Thursday, November 17, 2005

On WP and Legitimate Forms of Killing

This week has seen the level of establishment control over the media vividly laid out before us once again. The BBC has been caught with its pants down, terrified of offending Blair’s masters in Washington, fumbling around, pasting, deleting, rewriting, swapping ‘chemical’ for ‘incendiary’ and deliberately confusing ‘people’ with ‘civilians’. George Monbiot managed to publish an excellent article in The Guardian laying out the simple facts of the illegal nature of the weapon White Phosphorus as used in Falluja. He also published an excellent letter in the times and backed this up with a post on Medialens urging those compelled to write to papers or TV channels to keep pounding away with the clear and simple facts that the media have so deliberately fudged. It is hard not to say that a sort of progress is being made. But its is equally hard to be optimistic about the future when complaints about this very subject will be considered old hat come next month and those intelligent enough and committed enough to keep banging the drum will be dismissed. The list of what should have stopped the war because it was so bleedin’ obviously wrong is quite long now. There have been plenty of minor and major scandals. A rough compilation looks like this, the reader can choose the ones that do not stink to high heaven.

1. The original Iraq War of 1991
2. The lack of support for Iraqi democratic movements
3. The use of depleted uranium, accepted by all and sundry and the biggest issue of all because this one will hang in there until the human race itself ceases to exist.
4. The whole area of sanctions against Iraq
5. Infant mortality in Iraq
6. Health services in Iraq
7. WMD farce
8. The Dr Kelly farce
9. Hutton
10. War plans made in 2002 or 2001, whatever

And on and on and on ad nauseum, nobody who reads this will be able to do so without thinking of at least a few things that they would have included.

Just as these thought were spinning around in my head, I was reading through a selection of articles that I had downloaded on peer2peer and one of them was called ‘Liberating the Mind from Orthodoxies’. This is an interview with Noam Chomsky that was done by David Barsamian and it can be read in its entirety at

The question that really stood out for me was the following:

“Let’s talk about what individuals can do in overcoming orthodoxies. Steve Biko, the South African activist who was murdered by the apartheid regime while he was in custody, once said, “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

To which Chomsky responded, with typical insightfulness
“He’s quite accurate. Most oppression succeeds because its legitimacy is internalized. That’s true of the most extreme cases. Take, say, slavery. It wasn’t easy to revolt if you were a slave, by any means. But if you look over the history of slavery, it was in some sense recognized as just the way things are. We’ll do the best we can under this regime. Another example, also contemporary (it’s estimated that there are some 26 million slaves in the world), is women’s rights. There the oppression is extensively internalized and accepted as legitimate and proper. It’s still true today, but it’s been true throughout history. Take working people. At one time in the U.S., in the mid-19th century, working for wage labor was considered not very different from chattel slavery. That was the slogan of the Republican Party, the banner under which northern workers went to fight in the Civil War. We’re against chattel slavery and wage slavery. Free people do not rent themselves to others. Maybe you’re forced to do it temporarily, but that’s only on the way to becoming a free person, a free man, to put it in the rhetoric of the day. You become a free man when you’re not compelled to take orders from others. That’s an Enlightenment ideal. Incidentally, this was not coming from European radicalism. There were workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, a couple of miles from where we are. You could even read editorials in the New York Times saying this around that time. It took a long time to drive into people’s heads the idea that it is legitimate to rent yourself. Now that’s unfortunately pretty much accepted. So that’s internalizing oppression. Anyone who thinks it’s legitimate to be a wage laborer is internalizing oppression in a way which would have seemed intolerable to people in the mills 150 years ago.
Take the Seattle and Washington anti-WTO demonstrations, which were good ones, about canceling the debt. Yes, they should cancel the debt. But it’s also worth recognizing that—a lot of people know this—the form of the protests and the objections on the part of the poor countries are internalizing a form of oppression. They are saying that the debt exists. You can’t cancel it unless it exists. Does it exist? Well, it doesn’t exist as an economic fact. It exists as an ideological construction. That’s internalizing oppression. To liberate yourselves from those preconceptions and perspectives is to take a long step towards overcoming oppression”
So what is going on with the current debate about WP? I am not an authority on any of this but for what its worth, here is what I think.
I find it really difficult to debate the rights and wrongs of the use of WP in Iraq in the current context. If an international convention tells me that the use of a chemical to kill a human being is inhumane and therefore wrong I say ‘fine’, but where the sense of all of this falls down is that the same convention accepts that bullets are a legitimate means of killing while conducting war. I am happy to admit that I would prefer to die by way of a bullet through my skull than by excruciatingly painful burns to my body but the end result would be just the same. My position is that more bullets have been fired than WP shells been used so they are the bigger issue. My problem is that we are now debating the ‘how’ of killing and in doing this we internalize the ‘right’ of killing and discuss the fact that killing with WP is somehow so terrible that it demands special attention. Yes, it might be a way to catch the establishment out but ultimately the game is still being played by their rules, in their court and with their ball and they can choose to take it home any time they wish and that is exactly what they will do next week when this story disappears.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

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Being Had in Brazil

Sunday the 23rd of October saw a referendum in Brazil. It’s the first one I have witnessed since I started to live here in 1998 and it took me by surprise because I had learned early on that a referendum was not necessary in order to amend the Brazilian Constitution. A surprise to an Irish person accustomed to a referendum mess everytime we want to change a comma or dash. Why would we have one then? Changing the constitution is a matter of the senators and deputies voting and when their interests are involved they always find consensus easy to come by. For similar behaviour elsewhere see the war preparations in London and Washington.

In this case the PT (Brazil’s Nulab), led ever more ineffectively by Lula, was trying to make a political point in the middle of a rake of scandals through which it has become apparent that upon taking power, many, not all as there are some really good people there, decided that they would steal all that they could as quickly as they could since they might never be presented with the chance again. The point being that they were pro people and anti violence even though they were robbers.

The objective of the referendum was, on the face of things, an attempt to gain some sort of control over Brazils guns and in doing so reduce the chaotic level of violence.
The question in the referendum, remember that in Brazil everyone is obliged by law to vote, was the following. Would you like to see the sale of guns prohibited? The public had to answer yes or no. There was also a third option of white, or abstention.

So why the referendum? Well, during the last decade the UN estimates that we have around 32,555 gun deaths per year, yes, 32,555, that is not an error. 550,000 since 1979, which is about 100 a day, which challenges Iraq, doesn’t it? The author of the site has unofficial information that indicates that 40% of these deaths are actually caused by the police. Even in a country of almost 200 million people this death rate is pushing it. However, Sundays efforts to create legislative barriers to gun purchase failed miserably with over 60% of the population saying that they would prefer to leave things as they are, thanks very much. In fact only two of the hundreds of municipalities voted to change the status quo. The conclusion of the population being that while living in a place as violent as Brazil, it’s a good idea to have a gun to defend yourself with. After all with no infrastructure planned in the case of a yes vote, those who think guns are a good form of defence are hardly likely to expect criminals to put down their weapons because of a law change.

Everybody knew the change would be rejected and everybody knew that the referendum would be an utter waste of time. So why have it? Thousands of urns delivered, thousands of people involved in the nationwide exercise, thousands being paid, and some large sums, to administrate the election, ah yes, the PT was siphoning cash down to the party faithful. Its easier than building a school after all.

Everybody feels deceived and pissed off.

I am just glad I wasn’t obliged to vote.
One friend quoted a line from a famous song at me “Coisas do Brasil” meaning roughly, it’s a Brazil thing!
Thanks Lula, I have lost count of the slaps in the face you and your government have given us.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I was The Marlboro Man!

Day begins at 6.30am.
Crawl out of bed and out to the front of the house for a fag.
Back in, help get the kids ready.
Squeeze in another fag(sometimes two) before 7.15 when all the kids are in the car and ready for school.
Drop the kids off and head to work.
7.40 Park the car and light a fag as soon as I get out.
Go up to the school and make sure lesson is in order.
Nip out to the corridor for a quick fag before 8.
Lesson over at 9.15; nip out to the corridor for a fag.
Withdraw money to buy fags from a bank five minutes walk away
Have a fag on the way and another fag on the way back.
Back to work
9.40 check e-mails, answer urgent ones and the nip out to the corridor for a fag at 10.00
Another fag at 10.20 - and probably two more between 10.45 and 11 when the next student arrives.
Individual student, bit late so time for another fag
Student comes, class until 12, a quick fag as soon as the class is over, down to the car park, a quick fag before I get into the car and then I pick my wife and the kids up and get home for 12.30.
I have a quick fag before lunch and a quick fag after lunch
Play with the kids for an hour, easily fitting three to four fags, maybe five if we play outside, I don’t smoke in my house.
Have a shower and back to work, wife drives me,
Arrive at the car park, get out of the car, have a fag.
I cannot breathe deeply and fill my lungs without provoking some sort of coughing fit
My spit bounces on concrete and rolls into balls on sand
I spend plenty of time trying to control breathing lest my coughing fits drive others to distraction, try to make it sound like I am clearing my throat
Get to work, spend a while reading. It might be like this..
See a Pilger article posted online, think…..I’ll have a fag and read that, nip out for a fag, come back read the article, do a bit more reading, stopping every twenty minutes for a fag, its like a reward for having passed twenty minutes without having a fag,
If a half hour goes by I am surprised and have a fag, because its what I do.
The afternoon goes by, what gets done changes from day to day
What does not change is the fag every twenty minutes
Come to 6pm
Nearly time to start teaching again, fit in three fags in the half hour before class starts at 6.30, last fag finished at 6.29
Class ends at 7.45, have a fag right away, organize a few things for last class of the day. Squeeze another fag in before 8
Work from 8 to 9.15 when the working day ends
You know what I do at 9.15, don’t you?
Go home, arrive home, have a fag, maybe two cans of beer, four fags with each can. Read for a while, prepare something to eat, have a fag while its heating, have a fag as soon as I finish.
Work on a bit of translation I am doing, have a fag every time I finish a significant block of text. Go to bed a 1 or two am.
Wake at 4am for a quick fag, maybe half past five
Fall into deep sleep
Day begins at 6.30
I crawl out of bed and out to the front of the house for a quick fag.

Or at least I did, to save you going back through this to try to estimate how many I might have smoked I will tell you now, a minimum of thirty five to forty fags per day. If I happened to have a few beers, well, I can murder a pack in an hour and a half and the total could even reach a hundred on a beer day.

On the 15 of September I stopped after enduring a panic attack caused by breathing problems allied to a throat and ear infection which made me feel like I had my head underwater and was going to drown. I spent six or seven ill days, coughing up the most disgusting infected green muck you might imagine and then suddenly I started to feel better and better, deep breaths, pink tongue, and in one month I have gone from a very sickly looking 66 kilos( I am 5ft 11 inches) to a more acceptable and healthy looking 72 kilos. When I want a fag I eat a nut or a grape, my fruit consumption has risen about three hundred per cent. The other day the biggest lad, joker, homophobe that I know told me I was looking well. His blush was gorgeous!

I feel like I just scored the winner in the cup final.

On Friday I bought a load of earth, at the end of the month I will buy bricks and cement, a brick is cheaper than a pack of fags, I am going to build a garden in the concrete area behind my house. I’m going to plant my own beans and herbs…something I didn’t have the money to do before….

Thursday, May 19, 2005

PR, don't dream it's over.

My introduction to politics happened via my mother since she was ever present in my life for my first eighteen or twenty years. I have vivid memories of election time in Ireland and of going to vote with her and asking her who she was voting for and why. Under the PR system in place in Ireland my mother always voted 1,2 and 3 for the Fianna Fail candidates in our constituency. She would give her first preference vote to the one who had in some way helped her during the term of government and the others to the other party members. Encouraged by the electoral propaganda, she never did use the other votes, after all, why would a Fianna Fail supporter vote for another candidate? Every Irish person is familiar with the billboards urging you to vote 1,2,3 in order of your choice.

During the recent UK elections the majority of the 80 plus per cent of people who voted for the three main parties would have done much the same.

Why would my mother be voting FF? Well, her family had been staunch supporters of FF. Her father had been a member of Michael Collin’s squads before the Civil War and later was a detective in the Free State from 1922. Her father died in 1948, on her 8th birthday, and her mother, a staunch supporter of De Valera, did her best to make sure her kids were too. At one point she even threw her own son out on the street because he supported Noel Browne’s excellent Mother and Child Health Scheme. This scheme was stamped on by the Catholic hierarchy and therefore was also stamped on by practicing Catholics and there was no shortage of those.

At this time Irish people, especially women and children, were victims of a war which the church, with the governments help, waged relentlessly and cruelly. One only needs to delve into the history of the Magdalen Laundries, Borstals, Industrial schools, Orphanages etc to see this. Abuse, torture, brain washing, humiliation, selling of babies, stealing of babies, a veritable Gulag. Catholic morality was the law of the land and this came to be with the help of legislators and members of parliament. Under a PR system too. Did the people visit this on themselves? I would argue that they didn’t.

So, what do I remember about the elections?

Firstly, in the eighties Ireland’s main current affairs program was called Today Tonight. I remember one of the presenters, a man called John Bowman, commenting one night that Irish people did not know how to vote and did not use the PR system efficiently. This certainly tallies with my experience since most people vote along party lines and do not share their vote. A PR system, in order to be successful, requires a highly educated and interested electorate with a range of political interests. It also requires a wide variety of candidates who will be present not only on the ballot paper but who also have access to the propaganda machine which is controlled by the government along with its corporate partners. Without this they will continue to be marginalized by voters. One thing PR does allow for is a large type swing in the vote which seems to be impossible in places like Britain where a party like the Lib Dems has a tiny number of seats and a rather large portion of the popular vote.

In the eighties Ireland saw a massive swing to the left, the flexibility of the voting system made this possible. One small radical leftist party called The Democratic Left (formerly The Workers Party) found itself in a position where it could form a government with The Labour Party (Irelands version is of champagne socialists with two cars) and Fine Gael (a conservative centre right party). I remember the reporters on the Election Day waxing lyrical about how sophisticated the Irish electorate was because it delivered a government and a parliament which was unlike anything previously seen before. There was a massive swing to the far left in all urban areas. The optimism of the voters was rather short lived and the reason why demonstrates powerfully why a PR voting system, while fairer, is a red herring.

With a very strong left wing showing in a coalition government we suffered a period of horrendous health, education and social welfare cutbacks. The reason for this was because inclusion in Europe and the fledgling global economy made any real social progress impossible. Our political representatives are people that we vote into jobs. The job might be that of Taoiseach, Minister for Finance, Prime Minister or President. The job might even be that of pope. Once in the position you generally become removed from the people that put you there and your sphere of influence becomes the forces which you encounter in the corridors of power which are all too often in direct conflict with the desires of those who voted for you.

Ireland today is quite a different story. We are no longer the poor relation in the EU but on a recent visit I was disgusted to see the rampant consumerism which had taken control and seem to be at least as damaging as the Catholic Church’s reign of terror. Irish people have rid themselves of one slave master only to replace it with another. People are not any happier, houses are near impossible to buy, we are building roads we don’t need for cars we shouldn’t have, we are covering green areas with concrete at an alarming rate, we are helping the US at Shannon in their genocidal war which most of the population opposes and basically in the same shit as any other country following the free market right wing economic trail. Since PR seems to do no good whatsoever in Ireland and Irish people are at least as intelligent and stupid as the English people, I am at a loss when I see a desire for PR because PR results in exactly the same type of government. There is no point in changing an electoral system if the job description of the winning candidates remains the same, a move to PR is a sideways move when what is really needed is devolution of power to local levels. If a PR system existed in Britain today there would most likely be a Labour/Lib Dem coalition in power and Charles Kennedy would most likely be Minister for Foreign Affairs. The House of Commons might have a smattering of independent candidates who, however noisy they might be, would not be involved in government and would continue to suffer the attacks of a biased media.

The electoral system in Brazil also differs greatly from the British. Here voting is an obligation and everyone must do it, if you are not in your area on election day you must go anyway to show your voting card and `justify` your position. So in a country where 90% of the people live below the bread line one would expect a vibrant left wing vote and radical social policies aimed at solving chronic problems in the health and education systems.

The parties here, and there are hundreds of them, form coalitions before the vote. Then the percentage share of the vote is calculated. If your coalition gets 20% of the vote they will get twenty percent of the seats even if no candidate performed well individually. Seems like a good idea yet when those candidates get into power they proceed in the same corrupt way. Why? Because that’s what the job is and the selection process is a choice fantasy which the public participate in. That is how democracy (mal)functions.

Under a PR system Britain would still have gone to war, Tony Blair would still be PM and there would still be an enormous gap between what they say to get elected and what they do when they are in the job.

The only thing I can say to those in the UK who want PR is that they should stop dreaming, have their rude awakening now and spend all their energy on trying to create greater local power and spending control voted for by community groups, a step forward rather than sideways, which is what PR is.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A Tiny Window on University in Brazil

I was in the car the other day; early morning, 6 am-ish, sunny, and I had just dropped the kids off at school and was on my way to work. I had the local university’s radio channel on since it is a little less dumbed down than the other available channels in Sao Luis. Early morning they have an interview in which they try to analyze a current affair in a fairly honest way.

On this particular day the interviewee was the president of yet another internal review committee within in the Brazilian Bar Association, his brief, to make sure the testing, the bar exam, is well-organized and demanding, so as not to give very weak students the license to practice law. The latest bar exam therefore, was a coordinated effort between the state, Maranhão, and its northeastern neighbors. The subject of the performance of the students in our state had come up, were we as good as the others? Maybe as the poorest state in the country we might hear something to help us rid us of our inferiority complex? The answer the lawyer guy gave was interesting. No, we were more or less below average. The interviewer, thankfully, pushed him into an analysis of why, and whether the private and public universities were performing each as badly as the other. Well, it turns out that about 38% of the students from the private universities are managing to pass the exam while candidates from the local federal institution were passing at a rate of 70%. The lawyer concluded that there were some issues related to teaching and admissions policies that needed to be changed in the private education sector.

The above statistic confirms everything Brazilians speak about among themselves, and feel strongly about, re: the private university. The stories that abound are legend. Let me regale you with some of them, you need not doubt their veracity.

Letras, which I will translate as Letters, the degree course at the local private university is as good a place as any to start. Letters obliges you to study English Literature, Portuguese Lit, and the grammar of both languages too. However, the secondary schools give students a scandalously poor start in terms of language learning. If your family is wealthy you will probably end up at a language course from early on in life. Those same wealthy students, in the main, populate the local federal university. Why? Well, the entry exam to the federal is very hard to pass. When four years free education is the prize, competition is predictably fierce. The students who miss out are those from the public secondary schools which are: deep breath… under funded, understaffed, staff are under qualified, badly paid, unmotivated, buildings poorly maintained, students undernourished, truancy at chronic levels and you can imagine the knock on effects of that without me having to prompt you.

Thousands and thousands of people, those ill-equipped to pass in the federal vestibular entrance test, therefore scrimp and save and study in private centres which have little more than the ability to pay as a prerequisite for enrollment. Some of them study Letters, mainly girls with aspirations aimed in the general direction of the teaching profession. So, imagine you are teaching these students and on the course curriculum and you have a chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne that you have to study with them. They must study the text in English and write a summary of events in English too, but maybe 90% of them will chuckle nervously when asked to say the simplest sentence in English.

Well, one teacher handed out copies of the text to her students, she then told them to read it and write a report. She was having some problems with her boyfriend so she nattered at length about this to some of the girls who cared to listen, and the class ended. What to do? Well, one guy in the class happens to speak and write English at a good level and several students pay him a small fee to do the work for them. A good mate of mine, who is English, used to do it for his girlfriend. The students would then hand in the work, it would be corrected and returned and everyone would get a good mark. Class trundles on like this for four years, most of the time the students don’t even bother going, and on the 5th of every month they pay 400 Brazilian Reais as soon as the bill arrives via post. Then you have a ceremony, you get a piece of paper and you have jolly well done it, you are Nivel Superior as it is called. You have some job prospects now. Someone I know described it to me like this “You are dealing with a pact of mediocrity between the student, teacher and institution. The students maintain the pretence that they study, the teachers that they teach and the institution that it encourages excellence.” For way too many people, their university education has become a financial transaction subject to market forces and all other considerations are secondary to that.

Let me tell you another. Last year the ministry of education found a law course, which operated in the AM, in a cinema. Thankfully they did not allow the course to continue but this act, apparently sensible, is exceptional since the process of recognition of the degrees issued by private universities is probably the haziest loophole in the history of mankind. The logic of the statute books says that while private universities may function, they must depend on recognition of the Ministry of Education. Inspections take place of course, there are defined stages through which the private sector must pass, and eventually they become fully-fledged universities but they operate freely during the long in the interim.

There is a monster private university outside the window of the room where I work, just across the car park. I see one unit; there are two more in other parts of the city. The owner just happened to be an ex-mayor and later served two terms as a federal deputy in Brasilia. National magazines fingered him as the deputy who least attended the chamber. He was busy getting rich. Political interest is stamped all over the rapid growth of private universities. There is money to be made and legislation is openly bent when it threatens to come between profit and profiteers. There are one or two who bravely put their hands up, Heloisa Helena is a Senator who was expelled from PT (President Lula’s party) because she constantly brings up the fact that the government reneges on its commitment to the population, recently she had a proposal which would provide playschools for the poorest mothers who needed to go out to work and leave baby at home since baby would starve otherwise. She got it through the senate but her former party stamped on it in congress. They are too busy with the PR side of the neo-liberal privatization strategy, which I will try to sum up now.

The IMF and World Bank, tools of a capitalist world gone mad, and the international community expect certain things of Brazil. They expect apparent fairness in the numbers of black and poor at university, which is all very lovely, but in following the dictate, the government will hastily pay the private folks to provide places for the needy and in doing so channel tax payers money into the hands of university owners, subsidized education. The statistician who decides how developed countries are is more that happy with this. The reality is different, where is the voice of the generation of poor alive now and the ones to come? They are condemned to life in substandard primary and secondary schools and then lumped into private universities which are responsible for less that ten per cent of national research while making up 70% of the total of universities. They provide next to nothing in terms of extension of the institution’s uses to the community by teaching students through social projects.

The year before last, one inspection of a private university in Rio became headline news when they found an illiterate man in third year.

Brazil spends 5.1% of GNP on education, a healthy amount, 25% of this goes to the public university sector where a mere 2% of the national student body studies. Money spent by the government passes through a filter of inefficient bureaucracy and corruption where it is squeezed until 20% or less of it drips down to Brazilian people in the form of better schooling.

A final tale will give you a window on the enormity of this. I have a friend whose mother was involved in the administration of a public school for younger kids. She, with her colleagues, generally took most of the school food home because they needed it and it passed through their hands first so naturally they took it. Today, they are very clear about the necessity of their deed and, rightly in my view, feel no guilt. When survival itself depends on this type of corruption it becomes easier to feel despair rather than hope.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A Well Earned Breather

“A cliché is a cliché because it is full of truth” Unless I am mistaken, Johnny, played by David Thewlis, said that in Naked, the Mike Leigh film. Heard the one about waiting an hour for a bus and then three coming at the same time? Well, that is happening to me at the moment so I am going off topic again because I deserve a rest.

Totally demoralized after studying Journalism I spent more than ten years wanting to write but failing to see exactly what. I then developed a desire to get involved in translation but it was very slow moving since I don’t advertise but prefer to depend totally on word of mouth. There is a cheap market price for translation and the work is generally pathetic. Doing something well and being well paid for it is a tiny niche in the Brazilian translation market.

So in the last month someone who read this blog sent me a nice email asking me to write something for a magazine about the Brazilian University system, the public vs private chaos. Thrilled, it would be interesting to research, a challenge to write and a nice way to spend time. The very next day I suddenly found myself in great demand and am, after five years trying, now getting a very steady stream of rather complicated translation work. Submissions for conferences abroad, a submission to be published in a new four volume encyclopedia of music, electricity company research to go to the US and into trade publications, blah blah blah. On top of all this the whole bit about being father, husband, son, brother, having a job and finally being an animal that is forced to take time to put food into itself and get some sleep, means that I don’t have enough time to bloody well write the article. I also have developed a block because I have too much information and only 1500 words to try to make sense of what I think about what I found out. The constant work has now caused my insomnia to get out of hand. Actually, I don’t really consider myself to be insomniac, I simply prefer to stay awake at night and sleep later in the mornings. The pleasures of good early mornings for me, only exist when they are a rare event, like when you are going to the airport or something. Sadly my preferred sleep pattern does not coincide with the society I find myself in. So the need for two hours of time just to read, listen to music, and distill the day that was, generally fart around, persists, but the time available for this has been moved to after 2, in the am like! Monday night I went to sleep at 5am on Tuesday morning, then got up at 7 for a mad effort at getting the kids into uniforms, washing teeth, putting on clothes, rushing half a gasper(the new word for fag), calming tantrums, combing straggly kids hair, getting them to school going to school myself and starting a class at 8. Talk about auto pilot.

All of this because bills have to be paid, the cost of having mouths to feed and electricity and education to provide has been rising. Time seems to have sped up. How can one learn to put on the breaks when one has apparently sound justification for everything?

I am not complaining, delighted to be alive and all that. Today as I finally got my teeth into the Brazil article I get a call asking me to do 15 pages to go to the UN as a request for funding for a worthy social project. So, I thought, its mothers day on Sunday and my wife has her eye on a beautiful plant to complement a palm tree collection I am developing to teach the kids to take care of, I can see a week in front with no time whatsoever. This post was just a breather. After all we all need to chill out.
Which reminds me, those of you who will vote in Britain! Good luck, I am with you in spirit, get off yer arse, go out and vote for Respect, or Reg or Green but get out and vote please.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Going Off topic

There was a time in the not too distant past when Medialens included a real flow of interpersonal communication on topics that had little or nothing to do with The War on Terror. The war I refer to is that one that lots of people are trying to wage non-violently online. The new virtual world online certainly has created a force in the interest of those who really want to try to live in a peaceful world. How strong that force may become is impossible to predict. It is a collection of memes conglomerating, how well these memes will evolve into day to day action is what I would call the measure of their evolutionary success. When you consider that there are groups of people alive who have so refined greed that it endangers the health and survival of the species as a whole, you naturally must also have a group who act in the interests of survival. The fight against destruction the human species faces today is not any different from the fight that all species have.

It seems like the current horrific nature of what has become known as The Occupation of Iraq has unfolded before most of our eyes online. It certainly has been depressing to observe. The urgency we can justly feel about this has pushed the fun out of Medialens to a large degree, the sense of actually communicating with other people, for me, is fundamental in creating alternative media. Certain unreasonable , from where I sit, limits seem to have been created which have squeezed out something that was a genuinely original move in media, making the users responsible for the content. Having said all that, I still give medialens ten out of ten, things change that we might not like without actually getting worse.

That was the long way of introducing an off-topic post. So, here’s to remembering that we are people and not our false internet names. I will dedicate this to ion and Rosie(wherever she may be).

It’s the story of Rachel and Sharon.
Rachel is a friend of mine and has been, on and off, since I got to Brazil 7 years ago. She is the manager of a boutique. Her great grandparents and some of her grand parents were from the Lebanon. They were all Catholics to boot. They came to Brazil, usually the hard way, and in fair numbers. In the Northeast they were heavily involved in the illicit sale of coffee. There are some really rich families with shady pasts and even shadier stories to tell after a few beers. Rachel is almost forty now, no kids, she is my main drinking buddy since we both love nothing more than parking our arses down with a load of beer and smoking our heads off. Her hubby is also very interesting, he spent ten years or so in exile in the days when activism literally cost you your life at times.
Anyway, over the years Rachel’s drunken blubberings have always harked back to 20 months she spent in Surrey at the beginning of the eighties. She had an aunt over there that was swimming in cash and these types of Brazilian aunts generally end up having their nieces and nephews over to live for a while to get a leg up in the world as English speakers. This was in 1981. She was 15. She had a few highs and lows there and has fond memories. These memories centre mostly on Sharon who was an English girl who lived in Surrey. They hit it off and got up to a few pranks together like heading up to London for the day with the goal of making one of Buckingham Palace’s Guards laugh, Rachel’s lifetime ambition as yet unfulfilled. Sadly the two lost touch. The main reason was that neither of them was great at school and both are dyslexic so letters are out of the question. Neither knows one end of a computer from the other so e-mail was out.

Since Rachel was always talking about how much she loved Sharon, I made a drunken offer to find Sharon online. Sharon had a very common name so Rachels’s family in England refused many pleas to help her find her mate, saying that it was a needle in a haystack. Now, I am no whizz at these things and I only offered to shut Rachel up because I was peeved with her constant moaning about the ungenerous element in her family. As I said, I am not neo, so, I failed, but I did manage to find some site that knew where she was. Sadly, they would only tell us for a fee. Rachel was fine with that so we paid and got her friend’s marriage cert details from 17 years ago and an address in Surrey in the same area she had lived in back in the eighties. Rachel is extremely insecure about writing letters and her English has deteriorated so she dictated to me and I translated one into English and we sent it over to England with some photos to prove that it was not some scam. Two weeks passed.

Rachel called me at work to say that she wanted her money back because they didn’t find her bloody friend. I had to tell R to cool it which is not easy at the best of times because she could talk the ears off anyone when she is fed up. Half and hour later she calls me again. I was in the middle of writing my DU post and just abut to tell her to feck off when she informed me that her hubby had phoned to say that Sharon had called their flat. Rachel was in tears, she sobbed her worship of my internet skills down the line and I preened a little for good measure. So her husband had Sharon’s phone number. Rachel told him to call back and say that she would phone on Sunday afternoon. When he tried to do this he realized that he had noted down the number wrongly, partial deafness and weed being the dual causes of his error. Rachel then had to call the telephone company to get the last number dialed and a painful divorce was averted, but only she after had called him every foul name under the sun. So I was to go over to her flat on Sunday and stay on one phone line to help her with her English on the phone, she would do her best on the other.

Rachel called me early on Sunday morning to tell me to bring the kids over have a few beers with her so that she could build up her courage. When we got there she was on her third trip to the bathroom and hadn’t got a wink of sleep the night before. She was terrified that Sharon would not be pleased to hear from her. So we sat around, there was a heavy rainstorm that we all watched from the balcony, we chilled out and eventually I stood up and called time, and we made the call.

A man answered the phone and I introduced myself and asked if Sharon was in. “Yes, she is, she’s waiting for a call actually” he then called her and I heard a click and a girlish voice on the line that seemed dreadfully far away. Sharon began by telling us that she had moved to Berkshire four years ago and no longer had her post redirected but the sweetheart who lived where she used to, had gone to the trouble of finding out and sent the letter on. She had called immediately she had finished reading it. Proof that faith in human nature is sometimes repaid in spades makes a nice start to a Sunday.

Rachel was in floods of tears beside me and asked me to explain to Sharon that her English had become very poor but she was going to visit England and meet up. Sharon simply replied that they didn’t need to understand each other to be able to hug each other. She gave us a brief story, her dad had passed away, her brother was down under, she had a little girl called Rosie who was 7, she was a PE teacher for kids but she couldn’t write and wouldn’t even know where to begin if she had to create an e-mail address. I had tears in my eyes because this woman exuded so much sincerity and affection without the slightest hint of drama that I was reminded of my own mother. These calls are pricey so we got her new address in a different county and she promised that although it would take time because her writing was very poor, she would write. Rachel has already sent another letter.

I keep thinking about the person who sent the letter on………..