Sunday, April 26, 2015

War on Christianity in the US? - I think not

Full disclosure:  The article you are about to read (or not), is written by an atheist.   So, if that's enough to turn you off from the rest of the column, then so be it. I can respect that.  I only disclose my atheism to establish a baseline up front from where my perspective on the topic of the article comes from.  If that tells you I'm bias, o.k., but I'd just ask that you give the article some consideration and think about it a bit.  This article will not slam people of faith. I don't do that. I have no axe to grind with people who believe in a God or Gods as long as they don't attempt to impose those beliefs on me through coercion, legislation, or force. I will in turn not ask you to substantiate your beliefs, because while I know that is as impossible as proving that there's not a ceramic teapot orbiting the earth at this very moment it is irrelevant to me.  Believe what you want to believe. I respect many people of faith and appreciate the way they live their faith through their actions.   I also do not respect many people of faith because of their actions and words.  That is what this article is about as well as the "Twilight Zone" reality that many of the people quoted seem to reside in.  So, here goes, and I'd like to get your comments and opinion. 
Ah yes, the political silly season has started again (actually, does it ever end? I'd like a break in the foolishness sometimes.  Maybe just a day or two.)in full force and along with that, we now see cries from folks such as Mike Huckabee that there is a literal "war" on Christians in this country.   Mr. Huckabee said this past week that "The United States is moving toward "criminalization of Christianity" as a result of legalizing same-sex marriage."   He went on to say "I think it's fair to say that Christian convictions are under attack as never before, Not just in our lifetime, but ever before in the history of this great nation."  The article, published in Politico (click the link for the full text) suggest that because of a movement towards same-sex marriage equality, we are at war with Mr. Huckabee and those who believe what he believes.  Well, I would suggest that the term "war" is a bit over the top.  No one is launching cruise missiles at Mr. Huckabee or for that matter any Christian church in the nation as far as I know.  But, that aside, Mr. Huckabee has decided that Christians are under attack because people are beginning to come to the conclusion that same-sex marriage isn't the evil it has been purported to be, and that in the interest of fairness, gay people should have the same rights relative to marriage as non-gay people.  Mr. Huckabee is an ordained minister, and oh yes, a former Governor of Arkansas, and oh yes, a former presidential candidate who won a primary in Iowa in 2008, and finally, oh yes, a likely candidate for president again in 2016.   So, is Mr. Huckabee's assertion one from deeply believed convictions or is it a straw-man argument to gain support from the more fundamentally religious voters?  I'll let you be the judge of that.  However,   This "movement towards criminalization of Christianity" that Mr. Huckabee is on about seems to me to be more about being against same-sex marriage than it is persecuting people's religious beliefs. 

Let's get a little context before we go on.  There is indeed religious persecution in this world. There are countries who sanction it.  One of them is Saudi Arabia, who will lock you up for proselytizing faiths other than the state sanctioned religion.  In many countries in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Iran, China, and many other countries, you can be considered criminal for practicing a faith that is not sanctioned by the state.  There is no doubt that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and many other religions are seeing their followers attacked, killed or imprisoned and this is simply flat wrong.   However, there is no such activity going on in this country nor will there ever be.  Why?  Because we are a nation of multiples.  The core make up of this country is one of infused thoughts and ideas from many places across the world.  Different religious beliefs abound in the United States.  There are thousands of different sects of Christians practicing their religion in the United States.  There are Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Pagans, Scientologists, Native Americans who have multiple faiths, and on, and on and on.  We have a as a country gone to great lengths to respect the religious religious beliefs of our fellow Americans.  I see no overt attempt to deny any one's right to worship or believe in what they choose to believe, until it begins to invade another person's rights.   The maxim that "your right to swing your fist ends before it hits my nose" is appropriate here.  You're faith can inform you, it can comfort you, it can provide strength or peace.  What it should never do is put the people that do not share your beliefs or whose lifestyle you find repugnant into a situation where they are denied the same legal protection of rights and privileges you hold dear.

The sticking point here is about a person's "faith" informing them that pizzeria owners can decide not to serve you a pizza if you're gay.  They believe that a business, which while maybe a private business, but must still abide by the laws of this land and utilizes the "commons" (roads, bridges, and other services paid for by the tax payers without which they could not do business) can discriminate based on their beliefs.  

Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's chief executive and he himself perhaps a presidential contender in 2016, recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled 'I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage" has suggested that because "Our country was founded on the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Why shouldn't an individual or business have the right to cite, in a court proceeding, religious liberty as a reason for not participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony that violates a sincerely held religious belief?" businesses should be allowed to discriminate against same sex couples in the normal course of their business operations.  OK, Governor Jindal's state, like many others have adopted over the last few years laws such as Louisiana's "Religious Freedom Restoration Act", which essentially codifies discrimination.   The governor will tell you that it doesn't, it simply protects businesses from legal action because of their religious beliefs.  So, essentially while you're not supposed to discriminate, the legislation provides a "fire-wall" of defense in case you get sued in a civil action that will protect you.   As long as your religious beliefs could have been violated if you were forced to sell a gay couple that pizza, when you refused to do so, and the couple sued you, you would be protected.  

This type of subversive legislation is being passed by many states (see Indiana's recent imbroglio as an example) as a measure of "protecting religious liberty".  Suppose, then if  I'm a follower of Jack Lalane, the exercise guru in the 1960s and 1970's, and my fellow followers petitioned the federal government and got affirmation that yes we were indeed a religion (see Scientology). My religion is called Lalanisty. Now, I run a donut shop  in Baton Rouge.  I should be able to deny a fat person a donut because my religious beliefs inform me that I should only be required to sell donuts to healthy, skinny people. This is basically the basis of Governor Jindal's and those who support these types of legislation arguments.  Because they find what you do repugnant, they shouldn't have to serve you.   

The idea of this of course is not new.  It's been around a long time.  When reason begins to take hold, and fear and ignorance fall by the way side, issues like same-sex marriage start to gain acceptance.  The more ardent believers that the issue is wrong begins to justify continuing it's bigotry with religious justifications or "natural law" justifications.  Here's an example of the thinking about another issue that when you read them are easily transported into the 21st century in discussions around same-sex marriage:
  1.  "They cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies those laws which forbid the intermarriage of blacks and whites" - State v. Jackson, Missouri (1883)
  2.  "The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the offspring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate (...)They are productive of evil, and evil only, without any corresponding good." - Scott v. Georgia (1869)
  3.  "The law's stated purpose was to prevent abominable mixture and spurious issue."  It "forbade miscegenation on the grounds that racial mixing was scientifically unsound and would 'pollute' America with mixed-blood offspring." - Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924
  4. . "By the laws of Massachusetts intermarriages between these races are forbidden as criminal.  Why forbidden? Simply because natural instinct revolts as it as wrong." - Senator James R. Doolittle (D-WI), (1863)
  5.  "Intermarriages between white persons and Negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral."  - Scott v. Sandford (1857)
  6.  "Although there is no verse in the Bible that dogmatically says the races should not intermarry, the whole plan of God as He has dealt with the races down through the ages indicate that interracial marriage is not best for man." - Bob Jones University (1998), yes, you read that right.  1998.
All of these citations of course are about the thinking around interracial marriage.  It wasn't until the Supreme Court put this issue to rest in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, that the matter was given legal protection by the United States, and it became illegal for those people who objected on religious grounds to perform a civil marriage, or even a sectarian marriage between interracial couples.
Guess what?  The Republic stands.  The "immorality and unnaturalness" of interracial marriages was based on fear and ignorance, and when finally the prohibitions were done away with, we recognize as a society that the views, however faithfully subscribed to, on this topic were wrong.  During this time frame, there were similar cries of religious persecution against those who believed in their heart of hearts that racial integration through marriage was wrong.  It's time for us as a country to do the same with the issue of same-sex marriage equality.  There are 36 states who have legalized marriage between same-sex couples.  Guess what?  The Republic stands.
I would suggest to you that the notion of a war on Christianity is simply false.  The idea is being pushed by politicians and certain religious leaders as a way of dividing people and ginning up votes or money.  By the way, why is it that several religious leaders in the Christian family of denominations have no problem with homosexuality or marrying same sex couples?  They preach from the same Bible that those who find it "un-Christian", as Mr. Huckabee evidently does.  They worship the same Jesus. They keep the same commandments.   It's curious to me.

I'd like to hear from those who disagree, and actually believe that somehow Christians are being persecuted.  I'm not interested in ad hominem attacks, but a serious discussion on how you see the issue.   

Tell me what you think.
Regards,
Dennis



Thursday, April 23, 2015

The 2016 Presidential Election - Off and Running

So, it has begun.   On 3/23/2015, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas formally declared his candidacy to become the 45th President of these United States of America.  597 days to election day, the junior senator from Texas launched the official campaign season to replace President Obama as the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania avenue. 

Since that time, Hillary Clinton, the presumptive candidate for the Democratic party's nomination, Marco Rubio, Republican senator from Florida, and Rand Paul, Republican senator from Kentucky have also formally declared that they are in the race to gain your vote to become President.  And soon, we'll likely hear from former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker, former Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Chris Christie, former Governor Rick Perry and a host of others who are vying for the nomination of the GOP to compete against Ms. Clinton, who at this time has no serious declared opposition.

So what are we to make of this field of GOP candidates?  Certainly, they are getting off to an early start.  It seems like the 2012 election just happened, and the new candidates are off and running again.  In my life time, I do not recall the tournament beginning as early as this one has.  The field of potential candidates is too large to make a prediction on who will eventually win the GOP nomination.  There are according to www.politicks.org, a seemingly non-partisan and fairly objective site that is tracking candidates, 29 potential candidates for the GOP nomination, 12 of whom have formally declared.  Now, all but 3 of the declared candidates are unlikely to be heard of by the general public, but nonetheless the field is crowded at this point.

Indeed, the slate of candidates and potential candidates includes business leaders, politicians, an ordained minister and even a neurosurgeon.   The field of politicians includes 10 governors (either sitting or former), that include the likes of Bush, Walker, Christie, but also Huckabee, Jindahl, Kasich, Pataki, Erlich, Snyder and a few others.  The business leaders include Carly Fiorina, the former HP CEO, and the omnipresent Donald J. Trump, real estate mogul and TV personality.  The array of candidates will provide an interesting mix of experience, point of view, and hopefully some comic relief as they careen toward the primary season.   I expect several of the candidates known and unknown will fall aside due to lack of funding, interest, or other factors.  Certainly, the poll from CNN which was conducted between April 16-19 and is shown on the graphic indicates that "Other Candidates or None of the Above" are currently leading 8 of the candidates shown.  That can't be too uplifting for Chris Christie or Rick Perry, but it's early days. Who knows?  One or more of them may vault to the top before this thing is done.  What is certain, is that we will soon be seeing a never ending stream of political ads, You-Tube videos, and never ending bloviating from the punditry on who will be the nominee. 

As this race is just beginning, and it's a fools errand to pick a nominee at this point, I'm going to publish series of articles on this blog that will highlight the differences in the candidates and their specific views and experiences on those factors that would make a president.   The methodology I will use is described below, and will be ironically objective, because as anyone who has read this blog or knows me can attest, I will not be voting for any of them.  As an avowed Liberal, not one of these individuals will get my support or money.  So, I can be objective about their attributes both positive and negative from the standpoint of who will have the best chance of winning the nomination.   There will be no comparison to Hillary Clinton or any other Independent candidate, and I'll focus on the following factors to make my evaluation of the candidates:

1. Experience - What experience does the candidate possess that makes them more qualified than another for leading a country?
2. Leadership - What leadership traits does the potential candidate possess that makes them suited for the office?
3. Vision - What views, thoughts, ideas, perspectives does the potential candidate possess that can capture the nation's attention and support?
4. Empathy - Does the candidate have a track record of understanding the American people from the wealthiest to the poorest? Is the candidate in touch with the country at large?

Those four factors while general in nature are critical to understanding a person's ability to be President.  Rating the candidates will be done on a 5 point scale, with 1 being a value that indicates the highest qualifications in the category and 5 being the lowest.   In my next article, I'll have the weighting descriptions described for the entire scale.   

The evaluation of the candidates will be my own, and not an indicator of who I necessarily think will win the nomination, but who I think should win the nomination.   As to who will win, we will leverage the same CNN Poll that shows the initial standings of the candidates and comment on week to week changes  where the competitors stack up against each other.  I will make a prediction on the nominee in January of 2016, which even then may be too early as the primary season will not yet be in full bloom.  Until then, I will provide as much information on the candidates as I can in order to give the reader a worthwhile use of their time. 

I'm interested to hear if there are other factors you consider when picking a candidate for President.  Please let me know, as we can certainly consider adding those to the mix. 

Tell me what you think.

Regards,
Dennis

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Religious Freedom?

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana is having a rough weekend.  The reason?  His signature of Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.).  Upon signing the bill, Governor Pence said:  “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”

Within hours of signing the legislation the backlash on the bill started.  Several significant business leaders have decried the decision including the CEO of Salesforce.com, Apple's CEO Tim Cook, and the CEO of Gen Con LLC, who was planning on holding a major convention in Indianapolis and who now is considering canceling or relocating the convention.  The convention would infuse the state with an estimated $50M of revenue.   The reason people have come out so strongly against the decision to sign the bill is that they believe it gives corporations and individuals the right to discriminate against same sex couples.   Effectively, the law legalizes discrimination against gays.

The supporters of the bill argue that this supports religious freedom in that someone cannot be compelled to offer services or goods in violation of their religious beliefs.   This is not a new phenomenon.  Similar laws are on the books in 19 states, so perhaps Governor Pence felt like this wouldn't cause the firestorm of controversy the passage of the bill ignited.

The passage of the bill and the statement by Governor Pence (full text here) have set out another battleground in the current civil rights struggle regarding equality for LGBT people.  The bill's detractors are mobilizing en masse, and boycotts, social networking campaigns, celebrity and political voices raised against the passage are indicators that this issue will not be ignored.

What Governor Pence and the supporters of the bill claim is that they are protecting religious freedom.  Their point of view is that if you are religious, your religious beliefs trump the reality of day to day life.  You, as a religious person with a business can claim that your life is somehow adversely impacted by doing what you do every day, which is to sell your goods and services to consumers.  Somehow, simply because someone is gay and you are forced to serve them you have been injured.  The Governor and the authors of the legislation have a myopic view on this, because attempting to protect one's beliefs is causing injury to others.  There is an old maxim that is relevant in this discussion:  "The right for you to swing your fist stops at my nose..."  I think however, this has less to do with religious freedom than it does with religious disapproval of a person because of their sexual orientation.

The legislation, like many other similar laws passed by other states are in my opinion the dying throes of an antiquated and bigoted philosophy.  I sincerely believe that in 50 years our grand kids and their children will look back on this time and say "What were they thinking?"  It's already happening, but old prejudices die hard (see Ferguson) and hate has a long memory.   What I cannot abide though is the notion that a religious person (and face it folks, we're talking "Christians" here) would believe that the central figure in their faith would behave this way with gays anymore than he would with left-handed people, short people, fat people, tall people, and well you get the point.   Jesus Christ never had anything to say about gays.  Nothing, nada, zip.  The man was silent on a subject that seems to consume a large population of his followers to the point they will picket funerals, bully people, and pass laws that make discrimination against them legal.  I simply don't understand the idea that someone who said "Love thy neighbor as thyself" would sanction this behavior towards fellow humans.

Prejudice is all around us and in us. We all have our biases.  I for example, absolutely despise banjo music and think all banjos should be gathered up and thrown in a land-fill never to have their twangy, plucky, irritating sound heard again for eternity.  But, hey, I'm not trying to get anti-banjo legislation passed because my religious beliefs prohibit that horrible noise.   I get the prejudice. Guess what?  If you don't like gay marriage, don't get married to someone of the same sex.  If you don't like gay sex, then don't have it. There is an easy way to deal with this, and it's called "put on your big-boy pants and get over it".

I don't understand someone claiming treating people equally somehow violates your religious freedom.   If your religion compels you to behave this way perhaps you have the wrong religion.  Or, more likely, you're cherry picking the teachings of your faith to fit your particular prejudice.  It's not like it hasn't been done before.  For hundreds of years, "good Christian people" used religion to subjugate, terrorize, and murder people who didn't look like them or think like them or worship like them.  It's happening today with certain sects and factions in the Islamic community.  It will likely continue until people finally realize the commandments and directives they believe in are not derived by their gods but are actually manipulations written by some humans with an agenda.

It's no surprise to anyone who has read my articles that I am an Atheist.  The reason I am an Atheist is that I do not believe in a "God" who behaves worse in general than his/her/it's creation.   Am I certain there is no God?  No.  Just like those who believe in God are not certain there is.  Certainty requires evidence, and not simply faith.  Evidence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent deity is sorely lacking.  I digress though, as this isn't a rant against religion (that will come later).  The point of this post is twofold. One, we are humans and are different in as many ways as we are similar.  We are also a progressive species, and over time this ridiculous idea that gays are flawed humans or are "wrong" will fade into the dustbin of history.  Just as we don't burn witches at the stake anymore, we will one day not have absurd arguments about gays and their choice or lack thereof of life-style.

Finally,  and somewhat back to religion for a moment:  
I have an incredibly hard time believing that this guy (an ordained Presbyterian Minister) would be so hateful and prejudiced against other people because he spent his life telling people that "He liked them just they way they are".  Even though I'm an Atheist, I believe there has been no one in my lifetime that exemplified the teachings of Jesus Christ with respect to loving one's neighbor better than Fred Rogers.  If you think for a moment that this man didn't live his life in a manner that respects Jesus and truly represents Christianity, then your definition of Christian needs some additional thought.  Also, if you think for a moment that this gentle, wise and authentically kind person would support a law like the one passed in Indiana, then you need to go back and watch a few of the episodes of the "Neighborhood".  I think you'll come away with a different point of view. 


To couch this legislation as religious freedom protection should upset people of faith.  It is using their faith as a tool of manipulation to provide cover for bigotry and hatred.  I think the Governor and in particular the authors of this legislation should be ashamed of themselves and I would only ask them this:  If your child was gay, would you be proud that a store in Indiana can refuse to sell them a meal, or a suit, or a car because of who they are?  Seriously?

Tell me what you think,

regards,
Dennis

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Why I'm not supporting Hillary for 2016

The recent revelations of Ms. Clinton's failure to comply with government regulations regarding the use of email notwithstanding, I will not be supporting her almost inevitable bid for the presidency in 2016.  The reasons are many, and I will detail a few o them here.  However, before anyone believes I'm jumping ships over to the clown car that contains the group of the latest Republican wannabes, let me dispel that now.  I will not support a bunch of people that don't espouse belief in science, in diplomacy, in a women's right to control her own body, in marriage equality, or in dealing with income inequality and poverty.  The host of utter disappointments in the Republican field are as bad as they have ever been, and there is no way in hell that I'd lift a finger to support these charlatans.

Now that being said, let me return to the topic at hand.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, Senator from New York, Secretary of State of the United States, is without a doubt a capable and intelligent woman.  She is also emblematic of what is wrong with politics in the United States today.  For too long, (at least since the 1980's) we have seen political parties do their best to convince the country that they are the "saviors" of America and just buying into their spiel will put things right.  To be sure, that's the way the system works.  One side derides the other, while both are claiming to want what is best for the population at large.  Listen to them both carefully, boil down their messages and essentially they say the same thing over and over again.  We want an America where every one can progress and achieve the American Dream!  We want a secure and strong America!  We want to make absolutely sure that you know we're the right party for you and those other guys are (insert whatever invective, pejorative, denigration or derision you want here).

Ms. Clinton has been in the public eye since the 1970's, when she partnered with William Jefferson Clinton, probably the greatest political campaigner and thinker about politics that I have ever seen in my lifetime.  She and Bill forged a partnership in the early 1970's and she transformed herself from a Goldwater Republican to a McGovern backing liberal.  Mr. Clinton has gone through many transformations himself.  Again, from being a McCarthy, McGovern liberal to transforming into a center-right Democrat as he needed to regain the governorship in Arkansas and eventually become the 42nd President of the United States.

Something happened along the way from Little Rock to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Both of them moved into the seductive and almost irresistible arena of big money politics.  Now, this may have been a political necessity, because if you don't get elected, you can't govern.  You can't get elected unless you compete, and in the latter part of the 20th century and certainly in the last two decades of the 21st century, you can't compete or get elected unless you have money.

The Clintons learned this lesson quickly as they are both incredibly intelligent people.  I believe they made a conscious decision that steers toward the meme that the "ends justify the means".  In other words, they would sell-out to Wall Street and other big-money people so they could get to the White House and then govern as best they could.  I believe that both are idealistic in some areas.  The work they have taken on is substantial and hard, and there are many other ways to get wealthy, so this isn't about personal, material gain. It is about power.   Power.  The ability to influence people and events to your manner of thinking.  The ability to force people and events into behaving the way you want them to.  It is I believe the singular drive for Ms. Clinton as it was for her husband.  They are in my mind the real-life model for Frank and Claire Underwood from the Netflix series House of Cards.  Now, I do not believe they would resort to the deviltry and chicanery that the Underwoods have done on their way to Pennsylvania Avenue.  That of course is fiction (by the way, I think series 3 is vastly disappointing).    I do believe however they are thinking first about how to arrange the chessboard in their favor. I think they will use whatever means necessary to achieve their goals.  Therein lies the problem to me.  When anyone moves beyond doing what is right for the people they serve to the doing what is right for them, then they have lost sight of what the job is.

Ms. Clinton is smart. She is accomplished.  In terms of capability, she puts her erstwhile competition over in the GOP clown car to shame.  She would probably get elected in a cake-walk.  But I hope not.  I hope she thinks about this and decides to forgo the campaign.  She won't, because like her husband, the White House is the goal, and for whatever rationalized reasons she comes up with, she believes she is the best person to be President.   I don't.  I'm looking for a game-changer.  I want someone that can look up on the job as a job and something that requires commitment to the values and vision the candidates campaign on.  What I foresee in a Clinton administration is more triangulation, more gamesmanship, more working around the edges of a problem than actually fixing it.  I see an administration that will be too cozy with the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Diamonds and not one that will focus on the hard work to resolve the hard problems in the country.  I see a massively divisive government if she is elected, even more so that the current situation, because before their was Barack Obama, there was Bill and Hillary.  I remember well the invective thrown at the Clintons by the Republicans then and they look like amateurs compared with the nest of vipers in the GOP today.  So, there will be even more noise about perceived wrongs and executive overreach with a Clinton Administration.  I think the country is exhausted with this noise out of Washington. I certainly am.

I don't see anyone who has shown an interest in the job that fits that mold though and it is disappointing.  It's certainly early and there's always a chance someone might enter into the fray that is focused on really solving problems versus accumulating power.  

So, this liberal will not be supporting the presumed nominee for the Democratic Party.  I am looking for something else.  I wonder what Bill Gates is up to these days?

Tell me what you think.

regards,
Dennis

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson - Now What?

Like many, I watched the announcement of the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for the death of Michael Brown.   The St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, rambled on regarding the process and facts presented to the Grand Jury for a good 8 minutes before finally announcing the no-bill.   Now, there were several things wrong with this whole event.  First and foremost, they made the announcement at around 9pm in the evening, after announcing the day before that the Grand Jury's decision  would be forthcoming.  So, what did this do?  It allowed the people waiting on the decision to build up an enormous amount of emotion on the issue.   Rather than announcing it in the morning, they wrongly waited until the evening.  I suppose they were attempting to plan for the aftermath of the announcement and get police prepared.  Then of course, what everyone expected to happen did indeed happen.  Despite pleas from Michael Brown's parents to protest without resorting to violence, violence occurred.  It was inevitable for many reasons.  First, there were people who regardless of the decision would act out.  Second, there are people genuinely upset with the police, the district attorney, the governor, the country at -large and acted out of despair and hopelessness.  Thankfully, the damage and injury was contained somewhat. It could have been much worse.  The sad thing is the whole situation never had to result in the outcome that occurred on Monday evening.


Mr. McCulloch, the prosecutor with responsibilities to present the facts of the case to the Grand Jury bungled this whole thing from the start.  First of all, they waited far too long to impanel the Grand Jury. Then, the process by which the Grand Jury reviewed the information seemed to be intentionally focused towards confusion.  In most cases, prosecuting attorneys present a recommended charge for the Grand Jury to consider in weighing the information presented.  The point is this: Does the information presented support a specific charge to the point that an indictment is warranted?   Mr. McCulloch did a "data dump" of thousands of pages of information regarding the case, had several different witnesses, including Officer Wilson testify in front of the Grand Jury, and presented a list of "possible charges" the Grand Jury could consider.  Now, this is unusual for many reasons. First, the lack of a recommended charge. Secondly, testimony from the Officer.  This rarely happens in a closed Grand Jury hearing.   The testimony given by Officer Wilson is an amazing account of the incident, and in my view it had an influence on the decision to indict or not.  The point here is, that a Grand Jury hearing is not a trial.  It is a hearing to determine whether there should be a trial.  Given the outcome and the history of Mr. McCulloch's tenure as prosecuting attorney, the result of this doesn't pass the sniff test of credibility in my view.   This decision to no-bill could have been the proper one. But, so much time had passed, and so much dysfunction from the prosecutor's office polluted the sense that this was a fair process that the decision is dubious whether proper or not.

We have an officer with a very suspicious story about the events of August 9th who will not be taken to trial.  Officer Wilson's account of the day in his testimony do not square up with witness accounts, or even his own initial reports of what happened.
That's not necessarily a surprise, as often witness accounts vary and sometimes change based on time.  But the fact of the matter are this:  Officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots from his gun, seven of which entered Michael Brown's body.   Officer Wilson indicated that Mr. Brown attacked him while he was still sitting in his police cruiser, attempted to grab his gun, and then ran away, then ran back towards the officer.   Mr. Brown at one time was about 150 feet away from the officer, who continued to discharge his weapon.  Officer Wilson, up to this incident had never discharged his fire-arm in the line of duty.  This time, however, he fired twelve rounds at an 18 year old man.   He killed a man that was under suspicion for robbing a convenience store.   His account of the incident suggests a confrontation with a "demon" like figure who Officer Wilson was afraid would beat him to death.

Perhaps all of that was true.  Perhaps Mr. Brown was a superhuman
that could run through a series of bullets and get to Officer Wilson and hurt or kill him.  Perhaps the accounts of the incident came down exactly the way Officer Wilson describes it.  The first question I have and a lot of other people have is why did it have to happen?  Officer Wilson, in his own words describes Mr. Brown as being aggressive from the point of initial contact.  If this is true, and as Officer Wilson describes it, he called for back-up, why didn't he wait?  Why didn't he withdraw from the situation until more support could arrive?  Why, did he continue to involve himself into a situation that escalated to the point that an 18 year old was killed?  What was the hurry?  This was a confrontation that didn't have to be a life or death situation.  The circumstances could have been De-escalated and with additional support Mr. Brown could have been confronted, arrested and then dealt with in a proper manner.  Instead, we have a dead kid (yes, an 18 year old is a kid), an officer whose life is forever altered and a set of parents who had to put their kid into a casket and into the ground way too early.

Police violence has become an all too frequent affair.  Since August 9, 2014, there have been 14 teenagers shot and killed by police officers.  We are seeing more and more aggression from police that includes an severe increase in shootings and violent confrontations.  I believe there are many reasons for this and have some thoughts on how to attempt to resolve what seems to be an ever escalating level of violence.

First, some observations on the current state of affairs:

1. The "war on drugs" is responsible for much of the confrontation occurring between police and young people.  The aggressive policing, "no-knock" searches, stop and frisk policies, etc. establish an immediate and palpable level of suspicion for the police.
2. Disproportionate responses to incidents with militarized police procedures.   SWAT teams, riot gear, tear-gas, and a higher level of aggressive response is causing more and more violence.  SWAT teams used to be specialized tactical forces that were only called out in the most dire of circumstances. Now, in some jurisdictions, SWAT teams are delivering an executing search warrants.
3. Police that does not represent the community.  In Ferguson specifically, this is a major problem.  Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, and has a population of about 20 thousand people.  Two-thirds of the residents in Ferguson are black.  The police force in Ferguson has 53 officers, 3 of which are black.  The police actions are skewed disproportionately toward incidents with black citizens of the community.  In 2013, there were 5318 "police stops" (traffic tickets are a major source of city revenue in Ferguson. It is a notorious speed-trap).  Of the 5318 stops, 4632 were tops of black citizens and 686 were of white citizens.  That's a 87% to 13% or about a 6 to 1 ratio.  Now, I don't think the black people in Ferguson are that heavy footed, and even with the population being 66% black, it's still a highly inflated figure.   The data on arrests is no better. In 2013,  there were 521 arrests made by the Ferguson police department.  of the 521 arrests made, 483 were of black citizens and 36 were of white citizens. That's a 93%  to 7% or about 13 to 1 ratio.  Now considering that only 5% of the police officers in Ferguson are black, and 93% of the arrests in 2013 were of black people I wonder what the perspective of blacks toward the police might be? 

Now,  how to address:

1. Politicians have to get off their asses and do the hard work of diffusing the aggression and acrimony between police and the citizenry, particularly the lower income communities.   They can do this by focusing on engagement rather than estrangement.  Instead of running on a "tough on crime" stance with bellicose statements and policies that enforce things like mandatory minimum drug offenses they have other choices.  They can get into the community and work with the business leaders, clergy, educators, and others to increase community policing, alternative discipline strategies for first offenders and the like.  This approach is having success in some cities. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake in Baltimore and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans are seeing some successful response from the communities with this approach.  Coupled with a change in approach, we must stop the insanity that is the manner by which we deal with drug offenders.  The amount of arrests and incarceration for drug offenses is idiotic and has proven to be an abject failure. Getting cops out of putting cuffs on a kid for holding a joint and back to  protecting that kid from a dealer will go along way to get some credibility back in the community.

2. Get the beat-cop back on the beat.  Rather than having fewer cops, we need more.  We need more that are engaged and known in the community and are not walking down the street looking like they are about to engage Al-Qaeda in Mosul or Fallujah.   During the Clinton administration, funding was delivered from the federal government that help put several thousand police back on the street, and in particular on the "beat", where they became known and familiar. Guess what, in those areas, crime rates dropped.

3. Get a police force, and for that matter a government that is representative of the community.  The Ferguson example is ridiculous.  There is little chance for a community that is overwhelmingly unrepresented in city government and in the police force to heal and trust each other particularly when the statistics about police behavior are so upside down.

4. Better technology and training for police.  It's clear the situation with Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown could have been avoided with better actions on the part of the Officer.  Training officers on alternative approaches to confrontation would be useful.   Body-Cams recording incidents between citizenry and the police would be immensely useful in situations like the one between Wilson and Brown.  Having a visual record of the events would allow for an objective view of the incident and could have quelled the violence and rioting that occurred last Monday regardless of what happened.  We should have mandatory body-cams on patrolling officers.  It will help them. It will help the citizenry.  It will help the good cops and will deter bad behavior.   Why this isn't standard police gear just like their weapon or handcuffs or radios are beyond me.

5. Do a much faster job of investigating police shootings or violence.  There is no reason why it has taken from August until now to come to resolution on the Wilson / Brown issue.  The amount of time taken, along with the leaks from various sources only inflame a situation like this.  Fast and aggressive investigation with transparency in the process can help.  Every facet of local and state government in this case failed.  The Governor should have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate this instead of Mr. McCulloch because of his close association with the Ferguson police department.  Now, whether or not that impacted his approach on this is immaterial. The perception it conveys to the public is what matters.  An independent investigator not associated with the police would have given the perception of objectivity and could have given the community a level of confidence that this wasn't rigged in Officer Wilson's favor from the beginning.

We have an opportunity to learn from this monumental fuck-up and do better.  We have to do better. It makes me sick to my stomach to see this happen over and over again.  We can be a better nation than this.  If we expect people to respect the rule of law, then the rule of law has to work effectively.  It certainly is not doing so now.

Tell me what you think.

Dennis





Wednesday, November 05, 2014

So, That Happened

Well, what a night.  If you are like me, it wasn't a very good night.  The 2014 mid-terms swept Republicans into control of the Senate, boosted the majority in the House of Representatives and swept several Democratic governors out of office.  It was a massive victory for the GOP.  It remains to be seen if it is a massive victory for the country.  Certainly, there was a bow-wave of Republican energy in the election.   The overwhelming victories the party of Reagan racked up cannot be attributed to anything other than the people of this country want the GOP to govern.  At least the people who voted.   Now, it's very early to point to the exact reasons why the elections turned out the way they did.  There will be months of analysis of exit polls, discussions and debates on why things went the way they did. There will be accusations, there will be explanations, there will be whining from my side of the aisle, there will be gloating from the other side.  All of that has its time and place and will eventually be out there for us all to talk and debate about. But, in advance of all of the talk that will fill the radio and TV time in the near future, let me offer up some observations on what happened.

1. The country is sick of politics and government in general. The political machine in this country has become a never-ending cycle of attacks, cynicism and gamesmanship focused on nothing more than trying to convince one side is the devil and one side is the angel.  The money that has been poured into the process on both sides of the political spectrum is astounding, and it's become tiring to continually watch and hear the governing process in this country tear itself apart. People are rightly disgusted with the process and last night it was manifested in two ways:  The first is voter apathy.   It's still early to see the exact numbers, but turn-out seemed to be lower than usual for mid-terms.  Now, for older voters, it seemed like that turn-out was up, but for the below 30 year old crowd, it was pathetic.  This is a sign of apathy from the electorate and disconnection of the government to the people.  So, the party that openly despises government in general won in large numbers last night. Why?  Because they seized upon the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness that the people have with the government and did a brilliant job of focusing all of that energy on one specific person.   The President of the United States.

2. The country is massively dissatisfied with the President.  President Obama's job approval rating is sitting about 40% and has been this way for a long time.  Interestingly enough, the party that won big last night have a general job approval rating in Congress of something like 14%.  However, it's easy to focus on one person than a group of people, and it's apparent that the country has had it with the President.   Either by voting against him or not voting at all, the young man who offered "Hope and Change" in 2008 has taken another major loss in the mid-term elections.   It's not surprising that the party out of the White House loses ground in Congress in mid-terms.  This is especially true in the mid-terms during the 2nd term of a President, any President.  It's happened to every 2 term president since Reagan, but this thumping was massive.  The President's own party ran away from him in almost every race.  It's clear that the folks who were energized to support the President were far outdone by the folks who were energized to oppose him. 

3. The election seemed to be not about issues but anger.  Core conservative ballot measures, such as Personhood bills went down in defeat everywhere they were on the ballot.  Marijuana legalization referendums passed everywhere they were on the ballot except Florida.   So, on specific issues that were on the ballot, seemed be tilted towards more progressive attitudes.  However, this didn't hold true for the people on the ballot.  Candidates such as Joni Ernst in Iowa, a Tea Party favorite, took Tom Harkin's open Senate seat rather handily.  She and several others on the ballot last night voiced the anger at Washington and could pose big problems for presumed Majority Leader McConnell after the new Congresss comes in to office next January.  All over the country, expressions of distrust and dissatisfaction with Washington's lack of action were voiced with the candidates who won. 

4. Conservatives have made their case.  I'm totally surprised that Sam Brownback won reelection in Kansas.  Same with Pat Roberts in Kansas.  Both candidates were deeply flawed and in Brownback's case, his track record for the state has been horrible. Yet, he was reelected.  Rick Scott, the deeply unpopular governor in Florida won reelection over a former Republican Charlie Crist.    In Texas, Wendy Davis's campaign was obliterated by Gregg Abbott, a conservative candidate with the charisma of a snail.   As a liberal, atheist, gay-rights and tree-hugging, union loving voter, this of course saddens me deeply, but you have to acknowledge when you are on the wrong side of the country's perspective, and it's clear that I am. The conservative movement in the country is strong, and it is likely to make the 2016 presidential race very competitive. 

All in all, this was a blow-out.  There's no other way to describe what happened and one must congratulate the winners.  They did the work, pounded the pavement, convinced the voters they were on the right side of the issues and were successful.   I hope this energy translates into something good and useful for the country.  Even with our differences in political views, the people are much closer together than it seems. All of us want the country to have a good economy, security from harm, and an ability to leave a place better for our kids. So, we have once again an opportunity to do something useful.  I hope the GOP will leverage this massive victory into something positive. I hope the President will find a way to work with this new Congress and throw out the last 6 years of obstruction and grid-lock.  It remains to be seen what will come of this, but every two years we have a chance to reset, start fresh and do something good. We've not done that in a long time, and I think that is what the country emphatically told us last night.

Tell me what you think.

regards,
Dennis

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

"Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they'd never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children's Crusade
 
Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
 
The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation
 
Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History's lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children's Crusade" - From "Children's Crusade", Sting, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles", 1984.



Today, we (some of us anyway) will pause and reflect for a moment about Memorial Day.  Initially called "Decoration Day", to honor those lost in the Civil War, Memorial Day became an official Federal holiday in 1967.   The day's meaning is really not lost on anyone. We will celebrate the sacrifice of our soldiers' loss for our country.  Usually, our politicians will soap up the day with speeches calling these fallen heroes and that they made their sacrifice for "freedom".  To be sure, some of that is true, but it is also true, that like many issues that should be much more important and prevalent to us daily, we as a country don't really think that much about the sons and daughters we have lost in combat.  We think even less of those who were fortunate enough to survive combat and make it home, but are unfortunate in the respect that they carry the physical, mental and emotional scars of bearing situations that most of us will never experience in our lifetimes.  

We're a country of war.  We were born of war during our revolution, and have been embroiled in military conflict in almost every decade of our existence.  The horrors of the Civil War, where brother fought against brother was the most egregious loss of life in combat in our history.  Over 700 thousand perished in the war.  In our nation's history, there is only one decade that there were no recorded deaths from military conflict.  That decade?  The 1820's.   That's right.  In every decade since the 1770's, American soldiers have fought and died in conflict except in the 1820's.   Total lost in the conflicts across our history run to 1.3 million dead and 1.5 million wounded.  In our recent history, the "war on terror" has claimed over 6,700 dead and more than 50 thousand wounded.

We of course honor our fallen and wounded on Memorial Day. We know they have taken a task many of us wouldn't (including me) sign up for.   Their deaths are a horrible payment that has been made for a country that on about every other day of the year generally ignores them.  We've seen the general attitude in Washington from both parties to make the soldier a tool that is used for political purposes and then cast aside until they are needed again to promote some policy, gain advantage during an election or accuse the other party of some level of ineptitude, misconduct, or other sin.

The recent events with the Veteran's Administration highlight what I'm talking about.  In 2008, President Obama, made dealing with the backlog of claims filed by veteran's with the V.A. one of major talking points of his campaign. He was going to clean the mess up and get the care to our veteran's that was needed.  He appointed General Erick Shinseki, a retired general who got it right about the number of troops needed in Iraq and was summarily booted out by the Bush Administration for telling the truth.  President Obama put General Shinseki in charge of cleaning up a bloated and inefficient administration that's sole purpose was to make sure veterans got the services they needed when they left military service.  Health care, financial assistance, educational assistance, and other services are provided by the V.A.  In many respects they do a good job.  Once you can actually get medical care, it is usually very good. The problem is handling the claims.  We have well over a million veterans alive today dating back to the Korean War and some from World War II.  It is a big job to ensure these people get the services they need.  While the current administration has indeed made some improvements, they are still failing.  Worse, now, it turns out that some of the work done by the V.A. was to "cook the books" and basically lie about the improvements on reducing claims backlogs.   This is a moral stain on an administration (Obama's) and on a system (V.A.) that should be better than this.  We know how this goes.  A directive comes from the President to fix the problem.  His secretary of the V.A. crafts the policy requirements and delineates it down to the organization.  The organization attempts to comply by the policy and some, fearing loss of job, shame or reprimand or whatever, lie about their progress.  They cook the books to say things are better.  They are found out.  The lie becomes public.  The lie becomes scandal.  Now it becomes political.  The other guys are now very interested in the troubles at the administration even though they voted to cut funding from the very organization they are now so concerned about.  The President has to speak about the problem and of course declare how mad he is about this.  Calls for General Shinseki's head on a platter abound, not only by the talk show punditry (most of whom never served a day in their life.  Rush I'm talking about you), but also by members of Congress, from both parties, because they are "shocked!, shocked! to find out there are troubles at the VA!).   It is monumental hypocrisy to hear criticism from Congress about this.  It makes me want to vomit how hypocritical they are on this topic.

General Shinseki should resign.  Not because he cooked the books. He didn't.  But, he is the leader of this organization, and as the leader, he bears responsibility and accountability for its actions.   The resignation of this man, would be the honorable thing to do and General Shinseki is an honorable man.  I don't think he will resign because I believe the administration will pressure him to stay.  If he does resign, the noise level will not reduce, it will enlarge.  The opposition to the President will not say that this was the right thing to do and we'll support the President in getting this fixed. No, they will use it as a cudgel to beat this administration and the Democrats about the head for the next two elections.   Oh, and by the way, if the situation was reversed, the Democrats would behave exactly as the GOP are doing now, so this isn't a condemnation of one party over another. It' a condemnation on the US Congress and by extension the rest of us about how pitiful and pathetic we are when it comes to taking care of those who come home from combat.   Yellow ribbons and America First! magnetic badges on the backs of our SUV isn't enough.  There are many veteran's organizations doing fine work in attempting to help out returning soldiers and the families of those who lost loved ones in conflict.   Veteran's of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, The USO, The American Legion, Wounded Warriors, etc. are all focused on helping veterans.  I would encourage all of us today to pick up the phone, get on the Internet and contact one of these organizations and give money to these folks to help our soldiers and families of soldiers.

I believe we go to war too easily and too often.  I was supportive of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 to respond to the attacks against us in New York, Pennsylvania and in Washington in September of that year.  A response was necessary and important.  What we are doing there 13 years later I have no idea.  Why we went into Iraq is not clear, but it certainly was not because the regime in power at the time had weapons of mass destruction they were about to use against us as advertised.  I'm not cynical enough yet to believe it was simply a geo-political land grab, but cannot be sure.

I think we need to dramatically change the way we send our sons and daughters into harms way. I have a three point proposal that I think will help us think about this a little better and perhaps not have so many to mourn and remember in subsequent Memorial Days:

  1. Before we commit military forces to conflict situations, we must have a declaration of war.  The US Constitution requires it and we should respect that. We've not had a declared war since World War II.  In every conflict since then, we've had something less.  The reason I think is because Congress is too frightened of being on the record to send kids off to die.  They will "authorize the president certain powers", then if things go poorly castigate the poor devil mercilessly afterward.  This was what happened with the Iraq War.  Democrats such as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton all used the weasel worded authorization to distance themselves from the resulting fiasco.
  2. Institute the Draft during Conflict times.   We have effectively separated America into two factions since the draft ended in the early 1970's.  Those who serve for economic or other reasons, and those who don't.  We have essentially divided the country into those who suffer loss and those who don't.  We know due to the demographic data that most of our military come from lower economic standing. I said most. There are some wealthy families that have members who serve and their participation is no less noble or dangerous.  However, most of us do not feel the pain of service, and if we instituted the Draft again during conflict situations, it might make us all think about this a little harder and with more conviction. 
  3. Tax to Pay for the War.  In this last conflict, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, we have essentially been told to ignore the cost of the conflict, and it would be taken care of.   We've not been asked to sacrifice, even if it is just from our wallets.  During World War II, which lasted less than half the time the Afghanistan conflict has, taxes were raised, rationing was established and everyone had to participate, whether they were in the military or not.  Victory gardens were grown by families in order to allow the big farmers to produce food for the military.  Metal was collected and melted down for use by the military. Auto manufacturers converted factories to tool up for tanks, planes and other military uses.  The country was at war, not just a few soldiers.  Everyone had to pay. Everyone was engaged. It became personal and real.   Unfortunately, we've not seen this in the last several conflicts going back thirty or forty years.  Soldiers were someone's brother, sister, son or daughter.   The majority of us were told to "go shopping".   So my proposal is to tax the rest of us to pay for the war and its aftermath (not only the rebuilding of the country we blow up, but also the rebuilding of the lives of the veteran's and their families when they come home).  We must become part of the process and not an idle observer.  We owe it to those who sign up and offer to go get themselves killed on our behalf.  
Ultimately, if we could see these three actions become part of the fabric of our decisions to go into conflict I think the result would be fewer adventures that aren't necessary, fewer casualties as a result of fewer conflicts, and if, as it is sometimes necessary, we go to war, we do it together.

I honor those lost, and I want to see us find a way to make this day one of reflection of not only for those who were lost, but those who were saved because we got our collective act together.

Tell me what you think,

Regards,
Dennis
 


  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, Race and Bigotry Issues in America

Well, we've had a considerable amount of time over the past two months with these two men.  They each have a few things in common:  They are old, they are white; they are fairly wealthy, and by their words, they are presumably racists.   Mr. Bundy, whose fame is more related to his thievery by not paying grazing fees for more than 20 years recently mouthed off with the now infamous phrase "I know something about the Negro".  Mr. Bundy recently had a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for managing federal property.  Mr. Sterling on the other hand was thrust into the news when a recorded conversation of him and his alleged mistress showed he had some rather controversial views about who his girlfriends should take to his team's (The Los Angeles Clippers) basketball games.  Both have recently made some very inflammatory remarks about African Americans. Mr. Bundy, seems to believe African American's who are on government assistance would probably be happier if they were still slaves, and Mr. Sterling simply cannot believe anyone would believe he is a racist even though he has had a long history of discrimination against African Americans and Latin Americans. 

The statements made by both of these men are of course repugnant.  They have both attempted to walk back their statements and have only dug themselves into a deeper hole by doing so.  Check out Mr. Sterling's "apology" interview with Anderson Cooper here:

Now, both Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy are pretty wealthy, so their attitudes don't come from not having access to good education or a lack of ability to associate and mix with people from other ethnic backgrounds.  They easily could and in Mr. Sterling's case have, engaged with people of different colors, points of view and perspectives.  What they have chosen to do is emblematic of what a lot of people in this country do regardless of income, social standing or, in fact skin color.  They have chosen a perspective that those who look differently from them somehow are "less".    The concept shouldn't be lost on us, as we all have these biases and prejudices to some degree.

The issue at large though is the idea that because we look different or worship different than each other denotes that we are indeed different than each other.   This is nothing new.  Hundred's of years ago, in the play "Merchant of Venice",  Shylock said: "If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you poison us do we not die, if you wrong us do we not revenge?"   Of course, the matter at hand in Shakespeare's play was Jewish and Christian antipathy, but it nonetheless displays that probably since we have been able to think, we've decided that we should categorize people by what they look like, who they worship, who they love, how much money they make, etc. etc.

But back to Mr. Bundy and Mr. Sterling.  They are indicative of racists in the most descriptive sense:  Loudmouth people of privilege who have decided for one reason or another they are better than African Americans and Latin Americans.   These guys are easy to spot. They display their attitudes generally through words or actions.  In Mr. Sterling's defense in this matter, he was outed by a recorded phone call, which I also have a problem with, but I digress.  These types of racists are common and we see them often, whether it is someone like this or someone who parades around in a ridiculous looking bed sheet spouting idiotic terms like "white supremacy". 

The bigger problem is the subtle racism that still occurs over 50 years after Dr. King's "I have a dream speech". The job not given, the loan not secured, the cab ride not available: these are all examples of what I'm talking about and it is as prevalent today as it was in the 1950's.  No, we don't have forced segregation and different drinking fountains for "white" and "colored" people, and there has been significant progress in some areas of racial importance.  However, this stain on our collective soul is still here and we have to work hard to eradicate it.  Racism comes from hatred.  Hatred comes from fear.  Fear comes from lack of understanding and knowledge.    What we need is wisdom.  Wisdom is the understanding and knowledge through experience that we are all much more the same than we are different.  We have the same hopes and desires for ourselves and our children. We all want to be secure and happy.   We can't get there by hating.  We can't get there by classifying people as somehow being less deserving or worthy than us because of our color.

We have made some great strides in our attempts to throw the notion of racism into the trash can of history but we have much left to do.  As exemplified by Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy, there are still pathetic people out there.  They are to be pitied for their views as much as they should be rebuked. They are small minded people who, if they maintain their views will never have their eyes opened to the possibilities and promise of a society that as Doctor King said:  "they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"

Our country has had lesson after lesson that setting people apart because of skin color is simply wrong.  Whether it is our own history or that of countries like India and South Africa, we can see what is achieved once the institutionalized racism of policy and government is cast aside.  If we can get there ourselves by getting rid of our own institutionalized biases then we will have a much better place for ourselves and our kids.

Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy: you've done us a service by reminding us that racism is alive and well in this country and we need to find more will and effort to eliminate it.  So thanks for that. I pity both of you for your views, and hope that before you breathe your last breath that you come around. It's sad to go through life with points of views like those you hold, and maybe, just maybe you can change. I hope so.

Tell me what you think.  Where are you on this issue?

regards,
Dennis

Monday, April 07, 2014

Time For A Diet

  I like ice cream.  My favorite is Blue Bell Home Made Vanilla.  It's flavorful, creamy (of course), and a great base to add fresh peaches, blueberries, some walnuts, etc.  It's really, really good.   I unfortunately indulge too much as anyone who has recently seen my waistline can attest.  I was enjoying a bowl of the aforementioned delight while watching the final round of the Shell Houston Open yesterday when I realized I am enjoying this way, way too often and need to scale back.   I also started thinking about the recent case decided by the Supreme Court; McCutcheon v. FEC.  I know, I know, why would someone watching a golf tournament start thinking about a Supreme Court case?   Was it brain freeze brought on by the ice cream?  No, it was the act of consuming the ice cream that got me thinking about the case.  So forgive me the somewhat awkward analogy, but I suddenly realized that our politics needs to go on a diet just like I do.  
 
Why? would one ask does our politics need to go on a diet?  Well, the perpetrator of the bloated waistline in our politics is not Ice Cream, rather it is the system's insatiable appetite for money.   Ah, there it is;  The ever needed, always tempting, very sweet and yummy, highly caloric and very bad for you if consumed in mass quantities item our system just can't seem to push back from. 
 
Now, with McCutcheon v FEC decided, like it's cousin, Citizen's United v FEC, our Supreme Court had once again made it harder for our system to inject some discipline and get it's addiction under control.  McCutcheon was decided last week, on a party-line basis and a 5-4 decision with Roberts writing the majority opinion that allowing no limits on how many candidates one person can donate to doesn't constitute a "quid pro quo" situation or harm the election process.  The Court decided that sufficient regulations existed to protect the process and in holding with the appellate court's decision it would infringe on the plaintiff's first amendment protections.  The issue at play was that Mr. McCutcheon, a wealthy businessman from Alabama contributed to 16 different candidates for Federal elections, and was not allowed to contribute to another 12 that he wanted to due to a Federal Election Commission  (FEC) regulation that curbed the aggregate amount of contributions by an individual.   The Court decided in Mr. McCutcheon's favor, and now, if you so choose, you can donate to any number of candidates up to the federal limit of $5200 per person.  
 
Doesn't sound like a big deal does it?  After all, $5200 per person is not that much.  So what is the big deal.  Well, the big deal is this.  This case, along with Citizens United, which basically held that restricting political contributions by corporations, associations, labor unions were both violations of first amendment protections.  Essentially, this Supreme Court has decided that realistically there are no limits of money that can be applied to the political process because money is speech.  Now, it's a nice sentiment. It's nice to think that if you want to support someone politically you should be able to do so, whether via a political contribution or your service being volunteered to answer phones, stuff envelopes, etc. etc.  The problem is the same problem I have with ice cream.  The political system can't seem to moderate itself and deal with the money responsibly.  All it wants is more and more.
The amount of money in the system has grown to a point of ridiculousness.  the 2012 presidential elections spent a collective $1.8 billion dollars to end with the election of President Obama.  Congressional elections are just as outrageous.  Consider the data below:
 
Dollars Spent by Winners of Congressional elections
 
Year - 2012:  House Winners average spend:  $1.5M - Senate Winners average spend: $10.3M
Year - 2010:  House Winners average spend:  $1.4M - Senate Winners average spend: $8.9M
Year - 2008:  House Winners average spend:  $1.3M - Senate Winners average spend: $7.5
Year - 1992:  House Winners average spend: $556K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.3M
Year - 1986:  House Winners average spend: $359K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.0M
 
So in 26 years, the price for a congressional seat has gone up 4.4 times, or over 400%.   It's not surprising really, as the cost of a congressional seat has a lot of value.   It an interesting point to note that on the day that a member of the United States House of Representatives is sworn in, from that day forward that member must raise $2,187 per day (730 days over a two year term) in order to keep pace with the spend of a winning candidate.   How does a candidate do that?  Well, they have fund raisers like Mr. McCutcheon, interest groups like an industry association, corporations, and Political Action Committees, and finally the party committees who all contribute.  Nonetheless, it is a mind-boggling activity when you think Congress actually has a day job.  How hard is it? Well, you try picking up the phone and talking to your best friends, family, and neighbors and asking them for two-grand a day. Do that for two years and see how many friends, family members and neighbors you still have let alone anyone who will talk to you. 
 
Look, campaigns are expensive.   Media buys are expensive. Travel, hotels, staff, etc. are expensive.  It's not surprising, because it is a sales campaign to convince a group of people to put their trust in this person.  Takes a lot of face time, talking, publishing of papers, etc. etc.   It's really not hard to understand that it takes a lot of money to run and win. 
 
The problem here is this.  Now that there is an ability by anyone, pretty much anywhere to donate however much money they want, the cost of democracy only goes up.  It's not a long leap to connect the dots that those who have a lot of money, whether they are organizations or individuals, can "buy" a lot of goodwill through their donations and contributions.   Favors are currency in politics. Debts are always called in, and you can bet that if the AFL-CIO or Charles and David Koch pour a lot of money into your campaign and you get elected, there will come a time when they come calling.  It will be expected that you vote a certain way on a piece of legislation, or keep a piece of legislation from coming to a vote, or whatever the favor is they extracted by helping to make you a member of Congress.  "A member of Congress always pays their debts", whether they want to or not.
 
The question the general public needs to ask themselves is this:  Do I really feel unlimited money in the system is the best way to elect our representatives?  If you do, then fine, the system is working great for you and you do not need to worry.   If you feel like no, the system is overweight, bloated, hypertensive and diabetic from all that "ice cream" it is eating, then you need to get busy and do something about it.  We've all seen the "pledges" that Grover Norquist exacts from the GOP about raising taxes.  Well, perhaps we should also have a pledge requirement for congressional candidates to not take private money contributions other wise we vote them out of office.  
 
The fix is simple, it is public financing.  We used to have it.  We've thrown it on the ash heap of history an look at what it has wrought.   We have a President now (Yes, Mr. Obama) who turned his back on public financing and raised almost a $1B in each of his elections.  So both parties are at fault here eating like pigs at the dessert buffet of political contributions. It needs to stop.  We need to stop the purchasing of elections, or at least make every member of Congress as well as the President start wearing the logo's of their "sponsors".  At least it would make watching CSPAN a little more interesting.
 
American political system:  put down the spoon and step away from the ice cream.  Please.
 
 
Tell me what you think.
 
regards,
Dennis

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hubris

Hubris: -Noun
1. Excessive pride or self-confidence;arrogance

Chris Christie's recent difficulties with respect to the George Washington bridge lane closure scandal are yet another example of Hubris in our political system and in our politics. 

The story is not new for New Jersey nor for this country.  I went and saw American Hustle last night, which was a stylized account of the Abscam sting operation in the late 1970's and early 1980's which netted a series of New Jersey politicians in a bribery and corruption scandal.  It got me thinking about Mr. Christie and the notion of political leaders abusing their power in general.

Mr. Christie is a leader.  Of that there can be no doubt. He swept into office in 2009 running as a conservative Republican in one of the bluest Democratic states in the country.  He was of course helped by the feckless and questionable practices of his predecessor, John Corzine, but nonetheless, won. He and his team proceeded to implement the policies he ran on and with significant Democratic support, accomplished much of his objectives. Christie's characteristic brashness and aggressiveness was front and center in his actions.  He is a person who is massively convinced of his capabilities and one who doesn't take criticism well.  Mr. Christie is often characterized as a "bully".  Certainly, some of his appearances at press conferences or in the media suggest that label is appropriate. 

Here's the thing about bullies, even if they are competent: At some point in time, your actions will have a rebound effect.  The more you alienate people, especially those who are suspicious of you in the first place, the more fuel you give to the eventual "payback" that will be coming. Call it Karma, or whatever you want, but it seems to be a fact of nature that what goes around comes around.

Christie is also known as an efficient and effective leader, with a tightly run administration that makes very few mistakes with respect to political  messaging or actions.  His history, whether as a U.S. Attorney fighting corruption or as a governor is one that suggests that no action such as the bridge closure in Ft. Lee would be something that would be done by an administration underling, without someone in the Governor's office knowing about it.  Mr. Christie explained in his explanatory press conference that he had no idea what his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly had done". Ms. Kelly is, right now, perceived to be the instigator of the traffic snarl by virtue  of an email that says to David Wildstein, the head of the Port Authority on the Jersey side, "Time for some traffic problems".   Mr. Wildstein's reply was simply: "Got it". 

It is difficult to believe that such an action would be taken without the Governor knowing about it beforehand or afterward, which is exactly what he says is the case.  How can an administration run so tightly have such a massive event take place and the Governor not be aware of it?  Is it possible?  Perhaps.  Is it possible that Mr. Christie placed so much trust in his staff that he simply didn't pay attention to the matter until it spun out of control? Again, perhaps. However, it doesn't seem likely. Mr. Christie acted swiftly according to him.  Mr. Wildstein and several others associated with the scandal resigned quickly.   Ms. Kelly was summarily dismissed by the Governor who said he did this because she "lied" to him.  

There is an active investigation underway and I'm not going to comment on the matter as I'd prefer to see the investigation play out and make a fact based comment on what happened and who was involved.  What I will comment on is the "tone" that seems to be in place in Trenton.  Mr. Christie's press conference was full of sadness on the part of the governor that his trusted people had "lied" to him. He spent a significant amount of time bemoaning how he had been victimized by betrayal.  There was very little acknowledgement of the troubles that the lane closure had caused to the people in Ft. Lee or the travelers on that bridge. This press conference was all about Governor Christie, who seemed "shocked" to find his lieutenants would do something like this without his knowledge, which of course would never have happened had they asked him for permission to do it.  Also, to tone, is the seemingly swift retribution that occurs if Mr. Christie's wishes are not heeded.  Whether it is firing internal staff, which he seems to do regularly, or external actions against people who don't endorse him or his plans.  See the Mayor of Hoboken to get more details about political payback.

The story is weak tea to me.  Either Mr. Christie's story is not accurate, or if it is, he is purposely setting a firewall between he and his staff so they can do his bidding, but keep him distanced from being touched by any responsibility.  It reminds me of the phrase attributed to King Henry II regarding his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, when he said "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?".   His followers, acting on the presumed desires of the King, murdered Becket in Canterbury much to Henry's chagrin, because after all, he was his friend and would never want him murdered.  

So again, the whole thing needs to be investigated and the facts brought to light.  Mr. Christie is an effective and efficient leader, and I truly hope there is nothing to this.  My instincts say otherwise, but we must let the facts bear out before deciding Mr. Christie was involved or not.

Hubris drives us to act irresponsibly because we become convinced that our way is best, and all others are just noise that must be avoided. This is a folly that infects politicians quite a bit.  Whether it is Christie or Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Huey Long, the idea that you are above the standards that the rest of us should follow is a dangerous thing to believe.   Mr. Christie, if found to be in the clear of this issue has an opportunity to reset a tone of what I call "effective but humble government" in New Jersey, which could then serve him well in his presidential ambitions.   Mr. Christie can turn this by invoking a philosophy that he was hired to do a job for the people of his state versus the idea that they were pleading with him to "lead them".  He can make his administration more accessible to the people and media. He can stop the bullying and focus on action without animus.   He can turn this lemon into lemonade.  If he wasn't involved.  If he is found to be lying, then he is done, and Hubris is the cause more than anything else.  If he was involved and it ends his political career, it will be too bad, because here will be another talented person who went into public service only to see their talents and energies overwhelmed by their missteps.   It's a story all too familiar.

Tell me what you think.

Regards,
Dennis