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.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Patch of Pumpkin Heads

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

            In a few days, millions of children will put on costumes, go door to door, and shout “trick or treat.” By Nov. 1, it’ll be over.
            But, it won’t be over for Americans who will face presidential candidates for the next year. The candidates will continue to try to mask their true selves, while luring us with treats that disguise tricks. Let’s see what each of the candidates might be wearing for the coming year.
President Obama could dress as a stable boy. Since his first day on the job, he’s had to shovel whatever it is that was left for him in the stable. His opponents, however, think he should dress up as Pinocchio, with an exceptionally long wooden nose, and carrying a hammer and sickle.
            Rick Santorum had begun fading away after he was trounced in a Senate re-election campaign in Pennsylvania, too reactionary even for the Republicans. Wrap him in bandages as the Invisible Candidate.
            The other Rick in the race is Perry. For awhile, he was the leader of the pack until the other candidates ganged up on him. Moderates thought he was too reactionary; the extreme right-wing thought he was too liberal. Dress him in a helmet, black leather jacket, and jeans, etch a few tattoos onto his body, and have him encased by a sandwich board. For a few brief shiny moments, he was everything that Camelot wasn’t.
The current front-runner is Herman Cain, whose mask is a cloth pizza slice, cut to the 9’s. But since he’ll be a passing pizza, as the Republican voters love and unlove their front runners, perhaps he could also wear a half-eaten slice with a red bull’s eye on his back.
            Michele Bachmann has become one-with-a-teapot. Every voting citizen is likely to see her during the coming year spewing scalding steam, but unable to make quality tea.
Dr. Ron Paul could wear a surgeon’s scrubs, with a lot of fringe, able to leap onto any patient to cut fat and some muscle.
            Jon Huntsman, perhaps the most intelligent and most civil of the candidates, could dress in a three-piece striped pants suit of the diplomat he once was. But, since civility isn’t a trait among this year’s Republican crop, the other candidates will probably throw a potato sack over him and bury him in the dirt.
            The cast from The Wizard of Oz always presents good costume possibilities.
            Mitt Romney, once standing straight, is now leaning so far right that he is likely to be kissing the floor soon. Perhaps he could dress as the Cowardly Lion and hope to find some courage.
            It’s too obvious to dress Newt Gingrich as a salamander, none of whom have monogamous relationships. But, it is possible that this incarnation of the former House speaker could wear the mask as Dick Cheney, the man without a heart, who dresses as the Tin Man.
Dorothy, the sweet Innocent with intelligence and compassion, isn’t in the running for the Republican nomination. Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snow, and Lisa Murkowski are all possible Dorothies but have no reason to dress up since the Republican party doesn’t like anything sweet and moderate.
            The Wizard manipulating everyone might be Roger Ailes, the brilliant president of Fox News. But, since we are writing the story, we’ll make this wizard evil, blustery, and dense. Cerberus, the three-headed vicious dog who prevents souls condemned to Hell from ever escaping, could be the disguise that best identifies Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.
            And, of course that leaves just one main character from the Oz saga, the Scarecrow without a brain. Need anyone look farther than the Alaskan Tundra for the one most likely to seize all the treats she can and still trick the people?

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a look at America between 1964 and 1991, the eve of the Persian Gulf War. Rosemary Brasch is a retired labor grievance officer and Red Cross family services specialist.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Iraq: Just Another War Without an End

     by Walter Brasch

We know the names of every one of the 4,479 Americans who were killed and the 32,200 who were wounded, both civilian and military, between March 20, 2003 and Oct. 21, 2011, the day President Barack Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, declared the last American soldier would leave Iraq before the end of the year. 

We know Second Lieutenant Therrel Shane Childers was the first American soldier killed by hostile fire in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On March 21, 2003, less than a day after the U.S.-led invasion, Childers was shot in the stomach by hostile forces while leading a Marine platoon to secure an oil field in southern Iraq.  His father, Joseph, told NPR that it was his dream to lead Marines into combat.
Childers, from Gulfport, Miss., had enlisted in the Marines 12 years earlier, was a security guard at the Geneva consulate and the Nairobi embassy, fought in the Persian Gulf War, and then attended the Citadel on a special program that allows enlisted personnel to be commissioned upon graduation. He was a French major and on the Dean’s List. Childers, who had wanted to be a horse trainer when he retired from the Marines, was 30 years old when he died. The Marines promoted him to first lieutenant posthumously.
On the day Childers was killed, 12 men—seven from the United Kingdom, one from South Africa, and four from the U.S.—were killed in a helicopter crash near Umm Qasr, a port city in southern Iraq. At the time, the Marine Corps called the crash of the CH-46E Sea Knight accidental, but didn’t elaborate.
About the time the helicopter crashed, Lance Corporal José Antonio Gutierrez, a 22-year-old Marine, was killed by what is euphemistically known as “friendly fire.” He was an orphan from Guatemala who had illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico, lived on the streets of San Diego and Los Angeles, was granted a temporary visa, lived with a series of foster families, graduated from high school, and began attending college, hoping to become an architect. The U.S. granted him citizenship posthumously.
On the second day of the war, three more Americans and six from England were killed. On the third day, 30 more Americans and four British were killed. By the end of March, 92 were killed.
One month before the invasion, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had declared the upcoming war, which he warned would be a “shock and awe” strategy, might last “six days, maybe six weeks; I doubt six months.”
On May 1, 2003, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, President George W. Bush, decorated in flight gear, declared “Mission Accomplished.” Official military records show that when President Bush made his announcement, 172 Coalition troops had been killed. More than 4,600 American and allied soldiers would die in Iraq after that declaration; more than 31,500 Americans would be wounded, many permanently disabled, after that bravado proclamation.
We know the oldest American soldier to die in combat was 60; the youngest was 18, of which there were 34. We know that 476 of those killed were from California; Pennsylvania and Florida each had 176 deaths by the time the President announced full withdrawal from Iraq.
There are names we don’t know. We don’t know the names and life stories of the 4.7 million refugees, nor the two million Iraqis who fled the violence caused by the Coalition invasion. We don’t know the names of the orphaned children, one-third of all of Iraq’s youth. We don’t know the names of the 100,000–150,000 civilians killed. We don’t have accurate records of more than a million who were wounded. It no longer matters who killed or wounded them, who destroyed their lives and property—American, allied, Shia, Sunni, insurgent, criminal, or al-Qaeda. It doesn’t matter if they died from IEDs, suicide bombers, gunshots, artillery, bombs, or missiles. In war, they’re simply known as “collateral damage.”
In Afghanistan, 2,769 Coalition troops have been killed, 1,815 of them American, by the day that President Obama announced the withdrawal from Iraq. There are already 14,343 wounded among the Coalition forces. Between 36,000 and 75,000 Afghani civilians have been killed by insurgents and Coalition troops during the past decade, according to the United Nations. President Obama told the world that the war in Afghanistan would continue at least two more years.
You can try to sanitize the wars by giving them patriotic names—Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation Enduring Freedom. But that doesn’t change the reality that millions of every demographic have been affected. War doesn’t discriminate. The dead on all sides are physicians and religious leaders; trades people, farmers, clerks, merchants, teachers, and mothers.  And they are babies and students. We don’t know what they might have become had they been allowed to grow up and live a life of peace, one without war.
We also don’t yet know who will be the last American soldier to be killed in Iraq. As important, we don’t know how Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) will affect the one million soldiers who were called for as many as seven tours of duty, nor when the last Iraq War veteran will die from permanent injuries. And we will never know the extent of the terror that will plague the families, children, and grandchildren of those who served.
But there is one more thing we do know. A year before José Antonio Gutierrez was killed, he had written a “Letter to God” in Spanish. Translated, it read: “Thank you for permitting me to live another year, thank you for what I have, for the type of person I am, for my dreams that don’t die. . . . May the firearms be silent and the teachings of love flourish.”
[Walter Brasch first began writing about war in 1966. He wishes he didn’t have to. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a novel that focuses upon America between 1964 and 1991, the eve of the Persian Gulf War.]

Friday, October 21, 2011

Drinks Are on the House (and Senate)

by Walter Brasch

“Got any idea how to make a frozen daiquiri?”
Saturday. 6 a.m. A question no one else would have asked at that hour. I knew it had to be Marshbaum, my faux-friend foil.
            “Too early to be drinking,” I mumbled, then hung up. The phone rang again.
            “It’s not for me,” said Marshbaum, but since I’m going to own a bar, I should learn how to make drinks.”
            “Marshbaum,” I said, reluctantly awake, “you can’t even afford to buy soap to wash your fuzzy navel! How are you going to afford a bar?”
            “The government’s going to bankroll me,” he said matter-of-factly.
            “New kind of welfare?”
“Old kind of subsidies,” said Marshbaum. “First thing those Santa Clauses in the red ink suits are going to do is to help me find an appropriate location.”
            “Something available in Afghanistan?” I asked.
            “It’s called exploration subsidy. Thanks to those patriotic pure-bred Republicans who just blocked the President’s proposal to eliminate $2 billion in subsidies a year to oil, gas, and coal companies, all I have to do is say I want to build my bar over a proposed but hidden coal vein. Doesn’t even matter if there’s coal or not. All I have to do is say I think there may be coal. Later, I get a low-interest small business loan, build the bar, and deduct the mortgage interest from my income taxes.”
            “That deduction is meant to allow the common person the right of home ownership.”
“And what’s more common than taking someone else’s money? Besides, it isn’t the middle-class that gets most of the benefit.” He explained that almost 100 percent of everyone with at least a $100,000 mortgage takes the interest deduction, while fewer than 20 percent of Americans below the poverty line get federal rental subsidies.
            “You’ll still have to pay property taxes,” I reminded him. He reminded me that it didn’t matter.
            “Most local and state governments will be so happy to have me build a business and hire minimum-wage bar girls, they’ll probably waive my taxes the first year or two and then give me tax rebates for a couple of more years.”
            “O.K., for awhile you have a cheap bar. How are you planning to keep the lights on?”
“Electric companies save about $210 million a year when they buy electricity below cost from the federal dams. I just tap in on some low-voltage energy.”
            “Even with cheap utilities, you’ll still have problems keeping it going.”
            “Only problem I’ll have is deciding which line on the income tax form is for deductions for advertising, dinners, and research at the country club.”
            “I suppose you have other scams?”
            “Other subsidies, just like everyone else,” said Marshbaum snippily correcting me.
            “The government pays farmers about $20 billion a year to grow feed grains to assure there will be an adequate supply. I plan to get some of those bucks by selling malt liquor. Rye. Barley. Wheat. Corn. It’s the Basic Four food groups. I can even water down my drinks since   `the government also provides about $400 million a year in water subsidies.”
            “The agriculture subsidy program was begun during the Great Depression to benefit poor farmers who—” Before I could finish, Marshbaum interrupted.
            “It’s true that the largest 10 percent of the corporate farms get over 75 percent of the subsidies. But, as a poor struggling farmer, I may get $500. That’s still money in the pocket.”
            “So, you’re saying that the government wants you to sell more drinks?”
“And less too,” he said. “There’s far too many of those nauseous appletinis. I might be able to get a government subsidy not to grow apples or tinis.” He thought a moment. “Maybe I can feature kahlúas. The government has a minimum price on milk. I may even get NAFTA trade concessions for my Friday Night Margarita promotions. Olé, y’all!”
            “Aren’t you just blowing a lot of smoke past me?”
            “Smoke,” said Marshbaum, “will fill my bar. It’s the least I can do to help the tobacco cartel, which gets about a billion dollars a year. I’m sure the tobacco growers would want me to have several cigarette machines in my bar.”
            “And what happens when the bar fails. Your business record is as bad as cheap vinyl on a 50-year-old 45.”
            “I expect to fail,” said Marshbaum. “It’s all part of my business plan.”
            “Why would you want to fail?” I naively asked.
            “So I can get money to keep from failing even more. Three trillion went to financial institutions. I figure I should get something for being greedy and a failure. That’s the American way!”
            “Even if all of what you said is true, President Obama has been trying to reduce subsidies to the rich and to eliminate most of the annual $100 billion in corporate welfare.”
            “As long as Republicans control the House and can block the majority in the Senate,” said Marshbaum, “the American way of life will be preserved. Want a drink now?”
            [Walter Brasch is author of the social issues mystery, Before the First Snow, and 16 other books. Before the First Snow is available at www.greeleyandstone.com, amazon.com, and other stores.]

Friday, October 14, 2011

OCCUPY WALL STREET: Separating Fact from Media

photo by Linda Milazzo

by Walter Brasch

            Newspaper columnist Ann Coulter, spreading the lies of the extreme right wing, called the Occupy Wall Street protestors, “tattooed, body-pierced, sunken-chested 19-year-olds getting in fights with the police for fun.” She claimed the protestors, now in the thousands in New York, are “directionless losers [who] pose for cameras while uttering random liberal clichés lacking any reason or coherence.” (Several hundred thousand of these “directionless losers” are expected to attend rallies in more than 650 cities, Oct. 15.)
            Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House majority leader, called the protest nothing more than “growing mobs,” completely oblivious to his myriad statements that he supports “mobs” when they are from the Tea Party. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, tacking as far right as possible to avoid anyone thinking he was once a moderate, called the protest “dangerous.”
Republican presidential contender Herman Cain, in a moment that demonstrated how out of touch he is with the economic reality of the five-year recession, argued, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks; if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”
            Glenn Beck, too irrational even for Fox News, which terminated him less than two years after it tried to make him a TV superstar, told his radio audience, the protestors “will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you.”
            Lauren Ellis of Mother Jones, at one time a cutting edge magazine for social justice, believed that the protestors have a “lack of focus.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, wrote, “A protest without an objective is like a party or a picnic of the unemployed and the indolent. Unless you have an objective, what are you doing out there?”
            First, let’s see just who these protestors really are. And then, let’s see what they stand for, since the mainstream media, of which Fox News is an entrenched part, don’t seem to be getting the message from the people.
            The protestors rightly say they are part of the 99 percent; the other one percent have 42 percent of the nation’s wealth, the top 20 percent have more than 85 percent of the nation’s wealth, the highest accumulation since 1928, the year before the Great Depression. Even the most oblivious recognize the protestors as a large cross-section of America. They are students and teachers; housewives, plumbers, and physicians; combat veterans from every war from World War II to the present. They are young, middle-aged, and elderly. They are high school dropouts and Ph.D.s. They are from all religions and no religion, and a broad spectrum of political views.
            Support has come from senior politicians with very different philosophies. Vice President Joe Biden believes the protests are because “In the minds of the vast majority of the American–the middle class is being screwed.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), unlike a vast majority of Republican politicians, stated, “If they were demonstrating peacefully, and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed—I would say, ‘good!’”
            Second, like all protests, there are different opinions within the ranks. But, there is a core of beliefs. The protestors are fed up with corporate greed that has a base of corporate welfare and special tax benefits for the rich. They support the trade union movement, Medicare and Social Security, affordable health care for all citizens, and programs to assist the unemployed, disenfranchised, and underclass. A nation that cannot take care of the least among us doesn’t deserve to be called the best of us.
They’re mad that the home mortgage crisis, begun when greed overcame ethics and was then magnified by the failure of regulatory agencies and the Congress to provide adequate oversight, robbed all of America of its financial security. During the first half of this year alone, banks and lending agencies have sent notices to more than 1.2 million homeowners whose loans and mortgages are in default status, according to RealtyTrak. Of course, less regulation is just what conservatives want—after all, their mantra has become, “no government in our lives.”
          They’re mad that almost 50 million people, about 16.3 percent of the population, don’t have health insurance, most of them because they either can’t afford it or can’t get it.
           They’re mad that about 46.2 million Americans, about 15.1 percent of Americans, are living in poverty, a five-decade high, according to the Census Bureau.
            The protestors are mad that the wealthiest corporations pay little or no taxes. They point to the Bank of America, part of the mortgage crisis problem, which earned a $4.4 billion profit last year, but received a $1.9 billion tax refund on top of a bailout of about $1 trillion. They look at ExxonMobil, which earned more than $19 billion profit in 2009, paid no taxes and received a $156 million federal rebate. Its profit for the first half of 2011 is about $ 21.3 billion.
They rightfully note that it is slimy when General Electric, whose CEO is a close Obama advisor, earned a $26 billion profit during the past five years, but still received a $4.1 billion refund.  
            They’re mad that the federal government has given the oil industry more than $4 billion in subsidy, although the industry earned more than $1 trillion in profits the past decade.
            They’re mad that Goldman Sachs, after receiving a $10 billion government bailout, and a $2.7 billion profit in the first quarter of 2011, shipped about 1,000 jobs overseas. During the past decade, corporations, which have paid little or no federal taxes, have outsourced at least 2.4 million jobs and are hoarding trillions which could be used to spur job growth and the economy.
            They’re mad that corporations that took federal bailout money gave seven-figure bonuses to their executives.
            They’re mad that the U.S., of all industrialized countries, has the highest ratio of executive pay to that of the average worker. The U.S. average is about 300 to 475 times that of the average worker. In Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, and England, the average CEO earns between 10 and 20 times what the average worker earns, and no one in those countries believes the CEOs are underpaid.
            They’re mad that 47 percent of all persons who earned at least $250,000 last year, including about 1,500 millionaires, paid no taxes, according to Newsmax. If you’re a Republican member of Congress, that’s perfectly acceptable. They’re the ones who thought President Obama was launching class warfare against the rich by trying to restore the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. They succeeded in blocking tax reform and a jobs bill, but failed to understand the simple reality—if there is class warfare, it is being waged by the elite greedy and their Congressional lackeys.
Herman Cain, Fox TV pundit Sean Hannity, and others from the extreme right wing said the protestors are un-American, apparently for protesting corporate greed. The Occupy Wall Street protestors aren’t un-American; those who defend the destruction of the middle class by defending greed, and unethical and illegal behavior, are.
[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, and the author of 17 books. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery set in rural Pennsylvania.]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Booze, Schmooze, but Not Any News: The “Today” Show Fourth Hour

by Walter Brasch

            The most important media story this past week is that the Kardashians were guest co-hosts on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show. One Kardashian sister per day, plus mother Kris and stepdad Bruce Jenner.
            It isn’t bad enough that talk shows, which have descended into a morass of being publicity mills for celebrity hucksters, adore them. It isn’t bad enough that the E! cable network, owned by NBCUniversal, throws millions of dollars to create and promote their reality shows that are as real as unicorns and fairy dust. Now we have Kardashians in NBC’s Studio 1A, the window on New York City.
            The three sisters are Kourtney, 32; Kim, 30; and Khloé, 27. Their mother is Kris, 54. Other than Jenner, whose career stems from having been an Olympian gold medalist and Wheaties box icon, the rest seem to have few discernible talents or skills, other than being celebutantes, socialites, and models. Even their various businesses exist only because they have the Kardashian name, earned because of Robert, a high-profile lawyer, who became a household name by defending O.J.
            Upon their name, the three sisters wrote an autobiography and once again are about to leap to the best-sellers chart with a novel. There is no evidence that any of the three can write; there is evidence that bookstores and Americans buy books because of name recognition rather than talent.
            But the real loser during Kardashian Week may be the integrity of NBC’s News Division. News, not Entertainment, produces the fourth hour, co-hosted by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. At one time, Kotb was a good journalist. Now, with a larger paycheck and her hair dyed an unnatural blonde, she and Kathie Lee Gifford, herself an excellent singer/writer, co-host the fourth hour.
            That fourth hour is filled with diets, makeovers, fashion, food, relationship advice, and celebrities huckstering their latest films, TV shows, and books. There are frequent short segments devoted to displaying semi-wild animals, the “ahhhh” factor in TV entertainment. But since Hoda, who has covered wars and natural disasters, seems to be afraid of any animal less cuddly than bedroom bunny slippers, those segments seem to be inserted into the show not as information but to give the audience an at-home laugh track to Hoda’s reactions. It makes little difference anyhow, since Hoda and Kathie Lee usually talk over whoever is trying to explain a little bit about each animal.
            A typical show begins with Hoda and Kathie Lee interrupting each other with a few minutes of chatter. The chatter and interruptions occur throughout the rest of the hour. The guests, in rapid sequence, may actually have something important to say, but the endless babbling and cross-talk seemingly leave them little more than chum in a swirling pool of drunken steroidal fish.
            Drinking is part of the fourth hour. Every day has at least a few seconds, often an entire segment, with the two co-hosts talking about booze and liquor, and then having demonstrations of how to make mixed drinks. Even the days are named. One day is “Booze Day Tuesday”; another is “Thirsty Thursday.” Guest co-host Seth Rogen two weeks ago had said he had never had a drink that early on TV. Hoda, joking it up, responded on the show’s Facebook page that the “operative words” were “on TV.” It isn’t too outrageous to believe that by the end of the Today’s final hour, even AA mentors are tempted to take a swig just to ease their pain.
            Because the “Today” producers are “with it” and “one with social networking,” they underline the on-air show with audience contact through Facebook and Twitter. During the hour, Sara Haines conveys fan email to the co-hosts and occasionally discusses technology. There is no evidence she is a technology guru, just as there is no logic why she, like the two co-hosts, are bottle blondes.
            Legendary TV pioneer Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver created the “Today” show in 1952, filling a daily two-hour program with news and features. Two years later, now NBC’s president, he created the “Tonight” show.
            For all but eight years of its 59 year run, “Today” has been the ratings leader in its two-hour time slot, mostly following the basic formula that Weaver established.
            In 2000, NBC added a third hour. In September 2007, NBC expanded “Today” to the fourth hour. Kotb was the original co-host, along with Ann Curry and Natalie Morales. Gifford replaced Curry and Morales a few months later. After a dip in the ratings, the fourth hour again took over its time slot, adding to the News Division’s profit, a reason why it would do everything possible to stonewall any attempt to move that hour into the Entertainment Division where it belongs. The show itself is little more than an amalgamation of the worst parts of Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly, and just about any TV entertainment-and-gossip show.
            Kardashian Week may have brought in greater ratings. It’s also why middle-class America willingly bathes in the limelight of the rich and famous, even those with little ability other than having created a following who make them famous for reasons no one yet understands.
            [Walter Brasch is an a award-winning syndicated columnist and media analyst. His latest book is the fast-paced mystery Before the First Snow.]