HELLO

Whether you're a fan of my OSCARBLOGGER site, or if you're just casting your way 'round the web, I hope you enjoy my new blog: WHISPERING IN A WIND TUNNEL. Here I will discuss issues of politics, religion, race, gay rights, gender, you know, the big stuff.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

REWARDING BAD BEHAVIOR



As a progressive, you can probably imagine that I'm not too happy with the recent mid term elections in which the Republican party gained more seats in the house and captured the senate.  Yes, there was a lot to be sad about, from governor Sam Brownback's victory in Kansas after he bankrupted the state (what's a Republican got to do to lose there, rob a bank?) to Joni Ernst winning a senate seat in Iowa while supporting a personhood amendment and saying that federal officials implementing Obamacare should be arrested.
At times like this, I often find myself angry at the American public; how could we put in power a party that opposes raising the minimum wage and won't accept the proven science of climate change? But then I look at the election numbers: only about thirty percent of eligible voters turned out, with the electorate this time being much older whiter and male than in 2012.  It seems that younger Americans are too busy living their lives to vote in an election that doesn't decide the presidency.  And most people don't follow politics closely, with many Americans not knowing which party controls which branch of government at any given time.  And the people who do have the time to follow politics are often retired, and therefore older and more likely to vote Republican.

It's also interesting to note how cyclical this process is: in the past ten years we have gone from the Republicans claiming a "pertinent majority" with George W Bush's reelection in 2004 to the Democrats roaring back and being seen as the wave of the future in 2006 and 2008, to once again have the Republicans surge in the 2010 midterm, only to lose ground (and the presidency) in 2012.  Sadly, our divided do nothing political system seems like the one we deserve.  Until the Democrats can get voters to come out to vote in mid term elections or Republicans can find a way to expand their base beyond older white men, one party dominance seems impossible.

This man read GREEN EGGS AND HAM out loud during the government shut down,
and he may be our next president

But I found this election particularly galling because it has validated the utterly cynical nature of the Republican strategy of gridlock and lockstep opposition.  Ever since President Barak Obama took office, the Republican party has attacked nearly everything he has done and shown a distinct lack of respect for him as president.  From senator Joe Wilson literally yelling "You lie!" at the president during the 2009 state of the union speech to house member Louis Gohmert's claim that the Obama administration was infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Republicans in congress have thrown every piece of mud they could at the president. (And don't get me started on the right wing media and the so called "birther movement"). In the senate  Republicans have reflexively used the filibuster, to slow or kill his agenda.  And, since the Republicans retook the house in 2010, they have passed less legislation than any congress ever.  They have, on the other hand, tried to repeal Obamacare over forty times, and wasted time and money investigating the so called "Bengazi scandal".  And, of course, they literally shut down the government in 2013.  Why have the voters forgotten that?

The worst part of this strategy is that they have managed to blame the gridlock on the president, implying that it was his lack of outreach to them that is to blame.  (Honestly, how are you supposed to reach out to people who call you a Marxist Muslim that hates America?).  Somewhat amazingly, Republicans have complained that Obama has not made the same kind of outreach to them that Bill Clinton did when he was president back in the 90's.  Now while it's true that Clinton signed into law Republican backed bills like Welfare Reform and The Defense of Marriage act, the Republicans seem to have forgotten the part where they rewarded his compromises by trying to impeach him over the nonsensical Monica Lewinsky scandal.
I've already mentioned that most Americans don't follow politics closely, but when they do see things going wrong, they tend the party of the president in power, and so they blame the political dead lock on Obama and his approval ratings have suffered.  Although Obama has not been a perfect president, it irks me how his low ratings are not deserved: the day after the Republican victory, a jobs report came out saying that unemployment has dipped to five point eight  percent, the lowest it's been in six years.  To put that in a proper perspective, the Obama administration has created 5.9 million jobs since 2009,  that's four times as many jobs as the Bush administration created in eight years. And yet he gets no credit for this.  Not to mention the fact that if the Republicans had not opposed his 2014  highway work bill, unemployment would be even lower and our critically sagging infrastructure would be improved. Now to be fair, wages for most Americans have been stagnant, even as job growth has continued, but neither party seems able to deal with that issue in the short term, and certainly the Republican plan of cutting taxes for the rich yet again will do little or nothing to improve the wages of average Americans. And then there's Obamacare, which, after its initially disastrous beginning, is clearly working,  bringing millions of uncovered Americans into the health care system; in fact, despite their open hatred of it, few Republicans mentioned it as an issue during the campaign.
So with the economy rebounding and Obamacare working, why is the president's approval rating sliding?  Part of the problem is our 24/7 news media, that covered the rise of the radical terrorist group ISIS as something Obama was slow to deal with (like every president we've had for the past 50 years, middle east unrest has become a thorn in his side), and that made the relatively minor ebola crisis look like a huge problem that the president didn't deal with(as if he could micromanage every decision made at every hospital in the country).  Also there's the issue of president fatigue; because everything the president does is considered news, Americans seem to tire of seeing our commander in chief giving yet another speech or visiting  yet another diner or grocery store on the news after six years, and we start to look forward to the next election.

And the next election should prove to be interesting, with many pundits saying that the real winner in the mid terms is Hillary Clinton, who will have a conservative senate to battle against in 2016 when she runs for president (and let's face it, she will).  But even if she does win, she will almost definitely be up against a Republican congress that will stand as strongly against everything she does as they did against Obama, and we'll be grid locked once again.  Is there any way that America will move beyond this? Perhaps someday, and here's why: in a recent interview in England, Oprah Winfrey sparked controversy when she said this about racism: "There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die,".  Blunt her words may have been, but she wasn't far off from the truth in my opinion, and that certainly pertains to the future of the Republican party.  The Republican base of older white men is slowly dying off, and if they don't find a way to appeal more to women, minorities, young people and gay people they may never hold the white house again.  (And don't just take my word for it, Republican studies done after the 2012 election came to the same conclusion).  So let's hope that someday the words moderation and compromise enter the Republican vocabulary.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

KILL THE DEATH PENALTY



In a recent ruling, Judge Cormac Carney of California ruled that the death penalty system in that state was:  "a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional."   While only describing the capital punishment system in one state, his words could easily be used to describe our terrible, barbaric system that 32 states in our country cling to, despite the fact that no other first world country still uses state approved murder as a method of punishment.  America is alone in the first world, putting us next to countries with brutal governments like Iran and North Korea.
Like abortion, the death penalty is an emotional and divisive issue because it deals with life and death, and like that issue, reasonable people can be found on both sides.  While I obviously am deeply opposed to using murder as justice, I can understand the pro death penalty argument: it's reserved for only the worst criminals who have killed one or more people in brutal fashion, and it allows for closure for the friends and family of the victims.  It also serves as a deterrent to other possible murderers.   But, starting with that last point, why then does the US have more homicides than other industrialized nations that don't have a death penalty.  And even in America, states with capital punishment do not have lower homicide rates; North Dakota, without a death penalty, consistently has one of the lowest homicide rates,  while death penalty using Louisiana has one of the highest. The deterrent argument just doesn't add up.


I personally feel that the use of the death penalty can add to a culture of violence, not prevent it.  In the constant debate our society has on the effect of  violent  media on children, we rarely ask the question, "what does the use of capital punishment tell them?"  That some people deserve to die?  That it's alright to kill some people?  Is that really the message we want them to receive?  That barbaric vengeance is sometimes necessary?

Add to that the arbitrary unfairness of it; obviously the state you commit a crime in can effect whether or not you face the death penalty, but even worse is the wealth of the defendant can play a big role in that possibility.  Like so many things in our country, our legal system is heavily slanted towards the rich, with those who are able to pay for a good legal team running a much higher chance of avoiding capital punishment than a poor person with a court appointed lawyer.  How corrupt is our system?  Consider that the American Bar Association pointed out the flaws of the system in 1997, and then called for a moratorium on capital punishment in 2001, and these are people who work with the system constantly.

Guillotines, in a museum where they belong

And poor legal representation leads to the single main reason I am against capital punishment: mistakes are made.  There is no one in the world who can look me in the eye and guarantee that they are sure that every person on death row is absolutely guilty.   And that every person who has been put to death was guilty.  And that every person that ever will be put be death will be guilty.  It's impossible.  There is no doubt in my mind that innocent people have been and will continue to be killed by our government in the name of justice.  And when an innocent person is killed by the state, then every taxpayer in that state becomes an accomplice to murder because their tax dollars pay for the machinery of death.
Capital punishment was struck down by the US supreme court from 1972 to 1976; since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center,  143 innocent prisoners have been exonerated from death row.  Many of them came very close to being executed.  How many innocent people have been killed?  We have no way of knowing, but it's obvious that once an execution is carried out, there's little incentive to further investigate the case, so it's safe to say that mistakes are made.
And that's the bottom line: I think it's a fair trade off to have the absolute worst criminals spend the rest of their lives behind bars rather than run the risk of innocent people being killed.  An innocent person wrongly jailed can eventually have his or her name cleared, but you can't overturn a killing.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

PRISON NATION PT 2



In part one of this subject I took a look at America current status as the world's number one jailor.  Now let's take a look at what helps fuel that status: the war on drugs.  Putting it bluntly, the war on drugs has been a disaster in this country.  It stands for everything the US does wrong: it's racist, classist, wasteful, ineffective, hypocritical and puritanical.  And what better argument can be made for its failure than the fact that,  despite our huge prison population, our country remains the number market for illegal drugs in the world.  (According to a recent Frontline report, the government estimates that the US spends around 60 billion dollars a year on illegal drugs).  To be blunt once again, the only possible way that the war on drugs can be seen as a success is if its goal was to jail as many poor minorities as possible.

The term war on drugs was created by the media in 1971 after president Richard Nixon called drugs "public enemy number one", but it really took off in the early 1980's with the arrival of crack cocaine.  For those of us who can remember that time, the spread of crack was indeed frightening, with nearly every inner city neighborhood in America having a serious problem with crack related gang violence virtually overnight.   While the negative effects of the drug were often overestimated (a recent article in the New York  Times showed that the media's fears of a generation of crack babies leading horrible lives were overblown at the time), it was a undeniably scary drug.  But, sadly, our reaction to it was to greatly increase drug sentencing laws, which were inevitably used disproportionately against minorities;  in 1986 President Reagan signed the Anti Drug Abuse act into law.  It contained a whopping twenty nine new mandatory minimum sentences, and even worse, punished crack cocaine violators more than powder cocaine ones at a ratio of one hundred to one.  Although this law was repealed in 2010  by President Obama, the damage had been done, and for years crack users, overwhelmingly minorities, were given long prison sentences, while mostly white powder cocaine users were given a slap on the wrist.

Sadly, the blatantly racist aspects of the war on drugs continue to this day: current polling shows that although white people are more likely than black to smoke marijuana, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested for that crime.  From the stop and frisk laws in New York City to the automatic pulling over of any nonwhite male driving a nice car all over the country, the war on drugs is mostly about jailing non white men.  While in jail they are forced to survive in an environment filled with murderers and other brutal criminals, which often results in their coming out far more violent than when they entered.  And jail time is just the beginning: after their release a prison record hangs over their head for the rest of their lives, making them second class citizens with limited job options.  In 2012 author Michelle Alexander published a book about the drug war entitled THE NEW JIM CROW : MASS INCARCERATION  IN THE AGE OF  COLORBLINDNESS, and really, the name says it all.


Let's face it, for a lot of people in this country, youthful experimentation with drugs is seen as right of passage; while most parents certainly don't encourage it, many of them  expect that their  kids will try drugs at some point in their lives, like in college, and that most of them will not suffer any long term ill effects from their experimentation.   Just look at our last three presidents, Obama, Bush and Clinton, who have all admitted to using drugs in their younger years, without it having a serious effect on their electability. As Bush put it, "when I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish", essentially shrugging off an illegal activity by implying that everybody does it.  So why are Americans willing to accept former drug use in our leaders, but still think that non violent drug users should go to jail?  And why aren't we angrier about the hypocritical way that those leaders punish others for doing something they themselves did?
Also, there is the simple question of freedom: if someone is an adult in a free society, and they willingly choose to take drugs, and that drug use does not involve harming or threatening anyone else or anyone else's property, why is that person a criminal?  Why can their freedom be taken away?  Are drugs potentially harmful and even deadly?  Obviously.  But consider that is perfectly legal for an adult to buy an entire bottle of vodka or Jack Daniels with the intention of drinking it all in one day, which would be just as  harmful or deadly as taking any other drug.  Alcohol kills thousands of Americans every year, sometimes slowly(like through cirrhosis of the liver) or quickly, through alcohol poisoning(the center for disease control states that binge drinking alone kills around eighty eight thousand people a year in this country) , and when a person is addicted to alcohol, trying to stop can be agonizing and cause drunken tremors and hallucinations.  Given all of that, why are other drugs illegal and alcohol isn't?

"Alright men, we dumped out four barrels.  I guess we got this alcohol problem licked!"

Speaking of alcohol, we all know that this country had a prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, and you would be hard pressed to find any historian who would call it anything other than disastrous.  Making liquor illegal only increased its usage while opening the door to an extremely profitable illicit bootleg market in which rival criminals often violently protected their turf from others.  Sound familiar?  Why can't America learn from its past mistakes and realize that the real problem with drugs isn't the drugs themselves, but the enormous amounts of money to be made off transporting and selling them?  And that as long as that money is there to be made, there will always be people trying to make it, especially in a money worshiping culture like ours?
So how should we legalize drugs?  It's a difficult question: I am certainly opposed to the idea of privatizing drugs, so that corporations could actually profit from getting people addicted.  One need look no further than the horrible behavior of alcohol and tobacco companies, who downplay the dangers of their products and  sometimes blatantly aim their advertising at children, to see how terrible an idea that is.  (I'm old enough to remember candy cigarettes that were sold to kids in packages with real tobacco company labels.  What could be more evil?!)   What I propose is that we have government run stores that adults could enter and buy drugs in, with signs that clearly explain the negative effects of each drug, and safe rooms for them to take the drugs. They could also take the drugs home and use them there, or at specially designated bars or cafes, but not in public. And the crucial element of the stores would be that the drugs would be sold at a very low cost, putting all the drug dealers out of business.  Meanwhile, the federal  Drug Enforcement Agency could be modified to only go after drug dealers who try to sell to children, for whom I certainly have no sympathy for, and the money saved from incarcerating less people can be used to make federal drug rehab centers bigger and better.  I will freely admit that most of this idea comes from the late conservative icon William F Buckley, which shows that ending the war on drugs can be a conservative position.  After all, the drug war is a wasteful big government  program that interferes with people's lives, everything that conservatives claim to hate.

Like the gay marriage issue, there has been a sea change in public opinion concerning the  legalization of marijuana, with Washington State and Colorado passing outright legalization while twenty other states allow it for medical use.  Along with that, more and more Americans are coming to the common sense conclusion that it's better (and cheaper) to put non violent drug users into rehab than jail.  Hopefully, these trends will continue and America's dreadful war on drugs will become a thing of the past.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

PRISON NATION PT 1



In 2014, for the first time in years, the American prison population began to decline.  That's the good news; the bad news is that America still incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.  It's hard to get one's head around just how draconian the US prison system is: America makes up just five percent of the world's population, but has twenty five percent of the world's prisoners.  With a total prison population of around two to three million people (plus millions more on probation), we jail more people than China and Russia. Given these awful numbers, how can we honestly call ourselves the land of the free?
How did America come to such a shameful state of affairs?  The first part began in the early 1970's when then president Richard Nixon began a "war on crime", combined with a "war on drugs", both of which were really responses to the tumult the country went through in the 60's, from violent anti war protests to hippies smoking pot,  to many middle Americans the country was out of control, and that a crack down on scofflaws was needed.  Things stepped up in the 1980's when crack cocaine began to be sold in inner cities and president Ronald Reagan responded by signing the Anti Drug Abuse Act in 1986, when pushed for minimum mandatory sentences.
Another turning point came in the 1988 presidential election: at first, Vice President George Bush was running behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, but then Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater discovered that while he was governor, Dukakis had furloughed a man named Willie Horton, who went on to rape and murder a woman.  Pouncing on this story, Atwater whipped up a fear campaign that prominently featured the black Horton's mug shot in TV ads and mailers.

"By the time we're finished,  they're going to wonder whether
Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."-Lee Atwater

The campaign not only worked for Bush, it lead the way for conservatives in the 1990's.  For years Republicans had benefited from scaring the American public about the Communist menace, saying that they were the ones strong enough to stand up to the reds.  But with the collapse of Soviet Russia and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party was without an enemy.  The Horton campaign gave them a new one: crime, particularly crimes committed by non white people.  Forgetting that violent crime was at its highest rate in 1984 when Reagan, a Republican, was president, they latched onto this new issue.  Sadly, the Democrats, not wanting to appear soft on crime, went along with this trend; in one of the more shameful moments of presidential campaign history, then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton halted to his race for the presidency to return to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a death row criminal.

Then in 1993, the horrific kidnapping and killing of a twelve year old girl in California by Richard Davis made national headlines, leading the voters of that state to  pass  the "Three Strikes Your Out" amendment , which mandated a life sentence for a criminal convicted of a third felony.  Lost in the anger and fear over the Davis case was the fact that the law would apply to non violent felons, like  drug addicts.  (In an interesting bit of irony, the father of the murder victim actually came out against the amendment's passage, to no avail).  The passage of that amendment lead to many similar laws being passed in other states, leading to an inevitable increase in the prison population.

Another reason for the increase in prisoners in the US is the terrible trend of states turning to private prisons that are run for profit to incarcerate prisoners.  Beginning in the 1980's, companies like the Correction Corporation of America have profited from more people being imprisoned, and, like all corporations in America, they have lobbied congress to protect their interests, throwing their weight and money behind politicians who promise to get tough on crime, thereby increasing the number of "customers" in their jails. It's a vicious cycle, one that has been given the frightening moniker of  "the prison industrial complex".

As I said at the top of the post there is a trend to slowly but surely reduce prison populations in this country.  I would love to say that this is just because of common sense and compassion for non violent drug offenders, but actually, the reason is simple economics.  After the disastrous economic crash of 2008, many states were strapped for cash, which resulted in them taking a long hard look at their budgets and realizing that doing things like putting non violent drug addicts into rehab instead of jail would save money.   And so, this country's disastrous turn towards becoming the world's number one jailor appears to be turning, unfortunately it took the worst recession since the great depression to make that turn.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

QUESTIONING THE JESUS STORY



In the final episode of TV's BREAKING BAD, the last image we see is of the show's antagonist  lying down flat, arms outstretched, bleeding from a wound in his side.  Although I'm a big fan of the show, I couldn't help rolling my eyes at this when I saw it.  "Ugh!"  I thought to myself, "another Christ figure?"


Our Meth dealing Messiah

Yes, from superheroes like Spider Man and Super Man to science fiction characters like Neo in THE MATRIX, evoking the Jesus story in a Hollywood movie or TV show is often a cheap and easy way to build audience sympathy for their heroes. The Jesus story is such a huge part of Western culture, that it can be invoked through the simple gesture of having a character spread his arms. Along with references to Jesus, the life of Jesus has been portrayed numerous times in many different movies over the years, one of which, without a trace of irony, referred to it as THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. And then there are the uncountable versions of it in other media that have appeared over the years.  It is so accepted and acknowledged as a wonderful story of sacrifice,  that it is rarely questioned.  But why not?

 Consider the story, according to the bible, God created humans as its most beloved creation, and, while they occasionally disappointed it (causing it to at one point to flood the entire earth and kill all but a handful of people), it was mostly pleased with humans.  So, one day it decided to forgive us of all of our sins; now, considering that this is an all seeing, all knowing supreme being we're talking about here, it could have done so easily.  All it had to do was snap its fingers, wiggle its nose, tap its ruby red slippers, whatever the hell it wanted, to just easily forgive all of mankind's sins.  But instead it went through the long, drawn out process of impregnating a virgin, then having her son grow into adulthood, give some nice speeches, perform a few miracles, and then get railroaded and crucified, with the act of that crucifixion becoming the way that our sins were forgiven.  Why did a supreme being take such a circuitous route to bring forgiveness?  This is the same being that was supposed to have created the entire universe in a week, so why wait thirty three years to forgive the sins of mankind? Why all the bother, when it so easily could have done such a thing without even sending down Jesus?
The answer to that question would seem to be that Jesus had a message from God to bring to humanity.  But that also raises some problems: if you were to look a world map that showed were Jesus was born, lived and died, it would only be a tiny spot in the Middle East.  If Jesus died for the sins of all mankind, why did only such a small part of the world's population get to hear his message?  While it's impossible to know just how many people heard Jesus speak, it's safe to say that it was, at the most, in the  hundreds of thousands.  So, there were millions of people all over the world, in places like North America or Asia,who didn't get to hear this wonderful message, merely because they lived in the wrong place.  Did God not care about them?  Were they beneath its interest?  Couldn't a supreme being send down more than one messiah?  Why not ten, or a thousand or even a million?  Why not blanket the world to make sure that this message, that was intended to be heard by all of mankind, actually was?

There was a lot more to the world than this


And an even darker question arrises concerning Jesus; if God sees and knows all, then surely it can see into the future, and if it could see into the future, then it would know that the belief in the divinity of Jesus would become a huge dividing line between its worshippers.  That there would be Christians who believed that Jesus was the messiah and Jews who believed that the messiah was still on the way.  This  dividing line would become so  sharp and bitter that it would lead to centuries of hatred and bigotry that persist to this day, from the torture carried out by the Inquisition to the bitter pogroms imposed in many countries, culminating in the Nazi concentration camps. Surely, when God decided to send down Jesus it must have known that this would be the result, and yet it still chose to.  Why? Wasn't there an easier way for God to forgive our sins, a way that would not have resulted in so much suffering and death?
To question the actions and motivations of God is seen as blasphemous by some religious people and unfathomable by others, but what I think they're really afraid of is that Christianity, like all myths, loses the strength of its arguments when logical thought and common sense questions are asked about it.  It's easier  to nip such questions in the bud then try to answer them, because for religion, ignorance is truly bliss.