Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Victorious Defeat

Obama’s health care bill has passed. One good thing is the Repugs lost. It feels good to know their pure obstructionism didn’t prevail. However, this will only fire up the Tea baggers more, and they are mad. Not only angry mad, they’re positively bonkers. In fact, this is good - if you care about Repug-Dummo politics - because they’re turning the right wing into raving crazies and turning off the populace as a whole, thus to the Dummo’s benefit. The raucous right will insure that any Repug who’s the least bit moderate will lose in the primaries and then their radical candidate will be trounced in the general election.

The other good thing is the Dummos can say they did something. Some people are ranking it right up there with Social Security and Medicare as a social breakthrough; what total bullshit. I’m not saying it’s all bad: It does make improvements, such as curb insurance industry bad behavior and add a few little tweaks, like money for community health centers, thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders.

On the other hand, there is nothing substantive to contain costs thanks to Obama’s back door deals with the industry. He figured he needed to buy off their opposition. It worked: industry was solidly behind the legislation. The bottom line? Industry estimates that coverage for a family of four will increase more than 100% over the next decade (as it did in the last decade) and cost about $25,000 per year. A large percentage of Americans don’t even earn that much in a year.

Yes, but 30 million more Americans will be covered. For one thing, that part doesn’t even take effect until 2014. Since it’s variously calculated that between 20,000 and 45,000 Americans a year die because they don’t have insurance, somewhere between 80,000 and 180,000 people will needlessly die in the next four years.

Half that 30 mil will have coverage by virtue of the mandate that requires you to have insurance. Of course, there’s nothing to say what the level of coverage will be. $10,000 out of pocket before coverage begins? 40% copays? Why not? Thus the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy because of medical costs who have insurance (the majority) will continue to rise.

The other half will have the equivalent of indigent insurance in the form of expanded Medicaid. In contrast to Medicare which is a federal program and liked by nearly all, Medicaid is run by the states and (depending on the individual state) is generally underfunded to the point where large numbers of eligible people are excluded. Federal involvement will change that, but it’ll still be jalopy-class coverage. Many doctors will not accept Medicaid patients, because of low reimbursement rates; that’ll probably not change. Subsidies for increased coverage will be partially paid for by taxing Cadillac plans, thus either lowering quality for the only people who actually have decent coverage or reducing their numbers.

The remaining 15 mil who are presently uninsured? They’ll stay uninsured so for them it’ll continue to be emergency rooms and unnecessary death.

But it’s so great to say, We won! We won! Meanwhile, the cost to the Dummos? Integrity. Sixty Dummo house members said they’d never vote for a bill without a public option. Once again they ate mud and voted against their consciences. You know how it goes: The leadership says, We don’t have to take your progressive views into account because you are spineless and besides you have nowhere to go. It’s either our sold-out party or nothing.

You bleeding-heart do-gooders are way out there on the radical left-wing fringe so not to be taken seriously. The fact that the public option, as well as single payer, are consistently approved by majorities of more than 60% of Americans, not to mention 90% of Democrats, is of no matter in the ‘real’ world. In the real world of American politics the views of a small number of elite, those who also happen to dole out the campaign contributions or pay for negative advertising, counts a lot more than a super majority of the American people.

Before the legislation takes full effect there’ll be widespread clamor for real change, a better plan, one that actually takes the views of the majority into account.

So a great victory for Obama and the Dummos, but a hollow one destined to be short-lived.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Apartheid or ?

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, made a surprising statement recently and in the process broke an unspoken taboo by saying the choice for Israel was either two states or apartheid. No matter how obvious the situation is to reasonable observers outside of Israel, no one in Israel has before had the courage to use the word apartheid.

In the latest manifestation of Israel’s dual legal system, there’s a campaign afoot to bring to light the plight of the 300 or so Arab children behind bars in Israeli jails. It turns out the minimum age for Arabs to be tried as adults is 16, whereas Jews are not adults for that purpose until 18. How is that difference justified? Most of those incarcerated kids are there for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They don’t have tanks and missiles and fighter jets but they do have lots of stones (because Israel likes to keep them in poverty and thus there is lots of rubble around) to use to express their displeasure at living under military occupation.

The apartheid analogy is most obvious as pertains to the West Bank. Though they are ruled by Israel they have no power in that country’s government. Day by day, month by month, their land is being confiscated and they are being squeezed into ever smaller ghettos. The word ghetto, by the way, is derived from the practice during the Middle Ages in what’s now Italy to round up all the Jews and restrict their movements to small enclaves.

However, the word apartheid is equally valid for the status of Arabs in Israel itself. For instance, though Palestinians make up about 20% of Israel’s population they have only 5% of the seats in Israel’s parliament. How does the great democracy we are always hearing about account for that underrepresentation?

As stated previously, Israel’s relationship to democracy is akin to that of the American South during segregation. Maybe not even since the South paid lip service to separate but equal. In Israel there is not even a pretext of equality: Israel is a Jewish state, everybody else is a second class citizen. For instance, when Israeli citizens of Arab descent marry someone from the West Bank, they are not permitted to live with their spouses in Israel. Jews enjoy subsidies when living in occupied territory. Arabs are denied building permits on property they’ve owned for decades or longer.

Meanwhile, Israel is so infatuated with its self-importance, it spit in the face of its only patron in the international community. It’s easy to see how that attitude came about. First, Obama says all colonization of Palestinian land must stop. Then when it doesn’t stop and Netanyahu offers a temporary, limited, partial freeze, Hillary calls it a great gesture toward peace talks. At about the same, America politicked against the entire world to scuttle UN approval of the Goldstone Report and condemned it as biased and poor quality. Trashing Richard Goldstone, one of the most respected jurists in the world, not to mention a Jew and Zionist, to try to protect Israel from well-deserved criticism was a shameful, craven, cowardly act.

With that backdrop why would Netanyahu or any Jew in Israel think they needed to respect American opinion? Why bother? The tail wags, the dog obeys.

Ah, but the scene seems to be changing. Two top ranking American generals, including David Patreus stated recently that America’s lock-step support of Israel, regardless of its actions, is putting American troops at risk. America, therefore, has a real stake in peace.

Netanyahu on the other hand is powerless to stop the colonization project. Pandora was let out of her box the first time a Jew took up residence in Arab territory. Settlers will not leave without a fight, they will take up arms against their own army.

The two recent announcements of settlement expansion that came in the midst of American attempts at peacemaking were made by fundamentalist Jews for the purpose of embarrassing Netanyahu and asserting the right of Jews to own Samaria and Judea, the Israeli name for the West Bank. Their intent is to drive Arabs from their land. They don’t recognize Arab sovereignty over historic Israel. God said its theirs and they are going to take any way they can.

The first time Netanyahu actually tried to make a fair peace deal (he has no intention or desire to do so of course) his coalition would break apart and any other politician who tried to do the right thing would find a civil war on their hands.

Apartheid lives, but Ehud Barak’s other option, the two-state solution has been rendered impossible by the settlement project. There’s no way, after spending tens of billions of dollars building cities for 500,000 people Israel can or will want to walk away from them. There’s also no way that it will be willing to give up equivalent parts of what’s now Israel to compensate Palestinians for the land it’s taken from them.

The only option left (as long as we assume deportation and/or extermination are beyond the pale) and the only solution that is fair and makes sense in the 21st century, is a single secular state where all citizens are treated equally and all are able to live anywhere. There are several states divided by ethnicity that have learned to, or been forced to cohabitate; Belgium, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, for example.

What makes Israel different that gives it license to discriminate? What gives it special privilege to create different classes of citizens? Well, nothing. It has no exception to the rules of humanity. Institutionalized racism can not be abided by the international community.

Finally, finally it looks like major international players are beginning to call Israel to account and get serious about fair treatment of the Palestinians. Personally, I harbor little optimism that Obama has the will to get real with Israel. Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death to Barking Dogs

(Apologies in advance to sensitive dog lovers)

The above statement appeared on one of my favorite bumper stickers and perfectly represents my feelings on the matter. Well, okay, death is kinda drastic and terminal: How about; A Good Smack Across the Snout to Barking Dogs. Anything to shut ‘em up.

A gal I once knew who was from Vietnam said they don’t have any problem with them there; If they get too noisy they quickly find their way to the dinner pot. Once again, kind of a Final Solution for someone’s beloved (or otherwise) pet. I don’t necessarily want to see them go to dog purgatory or hell (they definitely don’t go to dog heaven; not the barking ones, no way). I just want them to quit their useless, maddening yapping.

I especially dislike it when they disturb my peace and reverie as I walk along by surprising me with loud angry barking. In the city they are usually tethered or behind closed doors. Just walking past their door late at night will start some dogs barking. Sometimes I get my revenge by barking back at them. Wow, that really sets them off and they bark like crazy for a long time after. I always hope in those circumstances that it wakes up their owners and maybe even their neighbors who would then pressure them to teach their dog to shut up; meanwhile I’m long gone. One time, during the day, a large tethered dog shattered my calm as I was walking by. When I barked back, it was so taken aback that it turned tail and ran into the house. The owner, who was sitting outside clearly thought I was nuts, but what did he think of his own dog, some protector it was.

I admit my ears are very sensitive, but who likes the shrill sound of barking dogs? Khmers evidently don’t mind, or don’t care, but that’s maybe because they’re all half deaf from the many times their ears have been deranged by loud noises. Every wedding or party I go to is a painful experience for my ears even when I’ve got my regulation foam earplugs firmly in place. I feel really sorry for little kids when I see them hanging out up close to giant speakers blasting out at full volume… oops, I’m getting off topic.

For a long time I thought Khmers let their dogs bark frequently because they were too lazy to train them or didn’t know how but I was recently forcefully disabused of that notion. Two years ago the owners of my Phnom Penh flat, who own three different buildings at the end of my alley, got a pair of really small, really shrill, really stupid dogs. There’s now about five of them - I’ve lost count - each as dumb as the other. They bark a lot, nobody ever tries to shut ‘em up. Even after two years they still don’t know me and bark at me quite often when I access my place. For sure, every night when I come home late they get all worked up and create a real din.

Maybe their owners just love tiny, noisy dogs or they possibly they like them to be noisy for the security aspect. Nobody can get by there without them giving notice. I feel sorry for the two guys who sleep out, who get woken up at the slightest disturbance. (I believe they are related in some way to the owners and in addition to night watch duties also chauffer the family around.) Thing is, I’ve never heard of a rip-off near my house and I attribute that at least in part to the fact that those guys are always there. A quiet thief could’ve gotten by them before the dogs arrived on the scene but in the three years I lived there nobody had, so there wasn’t much reason to fear.

The dogs have a cage where they are locked up at night and other times during the day. I was surprised when I saw one of the outdoor guys giving a signal, an almost subtle one at that, to the dogs to cage up, and they went quickly and easily, so training is not the problem. To top it off, they just got another dog; this one larger, louder and at least as annoying, if less shrill.

Maybe Khmers just like the idea of dogs running free and doing their thing. Ironically, one of my favorite Dylan songs, from the New Morning album, is “If Dogs Run Free”,

If dogs run free, why not we?

Across the sands of time…

While I get the concept, in practice it’s a real hassle, like when I got bit a few months back by a free running dog owned by the people who caretake the public toilet on the corner of Streets 13 and 178 across from the National Museum. It was about midnight and nighttime is when dogs yap and threaten the most. I had heard it barking at someone else as I approached about 50 meters away but didn’t think much of it; Khmer dogs bark a lot but don’t bite very often and this was kind of a small one. When I got within proximity it circled around me and without barking or any threatening gestures it struck, leaving a very interesting two rows of puncture holes in my calf – only the upper teeth sunk in.

I was really pissed, as you can well imagine, and chased after it like a madman while yelling obscenities and threats like, “kill dog” in my rudimentary Khmer. I kept searching for a rock to throw at it as I was running after it, but could find none, it’s all grass there. It would have evened things out a bit if I could’ve beaned it. Meanwhile I had roused the whole caretaker family (and probably half the neighborhood) and they were trying to figure out why I was so lividly irate and screaming about killing their dog. They understood pretty easily when I moved over to the light and showed them my bloody leg. I’m sure they were relieved that I didn’t demand compensation.

And as any sensible responsible person would do I went early next day to get a rabies shot: Not. I know you think I must be half crazy to take a chance on certain death for the small cost and relatively minor inconvenience of preventative shots but I weighed the probabilities and decided against it.

What I did do early next morning was check out rabies on the net. For one thing you’ve got a window of about 10 days to get the shots if they’re going to save your life. Also the speed at which you die depends on how close the bite is to your head. As mine was in the lower leg it would’ve taken about six weeks to reach my brain when I would’ve started foaming at the mouth and soon thereafter died.

I learned that an average of seven people a year die of rabies in Phnom Penh. Those of course are the ones who didn’t get the shots. I also learned that Cambodians are especially fond of dogs and have twice the number per capita compared to neighboring countries.

What I didn’t find out was what percentage of Cambodian dogs have rabies. In developed countries that number is now close to zero. I really don’t want to put weird rabies stuff into my system if I don’t have to so if the ratio is one out of a thousand, I’d take my chances. One in ten and for sure I’d get shot.

The thing about rabid dogs is you can easily tell, though I’m not sure if that’s true of all stages of its infection. They’re aggressive, they foam at the mouth and they look crazed. I remember seeing one back when I was very young. I may actually be remembering a picture or educational movie, but in any case, rabid dogs are easy to spot. This dog showed no signs of the disease; in fact, I’ve never seen or heard of a rabid dog since I came to Phnom Penh 8 years ago. At any rate I took my chances and dodged the bullet, however rare.

I did get a malady from that dog because I was very weak for three days after. Dogs have a lot of weird stuff in their mouths from eating shit and all kinds of strange foods, so it’s not surprising that I’d get something. I saw the same dog more recently as I was walking by late at night. I grabbed a nice chunk of wood to rap it with in case it got too close. It barked at me because it knew I was pissed at it, but no need for the wood, it was muzzled.

I’ve had dogs a couple times in my life but I did such a terrible job taking care of them I decided it wasn’t for me. It’s not that I don’t like them – as long as they keep their distance - I just never had the energy or desire to play with them or show them the affection that dogs like and need. I’ve decided it’s enough trouble taking care of myself and don’t need another living, breathing thing to be responsible for.

Meanwhile, just to prove my heart isn’t totally hardened towards them, I give my neighbor’s dog in Phnom Penh a little section of my morning toast and butter every day. The way the apartment is configured, she can look at me while looking all hungry and forlorn while I’m preparing breakfast so at a certain point I couldn’t resist sharing with her. She’s a mellow dog that doesn’t bark much except when she has pups so is worthy of my gift. Still, it does seem a bit wacky to feed butter, which now costs more than $10 per kilo, to an animal. She also gets chicken skins and fat trimmings from other meats from me so she hangs out at my place nearly as much as her own. I tried playing with her a little but it just isn’t in me.

Meanwhile in many ways Kampot, where my second home is, is a lot worse in the canine category because there they really do get to run free. You know, I can really dig it from the dog’s perspective. They get to run around and fuck a lot and sniff at everything. They get to hang around with their friends and have a good time and yip, yip, yip, bark, bark, bark to their heart’s content. They also get to harass anybody who dares to be out at night walking or bicycling, which is clearly my problem because I’m a night person.

My house is at the edge of town and almost rural so there are even more dogs than usual and I also have to pass through a severely pockmarked, potholed section of road. This was a big problem when I was on bicycle since I had to go slowly to negotiate the rough surface, which left me a sitting target, so to speak, for the dogs. It also meant my bike light didn’t work well since I was going so slowly. In town on paved streets I might not be able to outrun them, but at least I’d be able to get out of their way pretty quickly. It was especially bad in rainy season since I’d also have to dodge huge puddles and pools of water.

As you can imagine, part of my problem is that I’m not terribly comfortable around dogs and they sense that and think I’m an evil person who needs to be harassed. I walked home at night for a month or so when I first moved to Kampot and then bicycled for several months after that until I bought a car. I always made sure I had a couple of rocks handy in my basket. Barking dogs at my heels combined with trying to find my way on a rough road in the dark did cause me to spill out a couple of times causing a flurry of curses.

When I tried to stay calm and ignore them it worked out a lot better and anyway I managed to survive without getting bitten. Still it’s a great relief to have a car and really be able to ignore them. But I like to walk and bike very much so it’s kind of a loss and a waste to fire up the car to go such short distances – it’s never much more than a kilometer to anywhere I go at night. I walk in Phnom Penh at night so it’s nutty that I feel I have to drive in Kampot.

The barking dogs of midnight is practically the only thing I don’t like about Kampot. One or two will start their stupid yapping, sometimes totally unprovoked by any real event, and then are quickly joined by five or ten others in the immediate neighborhood, which very soon translates into every dog within a kilometer going crazy in unison. Ninety-nine percent have no idea why they are barking their heads off but are moronically happy to join the chorus just the same. Some people get positively deranged by the needless din. I don’t like it but mostly just let it pass me by… though at times I do think some of the worst offenders deserve the cook pot, at least there they’d serve a real purpose.