Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Poor Make Us Rich

No illegal immigrant could
be as harmful!
Ronald Reagan had it wrong, of course. He defended his promotion of government on behalf of the wealthy by repeating the words "trickle down economics" until they seemed like a legitimate theory, rather than an unfortunate urinary incident. Two generations later, the loose-leaf Tea Party mob has brought millions of working-class people into political alliances with the über-rich and against the poor at home and abroad.

Two very different items came my way today, reminding me of just how misplaced public outrage is these days. The first was an unusual sort of contest, asking people to choose the most evil among a list of eleven billionaires. (I am not anti-billionaire, by the way; see previous posts about good and bad members of this class.) Fortunately, nobody from the Walton family was on the ballot, making my choice among the remaining candidates a bit easier. All are strong defenders of the right to unfettered accumulation of unearned wealth, but war profiteer and instigator Stephen Bechtel, Jr. (shown above, not seeming to enjoy his money much) was a clear winner in my book.


As much as I enjoyed the rhetorical swings at these plutocrats -- who will never know I exist, much less that I blame them for trashing my country -- I found another story that is a bit more useful and positive. Writing about Indian labor organizer Ela Bhatt, Renée Loth makes a very strong case for the importance of the global underclass in supporting the lifestyles enjoyed by middle and upper classes. The informal sector in particular -- the refuge of casual labors who often have no work place, no documentation, no rights, and no employers -- provides a huge subsidy to the formal economy. Ela Bhatt is an attorney from Ahmedadad who established the Self Employed Women's Association in 1972 to advocate for Indian women in this sector.

Bhatt has succeeded in organizing 1.3 million women, bringing some level of empowerment to workers at the extreme margins of the world economy. Loth points out the sad irony that the rules of the capitalist game -- being written by those who have the most to gain -- have not afforded a million women at Walmart similar recognition in recent court battles.

A third item I noticed today is Barney Frank's explanation of how the political process continues to tilt in favor  of the rich. Scapegoats abound -- immigrants, unions, the poor -- that divert attention from the real villains.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gaga Traffic

Photo: LA Times
Geographer Sarah Goggin's Carmageddon post on Wiley GeoDiscoveries (a blog to which I sometimes contribute) describes the geography behind the cataclysmic traffic jam that was expected from a 50-hour road closure in Los Angeles last weekend. The expected chaos illustrates several geography concepts, the most obvious of which is extreme automobile dependency in Western cities that have seen most of their growth after the 1950s. Read the article to see what it has to do with Lady Gaga!

Thankfully, the preparations worked better than expected, leading at least one writer to conclude that we usually overvalue cars, even in LA!

Monday, July 11, 2011

South Sudan

See this map with timeline at Washington Post

I happened to be listening to the BBC (via WBUR) late Friday evening, when it was beginning to report on the festivities surrounding the emergence of the world's newest country: South Sudan. For now, much attention is rightly focused on the jubilation that follows the decades-long struggle for the self-determination of people whose promised role in the governance of Sudan was never forthcoming. The fact that 98.8 percent of its people voted for secession is an indication of how very overdue has been this transformation. It can only be hoped that unity and jubilation are enough to advance a country that will have been monitored from Day One by a United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMISS, whose web site is not yet distinct from UNMIS).

In addition to the BBC, the geographers at About.com have been among the best sources I have found for news and background on the new country. Editor Matt Rosenberg has written a thorough guide to the transition, while contributing writer Amanda Briney has written a detailed overview of the geography of South Sudan.

The map above is part of extensive coverage by the Washington Post. Like any good map, it tells several important parts of the story, including the strong climatic divide between arid, semi-tropical Sudan and wet tropical South Sudan. Located between 4 and 9 degrees north, the new country is dominated by tropical rain forest. Its ten provinces, in fact, include three named for its equatorial location. Not indicated on the map -- but well explained by geographer Briney -- are the language divides that were imposed when Egypt and England imposed boundaries that were to remain in place from 1947 until this weekend. One welcome feature of the map is its blurry edges -- Sudan and South Sudan exist within a regional context that extends in all directions and that does not end abruptly with any river, coastline, or edge of empire.

Perhaps most important for the economic future of the country is the location of the oil fields, which most have by now heard are located in South Sudan. The implications of this loss for Sudan are difficult to fathom, but their location in the immediate border zone suggest that the struggle for these resources is far from over. In fact, the Abyei region is contested, even before the sun rose on the first day of independence. Moreover, the map makes clear that Africa's 15th landlocked country faces a number of unpleasant choices for the export of its main commodity. Existing pipelines run through Sudan, by far the most convenient route to world markets. All other options are through impossible terrain (such as the highlands of Ethiopia), vast distances through other landlocked countries (such as any possible route through the Central African Republic), or through areas experiencing even more strife than Sudan (such as the Congo).

The complex geography and fraught history suggest that the events of the past weekend are, indeed, just a beginning of what the world needs to learn about South Sudan. An excellent series of maps from BBC is a good starting point. I look forward to seeing an update on the CIA World Factbook, which currently acknowledges the need for a new listing, but lists only Sudan as of this writing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Norwegian Baptist Prairie Coffee

We do not like to admit that coffee has become an obsession in our family, but it is true that we seem to be especially prone to random coffee connections. For example, as we casually stopped by the used-book sale our church has each week at the local farmers' market, my favorite librarian noticed a book with coffee in the title. We could not really tell what it was about, but it was in our bag right away, and I finished the book later on the same day I bought it -- something I never manage to do!

The book is Margaret Jensen's First We Have Coffee. The paperback we picked up is a sixth printing of the (c) 1982 edition. Apparently later editions are still available, with at least two different subtitles. Our version has no subtitle, but the tagline "Treasure the romance, mystery, tragedy, comedy and faith in these true life stories of an immigrant family."

I am not so sure about the mystery in this tale, but the other elements are woven throughout this story of the author's family. From her mother's arrival from Norway as a teenager at the beginning of the twentieth century to the deaths of her parents in the 1970s, it is a family journey from small towns to prairie to big city and ultimately to the rural South. The "romance" is of a type that is subdued and deeply embedded in archaic gender roles. It is interesting that some online reviewers find this to be the most rewarding and inspiring part of the tale. Most of the tragedies are the kinds of losses and setbacks bound to occur over three-quarters of a century, though some might see the persistent privations as tragic.

The "immigrant family" theme is as much about the family's movements from town to country to city within North America as it is about the international migration. It is interesting to note, however, that the Norwegian communities in the book used their native language for decades after having learned English, especially as they came together for worship or life passages. This is a fine contradiction to the all-too common assumption that immigrants who speak another language do so only because they lack the ability to speak the language of their new home.

The "comedy" woven throughout the tale is of the gentle sort I would more likely call humor, in the tradition of Samuel Clemens or, more aptly, Garrison Keilor. Similarly, through the first 150 pages of the book, Jensen's nostalgia for the spare, spiritual, and musical days of her Norwegian Baptist upbringing brought out my own memories from my own childhood. Though separated by decades and many miles, we shared some experiences and even some favorite hymns, such as A Mighty Fortress and Blessed Be the Tie. (The last 40 pages of the book are about her experience of her parents as adults, and are burdened, in my view, by needlessly flowery prose, poor poetry, and self-conscious piety.)

The stories of her youth, however, are enjoyable and though coffee is almost never the focus, it is mentioned hundreds of times in many contexts. Coffee is for rising, in the morning, resting in the evening, and making a house a home. Most importantly, coffee is a catalyst for conversation. Almost any dialog in the book -- and certainly any important dialog -- is lubricated by coffee:
I chuckled to myself as I remembered a handsome minister from Norway, and his 'prayer meeting' with a farmer's daughter. I had inadvertently stumbled into the room in the middle of a not-so-holy kiss. One word to Mama sent an S.O.S. to Norway, and the secret code between wives resulted in action. Sooner than expected, the minister's adorable wife arrived on the scene. The curly-haired, saucy-eyed [saucer?] wife charmed her way into the hearts of everyone, especially Mama. The wife never made reference to the reason for the surprise visit, except to let the farmer's daughter know how much the wife had missed her charming husband. Chuckling over a cup of coffee, Mama and the wife agreed: 'You do your part, God will do the rest.' The subdued husband and his sparkling wife blended together lie coffee and cream. When Papa spoke highly of that devoted couple, Mama smiled over her coffee cup.
'There are some things you tell, and some things you don't tell,' Mama had said to me when I told her of my abrupt interruption of the hungry kiss. Her look told me that I had been entrusted with a secret -- that we were to keep this as our own.
In another case, it was a young wife whose eye was wandering, so "Mama took the wife aside. No one but those two knew what was shared over afternoon coffee. The wife returned her loyalty to her rightful lover, her husband." (The sensuality of coffee is, in this case, of only the most respectable variety!)

Coffee was also part of moving beyond any unpleasantness; this passage -- following a death in the family -- is typical: "Mama washed her face, combed her hair, tied on a starched apron, and put on the coffee pot."


Garrison Keilor's tales of Norwegian Lutheran frugality on the prairie (and my own spare upbringing in Virginia) pale in comparison to Jensen's account of her arrival in Chicago as a teenager from the Canadian prairie:
The table was set for 'coffee' and three dishes, each containing a huge peach-half, were set before us. Taking charge of my siblings, as I'd been commanded, I promptly removed two of the dishes and proceeded to divide the one remaining peach-half in three parts. 'We always divide, I said, 'and then we can have peaches for two more days. We cut on orange in six pieces,' I added.
Although coffee is mentioned on nearly every page of this book, it is mostly in passing, so that it permeates the stories without being addressed directly. A few passages suggest that percolation (egad!) was the favored means of preparation, and once coffee with sugar lumps is mentioned as a Norwegian "national pastime." But in 185 pages and close to a thousand uses of the word, little else is revealed. This nonchalance is itself the main message about the geography of coffee in Jensen's immigrant experience.

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