Washington mourns Nelson Mandela

The Stars and Stripes at half-mast over the White HouseThe outpouring of respect, admiration, and affection for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, D.C., since his death on December 5, has been phenomenal. It would be hard to match—apart from in South Africa itself—the reverence and passion felt for Mandela by the residents of this city. After his many visits to the city, Washingtonians responded to Mandela’s passing as if he were a true native son.

The degree of goodwill toward South Africa—as personified by the inimitable and inspirational Mandela—moved me this past week. There are many Americans who care greatly about South Africa and genuinely want it to succeed.

Appreciation of Madiba’s life accomplishments is especially heartfelt in the large African American community and diaspora of Africans from across the continent, both immigrants and diplomats. Resonance between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights and that of black South Africans is self-evident. The local African American community played a critical role in stoking opposition to the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Nationalist government. Their campaign of seeking arrest at the South African Embassy here in the mid-1980s is well recognized as having been pivotal. Until Barack Obama’s election to the White House, their finest hour was their success in strategizing to oppose U.S. political and economic backing of apartheid South Africa and support growing worldwide disgust at the white minority government’s oppression of the black majority.

Official Washington responded quickly to the news of Madiba’s passing. Within half an hour of South African President Jacob Zuma announcing Mandela’s death, U.S. President Obama delivered stirring comments on Mandela from the White House press briefing room. He also declared, in a rare honour for a foreigner, that flags outside federal buildings would be flown at half-mast for a week out of respect for Mandela.

The top-heavy U.S. delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto last Tuesday says everything about U.S. regard for Mandela. It is unprecedented that four current and former U.S. presidents (and perhaps a fifth prospective one?) would travel to the memorial service of a former head of state.

President Obama’s speech at the Soweto memorial was unquestionably the rousing center point of the memorial—it was the eulogy of the day. And thank goodness for it. Without it, the speeches would have been rather ho-hum. Obama recognized that it “took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but also a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts”. He noted, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The pity is that the thoughtful content President Obama offered was overshadowed by the non-controversy of his quick handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, the stupid reaction to the “selfie” photograph and seat change, and the extremely disconcerting problem of the incompetent, violence-prone signer standing feet away from some of the world’s most important people during the ceremony.

The U.S. national memorial service for Mandela was held in the Washington National Cathedral on December 11, the day after the Soweto memorial service. It was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the chaotic, carnival-like—yet also deliciously revelatory—Soweto service. It was purposeful, reflective, impassioned yet solemn. Unlike the Soweto memorial or yesterday’s dignified Qunu burial, both of which took place with the world’s full attention, this service appears to have received little publicity. Which is a shame, because it was outstanding. I urge readers to watch videos of the proceedings.

The main speeches were very thoughtful. Vice President Joe Biden spoke first, followed later by Andrew Young, Allan Boesak, and finally South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool. The last three speeches were essentially powerful “calls to action”. Young admonished mourners that “we have nothing yet to celebrate” as “the hungry can’t eat hope, they can’t drink inspiration … we have to keep on keeping on”. Boesak too reiterated that, in the words of Rev. James Moore’s gospel song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done”. In a singularly eloquent and well-crafted speech, Rasool acknowledged, “Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance…[and] he always understood that progress only comes from working together.” Rasool ended his comments by noting that “Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him and been touched by him and moved by him must continue the long walk”.

There is nothing more ”establishment” or respectable in Washington than a memorial service in your honour at the National Cathedral. I marveled at the irony and majesty of the profound service for the formerly marginalized “terrorist” whose name was too recently removed from the list forbidding entry into the United States. What a long, improbable and incredibly inspiring walk Nelson Mandela undertook.

The South African Embassy in Washington was the locus for daily gatherings of mourners. Many placed flowers by the embassy’s newly unveiled statute of Mandela and signed condolence books. There were also nightly prayer vigils with robust singing and dancing.

There were some grumblings of discontent at the attention showered on Mandela. Some questioned the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, asking why this was ordered for a foreigner. “Were U.S. presidents similarly honoured in foreign countries?” It was also fascinating to learn how conservative supporters of Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized them for offering praise of Mandela. This underscores how much work remains to be done in furthering racial reconciliation and understanding—not only in South Africa, but in the United States too.

Flowers from admirers

Advertisements

N.I.M.B.Y.

Communities in Fairfax County have earned the “Not In My Back Yard” label. A county proposal to facilitate—through rezoning or a special exception process—the building of residential studio housing for low-income earners in nearly all types of zoning in the county has elicited controversy. That low-density suburban residential areas are included in the proposed zoning ordinance is the source of much of the contention.

The goal of the zoning change is enabling construction of buildings of studio or efficiency apartments only for rent by those with low incomes. It is an attempt to address the long-term countywide need to “enable a pool of mixed labour” against a scarcity of affordable housing for low-income people.

The root of the problem is that commercial developers have erected little housing for lower-income groups in the county. Fairfax County, it should be noted, has the second highest median household income of any local U.S. jurisdiction, after its neighbor Loudoun County. So this county initiative is an attempt to fill a perceived gap in the housing pool, one that the market hasn’t provided. Seven different lots around the county are currently being suggested as possible locations for such housing.

At least 80 percent of the units in such buildings are envisaged to be rent-controlled. The target market would be folk earning less than 60 percent of area median income, namely less than around $45,000 per annum for a single-person household. The other 20 percent could be for higher income levels and the rent would not be controlled. The aim is to attract lower-income earners such as nurses, first-year teachers, and non-teaching staff at local schools such as cafeteria workers. Targeted tenants are also those “just starting out”, like recent college graduates.

Such housing could potentially also be a stepping stone for those presently homeless. This type of single-room housing, coupled with support services like job counseling and substance abuse or mental health treatment, has been shown to help the homeless transition into durable living arrangements.

The zoning amendment permits up to 75 units per lot, while individual units can be no larger than 500 square feet. Although intended for single occupancy, each unit could accommodate up to three people, including two children. Each unit has to include a kitchen and a bathroom, and be allocated at least one parking bay. One washer and dryer has to be available per ten units—if these amenities are not included in the individual units. Additionally, there has to be either a resident or on-site manager, or off-site management that the county’s Board of Supervisors approved.

The owner of property where such a building is being considered for construction would have to appear in public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to have a special exception granted to current zoning. In this process, consideration would be given to: compatibility with the neighbouring area, as well as location by a major thoroughfare to ensure the likely availability of public transport options. Adding yet other criteria for consideration, such as pedestrian access to shopping and other services, is still under discussion. Also still being debated is whether or not to allow the conversion of single-family homes into apartments, and the effect of such a decision on illegal boarding houses.

In recent weeks, I have attended two public meetings on the residential studio issue: the McLean Community Association hosted the first; the second was a Fairfax County Planning Commission hearing on the proposed amendment. I learnt much at both meetings and came away with some strong impressions.

The vocal and noisy majority of attendees at both gatherings were firm opponents of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment to encourage construction of low-income housing.

There is merit to homeowners’ unhappiness that this type of housing is being contemplated for low-density, single-family-home residential neighbourhoods. Typically, exceptions to present zoning limits in such neighbourhoods are granted for entities benefitting the general community, such as petrol or “gas” stations, churches, preschools, assisted living facilities, and so on. Supervisor John Foust, who was sitting in the audience at the first meeting, agreed that residential studio units made more sense in higher-density areas, saying, “this is a good product in the right zoning category, but I don’t think it’s the right product for low-density residential”.

The other worthy point is that no market research or feasibility studies have been conducted to test the county’s vision—apart from a George Mason University study published in 2006 at the height of the housing bubble and before the 2008 crash in the housing market. Would, for example, young professionals “starting out” even be interested in such studio accommodation? Might there not be more interest in one-bedroom apartments? Also, how would young professionals feel about living in buildings with many lower-income tenants, including formerly homeless individuals? All of these questions should be researched. The county is perhaps trying to target too many different types of tenants with one product. And, however well intentioned, it is not clear that there is market demand for this type of housing.

But these aspects seemed to be only a small part of the public’s negative reaction to the potential zoning change. There appeared to be an overall perception of buildings with such units and tenants leading to reduced property prices and a diminished quality of life for those currently living in areas where they might be located. Concerns were raised about the impact on already overcrowded schools and already acute traffic congestion; the perceived lack of enforcement of present occupancy restrictions; and fear of spikes in vandalism, crime, and general lawlessness around such multi-family, low-income dwellings. At the second gathering, a former owner of buildings in the District of Columbia, spoke—to loud applause—about the “negative synergy” that develops around buildings with a “preponderance of low-income people”.

A courageous woman stood up to address all near the meeting’s conclusion, knowing her opinion was in the minority. She was appalled at the tenor of people’s comments. She warned, very emotionally, about the slippery slope shown by history of thinking about fellow humans as being the “other”. It is hard to disagree with her heartfelt statement, but most present apparently did.

Local government still works

community awareness effortAmericans’ present despair and disgust with the federal government does not extend to local government. Opinion polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center underscore that Americans consistently view local government more positively than the federal government. In a hierarchy of favourability, local government comes out on top, followed by state government, with the federal government coming last—and less than half as popular as both local and state government.

Local government is better regarded because it truly responds to people’s needs. Local representatives are close to the people they serve; indeed, they live among them. Local officials are pragmatic and flexible; they focus on “getting things done” rather than ideological purity. They also have to provide the desired services within budget—unlike their federal counterparts—so they are seen as better guardians of people’s money.

Local government is government “for the people, by the people, of the people”. The local governing process can be influenced very directly by community activism, with committed people in the community really able to impact an outcome. Countering and even overriding “legal capture” by vested and special interests is possible in the local realm. No wonder local government is regarded more positively.

Two current campaigns in our area illustrate key aspects of local government’s openness to those it serves. The lack of pavements or “sidewalks” along some key arterial roads in our neighbourhood is dangerous for pedestrians. Fairfax County is receptive to concerns about pedestrian safety, and has added requests for sidewalks on these busy roads to the long list of presently unfunded transportation projects in the county. This list is available on the Internet. Very transparently, the county asks for community input to help prioritize the desired tasks. There is now a concerted neighbourhood effort to have stakeholders fill in the online survey to help escalate the prioritization of providing these long-coveted sidewalks. There will also be public meetings to discuss county priorities, with members of the public encouraged to attend to offer their viewpoints. Of course, the activists in our community are urging as many as possible to participate in these meetings. Many living along the two busy streets have also placed signs on their lawns to draw attention to the campaign.

The other initiative being pushed locally is a perennial issue in Fairfax County Public Schools. This is the campaign for later high school start times. Nearby Arlington and Loudoun Counties have already made the shift, while Montgomery County across the Potomac River in Maryland is also considering the adjustment.

Pushing the present FCPS high school start time of 7:20 a.m. to after 8 a.m. is the goal. The research is quite clear on the benefits of later school starting times for teenagers, given their natural circadian or biologically driven body-clock rhythms. The apparent benefits of more morning sleep and less sleep deprivation include increased academic achievement, improved performance in tests (especially in those held at the start of the school day), better school attendance, improved punctuality in arriving at school, reduced drop out rates, fewer car accidents, less reported depression, fewer health center visits, and less daytime sleepiness in class. Research seems to suggest that bed times do not shift to later if school start times are pushed back (one could be cynical about this finding, knowing teenagers’ approach to bedtime…). It is suggested that sleep appears to increase by the amount that school start time is delayed.

Resistance to implementing later high school start times is mainly due to the impact on bus transport to and from school. These transportation costs are why the change has not been made previously, despite attempts to do so. Presently, the same buses are used for at least three shifts: to transport high school, then middle school, and lastly elementary school children to their respective schools. Adjusting high school start times might mean modifying all schools’ start times (this is the approach Montgomery County’s superintendent recommends), particularly if the same number of buses and drivers are to be used. Other school districts have accomplished later high school start times by “flipping” the sequence of pick up, with elementary school children, for example, being switched to the earliest shift. Yet dislike of little children waiting in the morning dark for buses is apparently why rare school districts revert to earlier high school start times if they switched. Increased transportation costs—for more buses and drivers—appear to be the biggest impediments to changing school start times, especially in this era of reduced budgets.

Other constraints include leaving enough time for extracurricular athletic activities, especially considering after-hours use of school facilities by community groups; after-school employment of students; childcare of younger siblings; overall adjustments in family schedules; and the impact on commuting traffic.

Giving families time to prepare for such profound schedule changes is key. Providing details about the possible changes is essential, with information meetings being one important and necessary tool. Earlier this year, a meeting was held at the local high school and, more recently, at a community center for members of the public. The speaker at both events was Dr. Judith Owens of the Children’s National Medical Center Division of Sleep Medicine. The FCPS School Board has commissioned the Children’s National Medical Center to submit recommendations on how the board could start high schools after 8 a.m. Many of the earlier comments here are based on my notes from these two meetings. The latter meeting was well attended by local luminaries, including the district supervisor, our local school board member, plus one of the candidates running for the state House of Delegates. I was impressed that they all attended. Clearly, they wanted to hear the presentation and gauge community reactions to it.

SLEEP in Fairfax (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal) is a committed group of volunteers who have been working since 2004 for later FCPS high school start times. One has to admire their fortitude and perseverance. The momentum now somehow suggests that, this time round, their hard work toward this long-sought goal will have the desired outcome.

Local activists have an encouraging track record. A success in 2011, for example, was the extension of kindergarten to full day from half day in the last FCPS schools that didn’t yet have it.

So if you want to make a difference in your community, try influencing local government. Your odds are better here than at the federal level.

Madiba wows Washington

Fully unveiled at lastA new statue of Nelson Mandela dazzled, charmed, and empowered all gathered outside the South African embassy in Washington this past overcast Saturday. Especially endearing to those present was the uncovering—thanks to wind gusts—of Mandela’s characteristic raised fist ahead of the statue’s official unveiling. Speaker after speaker remarked on how “only Nelson Mandela would unveil himself”. He was certainly that kind of leader. He saw the path forward before others did, and then brought them along.

The premature exposure of Mandela’s defiant fist was perfect for an occasion rich in symbolism. South African Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool gave the speech of the day. He delivered a rousing tribute to Mandela and an impassioned, mesmerizing exposition of how morality trumps legality. “What is legal,” he reminded, “is not always moral”. He welcomed the nearly completed renovation of the embassy. He delighted in its spiritual cleansing and purifying. From being a place in which the heinous had been defended, the embassy was now a place of promise, where the new could be combined with the best of the old. The statue of Mandela out in front underscored this fresh beginning for the embassy.

Peek-a-boo
The tribute from Zindzi Mandela, the youngest Mandela daughter, was poignant. Most Americans remember her as a feisty 25-year-old who read a letter from her still-imprisoned father to a huge rally in Soweto in 1985. She famously read, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” She was frank at Saturday’s event too. She shared how inaccurate and hurtful much media speculation was about her 95-year-old father’s health and how he would meet His Maker in due course. She stressed that he had always seen and conducted himself as part of a collective, as a member of the African National Congress, and never as an individual. Even in divorcing her mother, Zindzi noted, her father had done this as part of a collective.

Being part of a community or collective was a constant theme. American speakers at the event included luminaries from the protests organized outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. There were many references to these Washington demonstrations and the accompanying frequent arrests, as well as to the divestment and disinvestment campaigns. In these efforts, U.S. pension funds were pressured to divest the stock of U.S. and foreign corporations invested in South Africa; such companies were also pressured to disinvest from South Africa. These collaborative efforts were critical. Together, they helped force a reluctant Reagan administration to adopt sanctions against South Africa. Such economic and other pressures contributed to the Nationalist government’s increasing isolation and to a general sense of crisis. Eventually, the unconditional release of political prisoners like Mandela and negotiations between the Nationalist government and the ANC brought freedom and democracy to all South Africans.

Contributors from the podium spoke often about the essential connection between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights in the United States and their support for black South Africans in their struggle. Many noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. One speaker referenced the triangle that was now formed by the statues of King on the National Mall, Mahatma Gandhi nearby at the Indian embassy, and Mandela. These three are global icons in the push for equality and social justice in diverse societies around the world.

Listening to the American activists sharing recollections of their participation in the Free South Africa Movement was also a little jarring for this South African. Sometimes I found the commentary a little myopic and ahistorical. Yes, activism in the United States helped dramatically to change the global position of the Nationalist government and contributed profoundly to its demise. But somehow—apart from the obvious stress on Mandela’s role—the contributions of ordinary black South Africans in defying the government, making its laws unworkable, increasing the costs of enforcement, and generally opposing the unjust system that dictated their lives were understated at the event. The anti-apartheid movement was far more than American elites protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington and its consulates around the United States.

The day was replete with many wonderful moments. Keynote speaker South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, broke into a struggle song about Mandela before delivering her comments. How many foreign ministers would sing an impromptu solo like that! The mood in the gathered audience (at least where I was sitting) was relaxed and happy, with many introductions and reunions taking place. The clothing of many is also worthy of comment. Gorgeous colourful beads and fabrics abounded. I also enjoyed watching a D.C. policewoman snapping photos of the activities on her cell phone in between her official duty of directing traffic. It was that kind of a joyful day! And it was a most positive affirmation of South African-U.S. bilateral relations.

Even the rain—always a blessing in Africa—waited for the ceremony’s conclusion before bringing relief to parched Washington.

Shrouded in mystery

Far beyond the Beltway

Americans are consistently concerned about their elected representatives becoming too Washington-centric. The bubble of Washington’s self-important political culture is alluring.

Leaving Washington and considering it from other vantages is always revealing. Whether viewing it from elsewhere in the United States, or from another country—as I am now, from Cape Town, South Africa—one always has a different perspective on Washington than when in it.

Washington, D.C., is a self evidently important global focal point. There are many cities in the world where momentous decisions are made that profoundly impact others, especially those living outside that city’s perimeters and indeed beyond that country’s borders. Washington and Beijing are arguably the two most powerful cities in the world at present, with the impact and influence of decisions made in these cities and then implemented beyond them being breathtaking.

On this visit to South Africa, I am mostly struck by how esoteric and inward-looking much of what is happening in Washington appears when one is well beyond “the Beltway”, the famous highway that encircles Washington. Certainly, these impressions occur too when in Washington itself. Indeed, one can then be consumed with dismay and frustration at the small-minded posturing and pettiness of much so-called debate there nowadays. As I sit in Cape Town, I am taken by the extent of the seeming triviality and purposelessness of so much of the political machinations in Washington. The antics and contortions of politicians there suggest they have lost the big picture. Their inability to address the U.S.’s challenges of the day has greatly damaged perceptions of the United States.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa is one prism through which to view perceptions of the United States. I have intentionally asked as many local people as possible about how they viewed the president’s visit. Reactions ranged from great enthusiasm and appreciation to utter indifference and dismissal. There were of course also boisterous demonstrations against Obama’s presence from local Moslems appalled at targeted drone killings, as well as by those supporting the Palestinian cause and protesting U.S. bias toward Israel in the Middle East.

A key factor on President Obama’s visit to South Africa was the hospitalization in Pretoria of an elderly Nelson Mandela. Concern over Mandela’s health pervaded Obama’s visit. Obama recognized people’s distracted attention by mentioning Mandela at every opportunity throughout his visit and acknowledging Mandela’s profound influence on himself. Most importantly, Obama gained enormous goodwill and personal credit by backing away from possibly seeing the ailing Mandela, instead meeting privately with family members. South Africans approved wholeheartedly of this sensitivity by Obama.

Many to whom I have spoken were glad President Obama had taken the trouble to come. For those following the visit more closely, Obama’s public speeches at the University of Johannesburg ‘s Soweto branch and the next day at the University of Cape Town were well received, more notably the latter as it was less choreographed and so perceived as more sincere.

The UCT speech was noted for its focus on aspirations, ideas, and values. Obama remarked on the impossibility of predicting what was happening at that very moment—America’s first black president addressing a fully integrated audience at a South African university that had awarded an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela. Obama’s comments on the pernicious impact of corruption were particularly popular, reflecting South Africans’ dismay at increasing local corruption. His observation that government should serve its people rather than itself seemed to garner even more applause than when Obama greeted the crowd with South African salutations, including the ubiquitous “howzit”.

A Johannesburg-based friend shared an anecdote about a taxi driver she encountered who had journeyed to Soweto specifically to line the route the president’s motorcade would travel to his UJ Soweto speech. The driver was apparently enthralled by the experience. Other Johannesburg friends who were caught up in traffic snarl-ups related to the Obama visit remarked negatively on all the hardware that goes along with a presidential trip, with the word “circus” being used a few times.

While people overall appreciated that Obama, the first black American president, had come to South Africa, and recognized him as a “good guy”, others said “so what?” Many preferred instead to speak about their opposition to U.S. policies. They spoke of their dislike of U.S. surveillance methods and U.S. policies in the Middle East and the Pakistan/Afghanistan region. Others commented on the irony of Obama being so moved upon visiting Robben Island, where Mandela and other leaders from the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned for many years, while detainees from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Obama coming to South Africa and making a couple of solid speeches certainly didn’t change the latent anti-Americanism of many South Africans. They need more than a once-in-a-blue-moon presidential visit to be convinced that the United States wants to engage seriously in Africa—and is not ceding Africa to the Chinese and Brazilians. For the United States to be more of a player here than it is, South Africans need to feel and see more commitment.

Personally, I do feel that the United States does not get the credit it should for its incredibly generous HIV/AIDS work here. Many hundreds of thousands of South Africans are alive today because of the U.S. PEPFAR Program, which began its life-sustaining donations of anti-retrovirals under President George W. Bush.

While Washington’s political sway might be diminishing in Africa, the pervasive impact of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry is amazing. The amusing, loveable minions from “Despicable Me” have, for example, achieved much attention in South Africa—wider than hapless American politicians? Reflecting clever marketing too, the minions appear in unexpected contexts here.

Is the soft power of American culture perhaps more powerful than the well-articulated thoughts of a visiting American president?

Mind the gap

IMG_0377

The unifying lustre of U.S. Independence Day celebrations was short lived this year. After a long weekend of flag flying, naturalization ceremonies, patriotic parades, home-grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, and fantastical firework shows, it was quickly back to the new normal of short-term thinking, special-interest legislating, and deadlock politics in the Nation’s Capital. And yet, after a fortnight of brutal political mudwrestling, there are now faint glimmers this week of a possible new modus operandi, at least in the U.S. Senate.

The most flagrant down grade was reserved for the meekest in U.S. society—those dependent on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. One in five Americans relies, in some way, on government food aid, such as food stamps or free or reduced school lunches; half of those who receive food aid are young people. These figures are stark reminders of how precarious life is for many in this wealthy but socially very unequal country.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that provides substantial subsidies to agribusiness. To placate conservatives, the bill was stripped of its customary simultaneous provision of billions of dollars to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Republicans say that food stamp funding will be taken up later, in subsequent legislation. But the fact remains that conservatives are fixated on addressing the spike in the size in the food stamp program. Reflecting the devastating impact of the 2008 recession, the percentage of the population using food stamps has apparently risen from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most current data. Conservatives want to reduce this heightened dependence on government; they feel that private, perhaps church-based, organisations should rather be meeting such needs.

The food stamp exclusion came on the heels of Congressional Republicans choosing not to extend government-subsidized interest rates on student loans, thereby letting rates double. Their preference is instead for rates to reflect the market. While bipartisan efforts to produce a way forward are underway in the Senate, the uncertainty has been most debilitating for those loan-dependent students trying to plan for the imminent academic year.

The prospects for long-needed immigration reform also nosedived after Independence Day. House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t place a Senate-passed bill on comprehensive immigration reform before the U.S. House of Representatives as it lacked support from a majority of Republican House members. Instead, House Republicans expect to address immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion. They plan to pass aspects of the Senate bill they endorse—such as strengthening border security, permitting more visas for high-skill immigrants, and possibly providing a solution for “Dreamers”, young people brought to the United States illegally as children who now identify exclusively as Americans. And they will likely ignore the part of the Senate bill that is anathema to them but nonnegotiable for Democrats—the “path to citizenship”, whereby 11 million illegal residents can qualify in a long, expensive, and time-consuming process to become full-fledged American citizens. Addressing immigration reform in this bite-sized way will, in all likelihood, kill the initiative for yet another cycle. And some say that is conservatives’ real goal: to deny President Obama legislative success in yet another arena that has defied reform despite successive attempts over the last decades.Happy birthday America!

The noted Congressional actions reveal a conservative strategy that is narrow, cynical, and ideological. In their purist zeal to limit the size of government, lower taxes for Americans, and reduce the budget deficit, House Republicans are hurting those in U.S. society who most depend on government. It is hard too to avoid noticing that the groups being treated so dismissively by these recent actions formed the core of the national majority that elected and then reelected Barack Obama as president: Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and (unmarried) women.

Given the reality of demographic trends, it is especially surprising that House Republicans are willing to follow a politically ruinous strategy by not addressing their “Hispanic vote problem” through all-encompassing immigration reform. Their argument that they need to ensure better turnout of their key constituency—the white working class—while also trying to attract those more inclined to vote Democratic is short sighted. This will resign the Republican Party to having voting strength in particular states, counties, and cities, but being unable to compete for national tickets. Losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections has apparently not yet hammered home the message. The recent narrowly focused actions of House Republicans will only further marginalize their party.

The disconnection between more moderate leaders of the Republican Party and zealous U.S. House of Representatives’ members should be noted. Mainstream Republicans, like many in the business community, endorse immigration reform, including the “path to citizenship”. Even former President George W. Bush came out forcefully in public recently in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

The most encouraging news of the week was the breakthrough deal in the U.S. Senate whereby seven of President Obama’s long-delayed nominations to senior positions in the executive branch will be confirmed, although two nominees will have to be fresh choices. This positive development resulted from a strategy of brinkmanship by both Senate Democrats and Republicans over the filibuster, a much-treasured tool for the minority party in the Senate. May this sorely needed compromise portend a new style in all things congressional—or at least senatorial.

In addition to starting to confirm more agreed-upon candidates for executive office, today a bipartisan group of senators also concurred on a way forward on government-subsidized student loans. Although today’s Senate proposal will have to be reconciled with the House version, agreement now appears likely on rates marginally higher than previously but lower than the market rate. This agreement will hopefully be reached before students will need to lock in loan rates for the new academic year.

Despite 237 years of independence and freedom, American democracy is still a work in progress.

A whimsical patriot

Listserving the people

Digital communication replacing the village green is such a cliché. But our neighbourhood listserv really proves the point. This is especially so for relative newbies to the area like us.

One learns all sorts of personal details about people in the neighbourhood from our local listserv, including their names and often their addresses too. One learns, for example, who has car trouble, whose child wants to take ballet lessons, who runs a landscaping design business, who needs eldercare for a relative, and who took down a big tree and subsequently offered free firewood for weeks on end. I recognize many names from the listserv by association (“her kids are the ones still chopping away at the tree carcass in their yard, providing free wood to any who want it”), but if I were queuing behind the majority of these people at a till in a nearby supermarket, I would not know them.

Our local digital community bulletin board is a remarkable resource for all in the area. Post a query to it and you are bound to get a host of responses. Need a pediatrician? A plumber? A piano teacher who is willing to come to your home? Write to the listserv asking for ideas and at least a handful of kindly neighbours will usually answer with suggestions about the best (or worst) dentist, electrician, or roofer, you name it. Digital word of mouth is so powerful. All who live in the area are able to sign up for this treasure trove of handy information. A volunteer system administrator facilitates access through referrals.

As in all human interaction, there is unstated etiquette to the listserv. The good-natured, patient manner with which repeat appeals are typically handled amazes me. Persistent requests include recommendations for pediatricians and house- cleaning or lawn-mowing services. It is incredible how often these come up—and how responses are repeatedly yet generously offered. Only once do I remember someone writing in and pointedly suggesting the archives be searched as that subject had come up too recently. The supply of and demand for childcare services also features regularly on the listserv. Helpers looking for additional hours are often from Central or Latin American countries, or they are high school or college-age children living in the area. Additionally, there are frequent anxious appeals for child minders when arrangements with sitters fall through.

There are also explicitly stated protocols. Our system administrator is strict about the listserv remaining nonpartisan and nonpolitical. A posting last year letting folk know about a D.C. march supporting gun violence prevention resulted in an admonishment. Likewise promotion of a particular candidate in a recent school board election elicited a strong rebuke. Our area reflects the partisan fracturing of U.S. society, so it is no doubt wise to keep more divisive issues from the listserv if it is to continue playing its constructive, helpful role for all. Certainly, there are many other channels for digital partisan politicking.

Everyone can agree though that child predators casing the neighbourhood are a problem. Not long ago, the listserv was awash with descriptions of strange incidents in random locations involving an older male behaving threateningly around children and young teens. His physical attributes and those of a possible partner, as well as the vehicle he/they were driving, were widely circulated, along with pleas for extra vigilance.

Another event resulting in a series of postings recently was when a child threw a water-filled balloon at a passing car. The first post was from a person connected to the car that the balloon struck. She requested all abstain from such conduct, especially as it could be unnerving for novice or elderly drivers. The next posting on the subject was a gracious mea culpa from the parents of the balloon thrower. They expressed regret at the incident, as well as noting their negligence in providing adequate supervision of the children playing with water. Subsequent entries complemented the parents for admitting their child’s role in the incident and acknowledging their own culpability. An awkward situation was thus handled and stylishly resolved—completely digitally—in front of the whole community.

A previous “digital confession” to the community is also noteworthy. This was the incident, described in a previous blog, where a neighbor accidently locked himself out of his own home and was then “caught” breaking in. The embarrassed neighbor explained to the listserv what had happened and then apologized for the disruptions and inconvenience due to all the police activity.

The listserv really does enhance people’s ability to look out for one another. It is useful for evaluating how widespread a power outage might be during their too-frequent occurrence due to bad storms. Thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones, even during power failures, one can quickly learn their extent and coordinate calls for technical assistance. The listserv is also a tool for obtaining assessments of driving conditions during severe weather. Folk working, say, in downtown Washington can write in after a storm to ask about area road conditions.

The listserv is so much more than finding a highly recommended local orthodontist, giving away outgrown children’s toys, or flogging no-longer-needed baseball mitts. It really does foster good neighbourliness. An entry from a couple of years ago that touched me was from the desperate mother of a two month old who screamed every time he ate. The empathetic, idea-laden responses from the community were quite moving. I have no doubt that one of the reactions, or a combination of them, resolved the situation for the mother and her baby. We never heard back from her to know.

The area listserv is an incredibly effective way to help one another in the digital age. It is a microcosm of the global village.