Friday, July 24, 2009

They're Not Dead Yet

The Republican Party has a real problem.  Or, more accurately, THREE real problems.  The first is the Teabaggers. The second is the Birthers.  And the third is the response of some GOP Senators to the wise Latina nominated by President Obama to sit on the Supreme Court.  Each of the three is guaranteed to lose the party more of the moderate voters who decide this country’s elections.  Taken together, it becomes clear the Republican Party is headed for a twenty-year decline.

Politics can be very complex sometimes.  There are local issues, national issues, demographic trends, unforeseen crises, personal scandals, and many other factors to take into account.  But in the end, there is one foolproof strategy that will ensure your election 99* times out of 100.  That nearly-unbeatable strategy is to get more votes than the other person.

Often, you can get people to vote for you by being seen as honest, effective, competent, and informed.  If you are not well known, voters will look to your party affiliation for information about what kind of lawmaker or executive you would be.  When these moderate, unaffiliated voters step into the voting booth in November and see a big old “R” next to a candidate’s name, that affiliation is likely to work against that candidate.

The “teabaggers” (has there ever been a more unfortunate name for a political protest group?) are an embarrassingly rabid anti-tax group who don’t seem to understand that taxes pay for things that make life in America as great as it is.  Personally, I am glad there are air traffic controllers, food quality and cleanliness inspectors, the United States Armed Forces, the Internet, roads and bridges, and a million-and-one other services our taxes pay for.  Interestingly, the states with the highest ratio of federal tax dollars coming in also have the most active Teabagging groups.

These groups—comprised mostly of Republicans—do not put the most intelligent face on the party of Lincoln.

The “Birthers”, by comparison, make the “Teabaggers” look brilliant.  They believe that Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the United States and that he is Constitutionally ineligible to be the President.  They have begun to show up at events held by Republican politicians and shout out questions about President Obama’s birth certificate.   Again, the party comes across as less-than-rational when these vocal crazies grab the microphone.

Personally, I do not like the direction the Republican Party would like to lead America, so I give a cheer each time the Teabaggers and the Birthers spout off and make the news.  They serve to put an extreme face on a party that is pretty much leaderless.  In the wake of John McCain’s loss to Barack Obama, the Republican Party really has no identity.  Its members have nearly knocked themselves out running away from George W. Bush and his legacy.  (Sometimes I am reminded of cockroaches scrambling for cover when a light turns on.)  But they have not yet reformed under the banner of one obvious leader.

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michael Steele, and Rush Limbaugh all claim the loyalty of one small faction of the party.  And it seems unlikely they will get their collective act together and offer much in the way of a unified, constructive party philosophy in time for the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 Presidential contest.  So, in the meantime, the Republicans have become the Party of No.  They don’t yet know what they stand for, so they simply stand against anything President Obama and the Democrats propose.  Teabaggers?—against any taxes.  Birthers?—against Barack Obama himself.

Rich white male Republican Senators (like Tom Coburn, Jeff Sessions, Jon Kyle, and John Cornyn) made it clear in their questioning of Sonya Sotomayor that they are against the idea that a person’s experiences affect their judgment.  They are horrified by the thought of someone other than a white male passing judgment on the Constitution.  Do they really think that Samuel Alito, John Roberts, and Antonin Scalia don’t bring their own personal biases and experiences to their decisions on the Court? 

These Senators, with their confrontational tone and clear ignorance of human psychology, have hurt Republican efforts to court women and Hispanics.  If your base is shrinking and you have no plan, it doesn’t make much sense to antagonize potential voters, especially when the possibility of blocking Judge Sotomayor is nil.  Clearly those Republican Senators who scoffed at her impartiality care more about throwing red meat to their own conservative base back home in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, and Oklahoma than they do about expanding the appeal of their party.

Yes, the Republican Party has some problems.  And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they wander the political wilderness for sixteen or twenty more years before they manage to pull their act together and capture both houses of Congress.  In the absence of real leadership, the most vocal wing takes the spotlight and the individual members care more about their own political survival than about strengthening the party.  The Republican Party is not dead, but it is certainly in for a long, slow convalescence.  I, for one, think they should take all the time they need--no need to hurry.


(*  see Gore v. Bush, 2000)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hey Everyone--Look at ME.

            Recently, an old friend of mine from my Peace Corps days sent me a message through Facebook.  It was a guy I had not thought of very many times since we last saw each other in 1989, but one I liked very much.  His message had a link to some YouTube video photo albums of Yemen and I have watched both videos many times since I got the links last week.

            I also got to wondering where all of the old pictures of my time in Yemen were.  Being a master of organization, Erica knew exactly where to look.  They were in a shoebox in the closet in the craft room.  I truly didn’t even know we still had them   But I was glad we did.  After looking through the pile I was overcome by the urge to digitize and post the pictures here on my blog.  But then I had second thoughts—isn’t it presumptuous to think anyone would even care to see them?

            Combined with sites like YouTube and Google’s Blogger, Facebook allows for any level of self-revelation a person is willing to engage in.  Facebook’s popularity seems like a natural outgrowth for the generation who grew up with Gerry Springer and The Real World.  People seem to have lost the distinction between what is public and what is private, between what is important to share and what is merely self-indulgent.

            I see this instinct toward over-sharing with the status updates of my “friends” on Facebook.  They range from once-in-a-blue-moon updates—(things like “… is in Naples”)-- to almost real-time changes—(“…is pulling into the parking lot at Stop and Shop.”)  There are the intriguing updates (“…is mending light”), and the nowhere-near-intriguing-enough (“…is having an attack of diverticulitis.”)

I tend toward the less frequent, less personally revealing status updates, since I am a somewhat private person.  (And yet, even as I type that last sentence I know on some level I am not a private person at all since I keep a blog and I update my Facebook status at least three or four times a week.)

            Anyway, I think all of this is really just me talking myself into believing it is alright to post some pictures from Yemen simply because I want to. I am FULLY aware that posting these pictures is self-indulgent.  So, ignore all of this and just look at the pictures, if you care to.

Men making a deal in the Hodeidah qat market.

The straw hat section of the local market.

A fishing village on the Tihama--(the Red Sea coastal plain)--not far from my city, Hodeidah.

Some Yemeni men with their not-phallic-at-all daggers, called "jambiya".

Two of my students, (with their jambiyas).

Gas for the truck, water for the camels.

Cactus blossoms in the mountains.

An old man and his mule, waiting to be hired to carry something-anything-anywhere.

Remains of the city of Old Marib--built 2800 years ago and home to the Queen of Sheeba from the Bible.

A young shepherdess high above the amazing terraced mountainsides of Yemen.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Driving To Montana

This week I have been driving around Montana.  A lot.  Montana is an enormous state.  If you were to stand in the southeastern corner of Montana you would be closer to Texas than to the northwestern corner of Montana.  In the past few days I have driven 900 miles and not once left the state.  All of this driving has got me thinking back to that first time I drove into Montana in the summer of 1992.

In the summer of 1992 I was supposed to take a group of upper-middle class American teenagers to Kenya to do community service work in a Masai village not far from Masai Mara National Park.  I was thrilled at the idea.  I had only just recently returned from two years teaching in Yemen and I was itching to get back overseas. 

In the summers of 1990 and 1991 I had worked as a staff person for the same non-profit that was setting up the Kenya program.  It was called Visions, International and the people who ran the company were impressive in their sensitive approach to development work as well as their commitment to service learning.  When they called me early in 1992 about possibly leading a trip to Kenya I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I agreed in seconds and then spent the entire spring growing more and more excited.

But during the spring of 1992 Kenya was making a jarring and sometimes-violent switch from single-party rule to multi-party democracy.  When Kenya was in the news in the States it was always accompanied by pictures of sign-carrying, slogan-chanting crowds and soldiers dressed in riot gear.  As you might well imagine, these images were not a very effective recruiting tool for Visions-Kenya.  By the beginning of May it became clear that we would not have enough teenagers signed up to make a Kenya program viable.  The program was cancelled and I was deflated.

But then Joanne Pinaire, the director of Visions’ day-to-day operations and all-around amazing woman, called to offer that I direct a newly established program on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, instead.  It would entail living in a tiny village called Birney in a remote corner of the reservation.  I would take 16 teenagers from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (mostly) to a place with 25 houses, no store, and no television and together we would build a playground from scratch on a one-acre space in the middle of town.

I had no experience with construction, no knowledge of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and no previous experience directing programs, so I immediately said “yes” to Joanne’s offer and quickly switched the setting of my daydreams from Kenya to Montana.


To get to Montana I first went to Boston to collect the sixteen-passenger vans that we would use to get around the reservation all summer.  Then I helped collect the staffers who would be working with me on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, as well as those staffers who would be working on the other reservation programs in Montana.  In all, there were 24 of us driving in a caravan across the country.  It was my first cross-country drive and it was one heckuva good time.

Once we got to South Dakota the vastness of the West made itself clear to me.  It went on forever in rolling hills and rock outcroppings covered in grasses and sage.  But then we hit Montana and instead of one great undifferentiated expanse, elements of the landscape began to stand out.  The rocks grew red and the land began to speak to me.  It may have been the 70 hours spent in the van, but I don’t think so.  Something in the land of southeastern Montana touched something in me.  Though looking back, “touched” is the wrong word.  “Grabbed” is more accurate.  It somehow felt like I had come home to a place I had never been.

That summer went well, as did the following summers in Montana.  Each time the program ended, I would get back in the van and drive back to Boston.  And each time I did, Montana held onto more and more of what can only be called my soul.  Eventually I realized the stupidity of leaving Montana and when the Visions summer ended, I stayed.  I became a Montanan.

To make a long story short, a few years later I met my wife and our lives took us back to the Northeast—Ithaca and New Haven, specifically--where we have been for more than ten years.

This summer’s trip back to Montana to visit friends and family has made it clear to me that we need to move back here.  The land still talks to me like no other place has.  What brought me to Montana back in 1990s is still here and I am starting to worry that a very important part of who I am resides in Montana and stays here when I go back East.  I don’t want to end up like Lord Voldemort, with my soul split into pieces that live in far-flung places and leave me incomplete.

So, how to get back...?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Garden is Against the Law

I got an official warning in the mail today from the City of New Haven.  It seems the garden box Erica and I put in a few weeks ago is illegal.  It is in the "treeline."  For a while now I have been wondering what that strip of land is called--the one between the sidewalk and the street.  Now I know it is called the treeline.

We are risking a $100.00 fine if we do not remove the "illegal garden."  

This makes me sad.  I really like our little garden.  It brightens my day and it brightens our block.  As we built it I told Erica we would probably need to take it out one day when the city needed to do curb or water pipe work.  I just didn't think that day would come so soon.

I have left a message with John Cox--the city employee who wrote the warning--asking if we can talk.  I hope he calls me back soon and that we can find a way to save our little patch of green.