Syrian Refugees and Scar(e)city

I’ve had occasion to spend some time driving around the state for work and I’ve been listening to reports on VPR about Syrian refugees- and our politicians responding to the situation. It’s been a divisive issue, with a few leaders stepping up to welcome refugees- like Governor Shumlin and President Obama– and a few leaders fanning the flames of fear- like Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindhal, and our own Vermont Republican gubernatorial candidates.

The UN estimates there are over 4 million refugees from the civil war in Syria. Most of them are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In recent months tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have left crowded camps in the region and struck out for Europe- often paying smugglers to guide them on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. Many have died just trying to make the trip.

So what is our response? Many politicians have engaged in disgusting pandering and fear-mongering- including gubernatorial candidates Bruce Lisman and Lt. Governor Phil Scott. I applaud Gov. Shumlin for his leadership on this issue, and I was glad to see Matt Dunne making a strong statement of support for Vermont hosting Syrian refugees.

“I would have hoped that Phil [Scott] would be someone who would not just fall in line with the right-wing Republicans in Congress.”- Matt Dunne

President Obama has been making the case for welcoming Syrian refugees to the United States, but he was defied by 47 Democrats in the House who sided with Republicans in an effort to halt refugee resettlement in the wake of the attacks in Paris last week. It turns out the “Syrian” in the group of attackers probably wasn’t Syrian at all and was in the possession of a forged passport.

Over the last few weeks in my church, our pastor has been talking about moving out of an attitude of Scar(e)city into an attitude of Abundance. Is it good for us to protect what we have at the expense of our neighbors? Are we really willing to reject our obligations to other human beings when we have been blessed with so much? I can’t imagine that our free society, with all of its diversity, could be diminished by including a few thousand people who are fleeing a war-ravaged land. With all of the abundance in the United States of America, and here in Vermont, can we really turn away these refugees with a clear conscience?

My answer is emphatically no. We’ll all benefit from having open doors and open hearts in a world that has seen so much violence. If we turn our backs on Syrian refugees, like we did so many Jewish refugees fleeing the rise of the Third Reich in the late 1930s, we sacrifice all of the moral high ground and good will that we so often claim in the world.

I hope compassion wins out, and that we do take in a good number of Syrians who want safety and freedom and have had to wait, fight and sometimes die to have a chance to get it. We have so much to be thankful for in America, and in Vermont. How dare we pretend to live in a world of scarcity when our freedom, compassion and opportunities are so abundant?

Protecting Vermont’s children from toxins

In a time when good news seems all too rare, Vermont has just taken a giant step forward toward protecting children from toxic chemical exposure.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules has approved an important rule puts into place the effective regulation intended under the Toxic-Free Families Act (Act 188) which was enacted in 2014.

Under the new rule, manufacturers of goods marketed to children under 12 will be required to reveal if their products contain any of the sixty-six identified chemicals of “high concern” that were named in Act 188. Disclosure of this information will allow parents to make informed decisions about the products they choose for their families.

According to Lauren Hierl, political director of Vermont Conservation Voters:“The rule approved today is a huge win for Vermont’s children. We will finally know which products contain chemicals linked to cancer, asthma, birth defects, and more. As a parent, I’m excited to know that I’ll be able to avoid exposing my children to toxic chemicals in the products I’m choosing to bring into my home. I thank the Department of Health for proposing, and legislators for upholding, this important rule.”

To which Falko Schilling, consumer and environmental advocate at Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) added:

“For too long the chemical and toy industries have decided which chemicals our children are exposed to, and today they were fighting to continue hiding what’s in products on our store shelves. Vermont chose our children’s health over corporate profits, and our state is now leading the way in letting consumers make informed decisions and help people avoid children’s products with harmful chemicals.”

It’s the least we can do.

Note: I am proud to serve as a member of the Board of Vermont Conservation Voters.

War, huh, yeah. What is it good for?

Well it took only a short time after the horrible ISIS(ISIL or Daesh) , attack on France for the stock prices of Northrup Gruman,Raytheon,Lockheed,General Dynamics and Boz Allen to take nice leap up in value.

At the Intercept they note: […] The markets could barely wait to start buying. The Dow overall is up today only .12 percent, making these leaps quite pronounced. Reuters, as published on Fox Business, starkly noted the causal connection: “Shares of aerospace and defense rose sharply on Monday in reaction to the attacks in France.” The private-sector industrial prong of the Military and Surveillance State always wins, but especially when the media’s war juices start flowing.

Huh ,yeah who’s it good for?

Vermont Democrats challenge debate schedule

On Saturday the Vermont Democratic State Committee held its semiannual organizing caucus. On the agenda was a resolution on presidential debates.

You’ve undoubtedly read about the challenges to the debate schedule established by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Only six debates, some of them scheduled at times (like last Saturday night) unlikely to attract many viewers, and disqualification for any candidates who participate in debates not sanctioned by the DNC.

Saturday’s resolution, presented by the Orange County Democrats, challenges all of these elements. The resolution was adopted by an overwhelming voice vote, challenged the DNC debate plan, calling for:

==>More debates

==>Scheduled at times calculated to get maximum viewership

==>No penalties for participating in unsanctioned debates

==>Establishing a rule at the DNC to govern future debate scheduling.

Whether you agree with the arguments that the current debate schedule and rules were established to guarantee a win for Hillary Clinton, it doesn’t look good. This resolution gives voice to the dissatisfaction of grassroots Democrats not only in Vermont but all across the country with the leadership of the national party on this issue.

Shap Smith Leaves Race for Governor

House Speaker Shap Smith surprised us all today when he announced that he will be leaving the campaign to support his wife Melissa during treatment for cancer. Many of us knew that a family health issue had kept Shap on a lighter campaign schedule, but his announcement today was still a big shock.

While Shap may have been seen as too moderate for some of my fellow GMD bloggers, I came to respect and admire his ability to build consensus and cut through the muck when I served a term in the House. It always seemed like Shap was keeping the ship on an even keel, even though the waters were often choppy.

Sue Minter and Matt Dunne are both incredible candidates for the Democratic nomination. I’m sure we are all in for a strong primary campaign as Sue puts up her experience with Irene Recovery and the Agency of Transportation against Matt Dunne’s business credentials at Google and ‘outsider’ status in recent years.

Shap has an incredible moral compass, and I bet he’s made the right choice for his family. I’m sorry he won’t be running for Governor in 2016, but I doubt his years of service to the state are totally over. He did announce that he would complete this term as Speaker, but would not seek re-election in 2016.

Democratic Debate #2 Reveals Media Bias

The second Democratic debate has, for all intents and purposes, been swallowed whole by events unfolding in Paris.

Nevertheless, there is much that can be gleaned from what was a substantive discussion among grown-ups, quite unlike the vaudeville performed on Republican debate stages.

I thought Martin O’Malley stepped forward rather effectively this time.

It is interesting that, as was the case with the first Democratic debate, the conventional media seems to be awarding the ‘win’ to Hillary Clinton, mostly because she already has a substantial lead in the conventional polls and didn’t commit a huge blunder on stage. They place Bernie Sanders second and O’Malley a distant third.

Quite to the contrary, it appears that alternative media and online polls give it to Bernie by a landslide, followed not shabbily by O’Malley, with Hillary  the distant third.

Being a creature of the blogosphere, it probably isn’t surprising that I agree with the latter analysis.

What this disconnect tells us about the state of Democratic politics follows at least the leitmotif of their Republican counterpart.  Democrats are a party divided.

Advancing deregulation and globalization have consolidated conventional media under so few corporate owners that they could all be counted off on a single hand; and Citizens United has sealed the deal on corporate ownership of the public platform.

Corporatist media will of course look more favorably on the conventional candidate who represents their own interest and investment; and this bias will carry through, more or less unconsciously, in the ‘talent’ they hire and the analysis they trust.

It is the way of the world.

The fact that there is an ‘alternative media’ to test this presumptive arrangement is such a recent scenario that there has been little opportunity for the corporatist interests to secure the paddock gates.

Make no mistake about it; if the whole battle over ‘Net Neutrality’ ends badly for us, it will result in full message coordination, based on corporate interests alone.

2016 could be our last opportunity to see a truly independent candidate like Bernie on the debate stage, whose widespread appeal can still be easily tracked online, despite the fact that he vigorously spurns participation in his campaign by big money PACs.

Did you ever think you’d hear, on the stage of a major party debate, discussions of socialism,  free college tuition, healthcare as a human right, penal reform, a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, legalizing marijuana and raising taxes on the rich?

Did you ever think the spouse of Bill Clinton would go so far as to style herself a ‘progressive?’

All these things are possible thanks to the populist support for Bernie Sanders, which you only know about thanks to the current situation of net neutrality.

I’ve gone on much longer than I had intended to before getting to what I thought was one of the most important take-aways from the evening.

With the Paris attacks not even fully in the rear view mirror, CBS was eager to shape the debate into a showdown over who would be toughest on ISIS.

After an awkward start, Bernie pivoted to the domestic platform which he earnestly commands; he refused to be distracted from his messaging mission. He knows how little time he has to energize his base for the revolution that is so badly needed.

Nevertheless, when he returned later to talk of ISIS and war in general, ably assisted by Martin O’Malley, he reminded Sec. Clinton and the audience of what exactly had precipitated the state of eternal terrorism in which we now find ourselves. Recognizing the folly that lay ahead, he voted against the Iraq invasion, whereas Hillary voted for it.

They both had the same information to rely upon, yet it was Hillary alone of the candidates, who followed Bush into a never-ending war.

While Hillary touted her experience with warfare in the past, both he and O’Malley pointed out that what is required in the face of twenty-first century terrorism is not a cumbersome and hugely overfunded machine of twentieth-century warfare, but a nimble and freshly conceived approach addressing the asymmetric threat all around us.

The U.S. military is something like three times the size of all the rest of the world’s military combined! Deploying conventional military assets to fight such an unconventional enemy amounts to using a steamroller to squash a swarm of flies around a sleeping dog. They’ll just scoot out of the way and its the hapless dog who will take the brunt…or, in the case of Syria, the innocent civilian population.

You probably won’t read a lot about that conversation in the conventional media because they are only concerned with whether or not Hillary did any damage to what they regard as her ironclad lock on the nomination.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thinking of you.

Lonely men with lonely eyes are seeking her in vain
Her streets are where they were, but there’s no sign of her

She has left the Seine

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street cafe.

The last time I saw Paris, her trees were dressed for spring,
And lovers walked beneath those trees and birds found songs to sing.

I dodged the same old taxicabs that I had dodged for years.
The chorus of their squeaky horns was music to my ears.

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.

I’ll think of happy hours, and people who shared them
Old women, selling flowers, in markets at dawn

Children who applauded, Punch and Judy in the park
And those who danced at night and kept our Paris bright

‘Til the town went dark.
-Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II

The First Amendment on campus

As far back as the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley some fifty years ago college campuses have been the locus of fights over freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This week there are three big stories that illustrate some of the tensions raised by unpopular speech.

I’ll start with the one unreserved victory, the case of Steven Salaita. He was the professor who was offered a position at the University of Illinois and then fired (or had his offer revoked) after he had already moved to town and started measuring his office for drapes. The issue had nothing to do with scholarship or his qualifications to teach his subject, and everything to do with the fact that his pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel tweets had offended university donors and other supporters of Israeli government policies. The university was censured by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association, and the Society of American Law Teachers, and Salaita sued in federal court.

The great news this week is that Salaita and the university have reached a settlement whereby he will be paid $875,000 for the violation of his civil rights. Let’s hope that the sting of having to pay him ten times his salary will teach Illinois and other universities that censoring professors is not a smart move.

Staying in the Midwest, let’s move down to Missouri, where we have two separate First Amendment challenges. First we have antichoice State Senator Kurt Schaefer, who wants to use the government’s financial power over the University of Missouri to block abortion waiting period research. Schaefer got wind of a study that a Ph. D. student is doing at Missouri to evaluate the effects of the 72-hour waiting period law Missouri has enacted. Schaefer claims that this study violates a provision of state law that prohibits the use of state funds to, “encourage or counsel a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life.” Never mind that the study has nothing to do with encouraging or counseling women to have abortions, Schaefer seems to have adopted the current Republican stance that learning about the facts of an issue is the same as taking a liberal position. He obviously agrees with Stephen Colbert that “Reality has a liberal bias”. The university is defending the study, although the outcome is uncertain at this time.

Finally, sticking with the University of Missouri, we have the confrontation between student demonstrators and the press. Although liberal and progressive positions have for years benefited from the public exposure that press coverage brings, in this case we had demonstrators and even faculty members trying to silence press coverage of their activities.

If you haven’t watched the whole video you should. Here it is.

What you see is a group of demonstrators surrounding Tim Tai, a student press photographer, trying to take pictures of their encampment while the whole thing is recorded on video by another journalist. The biggest story has gotten widespread coverage, and it features Professor Melissa Click calling for the forcible suppression of the recording. Watch to the end and you’ll see her yelling, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” Oh, did I mention that Click was a professor of journalism? Or, to be more specific, she is a Communications professor who held a “courtesy appointment” in the J School until she gave it up Thursday. We’ll see if the apology she issued is enough for her to keep her job.

There are a couple of other points to mention here, though. First, early in the video you see student demonstrators repeatedly yelling at the reporter that “You need to back up behind those signs.” (Hint: no he doesn’t.) Second, at 0:44 of the video you see a student saying, “You don’t have a right to take our photos.” Of course, a journalist, or any of us, has a right to take a picture of anyone in public, even if that person doesn’t want the picture to be taken. And finally, we see starting at 0:26 a group of demonstrators physically pushing Tim Tai to force him out of what they consider their “safe space”. We see it again at 2:17, where Janna Basler, a university employee and Director of Greek Life, starts pushing him back, and later lies about her employment at the university and grabs his arm as he tries to take pictures. It gets particularly intense at about 6:00, when a large group of demonstrators start to mob him, forcibly pushing him back by walking forward. “It’s our right to walk forward, isn’t it?”

Actually, no it isn’t. The common law elements of the tort and crime of battery are the intentional touching of a person who is not consenting to that touch, and with respect to whom the touch is harmful or offensive. (I don’t have the flash cards I made for myself when I was in law school, but the elements are set forth here.) In addition, legalities aside, there’s something really wrong with a group of demonstrators, particularly on the Left, using force and violence to silence the press, particularly on a university campus. If you’re pushing a reporter away from the story he’s covering while yelling at him, “Stop pushing me,” how are you any better than the cops who have been trained to yell, “Stop resisting,” as they beat up their latest victim?

The university has acted, suspending Basler, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Click’s resignation and apology are not enough to save her job. Will there be repercussions for the students? That seems unlikely.


Right-wing Nationalism gets an all-American makeover

Donald Trump remains hugely popular among the Republican base, despite the fact that he advocates for forced deportation of eleven-million of our neighbors.

There is an odd disconnect involved in that popularity.

Republican extremists have grown almost casual about invoking the memory of Hitler’s atrocities when opposing Obama’s healthcare initiatives, sensible gun control or just about any aspect of government administration they’d like to eliminate; yet, these same people seem completely unaware of the uncomfortable parallel between Trump’s mass deportation plan and the Third Reich’s final solution to the “Jewish problem.”

His principle rival for the nomination, Ben Carson, insists that “religious freedom” must be protected for those who would obstruct a same-sex couple’s right to marry. That concern for “religious freedom” apparently ends abruptly when it comes to the rights of people other than Christians.

Carson has actually said that being Muslim should disqualify a candidate for president.  He doesn’t think mass deportation is such a good idea, but only because it would cause a “hardship”  for the employers of this cheap labor force.

Judging by Trump and Carson’s popularity, Republicans don’t particularly want their ranks to grow if it means accepting people who hail from different cultures and belief systems. That’s because we are the best country in the world and our ‘greatness’ should be  reserved only for the chosen elite.

Way back in my high school Sociology class, we learned all about “nationalism.” It wasn’t a nice word or a pretty story.

The Nuremberg Tribunals were still fresh in the horrified public consciousness. It was clear at the time that the German people had paid a terrible price for being susceptible to nationalistic overreach and xenophobia.

Where were people like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and their followers when those lessons were being taught?

(BTW: Does anybody teach Sociology in high school anymore?)

How is it that they can even think they have a greater right to live on U.S. soil than do the 11 million people who would be displaced? Europeans forcibly took this land from the indigenous peoples so recently that their great-grandchildren are still actively seeking redress.

I lived in West Berlin for a couple of years, barely thirty years after Hitler’s death. Older neighborhoods were still pockmarked from war, and rubble remained a common sight.

The towering walls of Tempelhof Airport, pride of the Third Reich, bore crudely chiseled scars where giant stone swastikas had been unceremoniously removed. You could almost imagine the rows of gigantic red, white and black flags swaying overhead.

Berliners whom  I met there (at least those who could be persuaded to talk about it) recoiled from the nationalism of their country’s recent past.  We heard young people wonder aloud about their parents’ past; and when the wine flowed freely the sad question of peripheral culpability was inevitable.

I learned to regard showy displays of patriotism with discomfort; and when I turned a corner recently in St. Albans to suddenly face a forty-foot American flag, I involuntarily shuddered.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the myth of American exceptionalism, with all of its nationalistic trappings, was dusted off and given a new coat of patriotic paint. We immediately forgot about our slave-owner history, Hiroshima, the McCarthy Witchhunt, Segregation, Wounded Knee, the My Lai Massacre and Watergate.  We were the good guys; anyone who wasn’t with us was against us.

Fourteen years later, what has all the neo-con swagger gotten us: an exponential growth in global enemies and the resurgence of prejudice, fear and ignorance at home.

If we are to believe the polls, at least a third of American voters are prepared, as German voters once were, to endorse the xenophobic ravings of a narcissistic sociopath who promises them greatness.


Updated: Climate Courage (and foolishness)

Yesterday, while environmentalists  were focused on the much trumpeted Keystone XL decision,  the White House apparently held a stealth ‘Summit on Nuclear Energy’ to which only proponents appear to have been invited.  The upshot is an administration commitment to greater reliance on nuclear energy.  There appears to have been no interest spent on the toxic stockpiling of nuclear waste that will be our nuclear legacy.

This is a variation on the ol’ bait and switch move: using the Keystone XL decision as protective cover for a decidedly less attractive agenda.   ___________________________________________________________________

We can’t let this day pass without commenting on President Obama’s announcement that he is rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline on behalf of the American people.

For all of my differences with  Mr. Obama’s foreign policy decisions, I have nothing but respect for this further demonstration of his determination to reclaim  a bit of the progressive mantle in his final two years as president.   No ’lame duck’ he!

In the long run, it is quite possible that this will become the most important decision of his presidency.

Deprived of this cheap form of transport through the U.S., and in combination with plummeting oil prices, will tar sands oil deposits become less attractive for exploitation?  It is just possible that failure of the pipeline will have an inhibiting effect on the industry; long enough, one might hope, for Canada to come to its senses about the environmental calamity the practice represents.

It’s a small climate victory, but the President’s framing of the decision gives one hope that we can look forward to more progress on climate change initiatives.

I was disappointed to read that none of Vermont’s gubernatorial candidates will support  carbon tax legislation. I think that is a real shame. It would take courage to do so, but I, for one, would have supported the brave candidate who stepped up to that responsibility.