Monday, December 27, 2010

Boehner: A Crocodilian Crock?

John Boehner - A Portrait of Courage?
This, my last post of the year, dear readers, is a short few quatrains; prickly poetry that would probe the mind of the incoming GOP Speaker of the House, the emotionally delicate John Andrew Boehner.

                          Does Boehner's orange face denote a great tan
                          or is it dermatologically the mark of a man
                          with dour countenance and low self esteem
                          who weeps and sobs as if reliving a dream?

                          A sad dream invoked so he may wear his past
                          as a badge of passage he fears cannot last
                          while his political career has arrived at a peak
                          emotionally odd weeping will not let him speak.

                          Fabled crocodile tears are not truly felt
                          but perhaps John's weeping is darkly indwelt
                          from tormented pangs of past poverty, looming
                          his lachrymal breakdowns are now all consuming.

                          As Congress convenes, with new Speaker and gavel
                          will the negative spotlight make Boehner unravel
                          as his overblown ego casts a dull orange glow
                          will his bawling and weeping continue to grow?

                          Will Speaker John Boehner now tread that thin border
                          between sanity and madness, a narcissistic disorder?
                          Indeed, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem
                          I fear Boehner's tears are just there to bamboozle 'em!

                    Happy New Year,  
                    Larry Ray
                    Texas poet lariat

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Obama: Stumping to the stumped?

I have long enjoyed intellectually spirited email exchanges with a friend in New York who is a frenetic and frequent objector. Joel is a jazz pianist, university professor, fine art photographer and far left activist Democrat. I am a more centrist Democrat yet our exchanges of late seek a common end . . .  however we seem to define a path through the political thicket much differently.

Regarding the present Bush tax cut extension hairball that President Obama wants Democrats to choke down, and Obama's percieved failure to communicate to a wide swath of Americans, Joel writes: 
If Obama had a clearer public profile and ranted against the moneyed interests (à la TR, and FDR), there would be fewer like the elderly lady I met today in the dentist's office who believe he has a sinister agenda for the country. He doesn't say enough, appear enough to reveal this to be an absurdity!                            
Folks like your little old lady are to be found in large numbers across the land. I have found, repeatedly, that beneath their dark, irrational suspicions is always the fact that many are only seeing a "Negro" president whose middle name is Hussein.

Grant Park on election eve was not full of little old ladies, it was a much more youthful and diverse crowd of many colors and hues. I agree that Obama has been perhaps too calmly cerebral while he has continued to tackle tough, meaningful challenges during the past two years. Important diplomatic and economic progress has been made in spite of inheriting eight years of the George Bush fiasco abetted by a GOP moral insolvency.

Obama has calmly undertaken complex challenges like preventing a deep national economic depression and restoring America's image around the globe. But right now the general public is unable to appreciate or understand any of that. Simply put, history shows that a huge number of Americans are dumb as chickens.*

Perhaps a bit of populist Obama theater is in order. But with Fox being the "news" channel that so many of these very folks watch, Obama runs a risk of being easily pilloried for what would be characterized as pandering through the use of clever editing, out of context "quotes" and other typical Murdoch machinations.

Teddy and Franklin D. did not have today's frenetic, instant informational circus to deal with. "Bloggers" are now being interviewed as if they were journalists or somehow respected experts. The average Web Log, or "Blog" is a digital stump from which ordinary folks exhort and bellow forth opinions. There is little objectivity or academic credential in the average blog. There is an abundance of opinion.

Next consider the fear and struggling from continuing unemployment, foreclosures and other calamitous results of two terms of the GOP's sorry leadership, and people are just not rational. A dumbed-down presentation of how the calculating GOP got them into this mess would not, and has not, registered with the angry centrist majority.

The GOP, which has no shame, will continue to calculatingly lure these very folks right back so they can give them another screwing. And many will eagerly go back, hearing only platitudes, invocations of God's blessings and outrageous promises.

Finally, mix Ron and Rand Paul into this gumbo, add the other green so-called Tea Party populist winners, and then watch as they experience the harsh realities of Washington politics for freshmen members and back-benchers in both houses. We are in for a fascinating couple of years.

Throwing down extremist gauntlets on either side of the pendulum swing will provide brief moments of irritation, certainly. But if Obama and the nation are to break the paralyzing effects of today's political polarization, which is a pointless, greedy skunk pissing contest, the restive radical centrists must somehow be brought into the streets, whether literally or conceptually.

Imagine their anger shifted to the real villains, the wealthy, conservative Right who plays the ignorance of the average working stiff like a cheap guitar.  You are the historian, Joel. How to organize a truly representative and overwhelming movement from the great centrist majority seems to be the question. Forget screaming leftists or right wing Doom Sayers. Where are the farmers or workers spontaneously organizing and demonstrating in huge numbers? Where are the outraged veterans and students who should be protesting in massive demonstrations over the seemingly endless occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?

My cynical yet studied observation is that they are all blithely uninvolved. Younger Americans are Twittering and Facebooking inanities to one another in the distracting echoes of the social networking vortex.

How do you see this on your wide angle lens? Will a new orange tinted, weepy Speaker of the House make anyone wonder what the hell this country has allowed to happen?

* ...or very purposefully misinformed. See: U of Maryland poll of midterm voters

Graphic -"Stump Speaker" Courier litho card, 1890's

Monday, December 13, 2010

Judge Who Ruled Health Care Reform Unconstitutional Owns Piece of GOP Consulting Firm

A bit of background from the news wires on today's Federal Judicial news-maker, a Fed. judge who also owns part of a GOP  "consulting firm" and is a Bush appointee to the Federal Bench. Conflict of interest? Recusal? Nah. Since The Grand Old Party has elbowed its way back into power, the Jack Abramoff rules are in play once more. Things will just get more tawdry when The Supremes, Roberts, Scalia et al eventually get this. Put that in your Tea Pot.

"Henry E. Hudson, the federal judge in Virginia who just ruled health care reform unconstitutional, owns between $15,000 and $50,000 in a GOP political consulting firm that worked against health care reform. You don't say!

As the Huffington Post and others first noted last July, Hudson's annual financial disclosures show that he owns a sizable chunk of Campaign Solutions, Inc., a Republican consulting firm that worked this election cycle for John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, John McCain, and a whole host of other GOP candidates who've placed the purported unconstitutionality of health care reform at the center of their political platforms. Since 2003, according to the disclosures, Hudson has earned between $32,000 and $108,000 in dividends from his shares in the firm (federal rules only require judges to report ranges of income).

Campaign Solutions was instrumental in the launching of Sarah Palin's PAC (though Palin has since split with the firm), and Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia attorney general who filed the lawsuit that Hudson ruled in favor of today, paid Campaign Solutions $9,000 for services rendered in 2009 and 2010.

Anyway, if you're curious why Hudson, who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, ruled that health care reform's individual coverage mandate violates the constitution, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he as a major shareholder in a political messaging firm that gets paid to argue that health care reform's individual mandate is unconstitutional. It's really just that he's a Republican."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Monarchs have a tough lesson for flighty Democrats

Battered Monarch Butterfly resting in Texas on trip home

These photos were taken in Texas recently. They show a battered migrating Monarch butterfly feeding on milkweed nectar and resting after clearly flying in very windy conditions.

Someone suggested that the beaten up butterfly, merely resting on its 5,000 mile migration flight from Canada back to Central Mexico, literally "on a wing and a prayer," could be symbolic of "The Democratic Party after their recent election mauling." 

Nice idea, wonderful photos, suggesting strength and determination. But given the Democratic party's recent implosion, if they were scheduled to all move in one direction, like a mass migration, they would argue, delay, fight and piddle around and those who actually got airborne would fly an erratic path probably at the wrong time of year to procreate. Which is why the Monarchs do it.

And speaking of procreation, when today's Democrats aren't getting screwed by Republicans they wind up screwing themselves. Even Monarch butterflies are smarter than that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Letters to Charlie-Our Schools, Their Madrassas

Letters to Charlie is a collection of emails to a long time friend. He worked hard and did very well. To many of his wealthy conservative friends, Charlie is an anomalous dreaded liberal. He forwards many of their hateful and distorted right-wing emails to me and I frequently send Charlie my free-flow take on them. Education was the topic for a recent series . . . Islamic Madrassas V/S American schools.
Imagine if all the glistening red white and blue was stripped from the history of America that is, or was, taught in our public schools. Americans just do not want to talk about or remember the darker history of this great country. But a mere 46 years ago black Americans were denied basic rights and could not drink from the same water fountains designated for use by white people. The same went for transportation, eating in restaurants, staying in hotels or motels, or voting without intimidation or paying a "poll tax."

1964 is not that long ago, Charlie. There was even great doubt that JFK could be elected as president because he was, gasp, a Catholic! Senator Joe McCarthy's Commie blacklist hearings and the actual existence of an "un-American activities committee" are well within your memory and mine.

The history of the American development of oil production in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is a sorry tale of arrogance and complete disrespect for customs and religion in that area. Ancient tribal areas had been carved up into countries with boundaries drawn by colonial imperialists . . .

Great Britain and the USA have a shameful history of using our Christian badge of correctness to disregard any other religions as misguided and wrong. We still do that. Imagine Islamic missionaries roaming the cities and towns in rural America seeking to convert Christians.

Our public schools were wisely and purposefully made to be secular and apart from religious control or curriculum. There is no mention of setting up schools in the Constitution. We are constitutionally bound to respect and practice freedom of religion in America. That, however, mostly translates to freedom to be Christian of some stripe or another. Jews continue to fight antisemitism and did not easily build their Synagogues and other places of gathering without lots of ugliness. Islam is having an even tougher time of it here being accepted as American citizens.

We invaded Iraq and blew up its already minimal, but functioning, infrastructure. People who suddenly lose their electricity, water and sewer service and who have family members rounded up and even killed get pretty mad and disgusted. Americans would react the same way if some massive power invaded us for no apparent reason and crippled our basic infrastructure.

Our massively superior military took over large parts of Iraq, kicked in doors of the homes of ordinary people, wildly looking for a relatively small number of Islamic extremists. Young American soldiers by and large speak and understand only American English, so just like in Vietnam, the Iraqis became the "foreigners." Our ignorance of historic Sunni - Shiia religious sectarian hatreds just added to needless stirring up of an old hornet's nest.

Cumulative ancient local hatreds easily shifted to the Americans invaders. What had been a few extremist individuals, dedicated Islamic jihadists, easily turned into an easily organized resistance against the American invaders, and attracted extremists from other countries. Martyred suicide attacks by one sect against another expanded to larger and larger suicide attacks against the American invaders.

Now, a trillion dollars later with 4,500 dead American kids, and tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead, we are still applauding our gift of bringing the first real Democracy to the Middle East. Except that has not happened.

"Freely Elected" candidates in Iraq are in a 50-50 standoff, each hewing to their tribal and sectarian power bases to get all they can for their side. Screw democracy. Screw America. Sharing is not part of the vocabulary in the ancient, tribal Middle East.

How much hatred does it take to pull off something as horrible and seemingly impossible as the 9-11 attacks? This relative handful of religious zealots not only triggered a fierce response by the American military, they also made it easy for this infuriated Christian nation to throw all Muslims into one big bad category.

So, what does a 234 year old America teach in our secular schools? What do they teach in their ancient Islamic Madrassas? Should there be a threatning gulf between the two ways of educating our young?

You and I have traveled widely, lived in other countries and have a sense of global diversity and inequity, Charlie. Most Americans never go abroad in their lifetimes, and for the past 40 years American students have not been taught much world or American history in public schools. A huge percentage of Americans have no sense at all of history, geography or civics. We have been irresponsible in our materialism and now are pitifully lagging behind other developed nations in so many basic areas of education, health care, social responsibility, and even happiness.

And as if this was not enough, America, the land of the free, is now imprisoning itself with polarization, laziness, obesity, greed, denial and indifference. Our roads, dams and bridges are old and in disrepair, but there is a loud cry for no new taxes. And a loud conservative minority would do away with a strong, centralized federal government.

In past national times of crisis in America the young have taken up the banner of change and helped move this country forward. I don't see America's under-educated, over indulged and seeming directionless young people being able to or even wanting to step up and face the challenge.

graphic by Larry Ray

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Political Party Hats and the Great American Snake

Photo by Oliver Douliery - Abaca Press

I talk with friends in Italy almost daily and this past year it has been challenging to try to answer their questions about political images beamed to them from America. They are mystified by the clots of angry, mostly white and mostly “mature” Americans who wear strange clown-like hats sometimes with “tanti bustini di tè” (lots of teabags) dangling from them.

Friends in Naples ask, “Who are these people and why do they dress up like that? Is it some sort of folk tradition? Do they still not like dark-skinned people? Why are they so angry?” All are valid questions, especially with the steady stream of news, photos and video being fed constantly to Italy. The loud and bizarre gets lots of play there just like it does here.

Protests have their extremes in Europe, to be sure. French farmers dumped tons of manure in front of McDonald’s outlets protesting U.S. sanctions. And in Brussels it was not blood running in the streets last year, it was milk. Part of a continuing Pan-European farm fury included the scene below, protesting government controlled milk prices. Frustrated farmers presented a clear message that was milked for all it was worth with not one funny hat, misspelled poster or misplaced metaphor.

So, how to explain why those frustrated, not too well informed and very noisy Americans gather to “take their country back” while all decked out in giant Red White and Blue top hats and other strange attire? I was recently asked by my friend, Guido, "Larry, why is the woman with the yellow flag with the coiled snake on it telling everyone not to step on the snake? Is she a snake worshiper?"

For years Italians have seen documentaries about Christian sects in rural America who dance wildly inside their churches while holding and even kissing live poisonous snakes. So, coiled rattlesnakes on flags at heated political gatherings suggest to Italians a reasonable association with the American snake handlers they have seen. But snakes as a national symbol of American patriotism is neither quickly nor easily explained.

You can imagine the challenge in trying to talk about the why and who and what of raucous Tea Party gatherings. I have been unable to connect revolutionary Boston's dumping of crates of tea into their harbor over unfair taxation with today's small tea bags hanging off gaudy sequined hats. Not for my Italian friends or for myself.

The simplistic appeal of Glen Beck’s dreck, to the people in funny hats is particularly difficult for my friends to understand. Italians who have seen him think Beck is a game show host. I just agreed with them and continued on telling about the Great American Snake.

Explaining the yellow “Gadsden flag” to my Italian friends involved starting with a satirical article written by Ben Franklin around 1754 which included a cartoon showing a timber rattlesnake chopped up into 8 pieces. Each piece represented one of the eight colonies. Franklin, tongue in cheek, suggested that since the British had sent convicted criminals to America, we should send rattlesnakes to England by way of thanks.

Four years later Continental Congress Colonel Christopher Gadsden reportedly used the image of a coiled rattlesnake that had been painted on marching band snare drums of US Marines interdicting British naval supply ships arriving in the new colonies to create his “Don’t Tread On Me” flag.

Col. Gadsden presented the first feisty banner to his home constituency in South Carolina. It became one of several early American flags. The flag's image is still all over the place today, even on Nike's 2010 World Cup soccer ball images, at Boy Scouts of America camp sites and as the Tea Party's official flag.

Benjamin Franklin's woodcut cartoon from May 9, 1754. Image from Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.
So somehow it makes perfect sense to lots of the disgruntled and fearful here at home to see a 62 year old American woman in an out sized floppy Uncle Sam hat waving the rattlesnake flag warning you not to step on her patriotism . . . however she may define that. Why she can't be just as patriotic in regular street clothes puzzles a large majority of Americans as well as my Italian friends.

I will hazard a guess that she and most of the other snake flag wavers have no more idea of the flag's history than Guido. But to her she is a tightly coiled patriot fighting fascism, communism, socialism and all the other isms that the new black American president and rabid liberals have in store for her. No real need to define or understand all those isms because "everyone knows what they are."

Guido, on the other hand, can give you a clear, quick definition of Fascism and communism. His parents lived under Mussolini's Fascist rule. Italy has a Communist party which is represented in its endless postwar coalition governments, and Italy is by and large a social democracy just like a most of Europe today.

Guido asks, still trying to understand the ladies pictured at the top of the page, “That lady in the hat with the colored horns on it, is that for good luck?” In Italy, an animal horn amulet made of real gold or even red plastic wards off evil. I deftly try to say that she is wearing a standard issue Statue of Liberty party hat that has nothing to do with the evil eye or with France who gave the statue to the USA. “So the USA never sent rattlesnakes to France?” I allowed as how I just wasn't sure about that.

Sarah Palin is easier for Italians to understand since they have had their own national nutcase, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who dominates the news with his benighted bumbling and endless internationally embarrassing pronouncements.

Berlusconi is a billionaire media mogul. Sarah Louise is hard at work Twittering her way to becoming a multi-millionaire from speaking fees for her illogical, vacuous God and Country utterances. Sarah Louise has a nice figure, nice looks and has great legs. If she married Berlusconi, whose wife divorced him for his diversions with underage girls, it could be a marriage made in heaven. And Sarah speaks in tongues. But I digress.

Trying to sum up the discontent, anger and bizarre headgear issues, I offered a list of suggested questions Guido could toss around with his friends over a cup of tea before we have our next political chit chat. The ladies at the top of the page might take a glance at these as well.
What happens when big government gets out of your life, starts spending less and each individual American State bears the responsibility for its citizens' welfare?

Will all the Tea Party folks turn in their Federally subsidized socialized Medicare cards and expect the state and their own private insurance to take care of their health?

When the already collapsing bridges, dams, highways and other infrastructure finally totally crumbles away while no one has been paying any higher taxes, will the states somehow take care of all those problems within their boundaries? You think Wall Street and your local banker might step in and help you while staying out of your life as well?

And when "the government" has been purged from your lives and "returned to The People," except for, "when Federal Government assistance is needed" what will the rules be that define when and how much assistance?

Finally, who will make those rules? Mad folks in funny hats who created their own brand of social democracy State by State?
I look forward to my next chat with Guido. He wants to talk about this great nation of America and how it is made up of immigrants. His great uncle Tonino lived in Brooklyn.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Amazon: Don't call us, we'll call you

OK, I should never have ordered a pair of shoes over the internet. But has always had good stuff, good prices and fast delivery. I've ordered lots of stuff from them over the years. A brand new iMac, top of the line bread baking machine, shelves of books and other stuff that has always arrived in great shape at a notable savings. But I had never had reason to ask questions or talk about an order with a customer service agent.

That's good, because Amazon's idea of customer service doesn't mean dialing a 1-800 number and talking to someone. Their approach to customer service is just like ordering merchandise on Amazon. You are expected to click your way through a series of drop down windows with fixed choices till you narrow down a specific item that requires customer service, and then you click some more for options on how you contact customer service. A toll free customer service number is not an option and was not handily located on their web site. Playing "Where's Waldo" to find a phone number is not customer service.

I really wanted to talk to a someone at Amazon about the pair of Rockport ProWalker shoes that arrived with the front sole and curved toe of the right shoe looking not at all like the left one. Someone in Bangladesh running the toe rounding grinder clearly dozed off, grinding most of the toe area off the right shoe even leaving a flat spot on what was supposed to be an ample, evenly curved toe. Not to worry, it was boxed up and sent right off ... to me.

Worse yet, the quality of the shoes was more like what one might see in a Big Lots or Dollar Store closeout, not anything like the Rockport shoes I have worn for years. So, at this point you really want to talk to someone when things get this messed up. And you would think someone there would want to learn about shoddy merchandise going out under the company name.

If you find the word help in tiny blue lettering in all the stuff at the upper right of the page and then click around enough you eventually get to their customer service page.

The first option is to contact Amazon by email ("Usually answered within 12 hours") the other option is "PHONE" and clicking that does not lead you to a phone number, rather you must enter your area code and telephone number and Amazon will call you back. And you can only email or be called back after clicking through a series of drop-down menus and selecting from a list of reasons why you need customer service . . . there is no drop-down option to simply "Talk to a human being."

After facing this inflexible wall of non-applicable options, for the hell of it I just typed " 1-800 number" into a search engine and got 4,540,000 returns.

Amazon has never published its toll-free customer service number it seems. And this has infuriated hundreds of thousands of Amazon customers. Checking the search results, the story of Amazon's inflexibility has been reported for years by major news media like NPR, The New York Times, US News and World Report and countless news blogs and web sites.

One personal blog called publishes not only all of Amazon's toll free numbers, but all the other Amazon business and departmental numbers and addresses in the USA and in the UK. This site also provides the hard, if not impossible to find direct toll free numbers to Yahoo, PayPal, E-Bay, and Netflix.

I dialed Amazon's toll free U.S. number, (800) 201-7575, and after a bit of a pause for clicking and connecting and the routine recording declaring "this call may be recorded for quality purposes," I got Maria in Manila. Very sweet girl, happy to have her job in the call center there. Her pronounced accent was lilting and understandable. She knew nothing at all about Amazon's quality control or about mismatched shoes, but did find the return policy and procedures on her printed flow sheet which she read to me.

I had already printed out the Amazon return UPS label and returned the shoes. But Maria was so nice, even though she clearly knew nothing about Amazon's quality control operation, I simply thanked her for her help with return policy rules and confirmed that my credit card had been credited with a refund.

I returned to the Amazon page and in the search bar under "All Departments" at the top of the page, I typed in "customer service number" and promptly got three returns . . . the first was a book in Kindle Edition from which I took the graphic at the top of this article, "Secret Toll-Free Customer Service Phone Numbers and Shortcuts to an Operator for Nearly 600 Businesses and US Government Agencies " Clicking this $3.99 bargain opens up information about the book's content, and lo! scrolling down we read:
Did you notice that it is hard to find customer service phone numbers on many web sites? Well, businesses hide their customer service phone numbers. They want you to fill out lengthy online forms. BEAT THEM WITH THIS SECRET YELLOW PAGES BOOK. It collects nearly 600 Hard-to-Find Toll-Free Customer Service Phone Numbers together. Better yet, we tell you how to skip automated prompts and talk directly to a human operator."
And there, on Amazon's own web site, topping the list of books for sale was this book, for sale in Amazon's Kindle eBook digital book offerings, loaded with a treasure trove of information. And who did the book's authors choose as an example of the most secretive and obfuscating practitioners of hiding or not even providing customer service numbers?  Yep, you guessed it:
Example for toll-free phone numbers (Cust. service): 1-800-201-7575; to reach an operator, do not dial or say anything. (Seller support): 1-877-251-0696; to reach an operator, do not dial or say anything. (Rebate status): 1-866-348-2492; to reach an operator, press 0.
Amazon Visa: 1-888-247-4080; to reach an operator, dial 00 at each prompt.
None of this would concern my college student granddaughter. I, however, am old enough to remember real customer service from the electric power company, the telephone company, catalog order departments and many others. You dialed a number, talked with someone and found out what you needed to know.

Amazon, AT&T, the cable TV company and any other place where I spend money really are not interested in talking ... they don't need to anymore. As soon as people willingly started to spend several dollars for a cup of coffee, who needed customer service any longer?

Graphic, with a tad of Photoshop: Mobile Reference

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

America's round-the-clock "Churnalism"

The iHandbill has been on pause for almost a month.

The disgust and distraction from smelly, greasy petroleum pollution rolling onto beaches and marshes just a mile or so from my home has been mostly responsible for the hiatus. But the general roar of background noise from today’s “news media” is more disgusting, distracting and off-putting than the BP oil well blowout itself.

Immediately dubbed “the oil spill,” it is not a spill at all. It is a runaway blown-out oil well almost a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico that has been pumping an estimated 40-60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf for almost three months. It is a very complex story that requires at least a basic understanding of high school physics and knowledge of basic geology to discuss it in any sort of meaningful way.

It also helps to know something about hydrocarbons and the advanced technology used in oil and gas drilling and producing deep ocean oil wells. But those basic requirements don't stop pretty news faces from blathering on, basically clueless, reading teleprompter tripe or swapping fuzzy speculation amongst themselves. The plight of gulf coast residents is heralded by local politicians and a few, including a morbidly obese New Orleans area parish president, have become regulars on national newscasts as they growl and repeat their attacks on BP and the U.S. government. Not that there isn't plenty to growl about, if you like to listen to it over and over.

In May, immediately after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and plunged to the bottom, the short, hyper, bald headed afternoon CNN ringmaster exclaimed breathlessly that they had just discovered a “geezer of oil” coming from the sea floor. And that was before the reporting got really bad.

Nightly stories with video of oil soaked birds and massive pollution of sensitive marine marsh lands requires only a video camera and a talking head reciting the lines of the generic “Gee isn’t this a shame” news story template. Works equally well for earthquakes, floods and raging forest fires.

Mix in the soap opera of BP CEO, Tony Hayward, with his passive Lemur-like gaze and terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease, (The London Times just announced he is leaving BP in a matter of weeks) then add grimy pre-November election political dirt, tea party racism and General McChrystal’s inglorious cashiering for trash talking his Commander in Chief, and a dash of Arizona's Nazi immigration law and viola … non-stop, 24-7 all American “churnalism.”

That churnalism, mixed with endless side-effect warnings of 4-hour erections, rashes and diarrhea from the drug commercials that dominate the evening news made me decide the TV off switch is the best bet. The NY Times and a cuppa coffee in the mornings along with a visit to the BBC and a couple of Italian major newspapers seems to provide an adequate news balance.

With the dog days of summer spreading record breaking heat and humidity across much of the nation and the threat of an above average hurricane season here where Katrina tore us up almost five years ago, I will probably just keep the pause button pressed and plan to be back, intact, by Labor Day or maybe before, hopefully.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hitting the Petro-Jackpot: Everyone loses

Winds, tides and ocean currents, changing like spinning wheels on a slot machine, have finally lined up to announce a Petro-Jackpot! Floating and submerged oily, syrupy petroleum filth is the unwelcome payoff as it finally glides into the Mississippi Sound.

BP's uncontrolled gusher of oil has assaulted our protective pristine offshore barrier islands and now is flowing into the shallow marine nursery grounds off the Mississippi coastal shoreline. The gulf is carpeted with long wide dark and slimy rainbow slivers and miles of weathered henna colored crude oil mousse that bob and drift toward the horizon. This menace is now within sight of our miles of white beachfront along coastal Highway 90.

The futility of pleading "Somebody do something!" becomes evident. Trying to skim and contain the millions of gallons of floating oil before it comes ashore is like trying to scoop up and dispose of billions of flu germs from ten thousand sneezes. Oil, assisted by a rolling sea, splashes over and eases under so-called oil containment booms. Also consider that we have had a daily heat index here averaging 100º to 108º for the past month. Suffocating heat adds to the futility of trying to sop up oil and tar before it arrives to coat the blazing beach sand.

All the political rhetoric, naive denial and assurances that "Our Beaches" are pristine and somehow exempt from the nautical nuance of Ma Nature, has stopped. The hastily produced TV commercials showing happy kids splashing along our water's edge, and couples strolling on the beach with a setting sun turning the water golden have been pulled off the air.

Now multi-faceted environmental damage begins right here on the beaches and in the seafood-rich waters fronting Gulfport and Biloxi. Recovering from this long term damage will not be like recovering from Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. The area around Valdez, Alaska has yet to truly recover from a much smaller amount of oil carelessly loosed on its shores 21 years ago when a fully loaded Exxon oil tanker ran aground splitting open its tanks releasing its load of crude.

Looking at today's NOAA oil trajectory map, above, one can visualize a double lobed, fat tube of 30-weight toothpaste being squeezed, with the cap having been unscrewed right at the flat line just off Gulfport. Governor Haley Barbour has urged churches to have special prayer services. I wonder if entreaties to a higher power to cause the deluge to somehow miss "our area" suggest that the glop would be prayed away to "some other area?" This has puzzled me since I was a little kid.

During an active hurricane season here a few years ago a large evangelical church's sign on a main Gulfport street proclaimed, "Glory . . . God turned the storm!"

A category three hurricane, indeed, veered away from our coast right into Florida causing several deaths and terrible destruction in the tens of millions of dollars.

How about we call off the location-specific prayer tug-of-war and instead all go take a nice walk down the beach in a couple of weeks?

There's lots of power in reality checks too.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Oil and Politics: Reality comes home to roost

The black and white logic of "Tea Party" rage with placard-waving people demanding the U.S. government stay out of their lives has suddenly taken on a new color ... a multi-hued rainbow sheen.

Nightly video of the uniquely American goofiness of angry folks dressing up in silly hats draped with tea bags calling for an end to government regulation has basically dropped off the nation's TV screens. The weak metaphor of tea bags was replaced almost overnight with the real-life drama of an out of control sub-sea oil well blowout belching a thick, noxious layer of oil up to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico some 40 miles off Louisiana.

This past April 20th as angry "don't tread on me" gatherings were demanding government do less regulating, a barely regulated petroleum giant, BP, was reportedly demanding hurried up completion of a deep sea exploratory well a mile beneath its leased drilling rig. We now hear that BP's hubris in pushing to cut costs and boost profits literally blew up in their faces.

Eleven workers died as the Deepwater Horizon became a floating inferno fed with oil and natural gas from an uncontrollable high pressure well blowout. The unthinkable had happened with fail-safe devices failing at all levels turning the drilling rig into an unquenchable fireball which eventually toppled and sank to the sea floor five thousand feet below.

Today marks 53 days that an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day from the well blowout has befouled the Gulf of Mexico waters. By now BP has finally stopped most of their their denials, low-ball estimates and promises that a jury-rigged connecting pipe was "capturing the vast majority" of the oil. Clearly, PR gambits could not keep the oil off the beaches of the Gulf South, or off untold numbers of helpless birds and marine life. It is hard to not see the ugly evidences of a million and a half barrels of oil stretching from Louisiana to Florida ... no matter how much dispersant you spray on it.

This is a marine environmental catastrophe the likes of which the United States has never faced, and it it promises to only get worse as it drags on into the Fall as relief wells will attempt to stop the blowout.

President Obama has been portrayed by the Tea Party folks as a "socialist" for thoughtfully beginning to overhaul and reactivate regulatory agencies across government. Departments that have basically done nothing except the bidding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and lobbyists for giants of industry like BP for more than a decade are finally getting new marching orders. Unfortunately the disgraced Minerals Management Service with its Bush era staffing had not had their house cleaning yet and had allowed BP to skip past major environmental requirements.

I must ask the tea-bag draped folks who insist our government should take a hands-off approach to "their lives" what their reaction is to the increasing disaster along the coastline where I live. We don't see the funny hats and tea bags and self-righteous placards down here any more. Any blame game is long over, replaced by a scramble by hard working people and businesses dependent upon the Gulf just to make it day to day.

If anything, there is a quiet, resigned realization here that while BP is being held responsible for picking up the huge tab for the mess they have made, no one genuinely expects this huge corporation will ever pay up in full. They most certainly will tie up their legal responsibilities in the courts for years and years while we face dealing with the unimaginable long term damage they caused.

As we clean up the mess here, there are lessons to be learned from Valdez, Alaska where, twenty years later, their shores are still polluted from the Exxon Valdez tanker spill and once vital fishing industries have vanished.

To help understand the size of our disaster, the amount of the Valdez spill is now being released into the Gulf of Mexico every 8 to 10 days. This ain't no tea party.

Photo montage by Larry Ray

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

BP's Oily image and the Oopsie Daisy

It's Wednesday afternoon and BP officials have issued yet another announcement that all is not well with attempts to control their out of control gushing oil well. Another halt has been called in operations because a diamond encrusted loop saw has lost its glitter. It is jammed trying to lop off a crumpled riser pipe on top of the wide-open blowout preventer that failed to prevent after the well blew out and the rig above exploded and sank. The last-resort, half million dollar safety shut off valve failed to do a damned thing except to continue to allow tens of millions of gallons of raw crude oil to gush into the Gulf waters offshore from where I live. The record-breaking oil slick has been been growing since April 20th ... 44 days of impotence for BP.

Being powerless to do anything, I decided to redesign the cheery green and yellow enviro-daisy that BP's worldwide advertising folks suggest takes the oil giant "Beyond Petroleum." And it is true, they are at least a mile beyond petroleum gushing out of their well 5,007 feet below on the sea floor of the Gulf Of Mexico.

The oil soaked salt marshes of nearby South Louisiana suggested the theme for the revised BP logo. My new design might be an optical illusion, (or maybe optical pollution) . . . the cheery original green daisy logo has turned into an "Oopsie Daisy." Look at it long enough and you can see it morph into oil soaked birds and other marine critters.

Last night oil arrived on Petit Bois island just off our coastline between Biloxi and Pascagoula. More on the way we are told. The sugar white Florida beaches are now seriously threatened.

Oh, by the way if the diamond bladed saw does finish its cut through the crimped drill riser pipe which had been helping restrict the full pressure of the escaping oil, at least 20% more oil will immediately start to gush out, possibly lots more than that. BP says "in a few days" they will then "try to fit a containment cap" over the cut off pipe base to bring the oil to the surface into one of their tankers.

If that attempt works it will be the first of their cobbled-together, brainstormed ideas to do so. But if this gambit fails, like the others, we will have to wait till the end of August for two relief wells now drilling to reach the original well bore and try to seal it off. That extra increased flow from the sawed off riser pipe will also increase BP's disaster record by that additional 20% of oil they have decided to risk allowing to escape for the next three months.

This should present an opportunity for an even darker daisy design . . . if BP doesn't decide to just change its name and deflower its logo altogether for something that 'posies' less risk.

Here's a Google Earth Map of the size of the spill as I post this article.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Oil spill: Best suggestion for Biloxi fishermen? BP: Better Pray

Time warp photo montage by Larry Ray

The uncertainty of the huge BP oil spill out offshore from Biloxi, Mississippi has not stopped this old world fishing community from holding its annual "Blessing of the fleet" this coming weekend as it has every year since 1929. But it will not be quite the same. This year there is a palpable anxiety from the threat of the looming offshore disaster which will quietly mix in with the Cajun music, boiled shrimp and deep fried mullet better known as "Biloxi bacon."

The festival really gets rolling on a Saturday after Catholic masses for fishermen lost at sea and other recognitions starting on Thursday. But on Saturday the town turns out for a rollicking all day Cajun fais do do street party with lots of delicious seafood and culminates that evening with the coronation of the Shrimp Queen and King on the Biloxi Town Green. The blessing of the fleet takes place early afternoon on Sunday.

Eighty one years ago the fishing boats all rafted up side by side, with the priest climbing from boat to boat to sprinkle holy water and offer blessings for protection from the sea and bountiful catches. More recent blessings of the fleet have taken place with a special dockside altar for the priest who blesses a long and colorfully decorated parade of boats both large and small as they motor past.

This year, the devoutly Catholic ritual of blessing and protecting the fishing fleet and its largely immigrant boat owners and seafood workers should include a new definition of "BP" which now would now seem to mean, "Better Pray."

For almost a month and a half, all of the oil exploration industry's best efforts to staunch a high pressure gusher of thick oil and methane gas from a well blowout 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico have come to naught. Oil giant BP's efforts to crank up their public relations machinery to a loud and preposterous level has served only to offer false hope to an anxiously watching world. Quickly stopping this disaster seems akin to stopping an erupting volcano. The maelstrom beneath the earth's mantel, especially on the barely understood deep sea floor invites disaster if provoked. The rage of unstoppable oil seems to prove the point.

Yet, like wind-up talking toys, well groomed and slickly rehearsed BP top dogs continue to tell all who will listen that none of this is as bad as it seems and that great progress is being made in rounding up the miles of floating oil by either burning it or "collecting" it. Their promises to clean up every drop of oily sludge that has filled sensitive Louisiana marshes and estuaries have not produced any sort of energetic or effective results. Undeterred, BP spews forth statistics and more promises while being careful to first run everything by their lawyers.

BP spokespersons tell one particular story at every possible opportunity as if all listeners were third graders. With confident, and concerned expressions they tell the tale of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic oil dispersant, "like dish washing liquid" that are breaking the oil up into teensie little droplets so that starving bacterial can ravenously eat up all the oil. The BP bacterial buffet is really a wonderful thing, boys and girls!

However, BP denies the recent findings of a half dozen major universities whose marine exploration efforts now suggest that the dispersant being shot directly into the source of the gusher on the sea floor is merely keeping the oil out of sight on the surface. They are finding miles long areas of the broken-up oil hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface, being moved and swept about like huge dark tendrils by currents at the water column at different depths. The new data suggests that bacteria won't make a dent in this movable feast.

Strong currents may move these thick oil ribbons onshore at some point way in the future, or even into the "loop current" in the gulf. This would pull some of the tens of millions of gallons of oil between the tip of Florida and Cuba, and then on up the Atlantic coast.

Oil company big shots don't like to be ordered around. After eight years of basically no meaningful regulation by the Bush-Cheney Minerals Management staff, and having helped formulate Cheney's secret energy policy, BP and all the other big oil companies has learned that it is easy to outwit and out-wait the bureaucrats and that it is also much better for the bottom line. A steady flow of campaign money to state and national politicians also greases things nicely.

Smellier and dirtier than the oil slicks are the shameless political attacks from the nay-saying, do-nothing Republicans intent upon tearing down President Obama. Their first order of business is to blame it all on Obama. And the crass move is playing well because people want something done, anything, and aren't capable of grasping the fact that this disaster may be uncontrollable by Obama, or any other mortal. Again, clear and honest explanations of the difficulty of stopping the oil flow, and the reasons why don't satisfy three year olds.

BP was not required to undertake a detailed worst-case scenario environmental study because of their cozy relationship with Bush-Cheney era Mineral Management employees. Angry Americans should be screaming loudly at the drill baby drill Republicans still in office who, in effect, were in lock step with the Bush no regulation approach to environmental protection.

Meanwhile, the Priest and Catholic Bishop on hand this coming weekend better have plenty of holy water on hand for this year's blessing of fleet, which includes many boats that have just rejoined the fleet after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This year's hurricane season starts just a few days before BP ... Biloxi's Prayers.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mississippi Politics: Oily denial and delusion

Growing up in Texas I was sure politics couldn't get any stinkier, any dumber or any more corrupt than ours. Then later in life I moved to Mississippi and soon saw that Texas politics pales in all categories of underachievement and good-old-boy domination when compared to the Magnolia State.

But Mississippi politics is generally endured much like mosquitoes, stifling summer heat and down here on the gulf coast, hurricanes. Katrina wiped most of the edge of the state off the map in 2005. We had just gotten the place more or less back in shape and looking very good again, then April 20th, 2010, 25 days ago, a British Petroleum offshore oil well in 5,000 feet of water suffered a "worst case scenario." And by now it looks like it is even worse than that.

After a lethal fire, explosion and sinking of a leased drilling rig that killed 11 workers, oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico uncontrollably from a mile below. For almost a month now, millions of gallons of crude oil continue to escape, out of control. The entire world has been following news reports on British Petroleum's failed attempts to stop the flow and to deal with a catastrophe that worsens daily.

Winds and currents have kept the spill off Mississippi shores so far, but the petroleum odor from hundreds of square miles of floating oil some 40 miles offshore has been noticeable here in communities all along the coast.

About a week and a half ago the moment I stepped outside with the dogs to take a morning walk a heavy, oily, almost diesel-like smell filled the air. A steady south wind was blowing. As we got to the park, folks were stopping to ask one another if they "could smell that." We all could.

And the vagaries of wind and air currents has brought the petroleum smell back several more times. Folks have been calling city officials and health departments. There have been several mentions of the oily smell up and down the coast by local news media. Folks with severe asthma were told to check with the doctor if it really got bad. But it was not a really big deal.

Then day before yesterday one of our esteemed politicos, Lt. Governor Phil Bryant, had his photo on the front page of the morning paper with the headline, "Bryant Doesn't Smell The Oil." The Sun Herald's article reported that, "Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant’s response to people in South Mississippi who’ve said they can smell oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf is, 'No, you can’t.'

"Speaking at Wednesday’s Coastal Development Strategies Conference, Bryant said the smell may be coming from their lawn mowers. 'That is not gasoline coming out of the Gulf,' he said."

Bryant, who back slapped his way to hosting the National Association of Lieutenant Governors in July in Biloxi went on about the BP disaster noting it is "not the Exxon Valdez." Phil was as oily and about as crude as his odorless oil out there declaring there is nothing to worry about, "Y'all come on down here, you hear!"

Bryant's imperial pronouncement that no one was smelling anything except lawnmower fumes followed the blithe May 1 pronouncement from Mississippi U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, after a quick fly-over of the gathering spill that, “It’s not as bad as I thought. “It’s breaking up naturally; that’s a good thing. The fact that it’s a long way from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that’s a great thing, because it gives it time to break up naturally."

Taylor, a supposed Democrat, whose voting record would make Senator Mitch McConnell proud, was already fast becoming very unpopular for his dullness and increasingly regular trips to the all you can eat lobbyist campaign contribution buffet. His remarks exhibiting no real concern for the potential offshore threat elicited an outraged reaction from folks up and down the coast. Taylor's political future seems to breaking up naturally as well.

It is completely understandable that area chambers of commerce, businesses and our tourism and seafood industries want to get out the word that our beaches are still clean, seafood is fresh, and that we are open for business. We might well dodge the worst of the damage along with Alabama and Florida. But selling that idea as the oil spill grows, heaves and moves at the whim of sea currents and surface winds is tough to pull off.

Having political buffoons telling the world that folks here aren't smelling anything but lawnmower fumes, and that the oil is "breaking up naturally" only serves to rob any planned promotional campaign of any credibility it may have.

And I haven't even mentioned our Governor, Haley Barbour, who made the national news recently after he declared, dew laps swinging, "When you're a fat redneck like me and got an accent like mine you can say, 'well they're gonna hold me to a higher standard.'"

Higher than what, Governor? The next high tide?

graphic by Larry Ray

Sunday, April 25, 2010

America: Killing and Dying in Vietraqistan

Graphic by Larry Ray
“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” - General Stanley McChrystal, Senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan - March 27, 2010

''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." Gen. William Westmoreland, South Vietnam - on film quote, Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam documentary ''Hearts and Minds."

While outrage in the United States over our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has retreated into the background noise of immediate domestic economic and political concerns, outrage in the Middle East over civilians killed by US forces is kept alive and seething. American troops continue to mistakenly shoot, bomb, kill and maim a steady stream of innocent folks trying to go about their daily lives. It has been going on so long it rarely even makes the evening news here at home.

First, a review of the numbers ...

We have had troops fighting and dying in Iraq for an incredible eight years, and in Afghanistan for an even more incredible ten years. Hannibal crossed the Alps and defeated the Romans in not much more time . . . using elephants. To date we have not really defeated anything to speak of and the troop casualty count, including coalition forces in both wars is reported to be 6,500 combat arena deaths. The price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is spinning toward one trillion dollars . . . $986,284,900,000 as of this post.

The Iraq Body Count Project as of this writing, reports 95,888 – 104,595 non-combatant civilian deaths since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Estimates of total Afghan civilian deaths as a direct result of the war since the US invasion in 2001 are estimated at 10,172 - 12,969. Folks continue to argue over totals, but civilian casualties have been outrageously high and unacceptable.

The accepted figure for US military troop deaths in the Vietnam war is 58,236. South Vietnam US forces killed an estimated 90,000 South Vietnamese civilians from extensive use of fire power (artillery, carpet bombings, small weapons). Another 1,500 were killed in various massacres as detailed in Rummel's "Statistics of Democide."

The politics of dying ...

In Texas we always called a pointless fight, argument or defense of the indefensible a "skunk-pissing contest." A colorful argot meaning no one wins and both risk smelling really bad, figuratively or literally.

Politics is rife with these contests. And the really bad smell has too often sadly been the smell of death. Pure politics, not a palpable threat of invasion or attack on America by a rogue nation, is at the heart of the political reasons for our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their origins, accomplishments and civilian death tolls could collectively be called "Vietraqistan."

The alleged cold war "domino effect" and Lyndon Johnson's trumped up claim of a US Navy Destroyer being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin was used to justify our massive troop presence in South Vietnam and sustained bombing of North Vietnam.

Looking back, a cold-war commie menace threat with red hordes taking over all of Southeast Asia if America didn't "win" in South Vietnam is far-fetched. But no more so than America's hastened military posse sent to Afghanistan to locate and capture Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 hijacked airliner attacks. After Bin Laden slipped away the hunting expedition turned into a decade-long on-again, off-again American military war presence in this ancient Muslim country.

I will not even address the reeking politics of America being led into an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Instead, drop by The Center for Public Integrity for a line-by-line documentation of the more than 935 false statements used by the Bush administration to lead our nation to war there.

Why does any of this matter right now?

It matters because ignoring or forgetting what America has lost in lives, treasure and international reputation is both irresponsible and dangerous. A decade of our troops kicking in the doors of people's homes, terrorizing whole families and treating the "ragheads" with little respect, has done us great harm. Young, motivated Muslims easily believe America is actively involved in a war on Islam. These potential Islamic terrorists share with members of the armed, angry citizen militias being formed right here in the USA the idea that they are being personally attacked and must fight back.

The idea that we could win hearts and minds by bombing and blasting away at centuries of ideology, traditions, sectarian hatreds and deeply embedded Islamic faith is stunningly misguided. Political expediency has let one year become ten years with ever changing justifications for not pulling out and coming home.

It quickly became clear after we entered Iraq that the touted weapons of mass destruction never existed. But we had blown the country's infrastructure to smithereens and had to come up with new justifications being there in the middle of the huge deadly mess we had made. No WMD's, so let's create a model American styled Iraqi democracy, a showplace for the Middle East.

Our costly eight year presence in Iraq has succeeded in eliminating a dictator and his two psychopathic sons, but Americans are not heroes there. Eight years on and there is still limited electrical service, and raw sewerage still floods poorer quarters of Baghdad. They just want us to go away, just like they did in Vietnam. We might have all troops out by New Year's eve, 2011. Or not.

Afghanistan is an even sorrier mess. Its name dates from about 982 AD and the modern day country has been in a constant state of civil war since the early 1970's, intensified by foreign occupations by the Soviets in 1979 and the US-led invasion in 2001 that overthrew the Taliban government . . . for a while.

Bloody coups, power struggles and tribal warlords determining unstable transfers of power have always been the norm in Afghanistan. It has been governed by just about every known form of government for the past century. We have been stuck there for ten long, dusty and deadly years.

After several touted "plans" for US success in Afghanistan over the years, former special forces commander, General Stanley McChrystal recently became Senior American and NATO commander with a plan to have US troops undertake a mission of nation building and establishing trust among the far-flung tribes who have seen all this many times before. Again, politically bogged down, the spanking new mission is "to win hearts and minds."

Instead, we continue to regularly kill Afghan civilians especially as we press into Pakistan to bomb and launch missile attacks across the ill-defined Pakistani-Afghanistan border. We also regularly call in air strikes and wipe out the wrong houses killing women, children and the elderly. Going rate is said to be around $2,500 a family that we pay for our targeting mistakes. This perceived repeated brutality is easily interpreted as America waging war against Islam.

"Why the hell do we keep doing that?" we ask back here at home. "Why have we always done that?" is a better question.

US Army WWII and Korean war combat historian, S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall used oral history recorded interviews to get the gut reactions of troops in combat and under fire. In his latter years what he observed about troops in Vietnam equally applies to young Americans fighting today:
" ... The American fighter can outwit, out-move and out-game anyone thus far thrown against him. Their main gripe is that the enemy is loath to come out of hiding. Their aggressiveness arises from pride in unit. The bond with their buddies. A wish to get the job over... "
And that is it in a nutshell. Since no one is coming over the walls back home trying to conquer the USA, the motivation to carry out "the mission" in some far-flung place varies but it always involves a tit-for-tat payback for every American killed be it by a sniper or a roadside bomb. When in doubt, fueled with adrenaline, the answer is to kill the raghead, (or the gook, or the kraut or the whatever). The sergeant will sort it out later.

I spent a year out in the boonies with combat units all over South Vietnam as a civilian correspondent in 1966-67. When young Americans are sent to strange, inhospitable countries where they can neither read nor speak the native languages, winning hearts and minds is not at the top of the list. It ain't hearts and minds when the rounds are incoming, or when the laundry lady or friendly local interpreter blows up half your unit. In Vietraqistan our troops on the ground, or in the air, will always try to kill someone before they kill them. That's just the way it is.

Where does all this take us?

Vietnam finished out its civil war of nationalism as soon as we left and in a few years it moved toward reunification of North and South. Today we are proud to have full diplomatic, economic and trade relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. True to Buddhist tradition, the Vietnamese hold no deep hatred for America or Americans.

But our invasion and extended presence in these two Middle Eastern countries has served to validate the widely held belief that America is waging open war against Islam. The longer we stay and the more the civilian casualty toll rises, the more Muslims, especially young people, fiercely believe we are waging war against the dominant religion in the Middle East.

If this seems to us a far fetched thing for anyone to believe, consider that we have killed, conservatively, some 120,000 non combatants, including women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Here at home civilian anti-government and conspiracy-based militias now number some 300, doubling since last year according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of these folks think President Obama is building concentration camps where fine loyal Americans like them will be locked up.

Distrust, ignorance and anger usually starts a skunk-pissing contest. It can take a long time for the air to clear.

We may not have the time required for that before another dramatic and deadly domestic terrorist attack upon American soil. The question is will it come from Islamic zealots, or from another equally mad and militia-motivated Timothy McVeigh?

How long does it take to learn the lessons from Vietraqistan?

Montage photos - AP, Jamie Wiseman

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Conspiracies: Exhaust fumes from the angry

Some time ago a kid I had years earlier been asked to sponsor at an Eagle Scout awards ceremony invited me to his wedding. Call him Stan. He had razor sharp quick wit and an unquenchable interest in everything around him. From a poor background, Stan was a likable young redneck who had managed to earn the merit badges needed to become an Eagle Scout. He clearly had a high IQ which had gone unchallenged for most of his young life.

I was given a map to the location of the wedding. It was far out in the country up north of the coastal Biloxi-Gulfport metro area. I had always marveled at how in less than half an hour one enters thick pine forests and a totally different world, detached from the tourism, golf courses, beaches and all the glitz of the casinos "down on the coast."

The wedding at an old settlement church at the end of a gravel road was brief, plain and functional. The bride's full skirt helped conceal her pregnancy. The reception was in a large room beneath the church. Women and kids shuttled in bags of chips and other snacks from the cars and trucks outside.

Stan's new bride poured me a paper cup full of Hawaiian Punch right out of the can as friends and family gathered for the party. Stan introduced me to his father, a rumpled rather dour man in his 40's. He shook my hand and almost immediately pulled me aside from the others and looked me in the eye conspiratorially and asked what I knew about "the new world order."

I didn't know what he was talking about. Stan walked over briskly before I could answer, and trying for a bit of levity, I said, "Stan your father just asked me if I knew about the new world order. I'm not sure, do you know if that order was for here or to go?"

Stan guffawed. His father stiffened and folded his arms across his chest. Stan quickly led me off to meet his mother and other relatives. He rolled his eyes and said, apologetically, "Man, I forgot to tell you about my old man. Just ignore him. He is all off into that kind of stuff."

I had just met my first conspiracy theorist true believer face to face and it was unsettling.

I later would learn the wide range of beliefs in secret societies and evil plans afoot all seem designed to bring ruin, harm or even imprisonment. British polemicist, Cristopher Hitchens, defines conspiracy theories as the 'exhaust fumes of democracy.'

Those who ramble on about the Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, satanic cults, "the Clinton body count" and of course, the "birthers" are a duke's mixture of folks whose angst and anger can be traced back some 2,000 years. Early believers felt that a religious, social, or political group or movement would cause a major transformation of society for better or worse, depending on what one was believing. World domination or end of the world ... depending.

Early Christian Millenarian groups proclaimed that the current society and its rulers were corrupt, unjust, or otherwise wrong. The Lutherans in about 1520 condemned the Millenarians. Countless new "we are right and you are wrong" cults and sects have been forming ever since, based upon narrowed religious interpretations, politics, pseudo science and lots of rumor and wild speculation.

American has its own religious sects with their very own prophets, founders and teachings including Mormons, Jehova's Witnesses, Scientologists, and Christian Scientists just to name a few. All seem good folks seeking enlightenment, proclaiming peace and goodwill and devotion to good works.

Former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, as well as US Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid who are among sixteen Mormon members of Congress in both houses who wear "sacred underwear" to remind them of a "continuing need for repentance and obedience to God, the need to honor binding covenants voluntarily made in the temple, and the need to cherish and share truth and virtue in our daily living." Visitors are not allowed into the inner sanctum of their huge temple in Salt Lake city, however.

Extreme fringe groups may claim a loose Christian connection but they also easily mix in hatred, racism, paranoia and patriotism. Hundreds of obtuse and extremist groups flood the internet with classic conspiracy beliefs including the American Nazi Party, White Power Worldwide, several skinheads groups and deniers of all sorts. On November 18, 1978, a charismatic psychopath, Jim Jones, founder of his conspiracy-based People's Temple, led his gullible and devoted followers into one of the largest mass suicides in history convincing 918 people to drink poison laced Kool-Aid.

But if we dial down the level of these extreme examples of anger, political confusion, misplaced faith and too often, gullible ignorance we can get a picture of conspiracy-based protests and activity in America today.

We already have a 2012 doomsday prediction and in the news this week, the Michigan Militia calling themselves "Christian warriors" and training to battle the Antichrist were planning to kill a police officer then set off roadside bombs to kill policemen who would gather en masse for the funeral. Nine of those folks have just been rounded up and jailed. Prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, said of the group, "They fear this 'new world order' and they thought that it was their job to fight against government — the federal government in particular."

Fifteen years ago Stan's father's "new world order" beliefs were less militant but probably not too fundamentally different from those of the Michigan Militia "Christian Warriors." But fifteen years ago he and his buddies mostly railed and fumed amongst themselves reinforcing their beliefs and forming bonds in their churches, clubs and civic organizations.

Today conspiracy internet sites and cable TV talking heads like Fox News and Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh's raving radio programs keep the anger among conservatives stirred up 24 hours a day.

Conspiracy believers, who are so easily influenced by rumors, innuendo and outright lies are, however, not easily dissuaded from their view of the world, even after the rumors, innuendo and outright lies have been totally and repeatedly debunked.

They cling to those beliefs because it allows them to be members of a group and it sustains a sense of belonging. Intellectual challenges are seen as threats to what they fiercely already know to be the "real truth."

The USA's landing on the moon, for example, is still is thought to be a hoax, all filmed on a movie set. Fox news even aired "Conspiracy Theory: Did we land on the moon?" Even with moon rocks having been studied by scientists around the world and proclaimed to be of extraterrestrial origin, conspiracy nuts like Bart Sibrel were still out there screaming about the "government coverup."

Sibrel might have had some sense knocked in to him when he confronted Buzz Aldrin in 2002 and called him a "coward and a liar." Aldrin, 72 years old at the time, socked Sibrel a good one in the jaw.

Today's conspiracy theorists have what they feel is a rock-solid target with a black president having been elected by "liberal Democrats." That he is a constitutional scholar, has worked at the grass roots with the poor and disadvantaged after becoming a Harvard educated attorney and is extremely bright and "motivates the world" is proof enough for them that he is the Antichrist. And others who don't believe in Antichrist predictions still don't like him because he is black. Period.

The Tea Party crowd today certainly contains a large percentage of those disaffected supporters at the McCain-Palin rallies where we heard shouts of "kill him!" and other violent epithets against Barack Obama. Obama's clear victory validated a mandate for change. But the Republican party has pledged to keep Obama from succeeding, no matter the consequences for the country. Many ultra-conservatives have taken his election as a personal insult.

What better better way to divert attention from the catastrophic eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration than to fan the flames of discontent with renewed conspiracy theories and and tacit encouragement for simmering racism to come out into the open once again. Tea Party extremists were easily whipped up to scream "nigger, kike, fagot, baby killer" at the nation's Capitol where some actually spit upon elected officials. Republicans stood on the balconies of the Capitol building holding posters egging on the ranting mob below. What a great Tea Party everyone was having!

President Obama and his administration have had the stamina and calm determination to take on the toxic Bush political and financial disasters with unpopular, costly damage control while also moving forward with other badly needed and long ignored major legislation. Obama's perseverance resulted in beginning historic health care reform legislation.

Applauded by many at home and around the world, this progress has, however, created increased fear and anger among Obama;s detractors rather than generating hope. The clouds of dissent are thickening, as Hitchen's noted, from "the exhaust fumes of democracy."

The last thing that soured and riled-up conspiracy theorists and simplistic political protesters need is an even darker cloud over them. Perhaps their hot air will disperse their own exhaust fumes and allow some clear light to shine upon them. Or perhaps not.

Photo montage by Larry Ray

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

2010 Census: $400 billion handout from 10 questions?

"And Our Hands Have 10 Fingers!"

The 2010 Census form came in the mail this morning, March 16th. I made a cup of coffee, sat down and opened it up, anxious to see what information they were seeking this time around. I remember earlier forms over the years, one of which even asked how many bathroom toilets were in the house. There are always questions about income, marital status, type of employment, education level, and many other varied questions.

Well, there was none of that this time. No siree! There are only 10 questions. That has to be why they dreamed up their 2010 Census logo with all the fingers. One question for each finger unless you have been in an industrial accident.

But you don't know that there are just ten questions when you start off because there are several pages even with a fold out. So off I went, pencil at the ready to answer dozens of probing questions to help profile America with data that will be used for the next decade.

At the very beginning we are instructed to "Count all people, including babies who live and sleep here most of the time."

Well, of course babies are people. Little people, but people. Even unborn babies are people as defined by the raucous religious right anti abortion folks . . . but that might mess up the count.

Pressing on, question one asks, existentially and mystically:
1. How many were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2010?
Using a crystal ball, peering into the future, since April 1st is more than two weeks away, I put my number in the "Person 1" box, assuming that no gypsies or long lost relatives would be "staying," and moved on to question two. This is the first US Census to require clairvoyance. The more vernacular "staying" replaces "reside," a word which some might not easily understand.
2. Were there any additional people staying here April 1, 2010 that you did not include in Question 1?
Trick question? There are five boxes that make sure you know that children, such as newborn babies or foster children, relatives, cousins, in-laws, non relatives such as roommates, live-in baby sitters or people staying here temporarily "are people." I checked in the fifth box, "No additional people," which is what I told them in question one. Question three gets more specific.
3. Is this house, apartment or mobile home -
Four boxes allow you to mark, "Owned with a mortgage, Owned free and clear, Rented, or Occupied without payment or rent?" What a mother lode of precise information this gem of a question will provide with joblessness, foreclosures and evictions having displaced and scattered "persons" across America.

They need another box for those living in tents and large cardboard boxes. Maybe because so many Americans have been displaced by the Wall Street crash that is why the questions use "staying" as in "we are staying at the Salvation Army shelter."

Question four wants my telephone number, "Where we may call you if we don't understand an answer." Only three questions in to the census, all of which are answered by putting an "X" in one of several possible boxes and they are worried about not understanding an answer. I wish there was a box to check if I didn't understand why civil service employees and bureaucratic census form designers are never fired for being incredibly incompetent and terminally dense.

Now we start to get into the real meat of this penetrating look into the makeup of our nation ... Question five! It wants my name ... and middle initial!

Racing ahead, question six want's to know "Person 1's sex." Fortunately, they have provided the regular two boxes.

Question seven wants "Person 1's age, and what is Person 1's date of birth." I fill in my age and DOB. Certainly this will get going in a minute, I'm sure. At this point, I do not realize I am only three questions away from being finished and press on to question eight.
8. Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?
The first box has, in bold type: "NO, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin." I check that one, being descended from starving Irish potato famine immigrants. Four more boxes allow one to clearly define their specific Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origins by country or geographic location. Then, question nine:
9. What is Person 1's race? Mark X one of more boxes
Box one is one word: "White." Then twelve more boxes allow one to mix and match your parentage by checking appropriate boxes including one box that says, "Black, African American or Negro" which I guess is seeking political correctness, but there was no "White, anglo, or Caucasian" just "White." Again, maybe Caucasian is too tough a word for lots of white folks to understand today?

You may write in the name of American Indian or Alaska Native "enrolled or tribe" followed by a rainbow of a dozen more possibilities from Asia, the Philippines, "Guamanian or Chamorro" on and on . . . and then, a final special box for: "Some other race."

I had to look up that one. A 2006 article reported that, "After the 2000 Census, the "Some other race" category was the third largest race group in the United States, according to Charles Louis Kincannon, current director of the Census Bureau. However, ninety-seven percent of those who identified as "Some other race" were Hispanic." It appears that even back on 2006 they couldn't remove that meaningless race category "in time for the 2010 Census."

Question ten at the bottom of page one asks a final penetrating, existential question:
10. Does Person 1 sometimes live or stay somewhere else?
Confounded by that one I turn the page to look over the rest of the "what level of education and how many commodes" questions. At the top of the next page, it says "Person 2." and asks the same 10 questions I just completed. This is repeated in column after column for up to a total of 12 people "living or staying" in my house, apartment or mobile home. This comprises the remaining four pages in the fold-out form. Twelve people in a trailer? No wonder they mail these things out instead of hand counting.

Beneath the final questions for "Person 12," a bold type line says "Thank you for completing your official 2010 Census form." At this point I realized there were only ten questions.

That was it. Baffled and sure that I had gotten some sort of short form, I went to the official US Government 2010 Census web site which proudly proclaims, "One of the shortest forms in history - 10 Questions in 10 Minutes."

Then, to urge us to fill in those ten questions in ten minutes, they continue, "
Each question helps to determine how more than $400 billion will be allocated to communities across the country."

They are serious. The dumbed-down, lowest common denominator cop out approach that has plunged the American educational system into a black hole has been used to create the 2010 Census form.

Click, read it and weep: 2010 Census Site