Are we sliding towards (National) Socialism?

Back in 1919, a German gentleman named Anton Drexler and five associates founded the German Worker’s Party, hoping to represent the downtrodden workers of Germany: the poor, the unrepresented, the working classes sick of a government ignoring their needs and complaints. Fairly early on, it was infiltrated by a member of the German army sent to spy on the group and subvert it, largely to keep it harmless and stupid. Drexler and his associates swiftly found their party, which was intended to benefit all Germans by empowering and fortifying its lower classes, turned into the nightmarish Nazi Party, one of the very few groups in all of history who qualifies for the descriptor ‘evil’.

Ninety years later and five thousand miles away, another group of citizens was becoming displeased with what they saw as a government that had ceased to represent their interests. Protests were popping up all over the country, with a core message of holding the American government accountable for what the protesters saw as blatant disregard for the needs and concerns of the working classes. Over time, the Tea Party drew more and more supporters – many of which didn’t seem to fit in, like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, hardly working-class material. Accusations of their true motives have been bandied about ( ), but as yet no real resistance has been put forth to keep outside interests from steering the Tea Party movement from its stated course.

I do not at all intend to compare Tea Party members with Nazis – I simply draw the parallel because both started as populist, working-class social and political movements, and both were or are being subverted to other ends. One ended up causing World War Two and being responsible for the deaths of millions. What will the other accomplish when it becomes a perverted version of itself?

Back in Germany after the end of the First World War, many were placing the military defeats and national weaknesses largely at the feet of social groups considered ‘Un-German’: Jews, Socialists, and people not showing sufficient amounts of patriotism. Pluralism – or the idea of cultural or ethnic groups inside a host country keeping their cultural or ethnic identity – was coming under fire as an example of insufficient national pride. After all, shouldn’t they be Germans first, and Jews or Russians or whatever second?

You don’t have to swap too many nouns around in that previous paragraph to strike a chilling resemblance to the rising movement of ‘America for Americans’. Again, I cannot stress strongly enough that I am not comparing the rank-and-file Tea Party members, or any man or woman acting on their conscience and protesting what they see as mistreatment by their government to Nazis. I draw these parallels to show how easily the movement was subverted from a populist movement demanding the return of government to its roots of representative democracy to a plutocratic (in the case of the Tea Party) or fascist (in the case of National Socialism) coup.

A recurring theme in my writing, and much of my philosophy, is that one should do one’s own thinking, and never ever allow someone else to do their thinking for them. My problem with the Tea Party has nothing to do with its actual members, and everything to do with how it is being exploited by corporate and other interests to enact policy change designed to benefit not the working class, but the upper class. Tax cuts for the rich benefit only the rich, after all.

Now, we have the Department of Defense spending untold amounts of money to purchase an entire print run of an Army Reservist’s memoir, only to destroy it – claiming that the information contained therein was a threat to national security. ( ) This is despite the fact that the author and publisher were exceedingly careful to make sure the book had no classified or sensitive information in it, even going so far as to submit a copy to the author’s military chain of command for review, and proceeded with printing only when the Army Reserve Command gave its blessing.

A second printing is on the way ( ), rife with DoD-requested changes and line after line of blacked-out redactions. Free-journalism superheroes Wikileaks claim to have an unedited copy, and I hope for America’s sake they do.

Also, in submitting a request for dismissal of a federal suit ( ) demanding that the US not assassinate a US citizen without due process, the CIA, Secretary of Defense, and the President himself state in so many words that "not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality." (Glenn Greenwald,, link ) One of the arguments in the request for dismissal I found interesting was that the case should be dismissed because it wasn’t brought to the court by the assassination target himself – after all, it would only make sense for the target of an assassination plot to walk into the den of their would-be murderers and ask them nicely not to hurt him.

We have a government banning books and attempting to murder its own citizens under the aegis of national security, and refusing to explain any further, as if the words are a magic spell that ends any line of questioning. President Obama was elected largely on a platform of change in government, an end to the opaque decisionmaking and stone walls preventing American citizens from being allowed to see the inner workings of American government. Although only a fool believes all of a politician’s campaign promises, I had hoped that this one at least would bear more fruit than it did.

A functioning military demands a certain amount of secrecy, this much is obvious. You can’t exactly attack an enemy by surprise if they know where you are and what precisely you’re going to throw at them, after all. But bypassing due process for American citizens – a right insisted upon in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution – is something that demands further explanation than a weak ‘national security’ handwave. Mr. President, if you or those you choose to lead other departments are intending to murder one of your citizens without granting him the fair trial guaranteed by the document you swore to uphold, then you have some explaining to do.

It is worth noting that Anwar Awlaki, the alleged assassination target, is a dual US – Yemeni citizen, and allegedly a key decision-maker in Al-Qaeda. It is also worth noting that there has not yet been any concrete evidence shown to prove Awlaki’s involvement in Al-Qaeda. No matter how terrible the man’s crimes may be, he – like any other American citizen – has the right to due process. The fact that the man stands accused of treason does not remove his right to due process – in fact, the Constitution specifically demands due process in cases of alleged treason, in Article III, section 3.

Article I, section 9 of the Constitution also forbids the use of writs of attainder – in a nutshell, an act of a governmental body declaring someone guilty and demanding a punishment without benefit of trial. There are multiple reasons why Awlaki’s assassination without trial cannot be allowed to happen while we as a nation claim to uphold our Constitution. Regardless of whether or not the man is guilty of working with Al-Qaeda, the very founding documents we claim to hold sacred demand we grant him the rights he has as an American citizen. As he has not yet forfeited his American citizenship, nor has he satisfied the conditions for having his citizenship revoked ( ), we as a nation are forced with a choice: Grant him the rights he deserves, or turn our backs on our nation’s most sacred beliefs.

Are we allowing fear and hate to infiltrate our national conscience and subvert it, as the German Worker’s Party turned into the Nazi Party and the Tea Party is slowly but surely changing into an astroturf movement for corporate interests? Are we going to wake up one day to find that our nation no longer resembles what we thought it was? Or, even more horrifying to consider, has that day already come?

Of the Devil? The Beam in Terry Jones’ Eye

“Say: O ye unbelievers!

I worship not that which ye worship,

And ye do not worship that which I worship;

I shall never worship that which ye worship,

Neither will ye worship that which I worship.

To you be your religion; to me my religion.”

The Qur’an, sura 109

There’s a church in Gainesville, Florida ( ) that’s planning on burning as many copies of the Qur’an as they can find on September 11. They’ve even set up a Facebook group to boost participation all over the globe. They claim that although they realize their actions will offend millions – many to the point of armed protest and military response, if General David Petraeus’s warnings are to be heeded ( ) – they feel their message is more important than its possible consequences. They claim that their message, aimed at radical Muslims only, is not one of hate, but one need look no further than their own website ( ) to see that their reasons to burn the book are based primarily on xenophobia and hate – and if you dig a little deeper, bald-faced hypocrisy.

Their reasons include such gems as number six, decrying Islamic law as being totalitarian – that those under its rule, willingly or not, must obey without question or criticism. This is particularly interesting, given that in an interview, Emma Jones, daughter of Dr. Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, stated in an interview with the Gainesville Sun that “they used mental violence. They’d say, ‘If you’re not obedient, God will punish you.'” ( ) Jennifer Engel, who moved from Germany to work with the church, had this to say after leaving the church: “We had no friends, and also everything was very controlled. We aren’t allowed to say any critical things. […] They started to preach about total obedience. No matter what they say, we have to do it.”

It’s also worth noting that Engel and her husband left the church after they discovered grave financial inconsistencies. Dr. and Mrs. Jones, the leadership of the church, also own a furniture business in Gainesville named TS And Company. During the Engels membership in the church, they handled finances and bookkeeping. There were regular payments from the furniture business to the church, and also unexplained payments from the church to the furniture business of at least $15,000.00. What’s more, the furniture business is staffed entirely by ‘volunteer’ labor from the church, much of that from the Dove World Outreach Academy. Students at the Academy live and work on grounds owned by the furniture company, and their curriculum includes material intended to “break their pride” and “humble themselves not only under God’s mighty hand but under the hand of man” ( ). Part of that, apparently, is working long hours for the furniture company without pay, and without the ability to contact friends and family outside the church for any reason whatsoever, according to an academy rulebook acquired by the Gainesville Sun and verified as legitimate by Pastor Stephanie Sapp, VP of the Academy.

That’s not all – the furniture company also purchased properties in low-income housing projects to house their unpaid workers. In a city where 13.2% of the population lives below the poverty line and a county where nearly nine hundred people are homeless, is it truly just for profit-seeking businesses to buy up low-income housing? (2008 census estimate, , and 2010 data from annual report on homeless conditions in Florida, ) Furthermore, the Lisa Jones House, described by the church as an outreach program to the poor, provides meals for at least some of the unpaid workers for the church and, by extension, furniture company. Where does the Lisa Jones House get the food for these meals? Why, the local food banks, according to the Gainesville Sun. A request to DWOC for rebuttal on this point was not answered.

So let’s get this all straight – a church sends its youth to study at a private academy, whose curriculum is based in large part in working without pay for a for-profit furniture company owned by the pastor and his wife. Other members of the church also chip in, working long hours to sell furniture, pack and ship orders, and handle bookkeeping (which could generously be described as creative writing). Many of the workers are put up in low-income housing – bought and paid for by the furniture company (which, by the way, is looking for an apartment manager! ) – and fed with food appropriated from local food banks. Instead of providing service to the community, they are in fact draining limited resources intended to help the poor – not boost profits for a company that has figured out how to avoid paying its employees. In addition to all of that, much of the furniture company’s activities happen on land owned by the church, and therefore tax-free. If a scenario like this were used as a backdrop for a television show, it would be dismissed as unbelievable. And yet this is the church claiming that Islam is “of the devil”, claiming that the prophet Muhammad was “corrupted by power and worldly ambitions”, and that Islam is “not compatible with democracy and human rights”.

Given that this is a nation based on democracy and human rights (though we are far from perfect in either regard), I want to make my position clear: I am strongly against the burning of the Qur’an, but I do not challenge DWOC’s legal right to do so as a form of free expression. I am strongly against the burning of any book, because it is an attempt to destroy an idea. Any idea has a right to exist and be discussed, even and especially those we find distasteful and monstrous. By discussing and considering ideas we may not agree with, we gain enlightenment and understanding of our own ideas on a deeper level. I am not calling for the legal right of the Dove World Outreach Center to burn the Qur’an to be limited; I am only trying to shed some light on their motivations and some of their other, potentially illegal activities they would rather not discuss.

On the flip side, the hate and xenophobia being spread by the Dove World Outreach Center is inspiring a flood of counter-protests all over the country. Churches, interfaith groups, and secular organizations nationwide are organizing events to help calm the fears of their communities. Qur’an readings, interviews and discussions with imams and other Muslim clerics, and explorations of Islam in America are popping up all over. What will I be doing on September 11? Instead of burning a Qur’an, and trying to silence an idea that will surely outlive me, I will be reading it. Though I do not share the Islamic faith, I respect its right to exist and its role as a part of American culture, and wish to know more about it.

Labor Day, Trade Unions, and My Buddy Jack

Let me tell you about my friends Diane and Jack, and why I consider Labor Day one of America’s most important holidays.

Jack is a journeyman ironworker, currently working in New York City on the 9/11 memorial site at Ground Zero.  Diane, along with their three children, lives in Wisconsin, where they moved a few years ago because they couldn’t afford the high cost of living in New York, and because one of their children has special needs that simply weren’t being addressed.  So for large parts of the year, Jack gets on a plane, flies a thousand miles away from his family, and literally rebuilds America.  Diane is trying to get into social work as a means to give back to her community some of the assistance and guidance she and her family received as NYC expatriates – basically, helping to identify families in need of assistance, and providing counseling and guidance for where to find the assistance that best suits their needs.  I’m not trying to wrap them in the American flag too tightly here, but these are the sort of folks that build good communities.

Jack’s a member of a trade union for ironworkers.  The union taught him everything from knots to crane operator hand signals to rigging – even how to spot terrorist activity.  This is important, because according to this 2009 census of fatal occupational injuries ( ), structural metalworking is the sixth most dangerous job in America today.  It had been number four, but thanks in large part to advances in safety equipment and training (pushed for heavily by trade unions), it’s becoming safer.  It’s still dangerous, though:  The fatal injury rate for structural metalworkers is 30.3 (per 100,000 fulltime workers).  That’s still a little better than nine times the national average of 3.3.  Office and administrative support, by the way, clocks in at a rate of about 0.5.

Along with making sure Jack and his coworkers are provided with the equipment and training they need to keep them safe, the union also helps manage ‘fringe benefits’ like health care, a special unemployment fund, and vacation pay.  Since Jack, like most of his colleagues, doesn’t work for a single company but instead picks up jobs at a union hall, he winds up working for a lot of different companies on a lot of different projects.  This would be a logistical nightmare if he relied on the different companies he works for to manage his benefits, so how it works in a nutshell is that the money that the employer would normally pay to benefits providers (like insurance companies), they instead pay to the benefits management team in the union, who make it all happen.  Occasionally, and especially lately, the economic downturn and associated lack of work means that he has to fall back on the union unemployment fund, but another big benefit of Jack’s union membership is the community it creates:  true brothers in arms.  Sure, self-reliance is expected, but Jack’s union brothers would never let one another go hungry.

There has been a lot of bad press and debate over unions lately, with many claiming that they are an artifact of a bygone era and no longer necessary.  Make no mistake – Jack, and the millions of industrial workers like him, would not be anywhere near as safe and fairly compensated as they are now if not for the ongoing efforts of trade unions.  If safety training and benefits management were left to the companies employing the workers, cut corners and ghoulish cost-saving measures would be the order of the day.  Jack’s training is handled by an organization that has as its first priority his safety – after all, if he is injured or worse, he can’t work, and no workers means no union.  However, a company need only satisfy legal bare minimums on safety equipment and training – after all, if a worker gets hurt or killed, they can always hire someone else.  Trade unions keep workers safe, compensated, and trained.

In fact, trade unions – or more precisely, the collective bargaining power they represent – are responsible for Labor Day becoming an American holiday.  Back in 1894, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday.  Designed to honor the workers whose labors built this nation from the ground up – and also to help smooth relations with organized labor in the wake of the disastrous Pullman Strike ( ) , the first Monday in September was set aside, and the holiday was adopted by every state in the Union.  These days, Labor Day parades have fallen out of fashion in many cities, and you don’t often hear speeches by local politicians unless there’s an election coming up.  Labor Day has sort of fallen by the wayside and been turned more into a signpost marking the end of summer and the beginning of football season.

Chances are, most of you reading this work in an office somewhere, and probably even get Labor Day as a paid holiday.  Jack doesn’t.  He usually takes it off anyway, dipping into his vacation time to do so, and enjoys the parades and the barbecues.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that the folks whom Labor Day was intended to honor have to cut into their vacation time to attend their own parade, while office workers and other folks who enjoy the yield of laborers and tradesmen don’t.

This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the day off, or even the whole weekend.  Hard work is not the sole provenance of industrial and construction workers, after all.  Simply spare a thought for the people this holiday is really about, and reflect on how you’ve benefitted from their efforts.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

(Names changed to protect the privacy of my friends.)

Sexual Torture in America’s Prisons

The town I grew up in, Addison, Maine, has around 1200 residents.  If I were to tell you that in an average year, around 53 of those residents were horribly raped, how would you react?  Would you wonder what law enforcement was doing?  Would you demand that effort be put forward to stop this victimization at any cost, that no amount of money was too much to invest to make sure that nobody has to live under that constant threat of violence on American soil?  Or would you shrug your shoulders and say they probably deserved it?

The Department of Justice recently released a study on prison rape (located here: ) indicating that 4.4% of the respondents to the poll had reported being raped or otherwise sexually victimized within the 12 months preceding the study.  In 2009, 2,297,400 men, women, and juveniles were held in prisons, jails, and detention centers (source: ).  That means that judging by the numbers released by the DoJ, 101,086 inmates are victimized every year, or one about every five minutes, every hour of every day.  In the time it took you to catch up with The Simpsons on television, six people – six American citizens – were horribly and violently sexually victimized.

And nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

It’s very easy to dismiss prison rape as a consequence of crime – after all, everybody knows rape happens in prison all the time, so if you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t break laws.  It’s easy to see the victims as Other, as less-than-human because after all, they wouldn’t BE in prison if they weren’t already bad people, right?

The United States of America imprisons more of its own citizens per capita than any other nation on the planet:  748 per 100,000, or 0.748%.  Out of the 217 countries that I could find statistics for, that’s more than the bottom 21 combined.  It’s more than China and the Russian Federation combined.  It’s more than Iran, Taiwan, and the UAE put together.  Surely we as a nation aren’t so sinful that each and every one of those 2,297,400 people deserve to be put in a place where there’s a good chance they’re going to be raped?  In fact, the vast majority of those in prisons or jails – about three quarters – are there for nonviolent offenses, like tax evasion, three-strikes convictions for marijuana possession, and having too many traffic tickets.  Hardly the sort of crimes for which brutal rape is anything resembling a fair trade, not that there is such a thing.

Many of you reading this are wondering why we allow this to happen.  Why haven’t we told the Department of Justice to do something about this?  Actually, we did:  In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was signed into law.  This Act put together a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission that, after considering reports, funding, statistics, and testimony, gave US Attorney General Eric Holder until June 23, 2010 to establish new standards for reducing rape and sexual assault in prisons.  The standards wouldn’t even have to be mandatory, though prisons would see reduced funding if those standards were not met.

The findings of the commission were sent to Holder in 2009, giving him one year exactly to come up with some new standards.  This apparently was not enough time for the Department of Justice, who has stalled the process by hiding behind cost analyses and budget concerns.  Although the findings of the commission recommended that the new standards not impose undue costs on the operating budgets of the prisons, it is worth noting that money spent preventing prisoners from being raped by other prisoners and guards (yes, of that 4.4% of prisoners getting raped every year, 2.8% – more than half – was by the staff) is money not spent on medical and mental treatment of the victims.  Money spent preventing rape is money not spent on prosecuting rapists.  Money spent making sure the staff isn’t sexually torturing the prisoners is money not spent replacing the staff and trying to hide the fact that the new prisoner is an ex-guard (because, after all, we wouldn’t want the ex-guard to be targeted for violence).

At what point do we say enough is enough?  At what point do you contact your congressperson or senator and tell them that you are furious at the constant stalling by the Department of Justice and that we need to send a message to them demanding that something be done about this NOW and not later?  If for you, that point is now, you can find contact information for your congresspersons here ( ) and your senators here ( ).  Take a look at the report by the DoJ (linked above) and see the data for yourself – glance at the summary page at the very least.  Take a look at the World Prison Brief (again, linked above) and see for yourself how many people we put in prison.  Then ask yourself:  Is this justice?

The Road to Hell

A few days ago, the construction site of a Muslim community center in a suburb of Nashville, TN was attacked by arsonists.  Construction equipment was damaged and destroyed.  Although no person or group has come forward to claim credit for the attack, the message is clear and echoed by members of the local community:  No Muslims Allowed.

The fact that such acts constitute terrorism is plainly evident.  Terrorism – the use of terror as a means of changing the behavior or beliefs of a population or a segment thereof – is not the sole business of Muslims, despite what some others would have you believe.  If you attempt to intimidate others into changing their thoughts, beliefs, or behavior with violence or the threat thereof, you are committing terrorism, period.  There is no ‘except Christians’ or ‘except white people’ clause.  There is no ‘unless you think they deserve it’ clause.  There is no ‘but I’m on the RIGHT SIDE’ clause.

The fact that anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in this country is also plainly evident.  Mosques and community centers that had existed peacefully in communities all over the United States are suddenly finding themselves the targets of vandalism, hate crimes, and in too many cases, attacks.  Pipe bombs in Florida.  Arson in California.  Drive-by shootings in Seattle.  Graffiti and thrown stones in too many places to name.  Protests everywhere.  Signs claiming Islam is a religion of hate and terror, that Muslims are not welcome here and should go home.

As the sentiment grows, one is forced to consider its logical continued growth:  There are already a disquieting amount of elected officials who have been caught uttering anti-Muslim sentiments, and if the growing hatred of Islam is any indication, that number can only be expected to grow.  Add to that the concept that for each elected official or member of government that we know of harboring this hatred, there is likely at least a few more, and it becomes truly worrying.  At what point will the assumed minority of Islamophobic members of government become a majority?  At what point will they become too great a majority to effectively control?

At what point do the pogroms start?

In 1920’s Germany, anti-Semitic sentiments were growing steadily.  Jews were not yet oppressed as a matter of legal policy, but they would find their homes, businesses, and places of worship vandalized on a regular basis unless they stayed in their own neighborhoods – and often even then.  Public outcry against the Jews was common.  And then one day in January of 1933, a charismatic leader came to power and almost immediately codified the existing cultural hatred of Jews into law.  Any student of history knows what happened next.

I want to make clear one point, however:  The Holocaust happened not because one evil, charismatic man steered an otherwise innocent populace into evil acts.  The Holocaust happened because a culture of hatred and fear grew in Germany, perhaps not even a majority of the German population – and then one charismatic leader stepped up from that culture and steered the nation into evil acts.  Hitler didn’t give birth to the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany, the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany (among other things) gave birth to Hitler.

A culture of hatred and fear, as a consequence of its own growth and evolution, will eventually produce an avatar and attempt to gain control of its surroundings.

The sticky part is that there is no quick solution to disarming the hatred and fear.  You could round up everyone waving signs with anti-Islam sentiments, but then you’re committing the same horrible acts you’re worried they will commit.  You could attack and vandalize the homes, businesses, and places of worship of those who would steer our nation into a new dark age, but then you’re doing the same thing you accuse them of doing.  If our nation is going to be saved from the culture of hatred and fear that is growing inside it, the only way to do it is to counter that hatred and fear with knowledge and acceptance.  Until and unless it gets to the point where any man or woman of conscience must take up arms to defend their nation from threats foreign or domestic, the only way to protect our nation without destroying it is to use our hearts and minds.

Many of the people who read this have their own fears of Islam or Muslims to address.  I urge you, do not indulge those fears and stoop to hatred, even if – especially even if – you harbor that hatred silently and do not act upon it.  Do the only right and brave thing and confront your fears.  Look inside yourself and seek understanding of what exactly it is you are afraid of.  Seek assistance from counselors or religious leaders if it will help.  Learn what you are afraid of, and then educate yourself to see if those fears are justified.  Learn about Muslims.  If there is one near you, and you think you can handle it, tour a Muslim community center.  You will find that Muslims are all around us, they exist at all levels of society, they are employees and business-owners and teachers and children and mothers and fathers.  In the American melting pot, they are yet another culture to blend with our own.  In fact, there is no ‘they’ – they are us.

I noted above that especially those who harbor fear silently should educate themselves – on the surface, this seems foolish.  After all, isn’t it more those who actually would commit hate crimes and terrorism who should make the greatest effort to prevent those very crimes?  Sure, but consider also this:  Most people who graduate to terrorism do not start out with a desire to commit atrocities and needing only a target.  Most people who graduate to terrorism start from a place of fear and hatred, and only by allowing those fears to fester do they seek an outlet.  Furthermore, those who commit hate crimes and terrorism can be prosecuted and imprisoned – but only if the laws exist to prosecute them under.  Laws that must be voted upon and enforced by those who did not commit them – many of which are, you guessed it, people who harbor those fears silently.

Seek out knowledge for yourself.  Learn about that which you fear and see that your fears are unfounded.  If your friends or family members have those fears, urge them to seek out knowledge and calm their own fears.  Above all, think for yourself and encourage others to do the same.  Nobody can tell you what to think unless you allow them to.  And although those who would tell you what to think may have the best of intentions, those intentions can pave the way to, well, you know.

Women’s Magazines: Part of the Problem, or Heart of the Problem?

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was certified by the Secretary of State.  This amendment ensured that women had the right to vote, and gave Congress the power to enforce this via law.  There was some grumbling from those who argued that the federal government had no right to amend the Constitution in this way when the constitutions of a few states specifically forbade women from voting, but they were quickly silenced by a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

It was a great victory for equality and one of many successes, large and small, in the larger battle for true equality of the sexes – a battle which is far from over, as evidenced by an advertisement in the latest Women’s Day magazine.

The ad presents itself as a list of tips for a working woman trying to get a raise, and gives eight ‘simple steps’ – the first of which advises women wanting to be recognized for their professionalism and hard work to wash their genitals with special cleansers and tucking a few perfumed crotch wipes in their bags just to make sure.  Further down the list are less important concepts such as demonstrating your worth to the company, listing personal successes and achievements, and referencing quotes from other people in the company praising your efforts.

Whether the advertisement itself, or the fact that our culture marginalizes and invalidates women to the point where such an advertisement would be offered without a second thought is more distressing is left as an exercise to the reader.  It’s just one more way in which the media reflects and perpetuates the inequalities we as a culture deal with every day.

Let me disclaim here that I am a white male, and although I do my best to seek out and shine the harsh light of day on inequalities as I find them, I am myself the beneficiary of white privilege and male privilege in ways that I may not fully understand.  I certainly know that I have had opportunities and assistance I might not have received were I female or a different race, but I also know that there are many of those same opportunities and benefits that I never realized I got simply because of my status as a white male.  It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water.

However, I do not have advertisers telling me I will never be pretty or thin or successful enough unless I buy the latest clothing or makeup or jewelry (at least, not to the same degree).  I am not a victim of the subtle sexism of lowered expectations.  I do not have to deal with patronization from those who think I need extra consideration because I’m just a girl in a big bad world.  Although I am thankful that I am spared these frustrations, I am bothered that many are not.

Granted, advertising has come a long way since the infamous ads from the 1920’s telling women they will never be attractive or romantically satisfied unless they douche with Lysol, but as Women’s Day and Summer’s Eve demonstrate above, it’s less a change of heart and more an appreciation for subtlety.

Many of these advertisements appear in women’s magazines – long the domain of such progressive ideas such as ‘how to please your man in bed’, ‘what makeup to buy this season’, and my personal favorite, ‘how to lose weight so you will be pretty’.  Their stock-in-trade is convincing women that they are disgusting shambling horrors, and only the newest makeup, the fanciest clothes, the skinniest waistlines can give them even the tiniest chance of personal fulfillment – which they define as a monogamous heterosexual relationship, children, and maybe a cute little job if the hubby doesn’t mind.

These concepts are heavily marketed to women because these are things many women worry about.  Many women worry about these ideas because they are heavily marketed to women.  We have become a culture that depends on advertisers to tell us who we are and what we want, and this is only one of the uglier symptoms of the larger disease.  We as a culture have lost the ability to define for ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we think.  We cried out for easy answers to those questions, and for our sins, those answers were given to us.

Until we as a culture shift from defining ourselves in terms of others, to defining ourselves – period, this problem will continue.  Women will continue to be told they are ugly until we push back and say no, they are beautiful.  Minorities will continue to be told they are weak and alien until we push back and say no, they are strong, and they are the same as us.

Culture shift is difficult and messy but it starts with one person changing their  mind and encouraging others to do the same.  Stop letting other people tell you what to think, and encourage your friends and family to think for themselves.  Get to know who you are, and then be that person.  If you have children, educate them in media literacy – equip them with the tools to recognize when someone is selling them a thing or an idea, and encourage them to cast a critical eye on the media in general, and advertising in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, a world-renowned cultural anthropologist said that.  Truer words have rarely been spoken.

News Corp, General Electric, and the Death of Objectivity

Borrowing a tradition from the government of pre-revolution France, journalism has often been called the Fourth Estate of society – the first being the clergy, the second being the nobility (government), and the third being the public at large. Journalism is most useful when it is separate from each of the previous three estates – although it is not an opponent of either the clergy or the government, it is at its best when it is free from the influence of either. For journalism to be objective and credible, it needs to be able to report on the flaws and failings of the other estates. In a sense, it protects the public from the machinations of the clergy and the nobility.

But what happens when the lines blur?

Recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, parent company to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, donated one million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, an organization devoted to promoting the election and interests of state governors who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party. Fox News is, of course, home of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all of which devote the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their programs preaching the virtues of conservatism and casting aspersions on liberals to a degree that approaches self-parody. Guest speakers advancing liberal viewpoints are occasionally present, but invariably dismissed as socialists, well-meaning simpletons, or simply shouted down.

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC news anchor and longtime devoted rival of Fox News and its stars, reported on this shortly afterward, mentioning in the interests of full disclosure that General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, had donated $105,000 to the RGA – along with an identical amount to the Democratic Governor’s Association. The fact that both amounts were identical was presented as an example of fairness and equality. According to CNN, those numbers are not entirely accurate – in the current election cycle, GE has donated $237,000 to the DGA compared with $205,000 to the RGA. Thirty-two thousand dollars, spread across an entire nation’s worth of funding, is a small enough amount so that it could be argued to be irrelevant – but even if Olbermann was accurate, that’s not the real problem – the problem is that news organizations and their parent companies are financially supporting political parties in the first place.

For a news agency to be taken seriously, its statements and commentary must be assumed to be objective. For objectivity to exist, it must be known that the person or agency making the statement be free from conflicts of interest or other forms of outside influence. For a person or a company to make a donation, especially one so large, to any person or group implies that the target of the donation is tacitly endorsed by the donator. You don’t give money to a charity that supports something you disapprove of, after all. Therefore, it can be reasoned that when news organizations donate money to a political party, they are expressing their endorsement and approval of the beliefs and activities of that party. This is the very definition of bias. If a news agency is biased, they cannot be trusted to provide honest, objective commentary on the target of their bias, just as you can’t ask a person about their lover’s personal problems and expect anything resembling an honest answer.

That Fox News is biased toward the Republican party is beyond question. MSNBC’s bias toward the Democratic Party is questionable as GE is not solely or even mostly a news organization, but it is still a troubling revelation. That mass media in general is at the whim and mercy of government or corporate interests is the horrible reality that lies at the root of the whole problem. The only saving grace is that at least many entirely different people and agencies are serving their interests by buying and selling the mass media, so there is often truth to be found by comparing the reports of rival news agencies and seeing where they agree – and more importantly, where they do not.

So where does this leave the person seeking truth? Nonprofit news organizations (a draft list can be found here: ) are not guaranteed to be free from outside influence, but as they have no shareholders to serve and no profits to worry about, chances are much better that they will be much freer from bias – or at least be honest and forthright about their bias. Nonprofit news organizations range from the tiny to the titanic, spreading their message everywhere from talk radio to the internet and everywhere in between. As I’ve written many times before, though, you should never depend on any one person or group to be your sole source of news and information – because to do so is to allow that one source to do your thinking for you as well.

Glenn Beck Is An Asshole

Caught a clip of Glenn Beck’s program thanks to the good people at Crooks & Liars (link and, after stomping around my home a little while, came to a conclusion stunning in its obviousness: Glenn Beck is an asshole.

On the surface, this seems a revelation on par with the observation of the liquid state of a solution of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but there’s more to it than that. Glenn Beck REALLY IS an asshole.

The asshole, being the tail end of the alimentary canal, is where used food and other waste products leave the body after having had the nutrients and other useful materials extracted from them. Toxic substances which should never have been ingested in the first place are also often expelled from the body here. Though disgusting, the asshole is a necessary part of the body: the waste has to go SOMEWHERE, after all, and if it were not for the anal sphincter giving the body control over when and where to expel its waste, it would simply dribble out of the body as it was produced. Hardly sanitary.

Now let us apply this concept to the realm of political discourse: You start with an idea or a concept. The idea is consumed, its useful components extracted and utilized, and then it quietly dies. Except not really – ideas never really die, they are either maintained and cared for, or they become horrible shambling caricatures of the ideals they once expressed. Eventually, the idea and those who support it are so far removed from the original idea that they are barely recognizable – as far estranged from each other as a golden cob of buttery deliciousness, and a pale yellow husk sticking out of a lump of excrement.

Take something like the concept of the self-made man: At its heart, you have the idea that each man is the captain of his own destiny, that no person is so low that they can not pull themselves up to whatever success they deem worthy, that each person need depend only on him or herself to help them make it. It’s a noble sentiment, and has many good and useful concepts to it: Yes, each person should do their very best to succeed (for individual values of ‘succeed’). Yes, the most significant contributor to the fate of a person is that person themselves. Yes, when you are failing at your personal goals, or when you are needy, that is when you apply greater effort than ever before.

But there are false and harmful concepts there too: the idea that outside circumstances are meaningless is false. The idea that a person can see to their own needs without assistance from others is false and in many cases harmful (by that logic, those who are unemployed should not be allowed to live past the point where their savings allow them food or shelter).

So after digestion and excretion, we are left with what is called by many as the BOOTSTRAPS! concept: that the main reason so many people are poor is that they simply lack ambition or a strong work ethic, that those who make use of or depend upon unemployment or other social services are weak or lazy, and that those who suffer under circumstances making it difficult for them to succeed can simply ignore those circumstances and overcome them through sheer force of will.

The more the idea is digested and redigested, regurgitated, chewed, and re-swallowed, the more the eventual result has had its good and useful parts replaced with foul and toxic concepts. The more a piece of food is processed and chewed and digested and artificially preserved or any other form of altering, the more the eventual result has had its natural nutrients replaced with artificial ones, its textural nuances replaced with uniform easily-chewed blandness, its flavor only barely reminiscent of that of its original ingredient.

The problem arises when people confuse the two: Subsisting on a diet of only processed convenience food will make you ill, and subsisting on a diet of intellectual waste will sicken your mind and poison your spirit. Man cannot live on beef jerky and potato chips alone, nor can getting your ideas and opinions from a spewing asshole like Glenn Beck lead to a strong and healthy mind.

Glenn Beck fills a necessary role in media: He is the asshole, the spewer of digested ideas and diseased concepts, so that we as a society can look upon the effluvia that comes out of our collective consciousness and examine it for signs of trauma or disease. Unfortunately, he markets himself as a source of intellectual nutrition and, for those who don’t bother to read nutrition labels or other warnings, drops a steaming pile of mental cholera into the brains and hearts of untold numbers of the population.

There is nothing wrong with being an asshole – in fact, an asshole is necessary – but never, ever confuse a pile of bullshit with a sirloin steak.

the protection racket

Most, if not all, revolving credit providers (credit cards, home equity loans, etc) offer an account protection product where, for a fee, your account is protected in the event you lose your job or get disabled or something.  Generally, the protection takes one of two forms:  Either the service will cancel your debt in full up to a cap, or your payments will be deferred for a while.  The charge for this service is usually based on your average daily balance, NOT your end-of-cycle billed balance.  There are definitely benefits to account protection services, but there are also some pretty nasty pitfalls that I’m going to try to shed a little light on in this article.

First, the two basic types of protection.  Debt cancellation is the better of the two, since after the qualifying event, your debt simply goes away (again, often up to a maximum amount.)  Something to check on for this type is what exactly happens in the event of a payoff:

  • How soon after the qualifying event does the payoff happen?  Some debt cancellation products will make you wait one or two billing cycles before the payoff, and you’re still on the hook for payments in the meantime.
  • What is the form of the payoff?  Is it a direct account credit or do they mail you a check?  Direct credit is good because it Just Plain Happens, whereas sending you a check means you have to worry about it being lost in the mail, transit time, depositing it in a bank, moving the money from the account it was deposited to to the account you’re paying off, etc.
  • What happens to the account after the payoff? Is it left open (great!) or is it closed? (hrm.)  If it’s closed, is it reported to the credit bureau as closed in good standing, or closed as a collections payoff?  Either way your credit score is going to go down, but showing the account as closed in good standing hurts your score SIGNIFICANTLY less.

Payment deferral is less useful.  In a nutshell, after a qualifying event, your debt stays put, but you don’t have to make payments for a while.  Common things to look out for:

  • How are the deferred payments handled?  Is an amount equivalent to your minimum payment due credited to your account each month (great!) or are you just not required to send in a payment?
  • In the case of the latter, what happens with finance charges in the meantime?  Are the finance charges accruing silently in the background, then added to the account in a lump at the end of the deferral period?
  • Are you able to use the account during the deferral period, and if so, will that shorten the deferral period, interrupt finance charge deferral, or cause any other fees or penalties?
  • Are there any conditions that can cause the deferral period to be shortened or cancelled?  For instance, if the qualifying event is a job loss, and you start a part-time job while you look for full-time work, will that interim income (though it was never intended to replace your lost job) end the deferral period?

Second, read up on the qualifying events CAREFULLY.  Commonly, qualifying events include stuff like losing a job, becoming hospitalized for a minimum amount of time, or becoming permanently disabled.  Others may also cover taking a leave of absence from your job, death, death/job loss/disabling of another household member, etc.  Read the fine print to find out EXACTLY what is covered.  Gotchas include:

  • Are all types of job loss covered?  Some plans will not trigger a payoff or deferral if you get fired for cause instead of getting laid off.
  • How long do you have to be hospitalized?  Shorter is better here, 7-14 days is reasonable.  More than that is questionable, and protection plans requiring you to be hospitalized for a month or more are patently ridiculous.
  • Are there any restrictions or limitations on the reason behind your hospitalization, or the particular type?  For instance, if you’re hospitalized for a couple weeks due to complications from an elective procedure, does that ‘not count’ because it all started with the elective?

Third, the cost for account protection products is often expressed as a function of your average daily balance.  This is significantly different from your end-of-cycle billed balance, so be aware of this.  For instance, say you buy $3,000.00 worth of furniture on the first of the month, and pay it off in full on the 15th of that month.  At the end of the month, your billed balance is zero, but your average daily balance is $1,500.00.  If it’s paid off the day after it was charged, though, the average daily balance would only be $100.00.  Keep your average daily balance low by paying off your account as quickly as possible.  Note that some accounts will limit how many payments you can make in a month (there is actually a good reason for this, high ‘churn’ can be a symptom of money laundering) so this might have an effect on how soon you can pay off your balance.

Fourth, ‘blackout periods’ may occur.  For instance, you might be unable to file a claim for 30-60 days after the start of the account protection service so you don’t try to sneak in a claim after the fact.  The blackout period may vary by the type of qualifying event or claims may be limited on a sliding scale based on their proximity to the start of the account protection service.

Finally, read the fine print.  There are a number of pitfalls I haven’t thought of, and I’m sure there’s a number of lawyers devoted to thinking up new ones.  Read the fine print, and ask about anything you do not understand.  If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, walk away.

In the long run, account protection services are a gamble.  You’re spending a little money to save a lot in case something bad happens.  If nothing bad happens, then the money you spent is gone with no return on the investment – whether you think that’s wasted is up to you.  Personally, if the price is low enough and there aren’t too many loopholes rendering the service useless, I think it’s worth it.  Think of it as health insurance for your credit card.  When it comes in handy, it comes in REALLY handy.

finance law, part four



The Credit CARD Act of 2009 was enacted to standardize fair business practices among credit card issuers.  Different parts of the bill take effect at different times to give the industry time to make the necessary changes.  An underlying theme among all the changes is transparency, so as long as you’re being a good customer and READING YOUR STATEMENTS (this is in all-caps because I cannot stress enough how important it is to read your statements) there will be no surprises.


Like I said, this is rolling out in four steps.  The bill was signed on May 22, 2009 with different parts coming effective at 90 days, 9 months, and 15 months after enactment.  There are also changes to Reg Z / UDAP coming on July 1, 2010, but those will be mentioned in an upcoming article.

On August 20, 2009, the following changes were effective:

  • Payment due dates must be at least 21 days after the statement is mailed, and cannot be considered late if they arrive before 5:00 PM EST.  If the regular due date falls on a holiday or weekend, and the payment arrives the next business day, the payment cannot be considered late.  If this is ignored, then the bank cannot charge a late fee.  (Note: They count the date it was MAILED, not the date it was RECEIVED. If your mail service is slow, or you worry a bill might get lost, it’s worth calling your financial institution a few days after the statement prints (also known as your ‘cycle date’, this should be the same day every month) and getting the basic details – or signing up for paperless billing if your financial institution offers it.)
  • Customers must be given a minimum of 45 days notice of any change in terms of their account, including APR changes, delinquency penalties, or any other significant change in terms.
  • Customers must be given an opportunity to opt out of the account changes, though this usually means the closure of their account.

With many accounts, due dates will have changed.  Keep an eye on your statements (I’m going to be beating this drum a lot – if you’re not reading your statements, you lose a lot of information and a lot of ability to take care of problems.  Read your statements.) so there won’t be any surprises.

On February 22, 2010, the following changes will be effective:

  • Repricing (changing the APR) of existing balance can not be done outside of a few specific circumstances, such as:
    • In response to late payments – an APR can be raised to a ‘delinquency rate’ if a payment is received more than 30 days after the due date.  If the balance is repriced in this way, however, there’s a mandatory 6 month ‘cure’ period – 6 consecutive months of on-time payments, and the APR must go down to what it was before.
    • In response to an index – many banks have variable APR accounts where the APR is expressed as ‘prime plus X%’ or whatever, where your APR is calculated as a function of a different value, usually the Federal Prime Rate.  Thus, if the Prime Rate fluctuates, your APR will as well.
    • Introductory rates – many banks will offer an introductory rate that is significantly lower than their normal rate.  This is permissible only if it is clearly disclosed that this is a temporary rate, when that rate will expire, and what the regular rate will be after the expiration of the introductory rate.
    • After the first year on new activity only – After an account has been open for one full year, a financial institution may increase the APR on NEW ACTIVITY ONLY after giving 45 days notice and the option to opt out of the APR change.  ‘New activity only’ means that the increased APR can not be applied to balances or charges on the account before the effective date of the APR change.
  • Payments in excess of the minimum payment due must either go toward the highest APR balance first (typically cash advances) or split ‘pro rata’ among all balances – this means in proportion to the balance.  If, for instance, you have a total balance of $100, which contains three balances – balance A at $20, balance B at $30, and balance C at $50, then once the minimum payment is satisfied, 20% of the remainder would go to A, 30% to B, and 50% to C.
  • Over-limit authorizations will be handled as an opt-in service instead of an opt-out service.  Basically, this means that by default, when you hit your credit limit, your card will stop working.  Previously, many financial institutions would allow you to keep making purchases past your credit limit, and then charge extra over-limit fees for those purchases – even if you weren’t aware that you had exceeded your credit limit.  Once this takes effect, you  will have to specifically give consent to your financial institution in order for the purchases to be approved (and fee charged).
  • Statements must have a due date that is the same each month.
  • Payment fees can only be assessed for expedited service handled by a live representative of the lender, not for automated payments under any circumstances (phone, internet, etc).
  • Applicants under the age of 21 must have a cosigner or be able to show proof of independent means to show that they are able to make payments on their account.
  • Warnings must be included with statements advising the effects of paying only the minimum amount due – specifically, that it will take a very long time to pay off the account.
  • Promotional rates or introductory rates can not expire in less than six months.
  • Financial institutions must make the terms and conditions documents available on the internet.


Basically, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 was designed to put a stop to certain practices and methods used by some financial institutions that are, put simply, exploitative.  The Act requires clearer disclosure, more fair terms, reasonable and consistent due dates, and requires financial institutions to consider an individual’s ability to pay the account off when deciding whether to extend credit.  This will make it a little harder to get credit accounts or to get higher credit limits, but it will also make it a LOT harder to get in over your head with credit.


This isn’t an exhaustive summary.  There are other parts of the Act that come effective at different times, and some parts that depend on future findings – for instance, there’s a bit that requires that fees and penalties be ‘fair, reasonable, and proportional to the violation’ but specifies that a limit is not yet defined but will be further discussed.


It’s going to be harder for you to get into trouble with credit – but not impossible.  Generally, if you read the fine print on your terms and conditions document, and read your statements, and ask about stuff you don’t understand, you’ll be okay.  When in doubt, call and ask.