31 December 2012

The rich don't pay their taxes anyway

"You know what happens with this kind of tax the rich deal. That's why they've got accountants and lawyers. So the rich figure out ways not to pay, and you get stuck with the tab."
-- George W. Bush, Hudson, Wisconsin, 18 August 2004

The Republicans in Congress are set against raising taxes on the wealthy. It's like a religion to them.

I wonder if they ever consider the fact that the rich don't tend to pay much in taxes to begin with, because of all the loopholes.

As we learned during the presidential campaign season this year, Mitt Romney hides much of his fortune overseas, and paid 14.1 percent on his 2011 tax returns.

And zillionaire Warren Buffet once famously pointed out that he paid a higher tax rate than his secretary (17.7 percent on $46M compared to her 30 percent on $60K).

All things considered, I have a strong hunch that raising their tax rates when the Bush tax cuts expire won't bankrupt the rich, even though they'll owe more on their capital gains.

On the other hand, those of us who are not so fortunate will see cuts in our paychecks that could significantly impact how we live. And many of us are already struggling to make ends meet.

A Facebook acquaintance of mine, who happens to be disabled, recently shared his dismay with the fact that Romney has such a low tax rate, while he himself pays 28 percent on $36K per year. He pointed out that Romney has argued that he (Romney) pays plenty of income tax and will not pay a dollar more. I'm sure he won't, even when the Bush tax cuts expire. But my disabled friend has no such choice, lest he land in jail for tax evasion.

And, to add insult to injury, I'm sure the GOP would like to take a hatchet to this guy's disability benefits as well.

30 December 2012

Two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas

I propose two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas:

1. Fully exonerate the West Memphis Three.

2. Reopen the case and find the real killer(s).

The world will be watching.

On Christmas Day, 2012, the documentary film West of Memphis opened in New York City and Los Angeles. It will be more widely released starting in January. The film tells the updated story of the West Memphis Three - a trio of men who were convicted as teenagers for the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Presumed ringleader Damien Echols, who was 18 years old at the time of the murders, was sentenced to death. His codefendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, Jr., who were still minors at the time, were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A prior trilogy of HBO documentaries on the case, titled Paradise Lost, raised serious questions as to whether the three were actually guilty. Indeed, the first Paradise Lost film, which captured the proceedings within the courtroom, showed something that looked more like a modern-day witch hunt. The West Memphis police had no physical evidence definitively linking the defendants to the crime. The best they had was a coerced "confession" by Miskelley which occurred after several hours of high-pressure interrogation with no lawyer or parent present. In his partially taped interrogation, Miskelley, who has an IQ of 72 (borderline intellectual functioning), kept changing his story regarding the murders - and his lack of firsthand knowledge about them - until finally, in tired frustration, he resorted to repeating the self-incriminating story that the police were spoon-feeding him. It seemed so bizarre to him that he eventually assumed it was a game - and so he played along. And he lost that game.

Echols and Baldwin were tried separately from Miskelley. Miskelley refused to testify against his friends, despite offers of a reduced sentence. And his confession could not be used as evidence against the other two. However, one of the jurors had learned of the confession, and there is evidence that he illegally brought it up during jury deliberations. Other "evidence" presented at the Echols-Baldwin trial included two witnesses who later recanted their testimonies, and an occult "expert" who had bought his PhD from a mail-order diploma mill and had never taken a formal class on the subject.

As in Salem 300 years ago, the trial focused on the occult. This was in the midst of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and '90s, which was later exposed as having no basis in fact. But back then it gave the cops - who were floundering in their investigation - an excuse to do something about Damien Echols, who had been making them nervous for some time simply because he was different. He wore black, he listened to heavy metal music, he read Stephen King novels, and he kept a journal of rather deep and edgy sentiments. Sure, these are things that a lot of teenage misfits do; but in the heart of the Bible belt, it's risky business. So the police and prosecutors contended that the defendants belonged to a satanic cult, and contrived the theory that the murders were part of a satanic ritual.

And the terrified jury bought it.

Fortunately, the Paradise Lost documentaries, which captured the trial and other case-related details on film, were widely viewed, and raised public awareness of the unfairness of the trial. People worldwide were soon convinced that the West Memphis Three were innocent. Celebrities including actor Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks held benefits for their defense fund. Filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, of Lord of the Rings fame, funded an investigation into the case which yielded important new exculpatory evidence, including DNA testing which would rule out all three defendants - and which points to the stepfather of one of the victims. New York landscape architect Lorri Davis, who had written to Echols in prison after seeing the first film, eventually fell in love with him, moved to Little Rock, married him in prison, and quit her job to work tirelessly full-time on the case. And better lawyers got on board.

It paid off - kind of.

On August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three walked out of prison as free men after each agreed to an Alford plea deal. Under an Alford plea, the defendants can maintain their innocence while officially pleading guilty - a controversial deal that sometimes serves a defendant's best interests. Their sentences were then commuted to time served, and they were released. Baldwin had initially resisted the deal, not wanting to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. But he eventually agreed in order to save his friend on death row, saying, "This was not justice. However, they’re trying to kill Damien." (All three defendants had to agree to the deal or none would be released.)

The plea deal strongly suggests that the state of Arkansas was nervous about retrying the case with the new evidence. Surely the state would not have agreed to release the three if they truly believed they were dangerous murderers. And so the deal includes some caveats that allow the state to save face.

First, as part of the deal, the three had to agree not to sue the state of Arkansas.

Second, the state considers the case closed. The West Memphis Three remain convicted felons, and the authorities maintain that they caught the right guys.

And so, alarmingly, the real killer(s) are still out there somewhere.

As Baldwin pointed out, that's not justice.

Don't the victims in this case deserve better?

All six of them?

23 December 2012

'Tis the season for giving

I just finished making my year-end donations to a handful of non-profit organizations. While times are tough, and I don't have much money, it feels good to donate to some worthy causes.

This year, I chose the ACLU, Amnesty International USA (of course), and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I wish I could afford to give more money to even more good organizations.

Before the year is over, please take some time to donate what you can to your favorite charities. Every dollar can make a huge difference in the world. And the effects will last much longer than those double lattes that you might have spent that money on instead.

16 December 2012

Sensible sportsmen should abandon the NRA

In the wake of the elementary school shootings in Connecticut on Friday, the talking heads and bloggers are again arguing gun control. And, as usual, I am sure the talk will fade before any action is taken, and it will all be put on hold again until the next shooting. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Why? Because the National Rifle Association (NRA) has somehow acquired so much power that our lawmakers are afraid to oppose them. Indeed, even Democrats are afraid to speak out for sensible gun control.

The NRA keeps talking about protection of Second Amendment rights. But what they actually call for is unfettered access to even the most powerful assault weapons - far beyond the handguns kept for self-defense and rifles used for hunting.

Then, when mass shootings occur, they drag out their tired excuse that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." They refuse to admit that you can kill more people more efficiently with guns than with most other readily available weapons.

Thanks to pressure from the NRA, it is now easier to get an automatic rifle than a driver's license. But since, as they love to point out, "people kill people," shouldn't they be eager to keep their beloved weapons out the hands of the crazies who might kill people?

Apparently not. This is despite the fact that NRA members themselves overwhelmingly support some kinds of sensible gun control.

Therefore, I call on current dues-paying NRA members to abandon the organization until it backs off from its extreme positions.

Sensible gun control will not prevent all mass shootings, but it will certainly make them more difficult. Is that not a worthwhile goal?

10 December 2012

On December 10, take action for Human Rights Day!

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. It is the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly. This project was led by Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of World War II, to define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There were lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth in the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

Still, however, human rights continue to be violated - right here in the USA and all around the world.

What you can do:

Here are some things you can do today - or anytime - to help advance the cause of human rights worldwide:

Read the UDHR and share its message with your friends, family, and social networks.

Take action online to fight human rights violations. Individuals can make a difference!

and/or

• Make a year-end donation to a human rights organization. Here are some of my favorites:
     Amnesty International
     Human Rights First
     Human Rights Watch

09 December 2012

Jeb Bush is new Constitution Center board chair

I love all the historical and cultural resources here in Philadelphia, and one of my favorites is the National Constitution Center. I've been a member of the Constitution Center for several years now.

So I have mixed feelings about the fact that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has recently been named as the new Chairman of the Constitution Center's Board of Trustees.

But then, his father also once served as Chairman, and the Constitution Center still continues to be nonpartisan in its displays, and bipartisan in its special programs.

And I admit that the choice could have been much, much worse.

Still, I'll be keeping an eye on things.

04 December 2012

This (and every) holiday season, say no to the Salvation Army

Today I drove through a nearby shopping center and, since it's the holiday shopping season, I saw the usual Salvation Army representative ringing his bell and asking shoppers to please fill his little red kettle with money.

I wanted to pull the naive donors aside and give them an earful; or maybe stand there and hand out anti-SA flyers. But I didn't have the time nor the soliciting permit nor any prepared flyers, so I came home and wrote this blog post instead - for now.

You see, the Salvation Army is not the kind and generous operation it purports to be. The organization - and its leaders at all levels - have a long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, and intolerance.

I wrote a piece in December of 2008 that provided an overview of the issues.

That generated a lot of other stories from readers who showed me that the Salvation Army was even worse than the entity I had exposed in 2008. So I wrote a follow-up piece in December of 2009.

Here are links to those two pieces:

• December 2008: The Salvation Army's red kettle of trouble

• December 2009: The Salvation Army: It gets worse

Please just say no to the Salvation Army - this holiday season and every year. And tell everyone you know.

01 December 2012

For World AIDS Day, Hillary Clinton envisions an AIDS-free generation

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. On this date each year, organizations and individuals from around the world work together to call attention to the global AIDS crisis.

This year's World AIDS Day theme is "Getting to Zero", marking a campaign that runs until 2015 with the goal of getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.

In observance of Worlds AIDS Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a "blueprint for an AIDS-free generation".

Some excerpts from her speech:

Now, make no mistake about it: HIV may well be with us into the future. But the disease that it causes need not be. We can reach a point where virtually no children are born with the virus, and as these children become teenagers and adults, they are at a far lower risk of becoming infected than they are today. And if they do acquire HIV, they have access to treatment that helps prevent them not only from developing AIDS, but from passing the virus on to others.

[...]

First, let’s remember why, after so many years of discouraging news, this goal is now possible. By applying evidence-based strategies in the most effective combinations, we have cut the number of new infections dramatically. Just last week, UNAIDS announced that, over the past decade, the rate of new HIV infections has dropped by more than half in 25 low-and-middle-income countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Just listen to these numbers: In Zimbabwe, a 50 percent reduction; in Namibia, a 68 percent reduction; and in Malawi, a 73 percent reduction in the rate of new infections.

So as we continue to drive down the number of new infections and drive up the number of people on treatment, eventually we will be able to treat more people than become infected every year. That will be the tipping point. We will then get ahead of the pandemic, and an AIDS-free generation will be in our sight. Now, we don’t know how long it will take to do this everywhere, but we know that we can do it.

I hope she is correct.

>> Read Secretary Clinton's full statement here.

25 November 2012

American excess in perspective

Thursday, November 22, was the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. In addition to giving thanks for the good people and good things in our lives, we use the Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate gluttony, over huge turkey dinners with all the trimmings. We go into it planning to eat too much, and then we do. No qualms about it. It's what Thanksgiving is all about, it seems. It's the American way.

Thanksgiving Thursday is then immediately followed by Black Friday - the busiest shopping day of the year. Many retailers even opened their doors on Thursday night this year, instead of waiting for Friday. While their turkey dinners were still digesting, hordes of shoppers descended on their local Walmart, Target, and Best Buy stores and elbowed their way to the best deals on large-screen TVs and other treasures. It is American consumerism at its most obscene. And it has become almost like a sporting event. No qualms about it. It's the American way.

At the very same time, some 15 percent of households in this country lack food security. Many of these families must routinely skip meals, sometimes for a full day, sometimes for much longer. The lucky ones are able to get food assistance to keep themselves alive.

Even more alarmingly, over 21 percent of American children struggle with hunger today, through no fault of their own. That's some 16 million kids who aren't sure where their next meal will come from - or when. They would be grateful for some of your discarded turkey scraps at best.

Sadly, too many middle class and wealthy Americans have no qualms about this inconvenient truth. They may put an extra dollar in the church collection basket and think they're doing their part to help the poor. Or they may take the easiest way out and blame the victim, blame the mythical "welfare queen". This, too, now seems to be the American way.

Thankfully, in this year's elections, voters rejected many of the politicians - including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney - who would have instituted even more policies that favor the rich corporations over the middle class and the less fortunate. But that is not enough, especially with the Republicans still in control of the House of Representatives.

We must push our leaders to do a serious reality check and adjust their priorities. Our government cannot continue to be a government of, by, and for the wealthy elite and their fossil fuel interests. We must resurrect the vision of our founding fathers, in which the United States of America is a government of, by, and for the people. All of the people.

Until then, even with President Obama in the White House, the middle class will continue to shrink, and more and more ordinary Americans will find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Each Thanksgiving and each Black Friday, we'll have less to eat and less to spend. And more and more children will starve.

20 November 2012

Walmart protests planned for Black Friday (and how you can help)

They're mad as hell, as the old movie quote goes, and they're not going to take it anymore!

After years of abuse by management, courageous current and former Walmart workers are ready to fight back. On Black Friday, November 23, they are planning to picket Walmart stores and warehouses across the U.S.

I'm glad to see them so bravely standing up for their rights. Walmart for years has been notorious for its low wages, poor working conditions, and anti-union policies.

How you can help:

Instead of shopping at Walmart on Black Friday, stand outside the store and lend your support to the protesting workers!

Click here to find a Walmart protest site near you.

18 November 2012

More stubbornness, hatred, and violence in the Middle East

Here we go again. For several days now, Israel and Hamas have been exchanging deadly bombs and rocket fire.

And, like every such episode, nothing will be accomplished by the violence except for needless death and destruction. It will not lead to an ultimate solution to the ages-old territorial dispute in the region. That can only be accomplished politically.

But, as always, there is too much emotional finger pointing, and too much hatred in the way, for the parties involved to seriously seek a true and lasting solution.

And, as always, innocent civilians on both sides continue to pay the price.

07 November 2012

Revenge of the female voters

Tuesday's elections demonstrated that the GOP's war on women comes at a price.

For example:

• The citizens of Missouri rejected Todd ("legitimate rape") Akin's Senate bid in favor of Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.

• In the Indiana Senate race, voters chose Democrat Joe Donnelly over GOP challenger Richard ("God's will") Mourdock.

• Here in Pennsylvania, Democratic Senator Bob Casey retained his seat as voters rejected Republican challenger Tom ("similar to having a baby out of wedlock") Smith.

• And, of course, voters across the nation rejected Mitt Romney, who had promised to reverse Roe v. Wade, defund Planned Parenthood, and repeal Obamacare.

While I'm sure many mysogynistic old white men will continue to try to control women's bodies via draconian legislation at the state level, the greater momentum is obviously on our side.

Let's keep the momentum going!

05 November 2012

Why my Republican friend - and her sisters - are voting for Obama

This evening I had dinner with a Republican friend. She and I usually avoid talking about politics, and instead just silently agree to disagree. There's plenty of other stuff to talk about.

But tonight she insisted on bringing it up. It turned out that she wanted to let me know that she will be voting for Obama tomorrow. I think this will be the first time in her life that she has voted for a non-Republican candidate.

She is a fiscal conservative, and complained about "Obama's deficit". But then she explained that she couldn't support the GOP war on women's reproductive rights, and that was her reason for this difficult decision.

She also said that her two sisters, themselves staunch Republicans, would be voting for Obama as well, for the same reason.

I chose not to address the deficit issue. Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.

I'm hoping that many other Republican women will see things the same way as my friend and her sisters. Hopefully the misogynists in the GOP have pushed the envelope a bit too far this time.

01 November 2012

Rick Perry racks up 250th execution

On Wednesday, October 31, the State of Texas executed Donnie Lee Roberts for the 2003 murder of his girlfriend.

Roberts has the dubious distinction of being the 250th death row prisoner to be executed under Governor Rick Perry.

According to Salon.com, "Perry has presided over more executions than any other governor in U.S. modern history." George W. Bush, by comparison, oversaw a mere 152 executions.

And, given the fact that Perry bragged about his execution rate (to thunderous applause) during a GOP presidential primary debate last year, I'm guessing that he's proud of this new milestone.

But instead he should be ashamed.

First, he should be ashamed because forensic evidence shows that he likely executed at least one innocent man in 2004 - and then impeded the investigation into the error. This does not deserve applause.

Second, he should be ashamed because more than 2,000 people convicted of serious crimes in the U.S. have been exonerated in the past 23 years based on DNA or other evidence. So that aforementioned case was not an isolated one. This does not deserve applause.

Third, he should be ashamed because it makes no logical sense to kill someone in order to show that killing is wrong. Doing so does not deserve applause.

But none of that seems to matter. Perry kills, and the bloodthirsty right-wing sheep applaud.

I wonder how any of those sheep would feel if, wrongfully convicted of a crime they did not commit, found themselves strapped to the lethal injection gurney in the Texas death house while the masses applauded their demise - and Perry took a bow.

28 October 2012

The myth of the Christian right

GOP politicians and their followers love to play the Christianity card. They wave their bibles and wag their fingers at anyone whose behavior doesn't pass their sanctimonious moral judgment.

They call themselves Christians, but in Catholic school I was taught that Christians adore and follow Jesus Christ. These holier-than-thou Republicans don't reflect the Jesus that I read about in the New Testament.

To illustrate this point, let's compare the teachings of Jesus with the actions of his so-called followers in the GOP.

---

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)

The "Christian" Republicans, on the other hand, attacked Iraq for no good reason, and now are beating the war drums over Iran. And their corporate overlords in the war profiteering business are making a fortune. (See Halliburton.)

---

Jesus said, "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes', and your 'No' mean 'No'. Anything more is from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37)

But GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney changes his opinions on the issues from 'yes' to 'no' and back again as much as needed to achieve his immediate political goals. And the "Christian" Republicans will vote for him.

---

Jesus said, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

But the GOP has in recent decades become the Greedy Old Party, working to cut social services for the underprivileged in order to give unneeded tax breaks to the very wealthy.

---

Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the [temple] treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything -- all she had to live on." (Mark 12:43)

And so the "Christian" Republicans will call her a welfare queen.

---

Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5)

But GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks about his car elevator and professes his disdain for the 47 percent while on the campaign trail. And the "Christian" Republicans will vote for him.

---

Jesus said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me... Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 25:40-45)

See above re: tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the needy.

---

Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s." (Matthew 22:21)

But GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney hides his wealth in overseas tax havens to avoid rendering unto Uncle Sam. And the "Christian" Republicans will vote for him.

---

Jesus said, "Watch out that you are not deceived." (Luke 21:8)

So how can we tell when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is telling the truth, since his official positions change so frequently? Still, the "Christian" Republicans will vote for him.

---

Jesus said, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)

But the "Christian" Republicans have to drag their "religion" not only into the public square but into our political process as well, despite the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

---

Jesus said, "Judge not, that you be not judged." (Matthew 7:1)

But that doesn't stop GOP mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh from judging everyone he disagrees with. (See Sandra Fluke.)

---

And so on.

But, sadly, many voters who most need to recognize this hypocrisy are either too complacent, too apathetic, or too willfully ignorant to see it.

I just hope enough eyes - and minds - can open before Election Day to save us.

26 October 2012

UN official says death penalty is torture; US doesn't care

On October 23, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented to the General Assembly's human rights committee a report on the death penalty, and called on states to "seriously reconsider whether the death penalty amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or even torture." The UN has for years been calling for a moratorium on the death penalty worldwide.

In addition to his concerns that some forms of execution - such as stoning and gas asphyxiation - have been "explicitly deemed to violate the prohibition of torture," Mendez noted that "[s]olitary confinement ... in combination with the knowledge of death and uncertainty of when an execution would take place, contributed to the risk of irreparable mental and physical harm." And, of course, there is evidence suggesting that even lethal injection is not as pain-free as some would like to believe.

In response, the U.S. delegate defended the death penalty by saying that "the report noted that the death penalty could only be carried out pursuant to the judgement of competent courts and applied only to the most serious crimes. The United States had a number of exhaustive protections to ensure that the death penalty was undertaken with the best safeguards and only after multiple layers of judicial review."

But try telling that to the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for an alleged arson murder only to have a later forensic review conclude that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fatal fire for which Willingham was executed was probably an accident. So much for safeguards.

But whether the condemned is actually innocent or not is beside the point that Mendez was making. So are the "exhaustive protections" claimed by the U.S. delegate. Unfortunately, to some it doesn't matter.

18 October 2012

DOMA ruled unconstitutional again, as Boehner wastes tax dollars

Today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. Under DOMA, same-sex marriages are not recognized at the federal level or (to a more limited extent) an interstate level.

The Obama administration and the Justice Department had announced early last year that they would stop defending DOMA in the court system, having determined that it is discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional. And so DOMA should have stopped there.

However, since then, House Speaker John Boehner and his crew have taken the matter into their own hands, and have invested nearly $1.5 million so far in defending DOMA. And they will likely keep on spending our tax dollars to advance their bigoted agenda all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as long as they continue to have the power to do so.

And then they turn around and accuse President Obama of frivolous spending.

Friday, October 19 - Wear purple to fight bullying!

Tomorrow is Spirit Day 2012. This will be the third annual Spirit Day, named for the purple stripe of the rainblow flag representing "spirit".

Spirit Day was established as an opportunity for people to speak out against the plague of bullying aimed at LGBT youth.

On Spirit Day, please wear purple to show your support. I certainly will. (The photo is from the first Spirit Day in 2010.)

Do more:

>> Find more Spirit Day actions at www.glaad.org/spiritday.

10 October 2012

Gender stereotypes in the bookstore aisles

I recently visited a used bookstore in a Philadelphia suburb. I was looking for a couple of out-of-print books -- one on politics and one on science.

In walking through the aisles and scanning the shelf labels, I couldn't find sections for politics or science.

So I asked the woman behind the desk where I would find books on those two subjects. "Men's Interests," she replied, and pointed to that row. Sure enough, there were the books I was looking for. Under "Men's Interests". I wondered if the desk lady assumed I was shopping for a book for my husband, brother, or son, rather than for myself. But I said nothing.

Then, just for grins, I found the "Women's Interests" section. There, as I had expected, were all the cookbooks, along with books on fashion, parenting, and crafts.

Better tell Emeril Lagasse that cooking is a "women's interest".

Better tell Calvin Klein that fashion is a "women's interest".

Better tell that macho Todd Palin, who watches the younger kids while Sarah continues her media stunts even after all these years, that parenting is a "women's interest".

And don't let your Boy Scouts work on crafts, because that's obviously girl stuff. Proof is at the bookstore.

As for me, I guess I'm supposed to stop worrying my little blonde head over manly things like politics and science, and instead maybe learn to crochet.

Don't hold your breath.

08 October 2012

I still won't celebrate Columbus Day

Today is the Columbus Day holiday in the U.S., which celebrates Christopher Columbus's alleged discovery of the Americas.

Despite the parades around me, I will not be celebrating, for my usual reasons. Below are those reasons, as I've been sharing each year on this second Monday of October:

What we learned about Columbus in school was not the whole truth. In some cases, it wasn't the truth at all.

First of all, Columbus did not originate the theory that the earth is round. Such had been known since ancient times.

Columbus also did not discover America. Leif Ericson and his Norsemen had built a settlement in what is now the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador some 500 years before Columbus wandered into the West Indies.

And, once Columbus got here, he enslaved the Native Americans and forced them to convert to Christianity, while helping himself to the new world's gold and other precious resources.

In other words, it seems that he paved the way for the better-known genocide and subjugation of Native Americans that took place on the North American mainland in later centuries.

Is this the kind of thing we should really be celebrating?

Not me.

02 October 2012

PA voter ID law on hold until after November

The good news: Sorry, Mike Turzai. Today, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson put Pennsylvania's voter ID law on hold, so it will not be enforced for the November elections. Voters this November may be asked for ID, but will not be stopped from voting if they cannot produce it. Simpson indicated that he was not convinced that there was enough time for all voters who need one to obtain an ID in time for November's elections. This ruling follows hearings in which several would-be voters described extreme difficulties in obtaining the required ID.

The bad news: The voter ID law isn't dead, it's just in an induced coma. Simpson scheduled a hearing for December 13 to further review the case.

Stay tuned for updates, with fingers crossed for democracy, not suppression.

28 September 2012

Judge issues a stay of execution for Terrance Williams

Good news: This morning, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Theresa Samina stayed the execution of Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to die on October 3. This ruling comes after a hearing earlier this week to explore new evidence surrounding the murder for which Williams was convicted.

During his original trial, the defense had failed to mention the fact that Williams, who was barely 18 years old at the time of the murder, had endured years of sexual abuse by the man he later killed. In fact, Williams had been abused by older men since he was six years old, and the abuse continued throughout his adolescence. But the jury never heard about this.

Five of the former jurors in the Williams case are now saying that they would not have voted for the death penalty if they had known about the sexual abuse. Furthermore, some said they voted for execution only because they thought the alternative would be life with the possibility of parole. (In fact, the alternative would have been life without the possibility of parole.) The victim's widow has even called for clemency.

Fortunately, someone was listening. Kudos to Judge Samina for choosing life over death in today's ruling.

27 September 2012

I am not the Santorum supporter

Rick Santorum may long be out of the presidential race, but he's still bothering me.

It seems one of my readers thought I had lost my mind. He found this website where someone named Mary Shaw had been campaigning for Rick Santorum for president.

I would have thought that my readers would know better, but I appreciate that he brought the matter to my attention.

So, lest anyone else think that's me, I will take this opportunity to point out that Mary Shaw is a fairly common name in this country, and the one raising money for Santorum is definitely not me. My political views still lie pretty far to the left, and I agree with Rick Santorum on pretty much nothing.

Fortunately, the other Mary Shaw provides a photo on the site, which should prove that we are two different people.

23 September 2012

One year after Troy Davis, more injustice on death row

September 21 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Troy Davis. Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for a crime he probably did not commit. Davis's original trial was flawed, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. His conviction was based solely on questionable testimony by witnesses, most of whom later recanted or contradicted their stories. Everyone from Jimmy Carter to the Pope had issued calls for clemency in his case. But the authorities killed him anyway.

Now Missouri is pursuing a very similar case, with death row inmate Reggie Clemons. As with the Davis case, there is no physical evidence linking Clemons to the crime for which he was convicted, and his conviction was based solely on witness testimony. One witness had been a former suspect in the case. In other words, here too there appears to be reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt.

This past week, Clemons was given an evidentiary hearing to review evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and police brutality in the case. One bombshell is an allegation that the star prosecution witness in the case had received a payment of $150,000 to settle a dispute with police over physical abuse. Clemons alleges that the police had abused him as well. If they can't get a confession by humane means, I guess they feel they have to beat it out of you. And that kind of "truth" is always suspect at best.

Clemons's hearing will continue to move forward, and anything could happen. But the prosecution still wants blood, claiming that Clemons previously had his chance to clear his name. Never mind the fact that he had been represented in his original trial by an incompetent attorney who failed to mount an adequate defense.

Meanwhile, in my home state of Pennsylvania, death row inmate Terrance Williams faces an October 3 execution date. Unlike the Davis and Clemons cases, there is no doubt that Williams committed the murder for which he was sentenced to die. However, during the initial trial, the defense failed to mention the fact that Williams, who was barely 18 years old at the time of the murder, had endured years of sexual abuse by the man he later killed. In fact, Williams had been abused by older men since he was six years old, and the abuse continued throughout his adolescence. But the jury never heard about this.

Five of the former jurors in the Williams case are now saying that they would not have voted for the death penalty if they had known about the sexual abuse. Furthermore, some said they voted for execution only because they thought the alternative would be life with the possibility of parole. (In fact, the alternative would have been life without the possibility of parole.) The victim's widow has even called for clemency. The defense continues to fight for a life sentence as the clock keeps on ticking.

But even in cases where guilt is clear and there aren't the kind of mitigating circumstances such as we see in the Williams case, does it really make sense to kill a killer in order to show that killing is wrong?

Furthermore, studies have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. That's not justice, it's prejudice.

We as a society should be above that sort of thing.

28 August 2012

Another GOP rape gaffe

He hardly waited for us to get over our disgust with anti-choice Republican Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri, who recently claimed that "legitimate rape" (an oxymoron, by the way) rarely causes pregnancy because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

On August 27, Senate candidate Tom Smith of Pennsylvania jumped on the anti-woman bandwagon and seemed to equate rape with pregnancy out of wedlock.

Specifically, when asked about the Akin gaffe, he talked about a family member who chose to give birth birth out of wedlock, and said, "it is similar."

He quickly tried to backtrack, but he nevertheless made it clear that he believes a zygote should have more rights than a grown woman (not to mention the fact that he seemed to dismiss the violent - or at least forced - nature of rape).

Every woman - Republican or otherwise - should see this as a huge insult.

But, sadly, I'm sure many will not.

Israeli court throws out Rachel Corrie wrongful death lawsuit

Disappointing news: This morning, a district court in Haifa ruled that the Israeli army was not at fault for the death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie. The court decided that her death was instead an accident.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 on behalf of the Corrie family. Rachel was crushed to death in 2003 by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a civilian Palestinian home. She was 23 years old.

And to further add insult to injury, Judge Oded Gershon blamed Rachel for "[putting] herself in a dangerous situation." In his mind, apparently, bravery and resolve = recklessness.

My heart goes out to Rachel's family.

For more information about the case, and about Rachel's life and legacy, go to RachelCorrieFoundation.org

26 August 2012

Isaac's irony

The GOP is rescheduling some Republican National Convention events, because Tropical Storm Isaac is currently headed towards Tampa.

While I am hoping that everyone will be safe and damage will be minimal, I'm finding it very ironic that the GOP convention is being interrupted by an "act of God".

After all, if a similar situation disrupted a Democratic event, Pat Robertson and his cohorts would likely tell us it's "God's retribution" - just as he said that abortion was responsible for Hurricane Katrina and that the ACLU and feminists were to blame for the 9/11 attacks.

22 August 2012

Rachel Corrie trial verdict due next week

On August 28, at 9:00 am local time in Haifa District Court, the verdict will be announced in the civil lawsuit against the State of Israel for the killing of American peace activist Rachel Corrie.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 on behalf of the Corrie family. Rachel Corrie was crushed to death in 2003 by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a Palestinian home. She was 23 years old.

The Corrie family will be in Haifa for the occasion, and will hold a press conference along with their attorneys after the verdict is read.

Stay tuned for the outcome.

Meanwhile, for more news and information about the case, and about Rachel's life and legacy, go to RachelCorrieFoundation.org

20 August 2012

Accredited rape??? (i.e., Fun with Todd Akin)

If you've been paying attention to the news over the last couple of days, you've probably heard of the latest GOP scandal involving Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who claimed that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy.

Here are his specific words: "First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

My first question to the Congressman is this: How can my uterus tell whether a rape is "legitimate" or not, so that it can activate the pregnancy prevention mechanism accordingly or not? (I dare him to ask his doctor friends that question!)

My second question is this: When is a rape ever legitimate?

Perhaps he was alluding to the fact that many rape accusations are false. But actual rape, per se, can never be legitimate, and this careless choice of words speaks volumes.

And the implications are astounding.

To demonstrate this, as a writer and word person, I went to my good friend Thesaurus.com to get a clear understanding of what is meant by a "legitimate" rape.

It turned into a rather amusing exercise, despite the grim subject matter. (Hey, sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying and/or losing our minds.)

So, with tongue in cheek, here is what Thesaurus.com taught me:

legitimate rape =

accepted rape
accredited rape (!)
acknowledged rape
admissible rape
appropriate rape (!)
authorized rape
canonical rape (see also: Catholic Church, altar boys)
certain rape
cogent rape
consistent rape
correct rape (!)
customary rape
fair rape (!)
genuine rape (OK, I'll give him this one.)
innocent rape (!)
just rape (!)
justifiable rape (!!)
lawful rape (!!!)
licit rape
logical rape
natural rape
normal rape
official rape
proper rape (!)
reasonable rape
rightful rape (!)
sanctioned rape
sensible rape
warranted rape (!)

(Antonyms = illegal, invalid, unlawful, unwarranted!)

So would someone please give Mr. Akin a dictionary? (And a new career?)

Financial settlement in swim club racism case

Three years ago, I wrote about an incident at a Philadelphia area swim club: A group of young day care students, who had a pre-arranged and pre-paid agreement to use the pool, were subjected to hateful and racially charged comments and then were ordered to leave the club. Most of the children, if not all, were black or brown. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission investigated the case and issued a finding that racism was indeed a factor.

Now, finally, the Valley Swim Club is paying a price for its bigotry. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it has reached a settlement agreement with the club for as much as $1.1 million.

All the money in the world cannot heal the emotional wounds that the incident inflicted on its young victims three years ago. But at least this demonstrates that racist behavior could come with a hefty price tag. Hopefully this will be somewhat of a deterrent where the human conscience fails.

19 August 2012

Vladimir Putin and the crime of dissent

Russia may have made some steps forward towards social progress since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it seems that President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to crack down on political dissent. And the new poster girls for this oppression are members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

On August 17, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". The charges arose from a protest they staged in a Moscow cathedral in which they criticized Putin's policies. And the verdict came down despite international outcry.

Amnesty International has described the case as "emblematic of increased efforts by President Putin and his cronies to stifle free speech in Russia," and declared Pussy Riot to be prisoners of conscience.

"Say what you will about Pussy Riot: this may not be your kind of music. Some people find their shows offensive," said Michelle A. Ringuette, Chief of Campaigns & Programs for Amnesty International USA. "But it doesn't change the facts: Since March, these young women have been in jail and kept from their families, including small children, and they are being threatened with seven years imprisonment - all because of a peaceful protest song that lasted less than a minute."

Human Rights First called the verdict "the latest example of how Russia uses laws that are meant to combat hate crimes - extremism, incitement, and hostility or hatred statutes - to prosecute artists, independent media, and LGBT and other civil society groups."

The U.S. State Department issued the following statement: "The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."

Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Sting have voiced their support for Pussy Riot.

And tens of thousands of ordinary citizens of the world have signed petitions on their behalf.

But the Russian authorities apparently don't want to hear it, and are cracking down on Pussy Riot's supporters within that country. Chess champion and Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov was beaten and arrested after he showed up at the sentencing. The police accused Kasparov of biting one of them - a charge he strongly denies. Other protesters at the sentencing were also arrested.

"We've been saying Putin is a dictator for years who doesn't care about the law. Today, he proved it," said Kasparov.

11 August 2012

Romney-Ryan: Good news, bad news

This morning the news broke that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate.

Some progressives are celebrating this choice, figuring that Ryan's ultra-conservative fiscal policy will alienate a lot of voters. That's the good news.

The bad news: This choice will, at the same time, fire up the conservative base, including the Tea Party. And they vote. And they could win.

A Romney-Ryan win could devastate this nation, especially if the GOP retains control of the House.

So is this enough to motivate the disillusioned left?

06 August 2012

Apology to the Sikh community

Yesterday, a white man with a gun opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He killed six people and wounded three others before police arrived and killed the shooter.

As of this writing, investigators have not yet determined a motive for the crime. However, witnesses have indicated that the shooter had a 9/11 tattoo on his arm.

So, of course, there is speculation that this may have been a "revenge" shooting, even though Sikhs are not Muslims - they are two distinctly separate religions. (Of course, even if they were Muslims, this crime would be no more justified.)

Distinctions, however, are often lost on bigots who just see the world in terms of "us" vs. "the other". Sikhs wear turbans, and some al-Qaeda members have been seen on TV wearing turbans, so that's close enough. Brown skin is brown skin, and that is enough to earn the label of "other". An exotic style of dress further fuels the fire of hatred.

This kind of ignorance and blind prejudice disgust and embarrass me. My heart goes out to the Sikh community in the wake of yesterday's tragedy. I apologize for the ignorance and intolerance that some in this country force you to endure.

-----

Update (08 Aug): It now appears that the shooter, Wade Michael Page, was not killed by police but rather died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head after being shot in the stomach. What a coward!

30 July 2012

NRA wants to arm violent warlords

Late last week, the United Nations failed to agree on a global arms trade treaty that would regulate the transfer of arms to conflict nations where they would violate arms embargoes or could be used in acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

The United States and Russia used their power to stall the talks, which are now on hold. A vote may occur later this year.

Meanwhile, the NRA is taking credit for blocking passage of the treaty this time around, in the name of the Second Amendment - even though the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs has clearly indicated that the treaty would not "interfere with the domestic arms trade and the way a country regulates civilian possession."

So apparently the NRA thinks warlords and other bad guys should have unfettered access to all the weapons they need to commit their atrocities lest a slippery slope threaten the rights of law-abiding U.S. gun nuts.

Not exactly logical. Yet they seem so proud of it.

24 July 2012

Philly monsignor gets 3-6 years for protecting pedophile priests

Earlier today, Roman Catholic Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to 3 to 6 years in prison for covering up clergy sex abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Lynn's lawyers had argued instead for house arrest, claiming that a prison sentence would constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment. But what of the cruel and unusual treatment of the children whose abuse was enabled by Lynn's own actions?

According to the Associated Press, "Lynn was the first U.S. church official convicted for his handling of abuse claims in the sex scandal that's rocked the Catholic church for more than a decade."

I hope he won't be the last.

But it's not easy, especially since these kinds of cover-ups go all the way to the top - even to the pope himself.

Within the Catholic Church (like Penn State), protecting our children takes a back seat to protecting the reputation of the institution.

What would Jesus think?!

22 July 2012

Chick-fil-A's biblical hypocrisy

Chicken sandwich chain Chick-fil-A has never tried to hide its "Christian" roots. It's usually the only store in a shopping mall food court that is closed every Sunday. And the official Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose is "To glorify God."

But recently they've come under fire publicly for being anti-gay, to which company president and CEO Dan Cathy responded: "Well, guilty as charged."

Cathy went on to promote the "biblical definition of the family unit."

"[T]hank the Lord," he said, "we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."

But it's interesting to note that Chick-fil-A is cherry picking the biblical principles it wants to observe.

After all, bacon is on Chick-fil-A's breakfast menu, even though its consumption is explicitly prohibited:

"And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you."
-- Leviticus 11:7-8
I do not expect a response from Chick-fil-A on that.

08 July 2012

Barney Frank ties the knot

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) married his longtime partner, Jim Ready, in a ceremony officiated by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

As the New York Times points, out, Frank, who was the first sitting member of Congress to come out as gay, now becomes the first to be married to a partner of the same sex.

Frank, who has been representing Massachusetts' 4th Congressional district since 1981, will be retiring from Congress at the end of his current term.

I wish him and his new husband much happiness in this next phase of their life together.

07 July 2012

Evangelical radio host wants church attendance mandate

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act, evangelical radio talk show host Bryan Fisher called "brilliant" a listener's suggestion of a mandate that everyone attend church or else pay a tax.

Perhaps someone should point him to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." And that's exactly what it would be.

Of course, the religious right won't let pesky things like the Constitution get in the way of their theocratic wet dreams.

04 July 2012

Jefferson is spinning

As I write this on the July 4th holiday, 2012, it occurs to me that Thomas Jefferson is surely spinning in his grave.

When he and the other Founding Fathers created this nation 236 years ago today, their vision was of a society in which "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

At the same time, they recognized that a true democracy requires an informed electorate. In a letter to William Charles Jarvis in 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."
Instead, today our politicians are working to undermine public education and other institutions of opportunity for the poor and the middle class, and instead indoctrinate the masses via corporate funded political propaganda. That is plutocracy, not democracy.

Jefferson foresaw this possibility, and railed against it, saying:

"I hope we shall crush ... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
In identifying this possibility, however, I doubt that Jefferson ever imagined that a Supreme Court decision would give free rein to "the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations" to "challenge our government to a trial of strength..." The Citizens United case enshrined as constitutional the corrupt ideal that money is power. Again, what we have here now is plutocracy, not democracy.

Jefferson is also famous for his concept of a "wall of separation between Church and State." I wonder what he would think of the fact that politicians all across the nation are trying to legislate religious "morality" in everything from contraception to marriage rights. That is theocracy, not democracy.

Two years ago, to add insult to injury, the Texas Board of Education decided to stop teaching that state's children about Jefferson's views. Apparently the ideas that led to the holiday they are celebrating today are just too radical for our children to consider.

And I don't think they even see the irony in it.

19 June 2012

US Congress and our sexual virility double standard

In one of my rare episodes of mainstream TV watching, an advertisement appeared for an erectile dysfunction drug. And it occurred to me that this ad would not make a single GOP male flinch. Ditto condom ads. They're down with all that.

On the other hand, advertise female birth control and/or family planning resources, and it's condemned by the right.

Prolific sexual functionality is apparently a desirable thing for men, but not for women - except in situations of submissive duty to procreate.

The men are the ones rightly in charge of the women's reproductive health/fate, as they see it. We women are apparently not to be trusted with our own bodies.

Why else would they have held all-male congressional hearings on birth control?

I wonder how their wives, daughters, nieces, and granddaughters feel about this. (With some research, that might be a blog post for another day.)

06 June 2012

Democracy must be saved

Yesterday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived a recall election which had been prompted by his war on workers and other extreme right-wing agenda items. And this unfortunate result can only encourage and embolden other right-wing governors and state legislatures to follow suit. Indeed, many already are.

According to the New York Times, the Walker campaign was backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and other big-ticket donors to a tune of $45.6 million, compared to $17.9 spent by his Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Money talks. And money wins elections. Money buys the propaganda that leads ordinary citizens to vote against their own best interests.

When that happens, we no longer have a true democracy. Instead, it is a plutocracy. It is fascism in the purest sense of the word. And human rights - and basic decency and fairness - take a back seat to corporate profits and greed.

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson feared when he said: "I hope we shall crush ... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Jefferson is surely spinning in his grave.

We the living must keep up the fight to defend the true democracy that he envisioned more than two centuries ago.

We must not let yesterday's disappointment discourage us. We should let it inspire us to work harder than ever to get this country back on track.

The alternative is unthinkable. So giving up is not an option.

On to November!

03 June 2012

Can Edwards recover like Clinton?

On May 31, the jury in the John Edwards campaign corruption trial found him not guilty on one count and remained hung on the remaining counts. The judge then declared a mistrial on those other counts. As of this writing, it is unclear whether the prosecution will seek to retry him on those unsettled counts.

The case involves the use of donor funds during Edwards's 2008 presidential campaign that were directed towards hiding the then-candidate's affair with his mistress - an affair that resulted in a love child - while his wife was dying of cancer. The defense insists that the donations in question were personal gifts rather than political campaign donations.

I am not a lawyer. Like the jury, I am personally hung on most of it. I cannot read the minds of the donors nor the recipients of that money, so I will not guess at their actual thoughts or intents. And perhaps that was where the jury was coming from.

I want to state right now that I do not like John Edwards. I used to be a fan until this scandal unfolded. Then I just saw him as sleazy, narcissistic, and untrustworthy. But even the sleazy, narcissistic, and untrustworthy deserve the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And apparently guilt was not proven in this case to the satisfaction of the jury.

Now Edwards is talking about dedicating his life towards helping impoverished children in the U.S. and worldwide. That is commendable. It might make me even like him a little bit more than I do at this moment.

But to do good works like that, it helps to have a sympathetic support base. Can Edwards still attract that base given his current reputation as a sleazy, narcissistic, and untrustworthy cad?

The question brings to mind how former President Bill Clinton rebounded from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bill Clinton now is a greatly beloved philanthropist whose Clinton Foundation does a lot of good work. His marriage survived, and his wife is now our very highly regarded Secretary of State. The Clintons' support base is now probably bigger than ever.

Somehow I cannot envision a similar rebound on Edwards's part. Perhaps he's just not as likeable as Clinton. Or maybe the case is just still too fresh. But I sincerely do hope that he can turn his life around now and do some good.

For that, I wish him well.

21 May 2012

For Tyler Clementi's roommate, 30 days and a slap on the wrist

Today in a New Jersey court, former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail for his role in the webcam spying that led to the 2010 suicide of his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after learning that Ravi had used a webcam to spy on his intimate encounters with another man.

In addition, according to CNN, "Ravi will serve three years of probation and must complete community service aimed at assisting victims of bias crimes, according to Superior Judge Glenn Berman. He also must pay more than $11,000 in restitution."

I am neither a lawyer nor a judge, but 30 days in jail seems like an awfully light sentence for actions that led to someone's death. However, I suppose it's hard to balance whether Ravi was aggressively attacking Clementi or if he was just a jerk.

At the very minimum, he was a jerk.

I just hope that the amount of news coverage this case has received will do some good in getting other people to think before they act out their homophobic issues (either maliciously or stupidly).

20 May 2012

Did Texas execute yet another innocent man?

A recent study by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review suggests that Carlos DeLuna, who was executed by the state of Texas in 1989 for the murder of Wanda Lopez, was actually innocent. The study concluded that a man named Carlos Hernandez actually committed the murder. In other words, the so-called justice system had convicted the wrong Carlos.

According to the report, Hernandez "was well-known to police and prosecutors at the time and had a long history of violent crimes." In fact, Hernandez was arrested for another murder while DeLuna was on death row, and died in prison in 1999, after having admitted that he killed Lopez.

Nevertheless, the report states, "After [police] arrested DeLuna, they were so sure they had the right man, they never bothered to ascertain his height, weight or age or to compare them to the information from eyewitness Baker. Their commanding officers never requested that information, either. In fact, DeLuna was ... younger than the man [a witness] described."

"On evidence we pulled together on this case, there is no way a jury could have convicted De-Luna beyond a reasonable doubt, but they could've convicted Hernandez beyond a reasonable doubt," said Columbia Professor James Liebman, who conducted the study along with his students.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that this isn't the only case we know of in which Texas probably executed an innocent man.

The most famous such case is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who made headlines in 2009 when The New Yorker published an investigative article on the case. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three daughters. However, a forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fatal fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

A decade before Willingham's execution, Ruben Montoya Cantu was put to death in Texas for a murder that occurred when Cantu was 17 years old. According to Wikipedia, "During the years following the conviction, the surviving victim, the co-defendant, the District Attorney, and the jury forewoman have all made public statements that cast doubt on Cantu's guilty verdict and death sentence."

In 2009, Texas executed Reginald Blanton despite numerous flaws in the prosecution's case and the trial itself. Blanton had been convicted of fatally shooting his friend, Carlos Garza, and then stealing $79 worth of jewelry from Garza's home, where the murder took place. According to Randi Jones of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, "Reginald's case exemplifies serious prosecutorial misconduct. They systematically excluded African Americans from the jury pool." Jones also noted that there was no physical evidence linking Blanton to the crime, and that Blanton was forced to rely on an incompetent public defender who failed to present evidence of innocence at the original trial.

This is not justice.

The legal system is run by human beings, and human beings make mistakes. And they can make mistakes in matters of life and death, as in the cases described above.

Is this not sufficient reason to abolish the irreversible punishment that is the death penalty?

The full Columbia report on the DeLuna case can be found online at: http://www3.law.columbia.edu/hrlr/ltc/

17 May 2012

Thoughts on this International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia

Today, May 17, is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). This date was chosen because on May 17, 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

As I reflect on the state of homophobia and transphobia today, I wonder if they will ever become obsolete. I wonder if there will ever come a day when all people are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

I wonder if there will ever come a day when the majority doesn't fear "the other" to the point of persecution.

But, given that even long-established rights of women in the U.S. are still being challenged, and that racism remains a problem, I am cautious in any optimism.

We must continue to fight tirelessly for equality for all. The right will not stop paying attention, so neither must we.

15 May 2012

Chase exec's golden parachute

JP Morgan Chase announced yesterday that its chief investment officer, Ina Drew, will retire in the wake of the institution's $2 billion trading loss.

But don't worry - she'll be just fine. Drew was paid $15.5 million last year and almost $16 million in 2010. And she probably will receive some very attractive retirement perks.

She will never have to feel what the unemployed members of the 99% are feeling.

09 May 2012

North Carolina voters choose discrimination

Bad news: At the polls yesterday, the people of North Carolina passed Amendment 1, which amends the state's constitution to say "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state."

In other words, discrimination will now be the law in that state.

And this isn't just a vote against same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage was already illegal in North Carolina. Amendment 1 appears to also invalidate civil unions and domestic partnership benefits even among opposite-sex couples.

It appears to imply that married couples will be first-class citizens, while everyone else is second-class at best.

It will be interesting to see if any court challenges arise (and how soon).

Stay tuned.

08 May 2012

Will North Carolina voters outlaw civil unions and domestic partnerships?

Today, when the citizens of North Carolina go to the polls, they will be asked to vote on Amendment 1, which would amend the state's constitution to say "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state."

This is not just another Proposition 8. Same-sex marriage is already illegal in North Carolina. If passed, Amendment 1 would ban civil unions and domestic partnership benefits even among opposite-sex couples.

National Organization for Women (NOW) President Terry O'Neill explains the ramifications:

"In addition to placing a permanent ban on civil unions, Amendment One would also strip the domestic partnership benefits currently afforded to unmarried public employees all across North Carolina.

"Amendment One could interfere with protections for all unmarried couples, such as their ability to visit one another in the hospital or make emergency medical and financial decisions if one partner is incapacitated. It could also hamper the enforcement of wills, trusts, and medical powers of attorney, exclude partners from private employer healthcare benefits, as well as threaten domestic violence protections for all unmarried women."

In other words, if Amendment 1 passes, married couples will be first-class citizens, while everyone else will be second-class at best.

This is despite the fact that this nation was founded on the principle that all people are created equal.

Fingers crossed in hopes that the people of North Carolina will vote for equality, not discrimination.

07 May 2012

KSM goes on trial; Amnesty report discredits military commission

On Saturday, May 5, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of his cohorts were arraigned by a U.S. military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In anticipation of the hearing, on May 3, Amnesty International released a report criticizing the military commission system as "deeply flawed" and not in accordance with international fair trial standards.

An excerpt:

"This case – one of the highest profile US prosecutions for decades – has presented the USA with a chance to show that it means what it says when it speaks about its commitment to human rights. For the time being, however, the USA seems set on a path that ends in justice neither being done nor being seen to be done."
I want to clarify that Amnesty is not soft on crime. The organization spends countless hours fighting back against impunity for lawbreakers and human rights violators. But accountability has to be done right in order to be valid. If KSM and his cohorts are, in fact, the "worst of the worst" - which seems easy enough to prove - then prove it in a proper court of law, not a kangaroo court. Otherwise, I - and the world at large - might have to wonder what the system is afraid of.

>> Download Amnesty's new report.

06 May 2012

Republican friend wants to make Islamic martyrs

On May 5, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other defendants were arraigned in a U.S. military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And, of course, a Republican friend had to discuss it with me.

As he was eagerly devouring the latest offerings from the Drudge Report, he told me that we shouldn't waste our time putting them on trial. We should "just kill 'em," he said.

I pointed out that killing them would make them martyrs in the eyes of their terrorist cohorts - and that's what they want. After all, some believe that martyrdom for the Islamic cause will get them straight into heaven, where 72 lovely virgins are eagerly awaiting their arrival. That's not exactly a crime deterrent.

I also pointed out that the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had been given fair trials in federal court and were now safety locked away for life. They now get to spend each day lonely and defeated, in American custody. Isn't that a far worse punishment, I asked, then giving them heaven, virgins, and the glory of martyrdom?

In response, he simply stammered a weak "NO!", shook his head, and looked very confused.

I guess Drudge and Fox haven't yet given him a good retort for that argument.

29 April 2012

In abolishing the death penalty, Connecticut joins the civilized world

On April 25, with a stroke of the governor's pen, Connecticut became the 17th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty - and the fifth state to do so in five years. This reflects a growing momentum to end capital punishment in the U.S., which is the only major industrialized Western nation that still claims for itself the "right" to kill its citizens. The death penalty has already been abolished in all European countries except for Belarus. In fact, today over two-thirds of the world's nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice. This global trend towards abolition of the death penalty reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing.

By retaining the death penalty on a federal level and in many states, the U.S. finds itself aligned on this issue primarily with known hotbeds of human rights violations such as Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. This is the company we keep.

But there are better reasons to abolish the death penalty nationwide - and worldwide - than just following the trend.

Studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That's not justice, it's discrimination.

In addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent. According to Amnesty International, "FBI data shows that all 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate."

Also, execution is irreversible, which is a huge problem, given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. How many other innocent persons were not lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.

Some people argue that the death penalty is the only way to bring closure to a murder victim's family. But not all such families agree. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed organizations such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty. As noted on the latter organization's website, "MVFHR members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help us heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims."

Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

And, for those of you who subscribe to a Judeo-Christian faith, consider the commandment that "thou shalt not kill." That commandment bears no caveat indicating that it's acceptable to kill a killer.

Clearly, the death penalty does not represent justice. It represents revenge - sometimes misdirected revenge.

Shouldn't we as a society be above that sort of thing?

24 April 2012

Another problem with the voter ID law

Like several other states, Pennsylvania now has a voter ID law, which requires voters to show a photo ID before they will be permitted to vote. While the new Pennsylvania law doesn't take effect until the November elections, voters for the April 24 primary were asked for ID as a "dry run", although lack of an ID at the primary did not disqualify anyone from voting.

As I was showing the poll worker my driver's license to vote in the Pennsylvania primary, I asked her if many people had shown up without a valid ID. She said no. She said that there had only been a few people who had left their IDs in their cars and had to go back to get them.

But we agreed that this was no indication of how things will go in November. For the primary, the polling place was practically empty, compared to November of 2008, when I got there at 7:00 a.m. and the line was already an hour long.

Opponents of the voter ID law say that it will disenfranchise voters who don't drive and don't have an easy way to obtain a government-issued photo ID. And they point out that those people most likely to be disenfranchised also tend to vote Democratic. They also point out that cases of actual polling place fraud are extremely rare.

And this primary test run showed me another problem with the new law: It takes more time to check in at the polling place. Previously, I would just have to give my name, wait for the poll worker to find me alphabetically in the registration book, and then sign by the "X". This time, in addition to that, I had to dig my wallet out of my purse, dig my ID out of my wallet, wait for her to look it over and then write something down about it, put the license back into my wallet, and put the wallet back into my purse.

And I thought about how I waited in line for an hour to vote for Obama in '08, and how much longer that wait would have been if everyone had had to deal with the extra step to prove our identities.

I can only hope that the turnout this November is as good as it was back then, so everyone can see this extra problem caused by this unnecessary new law.

After all, you don't have to produce your ID until you've made it to the front of the line.

22 April 2012

Things you can do on this Earth Day 2012 (and beyond)

Today, April 22, is Earth Day.

On this day, there are many things you can do to show your respect for the earth and its environment. Here are some ideas, repeated from last year's Earth Day blog post, since they're all still as relevant as ever (and so easy to do):

Say no to plastic bags: There are enough plastic bags in the landfills and in the oceans. If you haven't done so already, please invest in some reusable canvas bags and take them with you whenever you go shopping. You'll look cool and you'll help the planet.

Say no to bottled water: It's less regulated - and therefore possibly lower quality - than tap water, and the plastic bottles they come in are a whole other horror story. Instead, invest in a reusable stainless steel bottle, and refill it with plain or filtered tap water. It's better for the planet, better for your health, and better for your wallet.

Go meatless for a day: A 2006 United Nations report called the meat industry "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." According to the website goveg.com, eating 1 pound of meat emits the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving an SUV 40 miles. So try going meatless on Earth Day. Then expand it to a once-a-week "Meatless Monday" - or more.

Do you have more ideas for simple things we can do to show our respect for this wonderful planet? Share them in a comment, and they could be included in next year's Earth Day post!

17 April 2012

April 17 is Equal Pay Day 2012 (and women are still not paid fairly)

Today, April 17, is Equal Pay Day 2012. This date symbolizes how far into the year a woman must work, on average, to catch up with what the average man earned in 2011 here in the U.S.

In anticipation of Equal Pay Day, the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) last week released a set of fact sheets that shine a light on the wage gap in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. These facts show that the typical woman working full-time is, on average, still paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to the typical man. The data reveals that the wage gap exists in every state and persists across races, education, and occupations, with very few exceptions.

It's interesting to note that women outnumber men on college campuses, but are still paid less on average. Education aside, it's still a man's world, where women are just not worth as much.

"In almost 50 years, the wage gap has only budged 18 cents," said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. "When women are struggling to regain jobs in the recovery and families are relying increasingly on women's wages, it's especially critical to end the pay gap for women. Since lost wages cut deeply into a family's budget, equal pay is not an abstract principle for women and their families. It's key to their survival."

Indeed. But those who sign the paychecks just don't seem to care.

>> Read about the wage gap in your state.

10 April 2012

Verdict postponed in Rachel Corrie lawsuit

The announcement of a verdict in the civil lawsuit against the State of Israel for the death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie has been postponed due to delays in the filing of closing arguments. It had originally been scheduled for late April.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 on behalf of the Corrie family. Rachel Corrie was crushed to death in 2003 by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a Palestinian home. She was 23 years old.

Stay tuned for updates.

09 April 2012

New HRW report on extrajudicial executions in Syria

Today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 23-page report documenting the extrajudicial execution by Syrian security forces of more than 100 people since late 2011.

According to HRW, government and pro-government forces not only executed opposition fighters they had captured, or who had otherwise stopped fighting and posed no threat, but also civilians who likewise posed no threat to the security forces.

As a result of these findings, HRW calls on the Syrian government to immediately stop and condemn these and other human rights violations by the security forces and pro-government militias, and to bring existing perpetrators to justice.

HRW also urges the UN Security Council to demand that Syria immediately end the human rights abuses committed by government forces, authorize the deployment of a UN mission to follow up, and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, HRW calls on the other countries of the world to investigate and prosecute members of the Syrian military and civilian leadership suspected of committing international crimes.

Stay tuned, with fingers crossed for justice and an end to the brutality.

For more information:

>> Download the report or view a summary

01 April 2012

Freedom of religion cannot be exclusive

In recent years, the religious right have moved even farther to the right - to the fringes. Some have even expanded their war on women's reproductive rights to where they are condemning contraception. They even held Congressional hearings on the subject. This is despite the fact that 99 percent of American women who have ever had sex have used contraception, including 98 percent of Catholic women.

When policies were passed that require insurance companies to cover contraception (which, by the way, saves the insurers money, as birth control is a lot cheaper than pregnancy and obstetric costs), they screamed that the government is interfering with their religious freedom.

That is nonsense.

What government is really interfering with is the right's ability to impose their own religious beliefs on those of us who believe differently. What the government is doing is what freedom is really all about.

Freedom of religion in this country means freedom for all religions - not just the religion of the most vocal contingent. And it is also meant to protect us from tyranny of the religious majority. After all, it is that kind of religious tyranny that this nation's Founding Fathers sought to escape when they cut ties with England and spelled out specifically in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In other words, while the Christian right are free to exercise their own religious beliefs, so are those of us who see things differently. Their right to practice their religion ends at my own right to reject their religion in favor a different set of views. Still, they try to shove their own so-called values down our throats in the name of Jesus, who would surely be rolling His eyes.

Freedom of religion means going to your church and observing your own religious customs while allowing others the same liberties - even (indeed, especially) - if their beliefs and customs are different from yours.

Freedom of religion means not using birth control - or having an abortion - if you think it is wrong, but respecting the fact that those who do are breaking no law (and deserve no shaming).

Freedom of religion means building your church on one corner and tolerating a temple, synagogue, or mosque that might spring up across the street (even in lower Manhattan).

And freedom of religion means facing the fact that no religion is perfect, and that every religion has its saints and its sinners. It is unfair to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attack, just as it would be unfair to blame all Christians for the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. For every Osama bin Laden, there is an Eric Rudolph.

As a wise man once put it, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

28 March 2012

Earth Hour this Saturday (March 31)!

On Saturday, March 31, at 8:30 pm local time, individuals, businesses, and municipalities around the world will turn off their lights for one hour - Earth Hour - in a show of concern for climate change and commitment to finding solutions.

I have participated in Earth Hour the past four years, and it always felt good. I plan to participate again this year, and I hope you will join me.

Earth Hour was started in 2007, and has been growing larger year by year. According to the Earth Hour Website, "In 2011, Earth Hour saw hundreds of millions of people across 135 countries switch off for an hour. But it also marked the start of something new – going Beyond the Hour to commit to lasting action on climate change. And with the power of social networks behind the Earth Hour message, we hope to attract even more participation so we can build a truly global community committed to creating a more sustainable planet."

To find out more, go to www.earthhour.org.