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Thursday, September 29, 2005

I would imagine that a majority of commentary bloggers from the left and right will be busying themselves with yesterday’s indictment of Tom DeLay - if they have any energy left after either blasting or defending the performance of Michael Brown before the lopsided ad hoc Congressional Committee looking into his leadership of FEMA. Regarding the latter, all I’ll say is that in the same way that Robert Bork "Borked" himself, Brown gave the news media a new phrase for commenting on the performance of witnesses before Congressional Committees. "The witness "Browned" himself in testimony before the House FOP and FOFOP Committee today." That’s the Congressional Committee on stupid acts of Fiends of Presidents and Friends of Friends of Presidents." We couldn’t call it FOG and FOFOG, the acronyms that I created a few days ago. There will be presidents with a name other than George. I suppose such a committee could have COSAFOP or COSAFOFOP as an acronym for its name - (you figure it out) - but with space limitations on busy news days, I think the shorter name will prevail.

Of course there’s no such committee in case anyone who thinks The Fifth Amendment is a new rock group should accidentally come upon this blog. I’m in a lot of pain today and pain has a tendency to drive my fingers to unexpected places.

Anyway, since all these other bloggers are doing serious commentary on the Tom and Mike show today, I’ll meander to other places.

I got one of those envelopes in the mail the other day that Andy Rooney likes to talk about. You know the kind - full of so much information on the outside of the envelope that you wonder why they bother to put anything on the inside!! Of course all that Rooney ever does is show you one envelope after another and tell you why he throws them away. He never delves into the people who send these envelopes and what their scam is. He just shows envelope after envelope and whines about them. And for this he gets paid big bucks!!

What’s on the outside or my envelope is the following:
A personal letter for you - Mr. Smith - to your U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky, 9th District, Illinois, urging her to vote NO on any proposals that would undermine the fundamental mission and future security of Social Security and Medicare.

And below that in white letters against a black background - "Please sign and return for immediate delivery."

The sender was the NATIONAL COMMITTEE TO PRESERVE SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE under the signature of Barbara B Kennelly, who identifies herself as President and CEO and former member of Congress.

Inside was the advertised letter which this outfit wants me to send to Jan Schakowsky - plus a six page letter (3 sheets typed on both sides) telling me all about social security, the terrible things that could happen to it if we are not forever vigilant and a litany of all of the successes they’ve had in preventing assaults on these entitlement programs by those who would harm and yes - even kill them. Of course Jan Schakowsky is the last person who needs to get a letter from me urging her to protect Social Security and Medicare. She’d think I’d gone nuts or sat down to type in a drunken stupor. It would be a little like urging Bill Frist to support John Roberts. But this was a mass mailing, so I guess you have to make allowances for the occasional faux pas

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m mocking the NCPSSM because I’m not. It’s no Johnny Come Lately outfit. It’s been around since 1982 - and according to Ms Kennelly, it was founded by FDR’s oldest son. But you would think with that kind of longevity and all of it’s alleged accomplishments, I would have heard more about it and its activities than I have. Particularly I would have thought that they’d be all over the map as President Bush was traveling around the country pushing his private accounts idea. If they were, I missed them. And if I’ve heard of them, much who they are and what they’ve accomplished didn’t stick in my mind. But then Washington is weighed down with lobbying organizations for just about any cause or industry that you can think of and a great deal of what so many of them engage in is, interestingly enough, something that’s in this organization’s title. Preservation. Self-Preservation.

Which brings me to the bottom line reason for the mailing from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare which was to ask me to become a "member." In addition to the letter they want me to send to my Congressperson and their six page missive described above, the envelope contained a sheet of paper titled MEMBERSHIP ACCEPTANCE FORM with seven little boxes. Three asked me to put a check mark in a box if I wanted to support their "ongoing fight" and/or if I was sending the letter to Jan Schakowsky and if I was accepting their invitation to become a "member." This lead to the other four boxes, the first of which indicated that I was sending them $10 - the minimum to become a "member" - and the others marked $15, $25 and "other," in case I felt inclined to send them some other sum of money, whether I wanted to become a "member" or not. And to convince me that whatever I send will be spent to support good causes, it offered me a money back guarantee!!! I kid you not. Right there, attached to the "Membership Acceptance Form" is a much larger box in which there is a headline that you can read and a message in the tiniest of type that you’ll need a magnifying glass to read as follows:
Your membership in the National Committee is guaranteed to be a worthwhile and positive experience. If you aren’t 100% satisfied at any time or for any reason, please write to us for a full and immediate refund of your current year membership dues.
I understand the need for money to support the overhead of any organization, but I have to wonder how much of the energy and skill and general resources of this committee is devoted to the cause described in its name and how much simply to perpetuate its existence.

I hope that this organization does work that actually helps to encourage our legislators to protect and improve Social Security and Medicare but I would feel more inclined to write about them less suspiciously if their direct mail appeal for financial support was a little less suspicious looking on the outside and without the ridiculous concept of a "100% satisfaction or your money back" guarantee on the inside!!

Somehow I doubt that it will change though. Not from the description of the key employee they’re looking for on their web site!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

As I’ve indicated here before, health problems have been slowing down my blog postings - so I haven’t been keeping up with a schedule of commentaries on the passing parade every week day.

One of those problems is approaching a critical point that may keep me away from the computer for a while, but until that point is reached, I’ll still be here penning my literary creations , observations and opinions on anything and everything - at least a few times a week.

Here’s one story that’s going to be around for months and that I’m sure I’ll want to come back to from time to time - the George Ryan trial, which started last week. The former Governor of Illinois is charged with a multitude of counts - which those who are knowledgeable about these things say is a ploy used by prosecutors to get a guilty verdict on something. They’re throwing the proverbial book at him, hoping that a few pages will stick.

It won’t be easy for him. One of his close assistants who has already been convicted and is serving a jail sentence and who has steadfastly refused to say anything bad about his former boss up to now, is supposed to be the star witness for the prosecution. Supposedly, he has agreed to do this to take some pressure off of his girl friend, who also is looking at jail time for perjury and mail fraud. I think that’s called dirty deal making - at least that’s what I would call it - but I guess it’s done all the time and looked upon as a noble activity by prosecutors under the theory of the means justifying the hoped for ends.

Ryan has a first class defense team working for him- and he’s insisted that he wants to take the stand and declare his innocence, so he’s no patsy.

A lot of people have probably already decided about his guilt or innocence. One can only hope that none of those people will be on his jury and that the trial will be fair.

Whether or not he’ll get a fair shake elsewhere is another question. I don’t think he’ll get it in the paper that I read every day, the Chicago Tribune - and that belief is the reason for these few words.

Readers of this blog know that I have strong opinions about the "Voice of the People" section of the paper - letters from readers. There are plenty of well thought out, well expressed letters on all sorts of topics to be found there, but there are also some letters that should never have been allowed to see the light of day in a major metropolitan newspaper and on many an occasion I have questioned the Tribune’s selection of such letters for publication. If you want to, you can look back at my comments of August 29, 2005 and scroll down and read the questions I posed to the Tribune’s Public Editor about how and why letters are selected for publication in that paper - questions that incidentally remain unanswered.

If they were answered, how I wonder would they explain the rationale for publishing THIS letter on the Sunday before the Monday opening of the George Ryan trial?

Here is a letter from the son of two people murdered by one of the beneficiaries of Ryan’s commutation of the sentences of all death row inmates in Illinois - if one can consider life imprisonment until death a "benefit." The writer was also almost a third victim of the c rime he writes about. He was eleven years old when the murders occurred and the killers beat and stabbed him and likely believed that they had left no one alive.

One can only feel sympathy for someone who has gone through such an ordeal - and it’s easy to understand how he feels that he has been "robbed of justice" because these murderers will not be put to death by the state. And it’s not hard to understand why he is so angry at George Ryan. Some people think Ryan did a courageous thing in calling a halt to the death penalty. He was even suggested as a recipient of a Nobel Prize. Whether or not he did it for political purposes, as some have alleged, there wasn’t any question that the system was out of whack, with one inmate after another being exonerated and set free after years sitting on death row - sometimes coming within days of being put to death. Who knows how many executions that were carried out might have been of innocent men who also could have been exonerated given enough time? The thought chills.

But for the son of murdered parents, Ryan’s actions did him a personal injustice. He wanted the sentence that was handed down to those killers carried out. I can understand it. I’m not sure I wouldn’t feel any different in his shoes. Maybe just as angry. Maybe I too would think that Ryan was as much a criminal as the killers of my parents for letting the bastards live. But do those kinds of angry, condemning thoughts belong on the pages of the Chicago Tribune on the eve of Ryan’s trial - on the day when jury selection is about to begin?

If you were a member of Ryan’s defense team, how would you feel walking into the courtroom wondering how many of the jury pool had read this angry attack on your client just hours ago? This anguished cry for "justice" that was denied him? It’s virtually a call for vengeance for what the harm that the writer feels was done to him by the former Governor.

I don’t blame Mr. Pueschel for his angry letter but I think the Tribune’s decision to publish it is reprehensible. There is no law that prevents them from doing it of course. This isn’t England where nothing can be said in the press about a trial once the defendant has appeared in court. But there are matters of taste and judgment and fairness - and in publishing this letter on the day it was published, editors at the Tribune exhibited none of the three.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

I didn’t watch all of the John Roberts hearings. In fact, it would be truthful to say that I only watched a fraction of them, but I did watch highlights that were included in news programs, so I would imagine that I heard most of the key questions that bothered Judicial Committee members from both sides of the aisle.

One question that was asked was about citing laws of other nations when considering a case that comes before the court. A good question. A legitimate question, but one unfortunately posed by Tom Coburn (R- Okla). That’s Coburn as in
"Lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom."
"I believe all life has value, from conception to natural death. And I believe the intentional taking of human life, except to save lives, should be a capital offense, as it is in most states in America today"
"My hope is that one day America will return to our historic standards which were to respect the life of the unborn."
And Coburn was true to form when he asked the question about citing foreign law in rulings, saying that any judge who does so should be impeached and thrown off the bench. In that sense, it was more of a silly statement than a question - which is typical of how these hearings often go.

Roberts though, recognized the question buried in the rhetoric and gave a sensible answer. But now - in hindsight - we can see that there was a missed opportunity to have asked a different kind of question at that point, had someone with a different kind of imagination than Coburn’s been the questioner. Never mind about foreign law!! How about foreign opinion?? How about foreign media?? Could the Supreme Court of the United States be influenced by something that appears on foreign television? Or in a foreign newspaper? Should the Supreme Court even pay attention to something that appears in a foreign newspaper??

Those may seem like silly questions that have no place in a serious hearing about the views and qualifications of a potential Supreme Court Justice - and they probably are. But in this age of globalization, where someone in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park sneezes and someone on the ninety fifth floor of the Sears Tower says "gesundheit, " maybe it’s something that shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed out of hand.

It certainly wasn’t when someone said "cheeze" to model Kate Moss and Britain’s premier tabloid - The Daily Mirror - said "thank you." There it was - a virtual scandal sheet thousands of miles from where you and I live - and likely of zero interest to anyone outside of the two plus millions of Brits who gobble up its oftentimes prurient garbage daily - and major international companies reacted to a story about Ms Moss as though the Daily Mirror was some sort of international arbiter of proper behavior and good taste.

All of this of course may be because the Daily Mirror front page of November 5, 2004 , which was considered to be an intrusive insult and held up to ridicule by many pundits then - looked more like an oracle to H&M, Gloria Vanderbilt, Dior and others less than a year later - on September 15, 2005

Judge Roberts and other members of the court would of course say that it would be ludicrous to believe that some item reported in the foreign press could in any way influence their thinking on deliberations over any kind of case - but you have to wonder if that can be taken as a given. These judges after all are accepted as being of one philosophical mind or another - either conservative or liberal - so we know that their views and their approach to the cases that come before them aren’t purely based on the written law. If that were so, we wouldn’t need nine justices. One computer with enough memory and appropriate software would be sufficient.

If you still think it’s hogwash to believe that a Supreme Court judge can be influenced in his thinking by anything that happens or has happened in a foreign country - how about a scenario like this?

The last election was a repeat of 2,000 - locked in a battle over one state. Let’s make it Ohio this time. The conflict ends up in the Supreme Court. Arguments are being presented by both sides. Suddenly, the Daily Mirror - a low life English tabloid that is actually (gulp) read by some people I know, comes out with a screaming headline about a secret meeting at Number 10 Downing Street that revealed President Bush as a liar - a man who deliberately lied about the reasons he involved us in the quagmire that Iraq has become. And let’s suppose that when asked, Tony Blair declines to take issue with the headlines. And let’s suppose that the conditions that now exist in Iraq are the ones that exist as the Supreme Court listens to the arguments. And let’s suppose that just like 2,000, the challenger is ahead in the popular vote. And let’s also suppose that 99% of the lawyers in the United States agree that both sides have equal merit and that the case could be decided either way and that those 99% of American legal eagles couldn’t or wouldn’t take issue with the decision.

As Judge Roberts himself might have said in his days before the bench -I rest my case.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Number one - the President

I wanted to say this yesterday, but really bad sciatic pain can sometimes prevent you from doing anything!!

I didn’t watch too much of the President’s speech from New Orleans the other night. I figured that I could read a summary of what he said and decide how much was bull and how much had any real meaning. But I didn’t need to look at any summaries to conclude, with my usual measure of disgust at such things - that nothing had changed in the way that Karl Rove presents Dubya to the nation. Pure P.R. No - this one didn’t call for a military backdrop. No crowds of uniformed personnel with glowing admiration on their faces, applauding on cue. No "supporters only" audience, guaranteed never to boo, hiss or ask a hardball question. No "town hall" meeting in a town populated only by Republicans who believe that tax cuts are a cure for cancer. But a purely P.R. event nonetheless.

I suppose to the unsophisticated or the easily impressed, there was some meaning to Mr. Bush reading his speech from an eerily lit Jackson Square. But the details of his plan - or his outline of a plan , could have been released in a white paper - or certainly could have been read from the Oval Office.

I don’t disagree that there is some value to a President showing up at the center of some national disaster to let us know that he understands the seriousness of the problem and that he is in charge of whatever needs to be done. But for it to be of benefit to the limited number of people who need to be reassured in such fashion, it’s a matter of timing and of the personality of the President matching whatever symbolic gestures he makes. In the case of this President, his timing for the most part has been off balance - though I disagree with those who said he should have rushed to the center of the disaster on day one - and the sight of him "comforting" black victims of Katrina struck a totally discordant note. You could have believed it of Bill Clinton with his background. It just doesn’t seem real coming from George Bush Junior. Especially accompanied by the background music of his mother noting how well displaced citizens who were being given food and shelter were doing . You know - " they were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

And number two - the proposed Chief Justice

The Roberts hearings seemed like a waste of time with the outcome a foregone conclusion. The Republicans will undoubtedly vote for him en masse and I don’t see too many Democrats voting "no" either Why would they? To make some kind of statement about their doubts - about his refusal to answer some pretty basic questions? They had the opportunity to do that during the hearings and they left little doubt about their displeasure. And I don’t blame them

No matter which party is in the majority in the Senate or whether we have a Democratic or Republican President, when we’re about to hire someone to sit on the Supreme Court for life, it makes sense to find out as much as possible about the candidate. I just don’t get this nonsense about not answering a basic question because it’s a matter "that may come before the court." So what? A nominee can’t be in any way restricted or influenced on how he may rule on some issue in the future by what he said at his confirmation hearings. All he needs to do when giving his views on some issue "that may come before the court" is say that while he is happy to say how he views some matter currently, he can’t say how he might rule if the issue does arise.

I know these kinds of hearings are used by Senators to grandstand and to engage in as much speechmaking as questioning nominees, but it does seem to be doing the country a disservice when it descends into a contest between the committee members and the nominee to see how much they can wheedle out of him and how much he can avoid revealing about himself and what he believes.

This nominee is going to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for twenty or thirty years or more, with us knowing very little about him going in - other than his obvious legal skills. But since the Constitution of the United States doesn’t explicitly establish any qualifications for the job, technically a non-lawyer could be nominated, so one would think we’d want to know a lot more than how much he knows about the law and how smooth he is in a courtroom.

There is one thing that we all learned during these hearings if we wanted to take note of it and maybe assign it some significance. The man grins quite often when there’s no reason to be grinning. I’m not sure what it means or if anything can be made of it at all. But the President doing the nominating is someone who has a multitude of odd facial expressions that pop up at the most inappropriate moments. Grinning while speaking of death and destruction for example. As I say, I don’t know if we can learn anything from observing body language that seems slightly askew, but with Judge Roberts, we don’t seem to have much more to give us any strong hints about what kind of Chief Justice he will be or in which direction he’ll take the court and how far. I’m not too worried about anything dramatic happening in the near future, but with another new member about to be nominated and with the possibility of even more retirements , deaths or disabilities occurring before Mr. Bush finishes his term, my children and grandchildren may be living under some very different laws from the ones I have known. And that is something to worry about.

Friday, September 16, 2005

It’s a little bit like the O.J. Simpson case - but with a difference. When his not guilty verdict was announced, it was greeted with dismay by a majority of whites and with joy by a majority of blacks. Whites thought the evidence was compelling and couldn’t believe that any jury wouldn’t see it the same way. With blacks, I’m not sure that it was because they agreed that he wasn’t guilty as much as they felt that it was some kind of victory by a poor, downtrodden black man over a racist society. Of course Simpson was the antithesis of poor and downtrodden, but reality had nothing to do with how they viewed the trial and its outcome, particularly after Simpson’s lawyers introduced a sub-text of racism and put the Los Angeles police department on trial for use of the "N" word.

And now here we go again.

A national poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found the same kind of differences in how people felt about the government’s response to Katrina. Had the majority of the victims waiting to be rescued been white, would the response have been quicker? 66% of blacks said yes. Only 17% of whites polled agreed. Did race make any difference in the speed of the government’s response? Of course not said 77% of white respondents. 27% of blacks polled agreed. Both about the same distance apart in what they believed.

What can we make of this? Can we extrapolate from what people of different skin pigment believed about the response of FEMA and DHS to come close to the truth about what actually happened? About whether race did or didn’t play some role in the slowness of those agencies to act? Actually, I think we can.

If we can assume that truthful answers were given to the pollsters, we can also assume that if those who said that race made no difference in the speed of the government response were those doing the responding, they would have done so with as much speed as they were capable of mustering without regard to the color of the beleaguered citizens. Most likely, if the thought of race didn’t even enter their minds as they went about their duties, they wouldn’t have been that aware of the racial make up of the people they were helping. They would have known it subliminally of course as they encountered seas of black faces. But it wouldn’t have been something they took into account at a conscious level as they began deploying people and equipment and supplies. Certainly it wouldn’t have made a difference in the speed of that deployment.

Polls can sometimes produce an incorrect result - but not often. So there is a high probability that the white people answering the Pew poll were reflective of the white people who headed up and worked for DHS and FEMA - and unless you want to believe that there is a lingering degree of subconscious racism in most white people that would cause them to discriminate against people of color without them even knowing it, there is no reason to believe that federal employees who happen to be white are any different from the rest of us. There may even have been some FEMA and DHS employees among the population that Pew used for this poll.

I do not dismiss out of hand the notion that a person can be influenced by a bias that he doesn’t even know he has - and would vehemently deny he has if you were to suggest it as a possibility. Indeed I have known people who I believe were anti-Semitic without knowing it at a conscious level. And I’m sure the same thing applies to race. We are all influenced by our history whether we like it or not - and some things become ingrained in populations and in individuals. They become part of our thought processes and our language. But there is no evidence that any sub-conscious bias was at work here.

The sad thing that this and similar polls reveal is the difference in perception between what blacks and whites think about each other. But perception is not reality. The reality is that the FOGS or FOFOGS running FEMA and DHS would have responded the same way if New Orleans had been populated by gay Martians.

Here’s a question that the Pew people should have asked and that I would recommend they ask if they do any more polling on this subject:

If the President of the United States had been an African American version of George Bush - a conservative with similar values and management style to Dubya’s - but with a black skin - and if maybe the head of either FEMA or DHS was also a black man whose background was similar to that of either Michael Chertoff or Michael Brown, do you think the Federal response to the victims of Katrina would have been any different?

Asked that way, I think you’d find very little disparity between the answers of black and white respondents, because the potential for racial bias by a majority against a minority has been removed in that scenario. Unless of course some of the black respondents are themselves avowed racists. Whitey haters. That would screw up the poll results big time.

I prefer to think that the attitude of both races in this tragedy is better reflected in my post of September 14 than any kind of poll. The leter from a bookseller in from Austin. Worth reading more than once.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The following is an e-mail forwarded to me from the University library where my wife works. It is from bookseller Kevin McDonnell, of Austin, Texas and it is a very personal picture of the situation in that town and how it is unfolding.

I think it’s something worth recording here because it speaks so eloquently of who we are as a people and who the gulf coast evacuees are:

I've been peppered with requests for news of how things are going here in Austin, and I appreciate the interest and good wishes. Instead of specific replies, I hope this update will suffice...

The Austin shelter, which occupies our local Convention Center, covers about 4 square city blocks. The evacuees are housed in three main halls, huge dimly lit cavernous places (think bat caves) with lines of cots. Outside the living areas the perimeter consists of hallways where every amenity of small town life is available - library (free book distribution center in reality), study area for the kids being bused to local schools, a post office with its own zip, beauty salon and barber shop, reunion station where family members find each other, Internet access (maybe 50-75 terminals), Social Security, Red Cross, a housing fair, a job fair (where 150 local employers are set up at tables today), medical station, pharmacy, cafeteria where hot food is served, supply depot (think of a Walmart where everything is free), chapels for religious services, mental health station which is still doing a steady business, etc. The main open-air hallway that fronts one of the loading docks near "purchasing and logistics" (the section I set up the first day) is now known as Bourbon Street because that's where folks hang out to get away from the hustle-bustle. Great music in the evenings. Real Blues that somebody ought to be recording.

Each evacuee lives on a cot and everything they own fits under that cot. Imagine the implications of such an existence - a sort of camp-out, but you may not have a home to go home to after you break camp. There is a curfew, for security reasons and so people can get needed sleep without a lot of late night coming and going. Single men are in one hall, while families (mostly mothers and very few fathers) with kids are kept in another. Our population was 4,300 the first full night, and we all surprised ourselves when we realized we'd processed that many people in 24 hours, each with at least a shower, new clothing, a cot, bedding, and a hot meal. The population has now dropped to less than 1,500, but during the day it fills back up, since some evacuees still use it as a base of operations and for needed social services even though many have been matched with public housing and area families who will take them in. Interestingly, the number of school age kids at the shelter has only dropped from 500 to 350, a figure I watch closely because I've set up the after-school study hall and book distribution center and am temporarily coordinating the efforts of those who are running those two areas day-to-day. The population is stabilizing, and by the end of this week we expect to get news of how the Texas shelters may be consolidated. If they are consolidated, we expect to be on the receiving end rather than vice versa, and could go right back up to 5,000 evacuees in a matter of a few days. We are ready and confident, and things are running smoothly (not enough to make us happy just yet, but enough the make the evacuees happy)

The evacuees have been wonderful to meet and assist. Their patience is extraordinary. Everyone has been civil, extremely considerate of others (important, given the close quarters), and the kids have been especially resilient. When you stop to consider that they have seen and experienced things that no human being should ever have to endure, their grace is all the more remarkable. Many have horrifying stories to tell, and a need to tell them. The NOLA evacuation plan called for buses to be available for people without their own transportation, but the buses never came. They feel betrayed and abandoned. I first heard of Barbara Bush's incredibly insensitive remarks (made during her tour of the Astrodome shelter) from a Black woman here in Austin whose only reaction was "those words are just so wrong, so wrong, just wrong, wrong, wrong." These folks did not have much in the way of material wealth, but what they have lost is more important than that. They lost their very way of life, their communities, their homes, their families, their friends, their jobs, plus what little they actually owned. Contrary to Barbara Bush's chuckled remark that "things have worked out well for them" - things have yet to work out for them at all. The future is uncertain for most of them; their lives have been changed. Barbara Bush also expressed concern that many evacuees want to stay in Houston. I've not met any evacuees that I would not welcome to Austin if they chose to stay here, and I have no doubt many will.

Problems have been minor--- Some communication glitches within the facility. The occasional anal-retentive city bureaucrat as well as the occasional free-lancing bureaucrat or volunteer. Some volunteers whose skill-sets were mismatched to the task at hand (bean-counters handling public service jobs, and vice-versa), and the logistical frustrations inherent with this size operation (materials and volunteers for low-priority tasks show up before those needed for high-priority items) and priorities change hourly. The uncertainty of the future keeps the entire operation "fluid" and requires those of us with type-A personalities to stay in a mellow mode (or else risk cardio-vascular mishaps).

Books sent to the Austin facility will go to evacuees, and those that are not distributed will at some point in the future when the shelter shuts down (weeks? months?) will be sold at an Austin Public Library book sale for the benefit of the evacuees. If by some chance the Austin shelter is consolidated to another city's shelter --which seems unlikely-- the books and other provisions will very likely follow them to the new location.

Finally, there have been moments of humor in all of this. On the first day, as people finally got to shower (some had not changed clothing in a week and had been trapped in their homes or at the Superdome) we quickly realized we did not have enough Black hair care products on hand, and scrambled to get them. To find out what we needed, I walked up to a Black family sitting at a nearby table and asked if they could help me with a problem. They said Yes, and I then smiled and said, "well, I'm a white guy and I need to learn everything there is to know about Black hair-care products" and then we all cracked up into hysterical laughter. But I got my needed education, and I now know more about Black hair-care than I'll ever need to know (but I'm not changing my hair style). I personally enjoy watching some Very White people experiencing their first face-to-face encounter with Very Black culture, and endless source of amusement. A very few of those encounters have not been so amusing. For example, the city worker who mimed the gestures of an evacuee asking for help --in front of the evacuee [and me], which I will take up with the City Manager at a later date when there is time. But most of the encounters have been a boon to both volunteers and evacuees.

Improvisation is also the rule. I could not find a chess set for one guy, but we did find a checkers board, and we assembled enough pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters to make pawns, castles, knights, and bishops. Heads against tails. Not sure what he ended up using for Kings and Queens. I mention this for any of you who may get a sudden hankering for a chess game at some future bookfair.

Some of the early problems have solved themselves. I may have mentioned that city bureaucrats didn't want folks doing their own shopping, but instead set up tables where folks had to request items which would then be brought to them. Every time I go past those tables now, I see more tables set up with certain "personal" items just set out for the taking, and I see the clerks letting people come in to choose what they need or else bringing out a choice of items to the request table. Experience and common sense has made the clerks much wiser than their bureaucratic bosses.

Starting this week I'm now on shorter schedule, making a daily visit of an hour or two or three. At the end of the day I'm left with extremely sore feet (think of an unending bookfair on concrete floors where you have no time to sit, where even the best quality running shoe will not save you), and a profound respect for the patience and grace of the evacuees, and the untiring devotion of the volunteers who do the grunt work of sorting clothing, hauling away empty boxes, and whatever is needed at a given moment.

My cynicism toward government has grown deeper than ever and my contempt for the current administration is now boundless, but this is offset by my renewed faith in the essential goodness of people. DeVries said something like "Mankind is dreadful, but people are wonderful." Amen to that.

You can reach Kevin McDonnell at info@macdonnellrarebooks.com and browse their rare book s at www.macdonnellrarebooks.com

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Many years ago, I created a radio feature called "Quotable Quotes." In those days there were a lot of short (one to five minute) syndicated radio programs on the air and a few of them were my creations that I’d record in Chicago and mail to stations across the country on vinyl records. Some of the programs that I created and syndicated are mentioned in my bio which you can find at my other blog site..

The idea for "quotable quotes" was to build a story around something memorable that had been said by someone in the past - usually someone of note - and finish with the quote itself. A little bit like Paul Harvey’s "Rest of the Story." It was a good idea and the pilot programs were well received, but for a number of reasons not worth mentioning here, it never got off the ground.

I was reminded of the program idea while reading a collection of some of the nutty things that people have said over the past few days about the effects of Katrina.. I don’t think you could classify any of them as "quotable quotes" but I know that if the series had ever gotten off the ground and was still around today, I could have created some nifty stories to tie in to some of the ridiculous utterances of Brown, Bush, Cheney and others.

Here are my favorites to date:

FEMA Director Michael Brown:

"I must say, this storm is much bigger than anyone expected."

"Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well."

"We just learned of the convention center -- we being the federal government -- today." (While the rest of the world knew it yesterday!!)

President Bush

"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

"I'm satisfied with the response. I am not satisfied with the results." (Later on the same day as telling Brownie what a great job he was doing).

"Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

Barbara Bush

What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them."

Unidentified Angry Citizen

Speaking to the Vice President - " Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney. Go fuck yourself."

Vice President Cheney

(Giggling answer to a reporter’s question about hearing that kind of citizen suggestion)- "First time I've heard it. Must be a friend of John, er, uh, never mind."

Louisiana Republican Congressman Richard Baker

"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." (He denies ever saying it but the reporter who heard it and wrote the Wall Street Journal story is sticking to his guns).

Republican operative Jack Burkman

I understand there are 10,000 people dead. It's terrible. It's tragic. But in a democracy of 300 million people, over years and years and years, these things happen."

I don’t know about you, but to my mind, the only quote that could be considered memorable from among this collection is that of the unknown citizen. It sums up how millions of people feel about the performance of our government in response to the onslaught of hurricane Katrina - me among them.

Go fuck yourself (fill in the preferred government official’s name)


September 14, 2005 9.35 a.m.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."
George W Bush September 13, 2005.

I still prefer the "go fuck yourself" quote as the most or only memorable line from the above collection, but of course we must now take note of yesterday’s watershed moment. The man who is unable to think of any mistake he has made in the course of his presidency, finally "accepted responsibility" for something. He acknowledged where the buck stopped. Not unequivocally of course. That would be expecting too much. It was a modified acceptance - only "to the extent that the Federal government didn’t fully do its job right." But it was something. Even if it had more to do with Karl Rove and the mid term elections than with a moment of honesty, humility and sincerity in the life of our President.

Having said all that, let me add that I have never felt comfortable or satisfied with this business of Presidents "accepting responsibility" for the pain of some tragic national event - as though a few words from the White House in any way eases the pain. I particularly remember feeling more anger and disgust than anything else when Ronald Reagan didn’t just "accept responsibility" but "FULL responsibility" for the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 243 marines in Lebanon. After which he did nothing about it other than to pull the rest of our troops out of that country. And then he carried on as if nothing had happened

Maybe Bush will do better. Maybe his acceptance of responsibility will extend into responsible action. Like removing political insiders from jobs they never should have had and appointing professionals in their place. And then admitting that in appointing people to head up agencies charged with protecting the American people because they were FOGS or FOFOGS instead of appointing professionals in the first place, he was at least partially responsible for some of the deaths that occurred in New Orleans.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sometimes you have to wonder if we can believe anything that we hear from any politician. I know we can because I know there are honest and straight talking politicians. It’s just that they’re in the minority. A very small minority.

I don’t know if you can classify Michael Chertoff as a politician. He was appointed to his job as head of the Department of Homeland Security. I guess we can call him a FOG. Or at least a FOFOG. That’s more or less on the same level as being a politician.

In any event, I watched Mr. Chertoff answer a reporter’s question about why Michael (Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job) Brown was called back to Washington. I listened to his long winded, convoluted nonsensical story about how much planning had to be done for the future and how vital it was for Mr. Brown to be back at the helm where he could do all of this preparatory work. Then there was a follow-up. Something along the lines of "is this a prelude to his resignation." Chertoff turned six shades of indignant purple. In fact, it was so indignant, I wouldn’t be surprised to see paint and crayon manufacturers come out with it as a new shade. "Indignant Purple." Maybe for guest bathrooms?? Anyway, purple face glowing, he angrily berated the ignorant reporter for not understanding his - Chertoff’s - crystal clear explanation in perfect English. And of course he didn’t answer the question.

I shook my head in disgust. The reporter knew and I knew - and I would imagine most people watching knew - that Chertoff had just fed the nation a wheelbarrow full of bullshit - with a straight - though for a while purple face.

It was obvious that he was lying and that Mr. Brown’s sacrifice had already been scheduled. The only doubt was which day had been picked to announce his "resignation."

I suppose politicians, FOGS and FOFOGS have some value. They make used car salesmen look good.


Even though I wasn’t very complimentary, I did try to offer some kind of defense of the President the other day. I didn’t think it was fair to attack him every day as though he and he alone was responsible for the slow response to the needs of hurricane Katrina’s victims - and though I haven’t changed my mind about that, it’s tempting to say to hell with it and join in the chorus of the critics. It’s tempting because I don’t see much in the way of reciprocal fair-mindedness from his supporters.

As usual, this White House, when being criticized for anything, goes into the attack mode. While the whole gang from Dubya on down dutifully repeats their hastily conceived (by Rove???) catch phrase about not wanting to "play the blame game" - he and they are of course doing precisely that. They’re throwing out a blame net big enough to catch everyone from weather forecasters to governors from the "wrong" party. I’m sure if they could, they’d have found a way to include Punxsutawney Phil as a co-equal responsible party.

What truly irritates me is the way members of the right wing media throw this garbage out without - it would seem - the slightest regard for journalistic integrity. And I don’t just mean the Limbaugh and O’Reilly type of nuts. Pulitzer price winners are in there too. We all know as well as they do that the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana aren’t a couple of saints. But they know as well as we do that throwing out their names as being partially responsible for the mess we found ourselves in and that the whole world watched in disbelief - simply obscures the true nature of the problem that needs to be fixed before a disaster of this caliber happens again.

They know the problem rests with FEMA and DHS. A pre-high school child could understand it. Forget about the kind of disaster that we have warnings about - that we are actually able to track and can plan to deal with as we watch it develop. Let’s pretend that the disaster of New Orleans wasn’t the result of a hurricane. Let’s pretend that a disaster of similar proportions occurred but that it was the result of an act of terrorism. Totally without warning. THAT is the kind of disaster for which we look to DHS and FEMA to respond with the greatest measure of efficiency possible. The response that we would be looking for from those agencies would be the kind of response that one could say was finally in place on Friday, September 2 - a week after Katrina made landfall in Florida and five days after it first made landfall in Louisiana.

If it was a terrorist attack, would we be finding ways to make local mayors and governors partially responsible for DHS and FEMA not doing anything of substance for days after it hit?? Of course not!! That is what the criticism of those agencies is all about now. It’s about accountability. It has to do with whether or not we’re prepared to deal with the aftermath of any terrorist attack on our soil. It has nothing to do with any "blame game." The right wing pundits, columnists and broadcasters who, instead of talking about this are using their media outlets to "protect" their President from any political fall out, are doing this nation a disservice. They are the ones quick to question the loyalty of anyone who criticizes their leader. They need to look in the dictionary or maybe a thesaurus. There they’ll find that loyalty - as in to one’s country - is not spelled I D E O L O G Y.

Friday, September 09, 2005

I said I would probably be coming back to the subject of Katrina - and here I am already, but only because I’m somewhat miffed by one aspect of the story and I want to comment on it while it’s uppermost in my mind.

To clarify the title of this piece, I want to make it clear that I do not consider myself a "liberal blogger" and thus automatically anti everything Republican or conservative. If I were, I would be linked up to those who are unabashedly liberal and they - or some of them - to me. But I like to comment on many topics other than left and right wing politics and I’m quite happy to vote for whoever I think is the best candidate regardless of party, so I don’t qualify for membership in the liberal blog fraternity.

On the other hand, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am no fan of President Bush. We have elected presidents before who were not really ready to assume that powerful office, but in my view few if any with less skills, knowledge, wisdom and experience than Dubya.

I was listening to Jerry Springer’s radio show the other day and he made the point that voters don’t give enough consideration to competence when making up their minds about a presidential candidate. They focus on whether or not they agree with him on a few simple issues - abortion for example - or gay rights. They’re swayed by his looks and personality. And of course his ideology. But rarely competence.

I agree with Springer.

In his 1988 acceptance speech, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis said "This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence." It’s ironic that he said that about a race against Bush forty one, but he was as wrong then as he would have been running against the son of forty one. Ideology trumps competence every time and that’s how we finished up with Bush forty three in the White House.

Undoubtedly Dubya’s lack of competence played some role in the less than appropriate federal response to the onslaught of Katrina. And some of his ridiculous utterances at photo-ops while people were suffering and dying only made his incompetence more glaringly obvious.

The man’s facial contortions that punctuate his speech, no matter what he’s talking about, add to the impression that he doesn’t have a total grasp of what is happening around him. It’s hard not to get the feeling that he isn’t playing with a full deck when he’s talking about death and destruction and suddenly breaks into a broad grin.

If Nancy Pelosi’s report of her meeting with the President is accurate, you also have to wonder if he’s living on the same planet as the rest of us. She told him Michael Brown should be fired. He asked why she thought he should be fired. She said because of what went wrong and what didn't go right - and he asked "what didn't go right?"

Having said all of that, I have to say that in my view, the critics who are attacking and ridiculing him over his role in the federal response to Katrina are way over the top.

It’s true that he didn’t cut his vacation and rush back to the White House as soon as Katrina’s potential danger became known and it’s true that on the day it made landfall in Louisiana, he took off for Arizona and California to make speeches about Medicare, Iraq and the anniversary of World War II. But in the meantime, the White House did respond to declarations of emergency by state and local officials along the gulf coast with warnings to DHS and FEMA to prepare to coordinate disaster relief efforts - and followed with its own declaration of emergency. Most people are in agreement that all of the declarations and instigation of action at the local, state and federal levels were slower than they should have been, but none of that justifies the piling on that is being aimed at Mr. Bush.

If the danger had been of a different kind - if the winds of war had been gathering off shore - if there had been intelligence of a potential armed attack against the United States, then we would have expected that the President would have returned to the White House from Crawford immediately and micromanaged the minute to minute monitoring of the situation, surrounded and being advised by his cabinet and military and intelligence experts. But it wasn’t that kind of a danger. It was a danger that called for micromanagement by those officials and staff members responsible for reacting to natural disasters.

A president - any president - is the CEO, not just of the nation but of an enormous bureaucracy and in many divisions of that bureaucracy concerned with highly specialized expertise, he is little more than a titular CEO. Whether he was continuing his vacation in Texas while the hurricane was gathering steam or making speeches on the west coast, he should have been able to rely on the people at the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to be on top of the situation and to keep him informed.

A lot of the criticism has to do with who he approved to be the head of one of those bureaucratic divisions and a lot of voices are calling for Michael Brown’s head. I agree that it should roll if only for some of the incredibly stupid things he said as the tragedy unfolded. You and I watching television knew there were thousands of people stranded at the Ernst N Morial Convention Center, but Brown had no clue! News anchors were asking him - "don’t you watch television or listen to the radio ?" - and he stumbled all over the place trying to explain his ignorance of the situation.

Considering his background and performance, Brown is probably not that far removed from being the kind of titular head of FEMA in the same way that the President is the titular head of all government departments. Comedians and serious critics alike are having a field day with jokes about Brown’s previous job as Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association and that he was asked to resign from that job. They’d probably render a service other than amusing us if they zeroed in on Brown AND Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff’s "qualifications" as FOGS

Remember Friends of Bill? FOB for short? The acronym didn’t mean that much during the Clinton years, but a similar acronym for Dubya’s friends takes on great significance for this presidency and this administration.

Friends of George!! FOG. FOGGS. FOGGY. Confused. Dim. Befuddled.

I don’t know if "Browny" and Chertoff qualify as direct FOGS. Maybe they’re FOFOGS - Friends of Friends of George, but FOG or FOFOG, the end result seems to be the same - and we can certainly fault the President for that.

But I think people are criticizing the President’s performance not so much because of the appointments of Brown and Chertoff - or because he downgraded FEMA from a cabinet position to a subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security - or because of his proposed funding cuts from the New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers budget- but because he gave the impression of not grasping the seriousness of the problem as quickly as he should.

I don’t know that there was anything he could have done to have made Katrina less of a disaster than it is, perhaps other than to have picked up a telephone before it even made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, and ordered the army to take control of the whole coastal area and direct rescue operations. But that would have required the President to be blessed with immaculate foresight - enough for him to have known that what he needed to do was override the authority of the agencies that had the responsibility to do such work and make it a military operation from the get go. He doesn’t have that kind of foresight. Nobody does. But everyone of course has twenty twenty vision.

I’d like to think that if I were someone in total authority - if I were President of the United States and hearing from experts that this was a hurricane that could destroy New Orleans, I would bypass everyone and order the evacuation of the entire city immediately. By the army. That is unless I listened to the little guy perched on my left shoulder who keeps asking "What if it veers off and doesn’t hit New Orleans? Won’t you look stupid disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and running up a bill into the millions?"

I’m not excusing the President - far from it. He has to assume responsibility for the poor performances of the people he appointed to head the agencies that are supposed to protect us from disaster - and he has to stop this ridiculous business of praising them when the whole damned world can see that they fell down on the job.

But I don’t see the point in accusing him of being solely and personally responsible for the suffering that has resulted from Katrina and repeating that accusation day after day after day, because he obviously isn’t - and I think his critics - of which I’m one - need to back off a few degrees. They’re way over the top.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I wasn’t sure if I should do any blogging about the tragedy that has befallen our country. There’s nothing I or any other blogger could write that would help the situation. But then I thought that perhaps it was important that those who keep daily diaries or who wrote commentary weblogs, should record their impressions of this period of history. Together with all of the media reporting and official pronouncements, it will add up to a remarkable panorama of observation and opinion that future generations can look back and perhaps learn from.

My first overwhelming impression of the tragedy - I guess like that of millions of others - is that of our utter vulnerability. It took almost no time at all to come to the conclusion that we had no plan in place to deal with a catastrophe like the one Katrina has caused. One would have thought that somewhere along the way, somebody in some administration would have gathered a team of experts together to answer the question of "what do we do if there’s a hurricane that results in the entire city of New Orleans being flooded?" And one would think that a plan would have been drawn up that could have been put into effect the moment that catastrophe occurred - with everyone who was a part of that response plan knowing exactly what it was they were supposed to do and with everyone knowing who was in charge of what and how everything was to be coordinated etc etc - with every contingency anticipated and a reaction designed for.

I didn’t know the name of the mayor of New Orleans until I heard him on the radio while driving my wife to work last Friday morning. I commented to her on his "black" accent. "I guess he’s a black guy" I said - or something like that. Not very complimentary to make the connection between accent and race, but it’s something most of us do and something that I expressed puzzlement about back on July 22, 2003. I didn’t know that he was a self made millionaire who had left the private sector to enter politics in 2002.

Back at home later, I heard a recording of the interview he had given the previous day about conditions in his city. By now, I’m sure millions of others have heard that interview too. It was spine chilling. But for the eleven or twelve minutes that he spoke to radio station WWL, the only radio station operating in the area, it was a voice that America needed to hear. The interview has been re-broadcast over and over, but I only needed to hear it once to understand the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen New Orleans. I wish I could say the same of the Federal agencies charged with protecting us against natural and man made disasters.

By now, mayor Nagin is being included on the "blame list" by some for the slow response - but this was and is a national disaster that could only be handled at the national level.

Tragedies like this are supposed to pull people together. Our political, religious, racial and socioeconomic differences are supposed to fade into the background as we respond to the challenges that events like Katrina present. For some of us that was true. I hope for most of us. But there was more than enough to remind us how divided we are as a nation.

I didn’t hear it myself, but I heard someone who had called in to a radio program say that he had heard a conservative radio host say that while the destruction caused by Katrina was tragic, it was being exaggerated by the "liberal press!!" I wish the caller had named the radio host. What kind of lame brained idiot would say something that stupid - about as stupid as Karl Rove’s despicable comment about conservatives preparing for war after 9/11 while liberals wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy?

Not that "liberal" commentary in the wake of the tragedy was simon- pure. I have heard vicious attacks on President Bush as though he personally was responsible for the levies failing in New Orleans. Or for the Hurricane itself!! And it’s still going on, days after Katrina hit. It makes not a lick of sense.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of legitimate criticism that can be aimed at the President. As the commander-in-chief, he has to assume the ultimate responsibility for the below par response to the emergency. He has to acknowledge that the buck stops at his desk and to do something other than appear in photo-ops and mouth inane clichés. Instead of making the ridiculous assertion that those who failed so miserably are "doing a good job," he needs to kick butt and lop off some heads and show that he’s doing something that has some meaning. I doubt that he will though. Look at what has happened in the post Iraq invasion era. The geniuses who were wrong about almost every aspect of the Iraq adventure, are either still on the job or showered with presidential honors in retirement.

Of all the meaningless gestures to try to show that he was doing something for victims of the hurricane, to me the most inane was the photo-op in the oval office with his father and Bill Clinton to announce that the two ex-presidents would head up a charity drive. This isn’t the Asian tsunami, where their efforts were as much good P.R. for the US as anything else. Every television and radio station and every newspaper in the country, along with thousand of web sites, is providing addresses for citizens to send contributions to the Red Cross and other charities. What is the need to make a big deal about recruiting ex-presidents to help other than to have a photo-op?? If he wants someone to coordinate the contributions that can be made by private organizations, such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, he’s got FEMA to do that - if they had any idea how to do it. From what I heard, FEMA was turning away offers of help. If he wants them to make calls to corporations and individual fat cats, did it need the big announcement at the White House? And why would they be needed to make such calls? It’s not political donations they’d be looking for that often require some arm bending. For a cause such as this, do we really need ex-presidents to persuade fat cats to loosen some purse strings? If we do, then we’re a less generous people than we think we are.

About the "looting." Most of the so called looting that took place should never have been called that. What would you do if your structured civilized society disappeared overnight and you were caught in an under water nightmare world ? There was no way for anyone to go "shopping" for what was needed to stay alive. The only option to those who had any mobility was "foraging" - a much more appropriate word. Those who did break into stores and homes to steal items that had nothing to do with survival, were looters. And those who preyed on fellow victims of the disaster to survive - those who invaded hospitals, endangering the sick and elderly, indeed deserve to be called what they are. Criminals. And if they could be identified and caught, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The reports of other crimes - rapes and other kinds of assaults- were astonishing more because of the conditions under which the occurred rather than the nature of the offenses. Doubtless there are rapes and strong arm robberies and other street crimes that take place on any given week or week-end in New Orleans. In almost any major American City for that matter. But the thought of people who themselves were having to struggle to stay alive, committing those kinds of crimes against others who were packed into a confined space with them and facing the same struggle - is beyond comprehension. The only answer that makes any sense is that the core being of these sub-humanoids had to be a criminal core, and faced with the kind of pressure brought on by the collapse of their structured world, their reactions were instinctively criminal. And their race or color had nothing to do with it.

I was frankly astonished when some black leaders attributed the slow Federal response to racism- even when some of them used euphemisms for racism in their statements. Did they honestly think that there was a deliberate slowness in the response to the needs of people stranded in New Orleans and other areas of destruction along the gulf coast, because a majority of those people had black skins and were poor? These kinds of comments which are patently untrue, do nothing but exacerbate an already horrendous situation . We need leadership as we struggle to recover from this crisis, but anyone who tries to blame racism for the miseries that the refugees are suffering is no leader. And I deliberately use the word "refugee" because that’s another word that people who I consider little more than demagogues are pouncing on to "prove" that there is a racist attitude towards the black victims of Katrina. What pure and utter garbage. Black "leaders" who talk like this do nothing but create an image of racial discrimination.

Having said all that, I have to admit to the possibility that overly sensitized black skinned Americans can see racism where it doesn’t exist - just as overly sensitized Jewish Americans can see anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist. Both are products of a long history of discrimination and their vision can sometimes be blurred by their history. But I’m pretty damned sure that the black elected officials and people like Jesse Jackson who’ve been injecting race into their criticism of the Federal response know better and they know the harm that words can do - and they should be ashamed of themselves.

If they had spoken of insensitivity - ah - that’s a whole other ball game. If ever there was a president who didn’t know how to verbalize an appropriate response to the suffering of ordinary people, Mr. Bush wins the prize. His defenders say they see the compassion in his eyes and they hear it in his voice. They must all be equipped with a universal Bush to humankind translator, turning a photo op of inappropriate grins and grimaces punctuating such ridiculous comments as "I get it," and "I won’t forget this" into the responses of a normal leader who stands among his people at a site of unimaginable destruction. The man is obviously uncomfortable among and trying to relate to ordinary people. One gets the impression that he is totally oblivious to what most of us think of as reality. It didn’t take his reaction to Katrina to arrive at that conclusion. It just confirmed it.

An equally big prize goes to Barbara Bush, from whom we may be getting a glimpse of where son George gets his understanding of his fellow citizens. The refugees who landed in Texas and are being given food and shelter are doing great according to Mrs. Bush. That because "they were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Finally, a comment about a silly remark that I heard repeated over and over by some media people and by critics of the Federal response to the disaster. There were television reporters in the area along with their camera crews before there was any sign of a FEMA response or military presence or any other disaster relief. And again and again, the question was asked "if a reporter can get there, why can’t the trucks laden with food and water get there? Why can’t rescue vehicles get there?" And on and on ad nauseum. I wanted to scream at my radio - and even at the television when the inane question came from there.

The answer is so obvious, I almost feel foolish typing it here. There is a huge difference between the logistics involved in getting a single reporter along with his or her technical crew, to a single street corner in New Orleans - and getting an army of people and vehicles to an area of the city where people are trapped by floods that have engulfed their streets and their homes. It’s like asking why Andre the Giant can’t survive on a diet of eight ounces of strained prunes daily while an iddy biddy baby is just thriving on the same kind of restrictive diet

I’ll probably come back to this subject in the near future along with millions of my fellow bloggers because it’s going to be with us for years and there'll be lots to talk about. We've given a donation to the Red Cross from the comfort of our suburban home and we wish we could do more. But that's enough for today. My head hurts.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Cap on Malpractice Awards……

In a state that is frequently referred to as being friendly toward personal injury lawsuits, the governor has signed a bill capping awards in medical malpractice cases. It’s a law that doctors in the state have lobbied for for a long time, complaining that high malpractice insurance premiums were driving many of them out of state - the high premiums being attributed to the large amounts awarded in malpractice cases.

In story after story, Illinoisans were presented with grim pictures of communities with restricted medical services. For some specialists’ services, patients had to travel miles to see a doctor. Doctors in many specialties were simply packing up their office equipment and moving to friendlier states where their insurance premiums weren’t so burdensome. If you could believe the Illinois Medical Society, things were getting desperate for doctors practicing in this state.

Supposedly, that’s all been turned around. The Illinois Medical Society got what it wanted and we should now see a reversal of the exodus to friendlier malpractice insurance states. Governor Blagojevich, who frequently sounds as though he’s running for the office he occupies, says he’ll be demanding that insurance companies lower their rates.

Say what? Demanding??

What does that mean? What force of law allows the governor of the state to demand that malpractice premiums be reduced just because the legislature has passed a bill that the state’s doctors have been lobbying for for years? Is there a part of the bill that says the governor will make demands of insurance companies? It’s all very confusing to me. Blagojevich is no dummy. Surely he didn’t sign a bill to help insurance companies that wasn’t guaranteed to help doctors. Surely he obtained an iron clad assurance from those insurance companies that they would lower their premiums if awards could be capped. Surely he made it clear that he wouldn’t sign any bill capping awards until he had the guarantee of premium reductions in hand.

Apparently not. Apparently he had NO guarantee that the bill he signed would reduce the cost of malpractice insurance to doctors practicing in Illinois and stem the exodus of doctors to other states. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that no matter how horrendous the result of an act of medical malpractice might be - the amount that a victim or a victim’s family can receive as compensation has an absolute limit.

Way to go governor

The Crime of Kiting - Does That Deserve a Jail Sentence?

Robert Creamer, the husband of Representative Jan Schakowsky, pleaded guilty to a charge of bank fraud and may end up in the hoosegow. He was indicted more than a year ago on a whole bunch of counts - and that was years after the allegations of fraud had first surfaced. He pleaded guilty to one and the rest were dropped. He also pleaded guilty to some tax liability.

What attracts my attention to this case, apart from the fact that Creamer is a long time political consultant, a former head of an Illinois not-for-profit Public Interest Group and husband of my representative in Congress, is what he did to commit bank fraud.

He kited checks!!

It seems that the non profit group he ran - under several different names - wasn’t always flush with ready cash, and in order to keep it afloat and keep paying salaries, including his own, he played a game that a lot of small businessmen - even individuals - find themselves doing when their financial backs are against the wall. They write checks on different accounts at different banks and cross deposit them, even though they don’t have sufficient funds on hand to honor those checks. But with meticulous timing, they are able to create the appearance of having sufficient funds - and the checks get honored.

Small businessmen who get into trouble also do something else that Creamer did. They don’t pay taxes withheld from employee paychecks, and they use that money to help stay afloat. If they’re lucky - the small businessmen and individuals who get involved in a cycle of check kiting - things improve enough for them to break the cycle - the banks never find out what happened and nobody gets hurt. And the businessmen catch up on withheld taxes too.

It had completely escaped by memory, but reading about Creamer brought it back to me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I do remember that there was a time in my life when I did some check kiting - depositing a check from account "A" into account "B" to cover a check that I’d written on that account - and doing the same thing in reverse. Neither account had sufficient funds to cover the checks written - but when they were deposited - the banks credited the accounts as though they were good. It was all a matter of timing and dealing with banks that credited accounts without waiting for deposited checks to clear. Once things got better, I was able to stop running from bank to bank to keep my finances afloat.

Creamer did all of this on a far greater scale and the government is claiming that he defrauded the banks because the check kiting amounted to them giving him interest free loans - or interest free overdrafts. Personally, I don’t see it that way. The banks didn’t lose any of their money - although with the kind of tricky accounting that goes on in the world of big business - a few strokes of the pen can turn profits to losses and losses to profits. But there was no money paid out on bad checks that banks weren’t able to recover - and that would be the only thing that most of us would classify as a loss. And all of the withholding taxes owed were eventually paid.

So nobody is left holding any kind of financial bag. The prosecutors were able to get Creamer to admit that he did a lot of iffy manipulating to keep afloat - but that probably wasn’t much of an issue anyway. The question is whether or not he is a criminal who did criminal things that resulted in harm and so should be punished by a few years in jail.

I think it would be ridiculous to put Creamer in jail - just as I thought it was ridiculous to put Martha Stewart in jail. But prosecutors nowadays seem to want to prove something by going after these kinds of "criminals." I only wish I knew what it was. I wish Creamer luck!!

Saturday, September 3, 2005
9.30 a.m.

Apparently the Chicago Tribune disagrees with me - a not unusual occurrence. Here’s their take on the Creamer affair. Apparently he was prosecuted as much for not being as nice a guy as he claimed to be as for his kiting activities. That of course is a much more serious crime for which he may not see the light of a free day for many a moon. Is that a mixed metaphor or what?

As long as I’m at the computer - a rare event for a Saturday - I should take note that today is the 66th anniversary of the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany. It was 11.15 a.m. in England on September 3, 1939, when Neville Chamberlain went on the radio to deliver his historic speech, announcing that "this country is at war with Germany."

I was a child, but old enough to remember the speech. Even old enough to understand what it meant when the air raid sirens went off just a few minutes after he had finished speaking. It was only a test, but nonetheless a grim introduction to the horror that lay ahead. Not one of my good memories.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I haven’t heard a great deal of discussion about the role of "God" in the Katrina disaster, though I’m sure it’s out there. The usual questions. How could a loving God allow such a thing to happen etc. Just dig out the comments that were made after the December, 2004 Tsunami and recycle them and it’ll probably reflect what is being said about the current disaster, though for the moment it’s probably being drowned out by more practical talk - such as how to save those victims of the hurricane who are still alive - and where the hell is all the help that was supposed to be on the way?

But the religious reflections and arguments will come - and they will come at a time when the arguments about creationism and "intelligent design" and evolution are at a high pitch level in this country.

I don’t know whether or not this sneaky idea of "intelligent design" will ever be taught in our public schools, but it wouldn’t surprise me, considering that more than a quarter of us are evangelical Christians, and many strict creationists. This according to the 2004 National Survey of Religion and Politics released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And of course considering that our President advocates teaching Creationism, which is why I call "intelligent design" sneaky. If one wants to maintain that there is such a thing as "intelligent design, it has to include a "designer" - and we’re back to everything being "created" - which of course is the creationist belief.

It’s really an insult to the intelligence to maintain that you’re not advocating the teaching of religious belief in the classroom just because you don’t come right out and say that "God" is the "intelligent designer." But I wouldn’t be insulted if they’d come right out and say it. I would have no objection to any form of religious belief being discussed in the public schools - as long as it is done in a social studies class. Where I part company with the believers is when they want creationism or intelligent design or any other euphemism for the existence of a God taught in a science class so that it can be considered as a possible alternative to evolution - because as we all know, evolution is only a theory.

Lately, the argument has been raging in letters that people are writing to newspapers. One in particular caught my eye the other day - a response from a strict believer to questions posed by - presumably - a non believer, primarily the question of, if God exists where did he come from?

It’s an interesting question because to be fair to both sides, you have to consider the possibility that it can’t that easily be discussed using ordinary terms of reference. Here are selected quotes from both letters, - easier reproduced here than via a link to each (long) letter - so that the pro and con ideas can be looked at side by side and I can comment on them.

From A.J. Warland - the non-believer:
I was baptized a Catholic. One day at 10 years old, I asked my mother, "Why are there no dinosaurs mentioned in the Bible?"

She did not have an answer. I knew something was terribly wrong.

I decided then and there that the Bible was probably written by some old guys sitting around a campfire trying to come up with good stories like one finds in Aesop's fables or other fairy tales as a means to relate the rights and wrongs of behavior to the masses.

(Such are the thoughts of a 10-year-old.)
And the main question this writer asks.
I do have an important question for creationists: If God supposedly created everything, then who created God?

They have no answer because it lacks logic.

Case closed.

(Unless, of course, they change their minds and decide that God is really an E.T. . . . but that's a whole other debate.)
And here’s selected comments from the response of Joseph G. Le Sanche - a believer.
I feel I must respond to this letter to clarify what one creationist believes.

Warland believes we of faith neither have an answer to God's creation, nor are we logical. People of faith do have an answer, and to us the answer is logical, because we house the most crucial element to this debate.

We have faith.

Faith is logical only if you possess it. Not to possess it negates you from the debate as you are missing a key element of the argument crucial to his existence, as scientific argument only provides for the "con" aspect of this debate.

Who created God? I can say without doubt that he always was.
And of course, the current approach to blunting the evolution argument. Agree that there is such a thing but so what?
I do not discount the theory of evolution; it is not, however, a black-and-white science, and there are a great many holes in the theory, as many evolutionary scientists will attest.

I certainly don't have the answers, but I would like to pose a couple of questions to Warland: Science appears to stop in its research back to the "Big Bang theory." What happened 10 minutes prior to the massive explosion of this sub-atomic particle? Who created the particle? Who created the massive amount of space home to the particle?

The scientists don't know.

Warland doesn't know.

But I do.
I just wish he’d written a couple more words and told us what it is that he knows!!

But seriously, this is not an argument that can be settled with black and white observations. The non believer says that a God who has always existed defies logic. Maybe so, but maybe we don’t have the frame of reference to discuss such a concept logically. We can’t conceive of an entity that had no beginning. I know I can’t. There’s no way to discuss the how and why of such an entity. But by the same token, can a virus that has life of some sort conceive of the human that is its host? Of course you can’t compare a human to a virus. We have the ability to think and to reason. We have the power of observation. But if what we are trying to observe is as far beyond conception to us as we are to a virus, we come to a roadblock before we start out on our journey of discovery. Maybe we just don’t have the proper terms of reference to deal with what we want to think about. Maybe it’s like trying to look at our three dimensional world from a five dimensional point of view. How do you do that?

So I have to conclude that you can’t necessarily prove the non-existence of a God simply because it defies logic. If the believers advanced that sort of argument, I would have to concede that they have a point worth considering and that could make for some fun discussion.

On the other hand, I have to come down more on the side of the logicians than on the believer who says faith is only logical if you possess it and if you don’t possess it, you can’t be part of the pro and con argument because you can only argue the con side!!! If ever there was a more exquisite piece of illogic, I don’t know what it could possibly be.

I guess it makes life easier if you can dispense with any form of chicken and egg consideration and just be content to assume that there’s always been a Jim Purdue and that that’s all you need to know.

But then those PETA activists might come knocking at your door, so there’s no escape from the argument for either side - and it’ll probably go on forever.

I’ll come back to this topic very soon. I’ve been away from it too long.