Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Robert's America

Frank Zappa performs "I'm the Slime" on SNL video

So, how are you enjoying the continuous outflow of noxious political ads coming non-stop from every broadcast channel on television? You say you're sick of it? Maybe even disgusted? Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Welcome to John Roberts' America. Thanks to the Supreme Court's 5-4 partisan ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations were granted individual citizenship, including all First Amendment rights to speech. The majority's decision said that limiting corporate spending in an election is "governmental regulation of political speech." It's a reach rivaling that of Nixon's secretary Rosemary Woods to equate "political speech" with giant wads of cash. In 2009, The Federal Campaign Finance Law restricted an individual's political contributions to $2,400 per federal candidate, and $30,400 annually to a party's national committee. By what logic, legal or otherwise, is it suddenly permissible for international conglomerates to pump billions of dollars into TV advertising to influence our elections, while a typical citizen is legally forbidden to exceed a gift of two large to his congressman? What makes the decision reek even more of plutocracy and cronyism is that the producers of these televised grotesqueries, which look like Halloween Spooktaculars, don't even have to disclose where the money comes from. If you watch these ads with the sound off, you couldn't be blamed for believing that we were being invaded by space aliens.

The Roberts' court decision overturned the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, which was about the last piece of useful bi-partisan legislation we've seen lately. But acting to make the system better is not the court's agenda, and they have started a financial hurricane that has topped our nation's faulty levees and flooded the landscape with bilge water masquerading as political speech. Any group, from the Klan to the Heaven's Gate Cult, could be paying for these spots, or stains, and the Court says you are no longer entitled to know that information. How did this happen? When George W. Bush had to withdraw the name of his hausfrau Harriet Miers from consideration, he cast his myopic eye on Sam Alito. But when Justice William Rehnquist suddenly died, Bush hastily elevated Rehnquist law clerk, John Roberts, to the position of Chief Justice. His cherubic look and photogenic family can't hide an ugly agenda. Roberts is a corporatist, and every court decision concerning business regulation or tax relief  has gone the way of the company store, just as the Bush neocons intended. This nastiest of elections is but a harbinger of things to come. The stakes in 2012 will be much higher.

Conservatives counter that the Democrats brag about their record fundraising efforts during the Obama presidential campaign and that billionaire donors like George Soros regularly finance progressive causes and campaigns. The flaw in the logic is that Obama raised a huge war chest from online donors giving an average of $35 per individual. He had plenty of corporate help as well, but this was before the Citizens United ruling, and thus within established law. Credit Obama's fundraising success to a savvy tech crew who tapped the Internet's potential for seeking individual contributors, especially young voters. While the Republicans' big benefactors are readily identifiable; Murdoch, Koch, Coors, Forbes, Bechtel, and others whose splinter groups have financed the Tea Party movement, the conservatives always point to George Soros as if he were a sinister operative from the Elders of Zion. In actuality, most of the people who throw around Soros' name as some sort of international puppeteer wouldn't recognize him if he walked into the room, and before 2004, they never even heard of him. Soros was involved in currency speculation and philanthropic projects until he entered politics in 2004, with the specific intention of denying George W. Bush a second term. If the Hungarian Holocaust survivor has such Machiavellian influence, how come he couldn't pull that one off? Now you hear conservatives drop Soros' name like Karl Marx and the Rothschild's. Saul Alinsky is another right-wing whipping boy constantly on the lips of the propagandized, though I'd bet my house that the majority of Fox viewers who consider Alinsky a modern socialist menace don't even know that he's been dead for 38 years. And Soros just donated $1 million to California's Proposition 19 to legalise marijuana.

In Memphis, we have to be getting the worst of it. Wait, I take it back. The ad that scrapes the very bottom is Nevada's Sharron Angle accusing Harry Reid of helping sex offenders and child molesters get free government Viagra. But in Memphis, we get the ads from North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas as well. Our Senate seats aren't in play, but the Tennessee Governor's race has become such a joke that I plan to abstain from voting for either man. If you believed the allegations made about candidates in the surrounding counties, you'd insist that they be immediately arrested. And the Mississippi Republicans, through their anonymous surrogates, make an issue of running against Nancy Pelosi. As many problems as our neighbors currently face, I doubt that Nancy Pelosi is high on anyone's list of concerns in the Magnolia State other than possibly Haley Barbour. One bluedog Mississippi Democrat runs ads boasting of the over 260 times he voted against Pelosi. If people hated politicians before, this relentless barrage of putrid visuals will create disgust and loathing beyond measure. People watch TV to relax, not to be repulsed. The only people pleased about this money tsunami are the ad agencies and your local TV station. They are "On your side."

The Guardian UK reports that over $3.7 billion dollars will be spent in this election, the country's most expensive ever. What's frightening is that the political parties and special interest cabals are just testing the water on the Roberts ruling. With only a short time left in this election cycle, the mega-corporations have to be high-fiving each other in their disbelief that the referees have really left the field. They not only escaped accountability, something that companies like Target had to face in the recent past for their funding of anti-gay candidates, they don't even have to prove what their ads say is true. The Supreme Court has granted them anonymity and the big corporations have reacted like every kid who grew up in the 50s just had his fondest dream come true; They're like Superman now, they're invisible. It's a short step from running greasy ads smearing a rural candidate's character to hiring Hollywood directors to film cinema verite tearjerkers for some corporation's choice for public office in 2012. The flip side, however, is the Tarantino-like expose of a candidate's secret perversions with soundtrack from the 1970s. 2012 looks to be the Superbowl of elections. People who don't care about the game will tune in just for the commercials and the halftime pop stars like Jon Voight and Lady GaGa. With unlimited corporate funds to spend, it could get spectacularly ugly, maybe even in 3-D. Just like they got Al Capone for income tax evasion, maybe we could temper corporate expenses for political advertising with fines for air pollution. The Supreme Court, with the most overt political act since Bush v. Gore, has succeeded in polluting the airwaves as surely as BP bespoiled the Gulf of Mexico.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tea Party Animals

I just can't get overly concerned about the 138 or so candidates running for Congress under the auspices of the various Tea Parties. I understand the electorate is mad, but it's not insane. I'm sure the pundits are correct that Democrats will lose seats in the upcoming election, but this plethora of extremists running as Republicans are the true inheritors of the nativist "Know Nothing Party" of the 1850s. Like the Tea Party, the Know Nothings exploited the  fear of immigrants, only Catholics instead of Latinos, to fuel the resentment of white, male, Protestants. In fact, that was a qualifier for joining the party. They had minor success, especially surrounding locales in Maryland and Massachusetts that had once held witch trials, but their base of wealthy, white guys was not sufficient to compete with the Democrats and they were eclipsed by the anti-slavery Republican Party before the Civil War. Their national agenda, however, sounds eerily familiar to the corporate-sponsored, grass-roots confederacy of pissed-off white people that intend to "take our country back" in the coming days. Formerly the American Party, the Know Nothings earned their nickname after being instructed to reply, "I know nothing," when asked about the party's platform. With good reason, since it consisted of restricting immigration, especially from Catholic countries, demanding all public office holders to be American-born Protestants, mandating daily Bible readings in public schools, and requiring immigrants already in the country to wait 21 years before applying for citizenship. Arizona Republican Governor, Jan "headless bodies in the desert" Brewer, would have fit right in were it not for her disqualifying genitalia.

Observing Tea Party candidates in action, from Kentucky's Dr. Rand Paul, whose libertarian philosophy is so inflexible as to be closer to anarchy than democracy, to Colorado Gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes, who called the Denver bike-sharing program a "socialist plot organized by the United Nations," is like watching a series of sideshow oddities while strolling down an old-time carnival midway. "Step right up and see the Mama Grizzly bare her manicured claws." Add Delaware's non-masturbating witch, Christine O'Donnell;  Alaska's man with the handcuffs and a 10 o'clock shadow, Joe Miller, and a few more, and you could film a remake of Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic, "Freaks." The single difference is that in the original movie, the pinheads, Zip and Pip, were far more lovable than microcephalics like Carl Paladino or W.Va. senate candidate John Raese, who advocates abolishing the minimum wage while his wife lives in Palm Beach, Florida. Electoral victories by these corporate shills would be disastrous, yet some secret part of me harbors a perverse desire for a few of them to win, just for entertainment's sake and to watch them join in the tired denunciation of our illegal alien, Marxist, Muslim, president. I have a personal confession to make. When the redundant office of Shelby County Mayor was first created, I voted for Prince Mongo.

On the other side of the demilitarized zone known as the aisle, the spineless Democrats are acting like the Mugwumps. They were "progressive" Republicans who fled their party in revolt against the corruption surrounding their presidential nominee in 1884. They threw their support to Democratic reformer Grover Cleveland and swung the election in his favor. Today's Democrats are much like those extinct moderate Republicans who formed the Mugwumps, now a term for a party-swapper like Arlen Specter. Still, the group opposed cronyism during the Gilded Age despite criticism that they were "members of an insecure elite." Historian David Tucker wrote, "The Mugwumps embodied the liberalism of the 19th century," and their writings are "testament to a high-minded civic morality." The problem was their grievances lasted only as long as Cleveland's campaign when most were absorbed into the Democratic Party. That's why the term "mugwump" has also come to mean a fence-sitter, like the passive, timid Democrats who can't even manage a counter-attack in the face of the ugliest campaign in modern history. The responsibility has fallen upon everyday citizens, who dread a return to the Bush era, to save the Democrats from themselves.

Analysts have compared this year's election to Clinton's 1994 disastrous mid-terms and to the Reagan Revolution of 1980, but I have yet to hear anyone correlate the correct period, so once again, allow me. When the Democrats imploded after the 1968 bloody convention in Chicago, voters were horrified by what seemed to be a takeover of the party by leftist radicals. During the 1972 Convention, which nominated anti-war hope George McGovern, the televised images proved it. Party discipline had acquiesced to the demands of political activists for every imaginable cause. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem bitterly clashed over the feminist agenda and the first African-American woman, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, was nominated for president. Abortion rights and gay rights were not just discussed openly from the podium for the first time, there were floor fights over whether the issues should be included in the party platform. (They compromised with a "right to be different" clause). Party sessions began in the evening and lasted all night and when McGovern was finally nominated, his acceptance speech came so early in the morning, most viewers had gone to bed. What my young eyes witnessed was contentious progress for civil rights. What the American people saw was chaos mixed with a small group of fire-breathing, radical extremists carrying the party over a cliff. The revelations about Vice Presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton's electric shock therapy for a depressive illness merely sealed the deal and Nixon won re-election by a landslide.

What happened on the left in1972, is happening to the right in 2010. History is repeating, but in mirror image. The rhetoric is just as inflammatory and the loudest voices are those on the fringes, purging Republican establishment candidates and replacing them with the wildest bunch of rabid ideologues since the days of  the Yippies, only with Sarah Palin playing the role of Abbie Hoffman. The Tea Party folks say they're mad? Well, now I'm mad too. I'm mad about candidates for office referring to the president as a "committed socialist" or a "secret Muslim." I'm angry that so many people's minds have been twisted by right-wing broadcast propaganda that they somehow believe Obama is actively working against the interests of this country. I'm sick of GOP lackeys blaming Obama for Bush's disaster while simultaneously refusing to work with him on anything and everything, because, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, they "want him to fail." And I'm particularly weary of the Tea Party "patriots" who have yelled and screamed and threatened and disrupted for two years without managing to form a coherent argument about just exactly what is their message, other than antipathy toward Obama. I believe sanity will win out on election day, but only if Democratic voters are motivated to protect what gains they have made. And if the threat of a Congress full of Tea Party mini-despots with subpoena power isn't enough motivation to go out and vote, nothing is. 

Thanks to Bill Day. Click on cartoon to enlarge.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In the Belly of the Beast

A funny thing happened when I was checking my mother into the hospital in the middle of the night for emergency surgery a fortnight ago. When she was settled into a room and I went home to rest, they had to come back and get me too. I was sure the pain in my side was from the stress of the occasion, but my gall bladder had exploded and Melody had to call back the bus. The same two paramedics who had looked after Mom hauled me out as well. When I got the 2am call from my mother, I could barely understand her and I entered her apartment to find her bug-eyed and howling in pain, making such theatrical faces that I thought no one could hurt so without tears. Mom later accepted my apologies for having ever doubted her. She had suffered a perforated ulcer which needed immediate attention. After our respective surgeries, we were even assigned to the same floor for recovery. We're both recuperating at home now and I don't think Mom would object if I said she is 89 and healing more rapidly than I. In the family tally, however, I have the larger scar. I've been told I'm lucky to have my mother's genes. I hope they start kicking in soon.

In my eight days in the belly of the beast, I learned that the hospital consists of two sections, like halves of the same heart, only working at cross purposes. The medical services side, the human side, offers care generously and with compassion. The administrative half - breathing icons of big insurance -gives care miserly and begrudgingly. There is the edifice, and then those that work within. The caregivers are the most wonderful people on earth, but the Hospital stands as a monument to the fraud and greed of the Health Insurance industry and their gangland, bureaucratic tentacles. American health care is run sort of like New York's five Mafia families. They muscled their way into a field they had never traversed before and forced people to buy their protection or face the consequences, only they call it, "You bet your life." Their loyal foot soldiers enforce "policy" in every major hospital in the nation, and are in the business of business, skimming profits from Medicare and deciding who gets preferential treatment according to who paid the extortion. After all, this is the world of the five dollar band-aid and the twenty dollar aspirin and a corporation's got to make a buck. The first line of the physicians' Hippocratic Oath is, "First, do no harm." The insurance industry's motto is, "Do harm first." Fortunately, my mother has, and deserves, the coverage by Blue Cross and Medicare known as the "Cadillac Plan." I, in turn, have the "barefoot pedestrian plan," which means I have been unable to purchase health insurance in over a decade because of the notorious "pre-existing condition," perhaps, the very condition that landed me in the hospital. Thus, when I checked into the same emergency room 12 hours after my mother, began a tale of two health cares.

Mom came in at an odd time and when her insurance was verified, the tests began. Within an hour a doctor was called, a CT scan performed, and immediate surgery recommended. Mom went directly from the emergency room, to surgery, and then the ICU where within three hours, thank God, she was resting comfortably after a successful procedure. My ambulance arrived during afternoon drive time and I was placed in a line of stretchers waiting to be registered. I was assigned an alcove, despite my "self-pay" status, and later found I was lucky enough to have hit the "early-bird special," and had only just preceded a rash of car crashes. I alternately hyperventilated into an oxygen mask or winced in agony for an hour before receiving an inoculation for pain, but the dosage wasn't sufficient and I swore they had given me a placebo. After several more hours, a sympathetic nurse who expressed her disdain for their allowing me to lie there in such a state, finally injected me with enough morphine to manage the pain in my stomach, but also give me a blinding narcotic headache. I was denied the two Tylenol I requested. In my delirium, a Physician's Assistant saw me and recommended a scan which produced the results requiring me to be admitted. When I was finally delivered to a private room close to 2am, I had already been in the ER for nine hours, during which time, I never saw a doctor.

Once delivered from the cash-register side to the human side, I received the same excellent care as did my mother. By sheer fortune, the doctor on rounds was ordinarily an oncological surgeon, and in one of those "only in Memphis" moments, I found  he was a fellow "Brothers' Boy," from CBHS. He informed me that nine out of ten people now have their gall bladders removed laparoscopically, through the navel, and the procedure is so non-intrusive, they go home and walk it off. I was to be that tenth person. But first, I was to receive a regimen of antibiotics, which allowed me to lie there for several days and observe health care in action. The main thing I learned was that the doctors get all the credit, while the nurses do all the work. They are the front line in the battle against infirmity, they do all the procedures, they offer comfort to the concerned, and personal attention to the afflicted. Doctors pass through on rounds, making pronouncements from on high while the staff strews rose petals in their path, but the nurses are the hands-on face of health care. At the same time, they are bound by hospital "policy" and are at the center of the crossfire between insurance companies, doctors, patients and administrators. They have so many regulations to follow and record, it's like going to work and wearing a wet, wool cloak during your daily labors.

After my blood pressure scaled higher than a Sherpa's yak, my doctor decided it could no longer wait and informed me that only after waking up in recovery would I know if I had surgery or laparoscopy. While I was greeting the same anaesthetist that knocked out Mom the day before, my pressure was putting up numbers like Barry Bonds. I woke up with the pain of a gored matador, but thanks to the wonderful people on post-op floor 5-N, from Bessie the singing housekeeper, to dedicated professionals like Kayola Brown, who is bright and passionate and listened to several "mini-rants" that didn't make the paper, my healing has begun. I am indebted to these people, especially the nurses who should be making some of that doctor money instead of being unable to afford health insurance from the very place they work. Mom's bill is covered; mine would make Warren Buffett gag, reminding me of something wise my father once told me; "It's better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick." We're working it out. They're used to it now. The human side of health care is the best in the world, but the commerce side, the health-for-profit racket, is worse than wasteful and corrupt; it's immoral. We live with a medical system locked within some nightmarish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde duality which severely limits the greatest good. If we could only do something to rid ourselves of that evil Mr. Hyde. Oh yeah, I voted for Barack Obama. Sock 'em, Rocky.