Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In the Czech Republic

I've spent the past few days in the Czech Republic, including Prague, which I first visited during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It's hard for any visit to measure up to that particular one, given the emotional poignancy of those glorious days when hope and change weren't empty slogans. And, alas, the old city has continued its inevitable transformation into EuroDisney East, complete with Segways and, yes, Starbucks in the Hrad. But we all knew that would happen.

In my limited sampling, what's really impressive is how prosperous and peaceful small town Bohemia and Moravia seem, a quarter century later, and the extensive infrastructure that's been built in recent years, from highways to neighborhood revitalization to university expansion to a network of truly top-notch zoos, of all things. I haven't researched it, but I imagine there must be some European Union money behind it all, but for an American living in the Northeast, where bridges, highways, and rail systems are lucky to hold their own, it's hard not to be given pause. Did we drain all our cash into the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan? Even if we had more of it, would there not be a political fight over any effort to, say, revitalize passenger rail in the northeast or give Atlanta the public transportation system it needs and deserves?

One thing is for sure: twenty-five years ago I wouldn't have dreamed that I'd be looking at provincial Czech infrastructure and institutions and be wondering how we've managed to fall behind.


Friday, May 15, 2015

In Salzburg

I'm in the midst of a trip in Central Europe, the first in several years. I lived in this part of the world for the better part of the 1990s and it's good to be back.

A few observations after five years' absence.

1. The region has discovered "take out coffee." This is a good thing. I wonder if Starbucks, a relatively new arrival, is responsible for this long-delayed innovation.

2. The Austrians still hold the Post-Imperial Area title for motorway engineering. If we Americans spent as much as they must have to build sound barriers in even the most rural of areas, I suspect it would have paid itself back in improved property values alone. It's still jarring to go from limping across southern Moravia or south Slovakia to the meticulously engineered, tunnel-intensive autobahnen, where the original 1967 Mission Impossible television soundtrack is required driving music.

3. In Budapest, the trend has continued, and it is now nearly impossible to find good Hungarian food in restaurants. The best gulyas I've had so far in the region was in Štúrovo, an ethnic Hungarian community in South Slovakia. Somebody needs to give Budapest's chefs some remedial education in the old ways.

4. If you want to see a town defy Rust Belt-ism, go to Zlin in the Czech Republic, the former Bata shoe factory town-cum-Capitalist worker's utopia. I wrote about the city five years ago in the Christian Science Monitor and the trend has only continued. The old factory complex -- largely empty last I visited -- is now a thriving neighborhood of hipster lofts, university expansion buildings, and business start-ups. And if this rural corner of the Czech Republic can build a rapidly expanding public university -- with new buildings popping up every year -- why can't Maine manage to keep the University of Southern Maine from imploding? I suspect this has to do with leadership, municipal, academic, and state.

5. Hungarian politics are as bad as they say. One could ask, "Who votes for this guy?" But I'm from Maine, so I don't need to.








Monday, April 27, 2015

What is the Midwest?


There's a movement afoot among Midwestern historians to revive the region's identity. Spearheaded by South Dakota's Jon Lauck, author of The Lost Region, it aims to spark an intellectual conversation about the region's identity, history, and culture. Here's Lauck, who is also counsel to Sen. John Thune, talking with the Argus-Leader:

“When you start looking for Midwestern history, one of the first things you figure out is that there’s not much (written). In previous generations, people had a better sense of who they were. Now the culture they breathe in and absorb every day is from the national media outlets. We exist in an atmosphere that is divorced of place. Local institutions and influence have been diluted.”

They've started a new regional history association, complete with a journal and, this week, are convening for a significant academic conference at the Hauensteun Center for Presidential Studies at Michigan's Grand Valley State University. I'll be giving a keynote at the conference, providing some continental-scale context via my most recent book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

I'm a bit of a spoiler in that I argue that, in cultural terms, there isn't really a single "Midwest" but rather three or four of them, depending on where you chose to draw the lines. This, I will suggest, is why the region has had less success in sustaining a separate identity and historical tradition than, say, "the South" or New England. People argue about what is and isn't the Midwest because they're using very different criteria.

A few very recent cases in point:

Hearing that a Midwestern history conference was taking place in Michigan, this writer at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggested that if there is a "Midwest", Michigan and Minnesota can't be in it at the same time. "Not to take anything away from Michigan, she writes, "but it gives recent talk about declaring Minnesota the epicenter of a new region called “North” a whiff of legitimacy."

Midwestern native John Saunders, having read American Nations and Albion's Seed, suggests there isn't one Midwest, or four (as I would argue), but five, and he's created a multi-part discussion of his regions at his blog. (It's his map at the top of this post.)

Jon Lauck and his colleagues recently held a panel discussion just to determine where the Midwest ends and the "Great Plains" begin, which I gather wasn't an easy task.

Or this extended discussion of the unsettled boundaries of Illinois' regional divisions, reposted by Reboot Illinois.

One Midwest or many, I'm looking forward to the proceedings.




Thursday, April 23, 2015

Maine: Gov. LePage slams door on cooperation with tribes


In yesterday's Portland Press Herald I have the news that Maine Gov. Paul LePage has revoked his own 2011 executive order directing state agencies and departments to work toward better cooperation and communication with the state's four federally-recognized Indian tribes.

Reaction has been one-sidedly negative. Here's Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis in the story:

“I don’t understand the value of the governor of the state taking the time to revoke such an order,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, whose reservation is north of Old Town. “It does nothing but fuel an already volatile relationship.

“It seems like what they are saying at the end of the day is that we will respect your sovereignty as long as you do what we tell you. That’s not how sovereign relationships work.”

The governor's office has nothing further to say. They didn't respond to requests for comment, and simply read the Associated Press part of the preamble of the governor's written revocation order.

The Penobscot Nation is involved in a dispute between the federal government and the state over water pollution in the Penobscot River, while both tribes have a long history of conflict with the state over the meaning of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Acts, described briefly here as part of my 31-part series "Unsettled." (The latter available as an ebook here.) LePage has expressed anger over the federal government having effectively backed the Penobscot point of view in regards to water pollution, calling an Environmental Protection Agency decision to that effect "outrageous."

The AP and MPBN both picked up the story, and the Press Herald's editorial board ran this editorial on the issue today.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Introducing Left Coast, the magazine

Last week saw the launch of a new web-based magazine, Left Coast, which credits American Nations as its conceptual inspiration. Here's an excerpt from their About Us page:

"Living in a Left Coast city, you have more in common with people thousands of miles away in other Left Coast cities than you do with people in inland cities much nearer to you geographically. Left Coast reflects this shared experience and culture, allowing us to get to know ourselves in a deep and meaningful way.
Perhaps like us, you’ve grown weary of the rancorous national debate that seems to go nowhere—especially when so many of the topics are a nonissue on the Left Coast. It’s like we had this debate maybe 30 years ago, and now we’re over it and we’ve moved on, and it gets exasperating to debate these things with people who live elsewhere. It can also leave us feeling like our own region is stagnating.
Wouldn’t it be great if we, like Dash in The Incredibles, could simply run as fast as we wanted to? Yes it would."
The early articles include a look at how the hybrid Appalachian/Yankee origins of the region are reflected in some of its music and a take on how to make the best of rising seas.

Good fun. Now someone needs to start Yankeedom.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Jack DeCoster, Maine's most infamous businessman, gets jail sentence

Austin "Jack" DeCoster, Maine's most infamous businessman, is going to jail for his egg company's role in a 2010 salmonella outbreak that may have sickened as many as 54,000. For many of those who've followed his sordid career, the biggest question is why it took so long.

As I detailed in Tuesday's Portland Press Herald and, in 2011, in Down East and the Portland Phoenix, DeCoster has repeatedly violated all manner of laws and regulations: labor, environmental, workplace safety, public health, immigration, contract, and animal safety. Here's the nut from the Press Herald piece:

"Over the past half-century, Jack DeCoster’s companies have paid millions in fines and damages for everything from faking trucking logs and knowingly hiring illegal immigrants to environmental contamination, animal cruelty, workplace safety problems, and the exploitation of workers, including the alleged rapes of female employees by supervisors and the terrorizing of workers housed in squalid, crowded, cockroach-infested company trailers at his Maine farms."

He's always had enablers, though. As recently as 2011, his local state legislators -- Dale Crafts and Jeff Timberlake -- were trying to pass a law to weaken labor protections on his Maine farms; it almost passed because a number of people gave false legislative testimony in regards to his recent record in the state. (I learned while reporting at the time that there's no penalty for lying to Maine lawmakers, even for attorneys and lawmakers, because nobody does so under oath.)

I'd link to the articles I wrote at the time, but the new owners of Down East and the Phoenix no longer make their archives available online. (And, while on the topic: what happened to the Phoenix archive? Is it damaged? Do the owners care?)

Jack and his son, Peter (who also got three months), have the right to appeal the sentence, but have already plead guilty to charges. Their company is paying almost $7 million in fines for their role in the outbreak.






Thursday, April 2, 2015

GE is Yankee, Coca-Cola Deep Southern: do regional cultures shape corporate ones?

I enjoy seeing the many applications of the framework set forth in my fourth book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. From college football conferences to the governance of the United Methodist Church, practitioners have availed themselves of the model to better understand the world they operate in.

Here's another example: corporate behavioral consultant Rossina Gil's recent three-part series on the relationship between the American Nations and the corporate cultures of various firms that emerged from one or another of them. Here's a taste, on New Netherland:

VALUES
Tolerance, upward mobility, and an overwhelming emphasis on private enterprise are tenets which are really the legacy of the United Provinces of the Netherlands.  And, while New Netherland had Tammany Hall (i.e. political machine associated with corruption and abuse of power), it has come to value cultural diversity, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.

CORPORATE EXAMPLE- Goldman Sachs
Strong Diversity, Work Ethic, Meritocracy, Entrepreneurialism
“Goldman Sachs genuinely makes a concerted effort to hire a diverse pool of people and ensure that there is a culture fit at the point of hiring. This is definitely not PR/lip service to the concept but a fundamental belief amongst senior management.”
“Environment conducive to taking initiative, challenges and making your opinions count.  Hard work. Long hours. You may have to forgo the ‘life’ part of the ‘work-life balance’ sometimes!”
“There is an entrepreneurial culture/attitude which is part of the DNA of the firm and allows anyone with a good idea to flourish and succeed. There is a great collegiate atmosphere on the trading floors where MD’s will sit next to new graduates and share thoughts and experiences.”
 Here are links to Part I ("the North"), Part II ("the South") and Part III ("the West".)