Archive for June, 2014

Not ready for prime time, restaurant edition

Café 24 West is a small lunch spot on a residential street on the west side of Binghamton. The first time I tried it, a year or so ago, I was struck by the fact that while the food was ok, the prices were rather high for the area. My wife and I thought to try it again this spring when an early warm day promised to make the sidewalk seating pleasant. However, the awful music pouring too loudly from tinny speakers convinced us to go elsewhere. Not to be dissuaded, I stopped in again few weeks ago. Because parking is tight in that part of town I had to park a block or so away. I was quite surprised when the owner of the establishment walked out and got into the Mercedes that was occupying one of the only two spaces dedicated to the restaurant. Did I mention that service was really slow? Well, today my wife and I decided to try it again. This time there was a red Porsche parking in one of those two 15-minute parking spaces. When I commented on it, the owner said that it was his. I asked him why he did not save that space for his customers. His response to was to throw me out and threaten to call the police. while ranting on about how his father and grandfather had been Binghamton policemen (like I care). I was stunned! Not only does this moron not respect his customers enough to save the choice parking places for them, but he parks for hours in a 15-minute spot evidently because he believes he is above the law. And he loudly berates a customer in front of a nearly full restaurant. “Not ready for prime time” does not even begin to describe this cretin. Scruffy—as in needing a shower and a shave—also comes to mind. I do not understand how someone who is so clearly contemptuous of his customers stays in business. I, for one, certainly hope that he does not.

The “wurst” Brat

The defeat of House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in the Republican primary in Virginia is cause for real alarm. The fact that he lost because he is “not sufficiently conservative” means that people are very angry indeed. Now, I suspect that the average American voter has only a vague idea of what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean. They are not voting for conservatism, per se, but out of frustration with the current state of affairs and fear of the future. These are the very conditions that favor the rise of demagogues of the extreme right. And the man who defeated him, David Brat, fills the bill perfectly. A professor of economics at a small Methodist college, Brat became an economist after obtaining a Masters of Divinity degree. His platform is based on the familiar right wing extremist tropes of nativism, states’ rights, and opposition to the “elite.” Make no mistake, though, Brat is the candidate of the corporate elite. His resume includes stints at disgraced accounting firm Arthur Anderson and at the World Bank. Currently he serves as “ethics advisor” to a large regional bank, BB&T. His campaign was supported by such corporate champions as the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation. And his credentials as a potential demagogue are burnished by his association with the likes of extremist pundits Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Mark Levin. Make no mistake: the forces of fascism are marshaling in the US and we need to give notice before it is too late.

The Bergdahl follies, upstate NY edition

Our local Republican Congressman, Richard Hanna, opined that rescuing Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from captivity was a “mistake.” He further insists that President Obama should have consulted Congress before releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. First of all, I cannot believe that a member of Congress, even one of the Party of No Conscience, would suggest that we should abandon a US soldier held by an enemy. Whether Bergdahl deserted or not is a matter to be decided by a court martial: not in the media, not by some idiot congressman, and not by the Taliban. As Commander-in-Chief, the president is responsible for the welfare of members of the military. For him not to have sought this man’s release when he had the means to do so would have been dereliction of duty. Secondly, does Hanna really believe that if the president had informed Congress of his intent to free Bergdahl through an exchange of prisoners some crackpot Republican would not have queered the deal for perceived political advantage? Again, as Commander-in-Chief, the president has jurisdiction over the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the prisoner held there. No good would have come from his allowing Congress to micromanage his exercise of his authority. The behavior of the right wing, including Mr. Hanna who is usually somewhat saner than his Republican colleagues, is nothing short of revolting. He has embarrassed himself and those he represents. As a veteran I am offended by his comment.

Harnessing the anger

The rise of the Tea Party is actually good news for liberals–with some caveats. People are flocking to that party because they are fed up with Reaganesque trickle-down economics and the wholesale looting of the US economy by the very wealthy. They do so thinking that ultraconservatism is the way to correct the wrongs of the past generation. The challenge to liberals is to convince these people to redirect their anger and frustration against those who are really to blame for their pain–the very people behind the Tea Party. If the Democratic Party is unable to do that we could very well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that in 1930s Germany where right wing corporations and a far right political party convinced the people that their pain came from “them.” The current anger abroad in the land is an opportunity for progressive forces but if we fail to convince the masses of the truth about who is at fault for their circumstances, we could be in for a rough patch indeed.

Thoughts on Tiananmen Square

The progress of history is rarely neat and never unambiguous. And major advances invariably involve the shedding of blood. Wipe away the sanitizing effect of time and the lead up to American Revolution becomes a violent series of government crackdowns on protestors. Nor were the sides always clear: a great many Americans, especially at first, opposed the idea of breaking away from the mother country. But in the end the radicals won out and formed a new nation. Yet only five years later, that new government launched a bloody crackdown on farmers protesting taxing of the whiskey they had been producing for generations. Since then the US government has, like every other government, periodically clamped down on protests of all sorts from the Bonus Army march on Washington in 1932 that was broken up by the US Army under General Douglas MacArthur to the anti-Vietnam War protests at Kent State University where four students were shot and killed by National Guard troops. More recently, even the singularly lame and non-threatening Occupy Wall Street protests were violently suppressed by state and local police across the country. If this is the norm in the United States, how can we pass judgment on the actions of other, arguably less citizen-oriented, governments?

Which brings us to Tiananmen Square. At the remove of twenty-five years it is easy to forget the scale of those protests and the very real threat they posed to the Chinese government. Not only were there as many as one million protestors in Tiananmen Square itself, but there were large demonstrations in more than 400 other cities across the country. It was, in fact, the largest mass uprising since the 1968 near-revolution in France. To put the protests in Tiananmen Square alone into an American perspective, they were roughly the size, per capita, as the largest of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, DC. Setting aside the matter of whether or not the protestors were right, the fact is that they had put the authorities in a no-win situation. The military crackdown that ended the occupation of the square was brutal by US standards perhaps, but really not much out of the ordinary in other countries. For example, the protests in Cairo that brought down the Mubarak government in 2011 were comparable in relative size and at least as bad in relative number of dead.

Looking back at the events of June 4, 1989, it is hard not see that as a seminal moment in Chinese history. The legacy of Tiananmen Square is striking: in 1989, the per capita GDP of China was $403 and growing at 2.5%; in 2012, it was $6091 growing at 7.2%. And while still repressive by Western standards, China today is arguably the most free it has been in its entire 2000+ year history. I suspect that the Chinese government was, in its own way, as shocked by the events of that day as were the protestors and observers around the world. Clearly, the Chinese authorities did some serious soul-searching in the aftermath of the protests and the violence that ended them. So my inclination on this day is to remember those who lost their lives and to note that history will show that, in the end, they won.