Monthly Archives: October, 2012

I’ve got the power! But how much Choice?

Election2012

Just look at all those Candidates!

To paraphrase The C & C Music Factory, we’ve got the power. This is a cropped bit of my absentee ballot, which, after much negotiation I had emailed out to me by the good people at the Monroe County Board of electors. And with the race as close as ever, and the GOP making a last-ditch effort to throw my home state back into play, this will be in the early pickup tomorrow, post-haste as every vote counts and the latest polls have Romney and Obama in a statistical tie.

Still, I have to admit, it’s not as exciting as it used to be.

I remember excitedly ripping my envelope marked Board of Electors in elections past and relishing the long list of names and choices competing for everything from local councils right up to the top job and marveling to myself, “Ain’t democracy grand?” This year of our lord two thousand and twelve, I can’t help but feel palpably disappointed. Four candidates? Is that all? Are there are only four possible political platforms in our vast and socially diverse nation from which to choose our next leader? No, I’m not so naive as to think there’s effectively any more than two, but in theory at least, the choice is there. I still think, as I have always done, that our system needs to allow for more room for third parties and a plurality of representation of different voices, but that is a debate in which we’d have to talk about overhauling the whole election system and anyhow would that even get third parties themselves to take responsibility and learn from their European counterparts that you have to start from the ground up?

But in theory, in theory, we are supposed to have an openly representative democracy. Is it becoming less so with each election? Back in 2000, I would have had no less than seven candidates from which to choose a new president. Four years later, that number would be reduced to six. In the year in which we elected our first black president, we had a total of five candidates who had enough ballot access to win 270 electoral votes. In a week’s time, it seems we will have a measly four candidates making up our pool of potential head honchos.

My worry is this: with an ever-diminishing choice of potential candidates, are we becoming a more closed, polarized nation divided in bitterness and rancor and unable to open ourselves to the plethora of possibilities that a democracy should be? I lament the loss of Nader. He consistently brought our attention back to issues that candidates, this year especially, refuse to acknowledge as important. I feel for someone like Gary Johnson, a man who has admirably consistent, intellectually grounded freemarket, independent principles. I could never vote for him, but it is thoroughly loathsome that Republicans in some states are trying to prevent me from doing so. If we refuse to even allow certain candidates to play the election game, whose voices are we excluding? And more importantly, what are we refusing to talk about? What are we afraid to hear?

Election2012 Thirdparty candidate

We certainly haven’t heard much in the national discourse this election season about climate change, have we?

You might also like to check out this fascinating article on the marginalization of third parties in US Presidential politics from the AlJazeera website.

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Favo(u)rite London Locations: Borough Market

Borough Market near London Bridge

One of London’s many lovely food markets

Borough Market holds a special place in my heart for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is a great cornucopia of aromas, sights and sounds to please the palate, amaze the eye, divert the mind and amuse the ear.

It also makes me nostalgic though. It brings back memories of when we first moved to London eight years ago and spent many a weekend sampling and perusing ripe cheeses, artisanal breads, organic veg and fine chocolates whilst balancing plastic prosecco flutes, often concluding the day by taking high tea in the nearby Bramah Tea Museum or hopping on a tube into town to sip a glass of Belgian beer in bohemian Soho pub The French House.

Trips to the London Bridge/Southwark area tend to be further and fewer between nowadays, but perhaps are more cherished because of their rarity. We took the boy to the Emirates Air Line Cable Cars today (more on that later) and found ourselves with some time afterwards and an urge to saunter and sample pleasures old and new, which we did with much joy. From L’Ubriaco “Drunken Cheese”, to Greedy Goat goat’s milk ice cream (the boy ordered Cappucino ice cream, he’s a chip off the ole block), Heavenly Halloumi Burgers (courtesy of Veggie Table) to a veritable smorgasbord of international ales to choose from at the Utobeer stall, this place is the must-see for the London foodie tourist.

But what took us especially out of our way today was the fond memory kindled by the thought of a gourmet coffee after lunch from the company that continues to set the gold standard for that caffeinated beverage in London, Monmouth Coffee. If you want to find Monmouth just look for the line snaking around the corner to Neal’s Yard Cheese Shop of customers waiting to order their filtered Kenyan blend, popular for good reason. These purveyors of roasted java pride themselves on the time they spend researching and getting to know the provenance of the variety of beans they use from different single farms, estates and coops from around the world. They show care and dedicate effort to what they do and you can taste it in every beautiful cup, transporting you to caffeinated epiphany.

Monmouth Coffee Company

Photo taken from virtualtourist.com

As promised though, before we indulged our addiction to caffeine and good food, we embarked on our primary goal today of seeing the Emirates Air Line cable cars today, a cable car system stretching over part of the Thames leading from North Greenwich to Royal Victoria Docks. Although the particular stretch that it traverses is brown and industrial, the view is breathtaking, the experience is thrilling and, at £4.30 for a single ticket, a bird’s eye view of London is not much more expensive than an all-zones travelcard for the day, making it fantastic value. See for yourself.

Greenwich Peninsula Station

Greenwich Peninsula Station

 

Emirates Air Line Cable Cars

Room With A View

Royal Victoria Docks Station

All Aboard! Returning from Victoria Docks to Greenwich Peninsula

Emirates Air Line Cable Cars

Kind of 007, appropriately enough, isn’t it?

An experience well worth the ticket price whether you are afraid of heights (and I am, terribly) or not. All the high flying appeal of a James Bond stunt and all the views looking down on the capital from above.

If you do want to board a flight on “The Air Line” you can obtain more information, specifics and directions from here.

I hope all your Saturdays were equally inspiring.

Within A Heartbeat of the Oval Office: The Great VP Debate

Biden and Ryan squaring up

Joltin’ Joe and Lyin Ryan square off in The Thrilla in Danville

It is fair to say there were some of us who were willing to give John McCain the benefit of the doubt in 2008. He seemed principled. He seemed to have good intentions. He seemed to stand for things. He seemed ready to oppose things deleterious to our great democracy like SuperPacs and soft money in politics.

However, It is also true that according to some leading figures on both sides of the political spectrum, you can easily trace the downward tailspin of the Republican effort that year from the moment that an apparently unhinged Alaskan separatist became their team’s main substitution in the event that their somewhat elderly (with respect) contender should take ill while in office, horrifying the nation’s voters to their senses.

We do not often think about it, but VP choices can make or break campaigns, as well they should more often (imagine Dan Quayle with his finger on the button?). This is one of the reasons why all eyes were on this year’s vice presidential debate, especially with the comparatively poor performance by the president in the first faceoff between himself and Romney, and the perceived cool unflappability of his running mate Paul Ryan versus the affably gaffe-prone current number two, Joe Biden.  And this is one of the reasons why armchair pundits on both sides are still talking about it, persistently chasing a definitive victory claim. Chances are that it will be forgotten by Wednesday morning with the two contenders for the top job having slugged it out over foreign policies, but there are still a few significant points about this debate that are well worth noting.

Joe Biden in the debate

Joe Biden has been criticized for his “aggressive” debating style

I saw the debate with the Democrats Abroad, in a special screening here in London two days after the event, so like the self-respecting politics junkie that I am during election season, I devoured all the reviews from Fox to Mother Jones in hopes of getting some picture of what the debate was like and, perhaps more importantly, what the nation’s reaction was. In much of the US media, Biden was criticized for his “in-your-face” aggressive style, which pundits had said may have been counterproductive to his and Obama’s efforts. I read that he was rude, loud and kept interrupting and rolling his eyes. My heart sank because, being a democrat and knowing what I knew from the reports in the week prior, I knew we needed a decisive win to feel even slightly at ease with a comfortable win.

It was evident from reports that Biden had not scored that decisive win and that there were many who found that Biden’s style was off-putting. So I went into this special screening with a heavy heart expecting Biden to bluster in and charge around like an aggressive animal. I sat down in a darkened theater watching the debate and I kept looking for it. And I looked for it. And I looked for it some more. The more I watched the debate the more I asked myself the same question: How could anyone have thought that Ryan won this confrontation? The next question? In what single moment in the debate did Joe Biden do anything rude, ignorant, or beyond the terms of a political engagement of this magnitude?

For a nation that the world thinks is aggressive, we certainly seem to like our politicians to be pretty timid and reserved. Biden’s style was energetic. He was full of zeal. And he was human. Ryan was cardboard and looked uncomfortable. With what did viewers take issue?

Let’s compare with the kind of healthy and energetic exchange you might see in The House of Commons during the weekly event of Prime Minister’s Questions, when the leader of the opposition and other notable political figures pose questions to the PM with the overt goal of taking apart his policy decisions and exposing them as wrong-headed, weak and generally railroading the nation towards a path of destruction. It’s an incredibly useful tool for continuing to scrutinize the government’s decisions.

Have a look at this one from January of this year in which the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, accuses the prime minister of complacency over the economy:

Note they have to shout to be heard and there is a joy about the robust exchange of ideas and in part, invective, so long as that invective is aimed in the direction of a policy or terrible decision of some kind that affects the public in a pretty awful way.

Compared to Miliband and Cameron on an average day, Biden was a pussycat. In the context of American political debate, he wasn’t. In the context of American political debate, he was more of a fire breathing dragon, but his style certainly wasn’t “mean”, “rude” or uncalled for.

When I watched David Dimbleby, the great national treasure and BBC presenter, hosting John Bolton on his coverage of the 2008 election, they switched briefly to a reporter doing some vox pop at one state’s Republican HQ. The reporter had managed to rile up one of the Republicans in charge and when they flashed back to the studio, we were presented with Bolton in great state of umbrage over the way the impromptu interview had been conducted saying the Beeb’s reporter should be ashamed of himself, to which Dimbleby, very dryly replied, “It was a spirited interview,” which succinctly shut Bolton up, thankfully.

It strikes me that Biden had more to say, as is borne out with an actual examination of the words of the debate and it strikes me that the debate was an entertaining, “spirited” exchange of ideas. I just don’t think Paul Ryan had the spirit.

Salt: Raising the Espresso Bar for Tourists in Covent Garden

Shopfront for Salt in Covent Garden

Refreshingly non-corporate coffee in the West End

Before I moved to London, natives told me that no real Londoner spends time in Central London. “Oh it’s for tourists,” they would insist. I could not see how that was possible. After all, Johnson’s adage is true: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” The humming hub of central London, The West End,  is teeming with life and buzz and character. We spent many a weekend for what seemed like the first few years of our existence in the capital exploring vintage stores and vegetarian restaurants, cocktail bars and coffee shops that secreted cool.

But hey, you discover a beautiful area like Hackney, you buy a nice place, decorate it with reclaimed, exposed brick, distressed g plan and suddenly you’ve carved a corner of this city for yourself outside of which you rarely have to roam.  You think, is there really any point in squeezing, sardine-like, onto the tube to meander around streets immersing oneself in the ubiquitous commercial glitz of the chain store on the Great British High Street, only to compress your body mass once again, bracing yourself for the depths of the Central Line on the way home?

The Missus and I braved it anyway on Tuesday, gluttons for punishment that we are. I had the day off for the Jewish holiday of Shmini Atzeret and we seemed to find ourselves in possession of that rarest of commodities: free time.

The front counter of Salt

Salt on Great Queen Street

So head into the West End we did and surprise surprise, I would rate the journey as okay to moderately pleasant, walking around W1 and environs therein reminded me more of a flaneuristic stroll than a claustrophobic squeeze and most joyously surprising of all was that as we were walking back towards Holborn, hankering for a cup of joe and eager to avoid the blandness of Costa and the burnt yet saccharine putridity of a beverage from a Seattle based chain that will remain unnamed, we stumbled upon Salt (pictured above), a lovely little place and a rare find in touristy central London. Salt is stylishly designed, has a great menu, and a lovely and welcoming atmosphere. It feels much more contemporary East End/Hackney than West End/Covent Garden partly because of the choices made in arranging the sleek and aesthetically pleasing interior and partly because of their choice of coffee — the eminently delectable Square Mile Roasters based in (where else?) the East End, bohemian Bethnal Green to be precise. Employees were cordial and the coffee was smooth, subtle and well crafted as is in evidence below. Tables were high, oblong and affixed to corners and walls, enjoyed atop chic stools from East London Furniture with lattes and flatties served in charmingly mismatched china and glasses.

Creamy and Beautiful

Creamy and Beautiful, made by expert baristas at Salt

Big deal. It’s a coffee shop. Doppio a dozen. Why am I so impressed? I’m impressed because you rarely find an enticing independent establishment that’s able to peep out from below brash and bulky elbows of the crowded together conglomerations of corporate cappuccino-serving  froth factories in the center of this grand metropolis. Generally speaking, the options for tourists (Yanks and otherwise) range from Nero (bland) to Pret (organic bland) to the aforementioned Seattle-based chain (a taste of home bland) with not much in between. In the East End, you find that enterprising, libertarian spirit from Roman Road Market clear across to Murder Mile, but giving tourists in the ole Covent Garden a taste of high quality espresso for moderately low prices? This place gets kudos for bravery, ambiance, and caliber of product.

Salt front counter

Range of delicious sandwiches from Salt

So, visiting compatriots, when you are around the market or The Actors Church or The Transport Museum and you want a delicious lunch at a decent price followed by elation-inducing double espresso, this place is not more than a stone’s throw and worth making the time to find.

Flat White from Salt

Well topped flat white from Salt

Salt is located at 34 Great Queen Street, Covent Gardent WC2B 5AA open from 7.30 am – 7 pm Mon-Fri, 10 am – 7 pm Sat, closed on Sun. www.saltwc2.co.uk

Quick! Vote! A Short Guide to Voting from Abroad

Voting from abroad

(image taken from blacktokyo.com)

1986 is a monumentally important year in American history. Not because the Giants won The Superbowl for the first time or because The Mets won The World Series for the last time, though those are both significant and arguably historic near-unique events. Actually, 1986 is politically significant for granting the last group of unenfranchised Americans the right to cast their vote and have their voice heard “across the high seas of this democracy.”

In 1870, blacks were given the right to vote through the fifteenth amendment, prohibiting denial of voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In 1920, Women won their political voices with the nineteenth amendment stating: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” And in 1986, President Ronald Wilson Reagan helped to enfranchise the last political margin of American citizenry by signing into law the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, enabling those of us who are living abroad but still deeply and passionately connected to our homeland to cast our vote and help decide our next commander-in-chief.

Absentee voting has a funny sound to it, as though us expats are controlling America by proxy like some strange Castle Rackrent scenario, which is charming, romantic, and less officious than the reality of the whole process of voting from abroad. Though I was eight at the time that it was enacted and probably cared more about Dwight Gooden and Phil Simms than any dreamy notions of crossing the Atlantic, now more than ever, I hold dear my right to cast my voice into the national discourse and use what power I can to shape history. Now that my home state of Pennsylvania was one of the last to end the retrograde, Jim Crow era voter ID laws controversy (Texas actually beat us. I mean, no offence Texas, but where was The City of Brotherly Love there? Where was Warhol’s working class Pittsburgh, huh?) we can get down to the business of doing just that.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or none of the above, you know from recent history that every vote counts and that it can come down to several hundred or indeed, a count from overseas votes. For many states, there is still plenty of time for you to cast yours. Here’s how.

1. Go to the very useful and informative website Votefromabroad.org.

Homescreen for Votefromabroad.org

2. Follow their very easy step-by-step process to request a ballot.

Requesting a ballot through Votefromabroad

3. Print out your ballot request form at the end.

Download your forms

Ballot Request Printout

All Set to Vote!

4. Mail your ballot request into your local municipality and wait for your ballot, which you also have to send in for it to count. You can’t just enjoy the fun of counting all the presidential candidates we never hear about (N.B. this post will be updated. It really is a lot of fun) without standing up to be counted.

sending an absentee vote off

Democracy in Action! (image taken from about.com)

5. And that’s it. Democracy in action. The long arm of liberty reaching across the Atlantic or the Pacific or from parts unknown to cast a lot in that great and wonderful collection of voices we call America. It’s our right and responsibility. Vote.

For information on various states’ deadlines as far as ballot request and reception are concerned click here. For other information and resources, go to the Democrats Abroad website here. In the spirit of equal time, Republicans please click here.

Happy Voting!

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