A post on Dracula-related novels for @NeveyB

Wow… I’m gone to write a novel and I don’t update my real blog in something like eight months! Weird how that works…

But now I’m back!

And, somehow, still dealing with Dracula. I think he’ll be hanging around for a while…

Anyhow… a discussion came up with @DraculaBites and @NeveyB on Twitter a few weeks back about novels related to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As we talked, I said I’d come up with a list of books related to it for @NeveyB.

So… here’s a list.

It’s best to start with the fiction. I’ll do another list for non-fiction, and also movies, later.

Clearly Bram Stoker never wrote a sequel, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave us with a treasure trove of things for other writers (myself included) to run with and create our own sequels (or other Dracula-inspired works).

This is by no means complete, but this should be a good start. I’m not going to cast aspersions on these works — some of them have fans, some of them have detractors, and that’s fine. I’m a firm believer in enjoying what you want to enjoy and telling other people to jump from a cliff if they harangue you about it.

Let’s start with the sequels (direct and indirect). There are other sequels in the works, and I will add them here as they are made available for people to read.

  1. Yes, I’m putting my book, The Heritage, first (it’s my list and my blog… I’m allowed to be biased). It follows Jonathan and Mina’s son, Abraham “Quincey” Harker, through an adventure from 1938–1939. It will be available in a few years.
  2. In terms of “official” sequels, Freda Warrington’s Dracula the Undead from 1997 is the first. Penguin commissioned Warrington to write this sequel for the centennial of Dracula. It was given little attention and I only found it when I started digging around while working on the research for my book. It goes down some familiar paths, but stays within the universe Stoker created (including having quite a bit to do with the Scholomance).
  3. The next book is considered the actual official sequel by Stoker’s estate. Written by (his great-grandnephew) Dacre Stoker and a fellow named Ian Holt, the similarly named Dracula the Un-Dead was published in 2009. The reviews are mixed on this, and I think each reader has to make their own determination on this book. I strongly believe there is merit in this book as a vampire novel… but perhaps not as a Dracula novel.
  4. Tony Lee’s comic book series Harker — From the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2009) is as direct of a sequel as one can get, taking place the year following the novel with all the characters (including Renfield). It’s a very fast read, and actually uses the Countess Dolingen from “Dracula’s Guest” (just as I do). It might be difficult to find, but it’s available through Comixology (if you use their service for electronic comics).
  5. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005) is a sequel, but focuses very heavily on the tenuous connection between Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. If you aren’t one to accept that connection easily, be forewarned.
  6. Bloodline (2006) and Bloodline Book Two: Reckoning (2007) by Kate Cary are direct sequels showing a vampiric Quincey Harker in World War I and thereafter. I haven’t read them, though I understand Dracula himself plays heavily in these.
  7. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula works aren’t necessarily sequels as much as they are an alternate storyline where the count won at the end of Dracula and goes on to marry Queen Victoria. This is a massive romp through the real and literary history of the 20th century, intertwining the two so tightly and expertly that, if you have to choose between this and Harry Turtledove, this is the alternate history series you should read. The series consists of Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, and the soon to be published Johnny Alucard. He’s also written a treasure trove of novellas and short stories tied to the series. The best way to see an entire listing is on Wikipedia.
  8. The Tomb of Dracula comic book series from Marvel (1972–79) is an excellent example of the horror comics of the 1970’s. By this point, Hammer Films and their franchise had brought the count into the then-modern world (in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula), but no one was really paying attention to them at that point. Instead, it was Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan who shaped the popular view of Dracula in the 20th century through their work on this comic book (and the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970’s is directly related to this and the other horror comics of the time). There are issues that can be skipped, but picking up the collected editions of this and Dracula Lives! would be worthwhile for a fan of the count, the old Hammer movies, or non-sparkling vampires with attitude!
  9. Paul Witcover’s Dracula: Asylum (2006) is a sequel, but not to Bram Stoker’s Dracula… it’s a sequel to the 1931 Universal movie with Bela Lugosi (which is curious, since the Dracula’s Daughter from 1936 is a direct sequel, and the count’s remains are pretty much destroyed in that movie)! I hadn’t heard of this book before today and plan on checking it out soon.
  10. This is something I just came across, but there is a series called The Dracula Horror Series by a fellow named Robert Lory. There are no less than nine books in the series and Dracula is back in them, under control (or perhaps he is doing the controlling?) of a wheelchair-bound older man named Damien Harmon. The first book is named (appropriately) Dracula Returns. The Groovy Age of Horror has write-ups on all nine books.
  11. Also over at The Groovy Age of Horror are write-ups on Peter Tremayne’s loose trilogy of Dracula books. Again, I just came across these. The first (Dracula Unborn) seems promising, and the second (The Revenge of Dracula) and third might be interesting to check out (it’s curious the third, which seems to be a romance, is titled Dracula, My Love… the same as a title in the section below).

The next group is made up of the books written as part of the periphery of the original book (think of how Wide Sargasso Sea relates to Jane Eyre):

  1. Dracula, My Love by Syrie James explores Mina’s desire to be with Dracula. I’ve not read it yet (I own it), but it sounds interesting.
  2. Renfield: Slave of Dracula by Barbara Hambly is a retelling of the book from Renfield’s point of view. Hambly is no stranger to vampires, having written the excellent (and not Dracula-related) James Asher vampire novels (Those Who Hunt the Night, Traveling with the Dead, Blood Maidens, and the soon-to-be-published Magistrates of Hell). Again, I have yet to read this.
  3. The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula by Tim Lucas is another retelling from Renfield’s viewpoint (and, again, I haven’t read it).

Then, finally, the retellings of the original books:

  1. iDrakula by Becca Black is a modern-day retelling of the original book using text messages and email to recreate the epistolary nature of the original. I have read this. It’s well done and is a quick read.
  2. Fangland by John Marks is another updating of the story, and this one does its best to stay away from the name “Dracula.” The Harker name appears, the epistolary format is used once again, and there are travels to eastern Europe… but it seems to stay away from simply retelling Dracula or retelling it with a twist. Again, I have yet to read this.

As I mentioned above, this list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start.

See anything I missed? Drop me a line in the comments.

Writing a sequel to Stoker’s classic

It’s been a long year (exciting when it comes to my son and wife, but otherwise close to dull). My blog has been rather quiet over the past year. I’ve just been busy and, frankly, unmotivated to write anything over here.

So, how do I solve the doldrums that come about from a year like this? Easy: Make something.

The thing I’m going to make is a sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I know, I know. I’ve read (and watched, when it comes to movies) a lot of sequels and adaptations, too. Some were well done (I’m fond of Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula), some were not (Dracula 3000, anyone?). Some would have been better as standalone works (Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s Dracula the Un-Dead comes to mind), and some had to twist a few things from the original story for the new story to work (such as Marvel Comics’ The Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives!).

I want to do something different. I want a logical sequel that doesn’t try to shoehorn the characters from the original story into it and something that doesn’t retcon Stoker’s original story in order to make the new one work. I will try to stay as true to Stoker’s text as possible. Thus, when I started this project, I had to set down specific ground rules to write by within this world. They are:

  1. I am using the text of the 1897 edition, not the 1901 Icelandic version. If you prefer to view Stoker as the “editor” of the book and not its author, I will likely disappoint you in the following statements. Stoker wrote Dracula and his influence over it continues to this day (I, for one, do not subscribe to the idea that the “author is dead” and think Barthes, were he alive, could go hang himself).
  2. The book’s world is not our world. Consider it a parallel or mirror or alternate world/universe or whatever you may like, but the book’s world is not ours.
  3. I consider the book’s world akin to the world of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In Watchmen, superheroes exist and are a fact of life for the inhabitants of the world. Since that’s the case, there is no entertainment with superheroes in it. If this book’s world is a sort of a “Stygian Earth,” one where monsters exist (no matter how little- or well-known that fact is), then their entertainment would tend not explore that side of imagination. It allows for the readers (and the characters) to let go of the 20th century presumptions of the sub-genre and walk into this piece as something more fresh and new, unconstrained by the past century’s burdensome vampire conventions. I can shed the poor Lugosi imitations (“I vant to suck your blood!”), the cinematic conventions (no more destruction by sunlight!), and the romanticizing of the vampires over the past 40 years (Interview with the Vampire, Twilight). We bring ourselves right back to the first square after Dracula.
  4. Stoker himself may have existed in the book’s world, but Dracula does not (nor does any of Stoker’s other fiction). As such, Bela Lugosi will never play Dracula on stage or screen. Christopher Lee and Frank Langella will never feel the bosoms of their prey pressed up against them (nor, for that matter, will Amanda Donohoe slink around on-screen to a snake-charmer’s song).
  5. The journals, diaries, notes, and letters (the originals and Mina’s transcriptions) are in the book’s world. They are in a private collection and very few people know of them, but they exist. In that regard, Dracula’s text is preserved in this world and can be read (more or less) the same way we would read it.
  6. Since I’m accepting Stoker’s book doesn’t exist in this world but the events within it do, then I need to accept all of his book, warts and all. That means, for example, the Borgo Pass is not the very welcoming and scenic vista a real world traveller would see, but the great, treacherous gash in the mountains Jonathan and the others encounter. Or, even though Van Helsing believes the Count to “have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk,” Count Dracula is ethnically Székely (the real Vlad Țepeș was Wallachian) and possibly not Vlad (or, in the book’s world, perhaps Vlad was Székely and not Wallachian). Significantly, whether Count Dracula and Vlad Țepeș are one and the same has nothing to do with this story (and, really, that question has little to do with Stoker’s story either… it’s merely window dressing). Again, the world in the book is not our world, and for that reason there’s little need, in my mind, to reconcile Stoker’s mistakes with their factual equivalents. The book’s world is its own darker version of ours, and thus can work with rules, people, and locations that are slightly different than ours and I’m not looking to fix Stoker’s mistakes when I can simply be telling my own tale.
  7. The events in Dracula take place in 1893. Elizabeth Miller has made an excellent case for the alignment of the dates and general events in Stoker’s book for taking place in that year. Regardless of the actual publication date, Miller makes it clear the book takes place in 1893, which means Jonathan wrote his note at the end of the book in 1900. Since, as I wrote above, Dracula never existed in this book’s world, we needn’t worry about Stoker and his editor’s lack of proper continuity.
  8. Our esteemed and/or contemptible Count is not in this book (nor will he be in anything related to this book). I am of the thought the reader witnesses the destruction of Stoker’s Dracula in November of 1893 each time we read the book. Count Dracula is gone, nothing more than swirling dust in the (fictional version of the) Borgo Pass now. Outside of his influence upon the surviving characters, there is no bringing him back as a presence in the story, regardless of the number of young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage (à la Hammer’s string of vampire movies from the 1950’s to the 1970’s) who may be thrown at his corpse. (Note: This is not to say I have an interest in doing away with the aforementioned young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage in the course of this story. I enjoy Hammer’s vampire movies immensely, even the bad Dracula ones from the 1970’s. I think the Hammer movies made it okay to interject overt sexuality into a story about vampires, and that is for the better. I just won’t be using young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage to resurrect the Count.) Stoker describes a look of peace on Dracula’s face in the split second between Quincey Morris and Jonathan Harker’s blades pressing into his flesh and his subsequent disintegration. He wants this. This final destruction is what he craves, but cannot give himself. Dracula desires his final death. He has been trotted-out innumerable times over the past 114 years… I say we give the Count a much needed rest.

Those are the basic ground rules. I’m sure I will come up with others as I move along.

With those ground rules down, it was time to explore something much more fundamental to the idea of doing a sequel to Dracula: Can a sequel to Dracula work when a pivotal character from the first book doesn’t come back in the next book? Let’s be honest: How does Wide Sargasso Sea work without Jane, but Heathcliff doesn’t… even with Heathcliff himself in it? How come all of the sequels to Stoker’s Dracula (and I’m leaving out Newman, etc., since they change the story of the original book and create alternate history) always have him return?

No doubt the authors of those books see the ability to mine those characters for more story. Dracula has become such a major part of the public imagination that his character practically begs for the blood of young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage so he can continue to terrorize the descendants of Abraham Van Helsing. By creating such a villain, Stoker made himself immortal (without having to succumb to vampirism himself). But, what so many don’t get, is Dracula is not about Count Dracula. He’s a rather minor character. The story is more about the band and their character growth, not the vampire’s desire to prey upon the well-endowed ladies of Victorian England. But, more so than the band, Stoker’s book is truly about the fear of the unknown. The fear of the other. It’s truly about Victorian England slowly losing its grasp on power and fearing the rising influence of the peoples in eastern Europe. It is a book of classic horror that hooks itself into the western mindset of superiority over, and fear of, the backwoods, and backwards, peoples to the east.

The book also uses a very popular convention later overly used and pummeled to death in late 20th century slasher movies. The convention of the “proper” girl being tempted, but ultimately surviving, and the girl with the more libertine impulses succumbing to the evil is used to an extreme in Stoker’s piece. He uses the word “wanton” to describe both Dracula’s brides and Lucy at points throughout the book, painting them as outside of societal norms and as sexual beings, unconstrained by acceptable relationships (the three brides share Dracula, and Lucy has three suitors and later Dracula). Thus, Lucy and the brides, because of their basic dismissal of Victorian morals for women, are sexual predators Stoker is looking down upon. Mina, dear, sweet Mina, is very clearly held up as a paragon of Victorian womanhood (even going to far as to completely eschew the concept of the “New Woman”). Stoker wrote Mina so that she knew her place (so to speak) and, thus, survive the temptation to wantonness that the brides and Lucy embraced.

He also touches on class in his book. Jonathan and Mina, being the forthright and good people they are, are moving up in the world through hard work and doing things the right way (well, and Mr. Hawkins’s well-timed death doesn’t hurt). Lucy, on the other hand, is a bit of a gold-digger, and that, along with her “wanton” ways, dooms her from the start.

So, aside from class, Dracula, in the end, is about two things: 1) xenophobia and how the west is just better off staking the east’s old world traditions in the heart and moving on; and 2) keeping women (and their sexuality) in their proper place. Dracula is, at its heart, a very proper Victorian English book (written by an Irishman…!) that reinforces proper Victorian English ideals.

And that’s the point where I think other sequels to Dracula fail.

A sequel to such a work has to either build upon, endorse, repudiate, or entirely supplant the original ideas. Just having the original characters running around, flashing crosses around while trying to save the young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage of England from Dracula (yet again) isn’t a compelling story. It might be enjoyable to watch, but it’s ultimately insubstantial.

It’s time to walk away from Dracula being in a sequel to Dracula. So, with no Dracula stalking the pages of a sequel, where does it go? As far as I can tell, no one has tried a direct sequel without the Count in it somewhere, but I believe a blank canvas of a character was handed to us by Stoker at the the very end of the book.

Quincey Harker.

Quincey Harker’s been explored in a few pieces before: Marv Wolfman used him (as “Quincy” Harker, presumably for copyright and trademark reasons) in the old Tomb of Dracula series from Marvel as a modern-day (for then) version of Van Helsing. Kate Cary used him as more of a villain in her Bloodline books, and he was also in both Freda Warrington and Stoker & Holt’s sequels as a child and young man.

The issue I take with that is Quincey, the character, comes across entirely under-utilized by Warrington and Stoker & Holt (Wolfman and Cary use him to much greater effect, but I think there’s more to him than either of them went into, either). Quincey has had a heritage thrust upon him that neither he nor his parents asked for. I’ve never bought the idea that Jonathan and Mina kept Quincey in the dark (as some of the sequels point to; it’s an easy way to rehash and summarize Stoker’s book if things need to be explained to Quincey at some point). In Jonathan’s note at the end of the book, Van Helsing makes it very clear that there is much for the then-young Quincey to learn about that time (and about his mother’s role in particular). In many ways, Quincey is a late Victorian John Connor (from The Terminator) in how he has been given no options in his life. He is the son of vampire hunters, vampire hunters who destroyed an old and powerful vampire, and his parents’ friends are already making plans for him in the very young years of his life (as well they should… being the child of the Harkers means he will incur the wrath of those who want revenge).

So, Quincey Harker will be the central character in a story that picks up 45 years after the original. I am lifting Stoker’s idea of telling the story using the epistolary convention, which lends itself beautifully to a blog. Following queues from both Max Barry’s Machine Man serial in 2009, and Michael Gordon’s very entertaining (and currently ongoing) “Bite-Sized Dracula” Twitter & blog serialization of Dracula, I think a serial release makes the most sense. I could write it all now and release it as a single volume, but I think Bite-Sized Dracula has helped to reinforce that an epistolary novel, released serially, does an excellent job building suspense on the part of the reader.

You will be able to read my book for free (both as it is posted and afterwards). If you really end up liking it, there will be ways you can help support me monetarily (and there will be book-related incentives for those who do support the project). At the end, I will bundle it all up and self-publish it (both physical and ebook) as a collected work (including an edited version of this post serving as either an introduction or an afterword).

What can I tell you about the piece right now? It begins just after Quincey’s birthday in 1938 as three individuals come looking for him in the Pampas. And you will get to meet them on November 2, 2011, when I start releasing The Heritage serially at quinceyharker.com.

The embedded bureaucracy

When we hear complaints of “socialism” and “the never-ending war,” and so on, many of those complaints are aimed at the sitting president at the time.

Can we justifiably aim those at the sitting president? Or is he (possibly “she” in a few years?) simply caught in a situation that has rolled out of control, snowballing its way out of DC and all over the citizenry, like some sort of politician-fed Blob? And, if that is the case, who is in the role of Steve McQueen?

I chewed on this in 2008 as I decided who to vote for. I voted for Obama (and probably would do so again) but I think his promises of change were a little lofty. He came across as promising drastic change to both his supporters and detractors. The reality is, neither group properly thought out the role and ability of the executive branch of the government. And I’m not sure Obama’s campaign really foresaw the extreme partisanship (but, even then, dialing-down some of the more lofty expectations might have made more sense).

I voted for Obama not just for his promise to get us out of the wars, but also because I believe health care is a basic human right. I wanted to see him follow-through on those items.

But would have it been different under McCain or any of the other candidates who ran in either party (Tancredo and Kucinich included)? Does the president have enough power to actually affect the country to the point of drastic change?

Or is the president simply a steward at this point?

I think Penn Jillette brought up an excellent point in one of his early “Penn Point” videos. Start about 2:21 (I suggest watching it — my post won’t make sense otherwise):

So according to Jillette’s friend, Obama promised to end the war, got into office, and then learned high-level, top secret information that convinced him to stick with the previous administration’s strategy. Thus, in Jillette’s mind, that possiblity would essentially negate our voices within the democratic process and place true power within the embedded bureaucracy of the federal government (by which I mean the higher-level civil servants and appointed officials who make entire, decades-long careers working for the government).

Do the bureaucrats hold the true power?

If you think about it, Eisenhower’s view of the “military-industrial complex” clearly shows that he was warning us of that in 1961. He originally saw it as the “military-industrial-congressional complex” (and dropping “congressional” so as to not upset the members in Congress who were clearly the target of the statement and needed to be looked at more closely) focusing on how Congress is in the back pocket of special interests (not just the military, at least now), specifically the ones who can make lots and lots of money for a representative’s district or a senator’s state.

That means Congress is part of the bureaucracy and needs to be shaken-up, right? Just as the Tea Party suggests — throw Pelosi and Reid out!

But… who comes in at that point?

Nancy Pelosi has been a member of Congress since 1987. Harry Reid has been in the Senate since the same year and was in Congress from 1983–1987.

Their counterparts are John Boehner (started in Congress in 1991) and Mitch McConnell (started in the Senate in 1985).

It is currently looking like Reid might win his race (narrowly) and that Democrats will lose the House. That means Boehner is expected to become Speaker of the House if this holds.

See a pattern?

Will the Tea Party actually make their newly-elected representatives stage a fight within the chambers of the House in order to place someone more sympathetic to their views in the Speaker’s chair? Possibly. Unlikely, though, as the Tea Party is going to affect very few of the seats as a whole. They simply could not do anything meaningful to substantially change the leadership of the House, even if their favorite candidates sweep every single congressional election. The fight on the floor would be put down before it even started.

Look — I disagree with almost everything related to the Tea Party, but I admire the fact the grassroots members are attempting to affect change. It’s what the left did in this country in 2008. But the reality is we cannot shake up Congress by simply placing the same faces in charge. Even David Frum (a conservative from the second Bush administration who actually has the ability to reason and has gotten into hot water with his fellow conservatives) explores what effect the Tea Party might have… and it isn’t lasting.

On the other hand, however, as we’ve seen in Michigan, instituting terms limits on legislators eventually leads to an extreme lack of institutional knowledge and the inability to get any work done in a hyper-partisan environment. 2010 Michigan is a victim of 1992 Michigan’s inane term limit politics. Any voter with ties to this state and who supported the term limits in 1992 need should be ashamed of themselves, because they are partially responsible for the crap this state is going through right now (congrats, asshats, for the inexperience and rampant idiocy in our lovely state government).

But I digress…

So, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. Either way, the embedded bureaucracy of the special interests-congressional complex continues because term-limiting them seriously affects the ability of the body to do its work, but allowing ancient old-boy-network types like Strom Thurmond and John Dingell to keep clinging-on to their seats for decades is not what the founders envisioned.

There is a way out.

I have yet to read it, so I am unfamiliar with her entire argument, but Arianna Huffington, in Third World America, calls for full public financing of elections. Her argument? “If someone’s going to own the politicians, it might as well be the American people” (172).

Imagine: Each candidate is provided with a pool of money to run their campaign with. There’s no need to go through the asinine steps of raising money, no need to kowtow to special interests, no need not to speak one’s mind and be truly representative of the peoples’ interests. Imagine what a presidential candidate with public funding could actually honestly say about things like Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories. Imagine what it would be like to have a truly honest race, where we didn’t have to listen to sound bites or watch some MILF wannabe from some BFE state wrap herself in the flag and try to be a populist. What an amazing time for American politics that would be.

But public financing of elections is only one step, however.

If the embedded bureaucracy of career government employees (and, again, I’m not talking about a secretary, or an FBI agent, etc., but of policy makers) doesn’t change, then there will continue to be not a special interests-congressional complex but a special interests-government complex. The people who run things behind the scenes and actually hold the power, have the contacts, and know how to pull strings.

Case in point: Pete Rouse.

Ignore the fact that the Tea Party is going to elect people who will either be ineffectual or will bow down to the great orange Boehner as soon as he steps on their toes. Look behind the scenes at people like Rouse.

Pete Rouse has been in Washington since 1971 (yup — that’s 39 years; Nixon was still in his first term, the Vietnam War was still on, and the Beatles had only broken up the year before) and has worked as chief of staff for Tom Daschle and then Barack Obama in the Senate. In fact, he held such strong influence in the Senate that he came to be known as “the 101st Senator.”

He was never elected. The people never chose him. Yet he has been referred to as a senator.

I’m not picking on Pete Rouse. I agree with most of his politics and think he will serve the White House well as the Interim Chief of Staff. I bet I would enjoy talking with him in person.

Let’s look at Dick Armey (always, in my humble opinion, a good one to poke fun at). He was in office until 2003 and then, that same year, became a lobbyist for DLA Piper. Now he claims to be, through FreedomWorks, a leader of the Tea Party… and, the shocking thing is, he seems to be accepted in this role. The man was on Capitol Hill for eighteen years, became a lobbyist, and then became a supposed proponent of “lower taxes, less government, and more freedom” (while still being a lobbyist at DLA Piper; he was not asked to step down from his lobbying role until the health care debate last year). This is someone a supposed grassroots organization is supposed to take their lead, or, rather, “manifesto,” from?

How many Pete Rouses are in the staff of congressional representatives? How many Dick Armeys are now employed as lobbyists and influencing the votes of their former colleagues?

True change isn’t just about the elected officials. We, as voters affect change via our representatives, and that’s where the change starts. The key is not just public financing of elections, though, but of electing people who are truly committed to helping dig out the embedded bureaucrats and act as representatives within the democracy. In order to do that, we need an educated and interested electorate…

Which is the third issue at play here.

People simply don’t care. Charles Rangel gets re-elected time after time after time not for any legislative actions he’s taken in the last 20 or 30 years, but simply simply because of the name recognition and power he’s cultivated in his home district. And then we turn to see Russ Feingold, arguably one of the most productive and bi-partisian senators I’ve ever watched, is fighting for re-election against an opponent who’s funding himself (remember what I wrote above about public financing?) and running against Feingold as a Washington insider.

Elections should not be about removing people simply because they’ve been in Washington for a long time. If that were the case, then Rangel would have been gone a long time ago. This is about the electorate not being educated about how its government functions, or what its (the electorate’s) responsibility is.

For the record, the Tea Party adherents get it wrong: “We the people” elect our representatives to go to Washington to make decisions as our proxies. They can solicit feedback from their constituents, but they are under no obligation to do so. We elect them, within our representative democracy, in order to make the judgements for us. We entrust that power to them and, if they break that trust, then we are to make sure we know if that and that we do what we can to make sure the person is no longer elected. But they are not beholden to our every whim — they are supposed to make these decisions on their own. I think the case for this was made better by a much better writer than I will ever be:

…Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution…

-from Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, November 3, 1774

Of course Burke was referring to the British Parliament, but the structure of our government is fashioned heavily off of our former mother country’s. So… our representatives are elected, by “We the people,” to use their best judgement as our representatives. It is not their job to blow the way the wind does in the district, it is their job to weigh the issues in front of them and use their best judgement to come to a conclusion.

I can hear some of you still asking: “Who do we blame? The president, or Congress, or long-time government workers, or the lobbyists? Who is to blame for all of this?”

I refer to the never quoted line of Eisenhower’s address that comes after the line mentioning the “military-industrial complex” (the emphasis is mine):

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

So, to answer your question as to who is to blame…

We are.

We are the ones responsible for where we find ourselves. We have not been “an alert and knowledgeable” electorate. We have simply allowed ourselves to be deluded by the political rainmakers, the Jim Carvilles and Mary Matlins of this world (who enjoy politics solely for the figurative game of chess they get to play, not because they truly believe in the people they are working for), into thinking we have binary choices and that our candidates must fit a specific mold. We’ve allowed this hyperpartisan chess game to shape how we govern ourselves and expect government to act.

It’s more than digging-out the embedded bureaucracy. We must take responsibility for our (lack of) actions. At that point, the embedded bureaucracy can be reformed.

Take a deep, long look at the ballot you are about to cast (or should be casting) next month. It’s your responsibility, within the structure of our democracy, to be educated on those races and those proposals. Liberal, conservative, libertarian… whatever, you call yourself, please attempt to educate yourself. In Michigan, a good place to start is publius.org. Check “teh internets” for similar sites in other states, or start with Project Vote Smart.

Think about this like squeezing a pimple… a deep, painful one. It’s going to take some work, and it’ll be messy, but with some effort and a little Clearasil afterwards, that spot should clear up nicely.

Fear & Loathing in the Politics of the Other

I want to revisit something I touched upon a year ago in this post. In response to those who believe the country is changing from “what they grew up in,” and that they are “scared of where the country is going,” I wrote:

It’s fear of the Other. I’m not going to a discussion of that (you can read more about it here), but I would argue that, in this case, the right wing sees the Other as anything that isn’t bourgeoisie, heterosexual, and Christian. As long as a man or woman fits those criteria, by the way, the right wing will forgive them their race (after all — they don’t have control over that, do they?), so I would make an argument that skin color is not a requisite feature (but I would also make the argument a white man, not Michael Steele, would be chair of the Republican Party if there weren’t a black man from the opposing party in the White House).

Think of the Other in the terms of the 1950s. If it would cause Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver to have a long talk without Wally and the Beav around, then you know that’s what these tea party protesters are scared of.

This is a special sort I’m referring to. These folks are the type who, as kids, would look at some new food and immediately consider it “disgusting” and claim they didn’t like it.

This group of Americans is made up of individuals who are so homogenous, their world so vanilla, they would be scared simply of a black man hosting a children’s television show. I’m sure Reading Rainbow was denigrated in these households long before Yo Gabba Gabba was even thought of, and I’m willing to put good money down that plenty of these “values voters” were completely freaked-out to see the diversity on Sesame Street and Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman) on The Electric Co. (if they even allowed PBS to be viewed in their house in the first place).

Let’s call it for what it is: It’s simply prejudice. I believe the shadow leadership of the Tea Party (those funding it) is excercisng the sort of prejudice based solely on keeping power in their hands and out of the hands of minorities in this country (in a desperate attempt to cling to their power base as much as possible while it gets whittled away by minority groups). Many of the more regional and media leaders, like Mark Williams (of “monkey god” comment and “Colored People” blog post fame), knowingly use this prejudice to stir the pot. They don’t make the prejudice, they just make it prejudice-ier.

The prejudice exercised by the grassroots members is different. They hate being called racists because they don’t see it as a matter of race at all — they see it as matter of something “other” than they know taking the reigns of power in this country. They see a black man in charge of the White House, they see a woman as Speaker
of the House, they see illegal Mexican immigrants marching in the street and not quietly working in the fields. They see things other than they saw, and were comfortable with, while growing-up.

They are outside of their comfort zone, they are unsure of what they see, and they are vulnerable.

This is fear.

They are scared. Scared of other thoughts, scared of other people, scared of anything that is “other” than what they are. As I wrote last year: “the right wing sees the Other as anything that isn’t bourgeoisie, heterosexual, and Christian.”

It’s a prejudice stemming from having to deal with others who are not like them. As long as Michael Steele “acts” like he’s white, they’re fine with him. As soon as he “acts” like he’s black, they criticize him. They may have no interactions with others on which to make their judgements. Their prejudice is solely due to a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to expand that knowledge.

They fear because it is easier to fear. It is too much work to do otherwise (there is a reason George Lucas focuses on the Dark Side being an easier path, don’t you think?). Plus, this is something different and alien… why take the time to attempt to learn from it?

These are fearful and lazy people. But I’m not going to focus on the laziness. I want to look at why they allow fear to rule them.

Let’s examine two 20th century statements focusing on fear. The first is from Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address when he stated “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Then, consider the Bene Gesserit ‘litany against fear’ in Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Herbert’s use of “the little-death” is important here as, in French (la petite mort), this is a metaphor for orgasm. Don’t think this is some sort of anti-masturbation or anti-sex discussion (Christine O’Donnell can keep her peculiar views on reality as I’m completely uninterested in co-opting anything that woman has to say; on the other hand, I have no issue co-opting the phrase “fear and loathing in…” from Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for this post’s title).

No, the reason to bring forth an image of orgasm to the readers’ minds is to underscore how alluring fear can be. The Bene Gesserit, in their litany, liken fear to an orgasmic experience. It is an experience monopolizing the moment, focusing the participant(s) and their attention solely upon that singular point and experience. It is adrenaline-filled and an experience that, among other things, brings you to an unreasoning state of mind where all else is paralyzed.

They simply, in their fear, are so excited, so unreasoning, that they have become nothing less than a mob. A mob that cannot be bargained with or sat down for a discussion so long as they rely on fear to keep them going (and their leaders will not let that fear subside considering how profitable it is for them to keep the members’ fear at the forefront).

I’m not doubting there is a discussion that needs to be had with the members of the group, and those of us who are not sympathetic to their cause need to listen to their concerns — we cannot just dismiss them. Arguably, if the country were less polarized right now, it would be easier for all of us to sit down and talk with each other. Shouting the other person down, ignoring their views, and name-calling is not the way things will be fixed.

As Carl Sagan says in Cosmos: “Where we have strong emotions, we’re liable to fool ourselves.”

We on the other side look at the typical members as redneck country bumpkins who couldn’t possibly have anything substantive to add to the discussions in the country. We see a standard of solid yellow, with a coiled rattlesnake in the center, and we immediately make the assumption the people holding it are to be ignored.

They fear us.

We loathe them.

We loathe the backwards, inane, uneducated, reality TV show-watching, Jesus Camp-attending, and pickup truck-driving lot of them, don’t we?

And that is just as bad as they are.

If we are supposed to be the reasonable side of the polticial divide right now, then why don’t I see us acting reasonably? For every “Democrap” comment I see, I see just as many “Repuglican” ones. For every comment calling Obama a socialist or a communist, I see one calling the Tea Party a bunch of theocrats.

Since when was name calling constructive and reasonable?

This country was designed to work within the context of freely communicable ideas and to create a dialogue, or an argument (in the philosophical sense, not the throwing-vases-against-the-wall sense), in order to come to a compromise we can all agree on. Keep in mind, I’m well aware that this has never actually been the case in this country (just read about how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams savaged each other in the campaigns they ran against one another), but that doesn’t mean we can’t start now.

We can’t ignore the majority of them. We can’t dismiss them. We certainly can’t fear them. Any of that would make us just as bad, just as ignorant, as they. We are part of this country with them for a reason, and I suspect we can find a way to work with most of them that does not involve marching with placards of American politicians adapted to look like Adolph Hitler.

Granted, the leadership that is whipping these people into a frenzy cannot be worked with and won’t want to be (just watch how Dick Armey, on The Daily Show, can’t make any justification for the inflammatory language he uses in his book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto; these are not individuals who have any interest in compromise and only use the Constitution and its framing principles in any way they can twist to serve their own power-hungry selfishness). The true radical fringe types, the Vicki “Our children’s imaginations have to be bounded” Frosts and American Taliban types (and I do place Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell in this group) of this country, must be denounced and fought at every turn. No members of either of those groups can be worked with and don’t deserve to be.

The rest, however, do deserve our patience and attention. We don’t have to agree with them, and they don’t have to agree with us… but we do have to work with one another and respect our difference of opinions without letting it devolve into name-calling and shouting. There is no room in the philosophical underpinnings of this country’s founders for ideologues or demagogues.

So, instead of ignoring them, instead of fearing them… talk with them. Find out what they actually fear and try to quell that fear. Help them get past the “unreasoning, unjustified terror” they are experiencing so it can “pass over and through” them and we can actually have a constructive discussion that leads somewhere.

What I did on summer vacation

The title of this post is a bit disingenuous as, while I work in education, I don’t really have a “summer vacation,” per se.

I’m always amazed at the people — full-grown adults with proper jobs, kids, pets, cars, mortgages, and credit card debt — who seem to think the business of a university ends as soon as classes do. It’s always interesting to talk with some people, just like it’s always interesting to talk with a brick or small pebbles or a broom.

Yet, here I am, referring to a summer vacation I don’t really get (I could take “vacation” during the “summer,” but that’s not really “summer vacation,” is it? It’s more like “a summer vacation.”) and further perpetuating the idea university employees get to take the summer off and do whatever they like…

But I digress.

I haven’t posted in a while. The last post was while I was avoiding writing a my novel in Belize.

I figured I would have written a bit more this summer. I had it all planned out: Clean up the house, set up a nursery, have a leisurely stroll through to the middle of summer, with a baby showing up in mid-late summer

If you know Liza or me, you know it’s been a little more busy than that.

The main thing that happened. of course, was Benjamin (the aforementioned “baby”).

Benjamin surprised us (and, I’m sure, himself) on June 14, five weeks before his due date of July 15.

Five weeks.

His room hadn’t even been cleared out of the stuff (and I mean STUFF when I write “stuff” in this context) Liza and I had sitting in it. It was still painted a chocolate-milk-poo-brown color (arguably, since boys tend to be more scatological, it would have possibly been a good color to keep so as to camouflage any toddler-era artworks by this young master). And all of his furniture was still boxed-up in the overcrowded, soon-to-be turned into, library/fitness/guest room.

The ensuing five days of Liza in the hospital, and Ben’s concurrent stay in the NICU (which became a total of three weeks and a couple of days in the NICUs at Hutzel Hospital and then at Children’s Hospital of Michigan), threw the entire “leisurely stroll” through to the middle of summer right out the window, into the street, tumbling into a pothole and drowning in the puddle that had formed inside it.

This isn’t necessarily something I feel the need to relive day-by-day. It was emotional tumult of an excruciating degree, especially after knowing Liza was okay, and then watching Ben’s condition worsen. It’s one of those things that simply cannot be explained without actually experiencing it, and it’s not something any of you should ever have to experience.

Compounding the emotional mess was just the reality of existence the week they were both in the hospital. Bouncing between the house, Liza’s hospital room, the NICU, back to the house to feed the dogs and let them outside, back to the hospital, for five days on-end… I lost all sense of time. I couldn’t stay at the hospital because of the fact the dogs needed me at home… and that made me feel even more helpless in the situation.

I was able to use some of that time to get stuff out of his room, start the painting (priming, actually — I only tested the paint in the time they were both in the hospital), distract myself with some World Cup games… that sort of thing.

Even once Liza was home, not having Ben in the house was, probable, even worse than when both of them were in the hospital. There we were — parents.

Parents. With no kid.

We could go to the NICU and hold him, and talk with him, and cuddle him. Sure, we could do all of that. But we had to give him back when we left.

Practically speaking, those three weeks gave us enough time to get the vast majority of the projects we needed to finish out of the way (we were still finishing his room when he came home, but we were able to move around him (and move him around) while finishing-off the details). Practically speaking, it was a great distraction.

Rationally, one can completely understand why this was the case. He was not well, he needed 24-hour treatment, and he wasn’t going to get that at home.

But, in our reality (not necessarily real reality, but our reality), the time we were both at home and he was still in the NICU was some of the worst emotional pain I could have ever gone through. As one gets older, one expects to deal with the loss of grandparents, parents, friends, siblings, and so on. I expected, when my grandfather was in a nursing home a few years back, that something along those lines was going to occur. I may have not been prepared, but we expect it.

We, as people, never really told to expect, nor are we prepared, to deal with a newborn (from an otherwise normal and uneventful pregnancy) to spend three weeks in a NICU and have the doctors scratching their heads as to what is causing the baby’s problems. It just isn’t something we, as a society, tell expectant parents to try to prepare for. It’s obvious what the dangers are — we all are aware of them on some level. But we never think it’ll affect us, nor do we think an uneventful pregnancy will lead to problems with delivery or with the baby itself.

When they say there isn’t a manual for new, or expectant, parents… it’s true. There should be something (and I’m sure there is, but how do you find what books to read amongst the multitude of copies The Expectant Father, What to Expect…, etc.?). Do you really think What to Prepare to Expect When You are Expecting to Have a Perfectly Normal Pregnancy, Delivery, and Baby (someone might buy that… but I can imagine the editor freaking-out at the title)?

No… it’s all by the seat of our pants…. or the seat of the baby’s onesie.

Three months later, Ben is on the mend. As you can see in the picture above: Almost no jaundice, he’s growing and gaining weight wonderfully. Gastroenterology and cardiology are still observing a few things with his liver and heart (nothing that seems to be life threatening at this point), but he’s otherwise a normal, health, baby. With very healthy lungs. Extremely healthy lungs. I may have to start wearing earplugs when I feed him and he’s in a grumpy mood.

So why this posting, and why now?

On September 8, I tweeted: “Is it too cliche to say that becoming a father has seriously made me question what’s important and what’s clearly not important in life?”

Now, granted, I can be overly (and overtly) introspective to a fault. If you think Winnie-the-Pooh is an overthinker, you haven’t been around me when I start dwelling on things.

But I have been thinking about how this has affected my view on other things… specifically how I no longer have patience for minor, insipid things that have precious little to do with anything worthwhile (and, thus, have no right to my patience for them).

I’ve had a long time this summer to reflect and think about what is truly important and worthwhile. A lot of what I do day-to-day is neither. Manufactured and excessive melodrama are not worth my time or my patience.

I suppose, if you are the type vain or paranoid enough to think this is somehow in reference to you or how we relate to one another… then you might be right. It might actually be about you (See? You aren’t as paranoid as those other people think you are because we really are talking about you, aren’t we?).

I will be working to make a few things change in the coming months. Here’s hoping they actually bear fruit.

The Belizean Thing on the Roof

The thing I heard on the roof this morning isn’t out of a Robert E. Howard-penned Lovecraftian horror. It was a bird, a big bird, bouncing around a warm corrugated aluminum roof on a humid Beleizean morning. (Perhaps “Bird on a Hot Aluminum Roof” would be a better title?)

It’s interesting to see the college students Liza and I are with and their reactions to the nature around us. A coconut falls from a tree in the dark and one of them is insistent that there’s a large animal in the tree ready to attack. Leaves rustle in such a way to make you think there’s something lurking in the underbrush (not that there’s much of that where we’re staying). It’s partially culture shock, of course, but it’s an entirely different world for them (and me, no doubt) here. As we were talking at breakfast this morning, the wife of the doctor on this trip called it the “suburbs of the rain forest.” I think it’s an apropos statement.

The growth of the flora is not as dense as I had expected. Belize, intriguingly, seems to be logged beyond belief (the populated areas, that is). Clearly the Baymen’s logging swath from centuries ago is where the bulk of the population still lives. It’s been two days, and I can’t say I’ve seen that much old growth (even only being five or 10 miles from the border with Guatemala) except in and around Cahal Pech. Even that growth isn’t old, comparatively speaking, to the true rain forest. For such a small country, with such massive natural beauty, one can only wonder about what the state of the flora and fauna would be had the Baymen been a little less aggressive in their logging.

The state of the people themselves is another question. I am reluctant to use the word “poverty” because of the definition of it and “poor” in the second edition of the NOAD (for the record: that is my favorite reference book and the first place I look to for definitions). The definition of “poverty” is “the state of being extremely poor” and “poor” is “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Comparatively speaking, this is clearly a poor country when compared to others on the continent (though, compared to Haiti, especially after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, this is probably a very well to do place). However, one needs to look at the question of what is “normal in a society” and compare that within the society itself.

From what I’m seeing, at least in San Ignacio and from passing through a bit of Belize City and Belmopan, is clear poverty by US standards (though there might even been some regions of the Appalachians that are more poor than than these urban areas). To get to San Ignacio, we drove through some villages that are clearly at the same level of some areas of West Virginia I’ve driven through. I have yet to go into villages (I’ll do that tomorrow or the day after) but, comparatively speaking, we do not have this sort of poverty in the US.

It’s a question of the standard of poverty here, and how the rural and the urban here compare to one another. The state of the people here seems to be “at a standard considered comfortable or normal.” I’m sure there is jealousy towards the US, Canada, and probably even Mexico. We all (especially the US and Canada) give off an air of having an immense ability to basically throw away our money and flaunt it while we do so. Let’s be honest: I’m writing this on a laptop (a MacBook Air) that, bought new, probably costs well out of the reach of the average Belizean. I have doubts that computers themselves are in no more than 15% of households (and that even feels high to me, but I’ve spent precious little time in Belize City at this point). There is a clear dichotomy at play here.

However, the standard of living here, at least in this point of the trip, seems to be a true standard and not a massive sliding scale. The people are not straddling immense wealth and immense lack of wealth. For the most part, it looks as though these folks are lacking wealth. But is the lack of wealth “poverty?” Especially when comparing the people solely to their countrymen? I would argue it isn’t. The nation as a whole is impoverished, but I do not see that the people are (does that make sense?). The people expect this standard of living, they see it as normal, and, thus, the definition of “poverty” can’t be applied to the people as a people, solely to the nation and its economy. Normality for the population here seems to be focusing on handling what can be handled as best as it can be handled. The children are not running around in dirty clothes or naked, the adults all seem to be be actively working on things. This is not the typical developing nation we see Sally Strothers hocking to us after Craig Ferguson and the Sham-Wow commercials (at least not in the populated areas).

It’s clearly a country standing with one foot in each of the two worlds. They want to shake off their logging and slavery-ridden past, embrace their massive multi-cultural heritage, and take a long stride into a modern world. The students were able to talk with a woman named Cynthia Ellis yesterday, and listening to her statements show the precipice the Belizeans find themselves standing on. The next decade or so will see major changes, I think. I see three distinct possibilities.

The first possibility is this country could turn into another Haiti (elect or otherwise place into power a popular demagogue, a supposed man or woman of the people, fabricate a “common enemy,” stir) and the people, in their comparative poverty to the rest of the world, could embrace a destructive path if they are somehow convinced it is in their best interest. After all, that’s the formula Adolph Hitler and Robert Mugabe, amongst others, used, is it not? That’s definitely the formula that kept George W. Bush in power in 2004 in the US. Please keep in mind I am not meaning to come across as stating the Belizean government is, in any way, comparable to the governments of Hitler and Mugabe. I am attempting to illustrate the way a demagogue uses jealousy and fear to attain and retain power. Make no mistake, though: I am definitely tying George W. Bush and his administration’s political use of fear tactics directly to the practices of governments run by people like Hitler and Mugabe (I personally am of the belief Bush is a traitor to the US and should be tried for war crimes, but that is an entirely different topic for another day). Considering the comparative poverty and the presumed jealousy in this country, such a circumstance could happen (but, to be more than honest, this could happen in any country under the correct circumstances). Looking at the past stability of Belize as a nation, however, I suspect it will not.

One thing could undermine that stability, though. I’ve already heard mentions of various people in the government who are getting rich and shouldn’t be. We watched the drugs we were bringing in for the people in the villages be confiscated at the airport because there are new rules for bringing these things into the country (I personally think a bribe of $50 USD, which is $100 in Belizean currency, probably would have gotten the drugs through). There’s clearly a subculture of corruption beginning to make a marked appearance in governmental functions, and that corruption can destroy a society trying to improve itself. Those leaders who are responsible need to work to ensure that the corrupt and corruptible stay out of power here. If the government is eventually seen as a corrupt entity, that will destroy the people’s trust and allow for a demagogue. This country, as we’ve seen with Haiti, would not survive as any type of productive member of the international community.

The second possibility is nothing will change, or that change will be glacial. Ten years hence, we could return, and nothing would be different. It is a distinct possibility if the international community does not assist Belize in lifting itself up. I do not mean solely by monetary means, either, but also by actual assistance, teaching, and training. Watching the situation with the group of students Liza and I are working with down here shows me, clearly, that the aid groups based in country are utterly disorganized.

I’ve heard some Belizeans claim it’s their laid-back lifestyle, but being laid-back doesn’t preclude organization. One can be laid-back and still have a sense of process and procedure. This is the third year an undergraduate group from our university has come down here, and I was shocked by the amount of basic questions Liza had to ask, and keep asking, in order for this to come off correctly. Even as we’ve been here, I’ve heard one of the group leaders (essentially our “fixer,” to use some Anthony Bourdain terminology) state she didn’t know the students were supposed to speak in school settings (while her, I assume, boss has reinforced that, yes, this is going to happen). Then, last night, as the students were talking with the doctor, practicing taking blood pressure and poking each other in the fingers with glucometers (in order to test for diabetes), the fixer’s boss noted that they should do this sort of things with all of the groups. (He is, I should note, the same one who keeps making the “laid-back” statements… while supposedly responsible for upwards of nine international groups of doctors, nurses, and students at any given time.)

Aid groups from outside of a country need to be properly prepared and assisted by those in country in order to correctly address the needs of the people. I’m not saying they need to emulate American business practices. But a standard set of instructions for groups coming in to help? That would be excellent.

The third possibility is what I see as most likely. American corporate interests will soon realize how close to the American mainland this country is, that they speak English, that they take American currency at an easy exchange rate, their power comes out at 110 volts and uses the same receptacles we do, that Sally Strothers is unlikely to have a camera crew filming her next commercial here (at least, again, in the heavily populated areas), that American music flows out of the bars and American TV is all over the airwaves, and, last but not least, that the Belizeans are more than willing to make spaghetti and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches for food squeamish student groups. Once those corporate interests see that (if they haven’t already), this country will be awash in more logos than Logorama or Blade Runner featured. The Las Vegas of the Caribbean along the barrier islands, with the areas further inland becoming vacation spots for middle- and upper-class Americans who have tired of Hawaii.

I think the Belizeans would welcome a massive amount of increased tourism by (relatively) wealthy Americans. But is a service economy what they really need to survive? A portion, yes, but I should hope they would balance it. If you think about it, in this situation, one big recession in the US could have massive, and irrecoverable, repercussions on this country (I’m sure the current one already has had an affect). The country could become service-based, tourist-centric, and completely collapse in the next financial meltdown, leaving it a rotting corpse of a country… with Sally Strothers filming her next commercial in San Ignacio.

It’s my hope the Belizeans are adept enough to control the American corporate interests from running roughshod all over them. Unfortunately, if the leaders of the aid groups can’t get their acts together as they deal with students groups, how are they going to stand up to McDonald’s and Wal-Mart?

Our country is changing for the better

After running some errands yesterday, I saw a group of people in St. Clair Shores, MI protesting Obama and the health care reform. It was a group of normal white folks from SCS just hanging out in the parking lot of one of the older bars in the city. They were waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and, in general, exercising their right to free speech.

Good for them. But they aren’t really focusing on the true issues, just raising specters of socialism (and fascism, though I have to seriously question where these people were from 1/2001 to 1/2009 if they are crying “fascism”) and making Obama the face of their protest (while not keeping in mind that neither Obama nor the administration have put forward any legislation — everything has been happening in Congress in this regard).

But where is this going? Where is the name calling going? When a white congressman from South Carolina is disrespectful enough to call Obama a liar during a presidential address (prompting even Craig Ferguson to say the congressman went too far and was acting like he was on Jerry Springer, not a member of Congress), is this actually a debate about health care?

I don’t think so. I think this is about race and class. Let’s keep in mind that the right wing really harped on the “death panel” bit in the latest bill, but conveniently forgot that many of them voted for the same thing in the Medicare reform bill a few years back under Bush. How many of these folks have truly ever had to deal with an aging relative who needs this discussion? My grandmother, mother, and I dealt with it when it came to my grandfather a couple of years ago. My mother and I are now having to explore a lot of the same issues with my grandmother (though it’s a touch better than it was with my grandfather). Having some avenue to discuss all of the end-of-life options, someone who is competent and knows what they are talking about, is a necessity and that’s what the supposed “death panels” are.

Trust me, I’m not ready to put my grandmother down, no matter how aggravating she can be. I’ve read the language and that isn’t what would happen. So, clearly, the “death panel” thing just isn’t going to gain traction.

What about the expense? The massive expense of covering all of these people? What happens then?

Those people without coverage are already causing our expenses to go up. Every uninsured visit to the ER, every uncovered cost that ends up going to collection or sending someone into bankruptcy… we, as a country, end up paying for that. Is it that difficult to understand that? Every person who is un-, or under-, insured costs all of us. We pay the price in inflation, we pay it in increased personal bankruptcies across the country that, in turn, affect our ability to get credit or see our property values stay afloat. We are already paying.

Socialism? Perhaps we can call it socialism and make that stick, right? Wrong. Even the chair of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, has made it clear that he wants Medicare to be protected… but that program is socialized medicine, isn’t it? The chair of the Republican Party says he wants to preserve it.

That’s hypocrisy. If the right wing were calling for a full-fledged removal of the government from health care, then they could cry socialism. But if they even try to attack Medicare, their senior citizen constituents will turn on them so quickly that the Democratic majority in Congress would only grow next year… so they’ll just continue to pander instead.

So what’s left?

As Wilmore astutely points out above: Race. Not just Obama’s race, but the race and class of the people who will be affected by such a program. All of this is about the fact that the “country of our forefathers” no longer looks like that country.

I, for one, am grateful it doesn’t. This issue is about people scared that the color of their skin will no longer grant them carte blanche (no pun intended) to many things originally set aside just for them. Now anyone will be able to see a doctor, just like (eventually) two gay men or two lesbians will be able to marry each other… it’s fear.

It’s fear of the Other. I’m not going to a discussion of that (you can read more about it here), but I would argue that, in this case, the right wing sees the Other as anything that isn’t bourgeoisie, heterosexual, and Christian. As long as a man or woman fits those criteria, by the way, the right wing will forgive them their race (after all — they don’t have control over that, do they?), so I would make an argument that skin color is not a requisite feature (but I would also make the argument a white man, not Michael Steele, would be chair of the Republican Party if there weren’t a black man from the opposing party in the White House).

Think of the Other in the terms of the 1950s. If it would cause Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver to have a long talk without Wally and the Beav around, then you know that’s what these tea party protesters are scared of.

It’s natural to be scared of change. But change is a necessity. Human beings, by necessity, must push the race forward. We’ve moved so far in the past century and a half, yet it amazes me that such vitriol continues to be spouted.

This isn’t about “values” (as the right wing wants you to believe) — that discussion is long over.

This is about our responsibility to move the race (not white, not black, not American, but human) forward.

That is what we are supposed to be striving for. The past is for learning lessons from, not for yearning to return to. We cannot simply be content and complacent — we were both of those things, and the disintegration of the manufacturing economy is our punishment. What are the lessons we can learn from the past 70 or 80 years? What lessons can we pass along to other countries? What can we do to diminish our embarrassing infant mortality rates, or dramatically disturbing education levels?

We don’t have to occupy a country to encourage it to change. We don’t have to shoot abortion providers to discuss how to better handle that choice. We don’t have to be consistently contentious and at each others’ throats in order to come to a consensus.

It’s a difficult path we have set upon. We have the chance to take steps into a brand new world and shake free of the past that continues to shackle our discussions. But to do so we will have to let go of the petty differences, specifically our view of the Other (which we continue to cling to), and move towards better understanding of all.

I suspect we’ll all be happier in the end if we can go there.