Friday, March 31, 2006

Who is George Mason and should anybody care?

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, in my sports teams, music I listen to and companies I support. The “David vs. Goliath” scenario has always intrigued me. While sometimes these match-ups end up being more media hype than a legitimate mismatch, this year’s run by George Mason University, rising like cream, from the bottom of the pile of 64 basketball teams, to the NCAA Men’s Final Four, is the real deal and has captivated both the hard-core fan and jaded sports enthusiasts, alike.

To give you an idea of how my favorite teams usually fared, I’ll share one from my boyhood, that being about the 1972 Texas Rangers. I fell in love with this team due to my enjoyment of watching the underdog Washington Senators and huge Frank Howard (6'6", 250 pounds), who appeared larger than life, even on the primitive black and white TV that I first watched Red Sox games on. I also developed a fixation for a young Senators' player, Jeff Burroughs, a powerful right-handed slugger, who as an 18-year-old bonus baby, received his hitting instruction from a manager named Ted Williams, a pretty good hitter in his own right. The ’72 Rangers were a woeful team, hence, my fascination with them. With a woeful 54-100 record, they finished dead last in the American League West Division that summer. Burroughs showed his appreciation for my adulation by never answering the 15 or more requests I sent him for an autograph. Fucking asshole!! (Apparently still a sore spot)

Williams had been voted AL manager-of-the-year in 1969, for leading the Senators to a respectable 3rd place finish. If you know the Senators’ sordid past, you’ll know that winning 86 games as their skipper made Williams worthy of that honor. Williams followed up his successful 1969 campaign with season totals of 72 wins in 1970 and 69 wins in 1971. In 1972, Williams and his Senators found themselves in the Texas no-man’s-land of Arlington, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. While the Splendid Splinter was a wonderful hitter and reputable hitting coach, he was never much of a manager. At the end of ’72, the late Red Sox slugger found himself out of a job.

Back to George Mason. This unlikely crew of college basketball players have captivated college basketball fans nationwide. Despite finishing the regular season with a 23-7 mark, they were a surprise selection for the NCAA tournament, mostly because the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA), isn’t considered one of the elite conferences and there were doubts about their strength of schedule. They did win a key “bracket buster” game against perennial national power, Wichita State, back in February (and also beat them in the NCAA tournament). Still, the CAA hasn’t receive an at-large invitation to the big dance since 1986, when Richmond (now a member of the Atlantic-10) received an at-large invitation.

Despite the incredulity expressed by ESPN host, Billy Packer, at GMU’s at-large bid to the tourney, all GMU has done is march through the NCAA field, with four upset victories and now will face Florida (a great story in their own right) tomorrow, at 6:05 PM. Can this Hollywood movie in the making script give us one more (or the unthinkable, two) victory?

What I’ve been impressed with about GMU, is that unlike many other traditional basketball powers, who year-after-year end up in the Final Four, this university is actually a school where the emphasis has always been on academics. It’s ironic that a school like Mason, has to rely on college athletics to receive any national attention. As their president, Alan Merten (in an interview with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, this AM) expressed, this is a great opportunity for the school and sometimes, particularly for a school like his—only in existence since 1972—sports success is what it takes to get noticed. Obviously he understands America’s obsession with “bread and circuses.”

One interesting note about George Mason, since immigration policy has dominated the news of late, is the diversity of this Fairfax, Virginia-based school. There are 140 different nationalities on campus, as well as 85 languages represented. Merten mentioned that 30 to 35 percent of the student body are either foreign-born or first-generation Americans.

Will the Patriots be able to finish strong with their improbable Cinderella story? Obviously, it would be a Hollywood scenario, ala Hoosiers, if they did in fact beat the higher-seed, Florida. One thing is for certain, much of the country will be rooting for them.

The Washington Post does a nice article on the team’s coach, Jim Larranaga.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Liberals kill kids

I’m all for freedom of religion. While I no longer find much validity in practicing any organized form of spirituality, I don’t hold it against others who gain strength and solace from a belief in a higher being.

Then again, when I hear right-wing windbags like Rick Scarborough, blather his nonsense about how “liberals are killing kids,” I suddenly get defensive and think about reneging on my kindness and magnanimity towards religious folk.

What I have to tell myself is that right-leaning nut jobs like Rick Scarborough, are dyed-in-the-wool members of the American Taliban and that he doesn’t represent most religious practitioners in America, just a small, vocal minority. Oh, but an annoying minority they are.

This morning, one of my favorite progressive radio jocks, Rachel Maddow, of Air America, graciously extended an invitation to Scarborough, to talk about his book, Liberalism Kills Kids. With the book’s provocative title and more than enough experience with small-minded religious bigots, like Scarborough, I wasn’t feeling overly optimistic for Maddow’s chances of conducting an honest interview with Scarborough. My doubts had nothing to do with Maddow, who is a tough, but fair-minded interviewer. My concern was blowhards like Scarborough, who talk, talk, talk and never allow the host a word, edgewise.

Scarborough didn’t disappoint me. He rarely allowed Maddow any opportunity to conduct an interview. He ran his mouth, nonstop, during the entire segment. Maddow was only able to get an opportunity to talk by shaming Scarborough into giving up the mike for just a few seconds.

The best part of Scarborough’s playing the victim card, was his insistence that America persecutes Christians and prevents them from practicing their faith. What gives so-called followers of Jesus, like Scarborough, such a persecution complex? They continually assert that their rights are being violated, with little hard evidence to support that contention. In fact, I'd say that anti-intellectual bigots, like Scarborough, have had more than their fair share of face time given them, by the mainstream media. IMHO, I'd be more than happy to see them crawl back under the slippery rock they slithered from.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Myths, stereotypes and scapegoating

America is a nation of myths. Many Americans, refusing to learn the sophistication necessary to resist hate speech and anti-immigrant propaganda, continue to perpetuate many stories and urban legends regarding those who come here from other countries. Additionally, the use of stereotypes and scapegoating apparently helps them to feel more secure.

Take for example, a story on Saturday, in the Boston Globe. This illustrates how looking at facts and evidence dispels many of these myths.

The example found in the Globe, shows that drug usage, often blamed on those damn “minorities,” is actually fueled by white people and their predisposition to illegal narcotics. Yet, even though the Globe story references a study commissioned by the Boston Public Health Commission, many Bostonians will continue to blame the scourge of drugs on people with darker complexions.

The current furor being raised over immigration is another example of how it is so much easier to stereotype and scapegoat Hispanics and others, wanting to come here, with aspirations for a better life. However, politicians and others have used fear and misinformation to once again paint an ugly picture that varies remarkably from the facts.

Our country has a long history of anti-immigrant bias, going back to the 18th century when Ben Franklin said that German immigrants “will never assimilate, learn English, and understand freedom.”

When American deplore our country being “taken over by immigrants,” the actual percentage of foreign born citizens currently stands at 8 percent of the total population, compared to the rate being as high as 15 percent from 1870, to 1920, when my own grandparents arrived from Germany.

Rather than most immigrants arriving illegally, eight out of 11 actually arrive via legal means. And rather than focusing on the “scourge” of illegals swarming across our borders, endangering us, we might want to look at the history of how immigrants are exploited by corporations and other true-blue Americans, such as Mount Olive Pickle, and others. This is the real story of immigration. Groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their ongoing work to publicize the way that immigrant farm workers continue to be mistreated and experience an uphill struggle to be treated with dignity and receive fair pay for honest work, is just one example of an organization bringing some sanity to the discussion of immigration. The problem with the truth, however, is the capacity it has to make bigoted and racially backward white people a little uncomfortable, enough so that they return to their palatable stereotypes and the scapegoating of immigrants.

I urge readers to refrain from stereotypes and scapegoating and learn to break down long held myths, often rooted in lies and half-truths. The tactics of divide and conquer used by the elite in our nation, makes all the rest of us weaker and vulnerable.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Leadership deferred

Often, it’s difficult to focus the laser of critique on one cause for the current myriad of problems besetting America. While there are obviously many that choose to wear rose-colored glasses in looking at the world, a realist doesn’t have to look long, or hard at these issues, to recognize that something just isn’t right.

At the risk of sounding simplistic and incurring the charge of playing the nostalgia card, I think one of our core deficiencies as Americans is the dearth of any kind of leadership, whether we’re talking about politics, business, sports, or any other sphere of American life.

The current culture of corruption that appears to be a pandemic has overtaken every aspect of our daily routines. From the very top, flowing downwards from D.C. to Peoria, Poughkeepsie and Portland, this lack of leadership is exacting a heavy toll in the present, but more importantly, the ramifications concerning our future are infused with greater gravity.

Last night, during question time after my presentation to a small, but spirited audience at the public library in South Portland, the subject came up concerning the changes in our towns that have led to the loss of community and connectedness. One gentleman talked about how youngsters today, have every aspect of their lives organized for them. Unlike the past, when sandlot baseball games and other childhood pursuits forced children to learn how to deal with conflict, our present day finds childhood overly structured and totally controlled by parents and other adults. As a result, young people never experience real-life crisis management and don’t learn how to resolve differences and conflict.

By extension, this leads to an entire generation who not only haven’t acquired leadership skills, but also, the current crop of so-called elders, who should be modeling leadership, are instead teaching our youth that pragmatic corruption is the way to go.

Here is just one more example of how our current president, says one thing and when the cameras and microphones are turned off, resorts to his usual duplicitous ways. How can we expect and exact honesty, integrity and ethics from our youngest citizens, when at every turn, they see corruption, greed and cruelty applauded and handsomely rewarded?

This culture of corruption and greed is a national crisis and unless we corporately find a way to correct this downward spiral, I can’t see much hope at all for the future. I’m obviously not a believer in Social Darwinism. To hold to that philosophy leads to a race to the bottom, which is the direction we are headed as a nation.

How do we correct this and right the ship? I’m not optimistic that we can, unless we see a radical re-engineering of society. We are way beyond the ability to put Band-aid fixes on our problems. From the crisis of peak oil, to the devastation of our environment and extending to our increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, our fixation on military solutions over diplomacy and ultimately holding the belief that technology can save us from ourselves, is delusional thinking at best and potentially apocalyptic, at worst. Putting our faith in “bling, bling” violates the most basic tenets of religion and it certainly heaps manure on aspects of any kind of meaningful social contract.

Hyper-capitalism, paired with our belief that technology will ride in on a white horse to save us, is a fairy tale. Many pride themselves on their rationalism when it comes to believing in a deity, or higher power, yet they are worse than the most rabid fundamentalist when it comes to recognizing that the gods of money, power, and technology are just as powerless to save them, as is pie-in-the-sky religious belief.

Like any trouble-shooter worth their pay, Americans need to trace our way back to a place and time when things worked. At least a time when democracy hadn’t become a national joke and the defining measure of a man (or woman) wasn’t the size of their bank account (or cup size), or the prestige derived from the automobile they drove, or the house they lived in.

Personally, I don’t have to look back that far to remember people that I knew growing up, who modeled to me the kind of bedrock values I’m talking about. I’m not nostalgically hearkening back to some golden age, either. My late father-in-law, a member of the last great generation of Americans, the WWII set, was a daily example of an American who possessed integrity and carried himself with dignity. He didn’t live a life of glitz and didn’t rely on conspicuous consumption to define who he was. He regularly gave many hours to his community, church (Unitarian Universalist), and family, asking nothing in return. There were tens of thousands of others, just like him, members of a generation that’s disappearing. I fear that no one is willing, or even capable to step forward to fill the void that’s left with their departures.

As I mentioned to my audience last night, I could name countless men and women that I knew personally, growing up in my small town of Lisbon Falls, who modeled integrity to a young lad like me. Many of them were my paper route customers. From the quiet dignity of their lives lived, shaped by Yankee frugality and the golden rule, these people left an indelible mark on me that’s impossible to ignore.

Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about those days of yesteryear. Of living in a place where the size of your home, or the car you drove didn’t matter to your friends, or your family. A place where you knew your neighbors and regardless of what was happening in other parts of the world, your little corner seemed secure and in capable hands.

At the present time, I don’t have any faith that anyone’s at the switch, whether it’s here in my hometown of Durham, at the state house in Augusta, or in our nation’s seat of power, Washington, D.C. Neither am I confident of others I see in charge of our businesses, banks, or our churches.

We are truly up a creek, without a paddle, as the saying goes, and the current keeps pushing us in a direction that some of us do not want to go in.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Truth arrives unexpectantly, from right field

No matter how much Karl Rove and the smoke and mirrors crew at the White House spin reality, things are not going particularly well for the Bush administration. With poll numbers in the upper 30s and headed south, civil war threatened in Iraq, and Americans growing weary with war, the spin room has its mojo working overtime. Of late, President Bush has been out and about, trying desperately to put a fresh face on his inability to admit mistakes and embrace the miserable failure of a presidency he’s lorded over for eight years.

For much of his two terms, whenever things got tough and public opinion veered from his own views on the war, the president could always pull out his favorite “get out of jail free”card from the deck; that being the face card of fear. And each time, like putty in his hand, the bleating masses would quietly fall back into lock step, chanting, “the war on terror.” Like the boy who cried wolf, however, you can only trot this out so many times before even the most timid of subjects refuse to cower back into the shadows.

With a palpable malaise blanketing the country, there is a sense coming from every corner that something needs to be done to right the ship. The only constituency that Bush seems capable of keeping firmly planted in his pocket, is the hardcore Kool-Aid drinkers of the hard right.

While the mainstream media has been slow to turn on this president, there is much more critical coverage and scrutiny happening of late. Actual questions are being asked concerning wire-tapping and spying on Americans, as well as the long-term forecast for troop deployment in Iraq.

For me, the first significant signal that President Bush has lost his hold on the country and that the tide may be turning, is when longtime members of the establishment begin to circle the wagons and call for wholesale changes. Obviously, former Marine Captain and current U.S. Congressman John Murtha’s call last November for immediate withdrawal from Iraq received press, but Rove and Co. were able to masterfully counter it with spin and trot out their own their own military lackeys to counter Murtha’s gutsy call, going so far as to label Murtha, a “coward.”

Yesterday, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman had Kevin Phillips on her program to talk about his latest book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

Phillips is not your typical critic of the current administration. Unlike many Democrats, who voted for the war, authorized increased measures of surveillance via the U.S.A. Patriot Act (USAPA) and then, made an abrupt about face once public opinion began to shift, giving them political cover, Phillips is neither a member of the opposition party and has previously written extensively about the dangers that the Bush family pose to the American people and democracy.

Kevin Phillips was the top Republican strategist for most of the 1970s and 1980s. When he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, Newsweek called it the "political bible of the Nixon administration." Because Phillips criticism isn’t of the “Johnny come lately” variety—he’s written several other books detailing problems and developments, long before they were acknowledged by the majority of the media and other commentators—he possesses a credibility that most others lack. A casual review of his books will show that Phillips is one of the few Republicans and self-identified conservatives who seem capable of publicly varying from the hard line position and offering an honest critique of the movement from within.

Interestingly, Phillips book was referenced in a question asked of the President in Cleveland, after his talk, on Monday, before the Cleveland Club. The question referenced Phillips contention that many modern-day conservatives have an ideology and view of foreign policy that is wedded to the apocalyptic, end-times eschatology of the Left Behind series (Jesus is coming to get us, so let’s blow this sucker up and he’ll carry us home).

Sunday’s New York Times said of Phillips’ book, (it may be) "the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years."

After hearing Phillips’ interview with Amy Goodman, I’d concur that this is much more than the typical hype accompanying a new release, designed merely to sell some copies. Knowing Phillips and having read his work before, including Wealth and Democracy and American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, I know him to be a good writer and an honest and thorough researcher. Despite our philosophical differences and ideological points dividing us, he’s a writer I’ve come to respect and reference in most matters political.

One of the most startling parts of the interview was an exchange between Goodman and Phillips, where he very reluctantly answered Goodman’s question regarding the imperial presidency and dictatorial leanings of the current administration. Aware that he will probably pay a price for saying it (his unease in giving the answer was very apparent watching the program), I credit his courage for daring to utter publicly, what some have been thinking privately. Once again, keep in mind, this isn’t someone with anarchist, or even socialist leanings, calling for a change in government. This is a lifelong Republican and former Nixon aide, saying we need some type of change in our form of government.

Goodman sets up Phillips answer, by asking him if he thinks we’re edging towards a dictatorship, referencing a speech given by former Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist. His book is called American Theocracy. Sandra Day O'Connor, Supreme Court justice -- former Supreme Court justice, gave a speech. It wasn’t recorded. It was in Washington, D.C. Of course, Sandra Day O'Connor, the reports were she was praying for a George Bush victory and helped hand it to him the last time so that she could retire, so that he would be the one to choose her replacement. And she is the person who earlier this month warned the U.S. is in danger of edging towards a dictatorship of right-wingers that continue to attack the judiciary. What do you think of this?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: It’s absolutely true. Tom DeLay, before he was pushed out, but Bill Frist, as well, and some of them have gone to conferences about how they can reshape the judiciary and who they can push through, and so forth. She's obviously very concerned. There are just endless numbers of Republicans that are privately very concerned. And I really don't know what's going to happen here, but if I can make bold with your microphone for a minute, there should be some thought among everybody in the United States -- progressives, conservatives, serious centrists, whatever you want to say -- about how it becomes clear that this man really cannot function as president. We can deal with that situation. I don't happen to believe impeachment is the answer. This has become so sort of trivialized after Clinton and Nixon and the “I'm going to get you because you got us” sort stuff. I think we have to think far beyond that.


KEVIN PHILLIPS: We need some kind of coalition government now. Before I get into too much trouble for this, let me go back to Britain between the wars, World War I and II, when they were really on the skids. The old parties lost their validity. They were fragmenting. There were small parties, third parties coming up. So they frequently governed by coalition governments. They had one at the end of World War I. They had another for quite awhile during the 1930s. I don't know exactly how we do this, but you have to dismantle this “I'm going to get you because you got us” impeachment business and the way in which they’re always zapping each other and they polarize, and the people in the middle represent only 15%, because they are stalwarts in both parties from safe districts. Now, it’s not that they’re all that unreasonable personally, but when they’re arraigned against each other politically, it doesn’t work too well. So, I think we’re going to face within a few years a further realization of how ineffective our institutions have become.

I nearly fell out of my chair after hearing Phillips say this! Obviously, he knows his history, with the reference to Britain’s problems and how they found a way through them.

This won’t be the last we hear about Phillips and his latest book. If you can, try to listen (or watch) to the Democracy Now interview in its entirety. Also, Terri Gross interviewed Phillips, last night, on her program, Fresh Air.

It will be interesting to see just how much traction Phillips' book is able to gather. While I haven't read it, yet, based upon his other works, I'll wager that it is thorough to a fault and that Phillips will be very concise in his various points regarding our government, the issue of peak oil and the growing national debt that looms over us like a Damocles sword.

Monday, March 20, 2006

See all the pretty houses

Vacations are fun, if only as a temporary diversion from the larger reality that is life in the Bush oligopoly. Dispensing with mainstream news and the clamoring talking heads of cable television, while basking in picture perfect days of 85 degrees and sunny, gives the illusion that all is well in the land of the formerly free.

As Mary and I took our daily walks at dawn, amongst the villas of the Rotunda subdivision (aka, Pleasantville), replete with sprinkler fed front lawns and SUV’s and Jaguars sitting in the driveways, the surreal quality of the picture made me chuckle each day. My guess of the makeup of most of the residents, were that they were retirees who had come of age in a country that allowed retirement in manicured subdivisions, bordering impeccably kept fairways. An economy that was powered by companies that hadn’t discovered offshoring jobs as a way to keep investors fat and happy, allowed these folks the luxury of a retirement based on leisure and comfort, truly, the American dream as promised. Many of the men, part of the post-WWII crowd, buoyed by the GI bill for college, entered a career track that allowed them to build a comfortable nest egg that provided their twilight years with comfort and financial happiness. Without corporate-sponsored pensions and the favorable economic model available to them, my generation and the ones that follow, probably won’t be spending their waning years in the lap of luxury, like these fortunate folks have.

Over the past four years of traveling south, I’ve witnessed first-hand the up spike in real estate prices. Each year, I’ve seen the prospect of being able to sell my home here in Maine and uproot, to a warmer climate, disappear. Our first year, back in 2003, we stayed in Homestead, which was a town bordering south Florida’s agricultural region. Many of the modest homes were priced below our current evaluation here in Maine. The next two years, we stayed in Clearwater Beach and obviously, real estate near the coast was beyond our means. However, a 25-30 minute drive inland revealed some affordable options. This year, the Port Charlotte area, with its abundance of new construction, all built within the past five years, rarely had property below $200,000, and quite often, affordability was defined as property below $400,000. When I looked through the help wanted sections of the Sarasota-based paper, most jobs were paying less than similar positions in greater-Portland. My thought was, “who the hell is buying these homes” and I wondered out loud about where the landscapers, builders and other working-class people would be able to afford to live? The local public radio station, as well as the local newspaper, The Englewood Times featured that subject on more than one occasion, as this is obviously an issue that locals are aware of.

Interestingly, I also noticed a number of partially finished homes, displaying “for sale” signs, as the builder had started construction and the prospective client had been unable to see the process to fruition. I then ran across this post by Jim Kunstler, discussing his own area in upstate New York, the beautiful Saratoga Springs region.

Referring to his own local newspaper, once more trumpeting perpetual growth in the in the local housing market, and that housing prices will continue to escalate ad infinitum, Kunstler writes, “Spring here in the North Country brings with it a ripe expectation that the winter real estate doldrums will soon yield to raptures of zippy sales. Of course this is based on the assumption that the year ahead will be like the recent years just past, only better! The sense of momentum in the real estate markets is reinforced by the fact that so much stuff has worked through the arduous permitting process and is just now coming up for sale, with even more stuff behind it moving through the cloacal pipeline, so to speak -- so therefore the buyers will automatically appear drooling into their checkbooks.I don't think so. I think that what we are getting here is stupendously delusional behavior. The ebullience in the newspaper only tells me how much unexpressed subconscious terror lurks just below the surface of wished-for "normality." For one thing, anybody who walks around this town can hardly fail to notice how the realtor's signs are accumulating in the front yards. Nothing's moving. Outside of town, in the suburban asteroid belts that only ten years ago were cornfields and cow pastures, there's a much more lavish supply of new houses. I detect an odor of bloodshed.This has been a hot market for a while, because Saratoga is an historic "main street" town in pretty good condition with a high level of cultural amenity, close to the gigantic Adirondack Park. The three old cities nearby which comprise the employment centers of the Capital District -- Albany, Schenectady, and Troy -- are in such a state of squalid decrepitude that practically anyone gainfully employed has fled shrieking lately, and Saratoga has attracted many willing to tolerate a 30-plus mile commute.”

Kunstler’s terrain, like the overbuilt subdivisions and filled-in swamps of Southwestern Florida are ripe for a correction. He goes on to mention that hot real estate markets all over the country appear to be cooling off, causing many recent buyers sleepless nights and a reach for the roll of antacids. He continues in the post, “It makes my head hurt to imagine the coming carnage on the real estate scene here. Nation-wide, the latest figures are not reassuring. Even hot markets cool off when evil economic winds blow. According to the California Association of Realtors, sales of existing, single-family detached homes were down 24.1 percent, the highest year-on-year decline since December 1990 when sales dropped 25.2 percent. The National Association of Realtors reports Massachusetts home sales are down 21 percent and listings up 41 percent. In Florida existing home sales are down 19 percent. In Alabama existing home sales down 21 percent and listings up 17 percent. Pennsylvania sales down 17 percent. Minnesota sales down 7 percent and inventory Up 35 percent.”

What does all this mean? Well, obviously, what goes up, must come down, at least if the current housing bubble bursts. This could obviously mean some very tough sledding for many in our country, particularly those utilizing adjustable rate mortgages and other tools that allowed them to acquire more house than they ordinarily could afford.

Now that I’ve awoken from my “dream” of the past ten days, I’ve been able to process some of the indicators that made me a tad uneasy at times, on my trip. Kunstler’s weekly shot across the bow helps me make some sense of my own recent misgivings.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The return to reality

All good things must come to an end, or so the cliche goes. I guess that also goes for needed vacations. Our 10 day frolic in the sun ends today. I'm up early again (no surprise) and strangely, have found a weak wi-fi connection in my corner of Pleasantville.

With our need to control expenses, budget air accomadations were the order of the day, when we originally booked our flight on Allegiant Air, which only flies into Sanford, a three plus hour drive from where we are staying (Port Charlotte). The drive down was fun, as we took back roads and played the part of tourists, with no time constraints affecting our trip. Today, we'll battle interstate and tollway traffic as we creep northward, back to the Orlando area.

This may have been one of our best vacations, not so much for what we did, but for what we didn't do. I spent very little time focusing on news and politics, other than reading the local newspaper. I did listen to NPR each morning while preparing breakfast, but Mary made me turn it off if I started shouting at the commentator. This only happened twice, both times in relation to a story involving the war in Iraq and our woeful president.

Since we didn't have cable TV (just an antennae, which pulled in about 5 stations), we read. I plowed through two books by Jonathan Franzen and started another one by Harmon Leon, the very funny, Republican Like Me. Franzen is a very good writer and The Corrections is one of the better works of fiction I've ever read. I'll probably tackle one of his other books in the next couple of months.

From our 10 days of sun and 80 degree temps, I'm sure I'll be shivering come Monday, as I battle to restock my wood box and get a fire going, all to ward off the 30 degree days that await us, back in Maine.

Monday, March 13, 2006

With light from the sun

I hate leaving my blog unattended for too long. However, despite the hype that technology is portable, things happen and wi-fi connections are not as common as one might think. In addition, my lack of acumen using my wife's laptop had me neglecting to hit the switch activating my wi-fi reception, or I would have had a post up, Saturday.

Seeing that it's March, we find ourselves once more, basking in the surreal sunshine of Florida, catching the Wheaton baseball version of spring training, this year located in Port Charlotte.

While I'll spare readers all the interesting details, at least for now, I'll list a few thoughts/items that I've enjoyed since flying out, last Thursday.

Good Books (Jonathan Franzen, Jacob Slichter)
Baum's going 2-4, with two well-stroked doubles
Englewood Beach (Despite a $68.50 parking ticket)
A stylin' villa, replete with a daily visit from an alligator who roams the canal out back
The opportunity to do some writing purely for the sake of writing

In my way of thinking, a good vacation allows the opportunity for relaxation and some downtime from technology and the ever-present invasion of television, computers and cell phones. Despite this nod to the microchip, I've been pretty much "disconnected" from much of the chatter of post-modern life. Amazingly, the world still rolls on.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Fear wins again!

USAPA II, unleashed on ordinary Americans

Despite all the feigned concern over renewal of USAPA (USA Patriot Act), when it came time to vote, most of our elected officials knuckled under. A few representatives held firm and refused to go along for the ride, such as Russ Feingold (and Maine’s own Reps. Allen and Michaud), but Bush and his fascist tendencies once again received the validation and support of his minions and the supposed opposition.

Over the past year, or more, one of the few voices of real outrage (not the entertainment-driven, counterfeit kind of most talk jocks) on the radio dial has been that of Air America’s Mike Malloy. Malloy, normally relegated to the late night shift at America’s only national progressive talk affiliate, has been subbing for Randi Rhodes, this past week. Rhodes, who occupies the coveted 3-6 slot, nationwide, is a firebrand in her own unique way. I was curious if Malloy, drawn out of the shadows of late night radio, would tone his rhetoric down. Au contraire! He’s been his usual, caustic self, lambasting the “Bush crime family” for all of America to hear. I’m sure there are a few surprised Air America listeners shaking their heads and scandalized by Mike’s use of the term “sons of a bitches” (of which he’s apologized several times, forgetting the young tikes in the mini-vans of America, being transported by soccer moms, at this time of day).

The easy passage of USAPA goes right along with what people like Malloy, columnists (and bloggers) such as Josh Marshall and of course, Counterpunch and many other true progressive and alternative media outlets have been warning about. The steady erosion of civil liberties and freedoms, fueled by fear, all in the name of fighting terror is a bogus construct, but as I’ve touched upon of late, is virtually blacked out by mainstream news. As a result, most Americans happily run about their miserable little lives, given to purchasing the latest big screen HD TV, oblivious to the dismantling of their country, one liberty at a time.

If you can’t stay up late, then do yourself a favor and tune in today and tomorrow, before they send Malloy back to his usual isolated spot, late nights on Air America. If nothing else, you’ll actually see someone who doesn’t resort to irony and the 20-something catchphrase of “whatever” to deal with the crypto-fascists run amok in our land. He’s pissed, unapologetic and determined to slap some sense into as many people as he can. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, or promise a happy ending, either. He’s not an entertainer; he’s what talk radio used to be, back before drug addicts like Limbaugh, pretty boys like Hannity and serial gropers the likes of O’Reilly, polluted the public airwaves. It's a shame there isn't a way to get him on even more stations. Of course, Clear Channel and other corporate media whores aren't going to allow the likes of Malloy and other progressives a wider hearing. Conservatives derive great glee in taunting progressives about their lack of access, but I think it speaks volumes about the state of media and the selling of America, and how the FCC has turned over our airwaves to right-wing rogues.

This will probably be my last salvo for a bit, as I’ll be away from regular internet access for much of the next week. I’ll try to throw something up, if I can, but I’m not making any promises.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Focusing on the wrong stories

As mentioned in my previous post, there are many news stories that go unreported, or receive inadequate coverage in comparison to their importance. While the “war on terror” is all the rage, guaranteed to fan the flames of fear and keep us all docile to Big Brother, a more serious threat, global warming, receives woefully inadequate coverage.

While anecdotally, many people sense that something’s seriously whacked with our weather, most prefer not to mention global warming, hoping that it will go away. Friends, let me tell you, whether our media acknowledges it and racks it according to its potential to change life as we know it, or not, we face some serious consequences unless we drastically change our behavior, before it’s too late. Burying our heads in the sand, or tilting at goblins won't cut it, either.

While I don’t qualify as a graybeard, yet (maybe salt ‘n pepper), I’ve lived long enough to know that this winter has been the strangest I’ve experienced in my 44 years on the planet. January days of 50 degree weather and shirtsleeves, people raking leaves rather than shoveling snow and meteorologists verifying that the month's temperatures have been the second-warmest on record for the northeast. Interestingly, this winter of no snow follows last year’s record breaking snowfalls on the Cape and other places. In fact, a map produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows temperatures above average all over the U.S.

Roger Harrabin, an environmental correspondent for the BBC reports that scientists will soon announce that only greenhouse gas emissions can account for the freakish weather that’s been experienced across the globe.

While our president paid lip service to alternative energy in his last state of the union address, he’s rigorously refused to accept any targets set for the reduction of U.S. CO2 emissions. Even the British, despite Prime Minister Blair’s call for new technologies, are resistant to force business to drastically reduce their CO2 output.

None of this bodes well for the long-term, war on terror, or not.

Narrowness, rather than bias

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, there is a tendency to blame media bias for the perceived lack of “balanced” coverage coming from mainstream news sources. While I wouldn’t discount bias entirely from the media, I don’t think it plays any significant role in the lack of objective, or even thorough coverage of news stories.

Rather than bias, I think the “narrowness” of the news spectrum is a much bigger factor and one that tends to be lacking from even the more nuanced discussions of the news and/or media coverage of events. By narrowness, I’m talking about the specific framework, which dictates what news stories are acceptable and even, how news is supposed to be covered and disseminated.

In my opinion, the narrowness of the debate reflects more accurately, the subtle and not so subtle indoctrination that all Americans receive, which begins the day we are born. That indoctrination continues throughout school and is reinforced subtly by social norms and expected behavior when we reach adulthood.

As political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in, Democracy on Trial (1995),

“Education is never outside a world of which politics—how human beings govern and order a way of life in common—is a necessary feature… Education always reflects a society’s views of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. These reflections are not cast in cement like so many foundational stones; rather, they are refracted and reshaped over time as definitions, meanings and purposes change through democratic contestation. In this sense education is political, but being political is different from being directly and blatantly politicized— being made to serve interests and ends imposed by militant groups.”

If Elshtain is correct, and I would concur that she is, then it is possible to say that like education, the media also reflects a society’s view of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. Rather than bias, per se, our news is shaped by what society accepts as acceptable. It is this which becomes the foundation of what then is transmitted as “truth.”

In addition to the spectrum of mainstream news being extremely narrow, most Americans receive the majority of their news from their local news affiliates. According to a Pew Research study, conducted in April of 2004, 54 percent of Americans get their news from local affiliates, 34 percent from network news and 38 percent from cable news sources. These percentages show an upward trend from previous polls, particularly related to both local news and cable. Additionally, 42 percent gather their news from their local newspaper and another 40 percent receive their daily updates via radio.

If you’ve spent any time watching local newscasts, this is scary. Not only are these 30 minute segments too brief to cover any stories in-depth, but that 30 minutes is also reduced significantly by commercials. Local newspapers have reduced staffs, receive more AP and other syndicated content and frequently short-change news content with cosmetic redesigns and other surface “improvements.”

Even “serious” news outlets such as NPR and Macneil-Lehrer have a narrow focus when it comes to reporting the news. While both of these sources of news are far superior to ideologically-driven programming coming from Fox, Clear Channel and other right-wing news talk operations, they still limit the stories that they cover.

One media research group that tracks news stories and gathers information about topics that are routinely ignored, is Project Censored, based out of Sonoma State University. By tracking news that is published in independent journals and newsletters, the group then compiles an annual list of 25 news stories of social significance that have been overlooked, under-reported, or self-censored by the country's major national news media.

For me, studies such as this clearly indicate that rather than purported bias, either liberal or conservative, the real issue on news and accessing truth, as difficult as that may be, comes down to not having others determine what is news, and what isn’t.

Take for instance this story, about Halliburton being awarded the contract to build domestic detention facilities. Track this story. See if your local newspaper picks up a Knight-Ridder feed or one from the AP, if one is available. It will probably be buried in the middle of the paper, on page 6, or 7, under national stories. This is just one example. There are numerous other “real news” stories that Project Censored has links to.

Along with Project Censored, Democracy Now regularly reports on stories that are conveniently omitted from nightly newscasts, local, and even national papers, or end up buried in papers like the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

Keeping track of what’s going on takes work, diligence, and a little bit of skill. Even then, the rapid pace of daily life, the distractions we’re bombarded with from entertainment and sports, as well as social conditioning make being a truth seeker, a difficult vocation.

**In addition to the resources used from Pew and Project Censored, the quote by Jean Bethke Elshtain was gathered from a blog post on PressThink, Jay Rosen's excellent media blog.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A rap for understanding

I know for many liberals, public radio is sacred and above reproach, or criticism. I’ve had too many conversations with so-called progressives that began with an indictment of mainstream news sources, only to be asked, “do you listen to public radio,” as if that solved the problem.

For me, public radio of the NPR variety is a fallback; something I listen to when I can’t find anything else on the dial. I will listen to certain segments of their programming, like Maine Things Considered, although of late, even Maine-based news seems to be lacking anything more than a business-friendly veneer to the stories reported. I do enjoy Terry Gross (one of the best interviewers anywhere, IMHO) and Fresh Air; I wish our own affiliates would carry Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program.

Yesterday, while driving to an appointment, I caught the type of programming that I wish was the norm, rather than the all-too-infrequent exception. Alternative Radio carried Michael Eric Dyson’s Hip-hop Culture and the Legacy of Tupac Shakur. I had heard an earlier promo for this and made a mental note, mostly out of curiosity, to try to listen in. The busyness of life drove it from my thoughts, but sheer coincidence and time and my car intersected, allowing me to catch most of this 60 minute broadcast.

Let me first say that compared to my knowledge of the history of popular forms of music, such as rock, pop, and even less popular genres like jazz and blues, I know very little about rap or hip-hop. Other than the more political raps that I’ve heard from Public Enemy and Michael Franti, I'd say my knowledge of this musical form is surface, at best.

For someone like me, Dyson’s academic presentation, mixed with his own obvious love of rap and hip-hop, and his keen ability to rap and quote lyric after lyric from the past 20 or so years of hip-hop, was truly amazing. It’s rare to hear this type of programming anywhere except low-power FM and some community-based stations. Dyson’s historical perspective, political understanding and sympathetic treatment of Shakur revealed a totally different character than I’d been conditioned to view him as. It made me realize that I have a lot to learn about this branch music and culture. From Shakur’s roots, informed by Reaganomics and the accompanying poverty he experienced, Dyson’s presentation cast Shakur in a much different light than he was often portrayed by the press and the music industry. Dyson's talk was informative for the honest and refreshing way that he was able to demystify Shakur, who like many performers and cultural icons, ends up misrepresented, most often to cultivate an image, which will then be exploited through marketing.

I never knew that Shakur was deeply influenced by Shakepeare and aspired to be an actor. He was also a voracious reader, who read widely and across disciplines, even though he had dropped out of school. With Dyson deftly deconstructing his lyrics, for the first time, I saw Shakur as not some gansta thug wannabe, a cardboard caricature created by the pop culture machine--but someone who was a human being--a complex and intelligent performer and overtly political in his songwriting, not the

Despite some of my concerns about public radio, it still provides opportunities for alternative viewpoints. Of course, I’d be happy to see more segments like yesterday afternoon’s outstanding hour of programming.