UNCIVIL DISCOURSE

The Friday after the mid-term elections two weeks ago, Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders, i.e. the guys who will be running the show when the new Congress convenes in January, met in the White House with President Obama to hammer out an agenda that both sides could agree to, that would actually benefit the American people. It was supposedly a show of good will that both Democrats and Republicans could work together for the two remaining years of the Obama Administration, to produce needed legislation to better the lives of most Americans. After all, isn’t that what they were sent there to accomplish in the first place. Well, obviously not, as evidenced by the fact that both parties were at each others throats, about 30 seconds after this new “era of goodwill” began. So much for legislative productivity.

It all started over the issue of “amnesty” for illegal aliens. There are an estimated 11-12 million undocumented people who have supposedly entered the U.S. through illegal means. Almost all are from Latin America. Of course, I don’t understand how this figure was arrived, since almost all illegals maintain a very low profile, and go to great lengths to avoid being counted in the first place. Nevertheless, this is this figure that’s usually bandied about. Many have been in the U.S. for 20 or 30 or even 40 years or longer, generally living in the shadows. They usually don’t pay taxes, vote, or have a drivers license; and most live in constant fear of being rounded up and deported back to whence they came from. To address this rather deplorable state of affairs for both U.S. citizen and non-citizen alike, the Senate in 2013, passed legislation that would strengthen border security, but would also provide a pathway to legality and eventual citizenship for most illegals that didn’t have a criminal record. This legislation was sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida whose parents had immigrated here legally from Cuba. One would have thought that with Republican sponsorship of this act in the Senate, it would have been a slam-dunk for passage in the GOP controlled House. Instead just the opposite was true. Where would the fun be if the House just went along with the Senate. Why, there might even be a slight dissipation in the hyper-partisanship, dysfunction and polarization that so engulfs Washington these days. Couldn’t have that.

The right-wing lunatic fringe of the GOP began bellowing that this act was nothing more than amnesty for illegals; and besides, if they received such amnesty, they would most likely vote Democratic. Perish the thought. House Speaker John Boehner didn’t have the courage to override the protests from the Tea-Party crackpots in his own party, and, thus, didn’t allow the Senate bill to come to the House floor for a vote. If he had, the votes were there  to secure passage. Rush Limbaugh, and all the other right-wing whackos on talk radio (that I wrote about last time) kept screaming about amnesty as if this was an awful thing. As we all know, the connotations surrounding the word “amnesty” used to be that of generosity of spirit, forgiveness, providing shelter for the persecuted, being a benefactor, and establishing a safe harbor for those most in need, etc. However, in right-wing looney-tunesville, amnesty became something ugly, to be despised and feared. Thus, nothing has been achieved in the past 2 years concerning the plight of illegal aliens in the U.S.

Hence, after that supposedly goodwill meeting between Republicans and Democrats that I discussed at the outset, President Obama declared that if Congress failed to act on the immigration issue, as apparently it will, he was going to issue an executive order that would, in effect, provide “amnesty” for several million illegals. Oh noooo, not “amnesty.” It was like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull. Or in this case, an elephant. Speaker Boehner quickly mounted the dais to announce that Obama could expect a rather unpleasant visit from 2 GOP enforcers named Tiny and Knuckles, if he did undertake such unilateral action. Tiny got his name because he’s 6ft.9 and weighs 380 pounds. Knuckles got his name because he likes to use brass knuckles when whaling on his victims. If they showed up at the White House, things would definitely not go well for Obama. Okay, so maybe Boehner did not use that exact verbiage, but the sentiment was clearly evident. With an executive order from the President due out almost within the hour, Republicans are furiously plotting counter-strategies. Some are talking about impeaching Obama, while others are focusing on shutting down the Government.

Now, it should be noted that Obama gets down on his knees every night before bedtime, and prays to God that the Republican Congress will initiate impeachment actions against him. Nothing would rescue his dismal approval ratings faster than having the Republican Party initiate impeachment against the first African-American president of the U.S. One only has to go back to the late 1990s, when a Republican Congress tried to impeach Bill Clinton, who also had low approval ratings at the time because of the Monica Lewinsky fiasco; to see how well that strategy worked out for the GOP. Once impeachment proceedings got underway, the public recognized them for the ultimate in bullying tactics; and Clinton’s low approval ratings suddenly began to soar. The formerly disgraced President became a conquering hero; especially at the 2008 and 2012 Democratic conventions, where he played a major role in getting Obama elected President.

Assuming that the GOP is not stupid enough to make the same glaring mistake twice; the next best thing for Obama would be if they shut down the Government. The Republicans would be sure to feel the heat for such action. After all, they have been publicly advocating for such a shutdown. The trouble is, that even people that have great antipathy toward a variety of Government actions, (or non-actions as the case may be) usually are opposed, nonetheless, to Government shutdowns. So after all the sound and fury of Obama granting amnesty to illegals starts to wear thin, a shutdown might not occur either. However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Obama receiving a very unpleasant visit from Tiny and Knuckles.

 

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FAKING SINCERITY

To appreciate the full ramifications of the Republican sweep of last Tuesday’s election, one has to explore various and complicated aspects of the human condition.  For example, as I wrote previously, the election results in most cases were decided by the people who didn’t vote, versus those that did. About 45% of eligible voters did cast their ballots, which is actually slightly higher than most off-year elections. But a solid majority of eligibles couldn’t be bothered to show up at the ballot station, or couldn’t care less about who won. Supposedly, most of those that did vote were turned off by Obama Administration and Democratic ineptitude and failures, and that prompted a fairly strong turn-out for the Republican cause. This was best illustrated in the state of Virginia, where Democratic Senator Mark Warner was supposed to have coasted to an easy re-election win over a Republican hack named Ed Gillespie. Instead the election was a nail-biter through the entire evening with Gillespie leading most of the time. Warner finally edged out a win by the skin of his teeth in the early morning hours. The reason for Warner’s near loss- people in southern Virginia were motivated to turn out in heavy numbers to vote Republican as a protest against Obama; while Democratic strongholds in northern Virginia saw meager numbers of voters at the polling booths. Ironically, people that benefit most from Government assistance, such as the poor, the sick, and the unemployed, tend to vote in light numbers, while those opposed to Government redistribution vote much more heavily. Also, young voters who generally are more liberal tend not to show up at the polls, while oldsters, like myself, who are usually more conservative, will vote in heavier numbers, even in off-year elections. What else do they have to do with their time.

Then, there’s the way candidates appeal to the voting public, as a crucial factor. In 1946, both Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon had returned home from fighting in WWII, and both were elected to Congress that year. In Kennedy’s case, it was part of family tradition to run for high public office. But in Nixon’s case, no political aspirations were initially in evidence. Not until a group of wealthy businessmen from southern California approached him, and said they liked his style and that he should consider entering the political arena. They, the businessmen, would provide the necessary financial support for such an effort. Nixon was grilled on variety of issues to ensure that his views were sufficiently conservative to suit the businessmen’s interests. But most of all, Nixon was told, to become a viable candidate, he had to appear thoroughly sincere in belief of the issues he would be promoting. “Well, hell,” replied Nixon. “I can fake that; at least as well as the next guy, if not better.” Since I wasn’t at that meeting, perhaps the exchange of verbiage didn’t go down in exactly those words. But I’m pretty sure that it was very close to that. Nixon was so good at faking his sincerity, that he would go on to be elected Congressman and then Senator from California. Next he was chosen to be Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1950s. From there, after some political setbacks, Nixon was elected to the Presidency in 1968. He made huge accomplishments as President; but was eventually done in and disgraced by his own paranoia during the Watergate scandal, which forced him to resign the Presidency. Faking the sincerity factor no longer worked for him.

Another good example of the fickleness of the average American’s political thought-proceesses also occurred during the tumultuous 1960s. In 1968, America had already been devastated by the assassinations of two leaders of monumental consequence, namely, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In 1968, Robert Kennedy, affectionately known to his supporters as Bobby, decided to enter the fray for the Democratic nomination for President. He had been Attorney-General in his brother’s administration, and then was elected Senator from New York. Possessing much of his brother’s charisma, he generated huge popularity and seemed well on his way to securing the the Democratic nomination, when he too was assassinated in June of that year. It was a shattering loss for most Americans. I remember writing at the time that no nation, not even one as powerful as the U.S., could sustain such devastating losses in leadership without going into a tailspin. Hubert Humphrey, a decent enough Senator from Minnesota would go on to obtain the Democrat nomination while Richard Nixon was the GOP nominee. But there was a third player in that year’s election.

His name was George Wallace, and he was the racist Governor of Alabama. In 1968, segregation and Jim Crow laws were still alive and well throughout the South. Wallace decided to run as an independent in the Presidential race that year, figuring that he had as good a shot as the main-stream party candidates. So, who was George Wallace? Five years previously, he had declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” That racist statement occurred when Wallace stood in the school house door to block black students from entering the University of Alabama, as had been decreed by the courts.  He eventually was forced to back down by an edict from then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had to federalize National Guard troops to provide protection for those black students. But that wasn’t the most interesting part of that 1968 scenario.

The most interesting part was that the very  people that had actively supported and voted for Bobby Kennedy in the Democratic primaries, were now turning out in huge numbers to listen to, and support George Wallace on the campaign trail after Kennedy’s assassination. Even though you couldn’t have two politicians who were more diametrically opposed to each other. Kennedy was a liberal who was for civil rights, and strongly opposed segregation and Jim Crowism. He was opposed to the war in Viet-Nam and promised disengagement if elected. He vigorously favored Government intervention to help the plight of the poor and sick. Wallace was just the opposite. He was not only a strict segregationist, but he was also one of the few public supporters of the Viet-Nam war. He couldn’t care less about reducing poverty, as noted by the fact that Alabama was the second poorest state in the union, with Mississippi being dead last. And yet many of the same people who were enthusiastic about Bobby, became similarly enthusiastic about Wallace.

How does one account for that? It’s the sincerity factor. When questioned about this supposed anomaly, voters were unapologetic. Bobby was a good man because he wasn’t talking out of both sides of his mouth, said one man. Now, Wallace is the only guy who means what he says and isn’t trying to please everyone at the same time. One woman added that “they say what they mean and they don’t try to beat around the bush.” So, in the end, it’s not about ideology. It’s about which candidate can sell the public on the fact that they are the authentic, real-deal. After all, politics is a game of salesmanship. The one that can best fake sincerity will usually rise to the top.

 

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TALK RADIO

Most of you are probably unaware that there used to exist in radio and TV land something called the “Fairness Doctrine.” This was a rule established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and applied to all companies seeking licenses to broadcast on radio and TV. The rule required that TV and radio stations holding FCC issued licenses be required to devote some of their broadcast time to controversial issues of public importance. It also required that equal time be devoted to both sides of, say, a political controversy. For example, if a Rush Limbaugh type ranted for an hour on the radio demonizing liberals and Democrats; another hour had to be set aside for some one to talk in favor of the liberal position, and in turn castigate conservatives and Republicans. Broadcasters were required to  actively determine the full spectrum of views on any given issue, and to present those people best suited toward representing both sides being discussed. Additionally the rule required that broadcasters alert any public figure of the fact that they, or their views were being attacked on the air; and allow them equal time to rebut those accusations. The “Fairness Doctrine” originated back in 1927, and was further strengthened in 1949 with the advent of commercial television. It had thus been around for quite some time as we headed into the 1980s; and it seemed to work reasonably well.

Come the Reagan era in the 1980s, the “Fairness Doctrine” was increasingly being challenged in the courts as being an infringement on the first amendment’s constitutional right to freedom of speech. The FCC began to reconsider this rule in the mid-1980s, after Congress passed a resolution expressing its disapproval. The FCC then revoked the rule in 1987, and, thereby, opened the floodgates of what is called “talk radio” in present day vernacular. Democrats were completely clueless as to the havoc that dissolving the “Fairness Doctrine” would wreck on their political fortunes and aspirations. But without the requirement of having to broadcast both sides of all controversial or political issues, the door was open to any looney-tunes, crackpot with a reasonably good speaking voice, and the ability to master the art of demagoguery. The first one on the scene was Rush Limbaugh, who until the late 1980s, was basically a small time radio sports and news broadcaster. But with the “Fairness Doctrine” gone, Rush, ever the opportunist, realized “thar was gold in them thar hills” of bashing and demonizing Democrats and progressives. With demagogic skills approaching that of a Josef Goebbels, (if you don’t know who he is, look it up in your Funk&Wagnalls), Rush developed a loyal audience of millions tuning in every day to get their 3 hours of first Clinton and then Obama demonization. When a Republican became President, such as George W. Bush, Rush’s format would switch to protective coating of each dumb decision they made, such as the Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, or the whole Iraqi invasion fiasco. But, as I’ve said, millions bought his drivel, which made Rush a very, very wealthy man.

Not long after, other opportunists such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and hosts of other Rush wannabes joined the right-wing whacko parade, each seeking to outdo the others in demonizing what they consider to be their political enemies. Using, perhaps 5-10% fact, and 90-95% fiction, each uses the same basic format steeped in demagoguery to make a good living off the gullibility of millions of adherents. One such lunatic deserves special mention, because even the lunatic-fringe considers him too unhinged to be allowed recognition in polite society. His name is Michael Wiener; but he changed it to Michael Savage, and hosts a radio program called the “Savage Nation.” After all, I guess the Wiener Nation wouldn’t sound quite so fearsome. In any event, his bellicose rantings against Obama, the Democrats, liberals, minorities, environmentalists, etc. are so vile and hate-filled that Great Britain has put him on a list banning him from entry into their country. The other names on this British list are known terrorists, serial killers, or recognized criminals. He’s the only one on that list that talks on the radio for a living. Yet, we, in this country, allow him freedom of the airways to spread his filth and poison. Ain’t democracy wonderful.

The most disturbing aspect of all this, is not the fact that there are so many unhinged lunatics freely pounding away on the radio, and TV also, (Fox News.) The most disturbing aspect is that millions of Americans are not only rabid fans of all this right-wing drivel, but apparently can’t get through their days without listening to a steady stream of such demagogic lunacy. One might say, to be fair, that there are also left-wing zealots on the radio and TV airwaves. That may be true; but apparently they can’t perform nearly as well as the right-wingers do, and no prominent name stands out on the left side of the spectrum.

So why does all this matter in current day realtime. Because Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and all their wannabes are basically shills for the Republican Party. Republican fortunes over the past 25 years have improved vastly, in no large part due to these right-wing broadcasts on talk radio. Tomorrow we have an election coming up, in which all the pundits have predicted that the GOP will win the Senate and increase their majority in the House. To say nothing of electing more Governors and state legislators. We’ll have a total Republican Congress that basically despises President Obama, and Democrats in general. Won’t life be fun then. Look for lots of Government shutdowns, as well as more extreme hyper-partainship, polarization and dysfunction. One might be well advised to examine how we painted ourselves into this corner in the first place.

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THE PLAGUE

“The Plague” written by French existentialist  Albert Camus, should be on everyone’s top ten bucket list to read before dying. Written in 1947, it takes place in an Algerian port city, similar to the one Camus grew up in Algeria. Oran to be specific. At the time Algeria was a French possession, and would not achieve independence until the early 1960s. The Plague deals with issues that were central to French philosophy during WWII years; namely existentialism, the absurd, and humanism. Although the story is ostensibly about infected rats emerging from the city’s sewers and dying in the streets, and then how the disease spreads to the human population who also start dying in large numbers; it is said to actually be an allegory about the horrors of WWII. The basic message of The Plague is that the world, and, indeed, the universe, is often senseless and indifferent to human suffering, which is unceasing and torturous. If you don’t believe so, think of a parent’s worst nightmare-which is the loss of a child. A nightmare they can never recover from. Nevertheless, Camus believed we should always fight the good fight against all this suffering, as the doctor fought unceasingly against the disease in The Plague. Although, in the end, that battle will inevitably be lost. Remember, this book was written shortly after WWII with all its horrors of concentration camps and death; so pessimism concerning the human condition abounded everywhere, especially in Europe. Camus did fight in the French underground and got to see the horrors of war up close.

In a godless, absurd, and uncaring universe, Camus made the case that compassionate humanism was the only rational course for human existence. I was thinking about “The Plague” recently, especially with its latest outbreak concerning the Ebola virus, with the death and destruction it has already caused, and it reminded me of my misspent youth immersed in French existentialism. I have written before about my dalliance with humanism and existentialism when I was in college in New York, and how I had three close friends with the same interests. About how the four of us would work after school during the tax season for an accountant named Herman Lord, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The four of us read virtually all the works of French existentialists such as Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, Andre Gide, and others. Like the French writers, we fancied ourselves to be atheistic existentialists in a cold and indifferent world and universe. Thus, the irony was not lost on us that we went to work for a man named Lord. When we came into his office, we would profusely bow with great flourish, and refer to him as The Lord. One day he finally lost his temper and yelled that if we didn’t cut that shit out, the four of us would be looking for a new job immediately. We still went on referring to him as The Lord, amongst ourselves, if not to his face. After all, it seemed like destiny that us 4 atheists would wind up working for The Lord.

As I’ve said, his office was in the Bed-Sty section of Brooklyn which was virtually all black at the time. It was the Brooklyn equivalent to Harlem. But this was the mid-1950s, when New York, and indeed, the rest of the country was still peaceful and the crime rate was low. Often I would be the only one in the office, (besides the client, of course), and not lock up until about 9:PM. Usually, my car would be the only one parked on the street. Yet I never had any fear for my safety, or for my car being ripped off. Even my mother, who was a professional worrier, never had a concern about my working nights in Bed-Sty. So how did it all turn so violent as we moved into the 1960s. Cities burning often repeatedly, crime surging, massive illegal drug dealing and usage, huge demonstrations and protests, relentless poverty, inner-city rat infested slums, unpopular and unnecessary war, and a host of other ills burst upon the American scene. It seemed that the relative tranquility we experienced during the 1950s was, indeed, an aberration.

And so it was, as the facade of a peaceful American society papered over huge social and political problems. Blacks were routinely segregated and treated as semi-slaves in the South. There were huge gaps in wealth between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and even between men and women. Minorities were fed-up with being relegated to inner-city slums, as well as dealing with Jim Crowism. The war in Viet-Nam, started because of our neurotic fear of communism, would go on to take close to 60,000 American lives as well as hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese. And the plague of violence that spread across America after the 1950s, would, over decades, go on to infect the rest of the world, that is today caught up in Islamic-terrorism. We swallowed a healthy dose of that terrorism on 9/11 and in terrorist strikes on American soil since then. But large chunks of Northern Africa and Asia are currently subjected to the terrorist plague of almost daily beheadings and massive killings. And the beat goes on.

Albert Camus died in a car accident in Algeria in 1960. I would like to believe that he would have appreciated the absurdity of such a hugely important literary figure dying in such a mundane manner. My friends and I grieved over his death as if we had lost a parent. A major voice for reason  and sanity and compassion in the human condition had abruptly been silenced. We were now truly alone in an indifferent and uncaring universe. How frightening is that.

 

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AMERICA’S FAUX DEMOCRACY

In 1931, humorist, vaudeville performer, and radio personality, Will Rogers made the following statement: “Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing; nobody listens; and then everybody disagrees.” And he must have been peering into the future when he also made the statement that: “America has the best politicians that money can buy.” I wonder what he would have thought of the dysfunctional, hyper-partisonship that exists in Congress at the present time. We could use someone with the wit and humor of a Will Rogers to cope with our ongoing destructive political system that is virtually non-functioning in the year 2014. I bring this up now because the elections for many Governors, Congressmen and women, Senators, etc. takes place in a mere 2 weeks from tomorrow. For those of you that believe that election time shows that we have a real democracy in this country- all I can say is – how quaint, how deliciously naive that thinking is. An examination of the facts might disabuse you of that notion.

The first thing to realize is that election results in this country are mostly decided by the people that fail to show up at the voting booth, rather than those that take the time to cast their ballots. In a presidential election year, perhaps 55%-60% of eligible voters might show up at the polls. In a non-presidential election year, however, such as 2014, only about 40%-45% bother to vote. The rest are too busy keeping up with the Kardashians. This year all the pollsters are predicting large Republican gains in both the House and Senate. It is universally predicted that the GOP will take control of the Senate so that both houses of Congress will be under Republican domination. The reason- Republicans are much more motivated to vote against anything Barack Obama stands for, and that, of course, includes voting against Democratic candidates. On the other hand, it appears that most minority voters, including blacks, Latinos, and Asians  who turned out in such large numbers in 2008 and 2012 to elect Obama to the presidency twice, will mostly stay home this year. It seems they’re quite disappointed with the way events have turned out under Democratic leadership. Without an especially heavy turnout of blacks and hispanics, Democratic prospects this year are doomed. A classic example of how the non-voting public, which will be a majority of the population this year, determines election outcomes. In Australia, all eligible voters are required by law, to cast their ballots in each election. After all, isn’t that each citizen’s civic duty? A similar law in this country might improve the democratic process we’re supposed to have, but really don’t.

Next up is the considerable role that money plays in the voting process. The hit Broadway show, “Cabaret,” has a song that says “money makes the world go around,” and this is especially true in the political arena. Anyone with political aspirations from dog-catcher on up to president, knows that it will take huge cash infusions to make that goal come true. Multi-millionaires and billionaires continue to pour heavy donations into their favorite political candidate’s coffers, which then buys all those obnoxious and annoying political ads we’re subjected to on television during each election season. Sadly, too many people base their voting decisions on these ads which are at best a collection of half-truths, outright lies, and pure bunk. I wonder if our founding fathers envisioned that the election system, which is supposedly the heart of the democratic process, would turn out in this fashion. Most of these rich donors usually pour their cash into the Republican kitty; but the Democrats have a few rich partisans too. Whichever candidate can out spend his or her opponent usually wins the election. In fact, political cash intakes are often an end-game in itself. Each week, reports come out about which party is ahead in collecting the most donations. The winner usually gets the prize of buying the desired public office. All of this could be obviated if voters ignored all political advertising. and did their own research in deciding who to vote for. But, good luck with that scenario ever taking place.

Another factor in our so-called democratic process is voter suppression. It didn’t take long for those controlling our political system to realize that if they could prevent people who are likely to vote for the opposing party, from voting in the first place, that would be the key to winning elections. In olden days, almost every Southern state had enacted poll tax and written exam legislation, that effectively prevented most blacks and poor whites from casting ballots. That legislation was finally overturned, but the devious will always find alternative methods to achieve their goals. Today voter suppression takes the form of voter ID legislation that has been enacted in almost every state controlled by Republicans-the so-called red states. Since many poor blacks and hispanics, who usually vote Democratic, often lack picture ID, they are denied the right to cast a ballot. Sadly, the Supreme Court has upheld most of these voter ID laws, which have effectively kept the red states redder than ever. So much for democratic principles.

There are, of course, other anti-democratic traditions on-going in this country. The electoral college, which is comprised of 535 men and women, out of a U.S. population of about 312 million, gets to decide who the president will be. Al Gore found this out the hard way in the year 2000, when he was elected president by popular vote, but the electoral college gave the office to George Bush. The fact that elections take place on a Tuesday, when most people have to go to work or school; and in November when there is likely to be rotten weather in most northern states also suppresses voter turnout. I wrote a previous piece on how much saner it would be to hold elections in the good weather of September or early October, and on the weekend when most people are home. Other examples abound but I think you’re getting the picture.

So like a faux handbag, or a faux Rolex timepiece, America’s supposed democratic process looks real- until one examines it up close.

 

 

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BATTLING THE PLAGUE

Man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man throughout the thousands of years of recorded history is, of course, legendary. Tens, if not hundreds of millions of people have been butchered by evil tyrants and bloodthirsty despots. But there has also been hundreds of millions of deaths, to say nothing of untold misery, that has occurred during these same thousands of years that cannot be blamed on mankind’s nefariousness. These deaths are on God’s watch; and they’re due to nothing more than infectious diseases that God has somehow has decided to inflict on the human race. (Also on animals, to a somewhat lesser extent.) They are known as plagues, and while some have been brought under control or wiped out altogether, others are still alive and vigorously plowing a path of destruction through segments of today’s population.

So let’s start with an all-time favorite on the disease hit-parade that goes back to biblical times. Namely leprosy. Leprosy is a bacterial infection, discussed at length in both the old and new testaments, that causes alarming human disfigurement. In it’s worst form, leprosy causes hideous and mainly facial sores along with lumps and bumps and skin lesions. It also produces muscle weakness and numbness in the hands, arms, feet and legs because of nerve damage. In ancient times, no one, of course, knew what caused leprosy; but everyone who was not infected knew they didn’t want any association with those considered to be lepers. So leper colonies were often established where those that were infected could be shipped off to spend their remaining days with other fellow lepers. A leper colony often resembled a collection of the zombies that are portrayed on the TV show, “The Walking Dead.” Except if you were part of the aristocracy. Then you were permitted to wear a facial mask that hid the terrible disfigurement that had become your face, and stay at home in one of your castles. Even then, the top one percent had their own special privileges. Certain kings throughout Europe were known to be lepers, but were allowed to reign, as long as their face was covered by a pleasant-looking, smiling mask.

Leprosy exists to this very day, usually occurring in warm or tropical climates, but is easily curable by antibiotics. About 100 cases a year are recorded in the United States, usually in the South or in Hawaii. Keep in mind, however, that antibiotics have only been around since the end of World War II, or less than 70 years. So all the millions that were infected with this hideous, disfiguring disease prior the the advent of antibiotics, had nothing to look forward to except being herded off to leper colonies for an early death.

The next charmer that would make everyone’s top ten list on the disease hit parade, has to be the bubonic plague, or the black death as it was often known by. This is another bacterial infection, usually spread by rats or mice living in a city’s water or sewage system. Fleas can also transmit this disease to humans. Once people are infected, they can spread the disease quite rapidly to everyone they come in contact with. This disease causes high fevers, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, and red spots on the skin that usually turn black. Hence, the black death. The first recorded deaths from the bubonic plague were in China in the 1330s, A.D. But since China had extensive trading businesses with most European countries, it didn’t take long for the disease to spread throughout Europe. It spread with ferocious speed, quickly claiming thousands of victims. The Italian writer, Boccaccio, said its victims often, “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” While the disease was usually dormant during the winter, it rose with fury each Spring, as fleas became active again. Over a 5 year period, an estimated 25 million people, or about one-third of Europe’s population at the time, had succumbed to the bubonic plague. It didn’t start to peter out until about 1600, A.D. Today, the black death still exists in small numbers, but is also curable by treatments of antibiotics.

Another all-time favorite has to be tuberculosis  or TB. It usually attacks the lungs and results in convulsive coughing spasms. It’s caused by inhaling the air that has been expelled  by one who is infected. Curiously, not everyone who possesses the TB microbe actually experiences tuberculosis. If one’s immune system is strong enough, one can avoid coming down with the disease. The TB bacteria can live in your body without ever making you sick. But if one’s immune system is compromised, the disease will likely take hold. And then it’s a very nasty business that can only be cured with a high-potentcy antibiotic regimen that can last for months. Millions through the ages have died from TB and it’s still highly active in our present day society. Of course, there are many other infectious killer diseases that I could mention such as small pox, which has largely been eradicated at this time, to influenza, which killed millions during World War I, but is controllable today through vaccinations.

Which brings us to the infectious disease du jour, the Ebola virus. Unlike bacteria, which science has been able to destroy with the invention of antibiotics, there is no comprehensive remedy for a viral infection. Such as the common cold. Thus, a highly infectious virus such as Ebola, can ravage through large populations, killing its victims at will, with no way of stopping it except for quarantine. The trouble is that viruses are so tiny compared to bacteria, that medical science has not been able to come up with effective remedies. Already several thousand people in Africa have died from the latest outbreak of Ebola, and it has now spread minimally to this country. Sadly, most African countries already suffer from mind-numbing poverty, and have neither the sanitation or quarantine means to contain a nasty killer like Ebola. Yes, countries around the world, including the U.S., have pitched in to attempt to quarantine this killer microbe, and will probably, eventually succeed, but not before a few thousand more people will likely die.

As I said at the outset, tyrants throughout the ages have killed hundreds of million of people. That one is on man. But killer diseases that have killed more millions, that one is on God.

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THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE

People have told me that I focus too heavily on all the corrupt and dysfunctional behavior in our society and the world at-large, and not enough on finding solutions to all the myriad of problems I’ve identified. Of course, in almost all instances, the solutions lie in applying a rational, common sense approach toward resolving these issues. But rationality and common sense are often too much to ask of people mired in delusional wastelands, or caught up in the philosophy  of opposing any meaningful change in their lives, or in society as a whole. The way it’s always been has to be the way it always will be, without exception. Life is so much more uncomplicated if we just follow the old traditions, no matter how non-sensical they may be. In any event, I thought I would offer up some solutions to what seem to be intractable deficiencies in the way we go about spending the few short years we have on this planet.

Lets start with the presidency. No matter how corrupt and dysfunctional you may view politics in this country, there is no denying that the President of the United States is the single most powerful person in the world. This is true whether you love or hate politics, or whether you make the sign of the cross to ward of being involved in the political system, as one would try to ward off a vampire attack. The President is the ultimate leader, not only for this country, but for the entire world population. It would, therefore, seem prudent that the process for choosing this person would be well-thought out and highly rational. Instead, just the opposite is true. We have a system for presidential candidate selection that would make any third-world, banana republic blush in shame. First of all, we have essentially a 2 party system that has been hopelessly compromised because of special interest groups. The Republican Party caters to the agenda of religious fanatics, (they call them evangelicals in this country. Sounds so much better than looney-tunes, bible-thumpers.) Also to big money interests in business and on Wall Street. While the Democratic Party is beholden to labor organizations like the teachers unions, and to environmental extremists. These groups represent supposedly the base of each party, and are never to be offended, especially in an election year. There are some third party candidates; but they never seem to garner any traction, and usually wind up getting less than 1% of the vote. And sadly, a third party, beholden to no special interest group, is just what this country needs.

Next comes the party selection process. This would appear to be crucial since one of the two people selected by each party will wind up being, as I’ve said, the most powerful person on the planet. Unfortunately, the selection process has turned out to be a farce almost beyond description. Each party has, what are called primaries, with the earliest one being in January for an election that won’t take place until early November. The small state of New Hampshire used to hold the first primary in February; but then, the even smaller state of Iowa decided to jump the gun. Iowa holds what is called a caucus in January so it can be the first one diving into the political swimming pool. A caucus is where a tiny fraction of the state’s population meets in somebody’s house, or perhaps a school room, and votes on their preference for their party’s nomination. It’s considered a lot if 1 or 2% of the state’s populace bothers to vote in the caucus. Nevertheless, it gives the winning candidate a leg up for winning future primaries and caucuses, at least as far as the media is concerned. Next comes the New Hampshire primary, where also a small number of people turn out to actually cast ballots in an election booth. If a certain candidate wins both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, they’ve garnered huge momentum going into the rest of the primaries, at least as far as the media is concerned. As a result, it’s often likely that that each party’s nominee has the nomination just about locked up before any of the larger states such as New York, California, or Texas hold their own primaries. How irrational.

The sane way would be to have national primary day in late June or early July, whereby all states would vote in either party’s primary on the same day. And instead of being held on a Tuesday, when most people have to be on the job, hold the vote on a weekend when most people are off, or don’t have school. Wouldn’t that be a lot more logical. You might even get better quality candidates this way. But one can almost hear the howls of protest should such a plan be proposed. Especially from people in Iowa and New Hampshire who would lose their special shining spotlight in the primary process. Can’t have this new-fangled thing called sanity entering our political system.

While we’re at it, lets change the time of the actual presidential election to perhaps early October. When the November timeframe was specified in the Constitution, the U.S. was almost exclusively an agricultural society. Our framers believed that by early November, all the crops would have been harvested on American farms, and farmers would no longer have the chores of bringing their produce to market. Today, only 1% of the population is engaged in agriculture. Isn’t it time to change election day to a period when mild weather prevails. We only get about a 60% turn out for a presidential election and far less in a non-presidential election year. Really  bad weather often arrives by early November, at least in Northern states, which further inhibits voter turn out. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have elections in September or early October when there is generally good weather, and have them on a weekend, when people don’t have the excuse for not voting because they had to go to work. I believe you would see much larger voter turn outs. So what are the chances of seeing these rational, common sense reforms being enacted into reality. Probably, between zero and minus zero.

I had planned to write about other major areas of American and world-wide dysfunctional practices that could be changed by simple, common-sense ideas, but I feel my energy level beginning to wane at this point. It’s that senior thing again.

 

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RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM

At the heart of religious fundamentalism is the unquenchable thirst to dominate other people’s lives. To dictate to the populace what it can and cannot do. The self-gratifying, lustful power to reward or punish others based on how they respond to religious edicts. That power to include torturing, imprisoning or out-right killing other human beings should they disobey those edicts. This has been on-going for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years, or ever since mankind began forming into various types of societies such as tribes or clans. Most early tribal leaders had the power to destroy the lives of their fellow clansmen should they disobey the craven idols they had carved and called gods. Such power has always been too intoxicating for most leaders to ever relinquish.

Which brings us to the events going on in most Arab countries in the Middle-East. It was only a few years back that the world was enchanted by what was called the Arab Spring. Ruthless dictators that had been in power for decades, such as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were being overthrown and the prospects of freedom and democracy throughout the Mid-East seemed to burn brightly. Today those dreams have turned to ashes, as most Arab countries have become hollowed-out shells of their former beings. You can thank religious fundamentalism for most of this, including the fact that people all too often make incredibly bad choices and turn out to be their own worst enemy.

In Egypt, after the fall of Mubarak, Egyptians were allowed to hold free elections that would determine their next government. In an act that can only be described as incredible stupidity, the people chose leaders of the Moslem Brotherhood to run their country. The Moslem Brotherhood had, over many decades, openly espoused and advocated for the imposition of strict Islamic fundamentalism for Egyptian society. Once in power, that’s exactly what they began doing. Who could have guessed? When those very same Egyptians that had voted the Moslem Brotherhood into power, began seeing the ugly face of Islamic fanaticism being put into practice, they cried and begged for relief. They held massive demonstrations and prayed that the military would intervene and save them. Fortunately for them, the Army did come to their rescue and overthrew the Moslem Brotherhood. Today, there’s a new Army General in charge of a government that allows and tolerates secularization in Egyptian society.

Most other Arab countries, however, are not as fortunate. It was not long after the Prophet Muhammed established the Moslem religion that two factions of Islam suddenly sprung up. Both factions pray to Allah, both recognize Muhammed as the prophet, so that the religious differences among the two sects are relatively minor; yet the two have created a chasm between themselves that’s deeper than the Grand Canyon. One faction is called Sunni and the other Shia, and their hatred of one another has led to deaths among Arabs in the hundreds of thousands or more. It’s all about the power and the ability to impose one’s religious beliefs on often unwilling populations. All this division and dysfunction has led to terrorist organizations being created, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS who view killing people and instigating atrocities to be such jolly good sport. Ostensibly their intentions are to kill western heathens such as Americans and Europeans. And, of course, Israelis and Jews. That goes without saying. But in the end, they wind up slaughtering  their own fellow Arabs and Muslims by the thousands. Much easier to kill Arabs since they’re right there in the Middle-East and so readily available. Today, Iraq, Syria and Libya have been almost totally destroyed by terrorism, while Jordan and Tunisia are tottering on the brink. The terrorists have carved out a huge hunk of territory in Iraq and Syria, with stated intentions of taking over the whole Mid-East. And somehow, all this derangement, slaughter and destruction, in the name of Islamic-Jihad has proved to be an attractive recruiting tool for hundreds of young Europeans, and even some Americans. They have gone over to the Mid-East to join the terrorists on their murderous quests. After all, why should only Arabs have all the fun.

In a way, it’s a bit unfair to cite Islam as the only example of religious fanaticism, since Christianity has its own bloody history. From the time that Roman emperors allowed Christianity to become the official faith of the Roman Empire, (a few centuries after Christ’s death), the Papacy was established and became a dominant power in the affairs of almost all European nations. Europeans that deviated from various papal proclamations were often imprisoned or burned at the stake. One of my favorite episodes on the top ten list of religious fundamentalist hits was known as the Spanish Inquisition. Started in Spain in the late 15th century, the Inquisition sought to convert mostly Jews, but some Muslims also, to Christianity in order to save their souls from hell and damnation. Those “heretics” that refused to convert were often tortured and then murdered. The religious theory behind the killings were that since these Jews and Muslems would be dying at the hands of God’s children, (Christians), their spirits would be pervaded by the wisdom and knowledge of God’s followers, and they would therefore be spared from the fires of hell, and be transported into heaven. The old kill the person to save their soul gambit. This practice went on for centuries before some semblance of reason and sanity finally did away with the Inquisition.

Today, Christian fundamentalism, at least in the U.S. and elsewhere, takes the form of trying to forbid a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or seeking to deny homosexuals their basic rights such as marriage. Certainly a lot tamer than beheading those that are considered unholy heathens. But sort of the same mentality of trying to force their fundamentalist view of life and religion down the throats of people that don’t share their beliefs. As I’ve said before, religious fundamentalism is all about the power to foist one’s beliefs on everyone else. After all, wouldn’t God want it that way?

 

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SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES…AND LUNGS

“Now when laughing friends deride, the tears I cannot hide, I simply smile and say …. smoke gets in your eyes.” Those simple but eloquent lines were from a musical written by the great composer, Jerome Kerns, back in the 1930s. I could have written about that if only life was so simple. But I decided to expend my energies on something more substantive- the smoke that comes from a tragic fire  that destroys both the eyes and the lungs. One fire in particular, that goes back to a little over a century ago, that produced such horror as to change the course of human existence in America. So let us go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the Lone Ranger would have put it. To March 25, 1911 to be precise.

The advent of the 20th century saw a huge increased demand for off-the-rack, mass produced clothing that could be sold in department stores. Prior to that, presumably, most households made their own clothes, or obtained hand-me-downs from such places as the Salvation Army. New York, at the time, was a city of wide disparities between a lavishly rich handful of people, and a vast majority of dirt poor. But as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam, new industries were booming; and none more so than the manufacture of off-the-rack men’s and women’s clothing in New York. Factories that made this clothing had sprung up almost like weeds. But few examined the labor conditions in these factories during that period. These factories employed almost all women, some as young as 14. They were mainly Italian or Jewish immigrants with a few Germans, and were forced to work under the most miserable sweat shop conditions. Clothing manufacturer employees generally had to work from 7 A.M. to 8 P.M. seven days a week. Even longer hours during the busy season. They were paid the enormous sum of $6 per week, and were often required to use their own needles, threads, irons, and even sewing machines. They had to work at tiny stations in poorly-lit, overcrowded spaces that lacked ventilation. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. To say that they were fire traps waiting for disaster to strike would be an understatement.

One such manufacturer was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located in Greenwich Village. (Women’s blouses were often called “shirtwaists” at the time.) The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck , who were both rabidly anti-union. They were known as the shirtwaist kings because they could produce large volumes of garments for cheaper prices. It was a Saturday, close to quitting time, when workers began smelling smoke on the 8th and 9th floors of their 10 story building. The smoke rapidly became flames as a full-fledged fire broke out. Factory foremen had locked many of the escape exits with chains in order to keep out potential union organizers. Also to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing scraps of fabric. Perish the thought. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers seeking to escape with their lives. The New York Fire Dept. responded quickly but their ladders could not reach high enough to save the women on the 8th and 9th floors. Many women jumped to their deaths trying to escape what became a raging fire. In total, 146 girls and women died on that tragic day. But their deaths were not in vain, as they led to a new set of landmark government regulations.

Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of scrap material that had been accumulating for almost 3 months. Owners Harris and Blanck were working on the 10th floor and managed to make it to the roof. From there they were able to cut over to adjoining buildings and thereby save their lives. They would later be indicted for manslaughter, but were never convicted. The judge told the jury that in order to be found guilty, the 2 men knew, or should have known that the exit doors were locked. Since that couldn’t be proved, they were set free. To their dying days they continued to rabidly fight the unionization of garment workers. As a result of this debacle, however, child labor laws were enacted as well as fire safety regulations, and other legislation to improve the lives of employees throughout the nation. The days of unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism were slowly being reigned in. Nevertheless, today there are many in Congress that would like to repeal virtually all laws that they believe hampers the full and free functioning of capitalism in our society. They consider such restraints on enterprise to be unconstitutional.

In 1902, shortly after Theodore Roosevelt became President, the coal miners of America went on strike. They worked long hours under the most unsafe and dismal conditions, and hadn’t had a raise in 20 years. Their lives were almost always cut short by the nature of their work, (inhaling coal dust 10 hours a day), or by the work hazards of mine explosions or accidents. America, at the time, ran on coal-from heating residences to providing energy to factories. Nevertheless, the owners of these coal mines adamantly refused to bargain with the miner’s union. They considered unions a form of socialism, and an infringement on their capitalistic rights. T.R. then threatened to nationalize all the coal mines. Angry coal mine owners told him he had no constitutional right to take such action. Roosevelt then responded that the constitution was written to serve the people-not the other way around. He further stated that the moral obligation to do what’s right for the people trumped any constitutional right. The owners finally and begrudgingly gave the miners a 10% raise and shorter working hours. But to the bitter end they refused to recognize the legitimacy of the miner’s union. Our current President might want to take a lesson from T.R.’s adamant defense of acting on behalf of the people.

Today, the political currents are running in favor of returning to the days of laissez-faire capitalism. Many in Congress, such as Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, given the chance, would love to repeal virtually all social legislation enacted from the days of T.R. or Franklin Roosevelt. There’s an election coming up in a few weeks. If you’re planning to vote, think carefully about which party heavily promotes less regulation and unencumbered capitalism. Which party, if given the opportunity, would turn us back a century, to the fun days of the the Triangle factory fire.

 

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THE TERRORIST MINDSET

Not too long ago I was walking across a large intersection buried deep in thought and oblivious to surrounding conditions. Sort of standard operating procedure for senior behavior these days. Suddenly I became aware of a large truck bearing down on me, full throttle. It was readily apparent that I had but the smallest fraction of a second to leap out of the way, or be flattened like a latke. I didn’t have time to deliberate on the fact that I’ve lived a long time, and with all my aches and pains and other assorted maladies, did I really want to continue being in this lifetime. Nor did I have time to ruminate over what horrible shape the world is in these days, and getting worse all the time. Who needs it all? In fact, I didn’t have time to think at all. The natural instinct toward self- preservation kicked in, and I jumped to safety in the nick of time. But for some people the instinct toward self-preservation seems to be in short supply.

I’ve written before about living in a seniors community here in Las Vegas, and about all the foibles of senior behavior. One frequently observes seniors with canes, or walkers, or in wheel chairs, or hooked up to oxygen tanks while in wheel chairs, frequenting smokey Las Vegas casinos seeking some diversion. As physically impaired as they might be, the quest to hang on to what’s left of their lives remains as powerful as ever. A few years ago a man we knew  in our community, in his mid-60s, who had led a highly robust life, came down with pancreatic cancer. An extremely nasty business, that pancreatic cancer. He fought it tooth and nail for almost 2 years before succumbing. Toward the end he could have gotten a part as one of the zombies on the TV show, “The Walking Dead.” Due to the ravages of cancer, no make-up would have been required.

So, if the natural human instinct is to preserve life at all costs, why do some men in their twenties (once in awhile there’s a female, but it’s almost always men) strap on a belt of dynamite and seek to blow themselves up, thereby destroying about 60 or 70 years of future life, as long as they can kill others they perceive to be their enemies. Welcome to today’s modern terrorist, whose mindset revels in death rather than life. While there have been terrorists throughout the ages, (in ancient times they were called barbarians,) modern day terrorism’s evil registered in everyone’s consciousness with the tragedy of 9/11. Nineteen young Islamic-Jihadists pulled off the feat of destroying almost 3000 American lives, bringing down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and damaging part of the Pentagon in an act of vengeance against hated Americans. Of course, they destroyed their own lives in the process, but that apparently seemed to be of little concern on their part. Interestingly, shortly before 9/11, these 19 men visited Las Vegas, apparently to experience a taste of the decadent life style they were committed  to destroying. And, as we all know, there’s been a slew of terrorist acts throughout the world, resulting in death, destruction and misery, in the ensuing 13  years since 9/11. The most recent being the beheading of 2 American journalists by a particularly vicious set of psychos known as ISIS.

It’s probably pointless to attempt to understand the psychology that goes into the terrorist mindset, but I thought I’d give it a shot. The first thing you need to understand about the terrorist’s thinking is the joy they derive from killing other human beings. It’s not unlike the serial killer who murders just for the pleasure and ecstasy (often sexual in nature) of snuffing out an innocent human life. Only the terrorist does it on a much grander scale. In other words, if you’re applying to join Al-Qaida, its probably not a good idea to check the “Yes” box on the application form where it asks-“Do you have any qualms about killing large numbers of people?” One is not likely to be accepted if they’re not willing to murder with impunity. If one is to be a terrorist, killing is the name of the game. Then there’s also the brain-washing factor to be considered.

A whole slew of radical Imams have sprouted up like poisonous weeds, not just in the Mid-East, but throughout the world. They preach intense hatred toward the West, toward Israel and Jews, and especially toward the U.S. They preach that it’s a moral imperative to kill and destroy all these heathens. Allah commands that the enemies of Islam should be destroyed. That a young man will curry great favor with Allah by sacrificing his life to kill those that would defile the Moslem way of life. He would, forever be considered a holy martyr, and his family would hold a place of high honor and distinction in Allah’s eyes, and in the Moslem world. And, sadly, to many young men, not only in Arab lands, but throughout the world, this is an appealing message. To young men, who at an early age are already down and out, with no prospects for any happiness or prosperity in their lives. Whose existences are already dismal and hopeless. Million and millions of such men populate this planet. This gives you some idea of what the world of sanity and the proponents of peace, are up against.

A couple of weeks ago there was a story about a young man from Minneapolis who despite being born and bred in the U.S., wound up joining and fighting for ISIS. Those that knew him said he was fun-loving and enjoyed pulling practical jokes. But most of all, he particularly enjoyed playing and watching basketball games. Basketball was his passion. Somehow though, along the way after high school and college, he met up with Islamic Jihadists and became brainwashed into joining their cause. Two weeks ago he was killed on an ISIS battlefield, at age 31. How many more Americans have gone over to the really, really dark side? Britain estimates that at least 500 of its citizens have joined ISIS. Almost all are of Moslem descent. Other European countries also have their citizens fighting and killing for terrorist causes. And there doesn’t seem to be any viable plan to cure this spreading disease.

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