Saturday, April 26, 2014

On The Death Of American Democracy: It's The Capitalism, Stupid

It took generations for historians to understand that the Civil War was a great deal more than a struggle over slavery, and that there were economic and social factors of arguably equal importance that shaped that bloody conflict and the last half of 19th century America.  Similarly, it will take historians many years -- if not necessarily generations -- to conclude that the defining event of the early years of the 21st century was not the 9/11 terror attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the election of Barack Obama.  It was the death of American democracy. 
This catastrophe has not occurred because of those events.  Yes, the attacks, wars and election all have had enormous ramifications, but the death of American democracy, a slow-motion process that has taken years to become apparent, is a result of the corruption of capitalism by powerful oligarchs who have been enormously successful in milking the positive aspects of that once vaunted economic system for their own gain while not just allowing, but encouraging the negative aspects to run rampant. 

This has happened with the acquiescence of both political parties, a news media busy chasing its own tail, and a big assist from a U.S. Supreme Court majority that values wealth over everything near and dear to our red, white and blue hearts.  Special scorn must be reserved for docile Democrats who have talked the talk about protecting the middle class, patching holes in the social safety net, and making sure those oligarchs and their business interests pay their fair share, but have not walked the walk because they are just as beholden to the corrupting influence of big money that has rotted politics to its very core as have their Republican partners in crime.

What are the positive aspects of capitalism?  Unfettered competition.  Free and competitive markets.  Using fair means to determine the prices of goods and services.  Capital accumulation and fair taxation for all wage earners.
What are the negative aspects of capitalism?  Rigged competition.  Fettered and anti-competitive markets.  Rigging the prices of goods and services.  Capital accumulation for only top wage earners, who do not pay their fair share of taxes.
Twin cancers have killed American democracy:

* Accumulation of most of the wealth by a tiny percentage of the population.  Yes, those One Percenters, many of whom use the financial markets as feather beds.

* A widening gap between the rich and everyone else that has brought a large segment of the middle class to its knees and increased the level of poverty.
So what, you may wonder, do oligarchs and income disparity have to do with democracy?
This is because these oligarchs and the powerful corporations and other organizations they control exert a far greater grip on government policy than middle-income and poor Americans, who no longer have much impact at all.
"Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts," say academics Martin Gilens and Benjamin page in a new study.  "Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association . . . But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened."
In other words, the majority no long rules, undercutting the very foundation of democracy. 
Or to put it another way, the class war is over and the working class lost.  Any doubt about that should have been dispelled during the Bush Recession when the political system responded to the gravest economic downturn since the Great Depression by extending a helping hand to the rich and to corporations and by screwing the middle class.
Gilens and Benjamin built a statistical model with several variables to test their hypothesis.  It revealed that when the economic élites support a given policy change, it has about a one-in-two chance of being enacted, or about 45 percent.  When the élites oppose a given policy change, its chances of becoming law are less than one in five, or about 18 percent.  These numbers reflect a discouraging reality: Getting anything enacted in our hyper-divided government is very difficult, while the study confirms that that the rich exercise an effective veto if they are against something.  This blows to smithereens another important aspect of democracy --  that policy outcomes reflect voters who represent the ideological center.
John Cassidy of The New Yorker hammers that home in citing the failure to eliminate the "carried interest" deduction, which allows hedge-fund managers and leveraged-buyout bigs to pay an artificially low tax rate on much of their income. "In 2012, there was widespread outrage at the revelation that Mitt Romney, who made his fortune at the leveraged-buyout firm Bain Capital, paid less than fifteen per cent in federal income taxes," Cassidy writes. "But the deduction hasn’t been eliminated."
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision was a perfect storm. As in the destructiveness of a Category 5 hurricane.

In one fell swoop, the court's conservative activists put a stake through the heart of our most cherished civil right -- freedom of speech -- in a ruling that conflated spending with speech and was the court's most twisted ruling since
Dred Scott in 1857, which found that African-Americans were not citizens and therefore had no standing in federal court.  In Citizens United, the justices in the majority tacitly acknowledged that America is now ruled by oligarchs who in some respects are even more powerful than the federal government, a vampire elite that with the court's blessing can use corporations and so-called Super PACs to buy elections. 

That was just the start.  Last month's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision was the coup de grace to judicial sanity in not just striking down campaign contribution limits, but allowing oligarchs to increase their reach by making unlimited contributions to an unlimited number of federal candidates anywhere they choose.

"There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders," Chief Justice John Roberts declared in
McCutcheon, of course failing to note that plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, did not merely want to contribute to candidates in his own state, but campaigns in every state where he wanted to try to influence the outcome.  The decision was not merely faithful to the twisted notion that money is speech, it accords out-of-district money the same First Amendment protection as in-district money.
The Koch Brothers and their oligarch ilk tried to buy the presidential election in 2012.  Will they succeed in 2016?
America's middle class was once the envy of the world and nothing less than the glue that held our society together.  You know, fulfilling the dream of home ownership, getting children affordable educations, working hard to earn decent retirement benefits, perhaps buying that second car, a modest vacation home or motorboat.
But America has been racing to the bottom for years and now ranks at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures such as life expectancy (despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world), obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, while it is first by other measures, all of them negative.  These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as that gulf between the rich and everyone else that is devastating the middle class and making it even more difficult for the poor to cast off their economic shackles.
While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a new analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income levels, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger pay increases over the last three decades.  After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada, which were substantially behind the U.S. in 2000,  now appear to be higher than in the U.S. Meanwhile, the poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.
This may come as a shock because per capita gross domestic product and other commonly cited economic statistics continue to show that the U.S. has maintained its lead as the world’s richest large country. But those numbers are averages that do not reflect income distribution, which is skewed to that small slice of the super rich as most Americans do not keep pace with their counterparts around the world. 
"The idea that the median American has so much more income than the middle class in all other parts of the world is not true these days," said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz.  "In 1960, we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer."
That is no longer the case.
Median per capita income was $18,700 in the United States in 2010 (which translates to about $75,000 for a family of four after taxes), up 20 percent since 1980 but virtually unchanged since 2000, after adjusting for inflation.  The same measure, by comparison, rose about 20 percent in Britain and Canada between 2000 and 2010 and 14 percent in the Netherlands. 
The analysis found three factors at work behind these depressing numbers:

* Educational attainment in the U.S. has risen far more slowly than in much of the industrialized world, making it harder for the economy to maintain its share of highly skilled, well-paying jobs.
* Governments in Canada and Western Europe take more aggressive steps to raise the take-home pay of low- and middle-income households by redistributing income, while rich Americans pay lower taxes.
* U.S. companies distribute a smaller share of their profits to their workers.  Executives make substantially more money, the minimum wage is lower and labor unions are weaker.
Given the epic Democratic Party fail, if ever the U.S. needed a workers party like many European nations, it is now.
A French economist, of all people, has put the last nail in the democracy coffin, and conservative Republicans (are there any other kind?) who cling to the myth that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and well deserved are in a panic. 
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a bestseller, and author Thomas Piketty has written a discourse changer in arguing that the sharp rise in income inequality has ushered in a new Gilded Age in which oligarchs are anything but the job creators Republicans claim they are. 
About the best that conservatives have been able to come up with is that Piketty is a Marxist.  Name calling, of course, has long been their default position, and recalls to mind William F. Buckley's plea that teaching Keynesian economics be banned from universities because it was "collectivist."
"Now, the fact that apologists for America's oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically," writes Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman in the New York Times. "Money still talks -- indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas."
There are similarities between the United States today and Russia today some 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union that are exceedingly uncomfortable to contemplate: Oligarchs increasingly hog the wealth and power in both societies.  And the good aspects of capitalism have been discarded for the bad.  Yes, Vladimir Putin is a thug.  What he is doing in the Ukraine is a violation of human decency, as well as international law. 

But before you go postal on Putin, take a close look at what has happened to your country.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The End Of Chris Christie's National Ambitions & Other Random Musings

In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of the New York region's economy.  Christie argued that it was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed, an argument that held little water then and has now sprung a ginormous leak. 
This is because it turns out that Christie planned all along to use New Jersey's share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state's highway and bridge system, which under his "leadership" had been driven deeply into debt.
This "chop shop option," as one columnist aptly termed it, is paying for, among other things, the $1 billion reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway, the heavily traveled main connector for the Holland Tunnel and an 82-year-old bucket of rust in such bad shape that nets have been installed to catch falling debris. 
There was just one problem with Christie's secret scheme: The unspent tunnel money is under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, much in the news these days because the governor with a huge waistline and even bigger Republican presidential ambitions has used it as a patronage trough and personal piggy bank.  (Then there are the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures ordered by his administration -- with the blessing of the man himself, in my view -- as political retribution.  This government-sponsored public safety crisis, when examined close up, was nothing less than a case of domestic terrorism, as shocking as that may seem.) 
But I digress. By law, the authority can only fund roads leading to the GW Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, but Christie got around that inconvenience by browbeating the authority's lawyers into asserting that the Pulaski Skyway is an "access road" to the Lincoln Tunnel, which is about as far from the truth as Trenton is from Kiev.
This is not to say that the governor had other options.
The logical one would have been to raise New Jersey’s gas tax, which is the second lowest in the nation. Even a one-penny increase would raise about $50 million.  You can do the rest of the math -- and repair a lot of broken bridges and roads.
But Christie, a bully without peer, knows only one way to get things done.  No, make that two: By lying and being underhanded.  Come to think of it, he would make a perfect Republican presidential nominee, but on top of all the other problems he has foisted on himself, the Pulaski Skyway deception will make his nomination a bridge too far.
I continue to have trouble getting my head around the notion that the Affordable Care Act, which has thus far enabled eight million or so uninsured Americans, as well as their loved ones, to get coverage, in most instances at reasonable rates, will spell electoral doom for Democrats in the November elections.  But that, of course, is what many members of the punditocracy are blabbing. 
Actually, the real number when you factor in those loved ones is closer to 14 or 15 million, while a healthy (pun intended) percentage of enrollees are younger people, who will keep premiums down.  Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and that will significantly shrink the deficit.
If doom it will be, and I continue to remain skeptical that Republicans will recapture the Senate, let alone substantially enhance their comfy cushion in the House, and the Affordable Care Act is indeed seen as the villain, it is because of the GOP's relentless lie-filled portrayal of the best thing to happen to Americans, especially our shrinking middle class, since Medicare. 
Beyond reducing the obscene number of uninsured, the reason I know the ACA is a success is . . . because Wall Street loves it.
This is because hospitals, generic-drug makers, pharmacy-benefit managers and electronic medical record companies stand to gain handsomely from the ACA's emphasis on cost controls and its guaranteed payments.  About the only folks who won't gain are medical device manufacturers who, poor dears, have been slapped with a 2.3 percent excise tax, and assisted-living and home health-care providers because of reduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
Just don't tell the Republicans.  Or for that matter, scaredy-cat Democrats.
The American Red Cross has done many, many good works over its long history, but before you give it another cent, consider the following: Except in the most general terms, it refuses to say how it uses the hundreds of millions of dollars of your money that roll into its coffers.
This refusal, most recently in the wake of the $317 million that the Red Cross collected for Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, is nothing new.  It stonewalled after the 9/11 terror attacks and again after Hurricane Katrina, making only the most feeble of efforts to push back against criticism that it performed poorly and mismanaged funds.

The Red Cross has bled CEOs, one after 9/11 in 2001, another after Katrina in 2005, and a third in 2007 following an affair with a subordinate.  In fact, the stink grew so bad that Congress, of all people, imposed a set of governance reforms on the organization.
"The Red Cross is too big and too important to be allowed to be this secretive," says Doug White, a charity expert who tells ProPublica, the online investigative journalism organization, that such a lack of transparency is common among charities and, like other non-profits, the Red Cross is required to disclose only top-line numbers on its fundraising and spending.
But, as ProPublica notes in an unflattering report, the Red Cross stands out both for the scale of its operations and the unique role it plays in disasters.
"It is the first call for many people moved by images of a tornado, flood, or fire ravaging a community," ProPublica notes.  "[But] the organization is also a strange hybrid: a nonprofit charity . . . with a congressional charter."  It gets little money from the federal government but has an official disaster-relief partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and President Obama is its honorary chairman.
In contrast, there is substantial information available about where federal relief money went after Sandy rearranged beachfronts in the mid-Atlantic and trashed parts of lower Manhattan and Staten Island in October 2012.  But the Red Cross -- which was criticized for being missing in action in many communities ravaged by the superstorm -- has provided a dollar-figure breakdown in only the broadest of categories while giving only raw numbers for services provided.
"Because the spending isn’t categorized in the same way as the numbers of services provided, one can't calculate, for example, how much it cost for the Red Cross to provide overnight shelter stays or what exactly it purchased for the  millions it spent on individual casework," ProPublica found.
My own parting of the ways with the Red Cross came way back in 1988 when a reporter friend broke a story that the organization mistakenly released more than 2,400 units of tainted blood that should have been destroyed because of the possibility the blood was contaminated with AIDS or hepatitis. 
The organization collects about half of the blood used annually in the U.S., and has been involved in other contaminated blood scandals since then, including one that drew congressional scrutiny when Elizabeth Dole was Red Cross CEO in the 1990s.  Dole drew criticism for being more interested in her own image and political ambitions than reforming the organization, and the scandal on her watch was resolved only after the feds sued the organization to force serious top-to-bottom changes.
My charitable dollars go elsewhere -- woefully underfunded public radio stations at the left end of the FM dial and the American Friends Service Committee are favorites -- because of the blood scandals and the the organization's continued and determined squirreliness about how it spends your money.
In an internal merchandising plan written in the late 1970s, a Sears executive identified the company’s core audience and its identity: "Sears is a family store for middle-class, home-owning America. We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store . . . We reflect the world of Middle America, and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults."
As noted in the ACA post above, that middle class is shrinking and, if all the pre-mortems on Sears' eventual demise are to be believed, it is because that core audience is in dire economic straits and increasingly would rather shop at Walmart, which has brilliantly marketed itself to the so-called underclass, shop online or at specialty stores, or in the case of some city dwellers, haggle with street corner vendors for that new sweater or pair of socks.
Well, the pre-mortems (and this one in particular) have it wrong, or at least are missing a key factor that goes a long way to explaining why Sears stores, including its flagship store on State Street in downtown Chicago, one of 300 to close since 2010, are blowing away like so many autumn leaves: Service at Sears has ranged from bad to atrocious for many years, and so when all is said and done, its eventual demise will be very much its own fault. 
It's almost as if Sears' strategy has been to drive shoppers away.  In my case, it has succeeded.
Beyond the fact that its stores have become depressing to walk through (gotta love those Nancy Reagan era women's fashions), it's salespeople as a group are deeply dysfunctional.
This was our last big-ticket experience: My love and I decided one recent January to buy a compact, high-efficiency, energy-saving Bosch washer and dryer tandem. We marched off to our local Sears store where she was able to twist the arm of a taciturn salesman and locked into a deal at a pretty good price -- but only if she applied for and bought the units with a Sears charge card.
The salesman, while obviously unfamiliar with the units, nevertheless tried to foist accessories on us at additional expense that we didn't need or want, recalling to mind the Jerry Lundegaard character in Fargo (the movie, not the FX knockoff), who tells customers at the dealership where he works that for only a few bucks more he can get his manage to throw in undercoating on their new car.

Charge card applied for and approved, the washer and dryer were supposedly ordered and were to be delivered to a warehouse for pickup in early February. Early February came and went and it turned out the salesman was not only taciturn, but was disinterested in closing a nearly $2,000 deal and collecting the commission during a crushing recession. 
Long story short, after innumerable phone calls and cajoling salespeople who would never be mistaken for the Blue Crew members in Sears' hapless TV commercials, the washer and dryer finally were available for pickup in mid-March.
Alas, there were further complications.
The units were in the warehouse, but no one could find them. No matter, I was entertained by two saleswomen on a smoke break discussing paternity tests while the search went on.  The washer and dryer eventually were found.
And in a perfect coda to this epic retail fail, when we unpacked the dryer the power cord was hard wired and incompatible with the standard dryer wall outlet -- something that none of the salespeople had a clue and/or cared about even though they wanted to sell us useless stuff -- so a professional had to be called in at additional expense to rewire the unit.

Die Sears die!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Please Take A Moment To Meet Ashol-Pan

The next time you're feeling chuff about that backyard barbeque you put together all by your lonesome, breaking 250 in league bowling, or that honor roll student child who you're convinced is destined for an Ivy League school, please pause for a moment and take a brief trip to the other side of the planet to meet a girl by the name of Ashol-Pan.
Ashol-Pan is a Kazakh who lives in western Mongolia.  She may never go to a barbeque, let alone bowl or attend college, but at the tender age of 13 has harnessed an extraordinary force of nature, a huge golden eagle she uses for hunting foxes and hares in the Altai mountain range. 
Learn more here about Ashol-Pan, who has become celebrated for an otherwise male activity many centuries old.  Understand that it is not the photography of Asher Svidensky that is so incredible (it is extraordinary), but Ashol-Pan's accomplishment.  And perhaps consider how comparatively mundane our sheltered existence is.
Photograph by Asher Svidensky

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The U.S. Of Cowardice: Still No Accountability For Torture Regime Perps

WE DO NOT TORTURE TERROR SUSPECTS. ~ George W. Bush (November 7, 2005)
Since 2007, I have written over 30 in-depth blog posts on what I term the Bush Torture Regime.  Underpinning these posts have been a call for accountability for the men who used the 9/11 terror attacks not as a clarion call to affirm all that is right about America, but manipulated the so-called War on Terror into becoming a war on ideals and an excuse to abuse power that drove the nation into the darkest era in its history. 
If nothing else, I have learned two things in the years since my first post: The yawning gulf between people who condone torture and those who are repelled by it has not changed, and that accountability not only remains elusive but will remain so.
And so we arrive at another defining moment in the long road since an incurious news media finally began acknowledging something that a number of bloggers, myself included, and civil libertarians had known for years: Despite repeated denials by George W. Bush and his coterie of henchmen, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they approved of Nazi-like torture techniques that violate the Constitution and Geneva Conventions under the cover of grotesque cover-their-ass legal opinions.
The latest defining moment is how far Diane Feinstein's Senate Intelligence Committee will go in declassifying the results of its investigation --  a massive 6,600 pages with 37,000 footnotes -- into one tentacle of the torture regime octopus: The Central Intelligence Agency's illegal detention and torture of terrorism suspects at secret prisons, its destruction of videotaped evidence, its lying to lawmakers about what happened, its stonewalling about releasing its own internal investigation to Congress, and its break-in of Senate staffers' computers in order to delete incriminating files.  And whether and to what extent the CIA will be permitted to determine what is to be declassified.

* * * * *
If I was not a realist going into my dissection of the Bush Torture Regime, the official reaction to it quickly would have made me one.
That official reaction, such as it was, while Bush was still president had a quality about it somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and George Orwell.  Typical was a statement before a congressional committee by Attorney General Michael Mukasey (remember him?) that led law school prof Jonathan Turley to coin the term Mukasey's Paradox,  which says that:
Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.
* * * * *
Then there was the 2008 presidential campaign.  Torture wasn't on the radar screen of most voters to begin with, while the candidates tip-toed around the issue like it was a smoking turd.
This was rich.   Overlooking any mental torture that previous presidents may have suffered at the hands of their First Ladies, John McCain was the first potential president to have been physically tortured by an enemy while serving his country. As he has written in his memoirs, his North Vietnamese jailers withheld medical treatment, forced him to stand for long periods of time, put him in stress positions, beat him and deprived him of sleep during five and a half years of captivity.
All are clearly torture techniques, right?
Not according to Cheney, the acknowledged architect of the torture regime. Not according to his feckless boss.  Not according to the former concierge of the eponymously named Rumsfeld Gulag, a global system that included Guantánamo Bay and secret prisons in foreign countries and aboard U.S. Navy ships. Not according to David Addington, who proudly served as Cheney's dungeon master.
* * * * *
The first defining moment when things could have begun to be set right came with the inauguration of Barack Obama, who in his second act of office signed an executive order directing the CIA to shut what remained of its prison network and ordering the closing of Guantánamo within a year.  (Sorry, good liberal buddies, but Obama's first act was to severely limit access to public records.)  Meanwhile, today there is some dispute about whether that secret prison network is indeed history, while Guantánamo remains open.  And how about that NSA domestic wiretapping program?
As I wrote in the early day's of Obama's first term, I made an uneasy peace with the new president not showing any interest in prosecuting Bush administration perpetrators for their wrongdoing.  Aside from releasing nine memos endorsing torture and other abuses of power from the Bush era Office of Legal Counsel, which Slate commentator Dahlia Lithwick accurately called that administration's "constitutional chop shop," Obama made good on his determination to look ahead and not back and futilely tried to make nice with a Republican opposition that already was sharpening its pitchforks.
In hindsight, I was too easy on the president.
While the argument that prosecuting the torture perps would divide the nation, cause the sky to fall and pretty much scuttle Obama's agenda made some sense in April 2009, it is now April 2014 and the Republicans have been poking away with those pitchfork for five-plus years, pretty much scuttling that agenda anyway.
And so Obama has, in effect, been Bush's secret keeper in asserting that we just need to get over it, or something.
* * * * *
In the meantime, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have kept busy writing memoirs that give new meaning to the term "revisionist history," as opposed to preparing legal defenses against charges that, at the least, they abused the power of their offices.  Although it should be noted that none have taken European vacations.
This is because courts in Europe have issued warrants demanding the arrest of CIA operatives for kidnapping and torturing citizens and residents of their nations, although the warrants have not been executed for diplomatic reasons, while an effort to prosecute Rumsfeld in France for the torture of Guantánamo detainees foundered because no court was willing to take on this particularly hot potato.
* * * * *
This brings us back to the defining moment of the moment and what will happen to that doorstop of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA abuses.
Senator Feinstein, who long has been a CIA lapdog despite her liberal Democratic credentials, thereby assuring from the start that the antipathy over getting to the bottom of the torture regime was a bipartisan effort, has kicked the can down the road in asking the White House to lead the effort to declassify the report, while the White House has given the can another kick in suggesting that it would be okey-dokey if the CIA determined what will be made public. 
All of which leads me to suggest that despite some declassification of some stuff we already knew about and commensurate cluck-clucking by the media punditocracy, no heads of consequence will roll.  No jail time.  No moral authority.
Given the number that the 24/7 news world does on our memories, it is easy to forget that the Bush Torture Regime occurred not in Iran, North Korea or even post-Soviet Russia, but in a constitutional republic.  Yes, the public hankers for jobs a whole lot more than an accounting of who was waterboarded when, where and on whose authority.  But we simply have not had the will to hold anyone of consequence accountable, let alone find out what really happened during those darkest days, while the forthcoming whitewash of the CIA report won't change anything at all.
Obama always would have had to go it alone on the issue of accountability and, in fact, would have faced vicious attacks from Republicans and many Democrats, as well, yet the president's roll-over response makes his oft-declared commitment to use government to bring about change something of a joke.  And further confirms us as the United States of Cowardice.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Good-Bye Dear Friend: Charles Sumner 'Chuck' Stone (1924-2014)

Back when we worked together at the Philadelphia Daily News, I usually could hear and smell Chuck Stone before I saw him.

The city desk, where I worked, was around the corner from a lobby. An elevator door would open with a ceremonial "ding" and I would hear the "click, click, click" of the cleats on the heels of Chuck's wingtips on the marble floor and the aroma of the distinctive Houbigant cologne he wore before he burst into the newsroom. (He later took to wearing fancy cowboy boots with his Brooks Brothers suits and sport coats, but kept the cleats and cologne, as well as his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties.  And he always used a fine fountain pen, whether editing his column or writing a note, in a brown ink he had specially made.)
Charles Sumner "Chuck" Stone was a legend in his own time and may have been the only journalist who knew or worked with virtually every civil rights leader of consequence.  Chuck, who suffered a major stroke in the summer of 2012, died in his sleep on Sunday morning of congestive heart failure at an assisted-living facility near his longtime home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  He was 89.  

He also was a dear friend whose parting gesture always was a big hug and the words "You know that I love you, brother."

Chuck became a Tuskegee Airman after graduating college during World War II, although he never saw combat.  He wrote speeches for and kept the faith, baby, with powerful U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had a radio show with Malcolm X and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta before coming to the Daily News, where as the first African-American columnist wrote a thrice weekly column for 19 years before going to divinity school and getting a theology degree in his late 60s while teaching journalism at the University of Delaware.   He later was a journalism professor the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, retiring from teaching in 2004.
Chuck also wrote several books, including a marvelous children's book, and was a founder and first president of the National Association of Black Journalists. (His son, Charlie, is even better known than was his old man, having crafted and starred in the "Wassup?" Budweiser commercials and directed several pretty fine movies, including the award-winning "Drumline.") 

I was perhaps the only Daily News editor who in editing Chuck's column was not overawed by him or his incredibly rich vocabulary.  (I was, but never let it show.)  I told him if I thought he was off base or being precious, and he was grateful for my candor even if he sometimes did not take my advice.
While Chuck's columns were must-reads (and we'll get to one in particular in a moment), he was best known for negotiating the end to a 1981 hostage siege led by a triple killer in the maximum security unit of a state penitentiary, as well as for the extraordinary number of crime suspects -- 75 by my count -- who turned themselves into him rather than surrender directly to the Philadelphia Police.

Why? Because the suspects, most of them African-Americans, feared being beaten or otherwise mistreated. Having Chuck turn them over to the police, usually in his tiny office or the Daily News conference room, helped guarantee safe passage.  If Chuck wasn't available, I was his "second" and would babysit the suspect until he would arrive.
* * * * *
Newsweek magazine once labeled Chuck "the angry man of the Negro press."   The belligerent and racially divisive Frank Rizzo, a police commissioner and later mayor, was a frequent target.  But Chuck was unsparing in his criticism regardless of race, calling fellow African-Americans W. Wilson Goode, the underachiever who became mayor four years after Rizzo, a "paternalistic ferret," and U.S. Representative William H. Gray III, the powerful longtime North Philadelphia power broker and a longtime nemesis, a "peacock." 
He seriously considered running against Gray, but then-Daily News Editor Gil Spencer told him he would have to give up his column, noting that he was much more influential as a voice for the community than he would be as a mere congressman.  Chuck eventually agreed.
Chuck's reputation as a defender of the downtrodden no matter their color or station in life extended far beyond Philadelphia.

One day in 1981, he received a letter with a piece of toilet tissue that had been smuggled from H Block in Northern Ireland's dreaded Long Kesh Prison.

It had been written on in tiny, cramped printing by Ian Milne, an Irish Republican Army member, and slipped to one of the prisoner's fathers. At Milne's request, the father mailed it to Chuck near the end of Milne's 53-day hunger strike with the better known Bobby Sands and other IRA members to protest their inhumane treatment by the British. Ten men died during the hunger strike.

Now Milne was no choir boy, although he had been one in his youth. In fact, he was in Long Kesh for several political murders, which Chuck did not overlook in a column that captures his blistering disdain for anyone who would deny the most basic of rights to, yes, even a political prisoner who had shed blood for his cause.

An excerpt:

Read Ian Milne's letter and you get another view of Northern Ireland's tragic religious-civil rights war.

First of all, different words for the same thing.

Milne called Long Kesh Prison by its real name. The British renamed it "Maze Prison," hoping to clean up a gruesome concentration camp image.

Milne proudly signed himself as a "Republican POW." British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has defiantly christened him and other prisoners with a nastier epithet.

"A murder is a murder is a murder," she haughtily snarled in refusing to grant their request for P.O.W. status. King George III used to talk like her.

Thatcher's doublespeak way with words is consistent with every problem she attacks.
Then Chuck issued the coup de grâce:
Britain is on the verge of becoming an economic basket case. Yet she insists in that attractively passionate way of hers that the waves of Dunkirk lapping at British backsides is actually a bathtub overflowing its sides.
By the way, the British finally released Milne from Long Kesh in 1992 after he did 17 years of hard time. Today he is a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Mid-Ulster.
Photograph by The Associated Press