Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Of 'death panels' and animal behavior

My dog Lucy is frantic for light beams. Shadows, too.

In the morning, she patrols the sunlight-splayed kitchen, watching for reflections from a wrist watch, or from a juice glass exiting the cupboard. She will skid across the tiles in pursuit when the refrigerator door handle flings a reflection across the floor.

It used to be that Lucy did this all by her lonesome. Lately, however, her sister Sadie is paying attention to the light beams, and to the shadows cast from Lucy's tail. More curiously, so is Star, one of our cats. Assembled as a gang of three, they watch the floor.

What we used to have in the kitchen was one kooky dog. Now, what we have is a movement. Sad to say, this reminds me of present-day politics.

Consider a recent story in the New York Times about the option of end-of-life counseling in effect when the federal health care plan kicks in with the new year.

What got spiked in the legislation as the result of contrived right-wing disinformation — the rabbit scream of "death panels" — has been inserted in the legislation by the Obama administration.

It's as reasonable as could possibly be: Medicare will pay physicians who advise patients about options for end-of-life care. Those patients may then use that information to draw out "do not resuscitate" orders so as not to extend their suffering needlessly at the end of a feeding tube or ventilator.

Now, it's one thing to say Medicare shouldn't reimburse for a service like this. But to take it and assert that somehow it means Big Brother will be dictating who lives and dies is, well, kooky.

Of course, Sarah Palin and numerous Republicans made swift routes to microphones and their Twitter lecterns to shout "death panels." Like the dreaded lights on my kitchen floor, the claim made heads jerk — that is, for that breed of Americans wholly receptive to any sinister inference made about Barack Obama.

But, my goodness, what an important thing to promote: clear-headed discussion with an expert about end-of-life matters. You'd think those who wrung their hands into powder over the end-of-life saga of Terri Schiavo would want more discussions that make matters clear. But, no, they choose demagoguery over this simplest matter: choice. Some people just can't stand that word.

A representative of LifeTree, which describes itself as a "pro-life ministry," told the Times it was concerned that the new policy would "encourage patients to forgo or curtail care, thus hastening death."

Well, you know, that's the whole point of a DNR request. Does LifeTree wish to remove that option?

What's amazing is that despite the crystal-clear intent of this policy, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that one-third of Americans still believe the whole "death panel" spiel. This is reminiscent of a recent Onion headline: "One in five Americans believes Obama to be a cactus."

It's also reminiscent of a commentary by Michael Ventura citing a "plague of ignorance" abroad in the country. Let us assign Palin as Patient Zero for this strain, she for whom the toughest question imaginable from Katie Couric was, "What magazines do you read?"

The fact is, like the three animals chasing light beams in my kitchen, you can convene one-third of Americans around just about any notion if it fits into the narratives of Fox News, Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann.

In 2010 a lot of commentators looked at those types and — against a backdrop of apathy and economic malaise — thought they represented a movement that reflected what America was thinking. No they didn't. They were just the most frantic.

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wait — year of the nice guy?

   Time Magazine's nod to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most deliciously odd "Person of the Year" choices in its history.

   Not because Zuckerberg isn't consequential. As one whose network links 550 million people, he is consequential beyond imagining. What's so odd about the choice is that he seems like a genuinely nice guy. And, let's face it, 2010 will sign off as one of the meanest years in memory.

    After all, Time's runner-up was the Tea Party, one of the most rabid popular movements of our time. In this case we speak not of the rabidity that comes with rabid fans or rabid stamp collectors. We speak of the snarling, foamy kind, the "call animal control" kind.

    This was the year of vicious commercials, from campaign assaults by anonymous moneyed sources to the meanest product pitches ever. (The doctor tells a wide receiver his knee is mush; but, hey, it cost nothing to drop him from his fantasy team on his smart phone. Har.)

    How much meaner could it be? The No. 1 Republican in the U.S. Senate has set as his No. 1 legislative goal: "for President Obama to be a one-term president."

    Who would have thought that Obama would turn the other cheek and bargain with the GOP on tax cuts and unemployment aid, signing the bill with that senator, Mitch McConnell, over his shoulder? The fact is that despite the vitriol swelling around him, Obama has showed himself to be one of the nicest presidents we've known. Too nice? The "first female president" — in Kathleen Parker's nicely sexist jab.

   Don't look now, but Obama's numbers have surged for playing conciliator. Two new polls show that against major GOP contestants to take his job, at the moment, it's no contest.

     Still, 2010 the year of the nice guy?

     Time's Lev Gross came prepared to profile the Zuckerberg who is portrayed as petty and conniving in the movie, "The Social Network." He found someone who, though the movie took great liberties, rented several theaters so employees at Facebook could see it.

     This is a man who, though he's made billions, took his family to the Universal Orlando Harry Potter attraction and bought himself an Ollivander wand. And a Slurpee?

     OK, this is also a young man — 26, for gosh sakes — who truly plows his field with the silver blade of altruism. He recently donated $100 million to Newark, N.J., schools.

     His only real criticism of the movie is that it portrays cynicism, and not "the actual motivation for what we're doing, which is, we think it's an awesome thing to do."


     Maybe it's not so odd that Time recognize someone like this. We turn the page to a new decade — The Teens? — from a decade whose name we dare not designate. We spent 10 years spinning our wheels in ideological dust and debris, much of it in a sand storm of our making.

     I look at Zuckerberg and I see post-ideological America. No, not someone who has shed social concerns, but one who is focused mostly on the doable, and on doable things that matter.

    Zuckerberg is the anti-Mitch McConnell: not interested in making things a little more impossible, but one probing what's possible.

    Zuckerberg is driven not by what's best for the GDP, as most of America's public policies have been for a generation, but what's best. Period.

    Sure, Facebook, as with the Internet itself, has superficial dimensions, as does the cult of self-infatuation and distraction that surrounds so much of what is offered as an advance of the digital age.

    But let's face it. The devices and networks that array themselves are the horizon to which the world is turning, and you might as well look to what a new day delivers. I say it's delivering power back to those who believe you can change the world not by being calculating and vicious, but by being smart and nice.

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scrooge-iest season ever

   If this doesn't toast your heart's cockles: The congressman said we couldn't afford to extend unemployment benefits through what in economic terms is one of America's harshest winters.

   At the same time we could afford, he said, to extend tax breaks worth billions of dollars to America's wealthiest. For them, "harsh winter" means Vail, Squaw Valley, Key West.

   And his expressed concern in so doing? The children.

   "If we don't act soon to get spending under control, we will be leaving our children a country in far worse shape than the one we inherited," wrote Florida Congressman Tom Rooney. He was responding to a Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers editorial blasting him for backing tax breaks for the wealthy while opposing further unemployment aid.

     He said the $12 billion cost of the unemployment extension was not offset with spending cuts. He also said he has, ahem, $4 trillion in spending cuts in mind to offset lost revenue from the tax breaks — they'll cost only $700 billion over two years — now ready to survive in a deal with the White House that extends help for the jobless.

     When you hear people like Rooney say things like concern "for the children," you think of the Dickens tale of the wicked miser who found Christmas in the specter of ghosts. Except in the case of the scared-right Ebenezer Scrooge, it wasn't an act.

      How many budget cycles did Republicans vote — yeah, plead — to raise the debt ceiling under George W. Bush? That would be eight. How many wars did the Republican Party finance off-budget? That would be two.

      Over how many years did the Republican Party vigorously dispute the damage of deficit-by-design policies dating back to Ronald Reagan? Reagan, by review, fired his first budget director for the offense of using a calculator and explaining the red numbers showing up for generations to come.

     Whose deficit is this, anyway? Not Bill Clinton's. Not Barack Obama's, except in the case of billions of stimulus dollars that an independent panel of economists credited for averting a second Great Depression, with 16 percent unemployment. And many economists don't think it was vigorous enough.

     Forget about that, though. We are tuned into a high-frequency squeal performed by tea party fantasists. To hear them, Obama promoted the stimulus for one reason: to transform America into post-Bolshevik Russia. Their ear-piercing bleatings are background music to one of the Scrooge-iest political seasons ever.

    Republicans have blocked the DREAM Act, under which children who have been in this country since age 16, and who finish two years of college or serve in the military, can become citizens if their parents came to America illegally. Republicans call it a "nightmare." Yeah, boy. College-educated, service-oriented people who not only buy into the American dream but who add to America's potential. What a terrifying prospect.

     Republicans blocked a bill to provide medical care to rescue workers sickened in the remains of the Twin Towers post-9/11. The GOP says the $7.4 billion measure isn't paid for. This would make sense if the very same party had suggested ways to pay for the military response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and for contriving a military response in Iraq around the same events.

      As such, what these deathbed converts to fiscal discipline have conjured during hurtful economic times is hypocrisy beyond imagining. It is a hypocrisy mushroom cloud. This is the fiscal hypocrite's Manhattan Project, the double-standard to end all double-standards.

      But mostly it is mean. It is miserly. And it is just what a lot of voters in November asked for. It's the Scrooge-iest.

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


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts of an ex-bell ringer

    The red kettle beckons outside the store, and a sad tension grips me. Sad, because it used to be that whatever spare change rattled in my pocket would go into that kettle, drawing a cheery thanks and a smile. And who couldn't stand some of that action?
     I forgo it, however. That's sad. Until Salvation Army treats all Americans like the equal people the preamble to the U.S. Constitution prescribes, my spare coin is holstered.
     It's sad because Salvation Army does much good. That's why a decade or so ago I agreed to stand outside a store and ring a bell. That was, however, before Salvation Army's policy of discrimination against hiring homosexuals became common knowledge.
     That's not a policy or philosophy I want to support.
     Salvation Army is extremely up-front about it: "Differentiation of the sexes is a part of the divine image in the human race" says its website. It says that people who have a same-sex orientation deserve love. But, ff if they show their own love in a homosexual fashion, and refuse to renounce said actions, they are "ineligible for Salvation Army soldiership."
      To hear the organization rationalizes this form of discrimination, one can see how bad laws can contribute to the marginalization of people otherwise equal in the eyes of the law. (See Jim Crow.) It's no abomination to be gay, the site says. Just don't act on it. "Those who will not or cannot marry" must observe "celibacy and self-restraint," it says. A couple of generations ago in certain reaches of this land, it was perfectly OK to be a black man as well, just not to escort a white woman.
      I'm reminded of the law in Texas that banned homosexual acts, until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. It gave Texas lawmakers license to smile upon just about any form of discrimination against homosexuals, for if they were "practicing," they were breaking the law. Yes?
       So, too, with prohibitions on gay couples marrying, a situation in which religious sensitivities supersede equal protection of the law. You know; that's in the 14th Amendment.
        Now the Pentagon, with most servicemen and women in assent, says it's time to stop discriminating against gays and lesbians. Sadly, at least one of the major parties is possessed of the philosophy that someone who is honest about his or her homosexuality must be "ineligible for soldiership," aka the Salvation Army.
       Sorry, folks. John McCain can talk 'til blue in the face and not explain how the current discriminatory military policy can be defended by the law of the land.
       One reason the armed forces are ready to move on with this change is that, ultimately, the courts are going to force the issue — just as the courts said the real crime in Texas was a law that made people criminals for how they acted in the privacy of their homes.
       The bottom line of this discourse is that it's none of anyone's business. How is it that a party built on the principle of less government and less government intrusion could sway so heavily for intrusion and discrimination? OK, that's easy to see. As with ol' Jim Crow, it's always been politically profitable to be a manifestation of prevailing prejudice and a barker of fear and taboo.
       You don't need to tell me that the Salvation Army does good things. I manned a kettle once.
       The segregated diners of the South sold grub that pleased many. They were pillars of their communities. Ultimately they were influenced by reasonable people to practice the notion that all men were created equal — under God.
      I'll ring a bell for that principle.
      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com