Thursday, May 28, 2015

Irish Eyes Are Smilin’ ?

My lineage goes back to Ireland. My name usually gives that away, but if ever there was a doubt my physical traits are a dead giveaway to familial roots in the land of lepercons and potatoes. I haven’t spent a whole lot effort on a genealogical analysis, but through the generations there’s been a dilution; I’m by no means a purebred. The prejudices heaped upon my ancestors in the “new” land of America are well documented. Through the years the discrimination migrated against 'my people' to Italians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and many other groups. The world took notice May 23, 2015 when thousands of Irish returned to their homeland to vote on a referendum. 62+% of them voted for LGBT Equality. And that’s a problem.

The “Yes” campaign has been credited with an effective social media and advertising effort – telling personal stories and  mitigating the concerns that the “No” side had. If that political analysis is to be believed the merits of the argument aren't why it passed - just good adverts. 

The Good Friday Accord in 1998 moved beyond a many decades dispute whether the Protestants would get their way by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the U.K. or whether the Catholics would align for a United Ireland. In the end a hybrid was agreed to by all major political parties and voters. That was a conflict that dated back to 1602 with lots of battles and bloodshed. While rights have been equalized  for gay people since the 1990’s, it was in 2004 that same-sex marriage was determined to remain outlawed - making the recent election results a fairly fast transition. It’s a particularly supportive and powerful message the people of Ireland sent to the world for a Roman Catholic country to embrace marriage equality for LGBT people. The Vatican response: "defeat for humanity."

There lies the rub. Thanks to people being out, changing social mores in the media and other factors Marriage Equality is currently “popular.” For supporters, that’s great. But the premise is very disturbing. A right is granted only when it’s popular? So if fewer people came back to the homeland to vote, or the campaign had a misstep (like the Proposition 8 team did in California some years back) that would have changed the result? How can a human right – a civil right – be up for a popular vote?

Ireland is a Parliamentary Democracy where the “sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is vested in Parliament.” The Constitution “declares that all citizens are equal before the law; it guarantees to defend and vindicate the personal rights of citizens in its laws.” So why was a referendum needed to grant rights that are empowered to Parliament? In 2004 (ten years after LGBT rights were opened up) the Civil Registration Act re-stated the common law definition of marriage, specifically stating “a marriage would be invalid if both parties to a marriage are of the same sex.” In 2010 Civil partnership legislation passed but did not provide the same protections as marriage does.

By having a majority of the country vote to grant this right, members of Parliament can now change the law and are protected from any potential back-lash. A win-win? Was it a win when the Italians or the Jews or the Blacks were discriminated against instead of the Irish?

In 1999 I produced a documentary of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles as they toured Moscow, St. Petersberg and Tallin. At that time the rights granted to LGBT people in the Russian Constitution far exceeded the rights permitted under the U.S. Constitution as sodomy was illegal at that time. People were accepting and it was a refreshing place to be. 15 years later as the economy had collapsed and people were no longer free to be out, the leaders and people of Russia have regressed and are no longer as open and welcoming of LGBT people. The result of the change in opinion is an amendment to the constitution plus new laws have been put in place. Today Russia is one of the most dangerous places to be out as a LGBT person. 

Will this happen in Ireland? Doubtful, but it could. Repercussions and blame are part of human history. In America we see a spate of “religious freedom” laws sprouting up that undermine decades worth of work. When we as the LGBT community accept the premise that it’s okay for another group of people to judge us and accept us by giving them permission to vote on what rights we are entitled to – that’s when we have not fully come of age or fully embraced our own equality. “When Irish hearts are happy, all the world seems bright and gay, And When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure, they steal your heart away.” 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Finders Keepers

I remember trying to balance my Church’s budget one year and somebody on the committee said “Oh stop worrying, money will appear We’re a Church after all!” Money doesn’t usually magically appear, no matter how faithful you are. It happened in Maryland Halloween 2014 when a money bag fell out of an armored vehicle, broke open and bills were swirling about in the air. People stopped to pick up the money for themselves, some helped collect it for the driver. I’d like to think that I’d help pick it up and return it. I do remember finding a $20 bill on the street and there was nobody to be found. Finding one $20 on the street versus an armored car’s worth of cash is different, at least in scope. So what happens when it’s not a $20 or an armored car? We learned this week that the CIA gave millions of dollars to Al Qaeda…the same people the CIA is supposed to be protecting Americans from because they are evil incarnate.

The New York Times reported recently (3/15/15) that the CIA regularly delivered “bags of cash” to the Presidential palace in Afghanistan. This was new information. The CIA also made a series of payments totaling $5 million directly to Al Qaeda as ransom for a kidnap victim. Osama Bin Laden was so surprised by the funds and that the U.S. Government was paying for a hostage that he warned his people that the bills might be laced with poison. They weren’t. They were just delivered in error due to “lax accounting controls.”

The few million that went to Bin Laden is nothing compared to the $12 billion that disappeared in Iraq. The Guardian reported  on the 2007 findings where the U.S. sent 383 tons of cash to Iraq only to watch it disappear. “The minutes from a May 2004 [Coalition Provisional Authority] meeting reveal a single disbursement of $500m in security funding labelled merely 'TBD', meaning 'to be determined' … The memorandum concludes: "Many of the funds appear to have been lost to corruption and waste ... thousands of 'ghost employees' were receiving pay cheques from Iraqi ministries under the CPA's control. Some of the funds could have enriched both criminals and insurgents fighting the United States."

The Iraq War cost $1.8 trillion according to Brown University. $12 billion represents 0.067% of that. In money that’s more tangible, that would be $66.67 out of a $1,000 item or 6 cents out of a dollar. It’s essentially a rounding error. That’s not to mitigate that $12 billion isn’t a lot of money, but compared to $1.8 trillion, it really isn’t.

The FY16 budget request for the Pentagon is $585 billion - well ahead of the “caps” agreed to in 2011. $51 billion is the cost of the conflict in Afghanistan. Based on the track record of .067% before, that’d be about $39 billion that will go missing. Of course we don’t know how much will actually be lost because the Pentagon, as I’ve previously blogged about, is unable to pass an audit.

There’s understandable and appropriate outrage that U.S. taxpayer funds (or borrowed funds) are used to support the “enemy.” It’d be nice to have that same outrage in place before the U.S. commits its citizens and its treasury to perpetual war. In this game of Finders Keepers, we're the losers who are weeping. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deflated Consequences

I played football in 8th grade. For a week. It was a rather humiliating introduction to how little of an athlete I was as a teenager. Boston’s a pretty big sports town. You’ve got the Bruins, the Celtics and the Red Sox along with the Patriots. I don’t follow the teams at any level of detail but living here you tend to keep up via osmosis – it’s that prevalent in the culture. When championships come around its especially true, and this winter’s Super Bowl provided a much needed respite from the never ending snow, ice and cold. There were accusations that the balls in the payoff game were not inflated to the correct pressure, providing the Patriots with an advantage that theoretically helped them win the playoff game. Many months and investigations later, this week the league suspended Quarter Back Tom Brady over the entire situation and fined the team $1 million. Since it’s the NFL no trial, just punishment. Appeals are in process that could ultimately lead to the matter coming into the legal system. During this same week the NSA snooping program was found to be illegal and there’s no effort to appeal or change the law.

A Federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency program that systematically collects American’s phone records is illegal. The USA Patriot Act is the basis that the NSA used to justify the program. The court didn’t rule on the Act, but instead determined that Section 215 of the Act did not permit the wholesale collection of data on American Citizens without justification.

Coincidently the Act is due to expire in June 2015, so the Senate and House are busy determining what changes, if any, need to happen. The problems of the misnamed Patriot Act is something I’ve addressed in prior blogs and is an important issue. What’s important now is not whether the Act is renewed or not – but what’s going to be done about the illegal action.

The court didn’t find anything wrong with the law – not because there isn’t a problem with the law, but because the case was about the records collection. The court found the collecting of those records were not permitted or authorized under the law. So Congress can try to create a law that permits it or re-write the section. The House has passed the U.S. Freedom Act which creates new a law allowing American’s private phone and internet records to be collected without a warrant.

The Boston Globe reports about the ruling: “It did not come with any injunction ordering the program to cease, and it is not clear that anything else will happen in the judicial system before Congress has to make a decision about the expiring law. The data collection had repeatedly been approved in secret by judges serving on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees national security surveillance.”

The law was broken. Repeatedly. There is not an injunction to stop the law from continuing to be broken. Nobody is being fined. Nobody is being arrested. The massive invasion of privacy into the citizenry of the United States is found to be illegal and nobody is held accountable or responsible. If somebody walked into your house and stole your property and the court found them to have broken the law, there’s a consequence. If companies break the law there are fines and jail sentences. If government breaks the law it’s business as usual?

Tom Brady’s being vilified and punished for something where there is not definitive proof of his involvement. It’s not fair and inconsistent with our sense of justice. That’s nothing compared to deflated consequences when the Government breaks the law and keeps on operating as if nothing can stop it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Avenge Violence

I went out and saw “The Avengers…Age of Ultron” like tens of millions of others. I’m not much of a fan-boy, but there’s always something satisfying about watching things blow up, good guys winning over bad guys, etc. I’m a non-violent person, a pacifist in many ways, and passionately anti-war. Experiencing superheroes fighting evil and the inevitable over-the-top explosions and destruction that doesn’t seem contradictory to my real-world philosophies, just one of the ironies of being human. There’s something fantastical about the white hats beating the black hats that just feels good. That simple narrative frames many movies, television shows along with books and even journalistic story telling through the ages. The blur between heightened conflict as a tool for storytelling and actual violence is especially present today.

The eruptions of protests and the deterioration into rioting in many urban environments is troubling. There are deep socio-economic and class issues at play. Looking at the most recent example, Baltimore, it is not enough to point to a community in distress. The issue of violence has been in the news there for many years, perhaps generations. In September 2014 the Baltimore Sun investigated and published a powerful series of stories about how millions of dollars were paid by the city in settlements where the police were found to have used excessive force with residents. Police and community issues are longstanding.

It is also true that Baltimore has had economic challenges for decades and the unemployment rate in the city is disproportionate based on race. Tens of millions of dollars –local, state and federal, have gone into various programs to address those issues over the past 50 years. Statistically there’s been little change in poverty rates or unemployment. It’s also true that one party has dominated the policies of the city for 40 years. That doesn’t mean that Democrats are to blame for the violence (as some have claimed), but it does indicate that political will, economic incentives and good intentions have not actually changed life for the citizens of Baltimore. The people pushed back at authority in a most dramatic way after the problems simmered for a long time. I’m not justifying the riots – but there is a rationale.

More bloodshed and more victims isn’t the answer: instead that becomes a never-ending and circular situation. Addressing the long standing issues is one thing, but how does society stem the violence? Banning guns is problematic given that the 2nd thing that the Founders wanted protected (via the Second Amendment) is people’s right to “keep and bear” arms. Some clever politicians have said – ok, keep your guns but let’s ban ammunition. The constitution doesn’t say anything about protecting or providing a right to ammunition! Innovative as that thinking is, it’s like saying that you can have freedom of religion so long as you don’t use The Bible or Quran or Torah, etc.

In 2007 then U.S. Senator John Kerry was giving a speech at the University of Florida on Constitution Day when Andrew Meyer was waiting to ask a question and was then forcibly removed from the line and ultimately the room. As officers tried to subdue him he cried out “Don’t tase me, bro!” asking officers not to use taser him to subdue him. The incident “went viral” and more than 7 million people viewed the video. While there were many things wrong with this situation at least the police were able to subdue him without having to shoot him dead. Progress.

Rubber bullets have been long used as a non-lethal way to manage crowds. Injuries and occasionally death does result from the use of rubber bullets, but far less so than if live ammunition was used.

The major incidents that have been precursors to the recent spate of protests, riots and further damage seem to be when a police officer fatally shoots a black citizen. The issues of race, economics, and justice are all elements of the problem and the solutions will be as complicated as the causes. If we can put people on the moon, run a multi-trillion dollar economy based on 1’s and 0’s, then certainly there’s a way to maintain order without killing each other. We can start to avenge the violence by having the police use non-lethal weapons