@

 

Mitt Romney is staking his presidential candidacy on his long business career and the values reflected in the photograph below, taken from a Bain Capital Christmas card in the 1980s. If recent polls are any indication, a majority of American voters might be ready to buy in.

Recently, I have been struck by how misinformed many Americans are about their Constitutional rights. The debate over the new federal rule requiring most employers, including religious-affiliated ones, to provide free contraceptive care to employees has brought this into sharp focus.

The U.S. House of Representatives is debating legislation that could fundamentally change what types of content we’re allowed to access over the Internet, and the resulting outrage has sparked a heated ideological debate.  But for some reason the media isn’t talking about it.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA, as it’s widely called) was introduced in October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). It’s a boldly ambitious plan to give copyright holders — and the courts, by proxy — better tools to fight the profligacy of online piracy originating from foreign websites.

In a nutshell: SOPA would give copyright holders the power to file lawsuits against sites that they believe are aiding in the pilfering of their goods, be it music, movies, TV shows, video games, or the distribution of tangible, counterfeit consumables. Judges could file injunctions against Internet Service Providers or individual websites, forcing them to block access to foreign sites deemed in violation of U.S. copyright law.

Included in the bill is an immunity provision for Internet providers that proactively remove “rogue” sites from their registries. In other words, SOPA attacks Internet piracy not by going after sites that create and supply nefarious content, but by censoring ISPs and search engines that enable their availability, knowingly or not. Specific targets include payment providers (like PayPal) that facilitate transactions with spurious sites, and ad services (like Google’s AdSense) that promote copyright infringing content in search results. The bill’s authors are aware that many of the Internet’s biggest bootleggers operate overseas. Because attorneys general can’t round up foreign DVD pirates, they’ll instead punish U.S. sites that facilitate a portion of their profits.

SOPA currently has thirty-one Congressional sponsors. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (better known as PIPA), was passed but is currently on hold and awaiting further debates. Given the noted support that SOPA has received from both political parties, it’s important to mention that the divide over the bill is economic rather than political. Supporters and detractors comprise a who’s who in the supply chain of the digital commerce world: on the former side you’ll find virtually every U.S. broadcast and major media company, as well as manufacturers like Sony, video game giant Capcom, comic publisher Marvel, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America, to name a few; on the latter is a groundswell of opposition from creators, artists, grassroots advocates, and Internet leaders like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, Reddit, and non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the ACLU.

Supporters of the proposed bill believe that SOPA gives copyright holders some much needed legal teeth to curb online theft.  Opponents—and I count myself among them—argue that this is yet another example of the government’s increasing tendency to provision our freedoms under the auspices of safety. It gives the U.S. Department of Justice unprecedented authority to trowel the Internet for content it doesn’t like, in effect taking on the role of content arbiter.

To say that the opposition has been vocal would be an understatement. In January, Wikipedia announced it would shut down the English portion of its site for 24 hours in protest of the legislation. [Happening 1/18, at the time of publication.] Co-founder Jimmy Wales also said he’d pull all Wikimedia content from hosting company Go Daddy’s servers in opposition to their SOPA advocacy (Go Daddy has since rescinded its support of SOPA, claiming it now opposes the bill). Social site Reddit has staged a boycott against pro-SOPA companies, targeting anyone who’s in favor of its passage. Unlikely political bedfellows such as Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore have joined forces to denounce the bill.

Given the historic magnitude of what’s being proposed inside the Beltway, it’s decidedly unusual that these bills — and the deluge of opposition — are being almost completely ignored by major U.S. television news networks. A January Media Matters report claims that SOPA and PIPA have received “virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming.” The report, based on Lexis-Nexis database searches that analyzed newscasts dating back to when SOPA was introduced in October, found that ABC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC devoted a sum total of zero time to this issue during prime evening newscasts.

Some networks bore minor exceptions. In December, CNN featured a single snippet on The Situation Room that mentioned SOPA. And while Fox News hasn’t touched the issue, host Andrew Napolitano broached the subject on sister channel Fox Business Network.  Otherwise, major broadcast news outlets have responded to the possible passage of one of the most historic media and copyright bills in American history with complete, unanimous silence.

It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that the parent companies responsible for this blackout are, without exception, noted SOPA supporters. News Corporation (which owns Fox), Time Warner (which owns CNN), Viacom (which owns CBS), Walt Disney Corporation (which owns ABC and ESPN), and Comcast/NBCUniversal are all current advocates of the legislation. The media’s blatant disregard for the issue shifts from coincidental to damning when you consider the obvious relationship between the services these companies provide and what they seek to gain from SOPA’s passage.  Faced with the harrowing realization that their old business models are obsolete, U.S. media companies are attempting to quell hemorrhaging revenues and maintain market share not by adapting to the age, but by stifling online commercial and social behaviors. It’s the equivalent of burning down the house to protect one’s property from theft.

And speaking of theft, it should be mentioned that piracy is indeed a real issue.  Copyright holders should be able to protect their intellectual property and make money from their work.  The problem with SOPA is the means by which it would attempt to achieve these ends.

Here’s what’s wrong with it:

  • First, it’s unconstitutional. Our ability to access information—whether it’s in a book or on a website—is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Moreover, in its current proposed state, judges can grant a court order against sites if a copyright holder presents evidence regarding a violation, without representation from the defendant. Owners of sites accused of enabling pirated content can have legal action taken against them without even being aware of it. SOPA denies legal recourse and violates the principles of due process.
  • Second, it could prove economically disastrous. Our nascent Internet advertising industry (like Google’s hallmark AdWords program, where sponsored links germane to a user’s Google query appear next to search results) could collapse under this new model. The pro-business rhetoric coming from those supporting the bill is a joke, considering the revenue and job-killing possibilities it possesses in its current form.
  • Third, it’s crudely ineffectual. The practice of “IP blocking” is akin to relocating a store’s address so potential customers can’t find it, but this is a laughably temporary salve. Offending sites can simply create a new domain name or enlist a browser plug-in to redirect users to a new site, practices many of these sites already employ.
  • Finally, it’s sweepingly broad; it goes further than what’s necessary to combat sites peddling counterfeit goods. The specific tactics this bill proposes — pruning entries from the Internet’s library of addresses — threatens important security protocols, meddles with the core infrastructure of the Internet, and ultimately undermines the egalitarian principles upon which it was built. In the end, a few very trivial benefits will come at a huge cost to cyber security and the notion of online expression as we know it.

Both SOPA and PIPA are, at their essence, a matter of bewildering impracticality and gross political miscalculation.  This is underscored by the fact that neither the bills’ authors nor their Congressional supporters sought input from the tech community regarding possible security concerns or how its proposed tactics would affect the Internet’s present ontology. It’s yet another example of Internet law being written not with the interests of the public in mind, but rather to appease the demands of the special interest groups that fund Congress.

Government-imposed Internet filtering is a practice common in countries like China and Iran. If SOPA becomes law, the U.S. will embark on a dangerous precedent. And as extreme as it seems, the likelihood of SOPA passing through Congress in one form or another is actually quite good. Internet law has become a Congressional cause célèbre in recent years; between SOPA and PIPA — and a flurry of incoming drafts currently being written on the Hill — it’s clear this is an issue that isn’t going away. The U.S. is currently one of only seven countries that doesn’t filter Internet access. But if the recent traction of these bills is any indication, that might not be the case for very long.

 

Taking a gentlemanly, congratulatory phone call from Sen. John McCain after he stuffed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus in January of 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is reported to have chuckled — with a little too much venom — “I beat Romney here, now you take him in New Hampshire.” Which is exactly what happened. And Huckabee meant it, too.  That shiv neatly sums up the animosity Republicans who run for president tend to feel towards the feckless Romney, now 1-0 in 2012, and on the verge of being 2-0 if his firewall in New Hampshire holds firm next week and new polls in South Carolina showing him with a strong lead there turn out to be correct.

But before New Hampshire votes next week and makes Romney 2-0 and the presumptive nominee, it’s worth asking one question: Can he be stopped?

Big answer: Maybe, maybe not, because the same five reasons Romney has the nomination locked up are the exact five reasons he could still lose.

 

Lock.

He’s got so much money — that of his campaign, his Super Pac that spent $3 million destroying Newt Gingrich in a matter of weeks on Iowans’ TV screens, and his own private fortune estimated at over $200 million. After New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada comes Florida — an expensive market in which to campaign.  And no other candidate can hit the airwaves with us much force or range as Romney.

He’s got the establishment falling into line behind his candidacy. The Tea Party has already put a noose around the House of Representatives, and establishment conservatives are desperate that it not do the same to the presidential standard-bearer, what with President Obama’s approval still stuck slightly below 50 percent. In state after state, governors and representatives are falling in line to support Romney with party stars like New Jersey’s bully of a governor, Chris Christie, leading the way. As Romney’s wins pile up, elected Republicans will endorse so as not to lose favor with their party’s eventual nominee.

The other candidates will continue to split the right wing vote. Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul divvied up some 75 percent of the vote in Iowa and, because of that split, they each lost to Romney — albeit by a “landslide” of eight votes in Santorum’s case. That might be Romney’s low ceiling, true, but if the other candidates continue to vie for three-quarters of the GOP pie, Romney’s 25 percent slice could be enough in state after state to rack up delegates and be crowned the nominee in Tampa. And 25 percent probably isn’t his ceiling.

Santorum and Perry want to be the Vice Presidential nominee. Gingrich and Paul couldn’t care less about their future in the Republican party (though Paul surely is interested in protecting his fringe of the nutty wing for a future presidential run by his son, Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul). But Santorum and Perry both can hope to make an argument that they would bring right wing enthusiasm with them into a fall campaign (much as George Bush, Sr. made the same, but reverse, argument to Ronald Reagan in 1980, that Bush could bring the moderate and establishment wings to unite with the conservative Reaganites). Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin were all figureheads for the right wing of a party that was simply holding its nose for the more moderate top of the ticket. Santorum or Perry could vie to be next in the VP in that fated line.

The GOP is full of amateur pundits. Even if they don’t like Romney, Republicans have told pollsters that they believe he is the most electable. Of all the GOP candidates, he still polls best nationally against Obama, trailing the president by just 2.2 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of a dozen of the most recent national polls. And in state by state polling — because the only number that matters in the general election is 270, the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency — Romney is running competitively against the president in the bell weather battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, all states Obama won in 2008 and needs to win in 2012.

 

Lose.

He’s got so much money — but the populist revolts that gave rise to both the Tea Party in 2010 and the Occupy movement in 2011 have hardly abated. And rich white guys are their target. Santorum is hitting hard the Tea Party, Buchananesque, blue collar argument that government is ruining industry, manufacturing, and the social fabric of America. Romney’s personal wealth and what he represents as a corporate businessman running for high office may be the very totems of ultra-affluence that work against him — especially if he makes another bizarre statement like “corporations are people.” This is why Gingrich has taken to saying that Romney is trying to buy the nomination. It’s an argument that may take hold if the race tightens.

He’s got the establishment falling in line — but the leading figures of that endorsing establishment are George Bush, Sr., Bob Dole, and John McCain, who combined lost three out of the last five presidential races. And none were favored by the conservative-I-hate-you reactionaries in the Republican party. If the reactionaries rally behind a single candidate — say, Santorum — and ditch Gingrich, Perry, and Paul, then Romney’s 25 percent threshold will not hold against a party eager for a happy, reactionary warrior to run against Obama.

Santorum and Perry want to be the Vice Presidential nominee. Unless one or the other is the Presidential nominee. In 2008, pundits were certain that Barack Obama was only running for — and could only win — the Vice Presidential nod against Hillary Clinton. What they didn’t know was that Obama’s campaign had developed a February strategy to sweep the caucus contests that immediately followed Super Tuesday. Santorum could quickly become the darling of the right — and Perry has the fund-raising chops to stay in the fight — so if the campaign drags on past Florida and Romney can’t sew it up and no surprise candidate enters late, then playing hard but respectful in order to get the number two spot may fall away. In its place? Playing all out for the win.

The GOP is full of amateur pundits — but only a very few predicted Santorum’s amazing Iowa finish. So for all the windbaggery, attention must be paid to the voters, no? And God love them for that. Given all the loopy twists of the 2012 primaries so far, and knowing that GOP voters down the line just don’t seem to like Mitt Romney, anything could happen.

 

Congress is the 1 percent.

If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family. 

It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.

Surprise? Not really.

Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.

Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:

Roosevelt in 2012!

But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”

Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.

And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.

We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.

Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”

1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.

They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.

2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.

We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.

3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.

Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want.  One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.

I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.

While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.

We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.

And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?

That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders. 

 

Two weeks ago, the local press went into a frenzy when a man named Don Kerr was arrested for possession of marijuana. His alleged offense was to sign for a package, delivered by the crack agents at the United States Postal Service to his New Paltz office, that contained a reported eight pounds of weed.

Kerr is my neighbor. The corner of his property touches mine, in the manner of Utah and New Mexico. (As I type this, in fact, I can see the back of his house). He’s a nice guy, a family man, a self-styled aging hippie, soft-spoken and personable, who played Bob Dylan covers on a beat-up acoustic guitar at the neighborhood block party this summer. He also happens to be—or happened to be, until his arrest—the president of the New Paltz school board. Which explains the media frenzy. And the local TV news van camped out in front of his house the day after the arrest.

In my circle, which is not especially laden with potheads, the news was something of a buzzkill. We felt bad for him, for his wife and kids, for the school district (no one wants to be the board president; Kerr had to be begged to take the job). The neighbors, far from turning on him, told that TV news truck to get the fuck out of New Paltz.

Even if the allegations are true—and Kerr pled not guilty, so even that is in doubt; far as I know, there’s no law against signing for a package—it’s almost certain that his plans for the product did not include distribution. Some people like to relax by fixing a stiff drink; he likes to smoke a bowl. Who cares?

* * *

I mention the Kerr controversy because the “supercommittee” charged with solving our nation’s debt crisis—has the super- prefix ever been a less worthy modifier?—is now two days away from an epic fail that will make the Kardashian divorce seem like an unqualified PR success.

Just as any disinterested observer with half a brain could, after five minutes, tell you exactly what deal will ultimately end the NBA lockout, that same half-brained disinterested observer could predict what deal will ultimately end this federal standoff: tax increases in the form of cuts to entitlements, combined with drastic reductions in services. As with the NBA, only the people in charge seem unaware of this. We keep hearing the same old party-plank talking points, with nary a new idea in sight.

Well, I have one, a proposal that will drastically reduce the nation’s prison population, eliminate billions of dollars in law enforcement spending, and add a huge source of revenue to the federal coffers:

Legalize pot.

Think about Kerr, about the resources used to arrest him, to try him, and, if it gets that far, incarcerate him. That’s a lot of dough, and for what? How is my neighbor and erstwhile school board president a menace to society? Why—seriously, why—is what he (allegedly) did a crime?

* * *

I’m reading a terrific book now: Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s expansive, exhaustive, and entertaining look at the Prohibition era, a work that puts all of the disparate forces at work at that time into historical context. (If you’re even remotely interested in that time period, run-don’t-walk and acquire that book.)

In 1913, Congress passed an amendment to allow the federal government to tax income. I’d assumed that they did that because we were in a situation like we are now, mired in debt. Not so. The income tax amendment was a necessary precursor to Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, far and away the most effective lobbyist group the United States has ever known—Wayne B. Wheeler, its mastermind, was the antecedent to Grover Norquist and Karl Rove—engineered passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in order to achieve its ultimate goal: the Eighteenth, Prohibition.

The ASL needed the income tax revenue to keep the lights on once Prohibition went down: prior to the Sixteenth Amendment’s tax on income, a staggering 30 percent of the federal budget was financed by an excise tax on alcohol. When the country went dry—which it did only on paper—that alcohol tax money evaporated, too.

The nation never stopped drinking, and alcohol was easily procured throughout Prohibition. But instead of collecting money from booze, the government began to spend money on its removal—a fool’s errand at best.

This is true now of marijuana.

* * *

We are, and always have been, a nation of drinkers. Another fun fact from Okrent’s book: the Puritans, the dour bunch who founded the country, came over from Europe with more beer than water in the hold of the Mayflower. They were not puritanical about their booze.

There are not as many potheads as imbibers in the U.S., and the process of growing marijuana, when you remove the part about having to conceal it from DEA agents, is far simpler than, say, distilling whiskey. There’s a reason it’s called weed. So it’s unlikely that the government would collect enough in taxes to underwrite a third of the budget. But would a marijuana tax be sufficient to pay for a health care overhaul? To keep teachers from being laid off? To keep more police on the streets? Isn’t it worth finding out?

(I should interject here that I am not a fan of the wacky weedus. I’ve smoked pot three times, the result being a coughing fit that made me sound like a late-stage consumptive, followed by a not-unpleasant sleepiness. I’d rather smoke a cigar.)

Is marijuana perfectly safe? Of course not. But neither is alcohol. Neither is tobacco. Neither is NutraSweet. Neither is high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, I’d argue that all four of those legal substances pose a greater threat to the public health and well-being than readily-available pot would.

Another Last Call fun fact: one of the legal ways to acquire alcohol during Prohibition was to have a doctor write you a prescription. This is, of course, already happening in California and other states with legalized medical marijuana. The (patchouli-scented) winds of change have already started to shift.

It’s only a matter of time before pot is legal. We should make that time now. I’d rather experiment with a little weed than see the entire economy go up in smoke.

You’ve heard all about it, maybe more than you want to know, but to recap: Last week Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, was charged with sexually abusing at least eight young boys over a long period of years. Since 1998, the university has been aware of accusations against Sandusky. In 2002, an assistant witnessed him anally raping a ten-year-old boy in the team’s showers. The assistant reported it to the head coach, Joe Paterno, who reported it to the Athletic Director, who reported it to his boss. No one ever reported it to the police. Sandusky was the founder of a charity designed to help boys from troubled homes, and he continued in his role of mentor until 2010.

Four days after Sandusky was arrested on November 5, the Board of Trustees asked Paterno and the university’s president to resign, effective immediately. (The athletic director and his boss are being charged with perjury and have left the university on different terms.) Enflamed at the ignominious departure of a legendary coach, “the winningest coach in college football,” thousands of students at the school rioted. They toppled a TV van; they threw things; they knocked down a lamppost onto a car.

The punditry and blogosphere also exploded, in their way, but for mostly opposite reasons. Among the outraged, a story coalesced: With so much to lose, the powers that be at one of the country’s leading Division I football programs refused to do the right thing—to report this man to the police and curtail his chance at raping others. Meanwhile, students’ worship of their team’s coach warped their perspective to such a degree that they were blind to the human suffering that had taken place. The Onion has a much forwarded satire here about the fans’ response that gets it exactly right.

Outside of Happy Valley—the name given to the town of State College and its environs—most people are furious about what’s been allowed to transpire there these last fifteen years. I share this fury, to put it mildly. As I read the grand jury testimony last Thursday at work, an emergency response alarm sounded in my brain. I have a ten-year-old son, and I was molested as a child.

I’m not a big crier, and I didn’t cry as I read, despite being hit with waves of impotent rage and grief. But I had a very physical response. Electric shocks pulsed through me. I felt like Donald Sutherland in the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the same pointing finger and rhythmic cry. Stop him. Stop him. Stop them. Stop it. Warning. Warning. Stop.

My impulse to stop that man, to stop those acts from occurring, was as automatic as the urge to sneeze, to defecate, to cough. My inability to act on it caused the same violent physical reaction as would fighting the need to vomit. I was wracked with tension. I was shaking. I experienced an overall bodily crisis.

I wanted to stop the acts from occurring. But I also wanted the inputs to cease. The images. Stop it. Stop it. Stop reading. Stop thinking. Don’t go there. Don’t go. No.

Society views child sexual abuse as the most monstrous of crimes, a pure evil. It’s general knowledge that child sex offenders are pariahs in prison, labeled as subhuman by even the most deviant and violent among us and brutally raped, ostracized, terrorized. The reactions to the news from Penn State support this view. ESPN columnist Rick Riley writes, “The horror of it makes you want to punch someone.” He takes some small comfort, though, in the ravaging Sandusky is likely to endure:  “If all these charges turn out to be true . . . Sandusky will . . . be going to prison—a place where, with any luck, [he] will feel most unwelcome.” Many comments describe the damage the writers would like to wreak upon the rapist with their own hands. The assistant who witnessed the rape and who has not been asked to step down couldn’t be present at Sunday’s game because he received so many threats.

How could he? we wonder. How could they? How could someone look upon the rape of a child and turn away?

For answers, many have turned to Division 1 sports in general, and the rabidity of Penn State football culture in particular.

I’m from western Pennsylvania, and I know this football fever first hand. My own small town worshiped the game in all forms. It was a miniature, rust-belt version of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon, and as such, no different from all the other little towns dotting the hills and valleys in our half of the state. The mood of whole swaths of the population, not to mention the economy, turned on the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first time I visited Penn State’s campus, I was taken aback by the proliferation of life-sized Joe Paterno imagery. Like the portrait of a desert dictator, his visage was everywhere: in restaurants, bars, shop windows, office cubicles, sidewalks, dorm rooms. He saw all. He was all.

I was affected by the omnipotence of football. My first published story was set around a high school field. And part of me feels almost vindicated by the spotlight now shining down unfavorably upon my region. See? I didn’t make it up. The view really is that distorted. A sport really is the most defining and important thing.

And yet, every time the Penn State football program is mentioned as the cause of men turning a blind eye to the assault of children, I bristle. I feel this obfuscates the larger issue.

It’s the football program, yes, but it’s also the Catholic Church.

It’s hierarchical organizations like football programs and the Catholic Church, yes, but it’s also our families.

When we read about them, or learn about them, or watch them paraded into a prison yard with a sign around their neck, child sex abuse offenders are clearly monsters.  I think of Ronald McGorvey in Tom Perrotta’s novella Little Children—pale, weak-chinned, acne-scarred.  He shows up at the town pool wearing an ugly bathing suit, and everyone clears out of the water, moms grab their kids and clutch them to their bosoms.

At the term child molester, a common image leaps to mind—it’s that creepy guy with sickly white skin, that pocket puller wearing a thin poly-blend button-down shirt and bad glasses. As a matter of fact, one summer when I was in elementary school and playing with a friend in a near-empty building on the college campus where my dad taught, a guy who fit this description exactly followed us around for a while before cornering me and grabbing my crotch. When my friend’s dad came to pick us up soon after, we told him what had happened, and, catching a glance of the man, the dad chased him out the door and down the street. When we got home, we called the police. Everyone took me very seriously. Eventually, the guy was charged with assaulting a girl in a municipal parking lot.

But he wasn’t the one who molested me. That encounter was an anomaly. Approximately one of ten kids who are sexually assaulted don’t know the offender. Ninety percent of the time, children are sexually abused by someone close—an authority figure, a friend, a family member.

In real life, child abusers are often people who we love. Who we respect. Who we trust. Or who at the very least are part of the tightly woven fabric of our daily lives. And it’s very difficult to make a quick shift in perspective, from one view to another diametrically opposed: This person I know so well, care about, work with? This very normal person—maybe even handsomer than most, kinder, more successful . . . . How can he (or she, but usually he) be evil incarnate? If we see signs, we can’t quite recognize them. The pieces don’t come into focus as a readable whole. When someone steps forward with an experience or suspicion, he or she is often met with confusion or hesitation if not outright disbelief.

Let me just say here that of course I think the university president and Joe Paterno should be fired.

But I also, generally, shy away from absolutism. I hold in high esteem the ability, the willingness, to look at both sides, to examine complexity. The simplicity of slogans—“Get a job!” “Love it or leave it!” “Just say no!”—drive me insane, and I vigilantly guard against people being judged prematurely. Someone who seemed weird, or gay, or different raised a big red flag in my hometown. They evoked a loud “ew” from the short-skirted girls cheering in unison; they flew in the face of the single, rumbled “let’s go” arising from the huddle. You tell me someone’s “different,”—a barely veiled insult in western Pennsylvania— and I’m going to try to befriend or defend that person.

My son’s chess coach was a little weird, but the kids loved him and we parents liked him pretty well too. He gave so much of himself. He got our kids enthusiastic about playing a thoughtful game that didn’t involve a screen. When he made an inappropriate overture to a child at a hotel where the state tournament was held, the parents who caught wind told the principal, who told the superintendent and informed the police. The coach was let go. The children cried. I’m enormously grateful that the administration was so confident in their actions, because I have to confess that I wasn’t, quite. I was frozen. And some other parents didn’t agree with the course of events at all. They thought it was too much. That the coach should have been granted a warning.

It’s very typical for well-meaning people to say: Are you sure? Am I sure? Did I really see that? To say: But I’m not clear on what really happened. To say, anyone can be misinterpreted or make one mistake. I think this is what thoughtful people often do. And people who are scared. And people who have a lot to lose.

And, also, people who just, simply, refuse to let this into their lives: No no no no no. Stop. No more inputs.

The very monstrousness of the crime is what keeps us from recognizing it. Our horror in its face turns us away.

And no, that’s not brave or moral. And of course witnessing a rape, hearing an account of the rape of a child from an eyewitness, is far different from hearing about an inappropriate invitation to enter a hotel room with a grown-up. But child sex abuse is an ultimate horror that also exists on a continuum.

In one part of my brain the alarm is still going off. This is very personal for me. In another part, I’m equally horrified, but … somehow … I understand what keeps people from acting resolutely

Sometimes I get panicky that I’m not doing enough to arm my children. I’m not overly protective. The older one is starting to bike around town on his own.

“You know if anyone touches you inappropriately that you should tell your dad or me,” I remind him. I don’t think he’s listening. “If someone touches you around your penis or butt, that’s inappropriate. You know that, right? But any other kind of touch or even comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, let us know.” He’s still not listening. I wanted “penis” and “butt” to grab him, but I think it embarrassed him and turned him off, instead.

“It happened to me, when I was about your age,” I say. This gets his attention. I tell him the story of the man who groped me. He’s takes it all in, listening closely.

“You can trust most grown-ups, but not all of them.”

I don’t tell him the other story about myself. The one that’s longer, harder, more complicated.

Don’t let anyone touch you. Don’t let anyone touch you.

We all let people touch us, though. We have to. We’re human.

My heart goes out. It will be upturned like the news van. And stomped on like a car roof.

My heart goes out.

Our deepest animal nature urges us to protect our children. There is something in our human nature—some good things, too—that can make it difficult to act on this primal need.

 

My people come from what is often referred to by banks as LDC’s (least developed countries), little brown tropical countries, drenched with religious fanatics, stalks of sugar like magic wands picked for five cents an hour sold for 3.00 a box. My people come from generational recycled 40 oz. bottles of beer and shit and cigarettes smoked backwards (the lit end in your mouth), and cassava, and ube, pickled chicken fetus’, and piss, and mah jong, gambling (lots of gambling) and child sex workers, boys and girls. Untold numbers of pretty pretty boys.  My people are light bulb eaters, bed-of-nail-walkers, fire-eaters, every day is a circus in their jungles, alive with naked intent.  By the time we got here we would be happy at any swap meet, all of us hollowed out like empty mango shells. My people rested naked sandwiches on the arms of chairs, and always had an open saucer with half melted butter, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, an open rice cooker.  Every kitchen with brown and white diamond checkered floors lined with ants, and every top drawer with little boxes of broken chalk to try to fight the ants and roaches, my people have big rubber fly swatters, and eat with their teeth floating in glasses of water at the dinner table.  My people live their lives tending to things. And if you told them the city was cruel with budget cuts they would scoff at you and your American budget cuts.  They lived half their lives in city dumps.  Here the trash bins behind restaurants are caged and locked to keep homeless out.  “Why do they lock it up?” we ask.  “So the homeless don’t eat the trash.”  “Oh.”

But it still makes no sense.  Is food-trash only for throwing away? My people drink coffee for dinner.  Kills the appetite.  Little empty bellies always round.

So that’s why the first time I saw someone stand at a podium, fist in air, microphone against mouth chanting “Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” And then there were claps that were slow to start with spaces in between like the clap that a kid makes when he’s teasing another kid.  The clap of humiliation but it gained speed faster faster faster until the whole crowd was lifted up by this clap and my heart was catching up with the clap. I felt it clanging against my chest.  I felt my nipples hard against my shirt. I felt my hands tight.  I wasn’t a person I was part of this big giant super fast heartbeat.  And everything in the vehicle formerly known as my body screamed “SIGN ME UP! SIGN ME UP MOTHERFUCKERS!”  And so it began.

The day I was hired as a union organizer I was handed a small stapled booklet that read ‘Axioms for Organizers’.  These axioms were slung in homes across the Coachella Valley as Fred Ross Jr. worked with Cesar Chavez on the farmworkers campaign and were eventually put into a little DIY booklet and handed to organizers on their first day.  My favorite is every organizer is a social arsonist, you have to set the minds and hearts of your members on fire.  In that same way I think of writers as social arsonists.

I’ve learned there are two reasons people read: 1) to escape and 2) to connect.  I picture thousands of people reaching for books with their best intentions reaching for books and laying on benches, in beds, on couches, shoved against walls, curled on concrete all reading with one hope in mind; to connect to the antagonist and further their understanding of the human spirit.  Even though it’s fun to use terms like social arsonist I think that I am now occupying one of the less sexy spaces. The spaces between. It’s what happens after you occupy Wall Street after the chanting and the microphone. It’s what happens while your quietly working on your first novel. It’s like going home after partying all week and thinking, Who turned out the lights?

My job today is to get new and occasional voters to commit to voting regularly in their local elections.  No that’s not as fun as wearing a sign or pitching a tent or screaming into a bullhorn or getting arrested or doing anything facebook-status-change-worthy but it’s what I believe is necessary for real systemic change.  I’ve read recently “Behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.”

I would say the same is true for novels.  That behind every great novel is a writer doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.  To me the spaces between while writing the novel, whether it be the spaces between feedback or the spaces between a submission response, or the spaces between sitting before the page, can be desperate like being a teenager in foster care wishing keep me keep me keep me. It’s the novel afraid it will slip between your fingers, off of your hard drive, beside the others in the wastebasket on your desktop, tucked somewhere between law school and your afterschool tutoring volunteer gig. First the tugging at your brain and heart, then the shame then the daunting weight of guilt that turns the whole thing into an afterthought.  That is the dull screeching around your heart when you are living in the spaces between.  Come with me and brave them.

 

Before I rode my bike downtown to the kickoff march for Occupy Portland I scoured my office for a press pass. Although I’ve worked for several large media conglomerates ( I think they’re separate but may have merged into VerizonDisneyFrance) I’ve never remembered to ask for one. Three years at AOL News and it didn’t occur to me. What about my press badge from Comedy Central? It’s four years old and expired but I thought it might work like Doctor Who’s psychic paper. If only I could locate it.

The only thing I could find was a laminated badge from the 2009 Oregon Country Fair. Inside its swirling psychedelic border is my photo and the name “Hunter.” In light of all the suggestions from my lawyer friends  about this march, like “don’t take weed,” “don’t make eye contact with the cops,” and “don’t take weed,” I nixed that one.

It was important for me to attend the protest march as a journalist, or at least an observer. Not that I really have a problem with being arrested in the general sense, but our lame duck mayor was suggesting people stay home and the Portland Police is notoriously, um, colorful in the “accidentally shooting people” way. OccupyPortland didn’t get the proper demonstration permits beforehand and also: I had a thing later that night that I didn’t want to miss.

Not that I was entirely unprepared for arrest. As a canny protester I had sharpied the phone number of a local attorney named Bear on the back of my hand just in case. Yeah, his name is Bear. Shut up. In college I knew a kid named Stargazer, who was the son of the guy who provided acid to the Grateful Dead. Stargazer became a veterinarian, but sadly, not mine. In my world only the dealers have proper names.

If I appeared as a journalist at Occupy Portland, or at least an embedded protestor I could attempt to witness the  event objectively. Not from a political standpoint, because I’m with most of these folks 1000 percent of the way. Or at least 99% of the way. But philosophically I’m ambivalent about protests.

In a personal sense I like them. Exercising my right of free speech and freedom of assembly are important to me. A march is like voting, but with exercise! The day before the Iraq War started I was part of the Portland protest that shut the city down and cut off freeway access. It was a great democratic cluster fuck! I knew the next day that the bombs would still drop over Baghdad but it was important to put my body on record and say that this was wrong, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and we would be in this for a very long time.

Protests are part of our democracy and my eyes fill with small-d democratic tears when I see a multiracial, multi-age group of people chanting together, a grandmother with a “Legalize It” poster and a toddler with a sign that reads “Corporate Personhood Subjugates the Constitution.” I’m not kidding. They start chanting, I start weeping. So much for objectivity.

But I’m not sure that there’s a point in Occupy Portland. Even if the cops don’t beat the piss out of the occupiers and make them vacate their camp, if it becomes a wintery Northwest version of Tahrir Square, will it accomplish anything?

Then I become annoyed that I’ve become conditioned to ask that question.Nobody questioned the efficacy of protests when the Tea Party was doing it. But now centrists and the media are asking “what’s the point of these protests?” Don’t you remember that the Tea Party practically had Obama over a barrel over health care a few summers ago? Why is it that only left-of-center  protests deserve scrutiny?

When conservatives say “we should build a wall at the Mexican border,” the media accepts this at face value, even though large sectors of our economy, such as tourism and agriculture, are totally dependent on this work force, or if America could curtail its thirst for Mexican drugs (buy local, people) and we stopped allowing gun show operators to arm Mexican cartels, we wouldn’t have a need for a wall.

And when liberal protestors say, “we want our government to regulate derivatives and tax hedge funds at a higher rate,” the media hears, “after we put LSD in the water supply we will teach mandatory knitting in schools which everyone knows is code for lesbianism and we’ll replace our kids lunch box Thermoses with big black dildoes.”

So I went to see it all for myself. What were these people demanding? Were they just the kids from Reed College on a study break?

There were people from all walks of life. It was not all dirty hippies. Okay, there were some dirty hippies, people in dreads on double decker bicycles in circus costumes, but these are people who own homes and walk their kids to school in my neighborhood. There were the young marching along with the elderly and people of every ethnic background. Guys in hard hats stickered with their local union number.

There was one well-dressed white man with a Ron Paul sticker on his bullhorn but he looked a little uncomfortable. Perhaps his libertarian friends sent him there on a dare.

As we marched around downtown the protest put a gum in afternoon traffic but many of the drivers trapped in their cars got out to cheer, as did some of the strippers working at Mary’s Club (All Nude Revue), showing off their long legs for democracy. Chants included “This is what Democracy looks like,” “We are the 99%,” and “Good Jobs for a Good Wage.” Nobody appeared to plot to overthrow the government. Yes there were the oh so stylish Guy Fawkes masks but they were outnumbered by grandmothers holding toddlers, faces in full view.

Most of the signs were what we’ve been seeing all along from Occupy Wall Street. Things like “Tax the 1%,” “End Corporate Personhood.”

This is Oregon, and under the bongwater gray skies there were plenty of “Legalize it” posters. And there were a few disappointed teenage Blazers fans holding “End the Lockout,” signs. Even basketball players are union men! My personal favorite sign: Krugman’s Army. Unlike certain Tea Party events, everything was spelled in the traditional manner.

A few days ago I was in a coffee shop debating issues around Occupy Portland with the owner and another customer, because apparently I live in eighteenth century France. We talked about the possible impact, and another friend of ours had just left for New York to take part in Occupy Wall Street. Half kidding I said that I’d believe it would only make a difference when the rural poor started to occupy the parking lots of Walmart.

This is why I was excited to see one skittish Ron Paul fan. Until protests make it to rural and conservative Congressional districts, movements like Occupy Portland won’t create change. Portland’s a relatively small city and the state’s Congressional delegation is 6/7ths Democratic and largely progressive.

What’s at stake here needs to be solved by both legislative and judicial processes. Legislative, because among the demands of the 99% are higher taxes for the 1%. This isn’t going to happen with the current House of Representatives and we can only hope that ongoing protests could trigger a political sea change, like the Tea Party election in 2010, might swing the House back to the left in 2012. Also it would help if any of the elected Democrats had backbones but now I’m just spewing like a schizophrenic gorilla.

The second aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement is judicial, because there are people at Goldman, AIG and other financial institutions who belong in jail and there’s enough evidence to send them there. If protests around the country go long enough, some young New York DA with the prosecutorial zeal of a pre-hooker Eliot Spitzer will start moving against these financial criminals.

I’m still ambivalent about the larger impact. I’m not too cynical to believe that the movement will bring results. The Portland protest was about solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a fist bump from 3000 miles away. While I was updating Twitter at the protest I noticed a status message from a friend at the Occupy Boston site. I responded, “You’re at Occupy Boston, I’m at Occupy Portland – on the count of 3 turn west and wave!”

We are the ninety-nine percent.

It was a warm Thursday afternoon on August 5, 2010, in a remote woodland of the Hindu Kush mountains when a band of men with full beards and ankle-length white gowns appeared out of nowhere. Brandishing Kalashnikovs, they walked up to a team of mostly foreign aid volunteers who had just picnicked near their Land Rovers following a medical mission in Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan province. The eight men and three women had been bringing eye care, dental treatment, and other forms of medical relief to an isolated highland valley. For two weeks, unarmed and unprotected, they had trekked with packhorses from village to village offering medical assistance to some fifty thousand subsistence farmers and shepherds living in this rugged high-mountain region.

The gunmen forced the workers—six Americans, three Afghans, a German, and a Briton—to sit on the ground. They ransacked the vehicles and demanded that everyone empty their pockets. Then they lined them up against a craggy rock face and executed them, one by one. Only the Afghan driver was spared. He had pleaded for his life by reciting verses of the Koran and screaming: “I am Muslim. Don’t kill me!”

The bullet-riddled bodies of the medical team were found the next day, and news of their assassination traveled swiftly. Theories abounded as to who murdered them and why. The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, both insurgent groups fighting the Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, each claimed responsibility. Yet as with so many such attacks against civilians, the perpetrators were never found and never brought to justice.

Two of the executed Americans, Tom Little and Dan Terry, were long-standing members of the International Assistance Mission, a Christian non-governmental organization (or NGO) that has been working in Afghanistan since 1966. “Dr. Tom,” as he was known, was a low-key sixty-two-year-old optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had been working with his wife, Libby, in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. They had first started out helping wayward hippies stranded in Kabul. Running a series of eye clinics, they had remained throughout the Soviet-Afghan war and during the Battle for Kabul of the mid-1990s until the Taliban drove them out. The Littles came straight back after the collapse of the Talib regime.

Dan was a cheerful and dogged aid worker with a dry sense of humor who first visited the country in 1971. During the latter days of the Taliban, when they were destroying villages and killing civilians in central and northern Afghanistan, Dan had mounted a humanitarian relief effort in midwinter to bring food across the front lines.

Both were my friends.

For those familiar with Afghanistan, the killing of the IAM team underscored the brutal reality that much of this mountain and desert country at the cusp of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had become a perilous, no-go zone. Whereas parts of the country, including Nuristan and the neighboring province of Badakshan where the murders took place, had been considered relatively safe for aid workers, the Afghan traditions of hospitality and protection of guests had finally and irretrievably been shattered. Decades of conflict, competing worldviews, and outside interests had turned Afghanistan into a land where neither the Western-backed Kabul government nor the insurgents are in control—and basic humanity seems to have vanished.

For me, the deaths of Dr. Tom and Dan marked the end of an era. They were “old Afghan hands” who, like me, had first ventured into Afghanistan in the 1970s and found themselves inexplicably drawn to this utterly romantic country of cultural contrasts and staggering topographic beauty, but also human tragedy. They kept returning despite being threatened, and despite the personal risk their work entailed. Although both were indeed Christians, they were not missionaries. They were in Afghanistan because of their own convictions and because they simply wanted to help a beleaguered people.

By the time of the IAM murders, the outlook for the future of Afghanistan was already bleak. One senior United Nations official in Kabul with years of Afghan experience was blunt: “It’s become an absolute disaster.” While NATO by early 2011 had largely accepted that there could be no military solution, Western governments were still placing too much emphasis—and funding—on their generals for leadership rather than investing in more imaginative out-of-the-box initiatives and longer-term civilian-led approaches, including talking with the insurgents.

The US-led invasion in October 2001, which was in response to the events of 9/11, helped oust the Taliban but has contributed little to overall security. The American intervention has moved from a limited “war on terrorism” coupled with other agendas, notably counternarcotics, to a full-fledged counterinsurgency. The presence of over 150,000 troops from the United States, Britain, and forty-six other countries as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a situation many Afghans find comparable to the Soviet-Afghan war—a large occupying force, a weak central government, and endless skirmishes and attacks that kill innocent civilians and incite new recruits to the fundamentalist ranks. For a growing number of Afghans and foreign analysts, the Western military presence has proved a failure, with lost opportunities littering the trail of international intervention since the collapse of the Talib regime. Even the killing, by the Americans, of Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was unlikely to bring about much change.

Not unlike their Red Army counterparts during the 1980s, the Americans and their military allies are increasingly perceived by ordinary Afghans as an unwelcome foreign occupation force. Their behavior and lack of cultural awareness often emerge as affronts to Afghan customs and their sense of independence. NATO forces also have been involved in bombing and other military assaults that have inflicted severe civilian casualties. While such incidents may be regarded officially as unfortunate “collateral damage,” Afghans consider them a blatant disregard for human life. This is disheartening for those among the Western troops who genuinely regard their role as one of helping maintain peace and bringing socioeconomic development to a desperately impoverished land.

The growing resentment of Afghans toward the Western presence is not because Afghans necessarily prefer the Taliban and other insurgents, but because they have always resented outsiders, particularly those who insist on imposing themselves. Even more disconcerting, many Afghans no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers. Western policies have largely undermined the recovery process by usurping the traditional humanitarian role through the deployment of military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the deployment of foreign mercenaries and private contractors with little or no understanding of the country. Afghans also legitimately question the purpose of the United

States spending one hundred million dollars a day on its military effort given that such funds might be far better spent on recovery itself. If US troops were to pull out tomorrow, what would they have left behind? The Soviets spent nearly a decade fighting their war in Afghanistan. Little tangible remains of their past involvement today.

NATO forces have now occupied Afghanistan longer than the Soviets. In a war with objectives difficult, if not impossible, to define, Western military casualties have been swelling steadily since 2004, when the Taliban began to reemerge as a formidable force. By mid 2011, over twenty-five hundred American, British, French, German, Canadian, Italian, and other soldiers had been killed. More than half the injuries and deaths were not the result of direct combat. The insurgents have been inflicting increasing casualties by roadside bombs, booby traps, and other improvised explosive devices (or IEDs). In contrast, over eighteen thousand Afghans had lost their lives in less than a decade, at least half of them civilian. A further forty thousand, both military and civilian, have been wounded. While NATO analysts argue that current Afghan casualties are “modest” compared with the 1.5 million believed to have died during the Soviet-Afghan war, others point out that the current conflict could have been avoided had the West adopted a more realistic approach to Afghanistan during the early 2000s and not been obsessed by terrorism, narcotics, and other distracting factors—notably the war in Iraq.

The reality is that overall security, particularly in the countryside, is worsening. Former mujahideen whom I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, and who had contacts with the insurgents, apologized for not being able to take me into parts of eastern Afghanistan. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” they told me. Even friends whom I know are involved with the insurgents, but still respect traditional Afghan hospitality, are reluctant to take me through their zones of control. Traveling has become a highly hazardous undertaking. I had felt far safer trekking clandestinely through the mountains during the Soviet era than today.

But Afghanistan’s problems are not just a lack of security. Too much money, combined with expectations too high and unrealistic, has been thrown at Afghanistan, propping up an ineffectual and corrupt regime. The overall economy is highly artificial and largely dependent on international development aid, military expenditure, and narcotics trafficking. In addition to the foreign aid contractors, the bulk of the revenue has gone to a small but powerful privileged elite of Afghans, notably senior government officials, warlords, and businesspeople with the right connections. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s most corrupt country, with graft permeating all levels of the administration, including President Hamid Karzai’s own family, who have benefited overwhelmingly from the recovery process.

 

 

Excerpt of Killing the Cranes used with permission by Chelsea Green, ©2011, Edward Girardet, all rights reserved. Author photo ©Shobhan Saxena.

 

 

Man oh man oh man oh man. It’s what, FOUR months until the first primary and the Republican field has been bludgeoning itself like a bunch of  tweens at a razor party listening to My Chemical Emo-mance.

When we last met I thought it was the clash of the titans, more specifically, the clash of the V05 hair Product between Mitt Robotney and Rick Perry. But this was not to be. Rick Perry falls apart in debate!  His iron-clad hair shield has been tainted by the Massachusetts I mean Michigan I mean where does Mitt Romney live now anyway?

*answer: he lives in any one of the following states:  California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts
But he is another wealthy regular man-robot hybrid just like you and me.

I was disappointed by Perry’s recent performance. Sure the guy is dumber than a can of paint but he’s a canny politician with a long winning streak, and he was trounced by a guy who makes the GPS voice in your car sound authentic. And Mitt Romney, the most pretend of all pretend Republicans, attacked him from the right on immigration.

We’ve only lost one candidate so far, rendering the debates crowded and pointless. Nine people yapping on stage isn’t a debate. It’s a Facebook wall. And nine people times fifty-eleven debates is not doing anyone any good.

If Sarah Palin has taught us anything, aside from remembering to keep the receipt when we buy a half a continent sparsely populated by lunatics from Russia, it’s that constant media exposure may actually harm one’s chances for the presidency. The continued debates threaten to turn the candidates to caricature, aside from Newt Gingrich, who is a cartoon, and Ron Paul, who’s actually a character from an Ayn Rand novel.

Can anyone tell me where these audiences come from? Were they stocked entirely by Democrats working to make Republicans look bad? I’d say yes if a) Nixon were still alive and switched parties, b) Democrats were organized or c) James O’Keefe  would return my phone calls. This audience was the real deal. First the Republican pro-lifers cheer “Let ’em die” in a question about health insurance and second the Support Our Troops Pro Military party boos at a gay soldier after he asks about the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

You can at least rest knowing that legally married gay partners of veterans are not allowed to receive pensions after their spouses die. As a personal note, I’d like to mention that my mother, who had been divorced from my dad for over twenty years, is still qualified to receive his Naval pension. Because straight divorce is all about American values.

Straw Polls Suck

These straw poles: enough. They cost the candidates a lot of money and time and they’re meaningless. Kind of like baseball’s All-Star game. Or the Move-on.org petition you just sent me.

On the plus side, the straw polls add some fake drama, because they let an unhinged outlier win something, so political journalists can pretend to write serious articles in which they imagine Herman Cain, who won the Florida straw poll, will take over the world until they notice that the Pizzafather has no money or endorsements. He does have a sweet tax plan though, which is abbreviated as 9-9-9, and is something as likely and sensible as the Nine Ringwraiths of Mordor playing Nine innings of baseball against Nine Inch Nails.

Mitt Romney won the Michigan straw poll, because that’s where he’s from. He’s also from Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and the Moon.

Nothing more than a sad seventh place in Florida for my personal fave Jon Huntsman, who has said that he believes in crazy talk like global warming and evolution and at this point to garner any traction in the polls he’s going to have to set fire to Rick Perry.

The essential problem with straw polls is they  waste resources. The candidates owe more favors to party hacks in each state and need more money from new donors. I don’t mind the GOP blowing its cash on these things, and it serves their own brand of social Darwinism, the only Darwin they let into the room. Survival of the richest. But in a larger way these straw polls are bad for democracy. As much as I enjoy cataloging the village idiots who are on the stage, as an engaged citizen I’d like the guy in the Oval Office, regardless of political party, to be competent enough to do the job.

“Mr. President we’ve confirmed that terrorists have stolen nuclear material from Pakistan. The poverty rate hit 25%, bacteria have developed a resistance to TB drugs and a tornado has leveled half of Kentucky.”

“Is this when I get to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education and anything else that starts with E?”

“That’s not going to help. What should we do?”

“Nothin. Government is not the solution.”

“What about the nukes, sir?

“I’ll let the states handle that.”

Next time: Why President Obama needs a primary challenge.

As I enter the simple youth hostel in Rio de Janeiro where Mr. R. Belo has agreed to be interviewed, I am struck by how very ordinary this man looks. I am reminded of something Winston Churchill once said about Prime Minister Attlee: “Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. But then he has much to be modest about.” Mr. R. Belo is indeed a modest man, never seen without his trademark red tie and dark suit. After a difficult, impoverished upbringing, Mr. R. Belo has risen through the ranks of political workers and now dominates the forward-looking Brazilian Communist Party which is considered one of the most progressive organizations in the world.

Recently Mr. R. Belo has presided over the relaxation of his country’s forestry codes, so that small-scale farmers and hobos can slash back the jungle and grow more food. Some foolish people seem to think that this reform will simply pave the way for industrial interests, that will very quickly move in and buy up all available land to start exploiting the rich mineral wealth of Amazonas.

I am meeting with Mr. R. Belo today so that I can sound him out on his new forestry code and, of course, find out more about his social programs.

Q:

Good morning, Mr. R. Belo. I wonder if I could begin by asking about your policy objectives for the 21st century? You are a leading figure in the government of one of the world’s fastest-developing nations, i.e. Brazil. Some argue that your reform of the forestry code for Amazonas may have ramifications for the environmental stability of your whole continent, possibly even the whole world. Could you begin by explaining how you see the future? Would you say that non-Brazilians are entitled to their own opinions on your country’s new policies?

A:

No, because the West has a colonial perspective. We have always said, and we will always say that our stated objective – in accordance with Paragraph 18, Sub-Section 23 of the 1934 Communist Congress – is to continue the crucial work of alleviating poverty in this country. Capitalism is finished in the West, anyone can see that. But in Brazil we are different, our country is huge and we are building a new, revolutionary Capitalism. It’s very easy, all you need are large digging machines and a hell of a lot of concrete. We have a lot of metals to dig up, a lot of oil to drill for and of course we have this very large redundant area known as Amazonas, which we intend to scale back quite considerably and turn into a productive resource.

Q:

When you say “productive”, what are you driving at? Some would say that Amazonas is extremely productive, as it produces immense amounts of water and oxygen, which are crucial to life on earth.

A:

The bourgeoisie in the West are criticizing us for developing our great country. They say we need to preserve our forest for the sake of the world. Let me simply say this: the global community is not our concern. We must look to our own interests, and these interests are quite clear. We will not stand by while poor farmers starve.

Q:

Surely there is no need for them to starve? Brazil has a buoyant economy. Could you not help them in other ways?

A:

Absolutely, and Brazil will continue to grow because we will develop our country and go for prosperity.

Q:

Yes, but would it not be reasonable to develop in a way that can be sustained in the longer term?

A:

That is a bogus concept. The future is another country, you know… (Mops his brow, momentarily confused) But Brazil is not another country, Brazil is Brazil. And always will be. We must deal with today and then when tomorrow comes we will deal with tomorrow.  Make no mistake about this, we will deal with tomorrow as soon as it comes along. I make this promise today, hand on heart.

Q:

Yes I can see that. So… how do you see the future of your… great country?

A:

Capitalism has failed, comrade. The factories of the world have simply crumbled into dust, and the pollution and unemployment and moral and physical sickness of your societies is plain for all to see. Just look at those riots in England! How sad to see young people so alienated, in a post-industrial society.

Q:

Right. But if that’s how you feel, why not do something more progressive with your own society?

A:

Oh, we will. After we have finished burning the Amazon jungle, we shall turn it into the most spectacular productive region of the world. Dams, factories, oil wells and mines will cover this enormous area, and the tribal people of the whole region will no longer have to hunt the monkeys of the trees or go fishing. They will have more dignified roles in our society. They will have houses, and cars and credit cards.

Q:

But this Capitalism you advocate… is it really a viable long-term vision? Industrialism has created a lot of problems in the West? Do you see heavy industry as the future?

A:

Yes, because we have a clear goal. We will take one of the world’s most valuable ecological resources and then, in a very purposeful way, convert it into an efficient vehicle for the production of pork and beans, so that our workers can live with dignity. We are not simple or brutish people, we are a humble confederation of comrades, our goal is a better world for everyone. I will not rest until our workers have pork and beans every day. (Adds, with a gleam in his eye) As a child I had to starve, I had to watch my mother feeding our family on tomatoes an pasta. And this is scandalous.

Q:

What about those who say that the Amazon jungle is the lungs of our planet and contains a massive share of our biodiversity? What about the immense wealth the forest offers in terms of new pharmaceutical products? Could not Brazil try to invest in new technology and social engineering projects? Your country is becoming an important member of the world community. One might have hoped that it would be more of a pioneer, a beacon for how the rest of the world should develop?

A:

This is frankly an insult quite typical of the Western perspective. We have every right to develop in whatever way we like, and frankly we see little value in listening to anyone on this point. Our critics seem to think we are stupid. I say to you, they should stop worrying and mind their own business.  We will keep a few reserves of forest here and there where pharmaceutical workers can mess about with herbs and experiment with their medical technology. In England and France the Capitalists kept the workers on bread and water for years. We will not do this. We will let farmers clear the forest so they can produce the food they need, and have themselves some decent rice and pork and beans.

Q:

Is it not a problem that the land cleared for agriculture is not very suitable for agriculture and tends to revert to dry, unproductive land?

A:

This is nonsense. The large areas that have turned to desert are very useful land for factories and other wealth multipliers such as garbage dumps, mines, roads, airports and other useful things… schools, for instance…

Q:

I was going to ask you about that. What about the education of the masses? Are you investing in education?

A:

Absolutely. And once we have sold off Amazonas to Capitalist interests who will set about turning it into a large, arid flat area pockmarked with disused mines and contaminated soil, we intend to set up Centers Of Marxist Agrarianism (COMA) to train our people in environmental technology. Brazil will become a leading player in this industry, we are already a world leader in bio-fuel. Our Air Quality Initiative is far more advanced than anything the West has come up with.

Q:

What about the climate talks? How will Brazil meet its carbon emission goals if it burns the Amazon?

A:

Look! (Mr. R. Belo’s face goes a very deep red) We don’t need all these trees! We have plenty of oxygen and as far as carbon emissions go, I’d say let’s not lose our heads about it. (Leans back, adjusts his tie) It is much more important that we develop traditional Marxist industries such as oil, mining and steel-making. Those were the industries of the past… and we intend to keep them as the industries of the future too.

Q:

I see. But what about the new industries, high technology, alternative energy and green solutions? Would it not be beneficial for the Brazilian Government to listen to its critics, both inside and outside the country, and do something socially innovative?

A:

We will train our workers and tribal brothers in how to make metal, drill for oil, drive trucks and so on. We need everyone to take part in our development of Amazonas. If our tribal comrades refuse to do this, we will simply put them in reserves, more or less as the United States did with its own native tribes – which, incidentally, was scandalous and a blot on the history of that country. (Stops, scratches his chin, looking puzzled) You know I have this friend in the Congress, her name is Wilma, she’s been a bit skeptical about all this, she worries too much about breaking her promises to the electorate. She actually told them she would protect Amazonia. But I’ve made it clear to her that the electorate must do as it’s told. (He laughs pleasantly, then adds:) Of course I am joking…

Q:

I saw recently that ten of your country’s previous environmental ministers have written a public letter criticizing the reform of your country’s forestry code. And now your current Minister for the Environment has also resigned. Doesn’t all this indicate that there’s something seriously wrong with your policy on Amazonas?

A:

I disrespect these people from the very bottom of my stomach. You know, suddenly I understand how Syria, China and Iran feel when the international press agencies gang up on them. Or when people demonstrate against them. Of course Brazil is quite different from these countries, Brazil is a democracy and that means no one in the world is entitled to criticize us. We are doing what we were elected to do, in fact we are also doing what we were not elected to do, but that is our decision. Also our duty.

Q:

Do you really think that all the poor, unskilled and uneducated people voting for your party, give you the mandate to ignore the views of scientists, environmentalists and world opinion?

A:

A democrat must do what he or she is elected to do. My voters are looking for pork and beans, and I will let them have what they want.

Q:

But surely what’s required here is a more sophisticated approach to managing a globally important resource like Amazonas? Should you not be providing leadership and innovative solutions that safeguard the future?

A:

I can see that you are a corrupt Western elitist. Nothing could ever be more innovative than Communism and populism. And I can say that because I am a democrat. I don’t mean to sound repetitious, but I will say this, just for the sake of clarity: we believe the impoverished landless people must go into the Amazonas and burn it to the ground, so that they can start the vital work of producing rice, beans and pork.

Q:

Is there any validity in the claim that Amazonas, like the Antarctic, should be a protected World Heritage Zone partly paid for and protected according to international law? Should we implement the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth?

A:

This would be colonization!! We are the people of Brazil. We are a free, liberal and enlightened people. (Mr. R. Belo breaks into a sweat, mops his brow with a red handkerchief, and raises his voice with fevered intensity) We do not need any foreigners having opinions about our precious Amazonia, which is a part of our national identity, an indelible part of our soul. Amazonia belongs to us and no one else.

Q:

Does it worry you that once Brazil’s farmers and logging companies have finished clearing Amazonas, there will be a tendency for the area to turn to desert, with a lack of water and good soil for cultivating crops? Does it worry you that by the time corrupt Western regimes have developed new, clean energy systems – let’s say in twenty years time – Brazil and its neighboring countries will have major environmental problems as a result of deforestation and excessive industrialization?

A:

No, not at all, because once the trees of Amazonas have been cleared there will be so much pork and beans for the workers that this party will be voted in for years and years to come. This is our goal and I believe it is an honorable and entirely reasonable goal for a political party to try and stay in power for as long as possible, by appealing to popular sentiment. Brazil is a great land, a land of truth and democracy and workers’ rights, and, as a consequence, no Western country is entitled to comment on anything we do.

Mr. R. Belo stands up and shakes my hand, then stalks off with fluid steps, like a jaguar. I am grateful for this opportunity to commune with a great mind, a great intellect that surveys the future with the keen eyes of an eagle. My mind buzzing with inspired thoughts, I return to the newspaper, where I type up this interview with trembling hands.

 

 

What a wild few weeks it’s been in the Republican Presidential primary race, AKA America’s Top Celebrity Presidential Candidate Rehab Survivor’s Got Talent!

First, a certain vote against raising the debt ceiling came back to haunt us. That vote was cast in 2006 by the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Sometimes even symbolic votes cause actual pain. You play politics with our ability to borrow money and pay bills and you get egg on your face. Did I say egg, or is that vomit being sprayed during the last week by investors suffering stock market motion sickness?

Because the Tea Party’s insistence on deficit reduction, just a mere eight months after everyone in Washington agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts, international trust is US debt has been downgraded from the Visa BlackCard to Diners Club. Sure it was a slight downgrade, given by those same criminals who just a few years ago gave AAA ratings to toxic assets, but still, don’t you just get sick when America isn’t the most awesome at everything? And then the US Women’s national soccer team loses the World Cup to Japan and isn’t this just the Summer of Shit?

If nothing else, this debt downgrade could spell the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, in favor of the euro or the renminbi. I’ll admit to having a C-minus understanding of macroeconomics, which is why I write suppository jokes instead of running for public office, but Tea Party Congressional Caucus, if you don’t understand the previous sentence you should go back to complaining about President Obama’s birth certificate instead of reducing our economy to that of Kenya. Where Obama’s from.

Ames, Iowa played host to the debate between eight republican presidential candidates last week. The biggest point of the night: all eight pledged not to raise taxes never ever ever, not to lower the deficit, not even if the revenue increase were matched ten to one by spending cuts.

Democrats, sniffing out a chance to go on the defensive, offered a compromise of twenty to one spending cuts to tax increases. Then they offered a fifty trillion percent reduction in entitlement spending for no tax increases and threw in the state of Vermont.

The high point leading up to the Ames debate was when that far-out lefty Mitt Romney, munching on a plate of acid-laced “Fried Obesity on a Stick,” announced that “corporations are people.” I love that song from Free to be You and Me. But all of his perfect hair and free love could not win him the 2011 Straw Poll, where he came in at an awesome 7th place, just behind write-in candidate Rick Perry. The real winner, though, at the Iowa State Fair, was Fried Butter on a Stick. Rebuilding America, one pound at a time. We don’t need Medicare. We need wider ambulances.

It’s no real surprise that the Iowa Straw Poll’s winner was Sarah Palin I mean Michele Bachmann. Bachmann won a not critically important poll in the state where she was born which is right next to the state where she now lives. I’d like to now spend some time riffing on Michele Bachmann’s Yoda-like syntax, but save that for freedom liberty links in the freedom chain of liberty the right candidate for are I will in a later column.

But this spring training win cements her in the top tier group of candidates, along with Romney and Rick Perry. This is either a compelling narrative or more likely the media enjoys every chance they get to put the word “3-way” into the title of their articles to increase web traffic. Here at the Hustings Hustler I’ll keep watching Michele Bachmann, even though she’s not likely to make it to the Big Show, mostly because I’m fixated on her maniacal, Joker-like smile.

Have you ever looked at someone’s wedding pictures and noticed that the bride flashes an identical smile every in every single photo, because she’s obviously practiced it in front of a mirror since she was a little girl? That’s Bachmann’s smile, the ecstatic bride, but twisted slightly with the mania that says I KNOW HE’S GAY BUT I’M GOING TO MARRY HIM ANYWAY.

The one casualty of the current field was T-Paw. Tim Pawlenty put all his eggs in one cow stomach (I’m not very good with the rural metaphors) and came up three rooster cocks short.

But like the Hydra, you cut off one head and another grows in, now featuring the face of Governor Rick Perry, who just announced he’ll run. Now everything gets exciting, because I get to use more rural metaphors like “all hat, no cattle.” You think America won’t rush to elect another conservative Texas armadillo-smoking nut job? In 2012 the George W. Bush presidency will have ended four years ago. We remember how bad that was, right? The most brutal terrorist attack on American soil ever, two foreign wars, a five trillion dollar shopping habit, criminal negligence that led to the destruction of New Orleans and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? We wouldn’t make the same mistake because America Never Forgets.

Amount of time between the IPO for Pets.com, a San Francisco dot-com that actually sold stuff and the IPO of LinkedIn.com, a website that lets total fucking strangers send me their useless resume? Eleven years.

Amount of time between the collapse of Enron, when politicians demanded more regulation so it wouldn’t happen again and the collapse of the banking industry because of the appalling lack of financial regulation? Six years.

Amount of time between the popping of the speculative dot-com bubble to the beginning of the speculative housing bubble? Three years.

Amount of time it took for Twitterers who were irate that people were making fun of Amy Winehouse’s death to completely forget there was such a person as Amy Winehouse? One week.

So yes, it’s entirely possible that we will hand the keys to the ship of state over to a guy who holds giant prayer rallies to make it rain.

Just so we can all agree how ridiculous this nominating process is to the political junkies I’ll share with you this bit from the Times’ Caucus Blog, which felt it super important to spend column inches on the official sighting of Rick Perry’s new tour bus, the NASCAR Suppository, which will let me end with the following question: what’s black, blue and red all over?

The Brazilian government has finally done it. Like a sadistic child with a stick beating a dog to death, it has authorized the Bel Monte dam. We are talking here of a region that functions as the lungs of the planet, the vast Amazonian wilderness. 400 000 hectares will be flooded and in the region of 40 000 people displaced from rich, important land whose biodiversity is twice that of the entire land mass of Europe. It will be the end of the Amazonian basin as we know it. The Brazilian government will authorize, in total, some 60 dams across the Amazon to supply the country with energy.

Energy for what, you might ask? What do we need all this energy for?

I wish the human race could summon a bit of moral energy, a bit of intellectual energy, and stop being ruled by the lowest, cheapest, meanest forces.

An idea like Bel Monte, the enormity of a decision that will kill and harm so many people, is akin to a war crime. It reaches the very depths of depravity, to the level of slavery, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. I know of course that I will receive enraged comments about this – but in the end, the total number of dead will extend right across the world, people will suffer and die, everywhere, for years and years because the Brazilian government has judged this project to be “in the national interest”. A somewhat narrow definition is being applied, no doubt.

I have written before about the dysfunctional banking and free trade system that is slowly tipping the human race into absurdity. Decisions are based on financial criteria that are invalid. Economic science has failed because it does not recognize true value systems. It is intellectually fraudulent.

Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam has published her findings on happiness in the so-called “World Database of Happiness” and her findings are startling. For instance, she suggests that “…the appraisal that one’s life is ‘exciting’ does not necessarily mark oneself as happy [either]; life may be too exciting to be enjoyable. A Chinese curse says: “May you have interesting times”.”

The simple fact is that the human race is enjoying a bit too much of the interesting life. Is it interesting watching the ending of things? Yes, very. Also very disconcerting. Who will be able to sleep while all these crimes are taking place?

If America really is a nation of destiny, a nation that will exert moral force in the world, it must stop its fixation with armed conflict and concentrate on supporting environmentalism. Ultimately, while spending close to a trillion dollars per year on armaments, the country is bankrupting itself (just as the old USSR did) and preventing serious engagement with more important ideas.

The developing countries – China, Brazil, Indonesia, India – are captivated by their growing power. They need to be challenged and opposed in their thoughtless expansion.

The world needs its forests to breathe. It is time for enlightened nations to start fighting for the happy survival of all its peoples, not just political supremacy. The people – that is, you, me, and all of our friends – have to start telling our politicians how tired we are of their rhetoric. Electoral boycott would be a very good start.

Let’s get real. Put down your spoon. Don’t finish your dinner. Do something.


You hate our president. I know the feeling well.

I hated our previous president. His policies struck me as wrong-headed, and his way of expressing himself rubbed me the wrong way almost every time. Perhaps you can relate.