Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Call it reproductive justice

   Harold Lloyd had nothing on today's forces of regression.

   In iconic black-and-white on a silent screen, the bumbling comic grappled with the big hand of a clock. The year was 1923.

   Today, in Arkansas, North Dakota and wherever they can summon the votes, political forces seek to turn the hands of time back at least that far on reproductive rights.

   President Obama observed this syndrome last week in a speech to Planned Parenthood. Points to you, Mr. President. However, you need to follow up that "turn back the clock" analogy with one for those of us on the side of modern times.

    It's time to turn the clock forward — to 2013. Let's stop living in 1973.

    That was when Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land and women no longer were at the mercy of people who made Bible verses statutory.

   The time is right to move forward, not just because of the threat pervasive in certain states, but because the 2012 elections carried an encouraging message that should be translated in a new rallying phrase: reproductive justice.

    The term comes from African-American feminists in the 1990s who, according to Time magazine's Kate Pickert, "wanted to broaden the appeal of reproductive rights" beyond simply keeping abortion legal and accessible. Increasingly it is being adopted as an alternative to "pro-choice."

    Simply put: Unwanted pregnancies are a principal harbinger of poverty and distress. Abortion is an option for which no one wishes, but is something a majority of Americans wouldn't foreclose by law.

    Reproductive justice is about exactly that. It's about "choice," but in a broader sense 

    The anti-choice movement not only seeks to ban abortion but to blunt policies that promote holistic women's health, including birth control.

    Observe legislation in Texas that diverted millions of dollars from family planning. Bill sponsor Randy Weber, R-Pearland, cited "research" showing that women who used contraceptives had higher rates of abortions than those who didn't. In fact, the study he cited showed just the opposite.

    Ah, what the heck. Facts be damned, and those who use them as well.

    For those who consider themselves pro-choice, this is the kind of policy debate they should be winning, because the nation is receptive.

    The other side wants to focus on abortion. The side supporting reproductive justice focuses on prevention through contraception and sex education.

    To stand for the latter, Obama was the first sitting president to take a dais before Planned Parenthood, the one entity that does more than any other to help low-income women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

    The forces of regression in recent weeks have sought to score propaganda points in light of the horrors associated with Philadelphia abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, facing a murder rap for illegal late-term abortions and literal infanticide.

    Prosecuting Kermit Gosnell is a matter of reproductive justice. The last thing most Americans should want is for women to be so desperate again as to turn to people like him when abortion can be early and safe, and pregnancy can be averted so many ways.

   The next time you encounter an abortion foe picketing a Planned Parenthood clinic, ask that person. "So, you oppose birth control, eh? Congratulations. You are part of the problem."

    The next time someone brings up the case of Kermit Gosnell, ask: "So, do you oppose agencies that provide birth control? Congratulations. You are Dr. Gosnell's accessory."

   Reproductive justice. Preach it. Pursue it.

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Government is evil, until . . .

     It's easy to deride Sen. Ted Cruz's double standard. In fact, he is only observing a tradition of great duration.

     Former Sen. Phil Gramm was truly a mythical bird, decrying federal spending at every stop, then racing at the speed of an arclight to the nearest microphone to take credit for any federal dollars trickling Texas' way. Such a phenom was he that the tactic earned its own term: Grammstanding.

    Now, a new term of similar feather: hypocruzy.

    Cruze is a tea party darlin', he who in one of his first votes in Washington opposed federal emergency aid after Hurricane Sandy. Now he stands before you now as Sen. Two-Face, saying he'll pursue: "all available resources" to assist after the explosion that struck the Texas town of West.

    Was Cruz careful not to mention the word "federal" when speaking of said resources? One angry observer from New York presumed so. He said Cruz and his Texas fiscal disservatives "should ask the NRA" for disaster funds.

    (Won't happen, of course. NRA funds are committed to keeping an obstructionist bloc in Congress. That investment grows pricier each year when 10 times more Americans die from gun violence than perished on 9/11.)

   This commentary could be all about the two faces of Cruz, and the principle it takes to toss one's principles out the limo window. Actually, it's about the thing that he and fellow tea partiers assail daily: that evil thing called government.

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a fine fiddler to that tune. Just the other day he was in Chicago beckoning businesses to Texas, where the regulatory climate is as barren as a gila monster's habitat.

     But let's be honest, because Perry won't be: While many companies would be drawn to "less government," more are interested in good schools for employees and effective public services, like highways that work. Each of those involves government. Texas lawmakers have dedicated themselves to less of that.

    As a presidential hopeful, Perry said he would eliminate up to three federal agencies, one of which he could not name. That comment makes him the embodiment of fiscal disservatism — making sport of cutting government first, and figuring out how it affects people later.

      Perry says that a lack of regulation didn't contribute to the West explosion. So, we can assume he and "anti-gummint''" Texas policymakers will do nothing to prevent the next disaster. 

     To that end, let's think of another disaster that affected the region in many ways, Hurricane Katrina.

      When almost nothing went right with the response to Katrina. we were to assume it to be an indictment of bungling government. In fact, it was an indictment of bunglers who didn't believe in government.

     Katrina was a test-run, for instance, of a wholly privatized Federal Emergency Management Agency. Talk about system failure. A chain of featherbedding good ol' boys assigned to be responsive to human needs turned over in bed and hit "snooze" when the alarm sounded.

   Now we have the disaster in West, at a fertilizer plant that, reports the Houston Chronicle, contained substances that would have brought federal inspectors if state agencies had notified them.

  In the aftermath, Republican Congressman Bill Flores, in whose district the disaster occurred, has asked for federal help. Like Cruz, to earn his own tea party merit badge, Flores also opposed Hurricane Sandy relief.

   So Texas' junior senator isn't the only one guilty of hypocruzy.

   Without question, the taxpayers of Texas and West deserve the help. They pay federal taxes. Unfortunately, they are represented by a breed of  posers and posturers who denounce and despise government, until they need it. 

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

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big tragedy in a small town

  They say everything's bigger in Texas. But most things that make it big are small.

  West, Texas, for instance.

  The name confuses. Named after a banker and sodbuster, West is in Central Texas, 25 miles north of Waco, where I spent a long time as a newsman.   

    As everyone knows by now, West is small, 2,800 people. That makes the wound it nurses one of unimaginable scope.

   When I heard of the explosion that did so much damage to West, the first thing I thought of was utterly ironic.

   I thought of proximity.

   The assumption about people who live in "the country" is that they go there to be away from other people, to spread out.

    The tragic irony was that the deaths and destruction attached to the event in West had to do with homes, apartments, two schools and a nursing home being too close to the site of a great explosion.

   Then again, downtown West was seriously damaged as well, and it wasn't that close.

   That happens with a concussion some likened to a nuclear blast, a mushroom cloud visible at 100 miles.

    Back to that matter of closeness: I've observed that it's what makes places special. It's what makes New York New York, Chicago Chicago, Boston Boston.

   Rather than massive and faceless, each is in fact a collection of small towns, shoulder to shoulder, packed into distinct blocks, sectors and boroughs.

    West has considerably more elbow room but the same closeness.

    It is predominated by Czech heritage. It is renowned for its kolaches — cream cheese or fruit or sausage — and for its West Fest celebration each Labor Day, when polka bands and beer-bread sandwiches make 100-plus degrees bearable.

     Now West is known around the country for something else. For tragedy. For loss. For questions.

     Texas is where something of comparable magnitude happened once with the very same combustible substance that has caused so much sorrow in West.

     In 1947 two ships carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer outside the port of Texas City caught fire and exploded, killing 581. How were so many in harm's way?

     The people of West had no idea what dread loomed down the block. It's unclear to what extent, if any, inspection had provided assurance that the property next door — and in place long before anyone moved nearby — was a ticking time bomb.     

      Such questions are for another day. On this day we remark on neighbors acting as neighbors in the truest sense — rushing to a danger scene as volunteer fire fighters, helping fish seniors out of a nursing home's rubble.

     As in Boston on Patriot's Day, out of the worst of scenarios we come to expect the best of people, and they seem to deliver.

     The phoniest of concerns, it seems to me, is about what becomes of West and, dare one say, its reputation as a quiet and peaceable, even blessed town. Its reputation is secure; its blessings, too. It's all in the bonding that often comes with a death in the family, when kin grow closer to make up for the void left by the departed   

     Like many towns its size, West owes its origins to a swatch of railroad track. Without it, and I-35 streaming its way generations later, it would be a vacant patch of blackland prairie.

    But through the years, and the generations, it has more than justified its existence with much that is life.

    In a small town, any loss is a big loss. In this one, the loss is bigger.

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



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pot and redefining crime

  How about some good news today? This year, reports Time magazine, drug cartels in Mexico stand to lose $1.4 billion.

  Why? Because Colorado and Washington decriminalized recreational marijuana in November.

   American taxpayers have been financing a drug war with costs past comprehending, and without measurable gains. Now here come voters in two states who have hit organized crime where it really hurts.

    Not long after decriminalization of an ounce of pot became law in Colorado, a friend called, curious to know if all hell had broken loose. It took me a moment to realize that, in fact, it hadn't.

   I had to acknowledge that almost nothing had changed, except for most assuredly the state's police blotters. To voters' immense credit — 55 percent in both states — what had changed was their definition of crime.

    The real crime, they said, was that in 2011, marijuana arrests approached 1 million nationwide — most involving incarceration, each with its court case. Summon the attorneys.

     The real crime was diverting police attention from offenses with actual victims to these, which had none. The real crime was shoving more coal into the blast furnace of a criminal justice system voracious for public dollars.

     If you like to think only in money terms, something on which many Americans insist, this sounds like a slam dunk.

     Back to that friend's inquiry: Lest anyone assume that Colorado was awash in a fog of THC in the dawning of a new criminal justice day: It wasn't. It hasn't been.

    For one thing, it's still illegal to smoke pot in public, and illegal to possess it under age 21. Marijuana remains a very controlled substance, though Colorado and Washington aren't entirely sure yet how they will control it. In Colorado, people are able to grow as many as six plants. In Washington state, users will have to buy their marijuana from licensed providers.

    Up next: how to regulate that, and tax it: more revenue for the states.

    Opponents of these measures raised the specter of generations of hop heads. They probably needed to concentrate instead on the hops and barley that make beer so appealing. Intoxication is intoxication.

    But when it comes to dependency, let's acknowledge two kinds that serve almost no one: the narco dollars that make drug cartels so wealthy in Mexico and Central America, and the insatiable demand for resources by the American criminal justice system. Anything that tightens the spigot feeding either is serving humanity.

    For a long time Americans have bought into the appeal that marijuana serves as a gateway drug for harder and more dangerous substances. Of course, it is exactly that when coming from the same illegal pipeline. Take that business away from the connection, remove the cartels and pushers from the transaction, and pot is a gateway drug no more.

   Of course, many serious questions remain in these trailblazing states. First is how to operate under two sets of law, state and federal, which behold pot differently.

   Colorado Congressman Jared Polis has authored a bill to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. It would to shift control over the substance from the Drug Enforcement Administration and to put it under the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, with "Marijuana" making the acronym ATFM.

     Meanwhile, other considerations loom, such as the fact that under federal regulations banks can't handle money obtained from drug deals. This means that even enterprises created by voters in the 18 states that allow medicinal marijuana don't have a place to put their money.

    Some will call Colorado's and Washington's dilemma a legal morass. So be it. It's a better investment of legal minds than more arrests, packed jail cells and criminal court dates.

   As a Coloradan, I'm proud to say that's where my tax dollars go now rather than to manufacturing more felons and puffing the Medellin Cartel up into a presence on a par with General Motors.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tin-can plinkers vs. public safety

  "Many people like to get larger capacity magazines simply to save time reloading while they're at the range.

   "When you're paying by the hour for range time, a lot of people do feel the need to stock up as much as possible."

   America wouldn't want to infringe on anyone's range time. That costs a pretty penny. So of course Republicans in Congress will fight to the death a limit on the capacities of killing machines.

   The above quote from a Virginia gun dealer is contained in Lethal Passage, Erik Larson's penetrating 1994 examination of the firearms industry and the culture that makes it click.

    For his book, Larson followed the path of the Cobray M-11/9 which ended up in the hands of a 16-year-old who killed a teacher at school. He would have killed dozens if the gun hadn't malfunctioned.

   Faulty merchandise. What an embarrassment for the makers. But they got their money, and their middle man did, too. So all was well ultimately.

   Talk about embarrassments: In Larson's reporting you read all about people who make carnage their most important product.   

   Consider the gun dealer who advertised a "Whitman Arsenal": a seven-piece set of the exact weapon models Charles Whitman took up into the University of Texas tower in 1966 when he killed 16 and wounded 32.

    Larson demonstrates that what the gun lobby calls a grand struggle against oppression actually is a battle over profit margins. And don't forget that range time.

   Second Amendment rights? Nah. Sum it up with two "C"s — commerce and convenience.

    "Gun manufacturers have little interest in saving lives," writes Larson, "although they struggle to convey the image that they are the last defenders of hearth and home."

     Parents everywhere should have appreciated what American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said the other day when the National Rifle Association, intoning to a trumpet chorus, said the best route to safer schools was for each to train and arm a volunteer among the staff or faculty.

     Said Weingarten, "We must leave those decisions to the people who know our schools best — not those acting as a proxy for gun manufacturers."

     That's you, National Rifle Association.

      Now we see the merchants of death — sorry, folks, but you make it too easy — fighting reasonable steps like those taken by Colorado and Connecticut lawmakers who voted to limit magazines on firearms.

     For guns that can fire blindingly excessive rounds and easily can be converted from semiautomatic to automatic, Larson has a term he prefers instead of "assault weapons."

    He calls them "spree weapons" — as in, "The 20-year-old went on a killing spree inside the elementary school."

    "Spree" is a more sporting term, more in keeping with what guns are about — plinking cans, obliterating targets, imagining federal agents at the door out to take away one's spittoon.

     It was telling that in both Connecticut and Colorado, the key issue wielded by the gun lobby wasn't public safety at all but good ol' commerce. In Colorado, Magpul Industries, which manufacturers large-capacity magazines, has said it will leave the state. The same with gun manufacturers who've threatened to flee Connecticut.

    What a thrill to hear policymakers say to these players: "Hasta la vista, baby."

       Both legislatures voted for universal background checks. The gun lobby's chief argument against that is that they don't work. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research has multiple studies to demonstrate that they do.

    But let's face it. The whole argument comes down to our partners in crime — convenience and commerce — and Uncle Jed having a right to sell his AR-15 in the driveway without "gummint" interfering.

    Just so we understand what this is all about.

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


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Worst investment of the century

   It never ceases to amaze — the breathtaking lack of proportionality some people have when they have it out for President Obama.

   Hear the screams about what it costs to protect him on a golf outing or Malia and Sasha when going anywhere. Too much. You've got that right. But my reading of history — yours may differ —  is that this president isn't the first to have children, or to go mulligan-ing.

    Worse than this, consider the jet-engine decibels used to decry the few bad bets, among many exceptional ones, this administration has made in a green initiative that Time magazine called "the most ambitious energy policy in history."

     Those dollars were used to invest in renewables of many stripes, as well as a smart grid, smart meters, and more energy-efficient federal buildings.

     Every one of these initiatives does more toward "energy independence" and "energy security" than does drilling for oil or warring for it. Simply put and beyond debate: Energy savings are forever. Oil is not.

     Back to the point about proportionality, however:

     If every penny of the $90 billion devoted to clean energy in the stimulus bill went into a rat hole of corruption and featherbedding, with no trace of return, it would be a speck on the scale of scandal compared to the worst fiscal mistake of the 21st century.

     That would be the venture launched 10 years ago on outrageously false pretenses, and yet saluted by flag-waving tea party and Fox News types: the invasion of Iraq.

     A Harvard study finds that our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan combined will cost Americans $4 trillion to $6 trillion over time, with the biggest costs to come at home with care for 1.56 million discharged veterans. "The big, big cost comes 30 or 40 years out," Harvard's Linda Bilmes told the Los Angeles Times.

    Profligate spending? The president who brought these people home struck the biggest blow imaginable on behalf of budget austerity.

    Note that in the 2008 election, Republican nominee John McCain, as with the neoconservatives in the White House, was set on extending this kind of duty as far into the future as calendars could be printed.

    Enough about dollars and cents, however.

    America lost 4,804 lives in Iraq, and to this point, 3,274 have died in Afghanistan. These, however, are people who enlisted to put their lives on the line. At the same time between 112,000 and 122,000 Iraqi civilians died in our deigning to "liberate" them (iraqbodycount.org). In Afghanistan, the civilian toll is more than 19,000 (costsofwar.org).

    The United States needs to end its combat involvement in Afghanistan, pull the drones out of the sky and let people figure out what life is like without our war-making machines in their faces, stirring blood oaths.

   From the start of our war-making, every Iraqi or Afghan we killed made it harder for us to pull out, as it meant two Iraqis or Afghans resolved to fight back.

   At some point in the last decade a lot of Americans came to realize that we had put too much stock in the power of war. But that realization came most of a decade too late.

   The so-called reconstruction of the countries we shattered, the "nation building" so derided by George W. Bush when he first solicited your vote for president, has been as much of a disaster as the war itself. It has been a boon only to private contractors who were in it for themselves, not for the victims.

   War, though mankind's worst invention and investment, is always good for the war business, and that's been our business for too long.

    It's time, as Laura Nyro sang, to "study war no more."

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