Requiem for the Heavyweights

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With the complete meltdown of the great Tiger Woods, the suggestion that one of the greatest quarterbacks in history had the football deflated so he could grip it better in rainy weather and other revelations rocking the world of professional sports, we fans could be forgiven for feeling disillusioned.

The hype is unabated. The media are agog over Sunday’s Superbowl, and a 30-second TV ad is fetching $4.5 million, but somehow the thrill is gone – for me, anyway.

I was looking forward to seeing Tiger display his prodigious talent this weekend, perhaps with Phil matching his virtuosity stroke for magnificent stroke. Instead I’ll be treated to college golfers like Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth or some kid named Burger or Berger… I don’t know and I don’t care.

I am sure these unknowns are good. But they don’t ring my bell. They remind me of that Iron Byron machine that’s used to test golf balls. Like trained seals, they perform routines devised through the use of the latest scientific equipment and drilled into them through hours upon hours of repetition.

Of course, there’s still Bubba. He is certainly no robot. But his kind is disappearing fast.

I will probably watch the rest of the Phoenix Open, despite the noise and nonsense, the glorification of rowdy behavior and the lack of star quality in the remaining contestants. But my heart won’t be in it. I might even doze off.

And I will probably join the more than one hundred million fans who tune in to Super Bowl XLIX . After all, what else is there to watch on Sunday nights? I’ve seen all the movies I want to see – at least all the movies Direct TV keeps showing over and over.

But I am sure the spectacle will overpower the game, the event will be ruined by contrived drama – sound and fury signifying nothing. The hype’s the thing, not the skill of the participants.

Meanwhile, the sordid reality behind the glamor keeps emerging… a football player knocking out his drunk wife in an elevator for example… the glossed-over football injuries… the cheating… the hypocrisy…

And it’s not just football. Professional sports seems to be riddled with deception and deceit. It’s what happens when so much money is involved, I suppose.

But what about the fans? Don’t we deserve better?

Click for Tiger’s collapse.

Click for more on pro sports.

 

And the Winner Was…

Miss Jamaica Kaci Fennell participates in the swim suit competition during the 63rd Annual MISS UNIVERSE Pageant on Jan. 25.

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How do you judge feminine beauty? Must a woman have flowing locks to be called beautiful? Must her figure conform to a set of preconceived measurements? Must her voice be well modulated, her manner graceful, her teeth perfect and her eyelashes long and sweeping?

Do you have an image of the ideal woman in your mind? Would you know how to judge 88 beautiful young women from around the world? Would you honestly be able to say this young woman is more beautiful than that one?

I know I couldn’t. To me, they are all beautiful, each in her own way.

Faced with the impossible job of ranking the Miss Universe competitors, the judges triggered a barrage of dissent. Here’s how Us Weekly reported it:

Miss Universe fans were in an uproar Sunday, Jan. 25 when Miss Colombia Paulina Vega was crowned 2015’s pageant queen, with audible boos heard as fan favorite, 22-year-old Miss Jamaica Kaci Fennell was named fourth runner-up. Quickly becoming the impetus behind the hashtag #MissJamaicaShouldHaveWon, Fennell proudly declared Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest person, and Bob Marley, her country’s greatest worldwide contributions during the pageant’s Q&A portion.

The magazine’s web site published an interview with Kaci (top photo) this week, and she certainly sounds like a winner to me. There was no disappointment in her remarks, no rancor. She made me proud – once again – to be a Jamaican.

Here’s how she responded when asked about her hair:

She’s got short hair and, no, she doesn’t care! During Sunday’s pageant, Fennell acknowledged her Halle Berry-esque hair, and in doing so, challenged the traditional notions of beauty. “I don’t have long tresses like everyone else, I’m just representing myself and that’s what beauty pageants are all about,” she told the crowd, including host Natalie Morales and judge Lisa Vanderpump. “You don’t have to look a certain way … and I feel like I represent that.”

 Obviously, I can’t reproduce the entire interview in a blog. But you can read it for yourself on the Us web site.
 

Legalizing the Wisdom Weed

I just read in Salon.com that Jamaica is about to legalize ganja. And I was puzzled. You mean to tell me it still isn’t legal?

When I was a boy, I used to see the East Indian workers on the banana plantation (where my father was the overseer) puffing contentedly as they took a break from their labor in the hot sun. Everyone knew they were smoking ganja. Nobody seemed to mind, and I can understand why. They needed whatever help they could find to endure the piercing makka and entangling wis they were clearing with their machetes.

Later, when I was a reporter for The Daily Gleaner in Kingston, I routinely saw someone – a man usually – puffing on a hand-rolled “cigarette” with that distinctive aroma as they waited for a bus, strolled through the crowd at West Parade, or whatever.

And I’m sure that just about anyone – Jamaican resident or tourist –  who has visited Montego Bay can recall being accosted by a ganja vendor as they walked along the street or lolled on the beach.

Not that the officials didn’t make a show of “eradicating”  the weed. Occasionally, some poor wretch would be “draped up” by police because they were high and disturbing the peace. These random arrests provided income for the “pan heads,” as special constables were called. As I remember, the pan heads were paid only for the arrests they made.

And when I worked for the Jamaica Daily News in the early Seventies, we would occasionally run stories about government raids on ganja plantations. I took it for granted that the raids were staged to appease America. Jamaican officials didn’t want to make US lawmakers mad. The island needed that foreign aid money.

I wrote a feature for the Daily News about the ganja plantations on the North Coast. As far as I could tell, there was nothing secretive about them. You could hear massive earth moving machines that local residents attributed to ganja growers. I talked to people who claimed that some ganja convoys were escorted by police to keep them safe from hijackers as they made their way out of the mountains to the nearest port.

And, as the Salon.com article reminds us, Jamaica is home to Rastafarians, who use it as a sacrament. As I recall, the Rastas call it the “wisdom weed” because of the enlightenment they get from it.

So what triggered the decision to make the weed legal after all these years? According to the article, which was written by Phillip Smith and first appeared on the AlterNet web site:

 Things have changed. The United States is no longer wielding international drug control treaties as clubs with which to beat down reform efforts and, in fact, is moving unevenly toward marijuana legalization itself. Four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized it, and 14 more have decriminalized it.

Smith goes on to say:

The situation in the hemisphere is similar. Uruguay has already legalized it, while Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico have decriminalized the possession of small amounts. The land of the legendary Lamb’s Bread pot strain and the home of ganja icon Bob Marley is in danger of being left behind when it comes to bringing marijuana laws into the 21st Century.

So you might conclude that the Jamaican authorities have finally seen the light and is abandoning a law that is widely ignored and unevenly applied. But, apparently it’s all about economics.

Smith quotes Justice Minister Mark Golding as saying marijuana law reform could boost the island’s economy. According to the article, Golding put it this way:

We need to position ourselves to take advantage of the significant economic opportunities offered by this emerging industry.

Click for the article.

 

Lessons from Greece

Education is simply learning from the experience of others. So it’s not surprising that the Republican base includes so many uneducated voters. These people are like toddlers who have to learn for themselves that playing with fire can be painful.

But surely the party’s leaders know better? Apparently not.

They seem to have learned nothing from the economic horrors suffered by European countries that adopted austerity. They stubbornly cling to the idea that the path to prosperity is a balanced budget. And they are prepared to inflict the most dire suffering on their country in order to achieve this goal.

No corporation would handcuff itself by refusing to borrow money. Borrowing money to expand is quite normal in the business world.

Of course, to succeed, companies must use the borrowed money wisely. They must earn enough to repay their debts and have something left over to share with stockholders.

Austerity economics must inevitably fail because less investment brings in reduced earnings and that means even less investment … and so on.

In politics, there’s also the public’s reaction to consider. Voters will not put up with deprivation for any length of time. They will turn against politicians who inflict suffering on them and their families. Eventually, even the most uneducated voters will catch on.

The recent Greek elections provide a dramatic example of this. Greek voters rejected the austerity they have endured for the past five years.

They were evidently sick of the spending cuts and tax increases imposed by an international bailout. And austerity not only brought them personal misery, it just wasn’t working.

In a recent New York Times column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (above) explains that as Greece slashed public services and cut back on wages and social benefits, the country’s revenues plummeted and unemployment soared.

Yet, on this side of the Atlantic, politicians continued to advocate the same belt tightening policies that were failing in Greece.

Will the new Republican Congress see the light and work with President Obama on infrastructure, education, equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage and other positive programs?

Or will it be up to the voters to reject austerity when they go to the polls next year?

Click for Krugman’s column.

 

Did Boehner Break the Law?

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I have come to expect rudeness from Republican lawmakers. They routinely display bad manners. Representative Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care speech six years ago is one memorable example. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s trademark bullying at town hall meetings is another. I could come up with dozens more, and I’m sure you could, too.

But even after six years of Republican rowdiness at Congressional hearings, as well as their disrespectful slurs against the President and their persistently boorish remarks, I wasn’t ready for John Boehner’s unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. He didn’t bother to touch base with the White House first.

That kind of behavior, according to people who keep track of such things, is a first. It is also a shocking breach of protocol, a slap in the President’s face and, possibly, a violation of America’s constitutional separation of powers.

Boehner (above, left, with Netanyahu) must know his invitation will endanger ongoing negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program.  Everyone knows how fiercely Netanyahu opposes the negotiations.

Furthermore, Boehner may have committed a felony. I just read an article in Truthout arguing that the invitation is illegal, and might even be seditious. The article suggests  it could warrant jail time for Boehner and calls on the Justice Department to take action.

Congress is talking about imposing a new round if sanctions on Iran, and the President declared in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that he would veto such sanctions. I’m sure you can imagine how he feels about Boehner’s invitation to the Israeli prime minister.

But I think it’s a stretch to advocate prosecution for Boehner.

Of course it would be merely tit-for-tat as Boehner is pursuing some kind of legal action against President Obama. But I am sure the President would not stoop to Boehner’s level. He will accept this latest insult with dignity – just as he has endured the outrageous cartoons and slurs of the past six years.

It will be up to the voters – you and me – to repay Boehner and his fellow-Republicans in our next trip to the polls.

Click for the Truthout article.

 

Champions of the Poor?

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I’m puzzled by the Republicans’ new-found concern for America’s poor.  Surprisingly, that’s the common theme in the flurry of GOP responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Are we supposed to accept the latest iteration as the real Mitt Romney – the caring billionaire who would work to reduce America’s scandalous income inequality?

Does he no longer despise that 47 percent who – according to the old Mitt – sponge off their hard-working betters?

Are we supposed to accept Joni Ernst’s portrayal of her childhood as evidence of her party’s sympathy for struggling Americans?

So her mother covered her “only good pair of shoes” with bread bags to protect them from the rain. So that gives her party special insights into the lives of suffering families?

What am I to make of the following excerpt from her televised speech?

Just look at my parents and grandparents. They had very little to call their own except the sweat on their brow and the dirt on their hands. But they worked, they sacrificed, and they dreamed big dreams for their children and grandchildren.

And did you notice that Joni Ernst is a woman? Who says the Republicans don’t care about women?

I suspect the GOP is trying to one-up (or should that be one-down?) the President, who touted “middle-class economics” in his speech. The President wants to help the middle class? Then the Republicans will help the poor as well. How do you like them apples, Obama?

Jeb Bush put it this way:

We need to create economic opportunity for every American, especially middle class families and those trying to rise out of poverty.

But wait till you hear how they propose to give America’s sufferers a hand up.

By  “simplifying the tax code” and making “across the board” cuts in federal taxes, for one. Of course that will help some middle class families and it might even make life a little easier for the working poor – at least those who make enough money to pay income taxes. But the rich will benefit far more. It’s what Bill Clinton used to call “arithmetic.”

(President Obama proposed a slight increase in taxes for the rich and substantial cuts in taxes for middle class families.)

Ms. Ernst also promised to repeal Obamacare and get the Keystone Pipeline built.

Building one pipeline would lift families out of poverty?  President Obama proposed a comprehensive program to repair and improve all of America’s tottering infrastructure.

And how does taking away their health insurance help struggling families?

In the Spanish-language version of Ernst’s  “official response,” Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo inserted a promise to reform immigration laws. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are desperately trying to reverse President Obama’s executive order shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The Republicans in Congress are also intent on slashing funds for such programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, school lunches, unemployment insurance and even food stamps.

And they’re doing their best to criminalize abortion, block equal pay for women, prevent a minimum wage increase, turn back the clock on such social change as gay marriage, and so on.

How’s that for empathy? Did they think we wouldn’t notice what they’re doing as well as what they’re saying?

Click for Joni Ernst’s speech.

Click for more on the responses.

 

You’ll Have to Choose, America!

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President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night minced no words. Here is what I want, he told Congress. Work with me to figure out how to get it done or face my veto.

For example, he promised to veto any effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act or  his executive order shielding some undocumented immigrants from deportation. And he made it clear that any attempt to increase sanctions on Iran, despite the apparent success of ongoing negotiations, would not get past his desk.

You and I know the Republicans are not going to work with the President to realize his agenda. They have an agenda of their own and it is vastly different from his.

They have been equally clear in declaring their goals.

Republicans want less government, lower taxes, more economic freedom. Leave our money in our pockets, they say, and the economy will flourish; take our money in taxes and the government will waste it.

Democrats believe that in a country of more than 300 million diverse people, the government can sometimes do a better job than individuals and corporations in providing the shared services society needs.

Obviously, there is little common ground between those views, and I don’t think the President will achieve much of his agenda in the next two years. Now that they control both the House and the Senate, Republicans will focus on undoing what the President has managed to get done, not on helping America’s middle class.

As  he pointed out, President Obama has made a significant difference during his first four years – despite relentless Republican opposition. Unemployment is down to 5.6 percent… Millions of the previously uninsured have health insurance… The stock market is booming… Corporations are bringing jobs back home… American troops are no longer fighting in Afghanistan.

And he declared:

At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.

Yes it’s time to choose, indeed. But not this year.

Congress is not going to see the light and work with him to provide free community college education… or to increase tax rates for families making more than half a million dollars a year… or to subsidize daycare for working mothers… or to lower student loan interest rates, or to launch a major road and bridge building program… or to protect the global financial system from another devastating crisis…

Those are not programs Republicans support. They see a different future for America, one that’s built on home schooling and charter schools, lower taxes for the rich, a hands-off approach to Wall Street… and slashing such programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, early childhood education, subsidized school lunches, and even food stamps.

Help the rich get richer and their spending will benefit the rest of us, Republicans say. (Yes, it’s the same old trickle-down theory.)

The two agendas are mutually exclusive. And America must decide which path to follow.

Not now of course.  The time to choose will come in the 2016 elections. And it will be the American people – the voters – who make that choice.

Click for the speech.

Click for the GOP response.

 

What Did MLK Really Want?

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Nearly half a century has passed into history since the assassination of Martin Luther King. Today, America looks back on the life that was snuffed out – supposedly by a ne’er-do-well named James Earl Ray – and tries once more to make sense of the man and his mission.

Google Dr. King and you will find him memorialized contradictorily as both a saint and a sinner, as a radical agitator and as a Nobel Peace Prize winning patriot.

But nobody denies he was among America’s most influential historical figures.

I was just 34 years old when Dr. King was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee back in April 1968. He was five years older than I.

Think of all he could have achieved if he had been allowed to go on living.

I suppose we will never know why he was murdered. I can think of no reason in this world that a 40-year-old white fugitive would seek out and murder a black preacher he had never met in his life – and might never even have heard of.

But I have a better idea of his reason for living. In a tape played at his funeral, he said, ‘‘I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others’’

And his immortal “I have a dream” spells out his commitment to that mission.

Today, as this nation is torn anew by racial conflicts and blighted by persistent economic injustice,  Americans – black, white and everyone else – would best honor Dr. King’s memory by recalling his message of brotherhood, his plea for peace, his dream of acceptance and forgiveness.

But that does not mean abandoning the battle for social justice. American society has changed for the better in the past half century, but there’s a lot of work left to be done. And powerful elements are resolutely engaged in trying to block – and undo – that progress.

As Dr. King reminded us:

We have … come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now…. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy …. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

He leaves today’s Americans with the troubling question: If not now, when? If not us, who?

Click for the speech.

Click for more on his life.

 

 

Here They Go Again

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I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the latest attempt by the new Congress to turn back the clock. But I can’t help feeling discouraged.

“Pro-life” House members have introduced a bill that would ban abortions after 20-weeks of pregnancy. The bill would exempt rape and incest victims – but only if they previously reported the crime to police.

I am horrified by abortion, as most people are. And I am deeply saddened by late-term abortions. But I don’t think politicians have the right to tell women what to do with their bodies. It’s a deeply personal matter with complex medical, psychological and social implications.

Obviously, there are situations in which abortion is the only sane choice. In some cases, it means choosing whether the fetus or the mother should survive. Even this pro-life bill recognizes the need to exempt women whose lives are in danger.

But as Democratic Representative Jerry Nadler commented:

If the woman’s life is threatened, okay, she can have the abortion. But if her health is threatened, if the doctors conclude that she will become terribly injured in some way, it doesn’t matter. She can’t have the abortion because the morally arrogant people in this building decided that their outlooks are more important than her health and her safety.

And life-threatening medical complications might not be so clear-cut. Obstetricians can be forced to make a split-second life-and-death choice during a baby’s delivery. What politician in their right mind would claim the right to step in and make that decision?

Apparently, Representatives Trent Franks of Arizona and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, do. They are the sponsors of the new bill.

They are not alone. Several Republican legislatures across America have enacted similar legislation.

There are persuasive arguments in favor of a late-term abortion ban. But there is more to the issue than the politicians seem to realize.

As a reporter in Toronto back in the early Sixties, when abortion was illegal in Canada, I sometimes wrote about backroom abortions – grisly, heartbreaking affairs driven by desperation and despair, often with tragic consequences for the women and – more often – girls involved.

Legalized abortion might make you shudder, but you can be sure that, with anti-abortion laws, the alternative for many women will not be giving birth. Prevented from undergoing an abortion in an appropriate medical facility with qualified medical personnel, they will seek out some dangerous quack in a dingy back room.

The House is expected to vote on the latest anti-abortion legislation on January 22, the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It is scheduled to coincide with the arrival of at least 300,000 pro-life activists. There’s little doubt the bill will be approved. Similar legislation has sailed through the House in the past.

And with the Republican majority in the new Senate, the bill is certain to become law unless President Obama vetoes it as he promised to do to a similar bill back in 2013.  Of course, the President’s veto could possibly be overturned as there are quite a few pro-life Democrats in Congress.

I expect more anti-abortion legislation is ahead. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalized abortion more than four decades ago, Republicans have resolutely fought to reverse the decision.

Funded by conservative billionaires and promoted by religious interests as well as politicians, America has been inundated by a vast pubic relations campaign over the years. Horror movies and hyperbolic diatribes have been featured in churches and town halls across the land and professionally developed sound bites have been echoed by right-wing media outlets.

The movement has gone so far as to advocate laws that would define a fertilized egg as a person, giving it all the rights and protections of American citizenship (cartoon above). This would not only outlaw all abortion but also prohibit some kinds of birth control.

So far, the political climate has restrained anti-abortion extremists to some extent.

Now, with a conservative (and predominantly Roman Catholic) Supreme Court, as well as a Republican Congress and a majority of Republican state legislatures, I fear that legalized abortion is in grave danger of being overturned completely in America.

The 2016 elections could be the key to America’s future in this regard. If the Republicans win the White House and keep the Senate and the House, the pro-life crusaders will be assured of victory at last.

Click for more on the new bill.

 

Social Security Under Attack

Roosevelt Signs The Social Security Act: President Roosevelt signs Social Security Act, at approximately 3:30 pm EST on 14 August 1935. Standing with Roosevelt are Rep. Robert Doughton (D-NC); unknown person in shadow; Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY); Rep. John

Ever since FDR introduced Social Security more than 80 years ago (photo above), Republicans have fought savagely to repeal it. Now, with a majority in the Senate as well as the House, they are finally poised to cause some serious damage to the program.

The new chairman of the House Budget Committee, Georgia Republican Tom Price, revealed his party’s latest strategy to the Heritage Action for America’s Conservative Policy Summit on Monday.  Here it is:

Whether it’s means testing, whether it’s increasing the age of eligibility … whether it’s providing much greater choices for individuals to voluntarily select the kind of manner in which they believe they ought to be able to invest their working dollars as they go through their lifetime.

Where have we heard that kind of stuff before?

Wasn’t privatization of Social Security one of George W. Bush’s top priorities? And didn’t public pressure force him to back down?

But public opinion hasn’t stopped Republicans from targeting the program in the past. And it surely isn’t going to deter them now.

The new Congress has already begun its assault. Last week, the Republican majority in the House voted to slash funding for  the approximately 11 million people who receive disability benefits unless Congress also takes action to “fix” Social Security.

Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that:

The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions & put our most vulnerable at risk.

And of course that’s what they’re up to.

Senator Rand Paul left no doubt about his party’s contempt for the country’s sufferers. He told a group of New Hampshire lawmakers that many people receiving disability payments are fakers. “Half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” he sneered.

Remember how Mitt Romney poured scorn on the “47 percent” of Americans who, he claimed, sponge off the productive members of American society?

That’s classic Republican dogma.

They have made their views clear. They don’t think the government should help the poor, the sick or the old. They think those who cannot support themselves should beg by the side of the road as they do in Third World countries.

And they think the November elections gave them a mandate to reshape American society to fit their cold-hearted vision.

Fortunately, there’s another election on the horizon. Let’s hope the harm they do in the meantime is not permanent.

Click for more on the disability rule.

Click to revisit the Bush crusade.

Click for Rand Paul’s comments.