Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hell Is for Sleazos

There was a time when the only citizens who enjoyed “Second Amendment rights” were those belonging to a well regulated militia.

But, since conservative presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan, began packing the Supreme Court with conservative fanatics, the originalist, common sense interpretation of the Second Amendment was rejected in favor of a looney interpretation in support of gun profiteers.

Even Justice William Rehnquist, a  conservative Nixon appointee, regarded the newly emergent pro-gun court as guilty of fraud (his word) in its bizarre interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The amendment, in its entirety, reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

In other words, gun ownership is not an inherent right for every nut case or conspiracy theorist in America.

The post-Reagan justices, however, (by five to four majorities) have decided that gun ownership is indeed the “unalienable right” of such nut cases or anyone else who, for any given problem, likes to keep murderous options on the table.

God willing, we will see a Democratic president in the White House after 2016 and she or he will put normal human beings on the court who will return the Second Amendment to where it stood for 200 years – as an adjunct to well regulated militias.

Part of our problem is that there are some rather cunning conservatives who are much better than the rest of us at conjuring up misleading verbiage. The very use of the phrase “Second Amendment rights” is an example of this. The gun lobby supporters have effectively created the impression that this amendment has nothing to do with militias, when, in fact, that’s all it has to do with (or did, until the court fanatics began to pretzelize its logic). The country would be well served if we could insist on the originalist phrase “Second Amendment militia rights.”

Speaking of language, even the very name of the NRA is dishonest. The real purpose of this organization is not to serve the interests of gun owners (the majority of whom want to see tighter regulation of gun sales). No, the NRA’s purpose is to serve gun manufacturers and sellers. Since these profit-driven industries are focused on maximizing profit, they will do anything to boost sales, and if this means the school shootings will go on, that’s not, apparently, a problem for them. And the NRA promotes their agenda, not the interests of the gun owners who favor tighter regulations. So, I have to believe that we will all benefit if, instead of saying NRA, we were to refer to this organization as the “NRA Gun Sellers’ Lobby.”

A little awkward, admittedly, but so much more honest than simply “NRA.”

While we’re on the topic of honest language, there are a few more phrases, foisted on the public by cheesy propagandists that need to be modified or replaced. One of these is “job creators.” Republicans spout this term when they want to continue the trend that diverts all of America’s wealth into the hands of those who are already super-rich. “Don’t raise taxes on the job creators!” is the slogan, implying that taxing Donald Trump will mean that your unemployed brother will never get a job.

But the real job creators are the middle class and the poor. The so-called “job creators” only create jobs when these ordinary citizens boost demand by spending their money. These people, the middle class and the poor, have the potential to create jobs, or at least they do when conservative policies don’t break their economic backs as happened in 2008 (and 1929).

Think about it: if people like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump really are the “job creators,” why the hell didn’t they start creating jobs in 2008?

Even the phrase “free market” is 90% bullshit. I think conservatives like to toss it around because the word “free” is closely tied to the idea of all that is good in America. But how “free” are so-called free markets?

When WalMarts started taking over retail sales in towns all across America (except for parts of Vermont!), the immediate result was that thousands of small business families that had operated freely for generations were crushed. “Theoretically,” these families could have got their hands on several billion dollars in loans, established contacts with slave-labor manufacturers in Asia, employed illegal tactics to stifle unions, funneled money to members of Congress who would write laws in support of their practices, and then competed “freely” against WalMart on its own terms. But only “theoretically.”

In reality, their only freedom, once their longstanding family businesses were bankrupted by WalMart, was the freedom to accept minimum wage jobs at WalMart, often shaped so as to strip them of benefits.

So is this capitalist market really free? As an Animal Farm pig might have said, “In capitalism, all of us are free, but some of us are freer than others.”

Because of the deceptively positive tone of the phrase “free market,” I recommend that every time some right-wing pundit tries to promote lower taxes and looser regulations on “job creators” for the sake of the “free market,” we call Bullshit! on his or her use of the phrase “job creator” and, furthermore, insist that he or she replace “free market“ with the more apt term “capitalism.” “Capitalism,“ I believe, is more morally ambiguous, and hence, more accurately represents what goes on in the corporate-dominated economic arena in which we now struggle to survive.

When Dante toured Hell, he found the Fourth Circle occupied by sinners whose souls were driven by Greed. Their punishment included spending eternity pushing huge weights, representing the wealth they had grasped at in their mortal lives. Here, I think, is where Dante might have encountered the “job-creating” Walton family, had 14th century Florence been afflicted by WalMarts.

Fourth Circle Dwellers with Their Money Bags

But where should the NRA Gun Sellers’ Lobby end up? Well, there is the Seventh Circle, reserved for the Violent. But maybe they’d have to migrate back and forth between the Seventh and the Eighth, the latter dedicated to those guilty of Fraud.

I don’t know, though. After this week’s killing in Seattle, and especially after the Sandy Hook children’s massacre of 2012, I’m inclined to think the NRA Gun Sellers’ Lobby belongs in the center of the Ninth Circle; I suspect this organization might be an avatar of Satan himself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Who's a Fine Upstanding Governor?

I usually ignore political commercials because I assume that they are just like commercial commercials - i.e., thoroughly dishonest. Nevertheless, I have managed to catch glimpses of a couple of the ads being run by the Charlie Crist and Rick Scott campaigns. Based on these, I might be tempted to conclude that Florida’s candidates for governor both belong behind bars.

But this conclusion would only be half true, because Charlie Crist does not, in fact, belong behind bars. The GOP has accused Crist of being dishonest over and over again because in 2010 he migrated from Republican to independent to Democrat. In fact Crist did make this two-step party switch, but he did this because (a) he is an ambitious politician, and (b) the Republican Party has morphed into a lunatic ship of fools dominated by the likes of Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell.

To be fair, not all Republican are as nutty as Ted Cruz. Some of them incline more toward the thuggish side, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for instance – who Rick Scott recently brought down to Florida as his upstanding character witness. Governor Christie dutifully declared that Scott, unlike Charlie Crist (the party switcher!), is a man of “honesty and integrity.”

And who would know more about honesty and integrity than Chris Christie?

One of Charlie Crist’s commercials included a video of Rick Scott sitting mournfully for a deposition looking anything but innocent. I haven’t bothered to track down the trial for which Scott was deposing and during which he apparently kept saying, “I don’t recall,” and taking refuge in the Fifth Amendment, but I’m guessing it related to his old company, Columbia/HCA. This is the Texas-based corporation that was found guilty of fraudulent billing practices, illegal kickbacks and other shenanigans and from which Scott was forced to resign his position as chairman and CEO.

No sooner did Scott successfully avoid indictment in the Columbia/HCA case and make his way to Florida than he managed to win the 2010 gubernatorial election here. Once in the governor’s mansion, he continued his obsession with medical issues. One of his favorite policies was requiring various state employees and welfare recipients to pee in cups in order to prove that they are drug free. This policy has been judged unconstitutional, but Scott has dedicated $381,654 of Florida’s budget to appeal this decision.

If this appeal succeeds, I wonder how my good friends and fellow professors at the University of Central Florida will feel about being told to step forward with their cups full of evidence. Or my friends in the teaching profession. Or anyone who works for the State of Florida for that matter or who benefits from welfare.

Scott has also been obsessed with cutting funding to public health departments. One result of this is that more people than ever are forced to seek care at privately owned medical centers – like those of Solantic, a company in which Scott’s wife holds controlling interest. As Rick Scott is no doubt aware, Florida law does not bar governors from implementing policies from which their family members profit.

Thank you, Florida legislators.

I will stop thinking about this race right now because currently it is “too close to call,” and I really can’t bear the thought that we might have to face another four years of …


Saturday, August 9, 2014


 Forty years ago today Richard Milhouse Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency. This unprecedented resignation was the culmination of the Watergate scandal which gradually came to light after a group of Nixon men were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. From this we have been given the “gate” suffix which has been widely used as a marker for subsequent scandals, but which has also been adopted by sleazy journalists who hope that its use will make some routine mishap or mistake seem like a major scandal.

The break-in was part of the Nixon re-election team’s effort to bug the Democrats’ headquarters, located on the sixth floor of the hotel. The Nixon team - formally known as “the Committee to Re-elect the President” but generally referred to as CREEP – happened to have included players who were already experienced at breaking and entering.

Long before Watergate, in the summer of 1971, Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt and Egil Krogh, all of whom eventually served time for their Watergate crimes, planned a break-in at the offices of psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding of Beverly Hills, California. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had leaked the Pentagon Papers (the Edward Snowden of his day, you might say) was a patient of Dr. Fielding at the time and the Nixon men were hoping to get copies of his file so that they could promote the idea that Ellsberg was crazy and thereby blunt the effects of the Pentagon Papers.

The break-in at the psychiatrist’s office was a spectacular failure and even had a kind of Three Stooges quality to it. The men doing the actual caper, Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez, damaged the doctor’s file cabinet and left various files on the office floor, including that of Daniel Ellsberg. But they seem not to have noticed it and came out with nothing for their efforts. When the psychiatrist arrived in his office the next morning and saw the mess, he was baffled by it since he had no idea of just how morally debased the Nixon White House had become or how anxious Nixon was to destroy Ellsberg’s reputation.

It was a mere nine months later, on June 17, 1972, that Larry and Moe, I mean, Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez, along with three other screwballs, got nabbed in the Watergate. As the scandal unfolded, one Nixon man after another fell before the increasingly disgusted public and the prosecutorial members of Congress who headed the investigation. By the way, it was while working as a member of the Watergate impeachment inquiry staff of the House of Representatives that young Hillary Rodham (later to be Clinton) first cut her political teeth.

John W. Dean, who has just come out with another Watergate book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, was a key player from the start. He had been White House Counsel, but, when he began to balk at the cover-up, Nixon fired him and he wound up serving as a witness for the prosecution. He was famous for warning Nixon early on that the Watergate scandal was “a cancer growing on the presidency.” He was also famous for his hot wife, Maureen, aka Mo, who sat beside him during his Congressional testimony.

           Maureen and John Dean at the Watergate Hearings

Dean’s recent book reveals that Nixon and his insiders spent at least a few moments speculating on the couple’s love life. The Watergate tapes record Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman, musing about Dean’s level-headedness as the scandal was unfolding and saying to the president, “I think he takes out his frustration in just pure, raw, animal, unadulterated sex. I guess he just solves all of his hang-ups that way. And then he can nail all the rest of this with real finesse.”

So Nixon responded, “Is that right? Is he quite a…? (inaudible).

Another key White House figure of this era was Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew was not involved in the Watergate scandal, but he faced a bribery scandal of his own, dating back to his days as governor of Maryland. This forced him to resign from the vice presidency just as the Watergate affair was forcing other Nixon people out of office and into prison. So, not only was Richard Nixon the only president to be forced from office for criminal behavior, the man he chose to be his running mate became the only vice president in American history to be forced to resign for criminal behavior.

Before this resignation, Nixon had relied on Agnew to make news by pouring contempt on liberals, using such memorably insulting phrases as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew did not come up with these phrases himself, since he wasn’t talented that way. He relied on White House speech writers.

This classic Spiro T. Agnew Watch can only increase in value with time.

When Nixon resigned, following the departure of some forty members of his team, many of whom were ultimately convicted as felons, it was widely assumed that he would spend time behind bars himself. He did not, though, since his successor, Gerald Ford, granted him a complete pardon.

Because Watergate happened so long ago, those too young to have lived through it might not be aware of just how big a deal it was. Also, given the partisan hostility that dominates current politics, it’s worth remembering that the impending impeachment of Nixon was to have been a bipartisan affair. Some of the president’s harshest critics were Republicans, including, for example, Senator Howard Baker who came up with the indicting question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

It’s also worth remembering that it was the tireless efforts of two Washington Post reporters, Republican Bob Woodward and Democrat Carl Bernstein, that brought the details of the scandal to light. Without these journalists, Nixon would almost certainly have gotten away with everything.

The story of the Watergate scandal is well told in the 1976 film All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The film focuses on the actions of Woodward and Bernstein as they pursue the story to its very roots. Helping them, both in the film and in real life, was “Deep Throat.” Deep Throat was a secretive figure until his identity was revealed in 2005. It turned out to have been FBI agent Mark Felt who would meet Woodward in a parking garage and feed him useful tips. Agent Felt died in 2008, just three years after he agreed to have his identity revealed.

 Where Handsomeness Lies:

            Bernstein and Woodward

           Hoffman and Redford

Another fun fact: Deep Throat was the title of a 1972 porn film starring Linda Lovelace, whose character was said to have extraordinary powers of an oral nature.

Speaking of movies, let me recommend Dick, a 1999 spoof based on the Watergate scandal. The premise is that two teenagers, Betsy and Arlene, played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, find out about the Watergate break-in and are brought into the Nixon White House as part of the president’s plan to keep them from revealing his dirty secrets. The girls are na├»ve in the extreme, but they manage to change history by feeding important information to Woodward and Bernstein, and by convincing John Dean to bail out of the president's cover-up scheme. One of them, Arlene, at first nurtures a huge crush on Nixon. However, after witnessing his mistreatment of his dog Checkers and other unseemly acts, the girls become disillusioned, concluding that Nixon is “prejudiced” and has “a potty mouth.”

Both of these, as Nixon’s White House tapes reveal, are astute observations.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Albania, Albania - You Border on the Adriatic

Where is Albania? Well, as anyone who is a fan of Cheers should know, Albania borders on the Adriatic and is mostly  mountainous. Darla and I along with our Dear Comrades Li Wei and Ann Yao, decided to verify this by visiting Albania for ourselves.

Yup, mostly mountainous. And quite beautiful too.

I love the cool Albanian flag with its Double Eagle. This symbol has roots in Byzantine culture.

We were so lucky to have the help of our Rollins friend, Denisa, whose Albanian family, once alerted about our imminent arrival, showered us with hospitality. In fact, if there were a World Cup for Hospitality, Albania would be a strong contender for the championship.

When our plane landed in Tirana, Denisa's friend Xhustin (sounds like "Justin") met us at the airport and took us to our hotel. Then we headed out for a walk to a local restaurant/casino in the center of the city.

Clockwise from the left: Li Wei, Ann Yao, Xhustin, Shy Person.

  Xhustin - amiable and charming law student who also loves acting.

Right next to the restaurant was a public park full of families enjoying a pleasant evening, while clusters of sweet, innocent children played merrily nearby.

                          Sweet, innocent children.

Though it was two days short of July 4, we were treated to some cool fireworks.

Albania is sometimes described as a Muslim country, but in fact the population is made up of both Muslims and Christians, the former outnumbering the latter somewhat. In the heart of downtown Tirana is a beautiful mosque.

Also in the heart of Tirana is a statue of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, an Albanian national hero who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks.

Also, a large pyramid structure whose purpose I don't understand, and neither did the Albanians I asked.  ???

On the pyramid: peace symbol graffiti.

From Tirana, we made our way south toward Lake Ohrid, which lies on the border between Albania and Macedonia, a country similar to Albania, but one which, lamentably, does not border on the Adriatic.

License plates: Albanian on the left, recognizable by the double eagle symbol, Macedonian on the right, with the Cyrillic letters.

                                          Lake Ohrid

We all enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a lakeside restaurant with Denisa's Mom, Xhemile and her cousin, Xhentil.

Ann puts a poppy flower in Xhemile's hair.

Albanian drivers are very brave, I will give them that. Also, they are very skilled, for if they were not skilled, none of them would survive into adulthood. On the mountain roads, one has to accustom oneself to seeing sharp cliffs falling away a few inches from the side of the car as one's vehicle zooms along at 80 kilometers per hour. As a coping strategy, I imagined that I was on a Disney World ride that had multiple safety features invisible to us passengers. When our driver chose to pass on a blind curve on one of these mountain roads, I coped by imagining I was already dead.

                                   View from a speeding vehicle.

On a mountain road, a plaque honoring the partisans who fought an invading German unit in 1944.

One of many horse carts we passed.

A surprising feature of Albanian society is that everybody seems to have friends everywhere. The drivers who hauled us across country from Tirana to Lake Ohrid and so on, seemed to honk and wave at about every tenth person they passed. This is a nation of family and friends, it seems.

In Denisa's hometown of Korce, "the city of serenades," a beautiful cathedral dominates the center of the city.

More delicious food, this time from the restaurant Oaz, owned by our friend Denisa's sister's fiance's parents. (See note above on "a nation of family and friends.")

Denisa's sister, Tonsela, and her Mom with the owners of the restaurant. They prepared the meal, which was fantastic. They would not let us pay for it.

In the mountains above Korce is the village of Voskopoje, which in Medieval times was one of the most important urban centers in Albania. Now it's a pleasant pastoral setting with a couple of old monasteries nearby.

Albania is interesting in so many ways. Albanians themselves are particularly fond of the United States. Their favorite president seems to be Bill Clinton, mainly because of his bombing campaign that forced the Serbian government to stop brutalizing the Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s. In Kosovo a large statue of President Clinton symbolizes the Kosovars' gratitude to him.

                                           Bill Clinton Statue

Albania's second favorite president is George W. Bush, who visited this country in 2007 - the only American president ever to do so. We were told that when he came to Tirana, 500,000 Albanians swarmed into the city to catch a glimpse of him.

Bush visited the town of Fushe Kruje just north of Tirana where he was also greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, the people of Fushe Kruje built a George W. Bush statue a few years ago to commemorate the president's visit.

OK, so I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue with my Albanian friends. But still, what a wonderful trip, and what warmhearted people we met.

Faleminderit, my friends!