Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. (And I mean that sincerely)

On Christmas Day, 1914, only four months into the brutality of World War I, a spontaneous miracle happened on the Western Front.  On that day German and British soldiers laid down their arms and gathered together in No Man's Land to share food and cigarettes, sing Christmas carols, and play a few games of football.

 On other battle lines along the front,  "Merry Christmas" signs were hastily constructed and held up to cheers from the other side. Without orders and in spite of warnings from their superiors, the soldiers on both sides declared a truce for, at the very least, one magical day.  For some, the truce lasted for days into weeks, or until new troops replaced those who had been involved. There are reports that it happened the next year and the year after that and each year on Christmas Day until that terrible war ended.

For generations, Christmas has held that kind of Good Will magic, and no matter who we are or where we are or how we got there, that holiday spirit endures.  For a few days out of the year millions of us do our best to take kindness to a whole new level.  We wake up with a song in our heart, feeling.good.  We want to do things.  Not to others but for others.  For a precious few days near the end of the year we like people.  We really, really like them!

Unless we don't.  Unless we're those few  "It's Merry Christmas, Dammit!" people and someone nearby has the nerve to either ask for some life-changing help or to say "Happy Holidays!" out loud.

"Happy Holidays!"  That simple phrase, known for what seems like forever throughout the world as a perfectly acceptable seasonal salutation (preferable in almost all circles to the truly lifeless "Season's Greetings"), turns out to be a secret code for declaring war on Christmas

Did you ever in your life think the day would come when "War" and "Christmas" would share space in the same three-word phrase?  Neither did I. But it is the notorious 21st Century, and so far it's not a century noted for common decency, let alone common sense.

I'm out of the woods and in the big city now, and I'm happy to report that "Merry Christmas" is everywhere.  So far nobody is showing signs of preparing for battle against Christmas. Our December has not suddenly turned gray.  Tanks are not on the move anywhere.  There are no soldiers in freezing, muddy trenches.  The War on Christmas is a lie. So who's making this up?  The Scrooges.  The Grinches.  Those nasty, wasty Grinches who don't have a clue about the true spirit of Christmas. That's who.

The why of it is more elusive.  There are dozens of reasons, none of them good, but Fa La La and Fiddle-de-dee,  who cares? It's Christmas and 'tis the season!

Still, I feel the need to say this plain:  I, a secular-liberal, love my Christmas.  Christmas is in my blood, pagan as my blood may be, and  I've been celebrating it for what seems like an eternity.  Through new births and great losses, through times thick and thin, this is the one Happy Holiday season that I wouldn't ever want to miss.

I love Christmas carols as much as I love sweet secular Christmas songs and it's okay because it's Christmas.

As much as I love the Chinese Restaurant scene in "The Christmas Story",  it's also possible to really, really look forward to interpretations of  The Bible's nativity scene.

I can accept that the White House Christmas card needn't be, and, all right, shouldn't be religious, but, at the same time, there is a sacred meaning to Christmas.  Churches across the country celebrate the birth of Christ, each in their own way.  I can live with that. 

The White House Christmas Card, 2011

So when I say I want to wish you Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas, you'll just have to trust that I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

(Cross-posted over at Dagblog)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Attention: The job opening is for POTUS. Dilettantes need not apply.

When I was a little girl during FDR's time, I remember people in my family talking in hushed, reverent tones about the President of the United States --  as if he were someone so special you mustn't use your normal, everyday voice.  I grew up thinking there was no one in our beloved country who could top the President when it came to being all-wise and all-caring.  I believed that there was something other-worldly, even God-like about Presidents, and I felt safe.

I came of age in the 1950s, in the midst of the McCarthy witch hunts, and all childish notions about the government as citizen protector flew right off the newborn TV screen and into the wild blue yonder.  The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised live, and for the first time in my life I knew real, hair-raising fear.  I understood then the latent, potentially evil power of the government and it terrified me.  Eisenhower was president, and, while my concern over his seeming disengagement from the whole vile circus nearly got the best of me, it didn't deter me from my original thoughts about the presidency in general.

There is the president and then there is the presidency.  One is fleeting, the other is our most cherished institution.

I've worked my way through many presidents since then and even the worst of them haven't been able to move me away from that belief.  We have certain built-in expectations of our presidents, tempered always with the recognition that they're only human.  They will not always do our bidding.  They will often make mistakes.  They will sometimes fail in the most spectacular fashion.  But the underlying hope is that when they wake up every morning in the White House -- the house on loan to them by the people -- they'll remember who they're supposed to be and resolve at the very least to do no lasting harm.

But what I'm seeing now is that venerable institution moving further and further away from any kind of special honor and more and more into celebrity/CEO status.  It is no longer cherished, no longer looked on as both a rare privilege and a breathtaking responsibility.  For proof, take a hard look at the Republican Party's current lineup of  potential presidential nominees.  Unless something major happens, the president's opponent will be one of these frontrunners:  Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, or Michelle Bachmann.  

Look deeper: There is not a serious candidate among them.  They make it understood that they want to be known as presidential without the annoying duties historically relegated to the presidency.  "Duties" is the one word in the job description that gives them the most grief, and the one they're each aiming to adjust once they're in office.  What I'm getting from their debate discussions is that they're falling all over themselves to see who can diminish the office of the presidency the fastest. (The possible exception might be Mitt Romney, but he's keeping mum, waiting to see which way the wind will blow.)

 I don't know.  If one cared, one might want to pass along to them that this is not your ordinary CEO gig.  Yes, there may be some question about whether the President of the United States is still looked on as the leader of the free world, but there's no argument that he (and someday, she) is the sole keeper of the Executive branch of our government.  When you have a country the size of ours (over 300 million people spread out over almost four million square miles) mired in unnatural disasters of epic proportions,  the last thing any serious candidate for the highest government office in the land should be advocating is an end to government interference.  Yet in the course of some 16 debates so far, that seems to be the recurrent theme.  It's as if, in all the grand hoopla, they've forgotten just which job they've applied for.

If they talk at all about joblessness, homelessness, uncovered illnesses, or any other deliberate misery cast upon certain segments of the 99%, it's to place the blame for such predicaments squarely on either the existing governmental busybodies or on the millions of affected people who have the gall to think they're the victims here.  Their fix is to turn the country over to God and the private sector -- neither of which, it should be pointed out, the president will have any control over if their dearest wishes come true.

Their goal, the destruction of a central government, is one that no president before them would have considered, even in the wildest wanderings of their most vivid imaginations.  It's not the kind of remedy past seekers of the office were inclined to entertain.

On the other hand, it's exactly the kind of thing we came to expect from someone like Herman Cain, a guy with way too much money and ego,  a guy who only just wanted to sell his book and thought the way to do it would be to run for, Holy Pokemon!  President!  Of the United States!

But okay, this did not get past me:  Through no great feat of his own, and despite gaffes that might suggest "astonishingly bad comedian" rather than "honorable POTUS",  Cain rose to the top of the GOP nominees list and stayed there for a frightfully long time before toppling.  That means there are a whole lot of people out there who just aren't getting what I'm saying here.

That is just painful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Just because I call myself a Journo doesn't mean I are one

This morning blogger John Aravosis, over at AMERICAblog, wrote about blogging vs. journalism after finding an article from AP about a ruling against an Oregon blogger who claimed protections as a journalist while fighting a defamation suit brought by a lawyer she called "a thug and a thief".

According to the AP article, a federal judge ruled that Crystal Cox ( from her website:  Investigative Blogger, Reputation Manager, Real Estate Broker Owner, Good Life International )  "was not a journalist and cannot claim the protections afforded to mainstream reporters and news outlets."

From AP: 
"The judge ruled that Cox was not protected by Oregon's shield law from having to produce sources, saying even though Cox defines herself as media, she was not affiliated with any mainstream outlet. He added that the shield law does not apply to civil actions for defamation.
Hernandez said Cox was not a journalist because she offered no professional qualifications as a journalist or legitimate news outlet. She had no journalism education, credentials or affiliation with a recognized news outlet, proof of adhering to journalistic standards such as editing or checking her facts, evidence she produced an independent product or evidence she ever tried to get both sides of the story.
Cox said she considered herself a journalist, producing more than 400 blogs over the past five years, with a proprietary technique to get her postings on the top of search engines where they get the most notice.
'What could be more mainstream than the Internet and the top of the search engine?' she said."
I predict that before this is over, every blogger who writes about politicians and public people will weigh in on this one. (At BlogHer, blogger LisaWasHere fills in some of the blanks, including the judgment: a whopping 2.5 million dollars!)   So here's my take, for what it's worth.

Some bloggers are journalists.  Some journalists are bloggers.  If a blogger wants to call herself a journalist, it's a free country and the blogosphere is about as free-wheeling as it gets.  But if you go so far as to call a public figure a thug and a thief, you might want to remember your journalistic standards:  You had better have some proof to back that up.

When I was writing columns and features for newspapers and articles for magazines, I had to submit bios.  If, in any of my clever little biographies, I called myself a journalist, you can chalk it up to my being new and full of myself and foolish enough to think that just using the word made me one.  (I would say I never did, but knowing that early me, there's probably at least one silly bio out there just waiting to prove me a liar.)

There are dozens of sources for journalism ethics, if any "investigative blogger" wants to make use of them.  The Society of Professional Journalists makes theirs public, and it's a pretty good one.  There are others out there for the taking, and they're not hard to find.  It's not about popularity, it's about digging out and telling a compelling truth.

I don't know what's going to happen to Crystal Cox now, and I really don't doubt that she has done some good work as a conscientious blogger, but I have to question whether high rankings in search engines actually adds to her creds as a journalist.  I mean--really.  That nutty assertion may have just lost the case for her.

Going by that line of logic, one might consider Andy Borowitz and websites like The Onion prime examples of true journalistic wonderfulness.  They both try to shine light on rotten politicians and public figures, they're good at it, and their rankings on Google are right up there.  (By the way, Crystal Cox's page rank is 2 points below mine at Ramona's Voices.  So much for that argument.)

(I loved this book. I don't have it anymore.  I'm going to ask for it for Christmas)
But the point of all this is that we bloggers do need to take stock of who we are and what we're doing.  Blogging is a brand new source of communication, and if the standards aren't yet written in a rule book somewhere, we have to go by our own gut feelings about ethics and responsibility.  We owe something to our readers, as few as they might be.  We are opinionists and muckrakers but we aren't necessarily journalists.  The differences might be vague at the moment, but all it takes is one judge slapping a 2.5 million dollar fine on one of us to get our attention. 

So can we talk about this?  It looks like it's that time.

Added 12/9:  As expected, there's much more to the Crystal Cox story.  Kashmir Hill at Forbes dissects the huge award and sheds light on why the jury thought it was more than appropriate:  It's here.  After reading the Forbes piece, the distinction between blogger and journalist takes a back seat to what would be really nutty behavior, no matter who's doing it.  Whew!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Newt to 'Really Poor Children': Buy Your Own Damn Ice Cream

Newt Gingrich is obsessed with the plight of poor kids these days. He's been all over the place talking about them, and I have to confess, the jollier he gets about his remedies for their plight, the more nervous I become.  It's an odd turn of events and one rife with suspicion.  It's Newt we're talking about.  Newt, who eats mean for breakfast and swallows the seeds.

Newt, who put a contract out on an entire nation, namely ours, and is still fretting over the insistent existence of a labor movement that was scheduled to die circa Reagan.  (He's got another, bigger contract ready to roll on Day One.  Fair warning.)

Newt, who sings "Only I can make this world seem right. Only I can make the darkness brightOnly I and I alone can thrill me like I do and fill my heart with love for only me."

And encores with the stirring, "For what is a man, what has he got?  If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.  The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!"

That Newt.

(Let the record show Newt has so far ignored the first lines of the above tune.  The part where it says, "And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain...".  Yesterday, in fact, Newt told ABC's Jake Tapper he WILL BE THE NOMINEE.  I guess that means all debates are off now?) 

Ordinarily I wouldn't care about Newt's $60,000 per speech blabbings about stupid child labor laws and how really poor kids from really shiftless families will resort to stealing unless he steps in and puts them to work, but after some lengthy and intense investigation, I find I have barely an ounce of faith in this current century's sanity.  That dimpled nasty man could very well be running things come January, 2013.

 There are some who defend him by reminding us that there's nothing wrong with kids doing a little work. The kids feel good about themselves and the upside is that, as Newt says, they can buy their own ice cream someday.  Nice, really, that.  In a sane world we might actually picture our sweet darlings helping out and getting paid a tiny reward, leaving everybody happy, happy, happy.

But that's not what Newt means and that's not how he put it.  This is how he put it:

“Start with the following two facts. Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.

I come around to this question. You have a very poor neighborhood. You have kids who are required under law to go to school. They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part-time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they come in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian?  What if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?”

That's not helpful, that's hateful.  And full of hidden meaning.  What does it mean when Newt says, "You have kids who are required under law to go to school"?  Will there be an addendum to Newt's 2ist Century Contract on America abolishing school attendance for "really poor kids" so they'll have more time to do all that rewarding work?

When the kids take over as assistant clerks and assistant librarians and assistant janitors, what does that do to the work hours of the real clerks, librarians and janitors?  I'm reading between the lines and seeing part time jobs with no bennies for everyone as part of Newt's grand plan.  He's Newt, after all, clearly not Mr. Empathy.  If you've followed Newt at all you know how strongly opposed he is to equality of the masses -- the kind of thing any signs of empathetic weakness might very well lead to.

Lots of kids work after school and weekends now, even amongst the "really poor".  It's what kids do when they get old enough.  They baby-sit, they do paper routes, they cut lawns, they wash cars, they run errands.  What they don't do any longer is work in sweatshops under conditions that could maim or kill or rot the spirit.

From Utata Tribal Photography:  Lewis Hines, photographer, 1906  "Hines kept detailed notes on the children he photographed, including comments they made as he interviewed them. The twelve year old boy in the [above] photograph was unable to read or write. He'd been employed by a textile mill in Columbia, South Carolina for four years, since the age of eight. He told Hines, 'Yes, I want to learn, but can't when I work all the time'."
 Any student of history will tell you the reason we aren't allowed to work kids like that any more is because the laboring masses organized and put a stop to the exploitation of children by the privileged few.  Newt the Historian seems to have forgotten that.

But on to other things Newt, because, again, there's a mighty strangeness afoot:  The Great One told Sean Hannity over at Fox, apropos of nothing, that, "I helped lead the effort to defeat communism in the Congress.”

And, okay, I have to ask:  How many communists were there in congress?  Were they as hard on us as the teabaggers in congress today?  Can you give us a few tips on how to get rid of subversives?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Friday as Myth-Buster

After the Thanksgiving Day gluttony is over and after our teams have either won or lost (Our biggie between the Lions and the Packers went horribly awry for my loved ones, poor dears.) and after we've taken our tryptophan-induced naps, the next fun thing to think about, talk about or plan for is Black Friday, our annual Big Huge Shopping Extravaganza.  It's the day when primitive survival skills kick in and the absolutely-must-haves traditionally go nuts and stampede in scenes that make even NatGeo-watchers go "Wow!".

(Rumor has it that Black Friday is the one day of the year when China pays homage to US. They would make it a national holiday, except everyone is busy at work manufacturing things for our Christmas rush.)

There's a myth in this country that goes like this: America is broke.  Aside from a paltry few tax-evading King Midas wannabes, nobody else has anything much.  That's the story.

Our jobless, our homeless, our soup kitchens, our empty former homes, our overflowing ERs--that's all real.  Painfully real.  But what's also real is the hefty percentage of 99 Percenters who spread out at the stroke of Black Friday to go whole hog spending astonishing amounts of ready cash and pay-later credit on stuff.

It's an American tradition contrived and perpetuated by the merchant class and, really, who are we to tell people (other than Congress) how to spend their (our) money?  But a group known as "Occupy Black Friday" , an off-shoot of Occupy Wall Street, while admirably opposing the longer open hours which would take employees away from their own families on Thanksgiving, and endorsing the efforts to buy locally,  took it one step further and came up with the idea of boycotting, instead of occupying, the major chains on That Day.  (The Occupying part wouldn't work at all, you see, since millions of shoppers would already be camping out and milling around, waiting for the doors to open.) 

Attempting to show the strength of the masses by boycotting major retailers on that all-important shopping day is one of those ideas that seems okay on the face of it, but which, in reality, is doomed from the start.  It's a whisper in the wind, a dusky dot in the night sky, and here's why:  I've been boycotting "Black Friday" for years now and nobody has ever noticed.  Multiply me by, say, several hundred thousand and we still wouldn't be noticed.  It's a happy tradition, the official start of the Christmas shopping season.  Even in the worst economic downturn in decades, it's still a force bigger than all of us.

Okay, granted, this year, for whatever reasons, it seemed more intense than fun.  A woman took to pepper-spraying other shoppers threatening to get too close to the prize she was after.  A man slipped a DVD under his shirt, not to steal it but to prevent it from being stolen from him, and got himself shoved to the ground and bloodied for his efforts. People were knocked around and bruised. There were grim reports of shootings and parking lot robberies.  But to the victors went the spoils and it's those success stories that make it all worthwhile.   (More to come the day after Christmas.  Another happy tradition.)

As might be expected, the activities at "Occupy Black Friday" came to the attention of the folks over at Fox "News" .  Their idea of the perfect smack-down was to tell people to go out and shop 'til they drop.  That'll show those damned Occupiers.  Hah!

 Now, I really hate to think Fox had that much influence, but this year Black Friday alone took in $11.4 billion, a 6.6% increase over last year, while the Thanksgiving weekend broke all sales records with a staggering $52.4 billion spent over four days.  It was a jump of 16% over last year's sales, with record numbers of shoppers spending even more bucks on average.

No stats yet on the sales outcomes of Small Business Saturday, a truly sensational idea, even if it did come from American Express.

Today is Cyber Monday (designated by the online merchants who felt left out, no doubt), the lead-in to Cyber Week (Because why stop the momentum of a very good thing?), and on to Christmas, the Big Kahuna of cash heavy, gift-giving holidays.

So about that whole "America is broke" business.  We're looking into it.  We'll have to get back to you on that.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Feeling Guilty about Giving Thanks. It's a Liberal Thing

This year we've decided to stay home for Thanksgiving.  Our nearest family is 350 miles away but every year but one (and now this one) we've managed to be together for this holiday.  We'll be seeing them all in three weeks or so for the Christmas holidays, but I'm missing them acutely today. 

My guy and I have always done the planning and the cooking so I've never had much time to think about the Giving Thanks part, even though it's always in the background as we putter happily around the kitchen, never deviating from the traditional meal they've come to expect -- nay, demand:  Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, sweet potatoes, gravy, corn, cranberries, tossed salad, Ambrosia salad, rolls, Apple pie and Pumpkin pie. (Food that could kill if taken in large doses over too long a period.  I get it.  Nobody cares.)

So this morning, since there was no real call to duty, I woke up thinking not about what I had to do first, but about Detroit, Father Cunningham, Eleanor Josaitis, and Focus:HOPE.  In the announcement of her death in August, Eleanor was what the NYT called a "housewife-turned-activist".  (I know.  Me too)  Father Cunningham ("guardian of the poor" in his NYT obit.) was her parish priest and good friend.  Together they created a non-profit organization to help the poor and disenfranchised and it has been a beacon of light shining in the gloom of Detroit for 43 years.

Eleanor Josaitis and Focus: HOPE students
 From the Times obituary:

After racial hostility exploded into riots across Detroit in 1967, [Josaitis] uprooted her husband and five children from Taylor, Mich., moved to the city and set out to help heal it.
“You have to have the guts to try something, because you won’t change a damn thing by sitting in front of the TV with the clicker in your hand,” Mrs. Josaitis said in a 2004 profile in the magazine Fast Company.
In 1968, she joined with her priest, the Rev. William T. Cunningham, to establish Focus: Hope. The organization called them “an unlikely pair,” describing Father Cunningham as an “outspoken visionary” and Mrs. Josaitis as “the practical operations manager.”
Focus: Hope says it now provides food to 43,000 people a month and operates job training programs that have prepared 11,000 mostly minority and poor residents of metropolitan Detroit for careers in engineering, machinist trades and other fields. With its own 40-acre office campus, it employs 285 people.
 Well, that was as near ago as this summer.  This is now:  Yesterday the headline in the Free Press read, "Funding Cuts hit Focus: HOPE.  Layoffs ahead, training programs suspended."  The reason?  Nearly 6 million needed dollars in jobs program funding are being held up while members of Congress fight over who gets what, if anything.  From the Free Press:

The work force development programs affected are the Information Technologies Center, Machinist Training Institute, Fast Track math and reading program and the Center for Advance Technologies, which is a college program.

As many as 1,200 students a year have enrolled in the programs. Since 1981, when Focus: HOPE began its job training programs, 11,000 students have completed programs, according to agency officials.

Jones said that Focus: HOPE had expected to receive $5.86 million in funds under the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 for its job training programs on Oct. 1 -- the beginning of the fiscal year. It's about one-sixth of Focus: HOPE's estimated $35-million budget.
Jones said the agency's programs are a casualty of the debate over federal spending in Washington.
Every day we're hearing about the Republican's insistence that in this terrible economy the obvious solution is to cut all those bloated social programs.  They're digging their heels in, refusing to move on anything until the poorest of the poor, or even the richest of the poor, are reduced to a choice of either begging in the streets or taking the slave-wage jobs now so popular overseas.   It's a cold, miserable world we've allowed to let happen and the people affected so cruelly by the actions of our chosen leaders deserve a whole lot better.

That's where my Thanksgiving guilt comes in. We cook that huge meal for our family, and they're grateful and we enjoy doing it, but always in the back of my mind I'm thinking of the people who have no family, who will have no dinner, who don't even know what tomorrow will bring.  I've never been able to sit down to a fully-laden table without thinking those thoughts.  But they pass, don't they, and tomorrow is another day.  

I've done that whole round-the-table "what are you thankful for this year?" thing and -- I'll put this mildly:  I don't get off on it.   "I'm thankful for my dear family and for my good health and all these good eats, and if the Lions win I'll really be thankful...".

And as this is going on, I'm thinking "Oliver Twist".   

I give thanks to people like Eleanor Josiatis, housewife-turned-activist, who saw a need and did something about it.  She took a step and another step and then went on to devote her whole life working toward bettering the lives of people who needed someone like her to come along and move them toward hope.

To religious activists like the late Father Cunningham and to Rev. Ed Rowe, who I guarantee is in a soup kitchen right now getting ready to feed people a dinner with a few more fixings than yesterday's, offering the kind of reliable sustenance that comes more than just twice a year.

To liberals everywhere who see the need to keep fighting for the kind of justice that will move men, women and children out of poverty and into a life that not only promises hope but delivers it.

Thank you, my beloved heroes. To you I give thanks.     

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eyes on the Prize, Occupiers. The 99-Percenters are counting on you.

 For a couple of months now, we on the left have been marking the heady, exhilarating, organic spread of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and getting it that something unstoppable seems to be happening.  Think of it: The dedication, the precision, the impossible successes coming from a movement organized by ordinary hoi polloi.  No backing by agenda-driven billionaires, no pseudo-intellectual input from think-tanks, no take-over by shady cabals.  It's the stuff of miracles.  

It's the kind of citizen-driven wildfire effort we haven't seen in this country since the days of the Civil Rights Movement.  Just as the march on Selma was the catalyst for a nationwide awakening to the need to end the rampant, blatant, often lethal, civil rights abuses in the South, the occupation of Wall Street woke us up to the possibility that change could come to the poor and middle classes suffering from decades of ruthless economic abuses perpetrated by the power brokers.

As we already know from past history, change of this magnitude takes vast crowds of hopelessly burdened people finally coming to the end of their patience, finally committing to a cause so essential to their well-being the only acceptable outcome is success.  It takes crowds so huge they can't be ignored.  Crowds, in this case, not just on Wall Street but spread across the country in every city, every town, every public square.

What we couldn't foresee was that the OWS Movement would move as quickly worldwide.   With that revelation came a clearer sense of responsibility, of stewardship, even in a movement that strives to remain leaderless.  (Remarkable, considering how easy it would have been to give in to egos, to celebrity, to the kind of fame that inevitably drags down instead of lifting up or moving forward.)

When ordinary Wisconsin citizens stormed the State House in Madison in the dead of winter early this year to protest the attempted theft of their bargaining rights, the die was cast.  They overtook the castle and they stayed.  Their occupation of the Peoples' House opened doors to those in other beleaguered states--Michigan, Indiana, Ohio--and when attention had to be paid, when concessions, however slight, were made; when recalls were threatened and then carried out, it was like manna to a starving nation.  It energized us all.

But there comes a point when every such movement goes from simmer to a rolling boil, requiring an ever-watchful eye in order to prevent it from spilling over and ruining the entire project. With the OWS movement, it was only a matter of time before the cops would get pushy, before the city fathers would lose patience, before the opportunists with agendas of their own would infiltrate.  Past history dictates that much of the purity of any grand movement will be lost to influences beyond the movement's control.  The ones that succeed are ready for whatever comes and take steps to move past it.  They succeed because they never take their eyes off the prize.

 Huge movements like these -- Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, OWS -- begin with and are sustained by a red hot anger.  It takes a hefty resolve on the parts of many to keep the anger laser-beamed to the source without allowing it to resort to the kind of rage that turns violent.  It's an uphill battle, never made easier by time.  As the days and months go by without some kind of resolution, one side or the other is going to blow.  It happened in Oakland last week after a month-long confrontation with police.  Increasingly, we're seeing police in riot gear, warranted or not.  Rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray are the weapons du jour.

Different factions are losing patience and are disrupting Occupy meetings, even when the organizers are on their side, as happened in Seattle with the "mic check" shout-out.  

Winter is coming and the Movement is in danger of losing momentum.   Freezing temperatures will empty parks and squares within weeks and much of the activity will be moving indoors, out of sight.  It can't come soon enough for a host of mayors, including NYC's Mayor Bloomberg, who held a presser this AM announcing the plan to get the protesters out of Zuccotti Park so that crews can give it a good cleaning.  He took the opportunity to announce also that, while he's a big supporter of First Amendment rights, he won't be allowing overnighters at Zuccotti anymore.  Before the presser, the police were taking box cutters to the tents and arresting protesters who had been lulled into thinking it was okay to just hang around for a while.  A court order, issued soon after Bloomberg spoke, rescinded his actions, giving the use of the park back to the OWS bunch.  Bloomberg's office says they'll go back to court.  For now, Zuccotti Park is empty and any clear vision of the First Amendment is muddied once again.

UpdateThe park is open but no more camping.  No more tents.  Sometimes you take your victories in smaller doses than you had hoped.  Onward.   
So where do the Occupiers go from here?  Protesting in parks and on the sidewalks outside buildings, carrying predictable signs, remaining lawful within established confines -- is that all there is?  How long before those efforts become ho-hum and easily ignored?

Is it time now?  Is this the point where the actual revolution begins?  Occupy Wall Street is planning a MASS NON-VIOLENT DIRECT ACTION on Thursday,. November 17.  It's the next step for them and, as with any step forward in the revolutionary process, it's not without its risks. 

Poster by R Black.  Can be used freely, but cannot be sold.

So where will they go from here?  Are there real Anarchists out there?  Infiltrators?  If so, how many?  How are they when it comes to stamina?  Will violence erupt?  Will wiser heads prevail?  Will a clear leader emerge?

What will it take for this Movement to succeed?   Every report of infighting (and there is and always will be infighting), every report of concerted efforts by detractors (and there are and always will be detractors) needs to be offset by reports of solid consequential successes.  Every move needs to be shining a spotlight on the goal.

The goal is to rescue the country from the One Percenters and their enablers so that we can revive it and rebuild it. Anything else is ineffective, unproductive diversion, of no good use to the 99 percent who are finally beginning to see that change they can believe in is not only possible but probable.  What cruelty if, after all this, we veer off and let ourselves down.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Simple Plea: Do Not Lay Hands Upon Our Children

Every hour of every day, children in our keep are being harmed.  Throughout the history of the world,  adults have used their size and their physical and psychological power as weapons against our most precious assets--our children.

Hurting them is not accidental, it's the goal, but all it takes to muddy the waters is the argument about degree.  Is spanking abuse?  Is yelling?  Is fondling?  If there are no cuts and bruises how bad is it, really?

In the past few weeks the stories have been coming at us, fast and furious.

On November 5, Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was finally charged with serial sex abuse of minors after years of sexual contact with children as young as nine years old. (complete Grand Jury report is here.)  During those years several adults were suspicious of his activities but didn't come forward.

One boy's mother, after finding out Sandusky had shared a shower with her son, told him he must never do it again.  She tries to make him promise not to shower with young boys at all.  She fails.  He tells her, "I understand I was wrong.  I wish I could get forgiveness.  I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead."  That was in 1998.  

Sandusky was caught in the act at least twice during those years and hauled on the carpet.  In 2002 an eyewitness went to Paterno's office and reported an incident involving actual intercourse between Sandusky and  a ten-year-old boy.  The eyewitness was never questioned, but was told that Sandusky's locker room keys had been taken away from him and the incident had been reported.  Nothing else happened.

Now Joe Paterno, a beloved long-time coach, has been fired after evidence surfaced proving he knew of at least one instance of the abuse and did nothing about it. On hearing the news of his firing, crowds of students gathered in protest, not against Paterno but against the board's decision to let him go.  (It's been said there was a small contingent protesting at the same time against the sexual abuse, but it apparently wasn't worthy of a news story because it's not out there anywhere.)

A Texas family judge, William Adams, is caught on videotape beating his disabled daughter with a thick belt, striking her hard at least 20 times.  The girl's mother is seen hitting her once with another belt, telling her to "take it like a grown woman".  The incident was secretly taped by the girl in 2004, when she was 16 years old.  The girl recently put the videotape on YouTube (after her father dared her to do it, she says), but no charges will be issued against the judge because the tape is more than five years old, beyond the Statute of Limitations.

The story was detailed last week in the U.K-based Mail Online. The story itself is horrific enough, but buried inside was this bit of nasty business:
As a result of the furor, the video was being examined by the District Attorney and previous controversial judgements Judge Adams made in cases involving children have come to light.
In a court judgement last October, Judge Adams said that a child's statements 'amounted to no evidence' despite the fact the child's words had been confirmed by third party witnesses and recorded on video several times. The young person had also been interviewed by a child psychologist who believed the child.
Judge Adams also agreed with a lawyer who claimed all children are 'fantasizers' and their testimony should just be ignored.

 Michael Pearl, a preacher at the Cave Creek church in Tennessee, wrote a book called "To Train up a Child", advocating corporal punishment modeled on “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules”.  This from a November 6 NYT article:
More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.” 

So far, three child deaths have been attributed to the use of the methods in that book, yet Preacher Pearl and his wife, Debi, have appeared on shows like Anderson Cooper 360 to defend their methods and their book.  As a compelling visual, "Pastor Pearl" brings a length of the plumbing line to demonstrate that it might sting but it won't do damage to muscle or bone.

In the NYT account, there is this paragraph, describing the condition of a child who had been murdered by her parents:
Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff’s report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls’ book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff’s report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.
 This controversy brought Michael Pearl into the spotlight, not as an accomplice or the devil incarnate, but as a minor actor, the requisite media shock blast in a compelling, agonizing tragedy.  He and his wife were wined and dined, all expenses paid, to appear on television as a defender of corporal punishment in the wake of a terrible, preventable tragedy.  Never mind that the parents, now murderers of an innocent child, saw something in Pearl's book that gave them permission to abuse their children.  The mere sight of Pearl handling a 15-inch length of plumbing tube while defending its use is the kind of hold-your-nose moment we've all come to recognize as an odious but reliable tool to increase nightly ratings.

A 7th Grade Special Education student was raped twice in the course of two years by a fellow student.  School officials didn't believe her story and after the second accusation, she was expelled and made to apologize to the boy who raped her.
The girl was first raped at Republic Middle School in the spring of 2009, according to the lawsuit. After the mother notified the school, the girl described the rape and "multiple sexual assaults" she'd experienced at school that year to Duncan, Mithelavage and Ragain. They then told the mother that they thought that her daughter made it all up.
During subsequent meetings described in the lawsuit as "intimidating interrogations," the lawsuit says the officials told the girl that they thought she was lying about the rape. The girl's mother was later told that her daughter recanted her story during one of those meetings.
The family's lawyers note in the lawsuit that the girl's school file contains a psychological report describing her as adverse to conflict, passive and "would forego her own needs and wishes to satisfy the request of others around so that she can be accepted."
Following instructions from the school, the girl wrote an apology to the boy she accused of raping her and had to personally give it to him, according to the lawsuit. She was then expelled for the remainder of the 2008-09 school year. The school also told "juvenile authorities" that she filed a false report.

 In the moment, as we bring ourselves to watch or read the sad, horrific details in these stories and so many others, we tell ourselves we can't stand it.  Enough.  We rail, we wail, we pontificate.  Something must be done!  But it goes on. It ever goes on.  Because once a fuss is made, once we as a nation howl at the moon and do the requisite teeth-gnashing, the moment passes and we move on nearly residue-free until it happens again. 

We could stop it if we forced the courts and thus the perpetrators to recognize that child abuse in any form is a major crime.  When the victims are helpless children, their abuse has to be considered a crime worthy of punishment so severe the offenders assaulting them will be stopped forever.  The sentencing guidelines need to be so stringent there won't be a judge in the land who will ever again dismiss abuse as mere necessary punishment or childhood imagination.

But it won't happen until we can get past the widespread approval of spanking as a useful punishment.  There is no cause, ever, to lay hands on a child and cause pain in order to get the point across.  Radical, I know, but think about it:  There are millions of children who grew up to become adults without once being spanked or hit or injured by a parent.  I was one of them, and I know for a fact I'm not alone.  Each child of mine can make the same claim.

Every child has worth.  Every child needs to feel loved, to feel secure, to feel as if their world is a good place to grow up in.  And only those who have already become adults can make that happen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

FRIDAY FOLLIES: On Limousine Meals, the Crush of Wine, Absurdity, and Occupation

I'm not one to laugh at the plight of others, especially at elderly ladies whose family makes a request for meals on wheels, and I'm certainly not going to do it now, but can I at least laugh at the picture in my mind of people delivering those charity meals to limousines that will then whisk them off to a millionaire's mansion?

 The bankrupt Crystal Cathedral, the Rev. Robert Schuller's megachurch in Garden Grove, CA, is about to be sold to pay off its debts, and is facing a court battle over whether many millions of church-donated dollars have been deliberately diverted to keep the family in a lavish lifestyle.

It's a sad and sorry thing, that, but sometimes it's the little things that become the final straw.  For the Friends of the Schullers, it may just be something as simple as a request for "Meals on Wheels".

Dr. Schuller's wife, Arvella, in her 80s, is home-bound and in need of daily meals.  The family is apparently unable to provide them, considering their current penury, so an email went out to certain of the members asking for some help:

The email states that the Schullers do not want get well cards sent because they would like to "keep her situation under the radar."
"However, they would appreciate meals over the next three to four weeks," the email states. "They are to be sent to the church in order to be transported to Arvella. The limo drivers could pick up the dinners or meet in the Tower Lobby around 4:30 p.m."
The message also requests that the meals be low in sodium and include items such as fruit, meats, soup and egg dishes such as quiches.
 Well, imagine their surprise when not everybody jumped at the chance. Member Bob Canfield says he was outraged when he got the message.
"These are millionaires who have limos and chauffeurs," [Canfield] said. "Why in God's name would they want the congregants to deliver meals? It's ludicrous"
. . .  Canfield said he and other members of the congregation are upset the request came at a time when their church is in bankruptcy and information coming out through court documents has suggested that the Schullers took nearly $10 million from the church's endowment funds.  They've completely depleted the church's funds," he said. "But they have shown that they have absolutely no remorse for what they've done. They're still being chauffeured around in limos. We, the congregants, have nothing."

 This is the stuff of movies --  the irony, the spoiled rich kids, the classic fall from grace -- but I'll leave that to others to sort out and make the most of it.  I'm still imagining the limos pulling up to the glorious glass edifice, the cathedral of 10,000 windows, the people gently placing their care packages onto the leather seats, waving farewell as the long, shiny gas guzzler winds its way out of the complex and works its way to the portico of the mansion, where members of the domestic staff are waiting to carry the meals inside before they get cold.

So we'll leave the land of 10,000 windows and move to the eerie tale of 7000 self-destructing wine bottles.  It happened in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and, again, it's the kind of story some might not find the least bit funny.

The man stocking the shelves at a wine shop said he heard a little sound and felt a little shift and "booked out of there" as dozens of shelves filled with thousands of bottles of wine ranging from $4 to $150 crashed to the floor, creating gushing rivers of wine that flowed out of both the front and back doors.

There were no customers in the store yet and nobody was hurt. "Luckily," Jak Phillips at Time Newsfeed wrote, "insurance covered the losses and the shelf has long since been replaced and restocked, meaning there was no cause for sour grapes."

 Okay, then.  I'll pretend I didn't read about $150 bottles of wine and the fact that insurance covered it all.

 But leave it to the Herman Cain Presidential Campaign folks to bring me back and make me laugh out loud.  I'm sorry, I just can't watch that smoking, leering Herman commercial often enough.  Here it is again.  There's something absurdly Buñuelish about it.  It's great theater when we're heading over the cliff into the Sea of Insanity.  

I was looking at some pictures I took last year and realized these four were speaking to me about current events:

It takes just one. . .
to start an Occupy Movement.
Tell that to the Fence Sitters

Still waiting for a Miracle.

Halloween was last week and as many pumpkins as I have carved, (triangle eyes and nose with a grinning mouthful of broken teeth is my signature) I've never come close to the artistry of Roy Villafane.

Cartoon of the Week

Adam Zyglis - The Buffalo News

Monday, October 31, 2011

Herman Cain: How Goofy can a President Be?

Herman Cain is in the news again, this time for allegedly sexually harassing a couple of his female employees some time in the way back. 

From Politico:  The sources — which include the recollections of close associates and other documentation — describe episodes [with Cain] that left the women upset and offended. These incidents include conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association’s offices. There were also descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship.
While I've been waiting for the inevitable comparisons to the "high tech lynching" of  Clarence Thomas for similar behavior against Anita Hill and other female underlings in Thomas's workplace,  I've been trying to think of a way to put this whole thing into some kind of perspective without upsetting and offending my female compatriots.

Here's the best I can do:

Any woman who came of age in the middle of the 20th Century (that would be me) is now scratching her head wondering when the moment of high drama is going to come in this story.  It appears this guy Cain is possibly a creep who doesn't have the foggiest about propriety and good manners, let alone common sense.  Have you seen him in action as a so-called politician?   Have you seen him leering at the end of that goofy ad where his campaign manager slowly releases a mouthful of smoke?    Would it really shock you or even surprise you that he may have made suggestive comments to women who work for him?
 It doesn't shock me or surprise me or, frankly, even give me a moment's pause.  If I had a better memory, I could name you dozens of men I've worked with over the years -- some of them my bosses -- who have done the same things, not just to me but to every person who looked the least bit female.  I'll give it to you that there are men who take it as their right to go beyond innuendo and gestures, but that's a whole different ballgame.  So far all I've heard about Herman Cain's actions are the typically stupid, creepy, laughable pastimes of someone who deludes himself into thinking his position has the power to somehow make him desirable.  (Insert mention of "Mad Men" here.)

Good lord, people of the press, everybody knows Cain is an idiot.  Nothing new here.  Move along.

So let's get to why I can't get too excited about this new revelation about Herman Cain and his nasty mouth.  There are men out there in positions of power who want to take away every right women ever had to be equal citizens under the law.  They are working night and day to bust Roe v. Wade wide open.  There are already a number of states either in the process of, or actively promoting, bans on abortions.  If they're not working on outright bans they're sneaking around looking for ways to stall or discourage a procedure that has been declared legal in this country. (Mississippi is getting ready to decide if eggs are people, for God's sake.)

The House recently passed phony legislation that would stop most private insurance companies from paying for abortions, using the new Health Care law as the phony reason for the need to act.  It won't get past the Senate and they know it, but it can't hurt to send the message once again that, while our children are at risk,  being pro-fetus is where it's at.

 Rick Perry is proud of the fact that he defunded Planned Parenthood in his state, and his isn't the only one.

Mitt Romney wants to pretend he wasn't for legal abortions before he was against legal abortions.

Most if not all of the GOP presidential candidates are prepared to take steps to flat-out outlaw abortions in America. (Including Cain, who, even as I write this, is at the American Enterprise Institute using "genocide" and "Planned Parenthood" in the same sentence.)

If Herman Cain did what they're saying he did, it's a bad thing, sure, but let's get real.  While the press insists on resorting to the ridiculous in order to draw in the shallow,  real government-sanctioned sexual harassment looms large and threatens never to go away.

That's the big story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Junk Insurance deserves an Occupy Movement

Things are heating up in Chicago and I don't know a soul who is surprised by that.  It's Chicago and it's Emanuel Land.  Last week the Occupy Wall Street Windy City branch decided to occupy Grant Park past the posted 11 PM closing time.  The police, never ones to miss even vague radical clues, guessed correctly that these folks had other things on their minds and weren't going to be ready to leave just because a simple sign said they should.

When the clock moved past the magic hour, Mayor Rahm barked, the police moved in, and more than a hundred people were arrested in the eviction process. (Contrast that to the Good Mayor of Lansing, my hero and should-be governor, Virg Bernero, who welcomed the OWS protesters to the state capital, encouraged the crowd to keep up the good work, and provided park permits and the services necessary to make the days easier for them. Ahem and aha.)

So the climate in Chicago is apparently not good for protesters, (though I have to say it's much better than that in Oakland) but I'm hoping those same OWS crowds got wind of this week's Junk Insurance Conference, and hot-footed it over there.  (It began yesterday and runs through Friday.)

My hero, Wendell Potter, former CIGNA CEO turned whistleblower, wrote about it in HuffPo:
On Wednesday [10/26/11], the third annual Voluntary Benefits and Limited Medical Conference will open at the Marriott Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center, not far from Chicago's O'Hare airport. In just three years, this conference has grown to be a very big, three-day extravaganza. According to the conference Web site, it will "bring together all the players in the industry, from employers and benefits managers, to insurance agents, consultants, brokers, insurance companies, TPAs (third-party administrators), and enrollment firms."

All you have to do is spend a few minutes on the Web site to get an understanding of just how much money there is to be made selling inadequate coverage to naive consumers. You'll see all the big names in the insurance world among the attendees and exhibitors, including the very biggest -- Aetna, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, CIGNA, Humana and United -- as well as dozens of restaurant and fast food chains and other employers of low-wage workers.

 Yes, it's a den of thieves (no surprise -- they're "insurance" biggies), but this is pretty stunning:
One of the big for-profit insurers sponsoring this year's conference markets a limited-benefit plan only to employers with inordinately high employee turnover. Not only are the benefits very limited, the underwriting criteria almost guarantee an impressive profit margin.

Under the plan, the average age of an employer's workers cannot be higher than 40, and no more than 65 percent of employees can be female. (Insurers have long charged women more than men simply because of their internal plumbing.) To meet the insurer's additional demands, employers must have a 70 percent or higher annual employee-turnover rate (that's not a typo), which means that most employees won't even stay on the job long enough to use their benefits. Employees also get no coverage for care related to any preexisting conditions they might need during their first six months of enrollment in the plan. And get this: Employees have to pay the entire premium. The insurer doesn't even allow employers to subsidize their workers' coverage. No wonder the big box retailers and restaurant chains love this junk. They list them among the employee benefits they supposedly offer but don't have to part with a dime when a worker enrolls in one of the plans.

We have come to accept the business of "insurance", not as "assurance", as it was originally defined and administered by quasi-benevolent non-profits, but as just one more scam in the long list of scams we Americans have to watch out for.  This is our health we're talking about and we've put it in the hands of merciless privateers.

The insurance companies, begun as non-profits and mainly run that way until the 1970s and 80s, at least pretended to understand the part about shared risks.  Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.  Sometimes people die long before they've outspent their premiums, while other people cause their insurance carriers to dig deep, like it or not.  That's the crux of the insurance biz.  One thing the carriers understand to the core:  they'll never go broke selling us insurance policies.  They'll always pull in more money than they'll put out.  If that weren't so, there wouldn't be an insurance industry.
But now we're at the point where the watchdogs are fed too well, where members of our own government fight hard against an equitable, non-profit health care solution, where the industry is so bloated, enough will  never be enough.  Even the big guys are not above committing fraud, but what makes the whole scam even more egregious is that they never needed to go to such lengths in order to make their fortunes.  The fortunes were theirs to be made.  The entire system works to their advantage, even when they're being good guys doing the right thing.

I haven't heard that there are any protesters over at the Marriott convention Center yet, but it's not too late.  As I said, the Conference runs through tomorrow (Friday).  But if the OWS folks happen to miss the Conference, they can always camp out in front of a few grand and glorious corporate offices.

Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Houston, TX
(Note that the only corporate office list I could find complete with addresses and phone numbers comes from India.  Yes, India.  I said India)