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.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Depth Takes a Holiday in Mass Media

 by Walter Brasch

      The mass media have a fixation upon throwing up lists.
      Sports editors run innumerable lists of the “Top 10” high school and college teams.
      Arts and entertainment editors run lists of the top books, movies, songs, and even video games.
      Financial and business editors tell us who they believe are the “most important” moguls, and rank each on a scale that has no meaning to anyone, especially the moguls themselves.
      Fashion editors love making lists of “best dressed” and “worst dressed” celebrities.
      News editors love making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 Headlines.” Like the other editors, they don’t tell us why their pick of the top news story was more important than the No. 2 story—or why the No. 10 story was any more important than the thousands that did not make the list.
      TV Guide also loves lists. This month, it threw out a list of what some of their editors irrationally believe are the “60 Greatest Shows on Earth,” complete with a sentence describing each show. And, like most lists, it’s little more than annoying static.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

America’s Political Twerks

by Walter Brasch

     When Muhammad Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest,” we knew—and he knew—it would psyche out his opponents, get media attention, and receive a bigger box office. But, in the sport of boxing, Ali probably was the greatest.
    When Howard Stern proclaims himself to be the “King of all Media,” he knows—and we know—it’s simply a case of hyperbolic promotion, something some celebrities do to get even more promotion.
    But when rapper Kanye West proclaims he’ll be the next Nelson Mandela, and that by the time he’s 95, he’ll be a bigger hero than Mandela ever was, we know it’s a case of arrested development.
    On a radio show in Chicago during memorial services for Mandela, West declared he was worshipped around the world, that he liberates minds with music, which he declared is more important than liberating a few people from apartheid.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

OB/GYNS Stir Up Sexual Distinction Trouble

by Walter Brasch

        It took a lot of outrage by scientists, physicians, and the public, but a gynecologist in Boston will not lose her board certification.
      The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology had planned to remove Dr. Elizabeth Stier as board-certified.
      Now, you may think that Dr. Stier has a string of malpractice suits after her name. Or that she didn’t pass critical examinations for her specialty. Or that, maybe, she just didn’t take required courses to keep her certification.
      Actually, Dr. Stier is an extremely competent physician. She’s also an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Her problem is that in the course of some of her ground-breaking research about anal cancer, she treated men.
      That’s right. The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology had said that to get its stamp of approval, its members must treat only women. It magnanimously allowed a few rare exceptions—emergency care, family planning, fertility testing for man and woman couples, and the treatment of a sexually-transmitted disease, but only if the male was a partner of a female patient already being treated by the gynecologist.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The 10 Percent Solution to Expensive Weddings

by Walter Brasch

    There are a number of great mysteries in life.
    Where does the Abominable Snowman live?
    Where was the Garden of Eden?
    Do any of the Kardashian cabal have any discernible skills?
    Kim Kardashian is engaged. Again. This time it’s to rapper Kanye West. They plan to spend $5 million for a Mediterranean honeymoon. There’s no guess of how much the wedding will cost. But, it’s bound to cost far more than the $10 million for Kardashian’s previous wedding and 73 day marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries.
    That wedding included $2 million just for flowers and $20,000 for a cake.
    It also included $50,000 for a facelift for matriarch Kris Jenner because—well—when you look like Kris Jenner you should have a facelift for a wedding.
    Now, if we were absolutely honest, most of us would say we wouldn’t mind living like a Kardashian, surrounded by money and gifts of all kinds. Being famous for having been on TV reality shows appeals to the lowest part of our cerebral cortex.
    Many of us try to get close. Here’s one way.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Gather Together to Ask . . .

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

            Segued into a 10-second afterthought, smothered by 60-second Christmas commercials, is the media acknowledgement of Thanksgiving, which nudges us into a realization of all we are thankful for.
            But the usual litany, even with the omnipresent pictures of the less fortunate being fed by the more fortunate, doesn’t list well this year. Our thanks seem to be at best half-hearted or at least insensitive and shallow. 
All of us might be thankful for peace if America still hadn’t been involved in two recent wars. The Iraq war lasted almost nine years; the other, in Afghanistan, has lasted more than 12 years and is the nation’s longest war. And now it appears that we will be in Afghanistan for several more years.  
When we first went there in 2001, it was to capture Osama bin Laden. We can be thankful that has been done. But why are we still there? And why should Americans still be getting wounded and killed? There were 4,486 killed and 32,000 wounded in Iraq, an unnecessary war that was launched with bravado and no long-range plans.  In Afghanistan, there have been 2,292 killed, almost 18,000 wounded.

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Jersey is Fracked

by Walter Brasch

    At the time New Jersey established a ban on fracking, it seemed symbolic, much like the moratorium in Vermont, which has no economically recoverable natural gas; the Marcellus Shale, primarily in New York and Pennsylvania, doesn’t extend into New Jersey. New York has a moratorium on fracking until a health impact statement is completed. Pennsylvania. rushing to compete with groundhogs in digging up the state, has no such moratorium. Nor does the state have any plans to conduct extensive research into the health effects of fracking—Gov. Tom Corbett, the gas industry’s cheerleader, cut $2 million from the Department of Health to provide for a public health analysis.
    As it is, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie exercised his authority and partially vetoed his state’s moratorium to reduce it to a one-year ban. That moratorium expired in January.
    During this past year, more evidence became public. Beneath New Jersey and extending into southeastern Pennsylvania lies the Newark Basin.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Let’s Phrase This Another Way

by Walter Brasch

      O.K., all you loyal readers, I’d appreciate it if you would “Put your hands together” for today’s commentary. I want you to “give it up” for me. But, most of all, I want you to “show me some love.”
      If you’d like to stand and applaud enthusiastically, that’d be waaaay cool.
      At one time, TV audiences saw a flashing light that had the word, “applause.” That’s all that was needed, just in case no one wanted to cheer an oncoming actor or TV guest.
      Now we have the host telling us in so many ways that we have to—well—put our hands together and give it up while showing some love.  
      I have no idea how those phrases became a part of the American language, but they are there. And they are annoying.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Pennsylvanians Support Pigeon Shoot Ban

by Walter Brasch

    Three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see an end to live pigeon shoots.
    A statewide survey by the Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Company reveals not only do 75 percent of Pennsylvanians want to see legislation to ban live pigeon shoots but only 16 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose such a ban.
    Here’s another figure from that independent survey. Eighty-three percent—that’s more than four of every five Pennsylvanians—say live pigeon shoots are an unnecessary form of animal cruelty.
    Here’s why.
    Organizers of this blood sport place the birds into cages, and place people with shotguns only about 20 yards away. The spring-loaded cages open, and the pretend hunters open fire. The pigeons, many of them stunned, often having been nearly starved, are then blown apart.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Are You Ready for Less Academics?

      by Walter Brasch

      Fewer people know the names of the recent Nobel laureates than the starting quarterbacks for Division I college teams. To find out why, I went to Green Valley College where the regional chief accreditor, unable to find a tailgate party, was grilling the president.

      “How’s your football team doing this season?” was the first question.
      “Our football team?” asked the president.
      “Yes, your football team. The most important part of any major college.”
      “We’re 1-and-5 and very proud of our team,” said a beaming president, noting the players had the fewest penalties of any team in the conference.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Shuffling Federal Paperwork

 by Walter Brasch

      The right-wing part of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with John Boehner in the role of spineless lackey rather than courageous Speaker, has shut down much of the federal government.
      Eighty Republicans had signed a letter expressing their intent to shut down the government. It was a political act of defiance against government by people who themselves were government. The millionaire representatives have grabbed the media, which they publicly say they hate—except for one TV network and a few loud-mouth blowhards on radio—to proclaim their demands.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Environmental Justice: One Illegal Bid at a Time

    On April 21, the day before Earth Day, Tim DeChristopher was released from custody by the Department of Justice. He had served 21 months for having committed an act of civil disobedience against a government bureau that had violated the law.
    In his mid-20s, DeChristopher, who graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, was in Utah to work as a wilderness guide with at-risk and troubled youth.
    The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in the last month of the George W. Bush presidency (December 2008), decided to auction 149,000 acres of public land in southern Utah; most of the land was near national parks. Big Energy was there to scoop up what it could at bargain basement prices in order to drill for gas and oil. Environmentalists protested, and filed suits to block the sale, but didn’t have the money to outbid the gas and oil companies.

Jumping Aboard Fracking’s Fossil Fuel Carousel

    Two Pennsylvania legislators who have taken money from—and enthusiastically supported—the natural gas industry have teamed up to now praise coal.
    State Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Williamsport), chair of the Environmental Resource and Energy Committee, and Rep. Tim Solobay (D-Canonsburg, Pa.) are co-chairs of the newly-established Coal Caucus.
    It’s a strange move on their part, since both have praised natural gas as the economic future of Pennsylvania.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Discriminating Taste

      For years, my father, a federal employee with a top secret clearance, carried a copy of his birth certificate when he went into Baja California from our home in San Diego. Many times, when he tried to reenter the U.S., he was stopped by the Border Patrol.
      My father had thick black hair and naturally dark skin, and the Patrol thought he was a Mexican brazenly trying to sneak back into the country by claiming to be married to the black-haired, blue- eyed, light-skinned woman he claimed was his wife. It was annoying.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Impersonal Society

      Some of my favorite people are the ladies at my credit union. Over the past couple of decades they put up with a lot from me, with hardly an audible sigh, although I am sure there was a lot of cheering when my wife took over balancing the checkbook a few years ago.
      The Credit Union ladies know my account numbers and status better than I do, and have bailed me out of numerous problems.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tom Corbett’s Sizzle has Fizzled

      With his popularity about the same as a hairy wart, Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Pa.) had to make some critical changes in his administration if he has any hope of winning a second term in 2014.
      There are many things he could have done.
      He could have increased funding to education. Shortly after he took office, he slashed educational funding, including half the budget of the 14 state-owned universities. But he decided education wasn’t all that important.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hurricane Katrina: It’s Obama’s Fault, by George

by Rosemary and Walter Brasch

      Almost one-third of Louisiana Republicans blame President Obama for the slow and largely ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast, Aug. 31, 2005. More than 1,800 were killed in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; estimates of property damage exceeded $100 billion.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter is—or Isn’t

      Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”
      She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Government Planning to Ban Junk Food

      Usually when I get a phone call at 2:13 in the morning, it means someone is in trouble. Sometimes, especially when Marshbaum is at the other end, it’s better to have had the prescience to have unplugged the phone.
      “Know anyone with a vacant 200,000 square foot warehouse?” he asked.
      “Not at this hour,” I replied. “Call me in the morning.” By morning, Marshbaum has either forgotten his latest scam or been arrested.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Royal Dutch Shell: They’ve Really Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

      Royal Dutch Shell, which owns or leases about 900,000 acres in the Marcellus Shale, had a great idea.
      It wanted to frack the Ukraine. But, there was opposition. So, Royal Dutch Shell decided to create a junket for some of the Ukrainians opposed to fracking to show them just how wonderful fracking is.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The No-News Media Cover a Royal Birth

    Long after the American colonials broke away from the British monarchy, long after George Washington refused to take the title of “king,” Americans are still fascinated by anything British and royal.
    The media incessantly pumped out news and features about the royal birth. TV networks gave us several “special reports” when Kate Middleton checked into the hospital, and then even more reports when the birth was announced, and then when Middleton, Prince William, and their baby went home.  The 30-minute network evening news devoted as much as half of its time to the royal birth.
    There was live coverage. There was taped coverage.
    Radio gave us near-instant updates.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Practicing Un-Medicine

      by Walter Brasch

      Clutching a sheaf of newspaper clippings in one hand and a medical bag in the other, Dr. Franklin Peterson Comstock III, knocking down pregnant ladies, students, the elderly, and even two burly construction workers who were waiting for a bus, rushed past me, leaving me in a close and personal encounter with the concrete. Since he had given up medicine to invest in a string of service stations and an oil distributorship, I assumed what was in his medical bag was the morning’s take from obscene profits.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

‘Putting People over Profits’: The Fight Against Fracking

By Walter Brasch

    Pennsylvanians want to put a moratorium on fracking.
    And it’s not just a few thousand, but a majority of the state’s residents.
    Pennsylvania lies in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, possibly the most productive shale for gas in the country.
    A joint University of Michigan/Muhlenberg College study reveals that only 49 percent of Pennsylvanians support shale gas extraction and 58 percent of all Pennsylvanians want the state to order “time out” until the health and environmental effects of fracking can be fully analyzed. That same study revealed that 60 percent of Pennsylvanians believe fracking poses a major risk to ground water resources, only 28 percent disagree; 12 percent have no opinion.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

You Can’t Hide From These Prying Eyes

by Walter Brasch

      The government’s knowledge of the lives of individuals is little more than the equivalent to a children’s coloring book compared to the library that private companies have on everyone.
      Doubt that? Just open your mail any day; chances are good you’ll have more junk mail—the corporations prefer to call it “direct mail”—than anything else. Check your email; if you’re not being spammed hourly, you are probably one of the few people in the U.S. who is living in an underground bomb shelter with no access to the outside world.
      And don’t complain. You caused this.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Pink Sneaks Cushion a Will for Women’s Rights

by Walter and Rosemary Brasch

The filibuster is at the core of the U.S. senate.
            It’s also why nothing of much significance has been done the past decade.
            Under Senate rules, senators can filibuster any legislation. They can just stand up and start talking. They can talk about anything they wish. They can read from telephone books, or even take bathroom breaks. They can also yield the floor to like-minded senators.
            Even a threat of a filibuster—it doesn’t have to be carried out—is enough to stop legislation.
            Senate rules require that 60 percent of the senate must vote to stop a filibuster. Knowing this, the Republicans, a minority party in the Senate, have consistently blocked legislation just by threatening to filibuster anything they didn’t agree with—not even allowing it to come to the floor for discussion.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Your Friendly Neighborhood Totalitarian State

by Walter Brasch

      It makes no difference if Edward Snowden, who had fled to Hong Kong and revealed that the American government was spying upon American citizens, is a traitor or a hero.
      Intelligence agencies from China, Russia, England, Israel, and maybe even Lichtenstein, probably already know that the National Security Administration (NSA) is collecting data of all the phone calls and emails of Americans, and linking them to conversations with foreign nationals. What is unsettling is that everything the NSA is doing is legal. Secret federal courts can issue secret warrants to agencies that maintain secret files.
      Americans who have been paying attention should also know that electronic spying—it sounds better when the government says it’s data mining to prevent terrorism—has been going on at least a decade.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Father’s Day Barbeque—Washington-Style

By Walter Brasch
    It’s Father’s Day, and that means the Great White Republican Hierarchy in Washington smells burnt charcoal and is ready to barbeque some Democrats.
    Because Father’s Day is special, the Republican-proposed Sequester is waived, and there is no budget limit for the day’s food and frivolity.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fracking America’s Food Supply

By Walter Brasch

      Fracking—the process the oil and gas industry uses to extract fossil fuel as much as two miles below the ground—may directly impact the nation’s water supply, reduce water-based recreational and sports activity, and lead to an increase in the cost of food.
      The cocktail soup required for each well requires about two million pounds of silica sand, as much as 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals, and three to nine million gallons of fresh water. There are more than 500,000 active wells in the country.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Circumventing Transparency: Pennsylvania’s Latest Shell Game to Protect Big Energy

by Walter Brasch

        David  M. Jacobson wanted a transcript of a public hearing conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), May 2. The public meeting was to allow persons to discuss a proposal by National Gypsum and En-Tire Logistics to build a tire burner plant in Union County that would burn about 100 million pounds of shredded tires each year, and convert part of that to electricity to benefit National Gypsum, with the rest taken to landfills. Jacobson is a member of Organizations United for the Environment (OUE), which objects to the plant because of the amount of pollutants that would be sent into the atmosphere.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Standing Tall for Landowner Rights

by Walter Brasch

    Julia Trigg Crawford of Direct, Texas, is the manager of a 650-acre farm that her grandfather first bought in 1948. The farm produces mostly corn, wheat, and soy. On its north border is the Red River; to the west is the Bois d’Arc Creek.
    TransCanada is an Alberta-based corporation that is building the controversial Keystone Pipeline that will carry bitumen—thicker, more corrosive and toxic, than crude oil—through 36-inch diameter pipes from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, mostly to be exported. The $2.3 billion southern segment, about 485 miles from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast is nearly complete. With the exception of a 300-mile extension between Cushing and Steele City, Neb., the rest of the $7 billion 1,959 mile pipeline is being held up until President Obama either succumbs to corporate and business pressures or blocks the construction because of environmental and health concerns.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Environmental Justice: One Illegal Bid at a Time

    On April 21, the day before Earth Day, Tim DeChristopher was released from custody by the Department of Justice. He had served 21 months for having committed an act of civil disobedience against a government bureau that had violated the law.
    In his mid-20s, DeChristopher, who graduated from high school in Pittsburgh, was in Utah to work as a wilderness guide with at-risk and troubled youth.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

‘A’ is for Average

by Walter Brasch

      About 1.8 million students will graduate from college this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At least one-third of them will graduate with honors. In some colleges, about half will be honor graduates.
      It’s not that the current crop is that bright, it’s that honors is determined by grade point average. Because of runaway grade inflation, the average grade in college is now an “A.” About 43 percent of all college grades are “A”s, according to a recent study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record.  About three-fourths of all grades are “A”s or “B”s.
      Throw out the universal curve that applies to everything from height to house prices. That curve is reality. College grades are not.
      At one time, the universal curve applied to college grades: “A”s were about 10 percent of all grades; “B”s were about 20 percent; “C”s were about 40 percent; “D”s were about 20 percent; and “F”s were about 10 percent. That grade break-down, which could be more or less, depending upon a number of factors, isn’t even ancient history—it’s more like an ethereal ghost that no one understands.
      Drs. Rojstaczer and Healy report that in 1940 about 15 percent of all grades were “A”s. While grades of “B” have remained stable at about 35 percent for the past six decades, grades of “C” have dropped sharply from 35 percent to about 15 percent.  Grades of “D” have dropped by half over the past six decades, while grades of “F” apparently are issued only to those students who didn’t show up for class or whose brain is bottled in formaldehyde in a science lab.
      Several studies show a high correlation between high grades issued by professors to students and high evaluations of professors by students.
      Why that matters is that professors are pragmatic. College administrations have taken an easy way to evaluate professors’ teaching abilities by having students fill out a multi-question survey at the end of the semester. Professors know that 19-year-olds will typically rate “likable” and non-demanding professors higher. Add those evaluations to a few meaningless professional papers delivered to a couple of dozen yawning academics at boring conferences and a list of university committees the professor was appointed or elected to, and opportunities for tenure and promotion increase.
      Although there are thousands of excellent professors who excel in all areas of teaching and scholarship, many professors, even those with a string of academic letters after their names, may not even be aware they are not as rigorous as they should be. After all, their own professors, wanting to be liked and promoted, may not have demanded significant academic sweat, so they aren’t aware of what reasonable criteria should be for their own students. There is also the reality that collegial “get-togethers” and participation on useless college committees—and being liked by one’s colleagues—may be an easier route to tenure and promotion than doing rigorous scholarship and demanding the same from students.
      Because of grade inflation, students avoid professors who believe the grade of “C” is the average grade and who set up standards that require students to do more than show up, read a couple of hundred pages, and answer a few questions. Fewer students in classes usually results in questions from administrators who may claim they believe in academic rigor and integrity, but who have the souls of Ebenezer Scrooge.
      Some departments traditionally grade tougher than others. Science and engineering departments tend to have lower overall grade averages than those in social sciences and humanities. Education programs tend to have the highest grade averages. It’s not unusual for the average grade in elementary education courses to be an A-minus, and in secondary education to be a B-plus. That means either our future teachers are brighter than the light from a supernova—or that some of the profs who are teaching our future teachers don’t know there are more than just two letters in the alphabet.
      In some classes, at all educational levels, we don’t even require students to know anything more than hand signals, preparation of crib sheets, and techniques of paraphrasing five different articles and calling the result a research paper—assuming the professor even requires that much. The one class in which most students can legitimately earn a grade of “A” without cheating is Cheating.
      Add into the slurpy mix of academics a few inconvenient pressures. Athletics coaches want to make sure their pack of future draft picks stay academically eligible. A significant minority of students spend more time trying to plea-bargain the professor into raising the grade than they do studying for the exams. And when plea-bargaining fails, hovering overhead are the helicopter parents who want to make sure professors truly understand how brilliant their darling children are, and how (horror!) a B-minus not only is the wrong grade, but can damage their darling little Boo-Boo’s fragile psyche and chances to become a Fortune 500 CEO. Besides, the parent reasons that buying a college degree is like buying a car—if you pay the money, you should get a car.
      If the professor doesn’t yield to parental pressure, there’s always some administrator with jelly for a spine, and a pencil-brain that equates quality of education with how many children she or he can capture and put into brick-and-mortar buildings. The pursuit in college has been of achieving a critical mass of students who earn high enough grades to stay in college, sometimes for six years, rather than in developing knowledge and critical thinking skills—traits that administrators all claim they believe but don’t do more than pay “lip service.”
      The problem of runaway grade inflation is that the exceptional student receives the same grade as the above average student, and the mediocre student can slide into a degree. Until professors stand up for academic rigor, even against the prattling of their administrators and the practices of their more “likable” peers, and are willing to push not only themselves but their students beyond their limits, there is no reason for students to expect academic rigor—and every reason for them to expect to be able to graduate with honors.

      [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and professor emeritus from a Pennsylvania state university. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health and environmental effects of deep earth drilling in the Marcellus Shale.]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Oh, THAT'S What the Boy Scouts Mean by Being ‘Morally Straight

 United Church of Christ

by Walter Brasch

Harry Strausser III owns a successful small business with 25 employees in Bloomsburg, Pa. As an undergraduate, he was a national champion in several forensics categories, and represented the Boy Scouts of America in national competitions sponsored by the Reader’s Digest. As a graduate student, he coached a college forensics team. He has never been arrested or suspected of any crime.
Strausser is an Eagle Scout.
He is also gay.
The National Council of the Boy Scouts of America says he doesn’t have the right “core values” to be a Scout leader.

Denny Meyer, who lives in New York City, wasn’t a Scout, but often tagged along with his older brother to Scout meetings. During college, Meyer, the son of Holocaust refugees, enlisted in the Navy in 1968 “to pay my country back for my family’s freedom.” After four years, he had quickly advanced to Petty Officer Second Class (E-5), got a job as a civilian with the Department of the Army, and enlisted in the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of Sergeant First Class (E-7). He later worked in international sales and office administration.
Meyer had to pass rigorous background checks to serve in two branches of the Armed Forces, but he can’t pass the background checks to become a Boy Scout leader because he’s gay.

Gregory Bourke is a mainframe computer programmer and analyst in Louisville, Ky. He had been a Scout for almost three years. His 15-year-old son is a Life Scout who has finished most of his requirements to be an Eagle Scout. His 14-year-old daughter is a Girl Scout. He has been a leader in her troop for eight years; he had been an assistant Scoutmaster for five years. Last September, he received a special Legislative Citation from the Kentucky House of representatives honoring him for his community involvement and dedication to Scouting.
Bourke is no longer with the Boy Scouts. His local Council, against strong opposition from his troop and the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church, which sponsors both the Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, ordered him to resign because he’s gay, and threatened to pull the church’s Scouting charter if Bourke didn’t resign. The Girl Scouts, like the 4H Club, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and numerous other organizations, has no discriminatory policies, and Bourke’s church is pleased he continues as Girl Scouts leader

In contrast, the Boy Scouts have a long history of allowing local councils to discriminate against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. It wasn’t until 1974 that the national organization finally ended racial discrimination. In 1991, with the emergence of a “family values” conservative movement, the Boy Scouts formalized a policy to exclude gays from membership and leadership positions. The existing position is that the BSA believes “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts.” Nine years later, the Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote largely along political lines, said that the Boy Scouts of America was a private organization and had every right to discriminate.
Several Fortune 500 corporations—including Alcoa, Caterpillar, CVS, Dow Chemical, General Electric, General Mills, Intel, Levi Strauss, 3M, UPS, and Verizon—have suspended funding to the BSA.
Although local United Way agencies have the autonomy to decide whether or not to continue to provide funds to the BSA, the national organization has reaffirmed its principle that “embraces inclusiveness, diversity, and equal opportunity as part of our core values, Code of Ethics, and human resource policies.” Keri Albright, president of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way (Pa.), like more than 50 other United Way local organizations, has suspended Boy Scout funding, and argues that “accepting gays is not in conflict with having good values.”
Faced by significant income loss, the Boy Scouts last Summer rethought their position about excluding gays from membership. A backlash by the right-wing, which also threatened to pull funding and membership, slapped them back into their policy of discrimination.
A petition with 64,000 signatures opposing the Boy Scout policy of exclusion was delivered to the United Way; several petitions, with about 1.4 million signatures opposing the Scouts’ anti-gay policies, were delivered to its national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
And so the flip-flopping Scouts decided to survey its members and sponsors. From surveys filled out by more than 200,000 Scouts and their leaders, 50,000 alumni, 270 councils, and about 100 religious and community organizations, the surveys revealed, according to the National Council, that “a majority of adults in the Scouting community [about 61 percent] support the BSA’s current policy of excluding open and avowed homosexuals [but] younger parents and teens tend to oppose the policy.” The Los Angeles Area Council, and several others in Southern California, proposes to disregard National policy and to admit to membership and leadership roles anyone who meets Scouting standards, whether gay or straight.
Among those who oppose inclusion of gays as members or leaders are several churches. Franklin Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he’s “gravely distressed” that the Scouts are even considering revising their policy, and if they allow gays as members his churches are likely to sever ties with the Scouts. The Latter Day Saints and Roman Catholic churches also oppose removing barriers to permit gays to become Scouts and leaders. In contrast, the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, among other religions that sponsor Scout packs and troops, demand discriminatory policies be eliminated. About two-thirds of all Scout groups are sponsored by religious organizations.
The 70-member executive committee is now recommending to the 1,400 voting members of the National Council that gay youth under 18 be allowed to be Scouts, but to continue to exclude gay adults from becoming leaders.
This Swiss-hole plan, which could be approved by the National Council, May 20, perpetuates the Scouts’ image as an organization that openly discriminates. It would allow a gay youth to pass the rigorous tests to become an Eagle Scout, including a requirement to “serve six months in a troop leadership position,” yet not be allowed to become an adult leader. Such a decision perpetuates stereotypes and shows that the national leadership is buried in a morass of homophobic fear.
The proposed policy revision implies that youth are still exploring their worldviews and beliefs, and that being gay is a choice that gay youth make, and one they can “outgrow” if they wish to have the BSA “core values.”
If there was a Pathfinder merit badge, the Scout leadership would be unable to earn it—they’ve been wandering the wrong trail for many years.
[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, a look at the impact of fracking upon public health and environment. Rosemary R. Brasch assisted on this column.]

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pennsylvania: You Are Fracked

by Walter Brasch

SPECIAL NOTE: This is a special Earth Day edition of my weekly social issues column, Wanderings. The information is from my latest book, Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the nature and consequences of high-pressure horizontal hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.  Even if you are not a Pennsylvanian or living in the recent boom in the Marcellus Shale, fracking is going on across the country, and is about to expand into the urban and agricultural areas of central California. If you don't want your wine, lettuce, or hundreds of other fruits and vegetables to be methane-tinged or to hold traces of radioactive and toxic waste, you might wish to oppose the development of fracking in California.


The history of energy exploration, mining, and delivery is best understood in a range from benevolent exploitation to worker and public oppression. A company comes into an area, leases or buys land in rural and agricultural areas for mineral rights, increases employment, usually during a depressed economy, strips the land of its resources, creates health problems for its workers and those in the immediate area, and then leaves.
It makes no difference if it’s timber, oil, coal, nuclear, or natural gas. All energy sources are developed to move mankind into a new era; all energy sources are developed to bring as much profit to corporations as quickly as possible, often by exploiting the workers.
Before the settlement of Pennsylvania in the 1680s, more than 20 million acres of forests covered almost all of the land. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the lumber industry had clear-cut several million acres, leading Pennsylvania into an era that rivaled even the Gold Rush in California. By World War I, the companies had stripped the land, taken their profit, and then moved on, leaving devastation in their wake. Only when the people finally realized that destroying the forests led to widespread erosion and flooding did they begin to reforest the state. Almost a century after the lumber companies denuded the forests, the natural gas industry, with encouragement from the state, have leased more than 150,000 acres of forests for wells, pipelines, and roads.
Between 1859, when an economical method to drill for oil was developed near Titusville, Pa., and 1933, the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Pennsylvania, under almost continual Republican administration, was among the nation’s most corrupt states. The robber barons of the timber, oil, coal, steel, and transportation industries, enjoying and contributing to the Industrial Age of the 19th century, essentially bought their right to be unregulated. In addition to widespread bribery, the energy industries, especially coal, assured the election of preferred candidates by giving pre-marked ballots to workers, many of whom were immigrants and couldn’t read English.
When the coal companies determined underground mining was no longer profitable, they began strip mining, shearing the tops of hills and mountains to expose coal, causing environmental damage that could never be repaired even by the most aggressive reforestation program. Pennsylvania is the only state producing anthracite coal, and is fifth in the nation in production of all coal, behind Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Texas.
John Wilmer, an attorney who formerly worked in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in March 2011, explained that “Pennsylvania’s shameful legacy of corruption and mismanagement caused 2,500 miles of streams to be totally dead from acid mine drainage; left many miles of scarred landscape; enriched the coal barons; and impoverished the local citizens.” His words are a warning about what is happening in the natural gas fields.
Every method of extracting energy from the earth yields death and injury to the workers and residents. More than 100,000 coal miners were killed, often from structural failures within the mines, gas poisonings, explosions, and roof collapse. Long-term catastrophic effects from mining also include pneumoconiosis, also known as Black Lung Disease, the result of the inhalation of coal dust within the mines. Worker and resident protection often don’t occur until decades after a new energy source is mined. For coal mining, although there were several protections brought about by the United Mine Workers, it wasn’t until 1969 when the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act became law that health and environmental protection advanced. Congress improved the Act in 1977 and 2006.
The nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant to develop peaceful uses of energy was the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pa., about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The plant went online in December 1957 and stayed in production through October 1982. During the last four decades of the twentieth century, the nation built 132 nuclear plants, with politicians and Industry claiming nuclear energy was clean, safe, efficient, and would lessen the nation’s ties to oil. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi, and thousands of violations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, have shown that even with strict operating guidelines, nuclear energy isn’t as clean, safe, and as efficient as claimed. Like all other energy industries, nuclear power isn’t infinite. Most plants have a 40–50 year life cycle. After that, the plant becomes so radioactive that it must be sealed. Pennsylvania is second in the nation, behind Illinois, in production of electricity from nuclear reactors.
In the early 21st century, the natural gas industry follows the model of the other energy corporations, and uses the same rhetoric. The Heartland Institute, a think tank which says it exists to “promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems, claims, “Shale extraction has proven remarkably safe for the environment and the newfound abundance of domestic natural gas reserves promises unprecedented energy prosperity and security.”
Well-paying jobs have become plentiful; however, most are temporary, ending when the gas companies declare a site no longer profitable. But, high-pressure horizontal fracturing (known as fracking), the process the companies are using to get to the gas more than a mile beneath the surface, is leaving in its wake health and environmental issues that could be as serious as those that surrounded the timber, coal, oil, and nuclear industries.
But there is one major difference. Several federal environmental protection laws don’t apply to the natural gas industry.
Dick Cheney, whose promotion of Big Business and opposition to environmental policies is well-documented, as vice-president had pushed for Big Energy’s exemption from the Safe Water Drinking Act. His hand-picked “energy task force,” composed primarily of industry representatives, had concluded that fracking was a safe procedure. Cheney had been CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest energy companies; the exemption became known derisively as the Halliburton Loophole. That legislation, says Al Gore, “put the whole industry in such a privileged position, it disadvantages the advocates of the public interest, which was the intention.”
Among other federal environmental laws that the natural gas industry is exempt from are National Environmental Policy Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the nation’s SuperFund law, which requires companies that pollute the environment to take a fiscal responsibility.
The first Earth Day was in 1970. The people demanded, and eventually got, Congress to enact legislation not only to protect the air and water, but to create a federal agency to enforce those regulations. Today, more than four decades later, it is important that the people push a weak-willed Congress, inflated by Big Energy political contributions, to do what is right, eliminate all loopholes and exemptions, and force the natural gas industry to be accountable for all laws that protect the public health and environment.

[Fracking Pennsylvania is available through Greeley & Stone, Publishers . . . amazon.com . . . or your local bookstore.]

Friday, April 19, 2013

NRA Liars and Congressional Cowards

 by Walter Brasch

President Obama cast off his “No Drama Obama” garb, and became the fiery leader of hope and change that Americans first elected in 2008. At a speech in Hartford, Conn., the President, frustrated by Republican obstructionism, demanded of his audience, “If you believe that the families of Newtown and Aurora and Tucson and Virginia Tech and the thousands of Americans who have been gunned down in the last four months deserve a vote, we all have to stand up.” He demand, “If you want the people you send to Washington to have just an iota of the courage that the educators at Sandy Hook showed when danger arrived on their doorstep, then we’re all going to have to stand up.”
He wanted the people to let Congress know it was “time to require a background check for anyone who wants to buy a gun so that people who are dangerous to themselves and others cannot get their hands on a gun.” He wanted the people to let Congress know, “It’s time to crack down on gun trafficking so that folks will think twice before buying a gun as part of a scheme to arm someone who won’t pass a background check.” He asked the people “to tell Congress it’s time to restore the ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines, to make it harder for a gunman to fire 154 bullets into his victims in less than five minutes.” He pleaded that the people “have to tell Congress it’s time to strengthen school safety and help people struggling with mental health problems get the treatment they need before it’s too late.”
But, what he really wanted was a vote. A simple up-or-down vote. The people, said the President, at the very least “deserve a vote” not more obstructionism. 
Smirking with NRA drool slathering his five-term Senate body, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t about to let that happen. He didn’t want a vote, even a watered down version that would have all the ferocity of a baby canary.
McConnell said he would filibuster all proposed legislation.
The Senate Republicans, who believe they’re the “law and order party,” have rolled over and allowed the NRA to pet them on their pork-bellied tummies. For more than three decades, the NRA and explosives manufacturers successfully lobbied Congress the to prohibit the use of taggants in explosives. These taggants would identify bombs before detonation and enable agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and explosives (ATF) to trace manufacturer and sale of the explosives after explosion. For six years, the NRA blocked the appointment of any nominee to head the ATF. With NRA paranoia guiding their own actions, the Republicans have also forbidden the ATF from creating a computerized database to better analyze and evaluate applications for firearms, and have left the ATF underfunded and undermanned. This would be the same ATF that, with fewer resources, now plays a major role in the Boston Marathon murders.
Five weeks after the murders in Newtown, the McConnell for Senate campaign told the voters they were “literally surrounded” by those who want to take their guns away. In a robocall to his constituents, he parroted the NRA erroneous claim that, “President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”  This would be the same senator who, in 1991, supported Joe Biden’s bill that led to a 10 year ban on semi-automatic and automatic weapons. This is the same senator who, in 1998, voted to support Barbara Boxer’s bill that required trigger locks for the purchase of every hand gun. In less than a decade, McConnell turned to the extreme Right and became little more than an NRA lackey, willing to wrap himself in a faulty interpretation of the Second Amendment and block the will of 90 percent of the American people, including a majority of all NRA members and gun owners.
Republic political strategist Karl Rove told journalist FoxNews reporter Chris Wallace, “People want this issue to be discussed, they want it to be decided and we don’t need to block everything in the Senate.” By a 68–31 vote, with 16 Republicans joining 52 Democrats, the Senate agreed to allow discussion on proposed gun control bills.
The first of several Senate bills, Wednesday, resulted in a 54–46 vote to expand background checks for gun purchases to include all internet and gun show sales, strengthen penalties for gun trafficking, and help fund additional school security. The bill, known as a compromise proposal, was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), both of whom carry “A” ratings by the NRA. Five Democrats voted against the bill; four Republicans voted for it.  However, because of the 60-vote rule invoked by the NRA-fed obstructionist Republicans, and agreed to by the Democrats, it failed. The NRA, exercising its usual fear-mongering tactics, spread a $500,000 robocall campaign the day of the vote, and claimed the bill would lead to a national gun registry; provisions in the bill specifically excluded that possibility. President Obama would later say that the “gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on behalf of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, representing more than 900 American cities, called out the 46 senators who voted against the bill. “Today's vote is a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington,” said Bloomberg. “More than 40 U.S. senators would rather turn their backs on the 90 percent of Americans who support comprehensive background checks than buck the increasingly extremist wing of the gun lobby.” Gov. Dan Malloy (D-Conn.) said the minority “who voted against this proposal should be ashamed of themselves.” aid the Senate had “ignored the will of the American people,” adding that those senators who voted against the expanded background checks chose to “obey the leaders of the powerful corporate gun lobby, instead of their constituents.” Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who has spent two years in recovery from an attempted assassination, said the failure to pass meaningful legislation was “based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association.”
In rapid succession, a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity gun magazines and a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun purchasers all failed to get the 60 votes needed. Even a bipartisan amendment to impose stiff penalties on gun traffickers was defeated, receiving 58 votes.
New York, Colorado, and Maryland have all recently passed common-sense gun safety reforms without violating anyone’s Second Amendment rights. The people of this democracy demand better controls over who can own guns. But until the members of Congress develop that one iota of courage that President Obama asked for, the United States will continue to have the highest number of guns per population of 178 countries—and also rank among the world’s top 10 countries in the rate of deaths per population from guns.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mitch McConnell’s ‘Whack-a-Mole’ Dirty Politics Campaign


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was mad. Not the kind of mad you get when your favorite team blows a big lead and loses its eighth straight game, but Red-Faced-Exploding-Blood-Pressure Mad.
This is what you get from the political Left in America,” McConnell bellowed to the media. “That is what the political Left does these days.”
McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, added his opinion—“We’ve always said the Left would stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell.” They demanded the FBI launch a criminal investigation. The FBI response to the media was, “[W]e are looking into the matter.” Not long after, McConnell approved a campaign slogan, exhorting voters to “Stand with McConnell against the liberal media’s illegal and underhanded tactics.”
What McConnell and Benton were furious about was a leaked tape that revealed possible tactics they would use against movie star Ashley Judd if she were to oppose McConnell in the 2014 Senate race.
 McConnell had no evidence there was any liberal plot or that the tape was the result of a bug deliberately planted in campaign headquarters, but tried to spin in circles to make people believe it was a liberal invasion of his soul.
David Corn of Mother Jones, which this week published a transcript of the tape that was made  Feb. 2, said the tape was not the result of any bugging operation. It is entirely possible that the tape was made by someone in that room, not unlike the videotape of Mitt Romney who told a fundraising meeting of wealthy supporters that 47 percent of Americans were takers. However, unlike McConnell’s fury, Romney took the high road and tried to dance around his words rather than blame the liberals for leaking the tape that may have been the turning point in the campaign.
But the tactics of a five-term senator and his senior staff may be just as damaging to their campaign as the “47 percent tape” was to Romney’s. McConnell said he and his campaign should launch a “whack-a-mole” campaign—“when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.” In this case, McConnell’s team planned to attack Judd’s mental health, her political activism, her loyalty to President Obama, and that she is an “out of touch” Hollywood liberal.
“She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced,” said one of the staff, emphasizing the campaign could go after Judd for past bouts of depression that led to her being hospitalized. Laughter about her depression could be heard on the tape. Judd readily acknowledged that time in her life, even including it in her autobiography, All That is Bitter and Sweet.
A staff aide called Judd “critical . . .  of traditional Christianity [and] anti-sort-of-traditional American family.” What the aide meant was that Judd opposes sexism in the Christian church, supports the Affordable Care Act, is pro-choice, believes in the rights of gays to marry, is an animal rights advocate who spoke against Sarah Palin’s campaign to eradicate wolves by shooting them in their dens, and opposes the use of coal and other fossil fuels to try to avoid climate change that could destroy the earth’s ozone layer.
McConnell and the staff also didn’t say that while McConnell has led the “Party of No” into blocking almost all major appointments and meaningful legislation, Judd is a recognized humanitarian who has worked vigorously to expose the wrongs committed against society’s most vulnerable. They also didn’t mention she is a Phi Beta Kappa honors graduate of the University of Kentucky, and earned a master’s in public administration from Harvard. They seemed more focused upon sliming her personal life and the fact her cell phone has a San Francisco area code.
In a subsequent story, Mother Jones revealed that some of the staff in the room when the recording was made, and that others who did the research about Judd, were Senate staffers. If they did the work on their own time, did not use any federal resources (including telephones and other communications devices), and did not do their work in any federal office they would not have violated the Senate’s own ethics standards. However, as Mother Jones reported, the three senior McConnell staffers they contacted “did not respond.”
Bound in a political black hole from which truth never escapes, McConnell and his staff launched a “scorched-earth” attack to divert the public from the facts on the leaked tape was the far greater sin than what was said.
Innumerable politicians, especially in the past decade, have proven that dirty politics has become the politics of choice. By attacking how the information was obtained and disseminated, unable to defend his own words and tactics, McConnell has made it obvious that truth and decency no longer have a place in either his campaign or his elected position.
[Dr. Brasch’s current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the controversial practice of hydraulic horizontal fracking. The book looks at the health, environmental, worker safety, and economic impact of fracking, and also discusses the collusion between politicians and Big Energy.]