Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can't GOP Muster Merits to Win?

Did you watch?

Several people have asked me if I've been watching any of the Republican convention on television.  And I readily admit that no, I have not.

Not only have I not watched the Republicans in Tampa, but I have no plans of watching anything from the Democratic convention next week in Charlotte.  Facts and integrity have a curious habit of disappearing at such events, or becoming so distorted that reality ends up being what the most charismatic speaker can make it.

It's called "spin," and frankly, mostly all it does is make me dizzy.

So I wasn't surprised that today, critics from Miami's local NBC station, to the BBC, to Huffington Post were finding easy pickings for falsehoods among Paul Ryan's fiery factoids from his keynote speech last night.  Indeed, if nobody had found anything critical to say, that would have been truly surprising!  Bluster, exaggeration, and patriotic hyperbole are basic elements of these political conventions, no matter if you're a liberal or conservative.  It's become almost a sport for armchair quarterbacks to begin parsing what the opposition has said almost before the words are out of the speaker's mouth.

And true to form, the fact-checkers didn't have to dig very deep to uncover the full story behind some of Ryan's own spin-doctoring.

For example, the auto factory Ryan intimated Obama helped shutter actually closed early in Obama's presidency, but as part of GM's already-scheduled restructuring plan in which George Bush's administration played a part, not Obama's going back on his word.

Ryan also accused Obama of dismissing the deficit reduction report Obama himself had commissioned from Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, but Ryan failed to acknowledge that as a member of the commission, he himself voted against the commission's final report.  Ryan decried all of the bailout money for which Republicans have mistakenly blamed Obama entirely, bur Ryan ignores the fact that he scooped up millions of that money for his own home state of Wisconsin.  Ryan similarly feigns amnesia when blasting Obama for playing fast and loose with Medicare money, when Ryan himself had earlier proposed the same changes Obama later enacted as part of Obamacare.

Of course, it hasn't helped the Republican's cause having one of Mitt Romney's pollsters, Neil Newhouse, grousing that the very fact-checkers Romney has used in the past against Obama have suddenly become irrelevant.

"Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs," Newhouse told reporters earlier this week, "and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

Well, which are they, then?  Fact checkers, or spin doctors?  And which are you being, Mr. Newhouse?

Speaking of spin doctors, it's been interesting to notice the lack of any defense for Ryan's speech on major right-wing websites today.  Drudge Report didn't try prove Ryan's naysayers are the ones who are lying, nor did Rush Limbaugh.  Maybe that's because many conservatives either believe Ryan entirely, or they simply don't want to believe the entire truth.

To its credit, Red State did try to mount a plausible explanation of Ryan's depiction of the Wisconsin GM plant's closure.  However, their between-the-lines posturing and a clearer outline of events by PolitiFact becomes more of a Clintonesque "definition of the word 'closure'" debate.  Apparently, GM's process for shuttering the Janesville facility involved a variety of considerations (including their unions - an odd group of people for Ryan to champion).  And like many corporate decisions, the actual date on which the plant ceased production is open to interpretation.  Still, however you want to look at it, Ryan had the obligation to take the high road in his description of the plant's final days, if he even needed to incorporate it at all in his speech.

Hey, it's not like there aren't irrefutable policy failures out there that can be directly attributed to our current president.  Ryan could have crafted a successful and resounding speech without mentioning any of these arguable elements.  Why stir the pot unnecessarily?

Red State even tried to turn the tables on the facts when they posted on their website today a goofy article trying to blast fact checkers as "lemmings to their own death."

How does it serve the Republican party when right-wingers prefer duplicity over honesty?  Red State points out that yes, it could be argued that Janesville's auto plant did close during Obama's presidency.  Obama did dismiss the deficit reduction commission's report.  Obama did spend a lot of money on bailouts, and he did reclassify Medicare funds.  But they tried to say these were the only important facts in these stories, which itself isn't true.  Ryan presented these facts in an entirely negative light, without bothering to tell his audience the full story behind them.  A full story which would have neutralized his own stance on them.

Not one fact-checking site I read today denied the literal truth of anything Ryan said.  It was Ryan's omissions of additional facts in each illustration that tainted the truth he was trying to posit for each one.

"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."  That's not what Ryan spun in his speech.

Admittedly, Ryan was preaching to his base, a group of people who likely dislike Obama so much, Ryan could have said almost anything, and they would have cheered.

But hey - I'm voting for this ticket, having decided that America would be better off without four more years of our current administration.  And it bothers me that Republicans insist on wasting so much effort on half-truths and deceptions.

Campaign on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and see how easy it will be for conservatives to win back the White House.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

India's Food Fraud is Food for Thought

Like beans from a ripped sack, the facts are spilling out of today's Bloomberg report.

And they're scandalous.  According to a study conducted by Bloomberg News and detailed on their website, starvation is rampant in India while plenty of food is being grown and harvested to sufficiently feed everybody in the country.

How can this be, you ask?  Theft and corruption, of course:  India's stock in trade.

Consider the statistics Bloomberg has amassed:
  • Since 1965, India's public food distribution system for the poor has become the world's largest
  • 350 million families live below India’s poverty line of 50 cents a day
  • 21 percent of all adults in India are malnourished
  • Almost half of India’s children under 5 years old are malnourished
  • Approximately $14.5 billion in food was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade just in the state of Uttar Pradesh (India has 28 states)
  • 10 percent of India’s food rots or is lost before it can be distributed
  • In 2005, only 41 percent of the food set aside for the poor actually reached them

If they're correct, Bloomberg, the government of India's own records, and other third-party reports on this travesty describe a massive scale of thievery and inhumanity, and many victims aren't even aware of it.  Most of the theft takes place in India's vast, rural countryside, where illiteracy is widespread and graft endemic.  Government officials - and Bloomberg uses the term loosely - conspire with ruthless traders to intercept food intended for the poor, and then sell it on the grey and black markets.  To top it off, the government actually makes a profit, which further reduces the desire of authorities to prosecute anyone involved.

Not that any of this is surprising.  Scandalous, yes, but not surprising.  At least, not when you understand how India's culture and history revolve around a worldview in which human life holds little value.  Indeed, perhaps it's surprising that the statistics Bloomberg compiles aren't worse than they could be.  India may be the world's largest democracy, but that provides little recourse when many of its voters and the people they vote into office hold scant concern for anybody but themselves.  Granted, while no official statistics can support such an assertion, plenty of anecdotal evidence practically proves it, with the exception of a minority of Indian nationals who adhere to a Westernized belief in the sanctity of life.

Indeed, Bloomberg reports that Indians are playing key roles in uncovering this food fraud.  Unfortunately, their ability to force genuine national reform appears to be nil.

Smart Food Charity

When we discuss our political problems here in the United States, it's easy to convince ourselves that things are dire for us.  It takes sobering reality checks from reports like Bloomberg's to help put our own debates and dilemmas into perspective.  Yet even though many aspects of Bloomberg's inquiry into India's persistent starvation patterns are unique to India's way of life - or, perhaps more accurately, death - that doesn't mean that our growing concerns over the administration of our own food charity programs here in America are insignificant.

Generally speaking, liberal Americans tend to err on the side of liberality when it comes to helping poor people, while conservative Americans tend to be incredibly stingy and resentful.  Some of the resentment by conservatives is justified, at least when it's reserved for those who game the welfare system.  And some of that resentment is based on ignorance.  Recently, I read a comment ostensibly posted by a white male from suburban Boston on a Wall Street Journal article so-called entitlement programs.  He wrote that if poor people would just grow their own food, we wouldn't need food stamps.

As if the millions of Americans currently needing supplemental nutrition assistance all have backyards or farms.  And are healthy enough to hoe, dig, and pull weeds.  And don't need meat in their diet.

Stupidity aside, I still say that most American taxpayers don't begrudge the genuinely needy some public assistance.  But did you know that 84% of our farm and agriculture budget goes not to farm policy, but to nutrition programs like school lunches and food stamps?  The farm bill currently being considered by Congress will cost nearly $1 trillion over ten years.  You do the math.

Nobody's saying America doesn't have the food.  Shucks, even India has all the food it needs.  It's common knowledge that the only reason famine still exists is because political corruption does also.

Conservatives have argued that as currently structured, the safeguards for our country's government-funded food charities are not stringent enough.  Fraud by both the users of these programs, and even the grocery stores who accept food stamps, is widely known to exist.  The FDA claims that such fraud is actually declining, despite the increasing number of people registering for these charities, thanks in part to more sophisticated technology and better detective work on their part.  That's small comfort, however, since some estimates still peg the cost of food stamp fraud at three-quarters of a billion dollars.  Annually.

I've done the math here, and suffice it to say that, despite all of the zeroes, the percentage of food fraud in the United States pales in comparison to what's taking place in India.

But that's not the only difference.

Feeding our National Soul

Here in the United States, we can still do something about it.  The trick will be to remember our humanity, and find where to draw the line between people who genuinely need assistance and those who either don't, or who abuse what's supposed to help them.  Some conservatives want recipients of food charity to go to work if they're going to join a food program, but isn't that kinda missing the whole reason many people have been signing up for food charity lately?  They can't find work to begin with?

Who's making money on food stamp fraud in the United States?  One likely candidate is the grocery store industry, when unauthorized merchandise is sold to food stamp users.  The FDA reports that it has removed hundreds of stores from its approved list of vendors, but questions remain as to how much political will exists to explore how extensively our national chains participate in this fraud.  After all, that $750 million isn't being lost all at small mom-and-pop convenience stores each year, is it?

For example, what is the extent to which supermarket checkout clerks, themselves paid hardly anything, feel sympathetic to customers paying with food stamps and encourage their customers to spend fraudulently?  I have anecdotal evidence from a friend of mine in south Dallas that this is a common problem there.

Meanwhile, companies continue laying off Americans, and more and more people who previously would have never imagined needing food stamps or free school lunches find themselves grateful for the public assistance.  And isn't that what it's there for?

We don't want starvation in the United States.  Nor do we want to enable people to become dependent on programs like food stamps for the long-term.  Institutional poverty can start quite innocently, yet become exceedingly difficult to escape.  Combating food fraud is a noble goal, but so is offering aid to those of us who face a challenging financial time in their lives.

India, on the other hand, is an absolute nightmare when it comes to food fraud.  Let us not take for granted - either through waste or indifference to peoples' need - the bounty to which we all have access here in the United States.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Funny Thing About Political "Work"

Do you need a good laugh?

Writing for World magazine's website last Friday, my friend J.C. Derrick told a joke.

It was so funny, I laughed out loud.  Seriously!

Wanna hear it?  OK:  here it is.  This is what he wrote in an article about pending government budget cutbacks due to take effect in Washington on January 1, 2013, and Congress' inaction to avoid the cutbacks:

"To complicate matters, lawmakers are only scheduled to work eight days in September and five days in October as election season reaches its peak."

See that four-letter word called "work?"  In relation to Congress?  My friends, that's ROFLOL funny, isn't it?  I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many people outside of the beltway who view what goes on in our Capitol as "work."

How Much Work is it to Kick a Can Down a Road?

Like J.C. wrote in his piece, our "112th Congress has repeatedly kicked the can of responsibility down the road in the last 20 months," meaning that all of the austerity threats meant to force our elected leaders into concrete, bipartisan action and accountability have done nothing of the sort.  As part of their ridiculous budget-ceiling scuffle last year, lawmakers built into their last-minute truce a promise to make genuine, substantive spending reductions by the end of this year, or face $110 billion in even more radical automatic funding cuts that could inflict relatively indiscriminate fiscal carnage.

Not that I'm against budget cuts.  But this deadline, by virtue of the wide swath it will cut, is being called a "fiscal cliff."  We're steering right towards it, full steam ahead, pedal to the metal, with only a handful of days left to "work" on better solutions to keep from leaping into the abyss.

Frankly, some right-wingers say, America will be just fine going over this fiscal cliff.  These cuts need to be made and obviously, nobody in office today has the guts to make them.  America is a lot more resilient a country than liberals give it credit for, and whatever initial pain we might feel from these cuts, we'll heal up and be stronger in the future than we are today, drowning as we are in all of this waste.

Which sounds logical, if not entirely reassuring.  Sure, we still have the world's most robust economy, all things considered.  Free markets should be able to take a hit and keep on ticking.  Besides, it's not like the solutions left-wingers will propose at the 11th hour will be anything more than window-dressing.  We need to become a lean, mean, freedom machine.  And if we need to chop off all of these entitlements cold-turkey to do it, then giddy-up!  I'm ready!

Quitting smoking cold-turkey is one thing.  Triggering a $110 billion, poorly-planned blood-letting of government programs is another.  For one thing, might such a thing stoke some dangerous uncertainty in financial markets?  Will investors be content to let the chips fall where they may, or could they panic?  Sure, the general public may embrace the broad idea of cutting government waste, but when it slices into their wallets, do we know we can deal with any social volatility that could result?  Instability is always a good opportunity for rogue powers to wreak terroristic turmoil.  $110 billion won't force our government to collapse, but it may feel like it will, and that's all our media needs to stoke distrust, resentment, and fear. 

After all, it's not just government budgets that will take the hit.  Private companies who sell to the government, along with government contractors, may be forced to lay off thousands of people - in addition to the thousands of government employees who may be suddenly unemployed.  Does dumping all of these people into the job market within the same time period make good economic sense?  How does it lower our already-high unemployment rate?  Sure, we have a bloated bureaucracy, and we need to reduce government employment (which soared under George W. Bush, BTW).  But flooding the country with unemployed workers could have a significant ripple effect, jeopardizing even more credit card debts, mortgages, car loans, and student loans than are at risk now.  You think the food stamp program has been over-run?  Just wait until all of these people lose their jobs at the same time.

Bridging the Cliff

The problems we have in the United States were not created overnight, and they will not be resolved overnight.  Usually, those are words politicians live by, because they tend to elicit the same laziness that contributes to these problems.  Plodding along, haphazardly stitching piecemeal solutions together more for their political value than their long-term viability has got to stop.  We need bold action.  But the trick will be getting the most value from our actions.  Instead of driving towards a fiscal cliff, aren't Americans dealing with a bureaucratic cancer that is attaching itself to vital organs and draining our resources?  Surgery is indeed required, but won't a strategic scalpel, maybe with some local anesthesia, be more effective than scorched-earth cluster-bombing?

This isn't a time for trite right-wing catch phrases or reckless left-wing denials.  Indeed, as my friend J.C. points out in World magazine, it's not just the budget that's running out of time.  The Bush-era tax cuts, a bloated farm bill, and reform of the U.S. Post Office all present formidable political, social, and economic challenges.  Maybe these don't all face an end-of-the-year deadline, but Congress' lack of urgency on them only weakens their overall credibility, and dims the prospect for rational action on our country's budget.

For example, I think Bush's tax cuts represent the most wiggle room, since conservatives who keep protecting high-income-earners only weaken their middle-American street cred.  Nobody can prove that rich people paying a fraction more in income taxes will impact the job market.  Maybe America's rich could even profit from the legislative breakthroughs that could result from this compromise on the Republicans' part.

Farming is a bit more complicated an issue, since it's all of the entitlements taxpayers subsidize for our agriculture industry that help keep food prices artificially low.  Still, it's never made sense to me that taxpayers pay farmers to not grow stuff.  Such arcane policies that haven't kept up with the times, like our farm legislation - and even our ossified postal system - are rife with waste and, therefore, prime candidates for diligent and decisive bipartisan reform.  Reform that will require some work.

However, this being an election year, I don't hold out any hope that the good of our country will hold any sway over our legislators on these issues.  Compromise is a dirty word in partisan politics, even though it's the only way progress takes place in a republic.  I suspect one of the reasons compromise is so shunned stems from the reality that it's harder than blunt grandstanding.  Appealing to your support base isn't nearly as much work as trying to convince somebody across the aisle that equal concessions can yield common benefits.  Politicians like the imagery of rolling up their sleeves, but more and more, the hard work of governance is fading behind divisive platitudes.

At the end of the day, it may indeed be that the $110 billion in pending spending cuts will be better than whatever other budget cuts our politicians can - or can't - reach.  But Congress has not given us any reason to assume such will be the case.

In the meantime, they have so much work to do on the campaign trail, trying to convince us voters that they deserve another term in office, they haven't allocated themselves the time to actually do the work for which they were elected in the first place.

It's a good thing we can laugh about this.

Now, anyway.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Truth Loses at End of Armstrong's Race

Remember Winnie the Pooh?

Whenever he tried to remember something, he'd sit there, and tap his noggin, muttering, "think, think think..."

I feel like Winnie the Pooh as I try to remember the last time I rode a bicycle.  I think it was up in Michigan, years ago, on a trip to visit my brother and his family.  I honestly can't recall.

Obviously, I'm not much of a bike rider.  But that doesn't mean Lance Armstrong's stunning announcement last night means nothing to me.  The seven-time Tour de France champion has thrown in the towel after fighting for years to preserve his racing record against incessant charges that he used illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Lance, Legacy, Legality, and Legitimacy

No, I'm not a bicycle enthusiast, but like a lot of people, I thought Armstrong was an extraordinary athlete and humanitarian.  At least until he divorced his wife, and started cavorting with Cheryl Crow.  I lost a lot of respect for him then, probably because his lack of commitment to his family rendered him far more ordinary a person than his bicycling achievements would lead us to believe.  He battled back from testicular cancer to not only the winner's circle in bicycle racing, but to illegitimately father - biologically, after testicular cancer - two more kids through his current girlfriend.  As remarkable as those feats may be, to me, moral integrity still trumps physical prowess every time.  Not that I expect everybody to be perfect, and certainly, Armstrong is no axe murderer.  But some bad decisions are worse than others.

Speaking of bad decisions and illegitimacy, Armstrong has been dogged for years by accusations that he's taken performance drugs.  Yet no incontrovertible proof has ever surfaced - and stuck - to support those allegations.  I've actually felt sorry for Armstrong since it has seemed more out of spite and envy than legitimate evidence that people continue to accuse him of things that, supposedly, his 500-plus urine and blood test results say are not true.

No less than a federal grand jury was convened in 2010 to determine if any criminal charges should be filed against Armstrong, but after two years of work, the grand jury was terminated without revealing any findings.

Almost immediately, however, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) picked up the allegations and began running its own marathon with the allegations, suspicions, and accusations made by journalists around the world, Armstrong's professional peers and competitors, and sports officials.  The USADA has a mandate from Congress to serve as our country's anti-doping watchdog for athletes representing us in the Olympics, although it's unclear the extent of its jurisdiction in competitions such as the Tour de France.  Armstrong tried to challenge the USADA in court, but his suit was overturned on more of a legal technicality than a firm ruling on the USADA's right of jurisdiction.

Apparently, that setback, after years of fighting similar allegations in both legal courts and the court of public opinion, proved too great a loss for Armstrong's normally competitive spirit.

Now, I'm neither a lawyer nor an expert on doping, but whether Armstrong is guilty or innocent, shouldn't the way the USADA's case against him has played out be disconcerting to us Americans?  Several puzzling and disturbing precedents appear to have been set with the way a quasi-government organization was able to ignore the findings - or lack of them - by a federal grand jury and, within a matter of months, torpedo just about all of the championships Armstrong has acquired throughout his career.  Then there are nearly 600 drug tests to which Armstrong submitted as a racer over the course of many years that always showed him to be clean.  If those drug tests were faulty, how many other cyclists are doping and still - somehow - doctoring their tests so they can pass?

For years, professional sports has been dogged by doping allegations and players who really have doped.  Some sports experts say it's all part of the American public's thirst for achievement and athletic theatrics.  As long as we fans keep expecting bigger, greater, faster, longer, harder, and more entertaining feats of human performance, athletes will find ways to win our admiration.  And more often than not, that includes illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Unfortunately, whenever an athlete accomplishes something extraordinary these days, we immediately wonder about doping, instead of reflexively appreciating what appears to be sheer athleticism.  To the extent Armstrong's long slog through the muck of doping allegations has become as much a part of his career as his awards, whether he's guilty or innocent, Armstrong has placed a heavy burden of proof on all other high-achieving athletes.

That itself is an unsettling legacy.  The fact that sports fans push for more performance - and then recoil in skepticism when our sports stars deliver - further tarnishes it all.

Who's Hiding the Truth?

From what I've read about Armstrong over the years, he's one driven and determined individual.  Almost single-minded in his pursuit of bicycle glory.  Many athletes are like that, and with the kind of emotion and commitment such a pursuit demands, it's not surprising to have rumors and innuendo floating around among peers and competitors in baseball, football, basketball, and soccer leagues.  And cycling competitions.

Yet isn't it scary that the USADA has been able to overturn one man's globally-renowned career without providing one scrap of evidence to the public?  Maybe at some point in the near future, the USADA will put the evidence they say they have on the table for closer inspection by doping experts and Armstrong's legal team.  And, as some pundits have already said, maybe Armstrong's stunning deflation - in what has been an otherwise vigorous defense of his record - actually resembles a grim acknowledgement that, yes, he knows about the proof the USADA has been dangling over our summertime like a disguised bomb.  He knows the gig is up.

A process for appealing the USADA's actions was available to Armstrong, but curiously, he chose not to pursue it.

Maybe because he figured leaving his fans in the lurch, not knowing the truth, was better for his legacy than risking the truth's revelation?

Maybe he worked out a secret deal with the USADA in which, in exchange for dropping his legal challenges and waiving his right to appeal, they won't reveal the dirt they have on him to another grand jury.  He'll likely lose his awards, but he'll also stay out of prison.

Meanwhile, however, I'm not convinced the USADA has served our country well.  I'm not convinced the Congress of the United States should have created a body of officials who have the power to levy such a penalty against a citizen without providing proof in a court of law.  It's been happening to other athletes in a variety of sports for years, and the public has been mostly unaware of it.

Maybe for the USADA, their gig should be up, too?

Call me a conspiracy theorist or fringe malcontent on this one, but right now, it appears that Armstrong isn't the only one losing out.  We're supposed to be a nation of laws, courts, and due process.  What's happened to those in this case?  Unless this time, Armstrong's deference to the court of public opinion is preferable to him than the laws and courts the rest of us would have faced.

Either way, doesn't it seem like truth is coming out more victim than victor?


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fatality Caused by Planning Misstep?

A tragic accident occurred today on Broad Street, in Lower Manhattan, near the New York Stock Exchange.

A pickup truck loaded with sand lurched out of control, across a sidewalk, and into two pedestrians, killing one of them, a 70-year-old man, leaning against the wall of a building, eating Chinese food.

Gruesome images of the scene were captured by witnesses on their mobile devices and posted on Gothamist, a New York City community webzine.  If you can't stand the sight of blood, you won't want to look.

Thinking It Through

On the one hand, today's death could get chalked up to simply another fatality in a city that has over 100 similar fatalities each year.  As one of the country's most walkable cities, as well as home to some of the country's worst drivers, pedestrian deaths are inevitable in the Big Apple.

But what makes this death particularly compelling involves the circumstances for why a pickup truck loaded with sand was being driven perpendicular to the sidewalk in the first place.  After all, the truck was not driving along the street, parallel to the sidewalk, like most vehicular traffic does.  Nor was it careening through an intersection, and swerving to avoid another vehicle or pedestrian.

No, it was a security vehicle for a Lower Manhattan business development group helping to protect the New York Stock Exchange, sitting just down the block.  Several years ago, a group of business organizations in Lower Manhattan had commissioned new security mechanisms for Broad and Wall Streets, in the heart of the city's famous financial district.  Older security measures meant to prevent vehicular bombings of the area had been rushed into place following 9/11, but they were aesthetically bulky and menacing.

So what?  Well, as many of the older buildings around Wall Street have become technologically obsolete, and undesirable as conventional office buildings, they've been retrofitted as apartments and even private schools for the neighborhood's growing residential population.  The man who was killed this afternoon was having his lunch next to a doorway to one of those private schools.

These new residents to the Financial District may not be corporate tenants, but they're still paying through the nose for rents.  Plus, with the Stock Exchange being the financial industry's iconic epicenter, business leaders are sensitive about the street's image.  It was decided that more permanent security structures were necessary, but they didn't need to be entirely utilitarian in their design.

So an architectural firm came up with a novel turntable solution that included permanent bollards (objects embedded into the street to prevent vehicular traffic) on either side of the main traffic lane, plus a series of smaller obstacles mounted on a turntable set into the pavement.  When an authorized vehicle came to the blockade in the street, the turntable would be activated and rotate half-way, so that the smaller obstacles would be moved out of the way of the authorized vehicle.  That vehicle cold then maneuver over the turntable and down the street, with the turntable then being rotated back to its secure position.

Not a bad idea, huh?  Except, apparently, the turntables have been plagued by mechanical problems.  Workers and residents in Lower Manhattan posted today on Gothamist that the turntables usually seem to be stuck in the "open" position.  And they report that two silver Honda Ridgeline pickup trucks with sand in their beds have been parked in front of the turntables to block them instead (on this video from the New York Post, you can see a second Honda pickup truck parked perpendicular to the sidewalk).  When an authorized vehicle is cleared to enter the security zone, somebody has to move a pickup truck out of the way, let the authorized vehicle pass, and then reverse their pickup truck to park it back in front of the idle turntable.

So much for technological innovation, huh?

Today, it's suspected that the driver of one of the pickup trucks may have suffered a seizure, and with his vehicle already positioned against the pedestrian traffic in front of him, hit two of them.

One, fatally.

The Devil Is Where?

Still, you ask; so what?

What started out as a cool idea of installing turntables didn't turn out so well.  They became unreliable.  So somebody came up with the idea of obtaining pickup trucks, loading their beds with sand, and using them as blockades whenever the turntables weren't working.  Maybe the people who came up with the truck idea never imagined one of their drivers would suffer some sort of medical emergency or otherwise become so distracted that he would accidentally run over pedestrians.  But apparently, neither did it strike anybody at those planning meetings as potentially troublesome that aiming motor vehicles directly at unprotected pedestrians wasn't a good idea.

It's not like New York's pedestrians are looking to be side-swiped by pickup trucks as they navigate the city's sidewalks.  If you've ever walked Manhattan's sidewalks, you know how cacophonous such an experience can be.  So many things competing for your attention; having to allow for a pickup truck driving at you perpendicularly is one of the last things you'd expect.

Maybe the trucks weren't supposed to be parked perpendicular to the sidewalk. Maybe the security drivers were supposed to park their trucks in the middle, between the permanent bollards, and just move back and forth in the street, parallel to the sidewalk.  Maybe the procedures simply weren't being followed.

People like me tend to think through these scenarios more than other people think is necessary.  I've been criticized more than once for over-analyzing something - and maybe some of you readers are thinking that right now about my essay of this tragedy in Lower Manhattan!

Yet consider all of the planning that went into these security bollards on Broad Street.  Those turntables and bollards may be the most noticeable features of this security project, but several other unique ideas were included in the streetscape's overhaul.  For example, instead of ordinary asphalt, special cobblestones pave the streets.  Wood pavers on Wall Street outline the wall which really used to exist there, and was the street's namesake.  Similar outlines of a canal that used to flow where Broad Street is now are installed between the cobblestones, along with other pavestones highlighting historic facts about this, one of the oldest settlements in pre-Colonial America.

Photo by Ryan Gorman
All of that engineering, design, and research - foiled by an out-of-control pickup truck.  Granted, any number of calamitous things could have happened to this specific pedestrian this afternoon to take his life.  Mankind's best planning cannot overrule God's sovereignty.

But in terms of revising their plans, no amount of going back to the proverbial drawing board is going to bring back today's victim of the one little part of contingency planning that just wasn't thought-through well.

The next time somebody accuses you - or you want to accuse somebody - of planning something too much, think about today's silver Honda pickup truck.

Would you want to be the guy... eating Chinese food... who was blindsided by it?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Part of Akin's Message is Missing

I have to admit it:  Todd Akin's tenacity is intriguing!

Granted, what I call "tenacity" many leaders in the GOP are calling bone-headedness, or intransigence, or outright folly.

And maybe, to varying degrees, we're all correct.

Yet even though standing up to some of the biggest names in the Republican Party may sound courageous to those of us who like mavericks, listening for what's missing in Akin's bluster reveals more than just righteous rhetoric.  Isn't it more self-righteous, and betraying a distinct lack of love?

We know Akin likes to call a spade a spade.  We know his approach to dealing with rape.  But as the media has been delving in to Akin's past, another embarrassingly insensitive comment he's made about cancer and Obamacare has surfaced.  And it certainly doesn't sound like something voiced by somebody with a Presbyterian theology degree.

Cancer Treatment for the Price of a Car?

In a debate earlier this year during Missouri's primary race for the Senate seat currently held by Claire McCaskill, Akin was asked the following question:

"Congressman Akin, what should happen to a 28 year old who can afford health insurance, chooses not to buy it, and then is diagnosed with cancer?"

Akin's response rambled for a bit before he wrapped it up with an entirely unsympathetic solution:

"I think that the thing you have to do is people have to start being held accountable for their decisions," he stated, not sounding unreasonable.  But then he suddenly sounded unreasonable:  "if somebody's not buying insurance, then they're going to have to be selling their car, or whatever it is to try to help cover that."

Wow.  Sell their car?  Really?  And that will put a dent in the price of cancer care these days?

Let's think about this for a minute.  Should we hold people accountable for not purchasing health insurance when they can afford to do so?  How do we do that?  Can we simply use one's bad financial decisions as sufficient reason to deny lifesaving care if they need it?  Indeed, even as we contemplate this scenario, it's not the availability of care we're talking about, but it's high cost.  Depending on the cancer and the type of care it requires, private insurance may or may not cover most costs anyway, and even if it covers 80% of the cost, the remaining 20% can still be a huge amount.

Akin's answer reflects none of this complexity.  He even misses the main fallacy of Obamacare, the bad policy to which his answer is supposed to be superior.

Let's review, class, why Obamacare doesn't cure what ails healthcare in the United States.  The reason Obamacare should be overturned is because it does not control costs, and indeed, adds even more costs in terms of new bureaucratic layers of management and administration.  One of the reasons both Republicans and Democrats can usually agree that something with our healthcare system needs to be fixed is that many times, private insurance can still leave patients with staggering medical expenses.  If Akin would have hammered that point home, what he then should have said about personal responsibility would be easier to hear.

Sure, bluntness has its place in our national discourse, but not necessarily when we're discussing complex socioeconomic dilemmas to a media machine that thrives on sound bites.

And what should he have said about personal responsibility?  After all, he's not entirely wrong about pointing out the role being responsible plays in healthcare.

How about something like this:

"People who can afford to be proactive and minimize their exposure to certain risks generally do so.  Most of the people who do not have private health insurance are people who can't afford it, but would pay for it if they could.  So let's not make this situation sound more prevalent than it is.  And let's realize this means that cost - not accessibility - is the healthcare crisis we're talking about.

"Let's also not forget that many employers are increasing premiums, copays, and deductibles for health insurance, thereby raising the cost of that insurance.

"If people have access to healthcare plans that help lower their costs, can afford those plans, yet choose to decline that access and spend their money frivolously, have they committed a mortal sin?  Murderers get life in prison; people who make other foolish decisions with their money may end up in prison; but we feel entitled to deny care because somebody thinks they're entitled to it?

"Yes, we as a society still value life highly enough to provide the cancer care those people may need.  Perhaps, however, that patient could be expected to repay a portion of the cost of that care, or be required to waive their rights to sue for any medical malpractice, or face some other penalty.  Requiring everyone to purchase health insurance really only affects the people who likely can't afford any health insurance already, and is unfair to those who may choose to pay for care outside of our country's borders.

"All Americans need to understand that while healthcare is not a right, it is a hallmark of civilized societies to provide care for its people.  Americans also need to understand that, contrary to popular opinion, we don't have the right to live however we desire, ignoring prudence, and assuming risks that we then expect others to cover at no cost to ourselves."

Wouldn't that be a far more loving, measured, and reasonable response to the question about health insurance?  Doesn't it come across as more palatable than telling a cancer patient to sell their mode of transportation?  By comparison, doesn't Akin's "solution" lack any measure of compassion?  The charity he should have modeled as a professing evangelical could have been leavened with some fatherly discipline about responsibility, yes, but all that Akin spoke was discipline, and it wasn't even very fatherly.

Bluntness Blunders

It's this lack of sympathetic yet balanced concern that permeates Akin's comments about rape, and frightens many liberals and conservatives alike when it comes to women's issues in general.  This lack of love is also reflected in his adamant stance against the hierarchy in his own party that want him to recuse himself from his Senate race.  How much allegiance does he owe his party?  And how should he show it - or not?

Apparently, GOP support for his campaign was razor-thin even before his comments this past Sunday.  Steve Law, head of American Crossroads, Karl Rove's super-PAC, told CNN that some of Akin's past comments about civil rights laws, food programs for children, and student loans could also "be used against him," insinuating that enough ammunition already existed for liberals to spin even before Akin's comments about rape.

Frankly, shouldn't something like how and how much the federal government spends on nutritional programs for schoolchildren be legitimate fare for a political discussion?  To hear Akin explain his thoughts in detail is, at least for me, a lot less threatening than the sound bites he throws out for his opponents to then toy with.  For example, he's not against civil rights laws, but he's concerned about abuses to the voting system that some liberals defend with those laws.  He's not against poor people who benefit from school lunch programs; he's simply convinced states can use the money for those programs more efficiently than the federal government.  And it's not the loans students get from the government that bother him as much as the waste he suspects is inherent in having the federal government administer such loans.

See?  Not everything he believes is as wacky as the female reproductive system discerning between different types of sex.

Waging as desperate a campaign as he waged to get the Republican nomination, and supposedly as experienced as he is as a multi-term congressmember now running against an incumbent senator, Akin should be fully aware that what he says really matters.  I agree with him that abortion in the case of rape is wrong, that Obamacare needs to be overturned, that some minority groups have hidden behind voting rights laws while committing voter fraud, that waste and fraud likely permeate federal child nutrition programs, and that our system for funding student loans needs to be examined.  But is it wise of him to expect to win a Senate seat during a presidential election year with such a lack of empathy for the people involved with these issues when his own party is expecting so much from him, and his rival party is pulling out all of their firepower against him?

Missing - at the very least - Charity

Maybe his tenacity will serve him well, and he'll manage to pull out a win this November.  After all, he's not trying to win over the entire American populace; only voters in a smallish southern state who might not take kindly to a bunch of politicos from Washington telling them how to behave.  And if, come October, he polls well, you can be sure national Republican groups will somehow find reasons to overcome their current repugnance of him, and pour their money into his coffers.

His "legitimate rape" fiasco may still be too much to overcome.  And I don't blame constituents of his who've wondered aloud to news reporters how many other crazy things he privately believes.  I'm not even sure of his theology.  During a radio interview with Mike Huckabee yesterday, Akin claimed that the iconic phrase from our Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," is a Biblical concept.

He rhapsodized, “it’s also appropriate to recognize a creator God, whose blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the very source of American freedom.  And that part of the message, I feel, is missing."

Part of the message is missing, indeed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gasp! The GOP's Fringe is Showing


Not just Todd Akin's comments about rape.  But his Republican party's vehement about-face regarding his campaign for one of Missouri's seats in the US Senate.

OK, so what Akin said was more than just politically incorrect.  But was it a crime for him to put voice to something some right-wingers believe?  The "legitimate" rape urban legend is not new.  Akin was simply foolish enough to say it on camera.

How many more dippy theories of the far right can conservative candidates for office commiserate about behind closed doors, but risk sudden political death if they breathe a word of it in public?  What about rape insurance, the astoundingly bizarre suggestion espoused by Kansas House Republican Pete DeGraaf which somehow escaped broad public attention?

For the National Republican Senatorial Committee to announce that it's suspending its multi-million-dollar marketing support for Akin's campaign because he won't step down - after being duly elected in a sanctioned primary - smacks of "you let too much out of the bag."

It's little secret that Democrats wanted Akin to win the Republican primary this year.  Drudge Report even featured an article today saying liberals donated $1.5 million to Akin's campaign, because they figured he'd be the easiest candidate for incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill to defeat this fall in the general election.


Who's really in trouble here?  Not just victims of sex violence who might have hoped for some rational dialog about combating sex crimes.  Not even pro-choice advocates, whose message Akin was trying to endorse has gotten lost in all of the hysteria over whether Akin should withdraw from the race.

If Republicans aren't careful, it could be their party that finds itself in trouble.  The party left-wingers already gleefully paint as full of out-of-touch WASPS buzzing with half-baked ideas about science.  True, the GOP may think they're in a no-win situation here, with Akin adamantly refusing to withdraw (maybe he should), and his wince-inducing comments continuing to dominate the media.

But the GOP should be careful for what it demands of Akin, and how they demand it.  Yes, Republican control of the Senate in DC may be jeopardized if the party doesn't win Missouri this November, but what else might they jeopardize by taking this inopportune time to blast fringe opinions within their ranks that they've been content to let fester for years?

Moderate conservatism doesn't look so evil now, does it?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Akin's Ache in Society's Side

Talk about your "15 minutes of fame!"

Before yesterday, who'd ever heard of Todd Akin?

Now, the international news media can't get enough of him.  Akin is the Republican congressman running for one of Missouri's Senate seats who rambled during an interview Sunday that, in the event of a "legitimate rape," the female body is equipped to somehow "try to shut that [pregnancy] down."

A number of influential Republicans have joined Democrats in condemning Akin's rape comments as being insensitive at best and outright fraudulent at worst.  Massachusetts' moderate Republican senator Scott Brown has called for Akin to end his race to be a senator from Missouri.  And the Romney-Ryan campaign was forced to clarify its own position on abortion, a position which shuns running mate Paul Ryan's stronger views in favor of Romney's more nuanced tolerance of keeping abortion legal in the case of rape.

Ryan, a staunch Roman Catholic and hero of many social conservatives, opposes abortion in the case of rape.

When Junk Science Meets Pop Culture Media

What's scary about Akin's statement - which he himself has unsuccessfully sought to explain - involves the speed with which such a comment can consume America's political spectrum, the apparent folly of how somebody this inept could be a multi-term congressman, and how potent an otherwise statistically insignificant event, such as pregnancy resulting from rape, can become in our national discourse.

Considering how sensationalistic America's media has become, and so utterly dependant upon fragments of individual sentences and trains of thought for the basis of sprawling news stories, it's not surprising that an unknown politician from the "Show Me State" can rocket to the top of our consciousness in a matter of hours.  But that doesn't mean who Akin is and what he said really should have much of an impact on our lives, does it?

First of all, even though he's currently serving as a congressman, he's running to be a senator - an election he could lose, even if he hadn't said what he said yesterday.

Second, plenty of liberal political candidates say incredibly incredulous things that the mainstream media never bothers to cover, and that's what gives right-wing news sites their growing clout among conservatives.  If the networks truly reported legitimate news from an unbiased perspective, the Drudge Reports of the far right would have far less reason to exist.  And off-base comments from marginally important politicians like Akin would probably not get much national air time from anybody.

Third, despite all of the coverage our media is devoting to Akin today, how many of us from any political ideology will remember him this coming November?  And I fully realize that by writing about this today, I risk being part of the problem, instead of the solution.

Speaking of problems, however, what about Akin's apparent belief in even a thread of truth embedded in what he said?  He's already apologized and claimed he "mis-spoke," but he didn't decisively retract what he said.  Should a US congressmember be allowed to think the way he thinks and get away with it?

I, too, have heard before that the female reproductive system is somehow wired to distinguish between consensual, enjoyable sex and the trauma of rape.  But I've never believed it.  So I researched it this morning.  If any medical legitimacy exists to this claim, I can't find anything even remotely close to it on the Internet.  And besides, even if I could, it likely wouldn't cover the cases of rape where the victim has been drugged, rendering her unaware of what's happening to her.  For someone in Akin's position to not realize that he's bought into an old wives' tale about good girls and bad girls speaks poorly to his estimation of women in general, and his empathy for sex crime victims in particular.

Being Honest About Saying "No"

Granted, with the rampant sexual degradation of women in our culture, the definition of rape is getting broader.  Meanwhile, the willingness of some in our society to accept that broadening definition may be getting weaker.  Just yesterday, a story ran in our local newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, discussing the surprising reluctance of grand juries here to indict accused rapists.  It seems that as women engage in increasingly promiscuous behavior, where even some victims of rape admit that when they say "no," they really don't mean it, more and more people - at least in our county here in north central Texas - are becoming increasingly dubious that men share all of the blame for unwanted sexual encounters.

Considering how complex the legal wrangling over rape has become, if Akin was a prudent politician who wanted to prioritize a respect for victims of rape over unsubstantiated theories about the difference between consensual sex and rape, he would have simply launched into his response to the question about abortion with his otherwise legitimate answer.  And his answer?  He'd rather penalize the perpetrator of the crime than the child produced by it.

Which, in itself, represents a wildly unpopular answer for many in our society who don't view the biological product of rape as being a potential victim of an abortion.  In other words, many people believe aborting the child produced by a sex crime represents an acceptable way to resolve a bad situation.  By now, we all know that the percentage of rapes that result in pregnancy is a mere fraction of all rapes - so statistically small that even in the pro-life camp, wiggle room exists to accommodate abortion as a political reality.  Personally, however, I happen to agree with Akin on this point: if a pregnancy develops from criminal sex, killing the fetus is still murder, and two wrongs don't make a right.  If Akin wasn't so befuddled with wacky junk science, he would have been able to state his case far more productively and emphatically.  He wouldn't have made international news, nor would he likely have converted anybody to his pro-life cause.  But he wouldn't have further alienated anybody, either.

Yet alienation is the only thing taking place after Akin's grievous error.  In one stupid sentence, he introduced a wedge between the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his running mate - a wedge hammered home by one of the most divisive issues of our time.  Indeed, even though the pro-life caucus sometimes waffles on the abortion-after-rape scenario, it's still a point of contention among the faithful's political elite.  Were this difference between the Romney and Ryan beliefs ever to be flaunted in the open, I'm sure they would have much preferred to do it their own way, in a far less bizarre fashion.

The national press apparently hopes otherwise, but frankly, there's probably little in this dust-up that will change any voter's mind about anything.  Except, hopefully, Akin's.

More Fallout From the Sexual Revolution?

It's not like this will be a talking point for long anyway.  American politics being what it is, plenty of time exists between now and our November elections for other politicians to say more stupid things to help us forget Akin's name.

Plus, Akin's transience in America's consciousness has to do with the fact that he was talking about rape, a crime which itself has become a victim of our society's lust for sex.  In a perfect world, when a woman says "no," that should be sufficient, right?  But human nature being what it is, might society be opening to the possibility that the timing for saying "no" has as much to do with the "no" word itself?  Is being in various stages of undress, inebriation, and other indiscretions after an evening of flirting and cavorting an effective environment for proverbially closing the drawbridge?  Is previously saying "no" but meaning "yes," while then enticing one's partner further, an abdication of one's prerogative to say "no" and mean "no" during some future encounter?

It's not like sex before marriage is universally understood to be forbidden anymore, and that those who break the abstinence code these days are violating all sorts of social rules, if not moral (and legal) ones.  This wonderful new world sexual revolutionaries like the recently departed Helen Gurley Brown celebrated has actually made sexuality more confusing for men, and more dangerous for women.  According to the Star-Telegram story, most rapes are committed by men victims know; they're not the random attacks by complete strangers we assume most rapes are.  The way we craft our relationships now has apparently become so reckless and sloppy, with such obscure boundaries, we've forgotten that sometimes, the morning after is too late to decide what you weren't wanting the night before.

But that's about as politically dangerous a thing to say as advocating for pregnancies resulting from rape to be allowed to go full term.  Especially when a man says it.  Women today have been taught by the likes of Helen Gurley Brown that men are here to be turned on and turned off like light switches.  Yet if that was true, wouldn't it mean we shouldn't have nearly as many rape victims as we have?  Instead, rape is a serious problem in the United States, which means that personal responsibility needs to play a far greater role in our sexual encounters than many people in our society want to admit.

Yes, I believe that if a woman isn't "in business," she shouldn't be advertising.  I also believe that women have developed a perverse ability to toy with men without fully understanding the biomechanics of arousal typical among my gender.  Yet I also still believe that "no" should mean "no."  Men have an ethical duty to women to be the standard-bearers of restraint, even if their women don't want to reciprocate.

Republicans hoping that Akin quits his race do so in the hopes that their own campaigns can minimize the damage his foibles may do to theirs.  If I lived in Missouri, I'd have a hard time voting for somebody who publicly advocates such junk medical science, especially during a conversation about crisis problems like rape and abortion.  Unfortunately, society won't want to go down the personal responsibility path like I have done here, because it involves ideas most people today consider prudish and provincial regarding sex.

If anything good can come out of Akin's remarks, it would be people recognizing that even more than junk medical science, it's junk theories about sex that play a major role in rape.

And that expecting abortion to play any role in fixing our rape crisis is as dumb as what Akin said about female physiology.

Update:  Since writing and posting this essay, I've learned that Akin is a member of the denomination I attend, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  He also holds a degree from the PCA's Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.  Does this change my opinion of Akin?  Not really; in fact, if he is a professing believer in Christ, I would hope he expresses more care than sloppy condemnation (as I hope I would) when discussing explosive issues like rape and abortion.  That being said, I trust he'll let Christ use this flashpoint in ways that honor our Lord.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmic Edit

Tell people what they want to hear, and make a lot of money.

How hard is that?

With the passing of Helen Gurley Brown earlier this week at the impressive age of 90, New York's media empire has been waxing poetic on the life and legacy of Cosmopolitan's legendary editor and unabashed crusader for sexual immorality.  And as the author of Sex and the Single Girl, published in the early 1960's when she was 40, Gurley Brown certainly deserves credit for helping to launch the sexual revolution.

Even if the book was originally her husband's idea.

Helen "Girlie" Brown

Indeed, contrary to much of the adulation being heaped on her memory, and some of her own curious claims of not needing men, very little of Gurley Brown's celebrated lifestyle came by "chance."  Not that she wasn't an honest, caring person, as many people have described her; it's just what she was honest and caring about.  Her husband, David, was an editor at Cosmopolitan long before she arrived, and he actually wrote most of the scandalous teasers on the magazine's covers.  He would go on to help produce such epic movies as Jaws, Cocoon, and Driving Miss Daisy, along with a few Broadway shows.  No one denies that her remarkable marriage, which began in the 1950's and lasted until his death two years ago, was marked as much by its longevity as its economic and professional privilege.

The fact that she - of all people - needed a man to help make her who she turned out to be seems as lost on her admirers as it was to her.

Does it matter that the happy couple had no children?

Their not having children certainly represents not only a major complication her signature book omits, but helps explain her prodigious career, working reputedly until midnight most days.  Gurley Brown reveled in modern sexuality's abandonment of childbearing and child rearing, although it's not clear whether the Browns didn't have children by choice or despite trying.  And to have heard Gurley Brown tell it, she loved the "trying" part, if you get my drift.  After all, before she was married, she was not unknown within the Hollywood scene.  She could never quite bring herself to admit sex was what she lived for, but her body of work doesn't leave many other options.  One of her most famous quotes was "if you're not a sex object, you're in trouble."

Another one was, "good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go everywhere."

Which brings us back to the article I wrote for about women and modest attire.  Perhaps we wouldn't be having the conversation today about what women wear in church if it wasn't for Helen Gurley Brown.  Or at least, without Gurley Brown, women - and men - who defend their questionable wardrobe choices and attitudes towards modesty wouldn't have as much ammunition to blast at people like me.  Through her books and her tenure at Cosmopolitan, Gurley Brown's famous contempt for virtue and morality helped to make licentiousness mainstream.  Can any woman in the church today deny the effect Gurley Brown plays on their worldview - whether that effect makes them more conscious of their modesty, or ambivalent towards it?

Granted, it's impolite at best and crass at worst to speak ill of the dearly departed.  But in this case, considering how she led her life, I'm not sure Gurley Brown would have much grounds to sue me for slander.  Her commitment to her doting husband notwithstanding, she participated in a generational shift away from modesty - however misappropriated it had become by double-standards and exaggerated puritanical oppression - that likely contributed to a more materialistic brand of femininity less concerned with propriety than property.  Ownership.  Rule.  Rule not through ethical integrity, but sexual allure.

One of the few things to come by "chance" to Gurley Brown was the timing of her ascendancy into the sexual revolution.  Launching her first book just twenty years before 1962, she'd have likely been branded a - well, I can't bring myself to type out the word, but it starts with "s" and rhymes with "nut."

Twenty years later than 1962, and she might have been irrelevant, since if it wasn't for Gurley Brown, considering the mood of the times, somebody else would have written what she did, and maybe even more pervertedly.  However, it's not as if some of the noted feminists of her day, such as Betty Friedan, liked what she wrote.  They considered her a traitor to the feminine cause, since all she was basically doing was re-packaging the old notion that women are only good for sex, and marketing it to the post-modern age. calls it "fishnet feminism," after the provocative style of women's hosiery popular during the 1960's and 1970's. 

Mystique Mistake

In 1982, at the top of her game, Gurley Brown penned Having it All, a book about how women can successfully use their physical prowess to attain love, sex, and money.  But where is the novelty in that?  As long as you base your worldview on the idea that men have all the power and are too stupid or vain to share it unless you can make them feel sexually desirable, how many civilizations throughout the history of the world have featured ambitious women who easily figured that out?  To the extent that more ardent feminists held Gurley Brown in disdain for focusing on sex and men, they were correct:  women have viable, and even intrinsic, roles to play in our society regardless of their sexuality.

Sadly, Gurley Brown got it "all" wrong:  women can't have it all, just as men can't have it all.  At least not the "all" many people think they want and need.  Only Christ, the Son of God, is our Sufficiency.  He is our Peace, our Purpose, and our Promise.  And all the other "P" words, including prosperity.  And provider.

How hard could it be for a fatherless little girl from backwater Arkansas to grow up with a misguided appreciation for men, sleep around Los Angeles, get put in charge of a failing magazine in New York, and turn it around by making promiscuity sound legitimate?

Over the years, as I've heard about her and read about her, I've always felt sorry for her, even as her peers in the national media were singing her praises.  In a way, I also feel sorry for all of the women who've read my article on fashionable modesty, and just don't get it.  I feel sorry for the men who love them, too.  I really feel sorry for Gurley Brown now that she's gone, since the way she's led so many people in our culture - and our churches - astray is between her and God, Whom she apparently edited out of her life.

Hey - she said it herself:  "good girls go to Heaven..."  Not a correct statement theologically, since we've all sinned, and fall short of God's glory.  But it's telling all the same.

Especially if it was the extent of her relationship with the one Man in our universe Who matters most.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When Doing Your Job Makes You Heroic

It sounded odd when I first read it on the Washington Post's website.

And then I got an e-mail from the folks at Manhattan Declaration, and their e-mail's topic focused on it as well.

On "him," actually.  After all, they're talking about the security guard at the Family Research Council's Washington, DC headquarters who helped subdue a shooter today.

At 10:45 this morning, a man walked into the lobby of the building housing the politically controversial group and shot a security guard in the arm when he tried to impede his progress into the building.  According to the Washington Post, despite having just been shot, the guard, along with some bystanders, subdued the gunman until police arrived.

Unconfirmed reports say the suspect was carrying a takeout bag from Chick-fil-A, and that he apologized to the security guard after he shot him, saying something to the effect of the guard not being his intended victim.

Nevertheless, the district's police chief, Cathy Lanier, is quoted by the Post as calling the security guard "a hero, as far as I'm concerned.  He did his job."

OK, which is it?

Is the security guard a hero, or was he doing his job?  Because doing one's job doesn't necessarily make one a hero, does it?

Vocabulary Malfunction or Pay Grade Deficiency?

Initially, I chalked it up to a police official speaking while her adrenaline was still running, and grateful that nobody was killed.  It wasn't like she was holding a scheduled press conference.  Nor is she the first person in our vocabulary-challenged society to strip words of their meaning and use them out of context.

But then the Manhattan Declaration sends out an e-mail this afternoon, entitled "Hat Tip to a Hero," parroting DC's police chief:

"Such heroic action warrants a thanks beyond mere words. But, for now, words will suffice. Thank you for your bravery, Leo. And for the part you play in the pursuit of a more free, more faithful nation."

At least we learn that the security guard's first name is Leo.  His name hasn't otherwise been widely published.  And yes, he likely prevented an even more serious tragedy at the Family Research Council's (FRC) headquarters.  I'm sad he got shot, I hope he heals quickly, and trust that he'll be back on the job soon.

Still, however, isn't there something trite and hollow about these accolades?  Granted, the security guard was brave to continue a confrontation with his own shooter, but does that in and of itself make him a hero?  As a security guard, his job was to protect the building and its occupants.  But is a plumber a hero for fixing a leaky pipe?  Shucks, is a president a hero for balancing a budget?  When you do the job you're supposed to do, is that heroic?

It's at this point where the discrepancy should seem obvious:  Security guards probably only earn a little less than police officers - who themselves are not handsomely paid, yet in this case, they are defending the health and welfare of an entire building full of people in the nation's capital.  Either the pay for security guards is woefully low when compared to their scope of work, especially considering that this isn't the first security guard to be shot in the line of duty in DC.  Or the scope of work is significantly higher than their pay grade.

Higher, at least, if your scope of work includes scenarios where you're the main line of defense in front of a gunman in your employer's lobby.  Technically, wouldn't a hero have been somebody like a mail clerk tackling the shooter who had just wounded the guard?  Tackling a shooter is not in most mail clerks' job description.

It's not even like this event is setting a precedent.  Remember in 2009, the security guard who was shot and killed while on the job at DC's Holocaust Memorial Museum?  The shooter was an elderly white supremacist who died before being brought to trial.

And speaking of lobbies, it's not like the FRC is some lobbyist for corn subsidies, or tire manufacturers, or some other docile group that hardly riles murderous intentions.  This is the same high-profile organization that advocates - oftentimes in sloppy and embarrassing ways - against homosexuality and abortion.  Considering how politically volatile these issues are, wouldn't you think security guards in the FRC's headquarters should probably be para-military specialists with Kevlar strapped to every extremity?

I'm not joking here - I'm totally serious.  If a security guard's job is to provide security, and people say you're a hero if you get shot:  is that really in the guard's job description?  "Oh, yeah; we're only gonna pay you $45K a year, and you might just get shot, but if you do, we'll call you a hero and call it even.  OK?"

Assigning Worth to Jobs

Not that anybody at the FRC would say that.  It's not even what they thought when they set up their security plans.  How many employers expect their employees to get shot at?  But that's my point:  we see these security guards all the time.  We joke about them, calling them "rent-a-cops."  At airports, and in banks, courthouses, and building lobbies:  people who may or may not be physically capable of providing much genuine security still playing a security charade.  I'm not knocking security guards, but I am trying to show how what our society thinks security guards are worth and what some of them actually end up doing for us don't jive.

In free market economics, each employee is supposed to be paid relative to their value to their employer.  As demonstrated today, the career of a security guard is one of those careers that is an aberration to free market economics.  What if this gunman had made it past this security guard?  Would the guard have been excused if, when the suspect had pulled a gun, he stepped back and said, "hey, I'm not paid enough to take a bullet for anybody.  I'm just here as window dressing, to give the appearance of security."

Does the fact that this guard didn't say that, and that he prevented the gunman from getting into the building, suddenly make executives at the FRC wonder if maybe those folks patrolling the lobby downstairs might be underpaid?

Maybe this guard, who we think is named Leo, really is a hero, because according to his pay grade, he shouldn't have had to put his own life on the line.

But since he's now proven that's part of his job, don't you think he deserves a nice raise?

Update:  Turns out, the security official who got shot was not in uniform, and likely not technically a security "guard," but a member of the building's management staff.  For an update, please click here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maybe Taxpayers Can Save Art From Itself

Should taxpayers help fund the arts?

I used to think so, since in our increasingly casual society, the rigors and disciplines of art appreciation have gone into free-fall.  Despite the fact that cultural events help broaden the mind and speak to extraordinary beauty and creativity, pop culture teaches that if it isn't loud, obnoxious, transient, titillating, or easily-understood, it's not worth the money.  If the general public doesn't want to shell out the bucks to fund culture, is that a good enough reason to let the arts die?  

Where a community's taxpayers choose to put their money says a lot about their aspirations, their values, and their understanding of how humanity works.  Leverage a surcharge on sales taxes to fund football stadiums for millionaires to play in, and you see one scenario of a community's values.  Take a fraction of taxpayer funds to underwrite a modestly successful symphony, and you see one scenario of another community's values.  If your community has the will and resources to do both with tax dollars, there's yet another scenario of that community's values.

If taxpayers individually don't care about the arts, maybe collectively, they can still keep them around for those who do.

Taxpayers as Arts Patrons

But over the past few years, America's cultural scene - particularly in classical music - has been slowly shrinking past the break-even level in many cities across the country.  Sure, classical music has been cursed with declining popularity for decades, but in many of the communities that had been able to cobble together a budget for their orchestra, philharmonic, or symphony, economic fortunes have waned, along with populations.  And one by one, classical music organizations have been closing up shop.

Inevitably, before the last encore, arts patrons have tried to rally their communities for one last push to increase municipal arts funding.  But those communities have either decided the money isn't there even if they wanted to divert it to the arts, or they just didn't have the political will.  It's hard to argue for something that the vast majority of taxpayers don't want.

Which is one of the reasons I've changed my mind about taxpayer funding for the arts.  Yes, I still believe a thriving cultural scene provides an attractive resource that helps sell the community as a place with a high quality of life.  All the things arts boosters say about the arts still ring true:  corporate relocations tend to go where the arts are present; and our burgeoning "creative class" tends to cluster in places where the arts are well-funded.  The arts also provide a wide range of eclectic jobs that don't pay much, but help fill in some of the nooks and crannies of a city's skills set.

If we're going to get serious about our government budgets, however, and reform tax codes to benefit our economy, few sacred cows should remain.  Therefore, even though I'm a strong supporter of the arts in general and classical music in particular, I've come to the realization that I cannot expect my fellow taxpayers to help foot the bill for something they simply don't want.  Even if they don't recognize the inherent value in the arts.

When my city, Arlington, Texas, voted to raise the sales tax to help fund part of the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium here in town, I grudgingly voted in support of the proposal.  Not because I enjoy football, or because I looked forward to having a bunch of drunken louts trying to plow through our city streets after games trying to find their way home.  I simply couldn't avoid the economic benefit such a facility would bring to our community.  Some people groused that billionaires like the Cowboys' owner, Jerry Jones, had no business asking taxpayers to fund his enterprise, which is 100% true, but if Arlington didn't cough up the sales tax receipts, some other city would have.  That funding scam is bigger than us Arlington voters.

Behold What Oil Money Can Buy

According to its city's slogan, the west begins just to the west of Arlington in Fort Worth, that fabled cattle and oil town.  "Fut Wuth," or "Far Warth" as the natives say it in either their southern drawl or western brogue, has evolved from a raucous, brothel-strewn cowboy drinkin' town - whose downtown used to be called "Hell's half acre" - into a sophisticated sprawl of glassy office towers, wide boulevards, genteel neighborhoods, and some of the world's best art and architecture.  Most of the city's modern transformation has been paid for by generations of beef, oil, leatherwear, aviation, and even technology money.  The Amon Carter, Sid Richardson, Science and History, Kimbel, and Modern Art museums are known around the world.  Casa Manana attracts famous entertainers from New York and Hollywood.  Downtown's angelic Bass Hall hosts a decent symphony, even if it's not as famous as Dallas', just 30 minutes down the freeway.  Eminent classical pianist Van Cliburn retired to Fort Worth, where his quadrennial piano competition is considered the most elite of its kind on the planet.  Indeed, few cities of any size can boast a similar cultural pedigree.

Recent budget talks have the city gutting its percentage of funding to Fort Worth's prized cultural scene, however, and some arts patrons have gotten all up in arms.  Fort Worth has been cutting its spending on the arts for years, but with this new reduction, they might as well not be giving anything.

And maybe that's just as well.

If you don't live around these parts, you might not realize that most of our cultural icons are named as legacies for prominent Fort Worth families, such as the Carters, Richardsons, Kimbels, Basses, and so forth.  Plenty of heirs to these names exist with their family fortunes and then some.  I doubt that many of these people would welcome their family's name falling into disrepute, were their artistic endeavors to go underfunded.  It was self-aggrandizement that got these facilities built, and it will likely be self-aggrandizement that will keep their budgets afloat.  Isn't that part of how capitalism works?  Especially the tax write-off part every April 15?

The symphony, of course, is a little different, since such ventures employ a considerable number of people, and playing to a half-empty concert hall is far more discouraging - and harder to hide - than having half-empty galleries in a museum.  It's been commented by many classical musicians that here in north Texas, we have an extraordinarily rare number of symphonies and orchestras - up to five, depending on your artistic standards.  I certainly don't wish ill of any of them, but just as we have a number orchestras, we also are blessed in north Texas by many wealthy people who should be able to afford to step into the funding breach were tax dollars removed from the equation.

Not that I'm heaping all the responsibility for saving the arts on the backs of the wealthy, even though, "to whom much is given, much is required."  I'm well aware that money can't buy good taste, or an appreciation for beautiful music and good art.  So expecting the rich to bail out the arts might enable some woefully unqualified people to begin dictating artistic goals just because they're signing the checks.

How would that help anything?

At some point, then, more middle-and lower-income people need to be brought back into the art-appreciation fold.  More people buying more tickets will be one of the most sustainable and efficient ways to fund the arts, right?  But how do we do that?  Many arts organizations are already bending over backwards trying to attract more patrons of any economic level.

Is Pleasing the Public Bad for Art?

One solution I'd respectfully suggest is that we get back to the basics regarding what art is.  And this is the second reason I support the withdrawal of public funds from the arts.  Maybe a certain amount of good old American consumer economics is in order to help save our cultural jewels.  For example, some of the classical music I've heard at our local symphony halls really isn't all that interesting, and I say that as  a person who likes classical music.  If I don't care for it, how much do you think average music consumers would pay to hear it?

Probably not anything, right?  So how much of a cultural shell might our tax dollars be disguising?

I realize that within the arts community, playing pieces of music that aren't necessary popular increases the professional credibility of musicians and orchestras.  But how much ego should you let get in the way of communicating timeless music to audiences?  I recall attending a pipe organ competition at Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center, and the music on the program was so awful, we audience members were literally being forced out of the concert hall in droves.  The next day, organizers of the competition dismissively defended their program as obviously too avant garde for Dallas - which, considering their attitude, said more about them than us.  If making a pipe organ shriek and blast like a malfunctioning ship's horn is considered good art, then you're the one with the problem, buddy.  Not those of us expecting to hear beautiful music.

Just as classical music that's considered "modern" is one thing, so is modern art.  Maybe I've already told you about another installation at the Modern Art museum that consisted of a white fluorescent light bulb.


That's it - a fluorescent light bulb, turned on, and bolted at an angle on the wall.  Shoot fire - if that's art, let's go to Home Depot - you'll go nuts!

If you weren't nuts already, that is:  thinking a light bulb mounted on a wall suffices as art.

While I can see the statement the artist is attempting to make, it's hardly worth the price of a $7 ticket, is it?  I mean, can you imagine Home Depot charging you money just to look at their inventory?  It's this kind of - frankly - stupid claim of artistic integrity that has contributed to the general public's dismissive attitude about art.  Granted, just as many people have a hard time appreciating Monet, so the general public's apathy is not entirely modern art's fault.  Some people just don't know what they see, which is what some of you artsy types may be thinking about me and my rant about light bulbs.

Will getting back to genuinely artistic art be the cure-all for all of the budget woes in our cultural districts?  Probably not entirely, no.  But does expecting taxpayers to continue helping out with the bills make any more sense than some of this stuff we're supposed to call artwork?  If tax dollars are removed from arts funding, how much will arts organizations be forced to return to the beauty most of us know can be found in more mainstream expressions of art?  After all, is art many people can appreciate necessarily worse than art most of us think is ugly?  To the extent that the general public disregards the arts, how much have they been pushed from the scene by arts snobs who still expect funding from the very people at which they sneer?

You might be surprised to hear me admit that despite some ludicrous examples, there are several genuinely clever and compelling pieces of art in Fort Worth's Modern.  So I visit from time to time, checking out what have become something like old friends.  On one of my visits, however, while walking through a gallery lined with ghastly paint dribbles evocative of Jackson Pollock in miniature, I overheard two ladies, perplexed, conversing with a young docent.

"Who decides this stuff is art?" one of the ladies asked with complete sincerity.

It took the docent so long to come up with some sort of reply, I was already in the next gallery before the reply came.

But I felt like stopping and saying, "the people gullible enough to pay for it."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guns and Ammo

Oh, good grief - not another shooting!

Sure enough, the "breaking news" banners on several websites after lunch bore the gory details of yet another weird shooting, this one resulting in three fatalities.

Details remain sketchy, but we do know that a male in an older house near the campus of Texas A&M University shot at police officers.  One officer, identified as a twenty-year veteran of the county constabulary named Brian Bachman, has died, in addition to another man.  The gunman also died, after injuring four other people.

Initial reports made it sound like many more people had been hit.  Perhaps that's because, in our miserable world of murder and mayhem, having three people shot to death and four more wounded seems almost anti-climactic, especially since we don't have a motive.  Some news outlets are reporting that an eviction notice was being served on a miscreant tenant, which sounds plausible, since others are reporting the house is owned by an A&M professor who uses it for rental income.  We'll likely get a clearer picture of what happened after the police wrap-up their gristly investigation.

Serial Serial Shootings

But the second-guessing has already started on the Internet.  The third fatal mass shooting in as many weeks; first the Colorado movie theater, then the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and now this.  It's not just Texas news; this story is getting home page coverage on websites for the Washington Post, BBC News, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and several Australian news outlets.  Reader feedback on the Washington Post's story alone already numbers in the hundreds.

And most of the attention?  Focused squarely on guns.  Guns, guns, guns.  If we tightened gun laws, this kind of stuff wouldn't keep happening.

Which, of course, is a politically explosive argument.  Plenty of Americans love their guns, and think the Second Amendment has already been encumbered with too many restrictions.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I do not hold the Constitution of the United States as some sort of sacred, infallible document.  It was written by mortals who all compromised various personal preferences and beliefs to craft an over-arching framework for our grand new republic.  However, that doesn't mean that I'm anti-gun.

Plenty of sports enthusiasts - with the exception of former vice president Dick Cheney - get lots of harmless fun out of their guns, along with the ability to control herds and even protect livestock.  I know a couple of elderly widows in my own neighborhood have permits for guns, and if these ladies ever encounter a burglar in their homes, I wouldn't want to second-guess their marksmanship even without their glasses on.

I also believe there's a certain merit to gun ownership as a deterrent to anarchy and the overthrow of our government.  Maybe our gun owners don't represent the "well-regulated militia" the Constitution's writers had in mind, but is that reason enough to deny its constitutional corollary, private gun ownership?

According to none other than Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, we have approximately 283 million privately-owned guns, or about 88.8 guns for every 100 Americans.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the chaotic Middle Eastern country of Yemen is number two, with 54.8.  But in a stunning dichotomy, placid Switzerland is number three, with 45.7

In the United States, 8,775 people were murdered by somebody shooting a gun in 2010.  In Switzerland, there were only 53 murders in 2010, and not all of those involved guns.

Among gun owners, it's no big secret that some big discrepancies exist between the reasons for gun violence in the United States and Switzerland.  But for most of the rest of us, these numbers are stunning.

One of the reasons gun ownership is high in Switzerland is that military service is expected of many of its young people, and when they're done with their duty, they get to keep the guns they were issued.  Some families have collections of guns handed down from generation to generation like heirlooms.

However, the government also sponsors annual shooting events called Sch├╝tzenfest, to encourage its citizens to maintain their proficiency in target practice.  Germany also sponsors such events, but they're not just sporting events; they're considered patriotic events.  Indeed, these shooting fests had been going on centuries before our Revolutionary War.

You see, the Second Amendment is not an original American idea.

Some might even argue that roughly 9,000 murders annually by people with guns is a low number, considering the number of guns in private hands in the United States.  In fact, gun violence is decreasing in the United States, according to the FBI.  And I'm using the phrase "gun violence" as meaning violence involving a gun, not violence caused by a gun.  If you really want to talk gun violence, consider that some statistics seem to show suicide by gun as being twice as high as homicide by gun.  Unfortunately, the public finds less immediacy in suicide.  But even this statistic may reveal more that it lets on.

Not only is suicide by gun about twice as high as homicide by gun, suicide by gun is twice as high as suicide by any other means.  I'm no social scientist (well, I studied to be one, but I wasn't liberal enough!), but might one of the reasons for this be that Americans are hooked on violence?  Sure, guns are convenient because they're popular, but is that popularity based on the gun's ability to fire bullets that can kill people, or because Americans have become poorly trained at handling their problems?

When people commit suicide, they overwhelming prefer doing so with a gun, which may be convenient and practical, but it also ensures that their death will be gruesome.  Shocking.  Maybe even a punishment of sorts for whomever is left behind.  One does not clean up the scene of a suicide by gun like one cleans up the scene of a suicide by overdose.

We all know American society is full of pressures, but few of us genuinely appreciate the different ways people react to those pressures, or even the ability of some people to mentally tolerate lower levels of pressure.  Yet we seek to push the envelope, from pursuing longer commutes to work, to deluding ourselves with our (poor) abilities to multitask, to expecting fewer employees to do more work, to defending ever higher taxes, to convincing ourselves that raising the performance bar on everything is the only way to prove our worth, to poor diets or too much dieting... all with a steady diet of violence in all of our media venues which, again, pushes anti-social behavior patterns in ways we're told are entertaining.

Choose Your Ammo

At the end of the day, we're each responsible for the decisions we make.  I believe that personal sin is the biggest crisis our world faces. 

However, even though you and I are responsible for our sins, sometimes, our society doesn't provide us much help, especially when we're so easily deluded into thinking we can blame machines, or TV, or luxury car makers for our drive to acquire, prove, and thrive in our achievement-oriented culture.  Do you see how we could use all this stuff, not just bullets, as ammunition against each other?  Throw into the mix our tolerance for bigotry, our ambivalence regarding alcoholism and the abuse of other drugs, and our disdain for authority, and see what happens.  Oh, and don't forget the ease with which we ignore those on the margins of society and assume they're entirely to blame for their lot in life.  After all, we're each responsible for the decisions we make.

Yes, we are.

And we're all responsible - to varying degrees - for the society we make.

Switzerland's society is relatively homogeneous, at least compared to ours in the United States.  It's also vastly smaller, both in terms of numbers, and in terms of geography.  But how do these facts fit into the equation?

The Swiss certainly aren't angels.  Just ask their bankers.  But they boast the world's third-highest rate of gun ownership per capita, with fewer murders per year than the number of people in your Sunday School class, or your commuter bus at rush hour, or two classes of high school social studies students at your local high school.

Meanwhile, we've got 283 million guns.  If we want solutions, won't more laws only be shutting the barn door after the whole herd has bolted?  Only a small fraction of those guns are ever involved in any crime anyway.  How can Switzerland sustain a high level of gun ownership with few murders, and we can't?

The Swiss sin as much as we do.  They also own a lot of guns.  Might it be that very little of their ammo are bullets?