Wednesday, May 31, 2006

all I want to do/is to get back to you

I have a dilemma. Despite my claim in the previous post that I would allow myself to wander hither and yon with abandon and be all Zen about it, I can't bring myself to start a new thread or pick up an old thread without some kind of transition.

Before getting all worked up about the Bush administration, I was in the middle of writing about being an ugly American in Paris. It feels like two roads diverged in a wood and I took the one less traveled but it came to a dead end after about 30 yards. No wonder nobody goes that way! So now I want to get back on the other road but I just hate to backtrack.

Oh wait! I see a connection!

... drum roll please ...

Prior to 9/11, Americans abroad worried about being mocked and sneered at for being "ugly." Now, we worry about being hated, especially when traveling in countries that actively oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

gang aft a-gley

The "Zen" part of this blog name refers to the fact that I'm trying to practice the Zen approach to life - acceptance - but, as evidenced by the last several posts, I'm not very good at it; hence the "Imbecile" in the second half.

In fact, I started this blog because I hate my job and I was hoping to practice acceptance every morning before work. As in "I accept the fact that I hate my job." or something along those lines.

But Paris and habeas corpus got in the way. After all, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." I think that's Zen too, although I'm not sure the guy who originated it would've seen it that way.

Other Zen sayings I know about:

"Life sucks and then you die." Actually I think the original was "Life is suffering" but you get the jist.

"If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." ... OK ... ?

"Whereever you go, there you are."

I kinda like this one, despite the fact that all sorts of magnificent cheeseballs throw it at you at inopportune moments (more on this in a future post). This morning I'll interpret this as permission to make non sequiturs. In other words, I'm allowed to roam as far afield from my original intention as I see fit. Huzzah!

D'ope! Out of time. Bye dee bye.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

bodies, part 3: Do you have the body?

I don't have the body.

Who has the body?

Oh yeah. Bush. Bush has the body. Bodies. Only he won't let anybody else see 'em.

That's the problem, lady and gentleman. It is not that the Bush administration is surveilling or imprisoning the wrong people; it's that he won't let anybody outside of his administration see the evidence. They claim to have all the evidence they need to justify all of these actions and yet nobody outside the administration is allowed to thoroughly evaluate it. Nobody but the Bush administration knows who is being designated as an enemy combatant, a suspected terrorist, or a security threat.

Hell, even within the administration, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has been denied access to materials they've requested so they can begin a not-particularly-independent investigatin of the warrantless wiretaps.

I'm not asking that the programs be eliminated. I'm simply asking the Bush administration to show some body (ANYbody) outside of their inner circle the evidence they're using to justify these actions. And I'm asking that that body be allowed to complete a thorough evaluation.

I'm asking that separation of powers be protected, that habeas corpus be protected.

Essentially, Bush is saying "Trust us. We know who the bad guys are." While it would be easy to point out that his administration has hardly proved itself credible at intelligence gathering and assessment in the past, that's not the problem here.

The problem is that our founding fathers established these rules (separation of powers and habeas corpus) so that we wouldn't have to trust any one person or insular group of people. Are the House & Senate insular and fallible also? Absolutely. Are they totally trustworthy? Definitely not. Are the federal courts sources of perfect reason and analysis. Probably not.

But none of these bodies has to be perfect. They just have to be separate and independent so that they can serve as a check on one another.

In reference to a previous post, my friend Mark writes:

I don't see the comparison of dissent in South America, VietNam,
and enemy combatants @ Gitmo, wiretaps of
international calls to suspected terrorists, and databases of our
phone records (admittedly, this last point bothers me. I'm more
libertarian on this issue.).I guess you're implying that it's a slippery
slope, but to me that sidewalk's still pretty dry.

Do I think we are on the road to dissappearances and reeducations camps? I hope not. The point of my examples was the illustrate what happens when habeas corpus is not the law of the land.

Maybe Mark is right and the sidewalk is still pretty dry.

If so, there's a very simple way to keep it dry ... defend separation of powers and habea corpus.

Make Bush show an idependent judicial body that these wiretaps and databases are warranted.

This is not asking too much. This is the Constitution.

Friday, May 26, 2006

bodies, part deux

Habeas corpus.

I'm sure you've heard this before. It gets thrown around alot on TV series about attorneys. It is latin for "you have the body."

No, it is not about murder cases. It is about any case. It refers to the body of the person charged with the crime and the fact that that person must be brought to a court so that, as LectLaw explains it, "it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully."

This is something we generally take for granted. They can't lock us up for any significant period of time - I think 24 hours, max - without charging us with a crime and then they have to be able to prove to an independent party, not that we necessarily committed the crime, but at least that it is reasonable to suspect that we committed a crime.

LectLaw goes on to say that, in a case called Brown versus Vasquez, the Supreme Court "recognized the fact that`[t]he writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.'

Why? How? How does it work that this little phrase - habeas corpus - is the most important way to safeguard us from arbitrary action by the government? Consider some actions of past and present dictators:

* In Chile and Argentina, opponents of the dictators there were "dissappeared" by the thousands.

* Immediately after the Vietnam War, enemies of the Vietnamese government were sent to re-education camps. No trial to speak of. Just "We've had enough of you, pesky disenter. Off you go! Dissent no more!!"

* In Iran, very recently, Ramin Jahanbegloo, a respected intellectual, was "detained" on his way out of the country to attend a conference. He's been "detained" for a month now without being charged.

So you're probably thinking ... that couldn't happen here. Right? Is that what you're thinking?

You're wrong, friend. It is already happening here. Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps, reviewing our phone records. All of these things disregard the protection afforded us by Habeas corpus.

Now, maybe you're thinking, the people affected by those things are terrorists. What do I care about them? If I'm not doing anything wrong, why do I have to worry about it?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


On NPR yesterday, Tom Delay called the recent FBI search of Congressman William Jefferson's office "a violation of the principle of separation of powers."

Are you familiar with this principle? We have three branches of government:

* The Executive (that's the President, VP, and the cabinet (ie all those Secretaries of ______)
* The Legislative (that's the Senate and the House of Representatives)
* The Judicial (that's the Supreme Court and (I'm a little sketchy on this one but I think) all the other federal district courts.

The Constitution lays out which branch does what in the process of running the country. The idea is that no one branch has more power than any of the others because bad shit can happen otherwise.

For example, in Iran alot of power is concentrated in the religious courts. Alot of people in Iran do not like the fundamentalist regime there and want democracy. In fact, the previous president of Iran was a reformer and a religious moderate. But he was basically powerless to make changes because the law of the land was decided by the religious courts.

Of course we all know what happens when a single guy gets too much power. He becomes a dictator. It doesn't matter whether he's a benevolent dictator or not; he's still a dictator. Think about this way: A guy who dictates - "Do this." "Do that." "Everyone must wear funny hats on Fridays." - is a dictator.

I don't know of any examples of a legislative body having too much power.

But I can think of plenty of examples in which the Bush administration has violated the principle of separation of powers prior to this search of Jefferson's office, and it strikes me as funny (funny ha ha or funny strange or funny really pathetic and infuriating) that it takes this kind of action - making the Congress itself squirm - to get them to notice it and throw a serious fit.

I'm out of time for now. Tune in later for more ranting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

give us your

The first many times I went to Europe, I was warned repeatedly not to be an ugly American - by teachers, parents, bosses, friends, complete strangers, the ticket lady at the airport - but check this out:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

In case you didn't know, that's the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French.

That's how the French see Americans. A bunch of charity cases. Nice. And, as the poem says, they're fobbing the whole lot of them off on us. What kind of gift is that? It looks like a statue but really it is one gigantic invitation for "masses" of "refuse" to dog pile us. Like a reverse Trojan horse or something.

Ha ha.

The truth is that Americans have always been ugly. Since our inception, our country has been full of rejects - political, economic, religious, and criminal - and if we weren't rejects, we rejected.
Take that combination of people, mix in abundant resources and the widest of natural barriers (the oceans, silly!) between us and everybody else and you've got a natural breeding ground - a geographical Petri dish, really - for a culture that is not just different from but in many ways antithetical to the originating one. Is it so surprising that the citizens of the Old World have never really liked us?

Add in a precipitous rise to the top of the economic and military heap along with a tendency to swagger about it, and you have the pre-9/11 American.

If the citizens of the rest of the world are the arbiters of "ugly" - in other words, if they get decide who is "ugly" and who isn't - what can we do to avoid that label besides try to disown our origins altogether?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

where at least I know I'm free

Prior my long trek about Mexico, I was very concerned about blending in. My work in this regard mostly involved bringing only one pair of shorts on the trip. Mexicans almost never wear shorts unless they're at the beach.

But when I arrived it was clear that the shape of the fabric that hung around my lower half was the least of my problems. Even if I could die my light brown hair and tan my skin, I could not rid myself of the six to twelve inch advantage I had over most of the women and many of the men.

The funnest part of our trip to Paris, besides the honeymoon bits and the picnic at the Eiffel Tower and the Indian restaurant and ... well another fun part of our trip was the fact that very few people immediately assumed that we were American. That felt like victory to me. I wanted to rub it in to the other Americans within earshot ("Ha ha! We win!! You suck.") but that flew in the face of my previously stated goal of avoiding them.

Also, being mistaken for a non-American is not all it is cracked up to be. People speak French to you. Rapidly. It is like learning how to swim by being tossed in a pond full of duckweed; if you kick too much, you're lost, but if you don't kick at all, you sink. In other words, my little victory was shortlived. Within 10 seconds of it, we had to je ne parl pas Francais (excuse the spelling if you know better and if you don't it means "I don't speak French") and admit defeat.

PLUS ... this is the important part ...

Why is it so important to me not to be seen as an American? I'm not sure Kurt felt the same way so I won't include him in this. But really in truly why did I care? I like being an American even when I don't like the current presidential administration. I like other Americans. All my best friends are Americans. Hell, all but two of my friends, best or not.

Monday, May 22, 2006

mitigating factors

The sensitive American abroad learns at least a few phrases from the language of the country she is visiting. She listens carefully to its citizens and respects the information and instruction she receives. As habit and custom change dramatically across various borders, she pays close attention to what is going on around her so that she may follow suit.

I, on the other hand, relegated my travel etiquette energies to scanning the crowds for other ugly Americans. This is also an important skill to have when travelling abroad because even if you can't achieve the above-stated objectives at least you can mitigate your own failures by avoiding and/or mocking worse offenders.

My French, though existent, is atrocious. My accent is not existent. I was so embarrassed to say anything that nobody could hear me when I did so I'd just stare at Kurt until he took up my thread.

I would've done my best to listen carefully and respect information if only I had any idea what anybody was saying. The phrase book we had contained plenty of information about what to say but almost none about what they'd say back. So I spent alot of time staring and wincing at people.

The one moment I knew triumph in this arena was at the Duty Free shop right outside our gate where hundreds of Dallasites raring to go home swarmed about the cash registers. Each of the two cashiers must have said fifty times or more "Boarding pass. You must have your boarding pass." and yet every single person in line except me looked stunned when they couldn't make their purchase without it. In the end, the intrepid cashiers began pointing at me because I had my boarding pass in hand.

Actually, we did do a damn fine job of following suit in French customs in that we spent alot of time in cafes drinking coffee and talking politics, philosophy, art, and love. But we also shouted "UT Longhorns!" at a man in a Longhorns jersey as he stepped into a McDonald's.

We ate Lebanese food and polished off a bottle of wine in the park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower at sunset (French). We laughed alot and loudly (Not French - according to our exhaustive seven day study). We visited book stores and art museums (pretty French, despite the tourists). We went to the cinema (French) to see Mission Impossible III (not French).

We ate a lot of fries (French, not freedom) but we also ate some of the best Indian food in the Western world. This is not a very French thing to do if you look at demographic there with us (mostly Americans, Brits, and Asians - all patrons of the Lonely Planet Paris apparently), but it was also one of the coolest things we did.

We traversed green, light purple, dark purple, and pink metro lines to get there, got lost in a dark and seedy neighborhood, panicked slightly, found our way again, and finally arrived at a set of ten Indian restaurants packed so tightly inside a tiny covered alley way that the waiter for one restaurant, trying to draw us in to his establishment, nearly stumbled over the waiter for the next. Ultimately, we spurned the Queen of Kashmir in favor of the King and sat down to order at 10 pm (very French).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

smack in the middle of

I am a loud person. I say this with ____________.

That space was intentionally left blank because I don’t know the word I’m looking for. It falls somewhere between shame and pride but not smack in the middle of the two because that would suggest I feel any shame about the fact that I’m loud and I definitely do not. So really my feelings about my loudness fall somewhere between smack-in-the-middle-of-shame-and-pride and pride.

Although … pride suggests that I’ve worked hard to acquire the quality of loudness, that I personally deserve some kind of credit for it and that’s just not true. I’m just loud; that’s just how I am.

So if I feel neither pride nor shame or anything on the continuum between the two, what do I feel? Acceptance?

Hmmm ... I accept that fact that I am loud.

No. That’s dumb. That sounds too much like resignation.

I like the fact that I am loud. It entertains me. The faces my friends make when my loudness embarrasses them make me laugh. Actually, Kurt can also be loud although usually only when it is safe – in other words, around friends – whereas I’m almost always loud except in movies, concerts, museums, and churches.

This, by the way, is all a preamble to my next entry in this blog which will about honeymooning in Paris from 8 May to 16 May.

That’s right. Loud Americans in Paris.

When people heard that we were going to Paris they generally responded in one of three ways: 1) Expressed envy and amazement 2) Asked us the arrondissement we were going to stay in (we didn’t know) and made a list of things we had to do there 3) Joked about disguising ourselves as Canadians.

But I am an American. I say this with ______________.