Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eric Holder's heroic tenure

  "In respect of civil rights," wrote Justice John Harlan, "all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful."

  Well, at least that's so on paper.

  In reality, it's not true for the penniless, for the working poor and transient, for those marginalized over skin color, religion, nationality, disability or sexual orientation.

  That is, unless people step up to make it true – people with innards of iron and hides titanium-tough, people like Eric Holder.

  I dare say Holder will go down as the most reviled attorney general in our history, and for one thing only: No one has ever so challenged power on behalf of the powerless.

  Whether against voter suppression, against police brutality and profiling, against discrimination of all kinds, Holder, beheld with great bloodlust by the Fox News set, has done more than any predecessor to adhere to the first 14 words of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

   Let's acknowledge that in taking office with the Obama administration, Holder had a low bar to clear in the area of civil rights. Under George W. Bush, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was a devil's playground.

   Yes, Holder vs. Alberto Gonzales is an unfair fight. Oh, my. Compare Holder instead to Robert Kennedy. Again, no contest.

   Kennedy would show great compassion and courage ultimately, but as attorney general, he was ultra-cautious in the face of unfathomable oppression in the South. By contrast, when Holder hit the ground, he wasn't running. He was digging in against injustice.

  A year into office, he sued Arizona over a law that essentially had codified the profiling of brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people in the name of immigration enforcement.

  In challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, Holder and his boss have done more for the rights of gays and lesbians than any duo in history.

   Whereas too often attorneys general have played to the law-and-order crowd in the face of overzealous police acts, Holder has been steadfast in speaking up for the individual who has no nightstick, no Taser at his disposal.

  Holder also has offered a counterpoint to the increasingly punitive way we treat juvenile offenders. He recently announced an initiative to reduce the incarceration of children and to start getting ahead of whatever problems await them beyond adolescence.

  But the area where Holder has been boldest and most needed is in voting rights. There, he has been a guard against politically motivated voter-suppression efforts that have the marks and motivations of the poll taxes and literacy tests of a bygone age.

  When the Supreme Court tossed out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Holder resolved to hold states' feet to the fire when voter I.D. laws disproportionately affected minorities. He subsequently sued North Carolina and Texas on those very grounds.

   Amid all this, Holder, like the president himself, has endured what Urban League president Mark Morial called "nasty, unfair, spurious attacks." To that, we must observe that Morial clearly understates. It was the same and worse, of course, when Martin Luther King Jr. set out to challenge the conscience of a nation.

  Shirley Chisholm, this nation's first black congresswoman, said, "Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth." It can be said that while members of Congress have occupied suits and suites, biding their time between elections and recesses, the hyper-proactive Holder has been paying his rent.

  Upon Holder's announcement that he will retire once a successor is in place, Sen. Ted Cruz said Republicans should block interminably any successor Obama should nominate.

   I'm trying to think why this should bother me. Those who like to see justice translated from paper to reality should be happy to not let Holder leave for two more years.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ocean tides have come to testify

   One of the most fascinating events I've ever experienced was a climate conference several years ago at the University of Texas.

   There I observed the constant struggle between science and the special interests that have but one task to achieve: seed doubt about the science.

   I saw Texas-based climate scholars say what the vast majority assert about greenhouse gases and global warming. They were followed in rebuttal by figures who, by appearance, had boarding passes in their pockets and airline peanuts on their breaths.

    Read all about them in Naomi Oreskes' "Merchants of Doubt." Its subtitle: "How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming."

  However, let's imagine a climate conference years from now in a prominent Florida coastal city. A climate scholar speaks. An industry hired gun speaks. Same old song and dance. Then, in a dramatic counterpoint, the ocean speaks – surging right into the auditorium.

   One problem with today's debate is that moments in time, temperature-wise, can be cherry-picked for propaganda effect. Hence, climate deniers can always point to something that seeds doubt about what most climate scientists say is beyond doubt.

  A steady rate of sea-level rise is not something one can cherry-pick. It's not just rising, but rising at an "increasing rate," says the National Ocean Service.

    Says astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Over decades "we are talking not inches, not feet, but tens of feet. It's going to redraw the maps of the world, unless we do something about it."

   The key factor is melting ice. "Can't be," say the deniers, employing fifth-grade logic. "Ice melting in a glass of water doesn't cause the level to rise." Well, that's not the issue, boys and girls. The issue is depletion from ice-covered lands like Greenland and Antarctica. Most recently, data from the European CryoSat-2 satellite affirm these concerns.

   Deniers point out that global warming has moderated over the last decade, but that's misleading. And that, of course, is the objective. If compared to 20 years ago, Earth's temperatures are higher. And even with the so-called "hiatus," the planet just had its hottest summer on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

   Deniers say the "hiatus" is proof that warming can't be linked to carbon levels. After all, the Global Carbon Project reports they are at an all-time high.

   The truth is that varied factors are at play in climatic conditions. A pair of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of China assert that a key factor moderating climate in the face of rising greenhouse gases is a distinct ocean current in the Atlantic which is "devouring heat" and storing it at unprecedented depths.

   Their point: Nothing has changed, big-picture-wise, regarding the greenhouse effect being observed.

    Believe that, or not. NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association and countless other scientific bodies believe it. Even the Vatican says this is a critical issue to face directly and actively.

     So, too, with the 400,000 people who Sunday jammed the streets of New York City for the People's Climate March — a spectacle observed in 166 nations — a literal sea of people concerned about what actual seas might do if we continue to ignore Earth's signs.

    As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, "The good thing about science, when a consensus of experiment emerges, is that it's true, whether you want to believe it or not."

   Tragically, however, it's hard for earthen elements to get a word in edgewise when politics and lucre – industry's frantic stake in the status quo – are ever ready to occupy the microphone.

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yes, it's a tax — and hooray for that

   I'll never forget Sen. Phil Gramm, the staunch fiscal hawk and self-proclaimed budget-balancer, telling me how it was just fine for the Reagan administration to enact the nation's largest peacetime military buildup without raising taxes to pay for it.

  Borrowing, he said, was the American way. "You do it for your house, don't you?"

  And so we did, to spend the Soviets under the table in the '80s, to secure Kuwait militarily in the '90s and to pulverize and reconstitute Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. And we didn't find the revenue for trillions of dollars more of what we as a nation decided we needed, or wanted, to do.

    So it should be with a sense of relief, and not that same old derision, that readers should behold something they probably didn't know existed related to the Affordable Care Act.

   In policy-maker speak it's called a revenue device. In reality, it's a tax.

   Wait? Something many of us will pay? The answer is yes, and hooray for that.

    Included in the ACA was a tax on health insurers and makers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Call it a windfall profits tax. These corporations were, after all, going to be beneficiaries of a massive public-private quest to insure more Americans.

   That tax, which takes effect Sept. 30, is projected to raise $116 billion over the next 10 years and help pay for subsidies available through state health exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid. Other key revenue devices have been savings in Medicare reimbursement and taxes on so-called "Cadillac" insurance plans that benefit the wealthy.

   Yes, I know. This seems so alien: actually paying for something the nation decides it needs. You would think we would try the same thing with highways, bridges and endless wars.

   Not surprisingly, with insurers underwriting the effort, opponents are attempting to revoke the tax.

   And it's not surprising to see breathless reports such as USA Today's recent headline, "Who's paying new Obamacare tax? You" It sounds very scandalous.

    The report pointed out that states themselves will pay some of the tax, as they contract with managed-care providers for Medicaid, and those providers are on the hook.

  That means the headline is true. This is a broad-based tax for which costs will be passed on to me and thee.

   Sure, such a tax sounds surreptitious verging on wrong. But let's face it. This is the way we raise revenue anymore, wrong though it is. What would be right would be using our progressive income tax system to pay for what government does rather than with backdoor means such as excise taxes.

   So, call it what you will. A tax. A broad-based tax. Say it with me. Breathe in. Breathe out.

    "The tax on health insurers is a small price to pay for helping to extend health coverage to 25 million more Americans without increasing the deficit," writes Paul Van de Water, an analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

      It is scandalous that over the last quarter century the nation has been entranced by a something-for-nothing mentality pitched by so-called fiscal conservatives who were simply postponing days of reckoning.

     What we have endured are deficits by design by people who, on the altar of senseless tax cuts and blank checks for the military, would gut the support system for America's less fortunate.

    Well, now we're helping some of those less fortunate with their health insurance. And, oh, and by the way, last month the federal deficit, at $119 billion, was down 13 percent from last August, the lowest in six years.

   Phil Gramm, now retired and comfortable with his federal benefits, would be the first to say, "That's not how we do things around here."

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


Monday, September 8, 2014

Cease fire in cafeteria food fight

   Back in the '70s as a reporter for the college newspaper, I went to a faculty nutrition expert for a story about hunger in America.

   Sounded relevant, right?

   Well, "hunger" had barely escaped my lips before the professor turned the pretext of my visit around.

   Not to dismiss hunger, he said, but the nation had a bigger problem in the works: obesity.

   How prophetic he was, way back then before "low- fat" and "high-carb" were even in our vocabulary, way before losing pounds was grounds for a reality TV show.

   That prescient professor's words come to mind when I think of Michelle Obama's crusade for leaner, livelier children. She has latched onto the central health issue of our times, and good for her, and for us.

   She has campaigned with Carrie Nation vigor for healthier school lunches and the purging of junk food from schools.

  The first lady's intentions are true and her objective righteous, but something about her campaign brings me back to the initial topic that took me to that college professor: hunger in America.

  Principally, I'm concerned about mounds of celery sticks and the truckloads of baked squash going into the dumpster when kids decide they'd rather starve than eat the "healthy foods" that new federal initiatives are dishing their way.

  The first lady is defending with vigor the tight restrictions on school lunches in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. However, reports from school cafeterias indicate a lot of students are opting for hunger rather than what's healthy.

  Critics say the standards have resulted in less participation in school lunches. As a supporter of school lunches dating back to the first steaming tray I carted to my table in first grade, this troubles me.

   Similarly troubling are reports of staggering amounts of food thrown away when children turn up their noses at it. For, what would be a nutritionist's dream can be a second-grader's nightmare.

   Sure, it's not good for children to have excessively fatty and sodium-saturated foods for lunch. It's worse, however, for them to have no food at all.

  Naturally, this has become a partisan tempest. Republicans in Congress want to jettison anything that smells of Obama, of course.

   The first lady vows not to give an inch. But she should.

   I think of school lunches a little like I think of public schools themselves: magnificent in concept, but susceptible to crippling dictates from afar.

  Against a backdrop of childhood obesity, initiatives that take away anything sweet or salutary — special-occasion cupcakes, for instance — smacks of the mentality that says it is schools alone that must solve all the social ills of our world. Get real.

    Just as teachers should not be expected to be social workers, neither should schools be expected to be fat farms.

    However, if unhealthy food is our focus, let's acknowledge the role of profit-first policies by which school cafeterias have become proxies for fast-food corporations. Those venders make big bucks dishing out fare for which the term "nutritious" is considered an affront.

    If federal guidelines can dislodge these players from the scene, then much good will have come from them, with more nutritious lunches and less profiteering at children's expense.

    Nonetheless, the first lady needs to retool her pet initiative to focus first on getting children to eat. That was the case with the school lunches I remember. They were hot; they were wholesome; they had vegetables; they had good entrees; they had dessert. Result: We returned to class without the sound of cats serenading in our bellies.

   Oh, and after lunch we had recess, something else the school micromanagers would take away to carve more time out for tests and test prep. Daily physical activity is something the first lady advocates with the same vigor; so again, good for her and us.

   What children eat day and night is a very valid concern, but it's foolish and wrong to assign to school lunch the weight of the world.

   Long-time newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

‘Overkill’: A 21st century term for inexcusable policing

  When fire hoses sent black bodies skidding and writhing along the sidewalks of Birmingham in 1963, a lot of white people, high and dry, nodded, "Well, if that's what it takes to keep the peace . . . "

  And so it goes, 51 years later: different police-tactic horrors, but the same nodding of the self-satisfied and oblivious.

  Here's what also remains the same: the construction of straw men to allow the unaffected to dismiss the grievances of the affected.

  When blacks marched in the South for basic human rights, the barkers of the status quo pointed to the influence of "agitators" like "known Communist" Martin Luther King Jr. Today, hear similar commentary aimed at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

  You know: "Those people" wouldn't have a grievance if people like King, and Jackson, and especially Sharpton, didn't show up to tell them they had one.

   Also: "Sharpton gets face time when a white cop kills an unarmed black teen. Where is he when blacks kill blacks in Chicago?" Jon Stewart made note of that throw-away claim, one being trotted out on Fox News; then he rolled tape of Sharpton in Chicago urging an end to that violence.

  What we are witnessing, whether in the robo-cop responses in Ferguson or those of the at-a-distance, "oh well" chorus, is the same mentality that objectifies those on society's margins. Black Americans couldn't possibly have grievances. Don't we have a black president and Affirmative Action?

  Yes, blacks have grievances, and too often they involve overzealous police.

  Whether the situation is the offense known as "driving while black," or the tragedy in which an unarmed black youth dies at an officer's hands, black Americans cannot help but keep count.

  In Ferguson, Mo., we have a textbook example of how not to keep the peace – one that should cause observers to choose another term for that old standby, "police brutality." Try "police overkill."

  It's not just that an officer shot and killed Michael Brown. It's that when the situation called for calm and conciliation, the police became the 7th Cavalry.

  HBO's John Oliver made hay of the Ferguson cops dressed in military gear, replete with camouflage. Camo? "If they want to blend in with their surroundings, they should be dressed like a Dollar Store."

  It would have been a lot more efficient to sweep the street of protesters and "Guantanamize" them as enemy combatants.

  Overkill it was, whether the "combatants" were Ferguson residents or members of the media. In sum, the powers-that-be acted like rank amateurs instead of the professionals they are hired to be.

  Maybe the most irresponsible thing the Ferguson police did was release the video in which Brown appears to rip off some stogies in a convenience store. This the nation saw before ascertaining anything real about the situation that led to his death.

  This video, of course, is used by some to justify what happened to the young man. The video leaves little doubt that Brown broke the law. Then again, in this country's history, many a young black man faced the ultimate penalty -- hanging from a tree branch, in too many cases -- for a petty offense.

  Blown out of proportion by the media? Not a chance. What happened in Ferguson fully merits national inspection and introspection. One important consideration there and elsewhere: a scandalous paucity of minority police officers. Ferguson, a majority-black town, had only four black officers on a force of 50.

  "When trust is absent," writes Time magazine's David von Drehle, "It leaves a peculiar vacuum that feeds flames rather than starves them."

  Some law enforcement agencies arm themselves for war when they should be building trust instead. The result: police overkill.

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