Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scare Me Once, Shame on You; Scare Me Twice, Shame on Me

I've decided to stop being even the slightest bit scared of  boogeymen conjured up by a government determined to keep me in a state of anxiety and fear. I'm  perfectly capable of scaring myself without government intervention. I'm even scared to complete this post, but I'm soldiering on anyway.

Every time I start to teeter off my Edward Snowden center line, my government -- the one that is supremely pissed with this upstart young man and would eradicate him from planet Earth if it could get its hands on his purloined info. First it was his lack of education -- then it was  possible mental instability, then treason, then he's endangering covert operations around the world, then he's putting lives at risk in the intelligence community then holy cow, this guy's action is gaining traction around the world and how can we get that horse back in the barn?! Now right-wing goofballs have decided that Snowden's a Russian spy. Vladimir Putin, the demonic homophobe who is Russia's president is not a bad guy, but Snowden.

Ever since that horrid September day in 2001when the world watched unprecedented mayhem wreaked on our Atlantic coast, and so-called leaders first labored around the clock to calm us, then for the next decade worked 'round the clock to scare us. Some nitwit tried to blow up his foot and as a result we have to remove our shoes in order to get on a plane. Every time there is a freak accident somewhere, the first comment some talking head tends to mouth is "terrorism is suspected, but hasn't been ruled out."

Really, you nitwits? The ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer company's storage facility in West, Texas -- the one that killed 15 people, scared seniors in a nearby facility half out of their skulls and reduced dozens of homes to rubble -- might not have been due to unregulated storage of explosive material. I mean, what terrorist in his or her right mind is coming to West for anything other than kolaches?

Well, guess what? According to a story that appeared in the Dallas Morning News following the deadly blast, terrorists wouldn't have to look too hard. In their investigation reporters James Drew and Matt Jacob found that "a state law designed to keep ammonium nitrate secured from would-be terrorists sets a lax standard for keeping Texans safe," it said, continuing, "according to the state agency charged with enforcing the 2007 law, it has acted only once to temporarily bar a facility from selling ammonium nitrate that had recurring problems." The story further notes that the Office of the Texas State Chemist and six years of its inspection reports revealed that 62 out of 115 facilities registered to handle ammonium nitrate in fiscal 2013 lacked either secure fencing or locked storage areas; and that 40 facilities that should have had fenced, locked storage areas as required by law were deficient during a 2008-2013 fiscal period.

And you know what else? No laws restricting explosive, toxic material to non-residential areas have been enacted since them.  How is it that we can go batshit over removing shoes at airports (which no other country requires) but not squash states that refuse to protect hazardous sites already violating federal law?

I once heard that Israel offered to help the U.S. develop and implement a national security plan and we declined. I hope that isn't true, because Israelis know a thing or three about dealing with terrorism; they've experienced it time and time again. We know a lot about talking about dealing with terrorism because we experienced a three-in-one horror show more than a decade ago. In the wake of  the initial World Trade Center bombing some bureaucrat decided gay translators were a security risk, so we got rid of people who could translate Middle Eastern dialects. Of course, we'll never know just how much information flow was disrupted -- or will we, if such info is in Snowden's illicit cache and is revealed? I still don't know in absolute terms how I feel about the former analyst's purloined info. I do know that, because of leaks up to now, I have less faith than ever in what my government tells me. That's really frightening, because if you don't trust and respect your government, who, what, do you trust?


OK, That scares me.

Then there are institutions I ought to trust but are proving themselves unworthy. Incorporating tanks into police department fleets is scary. Randomly profiling people because of their ethnic appearance under the guise of "keeping me safe" is unnerving; pathological cops who play fast and loose with their tasers just because they can, frighten me a lot, come to think of it, 'cause they're the same as domestic terrorists; ditto state troopers who run speed traps in small towns and extralegally confiscate cash on trumped-up grounds.

Any prison that holds humans in solitary confinement for months, years, decades, ought to frighten us all -- especially when the reasons are capricious. I remember a time when Amnesty International advocated on behalf of men and women in gulags and other shameful institutions, now American prisons are in the mix, cited for inhumane treatment.

In this respect the terrorists are winning. All they have to do is sit back, relax and watch us scare one another at mall shootings, in church, at the movies, in offices. Scariest of all is the fact that this crap isn't going to get better unless we elect better people to protect us from all terrorists, foreign and domestic. Across the country north to south, east to west, elections are coming up. We can either turn out in great numbers vote to scary people out of office, or let them skate and watch the democratic principles on which this vast nation was based circle the drain, or take the country back from crazy people.

What? you say; crazy?

Well what else is there to call it when the nation's lawmakers say things like (with thanks to "The Cloakroom" by Taegan Goddard):

"I think video games is a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people." — Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

"They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom, and they are absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live." — California Rep. Tim Donnelly (R),

"I refuse to play the game of 'assault weapon.' That's any weapon. It's a hammer. It's the machetes in Rwanda that killed 800,000 people, an article that came out this week, the massive number that are killed with hammers." — Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas).

Crazy isn't limited to politicians either. Following the bizarre Florida shooting in which one movie theater patron shot and killed another because the victim was texting, a Fox News(?) commentator attributed the homicide to "data rage." In other words, machines cause to people become violent after interacting with technology.

Strangely enough, a quote from a person I usually relegate to a seat in the first-class section of the crazy train, actually said something I agree with. He said, "This is a frightening statistic. More people vote in 'American Idol' than vote in American elections."

The speaker? Rush Limbaugh, and that frightens me on three levels -- it's a sad commentary on American voting practices; it is indeed a scary statistic; and if indeed true, I agree.

And that's scary enough for me

This is a frightening statistic. More people vote in 'American Idol' than in any US election.

Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/rushlimbau454803.html#frjVRQCorUP0aYLo.99

It's Time to Stir Things Up. Again.

One day , just one day between now and Easter, I'd like to wake up and not hear of another crazy shooting. Hey, I'll even take a day when I wake up and instead of hearing about someone who got killed, maybe hear about someone who didn't get killed -- especially after the news out of Ohio a week or so ago.

Ohio's attorney general, Thomas Madden,  is quoted as saying (of a botched execution) that while the Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment, it doesn't guarantee a pain-free one. This was in response to  a scheduled execution in which the condemned prisoner took 25 minutes to die after two previously untested drugs were administered.

Reading the article gave me chills, not just because I am personally opposed to capital punishment, but because the cavalier tone emanating from the state's top law enforcement official was so callous. It was also another painful reminder of Texas stunning record of executions -- the nation's highest. Hell, we even executed a man in 2004 who was posthumously pardoned, which did nothing to restore him, but, given it happened in Texas, the pardon was a step. It  happened in spite of  the governor's efforts to sabotage the investigation that led to proof of the  executed man's innocence (http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Cameron_Todd_Willingham_Wrongfully_Convicted_and_Executed_in_Texas.php)

Of course, there's always the happy news that while Texas ranks number one in executions nationwide, the United States is keeping company with Iran , (where public stoning is still on the books), North Korea,  Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.  Oh, I almost forgot: Afghanistan and China.
According to Amnesty International, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty. In 2012, Latvia abolished the death penalty for all crimes (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777460.html).  Latvia, folks, Latvia.
I can hear Molly musing to herself, rhetorically asking how much meaner, how much more indifferent to human suffering we're going to be as a nation before we implode. I mean, don't we want to be compared for something other than school shootings, wars and poverty? Oh, and how about health care -- especially woman's health? Remember Texas governor Perry's  irrational refusal to accept billions from the federal government that could fund care for those least able to afford it?. By the way, we're talking a $79 billion -- with a 'b' --  all because it would also have covered birth control and abortions. This, by the way, is the same Perry is who wangled an invite to the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland ostensibly to participate in a discussion of  health care.

Who says there's not an abundance of irony left in the world.

Increasingly, the foxes are in charge of the hen house and we are revealing ourselves to be the chickens.

I look at an Austin City Council that  won't  challenge developers to include affordable housing units in construction plans, all the while shedding crocodile tears over the continual displacement of Afro-Americans and Hispanics from Austin's remaining integrated east side. East Austin now has a cachet sorely missing a mere decade ago. This part of town, where I choose to live, was at one time home to  neighborhoods populated by working-class blacks, browns and a few whites with shared economic circumstances. They weren't rich, but they were abjectly poor. There were even trailers for homeless men and women trying  once to get on their feet. The city is still dithering over where to put the trailers.

Meanwhile I'm trying to figure out how a state  that puts such a high premium on religion can't see its way clear to address this issue. I mean, if Pope Francis can confiscate a greedy German bishop's property and convert it to a soup kitchen and homeless shelter, surely, surely, more of Austin's church community can tap into parishioner conscience to openly advocate for change.

I had lunch recently with a friend  who suggested that Austin has outgrown itself, that the zaniness that gave rise to a "Keep Austin Weird" characterization is drying up bit by bit. This is not to say David  can't still kick Goliath's ass. A year or so ago the Broken Spoke, and iconic honky-tonk Austin institution faced down the usual greedy-Gus developers who threatened to shut it down  in order to build a parking lot for yet another megalith multi-unit something or other. Long story short, the megalith is up but the honky tonk still stands. Locals came to the Spoke's aid, loud and clear.

So there is still spirit left in Austin, but  there are too many who feel  so disenfranchised that they've just adjourned to their easy chairs and called it quits. So hear this: if  all who say "my vote doesn't count" or "my letter doesn't count" were to write a note or storm the polls the way the French stormed the Bastille, we'd have one helluva revolution.

With the seventh anniversary of Molly's death just a few days away the corner, I know she'd be thrilled to see grass roots stirring it up.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What Would Madiba Do In 2014?

The 24-hour news cycle has swallowed screaming headlines about the presidential selfie, Cuban handshake, pouting FLOTUS and crazy interpreter, only to be supplanted by lower-grade craziness: an inane debate about the ethnicity of a mythical North Pole figure, and GQ quotes from a semi-literate, backwoods philosopher unsophisticated in the ramifications of speaking candidly in the 21st-century.

Now comes a reasonable question: If we subscribe to the notion that Mandela's spirit is lingering long enough to see what we've absorbed from his remarkable commitment to reconciliation, what is he seeing?

Are we any more polite?

Are we trying any harder to understand viewpoints different from our own?

Do we hold the door open for someone - or thank them for holding it for us?

Will we speak up when someone tells a racist joke or  incorporates a racial slur into casual conversation?

What will we change about ourselves as a result of having shared life in the same century as the man who survived 27 years of solitary confinement because he believed people must do better to be better?

Will any major news organization take a closer look at the draconian anti-gay laws recently passed in Uganda to see if they can identify any right-wing members of Congress involved in shaping that legislation in any way, shape or form? What will we do to make them responsive to us?

How will we try to remedy some small piece of the craziness? 

Can we? 

Will we call to account  a knock-kneed, do-nothing Congress that boasts a "compromise" that reduces funding for poor people, decreases health-care allotments for military personal (dragged into  a super-stupid war by a do-next-to-nothing president), and increased allocations to an already overstuffed defense budget? 

Cops can now get search warrants based on what they think a subject might do. How do we feel about that?

And let's take a momentary breather from beating up on Southern rednecks.

Executives who ought to know better still pay that woman from Alaska to run around  loose, spewing word salad when she ought to be in a Wasilla remedial reading class -- or at best in her local Toastmasters chapter.(By the way, where is Mrs Family Values' family these days?)
Although the ruckus has settled down, we shouldn't forget that sordid glimpse we got into Cheney family dysfunction and make sure we aren't of that ilk.

The Republicans' great white hope is starting to feel hot water creeping up his ankles over an alleged, but nonetheless stunningly juvenile, retaliatory strike against a politician who didn't support his recent re-election campaign. 

Gov. Chris Christie is said to have shut down two lanes of the George Washington Bridge, a major thoroughfare into Manhattan from the Garden State -- and to have shut down said lanes at precisely the point at which the recalcitrant mayor's town is situated. 

Then we have the arrogance of Michael Bloomberg in full flower, this time in a dismissive response to a heart-wrenching five-part New York Times story about the resilience of "Dasani,"  a beautiful 11-year-old homeless black girl in Harlem. 

Obviously unable to hear himself as others heard him during a press conference, Bloomberg reportedly quipped -- when a  reporter implied an indifference to the plight of New York's poor,  “Your smirk shows you haven’t been outside the country and don’t know what poverty means elsewhere...."This kid (Dasani) was dealt a bad hand. I don't know quite why. That's just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not."

All righty then, Mr. Mayor. You are absolutely correct. Some of us are not as lucky as you are. Sir.

Oh, and let's not ignore another north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line incident: Renisha McBride, the severely intoxicated, unarmed 19-year-old who was fatally shot in the face at close range by a Michigan homeowner who decided she was an intruder. She was seeking help following an accident. (The good news is her shooter has been indicted and will go to trial; none of that "stand-your-ground" nonsense in Michigan.)

So, WWMD? What would Madiba do? Here on the eve of 2014, with Mandela barely a few weeks gone, is a question: How will we pay his memory forward? What one thing will we see through 2014, or will commitment dissipate like the 24-hour news cycle?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Share the Wealth

Standing outside of me, looking on, I appreciate more and more my father's admonition to never measure wealth in terms of money, but memories instead. By that standard I've come to realize what a wealthy woman I am after all. Dipping back into that treasure trove is a scene from the last big nuclear disarmament march from the American military base in Aldermaston, England, to London.

It was 1963 and I had only been married a few months. We lived in the Midlands where my husband was on the faculty at the University of Leicester. Hundreds of protesters became thousands as we neared London. Along the way we stopped and joined a group that had surrounded a young man in saffron robes. We had seen several Buddhists along the way, so we joined in and became a part of a conversation about why peace was important but probably not attainable, due to man's relentless folly in pursuing war in the name of peace. I later learned we had been in the company of the new Dali Lama. Yes, the same one who travels the world today preaching nonviolence. Somewhere is a photograph, if my daughter hasn't lost it. It meant, she once said, more to her than money.

 Later that same year, several union organizing friends would receive hefty jail, then prison sentences for going to South Africa to demand release of Nelson Mandela who had been imprisoned the year before. A few month's later, I would duck out of a play rehearsal and nip across to a pub for a pint, only to be met with stony silence and the announcement that John Kennedy had been assassinated.

The following summer my mother announced, as was her wont, that she was coming to visit, and that she had already made arrangements for both of us to meet one of her friends in Paris. Biting the bullet, as was my wont, I agreed -- and would have more enthusiastic had she bothered to tell me that we were meeting a family friend of many years, poet Langston Hughes. He occasionally sent books inscribed to me on our shared February birthday. Seeing Paris with him was an adventure beyond measure. Our outings never began before 10 p.m. and usually ended 'round about sunup, having made the rounds on the left bank, Place Pigalle, the Marais and ending at place much loved by ex-pats, Chez Bricktop. Owned by one Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, the nickname commemorated her flaming red hair in a color found nowhere in nature. Chez Bricktop was the rage in Paris for decades.

We had ribs and potato salad at Gabby & Haynes, where anyone who was anyone in the jazz/blues world ate sooner or later. It was the oldest American restaurant in Paris, owner by a black American ex-GI who married a Frenchwomen and decided he'd had enough of second-class citizenship in the U.S. The night -- rather, the morning -- we went, bluesman Memphis Slim was sitting at the bar, waiting for a table. Uncle Langston, a perennial fixed cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, introduced us. Mother, without any sense of how out of place she looked in spectator pumps and white gloves, extended her hand and said, somewhat haughtily, "How do you do, Mr. Slim." She had no idea who he was. He looked at her through a smoky haze and said, "Hey baby; nice gloves." The look of complete befuddlement on her face was priceless.

A few years later, at my mother's insistence, I bundled up and dragged myself to London to meet yet another of her friends who was stopping there en route to Russia, where he would abandon the United States for life in Russia -- returning once he found life there not as he had envisioned. When I arrived at the flat Paul Robeson shared with his wife, they had tea and cookies waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about music and how I liked living in England and whether I planned to stay there. He said I should, since black people would never have the respect they deserved in America.

Long acknowledged as an authentic renaissance man, he was still smarting from the treatment he received after being cited as a subversive. Life in the '50s was much worse then for those leaning left. Of course, NSA didn't have unfettered access to our conversations then either. When I returned to the U.S. in the late '60s and became a reporter I got to meet all manner of interesting people, including the soft-spoken Miriam Makeba, who was our houseguest for two nights when she came to St. Louis for two concerts with Hugh Masekela. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee belting belter out blues in our living room. Cab Callaway beat sounds out or Acrosonic upright that I never would have if I practiced day and night for a year, which, of course, I wouldn't. I remember Duke Ellington asking for seconds at one of the all-night chitlin' parties my parents had.

A favorite photograph of mine features my father and me with Martin Luther King, Jr. It hangs on my office wall, and the story of how I met Malcolm X still amuses (he was Malcolm Little then, and his nickname, Red," came from his genuinely red hair). A restaurant operated by Black Muslims was a few doors down from my father's newspaper office, and "Red" was in the neighborhood to see how the business was going.

If I hadn't been a reporter I might never had known what a nice guy Sen. Robert Dole is; that both David Brinkley and G. Gordon Liddy, while very different in character, had a wonderfully droll sense of humor; that Nina Simone really was a very strange bird; and that Lena Horne was a kind and gentle person when she wanted to be, which was more often than a lot of people knew; that Whoopi Goldberg once asked my daughter to babysit.

My heart has broken several times since that Aldermaston march. No one like to see a marriage dissolve. Langston Hughes died three years after our fun in the City of Lights; Bricktop died on my birthday in 1984. Duke Ellington and my father are long gone, and each death has etched a notch of sorrow in my heart. But if it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger I'm in good shape: Memories remain, but none will last as long or be as treasured as the knowledge that for all my life I shared space on planet earth with a truly extraordinary man I never met.

The closest I came was knowing men and women to went to a troubled country in 1963 on an unsuccessful mission to have him released from the equivalent of America's Alcatraz. He then spent 27 years in unspeakable incarceration. If I could spend the wealth of spirit I've accrued through knowing, and knowing of, wonderful people, I could probably underwrite a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

Instead all I can do is donate when and where I can and hope that others, in memory of someone who has touched their lives in a meaningful way, will also give in Nelson Mandela's memory.