Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Profiling those who would profile

    I was told once that I strikingly resembled a Walrus. Not the marine mammal. Not the leader of the Beatles. I was, said an acquaintance, the spitting image of pro golfer Craig Stadler — known in his sport as the Walrus.

    I blinked and protested. Stadler is squat and chubby. Except for high hairlines and mustaches, we have no similarity whatsoever. Yet in this person's eyes, we were twins separated at birth.

     That's just one way of saying that a measure increasingly offered as the answer for airport security or border security is coo-coo-cha-choo.

     That measure is profiling: Single out those who look a certain way. Frisk them. Question them. Let the rest of us board the plane or walk the streets of Arizona in peace.

      Tell that to a journalist friend of mine. He has a full, dark mustache, a big head of black hair, and was told once that he looked like Saddam Hussein. No, he said. I'm a mama's boy from El Paso.

      If some people's suspicions prevailed, he'd be questioned not only at the airport but on Any Street in Arizona.

      We are told that Arizona's law authorizing police to question the immigration of people based on vague suspicions isn't about profiling, that it expressly forbids it. But, let's face it. Arizona lawmakers only papered over their desire to profile because, don't you know, politically correct elitists from Namby-Pamby Land won't allow it.

       Despite whatever legalese Arizona employs, if the new law clears the courts it will do exactly what proponents wish: profile brown-skinned people. It's exactly what some people want.

       If any pretense to the contrary was employed by supporters of profiling, it was shed in recent days with the uproar over heightened airport measures. From out of the woodwork en masse came the voices of profiling: Decide on what types of people to look for, and turn them inside out.

      This would exclude the young and the old, we're told. Not said, of course: The types of people excluded would be the profiling proponents themselves, because they have pale-to-ruddy skin and are registered at the Elks Lodge.

      Certain people have no problem with profiling when they assume they wouldn't be on the receiving end of it. If they had the features of a marginalized population, they would feel very differently.

      But that's always been a feature of a certain political brand which sells well with a large chunk of the American electorate.

      We saw the appeal when Tea Party darling Sharron Angle sought to win the Nevada U.S. Senate seat with commercials concocted of hate, paranoia and 100 percent pure, unadulterated racism.

      We saw it in the cyber-hysteria surrounding plans for a Islamic community center that has been embraced by its city, New York, and its immediate neighbors.

      We've seen it in efforts to institutionalize one faith at the expense of all others. The organization Concerned Women for America says it promotes Biblical values. (This month: "It's patriotic to say Merry Christmas.") As such, it has asserted that though our president "claims the Christian faith and invokes the name of Jesus," he has troubling familial associations with Islam — you know, split allegiances.

     Actually, a leader of this nation should have split allegiances, supporting all faiths under America's banner, and none over the others.

     A leader of this nation swears to uphold a Constitution that, despite a history of atrocities, now has us enjoying a remarkable period of symbiosis between faiths and ethnicities, factions that by all rights could always be at war.

    Sadly, some Americans take this peace for granted. They believe that a few simple indignities aimed at certain Americans would be harmless, since they wouldn't be those harmed.

      As such, those who with bad policy would shatter a gentle social contract — synthesis within difference — are more dangerous than any of those from whom they would demand citizenship papers.

      Blasphemy? Go ahead. Frisk me.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Micro potatoes vs. sweet potatoes

    The first Thanksgiving celebrated survival and agrarian guile. With the help of charitable natives, the pale-skinned aliens were able to exhale and rejoice, having made a life on and with foreign soil.

      So it is with my family this past year. We did much the same, survival-wise on alien land, even if this technically is native soil for us. So, we celebrate.

      We were just your typical foreigners from Texas when we arrived over a year ago. Though two of us had been born here many harvests ago, we walked lightly, with wide eyes, on the newfound plain.

      Now we've had a full complement of Rocky Mountain seasons, and have done what settlers do — settled.

      One thing we did this year that was totally foreign to us was grow food.

      Never did a spare moment allow something like that back in Texas. Most of the time was devoted to growing children. Yes, Becky planted trees in the yard in Waco. We grew geckos on the window screens. We birthed generations of kittens in our hedge. Not exactly agriculture, though.

      Planting a garden wasn't my idea, understand. Becky and Rob sprung the notion with spring. Then they tilled the Colorado soil.

      In a small patch out in our big back yard, they grew spinach, broccoli, carrots, pumpkins, green peppers and more. And in a particular nod to her roots in Southern Colorado, Becky planted potatoes.

      She had some expertise to tap, having driven a spud truck during a long-ago harvest in Monte Vista, having flagged crop dusters one summer, and having had a fanatical gardener of a father.

       My father was pretty much the same — a maniac — about gardening. I pretty much stayed away from it unless a stray baseball found its way into the pumpkin patch.

         Hell, I couldn't tell you how a potato was conceived and/or born. That is, until this year. Now I know. It's amazing!

         And get this. You pull 'em out of the ground and — after you wash the dirt off and boil or bake or fry 'em — you can eat 'em. Kid you not.

         At this point, having read the heading of this entry, you are saying: "OK, get to it — the yearly slam on sweet potatoes. Come on; get it out of your sorry system."

         Well, here's the thing. I still hate sweet potatoes, just as much as I did, oh, 48 years ago or whenever the orange matter first invaded my gullet. I would never make that mistake again.

         But having witnessed the horticultural miracle of potato birth, I am in a much more charitable mode toward tubers in general this harvest time.

         I'm going to tone it down and instead evangelize for something wonderful: micro potatoes.

         It has never been true that I've been anti-sweet potato. I'm definitely pro-sweet potato. I'm just not pro-put-in-your-mouth-and-swallow-sweet potato. I tried that once. Once.

          I have brought many good purposes for sweet potatoes to readers' attention: ink, ethanol, plastic, dog treats, food for livestock. I reported on the use of sweet potato peelings to attack poisonous mill tailings up in the hills of Colorado — yes, one poison leaching out another.

          This Thanksgiving I'm just going to focus on something positive, on 100 percent edible wonders coming from this green Earth: teeny, tiny potatoes.

          When we grew our first crop of potatoes, we figured they'd come out looking like, oh, what comes through Wendy's drive-through window, minus the chives. A few potatoes of in our garden did. But a whole bunch of them didn't. Some were no bigger than grapes. Some were the size of peanut M&Ms. All were potatoes. All were delicious.

          We didn't let so much as one go to waste. Boiled or fried in their little skins, they were tiny star shells of flavor. The taste treat gave us pause. We wondered why we never saw tiny potatoes in the store. Were we to believe that at major potato farms these teeny potatoes just went back into the soil or got reduced to starch? What a loss to humanity.

           The other day I was pleased to see a package of tiny potatoes at the store. Latter, when I googled "tiny potatoes," I found recipe after recipe — even an industry term for them: fingerlings.

           As you can see, I have managed to distract you entirely from the orange side dish you were contemplating for this year's Thanksgiving feast, you who remain resistant to the simple message: Sweet potatoes aren't meant as food, at least for those of us who dine this high on the food chain.

           But micro potatoes, yes. True food. Nature's  surprise.

           It almost makes one want to be out at the garden plot and observe when the season arrives and the potatoes are mating.

  Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Black Friday's too-appropriate name

       My waning sense of incredulousness was gnawing on a TV commercial for a brand of artificial hip — you don't just get those off the rack, so "ask your doctor" — when the news guy came on and told us about Black Friday.

       The story: Many will shop. All the news that's fit.

       What passes for information in the information age: Reporters dispatched en masse to report what everyone expects, and it'll be "breaking news." Just watch the bottom of the screen. It will say so.

        Someone will trot out numbers. They'll interview the guy running the toy train shop. How's it going?

        It's going to be obscene.

        Bad economy? Just watch us. Train that insta-cam on the action. Someone will say the day's haul is disappointing, but that someone is living in a surreal world. In most of the rest of the world, what Americans do on a day like this is cause for gasps, not unlike what we do when cable news shows what a tidal wave does to a village near the equator.

         More power to us. Buying power, that is. Consumption is next to godliness, if we are to understand the analyses of most business pages and politicians (at least the ones who most recently won).

         I won't be joining them, and don't think for a second it's because I'm  a holiday hater. For the adult life of me, I can't shake the anticipation and general appreciation of the holidays, emotions that colored so much of my youth — the kind that had me wrestling with my brothers for a Sears Christmas catalog fresh from the mail box.

         No, I insist on loving Christmas. But Black Friday is one of the saddest developments ever relative thereto.

        Wait, you say. People have always rushed to the stores on the day after Thanksgiving. That's the day for all those bargains, the start of the Christmas rush. True. 

Ever since the pilgrims started getting their provisions at big-box superstores, it's been America's biggest shopping day.

      Fact is, nothing is new about Black Friday except for the name, and it offends me.

      It does not convey holiday cheer. It conveys cutthroat consumption. More than that, it carries the notion that getting the gifts that make people happy is a mission, and not joyful in the slightest.

       You're saying that the "black" part isn't about the absence of mirth. It's about business. Profit. Feel better?

        Hardly. This sense that we are duty-bound to consume on this day because, well, because the news guy says it, should offend everyone.

        When did it become "Black Friday"? In the annals of pop culture, nothing has ever emerged from nothing like the capitalistically cold moniker. One day it was just the big shopping day after Thanksgiving. The next day it was Black Friday and on everyone's lips, like "war on terror," except in this case we hadn't been attacked. We'd just put down our forks.

          Jumping on this were the bored media. Nice headline fodder: Black Friday. Built for bold letters.

          Because of those bold letters, we stand in long lines, press at plate glass and throw elbows for 10 percent off on a robot dancing Mickey — at a price that, even with the discount, approximates what Granddad used to pay off on his house one month at a time.

          I won't be in the mob. I'll continue to think highly of the holidays, however, because they generally make me think of soft lights, quiet times with people who reinforce my notion of goodness, and a connection to times of innocence.

          Black Friday isn't my idea of that. If you are hell-bent for that artificial hip of your dreams, however, go for it.

           Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Climatologists vs. smoke blowers

   Snow blessed Colorado's Front Range last week, roughly a month later than normal. This was not a surprise in what is shaking down as the warmest year on record.

   Even less surprising is the forecast: dry — not just in precipitation, but in any hope of Congress addressing the No. 1 issue facing the planet.

    Any climatologist will tell you not to put too much stock in temporal temperatures when the big picture is the issue. We will have our early blizzards, late deep freezes, oranges sprouting icicles.

    Other indicators are not so temporal — like the incessant, insatiable gorging of pine beetles in the Rockies. The only real remedy: a week or two of 40 below zero where they dine. That isn't coming any time soon.

    Another indicator: reddish summer snowpack way up high, from the dust of increasing desiccation — soil erosion, desert expansion — around the globe. Dirt blown from another hemisphere leaves a telltale film. The ruddiness causes the snow to absorb heat more readily. Summer runoff accelerates.

    Those things have nothing to do with when noses will grow red in Fargo or Tampa. The symptoms up high are the real deal, the real story. The earth is warming, Bubba.

     I may not be able to convince you. Every time my fingers sing this tune, I can expect to be lectured electronically that global warming is a myth. Period. Someone will mention concerns about global cooling back in the '70s. Someone else will cite a list as long as Macy's Parade of scientists who dispute global warming. Check it out, they'll say — the Petition Project. Actually, I have checked it out. It is the work of a bare percentage of actual earth scientists, fluffed up by the names of many who have other areas of expertise entirely.

      The doubters don't want you to know this: The American Geological Institute polled every earth scientist in its Directory of Geoscience Departments who doing actual research on the climate. It found that 97 percent agree global warming is real, and that human activity plays a role.

      Now, 700 climate scientists in the American Geophysical Union have committed to shed clinical anonymity and take that message public whenever and wherever.

      This is going to put new demands on a mobile strike force financed by industry, one so nimble that it inspired Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway's new book: "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming."

       I observed these scientists-to-go at a climate conference a few years ago at the University of Texas. They tumble off another jet plane with charts and graphs in hand, thundering down to the microphone just in time to get their allotted rebuttal. Then they'll pop up at another conference the next day, and on Fox News that night. The per diem obviously is good, and the face time can't be beat.

         These practitioners were hoping the other day that the U.S. Senate would fall into Republican hands so that Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma — he says global warming is a hoax — could again chair the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe had that mighty fulcrum for four years until a Democratic majority supplanted him in 2007. In that period, he made sure that the handful of credentialed doubters who have helped keep an entire political system in denial had a ready microphone under the brightest lights.

         Whatever they say, the truth lies up there in the snow, with less of it being forecast in the winter ahead. A winter is temporal, of course, but so is humanity under certain circumstances.

         Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How the money machine rolls

     Marva Beck told a reporter that her first priority as a new state representative is a tougher voter identification law.


     Not, say, to help Texas schools address ever-accumulating and costly state mandates? Not to better serve the mentally ill? Not to dig the state out of its Texas-sized hole in addressing its transportation needs?

     No, the Centerville Republican will go to Austin banging pots and pans to ward off something that rarely presents itself in real life: the threat to the republic that is illegal voters.

     Don't believe that this is a partisan red-state herring? Don't rely on me. Ask Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott. He did a full-court press to catch illegal voters a couple of years ago. He ended up prosecuting not quite enough of them to have a full-court game of basketball.

     Voter ID efforts stir Republican politicos to song, though they affect average citizens almost not all all. A learned response is that for the GOP it's more about suppressing the participation of a class of voters that trends Democrat  — the poor, the black, the brown — than actually preventing illegal acts.

     I remark on the general puniness of Beck's top priority because she just staged a tremendous upset. The political novice defeated seven-term state Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco.

     A tremendous effort by moneyed interests successfully targeted Dunnam, leader of the House Democrats. Beck, wholly obscure outside of her Leon County environs, became the vessel to place the TNT in Dunnam's loafers.

      Another reason to remark on this is that Beck's victory so clearly epitomized those across the state and nation, where money spoke every bit as loudly as voting blocs.

      No offense to the fine folks and livestock of Central Texas, but there's not $1.5 million worth of political real estate in House District 57, which Beck now will represent. That's how much money was poured into it by both candidates.

      And while Beck will claim to have staged a door-knocking grassroots revolt, business-interests behemoth Texans for Lawsuit Reform paid for spreading much of the manure — nearly $600,000 worth of it, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Among other things, this booty helped finance a succession of glossy direct-mail missives seemingly without end. Not cheap.

      Money. Money. Money.

      Nationwide, $4 billion was spent on drilling messages into your brain, mostly through TV. Eduardo Porter in the New York Times calculated that the price of a vote — $33 in an already obscenely costly 2008 campaign, went up to $43 this time.

      "Democracy Now" host Amy Goodman is one who ever has her eyes on the prize of justice for all — in contrast to those who think what's best for the country is to keep marginalized people down. An advocate of public campaign financing and free candidate air time, she points out a truth: "Media corporations are making such a killing . . . Yet the broadcasters are using public airwaves."

      Who was paying for all of this? On national scale, it generally was anonymous donors, dominated by corporations and unions.

      Before this Congress wheezes to a halt, it needs to go strong to the hoop on a bill that would take away this mask of anonymity and make major players stand for the attacks they finance. This interest should cut both ways. In fact, one Republican, new Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has said he might support the Disclose Act, which would lift the veil on now-nameless campaign funds.

       As for Texas: It is more in the spell of big money than ever before. People without means have less of a voice than ever before. Achingly obvious transportation needs have less of a voice than ever before. Teachers have less of a voice than ever before.

       Now, let's go out and find us some illegal voters. Gotta be some out there somewhere.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Not a lick of difference — yeah, boy

This is for those in the "not a lick of difference" camp. Yes, you folks in the squishy, independent center, and you folks of the so easily disgusted left.

This is also to you relatively progressive candidates who campaigned as if — yes, 'twas not a lick of difference.

Yeah, boy, there's a difference, and we're about to dine on it.

We're going to see it in the golf-tan visage of House Speaker John Boehner, who rose to power basically by, um, well, doing nothing. Really. The guy could have been writing "Seinfeld" episodes that never aired. Now, he's on the cover of news magazines.

We're going to see one of the most marginally qualified U.S. Senate candidates ever in Kentuckyian (by way of Baylor University) Rand Paul, who at least has the right pigment to say the Civil Rights Act is obsolete.

We're going to see newcomers in Congress like Central Texas' Bill Flores — an oil company executive, natch. Ol' Bill finally made good on Republicans' take-Texas-government-hostage, hook-or-crook redrawing of districts twice with one census. Finally, that GOP boulder fell in the path of wily, hardworking, nimble 20-year veteran Chet Edwards.

We're going to see more of old comers like Rep. "Smokey Joe" Barton, he who never met a polluter from whom he wouldn't take a dollar. With the GOP the House majority again, Barton no doubt will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee as he was doing when he invited contributors to take a seven-hour train ride from Fort Worth to San Antonio at $2,000 a head. Raised over $100,000.

You might remember Joe as the one who called it a "shakedown" when President Obama told BP it was going to pay for the oil-spill catastrophe in the Gulf.

Be prepared for people like Barton, Boehner and oil man Flores to do all they can to undermine the most far-sighted makeover ever of America's energy policies — a veritable moon shoot declared by Obama. But of course. Those initiatives undermine the very enterprises that paid so much to get these guys into power.

We recall at this moment how "not a lick of difference" served the purposes of presidential candidate George W. Bush. He convinced many in the squishy center that he was a centrist. Good one, George.

Dick Cheney took that blessing as a mandate for industry to write energy and environmental laws.

I have to take a moment here to grouse that presidential candidate Al Gore got so locked in on lock boxes and wonkery that some squishy centrists, independents and disgusted lefties actually had reason to wonder if a lick of difference distinguished he and the W.

And now we've had an election where a lot of Democrats went around trying to convince voters they were no such thing, or any thing meaningful whatever. This, though every election is won at the margins, and the only way to enthuse anyone outside your base is to explain why he or she ought to be enthused.

At least I saw one Democrat, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, win by pointing out that Tea Party darling Ken Buck was a foe of reproductive rights and in dozens of ways too far right to represent a centrist state.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time I saw progressive candidates who could have drawn out such contrasts cede language of the debate to that of the Republican front organization called the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Not a lick of difference. Yeah, boy.

The opportunity for Obama: He has two years to show us. The difference, that is.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.