Observations from abroad, which is where this journalistic traveler has
been for the past several weeks:
ITALY'S "CRAZY" INTERNET LAW
Before I was permitted to log on at internet points in San Gimignano and
Firenze (Florence), I was required to present either my passport or
driver's license, so it could be duplicated by the management.
A note taped to the cash register informed patrons that last year, as a
response to terrorists communicating with each other over the internet,
the Italian government passed a law requiring that anyone wanting to get
on the Web at such an internet business must provide photo I.D. that will
be duplicated and kept on file at the business until or if the police ask
to see it.
Reluctantly, I handed over my passport, a copy was made of my photo and
personal information, and I sat down to check my email.
In Florence, I asked the proprietor what was going on. "It's simply
crazy," said the owner, whose near-perfect American-English came from
studying in the U.S. for many years. "My back room is stuffed with
thousands of these old duplicated pieces of paper, and I'm obliged to hang
onto them forever. It places an undue burden on those of us who run
internet points. What on earth do they think they're accomplishing?
"Any reasonably competent terrorist will find his way onto the internet
despite this stupid law. Phony passports or driver's licenses, disguises,
use of library terminals, wireless locations, whatever. This law was
passed mainly to make the politicians look like they're actually doing
something to protect us, when in fact nothing really has been accomplished
except to inconvenience the public and those of us businesses that now
have to become permanent paper repositories.
"Plus," he said, "it's just making it easier for the government, any
government, to turn its citizens into compliant robots. Take off your
shoes before you get on an airplane, take off your belt and let the X-ray
machine examine it, I'll bet if they required everybody to strip behind a
screen people eventually would get used to doing that, too. Freedom is
being sliced away, piece by piece, and we all participate in it, by doing
what they tell us. But I'm a businessman, what can I do? I have to comply.
We then got involved in a long and fascinating discussion about what was
happening in Italy and what was happening in the U.S. around the "war on
Short sum-up: Italy under Berlusconi and the U.S.
under Bush were using the "war on terrorism" as cover for their own
far-right agendas. There are indeed bad guys out there that need to be
caught, we both agreed, but this incompetency and battering-ram approach
wasn't really the only way to go, and certainly not the best way.
THE LITTER ON HEATHROW'S CARPET
To get to Germany in the least expensive way for my address to Democrats
Abroad in Munich (see the text of my talk ##here (
www.crisispapers.org/essays6w/democrats-abroad.htm ), I was routed through
London's Heathrow Airport. I didn't understand why the cheapest tickets
went through Heathrow until I was forced to endure the chaos of that
airport's security system.
Several hundred in-transit passengers from various arriving flights were
forced to stand in a mass traffic jam in a windowless corridor for 20
minutes, with no movement forward and with no indication of what was
blocking our way. Finally, a security official, perhaps sensing something
was wrong, peeked her head out from around the corner and spotted this
mass of seething humanity. A few minutes later, those snaking-line mazes
were set up and we began moving forward, or at least enjoyed the illusion
that we were moving forward, zig-zagging our way towards somewhere.
The whole process took more than an hour-and-a-half, making many
passengers miss their connecting flights. When the line finally got to the
security inspection area, large signs announced what one could not bring
on the aircraft, a holdover from the London scare several months ago about
the possible use of liquid bombs. Young employees walked back and forth
displaying boards affixed with samples of shampoos and toothpaste and
water bottles and such. (Some non-English-speaking passengers actually
thought the agents were offering to sell those items duty-free. Much fun.)
From that point on, the carpet became littered with toothpaste tubes and
shampoo bottles and the like. I jettisoned my toothpaste into a bin but
kept some medicinal ointments with me, figuring they might allow those
2-ounce tubes through, as they do now in the States. Alas, my backpack was
flagged and I had to explain my possession of the forbidden items. The
middle-aged inspector, who gave the impression that he knew he was
enforcing non-sensical rules, sighed and made me a deal: "Give me the
fungus cream," he said, "and you can take the antibiotic ointment with
you." We smiled at the charade. I handed over my dangerous athlete's-foot
cream, and off I went to make my connecting flight back to San Francisco.
The gentleman in front of me was not so lucky in his dealings and had a
run-in with a hard-nosed young inspector, a stick-to-the-book kind of guy.
After all the shouting, the passenger had to turn over several hundred
dollars worth of medicinal ointments and pills, since they weren't in
containers affixed with their authorized prescriptions. He was steaming.
Like me, he will never fly through Heathrow again.
AMERICA'S SELF-DESTRUCTIVE REPUTATION ABROAD
As an American traveling over the past four or five years all around the
globe, I've experienced a reaction that I find curious and revelatory. It
didn't matter if I was in Southeast Asia, or villages in Crete, or towns
in Italy, or in the Sahara in Morocco. The minute locals found out that I
was American, they began commiserating with me, before I even said a word,
about how unfortunate I am to live in a country ruled by "Boosh."
They just assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that I agreed with them,
probably because most Americans they met over the past several years felt
the same way as they did.
In 2006, this anti-Americanism is still largely directed at the U.S.
government, not its people, but it has become even more intense, and
virtually universal. In all my travels abroad, I've met only one person
who stood on Bush's side, a World War II veteran in England who thought
"the Islams" needed to be "whipped into shape." Other than that, it was
fullout denunciations of American foreign and military policy under the
CheneyBushRumsfeld regime. Most of the time, I had trouble even getting a
word in until their rants began to run down.
In short, it's not liberal propaganda or an academic truism to point out
that the U.S. has lost all credibility and respect in much of the world
because of Bush&Co.'s excesses and arrogant bullying approach. The
ordinary folks I talked with in one corner of the world or another -- cab
drivers, small business owners, tourist gift-sellers, grocers, students,
cafe workers, etc. -- all felt perfectly free to tell me how they hated
America's government and how they admired the courage of those few leaders
who stood up to the U.S. in the world. Not that they liked or necessarily
agreed with Osama bin Laden, or Hugo Chavez, or Fidel Castro, or Hassan
Nasrallah; they just thought it important that the U.S. face some strong
In the various countries I've visited, I've been impressed by the average
person's grasp of daily events and the complex realities behind that news.
Unlike in this country, where a huge proportion of Americans get their
news filtered in the mass-media through a governmental prism, citizens
abroad have a great many intelligent media outlets that permit them to
piece together the reality of what's going on. Instead of Fox News, they
have a multitude of channels and networks and independent political points
of view to listen to.
My personal experience talking to people around the world over the past
five years underlines the common wisdom that virtually all the good will
built up for America after the terror attacks of 9/11 has vanished as a
result of the Bush Administration's disastrous foreign and military
adventurism, especially in Iraq and in blind support of Israel in the
Middle East. That's the reality.
If the GOP can be badly defeated at the polls on November 7, the situation
will not change overnight. But we, and the world's peoples, can at least
begin to see the beginning of the end of this reckless administration,
and, one can hope, a return to sanity and realistic foreign policy that
sees war as a last resort, not a political choice of first resort, as was
the case with Iraq.
A BANANA-REPUBLIC VOTING SYSTEM
Another aspect of American life that foreigners have trouble comprehending
is our slipshod election system. The U.S. has a reputation for
sophistication and technological smarts, but our current voting procedures
are so deficient, corrupted and easily corruptible, that we resemble a
banana-republic dictatorship in the way our rulers are chosen.
France, Canada, Germany, and so many other countries, are so far advanced
in how they tabulate the votes -- most by hand-counted paper ballots, with
tight security involved in doing so -- and how quickly they are able to
announce the winners. In the U.S., the Republican Administration in effect
has outsourced voting equipment and voting tabulation to three
Republican-supporting private corporations. They make the voting machines
and control the proprietary software that programs the way those work,
which means the way votes are registered and, most importantly, counted.
Their technicians have access to the machines, sometimes by remote
control, and can alter the programming without anybody ever knowing about
Because of this flawed system, the past three U.S. elections (2000, 2002
and 2004) are suspect. Statistical and anecdotal evidence leads to the
obvious conclusion that each of those results were fiddled with, or in
some states such as Ohio and Florida, the Republican Secretaries of State
declared hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters ineligible to
vote, forcing them to legally fight for the right to have their choices
"I simply find it incredible that your citizens put up with such rubbish,"
said a New Zealand businessman as we ate breakfast in the Sahara Desert in
southern Morocco two years ago. "Why on earth do they permit such a
scandal?" Other foreigners have said something similar whenever the
subject comes up.
And how does one explain why Americans are so lackadaisical about their
right to have their votes counted honestly? Even the nominal opposition
party, the Democrats, haven't taken the issue seriously enough to loudly
protest or take the case to court. It is a scandal, one that easily could
be repeated, at least in key districts, in next month's midterm election.
And if you think Karl Rove and his minions are not aware of their
opportunities in this regard, you're amazingly naive.
THE SLIDE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR
I've been traveling abroad for decades, ever since my college days --
always useful for a writer in obtaining some fresh perspective on one's
own country -- and so can remember the era of the "mighty American
dollar." If you had dollars in your pocket, didn't matter how many, you
felt wealthy abroad.
Not so much anymore, and not just because everything costs way more now
than it did decades ago. There still are places where dollars are
preferred (at the nightly crafts market in Luong Prabong, Laos, for
example), but in most areas, the sought-after currency is the Euro.
As the dollar sinks in value and prestige, and the Euro rises, one can
anticipate even more of a slide in America's status abroad and some
dislocations in the American economy of potentially major proportions.
In short, even though America stands as the lone superpower colossus in
the world, it is somewhat musclebound and its influence and respect are
fast-waning. Changing Administrations in Washington might help bring back
some of that honor and influence, but it's equally likely that the "old
days" are over and that more intelligent U.S. administrations will have to
learn how to use America's economic and political power more creatively
and less aggressively.
We can start on that road back toward respect and international good-will
by a landslide defeat of Republicans on November 7. Make sure you and your
friends and neighbors vote, and that you demand, or sue for, an honest
balloting and verifiable tabulating of the votes. This is an election that
will determine our personal, national and global future; that's how
important November 7 is. We are making history here.
Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international
relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked
as a writer-editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently
co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: