Sunday, March 29, 2009

How to End Mexico's Drug Violence

With our relationship with Mexico being strained from the US demand for illegal drugs and the resulting violence of its drug traffickers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the following frank words as outlined in a NYT article Clinton Says U.S. Feeds Mexico Drug Trade.

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Mrs. Clinton said, using unusually blunt language. “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”

So with the Obama Administration acknowledging that demand for these drugs is the basic cause of the problem, what do they propose to do about it? If you look at The White House Response, you will see lots of law enforcement help for Mexico including sending helicopters and beefing up border enforcement.

And at the end of the very long list of proposed measures is a paragraph added at the end almost as an afterthought saying “We are renewing our commitment to reduce the demand for illegal drugs here at home.”

So despite all the feel-good talk about stepped up law enforcement is a tacit admission that we have no really effective means of doing anything about the demand for these drugs. And meanwhile, the drug related violence in Mexico which has claimed over 7,200 lives so far continues on and is spilling across the border into the US.

With the demand for illegal drugs resulting in large amounts of money going across the border into Mexico, the drug traffickers there are more than willing to part with some of that money to buy US weapons to use against both Mexican law enforcement officers and rival drug cartels. While offering to assist Mexico with law enforcement may possibly treat the symptoms, without an effective way to address the demand for the drugs, ending the violence there is largely an exercise in futility.

It’s not like we haven’t tried to reduce demand here in the US. We have tried the “Just Say No” campaign along with the “War on Drugs”. But the result has been an overflowing of US prisons with a huge number of non-violent drug offenders. Trying to enforce a prohibition of drugs like marijuana has had similar results to attempting the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s which led to the growth of organized crime and violence — just like what is happening in Mexico. The lesson (which led to the repeal of Prohibition) was that as long as there was a demand for alcohol despite its being illegal, law enforcement efforts to try and eradicate it proved to be futile. And so it is the same story with drugs. When will we learn?

President Obama obviously hasn’t learned. In his recent online political forum, a large number of questions were about whether he would be in favor of legalizing marijuana with the intent of taxing and regulating it as reported in the NYT article
'Grass' Roots Lobby Games Obama's Town Hall.

For those of us who have been watching the voting in online political forums over the last few years, it came as no surprise that the “stoner constituency” gamed the pool of questions for President Obama’s town hall meeting Thursday.

The White House set up a new feature this week, asking people to submit questions to Mr. Obama via the Internet, queries they could then vote on. Some of the most popular were asked of the president today in the East Room, and that’s how a question came up about legalizing marijuana by allowing the government to tax and regulate it.

Mr. Obama joked that the popularity of the marijuana question must somehow be reflective of the Internet audience whose questions and votes were solicited.
The comment response by NYT reader Markian sums things up well from my viewpoint:

I, like many Americans, was unimpressed with the quick dismissal of this topic. To brush off a growing constituency as a bunch of stoners is a slap in the face. This constituency includes those who advocate its medical use, those who aspire to end an ugly and costly war with no end, those who see its agricultural and economic benefits, and then of course, those who use it.

This is about far more than a bunch of ‘stoners’ who want to get high. It is about an ongoing policy, “The War on Drugs” that I argue in a previous posting has been an unmitigated disaster. It is the continuation of this ‘War’ that more than anything else drives the drug related violence in Mexico by preserving the profit motive of its drug trade. Conversely, the availability of legally grown marijuana here in the US would deal a crushing blow to the Mexican drug trade.

More progressive thinkers on this issue are rejecting the old ideas of prohibition in favor of an alternative policy of
harm reduction.

Harm reduction began in the 1980s as a public health strategy to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS among people who inject drugs. From its clinical successes, most notably with needle exchange, and from its pragmatic and compassionate values, emerged an alternative vision for drug policy as a whole. Harm reduction is grounded in the conviction that people should not be punished for what they put into their bodies, but only for crimes committed against others. It acknowledges that no society will ever be free of drugs. It holds that drug policies should seek to reduce the negative consequences (principally death, disease, crime and suffering) of both drug use and the policies themselves.
Harm reduction is the cornerstone of the drug policy of The Netherlands which legalizes the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops under strict rules.
And despite the fears of what this may have brought:

The extent and nature of the use of soft drugs does not differ from the pattern in other Western countries. As for hard drugs, the number of addicts in the Netherlands is low compared with the rest of Europe and considerably lower than that in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Dutch rates of drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category.

For now, those of us hoping for change have to take solace in the words of NYT reader
Rich in response to the above NYT article:

If Obama were to support legalization he would do nothing but give the GOP reasons to complain, it wouldn’t pass, and it would distract from the economic agenda, health care and energy independence. Wait until the 2nd term and we may see something. The reasons for legalization are there, the politics are not. Patience is a virtue, the time will come.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Students Have Rights Too

The New York Times recently ran a story about an outrageous strip-search performed on a 13 year old girl in Strip-Search Tests Limit of School Policy.

Savana Redding still remembers the clothes she had on — black stretch pants with butterfly patches and a pink T-shirt — the day school officials here forced her to strip six years ago. She was 13 and in eighth grade.

An assistant principal, enforcing the school’s antidrug policies, suspected her of having brought prescription-strength ibuprofen pills to school. One of the pills is as strong as two Advils.

The search by two female school employees was methodical and humiliating, Ms. Redding said. After she had stripped to her underwear, “they asked me to pull out my bra and move it from side to side,” she said. “They made me open my legs and pull out my underwear.”

Ms. Redding, an honors student, had no pills. But she had a furious mother and a lawyer, and now her case has reached the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on April 21.

For most of us, this is so wrong on so many levels. One would think that the Constitution protecting us from unreasonable searches and seizures would make this case a slam dunk against the school board. But because schools are charged with the responsibility for and control of its students, constitutional protections that apply to citizens in general are not necessarily applicable to students.

The battle centers on a couple terms of legalese. In general, the Fourth Amendment says that police must have probable cause or a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime to not only make arrests, but also to make a personal or property search.

New Jersey v. T. L. O. (1985) set a special precedent for searches of students at school. The (Supreme) Court ruled that school officials act as state officers when conducting searches, and do not require probable cause to search students' belongings, only reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard in United States law that a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts and inferences.
This not only applies to body searches but also locker searches. A legal article written for the layperson by, School Lockers: What can a teacher search? goes into the incredible amount of nuance surrounding whether a search in school is considered to be a legal one.

It is difficult to state beforehand whether or not a particular search is reasonable. Some searches are clearly illegal, for example, if a teacher searches a student's locker on a hunch or for no reason. If a teacher suspects that a person has contraband only in his locker, then a search of that student's backpack probably isn't justified either. However, these rules are not hard and fast. Since most search cases are complicated, with factors that justify and nullify the search at the same time, the courts consider each case individually.
It’s hard to look at all of this in an absolutist way. Most of us would agree that if the school had a reasonable suspicion that someone had a weapon, they should be able to search this person. After all, this directly affects the safety of teachers and students. But what about a strip search for someone suspected of carrying prescription strength ibuprofen as in the case mentioned previously? For many of us, this clearly crosses the line of common sense and decency but yet we need an upcoming Supreme Court decision to decide whether all of this was illegal. So ultimately, where do we draw the line?

There is clearly a balance between liberty and security we have to respect. The problem is that too often, government under the guise of providing security can go too far in a grab for power and needlessly undermine our liberties as critics of the USA PATRIOT Act have charged.

Just as importantly, we teach our students in school that it is the valuable protections provided by our Constitution that make the freedom we have worth protecting and when necessary worth dying for. But when students are taught by personal experience that the Constitution sometimes doesn’t apply to them, it is easy to understand how they can become cynical or simply indifferent to the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. For their sake, we should all hope that the Supreme Court in its upcoming decision takes a step towards a more reasonable and balanced position in protecting student rights.

We should remember Ben Franklin who said:

He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Let's End Farm Animal Cruelty

Despite knowing that the scenes in it would be very hard to watch, I decided anyway to watch the recently released HBO documentary, Death on a Family Farm because I knew it was a story that had to be told.

Three years in the making, DEATH ON A FACTORY FARM follows the undercover investigation of Wiles Hog Farm by the animal rights group The Humane Farming Association (HFA), and the resulting court case against it.

Over the course of six weeks, “Pete” secretly filmed numerous disturbing scenes, including piglets being tossed into crates from across a room, impregnated sows held in pens that don't allow them to move, an unhealthy piglet being slammed against a wall to euthanize it, and a sick sow being hung by a chain from a forklift until it choked to death.

For a video preview of this documentary which contains images that may be disturbing to many, open this link.

I previously wrote on this subject in
Can We Talk About Animal Welfare? Unlike those who support Animal Rights which essentially promotes a vegan lifestyle forgoing the use of any animal products, I am a supporter of Animal Welfare which finds the use of animals for food and clothing to be morally acceptable as long as unnecessary suffering is avoided.

And on a related note, there was the
indictment and the later conviction of NFL quarterback Michael Vick for dogfighting that was prominently in the news. But while dogfighting is bad enough, what really started the outrage towards Vick was this:

The indictment said that in April 2007, Peace, Phillips and Vick "executed approximately eight dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions by various methods, including hanging, drowning and/or slamming at least one dog's body to the ground." Vick also is alleged to have consulted with Peace before Peace killed a losing dog by electrocution in 2003.
While many were rightly outraged at Vick’s cruel treatment of some of his dogs, most of the laws against cruel treatment that protect companion animals like dogs do not apply to farm animals that we raise for food. So while slamming a dog’s body to the ground or hanging a dog like Vick did is both disgusting and illegal, apparently slamming an unhealthy piglet against a wall or hanging a sow to “euthanize” it while equally disgusting is not illegal. Apparently the thinking is that if we are using the animal for food, anything goes.

But can we truly call ourselves a moral society if we condone cruelty to any living creature? If you watch this graphic video presented by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of practices at a pig farm in North Carolina, you will agree that the senseless cruel and sadistic treatment of these animals goes far beyond the necessary slaughtering of these creatures to utilize them for food. And as most people who have raised pigs will tell you, they are especially intelligent animals with real feelings. Unfortunately, PETA’s only proposed solution to all of this is to try and convert as many as people as possible to becoming vegans including telling viewers at the end of the video “Don’t eat pigs”.

But instead of PETA’s ideological pursuit to try and convert the world’s meat-eaters to becoming vegans, wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the animals in question to push for laws that outlaw the cruel practices shown in the documentary?

The passage this November of California Proposition 2 along with similar laws enacted elsewhere providing for more humane treatment of agricultural animals is a positive move in the right direction. Perhaps Congress also needs to get involved. But more people need to made aware of the cruel practices used by many of these factory farms.

For HBO subscribers, the documentary will be available ‘On Demand’ until mid-April and I hope you will take the time to view this 90 minute presentation. It is not pleasant viewing but it’s a story that needs to be told and shared with others. We do not condone cruelty to animals who serve us as companions. Isn’t it only right that we afford the same consideration for those creatures who give up their lives so that we may eat?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Pope and Condoms - More Ideology Run Amok

With so many of us preoccupied with the AIG bonuses, Pope Benedict’s remarks at the start of a seven day tour of the African continent Pope: Condoms can worsen AIDS largely flew under the radar. But with an estimated 22 million Africans having the HIV virus that leads to AIDS, his remarks are no less important in understanding some of the attitudes around those who are involved in fighting this terrible disease.

"You can't resolve it [Aids] with the distribution of condoms," the pope said. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

The Catholic Church has opposed the use of condoms since it is a form of artificial contraception (like The Pill). So we shouldn’t have expected the Pope to walk off the plane in Africa and give out free condoms to everybody. But going out of his way to make an issue out of the use of condoms including saying that they increase the problem instead of the truth that they save lives is irresponsible.

Rebecca Hodes, head of policy for the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa's city of Capetown, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday they were "extremely angered and saddened by this ill-considered response from the pope".

"We know, based on over the 10-year experience of preventing and treating HIV in South Africa, that condoms are one of the only evidence-based means of preventing HIV available to us in Africa," she said.

"There is very little evidence to support abstinence-only education campaigns as a means of preventing HIV. Condoms work in preventing HIV."
And this is precisely the problem with those who cling to ideological thinking. They only care about consistency in their views instead of whether something actually works or not.

We had a similar discussion over abstinence-only sex education. VP candidate Sarah Palin spoke in favor of it; her daughter Bristol showed that it didn’t work. And then Bristol in her first interview since giving birth came out and said that telling young people to be abstinent is
"not realistic at all."

So who is hurt by all of this ideology run amok?
Certainly the people we are trying to help. It is more that just hot air that people can ignore if they choose to. Unfortunately, aid from different sources comes with strings attached. For example, the Bush Administration insisted on abstinence-only sex education instead of funding for condoms, as described in this article Bush Accused of AIDS Damage to Africa. And it is safe to say that whatever financial aid the Catholic Church decides to contribute, it will not be for latex condoms which work in preventing the spread of HIV.

But the other loser in all of this is the Catholic Church itself. When it tries to impose its rigid doctrines in ways that turn a blind eye to the needs of its people, those same people will inevitably choose to either drift away to another church or become what are known as
Cafeteria Catholics who stay with the religion but pick and choose Catholic doctrines based on their own conscience.

President Obama is
reversing Bush policies used in providing help to African countries but controversies remain since the issue of abortion is intertwined with providing condoms for family planning in addition to protection against HIV. And guess who is in the middle of all of this?

Contraception and abortion continue to be sharply divisive issues in many conservative African countries, especially ones where the Roman Catholic Church is strong, as it is in Kenya.

More than 30 percent of Kenyans are Catholic, including the country's new president, and the church here has been vocal in opposing not only abortion, but also any sort of contraception, including the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Abortion, except when a mother's life is at risk, is technically illegal in Kenya, as it is in almost every sub-Saharan African country, except for South Africa. But the World Health Organization estimates that 75 percent of abortions occur in developing countries, where the practice, though largely illegal, is widely available.

The WHO says 40 percent of all abortions are unsafe, and claim the lives of some 78,000 women a year. Forty-four percent of those deaths are in Africa.

In Kenya, botched abortions cause an estimated 30 percent of maternal deaths - at least twice the international average - and half of all admissions in gynecology wards.

We all have our ideology that we believe in. And we should certainly respect the views of others who believe differently than us. After all, those on the conservative side of this issue mean well. But clearly in this case, stubborn adherence to ideology is resulting in needless suffering and death for many Africans and that is unconscionable.

And finally for those who think HIV/AIDS is mostly just an African problem, there is this.

According to a city report, 3% of Washington, D.C., residents suffer from HIV or AIDS — a figure that ranks as the highest in the nation and far outstrips the 1% benchmark at which a health issue becomes a "generalized and severe" epidemic. The district's HIV/AIDS administration director, Shannon Hader, couched the severity of the problem in stark terms, noting the city's rate of infection surpasses those in West Africa and is "on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

CNBC - Journalism or Entertainment?

The big media event of this last week was the appearance of CNBC’s Jim Cramer on The Daily Show as described in Stewart Hammers Cramer on 'The Daily Show'.

Jon Stewart hammered Jim Cramer and his network, CNBC, in their anticipated face-off on ''The Daily Show,'' repeatedly chastising the ''Mad Money'' host for putting entertainment above journalism.

''I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a (bleep)ing game,'' Stewart told Cramer.

Stewart said he and Cramer are both snake-oil salesman, only ''The Daily Show'' is labeled as such. He claimed CNBC shirked its journalistic duty by believing corporate lies, rather than being an investigative ''powerful tool of illumination.'' And he alleged CNBC was ultimately in bed with the businesses it covered -- that regular people's stocks and 401Ks were ''capitalizing your adventure.''
All this was brought on by the cancellation by CNBC’s Rick Santelli of an appearance he previously agreed to make on The Daily Show. And as John McCain who cancelled out on David Letterman during the presidential campaign can tell you, it’s not a good idea to incur the wrath of a TV comedian with a sharp tongue.

Check out this scathing indictment by Stewart of CNBC in general and Jim Cramer in particular in
this video link.

I am one of those that believe that The Daily Show is one of the very best shows on TV although I can understand why others, especially conservatives who are often the butt of the show’s jokes would feel differently. Its self described ‘fake news’ format as an entertainment show allows it to use satire to drive home its messages that a straight news show simply cannot do.

One of Stewart’s criticisms is that financial networks like CNBC seem to cater to those who are out to get rich quick while others who are long term investors saving for their retirements are given short shrift. Commercial networks like CNBC to attract enough viewers feel that they need to have glitz and often hobnob with the movers and shakers, perhaps with the intention of giving its viewers the vicarious thrill of interacting with the super wealthy.

But whether Stewart likes it or not, much of the action around Wall Street does revolve around casino-like activities like
options where people bet on which way the price of a stock or a commodity is going to go. And just the opposite from those who are buying stocks for long term appreciation to finance their retirements are short sellers who profit on the fall of stock prices.

But the biggest criticism Stewart had (which I agree with) is that all of the financial networks’ closeness with all of those movers and shakers can make them either blind to or worse look the other way for corporate wrongdoing. We know now that the financial companies we are bailing out with public money were indulging in very unsound financial practices. Surely networks like CNBC that make recommendations on specific stocks are investigating the balance sheets of these companies. Or are they?

The first line of defense here in the US against financial misbehavior is the Securities and Exchange Commission. But as anyone who has been following the
Bernard Madoff scandal knows about the total incompetence the SEC displayed in letting Madoff fleece people out of billions of dollars over the years even when a whistleblower approached them to investigate Madoff.

Concerns about Madoff's business had surfaced as early as 1999, when financial analyst-whistleblower Harry Markopolos informed the SEC that he felt it was legally and mathematically impossible to achieve the gains Madoff claimed to deliver. Others felt it was inconceivable that his growing volume of accounts could be competently serviced by his documented accounting/auditing firm, a three-person firm with only one active accountant.

However, no serious inquiries were made into his business practices until December 2008, when the financial crisis created a rising demand of cash withdrawals.
But when the government isn’t doing its job to protect us, a free society must rely on its journalists to ask the tough questions and demand answers. Perhaps the most notable example is Woodward and Bernstein helping to uncover the Watergate Scandal.

This begs the question of whether CNBC is primarily journalism or whether it is as Stewart charges, entertainment masking as journalism. Cramer during his interview with Stewart said that his network needs to do better. So does the SEC.

Just like the health of the economy is built to a great degree on confidence, the same goes for the financial markets. If too many prospective investors feel that the markets are there to benefit the professional traders at the expense of the little guy, it will make it that much more difficult for the equity markets to recover — along with the retirement savings so many of us had hoped to rely on.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can We Talk About Stem Cell Research?

President Obama’s decision to reverse President Bush’s restrictions of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was expected but is still noteworthy and controversial in that it is a reversal of the conservative policies that have been in place over the last 8 years.

So what is all the fuss about? Stem cell research holds a great deal of promise in the way of possible cures for a number of conditions as explained by the website
Tell Me About Stem Cells:

Stem cells are the foundation for every organ, tissue and cell in the human body. Stem cells may be able to repair or replace damaged tissue, thereby reversing diseases and injuries such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and blood diseases, to name a few.
But there are two main types of stem cells:

Embryonic (or Unlimited) stem cells are currently obtained with patients' permission from leftover three-day old embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics. These embryos are created and exist entirely outside the body. Unlimited stem cells can develop into any kind of cell type or tissue in the body.

Adult (or Limited) stem cells are rare cells that can be found in only some developed organs or tissues. Limited stem cells have been successfully used for some time now in bone marrow transplants (either with bone marrow stem cells or umbilical cord blood stem cells) and skin and hair transplants.
According to most experts, the embryonic stem cells “offer significantly more promise in curing diseases and injuries.” But since extracting these embryonic stem cells requires destroying the embryos they come from, many of the conservative 'pro-life' people consider this to be immoral. And President Bush has supported this view in the form of vetoing legislation to allow public funding for embryonic stem cell research while insisting that adult stem cell research is our only moral choice.

The narrow thinking behind all of this is that citizens should not have to support programs they find immoral with their tax dollars. But what about those of us who believed the Iraq War to be immoral? Last I checked, nobody was offering any rebates for the part of our tax dollars used to finance this needless loss of human life.

And would these conservatives have the same viewpoint if they had an injury or disease that could possibly be treated by an advance in embryonic cell research? The example of
Nancy Reagan says maybe not.

(After her husband’s death due to Alzheimer’s disease) Reagan remained active in politics, particularly relating to stem cell research. Beginning in 2004, she favored what many consider to be the Democratic Party's position, and urged President George W. Bush to support federally funded embryonic stem cell research in the hope that this science could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's disease.
If indeed life is precious for those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, instead of just allowing those leftover embryos to simply be discarded, shouldn’t they be allowed to have a chance to someday save or enhance the lives of present and future generations? After all, are these lives any less precious?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Healthcare Is a Right!

Now that President Obama is turning his attention to reforming the US health care system, those on the political right who are smarting from the Democratic victory on the stimulus package are readying themselves for battle again if one is to believe Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN) commenting on President Obama’s recent health care summit.

"Health care is a privilege," before clarifying that he meant, “It's not necessarily a right” for those who choose not to pay for health care. He asserted that of the 47 million uninsured, half opt out of their employer’s provided health care.

“It's probably the next major step towards socialism,” Wamp began. “I hate to sound so harsh, but.... this literally is a fast march towards socialism, where the government is bigger than the private sector in our country and health care's the next major step, so we oughta all be worried about it."

The conservative argument about health care being a privilege is one of the major obstacles to any kind of bipartisan cooperation. To say that someone who needs medical attention to get well or even to live but cannot afford it is on their own would be crazy for even the hardest right-winger. So the argument must be softened by saying that many of the 47 million uninsured chose not to have insurance and the remainder can be helped with tax credits.

Wamp said the GOP is for "extending health care to the people that need it, not turning the whole health-care system over to the government.” And he added that any solution should be "through the tax code; you give incentives for people to have health insurance."

A Wall Street Journal Health Blog written in October during the presidential campaign has John McCain saying the following:

I think it’s a responsibility, in this respect, in that we should have available and affordable health care to every American citizen, to every family member.

So empty rhetoric about socialism aside, both men seem to agree that everybody who wants it should have access to affordable health care which whether they admit it or not, implies that it is a right. The differences in political philosophies mostly lie in the way they want this is to be accomplished.

But an even more hard core argument (that I’ve heard many times before) was made in the comments to this blog by Peter Balsam, MD that I would like to share here:

It is a privilege. Those who argue that it is a right use the argument that people need health care. If so, there’s a long list of things that people need, food being pretty prominent, and therefore, the people have a right to food, clothing, education, haircuts, an automobile……

Yes, people need health care like they need a lot of other things like food and clothing. But health care is different than all the other needs because especially for needed visits to the hospital (which can easily result in a six figure bill), it can be both vitally needed and unaffordable at the same time unless one has adequate and affordable health insurance to protect against financial catastrophe.

So once all the rhetoric is stripped away, the problem to be solved is how to make adequate and affordable health insurance available to all who want it — and the sooner we get rid of the hot air about health care being a privilege the sooner the two sides can work on coming up with the best way to accomplish this. In a previous blog posting, Why Not Medicare for Everybody? I argue in favor of a single-payer health insurance system. President Obama does not favor this system, but with companies like General Motors needing public bailout money in no small part because of its crushing health care costs for its present and retired employees, maybe he ought to reconsider.

It is interesting that education was mentioned in the list of examples by Dr. Balsam. But a public school education is generally accepted as a right for all of our citizens. Schools are funded by taxpayers whether they have school age children or not. We do this because a basic education for all of its citizens benefits our society as a whole. If we can accept this premise for education, why can’t the US accept this same premise for health care like the rest of the industrialized world? After all, what is more important to us than our health?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Time to End "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Unlike many other countries in the world, the US prohibits gays and bisexuals from openly serving in the military. But with racial segregation in the military only ending with Harry Truman’s executive order after World War II, it is clear that the military is hardly at the cutting edge of human equality issues.

When Bill Clinton decided to finally try and end this discrimination back in 1993, he ran into significant resistance from social conservatives both in the military and in Congress resulting in a compromise law known as "Don't ask, don't tell"
which allowed gays and bisexuals to serve in the military — as long as they agreed to stay in the closet.

But over the years, many have come to the conclusion that this law is in fact
a practical ban gay men, lesbians and bisexuals serving in the military.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass" policy is a practical ban on gay men, lesbians and bisexuals serving in the military — similar to the policies banning service by such individuals that have been in place for the past fifty years. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the only law in this country that authorizes the firing of an American simply for coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Some Americans view the policy as a benign gentlemen’s agreement, with discretion providing the key to job security.

But "discretion" is not a fail-safe mechanism. An honest statement by a service member of his or her sexual orientation to anyone, anywhere, anytime may lead to discharge from the armed services. Moreover, discretion in the form of mandated silence is itself a form of oppression and discrimination.

But old attitudes die hard! Most of us are familiar with the 2007 remarks of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace on the “immoral acts” of homosexuals:

“I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," Pace said. "I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well served by a saying through our policies that it's OK to be immoral in any way."

While the election of a black president was a cause of joyous celebration on Election Night especially for the black community, for the gay community with the news of the passage of California Proposition 8 making same sex marriage illegal, it was a bittersweet night.

One of the campaign pledges of President Obama was to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. But it is unclear when he will actually get around to this since rescuing a sick economy is believed to be a more pressing concern.

Even more outrageous than Pace’s comments is the attitude of our government that had turned its back on the oppression and even killing of gays in Iraq, the country we are ‘liberating’ as reported in Newsweek.

Some of NEWSWEEK's own local staff were wary of the story. Virtually no government officials would sit for an interview. And the United Nations human-rights office, which has a big presence in Iraq, dodged the subject like a mine field. As with a number of Muslim societies where homosexuality is officially nonexistent but widely practiced, the policy in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule was "don't ask, don't tell." But that has changed. Iraqi LGBT, the London (newsgathering organization), says more than 430 gay men have been murdered in Iraq since 2003. For the country's beleaguered gays, it's a friendless landscape.

Many officials say they feel that in a country at war, there are more pressing concerns than gay rights.
More pressing concerns — sound familiar?

While issues like the economy are undoubtedly important, are equal rights for all any less important?

There are more and more people including even some retired military brass who believe that "Don't ask, don't tell" should end.

More than 100 retired U.S. military leaders -- including the former head of the Naval Academy -- have signed a statement calling for an end to the military's "don't ask-don't tell" policy, according to a California-based think tank that supports the movement.

Many other countries in the world, including Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. For a country that is looked upon around the world as a beacon of freedom and equality, can’t the US do the same? Hopefully President Obama will decide to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” sooner than later.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can We Save Our Newspapers?

After 150 years in business, the Rocky Mountain News last week said its sad goodbye.

After nearly 150 years in business, the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition Friday, the victim of a bad economy and the Internet generation.

The final front-page headline simply says: "Goodbye, Colorado."

The Rocky Mountain News was the latest victim in an era of shutdowns, layoffs and cutbacks plaguing the newspaper industry.

"It's in a free fall and nobody knows where the bottom is. It's kind of like water in the toilet swirling around and nobody knows what's left when you're done flushing,"

Yes, many of the newspapers are in deep trouble. But what, if anything can we (or should we) do to save them?

As a boy, I used to look forward to the paper boy leaving the evening paper on my porch after coming home from school. So many things have changed since then. Most evening papers have disappeared and paper boys have been replaced by adults getting up in the pre-dawn hours to toss hundreds of rolled up newspapers out of their cars and onto front yards. People complained about having to go out into the cold and retrieving a sometimes soaked newspaper, but that was progress we were told.

Much later, I discovered that the paper could be read at my computer screen. Some people say they hate having to read a newspaper on a computer screen. I actually prefer it. And besides not having to pay for a subscription, I really liked the idea of not having a pile of used newspapers to have to deal with. So while I couldn’t live without reading the newspapers each morning at my computer, even if I were offered a free subscription to get the printed copies of those same papers, I would turn it down!

More and more newspaper readers are finding that getting the print versions of their favorite papers is an offer that they can refuse. But since they are not getting enough revenue from the online ads they run, the newspapers are in dire financial straits.

It’s logical to at least ask whether newspapers are worth saving. Do they provide something not available elsewhere? I say absolutely yes! Most newspapers provide news in far more quality and quantity than just about any TV and radio newscast does. But the vital question is whether enough people really care about news for this to matter.

Many people primarily get their news from TV. But TV news is a far cry from the pioneering days of Edward R. Murrow when news was considered a public service and not a vehicle for making money. Now TV news is designed first and foremost around higher ratings which makes for more incoming advertising revenues. While there are a few non-commercial news outlets like PBS and the BBC that buck this trend, most TV viewers like a newscast that is high on features and fluff without too much hard news.

Indeed many local stations primarily promote their newscasts based on their weather capabilities, e.g. “Storm Team”, “Severe Weather Team” or even their sportscasts with local team highlights. It has been said that much of the audience for local TV news has been lost because of other outlets for weather and sports like The Weather Channel and ESPN.

While we are at it, do most people really buy newspapers to read the news? I am amazed to see large stacks of the Sunday paper on display in supermarkets on Saturday afternoon! And lots of people are buying them then. What up to date news or even sports results can possibly be there? If you examine these early editions, they consist of predominantly feature articles with little or no real news.

So if what newspapers do that is better than other media outlets, presenting the news, isn’t so important to enough people, maybe this is a major reason why newspapers are dying!

There are many interesting viewpoints on how (or even if) the newspaper industry can be saved. The interested reader can check out this New York Times blog article
Battle Plans for Newspapers to read about some of them.

The ideas to save newspapers basically fall into two categories:

1. Stay as a for-profit company but come up with ways to generate more revenue to keep the doors open.

2. Become a non-profit entity supported by donations and endowments under the thinking that a newspaper is a necessary public resource that belongs to everybody.

If newspapers were able to successfully charge enough for their online content either by subscriptions or by the article to stay afloat as advocated by the Time article
How to Save Your Newspaper, the problem could be solved. Perhaps this may be tried again by some newspapers as a last ditch effort to keep from going under. Sites like have successfully charged for access to premium “Insider” articles. But in general, while Internet users expect to pay their service providers for access to the Web, most of these same people feel that they have a right to free content from newspapers. Writers like Michael Kinsley in his op-ed article You Can't Sell News by the Slice feel that charging for content is an exercise in futility.

Another possibility that hasn’t been explored is to relax the restrictions on joint ownership of a newspaper and TV station in the same major media market as advocated
here. In addition to consolidating their news gathering and reporting operations, the TV part of the business can use its profits to keep the newspaper part viable. While the FCC has OK’d some joint ownership, the ruling is so narrow that the restrictions effectively prevent mergers like this in major media markets.

Supporting the idea of endowments for newspapers is this article
Newspapers 2.0.

As long as newspapers remain for-profit enterprises, they will find no refuge from their financial problems. The advertising revenues that newspaper Web sites generate are not enough to sustain robust news coverage. Though The New York Times Web site attracted 20 million unique users in October, Web-driven revenues support only an estimated 20 percent of the paper's current staff.

So how will this all turn out? It’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps technological progress will eventually finish newspapers for good — or it may be an unexpected way to save them. Ultimately, it comes down to whether enough of us believe in the worth of newspapers like Thomas Jefferson who in 1787 said:

"And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter."

But it begs the rhetorical question: Would Tom have felt the same way if other media such as TV and the Internet had existed in his day?