Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sick and Tired of Politics

 I'm depressed these days.

It's this damn election and all the bullshit associated with it. I'm tired of seeing the divisiveness as I scan the news or go to Facebook to check up on the activities of my friends only to witness the constant carping from both sides. And oh, let's try to forget the Presidential Debates. The made for TV debates in which both candidates skirt and avoid serious issues. The issues most Americans would really rather not hear about. Blech! It's all such a waste, sort of like saving the pieces of a broken wineglass when the rest of the house has been destroyed. In my opinion our political campaigns are insipid and useless. I can't wait for it all to be over.

I decided to tune out of the political debates most of my friends are having because frankly, I don't see much difference between the parties. They're but two sides of the same coin. Plus, there's no way I'm going to change the minds of those on "the other side" anyway. I'm a life-long Democrat and shed tears of joy when Obama won the presidency but when you get right down to it, he's just another president that misled us about what he would do and, with the single exception of improvements to Medicare (still an unknown quantity), has steadfastly retained the status quo. We're still in Afghanistan, we're still expanding our military footprint overseas, we still have prisoners in Gitmo, we still lock up American citizens without a trial or legal counsel, we still have Homeland Security and the incomparably annoying and useless TSA, two hugely expensive new government operations that came out of 9/11 while the national debt soars and reducing the massive budget of the Defense Department isn't talked about. Obama's campaign slogan "Change" was essentially exactly that in the end, a slogan. A slogan used by the ad agencies his party hired to help him gain the presidency. Welcome to American politics, a skillful blend of advertising and bald-faced lies where it might cost a billion dollars or more to win the nation's highest office. And then, once elected, the corporations who paid to put you there demand to be taken care of. Again, Blech!

I read a thought provoking article the other day. In the article, The Opiate of Exceptionalism, by Scott Shane writing in the NY Times on October 19 of this year, the author asks us to:

"Imagine a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers.

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare — in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany."

He goes on to say that Americans believe we aren't like other people, we're special, exceptional. That we don't like hearing anything to the contrary even if it's true. Americans expect their political candidates and elected officials to be cheer leaders, not people who get hung up on problems. Our addiction to this notion is akin to an opium addiction -- at first it allows us to see only the good but ultimately it makes us stupid.

But I would continue in the same vein and add that we are exceptional in some other ways too. According to Wikipedia we are the world's largest armaments producer, to the tune of $8.6 billion in 2010. We also have the world's biggest "defense" budget measured either in absolute dollars ($711 billion) or as a percentage of GDP (4.7%). China is second with an outlay of $143 billion and 2.0% of GDP, while Russia is a distant 3rd at $72 billion.

And we use more petroleum than any other country, by far. Yet our government refuses to demand auto makers produce more fuel efficient cars. Might a candidate make an issue of that?  Not very likely. American drivers are forever clamoring for cheaper gas. It's almost as if we live in a vacuum and cannot see what the rest of the world is doing. If he did decide to make that an issue our candidate would be going head to head with the powerful oil and auto industries, a battle he or she would do well to avoid during a campaign. And afterward. Our thirst for oil means we've been friendly with Saudi Arabia for many decades. In case you've forgotten, most of the Islamic fundamentalists that took down the WTC were Arabians. Our supposed allies.

Getting back to Mr. Shane's hypothetical question. How would such a mythical candidate fare in the election? He'd stand a snow ball's chance in hell.

I finished a book the other day, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson, that does a pretty good job of explaining our foreign policy since 1898 when we took the Philippines from Spain. Written in 2004, it's a page turner that I highly recommend to anybody wanting a fuller understanding of what our country is truly about. The so called "neoconservative triumphalists" in our government and particularly in the defense establishment espouse "preventative war" and the forcible spread of democracy and, according to Johnson, by 2003 were partly responsible for the fact that we had 725 bases in 130 countries around the world. The largest, Kadena AFB in Okinawa, has 18,000 troops not counting Japanese and other support staff, is worth about $5 billion and has been there since the end of WWII. We have huge bases in every corner of the world and especially, surprise, surprise, in places where there's oil.

He also answers the question of why we had no exit strategy in Iraq. We had none because we intended to stay permanently. We're never going to leave the middle east, or at least not while there's still oil in the region. Our military presence there is growing even though our troops are being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our governmental leaders enjoy a revolving door policy with the huge defense contractors, Dick Cheney being perhaps the most extreme (and wealthiest?), example of this. And those contractors need a state of war to remain profitable. Enter Bush's War on Terror. It's never a ending war and consequently is perfect for those needs. Keep Americans paranoid about their security, keep those defense contractors busy, sell more arms, build more bases, incite another war somewhere, invade another country if need be, but keep the cycle going by any means available.

Upon reflection, what is it we have created in Iraq? A stable democracy? And what can we say about Afghanistan? Have we made the world safer for democracy by being there? Will we invade Iran, and if we do under what pretense? How much richer will Dick Cheney's Halliburton become, a contractor that in 2005 had already made $10 billion in Iraq alone? How many more lies will we hear that attempt to justify our terrorization of countries weaker than us?

Scanning the news yesterday I spotted this article: "Reporting a Fearful Rift Between Afghans and Americans", that reports a shootout between American and Afghan troops in which six people died, two Americans and four Afghans. These are people we trained to defend their country. But they don't like us. Is anybody curious as to why that is? Please read Johnson's book. It contains some of the answers.

I wrote this to clear my mind and lift myself out of the doldrums the election has plunged me into. But I also wanted to persuade friends who think America is on the right path that it isn't, that we have become an imperialist country, just like Rome was, like Spain, and like England. That if we ignore history, we're bound to repeat it. In the days of the British Empire the people who administered her colonies thought of themselves as smarter than, indeed better than, the indigenous people, were entitled to whatever that country could provide to the homeland, and that they were actually improving the lives of those whose countries they occupied. But the people of India, the Burmese, colonial Americans, the Irish, and all the rest with ample reason loathed their occupiers, as the Afghans loathe us. As the Iraqis  and the Arabian fundamentalists do, as do many of the Okinawans who are stuck living near the Kadena base. We are the occupiers now, the new imperialists. Our presidents have become "deciders" and can kill anyone on the planet for any reason, or no reason.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987) once stated: “When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness."

I couldn't agree more. For those of you who bemoan the high cost of a college education in America, or who are alarmed by the upward spiral of our national debt, or who wonder why it is that we are almost continually in a state of war, you have only to pull yourselves away from the infotainment we call "the news" and do some reading to see just how much of our nation's creativity and resources are being wasted on the military machine we have built and are hell bent on maintaining.

When I was a boy I believed in America and the American dream. And I think back then, things were simpler. America had already started down the path to  empire in the Philippines but I didn't know it. By the way, we resorted to waterboarding the troublesome and rebellious inhabitants of those islands after we "liberated" them and substituted our dominance for Spain's. But my eyes were blind to those sorts of things then and they really weren't reported in the TV news I watched. I thought of us as the good guys, the exceptional ones. But not any more. My eyes have been opened and I don't like a lot of what I see.

Whomever wins the coming election will not change much about what we do, or how we're viewed by the rest of the world, a world that is increasingly hostile to us. Obama, my hero in 2008, doesn't seem to have the power or the drive, and maybe not even the desire, to do it. Romney is, of course, repugnant to me on many levels, is a hawk, a denigrator of the common people, a wealthy corporation man, and will only magnify our bad reputation in the world if he gets in. I  will choose Obama again because he's the lesser of two evils. It seems that's what I usually do.

Isn't that a shame? It's no wonder I'm depressed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Eating in Chiang Mai

Nut and I have been patiently waiting for the end of the rainy season. We've done our our first big ride but it's still fairly warm and muggy outdoors, about 85-90 degrees F in the afternoon, so we've been spending those afternoons in our cool apartment only sneaking out around midday for lunch. Then towards evening after the sun is past its peak we'll go out and grab some supper.

Note 10-04-12: A friend asked in the comments section of this blog if we eat every meal out. Well yes, almost. But we generally eat breakfast at home: fresh fruit mostly and sometimes eggs or oatmeal. Shown is one recent breakfast. Fruited yogurt with muesli, oatmeal, juice and cocoa, or in my case, tea. There is mango, banana, long kong, and apple slices on the plate.

Now, back to the topic at hand. We've tried a few new restaurants lately and have discovered some great eating right in our neighborhood. One such place is on the ground floor of our building. And then too, we have a few special restaurants we discovered last year.  This article is about them and some Thai dishes we seem to order again and again.

Lately I've taken to ordering tom sap (ต้มแซ่บ) everywhere. This is a spicy, highly seasoned soup popular in northern Thailand (Issan) based on pork or chicken, less frequently beef, that's often served in a ceramic pot on a charcoal brazier placed right on the table. Many restaurants here in Chiang Mai serve it and each offering is slightly different.

We dip the fragrant soup directly out of the pot with big spoons. One of the seasonings is chilis of course, which give it a bite, and horapha (โหระพา) or Thai sweet basil, one of my favorite condiments. Add some onion, some lemon grass, a slug of nam pla (fish sauce) and you've got a lovely soup. In the photo you can see some of the horapha and chunks of pork in the pot as well as fresh green horapha and cabbage at the right. Thais eat raw seasonings and vegetables, usually cabbage or cucumbers, as an accompaniment to the main course.

Grilled tilapia, tom sap on the brazier, pickled pork sausage at Delicious Restaurant
This little place is an easily missed family operated shop aptly named Delicious Restaurant (เลิศรส) (Lert-rode) featuring northern Thai food, Issan food. Nut discovered it last year when we were staying at the Nice Apartments across the lane on Rachadamnoen Soi 1 near Tha Phae Gate. (N18.78881, E98.99238). One of  its specialties that I order literally every time we go there is grilled fish. These are farmed fish, as are 99% of all the fish eaten in Thailand, and are a type of tilapia with firm white meat and a reddish skin. They're called pla tab-tim (ทับทิม), literally pomegranate fish, and are stuffed with lemon grass and rolled in salt before going on the charcoal.  An average meal for two will set you back about $6 at Delicious Restaurant. The family knows us now as regulars — we are always greeted exuberantly and with wide smiles when we ride up on the bike.

Grilling pla tab-tim at Delicious Restaurant
There's another small restaurant a few yards up the street from our place named Som Tam Udon. We can walk there in minutes. (N18.80542, E98.98321) Their specialty is som tam (ส้มตำ), the green papaya salad that IMHO is justifiably famous all over Thailand. They also serve grilled chicken, fish and pork ribs and of course, tom sap.

Som tam with seafood (ส้มตำ ทะเล)

Tom sap (ต้มแซ่บ)
Another spot we love when we want to eat western-style food is The Duke's on the Chiangmai-Lamphun Road near the Iron Bridge. (N18.78516 E99.00501)

Duke's is more expensive than most of the Thai restaurants around but the service is great and the food fantastic yet cheap by stateside standards. (Here is Duke's Facebook page.) They have great looking burgers and steaks (I've not had any as yet), BBQ ribs to die for, a good if not perfect Caesar salad, along with other western dishes: we've had scrumptious carrot cake, excellent pizza, very hard to find in Thailand, and a favorite of mine, chili con carne ($3 bowl). The ribs are as good as Sean up at the Fritz Creek Store turns out. The meal below cost less than $15 USD for two.

Chile con carne, foccacia, pork steak in pepper sauce, warm spinach salad
Nut almost always has pork steak in pepper sauce at Duke's. I tell her to try some other things but she loves these little steaks and always gives the fried onion rings to me. Duke's pizza is the best I've had in Thailand by far. Most Thai pizza is unimaginative to the point that the tomato sauce used is a closer relative to catsup than the fine topping I'm used to from Finn's and Fat Rack in Homer. Nut likes Hawaiian-style pizza so that's what's shown here although many other kinds are available. This one, a medium size, cost about $10. As I said, Duke's ain't cheap but a similar pizza would cost at least three times that amount in Homer, Alaska.

Duke's medium pizza, warm spinach salad, shrimp cocktail
Another top spot for us is Hua Pla Mo Phi (หัวปลาหม้อไฟ) over in the Mee Chok neighborhood. They used to be in Chiang Mai Land but moved this December (2015) to a new and bigger place right on Rte 1001 near the Mee Chok Shopping Mall. The new location is at N18.82186° E99.01212°. Hua Pla means fish head and that's the specialty of this place, fish head soup. Everything we've had there has been excellent. I should add here that if not for Nut most of the places we frequent would probably never have discovered if I were operating alone. Her knowledge of Thai food is extensive and her taste impeccable. She read about this place in a magazine article. We've been eating there regularly ever since. (Note: Originally I had the name translated as Hua Pla Mor Phi but learned it is actually Hua Pla Mo Phi. If you are searching for it online, try both spellings as well as the Thai version.)

Dinner for two at Hua Pla Mo Phi
The dinner shown above, spicy fish head soup, crab cakes, stir fried morning glory with crispy pork, and a side of rice cost about $12. Another of their items that I almost always order is the fruit salad basket. Apples, melon, and grapes in a sweet dressing, topped with deep fried shrimp in an edible taro basket. Yummers!

Mixed fruit salad - Hua Pla Mo Phi

No discussion of favorite Chiang Mai restaurants would be complete without including Silomjoy. This is yet another family owned and operated restaurant serving breakfast and lunch right in front of the Tha Phae Gate on Rachadamnoen Road. Many farangs eat there because they serve an excellent western style breakfast but there's a full menu of Thai dishes as well. And one of the owners, Waou (แวว), creates the coolest latte art I've seen anywhere. Even on warm days when I would ordinarily prefer an iced coffee or latte, I'll order a latte from Waou just to see what she will come up with as decoration.

With Waou at Silomjoy restaurant
There are a few more places we like but I guess I can save them for another day. We're off to lunch.