Adonis Diaries

Archive for February 10th, 2012

The Panama Canal Challenges: Glory and Infamies

Are there any “social responsibility” attached to corporations?  Apparently,  a few corporations are trying to project the image of “social responsibility” as a form of enlightened self-interest, such as working with stakeholders to give back to community. It is mostly a veneer.

A week ago, I watched a documentary on the channel ARTE about the challenges in the construction of the Panama Canal:  Started in 1906 and completed in 1914. Mountains were displaced a vast lake created on the Pacific end, and huge successive locks (ecluses) erected in order to elevate ships up mountains and down to sea level…

Stevenson had two decades experience building train rail-road tracks.  France had failed it its attempt of opening a canal through Panama. Stevenson figured out a way of making this adventure a feasibility and he convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to adopt this crazy project.  Huge excavating machineries were dispatched and plenty of money poured in.  It is said that over 300 million of 1900 hard dollars were invested in the canal.

Stevenson had this mind-fix from previous experiences that only Chinese workers were reliable enough for this endeavour.  A vast campaign for hiring and luring Chinese immigrants failed. I can assume that previous generations of Chinese who built the US rail-road tracks had settled down and refused for their offspring to experience the same humiliation, indignities, and dangers working for US vast projects.  Most probably, the wave of Chinese immigrations have trickled down for various reasons.

Stevenson had to bite his tongue and settle with what was available: 25,000 very inexpensive workers from the island of Barbados flocked in.

There were two kinds of payments: The 5,000 white workers, artisans, or “professionals” (mostly brought from the USA) were paid in gold; the workers from the Antilles islands and mostly from Barbados (about 25,000 at a time) were paid in silver coins.  Thus, you had the blacks (or silver workers living precariously) and the white or the gold coins people living in better housing conditions…

The second problem was health in tropical climate and infested environments.  Hundreds were falling ill every day from yellow fever, malaria…and as many dying in pain.  An US physician who survived yellow fever and made it his expertise to fighting yellow fever was hired to resolving this gigantic epidemic.

In 1907, the physician distributed mosquito nests for free and sprayed oil on the surfaces of every single pool of stagnant water in order to kill the mosquito larvae… The entire region, hundred of miles around, was sprayed with oil and not a single one died from yellow fever the next year.  This was over a century ago.  Currently, million die of yellow fever and malaria every year, and all that is needed is spraying oil on stagnant water surface!

Stevenson resigned by 1908, and Roosevelt hired a military General to taking over: Generals are not about to simply resign and go home.  Again, thousands died from unsafe working conditions and from dynamite jobs.

After the celebration of the opening of the Canal, the over 30,000 workers who survived returned home, as penniless as they arrived, no bonuses offered, no recognition bestowed on them, no special celebration for a job well-done… The Glory went to the US, the former president Roosevelt who could not attend the ceremony, being stuck in South Africa, and the current president Woodrow Wilson…

The Panama Canal undertaking was the best propaganda the US ever launched:  The European States had to admit that the US was the prime industrial State, the richest, and the most powerful.  Germany was second, in all categories before WWI.

By the way, directors in corporations receive the glory of the excellent job that the previous one had done. Carly Fiorina created a great design team at Hewlett-Packard and brought about a cultural change which make the changes of Lou Gerster (IBM) and Jack Welsh (GE) look like chump change by comparison.  It is her successor who was lauded for design excellence


Six Millions under correctional supervision in the U.S? Statement of facts

Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.  Far more than were in Stalin’s prison system and his gulags.

More than the two most populous States of China and India ever had in their prison systems.

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich in his gulag is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich: The idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible.  One day in the life of an American prison means much less: One day typically stretches out for decades.

A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly not dramatic. The reported stories fail to grab us:  for the most part, nothing happens.

Adam Gopnik published in JANUARY 30, 2012 a very lengthy article on “THE CAGING OF AMERICA:Why do we lock up so many people?”

I decided to split the article into two: The first part is the statement of facts and background, and the second part on the causes and how the US prison system functions (with minor editing).

Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.
Photograph by Steve Liss.

It isn’t the horror of the time at hand: It is the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia, anxiety, boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded.

Dylan sings:

“Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard,

Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards…”

It isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too.

As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment.

For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than 400 teenagers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest…

For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.

More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.

There are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery period. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to  731 prisoners for 100,000 US citizens.

No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that States spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “ incarceration State,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer. Conrad Black is now imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one”.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least 50,000 men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)

Prison rape is so endemic—more than 70.000 prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncooperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing.

The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chilling sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.

Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teenagers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelment, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction? There’s a fairly large recent scholarly literature on the history and sociology of crime and punishment, and it tends to trace the American zeal for punishment back to the nineteenth century, apportioning blame in two directions.

There’s an essentially Northern explanation, focussing on the inheritance of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, and its “reformist” tradition. And a Southern explanation, which sees the prison system as essentially a slave plantation continued by other means. (to be followed)

Note 1: In Israel, over 60% of Palestinian youth (less than 16 years) have passed in correctional institutions, not for any crimes committed, but for intimidation purposes and instilling fear in them…




February 2012

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