Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Sad Confession

Please dear reader, whisper it quietly. I know it represents a total failure of integration with my new country, a reprehensible failure not only to embrace your culture but also a serious malfunction of my male heterosexual drives.. but .. and ashamed as I am to admit this.. by far the most interesting thing in this picture for me is Al Franken. Understand that he does not provoke any erotic desires in me. Actually I doubt he does that for most people.. other than Mrs Franken. However he stimulates intellectual curiosity, interest and respect. This is a man who was a comedian and is now a US Senator. The other two are people who wave pom poms. Now this isn't to demean their professionalism, hours of training and commitment, but I just don't understand the mystical hold cheerleaders have over the population of America.

Some of this is no doubt due to my inability to grasp or relate to the game of Football, which is already scheduled to be another blog post, however I don't think this is the whole of the problem. I don't respond well to being told what to think or do. I want to cheer because I want to, not because some a group of semi-clad females are bouncing up and down urging me to. I need my reaction to an event to be genuine and not engineered. Equally I don't like being told who to desire. I never really felt the nurse fixation but I could at least understand it. Nurses get to have a high level of fairly intimate access to one's body, along with traditionally displaying a level of concern for your health and welfare normally only manifested by by a partner or family member, plus of course they wear a uniform. Cheerleaders though are completely distant.. they come nowhere near touching you in the performance of their role. Indeed they are probably almost completely unaware of the audience as they go about their pre-planned routine. Perhaps that is the allure, the unobtainability - the mystique of the unknown.

Now I know that Americans regard them as an essential part of the sporting event and that's fine. Just to me they feel ... unnecessary. It seems they are a distraction from the real event. Just there to grab the attention and engineer reactions whilst the real action takes place elsewhere. In that regard they feel increasingly like the US President.

Whether one is pro or anti President Obama one fact is undeniable, he was elected by the American people with a clear mandate for change. I cannot help feeling that very little of that change has happened. Is that really the case though? I turned to the Pulitzer Prize winning website who keep a running total of promises made and policies implemented. According to them, at this point, very roughly about a third of the way into his Presidency he has kept 23% of his promises, is in the process of implementing 50% and has compromised on 7%. An additional 16% of promises started the process of implementation but have subsequently stalled. Only 4% of election promises have been actually broken which seems actually like a fairly respectable record.Why then does he feel so unsatisfactory?

His Presidency seemed to be derailed at a very early stage. Though Al Franken delivered to him the supposedly unassailable Supermajority figure, it never felt like he could simply impose his will on Congress. It started early, with a massive battle over the Economic Stimulus Package, ironically simply a continuation of the policy put in place by the previous Republican President. Yet at the time political pundits warned that he was drawing heavily on his political capital, a limited resource, to ensure its successful passage. Very shortly afterwards he began the even greater struggle to pass Health Care reform whilst being partially distracted by a banking crisis which he had inherited. Bailing out the banks and the car industry was not a popular choice but was one he probably had little option but to make. Even a Supreme Court nomination who on experience alone should have been a shoe-in proved highly contentious. Yet inspite of all these difficulties, Health Care reform legislation was finally passed, a feat which had defeated previous Presidents for more than 40 years.

Other than Senator Lindsey Graham, who during the Sotomayor confirmation hearings said that he believed that elections should have consequences, and consequently voted for her, the Republican party has shown little recognition of the fact that they lost the election and certainly no humility. A key Republican strategist warned early on that they stood more to gain from working against Obama rather than with him, especially with the state of the economy. This is the strategy which the party have adopted. Opposing at every single opportunity, whilst making outward overtures towards bi-partisanship, even to the point of actively voting against previous Republican policies. A previously long-established policy of always publicly supporting the President of the United States on matters of international policy was over-turned with widespread Republican criticism of his stance towards the protests in Iran. When the Vice-President claimed in January that now every single Senate vote was requiring the full 60 Senators to break filibusters, he was undoubtedly exaggerating but on key policy votes it has been required a significant number of times. In March Republican Senator Bunning held up the extension of unemployment benefits for a number of days in a protest over the deficit and a number of administration nominees have been repeatedly blocked in the Senate by provision which allows a single Senator to prevent approval, thus giving the administration difficulty in filling important government vacancies.

President Obama has been very careful to avoid labeling his opponents as racist. He is after all the 44th President of the United States rather than just the first black one. I certainly don't think everyone who opposes him is either racist or wrong. However I do think there are a minority who are fundamentally opposed to him solely because of his color.For these people, the oft repeated "I want my America back" is code for "Get that nigger out of here!". The clue is in the severity of the political rhetoric. With Obama it goes way beyond simple dislike of a political opponent. There is an absolute revulsion of him and a vilification which reaches far beyond the merely irrational. The statement "Obama believes we should rape and eat babies" would almost seem moderate and plausible when placed beside some of the claims being made against him. A common claim is that there is evidence which proves him to be the Anti-Christ. This is made on a variety of websites sites such as and examined in depth at He is accused frequently of hating the military, ordinary Americans and of being a communist/socialist sympathiser or a supporter of terrorism. He is depicted as being more than wrong politically, he is evil - demonic. Often mainstream Republicans have done little to quell the more extreme outpourings of their fringes and in some cases have helped feed it. The New York Post featured a cartoon implying that the stimulus bill had been written by a dead chimp, whilst hastily denying that the chimp was intended to represent the first black President or that the cartoon implied there should be violence against him in any way. A staffer of Senator Diane Black circulated a racist cartoon showing the portrait of the first 43 presidents with only a gap and a pair of eyes where Obama should be. Recently the Texas Education Board in the debate over their curriculum revisions changed their proposals to require him to be called "President Barack Hussein Obama", emphasizing his middle name, a common tactic amongst some of his more extreme critics who take this as proof he is a Muslim.

Ironically the racist cartoon of just eyes does have some small grounding in reality, Obama has been something of a low key President which may explain some of his lack of appeal to many Americans. The federal administration is a massive machine, it rolls on silently in the background. Whilst some of its output ends up on the desk of the President, by no means all does and much takes place without his direct input. Though the Health Care reform legislation is credited to him, he merely set out some general principles he wished to see it include, some of which were ignored. The actual text of the Act came wholly from Congress. Obama is in many ways the consummate bureaucrat, skills gained from his time as a lawyer, but this runs counter to the role of the President in American politics. It is not how a President performs but how he is seen to perform. When it came to deciding whether to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan Obama took a month to read reports from all the experts in the field so he could make a considered decision. He was widely painted as ineffectual and indecisive. In American politics it is better to make the wrong decision than to be slow making the right one.

He faces similar criticisms over his handling of the oil spill to those President George W Bush faced over Hurricane Katrina. Americans generally do not like the idea that the planet is not tamed and can react in ways that are neither predictable or easily controllable. There must always be a solution and it must be capable of instant application, anything else is a failure of leadership. In such situations a President must be guided by expert opinion and in this case many of the greatest experts in the field work for BP so he has little choice but to trust them and let them do their best to resolve the situation. This is however ideal for his opponents, not only do they have a weak President to berate but a foreign corporation behind it which to attack. There is nothing American politicians relish more than laying into a company from another country, depicting it as a threat to all that America holds dear and inferior in every way to American business. Coming so quickly on the heels of the Toyota debacle this is a godsend for them.

The role of an American President is to look good whereas that of the Vice President is to make the President look good. I half suspect there is an office within the White House responsible for scripting Vice-Presidential gaffes. "Be sure and spell tomato with an E today". The Vice-President is meant to make you glad that the current President and not he is in charge. The President is a leader but he is more crucially a cheerleader. No matter how bad things are you are meant to feel boosted. When Obama painted a dark picture of the economy in his inaugural address he should probably have jiggled his chest more. When it came to the oil spill he should have got in a wet suit and a boat and been photographed there on the coast. Nothing would have changed, but he would have probably been looked on more kindly. Here it is important to give the impression of action and being in control even when you are not. There is no situation so bad that pom poms cannot redeem it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Don't Tell, Act!

The policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a peculiarly American compromise. It satisfied nobody and it was inevitable that it would not be able to continue long term. Meanwhile the military did what they always do, namely their job, protecting these shores. The military, like the police, are a cohesive body which successfully functions, regardless of what is thrown at it by its political masters. They simply adapt and move on.

Anyone who has served in any kind of coherent team in civilian life where total reliance on each other is essential, knows that you trust your team members totally. You don't stop to ask the person holding the rope lowering you down what type of genitalia they prefer. Sex has no place in the workplace and should not affect team performance. When your safety is in the hands of other team members, a bond inevitably forms and in my experience declarations of religious belief or sexual orientation do not change this. People are respected for who they are, and when the moment comes, all are expected to perform their role appropriately.

In truth, sexuality is much less of an issue than it once was. There are many nations where it was illegal within living memory and where the repeal was once hugely controversial. Most young people do not have the prejudices of the older generations and are much more open and tolerant towards all forms of diversity. This is largely because they have grown up with the access which the internet provides and exposure to many more people than would once have been possible. Hence many young people know at least one, and generally more than one, person within their circle of immediate acquaintances who is of a different sexual orientation to theirs. It is therefore regrettable that policy is generally made by much older people, whose attitudes were established long ago, and are often one step behind the rest of society.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was introduced under the Clinton administration. Previously it was illegal to be gay within the military and all forces personnel were required to affirm that they were not. Under this new policy military members would no longer be asked if they were homosexual and unless they did anything to bring attention to their sexuality they would be permitted to serve even if they were gay. It was a step towards allowing gay personnel to serve in the military but definitely not enough to satisfy the lobby which wanted this.

When it comes to issues of equality sometimes great courage is needed to legislate. There is only so long that people are prepared to accept denying who they are and feeling they are unfairly treated. Slavery proved an extremely divisive issue in this country's past and it took a war to finally resolve it. Racial segregation was another extremely controversial area of civil rights and it took a Supreme Court ruling, considerably in advance of where public opinion was at that time, to initiate a process which brought it to an end. That ruling probably saved America from much future civil unrest and few people would now question it was the right thing to do. In contrast to the decisiveness of the Supreme Court in this situation, the way in which Congress handled the issue of gay people in the military was one of constant buck-passing.

Gathering information is a necessary part of the legislative process however it should be used to inform decision making not to replace it. Once you have established in your mind what the moral position is, there is only one ethical thing to do, which is to act. Anything else is simply a failure of backbone. I have more respect for those who always argued against the inclusion of gays in the military on religious grounds and voted consistently, than those who denounced the inequality but were content to do nothing on the issue.

The way in which the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" vote was handled by the House of Representatives was particularly unfortunate. Having established a consultative exercise and impact study which had only just got underway, Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) reported, among others, that this timing was not good and had the potential to cause confusion and concern. Service personnel had been promised the opportunity to have their say and while the consultation would continue the conclusion had already been reached making it appear largely worthless. In an ideal world it would not have been handled in this way however the confusion was due to a surfeit of timidity in those same politicians who now only rushed to a form of legislative conclusion only due to their fear that they would be penalized for lack of action by their electorate, having been previously more than happy to delay indefinitely.

Having said I have respect for the consistent opponents I must acknowledge there was some duplicity on the part of some of the opposition. There were some who were content to hide behind the problem with the review without admitting whatever the conclusion of the final report was they would still oppose it. The House of Representatives vote illustrated the worst of American politics. The politicians were dragged kicking and screaming to a vote they had long sought to avoid making, what will be depicted as a moral position was nothing of the sort, though it appears to be a repeal the final decision is actually left elsewhere which is an abdication of responsibility. Moreover the vote was heavily divided on party lines with only 5 Republicans voting in favor and only 26 Democrats voting against. It is very sad that some greater consensus could not be reached. In addition the repeal was one of many amendments tacked onto the end of a military funding bill. This practice of burdening legislation with often last-minute amendments, in many cases only partially-related at best to the theme of the bill, merely to satisfy lobby groups, should become unacceptable. An issue of this national importance deserved to be a piece of primary legislation not an appendix and had politicians got their act together earlier it could have been. Instead one messy compromise was repealed by another messy compromise. Hardly the lifeblood of history.

So if the Senate votes the same way, and its Armed Services Committee has already done so, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will ultimately become history. Will it be missed? I don't think so. Many countries, including the one of my birth, now have openly gay people serving in the military and the impact has been minimal. I have great faith in the professionalism of the US military and no doubt they will adapt appropriately. This was the view expressed by Congressman Joe Sestak, the highest ranking military officer to ever have been elected to the House of Representatives, who enthusiastically spoke in favor of the repeal. Watching this whole debate I have come to the conclusion it tells us less about the military than it does the state of contemporary US politics. What is undeniable is that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had a negative effect on the US forces. It led to the discharge of many personnel who were needed for operational effectiveness, including a number of experts in Arab languages and culture, at a time when with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, these were a precious resource in short supply. There were also suicides which can hardly have been good for morale. Yet rather than tackle head-on this difficult and controversial issue, with the many problems it was causing, the politicians preferred to do nothing. Yesterday I commented on a former governor's inability to make decisions but I am not sure this was limited to just him. Decision-making is no longer a skill required on Capitol Hill. The objective is to appear as busy as possible whilst achieving as little as possible. Only a political establishment which had itself abrogated moral responsibility could believe it was ever acceptable to implement a policy which punished people for telling the truth.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fire Those Fuckers!

Watching Rod Blagojevich's performance on Celebrity Apprentice I was struck by several things about him, and, curiously,  none of them was about the likelihood of his guilt or innocence in the charges over the misuse of his office as Illinois Governor which have been filed against him. He was pleasant, even charming in a snake-oil salesman sort of way and had courage to make such a public appearance.

The chief thing though that stood out, was how inept he was. Here was a man who had been the Governor of a major state and he had almost no management skills at all. It wasn't just that he could barely open a laptop or operate a cellular phone - business leaders are often behind the times at a personal level whilst managing to stay ahead of the game at a company level. My previous CEO used to have all his emails printed out and handed to him by his secretary so I can't really criticize Rod for that. However when Rod was put in charge of a task, as project manager, something at which you would expect him to excel, his failings became apparent. He could not get on top of a brief, having obvious difficulty comprehending information and remembering key facts. Nor could he direct a team, showing no aptitude for appropriate delegation and monitoring, or being able to inspire and motivate team members. These were I would have thought the basic skills of a manager and illustrated a problem I have perceived with modern corporate America.

Back in the country of my birth people generally had two, linked, perceptions of the USA, that it was a brutal uncaring place in terms of public welfare and support and that it was the home of ruthless corporate efficiency. America was the model which everyone else wanted to follow. They knew how to maximize profits and yet maintain quality providing for a happy consumer and a long term relationship with clients. Perhaps this was always illusionary, or maybe sometime in the last ten years the scales tipped, but it is certainly no longer the case. The capitalistic greed and ruthlessness is still there but the efficiency has long ago departed and left no forwarding address.

A tip should be an optional gratuity, a way to recognize and reward good service. America has however made it socially compulsory, a recognition of low wages - an inequality which it is your obligation to compensate for. Since the server is confident of this additional payment their only focus is on ingratiating themselves with the customer, smiling profusely, letting you know all about their one legged brother Timmy who needs a heart operation, rather than focusing on the customer's needs and quality of the product they bring. Last night my medium steak was visibly bloody and the waiter interpreted "no onions on anything" as "please put an onion ring the size of a basketball on my plate". Yet I am expected to reward this lack of attention. Yes I do have the option of modifying the tip amount, but only within a limited socially-acceptable range. The principle here is a key one, good work, initiative and attentiveness should be rewarded, the opposite should only ever be penalized.

Whilst I described the person who negligently attended to my needs as a "server" they were more probably a Food Transportation Manager these days. I have been struck how many jobs in the US now have "manager" within their title unnecessarily. To paraphrase the Incredibles, "when everyone is a manager, no one is". You do not magically become a manager simply because you are dealing with your normal daily workload. You are a manager because:

  • You take decisions daily that impact significantly on others within the company
  • You direct and monitor the work of others
  • Your role includes motivating and inspiring others to increase quality and/or productivity
  • You find solutions to problems which others bring you
  • You can dispassionately analyze a situation and determine the most appropriate course of action
  • You help develop and implement policies and procedures
  • Your advanced level of responsibility is recognized within your pay check

Someone who types and answers the phone is a secretary or administrator. They only become an Office Manager when other clerical staff report to them, when they distribute and delegate work, when they make not only order the stationery but have the authority to choose what to buy etc. I say this not to downplay the valuable role of administrators, I have served in those roles myself, but to highlight the differences that should exist between them and managers. People want the manager title but do not accept the responsibility which should come with it.

For any given problem, situation or crisis that can occur in the workplace there should be a person in a position to tackle it and that should be the manager. Even when a manager is not present, they should have made policies sufficiently clear to staff that they are able to act appropriately in their absence. All to often today it seems to me this is not the case. To take an example some months ago the wife and I visited the local Home Depot in order to buy a bulb for a lamp of hers. It was not a common size, so in order to be able to ensure she got the right one, she took the original bulb with her. Whilst we were looking at the display of bulbs another customer jostled us unexpectedly and she dropped the bulb onto the floor where it shattered. We reported this immediately to the nearest store employee and then to the front desk when they appeared to take limited interest. There was a potential risk of another customer injuring themselves on the broken glass and we didn't want to take that risk however no one in the store appeared to share our concerns. When we left the store some 30 minutes later no employee had been near the glass after the initial one verified it was there, no cones, rope or other warning had been placed around it, and it was still laying there on the floor.

Time was, when reporting something like that, someone would be dispatched immediately to sweep it up. Nowadays a full risk assessment by the Risk Manager, was probably required, and he may have not been there on Sunday, so no one had any idea what to do, and so decided doing nothing was best.

The old top-down hierarchical approach to management is probably a little outmoded today but it did have the benefit of clarity and responsibility. Today we have the absurd term "workplace family" and a million facilitators none of whom can make a decision. Facilitation is a valuable skill in the workplace but talk on its own is useless unless conclusions are reached and decisions are made. Managers want to be a friend of their employees but the very nature of their role rules this out. No one wants a friend who watches and assesses them. A friend should give you special treatment but no one can afford to play favorites in the workplace. Finally no one wants to be fired by a friend but every manager knows that may one day be their duty.

As a former trade union officer many will find it surprising that I support layoffs and firings as a legitimate management tool. Every dismissal is a personal tragedy for someone and that should never be minimized. Equally it is a failure of management, in not growing the company profits sufficiently to maintain the post or in not training and nurturing the employee to meet their potential or in not finding an alternative solution. A poorly performing employee is a problem not only for the company as a whole, but particularly for their co-workers, who will be forced to work harder in order to maintain acceptable levels of achievement. Equally sometimes in order to keep a company functioning it is necessary, but regrettable, to layoff some workers. However my concern is that this is now pretty much the only way it is considered possible to make efficiency gains.

There is a  lamentable lack of imagination on the part of many managers, who jump to the nuclear option of dismissals, without giving thought to the exploration of alternatives. The quotation from Rod Blagojevich which forms the title of this post represents the attitude of all too many managers, who then end up making those laid off the scapegoats for their own failings. To determine how to make improvements managers must be able to take a detached overall view, a skill which seems to be lacking.  Way too many managers seem only capable of reading one measure, usually the simplest, when looking at an employee or company profile. For example, I heard from a friend about the company where he works where a particular employee had been selected for particular praise and reward. This clerk in a shipping department had by far the highest daily rate of dispatches of anyone in his department. This is commendable however the manager failed to notice one thing. Said employee also had the by far the highest percentage rate of returns in the department. He achieved his great speed by cutting corners and inadequately packing goods. Looked at objectively this is not a good employee. He is costing the company considerable money in additional unnecessary shipping costs to replace damaged goods. He is also lowering the perception of the company among its customers. After multiple damaged orders many customers will look to competitors instead losing the company business permanently.

This has always been the underlying American philosophy, the marketplace will act as the final arbiter on quality. Bad stores and restaurants will not survive because people will go elsewhere. What do you do though when everywhere seems uniformly bad? The American car industry was once this country's pride and its sad decline is due to the fact it was producing products people didn't want. Across most of the rest of the world American cars began to be viewed as gas-guzzling monsters at a time when gas costs were rising. Even the most patriotic American began to have doubts about unnecessarily large, ugly looking machines which were going to cost them much more than cars from elsewhere and had quality-control issues. This should provide a valuable lesson and warning to the rest of American business. Lose the confidence and loyalty of your customers and you will suffer greatly. It is not too late to change, to return to valuing customers and employees and paying attention to their needs. Putting in place rigid systems of quality monitoring and control and managers with the ability to recognize when difficult decisions are required, and the confidence to make them. Equally customers must be willing to raise their voices and let companies know when levels of service are not acceptable. Unless we recognize and exalt those managers and companies which are innovative and attentive, we risk this country being swallowed by a morass of uniform mediocrity.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

States of Confusion

When it came to media coverage of the US Presidential election, back in the country of my birth, it actually received as much attention as one of our own national elections. Though we had no control over the outcome, we knew it would affect all our lives. Indeed in all but name we were witnessing the election of a World President, because as the sole remaining Superpower, what America says ultimately goes. Whilst it is true individual countries, or groups of countries, can stand up against America briefly, if the United States decides that something is opposed to its national interest, and utilizes its full economic and military weight, then successful resistance is simply not feasible.

Little surprise that the US President is frequently referred to as "the most powerful man on earth". However there is a problem with this perception. When it comes to international diplomacy, such as treaty negotiations, the US President is probably the weakest person around the table. Whilst most other leaders of countries come with a clear mandate from their electorate and the authority to negotiate, this is not true of the US President. He has no authority to agree to anything. Everything he says must be confirmed by Congress and therefore he cannot make any binding commitments. Whilst some other countries, eg Eire, have similar requirements that their parliament must ratify treaties, their electoral process is less likely to produce a parliament actively opposed to their leader than the US one. Perhaps because the President does not require approval for opposition to a treaty, or to refuse to sign one, American leaders are sometimes perceived as being more confrontational, than conciliatory, when it comes to negotiations.

Though the rest of the world believes that there is a single cohesive coherent country here, the reality is startlingly different. It was founded as a coalition of independent states, and whilst, in some ways, the power of the federal government has grown over the years, the states retain considerable power. Most foreigners are surprised over many aspects of life which remain under the control of states.

For example there has been considerable controversy lately about Arizona's immigration legislation and Texas's rewriting of its educational curriculum. To take the second of these, as the first I have discussed previously, whilst there is a US Education Department their role is limited to research and enforcing specific federal policies, as their website says:

Please note that in the U.S., the federal role in education is limited. Because of the Tenth Amendment, most education policy is decided at the state and local levels. So, if you have a question about a policy or issue, you may want to check with the relevant organization in your state or school district.

It certainly surprised me that there was no central curriculum but that individual states devised their own applying their own focus and biases. It was also unexpected to find that some states, such as Texas, also required classes in their state history. I am not sure why this unnerved me. I was an active local historian back in my original country and I do certainly believe people should learn about historical events in their area of residence. However it just appeared too inward-looking at a time when most Americans are woefully under-informed about world history and geography.

The reality is that while most of the world expects coherence from the United States, this is limited to international policy and that in reality it is highly disparate and there are substantial differences in laws between states. For example, if we look at a single issue, age of consent (for sexual intercourse), there is no consistency. Depending on individual circumstances, any age between 12 and 18 (inclusive) is potentially legal for sex in the USA somewhere. Members of the US military may normally have sex from 16 onwards but there are some situations where they could be liable for prosecution. Now, and I am not a lawyer, so this is an interpretation, not absolute fact - Two 16 year olds could legally have sex on a military base even in a state which had a higher age of consent, because on military property military rather than state laws apply. However if one of the 16 year olds, engaging in intercourse, is a civilian resident of that state and the sex takes place in a hotel, where the military does not have jurisdiction then there is the potential for the soldier to face a statutory rape charge where the state age of consent is greater than 16. Some states, for instance Florida, allow a modified age of consent where the two participants are of similar age (normally within 4 years) and under these circumstances it would be legal. However two 16 year old civilians could legally engage in sex, even in a state with a higher age of consent, such as Idaho, if they had been legally married in a state which permitted marriage at 16, such as Georgia. Under these circumstances the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution would kick in, requiring that states recognize and honor legally-binding contracts made in other states. It looks to me like a confusing mess and even while most consensual sexual acts are unlikely to attract the attention of the authorities the potential danger remains. Indeed it seems that most US teen road movies should probably include a scene where birth certificates and local legislation is checked before they passionately fall into each other's arms.

To an outsider, this complexity seems unnecessary and counter-productive. Whilst its difficult to imagine states ever being willing to give up their rights to determine most matters, the consequence is a superfluous level of complexity, which benefits only lawyers, when it comes to most matters of regulation in the US. What real sense does it make for Hawaii and Arizona to be the only US states which do not practice Daylight Saving Time (DST)? Whilst I accept the benefit for them is limited, couldn't they make the sacrifice for the sake of uniformity? In some situations where public safety is involved diversity can be dangerous.

For example in the area of seat belt legislation. Whilst there are rare situations where a seat-belt can cause increased difficulty or injury, in the vast majority of cases, it saves lives and so would seem to be desirable. Yet again we find a difference in practice in the states. In 30 states the wearing of a seat-belt is mandatory for the driver and not doing so can lead to prosecution, in 19 further states it is an offense but will only be prosecuted if some other traffic offense is also committed and one state has no law about seat belts at all. Though even the 30 states do not all have the same rules when it comes to back seat passengers also wearing a seat belt.

States rights are important and having access to different options is a benefit for inhabitants in America. It is desirable that people be able to choose a taxation level and a legislative touch, whether lighter or more prescriptive, which suits their personal tastes. Freedom always has an attached price tag though and when the cost is measured in lives it is too high. Seat belt legislation is a good illustration of this. Whether to wear a seat belt or not might be seen as a matter of personal choice, particularly if one is in the back seat. However when that choice impacts, quite literally, others it should not be for a single person to decide. An unrestrained back-seat passenger during a collision will often strike the seat in front of them with such momentum that they dramatically increase the damage to the person in that seat, in many cases severely reducing their survival chances and in some situations causing their death. Whilst many Americans have a fear about federal intrusion, I have seen no evidence that states are any less bureaucratic or inefficient than the federal government. Sometimes we need to be willing to recognize that we are part of a wider society and give up individual rights for the greater good. States need to be willing to do this as much as citizens.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Taste of America

I was recently asked by someone how it was that the USA could have believed that bringing Western-style democracy to Afghanistan could ever be a simple or straightforward process, given its complex tribal makeup and fractious history. What struck me then is that for an understanding of US thought processes one must look to the diet.

According to data produced by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) obesity levels have been steadily rising to the point that between a quarter and a third of Americans are now clinically obese. This probably accounts for increasing levels of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the country and represents a substantial problem. A recent news story illustrated the difficulties, describing how the US military were anticipating being unable to recruit enough people who were considered of a reasonable weight for combat. Whilst America's burger and fries provide an easy target for critics, the love of fried greasy food does contribute a lot towards this increasing weight problem.

Given this, you would imagine that some accommodation would be made in American restaurants for the larger size and weight of their patrons. Yet based on my experience it would seem that most fast-food restaurants, i.e. those most likely to have fixed seating, are designed with anorexics in mind and certainly not the average size American. I am fairly slender and I only just fit behind some of the tables I have encountered. My first thought was this was pure capitalism, seeking to cram in the maximum number of customers so as to generate the largest possible profit. However it didn't explain why Americans, normally so vocal about anything that inconveniences them, would be willing to suffer the torture of being crushed against a table.

Eventually I stumbled on a possible solution. which both accounts for their attitude towards regime change as much as for their being willing to accept too-small restaurant seating. Americans have a natural ability to not see, or to ignore, anything which is not convenient. Size is a matter of considerable embarrassment for Americans. Therefore in order not to cause customers to feel uncomfortable emotionally, restaurant-owners make them physically uncomfortable. Customers simply do not notice how tightly tables are digging against them because if that were the case it would suggest they were overweight, and since no one else is bothered by the table size, this would be a source of great personal embarrassment and shame. Thus when it comes to restaurant seating there is an act of collective amnesia or hypnosis. No one is overweight and no one need be embarrassed - reality has been suitably adjusted.

Where such a substantial adjustment to objective reality can be achieved, the problems of Afghanistan must seem inconsequential. Geographic, religious, tribal and historical issues should be able to be overcome in the same way, simply by ignoring them. Of course, this is not the case and application of this method has led America to many international difficulties, but it is easy to see why the US should think it is an acceptable approach.

Now again we can look to the food for a clue for how America will behave when this methodology fails - brute force. Almost nothing in America tastes of what it would naturally. Americans like variety and expect their needs to be met instantly, whether those are political or nutritional. An American would never think -- Ooo I will have banana today, strawberry tomorrow, nuts on Wednesday, chocolate on Thursday and toffee on Friday. No he will pummel the poor banana into submission, drowning it between strawberry and chocolate and toffee sauces with a final pounding of pecans. Nothing remains of the original flavor of the banana and it has been successfully forced into subservience.

Generally Americans do not like single flavors. A trip to the supermarket will confirm this. The yogurt is banana and strawberry rather than just strawberry, and the juice is orange, pineapple and apple. Now don't get me wrong, combinations of flavors can be extremely tasty and are far from unknown in my country of birth. However never have I encountered them with the frequency that I find here.

Again, Americans desire diversity but expect conformity. The success of McDonalds is the ultimate reflection of this. Through rigid quality control and exact selection of ingredients McDonalds produce a wide menu all of which is essentially tasteless. The flavor comes largely from the sauces and toppings which are then added. It is little wonder that Americans feel a similar technique can be applied to country-building. Pour in enough troops, just as you pour over sauces, and eventually they believe you will get the result you desire.

One other key characteristic of American food is the high presence of sugar, or nowadays high fructose corn syrup. It is said that Americans have a naturally sweet-tooth but it is unclear whether this is simply the result of successive generations being constantly exposed to high levels of sweetness in food. It was one of the aspects of American food I found most surprising when tasting it for the first time, just how much "sugar" was in everything, apples are coated with sugar to give them shine and improve taste, french fries get their golden yellow color from a sugar coating and as for icing over here.. its lethal.. the sugar high it gives me causes me to bounce for hours. Americans like things sweet.. not just their food but their wars too.

Palatability is crucial, whether it is of a meal or a conflict. It must be acceptable to the American tastebuds. This is one reason America spends so much on military research, the ideal American war is one in which no Americans are endangered. The increasing use of military drones is a good example of the direction warfare is heading. No modern president wants to face the level of protest which accompanied the Vietnam War. As long as American casualties are minimized an international conflict is unlikely to face significant protest. That is not to say there will not be voices of dissent still within the country, there will, however as long as large numbers of Americans are not dying it is unlikely to be vocal enough a movement to become mainstream.

Sugar and candy are invariably linked to childhood in the US and I think there is a certain youthful naivety in American attitudes to the rest of the world. Many people I have spoken to in other countries have an image of America as a bully. However I have found the American people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, even if politically somewhat narrow-focussed. Americans, and I think by extension, the United States itself, want to be loved but are afraid they won't be. Perhaps it is a consequence of how the US came into being, but there is a trepidation of dealing with other countries. The US is cautious about being too open and generous because of a fear it will be hurt. It doesn't ask if it is Hot or Not? because it fears the answer. It dreads being the Facebook user with no friends and the Twitterer with no followers. The sugar addiction is a result of this insecurity.

To those who argue in response that there is more to American food than candy and burgers I would agree. However burgers are a symbol of America and this is an image which is officially-cultivated. It is no coincidence that President George W Bush would frequently serve burgers to visiting foreign dignitaries or that one of the first unscheduled public appearances of President Obama and Vice President Biden should be at a burger bar.

Whilst many countries and people have major concerns about genetic modification of food, as practiced and promoted by American company Monsanto, not only are such modified products legal within the US but have been for some time. Generally I am not hearing the same level of alarm within the US that I did outside. Perhaps this is because Americans are so used to modifying flavors of food, by deluging it in sauces and toppings, that further modification, especially one that reduces the price, seems a small step. However applying the same doctrine to international affairs, whilst understandable can prove extremely dangerous. People are not as readily controlled or ignored as ingredients in a meal, and when attempts are made to subdue them they are likely to fight back. Even when victory is achieved there are likely to be long term resentments and hence consequences.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flying the Flag - US Patriotism

The boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds are becoming increasingly blurred. It is possible to spend real dollars on objects which only exist within a specific game or website. One of the pioneers of this approach to gaming is Zynga with its highly popular game Farmville. Earlier today my wife was discussing with me the possibility of buying a set of flags, representing the USA and the country of my birth, for her virtual farm. This was a really cute idea and I was touched deeply by the suggestion. However when she came to purchase them she noticed a marked disparity between these and other virtual objects with no functional use. The flag was 16 Farmville coins, equivalent to 16 real US dollars. Flags granted almost no xp (experience) which is used to progress levels in the game. They were priced significantly higher than many other non-functional objects and there were considerable examples of cheaper items which gave much more xp. It seemed nothing less than a tax on patriotism.

Back in my original country it is only fairly recently that the national flag has had a significant public profile. Obviously it was flown on government (federal) buildings and some publically-funded institutions but ordinary people rarely displayed it. Indeed finding someone wearing a t-shirt with the flag on it meant that you had uncovered either a fascist-sympathizer or an extreme eccentric patriot of the kind only one step away from the strait-jacket. It was one of our greatest mistakes that we let the fascists usurp the flag, turning what should have been a proud symbol of all we stood for, into a representation of everything that revolted us. Our flag stood not for unity but instead divided us with prejudice and hatred.

Therefore it was a surprise to first visit America and find that both the US Flag and State flags were everywhere. Not just on public buildings but stores, particularly car dealerships, schools, and hanging outside the majority of homes. Pretty much every item you can buy in a store you can find a version with Old Glory emblazoned on it. Over here the flag is serious business. There are a detailed set of regulations, known as The Flag Code, which cover its display and general usage. The Flag code is law but its provisions are only binding on federal and military institutions and officials rather than private citizens. However some citizens and websites seek to enforce the code by drawing attention to infrigements. Ironically most commercial uses of the flag image are prohibited by the code, though these are widespread.

The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing - The Flag Code, section 8(j)

Americans are proud of their country and rightly so. It is good so see their pride in what the flag stands for. However their patriotism is one of the most misunderstood aspects of their culture when it comes to how they are viewed by the rest of the world. "God Bless America" signs are common here reflecting simply a general sense of pride and patriotism. However because the signs mention America, and only America, for some they reinforce a perception of the country as isolationist and aggressive. For them the missing lines from the message are ".. and only America.. and shit on the rest of you". This is unfair but it is a difficult perception to challenge particularly when the US is deemed to be utilizing its military and economic might to enforce its will on smaller countries.

There is much about patriotism which is positive. However it is important to recognize that it can be divisive. Excessive zeal can be scary and I have encountered this side of American patriotism personally and I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

I was in the USA visiting a friend who had a child at Sherrod Elementary School who was playing in a concert that night. There was a break for a meal during which a small ceremony took place with students marching behind the US Flag. Now Texas law requires the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance a decision which is not without controversy. The ceremony ended with the speaking of the pledge. For a few moments I was phased, I had encountered nothing like this in my country and I was not sure how to respond as the parents started rising to their feet and speaking.

After a moment of reflection I decided it was not appropriate for me to participate in any way in the ceremony. I was not a citizen of the United States and hence was not in a position legally to pledge anything to it. If I were to join in, speaking meaningless and non-binding words, for me it diluted the genuine sentiment of the other participants. Having made my decision I kept my mouth tightly closed and became aware a few seconds later that a number of the parents were glaring intently at me. This probably wasn't my most embarrassing moment in the US, but it definitely was the one that I, a guest in the country, felt most uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Doubtless the parents felt that I was being disrespectful but I do not feel that I was. This was not my country or my flag. I think I would have set a worse example for their children if I showed them it was acceptable to speak oaths without conviction. When I hear something like the Pledge, I make the assumption this is not the simple repeating of text learned by rote, but words that have been closely analysed and reflecting sentiments that are held deeply.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Tebbit Test

A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are? - Norman Tebbit

This loyalty test for immigrants was proposed by UK Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit in an interview with the Los Angeles Times back in 1990. Tebbit was not a man for whom there were shades of grey. For him there is pretty much only one acceptable option - an immigrant cheering for their new country. Anything else would be considered disloyalty and reflect an unwillingness to fully integrate oneself. I am not sure though the issue is as simple as Tebbit makes it sound.

Now its not exactly the best test for me as I am hardly an active sports fan. Cruel and unnatural punishments are banned here and am hoping that includes watching Cricket. Lately though, I have been giving his test some thought after learning that the USA will be playing against my former country of residence in the soccer World Cup.

Whilst I know that I will have no difficulty hoping for a USA victory. It isn’t as simple as Tebbit made it sound, supporting one team isn’t a rejection of the other, nor of old values or beliefs. Should the country of my birth win, then I can still be elated by a good performance on their part. Soccer is big there, and it is a long time since they had any real success. Hence I can appreciate the joy victory would bring to many people. Equally because the US is not regarded as a major soccer-playing nation, losing to us will be a significant blow to their psyche and a cause of much depression.

Yet at the same time I can hope for the USA to win, reveling in an understanding of what a victory would mean for the popularity of what is actually very much a minority sport in the United States. My original country pretty much expects to win, viewing it as a relatively easy match. Whereas any USA victories in the competition will be unexpected and as such a source of great delight here. The fact is that America revels in success, and a sport can do much to raise its profile simply by winning. When the US beat the mighty Spain in a soccer match last year, suddenly I found people with no previous interest in the sport were talking about it.

Based on pure logic then it seems that a USA victory will do the greater good and I do tend to be a person guided by argument and reason. However this also makes it difficult for me to fully accept the concept of cheering for the USA as my home country - as legally, it is not. Though, those I communicate with, outside the US, view me as an American, I regard myself as "a person currently legally resident in the USA" which is my official status. I have one more immigration obstacle to overcome, later in the year, to prove that my marriage is genuine so as to be granted (permanent) permanent resident status rather than the (temporary) permanent resident status I still have. Whilst it is a real marriage and I should be approved, it is difficult not to look out the window and think that this could soon all be taken away.

I am also by nature a workaholic. Work defined and drove me previously. Here I have currently been unsuccessful finding work. Now I realize it is not personal. This is a very difficult time for the economy and a lot of people are unemployed. I don't have a work record here, my qualifications and the organizations in my resume are all unknown over here. Hiring me would be a leap in the dark for an employer. However despite knowing that, it still feels like a lack of acceptance. People cannot expect you to enthusiastically cheer for a country that is keeping you at arms length.

The Tebbit test is based on a straightforward assumption which does not reflect the full complexity of life as an immigrant. Immigration is a gradual process of acclimatization. Like all relationships that with a country changes and deepens over time. Supporting the USA in sport is a conscious decision but sport is about emotion not logic. The individual members of the USA team are unknowns .. just names .. and it is difficult to feel passion for people you have no background for. It is not fair to expect me not to feel excitement at a goal scored by people who I have grown up with, and whose careers I have followed over many years, even when they are the opposition.

Having made a decision to live here, the USA are my team and the country has my support, whether in sport or war. However the emotional ties to the country are still developing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cult of Stupidity

In no other nation on Earth is there the same celebration of ignorance as in the USA. On continental Europe there is an aspiration amongst most people that you talk to, to improve themselves, to better their education and enhance their possibilities. Where someone is ignorant of a fact there is embarassment. In the US however those who study are seen as geeks or nerds, the unpopular kids who no one wants to be. Here an academic credit may be earned not just through study but other tasks such as helping a school with its fundraising. A television presenter with a degree pretends not to understand terms like "double whammy" because it is perceived as bringing her more in touch with her audience. In the US it is perfectly acceptable for a Senator to say that he hasn't read something which he is condemning, even if that is a piece of proposed legislation and it would seem reasonable to think it was his job to read it.

My concerns with the effects of this attitude are typified by the song, Have You Forgotten?. The whole Iraq/Afghanistan war and the War on Terror is a complex situation here grossly oversimplified. After 9/11 there was enormous sympathy for the USA across the rest of the planet, France's Le Monde newspaper famously declared "We are all Americans now" reflecting the sense of universal humanity and grief which was felt. Yes there were a few who produced anti-American banners and celebrated but they were generally as typical of their countries as those in the US who believe the President is controlled from Mars.

By its subsequent actions the US squandered all this good will. Many people opposed the Iraq and Afghan wars not because they had forgotten about 9/11 or didn't care but because the response was not going to be effective.

Politicians love buzz words and catch phrases. The "War on Terror" is a fine example of a meme which has emotional appeal but no practical meaning. You cannot declare war on abstract concepts. You can only declare war on a specific enemy with specific goals which are achievable. Now that may seem an academic distinction but if you do not have a specific achievable goal what you will be doing is pouring billions of dollars into a never ending conflict. Al-Qaeda is a many tentacled beast, not so much a single organization but a loose coalition of numerous subversive groups all with their own agendas. It is never going to be defeated militarily because as long as there is the alienation which drove people into extreme measures in the first place, for each terrorist cut down another will take his place. Indeed each Abu Ghraib photo provides a better recruiting tool for the terrorists than any number of speeches by Bin Laden.

Though no US politician will ever dare say it, there is only one way that peace will come with the Islamic terrorists and that is through dialog. Right now its unthinkable, and many would see it as an insult to the 9/11 dead, but there are many just as unlikely examples. Sein Fein is now part of the government of Ireland but was the political wing of, and very closely allied to, the outlawed terrorist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Some who are now Ministers in government were almost certainly on the governing council of a terrorist organization. Ian Paisley long time leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was such a fierce critic and enemy of Sein Fein he wouldn't allow himself to be present in the same building as one of its spokesmen, but he forced himself to make peace and work with Sein Fein to form a government when the people of Northern Ireland elected both parties to power. The number killed during the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland actually exceeds the 9/11 death toll though of course these died over many years rather than on a single day. However the effect on families, the sons and daughters deprived of parents etc, the hatred towards those who caused their deaths, is no less intense. Nelson Mandela, almost universally hailed now as a man of peace and reconciliation was convicted as a terrorist by the government of South Africa. In his own words:

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Now I don't disagree with Worley that there are things worth fighting for and being willing to stand up for what you believe in is a long-running theme in country music. However the Coward of the County did at least have the right targets.

Saddam Hussein was not a nice man. He was the latest in a long line of oppressive rulers originally supported and even trained by the US who subsequently turned against them, a list which includes General Noreiga. Saddam oppressed his people, was cruel and brutal and certainly deserved to the toppled. However Turkey which the US cultivated, since it needed a Muslim ally, is guilty of not-disimiliar human rights abuses. Now if the US wanted to take the World Policeman role, removing evil dictators, I would not necessarily be opposed, however it would have to do it consistently and there is a very isolationist strand in US politics which could never accept this. Invading Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. America may well have had unfinished business with Saddam but he was not a supporter of al-Qaeda and indeed the organization was not even present in Iraq until after the American invasion. In contrast al-Qaeda was operating out of Afghanistan though of the two conflicts this one received the least resources and troops.

Ironically the ultimate failure of the War on Terror was not a surprise to many people in America. There were experts in the middle east in American Universities who forecast correctly the many problems that would be faced and the likely negative consequences. However the Cult of Stupidity which didn't want to analyse the real issues challenged every dissenting voice as un-American and unpatriotic. The United States was founded on the concept of Freedom. The Framers of the Constitution went out of their way to build in safeguards against state control and tyranny. Challenging your government is probably the most American thing that someone can do. Yet the freedom of Universities to debate these issues in an informed way came under considerable pressure from those who styled themselves as patriots. Professor Brian Foley set out in some detail many of the issues involved in the American invasion of Iraq and why education was the best way to prevent it happening again.

Recently someone sent me an email regarding a stamp being issued by the US Post Office which celebrates the Islamic Festival of Eid. The email urged me to protest at this stating it was an insult to those who died in 9/11. More details of the stamp and some of the falsehoods in the emails about it are to be found at I find these emails and the attitudes of those behind them extremely depressing. One of the great strengths of the US has always been its ability to be the universal melting pot, welcoming immigrants and integrating its culture with theirs. In my experience Muslims in Europe tell you they are Muslim first and their loyalty to their country of residence is definitely second. Muslims here normally tell you that they are Americans first and foremost and proud of their country. It is that difference in attitude which has helped keep America safe. Until the Fort Hood shootings, which occurred long after the invasion of Iraq and may well have been a consequence, all the major acts of Islamic terorism in the US were perpetrated by imported radicals. For example the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi Arabian and Richard Reid (The Shoe Bomber) was British. American Muslims were generally not receptive to extremist propaganda because they knew what the reality of their country was and felt they were treated with respect.

Islam is a legitimate religion the vast majority of whose adherents are peaceful. Some of its attitudes and beliefs are challenging for Westerners to take, but it needs to be recognized as being where Christianity was 600 years ago, back when devout priests wore hair shirts and whipped themselves. Those who are sent off to die in its name are also victims; the victims of evil imams who manipulate the text of their holy book in order to achieve their goals and persuade others to die to enact their prejudices. Overcoming the instinct of self preservation is not a quick process, it requires the recognition of a vulnerability, the slow exploitation of that, carefully feeding propaganda over an extended period to the point to persuade a person to sign up for an extreme cause. Once motivated usually by anger and fear, the victim is sent for training, actually a period of extended isolation where wholly under the control and influence of the extremists they are fed a wholly distorted picture of the West, of its actions, motivations and threat, with no outside sources available to challenge it. In this way the trainers exploit the innocence and ignorance of their victims. Finally they are convinced that killing themselves in this cause is their holy duty and the only way they can protect their families and the values of their religion. It is one of the ironies that the American people and the suicide terrorists who are prepared to attack them are actually probably in equal ignorance of each other.

The Muslim festival Eid simply marks the end of Ramadan and a period of fasting. It is thus a time of spirituality including values like forgiveness and generosity, with the giving of gifts. It has nothing to do with celebrating terrorism. The stamp which caused so much controversy is just another in an already established pattern of recognizing religious festivals across the world.

A cold-hearted killer is a cold-hearted killer, whether they claim some religious justification for their actions or not. It would be more accurate to refer to the September 11 perpetrators as "terrorists who were Muslim" rather than "Muslim terrorists" just as the IRA could be called "terrorists who were Christian". The vast majority of Muslims around the world condemned the events of September 11th. Most American Muslims would be as horrified by a stamp honoring its perpetrators as those who sent these ridiculous emails. The stamp is simply respecting another culture. However all those who believed the emails and didn't bother to do any research of the facts before sending it on, actually helped the terrorists, making Muslims feel separate and disrespected. The xenophobic over-reaction which the emails marked showed the very worst of America and the very side which the extremists love to portray.

It is easy to be led down the path of gut reaction to events but we must let the head rule the heart. I respect both the US troops and those like Darryl Worley who go out to support and entertain them. It is the gift of all soldiers to us though that they do not question. They go where we tell them and do what we ask of them. We owe it to them to chose conflicts wisely so those that do have to lay down their lives do it for a worthwhile cause.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Obama and the Hawaii Birth Certificate Question

A great deal of time and energy has been devoted to the question of President Obama's birth certificate and whether or not he was indeed born in the USA. One question however remains - why?

You may think the answer is obvious, the US Constitution states clearly

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Therefore according to US law only someone born within the USA can be President. This was probably a very sensible precaution in the 1700s. The Republic was recently established and still faced a lot of opposition. There is probably no force on this planet more devious or ruthless than the British nobility and it seemed likely that they would not accept defeat in war lightly. Indeed that they would do something to undermine the new regime was a serious threat and hence taking steps to limit spies and infiltrators was a wise move.

The question however remains why that provision is still in place today. The Framers of the Constitution were not opposed to those who became Citizens after being born elsewhere, otherwise why include that clause "At the time of the adoption of this Constitution"? There is a technical difficulty in that everyone in the US at that time was officially born as the subject of a foreign power and this provision therefore permitted its immediate adoption and execution rather than having to wait 35 years for a person eligible to become President to be born and reach the required age. However I think it was more than that, the Framers were concise and precise with language. If they wanted to they could have limited eligibility to only those born within the geographical area of what was to become the United States but they did not. Anyone who was a Citizen of the US was eligible to stand for President at the time the Constitution was formally adopted regardless of where they were born.

When you think about it, any person meeting that qualification had already proven their loyalty. They had adopted America as their home country and had been involved in a conflict with a foreign power to win independence. It seems only right they should be permitted to stand for the Presidency. Yet everyone who entered the US after that date or became a Citizen must be viewed with a certain caution and suspicion. There was a possibility of foreign agents usurping the political process and it was prudent to prevent this happening. Does such provision really need to be in place today though?

The Queen of England has surrendered a large amount of foreign territory during her reign, much of it peaceably. It is inconceivable that Britain would now seek to gain political control of the US and reverse independence. The UK is a staunch ally of the US during all recent conflicts including Afghanistan and Iraq. However when it comes to size and influence the UK is now very much the junior partner. No one could imagine it taking the US back either militarily or by political interference. Even if in 1787 the UK had the resources to fund a network of spies and infiltrators it no longer does being in the midst of an economic melt down. When the former Chief Secretary to its Treasury wrote there was no money.. he was only partially joking. So the UK is no threat. The US is no longer a new country, it is the only surviving Superpower, unrivalled across the planet, a shining beacon of democracy .. except when it comes to choosing its leader.

If in a couple of years time, I take the Citizenship examination and finally the oath, I will be pledging myself mind and soul to my new country, I will be giving myself wholly to America. However America will not be giving itself to me. I will always be a second class citizen with one key right denied me compared to those who were born here. Now I have no desire to be President but this denial irks me because of its symbolic importance more than its practical effect. It sends a message to the rest of the world that America is still afraid of them. That Americans can never wholly accept and be at peace with someone who was not born there.

Send Moon Buggy

One thing that the rest of the world pretty much accepts as a given about the USA is its passionate affair with the motor vehicle. We know that any serious attempt to tackle climate change will involve prying the Americans away from their cars which will be no easy task. Here the car is more than a simple means of getting from one place to another - it is a statement of identity, a rite of passage and a retreat from the troubles of the world.

Therefore it is a shock to actually arrive here and find out that whilst there may certainly be passion in the relationship with the car, there is not fidelity. No, there is something else Americans love even more - low taxes.

This discrepancy between their two passions becomes clear when first confronted by American roads. I thought those of my former country were in a fairly bad state of repair until I beheld the horror that is the American road. All those songs and movies which exalted the joy of foot on the gas peddle zooming along the open road, somehow neglected to mention swerving to avoid the gaping cracks in the road surface which would not appear out of place in a disaster movie depicting the end of the world, or indeed the massive craters which could themselves easily pass for a lunar landscape.

Sensing my incredulity on first confrontation with the pathway to the abyss, my American companion explained that they desired to pay the minimum possible in taxes which left very little money spare for projects like maintaining the roads. Back in my original country a road in this state would have been immediately closed for attention but here it was unlikely to raise any concerns until at least two vehicles vanished into it never to be seen again

Kagan is Here - Unleash the Lions!

Amongst people I talk to it is often assumed that once the Roman emperors embraced Christianity the cruelty of the gladiatorial games were brought to an end. Sadly the Christian emperors marked a period of deterioration of the Empire and in order to distract their people from this crumbling edifice they were forced to provide more and bloodier games than those that went before. I can only assume that Senate confirmation hearings serve much the same function since they appear to have little to do with actually determining suitability for the post.

An outside observer would assume that the purpose of the hearings was to question views on a number of areas of judicial debate. However in one of those uniquely American conventions, the candidate is permitted to answer any such question with a short statement saying that since such an case might come up before the Supreme Court they do not wish to offer a judgement without first hearing the facts of the issue. This is a reasonable response but renders almost entirely pointless the hearing process.

Also since Supreme Court appointments are for life, there is no accountability once in post and so the hearing appears to be a simple hurdle with the candidate saying simply whatever they believes will get them to office, regardless of whether or not they actually believe it. This is the ultimate in what George Orwell in 1984 called Doublethink.

to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them

The frustration of Senators with this lack of accountability was clear during the Sottomayer confirmation where several of them drew attention to discrepancies between the testimony offered by Justice Alito and Roberts and how they had subsequently behaved when they reached the Court.

On first hearing about Sotomayer I felt she was an inspiring choice, however my respect for her considerably diminished during the hearings, as at every single opportunity she contradicted her earlier clearly stated opinions. Though she was a clearly intellectual person with excellent communication skills the audience were expected to believe that when she wrote she disagreed with X and Y what she actually meant was she agreed with them. Equally when she said she thought foreign law had a part to play in the intellectual stimulation of judges she meant that it had no part to play.

Had just once she stood up and supported and defended an earlier statement I might have thought her worthy but she did not. Our opinions change and evolve over time, what we believe in our twenties is not necessarily the same as we do by the time we reach forty. A view could have been valid at the time it was stated but revised by subsequent experience. This would at least have had a ring of honesty but that she was so poor about expressing herself did not. I would have liked her to have gone further and actually challenged the Senators about the assumptions they were making. Whilst there seems to be a fear of contamination by anything foreign in the US, the framers of the Constitution had no such trepidation when it came to foreign law. The Bill of Rights includes phrases lifted directly from the Magna Carta.

It was noticeable that Senators were rarely present unless they were actually due to speak suggesting they hardly gave the hearing process the high priority one might have thought it should hold. However, in total it gave each of them an unparalleled 45 minutes or so of television time to present themselves to their voters. Hence Senator Cornyn of Texas's narrow focus on the issue of abortion, no doubt an important topic of debate in American politics and life but hardly the only game in town when it comes to determining suitability for a judicial appointment. Both sides knew her confirmation was pretty much a shoe-in and therefore used the occasion to establish their differing positions and attitudes in the mind of the US people.

I hold out little hope that the Kagan hearings will be any different. We have however gone from the most judicially qualified candidate in living memory to probably the least, so there will be a change in approach but I think the mechanism will be ultimately as unsatisfying.

After the Sotomayer hearings I dug out the Constitution to see exactly what it said about this confirmation process. Regarding the Powers of the President

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

As was said during the Sotomayer debate the term "Advice and Consent" is ambiguous since it doesn't say clearly who makes the final determination, the President or Congress. However, that aside we see from this the following are required.

1) The President chooses and names the Candidate
2) S/he must listen to the advice of Congress about the Candidate
3) Congress must give its approval to a candidate (probably with a debate and vote)

Therefore I would like to offer my own alternative mechanism for a Supreme Court appointment.

Under its authority Congress establishes a non-partisan Appointments Office including nominees of each party and the ABA. This Office then determines a long list of candidates based on a variety of factors, including types of law practiced, judicial experience, other political or legislative experience etc. Potential candidates are asked if they are willing for their name to go forward and the list is published (publically). Candidates are rated in each criteria by the Office and a standard set of supporting documentation on each candidate is produced. The President choses their nominee from this list and this then goes to a full debate and vote in Congress. Whilst this is 2,1,3 rather than the 1,2,3 at present I still feel it satisfies the Constitutional niceties and has the benefit of everything being out in the open, Congress simply votes on the candidate they do not have to investigate every aspect of their past performance as that has already been done by the non-partisan Office and it should be far more rapid to move from nomination to approval in most cases. Of course, this is fantasy and will never happen.. but I can dream.

Monday, May 17, 2010


This isn't a blog about immigration, it is the blog of someone who is an immigrant. However with immigration currently a major issue thanks to the recent passing of legislation in Arizona I would be remiss if I ignored the topic.

In truth I don't know fully how I feel about the Arizona decision. I recognize they have a problem and they feel this is a solution. I want to believe that caring thoughtful people have gathered all the data that is unavailable to me and have made a careful and reasoned determination that this is the best of all possible solutions. What however I fear is this is simply politicians responding to a popular bandwagon for electoral gain.

Leadership is a heavy responsibility and sometimes it is necessary to rise above the frenzied howls of the mob. Yes politicians in a democracy have a duty to listen to concerns but they also must also apply their judgement.

When politicians make rapid responses to serious problems as a result of the outrage of the masses the outcome is the worst of legislation. The UK Dangerous Dogs Act is an excellent example of this. It was created after public horror at a number of high-profile cases of children being attacked by dogs in their homes. Whilst this was horrific it was a small problem and whilst legislation was undoubtedly appropriate what happened was that it was rushed through ignoring all the highly valid concerns which were raised. Hence numerous entirely innocent and placid family pets were slaughtered as a result for no other reason than they happened to belong to a breed targeted by the act. Moreover large amounts of court time and resources were wasted with judges having to determine whether crossbreeds contained significant percentages of the banned breeds.

My fear is that the Arizona legislation falls into the same category. I am here legally and after spending many thousands of dollars and dealing with a mass of paperwork to get to the USA. I have no natural sympathy for the illegal immigrant.

Existing US legislation requires us to keep our green cards on us at all times though I did run into a slight problem with my wife refusing to let me carry the card during sex. I am not sure how Homeland Security/USCIS feels about this but the fact it is even an issue reflects how powerless we immigrants can feel. I am reasonably intelligent and erudite yet when it comes to facing up to Homeland Security I turn into a quivering lump of jello. I clearly remember watching the Tom Hanks comedy movie, Terminal, and registering fear every time the black uniforms of Homeland Security staff came on the screen. It isn't that I have been treated badly by them. In my experience they are caring and thorough professionals who do a difficult job very well but the relative difference in the power levels between them and me is terrifying. When you know someone can stop you entering the country or have you deported, it is very difficult not to feel fear. When thinking of the difference between the two power levels in the relationship I am reminded of flies and boys in the Thomas Hardy quotation.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport

It is not that Homeland Security toy with us in this way, but simply the terror that they could.

There is therefore already legislation in place which requires immigrants to keep and produce documentation of their status. The only thing that I can see that the Arizona legislation adds to it is the ability to challenge people based solely on suspicion of their status. It is one thing to require those who have been stopped by law enforcement on reasonable grounds of some other crime in progress to show whether or not they are in the country legally, it is another entirely to stop people because you believe they might not be.

I am an immigrant. I am white and have a degree. I am here legally but passing me on the street you wouldn't know that. I probably wouldn't raise any suspicions at all under most circumstances and that is my concern with this legislation. All "suspicion" based laws are flawed because they open up the opportunity for personal prejudices and even where this is not the case in practice, there is always the fear that it is - something which is almost impossible to disprove. Hence it leads to a feeling of distrust between some parts of society and the police. Hence such legislation is divisive. A good example of this are the Sus Laws of the UK in the 1970s which were widely blamed for causing popular unrest.

My fear is that the Arizona legislation will do the same. It is only a few months since an incident with a Harvard professor and a police officer, in which the President got involved, which arose from a perception of racial profiling. If a middle-class, highly educated and well paid black man can be so distrustful of law professionals and concerned about racial profiling, how much more intense can the fear be amongst the more vulnerable and low-paid members of society?

Health Care

Back in my original country, some lunchtimes I would leave my office in the heart of the business district of the city and head for the nearest Subway restaurant. Inside it was a factory.

You would give your order explaining clearly what your desired toppings were, whilst your sandwich moved rapidly down the line to where three female employees scattered components over it in a constant and unchanging pattern. Hence what you actually ended up with had no relation to what you had ordered but it happened so quickly that you felt far too guilty about disturbing the smooth operation of the automated production line to complain. Eating for the first time in a US Subway was therefore a major revelation. The employee not only served me what I had asked for but placed the items on the bread carefully and in sufficient quantities that suggested they had considered my nutritional needs rather than what they happened to have in their fingers at that moment. Seeing my consternation my US friend explained that Americans expected good service and were not afraid to speak up when they didn't get it. Service providers therefore learned to raise their standards or could not expect to stay in business.

I have never seen the TV program Flashforward, and since it has been cancelled probably never will. However from observing my wife watching it I have gathered enough to understand that it depicts a moment in time when the whole population was put briefly to sleep and they woke up to find some terrible event or disaster would soon be upon them. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion it is a documentary which depicts the moment when the US Health Care system came into being. I cannot believe such a discerning nation could have done anything other than sleepwalked their way into such a terrible system.

My criticism is not of medical professionals, I have huge respect for their training and dedication. No, my horror is at the administration and insurance side of health care.

I have medical insurance. I count myself lucky in that regard. I also count myself largely penniless since on just about every occasion the medical insurance company wriggled out of paying for last year's claims.

How is it that a nation that can perform the miracle of getting the food they want out of Subway can lose all sense of judgement when it comes to their own health? How did they convince you that medical tests are something you should be paying for separately and not an essential and hence integral part of the medical visit? Are American libraries full of covers with no pages? When Americans buy a truck do they expect to get a separate bill weeks later for the wheels?

Whilst I still find it a little surprising to find sales tax is not integrated into prices, so a ticket says one price but you pay another, at least once you leave the checkout having made payment the process is final. With health care one never has any certainty over price thanks both to the financial gymnastics of the insurance companies and the deviousness of the invoicing process.

Just after Christmas I paid a short visit to a hospital thanks to a small infection. It wasn't a particularly long or complex visit, no tests needed to be done and the doctor quickly diagnosed me and wrote an appropriate script. A month or so later a bill for roughly sixty dollars turned up and we paid it. Recently another bill for the same visit surfaced this one for several hundred additional dollars. I was horrified but my wife was not surprised and assured me this was far from unusual.

I am no doubt that Health Care reform is long overdue and urgently required. I don't honestly know if the recent Act is a good or bad thing, it was so much amended and sabotaged by interest groups and bulked out with the pork which is a depressingly normal part of the political process here. I am sure it could be done with less words much more successfully. A simple provision giving the CEO of the medical insurance company 50,000 volts for every time they are found to have unreasonably denied a valid claim would work wonders for instance.

Me? An Immigrant?

It has been over two years since I arrived in the US and I still find it difficult to accept the concept of me as an immigrant.

We are not immigrants. They are those other people .. the ones who come from outside to take our jobs and wreck our way of life. Every time I think back to political discussions of immigration it was always portrayed as a problem. The statistics were about the numbers incoming, never about those leaving. Immigrants were always a threat and never an opportunity.

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely recognize and support the right of any country to control immigration. There are two main issues, the first is budgetary, there is an administrative overhead and an increased demand on services caused by immigration. The second is political, it is only natural that large numbers of newcomers with different culture will make the native population feel uneasy. One of the most sensitive treatments of this is depicted in Tony Harrison's poem V.

House after house FOR SALE where we'd played cricket
with white roses cut from flour-sacks on our caps,
with stumps chalked on the coal-grate for our wicket,
and every one bought now by 'coloured chaps',

dad's most liberal label as he felt
squeezed by the unfamiliar, and fear
of foreign food and faces, when he smelt
curry in the shop where he'd bought beer.

I have always supported immigration. At a simple biological level it renews the gene pool but more than that it brings in different outlooks, traditions and skills. It offers all of us the chance to learn from each other and to fuse disparate components into a single united whole. I understand why some people fear immigrants but believe they are wrong. Anything new will always bring some level of disruption but we should not fear chaos. The shaking up of established order is not necessarily negative. It can prevent stagnation and offer opportunity for renewal. Once viewed as wholly destructive, scientists are increasingly realizing that phenomena such as floods and forest fires are often a natural mechanism to offer diversity and fresh growth ... it may arise from destruction but the outcome can be very desirable. We all like order and routine and so when something new appears it is natural to be wary if it threatens change to our existing way of life. We should not however fear the new but be prepared to embrace it. The joy of life is that it is constantly in a state of change.