Friday, April 30, 2010

Immigrants: Ruining America Since 1607

Maine has a reputation for not being friendly to outsiders. It turns out we could learn a thing or two from Arizona and Alabama.

Arizona, as you probably know, just passed a law saying you can be jailed if you aren't carrying your driver's license with you.

Oops, I meant to say, you can be jailed if you don't have your ID with you and you have brown skin and an accent.

Under the new law, local police are required to arrest and detain any "suspected" illegal immigrants, with the word "suspected" being defined as "you guess is as good as mine."

You can potentially avoid the arrest by producing your immigration documents or some form of state ID. Forgot it at home? Tough luck.

If a state government wanted to authorize police to arrest anyone, regardless of skin color, for not carrying ID, the libertarians and tea baggers would have a fit and fall in it, as my mother used to say.

Complicating the issue is the fact that there are plenty of people who don't want immigrants to be able to get driver's licenses in the first place.

Tim James, candidate for governor of Alabama, just released a TV ad pledging to offer driving tests in English only if he gets elected. Currently, Alabama offers the tests in a dozen different languages.

"This is Alabama," James drawls. "We speak English. Learn it."

So much for Southern Hospitality.

Have you ever tried to learn a language? It can take years to become proficient in a new tongue, especially one as inconsistent and bizarre as English. It's even worse if you're trying to learn it in a Southern accent.

I hate to point this out, Tim, but the "English" you speak in Alabama doesn't really sound like any English I'm familiar with. You sound like a race of people descended from the love child of Jeff Foxworthy and Droopy Dog. (Google it, kids)

That places many legally naturalized U.S. Citizens at a disadvantage if they haven't been here long enough to master this peculiar version of our language.

Historically speaking, many immigrants (I know your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, Tim, but for some of us, this is kind of personal) did not learn English instantly upon crossing into the United States. They gradually picked up enough to get by.

I'm probably not being very fair here. Maybe this isn't really about racism and xenophobia.

For example: Here in Maine, some of our signs have French translations. Have you noticed that the only places where we bother to translate the signs are where they point to tourist money pits like Old Orchard Beach?

You see, there are two types of foreigners: those with money, and those who need money.

If the average non-English speaker in Alabama made $85,000 a year, something tells me Tim James would be happy to let them take their driving tests in Klingon, if it suited them.

No, this is really about class. We're talking about legal American citizens who maybe haven't managed to master English instantly upon crossing the border. In Arizona they could be arrested and jailed for going for a walk without their ID or immigration papers, and in Alabama, walking might turn out to be the only transportation available to them a year or two from now.

"Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" -- as long as they look and talk like we do.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I See London, I See France, I See Human Dysfunction

Like many parents, I have the amazing ability to work myself into a complete panic over some unlikely catastrophe. When my wife and daughter go someplace without me, I imagine the grisly details of some car crash, up to the moment when I have to identify their bodies.

What parent hasn't shuddered to think what it could be like to live such a nightmare?

At the same time, I have tremendous powers of denial of what's actually going on. When I discovered a suspicious lump (you know, in one of those places where I really would not want to find any sort of lump), I managed to not think about it at all for weeks at a time.

"Meh, whatever," I'd say to myself. "Maybe they'll have to castrate me or something. I'll worry about it when the time comes."

The lump turned otu to be harmless, but I got to feeling stupid about this misappropriation of stress.

Then I realized that the entire human race is guilty of it, even highly respected world leaders.

In France, for instance, the government is about to ban veils worn by many Islamic women. The burqa, which covers wearers from head to toe when in public, remains controversial all over Western Europe because of its perceived purpose.

"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, according to the Associated Press.

How fascinating. Here in America, we deprive women of identity by having them wear too little clothing.

Feminist thinkers have long argued that the swimsuit issue, among other instances in which men are encouraged to observe and appreciate underdressed female bodies, objectifies women. We are supposed to see only a body, and not a whole human being.

So, if a woman wears too little clothing, she is a prisoner. When she wears too much, she is also a prisoner.

But who gets to decide what clothing is too little or too much?

Women must find this frustrating, particularly because they are apt to find themselves judged for much more moderate indiscretions, as well, be it a skirt that's a little too short, a shirt that's a little too tight, or earrings that are a little too big.

But men, at least those of us who are paying attention, are at a complete loss. If we notice something, we're objectifying. If we comment, we're harassing.

But if we don't notice, we're demonized for that, too (ask the woman in your life if she would like you to notice any slight changes in her hairstyle; if she does not say yes, I'll send you $100).

Apparently, we don't recognize her individuality and self-expression if we don't acknowledge and appreciate certain aspects of her appearance.

I'd like to propose a radical solution:

How about if we just work on actual problems, instead of theoretical ones?

Let's reject the notion that someone can be "cut off from social life" and "deprived of identity" based solely on wardrobe. Instead, let's funnel resources to preventing domestic abuse and violence against women across all cultures.

And, yes, there will be times when guys "objectify" women because we're focused on their looks rather than some deeper aspect of their human essence.

But everyone does this. We're superficial creatures. Accept it, recognize it for what it is, and move on.

Stop fretting about imaginary car wrecks and petty insults. Do what you can to fight those actual, real-life lumps.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Finding a Condom Sense Solution to the Education Crisis

By Chuck McKay

In Wisconsin, which is a lot like Maine in terms of the number of crazed politicians per capita, one district attorney recently wrote a "friendly warning" to health teachers that they could be prosecued for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" if they follow a new state law allowing them to teach about contraception.

"Contributing to the delinquency of a minor" carries a maximum sentence of two years to You've Seriously Got to Be Kidding Me.

According to the Associated Press, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth warned that health classes would become "a radical program that sexualizes our children as early as kindergarten. This, in turn, will lead to more child sexual assaults."

Of course! The more a child knows about sex, the more appealing they become to older individuals who may want to victimize them. Obviously, perps mainly seek out kids who are well-educated about condoms and STDs.

"Wisconsin school districts aren't required to teach sex education," notes AP writer Todd Richmond. "But the new law, which took effect March 11, lays out requirements for those that do, including teaching the benefits of abstinence, criminal penalties for having underage sex and the benefits and proper use of contraceptives."

I could write all day about how virtually every study on this topic not funded by the Bush Administration finds that abstinence-only programs don't work, but that's not important. 

Instead, think back to when you were young and zitty. Were your decisions about sex even slightly impacted by what you learned in public school?

As a teenager, I learned that condoms can prevent pregnancy about 98% of the time, when used properly. I did not learn this in health class, I learned it from a condom package.

Now, at the risk of drawing the attention of law enforcement officials here in Maine, I am about to reveal, for the benefit of young people who may be uninformed, how to use a condom:

Read the instructions inside the condom box. It's not rocket science.

Please, Mr. District Attorney, don't send me to jail for providing the exact same information that is available to everyone for free on the Internet, or for a nominal fee in the pharmaceutical department at Wal-Mart!

The fact that an elected official thinks he can score points with the public by threatening to prosecute teachers for doing what their legislature and local school boards tell them to do makes Juneau County, Wisconsin the newest addition to my list of Top Ten Places to Stay the Hell Away From.

Also on that list: any Internet message board where people are discussing Maine's education funding crisis.

Prevailing opinion on many of these forums would indicate that teachers are the problem, particularly since their bloated salaries and benefits suck up 75% of education funding.

And what do we get in return? Armies of children who can't overcome their parents' inadequacies. If public education is going to hog two percent of the federal budget (
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities), shouldn't we expect it, at the very least, to render generational poverty and other entrenched social patterns completely irrelevant? 

Why should we mind laying off teachers if they weren't doing their jobs to begin with?

Of course, if you're going employ cut teachers and expect better results, it's only fair to cut students, too. Maybe part of the problem is that there are just too many of them.

So, back to that condom thing...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Me: 1, William Shatner: 0

If you've been watching those clever commercials for, the ones with William Shatner as "The Negotiator," and you're thinking you might try to use their services to save some money on your next vacation, I have some advice for you.


Go through a local travel agent instead. I'm begging you.

I recently booked airline tickets and a rental car through Priceline, noting on their "help" page that I could get a "full refund" if I canceled within 24 hours of booking.

Being a novice traveler - the type of person for whom a "long trip" means somehow making it out of Penobscot County and back without getting lost - I assumed that "full refund" would mean I'd get all my money back.

Well, as it turned out, I did need to change my itinerary. So I called their toll-free hotline, but was told that the refund only applied to the airline tickets, not the car. The car reservation was non changeable and not refundable.

In other words, I had misread the words "full refund."  Instead, it apparently said "fool's refund."

I have since learned that all these advertised low prices come with all kinds of ridiculous strings attached, some of which Priceline and its competitors won't necessarily make obvious for you from the beginning.

In an attempt to learn more about how consumers can be tripped up if they miss something in the "fine print," I contacted Priceline's media relations department and told them I'd be writing a travel advice column, and that I needed information about its contracts with car rental companies and hotel chains.

The result? Let's just say I got much better customer service from their media relations director than from their customer service department.

Who's the Negotiator now, punk?

Speaking of giant corporations not functioning well:

Apple has just come out with a device called the iPad, bringing it just a little closer to its ultimate goal of trademarking every single word in the English language by putting a lowercase "i" in front of it.

Except this one is going to fail. Miserably.

They might as well start calling it the iFail.

On the surface, I can see the appeal of the iPad. There aren't many other ways to tell the world how important and trendy you are, for one thing.

This device is about the size of an Etch-a-Sketch, which means it will fit conveniently into your pocket if you are Paul Bunyan. What's more, it offers all the most valuable functions of a laptop or a cell phone, except the ones you actually want.

Good luck printing, typing, taking photos, making phone calls, or running more than one program at a time with your iPad.

Come to think of it, you'd be a lot better off with an Etch-a-Sketch. It's a whole lot cheaper, and at least you can bang it against the floor when you get frustrated, and it will still be good as new.

The worst thing about the iPad, though, is that it won't run Adobe Flash, which provides animation and video for roughly 75% of the world's websites. is one of them, actually, so maybe it's not so bad after all.