Monday, June 30, 2008

China Report

My grandson Jeff is in China and is sending written reports of which I will place in here in their entirety.

June 30, 2008

Beijing China.

I was walking around downtown yesterday and was not surprised to pass skyscraper after shopping center after bus station, normal city affairs. I turned a corner and a field of cotton greeted me with workers in pointy straw hats not 15 meters away from eight lanes of chaotic, rush-hour traffic. The city has expanded so rapidly that the old farmlands have not yet been sold, and people are cultivating crops in the middle of the city. As I stared in awe, a cool breeze blew over the field and the crisp, clean smell of dirt and water transported me back home; for the first time since I arrived in Beijing, I filled my lungs trying to hold on to that fleeting memory of a familiar, cleaner smell.

It's to easy to let time take hold of me and forget that not everyone is experiencing what I am, so I apologize for not writing more, but being in this place is a full time occupation. After living in one place for so long, your senses become desensitized to the things that you see every day, they just becomes routine. Traveling to new places makes me notice more things than I thought possible. Most places have different smells – Beijing smells of exhaust, dirty water and unwashed people. Pollution. I said in my first email that the pollution was not that bad until you needed to breathe…I think I spoke too soon. The nebulosity of the pollution obscures anything higher than 10 stories and farther than a furlong with the fluffy white blanket of an asthmatic's deathbed. The first week I was here I saw the sun almost every day— almost unheard of. After a while you get used to breathing as shallowly as you can (as if it makes a difference), and everything is dandy.

The longer I am here the harder it is for me to fathom the sheer number of people that populate this city. First of all, the city seems to have no end. Most landlocked American cities have a downtown area with high buildings and prices that decrease through gradients of suburbia and then fade into farmland. Beijing has no real central area; it has intermittent skyscrapers juxtaposed with shacks, wide streets, and shopping malls for miles and miles. Every turn of the road brings more of the same. As far as I can figure out, this continues for 15+miles in every direction. Construction cranes are as numerous as skyscrapers, and for every crane thousands of people are on site working. Construction sights are literally crawling with more people than seem possible. Every task seems like an overused bad joke:

Q: How many migrant Chinese construction workers does it take to dig a well?

A: 8. One to dig and seven to make sure that the feng-shui is right.

Yeah…Not funny but sad because it's true, (except the feng shui part). Every new construction project I see has at least four times the number of people watching than doing, I guess companies can get away with that because they don't pay their workers anything. Terrible.

A few days ago I was not paying attention to where I was, and before I knew it I thought that I was at the circus. A quick look around reassured me that I was not, in fact, at the greatest show on earth, but at Carrefour, which some of you may recognize as the French supermarket that some Chinese boycotted because of French behavior regarding the Olympic torch. Picture this: A store that looks like an American grocery store except that at the end of every isle an attendant is holding a product and yelling at the top of their lungs to let everyone know that such-and-such is on sale today, or that this brand of milk is new. They all work for the same store, and are not competing with each other to sell things, but they are all doing you the double favor of making sure you know what they are selling, and ensuring your stock in hearing aids goes up. Again, why do they need that many people doing something that seems trivial?

When in fact, there is a sale. (Such as tea for 2 kuai (32 American cents)) There is no hope of actually buying the product unless you happen to have brought your riot gear. Ninety year old ladies will wiggle their way through the throng in a way that I never thought possible to snatch up the last cheap goods.

That's ok; I'll pay 40 cents for that tea.

Some of you may have heard, after more than a year of searching, I finally managed to land an internship. I will be working with a company that is in charge of securing sponsorship for the Games, I will be going around Beijing taking pictures of advertisements and putting together portfolios for companies. The company also has bids for the next three Olympics, so who knows where this will take me?

Saturday was the highlight of the trip so far by far; a trip to The Great Wall. I have seen a lot of cool things, but nothing compares to the magnitude and sheer scope of the Wall. The Wall was as great as its name, and better. We drove one hour and forty minutes, an hour of which was traversing the city and forty up and down increasingly mountainous terrain until we arrived at the base of a large hill. From there we had walked and made our way through narrow passages lined with shops designed to rob tourists, with prices anywhere from 5 to 10 times what a Chinese person would pay after bargaining. Even though they warned us, some people still bought shirts for more than 10 times what others that bargained paid. N00b5

Our next obstacle was a giant stairway up the mountain. Fifteen minutes of climbing slippery, steep stairs got us to the top, just as rain began to fall. Luckily, it didn't last long, and we were able to stay dry and walk around. A thick fog kept visibility low but did not negate the fact that I was standing on the Great Wall. The most amazing part is where it is built. On the tops of hills, winding over their peaks like a giant snake, the wall guarded Beijing from the west of the world. More than any other thing I have described, the Wall is to much for my petty description, take a look at my pictures (On Facebook) if you want to see, and then imagine 100000 times the feeling of awe. That's the Great Wall.

I bought a cell phone on Friday, so I am communicado once again. If any of you want/need to reach me, the number is 011-150-1101-5224.

Lastly, an anecdote from my daily life…I was at the store the other day buying snacks. After I got past the old ladies rushing to the tea (Sale), I saw an isle of similarly packaged food items. They caught my attention, and upon closer inspection looked like hard candies individually wrapped for convenience and charm. I couldn't figure out why they said 牛肉 which means beef, but I thought that it must be a brand. After I got home and asked my roommate, it turns out they were small, individually wrapped pieces of Tibetan yak jerky. Delicious and exotic. What more could I ask for?

Until next week….

Jeff Vredenburg

吴杰 (Wú Jié)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I call it foot and mouth disease; The disease manifests itself when a politician, or a spokesperson, makes a statement about the views of the politician that is mutually contradictory. In popular usage, the term used, instead, is oxymoron in the sense of a simple contradiction in terms. Often, it is then applied to expressions which are used in full earnest and without any sense of paradox by many speakers in everyday language. Comedian George Carlin (God rest his soul) brought many of these to popular attention in his album "Toledo Window Box" and in his live comedy routines.

"With all deliberate speed" (i.e. "go quickly slowly")
Icy Hot
Start Stopping
Liberal conservative
Same difference
Jumbo shrimp
Dumb genius
expect the unexpected
mini giant

Charles Black, one of McCain's advisors, suggested this week that McCain would benefit politically if there was a terrorist attack in the United States before the fall election. What he said was that a terrorist attack would “be a big advantage” for McCain. So let's look at "what if." What if there was such an attack on American soil in September, 2008? What would such an attack tell the American voter about the ability of the Republican party to protect the public from harm? McCain has been lockstep with bush on the issue of our national security so what would the voter realize regarding the person who claims the best ability to protect our nation?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Great Story

The following story appeared today in the New York Times and is worth reading for the message in courage and determination it provides.


June 22, 2008
When Walking the Course Is a Courageous Act
There has been a lot of talk in the last week about courage in golf, much said about guts and resolve, about physical and mental toughness and fortitude.

It has all been about Tiger Woods’s astounding display of determination at the United States Open. He played 91 holes on a torn-up knee and a fractured tibia, defeating Rocco Mediate to win his 14th major championship. Rarely has such a combination of grit and skill coalesced on a golf course.

But on a different level, there is another dogged display of determination on the PGA Tour this year. It involves a 30-year-old man with cerebral palsy who nearly died at birth. He has had more operations on his eyes and legs than Woods has won majors, and his parents were told he would never walk. One day, he decided he would not just walk, he would scale a mountain no one had climbed.

His name is D. J. Gregory, and he is more than halfway to the top. Clutching a cane in his left hand, his upper body swaying from side to side as he labors with a stiff-legged gait, Gregory has walked every hole of every PGA Tour event this year. He is in Cromwell, Conn., this weekend at the Travelers Championship, his 25th tournament. He does not plan to stop walking until Nov. 9, the final day of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, a fitting conclusion.

By then the tally will be 44 tournaments, 3,168 holes, from California to Southport, England, over and around some 880 miles of hills, through heat, cold and chills, many spills and more thrills than any self-described golf nut could imagine.

“A lifelong dream for me,” Gregory said last Sunday at Torrey Pines in San Diego. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sure, there are times when those morning tee times stink, you know, getting up at 5:30 for a 7:20 start. That happens.

“But I love it. So I look at it that way. I don’t look at it saying, ‘Gosh, I have to go out and do this again?’ ”

He said this as he strained to watch Stuart Appleby, the player he was following, putt at the third hole during the Open’s fourth round. Gregory briefly thought he had hit the jackpot with Appleby, who led at the halfway point before a third-round 79 and a closing 75 left him tied for 36th.

The first step on what Gregory calls the Longest Walk in Golf on his blog was taken at the 1990 Greater Greensboro Open, when he was 12. He asked the CBS commentator Ken Venturi for an autograph, and Venturi took him to meet the pros Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins, then took him to the 18th tower to meet Jim Nantz.

But it was not until Gregory formally hatched the idea last year that it became a reality. He wanted to use it as a way of raising awareness and money to fight cerebral palsy and to gather material for a book. Nantz helped him sell the concept to the PGA Tour, hand-delivering Gregory’s plan to Commissioner Tim Finchem.

Before each event, Gregory and a tour representative select a player. He follows that player for 72 holes; if that player misses the cut, Gregory is assigned another golfer. He interviews the golfer and blogs about his week.

Don and Jackie Gregory have watched D. J., their second son, overcome every obstacle since he was born 10 weeks premature. In an effort by doctors to open his lungs, Gregory was given too much oxygen, rupturing vessels that control the blood flow to his legs and affecting his eyes.

He went through “countless surgeries to straighten his legs,” Don Gregory said, and “many on his eyes.” Yet there was something about him.

“From the time D. J. is a baby, he wakes up with a smile on his face, goes to bed with a smile on his face,” Don Gregory said. “Going to bed with the full-length cast on both legs, he never complained. When he went through different stages of crutches and walkers and canes, you know, he would get a little frustrated, because it was a different feeling, but he knew it was a progression and he just kept working hard at it.”

Nothing has changed. When he falls, as he has 17 times this season, he laughs at himself and gets up, asking concerned bystanders not to help him. Until he was accepted at Springfield College, from which he graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sports management, he never told his father — who was a college trustee — that he was applying.

He has helped to arrange sponsorships to defray the estimated $300,000 cost of his walk. Southwest Airlines has picked up every domestic airfare. Continental Airlines has underwritten the flights to the British Open and the Canadian Open. FootJoy has donated shoes, Ashworth has sent shirts and Outback Steakhouse has provided meals.

He is part of the tour now, on a first-name basis with most of the caddies, acknowledged by most of the players. D. J. Gregory has become an ambassador who speaks to as many United Cerebral Palsy chapters and groups as he can. He receives hundreds of e-mail messages from people he does not know and answers them all.

“I never had the idea that I would do this to be an inspiration,” Gregory said. “It’s a personal challenge, and I love doing it because I love golf. The thing I would say to people is, go for your dream. Don’t listen if somebody tells you that you can’t do it.”

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Jeff (My Grandson) in China

June 20, 2008. Beijing China.

Well I woke up this morning with no way to hold my head that didn't…oh wait… different story.

Most of Beijing's mornings start with a haze low over the city, even when it is not humid, and it doesn't burn off with the sun. I have not yet adjusted to the 12 hour time change, and still wake up before my alarm. The first day of summer brought a forecast of higher temperatures; the next few days are going to break 90F. Exercising is hard. Some people go out running through the streets and come back coughing up particulate matter; others go the local park… and come back coughing up particulate matter. It's inescapable except indoors with the air on, which is where you will find me. The campus (which is not much of a campus, 4 buildings with courtyard in the middle) has a small exercise room with a treadmill, some free weights, a few weight machines ironically named 'ORIENT Weight Trainers,' a ping pong table, and one of those shaker things that nobody knows how to use and could be sold at a Qing dynasty antique market.

I'm afraid I have shamed my family's height and name with my poor basketball skills. I don't know how they measured the basketball hoops, but they are about 9'8", which is just short enough for me to dunk. Luckily, Confucius say, "Dunk man got game."

One nice thing about doing such a prestigious program is that more than half of the people are from Ivy League schools, and spend most of their time studying—not being athletic, so moderately athletic people can really bring up the bar. But really, am I here to play sports? No, I'm here to study (what a segue)

The program I am in is called CET. They cater to many prestigious universities; Yale, Harvard, Boston University, and Johns Hopkins all are affiliated and regularly send students on CET programs. Liu Fang, the director of the Beijing Chinese Language Program prior to coming to CET taught at Middlebury's Chinese Summer Language Program for 13 years, enough said.

Class starts at 8:30 with a dictation quiz, where the teacher will read a sentence containing some of the day's vocabulary, and we have to listen and write it down (in Chinese characters). Then we have grammar drill class for two hours, and then speech class for two more hours. 4 people meet with one professor, and the professor leads speaking exercises using the day's grammar and vocabulary. Lunch is served in the cafeteria, and the teachers (there are about 20 of them) all eat with the students. After lunch we have a 1-on-1 session with professors, 30 minutes where you can ask personal questions and continue to go over the day's lesson. Each day we start a new lesson, each lesson has anywhere between 40 and 60 new words, and 10-15 new grammar constructions. Every Friday we have a 2 hour written test, an oral quiz, and a paper due every Monday. On top of all of this we have 4 pages of homework a night, 2 to review the previous day's lesson, 2 that reinforce the next day's. Did I also mention that there is a language pledge? As of 8 am last Monday, no English is to be spoken at any time (except Wednesday nights in the break room, from 8-10 the ban is lifted to give students a time to vent). Warnings are issued if English is spoken, and three warnings are grounds for expulsion. Never have I seen so many intellectuals at so much of a loss for words. Almost every conversation trails off with a hand gesture universally known as "forget it" and a sigh of frustration. I wonder how many of those conversations would have been important? I'll never know.

I have determined that there is a certain type of people that do a program like this, in a country like this, with a language this hard. First of all, all of the people that do it are to some extent masochistic. As fun as being in Beijing is, subjecting oneself to these levels of pollution and denying oneself of ones native tongue are not the most pleasurable experiences. These people can be divided into four different groups.

First, you have the geeks. The geeks genuinely love China and Chinese. They love playing computer games, watching kung fu, and reading manga. Their greatest dream is to live in a monastery somewhere deep in China, play Warcraft, and study Wushu until they have all of 'the answers' and max out their gold. These people tend are easy going but eccentric, and have few friends (who share similar tastes). They always are majoring in Chinese or Asian studies, white, and male with scruffy beards and t-shirts that display internet jargon.

Next you have the intellectuals, who want to study Chinese because they see it as a great way to further themselves and their majors. (Usually in Public Health, Medicine, or other service related fields.) They want money and can smell the opportunity to exploit the very people they are learning from (Ironic?). They have many friends, all studying similar subjects. They are serious about their studies.

Third, we have the unknowns. They do not share a common field of interest; in fact they study everything from apiculture to nihilism (how much is there to know?) and generally do not know why they are studying Chinese. When pressed, they may bumble through reasons like, "My mom collects antiques," or "I read a book once called 'The Story about Ping' and thought that it was interesting," which leave you scratching your head wondering if your question was actually answered and you missed it, or they really have no idea and said the first thing they thought remotely having to do with Chinese in hope that you would empathize.

Lastly, we have the group that is completely lost, FOBs (or planes if you will) if you will who are still wondering why they signed up for Chinese instead of testing out of Spanish and running with the credit like their friends did. This group is the most likely to break the language pledge, and tends to conform to the American stereotype, bars, nightclubs, and complaints.

They warned us that privacy in China is not the same as what we are used to, and they were right. This is immediately apparent in some public restrooms, which usually have walls to pee against (males) and squat toilets with no doors. Picture it. Enough said.

My roommate (Xu Jie) is my age, and likes to play sports, computer games and eat. Sounds just like your average Jo, right? Last night we chatted for an hour about the States, China, and how they are different. I think that he has trouble fathoming some of the things I say. I say capitalism and he sees McDonalds, American cars, the NBA and thinks that he knows us. He sells beer at a stand for $1 an hour, and has no hopes of coming to the states because procuring a visa is too hard and too expensive. It shocked him when I told him I hunt, in China people are not even allowed to own guns. (Even added for bias) He told me he would be scared to go to New York because of all the homicides. Thank you, Hollywood.

The culture here is subtly different. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I am on the other side of the world, but my delusions of proximity to home are quickly dashed when I can't read anything or understand much of what is said. Eating is a show every time I go out (at least once a day) and is utterly enjoyable but frustrating. We never quite know what we are ordering, except we can read what type of meat the dish contains and see pictures (sometimes). I am becoming quite proficient with chopsticks, and adjusting to drinking hot teat out of tiny, cups that seems to be laughing at me with all of their insatiateness hidden in the illegible characters beautifully written on the china. It is perfectly acceptable to slurp, shovel, and pile food, and hands are always an option. I've become great at asking if every dish contains nuts, and I am always assured without hesitation that there are none. At least they think about it in the states. Food is so cheap. Last night I went out with 6 people. We ate at a Korean barbeque, had a private table and a private waitress, order 8 dishes and dessert, all for less than 7 dollars a person. That's the most expensive meal of the trip. Most of the dinners I have had have been around 4 dollars.

Much to my family's dismay, I did have a rather…unfortunate (for them) incident last night…I ate Lucky's second cousin, Jojo. Cold and spicy, oh so delicious. 狗肉。Dog. After checking that off my list of things to eat, I still have cat, birds nest soup, and shark fin soup, the latter which I hear is expensive (you are basically paying to ensure the extinction of a species) and delicious (don't tell PETA). I hear in the south of China you can actually eat a mammal that is an endangered species. When in Rome…

One interesting difference, which I think shows the difference in culture is how they keep score when they are playing sports. If I win a point, it's 0-1. If we play to 21, I win when it's χ-21. I still win if I get 21 points, but the score would be 0-21. It's backwards. (Or are we?) I guess that's what you get for being upside down all the time. (See cold play's 2002 album)

I think that that is enough for this week. Tomorrow we have a scavenger hunt around a part of the city called Hohai, which should be interesting. Next weekend we go to XI'AN, which is where the terracotta soldiers are, I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Better Than I Can Say It

In the past few months I have struggled to make a point regarding Bush's disregard for the freedoms established by our constitution. Yesterday, George Will, a respected conservative and a smart man without peer wrote the op-ed that follows in the Washington Times. Mr. Will states with far greater eloquence than I the very essence of the problem.

Contempt Of Courts
McCain's Posturing On Guantanamo

By George F. Will
Tuesday, June 17, 2008; A17

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court -- meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees -- a campaign issue.

The decision, however, was 5 to 4. The nine justices are of varying quality, but there are not five fools or knaves. The question of the detainees' -- and the government's -- rights is a matter about which intelligent people of good will can differ.

The purpose of a writ of habeas corpus is to cause a government to release a prisoner or show through due process why the prisoner should be held. Of Guantanamo's approximately 270 detainees, many certainly are dangerous "enemy combatants." Some probably are not. None will be released by the court's decision, which does not even guarantee a right to a hearing. Rather, it guarantees only a right to request a hearing. Courts retain considerable discretion regarding such requests.

As such, the Supreme Court's ruling only begins marking a boundary against government's otherwise boundless power to detain people indefinitely, treating Guantanamo as (in Barack Obama's characterization) "a legal black hole." And public habeas hearings might benefit the Bush administration by reminding Americans how bad its worst enemies are.

Critics, including Chief Justice John Roberts in dissent, are correct that the court's decision clouds more things than it clarifies. Is the "complete and total" U.S. control of Guantanamo a solid-enough criterion to prevent the habeas right from being extended to other U.S. facilities around the world where enemy combatants are or might be held? Are habeas rights the only constitutional protections that prevail at Guantanamo? If there are others, how many? All of them? If so, can there be trials by military commissions, which permit hearsay evidence and evidence produced by coercion?

Roberts's impatience is understandable: "The majority merely replaces a review system designed by the people's representatives with a set of shapeless procedures to be defined by federal courts at some future date." Ideally, however, the defining will be by Congress, which will be graded by courts.

McCain, co-author of the McCain-Feingold law that abridges the right of free political speech, has referred disparagingly to, as he puts it, "quote 'First Amendment rights.' " Now he dismissively speaks of "so-called, quote 'habeas corpus suits.' " He who wants to reassure constitutionalist conservatives that he understands the importance of limited government should be reminded why the habeas right has long been known as "the great writ of liberty."

No state power is more fearsome than the power to imprison. Hence the habeas right has been at the heart of the centuries-long struggle to constrain governments, a struggle in which the greatest event was the writing of America's Constitution, which limits Congress's power to revoke habeas corpus to periods of rebellion or invasion. Is it, as McCain suggests, indefensible to conclude that Congress exceeded its authority when, with the Military Commissions Act (2006), it withdrew any federal court jurisdiction over the detainees' habeas claims?

As the conservative and libertarian Cato Institute argued in its amicus brief in support of the petitioning detainees, habeas, in the context of U.S. constitutional law, "is a separation of powers principle" involving the judicial and executive branches. The latter cannot be the only judge of its own judgment.

In Marbury v. Madison (1803), which launched and validated judicial supervision of America's democratic government, Chief Justice John Marshall asked: "To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?" Those are pertinent questions for McCain, who aspires to take the presidential oath to defend the Constitution.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters. — Daniel Webster

A thought occurred to me as I awoke this morning and laid in bed trying to decide whether I should get up or attempt to go back to sleep. The thought was that I think a lot of my fellow Americans do not understand what liberty is. Let me track the thinking process that allowed me to reach this conclusion.

First, I have been continuously dismayed that people are so willing to give up hard-fought individual rights that are at the very heart of our system of government. A prime example is our system of justice. At Guantanamo we have herded a large group of men from their own countries, Iraq and Afghanistan most notably, in quasi-isolation and sub-humane status for several years. These men have been denied the most fundamental constitutionally-guaranteed right of our system of liberty, the right to challenge their detention via the process of habeas corpus. The Suspension Clause of the United States Constitution specifically includes the English common law procedure in Article One, Section 9 which states: The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

From what I understand, the reason for denying these men habeas relief is because they are not citizens of the United States and that they have purportedly committed acts against the United States that justify the denial of this basic right. First, please note that the constitutional requirement for the suspension of habeas relief requires an invasion or rebellion, not in other countries but in our own. Suppose that an individual simply got caught up in the sweep of an attack in his own country when he was simply selling goods out on the street and then is whisked out of the country to a place that is maintained exclusively by the United States for the control and detention of prisoners fighting against us. Shouldn't that individual have at least the right to challenge his detention? He can't do so if there is no right to habeas relief permitted. The Supreme Court last week decided in a 5-4 ruling that these persons are entitled to such relief. Score one for liberty and justice, but there is something far more significant going on here. The decision of the Court is now an issue in the presidential campaign. McCain takes the point and backs the bush response that the Court's decision is an example of activist judges doing more than simply interpreting the law. Stupid me; I always thought the constitution spoke of habeas corpus relief as a fundamental right. Chief Justice Roberts in his dissent speaks of habeas corpus relief as a mere 'procedural' issue which ignores totally the substantive value of this liberty that has been recognized in the civilized world since tht time of Magna Carta.

But wait, you say. We are at war and if we are at war, the president should have the right to suspend habeas relief if it serves to protect the nation. President Lincoln, in fact, did suspend habeas relief during the Civil War (pointed out by my friend Stan). Stan responded to my recent blog entry (Where Does Loyalty Lie?) as follows: "No President swears to uphold the constitution to be applied to the entire world. Did you forget W W 11 or other War time situations? I am sure you forgot that Lincoln was cited for waiving Habeas corpus during the civil [war] or countless other examples where presidential powers included in the constitution allows the executive {as Lincoln was known} to do many things including the emancipation proclamation which was fought bitterly by the then democrats." I did not forget about Lincoln. The Civil War, by anyone's definition, was an act of rebellion (i.e. one of the requirements imposed by the constitution for the suspension of the writ) as the southern states tried to secede from the United States. The public has been exploited by the bush administration which maintains that the country is at war. It was necessary to fabricate the existence of a war to justify the taking away of certain liberties. If invading another country for trumped up reasons means that we are at war then I guess we are at war, but there does not appear to be a connection between the war and the necessity or legality of suspending habeas relief.

I have digressed beyond the original thought that precipitated this discussion, but I will now return. My thinking is that our citizenry is willing to forego suspension of habeas relief under the guise of the 'war on terror' simply because of a lack of understanding about the nature of liberty and how America is (or should be) different from the rest of the world in protecting that concept. The same reasoning goes with most of our fundamental values embodied in our constitution. The First Amendment Center has just published the results of its annual survey of American knowledge and attitudes concerning the first amendment; the results were quite mixed. First, the matter of knowledge. Of the five specific rights guaranteed by the first amendment, only freedom of speech could be identified by more than 20% of respondents; 64% could name freedom of speech. 16% could identify freedom of the press, 19% could identify freedom of religion, 16% could identify the right to assemble and only 3% could identify the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. I find that appalling. I find it even more appalling that our federal government feeds off this generalized ignorance and exploits it for purely political purposes.

Seeping Racism

The racism is starting to seep in. You can almost see it. You can hear it. You can most certainly feel it. It's kind of like watching dirty bug-infested water seep into a well-carpeted room. When Obama was just a primary candidate for the presidential nomination, his half-black ethnic status was just a source of seemingly well-meaning, yet off-color, jokes. Now that he has gained the nomination the drums are beating. The changes in content of the e-mails I receive have gone from bad attempts at humor to downright viciousness. It appears that there is a substantial segment of our society that will say or repeat anything they have heard about this black man to vilify him simply because he is black. I toyed with the idea that I should put some representative examples of what I have received in this blog, but rejected doing so on the basis that to do so may inappropriately dignify the stuff that is reaching hysterical levels. This is not to say that criticism of Obama's ideas and policies should be off-limits, but downright racism comments are out of order.

Friday, June 13, 2008

We Are Lucky

The value of luck in preserving the basic fundamentals of our system of government is the topic under consideration. We have several older Supreme court Justices who have been part of a consistent majority in defending basic principles laid down by our constitution as well as prior Supreme Court decisions. The most oft-discussed decision is, of course, Roe v Wade, which created the right (based on privacy considerations) of the individual woman in our society to make up her own mind as to whether or not she wished to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

The new conservative direction taken by the current Court occurred because of the appointments of Roberts and Alito by He Who Would Be King. Both men have turned out to be the extremists that pseudo-conservatives were hoping for and they join Scalia and Thomas in creating a solid group of four whose main bent seems to be trying to revert the country back to the era of Teddy Roosevelt. For those of you who have read Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' the Roosevelt era was before regulatory actions took hold to offset and control corporate actions where were downright harmful to human health. Sinclair, along with a couple of other writers, were called the muckrakers for writing about corporate shenanigans that, once revealed, led to regulatory actions (such as the creation of the FDA by Congressional action). Most simply put the pseudo-conservatives seek to eliminate such regulatory efforts maintaining that corporations will be good citizens and police themselves simply because it makes good business sense to do so. The best thinkers in this bunch, the late Milton Friedman as an example, called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. It was unnecessary, he argued: private companies would avoid taking risks with public health to safeguard their reputations and to avoid damaging class-action lawsuits. Friedman viewed lawyers as the guardians of free-market capitalism. In other words, the main tenet of the classic neo-conservatives was that corporate America should be held accountable via the medium of the lawsuit. Instead, what we have now is a Supreme Court hell bent on destroying any accountability whatsoever by eliminating lawsuits and granting immunity to corporations on the phony basis that accountablility is preempted by the federal governments regulatory framework. That is, for example, the FDA (which has been gutted by inadequate funding) is charged with regulation of food,drugs and medical devices and because of such statutory authority, there is no right of an individual citizen to maintain a lawsuit against a drug company. The same thinking has been applied de facto by He Who Would Be to all areas of industry during his tenure by simply failing to aadequately fund these agencies so that they can function properly. The thinking process behind this charade, whether applied by He Who Would Be or the Supreme Court's mighty four is phony and is the reason that I avoid the term 'neo-conservative' and replace it with 'pseudo-conservative'.

Now let's get to the value of luck. We, the citizens of these United States, have been lucky that none of our current elderly Supreme Court Justices have died or retired such as to give bush the opportunity to add a fifth or sixth Justice to the Court. Just imagine what shape the country would be in if the Supreme Court had done what these people want to do. We are lucky that misfortune or fate has not dealt these distinguished jurists an earlier departure for now we can anticipate that future selections will result in appointments more in keeping with the demands and needs of everyone in our society, not just those at the top of the financial chain.

Beijing: Up Close

Today's blog is written by one of my grandsons, Jeff. Jeff is spending most of the next year in China studying the language and the culture. The pledge he refers to in his letter that follows is the commitment to speak only Chinese for the remainder of the session which starts next week. He has been assigned a Chinese roommate to facilitate that purpose. Other then English, Chinese will be Jeff's third language as he is now fluent in Spanish and French. To me, Jeff gives new meaning to the phrase "Carpe Diem" (Seize the Day). Here's his letter:

June 12, 2008.
Beijing, China.


I drew my last breaths of Grand Rapidian air as I entered the airport hoping that which I would soon be breathing (equivalent to 30 cigarettes a day) would spare my lungs already marred by a year spent in Europe. Maybe the surgeon general should place warning labels on countries? A three hour lay-over in Chicago let me meet 5 other people with CET, my study abroad program. We paced up and down the terminal hoping our last minute exercise and youth would repel any deep-vein thrombosis. The lady that checked me in took one look at my brobdingnagian proportions and gave me an exit row seat, thank goodness. We boarded around 12, and were supposed to disembark at 12:43. We realized that something might be wrong when at 1:30 we were still sitting at the gate, and the captain came onto the intercom to dispel any ghoulish delusions,

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are having a few technical difficulties with the fuel system. It seems that one of the pumps will not shut off. We are working as quickly as we can to try to get it up to compliance so we can take off as soon as we are able. Thank you."

No, take your time. After sitting on the tarmac for an extra 2 hours, we took off as scenes from Airplane rushed through my head, seriously, Shirley. The flight in was unbecomingly long, my only saviors Benadryl and the notion that I was flying to China, a dream of mine for years. We flew north and west, and somewhere between the Arctic tundra and glacial ice flows I managed to sleep for 6 hours.

After almost 15 hours on the plane we landed, cleared customs (Piece of cake) and took a bus to campus. We had to drive across downtown, and I desperately tried to fight sleep and watch the scenery, but a late night of packing and the last bit of antihistamine cursing through my blood overcame my curiosity, and I slept.

A city of 15.9 million people, 60,000 taxis, air pollution and superhuman construction projects, Beijing is just as much a juxtaposition of old and new as they say. Modern sky-rises tower over old relics, and electric bikes pulling rickshaws are bargained for on street corners. I have never had any real exposure to China. After deciding to study abroad, I read a few books and watched Drunken Master, starring Jackie Chan (an excellent movie of minimal cultural value), and tried to keep my mind away from stereotypes as much as I could as to not have unrealistic expectations. As impossible as it was, I am finding that I was pleasantly disillusioned. The image of a dirty, overpopulated cesspool of pollution and corruption that some people describe was immediately replaced by a modern-looking city teeming with life and interspersed with tree-lined boulevards, parks, and neon signs. Giant intersections with electric buses, electric bicycles, (as well as gas powered everything) seemed to surpass American ambitions, and even though pollution is a problem, it is not evident until respiration becomes important. Most of the streets that I have seen are free from any debris at all, thanks to the many street-sweepers (people with brooms) and frequent trash receptacles. For those of you who have been to Munich, most of the streets are that clean. The air on the other hand is a different story. As one of the students put it, "Does anyone else feel like they are constantly smoking through their nose?" Beijing lung is laughed about until the laughter dies in sputtering coughs. We are told that we will get used to it, but building up tolerance to heavy metals and wind-born particles seems ill-advised. Inside the buildings it is much better, and my room has air conditioning, which is worth its weight in jade.

We are in the western part of the city, in the Xicheng District at the Beijing Institute of Education. It is a small school that specializes in education. I have a double room on the third floor and my roommate Xu Jie, a Chinese national, moves in later today. Nearby there is a huge park, a zoo, many shopping centers, and other universities. This part of the city is known as the cheapest area to buy clothes in Beijing as well as the center for universities. The subway stop is a 15 min walk away, and is easy to use. We had a tour of the area yesterday, and took the subway which was astoundingly vacant at 12:30 pm. It's hot and humid, but sunny— the nights are pleasant.

There are 77 kids in the program, the majority of which are from the US. It has been fun hanging out and getting to know everyone, but I hear that once classes and the language pledge begin (that's right, Monday morning at 8:00 we can no longer speak English) students almost exclusively hang out with people in their class level, of which there are 7 or so. Most of the kids are from the East coast, and I have only met 3 people that have heard of Hope, and no more than 10 that actually knew that Grand Rapids was in Michigan. Ironically, the only other person that studied abroad to China from Hope was in the same program in the south of China last year as one of the girls I met. Traveling emphasizes how small the world is. It's hard to fathom that I am basically on the other side of the world, upside down to all of you, and all I had to do was take a few plane trips and a bus. It seems like I am just next door, with different surroundings.

One of the hardest things so far is how everything is written in Chinese. If I do not know the character, I have no way to sound it out. Most things are completely illegible. I have taken two semesters, but that was last summer, and I have forgotten a lot. There are of English signs too, but they don't always make sense, and more often than not the Chinese message is really long, and the English translation is something like, "Be careful the laces from being involved in the lift," and other nonsensical things. Shopping is difficult at times for that reason, but it will get easier as I get used to it.

The food is incredible. Two days ago for dinner, we went to a restaurant that specializes in jiaozi. 14 of us went, and got two private rooms. Between the vegetarians, vegans, nut allergies (I am not the only one, so I didn't feel as bad) After an hour, we managed to order 4 dishes and some tea. It was funny how bad we were, and how long it took to order. The food finally arrived, and after eating for 10 minutes or so, the power went out. Luckily someone had a cell phone with a light, and we ate by the light of her phone.

About this time I realized what I was doing and where I was. I was eating in the dark by the light of a cell-phone on the third floor of a sweltering Chinese restaurant with a waitress that spoke no English and neither the people I was with or myself spoke much Chinese. Some were struggling with chopsticks and how to say 'I want those dumplings steamed, not fried.' Jet-lagged, in need of a shower, struck with humility, and how ridiculous we must all look among a sea of Chinese people, I laughed.

Welcome to Beijing.

Jeff Vredenburg

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Where Does Loyalty Lie?

The old adage that 'one cannot serve two masters' is the real issue in the belated Congressional attempt to determine how high up in the chain of command the decision to torture detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan originated. This determination must be pursued relentlessly and thoroughly. At stake is the honor and integrity of our country. The oath of office taken by the president of the United States upon entering office states with clarity the duty that is imposed. Every president since George Washington has uttered these words. "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Over more than two centuries, Americans, at home and abroad, as well as the rest of the world have come to marvel at the respect and dignity placed upon individual values and liberties as provided by the Constitution. Our current president (He Who Would Be King) has damaged this national legacy in no small way by placing corporate interests, big money and small-minded neo-fascists in power positions. Despite the few chinks in the armor (e.g. Scott McClellan) the small group of fanatics is likely to hold form and keep their mouths shut about who authorized what. Karl Rove is perhaps the best example of what is going on. He claims that executive privilege prevents him from telling what he knows about decisions made by the White House. Rove confuses the distinctions about where his loyalty lies. He owes his country more than he owes Bush, the man. The same applies to all of the Bush fellow-travelers. As Democrats have taken over Congress and the imperial presidency winds down, the important purpose of investigating the actions that have undermined our constitutional values must be kept in mind. This is not a Republican versus Democrat issue as many commentators would appear to suggest. This is basic stuff which mandates a thorough vetting and final accountability for the decision makers. If this means impeachment or jail, so be it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Absolutely Brilliant . . .Now the Next Step!

Barack Obama's first move as the designated presidential Democratic candidate was sheer genius in its message. By ordering the Democratic National Committee to refrain from accepting loot from lobbyists or PACs, Obama set the tone for his campaign which is about change. It is the change that people want. America has been put up for sale and the buyers have ruled. The past eight years have been particularly problematic in terms of the harm that has been caused to the public by politicians accepting money, big money, from interest groups. But the Republicans are by no means alone in their efforts to sell their political souls for the barrels and barrels of shekels and, in this area, Hillary Clinton was particularly tone deaf, as was her husband.

Now an even greater message must accompany this first move. Obama must go back to one of his original campaign pledges and agree to limit campaign expenditures to public financing. In my blog of Feb. 16, 2008 (Illusions or Delusions) I wrote

"Thus, it was refreshing to hear that Obama made a pledge to accept only public financing if he became the Democrats' candidate. Fast forward to the present and he now suggests that this pledge to limit his campaign expenses was only a potential option. The reason for the double take is obvious. He has demonstrated a unique ability to develop huge amounts of cash and that massive influx of money has played no small role in his anticipated win over Clinton who has been recently forced to put $5 million of her own money up to shore up her campaign. John McCain, as did Obama, has likewise pledged to limit himself to the receipt of public funding if he became the Republican candidate so if Obama were to hold true to his pledge, a historic moment could occur in American politics. Both sides would be playing by the same set of rules.

"The Obama pledge, among other positions he has carved out, helped create the illusion of him that strikes such a responsive chord in the hearts of Americans. The crux of his campaign message is change. The people of America want someone who says what he/she means at the helm of their country. They want someone who can stand on principle, even if on occasion there might be disagreement about the nature of the principle. That very concept is the reason for the broad appeal of both McCain and Obama."

My observations in February have even greater urgency today as week after week, we have received news about the negative impact on this country of a variety of industries whose negative conduct, fueled by massive political contributions, have steadily eroded confidence in our country, both here and abroad.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Letting Business Do Its Own Thing

If there is a singular concept that characterizes the Republican approach to government, it appears to be that civilian business is capable of regulating its own behavior and, in fact, will do so better than its governmental counterpart. Implicit in that assumption is that such business will be conducted in the public's best interest. As such governmental watchdogs have been called off during the last eight years allowing business a free rein over such affairs as drug monitoring, testing and marketing, money lending, pollution control, mining safety, etc. The fall out from this approach has been nearly disastrous in any number of industries. The cavalier attitude toward how business conducts its affairs appears to have carried over into nuclear weapons as well. It has been reported that four high-tech electrical nose cone fuses for Minuteman nuclear warheads were sent to Taiwan in place of helicopter batteries. The mistake was discovered in March — a year and a half after the mistaken shipment.

There is a line which should not be crossed via over-regulation. Government should not be in the "Big Brother" business of controlling the fine details of conducting a business, but there are vital activities and concerns in which the general public has a legitimate interest in ensuring they are done properly. Of course, nuclear weapon security is one of these areas. The public also needs and deserves protection from the dangers caused by unscrupulous and avaricious business practices that place health and life secondary to profit making. Blurring the distinction between regulation and over-regulation serves only the purse strings of those who benefit financially and, from the example given above, can place our people in mortal danger.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Response and Rebuttal

John K. has responded to my recent blog criticising McCain for voting against the bill for expand GI benefits:

Reading your blog is like listening to Keith O. on MSNBC. You need to read the Veterans bill the McCain supported that was not allowed to come to the floor through democratic leadership obstruction. If you do not want to present both sides of issues accurately, perhaps you should blog for the Huffington post. I hope you will enjoy the socialism that is coming. By the way the Congress is very good at signing bills that seem like no brainers. That is why we have the deficits we have and find ourselves with no energy policy a bankrupt social security and medicare program, etc. It would be nice if they would use their brains once in a while; like perhaps offering larger incentives for those who re-up in the service.

Your comments on the war in Iraq are democratic talking points. Few people doubt that getting involved was a mistake. Many people, including most democrats holding federal office understand that although for political purposes it sounds nice to say cut and run, the fact is we need to and will stabilize the country before we exit. Look how Obama's position has changed since he has learned more about what is happening.

My Rebuttal:

First, let me say that I do not consider myself as belonging to either the Democratic or Republican parties. I try to develop my ideas and opinions by thinking through issues after gathering as much information as I can. For example, I have not read McCain's proposed bill although I did search for it on the internet. I went to McCain's website for his talking points. My caveat would be that any similarities between me and Keith O would be purely coincidental. Next I appreciate and respect your point of view and after re-reading this particular blog I find that the conclusion I was looking for is less than obvious. Taking the opportunity for a second chance (the writer's equivalent of a mulligan and I know how you feel about that - grin) my point was intended to be that because politics is about effective compromise and that the best politicians practice this art without locking into ideologic struggles unless core values are at stake, McCain, is simply on the wrong side of the issue given who he is. In the art of political compromise one doesn't always get what one asks for. Do I think that there are some aspects of the bill proposed by McCain that could serve GIs better within the greater context of American interests? Probably, but the central issue here is not the specifics of the bill but the question that I would put to McCain; Is this the hill you want to die on? That is, his risk of alienating a major section of his core supporters (veterans) to demonstrate his unwillingness to cooperate with his Senate colleagues causes me to question the soundness of his judgment making capabilities. Most simply put, he has chosen the wrong issue to demonstrate his maverick tendencies. This second attempt is straight down the middle about 235 yards at least insofar as making the point I intended initially. I will go even further and predict that this singular issue will cause him grief in the fall election.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Lurking Behind that Public Mask is . . .

John McCain would become the next president of the United States if, even now or in the next few months, he abruptly turned about and disavowed support of the war in Iraq. Instead, it is my opinion that he has lost whatever hopes he may have had for attaining this office by his Bushian-like myopic approach that has now become the showcase of his campaign. He supports the war wholeheartedly claiming that we need to keep on fighting until we win. Nowhere does he define win or give the public any insight as to what he means by winning. But even if his is a legitimate viewpoint, there are some secondary issues about the war which have emerged that shed some light as to the nature of the man. He opposed a bill that would have given military personnel longer periods of relief stateside between redeployments to Iraq. More significantly he voted against a bill that would have provided more generous benefits to veterans who have honorably served our country in time of war. The recent bill that has passed despite his opposition restores World War II-like benefits to our troops. McCain cherrypicks the reason for his opposition to this bill citing the estimate that 13% of troops will simply leave the service after three years of service and take advantage of the generous educational benefits the bill provides. Why this is cherrypicking is that the same study indicates that 13% more enlistees will result from having this benefit. In other words the basis that caused him to reject this wonderful idea will turn out to have no negative impact whatsoever.

From a more fundamental basis, it is puzzling why McCain would be on the wrong side of this issue. The benefits provided to our fighting forces is the correct and moral thing to do. I think the man is pouting because the bill he supported was rejected at the same time. Is his peculiar opposition to a bill that should have been a no-brainer for him a sign of what lurks behind the public mask?