Saturday, March 30, 2013

It Won't Be Pretty

I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this subject of income and wealth disparity, but I'm a historian, and I know what befalls civilizations when prosperity is not fairly broadly shared. Quite simply, it's a recipe for the downfall of that civilization. There are a couple of recent pieces that I've run across that just drum the message in again. The first can be found here, and the article that it references is here.

Just a few random facts are enough to get me worked up . . . until I realize that getting worked up is just an exercise in futility. Because nothing is going to fix this situation until millions of us are worked up by the screaming injustice of it all. To wit:
  • The Koch brothers made $3 million an hour last year. The person who served you your food at Denny's or Red Lobster last week made $2.13 an hour (They live on tips, remember.), less than a millionth of the Kochs' hoard.
  • Any one of this country's ten richest citizens could pay for a room for every single one of our estimated 633,000 homeless people for an entire year (figuring on about $560 per month). 
  • The combined wealth of the ten richest surpasses the entire U.S. federal housing budget.
  • The poorest 47 percent of Americans own ZERO percent of this country's wealth--because their debts overshadow their income.
  • America, land of the free and home of the brave, has the fourth highest level of wealth inequality in the entire world (out of 141 countries).
  • For every dollar of assets owned by a single black or Hispanic woman--the average one has about $100 net worth--a member of the Forbes 400 has over $40 million.
Had enough yet? When the American people finally wake up to this reaming they've been taking and the lies they've been told and the tax cheating that's been done by the filthiest of the filthy rich, it will not be pretty.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

And They Gotta Live Here

Lemme balance off the bad news of the last post with some really good news in this one. I have for several years been aware of what I think is one of the grossest pieces of evidence of what's wrong with the planet and what's wrong with us. To wit: gigantic and monstrous dead zones in all of the oceans of the world--the Seven Seas--caused by concentrations of tons and tons of plastic debris. The so-called North Pacific gyre contains an estimated 100 million metric tons of plastic garbage . . . and that's just one concentration. If people could see this horrible mess, it might spur them to some sort of action. It's largely invisible because the oceans are so vast. Because the stuff breaks up into tiny bits, satellites can't capture pictures of this horrendous mess for all to see . . . but it's there and it's fouling the water and it's entered the food chain of countless marine animals.

It could do the job in five years.
But the good news is there are some pretty smart kids out there who have one characteristic they don't share with geezers like me. They have to live in the crap we are going to bequeath to them, and they've put their fantastic minds and imagination to cleaning up our mess. Here's the story:
19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world. Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.
At school, Boyan Slat launched a project that analyzed the size and amount of plastic particles in the ocean’s garbage patches. His final paper went on to win several prizes, including Best Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan continued to develop his concept during the summer of 2012, and he revealed it several months later at TEDxDelft 2012.
Slat went on to found The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit organization which is responsible for the development of his proposed technologies. His ingenious solution could potentially save hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals annually, and reduce pollutants (including PCB and DDT) from building up in the food chain. It could also save millions per year, both in clean-up costs, lost tourism and damage to marine vessels.
It is estimated that the clean-up process would take about five years, and it could greatly increase awareness about the world’s plastic garbage patches. On his site Slat says, “One of the problems with preventive work is that there isn’t any imagery of these ‘garbage patches’, because the debris is dispersed over millions of square kilometres. By placing our arrays however, it will accumulate along the booms, making it suddenly possible to actually visualize the oceanic garbage patches. We need to stress the importance of recycling, and reducing our consumption of plastic packaging.” To find out more about the project and to contribute, click here.
More power. More power to these bright young people. We should be ashamed of ourselves that we've left them such a messed up world in so many ways. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Among Other Things, Our Water's Rotten

There's a famous line in Hamlet where he says, "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark." (At least, I think it was him.) But there's more than one thing rotten in the state of the USA. You can write your own litany. I just want to talk about one: the watercourses of this nation. Inspiration from this piece I ran across recently. A long while back, I think it was in the Nixon administration, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to keep track of how we're screwing up the ecology of the nation and to enforce what laws the people passed to preserve it. Well, way down the line from then--and the environment was pretty screwed up then--we are here. And the EPA reports that more than half--MORE THAN HALF--the water in the United States is unfit for living things. 
Fifty-five percent of U.S. river and stream lengths were in poor condition for aquatic life, largely under threat from runoff contaminated by fertilizers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday.
High levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, runoff from urban areas, shrinking ground cover and pollution from mercury and bacteria were putting the 1.2 million miles of streams and rivers surveyed under stress, the EPA said.
"Under stress"--a polite euphemism for "not fit water to support insect life and crawfish." Do you realize how filthy bad water has to be not to support a mud bug?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Here's What We're Up Against, Folks

Normally I don't give stuff like what follows the time of day, but in this case I'll make an exception. My mailbox gets defiled every now and again by such stuff, but thankfully not too often. What follows is from what is described as "A USMC vet." Like that is immediately supposed to impress me with this dude's sagacity. In fact, it has the opposite effect because it tempts me to simply drop my USMC stereotype in place and expect just exactly what I get here: flag-waving blather with not an ounce of true information to sustain it. I know for a fact that all marine vets aren't like this, but I fear many are. And many more agree even though they never spent an hour in uniform. It just depresses the hell out of me to realize that this pinhead represents literally millions of others in this country who actually believe this nonsense.

It's not worth a single moment of my time to go about refuting the "arguments" presented in this screed. But I will make several observations. And forgive me if the observations seem too jejune and obvious to make at all. It's just therapy for me to do this. These thoughts are in no particular order.
  • The "American Dream", if ever there was one, has been gone for a long time. It did not just end for the poor and middling folk of the US when Obama was reelected.
  • "Norman Rockwell's America" is a figment of the imagination. It never existed.
  • This piece is suffused with the terrifying racism that still exists in this country well into the 21st century. It's crude and it's scary. And truth be told, the hatred of Barack Obama that we see and hear every day and that's so evident in this piece is at its fundamental roots because the man is black.
  • Want a litany of those who are responsible for all the problems? Read paragraph 2 carefully. You're probably on the list.
  • Since when are marines not government workers?
  • This guy knows nothing about rules of capitalization, except what maybe he learned as a Marine, and of course, they don't know the rules either. "Militarese" and "federalese" are among the most abominable crimes committed on the English language. I know. I spent my entire working life reading it.
  • The best two words in the whole piece are the last two.
The American Dream ended (on November 6th) in Ohio. The second term of Barack Obama will be the final nail in the coffin for the legacy of the white Christian males who discovered, explored, pioneered, settled and developed the greatest Republic in the history of mankind.
 A coalition of Blacks, Latinos, Feminists, Gays, Government Workers, Union Members,  Environmental Extremists, The Media, Hollywood, uninformed young people, the "forever needy, on disabiliy", the chronically unemployed, illegal aliens and other "fellow travelers" have ended Norman Rockwell's America.

The Cocker Spaniel is off the front porch...the Pit Bull is in the back yard.

The American Constitution has been replaced with Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" and Chicago shyster David Axelrod, along with international Socialist George Soros will be pulling the strings on their beige puppet to bring us Act 2 of the New World Order.

Our side ran two candidates who couldn't even win their own home states, and the circus fattster Chris Christie helped Obama over the top with a glowing "post Sandy" tribute that elevated the "Commander-in-Chief" to Mother Teresa status.

People like me are completely politically irrelevant, and I will never again comment on or concern myself with the aforementioned coalition which has surrendered our culture, our heritage and our traditions without a shot being fired.

You will never again out vote these people. It will take individual acts of defiance and massive displays of civil disobedience to get back the rights we have allowed them to take away. It will take Zealots, not moderates--not reach-across-the-aisle RINOs [Republicans in name only] to right this ship and restore our beloved country to its former status.

Those who come after us will have to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to bring back the Republic that this generation has timidly frittered away due to "white guilt" and political correctness.....

I'm done.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Too Stupid for Democracy?

Your typical American . . .
Some selected quotations from this article in Slate entitled are "Are Americans too Stupid for Democracy?"
  • In 2011, Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the standard U.S. Citizenship test, and 38 percent of them failed. One in three couldn’t name the vice-president. 
  • Widespread ignorance of objective reality poses a genuine threat to democracy. The people of the United States have ignorance in abundance.
  • People don’t recognize their lack of competence[and] can't judge the competence of politicians
  • Politicians think their constituents are much further to the right than polls suggest. (Oh yeah: two scholars polled 2000 state legislators and found this out. And the more conservative the politician, the more wrong they were about what the voters really think).
  • The wealthy think the wealthy should pay more taxes, but they don't think they're wealthy. (Almost all Americans – even those in the top 5% of the wealthy – consider themselves "middle class." In fact, if you earn more than $250,000 a year, you are in the top 4% of the wealthy in this country.)
  • Americans like Sweden's distribution of wealth, and think they already have it. (I talked about this a few days ago.)
  • Government spending has decreased under Obama, but nobody knows it. (It's way, way down under Obama.)

  • The deficit has been stabilized and is shrinking, but only six percent of Americans know it.
  • "A 2011 poll conducted by CNN found that Americans, on average, think we spend 10 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, and one in five said we spend 30 percent or more helping others abroad. The actual figure: about one percent. The average American also thinks we spend 5 percent of the budget on public broadcasting, when in fact it’s just one tenth of one percent." Here's where the tax dollars actually go.

I would definitely answer the title question in the affirmative. The writer of this piece is a little kinder, saying no, they're not too stupid, but they could be a lot smarter. I wish I were as kind or optimistic. But I look at our educational system, I look at our addiction to mindless entertainment, I look at the almost pride people taking their own ignorance, and I don't see any rosy future for us. I also observe both parties in this country, but especially the Republicans, just outright lying to people. The gross falsehood that Obama is responsible for most of the deficit is just one of the whoppers. I wish I could be more sanguine. But I do see things getting worse, and I don't see the American people getting one whit smarter.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Can You Believe It: Nixon Worse Than Previously Thought

First of all, you have to get past the notion that someone is vain enough to want to record everything they say. The first person that comes to mind, if you are aware of history at all, is Richard Nixon. All of us who are old enough remember the Watergate affair, and the key role that tape recordings of Nixon and his cronies' conversations in the White House had in bringing down the president. What I didn't know, and I suspect you didn't either, was that Nixon's predecessor in the Oval Office Lyndon Johnson also recorded himself in the midst of his duties. And it's because of these recordings that we now know Richard Nixon is a worse scumbag than we ever suspected. I mean, we knew that he was an evil guy, that his little engine of revenge and meanness never stop chugging. We know that he trampled all over the Constitution while  he was president.

But as this article shows, Nixon was up to his nefarious tricks before he was elected president. The gist of it is this: during the 1968 presidential campaign against Hubert Humphreys, Nixon through an intermediary tried to get the South Vietnamese leaders to sabotage the peace talks which had just begun in Paris, and which, according to the article, were off to a promising start. Nixon, who was promising a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam war "with honor" during the campaign, did not want to see the peace talks succeeding or give Lyndon Johnson a chance to call another bombing halt. (Full disclosure: to my everlasting shame, I have to fess up to voting for Nixon in 1968 – still under the spell of my hyper conservative father, but that's no excuse – largely on the basis of this "secret plan" because like many American youth at the time, I loathed the Vietnam war and I wanted us out of there and just as soon as possible. This is still one of the great embarrassments in my life to have to admit this, but I can say with pride that I have not cast a ballot for a Republican ever since.) Long story short, LBJ found out about this and put kibosh on it, threatening Nixon with charges of treason for interfering in foreign affairs. Quite a gripping tale. All the details are in the story.

So if you didn't particularly like tricky Dick Nixon before, your feelings are going to be substantiated. and if you did like Dick Nixon before, no amount of truth about the scoundrel will probably change your mind.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tenth Anniversary

Today is the 10th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. What can be said about this, the worst foreign policy decision ever made by the United States in its history? That it was a crime? a tragedy? a mistake? Certainly all of these. But words do not convey, cannot possibly, the horror of what we did to that country and to the gung-ho, wave-the-flag troops we sent over there under false pretenses and trumped up accusations. I cannot possibly convey my disgust and loathing of the leaders who caused this war as well as the dying Iraq War vet below. I therefore present it to you as a memorial for all those innocent thousands the president of our country sent to their deaths on the basis of a lie. 

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness. 

Tomas Young
Source of this letter is here.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Where Were You in '69?

Well, if you are as ancient as I, you were well aware of Elvis Presley--and had been aware of him for years, ever since he broke majestically onto the staid music scene of 1954 and soon became what he will always be: the King of Rock and Roll. So that means the accompanying video will probably be as astonishing to you as it was to me. I mean this Brit has got it down. If you are not quite the fossil at or near my age, but in a generation or two younger, you will be seeing the closest replication of Elvis I've ever seen. If you closed your eyes, the voice would be exactly right. And amazingly, this guy almost looks exactly like the real Elvis, dead now for 36 years. Especially in profile. So this is almost an educational video. And for the rest of us, just a delicious slice of nostalgia.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Francis and the Church Ingognito

Habemus papem
This happened yesterday. White smoke from the chapel and roar from the assembled thousands in St. Peter's Square. The conclave of Cardinals in Rome, in the Sistine Chapel, elected one of their own to head the Roman Catholic church as pope. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio and he is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the first pope ever elected from the Americas. You can find a whole passel of stories about him here. He's also the first pope to choose the name Francis. And the first Jesuit ever elected to the papacy. That's a lot of firsts. But in some things he will not be the first, but rather a link in a long chain. He will not be the first to staunchly uphold Catholic doctrine and positions on social issues. So we cannot expect any glimmer of change in the Church's underpinning theology, things that have been roiling in Christian thought elsewhere for decades. As with most things Catholic, doctrine seems immutable. And if that is immutable, then nothing is going to change on the social issues such as gay marriage, married priests, female clergy.

What Francis proposes to do is refocus the Church--read about it here--to put an end to its "self-referential" character and turn its focus outward away from Europe and towards the poor of the world. I can only applaud this from the standpoint of what the church should be doing to best reflect Jesus in the world, but I also can't help but notice that a move towards being less "self-referential" is going to perforce turn off the heat on the church's ongoing scandals: the never-ending pedophilia outrage, the Vatican bank, and various other shifty goings on in the Vatican. And I don't believe for a minute that all those guilty cardinals (like American Roger Mahony--and plenty of others--who spent millions of dollars trying to avoid disclosure and payments to victims of pedophile priests in Los Angeles) didn't welcome a change of direction away from the spotlight on their sordid and despicable behavior.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Just one date last week I watched the accompanying video. I remember being really shocked at the time. I knew that the disparity in this country was great, but this graphic makes it graphic . And then on Sunday a church, I saw it again: it was part of the service that we call "the holy word." Which, as you have probably surmised, can be a video – or a poem, or a news story, or something off of a blog, or another piece of writing. The point is to get us thinking and to get us thinking about how to be Christians within whatever context this holy word puts us into.

And has certainly something wrong with the gross disparity of the income in the United States, or the wealth distribution in this country. To my mind, it's a moral issue. There are millions of people in this country to go to bed at night hungry. That is detestable in a country like this that's so rich. And it's intolerable when most of those hungry people are children. What possible argument can anyone make that this situation is okay? It's not okay. It's a crime, and it's immoral.

The amount of wealth owned by the upper 1 percent of the population – 1 percent, one out of every hundred people –is 40 percent of it all. The 80 percent who are on the bottom own just 7 percent! This is so far from what people actually think the situation is. The video will show you the vast difference between what we believe to be the case, what we think would be the ideal, and what the situation actually is.

I'm a historian. I can tell you that situations like this have existed before in history, and they do not end well for the richest people. Eventually the burden of suffering of the poor becomes too heavy to bear. That's when the pitchforks, the guns, and the torches appear. You think it cannot happen here? Don't kid yourself. This whole country is not far from going tilt over some crisis that comes about because of this disparity.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cops Amok, Part ____

You can just fill in the blank above, it could be any number. Cops are beating people up all over the country every day. YouTube has hundreds of examples. The video accompanying this post is just one of them. But it is genuinely horrific. You will notice that most of the people set upon by the police are black people, not unusual at all when you think about the percentages of the races that we lock up in this country. But the absolute worst beating here is administered by huge black officer with his billy club on the helpless prisoner already being held down by another cop. For a peaceful and nonviolent soul like myself, these scenes were absolutely horrifying, disgusting, vile, and really scary. Conjures up in my mind thoughts of the Nazi brownshirts, and the state-sponsored terror that allowed them free reign to assault and murder German citizens pretty much with impunity. I don't think there is any doubt that the United States is moving closer every day, under its oppressive and overpowering fear and loathing of ________ – you can fill in at this point with whatever you want: terrorists, criminals, people with a different religion, Muslims, strangers, people who look different, people of another race, foreigners--to a garrison state where might is all that determines right. That got Americans prisoners of their fears. Afraid enough to send gun sales to the roof and, sadly, to even justify some of this behavior by the cops who are sworn to protect us.

Don't watch this if you got a weak stomach. But remember the main message of the film: it takes guts and the cops hate it, but you have every right to videotape them doing whatever it is they do. And all too often they are abusing their authority and giving vent to the cruelest and meanest instincts we have. Thank goodness for the brave souls that took these pictures.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

TJ Would Be Outraged

The YouTube video that you're going to see below is shocking. I spent probably a couple of hours today looking at videos people took of our police around the country in action. I started off looking at a series of videos that showed people being stopped by the border patrol, sometimes 50 miles away from the border, at "immigration checkpoints." Uniformed federal agents were stopping every car and asking drivers if they were American citizens. It turns out you're not obligated to answer this question, and the videos showed a number of drivers in successful encounters with these agents when they refused to do so.You can find these videos by searching YouTube for "Am I being detained?"

But that is not what this video is about. This one I found just by chance. It needs a short set up: apparently this group headed by one Adam Koresh, apparently a U.S. Marine Corps vet, heard that if anyone demonstrated by dancing inside the Jefferson Memorial, he would be arrested. So they set out to test it. It's never very clear exactly why the cops and have so much trouble with this particular form of demonstration. Notice that the cops in this video are Park police, a species of law enforcement agent virtually unknown 10 or 12 years ago. But since 9/11, this country has become freakishly paranoid, and American citizens are being manhandled regularly by the police, often without any reason or on the flimsiest reasons imaginable. Such seems to be the case here. A couple of things to notice. First, the amount of force that is used on these people. It certainly appears excessive and malicious to me. Second, you don't have to view the entire video, because the second part of the tape just repeats the first but from another camera angle. Nonetheless, you're not believe your eyes. This takes place inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. In front of God knows how many tourists. This is the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson, the virtual father of free speech, lover of the Bill of Rights, and enemy to oppressive executive power in any form – he must be rolling over in his grave.

Just a short postscript: the charges (one has to wonder what in the world they were) against these five dangerous dancers, these obvious subversives, were dropped as soon as the prosecutor heard them.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bangs Cows

Here's my latest poem, a prose poem at that. As my brother remarked, remarkable memories for a city kid.

Bangs Cows

My dad bought cattle for the family meat-packing plant on Poydras Street, not far from the River. It’s gone now, Dad, too, and old New Orleans that seeped into my childhood like the ground water mere inches under any surface in the city. I have little boy memories being with him at cattle auctions in weathered Cajun villages: Raceland, Zachary, Mansura. Smell of dung, flies, shrieks of hogs, cowboys with their brims, boots, and chaw. Rows of pick-ups. Rawboned buyers arrayed about the selling pen flicking the price up with near-invisible nods or finger-jiggles. The auctioneer, whose bewildering babble streamed over the static-plagued speaker like an ancient incantation to the god of the herds, never missed a bid. Nobody bought breeding stock: cows, calves, hogs, mostly. An occasional bull. Sometimes sheep or goats, but all headed to the abattoir. Why Dad bought this one and not that one remained mysterious. But “canners and cutters,” bony beasts with hip bones jutting out and ribs you could count were clear. And you couldn’t miss a “bangs cow,” that's what they called 'em, a big B—for brucellosis, a bad disease for them—stenciled on both jowls. Seers they were. All prescient, these cows. Their mournful moist eyes, the same kind you would have foreseeing a future stuffed inside a sausage casing, gave them away. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Homeland Security II

This article will have you steaming. I promise you. When you think for just a second or two of all the uses for real needs the money we've poured into this boondoggle could have bought . . . well, it's nothing less than criminal in my opinion. This piece is contained in its entirety in the Tomgram article I mentioned yesterday.
“Homeland Security”
The Trillion-Dollar Concept That No One Can Define
By Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman
Imagine a labyrinthine government department so bloated that few have any clear idea of just what its countless pieces do.  Imagine that tens of billions of tax dollars are disappearing into it annually, black hole-style, since it can’t pass a congressionally mandated audit.
Now, imagine that there are two such departments, both gigantic, and you’re beginning to grasp the new, twenty-first century American security paradigm.
For decades, the Department of Defense has met this definition to a T.  Since 2003, however, it hasn’t been alone.  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which celebrates its 10th birthday this March, has grown into a miniature Pentagon. It’s supposed to be the actual “defense” department -- since the Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense -- and it’s rife with all the same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have decried for decades.  In other words, “homeland security” has become another obese boondoggle.
But here’s the strange thing: unlike the Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever -- even though, by our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is, Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal.

Despite sucking up a sum of money that could have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency and the very concept of “homeland security” have largely flown beneath the media radar -- with disastrous results.

And that’s really no surprise, given how the DHS came into existence.

A few months before 9/11, Congress issued a national security report acknowledging that U.S. defense policy had not evolved to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.  The report recommended a “national homeland security agency” with a single leader to oversee homeland security-style initiatives across the full range of the federal government.  Although the report warned that a terrorist attack could take place on American soil, it collected dust.

Then the attack came, and lawmakers of both political parties and the American public wanted swift, decisive action.  President George W. Bush's top officials and advisers saw in 9/11 their main chance to knock off Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  Others, who generally called themselves champions of small government, saw an opportunity to expand big government at home by increasing security spending.

Their decision to combine domestic security under one agency turned out to be like sending the Titanic into the nearest field of icebergs.

President Bush first created an Office of Homeland Security in the White House and then, with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, laid plans for a new executive department. The DHS was funded with billions of dollars and staffed with 180,000 federal employees when it opened for business on March 1, 2003.  It qualified as the largest reorganization of the federal government since 1947 when, fittingly, the Department of Defense was established.

Announcing plans for this new branch of government, President Bush made a little-known declaration of “mission accomplished” that long preceded that infamous banner strung up on an aircraft carrier to celebrate his “victory” in Iraq.  In November 2002, he said, “The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response.”

Mission unaccomplished (big time).
A decade later, a close look at the hodge-podge of homeland security programs that now spans the U.S. government reveals that there’s nothing “unified” about it.  Not all homeland security programs are managed through the Department of Homeland Security, nor are all programs at the Department of Homeland Security related to securing the homeland.

Federal officials created the DHS by pulling together 22 existing government departments, including stand-alone agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known by its acronym FEMA, and the Coast Guard, which came with programs both related and unrelated to counterterrorism.  They also brought into the DHS a host of programs that had previously existed as parts of other agencies like the Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy and the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation.  To knit these disparate parts together, officials built a mammoth bureaucracy over an already existing set of bureaucracies.  At the same time, they left a host of counterterrorism programs scattered across the rest of the federal government, which means, a decade later, many activities at the DHS are duplicated by similar programs elsewhere.

A trail of breadcrumbs in federal budget documents shows how much is spent on homeland security and by which agencies, though details about what that money is buying are scarce.  The DHS budget was $60 billion last year.  However, only $35 billion was designated for counterterrorism programs of various sorts.  In the meantime, total federal funding for (small-h, small-s) homeland security was $68 billion -- a number that, in addition to the DHS money, includes $17 billion for the Department of Defense, plus around $4 billion each for the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, with the last few billion scattered across virtually every other federal agency in existence.

From the time this new security bureaucracy rumbled into operation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington’s internal watchdog, called the DHS a “high risk” proposition.  And it’s never changed its tune. Regular GAO reports scrutinize the department and identify major problems.  In March of last year, for instance, one GAO report noted that the office had recommended a total of 1,600 changes.  At that time, the department had only “addressed about half of them” -- and addressed doesn’t necessarily mean solved.

So rest assured, in the best of all possible homeland security worlds, there are only 800-odd issues outstanding, according to the government’s own watchdog, after we as a nation poured $791 billion down the homeland security rabbit hole.  Indeed, there remain gaping problems in the very areas that the DHS is supposedly securing on our behalf:

* Consider port security: you wouldn’t have much trouble overnighting a weapon of mass destruction into the United States.  Cargo terminals are the entry point for containers from all over the world, and a series of reports have found myriad vulnerabilities -- including gaps in screening for nuclear and radiological materials.  After spending $200 million on new screening technology, the DHS determined it wouldn’t deliver sufficient improvements and cancelled the program (but not the cost to you, the taxpayer).

* Then there are the problems of screening people crossing into this country.  The lion’s share of responsibility for border security lies with part of the DHS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which had an $11.7 billion budget in fiscal 2012.  But in the land of utter duplication that is Washington’s version of counterterrorism, there is also something called the Border Security Program at the State Department, with a separate pot of funding to the tune of $2.2 billion last year.  The jury’s out on whether these programs are faintly doing their jobs, even as they themselves define them.  As with so many other DHS programs, the one thing they are doing successfully is closing and locking down what was once considered an “open” society.

* For around $14 billion each year, the Department of Homeland Security handles disaster response and recovery through FEMA, something that’s meant to encompass preparedness for man-made as well as natural disasters. But a 2012 investigation by the GAO found that FEMA employs an outdated method of assessing a disaster-struck region’s ability to respond and recover without federal intervention -- helpfully, that report came out just a month before Hurricane Sandy.

* Recently, it came to light that the DHS had spent $431 million on a radio system for communication within the department -- but only one of more than 400 employees questioned about the system claimed to have the slightest idea how to use it.  It’s never surprising to hear that officials at separate agencies have trouble coordinating, but this was an indication that, even within the DHS, employees struggle with the basics of communication.

* In a survey that covered all federal departments, DHS employees reported rock-bottom levels of engagement with their work.  Its own workers called the DHS the worst federal agency to work for.
Those are just a few of a multitude of glaring problems inside the now decade-old department. Because homeland security is not confined to one agency, however, rest assured that neither is its bungling:

* There is, for instance, that $17 billion in homeland security funding at the Department of Defense -- a mountain of cash for defending against terrorist attacks, protecting U.S. airspace, and providing security at military bases. But perhaps defense officials feel that $17 billion is insufficient, since an October 2012 report by the GAO found the Pentagon had outdated and incomplete plans for responding to a domestic attack, including confusion about the chain of command should such an event take place.  That should be no surprise, though: the Pentagon is so replete with oversight problems and obsolete, astronomically expensive programs that it makes the DHS look like a trim, well-oiled machine.

* Or consider the domestic counterterrorism unit at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which enjoyed $461 million in homeland security funding last year and is housed not at the DHS or the Pentagon but at the Department of Justice.  ATF made headlines for giving marked firearms to Mexican smugglers and losing track of them -- and then finding that the weapons were used in heinous crimes. More recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, ATF has drawn attention because it fails one of the most obvious tests of oversight and responsibility: it lacks a confirmed director at the helm of its operations. (According to The Hill newspaper, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is currently holding up President Obama’s appointment to head the agency.)

Washington has poured staggering billions into securing the so-called homeland, but in so many of the areas meant to be secured there remain glaring holes the size of that gaping wound in the Titanic’s side.  And yet over the past decade -- even with these problems -- terrorist attacks on the homeland have scarcely hurt a soul.  That may offer a clue into just how misplaced the very notion of the Department of Homeland Security was in the first place.  In the wake of 9/11, pouring tiny percentages of that DHS money into less flashy safety issues, from death by food to death by gun to death by car, to mention just three, might have made Americans genuinely safer at, by comparison, minimal cost.

Perhaps the strangest part of homeland security operations may be this: there is no agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is. The funds Washington has poured into the concept will soon enough approach a trillion dollars and yet it’s a concept with no clear boundaries that no one can agree on.  Worse yet, few are asking the hard questions about what security we actually need or how best to achieve it.  Instead, Washington has built a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with problems and set it on autopilot.

And that brings us to today. Budget cuts are in the pipeline for most federal programs, but many lawmakers vocally oppose any reductions in security funding. What’s painfully clear is this: the mere fact that a program is given the label of national or homeland security does not mean that its downsizing would compromise American safety. Overwhelming evidence of waste, duplication, and poor management suggests that Washington could spend far less on security, target it better, and be so much safer.

Meanwhile, the same report that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.

In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to protect boundless funding for national security programs by dismantling investment essential to this country’s greatness -- including world-class education and infrastructure systems -- is bound to be powerful.  So whenever you hear the phrase “homeland security,” watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.

Mattea Kramer is research director at National Priorities Project, where Chris Hellman is senior research analyst. Both are TomDispatch regulars.  They co-authored the book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Whiff of Homeland

Have you ever wondered about the term "homeland security"? Has it ever bothered you? Does it have about it the strong odor of something not quite American? I've felt that way ever since I first heard the phrase in the fevered aftermath of 9/11 when Bush was calling for Arab scalps. Homeland security: it always sounded to my ears like a fascist thing. I recall the newsreels of Hitler frothing about the "Faterland" and the sea of Nazi salutes from the frenzied crowds. And the sound landscape of thousand upon thousands of "Heils!!" This is what "homeland" reminded me of. And I cannot help but think this specific term was conjured up with just the whiff of militarism intentionally there. It was no spur of the moment decision to graft this word into our everyday language, where, we should note, it is comfortably ensconced. It's not going away.

This was never the "homeland," was it? It was my country. Your country. Or in rare instances, "my nation." But "homeland"? Nope. That was never heard.

Crowd control
Not until we began morphing into the police state that we are fast turning into. Have you taken a gander lately at what the police are wearing just about anywhere for their duties that involve something more than directing traffic or raising flags or patrolling around catching speeders or harassing male black kids under the age of 20? I'm talking the so-called "tactical police units" or the cops when they're on any kind of crowd control posture. They remind me first, of military units: they look like them and they are armed like them. And second, it doesn't take too much imagination to see these formations like the minions of Darth Vader in Star Wars. Always menacing in their body armor and anonymity.

But whose worried about this? Nobody. The American people seem perfectly happy to be living in a place where the threat of mobilized police that are essentially paramilitary units stationed in every U.S. city of any size whatever.

I'm not alone in worrying about this homeland stuff. See Tom's Dispatch from a few days ago.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Progressive Christianity

Well, so much for the good intentions and the blather about writing more often. I think it must be over a week since I last wrote, although I haven't actually checked. Be that as it may, here I am again, Saturday afternoon after spending the morning over at my church listened to a man named Welton Gaddy speak for three hours about progressive Christianity. He was great. Susan and I want to hear him last night when he spoke just down the street from us. Gaddy heads up the national Interface Alliance in Washington DC. He also pastors a church and Monroe, Louisiana, and I was amazed to learn that there are actually progressive Christians there. This little snippet about him barely does him justice, but it will not be long before his talks of last night and today are put up on our web site and you can listen for yourself.

This understanding of Christianity has become my new rock. I went for so long feeling almost alienated in the Catholic Church, that it's just such a comfort just to be with people who don't cause me stress or tension, who tend to see the world like I do and who aren't afraid of either ideas or ideas that don't agree with their own. And who also understand the practice of Christianity the way I do. The practice not the belief system, which is non-essential, although it's the litmus test for many denominations. I talked briefly about the subject of progressive Christianity not too long ago: you can check it out here. So I'll not go over it again--others can do it much better than I; I'm just a neophyte-- but I would like to point you to some resources on the web in case you're interested in learning more about this. I'm absolutely convinced that there are scores and scores if not hundreds and hundreds of churchgoing and non-churchgoing people who need to hear about this. I cannot help but think that this is the kind of religion that would make sense to my children, my son-in-law, and my grandson, all of whom reject traditional Christianity, not to mention Roman Catholicism, as not relevant to their lives.

So the resources. Try these, and in all cases consult the "resources" section: