Thursday, December 18, 2014

Political lynching

   You hear this over and over: For the most part, America is a post-racial society. There is no more, or relatively little, racism in this country.  Except for a few weird instances, there are no more problems between white people and black (or non-white) people. 
   After all, as it is repeatedly pointed out, we now have a black president.  As it is constantly argued, in almost a desperate way, how can we be racist if we elected a black president? 
   Yes, we have a black president, and his election was a stunning moment in this country, leading to literal dancing and singing in the streets which I saw for myself here in Claremont, but President Obama is hated.  He is the most hated president that I have seen in my lifetime – more than Clinton (during his presidency) and Bush II – and the folks who hate him make no bones about it. During Obama’s first term in office, Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky now set to lead the Senate, publicly proclaimed that all efforts should be made to “make Obama a one-term president.”
   Obama did win a second term, but a lot of effort has been made to block everything he does or attempts to do, not to mention all the attempts to show that he’s not an U.S citizen.  Look at the incessant efforts to block the healthcare reform law.  Look at the fury over Obama’s action on badly needed immigration reform, something the congress has dragged its feet on, and all the vows to stop it.  Look at the way the government was shut down last Fall for 16 day and the way there is often a threat to again shut it down – all over pretty much something Obama has done or wants to do. 
   There are countless examples of this digging in and doing everything to block or go against Obama, and after a while, it’s hard not to think that it’s because he’s a black man.  It’s hard not to think people hate the idea the idea that a black man is president. This is the racism we have now.  It is not white-only drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but it’s still racism.  Doing everything to try to make a black president fail, to refuse to work with him, is racist.  It’s like a political lynching.  Unfortunately, Obama’s efforts to be very polite and conciliatory, perhaps not wanting to be seen as an “angry black man,” backfired and made these attempts to block or stop him all the more easy. 
   A big part of this is something I have written about before. Conservatives can’t stand the idea of people getting something for nothing, without earning it by working hard and sweating, even when they themselves can benefit, as with Obamacare. They hate it that a black man, who could have gotten ahead with affirmative action, has made it to be president, not only once but twice. This frustration is also seen in various states’ efforts – and the judicial approval thereof – to roll back policies that make voting easier. These policies, such as Sunday voting, have tended to be popular with black people (who also tend to vote Democratic).
  It is interesting that as this anti-Obama stance has continued, there has been an uptick in assaults and attacks, sometimes fatal and sometimes by usually white police officers, on unarmed, young, black men.  Or at least we are more aware of them. Obama has noted, with some reluctance and after some pressure (again perhaps not wanting to be seen as an angry black man), that he could have been one of these men when he was younger or that a son if his could have been.  And it has been noted that there was more anti-black violence after Obama’s first inaugeration.
   So much for the post-racial-America-after-Obama theory.  Are we any less – or any more – racist?     

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Again, money doesn't always win

   Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “When there’s not a lot of information about either candidate, the candidate with the highest name recognition wins, and unless there’s an issue that drives a lot of media coverage, the candidate with more money is usually the one who’s better known.”
   In other words, in an election, money wins. Unruh was quoted in an article about a very tight race for L.A County Assessor, but what he said is a truism in American politics. 
   At least, that’s usually the case. Following is my Claremont Courier column which I wrote after last month’s election. 

COURIER COLUMN (11/21/2014)
                     THANKFUL FOR PEOPLE POWER
                                By John Pixley
   The story was news, but it was the same old story. Like a dog biting a man, rather than a man biting a dog, it was business pretty much as usual. 
   The article was in the Los Angeles Times a couple days after the election earlier this month.  It was looking at the funds that were raised by and for Bobby Shriver and Shiela Kuehl, the two candidates vying for a seat on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.  Kuehl went on to win the coveted seat and, on December 1, will replace the all-but-legendary Zev Yaroslovsky, termed out after decades of service. 
   According to the article, Shriver, who had served as mayor of Santa Monica and is related to the Kennedys, put in a lot of his own money for his campaign and got a steady stream of support from business interests, while Kuehl, who had served in the state legislature, got much of her support in smaller donations and from labor unisons.  What made the difference between the two progressive Democrats and gave Kuehl a critical boost was large donations from unions near the end of the race. 
   Once again, money spoke.  Once again, money won. 
   How often have we heard this story?  Again, it is an old story.  It’s business as usual.
   We see it all the time here in Claremont.  In City Council and School Board elections, the candidates raising the most funds win.  Period.  It’s like clockwork. In these races, I can almost write a post-election analysis before the election.  (Don’t worry.  I wouldn’t.)
   It happens in a lot of other places, too. All the more so since campaign financing rules have been loosened.  Just look at how Jerry Brown won with millions of dollars in his campaign chest, crushing Neel Kashkari, his Republican opponent in the governor’s race, who barely had any money.  This is an extreme example, of course, bordering on the ridiculous and unfair if not the pitiful and cruel.
   But it wasn’t business as usual, it wasn’t the same old story, in Claremont on Election Day a few weeks ago.  Money may have spoken, but it certainly didn’t win. 
   Money did speak in Claremont in the months leading up to the election.  It spoke loudly.  Very loudly.  But it didn’t stop Measure W, allowing the city to borrow up to $135 million in revenue bonds to purchase the local water system, from winning. 
   “Winning” is almost an understatement. Measure W was approved, voted yes on, by 71% of those who voted.  Seventy-one percent.  Jerry Brown didn’t even win by this much.  I didn’t see anyone or anything on this ballot passed by so much. 
  In other words, “No on W” didn’t just lose.  It was creamed. It was decimated. 
   This was despite all the efforts by Golden State Water Company, the current operator of our water system, to defeat the measure.  As I write this, it isn’t known how much the water company spent on these efforts, but it was clearly a lot. 
  Yes, there was the usual barrage of advertisements and mailers.  There were letters that came on prestigious letterheads, including Claremont McKenna College, and they were then reprinted as full-page ads in the Courier.  They were, of course, in addition to all the other “No on W” ads in these pages. 
  If anything, there was more of a barrage than usual.  In addition, the letters and ads featured the same half-dozen or so people, who also wrote letters and commentaries appearing in these pages.  All insisted that this was a tax – “Stop the water tax” - even though it wasn’t and kept warning that the costs may go up by unknown amounts, and all the while it was increasingly obvious that this handful of “No on W” people were a front, with these advertisements and mailings, at least, paid for by Golden State. 
   What’s more, there were the automated phone calls. These were a first in Claremont elections, as I remember. Then there were the jumbo yard signs that showed up in strategic spots a week or two before the election.  And, in another first for Claremont elections and a move that looked nothing short of desperate, on the day before the election, I saw a flat-bed truck driving around Claremont with a huge “Stop the Water tax” sign. 
   It was clear that the water company was desperate, using all sorts of deception (tax, professors) and playing on fears (unknown future costs). And it was clear that Claremonters, who wanted control over water and not necessarily cheaper water, knew this and saw all too clearly what was going on. Golden State was trying to scare, fool and buy Claremont voters, but the overwhelming number – 71% - weren’t having any of it. 
   Furthermore, this blatant effort to scare, fool and buy them likely made voters angry.  To top it all off, these efforts were no doubt funded by Golden State’s customer’s money – that is, the voters’ money.  So, the voters’ money was being used to scare, fool and buy off the voter.  All the more reason to reject the “No on W” spiel. 
   As if more reason was needed. 
   Claremont wasn’t the only place this happened in this election. An even more dramatic example was seen in Richmond in the Bay Area, where voters didn’t vote for city council candidates backed by Chevron, the gas company with a massive presence in the city and which caused much environmental and health damage when its refinery caught on fire a couple years ago.  Not only did Chevron spend millions in the campaign, slamming council members who were against the company, it essentially runs the local newspaper.  Also, there were several congressional races in which, in a bit of a turnaround, Republican candidates won despite being outspent by Democrats. 
   Too many times these days, money not only talks the loudest but wins. This is all the more reason to take heart when the people and the community win despite all the noise that money makes, and it is something to hold on to and cherish in this season of gratitude. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

This time, the almighty dollar loses

   “It’s an important day for many, many families in the central Appalachian coal fields. For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”
   Just when it seems that it’s all about money.  Just when it appears that the almighty dollar is more important than people, their health and safety, even their lives. 
   Indeed, the dollar was all-important to Don Blankenship and his company that ran the Upper Big Branch, the coal mine in West Virginia where an explosion more than four year ago killed 29 miners. As Bruce Stanley,  a lawyer who has battled Blankenship in court for years on behalf of the dead miners’ families, indicates in his statement, this became evident to federal officials who indicted him earlier this month on charges that he covered up deadly safety violations. 
   According to the indictment, Blankenship, who headed the Massey Energy Company for years and retired shortly after the accident, committed and caused hundreds of safety violations “in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws and make more money.”  He concocted an elaborate warning system of coded messages to alert mine foremen of impending safety inspections and, after the disaster, lied to the Securities and Exchange Commission and others about mine safety practices. 
   In one memo referred to in the indictment, Blankenship ordered a manager to “run some coal,” adding, “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time.  Now is not the time.“
   When was the “appropriate time” to “worry about” safety? When he got caught not doing so? 
   Blankenship sent two hand-written notes to a manager accusing him of “insufficient attention to cost-cutting.”
   “You have a kid to feed. Do your job,” one note said. When the manager failed to raise production as high as Blankenship demanded, Blankenship sent him another note saying, “I could Khruschev you. Do you understand?“
   It’s about time someone like this gets “Khruscheved.” For too long, being slapped with violation fines has just been another cost of business.  For too long, these companies, like Massey in West Virginia, have dominated politics and beaten back attempts at tougher safety and environmental regulations.  If he is convicted on all charges, he’ll face 31 years in prison. In a 2013 blog post, Blankenship, a powerful political force in the state and a reliable Republican campaign donor, wrote, “If they put me behind bars…it will be political.”
   Maybe this won’t be the only shake-down for the almighty dollar.  As also reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, sweatshop conditions have been documented by officials in the garment district in L.A. There are scenes right out of Dickens, down to shaky elevators with flickering lights, as well as workers getting pennies for pieces, well below minimum wage. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

An evil impasse

   “He’s not Brown.  Other than Obama, I think [Brown’s] one of the most evil people I’ve ever seen.”
   That’s all I could think when I read this quote from Steven Phipps, a 57-year-old maintenance worker in Bakersfield, explaining why he was voting for Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate, and not the Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown, in the race for California Governor in last week’s election. Phipps was taking part in a poll conducted by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times shortly before the election.  Brown won an unprecedented fourth term and bucked a pro-Republican national trend, winning by 17.4 percentage points over the (literally) unknown upstart. 
   What I want to know is what makes President Obama and Governor Brown “evil.” Is it because they want to help out poor people? Make sure everyone has health insurance? Make it easier and safer, as in getting driver license and having access to medical care,  for undocumented people from other countries to live here?  Is it because they think that concerns about the environment and global warming and safety are worth putting some curbs on business and making money? 
   Really.  What do people like Phipps mean when they say “evil?” Is it evil, really, when people are given something without working and sweating for it?  Is getting something for nothing so bad – even when it would make life easier for many of those who loudly say this – that it’s evil?  Is this really something worthy of the devil? 
   The bigger question, though, is this: If people see others as evil, how can they work with them to get anything done?  How can they negotiate and compromise with  those they see as not only not worthy but not human?
   We see this continuing impasse and gridlock already when, despite talk of a “Burbon Summit,”  Mitch McConnell, the expected leader of the newly Republican-dominated Senate who once famously said that his party’s top priority should be to make Obama a “one-term president” and saddle him with “an inventory of losses, stated that Obama’s promise to take action on immigration was “like waving a red flag flag in front of a bull.” He has also said that such a move would “poison the well” for any compromises between the president and the congress in the next two years. 
   As if the well wasn’t already poisoned.    

Monday, October 27, 2014

Modern drama

   Two weekends ago, I saw Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s play about Winnie who is buried up to her breasts in Act 1 and up to her neck in Act 2 and how she cheerfully makes the best of a horrifying situation, as her death literally engulfs her, with minimal companionship and assistance from her grunting partner, Willie. I had read the play in college and had always wanted to see how it was done on stage, and it was a real treat to see this fine production at the Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena that featured a stunningly realistic portrayal of Winnie by Brooke Adams. 
   Seeing the production brought up a couple memories.
   I had read the play when I took a course on Beckett, in which we read nearly if not all of his works.  By the end of the quarter, I found myself thinking like a blabbering idiot, my thoughts taking the form of rants and mumblings with constantly repeated phrases and circular reasoning.  It was not unlike when I took a course on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and ended up thinking in rhymes. 
   Some years earlier, when my family was living in London for a year, I read Waiting for Godot in school and gave it to my mom after I was done.  When she read it, she was furious!   She couldn’t understand why Beckett had written it and kept asking me, with considerable bitterness, “What does it mean?” outraged that there was no resolution, no Godot, at the end.  Which was exactly Beckett’s point. 
   Also, I happened to see Pomona College’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya a few weeks ago.  I had never seen or read the play.  At the risk of sounding ignorant, it really struck me that Chekhov really wasn’t that far from Beckett and the theater of the absurd, with his characters going on about how miserable they are and how they have to endure, albeit in a more conventional setting.  (I also loved having seen Durang’s Chekhov take-off, Vanya, Sonia, Mosha and Spike, earlier this year at the Mark Taper Forum.)