Monthly Archives: September, 2007

Buddhists in the Spirit of Gandhi and Dr. King

Imagine it’s 1918 and you’re sitting in London having your morning tea. You pick up the newspaper. That Gandhi fellow again, stirring up the natives. He won’t last long, they’ll toss him in jail and that will shut him up. Or something. Something always happens to people like that.

Imagine it’s 1955 in the good old USA. You’re drinking instant coffee. You turn on your TV. The colored people in Montgomery, Alabama are boycotting the city buses. Some preacher named Martin Luther King is stirring them up. You bet the Communists are behind it, but it won’t last. They’ll toss those outside agitators in jail and that will be the end of it.

Do you think you will recognize the next great wave of nonviolent change when it comes?

In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, more than 800 monks, nuns and laymen played a cat-and-mouse game with some 100 soldiers who tried to stop them marching from the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, which they had tried to enter earlier.

“We are so afraid, the soldiers are ready to fire on civilians at any time,” a man near the pagoda said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

If the military responds to new protests with force, it could further isolate Myanmar from the international community. It would almost certainly put pressure on Myanmar’s top economic and diplomatic supporter, China, which is eager to burnish its international image before next year’s Olympics in Beijing.

If monks who are leading the protests are mistreated, that could outrage the predominantly Buddhist country, where clerics are revered. But if the junta backs down, it risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters, which could escalate the tension.

There are about 500,000 monks and novices in Myanmar. When faced with a similar crisis in 1988, the government brutally suppressed a student-led democracy uprising. Soldiers shot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, killing thousands.

Foreign governments and religious leaders have urged the junta to deal peacefully with the situation. They included the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Suu Kyi.

There’s an old movement saying — ‘The whole world is watching.’ Keep your eyes on this one.

The Strong Arm of the Law

Here’s one more example of the cruelly misplaced priorities of the Bush administration, as detailed by Dan Bernath in AlterNet:

The Federal War on Medical Marijuana Becomes a War on Children

Automatic weapons. Check. Helicopters. Check. Dogs. Check. Bulletproof vests. Check.

You may not buy the government’s characterization of its campaign against medical marijuana patients as a “war on drugs,” but increasingly violent, militaristic tactics in recent months offer a troubling glimpse into the federal law enforcement community’s mentality: To them, this is war.

Raids on medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California on July 17 by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents, often with local law enforcement officers in tow, seemed designed to send a clear signal that the feds were deliberately escalating their war on medical marijuana patients.

The enemy, then, are people like Ronnie Naulls, a Riverside medical marijuana patient who owned two of the dispensaries raided that day.

A church-going family man who used medical marijuana to ease chronic pain from injuries sustained in a 2001 car accident, Naulls already had two successful businesses — one as an IT consultant and another as a real estate property manager — when he established the Healing Nations Collective to save fellow Corona patients the hours-long drive to Los Angeles for medicine.

By all accounts, Naulls ran his collectives with exemplary scrupulousness. He maintained strict dress codes and professional standards for all employees. He paid state taxes on the dispensaries — amounting to several hundred thousand dollars a year — even when loose tax regulations allowed other dispensary owners to slip through the cracks. Profits from the dispensaries went to local and national cancer organizations.

Nevertheless, at 5:50 a.m., July 17, Naulls’ home and businesses were invaded by DEA agents armed with shotguns, automatic rifles — even helicopters. They seized everything he owned: his businesses, his property, all of his accounts.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. County child protective services came along on the raid and took Naulls’ three daughters, aged 1 to 5, and charged him and his wife with child endangerment. They weren’t even accused of breaking any state laws.

When Naulls spoke to his children in their foster home, the oldest said, “Daddy, we’re ready to come home now. We promise to be good.”

Of course they were too young to understand that they were victims of the strong-arm tactics of drug warriors whose goal was probably to make Naulls regret helping fellow patients receive their medicine in a safe, compassionate environment. Who cares if that means ruining a family financially, imprisoning the parents and traumatizing the children? [full text]

Iowa is No Garden of Eden for Higher Education

The following story by the Associated Press (via the First Amendment Center) provides further evidence that conservatives, particularly those of the religious fundamentalist persuasion, “tend to be more rigid and closed-minded [and] less tolerant of ambiguity,” not to mention metaphorically challenged:

Iowa instructor claims he was fired for Adam and Eve comments

DES MOINES, Iowa — A college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve is a fairy tale and should not be interpreted literally.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his Sept. 18 remarks in a western civilization class. He said he was fired on Sept. 20.

”I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college … have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said.

”As a taxpayer, I’d like to know if a tax-supported public institution of higher learning has given veto power over what can and cannot be said in its classrooms to a fundamentalist religious group.”

School President Barbara Crittenden would not comment on whether Bitterman was fired over the Bible reference, saying it was a personnel issue.

“I can assure you that the college understands our employees’ free-speech rights,” she said. ”There was no action taken that violated the First Amendment.”

Bitterman, who taught part time at Southwestern and Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College, says he uses the Old Testament in his western civilization course and teaches it from an academic standpoint.

He said some students thought the Sept. 18 lesson belittled their religion.

”I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. ”I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”

Bitterman said he called the story of Adam and Eve a fairy tale in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney.

He said the college, by firing him, ”is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the 8th century.” [full text]

Investors Profit while Seniors Suffer

Not every elder American is as fortunate as Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who remains “vigorous and sharp” at the age of 87 and is the subject of an interesting feature story in today’s New York Times Magazine. For many Americans, the golden years are tarnished by declining health and ability, to the point where they must spend the rest of their days in a nursing home. While many, if not most, of these facilities provide their residents with good care and are responsive to their needs, there are some homes that are considerably lacking in this regard. One reason for such is the increasing propensity of large private investment companies to buy up scores of nursing homes and then cut staff and costs (in defiance of established regulations) in order to turn a sizable profit. In addition, these opportunistic capitalists add insult to injury by “creating complex corporate structures that obscure who controls their nursing homes” and impede any litigation that might result from their negligence. Such brazen profiteering is reprehensible, as the following New York Times exposé by Charles Duhigg reveals:

More Profit and Less Nursing at Many Homes

Habana Health Care Center, a 150-bed nursing home in Tampa, Fla., was struggling when a group of large private investment firms purchased it and 48 other nursing homes in 2002.

The facility’s managers quickly cut costs. Within months, the number of clinical registered nurses at the home was half what it had been a year earlier, records collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate. Budgets for nursing supplies, resident activities and other services also fell, according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

The investors and operators were soon earning millions of dollars a year from their 49 homes.

Residents fared less well. Over three years, 15 at Habana died from what their families contend was negligent care in lawsuits filed in state court. Regulators repeatedly warned the home that staff levels were below mandatory minimums. When regulators visited, they found malfunctioning fire doors, unhygienic kitchens and a resident using a leg brace that was broken.

“They’ve created a hellhole,� said Vivian Hewitt, who sued Habana in 2004 when her mother died after a large bedsore became infected by feces.

Habana is one of thousands of nursing homes across the nation that large Wall Street investment companies have bought or agreed to acquire in recent years.

Those investors include prominent private equity firms like Warburg Pincus and the Carlyle Group, better known for buying companies like Dunkin’ Donuts.

As such investors have acquired nursing homes, they have often reduced costs, increased profits and quickly resold facilities for significant gains.

But by many regulatory benchmarks, residents at those nursing homes are worse off, on average, than they were under previous owners, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data collected by government agencies from 2000 to 2006.

The Times analysis shows that, as at Habana, managers at many other nursing homes acquired by large private investors have cut expenses and staff, sometimes below minimum legal requirements.

Regulators say residents at these homes have suffered. At facilities owned by private investment firms, residents on average have fared more poorly than occupants of other homes in common problems like depression, loss of mobility and loss of ability to dress and bathe themselves, according to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The typical nursing home acquired by a large investment company before 2006 scored worse than national rates in 12 of 14 indicators that regulators use to track ailments of long-term residents. Those ailments include bedsores and easily preventable infections, as well as the need to be restrained. Before they were acquired by private investors, many of those homes scored at or above national averages in similar measurements. [full text]

Not surprisingly, these private investors remain far removed and emotionally detached from the suffering they cause. I am reminded of a classic episode of the television series M*A*S*H, which included a storyline about a pilot who was rather blithe and even cavalier about the deadly consequences of his bombing runs until he was brought face to face with some of his potential victims. It’s easy, in a way, to cause harm from a safe distance. But what’s safe (and profitable) for one group of people can be terribly devastating and costly for others. Just ask the residents of Habana Health Care Center or any like facility. Or just ask an Iraqi.

Bill O’Reilly Needs to Get Out More

Wow, Bill O’Reilly went to a restaurant run by colored people, and guess what! They were acting perfectly normal!

After going out to dinner at

Sylvia’s, a famous restaurant in Harlem, Bill O’Reilly reported that he “had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful,” adding: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.” Later, during a discussion with National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams about the effect of rap on culture, O’Reilly asserted: “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ You know, I mean, everybody was — it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all.” O’Reilly also stated: “I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They’re getting away from the Sharptons and the [Rev. Jesse] Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure it out. ‘Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.”

It’s just amazing how black Americans have progressed, and Bill O’Reilly was there to witness it.

Myself, I have few gifts to give to the struggle for justice, but I humbly offer this — I eat out a lot. I’ll go to any restaurant that looks good, and Providence is restaurant heaven. There’s also a lot of art openings where you can chow down on wine and cheese for free. (Not that I’m disrespecting the art.) I even go to May Breakfast at conservative Christian churches. I’m proud to say, that if you feed me I will be there.

I seldom go to New York City, so I’ve never been to Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem, but I’m one of her customers. She has a line of canned goods that you can get at the supermarket. Her greens were central to one of my failed diet plans. (Low fat, high nutrition.)

So I’m hoping Bill didn’t embarrass the white race while he was at Sylvia’s.

A few months ago my car broke down on Federal Hill. I had a few hours to wait for repairs, so I decided to have lunch at Tina’s Caribbean. Tina was there, cooking.

I was the only white person in the restaurant.
No one refused to serve me.
They didn’t make me wait a long time.
Everyone was pleasant.
Tina’s food is always excellent.

I only wish that the same could be said for all white restaurants when black people are customers.

But it’s just amazing how white Americans have progressed. When I go down South to visit my husband’s family we are a mixed racial group. We go to local and big chain restaurants and the staff is always courteous and charming. In fact, to a Rhode Islander the politeness quotient is very high. We’re nice in Rhode Island, but not effusive, generally.

You don’t have to get on a plane to go somewhere new. Just get out the yellow pages and look at the restaurants and find yourself a cultural experience. Don’t worry about the calories, you’re doing it for the revolution.

A “Poisonous Initiative” to Maintain Power

The greatest threat to American democracy in the early part of the 21st century is not posed by ruthless ideologues from afar who hijack airplanes. The greatest threat is posed by ruthless ideologues who are homegrown and seek to hijack the entire nation. Here is further evidence of how far they are willing to go to maintain their stranglehold on power, as detailed by Bob Herbert in the New York Times:

In 2008, Bush v. Gore Redux?

Right now it’s just a petition drive on its way to becoming a ballot initiative in California. But you should think of it as a tropical depression that could develop into a major storm that blows away the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House next year.

And it could become a constitutional crisis.

It’s panic time in Republican circles. The G.O.P. could go into next year’s election burdened by the twin demons of an unpopular war and an economic downturn. The party that took the White House in 2000 while losing the popular vote figures it may have to do it again.

The Presidential Election Reform Act is the name of a devious proposal that Republican operatives have dreamed up to siphon off 20 or more of the 55 electoral votes that the Democrats would get if, as expected, they win California in 2008.

That’s a lot of electoral votes, the equivalent of winning the state of Ohio. If this proposed change makes it onto the ballot and becomes law, those 20 or so electoral votes could well be enough to hand the White House to a Republican candidate who loses the popular vote nationwide.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has suggested that the initiative is a form of dirty pool. While not explicitly opposing it, Mr. Schwarzenegger said it smacks of changing the rules “in the middle of the game.�

Democrats are saying it’s unconstitutional.

The proposal would rewrite the rules for the distribution of electoral votes in California. Under current law, all of California’s 55 electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote statewide. That “winner-take-all� system is the norm in the U.S.

Under the proposed change, electoral votes would be apportioned according to the winner of the popular vote in each of California’s Congressional districts. That would likely throw 20 or more electoral votes to the Republican candidate, even if the Democrat carries the state.

A sign of the bad faith in this proposal is the fact that there is no similar effort by the G.O.P. to apportion electoral votes by Congressional districts in, for example, Texas, a state with 34 electoral votes that is likely to go Republican next year. [full text]

Some Swell News about the Uninsured

I am not alone. Indeed, according to a recent report issued by Families USA, I have a great deal of company. I am among an estimated 89.6 million Americans under the age of 65 who lacked health insurance coverage at some point in the last two years. And our numbers continue to swell—much like our untended injuries—aided, as it were, by leaders (and I use that term loosely) who are too ineffectual or uncaring to take action to remedy the growing health care crisis in this nation. It is a disgrace.

The Los Angeles Times has more on the Families USA report:

Study finds 89.6 million lacked health insurance

ore than one-third of the people in the United States under the age of 65 had no health insurance for some or all of 2006 and 2007, according to a study released Thursday by Families USA, an advocacy group for the uninsured.

The 89.6 million individuals identifying themselves as lacking insurance for at least a month, according to the advocacy group, was almost double the number of uninsured reported by the Census Bureau for 2006.

“It’s simply unacceptable that for lack of basic health coverage, nearly 90 million Americans had to live in fear of illness and injury in the last two years,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees national healthcare programs.

California had the largest number of individuals uninsured during some or all of that two-year period — 13 million, or nearly 41% of state residents younger than 65. Texas was second, with 9.3 million. Americans older than 65 are eligible for Medicare and were not considered in the Families USA study.

More than 70% of those without insurance in part or all of 2006 and 2007 were employed full time, the report said.

Half lacked insurance for nine months or more.

“This is a story of working people, working families. This is not a story of people looking for a handout,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. “These are people who simply can’t afford to pay for health coverage with their modest paychecks.” [full text]

Note to Self: Remember to Play

Yesterday was the second birthday for my younger daughter, a time of great joy for us, and also a time of increased activity to create the special occasion. I have to give it up to the customer service line at PlaySkool (1-800-PLAYSKL), part of Hasbro Toys. When the mustard was missing from the “Charlie Coal Grill” we bought, the service rep knew exactly what I was talking about and arranged for one to be delivered to the house in minutes. No need to see a receipt, no questions about where I’d bought it — one talk-activating mustard (the grill talks to the mustard when you put it in a certain holder) on the way.

So you have to appreciate the good things, give to others when you can, and remember to take care of yourself. Sometimes this means taking time to play.

Disgusted with Congress

I could not agree more with the following editorial from the New York Times:

In Search of a Congress

If you were one of the Americans waiting for Congress, under Democratic control, to show leadership on the war in Iraq, the message from the Senate is clear: “Nevermind.� The same goes for those waiting for lawmakers to fix the damage done to civil liberties by six years of President Bush and a rubber-stamp Republican Congress.

The Democrats don’t have, or can’t summon, the political strength to make sure Congress does what it is supposed to do: debate profound issues like these and take a stand. The Republicans are simply not interested in a serious discussion and certainly not a vote on anything beyond Mr. Bush’s increasingly narrow agenda.

On Wednesday, the Senate failed to vote on two major bills. One would have restored basic human rights and constitutional protections to hundreds of foreigners who are in perpetual detention, without charges or trial. The other was the one measure on the conduct of the Iraq war that survived the Democrats’ hasty retreat after last week’s smoke-and-mirrors display by Gen. David Petraeus and President Bush.

There were votes, of course, but not on the bills. They were cloture votes, which require 60 or more Senators to agree to cut off debate, eliminating the possibility of a filibuster, so Senators can vote on the actual law. In both cases, Democrats were four votes short, with six Republicans daring to defy the White House.

We support the filibuster as the only way to ensure a minority in the Senate can be heard. When the cloture votes failed this week, the Democrats should have let the Republicans filibuster. Democratic leaders think that’s too risky, since Congress could look like it’s not doing anything. But it’s not doing a lot now. [full text]

Hey, but let’s give Congress credit where credit is due. In response to a controversial anti-war advertisement recently produced by MoveOn.org, the Senate did take the time to debate and approve a resolution to “strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces.” Congress won’t take action to end the war, but they will take action to condemn those who dare to speak out assertively against the war.

If you’re not disgusted, then you’re not paying attention.

I’d Rather be Biking in Paris

Last May the Department of Transportation sponsored Bike to Work Day, and the Rhode Island weather gods responded by sending a cold drizzle. Even when the weather’s nice, it’s only the few and the brave who dare to ride a bike downtown.

But it’s getting better. Thirty years ago the Providence River was paved over, and traffic converged at the bottom of College Hill in a rotary called ‘suicide circle’. Our town was called ‘the armpit of the Northeast’. Now it’s a Venice wannabe. This week I saw a photo in the ProJo of fish in the Providence River. They were right side up. They were fairly big. They actually looked healthy. Who would have thought?

Now if Providence, the town that didn’t get no respect, is looking so good, what do you think might happen to a place that is already cool? Here’s news from Paris

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe was vilified by motorists for widening sidewalks and replacing car lanes with bike and bus corridors. He’s been accused of trying to eradicate the automobile from the French capital. But the new bike scheme has been so successful that his poll numbers are shooting up.

To use the bikes, riders pay about $7 for an annual membership and leave a credit card deposit of $150 in case the bike is not returned. The first half-hour is free, with a charge of about $1 for each 30 minutes thereafter.

Today there are 10,000 bikes available at 750 locations across the city. Both those numbers will double by the end of this year.

This story was on NPR. I was listening as I was stuck in traffic. The idea of a bike, or even a small car, that you can rent when you need it is not new, but the problems of tracking, accessibility and convenience were obstacles to success. Cheap computers have done a lot to make it easier to organize a program, and in Paris they found that tipping point where the bike program is more convenient than driving. That’s the point that any public transit system needs to reach in order to succeed.

There’s a lot of interest in green transportation. Let’s give a hand to the Mayor and other dignitaries of Providence for getting soaked and cold riding their bikes last May. Providence is a great walking and biking city, built before the auto was invented. The potential just needs to be uncovered, like the river.

The bike idea could work in Rhode Island. How about a small scale trial program, on a college campus like U.R.I. or R.I.C.? We wouldn’t have to admit we stole the idea from the French. We could paint them red, white and blue and call them Freedom Bikes.

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