Thursday, September 28, 2006

Ice Cream Truck Days, No More!

[ICT #016 rounds third and heads for home]

The content at Words Matter, and before that, my blog at the original WriteforYou site (courtesy of my first web developer, Chris Dunn and Techmaster) has been a total Jim Baumer production, save for a very occasional "cut and paste" job from some other publication, or even rarer, a book excerpt. Actually, I included a very humorous email that my wife, Mary, wrote, once.

Of late, despite an earlier vow to get away from the ponderous, self-important essays and rants I find myself given to when I blog, I've found myself drifting toward the pull of political issues, once more. I guess we must be getting close to an election, eh?

As a way of providing some comic relief, I've decided to include an essay from a young writer I'm extremely proud of and have high hopes for. After having spent many afternoons and nights over the past 14 or so years exuding pride and admiration for my son's skills at both hitting and catching a baseball, I now turn my esteem towards another area of skill that he has--his writing.

Without any further ado, I give you, Mark Baumer.

The Ice Cream Truck Movie
by, Mark Baumer

The movie is called Ice Cream 6-28-2006. It is an Everyday Yeah Production in association with Baumerworld Projects. The official name for the movie is, Ice Cream Truck: signs of the time when tomorrow is a new day and the glory is ending.

The movie starts with a short monologue, “I am Mark Baumer and today is the last day of Ice Cream Truck.”

As you can guess the movie is about my last day driving an ice cream truck. I was saying goodbye. The movie documents the highlights of the day.

The footage then cuts to me on my way to work driving in my 1984 Pontiac Parisienne. It was an overcast day. It was tough knowing that today would be my last day and that I wouldn’t be coming back. I had already severed any ties I had left with the business after 1 ½ summers manning the wheel of the ice cream trucks. Just three days earlier I had broken the news that today would be my last day. The managers were upset that I had given them such short notice.

I was working in Brunswick, Maine that day. I wasn’t expecting big numbers, cash wise, because it was misting out, but I didn’t really care about the weather at that point. The ride from South Portland to Brunswick was usually a long one, 45 minutes to an hour. So I took the opportunity to grab a snow cone, kick back and enjoy the ride. The footage shown while I eat the snow cone is interesting because not only am I eating the snow cone, but I’m talking about the experience. On top of that I’m driving the ice cream truck which means I was handling four activities at once: I was driving, eating a snow cone, talking about eating a snow cone and filming myself as I talked about eating a snow cone.

About this time, I let the audience know that it was quarter to 11, that’s AM. I took a bite of the snow cone and you can hear the scrape and crunch as my teeth dig into the frozen flavored ice.

Flash to the next clip where I’m telling the audience that I’m finished with my snow cone.

Let’s take a little more time to talk about snow cones. The snow cone from the movie was very tasty. I was used to the kind of snow cone that is enjoyable to eat. I believe this snow cone was a Blue Bunny product, an American Ice Cream brand of the highest class. This snow cone was more than just lightly flavored ice. There was a spark of flavor in each bite.

The snow cone that I had during a recent visit to Minnesota, on the other hand, was very disappointing; I would venture to say that it was the biggest disappointment of my life. There was no taste to it. The flavor of frozen water overpowered the taste of artificial flavoring, if that’s possible. It was like eating ice cubes dipped in highly diluted kool-aid. I almost wonder if any artificial flavoring was even added. I wouldn’t be surprised if only artificial coloring was added. In any case, I recommend staying away from snow cones if you ever visit Minnesota.

Let’s get back to the movie. There is a nice scene where footage of me whistling runs into video and sounds of a guy weedwacking. We are still on the road to Brunswick. On this road to Brunswick we cross a giant wooden Indian located on the Freeport/Yarmouth border. Footage of this Indian is coupled with the following commentary, “Look at this giant Indian coming up. It’s so big. Big Indian. Imagine if all Indians were that big; we would have never conquered them. They would have just eaten us when we came to this country.” The movie isn’t lying. The Indian is very big. It stands over 30 feet tall; a force to be reckoned with for any pilgrim or conqueror.

As the ice cream truck drives through the town of Freeport screams can be heard. The footage shows people startled as they see the passing ice cream truck and here the driver yell, “Just in case you do not know what I am doing; I am driving an ice cream truck!” I think these people like me. They like me a lot. People like ice cream. They must like me. Their expressions tell the whole story.

In the Brunswick area rain falls. Puddles are shown filling up and the windshield wipers whip back and forth on the truck’s windshield. It would be a short day. I would soon get a call from my manager to return to the office. A half day on my last day wouldn’t leave me complaining. I would only end up making $40 for the day, but it would be more than some drivers ended up pulling in.

As the rain fell, and before I got the call to come back to the office, I decided to pull over and do a little taste testing on camera. I started with the Strawberry Burst Big Dipper. 12 grams of fat, 230 calories, 37 grams of carbs, and three grams of protein. After one bite I turned away from the camera and claimed it tasted awful. That’s what you call acting. It actually didn’t taste that bad. I was playing it up for the camera and no one in the audience knew, until now. I drove home the point of the awful taste by spitting the mouthful of strawberry burst into the wrapper before throwing it away in a trash can located off camera.

Next was a little cotton candy action: The cotton candy bar. I expected this to be soft and fluffy like actual cotton candy, but as the footage shows I almost broke my tooth biting into the bar. I was disappointed that none of these ice creams allowed me to connect with my inner child.

Bugs bunny followed. I bit off the ears of the cartoon legend. Note about bugs: his gumball eyes make him look like an alien. “Are you from Mars?”

Bugs actually tasted good, a swirl of mixed berry and orange sherbet. The maximum number of these ice creams I could eat in ten minutes would be eight unless one-million dollars was riding on those ten minutes then I could eat 15.

Spongebob Squarepants the ice cream was the second biggest disappointment of my life next to the snow cones in Minnesota. His gumball eyes made him look scared. None of these ice creams look happy to be eaten. I think that’s why kids are so violent these days. Don’t ask me why I think this, it’s just a hunch. Spongebob, though, was the worst tasting ice cream by far. You can see this on the video as my eyes change from playful to disgust as I take my first bite. I find it hard to believe little kids would want to eat this bland flavored cartoon. Maybe the developing team was confused and didn’t realize Spongebob wasn’t suppose to taste like a sponge.

King Kong was last the last ice cream I tried. He was just a big blueberry tasting gorilla face and no more.

A quick note about these ice creams: none of them are garglable (if that’s a word). What I mean is, you can’t gargle with these ice creams. So it’s not worth trying to gargle with these ice creams after you brush your teeth.

The next section in the movie is a religious chant or trance of sorts as I find myself yelling, “Ice cream trucks go where they want,” a dozen or so times.

This leads to me telling the camera, “I’m furious right now because I don’t think you understand that ice cream trucks go where they want!”

This fades to a somber moment as the yelling runs into a Nelly Furtado song, “All Good Things” and the dedication of the movie is shown, “In memory to all ice cream trucks put to rest in fields around the world.”

A poorly constructed photo montage ends the movie as the music continues playing. Pictures of the ice cream truck are shown in various locations: in a graveyard, next to a giant American flag painted on a grocery store, on a baseball field, next to dump trucks and trains, in nature, and at a church among other things. These photos close out the movie.

Thank you ice cream truck # 016.

As the music fades and the last picture is shown the following words are spoken, “Ice cream trucks, they do what they want. They can be called people too.” And that’s the ice cream movie. Don’t expect a sequel.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Politics: Local and personal

TABOR (The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights for those of you in Maine, living under a rock), is this year's lightning-rod issue, up here in Maine-ayuh!

Here's a pertinent article that appeared in Tuesday's Portland Press Herald, by Elbert Aull. There are a myriad of accompanying comments if you read it online. I especially appreciated Howard's, of Biddeford.

TABOR losing support, poll finds

Portland Press Herald
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
by, Elbert Aull, Staff Writer

Support for the so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights, a measure that will be voted on in November, has decreased since July, according to a poll of 400 Maine voters released Monday.
The Strategic Marketing Services poll taken this month showed that supporters of TABOR, the proposal's common name, still have an edge, but opponents have closed the gap since the firm's previous survey in July.

The poll also showed an increase in undecided voters, which observers said may be the result of conflicting information from interest groups on both sides of the debate.

"At this point in the game, confusion means the voters are paying attention," said political scientist Ronald Schmidt, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Roughly one-fourth of those surveyed said they did not know how they would vote on TABOR, up from about one-fifth in July. The proposal would tie municipalities' spending increases to factors such as inflation and population changes, but includes a provision that would allow local governments and voters to override the limits.

"We're hearing from municipal governments that this is going to mean slashing budgets. We're hearing from Maine Heritage Policy Center that it's not going to," Schmidt said.

About 42 percent of voters surveyed said they would vote for, or are leaning toward voting for, the measure, down from around 54 percent in July. About 33 percent of voters said they would vote against, or are leaning toward voting against, the proposal, an increase of about 8 percent.

The quarterly poll of 400 registered voters was conducted from Sept. 16 to 21.

Jim Roberts, a retired political scientist who taught at USM, said many voters start to pay closer attention to issues after Labor Day, meaning a chunk of likely voters are still learning about the proposal.

Strategic Marketing Services did not disclose the results of its poll on the gubernatorial race.
Patrick Murphy, the firm's president, said he decided to keep the results private after a flap this summer about past polling work for Gov. John Baldacci.

Critics said his summer poll, which showed Baldacci ahead of all challengers, was tainted by his work for the governor, which the firm disclosed in the introduction to its July results.

"I got beaten up the last time," Murphy said, adding that he understood his critics' point of view. He said he is not connected to pro- or anti-TABOR groups.

The latest poll showed congressional incumbents ahead of their challengers, although 2nd District Democrat Michael Michaud had a double-digit drop in support since the July poll. Support for Michaud was running around 62 percent in the previous poll, compared to approximately 49 percent in the latest sample. Around 14 percent of voters said they support Republican L. Scott D'Amboise, Michaud's challenger, and 37 percent were undecided.

Darlene Curley, the Republican challenger to Democratic Rep. Tom Allen in the 1st District, showed an 11 percent increase in support over the July poll, at almost 22 percent. Approximately 52 percent of voters said they would or would likely vote for Allen, almost 3 percent said they support independent Dexter Kamilewicz and around 23 percent of voters said they were undecided.

The U.S. House polls have a larger margin of error - 7 percent, compared with 4.9 percent in statewide races - because they are based on smaller sample sizes. The firm contacted 206 likely voters in the 1st District and 194 in the 2nd, Murphy said.

Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe had a large lead over Democrat Jean Hay Bright and independent Bill Slavick. Approximately 73 percent of voters surveyed were supportive of Snowe, around 9 percent favored Hay Bright and 2 percent supported Slavick.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Gazing into Maine's future

This past Thursday and Friday, I had the opportunity to attend The Future of Maine’s Economy Conference, at the Augusta Civic Center. This was the second yearly conference put on by the Maine Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and included a diverse sponsorship that ran the gamut from various State of Maine departments, such as labor, education and economic and community development, to the state’s various quasi-governmental organizations like the workforce development boards, as well as community-based non-profits like the Maine Development Foundation, the Mitchell Research Institute and the Finance Authority of Maine.

The first conference, held last year, developed a theme around the importance of technology and education’s role in the development of the Maine economy. This year, the focus was on workforce development’s role in helping to create a state labor force that can meet the challenges of a 21st century global economy.

Several national speakers were brought in, including Peter Bellis who delivered an excellent talk on the importance of integrating the various players that have important roles in moving the state forward, and the necessity of bringing business into the equation, to respond to needs of both the employer and the workforce filling the growing need for highly skilled workers.

Bellis emphasized the importance of accountability, something that gets a lot of lip service, but rarely is realized. It’s important to make investments in our educational systems and state training programs, but there need to be a rigorous set of uniform standards of measurement, so progress and outcomes can be evaluated.

All the speakers spoke of the importance of lifelong learning, and reforming the current system to make this possible. Regardless of one’s views on globalization, its impossible to deny that the world of work has dramatically changed. The skills of the previous century aren’t enough for the increasing complexity required of even entry level employees.

An example of this is traditional manufacturing. While the tendency is to bemoan the loss of jobs to foreign competitors, in Maine, there is a growing need in skilled manufacturing for workers. Part of this is the age of the manufacturing sector in Maine and elsewhere. This need isn’t driven solely by demographics, however.

Laurie Lachance, who has had the distinction of serving under not one governor, or even two, but has served as the state’s chief economist under three various administrations in Augusta. Anyone who understands the fickle winds that blow through politics can appreciate anyone who possesses the value and the skills that she must possess in order to have a resume worthy of three governors attention, not to mention being able to steer clear of the partisan landmines that can spell disaster for the most capable public servant.

As the state’s economist, Lachance managed economic forecasting and has been aware of the trends that affect Maine. Currently, she is serving as the President and CEO of the Maine Development Association, a highly-regarded non-profit, with a broad mandate of promoting sustainable and sensible development in the state.

Lachance gave one of the more uplifting presentations, as she highlighted the companies and the places across the state that have embraced change and technology and as a result, are experiencing dynamic growth. From companies like Formed Fiber Technologies and Tex Tech Industries, both traditional manufacturing firms, who are moving forward with new processes, to become world leaders in their respective fields. She highlighted some of the developments coming from MESDA, with their proposed software testing lab that’s getting ready to launch in Westbrook.

As CEO of MDF, Lachance recognizes the importance of downtowns in Maine’s future. MDF is getting ready to launch another associate program to complement its Maine Street Maine program. This one will be called Square One and focus on smaller communities and downtowns, with Livermore Falls being the first recipient of development funding.

While many conferences of these types can leave one overloaded with task-driven goals and future prospects, Friday’s opening speaker, Denise Bissonnette, made sure her audience understood that all we do in life, whether working or playing, should have a holistic focus.

Bissonnette, who is a poet at heart, presented a narrative-focused talk on “The Art of Creating Opportunity.” This was delivered in the context of helping some of the state’s job developers create new opportunities for their clients. However, Bissonnette’s stories and ability to turn many tasks upside down, had her audience thinking about new possibilities.

With her focus on entrepreneurial approaches at serving clients and geared towards real job creation and thinking “outside the box,” Bissonnette may have been the most important speaker at the conference. Because the tools and questions she presented are oriented towards engaging the talents, as well as focusing on the aspirations of applicants—what is it that your clients are truly passionate about—her talk spoke to some of the core values and issues that under gird anyone tasked to create meaningful work and jobs that value human beings, putting people before mere profits.

While both Thursday and Friday’s sessions included many of the leaders and others working in Maine’s workforce and economic development communities, the one group that was noticeably absent, was the private sector—the leaders in Maine’s business community. Because being able to target their needs and orient education and training to their needs are tantamount for our future as a state, I was curious why more of them weren’t in attendance. I think that MASCD needs to do a better job publicizing the conference, making a real effort to reach out to Maine's business leaders. For some naysayers of conferences, an obvious response might be that they had “better” things to do, with the connotation being that engaging in a conversation about the future of Maine isn’t important.

There were a smattering of Maine’s business community present and I was pleased to see it. I had the privilege of meeting and having some important and beneficial conversations with a lovely mother and daughter team, who thought it important enough to take two days to sit and understand where Maine is headed. Not only did they soak in what was offered, but they were important participants in many of the breakout discussions that were part of our time in Augusta. I know I learned some valuable things from taking the time to talk with them and find out about their companies.

Maine’s trade association leaders from the marine trades, metal manufacturing and software development were there and actively engaged. With Maine’s award of an important federal grant under the WIRED program, the state has some $15 million dollars available to create some 2,000 new jobs in the area of composites, which are tied to Maine’s history and tradition of boatbuilding. I’ve already had an opportunity to be in some key meetings with some of the movers and shakers that will be rolling out this program and I’m very excited about the possibility for this grant in creating some needed jobs, as well as providing Maine with the chance to become a world leader in the composite industry.

We hear a lot of criticism coming from certain quarters in our state about our current administration and how the governor doesn’t understand the needs of Maine. While I’m not hear to champion party politics, attending this conference provided me with a much better understanding of Maine’s needs and how many of our state’s leaders are moving Maine forward in a new and important direction, one that will help us to be well-positioned to be a leader in areas where Maine has often come up short.

It’s easy to take every opportunity to criticize and insist that one’s own party or candidate would do a better job. It’s an entirely different thing to be proactive and roll up one’s sleeves and understand the issues and actually work towards providing some real solutions. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lot of Maine’s more “reactive” types in attendance, the one’s who think the state’s future depends on a “slash and burn” (can you say, TABOR?) approach to taxation, or awarding lucrative contracts to their firm, instead of the firm of their arch-nemisis.

While I’ve certainly not been shy about criticizing people, companies and issues that I’ve felt were detrimental to the people of Maine, I’ve also made the sacrifice of time that is required to get out into the highways and byways of the state and talk to people, in order to understand the issues and develop a clearer understanding of what they are. Better yet, I've actually worked alongside some grassroots organizations for causes related to affordable housing, homelessness and now, I'm having the opportunity to help in creating jobs that pay a living wage. It's now my "job," but that doesn't lessen the possible impact for good that can occur from this new understanding.

I recognize that some, given more to their ideological allegiance than what's in the best interest of Maine people, would prefer to sit behind their mikes, or in front of a camera, or even type away at their keyboards, tilting at state officials (and painting them as the enemy), constantly lobbing criticism their way, rarely, if ever, offering an alternative. If you want to do that, occasionally, you need to leave your little corner of the world and find out that the solutions to your supposed issues facing the state, are not the ones you’ve imagined in your head, or the convenient set of your favorite talking points, courtesy of your favorite talking head. Solutions tend to be more complex, not always easy to enact and more often, than not, take time to evaluated, better suited to the context of four and eight year cycles, rather than the time frame of sound bites, driven by political agendas.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The devil wears a black suit

When Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, made his remarks on Wednesday, calling George W. Bush, "the devil," rather than look at the entire remarks made by Chavez (including his reference to Noam Chomsky's excellent book on American hegemony, urging his listeners to read it), the media, right-wing pundits and even morally bankrupt Democratic leaders, like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, have taken Chavez to task.

In our own state, bereft with a multitude of our own problems, not the least of these being the passage of TABOR in November, GOP legislative leaders are using Chavez' remarks to castigate our own Governor Baldacci, because last winter, in an effort to make sure that Mainers didn't freeze to death, entered into an agreement with Citgo, Venezuela's state-run oil company, to provide low-income Mainers with heating oil. Unlike other U.S.-owned (and no doubt, patriotic) oil companies, who decided to gouge their fellow Americans, rather than practice true economic patriotism, Citgo discounted 8 million gallons of heating oil to states like Maine and went even further by donating 120,000 gallons to 40 state-based homeless shelters.

It's easy to slide down the slope of political grandstanding and use Chavez' remarks to score political points. The GOP in our state, as well as nationwide, have turned opportunities to lead into partisan football.

While Chavez certainly violated the staid protocol of the U.N. General Assembly, where boring speeches predominate, to offer knee-jerk bluster to his remarks overlooks some very real issues that thinking Americans ought to consider about our president, whether he's the "devil," or not.

  • over 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians as a result of our flawed military policies in the Middle East
  • nearly 2,700 dead American soldiers, as well as over 300 American military contractors
  • the Bush Administration's insistence on using torture as an interrogation tool
  • A president who has taken executive powers to the extreme
  • An economic policy combining tax cuts with military spending of over $300 billion!!!, leading us dangerously close to at the best, severe economic recession and at the worst, an economic collapse, based upon insurmountable national debt
  • A longstanding record of hegemonic foreign policy and a quest for imperialistic control of the planet
Rather than castigate Chavez and tilt rightward in their coverage of his remarks, the U.S. media and Bush political apologists should look at the clear evidence that exists that form the basis of the Venezuelan president's remarks. But then, that would require too much thought and Americans have a pretty sorry record of thinking rationally when it comes to its own policies and political interests.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Killing in the name of democracy (Bush edit)

I heard about three clips of the Liar in Chief's speech last night--they sounded like, "war on terrah--stay the course in Iraq and, we 'gotta fight terrah over theyah," or something in close facsimile to that. Rather than share my own keen observations, I'm taking the easy way out and posting something I read by Jim Bovard, a writer I just became aware of.

Here's something that ties in with the Bush drivel from last night. This appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation's website, at the end of August and is worth reprinting.

reprinted from Freedom Daily (August 30, 2006)
by, Jim Bovard

President George W. Bush perpetually invokes the goal of spreading democracy to sanctify his foreign policy. Unfortunately, he is only the latest in a string of presidents who cloaked aggression in idealistic rhetoric. Killing in the name of democracy has a long and sordid history.

The U.S. government’s first experience with forcibly spreading democracy came in the wake of the Spanish-American War. When the U.S. government declared war on Spain in 1898, it pledged it would not annex foreign territory. But after a swift victory, the United States annexed all of the Philippines. As Tony Smith, author of America’s Mission, noted, “Ultimately, the democratization of the Philippines came to be the principal reason the Americans were there; now the United States had a moral purpose to its imperialism and could rest more easily.”

William McKinley proclaimed that in the Philippines the U.S. occupation would “assure the residents in every possible way [of the] full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of a free people, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” He also promised to “Christianize” the Filipinos, as if he did not consider the large number of Filipino Catholics to be Christians. McKinley was devoted to forcibly spreading American values abroad at the same time that he championed high tariffs to stop Americans from buying foreign products.

The “mild sway of justice” worked out very well for Filipino undertakers. The United States Christianized and civilized the Filipinos by authorizing American troops to kill any Filipino male 10 years old and older and by burning down and massacring entire villages. (Filipino resistance fighters also committed atrocities against American soldiers.) Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died as the United States struggled to crush resistance to its rule in a conflict that dragged on for a decade and cost the lives of 4,000 American troops.

Despite the brutal U.S. suppression of the Filipino independence movement, President Bush, in a 2003 speech in Manila, claimed credit for the United States’s having brought democracy to the Philippines: “America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.”

Perhaps Bush believes that subservience to the U.S. government is the highest freedom that any foreign people can attain. His comments illustrated the continual “1984”-style rewriting of American history.

Latin American Interventions

Woodrow Wilson raised tub-thumping for democracy to new levels. As soon as he took office, he began saber-rattling against the Mexican government, outraged that the Mexican president, Victoriano Huerta, had come to power by military force (during the Mexican civil war that broke out in 1910). Wilson announced in May 1914, “They say the Mexicans are not fitted for self-government; and to this I reply that, when properly directed, there is no people not fitted for self-government. ”

This is almost verbatim what Bush has said about Iraqis and other Arabs. And as long as a president praises self-government, many Americans seem oblivious when he oppresses foreigners.

Wilson summarized his Mexican policy: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page explained the U.S. government’s attitude toward Latin America: “The United States will be here 200 years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space until they learn to vote and rule themselves.”

In order to cut off the Mexican government’s tariff revenue, Wilson sent U.S. forces to seize the city of Veracruz, one of the most important Mexican ports. U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Mexicans (while suffering 19 dead) and briefly rallied the Mexican opposition around the Mexican leader.

In 1916, U.S. Marines seized Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. After the United States could not find any Dominican politicians who would accept orders from Washington, it installed its own military government to run the country for eight years. The previous year, the U.S. military had seized control of Haiti and dictated terms to that nation’s president. When local residents rebelled against U.S. rule in 1918, thousands of Haitians were killed. Tony Smith observes, “What makes Wilson’s [Latin American] policy even more annoying is that its primary motive seems to have been to reinforce the self-righteous vanity of the president.”

World War I and II

After Wilson took the nation into World War I “to make the world safe for democracy,” he acted as if fanning intolerance was the key to spreading democracy. He increasingly demonized all those who did not support the war and his crusade to shape the postwar world. He denounced Irish-Americans, German-Americans, and others, declaring, “Any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic.” Wilson urged Americans to see military might as a supreme force for goodness, appealing in May 1918 for “force, force to the utmost, force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant force which shall make Right the law of the world.” As Harvard professor Irving Babbitt commented, “Wilson, in the pursuit of his scheme for world service, was led to make light of the constitutional checks on his authority and to reach out almost automatically for unlimited power.”

Again, the parallels with Bush are almost uncanny. And many of the same intellectuals who currently praise Wilson for his abuses in the name of idealism also heap accolades on Bush’s head.

The deaths of more than 100,000 Americans in World War I did nothing to bring Wilson’s lofty visions to Earth. The 1919 Paris peace talks became a slaughter pen of Wilson’s pretensions. One of his top aides, Henry White, later commented, “We had such high hopes of this adventure; we believed God called us and now we are doing hell’s dirtiest work.” Thomas Fleming, the author of The Illusion of Victory, noted, “The British and French exploited the war to forcibly expand their empires and place millions more people under their thumbs.” Fleming concluded that one lesson of World War I is that “idealism is not synonymous with sainthood or virtue. It only sounds that way.” But it did not take long for idealism to recover its capacity to induce political delusions.

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. military interventions in Latin America were routinely portrayed as “missions to establish democracy.” The U.S. military sometimes served as a collection agency for American corporations or banks that had made unwise investments or loans in politically unstable foreign lands. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler bitterly lamented of his 33 years of active service, “I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”Franklin Roosevelt painted World War II as a crusade for democracy — hailing Joseph Stalin as a partner in liberation. Roosevelt praised Stalin as “truly representative of the heart and soul of Russia” — as if the lack of bona fide elections in Russia was a mere technicality, since Stalin was the nation’s favorite. Roosevelt praised Soviet Russia as one of the “freedom-loving Nations” and stressed that Stalin was “thoroughly conversant with the provisions of our Constitution.” Harold Ickes, one of Roosevelt’s top aides, proclaimed that communism was “the antithesis of Nazism” because it was based on “belief in the control of the government, including the economic system, by the people themselves.” The fact that the Soviet regime had been the most oppressive government in the world in the 1930s was irrelevant, as far as Roosevelt was concerned. If Stalin’s regime was “close enough” to democracy, it is difficult to understand why Roosevelt is venerated as an idealist.

Cold War interventions

Dwight Eisenhower was no slacker in invoking democracy. In 1957, he declared,

"We as a nation … have a job to do, a mission as the champion of human freedom. To conduct ourselves in all our international relations that we never compromise the fundamental principle that all peoples have a right to an independent government of their own full, free choice. "

He was perfectly in tune with the Republican Party platform of 1952, which proclaimed,

"We shall again make liberty into a beacon light of hope that will penetrate the dark places…. The policies we espouse will revive the contagious, liberating influences which are inherent in freedom."

But Eisenhower’s idealism did not deter the CIA, dreading communist takeovers, from toppling at least two democratically elected regimes. In 1953, the CIA engineered a coup that put the shah in charge of Iran. In 1954, it aided a military coup in Guatemala that crushed that nation’s first constitutionally based government.

The elected Guatemalan government and the United Fruit Company could not agree on the value of 400,000 acres that the Guatemalan government wanted to expropriate to distribute to small farmers. The Guatemalan government offered $1.2 million as compensation based on the “taxed value of the land; Washington insisted on behalf of United Fruit that the value was $15.9 million, that the company be reimbursed immediately and in full, and that [President Jacobo] Arbenz’s insistence on taking the land was clear proof of his communist proclivities,” as America’s Mission noted.

Yet, at the same time, the federal government in the United States was confiscating huge swaths of private land throughout American inner cities for urban renewal and highway projects, often paying owners pittances for their homes. There was no foreign government to intervene to protect poor Americans from federal redevelopment schemes. The fact that the U.S. government got miffed over a 1954 Guatemalan government buyout offer helped produce decades of repressive rule and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan civilians.

Since the Eisenhower era, U.S. government bogus efforts to spread democracy have sprouted like mushrooms. Especially with the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983, all limits were lifted on how many democratic cons that the U.S. government could bankroll abroad. The U.S. government is currently spending more than a billion dollars a year for democracy efforts abroad. But Thomas Carothers, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy and Rule of Law Project, warns that Bush policies are creating a “democracy backlash” around the globe.

The greatest gift the United States could give the world is an example that serves as a shining city on a hill. As University of Pennsylvania professor Walter McDougall observed, “The best way to promote our institutions and values abroad is to strengthen them at home.” But there is scant glory for politicians in restraining their urge to “save humanity.” The ignorance of the average American has provided no check on “run amok” politicians and bureaucrats.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Koppel on Discovery

Once upon a time, journalists, practitioners of hard news and real reporting, were found on the big three—ABC, CBS and NBC. When I was growing up, it was a ritual in my house to watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News. Keep in mind that this was during the Vietnam War and I still remember the graphic showing the nightly death count, which seemed monumental to me, then only seven or eight-years-old.

The days when Americans hurried through dinner, or ate their meal in front of the television to watch news, aimed at reporting on the events of the day are certainly a thing of the past. While older Americans still regularly watch network news, cable television, which continues its march towards entertainment over journalism, now holds sway with the older set that still values news in a more traditional format, replete with a talking head.

Still, journalists that are holdovers from a time when news mattered—men like Bill Moyers and Ted Koppel—can still be found plying their craft and giving viewers investigative reporting, the likes of the kind some of us remember the mainstream being known for.

While Moyers can now be found on PBS, Koppel has opted to go over to the Discovery Channel, a place where documentaries on UFO’s, mummies and Nazi’s were the modus operandi in programming. Personally, I’ve become a fan of their Mythbusters program. The addition of Koppel shows Discovery’s intention to provide some hard-hitting journalism to their lineup, the kind Koppel became known for during his time on Nightline.

Last night’s 90 minute documentary, "The Price of Security," was an in-depth look at the momentous paradigm shift in our country since 9-11. No longer are issues of freedom, civil liberties and the first amendment tantamount-they now rest secondary to security and fighting the "war on terrah," as our liar-in-chief likes to parrot.

With today marking the fifth anniversary of a day that is one I’ll not forget, simply because I’ve never experienced the kind of fear and human meltdown that I saw around me on that day. I had just started a new job at Unum Provident, in Portland and was in my second day of training when news started filtering in about what was occurring in New York. Our training class was suspended and televisions began being wheeled in for employees to watch the news of what was occurring six hours away in NYC and then, Washington, DC. People were weeping and nearly hysterical. When they allowed us to leave for the day, I was more than happy to accommodate them, as I don’t do well when people lose their emotional bearings.

That memory stays with me, of how people reacted to the events going down. Even my own emotions of anger, confusion and how I was carried by the patriotic and even jingoistic impulses of the aftermath, before I could begin sorting it all out, was with me, while watching the Koppel-produced program, last night.

Sadly, a fraction of Americans watched the documentary, as it was surely not the easy to digest pap that Sunday night programming has become for most, and I’m not even sure the average American would have lasted longer than 10 or 15 minutes, following Koppel’s well-honed technique of building a story, rather than relying on emotion or technological tricks and cutaways for effect. On the flipside, Discovery boasts a viewership of 1.2 billion worldwide, certainly a potential audience for Koppel that is larger than he could have imagined back at ABC.

While most of the programming devoted to 9-11 will be sentimental, feature-driven stories, designed to pull at heartstrings and be woefully short on facts and context, there are still journalists, like Koppel, attempting to build stories and place them within the kind of contextual framework that is necessary for an accurate understanding of issues and stories that by nature, demand more than the usual sound bites we’ve come to expect in our information gathering.

If there are any fans of hard news, back when it mattered and had some meat, then Koppel’s Sunday night news-driven programming might be right up your alley.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New tricks, for an old dog

I haven’t been blogging as regularly, of late. I did post something over at the writing blog, yesterday, but my last post here at Words Matter was a week ago, Monday (one of my longer absences). It hasn’t been because I’ve been sitting around being fat and sassy, either. While I hate to neglect the blog, probably more from habit than any obligation for a small group of readers, the reasons for my absence are legitimate and justifiable, at least to my way of thinking.

Back when Mark (my son) was small and Mary and I were living the life of paupers in northwest Indiana, I was working at Westville Correctional Center. This medium security prison (now a supermax facility) was our economic tether in an area of the country with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. While I'm not proud of working in a prison, at least I wasn't a guard and I was at least providing some needed medical care for the incarcerated. Plus, being a state job, we had health insurance and I could work some overtime. Ah, the things we do as cogs in the capitalist machine.

One day, while perusing the ad board, located in the vending machine area of the building I worked in (as a med tech), I noticed a 3 x 5 card advertising a used Les Paul copy electric guitar, for a mere $35 dollars. Having always wanted to play guitar and looking for something to do with my downtime, since we didn’t own a TV at the time, I called the owner and it wasn’t long before I was holding my first guitar.

When I was 12-years-old, Sparks Department Store in Lewiston had a cheap Japanese Strat knock-off for sale that I would look at every time I went shopping with my mother. On our regular Friday morning shopping excursions, I made sure to check out to see whether anyone had picked up the guitar that I very much desired. Lo and behold, I never owned one during my youth and was actually discouraged from playing by my parents and my athletically uncoordinated best friend at the time, who I surmise didn’t want his jock buddy from stealing the thunder of his own claim to fame. Dave told me that my “hands were too big” to play the guitar any time I’d try to get him to teach me a few chords, or a song. Granted, the few times he actually allowed me to pick up his axe (which felt so right in my hands), I was woeful and clumsy, which is typical of any non-prodigy, neophyte player. Unfortunately for me, I believed it and hence, never took up the instrument at a time that would have been perfect to learn—my teenage years.

Since my prized guitar was lacking an amplifier (what do you want for $35 dollars, anyways?), I made due sans much sound, awkwardly forming the chords in my Mel Bay practice book. Looking back, I can’t believe how difficult acquiring even the most rudimentary chops was, for me. The guitar didn’t come naturally and lacking a lot of free time (with work and a young family), I didn’t put the time, or discipline into acquiring foundational skills and technique that I should have. Unfortunately, the guitar spent more time gathering dust, than in my hands.

Purchasing my first amp, a Gorilla practice amp, in downtown Chesterton, Indiana helped ramp up my enthusiasm. My progress couldn’t be measured exponentially, but my little Gorilla, replete with a distortion switch made the chore of practice a lot more fun. To this day, plugging in and playing loud is always more fun and less demanding, than working through chords, scales and modes on my acoustic.

While I’m no Eddie Van Halen, Dave Matthews, Jorma Kaukonen, or even Billie Joe Armstrong, of Green Day, I’ve managed to learn to play well enough to be dangerous. My guitar playing has always played second fiddle to all the other things in life, despite how much I enjoy playing and hearing the sounds I can coax out of my instruments.

I’ve upgraded my equipment from those days, long ago, mired in the Midwest. Back in 1990, I bought a Yamaha FG-400, my very first and only acoustic I’ve owned. This model, a good beginner’s acoustic (and no longer made) has been a perfunctory instrument for an amateur musician, like me. The closest model I could find on the Yamaha website was this one.

A few years later, tired of my cheap Japanese imitation of a real electric, I decided I wanted a “real” electric. I had my heart set on a Fender Strat, but found a beautiful powder blue Fernandes (also used by a great indie band at the time, Polvo), for about $300 cheaper than the Fender. With a whammy bar and nearly the same action and capabilities of the more expensive Fender, this seemed like a reasonable compromise for someone whose playing time was hit-or-miss, at best.

Both my Yamaha and Fernandes brands have served me well. I still have both and have added a vintage Fender Princeton tube amp, with a reverb unit, to the mix. That and a few pedals give me more than I’ll ever need with the limited playing I’ve ever done for others.

The nice thing that I’ve found out, over the years, is that despite long periods of inactivity from playing, what you acquire in skill and knowledge doesn’t disappear. Each time I’ve come back to my music, I’ve been able to build a new level of skills to my playing. Granted, despite owning a guitar for 20 years, my playing is intermediate, at best. Still, I’ve learned some songs (a tip given to me by the great Jorma Kaukonen, who I met before he played at the old Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, formerly on Forest Avenue, in Portland) and enjoy singing and playing along to some of my CD’s.

Being back in the day-to-day work world and no longer freelancing, has me attempting better time management. I continue to work on the writing, but I also have added “guitar time” to my weeknights. Right now, I can’t play every night, partially due to time constraints, as well as the fact that my fingers are very sore, as I attempt to build up the necessary callouses that come from playing regularly several nights per week.

While I still have a long way to go before I play like I’d like to, I’m enjoying music again, particularly the feel of having a guitar in my hands. I hope I can make playing music a regular part of my life, as I think it helps me with the creative process that also lends itself to writing.

Here are just a few songs that I’m working on:

“Berlin Kitty” The Violet Burning
“California Stars” Wilco/Billy Bragg
“The Middle” Jimmy Eat World

I’ve even composed a song of my own that I’m still working out the lyrics for. Who knows; maybe I’ll have a MySpace page up before you know it and a CD out there for the masses?