This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems. I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.
I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.
The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference. This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.
Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem? Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom. You understand?”
I nodded my head.
“Okay.” That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.
Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?
My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.
“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”
“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”
Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.
By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.
Do you want to be a welfare queen?
I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.
By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets. Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’ shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.
My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.
“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”
“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?
“Are you a communista?”
Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.
“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”
I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”
“They stole everything!”
“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”
“So you are a communista!”
“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”
“It’s the same.”
“No, they’re really different.”
And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union. In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”
“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.
That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe. Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.
The majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy. We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago. His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.
It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.
The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it is already grown up. It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes. He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class. But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”
So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win. We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?
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.
Note: HB 207 was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014
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:
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.”
It’s difficult to locate a single act that better exemplifies the right’s ideological incoherence than the current farm bill. Larded with billions for the huge and predominately white agribusiness firms, the GOP tried to balance their largesse at the billionaire’s table by stripping another 20 billion in food security from our poorest citizens, doubling down on their previous SNAP reduction. Because apparently the previous 20 billion cut just wasn’t enough.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the bill would deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.
The individuals who would lose basic food assistance under the House provision are among the poorest people in the nation and they are a diverse group. More than 40 percent are women. One-third are over age 40. Among those who report their race, about half are white, a third are African-American, and a tenth are Hispanic. They are your neighbors, and some may even be your friends.
Questions naturally occur. Does the right honestly believe that hundreds of thousands of poor people are living the high life on SNAP, an assertion flying around the right-wing echo chamber utterly un-backed by either facts on the ground or reason? (David Darden shows how specious the ‘free loader’ argument is here … or you can check out The Center On Budget Policies and Priorities here.)
What to say to such Scrooges? Sometimes I’m afraid there is no chain that can be rattled loudly enough.
It appears the only thing the far right fears more than libertine sexual mores or strangers with strange skin color is the thought that someone, somewhere might be able to get something for nothing in this ridiculous economy. The notion of community isn’t just ignored with this latest rounds of cuts; it’s taken out back, stripped, whipped and then shot through the skull for good measure. It’s as though the right is vigorously trying to define themselves as the worst pack of jackals to ever inhabit Congress—and, if you know the history of that peculiar institution, you know that’s saying something.
Panem et Circenses was the old adage from the failing days of the Roman Empire. Bread and Circuses. The bread in question was actually a grain dole, or an ‘Annona’. It was a necessary ‘dole’ because the consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few noblemen had pushed landless peasants into the city, where they could not find jobs—a rather interesting parallel. Under the Roman grain law established by Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidized rate to citizens.
I imagine many conservatives today would line up to denounce this activity, ignoring the historical precedents, naturally, and the brute fact that there were no jobs for those peasants whose land formed the basis for the Roman nobleman’s wealth. After all, to channel Paul Ryan, dependence on any form of public assistance “erodes the moral fiber” of the poor. Like morality is a set of jeans that somehow gets threadbare in the ass. No word yet if that same morality applies to agribusiness firms and their privileged helping of government subsidies. If you’re rich, you are apparently absolved of the need to ‘fend for yourself’, ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’, or of even possessing ‘moral fiber’, much less wearing it out. Jon Chait makes a point in the NY Times magazine that the Republicans are probably aware of the blatant hypocrisy of their position, but so fearful of losing elections, they try to bury it. Specifically, “The ultraconservative Republican Study Committee recently banned the Heritage Foundation from its meetings because Heritage denounced the GOP’s farm subsidies. There is a grim hilarity here: Republicans punished Heritage for its one technocratically sane position.”
So now the far right has offered themselves up as a kind of inverted moral circus, lined with the usual measure of hypocrisy, deciding to keep bread from those who most need it. No doubt, their deluded base approves, and the leadership certainly doesn’t suffer. Paul Ryan helped quaff a 350 dollar bottle of wine with like-minded economists last week while SNAP was being cut, one of two $350 bottles consumed that evening. That’s a total of $700 in wine consumed over the course of a 90 minute dinner or more than the entire weekly income of a couple making minimum wage. When confronted by a Talking Points Memo reporter, Paul Ryan said he had no idea how much the wine cost when it was being ordered.
TPM: So you wouldn’t do it again?
Ryan: Well, of course not, because I think it’s too much money to pay for wine. Yeah, I don’t really know what exactly it cost. It was expensive. But um, 250 maybe it was 250, I don’t really remember.
Besides a faulty memory his remark rather misses the point about the hypocrisy. He seems genuinely irritated at the cost, but not the incredible disparity between his life and the millions of others his actions seek to make worse. So here’s a historical parallel that might offer a note of caution for the right. The last time thousands asked for bread and didn’t receive it, a royal dame, equally clueless, suggested the starving peasants should simply “eat cake.”
We all know how well that turned out.
Sometimes what’s most important in a debate isn’t the answer; it’s the question. The Senate’s recent failure to pass even the simplest type of background check yields a set of interesting questions, like:
As far back as 1999 who said that background checks were reasonable?
A) Wayne LaPierre
B) Michael Moore
C) A majority of NRA members
D) All of the above
If you guessed all of the above you would be correct. Surprisingly, support for background checks among individual members of the NRA is quite strong. Republican pollster Frank Lutz found that 87% of non-NRA gun owners, and 74% of NRA gun owners support requiring a criminal background check of anyone purchasing a gun. 80% of non-NRA gun owners and 71% of NRA gun owners support prohibiting people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. But the real shock is that Wayne LaPierre, as recently as 1999, supported back ground checks calling them ‘reasonable’(Politifact). On May 27, 1999, shortly after the Columbine massacre, LaPierre testified before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, saying:
“We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” he said. “That means closing the Hinckley loophole so the records of those adjudicated mentally ill are in the system. This isn’t new, or a change of position, or a concession. I’ve been on record on this point consistently, from our national meeting in Denver, to paid national ads and position papers, to news interviews and press appearances.”
In fact, for a short while after Columbine, the NRA ran national ads saying, “We think it’s reasonable to provide for instant checks at gun shows just like at gun stores and pawn shops.”
So what happened? Well that brings us to another question which may get to the heart of the matter:
Are many board members for the NRA also gun manufacturers?
A) No, the board is made up principally of hunters and sportsmen.
B) No, the board is made up of retired actors and singers/circus clowns like Charleton Heston and Ted Nugent.
C) No, the board is made up of ex-military personnel and police officers who like to practice their marksmanship in a disciplined manner.
D) Yes, the board has multiple members who are gun manufacturers—many of whom produce assault style weapons and magazines that are their bread and butter.
Alas, D is the correct answer. NRA board member Pete Brownell owns Brownells Inc., which sells a wide-range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including the same capacity Glock magazine as the 33-round magazine used in the Arizona shooting that nearly killed Gabby Giffords.
Brenda Potterfield serves as vice-president of the NRA Foundation’s board of trustees and is co-owner of MidwayUSA, which sells a wide range of high-capacity ammunition magazines for pistols and assault weapons, including 33-round magazines for Glock pistols.
NRA board member Ronnie Barrett owns Barrett, which manufactures an AR-15 style assault rifle which comes with two 30-round ammunition magazines. Ronnie Barrett is best known for the invention and civilian marketing of the 50 caliber sniper rifle: a military weapon used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that can penetrate armor-plating from a mile away and down airliners on take-off and landing, but under federal law is sold with no greater restrictions than a standard hunting rifle. Barrett also manufacturers and sells the REC7, an AR-15 style assault rifle that comes with two 30-round magazines.
Adolphus Busch, the IV, a conservative activist and former NRA member suggests that the NRA board of directors is dominated by gun or ammunition manufacturing interests. After yesterday’s failed vote on the background check he resigned his NRA membership saying:
“…One only has to ask why the NRA reversed its original position on background checks. Was it not the NRA position to support background checks when Mr. LaPierre himself stated in 1999 that NRA saw checks as ‘reasonable’?”
“…I fail to see how the NRA can disregard the overwhelming will of its members who see background checks as reasonable…” […]
“I am simply unable to comprehend how assault weapons and large capacity magazines have a role in your vision,” he said. “The NRA I see today has undermined the values upon which it was established. Your current strategic focus clearly places priority on the needs of gun and ammunition manufacturers while disregarding the opinions of your 4 million individual members.”
“One only has to look at the makeup of the 75-member board of directors, dominated by manufacturing interests, to confirm my point. The NRA appears to have evolved into the lobby for gun and ammunition manufacturers rather than gun owners.”
The sharp turn the NRA has taken against reasonable background checks has consequences, of course, leading to our next question:
How many gun deaths have there been in the U.S. since the Newtown massacre?
A) Almost no one knows because under pressure from the NRA Congress passed a law to defund the CDC in Atlanta should it track gun fatalities or injuries.
B) The question is worded wrongly because guns never kill people. The question should be how many people killed people with guns since Newtown. And because I am far right libertarian, in the clutches of a blind ideology, I don’t care to know the answer to that question.
C) Slate magazine has been keeping a tally, and according to their figures, culled from daily news reports across the country, the correct answer is 3,513.
D) All of the above.
The correct answer is D. The CDC has been threatened with defunding should it try to provide statistics on gun fatalities and injuries. Recently, President Obama issued an executive order to get them back on track again. Answer B is correct, generally, channeling most conversation threads with rabid libertarian types, in particular those spouting the NRA’s vapid slogan. And finally, Slate magazine took up the task of actually tracking gun fatalities after Newtown and came up with the 3,513 figure. The information provided by Slate is here.
Despite all of this information, the US Senate failed to vote on a simple background check measure, leading to one of the final questions.
What is the purpose of the U.S. Senate?
A) It’s a self-sustaining oligarchy of overfed and lionized guys and (some) gals who every 6 years go through a ritual exercise in lying and debasement in order to preserve their positions.
B) It’s a place of civilized discourse initially envisioned as a safeguard against the passion of the masses (i.e., The House) and potential democratic intent.
C) It’s there to represent the will of lobbyists, corporate citizens, and individuals of sufficient wealth and status to purchase allegiance.
D) It’s an elite gentleman’s club and/or fraternity (with some token ladies and minorities allowed), that follows the same rules of discretion and secret insider knowledge. Its cabal-like quality renders all outsiders impotent and sneer worthy.
E) All of the above.
If you guessed ‘All of the above’ you would be correct. Among other factors, Reid’s ridiculous support of the ‘silent’ filibuster has rendered the Senate a useless body for doing the one thing not on that list: passing laws the vast majority of Americans support.
Now then, given this, which brave senator who filibustered yesterday’s vote is willing to talk with the parents of a child killed by gun violence and is willing to explain their principled position?
A) Rand Paul who has become so seduced by Ayn Rand’s pot boiler, “The Fountain Head”, that he accepts at face value principles like ‘altruism is evil’, or worse, that cardboard characters like Howard Roark might actually live.
B) Mitch McConnell, because he spent the day after the vote gloating over his victory and mocking the Senate’s background check efforts (another silent filibuster win!—which is not surprising as Mitch McConnell once even managed to filibuster a bill he sponsored himself).
C) Max Baucus, because cowardice is a principle, too, isn’t it?
D) None of the above.
The answer is D, because despite the relative accuracy of the other answers, the naked truth is none of these folks would have the courage to face the full fury of their victims. That’s 3,513 gun deaths just since the Newtown Massacre and rising daily. That’s more than died in 9/11.
Gabby Gifford said it best in this New York Times piece, A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip:
“I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences. “
And that’s the answer to our last question: What do we do now?
Sometimes there are news stories so over the top, so outrageous, that you double-check just to ensure you haven’t lost your mind. At times these stories involve incredibly weird acts with peanut butter jars and human orifices, other times, it’s North Carolina legislators trying to write laws.
According to the Huffington Post, a bill was filed Monday, April 1st, by two GOP lawmakers from Rowan County, NC and backed by nine other Republicans (including the Majority Leader) that would effectively allow the state of North Carolina to declare an ‘established’ religion. The April 1st date could be indicative of the joking nature of the thing, but they appear to be serious as a heart attack. They use proud state secessionist type speech that we really haven’t heard since those Halcyon days of the Civil War (that Recent Unpleasantness, by the way, left over half a million of our fellow citizens dead or about 620,000 …keep that figure in mind, we’ll be coming back to it).
Here are the two relevant sections from the bill:
SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
Even those of us who aren’t lawyers—much less state legislators– are passingly familiar with the First Amendment and what is commonly known as the Establishment Clause. This clause expressly prohibits Congress from passing laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America. The North Carolina GOP’s argument, in all its simplicity, appears to be that the Establishment Clause does not apply to the states. Well, the kindest thing you can say is that the argument is courageous; in the same way that sticking your tongue to a steel pole in sub-zero temperatures is courageous. It’s not something you cheer: you just have to wonder what’s going on with that person. And you hope they get better soon.
As recently as 1971, a similar effort was soundly repudiated in Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court established the three-pronged test—called “The Lemon Test”— for determining when a state has run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:
• The law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose.
• The principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
• The statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion.
The Lemon test, by the way, has been upheld as recently as 2005 –even under our extremely conservative SCOTUS in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union.
So passage of such a law in North Carolina has zero chance of surviving a constitutional challenge which apparently is beside the point. After all, this is the same state that continues to hold a provision in its State Constitution requiring that candidates for state office profess their belief in God. This despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961) which held that such a law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. To wit:
“We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”
North Carolina’s response? … Crickets. They have not modified their State Constitution an iota in order to accord themselves with the law of the land.
This is a problem. It’s the same kind of problem we see in Mississippi where there’s a proposal to establish a state board with the power to nullify federal laws; and with legislation recently introduced in North Carolina by state Representative Larry Pittman (R-Concord), touting a state constitutional amendment that would allow for carrying concealed weapons to fight federal “tyranny.” Our own state, Virginia, is currently refusing millions in federal aid (even as we slash necessary local programs) in a pyrrhic effort to evade Obamacare, as if refusing federal funds for sick and poor people were a great and noble cause (right up there with defending slavery). All of these efforts are generated in a cloud of rightwing paranoia of the U.N. black helicopter variety. If they were merely childish, albeit costly efforts that would simply wither on the vine, it would probably be safe to disregard them, but what years ago would have been casually ignored as the lunatic fringe has now become the Republican party’s base. At the state level, this kind of rhetoric is quickly becoming standard operating procedure.
Progressives like to believe in an arrow to history, a teleological end point; but in reality for every few steps forward there are usually two or three steps back. Progress tends to be more evolutionary—in Stephen Gould’s sense of the matter– with bad or useless things hanging around that really shouldn’t— kind of like our appendices. Most gains are compromises with something slightly disingenuous or dysfunctional (think of Obamacare’s deep entanglement with an expensive and nearly useless private insurance overlay). Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine what can ameliorate the poisonous assumptions that are being made at the state level today. These are not compromise positions, but deeply atavistic nonnegotiables that aim to undermine the whole. They are symptoms of a malaise that surfaced nearly 150 years ago, at the cost of over half a million lives, and look to be trending once again. I suspect, unless roundly ridiculed, it might come back like Nietzsche’s eternal return, or worse, like Newt Gingrich (God help us).
We can only hope that, like the infamous Darwin awards, these Southern statesmen will do the human race a favor by self-selecting themselves out of our legal gene pools—through foolish acts, like sticking their tongues to freezing steel poles, or forgetting who won the Civil War.
Much of the sequester talk in the main media outlets is abstract, focusing on the political story line, the tactical advantage one side might potentially gain over the other. House Speaker Boehner even said he ‘wasn’t sure’ what the overall impact on the economy might be—which is remarkable given the estimates that are out there.
The effect on the economy will be bad, there’s no doubt. Nearly all economists agree. Business leaders also agree, austerity cuts when our economy is still on life support is the worst kind of policy, guaranteed to make our recovery long and painful. But the effects, both long-term and short-term, on individuals across this nation are going to be deeply harmful. Back in July, 2012 the Senate Appropriations Committee compiled an estimate of the sequester cuts, broken out by states, and then by individual departments and programs within those states.
Below are some of the greatest hits for Virginia. Top of the list? One of the most successful educational programs in this country: Headstart. Ten million dollars is being cut from the Headstart budget in Virginia—essentially a third of its budget. That’s 301 jobs down the toilet and 1,444 children who will not be able to access the program.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Headstart provides comprehensive early childhood services for low-income children and families. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, “High quality early childhood education has been proven to have lasting effects for children and families and save taxpayer dollars in the long run by reducing costs for welfare, special education, and criminal justice.”
Aside from the obvious economic advantage in training early, there’s an obvious societal benefit in doing so. Who exactly benefits by cutting this program?
Unfortunately, the list of cuts doesn’t stop there. It’s like an acid addled Grover Norquist with a butcher cleaver was set loose on the state. In the health and human services area, the toll is going to be horrific:
Child Care and Development Block Grant, $3,388,746 cut: 1,090 fewer children receive child care subsidies
Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, $948,491 cut: 32, 273 fewer women, children, and families served
AIDS Drug Assistance Program, $1,753,360 cut: 293 fewer patients receive life saving drugs
HIV Prevention and Testing, $525,132 cut: 13, 128 fewer people tested for HIV
Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening, $77,821 cut: 309 fewer women screened for cancer
Childhood Immunization Grants, $375,882 cut: 5,502 fewer children receive MMR, Tdap, flu and Hepatitis B vaccinations
People, lots of people will suffer and die because of these cuts. Inevitably they will be our elderly, our poor and our least powerful citizens.
An energy assistance program is sliced by over 5 millions dollars, because, God knows, we can’t raise taxes on millionaires just to make sure someone doesn’t freeze to death this winter now, can we?
Oh, yes, we’ll cut food programs for old people as well. Up to $1,171,915 is to be cut from a program that delivers meals to needy seniors. Thousands no longer served.
Over 20 million is cut from our educational block grant funds, effectively gutting the program. But after all, this makes sense, because if you are going to impoverish an entire nation for the benefit of a handful of wealthy plutocrats and preening mouthpieces that purport to represent the people, you want to make sure those same people aren’t able to read or communicate this effectively. In the same way you would make sure to reduce any funds that would be provided for work-study or learning centers, etc… All of which this sequester effectively accomplishes.
The numbers are astounding and once you see them you realize how badly this little self-inflicted political kabuki is going to play out. Many people will be hurt in Virginia and all across the nation. But keep in mind, the purported rationale for this is so we can balance the budget without having to raise taxes on millionaires. This is all so we can continue to maintain subsidies for corporations (8 billion and counting for the fossil fuel industries, alone) and, for the insane purists like Grover Norquist and the libertarians and their tea party acolytes, so that we can drown ‘big government’ in a bathtub. Here’s the thing, you don’t drown ‘big government’: that’s an infantile abstraction.
You drown people.
Rather than disturb the rich enclaves of the new plutocracy, we’ll cut grants for workers who have lost jobs to the tune of $1,281,545. We’ll cut veterans retraining benefits by over $300,000. Why? To ensure that folks who fought and died to preserve our ostensible freedoms will not unduly burden our wealthier citizens with their own petty struggles to survive. Welcome to Dickens’ London. With our apparent nativist distaste for immigrants, we won’t have to greet the tired, the poor, the huddled masses on their way to Ellis Island, anymore. We’ll just grow them here, on our own.
Below is the Senate Appropriations Committee study:
According to the Nation magazine, a term from the history books, ‘Jim Crow’, looks to be making a resurgence, at least in a minor key. Eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy have passed restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election. Laws mandating strict forms of government-issued identification to cast a ballot were passed in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote were passed in Alabama and Tennessee. Restrictions on voter registration drives were enacted in Florida and Texas. Virginia, not to be outdone, is notably tightening its voter ID law, actually disallowing different forms of identity verification—this despite only a handful of voter ‘identification’ violations on record in the state out of 4 million votes cast. One bill has passed in the House already. An alternative, in the Virginia Senate (SB1256), disallows any ID without a photograph, but does offer to fund the ID for poorer voters.
Of course, Republicans (with assistance from ALEC) have long argued that voter fraud in the United States is a widespread problem and called for requirements that voters have a government-issued identification. But they had no real proof of any voter fraud—much less ‘widespread’ voter fraud, except, of course, just prior to the national election when the Republican National Committee (RNC) canceled its contract with a firm accused of destroying voter registration forms for Democratic voters while submitting fraudulent Republican voter registration forms themselves. You might argue that the firm, ‘Strategic Alliance’ was just a bad apple, but you would be wrong. The Los Angeles Times reports that the RNC urged the firm to change its name before hiring it because of allegations of registration fraud in previous elections. So the last major incident of voting fraud in the nation was initiated by the Republican party itself.
But that hasn’t swayed Republican efforts. In conjunction with new voting restrictions, Republicans all across the South have used their control of state legislatures to pass redistricting maps that favor Republican candidates and narrow the number of viable Democratic districts, placing as many Democratic lawmakers into as few “majority-minority” districts as possible. This is also known as ‘gerrymandering.’
Ari Berman, writing in The Nation notes that “in virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.” The GOP’s long-term goal is to enshrine a system of racially polarized voting that will make it harder for Democrats to win races on local, state, federal and presidential levels. Four years after the election of Barack Obama, which offered the promise of a new day of postracial politics in states like North Carolina, Republicans are once again employing a Southern Strategy that would make Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater proud.”
That might seem a bit strident, but it’s not, if you understand the South’s history. Voter Suppression in the South has a kind of ‘eternal return’ aspect to it. Towards the end of the Civil War and directly after, a series of Amendments were passed that sought to guarantee to minorities the rights of any white person: freedom from slavery, the rights of citizenship, and, most importantly, the right to vote. But in the 1870s, after Federal troops withdrew from the South as part of the 1877 Compromise, Southern legislatures including Virginia, passed a series of laws collectively known as Jim Crow. The effects were devastating. Ironically, minorities found themselves with more freedom of movement and political latitude in the short ten to twelve year period directly after the Civil War than at any time in their history until well into the 20th century. All the hope that inspired blacks during Reconstruction (when the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments gave black Americans freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote) suddenly vanished.
In 1878, Congress forbade the use of the Army to protect black voters from the intimidation and physical violence with which they were regularly threatened. By 1894, Congress ceased appropriations for federal marshals to protect black voters at the polls. In 1901, the last black representative lost his seat in Congress. It would be 30 years before a black person could gain a seat in the House or Senate. This was not an accident.
In 1902, Virginia wrote into its constitution that white and ‘colored’ children could not be taught in the same school. Additionally, laws were passed by the Virginia General Assembly that outlawed miscegenation, “It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person…”For the purpose of this act,” they were careful to note, “the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
Public facilities and public transportation were ordered to be segregated and the State Corporation Commission was the designated agency to enforce ‘separate waiting areas’ in the terminals for the races. Most importantly, voting poll taxes were put into place and the state’s treasurers were ordered to enforce these laws. Keep in mind this was all done with gentlemanly aplomb and bipartisan fervor. It was a conscious effort to silence an entire race, and for a very long time it worked. Not just in Virginia, of course, but all across the South.
So, given this history, you would think the current residents of the Virginia General Assembly would be a wee bit reticent about enacting laws that would have much the same effect today. But as if to underscore their voter suppression heritage, the Virginia Senate passed a gerrymandered redistricting bill during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The vote, 20-19, would have been a tie had Democratic Senator Henry Marsh been present, but Henry Marsh, a famous civil rights leader, was in Washington, D.C., attending President Obama’s inauguration.
Luckily, the bad publicity garnered by the gerrymandering bill caused Republican Speaker of the House, William Howell to have second thoughts. Howell effectively killed the bill by ruling it ‘not germane.’ It could be that the specter of Virginia’s past was a little too close for comfort, or, more likely, it’s the appearance of Republicans across the South happily embracing the efforts of the ex-Confederacy that made Howell think twice. Indeed, the same day that the Virginia Senate passed the redistricting plan, they adjourned in honor of the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. It was, after all, his birthday.
Let’s hope the rest of the Republicans –both at the national and at the state level—learn from the Marsh incident and the negative publicity that Virginia’s State Republican establishment has once again brought on themselves. It’s never too late to learn from history.
After SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) was defeated last winter in congress, Aaron Swartz gave a speech. He talked about the history of the legislation, how it started in 2010 as the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act that looked like it would get railroaded through congress with near unanimity until Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) put a hold on the bill, effectively killing it for that session and requiring it to be resubmitted under a new name PIPA (Protect IP Act) and a similar House version of the bill, the now infamous SOPA.
Swartz described his initial reaction to the bill as a rather subdued ‘so what?’; why should copyright infringement be such a big deal? That was, until he had an opportunity to read the bill and think about its long-term consequences. Swartz argued that SOPA’s wording was vague enough that a single complaint about a site could be enough to have that site blocked, with the burden of proof resting on the site; thus sites that share information freely from the cloud – social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, DailyKos etc., could be pulled offline for the potentially aberrant behavior of a few users. Worse, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) claimed the bill would ban linking to sites deemed offending, even in search results and on services such as Twitter. No one in the industry really liked the bill, Swartz noted, but there really wasn’t much they thought they could do about it. “The strategy was essentially, it’s going to happen, let’s just lessen the impact.”
Aaron Swartz — who developed the RSS protocol as a precocious teenager and was one of the founders of Reddit — didn’t like that answer.
Instead, he went about building the world’s largest internet campaign in history. If you’re reading this now, you may very well have been part of that campaign. I know I was.
I read about it through a post on DailyKos, and then did a little research and wrote about it, and changed my avatar to a big ole black stop SOPA icon. Sure, not much individually, but combined, it mattered. On November 16, Tumblr, Mozilla, Techdirt, the Center for Democracy and Technology were among many other Internet companies that protested by displaying black banners over their site logos with the words “STOP CENSORSHIP” Google linked an online petition to its site, and says it collected more than 7 million signatures from the United States. In January 2012, Reddit announced plans to black out its site for twelve hours on January 18, as company co-founder Alexis Ohanian announced he was going to testify to Congress. “He’s of the firm position that SOPA could potentially ‘obliterate’ the entire tech industry”, Paul Tassi wrote in Forbes. Other prominent sites that planned to participate in the January 18 blackout were Wikimedia, Boing Boing, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
By January 21, 2012 the bill was dead.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that over 115 thousand sites altered their webpages in protest.
I’d like to argue that much of this happened because of the singularly loud voice of Aaron Swartz, but I think he’d be annoyed if I did. He was a firm believer in the power of the commons, of individuals taking personal responsibility that combined became powerful. I suspect he would argue that it was no single voice that mattered in this particular battle, but the multitude of voices that stood firm against the arrayed interests of a relatively small group of men (and a few women), who, first, didn’t really understand the technology (Aaron’s term for most congress people regarding internet technology was ‘clueless’), and second were beholden to corporate interest whose last concern was freedom of expression, much less freedom to share information across the web (Congressman Christopher Dodd, who took a sweet gig as President of the Motion Picture Association of America after he left congress, spear-headed the effort.)
In his speech Aaron talked about how shocked congress was by the upstart rebellion. It was part fear and part anger. A congressman told him, “You people are out of control!”
But that was exactly the point, Aaron noted. We’re supposed to be ‘out of control’…and as Aaron might have said, congress works for us, not the other way around.
Aaron picked other battles as well. He didn’t believe that academic journals should be locked up in a paid only vehicle like JSTOR (Journal Storage), and hid a laptop in an MIT closet, downloading about 4.8 million academic articles. In July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR. They carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. According to the New York Times, “The database charges 10 cents a page for documents. Swartz had argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense.” He sought to free them, and as a consequence, faced up to a lifetime in prison and bankrupting fines.
Yesterday, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I won’t draw any conclusions about his death except to say that we need our Aaron Swartzes. He understood complex systems as well as anyone on Earth, and his bottom line was always making sure everyone had fair access. But he also had a history of depression which he wrote about in painful detail. One can only imagine the impending sense of closure as Federal prosecutors sought the most excessive penalties imaginable for a crime whose only victim was the freeing of information—that should have already been free.
Last night I saw the Richmond’s Fire House Theatre production of Death of a Salesman—a riveting performance by a nearly flawless caste. This morning I woke to news that the ‘Washington consensus’ was forming around a compromise for the so-called fiscal cliff that will involve raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
That means while the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans will have to pay a bit more from their slush funds, millions of Americans will be required to work an extra two years in order to retire without fear of losing their savings or home because of an unanticipated illness. They could have retired at 65, using early retirement, but without affordable healthcare how is that feasible? Where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and Medicare eligibility age is 67?
Perhaps for those with desk jobs or a relatively untaxing work life, those extra two years won’t mean that much, but for many Americans, this is an extra two years of hard labor, arbitrarily tacked onto a lifetime of sweat and struggle—and an extra two years can amount to a life sentence when you’re over sixty. Ask Willy Loman.
In the political calculus, let’s not forget him. Our Willy Lomans are still out there. Hammering in nails, petitioning on the street corners, working in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants, waking up sore with headaches from the night before, not sleeping well, worried about their children’s future, worried about their own. Many are not salesmen in the traditional sense any longer. The jobs and the demographics have changed since Arthur Miller’s play debuted nearly 70 years ago. Today our Willy Lomans are poor parents, single fathers or single mothers (in fact, females make up the majority of Medicare recipients), stretching to make ends meet when the car breaks down and they have to use their grocery money for repairs. Shall we make them work an extra two years so that a millionaire may preserve a bit more of his on hand cash?
Many others are immigrants who work all day landscaping our corporate scenery or toil in our fields to bring us cheap lettuce, tomatoes and grapes. They sweat under the sun, survive in crowded corners of our cities, or further out in dirty shacks provided for day laborers, stacked one on top of the other, far from our eyes and our thinking. Those are our Willy Lomans, too. With this deal, we’re telling them to work another two years in the sun, digging ditches, pounding nails, living like animals so that our millionaire congress can ‘save face’… That’s fair, right?
At the heart of Miller’s play is the cry of the dispossessed, of those who do not ‘make it’. Willy goes to his manager, exhausted beyond words, tells his young boss—who he helped name as an infant—that he just can’t continue traveling anymore. But there’s no place in the system for a Willy Loman who doesn’t travel 700 miles in a day, wearing holes in his shoes, lugging his valise. The young boss blows him off at first, and then finally fires him. The moment breaks Willy’s heart, and ultimately his mind. The question Miller asks is still with us: what do we do with our used up citizens, our jobless, our elderly, our permanently poor who will be shunted aside and ignored once again, our perennially homeless? They will find no new hope in this deal. Rather, what little help they might have received will be bartered away on the altar of an ill-timed austerity fix. Hundreds of thousands are still without work, millions who work must take jobs they find both demeaning and demoralizing because their chosen career path is no longer viable. Yet we will require two more years of their service; and no extra help for anyone who can not manage to be so lucky. That’s fair, right?
Death was the only escape Willy saw out of the cruel necessities of the system in which he was immersed. “What’s the secret Ben,” he asks his brother plaintively in one of his dream locutions before the end of the play. Ben, ever the adventurer, answers with a non-answer, “You go into the jungle and you come out rich. You go into the night, Willy and you come out with diamonds.”
It’s a nice thought, a romantic thought, probing the heart of the American dream, but in the end it’s the idea whose dissolution dooms Willy—and millions of Americans like Willy every day. The question is: do we as a society soften the lives of those who will never find diamonds in the jungle? Or do we tack two more years onto their already hard existence in the name of a meretricious austerity that benefits no one but the very wealthy? It’s an important question that defines us as a society. Attention must be paid.
~ Jack Johnson