Monday, August 29, 2005

Seven Columns from the Wilson County News

Seven Columns from the Wilson County News. The Wilson County News is a weekly newspaper published in Floresville, Texas, a small town one hour to the southeast of San Antonio. It has a circulation of 8,000 plus, making it the second biggest weekly newspaper in Texas. Elaine Kolodziej is the founder and editor of this paper. Twenty years ago Elaine took over a small shopper and just built it up year by year, increasing the circulation and advertising revenue and making the very difficult shift from free distribution to 100% paid circulation.

I like Elaine’s style. She’s 59, Catholic, a grandmother, always lived in Floresville, hasn’t traveled much, and married to a man named Al.

Her paper is conservative and locally proud in the Texas tradition. I bugged her for about four months to let me start a column in her paper – because I was looking for a strong editor to work with and that she is. Mainly, in the emails we kicked back and forth, and in reading her editorials, I discovered that I understood her very well. Geez, I can’t stand being confused anymore. Now the style of these columns is quite different than what I write for the Internet. That’s because I’m writing in a newspaper, in print, to a conservative audience in a small town in Texas.

My favorite is the one titled, “America is My Home” because it is so sentimental and you can get away with that in Texas – me talking about my Dad and the time he took me fishing. It brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it.

But the best one of these columns might be the last one titled “It’s Not About The Oil,” about a friend of mine, Eli Ben-Zaken, who lives in Israel and has a vineyard. He makes fine wine – well, read it:

Botswana – one African country that is not a disaster. Last week U.S. Rep. Ron Paul said that “government-to-government foreign aid doesn’t work and it never has.” I bet some foreign aid has worked somewhere – the Marshall Plan after World War II being one example, but by and large he’s right, especially when it comes to Africa. I would state it another way – you can’t send good money to a bad government and expect results.

It’s a fact that the African people are much poorer than we are. It’s also a fact that Africans love their own children just as much as we do, and when the full moon shines on Texas, that same moon is shining over the African land. Botswana is just to north of South Africa and almost the same size as Texas. Botswana is hot, dry and mostly flat with grasslands sprinkled with acacia trees that look much like a mesquite. In Botswana they suffer from droughts and their farmers look up at the stark blue sky and try to worry up a cloud burst – sound familiar? They raise cattle on huge ranches, and they raise cotton and peanuts where they can irrigate. It’s too bad they don’t have any oil, but they did get lucky in 1974 when they discovered the world’s largest diamond mine on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

Luck won’t make you rich for long. The amazing thing about Botswana is that they have a half-way decent government. They actually had a President who lost an election and stepped down from office to let the winning candidate take over – that’s talking my language. And the government sold the diamond mining rights to a large corporation – but unlike most of the leaders in Africa, they did not stick the money in their pockets, but dispersed it equally among all the citizens. Consequently their currency, the Pula, is the strongest in Africa. Pula is an African word for rain, because rain=wealth in their land.

The people of Botswana are much poorer that we are, but they have a future – they are headed in the right direction. They have a good tourist and safari business, because they have protected their wildest game lands and turned them into national parks.

Do you want to help the people of Africa? Take a safari in Botswana. It’s spendy all right. Counting airfare you’ll need at least $4,000, but you’ll have the vacation of a lifetime. Your money will be going into a good place and you’ll see Africa for yourself and be your own expert.

Short of that, you can learn a huge amount about Africa off the Internet. Just put Botswana into Google – pretty soon you’ll have an email buddy over there who can tell you all about it.

Also there are private agencies, faith-based and otherwise, in Botswana that deal with social and environmental problems – small outfits with a low overhead – places where your donation will have some mileage. I can recommend them if you contact me.

AIDS is a major epidemic in Botswana, but they have a health care system, private and public, that is making some progress – at least honestly confronting the problem.

Here’s the way I see it. If the people of Botswana can make their country a good place with a democratic government and the rule of law, then we can help them make it a better place. It’s not about guilt – that’s phony. Let the historians sort out the colonial past, and let us stay with the current problem. Our wealth did not create African poverty. Our government can send increased aid to Africa, but only if we get awfully picky about where we send it.

I have to say one more thing about Botswana, and you might thinking I’m stretching it – but if ever go there bring along your Dolly Parton and George Jones tapes because they really like American country music – I ain’t lying.

Do You Trust Bill Gates? Do you trust Bill Gates? You already do trust him if your computer runs on Windows. More than 90 percent of the world’s computers use the operating system that Bill Gates developed. That made him the world’s richest man, with a personal fortune valued at $46.5 billion. He built Microsoft from the ground up. His competitive drive and fierce desire to win left him with no personal life until he married Melinda French in 1994. Marriage being good for most men, Melinda helped Bill to broaden his outlook – there’s more to life than that darn computer, she must have said. And Bill, being the world’s richest man, felt like he was just running up the score at that point in his life. He could have taken up golf or learned to play the violin – challenging pursuits, no doubt, but not hard enough for Bill Gates. He determined that he would rid the world of some of the common diseases, such as malaria, dysentery and AIDS. Now, short of world peace, that’s about the hardest problem I can think of.

I trust Bill Gates. I don’t mean that he’s the most honest or most virtuous man I know, but I am very impressed by his competence and determination. I expect that if he sets a goal, even one as difficult as this one, then he might achieve it. I also trust him not to give his money away in a woolly-headed way. Gates worked for his billions, and he will only donate his money to those groups who will keep it working. No longer obsessed with profit, Gates, as a philanthropist, is obsessed with tangible results and he’s still keeping score. He’s 50 years old, in good health, and he has donated $21 billion so far to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to combat various diseases and to fund educational efforts. Almost one billion of that money has gone to fight against malaria – far more than the combined aid of all the world’s governments. Do you think he’s wasting his time? Do you think he’s become a misguided idealist?

Malaria was a scourge in the southern United States until the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when we built the Panama Canal and our government invested great effort in combating malaria and the other tropical diseases that were killing the canal workers. That knowledge was used, through public health money and private charity, to rid the United States of malaria.

American drug companies work on a free market for-profit system. The bulk of their research and development efforts goes towards the cure and prevention of heart disease and cancer – these are the maladies of prosperous countries. In short, they make pills for people who can afford to pay for them. That doesn’t make them the bad guys – but they have no financial incentive to find a cheap vaccine for malaria. So Gates put up the money, $168 million, and then arm-twisted Merck, a major pharmaceutical, to match that with another $50 million. I like that – you put enough Ph.D’s to work with their microscopes and they might come up with something.

Your children won’t get malaria and neither will mine. You might catch a dose of it from traveling in a tropical country, and it’s no picnic to suffer from that fever, but the doctor is at hand and you’ll get the medicine you need and you’ll recover.

But other people, African people, children you’ve never met in places you’ve never been, are being killed by this same disease. I know it says that the poor will always be with us and that we will always suffer from man’s inhumanity to man and that we need to take care of our own families first and foremost. But this is the challenge and the interesting thing about Bill and Melinda Gates – they’re not asking you for money because they already have it. They’re asking you – “What are you going to do about this?”

What’s Going Right in Iraq? Fourteen Marines died in western Iraq last week when their troop carrier was blown up by a huge roadside bomb. The vehicle burst into flames and flipped over. Only one Marine survived the attack. Most of the dead were from the same reserve unit, the Third Battalion, 25th Marines, based in Brook Park, Ohio, near Cleveland.

These were not the only American deaths in Iraq last week but this one hit me hard. I felt helpless, frustrated and mad – not mad at anyone, just mad. My life is good. I go to work, I enjoy the summer weather, and I’m looking forward to the weekend when I can relax on the beach. I have a family, good friends, good health, and a decent income. I’m grateful for all this.

But the difference between my life and those military families back in Ohio – it’s too great. I can’t imagine how they’re feeling. And those service people in Iraq, facing danger, homesickness and terrible heat and me just fiddling with the barbecue in the backyard. I get frustrated watching the war on TV or reading about it in the newspapers, so I need to do something.

I could bake cookies and send packages, but I don’t have that skill. I could be an armchair general and send the President a detailed memo on how to conduct the war, but I somehow I think George Bush already has plenty of advice. I could engage in debate and discussion with those who oppose the war effort – that’s a good thing to do, but only when I have the patience not to call them idiots.

No, what I do – it’s a small thing but it matters – is study the history of the Middle East. That’s it. I read books and it gets very interesting. For instance, the Americans are certainly not the first army to occupy Iraq. You can start with Alexander the Great, who conquered Mesopotamia in 331 B.C. He died a young man, but his generals ruled Babylon for many generations and introduced the teaching of Greek culture.

The Roman Emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 112 A.D. But the next Emperor, Hadrian, realized it was too much trouble and too far away from Rome. So he evacuated Babylon and left it to the Persians. Well, how do you say “cut and run” in Latin?

But the real doozies were the Mongols. Genghis Kahn’s very own grandson, a real nice guy by the name of Helagu, invaded Mesopotamia in 1258 A.D. with several hundred thousand horsemen. They did not stop to give out candy to the children. They had no plans to restore democracy or rebuild the infra-structure. They were just bad. They burned Baghdad to the ground. They put women and children to the sword. They built hills of skulls and severed heads as a means to terrify the people. They destroyed the irrigation works to prevent farming.

The people of Iraq remember the Mongols and their savagery. They also remember Alexander the Great who ruled fairly. “Iskander” is the Arabic way to say Alexander and it is still a name of honor in their country.

In fact Mesopotamia has been invaded many times, and the country has been ruled by many people, and known by many names. Today we call it Iraq.

The best place to start reading is with the books of Bernard Lewis. He is a widely respected Middle Eastern scholar, a strong supporter of our Iraq policy, and a frequent adviser to the White House. He writes his books in a popular style, not for professionals. Try What Went Wrong?: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East or The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

If the War on Terror matters, if it’s important for American armed forces to occupy Iraq, then it’s good to know why we are there. Learning the history of that country – the culture, the riches, the wars and disasters – helps to make sense of things. I think everybody can do something. What are you doing?

America is My Home. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. One year my parents took the family on a vacation to California – driving across the country with five kids in a 1956 Buick. I don’t know how they put up with us – we used to fight to get a window seat. Dad had a great deal of patience, although he did threaten to put us all up for adoption in Nebraska.

We saw Yellowstone, Yosemite and Disneyland. We swam in the Pacific Ocean, and then we saw the Grand Canyon on the way home – going back to Chicago on Route 66 when it was two lanes of blacktop.

We stopped at a motel in Arkansas and the next day Dad hired a boat and a guide to float down the White River and fish for rainbow trout. My big brother got to go with him, but my Dad said there wasn’t room enough in the boat and I couldn’t come. That was the saddest day ever in my life. I didn’t act up, but I had tears running down my ten-year-old face – just about the coolest fishing trip of all time and I couldn’t go.

Dad was soft-hearted and he knew he had made kind of a problem, leaving me behind, let alone my three sisters and Mom. Poor guy – he had just about finished three weeks of showing five kids the best and grandest scenery in the U.S.A and all he wanted to do was go off for the day and catch some fish.

He deserved that much and we knew it. Later on, when I was fourteen, I got that special fishing trip, just me and him in northern Minnesota and I caught a smallmouth Bass on a fly rod, and that was the happiest day ever in my life.

Dad owned a small business, but he had national customers – from the West Coast to the East Coast, all around the Midwest and in the South too. Dad took us on other driving vacations around America and those trips formed in me a kind of attitude – that America is my home, and not just one part of it. He never said that Chicago was better than New York. He never said the Midwest was better than the South. In a small way he favored Missouri because he grew up there, but he had friends in almost every state and a kind word for the local scenery wherever that might be.

I am the same way. I love the whole country from one end to the other. I understand regional pride and some good-natured rivalry, but I am disturbed by this Red StateBlue State talk, that we are a divided nation with cultural differences, that California is better than Texas or vice versa, or that New York City is the worst place in the country – or else it’s the best place. I’ve been to Manhattan. New Yorkers are as friendly as anybody, except when they’re in a hurry, which is all the time. And people from Boston are much smarter than the rest of us, but they can’t help it if it’s true. People from Missouri are stubborn. Texans have done a little bragging. This is all just fun, but I don’t want it to go any farther than that.

The differences between Americans are debatable. Try to look someone in the eye, not getting mad, and just say, “I don’t agree with you.” That’s respectful. That’s how one American talks to another. Heck, I don’t agree with anybody. I saw a man the other day with an unusual number of tattoos, and I did have the urge to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that he had scribbled an inky mess all over his body. But I just smiled – my social tolerance was being tested.

I’m not from a Blue State or a Red State. Mr. Lincoln said, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” He enforced our Union. He settled that question. We are not going our separate ways.

Will Wal-Mart Always Be on Top?
Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest business with annual sales of more than $250 billion. When you get that big, you have critics. Labor activists call Wal-Mart a low-wage sweat shop, small local merchants are threatened by the competition from Wal-Mart’s legendary low prices, and those of us with “better taste” just think Wal-Mart is tacky.

I look at the history of business in America, and I don’t worry about it one way or another. What about IBM? They used to call it “Big Blue” back when IBM had close to a monopoly on the mainframe computer business. And the critics cried, “IBM is taking over the country. We better do something about IBM’s monopoly before they control everything.”

Didn’t happen. Instead we got the PC and the Apple personal computer in the 1980s. These new computers were smaller, cheaper, and very easy to use, and pretty soon they were in everybody’s home and office. IBM didn’t take over the country because some smart competitors came up with a better idea. One of those competitors was Microsoft and the Windows operating system developed by Bill Gates. Gates became the richest man in the world and Windows runs on 90 per cent of the world’s computers. Monopoly! Bill Gates will control our minds and take all our money! Stop him before it’s too late!

Won’t happen. Bill Gates is not the only smart man in America. Somebody will have a better idea. I use Windows on my computer, but I’m not married to it. I just switched from Internet Explorer, the Microsoft browser that almost everybody uses. I’m trying out Mozilla Foxfire instead. It’s a new product. Maybe it’s better than the one from Microsoft – I’ll let you know.

Let nature take its course in the business world. The time was if you bought a car it was made in Detroit by General Motors, Ford or Chrysler. The Big Three owned the car market well into the 1970s. Along came the Japanese models – Toyota, Honda, and Datsun – funny-looking little cars, but they ran and ran and ran and hardly needed fixing and people started buying them. We beat Japan in the war, and they turned around and beat Detroit in the car business. I’m a holdout myself. For me it always had to be a Ford, but I finally broke down last year and bought a Toyota and it runs really good.

Boeing had a monopoly on the commercial jet market until AirBus came along from Europe and took half of it away. Boeing screamed about the subsidies AirBus received from the governments of England and France, but the airlines don’t care about that. They only want to buy the best jet they can get for the least amount of money. That’s business.

It goes on like, even back to the railroads in Texas one hundred years ago. Back then you paid the railroad to ship your cotton or wheat to market and you didn’t argue about the price. The railroads made a lot of money – until Henry Ford began manufacturing cars by the millions and people found another way to bring their goods to market.

I used to get my oil changed at Wal-Mart. That’s a thirty mile round trip where I live, but it only cost $18. Then one day I came for an oil change and there was a long line and a forty-five minute wait. I didn’t like that. Now I get my oil changed here in town. It costs $24 but they also wash the car and vacuum the inside and I never have to wait. I skip the thirty-mile drive to Wal-Mart – that’s more than a gallon of gas, and gas isn’t getting any cheaper.

Wal-Mart always wins on the lowest price, but we also shop for value, for service, and for convenience. Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest business today, but I bet you that ten years from now it won’t be. The history of business in America shows the dominance of one business model only to be replaced by a newer, more competitive model. So I won’t join the Wal-Mart critics, I will just let nature takes its course.

It’s Not About the Oil. The war on terror is not about the oil. It’s not about weapons of mass destruction or America’s power to rule the world, and it’s not about Christians fighting Moslems – it’s about Eli Ben-Zaken, a friend of mine who lives in Israel.

Ben-Zaken was born in Cairo, Egypt, where his family had roots for many generations, but the Jews were kicked out of Egypt when Israel declared independence. Ben-Zaken became a refugee as a small child. His family moved to Italy where he grew up. He attended college in England and then settled in Israel as a young man. He first found work as a chicken farmer. Later he opened a restaurant in Jerusalem, which was successful.

But he didn’t like the quality of the local wines he served at his restaurant. Being an enterprising fellow, Ben-Zaken thought he could do better, so he bought some acreage and planted grapes and made his own wine. His first vintage was in 1992, consisting of two barrels, but the quality was very good, and the wine connoisseurs began to seek him out.

He built up his business, and bought more land and planted more grapes. He sent his son, Ariel Ben-Zaken, to study winemaking from the masters in France. He hired his son-in-law, Arnon Geva, to supervise the field crews. He dug out a cellar from the rocks and aged his wines there in oaken barrels.

He named his vineyard Domaine du Castel – the place of the castle -- because it was located near the ruins of a castle built 900 years ago by the Crusaders. The vineyard is in the Judean Hills, 15 miles from Jerusalem, at an elevation of 2,000 feet. The higher elevation protects the grapes from the scorching summer winds and the stony soil is perfect for growing grapes of several varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Domaine du Castel now sells 8,000 cases of wine per year and has an international reputation.

Eli Ben-Zaken, past 60 now, has never been active in Israeli politics. He is a family man and he runs a business. “My purpose is to make a good glass of wine.”

The peace and prosperity of Eli Ben-Zaken’s vineyard is what this war is all about, and our enemies are the people who say that Ben-Zaken has no right to exist – no right to exist!

Forget about the Sunnis and the Shias and the Kurds in Iraq. Forget about Hamas and Hezbollah on the West Bank, and all the factions and quarrels of the Middle East. Forget about the quarrels of Israeli politics between the Labor party and the Likud party and where the boundaries should be between the Palestinians and the Jews, and whether the settlers should stay in Gaza or leave. Just think of my friend Eli. He has a vineyard and he makes wine. He is a good steward of the land. He pays fair wages to his workers. He is free to practice his religion as he chooses. He is free to criticize his government. He is free to succeed or fail in his enterprise.

This is what we protect and defend. How the struggle goes and whether we fight with weapons as we do know, or hopefully negotiate across a table – it’s the same goal – that other people in the Middle East might have the same freedoms and responsibilities as Ben-Zaken has now.

This struggle is not about imposing American values on the Middle East. Ben-Zaken has a great respect for America but he has his own culture and language. He does not wish to imitate American life. Domaine du Castel is his home in the Judean Hills and he is willing to share it with other people.

Like many Israelis, Ben-Zaken says, “I can’t worry too much about the future. Because I am a pessimist I keep my passport in order and my bags packed. I have been a refugee before and I know it could happen again. But because I am also an optimist I am planting more grapevines and believing that Domaine du Castel will still be here for my grandchildren.”

For me, my wish is that soon I can travel to Israel and visit my friend. He says he makes a good glass of wine. I wish to taste it.

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