Thursday, December 30, 2010

Burgh Island owner reaps what she sows...or at least, in part

Burgh Island at low tide (Photo: SP Tiley)

The day after our wedding reception, when the house was full of the grown daughters’ friends, my husband and I wanted some peaceful togetherness, alone…except for my dog. She had been a bit neglected regarding walks and treats in the run up to the event. So we decided to take a drive to the beach. It was midwinter; surely there would be a place within a couple of hours of our Maryland home where Brownie could play in the surf.

There was not. There was not one single patch of sand in Maryland on which a dog and her people could freely roam in February. We couldn’t believe it, but it was true. Even in pricey coastal Connecticut, I had been able to take my dog to the beach in winter.

When we moved to England, we
and the dogwere elated to find more than half of all Devon and Cornwall beaches allow dogs year-round, while others prohibit them between Easter and Oct. 1, the main beach season. Still, it was no hardship to find dog beaches in July, and the three of us happily visited several favorites whenever the sun peeked through.
One beach we thought might be fun was at Bigbury-on-Sea. There, the public beach is half doggie/half undoggie during summer months. But there was still lots of room! Plus, at low tide, one can walk to Burgh Island where there is an ancient pub and a swell hotel.

As it turns out, the hotel is so swell that owning it seems to have swelled the head of Deborah Clark, who was granted an exemption from the “right to roam” legislation that is intended to make virtually all of England’s coastline accessible to walkers, so that she could keep the entire island away from the roiling masses of scrofulous peasants…in other words, British families trying to enjoy their own magnificent coast. Clark claims that participating would have a devastating effect on local businesses.
Greedy hotelier battles other local businesses
No, Deborah. In fact, according to Devon Life magazine, “Nearly 75% of accommodation providers within one mile of the path consider it to be an important selling point for their business. It’s also a key attraction for day visitors to the region, who account for 40% of the annual tourism spend.”

What this unethical and greedy businesswoman meant was that allowing access to the historic island might be detrimental to luring the fops and dandies and B-rated celebrities who fork over 500 quid a night for the pleasure of sleeping at the Burgh Island Hotel. The hotel was once great, then a virtual flop-house for decades until Tony Porter resurrected it at great expense (his own) and with great trouble (again, his own). Porter is, in fact, fairly eloquent on what he thinks of Clark’s attitude, as reported by the Telegraph. He said:
“When we owned the island we allowed access to all of it and I would often meet people at the summit after climbing up there myself.
“We saw ourselves as being entrusted with the island when we had it and when we sold it we passed on our dream. It is a shame that things have changed.”
After reading Porter’s book about his project a few years ago, I did want to stay there, at least once. He and his wife had risked everything to take a derelict building and make it very special.

Banning the peasants from the land

But not now. It is people like Deborah Clark who make reasonable progressives into rabid socialists. After initially giving in to the demands of a high-powered barrister Clark had hired to ensure that the hoi polloi could be banned from the island, local authorities thought better of it and reversed the finding, giving Clarke only the closest paths to the hotel as private, and leaving the others open so that hikers could cross the island, look out to sea, visit the ancient hut at the peak. So, against the odds of big money and big ego, the common folk won most of the day.

What the reversal didn’t do, of course, was make the venerable Pilchard Inn accessible to anyone but hotel guests. Hikers and walkers are not even allowed in the door; if they require a pint or a cup of coffee after a hike, it is served to them through a half-door at the end of the building and they can consume it on outdoor picnic benches. But step inside the inn, which once served smugglers and other folks much more ethical and decent than the hotel’s current owners and faux-important guests? Nope. Commoner cooties would doubtless infest the place in short order.

Five months to a stunning flop

Last September, I met the hotel’s bartender. We attended an Agatha Christie Festival event about cocktails at a new restaurant, Port Salut, in Torquay. He is a nice guy and a good mixologist. I was hoping to see him again at events at Port Salut restaurant, also owned by Clarke. I didn’t know about her attitude toward the peasants back then.

So I thought I would just check up on Port Salut before writing about it.
What I found out is that there is a god.  Here’s what the Port Salut website had to say:

And meanwhile, I’ll try not to tell the rest of Torquay’s business owners that while they might not know it, they are NOT a worthwhile tourism destination at the moment. Deborah Clark said so.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Some journalists wouldn't know their job if it bit them in their TSA parts

Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy (Francois Lemoyne, 1737)
This morning, I read an article on Huffington Post by Larry Womack, a former editor of HuffPo. It was a column, I suppose, although he didn’t seem to know if he was presenting factual information for the reader to assess, or opinions supported by facts. I attempted to post comments concerning his diatribe against Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, twice. Both times, they were moderated out. Why?

Probably because I pointed out to Womack that there are far worse crimes against information dissemination than Assange’s basically “let ‘er rip” philosophy. One of those concerns the timidity with which news organizations have approached news since George W. Bush, midget moron of the western plains, told them he’d do nasties to them if they breathed the truth. I noted that when a pendulum, in this case the pendulum of lies, has swung so far, it must swing back just as far or farther to achieve balance. As far as I’m concerned, after eight eight years of Bush’s perfidy and two of Obama’s ineffectiveness (or possibly cowardice, or possibly collusion), the truth pendulum has a long, long way to go.

Destroying the media by lying to students
During lunch I realized why Womack thought his own position was admirable: It is because journalism schools have, for at least the past 30 years, churned out ignorant twits.

A case in point: My ex-husband and I hired a college student one summer to help in our business. We were, at the time, on the trail of some high-tech information we needed for a book and hadn’t found any leads. Just by happenstance, someone we allowed the intern to interview on a totally unrelated matter dropped the precise bomb we needed.

When I asked her how the interview went, the intern related the information to me and ASSURED me she had not written it down.


It turns out the lady she was interviewing had said it was off the record, and the intern’s professor had told them if someone says something is off the record, don’t write it down.


Let me say that again. WRONG.

The professor, were he not a milquetoast or government toady or idiot, should have said, "Write it down, but don’t use it as part of your story. Don’t burn the donor of the information; that would not only be unethical, but stupid. Rather, use what you have learned to pry open other doors, to find someone who also knows that information and will go on record with it."

If our intern, a student at a large Midwestern university, was being taught such bogus claptrap, I suspect most journalism students for the past 30 yearsand it appears Womack is of an appropriate agehave been equally deluded about what their job entails and how to do it.

So Mr. Womack, try again. Julian Assange is not unethical; the people who lied to the American people are unethical, and a lot worse. Criminal, in all likelihood. If names and addresses are attached to some of the  deeds and words exposed by Assange, so be it. In journalism, the first rule is: If you don’t want it found out, don’t do it and don’t say it. The same should certainly be a standard to which we hold politicians and influence peddlers, periodamenendofstorycaseclosed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Obscene health insurance profits ready to harvest

Taddeo Gaddi - Sick persons praying for recovery

Sick People Praying for Recovery by Taddeo Gaddi (c. 1300-1366)
Photo by Doruk Salancı. Wiki Commons.

When I was a child, if we went to the doctor for a sore throat or measles, my mother wrote a check. It was for ten dollars. Granted, that was the 1950s and early 1960s, but even in the late 60s, I recall going to my mother’s doctor for a sore throat when I was home from college. The charge had gone all the way up to $20. It sounds like peanuts although it was a bit more like real money then. But it wasn’t ridiculous real money. Last time I went to a doctor….oh, wait….there virtually is no last time. In the 1970s, when health care costs began to get out of hand, I discovered homeopathy. And I have used it, almost exclusively, ever since.

I am not going to get into a debate about whether it works or doesn’t. For me, it works. Best of all, it is cheap. Every year, once a year, I would spend $150 to see my homeopath. He would assess my health, provide remedies as needed, and I’d go away…never to need a doctor for another whole year. If I did get some little bothersome thing in the interim, he would send me the remedy. I travelled some distance to see the late Dr. T.C. Cherien, a doctor like no other, a doctor who comes along once in each person’s lifetime and against whom all others are measured.

Zithromax, miracle for $100 bucks
So, having not found a replacement, I have on occasion had to depend on an AMA doctor friend of mine who would see me for nothing  and prescribe a remedy for a strep throat, zithromax, a well-tolerated antibiotic that even my basically allergic systems tolerate. And it only costs about $100 a pop. For five little pills.

I have no idea what my doctor friend charges for a visit, but it can’t be cheap. I can guarantee that it’s more than the current equivalent of $10 or $20, the office visit charge in the days before insurers figured out they could really rape us by including incidentals and not just the major medical events that were the intention of insurance in the 50s and 60s.

Of course, most people who work at good jobs in major corporations are covered by insurance. As a freelancer for nine-tenths of my career, I couldn’t afford health insurance on the open market. But because I ate well, exercised (albeit on horseback, over fences, from which I had a couple of emergency room visits), saw a chiropractor and a homeopath―and had another friend who is a dentist and adjusts the bill to suit my current income to a point―I have never been in the dire straits most Americans who work for themselves or work at low-paying jobs are in.

USA: Third world health care and longevity

And we are in dire straits. Writing in the New York Times on Oct. 5, David Leonhardt noted:

We don’t live as long as people in Canada, Japan, most of Western Europe or even relatively poor Jordan. Misdiagnosis is common. Medical errors occur more often than in some other countries. Unique to the developed world, millions of people have no health insurance, and millions more, like many fast-food workers, are underinsured.

This was in response to McDonald’s and its expensive, virtually useless hourly worker health insurance, and the fact that Mr. Obama’s national insurance reforms may exempt such plans.

It’s better than nothing, some claim.

No it’s not, claim others.

Here’s the real problem; it is national INSURANCE, not national health care.

Until the United States―mainly, but not limited to, the GOP, the Teabaggers, the cranially challenged fundamentalist capitalists and others―understands that inserting the profit motive into health care is unethical, immoral, and inhumane as well as unworkable, nothing will change. It is unworkable, that is, in every respect except one: obscene profits created on the suffering of millions.

Let me repeat that: The health insurance industry in the United States creates its obscene profits on the suffering of millions.

That may be capitalism, but it is also spiritually bankrupt in every sense of the word. It is especially bankrupt in a nation that claims so vociferously to follow the teachings of Christ, who said that whatever one does to the least among us, we do to Him.

I’m not a Christian, but I do believe Jesus of Nazareth was a prime example of existential goodness, goodness because right is preferred over injustice, because order is preferred over chaos, which leads only to destruction.

America has planted the seeds of its own destruction in so many fields. In the field called Health Care, the plants have withered and may not be able to be revived.

On the other hand, in the field marked Thoughtless Cruelty in Support of Obscene Riches, the bumper crop is harvested daily, only to disappear into a great maw of even more obscene conspicuous consumption, adding insult to exceedingly grave injury.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

National Coffee Day: The Eating Their Young mindset is STILL bashing Boomers

It’s National Coffee Day. Time for Baby Boomers to wake up and smell the roast prepared for them sixty years ago by their own parents. If they had a dime, they could brew some coffee, and plan their retirement. But alas, the Baby Boom has been the hardest hit in the job market (click here to find out ALL the places the Baby Boom has been whacked), and it is also the hardest hit in the retirement sweepstakes game. 

How Baby Boomer s' fathers ensured old age poverty for their kids

Sixty years ago, when the first of the Baby Boomers were tiny tykes, Daddy was busy moving up the ladder at work whether a white collar worker who had taken advantage of the GI Bill after the war for a college education, or a blue-collar worker protected by unions.

Fifty years ago, the white collar dads began to notice that they’d earn more in profit sharing and pensions if the company earned more profit, and if the union grunts didn’t demand so much.

Forty years ago, a move against the unions and for the increase of corporate profits took flight in earnest, right as Dad became upper management. The greatest of these maneuvers was ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

This was a sea-change in retirement funding of major proportions. Dad was already vested in the company retirement plan, so it wouldn’t affect him. Any unions that were still viable could still provide retirement plans as always. But new hires at most companies would forevermore be denied significant participation in their retirement nest-egg by their employers. With ERISA, virtually the entire burden of creating retirement income a pension was shifted from employers to employees. Companies prospered. New hires, especially Boomers who entered the job market in a down cycle made lower still by their sheer numbers (and they didn’t give birth to themselves!)….not so much.

Congress had nominally passed ERISA in response to the demise of Studebaker and a resulting loss of all or some pensions for more than 4000 employees. It may reasonably be assumed that most of those who suffered in the Studebaker debacle were so-called Greatest Generation workers; few Boomers would have been employed long enough, in 1974, to be vested in retirement plans. So even from its outset, it was meant to help the so-called Greatest Generation, a generation that should really be known as the Greediest.

Soon after its enactment, ERISA became known among business owners and executives as the Lawyers and Accountants Full Employment Act, due to the horrific compliance standards written into it. A joke went around about a business owner asking his accountant how he could best cover his employees with a pension plan, and whom to cover. After a number of convolutions, it turns out that the business owner decides to cover only one person, himself, letting his employees fend for themselves. While it was often told as a light story about US business, it was also shorthand for what was actually happening. Business owners, unwilling to comply with the rules under ERISA, soon came up with the 402(k), shifting total responsibility for pensions for their employees to those employees themselves, rather than to the business they enriched or fund managers who knew what they were doing (to a point.)

Also established under ERISA was the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to insure the pensions of workers covered by private defined benefit pension plans. It does not cover 401(k) plans, the sort of plan most prevalent for Baby Boomers.

After 1974, as employers faced with stiffer requirements for defined benefit retirement plans, they had been dropping those plans, leaving employees with no choice except “on the economy savings and investments” and IRAs, Individual Retirement Accounts. IRAs were also established under ERISA, initially with low limits for contribution.

In 1978, Congress added section 401(k) to the Internal Revenue Code. It eliminated taxes on work income employees chose to receive as deferred compensation. The law took effect on January 1, 1980; by 1983, almost half of large firms were already offering 401(k) plans or considering it.  A year later, additional legislation ensured that all employees could take advantage of the plans equally, and not just highly paid employees.

“By 2003, there were 438,000 companies with 401(k) plans, according to History of 401(k) Plans: An Update.  Employee Benefit Research Institute. 2005-02.
Because these were originally meant for executives, they often came with a company match which the law required be applied equally for low- and high-paid employees.

A wealthy company used to benefit employees; no longer

Even with employee contribution matches by employers, 401(k) plans were cheaper to maintain. Legally, employers were required to pay only plan administration and support costs, although some of these costs could be legally passed on to the employee. In addition, where an employer was required to be consistent with its contributions to a defined benefit plan, with defined contribution plans and ones, moreover, in which it was  legal for employers to reduce or eliminate matching contributions in some years the employer could predict its outlay; it didn’t have to play catch up, diminishing stockholder dividends or executive perks in “down” years to ensure the defined benefit for each retiring employee.

In a word, ERISA, one way or another, shifted virtually all of the risk involved with pensions to the employee. The employer, however, could build goodwill simply by making contributions every few years, if it chose. And it could pass on all the former pension costs to stockholders and executives. Who were they in 1978? In 1980?  Arguable in 1983? Right.  The Greeders.

Edward Harrison, an incisive writer who blogs at, is only too aware of the effect ERISA has ended up having on Baby Boomers.
Harrison quotes an MSN Money article in which a current 35-year-old laments the prevalence of the 401(k) as a retirement planning tool.

Boomers take all the risk for none of the benefit

    “There’s just no guarantee that when you’re ready to retire you’re going to have the money,” she says. “You either put it in a money market which pays 1%, which isn’t enough to retire, or you expose yourself to huge market risk and you can lose half your retirement in one year,” Harrison reported.

Harrison noted that, in fact, many retirement gurus had concluded, with the young woman, that 401(k)s had serious flaws.

Harrison also reported the conclusion of Robyn Creidco, head of defined-contribution consulting at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, that the 2008 stockmarket meltdown was the biggest test of the 401(k) to date, and the 401(k) had failed.

Harrison concluded that “The most obvious pitfall is that 401(k) plans shift all retirement-planning risks — not saving enough, making poor investment choices, outliving savings — to untrained individuals, who often don’t have the time, inclination or know-how to manage them.”

In addition, then, to having money available to contribute (and thus gain such employer matches as there might be), there’s the problem of expertise. While a 35-yrear-old might have time to make mistakes while mastering a difficult market that has recently become even more volatile, a 58-year-old does not. In short, Boomers who are going bust will stay that way until they die, but the Greediest Generation? Not so much.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bitches and scorpion bitches

Deathstalker scorpion (Wiki commons)
Some years ago, I ran into a woman, a manager, whom everyone working for her loathed. Not disliked. Loathed. I ended up doing some work there, too, as a consultant. I saw, after a while, that she was so thoroughly despised that she had not a friend in the place. I thought that was cruel, and I really didn’t like participating in so much meanness. So, when I went to the coffee shop for good stuff (as opposed to the garbage from the machines), I brought her some, too.

Before long, she actually began to thaw toward me. Not, mind you, that she didn’t occasionally mess me over not for any business reason but just because she could. I generally just told her it was unacceptable, and that if she wanted me to leave, that’s fine. Otherwise, stop interfering with my getting the job done. Generally, she realized my efforts were valuable and somehow forced herself to leave me alone.

Life went on. Eventually, she encountered some serious business problems that resulted in her getting fired. She actually cried when she realized she was about to be reamed out and let go. I felt bad for her, so I called her after it happened to invite her out for a meal. She was very touched. Then I invited her to a family gathering. My brother tried to cheer her up, make her laugh, which he is very good at. “Holy cow,” he said later, “I never worked so hard for so little.” He couldn’t believe anyone could be so humourless and stiff-necked.

Life went on. Eventually, that woman and I ended up working together again, she as staff, I as consultant, as before. It was a small industry we worked in, so that’s not surprising.  When I had to leave town, leaving a project for an important client in limbo for a few days, I asked that she not touch it; it was so sensitive that any interference would undo what I had done. Not an unreasonable request.

Life did not go on. She messed with it. She virtually ruined it. Her second-in-command could see my anger when I returned and had to pick up the pieces, at enormous expense to me. He told me he would do whatever it took to help me do whatever I wanted to do: leave, stay and fight, whatever. I left. Why? Because I suddenly recalled the old parable about the frog and the scorpion.

A frog and a scorpion were sitting on a riverbank. The scorpion wanted to get to the other side, so he asked the frog for a ride on his back. First, the frog said no. He knew what scorpions were. Eventually, the scorpion―by dint of smiling and generally being a jolly fellow and only just a tiny bit of lying―convinced the good-natured frog to carry him across the river.

Halfway to the other side, the scorpion stung the frog.  “Why’d you do that?” the frog screamed as his little body began to stiffen up and sink. “Now we’re both going to drown.”

“Well,” said the scorpion with a self-satisfied grin, “You knew what I was when you agreed to carry me across.”

Moral of this story: No matter where you are or what you are doing, in every aspect of your life, know the difference between a harmless insect and a scorpion―or between a plain bitch and a scorpion bitch if you will.

What are the signs of a scorpion bitch?
Check back again in a day or two, and I’ll post the list.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Morality and the overturning of Proposition 8

God, as portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel (Wiki Commons)
The image reflects the communal belief of the time, 1512, in an avenging god. This is not the face of the loving god spoken of by Jesus of Nazareth. Michelangelo painted his own sexual conflict and guilt, just as as Saul of Tarsus wrote his.

In deciding in favor of gay marriage in California, and in overturning the scurrilously Christian Proposition 8, a California judge opined that, “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights.”

The shameful condition of education in the United States probably prevents even some otherwise thoughtful people from understanding the full import of the judge’s ruling; certainly, those mired in the insupportable belief that their religious beliefs equate with universal morality will never understand the perfection of the judge’s ruling.

Taking the single sentence above one piece at a time might, however, sway those with sufficient education and open-mindedness to stop equating their personal or community morality from the constitutional demands of the United States.

The concept of moral disapproval is, of course, the key ingredient. Morality is not written by god. It is not really written by anyone or any entity. Morality is, rather, a set of beliefs to which a community of people adhere. If one reads the whole bible, one will see that, in fact, ideas of morality have changed radically from the earliest of those books to those of the new testament. Indeed, even within the new testament, one has espousals of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, which would demand equality and compassion for all humans.

And then one has the gospels of Saul of Tarsus, renamed St. Paul by Christians. Saul of Tarsus was a man so torn by his own sexuality, as some scholars maintain, that his epistles are the insupportable basis on which, to this day, the Roman Catholic Church attempts to impose a male superiority morality not only on its own adherents but―via its interference in the sovereign decisions of independent states (I refer to its rejection of Kathleen Kennedy as U. S. Ambassador to the Vatican)―on the rest of the world. On a world that does not share its concept of morality.

Just so, the right wing in the U.S. tries to enforce its communal morality on communities that have a different communal morality. And, thank goodness, one judge has put an end to it, at least for now. Perhaps the reversal will last only until the US Supreme Court weeds out its own narrow moralism, which at best reflects less than 50 percent of the communal morality of the nation, and begins to reflect the demands of the Constitution, a “morality” if you will that virtually all Americans agree with. That morality includes equality for all people under the law. All people. When it was written, the Constitution did not include women or non-white humans. Over the years, as the communal morality expanded to acknowledge those individuals, so did the interpretation of the Constitution. And, to ensure it, additional laws were written as well.

The term “improper basis” is somewhat problematical. Improper by whose reckoning, some might ask. Improper, in this case, means according to the demands of the Constitution as written, and as interpreted over the years. It does not mean improper by some arbitrary set of community beliefs. In its setting as part of a legal proceeding, the term improper can only be taken in its legal sense.

Finally, there is the concept of denying rights, which this decision seeks to end. I will freely admit that, for quite a while, I was unduly influenced by early religious training, as well as a certain sloppy philology on my part, and decided a “marriage” could be only between a man and a woman, although a “domestic partnership” could be between two women, two men, or a man and a woman for that matter.

During the run-up to Mr. Obama’s inauguration, in comments to a column I wrote then for, I was persuaded that I was in error. I am still persuaded of that, and I would posit that if it is my right to marry a man as I desired, then it is my friend’s right to marry a man, also, as he desired. It is somewhat uncomfortable for those of us not living in the gay community to deal with (to us) amorphous concepts of husband and wife. But no matter; the right of the gay community to marry is absolutely not superseded by other communities’ rights to be comfortable in the nomenclature at all times. In short, non-gay “morality” does not supersede gay “morality.”

Indeed, no particular community’s morality, extrapolating from this ruling, exceeds another community’s morality. If all are equal under the law, then so be it. And in the U.S., that is what the Constitution suggests that the entire community of Americans believes.

If all are equal under God―and I am somewhat convinced that all religions would at least pay lip service to that (except perhaps Westboro Baptist Church)―then this ruling has done nothing but conform California law to the religious teachings and community morality of all the citizens. Amen.

As for myself, being a non-Christian, somewhat pantheistic existentialist, the entire issue has allowed me to examine my core beliefs, define to which sub-community I belong, and expand my spiritual awareness. (Yes, Virginia, existentialists do believe in a spiritual world. Indeed, it is central, although expressed in humanistic terms.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

NCLB and teacher stress. Huh?

Empty classroom...with or without students
when the teachers are out to lunch (Wiki Commons)

In the middle of writing a proposal for a book of humorous travel stories, I remembered a comment on my Facebook page this morning. It was by a friend of a friend. The friend had mentioned how stressed out he was, and he had hoped that the cooler weather of October might bring relief.

I replied that it would bring relief only if there was a sudden reversal of the misfortune the two deadly presidencies of George W. Bush had brought upon the United States, and, for that matter, the world.

A friend of his noted that she thought I was probably stressed because I was paying attention to matters over which I have no control, i.e., the political situation in the US or anywhere, I suppose. She was avoiding stress by keeping her circle of concern, as she put it, much closer to her circle of influence.

I replied that since I am a journalist, my circle of concern had better be a bit wider than the local grocer and the Curves franchise. And I would hope my circle of influence would be wider than that, as well.

Then I checked her Facebook profile; apparently, she teaches at a college. It would seem to me that her circle of concern, unless she is teaching how to teach kindergarten (and even then), should be extremely wide. Any teacher's circle of influence is wide, and, for good ones, the wider, the better.

That being the case, how can a teacher justify ducking her head in the sand to avoid stress? How can one teach anything unless one is intimately involved in the world around one, the whole world around one? Or were some teachers relieved by the imposition in US public schools of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), because they wouldn’t have to teach any longer but simply help the two-armed parrots memorize a very few facts? College teachers get the dumbed-down kids after they’ve spent their entire school career, at this point, under NCLB. I can’t imagine that today’s products of Bush’s schools are in any way challenging, so teachers wouldn’t get much stress there. They wouldn’t be waving their hands in the air, having caught Dr. Smith (or whoever) in a mistake.

Or is it stressful trying to teach products of NCLB anything? Are they even barely literate? And I don’t mean in terms of abecedarianism; I mean even about their culture as a whole.

I'm willing to posit that, and give that teacher the benefit of the doubt; after all, I've no more walked a mile in her shoes than she has in mine.

Any intelligent person cannot avoid stress in the current universe. The cynic in me says that George W. Bush probably owned stock in pharmaceutical companies and thought that if he created sufficient opportunities for stress across the board (two useless wars, gutting virtually all “green” legislation on the books, revoking habeas corpus, raising lying beyond high art to religion), people would clamor for Xanax and he’d get rich.

Still, except for a brief respite to recharge now and again, I should think a teacher would understand that engaging with the world is possibly the first duty of a teacher. Especially now. Without that, any information transmitted, whether about quantum physics or knitting, is done in a vacuum.

I can hear the huge sucking noise of a billion vacuums being opened, and eager students spilling out, hungry to learn about their world.

Yes, it's only a dream.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Checkbook Christianity excuses Arizona's fascist law

(Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple. Rembrandt, 1626. Wiki commons)

Apropos the situation in Arizona, a few questions:

Why is it that those who claim most loudly to be Christians also complain most loudly about a supposedly Christian nation (it’s not, but that’s another column) allowing immigrants, legal or illegal, into the nation? I refer, in fact, to some comments on Facebook this morning in response to a Johnson City Press article regarding the judge who put the brakes on Arizona’s juggernaut toward becoming an armed camp where only white Anglo faces need appear.

Do they not in fact believe that Jesus of Nazareth fed a crowd of thousands from a few loaves and fishes? If they do believe that he did―and further believe as they claim that the living Christ is among us―then why do they not think the immigrants in their “Christian country” will be provided for?

If they believe, also, that God is the source of all, as they claim they do, why do they not believe that there will be enough to go around, enough for them and enough for immigrants, legal or illegal? Is their God, then, a limited God?

Many have said that, “Oh, yes, I sure enough believe in Christian charity. Why, I give through my church to buy blankets and such for poor folks.”

However, charity with the checkbook absent charity in the heart is no charity at all, and is, further, about as far from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as it is possible to get.

It might also interest the Checkbook Christians to note that they are no more than the distant, rapacious, disconnected, greedy Wall Streeters they so love to vilify. If one’s only aim in life is to have enough wealth to write the check for whatever―from humongous yachts to ten buck drops in a bucket of need and misery―there is no difference. None at all. As the Wall Streeters were merely protecting their lifestyle, so the Christians practicing checkbook charity are protecting theirs. When you add to it laws such as those in Arizona, you’ve got something arguably worse than what Wall Street did…because it is in the name of God. At least the bankers were honest about it; they did it in the name of greed.

But, but, but….I hear them saying, all in chorus. No buts. If a Christian is not practicing compassion and charity in his or her heart as well as via his or her pocketbook, that person is no Christian at all, no follower of the man or myth known as Jesus of Nazareth. It cannot be both ways. Either one is charitable in all ways, or one is not a Christian. Amen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


(Above, protest over BP's oil spill. Wikipedia commons)

In the old movie Silk Stockings, comrades from Russia visiting Paris find certain happiness there, but greatly fear they will be punished for their capitalist desires by being sent to Siberia. They sing a cute little song in which the refrain is "Siberi-eerie-eeria!"

Would it be wrong to say, "Tony, sweetheart, maybe you should watch the movie and learn to sing"?

But he probably won't have time. Tony Hayward, the Mrs. Malaprop of malfeasance in corporate PR, may be too busy to attend US Congressional hearings concerning the BP oil spill, he says. Poor "demonized" Tony was unable even to take a demotion and a sidewise dressing down without adding lip to it all, without showing once again how totally superior he feels to everyone else. Why the board at BP put up with it is something of a mystery to me; surely they had other choices among executives who might not have been so objectionable in their hubris. Surely there were others who wanted a 2 million-dollar-a-year paycheck. Surely.

It may take Hayward a while to figure out how to insult the Russians as thoroughly as he has insulted Americans. Or maybe he'll just be out buying fur outer garments; why not? He probably cares as little for non-human endangered species as he does for the endangered humans in the Gulf States.

How many oil wells are there in the tundra that could explode and bring disaster to another fragile ecosystem?

There is no possible excuse for this man.

A few weeks ago, an American/British geologist I was speaking with said he thought Tony's unfortunate pronouncements, such as the one about wanting his life back, were just the ignorant natterings of a former British public school (that is, in US English, private school) boy.

Nah. The man is a toad. He's a zero who kissed the right bottoms to rise to the top. Even his boss admitted today that the US second banana, although a "little rough" around the edges, was not the walking, talking disaster Tony Hayward is.

Hayward, if we are lucky, will become the poster boy for corporate crassness, for overweening greed, for absent compassion...for everything that is wrong in the post-Reagan, post-Enron business environment that has been one of America's most popular exports the past two decades or so. With luck, business schools will use his behavior as the road-map on how not to drive profits and create a well-regarded company. One hopes they will point out that while BP is partially American, Hayward is all Brit, although he certainly did his graduate work in American brashness. Indeed, he excelled. No matter; the US exported it, Tony learned it by heart, and it's about time to cut the heart out of that particular mode of corporate behavior.


"Tony, sweetheart: Can you maybe just go quietly to the tundra and shut the hell up? While you're at it, just put your feet up on your shiny empty desk, rest your hairy empty head, and think about anything you want. But for God's sake, don't actually DO anything. Paying you to do nothing, as obnoxious as your golden parachute is, will be a lot cheaper than having you preside over messes that other corporate dimwits might emulate."

You can see the sheet music for Siberia and hear the tune here.

The complete download costs a few bucks, but it might be a nice parting gift for dear Tony if you care to waste more money on this nowhere man.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To the apologists for George W. Bush who couldn’t find their own nose in the dark

Someone, sometime, invented matches.
Someone else found that one could chop wood and apply matches to it and, if it happened to be dry enough, it would burn.
Someone else discovered that black stuff oozing up from the ground in various places could be made into a number of liquids that would burn if heated.
Someone discovered houses could be made from wood, and people could take shelter inside.
Someone else discovered that one could burn either different pieces of wood, or in a properly constructed container, some of that black liquid and make the house warm.
All this was good.
And then one day, someone else…someone stupid or evil or reckless or suffering from a lack of empathy with his fellow humans, in short, a sociopath…came along and decided to open the valve on the container holding the black liquid and let it run through the house. Then he decided to strike a match, set a piece of wood on fire, and throw it into the house.
Kaboom! He was so pleased with his creation! He had taken three things that are quite harmless, even helpful, by themselves and combined them in such a way that a horrific event and sorrow and loss and years of rebuilding would result, and nothing would really be the same again. While the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man delighted in the truly impressive mess he had created, the onlookers were a lot less overjoyed.
The land the house had been on had been scorched, and would retain for eternity the odd bit of charring, the smell of fire when a rock was overturned. The people would retain sadness at their loss, even as they rebuilt. Their cat was nowhere to be found. They hoped he had escaped, but the cages of their hamster and birds were charred, twisted bits of metal with carcases inside. Their dog’s body was found under the timbers that had fallen on their charred bed, next to his favorite toy, as if he had taken it with him, seeking comfort from the people. They suffered, thinking their beloved pets would think they had done this to them on purpose, when, of course, they had not. They had simply not noticed the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man in their midst. 
Aside from the lives destroyed, their favourite comforting things―things they really liked and enjoyed and used and had acquired through their toil―were gone. Worst, of course, was the fact that other living beings they had loved were gone, and the pain of thinking of them in their terror and seeming abandonment tore at the people’s hearts. And now, of course, they would have to use the money they had saved to build another house.
But they were afraid. The man who had opened the petrol tank and tossed in a lighted match was still around. He had powerful friends who thought he wouldn’t burn their houses if they just kept him from being arrested for burning the little wooden house, the house the people loved so very much, the house that had sheltered them and allowed them to sing and dance and learn and love, and care for other living things.
There was nothing the people, the householders, could do. The man’s friends were too powerful; the householders feared that if they spoke up, they would lose their new house, too. But they knew, sooner or later, the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man would burn another house. And if that stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man got too old to wreak the havoc he enjoyed so much, another would spring up to take his place.
But the householders would not act. They would not even blame the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man for their misery; they couldn’t. It was too painful. So they deflected the evidence of their failure to lock their door against him by saying it was not him, that someone else had invented the matches, wooden houses and oil products, and that it was unfair to blame him.
Certainly, they refused to see that they had failed to lock their doors against the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man; they refused to take responsibility for their own mistake. It was too painful to think that, because they had seen the stupid, evil, reckless, sociopathic man’s appearance as a friendly guy and failed to recognize the devil within, they had allowed the disaster to happen. It was too hard to understand that their own lack of vigilance allowed their happiness and comfort and future to be destroyed, along with the lives of living things they had loved. 
They could not accept that they had enabled the author of the greater part of humanity’s misery at the moment to put all the diverse and individually neutral factors together in such a way that the world caught on fire and took with it their hopes and dreams, and the hopes and dreams of a great many of the world’s people.
And yet, it is true. No one else brought all those disparate parts, harmless on their own, together in a wild conflagration speading through a heartsick world, weakening the strong, killing the weak. No one else, just George W. Bush, with the complicity of millions. Only George W. Bush created strife and misery and wanton killing and abuse and poverty unmatched in the modern era by being the only person to combine independent harmless elements―of politics, of finance, of culture, or religion gone awry―into an incendiary pile of his own making. Only George W. Bush―no one else―opportunistically perverted innocent actions others had taken to maliciously rend the fabric of nations.
George W. Bush did not single-handedly cause the current disastrous conditions in the United States and the world. As has been accurately pointed out, President Clinton signed some of the legislation that allowed the financial meltdown. George W. Bush did not fly a plane into the Twin Towers, but he did make a big show out of hunting down the son of family friend’s the bin Ladens, failing miserably to find their wayward son, but destroying multitudes in his a priori useless attempt. George W. Bush did not create Saddam Hussein; doubtless he didn’t like him, or else perhaps he liked Hussein’s oil more, and destroyed a nation and a culture and goodness knows how many antiquities…not to mention, of course, soldiers of many nations and civilians of one ancient civilization who had begged him in vain, as had Karla Faye Tucker, for their lives. And he laughed at them, as he laughed at her.
And he laughs still.
George W. Bush lied. He lied so that we wouldn’t notice that it was he, and he alone, who took the matches and tossed them into a house he had filled with flammable liquid. He lied so we would be fooled into looking elsewhere―at stem cell research, at bowdlerized religiosity, at down-home folksiness, at his sneering buffoon of a craven vice president, at his grandstanding in various militaristic costumes claiming his patriotism while gutting his nation fore and aft―while he burned down the houses of nations.
It is the duty, first and foremost, of an existentialist to connect the dots in human activities. It is the duty of an existentialist, if that existentialist believes truly that existence precedes and supersedes concept, to act on behalf of existence. It is the duty of an existentialist to shed light on lies because whatever compromises the human condition compromises all there is. It is a more fundamental, more basic belief than the more prevalent belief in God as author of all that is. But it is not one, ultimately, that is at odds with bona fide spirituality, a spirituality that identifies the inimical and celebrates the good.
It is at odds with religions that pass off execrable actions as sins to be forgiven rather than unethical acts to be noted, prevented in future, even temporally punished. Forgiving execrable acts is giving tacit permission for their repetition; pointing them out again and again and again is the only reasonable response, until a sufficient mass of people begin to understand the enormity of the offences against them, against their personhood and everyone’s personhood, and demand cessation and reparation. Forgiveness is immaterial; recognition of evil is essential. Taking action against evil is highly to be desired.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Scottish doctors target supermarket booze

Treating symptoms and not the disease

As might be expected, Scottish doctors are on the rampage yet again. First, it was homeopathy, and now it’s alcohol.

In both cases, they fail to recognize the fundamental demands of ethics and humanity.

Regarding their demand that homeopathy be disregarded…no, that it be forcibly trashed by removing homeopathics from the shelves of Boots and other chemists and adding labels saying the medications are useless…please see yesterday’s column.

Regarding their demand that supermarkets not award loyalty points for purchases of alcohol, they are failing to note two significant cultural thrusts, one of which might reduce alcoholism despite loyalty points or any other commercial activity, and the other of which would place the onus for neo-Prohibitionism where it properly lies.

The first cultural factor is this: As of June 30, 2010, the picture of Sir Edward Elgar, foremost British composer of classical and religious music, is being replaced on the 20 pound note with a picture of economist Adam Smith. The government of the United Kingdom has therefore given tacit encouragement to the replacement of cultural heroes by commercial pundits. No one has yet definitively proven whether the theories of Adam Smith or Milton Friedman or Maynard Keynes or Mickey Mouse are the ones most likely to lead to the long-term economic health of nations.

On the other hand, that nations need a vibrant culture, including fine arts, music, dance and even crafts, to thrive cannot be denied. Look, for example, at the state of Afghanistan, where the arts were systematically outlawed by the outlaw Taliban. There is no beauty, no ease, no reason, really, to thrive but only to survive, and that at a basic level. Look at Soviet Russia, in which the only art allowed made giants of puny men, erecting paintings and statues of the unworthy in every public place to indoctrinate the masses. Note: It didn’t work for long.

The Scottish doctors, in their mad rush to blame alcohol itself and the means by which it is purchased for alcohol abuse are mistaking the symptom for the disease. The disease is an impoverished society, in which true cultural heroes are dismissed and mechanics who merely tinker with the conduct of life, rather than investigating the nature of life, are elevated. One cannot hear a passage written by Adam Smith and be transported beyond one’s mundane self; on the other hand, one can hear a composition by Elgar and be transported to a more refined realm, a place where commercial grasping is not seen as the stuff of life.

That is not to say that one must favour classical music to develop as a human, but that classical music is one way. Music, whether Elgar or Elton John, can lift human thoughts beyond that night’s soup, or that day’s corporate takeover. The prescriptions of economists of any age cannot. If a society replaces all cultural heroes such as Elgar with commercial mechanics such as Adam Smith, one can expect a descent into alcoholism and other forms of brutality, as the population will gradually become unfamiliar with the other gifts available to the human psyche to make life a joy and not a drudgery.

The Scottish doctors are missing another extremely cogent pointas cogent in the current climate as the dismissal of culture in favour of economic mechanics: The  movement to crack down on drunk driving has been hijacked and turned into neo-Prohibitionism, much to the dismay of the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Candy Lightner. Briefly, Lightner’s teenage daughter was killed by a drunk driver who got off with an unbearably light sentence. An enraged Lightner vowed to bring drunk driving to national attention in the US, with the goal of toughening sanctions against it and punishment for it.

However, a few years ago, Lightner was quoted regarding the organization she founded and then left this way? “It [MADD] has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned. I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.” (For more, see an article on the blog Alcohol Problems and Solutions maintained by David J. Hanson, Ph.D., at the State University of New York at Potsdam, here.)

Lightner has reportedly had three drunk driving arrests herself. If one assumes she is merely a social drinker and, like most people, caught in the finely meshed net of already-draconian drunk-driving laws, then one can see how easily she could make that statement, and how apropos it is of the Scottish doctors’ rampage.

Indeed, Scottish doctors seem to have adopted a “demon rum” attitude that goes well beyond anything even the flawed Ms. Lightner envisioned. Possibly, like any population untutored in cause and effect relationships, they have decided that since supermarkets sell a greater percentage of alcohol than do pubs and restaurants, they can make the greatest impact for their rampage by attacking supermarkets. Not, notice, the greatest impact on problems caused by public drunkenness; the greatest impact for the doctors’ reputation among the untutored masses as protectors of the public health.

A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association pointed out that no evidence exists to suggest that loyalty points cause problem drinking, nor is there evidence to suggest that removing them would solve the problem. The spokesman was quoted by Gerry Braiden in an article in the Scotland Herald: “Surely it’s time we had a serious debate about the root causes of alcohol misuse.”

Only one doctor in the British Medical Association in Scotland spoke out against the rampage against loyalty points, and she ratified the Wine and Spirit Trade position.  Dr. Ellie O’Sullivan sensibly claimed the issue of “excessive drinking in Britain was cultural and that the motion [to disallow loyalty points] would not solve the problem.” To illustrate the ridiculous nature of the doctors’ rampage, she asked, regarding a move to ban drunkenness on public transport, “Are we going to breathalyse everyone getting on a bus?”

Unfortunately, because the doctors have claimed an expertise they lack and a vantage point they do not deserve by virtue of their appalling lack of understanding of cultural values, the answer might be yes. Twelve years ago, it would have been unthinkable to make all air travellers remove their shoes for inspection, empty their pockets, remove their jewellery, buy specially miniaturized bottles of shampoo and subject themselves to apparently random wandings and even pat-downs to go from one country to another.

And yet, it has happened.

It happens when people fail to understand cause and effect relationships and unethically transfer their efforts from finding solutions to the causative events and factors, and apply those efforts instead to altering the effects, regardless of how ineffective such an action might be. One can bring down a high fever by tossing a patient into a bathtubful of cold water, but the patient might die unless the cause of the disease is located and treated. Indeed, the patient might die more quickly because fever is one way the body fights an infection; without the heat, conceivably the disease organisms would be much happier and grow much faster.

Likewise, removing a scintilla of alcohol from shopping carts would seem to be no more than an ice-water bath, and one applied not only to those suffering a disease, but to the disease-free as well. That, alone, makes their “cure” for alcohol abuse unethical. But it is more unethical than that; it simply adds a bit more financial suffering to those who are already suffering alcoholism and does absolutely nothing to address the underlying cause. Nothing at all.

In a purely practical sense, one wonders how long the doctors would retain any patients if they gave all of us expensive prescriptions for streptomycin when only one-half of one percent of us actually had a strep throat?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The National Health Service, Homeopathy and Public Ethics

 Hippocrates by Rubens

Hippocratic? Or Hypocrites?

This week, there are two thrusts in coverage of planned National Health Service cutbacks in the United Kingdom. The first involves which programs to cut; up for consideration is extensive payment for fertility treatments. Also up is coverage of homeopathy, a 200-year-old system of medicine subscribed to by the Royal Family, lots of other Brits, a few Americans, tons of Indians (many of whom live, in fact, in England) and many, many French people.

Homeopathy is regarded by mainstream doctors as nothing more than placebos. They believe this because, as mechanics more than scientists, philosophers or artists―all of which physicians were meant to be in more enlightened times as recently as the 18th century―they cannot find any trace of active ingredients within the pellets and liquids dispensed by homeopaths. Modern doctors are apparently ignorant of quantum physics and the work of Dr. Masuro Emoto in which he found that the molecular structure of water changed depending on whether it was from a clear mountain stream or a polluted urban river. Not the contents of the water, mind…the water itself. That is how homeopathy works; the active ingredient, often a poison if used at full strength, is diluted in an inert substance such as purified water and during the process, the active ingredient’s properties are transmitted to the inert carrier.

So, upon that brief and somewhat inexact explanation of how homeopathy works (and it would be inexcusable for me to fail to admit that it is the only form of medicine I have used for more than 30 years), the questions are these:

One form of medicine fits all?
1.  Is it ethical for a doctor to proceed against a form of medical treatment different than that to which he adheres despite a portion of the public believing it is in their best interest to follow that alternate form of medicine?

2.  Is it ethical for citizens and their elected politicians to deny public coverage for such treatments on the same basis as coverage for mainstream treatment?

Regarding question one: If a doctor actually follows the Hippocratic Oath, which admonishes “first, do no harm,” then clearly by removing equal coverage out of public coffers for a minority medical system, they are doing harm. Often, they say they are “protecting” that public from wasting money (their own and the public’s) on what they say are ineffective treatments.

First, those treatments are not ineffective if they promote health in those who use them, which they do, regardless of what the doctors see or do not see in the chemical components of those substances, or on how many double-blind studies have or have not been conducted. (Aside from which, not a week passes that there is not another revelation regarding bogus studies for deadly mainstream pharmaceuticals…so much for “real” science.”) So, on a purely factual basis, they are acting unethically.

When did doctors become God?
Second, on what day did the public relinquish its prerogative to choose its own health care to doctors, or any other so-called and/or self-proclaimed expert? In short, on what day did God (if you believe in one) decide to share power with those who are members of a large, national medical association in some developed nation or other?

Printed below is a copy of a version of the Hippocratic Oath used in many medical schools today. It was written by Louis Lasagna in 1964; he was academic dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University.

Dr. Lehany, Scotland’s answer to the Luddites
The portions of the Hippocratic Oath which particularly address the issues raised here are italicised. I would particularly draw those to the attention of Dr. Gordon Lehany, author of the most recent assault on homeopathy from the UK medical establishment. Dr. Gordon Lehany is chair of the British Medical Association’s Scottish junior doctors committee, and therefore inordinately influential for the future of medical practice in the UK.

Money, greed and ignorance
Regarding question two―Is it ethical for citizens to justify denial of alternative medical coverage on financial grounds?―the answer is simple. No.

Many of those commenting on public forums on this issue cite the same sorts of mechanistic pseudo-evidence as Dr. Lehany might cite. But by ignoring the work of Dr. Emoto and Canadian researcher Dr. R.H. Clark, who altered the character of water by what he placed next to it, it is as if they are trying to convince themselves and the rest of us that the Remington Standard typewriter is preferable to the computer for quickly producing typed sentences…because the Remington is the one they know how to operate and fix, while they are mystified by computing.

But many raise the issue of cost, as well. Why, they ask, should they pay for this “magic” medicine with their tax dollars?

Again, the answer is simple: Because in a democratic society, each member is responsible for not only his or her own happiness and right to pursue same, but those same rights for every other member. Most people who use homeopathy don’t think much of Big Pharma and its killer compounds, and yet, one doesn’t read of them refusing to spend much larger amounts on it because it is what the majority favour. They actually believe the Hippocratic dictum, First, do no harm. And it would be harmful to a population of sick people to badger and threaten them about the means they have chosen through which to heal, even if one doesn’t personally favour it.

One reaps what one sows. Dr. Lehany is sowing hostility and pandering to a narrow world-view, if not practicing thinly veiled greed. The public commentators are expressing both ignorance and hostility and the obverse of greed, parsimony.

Worse, parsimony directed at those they do not know and yet would harm.


I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death.

If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.