About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Katrina: A 10-Year Review

by Walter Brasch

      This week is the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the southeastern gulf coast by Hurricane Katrina.
      More than 1,800 people died. There is no estimate for the number of pets and wildlife. Damage was estimated at more than $100 billion.
      About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. In Mississippi, the water surge flooded as much as 10 miles from the beaches.
      The Category 3 storm should not have caused that much damage, but it exposed poorly-designed levees that should have protected New Orleans.
      Sanctimonious critics, many of them conservative politicians, claimed that if the residents had evacuated New Orleans like they were ordered, the death toll and suffering would have been significantly less.
      What they didn’t say, however, was that almost all roads were blocked or destroyed. Even if the roads weren’t damaged, evacuation would have been difficult. Many of the residents who remained were poor, Black, an often relied upon public transportation, as do many residents of urban areas. Hundreds of school buses that could have evacuated the residents were in the flood. Even if they weren’t, there weren’t enough drivers—most were in their own houses, which were flooded, or at the SuperDome or Convention Center, both of which sustained damage.
      The media—and numerous conservative radio and TV pundits—reported looting. But, most was for food and supplies needed to sustain the people through what would be several days of terror. Not reported was that the stores would have had to throw away the food and supplies, but would still get insurance reimbursement, whether the supplies were damaged by the flood or taken from the shelves by the storm victims.
      Prisoners were left locked in flooded cells—the guards had abandoned them. Police deserted their duties. The attendants and staff of at least one nursing home fled, leaving the infirm and elderly to struggle or die. And almost everywhere was the inhumane greed of thousands who filed false claims, set up phony Katrina victim websites to collect money that never went to the victims, or were in collusion with local and state governments to make obnoxious profits on contracts that were supposed to help return the Gulf to at least the level it was before the storm.
      Hospitals sustained heavy damage. Only heroic efforts by medical staff and other employees to evacuate the patients kept the death and injury toll down.
      The damage might have been less if fossil fuel corporations, aided by state and federal governments, had not drilled into the sand bars, natural protection against storms. But, oil was too lucrative, and protection of the coastline not even an afterthought.
      Plywood was not available to cover windows before the storm hit; much of it had been sent to Iraq. Deep water vehicles were not available; they were in Iraq to sustain the war. National Guard troops, who would have been called out in force, were serving in Iraq.
      The Army Corps of Engineers and local and state officials several times before Katrina hit had begged for funds to improve the poorly-designed levee system. But, there wasn’t enough money because it was encumbered in a war economy.
      FEMA’s response time was far too long, its effectiveness diminished by political decisions that were made in the Bush–Cheney administration. Many local and state officials—of both major political parties—showed the nation that ineptness wasn’t confined to the federal government. Supplies were rerouted or never delivered; communications between agencies was dismal. However, the Coast Guard, National Weather Service, and National Hurricane Center stood out for excellence—as did the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and numerous other volunteer organizations, many of which were on the scene before FEMA.
      Homeland security needs to be a lot more than just protecting our country from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists. The budget for the Department of Defense this year is about $600 billion, about 54 percent of the entire federal budget. Natural disasters—from forest fires in Oregon to the severe drought in California and the Southwest to floods in Louisiana—have taken more lives and caused more damage than all the terrorists combined. But the budget for disaster relief is about $7 billion, slightly more than 1 percent of the Defense department budget. Even if all the $50 billion spent in Katrina disaster relief during the past decade is figured into the total, it’s still less than 10 percent of one year’s Defense appropriation.
      And yet, conservative politicians have questioned why the nation needed to put money into Katrina relief. They are the same ones who unquestioningly advocated for more funds for defense while questioning the need for federal funds to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Yet, when heavy rains flooded Texas in May, both of Texas’s senators, who had voted to deny funds for the Jersey coast, were first in line to demand federal funds for their own state.
      Have we still not learned anything in the past decade?
     [Dr. Brasch is author of ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina, the first major book that looked at the causes, problems, and effects of the storm. He and Rosemary Brasch, two years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, had written a series of articles that predicted the United States was not prepared for a major disaster.]

Friday, August 21, 2015

Canned Pleasure:
The Thrill of the Kill

by Walter Brasch
      Would you like to go to Zimbabwe, kill and behead a lion, just like that dentist from Minnesota or the physician from Pittsburgh recently did? They paid about $50,000 each for that experience
      How about a black rhino, an endangered species? A professional hunter from Dallas, Texas, won a $350,000 lottery to stalk and kill that animal in southern Namibia. In the 1950s, there were about 70,000 black rhinos. There are now fewer than 2,400, most of them killed off by the human predators.
      If giraffes are your thing, you can go to South Africa and, like a woman from Idaho, kill the world’s tallest animal, pose with it, and post it onto your Facebook page.
      But, let’s say your anemic bank account can’t provide you with the funds for a two-week safari, because that rebel flag you just bought to mount on your broken-down pick-up cost too much.
      For a few thousand dollars, Great White Hunters—complete with rented guides, dogs, and guns or bows—can go into a fenced-in area and shoot an exotic species. In most canned hunts, the animals have been bred to be killed, have little fear of humans, and are often lured to a feeding station or herded toward the hunter to allow a close-range kill. In some of the preserves, animals are drugged or tied to stakes. Some of the “big cats,” recorded in investigative undercover videos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Fund for Animals were declawed, placed in cages, and then released; the terrified and non-aggressive animals were then killed within a few yards of their prisons; some were killed while in their cages.
      For less than $3,000 you can go to Snyder County, Pa., and kill an elk, a deer, or a wild boar. You don’t even need a hunting license or worry about hunting out of season. The animals are fenced in on a private preserve.
      The club recently placed full-page ads in local newspapers, and promises that for your $1,000 to $3,000 thrill, you get a guaranteed success, lodging, meals, and even a color photo of you and what is euphemistically known as a trophy.
      If pheasants are your thing, you can head out to the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, Pa. This is where Dick Cheney and some of his shooting buddies stood and killed more than 400 just-released birds, which they blasted onto their dinner plates for a lead-scented meal. In the afternoon, having hardly raised a bead of sweat, the good ole boys slaughtered dozens of equally tame mallards that had been hand-raised and shoved in front of waiting shotguns for the massacre. By the time Cheney flew out of the area, the mallards were plucked and vacuum-packed, ready for flight aboard the taxpayer-funded Air Force 2.
      The pheasant hunt was a year after the Mighty Dick sent shotgun pellets into the face of a 78-year-old hunting companion, whom he thought was a quail.
      Prefer pigeons? Although they’re not a “canned hunt,” there are still a half-dozen target shoots in southeastern Pennsylvania, where club officials release the birds within 20 yards of contestants, making a kill even easier than hitting metal ducks at a carnival’s shooting gallery. You can’t even eat the pigeons—by the time you pick the shotgun pellets from the bird, there’s no meat left.
      Many of the animals on canned hunts are surplus animals bought from dealers who buy cast-off animals from zoos and circuses; the animals sold to the preserves are often aged and arthritic. Dozens of preserves have bought black bears, zebras, giraffes, lions, boars, and just about any species of animal the client could want, solely to be killed, photographed, and then skinned, stuffed, and mounted.
      Most “kills” on the “farms” are from animals bleeding out. Animals suffer from minutes to hours, says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States. Canned hunting, says Prescott, “is about as sporting as shooting a puppy in pet store window.” Most sportsmen agree with her.
      The concept of the “fair chase” is embedded into hunter culture. The Boone & Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club (bowhunters), two of the three primary organizations that rate trophy kills, refuse to accept applications from persons who bagged their “trophy” on a canned hunt. The Safari Club does allow persons to seek recognition, but only under limitations that most preserves can’t meet.
      These pretend-hunters have dozens of reasons why they do what they do. The word “conservation” often appears dripping from their meat-filled lips. Some claim they are doing it to conserve wildlife by eliminating the weakest among the species. But, since animals have done rather well at preserving the balance of nature, why would humans want to alter it?
      The big-game safari killers, who can afford a southern African hunt that costs more than the yearly wages of most Americans, say that the fees go to conservation efforts to save the animals. If that’s the reason, why not just take that huge roll of 100s, donate it to the preserves, take a tax deduction and get a suitable-for-framing color photo of a living animal?
      Whatever their reasons to mask their recreation, there is only one reason why they do what they do. They enjoy massaging a phallic symbol and taking a life.
      [Walter Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is the author of 20 books; the most recent one is Fracking Pennsylvania. He also believes in shooting only inanimate objects, especially clay pigeons, which he misses more than he hits.]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

It’s Not Always Good to be a Professional

by Walter Brasch

      Decades ago, newspaper reporters had low wages and no bylines.
      As expected, they were a bit testy about the low wages.
      So, publishers figured out that if they gave reporters bylines, it would soothe their savage egos.
      It worked.
      But, then came the union movement in full force in the 1930s, and reporters wanted more than bylines and low wages.
      And so publishers raised the wages a little bit and gave some benefits.
      But, there was still that ego-thing.
      So, when reporters kept demanding livable wages, publishers made reporters editors and gave them salaries.
A general assignment reporter might also write a weekly story about airplanes. Thus, he became the newspaper’s aviation editor.
      Another reporter might write a story or two a week about fashion, and she—there were few women in the newsroom for many decades, and the ones who were there were consigned to “women’s stories”—would be the fashion editor.
      The editorship of journalism solved another problem.
      Because they were now management, reporters could still work as much as 60 hours a week, be paid salaries, and not get overtime hours. They could also be forced to work split shifts—a few hours during the day, a break, and then return to work night hours, possibly covering excessively boring school board and city council meetings where most of the decisions are made in secret in the euphemistically-called “work sessions” before the open public meeting later in the evening.
      Nevertheless, working excessive hours but with a title and salary led reporters to think they were truly professionals and not factory workers who were paid by the hour and received federally-mandated overtime when their work exceeded 40 hours a week.
      And then along comes the Department of Labor. And it so decreed in 2004 that anyone making less than $455 a week is entitled to overtime if work hours exceeded 80 in a two-week period. Any wage more than $455 a week would keep workers from getting overtime pay.
      But now the Department of Labor wants to raise that threshold.
      In the past decade, the cost of living has gone up about 20 percent.
      Supporting the increase in overtime standards are the worker-friendly Democrats. Opposing the increase are the business-class Republicans.
      Even with an assistant deputy metro editor thrown into the mix, there are still more workers than management.
      Newspapers aren’t the only place where workers can be exploited. For the joy of “being on air,” TV workers can be paid lower salaries and be expected to work excessive hours.
      The national networks (with the exception of Fox News) and entertainment industry, however, are heavily unionized, with crafts workers, actors, and staff receiving overtime pay or being given released time, also known as comp time, if there are reasons why workers have to put in more than an eight-hour day, with breaks.
      But all is not so rosy for factory workers and millions of others who are paid hourly. Some unscrupulous employers have been known to have workers sign in late and punch out early, working 9 or 10 hour days but being recorded for only 8. Other employers do follow the rules, but push mandatory overtime onto their workers. It’s much easier and more economical to require employees to show up 13 days out of 14, have them work an extra hour or two each day, and pay them time-and-a-half than to hire new workers.
      The Ford Motor Co. in 1914 learned a lesson about worker fatigue. Henry Ford doubled wages to $5 a day, highest in the industry, and limited most workers to eight-hour days. Morale went up; productivity went up; and profits went up—in two years, Ford had doubled its profits. But Henry Ford was also a realist—better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions also kept unions out of his company, and he could continue to be the racist, anti-Semitic dictator of a thriving industry.
      Nevertheless, some workers still think getting a salary of more than $24,000 a year and having a title is indicative of being in the professional class, and they support corporate America.
      Does that make any sense?
      [In a 40-year work career, Dr. Brasch worked for minimum hourly wages, for salary, as a contract employee, and for royalties and residuals. He is author of 20 books; the latest one is Fracking Pennsylvania, a look at the process and effects of high volume horizontal fracturing.]

Friday, August 7, 2015

Their Cheatin’ Souls: Short Circuiting Ethics in America

by Walter Brasch
      New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady says he had nothing to do with having air removed from game balls.
      The NFL, following an investigation, says he did. It gave him a four game suspension, which he is appealing. That four game suspension could cost him somewhere between $2 million and $4 million of his $14 million 2015 salary. If he plays well with others, doesn’t get into any more trouble, and injuries and retirement don’t stop his career before he becomes 40 years old in 2017, he will earn $31 million for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
      The NFL also fined the Patriots $1 million and required the team to forfeit its first round draft pick next year and 4th round pick the year after.
      Of course, Brady also forfeited his cell phone. Before it and its 10,000 messages could be confiscated in the investigation, he destroyed it and got a new phone. Multi-millionaires can do that.
      But, the issue here is not so much Brady or the Patriots. It’s an endemic problem of cheating.
      In school, children spend more time learning how to avoid learning than they do learning subject matter. This can be by looking over someone else’s shoulder during a test or copying information from an online story for a paper.
      By the time they get to college, their ways of evading knowledge becomes more refined. They can use their grants and loans to buy term papers written by others. On tests, they can flash hand signals to a buddy two rows away or secretly text each other for answers. They can wear baseball caps to hide their wandering eyes. They can even buy copies of the tests. Some professors give the same tests every year, and fraternities and sororities assist their brothers and sisters by having a current test bank of knowledge. There are hundreds of ways to cheat, and even the best professors don’t know all of them.
      And then the students graduate, their resum├ęs floating into corporate headquarters, like parade confetti. Most of these capsulized on paper lives are fluff and puff.
      Although most workers don’t cheat, there’s enough who do.     
      Eleven teachers in Atlanta were convicted this year of racketeering for changing student answers on standardized tests to make overall scores higher. An Atlanta Journal–Constitution investigation reported about 180 teachers and administrators probably changed student scores; 35 of them were indicted, with 23 accepting plea bargains; 12 went to trial and only one of them was found not guilty.
      The reason there was cheating by the adults, who probably didn’t “notice” when the children openly cheated, was money-based. Scores that flatlined each year or went down from the year before would have led to less funds. Higher scores led to increased budgets, which led to increased teacher merit pay. The superintendent of schools herself was accused of being the gang leader; her motivation may have been not just to make her district look good but to receive the bonuses for increased student performance. Unfortunately, teacher cheating isn’t confined to Atlanta, nor is cheating only a part of the educational system.
      In factories, short cuts lead to products with defects. In some cases, corporate management knows there are defects but ignores the consequences, figuring that the cost of recalls and lawsuits is still less than the profits. In corporate language this is known as “mitigation.” It sounds so much better than “greed.”
      Wall Street and financial institution greed and lies, combined with a serious lack of enforcement by government regulatory agencies, led to the nation’s great recession, which began the last couple of years of the Bush-Cheney administration. Trying to justify why they short-circuited ethics and the law, many of the guilty whined that they were in a high-pressure job to perform, that others did it, that they thought it was all part of the corporate culture; the whine that if they were ethical, they wouldn’t make as much money as expected, and probably wouldn’t be promoted or possibly fired for not meeting production goals.
      Some politicians also cheat. In their case, the cheating could be by accepting gifts from lobbyists or making promises that no one believes will be kept. But, for politicians, the cheating is often to get campaign funds and benefits that might help grease a re-election, which will lead to an even further need to cross ethical lines.
      You don’t have to be a corporate executive, go-go stock manipulator, politician, or even a student to cheat. Just fill out your yearly IRS 1040. Just as there are hundreds of ways students cheat, there are hundreds of ways taxpayers and corporations can cheat on taxes, with the average taxpayer believing it is perfectly acceptable to try to keep as much of every dollar earned as possible. Thus, fudging deductions and under-reporting income have become routine in many households. The IRS believes unreported income—which can be a few hundred dollars in restaurant tips or “under the table” job income to a few hundred thousand dollars stashed in a Cayman Islands bank—could be more than $4 billion a year.
      Of course, cheating may be beneficial to others—if spouses didn’t cheat, the entire country music industry could fall.
      Nevertheless, If Tom Brady did cheat in deflategate—and we’re not saying he did—he was just a part of a culture that is slowly losing its ethics and values in order to get results.

     [Dr. Brasch is a journalist/social activist, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking America, an overall look at the process, effects, and numerous social issues of horizontal fracturing.]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

‘NCIS’ Again Skunked—Except by the People

by Walter Brasch

      Once again, as expected, the people who give out Emmy nominations skunked NCIS.
      No nominations for acting. None for writing. Not one for directing or producing. Not even a nomination in what the industry calls the minor awards—sound editing, stunt coordination, and dozens of others.
      The one-hour drama, with light overtones, is the most-watched drama in television, but the Industry doesn’t think it’s worth any awards. And yet, every one of its primary actors, led by Mark Harmon, could give acting lessons to those who were nominated.
      It took years for TV Guide’s haughty editors to give major stories to NCIS or even highlight individual episodes. Perhaps it’s because NCIS appeals more to the people who don’t live in L.A. or New York.
      Also skunked were USA’s Royal Pains and TNT’s Major Crimes, both excellent light dramas that, like NCIS, are well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.
      Also overlooked by the Industry when they were in production were several outstanding light dramas, among them USA’s White Collar, Burn Notice, and Psych and TNT’s Leverage and The Closer.
      There may be several reasons why these shows, and others, aren’t nominated.
      First, the actors work on their craft, show up on time, rehearse, deliver excellent performances, and then go home to their families and friends. They don’t do a lot of TV guest appearances on the morning and late night shows. Most don’t go to the Hollywood parties, where they can schmooze and cuddle up with fellow performers who can cast just the right kind of votes. And, most important, the actors of NCIS, NCIS: New Orleans, and the USA and TNT shows generally don’t appear regularly in the tabloids.
      Writers and directors tend to stay in the background, melting into the scenery. None are asked to appear on talk shows; very few are even asked to appear in court. Nevertheless, the writing and directing of the overlooked shows is easily among the best that Hollywood has to offer.
      Another reason is that the studios and networks that these shows appear on don’t do much to promote them. CBS, which could have spent a few hundred thousand of its millions of profit promoting NCIS, CSI, and Criminal Minds, seems to think the money is better spent promoting Two Broke Girls and the last remains of Two and a Half Men. USA is owned by NBC/Universal, which pushes its NBC shows, paying premium rental prices for Sunset Blvd. billboards and for ads in major show-biz publications. And, of course, NBC shoves the actors onto the talk shows, especially the ones broadcast by NBC.
      Royal Pains is a drama of concierge medicine in the Hamptons. But, USA snuck the seventh season of the popular show onto the air with almost no promotion, and stuck it into a 10 p.m. slot, possibly hoping it would flatline and leave a vacancy for another one-hour drama.
      For some reason, the Industry doesn’t like light drama, a perception also emphasized in the Oscars. And, it doesn’t seem to like actors who don’t overact, but subject themselves to the quality of writing.
      Last week, when NCIS, about to begin its 13th season in September, was overlooked, it was 4th in the Nielsen ratings. And that was for a re-run.

      [Dr. Brasch is a journalist and multi-media writer/producer. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the process and effects of high-volume horizontal fracturing.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fired for Telling the Truth

by Walter Brasch

     Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a hydrogeologist, didn’t plan to be an expert witness for law firms. But, that’s the way it turned out shortly before he planned to retire.
     He had spent most of his career working in the oil/gas industry and then in academics. He didn’t have problems when he worked for ARCO for seven years after getting an M.S. in oceanography from the University of South Florida. However, he did have problems in academics when he tried to tell the truth.
     After five years as an assistant professor at California State University at Bakersfield, in the heart of the state’s rich oil industry, he left to become associate professor/researcher at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), a public university with a strong reputation in engineering and applied sciences. For 10 years, he taught and did research. But in 2006, as horizontal fracking began to be the way the industry was headed, he learned that research is compromised by politics.
     That’s the year he was asked by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to evaluate an EPA study about horizontal fracking. The EPA study, conducted during the Bush–Cheney administration, had claimed there were no problems with horizontal fracking, one that used millions of gallons of water, dozens of toxic chemicals, and a new procedure to extract trapped gas in narrow shales.
     “I wasn’t aware of the study, or much about fracking,” says Dr. Thyne, “but I looked at the document and said it appeared to be political.” He did say there was no data to lead to the EPA conclusions, which would eventually be used to help justify the Halliburton Loophole, which exempted the industry from numerous environmental laws. But, it was Dr. Thyne’s observation about the validity of the EPA report that upset the university’s administration.
     Research about fracking apparently upset some in the administration, one of whom was Dr. Myles W. Scoggins who had worked for Mobil and ExxonMobil for more than three decades, eventually becoming president of the International Exploration & Production and Global Exploration division and then executive vice president of ExxonMobil Production Co. before becoming CSM president in 2006. In 2014, the last year of his presidency, Dr. Scoggins received $380,000 in salary and, according to the Public Affairs Institute, about $800,000 from being on the boards of three oil and energy companies.
     A meeting with a low-level administrator resulted in an agreement that Dr. Thyne should not say that there was insufficient data in the EPA study and that he could not identify himself as from CSM in public and written statements.
     But, there was more. Dr. Thyne soon began advocating for more university research about fracking and its effects.
     This time, instead of a department head telling him never to use his university affiliation in his research and public statements, it was a university vice-president. Dr. Nigel T. Middleton, vice-president of academic affairs, told Dr. Thyne the university was dropping him to half-time employment and ordered him not to discuss fracking. Dr. Middleton also has a long history of work with the oil and gas industry.
     Dr. Thyne believes the initial protest this time came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). The university president for four years (2007–2011) was  on the board of directors of COGA.
     In an official public relations statement, CSM denied terminating Dr. Thyne’s employment. The university claimed Dr. Thyne left CSM solely because he had another job. However, that was a carefully-couched distortion of truth. CSM did not renew his contract after he did an interview with National Public Radio, and reiterated his position that there was insufficient data to justify EPA conclusions.
     The American Association of University Professors had wanted to take up Dr. Thyne’s case as a violation of academic freedom—“but I declined because by that time, it really seemed to be a no-win situation.”
     The next year, he became a researcher at the University of Wyoming, from where he received a Ph.D. in geology in 1991. This time, six years after he began working at the university, a comment made to a local newspaper led to his termination. The Cheyenne Tribune–Eagle had published a five-part series about fracking and water usage. He says he had told the reporter each well could use two to ten million gallons of water, but for certain wells the water used could be 350,000 to one million gallons per stage, and that there could be as many as 40 stages of drilling. The reporter took the maximum per stage, and the maximum number of stages, and noted there could be more than 40 million gallons of water used. The source of the highest possible number of gallons was unattributed. However, representatives of the industry demanded to know the source, which the newspaper’s editor revealed.
     That eventually led to Dr. Thyne being called before the university’s vice-president of government affairs and a representative from Noble Energy, who demanded he retract the highest number, a number Dr. Thyne had never given the newspaper. Like CSM, the University of Wyoming also demanded that Dr. Thyne deny that any of his comments represented the views of the University of Wyoming. Shortly after that meeting, Dr. Thyne was told, “Your services are no longer needed.” He was never told why his employment was terminated. Because Wyoming is a “right-to-work” state, there was no grievance procedure. The university could easily claim, without having to prove the truth, that there were no more research funds to justify Dr Thyne’s continued employment. David Mohrbacher, director of the university’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, told the Boulder (Colo.) Weekly
the reason for not renewing Dr. Thyne’s was because, “We chose a different way to go, and really that’s all I can say.”
     Dr. Thyne’s last academic employment was in 2012. “With fracking booming, I thought there would be a lot of jobs,” he says but no one in academia had wanted him. A couple of years later, he found out why. “A friend told me to check out YouTube.” On that social network, he found a one-minute video, which he recorded in 2011, that stated human error in the fracking process can cause water pollution.
     “I’m not naive, I understand politics,” says Dr. Thyne, who acknowledges, “It’s been a difficult transition,” but one he accepts because he will not sacrifice his academic integrity for political convenience.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Grin of a Fool: Gun Control and the NRA

By Rosemary and Walter Brasch

      A white racist with strong sympathies for the Confederacy and segregation walks into a black church in Charleston, S.C., talks with a welcoming congregation for about an hour, and then murders nine of them. The response by the nation is to discuss the Confederate battle flag, and why it should be removed from society.
      An undocumented citizen who was deported five times gets a stolen handgun from a federal officer and murders a 32-year-old woman, whom he did not know, in San Francisco. The response is to discuss immigration laws and practices.
      In Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, seven people were murdered, and 41 injured in 34 shooting incidents. In Baltimore, two unidentified men killed three people in a residential area near the University of Maryland; a fourth gunshot victim survived. In the first half of the year, there were 154 murders in Baltimore. In Allentown and Easton, Pa., three people were murdered; police believe the suspect, now in custody, may also have attempted to kill someone in New Jersey the week before. The response by the public is to escalate the discussion about gang violence.
      Racism. Immigration. Gang violence.
      What’s missing in the discussion—the most obvious issue, the common thread— is the use of guns.
      Hate and fear supply the ammunition; people with guns carry out the execution of peace.
      President Obama, in addressing the nation shortly after the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, alluded to the issue of guns. In a subsequent interview with radio host/comedian Marc Maron, he was more specific—“The grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.” The president also explained why there is almost no movement on responsible gun control legislation is because manufacturers—who donate millions to the NRA—“make out like bandits, partly because of this fear that's churned up that the federal government and the black helicopters are all coming to get your guns.”
      Conservatives attacked the President’s comments; liberals proved the president’s points by their cowardly silence.
      The Democratic leadership and members of Congress could have said there is a high correlation between the amount of money the NRA pays to legislators and the stranglehold on allowing responsible gun ownership laws to emerge. But they didn’t.
      They could have said the NRA leadership and a minority of its members, paranoid and waving conspiracy theories as if they were confederate battle flags, have their hands firmly around the testicles of the law makers. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that in Mr. Obama’s six years as president, not once did he or the government ever say the government should confiscate guns, but wanted sensible regulation at a level even less than required to get a driver’s license. But they didn’t say that, either.
      If the Democratic leadership and elected legislators didn’t wish to attack the stranglehold of the NRA, they could just have cited facts.
      They could have said that 91 percent of all Americans believe there should be at least some restrictions, including mandatory gun locks to help prevent at least 1,500 injuries to children each year. But they didn’t.
      They could have spoken out about the necessity for background checks for all gun sales, including private sales at gun shows. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that the United States, with civilians owning about 30 percent of all handguns in the world, has the world’s highest civilian rate of ownership of guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have said that only two countries in the world—the United States and Yemen, home to a major branch of al-Qaeda—see gun ownership as a basic right, and almost every other country sees ownership as a privilege. They could have said that, but they didn’t.
      They could have said that over 100,000 people are shot every year in the United States; the rate is higher than almost every other country in the world, including several countries where there is active terrorism.
      They could have stated there are numerous research studies that show a high correlation between gun ownership and both suicides and homicides. But they didn’t.
      They could have flooded the media with outrage after the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee, days after the Charleston murders, continued the ban against the Centers for Disease Control to conduct scientific research about gun violence. But they didn’t.
      They could have talked about the ease in acquiring guns, the kind that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and killed 26 at a school in Newtown, Conn. But they didn’t.
They could have directly attacked the argument that the Second Amendment gives everyone the right to own guns, without restriction. They could have cited U.S. v. Miller that permits states and the federal government to ban certain guns. But they didn’t.
      They could have cited court decisions that every one of the Bill of Rights has exceptions, but the NRA erroneously claims the Second Amendment is absolute.
      They could have cited other Supreme Court cases that gives Congress the authority to place restrictions on gun ownership. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed the principle of use of deadly force in “stand your ground” laws against the “obligation to retreat” when possible. But they didn’t.
      They could have discussed recent legislation in Maine, happily signed by the governor, which permits anyone to carry a hidden handgun without having to get a permit or take any training in the use of firearms. The NRA leadership and lobbyists are ecstatic about that law. Perhaps, as Maine’s murder and accidental shooting rate rises, they will lose the grin of a fool.
      [Rosemary Brasch is a retired secretary, labor grievance officer, and college instructor of labor studies. Walter Brasch is a journalist. The latest of his 20 books is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overview of the economics, politics, and health and environmental effects of horizontal fracturing.]

Friday, July 3, 2015

Three Commandments for Every State Capitol

by Walter Brasch

      The Oklahoma Supreme Court this past week ordered the legislature and the executive branch to remove a six-foot tall Ten Commandments granite monument from the front of the state house.
      The monument was placed there in January and is a direct violation of the First Amendment.
      The response by dozens of legislators, most of whom may be illiterate about the Constitution, was to call for the impeachment of the justices. The state’s attorney general who, presumably, took Constitutional Law in college, said he would appeal the decision. He, and many legislators, are also thinking of repealing the part of the state constitution that prohibits the use of public funds for religious purposes. The only question here is—how much taxpayer money will the state waste in the appeals and an action to rewrite the state constitution before the Supreme Court of the United States officially declares Oklahoma to be in need of long-term mental health assistance.
      Over in Alabama, Ray Moore, the state’s chief justice, thinks the Ten Commandments should be in front of the court house. The other eight justices disagreed with him, and the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed him in 2003 from office for violating both the Constitution and a federal court order to remove the 5,200 pound granite block he had commissioned.
      After several failed attempts to become the state’s governor, Moore again ran for the office of chief justice, and was elected in 2012, still pledging to violate state and federal law.
       I have no objections to the Ten Commandments being placed in public spaces, especially court houses and state capital lawns.
      But, there are a few requirements I have.
      First, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and entered into a covenant with the Jews more than 1,200 years before the seeds of Christianity were planted. God didn’t give the Ten Commandments to the Southern Baptists, Muslims, Hindis, or even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So, if the legislatures and other politicians want a Ten Commandments monument in public places, they must first become Jews.
      It makes no difference if it’s Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. I don’t care if they become Chassidic, Reconstructionist, or even secular Jews. But, they must become Jews. This would be God’s will.
      Second, because Jews tend to be more liberal in social issues than the rest of the population, the politicians would be expected to embrace universal health care, civil rights for all people—including the right of same-sex marriage, improved working conditions and wages, a strong commitment to those who are of the underclass of society, a tolerance and understanding of others’ faiths, and activism for environmental and animal rights issues.
      Third, they must follow all of the commandments, especially the one about not committing adultery.
      They can choose which day of the week they could hold as holy. If they choose Saturday, the Jews’ day of Sabbath, they would be forbidden from playing golf or working on their broken-down pick-up trucks. If they choose Sunday as the day of Sabbath, they wouldn’t be allowed to watch NFL football.
      It’s not much to ask them to do. Become Jews. Embrace liberal social issues. And follow the commandments.
      When they agree to these terms, I might be able to support them wanting to place the Ten Commandments on the lawns of their state houses—but only after they write a new Constitution, and reform the United States as a Jewish state, not unlike the socialist Israeli state.

      [Dr. Brasch is a social issues journalist, retired university professor of mass communications, and author of 20 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, a definitive look at the economics, politics, and health, and environmental; effects surrounding fracking in the country.]

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Whoopin’ and a-Hollerin’ for the Plantation Life

by Walter Brasch

      Judge A. Joseph Antanavage, with shotgun in hand, stood before a modified Confederate battle flag, and looked as if he had planned to defend whatever it is that the Confederate flag stands for.
      But, this wasn’t in the South. This was at a pigeon shoot near Hamburg, Pa. Pennsylvania is not only where the only legal organized pigeon shoots still exist, but where it’s not unusual to see shooters waving the Confederate flag or wearing clothing that features the flag.
      Pennsylvania is the Keystone state, the state where the Declaration of Independence was written, and the Articles of Confederation approved. It is where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, four months after the three-day battle led to 7,058 fatalities and 33,264 wounded, most with what would be life-long injuries. It is where the country heard that its Founding Fathers had believed, “all men are created equal.”
      The beliefs of the Founding Fathers, even the few who owned slaves, have not been accepted by hundreds of thousands of Americans who are willing to tell anyone within voice range there are inferior races in America.
      Those who defend that flag—the symbol of treason against the United States of America—say it is history, a part of the South’s heritage. But it is a symbol of defiance that should have died with the surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865.
      But it didn’t die. It was invigorated by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, and the declaration, “The South Shall Rise Again,” often spoken by men with guns and broken-down pick-ups.
      The original battle flag, with the stars-and-bars, was square, and there were several variations. The rectangular flag became popular in the Reconstruction era, so the heritage dates not to the Civil War but to the era of racism.
      The murder of nine Blacks at a church in Charleston, S.C., reignited the fires of hatred as well as a realization that the Confederate flag is a symbol of that racism. (Of course, while the nation is talking about a flag, they have conveniently overlooked critical issues of responsible gun control and civil rights.)
      Nevertheless, Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), following the murders, changed her view about the Confederate flag, padlocked to its staff and flying proudly on the statehouse grounds. During the 1960s, it was flown from on top of the state house, a symbol of protest to racial integration. In 2000, it was moved to a staff on the statehouse grounds, the result of a compromise by the Republican-controlled legislature and civil rights groups. Gov. Haley wants the flag removed. But, she needs a two-thirds vote of her legislature to do that. There are still legislators who, for the cameras say they oppose segregation but that the flag is a respected symbol of the South’s history.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans say they will fight to keep the flag where it is, flapping in the wind, high above the heads of Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and all minorities. They say it is their heritage. But, there are other ways to preserve a heritage. There are articles, books, and documentaries. There are plaques, statues, and museums. Some say they wave the flag because, like them it is a symbol of society’s rebel. But, the only thing they rebel against appears to be the rights of all people. Their defiance may hopefully relegate them to insignificant obscurity.
      Georgia’s official flag, from 1956 to 2001, adopted as a defiant protest to civil rights, was dominated by the stars-and-bars before finally being replaced.
Gov. Robert Bentley (R-Ala.) ordered the Confederate battle flag removed from the Confederate memorial on the state Capitol grounds. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) wants to ban the confederate flag from the vanity license plates of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. 
      The Republican-dominated Mississippi legislature has no plans to modify its state flag. That flag has a replica of the Confederate flag in the corner where the American white stars on a blue field would be, and a blue stripe, a white stripe, and a red stripe in the area where the U.S. flag’s alternating red and white stripes would be. As long as Mississippi and the South continue to fly the battle flag, some of the more legitimate reasons for the South’s secession will forever be obscured by the racism of slavery.
      Major retailers—including Walmart, Sears, Kmart, eBay, and Amazon—have banned the sale of flags and items with the Confederate stars-and-bars decorations. Apple has removed from its website and stores several games with the Confederate flag. Perhaps this should have been done decades ago, but for whatever reason they are doing it now, it is a good reason.
      There has been a strong brush-back by Confederate sympathizers. Sales of the flag and flag-related items have increased in the past week at retailers that have more of an interest in profits than a moral conscience.
      For southerners and other sympathizers who are offended that a symbol of racism and treason may not be available to them, there is an easy solution.
      They can take a trip to northeastern Pennsylvania, home of the Civil War Fishing Creek Confederacy, which actively opposed the Union. In Summer, they can attend one of the largest monster truck rallies in the nation; in Fall, they can attend the state’s largest fair. Vendors will sell them a variety of Confederate battle flag trinkets, toys, and clothing. They can buy flags from vendors, put them on their trucks, drive down Main Street, whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ as if they were the ones who are entrusted with protecting white womenhood and the way of life that existed in ante-bellum America.
      Or, if they can’t attend the rally and the fair, they might be able to spend a weekend at one of a half-dozen pigeon shoots, where they can dress like hunters, hold a shotgun meant to kill caged pigeons, and proudly pose in front of the rebel flag.

     [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications. The latest of his 20 books is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overview of the environmental and health issues of horizontal fracturing, as well as the history, economics, and politics.]

Friday, June 19, 2015

Religion and Science vs. Greed and Politics

by Walter Brasch

      Rick Santorum, who is back in the race to be the Republican nominee for president after finishing second to Mitt Romney in 2012, is a devout Catholic.
      So devout that he often makes bishops and cardinals appear to be tools of a liberal conspiracy.
      This time, the liberal conspiracy is headed by Pope Francis.
      Whatever could the pope do or say that would upset millions of evangelical Christians?
        The pope asked Christians to become “custodians of creation,” boldly stating that a threat to peace “arises from the greedy exploitation of environmental resources.” He said, “Even if nature is at our disposition, all too often we do not respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations.”
      The pope also said mankind “too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.” He believes there is global warming, that mankind is mostly responsible, and that mankind must take steps to stop the problem to preserve what God has given.
      Obviously, sacrilegious! Heresy of the highest order. Words spoken that do not align with the divine inspiration of Rick Santorum and the far-right.
      God, so these conservatives believe, gave us fossil fuels to exploit. They wrongly interpret Genesis 1:28 as God giving mankind dominance over all life and the Earth, instead of stewardship. For many corporations and politicians, this means mankind has the right to drill and use Earth’s resources however they see fit, that fracking is God’s gift to humanity. To heat our homes. To drive our cars. To allow multi-billion dollar corporations to make gross and obscene profits. 
      But they are in a minority.
     Every major religion has a basic tenet to protect and preserve the environment.
     Many of the major Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, and Buddhism consider all life as interdependent. The responsibility of government, according to Buddhism’s Kutadanta Sutta, is to actively protect the environment, and all its flora and fauna. The Koran of Islam warns, “And do not corrupt in the earth after being tilled.” Saudi Arabia in 1994, long before much of the world began to understand the long-term effects of uncontrolled gas emissions, cautioned, “Human activities over the last century have so affected natural processes that the very atmosphere upon which life depends has been altered.”
     All indigenous people, from the aborigines of Australia to the Native Americans of North America, have shown respect for the land, which most believe is not theirs to own, but only to enjoy until passed to their children.
     The World Council of Churches, which represents about 590 million Christians in 520,000 congregations, decided in July 2014 that to continue to hold fossil fuel stock would compromise its ethics, and recommended the 349 member denominations consider divesting oil and gas stock.
In the United States, the Eco-Justice Programs of the National Council of Churches, a coalition of about 100,000 congregations with 45 million members, declared fossil fuel extraction, “when used to generate electricity or power machinery, also pollute our air, land, and water.” The Council also determined, “In order to extract the oil from oceans or land we often put the needs of ourselves over the health and well-being of the whole of Creation and in many cases before the needs of future generations.”
The Unitarian-Universalist Association told us, “Oil and other fossil fuels are making the planet uninhabitable. We must work urgently to switch to cleaner alternatives and to convince our leaders to work toward that end as well.”
The Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, noting that climate change could be human-caused, called for a repeal of all environmental and health exemptions that benefitted the oil and gas industry.
       In their 6,000 year covenant with God, the Jews have considered themselves as stewards of the Earth. In Genesis 2:15 is the requirement to care for the Earth. In Ecclesiastes 7:13, the Jews are told by God, “See to it that you don’t spoil or destroy my world—because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.” In the 14th century, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet added strength to the command to care for the Earth. Based upon the writings of the Torah and subsequent discussions by Jewish leaders, he observed that mankind is forbidden “from gaining a livelihood at the expense of another’s health.” The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism notes that Jews are “increasingly aware of the potentially negative environmental impact of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels,” and its effect upon advancing the problems of climate change.
      U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, basing his comments upon both science and theological perspectives, declared: “Climate change is intrinsically linked to public health, food and water security, migration, peace and security. It is a moral issue. It is an issue of social justice, human rights and fundamental ethics.” He said, “Climate change is occurring—now—and human activities are the principal cause.”
     Nevertheless, even faced by theological and scientific evidence, Rick Santorum and the flock who believe as he does, claim that even if there is climate change, human activity is not responsible, and whatever the U.S. does would have no impact on climate change. He further believes the pope, representing 1.2 billion Catholics, should not comment upon climate change, especially if it differs from his views. Mr. Santorum believes only scientists should comment. Of course, Santorum, a politician who has commented on climate change, isn’t a scientist.
      Here’s what scientists say. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” About 97 percent of all scientists studying climate change attribute global warming to human activities.
     One of those scientists is Pope Francis, who studied chemistry, understands scientific principles, and once taught in Argentine high schools.

     [Dr. Brasch studied science as an undergraduate, and was, for a time, a science/health reporter. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.]