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, December 23, 2011

One Jew’s Christmas

by Walter Brasch

I am a Jew.
I don’t mind receiving Christmas cards or being wished a “Merry Christmas” from friends, clerks, or even in junk mail trying to sell me something no sane person should ever buy. My wife and I even send Christmas cards, with messages of peace and joy, to our friends who are Christians or who we don’t know their religion.
            I like Christmas music and Christmas carolers, even if some have voices that crack now and then, perhaps from the cold.
            At home, from as early as I could remember, my family bought and decorated a Christmas tree, and gave gifts to each other and our friends. Usually we put a Star of David on the tree, undoubtedly an act of heresy for many Jews and Christians. We learned about Christmas—and about Chanukah, the “feast of lights,” an eight day celebration of joy and remembrance of the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem at a time when it seemed as if a miracle had saved the Jews from darkness during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE.
            This year, my wife and I have a two-foot tall cypress tree, decorated with white felt angels, glittered silver tin snowflakes, and small white LED lights, a gift from a devout Christian. We weren’t offended by the gift; we accepted it and displayed it on a table in our dining room in the spirit of friendship. In Spring, we’ll plant the tree in our backyard and hope it grows strong and tall, giving us shade and oxygen, perhaps serving as a sanctuary for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife.
            What I do mind is the pomposity of some of the religious right who deliberately accost me, often with an arrogant sneer on their lips, to order me to accept their “well wishes” of a “Merry Christmas.” Their implication is “Merry Christmas—or else!” It’s their way of saying their religion is the one correct religion, that all others are wrong.
            Although I try to understand and tolerate other beliefs, the extreme right doesn’t tolerate difference or dissent.
            Right wing commentators at Fox News are in their final week of what has become a holiday tradition of claiming there is a “War on Christmas.” The lies and distortions told by these Shepherds of Deceit, and parroted by their unchallenging flock of followers, proves that at least in this manufactured war, truth is the first victim.
            The Far-Right-But-Usually-Wrong claim that godless liberals are out to destroy Christmas, and point to numerous examples, giving some facts but never the truth.  
            They are furious that many stores wish their customers a “Happy Holiday” and not a “Merry Christmas,” unable to understand that sensitivity to all persons’ religions isn’t some kind of heresy. The ultra-right American Family Association even posts lists of stores that are open on Christmas, have their clerks wish customers a “Happy Holiday,” and don’t celebrate Christmas the way they believe it should be celebrated. (Of course, the AFA doesn’t attack its close ally, the NRA, which on its website wishes everyone “Happy Holidays.”)
Because of their own ignorance, they have no concept of why public schools may teach about Christmas or even have students sing carols but can’t put manger scenes on the front lawn. Nevertheless, the Extremists of Ignorance and Intolerance parade the Constitution as their own personal shield, without having read the document and its analyses, commentaries, and judicial opinions that define it, and can’t understand there is a strict separation of church and state. The Founding Fathers, especially Franklin and Jefferson, were clear about that. They were also clear that this is a nation where a majority of its people profess to be Christians, but it is not a “Christian nation.” There is a distinct difference.
            The ultra-right—some of whom stanchly believe Barack Obama is not only a Muslim but wasn’t even born in the U.S—follow the guiding star of Fox to wrongly claim that the President Obama hates Christianity so much that he won’t even put up a Christmas tree but calls it a “holiday tree.” Perhaps they were too busy imbibing the bigotry in their mugs to know that the President and his family helped light the National Christmas Tree near the White House, wished Americans a “Merry Christmas,” and even told a bit about what Christians believe is a divine birth.
            When confronted by facts, these fundamentalists point out that the Puritans, the ones who fled England for religious freedom, demanded adherence to a strict code of Protestant principles—and if it was good enough for the first American “citizens,” it’s good enough for the rest of us. What they never learned, obviously, is that the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, declaring them to be pagan festivals.
            If the Fox pundits, leading their sheep into the abyss of ignorance in a counter-attack in a war that doesn’t exist, would take a few moments to think before blathering inanities, they might realize that the man they worship was called “the Prince of Peace” not “the General of War.”
            [Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and multimedia producer. His latest book is the mystery novel, Before the First Snow, set in Pennsylvania.]

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pennsylvania Legislators Shoot Down Pigeons—Again

by Walter Brasch


            If the first year gross anatomy class at the Penn State Hershey medical school needs spare body parts to study, they can visit the cloak room of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. That’s where most of the legislators left their spines.
            The House voted 124–69, Dec. 13, to send an animal welfare bill back to committee, in this case the Gaming Oversight Committee. The bill, SB 71, would have banned simulcasting of greyhound races from other states. Pennsylvania had banned greyhound racing in 2004. Among several of the current bill’s amendments were ones that would also have banned the sale of cat and dog meat, increased penalties for releasing exotic animals, and stopped the cruelty of live pigeon shoots.
            It’s the pigeon shoot amendment, sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R-Allegheny), that caused legislators to hide beneath their desks, apparently in fear of the poop from the NRA, which lobbied extensively against ending pigeon shoots. The unrelenting NRA message irrationally claimed that banning pigeon shoots is the first step to banning guns. The NRA even called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a radical animal rights group. The House action leaves Pennsylvania as the only state where pretend hunters, most of them from New Jersey and surrounding states where pigeon shoots are illegal, to come to Pennsylvania and kill caged birds launched in front of spectators and the shooters.
            Most pigeon shoots are held in Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania, with one in the nearby suburban Philadelphia area. Scared and undernourished birds are placed into small cages, and then released about 20 yards in front of people with 12-gauge shotguns. Most birds, as many as 5,000 at an all-day shoot, are hit standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from the people who pretend to be sportsmen. Even standing only feet from their kill, the shooters aren’t as good as they think they are. About 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, who for about 25 years has been documenting and leading the effort to pass legislation to finally end pigeon shoots in the state.
            Birds that fall outside the shooting club’s property are left to die long and horrible deaths. If the birds are wounded on the killing fields, trapper boys and girls, most in their early teens, some of them younger, grab the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, or throw them live into barrels to suffocate. There is no food or commercial value of a pigeon killed at one of the shoots.
            The lure of pigeon shoots, in addition to what the participants must think is a wanton sense of fulfillment, is gambling, illegal under Pennsylvania law but not enforced by the Pennsylvania State Police.
            The International Olympic Committee banned the so-called sport after the 1900 Olympics because of its cruelty to animals. Most hunters, as well as the Pennsylvania Game Commission, say that pigeon shoots aren’t “fair chase hunting.” Almost every daily newspaper in the state and dozens of organizations, from the Council of Churches to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, oppose this form of animal cruelty.
            On the floor of the House, Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood (D-Philadelphia), usually a supporter of animal rights issues, spoke out against voting on the bill, and asked other Democrats to go along with her. Youngblood is minority chair of the Gaming Oversight committee.
            Youngblood’s chief of staff, Bill Thomas, emphasizes that Youngblood’s only concern was to protect the integrity of the legislative process. Although some members truly believed they voted to recommit the bill for procedural reasons, most members were just simply afraid to vote on the bill. Voting to recommit the bill were 52 Democrats, many of them opposed to pigeon shoots; 35 voted to keep it on the floor for debate. Among Republicans, the vote was 72–34 to send the bill to committee.

The Arguments

Germaneness: The Republican leadership had determined that all amendments to bills  in the current legislative session must be germane to the bill. “You can’t hijack a bill,” many in the House, including key Democrats, claimed as the major reason they voted against SB71.
            However, the Republicans, with a majority in the House and able to block any bill in committee that didn’t meet their strict political agenda, raised “germaneness” to a level never before seen in the House. For decades, Democrats and Republicans attached completely unrelated amendments to bills. Even during this session, the Republicans, in violation of their own “rules,” attached amendments to allow school vouchers onto several bills, many that had nothing to do with education. But, the Greyhound racing bill was considered under both gambling and animal cruelty concerns. Thus, the amendment to ban pigeon shoots could also be considered to be an animal cruelty amendment and not subject to the Judiciary Committee, where it was likely to die.

Separate bill. Several legislators believed the attempt to stop pigeon shoots should have been its own bill, not tacked onto another bill.
            However, only twice have bills about pigeon shoots come to the floor of the House. Most proposed legislation had been buried in committees or blocked by House leadership, both Democrat and Republican, most of whom received support and funding from the NRA, gun owner groups, and their political action committees (PACs). In 1989, the Pennsylvania House had defeated a bill to ban pigeon shoots, 66–126. By 1994, three years after the first large scale protest, the House voted 99–93 in favor of an amendment to ban pigeon shoots, but fell short of the 102 votes needed for passage.

The bill would duplicate or repeal a recently-signed law:
            Rep. Curt Schroeder (R-Chester Co.), chair of the Gaming Oversight committee, sponsored the House version of the Senate’s bill. If it was truly an unnecessary bill, he or the leadership could have previously sent it to committee for reworking or killed it. According to sources close to the leadership, despite his concern for animal welfare, Schroeder was not pleased about the amendments tacked onto his bill.

Short time to accomplish much: Several Democrats believed that by spending extraordinary time on the bill, necessary legislation would not be brought to the floor and the Republicans could then blame the Democrats for blocking key legislation.
            However, both parties already knew how they would vote for redistricting (the Republicans had gerrymandered the state to protect certain districts), school vouchers, and other proposed legislation.  Further, the Republican leadership could have blocked putting the Greyhound bill into the agenda or placed it at the end of other bills. Even on the floor of the House, the leadership could have shut down debate at any time. Thus, the Democrats’ argument about “only four days left” is blunted by the Republicans’ own actions. During 2011, the House met only 54 days when the vote on SB 71 was taken. If the House was so concerned about having only four days left in the year to discuss and vote upon critical issues, it could have added days to the work week or increased hours while in session. Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), to his credit, wanted a vote, although he personally opposed the pigeon shoot amendment. “Let’s put this issue to rest,” he told the members. Taking the time to debate the bill, says Bill Thomas, “wasted taxpayer money and time.” However, “the amount of time spent avoiding the bill,” counters Prescott, “wastes far more time and resources than voting on it.”

            Nevertheless, no matter what the arguments, sending the bill to committee was a good way to avoid having to deal with a highly controversial issue. It allowed many legislators to pretend to their constituents that they still believe in animal welfare, while avoiding getting blow-back from the NRA or its supporters. Conversely, it allowed many of those who wanted to keep pigeon shoots to avoid a debate and subsequent vote, allowing continued support from pro-gun constituents who accept the NRA non-logic, while not offending constituents who believe in animal welfare.
            Whatever their reasons, the failure of the many of the state’s representatives to stand up for their convictions probably caused legislation to ban this form of animal cruelty to be as dead during this session as the pigeons whose necks are wrung by teenagers who finish the kill by people who think they’re sportsmen but are little more than juveniles disguised in the bodies of adults.
            [Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated social issues columnist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, whose specialties included public affairs/investigative reporting. He is professor emeritus of journalism. Dr. Brasch’s latest novel is Before the First Snow, a story of the counterculture and set in rural Pennsylvania.]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Labor Not Represented in Management of ‘The People’s Universities’

by Walter Brasch

            Although more than one million Pennsylvanians are members of labor unions, and the state has a long history of worker exploitation and union activism, neither of the two largest university systems has a labor representative on its governing board.
            The only labor representative on the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) in its 28 year history was Julius Uehlein, who served 1988–1995 while Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. The appointment was made by Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat.
            Only two persons have ever represented labor on Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Gov. Milton Shapp, a Democrat, appointed Harry Boyer, the state AFL–CIO president, in 1973. Shortly after Boyer retired in 1988, he resigned as a trustee. Richard Trumka, a Penn State alumnus and Villanova law school graduate, now the national AFL–CIO president, served as a trustee, 1983–1995, while president of the United Mine Workers. He was first appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, reappointed by Gov. Casey, and not reappointed when Tom Ridge, a Republican, became governor.
            The 32-member Penn State Board of Trustees is divided into five groups: ex-officio members (6), Governor appointments (6), members elected by the Alumni Association (8), Business and Industry members (6), and elected members from Agriculture (6). The Agriculture representation dates to 1862 when Penn State (at that time known as Farmer’s High School) was one of the first two land grant institutions; the land grant institutions were created to provide advanced education in agriculture and the sciences. Currently, 15 members either are or were CEOs. Among them are the CEOs of U.S. Steel and Merck. One of the ex-officio members is the Penn State president, which creates an interesting potential for a conflict-of-interest. Except for one student representative, most of the rest are lawyers or senior corporate or public agency executives. Only six members are women, only three are members of minority classes.
            The lack of diversity became an issue this week when the Faculty Senate called for a more diverse board. The challenge to the Trustees was unusual because the Senate “has always been a relatively non-confrontational group,” according to Dr. Paul Clark, head of the university’s prestigious Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, who had served as a senator for 15 years. However, child molestation charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, combined with how poorly the university administration and the secrecy-clad Trustees handled the problem, exposed the university and trustees to additional scrutiny.
            “Because of the number of union members in Pennsylvania, and the need to have working people’s issues and perspectives represented on the board, we always thought it made a lot of sense for that constituency [working class] to be represented on the trustees,” says Dr. Clark.
            At one time, Penn State had an active labor studies advisory committee, dating back to the early 1950s when Milton Eisenhower was the university president. That committee met at least four times a year and “was well respected,” says Irwin Aronson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania AFL–CIO, and a Penn State labor studies graduate. After Dr. Graham Spanier became president in 1995, the committee quickly dissolved because “he didn’t seem to have much interest in it,” says Richard Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. There is no doubt, says Aronson, that “the previously warm relationship between labor and Penn State’s administration collapsed under Dr. Spanier’s administration.” Bloomingdale says he hopes that Rodney Erickson, Penn State’s newly-appointed president, will see the necessity to reinstate the committee.
            Penn State also has what may be the state’s premiere collection of labor history primary source documents, especially from the coal region. The letters, notes, diaries and other materials are archived in the Paterno Library.
            Penn State is a state-related university which received $279 million in state funding for the current fiscal year; it has 94,000 students on its 24 campuses, with 44,000 of the students enrolled on its main campus. About 3,000 Penn State staff (mostly those working in maintenance, physical plant, dormitories, and the cafeteria) are members of the Teamsters. About 1,300 registered nurses, including those of the Hershey Medical Center, are members of the Service Employees International Union. However, there is no faculty union at Penn State. Part of the problem, says Dr. Clark, is that faculty in the large business and agriculture colleges, plus those in engineering and science, tend not to have strong union loyalties; those in the liberal arts tend to have more acceptance of the value of unions.
            SSHE, the larger of the two systems, has 120,000 students enrolled in 14 universities. Its 20-member Board of Governors isn’t much more diverse than Penn State’s. The Board has three student representatives who are appointed by the Board after being nominated by the presidents of the 14 universities. However, because of the way the students are nominated by presidents of the individual campuses and then selected by the Board of Governors, most usually have views similar to what the administration sees as mainstream and acceptable. Membership also includes four legislators, selected from each political caucus (Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate) and the secretary of the Department of Education; the rest are appointed by the Governor, with the consent of the state senate. Gov. Tom Corbett and his designated representative, Jennifer Branstetter, a public relations executive, serve on both Penn State and SSHE boards. Most of the other members are lawyers or senior business executives. One of them, Kenneth M. Jarin, who served as chair for six years and is currently a member, is a lawyer who represents management in labor issues.
            The lack of at least one representative of labor on the SSHE Board of Governors is because of “a lack of sensitivity to the labor point of view,” says Dr. Stephen Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF), which represents 6,400 faculty. Dr. Hicks, who has tried to get the Board to include a faculty member, says that when a Board has most of its members “who have run a business and made money, you get a certain viewpoint.”
            Richard Bloomingdale says he’s proposed to the boards and governor persons who could effectively represent the working class, “but they were always turned down.”
            Even one representative, says Bloomingdale, “would still leave the Boards with heavy pro-business orientations.”
            There is no question that politics and a pro-business or anti-labor philosophy has left working class Pennsylvanians with no representation on the boards of universities that are designated as “the people’s universities.”
            [Walter Brasch is an award-winning reporter and syndicated columnist, and the author of 17 books. His latest book is the novel, Before the First Snow, primarily set in Pennsylvania. It is a look at the counterculture between 1964 and 1991, with a social justice and pro-labor focus. Disclosure: Dr. Brasch is professor emeritus of mass communications from the SSHE system.]


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Death by Healthy Doses

by Walter Brasch
            They buried Bouldergrass today. The cause of death was listed as “media-induced health.”
            Bouldergrass had begun his health crusade more than a decade ago when he began reading more than the sports pages of his local newspaper, subscribed to his first magazine, and decided TV news could be informative if it didn’t mention anything about wars, famines, and poverty.
            Based on what he read and saw in the media, Bouldergrass moved from smog-bound Los Angeles to a rural community in scenic green Vermont, gave up alcohol and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and was immediately hospitalized for having too much oxygen in his body.
To burn off some of that oxygen, he joined America’s “beautiful people” on the jogging paths where the media helped him believe he was sweating out the bad karma. In less than a year, the karma left his body which was now coexisting with leg cramps, fallen arches, and several compressed disks. But at least he was as healthy as all the ads told him he could be.
            To make sure he didn’t get skin cancer from being in the sun too long, he slathered four pounds of No. 35 sunblock on his body every time he ran, and went to suntan parlors twice a week to get that “healthy glow” advertisers told him he needed. He stopped blocking when he learned that suntan parlors weren’t good for your health, and that the ingredients in the lotions could cause cancer. So, he wore a jogging suit that covered more skin than an Arab woman’s black chador with veil—and developed a severe case of heat exhaustion.
            From ultrathin models and billions of dollars in weight-reducing advertising that told him “thin was in,” he began a series of crash diets. When he was down to 107 pounds, advertising told him he needed to “bulk up” to be a “real man.” So, he began lifting weights and playing racquetball three hours a day. Four groin pulls and seven back injuries later, he had just 6 percent body fat, and a revolving charge account with his local orthopedist.
            Several years earlier, Bouldergrass had stopped eating veal as part of a protest of America’s inhumane treatment of animals destined for supermarkets. Now, in an “enlightened” age of health, he gave up all meat, not because of mankind’s cruelty to animals, but because the media revealed that vascular surgeons owned stock in meat packing companies. Besides, it was the “healthy” thing to do.
            He gave up pasta when he saw a TV report about the microscopic creepy crawlers that infest most dough.
            He gave up drinking soda and began drinking juice, until he read a report that said apple juice had higher than normal levels of arsenic.
            He ate soup because it was healthy and so Mmm Mmm Good, until he learned that soup had more salt than Lot’s wife. When he found low-salt soup, he again had a cup a day—until last month when he gave it up because a Harvard study revealed that soup cans contained significant amounts of Bisphenol-A-, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.      For a couple of years, lured by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and innumerable articles in the supermarket tabloids, Bouldergrass ate only oat bran muffins for breakfast and a diet of beta carotenes for lunch, until he found himself spending more time in the bathroom than at work. He eliminated the muffins entirely after reading an article that told him eating oatmeal, bran, and hood ornaments from Buick Roadsters were bad for your health.
            Bouldergrass gave up milk when he learned that acid rain fell onto pastures and was eaten by cows. When he learned that industrial conglomerates had dumped everything from drinking water to radioactive waste into streams and rivers, he stopped eating fish. For awhile, based upon conflicting reports in the media, he juggled low-calorie, low-fat, and low-carbohydrate diets until his body systems dropped into the low end of inertia.
            At the movies, he smuggled in packets of oleo to squeeze onto plain popcorn until he was bombarded by news stories that revealed oleo was as bad as butter and that most theatrical popcorn was worse than an all-day diet of sirloin.
            When he learned that coffee and chocolate were unhealthy, he gave up an addiction to getting high from caffeine and sugar, and was now forced to work 12-hour days without any stimulants other than the fear of what his children were doing while he was at work.
            Unfortunately, he soon had to give up decaffeinated coffee and sugarless candy with cyclamates since both caused laboratory mice to develop an incurable yen to listen to music from the Grand Funk Railroad.
            He gave up pizza when the media reported that certain “health care investigators” claimed pizza was little more than junk food. But, he began eating several slices a day to improve his health when Congress, fattened by lobbyists campaigns, last month declared frozen pizza was a vegetable. He figured it made sense, since three decades earlier the Reagan administration had declared catsup to be a vegetable, and five years ago the Department of Agriculture decided butter-coated french fries were a vegetable.
            Left with a diet of fruits and vegetables, he was lean and trim. Until he accidentally stumbled across a protest by an environmental group which complained that the use of pesticides on farm crops was a greater health hazard than the bugs the pesticides were supposed to kill. Even the city’s polluted water couldn’t clean off all the pesticides. That’s also when he stopped taking showers, and merely poured a gallon of distilled water over his head every morning.
            For weeks, he survived on buckets of vitamins because the magazines told him that’s what he should do. Then, after reading an article that artificial vitamins shaped like the Flintstones caused dinosaur rot, he also gave them up.
            The last time I saw Bouldergrass, he was in a hospital room claiming to see visions of monster genetic tomatoes squishing their way toward him. He was mumbling something about cholesterol and high density lipoproteins. Tubes were sticking out of every opening in his emaciated body, as well as a couple of openings that hadn’t been there when he first checked in.
            In one last attempt to regain his health, Bouldergrass enlisted in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move army. But the only movement he was doing was when the nurses flipped him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.
            Shortly before he died, he pulled me near him, asked that I write his obit, and in a throaty whisper begged, “Make sure you tell them that thanks to what I learned from the media, I died healthy.”
            [Walter Brasch, a robust figure of health, doesn’t follow anyone’s advice on what is or is not healthy. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Brasch says the book is a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, and increased sales will improve his own mental, if not physical, health.]