Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hatching chickens

It’s been just over 21 years since my partner and I were on the cutting edge of marriage equality. (A few years later we pioneered gay divorce.) Keeping a relationship going isn't easy - it takes work. The joys, excitement and challenges of having a long term successful relationship is universal, regardless of sexual orientation or any other factor. There’s a lot of different elements at play in the quest for national Marriage Equality in the U.S. – public opinion and religious opinion to name two. The Supreme Court will revisit the issue and make a determination in its 2014-15 session – many in the LGBT community have started to head down a path of hope and optimism. It feels premature.

Marriage Equality as a political issue began to take national prominence in the 1990’s – some twenty years ago. For those who are directly impacted it’s been an eternity. For historians who look at progressions in civil rights movements this has been a remarkably quick journey.

In the American system of government, legislatures create laws, the executive branch enforces them and the judiciary ensures they are consistent with the Constitution. This “equal” branches of government concept goes somewhat awry when the practical reality is that the judiciary isn’t equal – it’s the final word on what’s permissible, making it far more influential than the rest in impact.

The Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) ultimate ruling on issues has made it appear less impartial that it may actually be and has brought out accusations of political impact and bias. Most recently:

  •       The Citizens United decision authorized corporations and unions to make independent contributions to candidates and parties. Progressives and liberals have fumed about the decision, with President Obama deriding it in a State of the Union address.
  •    “Obamacare” was upheld as legal when it determined that the Act was the Government utilizing its ability to tax. Conservatives were irate that the Act they contend will be the unhinging of American capitalism was found to be legal.
  •        The Hobby Lobby ruling permitted for-profit companies to be exempt from part of the health law that the owners objected to on religious grounds. Progressives and liberals decried the dismantling of the fundamentals of American freedoms with this “loophole.”
  •        The Defense of Marriage Act was found to be unconstitutional. Conservatives fumed at the “activist justices” making laws that the majority of Americans had voted against.

How can the same nine justices both be revered by one side and repulsed by the other on one issue and then the opposite happen on a different issue? When a decision meets with one’s own belief’s – they’re right and examples of how America is superior to every other nation on earth. When a decision doesn't meet with one's own beleif's – they’re a bunch of nincompoops who should be carted off to the nursing home and put out of our collective misery. This is human nature. (SCOTUS must be doing something right if everybody gets pissed at them.)

Gay rights groups, individuals and even the media have begun a game of expectations that the decision that Court will come back with in June 2015 will be one that resolves the Marriage Equality question once and for all – and that means it’ll be legal across the Union. I’d like to think so. But I also think that corporations and unions shouldn’t have equal voices in politic discourse and that one’s religious beliefs shouldn’t permit taking away the rights of another.

Barak Obama won the Presidency in 2008 on a campaign of “Hope.” Many have cited that his inability to be that transformational figure he and his supporters wanted him to be has made him a failed President. Time will tell, it’s too early to write that chapter of history. Hope unfulfilled is the recipe for upset and disappointment. Many are putting an awful lot of hope and expectation into this SCOTUS decision. There’s good reason – the cause is right, the history of decisions lends itself towards that conclusion. But legal arguments on the cases have yet to be made. Let’s not count those chickens before they’re hatched.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paris isn’t Burning

Paris is Burning is the “iconic documentary from 1990 that offers an intimate portrait of the Harlem drag balls, where rival fashion “houses” compete for trophies and cash prizes in categories like “face,” “femme queen realness” and "voguing." Winner of a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Paris is Burning celebrates how one group of New Yorkers, for whom racism, poverty, and homophobia are all too real, create a world of sustenance and joy.” It is an honest, funny and powerful story of survival, community and honesty. The events in Paris France last week tell a different but parallel story about the integrity and value of Press and Speech Freedom. It’s something that wouldn’t happen in the United States today because these freedoms are no longer cherished, but instead are assumed.

Last week two masked gunman forced their way into the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people and wounded 11 more. In the days following gunmen took hostages and more people died and were wounded in terrorist attacks. The gunman were shouting "Allahu Akbar", Arabic for "God is great." “Hatred for Charlie Hebdo '​s cartoons, which made jokes about Islamic leaders as well as Muhammad, is considered to be the principal motive for the massacre.” It was a horrible and tragic attack and propelled more than 2 million citizens and 40 world leaders to march in solidarity chanting “Je suis Charlie” (French for "I am Charlie").

This is the new issue of the satricial magazine.
It show a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed
holding a sign saying "Je suis Charlie."
 The caption says "All is forgiven" in French

The outpouring of support for the right to satirize warms the hearts of First Amendment zealots like myself. The problem is that it’s authentic in concept and not true in practice. In France itself days later the country has cracked down on "hate speech" and jailed a comedian. The problem with one group deciding what another group can and cannot say is censorship, the antithesis of supporting Charlie. France isn't alone. Less than a month ago U.S. theatres pulled The Interview from the schedule, forcing Sony to withdraw the film altogether based on threats from North Korea. In Paris people died for the right to satirize and in the U.S. at the first sign of trouble self-censorship kicked in.

Much has been made in the political world that only the U.S. Ambassador to France was at the rally – while world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were able to attend safely. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary-of-State Kerry were nowhere to be found. The White House acknowledged the next day it made a mistake by not having “a higher profile” delegate attend. 

How does this happen?
  • This Administration issued a subpoena to New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his confidential source. After a 7 year fight government lawyers said this week they wouldn’t call him.
  • This Administration issued a warrant against Fox News reporter James Rosen which identified him as a criminal co-conspirator and charged him with violating the Espionage Act for writing a story about North Korea’s nuclear program with confidential information he received. The Government followed the reporter, tapped his phone and email – both personal and business.
  • The Administration subpoenaed telephone records of 20 Associated Press Reporters in a zest to find out who was leaking information to reporters.
To date, seven Americans working for the U.S. Government or government contractors with security clearances have faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 because of alleged leaks to members of the press or online outlets during the Obama Administration's tenure. 

This Administration has guidelines about how information can be shared with journalists. Not a law persay, but fixed rules that if they are violated criminal charges could result. 

A Government that prosecutes professional journalists to prevent information from being released to its people does not practice what it preaches. This is state run propaganda which results in self-censorship and cautious reporting. It’s no wonder that there was no presence by American officials at a rally extolling the value of Freedom of Speech. Paris Isn’t Burning, the U.S. Constitution is.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Law & Disorder

I’m a Law & Order kinda guy. The original version especially. It came one year short of being the longest running drama on television, which I still blame NBC for. Part of the success and genius of the show is that the stories mattered – the process of solving a crime was the hook. Sure personality was part of it, but the winding curves of getting to the answer remains what I miss most – no other show has picked up the baton. Longtime song and dance man Jerry Orbach culminated an illustrious career portraying for twelve years the world-weary, wisecracking, streetwise NYPD detective Lennie Briscoe. It’s hard to believe that last week marked the 10th anniversary of his death. From his New York Times obituary“ ‘He was, to a lot of people in the rest of world, the face of the New York Police Department,’ said Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking quietly, even solemnly, after a press conference on Wednesday. ‘He did it very well. He has human frailties, and he overcame them. He portrayed New York City police officers as hard working, but as human beings with the same pressures and intentions human beings have. It was very believable.’ " The NYPD today bears little resemblance to the NYPD Lennie Briscoe personified.

The Eric Garner case has been the center of conflict since mid-summer. Garner died after a police officer put him in a chokehold (according to The New York City Medical Examiner's Office). Ruled a homicide, the process moved to a Grand Jury which came back refusing to indict the officer. The public was outraged.

In New York Mayor de Blasio spoke of how he identified with the frustration the public was expressing. He said he understood young black people’s fears about the police, using his own bi-racial son as an example. He also campaigned (and won) in part because of his opposition to the “Stop and Frisk” policy where cops could stop and search people without cause and without a warrant. The NYPD was furious at what they believed to be heresy and a lack of support from their mayor.

Shortly after the Grand Jury decision in late December, NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed in an ambush. Many in the Department have drawn a direct line that de Blasio’s perceived lack of support of the department caused the death of the cops. It’s a stretch and something that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has dismissed as not true.

Many officers at the funerals turned their backs when the Mayor spoke. De Blasio, Bratton and many other leaders have called out the Department and the Union for their disrespectful behavior – especially at a funeral.

In the weeks after the killing, and despite de Blasio’s public pronouncements of support for the NYPD, the rank and file are still angry. Statistics from the Department itself show that arrests are down more than 56% and tickets have virtually stopped being issued – they’re down 92%. The Union claims this is not a work slowdown or stoppage. It'd be great to find out what's happened in New York to stop crime so dramatically as I'm sure other cities would benefit from such decreases. 

The NYPD has more employees than the FBI – 49,526 versus 35,105 and operate with a budget of $4.8 billion to cover 469 miles and 8.4 million residents. They even have a branch in Israel. In a 60 Minutes story in 2011 the NYPD was shown to have more sophisticated technology and effectiveness than Homeland Security. It’s all very impressive…but their actions today are not. Can this be because they are insulted and upset as some critics claim?

The members of the NYPD have been working without a contract since 2010.  The proposed contract (from the prior administration of Michael Bloomberg) was not to the Union’s liking. Like the 2 contracts before the police contract is now in arbitration being decided. As soon as this process is completed, a new one will begin as the 2010 contract being decided now only goes to 2014. A new contract is needed through 2018.

Novice mayor de Blasio does not placate the NYPD, and brings a different perspective. He also brought back the Police Commissioner who has had the most success of any other – in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. He’s not anti-police.

The issues between police and the public, race relations and how they all mix (and don’t mix) are complicated and must be addressed – and not just in New York. It's disingenuous to use the race issues to mask a contract dispute. In the Big Apple those sworn to “serve and protect” need to start doing the job they’ve been hired to do. Good thing Lennie’s not around to see this.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Useless Resolutions

It’s that time of year again: New Year’s resolutions. If I still made them, the list would look awfully close to the list from any number of years before:  lose weight, have a more balanced work/personal life, etc. It’s unlikely that I’ll achieve those goals ... so like 60% of Americans, I don’t even bother. A study showed that 88% of people fail at their resolutions. I do love the practice that I heard about once – a couple writes down their resolutions, seals them in an envelope and on New Year’s Eve they each open the other’s to see how they did. Sounds like a fun way to do it. There’s nothing inherently wrong about making resolutions unless you’re a politician and it comes from Washington D.C..

President Obama resolved in his 2014 New Year’s message that it would be a “year of action.” Legislatively that was not the case, with the 2012-2014 Congress one of the "least productive" in history. In terms of his Executive Orders, however, he was true to his word. The problem with a lot of these orders is that they are largely symbolic. There’s no ability to effect the impact that is intended without a partnership and consensus with Congress, the body that writes and funds the budget.

The Obama Administration declared that Home Healthcare workers should receive “Minimum Wage”and overtime benefits. The Department of Labor issued the rules. There was much confusion on how this would work given that so many home healthcare situations do not lend themselves to the structure of traditional employment.  A few days before Christmas a judge threw out the rules. Nice symbolism, but no impact.

Two other Executive Orders in 2014 relate to wages for federal contractors. They are not being challenged in the courts, but the next President can withdraw the order easily. I’ve previously written about my disdain for the government setting wages in the first place --- but if they’re going to do it, shouldn’t it be set by Congress so that wages aren’t at the whim of the person in the Oval Office?

The President’s Immigration Executive Order has been kerosene on a fire in the blogosphere and for the pundits. The action comes after years of failing to get a bipartisan bill approved by the Senate through the House. One of the more significant issues that the order addresses is the legal status of certain immigrants. Millions will be awarded “temporary” status and no longer be considered in violation of U.S. law. What happens under the next President? Should somebody’s right to live and work in a country be solely at the discretion of one person? That’s not how the U.S. system is supposed to work.

Cuban-American relations are about to thaw after 55 years thanks to the President’s decision to normalize relations.  Congress does not need to approve foreign policy. The embargo, however, does require Congressional action, as does approving an Ambassador and funding a new embassy.  Seems the White House recognizes this. Last week they hired a lobbyist. Yes, the Executive Branch has now engaged a person to lobby Congress on its behalf. 

My 2014 goal (not resolution!) was to lose 100 pounds. I lost 40 and have kept 35 off. Progress can be slow. How many of these unilateral actions will go the way of so many goals and resolutions being made this week? Perhaps it’s time to resolve to have the three branches of government work together despite their political differences to solve the important policy issues that face the country. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

That's a wrap?

One of my favorite parts of going to the movies is watching the trailers. I’m even a little superstitious. If the trailers are all bad it usually indicates that the film that I’m about to watch is going to be bad too. Likewise if the trailers are all great, there’s a cinematic masterpiece that I’m about to watch. Often it’s a mixed bag. Towards the end of the summer and early fall is the best because all of the Oscar hopeful movies start showing up in the previews. This year, though, there was this one trailer that within 15 seconds I knew was going to be something I’d never watch – in the movie theatre, online or even on free network television. Much to my amazement that very film has turned Hollywood upside down and right side up again while the President weighed in on how to run a studio.

The Korean text reads, "We will begin a war", 
"Do not trust these ignorant Americans!"
"The Interview" is now described by the media as a political satire. IMDB describes it as an action- comedy. Its trailer felt like a tragedy...just a dumb idea that wasn't funny. The concept is: “Celebrity journalist Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) secure an interview with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are instructed by the CIA to assassinate him.” It was slated to open wide on Christmas Day, then was pulled, and is now going to open in select theatres.

Sony Pictures made the film and is a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational technology company. Their computer network was hacked, confidential information and proprietary intellectual property was released. The hackers warned the public that a “9/11-style attack” would occur to anybody who saw “The Interview.” Sony pulled the film and is now releasing it on a limited basis.

Hollywood and Washington erupted in outrage over the hacking. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin (a former schoolmate of mine) wrote a blistering attack on the media regarding their coverage of the information stolen in the attack. “Let's just say that every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace [the group claiming responsibility for the hack] is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable," Sorkin wrote.

Sorkin, who perhaps more than anybody else melds Hollywood and Washington together, should know better. How is this different than The Guardian or the New York Times reporting on the content of the Edward Snowden leaks? Or the leaks by Wikipedia? It is actually the role of the media to report and disclose. Sure the titillating gossip of the backbiting of entertainment executives may not have the same gravitas as the U.S. Government spying on its own people, but it’s certainly legitimate to cover. Hollywood movies are one of the top exports that the U.S. has and is a multi-billion business.

Sony’s decision to not open the film resulted in a cacophony of outrage. President Obama even weighed in. He said the company “made a mistake” by canceling the release but would not go so far as to call the hacking an “act of war.” The narrative of the criticism has been: the terrorists won and the First Amendment lost.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from making a law that abridges the freedom of speech. Sony’s decision to not open a movie is a result of threats, but in no way shakes the essence of the U.S. Constitution. No law has been made that restricts the company’s ability to make movies. Let’s also remember that Sony is not even an American company. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese company. It is in the business of making money. And just like every other Hollywood studio it has shareholders to report to. What would the company’s liability be if they had released the film and an incident occurred? Would the President have indemnified the company from liability? After all it’s a foreseeable event given the public nature of the threats. On Christmas Eve the company reversed itself, and will take advantage of the global free publicity for the flick and open it in "limited" release. The company is now able to have limited its legal exposure and take advantage of free marketing. 

The decision not to release the film set a bad precedent, and the ‘slippery slope’ is precarious...even with the reversal at the 11th hour. For Sony it was a lose-lose proposition, so it did what most companies do – opted for the lower risk scenario until a better situation presented itself. The best option would have been not to have a script written or even a film made when the idea was first pitched. It was just a bad idea for a film in the first place. Sorkin made up a country in his West Wing series for a war – had Sony done the same here The Interview would have landed with a thud and been gone in a week...and that would have been a wrap on this whole escapade.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas Miracle

It’s mid December, and regardless of your religious affiliation – Christmas is upon us. The stores, the sales…the commercialism. There are some of us who approach the holiday through the liturgical season of Advent, but even with that the omnipresence of retail is hard to avoid. The Christmas Miracle story isn't just one narrative, but a nice morphing of the commercial aspect of the holiday and the spirit that its intended. The story has many variations – but the underlying message focuses on the importance of giving. Poverty, wealth, stinginess and extravagance are all examined through a variety of narratives both in books, stories and movies and TV shows. Imagine my surprise when last week the Government provided its own miracle – a moment of transparency if not humility.

The recently released summary of the Senate Intelligence Report on Torture cost $40 million to put together. It took 5 years and the bulk of the 6,000 page report remains classified. What the 525 page unclassified portion tells is some of the most important information to come out of the U.S. government in a long time. It’s not so much a gift or a mea-culpa, but rather an acknowledgement of what actually happened.

Per Wikipedia’s summary: 

“The report details actions by a number of CIA officials, including torturing prisoners and providing misleading or false information about CIA programs to government officials and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more techniques were used than previously disclosed. Finally, it offers conclusions about the detention project, including that torturing prisoners did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees.”
In short the report validates those who have long criticized the “War on Terror.” I’m one of them. I’m a pacifist. I’m anti-war. I’m extremely wary of the military industrial complex. I have family and friends who have served the country with distinction and honor and I'm proud of what they do and have done for America. These two statements do not negate each other nor are they in conflict.

The release of this report necessitates acknowledgements where usually I criticize. Let’s think of it in the spirit of A Christmas Carol and consider some past blog posts.

I have been sharply critical of President Barak Obama who came into office claiming that he’d have the “most transparent Presidency” in history only to criminalize journalists and be more opaque than his predecessor on a slew of issues. The creation and release of this report happened under his watch and with his buy-in. While there’s certainly a political element to the report and its release,  it still happened and he should get the credit.

The Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Diane Feinstein – even got her own blog some time ago. Her unwavering support of the FISA courts – those secret courts that rubber stamp anything the Government wants without any due process or opposition – got my wrath. Her committee spent an ungodly amount of money and time developing this tome that will never see the fullness of daylight. The summary, however, has shifted the needle and allowed America to see the truth if not to take responsibility for its actions. Kudos for seeing it through.

The media is often the brunt of my analysis. A predilection for gliz and simplicity crowds out nuance and important policy issues in most coverage. Many have continued their partisan coverage of the report, but it seems the majority of outlets reported the facts as outlined in the report. It's important that the public see and hear what happened. 

The content of what has been released is troubling. It’s likely criminal. It’s certainly inconsistent with the values America preaches. It infuriates me for what is done in my name with my tax dollars. The Washington Post's poll shows that a majority of Americans in every demographic believe torture can be justified. That's alarming and not whom I believe Americans to be.

Much of military action today is done to preserve the American way of life – which is a well-worn slogan. More often than not the War on Terror via misnomer “Patriot Act” and other laws like it have torn away at the Constitution that it’s intended to protect. The release of this report, however, is a moment of brightness, a moment of clarity and honesty even if what’s its reporting is contrary to every fiber of my being. It's proof that telling the truth is much better than not.

The real terror is what the other 5,475 pages say. What is there that can’t be released, that is too shameful to reveal? Would that change the poll results, or reinforce them? Before going down that road…let’s celebrate the Christmas miracle that we do have: 8.75% of a report critical of American actions was made public.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Boxing Day is a sucker punch

Boxing isn’t my thing. Too much blood and I never much saw the point of beating the crap out of somebody else. It’s a sport, but never seemed to be very sporting. Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport. As fans of Downton Abbey know, it’s a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a "Christmas box", from their bosses or employers. It’s usually a European celebration that is a vestige from a time where there were “Upstairs” and “Downstairs” classes. President Obama made it American this week when he signed an executive order giving every federal worker the day off this year.

Friday December 26, 2014 is now a Federal holiday – meaning that all Federal employees do not have to report to work and will be paid for it. Since Christmas falls on a Thursday this year, that gesture makes for a nice four-day weekend. And, really, who am I to be Scrooge about people getting a day off that would likely be one of the least productive of the year?

Federal employees get a pretty nice benefit package – 36 days off, or 14% of the year out of the gate:
  • ·        10 paid holidays (and Inauguration Day every 4 years)
  • ·        13 days of vacation for the first three years service, 20 days of vacation with three to 15 years of service, and 26 days after 15 years.
  • ·        13 sick days are accrued each year regardless of length of service and employees can carry over any sick leave accumulation to the next year. (It can be converted to cash upon leaving.)

Other benefits include medical plans and multiple retirement plans. You’d think that Federal Employees would just get Social Security, but in addition the government also kicks in an equal amount (up to 5%) to 401K accounts along with pensions and an array of other programs that require a full website to detail.

Popular thinking has been that in exchange for lower pay government workers receive job security, a generous benefits package and the opportunity to serve. According to a study using information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Government workers cost 45% more than an equivalent worker in the private sector. A 2012 non-partisan Congressional Budget Office study compared wages and benefits of private sector workers to public sector workers and found that pay and benefit variances – with federal workers having overall more compensation than their contemporaries.

The total number of Government workers is up under the Obama Administration thought it is down significantly from the Reagan era.

It is estimated that each Federal Holiday costs the American taxpayer somewhere around $500 million dollars.  Half a billion dollars.  In a $3.5 trillion dollar budget it’s not actually a significant number, but it’s still a lot.

If Federal employees want to take off Boxing Day – let them! No Scrooge here. That’s what a benefit package is provided is for – so that people can take time off with pay. It’d be a different situation if there was no paid time off, but there’s plenty of buckets for government workers to choose from. It’s the American taxpayer who has been sucker punched by the President in his half-a-billion dollar give away.