Monday, January 31, 2011

The right catalyst for Middle East democracy

Almost eight years ago, George W. Bush envisioned the toppling of Saddam Hussein as the catalyst for a democratic movement across the Middle East. British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a compelling speech in support, saying that all people desire democratic freedoms and that to think non-Westerners think otherwise is arrogant. Things didn't work out as Bush predicted, and Blair's analysis of universal human longing remains unproven.

Protests going on in Egypt, following the overthrow of a despotic regime in Tunisia, suggest that Blair's analysis might have been correct, and only Bush was wrong only about the right kind of catalyst. Tunisian protests have resulted in the ouster of an authoritarian but Western-leaning government, and Tunisians' success has emboldened long-simmering unrest in Egypt, which has been ruled by dictators throughout its independence. Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, has been friendly to the United States and continued Sadat's bold relationship with Israel. He has quashed any opposition to his regime and has not allowed democratic elections. The Egyptian model has been the norm throughout the Middle East, where only Israel holds democratic elections and recognizes human rights.

American efforts to plant democracy in Iraq have had only moderate success. What exists there is a thin veneer of democracy atop a seething cauldron of sectarian and tribal violence. Iran's presidential election ended in loud protests against what appeared to be a predetermined outcome, the result of which was an affirmation that Iran has a theocracy, not a democracy.

The end result for Tunisia — and especially for Egypt — remains uncertain. Both countries could fall under the power of Islamist radicals, or they could wind up with parliamentary democracies in which bitter rivals learn to share power. The street protests that toppled Tunisia's government and now threaten Egypt's have proven to be better at ushering in democratic change than all the planning done from Washington in 2003 and afterward.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dog wins a battle of wits

For the past few months, my wife and I have engaged in a battle of wits with a dog, and the dog has been winning.

It started nearly a year ago when my father-in-law was ill, and my wife and I were spending as much time as possible with him. Because he was 200 miles away, that meant frequent weekend trips, leaving our sweet, never-any-trouble dog behind in the care of a dog-sitter. At some point during those months of weekends and longer away from home, our lovable dog decided she no longer wanted to be housebroken. I discovered that fact one morning as I walked barefoot across our living room rug and found it soaked with dog urine. A little investigation found that the hallway rug also was wet. These just happened to be the two best and most expensive rugs in the house.

We parried this attack by deciding we would have to confine her and keep her away from the living room, after we had diligently and repeatedly cleaned and freshened the rug. We closed doors leading the the living room and bought an extra-wide collapsible gate to close off the archway to between the foyer and the living room. Our mixed-breed rescued dog had been with us for seven years, and she was having none of it. She managed to tear down the gate, even when it was backed by other obstacles, make her way across the room to the rug and soak it again.

So we confined her on our side entry/laundry room area, using two gates. She took them both down and went wherever she darned well pleased. I told my wife that her problem was more than just a little canine incontinence or house-training amnesia; she's deliberately punishing us. Don't be silly, my wife said. Dogs don't think like that!

Oh yeah? When our one-time sweet dog got free, jumped on the sunroom sleeper sofa, shredded the cushion with her claws and went into the living room, jumped up on the couch and left a neat, straight line of urine along the length of the couch. There was no doubt: Little Bear was mad at us, and she was getting her revenge.

Although cruelty to animals crossed my mind more than once, we decided to try to find a way to keep her in the house. We got out the dog crate that we had tried to get her interested in when we adopted her as a 2-year-old. We put her in the crate and closed the metal door. When I came home to check on her, dog drool and blood had soaked the lip of the crate door as she had tried to chew her way through the mesh metal door. We decided to try closing her inside our bathroom. We figured there was nothing she could harm in the ceramic-tiled room, but I found out different when I came home. In her determination to get out, Little Bear had nearly taken the bathroom door off its hinges. The bottom hinge pin was taken out, and the door was off kilter, hanging by its top hinges and thoroughly scratched and chewed for about 3 feet up the wooden, paneled door. This was done by a 42-pound dog!

We concluded that we could not confine her in the house. We'd have to convert her to an outdoor dog for any time we were away (she never misbehaved while we were at home). Thanks to her thick fur, she should be able to withstand the cold weather. It seemed to work at first as she frolicked in the brisk air, but when it rained, she fought her way underneath the deck and dug deep nests there. Every day when she came home, she'd be dirty. We bought a nice doghouse for her, but she refused to go into it, except to retrieve a tossed-in treat.

Still, we persevered. And then, one day I came home, and Little Bear was not in the yard. I called to her, and she didn't come, as she always had when she had hidden beneath the deck. I found the place where she had tunneled underneath the fence and closed it off with dirt, bricks and other barricades. I quickly learned that she was fully capable of moving solid bricks and other objects out of her way, and of finding other vulnerable spots beneath the fence. This went on for a few weeks, with the dog always outmaneuvering her human captors.

We decided to tether her on the deck. She wanted none of that. She not only chewed her best leash almost in two, she stretched the leashes far enough the wriggle beneath the deck and dig a nesting hole, all the while putting herself in danger of strangling. No more tethering. I decided to secure the fence by nailing chicken fencing to the bottom of the fence and extending it along the ground to make it difficult, if not impossible for her to tunnel out. Impossible, for this dog, is only a minor annoyance. She soon found places where she could nudge the metal fencing out of the way and tunnel right out, even if it meant covering herself in mud, losing her collar in the dirt at the bottom of the hole, and injuring herself to the point that she limped back home from wherever she wandered. My two days of labor were wasted, it seemed. We were ready to give up. We considered stringing an electric fence along the bottom of the wood fence or installing an underground fence with a shock collar but didn't really want to do either. Last try: I bought some cinder blocks to bury beneath the fence, anchored with 80 pounds of concrete mix. Surely, this will confine her, we thought, even if it costs almost as much as the original fence and takes a solid week of work.

A day after installing the first four concrete blocks, it was cold and rainy. We decided to leave Little Bear inside, with the living room closed off and the sunroom furniture covered with a tarp. Otherwise, she was free to roam the house, look out the windows, bark at passing walkers and delivery trucks, and sprawl on the floor to sleep. I came home to check on her, and everything was fine. We began leaving her for slightly longer periods. We took the tarp off the sleeper sofa. We found no damage, no soaked furniture. It was like we'd gotten our old dog back.

Now she lies beside me, seemingly as content as she ever had been. There's no doubt in my mind that she was angry with us and determined to get retribution, but now it seems that she's over it. We're still afraid to leave her behind with dog sitters. We'll have to find ways to take her with us on trips or put her in the kennel, hoping that doing so won't spark a relapse in her behavior.

This experience has emphasized to me that so-called "dumb animals" are not only smart and sensitive, they are emotional and occasionally vengeful. I only wish a dog could answer your repeated questions: "What's wrong?" "Why did you do that?" "Where have you been?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Global economy haunts American workers

Throughout much of President Obama's State of the Union address last night, I kept thinking back to the article I had just read in the current issue of The Atlantic, "The Rise of the Global Elite." Obama's talk of competitiveness and education and seizing opportunities sounded contrary to, or uninformed about, the dire warnings contained in Chrystia Freeland's disturbing article.

It's a long and complex article touching on many aspects of the modern world economy, but it boils down to this: Multiple trends are creating a vast gap between a relative handful of global plutocrats — men and women who owe little or no allegiance to any one nation or economic system and who are acquiring vast private wealth virtually unheard of in world history — and the rest of us, including particularly the American middle class. This tectonic shift in the economy preceded the Great Recession of the past couple of years, but the current mess of high unemployment, depressed consumer spending and soaring government debt is worsening and speeding up the long-term trend. All Americans, except for the minuscule number of global elites, will be negatively affected. In a real sense, these new elite are not Americans, nor are they Europeans or Asians. They are residents of the world, working in nations and cultures where the most opportunity arises. In recent decades, the biggest opportunities have been in developing nations, particularly India and China.

In a world of free trade, in which tariffs and import quotas are scorned and derided, the cards are stacked against American workers, who reigned supreme through most of the second half of the 20th century. But the new global economy has changed everything. Freeland quotes one anonymous global executive as saying American workers are accustomed to earning 50 times the wage rate of other workers (think Chinese and Indians), but the only way they can demand that sort of wage disparity today is to be 50 times more productive. That, of course, is not going to happen. New technology, transportation advances and trade policies make it feasible to transfer manufacturing anywhere in the world, and that means to the place where wages are lowest.

Without a doubt, the global revolution in technology and trade have had its benefits. I recently stumbled across the receipt for a television I bought in 1988. It was the first remote-control TV we owned. I paid $288 for a 19-inch TV (which I gave away to Habitat for Humanity a couple of years ago). For $288 today, I can buy a much larger, more sophisticated flat-screen television that makes my 1988 TV and its $288 price laughable. But the shrinking prices of consumer electronics and other products carry a large cost: Consumer electronics are not made in America by American workers making middle-class wages. Those jobs have disappeared, and the service jobs, government jobs and nonprofit jobs that have arisen to fill the gaps cannot sustain an economy.

The global economy, pressed by the new global elite, is pushing down American wages, eliminating American jobs and, in the long term, forcing a fundamental readjustment of American standards of living. One day this recession (which is officially over) will end, but the American economy will not be the same. Unless the president and Congress find a way to change the rules of global trade and economics, American workers will see their lifestyles gradually and inevitably decline, no matter how much we invest in education and competitivenes.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Five great speeches of my lifetime

The Newseum posted a link to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on Facebook with the notation that comments were disabled because "many of them were hateful and racist." How pathetic in this day, 25 years after the MLK Holiday passed Congress and 43 years after King was martyred in Memphis! His 1963 speech may well be the best speech ever given in America, but if you listen to the first part, when King was reading from the prepared text, it's nothing extraordinary. He delivers a well-argued speech with some vivid imagery, but about 12 minutes into the 17-minute speech, King hits his stride. He is no longer reading from a text; he is preaching. He is no longer standing on the podium; he is in the pulpit. With the cadence of the church, he delivers some of the most memorable lines in American history, and he does it with a cadence and an oratorical style that sends chills down your spine.

King's speech and the comments I received following a post about Barack Obama's memorial speech in Arizona got me to thinking about great speeches. Here are the speeches from my lifetime that I would rank as my top five:

1. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It's a good thing he didn't stick to his text!

2. John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein berliner" speech delivered at the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. The speech is less than five minutes long, but it packs a rhetorical wallop with his repetition of " some say ... let them come to Berlin." It is not as long or as famous as his inaugural address, but its brevity is its strength.

3. Kennedy's inaugural address. Rarely has any president laid out a vision for the nation as Kennedy did in 1961. The "ask not what your country can do for you" line gets quoted frequently, but the speech is full of memorable phrases. Subsequent inaugurations have featured some very good speeches, but I can't think of any with the breadth and eloquence of Kennedy's.

4. Barack Obama's speech at the memorial service for those killed by a deranged gunman Jan. 8. I wrote of my admiration for this speech in a previous post. This is a great speech with just the right tone for the moment.

5. Ronald Reagan's "these are the boys of Point du Hoc" speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan was an exceptional orator, but rarely did he have a topic or words of this poignancy. The speech reminds me of Henry V's St. Crispian's Day speech.

Those are my top five, but one speech, a bit before my time, might trump all of them. On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a 200-word speech at the dedication of a military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. He was not the featured orator, but his simple speech was filled with words that carried more weight than a library of long orations. We know it as the Gettysburg Address, and we know its key phrases: "conceived in liberty ... hallow this ground ... last full measure of devotion ... government of the people, by the people, for the people ... ." It might be the finest speech in American history. But that's just my opinion.

This is a new sign of the times

So ... what's your sign?

The lamest of all pickup lines just got a lot lamer. An astronomer has sparked a bit of a controversy with the 2,500-year-old news that traditional astrological signs are inaccurate. The 12 signs of the zodiac — actually stellar constellations through which the sun, moon and planets appear throughout the year as the Earth revolves around the sun — were established about 3,000-plus years ago in ancient Babylonia. Astrologers of the day attempted to predict the future by reading "signs" in the stars. These star-gazers based their predictions on the erroneous belief that the sun and planets were traversing the constellations when, in fact, the movements were based primarily on the Earth's revolution (plus the planets' orbits around the sun).

That was all well and good as long as you were sold on ancient superstitions, but the ancient signs of the zodiac held one serious flaw: They didn't take into account the Earth's "wobble" in its orbit. Because of that wobble (think of a spinning top with an axis that moves around as the top slows down), the sun, moon and planets were no longer in the constellations they had been when the Babylonian astrologers defined the signs of the zodiac. Astronomers (and even astrologers) have known this for more than 2,000 years, but why mess with superstition?

When Minneapolis astronomer Parke Kunkle emphasized the changing zodiac in a TV interview, the whole astrological world went topsy-turvy. What you thought was "your sign" wasn't anymore because the sun was not in the constellation it had been on your birthday 3,000 years ago. It had moved to another constellation. What's more, Kunkle said the modern zodiac includes a 13th sign — Ophiuchus. I, for example, had been a Pisces but am now an Aquarian. There's nothing fishy about it.

The sense of anguish and shock among some people has been amazing. "But I'm a Leo," one woman told a reporter. "I'm exactly that type ... now I don't know what I am." The notion that stars hundreds of light-years away could have any influence on one's personality and fortunes has always seemed ludicrous to me. As a child, I dreamed of being an astronomer who, by definition, sees the stars not as determinants of destiny but as huge, hydrogen-based thermonuclear reactors, so I never cared for astrology or the zodiac, even as pickup lines in singles bars. I don't read horoscopes and don't know what my personality should be based on my sign, either ancient or current.

All those guys who have perfected their zodiac-based pickup lines, and all those women who base their judgment of men on the alleged compatibility of different signs? Better develop some new lines and a more rational evaluation system. And the people who have their (now erroneous) sign tattooed on their body parts? You should have realized that tattoos are permanent, even if the zodiac is not.

Friday, January 14, 2011

President lifts tone of mourning

Presidents go to funerals. They serve as mourners-in-chief. It's part of the job description, and many of them handle the unappealing task beautifully. Ronald Reagan was at his most eloquent at memorials. Bill Clinton's warm hugs could embrace the whole country. George W. Bush delivered his best speech at the National Cathedral after 9/11.

Barack Obama went to Arizona this week to do his duty, to lead the mourning for the victims of a deranged killer who shot indiscriminately at a member of Congress, an elderly couple, a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl and others. At the memorial, Obama gave the best speech of his presidency, maybe the best speech of his life.

At nearly 34 minutes, the speech is a little long but still worth watching. The president avoided any political jabs and focused on the victims of the tragedy. He told their stories and linked those stories to the national experience. A father of two daughters, he seemed especially emotional in speaking about 9-year-old Christina Green, who was shot to death by the killer. While some of his speeches in the past have suffered from an "all about me" theme, this one focused intently on the victims. Without pointing fingers at any one person or one direction, he called on the nation to show respect for the victims by raising the political discourse to a level that honors their lives. He asked America to be as good as Christina had imagined it to be. The speech contains a number of good lines, but its overall impact is the best element.

It has been reported that Obama wrote the speech almost entirely by himself, and it demonstrates his rhetorical eloquence. It's a better speech than his Democratic Convention speeches, better than his much-ballyhooed Berlin speech (which in my opinion fell far, far short of John F. Kennedy's Berlin speech to which it was compared) and better than his highly praised speech about race. He appeared to be delivering the speech from printed pages, not the Teleprompter he has read from in the past. His audience enthusiastically cheered his speech at several points (as can be seen in the video), especially his remarks about Rep. Gabby Giffords opening her eyes — remarks scribbled into the speech only minutes before. Perhaps the greatest accolade the speech received was the fact that conservative commentator Glenn Beck complimented Obama and praised the speech.

The eloquence of Obama's appeal should not be sullied by discussion of its potential political impact, but we can all hope that his call for debate without rancorous accusations might be heeded in Washington and throughout the country. Our leaders should be as good and as positive as 9-year-old Christina, who will never get the chance to be that kind of adult leader.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A political shooting in America

The attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Saturday at a local constituency event looks appallingly like something out of a Third World republic. Although the United States has had a history of heated political rhetoric at least since the time of Presidents Adams and Jefferson, violence and murder have generally not been part of the political process. This nation's few assassinations and attempted assassinations of top leaders have usually been the work of mentally deranged or delusional figures, such as Squeaky Fromme or John Hinckley.

The shooting of Giffords and 17 others at a supermarket comes at a time when angry political rhetoric is at its worst and is abetted by the Internet and social media. Partisans think nothing of placing bull's eyes or cross hairs over portraits of political rivals and speak of "knocking off" opponents. The president of the United States has the advantage of Secret Service protection, but rank-and-file members of Congress generally have no security details. Their work and their future electoral success require them to meet and listen to constituents on a near-daily basis. This kind of contact with voters is essential to the workings of democracy, so a shooting like Saturday's in Arizona is especially threatening to our political system.

Even if it is shown that the gunman was mentally ill or deranged and acting alone, this incident should provide the impetus for a toning down of political rhetoric and a lesson in the need for respect and courtesy, even on the campaign trail or in overheated talk radio and television. Giffords, widely known as a Democratic moderate, was the epitome of the kind of politician who was not ideological and was willing to compromise for the common good.

The American system has forged a successful democracy despite great ethnic divisions and political diversity. History has shown that American elections often bring sweeping changes without violence. Arizona is not Islamabad; we must not allow an individual or group of individuals to blur that distinction.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Remarkable Basnight calls it quits

I met Marc Basnight about 20 years ago. He dropped by my office at the newspaper late one afternoon as he was headed either to Raleigh or Manteo, I don't remember which, and introduced himself. We shot the breeze a bit about North Carolina and politics, and we exchanged business cards. He seemed genuine, sincere and not the least bit pretentious. Years later, when one of my reporters interviewed Basnight, he asked about me, demonstrating his remarkable memory for names and people, a characteristic of nearly all successful politicians.

Basnight announced his retirement from the Senate Tuesday, and the decision deserved the mega-size headline in the News & Observer. After 23 years as president pro-tem of the Senate, the most powerful politician in North Carolina was stepping down. The N&O articles expressed some uncertainty whether Basnight or the governor was the most powerful Democrat in Raleigh. To my thinking, there was never any doubt. Nothing got through the Senate without Basnight's approval, and any legislation Basnight wanted passed was approved, sooner or later. Even with the rarely used veto, the governor could not sway legislation the way Basnight could. Not only could he control legislation, he could sway elections. From his secure coastal district, Basnight raised many thousands of unneeded campaign dollars, which he gave away to Democratic colleagues facing contested elections. Until last year, his fundraising capabilities assured Democratic dominance in the Senate. With his power sharply diminished, his electoral influence waning and his health in question, Basnight made a rational decision to resign.

He leaves a remarkable legacy, regardless of whether you approve of the way Basnight ran the state (and make no mistake, he ran the state as much as anyone did). With only a high school education and a remarkable drive to match an innate intelligence, Basnight molded himself into a well-informed historian and economist. His "people skills" assured his rise to power and the respect he won from legislators, lobbyists and others. Like Robert Byrd in the U.S. Senate, Basnight was not shy about using tax dollars to improve his state. The highways, museums, parks and other attractions in his coastal district testify to his power and generosity, as do the UNC cancer hospital, the building boom across UNC campuses and the ECU dental school. But his steadfast belief in state spending to boost the state and the state's economy is at least partly to blame for the huge deficit legislators face this year. Basnight promised that state spending on capital projects and new programs would help lift North Carolina out of the economic downturn. It hasn't worked, and now someone else has to fix the problems left behind.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Health care fight could hurt GOP

The new Republican majority takes over the House of Representatives this week, and some members are vowing to rescind the 2010 health care bill. Playing to fears, uncertainties and misinformation about the law worked well for the 2010 election (although public discontent with the economy was a bigger factor), but Republicans might want to tread carefully now that the new law is on the books. They might leave an opening for Democrats.

Republicans have the votes to get a repeal through the House, but they don't have a majority in the Senate. Even if they manage to garner enough votes in the Senate, President Obama would certainly veto the bill, and there would not be a two-thirds majority in either chamber to override a veto. So hopes of repealing health care reform would be futile in the next couple of years. Pushing this issue could also leave Republicans vulnerable to ads saying, "Senator GOP wants to allow health insurance companies to refuse coverage to you based on pre-existing conditions" or "Rep. GOP thinks it's OK for insurance companies to refuse to cover basic preventative care for you and your children" or "Republicans and the big insurance companies don't want to cover your dependent children after they turn 18, even if they're still living in your home. Is that what you want?"

Regardless of what you might think of the health care reform bill, it has some attractive benefits, and those benefits could be key tools in the political gamesmanship leading up to the 2012 elections.