Sunday, January 31, 2010
An unidentified American has defected to North Korea, according to Fox News. A South Korean news reporter was informed by confidential sources that the man said he did not want to be "cannon fodder in the capitalist military" but instead wanted to serve in the North Korean military.
There has been a tiny number of defectors to North Korea from the United States. About twenty Americans refused repatriation at the end of the Korean war in 1953. Over the years of tense peace between North and South Korea, there were a few men who crossed the DMZ on foot over to the North Korean side. By contrast, thousands of North Koreans who were prisoners refused repatriation after the 1953 armistice.
Most of the defectors from the US army to North Korea were not highly educated. In the propaganda videos and interviews with the 1950's defectors, the anti communist rhetoric of the 1950's was a recurring theme. Some of the defectors who were African American cited racial discrimination in America that was prevalent at the time and their feelings of alienation in the United States.
Joe Dresnok, who is the last living American defector in North Korea had just received the news that his wife was divorcing him shortly before he defected back in 1962. Additionally, he was facing a court martial for a night of bar hopping in which he had gone AWOL. Prior to his enlistment in the military, he had been in a series of foster homes. In short, the America that awaited him looked bleak indeed.
By contrast, in North Korea, Dresnok had a stable family life and a sort of film stardom The Guardian reports as follows on Dresnok's niche in North Korean life.
"But it is Dresnok's extraordinary career swap, from lowly US army private to star of the North Korean silver screen that provides the most surreal twist to his story. For three years from 1978, in a 20-part series called Nameless Heroes, directed by Kim Jong-il, Dresnok played the evil American. Ironically, these roles finally established the defectors' revolutionary credentials, and they were forgiven earlier misdemeanours. "Comrade Kim Jong-il was then in the film industry. He was making movies," Dresnok recalls. "He gave a teaching for us to take part in a film." (Dresnok is the first to admit that he is not an educated man, and that his grammar is sometimes mangled."
In a televised interview with CBS, Dresnok does not sound like an ardent political convert but a weary man who found a quiet place to hide from the world. He expressed gratitude to the North Korean government for feeding and housing him at a time when other North Koreans were starving. It is clear that at a time when North Korea's image is suffering that men like Dresnok are a propaganda windfall.
Charles Jenkins, another defector was less enthusiastic about his life in North Korea, complaining about privation that still compared favourably to the life of most North Koreans. Jenkins was set up by the North Koreans with a Japanese woman, Hitomi Soga who had actually been kidnapped from Japanese soil by North Korean agents who wanted native speakers of Japanese to train spies in the Japanese language. Although Jenkins and his wife were matched by the North Koreans, they ended up creating their own private understanding in which the regime was distrustfully kept at arm's length. Eventually the admission by the North Korean government that there had been kidnappings paved the way for repatriations, including that of Hitomi Soga.
Jenkins remains an expatriate from the US, although not in North Korea. He has bonded to his wife's homeland of Japan and expects to stay there for the rest of his life.
The most famous "defector" was Dean Reed. Reed was a pop singer in the 1950s who had made it to the top 40 on a couple of songs but his career never really took off. Several years he spent in South America pushed his politics to the left, leading to his deportation from Argentina. In 1973, he settled in East Germany. After that, his career took off. He became a superstar in the entire East Bloc. His American style, movie star good looks and musical ability fueled his rise on the Russian pop charts. Reed never joined the East German Socialist Unity Party but was doctrinaire in his support of the East German communists. He supported the building of the Berlin Wall and the invasion of Afghanistan. At the same time he professed his fondness for the United States.
In 1986, Reed drowned near his home in East Berlin. Suicide was suspected by some, and some in his family talked of murder. Three marriages and reports that his personal life was unhappy at the time of his death provide possible explanations.
It is easy to approach defectors and expatriates with anger. After Dean Reed appeared on 60 Minutes, CBS received an unprecedented barrage of angry mail. This is easy to understand. But an in depth look at Dean Reed, Joe Dresnok and others who "crossed over" to the communist side requires a look beyond their statements on politics. Most political and religious conversions do not involve such radical lifestyle and cultural changes as those experienced by America's defectors. The extreme infrequency of Westerners defecting to communist countries contrasts starkly with traffic in the opposite direction. It would be reasonable to suppose that refugees from communism present a markedly different profile. A close examination of the contrast between eastbound westerners and westbound easterners would be a worthwhile study. There exists ample material to undertake it. I hope such a study is undertaken soon.
Video about defectors to North Korea back in the 1950's (Part 1)
Friday, January 29, 2010
Obama is perceived as an egotist. There is actually a drinking game in which each player has to take a sip every time Obama speaks of himself in a public speech. beforeitsnews.com reports as follows on "Obama Bingo. and the scoring for the game.
Obama says "let me be clear" Do one shot
Obama says "change isn't easy" Do one shot
Obama says "make no mistake" Do one shot
Obama says "Let me be clear, change isn't easy, make no mistake." He's screwing with you to get you drunk, so five shots
Joe Wilson yells something Do two shots
Obama yells back Finish the bottle
Obama says "jobs" Do one shot, two if you're unemployed
Obama says "health care" Do not drink, you will not be given a replacement liver
Nancy Pelosi claps like a seal Do one shot
Unfortunately, the game is actually dangerous. Anyone who takes a shot every time Obama uses a stock phrase or talks about himself is endangering their own life. It's no joke. This game is probably banned on college campuses.
It's no wonder that Obama likes the idea of climate change. That way he can claim credit for the weather. We are the generation that blames the Republicans for bad weather. People who believed they could control the weather used to end up in a psych ward. Now they end up in the White House.
Am I missing something? President Obama's mantra has been "creating jobs". He talks about the government creating jobs. A very basic lesson seems to be getting lost. Even civil service jobs are ultimately created by money collected through taxes. For the majority of Americans, jobs are created by private entrepreneurs. It's not all about Obama.
Even on a bad day at work, I still recognise that the owner of my business has organised the cash flow that enables him to pay for me. I have worked for people who were not the nicest bosses, and I still recognised that their well being was my well being. Even a job that requires that one take a second job or food stamps is still providing a large percentage of a worker's income.
It is in my interests for anyone I work for to prosper. When this ceases to be true, I attempt to go elsewhere. When the government gives you a job, there is usually a price in political loyalty. I am very skeptical of a man who demonises the "big business" that is in fact paying taxes for government operations and social programs. At the same time, President Obama wants you to think of him and the Democratic Party when you think of worker's well being.
Obama wants the grateful masses to thank him for their well being and progress. Unfortunately, he has used his office to create a climate of uncertainty for the economy in which workers earn a living. The only time the government should be a mainstay of public well being is when there is something like a natural disaster, such as in Haiti.
Business is ultimately the engine of compassion. It is the wealth created by business that funds compassionate enterprises. The sooner we act on this realisation, the better it will be for the economy. Obama and the Democrats claim to be the champions of working people. If this is so, they should show it by not talking to us like we are idiots.
After months of indifference, President Obama has finally bowed to security concerns and agreed to move the terror trial of Sheikh Khalid Mohammed out of New York City, according to the Daily News. Senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Bloomberg had lobbied publicly and privately for the move.
Having the trial in New York City was a security nightmare and a publicity windfall for the terrorists. It would be a fine idea to move the trial to Alcatraz island off of San Francisco Nancy Pelosi would certainly be honoured to have the trial near her district. Alcatraz is in any case far easier to secure than downtown Manhattan.
Moving the trial is only the first step. The trials of terrorists should be in military court. President Obama continues to believe that attacks on America such as the crotch bomber are ordinary crimes rather than acts of war. If Obama were really learning on the job, I would not worry. Unfortunately, Obama is blinded by ideology and his own preconceived notions. Least rning on the job is exponentially harder with the learning disabilaties of an ideologue. If our leader must be led, those of his party with a shred of common sense must remind him that we are fighting a war. Overcoming the learning disability of ideological blindness in our President will take a lot of work. But we must lead him and lessen the mishaps that are inevitable in a four year on the job training program for chief executives. It is, sadly enough, all we can do.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I was disappointed when I heard that Apple's I Pad was going to be around $500.00. I am waiting for portable reading devices to come down in price. I am amazed that no one at Apple foresaw the snickering that greeted the name "iPad" , comparing its name to that of a feminine hygiene products. It reminds me of auto executives who were clueless about why the Chevy Nova was not selling in South America until finally some rocket scientist in the advertising department figured out that "No va" translates as "It does not go."
Clairol "Mist stick" sold poorly in German because "Mist" in German means "manure". Sierra Mist soda has not done badly in the US, although Yiddish speakers have the same scatological associations with the word "mist"
If Apple can bomb so badly on the name choice for an important product launch, they are probably getting other things wrong as well. Maybe people who are manufacturing e book readers will listen to consumers. I am looking for the perfect e reader. It has not yet come out. Here is what I'm looking for in my dream e-reader.
1) Durability. I want a reader that is designed to take abuse. Fisher Price makes toys that you really have to work hard to break. Any e reader should have a body designed by Fisher Price. It sounds like the Skiff (pictured above) might have this feature. I am eager to see what the Skiff offers by way of versatility.But how much will it cost?
2) Versatility. I want to be able to put any file I want onto my e reader, which I will call the Dream Reader. Txt, pdf, Mobipocket, I want my Dream reader to be able to crack any type of file I can think of.
3) Size. I want a device that is the size of an Etch and Sketch. My eyes aren't what they used to be. I want a page that is not torture to look at.
4) Simple accesories. I want a rechargeable battery that I can replace easily myself, without having to send my device in for repairs. If you want me to be hooked on your technology, don't deprive me of it for a moment longer than necessary. While we are at it, don't come up with some special cable that only you sell. If you can offer good cheap reading materials, i would rather spend my money on that.
5) Have a luxury and no frills version. Believe it or not, I don't crave a wireless connection everyplace. If I can hook up my device to a USB port so I can click and drag my files, I can get along fine by downloading onto my family computer and transferring files to my portable device. I suppose that wireless access is good, but I am not interested in surfing. I am interested in taking a big library with me wherever I go. Keep wireless access everywhere for the luxury version of my Dream Reader.
6) No games, please. I am not interested in a toy that some knucklehead will mug me for. I could even do without sound, but I might want to listen to audio books, so leave that feature on. I might also want to put podcasts on my device. My personal preference is Radio Canada podcasts.
7) Have high resolution picture capacity, but save colour for the luxury version. I'll do fine with black and white.
8) I want to be able to get articles from magazines without a subscription. Its expensive, but Highbeam.com offers access to a lot of magazines for a monthly subscription. I want a device that will work with Highbeam.
9) My library offers e books. I want a device that I can read library e books on. Additionally, Gutenberg.org offers a lot of public domain books. I want to be able to put their files on my device.
My last portable reading device was a Palm Pilot. It was tiny and unwieldy. It was not compatible with my fat clumsy fingers. I hear good things about the Kindle in this area. But they seem too eager to lock me into their product line.
I want to see e readers that are as commonplace as cell phones are now. I have friends who will only talk on cell phones that are mini computers. I am a real basic sort of guy. I have a cell phone that is designed for fat fingers. I may even get a hands free talking device so my boss can yell at me on the road without my getting a ticket.
My tastes in e readers is very similar. Hard to break. Easy to use. If I am stuck with your file system, I will resent you for it. If I see that your e reader is easy to break, I will replace it with something more durable when it does break. I have a Maytag stove that you can't open to clean. I found out the hard way when I opened it and broke it. You can rest assured my next stove will not be a Maytag.
I will be buying an e reader before spring. It is a big plunge for me. I hope something will come out that fits my description. I'm the type of guy who does not like the latest technology, but only what is tried , true and redesigned after the glitches have been discovered. Is anyone listening?
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
There was always bullying in school. There is a certain bare knuckles quality to emotional cruelty in high school. In the age of the internet, such activities take on a frightening twist. On line, a cyber bullying victim doesn't know who is behind his or her torment. At a keyboard, you can be anyone you want. You can be few or many.
A young girl is dead in Massachusetts. Phoebe Prince, a 15 year old who had recently immigrated to Massachusetts from Ireland, committed suicide last week. Even in death, after saddened classmates posted a Facebook page in her memory, her memorial page was reportedly defaced with taunting comments. Fox News reports as follows.
"Prince died on Jan. 14 after a rough freshman year. Friends and school officials told MyFoxBoston.com that Prince had been picked on and taunted since moving to Massachusetts last fall.
South Hadley High Principal Daniel Smith sent out a letter to parents of students at the high school. In the letter, he called Prince "smart, charming, and as is the case with many teenagers, complicated . . . We will never know the specific reasons why she chose to take her life," Boston.com reported.
School bullies taunted Phoebe Prince through text messages, the computer and on Facebook and other social networking sites, Smith told the Boston Herald."
My heart goes out to Phoebe Prince and her family. Moving to a new community is traumatic for a child. Even a kid who was popular at home can feel that all the gains they made socially were lost in transit. With no support network built up, social rejection can hurt a great deal. The time after a child's family moves is indeed a risky time.
I remember such challenges very well. My family moved at a critical time when I was emerging from social awkwardness. Even though I was told I had a great opportunity, it only made me feel worse. I spun into a depression that took years to recover from. This was in the age before cyberspace. Today, anyone who wants to be a bully can be "the snot heard round the world".
Schools need to catch up with the challenges of cyber space. Children who attend a school should be required to declare any social networking sites or blogs they may have. Free speech should be clearly articulated to protect political speech and not personal attacks and slander. Schools need to cooperate with criminal prosecutions of those who electronically harass fellow students. Years ago, there was obscene phone calls and abuse of the mail. Today, texting and regular internet open new opportunities. Parents and administrators need to make it clear that character and social behavior are as important as anything that is taught in school.
Phoebe Prince should be honoured in death with a recognition of the ways technology has changed the social landscape in schools. A kid who wants to be a political commentator deserves the same protections of free speech enjoyed by any adult. Those who want to slander, torment and harass deserve no protection at all. If we refuse to recognise and act on the distinction between the two, we are creating a tormented and heartless generation. How many more children must suffer before we wake up?
Monday, January 25, 2010
The map of Europe is far more interesting when it shows all the languages that are really spoken there. Germany actually has more than one language spoken within its borders. Sorbian, which is spoken in the former East Germany around the area near Cottbus is actually a Slavic language, subdivided into two dialects that are close to Czech and Polish. The existence of a Slavic minority within Germany's borders was an embarrassment to Nazi "race scientists"who did not even want to deal with the existence of Sorbs.
Alsatian, which is spoken in France in Alsase Lorraine is a dialect of German heavily influenced by French. It is somewhat related to Allemanisch, which is better known as Swiss German.
My favourite German regional language is Plattdeutsch, also known as Low German. It is spoken in Northern Germany. Its vocabulary and grammar reflect its close proximity to the Netherlands. When I was in the area around Bremen, where it is spoken, I was shocked at how flat the land was. There were simply no hills at all. One could bike for miles and the land was totally flat. It affected the weather, which could alternate several times a day between rain and sunshine. To a New Englander, the geography was very peculiar.
There is one dialect of Plattdeutsch known as East Friesian. It is actually a fairly close relative of English, having parted ways with English centuries ago. Its vocabulary reflects this close relationship. Ear, tomme and tonge are all cognate words for Ear, thumb and tongue. Looking at families of languages is really like looking at a family photo.
In America, the newest immigrant group such as the Irish or the Polish became the butt of jokes that were interchangeable. In Germany, it is the East Frisians, who live in a rural part of Northern Germany who are the subject of such humour. Following are some East Frisian jokes.
Two East Frisians met each other on the street. One said to the other, If you can guess how much money I have in my hand, I'll give you the whole two Euro.
The other East Frisian answered. "No way! I can't be bothered to rack my brains for a lousy two Euro.
An East Frisian went to Bavaria for the holidays. He found a mirror in his room and sent tit to his parents with a note.
"See how nice this hotel is. They even hung up my picture. His father looked at the mirror and said to his wife, "My goodness! Look at how our son has aged. His wife said, "No wonder he looks older, look at how ugly his wife is."
I once heard an ethnic joke that I will tell as an Etruscan joke, since there are no living Etruscans who could take offense.
One Etruscan says to the other, " Hey Eddie ! Wanna climb up the beam of my flashlight?"
Eddie answers, "No way. Do you think I'm stupid? I'll climb half way up and you'll turn it off. I don't want to fall flat on my face."
In Italy Spain, France and other European countries, regional ethnic groups are rediscovering their local languages and culture. It is of benefit to all when such local cultural traditions are preserved. In the age of the internet, it is easier than ever to keep up with this. I hope my readers will enjoy this as well.
The song below is a folk song in Plattdeutsch
How do you live without money? My motorcycle broke down recently and I have become much more aware of the trickle of cash that keeps things running smoothly. In New York City we have metro cards. The only way you can see if your metro card is valid is by swiping it through a reader. A lot of people drop their metro cards with a few cents left on them. I pick up a stack of them and swipe them through the reader. Sometimes I find one with anything from 20 cents to a couple of dollars. The best place to look is if someone drops a card away from a bus stop. Those cards almost always have something on them. I found one with almost four dollars that way. I rode once for free and again for about 50 cents.
I have almost stopped buying soda. By getting herbal tea bags, sweetener and fruit juice, I can make two litres of a decent drink for about 50 cents.
Even though I try very hard to stay clothed, entertained and fed without spending too much, there is one man who makes me look like a rank amateur.
Mark Boyle studied economics for six years and lives in the United Kingdom. He has lived for an entire year without spending a single penny. He feeds, washes and clothes himself without spending money. He keeps himself in reading material as well. He even makes his own toothpaste from fennel seed and cuttlefish bones. (I didn't know they had bones)
He did start off his cash free year with a solar panel, which provides him with electricity. This enables him to stay off the electrical grid.By growing food and foraging for discarded food, he lives very well. Of course he rides a bicycle, which keeps him fit as well. Boyle also creates compost with his own waste, and chops his own firewood. Newspapers have served the dual purpose of toilet paper and reading material.
Boyle is very philosophical about his "off the grid" way of life. In the Guardian article, he notes as follows his observations as an economist.
"We were looking at the world's issues – environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farms, wars over resources – and wondering which of them we should dedicate our lives to. But I realised that I was looking at the world in the same way a western medical practitioner looks at a patient, seeing symptoms and wondering how to firefight them, without any thought for their root cause. So I decided instead to become a social homeopath, a pro-activist, and to investigate the root cause of these symptoms.
One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we're completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money."
Could everyone do what Boyle does? It's hard for me to envision that. But I admire him for questioning in a concrete way his relationship to society and to the economy. I benefit a great deal from people who question prevailing norms of the "throwaway society". After wasting a lot of money on motorcycle repair shops that were making too good a living off me, I found a guy who would unbend the rim of my rear wheel instead of selling me a new one. In Brooklyn, computer repair shops are better at fixing computers. The guys who come from the West Indies grew up in a society where you fixed instead of throwing stuff out. After several years of being on line, I have picked up useful skills from my local shop that make my return visits less frequent.
A friend of mine who went to Nepal told me that in that country, there are people who make their living repairing broken dishes. Over there, when a plate drops, they fix it instead of throwing it in the garbage.
I can never get used to the idea of fashion. If a song sounds good this year, why won't it sound just as good next year? What about clothing? Isn't fashion more for the convenience of manufacturers? I prefer my books to be second hand. A good idea doesn't go stale.
Even in New York City you can find edible food growing wild. Sourgrass, with its heart shaped leaves is edible. It lives up to its name and provides vitamin C. Wild onions grow all over the place. There are fig trees growing in Brooklyn that produce fruit that tastes far better than anything in the stores. There was a guy a few years ago who used to give guided tours of the parks. He used to show people edible and medicinal plants.
I could not imagine myself going off the grid and not using money. I withdraw from money one day a week on the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday afternoon to Saturday night. I could not live without that.
Boyle is not alone in his withdrawal from money. There is a man in Utah who lives in a cave who clames to have not touched a dime in ten years. His name is Daniel Suelo and he blogs regularly about it on two different blogs.
Upon closer examination, it seems as though those who opt out of money are ultimately dependent upon those who have not. Boyle does live in a trailer. Suelo does wear clothes that have been produced by wage earners. Ultimately, people with differing philosophies and ways of life are still interdependent. It is important to be in control of money rather than being controlled by it. The real news for me will be the small changes people make in their ordinary lives that came about as a result of reading about those who are a 21st century answer to Henry David Thoreau.
I have no desire to withdraw from the money economy. Tonight, like every night my wallet and change will weigh down my pants as I hang them on the chair. But I am still grateful to people like Boyle and Suelo, who in questioning their own lives have moved me to do likewise with my own.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
As a Francophone country, Rwanda is an appealing destination to Rwandan expatriates. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, there were quite a few Rwandans with blood on their hands who tried to blend into French society. One would think that a gynecologist at a university hospital seeking to open up practice in France would seem pretty tame. But according to the Rwandan government, Sosthene Munyemana, age 45, is no ordinary doctor. according to the government of Rwanda, he personally killed with his bare hands, and lent the persuasiveness of his rank in Rwandan society to further the Hutu genocide of Tutsi Rwandans. The Times of London reports as follows on the disturbing case against Dr. Munyemana.
Sosthene Munyemana, 45, was detained on Wednesday by police acting on an extradition warrant issued by Kigali. His arrest seeks to end 15 years of dispute between Paris and Rwanda over the massacres that killed at least 800,000 people in the East-Central African nation. Dr Munyemana, who has been working in a hospital emergency ward at Villeneuve-sur-Lot, near Bordeaux, had been on an Interpol wanted list since 2006 and Rwanda has been seeking his return for a decade but French authorities had delayed proceedings.
According to Rwandan investigators Dr Munyemana, an ethnic Hutu and gynaecologist at the University Hospital in Butare, allegedly took part in the massacre of ethnic Tutsis in 1994 and was known as “the Butcher of Tumba”.
The Christian Science Monitor, report as follows on the allegations against Munyemana.
"Munyemana has been described in the UN and other post-genocide investigations as a close protégé and ideological partner of Hutu power leader Jean Kambanda, who pled guilty to a genocide charge at the Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal in Tanzania.
“Clad in a long black coat, armed with a machete, or an iron bar shaped like a pipe, a sword or a gun, he wore banana leaves to motivate peasants,” a 2007 African Rights report said of Munyemana, citing eyewitnesses."
Rwanda has a cultural tradition of confession and forgiveness, even for murder. Prior to the1994 genocide were previous instances in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1973 and 1990 preceded the 1994 genocide and fueled a drain of Tutsi Rwandans into neighbouring countries. Each time, there was reconciliation and forgiveness. Even today, there are people who are neighbours to people who they know murdered members of their family. It seems that instead of aborting a cycle of violence and starting anew that the culture of forgiveness has lowered the consequences of murder and cheapened the lives of the victims.
There is a lesson to be learned when the long arm of justice reaches around the world to try and punish killers. When someone builds a placid life after perpetrating atrocities and is brought to justice, it teaches a powerful lesson. A murderer should be hunted until his or her last day on earth. If old age wrinkles the brow of a killer, they deserve no rest. They should feel hunted. They should live every day in fear of their shadow, in dread of a price to be exacted for their crimes. A country that lets genocidaires enjoy peace within its borders defiles itself. France is to be commended for assisting Rwanda in bringing Rwanda's killer to justice.
Unfortunately, Rwanda has a history of pardoning "small fish" in the Rwandan genocide. In extending forgiveness to those with innocent blood on their hands, forgiveness is cheapened. France has started to do its part. May the blood of Rwanda's innocent be avenged.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
One of my past times as a child was looking at my parent's art books. I didn't like going to the museum. That meant passing up an afternoon of play and stuffing myself into clothing that made me feel claustrophobic. It meant being eyed suspiciously by curators who I now understand were guarding treasures for the public good. But back then I simply didn't like the feeling of not being trusted.
When I got a little older, I started looking at bookstores as kinder, gentler museums. My all time favourites for cheap artistic thrills are museum catalogues. I go to Strand's bookstore, which has exhibition catalogues of all kinds of artwork, from 19th century American painting to sculpture to European furniture.
Even better is the packages of art post cards. They are an inexpensive way to own something beautiful. Though it may be true that nothing can compare to an original painting, I seldom have time for such enjoyment.
What I liked about looking at an art book is that I didn't have to trade an afternoon of play for artistic enjoyment. My parents told me that some day I would appreciate all the trips to museums. The only mistake they made was calling it "culture". That held no appeal for me at all. I liked it much better when they just said that someone painted really great pictures. Even today, looking at a good painting is like drinking a good Pilsner with my eyes.
I can not paint or draw at all. I have great respect for those who can do so. Those who paint and draw well are to me what the village letter writer was in days past. In some villages where illiteracy is prevalent, there are professional letter writers, who also read the replies which come back. When someone paints well, they are doing for me what the village scribe does for those who are illiterate.
There are in my life artists who give voice to the realities I experience daily. When I was first engaged to my wife, we went to an exhibition of 19th century German Jewish art. Aside from the technical progress of over a century, much of what was in the paintings was familiar to us.
I am fortunate enough to have as family friends two artists who live in our community At the top of this article is a painting by one of them of the Jerusalem, the Holy City. This painting by my friend Boruch Hoffinger conveys tenderness and yearning. I wish he had a book of his artwork.
The other friend of our family who is an accomplished painter is Esther Zibell. Her artwork deals with religious occasions and ordinary scenes from Jewish life. She portrays scenes from Jewish life today that feel connected to the past. Some of her work reminds me of the photography of Roman Vishniac.I put a painting of hers at the end of this posting.
I understand now what my parents were trying to do when they brought me to museums when I really wanted to be out catching frogs and riding my bike. I still take my own children to museums when they are on vacation from school But times have changed. Today we have the internet, which is one step away from snapping your fingers and pulling visions from thin air. In this vastly changed cultural landscape, I try to do the same with my children as my parents did with me by taking time out for art. Time will tell if they do the same with their children as well
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Voter turnout in Massachusetts was over 50%. No one can say that the voters of Massachusetts were apathetic. Special elections to fill sudden vacancies are usually disappointing turnout. The Coakley vs. Brown election is a notable exception. Massachusetts has a state sponsored medical program that many voters find underwhelming. Cost overruns, rationed care are not popular in Massachusetts, and they don't wish them on the rest of the country.
The latest news is that Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has telephoned her concession to Senator Elect Scott Brown. Massachusetts is a state whose liberal leanings are buttressed by a large university population. The Republican victory should be seen as a cautionary sign to the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, Pelosi, Reid and all the leading Democrats are speaking of persisting in pushing a health care program that is extremely controversial.
By coming to Massachusetts to campaign, President Obama put his popularity on the line. During his entire time in Massachusetts, he said nothing about health care. A wiser President would think about altering his course. President Obama shows no such signs of political wisdom.
It would be wise to have a dialogue on health care. There are problems with our current health care system. But a veto proof 60-40 majority does not make for cooperation. Perhaps the Democrats will be forced to listen to the people. If not, the voters will remember in November November.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Haiti was founded in 1804. It was the first republic founded by freed slaves as part of a revolution against their colonial masters.
Today, Haiti endures a form of de facto slavery called " restavek". Restavek is Haitian Creole for
"sleep with" in the sense of boarding with a family. A restavek is a child from a large family, usually in the country, that can not provide for their children's education or basic upkeep. A family in the city promises to take the child in, feed and educate them in exchange for household chores. What happens in practice is a relationship in which the child must work with neither pay nor legal protection. The host families range from the very wealthy to those who are poor themselves. Many children work in exchange for rags and scraps of food. Three times as many girls are restaveks. Physical and sexual abuse are very common. Children who end up as restaveks often end up in the same cycle of poverty that created their degraded existence.
There are an estimated 300,000 restaveks in Haiti. Very many of them were in Port Au Prince when the earthquake devastated the city. Before the earthquake struck, many of them were treated worse than a family dog. Who will look for a child that was given away by his or her own family? What political clout do such dispossessed children have? We take for granted a public school system in place with school lunches. We take it for granted that a child welfare system will attempt to detect the existence of an abused child. Such social infrastructure did not exist before the earthquake. It certainly does not exist now.
There are fortunately private organisations that existed before the earthquake that were helping restavek children. The fortunate few who found their way to such organisations found themselves on the road to a future.
One such organisation is the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation. The Restavek Foundation was founded by Jean cadet, a former restavek who came to America, got an education and put a face on the many thousands of Haiti's voiceless restaveks by publishing his autobiography.
The Restavek Foundation provides schooling and advocacy to restaveks who come to it. They work with the families with whom the restavek stays, providing subsidised scholarships and a meal to the students who attend. By not asking the host families for school fees, they more frequently get cooperation from the host families of the restaveks. The organisation also tries to work to provide economic opportunities that will enable Haitian parents to keep their children at home and educate them. An economy and a tax base can go a long way toowards alleviating this problem in Haitian society.
Miraculously, the Restavek Foundation headquarters remained unscathed in an area that was otherwise severely hit. The Restavek Foundation web site reported as follows on the earthquake aftermath.
"Our first step has been to locate and bring together our staff. At this time, we have located eight of the ten. Contrary to initial reports, we have also learned that our Port-Au-Prince office survived the quake and aftershocks. We are extremely thankful for this development, as we had just received a large food and blanket shipment from the US on Monday. “Joan and I are thankful we happened to be here and in a position to do what we can,” emailed Ray Conn this morning. “Fortunately Joan had gotten the entire food shipment to our office the day before the quake. Joan and I have been able to touch base with most of our staff and we are already getting things in motion.” “I believe we have witnessed a miracle”, emailed Joan Conn this morning in reference to the fact that our offices are still standing. Although the office is standing, the area surrounding it is still highly dangerous. The staff has decided to operate out of the Nazarene Church complex in Port-Au-Prince: “I feel this is the safest place in PAP we could possibly be at this time,” wrote Joan Conn this morning."
Of course, the work load of the Restavek Foundation as well as the logistics with which it must cope are fare more daunting than they were before the earthquake. Haiti's child slaves must be high on the list of the world's priorities in rebuilding Haiti. The resconstruction of Port Au Prince is from the ground up. It is societal as well as structural.
In the Haiti that rises from the ruins, a place must be found for Haiti's child slaves that is befitting a human being. Such organisations as the Restavek Foundation, which is involved now in general and restavek relief deserve strong international support.
How we care for the voiceless and the powerless is the most profound statement of who we are and what we believe. I urge my readers to join me in supporting Haiti's restaveks with donations and expressions of concern. Haiti's child slaves should be America's children and America's concern as Haiti rises from the ruins. As America faces its own difficulties, we must ask G-d's blessing for our future. Striving for the well being and freedom of the 21st century's youngest slaves is a good way to do so.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
The earthquake in Haiti has set it back by decades. Port Au Prince, its capital city will need to be built from scratch. The devastation cuts across class lines.
It is well known that corruption in Haiti is endemic. Even as the country struggles to dig out from the devastation, corruption most likely hampering relief efforts. That is not a problem that will be solved in the weeks or even months ahead. It is certainly not a reason to diminish world assistance to Haiti.
There must be long term goals after reconstruction. Haiti must end up stronger. It can not simply pick up where it left off.
Haiti has assets that are mostly human and cultural. It has people who are eager to work at wages that are competitive on the world market. It also has beautiful art and music. There are many countries that are economically poor that have marketable cultural riches. There is a democracy to artistic beauty. As the world reaches out to Haiti, we should consider creating a market for Haitian art and Haitian music. Entertainment and culture can bring money to a country almost out of thin air, creating a small ripple effect of created jobs.
Haitian agriculture is a shadow of what it could be. In the past, impoverished Haitians chopped down trees for firewood and building, magnifying exponentially the damaging effects of flooding. Haiti is not the first country in the world to devastate its own landscape. The Middle East was once far more verdant than it is today. Areas that are now desert were made that way in part through mismanagement. This need not be irreversible. Israel and to a lesser extent other countries in the Middle East have made barren land bloom. The Jewish National Fund has been planting trees since before the state was founded. There is no reason that there could not be a Haitian National Fund, reclaiming barren land, one acre at a time and creating eco friendly ways for the population to heat its water and cook its food. Corporate and individual donations from Haitians abroad could get such an enterprise on its feet. Israeli and American technical expertise could be an important part of the mix.
In developing Haiti, it would be wise to have a counterbalance to the local government in efforts to build the country. It could be very helpful to lease tracts of land for 30 years or so to foreign concerns to build not only factories but company towns as well. If working in a factory carried with it the benefit of living in company built houses, it could increase the standard of living and prove to be an alternative to sprawling shanty towns. It could also create a secondary level of employment in businesses serving the community as well as schools, clinics and libraries. It might be possible for company towns to prove hospitable to a new political culture in which development is possible. A time will come when the people who live in such towns will institute changes. That will be an indication of social and political health.
There have been missionaries of various denominations working in Haiti for decades. A partnership between them and foreign investors might make for a lot less waste in the efforts to build Haiti. Their familiarity with the culture and the political landscape could smooth the road considerably.
There is no problem on earth that is not a combination of the nature of the planet and human character. Haiti is no exception. its political culture and social ills will make the effort more daunting. But that is not a reason to turn away from the long term task of building an economy after the earthquake's devastation. Digging out from the earthquake will only be the start of Haiti's new future. With the help of G-d and a caring world, they should eventually be doing better than ever.
The music with this post is by Clinton Benoit
Friday, January 15, 2010
After the 1956 revolution in Hungary was crushed by Soviet tanks, the communist government under Janos Kadar did its best to implement "goulash communism", in which consumer amenities and some cultural freedom sweetened the bitterness of freedom lost.Limited private enterprise was allowed for small businesses with only a few employees.
The rock scene was very advanced. Lokomotiv GT, Kati Kovac, Omega, Bikini and Illes were among a multitude of rock groups that were allowed wide latitude in stylistic matters. as long as one did not go too far with the lyrics, state micromanagement of music was seen as counterproductive
By contrast, Czechoslovakia was far more restrictive. When I was there in November of 1973, I asked for East German and Hungarian rock music in a record store. They told me that such fare was only occasionally available during the Christmas season. Although they did allow some American music, ( I remember catching the Supremes on a radio program near Bratislava) they kept a pretty tight lid on things. Poland, East Germany and Hungary were the best places for rock music that was as good as anything in the US.
The Soviets had an interesting way of satisfying the appetite for American pop music. Dean Reed was an American pop singer who got into the top 40 with a few singles in the late 50's. After traveling to Latin America and achieving some success and evolving politically towards a leftist ideology. In 1973, he moved to East Germany, and became a pop icon in the former Soviet Union, combining American music with a political message that was compatible with the communist regimes of the East Bloc.
Dean Reed was more interesting psychologically than he was musically. A movie was made of his life called "Red Elvis".
My personal fondness for music in the East Bloc is for music performed by local bands in local languages. Years after the fall of communism, this music is getting belated appreciation, much as American classic rock is recognised by a new generation.
I hope my readers will check out Omega and Illes, samples of which I have provided with this posting. Even without an understanding of the lyrics, it remains top notch music.
Illes, Hungarian band
Thursday, January 14, 2010
A good way of taking the pulse of a country is to see what is taught in its schools and broadcast as entertainment. When the USSR and Nazi Germany had a non aggression pact, the Soviet Propaganda machine dutifully switched gears, no longer portraying Nazi Germany as a mortal enemy.
When we look at "banned cartoons on You Tube portraying the Japanese during World War Two, the racial stereotyping and demonisation seem unthinkable. In both cases, the government encouraged or ordered their entertainment and propaganda organs to prepare the people for war. Conversely, when a war ends, the propaganda apparatus shifts gears. A kinder gentler version of this phenomenon occurs during election campaigns.
Is the Palestine Authority preparing the people under its jurisdiction for peace? A good way to ascertain that is by watching Palestine Authority based broadcasters portray Jews on children's television. A recent broadcast sponsored by Hamas takes a swipe at both Jews and Al Fatah, which is their political rival in the Palestine Authority.
The Fatah police officer is portrayed as a bumbling lackey of Jews, who are portrayed as brutal murderers who are fond of literally drinking Muslim blood. The cartoon was clearly designed to inculcate hatred in young viewers. It stands in stark contrast to Israeli TV, which has a far more nuanced view of Arabs.
It is important to listen to what is said in Arabic on media intended for local consumption in assessing the readiness for peace of the various Arab factions in the Palestine Authority. The years that the Palestine Authority has existed should have been used for developing infrastructure for industry and commerce. Suicide attacks by well paid tractor operators, stabbings and sabotage necessitate security measures that are job killers. Someone who wants to build a factory in Gaza or the West Bank wants to come back home in one piece. Creating a climate of hatred discourages investment that could create wage earners and tax payers.
There are many Jews in Israel who also speak Arabic. Some of the older ones grew up in Arab countries until they were forced to flee to Israel and elsewhere. Those who live within reach of Hamas TV know what is being said about them. Israelis are being told to make peace with people who make no secret of their intent to wipe them off the map. For Jews from Arab countries who already have had to flee, it sounds a lot like the hatred they faced in Arab countries.
Those who wish to push Israel to make further concessions are inviting more bloodshed. This should be abundantly clear to anyone who does not enjoy being lied to.
For decades, China and Taiwan have officially considered each other to be illegitimate governments, not recognising each other. Despite this, they have conducted quiet trade and interaction, all the while maintaining their face saving mutual non recognition. Perhaps such a state of affairs in the Middle East would be an improvement. A cold shoulder is not so bad, especially when it's not behind a rifle. Maybe it's not peace. But maybe we should give it a chance.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The biggest disadvantage to oil, coal and metals is that they are not renewable resources. We find the oil, coal or metallic ores, dig them up and we have to go looking for more. Bicyclists do a big part in reducing our use of oil and replacing it with a renewable resource. (Pedal power)
A bicycle designer in California has taken the quest to use renewable resources a step beyond the mainstream. Der Spiegel reports as follows.
"Craig Calfee is known as the Zen master of bamboo-bike builders. In his workshop on the Californian coast, only a hundred meters from the tumultuous waves of the Pacific Ocean, the frame designer builds breathtaking bikes out of the fast-growing plant, the largest member of the grass family.
Calfee's discovery of bamboo as a building material for bicycles was a serendipitous one. When his dog grabbed a piece of bamboo and started chewing on it. Instead of splintering, it had almost no teeth marks on it.
Calfee found some weaknesses in his first bamboo bicycles. By curing and aging the bamboo, he was able to turn it into something versatile. Calfee's bikes go for about $s2700.00 dollars, clearly not a mass production item. But Calfee has a global vision. He has founded a company called Bamboosera, which has trained people from Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and other developing countries to make bicycles and even a mini cycle bus from bamboo.
Calfee is not alone. Nick Frey, a bicycle champion has founded Sol Cycles on much the same premise. He also founded Boo Bicycles on much the same principle.
Daedalus of Portland Oregon has been making bamboo bicycles since 2005. Germany and Denmark each have a company that manufactures bamboo bicycles.
This of course raises the general issue of industrial uses for bamboo. China and India both have major bamboo industries. I found a web site for the Bamboo Development Agency in Mizoram, India. On its web site it describes the nutritional value of bamboo as well as its pharmaceutical uses. There is even bamboo beer made in China!
There is bamboo vinegar with industrial uses as well as bamboo charcoal. There is bamboo plywood and particle board, which is said to be quite strong. Bamboo scaffolding has been in use for a very long time in Asia.
It seems that India and China already know a great deal about using bamboo for food and for industry. It already grows in parts of the US. Could the bamboo bicycle be the start of a trend that has already been developing in Asia? Perhaps this could be another way to make America greener, and to create a new growth industry. Will there be a bamboo car? I'll drink to that! (With bamboo beer.)
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
"When you've done your time, you deserve a chance." That is the logic that governs a lot of crimes.
When someone goes back to a life of robbery or drug dealing, society pays a heavy price. But what about sex criminals, whose return to their former ways has far more grievous consequences? Back in 1990, Washington State initiated civil commitment for such high risk offenders. For a small class of sex offenders who had done their time, it was devastating news as the trend spread to other states. Victims viewed it far differently.
Martin Andrews was 13 years old when he was abducted and repeatedly raped over an eight day period before being left to die in the woods in a metal box. He shed his anonymity when the spectre of his tormentor's release became imminent. CNN reported as follows concerning his ordeal.
As a teenager in Portsmouth in 1973, Andrews was walking to the store in snowy weather when a van pulled up and the man inside asked the boy whether he wanted to earn some extra money moving furniture. Andrews agreed but instead was taken to a rural area and a metal box dug into the side of a hill.
"He looked at me, and he said, 'I've got bad news for you. You've just been kidnapped."
What followed was days of brutal rapes and beatings. Ausley eventually left, and Andrews would certainly have died if some rabbit hunters had not stumbled upon him after hearing his screams.
Andrews believes that civil commitment is not the best tool, but for the most dangerous predators, "it is the only tool we have that is 100 percent effective, because they are removed from society. They are removed from their triggers."
The arguments concerning Richard Ausley and his wish for freedom from administrative confinement have hit the Supreme Court.CNN reported on the spirited debate in the Supreme Court concerning civil confinement, its disturbing legal implications and its equally disturbing public safety implications. Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced some common sense concerns for public safety. CNN noted this as follows.
"Why doesn't the federal government's authority to have custody because of the criminal justice system end when the criminal justice system is exhausted?" said Chief Justice Roberts. "In other words, when the sentence is done?"
"You are talking about endangering the health and safety of people, so the government has some responsibility, doesn't it?" countered Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg."
The Supreme Court is hearing a case concerning 77 inmates in Virginia who are civilly confined beyond their original sentences. There are about 4000 inmates nationwide who are confined under similar terms. This case has legal implications for all such inmates.
There are two possible legal solutions to the problem of sexual predators. One is the habitual criminal statutes on the books in most states. It is possible to confine someone for life who has committed a series of felonies. Even shoplifters can be put away for life. What better a class of offenders to target with these statutes than violent sexual predators?
Then there is the matter of honest sentences. Too often you hear of a life sentence that is really only 20 years. Bring back "natural life" sentences, where a person finishes their sentence at room temperature. Additionally, have sentences that reflect the anger and indignation of the public. There are too many perpetrators of horrific offenses who get incredibly lenient offenses. Where is the will of the people and the victims in sentencing?
Unfortunately, we have far too many people who have finished sentences that were far too lenient. Civil confinement is an attempt to redress this. Such measures should continue. But it would be far better to redo the sentences in our criminal codes.
Martin Andrews finally got the redress he wanted when his Richard Ausley was killed before he could be released from prison. But there are still too many Ausleys out there. Civil commitment for now and harsher sentences in the future would be the right thing to do. Our law makers should try to make this happen. And the courts should let it happen as well.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
China's recent Jewish history is remembered with fond gratitude by the Jews of Europe. During World War Two, Shanghai was an open port city. Anyone who could make it there was taken in. This meant that Jews who had lost their citizenship and had no legal documents could get into Shanghai, where they suffered the privations of foreigners in the city, without necessarily being singled out as Jews. A rabbi was asked by a Japanese officer why Hitler hated the Jews, according to one story. The rabbi wisely and correctly reported that the Nazis considered us to be an alien Asian race who wanted to take over the world.
"What is wrong with being Asian?" asked the officer, "And what's wrong with wanting to rule the world?"
Although there were Japanese who parroted the Nazi line on Jews, for the most part Jews were not subject to persecution in areas under Japanese occupation.
Not all European Jews came during World War Two. Some settled in other Chinese cities such as Harbin and Beijing.
In the 19th century, some Iraqi Jews came in as traders to China and to Hong Kong, as well as Burma and British India. In Hong Kong and Singapore, this Iraqi Jewish presence is still notable.
There is one more group of Jews in China that goes back no less than a thousand years ago. Some reports place them in China as early as the third century of the common era. It enjoyed very cordial relations with the surrounding population, centering around the northern city of Kaifeng. Over the centuries, floods twice swept away the Kaifeng synagogue. With time, Hebrew faded out from tombstones and community records. Conversions to Christianity also took their toll as Jewish education became more and more diluted. The last rabbi of the Kaifeng Jews died in the 1860s.
It has long been supposed that Kaifeng Jewry is nothing more than a memory. It now turns out that that is not the case. There are many people in Kaifeng who preserve a tradition that they are descended from the ancient Chinese community. Most, if not all of these people would probably need to convert in order to remove all doubt of their Jewish legal status. In Israel and in the rest of the Jewish world are those ready to assist them in returning to the faith of their ancestors. Most notable is the organisation Shavei. (Hebrew for " those returning")
Unfortunately, China has a short list of permitted religions to which Chinese citizens may belong. Judaism is not on that list. Any Chinese citizen who wants to return to his or her Jewish roots faces formidable obstacles. Some have, thank G-d returned to the Jewish faith, land and people. It can be stated with certainty that those who remain in China simply want to quietly practice their faith within China or to quietly join compatriots abroad and in the Holy land. hopefully, more of these long lost brothers and sisters will rejoin the Jewish people. The news of their continued remembrance and yearning is an inspiration to Jews the world over. May their exile and ours soon come to an end.
Friday, January 8, 2010
There were songs I listened to over the years that expressed my emotions. Sometimes I would sit back and let the turntable speak for me. Bon Jovi's "Have a Nice Day" is such a song. Don Williams expresses very well the whole idea that a song can sometimes speak for us better than we can for ourselves in his song "Listen to the Radio", which pulls off the rare feat of conveying awkwardness with poetic eloquence.
The songs that map out where you are are an important part of music. Other songs raise your level of awareness. There was one line from Leonard Cohen's "Stories of the Street" which is one of my favourite song lines of all time.
"Where do all these highways go, now that we are free?"
I believe that there is a moment to be found in every day that can justify getting out of bed. Hearing that one line from Leonard Cohen's song was such a moment. A lot of Leonard Cohen's songs strike me as sparks of light amidst senselessness. But hey, my life is like that too. and sometimes the pieces fall into place with time.
Melanie did a song "Close to It All" that had a profound effect on me. I heard the song at a time in my life when I considered myself an atheist. The song seemed to speak of a oneness in potential and in flickering moments of actuality. It expressed a longing for oneness in the world. Her raspy voice and New York accent in the song gave it an immediacy that was transformative over time. In a very real sense, it was religious music for me, and perhaps still is. Some of the lyrics of her song are as follows
While walking through life I would never fall
If I could be close to it all and all,
If I could be close to it all.
If I had my dream it would not fall down
If I could live high on the ground,
The sound of high is a good one to many around
When they wanna be close to it all,
And I wanna be close to it all and all,
I wanna be close to it all.
The song concludes with the following words that convey the contagiousness of her vision
There`s just one more thing that I wanna say:
Everyone has got their own special way
That keeps them from getting too close to the day,
Accept and be part of it all and all;
Everyone tear down your own little wall
That keeps you from being a part of it all
`Cause you gotta be one with the one and all,
And everyone tear down your own little wall
That keeps you from being a part of it all
`Cause you gotta be one with the one and all,
You gotta be close to it all.
The Beatles did a song that was clearly influenced by their time in India called "The Inner Light". It reminds me of some things I learned within Jewish tradition. When you honestly try to describe the world as you see it , it will often resonate in other traditions. The lyrics are as follows.
Without going out of my door
I can know all things of earth
With out looking out of my window
I could know the ways of heaven
The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows
Without going out of your door
You can know all things of earth
With out looking out of your window
You could know the ways of heaven
The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows
Arrive without travelling
See all without looking
Do all without doing
The song reminds me of my awareness that I am governed by the same laws of matter and of psychology as other people and other creatures. By understanding myself, it is not withdrawing from the world but finding my path to an experience of oneness with it. Travelling, running around and frenetic activity can be flight from one's self. Conversely in participating in the world and experiencing it, one is experiencing the oneness of which one is a part.
What I don't find in the Beatles's song that I do find a hint of in the song by Melanie is the idea of Tikun Olam, of mending the world. According to this idea, G-d created the world a bit less than complete, a bit less than perfect, and it is our job to finish the creation by reaching for perfection, and by providing the animal, vegetable and mineral to serve the Creator through us.
Both of these songs have been tools of contemplation for me, not in the sense of being sacred, but in the sense of being songs of spiritual yearning. I consider myself fortunate that such songs exist, that can not only express awareness but expand it as well.