Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life and Death And Disinformation

“Please don't lie to me, unless you're absolutely sure I'll never find out the truth.”
Ashleigh Brilliant

English Author and Cartoonist, b.1933

“He who does not need to lie is proud of not being a liar.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

German classical Scholar, Philosopher and Critic of culture,

Rush Limbaugh has been using his radio show to promote disinformation that the HR bill "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009" would include provisions for euthanizing the elderly.

It is obvious that Rush is not himself reading the bill, which is available for free on, under a simple search for Health Bill 2009, to anyone who is curious about checking some of these egregious claims. Given the nature of the statements, and the availability of the bill itself, and the recurring pattern, it is not credible that these errors are accidental. It suggests a calculated and intentional reliance on an audience that will not question what it is told, and will not fact check what it hears, so long as it is told what it wants to hear.

After the question, "why would anyone seriously believe something so ridiculous?", the next question which presents itself is -- "where is he getting such strange ideas?"

One source for consistent right wing misinformation is Betsy McCaughey. Ms. McCaughey is a former Republican Lieutenant Governor of New York, who switched to become a Democrat in 1997, in anticipation of a run for Democratic candidate for governor in 1998; she lost that candidacy race to another Democrat. McCaughey ran as the Liberal Party candidate for governor of New York in 1998. The New York Liberal Party is a minor party specific to the state of New York and its politics; it has supported an interesting array of both Democrats and sometimes Republicans for a variety of local and state offices in its history.

Looking at McCaughey's history in politics, it is fair to say her loyalties have had a lot of variety as well. Variety to the point that I find myself as skeptical of her sincerity and integrity, as I am of her accuracy.

McCaughey has a BA with distinction from Vassar, and an MA and PhD from Columbia in history. In this regard of being well educated, McCaughey reminds me of our Minnesota representative Bachmann, who holds advanced degrees which demonstrate an ability to perform research and critical thinking, but who seems to consistently fail to use them, or alternatively, deliberately chooses to present false information to serve an extreme political cause. In the area of health issues, McCaughey has been found on more than one occasion to have misrepresented critical information. Like Bachmann, McCaughey presents and attractive appearance; arguably this is used in a calculated effort to persuade.

McCaughey has appeared all over the mainstream media, including Lou Dobbs program on CNN, back in February of this year, and more recently on the radio show hosted by Mark Levin. That Levin interview, and others, are available on YouTube.

The interview with the false assertions about forcing the elderly to commit suicide opens with an ominous black background, and the frightening words that state:

Page 425 of Obamacare Bill: Mandatory Counseling Sessions pushing SUICIDE for the elderly and seriously ill. Pages 16 - 17: NO NEW private health insurance policies.

Well, no. Page 425 doesn't say that. Nowhere in the bill does it say anything like that. That someone has read, or at least scanned through nearly a thousand pages (double spaced pages with large margins) to locate a section that does deal with end of life issues, to the point of specifying a single page, and then misrepresents the content, begs an explanation of accident. That Rep. Bachmann would at approximately the same time be caught misrepresenting page 16, cannot be a coincidence.

What IS talked about, on page 425, are things like living wills and health care proxies, end of life planning, and hospice care.

I would refer you to that excellent organization, Fact, where any number of items of misinformation about this health care plan are addressed; there is a lovely section that addresses an email that I had come across my computer just yesterday. Limbaugh and McCaughey are certainly not the only individuals on the right, with access to a media pulpit, preaching misinformation and messages of fear, who are noted in the Fact Health Care legislation analysis. It covers a LOT of ground.

It is in all of our interests to be cynical and skeptical, and to check the information supplied to us. This is not a liberal versus conservative matter, it is not a Democrat versus Republican concern. It is AS important to fact check information with which you agree, as it is to check information which is not in agreement with your views.

I feel most compelled to check information presented as fact which promotes an unreasonable fear, or which exaggerates grotesquely. I feel compelled to check and to resist assertions which demonize too broad segments of the political spectrum. I also find myself compelled to check information which appears to be or could be slanted to what someone believes I want to hear, out of concern that it may be manipulative.

Too much of the political discussion that takes place on all levels, local, state, regional and national, is deliberately divisive. Too much of that discussion begins with a difference of information, where instead of seeking common ground and greater accuracy, there is a failure to challenge facts, in good faith and with integrity, as part of a larger effort to achieve a meeting of the minds. I do not like to be lied to; apparently some people thrive on it.

Victory for Vick

"Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of Men?
The Shadow KNOWS."
Francis S. Street & Francis S. Smith

original publishers of "The Shadow"

"Don't let us make imaginary evils,
when you know we have so many real ones to encounter."
Oliver Goldsmith
physician, novelist, poet, playwrite
1730 - 1774

Tuesday's episode of MSNBC's the Ed Show included a segment on the return of Michael Vick to football. PETA, the animal rights extremist group which the Department of Homeland Security has associated with left wing domestic terrorism in their declassified reports is demanding that Vick undergo a brain scan first. The scan is to determine to the satisfaction of PETA that he is sufficiently rehabilitated.

Let me begin by identifying my bias. I not only love dogs, I live and breathe dogs; I breed, raise and train dogs, I engage in a variety of competitions with dogs. My morning began with training a three year old greyhound, not my own, to go potty on command, on leash. This morning we 'proofed' the success of that training with the challenge of requiring the dog to comply with the command while a number of other dogs ran free around her playing, as an intentional distraction. She did wonderfully well with the command, but her real success was that she was bouncing around like a cartoon Kangaroo at the prospect of her training collar being put on before we began. Before she could learn any new commands, this dog had to be rehabilitated to overcome her fears. She used to shake with anxiety when she was expected to do something, because if not exactly abused, someone - I don't know who - had been horribly, unnecessarily harsh with her. Now she can go to a new home to bond with a new owner, as a happy, well adjusted, well mannered dog.

So understand, as you read this, how very much I hate the actions of Michael Vick. I hate, more than even the average dog loving pet owner, that he caused pain and fear, and horrific deaths to those dogs. More than that, I live in Minnesota; as of the recent announcement that Brett Favre will not come out of retirement, the Minnesota Vikings are among the most likely teams in the NFL to hire Vick. One of my friends, the dog-loving wife of a die-hard football fan, refers to the NFL not as the National Football League, but as the National Felons League. She is angry enough to have written a letter of protest to Roger Goodell; I am sure she will not be the only person to do so. This decision by Goodell may be the most controversial one he ever makes.

I respectfully disagree with my friend. However much I deeply deplore what Vick did, he served his sentence. Has he genuinely changed his values and his feelings? I don't know. I am familiar with the science that PETA is relying on to determine Vick's sincerity, but for those of you who are not, it is well described here : There are huge ethical controversies surrounding this science; and those ethical dilemmas have not been resolved. At the core of the controversy is simply this, do we judge people on their thoughts, and their feelings, or do we judge them on their actions? People may feel that Vick got off too lightly for what he did, but we have courts that make that decision. What they decide, we need to accept, reluctantly if not enthusiastically. We don't have to like Vick. But we should not allow that dislike to prevent him from lawfully seeking employment in his area of expertise after he has fulfilled the penalty he was given. Most of all, we should not allow anyone, least of all an organization like PETA, to require something as intrusive as a brain scan, as a condition of employment. Vick must, going forward, act appropriately. Sanctions to enforce and ensure that behavior are available, by contract, and the authority of Goodell.

If you are like my dog-loving friend Amy, demonstrate your objections to Vick playing football by not supporting whatever team hires him. Write letters to the team owners, don't give them money by buying tickets, don't watch their games on television. Or, support the rest of the team by attending and watching, booing Vick when he plays.

But do not support PETA's demand for a brain scan of Michael Vick.

Do not support PETA, or the HSUS. Don't give them money, don't give them the power of influence. Research who they really are. As much as I dislike Vick, as a dedicated dog lover, I dislike PETA and the HSUS, even more than I dislike Vick. In a different way, they do more harm as organizations than Vick could ever do as an individual, bad as he was. If you love humans, as well as loving dogs, do not endorse judging people by their intentions as determined by intrusive brain scans. Support judging people by what they do; whatever their thoughts or urges, their is no definitive way to anticipate what ultimate decisions they will make about their feelings and their impulses. In the end, that is all that matters, their choices, their actions; anything else is simply their private demons to battle.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Questions but few Answers

I worked in Health Care Administration for 11 years. I was a claims examiner, then auditor, compliance specialist, and Manager/Asst. Director. I helped administer Worker's Compensation, traditional insurance, Medicaid, and both long and short-term disability claims. In those 11 years I saw the advent of Pre-Certification, HMO's, PPO's, PHO's, and self-funded programs. All were intended to restrain the rising cost of health care. All were 'private sector'/market-driven solutions. None worked. Not one - the closest any came were probably SSO (Second Surgical Opinion) and Pre-Cert requirements, both of which had demonstrable negative side-effects like discharging pregnant women within 24 hours, often too early.

I've also witnessed the impacts of Medicare. While Medicare has helped to prevent poverty among the elderly by absorbing the costs of health care (in part) for our older fellow Americans, it has not constrained costs as we'd be lead to believe should happen with the burden shared more broadly. In fact, health expenditures are rising fastest in the over 65 crowd. Of course, that is attributable to having many more seniors than in the past, but it is clear that the negotiated rates from Medicare cause most physicians to chafe terribly at what they see as depressed reimbursements.

There are several causes for increasing costs. I could site numerous articles - if people ask, I'll go find them, but I hope that on this subject people can accept I am a comparative expert.

Following my time working for two of the largest insurers, I also spent time doing claim arbitration work for friends and family for another couple of years. It wasn’t full time, but it also taught me a few things about how insurance companies (in general), react to non-standard types of care.

The bottom line it seems is that we have escalating costs for three specific reasons:

1. We have an aging population which is increasingly taking advantage of more effective end-of-life and acute geriatric care. One estimate says that 50% of the health care costs are for those over 65.

2. A few specific conditions account for a huge amount of expense. That same study said that 7 specific conditions account for 44% of all health expenditures.

3. As costs increase, more people fall out of the system. As more people fall out of the system, those who remain in insurance programs directly have to pay a higher fee for their services to help offset lost revenues to providers from unreimbursed care.

4. As people became less able to afford care, they skip care. They wait until they are truly in-trouble, not just sick, and then they go to Emergency Rooms for care. ER’s are the least cost effective delivery method imaginable. First, it’s a hospital, so it has high overhead. Second, ER’s are heavily staffed for emergencies, and so there is that simple burden, but probably MOST impactful, ER’s feel compelled by law, risk of litigation, etc.. to run tests on many patients far more heavily than would have been done in a clinical setting with a more healthy patient who’s problem was caught much earlier.

There are also some myths about what is increasing the cost of care, those specifically are

1. From the right-wing (and a little the AMA), we are told malpractice causes enormous cost increases. However, other than a few specialties (obstetrics and surgical), malpractice isn’t much higher than it was 20 to 30 years ago. Even including those factors, Malpractice (again per several studies) only accounts for one-half of one percent of the inflation level per year. Malpractice DID spike upward in the early 2000’s, but that was due to relative under-charging in the preceding 5 years AND losses in the stock market unrelated to the cost of health care. Malpractices insurers sought to recover losses by charging doctors more – not because malpractice losses increased.

Further, the offered solution, tort reform, offers to limit awards as a measure to reduce ‘frivolous’ cases. However, if baseless cases were the problem, they’d not get large awards, meaning, frivolous cases don’t get millions in awards. Insurers are trying to get protection against truly large awards to people for truly egregious acts by doctors. That’s not trying to stop frivolity, it’s trying to stop having to pay large claims even as they collect large premiums. Regardless, malpractice simply isn’t that significant an expense to be driving, in any meaningful way, health care inflation.

2. From the left, we are told that the issue is the complex administrative bureaucracies and in general adversarial attitudes of insurance companies leading to the need to hire vast administrative staffs at hospitals and clinics. While this does certainly cause inflation, estimates are that it causes up to 15% of the inflation we see in the market, again the truth seems to be somewhat less than the hype. First, insurance companies, all of them but one that I ever dealt with to any extent, hire examiners and auditors (and managers) to process claims. They aren’t out to give away money, but they administer programs within the strictures of the law. They price the premiums to make a profit based on an assumed amount of health service activity. I never, not one time, EVER heard anyone suggest slowing/delaying/losing a claim as a course of action. I acted as the patient’s advocate when I was an auditor and appeal reviewer, and I was supported, without question, by company Counsel and management – every time, all the time.

Second, nearly all of the administrative burdens insurance companies placed on doctors and hospitals were put there to RESTRAIN costs – not to increase them. To do so would be self-defeating for insurance companies. It would be horrid business practice to require a doctor to increase costs 50% to comply with pre-certification or second surgical opinion (or referral) requirements that might save 20%. The bottom line is, HMO, Pre-Cert, SSO, etc.. DID have a retarding effect on inflation.

The greatest amount of inflation in medical costs came from 1960 to 1975 (at 2300%) when NO administrative controls were in place. The second greatest period (that of the past 10 years) has occurred as doctors (and hospitals) have left HMO’s/PPO’s in droves due to their belief that the relationships simply don’t pay ENOUGH. So, both the left AND the right have meme’s about what the problem is. Gutting malpractice claims will merely lead to people who truly suffered a loss, getting screwed by the system instead, and going to ‘single-payer’ alone, won’t control costs adequately either.

Both would help, one to an infinitesimal degree (malpractice reform), the other somewhat more, but NEITHER addresses the problem. One other meme’ to deal with, over-utilization – this is the one which claims the poor (or immigrants) etc.. go to ER’s frivolously. It is funny that the primary complaint of some seems to be that if the less advantaged or victimized in society merely didn’t complain about catastrophically bad treatment and they didn’t get sick, we’d be just ducky.

The truth of course is FAR from this. As I said, the fact is that 7 illnesses account for 44% of expenses. That’s NOT malpractice or frivolous trips to the ER – that’s elderly, overweight, diabetic people needing care. The poor have higher ER utilization, no question, than do the middle-class, but that’s because the middle-class have MUCH MUCH higher clinical utilization. The poor cannot afford co-pays at clinics – so they wait until they are desperately sick, and then go to an ER which they know cannot turn them away.

The truth is that had they gotten the basic clinical care, they’d doubtless have the same basic ER utilization as the middle-class, unless you think the poor simply LIKE to throw away money – because most of the time, ER’s still require the patient to pay something – and that something usually exceeds what an office co-pay would be.

As well, it (arguing everything will be fine if we just get the indigent to pay) fails to deal with one fundamental paradox - if we know we are paying $7000+ per capita, and we believe the rates of compensation for health care workers are fair and justified, then we aren't 'paying too much' - yet, we agree that something is fundamentally wrong.

So, what to do? First, a couple of points – pharmacology is the leading method of treatment of most diseases. We instituted Medicare Part D, to try to help seniors pay for medications. Seniors consume many more medications on average than younger people.

The net effect was we fed a highly inflationary system even MORE money. We didn’t try to control the cost side, and so costs overall went up. As well, drug companies spend $14 on advertising for drugs like Lovitra, Viagra, etc.. than they do on research. In fact, a LOT of the research in medicine in the United States, is done at publicly funded universities. Drug companies turn profits in other countries selling the exact same medicines they sell here, at a fraction of the cost. Finally, end of life, and near end of life care, consumes vast amounts of health care services and dollars. As a population bubble ages it will only increase demand and usage – and thus overall expenditures, even without the supply/demand cost pressures.

With this, I will make the following general observations/suggestions One point a conservative friend of mine made which I absolutely agree with, is get the true price of the care reflected to the patient. If an X-Ray of your spine costs $300 (factoring expense and normal retail profit numbers), then patient’s, all patients, should be charged $300, rather than charging me, and five other people $350, to pay for one person who didn’t/can’t pay. How that 6th person pays, he didn’t have an answer for.

When I suggested to him that this is the exact problem, that we have too few people sharing the overall burden, he agreed. Yet, how can this be done? How can we make it so that the 6th person can cover the cost of normal care sufficiently?

The cost of drugs must be negotiated. Any health care solution which doesn’t grasp this fundamental reality will fail. I don’t know whether suggesting a return to making drug advertising illegal is workable, but some more realistic split on advertising/research seems required. Perhaps drug utilization for sexual impotence needs the same market-based limitations as we have for chiropractic and podiatry. Perhaps such drugs should have scaling co-pays for a certain number above 10/month, but some sort of reasonableness in the pharmaceutical industry is needed.

These are the most profitable companies (as a percentage) in the world, supplying a demand item. We regulate public utilities for this very reason, people cannot be held hostage for heat or power, there is no sound reason not to consider health care, and including pharmaceuticals, a public utility, especially given that we subsidize their research dollars. As well, we simply must negotiate some sort of reasonable cost/profit ratio with pharma – it is done in many other countries, and clearly CAN be done here, it just isn’t – mostly due to the vast power of money of the pharmaceutical companies.

Finally, I do not believe that going to a national health care system will dramatically lower costs. It may not lower them substantially at all. We pay our doctors FAR FAR more than any other country, and on average, get rather less quality than many other countries (we are 29th in infant mortality, 37th in life expectancy - these are considered the bell-weather bench-marks of measuring delivery of care). We pay more than double the next closest nation in PER CAPITA health care costs. That’s not because of unreimbursed care, that measures total cost of delivery of all care divided by citizens. Our care is no more sophisticated or well done than many other nations unless you are VERY wealthy and can buy whatever kind of care you like.

The only culprits for that cost difference which varies from other peer-group nations are wages, costs of consumables, and malpractice expense (which we’ve already dealt with). So, in addition to drug costs, wage expense clearly is an issue – but it is highly, HIGHLY unlikely even a nationalized health-care system will lower wages. That would be disastrous for those workers, and not palatable at all to most people in the country. However, it WOULD, just like negotiating drug costs, tend to apply the brakes to wage inflation in the industry, so while it wouldn't reduce costs, it probably would help to restrain or even stop the run-away inflation in the industry. Equally, we are a horribly unhealthy nation. We are vastly overweight as compared to nearly any other country. This increases our health cost burden enormously. So many other diseases, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol imbalances, arterial disease, etc.. are attributable to and exacerbated by excessive weight. We must change our entire approach to fast food, what kinds of food are delivered industrially (such as beef and other high fat foods), versus those which are costly here, but cheap elsewhere (grains, fruits, vegetables). We provide high-fat, quick foods because they are easy and fast, but they are an enormous burden on society in the long run.

Finally, while we have lower life-expectancy, we do tend to ship our elderly ill off to nursing homes and hospice centers. If we are not to be crippled by ever escalating total costs, some predict that without restraint our health care costs will exceed 20% of our GDP, meaning 1 in every 5 dollars in the country will go for health care – we must make some hard decisions about life prolonging care for the terminally ill. It’s not the biggest area for cost cutting, but it does consume a lot of money. I don’t have any answers, but I do think there are answers to be found.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sticks and Stones I

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
American Physician, Poet, Writer, Humorist and Professor at Harvard,


"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names / words will never hurt me."
English proverb

A subject came up on another blog yesterday, to which I responded; thinking about that subject kept me awake longer than I would have liked last night. Thank you again, Pen, for providing me with a forum in which to write about those things. The subject that I pondered was responding to telemarketers with sexual language intended to make them extremely uncomfortable, so they would hang up, so no one would call back. There was a certain distinct glee in the notion of using language and sexuality to make callers uncomfortable; given certain homophobic attitudes, it is I think fair to assume most of this language would be directed towards women, not men.

I argued for courtesy, brevity, and clarity in expressing offense. Some individuals supported that, either fully or partially; others disagreed with my position, at least one in a moderately offensive manner. I responded with more restraint than my first impulse, but with asperity. That restraint left a lot of unexpressed feelings, so voila, they are expressed here.

As a backdrop, I am researching the subject of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women in the military, returning women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan specifically, and the traditions and culture of the military. Since I have not served in the military, I had a very productive conversation with Pen, who served in the military for a number of years. He gave me insightful observations from his experience.

Have patience, I will reach my eventual point, long way round; in the end I think the point will be better made.

When I was a very small child, I was very blessed to have as a regular baby sitter, a man who was a dear family friend, and also our family dentist, although he was much more than 'just' a dentist or oral surgeon. When I was much older, I came across his impressive entry in Who's Who, and learned just how remarkable he really was. He was the first person to recognize that I was an unusually smart child. He lived in a beautiful Georgian house; his den / library had high ceilings, with built in bookcases full of books all the way up, an enormous antique desk, and a fire place with a beautiful original oil painting hanging over it. Best of all, this room had both a microscope AND a telescope in it; I was given every encouragement to explore ALL of it to my heart and mind's content. There were never any 'don't touch' restrictions, despite all of the objects throughout the house were extremely valuable. It was a house where adults lived, not children; their children were grown and away at college. I thought it was the closest thing there was to heaven on earth.

I remember being encouraged to take books off the shelf, even books from the very highest where I had to be lifted up, books that we would then go through together. It didn't matter what the subject was: poetry or literature, history, bacteriology or some other science, philosophy, anything and everything. We would read it together, and talk about it. By talk about it, I don't mean in the usual way that adults tend to talk 'down' to children, but more as equals, mentor teaching protege. I remember he said my questions challenged him; I remember that the way my mind worked often made him laugh, laugh out loud, laugh until he had tears in his eyes. I never, ever had the feeling that he was laughing AT me. I sensed he enjoyed watching me think, he approved, that he was a kindred mind and spirit; in many ways, he understood me more than anyone else in my childhood.

This wonderful man had a profound influence on the development of my intellect, and on the formation of my character. He taught me to dare to challenge limitations, especially artificially imposed limitations, including assumptions about restrictions by gender. I remember my early discussions about shyness, and fear. He taught me fear was sometimes a good thing, that it could keep you safe; but it also could be a bad thing, if it took over control by the rational mind. He taught me to evaluate risk for myself, that risks could be calculated and managed; that I should dare whatever I thought worth the effort, but never foolishly. I grew up hearing the message over and over that most people are uncomfortable around smart people; that boys and men especially didn't like smart women because they viewed them as threatening to their egos, even smart men, but never from him. I remember saying that people who didn't enjoy intelligent women were boring; I refused to pretend to be less smart. He was amused by my rebellion.

As my dentist, he was the first to recognize that redheads have different pain reactions, and have a different response to both local and other anesthetics, before it was better researched and documented. He measured my pain perception and tolerance / resistance with a type of dolorimeter that directs a puff of air towards the eye, when it was still a new science. When I needed dental work of any kind, we discussed together how much it might hurt, for how long, and what the options were for controlling pain including the pros and cons of medications. Control of pain decisions were given to me; with the empowerment of those discussions, I usually opted for minimal medications, or none. We discussed the importance of knowing how much and how long something would be painful, of mind over matter for that period. He was always accurate and candid with me, and with the other aspects of our relationship, built up a very deep trust. When he deemed it necessary to remove all four of my impacted wisdom teeth, I didn't hesitate, when he recommended Novocain instead of a general anesthetic because he felt it would be important for me to be able to move my head and hold my head in certain positions. He showed me the x rays and explained everything fully; he would have to work quickly because Novocaine wears off unusually fast for me. For that reason, he would do one side, top and bottom, one day, and the other side a couple of weeks later.

During the surgery, from the beginning, there were painful complications. It resulted in bleeding, requiring cautery. As I was tried to swallow the blood that wasn't sucked up by the tube on the side of my mouth, he asked his assistant get the cautery unit. It should have been in the surgical suite, but was in the other dental treatment room. When she came back, this unprofessional woman said, very loudly, "Oh, my GOD! Look at all that BLOOD." This was not good, but I didn't let her comment get to me. I made a face, as best I could given the circumstances, rolling my eyes.

My dentist was very critical of her conduct. Worse than her original mistake, she continued on about the blood. I was not only a patient, I was in the relationship of a protege, a word derived from the Latin protegere, to protect. My mentor lost his temper, in a way I had never seen from him, ever. He not only raised his voice, if not exactly yelling, he used words that shocked me. He made a vulgar, crass, derogatory reference to blood, specifically menstrual blood and this woman's experience. I have never had the involuntary response to blood that many people feel, both men and women. But there was something about the ugliness of what he said and how he said it and meant it that made me feel very suddenly sick inside, small, a naked kind of vulnerable, and helpless; that was the intent of those words, although not directed at me. It was the absolute opposite of the empowerment, the sense of control, including the mastery over pain, that I had built up.

As a teenager, I did not have the armor against words and attitudes that I have now, including skills dealing with sexually abusive language; nor the mastery over my emotions that I have tried to acquire with maturity. What I felt showed in my face; I certainly wasn't verbalizing anything, in the middle of oral surgery. He looked down at me, and stopped cold; he asked me if I was okay. Then he stepped into the hall where in my hearing, he apologized to his employee. When he came back into the oral surgical suite a few moments later, he gave my hand a squeeze, and talked me back to where I needed to be to finish that surgery. I had been shaken by his words, by the ugliness of the thoughts and the hostility, but my trust was stronger.

As a result of this experience, I gained an insight into the destructive power of thoughts and words, even the destructive power of sexuality. It gave me an empathy to the nature of pain and control that comes to mind on the topic of torture I would never have had without losing my control during a surgical procedure. From this, I think I understand what Judge Sotomayor was trying to say, albeit badly, when she spoke about her experiences as a woman and a minority resulting in a better understanding of others' experiences. I take it to mean not only understanding feelings generally, but things like separating truthful statements from untruthful ones made in court testimony.

This was certainly the formative experience that came to my mind when I commented on using sexually explicit language to make a telemarketer feel uncomfortable in annoyance. To me it seemed a drastic difference of degree, but not a great difference in kind, to the mind set that causes the unpleasant, damaging experiences of women in the military, and the failure of the military in many instances to adequately respond to them.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names / words can never hurt me" was a rhyme we were all taught as children. It is not true. While physical violence is certainly a very different thing than words, words also can have a serious, significantly damaging impact on each of us. That is as true for men as it is for women.

As I wrote these words, believing I was in control of those feelings, I had an enlightening experience. I am taking care of a young dog, a two year old intact male, a beautiful borzoi, for a friend. I was one of the first people to hold him when he was whelped by C-section; I bottle fed him from that first day, comforted him if he got stepped on in the whelping box. We have a deep connection, a strong rapport, this dog and me. As I was sitting at the keyboard, tapping out the first paragraphs, rereading, editing, spellchecking, this dog was sprawled out in another room, oblivious. As I was working on the paragraph with the unpleasant memory, he suddenly came barreling out of that room over to me, laying his head on my arm. I petted him, talked to him, gave him a quick kiss on the 'sweet spot' between and slightly above his eyes...... and expected him to go away. That kind of intermittent touching base between canine pack members is routine, also with their humans. There was nothing unusual, except perhaps the timing.

But he didn't go away; he picked up a squeaky dog toy, a really annoying squeaky toy, and lay down behind my chair, in a defensive position. I am very attuned to dog body language, and to the significance of relative positions, between dogs, dogs and people, dogs and... things. It is an essential skill in retraining dogs, especially dogs where there are aggression problems. This dog doesn't have aggression issues, but he exhibits behavioral cues. Other dogs were not allowed to approach; although more subordinate in the pack order, he briefly assumed the dominant role of pack enforcer. I was home alone, but I doubt that he would willingly have allowed any person to approach me. My best educated guess, was that he sensed more than I had understood, hoe those memories were distressing. I cannot explain how he could pick up on that from another room, but I trust my instincts in reading dog behavior; they have stood me in good stead. It was not the first time I have observed dogs sense things in ways that are not easily explained, especially service dogs. This boy has excellent service dog potential; he is unusually perceptive.

I got up for more coffee, did other things, and the entire time, he was my shadow, a 'Velcro' dog; not his usual behavior. When I came back to the computer, to add this final paragraph, he resumed his protective position until I was near the end. Then he got up, nuzzled my hand, and returned to his original spot in the other room to lie down again. His job was done. Mercifully, he did not take the annoying squeaky toy with him. So now, I am apparently no longer emotionally vulnerable; I have resumed my role as human pack alpha.


In writing Sticks and Stones, there were several things I wanted to accomplish. I leave it to the readers to decide how close I came. I wanted to write from a female perspective in a mostly male genre; I wanted men to see through the eyes of women. I wanted to write about the power of language.

The only way I could think of to use words skillfully enough was to use a real experience, an experience of my own. I followed the admonition to writers: write what you know. So, thank you Pen, for the compliment that I am brave, but I don't think I deserve it.

In writing about being female, and the destructive power of language and men, I wanted to write about the positive aspects. This is why I chose to write about my mentor. It was not my intention to 'bash' men, but to acknowledge those men throughout my life who through language, and through their qualities of character and intellect, each in their different ways created an environment where I could challenge and develop my abilities, my skills; where I could identify and pursue my interests. That includes as the most recent example, writing here.

I have never tolerated bullies. When I was a junior in high school, a male senior was bullying a younger student. I politely asked him to stop, twice. Unwisely, he did not. After the second request, I lost my temper in defense of that younger student, much as my mentor had lost his temper. I did not raise my voice, I did not use vulgar language. That was not my style; I was always 'ladylike', but I was vicious, I was fierce. I used language to wound, with precision, with calculation, as if it were a very sharp knife. Because the bully had not stopped when asked, I felt free to be punitive. The intention was to hurt him, to reduce him to tears, if not in front of me, as soon as he was alone. My high school boyfriend, who witnessed this, afterwards said to me very simply, that I went off on the bully "like an exploding grenade." He very gently made me realize that given my far greater ability to use words so effectively, I became a bully, however well intentioned I began.

I can laugh now, recognizing how strong and secure this guy was at the time, to be comfortable with someone with my.... 'force of personality'. I don't think I changed that bully by being nasty, however much I enjoyed my verbal advantage. But this young man accomplished that with me by being wise, and gentle. He taught me a lesson, which I regret to say I have had to relearn from time to time, that like physical violence which tends to beget more violence, the hostile use of words elicits more of the same emotion.

Over on SitD, another blog, when the topic of abusing telemarketers came up, my first impulse was to respond aggressively. There are a few individuals who lurk there who have over a span of years in other venues seen me 'verbally draw blood', and who are may be waiting to see me do it again. It was not difficult to resist that first impulse, but it reminded me of my mentor, and of that old high school boy friend. It reminded me that while we may do it differently, women make the same choices to be as nurturing and protective, or as destructive, as men.

I have learned more from dogs than I have ever taught them. Every interaction must begin with first understanding, and then controlling oneself before trying to understand and train or a control a dog. The exquisite hound who guarded my chair when I wrote Sticks and Stones is a sabled red dog, the red in his coat is very similar to my own coloring, like an outward symbol of our inner connection. He is an extraordinarily sweet creature, but he was bred for function as well as beauty; he has a strong prey drive, in his very core he exists for the joy of the chase, and the thrill of the kill. In his own way, he has reminded me how even the most lethal ferocity can exist side by side with tremendous gentleness and grace inside the same skin. Dogs are born understanding what we need to learn consciously. What we do verbally in our relationships, dogs do nonverbally.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The New Yoo Hoopla

“Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time / is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenseless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.”
Cesare Pavese

Italian Poet, Critic, Novelist and Translator

“There is only one thing that arouses animals more than pleasure, and that is pain. Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.”
Umberto Eco

Italian Novelist, Semiotician, Medievalist, Philosopher, Critic

On Friday, buried under other news at the end of the week, including the death of Walter Cronkite, was a significant decision regarding the personal accountability of a member of the Bush administration for torture. According to a story by staff writer Warren Richey of the Christian Science Monitor, a decision was rendered by U. S. District Court Judge Jeffery White that allows former Assistant Deputy Attorney General John Yoo to be held personally responsible in a civil lawsuit for the memos he produced that were part of authorizing the harsh interrogation techniques that many consider to be torture, used on alleged enemy combatant Jose Padilla. Judge White, who I understand to have been a Bush appointee, issued a 42 page decision in which he is quoted "Like any other government official, government lawyers are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct".

The full decision can be read or downloaded at the Scribd along with a further comment on the ruling, to which I will defer as I am not a lawyer, much less a professor of Constitutional Law at . In the comment on that blog, it is noted that Judge White finds the legal cover of the memos was an unconstitutional exercise of power, and also denies Yoo's claim of qualified immunity. This is a significant ruling in view of the recent Supreme Court decision that threw out a similar case against former AG Ashcroft, and FBI director Mueller who continues to head the FBI under the Obama administration. These cases have been defended on behalf of Yoo, Ashcroft and Mueller, by the Department of Justice.

It has been the position of President Obama that individuals who were operating in good faith on behalf of the government should not be held accountable, investigated or prosecuted for their actions or their legal opinions. Given the decision in this suit, and the new interest expressed by Attorney General Holder in addressing the issues involving possible illegal actions, including torture and other illegalities, we can only hope that in future the Department of Justice will find itself on the prosecuting rather than the defending side of these individuals. As I have slogged through the 38 page document that is the part of the report by the five Inspector Generals that is not classified, allow me to share for those who don't have the time or inclination that it was significant who refused to be interviewed by the Inspector Generals who were performing the investigation at the direction of Congress: John Yoo; former A.G. John Ashcroft; former head of the CIA George Tenet; and aide to former Vice President Cheney, David Addington. I'm surprised that they have the option to simply refuse to be interviewed, and wonder if subsequently they will be compelled to answer questions by some form of subpoena.

In view of the extremely poor quality of the legal work provided by Yoo, including the criticism for which Yoo was singled out by the five Inspectors General relating to the PSP, the President's Surveillance Program, among other criticism, I can only say I am surprised that Yoo continues to hold a position as a law professor at Berekely. Being a bad government lawyer, even if you are a high profile bad lawyer,would not seem to be a very adequate recommendation for teaching. Former A.G. Gonzales, after a period of time apparently having difficulty finding work, also turned up as a professor, at Texas Tech for the fall schedule, but in political science, not law. I would have thought, given how things worked out, that he wouldn't be considered very good at either, but then perhaps he has been hired to teach what not to do.

ToE, if I might impose on your kindness to answer a very general question here that is in your area of expertise, am I correct in my impression that having defended some or all of these individuals mentioned above, the attorneys at the Department of Justice cannot now handle any future/ subsequent prosecution, because the rules governing legal confidentiality would create a conflict of interest? I realize that those of us who have not studied law often form mistaken notions of how the legal process works, so I am asking to avoid making a similar error. Does this suggest that if there were to be any prosecution going forward, of persons who had been defended by DoJ, it would now require a special prosecutor independent of DoJ to pursue that prosecution? I'm trying to discern if there might be any special method / planning / thought to this madness by the Obama administration.... or if it is instead a great deal more random and messy and accidental in the way it is unfolding.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Justice Is Supposed To Be Blind, But Never Ingorant

"Justice is the convergence of Law, Truth and Good," well, or so I've believed for a while now. This is hardly a complete definition - but I would like to think it serves as reasonable summary of the thought that these virtues have flowered in a progression toward a common goal over time.

For longer than recorded history undoubtedly there have been laws. The earliest might have been something like, "Don't leave meat out in the cave, don't draw pictures defiling 'god,' etc.. In the time of recorded history, we have seen societies a few societies reflect some very advanced thinking of fair treatment of all citizens, such as ancient Athens exemplify nearly pure democracy, granting everyone reasonably equal standing before the law, but more commonly ancient societies were brutal, with harsh punishments for the merest of crimes. We have also seen societies like Imperial Rome, or even the Papacy, which twisted the law to allow for abuse, usurpation of rights, and the enslavement of entire nations. Even ancient religious/biblical laws, such as those in Leviticus, called for the stoning of those who wear clothing of two fabrics, or sew fields with two crops.

Over time, it seems to me, laws have usually become more fair, more respectful of complex rights. They recognized rights to dissent such as rights of free speech, and also recognized the presumption of innocence, due process protections and the need for fair legal representation. These obviously were outgrowths of realizations that older laws were unjust when they failed to protect the innocent. So, mankind has improved things to achieve fair treatment under the law and to and provide the defendant and equal chance as the state has for the truth to come out. In essence, the truth, the betterment of mankind's treatment by government, have been the root of what we desired in law. We have sought to punish only the wicked, restrain the wrong, and prevent harm to the innocent.

We have also sought to temper the law, to have it treat even the guilty with a measure of compassion. Where past punishments provided for death, or the severing of a limb, or keel-hauling or quartering, we have decided some crimes are far lower in harm than the punishments which we meeted out, and we drew back from that practice. We sought to marry compassion to truth, and to make law from it. I am mindful of this as I watch "Victim's Rights advocates decry Sonya Sotomayor as wrong for daring to actually have some regard for the fairness of the law, the proportion of the punishment to the crime, when deciding that punishment.

So, if compassion is a reflection of what we feel is fair, and good is doing the least necessary harm meaning ensuring we do not improperly harm the innocent as we protect society from the guilty, it seems we have thus sought over time to marry both fairness and goodness to the law - this convergence of two paths, one of truth, the other of the ability of the people to set forth codes of conduct -it is this convergence, it seems to me, which is what justice is.

Last Friday my neighbor down the street apparently took his own life. He was dying of cancer - he was 59. We don't know for certain what happened exactly. I am speculating a bit, but the police said there was no threat to the public - which usually means either suicide or domestic dispute. His wife was in her late 50's, and there doesn't seem to be any history of difficulty between them - so, it is at least conceivable that he preferred death to the ravages of palliative chemotherapy.

As a child, I watched my grandfather and grandmother both waste away from cancer. They died four days apart, my grandmother in the end could only acknowledge her wants and needs by tapping her foot - once for yes, twice for no. She was an extraordinarily warm, kind, compassionate and cheerful person, watching her degrade into quadriplegia and then mute agony was heartbreakingly difficult as 9 year old. For my grandfather, who was himself dying of Hodgkin's disease, I imagine it was 10 times worse.

I also recently watched my father-in-law waste away and die to kidney cancer - he fought like hell, lost 110 of his 220 pounds. He was determined to live, but succumbed in the end. His wife (my mother in law), cared for him up until the last few weeks in her house, cleaning up after him, bathing him, fetching him from wandering aimlessly down the street. When my children went to see him three months after having last seen him (and a few weeks before his death) they walked right by him as he sat in his wheel-chair. They didn't even recognize him. It was excruciating for my wife and my mother-in-law. In the end, the woman who had been married to him for 50 years felt that, "It was harder to have him here than to have him gone." She was relieved I"d guess, though she undoubtedly felt guilty for feeling it.

I say all this because, when someone has family and friends they want to live for, as the father of two of my children's closest friends had (Wayne died three years ago, when his kids were 11 and 7) - I think they should do everything they can, fight with every breath, to be there as long as they can - it is more than just about them at that point. However, when they have fought long enough, when the pain is too much, when the future is too bleak, I believe it is their right, and their right alone to decide when that time has come. Ready access to firearms makes death an easy companion, usually for all the worst reasons in the most horrid and sudden of ways. Yet, who are we to decide for those whom we have little idea the agony they suffer, that they are wrong to act to avoid the last few painful, empty, harrowing weeks?

In the United States, for example, only one state, Oregon, has assisted suicide laws - so the actions of my neighbor, and certainly of anyone who helped, will be deemed illegal. Even in England, a somewhat more liberal country regarding some of the social structures we argue about here - there is no allowance for these kinds of circumstances..and, as this story helps illustrate, it leads to people leaving the country to end their pain. (

"The controversy over the ethical and legal issues surrounding assisted suicide for the terminally ill was thrown into stark relief on Tuesday with the announcement that one of Britain’s most distinguished orchestra conductors, Sir Edward Downes, had flown to Switzerland last week with his wife and joined her in drinking a lethal cocktail of barbiturates provided by an assisted-suicide clinic."

This was a distinguished member of the nobility who sought to end his life in Switzerland rather than disobey British law. He was 84, his children were sad, but supportive of his choice to die with the worman he had spent 50 years with as a life partner. His son was quoted saying:

“Within a couple of minutes they were asleep, and died within 10 minutes,” Caractacus Downes, the couple’s 41-year-old son, said in the interview after his return to Britain. “They wanted to be next to each other when they died.” He added, “It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it.”

If the law says such actions are wrong, why? Is there truly a need to require someone to keep living in agony? Is there truly a need to require the families of those who are terminal to watch them fall into oblivion of Alzheimer's final days, of cancer's final weeks of morphine induced stupors, of chemotherapy's cadaverous preludes?

To me, the law to me seems to be written for the ignorant. Perhaps it was originally motivated by religiosity rather than compassion, but it certainly seems unaware of the heartbreaking impacts of requiring someone to be present, when the agony to them and their loved ones required for presence is worse than loneliness of no longer having them around.

If someone is taking 50 units of morphine per half hour (as my father in law was), if they have no control over bodily function as my grandmother lacked, what religion would say ending this pain is wrong? Is it compassionate to force them to live on? Perhaps the time has come for us to stop forcing people like my neighbor (assuming this is the case) to break the law to find justice and peace. Is it fair or right or truthful or good to require their presence in a life which is more painful to us to witness and to them to live, than to allow it to peacefully end?

It is lawful, I suppose, but is it Just?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Come Let Us Reason Together

"Produce your cause, saith the LORD; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob."
Isaiah 41:21

"Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error."
"Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
Thomas Jefferson

Bringing out the big guns in leading with these quotations; they invoke the authority of no less than the ultimate 'founding Father' and a United States founding father. It give me comfort as I venture into what at times has come to feel like the 'no mans land' of disputation. While I addressed this recently in a comment, given the potential volatility of the topic of fascism, and the passions that run deep regarding the historic figure of President Reagan, it seems a good time to stop and elaborate on that particular comment.

I wrote about the pleasure of argument, instead of hateful argument. One of the best examples was a comment from KRod under an older posting of mine, "First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage", where he 'went all Tina Turner' on me with a rewrite of the Lyrics "What's Love Got to Do with It". It was clever and it was charming, and I was caught off guard enough by it that I had to get up, go get another cup of coffee, and regroup my thoughts to respond, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Very little in argumentation can put me off balance the way that did; I laughed out loud at my monitor in delight, and applauded it.

This was in sharp contrast to other exchanges from both sides of topics that traded insults to people AND to arguments, instead of being specifically critical of failings or weakness in the substance of the facts or reasoning being advanced.

I do not wish in any measure to diminish the passions of this or any other topic. But I do wish again to insist on the civility, and the enjoyment of cordial disagreement. Both Pen and I have experienced first hand what it is like to be the minority dissenting opinion on other sites; all the more reason to expressly welcome and encourage that dissent here. I have elaborated elsewhere on all that it adds, so I won't repeat myself.

What I didn't say that still needs saying is that it is not a weakness to acknowledge a point well made, an argument well reasoned, or a fact well researched by 'the other side'. Disagreement and /or criticism is stronger for being both specific to an argument, and polite rather than personally insulting. Calling an argument stupid is not a good response; better is to point out how and where it is faulty, preferably supported by objective fact.

This is a good place to point out that the more objective, the less subjective, the less distinctly biased information is, the stronger it is and the better it supports a conclusion or an argument. The more information is first hand, and the less it is filtered through second and third hand ideology, the better it supports a position or a contention. To the degree that a supporting item is NOT, the greater the basis, even the necessity, for it to be challenged. While that kind of challenge may cause a person to feel put on the spot, that is still very VERY different than a personal attack on the challenged.

There has been ample disagreement on topics here, and some surprising agreement as well, unexpected points of agreement. The more we are able to find agreement in fact, and in how we disagree, and the less that we allow ideology to be divisive, the more we have a common ground for the meeting of minds. Without that common ground, without that meeting of minds, we have an argument of shouting echoes rather than a direct engagement of individuals.

Time to tuck the soap box back under the laundry tub, and go back to my own happy, dull digging into research on a variety of topics for future writing. My closing thought is that when I log on to Penigma, I envision a seasonally appropriate gathering. In July, sitting around on comfortable outdoor furniture with a platter of barbecue and the appropriate beverages like beer or iced tea or lemonade, augmenting rowdy, raucous, LOUD conversation, discussions with passion and intensity. To the degree that there are fewer voices, there is less intensity and passion and .... less fun in the gathering. My parting thought is a toast to the more the merrier, and to wit and cleverness, even humor, to go with the passionate points of view.

"He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave."
William Drummond

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Danse Macabre

"No real estate is permanently valuable but the grave."
- Mark Twain

Life is imitating art, in its own unique way. Michael Jackson was born and grew up in Gary, Indiana, a suburb of Chicago. This past week amid a quantity of media coverage, thousands of his fans attended his memorial service. His most famous music, from 1982, still the best selling album of all time was Thriller, about horror movies, monsters, and frightening things happening in graveyards away from the light of day. It is an ironic coincidence that sets the tone for a macabre news event.,0,7703736.story,burr-oak-cemetery-bodies-chicago-070909.article

The imitation of Jackson's art of horror came this week in another suburb of Chicago, at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. While no corpses left their graves through supernatural means, a number of dead bodies did depart - more than 100 of them.

The bodies were dug up, tossed in an overgrown, unused part of the cemetery, dismembered and left in a pile of bones. Caskets and headstones were smashed, and the surrounding concrete vaults destroyed.

Then the cemetery manager resold the vacated grave sites, off the books, altering the previous records. The cemetery manager, Carolyn Towns and three of her employees, grave diggers Keith Nicks, Terrence Nicks and Maurice Dailey were charged with Class X felonies.

The FBI will be using DNA to help identify the mixed up pile of bones, so that so far as possible, the deceased will be identified and eventually reburied, provided relatives can be located to provide blood or saliva samples. Relatives of those whose bodies were treated with such cruel disrespect are understandably distraught. This is not only an horrific act of greed, a terrible tragedy of disrespect for the dead, but also acts of utter disregard for the feelings of those whose loved ones were entrusted to their care and safety. It is an act of wicked cruelty to the family and friends of those who had been buried at Burr Oak Cemetery.

It is inconceivable that these four people who were employed by this cemetery could have so little regard for so many people, living or dead. It is sometimes said that we can tell a great deal about how we care for the living by how we care for the dead. The real events in Burr Oak Cemetery are a greater horror story than Jackson's fictional Thriller could ever aspire to be.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fascism, Neither Pure Nor Simple - part I

(Fascism is)"the most misused, and

over-used word of our times"

"An Intelligent Person's Guide to Fascism"
Professor Roger Griffin,
Prominent author and lecturer on Nazi history
Oxford Brookes University, UK

In researching this topic, I tried to cover a variety of serious authorities in order not to let myself be suckered into too narrow or biased an understanding. It was important to me to use my existing knowledge as a beginning, but to make a serious effort to be certain I had a balanced, complete overview for a fair and evenhanded piece of writing. I lead this piece with a quotation from Professor Griffin, because so much of what I encountered came back to his work in the field, and the quote so succinctly summarizes what I found. The big three in the field consistently regarded by historians and political scientists as the defining experts are Griffin, along with Robert Paxton and Stanley Payne.

If I could distill what I researched, building on my previous understanding, into a single observation it would be this: that the word Fascism is used interchangeably with Authoritarianism, sometimes correctly, but most of the time incorrectly. Authoritarianism would be a more correct word than Fascism as it is used more than 90% of the time, a figure that is my own rough estimation from researching so far. That 90% usage reflects either an incomplete, or significantly erroneous understanding of one or more aspects of Fascism. The error in usage distributes fairly evenly across the spectrum of political ideology, from left to right; it is NOT the purview of one side alone. And it is THAT aspect, the distribution of the wrong usage, that seems to be at the heart of why the word is so misused. Nearly EVERYBODY uses it improperly, to some degree, and MOST use it improperly to a large degree.

The correct, well researched, well accepted definitions are not particularly hard to find or understand. What seems to be consistently underlying the misuse is applying it not as identifying an actual historic or contemporary fascist political movement, but using it derogatorily as an epithet or pejorative term against another political group or position than one's own to discredit it.

This broadly derogatory use of the term is not new, by any stretch. The consistency with which the term has been kept in use pejoratively is unparalleled by any other word I can think of, with the possible exception of "Nazi". The following quotation from George Orwell, author of "1984" and "Animal Farm" hit on this back in 1944, when he wrote "What is Fascism".

Orwell said:
"The word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else... almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’."

Obviously, it doesn't require familiarity with every single reference in the quote to understand that the term was being used all over the place, by every political point of view against nearly every kind of possible target, until any coherent meaning other than 'bad' is completely gone from common usage. That dates back to World War II, and the association with Fascism and atrocities. Prior to the close association with atrocities, there were some who were critical of Fascism as a movement, for different specific aspects of it, but there was not the quality of such broad condemnation in the name. Pre-atrocity criticism was specific. There was a definite sort of 'tipping point' in the usage.

While the Orwell quote can be taken as an attempt to be funny or sarcastic, it was less an exaggeration than you might think. Right now, I can do a web search or a search at my local library and turn up an overwhelming pile of data detailing references to fascism, nearly all of it incorrect. The right calls the left fascist, the left calls the right fascist. And some - although fewer - people in the middle are equal opportunity misusers of the word, calling those on the further edges of BOTH sides fascist for not being in the middle. Incorrectly. All, or very nearly all of them.

Obviously, I cannot end a piece on fascism here; that would be useless. Simply claiming it is used poorly but often, VERY often, is not enough. I asked for constructive criticism from the owners of both of the blogs that I write for, and it was consistently that I write 'long'. Well...but LONG. (You can stop laughing any minute now - I know it's true.) So to do justice to the topic, I'm going to try a new way to shorten up but still cover the content. I'm going to write in 'parts'; this is only part I.

I haven't determined exactly how many parts there will be; but only a few. My goals in writing, given my research to this point, is to present what fascism is correctly and accurately. Part II will be a brief (yes, brief!) history of the movement, its early roots and the 'inter-war' era developments; 'Italian' fascism and the related European movements (like the Spanish 'Falange') circa WWII; and post-WWII developments.

Next will be a brief description of what the central, core tenets of fascism are; what you need to have present in a political or social movement to BE fascist. Why not just present that information? Because without connecting it to the actual, historic fascist movements that CREATED the term, it remains ill defined. In making the effort to write this, to do it well and fairly, objectively, it is my intention to lessen, if only by those few who read this, the use of the term incorrectly. When I am done, whoever reads these words WILL know the difference between correct and incorrect use of 'fascism', small or capital F, and I hope will choose to use it correctly afterwards, and ONLY correctly, and may even choose to correct others using it wrongly.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Oath or Affirmation, a Vow, a Promise

"Elected office holds more perks than Elvis' nightstand. "
- Dennis Miller

How are these things similar or the same; how do they differ? Once again, I need to credit K-Rod, in this case for comments here under other postings, that lead me to a new one. Because words have meaning; and because words are the medium of our thoughts. The meaning of words in many cases determines our expectations, and what we require of each other. The discussion that resulted from "The Oath of Office" led me to explore further the kinds of language which obliges people to do - or not do - certain actions or behaviors that create expectations by others, sometimes many others. Usually these actions require some exertion or sacrifice for those others, at an expense to oneself, in exchange for specific benefits, compensation, power, authority or other rewards.

In varying degrees, these words deal with relationships between people, with oaths and affirmations being reserved for the most important, the most serious and binding of those relationships. The others are of similar kind, but vary in decreasing degrees of obligation and implied penalty for failure. The tradition of these special commitments is traced throughout our history, and across the globe; they exist in every culture; they are a necessity to civilized human relationships, and to societies, especially governments at all levels.

One of my favorite sources is the online Etymology dictionary, that traces the history of a word as it evolved towards its current form and definition; I find the progress insightful in achieving the fullest understanding of the meaning. But that did not best suit my purpose here in examining each word.
Of all the sources I explored, this was the best encapsulation of all of the aspects of each word.

sacred or solemn voluntary promise usually involving the penalty of divine retribution for intentional falsity and often used in legal procedures. It is not certain that the oath was always considered a religious act; such ancient peoples as the Germanic tribes, Greeks, Romans, and Scythians swore by their swords or other weapons. These peoples, however, were actually invoking a symbol of the power of a war god as a guarantee of their trustworthiness.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

For purposes here, an Affirmation is defined as a variation that is legally accepted in place of an oath, usually in respect of the provisions or restrictions of someone's religion, especially in a legal context. There were many specific kinds of oaths, such as oaths of office, the Hippocratic Oath sworn by the medical profession, the enlistment oath of the military, the medieval oath of fealty, the oath to tell the truth when giving a deposition or testimony, the Oath of Citizenship that naturalizes new citizens, to name only a few. The Oath of Allegiance is another term for our national Pledge of Allegiance.

Oaths (and affirmations) are reserved for those matters that have the greatest importance and seriousness. It is the seriousness involved that is the reason for oaths to incorporate religion, to invoke a deity as part of the value of guarantee and sincerity, as the ultimate symbol of importance and significance, by extending the contract made between people to include God as a party, a guarantor, a witness. It establishes the ultimate accountability between people for performance of a commitment. Part of the definition of what constitutes an oath compared to lesser pledges IS religion; where religion is not included in oaths, it is an accomodation, an accepted variation to the mainstream concept intended to have the same effect as including a religious component.

sacred voluntary promise to dedicate oneself or members of one's family or community to a special obligation that goes beyond usual social or religious requirements.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

For consistency, I was going to return to the Encyclopedia Online for the next word, but another source provided better detail, so I offer it here instead. While the listing of so many different variations on 'promise' may at first glance seem a little tedious, the variety of so many specific kinds of promises in an indication of how important promises are; so I hope readers will bear with me.

Main Entry: prom·ise
Function: noun
: a declaration or manifestation esp. in a contract of an intention to act or refrain from acting in a specified way that gives the party to whom it is made a right to expect its fulfillment


aleatory promise
: a promise (as to compensate an insured individual for future loss) whose fulfillment is dependent on a fortuitous or uncertain event


collateral promise
: a promise usually to pay the debt of another that is ancillary to an original promise, is not made for the benefit of the party making it, and must be in writing to be enforceable


false promise
: a promise that is made with no intention of carrying it out and esp. that is made with intent to deceive or defraud


gratuitous promise
: a promise that is made without consideration and is usually unenforceable called also naked promise —compare NUDUM PACTUM
NOTE: A gratuitous promise may be enforceable under promissory estoppel.


illusory promise
: a purported promise that does not actually bind the party making it to a particular performance illusory promise depending solely on the will of the supposed promisor>


implied promise
: a promise that is considered to exist despite the lack of an agreement or express terms to that effect and the breach of which may be recognized as a cause of action implied promise that he would not be terminated at will> —see also PROMISE IMPLIED IN FACT and, PROMISE IMPLIED IN LAW in this entry


naked promise
: GRATUITOUS PROMISE in this entry


original promise
: a promise (as in a suretyship) usually to pay the debt of another that is made primarily for the benefit of the party making it and need not be in writing to be enforceable —compare COLLATERAL PROMISE in this entry, MAIN PURPOSE RULE


promise implied in fact
: an implied promise that exists by inference from specific facts, circumstances, or acts of the parties


promise implied in law
: an implied promise that exists on the basis of a legally enforceable duty and not on the basis of words or conduct which are promissory in form or support an inference of a promise promise implied in law that one will be compensated for services rendered and accepted>
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, © 1996 Merriam-Webster, Inc.

In a comment on "Oath of Office", K-Rod wrote: "Where does it say an Alaskan Governor cannot resign?" implying that those speaking negatively about her decision were improperly critical of her decision; and (on it's relative significance)"Palin meeting the requirements of the oath, not so much. Palin did not succeed in what I think is the commitment of the oath." The combined effect of those statements, and similar statements, was that it is no big deal if Palin chose to quit before she had completed her first, her ONLY term of statewide office, despite having sworn to do the job to the best of her abilities, and to uphold the state constitution which specifies the duration of the governor's term of office; that we should not hold her to perform according to her oath of office, because to do so is somehow partisan rather than objective.

In defense of K-Rod's position, as a practical matter, it may very well be that Alaska is not well served having a person in the Governor's position of authority who doesn't wish to be there. But that was not the argument presented in defense of her decision, nor is it the subject of "The Oath of Office".

I would argue that we are holding the taking of oaths too lightly; NOT ONLY Governor Palin in the act of resigning, but EVERY elected official and every citizen who does not match action to the words of their public oaths, including both legal and illegal conduct. I believe that in holding those oaths less binding, less important than intended we do harm; harm to ourselves, harm to our institutions. We lessen accountability and responsibility; we ignore or at least diminsh the importance of personal integrity in giving our word of honor to anything. In the case of Palin, the reasons given for her resignation put all of the focus on what SHE wanted; there was no mention of the commitment taken in swearing the oath of office, or to continuing despite whatever difficulties presented in doing the job. If we let this kind of event - AND any others like it - go unchallenged and without critical thought, then effectively we are redefining public office in terms of selfish individual whims, ambitions, and interests accorded more importance than the needs of the public served by the office. If we do not hold elected officials to their oaths, we reduce those oaths to an illusory promise (see above).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Oath of Office

“Never take a solemn oath. People think you mean it.”
- George Norman Douglas
Finnish Composer, 1865-1957

“If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
- Bible, Numbers 30:2

• noun (pl. oaths) 1 a solemn promise, especially one that calls on a deity as a witness.
- Oxford English Dictionary

from the Constitution of the State of Alaska (emphasis added):

"All public officers, before entering upon the duties of their offices, shall take and subscribe to the following oath or affirmation:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alaska, and that I will faithfully discharge my duties as . . . to the best of my ability."

The legislature may prescribe further oaths or affirmations."

I have read the oath of office for the state of Alaska very carefully. Nowhere in those 42 words (presuming one inserts the word Governor in the appropriate space) does it say "unless I decide not to run for a second term which would make me a lame duck governor", or "unless I decide I don't want to do the job anymore", or "except if I receive a 'higher calling' midway into my term of office".

Sarah Palin is a 'lame duck' by choice, not because - as in the case of President G.W. Bush for example - she had served the allowable terms as provided for in the applicable constitution, and therefore had no choice. I respect her decision not to pursue a second term of office, but then to use the resulting status as an excuse to renege on her oath of office is less excusable.

Palin did not swear to fulfill the duties of the office of Governor "unless I decide not to run for a second term" or "unless I become a 'lame duck' governor". She did not swear to fulfill the duties of the office of Governor "unless I decide I don't like the job after awhile". She did not swear the oath of office conditional to other job options, personal preferences and ambitions, or how the media would treat her or her family.

Palin has been very forthcoming about the importance of her religion in her life and in her politics. The Bible is very clear about the seriousness of swearing oaths; there is no ambiguity that an oath requires the swearer to perform what is sworn, as an important part of Christianity. The Palin oath of office was sworn on the traditional Bible, as a symbol of the sincerity and commitment of the oath taker.

And yet, those who support her enthusiastically protest vehemently any criticism of Palin's decision to abdicate the responsibilities of her office. No one is allowed to challenge Palin's motives or the wisdom of her choice, or that this represents a lack of commitment and a breach of promise to the people of Alaska who elected her to serve as Governor.

And yet, how can one not?

Opportunity Lost

When Barack Obama was elected, it was primarily done because people thought this country was heading in a very poor direction, that the middle-class, the environment, on health care, etc.., we had done little to nothing in the past 25-30 years to move in a positive direction.

He promised much, he promised "Change We Can Believe In", and we believed him. He sounded as if he understood the pain, the money crunch, the bankrupted families by health care calamities.

He has, in the course of 150 days or so, reneged on dozens of promises, that happens with politicians, but he has reneged on KEY promises which HE has the power to change without fighting with Congress, such as legitimately closing down things like secret prisons, FISA violations. He has reneged on promises not to tax health care benefits from employers.

When a President is elected he has a 'grace period' where his mandate (or her mandate) is essentially the de facto reality of what can be enacted. He has the support of the public, and he must act swiftly before that good will is gone. He can spend the good will on foolishness, like "Gays in the Military" which was not a foolish endeavor, but was foolish to have as the first thing on Clinton's agenda, or he can focus it on things like Bush did - (Star Wars, tax changes for the rich) forcing unpopular changes (with the other party) down the throats of the timid.

Obama had an enormous opportunity to change things. He claims he has been stymied by reluctant members of his own party, but even with more 'centrist' Senators he could have acted, he had a large majority in the House, and 58-59 Senators in his party in his court in general, and enormous good will from the public demanding change. He actually COULD have CHANGED things. He failed - he failed to act, he failed to oversee - the changes for Wall Street he's recommending are toothless and pathetic. He wasted his opportunity.

The ironic thing is, both the left and right now are criticizing Obama, but for entirely different reasons. The right will say, "Look, even the left doesn't like him" in their typically simplistic way. The difference is that Obama is acting like a Republican, cozying up to big business, to Wall Street, enacting meaningless reform, in short, he's doing what THEY wanted, meaning doing little to change the 'rich get richer' paradigm. They should love Obama, for, just as Rush Limbaugh hoped for, Obama is failing, and the country along with him.

Opportunity Cost

In business, an Opportunity Cost is the cost or loss associated with doing something OTHER than what you actually do. As Wiki defines it it is, "is the value of the next best alternative forgone as the result of making a decision. ..."

Recently the right has phumpered and yammered about Obama's deficit. There is more than a little merit in the complaint, as Obama is spending profligately to bail out banking and investment house executives, but making little actual change to the way business is conducted either on Wall Street or in Washington.

However, when we talk about deficits it is deceitful, even dishonest to fail to consider the opportunity cost we are paying, every day, for having a country where the middle-class are woefully under-employed. From 2001 to 2006, the estimates provided by the GAO (as I recall) are that 74% of new jobs created paid substantially LESS than the jobs shipped overseas.

The consequence on tax revenue, on housing sales on plummeting home values and with them on investments defined from them such as CDS's (Credit Default Swaps) and derivatives using real estate as a backing source, is nearly inestimable, but it is certainly safe to say it runs into the multiple trillions of dollars. Further, the spending by Obama (or for that matter in the waning days of the Bush Administration) meant to 'deal' with this crisis of under-employment, can be directly related to the business practices of those who promised higher paying jobs if we only deconstructed our manufacturing, computer hardware and computer programming base.

This is opportunity cost, and it will continue to elevate as we suffer the effects of grossly inept business and labor policy. So, while I hold much frustration and disappointment with the Obama administration for selling out to Wall Street in a manner little different from the Bushies, I don't particularly have much angst to vent about current deficits. The middle class of this country can no longer bail Wall Street out of it's problems because Wall Street saw fit to destroy the basic foundation of the middle class, and that is an opportunity cost we may never recover from.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Black and White

For many years, my parents would take winter vacations lasting a couple of weeks, often in either Florida or southernmost Texas, but occasionally to the westernmost states. I was fortunate to be included in these vacations, even as a toddler. I count it as among the most enriching aspects of my childhood that, blessed with being a good traveler, that I had the opportunity to see many parts of the country while traveling by car. It provided me not only the opportunity to see the different aspects of the landscape, but to meet and interact with the residents of more than 40 of our 50 states, with occasional forays over the borders into Canada and Mexico. As I was a good student, my parents didn't mind packing up my books and taking me out of school for these adventures. (The down side of all that vacation traveling is that I have seen enough golf courses in this country to last me a life time.)

July 2nd marked the 45th anniversary of the landmark legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of my earliest memories is of traveling in the southern United States, driving through small towns on our way to Florida. I loved the south, the food, the exceedingly friendly welcome of southern hospitality, the architecture, and of course the warmth in contrast to Minnesota in winter.

So when we stopped in a very old fashioned small town for more gasoline and the obligatory ablutions, I didn't think twice about using the drinking fountains; more specifically ONE of the TWO drinking fountains available, while my parents did their adult things. I was pre-school age, and mad as hell that I had to wait to go to school because I wanted to be able to read. Impatient with the age requirements, I had begun to teach myself how to read at the age of 2, but I was convinced that going to school would expedite my progress. So, I actually KNEW what the signs over the drinking fountains said: Whites Only, Coloreds Only. The 'whites only' fountain wasn't working, so I used the 'coloreds only' drinking fountain instead, standing on a crate to be tall enough to help myself. I didn't care; I was thirsty, and I was chronically impatient with relying on adult assistance.

What I did not expect was the alarmed response of my parents. I was a dare devilish sort of child, usually inured to their alarm. In this case, not only did my mother let out a shriek, she ran over, grabbed me by the arm pulling me off the crate, and dragged me back to the car, scolding me vehemently the entire distance. Even as a child, I was critical of many aspects of adult behavior, so I rather belligerently stood my ground, arms crossed, heels dug in, a defiant expression on my face. My response to my mother lecturing me on not using the 'coloreds only' drinking fountain was an obstinate "that's just dumb". My parents knew all too well that when I thought some custom or convention was 'dumb', I could be singularly, mulishly, spectacularly stubborn. I was utterly unrepentant for having quenched my thirst at the 'coloreds only' fountain, and I was warming up to express myself further on the topic.

What I had not expected was for my mother to gag me with her hand over my mouth, shoving me bodily into the backseat of the family car. What made the impression that will last me as long as I live was that - for a change - she was not so much angry at me, as afraid. Afraid of other adults. When we were on vacation, my parents tended to be very glib, very flippant, so this was a stark contrast to their usual demeanor. My father was clearly alarmed as well; this was a novel experience for me. I never saw my parents afraid of other grown ups before that day. Further conversation was distinctly paused until we were well away from the gas station.

At that point my parents began explaining to me that, as warm and hospitable as southerners were (both black and white), there were some people who 1. felt strongly about maintaining segregation; and 2. resented outsiders, especially northerners / Yankees whom they regarded as forcing changes to their chosen way of life. And 3. they explained about residual ill will dating back a hundred years to the Civil War.

And then they had to explain to their very young daughter about lynching, about the violence done to some people who had tried to change the status quo, and possibly the most disturbing of all their revelations, that law enforcement was sometimes party to that violence rather than preventing it. Given the Minnesota license plates on our car, my parents wanted me to be very, very careful not to give the impression that we were traveling in the south to promote rights for Negroes, or to overthrow segregation. Their fear succeeded, finally, in persuading me to shut the hell up, whatever I thought, when around southerners, and to be respectful, whatever my private thoughts were, about the coloreds only / white only differences from back home. Even at that tender age, it was clear to me that 'separate but equal' was always very long on separation, but very, very short on equal.

I loved the regional cultures of the southern states then, and I still love them now. I have friends in the south to this day, some of them descendants of VERY old, very white southern families. It was a shock to me that these lovely, friendly, charming people could have such an extremely opposite side, a violent side. That experience was very formative to my notions of being a citizen of the United States. I defined being an American as not having to be afraid of authority, either government entities or law enforcement. I defined being American as never having to fear 'being disappeared', by anyone, ever. I defined being American as never having to be afraid of someone from any region of the United States, because of regional history or differences. I thought of those things as defining dictatorships, in other less-fortunate countries.

I never feared that anyone would harm me, a child. I was well aware that I was a cute little girl with freckles and a mop of curly red hair that seemed to attract more adult attention than most other kids. My parents had gone to great lengths to ensure that I had (when pressed to use them) very pretty, very formal good manners, and the ability to use conversation beyond my years to charm adults. From that day with the drinking fountain adventure onwards, I internalized the idea that my behavior might endanger my parents whenever we traveled very far from home, and I acted accordingly (to my parents relief). I doubt that my parents would have included me as often as they did when traveling had I not; my younger sibling, in comparison, rarely traveled on these trips. That awareness definitely made me a more acute observer when traveling.

So, this anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the later companion legislation prompts a range of reflections on our history and current events. The race riots that took place in the context of what was effectively a kind of government coercion to change traditions resonates when viewing the hatred in the middle east generally, and the riots in Iran particularly. The political coalition, across party lines, of liberal Democrats Lyndon Johnson from Texas, and Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota, with conservative Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, to create regional bi-partisan support for a variety of civil rights legislation. It strikes me in the current political climate, that the next leader of a re-invented Republican Party would do well to examine the career of Everett Dirksen for the needed new ideas and new leadership. And it strikes me that Obama and Biden would do well to revisit the political careers of Johnson and Humphrey to pass some of their legislation, particularly in the area of DOMA and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The GOP would do well to examine that era, which lost the southern 'Dixi-crats' for the Democratic party, but which in the current era is leading to the GOP becoming marginalized as a limited, regional influence. Bachmann's Anti-Census rants, including her references to the Japanese American internment camps during WW II remind me of the landmark cases involving allegations of racism, especially Korematsu v. U. S. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 originated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which makes the recent US Supreme Court decision in the reverse racism case all the more piquant. And lastly, but far from least, the pattern of the U. S. Supreme Court in effectively reversing itself (albeit, indirectly) in subsequent decisions over the full history of civil rights precedents, dating back from Dredd Scott to date, is especially well worth noting, in view of the possibilities for alterations, even reversal of landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade.

The information is all available, more now than ever courtesy of the Internet.

In glorious Black and White.