Thursday, January 29, 2015

And the loser is...

I stopped watching awards shows. For most that means little. For friends and former colleagues in Los Angeles its near heresy. The first months of the year are full of the self-congratulatory events which, according to Variety number 564 - or 4,058 trophies each year. The television shows that broadcast the festivities have become the most tedious exercises in programming. Washington, DC – another ‘industry’ town – has its own fair share of predictable and useless events, the biggest being the State of the Union…another event that I’ve ceased watching due to it being more about politics than policy.

The annual report is called for in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” By tradition the State of the Union speech comes in January and “every president since Woodrow Wilson, with notable exception of Herbert Hoover, has made at least one State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before that time, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.” Since 1966, the speech has been followed on television by a response or rebuttal by a member of the major political party opposing the President's party.

The address is one of the rare times that the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government are gathered in one place at one time. The message is aired on television and is a way for the President to speak directly to the country. Since 1934 (after the ratification of the 20th Amendment that moved the opening of Congress from March to January) the address has shifted from a year-end report to a beginning-of-session call to action.

National Taxpayers Union Foundation analysts have calculated the cost of spending proposals in every State of the Union address since 1999. President Clinton proposed $327 billion in new government spending in 1999. Bush proposed $134.6 billion in new annual spending in 2008. President Obama has proposed an average $41.7 billion in new government spending in each of his State of the Union addresses.

Does it matter?  Not much. According to research by political scientists from Dominican University of California and the University of Northern Iowa as it relates to proposals being fully enacted, the results range from a low of 4 percent for Obama in 2013 to a high of 67 percent for LBJ in 1965.

So if the State of the Union is not about policies, it must be about politics. The speech has become an applause fest with one party clapping and standing and cheering while the other sits on its hands. New YorkMagazine reports:   “Since 1991, there's been an average of around 80 applause lines in State of the Union addresses. The most applause interruptions on record is 128 times during Bill Clinton's nearly one-and-a-half-hour 2000 speech, and he and Obama average about 90 applause lines each, compared with fewer than 70 for George Bush and his son.”

The State of the Union is now a missed opportunity. And the loser is...America.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hatching chickens

It’s been just over 21 years since my partner and I were on the cutting edge of marriage equality. (A few years later we pioneered gay divorce.) Keeping a relationship going isn't easy - it takes work. The joys, excitement and challenges of having a long term successful relationship is universal, regardless of sexual orientation or any other factor. There’s a lot of different elements at play in the quest for national Marriage Equality in the U.S. – public opinion and religious opinion to name two. The Supreme Court will revisit the issue and make a determination in its 2014-15 session – many in the LGBT community have started to head down a path of hope and optimism. It feels premature.

Marriage Equality as a political issue began to take national prominence in the 1990’s – some twenty years ago. For those who are directly impacted it’s been an eternity. For historians who look at progressions in civil rights movements this has been a remarkably quick journey.

In the American system of government, legislatures create laws, the executive branch enforces them and the judiciary ensures they are consistent with the Constitution. This “equal” branches of government concept goes somewhat awry when the practical reality is that the judiciary isn’t equal – it’s the final word on what’s permissible, making it far more influential than the rest in impact.

The Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) ultimate ruling on issues has made it appear less impartial that it may actually be and has brought out accusations of political impact and bias. Most recently:

  •       The Citizens United decision authorized corporations and unions to make independent contributions to candidates and parties. Progressives and liberals have fumed about the decision, with President Obama deriding it in a State of the Union address.
  •    “Obamacare” was upheld as legal when it determined that the Act was the Government utilizing its ability to tax. Conservatives were irate that the Act they contend will be the unhinging of American capitalism was found to be legal.
  •        The Hobby Lobby ruling permitted for-profit companies to be exempt from part of the health law that the owners objected to on religious grounds. Progressives and liberals decried the dismantling of the fundamentals of American freedoms with this “loophole.”
  •        The Defense of Marriage Act was found to be unconstitutional. Conservatives fumed at the “activist justices” making laws that the majority of Americans had voted against.

How can the same nine justices both be revered by one side and repulsed by the other on one issue and then the opposite happen on a different issue? When a decision meets with one’s own belief’s – they’re right and examples of how America is superior to every other nation on earth. When a decision doesn't meet with one's own beleif's – they’re a bunch of nincompoops who should be carted off to the nursing home and put out of our collective misery. This is human nature. (SCOTUS must be doing something right if everybody gets pissed at them.)

Gay rights groups, individuals and even the media have begun a game of expectations that the decision that Court will come back with in June 2015 will be one that resolves the Marriage Equality question once and for all – and that means it’ll be legal across the Union. I’d like to think so. But I also think that corporations and unions shouldn’t have equal voices in politic discourse and that one’s religious beliefs shouldn’t permit taking away the rights of another.

Barak Obama won the Presidency in 2008 on a campaign of “Hope.” Many have cited that his inability to be that transformational figure he and his supporters wanted him to be has made him a failed President. Time will tell, it’s too early to write that chapter of history. Hope unfulfilled is the recipe for upset and disappointment. Many are putting an awful lot of hope and expectation into this SCOTUS decision. There’s good reason – the cause is right, the history of decisions lends itself towards that conclusion. But legal arguments on the cases have yet to be made. Let’s not count those chickens before they’re hatched.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paris isn’t Burning

Paris is Burning is the “iconic documentary from 1990 that offers an intimate portrait of the Harlem drag balls, where rival fashion “houses” compete for trophies and cash prizes in categories like “face,” “femme queen realness” and "voguing." Winner of a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Paris is Burning celebrates how one group of New Yorkers, for whom racism, poverty, and homophobia are all too real, create a world of sustenance and joy.” It is an honest, funny and powerful story of survival, community and honesty. The events in Paris France last week tell a different but parallel story about the integrity and value of Press and Speech Freedom. It’s something that wouldn’t happen in the United States today because these freedoms are no longer cherished, but instead are assumed.

Last week two masked gunman forced their way into the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people and wounded 11 more. In the days following gunmen took hostages and more people died and were wounded in terrorist attacks. The gunman were shouting "Allahu Akbar", Arabic for "God is great." “Hatred for Charlie Hebdo '​s cartoons, which made jokes about Islamic leaders as well as Muhammad, is considered to be the principal motive for the massacre.” It was a horrible and tragic attack and propelled more than 2 million citizens and 40 world leaders to march in solidarity chanting “Je suis Charlie” (French for "I am Charlie").

This is the new issue of the satricial magazine.
It show a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed
holding a sign saying "Je suis Charlie."
 The caption says "All is forgiven" in French

The outpouring of support for the right to satirize warms the hearts of First Amendment zealots like myself. The problem is that it’s authentic in concept and not true in practice. In France itself days later the country has cracked down on "hate speech" and jailed a comedian. The problem with one group deciding what another group can and cannot say is censorship, the antithesis of supporting Charlie. France isn't alone. Less than a month ago U.S. theatres pulled The Interview from the schedule, forcing Sony to withdraw the film altogether based on threats from North Korea. In Paris people died for the right to satirize and in the U.S. at the first sign of trouble self-censorship kicked in.

Much has been made in the political world that only the U.S. Ambassador to France was at the rally – while world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were able to attend safely. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary-of-State Kerry were nowhere to be found. The White House acknowledged the next day it made a mistake by not having “a higher profile” delegate attend. 

How does this happen?
  • This Administration issued a subpoena to New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his confidential source. After a 7 year fight government lawyers said this week they wouldn’t call him.
  • This Administration issued a warrant against Fox News reporter James Rosen which identified him as a criminal co-conspirator and charged him with violating the Espionage Act for writing a story about North Korea’s nuclear program with confidential information he received. The Government followed the reporter, tapped his phone and email – both personal and business.
  • The Administration subpoenaed telephone records of 20 Associated Press Reporters in a zest to find out who was leaking information to reporters.
To date, seven Americans working for the U.S. Government or government contractors with security clearances have faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 because of alleged leaks to members of the press or online outlets during the Obama Administration's tenure. 

This Administration has guidelines about how information can be shared with journalists. Not a law persay, but fixed rules that if they are violated criminal charges could result. 

A Government that prosecutes professional journalists to prevent information from being released to its people does not practice what it preaches. This is state run propaganda which results in self-censorship and cautious reporting. It’s no wonder that there was no presence by American officials at a rally extolling the value of Freedom of Speech. Paris Isn’t Burning, the U.S. Constitution is.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Law & Disorder

I’m a Law & Order kinda guy. The original version especially. It came one year short of being the longest running drama on television, which I still blame NBC for. Part of the success and genius of the show is that the stories mattered – the process of solving a crime was the hook. Sure personality was part of it, but the winding curves of getting to the answer remains what I miss most – no other show has picked up the baton. Longtime song and dance man Jerry Orbach culminated an illustrious career portraying for twelve years the world-weary, wisecracking, streetwise NYPD detective Lennie Briscoe. It’s hard to believe that last week marked the 10th anniversary of his death. From his New York Times obituary“ ‘He was, to a lot of people in the rest of world, the face of the New York Police Department,’ said Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking quietly, even solemnly, after a press conference on Wednesday. ‘He did it very well. He has human frailties, and he overcame them. He portrayed New York City police officers as hard working, but as human beings with the same pressures and intentions human beings have. It was very believable.’ " The NYPD today bears little resemblance to the NYPD Lennie Briscoe personified.

The Eric Garner case has been the center of conflict since mid-summer. Garner died after a police officer put him in a chokehold (according to The New York City Medical Examiner's Office). Ruled a homicide, the process moved to a Grand Jury which came back refusing to indict the officer. The public was outraged.

In New York Mayor de Blasio spoke of how he identified with the frustration the public was expressing. He said he understood young black people’s fears about the police, using his own bi-racial son as an example. He also campaigned (and won) in part because of his opposition to the “Stop and Frisk” policy where cops could stop and search people without cause and without a warrant. The NYPD was furious at what they believed to be heresy and a lack of support from their mayor.

Shortly after the Grand Jury decision in late December, NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were killed in an ambush. Many in the Department have drawn a direct line that de Blasio’s perceived lack of support of the department caused the death of the cops. It’s a stretch and something that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has dismissed as not true.

Many officers at the funerals turned their backs when the Mayor spoke. De Blasio, Bratton and many other leaders have called out the Department and the Union for their disrespectful behavior – especially at a funeral.

In the weeks after the killing, and despite de Blasio’s public pronouncements of support for the NYPD, the rank and file are still angry. Statistics from the Department itself show that arrests are down more than 56% and tickets have virtually stopped being issued – they’re down 92%. The Union claims this is not a work slowdown or stoppage. It'd be great to find out what's happened in New York to stop crime so dramatically as I'm sure other cities would benefit from such decreases. 

The NYPD has more employees than the FBI – 49,526 versus 35,105 and operate with a budget of $4.8 billion to cover 469 miles and 8.4 million residents. They even have a branch in Israel. In a 60 Minutes story in 2011 the NYPD was shown to have more sophisticated technology and effectiveness than Homeland Security. It’s all very impressive…but their actions today are not. Can this be because they are insulted and upset as some critics claim?

The members of the NYPD have been working without a contract since 2010.  The proposed contract (from the prior administration of Michael Bloomberg) was not to the Union’s liking. Like the 2 contracts before the police contract is now in arbitration being decided. As soon as this process is completed, a new one will begin as the 2010 contract being decided now only goes to 2014. A new contract is needed through 2018.

Novice mayor de Blasio does not placate the NYPD, and brings a different perspective. He also brought back the Police Commissioner who has had the most success of any other – in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. He’s not anti-police.

The issues between police and the public, race relations and how they all mix (and don’t mix) are complicated and must be addressed – and not just in New York. It's disingenuous to use the race issues to mask a contract dispute. In the Big Apple those sworn to “serve and protect” need to start doing the job they’ve been hired to do. Good thing Lennie’s not around to see this.