Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Around the world (or halfway at least)

I suppose it would behoove me to mention that next week I will be in Bahrain.  Alas, I will probably not be mingling with the activists there - I haven't even been mingling with the activists here - but I'll be staying in a temporally rented apartment for a few days and then on to India.  

I have mentioned, I am sure, my former room mate Papa, with whom I shared an apartment for about six years when I worked in Saudi.  The company I worked for, a Saudi manufacturer, provided deluxe family housing for Western employees who were married, and modern, though Spartan, housing in a separate area for singles.   Asian and African employees were paid much less and were given allowances with which they were expected to rent locally.  The last thing I wanted to do was to hang about with a bunch of western ex-pats bitching about Saudi life and planning their next vacation.  So when I met Papa at a company department  goat-grab, which is the term westerners used for the type of Saudi celebratory meal which involves sitting on the ground or in a tent  around a huge platter containing an enormous bed of rice flavored with oil, tomato, cardamom and the like atop which rests a whole roasted sheep or goat from which one pulls chunks to eat with one's hands, I soon wound up agreeing to share lodgings with him in the older part of town.  I kept my company-provided apartment, which was a single room with a kitchen along one side and a private modern bathroom, but I shared half of the rather low rent on an apartment spang in the middle of old Jubail.  As the company hired more Indians to work with Papa as computer operators, they joined us in the apartment, which had two bedrooms.  Papa and Matthew (a Christian Indian) shared one bedroom and Martie (a Catholic Goan) and I had bunks in the other.  The four of us remained roomies and good friends for all of my six years at the company.

I lost touch with Martie who married and emigrated to Australia, and in the last few years I have also lost track of Matthew.  Matthew married and then, to his shock , his wife divorced him.  He had brief stints in the USA but so far as I know he now lives in Mumbai.  However, I have remained in contact with Papa who still lives and works in Jubail, though now he is a programmer at a private company with greatly increased wages.  Papa married not long after I left Saudi in 1996 and he has visited me almost annually, twice with his wife and son.  Papa wanted to return my hospitality and that of my brother George, who was also his host the last time Papa's family came with him, so when his brother-in-law arranged a marriage for himself, Papa invited George and me to attend.  In india, weddings are not the exclusive sorts of events that we have here, although there is a similar desire to spend too much.  Indeed, the last time I was in India I attended the weddings of four perfect strangers; as the first Western man ever to visit the small village I was staying in, I believe I served as cheap entertainment for the guests.  I was only able to speak with one of the four grooms at all because although none spoke any English, this one man had worked in the Gulf and we were able to stumble through a few sentences in Arabic, which he spoke far better than me.  

Anyway, now Papa is reasonably rich by Indian standards and George and I are to be his guests at a home he has built in Palakkad in the state of Kerala for a couple of weeks.  We had hoped to get a visa for Saudi for a couple of days en route; Papa says Jubail - and Saudi in general - have changed beyond recognition and I'd have liked to see the new Saudi Arabia, although i kind of loved the old version.  But visas are hard to come by, so instead we will spend a few days in Bahrain and then fly together with Papa and his wife and 12-year-old Bubba (we call the boy Bubba and have done so since before he was born although of course that is not his name) to Kerala.  I had assumed that the plan was to hang out in Palakkad for a while, but no, Papa has booked us on a tour of all kinds of sights.  He sent us an itinerary and when George went on line to see what these various places were all about, he was stunned to see we are in a 5-star sort of situation everywhere, staying where kings and film stars (which is the same thing, really) have stayed.  This was slightly alarming because although it seemed like Papa had said he was hosting (i. e. paying), it had never been specifically stated.  Up until we got the itinerary, I had assumed that  the beaches and temples and forts were day trips Papa planned, but now, I find we are on some kind of grand tour.   I delicately brought up the financial situation that George and I find ourselves in, and Papa said to worry not - everything was on the house.  Oh my!  

Is it churlish of me to mention that I loathe sightseeing?  And I would never, on my own, book any kind of packaged tour, although it is not exactly 'packaged' in that we won't have a guide, but we will have a driver.  My idea of travel is to go, stay in a cheap local hotel patronized by locals and to get to know a place by walking around and making a fool of myself.  I always say if one is going to a five-star hotel one might as well save the airfare and stay at the one in the closest town because they are all the same.  Although there is a smiling friendliness amidst all the staff, it is a bought and paid for experience and is as close to really having a friendly conversation with a local as the Disney Jungle ride is to a trip down the Amazon.  But it looks like this is what I am going to have.  

The right way to look at this trip is a visit to a friend, rather than as travel.  A friend who, whether he is visiting me or I him believes that the hour not spent in strenuously doing something or seeing something or, preferably, buying something is an hour wasted.   I already have 9 packages from Amazon sitting on my kitchen table, which Papa has had sent here for me to tuck into my luggage for him.  Oy!  And a week to go; what new surprise will be delivered to my door?  So I foresee a high level of activity doing things I would not consider doing if I were on my own.

It should be fun, though.  The scientific principle that best applies to me is Newton's law that a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  I don't go to a great number of events because all I can think of is the parking problem or the cost of admission or the crowds or being out too late.  I am a sad wreck of the adventurer I used to be.  One thing that does appeal to the adventurer in me is another idea that Papa has proposed.  He will be working in Saudi for the forseeable future - he is quite a young man compared to me.  He is 47, but looks like a man in his twenties.  He has built a house in Kerala, as I said, and at present his mother and one of his brothers live there.  But the brother has bought his own place and the two will be moving to this, therefore Papa's home will lie vacant much of the year.  He has proposed that I  - or George and I, or whoever I want and I - live in it for a couple of months in the winter of next year.  I see no downside to that.  Because I am an eternal pessimist in some things - again, anything that requires me to move my butt - I am sure I will manufacturer a number of objections in the coming year, but , hey, right now it sounds cool.

I guess I might mention that my Cambodian cousin Warren, (well, half-Cambodian cousin - if he was all-Cambodian he wouldn't be a cousin, would he?), offered me a job teaching English in Phnom Penh a few months ago.  Unfortunately it would mean teaching the sons of privilege, not just some village kids, and the sons of privilege everywhere are the same nightmare for a teacher.  I used to hear a few horror stories from teachers in Saudi.  Being a teacher when you are outranked socially by your students is not a picnic.  People talk about the tribulations of teaching in rough poor districts, but there is a whole different hell with rich kids.  They say it is hard to engage the parents in some poor districts; it is harder to disengage the parents in the wealthy sectors, parents who think that an A+ is hardly enough reward for little Bree or Buckleigh.  And that A+ should arise from the beloved one's essence, not his or her work; and certainly that the child's playful nature should not be curbed just because there are others trying to learn.  Nonetheless, I should have taken the job, because my life sucks big-time and anything would be better than drooling in front of a screen - which I am doing as we speak, yes, but usually I am drooling more passively than this (and usually there's more drool).   

So anyway, if I don't write for a while, I will have a different excuse at least.  

By the way, Marge, if you are reading this - I can't get to your site anymore because my computer informs me you've gone all high hat and are not letting in hoi poloi.   And even when I could get through in the last month or two, none of my comments would post.  Weird things happened.  But now I get this message to ask for permission even to read, but how the hell do I do that when I can't get there to ask?  So I am asking.

I wonder if I can get kidnapped in Bahrain?  Now that would be different!

Monday, October 17, 2011


Am I the only one who has noticed how effeminate that pastor is - the one who said that Mormonism is a cult and then went on to throw his arms out toward Rick Perry in a gesture that must have been the envy of drag queens everywhere.  I am guessing we are just about one lacy ruffle from our next clergyman scandal; I only hope drugs are involved.  It's just more fun that way.
I listen less and less either to the news or to any of the talking heads, but there are a few things I have noticed lately from the little I have seen.  One is that those who are not raging against the Occupy Wall Street folks with small flecks of foam flying from their lips, are nonetheless baffled at what it is, exactly, that "those people" want.  I have also heard comments that ranged from gleeful gotcha-type snark to rueful bafflement as to why these folks who "can't be that poor" because they have iPhones or iPads (or both) seem to have so little resentment of Steve Jobs since they are "against the wealthy".  
It is clear to me that first of all, the idea that they are against not the wealthy per se, but rather against those wealthy people who have not earned their wealth, or those who use their wealth to unfair advantage.  Steve Jobs is eminently not among those.  Old Habakkuk said it well in his own little book of the bible: "Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain".  Looks like Habakkuk had more going for him than a cool name.
In general there is now, as there always has been in the USA, three things going on.  There is the legitimate disagreement about social issues - the place of religion, abortion, gay rights, marriage, parental rights and responsibilities, crime and punishment, gun issues, the role of schools and so forth.  Secondly, there is the issue of spending - how much and whence the money to pay for it, and on what to spend public money.  These are two separate issues - fiscal and social - which are constantly being conflated so that many people who have strong feelings about social or 'moral' issues find themselves willingly or otherwise, allying themselves with people who have a particular stance on the spending issue, and vice versa.  Anyone who is socially liberal but fiscally conservative or socially conservative but fiscally liberal is reviled as a moderate, a fraud, or what have you.  Many people who feel strongly about social issues but less so on fiscal issues, or those who feel the reverse, must actually become frauds to be heard or elected by espousing strong positions they do not actually care about as much, in areas they find secondary in their beliefs about how to 'fix things'.  
As I said there are three, not two, things going on all the time.  The third thing is the growing power of those who win either way and who make every effort to keep the public focussed on emotional issues and acrimonious debate: the gotcha commentary, the 'assault' upon 'our rights' or upon the poor or upon those who 'earn their money and don't go looking for a handout' or the decline of the middle class or whatever resonant phraseology is current.  If every single congressman and senator were replaced by his or her chief opponent in the coming election, the effect would be miniscule.  There is no difference, really, between George Soros' political spending and that of the Koch brothers.  
In the antebellum South a small group of landowners oppressed both the poorer whites and the enslaved black population.  After the Civil War, this group - with a few desertions by leaders who fell from power and a few additions from both Southern and Carpetbagging Northern opportunists - pivoted smoothly into the Jim Crow era, where the poor whites were kept in line by threats of what would happen if blacks got rights and the blacks, poor or otherwise, were kept in line by what they had to lose from the little they had if the 'poor white trash' gained control.  The degree to which the poor whites had some awareness of their lack of real commonality with the aristocracy is reflected by the number of poorer mountain folk from slave-holding states who chose to join the Union army - there were rather a lot of these.  In Virginia, the poor mountain people seceded from the Secession majority in the state and formed the state of West Virginia, which remained with the North.  The passionate hatred between the "white trash" and the blacks was subtly stoked by those few who profitted either way; these poorer folk found themselves consistently supporting the lesser of two evils, as indeed we all find ourselves doing today with almost every vote we cast.  The problem is that the lesser of two evils is increasingly not all that much different from having to decide whether you'd prefer to be murdered by a serial killer or by a guy who just lost his head that one time.  Hmm; still dead.
It matters who wins an election in regard to the outcome of social issues, in regard to fiscal issues it matters somewhat also, in terms of where the money will come from and where it will go - although things will be far more the same, no matter who wins - than the rhetoric implies. However, it makes much less difference - almost none - in terms of how much money will be at issue.  In order to support our social beliefs we are sadly forced to accept the status quo politically and fiscally.  People who vote Democratic lose, people who vote Republican lose, and people who proudly proclaim that they never vote because it makes no difference lose.  
There is only one thing that would make any difference. It is something that the wealthy government officials - which includes every Justice on the Supreme Court, all the decision makers in the White House and Cabinet and all of the Congress - (although a few of the newer Congressmen may not be wealthy yet, their future wealth is guaranteed by their ability to slide smoothly into lobbyist firms or to start charging four, five or even six figures for a single hour of speaking at various venues for the rest of their life).  And that one thing is to add an amendment to the constitution divorcing the idea of spending unlimited money from the right of free speech.  There is no seat in Congress that isn't beholden to some wealthy person(s) or other.  None.  We all know this.  These wealthy few may be disguise themselves as interest groups or PACs or charities or any number of things, but in the end the money comes from people who had money to spare.  It is obscene how much it costs to run for office, and how much time most office seekers and office holders must spend seeking funds.  So much time is spent thusly that even the most conscientious of men or women must leave their research or decision making to a staff that has been largely chosen on an ideological basis or to a friendly lobbyist who will help him or her out by writing the legislation which he or she is to present or vote on.  
There will always be crooks in government but increasingly everybody is forced, by the cost of running for office and of countering expensive misinformation campaigns, into compromising independence and integrity if not into flat out dishonesty.  Whether it is hope and change or 9-9-9, no candidate for President will ever deliver, because Presidents do not make law, Congress does; and Congress won't because no Congressman is entirely free of indebtedness to the wealthy, and by wealthy, I am not talking of those who have five or ten million socked away, I mean those few families wealthy enough to buy a state.  Term limits don't help because two crooks are not better than one.  Campaign reform laws are useless, even in the rare case where they are meaningful, because the wholly-owned Supreme Court routinely overturns any real reform.  The one hope is a Constitutional amendment, because (so far) even the Court cannot declare an amendment unconstitutional. Unfortunately no amendment can be passed because the legislatures which would have to ratify it consist of men and women who are also beholden to the same wealthy few.  
What the Occupy Wall Street people are reacting to is the complete powerlessness of most of us to get out of this awful bind.  One of the last times such an all-powerful establishment was truly reformed a guillotine was involved.  The longer reform is suppressed, the more cataclysmic the reform will eventually be.  That is the way it has always been. 
It is not envy of the wealthy that is fueling this latest protest.  As I said, I have heard of few who begrudge the wealth of Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or any of the others who actually DID something to earn what they have.  It is the CEOs who get seven, eight or nine-figure bonuses and payouts when they ran their firms into the ground, or wealthy people who are using money they never earned to demonize poor people for using, or trying to use, wealth they never earned - i. e. welfare.  People who do nothing but live well off the money some ancestor made should not be so quick to castigate people who receive medical care they cannot actually afford.  It is disheartening that those who rob a bank of billions are all over the society pages while those who rob the same bank of a couple of hundred dollars are, if caught, doing hard time.  
Poor people are notorious for not bothering to vote, but for whom should they vote?  They should, perhaps, run themselves, but they'd only be spending money to do so that they don't have or can't spare - and if they raise the funds to run, they will be raising them from rich or at least richer people, and then here we are: back at square one.   
I don't expect any improvement; I think it quite possible that we have passed the point where real reform can occur.  But I shall be watching the protest movement with great interest.
By the way, the Blogger KING OF NEW YORK HACKS has talked to a lot of different folks in the Occupying crowd and has published some excellent pictures and commentary showing who's there.