Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reflections on an Election in Gabon

Today voters in the Central African country of Gabon will go to the polls to elect a successor to President El-Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, who died in May at the age of 73.

It is the first time in more than four decades that Omar Bongo will not be on the ballot -- though his son, 50-year-old Ali-Ben Bongo, is seeking the presidency himself, along with 22 other candidates.

The elder Bongo became president in 1967 upon the death of Leon Mba, Gabon's first post-independence head of state. At the time, Gabon's constitution provided for the succession of the presidency through the vice president and Bongo happened to have recently been elevated to the that office, after serving for a decade in a variety of bureaucratic positions. The Gabonese constitution now calls for a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death or resignation of a president.

In his 42 years in office, Bongo presided over a remarkably stable country, by African standards. It is one of the few sub-Saharan countries that never had a violent change of government, and political unrest was rare in the Bongo years.

Bongo ruled, sometimes harshly, and, for the first 20 years or so, through a one-party state apparatus. When democratic changes began sweeping through Africa in the early 1990s (not coincidentally, following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Washington-Moscow machinations in Africa), Bongo saw the writing on the wall and oversaw the transition to a multi-party state.

A canny politician, Bongo understood well the adage, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." He co-opted opposition politicians by giving them cabinet positions and other perks. It's no accident that Gabon is said to have more cabinet officials per capita than any other country in the world. The CIA publication, World Leaders, lists 36 cabinet positions, including four deputy prime ministers and a "Min. of Social Affairs, National Solidarity, & the Protection of Widows & Orphans, in Charge of the Fights Against AIDS." The country's population is 1,514,993 -- you do the math.

In 1998, I was in Gabon during the presidential election and had the opportunity to interview two of the international election monitors who observed the process. The Metro Herald of Alexandria published my interview on March 19, 1999, and here it is:


Richard Sincere
Exclusive to The Metro Herald

Last December The Metro Herald’s Richard Sincere went to Gabon, in. Central Africa, to observe that country’s second democratically-conducted presidential election since its new constitution took effect in 1991. In 1993, the incumbent president, El-Hadj Omar Bongo, won reelection with 51 percent of the vote against a field of 11 challengers. In 1998, Bongo was again reelected, this time with nearly 67 percent of the vote in a field of eight candidates.

According to GERDDES-Afrique, an international organization that works for the advancement of democracy in a Africa, “GERDDES-Afrique was pleased to coordinate election observation in Gabon by an experienced group of international monitors from Africa, Europe, and North America. Over 170 observers arrived in the days before the election to see for themselves the functioning of Gabon’s democracy. To this end, they attended campaign rallies sponsored by all the candidates; they spoke with members of the government and with officials of opposition parties; they were briefed by their own countries’ ambassadors stationed in Gabon; they visited polling places, monitored the news media, and listened to the concerns of voters.

“Monitors came to Gabon from West, Central, and Southern Africa and from as far away as Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Observers included ambassadors and other diplomats, jurists, former heads of state, professors of law and political science, business executives, journalists, and political party officials.”

After some time to reflect on the election process, The Metro Herald (TMH) was able to talk to two of the international observers, Canada’s Troy Lanigan and Julian West. They were half of a a team that also included University of Sherbrooke Professor Charlotte Lemieux and former British Columbia legislator Nick Loenen. Following are their responses to The Metro Herald’s questions.

* * *

TMH: Please briefly describe yourself (place of residence, political affiliation, profession, relevant experience).

Lanigan: My background is in political advocacy. I have a degree in political science and economics, have traveled extensively throughout Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. I’ve worked professionally on campaigns and for various organizations in both Canada and the United States for the better part of 12 years. Currently, I reside in Victoria. British Columbia, and am employed full-time by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation by serving as National Communications Director and a spokesman in British Columbia. I also chair the Electoral Change Coalition of British Columbia (ECCO-BC), a multipartisan group of parties, groups, and individuals dedicated to changing the province’s first-past-the-post voting system through a referendum.

West: I live in Ladysmith, British Columbia (on Vancouver Island), where I am organizing chair and Elections BC delegate, Green Party of British Columbia, and Elections Canada delegate, Green Party of Canada. Professionally, I am a mathematician (Ph.D., MIT 1990), and since 1995 instructor at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC, and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. In addition, I am a founding director of ECCO-BC and author of several documents on electoral reform.

TMH: What were your expectations before arriving in Gabon?

Lanigan: To tell you the truth, I really had no idea . . . Gabon would be hot/humid with a lot of black people speaking French in relatively poor conditions . . . that our job as observers was serious and that we would be trained and prepared to do a job.

West: From the limited information I was able to uncover about the country before the trip, I had the impression that it was sufficiently well-off to qualify as a “middle-income” country, virtually the only one in the whole of Africa which was not classified as “poor.” Perhaps naively, I assumed that this implied a certain level of social and political development as well, particularly having read about “relatively free” elections held there in the 1990s. (I’m not unaware that there were until recently a significant number of socialist countries classified as middle-income or higher—but these days I sort of assume that economic development and political development go hand-in-hand.)

TMH: Were these expectations accurate? if not, why not? (Feel free to elaborate.)

Lanigan: As far as Gabon went, our day trip to Lamberene [where Dr. Albert Schweitzer lived and worked] was the highlight … as far as the “observer” business went I had no idea how unorganized everything would be and even when something was half organized it was all [conducted] in French. If not for the books and manuals [we had received in advance], we would have had absolutely no background or grounding prior to the election.

Having said that, I’m glad we learned quickly to ignore scheduled meetings and took the opportunity to meet various campaign workers, attend rallies, and the like. Those encounters we interesting and valuable.

I should add that we got to see and do everything we imagined possible and that did exceed my expectations.

West: Yes and no. I would say that the general levels of education and social and political awareness among the Gabonese I encountered (admittedly a distorted sample, as it tended to be the sort of people one meets in luxury hotels, opposition radio stations, and so forth) were markedly higher than I expected. People seemed genuinely to know what was up with regard to the state of the country and the government. At the polling stations (more reflective of the general population) there was a frank enthusiasm for the democratic process and an air of seriousness about the whole project. This was refreshing.

On the down side, the general state of infrastructure and access to facilities in general was quite depressing once we left the bord de mer [seaside] in downtown Libreville [the capital city of Gabon]. Likewise, the social infrastructure was weak. I didn’t see the University myself but I had the sense it did not have much social impact on the capital. The media seemed underdeveloped. Perhaps this is what you’d expect in a country of only 1.3 million, but I think it would be desirable to see the emergence of a politically independent newspaper (and radio) rather than ones obsessed with the government and the opposition view of politics.

We saw a great many schools and although these were barren, they were clean, and I at least got the impression that schooling was available throughout the country. I also got the impression that this was true for girls as well as boys, and this is perhaps the most important social-development indicator for Third-World us countries.

TMH: How did you pursue your responsibilities as election observers? (For instance, did you attend political rallies, visit party headquarters, talk to voters, read local newspapers, etc.?)

Lanigan: It was never clear what our “responsibilities” were, so we made a lot of it up as we were going along. We did all these things: visited party headquarters, met candidates, attended rallies, spoke with foreign media. (I didn’t have a lot of one-on-one conversations with locals or read local papers because of language barriers, but our team certainly did.) We even had one of the Bucherons organizers come to our hotel to discuss list irregularities. We had a couple discussions with the Canadian Ambassador related to the election as well. I thought we used our time wisely and took in as much as we could.

West: We attended four rallies, although they were uniformly so late in starting that we really only stayed for the speeches at one. These were for the candidates Mba Abessole, Kombila, and Bongo. There was a fourth, but it was sparsely attended and we did not stay long. Following the Abessole rally, which was well attended and for which we were able to observe the entire rally from beginning to end, we were invited to visit the opposition radio station, Radio Soleil, which was being used as a party headquarters for the RNB.

I bought essentially every newspaper I could lay my hands on. Although I didn’t have time to read them all, I did go through all the headlines and read a number of the more relevant articles. I feel I got a general sense of the state of the media, which reminded me strongly of state-controlled publications I had seen elsewhere, such as the China Daily and the former Daily News in Hungary.

I wish I had been able to talk with more voters, but we did encounter quite a lot at the polls, and were able to talk briefly with cab drivers, hotel waiters, etc.

TMH: In your observations, did it appear that all candidates were able to put their case to the voters in a reasonably free and fair fashion?

Lanigan: In one sense yes. We attended a large Abessole rally in which there were military present. They were very friendly, the point of joking with the crowd and rally organizers. There was no intimidation by the military, only the intention to keep the event orderly. There was no restriction on materials distributed or what was said.

In another sense no. There is no question that the incumbent used the power of government to his advantage. On the first day we were there we heard a bunch of sirens and came out of the market to see what was up. It was the state police clearing the street to escort a bus load of Bongo supporters—just one of several examples including Bongo posters exclusively on government buildings, and money coming out the you-know-what, etc.

At one opposition rally they were complaining that the election commission had denied them a rally down by the water front even though Bongo was holding a rally in the same location.

So yes, there was openness, we saw several rallies and advertisements to suggest there was no harassment or intimidation but at the same time opponents of Bongo had the deck stacked against them.

West: Yes. I have no doubts at all about this aspect of the election. In fact, I would say that with regard to equal access to the electorate, this election far exceeded anything I have ever witnessed in Canada or the United States.

TMH: Did you observe any attempts by the government to inhibit or obstruct participation by political activists of an party? Did you see any examples of police or army intimidation of voters or activists?

Lanigan: Yes, I believe there was intimidation at voting stations. In areas of low support for Bongo, there would be a disproportionate amount of military (riot gear, gas canisters, the whole nine yards). One of these stations didn’t get around to opening until past 1:00PM [and] impatient voters left. Four hundred people registered to vote and only four ballots in the box! By “intimidation” it is not necessary to bust heads. We verified in conversation with people that they were intimidated by the military presence. In a couple of places I too was uncomfortable. Julian has more specifics on the different types of military present in different areas, which is important to understanding “intimidation.”

West: I saw a very heavy army presence at the polling station in Lalala which was the focus of an extended discussion in the British [observer team’s post-election] report. Late in the afternoon, I witnessed several ballot boxes containing fewer than 10 ballots from an electoral roll of 500, and one which was entirely empty. I put this down to the army presence—the ballot is not secret if yours is the only one in the box, so no one wants to cast one of the first ballots. In Canada, when a box contains few ballots it is mixed with another box before the count, to preserve the secrecy of the vote. I witnessed that this was not the case in Gabon—boxes were opened and counted in public with as few as half-a-dozen ballots in them. It would have been an easy matter to track which names were crossed off the list as having voted, and therefore to disprove a voter’s claim that he or she had voted a certain way.

The British team observed that another reason for the low turnout at this location was that the station had been moved with inadequate notice to the electors (likely in violation of the election law).

That both these things took place in a known opposition stronghold is a real cause for concern. After the close of polls, we encountered an angry mob who pointed to the situation in Lalala as evidence that the count was being rigged, conducted behind closed doors by army troops rather than openly. Half an hour later, we saw a truckload of riot troops headed south towards Lalala.

TMH: On election day itself did the polling stations operate at or below your expectations? Did it seem that the voter lists were accurate? Were any voters turned away from the polls without having an opportunity to vote? Did you see any voters attempt to vote more than once?

Lanigan: For the most part the polling stations exceeded my expectations I was really struck by the earnest and sincere conduct of the poll officials. Although some arguments broke out over rules and duties of various actors (especially party scrutineers) that was in my view more a function of education and not ill intent.

Yes, there was one outrageous example of a poll president refusing to allow a registered voter to vote because the man looked like he was from Mali. The military did not intervene even though a fight very nearly broke out. We reported the incident immediately. The man should not have been refused a vote. Also, several people were turned away because they were not on the list, they told us the election commission said it was not necessary to re-register if you were on the list in 1993. Apparently everyone had to reregister.

No one I saw attempted to vote more than once.

I have no idea if the voters’ lists were accurate. The opposition parties don’t think so. I really don’t know how we could know this despite our requirement of comparing lists posted outside to the lists held inside by the poll president.

West: In Libreville, I mostly saw disorder, with many stations which had not opened by late morning.

We heard numerous complaints about “doublants” and names missing from the electoral rolls. A person who had registered might be missing from the rolls, or missing a voter’s card, or both. One voter showed us two voting cards which he claimed were both issued to him, one under his French name and one under his African name. We also met polling-station officials who had similar documentary evidence of “doublants.” However, I am generally inclined to accept that this was due to bookkeeping errors rather than fraud. I say this for two reasons.

First, the fact that the recommendations of the advance observer teams that more care be taken around electors lists were not followed—this practically guaranteed that errors would occur. Second, the number of inaccuracies in the lists was not astonishing by Canadian standards—errors of this kind will simply occur when managing a database of hundreds of thousands of voters.

TMH: Were you able to observe the transport of ballot boxes from polling places to the electoral commission? Did they seem to be handled in a secure fashion? Were there any opportunities for fraud or mismanagement at this stage of the process?

Lanigan: No, I did not see the transport of boxes. We were al caught in a small riot immediately after some polls closed. A group of opposition supporters furious that some names were not on a list turned on us. (It frankly seemed to have more to do with a hatred of Bongo than it did any process irregularity. They got even angrier when they realized we didn’t speak French.) Anyway, we finally got back to the car when they surrounded it and started shaking it. To make a long story short, at that point in the evening we had things other than the transport of boxes on our minds.

However, the counts we did see appeared very genuine. We have asked the Ambassador to track down final poll results and we will verify against our own records before submitting our report.

West: No. I was not able to observe this. This is my major concern about the electoral process. Although I believe the campaign was fair and the vote was free, I have no personal evidence to inspire confidence in the count.

I was able to witness the count of half-a-dozen boxes. However, unless I can cross-check the numbers I witnessed with a published list, I have no way of knowing that the vote-totals were not simply fabricated.

I have asked the Canadian ambassador to help me obtain this list, but I have not had a response. In addition to the detailed poll-by-poll list, I would also need some reliable assurance that most of the ballots were dealt with in the way I observed—an open count subject to public scrutiny. If, on the other hand, most were counted behind closed doors, then I can say nothing about the fairness of the election. The exemplary openness and access to media would be beside the point.

TMH: Did you observe any irregularities or mismanagement that might have had an effect on the outcome of the election?

Lanigan: Yes, excessive military presence in what appeared to be select polling areas, either incompetent or corrupted election officials opening the polls at 1:30 in the afternoon (voters left).

West: See my earlier comments about rural areas where turnout was very high (probably above Canadian levels of 65-70 percent) contrasted with urban, opposition-dominated areas where turnout approached zero. Whether this was intimidation, fraud, or mismanagement, it surely had an effect.

TMH: if you were to make suggestions for improving the electoral process in Gabon, what would they be? (Please be as specific as possible.)

Lanigan: Work on ways to build public confidence surrounding the voters list. Just about everyone we spoke to had very little faith in it. Relax on the military already . . . Good question, see what the others say, and I’ll think some more on it.

West: Honestly, I endorse all the recommendations made by the advance team of observers. I was able to see that many of these were not followed, to the overall detriment of the process.

TMH: Would you be willing to serve as an election observer again, in Gabon or in any other country?

Lanigan: Absolutely . . . do you know of any other opportunities in Africa or elsewhere?

West: With the greatest pleasure, in any other country. (Well, at this point perhaps not in Yemen, or maybe Congo. But pretty well any other country.)

TMH: Do you have any other comments on your experience during the Gabonese presidential election?

Lanigan: Yes, “crab facie” is fantastic local dish. I don’t understand why everything is so expensive, even for the locals. Their electoral system (French run-off)—despite some of the pitfalls of process—is far more democratic than Canada’s. Thank you for this opportunity of a lifetime. 1 will never forget it.

West: I once spent four months in Hungary as an undergraduate student. After the program we were asked to write down some comments for the benefit of future participants. Any words I could find fell short of what I wanted to say, so I probably never completed the form at all. One of my buddies, David Wagner (now an associate professor at the University of Waterloo), simply wrote: “an incredible experience.” This became the quotation used on all the publicity posters for the program for the next decade.

Here is my comment on Gabon: “an incredible experience.”

The three photos featured above were taken by me and appeared in The Metro Herald in 1999, in black-and-white. The captions have been modified to reflect the year they were shot.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Glimpse of Richard Nixon and Ted Kennedy

Courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, a glimpse into how the Nixon White House approached Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who died Tuesday night) comes from the Nixon Oval Office tapes -- the same tapes that later led to Nixon's August 1974 resignation in disgrace as a result of the Watergate affair.

In this excerpt from September 8, 1971, Nixon is talking with his top domestic policy aide, John Ehrlichman, about investigating Ted Kennedy's IRS files, because Kennedy is a potential candidate for President in 1972 and they want to find incriminating information that could derail Kennedy's ambitions. The conversation turns to Chappaquiddick, and the divorces of Republican governors Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan are raised as a point of comparison.

President Nixon: [274c|36:30] I don't know--what the hell are we doing?

John Ehrlichman: I don't know.

President Nixon: You see, we have a new man over there. I know the other guy didn't do anything, but--

Ehrlichman: Oh, you mean at IRS?

President Nixon: Yeah!

Ehrlichman: Yeah.

President Nixon: Why are--are we going after their tax returns? I--you know what I mean? There's a lot of gold in them thar hills.

Ehrlichman: It worries people, [unclear]--

President Nixon: You remember in 1962, do you remember what they did to me in California? Now that was a crock. Those sons of bitches came out [unclear] and I find out they owe me more money, in fact, my returns had been so circumspect. I was furious. I don't know.

Ehrlichman: That's something I better talk to [John] Mitchell about. That fellow is Mitchell's guy.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Ehrlichman: And when I see Mitchell tomorrow or the next day, I'll take it up with him.

President Nixon: I can only hope that we are, frankly, doing a little persecuting. Right? We ought to persecute them [unclear] we can.

Ehrlichman: That's right.

President Nixon: And on the IRS, if you could—are we looking into [Senator Edmund] Muskie’s [D-Maine] returns? Does he have any? [Senator] Hubert's [Humphrey, D-Minnesota] been in a lot of funny deals.

Ehrlichman: Yes, he has.

President Nixon: [Senator Edward] Teddy [Kennedy]? Who knows about the Kennedys? Shouldn’t they be investigated?

Ehrlichman: [Unclear] personally. But IRS-wise, I don’t know the answer. Teddy, we are covering--

President Nixon: Are you?

Ehrlichman: --personally.

President Nixon: [Unclear.]

Ehrlichman: When he goes on holidays. When he stopped in Hawaii on his way back from Pakistan [unclear].1

President Nixon: Did he do anything?

Ehrlichman: No. No, he’s very clean. Very clean.

President Nixon: He's being careful now.

Ehrlichman: Exactly. And he was in Hawaii on his own. He was staying at some guy’s villa. And we had a guy on him every night [unclear interjection by Nixon]. And he was just as nice as he could be the whole time.

President Nixon: The thing to do is just watch him, because what happens to fellows like that, who have that kind of problem, is that they go for quite a while and then they go [unclear].

Ehrlichman: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I’m hoping for.

President Nixon: I don’t think he would break really while he was, you know, trying for the big thing. Generally, they don’t. Although Jack [Kennedy] was damn careless.

Ehrlichman: This time between now and convention time may be the time to get him.

President Nixon: You mean that he would be under great pressure?

Ehrlichman: He would be under pressure, but he will also be out of the limelight somewhat. Now, he was in Hawaii very much incognito. Very little staff. And played tennis, moved around, visited with people and socialized and so on. So you would expect that at a time like that you might catch him. And then he went up to Hyannis. And we've got an arrangement--

President Nixon: How about Muskie? [Unclear.] What kind of a life is he living?

Ehrlichman: Very cloistered. Very monkish.

President Nixon: [Unclear.]

Ehrlichman: Yeah, big time. He's got six kids. And very ordinary [unclear]. Teddy . . . I-we were over on Martha's Vineyard last week.

President Nixon: Yeah--

Ehrlichman: I had never seen that site before, that Chappaquiddick-Edgartown ferry. That is a very short swim. Having seen it now, I would bet he swam it that night. It's--I don't see why--you know, they could build a bridge across there. It's a very short distance.

President Nixon: Hmm.

Ehrlichman: And it's no farther than from here to the West Wing. And not a bad tide, the time we were there. So it was quite interesting. I took some pictures of it because it amazed me how short a distance it really was. But we do cover him when he goes to Hyannis.

President Nixon: He will never live that down.

Ehrlichman: No. I don't think he will.

President Nixon: Not that one.

Ehrlichman: I think that will be around his neck forever.

President Nixon: He'll never--it isn't like [Nelson] Rockefeller's divorce. A divorce, you can get over.2

Ehrlichman: Yeah.

President Nixon: [Unclear] Rockefeller [unclear] most people will forget it. They say [unclear] maybe there's something wrong with his wife [unclear] and they've forgotten it.

Ehrlichman: Yeah. Yeah, nobody knew he had a first wife.

President Nixon: [Ronald] Reagan [unclear] unhappy marriage.

Ehrlichman: But this thing has a geographic identity that's interesting. And they tell me that the business on that ferry has tripled since this accident, with people going over to look at the bridge [unclear].

Tape whip.

Ehrlichman: --is getting into the folklore.

An MP3 recording of this conversation can be downloaded here. The Miller Center has numerous excerpts available of recordings that feature President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Nixon, either talking about or talking with the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer Carnivals

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left,” said Victor Hugo. While not wishing to contradict the novelist who gave us Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I must disagree.

Is there no carnival left? I think not. In fact, over the past month, several carnivals have cited posts from this blog.

For instance, the July 29, 2009, edition of the Carnival of the Conservatives (presented at The Quisani League) noted under the category "Libertarianist":

Wenchypoo presents Meet the New Boss—Ollie Garchy posted at Wisdom From Wenchypoo’s Mental Wastebasket.

Lavender presents A Look At Health Care posted at News for Freedom Daily.

Rick Sincere presents Slow Brew posted at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, saying, “Report from the Fourth of July Tea Party in Charlottesville, Virginia — including video.”

On August 2, the 23rd Book Review Blog Carnival, published by Bart's Bookshelf, included this entry under the category of "Non-Fiction":
Rick Sincere from Rick Sincere Thoughts, reviews Was 1959 the Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan: saying that: No matter how you look at it, however, Kaplan falls quite short in making the case for his hyperbolic claim that 1959 was the year that everything changed – or even the year that changed everything.
Tax Carnival #56: Dog Days of Summer 2009, published at Don't Mess With Taxes, included this item:
The healthcare reform topic is on Rick Sincere's mind in To Sur, With Love. The post at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts "compares the current proposed healthcare surtax with Gerald Ford's failed surtax proposal of 1974."
That same article was reprinted at Naked Liberty after it was submitted to the Carnival of Conservative Conversations.

At Kitsch Slapped, the fourth edition of "History Is Ephemeral," "where ephemera & history lovers share & obsess," we find these items:
Rick Sincere presents Smoke Gets in Your Eyes posted at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts.

Val Ubell presents Unique Militaria: WWI Sheet Music andDiscovering Fabulous Artwork: Collecting Edward Gorey Books — both posted at Collectors’ Quest.

Marty presents My Apology to Eugene Levy (or My Drink with John Candy) posted at Ephemera.

The August 7 edition of the Trivia Carnival -- posted at, naturally, The Place for Trivia -- included this:
Rick Sincere presents Happy 100th, Vivian Vance! posted at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, saying, "On the occasion of her 100th birthday, I found some intriguing and unexpected connections between Vivian Vance and other celebrities."
Finally, over at the BoBo Files, the BoBo Carnival of Politics (August 9, 2009, edition) features these five items under the heading "Conservative":
Phil B. presents 7 Reasons Why Cash for Clunkers is a Bad Idea posted at Phil for Humanity, saying, “The “Cash for Clunkers” Program only seems like a good idea to stimulate the economy..”

Jared Rhoads presents Keep the pressure on posted at The Lucidicus Project, saying, “So far, ordinary Americans have done a very good job of resisting the government’s proposed takeover of healthcare. We need to keep the pressure on.”

Rick Sincere presents Remembering Ernest W. Lefever posted at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts.

Scott Spiegel presents Democrats Demand Sartorial Handicap in Health Care Reform Debate posted at Scott Spiegel.

Silicon Valley Blogger presents World Currencies In The Recession, One Trillion Dollars Visualized posted at The Digerati Life, saying, “I cover some neat material that I found from’s blog: take a look at how world currencies have fared in the global recession. I also show a video that helps us visualize the kind of spending our government is doing!”

If the world is a circus, blog carnivals keep us from spinning out of control.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

‘When I’m Bad I’m Better’

Here is my review of Dirty Blonde, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington. This review is scheduled to appear in The Metro Herald on Friday, August 21.

‘When I’m Bad I’m Better’:
Mae West on Stage in ‘Dirty Blonde’ at Signature
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

This past Monday, August 17, would have been Mae West’s 116th birthday. That date would usually pass unnoticed nowadays except for the opening this week at Signature Theatre of Dirty Blonde, a play with music that is partially a biography and partially a tribute to West, who died in 1980 at the age of 87.

West was a multiple-threat performer who started as a child on the vaudeville stage and became a Broadway star, a top movie box-office draw, and a Las Vegas headliner, as well as a producer, director, playwright, memoirist, and cause célèbre.

What’s more, Mae West was transgressive in ways that would make cultural critic Camille Paglia stand up and take notice – and smile.

In fact, Paglia said in a July 2003 article by Ingrid Sischy in Interview magazine, “When Mae West was pushing the envelope in the 1920s and getting arrested for it, her work was all about innuendo and ambiguity. She had a juicy, luscious, relaxed sexual maturity. She portrayed sexual relations as a warm, forgiving comedy.”

From early in her career, West knew how to shock and titillate. She had an entrepreneurial eye that led her to borrow from “out” groups that enriched her performance and her persona. For instance, she was one of the first white performers to do the “shimmie,” which she borrowed from African-American dancers. Her famous (infamous?) attitude – posture, stride, pose, sneer, and costume – was borrowed from gay men and drag queens that she knew. She made no secret of, nor did she offer an apology for, taking from and enjoying the contributions of “Negroes” and “fairies” at a time when both groups were seen as inferior by “polite society,” which preferred to keep its distance from both.

West was also a champion of free speech and gay rights. Her 1926 Broadway play, Sex, whose main character was a prostitute (or, as West might say, “a woiking goil”) was shut down by law enforcement authorities after it played for nearly a year to capacity audiences. The subsequent controversy led to a New York state law (the so-called “Wales Padlock Law”) that effectively forbade the portrayal of homosexuality in theatres, and the threat of its enforcement remained for four decades.

Yet West tried to fight it. She went to jail in defense of Sex and used a later play, The Pleasure Man, to challenge the law in 1930. (The prosecution ended in a hung jury.) Her play about gay life, The Drag, never made it to Broadway, but she saw it as a pioneering educational effort. She later wrote about it:
“I admit that in my play ‘Drag’ I was a little premature. The public is still too childlike to face like grown-ups the problem of homo-sexuality. How few are the people who even know what the word means? Because of this universal ignorance I wrote ‘Drag’ with the intention of taking it to all the theaters in the country to teach the people.”
Reacting to these words, Duke University theatre scholar John Clum said (in his book, Still Acting Gay):
“Mae West presents herself as a noble sex educator bringing the truth of homosexuality to the entire nation via her cast of Greenwich Village drag queens. If the play was banned in New Jersey and New York City, one can imagine what would happen in the Bible Belt. The Drag was much more a piece of exploitation for West, but she does not stand far outside the world she represents. The woman who always presented herself as a sexual outlaw is allowing one group of gay men, also sexual outlaws, to play themselves. For 1928, this is a dangerous play. It would be forty years before anything this openly honest about one segment of gay life appeared on the legitimate stage.”
By the time the controversy over the sexually subversive content of West’s plays – which she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in – was winding down, she was on her way to California to become a Hollywood sensation. Along the way, she discovered Cary Grant, starred in about a dozen films, found herself banned from radio for 12 years (including the entire decade of the 1940s), and became the model for myriad Halloween costumes and female impersonators.

It is in this context that Claudia Shear’s much-lauded play (five Tony® Award nominations, five Drama Desk nominations, a Theatre World award for Shear, and 352 performances on Broadway) finds its foundation.

Emily Skinner plays the dual roles of Mae West and her fervent fan, Jo (both played in the original production by the playwright, Shear), while Hugh Nees and J. Fred Shiffman play 16 male roles between them – managers, husbands, boyfriends, lawyers, pianists, and more.

The play moves effortlessly back and forth from the present day to various periods of Mae West’s life and career. Jo meets Charlie, another fan (played by Nees), while visiting West’s grave in Brooklyn. They bond over their common obsession, becoming friends and sharing pleasant times together. The friendship is threatened when it begins to become too intimate and when Jo discovers Charlie’s closely-held secret.

An audience member looking for Heavy Significance in Dirty Blonde might be disappointed, but one who seeks little more than fun entertainment (with a heavy dose of nostalgia) will be pleased. The play deals not with Difficult Questions but – to the extent it reaches below the surface – with the little questions that each of us faces in life, the questions that help us determine who we are: what makes us tick and what makes us confident.

At nearly two hours without intermission, Dirty Blonde could be tedious if it just plodded along, telling Mae West’s story chronologically. With seamless scene changes (often supplemented by atmospheric photographic projections) and numerous and flashy costumes, however, the play’s dual plots zoom along. Dirty Blonde seems to be over as quickly as it has begun. A playing-the-dozens-like exchange of Mae West’s sassiest well-known aphorisms (“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” “When caught between two evils, I pick the one I never tried before.” “It’s better to get looked over than overlooked.”) leaves the crowd wanting more, much more.

Dirty Blonde will be running for almost two months at Signature Theatre in Arlington. If word gets around quickly, however, tickets will become scarce, as patrons want to see it more than once. As Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Dirty Blonde, directed by Jeremy Skidmore, continues at the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, through October 4. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $47 to $71 and available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting

Signature’s 20th anniversary season continues with Show Boat, I Am My Own Wife, Sweeney Todd, [title of show], the world premiere of Sycamore Trees, and the world premiere run of “First You Dream” The Kander & Ebb Concert.
Production photos (above right, Emily Skinner as Mae West; above left, J. Fred Shiffman as Frank Wallace) by Scott Suchman; used with permission of Signature Theatre.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Yale University Press Cowers Before Thugs

Many readers, especially those concerned with free speech issues, in particular, and civil liberties, in general, will remember the worldwide controversy that erupted about four or five years ago when a Danish newspaper decided to print some satirical cartoons that featured images of the Prophet Mohammed.

In the years since, Yale University Press decided to publish a book about the controversy, a scholarly examination of what happened and what it meant.

Scheduled for publication in November 2009, the book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, is written by a Brandeis University political scientist, Jytte Klausen, who was born in Denmark.

So far, so good.

Now comes the news that Yale University Press has deleted the cartoons in question from the book. In other words, Klausen can discuss the cartoons in her book, but she cannot show them.

Here's the New York Times on the story:

John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said by telephone that the decision was difficult, but the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was “overwhelming and unanimous.” The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.

He noted that he had been involved in publishing other controversial books — like “The King Never Smiles” by Paul M. Handley, a recent unauthorized biography of Thailand’s current monarch — and “I’ve never blinked.” But, he said, “when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question.”
Donatich does not even understand the basic concept of personal responsibility: that blood will not be on "his" hands if someone performs a violent act in reaction to publication of this (or any other book), but rather on the person who acts violently. Violent actors are responsible for their own actions, not the victims of violence. Victims are not culpable for evil done against them.

Yale is afraid, and rather than do the brave thing -- standing up against terrorists and thugs -- it is submitting.

Still, "submission" is just what they want.

The thing is, such submission is not even necessary. The Times' Patricia Cohen explains the view of one Muslim intellectual:
Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” is a fan of the book but decided to withdraw his supportive blurb that was to appear in the book after Yale University Press dropped the pictures. The book is “a definitive account of the entire controversy,” he said, “but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic.”

In Mr. Aslan’s view no danger remains. “The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them,” he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: “There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?”

“This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press,” he continued. “There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry.” He added, “It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”
The book is still available for sale; it just won't be complete.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Interview with Eric Brescia

At a Log Cabin Republican picnic in Alexandria on Sunday, I had an opportunity to meet Eric Brescia, the GOP nominee for an open seat in the House of Delegates. Brescia is running in the 47th House District and the seat currently held by Al Eisenberg. The district is roughly the middle-western third of Arlington County.

Brescia, an economist, was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview, which I recorded on video with the intention to transcribe his answers to my questions later.

He spoke about his background and training, the issues that animate him (he's a big supporter of ending Virginia's socialist liquor trade and privatizing the ABC stores, both as a matter of principle and as a way to raise revenue without raising taxes, and he favors repealing the Marshall-Newman amendment, which prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages in the Virginia Constitution), and his enthusiasm for being a candidate.

Here is the video

When the transcript is available, I will post excerpts.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Israel's 'Tragic Paradox'

Somehow I missed commenting on the murders and mass assault in a gay youth center in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

Israelis have not let the incident slip by. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency report noted on Sunday:

Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated in solidarity with Israel's gay community at a rally in Tel Aviv.

Saturday night's rally also was a show of support for the victims of last week's shooting at a Tel Aviv community center for gay and lesbian youth in which two were killed and a dozen wounded.

Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the crowd, which organizers put at 70,000 and police at 20,000.

"The bullets that hit the gay community at the beginning of the week struck us all as people, as Jews, as Israelis," Peres said.

"All people were created in God's image," he added, "and all citizens have equal rights. All men are born equal, and every citizen has the right to be who he is -- to be free and proud.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a personal visit to the gay community center at 28 Nachmani Street in Tel Aviv. According to Ha'aretz:
Netanyahu told leaders of Israel's gay and lesbian community that he would do more to root out manifestations of hate within Israeli society. The premier also promised community leaders that his government would work to address their needs.

"I realize that the gay community has special needs," Netanyahu said. "I want to assure you that we are open and receptive and that I as well as the ministers in my government will advance these important issues, some of which became known to me today."

Netanyahu added that he believed "that the labeling and negation of human beings is wrong in and of itself. We were all made in God's image, we all have basic rights, the first of which is to be respected by our fellow man and to respect others. Unfounded hatred is wrong. Anyone who had experienced that kind of hatred, as an individual or as part of a group, knows how painful and wrong it is. Its something we need to try as hard as we can to root it out of our society."
In an article in The Advocate published yesterday, commentator Jamie Kirchick notes a curious fact that emerges from the attack on a community center that catered to the social needs of gay and lesbian teenagers:
At a Washington vigil held last Monday evening to mourn the victims of the Tel Aviv gay youth center shooting, an official from the Israeli embassy made a keen observation. It was a “tragic paradox,” he said, for “this crime could only take place in Israel out of all the countries in the Middle East because there’s nowhere else in the Middle East where there could be a meeting house for gay young people, which is open and which everybody knows its address.”
Kirchick goes on to point out that
...if there is anything positive to be gleaned from this horrific incident, it has been the reaction of the Jewish state’s citizens. The country’s newspapers have published countless articles about the status of gay people in Israeli society and the persistent problem of homophobia. Even the country’s ultrareligious figures -- perhaps cognizant of how their own teachings may have created an environment in which such an attack could take place -- have condemned the murders.
Then he contrasts the situation in Israel with that in neighboring countries:
Throughout the Middle East, it is usually the governments themselves that are committing the violence against their own gay citizens.

In 2001, Egypt arrested 51 men aboard a gay cruise ship and subjected them to a show trial in which their faces were displayed on national television. Iran executes gays, whose existence its president denies. In Saudi Arabia the punishment for homosexuality is decapitation.
Kirchick reminds his readers for the reason that Israel and the United States have a close relationship: we share "a set of common liberal values, values which Israel’s neighbors simply do not share."

We sometimes forget that liberal values -- including, but not limited to, religious and philosophical tolerance, respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and adherence to the rule of (non-arbitrary) law -- are what animate societies like the United States and Israel, and what protect us against the predations of the power-hungry and intolerant. They also separate us from what might be called, perhaps infelicitously, barbarian societies.

Liberal values also include the openness and freedom that sometimes make us more vulnerable to mad acts of terrorism and criminality. These infrequent events are the price we pay for individual liberty.

Years before the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights incorporated the freedoms we challenge into our basic law, Benjamin Franklin wrote (in 1775):
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Consider that the paradox of liberty. It's not just Israel's tragic paradox; it's ours, too.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Daniel Radcliffe and The Trevor Project

Daniel Radcliffe, the rapidly maturing, title-role star of the series of movies based on J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, is putting his celebrity to good use by supporting and endorsing The Trevor Project, a foundation that helps gay kids deal with adversity.

According to a news release posted today on PR Newswire:

The Trevor Project, the non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, today announced that it has received a major donation from Daniel Radcliffe, the critically-acclaimed star of the "Harry Potter" film series and Broadway's "Equus." The 20-year-old actor joined The Trevor Project's Circle of Hope, a community of major donors which plays an essential role in providing the financial leadership that makes the organization's lifesaving work possible.

The Trevor Project was founded in 1998 by three filmmakers whose film, "Trevor," a comedy/drama about a gay teenager who attempts suicide, received the 1994 Academy Award(R) for Best Short Film (Live Action). Since its founding, The Trevor Helpline has received hundreds of thousands of calls from LGBTQ youth across the country. In the past year alone, call volume to The Trevor Helpline has increased more than 300 percent.

"I am very pleased to begin my support of The Trevor Project, which saves lives every day through its critical work," said Daniel Radcliffe. "It's extremely distressing to consider that in 2009 suicide is a top three killer of young people, and it's truly devastating to learn that LGBTQ youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. I deeply hope my support can raise the organization's visibility so even more despondent youth become aware of The Trevor Helpline's highly trained counselors and Trevor's many other resources. It's vitally important that young people understand they are not alone and, perhaps even more important, that their young lives have real value."
The Oscar-winning short film, Trevor, is available for purchase at The Trevor Project has a web site with links to its various programs. There is also a Trevor Project page on Facebook.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ferry Godmothers

On page 40 of the 1994 book, Virginia Trivia, by Ernie & Jill Couch, we find this Q&A:

Q: What is the last pole-powered ferry in Virginia?
A: Hatton Ferry, on the James River.
What was true in 1994 is still true in 2009.

As a matter of fact, I wrote about the Hatton Ferry just a few weeks ago, when it was announced by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) that it would stop using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the ferry's operations.

The title of my blogpost that day explains my viewpoint:
VDOT Should Not Be Running Quaint Tourist Attractions
As if to justify my denotation of the Hatton Ferry as a "quaint tourist attraction," it seems that travel writers are in agreement. The ferry is suggested as an off-the-beaten-path thing to see in Lonely Planet Virginia & the Capital Region, Moon Virginia: Including Washington, D.C., Gourmet Getaways: 50 Top Spots to Cook and Learn, Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia, Whitewater!: The Thrill and Skill of Running the World's Great Rivers, The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, Fodor's Virginia and Maryland, Escape Plans: Quick Getaways Within Easy Reach of Washington, Frommer's Virginia, and The James River Guide, as well as the aforementioned Virginia Trivia.

When I wrote about the Hatton Ferry in May, I noted that members of the local Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society were mourning its demise and engaging in special-pleading, asking VDOT to reverse its decision. I argued:
If the Hatton Ferry really has value, then the historical society will be able to arrange to buy it and run it privately. It should not be the responsibility of the government, and thus a burden to taxpayers.
Well, it seems my advice has been followed. Brandon Shulleeta reports in today's Daily Progress:
Local community leaders have been hitting the pavement to raise money to keep the Hatton Ferry running, and they already have enough to operate the ferry this year.

“We’re pleased with both the size and the number of contributions,” said E Marshall Pryor III, director of Old Dominion National Bank in Scottsville.

Pryor, who is heading the fundraising effort, said that there have been more than 75 donors and that enough money has also been collected to pay for about 20 percent to 25 percent of the projected cost to operate the ferry in 2010.
The ferry's operation will be returned to the private sector, where it has always belonged:
[Albemarle Supervisor Lindsay] Dorrier, who estimates that it will cost about $21,000 per year to operate the ferry, said the long-term goal is to hand over financial responsibilities to a nonprofit organization. Pryor said some groups are entertaining the idea of taking over the Hatton Ferry.
Let me parse that a bit: "some groups" are interested in taking over the ferry.

That means that, not only is government support and subsidy not necessary to keep the ferry running, there is competition among private organizations to lay claim to it.

Good old private enterprise. Good old private philanthropy. Good old community initiative. It's the American way.

The Daily Progress even points to the way that readers can help keep the Hatton Ferry in motion:
Anyone wishing to contribute may send a tax-deductible donation to the Hatton Ferry Fund, c/o Old Dominion National Bank, P.O. Box 321, Scottsville, VA 24590.
It looks like VDOT won't have to continue running a quaint tourist attraction, after all. Let's hope the Hatton Ferry's poles stay in private hands from this point forward.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!