City for Sale! Everything Must Go!

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The main event in Richmond last Monday wasn’t, as one might suspect, at the National, nor at the Mosque, nor even the Diamond where the Squirrels played baseball well past 9 p. m. No, if you wanted real entertainment Monday evening in this ex-capital of the Confederacy, nothing could beat the exquisite interplay of egos and angst, and downright old town villainy that was on display at City Council Monday eve.

At issue was a resolution put forward by the council at the behest of Mayor Dwight Jones and certain powers behind the scene (hint: VCU) that wanted to ‘better’ Monroe Park. The idea was to lease Monroe Park (the city’s oldest park) to an entity called the Monroe Park Conservancy and thus create a private/public partnership with 3 million coming from the city and another 3 million that the Conservancy will “attempt to raise from private sources” to spruce up the place. The lease would run for 30 years. Sounds great, except the lease, that is the money the city would get out of this act of singular munificence runs to—wait for it –one dollar a year. Let’s repeat that for those of you just joining us: that’s one dollar a year, for thirty years. Or, thirty bucks. Or the price of a dinner for two at one of Richmond’s less stellar establishments. Without a bottle of wine, either.

So city real estate, assessed at 9 million dollars, or so, is leased to a private conservancy in a deal that will net the city exactly -2,999,970. Note that this is a negative figure.

There’s more, of course. The Checkers House which will be renovated to accommodate a restaurant/cafe will in turn be rented out….and that rent (possibly $100,000.00 or more per year) will not go to the city to help pay off the 3 million the city chipped in for renovations, but rather, it will go to –wait for it– the Monroe Park Conservancy! And no, even though the Conservancy will be sitting on real estate valued at 9 million dollars, it will pay exactly zero (0) in property taxes back to the city. Now, in all fairness, Mayor Jones, in a rare display of fiscal sanity, actually tried to work property taxes into the deal, but VCU, et. al. said ‘meh’ and so sadly, he folded because there was no other entity besides the Monroe Park Conservancy that would happily take such a deal, right?

Well, no. That’s not right, either, actually. There are probably hundreds of entities that would take such a deal. I would, for example. So would Enrich Richmond. So would Renew Richmond. So would activist, Mo Karnage, who tried to put in a bid on the park to delay the vote. The competing bid(s) for Richmond’s oldest park were all summarily rejected without explanation or notable delay. So there is the faint whiff of a sweetheart deal here, which, of course, tends to embolden activists. Or, just citizens concerned that the city is selling their public wares off faster than a street hooker who has decided to pay a really high price for the privilege of getting screwed.

Nevertheless, City Council President Charles Samuels assured everyone at the meeting that the park will remain open for all. As a passing note, Samuels is the district councilman for the park and he co-patroned the resolution to lease Monroe Park to the Conservancy along with Mayor Dwight Jones who is, yes, on the Board of the Conservancy himself, soon to be joined by councilman Samuels, if he so chooses. Funny how all this works out.

Despite such assurances from Samuels about public ‘openness’, the writing on the wall (and in the lease) is not nearly so blithe. The Conservancy will establish a list of “acceptable activities” in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit to pursue said “acceptable activities” which costs $35 per event/activity. The Food Not Bombs folks, represented by activists like Mo Karnage, who regularly feed the homeless in the park, are not especially rich and $35 a pop to do volunteer work in a quasi-public park is not exactly a step in the right direction for them. That is, of course, if the Conservancy views their humanitarian efforts as an “acceptable activity” which it may very well not do because many on the board consider the presence of the homeless in the park to be a “security issue”; one of the main reasons for establishing the Conservancy in the first place.

Now, if you were to read the press accounts of these events you would be forgiven for taking a dim view of the activists who were reported to have ‘disturbed’ and ‘frustrated’ the smooth running of our erstwhile Democracy. Here’s Channel 8′s big takeaway: “Richmond City Council was supposed to vote on the future of Monroe Park, but people continued disrupting because they didn’t like the plan. Things got so out of order that at one point, council members got up and walked out.” Right. And the reason for this unruly disturbance of order? “All the commotion stemmed from disagreement over a plan to allow a non-profit to manage Monroe Park. People against the ordinance are worried about what will happen to the homeless people who live in the park.” Well, yes, that and the fact that the city is once again involved in an alliance with private entities to strip away control of public property for the satisfaction of the already quite well to do; and they are using approximately 3 million dollars worth of public funds to do it. And the fact that the City of Richmond apparently has yet to have a successful audit of property it’s already leasing and may be as much as a million dollars or more in the hole. And that the Mayor’s budget cuts the city parks’ budget by 7%. And that every single public commentator allowed to speak was against it, including ex-council person Martin Jewel who said, “You are creating an environment in which the people will revolt… And I’m going to join them.”

Activists shouted, one person was handcuffed and dragged away. Disruptions occurred throughout the meeting. Mo called council person Samuels a dingo or dingus when he tried to cut off her public comment, and council person Mosby pleaded for the attendees to show more respect, accusing them of wanting people in Richmond to remain homeless; which honestly made no sense at all. Not that the rest of the meeting was a profile in lucidity.

In the end, none of it mattered. City Council finally went on to approve the plan. Unanimously, I might add (which brings up another oddity: why were there no dissenting votes? Not one?)

At any rate, the evening was quite entertaining, in a gallows way, for a Monday, that is; a kind of opéra bouffe which was much better than the Squirrel’s game, whose stadium, by the way, the Mayor wants to move to Shockoe Bottom through another public/private partnership, I hear. Yes, Virginia, there are many people making money on these deals, but it’s not the City of Richmond.

So, maybe in lieu of all these ideas about private partnerships taking over our historic urban parks and plunking stadiums on slave auction sites and slave jails and draining our public coffers for the benefit of a very few, maybe we could just sell tickets to City Council meetings?

Ten dollars a head. Ten dollars and you, too, can bear witness to great theatrics, deep lessons on human greed and venality and cowardice. All in one night.

Now there’s a public/private partnership I could get behind.

~Jack R. Johnson

The Money Storm

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A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.

How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.

In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.

The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.

Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”

The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”

Field of Dreams

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About the Oscars, Billy Crystal once famously quipped, there’s nothing quite like being in an economic recession, watching millionaires giving each other gold statues. But this year, there was one bright spot from the overindulgent marathon – Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress. In it, she conjured the ghost of Patsey, a slave she portrayed in the heartbreaking drama, 12 Years a Slave. She saluted her spirit, saying, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.” and later, “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

So what if all the hundreds of thousands of slaves processed through Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district were brought back to life and could say a word to our Mayor about his recent plans to plop a baseball stadium in the middle of their Devil’s Half Acre?

Mayor Dwight Jones, a graduate of Virginia Union University, which was built on land leased by the widow of Robert Lumpkin, says there’s no need to worry, as the baseball stadium will not be built on Lumpkin’s jail. True enough. According to a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the proposed baseball stadium will cover Goodwin’s jail and many of the ‘trading’ areas that bought and sold humans like so many tobacco shucks in the area. In other words, it won’t be built on Lumpkin’s jail, but on the very jail where the hair-raising story of Solomon Northup originates. Ever defiant, Jones still claims that the baseball stadium, “will in no way impact the sacred ground.”

This, of course, all depends on your definition of ‘impact’ and ‘sacred’ and ‘ground.’

I have to wonder what a reified Solomon Northup would have to say about this word parsing?

Sadly, we live in a culture that tends to honor winning over everything else. Even the arguments about the baseball stadium’s location are carefully couched in the language of economic efficiency, pro or con. As though Richmond’s families and descendants of slaves were no more a factor in this decision than acquiring, by hook or by crook, a suitable number of parking spaces. We like to think of ourselves as a practical people and all practical people know the past is dead. The future insists on primacy, and today is simply a moving dream we must temporarily span. But the past influences the present and the South—in particular, this region of the South—has gone out of its way to revise its history. That’s why all those statues of dead Confederate Generals line Monument Avenue. That’s why Lumpkin’s jail and Goodwin’s jail have laid buried and ignored for the last two centuries. They are unpleasant reminders that the revisionist’s narrative of a heroic Confederacy held in its dark heart some pretty gruesome sins.

So the baseball stadium is really a double threat. It bears all the hallmarks of an economic boondoggle, much like the other boondoggles we’ve seen embraced by the Richmond City government. There’s no reason to believe that a baseball stadium occupied three to four months out of the year will provide more of an economic stimulus to the area than the small businesses already growing there. A new traffic study suggests a stadium in that location will be a logistical nightmare. The promise of state matching funding for the museum and slave trail has evaporated, slashed by Virginia’s state legislature in this year’s state budget. Yet, proponents of this scheme keep insisting this is the ONLY road to development in the bottom. As if development isn’t already occurring, or that the development couldn’t be enhanced with flood mitigation plans that could be done at a fraction of the cost of the full-blown stadium roll out.

In some ways, the proposed stadium in the bottom is an inverse Field of Dreams: build it and they won’t come. The locals will be shut out; and who could imagine that any ghosts arriving from that hallowed ground will be looking for a baseball stadium? Recall that Solomon was an educated black man, kidnapped and sold into slavery, and processed through Richmond’s ignominious trading centers like a package of Perdue Chicken. He had to hide his education and intellect under threat of physical violence because Southern landowners couldn’t countenance the idea that a black would be educated. They feared education and knowledge as the real threat to their hegemonic control of ‘property’ and wealth. Thus, Solomon didn’t play sports when he was finally rescued from slavery. He wrote a book to preserve his long-buried history. He understood the importance of history –how what has occurred inevitably influences what will occur. The reactionaries that built the Confederate Statues understood the same lesson. A resolution in the Virginia legislature recently memorialized the progenitor of massive resistance, Harry Byrd. He has a statue in front of our state house for much the same reason. Given Virginia’s history in these matters, is it any surprise that no strings were attached as his name was emblazoned across the state? No one needed to build a minor league baseball stadium in a back room deal with developers to gin up the funds to honor him. Wouldn’t it be nice if Solomon Northup, and the millions who passed through Richmond’s slave processing center could finally get the same deal?

Inside Baseball

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The saying goes that bad ideas make good stories. This story has all the makings, albeit a little stereotyped. The vainglorious steel jawed Mayor championing a backroom deal that only developers and his various flunkies could love; the milquetoast City Council, dithering around the clock, headed by the ever lovable Charles Samuels (who will absolutely have to be played by Matthew Broderick or a younger acolyte); the supporters of the Mayor’s plan headed by the craggy Kathy Graziano, the wildly inarticulate Ms. Mosby and the stoically factual Ms. Newbile. The loyal opposition will be led by the feisty Mr. Agelasto and down home sweetheart, Ms. Trammel. Dithering between these teams are two somewhat timorous white men, Mr. Hilbert and Mr. Baliles, whose vote will swing the ultimate outcome. But like any good story, this one comes in layers. We need a little background before we get to the high drama of votes and buildings and …. Baseball!

So to begin…

Scene I

Time: early 2013. Place: parking lot near Weiman’s Bakery, Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Va.

Two men in shadows gesturing toward a vacant lot. Let’s call one Hal and the other one Happy.

Happy: “How ya doing, Hal? Hope it wasn’t too bad inside?”

Hal: “It was rough. Jail is no place for the faint of heart. So who’s the jerk sending out this letter?”

Happy: “Anonymous.”

Hal: “You don’t know the name?”

Happy: “No, it’s ‘anonymous’ like I said. But he’s nailed some numbers down. Close to half a million going to City Council from what he says.”

Hal: “How’d he know that?”

Happy pauses…. “So you do know about this?”

Hal: “Would I tell you if I did?”

Happy: (thoughtful) “No. I guess you wouldn’t. Look, Hal, I can make this happen. But this place is sensitive. You want to open up the Boulevard for development, get the Diamond built down here in the bottom. Not a bad plan, but you gotta give me something –or the black community is going to scream bloody murder.”

Hal: “Scream. Why would they scream? It’s a great idea. Best idea I’ve had since The 6th Street Market Place!”

Happy: “Why would they scream? Geez, Hal, No wonder they put you away. Because this is like the Slave Trade Central for the U.S. of A. 200 years ago, right where you are standing, black folks fresh from Mali stood on auction blocks. This place screams history. I mean screams….you know? Mothers torn from their children, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers. It won’t go so well you try to bury that with baseball.”

Hal: (glum) “So what can I do?”

Happy: “Give me something. Give them something. Give them history!”

Hal: “You want I give them history? Okay, I’m happy to give them history. Only how?”

Happy: “There’s this lady, a Delegate for the state. I’ll tell you her name later. She’s been pushing for a Slave Museum. For years she’s been working this thing. Bugging me to death about it. You give her that, she’ll deliver the black community for us.”

Hal: “She got that kind of mojo?”

Happy: “Indubitably. She’s very persuasive. And loud. And vigorous, too.”

Hal: (hesitating) “But …you mean…like…CASH? That could be a lot of cash, wouldn’t it?”

Happy: “Chump change, 14 million; but the deal won’t happen without it.

Hal: “I don’t know. 14 million’s not so chumpy in my neighborhood. Actual cash for a museum is tough. What about a promissory note? You know, we will most definitely promise her some cash. I can totally get some people behind that.”

Happy: “Good thinking. I like that. “

Hal: “So we promise the nice Delegate lady some cash in the future from as yet to be named ‘corporate’ sources for her slave museum, while we get cash from the city right now for my projects at the Boulevard and the bottom? I like the way your mind works Happy!”

Happy: “Right. Now all we have to do is sell it!”

Scene II

Time: Later 2013. Place: Parking lot near Weiman’s Bakery, Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Va. Only this time the parking lot is not abandoned, hundreds of people mill around.

Hal nods with approval: “Nice turn out, Happy. How’d you do that? You are one helluva sales guy, I must say.”

Happy: “I will tell you, Hal. What I did was, I found myself a 501(c) 3 called Venture Richmond. Then I got myself made President. I asked all the business owners who might have an interest in Boulevard money or Bottom money to join us in support. It’s funny how persuasive money can be!“

Hal: “You are very enterprising for a politician, Happy. I like the way your mind works.”

Happy: “See that man, there? He owns the Exxon just up the street from the stadium. When he found out he might have to sell in order to sacrifice for the betterment of the city he was quite overjoyed. So all of these folks are helping me now. And I thought to myself, how do I get a great crowd for this announcement? And it occurred to me. Why, Happy, just ask all these various businesses who are happy to profit from money on the Boulevard or the Bottom to show up. And lo, they all have. It is almost a miracle. …Hal, did I ever tell you I am a preacher as well as a dedicated public servant?”

Hal: “Well no, Happy, I didn’t know that. But it’s obvious that The Lord is on your side. Not to mention the Chamber of Commerce.”

Happy: ”Indeed He is, Happy. Look, see all the happy logos saying “Loving RVA”—that’s Venture Richmond , getting my message out!”

Hal: “Very nice, but um, Happy who are those folks?”

Hal points to rows and rows of people lining the street around the Venture Richmond people. Happy frowns.

Happy: “They are uninvited, is what they are. Round them up and shoot them!”

Hal: “I don’t think you can do that, Happy.”

Happy: “Why not. I’m the Mayor!”

Hal: “I’m a multimillion dollar felon and developer. But you saw what happened to me with just a little bribing action. You can’t count on a Democracy to protect your excesses is what I’m saying.”

Happy: “Good point. Maybe I’ll just back them into the street.”

Hal: “Much better idea.”

Happy (looking concerned, watching the crowd of protestors growing): “Say did you get a sticker, Hal? Get yourself a Loving RVA sticker. Over there at that table. That sticker will symbolize your empathy for this baseball in the bottom project. It will also give the press the idea that some folks actually support our thing.”

Hal (also looking concerned): “Our thing….Yeah, you know, Happy, there are a lot of signs out there. “

Happy: “No worries. We got the businesses, we got our Delegate. We got me! What more could you ask for?!”

Hal: “Community support?”

Happy: “Community? What? You don’t call this a community?”

Hal: “I don’t think the people with the stickers live here, do they?”

Happy: “What makes you say that?”

Hal: “They look a little lost.”

Happy: “Hmmm, next time I’ll do an orientation day before we ship them in.”

Hal: “And –wow look at that sign—‘Happy Mayor is Selling Our City!’”

Happy: “That’s disgraceful. No respect. And me, a man of God.”

Hal: “Maybe you should have paid them more?”

Scene III

Hal and Happy watching a video of the City Council meeting where the room is packed and folks who couldn’t make it inside are required to wait in an overflow room. Fire Marshals are forced to roam around the room making sure there’s an exit corridor. People with red shirts and letters spell out the phrase, “No Stadium in Shockoe Bottom.” A banner near the back reads, “Happy Mayor Has Sold Out Our City” Other placards and signs simply read: “No Stadium in Shockoe Bottom.”

Happy: “Have you ever seen such nattering nabobs of negativism?”

Hal: “Never! And I didn’t even vote for Agnew!”

Happy: “They just don’t believe we can do it! They keep worrying about parking spaces, traffic congestion, historical desecration and revenue generation. Like we haven’t thought of those things. We did a report!”

Hal: “Well, it is a few years old. And it leaves out a few things. And it doesn’t really talk about my Boulevard stuff at all.”

Happy: “Too much detail might confuse people.”

Hal: “Agreed.”

Happy: “Listen, now they’re suggesting baseball has nothing to do with the history of the bottom and that baseball stadiums make poor investments. Oh, no, Hal, they’re citing numbers. ….wow…I didn’t realize baseball stadiums were such lousy investments. And aesthetically they say it will be monstrous. And that map we originally used for our layout was wrong. The Richmond Times Dispatch just reported that the stadium actually will be built on at least one historical slave jail …And listen, someone else is saying stadiums hurt local business. Hurts ‘em! Baseball patrons take all the parking. Regular customers of the neighborhood avoid the area on game days. Waiters and bartenders don’t like to work during games. And the people who go to games eat and drink at the stadium and then run back to the counties they came from… Ouch, citing numbers, too….I’m not feeling it, Hal…”

Hal: “Don’t worry. I have a good eye on these things. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I have confidence. I am a confident kind of man.”

Happy: “A confidence man?”

Hal: “I don’t think you should phrase it that way. Just get your Venture Richmond guys to talk loud. Talk proud. Say things like ‘bold’ and ‘progress’ a lot. Talk about how the naysayers are a bunch of crybabies and whiners who don’t want ANY development in the bottom. Do what that council lady did, compare your previous failures to Nelson Mandela being imprisoned. Stroke of genius that lady has. Don’t worry about the details. If you get asked any questions, just flash that smile. You got a winning smile, Happy!”

Crowd begins to chant, “No Baseball in the Bottom!”

Hal: “And maybe a prayer… a prayer might be good.”

(…to be continued)

Naturally, the above is fictitious, and any resemblance to individuals living today is purely coincidental, but like any good story (based on a really bad idea) there are elements of truth throughout.

***

According to City Council President Charles Samuels at the February 24th City Council meeting, a vote on the stadium question could come as soon as June.

If you want to help activists trying to stop baseball in the bottom, here’s a handy link:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/shockoe-resistance-donate-now

If you’re interested in learning more as this story unwinds, here are some resources and local articles.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/194667710704832/

http://bprva.tumblr.com/post/77933802268/bprva-had-its-roving-reporter-at-city-hall-last

http://terrypbrock.com/2013/12/below-the-bottom-historical-significance-archaeology-and-public-engagement-at-shockoe-bottom/?fb_action_ids=10203418698614711&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B217468568435769%5D&action_type_map=%5B%22og.likes%22%5D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

http://architecturerichmond.com/2014/02/24/opinion-a-stadium-in-shockoe-bottom-no/

http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/3/post/2014/02/politics-open-letter-to-richmond-city-council.html

http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-dwight-jones-we-are-boycotting-flying-squirrels-shockoe-stadium-proposal

http://www.timesdispatch.com/special-section/sports/baseball-in-richmond/unearthing-richmond-s-slave-trading-history/article_3c18bdde-e1ca-56f9-b271-53e5fd0a4de2.html


http://www.styleweekly.com/richmond/gambling-with-gold/Content?oid=1975872

Accidents Will Happen

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Let’s file this under great moments in corporate apologies. Faced with a deeply embarrassing explosion of their fracking well near Bobtown, Pennsylvania that couldn’t be explained away as their usual operational flatulence, and that accidentally incinerated a worker, Chevron opted to go all out. Of course, living near a fracking rig in Pennsylvania — the state that Governor Corbett has promised will become “the Texas of natural gas” — isn’t a picnic under the best of circumstances; scores of neighbors have complained about polluted drinking water or foul odors or ailing pets and livestock, of headaches and nausea and skin rashes. But Chevron figured the perfect solution for all those maladies in addition to the deeply embarrassing explosion would be to deliver to every Bobtown household a coupon for one large pizza and one 2-liter drink! … Along with an apology letter, of sorts:

“Dear Neighbor, We are sorry to have missed you. We wanted to provide you with a status update on the February 11 incident that occurred on Chevron Appalachia’s Lancoe 7 H well pads in Dunkard Township and see if you had any questions or concerns that we could address.

Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We value being a responsible member of the community and will continue to strive to achieve incident-free operations. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”

No mention of the worker who was killed in the explosion, nor of another worker who still remains missing, nor the effects on the environment that blowing up a natural gas well in a spectacular fireball might have on nearby residents. That would be a downer and not nearly as cheerful as the pizza and 2 liter Coke Bobtown residents received merely for breathing near Chevron’s natural gas BOOM.

But at least Chevron did better on the PR front than the satirically named Freedom Industries. After poisoning the water supply of nearly half a million people, those wild and crazy folks over at Freedom Industries delivered onto the unsuspecting public one cranky CEO named Gary Southern. Rather than displaying sympathy for the blight of some 300,000 residents in West Virginia who could no longer use their water supply for anything except possibly flame retardant (and given what we’ve seen of fracking, maybe not even that) , our intrepid CEO decided to whine vociferously about his own exhaustion after un-explaining for the 10,000th time that day why his company poisoned the water supply for nearly half a million people. All the while, he drank water from a bottle purchased from an area safely removed from Charleston, West Virginia where said poisoning took place. (Epic Fail! As the cool kids like to say.)

Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all this. Such incidents can become a training ground for Public Relation wanna-bes, or as I like to refer to them, corporate flacks. With a little imagination we could cook up one of those grand lists that news sites like to churn out in place of real news … top ten things not to say when you’ve poisoned water for nearly half a million people. Five best gifts to placate the families of dead workers you’ve incinerated in your natural gas fireball! And so on. After all, if this type of thing continues, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t, we just might have an industry devoted almost entirely to softening the blow of our mortal stupidity. Right now, it goes by the unassuming acronym, ‘PR.’

Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, has a phrase for when things continue to go wrong: “creeping normalcy,” giving a nice academic patina to Al Gore’s example of a boiling frog. What Diamond is getting at, of course, is an acceptance of things “getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice…” Like a frog set in water brought to a slow boil.

In his book, Collapse, Diamond does us the service of enumerating the various ways civilizations can destroy themselves. Kind of like the seven deadly sins. He narrows it to a neat list of five things not to do if you want to survive on planet earth:

Ignore climate change, maintain hostile neighbors, keep bad trading partners, have environmental problems, and, finally, don’t react responsibly to environmental problems when you’re made aware of them. Notice three out of these five deal with the environment. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”

For decades now, chemicals and waste from the coal industry have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies all across our country. But because these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill like the recent one in West Virginia where Gary Southern quenched his thirst and whined about his work day. The Keystone pipeline is heralded as a ‘jobs program’ even as environmentalists like Professor James Hansen argue that if it’s pushed through it will be “game over for the environment.” Finally, quietly in the works is the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade agreement that will involve the Pacific rim countries and strip most nations of their ability to effectively regulate the environment and protect their worker’s rights. TPP would be the largest U.S. free-trade agreement to date, surpassing the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. All this is being done in the name of ever-expanding trade.

Documents published by Wikileaks regarding the secretive negotiations around the TPP reveal that provisions of the TPP grant multinational corporations vast new powers and that, among these, are virtual veto-powers over local environmental and labor laws.

Diamond’s Collapse was written partly as a response to the dominant environmental discourse in the United States today, which holds that environmental concerns are secondary to economic and security concerns or at least in opposition to them.

As Diamond notes, “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”

With the Easter Island Rapa Nui, it was an obsession with building moai, those famous Easter Island sculptures. With Westerners of course, it’s the dream of never-ending economic expansion.

Not to put too fine a point on it, our so-called ‘work’ values, our insistence on an ever-expanding economy and perpetual growth is leading us to a dark place. The Rapa Nui cut down the last of their palm trees and turned their island into a wasteland because they really dug building the moai heads on Easter Island. They were as addicted to their cultural artistry as we are to our endless pursuit of money. Or ‘trade’ or ‘jobs’ as we like to call it. By the end of the 17th century, the Rapa Nui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.

Bringing this concept to our contemporary politics, Diamond wonders rhetorically, “Did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree, shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’”

Maybe someone should ask Paul Ryan.

The Apex of Moronia

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H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”

This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”

Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”

Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”

But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.

Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.

God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.

Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.

According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”

The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.

Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.

Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”

In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.

H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.

~Jack Johnson

Note: HB 207  was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014

White Knuckling

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When Apryl Prentiss first realized she was a lesbian, she decided to white knuckle it. She wanted to ignore the impulse, and if it couldn’t be ignored, she wanted to deny it, put it in a cage.

“I was freaked out when I realized…when I started to understand what was happening.”

This was in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was raised a fundamentalist Baptist and her church and the community it provided were deeply important to her. At the time, she described herself as kind of a “Christian All Star.”

“I was the chaplain of my class. I was going on missions trips. My whole class was even on the Christian Broadcast Network for a show. I was hitting all the expectations.”

That’s why coming to terms with her sexuality was so difficult. According to her Christian based belief system, she was ‘being rebellious,’ she had a ‘broken sexuality,’ she was trying to separate herself from God.

“Homosexuality was the sin to trump all sins” She explains. “It’s spoken of with great disdain—it seemed to be a visceral reaction. They think of gays as ‘those people’ …people who are horrible and perverted. People who are sick. People are always so scared of what they don’t understand.” Though she never heard these messages at school that was what was preached from the pulpit of her childhood church in Virginia Beach.

When she attended Campbell University in North Carolina, her church connected her with counseling and what is referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. Like many other far right Christian denominations across the country, the church encouraged her to go to therapy to ‘cure herself’ of being gay.

The counselor also offered to exorcise her should the therapy prove insufficient.

Apryl describes those years as some of the darkest of her life: “I absolutely detested myself.” Although she didn’t kill herself, she came close; close enough to want to save others from the same trauma. That’s why she’s working with the Alliance for Progressive Values to ban the practice of reparative therapy that tries to “cure” minors of being gay.

Delegate Hope who introduced HB 1135* which would ban the practice in Virginia said that evidence suggests such conversion therapy doesn’t work and in fact harms many people. Apryl’s story is a case in point.

According to Apryl, the therapy she underwent on and off for nearly three years was intense and mind bending; the kind of practice you would not wish on your worst enemy, much less a vulnerable teenager.

“I remember after months of talking and fasting I was still told that I was rebellious. It was their explanation for why I wasn’t cured. They thought they could see demons in my eyes. And I believed it! They suggested that I undergo an exorcism. The therapist brought in a prayer partner and they circled me and prayed over me. They asked to speak to the demon of brokenness in me. They asked to speak to the demons of same-sex attraction. …it was unbelievably painful. I cried the entire time and, after it was over, I felt completely stripped bare.”

After the failed exorcism, Apryl turned to alcohol and other self-destructive behavior to anesthetize. She recounts having alcohol poisoning at least seven times after the exorcism.  “Fighting my sexuality had become a daily battle and truthfully—I just wanted a break. My 21st birthday, which was at the height of the reparative therapy,  consisted of a fifth of Smirnoff and a straw. I drank it in about an hour and a half.”

Apryl admits she was trying to kill herself, in a less than methodic fashion. “I thought if I die and go to heaven, I won’t have to deal with this anymore.  That seemed like a good option. Death would have been a release from the constant inner turmoil.”

Shortly after, she met a woman and developed a relationship with her. “She was someone who had found peace with her sexuality.” This person told Apryl that she could be both “gay AND Christian and that God was okay with that. When I was with her, I felt more whole and authentic than I ever had before.”

The relationship lasted for a few months, but the guilt weighed on Apryl. She couldn’t handle it. “I freaked out and went back to the church. I confessed to my pastor what was happening and I went back to reparative therapy again.”

They came back with the same ideas, “gay people are all miserable, they’re all enveloped in darkness.”

But this time it was different, Apryl explains, “Their assertions no longer made sense. I had experienced the opposite.”

When they suggested a second exorcism, she just said no.

Apryl left North Carolina and went through a series of jobs in California, then back to North Carolina and even a short stint in Virginia at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She tried different approaches to dealing with her sexuality, ‘white knuckling’, a short hand for celibacy, and when that didn’t work, another version of therapy, ‘Sought Out’ similar to reparative therapy, but incorporating some of the same principles developed for twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.

It was “twenty weeks of unbelievably hard introspection, confession, accountability and counseling. We started by examining possible causes of our homosexuality or sexual brokenness. A basic premise of the program was that no one is born gay so there must be a cause…a root of our same-sex attraction. Overbearing Mother? That’s why you’re gay. Sexual abuse? That’s absolutely why you’re gay. Only child and you grew up lonely? That’s why you’re gay. We did things like write down wrong ways we had been labeled on sheets of paper and burned them. Very cathartic and very meaningful. We wrote down things we believed about ourselves that contributed to our ‘sexual brokenness’ on mirrors then smashed them. We confessed our sins (mental and physical) both publicly to the entire group and privately to our small group leaders, wrote them down on special paper, immersed them in water (meant to be a picture of God’s forgiveness) and watched them dissolve.  These activities were all designed to make us confront the causes of our sexuality, bring them out into the open and then destroy them.”

“I literally nailed my areas of brokenness, their causes, and my own sexual behavior to a cross then bowed below them begging for forgiveness and for restoration. I lay on the floor of a church weeping, begging to be delivered. This was a nightly experience.”

According to Apryl, the program suggested that “all homosexual relationships are born out of brokenness and cause nothing but pain and unhappiness.”

“This was drilled into us and because my own experience in a same-sex relationship had been wonderful, but riddled with guilt and constant turmoil, I couldn’t totally counteract the concept. In fact, most of us who sat in that room every Monday night had never met a happy same-sex couple. We didn’t understand that in the Christian circles we lived in there would naturally not be ANY healthy same-sex couples.”

“I ended up working as a counselor for the Sought Out program, teaching the same repressive techniques. I stopped one day when I sat there with this vulnerable 17-year-old. You could see at 100 feet that she was a lesbian.  She had no attraction to men whatsoever, but she desperately did not want to be gay. I had to tell her that her only two choices were celibacy or learning to date men. This was the message I had been taught and what I believed about myself. It was the depressing reality that I was grappling with.  But, when I realized I was telling a 17-year-old who had only begun to live life that those were her only two options—it just didn’t add up. I couldn’t do it. I saw myself in her and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this. I’m done with this. I can’t do it anymore. That was the beginning of the end.”

But there’s nothing easy about transitions, about coming out or staying in denial. Apryl still loved the church and didn’t want to leave it. She was on a mission in Serbia and Slovakia teaching English through bible lessons before she realized how much about her life still needed to change.

“It was summer camp and I had spent it with the Serbians who have a real love of life. When some missionaries arrived from Canada they acted prudish and started scolding the Serbians for wearing short skirts or dancing and hugging. They were trying to impose westernized Christianity’s rulebook on these vibrant and passionate people. I realized the missionaries were missing the point. The Serbians were praising the Lord in their own way, just as David had danced. Why would God make them this way, just to condemn them? Why would he make me this way, just to condemn me? All of these ideas about correct behavior, correct sexuality were inventions. They were Westernized ways of trying to control people and put them in a box.  My eyes were opened and I began to evaluate what I knew of God on my own and not through the fabricated conventions of the conservative church. All of a sudden, it was like I experienced the true God, a force of love for the first time.”

“There was no guilt, there was no shame. I finally got it. As cliché as it sounds, I went to one of those fields of sunflowers as tall as your head in Serbia, I sat there for hours and I made my peace with God.”

Since that summer in 2005, Apryl has undergone therapy to ‘repair’ the reparative therapy. She has been married to her wife for 7 years and she says that people who had previously rejected her in the church are coming back.

“I miss the community of the church.  But, there’s a real sense of us vs. them. It’s fine when you’re the ‘us’, it’s cool and beautiful. But when you’re all of a sudden part of the ‘them’, it’s a cruel, cruel thing.”

Her family has been surprisingly supportive. In fact, one of Apryl’s main regrets is that for years she avoided visiting her Christian grandmother because she was afraid that her grandmother would be disappointed that she was gay rather than pursuing ministry. After her grandmother died, her aunt was unpacking a box of old photographs. Near the bottom, at least two years old, was a photograph of Apryl with her wife, Adrian.

“I should have visited.  I should have known …” Apryl tilts her head, a nod toward what might have been. “She knew about us all along and, like the amazing woman she was, she loved me anyway… That’s a true example of a Christian.”

*Full Text of HB1135 can be found at this link:

http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?141+ful+HB1135

Note: Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and others have moved to discourage reparative therapy.

According to the American Psychological Association, “The terms reparative therapy and sexual orientation conversion therapy refer to counseling and psychotherapy aimed at eliminating or suppressing homosexuality. The most important fact about these “therapies” is that they are based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions.”

~Jack Johnson

Addicted To It

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There’s a standard opening for stories about money that has become a cliché, or bad joke. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are in a bar and Fitzgerald opines with naiveté that the ‘Rich are different from you and me’ to which Hemingway dryly responds, ‘Yes, they have more money.’ It’s a nice little anecdote, but mostly untrue. Money changes things. And if you have enough money to be called ‘rich’, it changes lots of things: who you are likely to marry, what school you are going to attend, if you’ll go to school at all. It determines how well you eat, if you eat, where you sleep, how you live. You can use money as a short hand to judge your odds of having a long life, or of receiving decent healthcare, of receiving an education or even being able to retire. Money, as a consequence, also changes other things. What you might want, with whom you associate, with whom you compete, what you think is important. A person who routinely orders from the best restaurants in a city is not likely to understand someone who must make do on less than 5 dollars a day. Will the clever Wall Street hedge fund manager be able to imagine, much less appreciate the ingenuity that it takes to survive on such a meager allotment ($4.25 a day is Virginia’s daily SNAP amount)…or the desperation it engenders? I have my doubts.

In the years before Ronald Reagan rekindled the embers of class warfare in this country, the concept of noblesse oblige was a given. Even though it’s a patriarchal concept that’s not especially attractive (hidden within the obligation is the sense of unspoken superiority– that noblesse part was a nod toward the nobility of the ancient regime), at least it informed the members of the upper class that there are certain foundational principles, rules of the road for our culture. Part of our social contract is to obey a moral economy of sorts wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege. In short, with wealth and power comes responsibility. Modeling examples of good public behavior and civic-mindedness was not just expected, but demanded.

Now almost everyone gets this at one level, or another. If you watch conservatives playing with rationales for food stamp cuts, for example, you can see them moving through various positions that try to maintain the gloss of moral respectability. First, there was the argument that governmental efforts to aid the poor were socially devastating by breaking up families (the better for ‘single mothers’ to collect aid). This argument was shuttered when Bill Clinton effectively eliminated much of welfare as we had come to know it. Next, came the argument that we are perpetuating poverty by reducing incentives to work. I have yet to meet a single American who prefers living on $4.25 a day as opposed to finding a job. Conversely, there’s more than ample evidence that for every job available there are ten Americans looking for work. That means there will be chronically high unemployment stuck right around 9 to 10% in real terms (counting those who have simply given up looking). So helping the poor will help alleviate real-time misery and pump some money back into the economy. To reduce unemployment benefits at this point, or, as the Republicans are doing, to make an extension of unemployment benefits contingent on cuts elsewhere to the social safety net is simply to deny your obligations to help the poor, in addition to slowing down the economy, an action that is both cruel and economically stupid.

Those who advocate cutting unemployment benefits or cutting food stamps are now in search of a rationale that isn’t ridiculous on its face, a moral fig leaf, so to speak. In the vanguard of these moral apologists is the Republican’s bug eyed granny killer, Paul Ryan, who provides the deep thinking libertarian response that the workings of the market are inherently moral and not to be tampered with (as if an economy were not a wholly man-made construct). They argue that despite the free market’s inability to provide for education or retirement or health care or even safe drinking water we should all bow to its poker chip clatter. When this argument fails on a more or less daily basis, conservatives turn to blaming the victim: suggesting that the poor are lazy. Or drug addled. Or sexually promiscuous. None of which is statistically borne out, by the way. And, not surprisingly, the rich seem to have as many problems with drugs and idleness and sexual promiscuity as the poor…with much less reason, to boot. All of which is beside the point, anyhow. Would refraining from smoking pot or having sex magically make more jobs appear? That’s not the way an economy works, even if you’re suffering the intellectual acuity of Paul Ryan. It’s not a character problem that leads to 9 % real unemployment. It’s a lack of jobs.

This effort at finding moral rationales for shredding the social contract does not stop with denigrating the poor, of course. That’s only half the story. The other half is the tremendous propaganda work done on behalf of the rich and powerful. The fairy tale goes something like this: wealthy American’s are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and they worked really, really hard. No mention of how easy or difficult it was to get themselves a good education, or maintain a stable relationship, or that perhaps they had the opportunity to choose exactly what they wanted to work hard at in the first place. Again, money changes things. If you start with money, you get to make those choices. You have the opportunity to make a decision about what you’ll dedicate your life to—that’s not true for the poor, or even for most of the middle class in real terms, especially now, when a job outside of your chosen ‘career’ path is more likely than not. No, instead, many nominally middle class Americans are in dead-end jobs with little or no hope for real advancement. Statistically, we’re one of the most unequal countries on the planet. We’re also less like to see social advance from one generation to the next compared to other Western Nations.

In short, the unfettered free market model is failing the ‘American dream’ and every Republican in congress right now is looking for a rational to explain that inconvenient fact outside the obvious one: the rich have no sense of obligation to our country or our culture. Since the late 1970s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled (and the incomes of the top 0.1 percent have risen even more). Yet, the wealthiest members of our society take no social responsibility for their exponentially increased levels of wealth and power. This is not an accident. The only entity capable of enforcing the social contract–our government– has been defanged through tax cuts and deregulation thanks to efforts of conservatives over the last forty years.

In Sunday’s New York Times there’s an interesting glimpse of the mentality that drives and excuses this kind of behavior. Sam Polk, a rabid Wall Street trader has come in from the cold. Like an addled alcoholic, he confesses in the Times that he’s addicted to money, not out of material need, but psychologically. The same thing that fuels his need for money, fuels the alcoholic’s need for drink: a sense of spiritual emptiness and desolation, a need for validation and self-worth. “IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” Let’s be clear, no one ‘needs’ 3.6 million dollars as a bonus to satisfy material comfort. They need it because they have a problem. Currently, we might say approximately 1% of our population has a problem.  They are addicted to money, to the exponential advantages it brings and the power it provides. As Polk freely admits, “Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.”

Conservatives with their insistence on dismantling the social safety net, and hobbling whatever meager regulations our dysfunctional government can put in place are acting like enablers, essentially handing the keys to the Cadillac to a drunk son. Every alibi is allowed and every action is forgiven, but the drunk is still a drunk, and eventually, of course, the drunk hits bottom. Unfortunately, in this instance, our particular drunk can take society down with him. This need not happen, of course, but as every member of AA will attest, the first step to finding a cure is admitting you have a problem.

New Ethics for Virginia, Sort of

imagesIn a move that surprised exactly no one, Virginia state legislators have formed a tentative agreement to pass ethic regulations that go a little beyond ‘whatever, dude.’

To wit, they’ve decided that gifts over $250 to themselves or a family member must be announced, and limited if from a party with ‘business’ before the state. They’ve also agreed that there should be biannual rather than annual disclosure requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. They’ve surmised that it might be a good idea to bone up on ethics training, especially for the new lawmakers, because, naturally, the veterans were never a problem … (just ask outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell). Actually, to be fair, they did offer a refresher course to ‘veterans’ in the event that they forgot whatever rules they weren’t following in the first place. They also decided to create an ethics commission that could exclaim: ‘tut, tut!’ at opportune moments.

Excellent work, gentlemen and sufficient perhaps to provide a cloak of respectability for the next few months. But, let’s face it, not much of substance. Not that I object, mind you. I’m happy to see Virginia move a notch or two up from its current position as the 44th most corrupt state in the Union. Progress! A new slogan comes to mind: “We’re the 41st most corrupt state in the Union, but we try harder!”

Alas, as many suspected the new ethical ‘rules’ that the General Assembly has on offer are hardly exhaustive.

For example, the limits on gifts are only for those individuals with ‘business’ before the state. Given the contours of the recent scandal this is easy to understand, but why not just set a limit and be done with it? Every other state in the Union with the exception of Virginia and three other states curtail the amount of money that can be funneled directly to a politician and/or his family. State Senator J. Chapman Peterson offered a bill that would set a hard limit of $2000. But that didn’t make the negotiation round for some reason.

While we’re at it, twenty-two states simply ban corporations from giving to political campaigns, period. Why can’t Virginia be one of them?

And, of course, we have to ask, will that ‘business before the state’ clause apply to corporate entities?

ProgressVA reported in January 2012 that the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote more than 50 bills introduced in the Virginia legislature in recent years. ALEC, which is funded by Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart Stores, Koch Industries, and other wealthy corporations, writes model legislation of interest to its funders that sympathetic lawmakers have introduced in many states. In Virginia, dozens of lawmakers are members of the group or have attended its legislative conferences at a cost to the state of more than $200,000 since 2001. Its drafts provided the basis for Virginia’s legal challenge to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, a bill requiring voters to show identification at the polls, and a bill prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. House Speaker William Howell was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009 and remains on ALEC’s “national leadership team.”

Will these new ethic ‘rules’ apply to money spent at ALEC gatherings…or funds provided by corporations that support ALEC?

As long as we’re asking questions, why is Virginia only one of two states (South Carolina is the other) where the part-time legislators handpick the judges before whom many of them practice law? If not an ethical breach it certainly does allow one to indulge in speculation about possible improprieties.

Sins of omission aside, the Virginia General Assembly has actively sought to block transparency by exempting key institutions from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Foremost among these is the State Corporation Commission (SCC) which has been exempted from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The SCC regulates businesses, utilities, financial institutions, insurance and railroads. This would be the single state agency where a FOIA is essential for understanding how corporations are influencing Virginia law. There’s nothing in the new ‘ethics compromise’ on making the SCC or other relevant agencies more transparent. Oh, and, by the way, the state’s 31,000 prison inmates also are forbidden to make requests under the FOIA.

To give some sense of what this means vis-a-vis transparency, when the Associated Press tested the effectiveness of the exemption in 2006 by sending reporters to each county to ask for public records, only 43 percent had success. The rest were told, variously, that the records would not be released or would cost thousands of dollars in fees. Maybe that’s the reason the Richmond Times-Dispatch is posting news of the ethics ‘compromise’ like it’s, well, news. They just haven’t been able to report on all the other threads that a few decent FOIA requests might reveal.

Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “Here’s an easy prediction — we’ll all be tut-tutting about how little the [Virginia] General Assembly did to reform the gift laws come March.” Sabato was actually pessimistic about an ethics compromise getting even this far. Last week he suggested in the Daily Press that “The chances of any limits on campaign donations are absolutely zero. File that one away in old number 13.”

He said Virginia officials and many voters tend to rely on the old assumption that Virginia’s politicians are more honest than politicians in other states.

No, really. He did say that. But then he qualified it, “Well, maybe. But how would we know? Look at the McDonnell situation. It took a whistleblower who felt he was being railroaded to expose a shocking arrangement that looked to most people like a wealthy businessman was buying the governor and first lady. How many other questionable activities have never seen the light of day? I’d guess many.”

“Many”? …Unfortunately, that sounds about right. But given the current structure of this compromise, we’ll still never know for sure.

In Defense of Christmas!

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The recurring theme of a “War on Christmas” is now a tradition. Annually, stalwart intellectuals like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Bachman et. al. will take to the air waves and will announce that our Christmas spirit is somehow less than Christian because we say ‘Holiday’ rather than ‘Christmas.’ The only thing more vitiated of actual intellectual content is the peals of outrage over Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson’s suspension because he managed, in a single interview, to shred whatever veil of civility his on air persona once presented. There are millions of writers, thinkers, speakers of all political and cultural persuasions who will never garner the kind of audience Phil has, precisely because speech, of the variety that Phil has the privilege to practice, is NOT free. It is very expensive. Considering the banality of Phil’s assertions, it should cost him more than his pathetic job is worth.

But the ‘War on Christmas’; now that has something of value to it, aside from the unintended humor it invokes: a great ‘teachable’ moment, as they say. After all, its history is the story of one makeover after another. In truth, it begins before Jesus was even a twinkle in Joseph’s eye. In those heady pagan days, when the unconquerable sun was worshipped in all its pagan glory and the winter solstice rejoiced at the coming gift of the sun (or ‘son of God’ if you want to be playful) there was an honored period of about 7days – running approximately from just before the Solstice (Dec 17,18th) through to Dec 25th that became one long party ride, a kind of burning man for the pagan era.

The premise from today’s principle talking heads is that Christmas has always been about Christ, and any sense of holiday or festivity outside ‘Christ’ is somehow an interloper watering down the spirituality of the time. This, of course, is exactly backwards. Most of our cherished Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christianity—and everything to do with the underlying pagan traditions that celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the so called ‘unconquerable sun.’

The infamous Roman holiday of Saturnalia is really at the center of all this. It was a huge party, a gigantic fair and festival of the home. The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes a time of widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; where, as he said, “sexual license” was taken; and even incidents of human sacrifice were recorded. These incidents were given a culinary representation in human-shaped biscuits, something we still see in traditional Christmas cookies. Remember those ginger bread men?

According to Janet Shotwell, lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. ” Riotous merry-making” took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees that were brought in by the citizenry in the hopes that they would guard the life essences of the plants until spring. As one comic put it, our Christmas tradition is based on an act of sympathetic magic. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets. The custom of mummers, visiting their neighbors in costume, which is still alive in Newfoundland, is descended from these masked processions.

But one of the most equalitarian aspects of Saturnalia was a sit down feast shared by masters and slaves. In fact, during the festivities slaves were given the freedom to do and say whatever they liked. A Mock King was even appointed to take charge of the revels, and from this fantastic class reversal, developed the so called “Lord of Misrule’ of medieval Christmas festivities.

About 354 AD, Christianity came along and tried to co-opt solstice festivities, but couldn’t really suppress the whole merry making, drinking, gift giving thing. They did manage to make the climax of the winter festivities the official day to commemorate the birth of Christ, however, and, of course, gave it the name we know and love. Christmas.

Since the hero of the New Testament was born in the Middle East, forcing native pagan activities to mesh with the birth of Jesus creates a weird iconography for the season. Do we actually ever look at the classic manger scene, laid in a bed of snow like cotton, ringed in red and green, under a evergreen spruce and begin to wonder? The iconography of Christmas is ridiculously mixed in with reindeer, holly, snow scenes and other phenomena peculiar to northern European myth. There’s an urban legend of a Japanese department store that tried too hard to symbolize the Christmas spirit by mounting a display of a Santa Claus figure nailed to a cross. Crucified Santa would be just as surreal as a chocolate Jesus. The iconography which presumably represents the ‘spirit’ of the Holidays is nothing more than a co-opted pagan winter Saturnalia that Christians for the last two thousand years or so have been trying hard to forget.

In fact, if you want to find the first real Grinch in history, you need only travel back to the time of real conservatives: the Puritans of England. Under Oliver Cromwell’s reign, Christmas was officially cancelled. During the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament, Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan from Christianity—this effectively meant the entire holiday. We will bomb the holiday in order to save it!

Under Cromwell, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting. They considered the festivities “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. Now that’s a true defense of the Christmas spirit!

Taking Cromwell’s lead, in Colonial America, the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas celebrations  in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban was eventually revoked, but by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the US. And it wasn’t until the flux of immigrants in the next century (especially the good Irish and Italian ‘papists’) when the Christmas spirit would really take hold again.

So sadly, there have been moments when Christians themselves almost succeeded in destroying the Christmas holidays. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, one suspects that the only thing which can kill Christmas are the religiously intolerant set on defending their ahistorical sense of the season’s ‘spirit’ or the concomitant commercialism that seems to accompany the season every year.

I can’t wait for the right wing talking heads to start harping on that.

~Jack Johnson

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