Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Taking Atticus's Advice: Walking in the Shoes of Others



Near the end of the book and movie, both titled To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout takes Mr. Arthur “Boo” Radley’s hand and leads him home. After he steps inside and closes the door upon a world he rarely ventures into, she turns and looks out at that world as he might experience it, from a distance, from his point of view, and she remembers the lesson that Atticus has labored to teach her: walk in the shoes of another if you would understand him. Today, I invite you to walk in the shoes of a poor, working single mother, living in the inner city.

Step into her well-worn shoes and enter her home where the furnishings are simple, worn, and spare, but sufficient. If you stay long enough, you will see that this woman, exhausted and sore, lies down to sleep upon sheets thinned by years of water, soap, and bleach.

In the morning, still tired, she dresses quietly, striving not to wake her children. She has taught them to set and obey an alarm, to be responsible in her absence, and in one small gesture of her love for them, she boils water for some oatmeal, the breakfast that she and her children eat day after day after day. It costs little per serving, and with a little milk poured over it, fuels her girls until lunch. The weight of uncooked oatmeal only adds to its appeal. Even a large container is easy to carry on and off buses, up and down sidewalks, and this mother with limited resources, including access to supermarkets and transportation, must consider those facts when making purchases.

The kids sigh when they lift the lid on the pot to spoon out their oatmeal. It has cooled and thickened in the two hours before they crawled out of bed. The milk pools on top and chills the meal even more. This morning, though, there are raisins throughout, and that’s a special treat that comes in the days after the card for the SNAP program arrive. (SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps)

The children wash their faces and smooth their hair. As they do, they smile, remembering how tenderly their mother washed, combed and plaited it the night before. They step into the clothes their mother laid out for them to wear, brush their teeth, and zip up their jackets against the chilly morning air. Soon they are at the bus stop, waiting to board and ride to school.

The children do not carry lunch bags. They qualify for the school’s free and reduced lunches for which their mother is grateful, but she wishes her children had more choices. Ever diminishing state and federal dollars put more potatoes and corn than salads and lean meat offerings before her girls.

In the evenings, near seven, thanks to overcrowded buses and long commutes, Mom prepares supper. Late in the SNAP card cycle, she often serves pancakes. They’re filling and a bit of syrup or thin jelly adds a touch of sweet to please her kids. Flour may be heavier to carry from store door to apartment door, but it stretches into hot biscuits and gravy on Saturdays, cakes for special occasions, and pot pies for variety.

The kids are alone weekday mornings and for several hours after school. Mom cannot afford child care. Worse, cuts in education eliminated after-school programs, but as soon as Mom’s work day ends, she calls to be sure her girls are home, safe, locked inside, and she breathes easier when they answer. They are good kids--as most kids are--but the world is fraught with both temptation and danger. Mom worries, especially about the teen years when even good kids grow tired of deprivation, when they need affirmation and stimulation, sometimes settling for the worst kinds.

Lest you think that I have in any way idealized this scenario, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. A single mom working 40 hours in Michigan, a state that offers a wage slightly above the federal minimum wage, thus earning $ 7.40 per hour, 40 hours weekly, 52 weeks annually, grosses $14,208, a figure that is $ 3,360 below the 2010 poverty threshold. This is why some single parents work more than one full-time job to provide for their families.

A gross income slightly above minimum wage allows Mom to qualify for SNAP. In 2012, the gross monthly income threshold for a family of three is 130% of poverty or $ 2,009 (http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm). This Michigan Mom falls well below that amount, and she is not alone. In 2010, the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan reported that 31.6% of households headed by a single mother is poor.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, and the programs he championed succeeded in reducing the number of all people in desperate need to about 11.1% of the population by 1973. Now the nation is on the brink of exceeding the higher percentages that inspired Johnson’s domestic war, simply because we have allowed the social net to fray.

We lifted the elderly out of poverty and hunger with Social Security and Medicare, but Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan are two who advocate reducing, even starving those programs out of existence. Almost 50 years ago, we also reached out to pull up children, using SNAP and health care initiatives for them, but both of these are in danger as one party accuses citizens of being hangers-on, wastrels, and lovers of a Nanny State while the other party walks a tightrope between Corporate influence and its historical role in advocating for equal opportunity in the pursuit of life, liberty, and some measure of happiness.

The consequences are that now no net stretches below those in the greatest need, and the number of children developing in impoverished households is rising to its early 1960s levels. But human need does not define the vision any longer; political fealty does. Everything depends upon political outcomes, and even drought-stricken farmers and ranchers cannot expect aid until post-election 2012. As Oklahoma’s Republican Representative Tom Cole said, “… we’re not going to be able to make a lot of decisions that need to be made until the American people decide who the decision makers are going to be. And that’s the biggest challenge to legislating right now” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/03/ us/politics/house-passes-short-term-farm-relief-bill.html).

Shouldn’t we feel some measure of shame that politics trumps human life and human need? Shouldn’t we care more about the nation’s children than red and blue causes? Shouldn’t we be able to collaborate to solve the nation’s problems of poverty and hunger as we once did in the 1960s? Those pieces of legislation have allowed older citizens to thrive. Shouldn’t we care as much if not more for the youngest ones? Put on their shoes. Walk around in them. See what the world looks like from their point of view. Please.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ladies and Gentleman, Stop Your Engines!


I live in the hottest part of the United States: Oklahoma. Last year, according to www.weather.com, our state broke one record after another, including

·      Hottest summer on record since the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico
·      Hottest mean summer temperature since 1895 for the months July to September in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana
·      Gage, OK earned the OK honor of the hottest temperature on record for any month ever; at 113 degrees, Gage sweated its way into record books
·      Oklahoma City, OK tied its own record of all-time high temperature in July 2011; that record still stands at 109 degrees
·      Hottest month of all time across the entire state: July 2011
·      Both of Oklahoma’s large cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, broke record-high temperatures for the hottest day ever; Oklahoma City was 110 degrees on July 9, beating out the all-time record high set on July 6 in 1996, and Tulsa was 113, forever retiring the hottest day record set in 1936 when the State was nothing but dust
·      Oklahoma City enjoyed 63 consecutive days with temperatures in triple digits during 2011

Such record temperatures have consequences. Foremost among them is drought. Farmers and ranchers watched crops dry and die. The demand for quality hay to feed livestock was so great that Oklahoma’s governor set aside restrictions for the amount that could be hauled in one truckload. Cattlemen who had spent three decades building quality stock sold off a lifetime of work because they could not feed their cattle. Creeks and streams shrank to trickles; ponds receded until only cracked, dry dirt remained.

This year of 2012 has developed into another hot, brutal summer. Cities large and small have initiated water rationing plans. Burn bans are in place because the plains and prairies are dry tinder. Fire departments spend an entire year’s worth of funding in a summer trying to stop wild fires before they take homes and cattle, but a drive in any cardinal direction across the state will bring travelers to blackened, scorched land.

The cost of hay and corn are up. Electric bills stretch budgets. Lawns and plants  once well tended wither. Elderly people, unable to stay cool, die. Birds pant, and great game birds venture into neighborhoods in search of prey. A beautiful hawk landed on my suburban fence to survey the bird feeding and watering area that my husband tends daily.

The local news advises us to avoid running dishwashers and other appliances during peak hours. Still, cities experience brown-outs and sometimes several hours of black-outs. We know not to mow our lawns before mid-morning, not to refill our auto gas tanks very early in the morning or late at night when gas fume evaporation will have the least harmful effects upon human beings and the ozone dome. We have learned to shower with a bucket so that we can harvest the water run-off and use it for plants.

We speak to each other about the heat. We listen to local weathermen and turn our full attention to them if they speak the word, rain, but we know the odds are against hearing that word. We know that triple-digit day-time highs and night-lows no lower than the high 70s are the norm for now. We dare mosquitoes when the sun sets so that we can breathe outside air.

Our state endures, but we are guilty of being our own worst enemies in two ways. First, we reelect a climate-change denier, Senator James Inhofe, a buffoon on the world stage. He has an open palm for oil and energy donations, represents Oklahoma, but never with my vote.

Second, and this may seem petty, but we still act irresponsibly, especially from the hours of two to four every afternoon, hours that happen to coincide with one of Oklahoma’s most successful businesses, Sonic Drive-Ins, now operating nation-wide. From two to four every afternoon seven days a week, Sonics across the land sell drinks at half-price. Even the enormous Route 44 offering forty-four thirst-busting ounces is half-price so the drive-in parking slots fill quickly from and the drive-through line is long.

I’m often among this herd gathering at the Sonic watering hole, but I’m the maverick in the bunch. I choose the drive-in parking slips and turn my car engine off. I must shout at the speaker to place my order because cars left and right do not turn off their engines. They let their cars idle, they waste their gasoline dollars, they pour fuel fumes into the atmosphere, and they annoy the fire out of me.

They shouldn’t be so irresponsible! They should be more mindful of the heat radiating from their metal cars baking in the sun, from the engines laboring to cool an idle car, from the polluted air surrounding us. They should turn off their engines for the few minutes it takes to be served, then they should be on their way again.

So all you Okies and anyone else trying to weather the summer, turn off the dang engine. Swear off drive-through lanes. Park, walk in where it’s cool, or choose to allow one thin bead of sweat to shine on your brow while you wait for the carhop. And with the pennies you save in fuel efficiency, buy a tree. Plant it anywhere the law allows. Trees help keep us cool. After all, did you see Arkansas listed in any of the heat records at the beginning of this post? No! Yet it sets east of Oklahoma and Texas, west of Louisiana. It should have been as hot as those three states, but it wasn’t, and it isn’t, thanks to the Ozark National forest.

Let’s all work to cool it down by 1) voting to send anyone except Inhofe to Washington, 2) turning off our car engines while idling, and 3) planting trees. We can do it, America! I believe.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

22 Seconds!



A rodeo rider must stay on the back of a bull for a slight 8 seconds to qualify for the prize. A Jeopardy contestant has 30 seconds in which to answer the final jeopardy question correctly. Between those two numbers stretches 22 seconds. Just 22 seconds. Enough time to blink at least five times. Enough time to breathe in four times. Enough time for a healthy, fit heart to beat 22 times.

In five blinks of an eye, four inhalations, and twenty-two beats, you will see and hear everything that local news stations, as represented by Los Angeles, believe you want and need to know about government, including budgetary matters, law enforcement, education, and transportation, each of which is a complicated, complex topic that canNOT be analyzed or understood in 22 seconds. But that’s all that local news devotes to such issues (Martin Kaplan, USC Norman Lear Study. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZPtEb19DPM).

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call the local news Your Local Crawler Feed Recitation? In 22 seconds, that’s really all a news anchor can accomplish, isn’t it? He can read the headlines or the blurbs that crawl across the screen, and you will know as much as any headline or crawler feed provides: light, slight knoweledge, yet that’s what most voters take with them into the polling booth. Sound bites. Snippets. Crawler feeds. Headlines. 22 seconds of information.

Unless, of course, John Q. Voter reads to supplement his knowledge and understanding. But a Harvard study cited suggests that only 1 in 20 teens and 1 in 12 adults read print news somewhat regularly, but not necessarily daily (http://journalism.about.com/od/trends/a/youngpeople.htm). That means that the teen rate of becoming informed is greater than voter fraud rates. Teens read about 0.05% of the time, but only 0.00004% of voters entering voting booths cheat.

I’m not comfortable with such little knowledge in the hands of so many, but I’m not sure where to point the finger of blame. Shall I resign myself to the busy, busy schedules and plethora of time-dumps available to us, forgiving you and me for not reading enough, for not being well enough informed to discern the truth and challenge the disinformation? Shall I give up on one of the fundamental principles of democracy: the principle of a well-armed voter?

Or should I blame the purveyors of information and disinformation? Could they change the fabric of the nation, stitching its holes and repairing its snags, if they spent more time dissecting and reporting the facts of issues that affect our lives? I think they could if they eschewed news as titillation and entertainment, preferring to take up the very real labor intensive and somewhat more expensive role of unbiased educator.

Programs masquerading as news invite us to tweet our preferences for one wedding gown or another so that the couple of the summer will receive a dream wedding, soon to be broadcast across the land. On Fridays, more than 22 seconds will be dedicated to the latest heart throb in the musical industry striving to become a pop rock icon. On an outdoor stage, the news anchors all breathless will join in to watch Brittany Spears or Justin Bieber make another comeback after releasing another album. These programs will also alert me to style changes, clever coupon buys, gifts for every occasion, crafts, food prep and more, all the while pimping for programming debuting later on that very network.

For the serious news programs, I can listen to one interviewer after another ask the same question of the news flapper of the moment. He or she will repeat an answer quite like the answer of the guy appearing the day before as if each has dutifully swallowed Huxley’s Soma, a drug that removes all traces of doubt and dissatisfaction. Some folks, when pressed by a reporter to say more, to say something real, to say anything at all, end up resembling mechanical dolls, wound up to spit out just one answer:

·      I apologize. That’s all I have to say on the subject, or
·      Main Street, not Wall Street, or
·      Small businesses are the life-blood of this nation, or
·      Hangers-on just need to get up off the couch and get a job, or . . .

Well, you see the direction in which this drifts. It drifts to sound-bites, headlines, and crawler feeds.

I want more. I need more. I want to know who’s paying for the political ads. I need to know who’s winding up those mechanical dolls and programming them with phrases. I want to know how we will solve the problems that plague us, problems such as poverty and hunger. I don’t need to know the location of every convenience store robbed in order to know that police in my community are well worth my tax dollar. I want to know how better to support law enforcement. I need to know how to combat the fires that come with our annual drought here in the Heartland. I want to know that my neighbor can heal when he grows sick, and I need to know how we as a nation can help him heal. These are the issues that matter to me: personal safety, the public welfare, health, and liberty so that I can pursue happiness. I need more than 22 seconds, and I think real news extending beyond 22 seconds may be a good beginning.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We Must, As Atticus Advised, Do Our Duty: On Disclosure, Transparency, and Doing Right


… Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

In closing arguments, defense attorney Atticus Finch appeals to the all-white, all-male jury, begging them to do their duty. In the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, doing their duty means to evaluate the evidence without prejudice, without preconceived notions about race as a determinant for truth and lie, without an attempt to preserve one group’s power over another’s. The jury shirks its duty; it finds against Tom Robinson, an innocent man. But the power of the novel is the example of Atticus, a moral man of conscience, compelled to defend Robinson even though doing so will probably not change the outcome and will certainly be unpopular in a Jim Crow era.

We need more Atticus Finches in the public arena, men and women who will seek and speak truth to the rest of us because verily, we are not well informed. We are busy working more than forty hours weekly. Then we begin our second jobs, and they are many. We need to maintain a clean, safe home whether renting or owning. We need to live up to social standards, and those include mowing lawns and weeding flower beds. We need to be social in order to fulfill our sense of belonging and experience happiness. We should attend church, school, and/or community events. We need to nurture the talents of our children, doing our part for car pools, cheering from the sidelines, and coaching kids to learn and succeed while tidying up after a nutritious supper.

Because we’re so busy building our futures, we depend upon elected officials to have our best interests in mind and to be better informed than we are. We count on news reporters to research and analyze, then help us understand, and we have faith that most people are moral and kind and brave. But current numbers suggest that we have begun to rethink our dependency upon others to steer the ship of state safely.

In the Fall 2011, February 2012, and July 2012, Congress earned and maintained an approval rating in the single digits. According to Rasmussen Reports and other sources, many people believe that men and women serving in Congress are corrupt, more responsive to Corporate will through lobbyists rather than to the spirit of public service, preoccupied with personal gain in the form of reelection, private wealth, power, or all three.

One reason for this public cynicism is the need for legislation banning insider trading among members of Congress. President Obama called for such a bill during his State of the Union speech in early 2012, using that national moment to advocate for New York Representative Louise M. Slaughter's bill, first introduced six years earlier. She has been in search of sponsors and support ever since. She found that help after a 60 Minutes exposé and President Obama’s televised support, and it appears that such support was long overdue.

Although members of Congress will rush to tell critics that many representatives and senators were wealthy before their elections to national office, critics still point to the number of wealthy legislators. At least 47% of them are millionaires. The median income for all members of the House is about $750,000 annually and in the Senate, more than $2.6 million (http://money.msn.com/ investing/latest.aspx?post=70cc8f98-07b4-4e4e-923e-5569bd82627d) so when Congress votes not to raise taxes on the wealthiest people in America, it has a vested interest in the outcome of the vote.

But in-depth news reporting on 60 Minutes seems to have made a difference in Congressional ethics, at least for a bill prohibiting insider trading and holding members of Congress to the same standards that every other citizen, including Martha Stewart, must meet. Would that in-depth news reporting was the standard for all print and non-print media. What a difference such reporting might make!

For example, what might happen if television stations revealed the identities of those who pay for political advertising? They could, you know. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision did not include a mandate to hide the names of those who pay for political ads. The decision, summarized for the SCOTUSblog (Supreme Court of the United States’ blog), states that:

“Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.”

The summary above does not mention a right to privacy. It does not provide for a corporation’s right to affect and influence public opinion without transparency, yet that is how broadcasters and Congress prefer to apply Citizens United. The PACs to which citizens, including corporations, donate and the identities of those donor citizens are secret because:

·      Broadcasters do not post the names of those SuperPacs buying air time or individuals purchasing ad time in a public, easily accessible place in spite of a law requiring that such data be made available to the public; interested voters must request the information (http://billmoyers.com/2012/04/18/ fcc-chair-blasts-broadcasters-as-being-against-transparency-and-journalism) and wait a response.
·      And FEC reporting guidelines list deadlines for preliminary reports as 12 to 20  days prior to the election and final reports for general election reports as 30 days after the election; such deadlines make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to become fully informed about campaign donors or contributions before entering the voting booth (www.fec.gov/pdf/candgui. pdf).

What would the future look like if broadcasters revealed the names of the people behind SuperPacs? What effect would their candor have upon the nation? How might full disclosure alter the political landscape?

We cannot know the answers to those questions, of course. We can only guess, and one component in my guesstimation is the opposition that broadcasters and national legislators mount. Broadcasters kicked up a fuss, arguing that a requirement to post the names of those purchasing political ads is costly and therefore would kill jobs, hinting that if their bottom line were at all affected, they would lay off employees to maintain their current dividend and profit. No evidence in support of a higher cost exists so their opposition was conjecture and fear-mongering.

Broadcasters also argued that posting the information on an FCC web site runs counter to the public desire to reduce the cost of governmental compliance. But the Office of Management and Budget found no evidence of this. In fact, the FCC requirement is fully consistent with FCC authority as prescribed by Congress. So, as of July 2012:

“The White House Office of Management and Budget has approved the FCC rule that requires broadcasters to provide online information about who is buying airtime for political ads. The OMB determined that the FCC mandate was not in violation of a law that reduces paperwork in government — as broadcasters claimed — and gave the green light to the FCC” (http://billmoyers.com/2012/06/27/fcc-political-ad-disclosure-rule-passes-omb-hurdle/).

The Senate of the United States is still skittish, however. It voted to kill the Disclosure Act. Senator Mitch McConnell prefers to withhold donors and contributions as long as possible, declaring that the Disclosure Act is:

“… nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third party allies… That’s why it’s a mistake to view the attacks we’ve seen on ‘millionaires and billionaires’ as outside our concern. Because it always starts somewhere; and the moment we stop caring about who’s being targeted is the moment we’re all at risk” (http://billmoyers.com/2012/07/17/presto-the-disclose-act-disappears).

Perhaps Senator McConnell is unaware--or perhaps he absolutely disagrees--with another feature of the Citizens United decision, written by Justice Kennedy: “The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.”

Please note the addition of the word, disclosure, in bold font (the font added by me for emphasis). The Justices writing for the majority realize that citizens and voters need to know who is shaping the message in order to make an informed decision. They also know, as Justice Scalia has said, that the First Amendment guarantees free speech; it does not provide a shield against critics and dissenters. If one would exercise free speech, one must be ready and willing to hear the other guy’s free speech.

Senator McConnell, other national legislators, and broadcasters should heed the counsel of the Court. First,

·      Congress must immediately pass the Disclosure Act in the interest of the people, not big money, and second,
·      Broadcasters must immediately begin to cooperate with the FCC rule by posting online the names of those paying for political ads and airtime where the public may examine them.

Representatives, senators, and broadcasters may not believe that disclosure is safe, expedient, or popular, but their consciences should tell them that disclosure is right. We have the right to know at least as much as they do.