Saturday, April 30, 2011

I.D. To Vote, No I.D. To Kill

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Should registered voters have to show ID’s to vote?

The law in Massachusetts says “NO”!

But, apparently, that is not good enough for some people..

They ask, “Why would you object to showing identification?

Aside from the fact that it is estimated that 20 million American citizens lack a government issued ID, there is an alternative question.

If you want to require a government issued ID to exercise a fundamental right, are you willing to apply it to the exercise of all rights guaranteed under the constitution?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coakley Kool Aid

Kenneth M. O’Brien

“Dear Town Councilor O’Brien, 
…  Your latest email does not change our position that this issue is not within this Office’s jurisdiction.   This is a matter that you will need to continue to pursue at the local level or through the courts.    
Kelli E. Gunagan, Assistant Attorney General”

So wrote a representative of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to me in an email in June 2008 in regard to my inquiries regarding the legitimacy of the granting of the site assignment to SRD (Casella).

As a consequence, legal action was taken by a number of Southbridge and Sturbridge residents to pursue matters through the courts.
When it comes to defending the rights of citizens, the Attorney General’s Office is populated by graduates of the “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose” School of Law.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Budget Plan You Haven’t Heard

Kenneth M. O’Brien

Cut the deficit!

Save Medicare!

It’s the Ryan budget vs. the Obama budget!

If you listen to the media (mainstream or conservative), these are the choices.

And House Conservatives, unanimously endorsing the Ryan plan, have drawn a line in the sand. If they don’t get concessions following Ryan’s plan, then raising the national debt ceiling is in doubt.

If this were not so serious, it would be amusing.


Because, by its own admission, the Ryan plan increases the budget deficit by $6 trillion over the next ten years.

Now, maybe I’m dense, but how can you hold an increase in the debt-ceiling hostage to a plan that requires such an increase for its success?

The Obama plan is no better.

It would increase the deficit by $7 trillion over the next decade.

Both plans (or so-called budgets) don’t propose balancing the budget until the 2030’s.

Thanks to the media, the American public has been led to believe that these are the choices.

It makes for great television and radio. It allows the talking heads to say it’s either this or that. It’s all about the ratings. The underlying assumption is, of course, that the American public is too stupid to hold more than any two competing ideas in their heads at any time.

It is what is called a Hobson’s choice. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a Hobson’s choice is, “the necessity of accepting one of two or more equally objectionable alternatives.” To put it simply, it would be requiring a man to answer “yes” or “no” to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Now, for just a moment, let’s assume that a third alternative was put forward that preserved the existing social safety net and balanced the budget in ten years. However, let’s also assume that the plan was put forward by the American Nazi Party or an American Communist Party.

Would you even look at it?

Probably not. Certainly the media would dismiss it and refuse to cover it.

After all, the question of whether the ideas are valid or the plan would work are irrelevant. The source is fundamentally “un-American” Ideology is all that matters. Thank God we are eliminating the space program because its father, Wernher von Braun was a Nazi, and I’ve really got to reconsider being a Catholic given the history of the current Pope.

The point is that there is an alternative plan.

It preserves the social safety net.

It balances the budget in ten years.

No less a source of Conservative empiricism than The Economist, has stated, “the  Congressional Progressive Caucus plan wins the fiscal responsibility derby thus far; it reaches balance by 2021 largely through assorted tax hikes and defense cuts.’ Which is pretty interesting. Have you ever heard of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget plan? Neither had I. The caucus's co-chairs, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, released it on April 6th. The budget savings come from defence cuts, including immediately withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, which saves $1.6 trillion over the CBO baseline from 2012-2021. The tax hikes include restoring the estate tax, ending the Bush tax cuts, and adding new tax brackets for the extremely rich, running from 45% on income over a million a year to 49% on income over a billion a year.”Ahh, but it’s from the Progressive (read “Liberal”) caucus.

Once again we get to something that is funny if it wasn’t so serious.

The so-called mainstream media (which is supposed to be overwhelmingly “Liberal”) has virtually ignored this proposal.

Liberals may as well call themselves “Nazis” or “Communists”.

Contrary to what the right wing  would like to believe, Liberals are offering real and practical alternatives.

Contrary to what the right wing would like to believe, the media is a tool of corporate profitability, not of reasoned political discourse.

And, contrary to prevailing public opinion, Liberalism does offer a viable alternative to our current descent into social disintegration. In many ways it dovetails nicely with a recent policy proposal for national revitalization put forward by two top Pentagon officials.

The question you have to address is, if it will work, is it more important to you to be a Conservative, a Liberal, or an American?

More to come after you have the chance to review THE PEOPLE’S BUDGET.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vampire Capitalism

Kenneth M. O’Brien

How do you define justice?

Was it justice for England to profit from the labor and extorted taxes of the American colonies before the American Revolution?

Was it justice for a few to benefit from the slavery of many prior to the Emancipation Proclamation?

Was it justice for the robber barons of the 19th century to profit from child labor?

There are times when you have to make it a personal story.

Is it justice for billions of dollars to be made by the worldwide pharmaceutical industry as a result of the legal exploitation of one African-American woman?

Well, that is exactly what has happened.

Loretta Pleasant was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920.

Over time she changed her first name to Henrietta. In 1941 she married David Lacks.

Just days after a March to end polio in 1951, Henrietta Lacks came to Johns Hopkins complaining of a “painful knot down there.”

She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Prior to receiving treatment for the tumor, cells from the cancer were removed for research purposes without her knowledge or permission, which was standard procedure at that time.

She died on October 4, 1951 at the age of thiry-one. She was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown in Halifax County, Virginia.

Why does the story of Henrietta Lacks matter?
Because billions of dollars have been made from those cells extracted from her at Johns Hopkins. As summarized on Wikipedia:

”The cells from Henrietta's tumor were given to researcher George Gey, who "discovered that [Henrietta's] cells did something they'd never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow." Before Henrietta, the cells would only survive for a few days. Gey named the sample "HeLa", after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks' name, to protect her identity. As the first human cells that could be grown in a lab and were "immortal" (did not die after a few cell divisions), they could then be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.

”As reporter Michael Rogers stated, the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio just shortly before Lacks' death. By 1954, HeLa was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk's new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.

“Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta's cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for ‘research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits’. HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells....
“Doctors still have not discovered the reason for HeLa cells' unique vigor, but suspect that it is due to altered telomerase function. There are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.”

A donation was eventually made to purchase a headstone for her grave. A few modest tributes were held to honor her contribution to medical science. To this day, however, most of her descendants cannot afford medical insurance.

On May 18, 2010 NBC aired an episode of Law And Order titled “The Immortal” that dramatized a fictional version of the case of Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot has written a book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” that provides a compelling narrative of this slice of American history.

What bearing does this story have on issues that are being confronted in today’s hyper-inflammatory political environment?

Because, in the midst of this we have lost sight of the fundamental premise upon which this country is based.

It is not state’s rights.

It is not an economic system.

It is not a religious ideology.

The Constitution of the United States begins with the words, “We the people…”.

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self evident…”.

It is the “We” that has been lost sight of.

While we supposedly believe that all are created equal, we must realistically realize that not all are endowed with equal gifts. A John Boehner, the son of a bar owner, could never rise to be Speaker of the House in a stratified society. A Bill Clinton, son of a broken home, could never have risen to be President.

But, we are moving inexorably toward defining opportunity based upon current economic status.

We expand the opportunity for all Americans when we realize that we are not wise enough to decide where the next great scientific mind will come from. We expand the opprtunity for all Americans when we realize that, more often than not, the greatest business advances come from those most economically challenged. And, as in the case of Henrietta Lack, we expand the opportunity for all Americans when the least of us provide an unexpected contribution to the public welfare.

But there is no idea of “WE” anymore. It is all about us and them. And the lines are drawn on two fronts. They are drawn along an economic front that extols an unconstrained capitalism that once benefitted from colonialism, once benefitted from slavery, once benefitted from child labor, and that still benefits from the legal necrophilial exploitation of the body of Henrietta Lacks.

On the other front there are those who virulently proclaim that America is a Christian nation. But they extol a distorted vision of Christianity that conveniently forgets the words of Matthew 25:45
'In solemn truth I tell you that in so far as you withheld such services from one of the humblest of these, you withheld them from me.” (Weymouth New Testament)

Until those who are so violently partisan in defending the welfare of the unborn devote at least an equal portion of their time to defending and protecting the welfare of the living, whatever their economic status, until those who seek public office stop making promises that they know that they cannot keep, and until those who claim to be journalists stop distorting facts to sway public opinion to conform to the views of their corporate sponsors, don’t tell me you are the inheritors of the Founding Fathers.

Until you awaken to the pernicious fact that we recognize that bloodless corporations whose sole purpose is to maximize profits have been granted the same status as “persons” under the law, all people will be second class citizens. Not second class to some abstract, mythological threat of socialism, but to the reality that once again, “We the people” are subject to dominance by financial power. This was recently reinforced by the infamous Citizens United case before the Supreme Court.

One can only wonder if Henrietta Lacks would think if she were included in “We the people” if she were still alive?

When does the acceptance of one sacrificial lamb pave the path to a holocaust, all in the name of profit?

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Wages Of Sin…

               Are Good And Getting Better

Kenneth M. O’Brien

As despicable as it may sound, you almost have to feel sorry for John Edwards and Bernie Madoff.

A whole industry has developed around taking the crimes, indiscretions, or outrageous behavior of public figures and morphing them into a platform for increased fame and income.

Another dimension has emerged that is even more insidious. As Elisa Doucette reported in her Forbes Magazine blog “Shattering Glass”, in an article titled “Bristol Palin Was Paid Seven Times Candie’s Foundation Donations”,

the organization [Candie’s Foundation] was only able to find $35,000 to grant to charities from the $1,242,476 donated from the public. Meanwhile, the young Ms. Palin managed to pull in a $262,500 paycheck for her role as an ambassador for their teen pregnancy prevention campaign in 2009.

I would speculate that the spin doctor entrepreneurs found their inspiration for this enterprise in the events of forty years ago.

Charles Colson was a Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon. He was renowned as a tenacious and vindictive advocate for that administration. His office sported a graphic with the caption, “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Colson became the first Nixon Administration official to be incarcerated for Watergate-related offenses. Specifically, he was convicted of obstruction of justice in his efforts to defame Daniel Ellsberg in the release of the Pentagon Papers.

While serving seven months of a one to three year sentence, Colson converted to Christianity.

As reported by Wikipedia:

Colson's later life has been spent working with his non-profit organization devoted to prison ministry called Prison Fellowship. The ministry has promoted pen-pal relationships with inmates. Colson is also a public speaker and author. He is founder and chairman of the Wilberforce Forum, which is the "Christian worldview thinking, teaching, and advocacy arm of" Prison Fellowship, and includes Colson's daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint, now heard on a thousand outlets. The ministry conducts justice reform efforts through Justice Fellowship.
Colson has received 15 honorary doctorates and in 1993 was awarded the Templeton Prize, the world's largest annual award (over $1 million) in the field of religion, given to a person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension". He donated this prize to further the work of Prison Fellowship, as he does all his speaking fees and royalties.

I am not disparaging Colson’s transformation. All evidence indicates that it is real and has resulted in significant good. Moreover, his early post-imprisonment actions do not appear to have been motivated by the prospect of financial gain.

What I do believe is that his story has served as a template for the new industry of capitalizing on bad behavior.

It ran into a roadblock in 1977 when New York passed the so-called Son of Sam law.

The law prohibited criminals from profiting from their crimes, most particularly in terms of book and movie deals. Numerous court battles ensued, including one related to the so-called Lng Island Lolita Amy Fisher.

Without getting sidetracked into a dissertation on the evolution of these laws, suffice it to say that the Public Re-branding Industry shifted gears.

The focus divided the potential clientele into two categories. The first category was those who had committed a crime. The second was those who had merely outraged public sensibilities.

The classic cases of the first type are exemplified by G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Vick.

Liddy was the head of the famous White House Plumbers unit that burgled the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Liddy ended up serving fifty-two months in prison for various crimes related to those actions.

Today Liddy is a recognized advocate for the right wing as an author, radio talk show host, and Fox News panelist. He also serves as a spokesman for a firm specializing in gold sales.

A more recent example is the case of Michael Vick.
Vick was a first round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to running an interstate dog-fighting ring for over five years. Vick served 21 months in prison and two months of home confinement. Subsequently, Vick was released by the Falcons, signed by the Philadelphia Eagles and reinstated in week 3 of the 2009 season.

The Vick case illustrates the evolution of the Public Re-branding Industry.

Rather than capitalizing on his crime, Vick became a public spokesman aginst the actions that landed him in prison. This was coupled with a strong emphasis on the Christian principle of redemption and his newly-found devotion.

The latter formula has become de rigeur for the re-branding of those who are convicted of a crime. Too bad Bernie Madoff was Jewish!

The second category relates to those who have offended public sensibilities.

In dealing with this group there appear to be two alternative strategies.

The first is to capitalize on the outrage and amplify it.

The clearest examples of this are the sex videos that catapulted Paris Hilton and (to a lesser extent, because she was already famous) Pamela Anderson.

More recently, we have seen this approach adopted by the culturally ubiquitous Snookie from “Jersey Shore”. Aside from her cute tweets back and forth with John McCain, she has emerged as an “author” and a WWE canvas queen. Lest one underestimate the benefits we need only need to look at her assessed market value. Rutgers paid a Nobel Prize winning author $30,000 to speak on campus. Snookie got $32,000 to tell students, “Study hard, but party harder”.

This has been carried to the extreme in the latest, inescapable example of Charlie Sheen.

The alternative strategy, is the seek forgiveness and mend your ways approach that was employed by Michael Vick.

This is the core of the Bristol Palin issue. She is now a spokesperson for abstinence – despite a failure to adhere to that precept. One is reminded of the adage, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”.

Not only is there the inherent cyncicism implicit in this strategy. There is also the seeming corruption of what is supposed to be a charitable program. When you pay a spokesperson seven times what you are investing in those whom your charity is supposed to benefit, then it is not unreasonable to suspect your motives.
Additionally, there is the ideological construct that underlies these examples. There has emerged an underlying political element that previously was most evident in the Liddy case. There is an inherent right wing component that seeks to re-brand those who are sympathetic to their goals. They are coupled in their social rebirth with a message that advances a particular political agenda.

Simultaneously, there has been a a deafening silence from the “social warriors” regarding the tactics of the likes of Vick, Sheen, Hilton, Anderson, etc. Again, I suspect that this a function of the intersection of the advisors  who specialize in this Image Re-Branding Industry between the latter and the former. You can’t publicly tar the people who are serving your interests without being implicated in their doing the same for others.

As a direct function of this, the right is perpetuating a climate that undermines the social values that they supposedly embrace. The message that is being instilled in youth is that adherence to social norms is contrary to success. It is no different than the message conveyed in the movie Wall Street where Gordon Gecko proclaimed, “Greed is good”. Intended as an indictment, it has become the mantra of a Wall Street culture from which we are not merely still suffering, but is being fostered and perpetuated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

As an aside, that I am sure will engender no end of enmity from the right, this is in direct contrast to the outrage that was directed at “Gangster Rap”. While it was acceptable for a Nevada Senate candidate to advocate “second amendment remedies” it was unacceptable for this to be done by a racially identifiable element. While I do not have sympathy for either extreme, the racial component has to be clear. As Dylan Ratigan has said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”