Archive for the 'USA' Category

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, society, travel, USA

The Panama Canal – the great globaliser

As part of my journey round the world, leaving the American continents and crossing the Pacific ocean I took a container ship, in order to minimise my personal carbon emissions, and because I thought it would be an interesting way to travel. The  ship passed through the Panama Canal and shortly afterwards I recorded this account of the history of the Canal, the effect it had on Panama throughout the 20th century, and its role in placing the world in the straight-jacket of economic globalisation.

colonialism, history, Latin America, travel, USA

“A Tale of Two Revolutions: Guatemala & Cuba” or… “Sandwiches with Roberto Pérez”

On my travels in 2010, two of the countries I got to know the best are Guatemala & Cuba. Both had revolutions (Guatemala in 1944, Cuba in 1953) whose effects resonate through history. Both revolutions had similar causes and relationships. But ultimately very very different outcomes.

Guatemalan seller

Today Cuba is practically unique in the world. A socialist economy, largely centrally-planned and state-run, but one that boasts developed-world levels of health, life expectancy, literacy, and, dare I say, equality. Let me say right now that Cuba has problems – big problems. But on many indicators they are doing surprisingly well, especially given their handicaps, which still include being under a trade embargo by the United States.

By contrast, Guatemala is poorer in both absolute and per capita terms, much more unequal, and has a very low ranking on the UN Human Development Index, even worse so when accounting for its inequality.

More noticeable when I was there is the way that indigenous people sometimes turn their heads to look down or look away from you. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by their own government, well into the 1980s.

Yet I found Cubans to be outgoing, passionate, care-free and confident. It pains me to say it: you could never call Guatemalans care-free. Half of them live in absolute poverty. Continue Reading »

capitalism, society, USA

Is Charlie Sheen everything that’s wrong with America?

I didn’t expect my next blog post to be about Charlie Sheen. I am writing a long comparative history of the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions, but it seems to be without end, so I thought dissing “Two and a Half Men” would be some comparatively low-hanging fruit.

TwoandaHalfMen-CastThe dreaded sit-com was on in the corner of a hostel where I stayed for an afternoon in the Colombian city of Cali a few days ago. I asked casually of a young English tourist whether anybody actually found “Two and a Half Men” funny. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “It’s like the best thing on telly. It’s hilarious!”. I was put on the back foot, clearly the ‘uncool’ one in the room, and when I protested that “it doesn’t really seem to be about anything” she explained “it’s about having sex, drinking, taking drugs and getting fucked up. If you don’t like any of those things, then yeah, you won’t enjoy it”. Which made me feel even more on the back foot, obviously. To make me feel better an intelligent Israeli traveller broadly sided with my take on things. I observed to the English girl that she didn’t seem to be laughing very much at it, to which she claimed she just wasn’t paying attention. But I did pay attention to it, and, like all the other times I’ve ever seen it, I found it spectacularly unfunny, and after a few minutes clichéd, repetitive and depressing. I agree with the critic in The Australian who called it a “sometimes creepy, misogynistic comedy”, and in the New York Daily News who called it “occasionally funny”. It might be about sex, but it seems to be about having unfulfilling, predictable, boring sex. It might be about drugs and drinking but there doesn’t seem to be much fun involved. There instead seems to be lots of dissatisfaction, rather a lot of arrogance, and repeated trips to the shrink. Continue Reading »

climate change, fuel, society, travel, USA

4 tuktuks, 3 airplanes and a Mississippi steamboat – my Carbon Footprint in 2010

I’ve done a lot of travelling in 2010. Namely across the Atlantic, looping around the USA, into the Caribbean and travelling down Central America as far as Nicaragua. So naturally I’m concerned about what the cost is to our shared natural environment of all my wanderings. From the outset I’ve tried to travel as environmentally friendly as possible, which informed my decision to travel across the Atlantic by ship

Even so, my travelling must have had a big impact on the environment that we all have a stake in, and over the New Year I’ve been trying to figure out to my satisfaction what that might be, and how good an idea (for everybody else and our shared global environment) me travelling around having a good time is.

To give you an idea of why I think this is important, have a look at my recent article that details how the world’s politicians have failed us when it comes to combatting climate change, and how we are, unfortunately to say the least, heading for an all-out global catastrophe.

I’ve worked out a very approximate answer in terms of a “carbon footprint”, measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (* see note 1).

But rather than first list a bunch of figures I want to look back on exactly how far I’ve come, compare that to my “carbon budget”, and consider the choices I made and what I got out of it.

I arrived in New York City at the beginning of January on a ship from Southampton, England. After visiting Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal by long-distance bus and train, in April I moved to Chicago (by train) and spent 3 nice weeks there. I then hired a car (a hybrid electric Toyota Prius) and drove 5000 miles across the West through Seattle and down through Portland and Eugene to San Francisco, where I left the car.

13 000 miles around the USA

13 000 miles around the USA

I then got a train to L.A., took a campervan around wine country for a few days, and then took a 3-night train ride to New Orleans (these are big distances…). I then took bus and car (with my parents) to Florida, and then finally visited New York City by train again very briefly for the 4th of July before returning by train to Florida. Up against my visa time limit, I flew out of the country to Nassau, The Bahamas, where I stayed for a month and a half. I then flew (there is no other option) to Cuba, and then from Cuba to Cancun (the closest exit). I only took buses after that.

Just taking the carbon cost of the first 6 months in the USA, the obvious big costs are the ship to the Americas, the private car road-trip across the West, the campervan (surprisingly bad) and the flight out of the country. The ship accounts for a huge 1816.1kg of CO2 (nearly two tonnes… although I calculated at the time, marginally less than a transatlantic flight (* see note 2). Continue Reading »

politics, society, the Right, USA

The Day I Met Some Conservatives

I am completely aware there are lots of conservatives in America. I’ve been bracing myself for meeting them, as I made my way out West. I just didn’t expect to meet them in the form of young people in their early twenties, certainly not college students, and certainly not on public transport in Obama’s home town, the Democratic lock down that is Chicago.

So I accepted a generous invitation of visiting cultural sights such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chicago home & studio with gratitude, not realising that my hosts for the day (which involved a lot of being trapped in their car) were pretty much Tea Partiers, only young, stylish and attractive. Which, let’s face it, is not the image that normally comes to mind.

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

The huge new Trump Tower in Chicago's downtown

In fact the boyfriend and girlfriend couple were nothing but generous, kind and thoughtful to me. I’m just pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case if I’d been Hispanic. Which was funny, because the girl was half Hispanic – her dad from Peru – and she speaks decent Spanish. But Hispanics, blacks and women drivers came up in the first five minutes (women drivers were actually what started it all off….) and from then on in I knew there’d be trouble (at least if I didn’t keep my mouth shut).
I could have ignored the quip about women drivers – we used to humour him when Grandad started – but that led quickly to a conversation, all the while trapped in the car of course, about how Obama is not culturally black. This is an argument I have realised is fairly valid: Obama is completely atypical of black people in the US, and, dare one mention, is of course half white. Furthermore his family was not an enslaved family, unlike the history of most black families in America. And, unlike almost all black people, he has had a white person’s education at the very best schools and colleges that America has to offer, and money has to buy. Of course, this is a controversial if not offensive argument amongst most progressive Democrats, and understandably so. But at this stage I was still not sure what side of the fence they were falling down on, and I was finding some common ground. I started to become sceptical however after being told that blacks have had 50 years since the Jim Crow laws to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that this went for Hispanics too, and that Obama was socialising all the banks because he is on a mission to make everything owned by the government.

I was still naive enough at this point to answer frankly the question they put to me about how Obama is perceived in Europe. I gave an answer which I am pretty sure 85% of Europeans would be happy with, that Europeans in general and the British in particular still perceive Obama to be a blessed relief after that “moron” George W Bush.

The silence in the car around me was palpable.
I backtracked, clarifying that W was probably “not the sharpest tool in the box”, and I mumbled something about him being perceived by many in my country to be a puppet of other forces (of which, I did not elaborate). That’s about as two-way as the conversation got the entire day, which we were about ten minutes into. After that, I learned to listen with curiosity, fascination, and, it has to be said, a little each of respect and horror.

The conversation took the form of “you see the thing is Matt, there’s something happening in this country right now that you need to know about, something terrible”. Continue Reading »

fuel, politics, USA

Oil disaster in the Gulf – a failure of government

I’ve been in New Orleans and Florida the last few weeks and there is genuine anger that the oil disaster in the gulf is still going on. The government, and the corporations responsible for building, operating and mitigating the disastrous impact of the drilling operation have all been fairly useless in doing anything real about it. And everybody knows it.

My friends Stella and Mitch in New Orleans were kind enough to let me video them briefly about their perspective. They give heartfelt testimony to just how important this stuff is, and how hugely it is affecting the tourism, fishing and oil industries in Louisiana and further afield that are the mainstay of most people’s livelihoods.

Needless to say, BP has come in for an awful lot of stick. Signs attached to New Orleans lamp-posts insult BP. I saw a woman dancing with her partner at a Zydeco music festival sporting an “FU BP” poster pinned to her back. But the shocking thing to me is not that a multinational corporation should externalise its costs and risks, and screw people and the environment in the process. It has been the almost utter inability of the US government to do anything effective about it.

Yet many people – on the left and right of the political spectrum – have fallen into what I see as a trap of blaming BP, as if BP is a “bad apple” and all other oil corporations are fine, a piece of “framing” that hides the larger systematic issues and abuses. Certainly the right-wing old fogies here in Florida are clinging to this narrative: “BP is some corrupt British corporation, coming over here and colonising American resources. Corporations in general (including and especially American corporations) are OK; it is this errant and colonialist, elitist, distant British corporation – operated by some posh English dude – that is purely at fault”. While BP are obviously guilty of massive and criminal negligence, to understand the situation blame must be levelled at the other corporations involved, at the federal regulator (which Obama has now taken to task because it was hand-in-glove with the oil industry), and at the federal government itself. But moreover, America’s laws and political culture are exacerbating the situation: the government is hamstrung (partly legally) from effectively responding to the crisis because it is not an act of God but the actions of a corporation, for which they are legally responsible. The federal government has not been able to (and/or willing to) step in and mitigate the situation in the way they morally should have. Republicans, for all their rhetoric, have only made the situation worse and prolonged the crisis.

Last week’s decision by a federal judge to overturn the Obama-administration imposed moratorium on drilling just shows how uncaring the Republicans are about the real issues involved, and how much they have bought into (and are propagating) the shallow “bad apple” frame, without looking at the obvious danger of this happening again. Judge Martin Feldman’s decision also, of course, shows up the blatant and chilling partisanship of the US judicial system.

As it happens, and as my friend Mitch from New Orleans mentions in his video, the moratorium is an imperfect solution that itself is damaging ordinary people’s livelihoods. But when a federal judge and the corporations responsible for criminal negligence are singing from the same hymn sheet, I get the chills.

So for me the issue is far FAR bigger than “is BP a bad apple?”. The frame needs to be: oil exploitation is inherently suicidal, all these corporations are out to screw over people and the environment and animals for a quick profit, American political culture is actually set up to HELP them do that and not to prevent or mitigate the likely disastrous results, and there needs to be a wholesale reform of not only energy policy but a culture and legal structure of corporate welfare that goes to the heart of what America is today.

Green Party, society, travel, USA

Canada… versus the USA

ottawa's war memorial

Ottawa's war memorial

I’ve spent less than a week in Canada, to my sadness.

After a day, the differences between here and the US were tangible. After nearly a week, the differences are overwhelming.

As a young English guy from Guildford told me at a bar in Toronto, Canada has all the advantages of the US (which for him were late licenses and plentiful weed) with none of the drawbacks. To drugs and alcohol I might also add: liveable human-scale cities, cosmopolitan cultures, a national respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity, a relaxed and positive sense of national identity, decent public transport, a progressive political system that publicly funds political parties and outlaws all corporate donations, a largely non-psychopathic government, great outdoors (although so far I’ve seen a lot of low-grade grassland (it’s not prairie – that was killed that long ago)), plenty of space and natural resources (a mixed blessing), good comedians (apparently) and surprisingly good beer.

In Ottawa and Toronto (although not Montreal) I saw a very low level of homelessness. In fact I saw almost nothing but healthy happy people, in good houses, with a very nice quality of life.

Frankly, its surprising any Americans still live in the US.

Did I mention, Canada also has universal health care?

Canada’s health care bill argument had some of the same elements of people crying “communist” as we’ve just seen in the US; but that debate was concluded 50 years ago, and unlike the US, not only did the best side win, but it achieved a genuinely-progressive result: single-payer healthcare, similar to Britain’s National Health Service.

Continue Reading »

politics, racism, USA

American justice?

An American citizen, brought up and college-educated here in Brooklyn, is being held against his will, alone in a windowless room. He has been there for the last two years. He has not been convicted of any crime.

Before that, he was held in another windowless room for a year. He is not allowed to watch the news or to speak to anyone, except one family member at a time every few weeks, and even then only through the medium of a translator who will edit out anything he “should not” hear or say. His every move is watched by his captors on CCTV. He is allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, but not into the sunlight or fresh air: instead his jailers allow him to exercise inside a cage.

His case has attracted the interest and criticism of many American lawyers and groups such as Theatre Against the War, including such celebrities as Wallace Shawn.

He is charged with nothing more than allowing a duffel bag of waterproof socks and raincoats to be stored at his apartment in London. The only witness to this “crime” was a houseguest, who it turns out was in fact a government informer, and has a vested interest in testifying against him.

This American citizen is not being held by the Taliban, or by Al Qaida. He’s not being detained in Guantanamo Bay. He’s imprisoned in his own home town, in the centre of New York, by his own government; the American government.

Syed Fahad Hashmi is a young Muslim man in his twenties; a star of his class at Brooklyn College where he studied political science, and a masters graduate of international relations at the London Metropolitan University in England.

His teachers recall an eloquent and sincere man who would often act as a bridge and sympathetic negotiator between people with differing political views; a peacemaker and a diplomat.

But rather than furthering his career as a political scientist, it was Fahad’s fate to gain the distinction of being the first person to ever be extradited from Britain to the US under novel anti-terrorist legislation: it was in London’s notorious Belmarsh prison where he was first held for a year. Now imprisoned in New York, he is the subject of a community campaign led, not least, by his old college teachers, his parents, and his childhood friends & neighbours, to have him tried promptly and fairly, and for the US government to account for the treatment he has received.

His trial, which has been repeatedly postponed and now scheduled for the end of April, centres around the government informer who was Fahad’s house guest. This informer however is on trial separately himself, and will receive a reduced sentence for testifying against Fahad – one of the many causes of concern about the fairness of the prosecution’s case

Last month I attended a vigil for Fahad outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Downtown Manhattan: about 150 people were in attendance, and the event, featuring an impromptu theatre performance about the history of sedition in America, was broadcast live on internet “Radio Free Fahad”.

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

Prof Jeanne Theoharis, Fahads old teacher, address the vigil

I met his old school teacher, an impressive woman and knowledgeable powerful speaker. I watched his best friend from high school, a sensitive and tender young man, grieve over the torture his friend is going through. I can’t help feeling that if the most powerful nation on earth, and one that is ostensibly committed to the rule of law, freedom, justice, legal due process, democracy and human rights, can act like this towards its own citizens, then what hope does it have of setting an example of how a civilised nation should act?

The Facebook Group

Please help spread the word about Fahad Hashmi, and the way America and Britain have treated him.

society, USA


It’s snowing again. It’s falling softly tonight, in big gentle flakes. Everything in the yard has a little snowy hat on nearly two feet tall. The snow’s piled up in the streets. With the cold, cars were conking out in the road, and walking home last night it was impossible to tell where the pavement ended and the road began.

Something happens though when it snows that I’ve never really seen in Britain: instead of just leaving the snow in the street, householders come out of their homes and shovel it, making the sidewalk snow-free and much safer to walk on.

I told a New Yorker friend how I felt this seems a touching gesture of community spirit; she replied that’s what she had thought, for a long time. Needless to say I like the idea of people each playing their small part in achieving a larger communal goal of the common good.

And it’s impressive! It’s impressive to see that people have all got out and pitched-in and cleared the sidewalks. As my housemate commented, you want to say “Well done Bushwick, well done Ridgewood!”.

But in fact, and this is even more surprising to me (coming from Britain), New Yorkers are legally obliged to shovel snow that lands on the sidewalk outside their house (and I’m sure the shovel manufacturers love that!). This makes sense of course, but it just takes away some of the sentimental appeal…

old man shovelling snow in residential Queens

Incredibly, according to the New York Times, they’re legally obliged to do this during daytime “within 4 hours” of the snowfall ending! Which would seem to put some pressure on people, especially older people. Equally I can’t imagine many students getting it together to get out of bed and shovel before the snow police come round! I saw one old man (pictured) who was obviously behind in his shovelling efforts. I stepped around him, saying hello. If I had known he was being legally obliged to shovel his sidewalk and wasn’t just doing it to be community-spirited, I would have taken the shovel off of him and asked him to put the kettle on while I did it myself.

America – and I dare say Americans – have a strange mix of impulses; in this case, the desire to be community-spirited, tied to a legal obligation to be so. It makes sense that mobilising the person-power of every householder to shovel snow makes sidewalks clear a lot quicker than any army of city workers that could be realistically mustered; so in this sense an “individualistic” solution works. But the way the individualistic effort is socially and communally enforced intrigued me. In a country where a large number of people strongly reject government obliging them to do things and insist on individual voluntary action instead, I wonder whether this city statute doesn’t in some ways manage to appeal to both an individualistic sensibility and a community one.

Individualists are unlikely to challenge it because what could be more obviously selfish and un-community-spirited than refusing to pull one’s own weight?

People more used to collective government action can hardly fault it either; it gets the job done. And neither they nor the individualists need worry about a burden on the tax-payer, because there isn’t one! Not to their wallet anyway (initial capital purchase of shovel aside….).

There are problems of course; not least the “equality” issue that the old man had; his ability to complete the task was not the same as other’s.

But could this be a template for collective action on other issues? Litter? Homelessness? Climate change??

I find it amazing that the city has got away with people tolerating this prescriptive and burdensome ordinance, and presumably they do so because the problem is undeniable, pressing, universal, immediately obvious and tangible, and everyone has a degree of shared interest in its resolution.

Sadly the same cannot be said for homelessness and certainly not for climate change. Not because they are not important – but because people just don’t feel aware of them in the same way. Litter almost gets up there, but most people are clearly able to tolerate a lot of litter (certainly around here in Bushwick) before being provoked into individual action.

If only awareness of important pressing issues could be as obvious as the weather……. Oh, wait: it will be as obvious as the weather – literally – when climate change really bites. It will be the weather! And it will not only bring storms and floods and droughts and hurricanes to America but global economic infra-structural breakdown. But by then, of course, without a massive change in awareness, prevention will be too late.

Green Party, politics, USA

The Green Party in the US

Recently I was lucky enough to attend and speak at a State Committee meeting for the New York state Green Party. The gathering was a managable size and well-defined, with delegates having been elected from various areas, some holding proxies for absent colleagues; it shared similarities with – I imagine – Green Party meetings around the globe: a chair valiantly maintaining order against some members’ tendencies to talk too much, an imposingly long agenda and a tasty shared lunch.

I was impressed however by the members’ attempts to keep a sense of discipline in the face of what is a state-imposed uphill struggle: they’re not even on the ballot paper.

To get on the ballot paper in the UK in a general election it costs £500 to stand in each seat (which is returned by winning 5% of the vote or more) and the European Elections require a £5000 deposit for each regional constituency (which is returned by winning 2.5% of the vote or more). In most constituencies in the UK Greens find it fairly difficult to win 5% in the first-past-the-post General Election, but easy to win more than 2.5% in the pseudo-proportional regional European Elections.

For all the strategy and political debates the US Greens might want to have, they acknowledge that this one thing comes before all that: they need to get on the ballot paper, and no amount of ideology, or money for that matter, can get them there. In NY state, they need to first collect 15 000 valid signatures from registered voters to appear on the ballot paper for the governor race. And doing this opens up the other races for them. In order to get 15 000 valid signatures they will collect 30 000: so, a big job ahead of them in the next few months. If they then go on to win over 50 000 votes in the gubernatorial race, they win “ballot status” which means they don’t have to collect the 15 000 signatures the next time, and energies can go into campaigning, not meeting the starting requirements. Needless to say this is not something that the Republican or Democratic parties have to worry about, and it represents a large step between the bottom and first rungs of the ladder for new parties hoping to chip away at the two-party duopoly.

One of the things that shocked me most is the desperate underdevelopment of any national or federal party: state parties seem fairly self-contained, and if anything members regard “national” activity – when it happens – as interfering with state autonomy. Of course this is arguably a “green” attitude and, dare I say, an American attitude. But when I learned that the national party has literally a handful of staff members, that there is no nationally-used Green Party “brand”, no logo, no strapline, no message, and no national figurehead or even mandated public figures, my reaction was one of horror.

Continue Reading »

anti-racism, crime, politics, society, USA

White fear in gentle Brooklyn

So, my first experience of living in America is sharing an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York with a fellow “hipster” in his 30s (i.e. young, recently-settled, urban, arty and middle class). I’ve been in New York for over a week now and in the last few days have just started to relax into the neighbourhood of Bushwick. I’ll be frank. It’s not what I’m used to. Coming from a leafy middle-class arty small-town backwater like Lancaster in northern England, the urban, impoverished, dirty, jumbled and to my mind mean streets of Bushwick Brooklyn somewhat make me feel as if I’ve jumped in at the deep end.

Bushwick is undoubtedly poor, with over 75% of children in the neighborhood born in poverty.

But there is another aspect of Bushwick that is having an effect on my middle-class psyche, an effect that should not be overlooked, especially not by progressives. Bushwick just isn’t white.

As an anti-racist I struggle, as I think we all do, to talk about questions of race while trying to always maintain the right balance of respect, political-correctness and honesty. Political correctness has never been my strong point, so I think I’ll major on the respect and the honesty. Although my worry about walking these streets has lessened with familiarity, it’s still there, and although the streets are much dirtier than I’m used to – the occasional rat scurries by, and the atmosphere is sometimes silently infused with the smell of pot – my fear is – let’s face it – of people. Specifically of being mugged, and especially of being knifed. Is this a valid fear?

Continue Reading »