20 December 2013

Who's Afraid of Phil Robertson; A Tip of the Hat to Constitutional Sissies

Phil Robertson of the A&E series “Duck Dynasty” gave an interview to GQ, Gentleman’s Quarterly.  He was asked for and gave his opinions on a number of subjects. In that interview, he said that he considers homosexual behavior immoral because it is proscribed by the Bible.

That’s a fairly innocuous formula:  They ask.  He answers.  

This is America.  We do not have laws against sedition.  We do have a First Amendment.  He does.  We do.

And A&E canned him.  

And so we revisit that same old, tired bugaboo, “How dare you say that!”  Or, to quote one of the nitwits, “Americans won’t stand for Phil Robertson’s comments.”  

Some point out that A&E has First Amendment rights, too.  So be it.  The “rights” of the soulless still confuse me.  I suppose you could say that A&E has the right to disrespect the Constitution just like an individual does.

As to the remarks themselves, it is perilous to talk “about” them.  Or to “interpret” them.  Let’s just read them:

Question: What, in your mind, is sinful?

[Note: Ol’ Phil didn’t bust into somebody’s home and start forcing them to listen to as sermon.  He was asked for a statement.]

Answer:   Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.  Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.
Don’t be deceived. [He’s loosely quoting the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians, now.]  Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.  Don’t deceive yourself.  It’s not right.

Later, after others interpreted this as personal hatred, he expanded:

However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me.  We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all humanity.  We would be better off if we loved God and loved each other.

This “love all humanity” is consistent with Robertson’s past writings and speeches/sermons.  It's consistent with Christian doctrine and all of those red words in the Bible.

The whole notion that we would be better off if we loved each other surely is acceptable to anyone responsible.  Well, if not, they have First Amendment rights, too.

So here we have a dilemma which has become de rigueur in American society. Someone exercises his/her absolute First Amendment rights and (1) they experience negative consequences such as loss of employment unrelated to the statement or opinion and (2) few people seem smart enough to separate a disagreement of opinion or values from the worth of a person.

Mind you, I disagree with Phil on the merits of the opinion.  And I agree with him about a whole lot of things.  And I disagree with other stuff he says, too.  There’s the “God gave Man dominion” thing.  I’m not a hunter and I regret all to hell that people go out and gun down unarmed birds. I won’t do it. I won’t go along on a hunt.  I’m  not going to write off hunters as evil people or mess with their job because they’re doing something legal with which I don’t agree. [Oh, I’m also a hypocrite - I consume poultry.]

Another aspect of this sort of “debate” is that there is no moderation.  Some of us just can’t stand it when somebody thinks differently. And we have little or no degrees of this agreement, just an on-off switch. If somebody agrees with us, they are good.  If they disagree, they are the spawn of Satan and should be cast into either the literal or secularly metaphorical lakes of fire.

I regret that the (majority?) of the people, centrists, remain so quiet. That silence is understandable since people with big mouths equate disagreement with disloyalty or betrayal of this or that cause. I can understand why centrists don’t want to bother with the noise.  We don’t have to like it.

I wonder if there is room for a “Reality Party” United States. Maybe we could call it the “We Aren't Hotheads Party.”

Here’s a true story of genuine, strong disagreements which don’t become shrill, shrieking, psychotic episodes.

West Virginia, as students of American history should know, was born out of the American Civil War. The counties west of the Blue Ridge were populated mostly by people who felt ignored by the state government in Richmond. In the secession crisis of 1861, there were areas where sentiment was divided. One of these was in Barbour County, West Virginia, where the county seat is Philippi. (Much of my practice is there, and it is a delightful place.)  Philippi was the site of the first  land engagement of that war.

At the beginning of the Civil War, there were only a few lawyers in Philippi.  The general sentiment of public officials was in favor of the Confederacy. From January 1861 until June 1861, the time of that battle, the Confederate flag flew over the courthouse.

Two prominent lawyers practicing in Philippi were Spencer Dayton and Thomas A. Bradford.   Dayton was a very strong supporter of the Union.  Bradford supported the state’s rights view and placed loyalty to Virginia first.  Also, they were good friends.  They ran against one another to become delegates to the Richmond secession convention.  After that convention passed a secession ordinance, Unionists in town had a secret meeting in a shoe store in the middle of the night to select delegates to a Union convention in Wheeling, near the northern tip of then-Virginia. Four delegates were selected and three of those backed out at the last minute because the way out of town – a covered bridge which still stands – was guarded by Southern sympathizers.  Dayton was the fourth.  He left his home quietly in the middle of the night.  As he approached the bridge, he spurred his horse into an all-out run and got past the guards.  He attended the Wheeling convention which repudiated secession and established a “Restored Government of Virginia.”

Bradford, also having the courage of his convictions, was an organizer and Captain of one of the first militia companies to cast its lot with the Confederacy, the “Barbour Greys.”  He left town in the spring of 1861 and fought with the Confederacy until the end of the war.

For most of the balance of the war, Union troops occupied Philippi. Then, as now, occupying forces aren’t always very benevolent. The troops were destroying property of Southern sympathizers.  Dayton went to Bradford’s now-abandoned office and packed up Bradford’s law library and effects.  After the war, Bradford returned and his friend Dayton gave him back the tools to restart his law practice.  Later, as a State Senator, Dayton was one of the “Let-Up Republicans,” who supported blanket reenfranchisement of those who had fought for the Confederacy.  

All Phil Robertson did was state opinions that he cannot enforce on anyone.  He is punished for mere words.  Thomas Bradford was received back by his friend after bearing arms against his beloved Union.

That is the essence of the Constitution in America. That is the essence of mutual respect with which Americans should hold one another. If someone holds opinions contrary to yours, his/her opinions are no less sincerely held than yours nor are they entitled to any less personal respect – no matter how loony you may think the ideas. When we confuse the position with person, the idea with the individual, we are promoting social chaos and resolving precisely nothing.

In the meantime, the world goes on as the chattering birds of wounded feelings peck at their own images in the mirror and ignore very much concrete.  

By the way, a Methodist minister in Pennsylvania, Frank Schaefer, was fired and defrocked last week because he wouldn’t swear to quit doing gay weddings.  One might argue that one a little differently, but really it’s not.  He deserves the same consideration as we should be giving Robertson.  

Maybe we’re all hypocrites?

06 December 2013

Leon Trotsky, Rush Limbaugh, the Pope & Harry Truman Are Adrift in a Lifeboat; What is This, a Marxist Joke?

The Pope recently published a 50,000 word essay or encyclical or the like, Evangelii Gaudium.  As the name suggests (to all three of my Latin scholar friends), the theme is evangelism. In short, evangelism is the assertive spreading of the Gospel, the “good news,” i.e., Christian doctrine.

Among the minor themes is that people in contemporary society go overboard in consuming things, worshiping money, and generally hosing the poor. That theme is hardly a new one in Christian thinking.  “Red Letter Christians” – those who seek first the words of Jesus, which are printed in certain editions of the Bible in red – read prominent warnings against love of money and disdain for the poor.

Rush Limbaugh, sturdy feldwebel of American ideology, boldly penetrated the Pope’s shtick this time.  Rush assures us that the Pope’s ramblings are pure Marxism. He points to the possibility that leftists (hiding in the Curia?) intentionally mistranslated what Il Papa actually said in the original language. (Spanish?) Or, Limbaugh theorizes, the College of Cardinals goofed and elected a guy as the Vicar of Christ who is really the Shade of V.I. Lenin.

Since the English translation is on the Vatican website, that kind of narrows it down to the "goofed" theory.

So is Francis a Commie-Red-Marxist? Is Rush just not too bright? Or is this Rush’s own propaganda flimflam?

I’m voting “C,” the flimflam option.

The length of this post so far proves how effective the flimflam is. And how easily we can be pointed opposite to the clear teachings of Christ or against the clear imperatives of generally accepted moral behavior. Incidentally, the same teachings are found in nearly every religious/ ethical/ moral system – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Humanism, whatever. I look at the teachings of Jesus but the flimflam is on all people of goodwill.

So why is calling the Pope “Marxist” such an effective slur? This quick characterization is really good propaganda because it is quick and uses already-existing negative images – and, most importantly, it takes reasoned argument to dispel the fraud.  In our sound-bite-Tweet era, if you can’t say it in 10 seconds or 140 characters, 80% of your listeners will lose interest and their minds will wander away. 

We Americans don’t like Commies, even now that the “old” Cold War is ended. Without the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, good opinion manipulators are moving the appearance or name tag of Marxism to the American so-called political left. Mind you, that has nothing to do with actual Marxist doctrine.

[Oh, yes it does!, whined someone in Tater Junction, South Elbonia just now. Fine, get out your Classics Illustrated Comic Book on Political/Economic Doctrine and fondle yourself quietly.]

Rush has merely borrowed a term with a high negative index – “Marxist” – and slapped it on someone who mentions money, the poor and, by inference, class. And the tag sticks. But like a pile of manure with icing, it's still not a birthday cake.  The beauty of this technique is that the user need not explain or even have the first clue about what the tagline means.  Nobody likes Commies, he’s a Commie, q.e.d.

Propaganda is a fascinating subject about which there is a lack of understanding. Propaganda is a toolbox which contains methods of persuasion.  Period.  The doctrines promoted are not the propaganda. As such, true propaganda is neither inherently good nor bad, moral nor immoral. The subject may be. 

Nor does calling something “propaganda” make it so.

If anybody asks, “Who’s the best propagandist ever?,” most people say Goebbels.


The guy couldn’t use 3 words where 73 would do.  Goebbels' information campaigns were successful in that the targeted population kept their opinions consistent with the “party line,” even in the face of eventual good reasons to the contrary. But let’s face it, he started with a very soft target (people in a depression & quasi-anarchy) and had huge resources devoted to “public information.”  Eva Braun - a noted Teutonic dim bulb - might  have pulled that off.

A few really skilled propagandists immediately pop to mind. There is Reagan (and his writers) – “Evil Empire.” “Tear down this wall!”  

Bush II – “… Cowardly [9/11] terrorists.”   

Ayatollah Anybody – “Great Satan.”

And with good propaganda, it becomes absolutely offensive to resort to logical reason to disagree:  The terrorists were craven cowards!

No they were ideological zealots, morally bankrupt and bat shit crazy. But flying an aircraft into a building – especially when you’re sitting in front – isn’t cowardly.

Right, tell it to the True American.

To refute the sharp tang of propaganda when it is applied randomly and illogically. “What the hell are you talking about?” is an acceptable and reasonable response, but is not very persuasive.

Even Rush has had illogical propaganda used (poorly) against him. Al Franken wrote the quirky book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, where a lot of footnoted facts and reasoning were buried in hysteria. (We have heard little from Franken lately. He became a United States Senator, where he is indistinguishable from the other 99 straight-faced comedians.)

With the response to Rush’s latest, I have to ask: “Rush, what the hell are you talking about?” I don’t think you can warp Marxism out of Frances’ nice (if wordy) exposition of Christian doctrine even if you borrow that other guy’s comic book.

Marxism is a doctrine of materialism which posits predetermined historical forces which supposedly develop in a predictable manner. A primary focus is the relationship of different economic groups to the means of production and how that changes. Bending that into a moral warning against worship of money and consumption and respect for “the least of these” is the non sequitur game-of-the-week touchdown.

Yet some significant part of the American public – 1%? 5%? – will have a reduced respect for this Pope and for a part of Christian/moral doctrine by virtue of this little episode.

Rush’s fault?

Surprise.  No.

To paraphrase both our Lord and Savior and Harry Truman, “Nitwit’s will be with us always.” And we need to expect that.

The fault lies squarely with an intellectually and morally lazy and scared American people. Control and naked power used push us around will become more and more heavy-handed until and unless Americans generally develop a habit of thinking and then find the guts to speak up.

Rush, I liked you when you were a nonpolitical and funny DJ on WIXZ in Pittsburgh. These days, you and whoever writes your stuff are poor excuses for citizens.

29 November 2013

From Nasty Snowflakes and Things That Go Bump In the Night, Oh Lord Protect Us; And Other Tales

I will confess to discomfort that I do not faithfully follow my own counsel. 

Scribes, I say, should exert the strength of words and ideas toward bringing the vessel of society onto a better course. Almost the universal modus operandi of tinkerers with the alphabet, however, is to point out how rotten, unfair, unjust or hypocritical things are – and then just put it a period there.

I do it to.

For heavens sake, though, there is so much hypocrisy, malignant triviality and general nitwitery out there to identify!

A favorite topic of conversation is the weather. It’s safe. It’s outside our control. We can bitch harmlessly or express content without being seen as run-amok optimists, for those who find that embarrassing.

As a younger version of myself, I enjoyed “matching wits” with Nature and predicting Her behavior over the next day or so. Things like the color of the sky in morning or evening, how sounds carried and behaviors of wild life had meaning. Mostly, it was harmless fun – I never could do anything about the weather.

The advent of satellites and weather radar gave a science nerd like me a few more playthings. Making them available in real time online became positively a distraction.

So lately, I’ve gone back to the color of the sky and so forth.

Not so the harpies of public panic.

Within the past four days, our temperatures have dropped and we’ve gotten a bit of snow. Tuesday, I was cruising various news sources and found a reference to an attack by “Boreas.”

Who the hell is Boreas?

As it turns out, that unidentified “they” has begun naming winter “storms,” like weather services name hurricanes and typhoons.

Maybe one can make a case that this is an improvement over calling this “the snow we got last Thanksgiving.” But I don’t buy it.

This is merely an amalgam of a cutesy trivialization of any slightly technical information and a personification of some new evil to fear and from whom we want to seek protection – by Somebody Else, of course.

The dumbing down of America has been a topic of discussion in these Dispatches and will be again  – just not today.

This new brick in the wall of the Wussification of America annoys me.

We got snow and cold. When that happens, we need to respond in certain ways. When I was a kid, that meant we got up an hour early to install tire chains. Nowadays, folks need to dress warmly, sweep sidewalks and so forth.

We are not invading Poland. This is not Gettysburg in July of 1863. We are not being attacked by a pissed off angel who must be confronted in desperate battle or appeased.

It’s winter. Winter happens.

Oh, but if we give it a name, we can fear more!   Wringing our hands in our 74̊ homes and wondering if the toilet paper and milk will last out the storm enables us to feel oh-so-victimized and out of control.

And when (whew!) finally the storm abates, we will not have had some snow, we will have “survived storm Boreas.” Just as we didn’t have a bunch of wind in June, we were “hit with the derecho.”  

Quick, somebody needs to print the T-shirts.

Our predilection to see things and call it suffering is pitiful. And it does harm to society when it diverts us from seeing actual suffering. It diverts us by leading us to feel sorry for ourselves to the point that we have no room to consider ways of bringing concern for those in need some physical world action.

If our shoulders are stooped, our eyes hooded, and our arms crossed as we stand shivering at the window, we are not going to have room in our minds or hearts for anyone who has to behold the snow without an intervening window. So we’ve given up another little piece of our courage to some public relations engineer.

This notion of some new little demigod, this one named Boreas, means that we voluntarily diminish ourselves.

Pansies are pretty flowers. They make weak building material.

Khat Got Your Tongue?

Reuters two had two separate stories today, totally disconnected, which together create a really delicious irony.

Government health agencies have long targeted tobacco as a Real Bad Thing

Mind you, no Congress or Parliament has the character to go ahead and ban it. So governments take mainly administrative actions.

“Branding” and colorful packaging are familiar targets.  The health agency in the UK is proposing that cigarettes will be packaged in plain, white packs, without logos, etc.

That’s tokenism, if you ask me. As long as King Cash keeps making political payoffs (and as long as we tolerate politicos soliciting them or extorting them legally) that tokenism is about all you’re going to get.

At the same time, a government agency in the UK is having a case of the vapors over a proposal to ban khat, a medicinal plant grown in the Horn of Africa.

Khat is a controlled substance (i.e., an illegal drug) in the United States and Canada. You cannot import it, you cannot sell it, you cannot possess it.  

Khat has physiological stimulant effects including hyperactivity and increased heart rate and blood pressure. It has behavioral effects including euphoria and depression.  It has long-term effects such as a risk of oral cancers (it is chewed like chewing tobacco) and an increased risk of heart attack. And, of course, as with any drug or food product, there is always the risk of hypersensitivity in particular individuals.

It is not unusual that the list of proscribed drugs is modified (usually expanded) over the years. The khat proposal has met with a lot of resistance in the UK.  

The reason? It may anger immigrants.

I told you the irony is delicious.

Francis and the Golden Calf

My status as a sort of mainline Christian never ceases to amaze me. 

Certainly, Catholicism is in the mainstream of Christianity. But, wow, Pope Francis is right on the cutting-edge. I really, really admire that dude.

One of the middling conspiracy theories of the 20th century was that Pope John Paul I was assassinated because he was too honest and progressive. I’m thinking that the papacy of Francis is putting paid to that conspiracy crap.

The papacy has not been an institution of unblemished honor. I’m thinking there about the Borgia and Medici popes, among others. Francis, on the other hand, appears to be the kind of guy who really does read the red letters. His comments about our worship of Daddy Warbucks as that new Golden Calf needs no improvement. His example of not just talking about but physically embracing the poor, the sick, the deformed, the down and out, “the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on” puts the rest of us pathetic putzes to shame.

22 November 2013

The False Promise of Mountaineer Chutzpah

Seems chilly in here. I suppose the fire has been unintended for rather a long time.

I’m not sure if it is so much that I have been waiting for something “worthy” to write about or have just mired in some sort of  Scriptorium Doldrums. Or perhaps it’s been the time spent chasing ‘round the Halls of Justice.  No matter – wherever I go, there I am. (I don’t know who I’m stealing that line from.)

I’ve spent a good bit of time with outlanders & flatlanders lately.  So I’ve been thinking about Mother West Virginia.   Anyone who’s read a bit of these Dispatches knows that blue and gold are among the colors I bleed.  Maybe, for the first time, I get just a hint of the anguish in the heart of Col. R. E. Lee when he had to choose between the Union and the Old Dominion.

And when I hear denigration of these hills, I react with indignation and fury and the wide, booming bombast reminiscent of my friend the late A. James Manchin.  As Secretary of State, A. James was the self-appointed guardian of the good name of West Virginia.  He was the first person who would sally forth in her defense. And he would always do so in colorful ways, such as inviting an official of some other state to settle the argument while soaking with A. James in a West Virginia-made hot tub.

But all the bombast aside, we Mountaineers have let our vision dim and ears stop up as we became blind and deaf to the creaks of anguish of our Mother West Virginia.

One of our very first, most effective, and most self-deluding mechanisms to explain away our coming in 48th or 49th in nearly every measure of vibrant and healthy living among the states is reflected in that line above about “outlanders & flatlanders.”

We pretend that there is some sort of “Mountain mystery,” or “Hill people ethic” that one has to LIVE before one can be admitted into the secrets of life as a West Virginian. “Oh, you just can’t understand, what with coming from New Jersey/ California/ Florida/ wherever.” There is, we pretend, some kind of innate wisdom in the mountains which is passed to us by some inarticulable process as we grow up.

And the oddest thing of all is that even as I see the ridiculousness of such a thing, I have been steeped in that culture so much, I still believe in it. To an extent, it has a bit of validity and usefulness. When one can walk into the forest and know that whether it’s an hour later or a week later they will walk out happy and healthy, I think there’s quite a joy and a power in that. We seem to pretend that if you ain’t got that joy, you can’t have any joy. 

Why not? I remember my friend Dick Sonnenshein who taught literature at Fairmont State College. He was, I believe, from New York City, and one of his greatest fears was being someplace out of view of the works of man. I used to tease him about that just as he used to tease me about the profound lack of culture in Fairmont and I guess we were both right.

Culture.  Sure, we have satellite dishes and internet.  But there is so little live non-regional music.  So little live theater. Virtually no dance (not that I understand the tiniest bit about that.)

One of the cable channel/networks ran a brief “reality” series, the name of which I don’t recall and really don’t care enough to look up, but for identification sake let’s just call it what it was, “Shithead Moron Drug Addicts of West Virginia.” These folks touted their little simplified utopia of mud bogging, weed puffing, random copulating and dreadful speech. And even some moderately intelligent folks hereabouts were amused by the whole thing and amused by the idea that the “city folks” would have a hard time understanding.

Oh, I’m hardly immune from using the good ol’ boy culture and patois.  How often did you see the words “ain’t” or “hereabouts” used in ordinary speech or writing?

And perhaps it would all be in good fun if we were not ignoring so much and hiding so much with the rural schtick. We should not be leaning on our bloody flintlocks and toting an actual or metaphorical jug of corn liquor, not giving a tinker’s damn that we are every bit as much cookie-cutter conformists as anybody in the much-maligned People’s Republic of New York. We have a lot more guns. We’re a lot less likely accidentally to shoot bystanders. Beyond that, we’re every bit as pitiful.

The economy of West Virginia is not the hopeful, bright, up-swinging joy that every Rah-Rah Booster pretends to. As interstate highways cross every County line, on the same signpost as the name of the new County is another sign: “A Certified Business Location.” Certified by who? (Whom?) Certified for what? And if it’s certified, where in the pluperfect hell is the business?

Historically, the economy of West Virginia was built upon natural resources.  As a practical matter, these were nonrenewable. Yeah, I know, timber, just plant more trees.  Bulllllll-shit.  

The timber part of the economy of West Virginia was built upon the magnificent stands of hardwoods which were part of the great Eastern Forest.  Supposedly, a squirrel could climb a tree near the beach in Virginia and not touch the earth until it came to the Mississippi.

Some of us like a place called the Canaan Valley in Tucker County.  I like its very open golf course.  (The only real problem with the course is that the Navy still uses it as a waypoint for aircraft training out of Norfolk.  You always wonder if an F-18 engine is going to eat one of your chip shots.) The Canaan Valley is wide and open, and it is an unparalleled upland & wetland with unique species of flora and such a natural wonderland.


One of the first Europeans into the Canaan Valley was a young surveyor, one George Washington of Eastern Virginia. He described the Valley as having the most  dense stand of hardwoods that the mind could ever imagine, a forest teeming with bear and deer and species of big cats, a genuine natural paradise.

And then came the timber companies, controlled by non-local ownership, usually from the financial centers of New York. This magnificent forest as well as all of the other magnificent forests were clear-cut and turned into the fine Victorian houses and the expensive furniture you see on Antique Roadshow.  Without vegetation to hold the top soil in place, it washed away leaving a swamp. Only the wetland flora species brought in by birds flourished and, presto, instant upland wetland.

And now?  Oh, there is a little bit of timbering of sixth generation growth, but only enough for a little economic sideshow. Was it Joyce Kilmer who wrote that only God can make a tree?  She forgot to add that it takes even Him several centuries to construct a decent forest.

The other major natural resource was coal. We have a lot to recognize in the history of coal. The bottom line is, our industrial society was built with it. Industry was running out of wood to burn and wood did not reach truly high temperatures anyway. The digging of coal enabled the release of terribly concentrated energy, millions of years of sunlight set free in a few decades. Coal made electrical production feasible, steel production possible, aluminum production possible and provided the energy to grow the American economic colossus and the American population as well as those of many other nations. West Virginia always has been a leader in the production of coal.


Pres. Obama is conducting a war on coal and is driving a stake through its heart. No matter. Coal reserves are faltering, the economic costs and the environmental costs of production soar, and shale gas is filling in the fossil burning needs.  The future of coal is dim and restricted. Like it. Don’t like it. Ignore it. It doesn’t matter, reality really is a bitch. And yet we have specialty coal license plates, coal bumper stickers, coal tax breaks, coal taxes, coal festivals and official ass kissing parties for coal companies.  None of that’s going to make a bit of difference. We are focusing our future economic plans on a dying technology.

So what do we have? We have people with generally a good work ethic.  At least that’s what we say. But research doesn’t really bear that out. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t support that very strongly. We have a people who are used to a low standard of living, many of whom do not feel some deep yearning in their hearts to reach for the American dream.

“But there are no jobs.” In some parts of West Virginia, jobs for young people are going begging. This week I was talking to some folks who do the hiring for a gas drilling outfit. These are large, involved jobs because they are drilling very deep and complicated wells. The jobs are going begging because they can’t find enough healthy people who can pass the damn drug test.  We can’t do anything about the drug ravages on the streets of the Democratic People’s Republic of Chicago, but we’re not even trying to do a whole hell of a lot here in our own Mother West Virginia.  We say that we are the bold Mountaineers, but we are too lazy and too scared to hit drugs.

And we say we’re proud of that?

I have no grand plan tonight to rejuvenate this place that I love so much. In fact, I know that there is no single grand plan, no single right answer, no simple fix. Anybody that believes in simple fixes is simply a dumb ass. What we face is something much more difficult. That is the need for cooperative and thoughtful effort, done without thought of personal reward or personal office, but with human concern and human respect and human affection for the real people of West Virginia.

This is going to take a long time.

14 October 2013

Yeah, Right, "Affordable" Care - Wow, Are We Ever Dumb

I don’t get writings from my beloved brother Rev. Jim Norton very often. When I do, I read them very closely because whether I agree with Jim or not, he has a gift for speaking forcefully yet kindly and always logically.

I got an e-mail today which he sent to his voluminous e-mail list. It had a letter to him from “our” Congressional Representative, David McKinley, and Jim’s thoughtful reply.

The subject: The Affordable Care Act. I will not call it JonesCare, SmithCare, or even YouKnowWhoCare. Let’s show a little dignity for a change.

Rep. McKinley’s letter starts out:

“Thank you for contacting me about the Affordable Care Act, also known as *****care. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.”

Fortunately, we can be fairly confident that the Representative never saw the letter and has never heard of Jim. I also sincerely hope that the Representative had little or no part in writing the policy statements in the letter. It doesn’t bother me what he was saying, since he’s a Republican and toes the party line.  It’s just it was so damn dull.

Well, Norton is a regular reader of these Dispatches and perhaps he will choose to tag them with his text. It is not for me to quote him and besides I’m heading off on a slightly different tangent.

The Affordable Care Act is a massive tax scheme which no Representative actually read before voting on it.  The ACA was a dream come true for lobbyists, the insurance industry, consultants, lawyers, accountants, actuaries and lots of other people who make their way in the world in the non-care aspects of the medical industry.  I hardly blame the consultants, accountants, actuaries or most of the lawyers – They have been handed an impossible mess with instructions to make it work.

No system of healthcare will work until we can answer the following questions. If we cannot answer these questions, we do not have a system of healthcare. We have a system of commercial transactions where some people happen to get medical care.

The questions are:

1 - Who gets care?

2 - What care does what patient get?

3 - Who pays for that care?

4 - How much does the provider of the care get paid for the care?

Until you can answer those questions, this is a meaningless discussion. Moreover, these questions are apolitical. You can design a system that is very “conservative,” or very “liberal,” or even very innovative.

(Incidentally, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” historically are economic categories that have now been made into cartoons.)

So let’s look at some scenarios:

A - Grandma is 85. She has had a stroke and is in an ICU. She is on a vent. She has some minimal response to external stimuli such as following things with her eyes and feebly squeezing on command with one hand. Every physician who has looked at her believes that she has about a month to live, but will never come off the vent.  The current sticker price for an ICU bed is about $3000 a day.  With the negotiating power of some sort of huge payors, let’s dial that back to $2,000.  Grandma has left no advance directives.

Does she get the $60,000 worth of care?

B - John is an undocumented visitor/illegal alien from North Elbonia. He has been in the United States for 20 years working under the table. He has no savings and no health insurance. He shows up at emergency department with symptoms that are typical of a heart attack.  The cost of hospital care is all over the map, but $15,000 is a reasonable price for a modest little hospital.

Decide. Is John in or out? It’s no longer a political question, it’s a guy.

C - Edna has cancer of the funny bone. It’s a real bad thing to have and statistically 5 in 100 patients survive more than one year.  Wegottumgooddrug Labs develops the Supercalifragelistic injection.  One injection increases the one-year survival rate to 10 in 100 patients. It cost $250,000.  Edna is 75. Does she get it?

Okay, Edna is 60. What now?



Oh my God, rationing healthcare!

Oopsie, we’ve been doing that since the first Medicine Woman found the first medicinal root. Why do you think Dick Cheney is about the only 70-year-old who have gotten a heart transplant in the last decade? (I like Dick Cheney, by the way.)

D - Mary is a really great specialized surgeon.  Unionburg General Hospital wants to hire her.  In her field, the “market” price is $600,000 per year.  Because she is exceptional, the hospital wants to pay her a cool million.  Then, they will use that to justify a rate increase request that somebody has to pay for.  UGH is a not-for-profit hospital with a self-perpetuating Board of Directors.

Does “Government” interfere with the hiring decision by holding back the money?

I have opinions about these things. For today’s discussion, they are not relevant. 

What is relevant is that we need to find the courage to have the discussion.

05 October 2013

Stream of Consciousness, Sissies in Congress and Other Ruminations

I will say that it is my normal policy to write things which I think are to the point, to the extent that I ever get to the point. And I write things with some forethought.  OK, I try.

On occasion, I just sit back and let my mind talk through my typing fingers, without much clue where I’m going.  These occasions occur often after some hiatus in my writing.

This is such an occasion.

Now and then, I get wry comments about the little sting of things I say or about the fact that some of my thoughts and approaches are unconventional. And that’s okay with me. I know that young people, especially young lawyers, generally are careful about what they put into a public record. How many times do we see in the news that some unguarded comment has come back and bitten the person who made it?

Mostly, this is more a weakness of those making the objections than those making the comments. If the Marketplace of Ideas is to have any validity at all, it has to be honest.

Some years ago, I just quit caring very much about who might agree or disagree with my opinions. That was a remarkable liberation. That was a remarkable release. Then, I could edit myself for grammar, readability and logic without worrying whether the honesty annoyed anyone. Maybe that has a downside to others, but I enjoy it.

There came a time I was seeking an open judicial seat.  Part of the application process was to attach all of my public writings. Honestly, I got a kick out of that. With this blog and its predecessor, and with several newspaper or magazine columns and articles running back 30 years, such a package would have been several hundred pages long. So I attached the hard-to-find stuff, attached some of my blog posts which were more relevant, and invited the appointing authority to stroll through my other writings however it wanted. As I looked back upon them, I found comments on blogs about lots and lots of social issues and about the illogic of of lots of social processes, including that of selecting judges.

By the way, I don’t believe that had anything to do with the fact that somebody else was selected for the judgeship. The guy selected was eminently qualified and came from a field of other eminently qualified contenders.

So when I look for turns of phrase or “the right word,” I’m really not worried about having the right opinion or the popular opinion.

By the way, that makes being a blindly loyal adherent to either political party quite impossible. That too is okay with me.

Political Parties:

We might as well start there this evening. The bottom line is this: A pox on both their houses. The national leadership of both major political parties have shown judgment which is inflexible, doctrinaire, personally aggrandizing and separated from the reality of citizens’ lives. The current government shutdown is not the apex of that, rather it is just another of the continuing symptoms.

I was a Republican until the mid-1980s. Like Lyndon Johnson, “I always split my ticket.” While I had a great deal of respect for President Reagan and Pres. Bush I, nevertheless the policies of the Republicans became more and more irrational. So I switched.

It was not a bad time to become a Democrat. There we were heading into the Bill Clinton years. He was the recipient of some of the growing skill of political sappers, but he continued to chart a very centrist course against attacks from several sides.

Yes, I know: Blow jobs, blue dress, “I didn’t [whatever] that woman.”

On the whole, however, it was a positive and productive time. Let’s remember balanced budgets, debt reduction, prosperity and relative peace in the world. (I never considered the Balkan incursion or the Somalia retreat to be very solid foreign policy moves.)

Now, conservative political sappers who have quite a bit less skill than those who assaulted Clinton have taken off on Obama. That is been one major cause of the growing political extremism in America.

Incidentally, the fact that Obama is the target of constant political hack jobs has absolutely nothing to do with whether the course he has charted makes one damn bit of sense.

Now, I’m finding my current political party becoming an uncomfortable place for me. Locally and regionally, I’m mostly okay with it but I’m largely okay with at least some of the local and regional Republican efforts. It seems that not very many people around here are self-righteous morons.

But the fundamental assumptions of the national political parties are equally obnoxious, if for different reasons.

Let me start with the Democrats: The Obama/Pelosi/Reid machine is in its ascendancy. The fundamental assumptions driving that machine are that there is a “they” who are passive and unable to make decisions in their own interests and an “us” who are smart enough and kind enough and moral enough to make wise decisions for “them.”

This fundamental belief system has driven an insane cycle of “free money” and freedom from responsibility.

This belief system has driven the Democratic side of the gun debate. Incidentally, I disagree vehemently with the national Democratic position about the responsibility of citizens with firearms.

But that extends to lots of other measures by which people can take responsibility and do things for themselves and their neighbors. Take the issue of keeping all those nasty, sharp blades out of aircraft. Never mind “Man the Toolmaker.” Never mind the current near-impossibility of someone with a blade taking over a commercial aircraft. It is positively demeaning to think that I can’t fly without handing over anything sharp.

I read something about the crash not so long ago at San Francisco International Airport. Apparently, one of the big inflatable slides around one of the hatches inflated inside the aircraft, creating an obstacle. The crew was looking in vain for something – like a knife – to deflate it. So Congress has a case of the willies and the power of the people is diminished.

Something else bothers me about the current Democratic national leadership is the focus on social tokenism. After George shot Trayvon, nobody appeared to care about anybody else being maimed, mugged, shot, stabbed, beaten or abused.  Trayvon became the convenient – and unknowing – poster boy for politicians who themselves are afraid to walk through any part of town.

But the thought of returning to the Republican fold in some ways makes me ill at ease and in lots of ways makes me downright nauseous.

I bet that John Boehner has children and grandchildren, and friends and neighbors, and with them his face softens into something other than that of pre-ghosts Ebenezer Scrooge. But we don’t see it. I bet that Sen. Cruz is a nice and affable fellow  who thinks straight and logically and who doesn’t get carried away in his normal life doing really stupid shit like arguing against something he’s going to vote for for 20+ continuous hours.

When you get right down to it, the Republican representation of support for individual responsibility is a falsehood. The party still pushes a burdensome tax structure, only one will have their base pay less. They still support burdensome regulations, just different burdensome regulations.

Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act which is positively an abomination. (Incidentally, tagging it as “Obamacare” was fairly decent conservative politics, and accepting and using that tag by the Administration is a political gaffe of great size.)  The ACA is full of opportunities and perks for the well-connected and fails to address the fundamental issues of healthcare such as “just who will get what care?” The Republican response? Screw it, do nothing.

Oh, I understand that this is a rambling polemic. Was there some part of Stream-of-consciousness that was confusing?

Sissies in Congress

Oh, for that matter, there are sissies damn near everywhere. The color pink which has long been associated with sissies has been appropriated for a far more noble and useful purpose of late. So I will have to contend content myself with calling for a lot more frills and lace to be handed out to all the poor little incapable schmucks who purport to do the public business.

Here, I’m thinking of the mentally ill woman who was shot by the Capitol police as she was running into various barricades around the Capitol. By the way, I’m not qualified to have an informed opinion on the propriety of the use of deadly force. I wasn’t there. I do know that her little family sedan was not actually going to penetrate any of the vehicle barriers at the White House or the Capitol building. Had that been all she was trying to do, police agencies could have sat back smiling until she disabled her vehicle on the immovable barricades.

But when this one-woman-with-family-sedan “attack” was going on, somebody hit the metaphorical (or maybe actual) red panic button and locked down the Capitol, and advised the occupants of the Capitol to “shelter in place.”  The pathetic thing is that not a one of them noted that was idiotic and insulting and poked their political noses outside perhaps to demonstrate that they had a pair.

Walking into a conflict can be stupid. But hiding two blocks away from conflict is cowardly and demeaning.

That reminds me of a little story. We (our rescue company) were called to assist a state trooper with a mentally ill armed guy who refused to come out of a barn.  The trooper, by the way, was Greg Coram, who later obtained a doctorate in psychology and has become a leading national criminal justice expert. As he was talking to the gentleman to calm him down, he told him that “The paramedics and I just want to come in and help you.)” One of the guys I was with snidely asked Greg, “What is this ‘we’ shit?”

The Good Guys

I continue a casual association with various participants in the Great American Medical Machine. (For reasons which are irrelevant.) And I continue to note the genuine caring of those who deliver medical care. Indeed, there is some positive correlation between the amount of blood or shit a caregiver gets on his or her hands and them being genuinely nice people.

I confess that I do have a little bit of fun with these people at times. Some weeks ago, a nurse asked me “Do you use oxygen at home?” My answer: “Of course I do.” Her follow-up: “How much?” My reply: “The 21% which is in our atmosphere.”

I think these caregivers do seem to appreciate patients who are not whining all the time.  Smartasses may not be as fully appreciated.

More Good Guys:

The Monongah Fire Department Facebook page had a photograph on it very recently. The family of a little girl which the fire department and rescue squad saved from some medical event was there, and the family was kind enough to come to the firehouse to thank the responders.

People in our church know of my concern for our responders. When in service we are discussing those for whom our particular prayers should be lifted, often I will mention someone who’s died in the line of duty or been injured or just the dedication of those folks generally. 

EMS people work hours you would not want to work and see things that definitely you would not want to see. 

Owing to hostile publicity and inaccurate media, police are largely perceived negatively now even though there are about two police line of duty deaths every week in America. 

And firefighters? Picture this: They are asleep in a nice warm bed. An alarm comes in. They get up, step into their boots and night pants, and in about 45 seconds are driving out of the garage into subzero temperatures. They arrive at a fire and need to enter a house where the temperature near the ceiling is several hundred degrees. (That’s why they stay on the floor.) How close does your job get that kind of stress?

More Than A Peeve:

I’m disturbed by all of the efforts to make exceptions to the First Amendment because the opinions will be unpopular or someone’s feelings will be hurt. And I’m more disturbed at the fact that this does not motivate Americans to stand up, speak up and take back our country from all the extremists.  Normal people have lost their voices - hopefully, temporarily.

06 September 2013

The Case for Bombing Mexico Rather Than Syria; Real Proof of American Power

The Government of Syria turned nerve gas loose on it’s own citizens.  The death toll is supposed to be 2000 or so.  Nerve gas has been banned by the international laws of war for 100 years because it is cruel and inhumane.

Bombs, bullets, flamethrowers, and nukes are fine, by the way.

And before someone emphasizes the horrific manner of death by nerve gas, permit me to remind them that some not-uncommon pulmonary medical conditions lead to deaths which are more than comparable and much more drawn out.

The President wants to attack Syria.  The matter is currently before Congress.

Since allegiances in the Middle East are shifting sands as much as any desert there, it’s hard to figure out who would benefit from the attack and who would suffer (other than the people standing under the bombs.)

The Administration makes two very broad claims.  First, using nerve gas is so bad and such an affront to humanity, this constitutes ample justification for military action.  Second, attacking Syria would promote some sort of American interests, including demonstrating that the United States won’t back down from a fight.

We can understand the first point fairly well.  Gas was used in the First World War, and was perceived by front-line soldiers as particularly gruesome.  Gas (particularly pulmonary agents such as chlorine)  also caused grievous permanent disability to those it did not kill outright.  

On the other hand, the international laws of war don’t say anything about certain equivalents to these “weapons of mass destruction.”  Military inventories are chock full of fuel-air explosives, cluster bombs and nuclear warheads.  Not to mention lots of bullets.  Efficiently employed, these can cause death on a scale that would make the Syrians green with envy.  So the difference escapes me.

How bombing Syria promotes American interests is a political question.  There are some religious overtones centered on the continued health of the State of Israel.  Some Christians believe that prophecy requires that the State of Israel be hale and hearty when Jesus Christ returns in glory.  The justification there escapes me, too.  Saying that we can thwart the the plans of Almighty God by a silly little war seems a bit of a stretch and maybe even a touch blasphemous.

My friends who just chortled about me condemning blasphemy need to stifle their mirth.

The best argument that bombing Syria is in the interests of the United States is that if we don’t follow through on our moral outrage over the gas attacks in Syria, then we’re a paper tiger and a bunch of pansies.  We will show weakness and lack of resolve and everybody knows that if the United States shows lack of resolve, the Bad Nations will not fear us as much.  That would disrupt the Pax Americana.  I’ll leave it for another day to discuss if America has been awfully successful in the “Pax” thing in the last 50 years.

If we do assume that maintaining American power and influence requires that United States forces intervene in foreign atrocities, then we must conclude that the United States hasn’t done a real good job of that.

The ongoing war in Darfur, Sudan, has seen 200,000 deaths, but the Red, White & Blue is conspicuously absent.  In addition to rape and pillage, starvation is used as a weapon of war there, which seems fairly inhumane to me.  When the bombers fly to Damascus, are we going to let a few make a detour to kick some Sudanese ass?

In the first seven years of this millennium, fighting in the Congo killed 60,000 people.  Why did we miss that?

30,000 died in the 2011 Libyan revolt.

In 100 days in 1994, 800,000 people in Rwanda were killed, mostly by being beaten, hacked to death or raped brutally.  The U.S. gave the wrongdoers a really stern talking-to.

Heck, the Associated Press says that since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, there have been 93,000 killings there.  Why are we giving that first 93,000 a pass?  Did they die happy or commit suicide?

There are some reasons to support the Syrian intervention.  After all, it’s the military people who get the shit end of the stick and who are taking all the chances.  Since you and I personally won’t be at risk, sounding all John Wayne-ish has a certain panache, don’t you think?

And it will only be pilots at risk.  The Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense promise “no boots on the ground,” no introduction of American troops into Syria.  And that promise/prediction has worked so well in the past.  OK, with exceptions, but somebody had to try to do in Afghanistan what the British and the Russians failed to do.  And Vietnam?  Nah, that’s too easy.

But in this time of budget shortfalls, I think we can get the best bang for the buck by attacking somebody other than Syria.  Let’s face it, if we need to kick ass to keep the peace, does it really matter whose ass?  And in picking another target, we can better protect American interests.

I think we will agree that preventing the smuggling and distribution of dangerous drugs, together with all of the brutality that goes with the drug trade, is strongly in the American national interest.  

We have so many bombs ready to go and so many aircraft gassed up, we might as well aim them at those directly causing harm right here within the borders of the United States.  There are several good candidates, but the country that stands head-and-shoulders above the others as offensive to American National Interests is our target:


[I’m greatly disappointed with the state of education in America and with the quality of political discourse.  There will be somebody reading this who is dumb enough to take the “bomb Mexico” suggestion seriously.  For those, I’d say go read Dilbert or something, but I doubt if they’d understand that, either.  For the record, this poor scribe is using a bit of irony with a touch of reductio ad absurdum to make his own political point.]

The Mexican Government is nowhere near as corrupt as is commonly believed.  On the other hand, the Mexican drug cartels are every bit as violent and brutal as depicted.  The butcher’s bill for the drug wars in Mexico for the last five years is 47,500.  The cartels kill victims in inventive ways and leave decapitated bodies scattered around.

There are identifiable drug cartel strongholds in Mexico.  They are a lot closer to American vengeance than Syria is from carriers in the Mediterranean or Red Sea.  Moreover, even “boots on the ground” wouldn’t be nearly as risky, since Northern Mexico is so close to Texas.  Every flapping gum in the Great Marble Whorehouse on Capital Hill says that the border is very porous.  It has to be porous both ways.

So, in sum, if we are going to violate someone’s sovereignty, shouldn’t we get some direct benefits out of the deal?

But we don’t.

We (taxpayers) subsidize unevenly and unilaterally enforcing international morality.  And we aren’t very good at it.  And the American citizens most harmed are the military people who have to implement presidential and congressional directives.  This is not “waving the bloody shirt.”  If you have ever been up close and personal with overwhelming traumatic injuries, you might think twice before taking a political action that will guarantee that we see more of them.

Targeting Mexico rather than Syria is so obvious that I wonder why it’s not on the table.  

Oh, you know me, I do have a hypothesis.  It’s impossible to prove objectively because we cannot “measure” motivation and intent.

If we take the “Big Stick” and go to thumping Syria, the Americans personally endangered are the military people and, hey, they signed up for it.  It’s not like Syria can invade the United States.  So by just spending money, you and I can be all courageous and self-righteous - and SAFE - by urging attacks on Syria.

On the other hand, Mexico is close to home.  If we start dropping cluster bombs on deserving criminals, their survivors will take a fierce revenge.  All gloves will come off, and the terror will be brought into the United States.  It’s fine to be courageous, but not if it’s going to hurt us.

Bravery is OK, but let's not get all dangerous about it.

29 August 2013

The People Who Do The Real Work

A little stay at the local hospital this week gave me a chance to meet some of the people who do the real work.

Oh, I’m not much at all for the “woe is me” thing. For a minimal description, see a note at the end.

A hospital may be a healthcare delivery system, but the healthcare still has to be delivered by people. Just as the point of the spear has to be sharp, the shaft of the spear has to be sturdy. I met lots of folks from both parts.

Two physicians I dealt with are interesting guys. 

One is a primary care doc who put himself through medical school by working as a coal miner. To me, that says so very much about character and work ethic. The other is a specialist who served a hitch as an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy.  He credits that experience with a lot of his own success in life.

Wow, there is a lesson from those guys. So many people see themselves as “too good” for this or that kind of work. But there is dignity and honor in any job done well. There are opportunities to learn beating at your door all the time. All you have to be willing to do is answer the door. True, it takes a little effort. Tell me something worthwhile that doesn’t.

This hospital has a “transport staff,” people whose job it is to wheel patients from here to there for medical testing and so forth. Well, I suppose that sounds like an easy job on its face. It is anything but. Pushing a wheeled carriage of some sort with a patient, let alone a “man-sized” patient, is a workout. Add to that the financial realities which keep staffing in all businesses below optimal levels. So the very pleasant lady who transported me constantly answered her portable phone to keep a running tab on the next three or four patients who had to be taken from here to there. In the meantime, she kept up a positive and upbeat demeanor.

Late at night, into the room came a guy while I was sleeping. When I stirred, he identified himself as “just a housekeeper.” Well, that always provokes a reaction from me when someone identifies himself as “just” anything. As he was disinfecting the place, he talked with me a little bit about his job and his understanding of it. And this guy takes his job very seriously. A hospital is a dirty place both because of the high traffic and constant presence of disease organisms. These “just housekeepers” have to stay on top of both the visible and the invisible debris and dirt. And of course the market does not bear a very high wage for that work. I wonder – who reading these Dispatches would be willing to do that work at all? Years ago, I read an amusing essay by a an institutional housekeeper about the four kinds of shit stains. Amusing though it may be, one of the facts of life is that humans make shit stains which somebody has to clean up.  They are the ones with true dignity.

And have you ever noticed that healthcare people these days exclusively wear athletic shoes? That’s because they spend so little time other than up walking or running around. And yet it seems that some of the public expects them to act like personal valets. That has to be difficult for these professionals. I really doubt if they are doing these jobs for the money. I heard them involved in what were obviously some sorts of medical crises.  Then they would come and apologize for not having attended some minor need. Well, if it’s me in the big crisis, or somebody in my family, I’d like to think that the other system users are going to chill a bit while these healthcare people triage what needs done first.

It’s also interesting to observe the spectrum of experience levels. A couple of people I encountered were old friends from Marion County Rescue Squad who now do healthcare jobs for a living, guys with lots of grey hair.  (OK, Paul and Jerry, you’re also downright ugly at times.)  Sometimes, grey hair just makes people self-righteous. Not these guys.  To them - and I hope to me – the grey gives one a relaxed and wry perspective.

One of the experienced people I ran into was a nurse-manager, someone in charge of an entire unit. Because everyone else was busy, she came in to reinsert an IV line. We had a nice chat about the need for managers of professional workers to show constantly top-level hands-on professional skills. It sounds a little bit counterintuitive. After someone has been in a profession for 30 years and is supervising others, it’s a different skill set that is invoked.  They’re just not going to be called upon nearly as often to do that hands-on care. But the reality is that when they supervise the young, aggressive people who get into these lines of work, they will be much more effective supervisors if the younger people know that the boss has top-notch hands-on skills.  I have always found that applies to every profession. Nurse-managers have to be able to start IVs better than anyone else in the place. Police chiefs have to be able to perform difficult arrests as well as the fittest patrol officer. Old, supervising lawyers have to be able to stand up on their hind legs in Court with every bit as much ginger as any young Turk in the house.

Well, I don’t have any strong political or social points to make this evening. You just run into opportunities to learn and make friends everywhere you go.

Note: My stay was occasioned by a little cardiac arrhythmia. But as we all know, arrhythmia is better than no rhythmia.