Other Stuff

FELLAHEEN

 

“Back,” snaps the Bedouin,

The day sparkling over his black and sandy hood.

A rough beast heaves laughing Daisy into the air.

Take my picture, she shrieks at our sly guide

He clicks the cell phone on which he’d been droning on

About Cheop’s grave disappointment.

 

Uncle Oswald counted autumn leaves,

No flowers bloom forever, he shrugged.

Don’t worry, Daisy said. Sam still owns the greenhouse

And they’re way too long in lotus.

Besides, MBAs bargain in a bigger bazaar.

 

Henry, you see, not Horus, sold the falcons,

Supplying his own demand at five dollars a day.

I like men who sweat, said Daisy.

Around here they hack off the gardener’s hands.

To market mummies you need

More death than these dynasties could ever deliver.

 

So Daisy and I got the sheik drunk in the Hay-Adams

On the last of the vodka martinis.

His index finger slipped into her thong,

But he wouldn’t kiss her on any lips.

My people are waiting, he whispered: euros or dollars?

 

The mahogany door cracked open.

 Sizzling sand poured into the lobby.

The credit card machine clogged,

And the senator’s bag lady was petrified.

The sheik flew east with our American Express plastic

And a nine-eleven t-shirt: Never Forget.

 

OK. So we go back to basics: battleship gray.

But the Bedouin does not permit the beast to kneel.

Daisy’s tongue goes dry.

Don’t desert me, she cries. My hands were tied, too.

Weedy fingers grow from his fossilized stumps.

Baksheesh. baksheesh, he cackles.

 

Daisy asks Uncle Oswald to ask him

Please how much will it cost

To let me down gently.

 

                           Luxor. 1997. Revised 2007.

 

 

 

Canoeing Life’s River

 

I grew up in an urban world of concrete and asphalt. Nature was a few weeds sprouting from sidewalk cracks in August. Summer camp was for rich kids. So I spent a lot of time dreaming of living in the wilderness, fueled by images from James Fennimore Cooper — the buckskin-clad deerslayer paddling down rivers, hunting, fishing, and fighting bad guys. Most kids saw their first car as a ticket out of the neighborhood. I dreamed of owning a canoe.

It was a long time coming. I spent my first decade as an adult fighting a war on poverty and against a war in Vietnam. Then, burned out after the 1972 defeat of George McGovern, I joined other despairing lefties to find hope in rural life. I cashed in everything and moved my family to a run-down blueberry farm in Maine.

One spring day, a neighbor told me he was selling his canoe. The canoes of my childhood fantasies were birch bark; this was 16 feet of banged up fiberglass. But it was $60, with three paddles and a patch kit thrown in. The day after I bought it, with my (now ex-) wife in the bow, I confidently pushed out into the seemingly friendly rippling current of a local river. We paddled happily down the sun-dappled stream for a mile or so to the first patch of modest-level white water. We hit the first rock dead-on, tumbled into the river and when we scrambled out, the canoe was split in two and out gear floating downstream and probably out to sea.

This was by no means  the cause of our divorce, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.

A few weeks later, a Maine friend taught me the J-stroke, the maneuver that allows you to control the canoe from one side. It transformed my life. I quickly bought another canoe, went on to master the cross-stroke, the back paddle, and how to ferry across a strong current. I learned to read the river — the inverted v that tells you where the rocks are, the difference between a patch of foaming water that is benign and one that will suck you under, and the way a slight alternation in the water level can turn a safe passage through the rocks into a disaster.

Heaven became a canoe trip with one of my sons or buddies, camping along the way, paddling silently with the current, flushing ducks and skittish deer, letting the hard edges of political and personal life soften in the music of the wind that gradually fades into an ominous hiss of big rapids downstream.

Just above the whitewater, you go ashore to make your plan. Then comes that moment that you push off into the current — no turning back, no one to call time out if you’ve forgotten something. The canoe speeds up, and you are hurtled into a foaming blur, desperately dodging previously unseen rocks that rise like giant teeth to chew you up, your mind a blank except for one simple phrase — “keep paddling.” And finally you clear the last set of rocks, soaking wet and exuberant.

Eventually, coming to terms with my essentially urban nature, I moved back to a big city. But my romance with the canoe remained. The images of my childhood fantasies evolved into river metaphors in my speech and writing: I insist that I am in the political mainstream, just a little further downriver than most.

Once I ran some rapids with a grizzled New Hampshire man to learn the technique of turning into the calm eddies just behind the big rocks. After he explained the plan for a particularly rough stretch in front of us, he added: “Running whitewater is like life. You can point your canoe downstream, close your eyes and hope that you make it. Or, you can plan ahead — go from safe spot to safe spot — and be in control.”

But once in the river, the current was so strong that we missed the first eddy and spun helplessly and hair-raisingly backward down the rocky channel. Miraculously the canoe missed all the boulders and did not swamp.

“Like life,” shrugged my backwoods guru after the river had unceremoniously deposited us in the calm water below the rapid, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”

The American Prospect. February 19, 2007

 

 

The Battle of La Alborada – Outside and Inside.

Marge wakes up at 3:15 am. We got in late the night before after a four hour bus ride from Mexico City, where it had been pouring. So, exhausted, and my internal organs still trying to hold off the forces of Montezuma, who the previous night had slipped through my outer digestive defenses in the guise of a delicious, but deadly, clam. Once inside, the vengeful Aztec had launched a surprise attack at several weak points along my alimentary canal. So I hide under the covers, listening vainly for the sound of rain that might mean that La Alborada —  4 am fireworks highlight of this year’s Fiesta de San Miguel might be canceled.

Foolish Gringo! They rarely cancel festivals anywhere in Mexico – and never in San Miguel de Allende. Well, almost never: in 1789, the Spanish authorities actually did cancel a few, declaring that industry and piety were suffering “an excess of fiestas.” Twenty-one years later, the Mexicans revolted against Spanish rule. I can’t say that the anti-fiesta crackdown caused the Mexican War of Independence, but one of the four initial leaders of the revolt (the Spanish hung their severed heads from the tallest building in Guanajuato) was after all a Sanmigueleño. Anyway, at 3:20 am waiting for Marge to rouse me out of bed, I’m thinking that the Spanish may have had a point.

Rain or shine – and it mostly shines here – festivals are part of daily life. Indeed, every day of the two weeks we’d been here, we could see a parade or hear one someplace nearby in the city. Every one is different. Last week, we encountered one that had – besides the requisite dancers in feathers and animal skins, several mariachi bands, the phalanx of school children in white starched shirts, the “mojigangas”, huge wobbling papier-mâché figures 15 feet tall, and people dressed in outlandish costumes on stilts just as high – in addition to that, in a wooden cage hauled by eight sweating men, a live fully grown mountain lion.

Finally, her patience exhausted, Marge jerks me out of bed, and, assuring myself that I’m tougher than any Aztec king who allowed himself to be swindled out of his empire by the fast-talking Cortez, I sleepily follow her over the two cobbled-stoned streets that separate our house from the Plaza Principal of San Miguel — ground-zero of Mexican fiesta culture.

The Plaza fronts on La Parroquia, the San Miguel landmark church whose façade was redesigned in 1880 by a local stone mason, inspired by post cards of European cathedrals. It is part gothic, part Gaudi, and part Disney. It does not awe. But in its quirky way it’s quite elegant and beautiful; and in a few short days you fall in love with it.

Anyway, when we arrive, the plaza, the Jardin (what they call the town’s principal park, right across the street from la Parroquia), and the streets leading to it are several thousand Mexicans, sprinkled with a few gringos (many fewer than in former years, but that’s another story). Firecrackers are popping all over, mariachi fills the air, and people are waving and shouting various patriotic and religious greetings to the cold night air.

The night is part of the annual two and half day (in this case, “day” is not the absence of “night”; it is a 24 hour concept) celebration of the feast of San Miguel – St Michael the Archangel, defender of the faith. Some of you might remember from Paradise Lost, that St. M led the forces of God against the revolt of the Fallen Angels, led by our old friend Lucifer, AKA Mephistopheles, el Diablo, etc.. This event at the ungodly hour of  4 am reenacts, through fireworks, the epic battle for control of Heaven.

This version of the centuries old festival was actually begun by unionized Mexican textile workers, who had come to San Miguel in the early 1920’s to work in the local mill — Fabrica Aurora. (La Aborada, like Aurora, is one of the many Spanish names for “dawn”.) At that time, San Miguel was a desolate town – its former glory as a key city in the silver trade had all but disappeared. No roads into the city – only a train. And so little in the way of culture, that the Aurora workers had to send for mariachi bands from other towns. But the event was instantly popular, and the local priests decided to coopt it into it their celebration, too (the church has not survived for 2,000 years for nothing). Of course, the priests expected workers to continue to pay for it. Indeed, one report is that: “the factory administrators created a fund into which the textile workers would make weekly contributions from their salaries to pay for the expenses, which included the music and the fireworks.” How remarkable this universal generosity of bosses creating funds into which their workers contribute.

As luck – we think – has it, there is some space in the crowd around the statue of a 18th century friar just to the right hand corner of the church, and up a few steps — outside the iron fence that surrounds the open courtyard before entrance to La Parroquia. There is even some space to sit down on the stone wall that circles the statue. We sit, happy to have such a great spot to view the show. About 15 minutes before the hour, the crowd cheers and a team of young men in white sweatshirts and white bandanas over their faces emerge from the church. They bring up boxes and boxes of what turns out to be the principal fireworks of the night, cohetes (Spanish for rockets) –  long wooden sticks, lashed with plastic cylinders of explosive powder. which have some weight on the front end so they can be tossed

The church bells begin to ring and the people around us suddenly jump up and run into the side street. The crowd that had filled the plaza moves back, leaving a large empty space in front of the gates at the church’s entrance.  A few people – the brave and the ignorant (us) remain around the statue of the friar. Through the bars, we can see the young men lining up in several rows. One row of them takes the cohetes from the boxes. They hand them to those in front who ignite the fuses with lighters and then throw them 80 to 100 feet into the air – at the crowd.

The fuses hiss and the rockets arch into the night with a high-pitched scream –  spitting  yellow and red sparks. Their first cylinder of powder blows up in ear-splitting bursts of multicolored flame, and the second stage of the rickety rockets then zigzag crazily downward – at least half of them bursting on the ground – or a person. In the plaza, groups of young men run among the fireworks with their head covered uncovered, ducking and challenging the fiery debris falling all over.

We stay around the statue. Then the rockets come our way and we run across the street to watch from the historic Allende House on the other side. But soon the relentless screeching missiles start exploding around us there as well. The people behind us are backed tight as Tokyo subway riders and we can only press back while remaining in the forward edge of the crowd.

At any given moment there are 50 rockets in the air and 30 – 40 smashing into the street or the crowd. Soon the air is filled with choking smoke.

Then, way above the town – representing the Fallen Angel artillery we assume–  coming from several blocks north opposite the church and across the Jardin, a new set of bigger shrieking rockets, their long gold tails snaking up into the sky, explode high in the air in red, green and orange — with ground quaking thunder.

By now the whole world is full of thick smoky haze, blurred light and ear-blasting noise. I’ve put up the hood of my windbreaker and have my fingers in my ears We huddle against the crowd behind us, just out of reach of most of the rockets, although occasionally one comes very close and bursts at our feet. One hot rocket shard hits Marge’s pant leg and leaves a red bruise, but doesn’t burn her jeans. They are after all just fireworks, but you wouldn’t want to catch one on any part of your skin – certainly not your face.

The scene transfixes. Yet my attention is increasingly diverted to the intensified military campaign going on inside my stomach. Montezuma has breached my advanced pepto-bismalic defenses, and is beginning to outflank the liters of ghastly electrolyte drinks that Marge made me swallow in an effort to reinforce my intestinal tract.

I’m wondering when will La Alborada end, and allow me to go home and deal with my internal struggle?  No way we could force ourselves through the crowd in back of us. Surely this barrage of fireworks cannot possibly last more then 15 minutes, I think, gazing hopefully at the clock on the tower of the church next to La Parroquia .

Then it’s 4:16.. and 4:17 and 4:18… By now the smoke is choking us, and the rockets come closer. The young masked archangels in sweatshirts seem to be getting stronger and are laughing in unseemly diabolical glee as they shift their bombardment around the square. The rockets from the other side of town create a booming echo off the stonewalls, and we look up at flower pots hanging precariously from the balcony’s above us. I think of the death of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Marge is crouching behind me, tugging at my sleeve to move back into the crowd every time a rocket blows up near us. But I know that at the first sign that I am ready to flee, she will force me back. With her implacable tourist sense of duty, she goes hard on deserters.

So the epic struggle for the gates of heaven continues. St Michael’s legions pour on the cohetes. The Devil’s own Weapons of Mass Percussion replying with their own explosions high over the Jardin..

At the same time my internal struggle gets fiercer. The malevolent Aztec has now breached the fortifications of my upper intestine, creating havoc and disorder within its normally peaceful walls. Pain begins to emerge in the region of my pancreas as Montezuma’s shock troops lay waste the countryside. My legs wobble.

This must stop by 4:30 I say to myself. But it’s 4:31 by the clock tower. Then an agonizing 4:32…4:33 and still the fireworks explode in the dusty yellow-brown smog that envelopes us. At every slight lull I console myself that it is coming to an end, only to have hopes smashed by the relentless young men in the white bandanas, now not even a blur in the fireworks fog. The screaming rockets seem to get louder and the explosions high in the sky more earthshaking – or worse, shaking the flower pots above us.

Finally, I hear the first clanging of a church bell from some place out there in the hellish smog. Lucifer’s cohetes have ceased. The rocket launchers in the front of the church slow down. The tower clock says 4:45. A crowd moves forward, loosens up, begins to disperse over the plaza.  The rocket attack is over, the church bells pick up their tempo and clang in the glorious news –like the bells of St Petersburg at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 – of victory for St. Michael, for God and good, and for me released to run home to the bathroom.

But not yet, Gringo. “Look” says Marge – emerging from her bunker behind my jacket. “They’re going to set off the Castillos!”

“Great” I groan. By now, Montezuma divisions are at the gates of my sacred gastro-intestinal precincts.  My Imodium guards are giving way. The cramps – signaling the impending rout are moving down my legs.

But La Aborada will not be denied. Sure enough, Los Castillos (castles) – 40 foot rickety structures of rods and sticks that look like they are lashed together with cord from which hang bamboo pinwheels loaded with – you guessed it – even more explosives. So for the next 15 minutes we watch our old friends the guys in white sweatshirts light the individual fuses and get the sparking pinwheels whirling in red and green and yellow ferocity, spinning off sparks into the crowd while the flower of Mexican youth dance underneath the burning mess. Then, strung on the several entrance gates to the church, more massive fireworks explode and set the iron gates aflame with crosses and various other taunts to the now defeated Lucifer. The air is filled with triumphant cacophony of mariachi, church bells and pyrotechnical hiss and roar.

My lower intestines – and my dignity — are at the point of surrender, when the ring at the top of the Castillos is lit. It shrieks and whirls around spitting huge sparks. Suddenly, it lifts off like a spinning space ship and floats high above the crowd. Then with a whine, it falls drops into a group of children, and everything is suddenly silent but for the slow tolling of the bells.

A dozen children might have been killed by that thing for all I know, but at that moment I couldn’t care less. I somehow slip and push myself past a thousand happy contented Mexicans, and stumble down the dark cobblestone street to our house while Montezuma stabs and slashes at my bowels. Fumbling keys and shouldering myself inside, I rushed to my own holy sanctuary and there, using the last weapon at my disposal, I flush the wretched Aztec out of my system.

Finally, exhausted I crawl into bed. The first streaks of dawn are in the sky. The bells of La Parroquia are clanging away, boasting of the great victory of Good over Evil, while I quietly and gratefully celebrate the survival of my dignity, barely, in the great Gastrointestinal War.

 

(NOTE ON THE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OF “MONTEZUMA’S REVENGE.”

On a visit to Mexico during his presidency, Jimmy Carter mentioned at a luncheon with the Mexican president that he had been afflicted with “Montezuma’s Revenge.” He was immediately criticized as having uttered an insensitive racist remark, or at the very least having slurred the honor of Mexican cuisine. But two Mexican friends used the phrase as they expressed condescending condolences to me and I’ve been assured that so long as the Gringo uses it with humor, it is politically acceptable. So, let me assure you that the above was written in the spirit of good fellowship and complete dedication to Mexican-American solidarity. Although it didn’t actually seem so funny at the time).

October 1, 2007

 

El impacto del TLCAN en los trabajadores de estados unidos

la Jornada del Campo  (Mexico, November 16, 2013)

El impacto del TLCAN en los trabajadores de estados unidos

Jeff Faux Fundador y actual miembro distinguido del Economic Policy Institute, en Washington DC. Su libro más reciente es The Servant Economy

El Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte (TLCAN) fue la puerta por la cual los trabajadores estadounidenses fueron empujados para entrar al mercado laboral neoliberal global.

Al establecer el principio de que las empresas estadounidenses podrían trasladar su producción a otros lugares desde los cuales vender de nuevo a Estados Unidos (EU), el TLCAN socavó el poder de negociación de los trabajadores, el cual había impulsado la expansión de la clase media desde el final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. El resultado ha sido 20 años de estancamiento de los salarios y la redistribución hacia arriba del ingreso, la riqueza y el poder político.

El TLCAN ha afectado a los trabajadores de EU de cuatro maneras. Primera: cuando la producción se trasladó a México, causó la pérdida de unos 700 mil puestos de trabajo, sobre todo en California, Texas, Michigan y otros estados donde se concentran las manufacturas –y a los cuales llegan muchos inmigrantes desde México-. Sin duda, se crearon algunos empleos a lo largo de la frontera en los sectores de servicios y de ventas al menudeo, como resultado de un mayor tránsito camionero, pero estas ganancias son pequeñas en relación con la pérdida, y se encuentran en ocupaciones peor remuneradas. La gran mayoría de los trabajadores que han perdido puestos de trabajo a causa del TLCAN sufrieron un desplome permanente de sus ingresos.

Segunda: el TLCAN fortaleció la capacidad de los empleadores en EU para obligar a los trabajadores a aceptar salarios y prestaciones más bajos. En cuanto el TLCAN fue firmado, los administradores de las empresas comenzaron a decir a sus trabajadores que éstas se trasladarían a México a menos de que bajara el costo de mano de obra. En medio de las negociaciones colectivas con los sindicatos, algunas compañías incluso empezaron a cargar maquinaria en camiones diciendo que se irían a México. Las mismas amenazas se utilizaron para combatir los esfuerzos de organización sindical. El mensaje era: “Si usted vota en un sindicato nos mudaremos al lado sur de la frontera”.

Tercera: el efecto destructivo del TLCAN en la agricultura y en pequeñas empresas mexicanas dislocó a varios millones de trabajadores mexicanos y sus familias, y fue una razón principal del espectacular aumento de indocumentados en el mercado laboral de EU. Esto ha incidido en una presión a la baja para los salarios estadounidenses, especialmente en la mano de obra menos calificada que de por sí ya sufría de baja paga.

Cuarta, y la más importante: el TLCAN has sido el modelo para las reglas de la nueva economía mundial, en que los beneficios se trasladan al capital y los costos al trabajo. La clase gobernante de EU –en alianza con las élites financieras de sus socios comerciales- aplicaron los principios del TLCAN a la Organización Mundial del Comercio y a las políticas del Banco Mundial y del Fondo Monetario Internacional, así como al acuerdo que permitió que los empleadores de la gran oferta de trabajo de bajos salarios de China accedieran a los mercados de EU a cambio de que las corporaciones multinacionales estadounidenses tuvieran derecho a invertir en su país.

La doctrina del TLCAN de socialismo para el capital y libre mercado para la mano de obra también condujo la política de EU en la crisis del peso mexicano de 1994 y 1995, la crisis financiera asiática de 1997 y el colapso financiero mundial de 2008. En cada caso, el gobierno de EU organizó el rescate de los bancos y de los inversionistas corporativos del mundo, y dejó en cambio que los trabajadores se valieran por sí mismos.

En términos políticos, en EU la aprobación del TLCAN mostró que el Partido Demócrata, considerado el lado “progresista” del sistema bipartidista del país, había aceptado la ideología económica reaccionaria de Ronald Reagan. Un “Acuerdo de América del Norte” fue propuesto por primera vez por el republicano Reagan en 1979, un año antes de ser elegido presidente. Una década más tarde, su sucesor George H. W. Bush, negoció el acuerdo final con México y Canadá.

Los demócratas que controlaban el Congreso no aprobaban el acuerdo, y cuando el demócrata Bill Clinton fue elegido presidente en 1992, se dio por hecho que el péndulo político podría alejarse de la derecha y que, por lo tanto, el TLCAN nunca pasaría. Pero Clinton se rodeó de asesores económicos de Wall Street, y en su primer año impulsó la aprobación del TLCAN en el Congreso.

A pesar de la retórica, el objetivo central del TLCAN no era “la expansión del comercio”. El propósito central del TLCAN era liberar a las corporaciones estadounidenses de las leyes que protegen a los trabajadores y al medio ambiente. Además, se allanó el camino para el resto de la agenda neoliberal en EU: la privatización de los servicios públicos, la desregulación de las finanzas y la destrucción del movimiento sindical independiente.

El resultado inevitable fue socavar las condiciones de vida de los trabajadores en toda América del Norte. Los salarios y las prestaciones se han quedado atrás de la productividad de los trabajadores en los tres países. Por otra parte, a pesar de la disminución de los salarios en Estados Unidos, la brecha salarial entre el trabajador mexicano típico y el estadounidense típico en la industria manufacturera sigue siendo la misma. Incluso después de hacer ajustes por diferencias en el costo de vida, los mexicanos siguen ganando alrededor de 30 por ciento de los salarios de sus homólogos de EU. Por lo tanto, el TLCAN es a la vez símbolo y esencia de la “carrera hacia el fondo” global.
En América del Norte hay dos estrategias políticas alternativas para el cambio. Una de ellas es la derogación. El TLCAN le da a cada país el derecho a salirse del acuerdo. Pero las economías y las poblaciones de los tres países se han vuelto tan integradas que una “desintegración” podría causar un desplazamiento generalizado, desempleo y una caída sustancial en los niveles de vida.

La otra opción es construir un movimiento político transfronterizo para reescribir el TLCAN de una manera que dé a ciudadanos comunes derechos y protecciones laborales al menos iguales a los privilegios actuales que se dan a los inversionistas corporativos. Obviamente, esto no será fácil. Pero ya se ha establecido una base por la creciente colaboración entre inmigrantes, sindicalistas, defensores de derechos humanos y otras organizaciones de activistas en los tres países.