Friday, March 25, 2016

The Great Wall of Trump

I have a minor, geeky point to make about the mythical wall that Donald Trump seems to believe he can build along the border with Mexico.

Put aside the huge cost of building and patrolling such a wall, independently estimated to be at least $25 billion just for the construction (and rest assured, Mexico will NOT pay for it). There’s also the actual geography of the border to consider.

One geographic reality of the Trump Wall in particular seems to me likely to force the US to effectively give up control of some its territory for long stretches of the border. I’m talking here about the Rio Grande.

I have crossed the US-Mexican border only a couple of times in my life. One of these was at the Boquillas crossing on the Rio Grande, the river that for some 1200 miles (1930 kilometers) forms America’s southern border. The river, in fact, makes up almost two-thirds of the total length of that border.

At the time (1985), Boquillas was an “informal” border crossing, way off the beaten track. My future wife and I happened upon it during a pre-Christmas get-away to Big Bend National Park, a national treasure nestled, you might say, in that large “S-shape” on the bottom of Texas where the Rio Grande curves north after flowing southeastwardly from El Paso. In other words, the “Big Bend”.

The pueblo of Boquillas del Carmen in the distance, as seen from the US. 


Big Bend, by the way is an amazing park, an outstanding place to visit, especially if you enjoy stark desert landscapes far from civilization. We loved it there. We did small day hikes, along the river and in the Chisos Mountains. We spotted roadrunners, coyotes and foxes near the campgrounds. I can’t remember if we saw any snakes, but no doubt they were nearby. We visited hot springs. And we got familiar with the river that forms the southern edge of both the park and the nation.

Along the park’s boundary, the Rio Grande is mostly flat and placid, and only about a hundred feet across. It cuts through at least three major canyons, but the part we saw mostly occupied a narrow flood plain between low banks of limestone. From our campsite at Rio Grande Village, we could hear roosters crowing from across the river. From riverside trails, we could see cattle wandering in and out of canebrakes on the opposite shore. And from the Boquillas Crossing, we made a short, undocumented visit to the other side.

This border crossing lay at the end of short unpaved road that reaches the river just upstream from the Mexican hamlet of Boquillas del Carmen. In the graveled riverside parking lot sat just a car or two, with a few enterprising local men lounging on the hoods. We paid one of them a couple of dollars to paddle us across the river -- and the US border -- in an aluminum johnboat. It took only a minute or two. Once on the other side, we could have paid a couple of more dollars to ride burros to the village about a mile away, but we chose to go along the rough road into town on foot.

It was the quintessential dusty one-street town. We looked around, had a relaxing lunch of tacos and cold beer under a breezy awning. We bought a couple of simple figurines carved from green onyx as souvenirs. I don’t recall seeing any other gringos. After a couple of hours maybe, we returned across the river, back to the United States.

Crossing the border at Boquillas was quasi-legal and essentially unregulated before 9/11, providing probably the main source of income for Boquillas del Carmen’s 300-odd residents. After the fall of the Twin Towers shook America’s sense of security to its core, this faraway river crossing was shut down. It was reopened in 2013, but now as an official, though unstaffed, Port of Entry with high-tech kiosks allowing visitors from Mexico to connect remotely to distant immigration officials. Its laid-back nature has been, it would seem, changed forever.

I’ve been recently reminded of Boquillas, and our long-ago crossing there, by all this talk of Trump’s Wall. Which brings me (finally) to my geeky point:  where exactly along the Rio Grande does Mr. Trump intend to locate his magnificent wall.

I assume the official border follows the middle of the river. And, I’m guessing that, for all kinds of engineering and hydrological reasons, you can’t erect a YUGE concrete wall smack down in the middle of a 1200-mile waterway.

Obviously, the wall has to be built on shore. On the American side, of course. I feel certain Mexico would not allow it on its side.

I also have a feeling it’s not practical to place a wall right on the water’s edge, which might vary anyway with spring floods, etc. That means the wall would have to be set back some distance from the shore, say two- to three-hundred feet. Depending on the local geography, an even wider buffer zone might be needed.

Rio Grande, international border on the edge of Big Bend National Park.

Photo: Glysiak

To me, this strip of land between the wall and the river would become a no-man’s land, mostly off limits for ordinary Americans, but accessible to anyone from the Mexican side to come and go as they please. The wall would replace the river as a de facto border.

Access to the river would be limited by the location of gates or portals built into in the wall. Maybe most of these would be only for Border Patrol agents to pass through. Most likely, only a few would be open for ordinary Americans.

In other words, only Americans with the right documentation could access the river at official border crossings (no undocumented Yankees fishing on the Rio Grande!). This would leave miles and miles of the Rio Grande difficult to reach for locals and tourists. It would greatly complicate commercial rafting operators, not to mention anyone else who wanted to have fun on the river.

And then there are the reservoirs. The Rio Grande is impounded by two dams on the US-Mexican border, creating the 65,000-acre Lake Amistad (ironic name, there) and the 84,000-acre Falcon Reservoir. These large bodies of water straddling the border are understandably popular with fishermen and other recreationists.

I can only assume that Trump’s Wall would have to be constructed along the entire long, convoluted shores of these lakes, essentially sealing these enjoyable waters off from easy access. To Americans, that is.

I doubt the average bass fisherman in Texas setting out to launch his boat at the Rough Canyon ramp, some ten miles north of the Mexican half of Lake Amistad, nowadays has to remember to bring along his passport (which 80% of Americans don’t have anyway). After Trump’s Wall goes up, he will.

Otherwise, how can he, as an American, be allowed back into the States after a day of fishing on one of Texas’ biggest lakes? Ironic, isn’t?

A wayward gringo enjoying a cerveza in Boquillas del Carmen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Net Stupidity – The Mexican Wall Edition

The Internet meme below has recently popped up in my Facebook feed. As you can see, it shows a fence, topped with what looks like razor-wire, identified as “Mexico’s Southern Border”.

The point the meme is trying to make (in mostly fluent English) is that Americans should not be demonized for wanting a big-ass wall on the border with Mexico – the kind of wall that Donald Trump can’t stop talking about – since Mexico protects its own southern border with a “full border fenceline” complete with “barbed wire, armed guards, and towers”. In other words, the fence in the photo.

I can’t say I’m familiar with the Mexican-Guatemalan border, but the photo didn’t quite look right to me. You might expect a lusher, tropical look to the surroundings. But, what do I know?

So, I Googled the meme. What I found was an article on, the web site dedicated to fact-checking various dubious political claims. (Conservatives love to trash Snopes as being, from their point of view, liberally biased. I don’t know, maybe it is, though that doesn’t make it wrong.)

Snopes had not fact-checked this particular meme, but a similar one featuring a photo of a different kind of border barrier. 

Now, this photo is instantly recognizable as fake, in the sense that the fence is stretching across a parched, desert landscape, nowhere near the verdant Eden of Guatemala.

The ironic thing about this meme is that the “gigantic WALL” allegedly built by Mexico on its southern border – a formidable wall that the US should get off its ass and start building – is actually a section of the border fence the US has already built along the Mexican border.

(A murky detail about this meme: it was supposedly posted on the Facebook page of a “group” called “Americans for Common Sense”, which appears to me to be decidedly liberal-leaning. Also, the meme is no longer to be found on that Facebook page. Was someone punked?)

Anyway, to return to the first meme, it turns out someone on Facebook did some fact-checking of their own and identified the photo as originating from a Chinese manufacturer of wire-mesh fences.

Wire-mesh fences for prisons. Heavily guarded prisons. Let’s be honest, how unassailable would a wire-mesh fence like that be on the lesser-observed stretches of the Guatemalan border? With a decent pair of bolt cutters, you’d be through that thing in a Tijuana minute.

So, according the meme, America should follow Mexico’s example and secure its border by, if nothing else, erecting a mickey-mouse wire-mesh fence. Made in China, no less.

Now, you may argue that the real point of the meme is that Mexico has stricter immigration polices than America does (I don’t know), and this fact is represented by a photo of a fence, some fence, any fence.

Or the creator of the meme may be trying to highlight that Mexico has taken the issue seriously enough to at least build some kind of physical barrier along its entire southern border, though sadly you can’t find a decent enough photo of the actual fence to illustrate that point. At least they have a fence.

I’m not even sure that’s true. According to Wikipedia, Mexico has ten formal border crossings with Guatemala and 370 informal ones. In order to better stem the flow of illegal migrants, it seems Mexico is currently upgrading some of the informal border crossings to formal ones. There is no mention of a fence. Nada. A map published in the Economist last December did show a “fence” on Mexico’s southern border, but as one being “planned”, not “begun”.

So, I suspect that the US southern border really isn’t really less protected than Mexico’s.

Nice try, though, with the meme. 

Well, no, actually it was a pathetic try, but that doesn't stop it from being passed around constantly on the net. Of course, it doesn't.

The real Mexican-Guatemalan border.

Photo: Fernando Reyes

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Net Stupidity – The “What Do I Know” Edition

More than anything, Donald Trump seems to be a creature of new media. He is a reality-TV show star turned presidential candidate who engages with the public using Twitter and seems to glean his understanding of the wider world mainly from “the Internet”.

It’s the gleaning of the Internet that I find the most troubling and scary. 

A case in point involves the protester who tried to jump on the stage where Trump was speaking on Saturday, before being stopped by Secret Service agents. For the record, it was a stupid, completely unconstructive act of protest. It was a stunt that did nobody any good, certainly not anyone who hopes Trump doesn't become president.

Still, it did serve to reveal something truly bizarre, and pernicious, about Donald Trump.

Trump immediately afterward referred to the protester, Thomas Dimassimo, as probably being “an ISIS supporter”. This was apparently based on a video of Dimassimo that was crudely edited by someone to make it “look” like Daesh propaganda.

That is, if the editing had been done by Eric Cartman. 

Someone took a video of Dimassimo (who happens to be originally from Georgia, like me)  at an earlier anti-flag protest, then simply added a weird Daesh graphic at the beginning and overlaid it with authentic Daesh music.  

While people who know something about these things declared the video to be a hoax, Trump jumped on it as one more reason Americans should be scared out of their minds (and, based on the level of support for Trump, apparently they are).

Now, what scares me more is this: someone who might be soon be president promptly labels a random, though more energetic than average, protester as a jihadist terrorist, based solely on a half-assed hoax video posted on some fringe website (it might have well been this one).

That was Trump’s first instinct, to elevate a ham-fisted protest act into a terror threat. That is not a sign of a calm, measured, stable temperament, the kind of temperament you’d want in someone controlling the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Or even its postal system, for that matter.

Not only that. When confronted with the fact that the video Trump had overreacted to had been a hoax, he explained his rush to judgement this way:

“And, supposedly there was chatter about ISIS. Now, I don’t know. What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.” (Emphasis mine.)

Yes. All he knows is what’s on the Internet. And, if it’s on the Internet, well, there must be something to it then. Right? Like the thousands of cheering Muslims he imagined seeing in New Jersey on 9/11. Or, the Birther conspiracy that President Obama was born in Kenya.

Now, maybe he’s completely cynical and doesn’t believe any of this. Maybe his actual first instinct is to know what kind of nonsense will rile up his supporters, truth be damned, and then stoke it for maximum pandering effect. Maybe there’s some comfort in that notion.

But if not, and he really is so gullible as to chase almost any scary-sounding Internet conspiracy down a rabbit hole, then heaven help us all if he does become president. 


(Photo: Niteowlneils)

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Land of the Free

Growing up in America, as I did, one word you cannot avoid hearing over and over again is “freedom”. Along with “liberty” it is one of those buzzwords that underpin the image Americans have of themselves as a nation. It was true enough during the Cold War, when the US saw itself as a bulwark against Communist tyranny, and it’s still true today.

For Americans, “liberty” and “freedom” are so-called “virtue words”, words used in politics to reinforce particular political beliefs.

I’m not sure what comparable “virtue words” would be for Finland. Perhaps, “itsenäisyys” (“independence”) and “isänmaa” (“fatherland”), but certainly not “freedom”. You don’t hear a lot of people here going on and on about “vapaus”. And I would say it’s not because Finns feel any less free. They just don’t harp on about it.

Americans’ conspicuous focus on freedom and liberty may be peculiar to the US. It often seems Americans assume that they enjoy freedom like no other nation, because, well, simply because they are Americans, and Americans are, of course, freer than anyone else. It's like a law of nature or something. Or so they think.

In some ways this is understandable, seeing how the United States was born out of the grievances of British colonists who were convinced their liberty was threaten by a faraway Parliament. The obsession with freedom started early on. (The “liberty” of African slaves, however, was entirely another matter.)

I’ve sometimes wondered whether this early American sense of grievance was overblown. Were North American colonists really that badly oppressed?

Or did it have more to do with those colonists taking exception to the way the British government insisted on them paying for the British military defending them? Or for not allowing the colonists to squat on Indian land beyond the Appalachian Mountains? Was that the liberty that was being infringed upon? A radical notion, no?

Anyway, “freedom” – like almost anything else – can be fetishized. Some Americans, especially on the right, seem to have an over-developed sense of “freedom” as being central to their lives, something they are constantly in danger of losing, something under constant threat.

This was partly the rationale of the right-wing extremist militants who occupied, for some forty days and nights, a parcel of protected landscape in southeastern Oregon called the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

This motley group of heavily armed men (and some women) took over the refuge, which is apparently a prime environment for migratory birds and for somewhat migratory birdwatchers, after disputes arose between neighboring ranchers and the Federal officials managing the refuge.

A couple of days into the illegal occupation, the group led by Ammon Bundy, a second-generation anti-government agitator, named itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. “Constitution” is another important “virtue word” in the American lexicon.

Ammon is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who successfully defied the American government two years ago when Federal officials tried to take action against him over the one million dollars in fees and fines Bundy had been refusing to pay for twenty years for the privilege of grazing his cattle on government land.

When the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal agency managing most of the Nevada rangeland in question, tried to seize Cliven Bundy’s illegally mooching cattle, all hell broke loose in the American right-wing extremist subculture.

Bundy declared his dispute with the BLM to be a “range war” and told Fox News that “It’s a statement for freedom and liberty and the Constitution”. (A trifecta of super-patriotic buzzwords!)

Hundreds of anti-government militia types traveled from all across the country to join the protest against the roundup of Bundy’s cattle. And, of course, they brought their guns.

Before long, the confrontation between Bundy’s supporters and law enforcement turned ugly and developed into an actual standoff, with the extremists blocking roads and both sides pointing guns at each other. As it turns out, pointing a gun at a law enforcement officer is a punishable offence. In fact, pointing a gun – or in some cases, a knife, or a cell phone, or, who knows, even a ham sandwich – at the police, is a good way to get yourself killed. It happens all the time.

But not in the case of the Bundys. Rather than risk bloodshed, the BLM and law enforcement backed down. They suspended the roundup and released the 400 or so head of cattle they had seized up to that point. Bundy, who considers himself a “sovereign citizen” and doesn’t recognize the authority of the Federal government, no doubt saw this as a victory.

It did look like a humiliating defeat for the BLM. Like many liberals, I was disappointed that the authorities gave in so easily and let hostile right-wing extremists get the best of them.

At least, no one was killed. Well, not quite directly. A husband-and-wife team of domestic terrorists, who had been motivated to join Bundy’s standoff (but were asked to leave because they were too extreme), murdered two police officers and another person (a “good guy with a gun”, as it happens) in Las Vegas a few weeks later. Apparently sharing Bundy’s hostility toward the “tyrannical” Federal government, they were hoping to spark a “revolution” all on their own. They died of gunshot wounds on the floor in the back of a Wal-Mart after a shootout with police.

Some liberals feel that Bundy’s son Ammon was emboldened by the government capitulation in Nevada, setting the stage for Ammon to travel to Oregon this year to hold his own armed confrontation at the Malheur Refuge.

The fact that the FBI initially took such a standoff-ish approach to the Malheur occupation – electing to simply surround the refuge and wait out the militants for over a month, not even cutting electricity into the compound and, in some cases, letting people go in and out at will – seemed like a repeat of the tepid, kid-glove treatment the Bundys got in Nevada.

Actually, it seems the FBI was playing it smart. At least smarter than the militants.

On January 26, when Ammon Bundy and other leaders of the occupation set off in two trucks for a public meeting in a town two hours north of the refuge, they were stopped by the FBI on a deserted stretch of highway. The whole thing was filmed from the air by a police drone.

Ammon Bundy cooperated with FBI agents, seemingly offering no resistance and staying in his truck until arrested. 
However, the second truck, after sitting still for a few minutes, suddenly spun off. It was driven by LaVoy Finicum, one of the more outspoken and militant of the Malheur occupiers. The truck, followed by the drone overhead, continued down the highway at full speed before encountering a police road block. Finicum had nowhere to go. He plowed his truck into a snowbank, then got out to face the police with his hands up – at first, that is. 

As the aerial video shows, Finicum suddenly lowered his arms and appeared to reach for the gun he carried with him wherever he went.

He was shot dead instantly.

Finicum, who had written a book subtitled “Regaining Lost Freedom”, stated during the occupation that he would rather die than go to prison. He got his wish.

The occupation itself went on for another couple of weeks, with four holdouts camping on the refuge grounds until, after the Feds started closing in, they finally surrendered. They did not go quietly. No, they did not.

In a remarkable mishmash of modern technology and primal “Lord of the Flies” mayhem, the last hours of the standoff were live-streamed over the internet via the occupiers’ cell phones. The audio recording documents for prosperity some four hours of the holdouts screaming obscenities at the FBI agents surrounding them, as well as at each other, as a sympathetic lawmaker from Nevada tries to intercede with the FBI over the phone.

In the recording, you can hear how absolutely unhinged the holdouts sound. Literally insane. Freaked out by Finicum’s death, they seemed convinced they were about to be “murdered” by the FBI. Until the very last moment, the final holdout to surrender, David Fry, was reportedly teetering between giving himself up or blowing his brains out.

And while this hysterical dénouement was playing out, Cliven Bundy, as if on a rescue mission, left his home in Nevada and flew to Oregon, where he was promptly arrested – to the delight of liberal commenters all over the internet.

As tragic as even one death is, the ending of the standoff went about as well as could have been expected, especially considering the disasters at Rudy Ridge and Waco, which resulted in multiple deaths. Let’s hope that ends the issue, but I’m not entirely optimistic.

I haven’t read Finicum’s book, and probably never will, so I’m not sure exactly what “lost” freedom he’s referring to. In what ways was he NOT free? What freedom did he lack? The “freedom” to take over public buildings by force of arms? He was clearly willing to die for that one, since he could not have helped knowing that such a rash act would land him in prison. And he’d rather die.

This is what I mean about “fetishizing” freedom, obsessing beyond all reason over an idealized vision of what it means to be “free”. You see a lot of this on the fringes of right-wing politics.

And I don’t mean to say being free isn’t something to be craved. Everyone wants to enjoy freedom. Sadly, in parts of the world many are not able to. Masses of people are trapped in truly despotic countries (North Korea, is the clearest example) or in repressive situations (sex slaves the world over). Such folks are truly oppressed and have a right to consider themselves “not” free.

Cattle ranchers in a rich, democratic country who see themselves as victims because they are forced to abide by laws they don’t agree with do not have that right. But that’s just me.

I once got into an argument with a stranger over the internet (always a bad idea). The topic was health care in America and Finland, but it morphed into an argument about freedom. It boiled down to the question of whether Finland’s social welfare system makes people here less free than Americans.

It’s a question worth thinking about. Am I less free living in Finland? I don’t think so. Not in any way that matters to me, not in any way compared to when I was living in America. Not in any way I would die for.

Does paying a higher tax rate than Americans make me less free? Not the way I look at it. Does being unable to legally carry a handgun on my hip when I go grocery shopping make me less free? Maybe in an absolute sense, just as being unable to drive down my street at 100 miles an hour with impunity infringes my freedom of reckless joyriding.

The thing is, I don’t expect absolute freedom. Freedom, like most everything, is relative, and relatively speaking things are pretty free here as it is. In fact, freer than almost anywhere else.

And where’s the proof of that? I’m glad you asked.

The NGO, Freedom House, publishes a yearly survey on global trends in civil and political liberties. In its “Freedom in the World” report for 2015, Finland was given a perfect aggregate score of 100. It shares that distinction with only four other nations: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and tiny, tiny San Marino.

The US had a score of 90. That, by the criteria of Freedom House, is still considered “Free”, but is lower than most European countries, including Mother England (score 95). This might set Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave.

Naturally, such comparative surveys have their faults and shouldn’t be taken too literally. And Freedom House, partly funded by the US government, has itself come in for criticism over its activities. 

I’d like to dig into the details of the survey’s methodology sometime to suss out exactly where American freedom falls short compared to Finland’s.

In the meantime, I’ll take its report at face value as evidence that, despite American right-wingers’ constant fretting over “liberty” and the dangers of “socialism”, countries like Finland are relatively freer. And that has nothing to do with the “right” to squat on a bird sanctuary. 

Headquarters of the Malheur Refuge. I would like to visit someday, 
now that the hooligans have departed.

Photo credit: Cacophony