About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.



Friday, December 12, 2014

Practicing Subsidized Un-Medicine





by Walter Brasch

     Clutching newspaper clippings in one hand and a medical bag loaded with seeds in the other, my ersatz friend Dr. Franklin Peterson Comstock III, knocking down pregnant ladies, students, the elderly, and two burly construction workers who were waiting for a bus, rushed past me, leaving me in a close and personal encounter with the concrete.
     “Medical emergency!” Comstock cried out. “Gang way!”
     “You’ve returned to medicine?” I shouted after him.
     “I’m going into un-medicine!” he shouted back. “I’m getting the big bucks not to operate!” This was a story too good to let by, so I gave up any hope of the 7:11 “D”-line bus arriving by 7:30, and chased after him.
     “Slow down!” I panted. “You’ll kill yourself!”
     “No time to slow down,” he said, leaving a trail of broken bodies. “There’s money to be had!”
     “If you kill yourself before you get to the hospital, you’ll never see a cent from the insurance company.” That stopped him, giving me time to catch up and catch my breath.
     “I’m not operating,” said Comstock.
     “If you’re not operating, what’s the medical bag?”
     “That’s so I can get money from the Department of Agriculture,” he replied. I’m planting lots of stuff on lots of non-productive acres, and I’m waiting for the market to drop.”
     “You want the market to drop?” I asked suspiciously.
     “That way I can take advantage of crop insurance. Here! Read!”
     A newspaper clipping revealed that Congress approved $90 billion over the next decade to assist farmers whose crops didn’t yield previous production quotas. It was a sleight-of-hand change from a program that gave farmers subsidies not to grow certain crops. However, in this case, the crop insurance program primarily benefitted large corporate agribusiness industry. About 10,000 corporations are receiving more than $100,000 each, with some receiving over $1 million, according to the Environmental Working Group. Local farmers, however, are receiving less than $5,000 a year, and mostly when their crops are wiped out by floods. Also in the budget is more than $1 billion to insurance companies for “administrative” expenses.
     “When the public finds out which corporations are getting all this tax-funded bonuses, they’ll be outraged!” I said.
     “That’s the juicy part,” said Comstock. “Congress slipped in a non-disclosure clause in the bill, and who gets the bucks is secret.”
     “So, you’re entire income will be from not being a successful farmer?” I said, outraged.
     “Absolutely not! I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket. I’m also going to get money for not operating.”
     “You mean, like the farmers got for not planting crops?”
     “Exactly. And you can thank a congressman for this brilliant stroke of fortune.” With that, he handed me another newspaper article. In this article, Rep. Mike Kennedy, a Republican from Utah, in opposition to Obamacare, said, “Access to health care can be damaging and dangerous.” Elaborating, he claimed that as many as 1.5 million people die in hospitals, “and it’s access to hospitals that’s killing these people.”
     “That’s even dumber than subsidizing corporate farmers,” I said.
     “Not dumb. Just helping the medical profession earn a reasonably high six-figure wage. Even if we get them through surgery, they’ll die in the hospitals anyhow! Isn’t that wonderful!” Wonderful wasn’t exactly the word I had in mind.
     “Doctors are supposed to make people healthier,” I brazenly said.
     “I guess we can do that while we’re making money,” said Comstock, thoughtfully stringing out his scheme. “In the old days, we surgeons knew there was more money to be made in surgery than in pushing pills, so we rushed everyone into X-Ray, MRI, and CT scans—got a nice chunk of kick-back change for that—then into  surgery, and finally into the recovery ward where they sometimes actually recovered.” He paused a moment, grinning. “But, that congressman thinks access to hospitals is dangerous, so that means fewer patients. Fewer patients means we need to have subsidies. Just like the farmers.”
     “You’re going to demand Congress, which has already wasted millions of dollars and tried more than 50 times to wipe out Obamacare, pay doctors for not having enough patients?”
     “Doctors deserve no less than the MBAs running corporate farms,” he patriotically declared.
     “Most doctors aren’t as greedy as you,” I explained.
     “Most doctors aren’t as rich as me either,” he retorted. “Besides, it makes no difference. I’m sure the AMA would be thrilled I’m not doing surgery.” I had to agree with him, but I had another question.
     “What happened to your franchised Doc’s Gas self-service stations? I thought you became a multi-millionaire because of that.”
     “Lost a ton of money. It’s all Obama’s fault.”
     I knew Comstock blamed the President for everything wrong in the country—and a few things that were just made up by Fox News commentators who had too much air time and not enough time to do any fact checking. “How is it President Obama’s fault?” I asked.
     “Gas prices plummeted this year,” said Comstock. “Cost me a lot of money. But that Black socialist Muslim Kenyan dictator refuses to give me a subsidy for having too much gas in my system.”
     Yes,” I said sarcastically, “that does seem to be a problem. But, at least you’ll be getting tax-dollars for running an unproductive farm and may get money for not operating.”
     “Not enough,” said Comstock. “It’s always not enough.”
     And, with that, I thought I had enough, and ran after the 7:11 D-line bus, which, on time, showed up at 7:32.
     [Walter Brasch, an award-winning social issues columnist and satirist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health, economic, and environmental effects of fracking throughout the country.]



Saturday, December 6, 2014

Deck the Malls



by Walter Brasch
    
     It’s now been about a week after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.
     During the four-day spree, about 133.7 million shoppers spent about $50.9 billion, according to AP and TIME magazine. 
     The psychological necessity to push, shove, and trample strangers while fighting for the right to purchase overpriced merchandize made in China has just begun. Thanksgiving—a day when Americans give thanks the Native Americans didn’t have immigration quotas—begins a 30-day frenzy to buy whatever corporate America is selling. It’s an American tradition to give presents to relatives, friends, business associates, and mistresses, all of whom will also give you presents, which will be opened, sometimes enjoyed, and often returned within a week for something better. Each shopper will spend about $781, according to Statista Research, while boasting about the great bargains they are getting, and how the government spends too much and takes too much of our hard-earned income for unnecessary expenses, like road repair, health care, environmental protection, and food stamps for the impoverished.  
     To assuage our spirit of greed—and the need to feel loved because we bought someone something—we will drop change into Salvation Army kettles, while disgustingly stepping around the homeless.
     We say how much we support the troops, while we go to Christmas parties, get drunk, and then forget those who come home damaged.
     It makes no difference what our faith or culture is, we enjoy the lights and inflatable snowmen, but sometimes wonder if extravagant displays are nothing more than neighborhood contests to show our pride of affluence.
     At department stores, grocery stores, and every kind of business known to mankind—and a few that no one wants to claim to know about—minimum wage clerks will wish customers a happy holiday. As expected, the lunatic fringe (known as Tea Party Republicans and Fox News commentators) will declare there is a war on Christmas, and demand everything with at least a dozen carbon atoms in its system wish only, “Merry Christmas.” To prove how good Christians they think they are, they will also expect the greeting to be shouted if the customer didn’t hear it the first time—“I said ‘Merry Christmas’!” Wishing someone “Happy Chanukah,” of course, is seen not only as un-American, but treason. It’s war, say Hannity, Limbaugh, and the whackadoodle horde who don’t realize how funny they truly are.
     It’s possible these religious zealots, with a political ideology of hate that dominates their soul, don’t realize that Jesus might have preferred to be greeted with “Happy Holidays” or “Happy Chanukah.” Even if he was trying to get through the wall of souls to find a pair of on-sale sandals or a doll from Frozen, he would probably smile, and wish his fellow shoppers joy, love, kindness, and respect.

    [Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist, professor emeritus of mass communications, and the author of 20 books. His most recent book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]    

Friday, November 28, 2014

Perceptions of Reality— And a Failure to Indict



by Walter Brasch

      She quietly walked into the classroom and stood there, just inside the door, against a wall.
      The professor, his back to her, continued his lecture, unaware of her presence until his students’ eyes began focusing upon her rather than him.
      “Yes?” he asked, turning to her. Just “Yes.” Nothing more.
      “You shouldn’t have done it,” she said peacefully. He was confused. So she said it again, this time a little louder.
      “Ma’am,” he began, but she cut him off. He tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t reason with her. She pulled a gun from her purse and shot him, and then quickly left. He recovered immediately.
      It took less than a minute.
      The scene was yet another exercise in the professor’s newswriting class, this one unannounced but highly planned. His assignment was for the students to quickly write down everything they could about the incident. What happened. What was said. What she looked like. What she was wearing. Just the facts. Nothing more.
      Everyone got some of the information right, but no one got all the facts, even the ones they were absolutely positively sure they saw or heard correctly. And, most interestingly, the “gun” the visitor used and which the students either couldn’t identify or misidentified was in reality a . . . banana; a painted black banana, but a banana nevertheless. The actual gunshot was on tape on a hidden recorder activated by the professor.
      It was a lesson in observation and truth.
      Witnesses often get the facts wrong, unable to distinguish events happening on top of each other. Sometimes they even want to “help” the reporter and say what they think the reporter wants to hear.
      Reporters are society’s witnesses who record history by interviewing other witnesses, and they all make mistakes, not because they want to, but because everyone’s life experiences and perceptions fog reality. Put 10 reporters into a PTA meeting or court trial, and there will be 10 different stories.
      Of the infinite number of facts and observations that occur, reporters must select a few. Which few they select, which thousands they deliberately don’t select—and, more important—which parts they don’t even know exist—all make up news, usually written under deadline pressure. Thus, it isn’t unusual for readers to wonder how reporters could have been in the same meeting as they were since the published stories didn’t seem to reflect the reality of that meeting.
      It’s no different with witnesses to a shooting on a public street.
      Put 10 witnesses in the same area. All may get some common facts accurately. But, each witness sees the same scene different. It may be because they see it from different locations, from different perspectives, from different backgrounds.
      Now, place a police officer into the scene. And let’s assume the officer shot and killed an unarmed suspect, one he may have believed was posing an imminent threat to his life.  Now, let’s have the police officer testify before a grand jury as to what happened.
      What happened at the scene, and what the police officer later remembered may be different. The police officer may not have lied to the grand jury; he may have embedded into his own memory something different from what had happened—or why it happened—or how it happened. Time continually changes our perceptions of reality.
      Add in a prosecutor, because prosecutors are the ones who control grand juries. They are the ones who present evidence, call witnesses, and create the narrative the grand jury follows. There are no defense attorneys. There are no cross-examinations.
      In one city in America, a prosecutor chose his witnesses and how to question them.
      In one city in America, a 12-member grand jury—each with his or her own backgrounds and perceptions—listened to what was presented to them. They struggled to determine the facts, to try to reach a just verdict. And, after the prosecutor presented what he chose to present, that grand jury decided not to indict a police officer who shot and killed a suspect.
      A maxim of the way the law is practiced, not how it is written, is that if they wanted to, prosecutors could get grand juries to indict a ham sandwich.
      A maxim of life is that truth will eventually emerge—no matter how long it takes.
      [Walter Brasch has been a journalist more than four decades, covering everything from local service club luncheons to the Congress and the White House. For many of those years, he was also a professor of journalism. Dr. Brasch is the author of 20 books; his most recent one is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of horizontal fracturing upon health and the environment, with special investigation of the relationships between politics and corporate business.]


Friday, November 21, 2014

How Americans Came to Oppose Fracking



by Walter Brasch

      For the first time since high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as nonconventional fracking, was developed, more Americans oppose it than support it.
      According to a national survey conducted by the independent non-partisan Pew Research Center, 47 percent of Americans oppose fracking, while 41 percent support it. This is a 7 percent decline in support from March 2013, and a 9 percent increase in opposition.
      The poll also reveals those who support fracking tend to be conservative men over 50 years old with only a high school education, and living in the South. However, support for fracking has decreased in all categories, while opposition has increased.
Fracking is the controversial method of drilling a bore hole into the earth’s crust as deep as 12,000 feet. The company sends fracking tubing, which has small explosive charges in it, to create a perforated lateral borehole, about 90 degrees from the vertical bore hole, which fractures the shale for up to about 6,000 feet to open channels and force out natural gas and fossil fuels. A mixture of proppants, toxic chemical additives, radioactive isotopes, and as much as 10 million gallons of fresh water are put into the tubes at a pressure of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch. About 650 of the 750 chemicals used in fracking operations are known carcinogens, according to a report filed with the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2011.
        Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown environmental and public health dangers; other research reveals dangers because of the exploration, drilling, storage, wastewater disposal, and transportation parts related to fracking.
    According to the Pew survey, about 52 percent of men favor fracking; 40 percent oppose it. However, only 31 percent of women support fracking, while 54 percent oppose it. The remaining percentages are “don’t know” or “no opinion.”
    In geographical distribution, those opposed to fracking live in the Northeast (48 percent opposed; 37 percent in favor), Midwest (47–39 percent opposed), and West (54–38 percent opposed.) In the South, 45 percent favor fracking; 42 percent oppose it. The biggest shift from the March 2013 survey is in the Midwest. In that previous survey, 55 percent favored fracking, with a 16 percent drop in support in only 20 months.
    Among all Republicans, 62 percent favor fracking, a drop of 4 percent from the earlier survey. However, among Republicans, 68 percent of those who identify themselves as conservatives favor fracking, while only 52 percent of those who identify themselves as moderate or liberal Republicans support fracking.
    Among Democrats, 29 percent support fracking; 59 percent oppose it. About 33 percent of conservative and moderate Democrats support fracking; 54 percent oppose it. Among liberal Democrats, 67 percent oppose it, while only 25 percent support it.
    Support for fracking in all age groups has also fallen in the past two years; about half of all those under 50 oppose it, while only about 38 percent under age 50 support fracking. Even opposition to fracking among those 50+ has increased. By November of this year, 43 percent of those 50-64 (7 percent more than in 2013) and 40 percent of those 65+ (6 percent more than in 2013) oppose fracking.
    The biggest drops in support are among those who attended college. In March 2013, 45 percent of college graduates supported fracking; 20 months later, only 38 percent of college graduates support it. About 52 percent of all those with some college education supported fracking in March 2013; by November 2014, only 40 percent support it.
    To understand why there has been a shift in public attitudes about horizontal fracking, it’s important to understand the nature of the mass media.
    The mainstream establishment media are not in the forefront of society, but follow it—sometimes years behind emerging issues. In the past decade, the media at first didn’t cover fracking, perhaps because it was too complicated for reporters who weren’t trained in the sciences, perhaps because significant downsizing by publishers left fewer reporters to cover critical issues, perhaps because the media didn’t think fracking affected their own circulation and viewership areas.
    The first stories came from the oil and gas industry, and the establishment media accepted what was handed out to them. Thus, public perception was mostly from pro-fracking information.
    But, the people knew. They could see their roads being torn up by gas-industry trucks, sometimes more than 200 a day on rural roads. They could see acres of agricultural and forest land leveled for the access roads and well pads. They could hear around-the-clock noise from the trucks, well pads, and compressor stations. They could empathize with neighbors whose land was condemned by eminent domain so that pipes could be laid across and beneath private land.
    They learned about politicians who took campaign funds from the oil and gas industry and many front groups, and then crafted industry-friendly regulations to benefit those who fracked the land.
    They heard about the economic benefits of fracking, of how fracking would help the local unemployed find work in the deepest recession in decades; but, the high-paying technical jobs went to those from out of state who had experience on the rigs and well pads, did their jobs, and moved onto other out-of-state sites. 
    They were told about how natural gas was inexpensive, how it was better for the environment,  and how renewable energy was unproven and far too expensive for the average homeowner. But, they learned that it was the investors and fossil fuel executives who benefited, and how the process to capture the natural gas, with the flaring of methane, may be more dangerous to global warming than even coal emissions.
    At first, the few individuals cried into the winds. But, they came together to form small groups, and then larger groups. They read the environmental and public health studies. They heard from the people about the problems associated with fracking.
    They didn’t have the millions of dollars the industry had. They couldn’t afford full-page newspaper ads, radio and TV ad time, or the costs to design and produce 4-color flyers, innumerable mailers, and billboards.
    Theirs was a grassroots campaign. They went door-to-door, to their neighbors. They called their friends and strangers who might be affected by fracking.
    They attended flea markets, farmers’ markets, and community events. They went to city council meetings.
    They became adept at the use of social media. They produced black-and-white flyers and PowerPoint presentations. Some, using inexpensive digital technology, created micro- and mini-documentaries and posted them on YouTube. Others wrote letters to the editor, letters to their legislators, and articles and opinion columns for the alternative media. A few wrote articles for the establishment media; one developed a 107-minute documentary; others produced a feature-length film; several developed shorter films; one wrote a book.
    And, when they had to, they blocked and marched, non-violent acts they knew would attract some media attention. And they were willing to be arrested, charged with trespassing, and jailed o protect the people against an invasion of their environment.
    A few groups of a few residents became larger, now with memberships of environmentalists, scientists, physicians, social rights activists, landowners, and people whose lives and health were directly affected by fracking.
    Those who leased mineral rights to the gas companies, hoping to get some income to help survive the recession, soon realized the royalties were not as much as they were led to believe, and the land was not being restored to its previous condition, as was promised.
    Against heavy opposition from politicians and the fossil fuel industry, the people succeeded in getting more than 300 towns to enact moratoriums on fracking until, at least, the health and environmental effects were fully known. They had the passion for truth and not the lust for greed.
    Eventually, the establishment mass media caught up, running some syndicated stories about fracking, sometimes a local story, always careful to make sure the industry—with its carefully manicured PR staff and hordes of money—got a chance to respond to the masses of people.
    In March 2013, 48 percent of Americans favored fracking, 38 percent opposed it.
    In November 2014, only 41 percent favored fracking, and 47 percent opposed it.
    A social movement to protect the people’s health and their environment has begun to show the effectiveness of grassroots determination and the dissemination of truth, and not the propaganda of deceit.
     [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist more than four decades, is the author of 20 books. His latest book, Fracking Pennsylvania, was the first book to explore fracking and its effects upon public health and the environment, as well as to discuss the truth of the economic impact and connections between politicians and the fossil fuel industry.]


      

Stripping Off Their Royalties



by Walter Brasch



      He’s there by 7 a.m. almost every Sunday except in late Fall and Winter to make money in one of the largest permanent flea markets in northeastern Pennsylvania. In three-foot long cardboard boxes he has an inventory of hundreds of paperbacks, all of them displayed spine up. Westerns. Romances. Adventures. Whatever you want. Three for a buck; fifty cents each. The books are virtually mint condition, and if you don’t mind reading something without a front cover, it’s a bargain, especially since paperbacks with the covers, sold at supermarkets, pharmacies, and bookstores, are now going for as much as $7.95 each.
      He isn’t the only one. There are thousands like him, although most don’t produce the sales volume he does. In flea markets and yard sales, individuals have bought what are known as “stripped books” from other flea markets and yard sales and sell them for pennies more; it’s just another way to make a few bucks.
      The only problem is that it’s illegal.
      The sale of stripped books is a significant and ongoing problem that involves fraud, possible copyright infringement, and some areas that take the crime into interstate commerce violations. However, police departments and prosecutors often don’t have the time, manpower, or resources to investigate and bring to court sellers of stripped books. To understand why the sale of stripped books is illegal, it’s important to know a little about the nature of book publishing. Although the major book chains usually buy books on the basis of a book’s cover and the promotion effort put out by the publisher, no one can predict which books will titillate American reading appetites, even with a $100,000 promotion campaign. So, publishers of the mass market paperbacks--the kind with colorfully-embossed titles superimposed over pirates and scantily-clad women on slick 4-1/4 by 6-3/4 inch covers--order large print quantities to try to saturate American bookstands. They sell these books to distributors for 55–65 percent of the list price—bookstores get 40 percent of that—and hope a few titles bring in enough profit to carry the rest of the line. 
      Unique in the field of retail sales, booksellers can return to publishers for full credit any books they can’t sell. However, publishers have no desire to pay shipping costs for books they probably won’t redistribute, especially since there are another couple of dozen titles they’re trying to push that month. And, neither bookseller nor publisher wants several skids of taxable inventory. So, distributors and publishers sign contracts that allow the bookseller to send only the cover back to the publisher, tack on shipping costs, and agree to destroy the rest of the book to prevent further sale.
      The bookseller usually sends stripped books to a recycler who picks them up at no cost and makes his money by selling recycled pulp.
      However, some booksellers “forget” to send some books to a debindery or recycler, either selling some in their own store or, more likely, selling books for pennies apiece to mini-distributors. But, even if the bookseller (who can be the owner of just about any kind of a business) plays by all the rules—and most major bookstores do—and sends the books to a recycler, that doesn’t mean the books don’t show up again. Some books may be stolen in transit or in storage; and, a few unscrupulous companies may file claims they have shredded 10 tons of what is now literally literary garbage, but have really gotten rid of just nine tons, throwing the coverless books into the streets, like left over food for the cats. The cats, in this case, have pick-ups, and pay for the leftovers.
      So, what’s really the problem? After all, even though these transient booksellers probably don’t pay taxes on their income, it’s hard enough these days to make a buck. And, certainly, it’s a break for the readers who are more likely to buy a 50-cent paperback than one costing 15 times as much.
      The problem is that when a reader buys a stripped paperback, the publisher and author don’t receive any money. Since there’s no income to the publisher, there’s also no income to the author who is usually paid 5 percent of the list price of mass market paperbacks. 
      Except for the few million-dollar deals that make the headlines every now and then, we authors don’t make a whole heap of money from our meager percentages. So every stripped or stolen book that’s sold means we get no money while a lot of people who had no part in the creative process are making money off of us. And, I really object to that.
      [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has written 20 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the effects of fracking upon public health and the environment, with special focus upon the economics and politics of the practice.]


      

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Nation of Fear





by Walter Brasch

     Maintenance workers at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., airport shot and killed a bear and her three cubs.
     The bears had crawled under a perimeter fence and were just lying around, several hundred yards from a runway. The airport director claimed the bears might have posed a risk to flights. The mother bear weighed less than most pro football linemen. While the airport officials were worrying about what a bear and her cubs might do, they probably should have been worrying why that fence wasn’t secure. If bears could crawl under it, couldn’t drunks or terrorists also get into unauthorized areas of the airport?
     Earlier this year, the airport workers killed a bear who had gone onto a parking lot and climbed away from humans. The airport director also claimed the bear might have hurt someone. He claimed the reason the bears were not tranquilized was because his maintenance workers weren’t trained to tranquilize bears. He claimed the Game Commission possibly could not have gotten to the site fast enough to assist.
     The airport director also said it wasn’t the policy to publicize the killings, apparently in an attempt to keep the public ignorant of what the airport does to animals.
     A week later, about 30 miles away, near Catawissa, Pa., a Game Commission officer came onto private property and killed a baby raccoon that had posed no threat to anyone.
     The family had rescued the raccoon after her mother was killed by a car. The family bottle-fed the raccoon. They made a small hutch for the raccoon who often went into the woods. The family says they planned to release the animal when it was strong enough, according to reporter Julye Wemple.
     It didn’t matter to the Game Commission officer. Dixie had to be killed, he said. The animal might have rabies, he said. He refused to quarantine it. He refused to allow it to run back into the woods. He refused to allow the family to apply for a permit to keep the raccoon—the family didn’t realize they had to go through a paper jungle in order to do a humane act. At first, he even refused to take the animal away from the house to kill it. It was a final, desperate plea by the parents who didn’t want their four-year-old to see the murder.
     After the officer fired two shots into Dixie—the first didn’t kill her—he then cited the family for unlawful acts concerning the taking of furbearers. Maybe, the Game Commission officer thought his badge allowed him to kill rather than protect animals.
     The Game Commission officer’s inhumanity now allows every person to kill every animal on sight—just because it might have rabies. Maybe, it will attack us. Or, maybe, it’s just an annoyance.
     Fear is a dominant trait in our society.
     We buy .357 Magnums so we can blow away robbers—or in fear of neighbors who take short-cuts through our back yards at night. Or to murder people whose views are different from ours. Three recent high-profile cases revealed Whites killing Blacks because they might be dangerous.
     We fear ideas that aren’t what we believe, so we continue to ban books and whine about the National Endowment for the Arts, forgetting that our nation was founded upon a libertarian principle that all views should be heard.
     In a nation that seems to value appearance over intellect, a nation where there are no ugly anchors on TV, we are so afraid of not looking at least as well as anyone else that we spend billions for makeup to cover blemishes; we go to spas, gyms, and plastic surgeons to “tone up our flab” so no one scorns us for being fat. Augmentations to fill out. Liposuctions to reduce. Preparation H to shrink our wrinkles.
     We don’t hire the handicapped, the short, the tall, the fat, the skinny because they’re “different.” We fear and condemn gays, lesbians, and same-sex marriage, trying to justify our contempt and our fear as a voice from God. Some among us are anti-Semitic and racist, irrationally justifying their own pathetic existence.
     While proclaiming our individuality, we try our best to look, act, and think like everyone else, ’lest someone label us “different” or, worse, “radical.” We are so afraid of not being “cool” that we allow advertising to dictate what we wear, what we eat and drink, and even what we drive.
     We go to college because we’re afraid we won’t get a good job, and then spend 40 years on that job afraid to do anything different or creative, afraid to speak out for fear of displeasing someone who might discipline or fire us.
     We are so afraid that someone else will get something more than we have, so instead of fighting to get better wages and working conditions, we attack unions and public school teachers.
     We are afraid of the homeless because they look different, sometimes smell of booze, and sometimes even want to talk with us, to tell us about their lives and how they became homeless. We don’t want to hear that chatter. We have so many more important things to do—like go to our jobs so we can afford that nice mortgaged house and leased car.
     We condemn those who receive public assistance, whether disabled, elderly, or just a single unwed mother who made a mistake. We fear that every dollar they receive is one dollar less that we can spend on our own necessities and luxuries.
      We are afraid of children who escape Honduras, cross into Mexico, and then into the U.S. to seek asylum. They might be terrorists. They might take our welfare. They might want our jobs. For some on the far-right lunatic fringe, the solution is to kill those who cross our borders illegally. Why not just nuke Honduras and solve the problem entirely?
     We fear and condemn Arabs and Muslims, and plan to destroy their countries, because some of them are terrorists, not acknowledging that every ethnicity and religion has its own terrorists. For some, the solution is to launch pre-emptive strikes against—well, everything—just because something might happen.
     That which we don’t understand—or want to understand—we attack, leaving us condemned to an isolation of ignorance.
     Those who believe they are Christians often ask, “What would Jesus do?”
     Would Jesus want us to buy guns to kill people and animals? Would Jesus want us to ban books and ideas we don’t agree with? Would Jesus want us to concentrate upon appearance? Would Jesus want us to believe the half-truths of politics and corporate advertising? Would Jesus condone racism, sexism, Anti-Semitism, ageism, and homophobia? Would Jesus want us to condemn immigrants, children who are seeking asylum, and those who are the weakest and poorest of our society. Would Jesus want us to condemn those who live on communes or join unions? Would Jesus deliberately kill a mother bear and her cubs who didn’t threaten anyone? Would Jesus kill a baby raccoon who posed no threat? Would Jesus want us to live a life of fear?
     The answer is obvious.

     [Dr. Brasch’s current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the effects of fracking upon health, agriculture, and the environment.]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Campaign Contributions May Have Influenced Animal Cruelty Vote in Pennsylvania




by WALTER BRASCH
Spectrum Features Syndicate

HARRISBURG—Three days before he blocked proposed animal cruelty legislation, Rep. Mike Turzai (R-McCandless), chair of Rules Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, received a $3,000 campaign donation from the Flyers Victory Fund.  

The Fund is the lobbying and campaign contributions arm of the Pennsylvania Flyers Association (PFA). The PFA, according to its website, was “established by a group of shooting enthusiasts committed to promoting and protecting bird shooting for future generations.” Its primary mission, however, is to promote pigeon shoots.
While delivering $3,000 to Turzai, who is also House Majority leader and unopposed for re-election, it also delivered $1,000 to each of the 17 other Republican committee members, including House Speaker Samuel H. Smith (R-Punxsutawney). The Fund gave no campaign contributions to any of the 14 Democrats on the Committee, according to records filed by the Fund with the Pennsylvania Department of State. The Fund also made three donations totaling $1,150 to Republicans not on the Rules Committee.

The PFA delivered the campaign funds on Friday, Oct. 17. The vote to ban slaughtering and eating domestic dogs and cats, and to ban pigeon shoots, was scheduled for Monday, Oct. 20.

Pennsylvania is the only state where pigeon shoots, which hunters do not consider to be “fair chase hunting,” are common. At pigeon shoots, the birds are launched from cages and shot from 30 yards away. About 70 percent of the birds are wounded, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The birds, if they fall onto the shooting fields, are then strangled, stuffed alive into barrels, or have their heads cut off by “trapper boys” in their teens. Birds who manage to fly outside the fields are left to die long and lingering deaths. The bill addresses animal cruelty and not what the shooters mistake for “sport.” The NRA opposed the bill, claiming that to ban pigeon shoots would lead to a “slippery slope” to banning hunting and all guns.


Two days before receiving the funds, Turzai told former state Sen. Roy Afflerbach and retired Humane Society police officer Johnna Seeton he planned to bring the bill to the Rules Committee for an up-or-down vote. The Senate had previously passed the bill, 36–12. Gov. Tom Corbett (R) had said if the bill came to him, he would sign it.

However, Turzai did not bring up the bill in the first of two scheduled Rules Committee meetings. Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh), a member of the committee and Democratic caucus chair, says when HB 1750 didn’t come up, the committee members “believed it would come up in the second committee meeting,” especially since it had been on the agenda. However, Turzai cancelled that second meeting, effectively blocking the bill from being discussed and voted upon in both Committee and on the House floor on the last day of a two-year session.

In addition to Turzai and Smith, receiving funds before the vote in the Rules Committee were Republican representatives William F. Adolph (Springfield), Matthew E. Baker (Wellsboro), Jim Christiana (Monaca), Brian L. Ellis (Lyndora), Mauree Gingrich (Cleona), Robert W. Godshall (Hatfield), Seth M. Grove (York), Thomas H. Killion (Newtown Square), Ron Marisco (Harrisburg), Kurt A. Masser (Danville), Mark Mustio (Moon Twp.), Tina Pickett (Towanda), Mike Reese (Mount Pleasant), Stan Saylor (Red Lion), Mario M. Scavello (Tannersville), and Katherine M. Watson (Warrington).

Turzai had previously received three donations, totaling $1,600 from the Fund, according to the Department of State. Other members of the Rules committee who received Fund donations prior to 2014 were Reps. Baker (1 for $1,000), Christiana (2 for $450), Ellis (4 for $1,450), Godshall (2 for $3,460), Grove (1 for $250), Marisco (4 donations totaling $1,150), Masser (1 for $250), Reese (1 for $100), and Smith (1 for $500). Marisco was the only member of the Committee who received Flyers funding in 2012. The Flyers contributions in 2012, according to the Department of State, were $6,400. However, in the month directly preceding the pigeon shoot vote, the Fund tripled its entire 2012 contributions, donating $21,150, according to forms filed with the Department of State.
     


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cowardice Plagues Pa. House of Representatives


  
by Walter Brasch

      The Institute for Legislative Action of the National Rifle Association (NRA-ILA) gives politicians Defender of Freedom awards. The award, accompanied by a glowing press release, has little to do with freedom; it has everything to do with legislators advancing the NRA agenda.
      Usually, the award goes to someone who managed, sometimes against great odds, to ramrod legislation that advances gun rights. However, for 2014 the award should go to someone who not only prostrated himself before the NRA lobby, but in a “two-fer” single-handedly blocked an animal cruelty bill.
      Pennsylvania State Rep. Mike Turzai is the House Republican majority leader and chair of the Rules Committee. Both the House and Senate are Republican-controlled; Gov. Tom Corbett is a Republican.
    The bill (HB1750) had two parts. The first part would have forbidden slaughtering, butchering, and eating dogs and cats. The second part would have banned pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the only state where pigeon shoots are common. Organizers of this blood sport place the birds into cages, and place people with shotguns only about 30 yards away. The spring-loaded cages open, and the pretend sportsmen open fire. The pigeons, many of them stunned, often having been nearly starved, are then blown apart. But first they suffer. More than 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to data compiled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). If they fall onto the shooting range, teenagers take the birds, wring their necks or use scissors to cut their heads off, and stuff them into barrels. Even if the birds survive strangulation, they will die from their wounds and from suffocation. If the wounded birds manage to fly outside the shooting range, most will die a lingering and painful death. The juveniles-disguised-as-adults consider the birds litter, and don’t pick them up if they fall outside the shooting range.
    Most hunters agree pigeon shoots are animal cruelty and not fair chase hunting. The International Olympic Committee in 1900 called them animal cruelty, declared they weren’t a sport, and banned it from all future Olympics. In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court called pigeon shoots cruel and “moronic,” and gave Humane Society police officers authority to investigate and cite organizers and participants for animal cruelty. The Hegins Labor Day Committee, which had previously rejected all assistance from the Humane Society to raise funds from alternative events, closed down the nation’s most notorious shoot, and did not appeal the decision. Its actions left the issue of animal cruelty in limbo. With certain politicized DAs not allowing police officers to pursue animal cruelty charges, and leaders of the House and Senate blocking all attempts to bring legislation to the floor, their actions effectively allowed pigeon shoots to continue. Until this month.
    Enter the NRA and a few other gun-rights organizations. Passing this bill, they claimed, in an increasing and unjustified paranoid concern, would lead to a “slippery slope” to banning guns. The opposition to pigeon shoots, they claimed, came from radical outside organizations. But, the only radical outside opposition appeared to be from the lunatic fringe of the NRA leadership, which mounted one of its fiercest lobbying campaigns in state history.
      On Oct. 15, against fierce NRA opposition, the Republican-led state senate voted, 36–12, to ban pigeon shoots. That threw the bill back to the House.
      Re-enter Mike Turzai, one of the most conservative House members. He opposed the bill, and all previous attempts to ban pigeon shoots. On that day, however, at the bottom of the escalator near the House cafeteria, he told former Sen. Roy Afflerbach and retired Humane Society police officer Johnna Seeton the bill would get an up-or-down vote in the rules committee. “He said he couldn’t promise we’d win,” says Seeton, “but we’d get a vote on the bill.” Gov. Corbett had already said if the bill passed the House, he would sign it. But that was not to be.
      On Monday, Oct. 20, the last voting day of the session, Turzai didn’t bring the bill to a vote in the Rules Committee. His official spokesman, Steve Miskin, claims nobody called for it, that it wasn’t on the agenda, and that’s why Turzai didn’t call for a vote. However, Rep. Sandra J. Major, Republican caucus chair, had sent a memo to fellow Republicans informing them that bill and several others was on the House agenda. A tweet that day also indicated the bill would come up for a vote.
      In the Republican caucus, Rep. John Maher, who had authored the bill and agreed to the amendment on pigeon bans, strongly argued the bill had absolutely no relation to any NRA concerns; it was solely a bill to prevent animal cruelty, Maher argued.
      In the subsequent Rules Committee meeting, Turzai announced four bills would be voted upon. He didn’t present HB1750. Miskin falsely claims any representative could have asked for that bill to be voted upon, but none did. Rep. Dan Frankel, a member of the committee and Democratic caucus chair, says Turzai didn’t allow the bill to be discussed in committee. In his 16 years in the Legislature, Frankel said it was common and acceptable practice for committee chairs to determine what did and did not come before the committee for discussion and a vote, and that individual members could not bring a bill for a vote. Some members who wished to vote on HB 1750 may not have pushed Turzai for the vote because they feared he would exercise the Legislature’s dictatorial powers to block their own subsequent legislation. But it was irrelevant; Turzai controlled the calendar.
      When HB 1750 didn’t come up, Frankel says the committee members “believed it would come up in the second committee meeting” scheduled later that day, especially since it was on the agenda. However, Turzai cancelled that second meeting, blocking the bill from being discussed and voted upon in both Committee and on the House floor.
      “I expected it to come up, and expected it would pass,” says Frankel. If so, there was a strong possibility the full House would have passed the bill. “A solid majority of Democrats supported it,” Frankel says; there were enough Republican votes to give the bill at least a slim victory.
      Steve Miskin, when pressed, insisted Turzai wasn’t going to run a bill “that was not vetted,” even though the bill was discussed extensively inside and outside of Republican caucus meetings. Miskin also claimed Turzai never discussed with his staff the bill or why he blocked members from voting on it.
      “Decent and compassionate legislators who wanted to do the right thing didn’t even get a chance to vote on this bill,” says Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president. For 25 years, Prescott has led the fight against pigeon shoots. It is a fight joined by the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and numerous other groups. 

      The last free-standing vote in the House to ban pigeon shoots occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties, most of them afraid of the suspected wrath of the NRA.
       Turzai, by his action, says Prescott, “proves he continues to support barbaric practices and not humane legislation.”
      Turzai refuses to say why he didn’t bring the bill for a vote. There are some possibilities.
      Speaker of the House Sam Smith had written a constituent he had “heard from many across the state [who felt] that the amendment on pigeon shoots could be used as a gateway to ban all forms of hunting.” This, of course, is the NRA voice that Smith heard. More than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see an end to pigeon shoots, according to a statewide survey by the independent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Co. About four-fifths of all residents say the practice is animal cruelty.
      Turzai, Smith, and certain members of the House probably didn’t want to see the bill come up for a vote because if the Rules Committee and the House agreed with the NRA and voted against the bill, with its two parts, they could be accused of voting for continued animal cruelty. If they voted for the bill, they would receive retribution from the gun-rights lobby two weeks before the election. Turzai has no fear of losing the election. For the second consecutive election he is running unopposed. However, for Turzai and many others, not voting on the bill wasn’t a matter of conscience but a reality of trying to maintain an “A” rating from the NRA.
      Smith had said a vote on the bill “is not likely to be acted on before the end of the current legislative session.” Thus, even if Turzai wanted to bring the bill to a vote in the Rules Committee, Smith, with almost absolute power in the House, would have kept it from being voted upon by the full House.
      The Rules committee and the House had no problem approving at least one controversial bill. HB 80 was originally a bill that would penalize those who steal secondary metals (including copper) from construction sites. Late in the last day of the session, the House approved vague language in the amended bill to allow the NRA and any other organization to sue local municipalities that enact ordinances that establish greater restrictions upon firearms background checks and ownership than that of the state. The new law also restricts local municipalities from creating and enforcing ordinances that require residents to report lost or stolen firearms.
      The day after HB 1750 didn’t come up for a vote, Turzai apparently recanted. In his office, Seeton says he now told her and Sen. Afflerbach he never promised it would get a vote, but that “I’ll help you to get the vote to the House floor.” The House reconvenes for one day, Nov. 12; it’s the last day of the two-year session; no votes are expected.
      Turzai is one of the Republican leaders who during the 2012 election year pushed for Voter ID in Pennsylvania. He forcefully declared several times there was significant voter fraud  and that the new rules would prevent voter fraud. In court, however, Republican state officials reluctantly denied there was a history of voter fraud or that the absence of voter ID would allow fraud to occur. An additional truth came out at a Republican State Committee meeting, Turzai had said that Voter ID requirements would “allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” thus acknowledging that the strict requirements would disenfranchise primarily the poor and some minorities, who typically vote for Democrats, and the elderly, giving Romney an edge in the presidential election and Corbett an edge in the gubernatorial election. Commonwealth Court judge Robert Simpson, in his ruling against forced Voter ID,  called Turzai's comments ”disturbing” and partisan.
       Turzai boasts an “A+” rating from the NRA Political Victory Fund, and high ratings from numerous far-right conservative organizations. His record on the environment, social justice, and human rights has earned him grades of “F.” His report card should also show grades of “F” for truth, credibility, courage, and ability to recognize and prevent animal cruelty. But at least he’ll be qualified to get the NRA-ILA award for defending animal cruelty.
      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist who has covered politics and government more than 40 years. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor; multimedia writer-producer, and author of 20 books. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]



Friday, October 17, 2014

Pennsylvania’s Politics of Virtue



by Walter Brasch

      The Pennsylvania Senate, possibly for the first time in its history, stood up against the NRA leadership and extreme gun-rights groups, and voted to ban pigeon shoots. The senators correctly called the ban a matter not of gun rights but of eliminating animal cruelty.
      The International Olympic Committee in 1900 banned pigeon shoots because of their cruelty and never again listed it as a sport. Most hunters and the state’s Fish and Game Commission says that pigeon shoots are not “fair chase hunting.” Pennsylvania is the only state where there are active pigeon shoots.
      The vote in the Senate was 36–12. Voting for the bill were 21 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Before the Senate could vote on the bill, it had to vote down two NRA-sponsored “compromise” amendments to legislate pigeon shoots and place them under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
      The bill had originated in the House, sponsored by John Maher (R-Upper St. Clair), where it had unanimous approval as a ban upon slaughtering, selling, and eating cat and dog meat. Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Chambersburg), an avid hunter, amended the bill in the Senate to include pigeon shoots, and received the backing of Sens. Stuart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove), chair of the judiciary committee; and Dominic Pileggi (R-Glen Mills), the majority leader.
      That bill, with the amendment, was approved in the Judiciary Committee, 10–4, on June 26. In the next two days, it passed two of the required three readings in the full Senate, but was tabled, July 8, when the Senate recessed for more than two months. The bill was finally placed on the calendar for a third vote, which occurred late at night, Oct. 15, the day before the Senate would again recess until a week after the November election. 
      The Senate passed the bill only after an intense lobbying effort by the Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm, which sent several “alerts” to its members. Allied with the ILA-NRA is the Pennsylvania Flyers Association (PAFA), a political gun-rights group, which, like the ILA-NRA, has a PAC that contributes campaign funds to members of the state legislature. PAFA had boasted it was responsible for keeping the bill off the Senate calendar. Both groups argue banning pigeon shoots is the first step to a “slippery slope” to banning guns, both have threatened members of the legislature with retribution if they voted to ban the bill, both claim support for banning pigeon shoots comes from radical “outside activists.”
      Those radical “outside activists” are the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies, the ASCPA, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
      SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), which has video-documented the brutality of the pigeon shoots, often in secret, for several years, blanketed major market TV the past month with commercials featuring narration by Bob Barker and video of animal cruelty. The HSUS has maintained a 25-year activist campaign, which included intensive discussions with members of the legislature, numerous information packets, a strong social media campaign that organized supporters, and thousands Pennsylvanians calling their representatives and senators.
      The last free-standing vote in the House to ban pigeon shoots occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties, most of them afraid of the suspected wrath of the NRA.
      Four years after the House failed to pass legislation to ban pigeon shoots, the state Supreme Court ruled the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, the most notorious of the shoots, and one which drew national attention to the state, was not only cruel “but moronic.” The organizers grudgingly disbanded the annual Labor Day event, held from 1934 to 1998. The Hegins shoot was held on public land; the Court’s opinion did not extend to shoots at private clubs, all of which draw many of the participants and spectators from New Jersey, and are held in secret. The passage of HB 1750 will end pigeon shoots at private clubs.
       The House reconvenes for one day, Monday, Oct. 20, before it again recesses, its members returning for only one day, Nov. 12, before the session ends.  
      Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, spent many years on the shooting fields rescuing wounded birds, while leading protests and education campaigns. Exhausted from consecutive 15-hour days of intense discussions with legislators—and more than two decades of hope and disappointment—she mixes the joy of the present with tears of remembrance when she recalls why she first committed to eliminating what has become known as “Pennsylvania’s Disgrace”: “This is a day I personally looked forward to for many years, from the day I first held an injured pigeon in my hands and watched her die—all for no reason other than someone wanted to use her for target practice.”
      If the House passes the bill, and Gov. Tom Corbett signs it, Prescott, who was born in Pennsylvania and received her B.A. and MFA from the state-owned Edinboro University, will no longer have to drive a four-hour round trip almost every Tuesday when the Legislature is in session from her office in Maryland to explain to legislators why animal cruelty never was and never will be protected by the Second Amendment, and why the courage to stand up for what is right may be the greatest virtue.

      [Dr. Brasch has been covering pigeon shoots and state legislation for more than two decades. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the health, environmental, and economic effects, and the fusion of corporate greed and politics in the state.]