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