Friday, February 28, 2014

The one chart that sums up everything that’s wrong with the war on drugs

The United States prison population has increased a jaw-dropping 800% since 1971, the year that the war on drugs was initiated by the Nixon administration. Half of the 216,000 federal inmates in prison today are incarcerated for drug offenses. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world.

The country that once called itself the beacon of democracy is now the planet’s prison capital. Unsurprisingly, the most vocal constituencies for continuing the drug war just happen to be those groups that benefit economically from the status quo, local and state law enforcement agencies and the private prison industry.

In addition to the human costs, billions of tax dollars are flushed down the toilet annually on this failed policy. If President Obama really wants to leave a lasting legacy, he will begin dismantling the drug war infrastructure and putting the power of his office behind legalization efforts at the state and federal level.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We can’t trust government to police itself

One important thing the ongoing Snowden NSA revelations should make clear is that large-scale conspiracies do exist. There may have been bits and pieces leaking out and some intelligent guesses about the surveillance of Americans prior to Snowden, but without his courageous actions, we would still be largely in the dark about the illegal, unconstitutional and outrageous actions of our spy agencies.

It bothers me when people blithely lump all “conspiracy nuts” together. It has been an effective tactic, and one that government officials and the mainstream media love to use, but we the people should be smarter and more discerning than to be taken in by that. We used to depend on the news media to be the government watchdog (Edward Murrow, Jack Andersen, Woodward and Bernstein), but that is no longer the case for a lot of reasons, so it falls on the shoulders of individual citizens to risk their careers and their lives to uncover these government misdeeds.

Whether it’s 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or any government related claim, conspiracy debunkers always ask how could all of the people involved in the conspiracy keep quiet for decades? Well, the NSA revelations demonstrate that illegal government activity involving certainly hundreds, maybe thousands of people worldwide, could be kept under wraps for nearly 10 years. If Snowden hadn’t come along, it may have gone on in secret for another 10 years.

Not all conspiracy theories are true or even believable, but we do have to acknowledge that sometimes they are very real and, if no one has the guts to poke around in the hole with a stick, they will never be revealed. Leaving the government to act without any checks and balances, as we are seeing, is an invitation to disaster.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A former top general believes Jesus will return armed and dangerous

One of my all-time favorite movies is, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Peter Sellers is brilliant in three different roles, but another actor in the film portrayed a character that was both hilarious and extremely frightening at the same time. I first saw the movie not long after its release in 1964. This was at the height of the Cold War (and a growing American presence in Vietnam), and the premise of a U.S. general losing his shit and starting a nuclear war with the Soviets was not all that far-fetched. Sterling Hayden’s portrayal of paranoid, fluoride-hating Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper was pitch-perfect, and very scary:

General Jack D. Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: I... no, no. I don't, Jack.
General Jack D. Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Uh, Jack, Jack, listen... tell me, tell me, Jack. When did you first... become... well, develop this theory?
General Jack D. Ripper: [somewhat embarrassed] Well, I, uh... I... I... first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.
General Jack D. Ripper: Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue... a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I... I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.
General Jack D. Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh... women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh... I do not avoid women, Mandrake.
General Jack D. Ripper: But I... I do deny them my essence.

We all laughed nervously at General Ripper’s extreme right-wing conspiracy theories, feeling safe in the knowledge that this was a work of fiction and our government would never allow a loose cannon like Ripper anywhere near nuclear weapons.

How na├»ve we were. Let me introduce you to former U.S. Lieutenant General William G. "Jerry" Boykin who was once a top Pentagon advisor to the Bush Administration. General Boykin has never been afraid to express his own hardcore far-fight philosophies, and he once called the war on terror a spiritual battle between Muslims and “Christian America.” More recently he spoke to a group of conservative legislators and audio of the talk fell into the hands of Right Wing Watch. Jack Ripper sounds sane compared to Boykin. Here’s a sample:

“The Lord is a warrior and in Revelation 19 it says when he comes back, he's coming back as what? A warrior. A mighty warrior leading a mighty army, riding a white horse with a blood-stained white robe ... I believe that blood on that robe is the blood of his enemies 'cause he's coming back as a warrior carrying a sword.

And I believe now - I've checked this out - I believe that sword he'll be carrying when he comes back is an AR-15.”

Jesus will return to earth armed with an assault rifle. Okay. This guy isn’t playing a role in a movie. He’s the real deal, and while he might be retired from the military, he held very high-level positions during his time in the service.

Like all great satire, Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack Ripper is not that far from the truth, and that should scare the hell out of all of us.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pushing policy to improve profits is business as usual in D.C.

No one should ever wonder why Americans are cynical about what goes on in Washington D.C. Let’s take the case of former DEA administrator Peter Bensinger who served as a drug warrior under three presidents. Yahoo has posted an interview with him and, as one might predict, he rails against the current legalization trend and makes a boatload of absurd statements about the evils of marijuana that are contrary to science and common sense.

You might be tempted to feel some pity for the silver-haired veteran of the doomed war on drugs, but not so fast. There’s more behind the rantings of an old drug war propagandist than meets the eye. To the credit of the article’s authors, and in a move that is rare in the mainstream press, there is an editor’s note at the end of the story, revealing that, “Bensinger is currently president and CEO of Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, a private consulting firm that promotes drug-free workplaces. Among the services offered to clients are employee drug testing, health and safety training programs and risk management.”

So Bensinger isn’t merely misinformed, there is a method to his reefer madness. Relaxed attitudes about marijuana could directly affect the bottom line of his business. His anti-drug passion is not so much about saving the souls of America’s youth, but about keeping his consulting firm in the black. And so it goes.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Best (worst) headline of the 21st century (so far)

 Whip-wielding Russian Cossacks attack Pussy Riot members near Sochi Olympics

The U.S. and U.K. equate journalism with terrorism

Last August, Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was held and questioned for nine hours at Heathrow Airport by British security agents. The hazy justification for the detention revolved around the Snowden leaks, and Miranda challenged this rationale in British courts. Today, a lower UK court released its judgment that the action was justified because the release of the Snowden documents was tantamount to “terrorism,” and anybody even remotely connected to the event was fair game for government scrutiny.

Greenwald argues, and I agree with him, that this mindset basically equates journalism with terrorism. If, as a journalist, you expose anything that the government finds displeasing or embarrassing, you can be labeled a terrorist and the courts will uphold this absurdity. At the same time that Snowden is being nominated for a Nobel Prize, the U.S. and UK governments are treating him, and anyone associated with him, as a terrorist.

If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War, you’ll recall horror stories about the USSR and East European governments eavesdropping on dissidents and journalists, steaming open letters, and bugging embassies. This was child’s play compared to the surveillance tactics and technologies of the 21st century. The real horror story today is that these sophisticated technologies are being employed relentlessly by the world’s most advanced democracies, ostensibly to fight terrorism, but in reality for a variety of nefarious purposes.

We have become that which we demonized less than a generation ago. When you think about it, the only real justification for our current lawless surveillance tactics is that whatever we do is okay because, America. Just remember, you or I could be the next David Miranda.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Right vs Far Right: The battle for control of the Republican Party

A lot of column inches are being devoted to the struggle for domination within the Republican Party between the Christian Right/Tea Party faction and more moderate conservatives. In recent weeks, several well-known Republicans have left the party citing the intransigence and radicalism of far right wing members as the reason.

A critical question in my mind is how moderate Republican voters will react if the Tea Party wins the day. Will they support radical Republicans like Ted Cruz or Darrell Issa in national elections, candidates who’ve shown no interest in negotiating with other members of their own party, let alone Democrats or Obama? Everyone across the political spectrum will tell you that gridlock in Washington is a major problem. Knowing that Tea Party legislators are not going to work with Democrats on key legislation, will Republican voters help contribute to the partisan standstill in congress?

What will the priorities be for Republican voters in the midterm elections, ideology or a functioning government?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Billionaires say the darndest things

Good lord, the billionaires are at it again. Don’t these people have handlers? Every time one of them opens his mouth, the hubris, chutzpah and utter cluelessness assaults our senses like a barrel of rotten fish. Multi-zillionaire Tom Perkins, the man who equates critics of the wealthy with Nazis, also believes you shouldn’t be able to vote unless you pay taxes, and the more money you make the more votes you should get. He seems to have temporarily forgotten that he and his billionaire buddies already own congress and the executive branch. Why would they need more votes?

Then there’s billionaire Bud Konheim, the co-founder and CEO of the luxury clothing company Nicole Miller, who said this week that the 99 percent should shut their pie holes because if they lived in China they’d be rich. He thinks we’re a nation of whiners.

The arrogance on display here is monumental. Not satisfied to be among the richest, most powerful people on the planet, they have the gall to lecture the rest of us as if we are petulant children disrespecting their betters. They’ve convinced themselves that they truly deserve to have more money in the bank than some small countries, and that if you’re not as rich as them, there’s something wrong with you. They live on a rich man’s fantasy island, encircled by a tall fence that keeps reality at bay. 

I might suggest they take some time to brush up on their history. They might learn from the Czar’s of Russia and eighteenth century French royalty that no fence lasts forever.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

America’s surveillance agencies willing to destroy innocent lives to survive

A lot of Americans remain complacent about the surveillance state in which we now live because they can’t see or feel it directly touching their lives. A recent article in Wired (here) clearly demonstrates how far government agencies are willing to go to protect themselves, and it should greatly concern every U.S. citizen.

It took a Stanford doctoral student seven years of litigation and $38,000 in lawyer fees to finally get the government to admit she was put on a “no fly” list by mistake. Only after seven years of dogged attempts to clear her name did government lawyers concede that an FBI agent checked the wrong box on a form, placing the student’s name on the list. For seven years the government claimed they could not reveal how her name ended up on the list “for national security reasons.” A courageous young woman’s life was almost ruined because some idiot checked the wrong box and the government refused to admit its mistake.

The case illustrates just how far the government will go to protect itself from the people it is supposedly protecting, and no one in America should believe they are immune from this kind of Kafkaesque scenario. The security monster Bush built and Obama continues to feed has a life of its own and its primary prerogative is survival, not protection.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This is why Americans hate congress

Dear U.S. Senate Democrats,

What the fuck is wrong with you?

Last Thursday, you fell one DEMOCRAT short of restoring long-term unemployment insurance for 1.7 million Americans. The Republican controlled congress ended those payments in December, and you had a chance to act like actual caring, empathetic human beings and restore the payments, but you failed. At least Republicans have an excuse for voting to cut these benefits, they don’t give a shit about the American people. But you?

A long time ago, Democrats at least pretended to care about the poor and the middle class, but even that has evaporated as Republicans control the government’s agenda. The Democrats who still do care about us are simply too few to make a difference.

I was unemployed for over two years not that long ago. I lost my condo and went through bankruptcy. If it hadn’t been for my unemployment benefits, I would have had to live on the streets. And that is the future of a whole lot of Americans today because you don’t have the backbone to stand up for what’s right, to work for the people, not the lobbyists and billionaire donors.

You failed. You are spineless cowards.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Say "No" to mass surveillance

A note to anyone who might be interested (and you should be) that today is the day the internet is fighting back against the government's mass surveillance tactics. Go here and find out how to contact your representatives and let them know that you oppose the illegal spying of the NSA and other federal agencies.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The myth of the self-made man

Over the last few weeks we’ve been regaled with the wit and wisdom of several of America’s billionaires trying to defend the .01%. In every case, they’ve managed to put their $2,000 Berluti loafers in their mouths. Tom Perkins likened critics of the very wealthy to Nazis. Another said the rich were rich because they simply work harder. And then there’s Donald Trump, who’s every utterance is coated with disdain for the everyday man and woman.

What you don’t hear is humility. Not an ounce. Their message to the world is I got what I got by my own sweat and blood, so leave me alone. The reality is quite different. My tax dollars, and yours, helped these “self-made men” all through their lives, whether they admit it or not. And do we get a thank you? Hey, Mr. Billionaire, Let me ask you a question:

Did you go to public school?
Did you attend college?
Do you drive on roads and highways and bridges?
Does your business rely on the nations highways, railways, waterways or airways?
Have you ever flown in an airplane?
Do you eat food?
Do you go to the bathroom?
Do you live in a secure neighborhood?
Have you ever had to call the police, firefighters or EMTs?
Do you take any medications?
Have you ever been to the hospital?
Do you drink water?
Do you live in a state where the roads are plowed in the winter?
Is the air that you breath relatively clean?

You’re welcome, you ungrateful bastards.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Obama a socialist? The facts say otherwise.

Even after six years in office, conservatives on FOX News and in congress are still banging the “Obama is a socialist” drum. Those of us who actually reside on the left end of the spectrum have known this to be a ridiculous charge from the moment it was first uttered, but it still resonates strongly in Tea Party and libertarian circles. The most recent issue of Esquire includes an important article (with charts!) that should debunk and bury this accusation once and for all (link).

As the article (with charts!) clearly shows, the President cannot even be labeled a liberal, let alone a socialist. The real Barack Obama is a hawkish, pro-business centrist Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton. In fact, Obama used Clinton’s playbook to win his two elections; lean left during the primaries and campaigns, then, once in office, run to your comfort zone in the center. And I’ll put money on the table right now that Hillary’s campaign strategy will be exactly the same.

Obama has been a great disappointment to progressives and, I am guessing, to socialists as well. We expected change, but got more of the same.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Ted Cruz: Face of the Republican Party

No matter what your feelings about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and there are few people with feelings that are other than negative, the man’s face is creepy. The sad, “poor baby” eyes, oversized ears and perpetual smirk just send out icky vibes to me. It looks like something carved out of cursed wood and covered with layers of shellac by an evil puppeteer. It’s the kind of face that if you put it on a poster with the caption, “Trust me,” the irony would be obvious. If Ted drove an ice cream truck through your neighborhood, you’d be nervous. I know judging a book by its cover is wrong, but look at that face. I mean really look deep into his eyes. Are you screaming yet?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Debating creationists is an exercise in futility

I didn’t watch the debate last night between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham the Creationist Guy. Based on today’s reactions, however, it sounds like the results were what you would expect, no minds were changed and both camps retreated to their respective corners feeling they’d won.

I have a lot of respect for Nye and his valiant attempts to take the science versus creationism battle directly to the enemy, but I have to agree with the large number of scientists who oppose these kinds of events as they only lend unnecessary credence to those who believe in the supernatural origins of the universe.

There really can’t be a traditional debate between scientists and creationists because they have two fundamentally opposing viewpoints that prohibit any form of agreement about anything. The creationist’s one and only source for their position is the bible, which they believe is divinely inspired. If I, as a scientist, don’t believe the bible came from a supernatural source, we are debating from different universes that have none of the same touch points. From the scientist’s standpoint, you might as well be basing your arguments on Aesop’s Fables or Mother Goose stories. And if you’ve ever tried to engage the cheerful Mormon robots who knock on your door, you know they’re coming from a far different galaxy than the one in which you live.

The always brilliant Dr. Richard Dawkins has this to say about debates with creationists. "Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs," Dawkins wrote in a 2006 article entitled Why I Won’t Debate Creationists. "But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science."

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Where’s the Super Bowl tribute to Pete Seeger?

I served in the United States Army for three years, from 1972 to 1975. When I was drafted, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t go to Vietnam, but at some point in basic training I learned that they were not sending any new American troops to the war zone. There were guys I was training with who were disappointed.
            Forty-two years later, I’m watching the Super Bowl. Honestly, I don’t care who wins, I just enjoy watching football from time to time. What I do find interesting and disturbing in the whole corporate extravaganza is the celebration and adoration of our military. FOX won’t let us forget about our men and women fighting for…who knows what…serving in foreign lands. Black, white and brown faces smile widely as they give a shout out to family and friends back home. Is that wrong, you ask? These people are serving our country, giving up the comforts of home and hearth to defend democracy. Yes, I know. I was there. Having to serve in uniform and leave my young family turned my private life upside down and it all ended badly.
            Let me ask you this. Where are the soldiers for peace? Where are the men and women who devote their lives to ending warfare and bloodshed? Where’s the tribute to Pete Seeger? Where’s the profile of Edward Snowden? What happened to the halftime show honoring Nelson Mandela? The ugly truth is we are an imperial nation with a lust for conquest and bloodshed. We need constant conflict, whether it’s the Indians or the Nazis or the communists or the terrorists, we need an enemy to distract the populace from the looting of their country by the capitalist elites. The Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Bushs, Hiltons, Waltons, Coors and the Kochs all understood that their success depended on keeping us distracted and focused on the “other.” Class warfare happens in foreign countries, not here. We only fight when we have to. Peace is our main objective.
            We’ve been lied to for so long we can’t tell up from down, good from bad or truth from falsehood. We celebrate violence and ignore peace. Our heroes, whether real or fictional, succeed by killing and destroying. Our entertainment is dominated by those who win using force. People who work for peace are marginalized, ignored and scoffed at.
           This is the country I sacrificed three years of my life for. I’d like them back now, please.