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, March 21, 2015

The Morality Police

By Walter Brasch

     In Saudi Arabia, the Mutaween are 3,500 public officials and thousands of volunteers who work for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They are responsible for enforcing strict religious laws. Among the many laws are those that require all women to wear head scarves and black gowns when in public.
     The “Morality Police” also exist in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and several fundamentalist Arab countries.
It isn’t only in Arab countries that morals are regimented and institutionalized.
     In France, the minister of health, a physician, believes there should be laws to prohibit companies and advertisers from using anorexic fashion models. He believes overly thin models—the ones who can make six-figure incomes by being at least five-foot-eight, have high cheek bones and Size Zero bodies—gives the wrong impression to the youth who  starve themselves into emaciation to be seen as beautiful.
     He is right about that. But he is wrong to want laws to require the fashion industry to adhere to a set of minimum standards for appearance.
If there can be laws to regulate the portrayal of “healthy” models, what will prevent the system from prohibiting the depiction of plump or even fat models? Of course, in the fashion industry, a Plus-Size Model is anyone who is a Size 8, even though the average size in the United States is a Size 14.
     Should government regulate what people look like, even if they appear to be unhealthy. Or different?
     What about having black hair or dreadlocks? Should government determine that should also be banned?
     In the United States, the Morality Police regulate everything from the color of hair to what people do in their bedrooms.
     A high school in Missouri recently suspended a student for having “unnatural” hair color.  The student, a junior, is a natural redhead, but she decided to dye her hair auburn. Unfortunately, the commercial hair dye gave her what the school administrators thought was an unnatural color of red.
     That high school isn’t the only one with Puritanical rules. School administrators and their elected school boards throughout the country have somehow given themselves the right to create and enforce rules that prohibit students from wearing clothes that could impede the learning of other students. It might be logical to ban girls from wearing short-shorts and halter tops to class. Or, maybe guys who, on a hot day, decide to embarrass themselves and others by wearing nothing but Speedos to Biology class.
     But does it really matter what color someone chooses to dye her hair? Is an honors student with streaks of green in her blonde hair more of a threat to society than a mousy-brown haired sophomore who carries a D-plus average?
     What about a guy who decides to shave his head? Or wear his hair in a Mohawk style. Or a shag? What if he decides that a pale goatee improves his looks?
     Does hair style and color or even wearing homemade ear rings really impede the learning process enough to lead to suspension? Students try out different looks for any of a couple of dozen different reasons, and then often revert to what society believes is within the range of “normal.”
     But, even if the students decide they like pink hair or wearing a headband, why should school administrators decide to reign in creativity and enforce conformity? Aren’t there more important things to do in schools than to be the Morality Police?
Now, let’s look at the enforcement of laws outside of schools.
     In several states, it is still illegal for consenting adult partners to have oral sex. In several states, same-sex marriage is illegal. Should the nation be creating and enforcing laws that encourage voyeuristic Morality Police to look inside bedrooms and decree what is and is not acceptable?
     Should this nation—or any nation—arrest and convict a gay couple who have “unnatural” hair color? And should this nation be building more prisons and paying more for incarceration for pretend-crimes that have no impact to the rest of society than for education?
     In Georgia, Republican legislators have decided to allow freedom of religion. This seems like a good thing—especially since the First Amendment protects and advocates freedom of religion. But in this case, the law, which will probably be passed, bastardizes the intent of the First Amendment. That proposed law would allow businesses to discriminate against gays—as customers or employees—solely upon what a business owner claims is his or her religious right.
     The law, as written, would also allow those who beat their children or spouses a “get out of jail free” card if they can prove that violence is acceptable in their religion, even if there are no churches or preachers.
     Thus, in Georgia, it might be possible for a child molester to not be arrested, while a 16-year-old with blue-streaked hair be suspended or expelled from school.
     And we—loyal and patriotic Americans—complain about the Morality Police in certain Arab countries?! 
    [Dr. Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, columnist, radio commentator, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the heath, environmental, political, and economic effects of fracking throughout the country.]

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sitcoms are No Laughing Matter


by Walter Brasch

      Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” didn’t need a laugh track when it debuted on Broadway in 1965. It didn’t need a laugh track when it became a movie three years later.
      In the first of five seasons as a TV series (1970–1975), it had a laugh track, primarily because the show was taped without a live audience. However, stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall insisted upon a live audience. Beginning the second season, the show was taped before a live audience, with mild post-production sweetening from what became known as the “Laff Box.”
      “The New Odd Couple,” with black actors and an enhanced laugh track, lasted 18 episodes in the 1982–1983 season.
      The latest version debuted two weeks ago on CBS. It has a laugh track. A loud, annoying, intrusive laugh track. A laugh track that has little variation and makes it obvious the live-audience reaction at the tapings were muted in deference to forced canned laughter.
     The laugh track is so intrusive that the few quality writing lines and the acting are obliterated by what producers think is funny. And, funny comes at least every other line. By decree.
      This “Odd Couple” is not much different from many current 30-minute TV situation comedies.
      For some reason, writers and producers think sitcoms are a series of one-liners, with minimal plot that need artificial and intrusive laugh tracks. Even the Oscars and Emmy awards shows, broadcast live but with a seven-second delay in case anyone violates network standards and practices, use enhanced laughter to try to make the TV audience believe that lame jokes are really comedy.
      Producers of the better classic comedies either didn’t use laugh tracks or made sure the “sweetening” wasn’t intrusive. There was no laugh track for “I Love Lucy.” There was canned laughter and no audiences for the first two seasons of “Happy Days”; by the third season, production switched from single-camera to multi-camera, and audience reaction dominated analogue audio enhancements.
Several now-classic sitcoms—think of the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Newhart,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “All in the Family,” “Friends” and dozens of others—were defined by brilliant writing, strong direction, and excellent acting. Even “M*A*S*H,” one of the best comedies on TV, toned down its laugh track and used it sparingly after the first season. “Sex and the City” didn’t use a laugh track; “Welcome Back, Kotter” used it sparingly. Artificial laughter also wasn’t necessary for “The Simpsons,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and “The Muppets.”
      No experienced TV Suit has yet demanded a laugh track for the better one-hour TV dramas—among them “NCIS” and “Castle”—that have an undercurrent of well-written humor, slipped seemingly effortless into the show. Further, the well-written, acted, and directed one-hour light dramas on the USA network—“Monk,” “Psych,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” and many other original series—have proven that laugh tracks are useless when quality supersedes contrived mechanical laughs. TV audiences know what’s funny and when to laugh, snicker, chuckle, or even guffaw.
      It’s harder to write quality comedy than tragedy and drama. So, maybe, that’s why the forced laugh tracks are necessary—especially for lines that are dry and uninspired.
      If the current “Odd Couple” plans to be around next season, it needs to strengthen its writing—and allow genuine audience reaction be its primary laugh track.
      Perhaps, TV audiences have become so accustomed to mediocrity they now believe that average productions are models of excellence. What else would explain the existence of the one-joke salacious “Two Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”?
      If you want to hear non-intrusive laughter and clapping on a show with excellent writing and delivery, just tune into “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” It doesn’t need artificial laughter.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

’Rithmatic Doesn’t Add Up in One School District


By Walter Brasch

      The Danville Education Association (Pa.) has been operating without a contract for three years.
      Two years ago, the teachers approved recommendations of an independent fact-finder; the board rejected it. This eventually led to a protest strike of five days in  April 2014. Recently, the teachers and the board agreed to submit their proposals to an independent arbitrator.
      Working under regulations of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, the arbitrator analyzed the district finances, tax base, and other data before making his recommendations. The arbitrator concluded the district had the money to pay the teachers more—not what the teachers asked, but more than the board was offering. He also recommended increased contributions by the teachers for their health benefits.
      The teachers voted to accept the recommendations. The board unanimously voted to reject the arbitrator’s recommendations, even though the arbitrator agreed with most of the board’s demands.
      The board claims it can’t afford the teacher raises. The overall budget for the 2014–2015 academic year is about $34 million. In addition, the district also has about $12.2 million in reserve, most of which the district says is for anticipated increases in health care premiums and unfunded mandates to improve the state retirement system; included is an unassigned reserve of about $2.1 million. In 2011, when the Board only had a $6.2 million surplus, the fact finder had recommended a 5.7 percent increase for teacher salaries for the 2015-2016 academic year. The arbitrator two years later recommended raises of 3.5 percent for each of the four years of the new contract.
      Of the 17 districts in the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU), Danville teachers are ninth in average salary (about $52,000 a year). The district has the second highest average income of all districts in the CSIU. Teacher salaries and benefits are about 48 percent of the total budget, down from 51.1 percent in the 2009–2010 academic year.
     Every teacher pays 7.5 percent of his or her salary into a retirement account, in addition to 6.2 percent for social security contributions. The district, under federal law, also pays 6.2 percent social security contribution, but pays only 3.09 percent into the state pension fund, a slow increase from 1.18 percent in 2008–2009. (The state also pays 3.09 percent.) 
      Each teacher currently pays $1,453–$1,684 per year, depending on the plan, for health care. The arbitrator recommended the teachers increase their share of the total cost to 12 percent of the health care cost.
      Perhaps the board needed the money for its “Community Room.” That room, which will be the place for board meetings, includes a new sound system ($31,159), new carpet ($13,242), and new furniture ($8,551.06).
      Perhaps the board needed the money for an additional administrator ($69,209), or for the 3 percent increases for its administrative staff, which includes a salary of $133,900 for its superintendent, more than $60,000 higher than the highest pay earned by any teacher.
      Because of the teachers, the students have the highest academic scores on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile; the high school is the only one in the state, one of only 340 in the nation, to have earned Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education. That honor is based upon academic excellence and/or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. 
      The board’s performance leaves some serious questions. The major question is why even go to arbitration if you don’t plan to listen to what is a fair settlement? Apparently, the board believes that only if the arbitrator agrees with all of its proposals should it accept the recommendations. This is not what arbitration is.
      However, there are two deeper issues. Some residents ignorantly claim that teachers work limited hours a day and only 180 days a year, not realizing that outside of class teachers also have preparation, grading, student and parent conferences, extracurricular advising, required training sessions, and meetings; the average worker, if taking into account weekends, sick days, vacation time, and holidays, works fewer hours a year than does the average teacher. The arbitrator said many of the letters he received from the public argued that the teachers are paid more than the general public in the district, and receive better benefits. These arguments are not uncommon in Pennsylvania.
      This is not the 19th century when teachers didn’t need a college degree, were primarily female—they were often called “school marms”—and worked for low wages and near-nothing benefits.
      Today, every public school teacher has a college degree and state certification. Every teacher is required to take additional classes. Most teachers are pursuing or have already earned master’s degrees. They are a part of the professional class. But, they are still behind their other colleagues who have similar education and years of experience.
      But, this doesn’t matter to those who may be envious that others make more than they do, a problem not just in Danville but throughout the state and nation.
      Here are two realities. First, high quality teachers—the ones who teach our children who will become our tradespeople, secretaries, physicians, social workers, firefighters, and scientists—are critical to any society, and should be paid well.
      Second, if the public is upset the teachers are paid more than they are, then they should do what the teachers have done successfully—Unionize and raise their own wages and benefits, rather than complain about others and try to drag their compensation down.

      [Among those contributing facts to this column were Dave Fortunato, president of the Danville Teachers Association; and Allan Schappert, president of the board of the Danville Area School District. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist, a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, political, health, and environmental effects of fracking throughout the country. Full disclosure: Dr. Brasch is a former teacher.]

America’s Real Traitors

by Walter Brasch

      The Tea Party wing of the Republican party thinks House speaker John Boehner is a rhino.
      Not the thick-skinned horned mammal that lives in Africa. This rhino is an R-I-N-O . . . Republican in Name Only.
      The Tea Party thinks Boehner, by sometimes listening to both sides and occasionally, but rarely, agreeing with some Democratic ideas, is a traitor. They believe anyone who disagrees with them is evil. A traitor. A RINO.
      The extreme right-wing is also delusional.
      John Boehner is as much a RINO as the one-ton plant eaters are Chihuahuas.
      The latest dust-up between the Speaker and the right-wing came when they wanted to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The Tea Party congressmen wanted to attach a condition to the funding. That condition would be to get rid of President Obama’s immigration policies. Vote to do that, and there would be consent among the right-wing to pass the Homeland Security budget. Disagree with them, and 30,000 federal workers would be laid off; the rest would be required to work without pay.
      That would include the Coast Guard. The Secret Service . The security guards at all airports. FEMA. And, ironically, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. You know, the agents who are the ones who enforce border protection and send undocumented workers back to their home countries.
      The Tea Party politicians are the ones who don’t want to help individuals – especially if it involves money. Let disabled veterans suffer–their mantra is they don’t want any new taxes.
      But, they have yet to oppose mass funding for defense, even if some of the funding went to projects the Pentagon decided wasn’t fiscally sustainable or necessary.
      And so, the Tea Party extremists threw their temper tantrum, threatening to block all funding for Homeland Security if they didn’t get their way.
      The President called for a clean bill. Authorize funding for Homeland Security. Deal with the immigration issues later. It made sense.
      Except to the right-wing.
      John Boehner, aided by moderate Republicans and Democrats, brought a clean bill to a vote. The House–with 52 Republicans opposed–passed the bill. The President signed it 10 minutes before the deadline.
      And for protecting the people of America, the Tea Party Republicans call the House speaker a RINO.
      Over in the Senate, 47 right-wingers, in violation of the federal Logan Act that bars interference in foreign affairs during negotiations, sent a vicious letter to Iran, trying to undermine the President’s legal and constitutional authority. Even the conservative New York Daily News condemned these senators, four of whom may become presidential candidates, none of whom believe in the Constitution and in the country.
      It’s not hard to see just who the real traitors are to America.
      Maybe it’s time to call those right-wingers who don’t believe in the country to call them what they are likely to become if they keep up their obstruction–extinct.
      [Dr. Brasch is a social issues journalist, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the health, environmental, political, and economic effects of fracking throughout the country.]