Monday, April 20, 2009

The BBC: Where British Isn't Always the Best

I live in the UK, where television and radio, alike, are dominated by the entity fondly known as 'Aunty': the British Broadcasting Company, or the BBC.

Prior to the advent of satellite and digital broadcasting, most Americans, who didn't actually travel to Europe, only knew of the BBC through Masterpiece Theatre and various other funded programs broadcast on PBS affiliates. These programs, both drama and documentary, were of the highest quality and often made our homegrown fare look tawdry and trite. They often featured reknowned British stage and screen actors, and if they didn't, they featured people who would one day be so.

Now most Americans know the BBC from its US affiliate BBC America, which - I gather - isn't very good and broadcasts the same sort of show several times daily from a schedule some two or three years old.

Here's some things the average American may not know about the BBC: it's state-funded, hence the name British Broadcasting Corporation. It's non-commercial and its funding comes solely from the television licence, which each household which has a television is required, by law, to pay annually. The licence is £150, there or thereabouts - roughly about $225 in real money. It's paid annually via debit or credit card or in cash via the Post Office, and all of it, goes to fund the BBC's programs and employees.

There are estimated around 30,000,000 homes with televisions in the UK. Multiply 30,000,000 by £150. That's £450,000,000 which the BBC has, all to itself, to spend. That's about a budget of $675,000,000. Annually.

That's a lot of money.

But in this day and age, we all know that quantity often doesn't produce quality. Mostly, the BBC is made up of very bad sitcoms (My Family starring the late Sam Wanamaker's daughter Zoe is particularly bad), the British version of Dancing with the Stars, a few cooking shows and prime time soaps. Their flagship expertise is news and documentaries, both on television and radio. A lot of people complain about the licence fee, especially when it comes time for Wimbledon, the US Elections or some major sporting event abroad (like the Olympics or the World Cup), when everybody and his dog at the BBC ups stakes and treks off on a jolly funded by the payer of the licence fee. The organisation despatched 300 journalists and lackies, alone, to cover the US Election night.

There's absolutely no avoiding paying the fee. Detector vans roam the streets at night, which can detect a house where a television licence hasn't been registered. Anyone caught without a TV licence can be fined up to £5000 (roughly $7500) and can even be clapped in jail.

And this is a democracy.

Still, the argument is that the BBC's quality is that much higher, because neither their television nor their radio is blighted by advertisements.

But it's blighted by something else.

Because the BBC is state-funded and state-owned, by extension, anyone who works under a BBC contract is a de facto employee of the State. A sort of civil servant of entertainment, if you will. For example, a few years ago, the most popular program on British television, Eastenders, hired an Indian actor who'd finished a run in the theatre in the West End. Because he wasn't a citizen of a European Union country, he required a work permit, which he had for his theatre performance, specifically. But this permit didn't cover any other sort of work in television or radio; when this was discovered, the BBC had egg smeared all over its face, because a plot had to be hastily re-written due to the actor being deported. People should have known better.

In recent months, the organisation has been shown to deal fraudulently in competitions centering around childrens' shows. In short, they cheated.

But my tale concerns something a bit seedier. Listen, read, and try to imagine the same thing happening in US entertainment. It says a lot about state-owned and run broadcasting entities.

The highest-paid and best-known personality employed by the BBC is a chappie called Jonathon Ross. Ross is a Londoner with a cheeky, chirpy Cockney accent, educated at no less than the London School of Economics. He's in his late forties and currently hosts a film review show on BBC television, a late-night chat show broadcast on Friday nights and a Saturday morning radio show on BBC national radio.

At the moment, Ross, whose trademark is a slight lisp and a speech impediment which renders all his 'r's as 'w's (he's fondly known as 'Wossie'), is on a three-year contract worth £18,000,000 ($27,000,000). Ross is, for lack of a better word, the king.

He's a bit of a naughty boy, is Jonathon. He peppers his language with risque remarks and is infamous for asking David Cameron, the Opposition leader, on television if, as a boy, he masturbated to images of Margaret Thatcher. That sort of thing.

Another 'edgy' employee of the Beeb is somewhat better known in the States, and that's the comedian, Russell Brand. Up until the end of last year, BBC national Radio 2 employed Brand to present an early evening pastiche of comedy and music on Saturdays. The show was taped beforehand and went out each Saturday night before the 9PM watershed. (In Britain, it's ok to be rude and smutty on air, but after 9PM). Brand is a comedian who openly brags of sexual exploits and his routine is rife with sexual innuendo.

Brand's particular radio program was produced by a BBC employee who was all of 24 years old.

Near the end of last year, Ross was asked to be a guest on Brand's radio show, which was taped beforehand. During the taping, they had also arranged for a guest appearance for a veteran British comic actor, Andrew Sachs, who played the iconic hapless Spanish waiter in the John Cleese television series, Fawlty Towers, from the 1970s. Sachs is 78 years old. The actor didn't show, for whatever reason; so Brand and Ross decided to ring him. They found Sach's cellphone was turned off, so they rang, on air, his home phone. There was no reply, so they decided to leave, on air, a message on the answerphone.

Now it just so happened, that Brand, had actually had a sort of relationship with none other than Sachs's granddaughter, a 23 year-old exotic dancer named Georgina Baillie. What followed was taped and broadcast on air on national radio.

Brand and Ross left messages for Sachs, to the effect that the men told Sachs, over the answerphone that Brand had 'fucked' Baillie. They didn't leave just one message, they rang back and left variations of the message - in poem, word and even in song. On air. Broadcast.

Now, maybe these men's names, Brand apart, mean nothing to you; so let's try to give them US equivalents. Try to imagine the likes of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, ringing Bill Cosbie to leave messages saying Stewart had actually known, in the carnal sense and in the crudest connotations, Beyonce, Cosbie's granddaughter. Imagine them doing this on a nationally broadcast radio program during prime time.

They would be toast. Burnt toast. Badly burnt toast.

What happened?

Brand immediately resigned. Ross was suspended, without pay, for three months. His film show and his chat show were affected by this and substitutes were gathered to present his Saturday morning show. He was due to present the BAFTA Awards, but that presentation was scrapped.

The suspension has been served and a few weeks ago, he returned with his chat show, interviewing no less than Tom Cruise on the first show. Brand is back on BBC digital radio, again presenting a show. Ross was one of his first guests. And the BBC has been fined a whopping £150,000 ($225,000) - pocket money - to be paid to the regulator. That's £150,000 of the taxpayers' money. Many politicians from both sides of the political divide in Britain have remarked on the unfairness of the public picking up the tab on this one. Brand and Ross should pay, they say.

And the culprits? They've basically given the stiff middle finger to the British public. They're laughing. In fact, on Ross's latest Saturday morning program, he was openly dismissive and derisive of this.

This is Britain, the land of fair play and justice.

You couldn't make it up.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Maybe THIS Would Avoid a New Civil War

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me this by e-mail.

In view of the highly-charged atmosphere redolent these days amongst our friends on the right, stoked persuasively by the likes of Messrs Limbaugh and Beck and Ms Malkin, maybe our approach to their calls for 'secession' should be this:-

Dear Red States,

We've decided we're leaving.

We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue Stateswith us. In case you aren't aware, that includes California. Hawaii, Oregon, Washington,Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Indiana,Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and all of the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of our new country: New America.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma, much of the wide open spaces where Buffalo once roamed and all the slave states. We get stem cell research and the best beaches.

We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood.

We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom and Enron.

We get Harvard. You get Ole' Miss.

We get 85 percent of America 's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama.

We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make your fellow red states pay their fair share.

Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22 percent lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happy families. You get a bunch of singlemoms.

Please be aware that New America will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they're apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don't care if you don't show pictures of their children's caskets coming home. We do wish you success in Iraq , and hope that the WMDs turn up, but we're not willing to spend our resources in the Bush/McCain Quagmire.

With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80 per cent of the country's fresh water, more than 90 per cent of the pineapple and lettuce, 92 per cent of the nation's fresh fruit, 95 per cent of America's quality wines(you can serve French wines at state dinners) 90 per cent of all cheese, 90 per cent of the high tech industry, most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and MIT.

With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88 per cent of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92 per cent of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100 per cent of the tornadoes, 90 per cent of the hurricanes, 99 per cent of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100 per cent of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University,Clemson and the University of Georgia.

We get Hollywood and Yosemite , thank you.

Additionally, 38 per cent of those in the Red States believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62 per cent believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the death penalty or gun laws, 44 per cent say that evolution is only a theory, 53per cent that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and 61 per cent of you crazy people believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties.

Finally, we're taking the good pot, too. You can have that crummy weed they grow in Mexico .

Peace out,

Blue States

I'd actually add to that: 'Don't let the door hit your collective asses on the way out and, by the way, you'll need a VISA to enter New America ... and that's not a credit card.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dangerous Liaisons

I was going to use the original French for the title of this piece (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), but I thought it might bee too, you know, elitist, so I settled for the English version, just so everyone, I hope, would better comprehend how politics really does create strange bedfellows.

The week or so before I went home to the States for a visit, I caught a clip on the internet of one Rick Santelli, the ex-hedge fund trader who's now a commentator on CNBC. You all know the rant, but in case you missed it, here it is:-

It caused quite an outcry, especially since it was patently obvious that this tool didn't have a snowball's idea in hell what he was talking about in relation to the President's message about mortgage relief from the previous evening; but that's beside the point.

This rant started a tidal wave movement that had been simmering below the floorboards (you know, where the cockroaches live) of the Republican Party since they lost the election in November. Now it's erupted full force in a Right Wing movement known as Tea Parties. The Right have taken this term from the original Boston Tea Party, the act of tossing the colonials' taxed tea off the ships in Boston harbour, an event which led to the beginning of the Revolutionary War and our independence from Great Britain. It coined the phrase 'Taxation without representation.'

These people, who drank Santelli's Koolaid, basically believe that Obama's collective stimulus package is intent on spending their hard-earned cash in federally-funded initiatives which will lead to - sooner, rather than later - the United States embracing socialism. Worse, Marxist socialism. These people, the majority of whom are middle and working-class Joes and Janes earning less than the magical $250,000 per year, are the demographic group which will actually stand to benefit from the President's proposed tax cuts, as well as the provision of universal health care. It's the privileged few at the top of the high pay bracker whose taxes will actually be increased ... by a whopping 3 per cent. Is that highway robbery? Hardly, but remember these people attending these 'Tea Parties' are the selfsame voters who backed John McCain and Sarah Palin, who attended the rallies where Palin spoke and failed to admonish the anonymous voices in the multitudes calling Obama a 'terrorist' and actually yelling for him to be killed.

I supposed they feel disenfranchised, and normally, under normal circumstances, they would have sloped off to their homes and their churches, cleaned their guns and sulked until the next election, had they not been roused to battle by the likes of Santelli and encouraged by the oxycontin-fueled rantings of Rush Limbaugh and the shill of Michelle Bachmann, a serving member of Congress who's actually called for people to be 'armed and dangerous' and on the streets in opposition to any of the programs Obama wants to pursue.

This is the same Michelle Bachmann, who accused not only Obama, but also liberal members of Congress, of being distinctly anti-American:-

You know, I remember hearing my socialist parents speak in hushed tones of the McCarthyism of the early 1950s. I guess history does repeat itself.

And on top of all that active encouragement, the ever-fair and balanced Fox News, soul sister of the BBC (more of that in another blog), have taken up the tea party gauntlet and run with it, advertising organised tea parties nationwide, even selling tickets and giving information on how to organise one. Their poster boy is Glenn Beck, who fancies himself a less-intelligent and unfunny version of an amalgamation of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. He should be so lucky.

On first glance, these tea parties are organised and non-violent, in the true spirit of America, the citizens' right to protest proposed government policies which they oppose. That's their right. And often, at first glance, these parties seem to be conducted in a spirit of fun. As a symbol of protest, participants bring tea bags and are known as 'teabaggers'.

Now, scratch the surface and you see something a bit different, a bit more sinister ...

Catch the full-on face of the first woman interviewed? Was that a face of bitterness, nastiness and hate? And what was behind this tea party? That old chestnut of a myth that Obama wasn't born in the United States, that he was a Kenyan, that his birth certificate was a forgery, that he may even be a ... shhhh! ... Muslim. These people, and the first woman in particular, make that doddery old lady who challenged John McCain that Obama was an Arab, look like innocence incarnate. These people are mean. These people are nasty. These people come in all shapes and sizes and ages.

These people are white. As Fox News' fair-and-balanced British brother the BBC would say, they're 'hideously white.'

And there's the rub.

Could it be that these innocuously named 'tea parties' are a euphemism for something different? Put bluntly, did it actually take the election of a black man by a majority of the American voting public to bring out the racism in what is essentially the fundamentalist base of the Republican Party?

I think Sam Donaldson, late of ABC News, said it best on Real Time with Bill Maher two weeks ago when he opined that the Republican Party has now become a right-wing party composed of fundamentalist Christian white people, mostly white males, and that composed thus, it is simply unelectable.

I certainly hope so.

But then, there's a twist in this curious tale, and this either shows the innate innocence of these types or it shows something distinctly unappetising. You see, this is the base of the party who preached God, guns and ammunition. This is the base of the party who promotes Creationism as opposed to common sense, science and evolution. This is the base of the party who promotes abstinence, who's anti-gay and who probably thinks that heterosexual married sex had better consist only of the missionary position with the man on top or else it can be classed as distinctly deviant.
I'm asking ... Do they know that a 'teabagger' in the general urban parlance, is someone who dips his scrotum in and out of his sexual partner's mouth, much in the way these right-wing, God-fearing Nazis might dip their teabags in and out of a teacup?
So when they go to a tea party or a 'teabag party' or 'teabagging' ... what are they really getting up to? Is this really legitimate protest or is it ... something else?
Just picture Rick Santelli and the woman at the Cleveland 'teabag party' ... er ... teabagging ... but not before you've eaten your dinner, please.
I suppose what I've been trying to say is that, just as there's supposed to be a thin line between genius and insanity, so there must also be a thin line between the right wingnuts of the Republican party, who've been filmed actually proclaiming that we're all being surreptitiously brain-washed and programmed by the Obama government through the digital converters on top of our television sets (funny) and demanding that books be burned (not funny), all the while making these pronouncements with the left arm extended straight upward in a reasonable facsimile of (gulp!) a Fascist salute, and ... well, Nazis.
Scary, huh? In American, right? In the 21st Century.
I guess it's true that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; but I don't like to insult dogs by likening them to these people.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

Now that the President's safely ensconced in the White House after that rock star tour of Europe, I've had some time to think and reflect about this visit, what it means to me as an expat living abroad and what it should mean to the American people and the people of Europe and the world as a whole.

Crikey, doesn't that sound grandiose? Well, as I've always fancied myself as a bit of an unsung social commentator, pray allow me to undulge myself a bit; because I think I'm well-positioned to comment on our view of ourselves in the world and the way other people see us, as best exemplified by the Scots' poet Robert Burns:-

O would some power
The gift to give us
To see ourselves
As others see us

Of course, Burns was talking about seeing a louse on the neck of a high-born lady in church, which - I suppose - gives a whole new meaning to the concept of nit-picking; but in a way, that's how we, the United States, and - in particular - Americans have been perceived for virtually the whole of the past quarter century: sort of like the louse on the face of the planet (especially during the last 8 years) and, whilst sometimes that's been a fairly just criticism, sometimes it's been pretty crass on the part of the observer.

I feel qualified in being able to offer these comments because I've lived as an American in Europe for the past 28 years and have been visiting Europe for lengthy periods of time off and on since 1974; and it's interesting to note how Americans have been perceived over that period of time.

When I first became acquainted with Europe - Spain, in particular - I was amongst the first mass hoardes of American university students to take advantage of the 'junior year abroad' schemes launched in the 1970s. Basically, you spent your junior year at a European university (usually one with some sort of affiliation with your alma mater at home, and you enjoyed a taste of student life (and study) abroad. The concept was a godsend for language students, who got the opportunity to put their linguistic skills to the test. I was one of those students, and we were mostly female.

It was also the time of cheap student travel (railcards, books about doing Europe on a dollar a day and youth hostels). Most of all, if done properly, travel was safe. As those hoardes of American language students tended to be studying French, Spanish or Italian, our presence in those countries as well, was manna from heaven - especially for the Spanish and Italian boys of our own ages. The Catholic Church held repressive sway over societies in those countries 30 years ago (especially in Spain), and nice Italian and Spanish girls who were potential wife material were strictly sexual no-go areas. For the Latin equivalent of fraternity boys with little money, that meant sex education was either finding a discreet older woman or forking out in the local red light district and praying you didn't get the clap.

American girls were clean, interesting, amusing and we had the Pill. We wanted to experience a summer of Latin love and they gave the gift that kept on giving. Booty for booty. The girlfriends understood, the whores took a holiday, and it was considered a status symbol for a local lothario to enter a disco to the throbbing beat of Eurovision pop with an americana on his arm.

Sometimes, when you got past the sex, you could really connect verbally and intellectually. These were men who'd been raised to talk to the women they were expected to court and marry like lesser children, as though they were people so intellectually stale that they couldn't be spoken to in any other manner. After all, eventually they would be expected to stay at home and mind the babies while the man in question was ensconced with a proper mistress; in the meantime, these girls took a break by the seaside with their mammas and we were the 'mistresses in training.'

Sex aside, you talked. They asked you questions about America, as they'd been fed a diet of all Americans being cowboys living in New York riding horses down Hollywood Boulevard and walking like John Wayne. They wanted to know about the government - I arrived in Spain the summer of Nixon's resignation, and I watched the speech at 2AM in the morning at a friend's house. The Spaniards couldn't understand how a President - in their understanding, a whole government - could resign and another President take the helm so effortlessly and without bloodshed. They asked about political parties, about elections, about what we did for amusement, what we ate, how we partied, what books we read. About everything they couldn't and wouldn't dream about conversing with their girlfriends. We never wondered why, ourselves, we just enjoyed the experience; because for some of us, it would be the only experience we would ever have of cultures different to our own.

In those days, there were no MacDonalds or Burger Kings to be seen in any of the major cities. You ate the food the Europeans ate. You used public transport. You walked. You immersed yourselves in their culture and you came away better for it.

Of course, the Ugly American was rearing his head even then. I recall two girls travelling with our group during that summer of 1974 - sisters who resembled natural versions of Bo Derek in 10.

They insisted on speaking in English and they spoke loudly to everyone, believing that if you spoke to a foreigner loudly in English, they would somehow understand. They spoke to the local people as if they were servants there to do their bidding. One girl left a pair of shoes in the hotel where we stayed in Madrid. When the concierge called our lodging in Salamanca to ask if she wanted them to send the shoes to her by post, she snapped back at the man, who was only trying to help.

'Just ditch them. I'll buy another pair here.'

And this was in a country at a time when you could and did take shoes to the local zapatero to be mended until they couldn't be mended anymore.

Four years later, I returned to Spain to finish my master's degree. That would have been two years into the term of Jimmy Carter. Already, the mood was changing there. Franco had died and the king was proving a liberal sort. I re-connected with an old beau, who'd since married and fathered a son. The wife was awaiting the birth of number 2 and they'd recently moved into a charming little pied-a-terre in one of the side streets in the fashionable area of Salamanca.

So, effectively, I became, for that summer at least, his first maitresse-en-titre. Again, it was good sex and intellectual stimulation. In the afterglow, we could discuss the repercussions of Ford pardoning Nixon on the 1976 election, Franco's death and the King's swing to the left, Jimmy Carter and the welfare state ... and the growing sense of anti-Americanism evidenced by all the graffiti'd slogans bearing various versions of 'Yankees, go home!'

Since 1981, I've lived in the UK as the wife of a British civil servant. I came here an Anglophile, something which most educated people in Virginia claim to be. After all, we were and are the Old Dominion, the only colony loyal to the King during the English civil war, the first colony. We'd given England the first American wife (Pocahontas) and the first woman to be elected to Parliament (Nancy Astor). That we were also the first colony to bite the hand that fed us could be easily forgiven. After all, I'd been at the University of Virginia in 1976 when the Queen visited. Virginians were practically no their knees begging to be taken back into the fold. (We're the natural snobs of the United States, according to my husband).

How rude an awakening it was to find that, as politically correct as the English became over the decade (and the British embraced 'political correctness' with the zeal of a convert), Americans were the only ethnic group which could be targeted pejoratively and not be expected to take offence. In fact, if they did take offence, the British would roll their eyes upwards and mutter something to the effect that Americans either didn't have a sense of humour or Americans didn't understand irony.

Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher's Cabintet ministers, made an off-the-cuff remark about the Germans and had to resign immediately. Thatcher, herself, regularly insulted the French, who insulted her back; and apologies were forever criss-crossing the Channel from her to Mitterand and vice versa.

The UK's top television programme, Eastenders, broadcast a week of episodes from Ireland, depicting the main character's Irish relatives as slovenly, drunken and sharing a house with pigs and the BBC was shamed into apologising to the Irish community which inhabits a swathe of North London. Jokes about Asians, Italians and West Indians were simply not tolerated.

Yet British television personalities such as Jeremy Clarkson and Jo Brand pumped out diatribes about the stupidity of Americans.

Brand (no relation to Russell but just as crass): 'I'm not saying Americans are stupid but ...'

The BBC, whose charter alleges it should at all times remain fair, balanced and impartial, is about as fair, balanced and impartial as Fox News in its depiction of America as backward, socially gauche, uber-religious, right-wing and redneck. The BBC welcomed the arrival of Bush 43 as proof positive of their depiction of Americans being intellectually and morally inferior. In fact, in a memo leaked a few years ago, the long-time BBC American correspondent, Justin Webb, was roundly reprimanded by his bosses for giving too positive a depiction of America and Americans - never mind the fact that Webb had been based in the States for donkey's years, lived amongst the people and sent his children to American public schools. He, more than anyone, had seen a positive image of America. But he was prohibited from reporting it.

And there I was, a one-woman trumpeter for the opposite impression, working solidly as a linguist, employed by various companies solely for the purpose of communicating with their French, Italian and Spanish clientele, simply because the British (like the Americans, like the Canadians ... hell, like ALL English-speaking people) can't be bothered to learn another language for communications purposes. There was always a poorly-concealed element of surprise when some important bod would visit and I'd be called into the inner sanctum to be introduced to Big Boss, for whom I'd spoken to the office in Rome on a regular basis.

The first question was always: 'Are you Canadian then?' (As if my colonial accent were somehow part of the Commonwealth, that could be excused.)

When I would deny this, then came the ultimate plaintive cry of disappointment: 'But you're American! How and where did you learn to speak those languages!'

I honestly had one such honcho remark: 'But Americans are supposed to be stupid! You're not supposed to know where Europe is, much less speak any of its languages.'

My reply was that the British certainly knew where Europe was and still couldn't speak any of their languages.

But then, as I said, Bush 43 reinforced Europe's view of America and Americans. He was the only person I'd ever heard of who could turn a collective nation from hero to zero in less than five minutes, with the cowboy 'dead or alive' mentality that ensued in the wake of 9/11. Cowboy parlances of 'smokin' Bin Laden' out, telling the rest of the world that they were either with us or against us, denying US citizens basic rights and ignoring the Constitution and the Geneva Convention to set up a cabal of tyranny and torture and all in the name of freedom, (never mind, coming across as an inarticulate dolt), all this impinged upon Europe's view of America as a proselytising, right-wingnut, praise-God-and-pass-the-ammunition Christian fundamentalist nation. For the first time in my life, I knew American expats who started claiming to be Canadian, although I never did.

And on the US side, to the forefront, Bush and his neocon cronies encouraged a vituperatively negative view, on our parts, of Europe and Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans. 'Freedom fries' was the most ridiculous stunt of all, as was some neocon's published assessment of the French as 'cheese-eating appeasers'. Even some of my relatives bought into this rhetoric.

Listen, try telling a cousin, whose only experiences of foreign travel have been the odd day trip to Canada and Tijuana and Caribbean cruises here and there, that the French are the world's arch-pragmatists, that they - like any good country should - look after their own first and to hell with anyone else, that they promote their own interests, and if that means collaborating with a pariah of the Middle East to obtain cheap raw materials for France, so be it.

Try telling that same relative that Germany is still on a massive guilt trip (and in some cases, denial) about World War II and their part in the Holocaust, that - conversely - there's a groundswell of right-wing politicos on the move there, especially since immigration from the old Eastern bloc has been permitted, that Germany is reluctant to engage its troops, only recently permitted by NATO to be stationed abroad after sixty years, in any aggressive campaign.

Try telling a relative that a lot of viewpoints of the US stem from jealousy and ignorance, just as many viewpoints from the US do as well.

It's like preaching to a wall. It makes me think, sadly, of an incident which occurred when I was teaching in Virginia in the late Seventies. I was teaching first year French to a group of Eighth Graders, and I had a huge map of France on the wall. One morning, one of the brighter little girls called me over to the map.

'Miss,' she chirped, curiously. 'How long would it take to drive to France?'

I held back my astonisment long enough to tell her that because the Atlantic Ocean separated us from France, you couldn't drive. You could only reach France by air or sea.

'There's no interstate?' She asked.

I couldn't answer. She simply didn't understand the geographical concept.

That kid would be about 43 now. I wonder if she's ever found out where France is. Probably not. But she's probably relieved that Americans can't just get in an SUV and drive to a land that regularly spawns a bunch of cheese-eating appeasers.

Plus ca change ...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Re-Hashing the Hash

Before the President went on his whistle-stop tour of Europe, he happened along to California to do an online Town Hall meeting, taking questions and answers from the people who elected him, and from many who didn't.

Fair dos. He's the People's President, after all.

Whilst at a Town Hall meeting in California, Obama was assailed with the question posed most on the Internet about possible legislation he might introduce during his tenure.

What about legalising marijuana?

Obama responded with a somewhat flippant answer, basically saying 'no' and commenting on the question reflecting something about online questioners, and moved on.

Needless to say, people went beserk, especially those who use the stuff and were hoping to have instant legalisation, especially from a President who has openly admitted using, not only pot (and actually inhaling) but also cocaine as well. They were more than beserk; they were righteously indignant to the point that one would have thought that Obama had let them down morally on an intensely personal level. Some people hurled more name-calling at him than the entire base of the GOP did during the campaign - and these people were Democrats.

I have to weigh in here.

Although I haven't done so in many a year, I've smoked the occasional joint and shared a bong in my past, mostly during my university days and immediately thereafter. I won't deny, also, that sometimes in moments of extreme stress and anxiety, I have the urge to toke a j and chill out. I daresay there are many people like this in my generation and certainly those who still partake and do so regularly. Therefore, I have no problem with marijuana being legalised.

There's no proof that it's addicting, it doesn't kill people, and although too much of anything isn't good for you, it's a rather harmless, recreational drug that makes people feel good. On another level, it's been proven to ease pain for many people who suffer certain types of diseases - rheumatoid arthritis and MS, amongst many.

So it ought to be legalised. It's beneficial medically and I happen to think that if people want to smoke it, they should be able to do so. After all, cigarettes and alcohol kill and people can get those legally; besides, the tax revenues would be beneficial.

But at this point in time, why bother the President with something so trivial in comparison to the economic problems we're suffering? Is legalising pot more important than balancing the books? Is it more important than hammering out a universal health care package? Is it more important than resolving the issue with Iraq and Pakistan?

I don't think so.

I want this legalised, but I honestly think the right way to go about it is by state-by-state legalisation. If each state voted it legal within its borders, one after another, it would be on the books for it to be, eventually, made into a federal law. So instead of lobbying your congressmen, who are either busy honing an economic package to save all our asses or fighting with those who are trying to do so, lobby your state representatives and your governor.

One by one, states are passing same-sex marriage laws, rather than waiting for pontificating Presidents to pussyfoot around an area they clearly find uncomfortable; so, just get our asses in gear and get this passed on a state level. OK, the South might be a bit slow (when haven't they been?), but hey, even Hank Williams Jr's done time for pot. He'd certainly condone this measure.

So all those stoners and ex-stoners like me should shut up and let the President get on with sorting out first things first. Join NORML or contact them to try to get a state branch started in your home state (are you listening, Virginia?) and try the statewide tack. By the time all the major stuff is beginning to be sorted, possibly later in the administration, the President might find a quiet time to sign this measure into law ... after a majority of states have done so before him.

It makes sense.