Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up

             Lord Byron (1788-1824)

            Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Question: What is the difference between reality and fiction? Answer: fiction must make sense; reality doesn't.  Thus said the late novelist Tom Clancy during an interview with Larry King back in the early 1990s.  A bit of research shows that Clancy had adapted his pithy insight from either Lord Byron ("Truth is always stranger than fiction"), Mark Twain ("Truth is always stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn't"), G. K. Chesterton ("Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it") or perhaps Leo Rosten ("Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense"). Regardless of precisely who was responsible for the original quote (it may well have been Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas, both of whom wrote extensively about the nature of truth) there are, on a daily, even hourly basis, innumerable examples which should all be stuffed into a file entitled 'YOU JUST CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP!'  A handful of examples will suffice:

  • The United States, along with France and the U.K. bombs chemical weapons plants in Syria; within 24 hours, the POTUS Tweets "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!" (Sound familiar?)
  • '45 pardons former  V.P.  Richard Cheney's Chief of Staff, Louis "Scooter" Libby, thus firing a non-so-subtle shot across the bow of Robert Mueller III's investigation into all sorts of things. 
  • Armed with subpoenas, FBI agents raid the home, office and hotel room of the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, whom the DOJ now admits is "under criminal investigation." In response, '45 calls the raid "a national disgrace" and further claims that "all lawyers are concerned and deflated" by the raid. 
  • Former FBI director James Comey publishes a new book, A Higher Loyalty, in which he  says the president is both "unethical" and "untethered to truth." In response, '45 Tweets that Comey is a "weak and untruthful slimeball."
  • This past Thursday, the president weighs in on rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership, an eleven-nation regional trade pact which in pulling out of shortly after his inauguration, angrily termed "a rape of our country."  
  • Despite innumerable ethical lapses, the president recently praised embattled EPA administrator (and former Oklahoma A.G.) Scott Pruitt for the "fantastic job" he is doing.  It brings back memories of another Sooner, Michael Brown, the first Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response (a division of Homeland Security) who, three days after Hurricane Katrina wipes out much of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, was told by another president "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" 
  • Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin lashes out at teachers protesting to raise state education funding, claiming that the statewide walkout "inevitably" led students to be sexually assaulted and use drugs. The governor also disses protesting teachers for “hangin’ out, shoes off ... smokin’, leavin’ trash around, takin’ the day off.”

You just can't make this stuff up!

This last bit of nonsensical reality directly affects some of the most important and influential people in America: public school teachers. In recent weeks and months, the long festering infection caused by low teacher pay, disappearing pensions and their overall treatment has broken through the surface and become highly visible.  In more and more states - Kentucky, West Virginia, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma to name but a few - teachers have been staging walkouts demanding a living wage and urging that their promised future pensions not be cut.  It is an utter pity that teachers - people whose job it is to help shape the future of society - are treated like second-class citizens. Armed with bachelors and often masters degrees (the earning of which leads to a lot of debt) they often work for less money than the clerks who manage the mini-marts where they purchase gas.  Today, few public school teachers can afford to buy a house or raise a family without benefit of a second - or even third - job.  Teachers in many states are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits upon retirement; their defined-benefit pensions have been replaced with hybrid retirement plans that combine features of a traditional pension with features of the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector.  

For years, thoughtless people have argued that teachers actually have a cushy deal: they only work 8 months a year, have summers off as well as a week in winter and a week in spring. What seldom gets mentioned - let alone understood - is that teachers spend untold (and unpaid)  hours creating lesson plans, reading essays and grading tests, as well as spending hundreds if not thousands of their own dollars providing their students with pencils, pens, paper, Xeroxes and the like that are simply not in their schools' budgets. The very same politicians and legislators who urge the arming of teachers and providing  see-thru backpacks for students (without worrying about where the money is going to come from) cannot find enough money for books and other basic educational tools. 

All across the country, teachers are staging walkouts, protesting these conditions. It is interesting to note that these protests - some of which have already led to promised raises - are all taking place in red states - states which do not permit teachers to join unions. Mind you, they are not asking for "The Moon and Sixpence" (the title of a marvelous Somerset Maugham novel assigned to us by our eighth grade English teacher Mr. Blakely); they are merely asking that they be treated as professionals who are entrusted with educating our young.  They are asking for more than lip service; they are asking that legislators quit depriving public schools of needed dollars in order to shunt them over to so-called "Charter Schools" or keeping taxes low in order to make their wealthy donors happy.

Two of the biggest motivators in getting public school teachers out of the classroom and out into the streets were the election of Donald Trump (the least intellectually curious president in recent history) and the confirmation of Betsy Devos as U.S. Secretary of Education. The latter was seen as a direct slap in the face of hundreds of thousands of public school teachers.  Ms. Devos, a multi-billionaire heir to the Amway fortune has never been an educator, let alone a student at a public school. She, her siblings and her children were educated at private religious schools. She has devoted years and years - not to mention millions and millions of dollars - to the cause of Charter Schools and home schooling, and has frequently attributed the "downfall" of public education to G-d being removed from the classroom.  

There was a time - and not all that long ago - when teachers were paid a respectable, living wage and treated as members of an honored profession.  Most of us remember the names of a handful of teachers who made a profound difference in our lives.  These teachers instilled in us both a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge.  The purpose of learning was not, strictly speakingfor the purpose of a future job.  Where today "learn-in-order-to-earn" is the unspoken meme, "learning-for-the-sake-of-knowledge" was the guiding principle back in the day. As the historian/philosopher Jacques Barzun noted in his 1981 book Teacher in America"Teaching is not a lost art, but the respect for it is a lost tradition."  (I thank my history teacher, Mr. Cousins, for turning me on to Professor Barzun a long, long time ago.)

It is frequently said that "throwing more dollars at public schools won't make them any better."  Perhaps this is so.  However, making the respect and restoration of learning and teaching a prime plank in future political campaigns just may.  We owe it to the men and women who devote their lives to educating young minds - the young minds who will one day shape our future - to support those who treat education as far, far more than a convenient sound bite.

Fiction?  Perhaps.  But do remember Twain's dictum that ". . . fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth isn't." 

452 days down, 1009 days to go.

Copyright© 2018 Kurt F. Stone

WWJD?

WWJD.jpg

One must admit that when stripped of their varying rituals, practices, and fringe crazies, the three great monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have an awful lot in common.  And not just because the latter two are "daughters" of the first. At base. all three teach love and tenderness; humility and the importance of extending a helping hand to those in need; of "Doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with G-d." To be certain, there are are innumerable differences when it comes to specifics: kashrut (kosher) versus halal; the nature of Sabbath observance; the question of whether to proselylize or to keep things "in house"; the relationship between deed and creed.

This last point - the relationship between deed and creed - is of major concern.  Judaism, as opposed to Christianity (and Islam) is remarkably free (although not entirely so) of doctrine. Ask a group of rabbis or scholars a question beginning with the words "What do Jews believe about . . .?" and what you'll likely get is first a profound silence, and second, something like "Well, some Jews believe 'X' while others believe 'Y' or 'Z.'" (I long ago concluded somewhat in jest that we (male) rabbis wear beards so that when faced with a question about belief, we can stroke our beards and look thoughtfully introspective when we really don't know the answer.)  However, ask the same group of rabbis or scholars a question beginning with "What do Jews do in situation 'X' or 'Y'? and you will likely get a pretty swift response . . . even if the various answers are somewhat variegated.  Then too, as mentioned above, Jews - unlike members of most Christian sects - do not go out of their way to seek converts. It has long been our understanding that Judaism is the best religion on the planet . . . for Jews and those who seek to convert of their own free will.  Indeed, classically, a rabbi's initial response to one seeking conversion is supposed to be rejection - and not once but twice . . . in order to make sure that the potential convert is sincere.

When it comes to secular politics, there are some similarities - and many, many differences - between Jews and Christians. For many Jewish voters the issue par excellent in figuring out who to support is, not surprisingly, Israel.  But though Israel may serve as a political litmus test for many, the specific position a candidate takes may in the long run gain or lose the support of an individual voter. Some Jews (and many on the so-called "Christian Right"), will only support and vote for people who take a hawkish "single state" position. (And mind you, Jews and fundamental Christians don't necessarily express all-out support for Israel for the same reason . . . but that is a subject for another essay.)  Many Jews and Christians will tell you that '45 is ". . . the best friend Israel ever had in the Oval Office."  They base this largely on two things: bellicose rhetoric and moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

Other voters will only support candidates who favor a "two-state solution."  For many Jews, there are other issues of equally great - or even greater import - such as climate change, a woman's right to choose, education, healthcare, the need to keep an imprenetrable wall of separation between "church and state" - which will help determine whether or not they can in good conscience support a particular candidate.  Frequently, the positions political actors take find their basis in the more humanistic aspects of Judaism. The same can be said of many Christians, except that the positions they hold near and dear are frequently the bipolar opposites of their Jewish neighbors.

Interestingly, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians are relatively new to secular politics. The biggest boost to getting conservative Christians into politics was the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion legal in the United States.  With that fateful decision, a sleeping giant came awake and began, in the words of one commentator, ". . . adding grievance to grievance [and] aligning themselves with the Republican Party and its Teapot wing." In other words, the mass entry of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (now referred to as "values voters") into the realm of secular politics has been at full strength only in the past four decades.  Generally speaking, the Christian Right has thrown its support behind men and women who tend to be pro-life (I prefer "pro-birth"), pro-gun, anti-science, anti Planned Parenthood, and favor money for charter schools.  To their way of thinking these are among the positions Jesus would take.  (Precisely how they know this evades me.) They also support people who talk up their Christian bona fides, are unafraid to tell us of their great devotion and faithfulness, and truly believe that America's creation was and is based on Christian principles; in short, that America is a Christian nation.

The Christian Right's influence on the 2016 election of Donald Trump was and is, to say the least, noteworthy.  It was and is also a high point of hypocrisy on their part. As writer Jay Parini noted in a recent op-ed,  "It didn’t matter that Trump was an unhinged philanderer, a braggart whose own life and example was a mockery of Christian values—as long as he delivered a reliably anti-abortion and anti-gay rights judge to replace Antonin Scalia.  Neil Gorsuch was their man, and Trump delivered."    During the 2016 campaign - and since entering office - '45 has hyperbolically proclaimed "No one loves the Bible like I do." Those who are willing to take him at his word have also heard him state such absurdities as:

Then too, the Christian right was thrilled when the newly-inaugurated president, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, vowed to ". . . get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” (n.b.: The Johnson Amendment which has been in the federal tax code for more than 60 years, protects the integrity of tax-exempt organizations like houses of worship by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose political candidates.) On May 4, 2017, '45 signed an executive order "to defend the freedom of religion and speech" for the purpose of easing the Johnson Amendment's restrictions. In announcing his executive order, he described his goal of eliminating the prohibition on election activity as potentially his “greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.” As it turns out, the repeal of the Johnson Act, which was included in the House version of the infamous tax bill, was removed during the reconciliation process with the Senate version, which did not include repeal.  Nonetheless, fundamental Christians still give '45 high marks for attempting if not succeeding - to get rid of it.

Many have been wondering aloud how in the world so many intensely religious people can continue supporting this man who, by any reasonably objective yardstick, is the bipolar opposite of a humble, moral, honest Christian. 

WWJD? ("What would Jesus do?")

It just might be that Jesus would seek a meeting with the POTUS and pose the question Magister praeses, quo vadis?  -  namely, "Mr. President, where in the hell are you going?"  It just might bet there will be a gathering - and soon - at the White House where the lofiest, most supportive fundamentalist Christian leaders will be asking him to explain himself.  Really.

According to a recent story on National Public Radio (a favorite bugbear of the Christian Right), As allegations continue to swirl about the president and a payout to a porn star to cover up a sexual encounter, evangelical leaders are organizing a sit-down with President Trump in June. One prominent ministry leader who is organizing the session said "The president's tone and personal life remain a concern for many evangelicals . . . .There's things that are like fingernails on the chalkboard to people of faith. That's not who we are; that's not a 'fruit of the Spirit'; that's not leading with humility," This meeting if it actually happens - could be attended by nearly 1,000 religious leaders.  (Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told Fox News' Todd Starnes "It  is not going to be a confrontational meeting, that is absolutely not true. So many evangelicals are frustrated with Congress and they are likely not to show up to vote in the fall. That's really the focus of our gathering."  In other words, according to Perkins, the "values voters" he and his colleagues claim to represent are not concerned about '45's values.  

So WWJD?  Would he attend the meeting?  Would he tell the POTUS to start acting like the fervent man of G-d he proclaims himself to be or else step aside and repent?  Will '45 begin losing the support of the most perfervid members of his political base? Will it finally be revealed to his vaunted "values voters" that the emperor has no clothes?

Truly, only G-d knows . . .

445 days down, 1,016 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Paging Mr. Orwell . . . Mr. George Orwell

                                George Orwell

                               George Orwell

Marion Sherman, a long-time friend, student and congregant, sent me an email this past Sunday with a link to an "Apple News" article about "Dozens of local news anchors (being) forced to recite a speech about 'false news' controlling 'exactly what people think.'"  To the best of my knowledge, Marion's link arrived even before the story ran in either the New York Times, Washington Post or Chicago Tribune. For anyone who has yet to read or hear about this latest inanity (highly unlikely), we can sum it all up in just a few words: Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns roughly 170 American television stations - including their news divisions - ordered local news anchors across the country to read a script decrying “some media outlets” for “false news” and “fake stories.”  What these news anchors were doing was anything but reporting the news.  Rather, they were consciously carrying out a critical plank in the Trump political playbook: declaring in the most convincing way they can that anyone or anything which opposes the president is a big fat lie. 

This noxious bit of charlatanism might well have gone unnoticed if not for the media geeks at Deadspin, who cobbled together a rather nifty YouTube piece which showed dozens of Sinclair newscasters presenting precisely the same words in unison. By now, the video (shown in part below), has gone triple viral and winding up in the spotlight's disinfecting hot glare :

And, to make matters even worse, Sinclair - the largest and most Orwellian of all media behemoths - is currently attempting to receive approval from both the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department to acquire Tribune Media. If this deal  were to be approved, it would allow Sinclair-owned local stations to reach more than 70 percent of American households.  At first blush, one might think that this most recent revelation about how Sinclair manipulates the news so as to put the president in a halo-esque light (while simultaneously providing its various anchors with inerrant scripts from Mt. Sinai) that this would put a gigantic stumbling block in their path to merger. But no; their brand of extremist "Trump is the truth" propaganda has received a gigantic bear hug of an endorsement from none of than '45 himself, who just yesterday Tweeted "So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke." BTW: A Monmouth University poll released just  yesterday shows that when asked who Americans trust as a source for information, '45 loses to CNN by a margin of 48%-35%) and a nearly identical 45%-32% margin when the outlet in question is MSNBC.) 

Of all the historic, mind-numbing changes which '45 has brought to the position of president, perhaps none has been as unutterably dangerous as his attack upon the press; of whittling down American's faith in what used to be called the truth. Oh sure, most every POTUS has carried on love/hate relationships with at least a portion of the fourth estate in public; it goes with the territory.  But what has never before occurred is having a president so denigrate and disparage a majority of the media (read: "non-Fox," "non-Sinclair") as to transmogrify it into the ultimate enemy - a traitorous purveyor of malignant falsehoods.  In the span of a mere fourteen-and-a-half months, the President of the United States has essentially out-Orwelled George Orwell: he has turned falsehood into fact, fact into non-existence and sin into virtue.  And miraculously,  despite being a  shallow, boorish, misogynistic narcissist, has actually managed to keep the backing of many of the nation's leading pillars of moral rectitude.  Hohw has he done it?  Through a dumbing down of the American public.  It reminds me of the old canard about the fellow running for student body president who begins his speech with: "A students, B students, C students, D students . . . and my dear supporters and friends . . ."

Hardly a day goes by without a student, a reader or friend asking me 'How long is it going to take to turn things around?  Can a new House or Senate put a halt to all the maddness?"  Sorry to admit it, but I - like those far, far brighter and far, far more turned in than yours truly - do not have an answer.  Sure,  vote in a new House and/or Senate and some things are bound to change.  It will no doubt make '45 think twice about who he nominates for the federal bench or the Cabinet.  And, it is possible that some of his most mindlessly egregious executive orders will be thrown for a loss.  But no amount of electoral change is going to change all those who believe that guns are good, immigrants are bad, war is for heroes and diplomacy for sissies . . . or to convince the right that the biggest, baddest, most cancerous conspiracies are those dreamed up by professional conspiracy theorists whose business it is scare the pants off the gullible all in the pursuit of fame and fortune. 

Then too, no single election will be able to change America's sullied image in the world.  When Barack Obama became president in January 2009, he embarked upon a series of foreign trips which Republicans derided as "apology tours."  In fact, his political enemies are still talking about his "bowing down before Muslims and apologizing for America" more than a decade later. Can anyone imagine what the next president will have to do, say or promise in order to rebuild America's place in the community of nations in years to come? 

We began this essay with a reference to Marion Sherman, whom I thank for bringing the Sinclair situation to my attention.  We conclude with a shout out to another of my students, Professor Gil Klajman, one of the smartest, most insightful menschen I know, who sent me an email mentioning the Sinclair debacle and George Orwell . . . even after I'd begun writing this piece.  I for one feel blessed to live in a community of seekers and readers . . . of those who are ceaselessly expanding their intellectual horizons even while those around them profess belief in the unbelievable and find truth in that which in fact, nothing but what Grannie would have called "canal water."  

There is still hope for the truth . . . and facts.

438 days down, 1,021 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

March 24, 2018: the Beginning of a Movement Or Just a Moment in Time?

March on Pennsylvania Avenue

This past Saturday, March 24, 2018, the world became a smaller place.  For the first time in many years, we were reminded that despite our myriad histories, religions and world views, we are, essentially, a single species with a single set of values, hopes and fears.  And all it took was an utterly remarkable group of teenagers from Parkland, Florida, to remind us of this truth and get the globe off its collective derriere. Throughout the United States and indeed, around the globe, children and adults, school children and their grandparents, gathered with their idealism, their political signs vigor, and an awakening social consciousness to shout "NEVER AGAIN!" - To change a world over-saturated with lethal weapons of mass destruction.   Finally, finally, America's - and the much of the world's - children came to the conclusion that if leaders and elected officials would not - or   could not - stop the murders, it was up to them.  What took the leaders and elected officials by surprise was the courage, wisdom, and articulate strength of the student survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.   And, despite all the knocks, slurs and peurile ad homonem attacks hurled at them by the pro-Second Amendment, "Make America Great Again!" crowd, they remain both steadfast and unafraid.

The collection of signs and placards were as varied and imaginative as anything seen since the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era:

  • "With guns, you can kill terrorists; with education,  you can kill terrorism"
  • "Strive for peace; ban the piece"
  • "Don't kill my future: end gun violence"
  • "Isaiah 11:6: 'And a little child will lead them'"
  • "You can't fix stupid . . . but you can vote it out!"
  • "Students today, voters in November: we are change!"
  • "Girls clothing in school is more regulated than guns in America"
  • "Thoughts and prayers don't stop bullets"
  • "Too old to create change? Move aside: We'll do it"
  • "The scariest thing in a school should be my grades"
  • "Voting is Like Driving - 'R' Goes Backward - 'D' Goes Forward" and, perhaps the most compelling,
  • "This is not a moment; it's a movement!"

Charged with being "puppets,"  "paid stooges of George Soros and liberal Hollywood elitists" as well as "pawns of the ultra-left fake news media," the student leaders from Stoneman Douglas and schools across the country have proved themselves to be anything but mindless dupes. They are both media savvy and in possession of a political consciousness well beyond their tender years. The media savvy is obvious: no group or movement has so captured the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of a nation through sheer luck. As Slate's Dahlia Lithwick notes: What we saw on Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., was stunningly original media, as far removed from the hackneyed conventions and archetypes of cable television as you could imagine. The irony is that great masses of adults who have been brainwashed by television believe that young people behaving like genuine young people can only have been scripted and staged.  Interestingly, American high schoolers don’t watch much TV. They Instagram and Snapchat, watch Netflix and YouTube. Fifty percent of American millennials don’t watch any television at all. Members of Generation Z—the kids who organized the rally Saturday in Washington D.C.—watch even less. One study shows only about 36 percent of them watch traditional programs. That means these kids aren’t influenced by standard reality television tropes and probably explains why they would not bother to perform them, as they’ve been accused of doing.

The political smarts of the group that got the rallies started were made abundantly clear when they decided that it would be far wiser to have their message of outrage and change come solely from the lips of their contemporaries, rather than from those of elected officials.  What struck me most was how relatively little "political tribalism" was on display at the more than 800 rallies across the country.  The conjoined issues of gun violence and the dire need for sensible legislative action wasn't made out to be a purely partisan tension between Democrats and Republicans or progressives and conservatives. Rather, it was spoken of as a matter of civics and sanity.  Media accounts coming in from a clear majority of the nation-wide rallies reported that thousands upon thousands of the youthful attendees registered to vote . . . thus declaring that they are an emerging force to be reckoned with. This is a great sign for the future of participatory democracy.  For their overarching "threat" - if indeed that is the proper word - was not one of violence, but rather of voting pro-gun, NRA-funded politicians out of office.  

Already, their message and nascent power is beginning to cast shadows on pro-gun, pro-NRA politicians.  Just here in Florida, we are seeing our junior senator, Marco Rubio, scrambling to defend himself from attacks made by his youthful constituents . . . who have promised that they will vote against him in 2022 - the next time he's up for reelection - unless he begins distancing himself from his NRA handlers.  Then there is  Brian Mast (R-Fl 18), a first-term Republican whose district extends from West Palm Beach northward to Vero Beach. A U.S. Army explosive ordinance disposal expert who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, Mast entered the House as a favorite of the NRA. Nine days after the "Valentine's Day Massacre" in Parkland (where Mast had recently resided), he broke with the NRA and began calling for sweeping restrictions on guns.  Needless to say, Mast's turnabout got him in political hot water with fellow Republicans who began labeling “blue falcon,” suggesting a supposed ally who ends up stabbing fellow soldiers in the back.  Although nominally Republican, Mast might still win reelection . . . with the help of moderate independents who seek to reward him for his political courage.

I for one hope the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who participated in the #marchforourlives (which already has more than 350k Twitter followers) will never permit their moment/movement to be co-opted by elected officials. I also hope they will expand their agenda to include other issues like education, healthcare and global warming. 

They seem to understand that in order to succeed, their cause must continue being fueled by the energetic idealism of youth.  Take it from one who marched a half-century ago against the war in Vietnam: it can be done; youthful idealism is a self-renewing fuel . . .

430 days done, 1,029 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

The Right to Try: Is It a Lie?

Right-to-try.jpg

Last Tuesday (March 13, 2018) in a gutsy, contentious vote, the Republican-controlled House failed to pass a "right-to-try" bill (H.R. 5247) that would have given terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs and medical devices without FDA authorization. The final 259-140 vote, which fell short of the necessary two-thirds support from the House chamber, represented a setback for the president, who called on Congress to approve the bill in his State of the Union address six weeks ago . . . as well as a small libertarian think tank (the Goldwater Institute)  which has been the driving force behind the effort.  The bill - which got to the House floor without having gone through a single committee hearing - would permit patients suffering from terminal illnesses, upon a request from their physician to a specific pharmaceutical company or medical device manufacturer, to get access to a non-approved medication or device available without having to go to or through the FDA.  While at first glance the legislation would appear to be a compassionate no-brainer, this "right-to-try" legislation (RTT) is, in reality, a lie whose main beneficiaries are not terminally-ill men, women and children.

In his first State of the Union address, the only piece of legislation 45 specifically mentioned was this "right-to-try" bill, which had, in a slightly different form, unanimously passed the Senate.  In the president's address, he said: "We also believe that patients with terminal conditions should have access to experimental treatments that could potentially save their lives. People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure — I want to give them a chance right here at home. It is time for the Congress to give these wonderful Americans the 'right to try.'"  On the surface, right-to-try legislation seems like a no-brainer;  after all, who but a heartless ghoul would deny terminally ill patients access to potentially life-saving drugs, treatments or devices?  That's on the surface. However, descend a few steps beneath that surface and a plethora of problems begin to emerge.  

First and foremost is the matter of safety.  The  proposed federal law would only require the successful completion of a Phase I study, which isn’t enough to ensure efficacy or safety on its own. (Phase I studies, which enlist healthy subjects, are primarily interested in determining what - if any - adverse events [bad side effects] a drug may have; what the maximum tolerated dose [MTD] might be, and how the body absorbs, metabolizes and excretes the drug [PK].  What a phase I study does not look for is whether or not the drug, device or procedure is beneficial - i.e. capable of having a curative effect. In order to find out if a drug or device works requires additional phases using subjects who actually have the disease or malady.  The "gold standard" for a phase II or III study is called "Double-blind, placebo-controlled," in which neither the doctor nor the subject knows whether they are receiving the study drug or a dummy "sugar pill." All these phases (which can also include phase IV and post-marketing) take years and tens - sometimes hundreds - of millions of dollars to complete. But underlying all the research is the ethical mandate "First, do no harm."  Contrary to our unfounded optimism about medical progress which insists that new drugs must be good drugs, fewer than 10 percent of drugs that enter Phase I end up being approved; for oncology, that figure falls to 5.1 percent.  In other words, "right-to-try" drugs, far from having passed scientific or medical muster, can be unproved and worthless at best, lethal at worst. 

In clinical trials, participants (and/or their insurance carrier) are only charged for "standard-of-care" procedures.  The sponsor pays for everything else . . . especially the medication.  Under terms of the "informed consent" (which all test subjects read and sign before entering a test phase), if the medicine(s) or procedures cause any harm, the sponsor is financially responsible and the participant does not lose any of their legal rights.  Under terms of federal right-to-try legislation, the patient (or their insurance carrier) is on the hook for payment - which can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - and cannot sue.  Then too, the very act of using right-to-try therapies can render terminally-ill patients ineligible for health insurance or hospice care when they need it most. Of the right-to-try laws (now on the books in 38 states), half allow insurers to deny patients hospice coverage should they require it after the use of right-to-try drugs. Several have made it clear that health insurers are not obligated to cover the costs of any complications that may arise.  In Colorado, patients undergoing experimental treatment secured under terms of right-try legislation are denied coverage even six months after the treatment has ended.

Unbeknownst to many, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long had an "Expanded Access Program," under terms of which a terminally ill patient’s treating physician, after first having determined that their patient ". . . has a serious or life-threatening condition and no comparable or satisfactory alternative therapy" . . .  then approaches the pharmaceutical company to ask for its agreement that it will provide the drug being sought.  The company has the right to approve or disapprove the physician’s request."  If the company agrees to the physician’s request, the physician can then apply to the FDA for permission to proceed.  Should they do so, they are highly likely to be allowed to proceed. (Between 2010 and 2015, the FDA approved fully 99% of these requests.)  Opponents of this process (starting with the Goldwater Institute) claim that a terminally ill patient could be dead long before the paperwork has been completed.  This is simply not true. Today, the FDA Expanded Access form takes 45 minutes to complete, and the FDA will reply to emergency requests within no more than 24 hours.

So once again, on the surface, federal "right-to-try" legislation seems to be as simple, logical and compassionate as anything under the sun. To libertarians, it is simply a matter of the government keeping the hell away from the individual's right to choose for themselves (except, of course, if that individual is a pregnant female). Who but a political Simon Legree could deny dying patients the right to try unproven medications . . .  even if it turns out to be a "hail Mary pass?"

Who indeed?  Days before the failing House vote (in which 2 Republicans crossed over and voted nay, and 24 Democrats yay), more than 75 patient groups, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association and the Cystic Fibrosis Association, had sent a letter to House leaders saying the bill “would not increase access to promising therapies” because it didn't deal with the main barriers to experimental drugs  — the cost of drugs and company restrictions on making therapies available outside of clinical trials.  And by skirting the FDA, the letter added, the proposed right-to-try pathway would be “less safe” for patients than the agency's existing program (expanded access), for overseeing the use of unapproved therapies outside of trials.  Reading between the lines, the goal of federal "right-to-try" legislation is not to make experimental drugs available to desperate patients. The goal is to weaken FDA oversight of the drug approval process.  Weakening FDA oversight can easily open the gates, admitting a parade of medical charlatans to come storming through, preying on the already desperate, dangling "miracle cures" which may well contain nothing more miraculous than hot air and hollow promises.

423 days down, 1,036 days to go . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

The House at 18 Rehov Agron

                              18 Rehov Agron, Jerusalem

                            18 Rehov Agron, Jerusalem

Despite the fact that more than 70% of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump continues receiving the strong support of about a quarter of that community.  And for two reasons: 1) he is perceived as being "the best friend Israel ever had in the White House," and 2) he is neither Barack Obama nor HIllary Clinton, whom a strong majority of those polled continue believing are profoundly anti-Israel. Indeed, so absolutely central is Israel to the politics of Trump's Jewish supporters that they are more than willing to overlook '45's questionable ethics, personal boorishness and relationship with the truth in exchange for what they perceive as his unfaltering support for the Jewish State.  Throughout the 2016 presidential primary and general election, the one-time television star promised that if elected, his very first day in office would see him officially move America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  It should be noted that just about every Republican who ran in the 2016 primary made the exact same promise.  And although '45 did not announce the move on his very first day in office, he did eventually make it official - on December 6, 2017.  

Even before the December announcement, '45 had drawn praise from Israeli P.M. Benyamin Netanyahu for delivering what he termed "the most bold and courageous  and forthright speech" delivered by an American President at the United Nations. In that September speech, '45 roundly and loudly called the Iranian nuclear deal the worst, most disgraceful pact ever signed by an American president.  Coupled with his officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, '45's stock with his Jewish supporters became even stronger.  It should be noted that 23 years ago - during Bill Clinton's first term in office - Congress passed the "Jerusalem Embassy Act," (Public Law 104-45) which officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and called for the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Every six months from November 1995 (when the law was enacted) until December 2017 (when '45 made his announcement) presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama signed waivers putting off the relocation, fearing that it would be an impediment to Middle East peace talks.  

The United States has had a diplomatic presence in Israel - and before that, Palestine - since 1844. From 1857 to the late 19th century, the American diplomatic "mission" was located in a building just inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City.  In 1912, the mission relocated to its present location on 18 Rehov Agron, a substantial home built by a German Lutheran missionary in 1866. The mission was officially designated a consulate in 1928. The United States, along with 85 other countries currently, have their embassies in Tel Aviv.  (Before 1980, a number of countries, including the Netherlands and Costa Rica, maintained embassies in Jerusalem; for the past 37 years, that number has been zero.) In 1989, Israel began leasing to the US a plot of land in Jerusalem for a new embassy. The 99-year lease cost $1 per year. To this day, the plot has not been developed, and remains an empty field.  If, when and for how much the new embassy will be built is still a matter of gross speculation - despite the December 6 announcement. (The other day, speaking with P.M. Netanyahu, '45 boasted that the cost of a new facility would be $250,000.  Actually, he was citing a ballpark figure for renovating and adding to an existing facility at 14 David Flusser to use as a temporary embassy.  Cost of a newly-constructed embassy has been estimated at anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion.)

What is definitely not a matter of speculation is the monkey wrench the president's announcement has thrown into the future of any and all future peace talks.  As a result of taking this preemptive, unilateral step, the United States has lost its diplomatic edge.  It will be increasingly difficult - if not impossible - for America to bring opposing factions to the table for serious discussions.  To the rest of the world, America has already cast a major point of contention - the status of Jerusalem - in case-hardened concrete, so why even negotiate? '45 once described the prospect of a peace pact between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal,” a foundational diplomatic breakthrough that could burnish his presidency and help restore America’s standing in the world. With the December announcement, the United States has become diplomatically isolated and toothless, the president something approaching a sideshow oddity.

While from a point of pure idealism it is both proper and fitting that the United States should be the first country to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital; one democracy standing in support of another. From a point of realpolitik it creates an international path underlain with political IEDs.  America's decades-long role as the undisputed, evenhanded, leader in Middle East mediation efforts has been dangerously and significantly undercut. Already, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has turned to other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan's King Abdullah, to help pressure Trump to change his mind. The chances of their having any influence over the American president are slim to none. The fact that the President's unilateral action has made Israel into even more of a pariah nation will likely have little if any effect on Donald Trump; so long as he is lionized by the likes of Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, as well as his hardcore Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters  that should be sufficient.

One of the most maddening aspects of all this is the ever-widening gap being created within the American Jewish community itself.  For in the opinion of many of the most vocal, even the slightest disagreement over how Israel carries out its political mission is tantamount to an excommunicable  offense (חֵרֶם - cherem).   In a time in which antisemitism is growing at an alarming pace, it is indeed disgusting that some of it should be coming from the Jewish community itself.  Just because an individual does not agree with, say, the Israeli government increasing the number of settlements, does not make them a self-hating Jew or worse, a traitor.  But that is what many of us are being accused of with regards to the latest disagreement over moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.

If there will ever be a workable solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, it will take a strong, steady hand at the helm.  Ever since the December 6, 2017 announcement, just whose hand that will be has become anyone's guess. 

Please Mr. President: you've made a steady habit of changing your position on a whole host of issues.  Why not keep up your record?

415 days down, 1,142 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Scott Pruitt: Forward Into the Past

                       Photo by Sean McCabe

                      Photo by Sean McCabe

By now - a little more than one year into the Trump presidency - it should be abundantly clear that the primary qualification for occupying a Cabinet post is a psychopathic need to defund, dismember of destroy the very department one has been chosen to lead. It also helps to possess a personal, political or religious philosophy that goes counter to the department's very mission statement.  Take Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator as a prime example.  Before he was nominated to head the EPA, the 49-year old Pruitt (he will turn 50 in early May) served 6 years (2011-2017) as Attorney General of Oklahoma.  During those years (as well as his 8 years in the Oklahoma legislature) Pruitt opposed abortion rights, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and . . . environmental regulations, as a self-described "leading activist against the EPA's activist agenda." 

But wait . . . there's more . . . a whole lot more . . . a whole, whole  lot more!

 

Pruitt, a close associate of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, lobbied hard for the job, believing that his anti-Paris climate accord stance would come in handy. In the lead-up to '45's rejection of the Paris agreement, Pruitt was all over the media map, sparring with Tapper and Scarborough, religiously arguing that the agreement would slow the U.S. economy by hindering America's God-given right to mine, burn and export fossil fuels, even going so far as to suggest the agreement was part of a plot by European leaders to weaken America. Wondering why Pruitt doesn't mention the effect burning fossil fuels have on man-made climate change? Don't, because he doesn't. Really. Our EPA Administrator is a world-class climate change denier who, while serving as Oklahoma A.G., sued the very agency he would one day grow up to administer at least a dozens times.

In a recent CNBC interview quoted by Scientific American's, Doina Chiacu and Valerie Volcovici "Pruitt said " I would not agree that [carbon dioxide's] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.. "But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

Isn't there something wrong with this picture?

But wait . . . it gets even worse.

Besides being an unabashed shill for the Koch brothers and other petroleum biggies doesn't believe in Evolution! No, really!  In a recently discovered  series of radio interviews from 2005, Pruitt - then an Oklahoma state senator, spent five hours among about a host of hot-button  issues:

  • "There aren't sufficient facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man  which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint."
  • Lamented that ". . . minority religions" are pushing mainstream Christianity "out of the public square."
  • Advocated amending the Constitution to ban abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage and protect the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments.
  • Described the Second Amendment as divinely granted and condemned federal judges as a “a judicial monarchy” that is “the most grievous threat that we have today."    
  • Did not object when the program’s host described Islam as “not so much a religion as it is a terrorist organization in many instances.”

The ever ambitious Pruitt has made no secret of the fact that should 45's Attorney General Jeff Sessions either resign or get canned, he would give anything to replace him. Should this horror come about, Pruitt's successor, Andrew Wheeler, is already waiting in the wings.  Compared to Pruitt, Wheeler - a former coal lobbyist, EPA bureaucrat, and aide to the snowball-wielding Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, is, if possible, even worse.

We are about to enter election season.  There is far more at stake than mere seats in the House and Senate; there is a future fraught with even political greater incompetence, insensitivity and self-service than we have experienced over the past year. The future is ours to shape and guide.  The last thing on earth America needs in times like these are backward-looking leaders whose marching orders come from either the mirrors they look in or the last person they've listened to.

406 days down, 1,151 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

From Generation to Generation

                            May 9: 1970: The March on Washington

                           May 9: 1970: The March on Washington

 Many readers of this blog still have indelible memories of May 9, 1970, when America's incursion into Cambodia, the military draft and the killing of 4 unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard at a mass anti-war protest at Kent State University, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, veterans, moms, dads and grandparents from virtually every state in the union descending and marching upon the nation's capitol. It was a difficult, horrifically polarizing time. And even though this particular march - which got tons of publicity all over the world - did not immediately end the draft (that wouldn't  happen until January of 1973) nor bring our troops home from South East Asia (which officially occurred on April 30, 1975), it did energize and politicize an entire generation of young Americans. Indeed, many of those who marched on Washington on May 9, 1970  (myself included) were turned into lifelong political activists; people who ever since have been incapable of sitting idly by while injustice, insanity and gross insensitivity continue ruling the corridors of power.

Back in those days - as many will recall - we were tagged with every name in the book: long-haired-hippie-drug-addled-free-love-Communist-conspirators, unwashed-traitorous vermin, etc. Many had their phones tapped by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and had places of "honor" on President Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies list." It was, to say the least, a trying time. But it was also a time when many of us found our political voice and first came to understand how much "We the People" can accomplish when speaking (and shouting) with a single voice.

  We were, of course by no means the first - and by no means the last - group of protesters to descend on Washington, D.C. by the hundreds of thousands:

  • On March 3, 1913, thousands of women - with upwards of half-a-million spectators watching - marched up Pennsylvania Avenue demanding suffrage rights.  On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, thus guaranteeing women the right to vote.
  • On August 8, 1925, spurred by hatred of European Catholics, Jewish immigrants and African-Americans, and inspired by the silent film Birth of a Nation (in which Klansmen were portrayed as heroes), some 50-60,000 Klansman marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (all clad in Klan regalia) demanding a tightening of American immigration laws.
  • On June 17, 1932, some 20,000 veterans of "The Great War" (WWI) assembled in Washington for the so-called "bonus march," in which they demanded that the $1,000.00 "bonus" promised them at the end of the war, be paid immediately.  They were met with armed opposition from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his adjutant, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  •  Best remembered for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, this enormous demonstration, held on August 28, 1963 called for fighting injustice and inequality against African-Americans. The march united an assembly of 160,000 black people and 60,000 white people, who gave a list of “10 Demands”, including everything from desegregation of school districts to fair employment policies. The march and the many other forms of protest that fell under the Civil Rights Movement led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968—though the struggle for equality continues in different forms today.
  • January 20, 2017: the day of '45's inauguration, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators - mostly women -  gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and lined the frozen-over Reflecting Pool to rally for women’s rights, urge women to run for public office and call on citizens to fully engage on issues from sexual assault and racial equality to immigrant protections and gun violence. Largely unnoticed by the press, the marchers in Washington were joined by an estimated total of 2.6 million women who came out to protest across the United States.
  • And finally, this coming March 24, will be the "March for Our Lives," a gathering of who knows how many hundreds of thousands of American school children (members of "Generation Z"), their friends and families who will descend upon the nation's capitol protesting in favor of serious, meaningful gun safety legislation.

Historically, the effect these mass gatherings have had on their target issues have been a mixed bag: the 1913 suffragette, 1932 Bonus and 1963 civil rights and 1970 anti-war marches were largely successful.  (In the case of the Bonus Army's demand to be paid for their service in WWI, Congress passed (over FDR's veto) the 1936 Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, which guaranteed the veterans nearly $2.5 billion in payments.)  Then too, some marches, like the 1925 KKK rally had little, if any effect (President Coolidge had already signed the highly  restrictive, xenophobic Johnson Reed Immigration Act in 1924, nearly a year before their gathering).

Precisely what immediate effect the upcoming march for gun safety legislation will have is anyone's guess.  A clear majority of the members of Congress and the White House are so closely aligned with the demands and wishes of the National Rifle Association that even such common-sense measures as reinstituting the ban on Assault Weapons, severely limiting the amount of rounds of ammunition in a single magazine, denying weapons to those on terror watch lists or simply raising the age at which a young person can purchase a gun seem, at this point in time, far out of reach.  

Perhaps these - and a host of other measures - won't even get a full airing out on the floor of Congress . . . which would be a sin.  One thing, however, which will likely occur as a result of this march is precisely what occurred to those generations which marched on Washington in 1913, 1963, 1970, and 2017: a lifelong passion for political involvement, and the certain knowledge that together, we the people, can often be the ultimate stimulus for meaningful change.

There is an old saw which goes "The more things change, the more they remain the same."  Well, in this case, just as the protesters of my/our generation endured the jibes and catcalls of the hawks and the deaf ears of many members of the entrenched political elites, so too are the members of the Stoneman Douglas generation (the "Millenials") catching grief and tone deafness from both the Trumpeteers and today's entrenched political class. But this younger generation, like that of the '60s and '70s - now mostly receiving Social Security - shall succeed . . . perhaps not tomorrow or next week for soon and perhaps forever. For they - like we - shall soon be casting their first votes, propelled by the fuel of activism and unwilling to sit on the sidelines letting others bolster the status quo.

From one generation to another, we say:

  • We are with you - we shall join hands with you;
  • We will march with you - whether in Washington, Chicago, L.A. or Parkland;
  • We all have skin in the game;
  • And as has been sung at every march across the generations,

"WE SHALL OVERCOME!"

400 days down, 1,157 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Cache and Carry

Cache and Carry.jpg

According to Mark Twain, it was British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli - the self-proclaimed "blank page between the Old and New Testament" - who first said "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." It just may be that, Disraeli  - who lived from 1804 to 1881 and served as Queen Victoria's P.M. from 1874 to 1880 - was the first person to understand the difference between news and "fake news," which he chose to call "statistics."  Well, here's a frightful statistic (in its true sense): since 2013, there have been 290 school shootings in America.  Moreover, in the first 45 days of 2018, there have been 17 school shootings, which works out to one every 63.5 hours.  

 As numbing as this latter statistic is, it becomes even more stupefying when one of the shootings takes place in in one's own backyard. Our son Ilan graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School many years ago (he has now been a practicing attorney for more than a dozen years), and our daughter Nurit, her husband Scott (also an attorney) and their daughter Claire, live within jogging distance of Stoneman Douglas. Just about any and everyone who lives in or next door to Parkland knows children who died or were injured in the Parkland massacre.

Sadly, there are all sorts of predictable responses from those who actually could make a difference - or else have a specific political ax to grind:

  • The "our thoughts and prayers are with you" crowd of public officials who issue these 7 words and then do next to nothing else. 
  • The right-wing conspiracy theorists who blame the attack on an ISIS affiliate, or see the Parkland  massacre as being the inevitable result of ethnic gang violence.  (Believe it or not this one comes from '45's A.G. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who seems to have had no idea that Parkland is a largely upper-middle class Jewish town) and just last year was named "Florida's Safest City" by the Washington-based National Council for Home Safety and Security.
  • Calls ranging from more metal detectors in schools, greater scrutiny of - and treatment for - people with mental health issues, and the arming every teacher in America (despite the fact that the current administration has drastically cut funding for all three) to reinstating the absolute ban on assault weapons, drastically curbing the number of  ammo rounds per  magazine and making it legally impossible for anyone on a "terrorist watch list" to purchase a weapon.
  • Lastly, there are many who place blame squarely on the FBI, which was reportedly given information about the alleged shooter but failed to act upon it.  Even as I write this last bullet point, the POTUS has Tweeted: "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!" (Needless to say, this Tweet drew an immediate negative response on social media.  One Stoneman Douglas survivor Tweeted: "17 of my classmates are gone. That's 17 futures, 17 children, and 17 friends stolen. But you're right, it always has to be about you. How silly of me to forget. #neveragain"

Of course, for each and every one of the above-mentioned actions (and there are a lot of others which could be added) there are people who will tell you that "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," shout out "We've got the Second Amendment!"  or urge that what we really need are more people locked and loaded . . . have cache, will carry.  

And along with all this, Speaker Ryan, (who just this past Friday was at a fund raiser in Key Biscayne, less than an hour's drive from Parkland) has announced that Hell will freeze over before he'll bring any form of gun safety (a.k.a. "gun control) legislation to the House floor.  To say that his stance is predictable is not surprising; to say that it will likely cause a mass national response is hopeful.  With each passing school shooting, an increasing number of American students, parents and neighbors are demanding that Congress show both the guts the sanity and humanity to enact legislation with teeth that will stem the tide of this horrific "one school massacre every 45 days" reality.  Without question, we feel powerless; we scream out into the night "what in the Hell can we do?" We fear that there is next to nothing we can do to change the direction of an administration and a Congress that cannot (strike that, will not) listen to us.  Our frustration, our anger, is both palpable and perhaps - just perhaps - about to burst forth as the fuel for meaningful action.

So what can we do?

These are the first, most obvious steps:

  • Do a little research: find out how much funding your senators, congressional representative, governor or state legislators have received from the National Rifle Association and how the NRA's political action committee (PAC) rates them. (Note to Floridians: Senator Marco Rubio is the sixth largest recipient of NRA funding: $3.3 million.)
  • Write, call or email your senators, congressional representative, governor or state legislators demanding that they pass specific pieces of legislation - such as those mentioned above. If your senator(s), congressional representative, governor or state legislator is a Democrat, it is reasonable to assume that they are just as frustrated as you are.  Nonetheless, write, call or email them and express your thanks.  If they are Republican, the response (if any) will be what we call the "All due consideration" letter . . . i.e. "Thank you for writing . . . I will certainly give all due consideration to your point of view . . ."
  • Contact your local Democratic Party and find out how to become a deputy registrar of voters.  It's easy; it's rewarding, and can go a long way toward voting out members of congress who consistently stand in opposition to passing sensible gun safety legislation.
  • Add your name to an ever-growing list of people demanding that members of congress immediately return all campaign contributions from the NRA or other gun lobbying groups.  Make them put up - or explain themselves.

The first rule in the politician's playbook is "Get thyself reelected."  In order to do this, one must first raise tons of money.  When you or I donate to a candidate (whether incumbent or challenger), we generally expect nothing in return except an elected official who will agree with us most of the time.  Not so when it comes to accepting unlimited contributions from billionaire- and corporate-created PACs. They expect something in return for their "investments."  You don't vote the way they want, you'll find yourself challenged by a well- heeled opponent during the next election cycle. These funding entities (which, "thanks to" the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case were declared to possess the same the rights and protections as individuals) is one of the central reasons why it is next to impossible to pass rational gun safety legislation.  Overturn Citizen' United and the NRA - plus all the other pro-gun PACs - will be neutered, defanged and declawed.  

Overturning a decision of the Supreme Court is certainly not easy.  But neither is it impossible.  There are nearly three dozen groups collecting signatures, organizing events, marching and educating citizens on how to successfully drain this fetid swamp. Neutering, defanging and declawing the NRA (a lot of whose members actually favor gun safety legislation) is absolutely essential.  Channeling our grief, anger and disbelief into positive action such as this can go a long, long way.  It's been done before . . . and can be done once again.

89 years to the day (February 14, 1929) before the Parkland horror, there was another mass murder . . . the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," in which four of Al Capone's goons, armed with two Thompson submachine guns and two shotguns, murdered 5 members of the "North Side Gang" as well as two bystanders in a Chicago garage.  Unlike today's media, newspapers across the country published photos of the seven bloody bodies. The nation was both horrified and outraged - at gangsters, at bootleggers and at the deadly violence created by Prohibition.  Eventually, the shock and emotional nausea - not to mention the leadership of Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, congress and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI - led to both the repeal of Prohibition and the "Tommy" gun's demise.  Eventually, this rapid-fire weapon would accompany GI.s onto the battlefields of Europe.  But it wasn't only national shock and horror which led to the removal of Tommy guns; it was a concerted effort on the part of the people, the White House and Capitol Hill.

Gun safety can happen.  Together, we can take the tools of mass murder out of the hands of deranged killers and haters of humanity.  Together, we can place the lives, the safety and the sanity of our children above the "rights" of the merchants of death.

393 days down, 1,164 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

The Profligacy of a Presidential Parade

                                   "Generals"  Wastemoreland & Hershey Bar

                                  "Generals"  Wastemoreland & Hershey Bar

Upon reading that '45 was seriously proposing a military parade marching down Pennsylvania Avenue to showcase our strength and as a tribute to our troops, I found imagining him attending the parade in some ridiculous military uniform.  Suddenly, I found myself awash in long-forgotten visual memories from the 1960s of General "Hershey Bar" and General "Wastemoreland," two guerrilla-theater icons of the Viet Nam-era, left-coast, anti-war movement. Wearing outrageously ornate military uniforms, Generals "Hershey Bar" (Bill Maton) and "Wastemoreland" (Thomas Michael Dunphy) were as inextricably tied to the anti-Viet Nam, anti-draft years as Country Joe and the Fish, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The very idea that '45 should order up a military parade replete with soldiers, sailors, marines, not to mention tanks, missiles and weaponry marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018  is as repugnantly ridiculous as LBJ ordering the same in 1968 -- which he did not do.  Generally speaking, military parades are held at the end of a war, when there is something to cheer about.  At those times, it's the soldiers, sailors, marines - officers and non-coms - who are at center stage - not their Commander-in-Chief.  But should '45 actually go through with his plan, it will be all about him, not the troops. In matter of fact, a large proportion of warriors will still be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and dozens upon dozens of nations where we continue having both an overt and covert military presence.

Goodness knows there is no need for us to show the world just how much firepower we have; the United States spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined.  Most of the countries holding these sorts of parades are "wannabes" - second-tier autocracies trying to prove to the rest of the world that they should be feared . . . if not respected . . . for their military might.  Think North Korea.  When goose-stepping soldiers accompanying bombs, tanks and assorted lethal weaponry march past the reviewers' stand in Pyongyang, it is partly for the benefit of the world, but mostly for the aggrandizement of their "Outstanding Leader," Kim Jong Un. While it is not all that difficult to fathom Kim Jong Un's (and North Korea's) pathological insecurity, one would need the analytic skills of a Freud or Adler to limn '45's lethal mixture of insecurity and narcissism.

According to official White House rhetoric, the purpose of this parade is ". . . a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation."  At a recent press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "President Trump is incredibly supportive of America's great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe." Not mentioned in the briefing were two facts: first, that the real purpose of the parade was to show the world just how powerful the U.S. is, and second, to cast anyone who objects to a military parade through the streets of Washington as unpatriotic, cynical, or both.

It is possible that the parade will never come off.  Perhaps cooler heads and steadier hands will convince '45's handlers that the "benefits" of such an event will easily be outweighed by its cost and the misuse of work hours.  Estimates for the parade are already hovering above the $20 million mark.  Considering the fact that the federal budget has recently been hit with a double deficit whammy - the tax-cut-to-end-all-tax-cuts, and the additional $300 billion "sweetener" used to keep the government up and running - the last thing we need is a $20 million+ ego massage for the POTUS. I can think of a lot of ways that $20 million can be spent . . . such as providing veterans with post-military training or assisting them with PTSD-caused opioid addiction (both of which have been radically cut). 

It wasn't all that long ago that the term "tax and spend" was used by nearly every Republican to attack and stereotype nearly every Democrat.  The GOP was the party of fiscal sanity, lower taxes and less spending.  It would now seem that this term has been erased from the Republican campaign book; from now on every use of the "tax-and-spend" epithet will be repulsed by Democrats referring to their colleagues across the aisle as the party of "axing-taxes-and-profligate spending."  Not the sort of thing any professional politician wants hanging from his/her lapel.

If '45 really, truly wants to have his parade, I will be only too happy to put him in contact with Tom Dunphy (General Wastemoreland).  Now in his late 70's the general still resides in Berkeley where he writes poetry.  I'm sure he will be happy to loan you his uniform for the parade . . .

386 days down, 1,171 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

 

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Winners and Underdogs

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During his 2016 campaign for president, the future '45 loudly promised a group in Billings, Montana: "We're going to win so much, you're going to get sick and tired of winning." Implied in this abject bit of bumptious bloviation is/was a truth which will likely bite the 45th POTUS in the seat of the pants one of these days: to wit that Americans actually don't like winners; that we as a nation and a people, generally speaking greatly prefer rooting for underdogs than perpetual winners. Need proof?  One need go no further than last night's Superbowl LII, which, as every sentient being on the planet knows, was won by the underdog Philadelphia Eagles 41-33 over the seemingly perfect New England Patriots. 

Without question, the New England Patriots are the most successful football franchise of the Superbowl era.  Quarterback Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belicheck are the only duo to have won 5 Superbowls. Brady is everything an all-American hero should be: handsome, humble, richer than Croesus, lives in a breathtaking estate with an even more breathtaking wife, the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Caroline Bündchen. Hell, the California-bred Brady probably never even had a zit when he was a teenager.  And Bill Belichick, though rather dour and taciturn, is to coaching football what Magnus Carlsen is to the game of Chess: simply the best there is. And yet, polls show that outside of New England, Brady, Belichick and the Patriots are the most hated football team in America.  Why? Because all they ever do is win; they are boringly predictable.  Not so the Eagles, who up until last night, had never won a Superbowl, having lost to the Oakland Raiders 27-10 in 1980 and the Patriots 24-21 in 2005.  And to make matters even worse, the three other teams in their division — the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Washington Redskins — had each reached the mountaintop multiple times.

There is something in America's DNA which gives causes most of us to root for the underdog - the upstart - and express contempt for the perpetual winner . . . whether it be in the realm of sports, civics or wherever competition is a way of life.  Why is this so?  What does the trend - some call it a need - to root for the underdog say about human psychology?  Some say its underpinning is our sense of fairness and justice, which is both common psychologically, and enforced culturally. When an underdog is challenged by a stronger force, we root for the underdog because we seek a balancing of the two forces.  Then there are those scholars believe that we have a need to identify with the underdog; that this plays somewhat into our sympathetic, cooperative nature . . . but it also plays into the fact that most of us see ourselves as an underdog on some level.

So, when '45 crows ""We're going to win so much, you're going to get sick and tired of winning," he has (perhaps unwittingly) stumbled upon something which, if rephrased a bit, would be a pretty profound truth. However, in true Trumpian fashion, he's gotten it wrong; it's not the winner him- or herself who tires of victory . . . it's the one(s) who witness(es) the winner's endless string of victories.  A more profound statement would go something like "We've become so tired of watching the other guys win and win and win that we can no longer stand it.  When I'm elected POTUS, it's finally going to be our turn!"  

In his own eyes, Donald Trump is both a victor and an underdog; a man who is both a stupendous success and an utter commoner.  This bipolar self-image is part of what makes the  man so unpredictable - not to mention impossible to figure out.  For he's no more a reviled perpetual winner (like the New England Patriots) than a much beloved underdog (like the now World Champion Eagles). If what social psychologists posit about the DNA sequence which causes us to ultimately turn away from (if not actually hate) the perpetual winner and reattach to the beloved underdog, then '45 is headed for his own none-too-pleasant rendezvous with destiny.

379 days down, 1,178 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

Death of a Beloved Blue Blood

                                              Senator John V. Tunney (1934-2018)

                                             Senator John V. Tunney (1934-2018)

Coming from the Spanish term sangre azul, "blue blood" derives from the medieval European belief that the blood of royalty and nobility was blue. In more common usage "Blue Blood" also refers to old money families that have been aristocrats for many, many generations. In America, these "blue blood" families include the Rhode Island Pells Chaffees and Whitehouses, the Cabots, Lodges and Saltonstalls  of Massachusetts, as well as the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the du Ponts and the Carnegies. 

The last of these, Andrew Carnegie was a 19th century steel baron who, upon his death in 1919, gave away an estimated $370 billion (in 2017 dollars) to charity. One of his partners, George Lauder - who was also Carnegie's cousin -  held on to his money and bequeathed it to his children. One of these children, daughter Mary Josephine "Polly" Lauder, inherited an unfathomable amount of money. She would become a doyenne of high society,  marry the World's Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Gene Tunney (the "Fighting Marine") and bear several children. One of their sons, John Varick Tunney (born in 1934), who would become both a three-term member of the House of Representatives and a one-term United States Senator from California, died a week ago at age 83. Not only was he the living, breathing definition of a  Blue Blood; he was also a progressive, an important environmentalist, and both a friend and political mentor of mine . . .

When I first met John Tunney, he had just been elected senator after having served three terms as a Representative from a California district which included Riverside and Imperial County - about as far away from Blue Blood land as one could get. John Tunney was raised on a 200-acre estate - "Star Meadow Farm" - near Stamford, Connecticut, and was the product of prep schools (New Canaan Country School and Westminster Prep), Yale, and law school at both the Hague and the University of Virginia (where his roommate was childhood friend and future Senator Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy. Despite this highly privileged background, John would become one of the most progressive senators of his era. In his first term ( 1970-72), Senator Tunney wrote and passed an unbelievable 38 bills - next to impossible for a freshman. And these bills weren't the normal kind of 1st year bills like the naming of post offices or a private bill guaranteeing benefits for a veteran.  These were bills dealing with environmental protection (he played a pivotal role in passing the original Endangered Species Act), civil and voting rights and noise pollution. He also took a leading role in keeping the United States from becoming entrapped in the Angolan Civil War.  Because he spent so much time working on - and passing - seminal legislation, voters in California concluded that he didn't really care all that much about them; as a result, Senator Tunney was defeated for reelection in 1976 by S.I. Hayakawa, a former president of the University of San Francisco and a political novice.  (It has long been presumed that Tunney was model for the Robert Redford roll in the 1972 film The Candidate).

Saying "There is nothing sadder than a 42-year old former senator hanging around Washington," Tunney returned to California where he joined the most politically prominent law firm in the state (despite the fact that he really did not need the money) and became involved in environmental causes such as Living with Wolves, an organization dedicated to raising consciousness of the animals' importance. For many years he headed the board of the Hammer Museum at UCLA. And spent time traveling the world and living variously at homes in Brentwood (CA), Manhattan and Sun Valley, Idaho.

At the time I first met John Tunney and his family (including his son Edward Marion "Teddy" Tunney, named after Senator Kennedy), I was helping a group of anti-war members of Congress prepare for the upcoming "March on Washington." A mutual acquaintance got me lodging at the senator's home on Tracy Place in Georgetown.  During my time with him, we spoke quite a bit about war and peace, books (his father the fighter was notorious for reciting Shakespeare in between sparring rounds) the nature of politics and the importance of forging alliances with "the people on the other side of the aisle."  He also strongly urged that if I eventually decided to make a career in politics, it would be best to remain "in the shadows" rather than run for office.  "In that way," he told me more than once, "you can at least go home at night, get more things done, and step into a restaurant without being besieged."  Of the many political folks I've  had the fortune to be associated with over the past 5 decades, Senator Tunney - despite his background - was one of the most down-to-earth. There was scarcely a hand-breadth between his public and his private personae. 

Despite being a political powerhouse, John Varick Tunney was truly humble.  He had it all . . .and gave the world his all.

Rest in peace Senator.

373 days down, 1,184 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

Government Shutdowns Can Be Fatal

             Friedrich Trump (1869-1918

            Friedrich Trump (1869-1918

Note: I started researching and writing this essay late last week in anticipation of a government shutdown.  Well, as we all know, the government did shut down - for less than 3 days - which in a way, makes this piece a bit outdated . . . at least for the moment.  However, I  have decided to continue writing it and for two reasons: first, there is a good possibility that the government will shut down again after this coming February 8, and second, that the systemic political weaknesses and lack of what we might call civic maturity which led to the original shutdown, are still as firmly in place as ever . . .

 Precisely one hundred years ago (1918) more than a half billion people one-third of the people on earth) were infected with the "Spanish Flu." It is estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 million people perished. This horrifying pandemic was no respecter of fame or fortune for among those who perished were:

Of a certainty, medical science, including the fields of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases, has made incredible progress over the past century. And of course, in 1918, there was neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Communicable Disease Center; both would be founded in 1946.  And although what we now call the National Institutes of Health has a history which goes back to 1887, it was poorly funded and incapable of providing little beyond palliative care during the 1918 pandemic.

Ironically - and tragically, we are today - one hundred years later - in the midst of one the worst flu seasons in at least the past half-century.  And to make matters even worse, this year's flu vaccine, which is supposed to protect subjects from the H3N2 strain, isn't working all that well.  And so, both the CDC and NIH (not to mention the FDA) are working around the clock to come up with a better, more efficacious vaccine.  That is, so long as the scientists, physicians and lab geeks are permitted to work. But alas, government shutdowns lead to federal workers being furloughed; they are not permitted access to their laboratories, may not use their government-issued computers - they cannot even volunteer to come in and work for no pay. 

During the last government shutdown (2013), the CDC shuttered most of its annual seasonal influenza program. It largely stopped tracking disease outbreaks across the country.  According to then-CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, the 2013 shutdown “. . . was this time in which that I felt I really couldn’t do my job, as CDC director, of keeping Americans safe, because more than 8,500 of my staffers had been told to go home, and they do important things that protect Americans . . . . It’s unsafe, it’s terrible for government, it endangers Americans, and it doesn’t save any money. So it’s a really bad thing to have happen.

Without question, a government shutdown adversely effects hundreds of thousands of federal workers.  It also inconveniences millions of American and can - as in the case of  the current flu epidemic, endanger millions of lives. 

Truth to tell, it shouldn't have been that difficult to keep the government up and running; after all, our elected representatives are supposed to be our employees; we employ them to cobble together policies and programs which tend to benefit the greatest number of people. Most regrettably though, this ideal has become about as saccharine and unreal as Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  For generations, political leadership consisted of equal measures of skill, determination and the ability to compromise. But this is no longer the case.  We've gone from Emerson's dictum that "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit" to its modern incarnation which was first uttered by Sam Spade in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: "We've got to have a fall-guy . . . a fall-guy is part of the price I'm asking . . . "

The politics behind the shutdown begin with assessing blame and end with trying to determine what capital can be made by either side.  Both Democrats and Republicans believe they can score big with the public in the 2018 midterm elections by pointing a finger - backed by memorable slur at - at the other side:

  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: "If, God forbid, there's a shutdown, it will fall on the majority leader's shoulders and the president's shoulders.
  • House Speaker Paul Ryan: “I ask the American people to understand this: The only people in the way of keeping the government open are Senate Democrats.”
  • The President: “The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all.”
  • Jesse Ferguson, former Clinton campaign strategist: "Everyone knows this crisis could be averted if Republicans would pass a budget that didn't give them power to eventually deport dreamers, but they refuse to give that up. Donald Trump is like the arsonist who hopes you come home and blame the neighbors for the blaze."

Strategically, the Democrats feel (felt) themselves to be in the driver's seat.  If a continuing resolution stands a snowball's chance in Hades of being passed, it will take quite a few Democratic votes; the House of Lincoln is in such radical disarray that despite owning the House, Senate and White House, they cannot get anything done without their "good friends" on the other side of the aisle. Both sides are banking on the short-term memory loss which plagues the American voting public.  All the talk about Michael Wollf's book took a back seat to '45's potty-mouthed rampage, which in turn has taken a back seat to the government shutdown. There will no doubt be at minimum another 150 issues and idiocies between now and the November elections, by which the strategy of finger pointing over the government shutdown will likely be minimized to the point of invisibility.

It is pretty damned sophomoric to say either "Well, the Republicans simply cruel, heartless and don't give a fig about anything which might upset their conservative base," or, "the Democrats care far more about illegal immigrants than they do about the security of America."  This is not a game of "go fish." Major league politics is far more akin to Chess . . . a devastatingly difficult challenge which is far, far more than a game. 

So why not just do the right thing?  For only are our "leaders" using this latest crisis for their own political benefit, they are putting lives in jeopardy . . .  due to deportation, an even more disgruntled federal workforce and, as a century ago, a potential pandemic. 

Mr. President ask yourself: what would grandpa Opa Friedrich have you do?   

367 days down, 1,190 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

    

Defend and Deny: One Inevitable Result of Kakistocracy

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In last week's piece - Moral Disgrace As Public Entertainment - we predicted that Michael Wolff's tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House would likely ". . . produce, at best, a couple of week's worth of rapturous public entertainment . . . nothing more, nothing less."  Egad: we were correct!  For no sooner had the caterwauling begun quieting down a half-decibel or so then a new blaring note captured media interest from Boston to Beijing: '45's using the term "sh.thole countries" at a meeting with senators in the Oval Office.  His use of this bluntly vulgar, racist-tinged term came during a meeting when he and senators were supposed to be discussing  a bipartisan legislative proposal dealing with DACA and immigration. According to several who attended the meeting, the president questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and what he called “sh.thole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway.  He wound up rejecting the bipartisan immigration deal. Not only did '45's ugly phrase cause linguists the world over scrambling to come up with a suitable translation for the opprobrious term  (dreksloch ["sinkhole"] in German, מחורבן [m'khurban "crappy"] in Hebrew and trou de merde ["hole of crap"] in Haitian Creole to name but three); his verbal diarrhea brought condemnatory comments from allies and enemies alike. It goes without saying that no leader with even a milligram of grey matter - not to mention class - would ever be caught dead saying such a thing in front of anyone with both reasonably good hearing and easy access to the media.  But '45 did.  And when he and his hapless myrmidons were asked whether he really had used the term in question, they resorted to a nonsensical Three Stooges-like strategy of defend and deny.

A White House spokesperson defended the president's position on immigration without disputing the account of what he actually said.  For his part, '45, while categorically denying having called Haiti and much of Africa sh.thole countries, Tweeted "The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made - a big setback for DACA!"  Senators David Purdue (R-GA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), both of whom attended the meeting, originally said they "did not recall" hearing the president use that precise term.  Then, within 48 hours, Perdue told moderator George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."  I'm telling you he did not use that word, George, and I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation." When it came to Senate Assistant Minority Leader Dick Durbin's straightforward statement that the president's remarks were "hate-filled,  vile and racist," Perdue accused the Illinois Democrat of "misrepresenting the president's comments." To their credit, a couple of Republicans - including Utah Rep. Mia Love, Maine Senator Susan Collins and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (who, for what it's worth, is not running for reelection), did denounce '45 for his racist comment. But one can easily ask: "Where were all the other Republicans? Why didn't they similarly denounce their party leader? Were they afraid to go on the record as being against their boss . . . or did they actually agree with his racism?  One can easily see these questions being asked of tens of dozens of Republicans during the upcoming midterm elections.  

Back in the mid-18th century, the great Savoyard lawyer/diplomat/philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1862) noted "Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite" namely, "Every nation gets the government it deserves."  If the classically conservative de Maistre was correct, what in the world does the Trump administration tell us - and the rest of the world - about the American people?  Are we so obtuse, debased,  provincial and politically ignorant to deserve this celebrity huckster and his coterie of rank amateurs and family retainers as our government?  The mind reels.  Indeed, for those of us who take politics, American history and governance seriously, what we are currently experiencing is "Leadership by the Lost." 

Believe it or not, there is actually a term for the kind of government we currently have: "Kakistocracy." Kakis- what?  Kakistocracy, which for those who, like yours truly, managed to study Greek, comes from κάκιστος (kakistos - "worst") and κράτος (kratos - "rule"), literally meaning "rule by the worst people." Although the term has rhetorically and theoretically existed for a long, long time, it did not  come into use until the early 19th century when the long forgotten British novelist Thomas Love Peacock published his 1829 satirical romance The Misfortunes of Elfin (note: only read if you love Trollope and other long-winded British novelists).  59 years later, the great American poet James Russell Lowell used the term in a letter to fellow poet Joel Benton in which he asked 'Is ours a 'government of the people by the people for the people,' or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?"  In short, "Kakistocracy" is the bipolar opposite of aristocracy; namely, a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous of citizens.

We can hear the detractors screaming out "There you go again, attacking the president for not being a typical politician."  Well yes, but for a far more trenchant reason than just being partisan progressives.  Throughout our history, our presidents have, for the most part, appealed to our higher, brighter angels; urging us to be guided by the best, most civil and even-handed aspects of our collective national being. This time around, however, we are being urged to cave in to that which is most base, biased, greedy and grossly intolerant within us.  And although no more than 35% of the voting public has thrown its support behind this unique kakistocratic aberration, it has been enough to elect the worst president in the history of our glorious republic . . . not to mention a Congress filled with spineless sycophants. 

Do we truly deserve this kakistocracy?  Are we responsible for this rule by the utterly incompetent?  Yes and no.  In the main, Americans are too caring, humane and tolerant to blithely accept rule by the worst. But at the same time, a bare majority of us turn out to vote, thereby permitting a large minority to control the republic's future.  Those who are aggrieved, abashed and ashamed of what '45 and his ilk have made of American in just under a year should note that we are going to the polls in about 10 months. Together, we can take back the House and Senate this coming November.  Together, we can deflate the Kakistocratic balloon they have wrought and restart the process of putting America back into the hands of thinking, caring, worldly non-psychotic people.  The Three Stooges should remain on celluloid, not Capitol Hill.

360 days down, 1,197 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Moral Disgrace As Public Entertainment

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Extending back to the earliest days of the great experiment known as America, there have been a handful of social, cultural and political verities which have never been far from center stage.  These verities - call them America's version of Hegel's Dialectics (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) - include: individualism-versus-community; Federalism-versus-States' Rights; fear of "the malignant other"; and moral disgrace as public entertainment.  The first (individualism-versus-community) is what divides those who believe that most - if not all - individuals can succeed on their own just so long as there are no prior civil restraints, and those who hold that success is best achieved by people working together toward a common goal.  The second (Federalism-versus States' Rights) is the individualism-versus-community dichotomy raised to the political level; namely that the American polity works best when power descends from above versus working best when power ascends from below. The third (fear of "the malignant other") is the recurrent national mania for blaming others - "outsiders," and "aliens" "communists" or "authoritarian populists" for the nation's social, political or economic problems.  The fourth and last verity is "moral disgrace as public entertainment," a concept first popularized by writer Philip Roth in his lamentably underrated 1998 roman à clef I Married a Communist. This verity has played on the American stage ever since the days of the Salem Witch Trials, which - again in the words of Mr. Roth - ". . . fed the pleasures of paranoia." For in addition to partaking in the "malignant other" verity,  the trials were damned entertaining to boot.  Similarly did the "Know Nothings" of the 1840s, the McCarthyites of the 1950s and today's Trumpeters know the entertainment value of turning both moral and mental disgrace into a good public show. 

Make no mistake about it: the nation's 45th President is a moral, mental and political disgrace.  I mean, would a sane, balanced person starkly tell the world "I am a stable genius?" But beyond this, in putting both America and the very planet we occupy into grave peril, America's "mean widdle kid" (remember Red Skelton?) persists in masquerading as public entertainment. From his orange bird's nest coif to his penchant for puerile early-morning Tweets and exiguous grasp of civics, American history, the Constitution and our very political process, '45 is a train wreck posing as a transcontinental glide. And, with the publication of Michael Wolff's new tell-all Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (which I, unlike many, have already managed to procure and read) we have now had the worst, basest, most repugnant aspects of the man and his presidency reified.  This is  not to say that each and every charge, each and every quote in Wolff's 336-page work is rock-solidly irrefutable.  With works of this sort, nothing is ever 100% verifiable. However, the welter of tell-all impressions and quotes backs up the certain knowledge that '45 is a man-child in the promised land; an illiterate naif floundering in a sea of lethal omnivores. 

What '45 does not know or understand about realpolitik - whether local, national or (gasp!) international - imperils both the nation and the planet. The fact that he possesses few - if any - core beliefs, leaves him totally vulnerable to the last voice he's heard or last telecast he's viewed. According to author Wolff, '45 is a man who neither reads nor listens; a man who is far far more concerned with being lionized than solving problems; a man who, like the Platte River, is six inches deep and a mile wide the mouth. (n.b. This bon mot is not mine; it was originally used to describe William Jennings Bryan the "Boy Orator of the Platte" back in the late 19th century.) How else can one understand '45's obsessive  push to undermine or overturn virtually everything enacted by his predecessor for no other reason than the former president's having trolled and gently poked fun at him during a White House Corespondents' dinner in 2015? Never mind that the man(child) President Obama was punking had been at the forefront of the whole "birther" cannard. To '45, inconsistency means far less then impropriety. How else to explain that while neither '45 nor his official spokespeople have yet to deny any of writer Wolff's specific charges (other to call the book a hatchet job), he has nonetheless (unsuccessfully) threatened to sue the author and his publisher for libel?  Although not an expert in constitutional law, I'm reasonably certain that there is no tortious liability stemming from definition of character; neither author Wolff nor his publisher are tortfeasors. As the world's most public figure, '45 cannot sue for libel, much less demand prior restraint.

Both sadly and predictably, none of Wolff's revelations will cause "45's most ardent defenders to change their opinion of the man, his motives or his character. Furthermore, for most Americans, the nonstop media unveiling of Michael Wolff's revealing juggernaut (it rose to #1 on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble's websites even before a single volume was sold) will be widely discussed but largely unread and produce, at best, a couple of week's worth of rapturous public entertainment . . . nothing more, nothing less.  Those who were against '45 before its publication will now have even more fodder for their opposition; most of those who were firmly and enthusiastically part of '45's hallowed "base" prior to publication and revelation will find within its pages nothing but noxious "fake news," and will continue to believe him a president as great as - if not greater than - Abraham Lincoln. 

Most regrettably, Wolff's book will, in the long-run be yet another example of moral disgrace as public entertainment - a bit more kiss-and-tell in a society far more addicted to the salacious than the salubrious.  How terribly sad.  But what can one expect from a culture in which the average John or Mary can provide line and verse on at least 3 Kardashians yet have no idea how many branches of government there are . . . let alone name them? Despite the fact - as mentioned above - that not everything in Fire and Fury in the Trump White House - is necessarily true, it does present a president and an administration which is rapidly destroying the very fabric of the American body politic, scaring the daylights out of our allies, and giving our enemies reasons to be both bold and brave.

In the long-run, public entertainment does not - indeed cannot - pave a path for our future.  Trump must go.  Pence and Ryan, who would succeed him - must never be permitted top occupy the Oval Office.  We must find a way to replace them with leaders who, although perhaps not nearly so entertaining, are at least capable of working 24-7 to restore integrity, intelligence and maturity to the body politic. For to be POTUS requires far more than being a mere celebrity; it requires being a thoroughly accomplished actor on the world's largest state.

350 days down, 1,108 days two go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

 

Will He Or Won't He?

      Donald Trump and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

     Donald Trump and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III

By now, it is well understood by most that truth is to '45 as lox and bagels are to peanut butter and Jalapeño peppers.  In other words, they are both strangers and bipolar opposites.   Indeed, the past few years have seen the emergence of a cottage industry which keeps track of every one of '45's exaggerations, mistruths, and outright lies. In comparison to his immediate predecessors - Obama, Bush and Clinton - '45 is in a class by himself.  However, in the same breath, it must be admitted that even before his election, the future POTUS told two major, major truths which we, the American public - ignore at our own peril:

  • First, on January 23, 2016, nearly a year before his eventual inauguration, then-candidate Trump proudly Tweeted that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" and not "lose any voters."  In a grotesque, off-the-wall way, this has turned out to be true; for regardless of whatever outrageous, puerile, mind-numbing things '45 has done, said or Tweeted over the past year or more, his most ardent supporters (his "base") have remained steadfast. In the main, they are as deaf, dumb and blind as Dr. Pangloss' most ardent disciples who believe - despite everything they've seen, heard or experienced - that this is indeed, "the best of all possible worlds."
  • And second, as early as 2015, when pressed as to how we could expect him to deal any of the nation's most difficult problems - rising healthcare costs, climate change, the gross disparity of wealth and the Middle East to name but a few - Trump told Fox News that he wished to be "unpredictable."  The Latin response to this statement would be rem acu testigisti - namely, he "hit the nail on the head."  For in going over '45's actions, statements and Tweets during his first year in office he has been - as per his 2015 promise - completely unpredictable.  Regrettably, as we've learned, his unpredictability is more often related to his last source of information - generally Sean Hannity, the sage of  St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary high school, than to his Chief of Staff, members of his Cabinet or even his own family.

These two truths lead inevitably - and lamentably -  to a question which has, over the past several weeks been uppermost in the minds of many: will the POTUS fire special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III because his investigation is giving him both shpilkis and heartburn?  Although on this, the day before Christmas 2017, no one - including '45 himself - knows if the man insiders call "Bobby Triple Sticks"  (that's after the 'III' which appends his name) will be sacked . . . that's anyone's guess, it could very well happen. But then again, it might not. That's where '45's obsessive unpredictability comes into play. Of course, in order to get to the point where Mueller is actually canned, the president would likely have to first terminate Deputy A.G. Rod Rosenstein, appoint and anoint a replacement who would then act as lord high executioner . . . . unless he fools everyone and refuses to do the dirty deed. Virginia Senator Mark Warner has already warned '45 that "Any attempt by this President to remove special counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities . . . . These truly are red lines and [we] simply cannot allow them to be crossed."

Would this potential "Saturday Night Massacre Redux" cause even a tiny tremor of rejection - let alone revulsion - amongst '45's most ardent fans?  Probably not. Remember, these are the very folks that '45 predicted wouldn't lose faith even if he "stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody." And while reasonable, rational people can take comfort in the knowledge that the blindly "epoxied faithful" represent, at best, a third of the American public, this is still a large enough number to put a systemic roadblock in the path of public unity.  Do remember, that interwoven throughout this third are racists, anti-Semites, homophobes, highly-armed 2nd Amendment gun nuts, supporters of authoritarianism, Randroidian Objectivists (many of whom sit in '45's Cabinet) and people who want to secede from the Union. 

Another "Will he, won't he?" deals with '45's love of misdirection; of turning public attention - if only for a day or a week - away from the house of cards that is about to collapse all around him, his family and his presidency.  Remember such acts of temporary misdirection as Obama's having wiretapped Trump Tower? Or how about the canard concerning the Clintons, Russia and Uranium?  Or barring transgenders from serving in the military?  Or first declaring that shortly, America would be relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, and then threatening to take retaliatory action against any and every country that voted against us at the United Nations?  Then there's the issue of how reliable and amateurish the FBI has become. Is it possible that if things get so incredibly fraught and legally untenable that '45 will initiate some large-scale military action against North Korea? Unlike the other acts of misdirection, which have been largely buoyed by rhetoric and hot air, this one would be backed up with the largest, most lethal nuclear arsenal on the planet.  And what if, for the sake of supposing, the Joint Chiefs of Staff simply said "NO!  WE WON'T DO IT!"  What then?  A mass incarceration of admirals and generals?  Instituting martial law from Caribou to Carson City?  The mind simply boggles.

There is one "Will he, won't he?" that I can highly recommend to our Commander in Chief: that he, or Mrs. Huckabee Sanders, or his private physician, announce that most regrettably, as a result of an aggressive something or other, he must resign his office, give the keys to Vice President Pence (who could very well be in legal jeopardy himself) and return to Trump Towers where he will live out his remaining days in therapeutic splendor.

Sound impossible?  Perhaps . . . but then again, this is the season for giving gifts . . .

337 days down, 1,121 days to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

Cleaning Up What the Elephants Leave Behind

Elephant poop.jpg

Having grown up in and around the movie industry, we got to know quite a number of actors, directors, choreographers . . . even a thespic animal or two.  One of my favorites was a broken-back horse named "Mickey," who appeared in a couple of dozen Mack Sennett flicks.  Being a devotee of "Roy Rogers," and "The Lone Ranger," not to mention that we,  as a family were friends of Bill Williams (née Hermann Katt, the star of "The Adventures of Kit Carson") and his wife Barbara Hale (Della Street on "Perry Mason") plus getting to spend an inordinate amount of time at Corriganville, (the Western movie set out in Simi Valley), I often found myself wondering whose job it was to rid the streets of all the horse manure.  Think about it: did you ever once see a speck of horse plop on the streets of Matt Dillon's Dodge or Roy Rogers' Mineral City?"  Obviously, there were people in Hollywood who made their livings shoveling tons of equine drek between takes. About the only Western star whose penchant for stark realism demanded horse droppings on his befouled sets was the greatest of them all, William S. Hart.

So what in the world do horse plop and classic Western movies have to do with this week's topic?  Actually quite a bit.  Just as as it required a team of devoted sweepers to sanitize the streets of Dodge (or Mineral or Virginia City) from the loads of crap left by all the horses, so too does it take a cadre of devoted  Donkeys (Democrats) to clean up all the dangerous droppings left behind by the Elephants (Republicans).  Take the Republicans' recently reconciled Tax Cuts and Jobs Actwhich few members of Congress have read and even fewer understand. This bill includes something for everyone to hate - unless you are incredibly rich or incredibly stupid. For besides drastically reducing the nation's corporate tax rate from 35% (which few currently pay) down to 21% and being a boon to the super wealthy, their bill would:

  • Put a lethal stake into the very heart of Obamacare, taking health insurance away from 34 Million Americans who will go back to using the ER as their primary care physician;
  • Repeal the Alternate Minimum Tax for corporations while letting it remain for individuals and couples;
  • Repeal  the deductibility of home equity loans;
  •  Nearly double the amount of inherited wealth exempt from tax to about $10 million from a current $5.6 million;
  • Repeal the deductability of alimony payments, which will wreak havoc with low- and middle-income folks seeking a divorce while further lining the pockets or their attornies;
  • Repeal the Johnson Amendment — a 1954 measure which prohibits houses of worship and other tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates;
  • Eliminate the state and local tax deduction, which is taken by many people in high-tax (read "blue"), populous states to avoid double taxation. These states include New York, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts; 
  • Eliminate employer-provided educational assistance, the student loan interest deduction, and other critical higher education tax provisions;
  • Add between $1 and $1.5 trillion to the federal budget deficit over the next decade, which will necessitate deep cuts in such social programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to pay for it as well as drastically slashing the budgets of most every federal department and agency with the possible exception of the Department of Defense.

This then s the long-promised "major, major tax overhaul" which would

  • Drastically cut corporate taxes;
  • Lop thousands upon thousands of pages from the IRS regs;
  • Simplify  tax filing to the point where one could submit their taxes on a single postcard;
  • Put lots of money into the pockets of middle-class taxpayers,
  • Be absolutely "revenue neutral," and
  • Make America fiscally great again.

Never mind that at most, the Republican plan will put $20.00 a week back into the pockets of middle-class wage earners (at least for the first couple of years), take away any number of basic deductions for those earning less than $75,000 a year, and create new ways in which so-called "Pass-Through businesses," millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires can vastly increase their wealth.  And all this Congress has managed to shape, create, tweak and likely pass behind closed doors.  At 500-odd pages, it is by no means the longest piece of legislation in the history of the Republic; just the worst conceived cut-and-paste mean-spirited giveaway of all time.  For months, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin had been talking about  the painstaking analysis that hundreds of his employees were engaged in preparing twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  Well, that analysis finally was released this past Monday.  It could easily have been contained on a single postcard.  Come to think of it, a single page or postcard is most fitting for this travesty, considering that the economic theory which underpins it all ("Trickle-Down," which was based on the so-called "Laffer Curve") was originally written on a single cocktail napkin.

One of the most devilishly clever aspects of this lobbyist-written plan is that all the changes affecting corporations and the hyper-wealthy are legislatively in perpetuity, while those which, at first blush may be helpful for the non-wealthy, have a life-span of only a few years.  That is when the draconian cuts begin - those additional revenues and fiscal savings required to make sure the tax code continues enriching the already rich.  For devotees of trickle-down this makes sense: once the rich get even richer, they will spend their newfound pelf on creating jobs here at home, thus putting more dollars into the pockets of American consumers.

Right . . . and there was never any horse crap on the ground at the OK Corral. Just ask Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, or Hank Fonda and Randolph Scott. 

It is left to the Democrats to pick up the brooms and shovels and clean up this Elephant-made mess.  But it will not be enough to merely explain and endlessly repeat what the pachyderms hath wrought. The Republican base - most of whom will suffer along with the rest of us - could care less; their leaders have told them it's a real mitzvah to help the rich get even richer. Those who know or even sense that the Republicans have legalized a ginormous game of Three Card Monty don't want to hear about it; they want to know what the Democrats are planning to do about it.  And not just some Huey Long "Soak the Rich!" cure-all.  No, in order to be successful in 2018, 2020 and beyond, Democrats are going to have to do a lot of soul searching, deep creative thinking and come up with specific proposals for how we're going to retake the future on behalf of America's working- and middle-class people.  We're going to have to talk about:

  • Making major investments in education that will place far, far more emphasis on putting future skills into the hands of students than siphoning off dollars to put into the pockets of charter school pirates. 
  • Committing ourselves as a nation to rebuilding our infrastructure and retrofitting our power grids: roads, national highways, bridges, dams, levees.  And not just for the sake of creating millions of jobs; infrastructure is as much a part of national defense as are bombs, bullets and counterintelligence. 
  • Addressing and acting upon those things which truly matter to the American public, such as healthcare, retirement and gun safety rather than divisive, diverting dog-whistle issues like "religious freedom for White Christians";  putting more and more guns into the hands of already well-armed people; deporting millions upon millions of undocumented human beings and constructing an American "Maginot Line" specifically designed to keep them out; making sure that evolution and climate change aren't "rammed down the throats of our children."

It's a tall, messy, malodorous order; this cleaning up of what the elephants leave behind, but someone's got to do it for the sake of America and the future of the planet.

331 days down, 1,127 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

There's Going To Be a Morning After

                          Manoj Bhargava

                         Manoj Bhargava

Introductory note: With each passing week, there are an increasing number of critical issues, personalities and inanities to write about.  Invariably, selecting any particular issue or crisis upon which  to devote a weekly column will result in many people asking me "Why didn't you write about X instead of Y?"  Any attempt to offer an explanation or give a defense is futile - and in my humble opinion unnecessary. In point of fact, the very process of choosing a topic is almost as difficult and time consuming as researching, pondering and writing it.  Why just this week alone, I could be writing on the senate election in Alabama, the President's announcement concerning Jerusalem (and all it entails), the resignations of Senator Franken and Representatives Conyers and Franks, the annual White House Hanukkah gathering to which not a single Jewish Democrat was invited . . . and on and on.  Whenever selection becomes more insuperable than composition, opt for a change of pace.  Remember, the subtitle of this blog is "Politics and a Whole Lot More."

So this week, let's opt for a lot less "politics" in favor of "a whole lot more." This essay is about the future.  It is decidedly more positive and upbeat than any essay about the present. It is planned to the first of several occasional pieces on people, ideas and projects which ultimately will make tomorrow far more hopeful, nurturing and civilized than today . . . 

For every 10 people who know the name Manoj Bhargava, there are likely 100,000 who have used the product which made him a  multi-billionaire: "5-hour ENERGY." Manoj, who was born in Lucknow, India in 1953, is the  founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures L.L.C., which, among other things, produces 5-hour ENERGY. Manoj, who is worth an estimated $4 billion, is a member of the Giving Pledge Campaign and already well on his way to giving away 99% of his fortune to philanthropic causes.  Towards that end, he has created the Billions in Change Foundation which includes an "invention shop" called Stage 2.  This Farmington Hills, Michigan shop creates "useful solutions to the world’s most pressing problems." To date, Stage 2 and Bhargava's Han Foundation have invented a diverse array of devices and techniques to capture and generate free energy, clean, purify and make potable water that is brackish, overly salinized and thus undrinkable, and make non-chemical manure that permits soil to absorb water even while increasing crop yield by an exponential amount.

Stage 2 has created and put into use:

  • A stationary bicycle which, if pedaled for but an hour, can create and store enough energy to light a home, charge a cell phone, and run a fan.  
  • A solar-paneled briefcase-like device which can can generate and store even more energy.  In both cases, the net result is free, non polluting energy. 
  • Two devices, the "Rainmaker for Grey Water," and the "Rainmaker for Brackish Water" which simply attaches to a well and starts working immediately, cleaning water at a rate of 5-10 gallons per minute. And unlike other water filtration devices, this one uses very little energy. It takes just 1.5 kilowatts, which is about as much as a hair dryer,.
  • Shivansh Fertilizer - a cost-free fertilizer that can transform unproductive land into a thriving farm, enabling farmers to reduce reliance on chemicals and increase profits. Shivansh Fertilizer is made by gathering whatever is laying around—dry plant materials, fresh grass, crop residues, animal manure—and then using a simple-to-follow layering method to construct a shoulder-high pile.

To date, these devices  and techniques are already in use and making an important difference in India.  Manoj's plan is to introduce them to the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

We who live in the world's developed countries might find it hard to grasp that easily more than a billion people on this planet don't have access to electricity or a source of clean water, and can barely make a living through farming.  Manoj Bhargava and his colleagues have already made vast inroads into solving these problems.  Besides saving lives and bringing light where there currently darkness, Manoj is also helping clean the atmosphere by creating non-polluting, free sources of energy (which I am sure the oil, coal and gas companies are going to hate), and above all, giving hope . . . a desperately needed commodity. 

I strongly urge you to take less than a half-hour to watch the following video. Not only will you be amazed at what is happening; it just might restore a bit of faith in the human race:

45 years ago, Maureen McGovern gained instant fame when she sang "The Morning After"  for the 1972 blockbuster hit "The Poseidon Adventure."  Its lyrics are, in light of this week's essay - and other such future pieces about the future - especially poignant:

There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on looking for the light

Oh, can't you see the morning after? 
It's waiting right outside the storm
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm?

It's not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It's not too late, not while we're living
Let's put our hands out in time

There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow
And we'll escape the darkness
We won't be searching anymore

(© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc)

 

324 days down, 1,136 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

 

"Believe Me"

we-the-corporations-citizens-united.jpg

Generally speaking, when a politician begins a statement with the words "Believe me," what follows is - again, generally speaking - likely not true.  Our current POTUS is a prime example of this phenomenon.  Without those two words, he'd have 50% less to say. Need an example? Less than a week ago, while campaigning for passage of the then-pending Senate tax overhaul vote before a gathering in St. Charles, Missouri, '45 said "This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing - believe me. Believe me; this is not good for me." Predictably, the crowd cheered wildly (why, we'll never know). He then concluded the passage by saying that he had "many wealthy friends who are not happy with me . . . believe me." Even if one disputes the fact of '45 having "many friends," his statement is demonstrably untrue; this overhaul will blow up the deficit by more than $1.5 trillion, rob more than 13 million working class and poor Americans of healthcare, raise taxes on those earning less than $75,000, eliminate more than $35 billion from Medicare, and see the vast majority of its benefits going to the wealthiest .05% of the American public, through such fetid codicils as eliminating the inheritance tax (which only applies to those leaving behind estates in the millions upon millions of dollars. Far from "not being good for me," this one factor alone could easily save '45 and his heirs more than a billion dollars). 

Believe me . . . please do, for the above is demonstrably factual, not deviously fatuous. 

We live in a time and place of such utter cynicism, confusion and fear that it is hard - if not impossible - to know what to believe; to know what is truthful and what a mere sack of manure.  Personally, I still put trust in polling . . . when done by such professional organizations and concerns as Pew, Kaiser, Quinnipiac, Rasmussen and even Gallup.  For these are groups that consider polling to be both an academic and scholarly pursuit which will lead them to whatever conclusions the polls will evince, as opposed to polling organizations which strive to "prove" pre-conceived partisan points of view. And yes, these partisan polling outfits traverse the entire political spectrum, from the wildly progressive to the psychotically conspiratorial.  Unfortunately, the best, most honest and professional of polls often lead us to the worst, most cynically disheartening of conclusions.  Consider if you will . . .

It's a fact: A majority of Americans say it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage. And a growing share now supports a “single payer” approach to health insurance, according to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center.  Moreover, more than half the American people are against repealing "Obamacare" without first having a new plan in place.  And yet, the Republican-controlled Congress is firmly against Obamacare and continues to deride any form of Universal Health Coverage as "Socialist."

It is a fact: Sixty-four percent of voters support stricter gun laws, the poll shows, including 41 percent who strongly support them. Less than 3-in-10 voters (29 percent) oppose stricter gun laws, including 16 percent in strong opposition. Nonetheless, Congress continues to assert that those seeking new gun safety laws are merely hiding their true goal: currying favor with their deep-pocketed friends at the National Rifle Association. Virtually every Republican (and a few Democrats) is even against enacting laws making it more difficult for people convicted of domestic abuse to acquire guns.  Instead, they acclaim that any piece of gun safety legislation is but a first step in taking guns away from all Americans. (Please note the use of the term "gun safety," rather than "gun control." I think using the former is more to the point, and therefore less likely to scare away those sitting on the fence.)

It is a fact: Despite the fact that only one in four Americans recently polled were in favor of the Republican's tax overhaul, it passed the Senate 51-49 with but a single Republican (outgoing Tennessee Senator Bob Corker) voting against it.  How is this possible?

It's a fact: Nearly 70% of those polled favored America's participation in the Paris Accord - which aims to tackle climate change head-on.  Nonetheless, '45 - with the backing of his Republican-led Congress - pulled out of the international pact. America is now the only country on earth not to be a part of that pact . . . with our president still questioning whether global warming is or is not a "Chinese Hoax."

It is a fact:  A vast 86 percent of Americans support a right to residency for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, with support crossing the political spectrum. Two-thirds back a deal to enact such legislation in tandem with higher funding for border control. Despite this, nary a single Republican leader has so much as suggested that '45 change course and permit these "Dreamers" to remain in America.

It's a fact: American voters, by a  margin of 69%-27% approve of the constitutional right to abortion established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, both Congress and innumerable Republican-controlled state legislatures are continuing to chip away at a woman's right to choose; whether by cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, passing legislation which limits abortions to only the first 8 weeks of a pregnancy, saddling clinics performing abortions with impossible requirements, or declaring that life begins at the moment of (or even before) conception.

Believe me: all the above are demonstrable facts.

So why don't our elected officials heed vox populi - public opinion?  Is it because they are cruel, heartless, greedy or just plain stupid?  Could it be that Washington, D.C. and the various state capitols are all on another planet . . . or could it be something else?

Believe me: it is something else.

That "something else," which motivates (forces?) the party in power to go against the demonstrable will of  "We the People" is the worst Supreme Court ruling in all American history: the court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case, which gave corporations and so-called "super-pacs" the status of people, thereby permitting unfettered, unlimited, often untraceable amounts of money to be showered upon political officeholders and candidates who would do their bidding and dance to the tune played by corporations, super-pacs and lobbying organizations.  In essence, Citizens United (which was decided by a 5-4 vote) gave multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Bob Mercer (who until recently was, among other things, a major stakeholder in Breitbart News) and single-interest groups and super-pacs (such as the National Rifle Association, the coal, oil, gas and big pharma) the biggest, cushiest seat at the table.  Through unlimited contributions, they have been given legal cover to place a hammy hand on the scale of democracy.  Indeed ever since Citizens United the Constitution seems to begin with the words "We the Corporations of the United States . . ." It is the rare senator, representative, governor or state legislator who has the conviction, courage and guts to go against the will of those with the bucks. Call it "Gold's Law" - Thems with the gold makes the law.  Things were a bit different in the years before Citizens United.  I well remember the words of a former boss, the late California Assembly Speaker Jess 'Big Daddy' Unruh who said both "Money is the mother's milk of politics," and "If you can't take their (lobbyists') money, drink their booze, eat their food and have fun with their women (Jess' statement was a bit more Raymond Chandler on this last point) and then have the courage to vote against them, you just don't belong in politics."  

Believe me: polls show that a clear majority of the American public understands that Citizens United is bad for politics, bad for America, bad for Democracy.  And yet, the Supreme Court decision is law and the billionaires continue to get their way.  What is to done?  How to rid America of that which has so utterly befouled our political process?  One way would be to get the SCOTUS to overturn their earlier decision.  Of course, as long as the highest court in the land is filled with conservatives, that's never going to happen.  Another - and perhaps only realistic - way of getting rid of it would be amending the United States Constitution.  While at first blush this might seem like history's biggest pipe dream, do recall the words of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin" - "The wheel's still in spin. . . For the loser now will be later to win/For the times they are a-changin."

Believe me: Getting rid of Citizens United via Constitutional Amendment, although quite difficult, is not impossible

Believe me: A growing number of state legislatures and more than 700 cities, towns and municipalities have already endorsed such an amendment. 

Believe me: Nationwide petitions have garnered millions of signatures. 

Believe me: In September 2014, a majority of U.S. Senators voted in favor of a constitutional amendment but their 54-42 majority fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of an opposition filibuster. It was a partisan clash: All 42 “No” votes came from Republicans and all 54 “Yes” votes came from Democrats.

Believe me: Citizens United is turning this country into even more of a corporate state than we were back in the Gilded Age.  Indeed, in turns of Supreme Court history, Citizens United was, is and shall always be Worse Than Dred Scott

Believe me: Ridding America of the consequences of Citizens United will go a long, long way towards restoring representative Democracy to the land of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

For those who wish to participate, click this link and add your name and voice.  Then, make sure you only vote for Representatives, Senators, state legislators and members of your local county and municipal governments that will support repeal.  If we work together, it can work.

BELIEVE ME!

318 days down, 1142 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone

 

The Ever-Contracting Universe of D.J.T.

                   Pearl Buck, JFK, Robert Frost, Mrs.Kennedy

                  Pearl Buck, JFK, Robert Frost, Mrs.Kennedy

On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy (who, as of this past Wednesday has - unbelievably - been gone for 54 years) hosted a lavish black-tie White House banquet honoring 49 Nobel Laureates from the Western Hemisphere. Prominent attendees included then-Canadian Liberal Party leader Lester Pearson, writer (and Nobel Laureate) Ernest Hemingway's widow Mary Welsh Hemingway, Poet Robert Frost, novelist John Dos Passos, literary critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, and two-time Academy Award winner Frederic March, who read excerpts from the works of Nobel Prize winners Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck and George C. Marshall. 

In his welcoming remarks to his august guests, President Kennedy (a month shy of his 45th birthday and himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer)  keenly observed  “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  Although these words (likely written by Kennedy's Ted Sorensen) are generally well-remembered, what followed is not: “I think the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of peace, are very basic drives and pressures in this life of ours--and this dinner is an attempt, in a sense, to recognize those great efforts, to encourage young Americans and young people in this hemisphere to develop the same drive and deep desire for knowledge and peace."

Talk about a class act.  The Kennedy years - that brief interregnum between Eisenhower and Johnson - were frequently called "Camelot," a glittering kingdom where, in the words of C'est Moi:

 A knight of the Table Round should be invincible,
 Succeed where a less fantasticbman would fail /
Climb a wall no one else can climb,
 Cleave a dragon in record time,
 Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
 No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable,
 Impossible deeds should be his daily fare.

Turn the page, advance 54 years, and we now find ourselves in the midst of Camelot's dark and ugly underbelly, as in the words of Seven Deadly Virtues:

The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me
Those seven deadly virtues were made for other chaps
Who love a life of failure and ennui . . .
 I find humility means to be hurt
 It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt
 Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
 Diligence-a fate I would hate . . .

Nowhere does the difference between the Kennedy years and today reveal itself more starkly than in the matter of Nobel Laureates.  Where Kennedy delighted in dining with and basking in the aura of the crème-de-la-crème of brilliance and scholarly accomplishment, '45 has turned both a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of them. Simply stated, in 2017, there is no place at  today's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the best and brightest in the scholarly empyrean.  Why? Perhaps '45, who has on any number of occasions reminded his cadre of followers that he is "a very intelligent person" is simply cowed by their brilliance and fears that they would easily show him up for the brainless blowhard he is. (Actually, they probably would not; they are far too classy a bunch for such bad manners.) Not that such an unmasking would deter his ardent base from believing he is the Great Oz. Perhaps he is playing up to the solid, stolid anti-intellectualism of his political universe, which is largely made up of those for whom climate change is nothing more than a deceitful conspiracy, and the  only "Big Bang Theory" they've ever heard of is that which attaches to Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, rather than Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble.  Then too, perhaps he simply does not want to suffer the unprecedented embarrassment of having his invitations turned down.  For truth to tell, more than one of the Nobel Laureates was relieved by '45's decision to not have a gala in their honor.  

Make no mistake about it: '45's universe, unlike that of Einstein and Hubble is constantly contracting: intellectually, morally and politically. America - indeed, the world - seems to be populated by an ever decreasing number of people and nations who have one thing in common: a need, desire and ability to idolize him no matter what he does or says;  no matter whether he is as inconsistent as a major league strike zone or as intellectually vapid are a flat-earther. During the past year or more, a lot of people have come to understand that '45's universe contracts every time an individual, group or cause changes its mind about him.  He possesses total recall when it comes to slights, challenges or personal affronts, and clinical amnesia when it comes to any - if not all - his yesterdays.  For so many, the only thing one must know about him is that he is rich . . . really, really rich (or so he says).

When I attended university nearly a half-century ago, I took just enough "Physics for Philosophy Students" courses to figure out how much I did not know about physics. I do recall learning something about Edwin Hubble's discovery (theory?) that the universe was not static . . . that it was constantly expanding. This was the find which revealed that the universe was apparently born in a "Big Bang." That when the universe was just ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fourth of a second or so old — that is, a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in age — it experienced an incredible burst of expansion known as inflation, in which space itself expanded faster than the speed of light. During this period, the universe doubled in size at least 90 times, going from subatomic-sized to golf-ball-sized almost instantaneously.  As a student of philosophy, history and political science, I found this terribly difficult to grok.  And so, I found myself asking the professor, "If the entire physical universe was the size of a golf ball, what reality existed outside that golf ball sized orb?"  When he told me "nothing whatsoever," I tried to . . . as the modern expression goes . . . "wrap my brain around that one." After a sleepless night or two, I decided that there were simply some things better left to the astrophysicists, G-d bless them all. I was better off studying Hume than Hawking.

To the best of my knowledge (which is woefully slight), the question remains: "What reality exists outside a constantly expanding physical universe?"  With regards to this week's topic, it is far, far easier to answer the question "What reality exists outside a constantly contracting political universe?"  To be certain, the discards include ideals, programs, equality, humanity and long-term vision.  And if something is not done over the next several years, '45's "real America" - i.e. his universe - will consist of only those who are mostly white, Christian, highly conservative, terribly rich and highly autocratic.  And while I know that JFK was far from a saint (extra-marital affairs, an addiction to painkillers and being the son of a father who was a fascist and likely anti-Semite), at least he did his best to expand the universe in which he lived. And he made us proud to be Americans . . .

297 days down, 1,049 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone