Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happy April Fools' Day!

Weird and Weirderer

Julius Caesar invented the Julian Calendar in 45 BC to reform the earlier Roman Calendar, which was based on the moon and found to be inadequate. Caesar’s new calendar introduced the concept of leap years every four years, as we have now. Regular years had 365 days, and leap years had 366, so the average year was 365.25 days. The Julian Calendar started the new year in March.

It worked fine for a while, but the actual solar year is about 11 minutes short of 365.25 days, so after a few centuries people noticed that particular days kept coming later in the year. Pope Gregory XIII fixed this in 1582 by removing leap years that are divisible by 100. This only happens three times every four centuries; we did it in 2000, which, under the Julian Calendar, would have been a leap year, but, under the Gregorian Calendar, was not. (Is everybody following this? There will be a test!) I know you were wondering why there wasn’t a Sadie Hawkins Day in 2000.

Gregory also changed the first of the year to January 1st. Lots of people rejected the new calendar and continued to use the old one. Since their calendar started in March, and since March came later each year, advocates of the new calendar called them foolish. It has been claimed that this is the derivation of the term “April fool.”

Whatever its origin, the world has never had a shortage of fools, in April or any other month. In honor of the holiday, here are some of the latest to claim the title:

Winning. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that among independent voters, Charlie Sheen would beat Sarah Palin in a presidential race, 41% to 36%.

What’s in a name? Lindsay Lohan has announced that she will join such luminaries as Cher (whose last name used to be Bono), Bono (whose last name used to be Cher), Madonna, and Sting, and will hereafter be known simply as Lindsay. I wonder how Lindsay would do in a poll with Charlie and Sarah.

Don’t make me LOL. The newest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has added “LOL” (laughing out loud) and “OMG” (oh my God), favored abbreviations of the text and tweet generation, to its list of words, citing them as “noteworthy” and saying they can now be found “outside of electronic contexts.” The OED also accepted the coinage of the term “muffin top” to describe the roll of fat that collects above the waistband of a pair of tight trousers. How did we ever do without that one?

Look! Short sleeves! Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor of the Russian Federation province of Chechnya (you know, the one bordered by Ingushetia, Stavropol, and Dagestan provinces and the country of Georgia), has imposed a dress code of “modest attire” for female citizens. What’s the penalty for violating this code? “Unknown men dressed like law enforcement officials” drive around in cars and shoot violators with paintball guns. “Ouch! He got me right in the muffin top!”

Teapot Dumb Scandal. Democrats have been singing in unison about how extreme the Tea Party is. Senate Republic[an] Leader Mitch McConnell disagrees. “Anybody who follows national politics knows that when it comes to a lot of the issues Americans care about most, Democrat[ic] leaders in Washington are pretty far outside the mainstream,” Mitch averred. “Despite the Democrat[ic] leadership’s talking points, these folks [the Tea Bags] are not radicals. They're our next-door neighbors and our friends,” he said. Maybe so, but they’re losing popularity. A CNN poll released March 30th shows that 47% of U.S. adults now have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, while 32% have a favorable view. This is a flip-flop since January, when the percentages were 33% favorable and 26% unfavorable.

States’ wrongs. The Tea Party has pretty much taken over the House of Representatives, but that isn’t enough for some of its supporters. Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX, the father of Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, and a darling of the Teapot crowd, has taken a page from the 1950s backlash against the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which determined that “separate but equal” schools for Whites and Blacks were unconstitutional. Many Southern members of Congress took the position then that states had the right to “nullify” that decision if they didn’t agree with it. Paul, Sr. dug that dead horse up and beat on it at an Iowa home-schoolers’ event. “The chances of us getting things changed around soon through the legislative process is not all that good,” he complained ungrammatically. “And that is why I am a strong endorser of the nullification movement, that states like this should just nullify these laws.” I’m sure the feds are just as prepared to contest the point today as they were in 1956.

Way to go, Bernie! What do Exxon Mobil, Bank of America, General Electric, Chevron, Boeing, Valero Energy, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, ConocoPhillips, and Carnival Cruise Lines have in common? According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, they are ten of the worst offenders when it comes to avoiding taxes. The Republicans in Congress have been complaining that U.S. corporate tax rates are too high, but they fail to mention the volumes of deductions and incentives and other loopholes in the tax code that allow huge corporations to avoid taxes even when they make large profits. The Center for Responsive Politics added that the ten companies Sanders targeted together spent $117 million on lobbying in 2010 – presumably to keep their tax breaks.

Call 911! An unidentified man pulled into Birdie’s Food and Fuel in LaPlace, LA, last month to fill his gas tank. The cost of regular, he said, was $3.049, but while he was pumping, the price in the little window changed to $3.189. The man complained to a store attendant, who just shrugged his shoulders, so he decided to appeal to a higher authority: he called 911. No charges were filed against the man for tying up the emergency line, and it turned out that he was getting his gas at the lower price anyway. A month later, $3.189 sounds mighty cheap!

Lost and found. A contract security guard found a package outside the federal building where he works in Detroit last February. He brought it in and put it in the “lost and found” area, where it sat unclaimed until March 18th, when someone decided it should be x-rayed. Yes, it was a bomb. The bomb squad recovered and detonated it. The building houses offices of Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI, the Social Security Administration, and, embarrassingly, the FBI. The rent-a-cop was suspended.

He’s back! Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican chief executivator of California, is returning. Just three months after he said “Hasta la vista, Baby!” and handed over the reins to Jerry Brown, Ahnold and Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee announced that an animated TV show and a comic book will chronicle the adventures of a former body-builder, actor, and California governor turned crime fighter called, of course, The Governator. No fooling!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hanging NPR in Effigy - III

NPR Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865.

In my defense of National Public Radio I have been very critical of the far right-wing media and their infidelity to the truth, especially their dalliances with such floozies as the “birther” nonsense. I have pooh-poohed Faux News’s claim to be “fair and balanced” while praising NPR for being “extremely fair to all points of view, bending over backwards to give every side a voice.”

Well, I have to admit I once caught NPR in an intentional lie.

I was working 68 miles away from my home, and Morning Edition and All Things Considered were welcome companions on my daily commute. I was able to track down the All Things Considered program to which I refer: it was aired on April 1, 2005, and you can listen to it here:

I know I risk giving fodder (good grief, I have to stop using these horse metaphors!) to those who would like to tear NPR apart, but I can’t withhold the truth.

The trusted, mellifluous tones of All Things Considered host Robert Siegal informed me of a real crisis occurring in the forests of New England. He said maple syrup sales were at an all-time low because of calorie-conscious consumers and foreign competition. Then he told me something about sugar maple trees that I didn’t know:

“Untapped maple trees can explode like gushers causing injury and sometimes death. If untended, quiet stands of nature’s sweetness can turn into spindly demons of destruction.”

He explained that the depressed market for the syrup had caused tree owners to neglect tapping their trees – with dire consequences:

“The Vermont Health Board reports 87 fatalities, 140 maimings, and a dozen decapitations from sap-buildup explosions this year. That’s the highest ever.”

I should explain that I live in New Mexico, where there are few sugar maple trees, if any. I’ve visited New England, but only in the summer, long after the sap-tapping season. So that night, I brought up the subject to my girlfriend, who once lived in Maine.

“Oh,” I said. “I learned something today on NPR that I didn’t know. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but I never knew that if you don’t tap sugar maple trees they explode!”

My girlfriend is something of a skeptic anyhow, but the look she gave me reflected more than skepticism. She pointedly asked me if I knew what the date was.

I must have been daydreaming or looking at the scenery as the story continued, or I might have figured it out for myself. Mr. Siegal explained that the maple syrup industry has been hurt “by a cheaper syrup knock-off from, of all places, the islands of the South Pacific. Here in Venoboff, formerly Danish Samoa, workers are making a cheaper maple syrup substitute. It’s called table syrup. They saw apart used maple tables, chairs, knickknacks. The expense of importing these pieces of furniture halfway around the world is more than made up for by abundant cheap labor, by the lack of unions, health care, government oversight.”

Danish Samoa? Don't expect NPR to tell the truth all the time. Not on the First of April, anyway.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hanging NPR in Effigy - II

Eggheads and Know-Nothings

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1762-1826.

I was born during the administration of Harry Truman, but the first sitting president I remember was Dwight Eisenhower. He was a Republican, and the Democrat who opposed him both times he ran, in 1952 and 1956, was Adlai Stevenson.

Stevenson: egghead.
Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate, Richard Nixon, called Stevenson an “egghead” during the 1952 campaign. I was not quite five years old, but I remember the fuss about it on the radio. (We didn’t get a television for several more years.) At the time I thought it was a very funny word. My mother tried to explain it to me, but I remember wondering why they were calling Stevenson an egghead when both he and Eisenhower were obviously quite bald.

“Egghead” was an epithet for an intellectual, and in some circles it was quite a disparaging term. Adlai Stevenson was smart and well-educated, Nixon was saying, and that made him suspect. I must admit I’ve never really understood that sentiment. But Eisenhower and Nixon won, both times.

Is that the problem with National Public Radio? It’s for eggheads? Is there something wrong with that?

Eisenhower: just bald.
(Wikipedia photos)
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, who led the crusade to pass HR-1076 to defund NPR, found it necessary to point out that NPR listeners were better educated than the U.S. population as a whole, and that they made more money. I would think parents who heard her statistics would encourage their children to listen to NPR. Apparently, in some circles, it produces the opposite reaction.

Blackburn and Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia both claimed that NPR’s news coverage was biased. Blackburn said taxpayers (she is quick to speak for all taxpayers) didn’t want to pay for programming “they do not agree with,” and Cantor said federal funding shouldn’t be used “to advocate one ideology.”

What the hell are they talking about? I’ve listened to the NPR news programs for decades, and I’ve always found them extremely fair to all points of view, bending over backwards to give every side a voice. The richness, depth, and diversity of the subjects NPR covers, compared to other news programs, are like a sip of Guinness Stout after a couple of cans of Coors Light. I’m assuming that it’s the news that offends Blackburn and her cronies and not Lake Woebegone or Click and Clack or Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me.

I can only assume it is that very richness, depth, and diversity that rankles the right. If you compare NPR with Faux News, you’ll find the former giving perspectives from several points of view while the latter repeats a single theme of gloom and doom and “us and them.” Perhaps Blackburn, et al, are afraid their followers will lose their way if they’re exposed to NPR. As the World War I song puts it, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe NPR is an insidious agent of subversive thought and not a refreshing compendium of interesting items from a diverse and complex world.

Nah. I just can’t go there. I’m sorry. As several Democratic representatives said during the debate, NPR is a national treasure.

There is one matter that wasn’t elaborated during the debate. HR-1076 prohibits local public radio stations from purchasing programming from NPR or any other source. My local station airs several non-NPR shows like “Democracy Now” and “Counterspin.” Perhaps it’s programs like this the Republicans are targeting under the blanket of NPR. No one ever accused Amy Goodman of being non-partisan.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think the raucous right really has a problem with Morning Edition and All Things Considered. They make people think. People who think don’t follow blindly and they ask too many questions. And that’s dangerous.

Ignorance is simply not knowing something, and can be corrected by instruction or research. Stupidity, though, is intentional ignorance, and is much more difficult to correct. Unfortunately, the United States has a long tradition of self-righteous stupidity that long pre-dates Nixon’s “egghead” epithet.

The “Know Nothing” party of the mid-Nineteenth Century wasn’t named for its lack of knowledge, but for its secrecy. It was an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration group of Protestant males of English heritage. When questioned about the party, members were instructed to reply, “I know nothing.”

What the Know Nothings feared was change, and the undermining of perceived authority and the status quo. The Scopes trial in 1925 reflected the same fears. In fact, fear itself is often the motivation of those who appear to reject rationality. If you don’t believe in global warming, you don’t have to worry about it. If you pass a law making English the official U.S. language, and build walls along the borders, maybe all those strange people with their strange words and strange foods who have moved into your neighborhood will go away.

National Public Radio celebrates new ideas and discoveries. It provides us with voices from all sorts of places expressing all sorts of opinions. Perhaps this is the problem: it engenders fear.

So how do ya keep ‘em down on the farm? Don’t let ‘em even hear about Paree!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hanging NPR in Effigy - I

Hypocrisy on Parade

“Hypocrisy: prejudice with a halo.” –Ambrose Bierce, 1842-1914.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs!” the Republicans said in the last campaign. Increasing employment would be their mantra, their crusade, their sacred priority.

How’s that working out for them? Well, as soon as the new session started the House of Representatives dug up the dead horse they call “Obamacare” and beat on it for several days, finally passing a repeal that is just as dead as the horse in the Senate. They balked and bridled (sorry about these horse metaphors) at passing a continuing resolution for spending during the current fiscal year, which is already half over, demanding draconian cuts and only postponing the inevitable for two weeks, and then another three weeks – which will be up very soon. And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, they took time to debate an “emergency” bill that never saw the inside of a committee room to cut funding for National Public Radio, and passed it, 228 to 192.

Jobs, it seems, are on the back burner while these more important matters are dealt with.

The NPR fiasco was billed as an emergency because it would save money. This was a brazen lie, but one that didn’t seem to embarrass anyone who presented it.

House Resolution 1076 would cut off federal funding for NPR, and would prohibit public radio stations across the country from using their federal funding to purchase NPR’s – or anyone else’s – programs. They would have to use the money they collect from listeners in those long, boring pledge drives to create their own programming in-house.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, doled out the time for the Republicans. She started out by telling the truth: she said HR-1076 was “a bill to get the federal government and federal taxpayers out of the business of buying radio programs they do not agree with.” That was the real purpose of the legislation, not saving an insignificant amount of money.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-CO, was the original sponsor of the bill. He was less honest.

“According to NPR,” he said, “federal funding to supplement operations amounts to less than two percent of its annual budget. Some have said this Congress should not bother with such a small amount of money. Only in Washington would anyone say $64 million is not worth saving.”

Aha! Now we have a dollar amount. This is roughly equivalent to the cost of the 110 Tomahawk missiles that were fired at Libya on Saturday, or about twice the amount it cost us to buy the F-15 fighter jet that crashed there on Monday.

“You have to start somewhere,” Lamborn continued, “if you’re truly serious about getting our fiscal house in order.”

Yeah. Truly serious. We only need to find 218,749 cuts of equal size to zero out our $14 trillion national debt.

The House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-VA, weighed in next.

“…we’ve seen NPR and its programming often veer far from what most Americans would like to see as far as expenditure of their taxpayer dollars,” he said. Later he asked, “Why should we use taxpayer dollars to be used to advocate one ideology?”

Cantor, too, was being truthful. It’s the content, not the cost, that riles him and his colleagues.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, tried to shame the Republicans with satire for bringing up such a trivial “emergency.”

“Crisis averted, ladies and gentlemen!” he began. “What a relief! What a relief! I’m glad we got the economy back going. I’m glad we’ve secured our nuclear power plants. I’m so glad the Americans are back to work. We’ve finally found out our problem! We discovered a target we can all agree upon! It’s these guys! This is the problem! It’s Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers!”

He held up a poster of the silly but popular brothers on NPR who give callers advice on problems they’re having with their cars. Weiner’s humor provided a short but welcome break in the dismal doings.

Rep. Blackburn brought out some statistics. She said about 65% of NPR listeners have bachelor’s degrees, compared to only a quarter of the population as a whole. She said NPR listeners have a median household income of about $86,000 annually, compared to a national figure of about $55,000, and could easily afford to cover the cost of buying NPR programming. Then she propounded the underlying fallacy:

“This debate is about saving – taxpayer – money!” she prevaricated strenuously. Then she assured us that “the American taxpayer has said, ‘get NPR out of our pockets!’”

I am always reluctant to accept the claim of a party that was elected by a majority of a minority (the 2010 election brought out less than 41% of eligible voters) that it speaks for “the American taxpayer” or “the American people.”

I have primarily been quoting Republicans, because their statements were so outrageous, but congressional debates are like tennis matches, with each side getting a shot in turn, and a succession of Democrats interspersed the GOP remarks to point out the high quality of NPR programming, its growing listenership (if that’s really a word), and the fact that the bill would not reduce the amount of money going to local stations; it would just restrict the use of that money. There would be no significant savings gained by passing it.

Blackburn demurred, pointing out that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and three other federal agencies give direct funding to NPR amounting to some $1.5 million to $3 million per year.

(Aha! Another real number! If we cut $3 million, we’d only need 4,666,665 cuts of equal size to pay off the national debt.)

“Our country does – not – have – the – money to spend on this!” Blackburn insisted, emphasizing each word and working up to a real harangue: “NPR does not need the money; they will not be able to get these grants; we will save those dollars! The American taxpayer (there she goes again) has said, ‘Get your fiscal house in order!’ This is a step in that process. I know they (the Democrats, presumably, and not the American taxpayers) don’t like it, but you know what? This is something, this is something we can do, this is something we will do, this is something the American people (t.s.g.a.) want to make certain that we do, so that we get this nation back on a firm fiscal and sound fiscal policy. The day has come that the out-of-control federal spending has to stop! A good place to start is by taking NPR out of the taxpayer pocket!”

Enough of that. Here are two of the more rational comments:

Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, the longest serving member of the House, said, “The majority continues to force members of this body to waste the time and energy of the House, a critical asset of this nation, on political witch hunts with respect to health care and the environment. Now we find that we’re adding public broadcasting to this list. Public broadcasting is a national treasure. It provides us impartial, honest coverage of facts and news. It provides information not available elsewhere, and, yes, it sheds a little bit of culture on our people, something which, probably, my Republican colleagues find offensive. It has done so at very low cost to the public…”

Rep. James Moran, D-VA, said, “This has nothing to do with the deficit. It’s an infinitesimal fraction of our national debt. It jeopardizes nine thousand jobs and it distracts us from solving the real problems this nation faces while trying to destroy one of the primary sources of an enlightened electorate.”

What is this all really about? Obviously it is not about money. What is it about “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” and all those other great programs on NPR that is such a burr under the Republican saddle? (I promise: no more horse metaphors.)

I’ll try to examine that question in my next post. Right now I’m worn out from all the invective.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Have We Had Enough of This Nonsense?

What an Unfortunate Waste of Time

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1969.

The three-ring circus currently playing in the House of Representatives, on Faux News, and on all those clear-channel radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh and his clones isn’t just annoying and reprehensible, it’s keeping our country from its true destiny as the exemplar of liberty and the leader of human progress.

The United States of America has a dark history of ethnic, sexual, religious, and economic inequality, but we have made great progress in righting those wrongs over the 234 years of our existence. The Ranting Right would like to reverse that progress.

We have built our economic stability by creating a large middle class through universal education and protections for those who work. The Party of No and its new fringe group, the Party of Hell No, are doing what they can to “dumb down” the populace and stifle the demands of labor.

We have made astonishing advances in science and technology that have made our country wealthy while improving every aspect of our daily lives, including the purity of our air, water, food, and medicine. All these improvements are at risk in the hands of the Backlash Boys of the radical right.

We have created a regulated capitalist economic system that encourages entrepreneurship while restricting the fraud and abuse to which unfettered economies are prone. Several decades of Grand Old Party initiatives gradually dismantled the protections put in place after the Great Depression, the inevitable fraud and abuse occurred and almost caused Great Depression II, and now the Republicans are doing all they can to convince the electorate that it was the fault of the Democrats.

But what’s worse than any of the errors in this catalogue is the current GOP message that the United States is bankrupt, financially and morally, and that it has lost its pre-eminence in the world.

This is not true. Over the course of our history we have come together to fight a revolution, survive an incredibly bloody civil war, and make the sacrifices necessary to win two world wars. Meanwhile we have continued to make things better for each new generation despite booms and busts and social strife. We have two and a half centuries of “can do” tradition and indomitable spirit. Our inventions and innovations have been the envy of the planet, as has been the liberty enjoyed by our people.

Yes, we’re having a hard time – a very hard time. The people on the bottom are the ones feeling it the most. Increasing gas prices, for example, may be a nuisance to the wealthy, but they are disastrous to the poor and much of the working class. The last gas price increase was the trigger that ignited the collapse in 2008, and most people haven’t yet recovered. Now the price is rising again, not because of reduced supply, but because of speculation – again.

Meanwhile, the new majority in the House is passing cuts that hurt these same people in other ways. We’re in dire straits, they say, and we have to cut unemployment compensation, Pell grants, Head Start, homeless veteran programs, and on and on.

It’s as if Dad, who had maxed out the family credit cards by purchasing a new Cadillac SUV, a wide-screen TV, and season tickets to the Cardinal games, were to call a family meeting and suggest that the kids needed to cut out their school lunches. It’s upside-down thinking and it’s unconscionable.

Even if we were to cut out the entire discretionary budget we wouldn’t be able to get out of this hole. We have to increase our revenue. The Republicans got a lot of votes last November by promising to create more jobs, but what have they done? Well, they’ve tried to repeal the health care act and cut funding for research and development, and they’ve taken pot-shots at some of their favorite targets such as National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood. In Wisconsin they’re targeting teachers and other public employees. In Georgia they’re trying to tax Girl Scout cookies.

Where are the jobs?

Well, they’re not where they used to be. New jobs are going to have to come from new industries. The federal government can help create those industries in two major ways: by educating the workforce and supporting research and development. If we cut spending in those areas, we’ll be cutting our collective throat.

We also need to help those who already have jobs. The best way we can do that is to reform the tax code, to reduce the tax burden on those who are struggling and cut out the tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.

And, yes, we need to cut duplicative and inefficient spending. That may well include welfare and housing and employment programs that overlap each other, but it should also include the many wasteful corners of the unaudited military budget and some of the corporate welfare in the farm budget.

I don’t usually agree with Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, but thanks to his efforts we now have a partial list of government programs, and it is revealing a lot of waste and duplicate effort. Consolidating such programs could reduce administrative costs without hurting those they are intended to help. But this won’t be enough to do the job.

One nice result of helping those who are unemployed get jobs and those who are employed increase their financial security is a reduction in welfare, Food Stamps, utility assistance, health care and rental subsidies, and unemployment expenses. And gainful employment is the only way we can increase revenue and begin chipping away at the debt and its concomitant interest expense.

So should we freak out, give up, throw in the towel, admit defeat? Certainly not. We were making good progress ten years ago when Bush, Jr. took over. With a little luck and a lot of common sense, we’ll start making progress again.

The United States is not broke. The United States has not lost its place in the world. All of our problems are temporary and can be remedied, not by draconian cuts that hurt the working class but by confidence and investment in our people.

Republicans, Teabags, and corporate media hacks: Stop wasting our time!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Whoops! Blogger Makes Blooper!

Boy, did I get taken in. In my previous post I showed a picture of this sign from the Westboro Baptist Church that read "God Hates Happy People." Well, it was a fake. Somebody has set up a web site ( where you can type in your own message. I was so busy looking for examples of placards this despicable group has displayed that I didn't check the site out carefully enough.

Mea culpa. These yoyos may have had a sign that said God hates happy people -- they've quite a repertory of "God hates" messages -- but the photo I posted is a fake.

For more counter-Westboro signs see as well

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Law We Can Live With

Having a First Amendment Isn’t Easy

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” –The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Two unrelated news items I saw this week point out the difficulties we brought upon ourselves by adding the above words to our Constitution. Please be assured that I am in no way advocating the slightest change to those words; I’m just pointing out that the exercise of those freedoms can be annoying and even a source of outrage.

 “The freedom of speech” can be a prickly thing. It includes, as these news items make clear, the right to be despicable and the right to lie.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, to picket gravesite ceremonies of U.S. soldiers. The church’s placards have included such messages as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Is Your Enemy,” “Thank God for 9/11,” “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America,” and, perhaps most telling, “God Hates Happy People.” These are not happy people.

The court ruled eight to one that these hateful messages were protected under the First Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that in this country we have chosen “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Of course, he is right. It was the correct decision. We have to live with this kind of thing if we want to maintain our own right to say what we think.

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” wrote the lone dissenter on the court, Justice Samuel Alito. We all tend to agree with his sentiment, but look again at his words: “vicious” is a very subjective adjective while “assault” is quite objectively defined in the law. Although the vast majority of citizens would agree that the Westboro placards represented “vicious verbal assault,” it’s very difficult to prohibit such activities without curtailing the rights of others.

I agree with the chief justice. We just have to live with it.

On a lighter note, while we also have to live with the lack of journalistic integrity of Faux News and the Limbaugh clones, Canada has managed to avoid them. Robert Kennedy, Jr. reports that our neighbor to the north has a law that forbids lying on broadcast news (

“Canada's Radio Act requires that ‘a licenser [I think that should be “licensee”] may not broadcast ... any false or misleading news,’” Kennedy writes. “The provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk radio out of Canada and helped make Canada a model for liberal democracy and freedom. As a result of that law, Canadians enjoy high quality news coverage, including the kind of foreign affairs and investigative journalism that flourished in this country before Ronald Reagan abolished the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in 1987. Political dialogue in Canada is marked by civility, modesty, honesty, collegiality, and idealism that have pretty much disappeared on the US airwaves.”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We could sure use more civility and all those other attributes down here.

But, once again, we have chosen to bend over backwards “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Go ahead and lie, Rush. Keep the “birther” nonsense coming, Faux. The First Amendment’s got you covered.

On the other hand, Rush and his cronies have to put up with people like me.

To paraphrase a slogan that supported the national 55-mph speed limit, “The First Amendment. It’s a law we can live with.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Reagan Legacy

Hell, Yes, It’s Class Warfare!

“The ten most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.’” –Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004.

The centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth was celebrated recently. It gave those who revere his memory yet another opportunity to extol his virtues and his triumphs. Over the years I have been amazed at the reverence in which he is held. Someone even suggested adding his mug to the ones already on Mount Rushmore.

I remember the Reagan Administration with less affection.

My first memory of Ronald Reagan was back in the early days of television, when he hosted a show called, as I remember, General Electric Theater.

“At General Electric, progress is our most important product,” he would say at the end of each show. I was in the third grade or thereabouts, and I found him unctuous and insincere. I don’t know why, but I never really changed my mind about him.

When he was elected governor of California, I thought to myself, “Well, what do you expect from California?” (Later I had the same thought about Arnold Schwarzenegger.) When he ran for president, I thought that surely the citizens of the United States wouldn’t elect “that B-actor.”

Well, they did. Somebody called him “The Great Communicator,” but I never thought he was all that eloquent. I simply did not get it.

His eight years in office were almost as painful to me as the eight years of Bush, Jr. I disagreed with most everything he said and did, and towards the end I thought he was simply getting senile.

His stature in the Republican Party was, and is, just the opposite. He gave his supporters great hope and encouragement, and among them he is still their shining city on the hill. I take a more cynical view: his message, as I perceived it, was, “It’s O.K. to be selfish.” Oh, I know, I’m misreading his call for self-reliance and personal responsibility, but I still see it as, “I’ve got mine and you’re not going to take it away from me.”

It was during his time in office, and in large part through his efforts, that the “Christian Right” became a major force in the GOP, and the traditional fiscal conservatism of the party got all mixed up with “social conservatism” – which I perceived as bigotry and xenophobia. The Republican Party does not have a very big natural constituency because its primary concern is protecting the wealthy, so assimilating what was then called the “moral majority” (which, someone noted, was neither) made good political sense. That alliance has continued for the thirty-some years since.

Reagan increased defense spending significantly, which his supporters still maintain forced the Soviet Union to do the same, resulting in its collapse. I have never understood that logic.

Reagan preached limited government, and his party members drank deep of that Kool-Aid.

But his greatest legacy is what one of his primary opponents (George Bush, Sr., who later became his vice president and then succeeded him in office) called “voodoo economics,” and what the media nicknamed “trickle-down economics.” Its basic tenet is to leave the rich alone so that they will create jobs that will benefit those in less rarefied financial strata. It was nothing new – in the previous century this was referred to as “laissez-faire,” or “let them (the wealthy) alone” economics.

And how is that working out for us? You’ve probably heard a number of statistics that demonstrate how the poor and middle class in this country have been going downhill since Reagan was elected, but now Mother Jones magazine has collected eleven graphs that show that progression, well, graphically ( Citations are provided for each graph so you can check their veracity. Here’s the first one; the others are just as dismal:

Some of these graphs show changes over time, and if you didn’t live through all this, as I did, remember that Reagan (R) was elected in 1980 and 1984; Bush, Sr. (R) in 1988; Clinton (D) in 1992 and 1996; Bush, Jr. (R) in 2000 and 2004; and Obama (D) in 2008.

I think we all recognize and accept that in a capitalist system there will be poor people, rich people, and very rich people, but when the inequality between them continues to widen, there’s truly a problem. The Middle Class has been the bulwark of our country, and it is shrinking dramatically. It’s an old cliché that the rich get richer and the poor poorer, but when it actually happens, it creates havoc, and when it happens at this lightning speed, it spells imminent disaster.

How do we stop this, or at least start “bending the curve?”

I would suggest revising the tax code and reforming campaign financing. I can’t think of anything more important, or more difficult, but if we cannot make significant changes in both of these areas, we face a future of economic decline or political revolt, or both.

The very wealthy spend immense amounts of money to persuade people that it’s really their fault that they aren’t wealthy, too, that if they just had enough “personal responsibility” and weren’t such crybabies, they wouldn’t have fallen in a hole. In Wisconsin, the governor and his cronies are blaming teachers (who, they say, get far too much full-time pay for part-time work and have bloated retirement plans) and other working people for the current recession. Unfortunately, we never have a shortage of gullible people who will accept just about anything that they see on television.

I hope the Mother Jones link gives you some of the ammunition you need to counter these pernicious assertions. We have to fix this before our republic devolves into despotic plutocracy. It’s not far down the road.

You bet it’s class warfare. And Uncle Sam needs you!