Monday, April 28, 2008

If you listen carefully...'ll hear the distinctive sound of a toilet flushing.

It's the sound of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign circling the bowl, thanks to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Sure, the First Amendment to the Constitution grants each of us the right to free speech. Unfortunately for Sen. Obama, that right extends to -- and over the last several days was exercised fully by -- a narcissistic and arrogant old preacher.

Like sheep, Rev. Wright appears to have only two speeds: graze and stampede.

Make no mistake, Rev. Wright is a spellbinding orator and a brilliant theologian. And, truth be told, I have no quarrel with many of his substantive points. But he's at least smart enough to have predicted the effect of his re-emergence on Sen. Obama's aspirations.

Cynics may say that the sabotage was intentional, on the grounds that Rev. Wright's stock-in-trade is appealing to his downtrodden race, and it'd be difficult to claim oppression with parishioner Obama in the Oval Office.

This time, the cynics may be right.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Island, Life

It happens every four years.

No, not the presidential election -- I'm talking about the quadrennial whining over politics polluting the Olympic Games.

Ritual foolishness.

What is it about us that insists on purity? Are we deluded or just naive?

Everyone seems to want their own island. Those FLDS folks in Texas built a sprawling, 1,900-acre island, a super-size gated enclave, to escape our beastly society.

Every sports venue has seating reserved for homers, and woe be to visitors who have tickets in enemy territory. Clubs have memberships. Suburban homes have fences. Cities establish crime-free zones, while street gangs defend their criminal turf.

Racial segregation, in the days when it had the state's imprimatur, was the ultimate misguided pursuit of purity. Today, curiously, purity-of-integration is the holiest of grails -- and the oxymoronic "pure diversity" explains why racial tension still exists.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shattered Americans' illusion of island life -- but only temporarily. We've become complacent once again, losing sight of this fundamental truth:

There are no islands.

Borders will be ignored, oceans crossed and walls breached. Rules will be broken, papers counterfeited and signatures forged. Values, the sole property of a single person, most assuredly will not be shared by others.

And someone wearing the rival's colors will sit in the home stands.

We'll continue to build our islands, of course, convincing ourselves that we've created pure, "just so" places in the world. And that's fine -- as long as we see our islands for what they are.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

On notice: So this is the status quo?

Sifting through this week's news, several things caught my attention.

Off-the-clock in Iraq
According to in-country reports on U.S. troops' support of Iraqi forces in Basra, recently an Iraqi captain complained to an American officer that he didn't "have enough men" to neutralize opposition snipers. The American officer insisted that the Iraqis must take point, and the reluctant captain sulked off.

The U.S. platoon waited...and waited...for the Iraqis to advance. Upon asking an interpreter where the Iraqis were, the U.S. officer was told, "Oh, they went to lunch."

And we're expecting these people to "stand up"?

Breaking for lunch may be a sign of progress, I suppose, if only in comparison to the estimated 1,000 Iraqis who outright deserted in mid-battle the week before.

Homeland security, San Francisco-style
Two days before the Olympic torch was to arrive in San Francisco, and despite foreshadowing protests in France and the U.K., three demonstrators successfully scaled cables on the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled two large pro-Tibet banners.

Bridge-management officials -- who, by the way, were eyeing closed-circuit camera feeds at the time -- said they didn't realize that the trio were about to climb the cables because they were dressed in "ordinary" clothing and concealed their gear in a baby stroller.

Sure, banners and flags are harmless and this was a peaceful protest, but...are you thinking what I'm thinking? Do I really need to say it out loud?

I didn't think so.

Latter-day rehearsal
Prompted by the pleas of a 16-year-old child bride, federal and state authorities surrounded and entered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints "ranch" in Eldorado, Texas. So far, more than 400 FLDS women and children have been removed from the compound, ostensibly for questioning in connection with sexual-abuse and weapons charges.

I have no stomach for the FLDS's culture of misogyny, denial of free will and rampant exploitation of children. And I'm not saying that Eldorado is comparable to Waco.

Not yet, anyway.

It's worth noting, however, that authorities' actions were selective, swift and overwhelming. Largely unnoticed is the fact that this situation has created more than 400 refugees -- perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. And for those who still believe that they can fortress themselves against official intervention, Eldorado is yet another woozy canary.

Pumping the brakes
We can stop debating whether or not the U.S. economy is in recession -- obviously, we passed that marker months ago.

As former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich said this morning, recession isn't necessarily a braking zone.
"...we are going to go into 2009 with a serious recession. ... You've got food and energy prices, fuel prices going way way up. You've got wages stuck. You've got people who are losing their jobs. You've got housing prices going down. I mean, it's pretty bad."
Reich also offered this ominous observation:
"I think there's no more than 20 percent chance of a depression."
Now that's encouraging.

The pages of The Wall Street Journal and Fortune aren't good places to take the pulse of our economy, and "economic indicators" fly far too high to be useful. Likewise, one's own personal financial agony or ecstasy is too grounded, merely anecdotal.

Economic reality lies somewhere in between the analyst and the checkbook -- it resides in the collective experience of everyday American workers, the cogs in the grand economic machine.

If you work in retail, for example, what has your company been doing lately? Cutting prices or raising them? Not replacing terminated or retired workers? Asking employees to dim store lights or forgo double-bagging? How do this year's sales at your store compare to last year's numbers?

When we gather and stew that kind of real-world information, it's clear that this bubble-gum-and-string economy is headed for an unprecedented fall -- and everyone knows it.

Oh, snap!
With the possible exception of the so-called "housing crisis," the most serious financial blow to Americans is the high price of gasoline and other petro-products -- which affects, of course, the price of virtually everything else we consume.

When our government or an oil company assures us that "it could be worse," they're probably referring to gas prices in other countries. But I contend that there's something else that demands our attention, even our personal preparedness.

Take a look at this chart. The red line tracks the price of regular unleaded gas since April of 2002, and the blue line follows the price of crude oil over the same six-year period. Notice the widening gap between the two prices, especially over the last 12 months.

Commodities are elastic. Something -- either oil or gasoline -- has got to give. Will we be ready when it snaps?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston: 1924-2008

Charlton Heston died yesterday.

He was a passionate defender of American citizens' right to keep and bear arms and, of course, I admired him for that. What's often forgotten, however, is that he was actively involved in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, as well as other causes that many would consider decidedly less "conservative" than his Second Amendment stand.

Heston carried his own compass and charted his own course, unfettered by labels. His values were his values.

What I take from his example is that there's still a place for independent citizen-patriots, the square pegs in this simple-minded, round-hole society.

Godspeed, Mr. Heston.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On notice: Graduation rates

Everyone knows that education in this country is in trouble, and according to a report released this week by America's Promise Alliance, the situation is far more dire than I'd imagined.

The report, Cities in Crisis, reveals that more than three out of ten American high-school students don't graduate.

As disturbing as that is, the news gets worse from there.

In urban districts, the graduation rate is just 60.4%. Columbus, Ohio's schools graduate only four out of ten. Graduation rates in Baltimore and Cleveland are a shade over 34%, while Indianapolis comes in at 30.5%. In Detroit, it's an appalling 25%.

You read that right -- only one out of every four Detroit students graduates from high school.

For a moment, try to wrap your brain around the fact that fully 75% of that city's 18-year-olds enter society without a high-school education. Nationally, 40% of the city kids you meet are -- or will be -- high-school dropouts.

I don't care to join the hand-wringing over the reasons why this is so, nor am I interested in discussing solutions. Explanations, however plausible, are pointless; proposals, however laudable, are futile.

To put a fine point on my pessimism, I believe that our nation is looking at a future dominated by handout-hungry Americans. Right now these parasites have us pinned down; soon, I predict, we'll be overrun.

I have no confidence in our ability to deny entitlements to the undeserving. I don't believe that we have the national will to overhaul our education system.

Until parents and families -- not schools -- get about the business of preparing children for life, this country has no shot at a better future.

Read the report: Cities in Crisis: A Special Analytical Report on High School Graduation (pdf)