Sunday, October 11, 2015

Economic Apartheid? U.S. Disparities in Wealth, Influence & Water

Of all the topics that will be covered in this Tuesday's first Democratic presidential debate, are any more pressing and relevant than the growing wealth and income gap between America's wealthiest citizens and those who make up the 99%?

Politically speaking, my sense is that Senator Bernie Sanders is going to own that turf, but it's likely that Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee are all going to have to be proactive about addressing the topic as well.

Wealth disparity is a serious issue around the globe, but it's a major concern in the U.S. amongst an increasingly diverse population in a nation with the largest economy in the world.

According to the CIA's World Factbook, "the U.S. ranks around the 30th percentile in income inequality globally, meaning 70% of countries have a more equal income distribution."

It's both funny and sad that many of the same politicians who are so fond of calling America "the land of opportunity" are the same ones who've done nothing to revise the complex U.S. tax code with it's built-in advantages that favor the wealthy - like taxing capital gains and debt differently than they do employment income.

As the topic of income disparity has become a much larger part of the national dialog, we're used to hearing sobering statistics like the fact that the vast bulk of income gains since the "end" of the Great Recession have gone to the wealthiest 1%.

Income gains in America between 1979 and 2007
For example as Americans struggled to recover from the economic downturn, between 2009 and 2012 a staggering 95% of total income growth went to just 1% of the American population according to economist Emmanuele Saez of the University of California at Berkley. 

An article in yesterday's New York Times by Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish offers some stunning insight into how and why this can happen in a nation with a population of over 320 million people.

As the article reports, just 158 families (and companies or organizations they directly control) gave 
$176 million of all campaign donations to presidential candidates in 2015 through June 30th.

The bulk of it went to Republican candidates who (not surprisingly) support tax cuts for these same donors.

The Times research shows each of these 158 families gave $250,000 or more to (mostly) Republican presidential candidates - while an additional 200 families gave $100,000 or more.

These limitless streams of campaign money (thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling) combined with low voter turnout, voter apathy, and continuing GOP efforts to suppress the ability of those who do come out to vote, lie at the core of this growing inequality.

But as the media does more to expose the murky inner workings of wealth inequality in America, we're seeing the different ways in which this nation is being further divided along the lines of net worth and income. 

As I enjoyed my Sunday brunch of spinach, cheddar and mushroom omelet and French toast earlier today, I read a really interesting article by Degen Pener in the October 2nd issue of The Hollywood Reporter entitled, "Drowning in Fear & Drought In L.A.".

A warning sign greets commuters on the Hollywood Freeway [Photo - NPR]
It's a fascinating look at what the wealthiest members of exclusive Los Angeles communities like Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Hidden Hills, Brentwood, Holmby and Laurel Canyon are doing to comply with the strict water restrictions imposed by Governor Jerry Brown in response to what some experts consider the worst drought in California in 1,000 years.  

Many wealthy L.A. residents like actress Jamie Lee Curtis, director Walter Hill, and actors like Bill Pullman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vincent Kartheiser and other well-known producers and agents have taken steps to alter their lifestyles to comply with water restrictions.

As Pener reports, they've done things like removing grass from their landscaping and replacing it with drought-tolerant lawns that include a mixture of stones, desert plants and trees that require far less water, or installing large underground cisterns designed to capture rainwater and store it for use on plants and landscaping; or installing artificial turf in place of grass lawns.

In a small companion piece for Pener's THR article, Schwarzenegger claims the artificial turf he installed on the grounds of his L.A. estate looks so real his pony Whiskey keeps trying to eat it.
"Grassholes" Kanye West & Kim Kardashian's estate in L.A.
But not all celebs are as dedicated to pitching in to combat drought as Ahnold.

As the THR article reports, there are also a number of wealthy L.A. residents who simply and stubbornly refuse to comply with mandatory restrictions on using water to irrigate lawns and gardens.

Celebs like Barbara Streisand, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have all been "lawn-shamed" recently when aerial photos of their respective L.A. estates showing expanses of lush green lawns, evidence of heavy watering in violation of water restrictions, have gone viral.
Photos of Kardashian and West's Hidden Hills estate (pictured above) and Streisand's in particular drew thousands of critical "Lawn Shaming" responses on Twitter back in May when photos of their green estates hit the social media site.

This past summer Actor Tom Selleck was accused of having a landscaper siphon thousands of gallons water from a fire hydrant down the road from his 60-acre Hidden Hills estate in Thousand Oaks, California estate to irrigate his landscaping - after being publicly "lawn-shamed" following an investigation of the claims by Ventura County, he quietly paid a $21,000 financial settlement to the Calleguas Municipal Water District.

Pener also reports that while residents of the city of L.A. who average 77 gallons a day per capita and successfully met their state-imposed targets for water restriction by reducing consumption by 21%, Beverly Hills, who's residents consume 157.5 gallons a day and arguably have more financial resources to find ways to curb water consumption, missed their target by 32%.

The stark contrasts in compliance with mandatory water restrictions offers another snapshot of how disparities in wealth and income impact behavior and society as a whole.

Increasingly, America is quietly turning into a two-tier society divided along lines that are reinforced by a system of economic apartheid.

It's a troubling trend marked by the wealthy increasingly retreating to exclusive gated communities, neighborhoods or buildings in a shift that ends up undermining America's public education system.

Not only by lobbying the politicians (whose campaigns they support with lavish contributions) to decrease the portion of the taxable income they contribute to the federal and state government, but also by sending their children to equally exclusive K-12 schools which reflect an environment that is financially, culturally and racially homogeneous in comparison with the actual makeup of U.S. population.

An exclusive environment characterized by different nutritional, educational, financial, ecological and legal standards - one that stands in contrast to the traditional idea of community and the lofty principles of the Constitution envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Now I'm not a flag-waving communist or anything, if someone earns a nice living they should be able to live where they want and raise their family how they want.

I'm just not sure the future of a prosperous and evolved America lies in the wealthy walling themselves off from the masses in hermetically sealed environments with those inside protected by carefully constructed boundaries reinforced by economic apartheid; and those on the outside looking in.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The House Freedom Caucus: Political Tyranny

House Freedom Caucus Chairman (R-OH) Jim Jordan
Let's hope the roughly 30 to 50 Republican members of the House of Representatives who dubbed themselves "The House Freedom Caucus" are feeling good about themselves.

Back in January a group of the most conservative GOP members formed a political coalition under the vague common goal of shifting the direction of the Republican party even further to the right.

Given the GOP's total enslavement to the whims of the Tea Party, the gun lobby and detached right-wing media pundits, is such a thing even possible?

According to the words of the Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan (pictured above), this group of optimistic political troublemakers simply wanted "to give a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them." 

As of today they've managed to totally destroy the functionality of the governing party of the nation's lawmaking body, torpedo the ability of the GOP to get the 218 votes needed to elect a Speaker of the House, and create unnecessary anxiety for the over 320 million Americans wondering if Congress will be able to perform their job by approving a budget for the largest economy in the world - a budget that doesn't include petty riders attached designed to placate the extremist ideology of a small fraction of the population.

Folks if you're looking for the engineers of the Republican train wreck that this dysfunctional, obstructionist Congressional majority has become, meet the Freedom Caucus.

How bad is it?

Republican Tom McClintock
As Lauren French reported in an article on back on September 16th, it's gotten so bad that influential Republican California Congressman Tom McClintock (pictured left) announced he was resigning from the House Freedom Caucus because their overly confrontational positions on major issues like the Iran nuclear agreement and approving Congressional funding of the Department of Homeland Security were undermining the ability of the Republican party to govern.

French's article quotes from McLintock's letter to the Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan:

“When the House Freedom Caucus formed in January, I fervently hoped that it would provide responsible and effective leadership to advance conservative principles in the House of Representatives…[but] I believe the tactics the HFC has employed have repeatedly undermined the House’s ability to advance them. I feel that the HFC’s many missteps have made it counterproductive to its stated goals and I no longer wish to be associated with it.”

It's important to note that McClintock's resignation from the Caucus came just prior to Republican Speaker John Boehner's surprising announcement that he'd be retiring from Congress following Pope Francis' visit to Capitol Hill.

So McClintock's departure from the Freedom Caucus is also a reflection of the measure of disgust at Caucus efforts to boot Boehner from his position as speaker (a controversial measure put forward in July by North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Meadows) over extremist's absurd demands to defund Planned Parenthood as a condition for funding the federal government.

McClintock isn't alone in his disgust by the way.

Congressman Reid Ribble
As Mike Lillis reported on the yesterday, Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble (pictured left) also resigned from the House Freedom Caucus last month too.

Just as sure as NYPD Captain Brian McCaughey was only fined 30 paid vacation days for pulling his gun on two innocent 12 and 13-year old African-American boys playing tag in front of a Brooklyn home two years ago, you can bet more members of the Freedom Caucus are considering dropping out before this out of control collection of ideological lunatics gets any more toxic than they already are.

No wonder John Boehner resigned from the 3rd most powerful position in the federal government.

We're way past the point where it's necessary for the majority of the American people to take responsibility for standing up to crack this toxic political stasis by becoming more active and vocal about demanding more from the leaders elected to serve on our behalf.

But where to begin?

There are arguably four places where there's clear bi-partisan consensus on the need for immediate legislative action.

Sensible gun control laws, prison reform, a transportation spending bill that addresses the nation's massive infrastructure needs are all issues a clear majority of the American people want to see action on and issues where Republicans and Democrats have indicated a willingness to come together to pass legislation.

And how about passing a real federal budget that's not just another childish 10-week extension political cop-out designed to allow the same 30 to 50 dysfunctional Republican wingnuts to have another tantrum about imposing their narrow-minded ideology on the rest of the country?

But to accomplish that, Republicans will first need to demonstrate that they can muster the 218 votes needed to elect a Speaker of the House.

Just four hours after announcing his candidacy for the Speaker's chair, Republican Majority leader (R-CA) Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew his name yesterday, saying at a press conference:  

"If we're going to unite and be strong, we need a new face."

Yesterday I watched Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina being interviewed live on CNN.

He denied that a letter he'd sent to Republican members of the House demanding that any candidate for Speaker of the House must be able to pass moral and ethical scrutiny had anything to do with McCarthy's decision to drop out of consideration for the Speaker's chair.

Kevin McCarthy and Renee Ellmers in undated photo
Interestingly, over the past 24 hours rumors are circulating among multiple media sources that Jones' letter was indirectly referring to an alleged affair McCarthy, a married father with two kids, has been having with Republican North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers (a married mother with a child); an affair that has supposedly been going on for months.   

Ellmers has strongly denied the rumors.

To be fair, the allegation is alleged to have come from letters mailed to a number of Republican Congressman by an activist GOP donor known for making controversial accusations and statements - but he did refer to an alleged secret videotape of McCarthy and Ellmers having dinner together.

By the way, Walter Jones is also a North Carolina Congressman and the Department of Homeland Security is conducting an investigation into whether a DHS employee used a government computer to post the affair allegations on Wikipedia.

This whole affair (no pun intended) could have come straight from a House of Cards script.

Earlier this morning GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC and he was asked if he would consider himself a part of the Freedom Caucus if he was elected President.

Carson, who's about as politically right as it gets and normally purrs like a cat bathing in milk when he's called a "Tea Party darling" as the media often labels him, carefully avoided saying he wanted anything to do with the Freedom Caucus.

Given the current media focus on the chaos within the Republican Congressional leadership, if there is any truth to the McCarthy-Ellmers affair rumors, they're sure to come out.

But in the meantime, the House Freedom Caucus has left itself exposed as a major political liability at a time when the GOP is desperate to demonstrate to the American people that it can govern.

The silence from the leading Republican presidential candidates on the party split and the House leadership crisis is deafening and tells you all you need to know about just how toxic this is to Republican efforts to re-take the White House in 2016.

Personally I can't wait for the Sunday morning political talk shows, because Republicans really need to ask themselves how long they're going to allow 30 - 40 out of control inmates to run the asylum.
Maybe it's political karma?

After all, a small group of Republicans has been responsible for driving much of the obstructionist legislative maneuvers that have crippled the federal government, stalled critical legislation and put the economy at risk - all in the name of an unpalatable political ideology that sits way outside the fence of mainstream Americans.

The ironically-named House Freedom Caucus has proved to be little more than an exercise in political tyranny against the majority of the American people.

The Republicans themselves set these dogs loose and they were content while they were snapping at President Obama and the Democrats.

Now they're back home running around the Republican's yard and they can't find a willing leader strong enough to go outside the house and deal with them.

Political karma is a bitch.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sweet Home Alabama - Republicans Drive Over Voter Rights

A state drivers license center in Alabama
The restrictive voter ID law passed in 2011 by the the conservative Republican politicians who now dominate the Alabama state legislature didn't take affect until 2014.

But it only took a year for them to take another swipe at the voting rights of Alabama citizens; those who vote Democratic anyway.

In another low point for the basic principle of American democracy, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency ( the result of a consolidation of 12 different law enforcement agencies under a single authority now known under the acronym ALEA) announced that budget shortfalls would require the closing of an astounding 31 different driver's license centers around the state.

Republicans, including Governor Robert Bentley (we'll get to him in a moment) were quick to deny accusations leveled by politicians, members of the press, voter rights groups and citizens that the closing of these centers were part of an underhanded effort to put up barriers that make it more difficult for citizens of Alabama to comply with the voter ID law that Republicans themselves drafted and passed in 2011.

But statistics suggest otherwise.

As Rachel Witkin wrote in an article posted on on Monday,
8 of the 10 counties where the drivers license facilities are being closed just happen to have the largest percentages of non-white voters in the state.

Driver's license centers in every county in the state of Alabama where more than 75% of registered voters are African-American will be closed.

Coincidence? Hardly.

First off, Alabama is one of many American states with a solid "super majority" of Republican state legislators dominating the state house; as well as a Republican Governor.

Since it's the Republican party who are essentially responsible for establishing the budget for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (which runs the driver's license centers across the state); Republicans are the ones responsible for the apparent lack of available funds to keep the centers open.

Oct 2013, Ted Cruz & Sarah Palin protest WWII memorial closing THEY caused 
That kind of  manipulative legislative nonsense is taken right from the playbook of the senseless Republican "starve the beast" strategy of governing.

And the illogical political spin, where they childishly blame Democrats for their own Republican handiwork, is hardly new for them either.

It's the same kind of demented GOP thinking that led Republicans Senator Ted Cruz and former VP candidate Sarah Palin to fan the flames of conservative hysteria which lead to an intentional shut down of the federal government in 2013.

Once they'd accomplished their demented goal, they had the gall to actually go and stand theatrically in front of the WWII Veteran's memorial in Washington, DC and piously criticize Democrats for not keeping the national parks open (pictured left).

Is it a total PR nightmare that contributes to the Republican's dismal approval rate? Sure, but they still do it.

And then they have the temerity to act offended by people who call their actions out for what they are by dismissing them as nosy outsiders trying to politicize an issue for personal gain.
Since the news about the closing of the driver's license centers has been so dominated by national media news outlets lately, I was genuinely curious to see what people who actually live in Alabama had to say on the issue.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley
To gain some perspective, I decided to troll through some of the over 522 reader comments that were posted in response to a story posted on the Website by Charles Dean about Republican Governor Robert Bentley (pictured left) strongly denying accusations that the decision to close 31 different state-run facilities where (mostly) people of modest income who reside in more remote rural areas can obtain driver's licenses, was not a race-based decision intentionally designed to make it more difficult for people of color to get ID's to vote.

Interestingly, the reader comments seemed to break down along just about the same political lines as national reactions to the story; but there seemed to be blacks and whites on both sides of the issue.

There were white Alabamans who thought the closing of the centers were clearly race-based, and there were also black Alabamans who pointed out the relatively low state voter turnout (under 50%) in the last election to point out that if you really want to vote in the state, you just have to register to do it.

Someone who claimed to be black pointed out the fact that there are large numbers of black folks in the state who have valid state ID's to cross state lines to gamble in Mississippi or Louisiana or buy alcohol legally.  

Some white Alabamans felt it was only being made into a national issue because Alabama's legacy of racism and political correctness make it easy to accuse the state of such racial shenanigans.

More than one reader expressed skepticism over the fact that Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson have both inserted themselves into the controversy - for what some readers felt were for self-serving reasons rather than the issue of voter rights.

But as you may have guessed, I'm just not buying that.

Nov 5, 2012 - Voters in Akron, Ohio wait hours for early voting
Especially given the Republican party's openly passing dozens of sketchy voter ID laws in states like Ohio (pictured left), North Carolina and Florida - and other ALEC-crafted legislation that intentionally restricts the rights of the poor, racial minorities, working class, students, legal immigrants and the elderly to cast their votes in elections.

As the article reported, the state's embattled Governor, Robert Bentley offered up some fairly sketchy reasoning for the closures of the 31 driver's license centers during a press conference on Tuesday when he said:

"The last time I looked, 16-year-olds that get their license at a driver's licenses place, don't vote," said Bentley. "That's all we're doing. We're repositioning people in the state because we don't have enough funds in this state to keep these offices open." 

"Repositioning people"? He and his Republican cohorts in the state legislature are the ones who control the funds that keep the drivers license centers open in the first place!

Now just bear in mind folks, this statement is from the same Governor who self-righteously opposed gay marriage on the grounds that  heterosexual marriages like his represent 'Stability' before his wife of 50 years, Dianne Bentley, filed for divorce back in August

Bentley has also had his toes in hot water over race recently, after what many perceived as insensitive comments insinuating common simplistic stereotypes about the black family structure were to blame for the horrific kidnapping and murder of 8-year old Hiawayi Robinson.

Governor Bentley took particular issue with Hillary Clinton weighing in on the issue of his party actively suppressing the rights of minority voters in Alabama, saying:

"The one that I'm really angry about is Hilliary Clinton. You know Hillary Clinton never lets the facts get in the way of a good political sound bite and that's exactly what she has done criticizing the state of Alabama,"  

Hillary Clinton wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade; she called the decision to close the centers in Alabama  "a blast from the Jim Crow past."

And her criticism of Alabama's closing 31 drivers license centers isn't her first time calling out Republicans for suppressing votes.

Bentley's insinuation that she just started chiming in on the issue after Alabama's latest voter suppression efforts earned national attention for a "soundbite" is plain wrong.

Guess who vetoed state legislation to add early voting hours?
Say what you want about her, Hillary has been attacking Republican presidential candidates for suppressing voter rights for months.

The "Truth-o-Meter" of the Pulitzer Prize-wining Website fact-checked Clinton's claims of Republican voter suppression by Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Scott Walker.

They found them to be "largely accurate" and rated her claims, "Mostly True."

Why? Because the reality is that actively using legislation, illegal redistricting, gerrymandering and even voter intimidation are now part of the accepted (by Republicans anyway) strategy for winning the White House in 2016 and holding on to a majority in the House and Senate.

It's disgraceful and a mockery of everything this nation stands for, but that's today's Republican party for you.

But the closings of the 31 centers is far from a done deal. Politicians and activists groups including the NAACP are calling for legal challenges to the closings as well as a Department of Justice investigation.

If you were curious about what would happen after the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Civil Rights Act, look no further than the state of Alabama.

"Sweet Home" indeed.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Civilian Price & U.S. Patriots in Paradise

Aftermath of U.S. bombing of Kunduz hospital [Photo -]
The news of the horrific American air strikes that struck the only civilian hospital in the city of Kunduz in Afghanistan on Saturday is a costly (and deadly) warning that any serious effort to defeat ISIS forces and other terrorist groups operating in Syria is going to take a lot more than just air strikes.

It's going to require a commitment by a consortium of nations to deploy a massive humanitarian relief effort as well as ground troops at a time when many Americans are wary of sending service men and women overseas into combat after over a decade of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that took the lives of over 6,800 Americans, thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and cost U.S. taxpayers over a $1 trillion.

Saturday's bombing happened after members of the Afghan military requested US air support after coming under heavy fire from Taliban forces; it killed 22 Afghan patients and injured at least 37 people in the hospital which was run by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders or MSF.

Pentagon officials initially called the casualties "collateral damage".

Sadly, in a reflection of the complexity and senselessness of the "fog of war", the U.S. air strikes on the civilian hospital continued for quite some time even after representatives from MSF frantically called both the US military and Afghan officials to report the hospital was being targeted by mistake.

A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign military issued a statement saying that U.S. not only knew the location of the hospital in Kunduz, they had the exact coordinates to prevent something like this from happening.

Now even though this happened in Afghanistan, it offers an example of why targeted air strikes alone are not going to be enough to weaken and defeat ISIS in the war-torn nation of Syria.

Syrian women in front of a building destroyed by air strikes in Brimahle
US-led coalition aircraft killed at least 52 Syrian civilians during an air strike in May on the Northern Syrian village of Brimahle in Aleppo province. 

Just a few days ago a Russian air strike in Syria killed at least 39 civilians.

The Russian government has already indicated  that they intend to deploy troops in some capacity on the ground in Syria.

So the question remains how committed are the US and it's coalition allies to putting a halt to the war that is wreaking unspeakable havoc on the Syrian people?

One that's causing an international humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees have fled to Europe.

It's reasonable to assume that the US already has a limited number of special forces on the ground in Syria helping US-backed insurgents and directing airstrikes, but will America send a larger contingent of soldiers to confront ISIS?

Interestingly, there are a number of Americans who aren't waiting for the government to answer that question.

Last Wednesday Jennifer Percy wrote a fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled, "Meet the American Vigilantes Who Are Fighting ISIS" which offered a look at the strange collection of American civilians who've used their own money to travel to Syria to fight ISIS.

Now these guys are not members of any of the professional security organizations that are contracted by the CIA or the Pentagon to fight insurgents abroad.

These guys are, well, regular American guys (some not even ex-soldiers) motivated by everything from boredom, curiosity or a craving for adventure, to a sense of patriotic duty to take on ISIS.

But their presence there isn't having a measurable impact in the fight against ISIS; and frankly ISIS isn't loosing any sleep because of these civilian volunteers.

John (Ray Milland), Beau (Gary Cooper) and Digby (Robert Preston) Geste
One of my absolute all-time favorite classic Hollywood films is Beau Geste, the 1939 version of the novel of the same name directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.

The film stars Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland as three orphaned brothers adopted by a wealthy British woman named Lady Brandon; a young Donald O'Connor plays Beau as a young boy in the 1st act.

As the brothers come of age, Lady Brandon's finances start to get tight and she's faced with the decision to put the family's priceless crown jewel, The Blue Water sapphire, up for sale.  

One night the jewel disappears and the evidence points to the brothers as the culprits.

That night Beau Geste slips away leaving a note that he's joined the French Foreign Legion; and his brothers Digby and John decide to follow him and join him.

All three end up stationed at a remote desert fort run by the ruthless Sergeant Markoff played brilliantly by Brian Donlevy where they defend the fort against an army of attacking Arab warriors with a ragtag group of Legionnaires.

While Beau Geste is a classic Hollywood mix of mystery, romance and adventure, the Americans interviewed by Jennifer Percy for her New York Times Magazine article (click the link above) discovered no romance or adventure when they arrived in Syria to fight ISIS.

Their lack of professional training, combat experience and the infighting that takes place amongst the stressed-out Americans illustrates why war is best left to professional armies.

War may be Hell but it's best left to those trained for the task.

Until the US-led coalition, the United Nations and the other leading powers in the mid-east get serious about coming up with a comprehensive plan to take on ISIS on the ground, it's the Syrian civilians who will be stuck in the middle; or risking their lives to escape the carnage.

Under threat from the forces loyal to their own leader Bashar Al-Assad, ISIS fighters seeking to turn Syria into an Islamic state governed by primitive Sharia law - and now (as evidenced by the aforementioned air strikes) by both coalition and Russian forces as well.

The Syrian people deserve better, and the world has a collective moral responsibility to respond to this worsening humanitarian crisis with a cooperative large-scale effort.

Air strikes alone ain't cutting it - nor are a group of American civilians who think taking on ISIS is like an adventure movie.


Friday, October 02, 2015

Something Else in Oregon & Joseph Tartaro's "Urban Initiative"

The looming threat of Hurricane Joaquin has cast a gloomy anxious pall over New Jersey; a state where many people have only just recovered from the ravages of Superstorm Sandy two years ago - and some still haven't.

But after seeing the horrific aftermath of the latest mass-shooting on the Oregon campus of Umpqua Community College where 26-year old Chris Harper Mercer used at least three different guns to kill ten people and wound seven more, can the threat of any damage Joaquin might inflict on the east coast of America be any worse than the threat posed to society by gun violence in this country? 

Unfortunately the do-nothing Republican majority that currently controls the U.S. House of Representatives have refused to use their Constitutionally-mandated authority to draft legislation and pass laws that might put into place the kinds of reasonable common sense gun control laws that might limit the access to handguns and keep mentally disturbed individuals like Mercer from obtaining firearms in the first place.
The response from the reactionary Second Amendment advocates like the NRA to this blood-soaked gun horror is as predictable as it is meaningless to the victims of today's shooting and their families, friends and co-workers.

National Rifle Assoc. CEO Wayne LaPierre
The Wayne LaPierres (pictured left) and other right wingers who deify America's gun culture will release the usual public statements condemning the (latest) violence and expressing their heat-felt condolences for the victims before they use the occasion to extol the lofty mythical virtues of the Second Amendment.

An Amendment that was drafted in the 18th century when our nation was a sparsely populated collection of territories with no organized law and order under invasion by a foreign power and regular citizens needed to be armed to defend themselves.

Hell, it was only about a week ago at the 30th Annual Gun Rights Conference in Phoenix, Arizona that Joseph Tartaro, the 84-year old president of the Second Amendment Foundation proposed a bold  new initiative for pro-gun advocates to begin aggressively reaching out to African-American and Hispanic citizens in urban communities and encourage them to learn to shoot firearms.

Yeah we could use more of that.

Joseph Tartaro
As Jennifer Mascia reported in an article on, it was during the second session of the three-day conference when the theme of the day was "The Gun Rights Battle" that Tartaro (pictured left) shared his radical proposal for minority recruitment.

By the way, "The Gun Rights Battle" is an interesting theme given that a visibly-angered President Obama, speaking in response to the horror in Oregon yesterday, noted that right now there are enough guns in America for every man woman and child.

As of July 2014 the population in the United States was estimated to be 322,583,006 so do the math, shouldn't take you too long to figure out who's winning the "Battle" for gun rights - after the horror in Oregon we certainly know who's loosing.

Anyway back to article.

In it, Tartaro acknowledged a truth to the gun-loving audience in Phoenix that scares the crap out of many American conservatives; that “Within the next 20 to 30 years, the U.S. white population will no longer be the majority.”

So, by Tartaro's thinking, the only way to ensure the continued expansion of "gun rights" in  America is to reach beyond the pro-gun constituency that “seems to be predominantly white and Republican.” and start reaching out to pastors and local and state political leaders with influence in predominantly minority communities who will then encourage a rising tide of gun ownership, training and eventually political activism that will ensure liberal access to firearms for future generations.

Now for you right-leaning folks who check this blog out I realize black folk are responsible for plenty of gun carnage too so don't give me any grief; Tartaro is an old white guy and I'm only quoting what he told a large audience of (mostly) gun loving white folks.

Go ahead and read the article for yourself. As Mascia reported, Tartaro insisted that,  “I know pro-gun white people can meet with urban Democrat politicians at the local, state and federal level for useful conversations when the way has been paved by pro-gun members of the minority communities,”

Now the thing is, I don't think Tartaro is crazy. Some of his views on gun ownership are a bit extreme but he's not crazy.

He's just one of the few conservatives I've seen express something that today's Republican party can't seem to understand; that indeed, there are many African-Americans and Hispanics in this nation who are very traditionally conservative socially, religiously, fiscally and politically.

Problem is, Republicans have allowed themselves, their party and their brand to be hijacked by a perpetually pissed off extremist element that tolerates bigotry, narrow-mindedness and the condemnation of "otherness."

One that embraces exclusion and vilifies inclusion.

If the GOP could learn to think strategically like Joseph Tartaro, they could win the White House.

But they won't.

They're too busy trying to shut down the federal government, flying the flag of the Southern Strategy, obsessing over women's reproductive rights and stoking the fires of imaginary issues like "religious freedom", Hillary Clinton's old emails and Benghazi to think three dimensionally enough to envision how welcoming non-white constituents could expand the Republican power base without the need for gerrymandering or voter repression.

But my point in citing Tartaro's "urban initiative" is to offer a snapshot of where the priorities of the nation's pro-gun advocates are currently focused.

And question why there wasn't a session on keeping guns out of the hands of those who would seek to use them as extensions of their mental illness or who harbor festering personal grudges during that three day conference in Phoenix last week.

Unfortunately Joseph Tartaro doesn't seem to quite understand the extent to which gun violence has decimated urban African-American and Hispanic communities in places like Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But he's not a fool.

Texas open carry laws. The grocery store? Really?
He knows that support for the kinds of ridiculously unrestricted gun laws being passed in places like Texas and Georgia are loosing support and won't last.

Like the open carry laws that permit people to strap on a loaded handgun and pretty much go anywhere; like this lady (pictured left)  in the bread section of a grocery store with a .45 semiautomatic in a holster on her hip.

Tartaro knows that the kinds of senseless horrific mass shootings we saw yesterday in Oregon are also happening in affluent suburbs and the kinds of rural areas where the majority population consists of the mostly white conservative demographic who now make up the bulk of the pro-gun movement in this country; granted gunman Chris Harper Mercer did identify himself as mixed race.

So it's not enough for pro-gun advocates to continue using the imagined fear of a wave of armed minorities bent on crime as justification for arming anyone who can carry a gun. FBI statistics show the overwhelming incidents of gun violence in this nation are black on black or white on white crime taking place within specific communities.

There are exceptions obviously but they represent an extremely small percentage of overall crime stats; the NRA-promoted image of the brave white home owner fending off minority criminals is largely a myth - due in no small part to the highly segregated nature of American society.

Statistics show a white, black or Hispanic gun owner is far more likely to use it on someone they know personally than on someone  breaking into their home - which is why groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council have helped states like Florida pass 'Stand Your Ground' laws that essentially empower (mostly white) people to use deadly force to defend their person against someone they perceive as a threat in the same way they'd defend someone who broke into their home.

But as we've seen it's allowed deranged violence prone killers like George Zimmerman to kill innocent people and not be held legally responsible.

But again, Joseph Tartaro and other pro-gun advocates know that the more the the demographic that makes up the bulk of their constituents sees the kind of carnage that took place in Oregon yesterday, the more they recognize that common sense gun laws are just that; and not "attacks on the Second Amendment" as the NRA and their ilk like to paint any effort to enact things like mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases, mandatory federal background checks and reasonable limits of the number and type of guns people can own.

Something has to change.

As a nation we can't simply keep sitting there feeling stunned and powerless every time we see another violence-prone individual with serious mental problems, a massive chip on their shoulder and a huge arsenal of weapons wreak bloody havoc on innocent American citizens.

Chris H. Mercer (Center) & photos from his Myspace page
Listening to some of the almost non-stop coverage of the shootings yesterday on CNN I kept hearing the word "tragedy" used to describe what Chris Harper Mercer did in a classroom to people who were simply trying to educate themselves.

It's not a tragedy.

A tragedy is an earthquake, a landslide or some unforeseen natural disaster.

A tragedy is something that can't be predicted or controlled.

What happened this morning in Oregon was predictable given the easy access to guns in this country; it was inevitable given the difficulty many people in this nation have accessing mental health treatment.

What happened in Oregon this morning was preventable had Congress bothered to act decisively after any of the other horrible mass shootings that have become part of our lexicon. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Charleston.

No what happened in Oregon was something else. And the apathy of our political leaders bears no small measure of responsibility. As do we for not demanding action from those we elect to serve us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

May the Farce Be With You: Who's Investigating David Daleiden?

Republican House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz
Tone deaf Republicans once again used the Capitol Building as a public stage to try and publicly tee off on women's reproductive rights, federal support of Planned Parenthood's women's health care initiatives and programs, and the head of the embattled organization. 

Despite the fact that a detailed investigation of the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster showed there was absolutely no merit to the widely disputed claims made in a series of "sting" videos accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally selling fetal tissue for profit, Republicans are proving once again that what they think and believe trumps the actual truth.

It strains credulity to think that an extremist group like the Center for Medical Progress could be the source of any kind of evidence that would initiate Congressional witch hunts investigations by four separate Republican-controlled committees.

According to an investigation by, CMP has ties to violent anti-abortion groups with a history of harassment and intimidation of people seeking and providing legal abortion services.

Liar: David Daleiden of the Center For Media Progress
As detailed must-read research that was  conducted by People For the American Way reveals, David Daleiden (pictured left), the deceptive right wing misogynist responsible for creating the infamous bogus videos, approached Operation Rescue with his idea three years ago and met with (among others) OR policy adviser Cheryl Sullenger.

Sullenger spent time in jail in the 1980's for plotting to bomb an abortion clinic.

Remember folks, the current Republican movement to shut down the entire federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood wasn't driven by actual evidence of any illegal wrongdoing or a valid investigation conducted by law enforcement or any agency of the government.

This madness has been fueled by concocted evidence manufactured (not gathered) by delusional wing nuts like David Daleiden, Cheryl Sullenger and their ilk - and the Republicans took that phony ball and ran with it.

And they were up on the Hill yesterday, banging away like it was Watergate.

Cecile Richards tries to get a word in 
Any questions about whether Republican members of Congress might actually be remotely interested in hearing what Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards had to say were quickly put to rest.

As Jedd Legum reported in an article for, even dedicated pro-life activists were shocked by the unfettered display of crass bullying and witch hunt hysteria put on by members of the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill.

Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz's rambling, tear-filled opening speech at the start of the hearings set the tone for yet another misogynistic display of uninformed Republican attack-speech that had almost nothing to do with facts or truth, and everything to do with contrived ideological theater.

As numerous outlets have reported, he tearfully suggested that if funds that went to Planned Parenthood went to cancer research instead his mother might be alive; obviously Chaffetz seems to have totally missed the point that Planned Parenthood provides pap smears, mammograms and other cancer prevention services for women.

The Federalist co-founder Sean Davis
Politically speaking, I don't usually agree with the conservative co-founder of The Federalist, Sean Davis, a Texas Tech grad who served as Rick Perry's former economic adviser. But he was just one of many conservatives who took to Twitter to lambaste the Republican's handling of the questioning of Cecile Richards:

"Can you imagine if this band of incompetent morons had been in charge of prosecuting the Nuremberg trials? My goodness what a farce."

Farce is right Sean.

Between the near constant rude interruptions of Richards as she patiently tried to answer the barrage of questions thrown at her, to the outright distortion of truth being peddled by a bunch of grandstanding preening clowns masquerading as lawmakers, it was a total disaster for Republicans.

One that may actually serve to boost the already strong public support for Planned Parenthood and further decrease the overall female support for Republican presidential candidates - a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed 52% of 1,574 respondents registered to vote opposed Congress cutting of federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

The not-fact-based "Chaffetz chart"
Chaffetz's attempt to pass off a simplistic hokey chart (pictured left) purporting to show that Planned Parenthood increased abortions while decreasing breast exams is a perfect example.

As Sara Jerde reported in article for, Chaffetz tried to pass off the baseless propaganda as having come from "directly from (Planned Parenthood's) corporate reports". 

Richards then informed him that her own attorneys said the chart was actually created by an anti-abortion group called Americans United for Life and suggested he check his source.

Seriously, this guy is the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and he's bringing in charts made up by Americans United for Life?

That's like a Congressman holding hearings to scale back fuel efficiency requirements for cars bringing in a chart made by Exxon.

As Olga Khazan reported in The Atlantic back in July, AUL (founded in 1971) is almost chiefly responsible for writing the text of legislation for various state houses around the country that seeks to scale back abortion rights.

But give Republicans some credit, at least it wasn't just a panel full of men lecturing Richards.

Republican Congresswoman Mia Love
Chaffetz, who represents the state of Utah, did bring along the freshman Congresswoman from his own state, Mia Love, who represents a rarity on the Hill; An African-American female Republican who represents Utah no less.

If a unicorn walked into the room I'd be less shocked.

Love was just one of many of the GOP reps who lobbed over-the-top attacks at Richards.

She tried to make the fact that Planned Parenthood clinics usually outsource mammograms to other clinics or hospitals simply because the machines are too expensive to have in every Planned Parenthood clinic seem like some kind of subversive plot.

Leave it to a female Republican to try and make providing cost-effective mammograms to lower income women in America seem like a criminal act.

What is wrong with the GOP?

Only Republicans would use a series of deceptively-edited videos created under false pretenses to try and discredit a health care provider that focuses on the needs of lower income women.

Only Republicans would try and use this farce to shut down the government of the nation with the largest economy in the world; the clock is ticking but let's hope even Republicans have enough sense to not let that happen.

In the meantime I won't hold my breath waiting for Jason Chaffetz to summon David Daleiden to the Hill to ask him about his phony "sting" videos; as we've seen the Republican thirst for knowledge is situational at best.

And limited only to that which conveniently fits their ideology.

Monday, September 28, 2015

George Zimmerman Gloats Over a Teenager's Death

George Zimmerman (center) next to Florida gun shop owner Andy Hallinan
It's hard to tell who's more sick in the head.

A Twitter user who goes by the name "Grand Moff Alexander" who posted a gruesome crime scene photo of teenager Trayvon Martin's dead body with a message glorifying his killer George Zimmerman as a "one man Army".

Or Zimmerman re-posting the picture on his own Twitter account; where he calls himself "TheRealGeoregeZ".

Regardless, his choice has ignited a firestorm on Twitter and other social media sites.

There are a lot of people outraged that the man who stalked, confronted and then initiated a physical confrontation with an unarmed Trayvon Martin before killing him back in 2012 continues to take a demented pride in the fact that he got away with murdering an innocent teenager who was on his way home with a drink and a bag of Skittles.

It wasn't enough that a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty based on his claims that he was just defending himself from a teenager he'd followed after a police dispatcher specifically told him not to.

Zimmerman shakes the hand of a fan
Since his acquittal, Zimmerman has been arrested for threatening his girlfriend with a loaded shotgun, assaulting his ex-wife and been stopped by police with a loaded gun in his vehicle.

He's also reveled in making money off of public appearances by posing for photos with "fans" at gun shows (pictured left) and other events where an assortment of conservatives, right wing extremists, "patriots", 2nd Amendment advocates and white nationalists regard him as a celebrity.

But profiteering off murdering a black teenager isn't his only source of income.

Prior to the grassroots media backlash against his posting a photo of Martin's body (which he quickly deleted), most recently Zimmerman made headlines by teaming up with Florida resident Andy Hallinan to sell copies of a painting of the Confederate flag that Martin painted.

Hallinan is the high school dropout from Massachusetts who sparked outrage back in July when he publicly declared his Florida gun store a "Muslim-free zone" in the wake of 24-year old Kuwaiti-born U.S. citizen Muhammad Youssef Adbulazeez killing four U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy Petty Officer in a violent mass shooting in Tennessee before he himself was killed.

Hallinan (pictured left) posted a video of himself on Youtube (standing in front of a Confederate flag) in which he blamed President Obama for causing the rise of racial polarization in America and announced that he was banning Muslims from his gun store; and urged people to "get armed, get trained and carry-daily".

In response, according to an article on by Michelle Richinik, Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced that the organization would file a lawsuit against Hallian and said:  

"These bigoted declarations are no different than whites-only signs posted in businesses during a period of our history that we had hoped was over."

There's something depraved about a man whose documented propensity for violence, love of guns and racist views led to the death of an innocent teenager, then shows absolutely no remorse for it.

There's something morally reprehensible about someone who not only remains unapologetic about causing the death of another human being, he aligns himself with those who treat him as if he was some kind of American hero for getting away with it.

As if he'd fended off an attacker who'd broken into his house or stopped a bank robbery instead of stalking and killing a innocent 17 year-old high school student with no police record.

But we are talking about the state of Florida after all folks.

The same state where Congresswoman Janet Adkins (pictured left) recently told a group of Florida Republican activists that the key to defeating Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown (pictured left), an African-American who served as a state representative for 10 years before being elected to Congress in 2013, was to simply increase the number of black prison inmates in Brown's district.

As Evan Hurst of reported earlier today, Adkins strategy is to follow the Republican playbook and use illegal Gerrymandering to, "draw [Brown’s seat] in such a fashion so perhaps, a majority, or maybe not a majority, but a number of them will live in the prisons, thereby not being able to vote,” said Adkins, a Nassau County Republican, referring to black residents."

Now obviously it wouldn't be fair to lump every single resident of the ironically nicknamed "Sunshine State" into one barrel with all the bad oranges.

But it is a state where a judge and jury did elevate the warped principle of "Stand Your Ground" laws over the life of an innocent teenager.

And it's also the place where an elected member of Congress is on record as openly suggesting that districts with high concentrations of incarcerated people of color is in line with the Republican strategy to suppress the votes of non-white Americans to create majorities that are illusory.

I'm not sure what the members of the jury who found Trayvon Martin's killer not guilty felt when they heard the news that the man they absolved of murder posted photo's of his victim's body on his Twitter page like some kind of trophy from a hunt.

But I do know that there are a lot of people around the world wondering how justice and politics can be so openly twisted along racial lines in a state that's part of a nation the loves to see itself as the greatest Democracy in the world.

Liberty and justice for all?

I'd imagine the family of Trayvon Martin, being forced to hear news about photos of their son's body being posted on a social media account by his killer, might think otherwise.