Thursday, March 31, 2011

Obama on his own

A couple of weeks ago, CNN’s empty suit Wolf Blitzer, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothes David Gergen, and a gaggle of others followed right-wing talk’s lead by pounding Barack Obama for taking his long-delayed trip to insignificant Latin America and not making a “definitive” statement on military action in Libya. Given the fact that until a month ago, nobody had any idea that we’d even have a reason for getting involved there, the charge was little more than media hot air to stir up a little drama for ratings. Obama was criticized for not puffing his chest out like a tin-cup “Dick-Tater”—that was George Bush in a MadTV skit—and not relying on false or made-up information as an excuse to go to war; that kind of thing is supposed to be “presidential.”

The interesting thing here is that since Vietnam, getting involved in major combat operations seems to be a preoccupation of the Bush family. Nixon had to wrap-up Vietnam, and now Obama was left with Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite the alleged foreign policy acumen of Nixon and Kissinger, Vietnam didn’t exactly turnout the way that was intended. As tough-talking Ronald Reagan was, he was like Gen. George B. McClellan: he never had enough troops or firepower to risk getting a job done, and cut-and-run at the first sign of resistance (as in Beirut, which actually was to his credit). The only major operation Reagan would risk was “rescuing” a couple of Americans in tiny Grenada against a more or less equal number of Grenadans armed with brickbats; even in that minor operation, there was criticism about the lack of coordination between the various armed services. Of course, Bill Clinton was involved in Bosnia, but that was another tiny country where our involvement didn’t go beyond bombing and actual peace-keeping; we didn’t commit ground forces until a peace agreement was signed in Dayton.

The media seemed not to mind the blood and guts being spilled in Iraq and Afghanistan, so long as Bush gave CNN reporters an opportunity to go in and play pretend soldier and make like they were famous like Ernie—or is that Gomer?—Pyle. We didn’t really need to go into Iraq to remove a dictator who was already marginalized in order to install an unstable government which may well fall into another unfriendly—and perhaps more threatening to U.S. interests—dictatorship once our forces pull out completely. Afghanistan has proved to be a country where central government has always been and always will be a myth. Even the Taliban only “controlled” the country by making “deals” with warlords and tribal leaders. The only “best” scenario in Afghanistan is insuring a “friendly” presence in Kabul that won’t act as a sponsor of Al Qaeda. We probably wouldn’t have needed to concern ourselves with even that if the Bush administration hadn’t completely botched the search effort for Bin Laden and allowed him and his operatives to escape into Pakistan.

I’ve talked to people from India and Algeria about the goings-on in the Middle East, and from what I gathered from their attitudes is that the U.S. is in a damned-if-you do, damned-if-you don’t situation. What is a country to do if it only wants stable, not-unfriendly governments to deal with? Like any place the U.S. touches on this tar-baby, there’s a catch-22: In Libya, in getting rid of Qaddafi (I think that’s today’s spelling) may mean installing an Al Qaeda-friendly government. In the meantime, as in post-Gulf War Iraq, it’s an open question whether rebels are strong enough to take advantage of NATO airstrikes; was it not just a few days ago that loyalist forces were in full retreat before the rebels? Today, it is the rebels who are in retreat. Tomorrow, who knows?

Let’s be frank: Obama was not agitating for military action in Libya (let alone Iraq and Afghanistan): It was Britain and France “before it was too late,” and a cable news media that wanted to be seen to be on the side of “the people”—quite unlike they are here—agitating for “presidential” action. If U.S. air power and the Europeans—having agitated for military action, Britain and France did seem rather loath to "take charge," since it is always convenient to have the U.S. take the blame if something goes awry—can manage to oust Qaddafi with minimal Allied bloodshed, Obama should rightly receive credit for pursing a “regime change” strategy much more intelligently than Bush and his armchair warrior crew.

As if Obama doesn’t have enough problems on his table, there’s Hillary Clinton to contend with. I saw a supermarket tabloid claiming that the Kennedy Clan is “begging” Clinton to run against Obama in 2012, but that’s just a minor detail. Clinton has done almost nothing to advance any coherent foreign policy strategy that might put the Obama administration in a favorable light, while advancing her own pet causes independent of the overall “picture.” Consider: A few weeks ago, Newsweek had a cover story featuring Clinton; she is “breaking glass ceilings” all over the world, it proclaimed. Newsweek didn’t mean being secretary of state—Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice preceded her in that role; in two years, Clinton has been on more magazine covers for doing less than the both of them combined. In fact I don’t think either Albright or Rice have ever appeared on the cover of Newsweek or TIME. With the Middle East aflame, it seems that Newsweek sought to place Clinton front and center stage; unfortunately, they couldn’t find anything useful that Clinton had actually accomplished, so the publication backed into gender politics. So instead of solving problems in global hotspots, Clinton seems more in tuned with advancing her personal agenda (perhaps as a way of “getting even” with the male cabal that doesn’t take her as seriously as she prefers)—that is to say continuing a version of the failed U.S. policy of meddling in cultural issues in Third World countries rather than trying to help them establish sound economic foundations in exchange for access to resources, as China is wisely doing. As I noted in a previous post, the U.S. “help” in Third World countries amounts to little more than band aids to prevent excessive hemorrhaging. “Self-esteem” programs in poverty-stricken countries is like telling a starving person without employment that feeling better about themselves will make everything seem sunny and bright; the problem is, they’re still starving and without employment. Clinton’s foreign policy credentials amount to little more than Being There (as in the Peter Sellers movie), which however hasn’t stopped the politicized media from putting her on a pedestal.

Clinton’s international gender empowerment crusade has its merits, so long as we recognize that it has more to do with her vindictive and self-aggrandizing nature, which was amply revealed in “Game Change,” although not in the upcoming movie adaptation I’m sure; Clinton’s angry feminist supporters (including the infamous Harriet Christian) who heaped derision and abuse on Obama during and after the 2008 primaries probably more closely resembles her own personality more than we’d like to know. I’ve noted in an earlier post that during the two years she was virtually invisible as secretary of state, she was busy consolidating her personal fiefdom. Her “diplomatic” skills were only occasionally on display, as when she revealed her thin-skin by blowing her top and scolding a male Congolese student whose interpreter still thought Bill Clinton was president. Meanwhile, there has been virtually no progress on the North Korean, Palestinian and Iranian fronts, no thanks to Clinton. That might not be altogether fair; after all, there hasn’t been much progress on those fronts for a decade or two. On the other hand, Clinton hasn’t been noted for bringing fresh ideas to the table, besides the gender stuff. With the media and political pundits placing all the burden of diplomatic success or failure on Obama’s shoulders, Clinton has been shielded from criticism; whether or not the façade created by the media and her fanatical phalanx of supporters will hold-up if Clinton decides to advance her political career further is another matter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Random thoughts and observations

I have a rather large backlog of things to discuss, but since it all seems to be a variation of the same themes, it just doesn’t seem to matter whether they are discussed or not, because nothing seems to change despite all the hot air expended. People actually get paid to do this, and most of them seem to be more dim-witted than the ones who don’t get paid. Anyways, here are some tossed-off observations dispensed with in a completely, confusingly random manner:

I was walking down a sidewalk in Kent when I observed standing ahead of me a yuppie-looking type smoking a cigarette; I thought to myself “I bet that’s another office guy.” I didn't actually use those terms, but let's not get technical. As I walked past him, I heard him say “Hi Mark.” I stopped and looked at him; he looked like John-Boy with receding hair, but I recognized him as one of the guys who bounced around from position to position at the sports apparel company where once I worked. He told me about the new, smaller building they had moved into, and how there were only 17 people employees left (from 50, plus a dozen temps); I supposed they kept him around because he was “flexible.” I reflected on how the company’s “successes” in the early 2000s were based on over-optimistic expectations, followed by a steady, unstoppable decline in sales until the barely-visible state the business was in now. When I mused about the fraud the Bush and Republican Congress’ economic “plan” was, and that the country’s economy has in fact been in defacto recession since the beginning of the previous decade, a fact masked by financial-gambling bubbles, he decided he needed to go back to work right then. The president of the company was a Republican, and I once or twice overheard him make comments that I deemed racially-insensitive; I was fortunate that my boss was allowed to operate independently and hire whoever he wanted—that is until he was fired after getting involved in a power struggle with the “Chief Operating Officer” who normally had nothing to do except collect a six-figure salary, but suddenly decided she wanted to micro-manage the warehouse. The real problems lay elsewhere (like the sales department), but as always, sh*t rolls downhill.


There was front page story in USA Today recently about how Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and others having to make the “tough,” “visionary” choices to balance their budgets. Actually, they could have left out the “visionary” part, since it doesn’t apply. I was listening to the BBC world news commentators bubbling about how China was about to pass the U.S. in published research papers (although they admitted that Chinese research was generally of low-quality), and how China was projected to become the world’s largest economy in 2023. Tom Friedman of The New York Times was interviewed about his concern that the U.S. didn’t seem to have the “get things done” mentality as in the past. That’s where the “visionary”—or lack thereof—part comes in, which Republican politicians have a distinct lacking of. Republicans are busy laying-off teachers for purely partisan political reasons (since they are viewed as Democratic-leaning), cutting education funding, trying to push (as Walker is doing) reducing per-student funding in order to cut property taxes. Higher education funding is being cut even more than in previous years, which naturally includes research funding, thus one reason why the U.S. is losing ground to China. Back in the day, U.S. research funding went into bigger things, like airplanes and space flight, which required new and more efficient uses of resources; now, research is more likely to be in the smaller and less empirically useful—and certainly not with an eye to address future crisis, especially in energy and infrastructure. When the future requires newer and more efficient mechanisms for power, infrastructure and transportation, Republicans repeatedly block these goals, because they “cost” too much, or interfere with “market forces”—meaning their corporate sponsors. What are people in this country doing about it? Sitting on their arses, getting dumber watching Fox News and voting Republican.


Following the Tucson massacre in January, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik denounced right-wing blow-hard Rush Limbaugh for continuing to make what he described as “incendiary” comments that inflamed hate and promoted violence, telling ABC News that “The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh, in my judgment he is irresponsible, uses partial information, sometimes wrong information…attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences." Not all potential consequences are necessarily for the worse, however: It appears that outside the unabashed race-baiter Russell Pearce, Arizona Republicans have decided for the time being to cool their heels on the immigration issue. Five bills promoted by Pearce and fellow fanatic Steve Smith went down in flames two weeks ago; they would have required teachers and health care workers to report “suspected” illegal immigrants to law enforcement, required the forcible eviction from public housing legal residents if they allowed an illegal immigrant to live with them, made it a crime for an illegal immigrant to drive or possess a driver’s license, and included a "proposal" to the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the issue of denial of automatic citizenship for children born in this country. With businesses complaining that the focus on illegal immigrants was in fact hurting—not helping—the local economy, some Republicans decided that “the people” wanted them to focus on other issues. There was no mention of the Tucson massacre in their deliberations, but as Frank Rich opined in the New York Times last month, there was a very definite fallout for Republicans, especially in the at least short-term decline in ratings for Sarah Palin and Fox News blowhards. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Michael Medved—one of those “rational” conservatives—denounced the supposedly “mainstream” right for continuously portraying Barack Obama as an “evil” man with a master plan to “destroy” the country. In Arizona—ground zero for hate speech—the political gain for such folly proved insufficient to put Pearce’s even more draconian bills in the racist “win” column.


As one may or may not have heard, Sarah Palin made a trip to India to make what was billed as a “major foreign policy address.” Why Palin would be making a “major foreign policy address” if she didn’t still harbor fantasies about becoming president is anybody’s guess. Attendees at her speech admitted that they only showed-up because Palin was a “celebrity,” and although she said the “right things” about Indian-Pakistani relations, the general consensus was that she didn’t have much of substance or new to say. This was apparently Palin’s latest “coming out” party, following her disastrous performance in the wake of the Tucson massacre. A speech she was supposed to give in Glendale, Arizona was canceled because of “anemic” ticket sales—even at half-price—which apparently would not cover Palin’s $100,000 speaking fee. I mean, what idiot would pay $185 to listen to someone make sarcastic noises that pass for human speech? I paid $80 for a cheap seat to see Paul McCartney at the Tacoma Dome in 2002; I can only say that I’m not embarrassed to admit that. But while the idea of Palin as president remains a head-scratcher, guess who else wants to be president? That guy with the bad hair, Donald Trump. Trump claims he can do a much better job with the economy; the problem is he is one of a type who helped sink it in the first place. Trump, by the way, has been in bankruptcy court numberless times, and received a sweet heart deal from banks in 1991 that helped him avoid both financial and personal ruin. He’s still trying to avoid paying off loans he owes, making the bizarre claim that the current recession is an “Act of God”—so it isn’t his fault that he can't honor his obligations to Deutsche Bank. Let this guy run the country? Only if you believe in smoke and mirrors.


Can the world function without computers? Consider: Last Saturday I was sitting in my “office”/parking spot at the airport when I noticed after a couple of hours that not much seemed to be going on. I decided to take a stroll about and discovered that a lot of people were also standing or sitting around with nothing to do. Flights that were supposed to leave at 6 A.M. were still sitting motionless. Because planes were still occupying all the gates, no plane could come in, and of course made for a great mess of things. The airline cancelled 95 flights, lost some money and maybe some customers.

What happened? According to an airline spokesperson, a “routine” upgrade in the flight planning computer software went awry. Likely story. When I was a kid, I was a baseball fanatic. Every morning I make sure I had time to stop by the school library before classes so I could pore over the Milwaukee Brewers box score (back when Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner formed the core of the team for over a decade), and would spend the rest of the day doodling rotisserie league statistics and learning to figure batting averages, slugging percentages and ERAs in my head. I used to do this a lot when I was in college in order to pass the time when I was bored; at least it fooled instructors who thought I was taking notes. On one occasion there was a guest lecturer regaling a class I was in, and she seemed to be quite impressed with the fact that I seemed to be the only student diligently taking notes of her every word—that is until she noticed that a student sitting next to me was looking at my handiwork and silently laughing. I didn’t need a calculator or a computer—in fact there was no such thing as a home computer until I went to college after I decided I had enough of Army life. We found everything via a card catalogue, and figured using scrap paper and pencil. I suspect that back in the day, even an airline operations staff—like most other businesses—had to make do with doing everything by hand and be semi-knowledgeable in basic math equations, like addition. But not today; people are helpless without their gadgets; you only have to have the pretension of intelligence. Working in the cargo department, I probably know better than anyone else their dearth of competence even with the aid of mechanical and electronic devices.


Speaking of computers, I used to be an Apple fanatic, but those days are long gone. It took a awhile, but I discovered a startling fact: When you purchased a Mac, you were not buying it for the hardware, but for the software. A Mac could cost twice as much as a Windows machine, but you were paying for half the hardware. Thus when I discovered recently that I couldn’t find a Mac with a blu-ray drive, I knew I still didn’t want to go back. This has been taken as evidence that the blu-ray format has not been a raging success, even though discs and hardware prices have gotten to point where they can actually be called “cheap,” and frankly I still prefer physical media over what can easily be lost in hard drive crashes. But I don’t buy the pundits story. These days I will only purchase a machine that has blu-ray capability, even if I don’t intend to play blu-ray discs. Why? Because blu-ray requires more robust hardware requirements, like faster processors, larger hard drives, but especially more video memory; you wind-up with a faster machine for performing other functions. This is the real reason why Apple doesn’t sell Macs with blu-ray drives: Macs generally have less memory and smaller hard drives than Windows machines that cost half as much—it assumes people will be satisfied by its admittedly superior operating system. Me? I’m not fooled.


It is hard to find public restrooms in downtown Seattle, so the other day I availed myself to the one at the Convention Center. The one on the second floor, right off the escalator, has a room with one of those opening in the wall, like a hatcheck room of old. It always closed, except this time it was open, and inside was sitting a shriveled-up fiftyish white woman with short red hair. As I entered she gave me an evil look. There was about five guys milling about inside doing I don’t know what, but left right then. I went into one of the stalls; while I was conducting business, I suddenly heard this truly unpleasant voice call inside: Can I help you? Do you have a problem? When she didn’t get a response, I heard her call someone to see if the SPD was “still outside.” Shortly thereafter I heard her say something to somebody else about the “last guy who went in there.” That somebody went inside the restroom, where I heard him tell another person on a radio that there wasn’t any problem. After I was done and vacating the restroom, I noticed that the door to the hatcheck room was closing and the red-haired woman suddenly appeared in the opening; I figured she must have standing outside listening in. She was still looking at me with the evil eye; she wasn’t wearing a name tag, so I asked her what her name was. She didn’t answer, just stared at me evilly, but I told her that was OK, I was going to write about this incident on my blog anyways. I figured she must have been fired from a previous management position, and now she could only find was this shitty security guard job, which her ratty blazer couldn’t conceal. I guess the only people she knew to blame were those “Mexicans,” and she wanted “get even.” I found an alumni magazine in my post box earlier in the day; the cover story was about African-American achievement at the school. Frankly, this country has only addressed half the problem.


I was digging around in my rat nest when I discovered a cap with the AS Roma soccer team insignia, which was manufactured by the aforementioned apparel company I worked for. I once wore it at the airport; one of the airline employees saw me and complained to a supervisor, and I was hunted down and told to remove it. What was so offensive about it? The insignia portrayed the famous sculpture of Romulus and Remus—the mythic founders of Rome—being suckled by a wolf, as they were according to legend. I’m a history buff, so I know these things. Obviously, anyone in this sexually-correct country who is unaware of the iconology would interpret it incorrectly. Culture is a funny thing; people claim to have it, it’s all theirs, but they can’t explain what it is. It is remarkable to me how white Americans have very little knowledge of the artistic and literary past of their own country—let alone that of other countries—yet find time to criticize the alleged lack of other groups to be “cultured.” I’ve seen other people’s “superior” culture alright. I spent four years in Germany, which was “cultured”—like a stone statue. People would go about their daily life, and then disappear after 6 PM. Unless you lived in one of the megalopolises, streets were literally devoid of life. I often wondered what Germans did after 6 PM; were they pondering the philosophical ramifications contained in thick tomes, or concentrating on the intricacies of a classical music piece? Perhaps poring over complex mathematical equations for amusement? Or maybe they were just watching TV or getting drunk. In Greece, I visited a tourist shop; what I saw were statuettes of naked Venuses and men with gigantic upright penises. I suppose that passes for “culture” in some parts, although you’d still have to wonder.

What is culture? Not “political culture”—which in this country can best be described as controlled insanity—but the artifacts of “higher” civilization. Just the things that amuse you to pass the time? I know what I like, and nobody can take that away from me, even though some people have tried; in college, I was listening to a cassette tape I had made of favorite songs, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. A white student who overheard it sneered “that isn’t YOUR music.” So what made it “his” music? What makes it Pat Buchanan’s? They didn’t create it. Artists and writers don’t intend to appeal to only certain “privileged” groups. Look how many white people get-off on rap music, even though its commentary has little to do with their own lives, often quite the opposite; after the shooting death of yet another hip-hop personality—DJ Megatron—I think it is about time that the musical themes of the past—you know, “love,” “peace” and self-empowerment—make a comeback. I admit my own knowledge of “culture” is limited to what I read or listen to, but at least the books and music I avail myself to have generally stood the test of time.


I read an article about the Great White Shark becoming close to being placed on the Endangered Species list. Some of us remember the Steven Spielberg film “Jaws,” which convinced many viewers that even though they probably wouldn’t encounter one in their life-spans, the world be a much better place without them. They may get their wish, even if memory of the film has faded, aided with the reality that Great White attacks continue to be a rare occurrence. Meanwhile, according to a recent National Geographic expose, a rather amazing 40,000,000 sharks are killed every year for one thing, and one thing only: Their top fin. According to the publication, “That raises the issue from animal cruelty to global crisis.” The reason for this seemingly mindless slaughter, especially when only five species of shark out of 300 are considered “threatening” to humans? Because shark fins are a delicacy in China, and dining on “shark fin soup” is considered a measure of one’s status in Chinese society. China’s rapid economic growth has brought with it a growing number of newly rich, and so has grown the “taste” for shark fins. I don’t know what shark fins taste like, but I’ve tasted an alleged “delicacy” called caviar—the eggs of sturgeon—and I still can’t figure out the big deal is; it’s just another superficiality without any redeeming value. I’m sure the Chinese millionaires can live without shark fins, and they may have to do so sooner than later; the stupidity of it all is the killing off whole species for the sake of momentary “prestige.” Somehow, “prestige” is the last term I would apply to it.


The U.S. used to have something called the “fairness doctrine” in which broadcasters were required to allow equal time for differing political views. Obviously that doesn’t exist anymore; Fox News’ claim that is “fair and balanced” is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on humanity, and CNN is increasingly catering to a right-wing audience. There is still something like a fairness doctrine in the UK; while in the U.S. the FCC seems more concerned with the use of the Seven Dirty Words, Ofcom’s mission is to “make sure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services and are protected from scams and sharp practices, while ensuring that competition can thrive.” This apparently has in mind preventing the kind of domination of deceptive and race-baiting political “commentary” by right-wing radio talk in this country. Check out these amazing concepts meant to maintain an informed public:

Insure that a “wide range of high-quality television and radio programmes are provided, appealing to a range of tastes and interests;”

That “television and radio services are provided by a range of different organisations;”

That “people who watch television and listen to the radio are protected from harmful or offensive material;”

That “people are protected from being treated unfairly in television and radio programmes, and from having their privacy invaded.”

On the other hand, what we have in the U.S. is a lot of hot, empty air, misinformation, hate, greed and always the threat of violence—and most of it perpetrated by the right, which almost completely controls the radio dial and dominates at least cable news. There is no such thing as frank, reasonable discussion of the issues in the hands of those who now control public discourse airwaves (don’t get me started on that empty suit Wolf Blitzer and his hypocritical blowhards on the “Situation Room”). However, things may be changing in the UK, thanks to a familiar name: Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s News Corp controls the cable news channel Sky News, which is based on the Fox News model. It isn’t quite as bad as Fox, since Ofcom takes seriously the 1,000 or so complaints a year about Sky’s violations of the various codes. But what Sky News can’t get always get away with (one guest on a news program hosted by the oft-lampooned Kay Burley called her “a bit dim” on air when she repeatedly made the kind of mean-spirited, insipid observations usually reserved for the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity), it makes up in spades with “eye candy” appeal. Like Fox News, leg and bosom are front and center. You rarely see one of Fox’s harem sitting behind a desk where you can’t see anything, and all of them (save Greta VanSusteren, who otherwise is completely irrelevant) look like they were hired from a Vegas strip show, with their only other “qualification” being that they are “mean girls” with sarcastic attitudes. Sky’s women are not all “mean,” but they are required to occasional play “devil’s advocate” when questioning a “liberal” guest. Fox’s “Happy Hour”—where there is usually at least one of Fox’s harem wearing a skimpy cocktail dress—has its similar number in Sky’s “Poker Lounge,” where someone is usually seen laid out on a sofa in, yes, a skimpy cocktail dress.

Having sowed the seeds of viewer discontent with the somewhat less enticing BBC News, Murdoch and his UK flunkies are now trying to abolish Ofcom and its regulations. That would require a rather drastic change in the political environment, and I’m sure the British consider themselves more clear-thinking and less susceptible to smear talk than the minority of Americans who seem to wield substantial influence in what is considered “public interest” programming and discussion. But you never know; after all, the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. isn’t even an American.


Some people may be aware that there is a trial of former baseball slugger Barry Bonds currently in progress, on the charge of lying to a grand jury concerning his alleged use of steroids. While the supposed supplier of the steroids, Greg Anderson, has refused to talk and is in jail for contempt, a litany of witnesses all claim to know that Bonds took steroids without actually having seen this. A concerned “friend” secretly recorded a conversation that discussed Bond’s steroid use, perhaps with future blackmail on his mind. A former mistress-turned Playboy model-turned star witness made humorous claims about how Bond’s private parts appeared to alter in size. Frankly, this is a joke of a trial; Bonds is in trouble not just because he was a "big fish," but because he refused to cooperated with prosecutors who were targeting Anderson, and vice versa. At least four baseball players have testified that Anderson gave them steroids, yet there is no effort to criminalize them. Bonds is about to go to jail for something that was not at the time technically criminally illegal, for something that at least 100 other players tested positive for and baseball won't release their names, and that baseball gave a wink and a nod at after the lockout. OK, he lied. So did Roger Clemens. And Mark McGwire. So what. Maybe hundreds of players were “doing it” and except for some bad publicity nobody felt the threat of prosecution, except Bonds, and maybe Clemens. Bond’s problem was that he was unpopular with the media, and prosecutors thought they had an easy mark. Would he be in trouble if he just cried and took the Fifth, like McGwire, and then come back and fib about it after the statue of limitations expired? Is a Bonds a scapegoat? Are the prosecutors just publicity hounds?


I recall an Economist story that commented on the U.S.’s rather draconian sex crime laws; the media and television series like “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” codifies in the public mind that these victims are indeed more important than others. Of course, “Law and Order” doesn’t take into consideration the possibility of deception, given the hundreds of wrongly-accused men exonerated by the Innocence Project, but that’s a matter for another day. I came across a story recently about an ex-NFL football player named Tommie Boyd who pled guilty to grabbing a 14-year-old girl's buttocks “with both hands.” According to The Detroit News, the judge called him “a parent's worst nightmare," before sentencing him to a 2 to 15 year term in prison, and once released to be registered as a sex offender and “fitted with a tether for the rest of his life.” This is probably the kind of thing the Economist was referring to.

The fascination with such accusations goes back to at least Roman times (as the novel and BBC television production “I Claudius” suggests), but the U.S. has its own history. Remember the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle case in 1921? I didn’t think so, but I remember when I first heard about it in one of those “book of lists” that was popular back in the day, my impression from what I read was that he was probably guilty of raping and causing the death of Virginia Rappe during a party; although he was eventually acquitted, his career was justly destroyed. But the reality was much different: Arbuckle, one of the pioneers of silent screen comedy who mentored Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and gave Bob Hope his first big break, was almost certainly an innocent man whose career was destroyed because the public believed the sensational newspaper stories (such as those published by the “great” yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst) that painted the picture of a beautiful young woman literally crushed to death by the lust of an enormous fat man. I won’t go into too many details here, but the three trials (the first two were mistrials) revealed almost the opposite of what was commonly believed. According to Arbuckle, whose account seemed the only plausible one anyone told during the trial, Rappe was found in a bathroom vomiting. Arbuckle assisted her to a bed; she was clearly ill and excitable, and tearing at her clothes (Rappe's neighbors claimed to have frequently seen her engaged in such behavior when she was drunk). She was examined by a hotel doctor, who also thought she had too much to drink. In fact she was suffering from urinary bladder disease, which was inflamed with the consumption of alcohol. Rappe also had numerous abortions (at least five before she was 17 according to one account), and it was suspected that she had just had another botched procedure. Newspaper stories that claimed that Arbuckle used a coke bottle as a sexual stimulator proved to be only that. The rape claim was made my Rappe’s friend, Maude Belmont, a person known to engage in blackmail schemes against celebrities. Before she died of a ruptured bladder and peritonitis, Rappe never made a claim of rape, and the doctor who examined her found no evidence to support the charge (the possibility that Arbuckle was “responsible” for bringing on her demise, would, however, be suggested by those who claimed to observe Arbuckle’s knee accidentally strike her in the stomach when she “impulsively” tickled him during the party). The doctor admitted at trial that he thought Rappe could have benefited from an operation; why this operation did not occur he could not answer. Defense doctors would testify that Rappe’s ruptured bladder could not have been caused by an external force. Along with the discrediting of prosecution witnesses, Arbuckle should have been acquitted during his first trial for manslaughter, but one of the jurors—Helen Hubbard—was what could be described as proto-feminist, and refused to even countenance the idea that he could be innocent. When Arbuckle was eventually acquitted in the third trial, the jurors were so outraged that they included in their verdict this note:

“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”

But there would be no justice for Arbuckle outside the courtroom. Just the charge itself was sufficient to destroy his career. More recently, I read a commentary by a woman defending the “honor” not of Arbuckle but of Rappe, who was indeed quite beautiful and appears in photographs to be the “sensual” type that would justify a career as an actress and artists’ model (allegedly posing nude on occasion). But the truth remains that Rappe’s lifestyle—perhaps explained by an unstable childhood due to her illegitimate birth—of alcoholism and promiscuity (and frequent abortions) led directly to the physical ailments that would kill her. Rappe’s personal habits were in fact so infamous that famed studio executive Mack Sennett once had the Keystone lot fumigated because he believed Rappe and boyfriend/director Henry Lehrman had infected it with venereal disease.


I was watching television in a Laundromat when a commercial aimed at sufferers of depression aired. If their current medication wasn’t working, there was a wonder drug called Seroquel a person could use as a supplement. The bulk of this commercial dealt not about the wonderful effects it had on reducing depression (in fact there was no discussion about how it accomplished this) but on its “side effects,” which constitutes almost the entire homepage of the drug’s website:

“Elderly patients with dementia-related psychosis (having lost touch with reality due to confusion and memory loss) treated with this type of medicine are at an increased risk of death, compared to placebo (sugar pill). Seroquel XR and Seroquel are not approved for treating these patients. Antidepressants have increased the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions in some children, teenagers, and young adults. Patients of all ages starting treatment should be watched closely for worsening of depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, unusual changes in behavior, agitation, and irritability. Patients, families, and caregivers should pay close attention to any changes, especially sudden changes in mood, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. This is very important when an antidepressant medicine is started or when the dose is changed. Report any change in these symptoms immediately to the doctor. Seroquel XR is not approved for patients under the age of 18 years. Seroquel is not approved for patients under the age of 10 years. Furthermore, “Stop Seroquel XR or Seroquel and call your doctor right away if you have some or all of the following symptoms: high fever; stiff muscles; confusion; sweating; changes in pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure. These may be symptoms of neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS), a rare and serious condition that can lead to death.” And “High blood sugar and diabetes have been reported with Seroquel XR, Seroquel, and medicines like them.” It rather sounds as if the “cure” is worse than the disease.

This is not to pick on Seroquel; virtually every “wonder drug” can be described in the same way. When you mess with vital organs, particularly the brain, ingesting strange chemicals into the natural order of things is a recipe for upsetting the balance of nature. Moral to this story: Instead of putting yourself in a position to take a life-threatening “cure,” eat right, as hard as that is—even when you can’t afford it; Bill Clinton could afford to eat right, but didn’t, and look what happened to him. A recent article in one of major news magazines had an article about how exercise was much less a factor in good health than proper diet; in fact exercise is only for people who don’t eat right—which may explain why you occasionally hear about “healthy” people who are running enthusiasts dying suddenly of heart disease.


I have said I rarely watch television, but on one particularly dull afternoon where there seemed nothing at all worth watching no matter how hard I searched, I tuned to the TV Guide station to see if I was missing something. Above the scrolling guide lines was airing a show I was completely unfamiliar with, but seemed mildly amusing in a bizarre way, called “Ugly Betty.” Well, I had heard of it, but had never actually seen it. At first I didn’t “get it.” It just reminded me of a more adult version of a Saturday morning live action cartoon show—not today, but back when I was a kid. But after awhile I started to decipher a method in the madness. It was about how superficial the world was, and how people are often judged by superficial ideas; the fashion world, of course, was the perfect venue. Betty was a pudgy little Latina and frequently taken advantage of by self-obsessed “pretty” people who thought they could. It apparently even made occasional political commentary, although nothing in the show was too obvious to offend the political and social sensitivities of the right. It was unfortunate that show only had a four-year run before it was cancelled; unlike all those numberless “CSI”-type crime shows, idiot male comedies, and brain-dead “reality” adventures, this was a show that not only had a diverse cast, but had much greater aspirations than anything else on television, much like the “socially-conscious” sitcoms of the 1970s (people who criticize the 70s missed quite a bit, because the ideals and political philosophies of the 1960s were put into practice, at least on television). In this day and age, that’s just asking too much of the audience.


And finally, a heart-warming story about what Philadelphia prosecutors described as a "house of horrors." An abortion clinic operator by the name of Dr. Kermit Gosnell performed abortions without apparent oversight by the state Department of Health, and for some reason ran amok. Among other peculiarities was a 15-year-old high school student administering anesthesia, Gosnell’s wife—a licensed cosmetologist—determined to be “qualified” to perform late-term abortions, and Gosnell himself not even certified in gynecology or obstetrics. Besides at least two patients dying, Gosnell kept a macabre collection of body parts of aborted babies. Gosnell served mainly poor, minority clients, apparently not perturbed by his cut-rate practices; according to prosecutors, these practices included using untrained staff to “administer anesthesia and drugs to induce labor” and then "forced the live birth of viable babies in the sixth, seventh, eighth month of pregnancy and then killed those babies by cutting into the back of the neck with scissors and severing their spinal cord.” Some of these babies were at such an advanced state of viability that Gosnell supposedly joked that a six-pound baby born alive to a 17-year-old could "walk me to the bus stop." Of course, late-term abortions, as despicable as most of them they are, are usually performed in a more “humane” manner: The “it” is dismembered in the uterus and then extracted—as if that barbaric procedure is supposed to shield the woman from any annoying feelings of guilt. An alternative is the “partial birth” abortion, in which the “fetus” is partially extracted and then killed; apparently if a viable fetus is not completely extracted, there is no fear it will legally be a “baby,” thus being de facto murder. Not surprisingly, pro-abortion advocates are unhappy not about the suggestion that the murder of live babies occurred, but that Gosnell didn’t do it “right.”

Meanwhile, in Britain the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is doing something that should chill the blood of anyone who regards themselves as human: According to its new “guidelines,” doctors are required to “advise” pregnant women that “aborting the child is safer than carrying it to term." Health care providers must tell women that they will suffer no psychological harm if they have an abortion. In fact, the new guidance does not require doctors to say anything adverse about abortion at all (such as having a slightly higher incidence of breast cancer)—only the “dangers” of pregnancy. I was listening to a British medical ethicist debate a strangely American-sounding pro-abortion advocate on BBC radio, and obviously they had two different takes on the matter. What is interesting to me about this matter is that the "no psychological harm" claim suggests that women are not disturbed by any moral or ethical conscience in regard to abortion at all, or at least the women who have them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sympathy for Japan goes too far

Actress Sandra Bullock has donated $1 million in relief aid to Japan, the country with the third largest economy in the world (recently overtaken for second place by China), while pop singer Lady Gaga has announced that she is donating a similar amount. Gaga is not just doing this out of altruistic motives or because she apparently has a lot of extra cash that she makes off people who don’t know that there are better things to do with their limited funds, but because she has always been “impressed” with Japanese society. I have read somewhere that Japanese media frequently airs commercials about foreigners praising Japan for its technological know-how and the “kindness” of its people, and no doubt praise like Gaga’s will feed into the conceit. Frankly, it is my impression that this benevolent mythology is more a function of extreme aloofness, and has more in common with a human’s “sympathy” for a wounded animal. I don’t want to be unmerciful to the people who have suffered and who may yet suffer greater calamity if the damaged nuclear reactors become even more unstable; I must observe, however, that despite their supposed superior know-how, civilization and master race mentality, the Japanese have not yet mastered control of the Universe, since unlike genuflecting racists who pretend they are not racists by fawning on the Japanese, Nature knows better. Doubtless Nature is aware of the fact that Japan has no qualms about vacuuming-up the world’s fish and whale populations into extinction, and that it is perfectly happy to allow short-sighted foreign wood product suppliers to clear-cut forests—especially in South American rain forests—while Japan keeps its own forests, which covers up to 70 percent of its land area, pristine and untouched.

I don’t wish to be overly cynical or unpleasant; Japan certainly needs contributions such as those of Bullock and Gaga, especially since it has much bigger economic problems than we do—which I’m sure is the reason why when we have catastrophes, like Hurricane Katrina, other nations do not feel the need to help. Japan’s national debt is twice its GDP, considerably higher than the U.S.’. But maybe Nature is punishing Japan for its racially-chauvinistic past—and present as well, the one tiny little chancre sore in their cultural and social mythology. For example, another of Japan’s long-term problems is that its “native” birth rate is low, thus “native” workers in this rigidly caste-ridden society are in short supply; it needs immigrant labor to maintain its economy, but like in this country—but much more so—discrimination against both foreign workers and “foreign” citizens is rampant. In 2009, the New York Times reported that Japanese officials were paying Latin American guest workers—most of whom are at least part Japanese and have Japanese names, the result of Japanese immigration to countries like Brazil and Peru—to leave the country and never return. A few human rights and immigrant activists in Japan criticized the move as short-sighted and racist. A UN report in 2005 asserted that racism is “deep and profound” in Japan, and Japanese government and civic leaders refuse to “recognize the depth of the problem.” I am only occasionally made aware of the attitudes Japanese have toward certain ethnic and racial groups in this country; in one of my posts I made mention of a Japanese teenage girl who stood behind the driver of a bus I was on for almost an hour despite the fact the bus was half-empty; she repeatedly glanced fearfully at all the “dark” faces in the back. Admittedly this isn’t much different than the white kids being taught to be little Nazis by their parents in this country; I certainly can’t claim to know as much as I could about Japanese culture, since I don’t speak Japanese and wouldn’t understand the slurs directed at me anyways, but the same could be said about Lady Gaga and others who feed into the Japanese self-congratulatory propaganda mill that "justifies" their xenophobia.

I happened upon a website called “facts and” that does examine the rot behind the façade, gleaned from numerous publications and newspaper articles including the New York Times and Washington Post. The Japanese, for one thing, seem eager to read studies and books about the “positive” attributes of their culture, and what makes them “different”—i.e. “superior”—to everyone else in the world, including Caucasians; by contrast, save for a few liberal intellectuals, the Japanese have very little inclination for self-critique. Although some foreign visitors say they are treated well, others complain about being made to feel uncomfortable by people staring at them like they were aliens from another planet, or making stereotypical observations. “One Japanese-speaking American writer told the New York Times, "’Giggly school girls on the subway will talk about me, thinking I don't speak Japanese, about how pink I am, how hairy.’" Whenever I ride the bus, I can’t help but notice that most Asian riders sit on the aisle side of the seat, as if they don’t want anyone sitting next to them, like an “inferior” race: “There are also stories of Japanese getting out of public baths when a non-Japanese enters, standing up or moving away when a foreigner sits down next to them on the subway, and ignoring foreigners who ask them questions in English.”

Korean, Filipino, Middle East, African and Latin American foreign workers and “foreign” citizens frequently complain of rude and discriminatory behavior by “kind” Japanese. “One foreigner working in Japan wrote in the Daily Yomiuru, “’In Japan, I have been banned from dining establishment, denied service like taxis, snubbed and even physically accosted by strangers. I hear people whispering about me in every city I visit. The public seems to believe that all gaijin (foreign workers) are ignorant of Japanese customs and language; that we are all rude and that we are all guilty of some crime we will inevitably commit.’” A1996 survey of foreign residents found that 36.5 percent said they had been “refused accommodation on the basis of their nationality. About 40 percent of the Korean and Chinese citizens said they had been refused accommodation while 35 percent of the Latin Americans and 29 percent of the North Americans and Europeans said they had.” Immigrant workers not only do the “dirty jobs”—much like in this country—but are much more likely to be living in the slums amidst the poverty that allegedly doesn’t exist in Japan; despite the obvious discrimination against them, the Japanese assume these conditions are “genetic.”

Japanese politicians and commentators frequently target American blacks and Latinos for abuse when it tries to obfuscate American criticism of Japanese trade policies. Karen De Witt wrote in the New York Times that Japanese "’do have stereotypical images of black Americans, gleaned from American television and press accounts. Some of them assume that blacks are either entertainment or sports figures or slow, lazy, strong and destructive.’" On Japanese television, racially-insensitive programming features actors in blackface, and blacks are frequently “suggestively” paired with monkeys and apes. Housing contracts in Japan are likely to contain provisions that refuse accommodation to blacks and animals. It also should be noted that since whites and Asians in the U.S. are supposed to be the “smart” people around here, the fact that this country is in the sorry state it is seems to largely rest on their own limitations.

Not surprisingly, crime and social problems are blamed on foreigners. According to a Los Angeles Times story, when Japanese are shockingly revealed to be the perpetrators, “foreign influences” are typically blamed. According to a Japanese sociologist, “The crime rate among foreigners living in Japan is actually lower than among Japanese...But many Japanese still have a biased image.” Japan recently passed a law requiring all residents of non-Japanese origin to be photographed and finger-printed, supposedly as a guard against terrorism; others say it is discrimination. But the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995—the worst terrorist attack on Japanese soil since WWII—was not committed by “foreigners,” but by Japanese nationals; three of the ten perpetrators are still at large.

This is the society that Lady Gaga (and quite a few others who praise Asians just so they won’t accused of being racists, even as the deride other groups) feels a special affiliation with. With Americans as ignorant of their own history, why should we be surprised that they are as ignorant of that of the Japanese? With the aid of “pacifist” Americans, the Japanese public habitually indulges in self-pity concerning the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, yet refuse to acknowledge and in fact defend their various invasions, enslavement and massacres of peoples in the East, particularly in China and Korea. Much of the worst of these outrages against humanity occurred during the 1930s, a period that exists in the shadows of World War II. The Japanese try to explain their actions as a quest for resources, but their rationale is eerily similar to the Nazi quest for lebensraum (living space); lest we forget, Japan was allied with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as part of the Tripartite Pact (the Japanese even considered themselves superior to the Germans). Furthermore, the fact that Japanese society is rigid, hidebound and intolerant is no reason why we should wish to emulate it. The country’s fascination with robotic toys suggests an automaton mentality that may or may not change with the popularity of hip-hop culture among some youth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will become more enlightened.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another anti-Obama ad thinly-disguised racial paranoia

There is a political ad presently running on the History Channel portraying a Chinese Communist Party big-wig telling his audience that China “owns” America, supposedly because of Barack Obama’s “tax and spend” policies; the portrait of Mao gazing down on the proceedings also makes note of the usual “socialist” and “communist” idiocies applied to Obama, apparently because right-wing whites equate equal justice, equal opportunity and fair wages with socialism. Of course, we were talking about the issue of who controls our debt years before Obama was even elected senator, but that’s just another annoying detail. Interestingly, there was no gloating in the ad about China’s massive trade surplus with the U.S.; the monetary value of Chinese exports to this country outdistance our cross trade by 5-1. The country would be better off if all these so-called “patriots” and “concerned citizens” bought American; not only would we have more jobs in the country but lower deficits. But that, of course, is just another annoying detail that the right doesn’t have time to explain. Perhaps if the wealth was spread just a micro-fraction more equitably, maybe people would spend more time buying what they want instead of what is the cheapest, which is usually Chinese-made. But it is much easier to blame the black man for our own foolishness.

Naturally, the ad is provided courtesy of yet another out-of-the-woodwork right-wing PAC called Citizens Against Government Waste—which like Citizens United, the “citizens” most concerned are the upper-income tier trying to head-off class warfare and increased taxes, using language easily digested by the gullible ill-informed and the yellow media trying to conjure-up ratings. But even more so, the CAGW is just a corporate-paid front group of right-wing extremists trying to take advantage of racial paranoia—not just against a black president, but one who is apparently “selling out” the country to a foreign, non-Caucasian communist power. Also going unsaid is the fact that the wealthy backers of these ads and their message, unlike the good intentions of the Obama administration to help the working people, are not thinking about the “good of the people,” but maximizing their own pocket-lining agenda while misdirecting attention elsewhere. It is remarkably easy to find evidence of the impact racial coding has while surfing the Internet; I “stumbled” across a website called; the persons who maintain this site apparently have nothing better to do with their pathetic lives but scour the web for every real or imagined crime ever committed by a non-white person against a white person they can find, assisted with a sloppy serving of racist fantasy. A linked website called N* claims to be “the best site for n*gger jokes, ranting, and racist humor since 2003.” Also “Please join our n*gger-bashing forum too.” It sounds like a “joke,” but it isn’t. There is also a link that gives you access to the “ring of conservative sites” as if they feel no need to hide the philosophical bonding between the two, in order to give it a “mainstream” flavor. One may recall that after a story a few years ago about a Georgia high school that had a segregated prom, Bill O’Reilly posted an online poll to discover how many people supported segregated proms. He never released the results of the poll, claiming that they were “tainted” by a run of white supremacist votes; however, given the amount of race-baiting that permeates Fox News, one suspects that votes by its viewers would still have been sufficiently embarrassing to those who claim the network is “fair and balanced.”

The fact is that the often crude and usually coded language against Obama and his policies by such political ads is easily and best understood by the racial paranoids in this country. If an organization has enough money to throw around, they can convince the management of any television station to run the most revoltingly outlandish and distorted message, almost always the creation of the right and always found defensible when used without the hindrance of context. Ads with even mild criticisms from the left, on the other hand, tend to be subject to “factcheck.”

An AP story last year noted the increase of racist “commentary” on the Internet, especially accompanying newspaper stories that are “inflammatory,” such as immigration, affirmative action or crimes where the perpetrator was a minority. "We've seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families," said Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star. "There is no question in my mind that the process, because it's largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts." Most of these people are, of course, white. Yet the story also employed what in the minority mind is the mendacity of excusing white racism by quoting white supremacist complaints of “coddling” and excuse-making” for blacks and Latinos (most of latter who strangely claim to be “white” according the Census) and trying to pass-off white racism as something else: “Black racism was evident, too…On a story about two Black sisters jailed 20 years for an $11 robbery, someone used several crude epithets to suggest that the judge was a White racist.” Besides the slur on the website, which in no way compares to the aforementioned white hate websites, “crude” epithets or not the evidence supports the conclusion that the judge probably did take into account his own racial beliefs. Philosopher David Ingram has shot-down the commonly-believed fallacy that “black pride” (Latino pride for that matter) movements are as “racist” as “white pride” movements, since the former “is a defensive strategy aimed at rectifying a negative stereotype,” while “white pride” movements are “thinly cloaked as affirmations of ethnic pride—(but) serve to mask and perpetuate white privilege."

“Better for Obama to win, “white pride” leaders announced in 2008, because his presidency “could fuel a recruitment drive big enough to launch events that the white power movement has spent decades anticipating” according to a Washington Post story about the rising popularity of white supremacist websites like Stormfront. And this is exactly has happened. The race-coding rhetoric by the right has made it safe for people to “jump on the bandwagon,” so to speak. The country’s current problems did not originate with Obama; their gestation can be traced at least to Ronald Reagan and exacerbated by Bush administration policies (or non-policies) backed by a Republican-controlled Congress that thought nothing of using “nuclear options” to pass their corporate-controlled agenda. That is the reality; the fantasy is the one believed by the likes of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith who in 1999—fueled by the “philosophy” of Mathew Hale that urged hatred of “mud races,” and killing them if necessary—went on a “road trip” to find as many of these “mud people” to kill, which would eventually include former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong right in front of his two children, as well as a Korean student walking to church. The recent Tucson massacre was just a “message” for anyone who was evenly mildly connected with Obama’s “anti-white” agenda.

In this “enlightened” age, minorities can be accused of racism by merely accusing whites of racism, while it is more difficult to “prove” racism by whites because we have to take into account their “sensitivities.” At the sports apparel warehouse I used to work, a business next door closed and another moved in; all the employees were white, tough-guy and gal types. I could tell they hated us because we had a diverse workforce (at least in the warehouse); I recall one occasion I was walking into the parking lot and I noticed a couple of them gesturing toward me and making contemptuous; I called out to them that they were just a bunch of Nazis. One of them advanced toward me, demanding that I repeat what I said and acting as if he wanted to slug me if I did; however, a couple of my colleagues who were sitting in their cars got out and made certain the tough guy-bigot was aware he was being observed. Suddenly self-conscious, the tough decided that there was too much reality being exposed, so he beat a hasty retreat. It isn’t minorities who “can’t handle the truth.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Officials once more the "sixth man" in too many games

Having spent my formative years in Wisconsin, my sports team loyalties are defined by being immersed with the local sentiment. So although I am disappointed that the Washington Huskies did not defeat North Carolina in the NCAA tournament, and Gonzaga failed to shut-down BYU and the latest Great White Basketball Hope, Jimmer Fredette (to follow a trail of pick’em Duke players), the teams I am really rooting for—Wisconsin and Marquette—surprised some people by advancing to the Sweet 16. Belmont was a sexy pick for an upset special in the first (or is it second now?), but the Badgers not only handled them but wrecked other brackets by beating Kansas State. Marquette, despite being an 11-seed, actually had the easier route to the next level; they were evenly-matched with Xavier, and it was just a matter of who made the shots they were given. Although Marquette was only 9-9 in Big East play, they had wins over Notre Dame, Connecticut, and Syracuse; when they played the later in the second (I mean third) round on a neutral floor, it was just another pick’em game.

Against North Carolina, the Huskies had to overcome the distinctly non-neutral court factor, and the whole set-up seemed designed to insure that NC and Duke advanced—and both needed every bit of unfair leverage they could get to win their second (I mean third) round games. UW had their problems handling the ball down the stretch, but they had to overcome not just the home crowd, but the disparity in fouls that seemed to come at opportune times to keep the Carolina in the game. In the Duke-Michigan game, the disparity in fouls was not as great as in UW-NC game, but the number of foul shots taken was. Combined, NC and Duke had 48 foul shots compared to only 18 for UW and Michigan. UW and Michigan were also much more likely to be called for shooting fouls than Duke and NC. Furthermore, it was clear that UW coach Lorenzo Romar was held in less esteem than his opposite, since he was deliberately lied to by officials when he requested the time clock be reviewed at the end; officials had allegedly already “checked” the time after a NC player touched a ball that went out-of-bounds. Normally, officials at the end of close games will automatically take sufficient time to check the monitor (sometimes several minutes) to insure the correct time, but this time they didn’t feel it “necessary” to make certain the time was right. The .5 seconds that should have been tacked on the clock would have allowed Isaiah Thomas the critical moment he needed to make a clean catch-and-shoot. Again, officials would not have been so cavalier if Roy Williams had “requested” a monitor check. Later, an NCAA official tried to explain the decision by bumbling something about “lag time.” At any rate, in the Sweet 16 North Carolina will be playing in Big East territory against Marquette, and Duke against Arizona in Pac-10 country, so it will be interesting to see how those games play out.

I also listened to the Pitt-Butler game on the radio, so what transpired in the final seconds seemed even more surreal than it must have been on television. It seemed to me that judging from what the announcers were saying and the crescendo of booing, that many thought that the number one seed was receiving a gift. There was almost no chance that Gilbert Brown would have made a last-second shot when he was fouled, which was why it was viewed with disdain at first glance, especially in that it probably would not have been called if the favored team was on the defensive side. The booing and cat-calling was such that the subsequent foul against Pitt was almost certainly called because the officials felt they had to “atone”; if the first foul had been accepted as legitimate by the fans, there would not have been the second foul—which was even less justified under the circumstances.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

State Patrol version of Walmart shooting just too convenient

After nearly two months of silence—and only apparently after being pressed for an answer by a Salt Lake Tribune reporter—the Washington State Patrol decided to release a statement regarding the Port Orchard Walmart shooting that left Anthony Martinez and a 13-year-old girl, Astrid Valdivia, dead. According to the Patrol, Martinez shot the girl, and then himself in an apparent murder/suicide. Reportedly the delay in the release of the information was because Martinez allegedly was carrying a Glock and using the same hollow-point bullets used by the deputies on the scene, so it was difficult to differentiate who shot who. Investigators claim that Martinez must have shot Valdivia, because the bullets that struck her came from an “upward” angle meaning that he shot her from below as she was bending over him; there were also powder marks alleged to be on her clothes, suggesting a firing at close range. A video image from a surveillance camera appeared to show Martinez lifting his arm toward Valdivia. An open-and-shut case.

But not for me. In the case of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, SPD officer Ian Birk initially claimed that he saw Williams sitting on a wall with a knife. When Birk approached him, Williams jumped off the wall and advanced toward him menacingly with the knife blade open; obviously feeling threatened, Birk shot him dead. The problem, of course, was that this incident occurred during broad daylight in the middle of a workday, and there were several witnesses (and police car dashcam) that offered a different story. Despite witness testimony to the contrary, Birk still doggedly stuck to his story that Williams had advanced toward him “menacingly,” except while he was walking down a sidewalk minding his own business, not sitting on a wall brandishing his knife at passersby. At the subsequent inquest, only one juror out of eight was willing to accept Birk’s version of events, even though police are usually given more than the benefit of the doubt in such a venue. But what if this incident occurred late at night, with no witnesses? No one would question Birk’s initial—or even subsequent—story, and with police releasing details of Williams’ “criminal record”—the worst he did was drunkenly expose himself to some half-way house employee—this would be a story for one brief paragraph, and quickly forgotten. Lies would become truth. Instead of becoming a local cause célèbre, Williams would have been just another anonymous nobody to both public and media, and a psychologically-challenged police officer would still be roaming the streets.

So I hope you will excuse me if I say that the State Patrol version of events too conveniently serves their purpose of exoneration. Shooting a 13-year-old girl who was running to the aid of her friend is just more bad publicity for local law enforcement accused of numerous instances of brutality, excessive use of lethal force, and civil rights violations. Not to mention opening-up the Patrol to a wrongful death law suit; the recent $10 million “settlement” by King County over the permanent brain damage injuries suffered by an innocent man when a Transit sheriff deputy bashed his skull against a wall was no doubt in the minds of Patrol and county officials.

So I won't accept carte blanche the Patrol's version of events. Martinez was allegedly carrying the same brand of weapon as Deputy Krista Rae McDonald, who wounded him during the chase, so there was “difficulty” in determining whose rounds were in Valdivia’s body. Normally, such a determination should take only as long as each weapon is test fired and the bullets examined. Now, presuming that Martinez actually was carrying a Glock, there was clear uncertainty what weapon the bullets came from, and there probably still is, given that the Patrol only released this information after it had been pressed by an out-of-state journalist for an answer. That’s where the alleged powder burns on Valdivia’s clothes come in. If such evidence was apparent at the outset, it would only be natural for investigators to then draw the “obvious” conclusion. But something still gnaws at me: In 2004, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab was under fire for lack of oversight and misconduct by employees doctoring and falsifying evidence. In this case, it is too pat: Investigators had difficulty explaining the bullets, but conveniently powder marks were “found” that clinched the deal.

And that’s not all. A witness on TV said everything seem to happen very quickly—the arrival of police, the firing of weapons and the arrival and departure of ambulances. He barely had time to register it all. The Patrol admitted everything happened so quickly that nobody really “knew” what happened—and they probably still don’t “know.” Martinez was running toward a wooded area, but a citizen camcorder video posted on Youtube showed a draped body still on the parking lot, well shy of the woods; thus they were no "obstacles" present. According to the Patrol, Deputy McDonald couldn’t have shot the fatal bullets because she was 60 feet away when she fired at Martinez—60 feet, not 60 yards; if she had missed from that distance, she should be sent to the firing range for more target practice. 60 feet is also a distance—presuming that McDonald was running—that should be covered in a matter of seconds. From that distance, McDonald shot and wounded Martinez, who fell—and we are supposed to believe that in those few seconds Martinez shot Valdivia at least twice, and then himself, without McDonald ever taking additional action, like shooting her weapon. The trajectory of the bullets (again presuming that the Patrol is not offering an alternative reality) that hit Valdivia could also just as well have suggested she was still perpendicular to the ground. Again, those powder marks made all the difference. Does anyone believe that investigators were eager to string-up one of their own in the absence of adverse testimony? I also muse at the claims that there was a “shoot-out”; there is no claim that Martinez turned on his pursuers, only that he shot over his shoulder without aiming (of course, that could be subject to “revision”). Conveniently, two deputies were also wounded by “his” Glock.

Lost in all of this is the back story. This is what I have been able to ascertain about the case: In 2010 Martinez started a relationship with Valdivia’s mother Jacqulen Rimola, according to his brother Barrett Martinez. Martinez also acted as a “stepfather” to Rimola’s children. The problem was that Rimola was already in a relationship with another man, who happened to be the father of the children; I could find no information concerning whether Martinez was aware of this prior relationship. What is clear is that on August 12, 2010 police in the South Salt Lake City neighborhood of Clearfield received a report of an assault at Rimola’s home. At 2 p.m. on that day, Grigorio Validivia arrived home—apparently unexpectedly; did he arrive early from work, or just decided to come home after a sabbatical from the relationship? Martinez told police that the agitated Rimola “ordered” him to hide in a closet, but Valdivia found him and “hit him,” after which a further altercation occurred.

Not long afterward, Astrid Valdivia disappeared, along with Martinez. Astrid’s family, not surprisingly, characterized Anthony Martinez as a dangerous pedophile. His brother, Barrett, disputed their characterization. He told authorities that Martinez had told him that having once acted as the girl’s “stepfather,” he was concerned about her because she was “troubled” and “suicidal.” Barrett told local media that “He was trying to help her. We told him to call [the Department of Child and Family Services]. He felt that no one would listen to him, that he was being characterized as a pedophile. She said if he didn’t help her, she’d kill herself.” He admitted that although his brother had some trouble in the past with the law( because he ran around with the “wrong people”) he had a “good heart.” Clearfield police would later investigate the parents’ claims of an “intimate” relationship between the two, but could find no evidence to support the allegation.

The pair were found in California in October. Martinez was charged with kidnapping, but was released on bail. The charge probably would have been difficult to sustain in any case. But Astrid was placed in a foster care facility. Why? I found a story from last December which may provide a clue. During a court hearing, the judge admonished Grigorio Valdivia about making “disrespectful” comments about his daughter. When he continued to do so, the judge had him removed from the court, ordering him not to return. It seems reasonable to conclude that Astrid did not want to return home, and she again was placed in a foster care facility, where she was required to wear an ankle monitor. This past January, she apparently disabled and removed the device, gathered her belongings, and escaped with Martinez, where they were last seen alive in that Port Orchard Walmart parking lot.

However way one examines this incident, tragedy casts a long shadow over it. I just don’t think the tragedy ended with the shootings themselves.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Government is not a "business"

A columnist for the Seattle Times recently tried to explain why the paper was blowing out of proportion the issue of $1.8 million in small business contracts to minority contractors that were not “properly” accounted for over the past several years by saying the $560 million a year school district was a “business,” and should be run like one. The current situation is nothing compared to the scandal of 2003, when there was $35 million in unaccounted money. The unspoken issue is that school district is just looking for a way to unload superintendant Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who was an unpopular choice with teachers from the start, who didn’t want to be saddled with performance “standards” and preferred to maintain their autonomy--meaning, of course, that their "needs" come before the children. The position of school superintendant is one of the most thankless jobs in the city, as the previous superintendant, Raj Manhas, found out; back-stabbing by backstabbing school board members and name-calling tends to wear down people with good intentions.

But back to the point of whether the public schools—and government in general—is a “business.” The purpose of government is not to make a profit but to provide the best services to the most people, and find sufficient funding to perform that function. Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker doesn’t seem to thinks so; like any “businessman,” his “plan” is to hurt as many people as he can get away with. He has just announced a “plan” to cut $900 from what he and the media is calling “aid” to public schools; since when is government responsibility for providing for a educated public “aid?” Walker is also trying to force municipalities to reduce property tax levies by $550 per student—an contemptible effort to stymie local governments’ ability to maintain their own services. Meanwhile, Walker’s plan to make the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus independent of the rest of UW system seems designed to divide, disrupt and eventually destroy the remaining campuses. Walker tells us that all of this cutting will create 250,000 jobs in four years, which the state should do anyways with a natural increase in economic activity if Walker did nothing at all. His tax breaks for businesses are a political shibboleth, since they only amount to a few dollars per new hire, while cuts in education and another $500 million in health care will be job losers. Like all Republicans, he wears that American flag lapel; why is beyond me, since like all Republicans and their Tea Party supporters, he has no idea what it stands for.

The purpose of government, just in case no one knows, is to provide services to the public, like education, transportation, law enforcement, etc., and to provide these services to everyone in need of them, not just those who can afford to pay for them. Because it is in it for profit, the private sector cannot effectively provide these services, because inevitably those most in need are left out. Not everyone needs public services at once, but at some point they do, and they need to be available when they do. This is not about “big government,” this is about adequately funding needed public services, which the private sector is either unwilling and unable to do. We have often been told that the private sector is better able to provide services more efficiently, but this is clearly not true, as we have often seen when private contractors are involved in construction projects, costs generally explode over original estimates; when private contractors are tasked to provide “services,” costs and inefficiency also go up, whether it is contracting Blackwater in Iraq or private companies mailing out tax refund checks. If the private sector was allowed to “run” services for the jobless or the hungry, the profit motive would only insure more pain and suffering.

Meanwhile, I was listening to CNN blowhard John Cafferty making a self-righteous and self-important stand that the federal government was a “business” that should get its house in order and cut everything in sight. What the Caffertys of the world do not understand is that the private sector and the public sector are two entirely different entities with entirely different sets of responsibilities. The private sector’s purpose seems to be the generation of profit, which is antithetical to the purpose of the public sector. The private sector could not care less about the welfare of the population at large; when people are laid-off, what happens to them is a matter of indifference to them. If the private sector does not provide health coverage, again that is a matter of indifference; they and their children could be lying in a gutter for all it cares. We have already seen the effect of privatized health care in the guise of the health insurance industry. The private sector depends on a healthy and stable education and transportation system—and it doesn’t care if there is proper funding to maintain those services? Apparently so.

The long-term cost of neglect of public services spells nothing less than disaster, and yet many people will blame Democrats. The finger should squarely be pointed at Republicans who feed voters the shibboleth that cutting taxes and diminishing the federal government’s ability to fill in the gaps caused by the failures of the private sector will solve a multitude of problems, when in fact it makes only the more inevitable and more dire the next round of hardships. The problem with Republican “businessmen” and women in Congress is that their slash and burn ideas do not take into account need; instead of finding ways to serve the public welfare is their responsibility, they seek ways to skirt their responsibilities. The real problems of this country—crumbling infrastructure, maintaining support structures for a civil society, regulating an environment that won’t kill us, insuring an educated population that can make educated voting decisions and not stupid ones—is the responsibility of government. Instead, Republicans seem to think that their “responsibility” is to make the world the law of the jungle prevails, and every man or woman for themselves.

The Right has kept up the pressure on the foolish mind by continuously pushing the deficit issue, although as long as the debt is held in dollars there is no immediate danger, and as long as spending is used to employ people and create consumers, its effect has at least short-term positive effects, especially in these economic hard times. If the private sector would cease from sitting on its profits and hire people, there would be less incentive for people to refrain from spending and the economy would inevitable return to “normal” levels—and government spending would naturally fall as well. But that all makes too much sense for Republicans and their corporate masters to understand; all they wish to do is slash and burn without a single thought to what they are doing. The answer to the debt problem has always stared us in the face—raising the marginal tax rates back to historical levels on the people allowed themselves to be fortunate enough that they won’t be hurt. Remember when Bush told us that we didn’t have to worry about ballooning deficits because of his tax cuts—because tax cuts create jobs and fill in the tax gap? Of course, he did hedge his bets by allowing the cuts to sunset in 2010. Well, no jobs were created, the fortunate people merely filled their pockets, and we were saddled with an ever more massive federal debt that made it a more expensive proposition to bail the country out when Bush’s shit hit the fan. In the pre-Reagan years, even Republicans would have had enough common sense now to know that government has to step in when the private sector is not fulfilling its obligations, and the people who have sheltered themselves from the gross effects of their greed needed to pay. Today, all we have is imprudence and stupidity from them and their Tea Party allies.