Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bee loss dwarfs Endangered Species anniversary

Honey bees at work. (photo: EcoWatch)
Honey bees at work. (photo: EcoWatch)
By Renee Lewis, Al Jazeera America
29 December 13
Beekeeping and environmental groups have sued the EPA over registering a new pesticide linked to bee deaths.

aturday marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act being signed into law; the occasion, however, is being eclipsed by criticisms about whether government agencies are doing enough to protect some species – bees, especially.

A lawsuit, the first to invoke the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in defense of bees, was filed in March by major U.S. beekeeping associations against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its decision to register a new pesticide called sulfoxaflor.

Sulfoxaflor is a new chemical in the same category as controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids – which scientific studies have shown contribute to mass bee deaths. Several neonicotinoids have been banned in the European Union.

The Pollinator Stewardship Council, American Honey Producers Association, National Honey Bee Advisory Board and the American Beekeeping Federation are among the groups that aim to challenge the EPA's decision in federal court.

On Dec. 13, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a national nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization, filed a legal brief in support of the lawsuit.
The disturbing trend of bee deaths, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has led to mass die-offs of pollinators in recent years and could cause an agricultural disaster.

Without pollinators, many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions and almonds, will also disappear.

"Our country is facing widespread bee colony collapse, and scientists are pointing to pesticides like sulfoxaflor as the cause," Attorney Janette Brimmer of Earthjustice, the public interest law organization representing the groups, said in a press release.

"The effects will be devastating to our nation's food supply and also to the beekeeping industry, which is struggling because of toxic pesticides."

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, recognizing that America's natural heritage is of "esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people." It added that many native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.

As CFS explained in its legal brief, scientists have linked the drastic declines in honey bees and other pollinators to neonicotinoids, like sulfoxaflor, which the EPA has determined to be "very highly toxic" to bees.

Conservationalists worry that the introduction of yet another highly toxic pesticide into the environment will exacerbate the "ecological crisis" that is CCD.

The EPA said in a May 6 press release after it registered sulfoxaflor for public use that the chemical was safe when "used in accordance with the labeling terms and restrictions." The release specifically mentions concerns over pollinators in the release, and argues that "the final label includes robust terms for protecting pollinators."

But there is evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to pollinators even when "used as directed" – such as the largest mass bumblebee die-off ever recorded, which took place this summer in Oregon.

Some 50,000 bees were found dead in a suburban shopping center parking lot in mid-June in Wilsonville, Ore. The cause of death was determined to be a pesticide called Safari, the primary ingredient of which is dinetofuran – a compound in the same class as neonicotinoids, like sulfoxaflor.

About a month later, 37 million bees were found dead in Ontario. One local beekeeper, who lost 600 hives, blamed the heavy use of neonicotinoids on nearby fields where corn had recently been planted.

On Aug. 1, the EPA announced new neonicotinoid labeling requirements that are due to appear on products in 2014. The agency said it is in the process of reviewing several neonicotinoid registrations, which will be completed in 2018.

But beekeepers say the products shouldn't be sold until research is completed. Other scientific research has linked pesticides to CCD, including a March 2012 study published in Science.

Another scientific study published in July in Plos One, an international, peer-reviewed, online publication, said pesticide exposure and pathogens likely interact to contribute to CCD.

Nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the U.S. have vanished, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has said. In some areas of the country, more than 50 percent of bees have disappeared.

There are dozens of neonicotinoid pesticide products, and they are used on approximately 75 percent of all acres planted with food crops –commercial and residential – in the U.S., and on 95 percent of all U.S. corn.

The NRDC links bee deaths to pesticide exposure and adds that the USDA has so far failed to aggressively seek out a solution. Without bees to pollinate many fruits and vegetables, the U.S. could lose $15 billion worth of crops and cause major food shortages, the NRDC said.

Newtown's bloody backpacks

Newtown's Angels. (photo: AP)
Newtown's Angels. (photo: AP)

By Michael Daly, The Daily Beast
29 December 13
A final report released Friday on the Newtown shooting brings even more tragic details.

rom the thousands of documents, photos, and videotapes concerning the Sandy Hook massacre that the Connecticut State Police released on Friday comes this mental image:

Two detectives carefully cutting away the bloodied edges of artwork and school papers of murdered children so the materials could be retuned to their parents.

The image is presented at the end of a two-page report dated May 8, 2013 that begins by recounting a phone call from a father seeking the jacket his murdered son had worn to school that horrific day.

"This detective advised [the father] that all jackets and coats that could be returned had already been turned over, and that if it had not been returned with [the son's] property then it was possible that it had been contaminated and was destroyed," the detective writes.

Contaminated meaning bloodstained.

The report goes on, "[The father] stated that he had gotten [his son's] backpack back, and was unsure why the coat would have been contaminated but not the backpack, as he knows the students to hang their coats underneath their backpacks in the classroom. [The father] asked if it was possible [his son] had been wearing the jacket at the time of the shooting and was advised that since the property receipts for the victims' clothing had not yet been received, that it was a possibility."

The detective writes that he subsequently spoke to a fellow investigator who had helped handle the property of the murdered children in the classrooms. The investigator did not remember seeing such a jacket, but added that many of the items that had been deemed "not salvageable" had already been removed when he took over. He and his partner had "cleaned what they could and went so far as to cut away contaminated edges on the children's art or school work so that it could be boxed up and returned to the families."

In another report, a detective recounts returning the property of one of the surviving children: "One patterned backpack, one windbreaker, size medium, and a blue Camelback water bottle." The detective asked the mother if her child had offered any additional information regarding the shooting.

"She advised that since the incident had had stated that he saw [a classmate] get shot first, and then [his teacher], before he had run out of the classroom," the report says. "[The mother] stated that [her son] has been consistent with his details about the shooter kicking in the door."

The report adds that the mother "stated that her son "had just recently added the detail that when the shooter came in the room he pointed the gun individually at each person, but didn't say anything to anyone."

Another survivor is said by the parents to remain so traumatized that "there have been no breakthroughs which have elicited discussion or information about the shooting from their child."

"They as parents still have no answers to even basic questions from their child," a report notes.

Another detective writes that he chanced to return a murdered child's belongings to the mother "during a Christmas Eve gathering." A detective on a similar mission reports that "the family told me they were not ready to receive the items."

And then there are the transcripts, the most wrenching of them a single line repeated by a Newtown cop as he carried out a critically wounded child.

"Come on, sweetie! Come on, sweetie!"

There is also a transcript of an adult calling 911 from inside the Sandy Hook School as vice principal Natalie Hammond lay bleeding with two bullet wounds.

"She's breathing, but just barely," the caller says,
"Where's the shooter now?" the 911 operator asks.
"He's right outside the door," the caller says. "God, he's shot a hundred times."
"Can you put pressure on the wounds?" the operator asks.
"No," the caller says.
"What's going on?" the operator asks.
"He's fuckin' right outside the door," the caller says.

The caller can be heard whispering to Hammond, "Natalie? How are you?" then telling the operator again, "She's barely breathing."

The caller goes on to say that they had been at a meeting when there were suddenly shots. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and Hammond had stepped outside."

[Hammond] came right back and said, 'I've been shot twice,"' the caller reported. "Natalie's not okay..."

But the police arrived moments later and Hammond survived.

Among the photos released on Friday is a shot of what appears to be a pre-school Adam Lanza sitting before a rack of guns, teething on a pistol that was hopefully a toy.

There is also an evidence photo of a birthday card on which his father had written, "Send me an email when you want to go hiking or shooting, Love, Dad."

And there were more details about the killer. His mom had just been away on a long weekend as an "experiment" to see how he would fare alone. He had his car radio tuned to WPLR ("Connecticut's No. 1 rock station") as he drove to the massacre. He might have kept shooting, but his rifle had what police term "a malfunction of some sort."

The items recovered from the killer's home included his fifth grade yearbook from Sandy Hook Elementary School. There was also the project he prepared that year titled "The Big Book of Granny." The book is covered with black plastic and recounts the shooting of children by characters armed with weapons ranging from a rifle cane to an M-16 much like the assault rifle that the killer would use to kill 20 youngsters and six adults at the school.

"I like to hurt people," one character exults. "Especially children."

A decade later, detectives in that same school cut away the bloodied edges on the projects of other children.

What is even more disturbing than that mental image and all the thousands of reports and pictures and videos is how little we have done to keep it from happening again.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Social Security is under attack

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens to testimony from witnesses during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens to testimony from witnesses during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Elizabeth Warren, Reader Supported News
21 December 13

generation ago, middle-class families were able to put away enough money during their working years to make it through their later years with dignity. On average, they saved about 11 percent of their take-home pay while working. Many paid off their homes, got rid of all their debts and retired with strong pensions from their employers. And where pensions, savings and investments fell short, they could rely on Social Security to make up the difference.

That was the story a generation ago, but since that time, the retirement landscape has shifted dramatically against our families.

Among working families on the verge of retirement, about a third have no retirement savings of any kind, and another third have total savings that are less than their annual income. Many seniors have seen their housing wealth shrink, as well.

According to AARP, in 2012, one out of every seven older homeowners was paying down a mortgage that was higher than the value of their house.

And just as they need to rely more than ever on employer support, employers are withdrawing from their traditional role in helping provide a secure retirement. Two decades ago, more than a third of all private-sector workers - 35 percent - had traditional, defined benefit pensions - pensions that guaranteed a certain monthly payment that retirees knew they could depend on. Today, only 18 percent of private-sector workers have defined benefit pensions. Employers have replaced guaranteed retirement income with savings plans, like 401(k) plans, that leave the retiree at the mercy of the market, and, sometimes, at the mercy of dubious investment products.

These plans often fall short of what retirees need, and nearly half of all American workers don't even have access to those limited plans. This leaves more than 44 million workers without access to a workplace retirement savings plan.

Add all of this up - the dramatic decline in individual savings and the dramatic decline of guaranteed retirement benefits and employer support in return for a lifetime of work - and we're left with a retirement crisis - a crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.

With less savings and weaker private retirement protection, retirees depend more than ever on the safety and reliability of Social Security. Social Security works - no one runs out of benefits, and the guaranteed payments don't rise and fall with the stock market. Two-thirds of seniors rely on it for the majority of their income in retirement, and for 14 million seniors, this is the safety net that keeps them out of poverty. Social Security also protects retirees' spouses and children, disabled workers and family members who survive the death of the family's earner. Here in Essex County alone, 139,280 people receive Social Security benefits.

And at the very time seniors most need to rely on Social Security, it has come under attack. Monthly payments are modest, averaging about $1,250, and over time, the benefits are shrinking in value. This puts a terrible squeeze on our seniors.

Social Security is rapidly becoming the only lifeline that millions of seniors have to keep their heads above water. And, yet, instead of taking on the retirement crisis, instead of strengthening Social Security, some in Washington are actually fighting to cut benefits.

The fact is that today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next 20 years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years - and could even increase benefits.

If we want a real middle class - a middle class that continues to serve as the backbone of our country - then we must take the retirement crisis seriously. Seniors have worked their entire lives and have paid into the system, but right now, more people than ever are on the edge of financial disaster once they retire - and the numbers continue to get worse. That is why we should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits - not cutting them.

The decisions we make about Social Security benefits are not just about math. At their core, these decisions are about our values. I believe we must honor our promises, make good on a system that millions of people paid into faithfully throughout their working years, and support the right of every person to retire with dignity - and that means protecting and expanding Social Security.

The answer: prudent practice of love



Is It Good?  Part III

By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist

Ethics is the summation of the tension between immovable principals and necessary adaptation.  Philosophy forms the questions.  Theology tries to answer.  Religion’s intent is to express our feelings and aspirations.  Culture creates its own ethos.  Good intentions sometimes lead to folly.  Modern evil is not like it was.  It can become common and lacking motives, different from its classic personal form.

Progressive idealism failed to eliminate poverty, suffering, and war.  Disenchantment with consequential government turned the focus to self-interest instead of hope, discouraging talented young people from choosing public service careers.

We have to focus on what is possible, but dishonesty with ourselves, rooted in repressing shame, supports triumphalism and prevents recognizing a deeper truth.  We have to decide whether evil is done by people or happens to people.  Lack of harm is a weak moral standard.

Does every effect have a cause or do sometimes things just happen?  Isaiah 45:7 claims that God created evil, woe, or trouble.  God destroyed Job, a perfect and upright man, without cause, to demonstrate mature faith to Satan.  We have no guarantee.

Sometimes the end justifies the means, but evil acts can be excused that way.   Were we lucky when “mutual assured destruction” did not lead to the destruction of our world?  It was big business, requiring massive coordination of legions of skilled workers that were never required to push the defensive ICBM launch button.  The unthinkable became normal politics.  We could rationalize it because we received support from our coworkers and our jobs were only a tiny part of the total.

If ignorance of evil is the problem, we have to decide what should be taught.  Comprehending evil’s damage should discourage it.  Education can teach about history, government, liberty, self-restraint, duty, justice, and law.  It can teach about critical thinking and propaganda.  It can discuss patriotic moral torture and drone strikes appreciated by Pakistani civilians.  It is precisely the lack of thought that allows an entire society to change its values and compromise its moral standards, opening the door for ordinary moral people to allow monstrous crimes against humanity.  The absence of serious thought increases the likelihood of the “banal evil” that Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) observed in the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ordinary patriotic man, loyal to authority, not demonic, not crazy, who was responsible for the murder of six million Jews.

Does God will things, like the Holocaust, to teach us?  Are disasters a sign of deserved evil?  Tough love has not been enough to teach mankind.  Good intentions sometimes use unloving means, but one should be cautious whenever ultimate truth becomes a particular cause.  We learn, but the same intellect that led us to cure disease also created poison gas.  We have grown cleverer but not wiser through history.

History belongs to civilization, the collective, but yet is separate and individual in its smallest consequences.  History seems to have a spiritual transcendence.  It depends on the past, is crafted in the present, and points toward the future.  Do moments in history stand independently as good or evil, or are they misunderstood workings of a larger plan that will come to fruition in the maturity of time?

Predestination is God’s will, bounded by freedom, time (not well understood by science), mystery (a seductive inadequate antidote for irrationality) and the need to make the supernatural concrete.  Does God delegate some things to mankind?  Salvation, damnation, who, and why, hang in the balance.  It has troubled theologians for thousands of years.  It seems to stumble into injustice.  Is it unfair for an omnipotent loving God to create inadequate, sinful people?  Should the predestined dammed suffer eternally so others will appreciate their salvation and satisfy God’s need for adoration?

Civilized Evil
Politics is cruel.  It was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who taught us that leadership requires a heart of stone.  The State has to have a monopoly on the death penalty because the most important objective is stability, but does the end justify the means?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn told of Huck’s moral quandary.  Should he follow the dictates of his conscience or should he obey the morality he had been taught?  Society held that Jim, an escaped slave, must be turned in to the authorities, but Jim was Huck’s good friend, a human being, not property.

Old school books sugar-coated institutionalized slavery, focusing on the sacrifices of slave owners to benefit and promote the well-being of their slaves.  They failed to recognize, as Lincoln did in his second inaugural address, that the dehumanizing evil of slavery belonged to both the North and the South.

The civil war was still being fought in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King reminded us that fairness, justice, and equal opportunity belonged to all races in America.  Today, we have a second civil war, about politics and its treatment of Gays, women, immigrants, the disadvantaged, and the common man.

We start, like Pinocchio, by learning a personal morality, but it runs a risk of growing egoism.  Restricting morality to the personal is a way to avoid responsibility to live in the world.  Learning to live together has never been easy.  The Bible reveals many stories of conflict and cruelty.  It is no wonder monks retreat from the world to live the moral life.  Utility to society is a benchmark for virtue, but it is hard to see how fasting, self-denial, and mortification help the self-actualizing individual or society.

Alan Turing, the father of our computer age, lived in the intersection of science, math, and philosophy.  Famous for breaking the WWII German Enigma code, he pondered whether all problems could be quickly solved with binary true-false sequences.  A convicted and punished homosexual; he committed suicide at the age of forty-one in 1954, but was recently pardoned by the British government.  His life exemplified the moral difficulty that we write about.  How did his public disgrace and resulting death make the world a better place?

A society that becomes less creative and more consuming becomes increasingly tolerant of misrepresentation, confusing it with marketing one’s strengths and serving customers.  “Let the buyer beware” is the slogan that legitimizes deception and fraud.

Politics asserts that conservatives are more ethical than liberals, but social psychology claims that cultures define their own morality based on subconscious feelings.  Rationality’s force is difficult to measure because it is hidden in human complexity.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), influenced by two world wars, and the development of the machine gun, poison gas, and the atomic bomb, felt that political parties, societies, and nations were likely to be less moral than individuals because of collective self-interest and nativism.  Self-centeredness, not ethics, is what governs large group behavior when anonymity promotes a lack of intimate personal interaction and sympathy for the impersonal, faceless other.  Sentimentality is inadequate when it comes to complex matters.  Love’s reach is limited.  When evil becomes corporate, it embeds itself deeply.  Needed internal criticism becomes disloyal, not on the team, or unpatriotic.  The unselfish, complying, compromising individual inadvertently helps to make the group more selfish and rigidly centered in its ideology.

Powerful Evil
History’s revision claims that there was no Nazi Holocaust, but the facts show that Nazism was enthusiastically accepted by most Germans.  The Holocaust survivors say it must never be forgotten and it wasn’t.  Instead it was perfected in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, and now it rears its ugly head in the Central African Republic.

Evil went beyond genocide and cruelty to attack morality and Jewish faith.  The covenant is the thread that ties together all the books of the Bible.  It is the story of the promise to Noah to not destroy the world with floods again, the promise to make Abraham the father of nations and an example of faith, the story of a people taken from slavery to an independent nation.  The horror of the Holocaust was a new kind of evil, without precedent.  The covenant with the people of Israel had been broken.  The God of traditional Jewish faith and goodness died.  If not, God’s silence made him an accomplice in murder and destruction.

Society wants justice more than virtue.  Sometimes that slips into revenge.  Victory determines good and evil, not individual conscience.  Patriotic duty, ideology, partisanship, and intense devotion to the cause become a matter of duty, personal integrity, and an individual responsibility that allows evil to become bureaucratic, acceptable and ordinary.  Somehow these virtues, turned upside down, in situations where people have gotten along with one another for centuries, suddenly light the fires of slaughter and extermination.

The moral conscience becomes inverted when the threat to gun rights, caused by public reaction to the murder of innocent children, becomes more important than the threat to humanity caused by guns everywhere, when wealth redistribution is a greater menace than a broken health care system, when fairness to children, brought illegally to America by their parents, becomes less important than “no amnesty” and when the “detention bed mandate” promotes a culture of sadism, imprisonment and deportation for minor offenses.  Social evil makes ordinary people heartless participants in cruelty.  Heinrich Himmler proved this in 1943 when he assured SS leaders that despite what they had gone through in exterminating Jews, they had remained “decent” and had become “tough”.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), was the founder of cultural relativity.  He felt that morality was a social construct, not inherently in human nature, that was necessary for a stable society.  Secular cultural relativity comes not from philosophy, but from anthropology and psychology.  It is the idea that what is good is habitual and constructed by society.  The person who marches to the beat of a different drummer is regarded as aberrant.  Regardless, we find it difficult to accept the Nazi Holocaust.

The theologians and philosophers of the past realized that moral decisions must consider circumstances. Ethical relativity is not a moral nihilism.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) expressed it accurately when he wrote,  “The responsible man acts in the freedom of his own self, without the support of men, circumstances or principles, but with a consideration for the given human and general conditions and for the relevant questions of principle.  The proof of his freedom is the fact that nothing can answer for him; nothing can exonerate him, except his own deed and his own self.  It is himself who must observe, judge, weigh up, decide and act.  It is he himself who must examine the motives, the prospects, the value, and the purpose of his action.  But neither the purity of the motivation, nor the opportune circumstances, nor the value, nor the significant purpose of an intended undertaking can become the governing law of his action, a law to which he can withdraw, to which he can appeal as an authority, and by which he can be exculpated and acquitted, for in that case he would indeed no longer be truly free.”

Writing about evil is like writing about music.  It can never duplicate the experience of listening.  Evil will always be ambiguous and uncertain, but that is part of our creative freedom.  There is no “truth decay” here.  Certainty must not be confused with truth. Theories won’t make us moral.  What then can help us?  Only love is eternally unchanging but adaptable to deal with profit-margin over principle, technical advancement beyond virtue and wisdom, and individualism over interdependence.  Love relinquishes power and control to be at the service of the other.  It is up to us to figure out what the prudent practice of love means.

A&E caves to bigot for money

Phil Robertson, of the A&E hit reality series 'Duck Dynasty,' has angered the gay rights group GLAAD with comments he made about homosexuals in the January issue of 'GQ.' (photo: A&E)
Phil Robertson, of the A&E hit reality series 'Duck Dynasty,' has angered the gay rights group GLAAD with comments he made about homosexuals in the January issue of 'GQ.' (photo: A&E)

Freedom of Speech Doesn't Entitle Duck Dynasty Star to Reality TV Show

By Jill Filipovic, Guardian UK
21 December 13

Phil Robertson was suspended by A&E for bigoted comments in GQ. Conservatives cry foul, but it hardly violates his rights

he right to free speech isn't just a fundamental American value; it's enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution. If only the most loud-mouthed among us actually understood what it says. Here's what the First Amendment offers: you can say, write or publish pretty much whatever you want, no matter how offensive (with a few exceptions), and the government can't step in and censor you or put you in jail.

Here's what the first amendment doesn't do: allow you to say, write or publish whatever you want, no matter how offensive, and also entitle you to a giant pay check from your starring role on a cable reality TV show.

This isn't exactly Harvard-level legal theory, but many Republicans, Christian organizations and garden-variety tweeters enjoy spouting off about their love of freedom and the Constitution while remaining disturbingly unaware of what the Bill of Rights actually says and means. The right-wing passion for a set of ideals they claim to revere - but remain ignorant of - is not new, but it's news again this week. They're up in arms at the suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for a series of homophobic and bigoted remarks he made to GQ magazine. Professional consequences for bigoted comments, they say, violate the constitutional right to free speech.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said:
Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don't agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views.
Yes, everyone is entitled to express his or her views. Not everyone is entitled to keep their jobs, though, if they decide to express views that are entirely odious and potentially costly to their employer. Certainly the founders didn't mean "free country" as short-hand for "free to be on the reality show of your choice".

Jindal's argument that liberals are tolerant of everything except intolerance is Tweedle Dumb to the similarly vapid adage "everyone is entitled to their opinion". Everyone has opinions; but why, exactly, are all opinions deserving of the same deference and respect? Especially when they come from people who can't tell the difference between promoting tolerance and respect of all human beings, and objecting when someone makes a comment that demonizes an already marginalized group?

This isn't to say that A&E is entirely innocent here. They created a show based around a group of people who are obvious loose cannons with questionable viewpoints. Then they feign shock when those same loose cannons express their questionable viewpoints in the media. Crass and mercenary? Absolutely. But violating constitutional precepts? Not even close.

Not one to be outdone when it comes to public idiocy, Sarah Palin jumped in with her creative interpretation of the first amendment. She wrote on Facebook:
Free speech is an endangered species. Those "intolerants" hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
She would know. By that logic, Palin herself was censored by the American public of "intolerants" when we declined to elect her vice president of the United States, leaving her with only a book deal, speaking engagements and, yes, a reality show to pay the bills.

Robertson's statements were bigoted by any reasonable definition, not just in the opinion of us "hatin' intolerants". The homophobia has been getting the most press, but don't worry, there's racism as well. When it comes to gay people, Robertson said:
It seems like, to me, a vagina - as a man - would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: it's not logical, my man. It's just not logical.
It's probably not news to most folks that as a straight man, Roberts is likely to be more interested in a woman's vagina than a man's anus. How another man's interest in other men's underwear-parts impacts Roberts is beyond me. But apparently it makes other men have more sex with women and also an animal here or there, because sin:
Starts with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.
Start with a male anus, and next thing you know, you're screwing every woman on the block, and a few particularly attractive neighborhood goats. No one said bigotry was logical. Robertson continued:
Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers - they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right.
Perhaps he should take it as a blessing, then, that his personal greed will no longer be enabled by A&E. Robertson went on to discuss the cotton-field musicals of happy black people in the Jim Crow south:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field … they're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, "I tell you what: these doggone white people" - not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Actually, singing the blues is exactly what a lot of black people were doing in the pre-Civil Rights era South, but facts aren't exactly Robertson's strong suit. Neither, you will be shocked to learn, is his understanding of geopolitical history:
All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I'll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That's 80 years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.
If you want to talk about groups that are known for their propensity for killing, you might want to start with Robertson's home state of Louisiana, which boasts the highest murder rate in the country. And Robertson's assertions about where Jesus is and isn't allowed are embarrassingly wrong. But not any more wrong than Bobby Jindal, who - as an elected executive official - one would expect to have at least a tenuous grasp of the bill of rights. Jindal said:
I remember when TV networks believed in the first Amendment. It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.
In what golden age of television did networks believe in the first amendment, apparently letting people say whatever they wanted regardless of their network affiliation? Because last time I checked, the major networks won't even broadcast the word "blowjob" in primetime, let alone open their airways to anything and everything (can you even say "anus" on TV?).

The right to freely speak your mind without government interference is crucial. But few of us are permitted in the course of our employment to say whatever we want without consequence from our employer. Being on a reality show is Robertson's job.

He disgraced his employer and made comments so offensive that A&E would almost surely have seen an audience and advertiser backlash had they not reacted swiftly. Declining to continue filming someone for a reality television show after they let loose a series of asinine and bigoted remarks in a magazine interview is not "discrimination", no matter how much Christian organizations insist it is. It is not an indication that A&E refuses to treat faith-based consumers' views "with equality and respect". It does not mean A&E "excludes the views of faith-driven consumers and effectively censors a legitimate viewpoint held by the majority of Americans".

Unless by not featuring me on a reality show, A&E is censoring me and my legitimately-held viewpoints. Where's Bobby Jindal when I need him?

These are the same folks, by the way, who cry foul, demand apologies and insist companies pull their ads from major networks whenever Britney Spears moves her butt in a way that stirs their shorts. Gyrating hips? Time for a sex panic. A tirade of ignorance about gay people, African-Americans, Muslims, Shintos and vast swaths of Eastern and Central Europe? Just another day in a GOP where the leading argument against Obamacare this week is, "That pajama dude in the ad looks like a fag".

Robertson is still entitled to say whatever he wants to GQ, Bobby Jindal or anyone else who will listen. He is entitled to do so without fearing imprisonment, arrest, government censure or any other punishment from the police or the courts. Americans are fortunate to live in a country that offers us such openness.

Robertson, like any of us, is entitled to the full enjoyment of that freedom.

What he's not entitled to is a reality show.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Two good news stories on eve of 2014


While Republicans fight an increase in the national minimum wage, thirteen states, including Arizona, will raise their minimum wages Jan. 1. 

Overall an estimated 1.4 million workers in those states will get a raise.  Washington state will have the highest minimum wage at $9.32 with Oregon close behind at $9.10.  Arizona's minimum wage will rise to $7.90.

The other states raising their minimum wages are Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.  After the increases a total of 21 states will have an hourly minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25.


The first batch of Denver businesses approved to sell recreational marijuana got their licenses Friday.  The city awarded eight licenses for retail shops, 30 licenses for pot growers, and four licenses for makers of cannabis-infused products such as pot brownies.

Marijuana becomes legal for recreational use in Colorado on Jan. 1.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Obama's Not-So-Terrible Year

Was 2013 a good year for the President? (photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)
Was 2013 a good year for the President? (photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

By Robert Parry, Consortium News
27 December 13

t has become conventional wisdom to say that President Barack Obama has suffered through a terrible year in 2013 - and if his slumping poll numbers are the only gauge, then these pundits may have a point. But much of this analysis simply marches in lockstep with the neocon view of Obama's supposed foreign policy "failures," which may not be failures at all.

Indeed, there's a strong argument to be made that Obama's fifth year in office will be viewed as a historic turning point in U.S. relations with the Middle East, albeit one the neocons and much of Official Washington detest, thus explaining the hostility in their year-end critiques.

For instance, if the neocons and the many tough guys/gals inside the Beltway had their way in 2013, the U.S. military would have pummeled Syria in retaliation for its alleged (though still unproven) role in the Aug. 21 Sarin gas incident outside Damascus. We now know that the neocons' desired bombing campaign would have been coordinated with a ground offensive by the Saudi-Israeli-favored, Sunni-dominated jihadist rebels, possibly leading to "regime change" in Syria.

The U.S. assault also would likely have destroyed hopes of a nuclear agreement with Iran, thus raising the likelihood that Obama would have been goaded into a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. At each step of these escalations, the neocons would be egging Obama on, calling him "weak" and "indecisive" if he failed to ratchet up the pressure and violence.

Amid this mounting chaos, the neocons would have demonstrated that even when they are not sitting in the Oval Office, they could still direct U.S. foreign policy through their continued dominance of the op-ed pages of major newspapers, like the Washington Post, and via their strategic positioning at leading Washington think tanks.

Across Official Washington, there was a palpable sense of disappointment and even anger last summer when Obama abruptly halted the rush toward war with Syria, first seeking congressional support for a military strike and then accepting the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin in negotiating a graceful exit from the crisis by getting the Syrian government to surrender all its chemical weapons (though still denying a role in the Aug. 21 attack).

That was followed by Obama completing a historic deal with Iran, trading some sanctions relief for additional safeguards to ensure that Iran's nuclear program did not lead to a bomb. That tentative agreement disrupted what had been years of a carefully crafted neocon propaganda campaign to push the two sides into a military confrontation, as favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama's diplomatic offensive also has included pressing for meaningful Syrian peace talks in Geneva and pushing Iran to adopt a more constructive role in the region. All of this has infuriated the Saudi-Israeli alliance which favored escalating confrontations with the Syrian and Iranian governments. Back in the U.S., the neocons have never given up their dream of engineering multiple "regime changes."

The mainstream U.S. news media has mostly chalked up Obama's diplomacy with Syria and Iran as evidence of his "failures" - part of the meme about his disastrous year - but these moves could be seen as important achievements, indeed historic successes. Finally locating the keys to unlock the rigid hostility between Washington and Tehran is a diplomatic victory arguably on par with Richard Nixon's opening to China four decades ago.

If the neocons and the tough guys/gals don't disrupt this progress, history could look back on 2013 as a moment when a U.S. president finally stood up to well-entrenched interests favoring evermore warfare in the Middle East and found a new route around those endless battlefields.

What About Obamacare?

History also might clarify how Americans rate other developments in Obama's fifth year. The implementation of health-care reform, as rocky as it was, could mark another turning point - in how the U.S. government addresses the needs of the people.

Republicans hope that their one-note campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act will carry them to major election victories in 2014, and they may be right. But they also could confront voter skepticism over whether the GOP has any plan for improving the expensive, wasteful and indeed scandalous way that the U.S. health-care system has worked for generations.

The myriad problems confronting "Obamacare" also could have the effect of leading the nation toward more liberal reforms, such as a public option or a single-payer system as more efficient and more humane ways of structuring healthcare. Under the new law, states can experiment with single-payer approaches, as Vermont is doing, possibly setting a trend for the nation.

In 2013, Obama also forced the Republicans to back down on their strategy of taking the U.S. economy hostage - through government shutdowns and with threats to default on the nation's debt - and demanding major political concessions or else.

The failure of those GOP extortion tactics in October and the Senate's rule change in November to limit Republican filibusters of presidential nominees were serious setbacks for the Right's insistence that - despite losing the 2012 elections - it should be allowed to control U.S. government policies.

Developments outside Obama's control also might work eventually to his advantage. Clearly, during his first term, he was outgunned by the national security apparatus when it came to reining in key aspects of President George W. Bush's "war on terror."

Fearing the political consequences from another terrorist attack - especially if he had constrained the national security state - Obama let much of the apparatus roll on and even grow. After a flurry of openness and reform at the start of his presidency in 2009, such as declassifying torture memos and seeking to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Obama retreated under withering political fire.

Now, thanks to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, the political landscape has shifted against the "surveillance state." Obama himself has suffered serious defections from his political "base" as a result of the disclosures, contributing to his dismal approval ratings.

The altered terrain gives Obama the opportunity, if he chooses to take it, to finally address these residual problems that he inherited from the Bush-43 administration. There seems to be less opposition in Congress now to phasing out Guantanamo and more support for reforming the NSA's spying.

Whether Obama takes advantage of this opening - created by Snowden and other brave whistleblowers - will be a test of whether his critics on the Left are correct, that Obama's campaign talk of "change we can believe in" was just empty rhetoric, or whether Obama has felt intimidated by the extraordinary powers of the national security state, as some like ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern have suggested.

The more obvious truth is that the U.S. news media is often wrong in its superficial snapshot judgments of how history will view some year or some event. The real test of whether President Obama had a disastrous year in 2013 will be measured by what happens in 2014 and beyond.

Cowards cheat when they can't win fair and square

Because Freedom Can't Protect Itself     

[Gazette Blog Editor's note: While I don't usually advertise my longstanding membership in the ACLU because, for some reason, this organization really freaks out my right wing friends, I am hereby making an exception - because even honest, honorable righties would have to agree with this cause, and because maybe it will help show my righty friends that the ACLU really does stand for the right things, the things that all of us should value most about our country.]

Dear Friends, 

Call me old-fashioned but I believe that elections should be decided by how many votes you can win, not how many voters you can keep away from the polling booth.

And yet, all across the country, new voter suppression laws are popping up seemingly every day. These laws are stupid and dangerous because they take aim at America's most vulnerable voters — people of color, the poor, the elderly, students and the disabled. It's just wrong.

 I've had enough and I'm fighting back with everything I've got. That's why I've signed on to work with you and the ACLU to help stop voter suppression. I'm doing what I can to help — will you join me?


Cheat. That's what cowards do when they can't win an election fair and square. These voter suppression laws aren't designed to get more people to vote, but are aimed at making sure fewer people vote.

Someone needs to fight back — to stand up for one of our most treasured fundamental freedoms. And that someone is the ACLU.

 With your support, ACLU legal teams are on-the-ground in all 50 states working to expand voter participation and defend voting rights. And the whole organization is gearing up for an all-out voter protection effort in the 2014 elections. If cynical efforts to undermine voting rights make you as angry as they make me, now is the time to act.

I don't always agree with the ACLU. Who does? But, surely we all can agree that, trying to stop people from voting isn't democratic. It's stupid and evil and needs to be challenged at every turn. Let's stand with the ACLU as they lead the fight to protect voting rights.


Sincerely, Lewis-Black-signature
Lewis Black

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bill O’Reilly wages war on Jesus

White House/Pete Souza

By Robert Scheer

Maybe it is time to put Christ back in Christmas. Bill O’Reilly annually demands we acknowledge that the man, or myth, that has been moved to the center of this once pagan ritual be properly identified with a religion, or philosophy as he puts it, that carries a moral message. True, the nation’s early Puritan settlers considered the holiday somewhat blasphemous, but we obviously are in need of moral guidance from any quarter that is plausible.

So, what would Jesus do about the profound inequality of opportunity that both the pope and our president have identified as the most pressing moral crisis of our time? O’Reilly didn’t cotton to the statements of either man and took particular umbrage over the comments that the spiritual leader of his own Catholic faith made in late November: “... Pope Francis said that income inequality is immoral. ... I don’t know if Jesus is going to be down with that.”

It is a timely question to ponder when many of us honor the purported moment of Christ’s birth with a last minute burst of shopping so desperate as to suggest the gluttony of the Roman Empire that led the early Christians to revolt in disgust. It is an indulgence much in evidence today, as the pope warns: “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalance and, above all, their lack of concern for human beings. ...”

Score one for the pope. Although there is much to argue about in Christ’s enduring legacy, divinely inspired or not, there can be no doubt that equality of opportunity is explicit in the core Christian doctrine that every infant has a soul as significant as that of any other, and that we all will be judged by how well we respect the sanctity of the lives of those born into the most forlorn of circumstance.

That is also the crisis of the moment. As President Obama stated recently in pledging, once again, that he would treat the growing inequality of opportunity as “the defining challenge of our time,” he noted “the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story.” That precept drew heavily upon the predominant Christian faith of the settlers even as they betrayed it in their treatment of this land’s original natives and its imported slaves.
Clearly the nation’s founders skipped Christ’s tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke where a compassionate response to a disheveled wretch is offered as the necessary requirement for eternal salvation. But it is the sentiment that informed Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation condemning the growing worldwide gulf between the super-rich and the vast majority of more humble folk:

“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limit. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the rule. ... Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God.”

Quite a challenge for our nation that largely continues to request at every public occasion that God bless America. We are a country, as our president tells us, where “the problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years. A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. ... The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”

What we stand for is a launching pad for multinational corporations that wantonly exploit the resources and peoples of this planet with abandon. All the while, these modern plunderers are protected by the massive military power of a U.S. government that those same corporations refuse to support with the profits they have buried abroad. In return, they stuff the shopping malls, real and virtual, with an intoxicating display of imperial spoils that most of our citizens can barely afford.

Sorry, Bill, Jesus is not going to be down with that; trust the pope on this one.