Deer oh deer

The surrogatesWashingtonians do not feel or behave very kindly toward the deer living in their midst. They do try to make nice with reindeer, the close cousins of deer, at this time of year. But the decorative, illuminated Christmas reindeer now offered as peace tokens in neighbourhood yards do not make up for the lack of love extended to real, wild deer most of the year.

The free-roaming sika deer of the Todaiji temple complex in Nara, Japan, are venerated in Shinto belief as “messengers of the gods”. There is, however, nothing sacred or sentimental in how most Washingtonians regard the deer so ubiquitous to these parts. White-tailed deer here are described as “scourge” or “rodents with legs”. This is a bit harsh, to my mind, since deer are certainly more thrilling to encounter than, for example, the rats often seen scurrying in urban environments anywhere in the world. Yet deer too are bearers of disease. Lyme’s disease, a debilitating illness caused by a bite from infected deer tick, is treatable, fortunately. The bulkiness of deer makes them deadly for drivers, especially those traveling fast on area roads. These collisions, of course, also always end very badly for the deer.

My family has journeyed the usual trajectory of most area residents in their feelings toward deer. It was initially quite charming to observe deer in our garden. Especially when the grazing gang included little Bambi-like family members. This pleasure faded somewhat when noticing how much foliage could disappear during visits from deer. I did not mind too much when the leaves munched were from big, settled trees or bushes. But now that I’m mutating into a novice gardener, I’m very much minding the deer.

Virginia’s hot, humid summers and its heavy clay soil present enough gardening challenge. Trying to garden with hungry, wild deer is an obstacle of a different order. I’m learning, most painfully, some of the tricks of the business: I’ve learned about breaking up mothballs and scattering the pieces generously around the base of the plant one is trying to protect. It’s not easy to remember to renew sprayed deterrents on time, so physical barriers ultimately work best. I’ve learned about plumbers’ piping, and how it can be sectioned to protect the trunks of trees. Some young male deer apparently went on a rave in our garden one night and repeatedly rubbed their antlers against numerous tree trunks (apparently to try to get rid of the velvet on the antlers), in between hearty feasting. The remedy this time was fencing with poles. But we’ll see if these trees survive winter and rebound in the spring. Unfortunately, the bark plus waxy coating was removed in some areas.

Deer like to eat bulbs, so I’ve learned that deer-resistant bulbs are essential. Actually, one needs bulbs to be squirrel resistant too since squirrels are always hungry and also rather partial to them. I have to admit to thinking that these athletic little creatures seem to get particular joy digging up bulbs in places—like a raised “deck” or stoep—where they have no competition from deer and the bulb planter naively thinks the bulbs might be “safe”…

Recently, there was an unusual request on our neighbourhood listserv, with a neighbour asking for help with a problem I hadn’t previously considered. Her children had discovered a dead deer in their garden. Northern Virginia Critter Control was unavailable for a couple of days. She had also called the county, but they would not come unless the deer was road kill. What to do? A respondent rather brilliantly suggested dragging the deer into the road!

The happiest place to see deer is when walking in the many wooded parks in Arlington and Fairfax Counties that abut the creeks feeding into the Potomac River. Discovering and enjoying these parks is one of my favourite parts to living in Washington. And the amount of wildlife one can experience is quite surprising, considering how populated the area is. I’ve seen lots of deer, tortoises, quite a few snakes, a raccoon, a coyote, and even a fox. The bird life is impressive too.

And that’s the rub of the problem. It’s we humans who have intruded on these animals’ habitats. The more construction there is, the more squeezed these animals are. No wonder they come to feed in our gardens.

Deer are rampant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Without traditional predators to keep the deer population in check, culling or hunting deer is definitely one solution. Such efforts do exist and are highly controversial. They vary from controlled urban archery to regulated public hunts using firearms. There are also hunts conducted by police sharp-shooters. Reintroducing wolves and mountain lion is another possibility, but not for solving a suburban problem.

After the storm

Until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival, neighbourhoods around here looked festive and jolly, cluttered as they were with colourful adornments. Rotund orange pumpkins and pots of chrysanthemums in the warm hues of autumn flanked front doors. Shrubs, bushes, and trees were decked in coats of gold, orange, and red foliage. There were also Halloween decorations, creative or corny, but always spooky—proving again that no one decorates outdoors like Americans. Repetitively mind-numbing political signage for the presidential and congressional elections was everywhere.

Much of it is gone now. Hurricane Sandy took care of that, and left a world somberly transformed. Nonstop rain and gusting winds stripped off many leaves, creating soggy brown-yellow mounds of unedifying mush. Many folk brought in their chrysants, Halloween decorations, and political signs to prevent Sandy blowing them about and damaging people or property. Those who didn’t take preventative measures had to pick up remnants of dreams for a “Happy Halloween” and a routine election.

People in the D.C. area are lucky. Public transport here closed down for a couple of days, but has mostly resumed. The worst many of us suffered was flooded basements, no electricity for a couple of days, cold homes, defrosting freezers, and yards littered with storm debris. There are unfortunate folk who had trees crashing down on their homes, causing major structural damage. But, relative to those further north and east in New Jersey and New York, we fared very well. It is heartbreaking to see and hear people there grieving for the dozens of loved ones lost, and thousands of homes and livelihoods destroyed. The cleanup from Sandy will be expensive, time-consuming, and require great patience and perseverance.

Everyone is, of course, fixated on Sandy’s impact on the elections. And it could be really significant. Which candidate will “benefit” from the storm and its aftermath? And what will be the effect on voters in the key battleground states of North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, never mind Pennsylvania, a blue-leaning state that, before Sandy, suddenly became in contention again for Republicans?

President Barack Obama went back to governing full time for a few days, taking a break from campaigning. The crisis has allowed him to highlight that he is the commander-in-chief, the one who leads the relief effort for those now in dire need. Given the haggling in the campaign over the role and extent of government, he was able to remind Americans how all look to government, as well as NGOs such as the Red Cross, for assistance and support in a disaster like this—even those who lambasted government during the campaign. By being effective, authoritative, and caring, Obama would also been able to create a contrast with the Republicans under President George W. Bush who mishandled the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sandy halted early voting in the mid-Atlantic states. Even though early voting has now resumed in states in Sandy’s path—such as in Maryland—reduced hours or days for voting could be significant for this year’s election, especially in crucial swing states. In the 2008 election, for example, around 30 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. This trend was likely to be heightened this year, as more states now permit early voting, and voters are more familiar with the concept. Prior to Sandy, a National Public Radio commentator estimated that about one fifth of likely voters had already cast their ballots. The campaigns of both Obama and Governor Mitt Romney were encouraging the electorate to vote early, with both campaigns wanting to “bank” as many votes as possible before November 6. With much fanfare, Obama himself voted early in his home city of Chicago, apparently the first sitting president to do so.

In addition to perhaps impacting early voting numbers, Sandy is also likely to affect turnout. This will be so when early voting resumes, and for Election Day itself. Will voters whose homes or businesses were hammered by Sandy care to vote? High turnout typically benefits Democratic Party candidates. So reduced turnout would likely hurt the Democratic ticket more. The profound consequence of diminished turnout among Democratic voters could be that Obama could lose the national popular vote in the election, even as many polls perceive him to be narrowly ahead in the state-based electoral college that determines the outcome of the election.

The halt in campaigning due to Sandy is, frankly, a relief. The negativity, pettiness, and vitriolic nature of both campaigns were becoming extremely off-putting. When the campaigns resume, I fervently hope they will do so with a new tenor. This is probably wishful thinking.

If the demeaning nature and tone of pre-Sandy campaigning was the low point, for me, of this high-stakes election, the categorical high point was the remarks both Obama and Romney delivered at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner on October 18. If you have not already done so, please watch the full comments of both presidential candidates that evening in New York City. They are riveting.

Their remarks that evening represent the best of U.S. democracy in my eyes. The dinner took place between the second and third presidential debates, at a time of heightened competition between the two men due to Obama’s weak first debate. The remarks both gentlemen delivered that night were, of course, scripted— unlikely by themselves—but the content and way in which both presented them is outstanding.

Humour is an essential part of U.S. society: No one can take them self too seriously; everyone has to be able to make jokes at their own expense. While the veneer of the comments at the Al Smith dinner was funny, the reality was that this was campaigning in a different guise, with very pointed digs being made at each other—and, most importantly, at themselves. Whatever happens on November 6, this encounter will be my best memory from the campaign of 2012.

Electioneering

The presidential campaign permeates everything at present. Even if you’re totally disinterested in politics, the campaign is hard to avoid or ignore. Certainly its ubiquity, the sheer overwhelming quantity of all its manifestations, and the negativity of much of the advertising can be a turn off. And it is such a  l-o-n-g process, even for political junkies like myself.

Part of the cacophony relates to living in Virginia, one of the key battleground and swing states—along with Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—in the race between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Obama has succinctly acknowledged Virginia’s pivotal significance: “If we win Virginia, we will win this election”. Virginia also has an extremely tight U.S. Senate race underway between former governors George Allen and Tim Kaine. The outcome of this race could impact whether the Democratic Party retains the majority in the Senate, or control shifts to the Republicans.

There are so many avenues for campaign activity now. The Internet and social media are drenched in promotion and advertising for the candidates and their platforms. Yet television as a forum still appears to trump web-based promotion. Both of the presidential candidates and their wives have appeared on countless TV programs, including daytime chat shows and late night comedy hours. When in New York last week to address the U.N. General Assembly, Obama did not participate in any traditional bilateral asides with other visiting heads of state, delegating this role to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead. Controversially though, his busy schedule did accommodate him and his wife filming a segment for “The View”, a popular daytime talk show.

The biggest television moments for the campaigns will be the three presidential debates and the sole vice-presidential debate. The first debate, which takes place tomorrow night and focuses on domestic policies, will likely attract the largest audience of the campaign, larger than for either of the two parties’ conventions.

TV in Virginia is also saturated with advertising by both campaigns and their surrogate political action committees. Back-to-back political ads have long displaced dog food, hair shampoo, and laundry detergent commercials. More interesting to me is the placement of political ads in video games. Already in 2008, the Obama campaign embedded ads in games like Need for Speed Carbon, and it is doing so again this year in Madden NFL 13, for example. National Public Radio reported yesterday that these ads apparently appear only if you are playing online games in a targeted battleground state.

Turn on the radio for a few minutes, and the odds are high you will hear a political advertisement or two. Open your mailbox, and there’s probably a pamphlet, brochure, or fundraising appeal from any of the campaigns. Lawn signs are starting to proliferate in the neighbourhood, although the “battle of the lawns” hasn’t really begun yet this far from November 6. It is fascinating to observe neighbours revealing their political colours with their choice of lawn signs. I’ve been playing a guessing game with myself, trying to anticipate who supports whom. The lawns of those living at prominent junctions are obviously especially coveted.

The “ground game” in Virginia is particularly impressive. Both campaigns have opened dozens of field offices here, and have signed up swarms of volunteers to go door to door to solicit interest, canvass support, and remind folk to vote. People from both presidential campaigns have stopped by our house to chat, check whether we are registered to vote, and of course try to glean how our household votes. Given that I’m not an American and thus of course not eligible to vote, conversations with me end quite quickly.

We’ve received phone calls from both campaigns, some being automated “robocalls”, but also a couple from “real people” who have left messages, requesting our participation. My favourite anecdote with one of these automated calls stems from late in the 2000 presidential election when we were living in Seattle. A recorded message on our answering machine one day was from Robert Redford! Redford had “called” in support of environmentalist Al Gore. I enjoyed listening to his three-minute message about saving the earth and how Gore was the man for the task. My husband teased me as it admittedly took a few days for me to delete the message. I’m wondering who may call our home this time round. George Clooney? Clint Eastwood?

Another area of contest is the car. Bumper stickers and car magnets proliferate. The “doggy wars” are particularly active on the back of people’s cars, given Romney’s noteworthy strapping of the family’s dog (in its kennel) to the top of their car one family holiday years ago. Subsequently, Obama allowed a photograph of him with Bo, the Obama family’s dog, to be taken inside the presidential limousine. Democrats are delighting in displaying “I Ride Inside” bumper stickers, a product from “DogsAgainstRomney”.

Other moments from the campaign have also already been absorbed into popular culture. An empty chair will, for example, never be the same again. And the surreptitiously made video of Romney damagingly disparaging 47 percent of the American public as people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it” has galvanized Democratic t-shirt and poster makers, and provided fodder for some of their best material.

When we look back at the 2012 campaign, I believe the disclosure of these comments from Romney will be seen as the turning point in the campaign, the moment when he lost his bid to succeed Obama. These unguarded comments revealed Romney’s true disposition, showing that he really doesn’t understand how America works, if you’ll excuse the pun, and revealing the extent of his detachment from the lives of regular Americans. This candid speech validated the caricature of Romney that relentless Democratic attack ads suggested all summer long.

The unceasing demand for exposure to the candidates in a U.S. presidential campaign creates the chance for such slip-ups, especially when candidates are trawling for money. And more character revelations may yet come. There is, after all, still over a month to go until the votes are in.

Yes, the campaign is arduous and—especially this year, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision permitting unlimited corporate donations to campaigns—an atrociously extravagant way for people to choose their government. But there is no other purposeful spectacle quite like it, anywhere in the world. Viva democracy.

Update on October 4, 2012: The spectacle isn’t over, folks! After last night’s first presidential debate, it’s once again a real race. Romney’s campaign has bounced back from the debacle over the “47 percent” remarks with him delivering a strong, impassioned debate performance. While debating solidly, President Obama seemed under-prepared. Romney was too aggressive at times, I felt, and part of Obama’s demeanour suggested to me that, after four years in the presidential bubble, he wasn’t used to being spoken to without deference. Last night was really a celebration of democracy though. Imagine South African President Jacob Zuma having to defend his government’s policies for 90 minutes in a similar forum with Helen Zille? Or China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping being exposed to 90 minutes of back-and forth with a seasoned domestic critic of China’s current economic policies?

The eating is exotic and good!

Given the wide range of popular ethnic restaurants in the greater D.C. metro area, you might think the path to Washington policy makers is through their stomachs. Enjoying the available ethnic cuisines is one of the many pleasures of living in this city.

The range and quality of eating experiences, plus the variety of cultural offerings, reflect Washington’s transformation into a sophisticated, global city from its small-town, swampy, Southern roots. The presence of so many foreigners, thanks to the diplomatic missions and international organizations based in the city, adds too to its cosmopolitan appeal and flair. Washington is not, however, on the mega-city scale of either New York or London: The 2010 census estimated the greater Washington metropolitan area to have a population of around 5 and a half million; the District of Columbia itself is just over half a million.

The diversity of restaurants and eating options in Washington really reflects the waves of immigrants who have ended up here. The archetype immigrant to the United States arrives and starts a small business. More often than not, this business is a restaurant that serves food from back home. Or it may be a supermarket specializing in items from that particular region of the world. It might also be a food truck, a “restaurant on wheels” that sells a limited selection of already prepared food, often with a clear ethnic identity.

Running a restaurant that serves native food is usually the preserve of newest immigrants. It is typically the first step on the ladder toward achieving the fabled “American dream”. And it is certainly not the last.

It is also not without contradictions. When Ethiopia suffered devastating famine and traumatic internal displacement of people in the early and mid-1980s, there was also an influx of Ethiopians to the D.C. area. Many started restaurants. I was a graduate student in Washington at that time, and I recall how dining at Ethiopian restaurants was the rage then, largely because of the cuisine’s novelty. Meanwhile people in Ethiopia were struggling to feed themselves.

The many foreign specialty supermarkets make for great browsing. All sorts of ingredients can be found, some familiar, others mysterious and obscure. Like supermarkets the world over, most American supermarkets have “international” sections where one can easily buy kitchen cupboard standards like Japanese soy sauce or Thai sweet chili sauce. The joy of the foreign delicatessens is in finding a particular ingredient that facilitates the making of a much-loved-but-rarely-eaten dish, or one that begs a cooking experiment.

Not all immigrants start off trying to create new lives for themselves and their families with a family-run restaurant, a food truck, or a specialty supermarket. In Northern Virginia, it seems that Korean and Mongolian immigrants have cornered the dry cleaning business. I am amazed at how many Africans—from Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, and Sierra Leone—are nursing assistants in area hospitals and nursing homes. The other stereotypical job for newly arrived immigrants the world over is the taxi business. Certainly, Washington has a preponderance of Ethiopian, Indian, Nigerian, and Pakistani cab drivers.

Neighbourhood enclaves of immigrants from particular countries are very fluid and can change quickly. For example, as the area east of The White House has gentrified, the restaurants and shops that comprised “Chinatown” have been pushed out to a suburb of Maryland. A strip of Vietnamese restaurants in Arlington, Northern Virginia, formerly had the informal moniker, the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. Sadly, these restaurants from the 1980s and 1990s have been displaced as rents have risen. Yet, most of the immigrants who ran those restaurants have probably graduated from running restaurants and been absorbed into American society.

And this is the key observation: The ethnic restaurant business is a multi-generation enterprise. The newest immigrants to the United States often start the restaurants. They don’t speak English and are willing to work hard for long hours for small financial reward. Yet their children, who will have worked in the family restaurant growing up, often become professionals, such as teachers, doctors, and lawyers, and fully part of mainstream American society—thereby fulfilling the “American dream”.

Absolutism in America

There is a disconnect between political elites’ stark rhetorical excesses and extremism and the practical, common sense civility with which most Americans go about their every-day lives. Only absolutist positions seem possible in today’s shrill war of words on the campaign trail. And these seem far removed from the sensible practicality of the majority of Americans.

Yes, Americans are notoriously politically polarized at present, with folk splitting into “blue” and “red” points of view and states. But these acknowledged deep partisan divides are not apparent in their daily engagement with each other. People’s typical every-day behaviour suggests civility, decency, and moderation—despite political differences and the profound economic strains under which too many are living.

Every utterance from politicians is, of course, fair game in democracies, particularly at election time and for those topping the tickets. So it should be. But the rhetoric in this year’s election season is especially vitriolic and nasty in tone, particularly this far from actual voting.

Take the current debate on whether individualism or communalism is more determining of success in America. The initial fodder for the present outburst in this longstanding dualism in Americans was President Barack Obama’s July 13 remarks in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he implied that entrepreneurial success was due, in part, to government’s role, rather than individual initiative.

Republican operatives have seized on two sentences from this speech and are milking them as much as possible in negative “attack” advertisements. Obama said: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” On their own, these two sentences are certainly provocative, but the context of these statements is necessary to understand what Obama meant:

“They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.“

In context, the comments are less incendiary and not disagreeable. No one is an island, no one lives or succeeds in a vacuum, and no one who has succeeded achieved this alone. Behind any person or company’s success lie the contributions of others, including the government. Of course individual drive, ambition, determination, and luck are needed for particular success, but this is true in any field of endeavour, not only in creating a successful business. It seems ridiculous to even expand on these truisms. But such is the absurdity and absolutism of present U.S. political discourse that even the obvious needs to be said.

This past week, again in Roanoke, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s selected vice presidential running mate, declared, “The president makes these comments that reveal his mindset…He believes in a government-centered society and a government-driven economy. And that doesn’t work. It never has worked…Look at what it’s doing to Europe.” He continued, “We have a person in Mitt Romney who knows through experience the challenge that businesses face, how job creation works, that the engine of opportunity, the nucleus of our economy is not government, but the successful small business, the entrepreneurs, the people of this country.”

An enormous sign stating, “We Did Build It!” was displayed behind Ryan as he spoke.  The local small-business owner who introduced him at the rally had earlier refused a visit from and photo opportunity with Vice President Joe Biden due to differences with the Obama campaign.

There are profound philosophical differences between the two campaigns. And these two speeches underscore longstanding, competing solutions to today’s challenges. Obama sees the public and private sectors working together as offering solutions, whereas Romney/Ryan stress the individual and the market as the sources for solutions. In Obama’s communitarian vision, the government helps “level the playing field” and helps support the vulnerable and less successful. Romney and Ryan see a diminished role for government, with greater individual responsibility and greater reliance on market mechanisms. And tax policy is the battleground. Obama recommends raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to raise government revenue, whereas Romney/Ryan want to extend the Bush tax cuts and indeed slash taxes further to reduce the size and scope of government.

This is an old fissure in American politics and society, and it represents a profound choice for Americans at this sensitive economic juncture. Economic recovery is tentative, while socio-economic inequality is growing. Both campaigns offer vastly different platforms on how to deal with well-recognized problems. We’ll learn on November 6 which vision appeals to most Americans.

 

What fencing says about you


The general lack of fences or any kind of barrier between suburban American homes is breathtaking. After living in Johannesburg, where gravity-defying tall walls with razor wire, broken glass, and electrical wiring atop are the rule, this aspect of life in American middle-class suburbia is an amazing revelation.

When fences do exist, they are usually more decorative than obstacles to passage. If present, their function is largely to delineate property lines. Fences may also provide privacy if one lives on a busy road or junction, but this is atypical. Indeed, neighbours can frown upon fences being erected. We know of someone who still resents previous neighbours of hers for putting up a fence to keep in their dogs. Instead of fences for this purpose, many use “invisible fences” that administer gentle shocks when their collar-wearing pets meander beyond a certain perimeter.

No burglar bars on windows are another joy of middle-class suburban life here. Those residing in American cities are more likely to have such essentials of Johannesburg city or suburban life (and most other South African population centers, for that matter). But such home protection measures are unusual in the middle-class suburbs here. Having an alarm system—and then using it on a regular basis—is not the suburban norm here either. I’m learning too that some do not even regularly lock up their homes when no one is present. Wow!

The gathering and releasing of crime statistics to the public is controversial in South Africa. Released figures reflect broad trends in crime categories, and are viewed skeptically as inaccurate and misleading. In contrast, the extent of detail in the notification of criminal activity here in Northern Virginia fascinates and stuns me. From one local newspaper, I learnt that a backpack was stolen from a parked car on our block last week, while two streets away, tools were taken from an open garage. The neighbourhood papers also reveal titillating details like an after-hours argument between an employer and employee at a nearby restaurant that resulted in police being summoned. Imagine details such as these, of seemingly petty incidents, making it into South African crime reports…

My personal favourite anecdote about the remarkable rarity of crime in our local area comes from the afternoon my son called from school to say that the school bus could not drive into the neighbourhood because of police activity. It turns out someone had seen a person throwing something into a basement window three houses over and had reported this to the police. Five or so police cars drove into the suburb, and a police helicopter hovered overhead, to apprehend this criminal. We learned later that the window breaker was in fact the homeowner who had locked himself out of his own home! I was totally impressed at the swift response and speechless at its overwhelming nature.

In a sad reflection of people’s desperation in the strained economy, bank robberies occur with unexpected frequency in the area. However, the robbers are typically apprehended quickly.

I should reiterate that what I’m describing here is very much an American middle-class suburban experience. Life in working-class suburbs and in cities themselves is profoundly different. The United States is hardly without crime, it has appallingly high gun ownership, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. But it also has incredible policing. U.S. police are very well trained, and they have remarkably sophisticated technology at their disposal. Life for traditional criminals must be very difficult indeed.

So middle-class Americans in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., are fortunate with low overall rates of criminal activity. Yet I find a general skittishness and nervousness about any possible untoward or unexpected occurrence. In my experience, Americans in this part of Northern Virginia show a great sensitivity and suspiciousness about irregular behaviour. I don’t know if this can be attributed to our proximity to Washington and general security consciousness in the post–9/11 world.

I had a revealing personal experience of this a while ago: My visit to a self-service petrol or “gas” station to fill the car with petrol went a little awry, and I came away having spilt a little petrol on my trousers. My next stop was the post office. I did not realize how much I smelled of petrol, so I blithely stepped into the post office and joined the queue. A hushed silence came upon the others in line, with everyone anxiously looking around them. Two women notably dashed out of the store. Another softly ventured, “Can you smell that? What is that?” Others murmured their concern. I then realized the smell emanating from the spill was the source of the problem and said loudly, “No, it’s me! I spilt some petrol on myself!” Nervous laughter broke out, with a couple of people reassuringly offering that they too had similar incidents with air bubbles when pumping petrol. Most curiously, the envelope I mailed that day never arrived at its destination. I’ve often wondered if it was sidelined because it too may have smelled suspicious.

The free-flowing nature of American society masks many issues. The lack of fences is part of the narrative of openness and the expectation of transparency in the American soul. Minimal fencing also shows the enormous respect Americans have for private property. The present tax structure strongly encourages Americans to buy homes, so those fortunate enough to own their homes greatly value them. And they very much respect others’ property too.

“S-c-h-o-o-l’s out…for…summer!”

Those iconic yellow school buses really do transport American children to and from school every day; they are not Hollywood fiction. But the buses are not currently lumbering through American communities to collect or discharge riders. The 2011–12 school year is over; the long summer vacation is underway.

The buses symbolize the fundamental principle that education should be accessible to all. Education is the great leveler in society, and access to local public school education is every American’s right. So local counties facilitate taking school-going children by bus to school each day and then bringing them home safely afterward. Lack of transport can never be the reason for children not attending school.

We live in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools maintains the largest school bus fleet of any U.S. school system, although it is the eleventh largest school district in the United States. The FCPS operating budget is $2.2 billion per annum. Over 175,000 students are enrolled in the system, giving an average annual expenditure of $12,820 per student. Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest U.S. counties, allocated an impressive 53.5% of its 2011 fiscal budget to the school system. Its well-regarded schools are the reason many are drawn to living in the county.

Yet, within the county, the quality of schools varies. The provision of transport to and from school masks the very unequal access to good community-based schools due to school boundary lines. School district boundaries determine eligibility to attend particular schools. These boundaries are not immutable, but are not easy to change or appeal. Which entity can change the boundaries varies from state to state. In Virginia, county school boards have the authority.

That old mantra for retail success—“location, location, location”—also sums up American public school education. Where one lives determines the quality of local schools. The wealthiest communities, usually in the suburbs, have the best public schools, while inner cities, some post-industrial suburban neighbourhoods, and poorer rural areas typically have the worst public schools. Put differently, property values correlate directly to the quality of local public schools. The academic achievement gap between children from high and low-income families is, unfortunately, well recognized. Although this gap is not only because higher-income children have access to better schools, it does explain much of the phenomenon.  Degree of parental involvement; family type (e.g. single or two-parent home); and access to early childhood education, extra-curricular, and other literacy-enhancing activities are some of the other explanations that typically determine individual academic achievement.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in theory receive the same education, but this ideal of equality remains elusive. Reform initiatives have sought to close the achievement gap by bringing competition, choice, and accountability into school systems. A significant change was the shift in the 1990s to include school choice. If a school was perceived as failing its students, those students could transfer to another school within the same school district, opt to attend an independently operated but tax-payer funded charter school, or receive a “voucher” to attend a private school (including faith-based schools). This resulted in an exponential growth in public charter schools, and the closing of failed neighbourhood schools.

Many aspects of the debate about closing the achievement gap and reforming the traditional American public school system resonate with this South African. The circumstances of the two countries are obviously different, yet there are huge similarities in the challenges. Discussions on turning around failing schools have particularly caught my attention, with the hopeful experience of post-Katrina New Orleans being especially instructive. The academic results of pre-Katrina New Orleans public school students on state tests were notoriously low. Test results have turned around in the last five years primarily because enrollment in charter schools has skyrocketed. In addition, decisions about schools, curriculum, hiring, and hours have been returned to parents and educators. A long-time veteran of Louisiana school reform suggests that “top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school…[can] real improvement occur.”

Local and state jurisdiction over schooling is preferred in the United States; a federal role is always controversial. Indeed, many conservatives typically deny the federal government any role in education and urge the dismantling of the Department of Education.

National solutions to the conundrum of the achievement gap have varied through the years. President Barack Obama’s approach is encapsulated in “Race to the Top”. Obama has embraced new systems of evaluation: State applications for funding are scored on criteria such as satisfying performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, promoting charter schools, and computerization. The philosophy behind President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy was also standards-based educational reform. States had to develop assessments in basic skills—especially in reading and maths—under the assumption that having measurable goals would improve outcomes by exposing achievement gaps. Student achievement has to be measured and reported annually.  Obama’s Department of Education has offered states flexibility in meeting NCLB stipulations and waived requirements too.

“A Chance for Every Child”, the school reform vision of likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pushes a voucher-heavy approach. He suggests that the parents of poor and special-education students would be able to choose a public, charter, or private school in their state, using a specified amount of public funds to cover (some of) the cost. The unclear aspect is whether such school choice would be within school district boundaries or would extend beyond. If it were the latter, this would be a truly seismic change. It would break the cycle whereby children in poorer urban schools are unable to attend better suburban schools. Romney would also return accountability to the states: He suggests that states would no longer have to meet the greatly disliked federal achievement requirements of Bush’s NCLB law.

Many American school children are now joyfully belting out Alice Cooper’s timeless ode to summer holidays. Yet the l-o-n-g summer vacation actually penalizes those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those from poorer families are less likely to have the resources to spend on stimulating, enriching activities or extension programs. For many, the ten-week-long break is instead a period of stagnation and regression, and, for some in inner cities, perhaps even danger.

Fund it, build it, get on with it

Connecting Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C.’s primary international air hub, to the city’s subway system is a goal that has, until recently, received near unanimous support. A project that was perceived as essential for the region’s economy, transportation, and functionality is now mired in partisan dithering, posturing, and shenanigans. Which all seems rather absurd when there is basic agreement on the need for the project.

The lack of a convenient mass transit link from the main international airport to downtown in a city of Washington’s undeniable national and international relevance and stature is, in truth, incredible. When Dulles Airport was constructed in the 1970s, easy passenger access to the Metro was always intentioned. Only in recent years though has the plan really gathered steam.

But now the funding for this patently necessary project has become captive to acrimonious state and local politics. The lack of bipartisanship at the federal level is mirrored at the state level, and the state of Virginia is no exception.

Virginia looms large in presidential politics. A conservative leaning state, it is one of the key “swing” states that could determine this year’s presidential race. In 2008, it voted for President Barack Obama; in 2012, the Obama campaign hopes the state will again vote his way. The southern part of the state is more rural and conservative. The northern part, encompassing Washington D.C. suburbs, is more urban, liberal, and heavily congested, with other liberal pockets around university towns such as Charlottesville and Williamsburg.

At present, Virginians have voted into place office holders who are predominantly Republican, although its two senators in Congress are both Democrats. One of these Senate seats is up for grabs this November, with two former governors likely competing for it in one of the tightest, most expensive races this election. Present Republican Governor Robert F. McDonnell was widely considered a potential vice presidential running mate for probable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. That was before he became embroiled in an off-putting conservative pander this past legislative session that tried to legislate a compulsory vaginal ultrasound procedure for those in Virginia considering an abortion. The legislation failed, even with both houses of the state legislature being Republican controlled.

Phase 2 of Dulles Rail, or extending Metro’s Silver Line from Reston, Virginia, to Dulles Airport is, in theory, to be funded with federal, state, and Fairfax and Loudoun County assistance, plus revenue from the Dulles Toll Road. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is overseeing construction of the Silver Line, including the proposed extension to Dulles. Phase 1 is expected to be finished late in 2013, while construction of Phase 2 to Dulles should ideally commence early in 2013.

The most recent brouhaha stems from a labour requirement in the general contract for Phase 2. The MWAA supports this pro-union clause, whereas the state government and the all-Republican supervisory board in Loudoun County, the county in which Dulles is located and through which the Silver Line extension would primarily pass, do not. Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, so the state feels any pro-union labour preferences would violate state laws. The state even called a special legislative session specifically to outlaw any consideration of labour agreements in the awarding of contracts. The two-year Virginia state budget was revealed recently—without the inclusion of any funding for the Silver Line.

For the second time, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the remaining Republican in Obama’s cabinet, has helped mediate between the various parties. Thanks to the Secretary’s involvement, it appears that the WMAA will possibly weaken the pro-union labour provision. This would presumably permit the state to release its promised contribution of $150 million for the project and Loudoun County to commit to supporting the project. Let’s hope this compromise really comes to pass so that bidding for Phase 2 can proceed.

Another issue that could delay the proceedings is a federal audit of the WMAA. The airports authority has been criticized for opaque decision-making, top-heavy management, and its estimates of escalated tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. A preliminary report on the audit should be available shortly. This audit will hopefully result in greater transparency, changes in WMAA’s funding formula, and better atmospherics.

Funding the Silver Line certainly shouldn’t come on the backs of those using the Dulles Toll Road. Steep tolling on a major highway—thereby forcing users onto secondary roads and worsening the traffic patterns that the tolled road was supposed to address—will sound painfully familiar to road users in Johannesburg, South Africa, who are grappling with similar, although different, issues.

Part of the pushback is from Virginians in the southern part of the state feeling they shouldn’t be subsidizing a huge transportation project in the north from which they derive no benefit. Northerners would retort that they provide most of Virginia’s tax base in the first place.

The real issue behind the new resistance to the project stems from Republicans not wanting to fall in with the broader Democratic narrative. They do not want to boost employment, foster economic growth, or create aggregate demand through building infrastructure. They do not want to help fund an investment that would have a multiplier effect on employment and growth in the region. They do not want to increase spending and provide stimulus. They do not want to support unionised labour.  They want to cut back on public spending and shrink budgets. Such is the politics of economic recovery in the state of Virginia—and the United States.

Update on June 7, 2012: The Washington Post reports that the MWAA voted to drop the pro-union provision in the Silver Line contract, thereby paving the way for Virginian Governor McDonnell to come through with the promised $150 million. Now will Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors support the project too? Stay tuned.

Update on July 3, 2012: In a 5-4 vote this morning, Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors agreed to Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Funding issues were resolved by an agreement to create special tax districts around prospective Metro stops in the county and to increase tolls on the Dulles Access Road. There is still a dream for some federal funding. But, without further delay, bids on Phase 2 can now be placed. Progress indeed.

Whither America?

The relative decline of the United States and imminent rise of China are exaggerated—if transparency and participation are the criteria for good governance. Two recent big news stories reflect core characteristics of governance in the two societies, highlighting their respective political strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s possible rejection of the Affordable Care Act, the core legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration, affirms the strengths of the contentious U.S. democratic model. Juxtaposed to this debate is the dark drama surrounding Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, formerly a contender for promotion to China’s über-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Bo was stripped of all Communist Party posts and his wife arrested in a murder investigation. This unfolding story underlines the limitations of the opaque Chinese Leninist model.

These processes are occurring at politically delicate times in both countries, with potentially profound implications for each.

The United States is, of course, caught up in the orderly tumult of presidential and congressional elections, to be held this November 6. China is gearing up for its usually carefully orchestrated transfer of power between Communist Party elites at the 18th Party Congress this October, and the allocation of government roles at the National People’s Congress next March.

The rough-and-tumble of Chinese elite politics usually takes place behind closed doors. Chinese society and the world learn the outcome of the cut-throat politicking of leadership shifts only when Chinese leaders emerge from behind the curtain at Party Congresses. Glimpses of factional politics have been seen this time due to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai being implicated in the deadly poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. If the victim of this conspiracy were a hapless Chinese businessman not a foreigner, the world would be none the wiser. However, the appearance at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu of Bo’s right-hand-man-turned-opponent, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, with documents suggesting fishy circumstances to Heywood’s death injected unwanted global interest in the case, leading to the dismissal and arrest.

The sad fact is the outside world is probably more aware of the evolving situation in China than its citizens. The Chinese government is trying hard to control debate within China about Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing, his recent purging, and its meaning for the political transition. Yet its ability to do so in the era of the Internet, social media, micro-blogging, and instant messaging is greatly complicated. China’s cyber security police are extremely busy behind its “Great Firewall”.

Meanwhile, the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court possibly throwing out President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law has garnered enormous attention within the United States and internationally. President Obama himself incurred great disapproval for initial criticism of the Court. He said it would be “…an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to reject a law that was “passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” The key critique of Obama was that a president should not comment on a case pending before the Court. The Court is duty-bound to void unconstitutional laws, and it has done so before.

Obama later stepped back from this, acknowledging, “…the Supreme Court [has] the final say on our Constitution and our laws… It’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.”

Spending a few hours outside the Supreme Court late last month when it was hearing arguments on the law was fascinating for this South African. I enjoyed listening to the cacophony of chants and calls by the equally well-represented proponents and opponents of the law. The good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides was delightful and inspiring.

The discourse included competing chants—delivered simultaneously—like: “Ho, Ho/Hey, Hey/Obamacare/Is Here to Stay” and “Hey, Hey/Ho, Ho/Obamacare/Has Got to Go”. Or it was: “We.Love.Obamacare/We.Need.Obamacare” and “The Constitution Matters/Protect the Constitution”. Songs included (sung to “This Little Light of Mine”) “This Healthcare of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine…” and (sung to “Everywhere We Go, People Wanna Know”) “Everywhere We Go/There’s a New Tax There…” It was a highly memorable, albeit noisy, way to enjoy a spring morning.

Those in other industrial democracies both marvel and recoil at the prospect of politically appointed government officials rejecting a law passed by a majority of democratically elected representatives. They are also incredulous at the very debate on whether individual healthcare insurance should be “mandated” for all American citizens, and how such a mandate could be perceived as impinging on individual freedom.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in late June. In a recent opinion poll, Americans anticipate the justices’ political views will determine their ruling on the healthcare law—rather than a neutral interpretation of the law. Republican presidents nominated the five more conservative-leaning justices on the bench, while Democratic presidents nominated the four more liberal justices. Whether or not the Court casts out the healthcare law, either entirely or partly, the crucial point is that the U.S. public will also get to render their verdict on the law. When the U.S. public votes on November 6, they will be able to endorse Obama’s policy prescriptions for the nation—including on healthcare—or they can repudiate them.

The long-suffering Chinese people won’t be given a chance to express their views on subjects as wide ranging as the merits or demerits of Bo’s “Chongqing model” of development or who should ascend to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. These subjects will not even be debated in the Chinese press.

Comparing a U.S. constitutional issue and Chinese elite factional politics—tangled with a criminal case—seems incongruous and contrived. But the two cases project core truths about the two countries and their systems of governance. The United States, with its often perplexing division of government authority and its relentless expectation of transparency, allows vigorous participation of its people. China is characterised by dead-end, impenetrable opacity in choosing who governs and how they govern; minimal accountability; and unwillingness to hear and indeed heavy-handed suppression of the views of those who are governed.

The all-too-often gridlocked system of divided government in the United States is exasperating. But don’t discount the United States. Give me “too much” transparency and “too much” democracy any day over none.

A sporting chance

Competitive inter-school sport occurs only at the high-school level in a typical American school district. This realisation took me by complete surprise when moving here twenty months ago with a teenager and a near teen. I had assumed that, like in South Africa, inter-school sports started at the elementary level and continued through high school. It turns out that local clubs nurture youth athletic talent and provide formative competitive sports opportunities in the United States, not primary and middle schools.

Americans are as fanatical about sport as any others. Presently, the American sporting world is preoccupied with “March Madness”, the annual elimination competitions of both men’s and women’s college basketball that take place in March. For both genders, “March Madness” begins with 64 teams, continues with 32, then the “Sweet Sixteen”, the “Elite Eight”, the “Final Four”, and then the championship game.

President Barack Obama’s choice of teams most likely to succeed in each “bracket” of the competition was canvassed and has been widely reported. Obama also whisked off British Prime Minister David Cameron to Ohio last week to attend a game during the latter’s official visit to the United States—and apparently taught Cameron about the game throughout.

The scale of the tournament is huge, in terms of commercial value and TV viewership. Fans’ university and regional loyalties come to the fore, with many office pools being created and wagers won and lost.

For the athletes, a successful collegiate sporting career also means an entrée to professional sports. American basketball legends such as Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan became household names through their exploits as college players before playing professionally.

A revealing aspect for me is how the women’s collegiate competition is as highly valued as the men’s. This is thanks to “Title IX”, the civil rights law President Richard Nixon signed in 1972 that forbids discriminating between genders in education if that educational institution receives direct or indirect federal aid. Although sport was not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, Title IX’s biggest impact has unquestionably been on high school and collegiate athletics for women.

Before generalising about how local clubs foster interest in sport and develop talent, I should note that physical education is offered during the school day at American elementary and middle schools, but in a very low-key way when compared to school sport in South Africa.

For sport-oriented young Americans, neighbourhood clubs try to offer different levels of competition. A “select” or “travel” league would be geared to the really talented, and these elite teams literally travel around a region to compete against each other. A “house” league would offer general participation, although “A” and “B” leagues may be differentiated. “Try outs” may also be required to generate teams of relatively balanced ability. House teams typically compete against each other in the local area. A “development” league might be offered for the beginner youngest age groups.

These clubs are all about partnerships. Local school facilities are typically used for weekday practices after school hours and weekend games. So, for example, the local basketball club, the county school district, and the PTA of my daughter’s school teamed up to cover the cost of replacing the floor of the school’s gym.

But the key way in which these clubs reflect the best of a community working together is in the fact that they are volunteer dependent. Parent volunteers typically provide most of the coaching, although high school and college students coach too. A remarkable commitment is asked of these volunteer coaches: weekly practices and weekend games for a full season. Having observed parent coaches for the sports in which my two children have participated over the last twenty months, it is very clear that most coaches greatly enjoy the experience, do a simply terrific job, and really give their heart-and-soul to guiding the children in their care. One can also observe some taking it far too seriously, with some behaving as if they were coaching a high-powered college or professional team…

In an aside, in addition to being an avid follower of the game and a keen “hoops” player himself, President Obama is also known to attend his daughters’ basketball league games and sometimes step up to coach temporarily. How he must love such moments—the joy of feeling like a “regular” suburban dad!

Participation in these clubs requires a nominal fee, to cover the cost of officiating and the team shirt. Scholarships are always offered for those who would like to participate but do not have the means to do so.

When games are played, umpires or referees are usually provided, and they are paid a token sum. The refs are usually adults, but many times they are not. Providing teenagers with the opportunity to learn how to officiate is another great role these clubs play. For some American teenagers, officiating club games might be a first job.

Certainly, there are also many opportunities for young Americans to have private and more individualised coaching in the different sports. The cost of such training keeps it the preserve of the few—those who can afford it and those who are uniquely gifted. The majority of Americans learn their sport through local clubs.