Sunday, March 28, 2010

Free Speech or Hate Speech

"Have you seen that vigilante man/ I been hearin' his name all over the land." Woody Guthrie
(click on blog title to hear the song)

It happened in the thirties, it happened in the sixties, and it's happening again now. The public dialogue becomes so heated in troubled times that demagogues with media access, and conscience-challenged politicians pit one group against another for personal or political gain. Those who feel ignored and powerless begin to raise their voices and the conflict heats and simmers. Sides are chosen, people march in the street and hold rallies. After a series of frustrations, the extreme element becomes the loudest voice of protest and drowns out any chance for dialogue with the other side, and then the rhetoric turns ugly. As one side demonizes the other, the kettle boils over until some unhinged "law-abiding citizen" decides to alter history, and then somebody gets killed.

Medgar Evers- murdered, June 12, 1963
Pres. John F. Kennedy- murdered, November 22, 1963
Malcolm X- murdered, February 21, 1965

We are only one delusional psychotic, who wants to impress Jodie Foster, away from deadly violence, and so the Tea Party decides to take its circus of horrors, with their vitriolic speakers, on the road. Coming to a town near you; roving bands of surly, misinformed, Toby Keith fans, and they're armed. I'd like to ask the folks who show up at these rallies one question: who do you suppose is paying for this cartoon caravan to traverse the nation's highways, organizing pro-anarchy assemblies for the disgruntled elderly to follow around like a bunch of tie-dyed Deadheads? While the poor, oppressed white people howl about "taking their country back" from the evil, Fascist Democrats, they are being financed by ultra-conservative, billionaire families with names like Coors, Scaife, and Koch. Unlimited funding is available from racketeers like the American Enterprise Institute, or  Freedom Works, the Tea Party's sponsors, to set up front groups to organize "grass roots" protests. The entire time the Teabaggers are railing against big government and the "Washington elites," former Speaker of the House, Dick Armey, is behind the scenes stirring the pot.

James Meredith- shot near Memphis, June 6, 1966
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.- murdered, April 4, 1968
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy- murdered, June 5, 1968

In the 30s and 60s, it was the poor and voiceless up against the wealthy and powerful. Now, the wealthy and powerful are paying the tab and pulling the protesters' strings to try and prevent any further progressive legislation from cutting into their personal fortunes. But the insane reaction in the wake of the passage of health care reform, including death threats, unbelievably vile voice messages, calls for vandalism against Democrats' offices, and violent rhetoric alluding to gun-play, equals the excesses of any 60's anti-war protest. Is all this rage really over giving thirty million people the opportunity to buy health insurance, or is there something deeper going on here? Although the leaders of the most recent Tea Party gathering in Nevada urged the crowd to tone down their nastiness because of bad press, the racist element is still unmistakable. These are the people who believe Barack Obama is attempting to take away their health care and give it to a drug dealer in Orange Mound for "reparations."

Fred Hampton- murdered by Chicago police, December 4, 1969
Kent State University- 4 student protesters murdered, 9 wounded by
   Ohio National Guard, May 4, 1970
Jackson State College- 2 students murdered, 12 injured, by
   Jackson, Mississippi police, May 14-15, 1970

I have no regrets about my participation in the anti-war demonstrations of the late 60's, but I do regret being associated with the Weather Underground. The conduct of protesters on the fringes of the argument succeeded only in further polarizing the country. On November 15, 1969, I travelled to D.C. with 500,000 of my closest friends, to march in the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War. As we walked towards the Capitol, I saw throngs of people, including entire families, making their way peacefully to the event. We arrived to listen to speakers like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, and to hear Peter, Paul, and Mary and Pete Seeger lead the crowd in singing John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." But right up front, blocking the view of the onstage speaker's platform , were a small group of Yippie radicals, who had staked out their prime real estate in advance, and were flying a giant Viet Cong flag. Whatever your feelings about the war, the North Vietnamese were holding American prisoners. Men I knew from high school were serving in Vietnam, and I understood that if flying the enemy's flag on the National Mall was repulsive to me, it would be enraging to those we were trying to persuade. The indelible image of the peace march in the collective consciousness was not one of peaceful assembly, but a few deranged hippies breaking windows and taunting the police.

Gov. George C. Wallace- shot, paralyzed for life, May 15, 1972
Pres. Gerald R. Ford- attempted assassinations, November 10 and November 22, 1975
Pres. Ronald Reagan- shot, March 30, 1981

Since Shakespeare said, "The past is prologue," I am now able to accurately predict the GOP's future. These stonewallers and provocateurs should try to acclimate themselves to minority status. While the Tea Party Express rolls into town like a pack of demented carnival barkers and fleeces the "marks" for contributions to help overturn settled law, the calmer three-fourths of the populace look upon the spectacle like watching bad theatre. Men dressed in camouflage and carrying weapons, and women holding homemade signs with inflammatory, racist slogans will not sway the opinion of reasonable voters, just like waving the enemy's flag did nothing to help end the Vietnam War. And, by the way, without young people, your movement is doomed. Because they're making the most noise, the Tea Party goofballs are convinced that they are on a victory march to overthrow the popularly elected government of the United States. They fail to see themselves as others see them and thus, will be the most surprised at their utter failure to affect change. Then, the rest of us will really have cause for concern. I pray for the vigilance of the Secret Service. From such political movements do Timothy McVeighs emerge.

John Lennon- murdered, December 8, 1980

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh Yes He Did

I don't suppose there's ever a reason to gloat when common sense wins out over fear and hatred, but right about now might be the proper time to hang out the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Of course, Obama lacks the propaganda machine inside the White House that served George Bush so well. But perhaps it's time to borrow a page from the GOP playbook and hire an Orwellian "phrase changer" like Frank Luntz, or a ruthless strategian like Karl Rove, only one with morals, and go on the offensive. The one thing the Bush machine understood about the gullibility of the American people is; "He who controls the message, controls reality." It should be noted that after a year of cajoling, reasoning, and extending so many olive branches that he could plant a vineyard, the President's Health Care Reform Act did not receive a single Republican vote. Their strategy, to obstruct and mislead for the purpose of regaining power, nearly worked; again.

During the final day of debate, the House Republicans got up, one after another, and repeated lie after lie. "This is a government takeover of health care:" Lie. "Medical care will be rationed and create long waits to see a governmentally designated doctor:" Lie. "Federal taxes will fund abortion:" Lie. And finally, the ghoulish "death panel" fantasy. Lie. I think the dumbest thing I witnessed all year was the sign held by some  misinformed, preppy suburban housewife at Rep. Steve Cohen's town hall meeting last August that read: "Don't Tell My GiGi How To Die." I assumed GiGi was the woman's grandmother, but for all I know it could have been her hamster. Well, Obama's not going to kill GiGi, or anyone else's Nana, though you may be inclined to believe differently from the GOP's hysterical ravings. Rep. John Boehner, who referred to health care reform as "Armageddon," got so exorcised during debate, he turned a deeper shade of orange. He predicted the passage of this bill would cost the Democrats their House majority in 2010, and ultimately, the White House. Of course, that would make Agent Orange the Speaker of the House, a spectre more terrifying than death panels.

The deranged Senator from South Carolina, Jim DeMint, was famously quoted as saying that health care reform would be Obama's "Waterloo," and an opportunity for the Republicans to "break him." Now that the bill has passed, the GOP is already saying that they will run on repealing the legislation in the mid-term elections, and predicting the destruction of the Democratic Party along with the Obama presidency. I'm not much of a political prognosticator (I was shocked when Kerry lost), but if history is any indicator, I'll take a crack at being a Barcalounger Nostradamus, and predict what is about to happen. When the fog of untruths dissipates and people realize the benefits they will receive, public opinion will shift to the side of the reformers, and we will wonder how we ever tolerated the big insurance cartels making medical decisions for doctors. The Democrats will lose seats in 2010, incumbents always do, but not enough to lose the House or stop the momentum of the progressives. As for the admonition that health care reforms won't kick in until 2014, I offer the General Motors situation as an object lesson.

When the government tried to save the American auto industry by bailing out GM, right-wing wailing began and only grew louder when Obama dismissed the company's CEO. Of course, Ronald Reagan disbanded an entire labor union, but his acolytes only cheered him for his bold resolve. Obama's actions caused GM to innovate, and viola, the electric hybrid appeared ready for the market. They had the technology all along, but refused to stop building gas thirsty land tanks and take an economic risk until they were forced to by their own mismanagement and governmental intervention. Same with the insurance companies. At this moment, there are enterprising insurance groups opening in order to capture all the potential new customers, and the printing presses are already rolling with mail solicitations that will offer health insurance with no pre-existing conditions. When the die has been cast, the company that waits four years to jump on the bandwagon will be the company that loses. Unlike the rabid radio ranters of the right, most rational people do not want Obama to fail because they understand that, if that happens, the country fails. The Republicans believe that since the Tea Party yahoos yell the loudest, they represent the majority. But the GOP's strategy of obfuscation and the stonewalling of progress in order to hamstring this president will backfire badly.

Over the weekend past, the Tea Party goons showed their true colors, other than white, displaying indefensible obnoxiousness by screaming "faggot" at Rep. Barney Frank, and "Kill the bill, nigger," at of all people, Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement who was beaten in Selma on Bloody Sunday. For a minute, it looked like the bad old days of the early sixties, proving my axiom that the Tea Party is nothing more than the reconstituted George Wallace coalition. For those citizens with principled  objections to the reform bill, and who resent the caricaturization of the Tea Party movement as racist, I can only tell you that these fools say they're with you. The haters will still hate. That's their job. But the GOP's job should be to distance themselves from the lynch mob rather than embrace it. It is clear now that, regardless of the issue, the Republican Party's attempt to gut Obama's agenda will take precedence over the welfare of the nation. Any further progressive legislation will only happen over the GOP's bloated pachyderm carcass as they tack hard-right in anticipation of the next election. What an excellent opportunity for the emergence of a moderate Republican leader, if there are any left who haven't been purged from the party by the reactionaries. I guess they'll have to suffer a few more crack-back defeats, like the passage of health care reform, before they realize that "change" isn't neccessarily a bad thing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Johnny & the Supremes' Greatest Hit

Chief Justice John Roberts is a sanctimonious jackalope. Oh, I'm sorry; am I in contempt of court? The Supreme Court is deserving of the most supreme contempt for their latest ruling opening the floodgates of unlimited corporate cash into the political system. As if it weren't  bad enough already, with a dozen lobbyists for every legislator in congress, now the richest corporations can simply buy congressional seats and slip their personal lackeys directly into the office. This bypasses all that pesky business about representative democracy and allows the financial markets to speak. Welcome to the United Corporate States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Peoples' Republic of China.

The Court's decision, in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, passed on a 5-4 vote down strictly partisan lines, showing what twenty years worth of Reagan-Bush appointees will get you; judges so "business friendly" they are willing to protect corporate expenditures against the peoples' right to hold free and fair elections. The First Amendment has long protected the corporation as an "individual" with all the same rights of free speech as a real human, hence that quaint colloquialism, "corporate citizen." But this is the first time the court has interpreted "speech" to mean "money." The verdict overrules two precedents restricting campaign spending by corporations and unions, including the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, and states that limiting corporate spending in advocating for a candidate is "governmental regulation of political speech." The explosion that followed the decision was the sound of champagne corks popping all over K Street in Washington and Madison Avenue in New York.

Among the many legitimate philosophical differences between conservatives and liberals, there is one issue that we can all agree on. The most corrosive and dangerous element in our presently polarized politics is not the filibuster, or attack ads, or even partisanship; it's money. Cash corrupts the process more than any malfunctioning voting machine and it creates false perceptions among voters about their candidates. I'll own up to being as gullible as the next guy after being totally fooled by the John Edwards presidential campaign. It's easy for an advertiser to portray a scoundrel as a loving, family man if the participants are in on the scam. But it's neither a liberal nor conservative principle to sell our democracy to the highest bidder. What's to prevent the NRA, or the Health Insurance Lobby, or Wall Street banks and brokerage firms from hiring Oliver Stone to produce campaign commercials that make Super Bowl ads look like QVC? We'll be finding out soon enough, in 2012, when we begin electing our public officials, from court clerk to president, like we're voting for the Video Music Awards.

Even after this onerous decision, the Father-Knows-Best automaton known as John Roberts had the temerity to bristle at the criticism that followed, especially from the president during his State of the Union address. Roberts told University of Alabama law students that the president's speech had turned into a "political pep rally," as if that's not what the State of the Union already is, and wondered if it were appropriate for the justices to even be there. This pomposity comes from a man who might not even be on the court if George W. Bush had succeeded in getting his gushing groupie, Harriet Miers, confirmed. Roberts was up for the seat of Sandra Day O'Connor when William Rhenquist, for whom Roberts served as law clerk, up and croaked, making the new justice not merely another conservative appointee, but the leader of the "Roberts 5:" Johnny, Sam, Tony, Anton, and Clarence. The conservatives always rail against "activist judges," who "legislate from the bench," until they become the majority, and then that's exactly what they do. Campaign contributions are not the same thing as corporate funding. One is free speech, the other is free speech through an expensive megaphone.

Years ago, people of a certain age will remember that leaving Memphis heading north, it was necessary to cross over the Wolf River. The waterway was then the repository for all the city's raw sewage and the odor was so God-awful, it was like the bathroom at Huey's after a rough weekend. Thanks to advanced filtration technologies and citizen groups like the Wolf River Conservancy, the river today, if not pristine, is a far cleaner place where people can canoe. Such is the current state of our public election system; somewhat polluted, but generally passable and reasonably dependable. However, what the Roberts court just did was to remove all the necessary filtering devices and allow the sewage to flow unchecked back into the mainstream of the body politic, like re-polluting the Wolf, and it will take years to reverse the course of the sludge that's rolling in like a special interest tsunami. A famous jurist once said in regard to the landmark, 1954, Brown v Board of Education decision that desegregated the public schools: "The court in that case, of course, overruled a prior decision. I don't think that constitutes judicial activism because, obviously, if the decision is wrong, it should be overruled. That's not activism. That's applying the law correctly." That judge's name was John Roberts, who turned out to be just another self-important, middle-aged white dude in a black robe.

Thanks to Bill Day for the generous use of his cartoon.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Olympically Overloaded

    I wanted to say the Winter Olympics left me cold in memory of my friend and master punster, Mike Stoker, but I guess I'll have to wait until they hold the games someplace where they have a really heavy snowfall, like Virginia. Though the games got a little slushy at times, the Vancouver Olympics was an entertaining diversion from the usual fare, although I'm seeing skaters in my sleep; leaping, twirling, dancing, jumping, racing, skaters. I tried ice skating once when I was a kid but it hurt my ankles. It just wasn't a Southern thing. Melody and I particularly enjoyed the women's figure skating where they spin vigorously and hand-lift one skate overhead. I affectionately referred to these moves as, the "Multi-Lutz" into the "Here's My Vagina." The pairs added the innovative "Hogback Growler," and Johnny Weir did the "Nancy." Melody did get a little annoyed with me when each time a skater hit the deck, I yelled, "Down goes Frazier," in my best Howard Cosell impression. Boxing on ice should be considered.

The games began on thin ice. Ordinarily, I approve of any sport where there is the potential for fatalities, but who could have imagined that sliding down an ice chute at 100mph, feet first and on your back, would produce an injury? I thought this was the reason people attended auto races. This was like NASCAR, only without the car. Then, in addition to a lack of snow for the alpine skiing events in the always rainy Northwest, the opening ceremony suffered a mechanical malfunction when one of those giant Fortress of Solitude crystal things didn't inflate and some poor schmuck was left standing with his torch in his hand. The mystery of who would be the last torchbearer was disappointing when it turned out to be Wayne Gretzky instead of Gordon Lightfoot. Fortunately, the games themselves were exhilarating and they managed to get through both an opening and closing ceremony without a single appearance by Celine Dion.

Some of the winter sports are just plain goofy. There was the skating and shooting contest for potential militia recruits in the tundra, and what is this fresh obsession with Curling? For over a week, MSNBC forsook its' "The Network for Politics" moniker for the "Curling Network." This is a sport for the truly bored. I've been more thoroughly entertained in Boca Raton watching elderly Jews play Shuffleboard. If Curling is an Olympic event, then Senior Shuffleboard should be too. It's the most enduring summer sport of all. I know NBC is losing a fortune on this venture, but the sheer number of commercials seemed way over the top. At least we can thank Obama for reinstating the regulation that forbids advertisers from jacking up the volume on their television commercials. Now, when some red-faced, fat-ass in a cowboy hat starts to scream about the biggest auto sale in history, you don't have to lunge for the "mute" button quite as desperately.

The games had its share of characters and emotions, like the spoilsport Rusky figure skater and his cheerleader Vlad Putin, who learned that real men don't need quads, even if they're dressed in a black leotard with an embroidered snake around their neck. And the Dutch coach that got his skater disqualified should be an object lesson about questioning authority. The story of the Canadian skater who lost her mother was truly touching, although the series of subsequent interviews on every, single, NBC news or sports show bordered on the macabre; especially the Today Show interview where Ann Curry virtually oozed empathy. Of all the winter athletes, I learned that Shaun White is either Superman or the Tiger Woods of snowboarding. Perhaps I should rephrase that. And the Canadian National Anthem is far lovelier than ours, though not as tedious as the Russian anthem, which is longer than "Stairway to Heaven." I understand that Vladimir Putin reared his head and requested that the discarded old Soviet anthem be reinstated, so it's never too late to join my crusade to change our National Anthem from a Bavarian drinking song, to the Ray Charles version of "America the Beautiful." Yes, we can.

The hockey final between the USA and Canada was the most watched television event in Canadian history, proving the old rumor to be true that Canadians prefer their sexual congress in the canine manner so that they can both watch the hockey game. That's where the term "Mounties" comes from. When Canada won in overtime, I was happy for them. By the time announcer Al Michaels proffered, "This is a goal that will resonate throughout history," I had already forgotten about it. Though ice hockey's not my thing, this looked like another NHL All-Star game, and nobody I knew was broken-hearted that the U.S. won silver. I mean, it wasn't like the Tigers lost or anything. And it left the Canadians in a good mood for the closing ceremonies. The athletes were dressed in paper smocks that made them all look like colonoscopy patients or the front row at a Gallagher show. Then, a group of large men pushed giant, inflated beavers onto the ice, accompanied by dancing Royal Mounted Police and checkered-shirted lumberjacks, making the whole thing appear to have been choreographed by either John Waters or Monty Python. So finally, it's farewell to the Winter Olympics until Russia in 2014, (unless President Palin decides to boycott the games), and on to London, 2012, where we can return to real sports like ping pong, synchronized swimming, and bikini beach volleyball.