Thursday, December 30, 2010

Something always stays in Vegas

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- One would think that the international symbol for this uniquely American city would be an ace of cards, or a pair of dice, or even a roulette wheel. It is none of these.

The thing that epitomizes Las Vegas is the subwoofer.

My wife and I spent our Christmas holiday here because it was impossible this year to gather family 'round the tribal table and we didn't want to spend Christmas Day doing yard work. Besides, I figure, what better way to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ than by doubling down on a pair of aces? And so, while others were opening presents that morning, we were boarding a Southwest airliner (piloted, I later realized, by a crew unable to get the day off) for three days in Sin City.

Within 24 hours after landing in Vegas I realized we had been under constant assault by synthetic music and crashing audio effects from the moment we arrived. In the parking garages, along the sidewalks, in the casinoes, the restaurants, even in the restrooms. And I don't mean the soft, background music one hears in elevators, although there was some of that, too; I mean thumping, driving, exciting music meant to stir the soul and quicken the pace. Las Vegas is the only city I've ever visited where life has its own background music.

Technology reigns supreme in Las Vegas. The canopy that covers Fremont Street, where the original casinoes were built, bills itself as the world's largest video screen. I'm not sure what the purpose of the "Space Frame" is, but it effectively nullifies the grandeur of the Fremont Hotel & Casino. The Fremont's iconic neon sign towers, fully lit yet largely unseen, above the canopy with only the bulbous street level sign still visible. The Fremont's isn't the only sign blocked by "progress." View from the south of The Flamingo's feathery neon confection is obscured by one of the new pedestrian bridges that cross The Strip. The bridges carry foot traffic away from several six-lane intersections and toward the shops and casinoes that line the boulevard.

Las Vegas isn't a single experience, it is a collection of disjointed images, many of which don't even make sense. Here, then, is my collection of disjointed observations about Vegas:

I didn't know until I got here that The Strip isn't even in Las Vegas, it's in unincorporated Paradise, in Clark County, at the south edge of the city of Las Vegas. The only legalized gaming in the city is on Fremont Street; the rest is on The Strip, officially named Las Vegas Boulevard.

I also didn't realize that the Disneyesque family resorts hadn't completely wiped old mob-heyday Vegas off of the strip. The Sahara, famous as a hangout for the Rat Pack in the 1960s, is still here. So are The Tropicana and The Riviera.

The Strip looks very different during the day than it does at night. Like an aging hooker, she's faded and a little shopworn in the daylight, but at night, under the lights, she's breathtakingly beautiful and alluring.

Although prostitution is technically illegal in heavily populated areas of Nevada, it is apparently legal to advertise those services. One needs only a moment of thought to understand the billboard trucks trundling up and down The Strip offering to "put a lady with you in 20 minutes." Hawkers stand along the street handing out what appear to be business cards for ladies of the night. I remarked to my wife the cards looked like "hooker trading cards" and asked if I could try to collect a whole set. She said yes, providing I could discern which ones were rookie cards.

Despite the plethora of family-oriented entertainment, sex still permeates The Strip. The stop where we waited to catch a soutbound bus each morning was directly across the street from the Riviera, home of the longest-running topless revue in Vegas. While waiting for the bus we were treated to an unobstructed view of a 30-foot sign for the revue. Nearby, at street level, is a larger-than-life bronze frieze of the image with certain portions polished to a high gloss from millions of fondlings.

Most of the properties have free on-site performances of some kind. Circus Circus, where we stayed, has big top performers that give free shows into the wee hours. The Bellagio has its spectacular dancing water fountain, choreographed to music, and some of its performances will bring tears to your eyes. By contrast, Caesar's Palace has an animatronic "Fall of Atlantis," which is so overwrought, historically farcial, and trailer-park trashy that I wasn't quite sure what I'd seen. Coincidentally, this is the same property where the biggest names in show biz appear; Jerry Seinfeld was playing while we were there, and Cher is scheduled later this winter.

The Venitian features real (battery-powered) gondolas taking real passengers for rides on a real (concrete) canal that wends its way through the property. I'm not a student of architecture, so I don't know how authentic the decor is. I'm pretty sure the free entertainment lacks much in the authenticity department, however. A troup of street performers in fairly sophisticated costumes performed magic tricks while a hawker muttered, "Brava, signore," incessantly into a cordless microphone, then launched into "The Christmas Song" a la Johnny Mathis.

With temperatures in the fifties and slot machines jangling constantly, it was a little jarring to hear bus drivers, pit bosses, and blackjack dealers wish us "Merry Christmas." I had to wonder whether the hundreds of thousands of Japanese, Indian, and Malaysian tourists felt the same.

The Las Vegas marketing phrase, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is pure genius. On the surface it hints at autoabsolution of sin because, well, why else would you go there? On a deeper level, though, it allows the permanent concealment of the embarrassment that comes of entanglement in the bizarre street scene that occurs only in Las Vegas. Ours involved a guy from Texas and an RV with a busted serpentine belt. I don't want to talk about it. Ever.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas, from me and Frank Church

If there is an American journalistic canon, certainly Francis P. Church’s "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" must reside therein. In response to an eight-year-old girl’s plea to tell the truth about whether Santa Claus truly existed, Church wrote on Sept. 21, 1897, one of the most famous editorials in the history of American journalism. Whether or not he knew it, Church reached back to the origins of civic discourse and, with a mastery of Aristotelian logos, told little Virginia O’Hanlon and all of The New York Sun’s readers that Santa Claus existed “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Church’s response to a little girl’s plea illustrated the core principles of one of the least-studied of English language literary genre. Distinct from any other form of reporting, or even from other forms of mass media opinion, the newspaper editorial exists as a unique form of public discourse. In the chronicling and analysis of events that affect the human condition, the newspaper editorial is the sum of analysis. The editorial alone expresses the collective, considered opinion of those who present the day’s news on the rest of the newspaper’s pages.

Frank Church’s editorial illustrated the storyteller tradition in journalism and in editorial writing. A world in which Santa Claus is a “reality” is a construct of Church’s mind. Church’s reality of Santa Claus is created by what Terry Eagleton, in his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, called the “science of subjectivity.” Eagleton wrote: "The world is what I posit or 'intend': it is to be grasped in relation to me, as a correlate of my consciousness, and that consciousness is not just fallibly empirical but transcendental."

Church’s argument transcended empiricism in that he did not cite one single fact in his editorial; he appealed, instead, to little Virginia’s--and his readers’--belief that there are things in the world we cannot explain. He turned the use of empirical evidence upside-down and suggested that little Virginia challenge non-believers to prove that Santa Claus didn’t exist; the world she intended existed in relation to her.

Church then used the impossibility of proof to persuade his readers to believe that Santa Claus embodied all that is good in humankind. He concluded: "No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood." (This isn't a punctuation faux pas; it's the punctuation used in the original, reprinted below, which was acceptable at that time.)

Church intended that, when readers had finished reading his editorial, they believed in Santa Claus because they believed Frank Church. He knew what was good and right in the world, and he was an authority because he worked for The New York Sun. Scholars of rhetoric will recognize Aristotelian construction in Church’s editorial; his ethos comes from The Sun itself as a source of accurate information, the logos flows from his use of language--that is, he creates a logical argument by challenging disbelievers to prove him wrong, thus turning logic itself upside-down--and the pathos comes from his audience’s common belief in good things.

But enough of scholarly discourse. Here, for your enjoyment on this Christmas holiday, is what I consider to be the greatest newspaper editorial ever published. First, little Virginia's letter to the editor:

Dear Editor—
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon

And Frank Church's immortal answer:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It's not his problem, so he says

I've met a man with no social conscience.

I don't mean he has no conscience at all. He would never intentionally harm anyone, and he may even be capable of compassion for victims of crime, disease, or natural disasters. I don't know whether he gives money to any non-profit organization or charity, although I doubt that he does; someone else’s misfortune isn’t his business, and for every dollar he pays out, he demands something tangible in return.

When I say he has no social conscience, I mean that he cares little or nothing for people put out of work by the ongoing recession. He sees nothing inequitable in the fact that the chief executive officer of a major corporation gets to keep his obscene salary and perquisites while overseeing the financial ruination of hundreds of people whose work earned for him the obscene salary and perquisites. Rather than bemoan the loss of hundreds or even thousands of jobs and condemn the idiocy of CEOs whose bad business decisions led to the layoffs, my acquaintance believes we should rejoice that some people got to keep their jobs.

This attitude is not a "glass is half full" optimism, it is a myopic view of a world seen in black and white. A person makes a choice to work for a company and must then endure the consequences without complaint, regardless of what those consequences are. A person who has no job is unemployed because of choices he or she made, pure and simple. This man's belief system is simply that people are destitute, hungry, sick, addicted, and oppressed because of choices they made. The world in which young teen-age boys are given the "choice" of joining a gang or being beaten up is foreign to him. He knows nothing of the world in which teen-age girls are raped and then forced into prostitution, or given a choice between selling their bodies or slowly starving to death. There are laws, he says, there are tax-supported entities for these people to go to, and if they choose not to go, well, that's their choice. Never mind that the entities are grossly under-funded and over-worked and that there is never enough money to adequately police them. He sees only the lazy and the spoiled accepting money taken away from hard-working men like himself; to him the welfare queen driving a new luxury car (the model changes from season to season) is an article of faith.

I've known this man for years. We aren't close, but we do see each other and spend pleasant time together a few times a year, and over all those years I have tried to persuade him that, as citizens of this world, we affluent, middle-class Americans have a social obligation to help the less fortunate. And over all of those years, he has obstinately clung to the absolute denial of that obligation. Even after being laid off himself in the recent lending/banking/financing debacle, he refuses to believe that the chronically unemployed do not choose to be chronically unemployed. Of course, after being unemployed himself for several months, he used his personal fortune to start his own business. Would that it were that easy for all of the laid-off administrative assistants, production workers, clerical staffers, and gofers that make business possible in America today. Too bad for them that their cardboard boxes don't contain a small pile of cash with which to start their own businesses.

After a recent and long conversation with this new entrepreneur I came to realize that he literally does not care that the vagaries of life can turn well-intentioned, hard-working, law-abiding Americans into victims with no resources. He chose, as a very young man, to begin saving and investing, and if others his age have nothing to fall back on when finding themselves unemployed, unemployable, and far too young for retirement, well, that was their choice. Never mind that the very industry that paid him so well all those years actually discouraged saving and encouraged life lived on the plastic card at around twenty percent interest.

This man's lack of social conscience wouldn't disturb me except that I see it more and more among people I know. The urban legend of massive waste in government has taken on almost religious significance among neo-conservatives and self-styled libertarians. They ignore the reality that the most massive waste in government is that caused by private industry gouging the federal government. Budgets get cut, sure, but that only results in government workers joining the ranks of the unemployed, not in crackdowns on or prosecutions of contractors who bilk the Treasury. Like a Scientologist espousing the ideology of Xenu, the new conservatives preach that slashing taxes and cracking down on government will prevent government workers from wasting all of that money and allow free enterprise to better enrich all of us. Or, at least all of us who choose to join in the prosperity.

This blind faith will continue to assure that money spent on social programs is largely wasted. Erosion of the American social conscience means a declining willingness to help our fellow Americans who fall on hard times. Refusal to even recognize, let alone act on, our social obligations to our fellow human beings can only worsen the political polarization and growing class struggle that, unabated, may well consume our civilization.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Yuma Sojourn: Gertrude Stein was right

Memory is such a slippery, deceitful thing. At best it is unreliable; at its worst it lures one into believing things were once greater than they can ever be, that we were once better than we can ever be.

Two of my younger brothers and I made a pilgrimage to our ancestral home on the plains of eastern Colorado this weekend and I was surprised at how different the place is from what I remember. Not that we didn't expect things to be changed; I've visited Yuma often over the years, and I've watched it go through the normal changes that constantly alter the communities we live in. The houses are smaller than we remembered them; even the town seems smaller, but then hiking the length of Main Street takes a lot fewer steps with 50-year-old legs than it did when we were ten. Two of the three schools we attended are still there, but one has been re-purposed as an office complex, one has been enlarged and remodeled so much it’s hardly recognizable, and the old high school has been demolished and replaced by something more useful. Of the three-dozen buildings that comprise Main Street, only five still serve their original purposes, although all have been extensively remodeled. The old city library is a residence; the hospital where two of my brothers were born is now a state office building; the police station where our father served for eleven years has been replaced by a bank; and the Methodist church we attended was for a time a Masonic lodge and is now a fundamentalist Hispanic church.

We expected all of this change, of course. Still, for me, there was something sad about going back this time. All three of the houses we lived in are still there, but they are shabby and forlorn-looking from neglect. The lush green lawns and sumptuous flower gardens of my childhood are dried brown patches in expanses of bare dirt, or weedy thickets. The Yuma I remember was a vibrant, thriving community, with national-name stores on Main Street, stores like JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, Safeway, Coast to Coast, and Duckwall’s. Sure, there were the local mom-and-pop stores, too, but they were solid businesses that remained virtually unchanged throughout the decade-plus we lived there. Even the locally-owned stores had neon lighting or signs that were painted by professional sign painters. There was an air of indestructible commerce about Main Street, as if the people who did business there intended to be there for a good long while.

Nowadays there isn’t a single national-name retail store in town, and the only franchises are 7-Eleven and the fast food joints up on the highway. The stores and restaurants on Main Street sport hand-painted signs or lettering hand-cut from heavy plywood and painted. There is a sense that each store is hanging on by its fingernails, and if we go back a year from now, there’s a good chance it won’t be there. The old brick facades have been covered with aluminum or painted pressboard, and everything is weathered and worn. The town’s residential areas aren’t much better. There are a few grand houses and the occasional well-tended if modest home, but the rest of the town looks either threadbare or badly overgrown.

The experience has left me somewhat melancholy, as if I’m disappointed that I cannot make myself younger by returning to the scene of my childhood, or at least stave off the advancement of years. Still, I am glad we made the trip. For decades I’ve clung to the memories of my childhood with a fastness that sometimes bordered on the unreal. The Yuma of my boyhood was an American fantasy, where Grandma and Granddad helped raise us boys, where my mother and father were good and respected members of the community, where children could wander unsupervised on a summer day and soak up the bright sunshine of an unpolluted Colorado sky. The reality, so evident during today’s sojourn, was doubtless somewhat less perfect.

I realized that Yuma has always had its flaws, has always had its ramshackle houses and tawdry facades, its homemade public face. I just didn’t recognize them for what they were. Businesses are born, thrive or don’t, and then die, each in its own time. Renewal grows out of the compost heap of yesteryear’s style and discarded confidence. Homes, like our bodies, reflect the personalities of their occupants. A community has a life cycle and, like we who populate it, it changes over time. If Yuma looks less lovely now than I remember it, the fault is my own, not the town’s.

The glowing image of Yuma remembered exists only in the slightly fading photographs that fill the Rubber Maid tub in my father’s den. The moments captured in those photos are gone forever, and driving back to the place where they were taken won’t make them come alive again. Memories are wonderful things to occasionally sit and ponder, but they are not the sum of us. What is important is not what we were or even what we are, but what we can and will be, and that is as true of towns as it is of people.

I’ll probably never go back to Yuma after this trip. There isn’t any reason for me to go back. No more family members will be buried there, my work will never take me there, no one there is anxious to see me. The memories are more comfortable, more attractive than the reality, and there’s no reason to diminish them. As Gertrude Stein famously said, there’s no there there. It’s best to leave it that way.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beck’s harmless, thank God!

Glen Beck has had his say on the National Mall, and common-sense Americans -- or at least with a passable knowledge of the nation’s history -- can breathe easier. Beck, we all thought, had wanted to appropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., to sell out America to the hate of the right. Nothing, it seems, could have been further from the truth.

In fact, we now know that Beck is nothing more than another televangelist who dreams of a theocracy that can never be. While we liberals worked ourselves into a frenzy over the apocalyptic vision of millions of teabaggers carpeting the Mall determined to throttle federal government and reduce the nation to a Darwinian wasteland., what happened was an open air tent meeting that was less Elmer Gantry than Tony Robbins. Beck, it seems, has seen the light and abandoned the idea of changing America through political activism. As reported on, Beck told a group of DAR faithful the night before the Mall rally, “I kind of felt like God dropped a giant sandbag on my head.” Ah, we can only wish.

Slate writer David Weigel characterizes Beck’s rally as a sucker punch that was largely pulled:

The Democrats who pre-butted Beck's rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn't pay attention to Beck's "Founder Fridays" episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children's book The Christmas Sweater. It's not his blackboard that makes him popular. It's the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family.
Weigel’s description could be of the beginning of the end for Beck or a frivolous distraction that will soon pass and give us back the Beck we liberals love to hate.

If Beck is serious about his Godly turn, he has just relinquished any power he may have held over the vast majority of self-described conservative Americans. The expanse of American population that calls itself conservative occupies a spectrum that runs from only slightly to the right of CBS News all the way to the John Birch Society. While most have eschewed the most frightening tenets of the extreme right, that right wing has tended to guide the whole of conservatism away from the center in recent years. The danger is not that most conservatives, and even the Republican Party itself, will flock to the right en masse, but rather that the movement to the right will be sufficient to cause most conservatives to let loose the tenuous hold they now have on “liberal” concepts. That includes such concepts as civil rights for those unlike ourselves and a sense of communal empowerment that reserves for governments the duty to do that which we cannot or will not do ourselves, and to pay for those things with tax revenue. Most conservatives see taxation as a necessary imposition that is anything but evil, but needs to be closely monitored and restricted to those things that truly benefit society. That’s not too far from the view held by most of us liberals, the difference largely being in our respective definitions of “things that truly benefit society.”

Most of those conservatives care little or nothing about prayer in schools or whether the U.S. President is a Christian. Most live comfortably in a secular world while allowing their personal lives to be guided to a greater or lesser degree by their religious beliefs. Intellectual conservatives -- and they are legion -- recognize, respect, and fully support the high, wide, long barrier between church and state. They tend to take the position that the First Amendment’s most important duty isn’t to keep religion out of government, but to keep government out of religion.

So if Glen Beck has become just another quasi-religious huckster selling the Church of the American Fantasy, he is considerably less of a threat to fundamental American civil liberties than he was before this past weekend. If he confines himself to getting a bunch of God all over himself and, ultimately, turns his Fox blackboard talks into a ministry, we can safely consign him to the compost heap of uninformed theocrats who have tried to drive America back to the bible from which it never came.

On the other hand, if Glen Beck is just screwing around with God -- and I wouldn’t put that past a man who once went on the air to make fun of a competitor who’d lost a child to miscarriage -- he remains just as dangerous as ever. Fanatical Christians will probably be highly pissed off at him for clowning around in the name of the Father, but Beck has never cared who hated him or why. And those Christians can be amazingly forgiving. Let Beck talk repeatedly about how what’s wrong with America is everyone’s fault but yours, and they’ll be back in no time.

Beck on the Mall was a fun diversion, but I don’t think he’s serious about being God-smacked. I think he’s still one of the most dangerous men in America.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Andy Breitbart enjoys Larry Flynt's protection

Now that the tempest has passed and passions have cooled, it's just about time for Shirley Sherrod to file a libel lawsuit against Andrew Breitbart.

To refresh memories, Sherrod was the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA when, back in July, journalist and blogger Andrew Breitbart libeled her by calling her a racist. As "proof," Breitbart released what he alleged was a video of Sherrod, a black, telling a meeting of the NAACP that she'd discriminated against a white southern farmer by not offering all of the assistance her office could have offered. Breitbart's defamation resulted in Sherrod being fired by an all-too-timid Obama administration, a firing that was later reversed when the Obamites realized they'd been had by a master manipulator and flagrant liar.

Mainstream media journalists and other liberals claimed that the episode marginalized Breitbart and other crazy-conservative blowhards by showing the lengths some will go to in their attempts to discredit liberalism. And they dropped the subject there, knowing full well they are wrong, that Breitbart will recover and will regain what dubious credibility he has among American fascists, and, like Dracula, will drain the lifeblood of American politics until a stake is driven through his heart.

That stake would be a libel suit, filed against Breitbart on Sherrod's behalf and with her consent, proving that Andrew Breitbart's sole purpose in blogging is to harm the reputations and careers of any well-intentioned, patriotic, and God-loving American who isn't exactly like him. Of course, mainstream media isn't going to call for such a lawsuit because of what I call the Larry Flynt Syndrome. That's a condition suffered by all mainstream media that causes them to tolerate and even rationalize outrageous and harmful behavior in others so their own behavior appears moderate in comparison. I named it after Flynt because of the way the media leapt to Flynt's defense during his legal battles in the pre-Internet days of the 1970s and 1980s. While we knew Flynt and his drugstore pornography was a disgusting aberration, we rationalized his existence by saying that as long as Flynt was fighting for his First Amendment right, the rest of us were safe. Flynt occupied the forward-most trench in the war against the Huns who would erase the words "freedom of the press" from the First Amendment. At one point in the early 1980s, the Society of Professional Journalists even contributed cash to Flynt's defense fund. "Better Larry fights the fight and takes the hits than us," was our justification. As long as the battle for freedom of the press was being fought way out there on Larry Flynt's filthy frontier, we on Main Street were relatively safe, never mind that Flynt was hiking the skirts of the Statue of Liberty and charging a penny a peek.

Now the mainstream media is being quiet for the same reason and, in its reticence, giving someone every bit as disgusting and filthy as Flynt a pass to the First Amendment. The worst thing Breitbart was accused of, by High Priest of Professional Liberalism Keith Olbermann, was being "a pornographer of propaganda." (Aside: Yes, I know I can link to it; do it yourself, search YouTube for it, it's there. Do a little of your own thinking for a change.) But Breitbart is more than a "pornographer," for even pornography isn't actionable, as Flynt proved by getting away with suggesting in print that a devout, if somewhat monomaniacal, Christian fundamentalist banged his own mother in an outhouse. So much for the conservatism of the Reagan-appointed SCOTUS.

Breitbart will get away with his libel, too. And libel it is. Any sophomore journalism student knows that libel requires three conditions: Publication, identification, and defamation. That is, the damaging text must be publicly circulated (in one God-awful miscarriage of justice, the U.S. Supreme Court even ruled that potentially defamatory memos and emails within a newspaper's news department constituted "publication"); it must unmistakably identify the victim; and it must damage the victim's reputation or otherwise cast the victim in a socially unfavorable light.

Even those three tests aren't enough, however. Slanderers of public officials are often free to spread their lies (thus the protected rise of the American Tea Party, among others) unless their victims can prove something called "actual malice." Actual malice is the publication of libel or slander with the full knowledge that the defamation is false, and with the intent to harm the victim despite the falsity of the slanderer's claims. And this is where Breitbart falls into the realm of actionable libel.

As the media fully and frequently reported in the aftermath of "Sherrodgate," Breitbart deliberately edited a video of Shirley Sherrod's speech before the NAACP to make it appear that she said things she, in fact, did not say. Breitbart has openly admitted he knew Sherrod was no racist, but edited the video to make it appear she was anyway. There can be only one reason for this: Andrew Breitbart was so consumed with hatred for liberalism that he broke the law to defame a woman who had worked hard to protect and assist America's independent farmers for over two decades. By any legal measure, Andrew Breitbart is a slanderer and a libeler and a liar.

Because of the Larry Flynt Syndrome, however, there will be no media outcry to have Breitbart hauled into court. Some have called Breitbart a "blogger, not a journalist," a comment I find personally insulting after a quarter-century of journalism experience. Besides, Breitbart is a columnist for the Washington Times. If the Times is a newspaper (and I would question even that assertion) then Breitbart is a journalist. Otherwise, the media have simply shut up and sat down on the subject, fearful that any agitation for having Breitbart charged with libel would somehow be a betrayal of the First Amendment.

What sanctimonious crap! Breitbart is a journalist. He embodies the purest form of First Amendment freedom, and as such he must be held to the highest standard of journalistic integrity. He has failed on the integrity test and, as such, needs to be charged, tried, and found guilty of libel.

And then we need to go after Larry Flynt.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pass the ice cream and damn the pedophiles

The shrimp and pasta in alfredo sauce had made its second pass 'round the table, the homemade sourdough bread was being passed for the third time, just to fill in the corners of any bellies that weren't yet full, and glasses were being topped off with a delightfully light pinot grigio from a little Sonoma Valley winery we'd discovered a few years before. Merlot-laced chocolate sauce was warming in the kitchen, to be ladled over butter-crunch ice cream later. In short, it was another Friday night with the Northeast Colorado Liberal Wine Club, and the talk had been of sexual predators.

It may surprise some to find that sexual predation can get a liberal's dander up. I don't mean we attain actual heights of dudgeon like our conservative counterparts, oh no, no, no. No, our dudgeon is of much lesser altitude, and frankly we're just a little nervous about it, and becoming more nervous as time goes on. Oh, sure, we damn to hell all of those infernal priests and their bishops who refused to even consider that a centuries-old, all-male fraternity of celibate mystics just might offer a perfect cover for closet pedophiles. Damn them! Damn them all to Hell! But we come up a little short of the castrate-and-crucify-the-bastards mentality common among the conservative hoi polloi.

It was commonly agreed around the table, however, that there is simply no redemption for pedophiles, that sex offenders cannot help themselves and thus we need to look at some sort of permanent separation from polite society for such offenders. Recent pieces on NPR and PBS were invoked, and I think someone even quoted The Economist, which is a bit high falutin' even for our group. All agreed that there is simply nothing that can be done about sex offenders because, well, it's sex, after all.

Rather, nearly all. I didn't agree. I don't agree. I tried to say that I didn't agree, but the butter-crunch ice cream with merlot-laced chocolate sauce was served, my glass was re-filled with pinot, and talk drifted to our adoration of Barak Obama, at which point we all secretly reached into our pockets and fondled our Koranic scriptures, which is what we liberals do when we communally adore Obama. I tried to tell the story of my first encounter with the concept of a "criminal mind" and how it applied to sex offenders, but the butter crunch was to die for and the pinot was flowing freely.

I didn't agree because I've always been frustrated with the idea that "sex crimes" need special treatment. Never mind the illogical feminist hypocrisy that rape isn't really about sex; I'm talking about the hysterically emotional response the American public has in general to all crimes involving human genitals. Victim advocates cry relentlessly about the psychological scarring endured by molestation victims, as if no other victim of physical assault suffers such scarring. After a few rounds on the analyst's couch, I'm here to tell you that when a child is brutalized frequently and regularly by someone in a position of absolute power, it doesn't have to be sexual to leave scars.

A decade ago, when Colorado's largest prison was still in the CAD/CAM programs of the designer's computer, the man was would open the prison and become its first warden gave me a short lesson on The Criminal Mind. Imagine, he said, that you are at a barbecue. You take your paper plate, you pile on the pulled pork, the beans, the tater salad, maybe some slaw, then you get your drink, sit down and eat your meal. When you're finished, you gather up your napkin, cup and plastic fork, fold it all into the paper plate and throw it in the trash. In the Criminal Mind, the victim is the paper plate. The victim is something to be used for the criminal's personal gratification, then disposed of.

What I think this means is that sex offenders, like all criminals, use their victims as disposable items for personal gratification. Disposal is usually psychological (rationalizing, ignoring the consequences, etc.) but occasionally it becomes a very real and very physical disposal. But what is the difference between the killer who kills in a moment of outrage and the rapist who rapes in a moment of uncontrollable compulsion? What's the difference between the kleptomaniac who cannot refrain from stealing or the addict who cannot refrain from shooting up, and the pedophile who cannot refrain from molesting?

According to people who should know, the answers are "Not much" and "Quite a bit" and even "Well, we really don't know yet." This all from the same definitive paper on sex offender recidivism issues by the U.S. Justice Department. It's called "Recidivism of Sex Offenders" and it was issued in 2001 by the DOJ's Center for Sex Offender Management. It answers very few questions definitively. Yes, sex offenders have a lot in common with other criminals, but in other ways they are a distinct antisocial, even sociopathic, group.

Bottom line: We don't know what to do with sex offenders. I think that's why there cannot be any serious conversation about it, even among liberals who think pretty much alike. We don't even understand the problem well enough to take sides on a solution, or even on an interim response. It occurs to me that, before we do much more research on how aging baby boomers can have great sex into their 70s and 80s, we first need to find out why some people have to use sex to hurt and damage other people. It'd be nice, some day, to be able to settle the issue before the ice cream is served at dinner.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Inflation of "news value" is tawdry

What, you might ask yourself, could the strangulation of a 6-year-old beauty princess in a posh Boulder neighborhood in 1996 and the drug-and-alcohol-induced death of a Colorado State University sophomore in a Fort Collins rental house in 2010 possibly have in common?

Ordinarly, absolutely nothing. If you are a student of crimnology, and if you examined both cases, you would find nothing in common between the two cases. The little girl's murder remains unsolved; the college student apparently drank and drugged unwisely.The deaths happened 14 years and 45 miles apart.

If, on the other hand, you are a journalist looking for a way to inflate the value of your news story, you reach way down deep and you make a connection that once would have been found only in the tawdriest of supermarket tabloids.

The first murder, of course, is that of JonBenet Ramsey. She was found the day after Christmas, strangled and beaten to death, in the basement of the Ramseys' Boulder home. The murder remains unsolved and has been so extensively reported that it is part of the American national memory.

The second is the death of 20-year-old John Hunter-Hauck, a sophomore at Colorado State University, who was found dead in his bed Monday morning. Drug and alcohol abuse are suspected.

The connection? Hauck is the son of Alex Hunter, former district attorney for Boulder County. JonBenet Ramsey's murder happened on Hunter's watch, and his office was unable to bring any charges in the case.

The Ramsey case made Hunter -- and a number of other people -- a national figure, and not always in a good light. Blame for the lack of closure on the case is divided among the Boulder Police Department, Boulder County Sheriff's Office, DA's office and even the Ramsey family. The bungling started almost immediately and never seemed to end, from officers allowing John Ramsey to join the search of the house and discover his daughter's body to investigators' insistence that the parents were somehow mixed up in the murder. Even Hunter, when he retired from public office, called the Ramsey case one of the true low points of his career.

For all its notoriety and fame, however, mention of the Ramsey case doesn't belong anywhere near the coverage of John Hunter-Hauck's death. Alex Hunter was the Boulder District Attorney for 28 years, and one one of the most respected and most aggressive DAs of his time. There were other cases for which he and his staff should be remembered, cases in which the bad guys got put away (though sometimes for not nearly long enough.)

Two of the cases of which I have personal knowledge are the murders of 27-year-old Mary Ann Bryan in 1981 and 3-year-old Michael Manning in December 1982

Bryan was kidnapped from a Longmont, Colo., pharmacy on January 28, 1981, during a fake robbery. She was taken to a remote area of Boulder County near Lyons west of Longmont and beaten to death with a rock. Her killer, Robert "Tattoo Bob" Landry, apparently tried to shoot Bryan, but his gun wouldn't work. He was hired by Bryans ex-husband, Herbert Marant, who ramains in prison for the killing. Landry died in prison in 1989. I joined the staff of the Longmont Times-Call just days before Landry's trial began. The trial was moved to Grand Junction largely because of the histrionics of the Boulder Daily Camera's reporters, some of whom were held in contempt by the court for their unprofessional conduct. Among the details that came out during the trial: Pieces of Mary Ann's skull were found tucked into the pockets of her skirt. Investigators surmised that, while dying, the victim found pieces of her skull on the floor of the outhouse where she was beaten and stuffed them into her pocket.

Mikey Manning was the son of Elizabeth Manning, then a 31-year-old former prostitute who'd already lost track of a 6-year-old child several years before she moved to Boulder in the early 1980s. On the night of Dec. 17, 1982, Manning's boyfriend, Daniel Aravelo, beat little Mikey for six hours, then left the boy to die on the floor of the bathroom. According to an affidavit I read of the case, Elizabeth told police Aravelo beat Mikey with the buckle end of a belt until his arm grew tired, then stopped to rest, then went back and beat him some more. Manning and Aravelo both went to prison for the murder, but neither did much time; frustrated Boulder police detectives fumbled an interview and Manning's confession was thrown out of court.

The point of all of this is that these cases were among the hundreds of cases Hunter and his staff handled, including dozens of murders, kidnappings, attempted murders, child abuse cases, rapes, and the list goes on. In some, like the Bryan case, the authorities performed superbly, got the perpetrators and built cases that kept the murderers off the streets, probably forever. In others, like the Manning case, at least some modicum of justice was dealt, if imperfectly and incompletely.

So why, whenever Alex Hunter is mentioned, must the Ramsey case be brought up? The news agencies offer something of a fig leaf by saying the Ramsey case gained Hunter national attention. I suppose, but the same could be said of Jerry Winterrowd. Remember the iconic photo of John and Patsy Ramsey leaving St. John's Cathedral in Denver after JonBenet's funeral? The guy on the left is the Rt. Rev. Jerry Winterrowd, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. He offered considerable support and succor to the Ramseys in the weeks and months after JonBenet's death. While his stint as father confessor to the Ramseys may be his most "famous" moment, however, Father Winterrowd, now retired, will be best remembered for his unceasing struggle to be a voice of reason in the Episcopal College of Bishops, especially concerning the issue of homosexuality. That's if he's remembered at all.

So why does Alex Hunter have to have the Ramsey case hung around his neck for the rest of his life? It's irresponsible of Colorado news outlets to sum up the man's career with that one case, and it's downright ghoulish of them to mention the Ramsey case while covering the death of Hunter's own son. The only reason it is done is so the name JonBenet can be attached to a story, evoking yet again the horror, the tragedy, and yes, even the sex appeal, of that horrific case. It is irresponsible and tawdry.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Maddow thinks literacy is bad

As I write this, Rachel Maddow is making “cool kid” faces about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who seems to be MSNBC’s favorite whipping boy these days. The governor has suggested that, as part of having their voting rights restored, former inmates of the Commonwealth’s prison system (known in most states as Department of Corrections) write an essay about their contributions to society since their releases.

Maddow has made this incredible connection: Essay equals “literacy test,” which equals a Jim Crow law that made it nearly impossible for Southern blacks in the 1960s to register to vote.

Rachel, get a new haircut. Get a new perspective. Sweet Jesus, woman, get a handle on reality.

Two things you need to know about this writer (assuming you’re the least bit interested in “this writer”): First, I am a liberal. Second, because I am a liberal, I teach English classes at Colorado’s largest prison here in my hometown. The reason I teach those classes is so that, when they are released into society, Colorado’s prison inmates will be able to use the Americanized English language to function in society. My purpose for teaching is to improve the literacy of my students and, as a result, improve their chances of functioning as contributive citizens in our society. I think my efforts are progressive. I think the State of Colorado is progressive because, in this time of slashed state budgets, the Colorado Department of Corrections has seen fit to continue to fund that very program that pays me to I drive out to the local prison twice a week and teach “literacy” to prison inmates.

Some of whom, Rachel, are black.

True to form, however, Maddow (like her mentor, the God Apparent of All Things Liberal at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann) has managed to take a perfectly good and useful and even progressive (yes, Rachel, PROGRESSIVE) idea like McDonnell’s and turn it into a Jim Crow throwback.

It’s easy for young smartasses like Maddow to trivialize (excuse me, kids, but I gotta do this) The Civil Rights Movement by comparing everything Republican to something cooked up in a KKK klavern. It’s also destructive and demeaning to those who marched, suffered, and even died so that black Americans can enjoy the rights our Constitution gives them, but that they were denied by the horrors of slavery and the ignorant hatred of Jim Crow for so very long. I don’t doubt that Maddow envisions that she daily strikes a blow for equal rights in America. She is deluded

I watched the civil rights struggle unfold on our black-and-white Motorola television every single day of my childhood. I shook hands with Andrew Young. I saw Ralph Abernathy speak in Denver. I saw tears fall from my father’s eyes (the father who was a policeman at the time) as Southern cops committed crimes against blacks under the color of law. I was just a kid during “the struggle,” but it was part of the fabric of my life. And I’m here to say Rachel Maddow is a piker, a poser, a media whore who uses her power of a television show to demonize men and women who simply want, in the service of American conservatism, to do the right thing.

I don’t mind when Maddow jeers at Sarah Palin. Palin is a great American political joke. But Bob McDonnell is a Southern conservative trying his damnedest to join the 21st century. The least we liberals can do is leave the man alone, let him govern the great Commonwealth of Virginia, and hope the Republican Party starts to understand his value. McDonnell is worth a dozen Mikey Steeles. Let people like McDonnell succeed, and my beloved Democratic Party will have no choice but to reach out and cooperate in the best interests of our nation.

Grandstanding tricks like Maddow tried on tonight’s show (4/13/10) used to be excoriated as crappy political stunts by politicians. Now they’re de rigueur crappy stunts by over-educated and under-smart talking heads like Maddow.

Leave Bob McDonnell alone, Rachel. You're not helping. Really, you're not.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In Defense of 'Treasonous Violence'

Keith Olbermann was again apoplectic on Wednesday evening (April 7) when he took on the governor of Virginia and the governor’s proclamation in celebration of Confederacy Month. The governor was promptly pummeled by knee-jerk left-wingers (maybe “pummeled” isn’t the right word, as that implies fists. “Stomped” might be a better verb, but it’s a minor quibble.) At any rate, the governor promptly issued an apology, re-worked his proclamation to condemn slavery, and obtained the less-than-good graces of Olberman et al. As part of the roast-the-governor panoply of indignation, Olbermann brought in NCAA Chairman Julian Bond to say yes, the governor’s apology was adequate, but celebration of the Confederacy is still an affront to civil rights.

Of course, Bond had to use Olberman’s Phrase Of The Day: “Treasonous violence against the United States of America.” The phrase got three airings on Olbermann’s show.

Okay, first of all, let’s not forget that Julian Bond, now a revered stateseman in the civil rights movement, was once the mouthpiece of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and in vetting hearings for his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1966, sat with Stokeley Carmichael’s hand up his ass and professed to condone draft-dodging, resisting arrest (non-violent, Julian?) and other illegal measures to protest U.S. foreign and domestic policies. Yes, that was a long time ago. But it was documented, it happened, and it is part of the man’s complex history. I’m just sayin’, that’s all.

But really, “Treasonous violence against the United States of America?” Wait, time for an open kimono moment: Yes, I have used those very words some time within the past 10 years, and in reference to the Confederacy. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, and in a twisted kind of way, Olbermann is technically correct. But by an identical standard, the American Revolution was treasonous violence against the British Empire. If things hadn’t gone so well at Yorktown in 1781, we’d all be sipping tea and … well, okay, maybe we wouldn’t be sipping tea, but we wouldn’t be making so many jokes about Canadians and Australians, either. We would be, as those great friends and allies are, members of the British Commonwealth, and our country would look a great deal different than it does today.

With so many civil rights issues -- housing, employment, health care, and education, to name a few -- still begging for attention, for Olbermann to draft Bond into repeating his Phrase of the Day is to trivialize civil rights. By any scholarly standard being used today, slavery, and the denial of fundamental human rights that went with it, was only the third of the top five causes of the American Civil War. States’ rights, an issue dear to the heart of Virginian Thomas Jefferson, is considered the No. 2 cause (I’m using a scale adopted from Shelby Foote, my favorite and Ken Burns' favorite authority on the War Between the States) surpassed only by the North’s economic subjugation of the South. This was a deliberate and highly profitable, almost conspiratorial, set of economic policies that denied the South any meaningful manufacturing capacity.

Yes, the plantation system of providing cotton to northern and English fabric mills was an antiquated social system, but the northern industrialists offered no alternative. Failure by the manufactures to pay more than rock bottom price for cotton only prolonged the abomination of slavery. If Northerners had really wanted to abolish slavery, they would have first invested in Southern manufacturing (it thrives today in the textile, wood products fabrication, and automobile assembly industries) and bargained with the South to pay a dollar or so more for goods in exchange for freeing slaves and paying them wages.

But the North didn’t do that. With unprecedented greed (yes, there was a Wall Street even in 1858) the North withheld industrial investment from the South, forcing Dixie to rely in an antiquated colonial system that raped the land and befouled humanity. It then threatened to outlaw the only kind of labor that could support that system, condemning master and slave alike to abject poverty. The South did not secede and did not declare war until its back was against the economic wall. When it fought, it did not fight for slavery, it fought for economic survival.

It lost.

For native New Yorker Olbermann to condemn something pretty much necessitated by his ancestors is an affront to patriotism across this land. The men who fought and died for the Confederacy were defending the only way of life they’d ever known. I have seen photographs of the windrows of dead bodies of Southern men at the Battle of Gettysburg, and there is not a slaveholder among them. Yes, there were officers who owned slaves, including the venerated Robert E. Lee, a relative of George Washington’s, whose home at Arlington was confiscated and turned into a national cemetery -- for Union soldiers. But those offiers are no more guilty than were Jefferson and Washingtom themselves, and most of those Confederate officers -- Lee foremost among them -- had already taken steps to free their own holdings of slavery.

I have served in the U.S. Army alongside men from the South. They are passionately loyal to the Unites States of America. When the Confederacy was beaten, the South again subjugated, and then systematically plundered by Northerners, Southerners grimly swore allegiance to this one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And they have abided by their oath to this very day. On foreign beaches, in foreign jungles, across foreign deserts, Southern men and women have bled to death to keep America strong, and that patriotic tradition goes back to Yorktown, to Sharpsburg, to Gettysburg, and to Richmond, Virginia.

I say, let the South celebrate Confederacy Month, for if that is a celebration of treasonous violence against a legitimate government, then so is the Fourth of July.