Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

America isn’t ready for a transgender Tea Party

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

Last night I spent $4.99 to see Dallas Buyers Club, the first time I’ve ever purchased a movie on my TV. The cable folks sure make it easy to take your money, don’t they? I’m now a big fan of the movie’s star, Matthew McConaughey, thanks to his work on what appears to be the best show on television, HBO’s  True Detective. I say “appears,” because my field of vision is somewhat limited; these days I watch only spring-training baseball and Roger Corman films. But I get McConaughey. We speak in the same mumbling tone, uttering the same cosmic non-sequiturs seemingly influenced by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and The Fortean Times.

McConaughey’s Dallas Buys Club performance, in which he plays an HIV patient who takes his treatment into his own hands, struck me as worthy of the Best Actor Oscar that he was awarded last week. But what about the movie’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Jared Leto? I’ve been reading some backlash on that one.

No one seems to be disputing Leto’s actual performance as an HIV-positive transgender woman. He portrayed it with the appropriate levels of wispy, assertive and tragic. The criticism is: Why was the character played by a straight male actor, rather than a transgender person?

It’s a legit question, one that goes back a long way in film history. Al Jolson, who by all accounts was the furthest thing from a racist, in blackface. I’ve seen movies with Burt Lancaster as a Mexican man (A Touch of Evil) and Marlon Brando as a Japanese man (The Teahouse of the August Moon). Dozens of white guys have cinematically morphed into Native Americans (most recently Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger). Gary Sinise needed a computer to digitally erase his legs so he could be an amputee (Forrest Gump). The men of Monty Python played women as screeching biddies.

The past does not excuse the present. But how far are we allowed to carry this argument? Meryl Streep is praised for a career built on assuming a dizzying array of accents. But should a Polish woman have been given Streep’s role in Sophie’s Choice? As winner of the Best Actress Oscar that year, she apparently was convincing enough.

Rock Hudson played straight men throughout his entire film career, in a time when gay actors found it professionally necessary to hide the details of their private lives. But today, gay and lesbian actors play straight roles, and straight actors play gay and lesbian roles. And no one thinks twice.

Few arguments are as useless as “…isn’t ready for.” As in, “America isn’t ready for a black president.” “America isn’t ready to end segregation.” “The NFL isn’t ready for a gay player.”  But people asked the right questions, society moved forward, and we got the black president and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we’re getting the gay NFL player.

I think it’s fine that Leto played a transgender person in a movie. Just as it seems perfectly appropriate that the decision to cast him in that role was questioned. Both points of view play a role in change.

Just last month, Michele Bachmann – once a front-running candidate for the Republican nomination for president – said that America isn’t ready for a woman in the White House. We’ll see if Hilary Clinton can drag her into the 21st century. And when they make that bio-pic about Tea Party darling Bachmann, I hope we have a transgender actor available for the part.

The Critical Mass

chem-spill-map

 

It’s a world of people out there who think the truth hurts

The problem with this country is, we can’t handle the truth. Unless it’s our own truth.

I was dwelling on the fragility of truth about a week ago, while watching the debate on creationism vs. evolution between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham, the intellectually shuttered fellow who runs a Kentucky museum dedicated to the notion that The Bible is literally true. A poll conducted a couple of days after the debate indicated that 92 percent of people who watched the event on the Internet believed Nye had won. That poll, by the way, was conducted by Christian Today.

So the debate was a bit more one-sided than even the last Super Bowl. Nevertheless, it was fascinating viewing, with Ham the Biblical coelacanth, living evidence that there are people out there who think the fossil record is a prank by God. And by the way, when Pat Robertson – who believes that hurricanes are caused by gay people – tells you to quit saying crazy stuff, you know you’re off the charts.

Score a big win for the truth. Otherwise, it’s a world of people who think the truth hurts.

Let’s start in that most-obvious portal to fantasy, politics. Politicians are rarely held  accountable for distributing misinformation. The Affordable Care Act and its death panels, immigration and anchor babies, rich money-hoarders as job creators, Obama is a Muslim Socialist emperor from Kenya. The leaders who manufactured these long-refuted talking points still have many followers. As does New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a man who’s willing to punish his constituents if a mayor didn’t endorse him, or back a real-estate project that Christie favored. Nor does the truth fare well in Kentucky, where Senator Mitch McConnell is either a liar or has horrible reading comprehension skills. Last week he said the Congressional Budget Office estimates Obamacare will cost the country two million jobs, when it says no such thing.

Here’s one of my recent favorites. Kentucky senator and proven plagiarizer Rand Paul often refers to “studies” to back up his claims, yet rarely names those studies. But last month, while insisting that employers are less likely to hire people who have been unemployed for long periods of time, he did cite one example: A paper written by Rand Ghayad, not yet a high-level economist, just one who’s finishing up his Ph.D. in economics from Northeastern University. Unfortunately for Paul, Ghayad was less than appreciative of the attention. Just because companies discriminate against the long-term unemployed doesn’t mean long-term benefits are to blame,” Ghayad wrote in rebuttal in The Atlantic magazine. “Paul might know that if he read beyond the first line of my paper’s abstract.”

We know government officials in West Virginia have a problem with the truth because 300,000 people there whose water has been rendered unusable for a month after a massive chemical spill are being told it is now safe to drink. Except those officials are falling far short of making definitive assurances, because the water still has an odd odor to it. “Just because you smell something doesn’t mean it’s not safe,” said Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water. Would you take his word on that?

You can’t. Apparently moonshine stills tucked away in the mountain hollers of West Virginia get more government regulation than the chemical storage tanks rusting on the banks of the state’s beautiful rivers. We know the people who spilled those chemicals downplayed the size of the spill at first, and later admitted it was actually a much larger event. BP did the same thing with the Gulf oil spill. That’s the strategy every time an industry is confronted by an ecological disaster. Lie about how minor the damage is, then work your way up to: Run!

NBC’s Olympics coverage is a lie. Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko was forced to withdraw from the men’s figure-skating competition because of an injury before the start of Thursday’s event. Unwilling to admit that it had lost one of that evening’s marquee figures – NBC’s broadcast of the event is delayed because of the nine-hour difference between Sochi and the U.S. Eastern time zone – the network continued to promote Plushenko’s appearance throughout the day. It even used a quote from the skater, saying he would compete, words taken from an interview recorded days earlier. Using lies to hype a drama that never happened.

Holocaust-level exaggerations can be useful when the evidence is weighing in heavily against you. We heard some rich guys this week dismiss the dangers of income equality by comparing their critics to Nazis. Those critics, incidentally, include the majority of the world’s economists and the Pope.

We heard arguments supported this week by absolutely ludicrous dishonesty. Colorado Republican Sen. Bernie Herpin challenged a gun control measure in his state by suggesting that high-capacity magazines shouldn’t be banned because the guy who shot up a Colorado movie theater in 2012 had one that malfunctioned, preventing more carnage. Speaking of the accused shooter, James Homes, Herpin said it “was maybe a good thing he had a 100-round magazine because it jammed. If he had instead had four, five, six 15-round magazines, no telling how much damage he could have done until a good guy showed up.” Twelve people dead and more than 70 wounded puts the lie to the twisted theory that a reliance on defective weapons will keep us safe.

Enraged that Woody Allen was being honored at the Academy Awards, Dylan Farrow, daughter of Allen’s former longtime companion Mia Farrow, wrote a damning essay reviving old accusations that Allen had molested her when she was 7 years old. Disinterested in weighing both sides on Farrow’s serious accusations of child abuse, Allen’s Hollywood supporters trampled the alleged victim in the rush to defend the comedian and director.

And perhaps most notably this week, there was an announcement by Michael Sam, the star defensive lineman on a very good University of Missouri football team, that he is gay. Reactions were wide ranging, and it’s no surprise that there are a lot of homophobic bigots lurking in the Internet weeds. But most interesting was the reaction of NFL people who insisted that the league “is not ready for a gay player,” and warned that allowing a gay man into a locker room would endanger its “delicate chemistry.”

I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms. Delicate chemistry isn’t quite the right description.

Other NFL authorities questioned why Sam would come out now, right before the NFL draft, and likely ruin his chances of being picked higher. Their suggestion was clear: Lie to your future employer.

Sam made the tough decision. The decision that felt right to him. He wanted to be honest with himself, and those around him. “I want to own my truth,” he said.

The truth, instead of a lie that others are more comfortable with.

The Critical Mass

Evolution vs. creationism: A Ham on Nye sandwich

A handful of science Grumpycats warned Bill Nye to not do it. Don’t get onstage and debate that creationist guy. It’ll lend credibility to the anti-science crowd.

Nye went ahead with it anyway. Tuesday night he crawled into the den of ignorance, defending evolution against Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, right there on Ham’s home turf. A so-called learning center in Petersburg, Ky., that suggests dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side. For me, this was must-see Internet.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is one of my heroes.  He speaks truth to lunacy.

For more than two hours, in what was generally a civil debate, Nye and Ham went at the question of whether Ham’s claim that creationism is a realistic explanation for the existence of mankind. The combatants each got a five-minute opening statement, followed by a half-hour slot to plead their case. I’ve included the entire video here, including the 13 minutes of pre-show New Age music to calm you down.

Ham started, and presenting a slide show of murky logic, the most obvious point being his contention that there are two kinds of science: Observational science and historical science.If I understood Ham correctly, observational science is what scientists can see today. Historical science is stuff that happened in the past. Since we’re not there, he argued, we don’t really know, do we?

The yawning hole in Ham’s logic here is enough to sail an arc through: If “not being there” refutes scientific data – such as counting tree rings to see how old the tree is – doesn’t that also refute using The Bible as a historical record? It isn’t an extemporaneous document. It’s authors didn’t know Adam and Eve.

Nye countered with fossils, geology, the stars. Science facts that add up to the Earth being 4.6 billion years old, not the 4,000 to 6,000 that Ham believes it is, as a literal interpretation of The Bible suggests. Nye went after the physical impossibility of a worldwide flood, and the logistical improbability of a Noah’s Ark. He pointed out that the sharp teeth of lions shows they weren’t vegetarians during Noah’s time, as Ham claims. The further Ham got from his opening half hour, the more ragged his argument grew.

The final portion of the debate was questions from the audience. They were a tough audience. They wanted to know, how do life forms develop a conscious state? Nye admitted he didn’t know some of these answers. He didn’t know what was there before the Big Bang, and the creation  of the universe. No one does, he said.

“There’s a book that has the answer,” was Ham’s reply to those big questions.

Bill Nye the Education Hero said several times during the debate that we can’t allow a generation or two of American kids to go though school with an improper science foundation. We’ll fall behind, he said. We must invest in research. America must continue to innovate. Faith and religion can be a wonderful thing, but they doesn’t create life-saving medical procedures. They don’t create the Internet, they don’t create the advances in farming that allow the Earth to feed seven billion people. The Bible may be inspirational literature, but it doesn’t have all of the answers. Moses wasn’t splitting atoms.

The scientists who pissed and moaned about Nye going onstage with a creationist don’t understand that he’s standing up to forces that want to spend our increasingly limited resources on religious dogma. And it has to be their religious dogma, not that of any of the thousands of gods who have walked the planet for centuries.

Nye is standing up to the people who would cut NASA funding in favor of vouchers for charter schools whose curriculum are irradiated with dubious academics. The anti-science Neanderthals are dangerous. Today, one out of every three Americans do not believe in evolution.

What was perhaps Nye’s most-brilliant comment of the night seemed to pass unnoticed, after he admitted we don’t have answers to many of the world’s mysteries. Some day, he insisted, perhaps we will, if we keep working at it. Nye came off as a man delighted by the wonder and mysteries of the universe. Ham, as he pointed out, is simply satisfied with the answers that he reads in The Bible.

The Critical Mass

Hey, are you calling Carl Sagan stupid?

Marijuana_jointWith the onrushing Super Bowl featuring combatants from the two states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, this seems as good a time as any to recall a conversation during a dinner party at our house over the holidays.

It was late in the evening, post meal, and 10 of us were sitting at the dining-room table, surrounding a mountain of empty wine bottles. There would be hell to pay in the morning. It was getting pretty loud in the room. And someone asked, “What’s the hardest drug we’ve all taken?”

When the question came around to me, I kind of ignored it. That’s how I deal with any problem Maybe it’ll go away. It’s how I handled the broken latch on the front door. I put off taking it apart, put it off, put it off… and then, one day, it was magically working again. It still is. Pretty cool.

But someone kept pushing me on the drug question. I guess they figured the local rock music critic would have quite a story here.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” I said.

They were. Just about everyone had larger experiences in narcotics than I have. Mostly hallucinogens. No one volunteered any encounters with exotic excretions from amphibians, but they hit all of the benchmarks. Acid. Mushrooms.

And every one of these reprobates is a solid citizen. With a job. A loving, long-term personal relationship. With well-balanced kids, or content pets. A creative force in music or art.

Their drug days are now over, or at least so sporadic as to hardly count.

Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that there isn’t a drug problem in this world. There is, and it’s significant. I have friends who have fallen prey to it. I raise this issue not simply because of Sunday’s Stoner Bowl, but because there has been a lot of odd talk about dope over the last month.

David Brooks is the frequently wrong conservative columnist of The New York Times. I say frequently wrong because Brooks likes to write about the economy, then his co-worker Paul Krugman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in economics,  follows up with a column that has to clean up the mess. So Brooks has a habit of writing about things in which he has no expertise.

But not marijuana. Brooks has expertise there. He used to smoke dope as a teenager. Then he got bored and moved on to bigger things, like telling the rest of us how to lead our lives. He started off the New Year by creating quite an Internet giggle with a column called “Weed: Been There. Done That.” His point, which you can read here, was Colorado and Washington were wrong to legalize it. He wrote:

What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.

I’m not going waste any time beyond this one sentence to point out the hypocrisy of the anti-government conservative folks suggesting our government should encourage specific individuals and behavior.

Brooks offers a half-hearted argument that smoking marijuana is a health hazard. Then, citing his personal experience as a young man, Brooks gets to his main point. That pot is bad because it makes you stupid.

I wonder if Brooks has ever written a column that called for the criminalization of alcohol. Because – besides studies that show it is more of a health hazard than pot – in most people’s experiences, getting drunk makes you act stupid. Other things Brooks might want to criminalize, because they make you act stupid: television, gambling, your college friends, Fox News, NASCAR, love.

Has Brooks ever eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner, loosened his belt, flopped onto the couch and fallen asleep during the second half of the Cowboys game, rather than being productive and writing that next brilliant piece for the Times? Perhaps turkey should be criminalized.

Brooks isn’t the only buzzkill conservative. In a TV interview this week, Ann Coulter said American commerce is under threat because she suspects her pool cleaner was a pot head. On the very same day that Brooks gave us the straight dope on dope, the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus also attacked the country’s move toward legalization. After confessing that, yes, she has also done the deed. In her young, carefree, presumably immature days. “On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance,” is her argument. (Interestingly, that’s also how a lot of us feel about guns, which kill 30,000 Americans a year, way more people than marijuana.) Like Brooks, Marcus ignores evidence that marijuana offers some health benefits and cites studies that suggest smoking a lot of dope – lab rat and Tommy Chong levels, I suspect – lowers your IQ. I noticed that she makes this argument just a few sentences after she writes “an occasional joint strikes me as no worse than an occasional drink.”

Ruth! Which is it?

I don’t know. Once again I hate to disappoint, but it’s very possible Brooks, Marcus and Coulter have smoked more dope than I have. My main concern with the criminalization of marijuana is that it’s a weapon in the drug war on poor people. Another thing we learned this week is the only person in the country who doesn’t agree that pot is less a hazard than heroin and crack is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele M. Leonhart.

Does smoking pot make you stupid? Brooks and Marcus survived the experience and have been rewarded with coveted positions as high-profile commentators on the rest of us and our foibles. Does experimenting with drugs more powerful than pot make you stupid?  Somehow our smart and witty holiday dinner guests escaped the brain trauma.

But Brooks and Marcus don’t have to take our word on it. The astronomer and teacher who opened the limitless possibilities of the cosmos to us, Carl Sagan, was an enthusiastic consumer and pot advocate. He credited smoking dope with helping him focus on the big questions of the universe. Surely they’re not calling him stupid.

The Critical Mass

The biggest threat: Richard Sherman or Chris Christie?

A trio of fine local singer-songwriters – Steve Piper, Connie Deming and Scott Regan – were playing Sunday night, so I missed Sunday’s NFL playoff games. By my calculation, this is the 12th straight month that pro football has gone on without me, but I’ve been really busy. Visiting mom, picking up dog poop in the back yard, crafting a used-tire sculpture.

But Monday morning, I had to race to the computer to watch video of the NFL playoff moment that everyone was talking about. A post-game interview with a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. As a former sportswriter, let me tell you, that’s the interview I always wanted to get. Erin Andrews, after they hand you whatever the sideline sports-reporter version of the Pulitzer is, next season Fox Sports is gonna put you behind one of those shiny glass studio desks. That seat way over on the far end, next to Tony Siragusa, the guy who sells man diapers.

Richard Sherman had just made a game-saving play against San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree when Andrews pulled him aside.

“Well, I’m the best corner in the game!” Sherman shouted. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get! Don’t you ever talk about me! Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best! Or I’m going to shut it for you real quick! LOB!”
And that was it. Andrews nervously handed the show back to the guys in the studio. The producers must have suspected they had a crazy man on their hands. No telling what Sherman might say next to innocent Americans.

You’ll note that Sherman was looking right into the camera for much of the interview, just like they do in pro wrestling. And, despite still being amped up after making the biggest play in the biggest game of his pro career, Sherman did not drop an f-bomb. “LOB” is a reference to “Legion of Boom.” In the marketing-savvy world of professional sports, everyone strives for an identity, and the Seattle defensive backs have adopted one straight out of the comic books.

Sherman gave the entertainment-driven pro sports world exactly what it is selling. Immediately, sports commentators who moan about the boring interviews that they get from most athletes attacked Sherman for his lack of what they define as sportsmanship in an astonishingly violent sport.  The Internet exploded with racist comments. Conservative cable pundits were shocked that a black man was shouting to be heard over the roar of a home crowd that’s celebrated for making noise.

Here are a couple of more details about this Richard Sherman fellow. He graduated second in his high school class, is a graduate of Stanford, one of his hobbies is reading. He writes a smart blog. Here’s  what he wrote about the reaction to his interview:

To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field — don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.

Does this episode make you think of another one of the week’s newsmakers? Chris Christie, anyone?

The governor of New Jersey is a loud and arrogant man. He is well known for yelling, using abusive language and calling people names.  He talks down to reporters and screams at school teachers. He is thoroughly unlikeable. And he is  a liar. His story defending his administration’s closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, political retribution for some as-yet defined slight, defies logic and is full of holes. The mayor of Hoboken has accused him of holding back Superstorm Sandy recovery funds unless she backed a real-estate development project run by a Christie political pal. He’s being investigated for using Federal Sandy money to produce a pro-New Jersey TV ad that looked to most people like a political ad. Every day now, it’s something new.

There are many people out there who find Richard Sherman’s behavior intolerable. Many of the same people love Christie’s aggressive style. He’s fighting for the people of New Jersey, say his defenders. New Jersey politics is a violent sport. They see Christie a victim of, as Fox News calls it, the “wussification” of American men.

There’s a few differences, of course. Those critics immediately spotted one. I see another. Sherman’s moment lasted mere seconds, and everyone laughed. But the kind of thug behavior that Christie employs has seriously impacted the lives of thousands of Americans.

The Critical Mass

Anyone who carries a gun wants to use it

Oops! The wife of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill left this gun in the back set of the rental car she'd returned.

Oops! The wife of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill left this gun in the back set of the rental car she’d returned.

Yesterday afternoon I turned to one of my co-workers and asked, “Has there been a school shooting every day this week?”

“I think so,” she said, in the same distant voice she might have used in answering a question about if it was going to snow this weekend.

At that moment I was looking at a web-site news story that read, “Police say two students have been shot at a Philadelphia high school.”

So I did a quick search for this week’s stories on guns in schools:

On Wednesday, “Authorities say quick actions by a teacher averted a potential shooting at a northern New York high school where a 15-year-old student had a rifle concealed in a case wrapped in a blanket.”

After a kid walking into his school on Tuesday with a shotgun and starting blasting away, “Gov. Susana Martinez says the boy who was shot in the face and neck at a New Mexico middle school is on a breathing machine and is heavily sedated, but his doctors are optimistic.”

Also on Tuesday, “Connecticut police say they arrested a 21-year-old man for bringing a gun to his former high school.” In Connecticut of all places, where you’ll find Sandy Hook Elementary.

And there was general outrage this week when the web site of the Albuquerque Journal ran a story on the New Mexico school shooting alongside a gun shop’s ad offering sales and discounts on guns, ammunition and training classes.

How deep does the fear run? Another news story from this week: “An NBC News affiliate in St. Louis, Mo., caused a high school lockdown Thursday while going undercover to report on school safety, resulting in major outcry from parents and staff against the network.”

Some of the country’s gun folk are pushing an idea called “Open Carry,” where shoot-’em-up enthusiasts walk around public places and public events displaying their weapons. Their intent is to make the idea of guns in public seem as natural as walking down the street with a Starbucks coffee mug or a cell phone in your hand.

It’s a casual attitude about guns that’s common in America. Lauren Tannehill, the wife of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, returned a rental SUV earlier this month in South Florida. Another woman rented the car that night and later called EZ Rental to report that she’d found a semi-automatic rifle in a bag in the cargo area. Mrs. Tannehill had forgotten that she’d left her LMT AR-15, the civilian’s version of the military M-16, in the car.

It’s a strange world where a petite blonde model and quarterback trophy feels the urge to own a gun capable of wiping out a classroom full of kids.

If you have a cup of coffee in your hand, it’s because you crave a shot of caffeine. If you have a cell phone in your hand, you’re expecting a call from your mom. If you’re packing heat, you’re looking to shoot someone. Is there another reason for it? Compensation for a small penis? Mrs, Tannehill excluded, of course.

There is normal about walking around with a gun.

And yes, it’s snowing here this morning.

The Critical Mass

Your 21st century NFL

The most-important player in football today is an unemployed NFL punter.

Even if you haven’t watched a single play this season – and I’m proud to say I haven’t – you may know Chris Kluwe. He’s the Minnesota Vikings punter who was an outspoken and effective spokesman for gay rights. He took on the issue through interviews, and in a fabulous 2012 open letter written to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. Burns had urged the Baltimore Ravens to silence one of their players, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was campaigning on behalf of a Maryland ballot initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States government,” Kluwe writes to Burns, and the rest of us. “Your  vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.” Kluwe’s highly entertaining prose goes on to describe Burns as “Mindfuckingly, obscenely hypocritical” and a “narcissistic fromunda stain.” Read the whole thing here, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Kluwe is still an activist, but he’s no longer a punter. He was released by the Vikings before this season, and now Kluwe is charging the team with firing him because of his pro-gay comments. There may be some merit to his claim – he seems to have been a decent kicker on a lousy team. And punter is an important position on a lousy team. Kluwe’s also said that his special-teams coach used bigoted, anti-gay language in meetings. The Vikings have promised to investigate. Fox, check out that henhouse!

I’m not naive. I understand why guys are touchy about defining their manliness in the badass land of the NFL. The Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, found it necessary to address Internet rumors about his sexuality a couple of days ago. “I’m just going to say, I’m not gay,” Rodgers told ESPN radio in Wisconsin. “I really, really like women. That’s all I can say about that.”

OK, Aaron. A little “not that there’s anything wrong with it…” might have helped, but we get the message.

The real message is we’ve moved on to the 21st century, and most of us are leaving behind bigotry and laws that discriminate. The polls show it. Americans are increasingly OK with gay rights, legalizing marijuana, gun control and helping the poor through unemployment benefits and by raising the minimum wage. Progressive positions.

Don’t expect institutions to lead the way. Congress, the mainstream media and even our schools tend to distance themselves from new ideas until it’s safe to proceed.

And don’t expect the NFL to lead the way, either. Not that institution, and not its fans. We witnessed that  this season with the Washington team owner’s refusal to consider changing its astonishingly racist nickname. It’s not an old debate, but it gained momentum this season. Some sportswriters are even refusing to use the name in print. Defenders of the team’s nickname simply have no answer to this question: Would you walk up to a Native American woman holding her baby and say, “My, what a cute little Redskin?”

There’s really nothing sacrosanct about a team nickname. Even one that’s been used for decades. But change comes only when the cold, dead fingers of intransigent defenders are pried loose from  their long-held beliefs. Daniel Snyder, an arrogantly entitled owner, calls his team’s racist nickname “a badge of honor,” and cites a poll showing a majority of Americans don’t want to see it changed. Well, sometimes the people are a little behind the times as well. Back in the ’60s, polls showed most Americans were against change in the civil rights laws. That’s when it really takes guts to make the right call. That’s leadership.

Here’s an idea that might help: Imagine a new team nickname and logo for Washington, and all of the official jerseys, hats, flags, kid’s bedsheets, action figures and associated sports gear that will be sold. Money. That’s something that’s always understood by the powers that be.

The Critical Mass

“Duck Dynasty,” and the Redneck Conspiracy

The camouflage outfit has come off of Phil Robertson.

The camouflage outfit has come off of Phil Robertson.

I’m not an authority on television, but it seems as though every time I spot one in a bar or squatting in the corner of my living room, it’s featuring a commercial whose official spokesman is a beefy dude in a goatee, with the sleeves torn from his flannel shirt, battered baseball cap, driving a monster truck and advising me in his homespun southern drawl about heartburn. It’s Larry the Cable Guy, and seeing as he sells a line of Larry the Cable Guy food products at Big Lots that includes a boxed hamburger dinner, he must know a lot about heartburn.

As I watch this guy spinning donuts in his monster truck and unleashing a rebel yell, I wonder: Do Americans really find this redneck to be appealing? Yep, he’s a regular guy. I guess we can all relate to someone who seems to be selling stupid.

In real life, I’ll bet Larry the Cable guy is a smart fella. And I wouldn’t accuse him of selling stupid if it weren’t for the fact that he’s kind of admitted that the southern accent is fake. And I wouldn’t accuse him of playing off the dumb southern stereotype if his co-conspirator – TV, particularly reality TV – wasn’t so obsessed with parading these folks before us as though they are a rare and unusual species of hominid.

Pause for a list of Southerners who I considered really smart: Arkansas native Johnny Cash, Texas native Buddy Holly, Mississippi natives William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, South Carolina native Dizzy Gillespie, Georgia natives Flannery O’Connor and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Uh, yeah. That is kind of a short list. Don’t read anything into it.

Return to main theme: Look at the TV entertainment that we’re offered. Rednecks building hot rods. Rednecks wrecking hot rods. Rednecks sticking their arms in alligator mouths. Rednecks pulling fallen trees out of swamps. Rednecks hunting squirrels. Rednecks running moonshine. Rednecks drilling for oil. Rednecks living in a trailer park. Honey Boo Boo.

Don’t these folks understand that they’re being used?

You’re smart. I think you know where I’m going with this.

The makers of Duck Dynasty have suspended the patriarch of the Louisiana family, 67-year-old ZZ Top-bearded Phil Robertson. Was it something he said? Well, yeah, in an interview with GQ magazine:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

And then more that he’s said has turned up:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Fox News is going to war over this one. Sean Hannity called Robertson’s comments “old fashioned traditional Christian sentiment and values.”

Despite a long list of high-profile conservatives and the show’s many fans rushing to the wrong side of history in their eagerness to protest Robertson’s suspension, this is not an issue of First Amendment free speech. Phil Robertson works for the A&E network, it can dismiss an employee who it feels makes statements that reflect poorly on the company.

As we’ve seen, there are plenty of rednecks available to take Robertson’s place. And plenty of tree stumps  out in the middle of the Louisiana bayous where he can stand and express his faith and beliefs all he wants.

And redemption being just a crisis-management specialist away, Robertson will be back. Perhaps with Duck Dynasty, after the proper sensitivity training. Or on Fox, as a keen social observer.

This is the 21st century. Yet there’s always gonna be a self-proclaimed piece of white trash, or a conservative radio talk-show host, telling us that gay people are sinners and black people were having a grand old time under the south’s Jim Crow laws. The best we can do is gently remind these remnants of the 1800s that their time is gone, and we’re taking away the TV show that made them rich. That show is dishonest to begin with. These rednecks are being marketed as charming, dirt-common folk uttering country-cracker wisdom. It’s a Redneck Conspiracy. Now we see that Phil Robertson is an unrepentant Christian bigot.

But the premise of the Duck Commander business is deception, isn’t it? It manufactures duck calls, whose promise of sex in the shrubbery with some unseen mallard stud is in reality designed to lure innocent waterfowl to their deaths. Phil Robertson fell for his own charade, and he got fucked.

The Critical Mass

A country down on its luck

The Great Depression: Irony is pretty funny, unless you're hungry and have no job.

The Great Depression: Irony is pretty funny, unless you’re hungry and have no job.

It’s human nature to be selfish. For some people, that’s not going to change.

Another thing that will not change: Some of us are less physically, intellectually and socially functional than others. On this world, the two forces inevitably collide.

Yesterday morning on the bus, a fellow gets on board who appears to be less physically or intellectually or socially functional – or perhaps all three – than the rest of us. The bus is pretty crowded, but there is a seat next to a woman. He indicates he’d like to sit down, but her purse is on the seat next to her. She refuses to move it. He looks puzzled, walks back up front to the driver and says something. He shuffles back down the aisle and this time, apparently not wanting a confrontation with the driver, she moves the purse. “But don’t touch me!” she snarls as he sits.

A couple of weeks ago, a young kid is sprawled across two seats in the back of the bus, feet dangling in the aisle, apparently asleep. Most of us just step over him and take another seat. No big deal. Then some older fellow gets on. Black guy, doesn’t look like he has a lot of resources to work with, but has an air of dignity about him. I’ve seen him a few times. He walks to the back of the bus and sees this white tattooed skate punk consuming a lot of space. “Get up and let me sit down!” the old guy says in a booming voice, pointing to the seat next to the punk. “I’m not afraid of you!”

The kid pulls himself into a single seat and the old guy sits down. Even though there’s a seat next to me, right behind them, that he could have. I think the old guy was just pissed off by the kid’s selfishness.

I see this kind of bad behavior all of the time on the cable TV news, and read about it in the newspapers and on the Internet. But it’s bad behavior on a larger scale. Like this war on poor people that we’re witnessing this holiday season. Conservatives complaining that, while standing behind people in the supermarket check-out line, they see them using food stamps to buy king crab legs. I’m in supermarket check-out lines all of the time, and the only things I ever see people using food stamps for are baby formula, pasta and maybe a six pack. Let ‘em have the six pack, OK? Life is tough enough.

With all of the breaks that influential people fashion for themselves, why do Americans get so bent out of shape about programs designed to help folks who have no voice? Conservatives rage against entitlement programs. But what often goes unsaid about entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security is that most of us paid for them. We spend our entire working lives paying taxes, getting money drawn out of our paychecks, supporting those programs.

I’ve been employed steadily for almost my entire adult life. But when the Bush economy caught up with the country, and the newspaper industry started to tank, I had to take four or five weeks of unpaid furloughs. It worked. The major stockholders – all nice people, I’m sure, although I’ve never met any of them – got their dividends. And I made sure I got my $400 unemployment check those weeks. Because I’d paid for it. A lot of Americans find themselves in that position today. They probably didn’t think they’d ever have to tap into that unemployment or medical insurance that they’d paid for. But now their job is gone, they’re middle aged, applying for clerk jobs at the neighborhood box store, and they’ll lose their house if they don’t get some help.

Food stamps? They’re just a way of helping along a guy who’s down on his luck. According to statistics, and the randomness of dumb luck, he’s a guy who probably didn’t have the same advantages that you and I had.

Maybe that punk in the bus aisle pissed you off. But what did that first guy on the bus do to anybody? Like I said, some of us are less physically, intellectually and socially functional than others. And we’re living in an increasingly exclusionary country. One where decent people can’t find decent-paying jobs, and schools are no longer functioning. The pensions that our parents retire on won’t be available to us. We are creating a society of no hope. A country down on its luck. And it’s just wrong to not offer our fellow man a little comfort.

The Critical Mass

Allowing history to be the judge needn’t be a long wait

History gets re-written every day. So it is once again with the death of Nelson Mandela.

Jailed for 27 years because he led the fight against the South African policy of Apartheid, what many of our leaders are eager for us to forget is they once pronounced Mandela a terrorist. Ronald Reagan’s veto of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which would have issued sanctions against South Africa if it did not end Apartheid and release prisoners such as Mandela, had to be overturned by Congress.  Republican fundraisers and strategists such as Jack Abramoff and Grover Nordquist worked behind the scenes in favor of Apartheid. On the front lines, the anti-Mandela wing of the Congressional Hall of Shame is lined with Republicans such as Dick Cheney, then a Wyoming representative, who even as late as 2000 was defending his vote against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

Their defense is that their votes were correct based on what we knew then. But denying a human being basic rights based on the color of his or her skin was as wrong in 1986 as it is in 2013.

Conservative thinking, which many years ago was kind of a good thing in this country, is now so empty, so fact deprived, so logically impossible to follow that it’s like arguing with the squirrels in your backyard trees. John Boehner last week suggested that Jesus would not approve of welfare. Helping the poor is fine, Boehner suggested, but Jesus would have disapproved of the notion of taking from some people to help others. Theologians, and even folks who have only a casual familiarity with The Bible, had no trouble rebuking Boehner. How about this proverb: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” There are dozens more out there if that one doesn’t work for you.

Republicans are morally bankrupt on issues of compassion – they’re against raising the minimum wage, gay marriage, immigrants, anyone who’s not a Christian and women’s rights. An overwhelming percentage of scientists say they’re wrong on climate change and their insistence on including creationism in school curriculum as an explanation for mankind’s presence on the planet. Most economists say their financial theories are unsound.

Republicans are also bereft of intellectual diversity. In the past year we’ve seen them warp history and suggest that Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., each held conservative viewpoints. In general, they did not. Douglass may have praised Republicans, but Abraham Lincoln was a far different breed of Republican than we have today.

Now, as they run away from their past, Republicans are praising Mandela and in the process, as they tried to do with Douglass and King, are drafting another black man into the party. Which Republicans do after the guys are dead and can’t offer up any protest themselves. This week former Pennsylvania senator and full-time lunatic Rick Santorium compared his party’s efforts to stop the Affordable Care Act with Mandela’s fight for ending Apartheid. “I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives,” he said. “And Obamacare is front and center in that.”

That’s right. As Republicans see it, blocking Americans from access to affordable health insurance is as righteous a cause as ending segregation in South Africa. They’ve also compared the basic human right of health and security to slavery, communism, socialism and Nazism. So say the Republicans.

History, if we don’t allow it to be re-written, will prove them wrong once again. That’s how we judge leaders. They get it right the first time, not 25 years later.

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