Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture report reveals shocking trend

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture during the Bush administration revealed some shocking things last week. There are times when I'm not exactly proud of my fellow Americans, but the torture report revealed some truly depressing trends about the country in whose military I once served.

I wasn't shocked that our government under Cheney/Bush casually authorized the brutal treatment of human beings in our custody. We've known George Bush and his cohorts were irresponsible hooligans since the moment they crossed the border into Iraq. That the U.S. Attorney General was instructed to write a pseudo defense of the practice seems, in retrospect, to be one of the less offensive examples of the complete disregard the Bushies had for American rule of law.

No, what as truly shocking is not the conduct of not-so-rogue CIA agents; it was the reaction of the average American to the report.

A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2011 showed that Americans have swung from being against torture several years ago to being much more accepting of it. A year ago an Associated Press poll showed the same thing. And in the wake of the release of the committee’s report last week I find that I’m surrounded by co-workers, friends, and family members who are at best ambivalent about torture and at worst downright supportive.

This reaction is not just an alarming trend, it's evidence of a sea change in America's view of itself. Apparently, a majority of Americans see themselves as no better than anyone else in the world. It puts the lie to the concept of American Exceptionalism. That’s the idea that, among nations, and especially among democratic nations, America is exceptional because if its unique mixture of commerce, republican democracy, and moral idealism. Alexis de Tocqueville first called the United States "exceptional" in the mid 19th century, noting that Americans were able to build a wealthy, powerful nation "without relapsing into barbarism."

Alas, it seems that America is no longer the nation de Tocqueville so admired. If a majority of us approve of the use of torture against suspected enemies, we have relapsed into barbarism and, in doing so, we have abdicated our exceptionalism.

We are, in fact, little better than the hated ISIS monster who stands over his kneeling victim and hacks off the head while spouting anti-American vitriol. We join the likes of Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, China, and the 80 percent of the rest of the world where torture is common. That’s hardly the profile of an “exceptional” country.

I understand that America's genesis, growth, and maturity were not without grievous departures from the barbarism that was once considered necessary for the building of a civilization. The genocide of native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, and the heartless exploitation of millions of immigrants to build U.S. industry are moral burdens we Americans must bear forever. We are convicted by the world, even as we ignore the crimes ourselves.

There was a time when we might have transcended our bloody, brutal beginnings. I grew up in the shadow of World War II, a conflict that seemed to prove what an exceptional nation America once was. We sacrificed the best we had to secure the safety and freedom of friends unable to fend off the monstrous armies that sought to subjugate them. In my childhood I heard dozens of stories about GIs who were tortured in prison camps, mostly in the Pacific. Movies were made about the horrors visited upon the defeated American soldiers (in fact, a new motion picture due out this Christmas season, "Unbroken," chronicles just such a horror, and the hero's efforts to overcome it.) The moral of such stories was always the same – Americans are better than the Japanese because we never tortured our prisoners. Of course, the racist subtext of Caucasian superiority over the Asian barbarian was lost on me at the time but would become clearer in time.

Nonetheless, we were better than "them." Americans may have run amok in the aftermath of battle, and no one denied that there were abuses, including rape, as Japanese islands fell to the Americans. But, according to the common belief at the time, American soldiers were prosecuted, imprisoned, even executed, for behaving the way other armies behaved. Never mind that black soldiers were executed far more often than whites, a fact documented in 1993 by Francis Klines; we proudly contrasted ourselves with the Russians, who raped between 95,000 and 130,000 German girls and women during and after the fall of Berlin (Antony Beevor, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945,"(2003)). Americans didn't routinely brutalize the women of a defeated foe. Americans didn’t plunder a beaten enemy’s national treasures. And Americans never, ever, tortured prisoners of war.

In time, of course, information leaked out that, yes, American soldiers and officers sometimes betrayed American ideals by acting barbarically toward our enemies. But even thern two things set us apart from others, and still made us "exceptional": Such behavior was a grotesque departure from policy and, when discovered, was openly and freely admitted. And there was a sense of horror that Americans could have done such a thing. Adults all around me would shake their heads sadly that our own military men could have dishonored their flag and country

The community that raised me instilled in me a reverence for human dignity, a love of civil liberty and due process of law, and the fierce belief that we Americans are more civilized than the Soviets who raped Berlin, the Japanese who eviscerated Nanking, and the Nazis who plundered Europe. Now that same community produces a politician who openly advocates torturing suspects to force confessions, and adults all around me grimly nod their heads in approval.

The question now is not whether America has lost its exceptional status among nations. The question is whether we can ever earn it back. I am not hopeful.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I hope TV has it all wrong

We hear constantly of the more than 300 firefighters who were killed when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and well we should.

However …

We seem to have forgotten that there were cops in the building that collapsed, too, a couple dozen, and they weren't there to direct traffic or find a bakery or arrest the airplane hijackers. They were there to save lives, to direct civilians to safety and away from the firefighters.

We have forgotten about them because there is a down side to being a policeman: Few people think of cops as heroes, and that's a damn shame. The man who was the greatest influence on my life, the only man I ever knew to whom I could ascribe the classic attributes of hero; a man I loved uniquely and unconditionally, and whom I miss every day, was a cop. In fact, he remains my idea of what a police officer should be. And I know that, by his own high standards, he judged most men and women in blue to be deserving of his respect, and that is high praise, indeed.

So we’re straight on that, right? Cop admirer, right here.

But …

I was watching one of my favorite police procedurals on TV the other night and it just smacked me in the face that the grizzled desk sergeant, as she passed out the black bands to cover badges in memory of a fellow officer recently murdered in the line of duty, said she’d prefer the shooter didn't live to face trial. Even more jarring, the rest of the characters seemed to share that sentiment.

I don’t know if real cops feel that way, but it would be really depressing to find out they do. In movies and on TV, “cop killers” are worse than child molesters and baby murderers. The cops in the movies always talk about the killing of “one of our own,” as if that’s a special class of crime which deserves a special kind of death and a special place in Hell.

I understand that but I can’t abide it. As a journalist, I am personally aggrieved by the death of any journalist while on the job. Ironically, those who kill journalists are usually the ones for whom the reporters have the greatest sympathy. So I absolutely understand the stunning grief and rage when a friend and colleague is murdered. I've felt it. But the death of a reporter in a war zone is no worse than the death of a child or an old man or any other non-combatant.

Don’t get me wrong; So I know that when an officer is killed in the line of duty, his or her fellows should be given all of the benefit of empathy and sympathy that anyone would. But cops aren’t special, and their deaths in the line of duty are, in fact, occupational hazards. Their killers should be hunted, captured, and prosecuted exactly the same way the killer of a child, or a teacher, or a doctor, or an accountant would be.

I think the sentiment expressed on the TV show hit me particularly hard because of the attention that’s being focused on police brutality recently. I won’t say it isn’t warranted, but I can’t imagine how painful it is to every good man and woman on the job. Sadly, it only takes a handful of bad actors to sully the reputations of everyone wearing a badge. It makes it look like cops, just like the rest of us, can’t control their tempers in high-stress situations. It erodes public trust in all police officers and denies them the human empathy they should have from the rest of us when they do get hurt or killed protecting the rest of us.

I’ll be the first to admit that police work doesn't lend itself to good PR. The very nature of police work makes it abhorrent to most people. A cop can change your life with the stroke of his pen, or end it with the twitch of her finger. Even when heroic firefighters investigate arson – the only crime firemen concern themselves with – they don’t arrest the suspect, they call on cops to do that.

Police officers are accusers; they take away our liberty because it’s their job to do that to some of us. When a policeman pulls you over to warn you of a broken headlight, he is depriving you of the freedom to drive down the street in ignorant darkness. When a policeman comes to your door to ask you questions about the strange car parked down the block, your eyes are drawn irresistibly to the gun belt, to the weapon that can kill and the handcuffs that can imprison.

But to give voice to wishes that a murderer – any murderer – should be denied due process of law, to say that any suspect’s or defendant’s civil rights should be abridged, isn’t just morally wrong, it’s downright un-American. Police officers are sworn to uphold, not just the statutes that forbid murder and theft and rape, but the whole U.S. Constitution. That means protecting the civil rights of all citizens, regardless of personal feelings or the emotions of the moment.

I hope most real police officers think of that when they're on the job. I hope they truly believe that they go to work each day to serve and to protect. And I sure hope those TV shows are wrong about the cops they portray.

Friday, October 24, 2014

‘Men’s rights’ is a false cause

An article in an online magazine recently referenced a fellow named Paul Elam and the misogynistic web site he maintains. It’s devoted to the utterly fabricated cause of “men’s rights,” and it pretends that men – primarily white men – are besieged by evil feminist forces who want to oppress men. Primarily white men.

So, I went to check out Paul Elam’s web site. I didn't know whether to laugh at the absurdity of its content or cry because this bozo pretends to represent “men.” The web site is a monument to misogyny. As nearly as I can tell, according to Elam, womankind is out to oppress and dominate mankind. Woman, Elam would have us believe, wants to take her babies away from the man who so generously gifted his sperm to her just because he's an insufferable asshole. Elam admits that he was frightened out of his career as an addiction counselor by a woman who wanted to, as he puts it, "shove (the male clients') macho bullshit down their throats."

What he completely missed -- and this actually makes him pretty much unsuited for that line of work, so it's good that he ran away from it like a scared boy -- is the fact that macho bullshit is the crux of almost all male addicts' problems. Elam's too dumb to know that his colleague didn't want to take men's balls away, she just wanted them to stop thinking with them.

I don’t suppose anyone will ever be able to explain it to him, but Elam’s world view can never result in constructive thought or dialog because it is shot through with what I call “little boy syndrome.” This is the tendency of men to classify all strife as an us-vs-them struggle. As I scrolled through, I found horror story after horror story about men who allegedly suffered at the hands of crazy-bitch girlfriends and wives.

What I did not find was the inclusiveness that women’s rights movements invariably have. Websites urging people to join the effort to eliminate misogyny, which is not confined to violence but is a cultural failure to value female humans equally with males, almost always include acknowledgement that women are not alone in suffering oppression from dominating males in our society. And they always seek to enlist the help of men – indeed, some even make it primarily the responsibility of men – to change the societal rules that devalue the lives and minds of women.

Aside from the dubious credibility of the anecdotal horror stories that are the staple of Elam’s website, the overall tone is a loud “thunk!” I was raised to believe that “fair” doesn't always mean “equal,” and equality isn't always fair. Fair, I was taught, is better. While it is absolutely fair to pay two people with the same qualifications the same wage to do the same job (equality being the only fair thing in this case) it is ridiculously unfair to equate rape of men with rape of women as a problem in our society; the numbers simply don’t bear out the equivalency.

And in some things the physiological differences between men and women have to be considered to even approach equality. When was the last time you went to a major sporting event and saw equal-length lines in front of the restrooms? Major venue designers have finally figured out that, because of the design of their bodies, women need a lot more restroom space than men. It isn't funny, it isn't degrading, it isn't overly empowering, and it isn't a weakness. It is the reality of our physical beings and we need to recognize it and move on.

I’ll admit that women can be abusive and downright hostile to men, but I gotta’ tell ya’, that hostility is usually the result of abuse at the hands of … that’s right, men. Aileen Wuornos killed six men in cold blood, falsely accusing all of them of trying to rape her. That’s one angry woman. Of course, being raped as a child can make a girl pretty damn angry – or a poet laureate.

But these are extreme and rare anecdotes that Elam's website uses. While a handful of men suffer injury and even death at the hands of women they know and love -- Phil Hartman's murder by his wife in 1998 is an example -- these cases are so rare that they make big news. Besides, Brynn Omdahl didn't kill Hartman because she was a woman, she killed him because she was a deranged drug addict. Elam may want to delve into the history of what made her so. No one else has deigned to do so,  G'head, search the Internet until your brain turns to mush -- you'll find no account, credible or otherwise, of Omdahl's early life. One can only speculate about how such a gifted woman came by that lethal monkey on her back.

Elam’s website meticulously chronicles how every defense of women's dignity is an assault on men's rights. Some examples:

  • Domestic violence issues are twisted by women's advocates to be primarily a problem of man-on-woman violence.
  • Women banding together to claim basic human rights constitutes a conspiracy to deprive men of their civil rights.
  • Civil rights for women is really all about women being more comfortable as lesbians, especially after they've been bred and had all the children they want to have.
  • Women standing up to men in public media are actually ball-busting bitches who want to muzzle men so they can carry out their emasculating-lesbian-child-stealing agenda.

Elam's whole philosophy reminds me of the pathetic mewling of white supremacists who bemoan the passing of the old order because they no longer have an iron grip on power by virtue of their “race.” The privileged – the white male Protestant Christians of America – claim to feel threatened, pretend to be in “danger” of minority status because the people they have so long oppressed are learning where to find the levers of power.

As a man I’m here to tell you, we men are doing just fine, thank you very much. We've learned to think with that organ that is designed for thinking, and let our balls dangle stupidly from our bellies, performing the one thing they were designed for -- to distinguish us  from women. And I sure as hell don’t need Paul Elam or anyone else to fight for my masculine rights.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

History is not what you were taught in school

News Item: Hundreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday (9/23/2014) in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority, in a show of civil disobedience that the new standards would aim to downplay. The proposal from Julie Williams, part of the board's conservative majority, has not been voted on and was put on hold last week. 
Huffington Post Sept. 24, 2014

An open letter to Julie Williams of the Jefferson County School Board:

Dear Julie,

It appears that you are in need of a reality-based lesson in U.S. history. Having studied that history in every learning environment from grade school to graduate school, I offer this thumbnail sketch:

In the 15th and 16th centuries wealthy and powerful European kings wanted to increase both their wealth and power and so used conquest cloaked in religion to colonize newly-discovered land in what is now the Americas. Their agents established settlements and colonies in the Americas, exploiting the natural resources to send wealth back to Europe. After a time the colonists got tired of paying taxes to the European kings, or decided they wanted to be rulers themselves, or a combination of these, and they began separating from the European kingdoms. Some of the separations were bloody revolutions in which thousands of peasant farmers were persuaded to die for the wealthy landowners, thus securing independence. 

Once independent, the new American nations relied on slave labor to build their economies and on the eradication or violent subjugation of native peoples to gain access to the natural resources. This wasn’t just an American phenomenon, by the way; Europeans colonized great swaths of Africa, Australia, and Asia with the same practices, again often wrapped in the thin cloth of religion.

By the middle of the 19th century some Americans with consciences began to gain some power in the United States and at least ended slavery, although it took the deaths of hundreds of thousands more peasant farmers and urban poor to achieve this. The genocide against native people continued unabated until nearly the 20th century.

Having gained complete control of the continent, the European Americans finally began to build what would become the most powerful and wealthiest nation/state in history. Society in America, as everywhere else in the world, was composed of a few very wealthy people earning most of the money and owning almost everything and the vast majority of people earning and owning comparatively very little.

This process of building the United States of America required the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families and resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of peaceful people through violence, starvation, and neglect.

The old European empires, finally stripped of most of their colonial assets, began to exhaust themselves, first in a grinding, muddy, nasty war and then in a worldwide conflagration. The process, which took up nearly half of the 20th century, was the bloodiest time in world history. Mechanization allowed the generals to magnify the horror of war almost beyond comprehension. The United States, using its indomitable wealth and power, emerged from this period the unchallenged world power, a position it enjoys to this day.

In our popular culture, this is all covered with a veneer of idealistic concepts like liberty, equality, and independence and infused with religious justification in order to persuade the vast working class to provide even greater wealth to the wealthiest few. The veneer is often painted in bright patriotic colors.

Unfortunately, Julie, the rest of the world has the ability most Americans lack; they can see beneath the veneer to the reality underneath. We are no better, and certainly no worse, than any other empire that has come before us. But we are far from being John Winthrop’s imagined “city upon a hill.” The only thing truly exceptional about us is the mythology of American Exceptionalism.

Only by teaching our children the real history of the United States can we begin to mold future citizens into people with consciences who will make sure that the horrors of our own history never occur again.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lift a glass to bourbon this month

It’s understood among us ink-stain’d wretches that good things are to be celebrated whole-heartedly, and I believe nothing deserves celebration more than one of humankind’s greatest achievements, that being the fermentation, malting, and distillation of crop-based fluids. Here’s to beer, wine is fine, and whiskey is … well it is simply the nectar of the ancient gods. Civilization, the learned among us will say, is possible only with systematic agriculture. I agree, for only the routine planting, cultivation, and harvesting of grains, fruits, and vegetables can support the making of decent booze.

And so to the point: September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and if you thought I was rowdy on Saint Patrick’s Day back in March, wait until you see me celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month. One of my favorite hobbies is drowning ice cubes in amber liquid, and friend, I ain’t talkin’ about tea.

Some of the best writing I’ve ever done was composed under the influence of bourbon and, yes, there is a dollop within reach as I write this. My favorite pour is Jack Daniels which, while not marketed as a bourbon, is technically one of the better bourbons available today. My dream is to one day be able to afford a barrel of Jack Daniels Single Barrel. This is the finest liquid gold to ever come out of Lynchburg, TN. The distillery will select a premium 12-year-old barrel, bottle it, box it, and shrink-wrap the whole thing, along with the barrel it came out of, and ship it to you. You have to make arrangements through a local liquor store, and state and federal taxes make the price vary, but suffice it to say that if you flinch at dropping fifteen large on a damn fine whiskey, son, you’re out of your league here.

Yep, I’m out of my league here.

Still, some great writers have changed the face of American literature while sipping my go-to libation: Old Crow Kentucky bourbon. Legend has it that two of my heroes – Mark Twain and Ulysses Grant – did their best work while partaking of the dirty bird. President Abraham Lincoln (a liberal Democrat by today’s standards) famously told Grant’s critics to find out what bourbon Grant drank and he’d send a cask of it to each Union general.

While Grant wasn’t much of a wordsmith, his one great literary contribution – his memoir – is long on plain-spoken prose and completely lacking in self-justification. That he wrote with such clarity, precision, and frankness while choking to death on throat cancer is nothing short of amazing. I would point out that the cancer is generally blamed on his smoking, not on his drinking.

I do not smoke.

Twain, on the other hand, defined the turn-of-the-century American man of letters with a pen in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other. I won’t say that Twain’s best work went on paper while he was imbibing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

My son the chef insists that I imbibe only Colorado’s own Brekenridge, and while it is by far the second-finest bourbon I have ever tasted (nothing can touch Blanton’s, including my wallet) it is also a very expensive pour, and something I reserve for special occasions. Or, as I tell my wife, “Honey, any time I can drink Breck, that’s a special occasion.”

The worst bourbon I’ve ever tasted is something called Wyoming Whiskey, distilled in small batches in Kirby, WY. It is, like its namesake state, raw and unsophisticated, and best enjoyed disguised as Coca-Cola™.

Whatever your daily pour, whether it’s humble Old Crow, staunch Jim Beam or the ethereal kiss of caramel and hint of mint of Blanton’s Private Reserve, join me this month, won’t you? Let’s hoist two fingers of the good stuff in celebration of a truly all-American beverage. And the oftener, the better.

Friday, September 5, 2014

It's not slut-shaming, it's reality

Anyone who knows me will attest that I abhor the rape culture that has become the world of twentysomething dudes. Instead of seeing increasing respect for young women as self-determined people of fully equal standing, we see an increasingly mysoginistic culture in which adult human females are looked at as collections of eroticized body parts, and judged according to the erotic value of said body parts. I have three little granddaughters and a small grandson, and I fear for all of them; the boy that he might become some over-masculinized sexual predator, and the girls that they may become prey. I fully support the idea that we need to pour as much effort into teaching our boys to not rape as we pour into teaching our girls to not be raped. Rape is never the victim's fault. Period.

But my feminism, if it even is that, does not extend to the arena in which dwells the frankly alarming trend of taking pictures of oneself in the nude and then posting them somewhere online, only to have them suddenly pop up all over the world. I simply do not buy into the idea that a young woman who takes naked selfies and stores them in The Cloud is absolved of all responsibility when some cretin hacks her storage site and passes around the evidence.

I don’t pretend to know why “sexual self-expression” is such a necessary thing among people under 40 these days, but it appears to be, and the smart phone self portrait appears to be the medium of choice for this expression. I do wonder about the misandrist double-standard – if a man takes a naked selfie and shares it, he’s a creep, but if a woman does it, she’s making a sexual statement. I'm a huge fan of the First Amendment, but I doubt that when the Mythical Founding Fathers penned it they had in mind an unclothed Betsy Ross sprawled across Old Glory.

So you won’t be surprised that I have little sympathy for the likes of Jennifer Lawrence since her naked selfies have been shared across the great digital ether. The news stories all depict innocent little J-Law snapping some naughty pix on her smart phone, but some clarification is required here. First, they aren't really selfies; they are tasteful nude photos taken by a professional photographer (come on, do you really think a pampered Oscar-winning businesswoman is going to point her iPhone at her nekkid self? Get real! What would Siri think?) Second, they were reportedly meant as a gift to a Significant Other. Finally, they are no more or less revealing than anything Playboy published back in the mid-1960s. Compared with what some tequila-soaked housewives are posting these days, it’s pretty classy stuff. And no, I won't elucidate how I know that. Let's just say journalistic research is sometimes a thankless, dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

The militant feminists who write for left-wing blogs these days (I’m looking at you, Tracy Clark-Flory) would accuse me of “slut shaming,” as if that’s something bad. They would be wrong, by a country mile. As I have said before, I support any man’s or woman’s right to express himself or herself in any way that doesn't degrade, humiliate, or otherwise harm anyone. So if million-dollar Hollywood starlets want to preserve images of their now-perfect bodies for posterity, I have no argument with that. And if they want to store those images on secure hard drives locked in private vaults, to be shared only with loved ones or those willing to pay-per-view, they’ll not hear a peep from me.

But when they cry “Foul!” when some jackass hacks into the so-very-public “cloud” and then scatters the images along the information superhighway, I call bullshit. Who stores intimate images in anything called “The Cloud” anyway? Its very name suggests an amorphous, porous, ethereal vapor easy to penetrate and violate. I have probably a half-dozen photos stored in PhotoBucket, but they’re photos of my shop projects, Yellowstone Park, and interesting cloud formations. If I had intimate photos of anyone, they’d be on a password-protected external drive locked in a safe.

This isn't to suggest that people, both famous and obscure, shouldn't express their most intimate selves digitally. But just as it isn't wise for man or woman to walk drunk down a dark alley in a strange city, neither is it smart to store photos of one’s privates in the digital equivalent of a bus station locker.

Yes, I do hope the bastard who hacked the photos and released them is caught and punished, either by the authorities for theft and harassment, or by Lawrence and her lawyers for misappropriation of valuable private assets. Either way, the guy is a cad and a heel of the worst stripe. At the same time, however, I also hope pretty people around the world will learn to be a little more circumspect about where they store the images of their sexual self-expression. It’s just not a safe world out there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Gardner whiffs on Obamacare ad

Cory Gardner needs to fire the genius who’s mapping his current campaign strategy. The whole “Cory as victim” isn’t playing at all well. What was, I’m sure, conceived as an out-of-the-park home run is actually stinking up the place worse than the Colorado Rockies.

In his latest ad, Gardner looks right into the camera, holds up what looks like to be the day’s mail as delivered to the Gardner farm, and complains that his family’s health insurance has been cancelled because of Obamacare.

Fortunately, the national media isn’t afraid to call you-know-what on his claim. In an interview on CNN, Gardner played the “I want to share my constituents’ pain” card by saying he refuses to use the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program. Stephanie Cutler would have none of it. She pointed out that, in fact, poor people – real, honest-to-goodness poor people, not “I wanna be treated kind of like” poor people – can get a pretty good insurance plan for $388 a month. And that’s in Yuma County, where Gardner is from. And there are 11 providers for residents east of I-25 to choose from.

Of course, Gardner can’t get that plan for $388 a month. He’s not really poor. Depending on who you ask, Gardner’s net worth is somewhere between $105,000 (Colorado Independent, 2011) and just north of $130,000 (, 2012.) You might have noticed that’s a sharp upward annual trend at a time when most folks’ incomes had flatlined. I don’t mean to imply that Gardner is wealthy, at least not in the way guys like Jim Vincent, Gordon Sipple and Dick Hoch were wealthy. But by any Yuma County standard, Cory Gardner can darn sure afford a decent health insurance plan that won’t force him to decide between seeing the doctor and buying groceries.

But let’s go back to the whole process that earned Gardner that cancellation letter in the first place. First, he had to turn down a plan all federal employees are eligible for. It’s not a single-payer plan; in fact, it’s not unlike the plan anybody lucky enough to work for a well-funded employer might have. Come to think of it, it’s very much like – no, it’s exactly like – the plans my wife and I both have. I’m thinking a lot of Cory Gardner’s constituents would love to have the plan he turned down.

Second, he had to sign up for a pretty crappy insurance plan in order for it to fail the minimum requirements Obamacare sets down. I wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest he did it on purpose and then just waited for the letter – no, I’m definitely not suggesting that – but in politics, as in everything, timing is everything, and that letter couldn’t have been timed any better.

Problem is, Gardner’s cancellation letter isn’t doing him any good. Even Faux Snooze, mouthpiece for the far right, admits that Gardner “isn’t getting any traction” with his stage prop letter. That’s because Obamacare is a dead issue. Poor people – that is, people who are actually poor – are starting to get real health insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act and sham health care providers are being forced to offer real coverage or go out of business.

In any event, passing up good family health coverage just to pretend to be poor doesn’t seem like a very smart thing to do. And if Cory Gardner isn’t smart enough to provide real health care coverage for his family, how can we trust him to take care of us?

Keep coal in the ground? Maybe

There must be some interesting discussions in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s house. McConnell, Republican senator from Tennessee, is an avid champion of Big Coal. His wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, sits on the board of directors of Bloomberg Philanthropies (yes, that Bloomberg) which has just as avidly vowed to eliminate the coal industry in the U.S.

You’re probably thinking, “Now, Jeff, that’s not what they want to do, they just want to replace old coal-fired electrical generation plants with more environmentally friendly generating methods.” On the face of it, you’d be right. But go to the website of Bloomberg philanthropies and you’ll see they’ve partnered with Sierra Club to “end the coal era.”

Oh, sure, there’s a lot of green-sounding stuff like “retire outdated coal plants,” and “close dirty coal-burning plants.” So, okay, they just want to replace the outdated and dirty ones, right? Except that Bloomberg and Sierra Club consider all coal-fired plants to be dirty and outdated, including the new ones slated to come online to replace the old ones. In fact, Bloomberg is proud claim that it has blocked construction of all new coal-fired electrical plants in the U.S. and is now determined to “keep the coal in the ground in Appalachia.”

That no doubt comes as pretty bad news to the coal miners of America. When I first read about the Environmental Protection Administration’s “war on coal,” I thought it was yet more right-wing hyperbole. Then I saw the Bloomberg and Sierra websites and, to be honest with you, it sent a chill down my spine. Leave the coal in the ground? The cheap source of heat and light that’s helped power America for nearly two centuries? Ye gad, how many families is that gong to bankrupt?

Not that many, as it turns out, and maybe none. While researching the issue I was surprised to find that even US News & World Report, which is a fairly conservative yet thoughtfully pragmatic publication (its editors even admitted George W. Bush was a worse president than Richard Nixon) refuses to stand in Big Coal’s corner.
According to an analysis by Jeff Nesbit back in June, there are only 83,000 people employed in coal production in the U.S., compared with 143,000 employed in solar and another 85,000 in the wind energy sector. And both industries, according to Nesbit, are booming and expected to expand rapidly at least until mid-century.

That's all well and good, but how many of those jobs are available in Tennessee and West Virginia, the heart of coal country? Not many, as it turns out. The nation's solar power hotspot, as one might expect, is in the nation's climate hotspot -- the southwest. California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas pretty much make up the cradle of the solar energy industry. Tennessee and West Virginia have little or no solar development and, unless you're a photovoltaic scientist, you have to move to the American southwest to cash in on that boom.

Wind energy jobs are about the same. Wind farms are concentrated in "wind alley," which stretches from Canada to Mexico through the nation's midsection, and most are west of the Mississippi River. there are a few in West Virginia, up around the Pennsylvania state line, and one in Tennessee.

The point is that the jobs that are supposed to "replace" coal aren't where the coal miners are. And unless someone takes responsibility for recruiting coal miners to move from Appalachia to the American Midwest or to the Sunbelt, pays to move them and train them, and then place them in good jobs, those coal miners won't find jobs to replace the ones Bloomberg and Sierra Club want to take away from them.

There are compelling reasons to make that migration possible, reasons that touch your life and mine. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a megawatt hour of coal-fired electricity costs $95.60. For natural gas it’s $66.30. Nuclear? Well, if we can get one built it’ll cost $96.10 for per megawatt hour of power. Wind weighs in at $80.30; solar is still pricey at $130. In other words, all of those wonderful new jobs in solar and wind power will make electricity available to you and me for anywhere from a little more to a littee less than what we're paying now.

Make no mistake, I’m an avid proponent of “green” energy. But I also think there’s a lot of Pollyanna thinking in the phrase “leave coal in the ground.” It’s going to take decades to develop wind and solar, and while the environmentalists are even daring to mention nuclear power again, there won’t be a new nuke power plant even approved in my lifetime, let alone built and online.

I hope the Bloomberg/Sierra Club cabal is ultimately successful. I also hope they work just as hard at finding all of those coal miners new jobs and making sure alternate power sources are safely developed to replace coal. Maybe then the coal can stay in the ground.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Corporate America eats its young again

They fired my boss today. They've fired her before, but when this client came along they plucked her out of obscurity, gave her a corporate cell phone and asked her to work her magic again. And work it she did.

In her first meeting with us front-line managers (there were three of us in the beginning) she let her expectations be known. I fell in love -- not with the woman (well, OK, I did have some inappropriate feelings for the blonde little pixie-rebel, but I kept them hidden) but with her management style. "You blow smoke up my skirt, I'll kick your ass all the way to the curb," she said. "You be here for your people, you serve them, you put them first, and I will back you all the way to the gates of Hell, and boys and girls, we will visit those gates before this is over." Or something like that.

She was a goddess in my eyes. The first time I had to fire a single mom, Heather held me and let me actually cry on her shoulder. When I went into a funk over missed service levels, she took me into the back parking lot and told me to get my shit in a sock before I lost the respect of my team. When I nailed my first monthly operations report presentation, she jumped up and applauded. When I fell asleep at my desk after four straight 14-hour days, she gently wakened me and gave me a free day to go get some sleep. She was tough as hell, gentle as your mother's caress, and when she walked, you know the lady had a place to be and people to see.

Now she's gone. Her successor, a young man I admire and respect deeply, had the look of real fear in his eyes at the announcement meeting.

It's a financial decision, I know. The client won't pay for two managers at that level and has a decided preference for the younger military veteran who speaks softly and tolerates no shit. He's talented, eminently capable, and I will continue to enjoy working with him.

But damn, why does this have to be so harsh? One minute you're building one helluva team that rocks the metrics and makes the client smile, and the next minute you're trying to make severance pay stretch through the summer.

Again, corporate America eats its young.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shootings a symptom of a deeply ill society

Just hours after six people were shot and stabbed to death and a dozen others wounded in Isla Vista, CA, last week, the father of one victim wrathfully put the blame for his son’s death on the National Rifle Association and “craven politicians.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

For one thing, the NRA has never promoted the right of Americans to carry knives. And half of the killer’s victims were stabbed to death before the shooting started. It’s easy enough to imagine that, were it not for the Second Amendment, the killer would have opted for an explosives-packed pressure cooker or some other weapon of massive proportion.

No, the killings were not the fault of the NRA or politicians (calling them “craven” is pretty much redundant.) They are the intersecting of two American illnesses; misogyny and a general culture of violence.

Forty years after the advent of the social movement that was supposed to put women on the same social and professional footing as men, our society clings to the notion that females are the weaker sex and, thus, acceptable targets of exploitation and abuse. From the prostitution apologists to the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh, men keep asserting their God-given right to use women for personal gratification. This is not a new phenomenon; a woman’s “wifely duty” has been a staple of marital relations since the beginning of time. Today it manifests itself on the smut-soaked World Wide Web and the hook-up culture celebrated in all forms of popular media. The natural, intimate, and emotionally bonding act that sex can be has become, in the minds of most men, the raison d’ĂȘtre of womankind.

It's no surprise that the self-loathing, self-pitying creature who killed women because no one would have sex with him was a frequent visitor to websites that comprise a digital base to the culture of the pick-up artist (PUA.) The killer, according to online news reports, had tried to hit on women using the techniques promoted by such websites as but was still unsuccessful in getting rid of his virginity. He then joined an anti-PUA website, which is just as bad because it still promotes the idea that all men are entitled to sex with somebody, anybody, whomever they please, but that PUA sites are shams and give false information. For its part, Return of Kings (don't you just love that entitled white European-centered name?) replied that if the killer had been given the sexual options he so badly needed, no one would have died. It's as if the PUA community is adopting the slogan, "Fuck a loser, save a life."

And if the bitches just won’t give it up, even to save the lives of the innocent? Well, that’s where the second illness comes in: Violence is the ultimate solution to all problems. Over 200 years after our nation won its independence at musket-point and 150 years after its unity was validated in a national bloodbath, we still have not transcended the use of violence to settle our conflicts. Two generations of Americans have grown up in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful resistance to forced racial segregation and bigotry, and we still have not learned that talking and working together actually bring better results than throwing fists, or worse. We Americans are unable to discern the difference between one president's gleeful waste of military might and another's tortured decision to kill a dangerous foe. So steeped have we become in hating those who hate us that, when Osama bin Laden was gunned down in his own bedroom, Americans waved flags and danced in the streets. It should have been a moment of introspection and national grief that we were reduced to assassination to protect ourselves, but we celebrated the murder as if it were a national triumph.

Particularly alarming is the loud declaration that the answer to gun violence is more guns and more violence. While the NRA is no more responsible for the killings in Isla Vista than the New York Times is responsible for the hate speech of the right-wingnuts, neither does it exactly preach peace, harmony, and understanding. More than once, the NRA's mouth-breathing figureheads have spouted the nonsense that, if everyone carried a gun, there would be less gun violence. That's like saying if everyone carried a gallon of gasoline and a book of matches, there'd be fewer arsons. And yes, it's exactly like that.

Violence is never a solution, and neither is outlawing violence. The real solution is much harder, and I have serious doubts that any culture as greedy, materialistic, and devoted to personal gratification as ours is can ever achieve it. The solution is simply to become more civilized. As a people, we need to learn how to put the needs of others before our own, both as individuals and as a culture. The growing blame-the-victim hatred of the poor must stop. We need to become focused, not on our own comfort, but on lessening the pain of others. We have to stop looking for blessings from outside ourselves and start finding the blessings inside ourselves that we can bestow on others. We have to learn to give without getting back and to accept with humble gratitude.

This means, of course, the erasure of many concepts Americans hold most dear; competition in which there is a winner and a loser, keeping what one earns with no compulsion to share, the universal righteousness of a particular religion or form of government or business model. In fact, it would require a fundamental change in the very idea of the American dream. Our historical icons would have to be seen, not as mythical gods beyond reproach, but as the flawed men and women they really were. We should not seek to emulate George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but to transcend them, to be better, even more civilized and more enlightened than they were.

Until then -- until we re-define ourselves as a nation -- we will continue to see outraged and emotionally shattered parents standing in front of microphones spraying blame at whatever target seems handiest. Like it or not, multiple-death killings of innocent people will be the price we continue to pay for being the people we are.