Monthly Archives: November 2009

Y’all Wanna Move to Roosha?

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.
As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’
When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” – Abraham Lincoln

How can I resist this quote when the burghers of the backwaters lined up this week to yet again worship at the moth-eaten, mad cow-diseased altar of Sarah Palin? According to the sly reporting of the New York Times, these people swore they would “take back their country” by doing everything in their power to get her into the White House. That they hadn’t read her new book or had any ideas what she would do if actually elected was beside the point.

Of course, if you purchase the secret redneck decoder ring (available at your local Wal-Mart), it all translates to: “Goddamn, what is this uppity Mooslim, Commie Socialist Nigra doing runnin’ MY country??? Lock away all the white wummin and get me my scopin’ rifle!”

Not unlike Barack Obama, Lincoln put up with this crap every single day of his political career until the nut cases indeed finally did him in. That quote – one of the few attributed to him that is dead on yet doesn’t soar – crystallizes the black exasperation he often felt. He represented a new paradigm: a bootstrapping backwoodsman with an intellectual’s temperament few people “got” until it was too late. The only previous President he had resembled to any degree was Andrew Jackson, like him a rural striver, but one fortunate enough to enjoy huge success as a commander during the War of 1812, and shrewd enough to exploit it for political gains. Otherwise, Jackson was just as hot-headed, paranoid and trigger-happy as his fellow Tennesseeans.

Indeed, Lincoln so alienated the Southern states that according to the eminent Civil War historian Shelby Foote, not even a “crank” redneck cast a vote for him in 1860. It’s fascinating that as recently as 50 years ago – when Foote used that term – that someone who thought Lincoln was fit for the presidency would be considered a crank.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, being one of the few mouth-smashing liberals in America, I believe it is time for the Sarah Palin rooters to leave the building. There is simply no rational explanation for their desire to elevate such a bumptious half-wit to such a powerful office. It only demonstrates this nation has too large an ignorant and prejudiced populace, one that refuses to be educated for its own good. Moreover, it will gladly use that ignorance to serve a malignant desire to imperil us all. At a time when there are simply too many short and long-term crises to solve, it would best serve the country to do what Lincoln did when he suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War – going beyond the Constitution in the short-term to preserve in the long-term.

Which is why I remembered the Great Emancipator’s quote, and why Russia would be the perfect destination for them. Here’s why:

1. Putin & Medvedev = Bush & Cheney…But Forever!

When George W. Bush said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye in 2001 and was “able to get a sense of his soul,” it may have been the only intuitive observation of his entire presidency. Both men are glaringly alike: incurious, autocratic megalomaniacs who not only disdain the opposition, but believe it shouldn’t exist at all. Putin, as a matter fact, could be a template for the “unitary presidency,” that technocratic little term the neo-con fascists cobbled together during Bush’s first term as an excuse for marginalizing Congress and smashing the Constitution into rubble.

Vladmir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's political relationship should calm all those recent Rooshan immigrants longing for the halcyon days of Bush and Cheney.

Putin was forced out of the presidency by term limits last year, but he assumed the presumably lesser prime minister’s role, with his dimwitted puppet Dmitry Medvedev assuming his old job. But really, everyone knows who’s calling the shots. Sound like a familiar relationship? Yet unlike the Bush/Cheney duet, these guys will have held power at least 16 years, and likely beyond that. This should be a very reassuring arrangement for the new arrivals.

2. The rich, and only the rich, are in charge

No bigger oligopoly exists on Earth than Roosha, where the only people who have the ears of politicians are the obscenely rich, and everyone else might as well live on Neptune – or else. Stepping out of line can still land you in one of those gulags Uncle Joe Stalin was so fond of. Indeed, only $150 annually is spent on healthcare per capita! Thousands of doctors have been laid off and hundreds of hospitals have been closed in recent years. It’s a right-winger’s dreamland: if you can get rich, God bless you. Otherwise, shut the fock up!!

3. They shoot journalists, don’t they?

The Committee to Protect Journalists announced in September that Russia was not only one of the most dangerous places on earth to ply the trade, but one of the worst at solving their murders. Witness Anna Politkoskayva, Russia’s equivalent of Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter who broke the stories on the CIA’s secret “black sites.” After being unsuccessfully poisoned at least once, she was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. The killers have never been found; some low-level thugs were tried earlier this year, but acquitted. All those code words about the “mainstream media,” “media elite,” “liberal bias” and Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan boil down to a desire to slaughter anybody who tries to unearth the truth. You couldn’t find a better place to nurture such kindred spirits.

4. Nyet, we have no environment

Russia is in some parallel universe regarding environmental protections. Its factories belch unfiltered smoke, even the most rural portions of Siberia are covered with garbage, and everyone smokes. Oh, and no one – NO ONE – wears seatbelts, an amusing prospect where most of the roads are rutted mudtracks and little is spent to improve or even maintain them. A perfect home for all the naysayers who insist that global warming is a myth and that the government intrudes too much in their lives. And since the average life expectancy of a Russian is about 15 years less than it is for Americans, I will have to listen to them grumble about wanting to live free for significantly less time.

5. But Sarah May Still Visit!

Those departed compatriots of mine may still cast a wistful eye toward the Motherland as they adjust to their new life in Roosha, but have no fears. Sarah Palin always insisted she could see Roosha from her backyard. Assuming that is correct, you’ll have no problems stealing admiring glimpses of her. Of course, she won’t be able to hear you, but take comfort in the fact she never listened to you anyway. And since you’re doing this to make your country a better place to live, Honest Abe would no doubt be proud. If you ask me if it’s the right thing to do, I only have two words: You Betcha!

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We Should All Be So Dov-ish

I’ve visited many company headquarters in my years as a journalist. Only one has been more memorable than a pallet of two-by-fours.

Indeed, American Apparel’s offices and plant just east of downtown Los Angeles is by far the most dynamic place of business in town. Visitors begin their odyssey in gloomy freight elevators out of some Prohibition-era caper. They’re let out onto corridors teeming with models, suits and seamstresses, all moving at a mile-a-minute. There are garment workers everywhere: if they’re not hunched over their sewing machines, they’re eating meals of colorful ethnic cuisine, obtaining exams at the on-site medical clinic or a shoulder-rub from a workplace masseuse. If you think Diego Rivera by way of “Project Runway,” you get a pretty clear picture. Each visit has left me mildly surprised I wasn’t charged admission.

Sadly, this workplace vibrancy was diminished by an order from the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) last September to fire 1,800 American Apparel employees – about a quarter of the company’s workforce – because they are undocumented immigrants. The employees had 60 days to prove they belong in the U.S., but that window closes this month. Few, if any, of the fired workers returned to their jobs.

The firings are considered a departure from ICE policy during the Bush Administration, when such undocumented workers would be detained and deported.  This is the same federal government that e-mailed me a nine-digit Employer Identification Number in seconds when I started a new publishing venture earlier this year. Those fired American Apparel employees had considered their obtaining nine-digit Social Security numbers an impossible dream.

American Apparel presents a tempting target for the feds: Dov Charney, its chairman and CEO, is the most outré leader of any publicly-traded company in the nation. Charney has photographed hundreds of American Apparel’s notorious print ads featuring skimpily clad models, presumably far closer to the master bedroom of his Silver Lake home than his company’s bustling headquarters. His sybaritic shenanigans inside American Apparel have become the cornerstone of many an attorney’s workplace litigation practice.

Dov Charney is easily the most outre leader of a publicly-traded company in the country. But the Canadian emigre has got some balls when it comes to the rights of undocumented workers.

But Charney has also demanded legal status for all of his employees, and pays them an average wage of $18 an hour, plus benefits. He has a point: if you work hard and abide by the law, your host country should try and make an accommodation. His efforts have been denounced by self-proclaimed pro-business politician Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, as an addiction to foreign workers. But Bilbray isn’t much of a fan of the domestic worker, either: he voted against increasing the federal minimum wage two years ago to $7.25 an hour.

I want employers like American Apparel to abide by the law, but I feel that this mass firing has in some way trampled on our past compacts. Less than a century ago, as many as 3 million Europeans immigrated here each year as a cheap source of labor. Most encountered brutal prejudices, but the deal was clear: work hard and you can stay, which is something Charney would like to see repeated in the 21st century. Virtually all of those European immigrants entered the country legally, but my guess is if Italy, Russia, Ireland and Germany had borders with the U.S., many of those people would have snuck across them rather than stop at Ellis Island.

Charney himself immigrated from Montreal, and his peccadilloes aside, he’s worked harder than virtually all of us. Yet if he had not created a business that employs 7,000 Southern Californians and the power and influence that accrues with such an accomplishment, he might have been escorted back to the Great White North years ago. Given his success, one would assume all of Charney’s employees work very hard as well, and therefore should be allowed to remain at work.

Which brings be back to Rep. Bilbray. Like many neo-conservatives, he worships at the altar of Ronald Reagan. But he will never acknowledge perhaps the most generous and historic act of Reagan’s presidency: the 1986 amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants. I’m thankful for it on many mornings and evenings, because the coffee shop closest to my house is owned by an amnesty recipient. He had been working as a busboy at the restaurant in the mid-1980s when the owner decided to retire and sell out to him, the deal hinging on his becoming legal and a citizen. He’s since opened a second restaurant that’s enlivened a dilapidated West Hills strip mall. He pays all his employees well above minimum wage; his cook clears $1,000 a week. They do indeed charge admission here, but my bill is rarely more than $25, even when I’m with my family.

Of course, I may be confusing the issue when I wax about immigrants who offer fair wages and wane about natives who consider it more practical to put 1,800 working stiffs on the streets in a steep recession who would likely be law-abiding individuals but for the lack of a nine-digit number. But we live in a world that every day is fueled more by political expediency and less by common sense.

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Rainey’s Precipitation Redux

I confess to erring when I wrote a couple of months ago that the L.A. Times editors should consider running white space in lieu of James Rainey’s media column. Instead, he’s become the gift that keeps on – well, you can guess the rest.

In yet another of his “You readers are all stupid, now read to what I have to say” masterpieces, he rips what he acknowledges are a minority of fruitcakes who criticized writer Amy Wallace’s article in Wired magazine that rebuts the alleged links between rising cases of autism and childhood vaccines.  This is in spite of the fact that Wallace, when interviewed on NPR, openly welcomed the responses she’s received, even though a few have been misguided and even profane.

Rainey doesn’t bother to disclose that. Instead, he laments that the world is brimming with idiots, ever emboldened by their Internet connections. “We see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job,” he writes.

I’ll concede on global warming, but songwriting and movie reviews?  I must have missed the Beatles’ and Elvis’ formative years at Juilliard. I’m unaware of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert graduating from the Bosley Crowther School of Celluloid Critique at Columbia University, but I don’t always keep track of such esoterica. However, I’m pretty certain Rainey attended for his doctoral studies.

As an amusing aside, the online version of Rainey’s article is bracketed by Google ads hawking the same disinformation he is trying to debunk. But I digress.

Rainey makes it sound as if sanctimonious, know-it-all blowhards suddenly began appearing with the advent of the Internet. They’ve always been out there. But 50 years ago, they needed to type a letter, correct the mistakes, address, stamp and mail it. Nine times out of 10, the target threw it in the garbage without so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. Now, people can slam their targets without leaving their chairs. So, why not?

I will agree with Rainey there is a surfeit of nutwings out there, and their unfounded prejudices are fueled by ill-informed and undereducated celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. But that is not the entire story.

The fear of vaccines stem not only from ignorance but ever-present suspicions about the drug industry. These are the same people who ply doctors with free lunches, speaking gigs and other honorariums to get them to recommend their products, which are then sold to patients at grossly inflated prices. Wallace does admit that the physician she focuses on in the article, pediatrician Paul Offit, made at least several million dollars from sales of a vaccine he invented that is sold at a 17-fold markup. Offit says it was an unforeseen consequence of his research, but he didn’t exactly turn it down.

And while Wallace’s article is a fine piece of journalism and Offit may be passionate about defending the scientific method, most people never receive such passion for their well-being from doctors. They get cursory visits and a hastily scribbled prescription – and often sticker shock at filling it.

Wallace also failed to mention that the debate on autism occurs in a push-me-pull-you flurry of scientific data. One study is published claiming a link to cancer, and another is published the following year rebuts it. Half a century ago, the common treatment for heart attack victims was bed rest – something the medical community now concludes puts patients at risk for developing fatal blood clots. There may indeed be a dozen current studies debunking a link between vaccines and autism. They may hold up over time. Or they may not.

Lump all that in with the extraordinary difficulty of caring for an autistic child – another burden often met by the medical profession with indifference – and that is among the reasons there is so much anger out there.

Wallace is onto something when she notes that pseudo-science offers comfort, which is why it has attractions. Being told you’re wrong only geometrically amplifies the anger.

Of course, you can leave that part to Rainey. He quotes Andrew Keen, an author who has claimed the Internet has left us culturally bereft, even as he helped propagate it by being a part of various Web startups.

“Keen makes abundant sense when he argues that people who have worked hard to gain expertise can’t so easily, and passively, cave in to ‘the wisdom of the crowd,’” Rainey writes. “He believes experts — in the media, science, law – need to drop their ‘false, almost suicidal, humility.’”

Right. Because a bunch of elite members of society arrogantly getting into the faces of people who are already uneasy or suspicious of them will persuade them to change their minds.

I can only predict one thing with certitude: fewer people will be reading the L.A. Times a year from now than they are today. Perhaps Rainey can discuss that cause-and-effect  in a future column.

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