Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Maine defeats secessionists, again

In case you missed it, last week a legislative committee here in Maine put an end to state Rep. Henry Joy's latest effort to split the state in two.

Mr. Joy, a Republican from the northern hamlet of Crystal (pop. 285), submitted a bill earlier in the month proposing to create a new state called "North Massachusetts" out of what is now southern and midcoast Maine, plus rural, inland Kennebec county (the latter apparently out of spite, as it happens to be where our capital is located.)

Sounds like a clever political stunt, right? Unfortunately, Mr. Joy, an eight-term legislator, appears to be dead serious. He says his measure is vital to stop "the environmental extremists" from implementing "a forced relocation of the population of northern Maine," allegedly in accordance with "the 1992 Biodiversity Treaty, run by the United Nations."

“The environmentalists have been working towards this for years,” Joy explained in a press release, apparently in reference to the Great Maine Forest Initiative. “They plan to take 10 million acres in northern Maine and turn it over to the federal government. The land could not be used for any further development, and private property would be seized with no compensation. They don’t want anybody up there.”

Mr. Joy's plan would have left a rump state of "Maine" consisting of its poorest regions (and the places where I was born and raised). This he apparently regards as an improvement because it would free the region's people from the tyranny of the state's more liberal southern regions, somehow making it more able to resist the treehugger conspiracy. He submitted a similar proposal in 2005.

His bill was turned down by the bipartisan legislative council by 9-1. (Joy's sole supporter was Phil Curtis, R-Madison.)

After the defeat, Joy made his monthly appearance on a northern Maine Christian right radio show, talking with the hosts about the evils of the United Nations, environmentalism, the federal Department of Education, and the people of Portland. "It's going to be the death of the world," Joy says of the U.N., before agreeing with the hosts that the international body was bringing about the creation of Huxley's Brave New World. (Listen for yourself; they really get going at about 0:50.)

"We need some more Henry Joys in the legislature," the host proclaimed. "We need to clone you."

Alas, most of the rest of the conspiracy-fearing Christian far right opposes cloning. They'll have to keep raising the paranoid from scratch.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Maine: Saving Hog Island

My piece on efforts to resurrect the famed Hog Island Audubon camp in Maine's Muscongus Bay is the topic of my Talk of Maine column in the current issue of Down East. The article just posted online.

The storied birdwatching camp -- operated by Maine Audubon Society for the past decade -- closed down after the 2008 season when losses became too much for its parent to bear. But the program is back this year under the direction of Steve Kress of Project Puffin fame. As you can read in the article, if it has a successful season, it may get a new lease on life, though negotiations between Maine Audubon (which effectively holds a lease to the island), National Audubon (which technically owns it) and potential partners are ongoing.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Europe watches as Slovakia implements anti-Hungarian language law

Another story from my recent trip to East-Central Europe is up today over at Global Post, this one on Slovakia's draconian language law.

The country's Hungarian minority is upset because, read strictly, it criminalizes the use of any language other than Slovak in a wide range of public circumstances. The government says they're overreacting, but the government also includes a far-right party whose leader calls the country's Hungarian citizens a "cancer" which must be wiped off the national map.

Slovakia's an E.U. state, right? So what can the union do about it? As you'll read in the piece, not much. (Like most of my Global Post stories, this appears in their subscription Passport service, so you'll need to login to read it. If you care about international news, however, it's well worth the price.)

While we're in the neighborhood, Hungary's own extremist party isn't doing much to calm tensions between the two countries and is poised to enter the Parliament after April 11 elections. Jobbik, which has its own jackbooted paramilitary, has been trying to charm the foreign press corps of late, hoping to receive sympathetic coverage of their proposals to, among other things, revisit the peace settlement that ended World War I and created Slovakia. I'm on their mailing list and I listen to what they have to say: it's not charming.

Map: Hungarian minority in Slovakia (majority areas in red), Courtesy Nationalia.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Things to Watch and Read, March 22 edition

I'm still hiding out in my secret lair with a book manuscript, but a few things of interest crossed my desk over past few days.

Tea Party Bigots at the Capitol: The freedom-loving "Tea Party" folks who showed up at the U.S. Capitol to protest the health care bill reportedly shouted the "n" word at black civil rights hero John Lewis (D-Ga.), spit on Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), and screamed "faggot" at Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

"I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus," James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told the Huffington Post. Later that day, someone threw a brick through the window of Rep. Louise Slaughter's district office in Pine View, New York.

What's next: tarring, feathering, and burning down houses? That'll keep health care affordable.

The Hungarian "race": The Hungarian-American lobby sent out a press release with instructions for their constituency on how to declare themselves racially Hungarian on the U.S. 2010 Census, apparently believing the write-in campaign will increase leverage on lawmakers.

I'm not sure that Hungarian-Americans share a common policy position on events in their ancestral home: someone whose family fled the Nazi takeover may have different feelings about, say, the rise of a far-right party with its own jackbooted militia, than someone who fled the Soviet invasion in '56. But what if ancestral memory really does trump independent thought? To hedge my bets, maybe I'll declare my race to be "Anglo-Franco-Irish-Dane-Scot" and give the politicians something to puzzle over in the next redistricting effort.

Timbuktu Claims the Blues: My Monitor colleague, Scott Baldauf, has an interesting piece on how Timbuktu, Mali, the famous terminal of trans-Sahara caravan trade, asserts itself as the birthplace of the blues, preempting the American South.

Editor who Needs An Editor: For those in Maine wondering what's wrong with the former newspaper of record, the Portland Press Herald, here's another clue. Owner/editor Richard Connor -- whose possessions also include the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal -- appears to have no idea how to research and write something as simple as a personal opinion piece.

His contribution on health care in yesterday's Morning Sentinel is a case in point: a rambling and unfocused piece that features an uninterrupted 500-word block of quotes from a Gorham innkeeper to make the rather obvious point that insurance premiums vary by state. The innkeeper has some theories as to how to improve the situation, but rather than examine their merits, Connor veers off into some fuzzy ruminations about his companies' health care costs (replete with undigested statistics) before arriving at a perfect non-argument: what's done is done, so "it’s time for all of us to get on with our lives."

This is why directors shouldn't act in their own movies: there's nobody around who can tell them when when they're making an ass of themselves.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Maine: Munjoy in Hiding?

The decomposition of Maine's former newspaper of record, the Portland Press Herald, has been covered most comprehensively (and uncharitably) by the pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy. Munjoy's withering criticism -- always snarky, often spot-on -- provided catharsis for what must have been a large audience of frustrated readers, based on the amount of referral traffic that came here after he or she added World Wide Woodard to the CitizenJournalist34 blogroll.

But yesterday, Munjoy suddenly evacuated the blog, purging it of most layout elements and leaving a message as cryptic as the one left by the lost colony of Roanoke: "I will not...be doing this any longer. Life is so odd." No further explanation was forthcoming, and the blogger is not responding to e-mails.

It's not the first time Munjoy has abandoned his post. His original blog, PressingTheHerald, took the previous owners to task more-or-less daily from November 2007 to the spring of 2008, when he declared he was leaving the state. It came back to life a few months later, championing the proposed sale of the Press Herald and her sister papers to Richard Connor, only to close again last spring when the deal went through. When Mr. Connor's vision for the papers became clear this winter, Munjoy returned with his gun loaded for elephants.

Still, the departure raises eyebrows, as the frequency and tone of Munjoy's recent posts showed no indication of weariness. The blogger's knowledge of the internal workings of the papers suggested he was likely a former newsroom employee, possibly even a current one. Perhaps Mr. Connor's counter-intelligence forces have finally tracked him to his lair.

[Update, 3/17/10: Media Mutt has some comment from Munjoy, and some details about the latest staff cuts at the Press Herald.]

Monday, March 15, 2010

On Maine's birthday, reasons not to break up the state

On the occasion of Maine's 190th anniversary, today's editorial in the Bangor Daily News tackles the recent proposal by a state legislator to break us into two states. It's an idea that's been percolating for at least a decade, usually driven by the rural, poor, and neglected East and North's distrust of the allegedly Massified South and Midcoast. (For those of you from away, that's "Mass" as in "Massachusetts.") Regional political divisions over hot button issues like same sex marriage and casinos only inflame matters.

Whatever grievance would motivate such a peculiar plan? To answer that, the News cites a brilliant and knowledgeable source who, I'm surprised to discover, turns out to be me.

The quotes are from one of my Lobster Coast talks, where I explain how Maine's past has shaped its identity and present day political landscape, arguing that we are, in fact, a post-colonial society. (If this piques your interest, you can read more about historic Maine-Mass cultural tensions in in the book.) I'll be giving versions of the talk later this year here in Maine.

Oh, and for the record, I'd sooner have the whole state join Canada than see us split apart ourselves.

[Spelling correction, 19:38 EST]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Maine story updates

A few recent developments in stories I've been following:

Bizarre Editorial: Media watchers have been debating the merits of the Portland Press Herald's lengthy series on the efforts of a Maine vessel to deliver relief supplies to Haiti, independent of established crisis agencies and channels. But today's development is genuinely jaw-dropping.

I don't fault the paper for embedding Bill Nemitz aboard the Sea Hunter: it was a newsworthy story with a local connection. But I agree with the Phoenix's Jeff Inglis that Nemitz's coverage suffered from astonishing credulity. He seemed as surprised as Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks that Homeland Security is humorless about rules enforcement or that the DIY relief mission was targeted for shake downs by officials from one of the most infamously corrupt governments in the hemisphere.

I would have let this pass without comment, but this morning the Press Herald and her sister papers carried one of the more unhinged editorials I've ever read in a Maine daily. "Where was Obama?" it asks, blasting the leader of the free world for not having intervened in the situation, which was already benefiting from the attentions of two U.S senators and at least one of our Congressional representatives. It continues: "President Obama is renowned for involving himself in everything from local law enforcement issues to college football rankings – all part of his portfolio as president, he believes – so couldn’t he have picked up the phone and let the Haitians know that he was not happy about their treatment of Greg Brooks and his crew?"

The editorial's addled tone and lack of perspective were such that one Press Herald critic, the pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy, took the paper to task for allowing hackers to put up what he mistook for a satirical article. Indeed, whoever authored the editorial is disturbingly unworldly, surprised that Haiti's predators are willing to feed on resources meant for their prey and that the President of the United States is not some all-watching guardian angel, personally intervening in every injustice anyone encounters anywhere in the world. But despite that, the paper doesn't want for self-regard, finding the time to praise themselves for having "expertly chronicled" the Sea Hunter's journey.

Once again: wake up Press Herald, this state needs you.

Laurels for Cloutier: Former Portland mayor Jim Cloutier -- who consistently misportrayed the condition of the Maine State Pier in statements to the press, public, and fellow councilors while pushing for it to be handed over to private developers -- is being feted by the Portland Democratic City Committee next month. Cloutier and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree are the honorees of the annual Harry S. Truman Awards Dinner on April 17.

Ocean Gateway Rescue? Governor John Baldacci may rescue Portland's money-losing cruise-ship-terminal-cruise-ships-can't-use, which needs $7 to $8 million for a the creation of a mega-berth. Baldacci, the Press Herald reports, has included the funds in the $79 million transportation bond he hopes voters will approve.

People from other parts of Maine may not care that the terminal, which was built under faulty economic assumptions, is costing city taxpayers about $400,000 a year. But they may not realize that state taxpayers put in even more money for the construction of the terminal, whose economic benefits are believed to largely accrue to surrounding towns in York and Cumberland County.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Things to watch and read, the March 10 edition

I've been hunkered down with my book manuscript of late, giving public officials in Eastern Europe and Portland, Maine a much needed break from my pedantic questioning. But I still procrastinate from time to time -- this early morning for instance -- and occasionally find things worth sharing. This week those include:

How to Make a [BBC] News Report: Spot-on satire from a BBC-4 comedian. If only U.S. news reports were structured as intelligently as the ones he's mocking. [Update: For comparison, here's an Onion parody of the much stupider CNN structure.]

If Harvard and Disney Had a Showdown, Who Would Win? Disney, apparently, by a long shot. Today's New York Times has a disturbing report about how Harvard has retaliated against the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood after the non-profit advocacy group won a major victory over Disney for erroneous claims about the merits of the conglomerate's "Baby Einstein" videos. Sure looks shameful, and Harvard ain't talkin'.

Wikileaks on Life Support: Wikileaks, a non-profit clearing house for leaked internal documents exposing corruption, malfeasance, and criminal behavior, has been in crisis this year for lack of money and is trying to raise funds. My colleague Andrew Marshall has some background over at his informative Qwerty 2009 blog.

A Better Shit Bag: As Nick Wadhams writes from Nairobi, many people in the developing world have no indoor plumbing and "go" in a plastic bag, which is then usually thrown out on the street. Now a Swedish organization, PeePoople claims to have a better bag. (No, it's not satire.) Puts America's problems in perspective, perhaps.

Synchronized Olympic Pee Breaks: During the gold medal hockey game between the US and Canada last month, residents of Edmonton, Alberta weren't going to miss any action just to go to the bathroom. The water utility there published an amusing graph of the unusual water use pattern that evening and the correlations with events in the game, which you can see over at The Vigorous North.

My coffee is cold; must be time to get back to work....

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Czech Republic: How Zlin kept its groove

During my recent trip to Central Europe, I was able to revisit Zlin, the "model city" created in the early 20th century by the self-made Czechoslovak shoe tycoon, Tomas Bata. The provincial town in Czech Moravia is something of a pilgrimage site for enthusiasts of prewar industrial design, as Bata built nearly the entire place from scratch via a central, standardized plan. Along the way he created the world's largest shoe company, and exported the model just about everywhere else.

As you can read in my story now up over at The Christian Science Monitor, his legacy lived on in the Zlin region even during the Communist Era and many credit his (self-aggrandizing) social engineering with the city's relative prosperity and entrepreneurial spirit. (New to me was the tale of a Bata-inspired collective farm that managed to conduct a surprisingly capitalistic operation in the midst of the dour Brezhnev-era Warsaw Pact.) And his brother's famous office-in-an-elevator is still there, restored along with the Bata skyscraper to its 1930s glory.

Photo (c) 2010 Colin Woodard. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Arctic news hounds rejoice!

Ever since traveling to Antarctica while writing Ocean's End, I've been something of a polar news addict. After all, the poles are where climate change effects are most obvious and alarming, and the international governance of both regions is very much in flux, what with all the cruise ships getting themselves in trouble in the Antarctic and oil prospectors crawling around Greenland. Following polar developments is very much keeping ones hand on the planetary pulse.

But tracking polar news is extraordinarily difficult. Nobody really lives in Antarctica and the Arctic region is divided among several countries with different languages, agendas, and internal awareness of their Far North. Even the Inuit have a hard time keeping in touch with one another.

Fortunately, my colleagues Kieran Cooke and John Bennett are putting together a free weekly news digest called Arctic Monitor, which allows for one stop shopping on the latest developments in the High North. No plans for an Antarctic edition, but you can still learn a fair bit about the Southern Continent by following the news feed at the Antarctica and Southern Ocean Coalition and the official newspaper of the US Antarctic Program, the Antarctic Sun. (The latter, oddly enough, was once edited at McMurdo Station by Portland, Maine's own Jeff Inglis.)

Two other Arctic resources to check out: the Arctic Focus news service (which loads very slowly from New England at least) and Canada's Aboriginal People's Television Network, which has more regular coverage of far northern issues than most. (For example, this piece on ongoing polar "land" grab.)

Photo (c) 1998-2010 Colin Woodard. All rights reserved.