Sweet Dreams

It’s happened again, this time in the southern expat-rich Ecuador city of Cuenca.  According to the online newspaper Cuenca High Life, “Four Cuenca men were taken to a local hospital Saturday morning after friends found two of them unconscious in their historic district apartment. Police say that the men had been robbed of cash and other belongings.”

The men appeared to be the victims of some ladies who weren’t what they appeared to be.  (Or, upon reflection, probably were.)  The cause of the men’s distress was almost certainly scopolamine, the knockout drops derived from a common, weirdly attractive bush that have become the drug of choice for hustlers and much worse.



It can be a date rape drug used on unsuspecting women, but increasingly—as in this case–the criminals are women who target men in bars and private homes.

It’s a time-dishonored practice.  The general concept has a long and shady past with its roots in the saga of an Irishman named Mickey Finn, a pickpocket and thief who owned the Lone Star Saloon on South State Street at the turn of the century in Chicago. The Chicago Crime Scenes Project calls him “After Al Capone…probably the most famous criminal name in Chicago history.”

If Mickey Finn didn’t invent the method, he probably perfected it.  It wasn’t that complicated.  When he opened the saloon in 1896, he teamed up with “Gold Tooth” Mary Thornton, a woman of ill repute.  Slipping a dose of chloral hydrate in a barfly’s drink, she and other accomplices would soon haul the stuporous victim to the back, rob him, and throw him in an alley, where he would awaken the next morning with no memory of what hit him.

The authorities took a dim view of the scheme, and even though he paid protection money to the First Ward Alderman, Finn was arrested and the saloon closed in 1903.

But 15 years later, more than a hundred waiters were arrested in Chicago for the apparently widespread practice of poisoning the drinks of poor tippers.  Although it was a different chemical, it was sold at the waiters’ union headquarters as “Mickey Finn Powder.”

The legend lived on.

The expats’ plight gets more publicity, but Ecuadorians themselves are being victimized too.  There was the recent story of two young men near here, in the provincial capital of Ibarra, who struck up a conversation with two women.  It’s the last memory they had before waking up in their car the next morning, ten miles away, with their cell phones and cash stolen.

Colombia gold

Neighboring Colombia, though, has become the epicenter of weaponized scopolamine, and its street cousin burundanga, also known as Devil’s Breath, made from the borrachero shrub.  There, in addition to its use in nightclubs and bars, even more sinister characters have invented the “paseo millonario,” a charming term meaning “millionaire’s promenade.”  With the victim reduced to a zombie-like state, he is driven around (it’s almost always a man) to ATMs, obediently giving his passwords until his accounts are emptied.  His purpose served, he may or may not be killed.

A Wall Street Journal article in 1995 said, “a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance. The next the person remembers is waking up miles away, extremely groggy and with no memory of what happened. People soon discover that they have handed over jewelry, money, car keys, and sometimes have even made multiple bank withdrawals for the benefit of their assailants.”

Several years ago, in Bogotá, I was out on a Sunday morning in search of breakfast when a well-dressed man approached me.  He said he was with the secret police, showed me his card, and asked if I had a passport.  I told him I kept it in my hotel, and he offered to walk me around the corner to a place that could make a duplicate.  I quickly declined and went back into the hotel.

I don’t know whether I was in for a “paseo” or not, but the next day a military official at the US Embassy told me the Colombian secret police don’t dress like that and would never offer a card.

The scopolamine scourge, like most epidemics, lends itself to hyperbole.  It probably cannot be administered through a drug-soaked business card or pamphlet, or by being blown into a victim’s face, despite many claims to the contrary.  It is usually dumped into a drink in powder or liquid form, and alcohol would speed its effects.

Colombia has quickly become a far safer country than it was even a few years ago, especially with the FARC peace agreement in place, but it’s still not Chicago.  I wouldn’t be caught dead in Chicago.

Or, upon reflection, I might.

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How to Talk Spanish

It’s an everyday occurrence.  An American resident here speaks slowly and clearly in English to a baffled Ecuadorian.  The message isn’t getting through, so he or she repeats it—only louder.

Maybe it’s time to learn the language.  It’s easier said than done, of course.  Many adults think it’s impossible.  Most expats have probably tried it more times than they’ve quit smoking.


But when a foreigner seems truly ready to tackle the Spanish language, I often think one man holds the key.  That man is Hugo Chávez.

Sure, he’s dead and everything, but the Venezuelan strongman who singlehandedly transformed the world’s largest oil reserves into a failed state has another talent.  He can help you speak Spanish.

That’s because his very name contains a couple of the best tricks for authentic pronunciation, and I believe—based on my own experience—that a robust foray into credible diction is the fire in the belly that ignites a spark in the brain.

It makes you want to learn.

It’s why people love faking a British accent.  It’s the way Mel Blanc tackled French.  And it’s how a great teacher got me started with Spanish in junior high, even with subsequent fallow decades in my creeping linguistic education.

But back to Hugo Chávez.  When he was in the news, network TV anchors always seemed to give his name a gratuitous flair that usually came out as “HYOO-go sha-VEZZ.”  Perhaps they thought it sounded foreign and slightly exotic.  It was also wrong.  And therein lie three valuable tips.

  1. The “H” in Spanish is silent. The first name is “OO-go.” The first syllable rhymes with “POOH.”
  1. Spanish has no “sh” sound, as in “sharp.” Never. It is always a hard “ch” sound, as in “chatter.”
  1. Likewise, there is no “z” sound in Spanish. It’s pronounced like an “s.” So, by the way, is “s.” And sometimes “c.”

So, rather than “sha-VEZZ,” you get “CHA-vess.”  A sharp “ch,” an “s” sound rather than “z,” and the accent at the front.  Because the accent mark is also a trusted indicator of where the emphasized syllable goes.  (Unlike French, in which diacritical marks signal all kinds of confusing things.)

Once this little lesson is absorbed, one understands, for example, that the name José is pronounced “ho-SEH,” and not “ho-ZEH.”  Suddenly, you’re sounding like you know what you’re doing.

A brief digression.  It’s true that in classic Castilian Spanish, letters like “c” and “z” are often pronounced with a kind of lisp.  For most of the Spanish-speaking world, though, it’s an unhelpful distraction.  If you’re moving to northern Spain, feel free to look into it.  Otherwise, remember that nobody likes people who obsess over the voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative.

First, spend a little time in gratitude that it’s not English you’re condemned to learn.  The figures are necessarily imprecise, but many estimate that there are twice as many total English words as Spanish ones.  The 13 most-used Spanish verbs are irregular, but English has at least 200.

And Spanish verbs tend to be uniformly irregular.  If you learn one, you’ve learned how to handle a bunch of them.

To Be (2)

Conjugating the English verb “to be” has inspired many a student to climb the walls, and just try to explain the auxiliary verb “do” to a Spanish-speaker, as in, “Yes, I do want to strangle my teacher.”  Most languages don’t have anything like it.

The comedian Bill Dana launched his early career as a Bolivian named José Jiménez.  Born as William Szathmary in Massachusetts of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he’s less Bolivian than Mel Brooks.  But as the sort of bumbling foreign character who in fact outsmarts everyone around him, he’s got the accent down.  Starting with fearless pronunciation could give a person enthusiasm for verbs, and thus emboldened, even the subjunctive.  But there’s no rush.

There are more tricks to achieving a convincing accent.  There’s no “th” sound in Spanish, and words that begin with “s” and a hard consonant are always preceded by a vowel, which is why Spanish-speakers struggling with English say “es-kool” rather than “school.”  But file those away for another time.

This isn’t really “speaking” Spanish.  It’s “talking” Spanish.  But it’s an excellent place to start, and far more interesting that analyzing the pluperfect.  (You know what that is, but nobody can remember what to call it.)  All that remains is to learn some words and enjoy yourself.  You’ll never learn them all, but the same is true of English .

One final tip:  Resist the temptation to mix English and Spanish words in the same sentence.  It’s an abuse of both languages, and a hard habit to break.  More important, it’s a way to escape the healthy pressure to find the right Spanish word.

Bill Dana


More than fifty years after my first small foray into Spanish, and immersed in it constantly now, I’m still learning new words every day.  Thanks to my first teacher, with an assist from Hugo Chávez, it’s still fun.

As for everyone else—they literally don’t know what they’re missing. And that’s a shame.

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Sugar logoYou might have missed the news—in the noise of all the other news at the end of 2016—when Hawaii went out of the sugar business.  Hawaii!  On December 12, Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company on the island of Maui crushed and cooked its last load of sugar cane, and a business that boomed since the 1870s fell as silent as an Edsel assembly line.

For those of us who grew up with commercials whose cloying jingles sung by sugar-pumped children praised the virtues of C&H, “the pure cane sugar from Hawaii,” the news struck a sour, nostalgic note.  Imagining Hawaii without sugar is like learning that Santa Claus is not real (which, I hasten to add, is a vicious fabrication).

The future Aloha State’s toothsome industry started modestly in the early 1800s, but really took off when the Civil War cut off sugar supplies to the North from fields in the South, especially in Louisiana.  Alternately battered and boosted by shifting taxes and events before the war, such as the California gold rush, the price of sugar soared by 525% in the war years between 1861 and 1864.  Hawaii prospered.  Or at least the sugar barons did.

Some would take issue with the sugar jingles’ cheery claim that “it grows so clean and sweet.”  Quite apart from the well-known nutritional and public health issues, especially of refined sugar, the wrangling of forests of 15-foot sugar cane is a gritty, torturous business that starts with a conflagration.

As the cane nears maturity after two years, either an irrigation decision or the dry season diminishes its water supply.  The plant responds defensively by storing up sugar.  Then they set it ablaze.

Think of it as plucking the stuffed Christmas goose.  With a flame thrower.

The inferno incinerates about a quarter of the sugar cane stalk, including leaves and microorganisms that would be good for the soil if left unburned.  It pollutes the air with ash.  But it also drives out any poisonous snakes before the cane cutters wade into the fields, swinging their machetes.


Unlike the big sugar mills in Hawaii, the processing in a place like Ecuador is still more of a cottage industry, the rugged work performed by nomadic crews of men who live adrift in a colossal sea of cane.  They arrive hauling their grinders and build brick furnaces, they fashion huts from tarps and more cane, and labor around the clock for a month or more before moving on to the next plantation.  They are the human, hands-on version of the fleets of massive combines that devour the ripened wheat of the North American plains.

Theirs is a Vulcan world of swirling smoke and steam and the steel jaws of the insatiable grinders they cram with cane.  In nearby towns, the familiar sight of men with a missing hand attests to the risky nature of the job.

These men arrive after the burning and cutting is done, setting up shop atop the heaps of felled cane.  They feed it by the armload into the grinder’s gears, squeezing out a steady stream of juice that flows into a series of shallow metal trays over a roaring blaze fueled by more of the same crushed cane.

The mixture gushes through several bubbling pans, stirred with shovels and just a little thicker at each stage, while one man feeds the firebox below.  The last stage is a trough of paste, the color of peanut butter and not quite as thick.


A couple of men work quickly now, stirring the golden batter and scooping it into forms, troweling over the tops while the others lean back for a break and sip soup from oversize bowls.  Within minutes the mixture is cool and hardened enough to cleave from the molds and stack in boxes marked “panela.”

By then the next coagulating batch is surging from the clouds of steam, and the unglamorous work goes on, all day and far into the night, under bare bulbs fired by a portable generator.

Panela is unrefined whole cane sugar, or sucrose in solid form.  It’s brown sugar that came by its color and earthy flavor honestly, while most commercial brown sugar is just white sugar with a dash of molasses.

Some claim panela to be healthier than refined sugar, with immunological benefits and more vitamins and minerals; others say there’s no significant difference.  It was developed mostly for its easy and indestructible portability, and appears in traditional recipes of all kinds throughout Latin America.

The world produces more sugar cane than any other crop.  Brazil leads the way—the sugar there is also fermented to make ethanol—followed by India, China, Thailand, Pakistan, and Mexico.  And cane fulfills most of the world’s sugar cravings.  The rest comes from sugar beets.


There are reasons why Hawaii could no longer make a go of the world’s top crop.  Favorable tariffs expired, workers organized to gain better pay, and land serving tourism in “The Paradise of the Pacific” became far too valuable to lavish on crops—even that crop.

Those things aren’t a problem in the developing world that once included Hawaii.  Land is still cheap in rural economies, wages are low, and a coffee-colored block of desiccated sucrose is an indispensable staple in every home.

Since the Persians and Greeks discovered “reeds that produce honey without bees” eight thousand years ago, and for the foreseeable future, willing workers always stand ready to extract its treasure.

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Hurry Up and Wait

Growth and modernization bring dazzling new experiences to the people of the developing world.  In Latin America’s growing cities, real shopping malls eventually appear.  The larger the city, the more impressive the mall.  And, sooner or later, that means food courts.


Food Court

At long last, a deserving populace has the same shot at childhood obesity and diabetes that was until now the exclusive province of the most advanced nations.

Super-sizing has come to the Andes.

For the foreign visitor, the multitude of choices is largely unfamiliar and almost overwhelming.  The flashy surroundings may be glass and chrome, but the fare is often traditional and regionally specific.

There’s menestra, the stewed lentils or beans that accompany a serving of meat and rice, or citrus-marinated ceviche made with shrimp from the coast and especially popular out there for breakfast.  A warm, coconut-infused alternative is called encocadoThere are specialties from neighboring Latin countries, and from China, sandwiches of a (sort of) US deli style, and of course burgers and fries.  One outfit serves steaks on a thick wooden plank.  The very biggest malls may feature a classy Colombian chain called Crepes & Waffles, known not only for its food but for giving jobs and career training to single mothers.

Here in Ecuador, there are a few familiar logos.  Burger King, and McDonald’s, but not often.  KFC has a big footprint in a country where more chicken is consumed per capita than any other meat, and with production capacity to match its national appetite: more than a quarter-million chickens a year, and a billion eggs.


“Are there any KFCs in the United States?” a young Ecuadorian once asked me.  I tried to explain that the “K” stands for “Kentucky,” but he’d never heard of Kentucky.

Judging from the long lines at one food court, I concluded that KFC was by far the most popular choice of the local lunch crowd.

Until I tried it myself.  And discovered that it was merely the slowest.

It seemed completely counterintuitive.  The chicken was all pre-cooked and piled high.  The pre-fab combo choices were all laid out on a bright menu board—with relatively more rice and arepas than you’d find in the typical US outlet.  Yes, the employees had been trained to upsell, and they had to ask about beverage choices, but that wasn’t enough to explain twenty minutes in a motionless queue.  Did these people know nothing about the basics of fast food?

A sign on the counter invited customer feedback, and in my mind, I outlined the withering critique I would email to the folks on Colonel Sanders Lane in Louisville.  I thought about it as I strolled past a dozen other offerings, from pizza to Asian grilled shrimp—and suddenly noticed what was missing.

Nowhere was there any mention of “fast food.”

There was fried, boiled, barbecued and roasted.  There was variety, convenience, and a range of prices.  Nobody said anything about fast.


The curiously American creation of fast food, connecting kitchens with assembly line methods, probably had its beginnings in 1921, with the establishment of White Castle in Kansas.  Others came later, including McDonald’s in 1948, and Burger King and Taco Bell in the 1950s.  In time, much of the world adopted the cuisine, if not always its revved-up velocity.

US restaurants use a million tricks to achieve the fastest possible table turnover, getting customers in and out to make room for more.  In contrast, I have one Latin friend who finishes the meal and then sits deliberately still, staring into space for 15 minutes while the food settles, believing it’s the healthy thing to do.  Ol’ Dave at Wendy’s would break into a cold sweat.

In Latin America, mealtime can be time-consuming—businesses commonly close for two hours or more every day for the proprietors’ lunch.  A trip to the mall often involves the whole family, and may include shopping and a movie as well as a meal.  They’re not looking for a speedy experience any more than you’d want to be whisked in and out of your favorite upscale steakhouse in 10 minutes.

Those spacious food courts fill to bursting, especially on weekends, packed with adults and children, with soccer on big-screen TVs, sellers shouting out order numbers, and a steady clamor of clacking trays and lively conversation.  Small kids chase each other wildly among the tables, and no one would think of objecting.  It is, to borrow a vivid local phrase, like una olla de grillos—a big, scrambling “pot of crickets.”

It’s not precisely the slow food movement, but it is generally more social, more family-focused, and more time-consuming than grabbing a Big Mac on the run.


So, when time is short and hunger calls, what’s a rushed gringo to do?  Ironically, the answer may be found in the old, traditional markets.  There, where a vendor may have just a single table and a couple of benches, turnover is essential.  The whole hog is already roasted, the fish already fried, and your plate is in front of you in seconds.  It has to be fresh, because most cooks don’t have refrigeration under their tarp.

And the whole meal is likely to set you back less than two dollars.  Not quite the original 1948 McDonalds burger price of 15 cents, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Rocks in a Hard Place

Around 250 BC, when the First Punic War was shifting its focus toward the southwest of Sicily and the siege of Lilybaeum, the Romans first devised an inventive way to break the ankles of 21st-century hikers.  That wasn’t their central purpose, of course, and the benefits of dominion far outweighed the orthopedic drawbacks.

hole The great builders invented cobblestones.  They were adopted across the Roman Empire, from Britannia to Mesopotamia, and eventually embraced in much of Latin America, including here in Ecuador.

Cobblestones are just rocks, somewhat rounded, but laying them on beds of sand or earth is what turns rocks into cobbles, and dirt roads into something that in the best examples are nearly free of ruts and dust.  A cobble is often described as “smaller than a boulder but larger than a pebble,” which doesn’t tell you much.  “Fist-size” would be a good average.

Those who walk such roads suffer the constant threat of twisted tendons or fractured fibulae.  The stones can be slick, or loose, or just terribly uneven.

Steer your car onto that gleaming, nubby surface and shake every screw loose.  It’ll make you think the springs were stolen, and the seats bolted directly to the frame by a demented prankster.

Some cobblestones are smoother than others, but never as smooth as they look.

They are charming and quaint, and they will jounce the fillings from your teeth.  The thunderous rumble of approaching tires or iron-rimmed wagon wheels has long been touted by rock apologists as a safety feature of cobblestone roads, alerting pedestrians to approaching danger, to which we say, “Nice try.”

Heavy rain can undermine and wash out a few of the stones, especially if repair is delayed long.  They mostly stay put, though—which is more than you can say for the main street of El Milagro (“The Miracle”), a flyspeck community on the two-lane winding road between Ibarra and Imbaya.

The street is just a block-long asphalt thoroughfare, with one lane so badly mended that drivers long ago threw up their hands and tacitly took turns on the other lane in both directions.  The patchwork blacktop blanket was thick and lumpy, as if someone had paved over several parked cars, with yawning cracks in several places revealing the rough original underneath.

It was the kind of backwater stretch you assumed the pavers would never revisit, until one Thursday morning a few weeks ago, they did.

A posse of men blocked the street with a dump truck and went to work, leaving traffic to find its own alternative route, as is traditional.  By nightfall they had laid down a thick, velvety layer of warm asphalt so beautiful, you could almost feel the property taxes going up.

By Friday morning, its surface was already showing distorted ripples, and beginning a slow-motion slide down the hill like pudding.  It was an inky glacier, sluggish but unstoppable.  The workmen were gone.

The mantle had started to split open when Saturday dawned, and drivers resumed sharing the other lane by evening.  The project had taken a day to complete, and lasted for two more.  Some cobblestone roads, in contrast, have endured for two thousand years, bashed for centuries by the wheels of lumbering Roman chariots.


El Milagro

Life abroad is filled with intriguing daily mysteries, and without them, the expat might as well have stayed home. Those related to daily routines like transportation or food are the hardest to ignore.  With a healthy sense of curiosity and a soothing ersatz mantra along the lines of Illegitimi non carborundum, imponderables become memorable, and even delightful.

reduzcaJust past the place where much of the new blacktop has now disintegrated into fine black gravel and dispersed, there’s another small enigma of highway protocol.  At the edge of town, exactly where a driver passing through would routinely step on the gas, a graffiti-sprayed sign in authoritative crimson commands, REDUCE SPEED.

A fantasy scene has developed in my mind as I accelerate past the sign on my way home.  I envision a foreman and his crew at the end of a long day of sign-posting.

“We have one sign left and we can’t go home until we put it up somewhere,” he says.  “Any ideas?”

Not far away on the Pan-American Highway—which, by the way, is a shining example of Ecuador’s world-class paving talent—six lanes snake through rugged mountain terrain.  Repaving there seems like it never stops, to the point where the latest layer of asphalt is a good eight inches higher than some of the storm drain grates.  Drop a wheel in that at 90 km/h, and it’s KYAG.  (Kiss Your Axle Goodbye)

On a recent weekend pause in the paving, winding up a steep curve from the town of San Antonio, a succession of warning signs lined up in the median.  Loose Gravel, one said.  Road Workers Ahead, warned another.  Detour 200 Meters.  Uneven Pavement.

None of it was true.  They had to store the signs somewhere, I suppose, and why not in the median, where the overall effect is one of a vague admonition for weekend caution?

On back-country routes, you’re on your own.  People sometimes speak fancifully of the day when someone paves the craggy cobblestone road to the alpine lake called Mojanda, for instance, but nobody expects it.  The rocks remain.

After all, the Romans won all three of the Punic Wars, and created the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization, and they did it with an army that moved over cobblestone roads.  The US Interstate highway system itself was conceived as a way to move the military.

Never underestimate the power of rocks.  I’m just saying.


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The Day the News Died

sinclair_lewis_1930With the stunning election of a boorish and dangerous TV personality to the most powerful office in the world, Sinclair Lewis officially became a prophet.  His 1935 novel about the election of a fascist, bigoted US president, It Can’t Happen Here, just did.

Facebook is on fire.

Amid all that commotion, it was easy to overlook another historic event: the death of journalism.  November 8, 2016.  Journalism, R.I.P.  It had a good run.

This is not about the wildly inaccurate polls, a conundrum that has savants scrambling to discover what went so wrong.  No, there really is no unalienable constitutional right to know the outcome of an election before it occurs.  Deal with it.  Polls are a fascinating novelty that have gained an unwarranted, outsize stature.  We’ve gotten used to them, but we probably don’t deserve them.

Political polls, it could be noted, rose to prominence in about the same period that prospective parents began routinely to learn the gender of their unborn children.  Americans seem to hate surprises.

The polls will bounce back.  Journalism, in which important information is discovered and evaluated and delivered to an audience whose trust has been earned, will not.


Thirty years ago, when desktop publishing became the rage, some observers warned that the breakthrough would simply help more inept people turn out more hideous design work more quickly.  And it did.

Something similar but much bigger happened with the explosive arrival of social media, only a dozen years ago.  It offered an irresistible, interactive, deeply personal, frequently opinionated platform where absolutely anyone could play, and it took the world and its Web by storm.

Item: The venerable CBS Evening News has about 7.4 million viewers.  Facebook has 1.79 billion active users.

Serious journalism became like licorice in a chocolate shop.  Some people still like licorice, at least some of the time.  But most of us, let’s face it, will opt for the Christophe Roussel.

Item: On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite concluded on the air that the war in Vietnam could not be won.  Lyndon Johnson snapped off the TV and decided not to seek reelection, and the great, brutal conflict changed course toward a slow and bitter conclusion.

Today, a guy in his underpants with a laptop in his mother’s basement can have a comparable impact.  Through the magic of digital technology, we are transported to the 1930s, where the rumor mill could plant and circulate malicious gossip, or just let it ripen, until its malodorous message permeated the public consciousness and replaced reality with fantasy.

I watched with growing alarm over more than a decade as major institutions invested in “journalistic” new media projects that more often than not were silly toys.  Were these people joking?  It was all very cutting edge and high tech, and there were serious conferences, with panel discussions and continental breakfasts, to analyze this new way of listening to the electorate.

Judging by the near-unanimous misreading by journalists of the mood of the voters, they were listening to noise.

Now, respected entities like the Poynter Institute say the media must learn to listen more; in other words, be more like Facebook.  I disagree.  Sometimes, journalism, it’s not about you.

The audience needs to listen, and they’re listening to someone else, mostly to each other.  The gleeful announcements of hip new initiatives to freshen stale journalism came too late, and are off the mark.

The public has moved on.  Like it or not—and I don’t—social media have been as transformative as movable type was.  Good journalism is all but helpless in the face of cute puppy videos.

I spent most of my career practicing or supporting journalism of high quality, but my pessimism isn’t an expression of nostalgia.  I’m not sure anything could have been done about it—nothing I can think of.  I’m not accusing anyone in the field of bad faith.

Today’s journalists will have a role to play in whatever comes next, but it won’t quite be journalism.  The job of journalism is not to “share.”  It is to research, edit, think, anticipate, analyze, and deliver information within a trustworthy framework.  “What the president said is news,” a wise man once declared.  “Why he said it is analysis.  Whether he should have said it is opinion.”

Inspiring, succinct, but awfully serious.  Social media can be great fun and irresistibly engaging while solid journalism is the cod liver oil of media—the sort of thing that’s good for you, but painfully so.

There are still enough sober citizens, dumbfounded by the election, that copies of It Can’t Happen Here sold out all over since then.  Lots of fine journalists are still doing fine work.  They will respond to the challenge with optimism.  But in the cacophony of social media, fewer and fewer people are listening to them.

Discuss.  headstone-2

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Herding Instinct

stakeWhen it comes time to move a hundred or more milk cows to a new pasture here in the countryside, ranchers put up a temporary electric fence along the road to keep the girls on course.  A single slender strand of wire, threaded through insulated stakes and given a slight electrical charge, is just enough to steer big wet noses along their cobbled path.

The domestic bovine, which many consider to be the dumbest animal on the planet, goes where it is told and knows only that its singular mission in life is to eat nonstop until its last breath.  The cow seems unaware of its powerful half-ton bulk.  Whether herded by cowpokes on horseback or by more contemporary means, it is the very model of docile servitude.  In thousands of years, probably no single cow has ever been accused of showing initiative.

In an authoritarian state, you might say, cows would possess the character of the perfect voter.  Well, they might never actually vote, but they’d certainly never vote “no.”

All governments find ways to shepherd their citizens along the right communal path, some more successfully than others.  Some employ persuasion; others lean just slightly toward the electric fence model.

frontExpats who decide to live in Ecuador come across some interesting methods of official herding after a time.  In fact, one of the most effective has to do with voting.

Ecuadorians are eligible to vote in elections beginning at age 16.  But between the ages of 18 and 65, it’s required.  An excuse is fairly easy to get, but without it, non-voters face a fine.  This year the fine would be $44.60.  That’s serious money in a country where the minimum wage is $366 a month.

Catching violators is tricky, as the sin is one of omission.  But there are ways.  All manner of transactions require proof of voting in the last election, no matter how unrelated the matter at hand may be.  That’s what I was told, for example, when I got a driver’s license.

“But I didn’t vote,” I told the clerk.  (Voting is optional for foreigners.)

“Then you need to prove you didn’t vote,” she said.  There’s an office for that in the provincial capital, where I was quickly issued a card (no charge) showing I hadn’t voted but was excused.

Imagine what a different result this vote-or-else rule would have produced in the recent plebiscite on Colombia’s proposed peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas.  Polls predicted approval by nearly two to one, to end more than half a century of brutal, murderous armed conflict that killed at least a quarter of a million people.  Instead, the proposal was defeated by a slender margin.

Spanish journalist Martín Caparrós said bluntly that the result is proof that democracy doesn’t work.  That’s because, while the outcome was very close, it was really decided by the 60 percent of Colombians who chose not to vote at all.


There are historic examples worldwide where citizens have fought for the right to vote and won, and then gradually lost interest in it, perhaps believing their vote was unimportant.  “But inevitably,” Caparrós writes, “little by little, they will start looking for ways in which they can exert influence.  From what we see, democracy is not one of those ways.”

Beyond whipping up the electorate with shrill, unfounded denunciations of a “rigged” US election, the business of voting is often not a pretty sight.  Democrats work to register new voters, since it’s the right thing to do, but also because new voters from swelling minority populations tend to lean Democratic.  Republicans fight it for the same reason, sponsoring voter ID laws that suppress voting in a phony crusade to prevent voter fraud that has repeatedly been shown to be “virtually nonexistent.”  (It ranks about the same as alien abductions.)

And then there’s the question of whether those registered voters actually vote.  In 2012, 57.5% of US eligible voters went to the polls, which is lower than the figure in most developed countries.

In Colombia, disappointed treaty supporters immediately cited the parallel case of the Brexit vote, and the way things are going in our own presidential election, it’s hard not to wonder what new shocks are around the corner.


Former Cows

If anything is rigged, it’s the colossal case of gerrymandering that gave Republicans control of Congress for years to come.

So much is being said that is simply not true, and so many people are buying it.  So little of it has anything remotely to do with critically important issues like war and peace, poverty, immigration, and climate change.

Thomas Jefferson cautioned that a civilized nation cannot be both ignorant and free.  The cows may be a warning.

I for one mailed my absentee ballot last week.  There are no fines for failure to vote, but there could be worse things than the tingly touch of a slightly electrified fence.

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