Cruel and Unusual

September 23, 2013

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted to significantly reduce, and otherwise make it nearly impossible, to get SNAP benefits for children who otherwise will go unfed or underfed as the result. Many of the adults who qualify for benefits are recently unemployed and use the benefits for an average of months to help feed their families. However, by far the majority of the people who benefit from SNAP are children who live in poverty. These are children under the age of 12 years old, who are not drug addicts, felons or otherwise the lazy and shiftless Americans that Republicans want you to believe they are.

Of course the GOP calls it “entitlement reform”, which means that they want to spend millions of additional tax dollars to ensure that people do not get benefits rather than how to get the benefits to the children who need it most. Children who are impoverished and hungry through no fault of their own are now, virtually, on their own. The same as the unemployed, the under-water mortgage holders and the homeless and veterans, thanks to GOP cruelty.

In an age we used to consider intolerant and rooted in ignorance and superstition, the poor used to be considered morally degenerate, lazy, sinful… a whole range of stigma that took generations to overcome. Slave America was such a society, but until the advent of the Tea Party, our society had progressed to a far more intelligent and compassionate understanding of the roots of poverty.

As we approach the next crisis manufactured by Tea Party extremists, I am hopeful that Americans will begin to realize the cruel and unusual society they want to create. 


September 17, 2013

Walking out of the Oakland County Court recently means running into a gentle, elderly  African-American woman who is collecting signatures for a petition to ban fracking from Michigan. I’ve been walking the line on the issue, but lately I’ve begun to feel a need to make a stand. I realized that I was standing by for a definitive answer on the safety and cost-effectiveness of fracking. After years of virtually unregulated fracking in Michigan, and successful lobbying efforts by the energy industry to block every study of the effects of fracking, I realized that I have to make a stand. In civil trials the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of fracking the preponderance of evidence supports at least a moratorium on fracking in Michigan.

First, the process of starting up a fracking operation is unregulated and results in the following damaging effects: every well requires about 4,000 trips by large trucks carrying water, 24 hours a day for 30 or more days. It wrecks roads, landscapes and the property values of adjoining areas. There have been spills and leaks of wells in other States, resulting in ruined aquifers (ruined that is by cancer-causing chemicals used during drilling) and private property values decimated by pipelines, and illnesses caused by massive leaks of gases released during drilling. In a State which saw the largest oil spill from and Enbridge pipeline ruin the Kalamazoo river basin, the prospect of even larger ecosystems spoiled for generations is real and frightening. And by the way, nearly all of the millions of gallons of water used during the fracking process are lost for any future use.

Second, the glut of natural gas has not resulted in any “energy security” or “national security”. There has been no net reduction of energy costs to most people in Michigan. On a geopolitical scale, the oil companies have made it clear through export applications that they intend to export natural gas to Europe and Asia where they can get 2x-3x the profit.

Natural gas may be a cleaner fuel when burned, but the massive releases of methane into the atmosphere released from the drilling process is as damaging as other fossil fuels, except coal. In fact, the only argument for fracking is that it is better than coal and coal mining, which is true. If coal mining and burning were the only alternative then… maybe.

So until the oil industry allows for scientific study of the effects of fracking and regulation of the process of fracking, there should be a ban. I felt good signing the petition.     

Legalize Drugs

September 16, 2013

We passed the point long ago in recognizing that the terrible human costs of drug abuse were being dwarfed by the terrible human costs of the “War on Drugs”. The historical roots of the war on drugs in this country was rooted in racism (surprise, surprise) with many of the drugs banned by the Harrison Act being associated with certain “inferior races” such as Marijuana (African-Americans) and Opium (Asians). Since then there has been an obvious bias not only with regard to types of drugs regulated but with the laws enforcing the war. The point is that the “War on Drugs” was not rooted in a concern for health, it was in the fear of the “drug users”. There certainly is no argument with the fact that drug abuse is devastating to not only the abuser, but also on their families and communities as well. But then again, so are drug cartels and locking up massive numbers of drug users, most of whom are poor and minorities.

My argument with the “War on Drugs” is that it is ineffective, unfair and more destructive than what it purports to defeat. Social scientists agree that the only outcome of our 40 year old “war” has been to shift the choice of drugs being used by people. For example, instead of using marijuana people abuse a far more destructive drug: alcohol. A child born in 2013 is statistically as likely to try and use a mood-altering drug as any baby boomer.

The criminalization of drugs has been ineffective in preventing use and has caused more violence than what would result from legal drug use. On the other hand, the criminalization of drugs has resulted in the emergence of extremely violent cartels, the largest prison population in the world, and the diversion of trillions of dollars from programs of social uplift.

The criminalization of drugs has been unevenly applied and enforced. The vast majority of arrests for drug use or possession are among minorities and the poor. I made a joke recently about New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy. The majority of people stopped were minorities and not guilty of any crime. The majority of people who were arrested were for possession of illegal drugs. I said you could throw a dart down Wall Street and hit a gram of cocaine. One wonders what the same effort directed at Wall Street would have yielded, but drug use by white men in $3000 suits are not the targets of the “war”.

Finally, the amount of money saved from ineffective drug policing would be more than enough to provide treatment for the minority of drug users who are vulnerable to abuse and addiction. The vast majority of drug users do not become addicted. Most drug users require no medical treatment and eventually move on to other diversions.  

American Exceptionalism

September 16, 2013

The image of American Exceptionalism is under attack by a strange coalition of reality and a Russian czarwannabe. It all began surrealistically with our Nobel Peace Prize winning President speaking on national television about the need to go to war. After speaking inspirationally about how America was exceptional and must act to punish dictators who use chemical weapons (well, at least the dictators who are not aligned with us) and the time to bomb was now (after the fifth or sixth such attack in the last two years), he then suggested that we wait and see what happens. It was as surreal as confusing.

Then we hear from Putin, the ex-communist, ex-KGB Director and current boss of Russia, citing God and calling for diplomatic solutions. This is the same man who has been mercilessly slaughtering Chechens and other Muslim ethnic minorities for years, supplying arms and advisors to Assad and generally jailing anyone who disagrees with his policies. The idea of American Exceptionalism, he said, was false and dangerous.

This is how reality confronts us… a Nobel Peace Prize winner advocating war and a Godless communist citing God and urging that peace be given a chance. I suppose we needed something that absurd to accept the reality that we have not been very exceptional in a good way for some time. As a nation we rank among the worst on economic justice and economic mobility. A person would have a better chance to become rich in Communist China than Detroit. As a nation we rank in the middle of the pack in terms of quality of life, with numerous countries like Switzerland providing universal health care, greater access to higher education, and better wages with far better fringe benefits. Our edge in the sciences, especially the applied sciences, has been declining for years along with our education system, and with the sellf-imposed budget sequester scientists are leaving in droves and long standing science research has been critically damaged.

Recently, I saw a documentary called “the Dirty Wars” and written by Jeremy Scahill. The documentary outlines the radical increase of non-combatant killings and extra-judicial killings of American citizens by the Obama Administration. At one point in the film, a notorious Somali warlord, funded by the U.S., explained his concept of American Exceptionalism. He said “Americans are the best in the world at making war.”

At least we still have that…    

The Real Mad Men

September 4, 2013

Brian Dickerson and I rarely agree on issues, but his article today highlighting the foolish and hypocritical actions of a few Michigan legislators that nearly scuttled the expansion of Medicaid to include nearly half a million of Michigan’s working poor was spot-on. Dickerson rightly observed the actions of Tea Party legislators such as Jack Brandenberg, John Pappageorge and Phil Pavlov, are not only profoundly stupid, but hypocritical as well. All of the Tea baggers voted against a necessary expansion of Medicaid out of what they claimed were principles against government expansion. Yet all of them also voted for life-time medical benefits for themselves (and none have refused other expensive perks at our expense either).

What Dickerson left unsaid was that the Tea Party in Michigan is just a few votes short of a critical mass required to cause some real damage to our society. This coalition of the angry and insane was founded by corporate billionaires such as the Koch brothers via The Heritage Foundation/Freedom Works with the goal of organizing opposition to health care reform. Adopting Libertarian rhetoric, they quickly recruited from the fringes of society, right wing nuts such as racists, religious fanatics and gun nuts who could barely contain their hatred (remember the signs they brandished – along with their guns – during the health care reform debate?). The Heritage Foundation/Freedom Works has no compunction against using fringe groups to promote their corporate agenda, but somewhere along the way they found a way to exploit the fears of mainstream citizens: people fearful of losing their jobs, people who just lost their pensions, etc. The evil spawned by the corporate germ grew a life of its own and now we all have to deal with society’s real mad men, including Republicans who act like they suddenly realized they were in the same party as political suicide bombers.

Many people in the Tea Party are well meaning, but easily misled. Some people are so frightened and angry that they refuse to acknowledge reality when it conflicts with their emotions. When a political party coalesces around fear and anger, it is vulnerable to demagogues and sociopaths. Thus we have men who oppose common sense measures like expanding Medicaid while voting to give themselves life-time medical coverage and generous pensions.

Wars and More War

September 4, 2013

Those of you that regularly read my blog know that one of my most common rants is about the Media-Military-Industrial Complex. I guess becoming a father of three children has shaped my perspective on this topic more than anything else. I think about what it would be like to receive news that one of them has been KIA, and what 122 families so far this year have felt when they were informed of their loss. So now that we are about to engage in another military action, let me ask you a few questions.

How many of you know that 5 soldiers died in Afghanistan last week?

Or that 122 of the best young Americans have died there so far in 2013, defending a corrupt Government and a country that is the world’s largest exporter of Heroin?

What will military action in Syria accomplish, other than killing more people and increased recruiting for terrorist groups?

We all agree that using chemical weapons to slaughter 1400 people is an act that demands action, but why does our first response always have to be military action?

The Brits are the consistent ally we have, so why is it that the British refuse to sign onto military responses to Assad’s crimes?

I am just saying that we have been at war continuously since 2001, over 12 years, and if we continue to allow the anonymous men behind desks who make money from war to shape our world, then not only my children, but their children as well will know nothing but war. It seems to be an especially painful observation on a society that just gave lip-service to a champion for peace this past week.  

Stop and Frisk is Racial Warfare

September 3, 2013

It amazes me how people can continue to defend New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy and deny that it is nothing less than racial warfare. Virtually every person who is stopped is a minority male and nearly every stop proved to be unjustified (i.e. nothing illegal was found, and no crime had been committed). Racial deniers claim that it has resulted in a lower crime rate, but they ignore the fact that crime rates in every major urban areas Including the pre-stop and frisk New York City) have been declining for years. For example, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have lower rates of crime than New York City without any similar police policy.

If you don’t believe that “stop and frisk” is fundamentally racist, consider this: not one stop and frisk has been conducted in one of the highest crime areas in all of New York, namely Wall Street. More crimes are committed on Wall Street than any other area of the country. Granted, these are not violent crimes, but neither are the vast majority of arrests done via “stop and frisk”, which are for minor drug possession offences. As the Daily Show quipped recently, you can throw a dart down Wall Street and hit a half gram of cocaine. Yet how many white men in $3000 suits have been stopped and frisked? I heard one defender of stop and frisk remark that white collar crimes do not destroy lives the way violent crimes do. Really? Financial crimes of Wall Street “banksters” have ruined many lives and resulted in the rapid growth of poverty not just in foreign countries, but right here in the USA. As Dr. King once observed, poverty is the most insidious type of violence.

The truth is that “stop and frisk” is obviously unconstitutional and is only tolerated because it targets minorities. It is racial warfare. 

Progress in 50 Years

September 3, 2013

It would be easy to be cynical about the progress (not) made in civil rights in the 50 years marked since MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but to do so would be disrespectful to the many men and women who spilled blood in the early days of the civil rights movement. When I was a boy growing up it wasn’t unusual to hear the “n” word in public and political figures like George Wallace felt no reservation declaring their bigotry. The open hostility that allowed for nearly daily lynching in the South, and the legal justification for denying civil rights and other overt manifestations of bigotry have disappeared from public discourse. Many younger people today are at least uncomfortable with expressions of bigotry, and this is shift in attitudes is real progress. An African-American elected through a broad coalition of diverse Americans is a sign of progress.

However, it can also be said that the cultural and institutional roots of bigotry is only just beneath the surface, and there clearly is a growing resurgence of racial hatred awakening. It manifests itself in the refusal to acknowledge that voter suppression, or that the mass incarceration of black men is racial warfare.  It is as subtle as the continued questioning of President Obama’s birthplace, and as blatant as the stop and frisk policy in New York City. It is as institutional as the exploding rate of poverty and as ephemeral as stereotyping in the media. America is still a racist society, born from the generation’s long genocide of slavery.

So while we may have progressed to eliminate the legal and overt manifestations of racism, we have not progressed enough to root it out of our hearts, and until we do we will remain a racist society.

But we can still cling to that dream.