Saturday, July 25, 2009

Empathy Meets Realpolitik

Summertime and the living is easy . . . for our elected politicians in Washington D.C..

In just a few days they will suspend their hearings and deadline-driven decision making and return to the voters back home who keep them in office.

Homeless veterans across America, American children who do not have enough to eat, families facing foreclosure and unemployment all will still all be there when this great leadership body returns in a month or so, their campaign cash needs having been firmed up after non stop meetings with their voter base.

Meanwhile, last weekend almost one thousand homeless American military veterans in the San Diego, California area sought help at a three-day tent city program called "Stand Down." This volunteer effort has been operating for more than 20 years. It is a three-day chance for homeless veterans, many from the Vietnam era, but with increasing numbers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to get free housing and social services. Hot food, a haircut, dental work, legal aid and a clean place to sleep in a familiar military camp setting is there to help these souls living on the very edge.

That in the USA we have a thousand former military veterans, down and out in the shadows of one large city should evoke both sadness, and no small amount of outrage and frustration. However, it is not just San Diego. The Department of Veterans affairs estimates that one out of three homeless people across America is a veteran.

How do all the car magnets and lawn signs urging that we "Support Our Troops" somehow exclude those troops who become disabled and fall through the cracks once they get back home? Do we just say tough luck to those who turn to drugs and alcohol, the ones who desperately need extra help? Where is our empathy?

Empathy? Conservative politicians have loudly used that word as a pejorative just recently. The word was invoked by President Obama as a desirable quality in a federal judge. More specifically his nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Empathy? An effete, bleeding heart label? Hardly. Empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. But in that very definition we see among our elected leaders many who neither understand, nor share the feelings of others than themselves and their starchy conservative cohorts.

Empathy? How many of our nation's leaders have ever gone to bed hungry? U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that, "12.4 million children in the U.S. are 'food insecure' -- defined as not being able to get enough food to maintain a healthy, active life."

Food insecure? Simply say too many of our kids are hungry, not getting enough to eat. American kids. Using some bureaucratic euphemism does not fill empty tummies. Euphemisms do make the reports coming out of Washington agencies look a little less shocking. "Food insecure" doesn't jump off the page like "starving" or "undernourished," and helps keep this disgrace beneath the political radar.

Homeless American veterans and American children who never get enough to eat are merely two examples of ongoing problems that many of our politicians somehow must not hear about when they go back home. Our bloated and ineffective health care system is on this long list of old and worsening problems. But as a majority of our politicians now are working diligently to finally bring forth a new overhauled and affordable universal health plan for all Americans, conservatives reflexively throw up roadblocks.

Conservative protests about leaving huge indebtedness to our grandchildren actually mask a selfish fear of losing votes back home if they support a new, and initially expensive national health care plan. Empathy is absent from this narrow reasoning. Personal political career interests hold hostage the entire inertia and completion of work, particularly in the House of Representatives.

The very politicians now expressing such deep concern for our national debt were deafeningly silent as President Bush raised the national debt each of his eight years in office to a breathtaking record $11.3 trillion.

Properly done, universal health care would eventually greatly reduce soaring insurance and overall medical costs. But initially, funding for such a massive landmark change in the way we take care of America's health will be expensive and will require political backbone to make it a reality. More backbone is still needed to address the needs of homeless Veterans and our undernourished children.

Approval of long overdue universal health care will require the very two things sorely lacking in current political opponents - statesmanship and empathy. For those lacking these qualities, it is essential that we point them out, on both sides of the aisle, and inundate their offices with email, letters and phone calls demanding that they use their stated concerns for program cost as positive negotiable input to the committees working to craft the final health plan and not as a singular duplicitous barrier to progress.

Graphic - Larry Ray

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senator Sessions : Alabama Hypocrite Would Sit in Judgment

The Republican Party's finest continue to exhibit just how sorry, brazen, and unprincipled many of them can be as questioning of Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor has gotten underway. One of the worst and most shameless of the GOP interrogators is Alabama junior senator, Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions III.

In 1986 Sessions himself sat in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee as a Reagan nominee for a federal judgeship, and was promptly rejected because of his history of racially insensitive remarks and a poor civil rights record. One of those questioning Sessions was Senator Edward Kennedy who even back in 1986 called him "a throwback to a shameful era."

Today, after 23 years of playing the good old boy politician, becoming a U.S. Senator in 1997, Sessions, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican party, was assigned to be the Ranking Member on the Senate Judiciary Committee less than three months ago.

There is great irony here in the once rejected federal judicial nominee now trying to sharpen his claws on Judge Sotomayor. But she is lots tougher and sharper than Sessions could ever be, and is letting him claw away, as he loudly displays his lightweight duplicity and demagoguery.

In his confrontational opening statement of the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, Sessions, in his high nasal whine, lectured the nominee about 'prejudice' in the legal system.

Twenty years ago when Sessions sat before the very panel he now heads, he was asked about well documented reports of his publicly recognized racism. His response, "I may have said something about the NAACP being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it."

Sessions allegedly referred to the (NAACP) and the (ACLU) as "un-American" and "Communist inspired" because they "forced civil rights down the throats of people." At his confirmation hearings, Sessions said that the groups could be un-American when "they involve themselves in un-American positions" in foreign policy.

Sessions had been frequently accused of "gross insensitivity” on racial issues by his detractors. Among a variety of blatant racial comments his opponents pointed to, was his joking reference to the Ku Klux Klan which he said "was not so bad until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana." Sessions, with a straight face, claimed his remarks were made in jest.

The panel didn't buy it, and rejected him. One of those voting against him was Alabama Democratic Senator Howell Heflin.

Today Republican Senator Sessions is but one more example of GOP leadership tinged with documented hate, racism, anti immigration xenophobia, and unrealistic conservative dreams of "keeping things like they have always been."

The almost certain approval of Judge Sotomayor will, indeed, not be the way things have always been. That is the point of President Obama's having nominated her to the join the ranks of what has historically been the dominion of white men only, with relatively recent minor exceptions.

Meanwhile Senator Sessions may himself well be called to testify in future hearings since he was one of of only nine opponents of Senator John McCain's anti-torture amendment. Sessions supports former Vice President Dick Cheney's proposal to exempt the (CIA) from any ban on the use of torture.

Sessions is not real big on empathy either. Last month reportedly during testimony by a 42-year-old Filipino woman scheduled to be deported, the mother of two American children who had been in the USA for 23 years, Sessions was clearly heard telling one one of his aides, "Enough with the histrionics," when the woman's 12-year-old son began crying during the testimony.

And now he lectures a Supreme Court nominee about "prejudice in the legal system."

The only thing more disgusting and upsetting than Sessions' troubling racist background and narrow agenda are the voters out there who are nodding their heads in agreement with his "tough questioning" instead of asking themselves if Sessions is the best Alabama can do to represent them in the U.S. Senate.

.Graphic: US News & World Report June, 16, 1986

Thursday, July 9, 2009

ASCAP Wants To Be Paid When Your Phone Rings

When I first read about being forced to pay every time your cell phone's ringtone plays I thought it was a prank or hoax email. It wasn't. If you don't know what ASCAP is then turn off your cell phone and read this.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers was born in 1913 following passage of the Copyright Law of 1909. The law was enacted, the old tale goes, after songwriter Stephen Foster died penniless while sheet music publishers became wealthy selling his music. ASCAP set up a royalty rate structure and under New York law became an unincorporated membership association. Licensing contracts with composer and publisher members give ASCAP the power to "collect and distribute money and police infringements."

By the 1990's ASCAP had membership of some 30,000 writers and around 14,000 music publishers who retained their individual copyrights. ASCAP's contracted powers grew exponentially as hand cranked Victrolas gave way to movies with sound, radio, TV and an explosion of elevator music, video, jukeboxes, tape decks right up to today's iPods, the internet and and downloadable music.

BMI is also part of the alphabet soup. Broadcast Music Incorporated collects fees from radio and TV stations for the music they play and was formed in the 1940's when broadcasters began to feel ASCAP was more and more engaging in monopolistic practices, price fixing, and other unsavory practices.

So, with that bit of background, let's look at just one of the inevitable excesses ASCAP has indulged in based upon it's interpretation of licensing practices that are, "the only practical way to give effect to the right of public performance which the Copyright Law intends creators to have."

It is a tough call as to whether it was music industry greed or just plain stupidity that led ASCAP to actually go after Girl Scouts singing songs around a campfire. In 1996, ASCAP, ever seeking more licensing and musical moolah, cast a wide net covering hotels, restaurants, funeral homes, even resorts demanding payment for the right to "perform" licensed or recorded music.

Under copyright law, "where a substantial number of persons outside a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered," that qualifies as a public performance. Summer camp is sort of like a resort, they reasoned, so the suits around the table opened negotiations with the American Camping Association asking $1,200 annually each from the 288 camps in the association. They finally settled for a nag of $257 per camp. But reportedly when the public learned that the Girl Scouts were among the camps being dunned and would have to pony up their Girl Scout Cookie money to sing around a campfire, ASCAP took a PR beating and called off the whole camping caper.

Now, just a couple of weeks ago, ASCAP decided every time that snip of music you bought for a ringtone blares forth on your cell phone that constitutes a performance, violating copyright law meaning you must pay up! ASCAP is in a big legal skunk peeing contest with major mobile cell phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

Customers who have legally bought ringtones have already boosted the music industry's bottom line by millions of dollars. But now ASCAP's lawyers are dialing for more dollars. Existing law from the much earlier Sony Betamax ruling says companies are not liable for how their technology is used. It would seem like ASCAP doesn't have a case at all.

But these are the same folks who crisscrossed America threatening and intimidating small business owners for having a radio playing in their small shop, diner or bar, demanding they pay an annual fee. Those found playing a radio or recorded music were hounded month after month not unlike mafia shakedown goons seeking protection money. ASCAP agents didn't burn down the businesses who refused to pay for playing a radio but hounded them mercilessly.

I doubt many of us are keeping up with briefs filed in court by ASCAP, but THIS BRIEF in their battle with AT&T pretty well shows where this may all be headed after the big buck lawyers finish knocking heads.

The outcome of their insatiable greed may just be coming to a cell phone near you.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Sarah Palin Reads Vanity Fair, Resigns as Governor

Illustration by Risko for Vanity Fair
Sarah Louise Palin, erratic governor of Alaska and the G.O.P.'s 2008 Vice Presidential candidate, must have felt more than just the heat that is melting the glaciers in her state. She announced her resignation one day before all the real Fourth of July fireworks, from her Wasilla, Alaska home.

I read Todd S. Purdum's tell-all article, "It Came From Wasilla" just two days ago in the August 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. Purdum's article was more than telling. It was prophetic. The title could now be "It Never Really Left Wasilla."

The article carefully documents Palin from all sides, including inside stories now being told by top McCain campaign staff about Palin's petulant meltdown as a serious candidate. She dazzled the eager conservative base like a master magician during her brief stage appearances, but a look behind the curtain discloses a small town, clueless lightweight former beauty queen whose life, Purdum notes, "has sometimes played out like an unholy amalgam of Desperate Housewives and Northern Exposure."

The Vanity Fair article is, well, fair. It definitely is not a superficial whack job. It is so on target, and so well documented that one has to wonder if it is more than coincidence that she decided to fold up her political tent. After Vanity Fair, she can expect a steady barrage of even deeper investigative reporting if she decides to run for anything other than head of her church's glossolalia discussion committee.

Will she leave politics, or will she run for a U.S. Senate seat or the Presidency? Cable TV is having a field day. Interestingly, Palin's timing in announcing her resignation evidences her utter lack of understanding of the fine points of making political news. Millions of Americans are traveling, taking holiday vacations to visit family and friends. And after the nonstop weekend news coverage of fireworks, parades and celebration of American Independence, constant news coverage immediately shifts to the Michael Jackson memorial free for all in Los Angeles through the end of the following week.

Palin has reportedly gotten a sizeable advance for a book contract. She has chosen a senior writer for conservative Christian World magazine as her co-author. But if you can't wait for her book to come out, I suggest you grab a copy of Vanity Fair for a more sober look at the real Sarah Louise Palin.

Vanity Fair also has strong presence on the web where you may also read the article.

Even the woman in the red dress who told candidate McCain at a town hall campaign gathering in 2008 she thought Obama "was an Arab" should be able see past Palin's lip gloss, if she reads the VF article.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sign of the Times . . . Finally! Coleman Out - Franken In

One term Republican Minnesota U.S. Senator, Norm Coleman, has finally thrown in the towel conceding the Senate race to Democrat Al Franken, who won by a narrow 312 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast by Minnesotans last November. A 5-0 Minnesota Supreme Court decision against Coleman ended eight months of G.O.P. delaying tactics in the courts following a total vote recount, and endless legal challenges to Franken's narrow victory.

The more Coleman desperately claimed voter irregularities, the more the vote recount eliminated his thin 206 vote lead and uncovered votes that eventually shifted a 312 vote victory to Franken.

The G.O.P.'s worst nightmare has become reality. When Franken is seated next week, the Democrats will have a filibuster-stopping 60 vote majority in the Senate.

And the old-boy National Republican Senatorial Committee will have a lot of crow to choke down. Below is a reduced version of a November 2008 G.O.P. plea for money to "stop the liberals' plan to break our firewall!"

Orrin Hatch, in this almost comical appeal for "Just $7" unabashedly vilifies Al Franken:

"If you are like me, 'Franken wins' are two words you never want to hear again in your life. We have to stop Al Franken! He is the darling of the radical left. He is the hero of, Big Labor and anti-drilling environmentalists. Al Franken is also the poster boy for the liberal's plan to break our firewall in the senate and to seize control of our government. Frankly, Al Franken is unfit for office."

Then Orrin winds up his hysterical diatribe:

"Washington liberals are spending millions of dollars raised by Barack Obama and Joe Biden to attack our Republican candidates, just like they are attacking Gov. Sarah Palin - and elect liberals like Al Franken to the Senate."

Well, what a difference eight months makes, Orrin. Not only did Poster Boy nemesis Saturday Night Live comedian, Al Franken win, you will now get to smile and shake his hand.

After all the dust settled on the old crumbled firewall, six GOP senators had lost their places on the wall, falling off just like a bunch of Humpty Dumpties including a long-time Dumptyette, Liddy Dole. Add the specter of a G.O.P. defection to the Democrats actually happening, the disgrace of Ted Stevens of Alaska, and viola' the despised 'liberals' now tote up a 60 seat majority.

Orrin, you might like to know that Al graduated cum laude from Harvard College, is a highly successful author, and a little occasional SNL humor in the Senate chambers might be a good idea. You really should read Frankin's, 1993 book, "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me."