Friday, November 12, 2010


                Childhood joke: What kind of keys can’t open a door?
Answer:  Donkeys.
* * * *
“Channel 16 continues its election night coverage.  Results are pouring in now that the polls have closed around the country. We take you now to Washington, DC, where Channel 16‘s Scott Wamsley is live at Democratic headquarters.  Scott, what’s the mood there?”
“Erin, people have been gathered around the television, watching as results are announced from state after state.  Excitement began to build early on, when it became apparent that Democrats were likely to lose the House, and champagne corks began popping once it became clear that Democratic losses are going to reach historic proportions.  They may be able to lose the Senate as well, but right now several of those races are too close to call.”
“Is this what people there were expecting, Scott?”
“It is, Erin.  As one Democratic staffer told me, ‘This is what we’ve been dedicated to for the past twenty-two months, but it’s all just a dream until election night rolls around.’” 
“Scott, given that the number of registered Democrats is greater than the number of registered Republicans, and that women, young people, blacks, and Hispanics all lean heavily Democratic, how was the Democratic campaign team able to put together a disaster of this scope?”
“It was a downhill struggle, Erin.  In 2008, they had created a powerful block of energized voters, attracted hordes of enthusiastic new voters and young people, and swept control of both houses of Congress along with the White House.  They had the power to deliver all that people had been longing for during the Bush years.  Party insiders tell me that crushing those expectations was their focus from day one.”
“What was their strategy, Scott?”
“Erin, they felt all along that the key was going to be voter turnoff.  If they could just manage to disillusion enough people in their core constituencies, they knew they had a chance to pull this off.”
“Do you have any idea how large voter turnoff was, Scott?”
“It’s too early to have precise numbers, Erin, but preliminary figures show that the total votes for Republican candidates for the House fell by about eleven million from 2008, while the total for Democratic candidates fell by nearly thirty million.”
“That’s an enormous drop-off, Scott.”
“It is, Erin.  In fact, nearly half the Democrats who voted in ’08 stayed home in 2010.”
“How were party leaders able to engineer such a huge collapse of support, Scott?”
“They had a plan, Erin.  The campaign team worked closely with the Obama White House and the Democratic congressional leadership to identify key issues that would drive voter disillusionment.  For the Democratic base, promoting economic opportunity, closing the widening income gap, halting home foreclosures, ending the Middle East wars, repudiating torture, and undoing Bush-era attacks on civil liberties were all priorities.  Party operatives felt that by targeting those areas, consistently reneging on promises Obama made in the ’08 campaign, they could drive voter turnoff.  Instead of delivering what they had led Democratic voters to expect in those areas, they either adopted the Bush policy they had attacked, or ignored the issue altogether.  I have to say that even they seem somewhat surprised by how well that strategy has played out.”

“Did they have any idea this was coming, Scott?”
“They did, Erin, although there’s always some uncertainty with these things.  They were concerned that voters might not be paying close enough attention, but clearly, their worries were groundless.”
“Can you give us an idea what the new political landscape is going to look like, Scott?”
“Well, Erin, Republicans gained approximately 60 seats in the House, with about eight still too close to call.  In the Senate, Republicans won 23 of the 36 seats at stake.  Republicans also made huge gains at the state level, picking up governorships in Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  They also gained what looks like about 700 new seats in state legislatures, and took control of 19 more chambers of state legislatures.”
“Simply stunning results, Scott.  Thanks for the report.”
“You’re welcome, Erin.”
“This is Erin Masters in Big Springs.  As Democratic strategists celebrate in the background, we end this portion of our election night coverage.  We’ll check in with Scott Beasley in Washington at Republican headquarters when we return from station break.”
© Tony Russell, 2010

Monday, November 08, 2010

"War? What War?"

             If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again 
be any war. 
                                - Pentagon official explaining why the U.S. military censored
                                  graphic footage from the Gulf War
* * * *
“Ace!  Bob’s on the phone!” called Patty.
Bob didn’t waste any time.  “Ace!” he barked out.  “Get over to the courthouse right now.  There are half a dozen people down there carrying anti-war signs.  It’s the biggest peace protest here in years, and I want you to get some pictures and interview them before they get too cold and head home.”
“I’m on it, Chief,” I assured him, then grabbed my coat and headed out the door.
One of my neighbors, Uncle Whitt, was just walking past the house, dragging his rat terrier Roscoe, who--as usual--was doing his best to lift his leg at every tree, bush, hydrant, gate, and signpost they passed.
“Where are you running off to in such a big hurry, Ace?” he gasped, wheezing from the effort of dragging Roscoe every step around the block.
“There’s a big story down at the courthouse,” I said.  “An anti-war rally.”
He stopped.  “Anti- what?  An anti-war rally?  What war?” he demanded.
“The same war we’ve been in for the last nine years,” I told him, surprised.
“What the Sam Hill are you talking about?” he snapped, staring at me as if I had just claimed visitors in flying saucers had arrived from outer space.  “We’re not at war.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I read the newspaper every day,” he said.  He must have thought I was trying to pull a fast one on him, and he was obviously getting hot.  “You get the same big city paper I do.  Have you seen any articles about a war?”
I had to stop and think about it.  “Now that you mention it,” I said, “I don’t remember seeing anything lately.  I don’t even know what I mean by ‘lately,’ though.”
“War is news,” he said belligerently.  “Big news. Listen, I’ve lived through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and I know what kind of press coverage they had.  There’s been nothing in the paper about a war.  Don’t you think a major newspaper would cover one of the biggest stories in the world if we were at war?”
“Sure, but...,” I began.
“In wartime, newspapers are filled with pictures of mothers whose homes have been destroyed or whose children have just been killed.  Soldiers carrying their wounded buddies.  Bleeding, bandaged soldiers being evacuated.  Human interest stuff that makes a war intimate and personal.  Have you seen any pictures like that?”
“Uh, no,” I said, “but....”
“We’re always hearing that the world is shrinking.  That this is ‘an age of instant communication.’  That ‘our lives now are intertwined with those of people on the other side of the globe.’  Have you been feeling communicated with by people we’re at war with on the other side of a shrunken planet?”
“No, I guess I haven’t, but....”
“If you’re at war, the war looms huge in a nation’s life.  People talk about it constantly.  It’s part of the fabric of everyday life while it lasts.  It’s part of your consciousness.  Do you hear people talking about a war?  Is a war part of your consciousness?”
That caught me off guard.  “Well, no, but....”
“We just had midterm elections,” he interrupted me.  “I did my civic duty.  I watched all five debates between the candidates for Congress from our district.   Nobody mentioned a war.  In five debates.  Not once.  Considering that the military eats up around half our federal budget, and wars cause huge casualties and hardships, don’t you think it would be hard for candidates to ignore a war?”
“Yes, but....”
“Don’t ‘yes, but’ me,” he said.  “Did you watch the debates?”
“I did, Uncle Whitt,” I said.
“Did you hear anybody mention a single word about a war?”
“Well, no,” I said, “but....”
“And the Republican candidate’s main claim was that he would cut taxes.  Just like all the other Republican candidates.  Wars aren’t cheap.  You don’t cut taxes in wartime.  You raise them to fund the damn war.  Even an idiot knows that. So it’s obvious we’re not at war.  Don’t you think his opponents would have jumped all over him if he tried to pull a stunt like cutting taxes when we’re fighting a war?”
“Uh, ....”
“If we were at war, wouldn’t the war be one of the major issues in the election?”
“You would think so, but....”
“And don’t you think there would be millions of protestors clogging the streets in DC and New York and LA if we were fighting a war they didn’t care for?”
“I suppose so,” I said, “but....”
“Do you see streets packed with demonstrators?” he challenged, as Roscoe began to fidget.
“No, no, but....”
“Do you see soldiers welcomed home with parades, given the keys to the city?  TV news covering soldiers’ returning from a combat zone, or soldiers’ bodies being flown home with their families receiving a flag and attending their burial?”
“Well, no, but....”
“Do you think our government is actually conducting an invisible war?” he demanded sarcastically.
“I know it sounds crazy, but....”
“Ace,” he said, “you were never the brightest candle on the cake.  But this takes the cake.  I don’t know how you came up with this tomfoolery, but somebody with delusions like yours needs to have his head checked out.”  And, giving Roscoe a jerk, he trotted off in a huff.  Roscoe--as usual--took a nip at my pants leg as he passed.
I stood there for a minute, feeling a little dizzy.  Then I turned around and walked back into the house.  “Patty,” I said, feeling idiotic, “this may sound odd, but I need to know.  Are we are at war now, or are we not?” 
© Tony Russell, 2010
Writer’s Note:  Just to be absolutely clear, this column in no way is intended to say or imply that there aren’t people in this country who care deeply about the war and try to stay informed about it, whether it is because they have a friend or family member in harm’s way, or because of the devastation and suffering the war is causing, or simply because they are sickened by what’s being done in our name.  The column’s intent is to show how successful our political leadership (and their corporate string-pullers) have been in muting media coverage of the war, eliminating it as a political issue, and erasing it from our public consciousness.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Money As a Form of Speech"

One of the reasons why we get more pleasure from satire
than from a sermon, even when the satire is making exactly the same 
point as the sermon, is that we have an uncomfortable feeling that
the minister expects us to do something about it.
-- Leonard Feinberg
I had to get to the office early today to write up the local election report.  So I was surprised to see that my neighbor’s foreign exchange student, loaded with books, was already headed toward the university.  I pulled over and told him to hop in.
“We should probably introduce ourselves if we’re going to keep running into each other,” I said, sticking out my hand.  “I’m Ace.”
“My name is Aadil,” he said. “A-a-d-i-l.  I am pleased to formally make your acquaintance.”
“That’s an unusual name,” I said.  “Where are you from?”
“I am from Pakistan,” he replied.  “‘Aadil’ is a Muslim name meaning ‘just.’”
“Hope you’re not a terrorist,” I said, and then added, when he flinched, “Just joking.  What gets you out so early?  Got a big test coming up?
He shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “I stayed up late watching your election returns and had trouble sleeping afterwards, so I decided it would be more efficient to make use of the time and go study.”
“Well, what did you think of the election?” I asked.  “Watching democracy in action must have been an experience for you.  And now the people have spoken.”
He glanced at me.  “My country is a parliamentary democracy,” he said.  “But it is interesting that you phrase the results of your election in that manner.  Since your Supreme Court ruled in ‘Citizens United’ that money is a form of speech, I mean.”
“Why is that interesting?” I asked, curious.
He hesitated.  “This is your country,” he said.  “Please understand that I do not wish to offend.  I am simply trying to understand the way in which your electoral system functions.”
“Hey!  No skin off my ... nose,” I told him.  “Feel free.”
He looked baffled for an instant, and then said, “I am unable to follow the logic of the assertion that money is a form of speech, and that therefore people and corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money exercising their freedom to use this presumed form of speech.”
I glanced over at him.  “What’s your problem with the logic?” I asked.
“It’s simply an analogy, isn’t it?” he said.  “Money equals speech?  Dollars are the same as words and sentences?”
“But if we pursue the analogy, it means that people who have no money have no speech, no voice,” he said.  “If one’s home is being foreclosed on, or if one has huge medical bills, or works for minimum wage, or is out of work, or any of a number of other possibilities, one is unable to ‘say’ anything, because one doesn’t have the money to ‘speak’ in the political arena.”
“Uh, I guess that makes sense,” I said.  “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“And if one is very wealthy, or a giant corporation, one can ‘speak’ loudly and almost endlessly,” he went on.  “In fact, one can speak so long and so loudly that it becomes difficult for anyone else to even be heard--or only another person or corporation that also has an enormous amount of money.”
“I’m afraid that’s true,” I said, after thinking about it for a minute.
“So your court’s ruling would seem to sweep away any possibility of equality in the electoral process,” he said.  “One citizen can ‘say’ nothing, while a billionaire can ‘speak’ on and on and on.  And your elections are very expensive.  One has almost no hope of competing successfully without having a huge treasury to buy television time, buy radio time, hire consultants and pollers and staff, print brochures and bumper stickers, rent offices and computers and phone banks.”
“That’s true too,” I admitted.
“People of ordinary means therefore have little voice, and also appear to be largely excluded as candidates for major offices in your country,” he said.  “Or they are sponsored by the rich and indebted to them.”
“Politics has become a playground for the wealthy,” I conceded.
“And both political parties are indebted to their wealthy sponsors, meaning that what they both ‘hear’ is likely to be the voice of the ruling elite, not the voice of common citizens.” 
“‘Ruling elite’ sounds like un-American phrasing,” I said, “but I get what you’re saying.
“Perhaps ‘dollars are a form of votes’ would be a more accurate analogy than ‘money is a form of speech,’” he mused.  “And it contradicts the “one person, one vote” rule, because some people get millions of votes, while others get none.”
“It doesn’t always work out that way,” I pointed out.  “Sometimes the winner has spent less than the person who lost.”
“That happens,” he concurred.  “The one who spends the most generally wins, though not always.  Actually, the level of spending required to even compete acts as a screening device.  People who can’t raise large levels of money are simply eliminated.  Usually they don’t even make it into your primaries, because they get discouraged.  Or they lose in the primaries.  That means that many ordinary people can back a candidate who doesn’t stand a chance, while a single wealthy backer or industry can propel another candidate forward in the race.  In effect, many people’s ‘speech’ may mean nothing, while one person’s speech may lead to victory.”
“That’s the way it works,” I said slowly.
“The ‘Citizens United’ ruling appears to be the capstone on your election funding process,” he said.  “Maintaining the form of a democracy while functioning as a plutocracy.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve gone too far.”
He looked out the window.  “Oh, no,” he said.  “This is where I get out.  And thank you for the dialogue.  I am most grateful for the ride.”
© Tony Russell, 2010

Monday, November 01, 2010

“Check Your Algal Bloom?”

Writer’s note:  I should explain to newer readers that while Ace, the bumbling reporter, is a fairly accurate stand-in for your writer, his editor, Bob Spinner, is an affectionate but grossly distorted version of  Bob Weaver, a tolerant, good-natured, and long-suffering friend if ever there was one.  Bob, with the help of his wife Diane and a few loyal friends, has been putting out a wonderful online “newspaper” called the Hur Herald for many years.  The paper distills the essence of life back in our home territory in Calhoun County, West Virginia, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you.  You can find a link to the Herald on my blog page, or you can reach it readily by googling its name.  The Hur Herald is an all-volunteer effort and a labor of love; if you enjoy it and want to support it, I’m sure Bob and company would make good use of your donation.
* * * *
My editor, Bob Spinner, had sent me off to Louisiana to investigate reports of disagreements between local fishermen and environmental monitors on the one hand, and  state and federal agencies on the other, about huge oil sightings reported in an area the government has recently reopened for fishing.  
One commercial mackerel fisherman told a TV reporter that “Oil is everywhere.  Our boats have to plow through plumes of oil twenty miles long, floating on the surface and as much as five inches thick. Anybody who eats fish and shrimp from this mess is an idiot.”
Other fishermen have repeatedly charged that the governments’ overriding concern all along has been the health of the oil industry and its profits, not the health of citizens and the environment.  
Government agencies, by contrast, remain unfailingly upbeat.  They continue to declare that the Gulf of Mexico is largely free from remnants of the escaped oil and dispersants derived from the mammoth BP oil spill in the Gulf.  Earlier this week, a U. S. Coast Guard spokesperson, Lt. Cdr. Chris O’Neil,  declared that the thick brownish-red substance spreading over thirty square miles in the West Bay area off the Louisiana coast appeared to be “an algal bloom.”   
I checked in with Bob by telephone just before filing my story.
“What have you come up with, Ace?” he demanded.
“It’s definitely algal bloom,” I said cheerfully, glad to be able to deliver good news for a change.
There was a pause.  Then, “I have to admit that’s not what I expected.  If anyone else had told me that, I’d have been surprised,” he said.  “Do you mind telling me what evidence you have for that conclusion?”
“People along the Louisiana coast know algal bloom when they see it,” I told him.    “You stop at a full service filling station and the attendant pumping your gas asks, ‘Check your algal bloom?’  And if you tell him to go ahead, he’ll fiddle around under the hood and then say something like, ‘Your algal bloom’s about half a quart low.’  They tell me that Standard Algal Bloom has a lot of filling stations down here, too.  And everyone says there’s a big push by energy companies to drill more deep-water algal bloom wells in the Gulf.”
“That’s ironic,” he muttered, apparently to himself.  “Did you check out any of the citizen complaints first hand?” 
“Sure,” I said.  “A BP pilot flew me over West Bay to see it for myself.”
“And the government is absolutely correct,” I said. “There’s algal bloom covering  the surface as far as you can see.  Marshes are covered with algal bloom, their grasses are dark and dead, and sea birds have their feathers coated with algal bloom. Everything has an algal sheen to it, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow and shimmering in the light.”  (I was proud of myself for that last part; it had a poetic ring to it.)
Bob made that sound that resembles the gnashing of teeth.  “I can’t believe I’ve overestimated you again,” he finally responded.
“Thanks, Chief,” I said.  “By the way, I need to lay over and change my flight to tomorrow evening.”
“Why should I pay for an extra night?” he demanded.  
“Excuse me for being indelicate,” I said, “but I’ve got the runs.  I think it might be the shrimp gumbo I had last night for dinner.”
© Tony Russell, 2010