Monday, June 23, 2008

We Lost A Great One - RIP George Carlin

He set the stage and had a great follow through. Hey Georgie give the big guy a whack on the tushy, he's obviously been jerking off for all eternity. Tell it like it is George:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Taking God out of Politics?

Godless. That’s the title. No subtitle. A major newspaper allowed the printing of such free speech (in an op-ed), calling for God to be removed from Presidential politics. This is a rare event, even in the supposedly Godless offices of the New York Times. We may just be standing on the cusp of a new era in American media.

All I can say is, it's about time! Well actually, I said a bit more - take a look at my post about the article, or read the article itself.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

In Defense of Bridget Bardot

According to the Huffington Post blog site Brigitte Bardot was convicted Tuesday of provoking discrimination and racial hatred for writing that Muslims are destroying France by their imposition of blood rites associated with the slaughter of sheep for the Muslim feast of Aid el-Kebir. Her comments, written in a December 2006 letter to the then-Interior Minister, now French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, contravenes French anti-racism laws that prevent inciting hatred and discrimination on racial or religious grounds. Bardot had been convicted four times previously for inciting racial hatred. Bardot, a long-time animal rights activist, should be applauded, not condemned for her conscientious stand and outspokenness. Confounding criticism of religious practices with racial hatred is a misguided policy. All citizens should have the right to expose bogus religious practices of whatever sort, practiced by whatever denomination. Don’t keep the faith, Bridget!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

China Visit - Part 3

I had a very interesting discussion with my college age Chinese nephew, Tiger. His English has come along and he hopes to study in the US next year. With my Chinese and his English we were able to fully communicate. I wanted to better understand Chinese perceptions of their domestic situation. One of our talks revolved around the degree of freedom experienced by a young person in China today. I asked Tiger about the degree of cultural and social freedom he experienced. When I first visited China, cultural freedom was still largely repressed and social mores were very conservative (no outward displays of public affection, etc.). Now the floodgates have opened. According to Tiger, and based on my own observations, there are no restrictions on cultural expression. Modern abstract art, music of every sort, western literature freely available. Social mores are totally transformed. Young people can dress in whatever outlandish fashion they like. Young people hold hands and kiss in public. Educational freedom. No longer are you assigned a subject to study. You can pursue whatever educational goals you’re capable of achieving, and jobs are no longer assigned for life. This goes hand in hand with economic freedom to find a job to your liking, set up a small business or a large corporation. With this freedom have come some loses as well. The so-called iron rice bowl has been smashed. Job security and social security are no longer as assured as they were twenty years ago. So let’s look at the freedom ledger. When challenged Tiger admitted that in today’s China he felt that there was cultural freedom, social freedom, educational freedom and economic freedom. He was annoyed by the lack of political freedom and had an idealized notion of our two party political system. When I began griping about the political situation in the US Tiger began to understand its limitations, but I also began to appreciate some of what we take for granted. The conclusion I came to is that the political system in China needs to evolve and assuredly will. I asked my sister-in-law if she could have anticipated the changes she’s witnessed over the last twenty years. She said in retrospect she could. I asked if she expected similar changes to occur in the future, in particular politically. She answered in the affirmative. China is in a continual state of flux. Rapprochement between the Communist and Nationalist parties is on the agenda. My sister-in-law saw the possibility of the Nationalist party entering into a political coalition with the Communists as in the early 1920s. I broached the idea of the CPC (Chinese Communist Party) dividing in two, with both parties adhering to the PRC’s constitution. Tiger thought that was a good idea, just so there was more accountability and the opportunity of some degree of political choice. I will go out on a limb and predict that something along these lines will occur in China by mid-century.

Well, those are some of my observations. Hope they’re of interest, more thoughts to come.

China Visit – Part 2

While in China I had the opportunity to talk with friends and relatives about the current situation there, as well as make my own observations. There are a number of issues that have garnered a large amount of press play dealing with China. I will address a number of these below.

1. The situation in Tibet. China is a multinational country with 58 recognized national minorities. These minorities all have well delineated rights and privileges based on their special status. These involve a heightened degree of autonomy and exemption from certain obligations (for instance, the one child per family policy). Tibet is recognized as an Autonomous Region of the PRC and on paper, at least, has a considerable amount of autonomy. In practice the central government has full control, but is nevertheless constrained in certain ways by its constitutional limits. As in this country what’s written in the constitution is not always applied as it should be, and there is a legitimate demand by Tibetans for the full implementation of their national rights. Both the Communist and Nationalist parties consider Tibet an integral part of China. There is a long history of interaction between the two. The Dalai Lama also recognizes that Tibet is part of the PRC. The Dalai Lama of course, from a secular humanist perspective, is as much of a fraud as a Moslem Grand Ayatollah or the Christian Pope. They all sugarcoat their superstitious ideology with a fa├žade of pious reasonableness. The history of Lamist Buddhism is, however, replete with all sorts of horrors, from the abject enslavement of the peasantry, to the sequestration of whole generations of males in austere disciplinarian monasteries and the adulation of each new Dalai Lama, chosen at random from amidst the population, as a child god-king. No matter what the historical exigencies may have been, maintenance of China’s territorial integrity, a legacy of its imperial past, must be accepted as a starting point for any discussion regarding Tibet’s future. It may be argued that the Soviet Union was likewise a product of Russian imperialism and that its breakup can serve as a prototype for the dismemberment of China. The Soviet Union was, however, just that, a voluntary Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and its peaceful breakup basically bore out that reality. China has a different history and its constituent parts are not free to disengage in the same fashion. In this regard it is no different from any other nation sate. There should be no greater onus put on China than any other state to voluntarily commit suicide. China has problems regarding the proper treatment of its minority peoples, just as we do. Let the Chinese work out their own problems without undue interference. This attitude does not preclude criticism of how the central government behaves, but protests such as those directed against the Beijing Olympics, in my opinion are unwarranted.

2. The Beijing Olympics. The Chinese people throughout the world are proud to host the 2008 Olympic games, just as citizens anywhere else would be. China has gone all out to create new ultra-modern sports venues in Beijing, some of which I saw. The “controversy” surrounding the Beijing Games is a non-starter. China cannot be compared to Nazi Germany and the 2008 Beijing Games cannot be compared in any fashion to the infamous Berlin Games of 1936 or the Moscow Games of 1980. China does not adhere to a racist ideology and China is not an expansionist power as was Germany in the 1930s or occupying a foreign nation as the Soviets did in Afghanistan (and isn’t it ironic that we now occupy both that country and Iraq!). The protests against the Olympic flame relay were to my mind totally inappropriate. They were ostensibly directed against Chinese repression in Tibet and Chinese support of the Sudanese government and its involvement in the Darfur genocide. These protests are extremely disingenuous. Where were the protests against the continuing abuse of our native peoples when we held the Olympics in LA or Atlanta? Where were the protests of the 1992 Spanish Olympics in Barcelona against their policies in the Basque region or the 2000 Australian Olympics in Sidney against their policies towards their aboriginal populations? How can anyone protest Chinese behavior in Sudan when compared to our aggression against Iraq? It is again, holding China to a higher standard than we expect of other countries or ourselves, for that matter.

3. China’s Industrialization and Outsourcing. China’s economy has been growing at a double-digit rate for nearly two decades. If that pace continues into the future China will be an advanced, middle-income industrial nation by mid-century. A lot of baggage (Made in China) and manifold abuses come with that remarkable achievement. Our Chinese counterparts are now confronting many of the problems that we have encountered and addressed with varying degrees of success or failure over the last century. China achieved its economic transformation at break neck speed and is still in the throes of remarkable economic and social upheavals. These changes took the West centuries to achieve and have occurred in China over mere decades. I could delineate a litany of problems that China confronts. These include environmental degradation, mine safety, lead-based paints, fraudulent goods, sweatshop abuses, corporate corruption, etc., etc. All industrializing countries have faced similar problems as we have and still do. Along with these problems have come both governmental and non-governmental responses. The Chinese government is accountable to public opinion. Its legitimacy is predicated on public acceptance and acquiescence. When the Chinese people feel that the government is no longer responsive they do not hesitate to rebel. How can the Chinese people’s propensity to rebellion and resistance be squared with their supposed passivity in the face of government repression? It can’t. The Chinese accept their government because it has maintained its mandate.

4. Slave wages. Quite frequently it’s alleged that Chinese employees work for “slave wages”. I had a number of discussions about living conditions while in China. The bottom line is that Chinese wages have to be viewed relative to living costs. The Chinese Yuan is equivalent to the US Dollar. In many respects there’s a good correspondence. The average Chinese wage is about 3000 Yuan/month, similar to the average US wage of $3000/month. Living costs can be evaluated in light of this correspondence. For instance my son is renting a two-bedroom apartment in Xiamen for Y1300/month (US $195.00), similar to what a similar apartment would cost in the U.S. in U.S. dollars ($1300.00). Obviously the Chinese apartment is very cheap in US dollars. The apartment can easily accommodate three adults (there is a spare room that can serve as a third bedroom) at a cost of approximately Y450/month (US $30.00). As can be seen the Yuan is valued at about US $0.15. So a monthly wage of Y3000 is equivalent to US $450. That’s about $112.50/week or $2.80/hour. Some low-skilled migrant laborers from the countryside make about $1.00/hr. They tend to live in dormitories and send much of their income home (like American migrant workers). $1.00/hour is about 1/7 the prevailing US minimum wage rate, about what a US worker made 40 years ago (I remember making $2.00/hr working at a warehouse in Boston in 1971). By Chinese standards the average wage in China is equivalent to what an average worker makes in the US today. Of course a US manufacturer will prefer spending $2.00/hour rather than $20.00/hour, hence outsourcing. Its ridiculous to say that the Chinese worker has a slave wage, not when public bus transportation costs 20 Chinese cents, the equivalent of $0.03. So it’s important to keep things in perspective when comparing Chinese apples with US oranges.

To be continued…

Monday, June 2, 2008

China Visit – Part 1

I've visited China multiple times over the last 25 years and speak serviceable Mandarin. I've seen vast transformations in the socioeconomic system practiced there. When I first arrived in Beijing in the early 1980s the Beijing Airport was straight out of Casablanca and we drove into the capital on a long, straight single lane road through the Chinese countryside, which eventually flowed into Chang'an Ave and past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. There were hardly any cars on the streets, and men and women dressed in plain, austere, monochrome clothing whizzed past on a blizzard of bicycles. The Friendship Hotel where I stayed was one of the premier hotels in town and would have been considered rather dingy by Soviet standards of the time. Being married to a Chinese woman I eventually arranged to stay at the family residence in the section of Beijing reserved for members of the Academia Sinica. It was a spacious yet non-ostentatious apartment. Life was very quiet and serene, the daily routine almost bucolic. Socialist morality prevailed. If you left a hairbrush behind in your train compartment it would be returned to you at your next hotel room. Food stables, health care, apartments and most everything else was subsidized and unbelievably cheap. I could get by in China on a few dollars a month. Consumer goods were very utilitarian but readily available. Socialist ideology was still spoon fed on the 2 or 3 broadcast stations that were available, although the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were quickly receding. Over the next decade and a half, China slowly began to change as it opened up to the West. By 1989 there was foment in the air. The Soviet Union and the Communist bloc were disintegrating. The status of China as a communist led nation hung in the balance. Reforms had begun but many half measures only whet the appetite for more substantive change. I was in Beijing to witness this and was staying at the Xiyuan Hotel with colleagues from UC Berkeley, just blocs away from the location of the most severe actions taken during the Tiananmen incident. China slowly recovered from the shock of those days, eventually leading to the initiation of a full-fledged market economy and the vast growth and modernization seen in its urban areas. I hadn't returned to China for a decade, until last month. The China I saw was totally transformed. The Beijing Airport is a massively efficient, ultramodern edifice that seems to engulf the countryside. A multilane superhighway connects the airport to a network of expressways that gird the city. We drive by row after row of high-rise apartment buildings. When I arrive at Zhongguancun (the Academia Sinica zone) I can't recognize the area, its full of glittery, new office buildings and thoroughfares. I also get to see similar changes in Wuhan the capital of Hubei province in central China. We travel from Wuhan, at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze Rivers in eastern Hubei, to Yunxian, the archeological site in the Chinese countryside towards the provinces far west, not far from Sichuan where the recent earthquake struck. The last time I traveled there, over a decade ago, it took nearly two days over a single lane highway, similar to a back country road here in the U.S. Now we travel along a multi-lane superhighway, identical to an Interstate and make the same journey in six hours. China is now crisscrossed with similar expressways, stitching together the country’s length and breadth. While China in the 1980s and early 1990s was characterized by the break up of the communes, the “responsibility system” and a rural resurgence, the more resent trend has been for the cities to outstrip the farmlands in the pace of development, with a widening urban/rural income gap and the migration of tens of millions of itinerant workers to China’s cities. Nevertheless, new two and three story farmhouses are seen throughout the countryside and county-level towns are thriving. This is all reflected in the recent tragedy surrounding the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan. I’ve been in many similar areas in China and construction standards are not uniformly adhered to. Especially during the early boom years of the late 1980s and 90s many corners were obviously cut. China builds with brick, concrete and tile. In the rugged, mountainous region of Sichuan, where towns have populations in the tens of thousands, vs. the few hundred you’d find living in similar areas sate-side, it’s no wonder that casualties were high. For China is no paradise. There are inequalities and abuses that occur. And the citizenry can be scathing in their criticism of authorities in power. Many schools that cater to the less privileged collapsed during the earthquake, killing thousands of China’s daughters and sons. This should never have been allowed to happen. But China responded as one. The whole country rallied and troops and other first responders rushed to the rescue. State leaders, especially Premier Wen Jiabao, took personal command and were camped on the scene, consoling the victims. Concerts were held nationwide to raise funds and a lively competition ensued as China’s newly wealthy celebrities were challenged to contribute large sums of money to aid the relief effort. Foreign help was solicited and welcome. This was truly the New China functioning at its best.

To be continued…