Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bruno, the Death Penalty, and Campaign Finance Reform

New York Senator Joe Bruno is making political hay over the recent spate of cop shootings in the state. He's advocating for a new death penalty for the state. The old death penalty was struck down by the State's highest court for violating the rights of defendants.

The most recent cop shooting occurred last week. A young trooper with a wife and infant daughter was shot accidentally by another state trooper while involved in a wild-west shoot out with a fugitive.

This shooting occurred the same week as new Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that he was going to push the Senate and Assembly to pass campaign finance legislation. Currently your average New Yorker can donate $55,000 to a campaign (yep, the cost of a fully-loaded Hummer), and there are limited regulations on Limited Liability Corporations, PACs, soft money to political parties, etc. etc -- the usual hodge-podge of loose laws to allow money to flow unlimited and unregulated into the political scene. Spitzer wants to limit individual contributions to $15,000 ($13,000 more than limits to federal candidates, by the way) and limit contributions from other channels.

Now, when Spitzer advocated this, Bruno made it crystal clear he thinks campaign finance reform is bullshit. He characterized Spitzer's proposal as a violation of freedom of speech.

Bruno doesn't know his constitutional law, though. The U.S. Supreme court made it clear in 1979 in Buckley V. Valeo that there is no violation of free speech by limiting contributions to campaigns. There is a violation if there are caps on how much candidates can spend if they do not take matching funds - but that's not what Spitzer is proposing.

And, frankly, Bruno doesn't care about constitutional law. He's just throwing every half-baked argument at campaign finance reform, because he doesn't want to stem the flow of taint that pervades the New York State political process.

My favorite Bruno half-baked argument came on Thursday when he argued that the state should pass a cop-killer death penalty, and that Spitzer didn't have his priorities straight by advocating for campaign finance reform rather than a death penalty. He was quoted in the Albany Times Union saying: "What is more important than protecting the lives of law enforcement officers? Is campaign finance reform more important than that? I don't think so."

What's wrong with this argument? Well, I'll tell you. :-) It sets up a dilemma between the death penalty and campaign finance reform. But, it's an utterly FALSE dilemma. What, the Senate can't handle more than one policy initiative a year? It's so stupid.

I can't figure out why the people of Bruno's district put up with this crap. I write angry letters to MY state Senator complaining about Bruno (not that Neil Breslin can do much of anything about it, since he's in the opposite party, but still). I look forward to the day when that man loses his bully pulpit. To my mind, he is a perfect symbol for what is wrong with politics in this state.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Is it Time to Ban Handguns?

Last night, watching the coverage of the shooting at Virginia Tech, my husband and I talked gun control. Virginia has some of the most lax gun laws in the U.S. Handguns were used in the shooting at the University. Indeed, it seems that handguns are the weapon of choice in killing other people. I caught an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer this weekend that said that shootings in Philadelphia are at new highs. Last year, over 400 people were killed in the city, and this year shootings are up 16% so far from last year. Most of those deaths are caused by people using handguns.

This is a tough topic for me, because I have some sympathy with the idea that the citizens should be able to rise up against the government when it becomes unjust and tyrannical. It's hard to do that without weapons. Although, as my Canadian husband, who finds Americans' love of guns bizarre, points out, no "well regulated militia" of average citizens can compete against the regular military. Those who might rise up against an unjust government would likely be put down by that military of that unjust government. But, still, I like the idea.

And, I grew up with guns, mostly rifles, which we used to shoot cans or prairie dogs (before they were an endangered species, ehem). My dad had an assortment of rifles and shotguns, which were part of life on the ranch. I handled those and was comfortable with them. And, I don't have a problem with regulated and managed hunting. Given that humans have killed off most of the predators, there's a certain amount of wildlife management necessary by hunting these days.

Handguns are another story, though. Their small size, easy handling, point and click interface (to use video game terms), make those guns seem fairly scary to me. They definetely seemed scary when I was a kid. My dad had a semi-automatic handgun that I found particularly scary. The recoil on that gun, and the ease of pulling and pulling and pulling the trigger to have it fire over and over again, gave it a feeling of lethality that I didn't feel with my .22.

Now, those who declare all guns (and the purchase and ownership of them) sacred in the Second Amendment and outside the purview of regulation I think have constructed an interpretation of that Amendment that far exceeds what the founders intended.

But, it seems to me the only way to get laws passed to better regulate guns is to amend the Constitution--to clarify the right. I don't think Americans should have the right to bear handguns that they can use to shoot other people. Vigilantism, retribution, hate, jealousy, drunken rage, you name it, are not good reasons to brandish guns and fire them at other people.

This is controversial, I know, but we need to have another deep conversation in this country about the manufacture, distribution, and acquisition of guns. Otherwise, the violence will continue. I don't see that as good for our society.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Violence at Virginia Tech

I've been following today's coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech. I have colleagues there, which just brings it closer to home how terrible the events were.

Violence like this can happen on any college campus. Let us all be vigilant to watch for those who show signs of stress and emotional trouble, especially in these final weeks of the semester. And not just those who might hurt others, but those who might hurt themselves. Suicide is still the most common type of on-campus death.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Imus Gets Canned

I must confess I did not expect CBS and MSNBC to stop broadcasting the Don Imus show. But, that is what both have now done.

I think I didn't expect it, because although I assumed that this culture would find what he said inappropriate but not feel that he has crossed a line. I was wrong.

So, the question is: what line did he cross?

It wasn't a sexism line. As one of my students pointed out "ho" is said all over popular culture. I am resigned to the reality that although we don't think we're a sexist society, we still are at some very basic levels, and in this culture it is A-OKto use derogatory terms against women and not get censured for it.

Was it a race line? There's a children's book about "nappy hair," which suggests that the term can be viewed as a straight-up description (without the negative connotations). But, maybe it's because a white guy said it? Certainly, as another one of my students pointed out, there is an "insider"/"outsider" phenomenon at work. If I am gay, I can call myself and others who share my orientation "queer," but if I am straight and I call someone who is gay "queer," I might be in social trouble. The same may be at work here. But, we are still a racist society, and Imus has said racist things in the past which have never met with this sort of furor. So, I'm not sure that's it.

Was it a genre disconnect? By that I mean that the Imus show is mostly an elite show. Major politicians, journalists, pundits, and others who are opinion setters and policy makers appear on his show talking about the current events and latest ideas they're selling. Its mass appeal is in the political parodies and uncouth exchanges that draw in the masses who enjoy the "shock jock" aspects of the show (not that the elites didn't, even if they weren't supposed to publicly). Perhaps such a boundary-crossing show can't be both mass and elite without eventually alienating one of those two groups. [The problem I have with this analysis, at least as I've been able to articulate it so far, is that this assumes that the masses are base and quite happily revel in racist and sexist language, and although I think that's true, I don't think the elites are exempt from this. So, perhaps someone out there can make this argument work.]

Was it the subject of the "humor" that crossed the line? The people he claims he was just trying to make a joke about, the Rutgers women's basketball team, were a group of athletes who had made their university, their families, and the state proud by doing something extraordinary and worth commendation. Imus seemed not to joke about them but instead to attack them for no good reason, simply because they had done something extraordinary.

Quite simply, whom he picked on for humor turned out not to be a set of people who could serve as being an acceptable butt of a cruel joke. We have no qualms making jokes at the expense of Bill Clinton (Still! I enjoy it every chance I get). But, he deserves it. The women's basketball team did not. Thus, he joke not only failed as a joke, but it didn't even *seem* like a joke. Instead, it seemed like an attack, and an attack on a group of people who in no uncertain terms did not deserve it.

Now, perhaps Imus would still be on air if it weren't for the pulling of advertisements of major corporations from CBS and NBC. In the world of broadcasting, money is the bottom line, and the threat of a loss of revenue gets the executives listening. But it says something that advertisers said they did not want to be associated any longer with what Imus was dishing out.

So, perhaps, this signals a shift in our culture. The FCC is now regulating indecency more aggressively than in the past. And, perhaps, broadcasters are starting to get the feeling that Americans are not as inclined as perhaps we once were to be subject to morally depraved programming. I'm not quite ready to grant this, but I would like for it to be true. I don't want to see the morality police determining what we should watch, and I love a naughty joke as much as the next person, but there is a point when a society stoops too low, and perhaps we're there? Imus the first casualty.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Shock Jock Imus Hits New Low

Many of you may have caught the furor over Don Imus' latest nasty remarks on his morning show. I won't perpetuate the shock by repeating what he said, but suffice it to say, he made a racially and sexually derogatory set of remarks about the Rutgers' women's basketball team.

When I read the story this weekend, I thought about blogging about it, but didn't want to give the ass any further publicity than he's already received. On the other hand, to sit quietly and not say anything, also isn't appropriate. He deserves all the scolding society should muster, because what he said was beyond the pale. The women of Rutgers basketball team are hard working, talented women doing something they love and furthering themselves and their school through their athletics. These are people who deserve praise not attack. That he thought it was okay to say such nasty things about people who absolutely did not deserve it speaks to his weak moral character (it also says something about our culture, but that's for another post).

Having expressed my own disgust at his remarks, the situation raises an interesting question. Should he lose his job?

On the face of it, I'm uncertain. On the one hand, he is using a public commodity (the public airwaves) to expound his vile and filth. Is it appropriate for someone to use a scarce public resource to demean and degrade people? No. On the other hand, there's that whole First Amendment thing. He has the right to express racist and sexist views as much as I have a right to express my disgust at them.

So, should he lose his job? As I consider it, I think yes. If he expressed this on his blog or to his friends in a living room, fine. First Amendment all the way. But, there is something deeply troubling about using a scarce public resource to expound hate for profit. Our public resources can and should be used to uplift society, not drag us down.


MSNBC and CBS have both suspended their syndicated broadcasts of the show for two weeks (geez, now there's punishment . . . .). Imus reports that he believes the suspension is appropriate, and that he is sorry for his words.

It's worth noting that Imus has a long history of making racially derogatory remarks. He then apologizes profusely and says he won't do it again. Will it be any different this time?

I would like to see his many celebrity and political guests refuse to be on his show. McCain was asked if he would appear again (he's a frequent guest), and he said that he believed in redemption. But, how many times must Imus request redemption, before one starts to wonder if his heart is really in it?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Abandoned Pets on Easter Sunday

I want to take this Easter Sunday to reflect on the plight of unwanted, abandoned dogs and cats.
Several times a year, someone abandons a dog or a litter of kittens up the hill from where we live. My neighbor, Ida Mae, on whose land most of them are dumped takes them all in. She has several abandoned dogs and a barn full of abandoned cats whom she keeps, feeds, and cares for.

These are the lucky ones. Half of all dogs that are dropped off at shelters are euthanized. Half. Any dog that is taken to shelter has a 50/50 opportunity at a second chance. It's even worse for cats. They have a 1 in 3 opportunity at a second chance. In total, 8-10 million animals are euthanized every year in animal shelters.

So, on this day, consider adopting a dog or a cat from your local humane society. If your house is full, then donate money or volunteer your time to the local humane society or animal rescue.

And, if you're thinking that it's time to get rid of your pet, because it's annoying, it scratches, it chews, it pees where you don't want it to, it doesn't match your furniture, reconsider. Enroll your animal in a behavior training program, or seek help and guidance from an animal trainer. Most "problems" can be solved.

Love your animals as much as they love you.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

McCain's Fundraising

Last week the candidate's released their quarterly reports on fundraising.

The two big surprises were McCain and Obama. McCain raised an unexpectedly small amount (only $12.5 million compared to Mitt Romney's $23 million). Obama raised an unexpectedly large amount ($23.5 million to Clinton's $26 million - although more of his money was raised for the primaries than Clinton. See, candidates can raise $2300 from a single donor in the primaries and that amount again during the general election. At some of the big donor fundraisers, attendees write $4600 in checks for both races).

[The amount of money being raises far surpasses anything we've seen in prior years. This will be a billion dollar campaign, without any question.]

The comparison between Obama's and McCain's fundraising style illustrates two very different ways to fundraise. Obama has recreated the Dean strategy of raising smaller donations through the Internet. He received donations from more than $100,000 donors, which beat all the other candidates [see article]. Half of his donations came from donors who gave online [see article].

McCain also had adopted a small donor approach to fundraising, but his clear campaign finance reform stance seems to have turned off donors (according to the pundits). After the fundraising reports, his campaign announced that he would more aggressively adopt the Bush strategy of "pioneer" fundraising. He has recruited several of President Bush's top fundraisers, whom Bush labeled "pioneers" and gave special perks (such as private dinners with candidate Bush) for raising $100,000 each.

My sense is McCain also is in trouble because he does not enthuse the conservative base of the Republican party, which was McCain's trouble in 2000. That election, McCain attracted independents, weak Democrats, and weak Republicans to his campaign. But the core of his party was suspicious of his reformist bent and his lack of vocal support for social conservative values. Unlike in 2000, his "straight-talk express" was a novelty, though, and there was something refreshing and exciting about his no-B.S. approach to campaigning.

This time around he does not appear to be quiet so "straight" in his talk. Recall that he had been a vocal opponent to President Bush's attempt to pressure Congress to include some forms of "interrogation" (or "torture" if you prefer) when detaining suspects of terrorism. Yet, when it came to actually writing the legislation, McCain bowed to Bush and wrote into the Senate's bill legislation which gave the President wide discretion in determining what constitutes appropriate interrogation tactics.

Just last week, McCain was in Iraq investigating the situation in Baghdad. He attended a large market to see how life was for Iraqis and declared during a press conference (rather testily according to some reporters) that things had improved in Iraq, and that he felt perfectly safe to walk about the market, which in past months had been a target of attacks. He failed to point out, though, that he showed up at the market in a bulletproof vest with over 100 support troops, helicopters flying overhead, sharp shooters placed on roof tops, and traffic redirected away from the market.

A New York Times journalist interviewed merchants at the market following McCain's visit and reported that the market was not safer, that the merchants were losing money, and that they had expressed their fears and concerns when McCain and the other congressmembers in the delegation spoke with them. But, McCain did not report their concerns, and tried to create a vision of the market as a symbol of an increasingly safe Baghdad.

Three days later, McCain issued an apology of sorts, saying that he "misspoke" when he said that the market was safe and a sign of improved conditions in Baghdad.

So, the "straight-talker" seems to have lost his straight-talking ways. If he can't appeal to independents, and if he continues to fail to excite conservatives, his campaign won't make it through the primaries.

Obama, by comparison, attracts not only independents but also weak and strong Democrats. He has the advantage of being novel, viewed as a relative "outsider" when compared with Clinton, of offering something fresh and different. He also had not adopted a persona yet that he has since betrayed (which is McCain's problem). Obama has staying power that will continue to be a major threat to the Clinton campaign. And, unlike Dean in 2004, he so far has not alienated journalists who cover his campaign, nor shown signs of being a hothead or "unstable."

As much as we may hate the amount of money that flows to campaigns, they serve as an important symbol of the viability and potency of a campaign.