Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just a game?

Yes, Whitney Houston died, and Rick Santorum is the latest hot thing who isn’t Mitt Romney. The man who will likely be the next premier in China has been here touring the U.S. But the big news this month, really, has been a football game. The fact is that the Super Bowl on February 5 was the most-watched T.V program. Ever, that is.

This really isn’t a surprise. For the last two or three years, the Super Bowl has been the most-watched television show in history. It’s just that more people watch each year, and this year was no exception.

For as long as I can remember, the Super Bowl has been more than a big deal, all but a national holiday, with millions and millions of people going nuts and looking forward to and watching the game. Even those who aren’t football fans - although not all of us - tune in, and even the commercials are a big deal, not to be missed.

No doubt this is exactly the way the National Football League want it. No doubt it set it up this way. As millions and millions buy into this big show, the NFL rakes in millions and millions of bucks.

But as the NFL loads up with cash, from not only the Super Bowl but also its other games, there are NFL players who are hurting. Seriously.

Two Los Angeles Times sports columnists wrote about this a day or two before the big game. One, Bill Plaschke, wrote about the very serious problem of concussions and head and skull injuries suffered by the players and how the NFL has been awfully slow in doing anything about it. The other, Bill Dwyre, wrote about the NFL leaving retired players out to dry, often in crushing poverty (partly because of lots of medical bills, including for head injuries?).

As Plaschke pointed out, players are no longer allowed to return to a game after their heads have been knocked. No more slap on the back and running back onto the field, dizzy, after having their “bell rung” - a change that came only much pressure, including from a former player committing suicide last year by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be examined, and isn’t much talked about. Plaschke wrote about how, at a pre-Super Bowl conference put on by the NFL, hundreds packed a large ballroom to hear what was more or less a pep talk by Commissioner Roger Goodell while just a handful of reporters were in a small meeting room for a panel of physicians talking about head injuries.

Dwyre wrote about how retired NFL players, who attracted all those millions of fans reaping all those millions of dollars for the league, have had to fight, often unsuccessfully, for some sort of pension and healthcare, with the league seeming to have the motto of “Delay, Deny and Hope They Die.” He mentioned one retiree, Jungle Jim Martin, who another retiree found living in a trailer in a field and with a large sore on his face and a hole cut in his tennis shoe so that his foot could fit. Martin’s daughter said that he needed a better place but couldn’t afford the first and last month’s rent. The retiree who found Martin wrote a check on the spot to cover the payment. Martin died in 2002, but things are barely better now, with the NFL having started to pay its former players $124 a month.

This is a very important - indeed, tragic - matter that demands attention. But it doesn’t sell big-screen televisions or go well with Bud Lights and Doritos. And it takes rather than makes money.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Further occupied

The following is my column coming out in today’s Claremont Courier. I will add just that, based on what was said by all of those who addressed this issue during the public comment period at last night’s City Council meeting, I don’t see how the Council could not decide to reverse its decision to shut down Occupy Claremont. (It did appear that it would move in this direction - “these things take time” - although a new site may be suggested.)


Last Fall, I was on a roll. I wrote two columns in November on the Occupy movement protesting economic inequality and other injustices. The first was about my visit to Occupy L.A, and the second had to do with how the issues brought up by the nationwide protests, which origintated in the Wall Street financial district in New York City, might be dealt with in Claremont. Obviously, I was very excited and moved and thought that this grass-roots, hands-on movement was the real deal, history being made.

I still think that.

But when the real deal became the real thing here, when Occupy Claremont started not long before Thanksgiving, I didn’t write about it. I may have written a few lines about finding it amusing that the occupiers camped out in front of the City Council chambers, mostly Pitzer College students, packed it in and went home for Thanksgiving, but I otherwise dropped the subject.

Probably because I was more amused than moved.

I have to confess that, with the critical exception of the Sunday afternoon general assemblies, I was thinking of Occupy Claremont as a joke. And not just because of the all-too-literal Thanksgiving break.

Much of this had to do with Occupy Claremont starting when most of the other occupy protests were (forcibly) closing down. Appropriately enough for the time of year, it was like Christmas decorations left up in January and February. Dude, it’s so yesterday, as my teenaged nephew would say. Take a clue from a fellow movement and move on.

Moreover, I kept thinking - yes, cynically and perhaps not getting all the information that I should have - that a few students thought, awfully late in the game, it would be cool to do Occupy Claremont. It was like they were playing Occupy.

I didn’t want to write this. I didn’t want to write that Occupy Claremont is a joke.

But, really, I didn’t have to write this.

For one thing, there were, as I said, the general assemblies on Sunday afternoons. With these sessions, the students made a real effort to make something happen, to at least raise awareness and create a truly open dialogue on economic and other concerns. They made it clear that this was/is more than a camp-out.

Also, even if it has been just a camp-out, it has been there for nearly three months (a month more than Occupy L.A). This is a long time to camp, especially on a cold, hard cement patio (even if this winter has been remarkably mild and dry). This is considerably more of an effort than spray-painting the wall of a bank (how much more constructive and productive the general assemblies are!) or attending an afternoon rally. This is not a joke.

No, when it comes to jokes, what was really a joke was when a man wrote in a letter in these pages that he didn’t feel safe doing his Christmas shopping in the Village with Occupy Claremont there. Really? A man - or a woman or even a child - being afraid of a few scruffy students from an expensive college?

This sounds like an argument from someone desperate for an excuse. A more cogent, more truthful, if no less ridiculous argument is the one in several letters in these pages saying that Occupy Claremont not only takes up public space but, most importantly, does so in an unattractive manner. One recent letter-writer stated that the encampment was “gross” to walk through when attending a city council or commission meeting.

Well, isn’t that the point?

I can’t help but recall that I started out writing about the Occupy movement by mentioning that some people probably were not amused when the Hot Pecans kept saying “Welcome to Occupy Claremont!” during their Friday Night Live performance in early October right where Occupy Claremont has been. Who would have thought there would be an Occupy encampment not only in Claremont, safely away from the big city, but in this very spot? But I did think that these people were uncomfortable and unhappy with such an idea.

This isn’t a surprise. Occupy Claremont isn’t supposed to make us comfortable and happy. Occupy Claremont is supposed to make us uncomfortable and unhappy. It is supposed even to be gross.

Keep in mind that “gross” isn’t the same as messy. It has been noted many times that Occupy Claremont is, in addition to not blocking anyone’s way, notably neat and tidy (not to mention safe and crime-free). But, as it is supposed to and as with all the other Occupy protests, Occupy Claremont makes us think about messy, uncomfortable, unhappy, gross issues. It makes us face homelessness, poverty, inequality and other unpleasant things.

These people would rather not see and deal with these ugly things and are cheering the City Council’s decision to include Occupy Claremont in the city’s camping ban - a decision that is not only a joke but a bad one. Saying that Occupy Claremont is a camp and thus has to be cleared is most unreasonable, because, as has been made clear, it is, as a mode of expression raising awareness, so much more than a camp.

A popular argument with those who are against Occupy Claremont is that the City wouldn’t have let the encampment stay up so long if it was done by Tea Party folks. I have to say that, putting aside the Tea Party message not really fitting with the camping mode as with the Occupy protests, they have a point and the City should let the Tea Partiers protest in this manner, as long as, like with Occupy Claremont, it is neat and tidy and doesn’t pose a threat or danger (as with, say, a white power group).

So, now, Occupy Claremont is due to clear out or be cleared out later this month. This is, unfortunately, no joke at all. It will be even less so if force and violence are involved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Civil conversation in a time of incivility

Bill Moyers is back. After retiring for the second or third time, this ever-thoughtful journalist, who served as President Johnson’s press secretary, has returned - for the election year? - with a new weekly, hour-long program on PBS called “Moyers & Company.” It features Moyers’ usual long, deep conversations with guests and impassioned yet measured commentary. There is also a website -

I have to admit that I found the first two episodes, starting in mid-January, which focused laser-like on what Moyers calls “crony capitalism,” wearying, although I totally share his concern with the power of money and moneyed interests in this country. My curiosity and excitement were much more piqued by a guest on the third program, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Virginia and who has a book coming out next month called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

What I found fascinating was Haidt’s premise that liberals and conservatives literally can’t talk to each other because they literally can’t compromise. This is because they literally see each other as evil and, therefore, compromising - or “being compromised” - with each other as evil.

Evil is an awfully strong word, but, disturbingly, it fits pretty well here. Take welfare, for instance. Conservatives are actually offended by welfare, because it violates their genuine belief in the Protestant work ethic, in earning what one has through hard, honest work. Someone getting something, especially something like a living, for nothing messes this up in an intolerable way. In addition, they see it as terribly unfair, especially when they are working hard and honestly.

On the other hand, liberals take offense at the denial of welfare, which they see as cold and heartless.

This - taking offense and seeing evil in each other - makes it all but impossible for the two sides to come together. Again, compromise is a dirty word, seen as selling out, a bad thing. (During the interview, Moyers showed a clip from a 60 Minutes interview with House speaker John Boehner shortly after the debt ceiling crisis, in which Leslie Stahl could barely get Boehner to utter the word.) It is Haidt’s hope and purpose in his new book that understanding this will lead to breaking the gridlock.

Even more striking, if not all the more disturbing, is Haidt’s notion or finding that, politics aside, a sizable majority of Americans agree with the conservative viewpoint and values. It’s not that they are stern and without compassion, but they do strongly believe in such things as authority, dedication (as in loyalty, hard work, etc.) and fairness. It is when these are taken to extremes that things get so tough.

Friday, February 3, 2012

No-fault war

America has been at war in the Middle East for over a decade. That’s a long time. If I’m not mistaken, it’s longer than any war the U.S has been in. Yes, we are out of Iraq, more or less, but we’re still in Afghanistan, and I’m not seeing any quick, easy exit coming up.

I think a big part of why this war has dragged on is that it’s not real. That’s right - not real. For many of us, it is a video game. There is no draft, and most people don’t know anyone fighting. I don’t. This is in contrast to the Vietnam War, when everyone knew someone who was fighting - and probably dying - and was protesting.

What’s more, we now have drones. These unmanned planes, which drop bombs in Afghanistan, are controlled by a guy working a shift in a room somewhere in America. Talk about a video game!

And now there’s a plane coming out, the X-47B, which can not only land itself on an aircraft carrier but also will know what kind of weapons it’s carrying, when and where it needs to refuel with an aerial tanker and whether there’s a nearby threat. As Carl Johnson, Northrop’s X-47B program manager, was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “It will do its own math and decide what to do next.”

So, as the Times article brings up, who is responsible for the bombs dropped and the deaths they cause? The commander who used the plane? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The programmer? The manufacturer?

And what if, dear God, there’s a glitch?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Where it's hotter and harder

“When you make people no longer accountable for political reasons, even a dummy knows what’s going to happen. It’s going to make things more difficult.”

That’s R. Rex Parris spouting off - as usual. I have written before, not too long ago, about the mayor of Lancaster in northeastern Los Angeles County, where he’s at least as hard and dry as the desert surrounding the town.

This time, besides putting down the mentally disabled, he is griping about the county’s decision to stop providing funds for additional housing inspectors in Lancaster and another desert town, where rent is cheaper. Never mind that these inspections of units rented to people who, like me, receive Section 8 federal Housing and Urban Development subsidies are often unannounced (I always get a month’s notice) and with armed police officers in tow and focus on non-white residents.

Never mind that the inspections have been labeled harassment and intimidating. Never mind that they are now the subject of a federal investigation and that the county is making the wise move to untangle itself out of an ugly, illegal mess. According to the Los Angeles Times, Parris called the county’s decision “insanity.”

What’s insanity is this mayor, who has advocated that city council meetings should opened with a prayer to Jesus, taking his middle name - Rex - all too literally (not to mention degrading the mentally disabled in a public statement). Moreover, he sounds like those conservatives who say voting should be hard because people died for it.