from others?"
The only other information the PNJ passes along appears in a sidebar, misleadingly titled "Tips to Prepare for Flu Outbreak." It reads more like a marketing boost for business consultants and the will-writing industry.

Here y'ar:
  • "Companies should establish a clear line of succession in case top management is out sick or dies;"

  • "Families should draft wills or specific instructions on who can care for children if parents die or become ill for extended periods;" and

  • "Churches and child-care organizations should devise plans for quickly setting up orphanages in case large numbers of parents die."
These "preparation" tips for bird flu are reminiscent of, and about as useful for most readers, as the old duck-and-cover nuclear war joke:

How To Prepare for Nuclear Holocaust

1. Loosen all restrictive clothing (ties, belts, etc.)
2. Bend over.
3. Place your head firmly between your legs.
4. Kiss your ass good-bye.

There seems to be no doubt that a mutated H5N1 bird flu virus could cause a catastrophic pandemic. Still, there's no confirmed case, as yet, of human-to-human transmission of the virus. And the news is not all bad.

As reported on NPR's All Things Considered this week, scientists have discovered what specific changes in the H5 virus would be necessary before it can become transmittable by humans to other humans. The CDC also has "developed a rapid diagnostic test" for humans directly infected with the bird flu virus.

In the meantime is there nothing we can do for ourselves except write a will and pick foster parents for our children? Not according to new sources other than the News Journal.

In addition to the usual travelers' precautions, the Canadian Broadcast Corp. has a few suggestions of a palliative variety for home health care. The United Kingdom's Health Department has a few more common sense precautions, such as --
  • do not visit bird or poultry farms or markets
  • avoid close contact with live or dead poultry
  • do not eat raw or poorly-cooked poultry or poultry products, including blood
  • wash your hands frequently with soap and water
  • covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue when possible;
  • disposing of dirty tissues promptly and carefully – bag and bin them;
  • avoiding non-essential travel and large crowds whenever possible;
  • maintaining good basic hygiene, for example washing your hands frequently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus from your hands to your face, or to other people;
  • cleaning hard surfaces (e.g. kitchen worktops, door handles) frequently, using a normal cleaning product;
  • making sure your children follow this advice. agrees, most notably "keep your distance from people who are coughing or sneezing" and "wash your hands."

Hard to believe, but the News Journal doesn't mention any of these. To be sure, such measures are so basic as almost to be banal. But that last advice about washing hands seems all the more necessary in light of reported studies showing "10 seconds of scrubbing with soap and water is effective at washing away most viruses" and in "another study, only 83 percent of people leaving public restrooms had washed their hands." Worse, "only 24 percent of men and 39 percent of women say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing."

Do panhandle residents have dirty hands? Maybe the News Journal should not wash its own hands of the subject until it finds out.

Harris Will Quit Race

This isn't news... It's a prediction.

Much as our bad angel thinks it would be delicious watching Katherine Harris Spend It All and continue embarrassing herself throughout this year's Florida senatorial campaign, London bookies should be giving odds that some day soon that Katherine Harris will announce she is withdrawing from the race after all.

You heard it here first. We have no inside information. We know of no news you don't. We know nothing more than you do. In fact, we know less, since we didn't watch her appearance on the fairly unbalanced Faux News network. (We've blocked all of our commercial cable news channels with the parental Obsenity Control.)

The political tea leaves, however, are clear. What they say is, "Stick a fork in Katherine Harris' candidacy. It's as good as history."

What's that? You want a reality-based, logical reason for such a wild prediction? Since when do facts or logic have anything to do with Republican politicians?

Okay, okay. There are plenty of reasons to predict Harris will drop out. Try on some of these for size:

1. Karl Rove, the political operative.

The part-time Florida panhandle resident and full-time diseased "brain" for Bush will do everything he can to keep the Sunshine state in Republican hands. He knows Harris' wagon is already heading over the cliff.

2. Karl Rove, the probate judge.

Harris is promising to put $10 million of her "inheritance" from her recently deceased father into the campaign. Ten million, ten billion, or ten cents, it doesn't matter. The way things work in estate planning land, she's very unlikely to be putting her mitts on her father's money for several months. And that's assuming everything goes right.

3. Karl Rove, the tax accountant.

What if things go wrong? For example, what if the IRS, perhaps after reading emails from Rove, suddenly decides there is a pressing need to audit the estate and trust tax returns of a discrete set of deceased citizens -- say, the parents of all former state election supervisors now serving in Congress? Then, you could could be talking Jarndyce versus Jarndyce.

A thorough and searching IRS audit -- or the threat of it -- likely would last just about as long as Harris finds herself on the wrong side of the Bush brothers and the Republican establishment.

4. Karl Rove, the business manager.

But Katherine's a millionaire in her own right, you say. Indeed she is. Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington writes of Harris' disclosed wealth:
"According to her financial disclosure statement filed last year, her worth before the inheritance was somewhere between $7.8 million and $37 million.

Somewhere between $5 million and $25 million of that is stock in a company owned by her husband, Anders Ebbers, according to the disclosure form. The form also indicates that in 2004 she sold between $5 million and $25 million in stock from the company founded by her grandfather, citrus and cattle baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr.
It's one thing to be rich. It's quite another to be liquid. Selling $10 million worth of stock or other assets in an on-going business has tax and other ramifications. It's a bit more complicated than having a Saturday yard sale. Usually, it requires time, effort, and money for professional analysis, advice, the filing of certain required disclosure forms, the payment of taxes, etc. etc.

5. Karl Rove, the prosecutor.

If that weren't enough, Harris' implication in the receipt of criminal campaign donations is far from resolved, even though she claims that federal prosecutors have assured her she's innocent. Sorry, Katherine. Prosecutors just don't do that, as news reports reveal:
[Convicted defense contractor] Mitchell Wade ... has pleaded guilty to bribing a California congressman.

Wade acknowledged giving illegal contributions to Harris in her 2004 congressional re-election campaign.

"The authorities say that I could not have known; I did not know," Harris told [Faux News entertainer Sean] Hannity.

That's not what federal prosecutors in the case said. The U.S. Attorney's Office from the Washington district said only that Wade didn't tell Harris or another congressman, Virginia Republican Virgil Goode, leaving open the question of whether they knew or could have known some other way that the money was illegal.

The U.S. Attorney is a subordinate within the U.S. Justice Department. That would be the same Justice Department headed by a guy who says George W. Bush is above the law.

Any time the Bush Administration wants to commence a comprehensive, thorough, slow, and expensive investigation of someone for criminal misdoing, it can -- and it will. Simply convene a grand jury, unearth every scrap of paper, computer file, and cosmetics case Katherine Harris has touched since the day after the U.S Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush as president, and see what stains turn up on her blue dress.

Or, almost as good, threaten to do so.

6. Karl Rove, employer of political advisors.

One day after her appearance on the Faux News network, campaign strategist Ed Rollins "and others" recommended to Harris "she should probably get out." Why not? Rollins and all the others who want to stay on Karl Rove's good side have done so. As the St. Pete Buzz figures it --
At last count, Harris has had four chiefs of staff, three district directors, three press secretaries and a number of lower-level employees.
Besides Rollins, who might the "others" be who told Harris to quit? Answer: Karl Rove.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday Catfish Blogging

This is a fish vendor's stall in a market town in northern Guangdong Province, China. And, no, we really aren't sure these are catfish.

In fact, we weren't sure about anything we ate there.

The "Future of Iraq Project"

The coming weekend marks the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Via Juan Cole earlier this week we learned that at long last "The Future of Iraq Project" is on the web, courtesy of the Memory Hole.

The entire 1,200 pages can be accessed here.

For those who weren't paying attention during the run-up to the Iraq war, the "Future of Iraq Project" was launched by the U.S. State Department in April, 2002 -- fully twelve months before the war began.
[T[he State Department project assembled more than 200 Iraqi lawyers, engineers, business people and other experts into 17 working groups to study topics ranging from creating a new justice system to reorganizing the military to revamping the economy.

Their findings included a much more dire assessment of Iraq's dilapidated electrical and water systems than many Pentagon officials assumed. They warned of a society so brutalized by Saddam Hussein's rule that many Iraqis might react coolly to Americans' notion of quickly rebuilding civil society.
As the New York Times later reported, however, "top Pentagon officials" dismantled the team before it could finish, blocked Warrick's appointment to join the first reconstruction team in Baghdad, and trashed the report before it could be finished. In the words of the New Yorker Magazine, whose excellent reporters were among the very first to publicly disclose the Project's demise:
The Pentagon all but ignored the State Department’s postwar plans, compiled by its Future of Iraq project, which warned not only of looting but also of the potential for insurgencies and the folly of relying on exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi... "
Instead, as Jeffrey Goldberg later reported, the White House chose to rely on post-war planning coordinated by Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense. Feith is best known for General Tommy Franks's salty description of him as "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth."

We know at least two spooks in the Pensacola area who were reading sections of the report as they became available. They simply shook their heads in dismay when they learned the Bush administration had suppressed Warrick's efforts and canceled the project.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Principles or Politics?

Screenshot from Firedoglake

Senator Russ Feingold's censure resolution has ignited a spat among leading bloggers who tend to be critical of the Bush administration.

Kevin Drum, the usually reliable and often shallow mirror of Beltway Democrat thinking, argues that it's bad politics. Josh Marshall, freelancing for The Hill, agrees and adds that it's premature "because Congress hasn’t tried" to warn the president he should abide by the law of the land.

Glenn Greenwald thinks Sen. Feingold's move is courageous and principled. Firedoglake says it's about damn time somebody woke up the Democrats.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Million Phone March

The Ides of Mush

What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?



"[L]ike it or not, Senator [Russ] Feingold has put this proposal out on the table. It can no longer be ignored. Either the Democrats will vote their consciences and come across as confident and principled, or they will once again look fractured and cowardly, uncomfortable in their own skin."


"It is clear now that the president has been repeatedly and willingly breaking the law to wiretap American citizens without a warrant. Congress must hold him accountable, and a reasonable first step is censure to show formal Congressional condemnation for his lawbreaking."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

10 Tips for Your China Trips

More random thoughts on returning from China:

1. What to Pack.

As with travel to any foreign country, follow the advice of the travel writer who once advised, "pack no more than you can carry at a dead run for half a mile." Whatever you may have forgotten, you'll find it in China -- and probably for a lot less than you'd pay anywhere else. If you plan on shopping, consider throwing in one of those foldable light-weight dufflebags in a pouch. You can stuff it with your bootie before the return flight.

2. Money

As with travel to any distant place, from New York to Newcastle, monetary precautions are in order. A money belt is a good idea for your cash. Traveler's checks will work in the Chinese cities and towns we visited, but even in Beijing you'll find it easier to cash them at the Bank of China or in hotels that frequently cater to foreigners. Credit cards are far less useful except in hotels that cater to foreign guests. Surprisingly, they are not accepted at most shops or even many major department stores.

Cash can be exchanged at banks and most hotels. ATM machines will connect you with your home country bank for more cash, but only if you've taken the precaution of making sure your password meets international banking conventions. Contact your local bank for details.

3. Calling home.

U.S.A. cell phones by certain wireless companies (Verizon among them) work in many parts of China, although there is an additional connection fee. We found text messaging less successful. Laptop computers with a Wi-Fi connection are usable throughout major cities and in many smaller towns off the beaten track.

4. Business cards.

If you anticipate meeting with local friends or colleagues, be sure to bring plenty of personal business cards. If you don't have any handy, print some up on your home computer. In China, it is customary to present your card, and accept the card of others, with both hands. For added effect, try printing your name and other information in Chinese characters on the reverse side of your card. Free translation sites on the Internet will give you word-for-word equivalents in Chinese characters that proved, for us, to be accurate and deeply appreciated by many of our Chinese acquaintances.

5. Small gifts.

As many experienced foreign travelers know, small gifts of nominal or minor value often are appreciated, especially if you're invited into the homes of locals. For Americans, the trick is to find something quintessentially American that's not labeled "made in China." Forget Wal-Mart.

Among other items, we found the following lagniappes successful: boxed notecards, small calendars, refrigerator magnets, stationery, and the like which reproduce American art or landscape scenes (available at your local art museum's gift shop) ; a bottle of bourbon or domestic wine; American-made cigarettes (Chinese friends report they really do taste better than the same brands sold in China); American-made gift boxes of chocolates; and for children newly minted U.S. coins, colorful stamps, small picture books or locally-produced finger-puppets.

6. English-Mandarin Dictionary

The push is on in China to teach English. We were told by one school principal that English is a required subject for at least two years in the elementary grades. (Walking down a street in one rural village as school children were heading home for the evening, we repeatedly were hailed by 8-to-10 year olds with perfectly-pronounced "Hello's" and "How are you's?" -- followed by self-conscious giggles when we replied with the expected conversational English, "I am fine" and "How are you?")

The Chinese government recently announced an ambitious program to develop better English language textbooks. (Similarly, we read in China that American textbook publishers are eager to improve Mandarin language texts for English speaking students.) Consider bringing along a couple of English-Chinese dictionaries to give away, if it seems appropriate, during your travels.

7. English language books.

Standard American guidebooks, most of which are sadly out of date, caution that books are sometimes confiscated from foreigners at Chinese customs posts. Maybe so. But we saw nothing remotely like that affecting any of the two hundred jumbo jet passengers who alighted with us at the airport, although nearly everyone seemed to be carrying at least one or two books.

In retrospect, we might have packed a couple of Ansel Adams photography books or classic American novels such as "Tom Sawyer," "House of Seven Gables," "Moby Dick," and "To Kill A Mockingbird." We could find none of these in the 'foreign language' (English) section of the largest bookstore in Beijing, although we did see a paperback of Red Bad of Courage and, to our surprise, one copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

8. Food.

Unless you're staying in a five-star hotel that caters to foreign tourists, don't expect typically American food for breakfast -- or any other meal. A few such hotels provide instant Nescafe coffee in individual packs. Elsewhere, "Nescafe" instant packages are available in almost all grocery stores even in remote, rural villages and towns.

Although McDonald's and KFC are common in large city centers and some smaller towns, the food isn't quite the same -- and why would you want to eat it, anyway?

9. Toiletries

If you plan on leaving the larger city, be sure to pack at least one roll of toilet paper. Deodorant and feminine hygiene products are hard to find anywhere. Practice a baseball catcher's squat in your hiking shoes, gals, before leaving.

No. 10. Moutai

Moutai is the favorite national alcoholic drink, a potent aperitif made from
sorghum and wheat, often used in toasts at group dinners. It happens to be nearly the same color as many teas. Most toasts require you to down the whole drink at a gulp. So, if you find yourself on the receiving end of more toasts than your liver can handle, try surreptiously filling your own glass with tea and continue toasting away!

An Innocent in the Orient

"Everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims is edible."

If you haven't considered it before, think seriously about a vacation trip to China. It's a vast, beautiful, and endlessly fascinating nation with more to see than one could possibly cram into a dozen lifetimes.

Apologies for a Snapshot

The sheer size and complexity of China would make it difficult to summarize in a series of books, much less in one tiny blog article like this. Add that to the fact that we spent two weeks essentially traveling throughout only two of 23 provinces -- Hebei in the north and Guangdong in the south -- and altogether visited perhaps a dozen other cities, towns, and small farming settlements, and you can see it would be impossible for us to describe China as a whole.

The best we can do is to share a mere snapshot of what we saw and heard in the limited time we had over a discrete but variegated geographical area. The only advantages we had were that we were accompanied by Chinese friends who grew up and lived in the areas we visited, we were guests in many of their homes, and the occasion of our visit enabled us to meet many other Chinese friends and government officials at all levels of social, political, educational, and economic life.

Having traveled widely in the U.S. and other countries throughout Central and South America, Southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia, inevitably we were tempted at times to draw comparisons to what we were seeing. But we tried to resist such temptations whenever we became conscious of them, for it seems to us every country should be experienced on its own merits. But we know that we weren't always successful.


Of one thing we can be sure: this not the China our Mother had in mind when she told us so many years ago to eat the canned peas on our plate because "there are starving children in China."

(The connection between the peas on our plate and empty stomachs halfway around the world never was clear to us, which may account for why those peas usually stayed right where they were. With the shrinking of today's world and the growth of world trade, ironically, the connection is easier to understand -- but no more compelling when it comes to canned peas.)

To be sure, there are many poor people in China -- 80% of the population, by the estimate of one highly placed provincial official we spoke with ten days ago. Millions of them, as the Chinese media candidly reports and Government and Communist Party officials openly acknowledge, live at the very edge of existence. Indeed, one English-language newspaper article out of Shanghai reported that as many as one million homeless people arrive in China's largest cities every day from the impoverished rural areas.

But with a total population topping 1.3 billion, there is also a huge, energetic, and rapidly-expanding middle class. Even twenty percent of the total population of China works out to a population nearly equal to everyone in the United States.

This middle class is transforming China's economy, modernizing its infrastructure and cities at a furious pace, contributing to the rapid improvment of life for poorer farm families, and building a truly impressive array of commercial enterprises, universities, media outlets, museums, and all the other familiar institutions, businesses, and entities that make for a vibrant and exciting social, economic, and cultural climate.


We could find no canned peas in China. The distinctly different regional foods we experienced, however, are wonderfully varied, imaginative, healthy, delicious, and plentiful.

Guangdong Province lies in the south about two hours north of Hong Kong. It enjoys a balmy, Florida-like climate the year around.

There, as the saying goes, the local cuisine consists of "everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims." This means, among other meats, fish, shellfish, arthropods, and other delicacies which are readily recognizable to western eyes, we ate snakes, sea urchins, jelly fish, baked chicken heads, fried chicken feet, worms, a wide variety of unidentifiable insects, pig's knuckles, scorpion soup (sip the soup but don't eat the scorpion), dog, and a cornucopia of vaguely familiar fruits and vegetables, strange-looking leafy things, rice, sweet rice dishes, rolls, pastries, etc. Seasonings and dipping sauces are light to allow the natural taste of fresh ingredients to predominate.

In northern Hebei Province and the nearby capital city of Beijing, where the climate closely approximates that of Chicago, the cuisine tends to revolve more around meats -- pork, beef, mutton, fowl, etc. -- and fresh water fish prepared with distinctive spices and sauces. Although warned by friends in the U.S. against the infamously "glutinous" and heavy Peking Duck, which they had been served in Hong Kong, we were surprised (and relieved) to find ours delicately prepared, expertly sliced thin with no hint of fat, and accompanied by a tasty choice of sauces and side dishes.

When we inquired of Chinese friends about this discrepancy later, we were told that Hong Kong restaurants have given the dish an undeservedly bad name. Maybe so. Or, maybe this is another of the urban legends which reveal a strong competitive sense our Chinese friends seem to share when it comes to anything Hong Kong offers.

Sad to report, both Beijing and Guangzhou also boast several McDonald's and KFC fast-food resturants which, to judge from what we saw, are generally packed with young, hip Chinese youth text-messaging each other on the latest cell phones.

City Construction

There is an astounding amount of new and renovation construction going on in every Chinese city and town we visited, and many rural villages as well. The BBC has reported that "more construction work is going on in Beijing than anywhere else on the planet, with half the world's production of steel and a third of its concrete being used in the greatest makeover of a metropolis ever."

Certainly, preparations for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is evident and it has attracted the attention of the foreign press as well as local Chinese. Many locals told us quite candidly that they disapprove of the national government's 'waste' of a billion dollars or more on "ten days of games" when poorer rural areas and villages still have so many unmet needs. The suspicion runs deep among the people we met that hosting the Olympics merely feeds the egos of government politicians.

Yet, from what we could see Olympics preparations actually account for comparatively few of the dozens upon dozens of towering construction cranes at work throughout the city. Indeed, literally hundreds of new high rises have been constructed over the last decade and dozens more are underway now. By far, the greater number are the product of a rapidly expanding Chinese economy rather than the games.

With so many steel-and-glass high rise buildings and daring designs, the skylines of Beijing (China's second largest city at 16 million) and Guangzhou ( eighth largest, with a population of 10 million) look positively futuristic. Closer to the ground, Chinese as well as foreign architects are having the time of their lives experimenting with mostly tasteful and often breath-takingly daring designs.

Still, there are plenty of drab, decrepit Soviet-style constructivist apartment and office buildings to be seen lurking in the shadows of newer skyscrapers or alongside the elevated freeways that thread across the skies of Beijing and Guangzhou. Typically, these older buildings are tattooed with ugly rust stains down the facade, shaky balconies on every level useful only for hanging out the wash, and boxy window air conditioners that seem to have been stuck onto the sides of the buildings as a tardy after-thought.


We were invited into two lovely neighborhoods of older homes in Gangzhou which the locals describe as "artist colonies." A couple of decades ago, the dilapidated condition and low lease costs of these older buildings attracted writers, painters, sculptors and other talented but impecunious intellectuals. As these urban pioneers remodeled and repaired the apartments and townhouses, one by one, richer Chinese businessmen and politicians were attracted to them, bought out the artists, and moved in. Today, prices have risen so high that with few exceptions what was once shabby but comfortable has been gentrified into respendent and expensive.

Sound familiar? SoHo is alive and well in the Orient.

Even today, however, if you look hard for $40 a month it's still possible to buy a 50-year or 75-year lease of a narrow, three-story townhouse in dilapidated condition with a walled private courtyard adjacent to a picturesque, heavily treed sidewalk that traces the cement banks of a flowing canal. "Handyman special. Real estate agents need not apply."

Patterns of suburban sprawl and gentrifying inner city neighborhoods also are evident in Beijing. There, ancient single family houses (reminescent of the older 'shotgun' houses in Pensacola's Seville Square district) arranged in quadrangles around a common courtyard which are known as hutongs, are beginning to attract artists, writers, and expatriate residents almost as quickly as developers can level them elsewhere to make way for new townhouses and taller apartment buildings for the wealthier classes.

Downside of Growth

It has to be said that all of this construction, rehab, and highway building is kicking up a great deal of dust, exacerbating the air pollution problems of every city, town, and village we visited. Several locals asked anxiously if their city "smelled bad" to us. They feared they were growing so accustomed to the polluted air that they could no longer discern it themselves.

The rivers, streams, canals, and creeks flowing through urban areas all were badly polluted by floating trash. One can only speculate what chemicals may be lurking beneath the surface.

The mix of auto, truck, bus, motorbike, and bicycle traffic is a fright. The Chinese, it is said, drive with their horns and not their brakes. In the streets and towns, the gridlock would make Atlantans feel right at home. On the roads and highways leading to rural areas, only a stock-car racer would feel at ease.

Everyone ignores the heavy signage along the shoulders of roads and in break-down lanes for divided highways, and passes on the right as readily as the left even on the edge of mountainous drop-offs.

Rural China

Even the Chinese seem flabbergasted at the rapid economic progress their nation has achieved in recent years. One friend who now lives half the year in Canada and half in southern China told us that in his wildest dreams he never could have imagined it possible fifteen years ago.

For anyone who has wondered how 1.3 billion people can inhabit the same nation, the residential patterns of the rural areas we saw offer a compelling answer. In rural areas like, say, the Midwestern states of the U.S., one usually travels 15 or 20 miles between small towns. In the rural China we saw about half that distance separates each small town; and the towns themselves have perhaps twice as many residents as you would expect of a typical farming community in the Midwest.

We were surprised to find that the rural areas are reasonably well served by good roads and highways. In this regard , it was impossible for us to resist comparing China to the much more poorly-served farm lands of rural Mexico, Morocco, and Russia, where bad roads historically have been a major contributor to serious harvest shortfalls. You can't count the grain if it's still rotting along the side of the road, but that is not a problem for China.

On the downside, western visitors -- especially women -- will be discouraged by the customarily primitive public bathroom facilities in most of rural China. Although modern toilet fixtures are commonplace enough in the cities (Kohler signs blanket the construction fence surrounding the in-progress Olympic Stadium), in the rural areas of China we visited a ceramic bowl flush with the floor was the most commonly encountered toilet. In some especially remote areas, they do not yet know about the ceramic part.


Otherwise, accommodations in China are modern enough to satisfy western standards everywhere but in the very smallest of farming villages. Even there, although we speak no Mandarin we found enough English was spoken that we could easily get by on our own, when needed.

Certainly in the cities, and even in modestly sized farm-market towns, comfortable and reasonably priced hotel accommodations to suit every taste and budget are plentiful. Five-star hotels (at about $150-$200 a night) seemingly are ubiquituous in Guangzhou and Beijing, for those who want luxury. Four- and three-star hotels there, and in smaller towns, are plentiful as well.

Public air, train transportation, and city bus service within the provinces we visited are readily available, inexpensive, and at least as comfortable and secure as in the U.S. Inter-city bus transportation, however, generally is not recommended by locals. We did see some privately chartered tour buses in the major cities and towns that looked as safe and comfortable as the best in the U.S.

Weekly or monthly car rental reportedly is much more difficult to arrange. But new international road signs being installed everywhere we went suggest that this may be changing soon. As it was, we were favored with an assigned driver -- a personal friend of our host -- and private car throughout our travels.


No summary of our China experience would be complete without mentioning a frequently recurring theme which arose in many discussions with government executives and Communist Party officials whom we happened to meet.

It may have been a function of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing, which coincided with our visit, or it may be a more chronic and persistent concern transcending that event, but almost every politically connected official and politician and many ordinary citizens as well talked passionately about the high priority of finding a way to close the gap between the urban rich and the rural poor of China. As one highly placed official told us, although recent economic reforms have improved the lives of rural as well as urban people, the gulf between them has continued to widen.

All seemed to agree that broadening public education opportunities for the young offers the only realistic hope for long-term improvement. You may be as surprised as we were to learn that in China every child of every age is required to pay tuition to attend public school. As a consequence, literally millions of children whose families cannot afford it do not attend school.

The first week we were in China the national government announced a new program to forego the tuition for rural children in K through 8th grades, but only in a handful of the western provinces. The plan is to "completely eliminate tuition and miscellaneous fees for all poor rural students" in every province within two years.

The Chinese government is counting on this more than anything else to raise the living standards of the rural poor. If the free tuition program were extended to the cities, it occurs to us it might help to eliminate child labor factories, such as the one we happened to come across in Beijing.

Artistic Freedom

Apart from the cannard about canned peas and starving children, this also is not the China which older Americans will expect if they remember the 1950's campaign demogoguery of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon during their "China Lobby" years. ("Who lost China?" these despicable politicians routinely demanded in an accusatory way every election year, as if China was ever ours to 'lose'.)

China's much-revered president Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and his successor, president Jiang Zemin (1926 - ), have loosened individual economic constraints to a dramatic degree since the mid-1980's. This is well known in the West. Less well known is how much more individual freedom of thought and expression Chinese citizens appear to be enjoying.

Owing to the root purpose of our trip, we had ample occasion to meet, talk privately with, and review the current work of many of the leading artists, poets, musicians, teachers, university professors, and journalists in the towns we visited. While it would be idle for us to pass judgment on them, we can report that the people we met with convinced us they are feeling more encouraged to test the boundaries of free artistic expression than ever before. They almost become giddy as they share artistic ideas and plans which just a decade ago would have been unthinkable.

Neverthless, some degree of overt governmental censorship of political and other expressions, and even internet access, certainly persists in China as recent news accounts leave no doubt. Yet, there is a palpable sense of newly achieved liberty among those we lived with, spoke to, and whose publicly exhibited or published works we saw. The constraints on individual artistic freedom of expression are loosening almost as quickly as those which once restrained economic freedom.

At the same time, our friends candidly admit, there are no guarantees what the Government's rules will be tomorrow. When Government is unconstrained by law, the people cannot be sure what the future will bring. Inevitably, this leads to some self-censorship in the excerise of one's liberties of expression. If you can't be sure today what is 'acceptable' tomorrow, you're likely to constrain yourself long before any government censor has to do it.

More Like Them

As in many of the other countries we have visited over the years -- from Russia at the very start of the Glasnost movement to Mexico when presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated, to Guatemala at the end of its long-running civil war, and Greece shortly after the military junta dissolved -- we had the sense in China that most ordinary citizens feel largely disconnected from the government that rules them. It is as if they are mere passive, disengaged creatures whose opinions count for nothing; who at times may be acted upon by their government, if their luck turns bad, but who themselves are unable to act upon it.

There was a time when we considered this a very alien sentiment. Back home after earlier travels, we often had a renewed appreciation for how Americans enjoy a keen sense that we ultimately control our government. Our government is in the hands of the people, not the other way around.

We are an engaged people, we used to think. We are informed. We debate. We speak out. When we disagree with our government, we openly dissent and work to change it. We used to take special comfort in knowing that this was the real beauty of America.

No more. Shortly after returning from China, we read that Senate Majority leader Bill Frist was again --
"making a rancid and consummately undemocratic point -- that to criticize the President or to hold him to account for his illegal conduct is tantamount to treason... a despicable equivalency which [Bush administration officials] have been peddling for years, ever since John Ashcroft in December, 2001 warned the Senate that questioning the Administration was the same as aiding our enemies."
Something seems to have gone very wrong in America over the last few years and it is most clearly seen when one has returned expecting to find something else. If pressed, we would date the decline in our democratic self-governance to the jingoistic run-up to the Iraq war. It's something that leads this traveler to suspect that as a people we Americans have become more like the rest of the world, more like the Chinese, than we can bring ourselves to admit.

Karen Kwiatkowski came close to putting her finger on it in a speech titled "How Do We Fix the Mess in Iraq? which she delivered at John Hopkins University just a couple of days after our return from China. After first recounting how the people of the United States were deceived into passively accepting the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's responsibility for 9-11, Saddam's supposed search for 'Niger yellowcake' and the claimed threat that Iraq posed to our own security -- all of which have since been unmasked as grotesque untruths -- Kwiatkowski observes:
There is a growing sense of American responsibility for what our politicians, specifically our President, Vice President and our Congress have done not only to Iraq, but to our own American credibility, financial solvency, and to our preferred image of ourselves as the most law-abiding and simultaneously the most free country on earth.
* * *
Leaving Iraq does nothing to solve the primary problem that plagues our national policy and financial stability. * * * The system that allows boutique wars of choice to be pursued at the whim of the President and his advisors is still in place. The government media system that manufactures lies, reports those lies to the people, and then charges truthtellers with being traitors and terrorists, is still in place in America. It is hard to believe, but this system is even more robust than it was three years ago.

* * *
Instead of fixing Iraq, we ought to focus on fixing our own country.

* * * The [Founding Fathers] fully expected that our government would not be completely guided nor constrained by the Constitution. They fully expected that our government would become corrupted, arbitrary, militaristic and unaccountable to the people. Ben Franklin famously warned moments after signing the constitution when asked by a lady on the street "What have you given us, sir?" He answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

* * *
Fixing Iraq is actually far easier for us than recovering our own innocence. But I believe that if we remember that we ARE the people, and that we only suffer the government that we ourselves consent to suffer, we can indeed fix the mess we have made, and certainly prevent future such disasters in our foreign policy. At least, I hope so.
It is strangely disquieting to return from China and realize that here, just as there, ordinary people no longer are taking responsibility for fixing the mess their government has made. The mess we have made by electing the present government.

To be sure, public opinion polls show Mr. Bush's popularity has dropped to historic lows comparable only to the lows of Richard ("I am not a crook") Nixon. But where is the public pressure on our congressmen and senators? Where is our collective voice demanding to hold our president and cabinet secretaries accountable for their incompetence and lawlessness?

Have we become so neglectful of our inherited freedoms that we are now mere passive observers, like our Chinese friends, who quietly hope for a better day but assume they'll have no hand in bringing it to pass?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Letter from New Orleans

"What can you do? Read between the lines when you see an article about us."
-- Tom, from New Orleans
During our recent absence, an email arrived from "Tom," a friend in New Orleans who spent some weeks on evacuation in the Pensacola Beach-Gulf Breeze area after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Tom's email offers an update on how things are looking from his home in the French Quarter. Here it is:
Well, it has been over a month since I sat down to share with all of you what it is like to live in a disaster zone.

We have had Carnival. It was covered by many journalists, including one from Belgium who knocked on my door and asked if he could come to the cocktail party I was going to host for my Krewe de Craps the night before we paraded. I have also been interviewed by the Canadian Broadcast News which was part of a telecast a couple of weeks ago.

We've had the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival announce that they are going to hold this year's event, and also announce the major acts for the festival held at the end of April and beginning of May. We've had our first major sporting event when our displaced New Orleans Hornets came back to the Arena last week. We've had another visit by the President and many members of Congress.

Our city and area been the subject of numerous articles that have disected our lives and the way we've been living or trying to live. We've had mayoral and city council elections announced and we are looking forward to them being held next month.

We are now past six months since Katrina hit. What is really going on down here?

There's still so much to do. At times, I almost forget what has happened but then I get in my car and drive a block or two and reality hits me in the face. I almost forget -- but how can I, when every night on the television the lead story is still Katrina?

Every newspaper is the same way. I have seen so many pictures and videos of the flood that I feel like I never evacuated.

I still don't have any grocery store within five miles. I still am not receiving anything but first class mail. I still have to pay cash for most of my restaurant meals as they still don't have phone service to run a credit card. I still panic if there is anything wrong with my car.

I still don't have a dentist. My glasses broke the other day and I have no idea when the super glue breaks down where I will have to go get new ones. I still don't know if my garbage is going to be picked up this week or next. Despite a respite of a couple of months, my newspaper is still being stolen at least two days a week.

[My wife] still has no doctor and the lines for any kind of medical care are miles long. A month or so ago they had a free health care clinic, where you could get eveything done from a physical exam to teeth pulled. They stopped accepting people when they had more than enough for what they could handle that day. When did they stop accepting folks? 8 am in the morning. People were in line before daybreak.

We still have many large areas that are unhabitable. We still have many areas where only one or two families are trying to remake their lives. We now have trailers sprouting up everywhere. Some take up the only green space in neighborhoods, some sit in front of homes with the sewage pipes snaking around the house.

We still have the Army Corps telling us that they will have the levees up to the level pre-K by June 1st, but no one believes them. We now have 23 people running for mayor including one kook who has compared herself as to Gandhi and Rosa Parks and that doesn't include candidate, Manny Chevrolet, who is running because he needs a job.

We still are worried that we will not get the help we need, and when it does go through Congress half of it will be siphoned off to other states that did not receive half the damage we did. We still worry what our polititians are saying here in "Chocolate City."

I still have not received my insurance money and have had to pay for all of the repairs I have managed to get done on this house out of my pocket. The last I heard was that they never got my info from their adjuster.

Is it lost or do they just want to delay paying me as long as possible? My private adjuster is trying to find out as he doesn't get paid until I do.

I am not very optomistic. My hurricane ziplock that has all of our important papers needed during an evacuation is still right along side me, ready to leave at the moment's notice. Why put it back in the safe when we know we're going to be running for our lives again sometime in the next 4 or 5 months?

Our friend Eric is still waiting on contractors to begin his repairs. His huge hassle with his mortgage company scares the piss out of me.

I've got to thank all of the small independent stores and restaurants in our neighborhood who have reopened. The big boys don't care. Who knows when or if they will reopen?

Some stop lights have been repaired but there are so many that still need to be fixed. Everytime I drive -- that's right, every time I drive -- I see someone dangerously breaking the law, whether it is going down a one way street the wrong way or turning left at a no-left-turn, etc. Most of all, running stop signs. We may not be the murder capital anymore, but you take your life in your hands when you drive in this

What makes us happy? We had a ball when our friend, Carolyn, came to visit for Mardi Gras. Through her presence, she forced us out to do things during Carnival that we might have skipped or overlooked.

Was it our best Mardi Gras? No, it was actually our worst, but that isn't saying a lot since Mardi Gras is always fun and I did make the best mask I've ever made. We saw lots of music and even caught a parade or two. It was a great gift to the city to be able to let loose for a day or two and try and forget our troubles.

Our garden is as pretty as it ever has been. The water irises love all the extra sun they now get due to the downed trees and are rewarding us with lovely yellow flowers a week or two early. My petunias have been beautiful as has my lettuce. I have spent the last few weeks buying even more plants for the Spring season.

We have had our living room and the floor on the gallery painted and they look wonderful. There is nothing better that a new coat of paint.

We have another series of concerts on Sunday afternoons this month and that is good. I've been playing golf as much as I can fit in and have had three consecutive 82's, which ain't bad for someone who only took back up golf just prior to the storm. I am going to break 80 in the next month or so, I can feel it.

I'm still doing my radio shows and just before Mardi Gras, did a three hour tribute to the Mardi Gras Indians. Yes, they did come out on Mardi Gras and we look forward to seeing them later this month at the Indian Super Sunday festivities.

We are now in the festival time in Louisiana which will be capped by the French Quarter Fest and then Jazz fest next month.

What can you do? Read between the lines when you see an article about us. Sometimes the reporters mean well but just don't understand us, some already have a vendetta against us and you can't believe anything they write.

Write you congressman and senators and ask them to come visit us. You can't believe how their minds change after they have seen the still devastated areas. Most of all, make plans to come visit. Don't feel guilty. We would love to have you come with your pockets full of cash. There are now over 500 restaurants open and more opening everyday. That doesn't mean that their menus aren't limited and you have to pay cash and may have to wait a bit longer as they are understaffed or just don't even have the staff to open that day. The hotels and B&Bs are open and new flights to the city are being added monthly.

It's been a month since you've heard from us. We are still fighting. We are still crying. But things are happening slowly and in their own time. Patience and flexibilty still rule.