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.



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.]

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Politics of Disaster Relief




by Walter Brasch

      More than 150,000 Texans sent a petition to the White House, demanding the union allow Texas to secede.
      This was not 1861 when Texans wanted out of the union. This was two years ago.
      Among those who threw around the idea of secession was conservative Republican governor Rick Perry, who has re-entered the race for president—not of the Confederate States of America, but of the United States of America.
      About a month ago, the U.S. military announced a two-month long large-scale drill, known as Jade Helm 15, to begin July 15. The training exercise will spread over Texas and four other states.
      But that’s not what a large chunk of Texans—and especially a chunk of rabid patriotic right-wing talk show pundits and almost all of the Tea Party believe. They put on their tin foil caps—apparently to stimulate their two brain cells—and determined the military training exercise is a prelude to the U.S. seizing Texas and stripping its citizens of their guns and their Constitutional rights. Not that many of them ever read the Constitution. And, certainly, not federal and Supreme Court decisions.
      They said the military, in civilian clothes, would be blending into the local populations of more than 15 cities in preparation to imposing martial law.
      Normally, when you have paranoia this deep, it’s time to allow open admissions to the psychiatric wings of major hospitals. But, the new governor, Greg Abbott, a conservative Republican, like the governor before him—and the governor before him—ordered the Texas National Guard to monitor the exercises to make sure that the damn Yankees didn’t emasculate Texas statehood. No one knows how much that decision to mobilize the National Guard will cost Texas taxpayers.
      While complaining about the Invasion, Texas suffered from heavy rains and floods. Almost three dozen died. Hundreds have lost their homes. The Red Cross and numerous disaster relief organizations are in Texas to help. They don’t care what the victims’ social, religious, or political beliefs are. They care about helping people who need help.
      Gov. Abbot and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz—Texans, Republicans, and on the far right side of conservative politics—have begged for federal assistance, including a large dose of federal funds. Both Cornyn and Cruz had previously voted against giving federal assistance to New Jersey and the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
      President Obama responded quickly, and ordered humanitarian assistance for the people of Texas. That assistance includes significant manpower and federal funds. The President didn’t say—like Cornyn and Cruz had once said about New Jersey—there wasn’t enough money to help Texas. The President didn’t say—like Cornyn and Cruz had once said—that even if there was enough money, they wouldn’t vote for assistance until the President yielded to them on a completely unrelated political matter. The President didn’t even worry about whether Texans liked him or not, even though a majority of that state’s politicians think of him as incompetent, evil, and—horrors!—a firebreathing Muslim who is the anti-Christ deploying forces to take their guns and all their rights. He made sure the people got the help they needed.
      When the people of another state experience tragedy, like the people of New Jersey and Texas did, perhaps Sens. Cornyn and Cruz will remember this is, still, a United States of America, and will not make inane political speeches and block federal disaster funds.

      [Dr. Brasch covered numerous disasters when he was a reporter; after leaving newspapers, he was involved with emergency preparedness and emergency management. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed best-seller Fracking Pennsylvania]

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Nation of Millennial Entitlements



by Walter Brasch

      A student sued Misericordia College because she failed a nursing class. Twice.
      She said she suffered psychological problems. Those problems included anxiety, depression, and poor concentration skills.
      The college had agreed to allow her to retake the final examination last summer.
      It set her up in a stress-free room, gave her extra time to complete the test, and did not provide a proctor. The professor said the student could call her by cell phone. That professor was in another building monitoring another test.
      The student again failed the required course.
      So now she’s suing. She claims the professor didn’t answer her numerous cell phone calls. She claims this made it more stressful. She claims it wasn’t her fault she failed. It was the professor’s fault. The college president’s fault. And several others’ fault.
      So she sued, claiming the college violated her rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
      That lawsuit acknowledges she had average to below average grades.
      Let’s pretend that a federal court agrees with her, and she gets so many accommodations that she now passes that course and somehow earns her nursing degree.
      Let’s also pretend that when she takes her nursing boards, the state gives her extra time, in a room by herself, without a proctor, makes one available by cell phone to answer questions–and, perhaps, allows her to have whatever notes and textbooks and learning aids she needs to pass that exam.
      Assume all this. Now, here’s the next question. Would you be comfortable having a nurse who can’t handle stress? Who admits she can’t concentrate? Who barely passed her college courses and requirements for a license?
      Society should make accommodations for persons with disabilities—as long as those disabilities don’t directly affect others and reduce the quality of care. Perhaps the student could be a nurse-educator, helping others better understand the need for vaccinations or how to care for young children. If that’s the case, why even test for state boards and get the R.N. added to the B.S.N. degree? Perhaps, with psychological help, the student might be able one day to handle the stress of testing and clinical nursing.
      Perhaps, the student could become an administrator. But, would nurses be willing to work for someone who suffers stress attacks and has never worked in patient care? Would teachers be willing to work for principals who never taught a class? Would firefighters be willing to take orders from a battalion chief who was never on a fire line or who rescued victims?
      There are persons in the health care professions who are blind or deaf or who are paraplegics, and who perform their tasks as well as anyone else. But, almost all of those with physical disabilities probably studied hard, may have even exceeded the expectations and abilities of others who don’t have physical disabilities, and are working in areas that don’t impact patient care. A neurosurgeon with epilepsy, for example, would be rare, but a medical researcher, psychiatrist, or rheumatologist with epilepsy or mental or physical issues might be highly functional and, possibly, contribute far more than any neurosurgeon.
      John Nash, who probably had far more psychological problems than the nursing student, still managed to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton, become a tenured professor at M.I.T., and earn the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. His story, told in A Beautiful Mind, has a subtle underlying theme—even with his mental issues, he didn’t expect society to grant him extraordinary accommodations.
      The sense of entitlement—and providing rewards for the smallest of achievements—goes back to almost a neonatal stage. We now have kindergarten graduations, complete with caps, gowns, and diplomas. For the next 12 years, our children will receive sparkling peel-off stars on their homework papers, medals and trophies for being one of the top 3 or 5 or 7 winners in athletic competitions. Even if they don’t get the hardware, they get embossed ribbons just for participating.
      In college, many students, forced to leave boxes of rewards at home, resort to excuses to demand special treatment and rewards for not achieving what they and their parents believe is their destiny. They complain about the amount of writing required. They complain the professor distracts them because she is too beautiful or too ugly or that she wears dated clothes. Black students complain that their White teachers are racist; White students complain that their Black teachers are racist. They claim to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and gobble adderall as if it were M&Ms, taking away time that teachers, counselors, and physicians can work with those who truly have ADHD and who, for the most part, don’t use that diagnosis as an excuse.
      In a grade-inflated environment, where a “B” is now the “new average,” propped up by many professors not holding to rigorous academic standards and the college more interested in pleasing parents, who pay the tuition and fees than in enforcing rigorous academic standards, the student graduates. Perhaps we need to ask who might be more valuable to society—a plumber, an electrician, or a farmer, against an unemployed English major who can write compositions about ethereal subjects or a lawyer whose goal is to amass thousands of billable hours and a country club membership on the way to a partnership.
      Our society is saturated with people with college degrees who complain they didn’t get the “A” they wanted, and now whine it isn’t their fault they have so much debt and no job.
      Many of our millennial children believe they are entitled to have what they believe their needs are. After all, the media skewer them with ads, photos, and stories of people who “have it all.” Isn’t it just logical for teens and those in their 20s to hear the siren call from the media and want the bling that others have?
      When all the ephemera are stripped away, we are left with a college generation that believes they are entitled to that high grade, that job, that upscale lifestyle.        Somewhere, there might even be a clinical nurse whose own problems, or perceived problems, affect someone’s health.
      [Dr. Brasch was an advocate for the mentally and physically disabled, long before he had to use a handicapped parking placard. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.]



Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Life That Mattered



by Walter Brasch

       Michael Blake died last week.
      You probably don’t know the name.
      You probably don’t know about his life.
      You probably don’t know most of what he wrote. That’s probably because he didn’t write diet and exercise books. Or cookbooks. Or “feel good” books. Or books about celebrities. Or books that advanced junk science or conspiracy theories.
      Michael Blake fused history and social issues, writing about social justice. Writing books that mattered. Writing screenplays that were never produced and then discarded.
      He was born in Fort Bragg, N.C.; his father was in the Army, and later became a telephone executive. But it was his mother, Sally, who dominated his life. It was her last name, “Blake,” that he adopted as his own, pushing aside his father’s name, “Webb.”
      Michael Blake studied journalism at the University of New Mexico, dropping out in his senior year; he would later study film at the Berkeley Film Institute.
      His semi-autobiographical novel, Airman Mortensen, talked about life in the Air Force. His autobiography, Like a Running Dog, revealed his life in the 1970s, sometimes homeless and hungry, living in cars, living on friends’ and acquaintances’ sofas, hanging out with musicians, writers, actors, and others in the creative arts, working at odd jobs, sometimes selling features and investigative stories to the alternative press, which were publishing stories of importance in the 1960s, stories the mainstream media would never touch. Eventually, he would be hired full-time at the L.A. Free Press, one of the most important alternative newspapers of the era. Even with a steady paycheck, albeit it not a large one, he usually ate only one meal a day, often a sandwich from a Jewish deli near the newspaper’s office.
      His screenplay, Stacy’s Knights, written while he was in his late ’30s, starred his friend, a little-known actor, Kevin Costner. It gave both of them temporary financial security.
      Blake would continue to write about social issues, many of the stories and books not bringing in significant income. But he wrote and spoke out about issues that mattered—the slaughter of wild horses and burros, the problems that developed from racial conflict, the lack of social justice. He was honored with the Environmental Media award, the Animal Protection Institute’s humanitarian of the year honor, the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for work with minorities and the ministry.
      On the day he died, two men shared $300 million by appearing at a Las Vegas casino and tried to beat the life out of each other. Michael Blake, in his lifetime, never earned what the loser earned in that fight. The royalties from all of his writings never even equaled the salary for one year for a major league pitcher or a celebrity with a paid entourage.
      With one exception, his writing brought him a modest lifestyle.
      That one exception began as a screenplay, but Kevin Costner wanted him to rewrite it as a novel, believing that a book would have more impact. About three dozen publishers rejected it, most of them concerned more about marketability and profits than editorial quality and social issues, before Fawcett published it but gave it little promotion. The novel, published only in paperback, sold a few thousand copies.
      And so, Blake took the basis of the novel, and rewrote the original screenplay—but studios didn’t want to take a chance on the project. Costner, fresh from a starring roles in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, along with his friends Blake and producer Jim Wilson, produced the film themselves, staying true to the writer’s intent, something rare in the film industry.
      Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, is the story of race hatred and the attempts to destroy a culture that had existed thousands of years before the pilgrims came to the place that became known as the United States of America. The film earned seven Oscars, including Best Film; one of those Oscars went to Michael Blake for best screen adaptation.
      It was only after the film became a mega-hit, eventually earning more than $400 million, more than 20 times the production costs, did the book become popular. That book, now published in two dozen languages and in hardcover, has sold about 3.5 million copies since 1988. It helped give Michael Blake financial stability; it helped assure that he could write what he wanted, now from Tucson where he bought a ranch and devoted much of the last quarter-century of his life to the environment, to protecting animals, to fighting for social justice.
      It was in Tucson where he and his wife, Marianne Mortensen, an artist who, like her husband, became an advocate for the preservation of wild horses and burros, settled. It was in Tucson where they raised three children—each with a Native American first name and a middle name in honor of Marianne’s Danish heritage.
      In those last decades of his life, his health deteriorated. He had multiple sclerosis. He needed a heart bypass. Cancer spread through his body. Once robust, he was now gaunt. But, he would summon what strength he had left to write and to travel the country, speaking out about issues that mattered. He died as he had lived much of his life—without much money and with a conscience to bring truth and justice to the people and animals whose own voices weren’t heard by those who should have been there to help them.
      Michael Blake and I were born in the same year and shared some of the same experiences in the ’60s and ’70s in southern California. He was my friend and an inspiration of what it means to be a writer, to use words and imagery to try to help people better understand their lives and their cultures.
      You may know only his one now-famous work. You need to read the rest.
      [Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

     

      

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Citizen-Journalist Fined for Telling the Truth





by Walter Brasch

      Vera Scroggins of Susquehanna County, Pa., was found to be in contempt of court, Thursday, and fined $1,000.
      Her offense? She tells the truth.
      Truth is something that apparently has bypassed the court of Judge Kenneth W. Seamans, who retired at the end of 2014, but came out of retirement to handle this case.
      The case began in October 2013.
      Scroggins, a retired real estate agent and nurse’s aide, was in Common Pleas Court to explain why a temporary injunction should not be issued against her. That injunction would require her to stay at least 150 feet from all properties where Cabot Oil and Gas had leased mineral rights, even if that distance was on public property. Because Cabot had leased mineral rights to 40 percent of Susquehanna County, about 300 square miles, almost any place Scroggins wanted to be was a place she was not allowed to be, even if the owner of the surface rights granted her permission.
      Before Judge Seamans were three corporate lawyers, a lawyer from the county, and several Cabot employees who accused Scroggins of trespassing and causing irreparable harm to the company that had almost $1 billion in revenue the previous year.
      Since 2009, Scroggins has led Pennsylvania and New York residents, celebrities, government officials, and journalists on tours of the gas fields. She often had friendly discussions with the workers—and when management asked her to leave, she did. She has posted more than 500 YouTube videos of fracking operations, documenting what fracking is, what it does, and how there may be unsafe practices. The state DEP has even used her documentation as part of the evidence necessary to cite and then fine gas drillers.
      Scroggins asked the judge for a continuance because she had only received the summons three days earlier, on a Friday, and couldn’t get legal representation by Monday.
      Seamans told her he wouldn’t grant a continuance because she didn’t give the court 24 hours notice. “He said that to grant a continuance would inconvenience three of the lawyers who had come from Pittsburgh [about 250 miles to the southwest], and I might have to pay their fees if the hearing was delayed,” says Scroggins.
    That afternoon, Seamans granted Cabot its preliminary injunction.
      By March 2014, Cabot and Scroggins were back in court for a hearing to modify Seamans’ original temporary injunction. This time, Cabot wanted the buffer zone extended to 500 feet, but couldn’t show any reason why 500 feet was necessary. Unlike her first appearance when she didn’t have legal representation, she now had Public Citizen, the Pennsylvania ACLU, and local attorney Gerald Kinchy, represent her when she sought to vacate the order.
      The revised order prohibited Scroggins from going within 100 feet of any active well pad or access roads of properties Cabot owns or has leased mineral rights, even if on public property.
      Although the judge agreed that his preliminary order may have been broad and violated Scroggins’ First Amendment rights, he continued the injunction, which still violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
      What Seamans didn’t agree about was his conflict-of-interest. He refused to remove himself from the case. On Nov. 9, 2007, he and Elexco Energy signed a mineral lease agreement for 79 acres in New Milford Twp., in the northern part of the county. On April 29, 2008, that lease was transferred to Southwestern Energy. Whether or not that lease proved to be financially lucrative is not in dispute—what is in dispute is that the judge, by signing with an energy company working separate fields in the same area as the plaintiff, even if not Cabot, could benefit, thus compromising his objectivity.
      In February, Scroggins and her attorneys were again in court, trying to rebut claims she violated the injunction. This time, Cabot claimed that on Jan. 16, Scroggins, while leading another tour of the gas fields, walked on an access road to one of its operations. It never claimed she was on Cabot property—only that she was on a public access road. “There was no guard on this site,” says Scroggins, noting, “it’s an inactive site; no personnel; no trucks.”
      Scroggins argued she had parked in the private driveway of a friend 672 feet from Cabot property, and that the three persons she was hosting, including a French photojournalist, walked to the gate of a Cabot operation, took pictures, and then walked back to the driveway where she waited for them. Scroggins had witnesses who testified under oath she did not leave the driveway or go onto Cabot property.
      Cabot produced a worker who backed up the company’s claim, and provided a photo of Scroggins. However, that photo didn’t show Scroggins on access roads or on Cabot property but, as she had truthfully claimed, on a private driveway 672 feet from Cabot property. The judge believed the one paid-for worker, not the other witnesses.
      According to a brief filed by Scroggins’ attorneys, “The injunction sends a chilling message to those who oppose fracking and wish to make their voices heard or to document practices that they fear will harm them and their neighbors. That message is loud and clear: criticize a gas company, and you’ll pay for it.”    
      And that’s why the Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. wanted an injunction against Scroggins. It had little to do with keeping a peaceful protestor away or protecting worker safety; it had everything to do not only with shutting down her ability to tell the truth but also to put fear into others who might also wish to tell the truth about fracking and Cabot’s operations.
      Just as important, a judge willingly became a co-conspirator to corporate interests. Seamans had said the fine will go to Cabot to defer some of its legal costs.

      [Assisting on this column was Staci Wilson, editor of the Susquehanna Independent. Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, is author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sick and Tired Workers: An Epidemic of Corporate Greed



by Walter Brasch

      Snaking its way through the Pennsylvania legislature is a bill that will block local governments from requiring companies to provide sick leave, even if unpaid, that is more than required by state or federal regulations.
      There are no Pennsylvania or federal regulations requiring companies to provide sick leave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 39 percent of all employees, and 79 percent of all employees in food service and hotel industries, have no sick leave. Unlike the United States, about 130 countries require employers to provide at least one week of sick leave per employee.
      The Republican-controlled state Senate passed the bill, 37–12; the Republican-controlled House will now discuss it—and probably follow the Senate’s wishes.
      Gov. Tom Wolf opposes this legislation, will probably veto it, and then have to deal with a Senate that has enough votes to override that veto.
      The proposed legislation is in response to Philadelphia’s recent directive that requires companies with at least 10 employees to provide mandatory sick leave for its workers. Several metropolitan U.S. cities, as well as California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, already require companies to provide sick leave to employees.
      Republicans are hypocritically philosophically conflicted on the legislation. Their party believes in limited government regulation, and this bill would keep government out of private enterprise’s believed-right to treat workers as serfs. However, Republicans also believe that, if necessary, government should be at the lowest political level, and municipal government is about as low as it can get. Thus, cities should be able to impose rules and requirements in the absence of state and federal law.
      Most legislators don’t understand political philosophy. What they understand is political donations. In this case, the business community opposes sick leave policies, believing corporate executives know better than workers or governments what’s best for the workers. As is the case for their opposition to raising minimum wage, it is because sick leave, somehow in their warped minds, reduces profits, shareholder dividends, and executive bonuses, benefits, and compensations.
      The pretend-savings to preserve corporate greed, however, is a false economy. By not providing a decent sick leave policy, companies risk employees coming to work sick in order not to lose a day’s pay—or be fired.
      This can lead to increased accidents because workers may be too ill to perform their jobs adequately.
     The absence of a sick leave program can also lead a worker with a communicable disease to spread it to other workers and to the public. About 68 percent of all employees report they came to work with a stomach virus and other communicable diseases, according to a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
     About 30 percent of all workers said they became ill because of communicable diseases spread by fellow workers, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
      Not having adequate sick leave also can result in workers not staying home to care for sick children who, without anyone to care for them, go to school sick, and cause illnesses in other students, staff, and teachers.
      The absence of adequate sick leave can also contribute to low worker morale, less productivity, and higher turnover—all of which affect a corporation’s profit margin.
      There is, of course, sick leave abuse—a worker who calls in sick and then spends the day golfing, or shopping, or is just plain hung over from last night’s party. Just as companies don’t have sick leave, they also don’t have personal days, which can be used for those days when an employee has an important family issue or just doesn’t feel like coming to work. The lack of personal days can significantly decrease worker productivity on the days they would rather be somewhere else than the office or factory line.
      In contrast to the lack of sick leave and personal days, many corporations give upper management unlimited sick days and allow personal days for when a compelling social engagement, such as that golf outing with fellow business executives, seems to be “appropriate.”
      None of this matters to Pennsylvania’s Republicans. Their issue is to give bosses full control over workers; they want to give bosses the right to issue benefits, sick leave, and personal days if they want to do so, or to exclude those benefits if they also want to do so. That’s what they believe is right.
      And they are wrong.
     [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]




Friday, April 10, 2015

A Call for Fair Pay for College Athletes




by Walter Brasch

     Some people foolishly believe the purpose of a college education is to further one’s education. To explore new cultures and views. Perhaps to help make a difference in the world.
     They, of course, are wrong.
     The purpose of going to college is to party, make contacts, and get a job.
     Sometimes the job is as a shift manager at a fast food restaurant.
     Sometimes it’s as a professional athlete.
     March Madness, the nation’s annual tribute to tall teenagers who can dunk a basketball, is now over.
     A few of the starters will become professional basketball players this year; some in the next year or the year after that.
     The University of Kentucky and Duke University, among a few other Division I powers, in the spirit of getting students jobs, have changed their mottos to “One and Done.”
     That means they recruit the best high school basketball players. They train them. They give them national exposure. And they get them ready to get a job after only one year in college.
     That job pays an average of $4 million a year.
     That’s 10 times what the president of the United States earns, and about 100 times what a social worker or firefighter earn.
     Obviously, reverse layups and 30-foot three-pointers are more valuable to society than helping the poor or rescuing people.
     Division I basketball powers may claim they exist to provide new experiences for all their students. This is just a PR whitewash.
Colleges have been mostly unfair to their future professional athletes. You know, the ones who are exploited and then expected to make a few million dollars a year and shovel over a chunk of that to the Alumni Fund.
     We need to get rid of restrictive NCAA rules and pay these athletes. Not just scholarships and room-and-board, but, an actual salary. With benefits. Maybe disability insurance and a retirement plan.
     We need to eliminate the philosophy that elitists like Joe Paterno had. You know, that having one of the nation’s highest graduation rates for football players was even more important than winning games.
     So, let’s dump those stifling NCAA rules and make college what it should be. A place to fill stadiums and get jobs for athletes.
    [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, and author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania.]





Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pennsylvania School is Flushed by a Problem




by Walter Brasch

      Ten-year-old Kaitlyn Montgomery, a fourth grade student at Park Elementary School in Munhall, Pa., now has access to that school’s restrooms.
      Like most schools, Park Elementary has separate restrooms for male and female staff and faculty, and separate restrooms for boys and girls.  
      The staff and faculty restrooms are on the first floor. The restrooms for boys and girls are on the second floor.
      But Kaitlyn is a special needs student who has a severe pulmonary hypertension and chronic lung disease. It prevents her from being able to climb stairs easily.
      Enter the Steel Valley Education Association and the school administration. They have a contract that requires “lavatory facilities exclusively for employees.”
      Somewhere are rules, regulations, and reasons why schools are the only place where children and adults of the same sex have separate restrooms.
      Nevertheless, the Administration decided to allow Kaitlyn to use the first floor women’s restroom.
      And so, the union filed a grievance against the school management to keep the girl out of staff restrooms. This grievance included a petition from 18 female teachers who complained about the arrangement.
      Can’t have exceptions. You let one child with mobility problems enter your restroom, and pretty soon there might be another one with mobility problems who wants the same privilege. Gotta enforce that contract. Can’t go down that slippery slope of full integration. Next thing you know, students might want to color outside the lines. Or ask tough questions. Or challenge authority. And then you’d have chaos and anarchism in education.
      For its part, when the School Board was planning the school, it could have demanded an elevator that connected both floors. It could have demanded the architect to include boys and girls restrooms on both floors. But, it didn’t.
      Apparently, all elementary school children—and  and staff and faculty—should be able to climb stairs. The heck with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)!
      The union, for its part, said that it filed the grievance because it was “seeking a solution to an issue that will provide a better outcome for all parties involved,” and challenged the schools in the district to meet the ADA requirements.
      The administration said it was trying to find a solution. The school had a small restroom in the first floor Special Education area, but eliminated it because it needed the space to put in a ventilation unit.
      Apparently, until the union raised the issue, albeit a self-serving one, the ADA was considered just to be a set of “suggestions” and not federal requirements.
      The School Board, without comment, unanimously rejected the union’s grievance.
      The union could have appealed. This would have brought in a mediator or arbitrator. It could have led to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board looking at the contract and determining if there was a violation. It could have led to expensive court action. But it didn’t.
      The union withdrew its grievance, having made its point that the administration was in violation of the ADA and, thus, reaffirmed its right to have separate but equal restrooms.
      Sometimes, it’s logical for all parties to agree to make an exception to a contract, and for both parties to work together to seek a reasonable solution, one that protects the rights of all with disabilities—students, staff, and faculty.
      This is one of those times.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]