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Friday, November 26, 2010

So much nonsense and stupidity abounds , it becomes increasingly difficult to decide on which aspect of the "passing parade" to comment on any given day. The idiocy of the TSA’s "scans and feels" is one that needs endless comment - until it stops- is just one example - but for today I want to make a few observations - long overdue and that should be made by any serious thinker in the United States - about freedom of speech and what its limitations should be - if any.

I’m a fairly regular viewer of MSNBC and I’ve been observing their ridiculous "rules" about on air personalities making political donations with increasing disbelief. Apparently, this network has a work rule entitled "Citizenship by Permission Only." O.K. They have no such rule. But that’s what it amounts to when they can suspend without pay - first Keith Olbermann and now Joe Scarborough - for making political donations without permission!! Not that they would actually prevent anyone from making such contributions under threat of dismissal - that I am sure would be illegal and grounds for a law suit - but they insist that they be informed in advance of any on air personality making a contribution - which, the way I interpret it, amounts to an infringement of their constitutional right to free speech.

At the other end of the spectrum are Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and an assortment of far right radio and television motor mouths who, operating under the protection of the first amendment to the constitution, say anything they like about anybody - lie about people with impunity and not only make political contributions without the kind of restrictions imposed on employees of MSNBC - but use their bully pulpits to promote fund raisers for their preferred political candidates. And nobody stops them

Then there are politicians and candidates for political office who lie about their opponents and about government programs and about economic conditions and security threats and scientific research - and a general assortment of yahoos who, while not having the advantage of a national bully pulpit, nonetheless manage to spout lies and hatred in the public arena - and for the most part, nothing happens to them either. That good old first amendment has a wide umbrella under which this assorted array of irresponsible nitwits have blithely been sheltering for decades. And I say it’s time to fold up that convenient canopy and expose this ancient protection to the elements of truth and responsibility.

I am sure that when the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in December, 1791, no one could have predicted how its few words would be used and abused a couple of centuries in the future. If they had, they might have been a little more specific than
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
They might have added something about the application of common sense. Yes, there have been some limitations placed on that freedom since the time of the First Amendment - but for the most part, "speech" has not only run amok in the United States, but has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as a right for corporations and secret financial entities to BUY United States elections!

In Germany, people have the right to express themselves freely. They can be as critical of their government as we are permitted to be. But if they publicly deny that the Holocaust ever took place, they can go to jail. In the United States, Holocaust deniers could flood the airways with opinion and advertising and while the good folk would raise their hands in horror and condemn the lies - nothing would happen to the hate mongering bigots. No U.S. law against being a bigot. Over in England, speech is as free as it is here - but the Brtits do what they have to do to curb "speech" that is dangerous or harmful. For example, at one time during "The Troubles" - the BBC was banned from putting the Sinn Fein’s Gary Adams voice on the air. It couldn’t have happened here. That First Amendment thing would have stopped it The Brits also have laws that make it tough on politicians who lie. Phil Woolas was a Labour Party MP who has just been kicked out of Parliament after an "Election Court" - we have no such thing - ruled that he had lied about an opponent in his campaign literature. He’s appealing, but his chances of prevailing are slim. Can you imagine the chaos if we had something of that system here? Would anyone ever get elected or be allowed to hold his or her seat?

Of course we could never have an "Election Court" here, with the power to depose an election winner who was found to have lied. Nor could we ever enact an ad hoc speech restricting law to deal with a particular problem that was deemed to be harmful to the good of the nation. The good old First Amendment would prevent it. But does that mean that we should do nothing about how the noble ideas of the framers have been distorted beyond recognition? We Americans seem to have no confidence in our ability to use common sense when it comes to what should and shouldn’t be protected as free speech. We all agree that yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is a free speech no no, but surely the daily outpouring of hatred, bigotry, slander, false accusation and totally imagined "facts" that are spewed out from dawn to dusk on hundreds of radio stations and on cable television - in addition to assorted hate groups - such as the nuts that show up at the funeral of fallen service men and women with their disgusting signs - are just as dangerous - if not more dangerous than shouting fire. We have this idea that if we restrict any kind of free speech, we will have started a journey down a slippery slope to unrestricted prohibition of all kinds of speech. It doesn’t happen in free nations around the world. Why should it happen here?

Here are a handful of exceptions to free speech that some of the world's democracies have imposed on their citizens.

In India, propaganda for war , incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion is not protected free speech. Also, Indian citizens, while they can appeal supreme court decisions, can’t criticize those decisions or they can go to the poky for three months. In France, you can’t write or say anything that incites racial or religious hatred - and as in Germany, Holocaust denial is not protected free speech. The French also can’t promote the idea of drug use. It’s a criminal offense. Not for using drugs - just for saying that you should be free to use them. In Sweden, you’re in trouble if you sound off against someone because of their race or religion or sexual orientation. Maybe you could get one the air here and say that you consider a nappy haired queer to be the lowest form of animal life and maybe get a raft of complaints or lose a sponsor. Just don’t try it in Oslo. You’d be breaking a law. A sensible law.

The last time I looked, these countries were still free democracies where free speech could be read and heard loud and clear. You might have noticed recently that the French didn’t feel any free speech restriction when they were mad about the idea of having to work beyond the age of 60. O.K. We’re not India or France or Germany or Sweden or the United Kingdom - but you have to ask if these countries have more confidence in the strength of their democracies than we do. We say that virtually all speech should be free and out in the open so that all can see and hear and speech that a majority finds unacceptable can be balanced out by other voices. Unfortunately, this is not the case - particularly when a large segment of the population only listens to one set of voices and is influenced by and acts upon their suggestions - directly stated or implied. I’m not suggesting that the sort of speech that I would classify as "hate" or "harmful" be banned by law. You can’t control what goes on behind closed doors - of a person’s home or a church or any other private gathering place. But we have ample evidence from around the world that keeping that kind of speech out of the print and electronic media is not harmful to a democracy and in fact makes the air less toxic and easier to breathe.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

As Barrack Obama prepares to begin the second half of his first - and perhaps his only term, many people who voted for him, including a core group of Democrats who consider themselves "progressives," are urging him to accept a situation that he has repeatedly denied by his actions - that it is impossible to work with Republicans whose major and often stated goal is to work to prevent him from winning a second term - and to act accordingly. I hope he does and I hope he starts by looking back to the 2004 speech at the Democratic National convention that launched him onto the national stage and admit to himself that while it may have been stirring rhetoric to declare that we were not a collection of red states and blue states and that there wasn’t a liberal America and a conservative America - just the United States of America - it wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. We’re not only a collection of blue and red states but a collection of blue, red and in recent times, purple people eating people. There are mad men and women among us and they have infiltrated and to some measure are in partial control of the asylum front office.

I know that it’s the patriotic thing to say - that we are one, undivided nation, but in reality, we’re more like50 different countries sharing the same land mass. I mean, how "united" can we be when, for example, we have 50 different sets of laws - where a crime committed in one spot can land you in jail for 20 years but do the same dirty deed a few hundred yards away - maybe even a few feet away -and the penalty can be death. More likely if that place a few feet away is Texas. Of course Texas is a state that may secede any day now and you might get blown away just trying to cross the border. I’ll tell you this much. There are states - I won’t name them - but you can probably guess their names - that I wouldn’t traverse on rural roads in my car with Illinois license plates.

In some states, losing a party primary election for a national office means you’re out of the race - but not in others. Witness Joe Lieberman of the Joe Lieberman party and Lisa Murkowski of the Lisa Murkowski party of Alaska. Rand Paul just got himself elected to the United States Senate from Kentucky. Could you imagine this nut case being elected from - say, Oregon? Chuck Grassley ran around all year telling the people of Iowa that the Healthcare Reform legislation included "Death Panels" - a ridiculous lie aimed at the feeble minded. Iowans just re-elected him for a sixth term. Do you think the people of California would have elected someone like that to represent their interests in the U.S. Senate? You don’t have to answer. The answer is no. The people who elect the Grassleys and the Pauls are like aliens from a distant planet to the people of Oregon and California. Not that all Oregonians and Californians s are endowed with superior intellectual powers, but enough of them are at least sane enough to prevent a Paul or a Grassley or a DeMint from being elected from their states.

But as I’ve said, beyond the disunited condition of our fifty states, we have, spread throughout them, albeit more in the Red than the Blue states - the purple people eater people. These are the people who believe that President Obama raised their taxes - which actually were lowered for most of us. These are people who believe the President is a Muslim and/or wasn’t born in the USA. These are people who don’t believe in evolution but do believe in the Biblical description of creation. And these are people who believe that Saddam Huseein had something to do with the 9/11 attack. These are the kind of people who want a merger between church and state and who believe there is such a thing as "The Rapture." They are the enemies of rational discourse and reasoned governance and most of them are the voters who have handed power in the House of Representatives to Republicans and have increased their presence in the Senate.

I don’t know if it’s reasonable to assert that we are as divided as a people as we were at the time of the Civil War, but Jimmy Carter asserted just that a while ago, and while I have differences with the former president, particularly with his one sided views of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the fact that conservatives were quick to condemn and ridicule his comments, leads me to think that he is close to being right. The divisions in this country seem to be just fine with the ultra right wing. They thrive on it - and their "spokespeople" - Limbaugh, Beck and the rest, keep piling on the fuel that keeps the furnace of hate and distrust and ultimately division - burning.

As I said at the beginning of these few comments on the state of the nation, which I‘m sure the President will say is in fine shape or at least resilient enough to return to being in fine shape when he gives the State of the Nation address in January, I hope that by that time, he will finally have resigned himself to the truth of what he has to face in the second half of his term - a disparate collection of blue and red states and purple people eating voters - the latter two thirds of that trio being determined to destroy him, no matter what the cost to the nation they purport to "love" - and to act accordingly. As in saying NO to the party of "No." No,I will not cooperate with you in my own destruction.

One final thought about Jimmy Carter’s assertion that we are more divided than we were at the time of the Civil War. As I’ve indicated, those comments were widely condemned by right wing media - though I don’t recall seeing much from the "conventional" or even the "liberal" media. At Jon Stewart’s "Rally to Restore Sanity" however, he disagreed with the idea that we’re that divided, saying that the images reflected back at us by our political and media process are false. We’re basically people who cooperate with each other, he said, despite our differences. We make compromises and we get along. I think he just doesn’t get out enough. It’s hard to view the world through thick studio walls. The truth I believe is somewhere in between his view and President Carter’s. But we need to be watchful and make damn sure that we don’t make the mistake that the Germans did and let madness become a substitute for governance. And don’t say it couldn’t happen here. If you listen to some of our governors and other elected officials, it’s already happening.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I don’t want to dwell on the mid term election and what it means for too long. There are too many other things going on in the world that are intriguing or tragic or hopeful. I’ll leave post election analysis to the pundits who get paid to look and sound wise - unless of course they’re on Fox or right wing radio - in which case they’re paid to look and sound crazy. But I do want to pen a few words about voters that got a lot of attention by those pundits before and after the election - the so called independents.

I like to think of myself as being an "independent" voter. That is to say, I’m not a registered member of any political party and I can’t be counted on as an automatic vote for candidates with either a "D" or an "R" after their names. I do however have some general political beliefs that are best reflected by one of the parties at the national level - and that is the Democratic party. That doesn’t necessarily apply at the local - that is, the city, county and state levels. I have voted for Republican and independent candidates for a variety of elective offices over the years, including the election of a few days ago. But when it comes to national elections - for president, for senator and for representative in congress, I vote in concert with my basic philosophy - as I imagine any thoughtful and serious person does. But I have no idea what it is that motivates a so called "independent" to vote one way or another. "Independents moved away from Obama this time around" said the pundits in their post election analyses , though he wasn’t on the ballot anywhere. I beg to differ. Dilettantes may have switched their support away from House and Senate candidates who have been supporters of the President and his agenda. That doesn’t, in my mind, make them political "independents."

The basic principles of the two major parties have remained fairly constant for the past few decades The Democratic Party brought us such things as Social Security, Medicare and the minimum wage. Republicans for the most part were in opposition. Democrats have been in favor of tax and social program policies aimed at improving the lot of the lower and middle classes. Republicans, for the most part, favor policies that benefit the rich, believing in a "trickle down" theory that will benefit all economic levels of society. "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" would eventually be repealed by a Democratic majority. It will be blocked by a Republican majority. The make up of the Supreme Court is of supreme importance - as demonstrated by the Citizens United decision - and it is likely that one or two justices will retire, either during the current or the next presidential term. Without a veto proof Democratic majority in the Senate, the chances of Obama - or any Democratic president being able to appoint a justice who would put people above corporate "people" are slim and none. Democrats believe that government has a positive role to play in the lives of American citizens. Republicans believe that the private sector is better equipped to solve most of the nation’s problems. I could go on and on, but I’m sure all of this is familiar to you. After all, your reading my opinions and that automatically identifies you as a sophisticate.

These basic principles and platforms of the two parties change little from one two year cycle to the next - but we are asked to believe that so called "independent" voters can switch their support from one set of principles to the other from one two year period to the next - just as easily as they might change hair styles or their color preferences in shirts or pajamas. Some of course may believe the oft cited myth that there is no real difference between the parties and so when, in their mind, things aren’t going well, the way to change things for the better is to vote against the candidate they voted for two years ago and switch their support to someone new. They apparently are comfortable voting for a pro choice representative who supports the graduated tax system on one election day - and switch their support two years later to someone who would make abortion illegal even in cases of rape and incest and is for a flat tax. The pundits don’t seem to see anything wrong with this, but to me it’s illogical.

It’s one thing to change your basic political beliefs over a period of time. We’ve had presidents who have started adult life as members of one party, only to be elected to the presidency as the standard bearer of another party. And there are periods in history when voters who could usually be counted on to support the candidate or candidates of a particular party will do a 180and support the other party’s candidate or candidates. The phrase "Reagan Democrats" comes to mind as does the one term election of a Republican in the late Dan Rostenkowski’s district after he was indicted. But voters who switch between parties from one election to the next - and then maybe back again - are, in my opinion, less independent than they are without core political beliefs. Or as I said above "Dilettantes" - who did themesleves and the country no great favor expressing their "independence" on November 2.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010
And Guy Fawkes Day is Just Around the Corner…

More years ago than I care to record here, I was doing a midday radio talk show out of what used to be the famed Kungsholm restaurant in Chicago, home of the world renowned puppet opera. Old timers I’m sure will remember the place with fondness. What brings it to mind today is my memory of another election, similar to the one that took place yesterday - and the rant that I unfolded on the air about American citizens who had neglected to vote. "Shame on you who call yourself Americans" I said those many years ago. And I repeat the same words today. Shame on you for allowing what could become the most disastrous two years in modern U.S. history.

The numbers are frightening. Illinois is a prime example. Two years ago, Obama won the state over John McCain with 3,319,277 votes to McCain’s 1, 981,158 - with about 70,000 going to other candidates. Yesterday, Obama’s old senate seat was won by Republican Mark Kirk with 1,750,993 votes to 1,668,690 for Democrat Alex Giannoulias with about 200,000 votes going to two other candidates. Voting traditionally drops off in non-presidential years - but look at the numbers. Kirk’s total was within striking distance of McCain’s presidential bid. Ginnoulias had about HALF the 2008 vote for Obama. Some former Obama voters may have voted for the Green Party candidate , some even for Kirk - but the rest obviously stayed home - obviously more than a million of them!!

Who didn’t stay home - in Illinois - and in just about every other state, were dyed in the wool Republicans and brain dead Tea Party voters. We can be thankful that they didn’t manage to burden us with Sharon Angel in Nevada or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware or Ken Buck in Colorado. But Wisconsin voters who must have eaten too aged and too much cheese rejected one of the finest members of the Senate in Russ Feingold - a straight talker who could work with Republicans - as he did in co-authoring the McCain-Feingold law - now virtually destroyed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

So I can’t blame just voters who didn’t vote. I also have to blame the low information and unthinking voters who voted against their own interests. How many of them who were so willing to cast out Democratic Representatives and Senators would be happy seeing Social Security and Medicare privatized? How many are happy with the idea of billions of dollars being spent on campaign advertising from unknown sources? How many think it’s a good idea to let millions of unemployed fend for themselves after a few months of benefits? I could go on and on but I’ll cite just one example of the kind of people who voted and who I think deserve blame, not congratulations, for yesterday’s outcome. On my ballot were lists of judges up for retention. I don’t know how judges are elected and/or retained in other states, but I’m talking about Cook County, Illinois, where elected judges need a 60% approval from voters to retain their positions. It’s a long list of judges and most voters I am sure have never heard of most of them. Local newspapers publish their endorsements, which some people look to for help. But several bar associations provide assessments of the judges which are readily available if you look for them on line. The bar associations in the area all agreed on a number of judges who should not be retrained. Sure enough, these were judges who received less "yes" votes than the rest - but all were retained with a few points above 60%. Their low retention votes were a reflection of those of us who took the time to think and investigate before we voted. The fact that it wasn’t low enough is a reflection of another low. Too many low information voters whose thoughtless votes can result in harm to the democracy that guarantees their right to vote. And shame on them too.

But I have to assign a portion of blame to President Obama. Even with Republicans voting no, no and no on everything for these first 22 months, he was able to pass some significant legislation - but the problem with most of it, including the vaunted healthcare bill, was that it was complicated and poorly explained and that lack of understanding probably made a major contribution to yesterday’s losses. Years ago, radio personality and motivator Earl Nightingale recorded a famous motivational program for salesmen, originally distributed on vinyl records, called Keep it Simple Salesman - KISS for short - but also referred to by many as Keep it Simple Stupid. Obama may or may not have heard of Nightingale - he was at his height of fame and success around the time the President was born - but if he’d been able to use a dose of the philosophy Nightingale was selling, he might have been able to make many more Americans understand that the country is on the right track after avoiding a depression that could have rivaled that of the great depression, and not have so many voters confused and vaguely angry.

One thing that Obama shouldn’t be blamed for is not being the Messiah that so many people who voted for him thought he was. He promised much and they expected him to be able to wave a magic wand and, among other things, have Gitmo closed and shuttered, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" repealed, healthcare with a public option and without any mandates and lobbyists banned from within the Beltway. None of this happened and when his supporters came to realize that he was no more than a mere mortal - they declined to be persuaded to vote for people that he asked them to vote for - and right now they probably wouldn’t vote for him either.

But Obama should be blamed for leaving his base supporters with the impression that he just didn’t understand the nature of the opposition and for wasting way too much time during this past two years on fruitless efforts to get cooperation from one or two Republicans on various issues. He never seemed able to make it clear what he wanted and where he stood and from what point he would not retreat. It was never really clear what he was truly passionate about other than trying to bring everyone together. Some of us never forgave him for welcoming Joe Lieberman back to the Democratic party or for supporting the likes of Arlen Spector and Blanche Lincoln in their primary campaigns against the wishes of a majority of his base. Even today at his press conference, he was playing Mr. Kumbaya - reaching out to those who would destroy him. In some of his recent campaign speeches for various candidates , he called attention to "Speaker Elect" Boehner’s assertion that "now was not the time for compromise" and to Mitch McConnell’s stated priority of defeating him in 2012. It would have given some of his core supporters heart had he mentioned that today and while saying that he was willing to compromise, that it would be difficult to reach any kind of compromise with people who start out with that kind of attitude.

Mr. Obama is either getting horrible political advice from people who are paid to give him that kind of advice - or it just isn’t in his nature to say to the Republicans what they are saying to him - that there are issues on which he will not compromise and to draw a line in the sand. To take if not a page - a chapter, a line, a word from the spirit of FDR or Harry Truman. Without that kind of change in his management style for the next two years, he may well be what he once said he was willing to be to accomplish what he thought needed accomplishing - a one term president. The trouble is that the Republicans may be successful in destroying what he has already accomplished and prevent much else from being accomplished between now and the end of his first - and perhaps only term.