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 29, 2011

‘Pssst. Hotdogs. Ten Bucks Each’


                       by Walter Brasch
            I walked straight ahead, looking neither right nor left in a darkened alley illuminated by a half-moon.
            I quickened my pace, but there was no avoiding the shadowy figure.
            “Ain’t gonna harm ya. Jus’ wanna sell ya somethin’.”
            I hesitated, shaking. Stepping in front of me, he shoved a hotdog under my nose. “Ten bucks each,” he whispered ominously through his throat.
            “Ten bucks?!” I asked, astonished at the cost.
            “You want it or not?”
            With Michele Obama (who chose to attack obesity rather than poverty, worker exploitation, or even hunger and malnutrition), supported by publicity-hungry legislators, hotdogs were the latest feel-good food to come under assault. A medical association whose members are vegans had spent $2,750 to place a billboard message near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The picture showed four grilled hot dogs sticking out of a cigarette box that had a skull and crossbones symbol on its face. An oversized label next to the box informed motorists and fans of the upcoming Brickyard 400, “Warning: Hot dogs can wreck your health.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine claimed that just one hot dog eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.
            The Committee isn’t the only one destroying Americans’ rights to eat junk food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which seems to come up with a new toxic food every year, once declared theatre popcorn unhealthy.  Many schools banned soda machines. Back in 2011, McDonald’s reduced the number of french fries in its Happy Meal and substituted a half-order of some abomination known as applies. Even cigarette company executives, trying to look professorial at a Congressional hearing, once said that smoking cigarettes was no worse than eating Twinkies. However, smoking a Twinkie could cause heart and lung diseases, cancer, and diabetes.
            Nevertheless, in Michele Obama’s second term as First Anti-Fat Lady, I was desperate for my daily fix of hot dogs, and my would-be supplier knew it. I leaped at my stalking shadowy figure with the miracle junk.
            “Not so fast!” he growled, pulling the hotdog away. “Let’s see your bread.”
            "I don't have any bread," I pleaded. "Not since a zoologist at Penn concluded that hummingbirds that ate two loaves of bread a day got constipation."
            "Not that bread, turkey! Bread! Lettuce!"
            “I haven’t eaten lettuce in three years since the government banned it for having too many pesticides, and the heads that remained were eaten by pests.”
            The man closed his trench coat and began to leave.
            “Wait!” I pleaded, digging into my pockets. “I’ve got change.”
            He laughed, contemptuously. “That’s not even coffee money.”
            “I don’t drink coffee,” I mumbled. “Not since the government arrested Juan Valdez and his donkey for being unhealthy influences on impressionable minds.”
            I grabbed for his supply of hotdogs, each disguised in a plain brown wrapper, each more valuable than a banned rap record. He again pulled them away.
            “I ain’t no Salvation Army. You want ’dogs, you pay for ’dogs. I got thousands who will.”
            “I need a fix. You can’t let me die out here on the streets.”
            “If it was just me, I'd do it. But there’s the boys. They keep the records. If I give you a ’dog and bun, and don't get no money, they’ll break two of my favorite fingers. I don't cross nobody. And I don’t give it away.”
            “Please,” I begged. “I need a ’dog. It’s all I have left to live for. I don’t care about colorectal cancer. Without hotdogs, my life is over. You can't let me die out here on the streets.” He shrugged, and so I suddenly got bold. “Give me a ’dog,” I demanded, “or I’ll tell everyone you have the stuff. You won’t be able to meet the demand. The masses will tear you apart like a plump frank.”
            “You wouldn’t do that to a guy just trying to make a buck, would you?”
            “Two ’dogs with mustard and onions, and I keep my mouth shut. No ’dogs and I scream like a fire engine.” He had no choice.
            Walking away, he stopped, turned back, and called after me—“Tomorrow. This corner. This time. Two ’dogs. Twenty bucks. I'll see you every night."
            I didn’t reply. He knew he had me.

[Rosemary Brasch, who likes hotdogs, assisted on this column. Walter Brasch says he prefers hamburgers, but will defend to the death the right of Americans to eat what they want. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a look at a part of America, as seen by a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her story for more than three decades, beginning in the 1960s.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

‘10 Commandments Judge’ Running for President

by Walter Brasch

The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was removed from office for defying the Constitution and a federal court order is one of 14 major candidates running for the Republican nomination for the presidency.
            Alabama’s Court of the Judiciary unanimously had ordered Roy S. Moore removed from office in November 2003 after he refused to remove from the judiciary building rotunda a 5,280 pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments. Around its base were extracts from the Declaration of Independence, quotes from the Founding Fathers, and the National Anthem. The three foot square by four foot tall monument was funded by private contributions.
            As circuit judge, Moore had placed onto the wall of his courtroom a wooden Ten Commandments plaque he had carved, and opened each court session with a Protestant prayer. He also had defied a Circuit Court ruling to remove the plaque and to cease prayers. A suit filed in the Alabama Supreme Court was dismissed for technical reasons, and Moore said he would continue to hold prayers before court.
            His campaign for Chief Justice, supported by the Christian Family Association, was to return “God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law.” On July 31, 2001, about six months after he was inaugurated as chief justice, Moore personally supervised the installation of the granite monument, stating that the Supreme Court needed something grander than the wooden plaque in the Circuit Court. In the subsequent lawsuit, Glassroth v. Moore, the chief justice, using the words of the Alabama Constitution, argued  “in order to establish justice we must invoke ‘the favor and guidance of almighty God.’” The Ten Commandments, he said, are the “moral foundation” of American law; the presence of the monument recognizes “the sovereignty of God.” What Moore didn’t state is that Exodus and Deuteronomy have different versions, and subsequent Christian religions have at least three versions. It is a Protestant version that was carved into the granite.
            The federal court ruled that placement of the monument, and Moore’s repeated statements that the monument represented God’s sovereignty over all matters judicial and moral, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That decision was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
            With strong popular support, Moore said not only were the courts’ rulings illegal, but that he would continue to defy them. Moore frequently cited the Alabama Constitution that justice was determined by “involving the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” The message sent to the citizens was that it’s acceptable to disregard two centuries of legal history that gave the federal constitution supremacy over states, and to violate federal law if you disagree with it. For a citizen to do so carries penalties; for a judge to do so carries removal from office.
            Reflecting upon the case, Moore told rockthecapital.com that even eight years after his removal from office, he “would still make the same decision.” The role of government, says Moore, “is to secure those rights that [a Christian] God has given us.”
            He says that while he supports religious diversity, the “source of our morality stems from our belief in a god, and a specific god.” However, in his Dec. 13, 2006, column for WorldNetDaily, Moore stated that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, should be denied the right to hold office because “in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine.”
            Roy Moore says he is running for the presidency because “there’s a need for leadership in the country,” and neither President Obama nor the leaders of both parties in Congress are providing that leadership. “Petty politics,” he says, are taking precedence over the needs of the country. “We can’t get anything done,” he says, “because decisions are [made] not what’s good for the country but what is good for the party.”
            Moore identifies a weak economy as “the foremost problem today.” The nation “is going the wrong way,” he says. He acknowledges that much of the problem came under the Bush–Cheney Administration, “but was increased by Obama.” Although the Republicans propose cutting critical social programs rather than raising the debt ceiling, every Congressional leader, Democrat and Republican, voted to increase the debt ceiling during the past decade, with the highest increases under Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan (189%), George H.W. Bush (55%), and George W. Bush (86%). In Bill Clinton’s two terms. The debt ceiling was increased only 37 percent; Barack Obama is asking for a 35 percent increase.
            Moore, a “states’ rights” advocate, shares the views of most conservative candidates for the Presidency. Among those views are:
            ● the federal income tax should be abolished.
            ● Abortion, for any reason, should not have federal funds because not only does it “contradict the right to life contained in the organic law of our country,” it violates the 14th Amendment.
            ● People should “have the right to choose their own employment,” instead of having to join unions. Therefore, says Moore, all states should have “right-to-work” laws. If Moore’s vision is enacted, these laws would effectively cripple unions from representing the workers.
            ● Same sex marriage, says Moore, violates the will of God. In one case, while he served as chief justice, he argued that homosexual behavior is “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.”
            However, on a couple of issues, his views lean closer to those of liberals. He opposes the nation’s entry into war without Congressional authorization. Moore is a graduate of West Point, who became an MP company commander at the end of the Vietnam War, and then graduated from the University of Alabama law school. He opposes the U.S. intrusion into Libya on both military and legal grounds. “It’s very easy for a president to be sucked into global wars,” he says, “but it’s not our goal to go over there [Libya] and take out a leader just because we don’t like him.” Unlike many Republicans, he acknowledges that the Libyan attack, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the Bush–Cheney Administration, should have had Congressional approval under the War Powers Act of 1973.
            Moore, who owns horses—he once spent a year as a cowboy in Australia working for a fundamentalist Christian—believes that the dwindling population of wild horses and burros in the Southwest, and all wild animals, should be protected. Both the Bush–Cheney and Obama administrations have failed to do so, often influenced by the cattle and meat industry.
            Moore, near the bottom of the pack in the polls, probably won’t become the Republican nominee. But, unlike some conservative candidates, he doesn’t parade his religious beliefs to gain votes. He lives the life of his religious convictions, and isn’t afraid to make sure everyone knows what they are, especially when they provide the base for his political and judicial views.
            However, it’s one thing to be religious, and to have your religion be a part of your life. But the Founding Fathers were specific in their belief that religion should be separate from government. They had seen the evils of a religious-based government, where one specific religion dominates the daily lives of all.
            They didn’t want to eliminate religion. They wanted to assure that Americans had the right of being believers of any religion—or no religion if they wished.
            And that’s why there is strict separation of church and state, something Roy Moore, as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, didn’t fully understand in his open defiance of the Constitution. And that’s why he should not be considered for the presidency.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Our Hope for Change is Still Not Fulfilled

by Walter Brasch

            After significant compromise with the recalcitrant Republicans who want to continue to give the wealthy tax advantages while cutting significant social programs, President Obama has finally taken a stand on debt ceiling negotiations. However, in labor, wildlife management, and the environment he is still compromising rather than coming out forcefully for the principles he and the working class believes.
            The Republican presidential candidates have torn into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a recent decision supporting organized labor. Mitt Romney claimed President Obama packed the NLRB with “union stooges.” Newt Gingrich wants Congress to remove all NLRB funds and President Obama to stop the NLRB actions. Tim Pawlenty called the decision “preposterous.” Michele Bachmann not only said the NLRB is “way out of bounds,” but declared if she were president she would appoint “free-market conservatives who believe in job growth,” thus making the NLRB a political arm of her beliefs rather than the independent agency that was created to protect workers from management exploitation.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who isn’t a presidential candidate but is strongly anti-union, declared the decision “is nothing more than a political favor for the unions who are supporting President Obama’s re-election campaign.” Other Republican senators have claimed they will block the nomination of NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon to a permanent post.
            At issue is an NLRB decision that Boeing violated federal law by trying to stop a production line in its Seattle-area plant that manufactures the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and opening a new facility in South Carolina, an anti-union “right-to-work” state. The NLRB agreed with a complaint filed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) that Boeing’s decisions was retaliation for the actions of the Seattle workers. In both public and internal memos, Boeing stated it didn’t wish to deal with unionized workers in Seattle. The NLRB suit is currently in federal court.
            At a recent press conference, President Obama sidestepped support for both the NLRB and unions by claiming, “I don’t know all the facts,” and that he didn’t wish to interfere in the process. However, he did state that corporations “need to have the freedom to relocate . . . . and if they’re choosing to relocate here in the United States, that’s a good thing.”
            When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he promised to support the working class. If there was a picket line, or if the workers were being threatened, he promised to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and walk side by side with them. That has not happened. He never spoke out in defense of the workers in Seattle during their two year fight against Boeing, nor after they filed their complaint in April. Nor has the President given support to the millions of of citizens in several states where conservative governors and legislatures have launched campaigns to break unions, while giving special benefits to the business and executive classes.
            Giving Mr. Obama the widest possible excuse, perhaps the Secret Service declared it would be dangerous for a president to be in a crowd of protestors, no matter how peaceful it is.
            But, there is no excuse for President Obama’s weak record on environmental and wildlife protection, something he placed high on his list as a candidate, but failed to defend as president.
            Strong words as a candidate turned to “compromise” and then near-abandonment when confronted by extremists who refuse to read or understand any of thousands of studies about the effects of global warming.
            To please the oil lobby, the same one that dominated the previous administration, President Obama approved deep-water drilling – just weeks before the BP oil disaster in the Gulf coast. And then, months after the disaster approved continued deep water drilling.
            His wildlife management policies, while based on good intentions, are not something he has rolled upon his sleeves to fight for.
            Confronted by the cattle industry lobby, which believes 10,000 wild horses and burros are threats to the existence of more than 92 million cattle, President Obama has virtually abandoned protection of the few wild horses and burros left in the country.
            And now his Department of the Interior is about to allow Wyoming to begin the wanton killing of gray wolves, including pups in dens, outside of Yellowstone national park. 
            The plan yields to extremists who see wolves as threats to cattle. But, numerous research studies show that wolves seldom attack cattle. And, when they do, the government pays the rancher, even if the steer is new born or headed to a slaughterhouse the next day. But the cattle industry is as dominant in American politics as is the NRA.
            And that leaves hunters. Wolves cull the weakest animals from the herd. And that’s the problem. There are only 5,000 wolves in the continental United States. But a few million hunters see the wolf as competitors for 20 million deer, 250,000 moose, or any animal that can be killed and then mounted as a trophy in someone’s den.
            Although the mean-spirited and uncompromising vindictiveness of the ultra-right has blocked much progress, it is the President’s own actions in labor, environment, and wildlife that have deteriorated into compromise and retreat. His inability to defend the principles he believes and campaigned for threatens any chance he will be remembered as a great president.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Blood on the Lens

                                  by Walter Brasch

            “If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.
            But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.
            “What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”
            “Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”
            “NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”
            “Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”
            “Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”
            “Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”
            “Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”
            “It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”
            “What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”
            “By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”
            “Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”
            “Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”
            “Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”
            “Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”
            “Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.
            “Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”
            “Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”
            “Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”
            “Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”
            “It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”    
            “Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”
            “We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”
            “What about the Jersey Shore morons.”  
            “They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”
            “Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”
            “It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.
            “It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Government May Be Violating Tobacco Companies’ 1st Amendment Rights

by Walter Brasch

            A controversial Supreme Court decision less than two years ago could have the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the government’s 46-year campaign against cigarettes.
In a 5–4 decision, largely along political lines, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (October 2009) that not only were parts of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the McCain–Feingold Campaign Reform Act) unconstitutional, but that corporations and political action committees enjoyed the same First Amendment rights as private citizens.
            The government’s anti-smoking campaigns, most of them the result of a combination of executive department and Congressional action, essentially have three major parts: anti-tobacco advertising and public service messages, warning labels on cigarette packs, and the outright ban on several forms of tobacco company advertising.

Government Advertising

            Because the First Amendment applies only to governmental intrusion upon free expression, when the government creates advertising (whether TV ads or pamphlets), there can be no significant First Amendment issues. There may be some recourse, however small, in suits against use of taxpayer funds for political purposes, similar to the government’s role during the George W. Bush administration in forcing anti-abortion education upon women and health clinics.


            The anti-smoking campaign had begun with the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that there was a strong correlation between smoking, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.. The following year, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act that required every cigarette pack to have a health warning: “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969,  taking effect two years later, strengthened the wording on cigarette labels to: “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.”
            However, the labels had minimal effect on reducing smoking. In 1984, unwilling to face political consequences from an outright ban, such as it enacted against any form of marijuana, Congress passed the Comprehensive Smoking Education Act that required even stronger messages on each pack.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration, acting within authority of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010, ordered all cigarette manufacturers to include nine new designs on a rotating basis on all cigarette packs. The designs take up the top half, both front and back, of every pack. Several of the messages are medically-supported statements that tell users that cigarette smoking causes cancer. One of the graphics is a pair of cancerous lungs next to a pair of non-cancerous lungs. Another label shows a set of rotted teeth. Another shows smoke coming from a tracheotomy hole.
The FDA also requires that government-approved messages appear on one-fifth of every print ad.
            Based upon interpretation of the Citizens United case, it would not be an unreasonable stretch to argue that the newly-required messages, with graphics and text, place an undue burden on a corporation’s rights of free speech by restricting their own message to less than half. Another argument could be made that by forcing the tobacco companies to accept pre-determined text and graphics is de facto government intrusion upon the rights of free expression.

Tobacco Company Advertising

            The largest concern for First Amendment consideration is in the area of the federal government imposing restrictions upon advertising and information messages.
            In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission, citing the Fairness Doctrine, required radio and TV stations that aired paid ads from tobacco companies to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. Unwilling to give up five to ten minutes a day to unpaid advertising, the stations began “voluntarily” dropping cigarette advertising.
            The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which had changed the text of warning labels, also banned cigarette advertising on radio and television. In a concession to the tobacco companies, Congress permitted the law to take effect on Jan. 2, the day after the televised football bowl games. The effect of the law was a loss to radio and television stations of about $200 million a year in cigarette advertising, and a significant increase in advertising in newspapers, magazines, and billboards—and not much reduction in smoking.
A 1991 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the cartoon character Joe Camel, advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes, was recognized by 3- to 6-year-olds almost as much as they recognized Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone. The AMA charged that R.J. Reynolds, manufacturers of Camel cigarettes, had targeted children; the company denied the charges, but eventually settled the lawsuit for $10 million, the funds to go to anti-smoking campaigns.
            In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was the result of years of litigation and negotiation between the four largest tobacco companies, which controlled about 97 percent of all domestic sales, and 46 state attorneys general; four states had already settled. That agreement exempted the companies from class-action tort liability by citizens filing against the companies for health effects from smoking. The federal government also agreed to provide subsidies to tobacco farmers to cover losses based upon reduction of demand for their product. In exchange, the tobacco companies agree to provide $365.5 billion, with most of the funds going to the states for anti-smoking campaigns, and to allow FDA regulation. Among other provisions, the tobacco companies agreed to cut back advertising and sponsorship of activities, especially those that targeted youth. Because this was a civil case settlement, First Amendment concerns were rendered moot.
            However, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2010 is a government-imposed control that brings to question distinct First Amendment concerns. That Act bans tobacco companies from sponsoring all sports and cultural events, which could loosely be interpreted as a violation of the right of association, not specifically mentioned in wording in the First Amendment but extended by the Supreme Court decisions involving First Amendment guarantees. The Act further bans tobacco companies from displaying all tobacco-related images, including their logos, on any apparel, and also requires most advertising to be black lettering on a white background. Both actions are probable First Amendment violations.
A critical side issue melds labels with the media. It would be nearly impossible for any medium to show anyone with a cigarette pack, whether in news or entertainment, without also showing the government’s message. Any attempt by the government to regulate what appears on screen or in print would violate the First Amendment.
            Without the Citizens United decision, the government’s rights to regulate corporate advertising would probably not have significant basis for challenge. With that decision, tobacco corporate entities suddenly have a case.

[This column is meant to be a general overview and not a definitive analysis or detailed case study of possible First Amendment violations of government-imposed sanctions against tobacco companies.]