Monday, April 28, 2008

Obama -- Even in Florence

Today was terrific. I finagled a switch in my ticket so as to take a "Florence on Your Own" trip instead of the walking tour for which I had a reservation. Then when I got there I found a "Hop on, Hop Off" city bus with seats on top of a double decker. There are two routes -- one for one hour going around , the other a two-hour drive that includes Fiosole. For 20 Euros I could take both routes for twenty-four hours if I wanted to. But I stayed on the one-hour circle, making three complete loops around Florence It was magnificent. I would still have enjoyed the ride if I had gone ten times.

But that meant I didn't walk much or go looking inside buildings at all. Our group met in front of church (see photo) but I didn't go in there either. It's a strange building. The facade is the same extraordinary style as the cathedral, but it's just stuck onto the front of a stone church with a steeple at the back.

And before taking that bus, I had an hour with a cappucino and a Herald Tribune inside a restaurant facing the square. There was an interesting piece by the pointed out how badly McCain is doing, compared to the now "bitterly divided`' Democrats. When the Democrats voted last week in Pennsylvania, the Republicans did so as well. But although has already won enough delegates to cinch the nomination, some 27 percent of the Republicans voted for some other candidate – Huckabee or Ron Paul. That 27 percent lack of support is more than the number of Obama- or Clinton-supporters who say they would not vote for the other candidate if their preferred candidate is defeated for the Democratic nomination. And there are fewer Republicans registered anyhow. I had dinner last night with a couple from Pennsylvania who had changed their registration to Democrat so they could vote for Obama. There are many thousands of others who did likewise.

Yet of course Obama lost , and the pundits are all asking why he cannot make white working class voters love him. Another NY Times columnists whom I accessed on the Internet tonight pointed out that is trying a new approach, connecting his "new politics" with their problems, arguing that there has to be a greater political mobilization of ordinary citizens. For example, he will broadcast all the negotiations over health care plans on C SPAN, and hopes they will watch and offer their opinions and demands.

I think that's important. But it's also important to tell them the truth -- that their manufacturing jobs are not going to come back, no matter what they do. The solution to their problems involves greater education. American levels have flattened out, just while good jobs increasingly require it. I don't think any candidates have pointed this out bluntly. The emphasis on combatting trade agreements such as is misguided.

So even here at sea, the Democratic contest is the most -- almost the ONLY -- interesting topic that people can discuss seriously.

But tomorrow I go to Aix en Provence to stroll around.I am optimistic.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

At Sea, Friday April 25, somewhere north of Algeria

I’m going to try to write a generic letter, but it may not be possible. The laptop still conks out unpredictably, making me re-boot. My trip has reinforced my co-dependent love relationship with this machine. In Ft. Lauderdale I discovered that it had kicked the bucket, and only yesterday did I get to see a repairman, for only one hour, so he could fix only part of the problem. It seemed to be a keyboard connectivity problem so I bought a Bluetooth keyboard, which I am using now. However, there is something else wrong, so it collapses every five minutes. Let me see how far I can get this time.

I’m in a ship’s cafeteria, watching the race past, directly below my window. And scraps of floating paper. It seems that paper floats a long time. Now I am passing a large dead leaf. Two days ago, however, I passed two spouting whales. The beasts did not reveal themselves in the flesh but I could see their spouts. Land is nowhere visible now, but I can see a ship on the horizon. In the Atlantic one never sees other ships or airplanes, but on the Mediterranean, there are freighters.

Yesterday I rode a cable car to the top of the rock of and watched a monkey snatch a candy bar from a woman who had been warned not to make food visible. There is a 500 pound fine for feeding them. There are five packs of apes, one of which encroaches on a district of the city, so there is a debate about whether to cull them. I think they should remove them to a desert island, but that approach does not have much support. The Gibraltarians are more inclined to shoot them instead. There is a legend that when the number of apes declines to 34, Spain will re-capture Gibraltar, so during World War II Churchill imported some extras to prevent that. Now they have increased to over 200.

Day before yesterday I was in for four hours, which I mostly spent in a Starbucks and searching fruitlessly for English books. I didn’t even open my map. I was across the street from the cathedral but didn’t go in. Never again will I have to take a geography exam, and I find my interest in sightseeing – especially in viewing a quota of famous sites – is steadily declining. Reading and keeping up with world news is more important. Our TV sets on board were out of range of satellite reception for about a week, but now I can get CNN a bit, though Wolf Blitzer only comes on in the middle of the night. So I read. By now I’ve read Obama’s first book and am 2/3 through his second one. Both are excellent but in different ways. In Seville I found a London Times but no English books that appealed to me. I was too busy in Gibraltar with the computer problem to search bookstores, where I might have found something good.

I did enjoy Gibraltar. The houses are scrunched tightly together along streets about 10 feet wide. People are bilingual, speaking mostly Spanish socially but English with the tourists. There’s no university; they send students to UK for university education and pay the whole costs. The water comes from a desalination plant that uses diesel. The driver told me it is the dirtiest plant in Europe. I was chasing around on foot trying to buy a computer to replace my dormant Mac; I found a tiny pink plastic one that looked like a toy, but they wanted 390 British pounds for it, so I pressed onward to the Mac store, where the technician revived my own machine. Main Street was full of pedestrians, lacking any cars, and cops patrolled in pairs, wearing the old-fashioned British “Bobby” hats, plus day-glo vests.

Before Seville we had a day in – a beautiful island near the Canaries. (See photo above.)I took a bus tour of the whole island, which is steep and mountainous. Little farms are on terraces, stair-stepping down the volcanic cliffs. Most of the tourists took a cable car up and a famous toboggan ride down the mountain in wicker baskets through the middle of the street. Two guys hold ropes to steer the basket, but on one of the trips the basket got out of control and the woman passenger had to go to hospital for stitches and is being flown home to the States. I skipped that experience. My bus trip was adventure enough.

I have to admit that I’ve been bored out of my mind on this ship. Three times a day I sit down to a table with a retired affluent couple or two. There are hardly any single persons, and the conversation is rarely stimulating. Many of these people spend a lot of their lives traveling. It’s not unusual to encounter someone who has been on 30 or 40 cruises, and much of the conversation deals with the quality of food on different liners. However, I just spent the afternoon with two different couples who both had interesting stories to tell. One was a former intelligence officer in a nuclear submarine who explained how the antennae work on satellites and in submarines. He was humorous and broad-minded.

The library contains hardly anything except schlock fiction. Today I spent the morning in one of the ship’s numerous bars so I could plug my computer somewhere near a table. The place was full of women doing some kind of craft together, cutting and pasting colored paper to make kindergarten-style collages. Then the men joined them for a game of trivia. Nobody seems to miss their newspapers; they do evidently enjoy the comedians and magicians who give shows in the theatre, and the piano bar where the player (who looks like Werner Erhard) specializes in Fiddler on the Roof songs.

Tomorrow we will dock at , Sardinia and I will walk around hunting Herald Tribunes. I expected to befriend a single woman to walk around with, but so far I haven’t. Truly, there can’t be even one percent of the passengers who are single, and few couples seem to form groups, except long enough to eat one meal together. Nevertheless, they say they adore cruising because everything is so luxurious and they have nothing stressful to do. I think they need something purposeful to do, but I guess people differ because that’s not what they want. I really hate this way of living. Every night I’ve been having bad dreams, mostly about discovering that I’ve wasted my whole life. If I spent more time doing so little, such nightmares would overwhelm me with a crushing sense of meaninglessness.

Maybe the final days of the trip will be more interesting. After Cagliari we go to Rome – or rather to , the port, where we can go to for three or four hours. They tell me there’s city bus there where you can hop on and hop off wherever you want. If you stay on, it makes the circle in 90 minutes. St. Peter’s is going to be closed for a ceremony inducting new bishops, much to the disappointment of several tour groups. Tonight one woman complained that the Catholic Church ought to be more accommodating.

After Rome we will dock one day at Livorno, allowing a 1.5 hour trip inland to Florence. Good. I like Florence. Then there’s to be a day in Marseille (where I’ve signed up for a tour) and then to where I’ll debark – thence to Paris, Berlin, Kiev, and finally Moscow for five weeks. In Paris I’ll meet Ignat, who will be there with his girlfriend for a few days.

I’ve started taking my dinner in one of the fancy dining rooms instead of the buffet. But tonight I’ll skip that because it’s another formal night, and I didn’t bring a tuxedo. There are several dining rooms on board, most of which are free, but a few with a cover charge. In all of them the food is good and certainly abundant. One morning I sat beside a Mexican couple. The wife, who was only slightly overweight, brought four huge platters of food to the table for herself alone. She didn’t consume all of it but made a heroic effort to do so. I suppose she had decided to try everything they had on offer at the buffet.

The waiters and stewards are from many different countries, so I particularly enjoy talking with them. One Filippino guy now offers his cheek for me to kiss and I always oblige. There are several Romanians, a few Thais, and lots of Ukrainians, who say they earn much more here than at home. One elementary school teacher from Donetsk says she earns five times as much here waitressing than by teaching in Ukraine. But she lefthome because she doesn’t like the politics there.

There are many conversations about the US Democratic primary race. At first I thought almost everyone here was an Obama supporter, but then I ran into two astounding racist men. One of them said such vile things that I got up and moved my food and cutlery to a different table. There’s not much discussion of the candidates’ policies – just their personalities and mythic biographies. It’s amazing that such legends can survive, given the existence of several well-researched biographies. Some argue that Obama is a Muslim, though his autobiography is beautifully written and accessible even on this ship. But one couple insisted that he hadn’t written his own books, for blacks aren’t intelligent enough to do so!

Here comes another freighter on the horizon. Our own ship, the , I huge; it carries 3080 passengers when full but we were 700 passengers short at first. In Madeira they took on 200 more – people who had missed the ship in Fort Lauderdale but flew over to join us on this side of the pond.

Blessings to you all. Don’t expect souvenirs, though!

Saturday, I couldn’t get access until today, so I will post it now if the laptop will cooperate. I spent part of the day on Cagliari. It’s a bigger city than it appeared to be from the harbor. I’d add something now but this laptop is not reliable and may fail at any moment.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Competitive Peaceniks

I just spent the weekend in a conference and AGM of a in which I am active. I was disappointed but not at all surprised when the business meeting turned stressful. Had I given it any thought, I would have predicted exactly this turn of events —on the basis of both my own past experience and of observed behavior on the part of the most prominent member of the organization — a full-time, highly skilled, professional expert in conflict resolution. I saw it coming.

There is a puzzle that has surprised me time after time. Why are peaceniks so often ruthlessly competitive? I believe that they are more so than people in business, academia, the professions, or even perhaps politics itself. And, to be frank, it bugs the hell out of me. I may sound snide here about the self-aggrandizement that I see so often; nevertheless, my negative comments do not negate my overall respect for the peace workers whom I want to criticize.

I don’t say that peaceniks encounter conflict overall more often than people in other fields of work, but rather that the nature of the conflict among them is specific: greed for and recognition, not disputes about substantive issues. And, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room, the status conflict is never named for what it is. The odd thing is that the combatants these days are mainly women, and they inevitably adduce “gender balance” as a rationale for changing the structure of the organization in their own favor.

Fortunately, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I am not one of the competitors and would not even accept the contested prominent role if it were offered. But some women have an enormous craving to be recognized as prominent, and this yearning is coupled with considerable competence. They are nice people who mainly perform fairly creditably — often far better than would have been anticipated on the basis of their credentials alone. They are dedicated, hard-working, competent and nice. But gosh, do they ever have !

The signs in this instance became evident almost a year ago. The national organization was founded by two men, who spread the word widely and set up chapters across the country. After the organization’s first AGM in another province, I was invited to a meeting to start up a Toronto chapter. The invitation came from a man whom I had not known before. He was a newcomer to the peace movement, but turned out to be a true gem: absolutely dedicated to the cause, modest, and well-spoken. He has assiduously lobbied parliamentarians about our cause, with excellent results. He expected to chair the Toronto group, but at the first meeting, a woman who had been an activist for many years announced that we needed someone with experience, so she would serve as co-chair. Okay. She has done the job well — though in every case it has been she who has chaired our meetings while her male co-chair amiably accepted a back seat.

This weekend offered new opportunities for a person to chair meetings. Our protagonist took on that role in almost all sessions. Even from the chair, she voiced her own experiences and opinions in every panel discussion. Instead of allowing the audience to present their questions to the panelists (who included several members of parliament), she asked for written questions to be submitted, which she chose and read aloud, often with editorial commentary. The order-keeping function of chairing a meeting became an opportunity for stardom.

I was not surprised to see who else had been chosen to speak on the panels. There are three older women in my city who love to be seen in prominent places. Somehow they are often invited to speak in public events. Now I can see some new younger women who have also joined in the competition for recognition. Listening to their speeches, I had to smile. These youths will soon be giving the older a run for their money, especially since they occupy strategic roles in organizations, which will be highly advantageous ways of justifying their claim for prominence on the basis of .

It was not until the AGM, however, that the true magnitude of this challenge became apparent. Pretty soon a woman not only took the floor, but brought a flip chart to the front, blocking our vision of the two co-chairs who had been running the meeting. From that point on, she took over, without being invited. She proposed an elaborate revamping of the organizational structure by adding two more co-chairs, so as to make four in all — two of whom would be women. The number of board members would be doubled as well, and a secretary-treasurer would be added. No one indicated that the present organization had become inadequate. The revisions were meant only as new channels of upward mobility for certain status-hungry members. In my opinion, the hefty new organizational structure would be a handicap, not a practical help in getting the job done.

After listening with mounting irritation I spoke up, declaring that the changes would be counterproductive and that there was no need for any changes whatever. The self-appointed chairwoman suggested instead that we all do some kind of Quaker meditation because there was stress in the room. We were told to raise our hands whenever each of us felt we had regained control. I am not a . I did not raise my hand, though most other people complied with her suggestion. We took a break. Afterward, it became apparent that there was little support for the insurrection. The co-chairs resumed control of the meeting and smoothly processed the business that had been on the agenda all along.

Why does this sort of thing happen? It certainly proves to be an obstacle to the effectiveness of a new organization, and yet I have seen the same kind of happen time after time. It’s not based on the fight over a substantive issue; it’s simply a reflection of the need for recognition that prevails among peace workers.

Every profession has a competitive side to it. I know the academic scene rather well, though I’ve never tried particularly hard to establish a high status within sociology. I’ve seen it done, and I don’t especially admire it but I cannot say that it’s destructive. With a few exceptions, the scholars who achieve eminence seem not to be motivated by a desire for glory, but rather by an interest in the problems that they are addressing in their research. Administrative roles in the university are usually avoided, rather than sought. I once had such a role forced upon me when no one else would take it on. Most academics would rather be doing their research than receiving awards or chairing committees or departments or even whole universities. We are paid enough to get by comfortably, and after we get tenure we don’t have to look over our shoulders.

Peace activists, on the other hand, have no security and few rewards. They are almost all unpaid, and those who do receive salaries always subsist at poverty levels, supported by some charitable organization or other. The only form of recognition is the status conferred by prominent roles in the organization, or by being asked to speak and represent the movement to the wider world. Moreover, on ideological grounds, their every competitive instinct is supposed to be suppressed. Theoretically, activists all believe in equality.

There’s a significant number of resentful middle-class women in this world who try very hard to serve society in an altruistic way. These are mainly women who have never pursued careers in the business world, where there are standards that declare rather objectively how well one is performing. Their is genuine. I truly respect these women — even those whom I don't especially like.

But I have a solution to propose. It’s facetious, of course, but it might work if taken seriously. People who become peace activists should wear epaulets on their shoulders. Whenever a peace worker licks 10,000 stamps or answers the phone 5,000 times, he or she will get a small silver marker to pin on the . As we get more and more dedicated over time, we acquire bars or even gold stars, just as officers in the military do. You can tell at a glance how much each peace worker has contributed. There will be no need to show off. The persons chosen to chair organizations or speak on panels will therefore be selected on the basis of their expertise or astuteness as a speaker, not their sense of entitlement. We will take the stress out of meetings and let business be conducted without status envy.

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