Monday, August 31, 2009


Do Americans want Sherlock Holmes showing up in real life?

Off the top of my head I can name four current television shows which focus on a protagonist who can discern the truth where ordinary mortals can't: Law and Order Criminal Intent on USA/NBC; The Mentalist on CBS; Psych (USA); and Lie to Me (Fox). What they all have in common- and what sets them apart from old fashioned traditional TV detective shows (Monk being an example of the old timey show, albeit with the odd factor of an OCD detective who appears at times to be an ineffectual coward)- is the Sherlock Holmes aspect that allows each protagonist to discern whether people are telling the truth.

The lead character in Criminal Intent, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, explicitly based on Sherlock Holmes, explains how people's facial tics and expressions reveal their lies. Psych is a mock detective show which focuses on a self trained observer who discovers that no one will listen to his analysis unless he pretends to be receiving psychic visions. (James Roday's fake psychic character occasionally references The Mentalist during his show- all in good fun, of course.) The most watched of the bunch, The Mentalist, stars Australian Simon Baker as a man who has reinvented himself after a personal tragedy. Once a well heeled charlatan who earned his living by pretending to read minds and commune with the dead, the unsolved murder of his wife and daughter by a notorious serial killer led him to renounce his desire for worldly possessions and dedicate his skills in human observation to crime solving as a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigation.

Then there is the over the top Lie to Me, which is obviously an attempt to piggyback on the commercial success of The Mentalist, even down to using an Englishman (Tim Roth) playing a man who can instantly tell when anyone- seriously, anyone!- is telling the truth or not. After the 55th time Roth and his crackerjack acolytes brace suspects to their faces and accuse them of lying- or telling the truth- the trick gets old. The one penetrating moment in the show came when Roth's ex-wife (played by former Flash Dance star Jennifer Beals) admits that marriage to Roth was less than blissful because he was compelled to constantly inform her of her thoughts and feelings which he, the master interrogator, could read from her expressions. To the rest of us mere mortals, that sounds like a marriage made in Hell.

So why are American television viewers so entranced with shows featuring people who can identify the liars, con men, and other criminals who prey on ordinary folks? What is happening in our society that we feel we need these kinds of heroes- each one played as an extreme eccentric?

Well, for one, we have advertisers. Does anyone believe anything in ads? Will drinking that beer, using that body fragrance, or using that cell phone really cause beautiful women to fawn over us (or Catherine Zeta Jones to arrive on our doorstep)? Doubtful. Of course, Madison Avenue has been crafting lying commercials for decades, so that's nothing new. For gosh sakes, decades ago they used to extol the health benefits of cigarettes!

Then there are politicians. From "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq to Obama's "death panels" that will kill off grandma or Sarah Palin's year old baby, we have been subjected to lying elected officials for the last eight years plus. Problem with that is, other than George Washington, who was as close to a saint as this country ever found in a president, pretty much every administration since 1796 has felt the need to twist the truth- or suppress it- in the name of national security or some other essential without which the republic would surely perish.

Finally we have news casters. The lack of gravitas in current news anchors was highlighted after the death of Walter Cronkite, who, after his retirement in 1981, retrospectively became the most admired newscaster in history (revisionist history- there were excellent, intelligent, and honest news anchors before and during his time, including Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley, and Eric Sevareid). Instead of being able to rely on television or print news to convey an honest attempt at truth telling or revealing the nefarious wizards behind the many curtains in Washington or on Wall Street, we have slowly come to realize that they have become part of the circus.

The lines have blurred, with General Electric owning NBC, Disney's got ABC, and, worst of all, Rupert Murdoch created and controls Fox. Instead of news, we have infotainment or, in the case of Fox, outright lies. The old saw in local television news was "if it bleeds, it leads," referring to the public fascination with violence and crime. At least the old time crime reporters weren't moonlighting as criminals. That's no longer the case, as the new saw is "shouting heads and confrontation trump accurate analysis." If an issue is important- health care and the Iraq War being two recent examples- then the mainstream media is sure to be hard at work muddying the waters rather than revealing underlying truth. Each "side" (and there have to be sides, no issue can stand alone) is given equal credence, regardless of the relative merit in their positions. We've been treated to former generals on major networks, secretly working for the Pentagon, pretending to be independent analysts during the Iraq War. Former Newsweek Reporter Richard Wolfe was able to appear on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann for several months while secretly (unbeknownst to MSNBC viewers) enjoying a career working for a Washington lobbying firm, "Public Strategies."

The moral of this story is: if the public taste is the determining factor, we only want truth telling and lies revealed in our fictional television, not on our newscasts.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I went to a town hall meeting last Thursday- and democracy broke out. I fully expected to see members of the lunatic fringe attempting to shout down our Congressman or monopolize the microphones. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to note that our local law enforcement was out in force and, while being studiously polite, they enforced ground rules which allowed everybody who walked up to a microphone over the three and one half hour session (it was scheduled to run 4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M., but the last speaker finished around 7:30) to have their say.


Our Congressman, Sanford Bishop, Jr. has represented Georgia's Second Congressional District- all of Southwest Georgia- for 16 years. Amazingly, he looked and sounded as fresh at the end of the session- his fourth in two days- as he did at the beginning. He was unflappable yet in control, numerous times shushing the crowd when some members became unruly or rude in response to remarks from a citizen. Nattily attired in a brown suit, yellow tie, and matching pocket patch, he appeared far younger than his 62 years, and he was indefatigable in his presentation of the thousand page bill to a standing room audience in Albany State University's Academics (ACAD) building.


Belying the media stereotypes, the audience appeared to be made up primarily of local citizens with a genuine interest in having a conversation- or making a point- with or to their representative in Congress. There were no signs permitted in the auditorium. My two minute effort with a Sharpie on posterboard went to naught, as I turned over my poster to a polite policewoman in the lobby who gave me a choice between keeping my sign and picketing outside the building, or leaving it in her care and attending the meeting. The officer wasn't around when I got out hours later, so the world will never see my brightly lettered sign "TELL CONGRE$$ NOT TO $UCCOMB TO IN$URANCE DOLLAR$"

In what I had correctly anticipated was a brilliant stroke of political strategy, the venue at Albany State ensured that the Fox News watching, Rush Limbaugh regurgitating, white Republicans (most of whom haled from outside of Albany- each speaker had to identify himself or herself by name and location), were outnumbered by African American fans of both President Obama and Congressman Bishop. I roughly calculated the breakdown as approximately 30 percent white, middle class, immigrant bashing opponents of any reform, any government spending, any hint of Socialism, and 70 percent who supported reforming the current mess. At times the meeting seemed more like a television talent contest with fans of each side cheering, applauding speakers who vocalized their positions.

The biggest cheer of the night went to a minister who recited phrases from the New Testament which were echoed by Congressman Bishop- versus about Jesus healing the sick- and suddenly it seemed that a political town hall meeting had turned into a religious revival, as the more than half of the crowd rose to their feet in noisy appreciation. The self professed right wing Christians who oppose any help to the less fortunate, including Samaritans, excuse me, Mexican immigrants, never appreciated the irony of their position.

I made a point of introducing myself to those sitting around me- to my left was a slightly OCD white middle aged opponent of health reform who was fiercely against Socialism in any form. He felt that the government could not possibly run a health care system. He had health insurance on his job and seemed satisfied with his current lot. When he railed against Socialism in the medical field, I asked him if he thought that most senior citizens were dissatisfied with Medicare and would prefer to opt out and purchase private insurance. His response- reasonably enough- was that they wouldn't because they didn't have to pay anything for Medicare. At no point did he seem to understand that once we reach 65, we're all Socialists. Nor did he seem aware of the undisputed fact that somehow the government provides Medicare benefits to seniors without totally screwing up the program. In fact the overhead for Medicare is a fraction of what private insurers and HMO's expend for their high priced executives and other administrative costs.


One woman's story was particularly telling. She mentioned her husband, a Vietnam Veteran, who had been exposed to Agent Orange during his tour there in the early 1970's. Three decades later they had good jobs and were living the American dream- beautiful house, several cars, money saved for retirement. Then, in 2002, he became sick. The Veterans Administration denied benefits and he was ineligible for care at the VA hospital. Although they had insurance, the incredible expense of his illness cost them their house, their cars, their life savings. Five years later, they were so destitute that she had to choose between paying for the medicine to keep him alive a bit longer and the medicine she needed to treat her high blood pressure that might cost her own life. She chose to buy the medicine her husband needed, but in the end, he died. The question she posed- the challenge she posed- to the Congressman and to the anti-reformers in the audience, was: why did she have to choose? Why did anyone have to lose everything and then have to make a life or death choice like that because the money had run out? None of the Socialism hating, immigrant bashing, Fox News misinformation swallowing, white Republicans had an answer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Sometimes a talent comes along that is so breathtaking, so pure, that it leaves you almost speechless. When even the members of an opposing team perk up and pay close attention so that they don't miss that one moment of action, that one amazing "did you see that!" play, then you know you're looking at someone special, a once in a generation comet blazing a trail through the sports firmament. When Michael Jordan laced up his sneakers, stadiums sold out and television ratings soared. You never knew when he'd invent some incredible move on the basketball court that even he didn't realize he was about to pull off.

There have been a few players like that who have made their marks on the football field- Gale Sayers in the open field, Dan Fouts and his corps of receivers in San Diego, Joe Montana in playoff games and Super Bowls. One of them was quarterback Michael Vick, the first round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2001 as a sophomore- a draft selection unprecedented in the history of the National Football League.

Playing for the Atlanta Falcons, Vick immediately had success, leading them to the playoffs his second year in the league, and defeating the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field, Wisconsin, in a snow storm in January of 2003, ending Green Bay's undefeated record there in playoff games. Vick was a good quarterback- although he has a great arm, his numbers and quarterback rating were average at best- but fans got their money's worth when he tucked the ball and took off running when his receivers were covered. The fastest man on the field, he easily outran linemen and linebackers, and even the speed men on the defense had difficulty catching or tackling him. One moment that left opponents shaking their heads occurred during an away game in New Orleans, when Vick ran up the middle on a broken play, streaking so fast that he caused two Saints linebackers to look like members of the Keystone Cops as they collided head on into each other in a futile attempt to tackle Vick, who was already yards past them on his way to the goal line.

In 2006, his last year in the league, he ran for more than a thousand yards, setting the record for most yards rushing by a quarterback, but more importantly to the Falcons, he was a winner- when he wasn't injured- twice leading them to the playoffs, in 2002 and 2004,.

Which is why the world- both inside and outside sports- was so stunned and shocked a little more than two years ago when Michael Vick's life caved in on him after he was caught in the criminal investigation of an interstate dog fighting ring Vick founded and bankrolled.

The words of the federal indictment charging Vick and some of the friends he grew up with in Newport News, Virginia, were prosaic, bland even. Paragraph 10: "In or about early 2002, PEACE, PHILLIPS, TAYLOR and VICK established a dog fighting business enterprise known as 'Bad Newz Kennels.' At one point, the defendants obtained shirts and headbands representing and promoting their affiliation with 'Bad Newz Kennels'."

But the truth was that this "enterprise" was more akin to the depredations of a sociopath who set neighborhood cats on fire than a business enterprise boyhood friends joined into for profit. The descriptions that came out of the investigation were chilling, disgusting. Vick admitted that he was personally involved in the killing of dogs that did not perform well during "testing" sessions at his property. Some of the dogs were killed by hanging them. Others were electrocuted or held under water until they drowned. One dog was slammed into the ground until he broke and died. Vick had family pet dogs put into the ring with killer pit bulls to watch them get torn to bits.

Those acts weren't "mistakes." They weren't "errors in judgment." They weren't "lapses." And they are not the acts of a human being who can be rehabilitated. They are the acts of a predator, a sociopath. Like child molesters, rapists, and serial killers, they may follow society's rules when it is convenient to them, but they have no ability to empathize. They can't feel other's pain. They will never internalize the feelings they may show on the surface to emulate true human beings who would never dream of torturing the family pet or using cruel forms of execution to kill helpless dogs who failed to "perform."

So when you see Michael Vick on the football field for the Philadelphia Eagles this Fall (they play the Falcons later in the season), don't be fooled by any outward signs of contrition, by any press conferences or Sixty Minutes appearances. He may say all the right things; he may look like a decent human being. But underneath, he's Ted Bundy. And nothing can ever change the essential core of a human being who has lost his humanity- or who never had it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


People sit outdoors as they wait to receive medical treatment during the Remote Area Medical (RAM) health clinic at the Forum in Inglewood, California August 14, 2009. The Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corp (RAM) is a non-profit organization that provides free health care, dental care and eye care in remote areas of the United States and the world since 1985 and was available in the Los Angeles area from August 11 to 18.

The fascinating fact about the "debate" on health care is that there isn't one- at least not in the one place where debate would be both necessary and useful, which is among the lawmakers who will decide whether or how we will fix our eminently dysfunctional system for providing medical services. A true debate would address four essential objectives:

(1) providing some kind of coverage for the 50 million uninsured;

(2) cutting costs to the government;

(3) cutting costs and unnecessary overhead to medical providers; and

(4) improving the overall health of Americans.

The Remote Area Medical clinic, providing free eye and dental care, set up at the fairgrounds in Wise, Virginia, last July. Republicans (and Glenn Beck) argue that Americans have the best health care in the world and that individuals can choose whether or not to purchase health insurance. In the real world, insurance companies refuse to sell policies to sick people, routinely deny any coverage for "pre-existing conditions," and have caps on benefits which cause people who had what they thought was decent coverage to file for bankruptcy when their lifetime benefits run out.

The one benefit to the lunatic fringe's bogus attacks on reform is that they highlight the fact that Democrats' proposals are so fuzzy and incoherent that no one can explain them, let alone defend them. Someone needs to get the message to our communicator in chief that his party's present tactics aren't working, and that even his supporters can't identify what his proposals are or how they will be funded without further busting a budget with record deficits.

So far, President Obama has not endorsed any bill that would truly provide universal coverage- no plan which would cover every uninsured American will make it to a vote in Congress. As to cutting costs to the government, the President has missed the boat entirely by his refusal to consider any plan that doesn't allow HMO's and private insurers a large piece of the three trillion dollar pie.

Meanwhile, the Republicans offer nothing other than the absurd claim that the present system isn't broken. That certainly explains their failure to propose legislation, let alone pass any, to cover even one of the millions of uninsured during their control of Congress from 1995 to 2007. Nor did they ever attempt to rein in exploding costs, instead passing a Medicare Prescription Drug Bill in 2003 which was a huge boon to the bottom line of the pharmaceutical giants who give millions of dollars to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Instead of attacking the deficit and runaway drug expenses for seniors, the law increased the federal deficit and raised the overall costs to consumers by placing obstacles in the way of states or companies with health plans and preventing them from negotiating lower drug prices or shopping in Canada for cheaper generic drugs.

It's not as if there aren't excellent ideas out there- they just haven't made it inside the halls of power in our nation's capital. A single payer government funded universal catastrophic health insurance plan-- for example, a plan that would cover ever American family's expenses over $3,600 annually- $300 a month- would solve the first issue of universal coverage.

Replacing Medicare and Medicaid with a single payer plan would also help resolve the second issue of reducing the federal deficit by immediately shaving hundreds of billions of dollars annually from the federal budget. This would remove the cloud of the projected bankruptcies those programs will face in the next 10 or 20 years.

There are some simple- and cost free (to the government) solutions for immediately putting the brakes on the increase in overall health care costs, which have far outstripped inflation in recent years. One suggestion is to subject hospitals, physicians, and other medical providers to federal anti-trust laws. There is no question that overall costs have been driven up in recent years by anti-competitive practices among hospitals and physicians. The trend has been to keep prices artificially high by creating monopolies, either through the legislative process (the most pernicious being the requirement that a hospital obtain a "certificate of need" in order to buy certain equipment or perform such routine medical procedures as delivering babies) or through economic power (buying up local hospitals and clinics has been a favorite tactic of our local "public" hospital in Albany, Georgia, and many local physicians groups deal with lone competitors simply by bringing them into their large practices).

If you've ever walked a city street where restaurants post their menus and prices next to their entrance, then you would recognize the simplicity- and effectiveness- of another cost free method of keeping prices low while encouraging informed consumer/patient shopping for medical services. Hospitals and physicians should be required to publicly post their fees for all services and products, both next to their front doors and on the internet. Consumers have no problem shopping for the lowest gasoline prices- note how two gas stations across the street from each other, or even just in the same town, allow informed shopping. And the fact that they would be subject to anti-trust laws would eliminate overt price fixing.

The Obama Administration needs to include some sweeteners to make these proposals attractive to the health care providers. Far and away the biggest- also cost free to the government- would be the elimination of all medical malpractice lawsuits and replacing lawsuits requiring proof of negligent acts under the current tort system with a no-fault system similar to the Workers' Compensation programs each state has in place. The pool of funds available to compensate patients and consumers injured, regardless of fault or negligence, would be funded by a modest two percent sales tax on all medical services and products, which are presently untaxed. That two percent would be instantly recouped by the billions in savings in overhead by medical providers no longer paying malpractice insurance premiums or practicing unnecessary defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits.

A check on bad doctors (which the current tort system does not do at all) would be to publicly post all no fault awards for patients on the internet, with privacy protected by removing all identifiers except for the name of the hospital or physician, the procedure performed or product provided, the date, and the amount awarded. Even good doctors and hospitals occasionally have bad outcomes, but currently prospective patients have no way of determining who the truly bad doctors are. A large number of negative outcomes for a physician performing a particular procedure (i.e. hysterectomies) compared to other physicians performing the same procedures would certainly be a red flag to patients while providing a genuine incentive for the medical industry to reform itself.

The biggest fans of a single payer system should be hospitals and doctors, since such a system would cut their administrative overhead by billions while eliminating no pay and slow pay patients and insurers. Currently medical providers have to deal with Medicare, Medicaid, a welter of private insurers, and uncovered patients, with a multi-tiered pricing system that charges wildly disparate fees for routine services and products.

One other advantages of a single payer system is that if it is funded by a national sales tax on all goods and all services, then every person in America, including illegal immigrants. would pay. And just like gasoline taxes that pay for road maintenance and other transportation expenses, we each would pay as much or as little as our pocketbooks would allow. By switching to a single payer, government funded program, cash strapped American employers currently providing some form of medical benefits to employees would be freed from that expense in their overhead. Those billions of dollars could go to paying their current employees more and towards hiring more employees. American companies would also be free to compete on equal footing with foreign companies which have national health insurance and no medical costs included in the price of their products.

There are many ideas currently being floated to achieve issue number 4, improving the overall health of Americans and reduce their need for medical care to treat easily preventable diseases. If we can do that, then it would, not incidentally, also result in cost savings at every phase of the system. One proposal whose cost would easily be recouped in following years is for the government to provide or fund free annual checkups for every American. Catching diseases while they are treatable, or treatable at much lower cost, will result in huge savings both in the pocketbook and in human costs.

Another approach is to attack the products and lifestyles which are killing us- or at least slowing us down. W should heavily tax every toxic product, not just cigarettes and alcohol, which presently burden the system with costs for treating patients their products are slowly killing with cancer, lung diseases, heart disease , and stroke. We need to outlaw all forms of advertising for products which have no value and which are proven links to disease. And we need to strictly enforce the laws against underage consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, which would result in huge long term savings from the damage inflicted on our country by those substances.

So the ideas are there, and many of them are cost free except for the paper on which to write the laws to enact them. Without question a lot of large insurance companies' oxes would be gored, and they will stop at almost nothing to prevent true reform from being enacted. But under our present circumstances, we have nothing to lose by boldly going forward.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


There are people- "serious people" who argue that the following should not be prosecuted, because it would set a bad precedent of criminalizing the political decisions of a previous administration, or because we need to "look forward" and "move on" or not prosecute the little people who were "just following orders."

I think that is a crock. Either murder is always a crime, or we should never prosecute any murders in our country, ever. Anarchy versus law. Not a hard choice for me to make.

From Glenn Greenwald's blog (substitute writer,
Daphne Eviatar of The Washington Independent).

"They include the death of an Afghan man who was stripped naked, dragged across a concrete floor and chained there by CIA operatives in a secret prison north of Kabul known as the "Salt Pit"; he was left on the floor overnight and froze to death.

Then there's the death of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi insurgent who died just hours after he was captured and beaten by Navy SEALS, who hung him from his wrists, which were tied behind his back, until he was dead.

And there's the killing of Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, a 56-year-old who, reportedly uncooperative with interrogators, was stuffed into a sleeping bag and clubbed to death."

Monday, August 10, 2009


Socialist Muslim time travelers determined to destroy America in 2009 traveled back to 1961 to place this announcment in the Honolulu Advertiser.

One of my favorite movies- I watch it almost every time it shows up on television- is the 1997 satirical thriller "Conspiracy Theory," starring Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard of the Star Trek Next Generation series, but this time playing a shady government bad guy). The movie can be watched as a straight thriller, as an inside joke for the cognoscenti who enjoy poking fun at the conspiracy nuts who have permeated American history since the founding fathers were linked to the secret society of Free Masons, or a little bit of both.

There was one moment in the movie- I remember laughing out loud in the theater- when Mel Gibson is in New York City trying to escape from the net of mysterious agents sent to capture him after he compulsively buys a copy of "Catcher in the Rye" (apparently a book beloved by psychotic American assassins), and black helicopters on "silent mode" hover over the streets as dark clothed commandos rappel down ropes. That scene was ripped straight from the lunatic writings of the radical right wingers who fervently believed that there were coded messages on telephone poles in America intended to guide nefarious United Nations black helicopters filled with foreign troops sent to take over our country.

Conspiracies have been blamed for everything from putting flouride in our drinking water (in the 1950's the John Birchers thought it was a Communist plot to control our minds), to the Kennedy assassination (that one at least has rational people making the arguments, based on evidence), to the 9-11 attacks (take your pick- either the Israeli Mossad planted bombs in the twin towers to turn America against the Muslim Middle East, or the Bush Administration did it to obtain dictatorial powers and gin up the war machine).

So the latest craze- an apt term, considering who's behind it- comes from a group called the "birthers" who deny that President Barack Obama is the legitimate president because he wasn't born in America. They claim he wasn't born in Hawaii, and go into a frenzy when sane humans refer to his Hawaiin birth certificate. Never mind the facts- which are never convenient to any conspiracy nut, and can always be explained away using the "my eyes are closed, I can't see you, so you don't exist" theory of logical analysis. It doesn't matter to them that both daily Honolulu newspapers, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star Bulletin, ran a birth announcement of Barack Obama's birth on August 4, 1961.

For those conspiracy theorists who posit that the conspiracy started on that date, I assume that they also believe in time travelers who figured out that this particular baby was going to grow up and be president. Presumably the time travelers headed back to 1961 and posted fake birth announcements to give a chance at the nation's highest office that the Kenyan (or Australian, or Indonesian) born infant would have been denied by the literal words of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution:

"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

So long as the "birthers" don't bring guns to the argument, they are pretty much harmless. And they are valuable for revealing those holding positions public office or well paid pundits (I'm talking about you, Lou Dobbs) whose brains aren't exactly firing on all cylinders, or who are just plain demagogues willing to use lies to build up their own careers. The one disservice the Birthers have performed is that they have distracted from real and legitimate criticism of policies of the Obama Administration, which include continuation of Bush policies in Iraq, ratcheting up the war in Afghanistan, failing to prosecute war criminals as required by both American law and international treaties, and an ineptly constructed and poorly marketed health care reform bill.

But hey, so long as they provide grist for Jon Stewart's Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher, I'll enjoy the well deserved mocking their lunacy has earned.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


U. S. Naval Captain Stephen Decatur, after defeating pirates on the Barbary Coast of northern Africa, returned to American in 1816 and uttered a toast which contained the (in)famous phrase: "our country, right or wrong."

The following was written in response to a letter I sent, which was a response to one of those jingoistic chain e-mails that goes around the world a few times and come back every few years. In my letter I pointed out that I preferred a more nuanced patriotism and that I had no problem with public criticism of our country by anybody- foreign or domestic.

Dear Jim:

"My country, right or wrong. May she always be right; but, right or wrong, aways my country." -- author unknown (to me) (Actually, I think there are several versions of the quote.)

But, DAMN TO HELL ANY S.O.B. who thinks he has some obligation to go all around the world apologizing for our country, which has sacrificed the lives and bodies of more of its own sons and daughters for the rest of the world than any other nation, has provided more food, shelter and medicine for other peoples than any other nation and done more good in the world during the past 100 years than any other nation in world history. AND ALL WITHOUT CLAIMING ANY TERRITORY OF OTHER NATIONS. Au contraire! We have been asked to stay to protect them from further danger! No person and no nation is perfect, but on balance, the good greatly outweighs the bad.



Dear ______________

You are right on the original quote, which came from U. S. Naval Captain Stephen Decatur, and was said in a context totally unlike that used in recent decades as a challenge to those who want to criticize our nation or to correct its wrongs. Here's the context of the original quote, lifted from an on-line article by J. R. Dunn:

"Shortly after returning to the U.S., [in 1815, Decatur] again set sail for North Africa, commanding a squadron of nine ships, with the mission of ending Barbary state piracy once and for all. In the Mediterranean he captured the Algerian flagship Mashouda along with an accompanying brig, then leveraged the victory to gain a favorable treaty from the Dey of Algiers. Similar submissions followed from Tripoli and Tunis.

On returning home in April 1816, he was feted as the Conqueror of Araby. It was at one such banquet that he raised his glass and spoke the words,

'Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.'"

Decatur's comment still makes no sense to me, although I confess that at a remove of almost 200 years, I may have missed something in translation. Here's a good comment on Decatur's famous quote, followed by another quote which I think states a true patriot's sentiments better than Decatur did:

" My country, right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying My mother, drunk or sober."

Gilbert K. Chesterton,

"My country right or wrong; when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right."
Carl Schurz

As for your contention that in the course of our nation's history we managed to do all that good without claiming the territory of other nations- please remember, I did major in history. I noticed you qualified it by limiting it to only the last 100 years. Are you ashamed of what we did the first 120? Like invading Mexico and seizing modern day New Mexico, Arizona and California back in 1846-1848? Or the proposals to invade and seize Canada from the British circa 1812? (That one didn't turn out so well). How about the "Spanish American" War trumped up by yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst and ignited (literally and figuratively) by an unfortunate accident involving a boiler explosion on the Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898? We gobbled up Cuba and the Philippines after that mismatch, and we still own Puerto Rico and some islands in the Pacific Ocean to this day.

How about the times we invaded countries in the Caribbean or Central America in the 20th century? For instance, we attacked Cuba in 1961 (the Bay of Pigs disaster) with proxies, and we successfully invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing the creation of "a second Cuba" on America's doorstep, ordered U.S. forces to restore order. Citing as an official reason for the invasion the need to protect the lives of foreigners, none of whom had been killed or wounded, a fleet of 41 vessels was sent to blockade the island, and an invasion was launched by Marines and elements of the United States Army's 82nd Airborne Division. [paraphrased from Wikipedia.]

Of course, that doesn't include our invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), Iraq (1990 and 2003) and Afghanistan (2001), currently costing us a few hundred billion dollars a year. Just think how much tax money we could save the tea baggers if we stopped invading and occupying other countries but instead supported a world policing body! We could call it "The United Nations."

The upshot is, if we don't realistically confront our country's faults and address them-- if we jump on anyone who criticizes us- we won't get better, and we will keep repeating our mistakes. So which is worse: not being embarrassed by harsh truths, or making our country good enough that we won't have so much to be embarrassed about? I opt for the latter.


Sunday, August 02, 2009


A brilliant idea to add excitement and additional (sane) fan interest to professional golfing events.

Jim's column this week is reprinted from a letter he wrote ESPN's the Magazine Rick Reilly, whose "Life of Reilly" column spices up the back page of that magazine and which formerly appeared for several years in Sports Illustrated

Dear Mr. Reilly,

It has come to my attention that you have been (self?) anointed as the national gadfly on sports absurdities and oddities and as correcter in chief of some (not all) of that which is wrong in modern sports.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would lend your sharp and satirical wit to one of the banes of modern professional golfing events. I refer to the now ubiquitous "IN THE HOLE!!!" which has now superseded the quaint and archaic (as Alberto Gonzales would say) "YOU DA MAN!!!" which first haunted Augusta National's somewhat less than hallowed grounds. [Sorry, but their profound and lengthy history of first, racism, then gender discrimination, and always, elitism beyond sanity- they close the whole course for the summer, for goodness sakes, ostensibly because of the heat, while every golf course to the south of Augusta (virtually the entire State of Georgia, including my home courses in Albany) and Florida remains open.]

I have a modest proposal to rectify this situation, which has reached such absurd depths that as Tiger Woods has barely reached 10 degrees of arc past the point of striking his soon to be wayward tee shot on a 598 yard par 5, some inebriated idiot desperate for attention (Did you hear me on television dear? That was ME bellowing on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th tees, until I had to find a port a potty to dispose of all of the beer I had rented and I couldn't find my way back to the golf course again.) screams that the ball should, impossibly, land in the hole a third of a mile away. My suggestion is to arm various course marshals and other volunteers with paint ball guns, loaded with a water soluble paint and relatively low velocity propulsion mechanisms. Any person noticed bellowing any inanity before the golfer has completed his follow through may be shot with impunity, at chest level or lower, but only in the intervening 10 seconds, after which, any persons found to have been squarely shot with various colored paint splatters will be gently escorted from the golf course to a tent where they will be given the option of leaving for the day and being forever barred from the grounds (a dire threat to Masters "badge holders" or "patrons" or whatever other euphemism CBS's unctuous announcers are currently required to use when referring to the unwashed, uncouth masses who attend the tournament, OR, in the alternative, sitting down, taking a breathalyzer test, and if they post less than .08 (the legal limit for DUI in Georgia) they will have to watch a one hour video on golf etiquette before they are allowed to return to the course. But they will return only with a balloon tied around the waist, bobbing at a height of 10 feet, still wearing their paint spattered clothes so as to allow for well deserved embarrassment and so that they may be easily spotted and removed if any further infractions ensue.

Thank you for your time and attention. I hope this has been as inspirational for you to read as it has been cathartic for me to write it.

Sincerely yours,
James Finkelstein
Albany, Georgia

P.S. I have had a career in golf good enough that I played on an ECAC championship team at Penn (1972), played in a U.S. Open Qualifier at Pinehurst #2 (1976- I missed the cut by about a thousand light years), with Allen Doyle in a U.S. Amateur qualifier at Atlanta Athletic Club (circa 1982- again, nowhere near making the cut) and won a couple of club championships spaced 29 years apart, one in Pennsylvania, one in Georgia. And I never take a cart- I always walk, so I am one of the unwashed (and stinky) masses.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


545 vs. 300,000,000
Republicans & Democrats Alike - No One Is Blameless


Charlie Reese has been a journalist for 49 years. Charlie Reese is a former columnist of the Orlando Sentinel Newspaper.

By Charlie Reese

Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.

Have you ever wondered, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have deficits?

Have you ever wondered, if all the politicians are against inflation and high taxes, WHY do we have inflation and high taxes?

. You and I don't propose a federal budget, the President does.
.. You and I don't have the Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations, the House of Representatives does.
. You and I don't write the tax code, Congress does.
. You and I don't set fiscal policy, Congress does.
. You and I don't control monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Bank does..

One hundred Senators, 435 Congressmen, one President, and nine Supreme Court justices, 545 human beings out of the 300 million are directly, legally, morally, and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country..

I excluded the members of the Federal Reserve Board because that problem was created by Congress. In 1913, Congress delegated its Constitutional duty to provide a sound currency to a federally chartered, but private, central bank.

I excluded all the special interests and lobbyists for a sound reason. They have no legal authority. They have no ability to coerce a senator, a congressman, or a president to do one cotton-picking thing. I don't care if they offer a politician $1 million dollars in cash. The politician has the power to accept or reject it. No matter what the lobbyist promises, it is the legislator's responsibility to determine how he votes.

Those 545 human beings spend much of their energy convincing you that what they did is not their fault. They cooperate in this common con regardless of party.

What separates a politician from a normal human being is an excessive amount of gall. No normal human being would have the gall of a Speaker, who stood up and criticized the President for creating deficits. The president can only propose a budget. He cannot force the Congress to accept it.

The Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, gives sole responsibility to the House of Representatives for originating and approving appropriations and taxes.

Who is the speaker of the House? Nancy Pelosi. She is the leader of the majority party. She and fellow House members, not the President, can approve any budget they want. If the president vetoes it, they can pass it over his veto if they agree to.

It seems inconceivable to me that a nation of 300 million can not replace 545 people who stand convicted -- by present facts -- of incompetence and irresponsibility. I can't think of a single domestic problem that is not traceable directly back to those 545 people. When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise the power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist.

If the tax code is unfair, it's because they want it unfair.
If the budget is in the red, it's because they want it in the red.
If the Army & Marines are in IRAQ , it's because they want them in IRAQ .
If they do not receive social security but are on an elite retirement plan not available to the people, it's because they want it that way.

There are no insoluble government problems.

Do not let these 545 people shift the blame to:
. bureaucrats, whom they hire and whose jobs they can abolish;
. to lobbyists, whose gifts and advice they can reject;
. to regulators, to whom they give power to regulate and from whom they can take away this power.

Above all, do not let them con you into the belief that there exists disembodied mystical forces like "the economy," "inflation," or "politics" that prevent them from doing what they took an oath to do.

Those 545 people, and they alone, are responsible.
They, and they alone, have the power.
They, and they alone, should be held accountable by the people who are their bosses -- us!

Provided voters have the gumption to manage their own employees, we should vote all of them out of office and clean up their mess!

What you do with this article now that you have read it is entirely up to you, though you have several choices:

1. You can send this to everyone in your address book and hope "they" do something about it.
You can agree to "vote against" everyone that is currently in office, knowing that the process will take several years

and ask your representative to vote in TERM LIMITS.
3. You can decide to "run for office" yourself and agree to do the job properly.
4. Lastly, you can sit back and do nothing or re-elect the current bunch of selfish professional politicians.

It is our choice.

JIM'S RESPONSE: Nah. I blame us- we the people. Any time a person running for office has dared to tell the truth- in 1980, when George H. W. Bush derided Ronald Reagan's proposals to increase defense spending and cut taxes, while claiming that the "Laffer curve" would magically cause the budget to balance, he called it "voodoo economics." Reagan beat Bush for the Republican nomination, Bush then got on board (no more cries of "voodoo economics" from him even when he ran for President again and won in 1988), and the deficits went up sharply during the Reagan Administration after relatively low annual deficits (see below) under Carter.

In 1984, when Walter Mondale ran against Reagan and said in a national debate that the only way to balance the budget and end the deficits which had burgeoned under Reagan was to raise taxes-- "he won't tell you this; but I will" is my recollection of what Mondale said-- he lost every state in the country except Minnesota.

In 1992, Bush the elder lost after he had made his infamous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, then discovered during actual governing that it would be irresponsible not to raise taxes in the wake of unexpected expenditures on such frivolities as an unnecessary invasion of Panama, the S & L bailout (after Reagan years of deregulation and "go go" banking practices), a Wall Street meltdown as a result ("greed is good" was the mantra of Michael Douglas' character in the movie, "Wall Street" which, like the movie "The China Syndrome" which I attended the night before the Three Mile Island nuclear near disaster, eerily appeared at the same time as the great crisis hit), and an unnecessary war in Kuwait (you have to read the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie's remarks to Saddam Hussein just weeks before Hussein launched his invasion in 1990 under the mistaken belief that the U.S. would do nothing and let him annex Kuwait to Iraq).

In 2000 when George W. Bush said that 1+1+1=2 (those were trillions) and that he could increase defense spending and give away the surplus (back to the taxpayers) and keep the budget balanced (we were running a surplus for the first time in decades at that point and actually contemplated paying off the national debt), he got away with it, voters ignored or applauded Bush's apparent total lack of intellectual capacity to govern responsibly, and he won (well, maybe) the election.

In 2004, Bush promised that by the end of his second term- 2008- he would cut the deficit (not the debt, just the annual amount by which outgo exceeded income) in half. He won the election, and deficits went up to historic levels.

By the end of 2008, this country faced an economic meltdown not seen since the Great Depression, and the powers that be said that deficit spending on a massive scale was the only way to save the country- then instead of pouring the money into jobs programs, mortgage relief, and infrastructure repair, most of it went to banks- who ending up paying out millions in bonuses for almost destroying the country.

Here's a few facts on the budget deficits over the years to put this all in perspective:


( as it happened, Ronald Reagan was far and away the worst president at deficit reduction and budget discipline- and he had a Republican Senate his first six years, 1981-1986, so you can't blame a Democratic Congress for the out of control budget deficits and tripling of the national debt. But in sheer numbers, George W. Bush added $5 trillion, mostly through his incompetence, again with a Republican Congress- both houses, his first six years, 2001-2006, except for a brief year- 2001-2002, when the Senate was run by Democrats.)

When discussing the relative impact of Republican and Democratic presidents on spending and deficit and debt reduction (deficit being the amount that spending exceeds income in one year, while the national debt is the total of all amounts owed by the Federal Government at any given moment), it is helpful to have the facts, courtesy of the United States Treasury Department. As the late Senator Patrick Moynihan famously said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions- but not their own facts. Here are the facts. You can draw your own conclusions:

When Jimmy Carter came into office January 20, 1977, the national debt was about $620 billion. When he left office and Ronald Reagan took office January 20,1981, the national debt was under one trillion dollars (about $907 billion, an increase of $287 billion, or 46%, which was an 11.5% increase each year in office). When President Reagan left office in 1989 and his vice president, George H. W. Bush succeeded him, the national debt had more than tripled to $2.8 trillion dollars ($2.1 trillion additional debt in 8 years- a 230% increase, or about 29% per year). When George H. W. Bush's term ended and Bill Clinton took office January 20, 1993, our total national debt was $4.2 trillion ( $1.4 trillion more, an increase of 50% in 4 years, 12.5% per year). When President Clinton left office and George W. Bush took office on January 20, 2001, our total national debt was $5,727,776,738,304.64 (rounded to $5.7 trillion- an increase of 36%, about 4.5% per year). When President Bush left office January 20, 2009, it was $10,626,877,048,913.08 (a $5 trillion increase to $10.7 trillion- an 88% increase, 11% increase per year).

The last four full years of Clinton's presidency, from September 1996 to September of 2000, the national debt increased from $5.3 trillion to $5.7 trillion, a $400 billion increase ($100 billion per year), a less than 10% total increase in the national debt during those years (2.5% per year). In terms of slowing the increase in the national debt, those were the best four years out of the last 32 years.

So, at the end of the day, it's us. We the People. We pretty much get the government we deserve. If our representative votes against common sense and fiscal responsibility but can brag at election time that he got us a few government projects built in the state/district, and he can vow to lock up every criminal forever (regardless of cost) and buy billion dollar boats and planes that the military does not want and does not need- then we have no one to blame but ourselves when we ignore their lack of character, their history in office, and vote them back in (tough on crime! strong national defense! cut all of your taxes!- now that's fiscal responsibility, American style.) It's kind of like every election day the nation gets drunk or stoned and then wakes up the next morning to realize who we brung home last night- and we're stuck with them for two, four, or six years. Then we do it all over again.