SOU Speech Just Ok

I watched the SOU expecting it to be a dramatic unveiling of a new, bold vision of principled progressive leadership, but I have to say, as much as I support the President, I was somewhat disappointed.

Many political pundits weighing in after the SOU argued that Obama has recast himself as a reasonable Centrist to garner the support of Independent voters.  These voters are key to his reelection and represent those who are neither progressive nor conservative and who are tired of the endless political bickering between the Dems and Repubs over the last two years.  And not just Independents, but moderate Republicans and Democrats alike who are concerned mostly about the economy.   It was not a speech to appease ideologues.  No talk of gun control, terrorism, abortion rights, gay marriage, or climate change.

It was about winning the future, a metaphor I don’t much like, though I understand the intent.  Winning.  It strikes a patriotic chord.  Americans like to win.  As a people, we want to be first in everything.  As if a motivational speech, President Obama pointed out that America has slipped in a number of areas, notably in education.  He argued that to win the future, we have to improve our educational system.  Though short on details as to how he would achieve improvement, he put some of the blame on teachers and parents, which I think is unfair.  No doubt there are incompetent teachers and troubled parents, but the problem is much more complex than that.  As to teachers, on the balance, they are underpaid, under-resourced and under-appreciated.  Young teachers often do not get the support they need to be successful which accounts for high turnover rates in the first 5 years.  As to parents, the problem in some cases is their educational level which is why there should be more of an emphasis on and funding for adult education programs, something Obama did not mention at all.  A parent who cannot speak or read English well, or has not completed high school, may not be able to provide the academic support at home the child needs.

The President said that we need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.  But he did not address sufficiently the issue of out-sourcing.  He argued that we should invest in clean green technology.  I don’t disagree, but look at what happened when Massachusetts provided subsidies to Evergreen Solar to build a plant in Devens, MA.  In less than 3 years, the plant closed down laying off 800 employees and fled to China where they receive substantial government support.

The President effectively listed some of the administrations accomplishments thus far:  health care reform, repeal of DADT, the START Treaty, education reform via the Race to the Top grant proposal, troop draw downs, strengthening NATO.   And he talked about the need to invest in infrastructure projects citing the examples of how China, South Korea and countries in Europe are out investing on projects for airports, roads, trains and internet expansion.

On the floor, there appeared to be more civility and unity.  Colleagues from different parties sat together.  There were fewer partisan moments, and no embarrassing “you lie” outbreaks.  Behind the President sat a cool VP and a very fidgety Speaker, who looked like he needed a drink and a smoke.  One awkward moment came when Obama mentioned the repeal of DADT.  When the cameras panned to the generals in attendance, they showed absolutely no reaction whatsoever, though we know they supported the repeal.   A big laugh came when Obama, speaking of government inefficiencies, joked that salmon where controlled by two different agencies depending on whether they were in fresh or salt water and he said it got really complicated when the salmon are smoked.

All in all, a good speech, one that attempted to recast the President as a Centrist who wants to work with both parties to get things done.  It was not one of his better speeches, but effective.  We’ll see just how effective in the coming months.

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Olbermann and MSNBC Part Ways

I can’t believe Keith Olbermann and MSNBC have chosen to part ways.  I would think MSNBC needs Keith, more than Keith needs MSNBC.  One could argue, as many have, that MSNBC owes its popularity, its growth, its ratings and its latest talent – here I’m thinking Lawrence O’Donnell, and Rachel Maddow – to Keith.  Exactly why they parted ways is unknown at this time, but I’m sure will come out in the days to come.  One could speculate it had to do with new ownership, or perhaps the recent “scandal” over Olbermann’s contributions to several Democratic candidates in apparent violation of company policy.  For this, he was suspended for a brief period of time.  Then there was the tweak of the show after Jon Stewart’s rebuke regarding the war between Fox and MSNBC that he suggested fuels unhealthy discourse that exacerbates the American divide.  For Keith’s part, he made some programming changes, for example featuring the Worlds Worst Person segment with a “not really” disclaimer.  I actually liked the original segment as it produced a nice counterpoint to rants from the right.  Then, after the Arizona Massacre, the calls for civility seem to have changed the tone of news and opinion shows, though maybe in the slightest, but noticeable of ways, and maybe, though I don’t have proof, has given network executives the need to control the content of programming.  If this is the case with Countdown, I can understand why Keith might have decided it was time to retire the show.  Perhaps it had run its course.

But I will say this emphatically:  I will miss the show.  I loved it.  I watched it every night.  It helped me make sense of what was happening on Capital Hill.  The show was well-written and polished, always fresh, topical and entertaining.  Keith’s intelligence, and wit, always shone through. There was never a dull moment on the show.  Keith’s guests were the people we wanted to hear from and he interviewed them expertly and with respect making even the average person who may never have been on television before feel comfortable.   It takes talent to pull that off.  And he is as versatile as they come.  He could do stand-up comedy.  As a former ESPN employee, he could call and commentate on any sports game.  I consider him a first rate journalist and newsman.  And I also consider him to be a first rate person who cares deeply for the human race.  This is evident in the way he reported on the issues of the day from health care reform to gun control with a focus on the middle class, the poor and downtrodden.  His financial support for free health care clinics shows that he uses his celebrity status for the good of humankind.

I’m sure he will turn up soon on another network, maybe Comedy Central, HBO or basic cable.  Maybe he could team up with Conan O’Brien.  He could do most anything – write a book, anchor the 2012 Olympics, do stand-up comedy, create a new show, or teach.  Imagine taking a media studies class with Professor Keith Olbermann?  He could write for the Nation.  I’m sure Chris Hayes would welcome his talents.  Or he could run for public office.  And why not?  I think he’d win.  We need another progressive voice in Congress.  Wait, how about the Presidency in 2012, or maybe 2016?  Just a thought!

China and the Red Carpet Treatment

The Obama administration rolled out the red carpet for the President of China, Hu Jintao.  I think Mr. Jintao may have been offered a honorary Golden Globe, and a  star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Whatever it takes to improve relations with the Chinese.  State dinner?  No problem.  I wonder what’s on the menu?

The Chinese may not be a superpower yet, but they are an economic force of international importance.  And they are the largest holder of U.S. debt at 900 billion with Most Favored Nation (MFN) status, despite a rocky human rights record, their manipulation of their own currency which makes their goods cheaper to buy, and their penchant for stealing intellectual property.

The thing is, money talks.  When you’re holding most of the chips, you get the royal treatment – champagne on the house.  We don’t want to make our largest creditor mad.  If he asks for a cold Coors light, don’t question his judgment, even though you know it is not the best beer the U.S. has to offer, and may even be the worst.  Don’t give in to the temptation to suggest a PBR or a Sam Adams Winter Lager instead and risk offending the Chinese President.

If President Obama can manage some concessions from the Chinese leader in exchange for the red carpet treatment, a nice steak dinner and a domestic beer, I’d say the beer summit would be a major success, one that the Republicans could do little to diminish.

And what concessions would be most welcome?  First, Obama needs to press China on human rights abuses.  Second, he should demand a stop to currency manipulation.  Let Chinese goods compete on a level playing field.  Third, the President must make the case for more access to Chinese markets.  Let the people taste a Sam Adams, drive a Chevy Camaro and make iPad art.  Fourth, open up the Internet to allow the people of China to decide for themselves what’s going on in the world.  Fifth, stop the pirating – the truth is, Hollywood movies are a tad overrated.  Sixth, stop the theft of intellectual property – come on, just buy the software already.Innovate more.  It’s fun, and addictive too like iPad art.

Mail Truck Makes Expressway Delivery

There was a time in our distant past, when snail mail was the only mail, long before e-mail and this thing called the Internet that Al Gore created.  According to the website truthorfiction.com, Gore did make the claim back in 1999 on the campaign trail, but realistically could not have invented the Internet, which dates back to the 60’s when Gore was just a youngster.  He did however, as a Senator, introduce an information technology bill to pave the way for an “information systems highway”.  This post is not about Al Gore, but rather the mail, something that has been around longer than Al Gore has been alive.

CNN reported that a tractor trailer carrying mail for the U.S. Postal system  inadvertently deposited a good bit of its cargo of bills and statements along a 70 mile stretch of highway near St. Louis.   Apparently, the 18 wheeler’s cargo door was left unsecured.  Imagine being a driver behind or near the semi and witnessing this maelstrom of letters, bills, postcards and bank statements blown about, perhaps even creating a temporary whiteout.  Who was behind the wheel anyway, Seinfeld’s Newman?

A Postal inspector said that the cargo likely contained mostly bank statements and bills destined for the West Coast some of which had already been recovered.  If you receive a late bill with a tire mark, you’ll know why and if you don’t get the payment in on-time, I would think you’d have a good excuse, although I wouldn’t put it past a company to argue that you, the customer, knew when the bill was due and should have paid it on time anyway.

This is why I do everything on-line.  Snail mail is really out of date.  It’s like listening to music on a 8 track player, or walking around with a Walkman.  Many kids these days would likely never have seen a cassette player or an 8 track tape.  And not only is the mail system out of date, it is expensive.  If I were the President, I’d abolish the Postal system.  It might save us taxpayers a ton of money.   But that’s not my point, really.   Back to the story.

So the Postal Service has launched an investigation to ascertain how this could have happened to prevent it from ever happening again.  Come on, it’s takes an investigation?  Hey drivers – be sure to close and lock the door.  Oh, and every once in a while, look in your side view mirrors.

Birds and Wine Don’t Mix

Birds are back in the news, this time in Romania.  And the news is not so good for a flock of  starlings.  Toxicology reports indicate the birds died from acute alcohol poisoning.   Apparently, the starving starlings pecked at the leftovers of a large batch of wine, which may have been grappa or ‘marc’ in the making, a grape based spirit.  At least they did not fall prey to fireworks as did their kin in Arkansas, or perish in the flames of a Roman candle.   I hope the Romanian grappa was tasty and death gentle.  There are certainly far more terrifying dangers to birds such as hailstorms, lightening strikes and the cat’s claw.

I used to drink Romanian wine many years ago because it was about the cheapest decent bottle with a cork I could find.   Romania, by the way, is one of the top wine producing countries in the world, which may explain why it is a popular destination for starlings.  I would advise the birds to stay away from the red dregs of Transylvania, one of the better wine producing areas in the country, and fly instead to Moldavia and sip on the sweet fragrant Sauternes, in moderation of course.

Whitewashing Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the great works of American literature.  I guess I haven’t been paying much attention, but when I heard that the work had been banned in some school districts – left off the curriculum because of the repeated use of the word nigger, I was shocked.  Granted, seeing the N word in print would be shocking to a modern reader, taken out of the historical context in which the book was written.  To object simply based on the N word is to completely miss the point of this classic masterpiece.   Yes, the N word is derogatory – it was then and is now.  But it is a fact that people used the term in the antebellum South along the Mississippi. Twain captures the vernacular of the period making it an authentic archive of American history.   To remove the work from the high school or college cannon of literature based on a word is nothing short of a crime and reflects an out of control PC atmosphere or worse an ideological bias masquerading as PC.

For the record, Mark Twain was not a racist.  In fact, he was against slavery, supported the abolitionist movement and praised Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Jim, the runaway former slave in the novel, is depicted as an intelligent, resourceful and courageous man who values freedom, family and above all, friendship.  He is a true American hero.  People who call for the work to banned or sanitized have either not read it, read it and missed the point , or have a problem with its progressive ideology.  The other explanation could be that educators are afraid to discuss the complicated issues of race for fear that the N word would cause too much conflict, open up old wounds or result in a lawsuit from a parent who might object to their child reading the work.  Teachers may not know how to broach the topic, especially white teachers, who would, understandably, feel awkward saying or answering questions about it, especially in the presence of black students.  To those fearful school districts, public libraries and teachers, I have this to say  – CONTEXT and INTENT. If the historical context in which the work took place, the antebellum south, is ignored, the N word cannot be properly processed or understood.  And if the work is not taught as a comment on the injustice of slavery it would be nothing but a random collection of humorous adventure stories.

An Auburn University English professor will publish an updated version of the book replacing all the instances of the N word with the word slave.  This is absolutely preposterous. In a comedic sketch on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a commentator points out that slave is not much of an upgrade and inaccurately characterizes Jim who had already been freed.

I’ll take the Auburn University professor’s word that he wants nothing more than the work to be read by a wider audience.  However, to whitewash the work to make it more palatable for a modern reader is to cheapen Twain’s masterpiece, surrender to the PC police and would take us further down that slippery slope.

Arizona Massacre

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was holding a meet and greet early Saturday morning outside a Tucson Safeway when a gunman opened fire shooting her in the head and firing on the crowd killing 6 and wounding 14. Among those slain were a elderly woman, an elderly couple, a young girl, a staff person from Rep. Giffords’ office and a federal judge.  The Congresswoman underwent emergency surgery and is in critical condition in a drug induced coma at the University Medical Center in Tuscon. The medical team remains cautiously optimistic that she will recover.  My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. I pray that Congresswoman Giffords and the 13 others wounded recover quickly and fully.

The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner is now in policy custody after being bravely wrestled to the ground by two men and a woman at the scene of the massacre.  Initially, police had been looking for a possible accomplice but this person of interest turned out to be a taxi driver who drove Loughner to the mall and waited for him while he got change at a nearby convenience store.  It appears that Loughner ultimately acted alone.

How could this have happened?  Though we don’t yet know Loughner’s motives, what has emerged about him reveals a deeply disturbed and confused 23 year old.  On his MySpace page, he listed Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Alice and Wonderland and We the Living as among the books he likes.  He had written some incoherent posts about a new U.S. currency, English grammar structure and mind control.  In 2007, he apparently attended a similar event in which he asked Giffords a question and was reported to have told an acquaintance that he was not satisfied with the answer and called her “stupid and unintelligent”.  He described her constituents as “illiterate”.  He himself had been described by classmates as an arrogant loner who didn’t seem to care much about what others thought of him.  He had several run ins with the law for drug and drug paraphernalia possession.  He attended Pima Community College but was ultimately suspended for disruptive behavior, one early warning sign that he might be a danger to others.  The Virginia Tech student assassin had also displayed disturbing behavior in classes that alarmed classmates and professors.

Though it is too early to say definitively whether Loughner had planned to kill the Congresswoman and slay as many constituents as possible, it is not out of the question.  Police have confiscated evidence from Loughner’s  home that reference “my assassination” and found a letter from the Congresswoman’s office thanking him for attending a 2007 meet and greet event.

Whether he had been influenced by all the incendiary rhetoric that has become the norm of political discourse since President Obama was elected is an open question.  He does not seem to have been involved in politics, or aligned with a particular party or party platform – neither a progressive, nor a conservative.  His writings suggest he had become suspicious of government and increasingly agitated, and show a deeply disturbed and confused psychological state bordering on paranoia, but not a lucid political ideology. And as tempting as it would be to say that he is a right-wing nut job, or some sort of budding nihilist, about all we can say responsibly is that we don’t know what his motives were.

Now I strongly support first amendment rights, but firmly believe we must exercise the right of free speech responsibly.  What people say and write matters and as Congresswoman Giffords herself said 10 months ago almost foreshadowing the tragedy, “people need to understand that there are consequences” to extreme rhetoric, yelling and firing people up.  Ironically, Representative Giffords joined along in the reading of the constitution on the House floor last week and drew the task of reading the first amendment aloud which pertains to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly.

Our national political discourse has degenerated to the point where we are coming very close to reaching the limits of protected free speech.
Palin’s cross hairs campaign targeting 20 House Democrats including Rep. Giffords and Sharron Angle’s reference to second amendment remedies have crossed the line in my view.  Bellicose language, politicians shooting guns to kill a bill, comparing President Obama to Hitler, and calling former president George W. Bush a war criminal are other examples of speech that polarize and demonize and do nothing to promote a healthy national dialogue.  It is time to dial it all back a notch and work together with more civility to solve our nation’s problems.  This is what Rep. Giffords called for some 10 months ago and what Congress and Americans can do now to honor the victims of the Arizona  Massacre.

A Fish & Bird Mystery in the Natural State

Photo by Wmpearl

There’s some strange stuff going on in my home state of Arkansas.  First, CNN reported that as many as 5,000 dead starlings and red-winged blackbirds dropped from the sky around midnight on New Year’s Eve in the town of Beebe, a small hamlet northeast of Little Rock.  The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) has begun an investigation.  One theory is that the birds were struck by lightening.  Fireworks activity may have also factored into the bizarre incident.  In a BBC article, Fireworks may have caused Arkansas bird deaths, ornithologist Karen Rowe of the AGFC, suggests the birds may have flown low to avoid fireworks explosions and crashed into trees, houses or even into one another.   Apparently, blackbirds don’t have very good vision.  At least the birds weren’t radicalized like those in the Hitchcock film.  That was one of the cheesiest films of all time but positively horrifying.

In another disturbing incident from the Natural State, 100,000 drum fish washed ashore the banks of the Arkansas River, not far from the bird catastrophe.  The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission believe the fish to have fallen prey to disease, not water pollution.   For some, good riddance.  The Drum is not the most prized fish in lakes and rivers.  As far as I know, there is no Drum Club or a fishing show devoted to catching these bottom dwellers.  If it had been a mess of crappie or bass, fishermen from all over would have mourned their passing.

Tea Party and Energy Policy

A Happy New Year 1867, A Happy New Year 1917

After some of the worst man made disasters in modern times, it’s hard to believe that the Tea Party still wants to dismantle regulatory roadblocks to expanded drilling and mining.  I thought “drill baby drill” was the most embarrassing catch phrase to come out of Sara Palin’s mouth and would be put to rest after the BP oil spill that nearly destroyed the Gulf Coast.  I was wrong.  In fact, according to an article in the New York Times, key Tea Party leaders are upset with Republicans for not standing tough during the lame duck session and for not selecting Tea Party members for important leadership positions.  The New York Times referenced an opinion article in Politico in which co-founders of the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin expressed disappointment in the Republicans appointee of Fred Upton to head the Energy and Commerce Committee saying that Republicans “are not serious about expanding the nation’s energy producing capability”, which they claim America is desperate to do.  To achieve this, regulatory roadblocks would have to be dismantled and safety concerns dismissed. Is this really what Americans want? Do most favor the reckless plunder of our natural resources with little attention to human and environmental costs? Have they forgotten about the deadly mining and drilling accidents of 2010 that could have been prevented had there been more regulatory oversight? Are Tea Party activists aware of the economic and environmental impact of deep water offshore drilling? Do they know that the fishing industry of the Gulf Coast may never recover from the BP oil spill?  I think they do and they don’t care.   But the Tea Party does care about the special interests of the oil and gas industry whose profits they seem duty bound to protect.

Is U.S. Tap Water Safe?

I’ve never worried much about the safety of tap water.  I’ve always assumed it was clean and even good for my teeth. I figured the U.S. had tough standards to ensure purity.  I should have known better.  Spending summers as a kid in rural NW Arkansas, granny warned me not to drink the water from the faucet because it was dirty.  And how.  The water was rusty colored and smelled like sulfur.  The “flammable” liquid might very well have caught fire had anyone struck a match near some.  Now NW Arkansas is poultry country and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the groundwater is fortified, no, fertilized, though I have no proof other than granny’s warning.

The problem is that there are in excess of 50,000 municipal drinking water facilities in the U.S. and no two are alike. The outdated Safe Drinking Water Act only regulates a small number of chemicals that could wind up in tap water.  While there is some disagreement on the health risks to humans from exposure to trace amounts of chemicals, drinking a rocket fuel additive, a contaminant found in some drinking water in Southern California according to the New York Times, can’t be the key to longevity.  But could this be any worse than drinking Red Bull for breakfast or a couple of cans of Four Loko at a party? Is Mountain Dew a better alternative than potentially contaminated, but flouridated tap water?