Monumental Virus

In Oakland, California, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, I was aware of several major landmarks. All of these are within a mile of the downtown and city hall, and but one of them I visited frequently in my youth. My list does not include the city hall itself, a Beaux-arts building that at 320 feet was the first high-rise government building in the United States when it was built in 1914. Its fourteen floors are in two tiers, like a massive wedding cake, a comparison that is completed by the largely decorative clock tower on the top. The fact is, although I passed it frequently, city hall was not a meaningful presence in my early life.

A few blocks away there was the central facility of the Oakland Tribune, which had some of its offices in an oversized clock tower that made it one of the tallest buildings in the city (no longer even close). The addition of the tower in 1923 raised it to twenty-two stories and 306 feet, slightly shorter than the existing city hall. My mother worked on one of the lower floors for more then twenty years. My mental image of that building serves as a reminder that at one time city newspapers were both popular and very profitable (no longer true). I distinctly remember the bottom twenty feet of the building, which housed the printing press and an oversized tunnel. At about five on most mornings, for my first two years of college, I would drive a 15-foot box truck into that tunnel to pick up bundles of newspapers to be delivered to many of the hundreds of small storefronts, scattered throughout the east bay area, where paperboys would pick up the news they would deliver to customers on their routes. That entire delivery network has been gone for more than two decades, collapsing well before the Tribune devolved into a weekly in 2010. The Tribune building, however, still stands.

Another significant building was the Oakland Civic Auditorium, a traditional rectangular arena with seven massive arches over the entrances on the northeast side, facing Lake Merritt. It is now the Kaiser Convention Center. Inside, the arena floor is more than large enough for a full-size basketball court and is surrounded by enough seats for almost 5,500 people, an interior space uncluttered by vertical supporting beams. This means, of course, that it is about half the size of any modern multi-purpose arena, but that also meant that people in the cheap seats at the highest reaches of the auditorium could see the floor action clearly without the interposition of a jumbotron screen. When it was built in 1914 it was one of the largest of its type. I was there for performances by the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Harlem Globetrotters. My high school graduation was held there. The Grateful Dead performed there 57 times. Like the Tribune building, it is also still in place and still an impressive sight, although it has remained mostly unused for the past fifteen years.

Next among Oakland landmarks is Lake Merritt itself, originally a salt-water lagoon and center of a thousand-acre wetland. In the second half of the nineteenth century, after it became a noxious settling pond for the city’s sewage, it was reduced in size by border bulwarks and a dam, both to clean it up and to reduce tidal flooding. The current lake now has a rough triangular shape about ten city blocks (3,000 feet) on each side. The California State legislature voted to make it a wildlife sanctuary in 1870, the first official such designation in north America. On the shores of the lake I remember Children’s Fairyland, a walking park with statues of characters from traditional tales, and the Camron-Stanford House, a large Italianate Victorian, built in 1868 by then-mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt. It served as the Oakland Museum until 1967. Every year on July 4th the lake hosted daytime boat races and a fireworks display.

A final significant landmark in my mind is the main public library building, an imposing five-story stone edifice, a massive rectangular box with thick white columns framing 30-foot tall window openings on every side above the first two floors. First opened in 1951, it still fully occupies an oversized city block about a thousand feet west of the Civic Auditorium. While I was in high school I spent most of my library time in the small Laurel branch of the Oakland library system, a storefront on MacArthur Boulevard, but the offerings at the main branch were significantly larger and were a mere four miles from home, a distance I often covered by bicycle.

There were other significant locations and buildings in Oakland and there are more now, but these were the ones most meaningful to me at the time. Two of them have resurfaced in my memory through a visual connection to the current worldwide pandemic. When Covid-19 first came into public consciousness as a serious threat this March it brought up a couple of visits I had made, as a high school student, to the Oakland History rooms of the main library building. On the walls at that time there were pictures taken during the peak of the misnamed 1918 “Spanish” influenza, one of them showing the interior of the Oakland Civic Auditorium.

I already was aware of the size of the auditorium and the broad wood surface at its center. In the 1918 pictures that wide floor is there, but it is covered by a large number of plain metal-frame single beds, set six to eight feet apart, with a few nurses and supply tables scattered among them. In the grayscale picture the white bedding and nurses’ uniforms contrast sharply with the dark flooring, enhancing the sense that the beds and caregivers were an aberration. The thought of the familiar auditorium, a place of sports and entertainment, converted into a makeshift hospital seemed the perfect symbol of the global devastation caused by that previous pandemic. None of the photographs or the written accounts of the 1918 flu that I have seen since then have affected me as much as that image, and none have stuck with me as long.

That is why when I heard the first news reports about Covid-19 the image of the Civic Auditorium came back to me. I have since seen similar images used in retrospective photo collections of the 1918 flu, including a Wikipedia entry that shows the auditorium after tall partitions were added to divide up the space. There are many similarities between the two pandemics; in 1918, like today, businesses were closed, large gatherings were banned, and face masks were required in public places. And there were deniers and resisters, including prominent politicians, who refused masks and promoted and participated in large public events. The influenza came in three waves; a small one beginning in July of 1918, a rebound lasting from September to December that was five times as deadly, and another less lethal bump the following Spring. In the United States approximately 28 percent of the 105 million population became infected and the death toll took at least a half million. The crisis only ended because the virus mutated into less virulent forms, some of which are still around. With today’s virus, in 2020, we may see a rebound by Covid-19; the initial attack has not yet subsided.

I continue to hope that the 2020 pandemic, already serious and still growing, will not duplicate the level of human destruction that occurred a century earlier. However, as with the 1918 influenza, there is no vaccine or effective Covid treatment available as I write this, and a large proportion of our population is not taking the pandemic seriously. In fact, one of the phrases used by people who dismiss our efforts to reduce the Covid-19 spread is that the disease is “no worse than the flu.” Looking back at our experience in 1918, that line is hardly reassuring.

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Economic Shift?

You may be forgiven if you aren’t aware of it, but in August of 2019, there was a major shift in emphasis in modern economic philosophy. For one, the event wasn’t much reported in any of the mainstream news media. For another, it doesn’t seem to have caused a pronounced observable shift in the activities of capitalist societies or of Fortune 500 corporations. That is probably because it wouldn’t exactly have been a welcome development among the most influential groups of investors (oligarchs). At this time, let it be said simply that on that date the Business Roundtable (BRT) produced a document that supported a seismic change in the operating principles of corporations.

In the previous life of the BRT, which was formed in 1972, the guiding philosophy was in line with neoliberal dogma, which stated that the primary business of business was maximization of shareholder returns (i.e., profits, share values, dividends). That led almost all corporations to focus almost exclusively on short-term profit-maximizing strategies, anything that would lift the stock price at the end of the current quarter. If you think this is business as usual, you would be right, but you would be ignoring the broader philosophy of major corporations of the immediate post-WWII decades, in which they generally expressed support for the cities in which they operated, the families of people they employed, and their customers as part of their mission statement.

In the past five decades the doctrine of shareholder primacy has led to a variety of common but questionable choices. Manufacturers have laid off workers, reduced wages and benefits, sold real assets, and reduced the quality of input materials to cut costs. They have outsourced labor to distant countries to reduce wages or to avoid payments to mitigate the environmental impacts of their operations. Some of these actions were taken to reduce the effects of temporary financial setbacks, especially during the 2008 recession, but most occurred during periods when corporate profits and management compensation were already at record levels. After the 2017 tax relief, most large corporations used almost all of the billions they received in tax savings to buy back their own stock and, in so doing, raise the value of their shares.

The stockholder-centric fetish and its hold on corporations has been strengthened by narcissistic investors who have sued companies in which the management has “unnecessarily” chosen to raise wages or benefits or to abide by environmental or health regulations, or indeed where mangers made any other foolish decisions that might, god forbid, reduce short-term profits. It was also encouraged by the practice of paying top managers with stock options, giving leadership yet another motive to focus only on equity prices. But the most egregious example of investor-exclusive attitudes has come as I write these words. As the fatal effects of the COVID pandemic continue to spread across the world, investors, CEOs, hedge-fund managers, and other self-obsessed oligarchs are strongly encouraging President Trump to end the shelter-in-place strategy that has effectively reduced national mortality. For them, restarting the economy and reversing the recent stock market shortfall overrides all of the other negative impacts of the disease, including the likely threat of a deadly resurgence. This is stockholder primacy at its most virulent; the idea that the role of the United States government is to maximize financial growth above all else, even public health.

We can’t ignore the lengthy wave of market deregulation that was inspired by investor-centered economic theory, starting with the Nixon administration but continuing through the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the following explosion of derivative finance. Deregulation brought us such entirely avoidable disasters as the Savings and Loan collapse of the late 1980s, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, and the great recession of 2008, all of which would have been virtually impossible if we had retained and enforced the New Deal laws and rules put in place during the 1930s and if we had retained the multiple stakeholder ethos of the 1950s.

One of the guiding principles of the New Deal, and of the economic revival that followed World War II, was that financial prosperity should not be the sole measure of progress. There were other goals that a moral nation and its corporations should consider as part of “the pursuit of happiness”. Those goals recognized that there were a number of stakeholders who were important to the national well-being and who were not defined solely by financial characteristics. We almost entirely forgot about them and that multiplicity of characteristics during the last half of the twentieth century.

Now the BRT, a collection of almost 200 CEOs from major corporations, has produced a list that remindes us about what we have lost. Their document states that they make a “fundamental commitment” to all of their stakeholders, specifically mentioning the following:

  • Delivering value to our customers.
  • Investing in our employees.
  • Dealing fairly and equitably with our suppliers.
  • Supporting the communities in which we work.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders.

It is notable not only that shareholders are the last item on this list of important stakeholders, but that they chose to define shareholder value as “long-term”, not just limited to the next quarter’s numbers. A company that recognizes and affirms its responsibility to all of these stakeholders and to the long run cannot be the type that moves its operations overseas for a two-percent bump in profits.

However, there remains the question of whether or how this document will be put into practice. This is what Andrew Winston wrote in the August 19, 2019 Harvard Business Review:

The BRT announcement certainly sounds like a big deal. Shareholder primacy has been the core operating principle of public companies for about 50 years, since economist Milton Friedman famously declared “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” These ideas have been promoted for decades by a very well-funded and wildly successful effort—with the Koch brothers at the core—to make the free-market, shareholder-primacy, neoliberal philosophy the dominant global economic model.

Of course, this Winston commentary was given the skeptical headline, “Is the Business Roundtable Statement Just Empty Rhetoric?” Many of the companies represented on the BRT have not been exactly devoted to long-term planning, stakeholder interests, or broader societal concerns. Notably, they include fossil-fuel processors who have denied climate change and fought efforts to mitigate it, pharmaceutical producers who have over-promoted highly addictive drugs in pursuit of massive profits, and financial firms that continue to follow many of the risky and often fraudulent investment strategies that resulted in the 2008 great recession.

It remains to be seen how effective the Business Roundtable statement will be in modifying the single-minded attitudes and policies of its members, the companies they represent, and other global corporations, but the mere recognition of other stakeholders is a start.

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COVID Commerce

The economy is global. That is nothing new. European colonial leaders rarely recognized it in public statements, but for most of the past two centuries their national prosperity was dependent on countries thousands of miles away, dependent on the cheap natural resources provided by their colonial possessions. Much of the European resistance to the anti-colonial independence movements of the 20th century was motivated by the desire to maintain control of the supply chain needed to keep the factories and the tea shops and the construction sites humming. Their form of dependency has changed, and it is now sustained more by diplomacy than by military and bureaucratic control, but it still involves relationships that span the world.

In recent years there have been events that have demonstrated that globalization can have significant drawbacks. In the last half of the first decade of the 21st century the financial sector in the United States, inflated by high risk investments and a housing bubble, collapsed. It was inevitable and predictable, and it should have been isolated, or at least compartmentalized, to the housing market or at least to that and housing-related finance. But it wasn’t, and, in retrospect, couldn’t have been. The financial market in the United States is massive and thoroughly integrated into every segment of the national economy. For example, it was said that after the 1980s General Motors morphed from being a car company into a financial corporation that happened to sell cars. The ubiquity of finance made it impossible to limit the recession damage to one sector. And it wasn’t even limited to one country. The financial markets in most other nations were also inextricably tied in with the investments and securities and strategies of the leading United States firms. Major banks in Europe, Asia, even South America were compromised; if they didn’t collapse entirely they sharply curtailed their lending, and in the process they brought their local economies down with them. The 2008 recession was a worldwide phenomenon.

That recession was one created and defined by distortions in capital markets; cross-border movement of capital is a large part of globalization. But there is another significant global trend that has strengthened in the past five decades. The outsourcing of processes and the resulting transportation of materials—raw materials, parts, and finished products—has increased dramatically. Cell phones are assembled in Korea using components built in five or six other countries. Chickens are sent to China to be butchered and cleaned before being returned to the United States. Exotic woods grown in Brazil are shipped to India to be cut into boards which are sent to Japan to construct houses and furniture. Using such arrangements the manufacturer gains the flexibility to shop around for venues that can provide them with the lowest overall costs, reducing expenditures for labor, land, and regulatory obligations. In comparison, the added costs of long-distance transportation for components and finished products can be relatively insignificant.

Global outsourcing has increasingly been combined with the concept of “just-in-time” delivery (JIT). The JIT method has been promoted in television commercials showing a small retail outlet with empty shelves until the day before it opened, shelves that were almost magically filled by timely deliveries just before the doors opened to customers. JIT has been widely implemented in commerce, allowing manufacturers and retailers to reduce inventories and storage costs, along with waste from excess supplies, by scheduling shipments to anticipate short-term demand. For the most part the process is invisible to consumers, except perhaps for those clothing shoppers who find themselves staring at a rack of dresses sized extra-small and extra-large with nothing in between.

The routine problems arising from the combination of outsourcing and just-in-time are easily predictable. The latter requires that any location that needs specific components or products must accurately predict near-future demand. To respond to that demand, each stage in the supply chain must also know how much time it will take to fulfill an order after it is made, including both the production time for multiple components and the outsourcing-related delays involved in transportation from two or three different sources. This is complex enough, and it is fortunate that we have computers to track such routine factors in international commerce.

The situation today, however, is not routine. The threat of the coronavirus (the COVID-19 strain), as it has escaped China and rapidly, often inexplicably, appeared in countries on every continent, has demonstrated how vulnerable our global market systems are. Wuhan, the massive Chinese city where the virus apparently started, is one of their largest industrial and transport hubs, is known as their “motor city”, and is a major tech center as well. All of that, of course, was shut down as China attempted to control the outbreak. At the beginning of 2020 the import traffic from China was already depressed by the unnecessary and poorly-planned tariff wars of 2019 and by the usual week-long shutdown for Lunar New Year, but it has not recovered to the levels seen prior to 2019. Imports from other countries have also been impacted, and some factories in the United States have shut down operations for lack of necessary components. Demand for some commodities, such as oil, have declined, sharply pushing down prices and industry revenues.

Global trade is not the only casualty. As in China, firms in many countries have temporarily shut down operations to avoid bringing their employees into contact with each other in central facilities. Italy and Spain have imposed severe nation-wide restrictions on travel. In many countries, including th United States, large events—concerts and conventions and competitions—have been cancelled. Consumers have begun suspending unnecessary shopping for the same reasons, often after flurries of hyper-purchases of essentials. The resulting pauses in economic activity will severely depress wages and profits. The travel industry has suffered what have been termed “catastrophic losses” as tourists have cancelled or delayed plans for vacations. The Dow Jones average mirrored the level of business concern about the future effects of the epidemic by declining almost 14 percent in the final ten days of February and by swinging wildly in the weeks following that, shifting into a bear market for the first time since the 2008 recession and almost wiping out all of the growth achieved in the past three years. That’s probably an overreaction, as is common on stock markets these days, but it does underline the seriousness of the problem.

As we watch the commercial markets and our own national government attempt to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic, several things become clear. We have created interconnecting systems that are highly complex and dependent on standardizing assumptions. They provide many benefits, products and either cost savings or profits, that would not be available otherwise, and we manage to keep them running relatively smoothly under normal conditions. But the 2019 tariff wars and the mismanagement of COVID-19 have demonstrated that the system requires knowledgeable national leadership dedicated to global cooperation. The current administration in Washington, D.C. has failed on both counts, making the inevitable difficulties much worse than they would have been.

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Varsity Blues

Currently working its way through the courts in the United States are the various cases connected under what has been nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues. This investigation became public in March of 2019 and involves 53 people who used bribery and fraud to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges and universities. Media coverage has focused on a couple of movie or TV stars who are facing jail time, often to the exclusion of the organizer and prime mover behind the scheme, a man named William Rick Singer. Singer provided payments to coaches to get students admitted as athletes in sports they had never played, contracted with surrogates to take entrance exams for students who otherwise would not have earned adequate scores, and otherwise made arrangements to keep all of these activities hidden from view. But my purpose here is not to repeat the already extensive media coverage nor to further denigrate the parents or their children or Mr. Singer. Most of the defendants will receive (mild) punishments in the form of fines and public shaming, to include, possibly, even small amounts of time in jail.

The fact is that the Varsity Blues defendants are victims themselves. They are individuals who succumbed to the pressures created by our national system of irrational employment and status criteria that connect success not just to a college degree or excellent grades, but to credentials provided by a small number of preferred universities. For them, it simply wasn’t acceptable for their children to go to an “ordinary” state university or college—it had to be Harvard or Stanford or a similar school, and those prestige colleges accept only a small proportion of their applicants. That means, of course, that if these parents are victims, they were in large part victimized by their own desire for social status or for unearned advantages, but they were victims nonetheless and were encouraged in their folly by William Singer.

These defendants are also victims of inequality, in relative terms. Most of them are certainly not poor, as indicated by the fact that the amounts they forwarded to Mr. Singer were often in six figures. They do not, however, fit either of the two categories that would have provided them with guaranteed access to the schools they preferred.

For one, they are not favored alumni. If the parents of a child had attended a prestigious university, and if they had followed that by maintaining a multi-year record of generous alumni donations to strengthen their favored status (i.e., perfectly legal bribes), there would have been no need to funnel illegal bribes through someone like Mr. Singer. The children of favored alumni regularly gain “legacy” entry, bypassing the usual application processes.

There are also some non-alumni families whose children get automatic entry. These are the biggest donors, those who are able to give multi-million-dollar gifts. You can often find out who these families are by looking at the names on buildings on any campus. These are the ultimate bribes, and they, too, are perfectly legal. Also legal is the form of guaranteed affirmative action that such donations provide to a family’s offspring. Unfortunately, the Varsity Blues defendants did not have the financial resources to provide a new lecture hall or weight room to the university of their choice. Yet they knew about the options that were not available to them and some have complained about what they view as injustice. Some also complained about the supposed unfair advantage that affirmative action provides for disadvantaged minorities, but that form of favoritism is hardly comparable to the benefit afforded to the children of big donors.

That doesn’t mean that we should feel any form of empathy for those who are being prosecuted. Like most other families, they did have applied to a wide selection of good universities and had access to the types of legal tools that many other families are using to increase the odds that their sons and daughters can get into the school of their choice. In fact, there are many legal options available to them that aren’t available to less wealthy parents. There are a wide variety of test-prep classes and even individual tutors to help applicants pump up their ACT or SAT scores. College application counselors, for a fee, will help students enhance their resumé and tailor it for specific colleges and will even fill out applications and handle all the paperwork. Students who don’t have to work while they are in high school can volunteer for community service projects and other extracurricular activities that are known to improve an applicant’s standing.

Of course, none of these widely available and legitimate services can provide an absolute guarantee that your child will get into the specific prestigious university that you, or they, want. They merely improve your chances. The Varsity Blues defendants were apparently not willing to ask their children to put in the extra effort that so many others use to strengthen their resumé. They didn’t want to compete on a fair and equitable basis. They wanted certainty and felt they could assure it with a targeted financial contribution. Not only that, they felt they deserved to bypass the system that, while it was indeed biased in favor of the very wealthy, was also weighted in favor of families like theirs.

In the meantime there are true victims whose names we will never know; a number of applicants who followed the rules and were denied the limited number of slots that the children of Varsity Blues occupied. Whatever the outcome of this investigation and the resulting prosecutions, there will be no justice for them.

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But no Thanks

“Dad, why can’t we celebrate Thanksgiving like everyone else?”

The father looked at his daughter for a few moments before he replied, as if he were confused by the question, or by the fact that he was hearing it from her, his own daughter. His reply may have indicated that he wanted to find out exactly what she meant before he responded. “And just what have you heard about what everyone else does?”

“So, Marilyn was watching the news yesterday and she saw kids in a classroom somewhere and they were all dressed up in uniforms, half of them grey and half blue, and they were shaking hands and sharing food and signing a piece of paper that they called a peace treaty, and playing music and everything.”

“The national news? Yeah, probably. They wore uniforms? Real uniforms?”

She shook her head. “No, I think she said it was some kind of rough shirts and hats that they made out of construction paper. So then the news talked about families getting together all over the country for big dinners, so she looked it up on the internet and they had pictures of what they called typical American families and tables full of turkey and ham and potatoes and all that, sitting down to celebrate the end of the war, like, they called it the Civil War, but she said it was pretty clear it was the War for Southern Liberation they were talking about.”

The father nodded. “And there’s the answer to your question, right there.” He shrugged his shoulders and leaned back as if to say that’s all he needed to mention.

The daughter pulled her head back and looked at him with raised eyebrows and a tightened mouth. After a pause she asked, “What answer?”

“Okay,” the father said, briefly looking off to one side as if the answer were actually on the wall behind her. Then his eyes returned to face hers. “First, you must recognize that those who lose a war and who’ve lost the ability to tell the true story of the war are not likely to celebrate what they’ve lost.” The father shook his head and leaned forward, laying his forearms on the table, hands palms down. “Let me tell you about this Thanksgiving thing. It started during the War for Southern Liberation, maybe two years before the final Treaty was signed. It was Lincoln who started it. He decided that the tide had turned after the Union victory at Gettysburg, that the war was finally going in his direction, and so he proposed a national day of celebration. He even set it for the fourth Thursday in November.”

“So he didn’t wait until they had actually won?”

“It was a political move; he thought it would unify the north and help the northern forces win. Whatever, but that’s what happened. They won and we lost. Now, you’d think Lincoln would’ve let that be enough, maybe thought better of it all, especially after John Wilkes Booth and his patriots almost assassinated him, but he didn’t. I still think that Booth could’ve been successful if he hadn’t been so clumsy about it. His failure gave Lincoln’s men a warning that kept Lincoln alive; they were more careful after that, and the backlash helped boost his popularity. By the time he finished his third term his regime had pretty much solidified their control over our states. I don’t know, maybe the assassination attempt strengthened his hatred of the south, but you’d think he would’ve learned to compromise and work with our side instead of completely turning our states upside down and gloating about our defeat with his speeches and his big annual celebration. But no, he and the new congress and the carpetbagger legislatures and the Freedmen’s Bureau strengthened their military occupation and the land reforms that destroyed our southern culture, and they pushed through their amendments to the constitution. And so now, every year, just as Lincoln wanted, they celebrate their Thanksgiving, and the northerners and even some people here in the south get together and reenact the signing of our surrender. They celebrate Lincoln as a great president, the great emancipator they call him, in public schools even. But our family and our town and our schools will never join them.”

“But isn’t it a good thing that the war was over? I mean, can’t we celebrate not fighting?”

“No, no, no.” The father’s hands raised up, palms toward his daughter, fingers moving side to side. “Not if it means we gloss over what was lost. Not if we have to accept their conditions. Not if it means we celebrate the great subjugator and his victory. Not if it means we accept the official lie that the war was just about slavery and the southern people were renegades who had to be put down. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, almost 150 years on, and we still don’t have freedom of speech; our schools still can’t tell the truth about the confederacy and the war, and we can’t fly the confederate flag or control our own elections or anything like that. I mean, you always expect that the winner in a war would take control, but we don’t have to forget. And it’s definitely not something to be celebrated, not now, not ever.”

The daughter nodded. Then her eyes narrowed a bit and she took a deep breath and tilted her head slightly to one side. “But what if we could celebrate like they do, with a big feast, but make it about something else, like … oh, I don’t know … maybe we could make it about thanking God for civilization and our prosperity and all that?”

The father smiled. “You sound like you really just want a reason for us to have a big annual family meal or something. You mean something like a traditional harvest feast?”

The daughter nodded. “Well, yeah, sort of. But instead of their thing, we could push it back to way before the war, maybe celebrate the first settlers that came to America, the ones who started with wilderness and turned it into farmlands and built cities and started everything we have today. We could make it about how God favored our ancestors and made our lives better. That way we could even make it a celebration of antebellum life and southern culture, traditional food and all that.”

The father was lost in thought for a minute or two, his eyes directed at the table in front of him. “What you mean is we could completely ignore the war, bypass it. I like that. But … if we do that and do it on the same day, the same Thursday in November, people will just assume that we’re celebrating the same thing they are.”

“No, ‘cause they have their little pageants, and the ones that we put on in our schools and churches, and wherever else, won’t be anything like what they have. We won’t have blues and greys and fake treaties. We could have the kinds of costumes they use in over in Williamsburg, the colonial ones. Instead of pictures of Lincoln we could have Pocahontas and John Smith, I mean, everybody knows that story, don’t they? It could be about the peace between the settlers and the Indians. We’ll have a completely different pageant, and if you’re right about people around here, we can get the TV stations and newspapers to cover it without mentioning anybody else or anybody else’s Thanksgiving. It would be ours.”

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Division Media

The media, at this time, likes to repeat the almost-mantra that the United States is divided into two antagonistic political camps. The division is right-versus-left ideology and us-versus-them tribalism. There is even a strong division among many political candidates over whether we should be promoting specific ideals and relatively pure policy goals or working to communicate “across the aisle” with our opponents. Adding to the laments about the extremity and persistence of such divisions we have produced varied speculation about how we got to this point and what we need to do about it. Of these, perhaps the most vital is the origin question. We may not be able to reduce our political divisions unless we can accurately identify the elements that have caused and sustained them.

I won’t bother to belabor the hypotheses that have ben forwarded, which have included social and economic frustrations, racial and cultural prejudices, religious philosophies, and more. Some of these elements are undoubtedly factors for many individuals, but they fail to explain two characteristics of the opposing groups: (1) There are strong regional concentrations, with high proportions of conservatives in rural areas and liberals in cities; and (2) in interviews, individuals often exhibit standardized fact-resistant stereotyping and even demonization of members on the “other side” of the ideological divide. There is only one factor that can fully explain these two characteristics of our disunited population, and that is the influence of “fake news” and intentional misinterpretation; in other words, divisive propaganda continuously produced by our system of highly partisan media.

It is perhaps not surprising that our political commentators generally ignore the role that media plays in creating our bifurcated citizenry. Our political leaders also largely avoid mentioning it, perhaps because politicians who have referred to negative media influence have often received a scolding backlash, as President Obama did when, in a 2007 interview, he made the relatively mild and accurate comment, “I’ve got one television station entirely devoted to attacking my administration.” The ridicule he received was widespread both within Fox News, the target of his reference, and across virtually all of the outlets in conservative talk radio and print media. The backlash was also strikingly repetitive, with the arguments (or “talking points”) astonishingly identical.

The Obama incident gave us one significant example of how the media effectively creates the second characteristic I listed above, the fact-resistant stereotyping of opponents. The conservative media outlets acted as a national echo chamber against Obama, in this case not only defending the behavior of Fox News but producing iterative mischaracterizations of President Obama’s statement. The intent was clearly to instill, through repetition, a specific standard narrative in the minds of listeners. In this and many other instances their strategy has proven to be remarkably effective, aided by the habits of the millions of people who pay attention only to media outlets that stick to the message.

In analyzing this phenomenon, I am going to focus on the conservative side. This is in part because the opinion leadership on the right is astonishingly willing to ignore and distort scientific and statistical facts, from climate change to evolution to history to human behavior and economics. Their followers are also surprisingly dedicated to following their lead. One measure of this is what some analysts have called the “Fox News effect,” the results of multiple surveys that have shown that Fox viewers score significantly lower on current events knowledge than the general population. Another indicator comes from the staff of the “intentional faux news site” Disinfomedia. They produce internet click bait to attract advertising income and have made the decision to concentrate on conservatives, especially Trump supporters. Their reason is experience; their writers “have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait.” Conservative memes, faux or not, are accepted and shared uncritically at a much higher rate than liberal ones.

The power of a consistent and broadly accepted message is only half of the conservative effort. The other half, the one that creates a strong consensus in most rural communities in the United States, depends on a large media presence. In most small media markets the only outlets that offer political discussions lean to the right; there is generally only one talk radio station available and it offers a steady lineup of conservative logic. Conservative leaders are aware of this and they are working to extend their effective monopoly control to more regions. They began by getting President Reagan to get rid of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. From there they have steadily purchased radio and television stations, often pushing the limits relating to media concentration in local markets.

Silver City, New Mexico is a relatively isolated rural location, somewhat atypical because it is the home of western New Mexico University. Back in 2004 the main talk radio station in town carried the standard lineup of syndicated right-wing gurus. But they also had one hour of morning liberal discussions daily at ten o’clock. Then the station’s advertisers threatened a boycott if that one alternative hour wasn’t removed. The threat was effective, and since then the station has been all-conservative, all day.

But it’s not just in rural areas that the right is working to monopolize on-air ideology. When I first moved to Tucson, Arizona ten years ago there was one AM station that featured progressive and liberal talk shows. It seemed to be well supported by advertisers. After a couple of years, however, the station converted to a pop music format and the advertisements disappeared. There didn’t seem to be any economic reason for the change. At the time I thought this might be an isolated incident, possibly related to the overall conservative character of Arizona politics, even though Tucson (and the surrounding “Baja Arizona”) is a relatively liberal outlier in that Republican state.

In 2014 I moved back to Albuquerque, New Mexico and to an AM station, KABQ, that had offered progressive talk shows since 2007 and that was the second most popular talk-format station in the city. It, too, carried frequent local advertisements, seemingly enough to sustain its programming. About a year ago, however, infrequent plugs for Clear Channel and iHeartMedia began to appear, soon including requests to sign up for a phone-based “survey” site for which the sample questions were clearly biased to elicit answers favoring GOP policies. Then in May of 2019 the progressive talk shows disappeared completely, replaced by a format of endless repetitions of incomplete podcasts followed by incitements to subscribe to an iHeart podcast service. Almost all of the local advertisement spots have also disappeared. As in Tucson, the KABQ talk shows were not replaced with an opposition rightist lineup—both cities already have four or five full-time conservative talk stations—but the political reputation of Clear Channel and the failure to move to a revenue-producing replacement format implies that their primary purpose was the removal of a popular outlet for progressive ideas.

The success of the conservative media strategy in creating conservative constituencies in rural markets has apparently encouraged them to expand their reach into the more ideologically diverse cities. They are apparently willing to expend large sums to push this agenda. It is said that Rupert Murdoch has squandered, or “invested,” more than a billion dollars in his four decades of ownership of the New York Post. I’m sure he regards it as money well spent. The leaders on the right, including an enormous number of wealthy business owners, obviously have vast amounts of funds that they are willing to apply in their quest to “educate” voters to elect representatives who will provide those same leaders and their friends with tax cuts and low wages and minimal regulations. Their efforts are what has turned our country into us-versus-them tribal masses, more than a third of whom are blindly following the propaganda pushed by their copy-cat media. Unfortunately, their strategy has been as effective as it has been self-serving.

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Ring of Dogma

Algerian writer Kamel Daoud gained world-wide fame as the author of a novel—The Meursault Investigation—that acts as a sequel to Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, but one told from an Arab viewpoint. In the October 14, 2019 issue of The Nation magazine, Robyn Cresswell reviewed a collection of Daoud essays, in part providing this summary:

Islamism, for Daoud, is an especially joyless version of Platonism, morbidly suspicious

of the body and its pleasures, intolerant of dissent, and disdainful of the world’s actual,

teeming diversity. The Islamist is “unsettled by difference,” Daoud writes. “He dreams

of a world that is uniform, unanimous.” Islamism is “an affliction of Islam,” a death-

haunted cult spread by Saudi-funded media, cable-tv theologians, and a lack of

ideological alternatives. “Islamism is a kind of Fascism, he concludes, “a kind of

muffled totalitarianism [that] can’t be moderated.”

Daoud was, of course, criticizing a modern form of extreme expression within his own religion. As I followed this paragraph, however, my thoughts reflected on how well the same generalizations could be applied to modern Christian extremism. Fundamentalist Christians in the United States can also be said to be “joyless” in that they misunderstand and reject a great deal of humor in their serious devotion to their doctrines. Their dogmatic rejection of sex outside of marriage, of non-standard sexual practices, and of sex enablers such as birth control and abortion, indicates that they are also “suspicious of the body and its pleasures.” They are threatened by people from other cultures, those who speak other languages, those whose physical appearance is not similar to theirs, and especially those who believe in other religious systems. It is accurate, if a bit generous, to say they are “unsettled by difference.” The fundamentalist Christian movement is varied, but a common theme supports imposition of a “uniform, unanimous” culture sustained by Christian prayer in schools and in public events, by public services and accommodations that reinforce church dogma, and by laws based on biblical passages and fundamentalist interpretations. Under Dominion Theology, the logical extension of their efforts, the United States would become a “Christian Nation” governed by biblical law as defined and reconstructed by religious leaders.

In regions where modern Christian fundamental politics are popular, the leadership tends to support posting the phrase “In God We Trust” everywhere and placing crosses and monuments displaying the ten commandments (generally the Protestant King James version) on public property. They pass laws imposing severe limits on abortion and other behaviors and allowing both public and private service providers to discriminate against LGBTQ and non-Christian individuals if the providers profess “personal religious beliefs” that require such avoidance. In such areas it is also common to hear politicians rail against “sharia law,” but it is not difficult to see that with government in the hands of fundamentalist Christians about the only difference between biblical law and sharia law would be the choice of source documents. The similarity between Islamist and fundamentalist Christian attitudes carries over into the behaviors as well as the doctrines of the adherents.

The other similarity between Christian and Islamist extremes is the tendency toward authoritarian rule. Much has been written in recent years about excessive laws and punishments under Islamist rule by Afghanistan’s Taliban, Syria’s ISIS, and Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. The punitive actions of these regimes might be compared to Spain during the Inquisition, but much more recent examples of despotic pro-Christian regimes include Spain under Francisco Franco, Chile under Augusto Pinochet, and current governments such as the Phillipines under Rodrigo Duterte and Uganda under Yoweri Museveni and his primary opposition, the Lord’s Resistance Army under Joseph Kony. In the Unite States, the full implementation of the philosophy of Christian Dominionism would require nothing less than the end of democratic decision-making and the reversal of decades of legislative and judicial progress toward the protection of minority groups. Nor is religious authoritarianism limited to Christian and Muslim extremists; Israel has become an increasingly authoritarian apartheid state, with much of government policy driven by the most dogmatic zionist theocrats.

The religious tendency outlined above may be simply one form of a broader pattern, one that also appears in the political realm. The most extreme political factions range from fascists, nationalists, and racists on the right to anarchists and stalinists on the left. All of them tend to authoritarian solutions enforced by violent domination. At the farthest extension both the right and the left, as with the religious extremes, create populations that are intolerant of differences and dedicated to the imposition of uniformity. The two sides are still philosophically opposed to each other, but are united in that and in their methodology.

The whole of human philosophy might be visualized as one of those large ceremonial rings used to commemorate graduations and other significant events. The top side, the one that is normally visible to the public, is large and decorated with common cultural symbols and decorations. That, one hopes, represents the vast majority of the population. To either side of that mass the ring thins out, becoming smaller and losing most of the decorative veneer. On the back end of the ring, where it (and with any luck, the population it represents) reaches its smallest mass, the two opposites rejoin in functional similarity, representative of a small population united in rejection and subjugation of any individuals who do not conform to the preferred philosophy. Capitalism and Communism alike become Fascism. Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Atheism all take the form of single-dogma repressive regimes.

There are lower-level threats arising from such religious and political extremism. The most common of these come in the form of everyday individual discriminatory actions against “the other,” actions by the people who believe in a philosophy that may not be in total control, but who make decisions affecting services and necessary materials. There are pharmacists who refuse to sell many birth-control medications, doctors and nurses who will not treat LGBTQ patients, county clerks who withhold licenses for mixed-race marriages, audience members who refuse to allow lecturers to speak, individuals who use violence against. Those are the minor offenses. There are also more serious individual offenses; islamists who perform suicide bombings in crowded locations, Christians who bomb women’s clinics, the two Muslims who killed 14 people in a San Bernadino County Department of Public Health meeting in California, the Christian who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are too many of these incidents to remember or list.

But the ultimate danger of extremism comes at the point when such a group takes full control of a government or a region. The representatives who met to write the United States Constitution in the late eighteenth century were very familiar with the misuse of governmental power by one faction, by monarchical power or by official state religions. Their efforts to avoid consolidation of power included the formation of an elaborate system of separation of powers and a first amendment that promotes both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In this way they intended not only to limit the executive excesses of government, but to avoid, as much as possible, the control of all of the vast governmental powers by a single extreme faction. We should do whatever we can to maintain those protections.

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unSAD Climate

There are some human compulsions that I recognize and understand, but not entirely; how could I, given that I do not personally experience them. This includes the more extreme expressions of individual need, the many addictions and competitive excesses and manic drives, but I am not addressing those at this time, although I try to empathize with the victims of those as well. No, this essay is about one of the lesser compulsions, one that you might never notice unless you know a person well, the kind of thing that they themselves might not even recognize, or might not consider abnormal. This particular syndrome was first introduced to me through the actions of a person I shared an apartment with briefly after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

To understand this story you need to know that Santa Cruz suffers—or benefits, depending on your preferences—from atmospheric characteristics common to much of the coast of northern California. Frequently, in most months of each year, there are long periods of overcast; multiple days with gray mottled layers above, from the evergreen hills in the east to the flat ocean horizon to the west, and variable downpours reaching every surface below. In the summer months there are fewer overcast days, but most afternoons it is common for a thick bank of surface clouds to form off shore and gradually move inland, enclosing most of the city in a thin fog. Seattle may have earned infamy for lengthy periods of separation from direct sunlight, but it is far from being the only northwest coast city with that condition. It was an environmental condition familiar to me, as I had spent my entire life up to that point in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A well-known columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Herb Caen, once wrote that it was common for summer tourists to arrive in the city and ask why there were no sidewalk cafés. He then noted that they tended to drop the question after they had experienced the almost inevitable appearance of the thick damp blanket of fog, and the accompanying drop in temperature, that would roll in almost every afternoon. In Santa Cruz there was a large pier reaching out westward into Monterey Bay, the perfect staging point for a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, that annual event almost always had to be delayed for days because of the thick afternoon cloud cover, a condition that often remained in place until late in the night.

In 1972 in Santa Cruz I had a roommate, one of the four of us who shared a four-bedroom unit, who had a problematic relationship with clouds and fog. In his defense, he had grown up in the Los Angeles area, the very region that inspired the concept of “sunny California”. Santa Cruz was not the best environment for him. On the days when the sun rose into an empty blue sky he could be found reclining on the south-facing porch soaking up the warmth of unobstructed photons, while they remained available. At the time I hadn’t yet heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the depressive malady with the somewhat appropriate acronym SAD, but now I recognize that my roommate may have had a mild version. As I noted earlier, I sort of understood his compulsion to sunbathe, but not entirely.

Today, however, experience with very a very different climate has given me a greater empathy for my sun-deprived roommate. More than forty years ago, for a variety of reasons largely related to my career and marital choices, I relocated from central California to the great American Southwest, more specifically to the two border states at the southern end of the continental divide. This required a number of relatively minor adjustments, adaptations to different cultural norms and colder winters, to significantly higher altitudes and lower populations. On balance, after decades of self-imposed exile, I now view these as positive changes, an assessment that is largely reinforced whenever I revisit the cities by the bay in which I grew up.

Yet there is one element of my current life that does bother me intermittently, and it could be interpreted as a SAD-comparable mental condition. It is, however, a reversal of the problem my roommate experienced. In my case the problem is that my adopted state of New Mexico has an annual average precipitation rate of less than nine inches. The majority of that falling water comes in the summer months of July, August, and September; the rest of the months average less than half an inch each, most often provided by brief light drizzles produced by scattered clouds. Most of these minimal bouts of cloudfall would hardly count as rain by California coastal standards. Fog is virtually unheard of. California-style storms in which the entire sky is overcast for days at a time almost never occur in Albuquerque.

That is the problem, although it’s not really like a reversal of SAD. It’s not as if I get depressed or riddled with anxiety or desperation because the skies are endlessly an invariant shade of blue, horizon to horizon. And let’s face it, how could I seriously be upset that the sky is clear and the sun is visible for nearly eighty percent of all annual daylight hours? In my home town of Oakland the summers were like that, relatively hot and clear and dry day after day. The late-day fogs that so often covered much of San Francisco hardly ever reached all the way eastward across the bay. But the rest of Oakland’s year was much wetter, adding up to an average annual rainfall of nearly 25 inches, and there were many times when we didn’t see the sun for three or four days in a row. In fact, the December holiday season never seemed complete until I had walked around downtown Oakland on a night when the lights of the municipal street decorations and the store windows were enhanced by the added sparkle from thousands of droplets deposited by a cold light rain.

I really don’t, and shouldn’t, complain that our outdoor activities in Albuquerque are almost never interrupted or delayed by precipitation—at least not often. It’s a common assumption here that if it’s raining, we need only wait a few minutes to go outside. As if to verify such attitudes, any cloud producing even a heavy monsoon downpour will usually be only one of several, each surrounded by a visible azure background, and the heaviest rain can be soaking downtown Albuquerque while the trucks enjoy dry pavement on Interstate 40 only a couple of miles to the north. Wherever we are, very soon the rain moves on and we can continue whatever we were doing. In strictly personal terms I must admit that any unbroken run of blue skies, even weeks or months on end, doesn’t cause me any significant discomfort. I don’t feel deprived in any way waiting to see one of the rare overcast days. Or maybe I’m in denial. I must admit that when that uncommon stretch of cool gray hours arrives, those times when we can smell the rain from miles away, it does call me outside to walk around, to breathe deeply, and to revel in the feel of slightly-higher-than-average humidity and the tingle of drops hitting exposed skin. It is precisely those rare hours that tell me that I could be, indeed, just as much a product of my childhood experiences as my 1970s roommate.

Having said that, New Mexico’s sun-drenched climate is not anything that will cause me to abandon the many environmental and cultural benefits of living in Albuquerque for a cottage in Santa Cruz or Mendocino or Astoria, as much as I’ve enjoyed visiting all of those locations. That would be true even if I could get anywhere close to affording any kind of adequate lodging on the west coast. No, I’ll stay where I am and remind myself that there are advantages to a generally boring climate, and that I can travel elsewhere on occasion if I want to experience salt-infused fog or waves crashing against a rocky shoreline or thick conifer forests or snow that remains on the ground longer than three hours. It is a compromise I am happy to live with.

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Meat for Thought

I understand the concept, and the importance, of trademark protection. Like most people, I depend on words to make decisions, and the words used in trademarks—brand names, model designations, specialized descriptive terms—often have more significance than the average. We depend on such things to guide our everyday purchases, and companies often jealously guard the words they have developed into markers for their own products. In that way, trademark protection can protect both ordinary consumers and manufacturers from fraud and misuse. But very often, companies, and the relevant enforcing powers (primarily the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the courts), have been known to overreact.

One small example occurred last year here in Albuquerque. A strip-mall bakery opened up under the name Doughboy Donuts, a title the owner chose to honor her grandfather, who was in the infantry in the first World War. The nickname doughboy was commonly used to refer to men who fought on the ground in that war, a carryover from similar usage throughout most of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the name had also been registered by Pillsbury as one name for the puffy little spokeslump that has appeared in their commercials since 1965. That corporate trademark registration conveniently ignored the long previous history of other uses for the term, eventually allowing Pillsbury to successfully sue our local donut shop for trademark infringement, forcing them out of business. We can, perhaps, take some consolation that this year Ohio State University made an attempt to trademark the word “the” (yes, “the” by itself) for their exclusive use in marketing, and thir request was refused.

In the past few years there has been a more widespread questionable use of trademark rights in a variety of sports-related sweepstakes in the fall months in the United States. You probably have seen notices offering you a chance to win a trip to “the ultimate football game” or “the final game of the season” or some other strained euphemism. The operators of these contests have been forced to use such odd circumlocutions because the NFL has trademarked the term “Super Bowl” and refuses to allow use of that phrase in any advertisements that they don’t produce or specifically authorize. This particular trademark registration may have been reasonable, but it has produced two effects that would seem to be counterproductive for the NFL and its message: Confusion in the minds of consumers and reduced promotional references for their singular “Super Bowl”.

Misuse of the concept of protected words, however, may soon be coming to two broader applications, this time related to food. The trade associations representing producers of meat and dairy items are trying to figure out how to respond to the increased competition they’re getting from vegetables. They have proposed new regulations which would prohibit the use of the words “meat” and “milk” for any product that is not produced by a … well, defining a source category may be difficult in both cases. Roughly, they want to limit the use of those words to foods produced by animals.

Admittedly, the consumption of animal meat and animal milk has declined significantly in recent years. This is in part due to increased information from vegetarian and vegan promoters and in part due to competition from alternative products, primarily meat substitutes such as vegetable and soy burgers and the plethora of “milk” drinks made from soybeans, almonds, peas, and oats. For those not inclined to be vegan, these alternative products promise a variety of promotional health benefits, some recognized and some not yet proven. The producers of plant-based “meat” and non-dairy “milk” are getting more creative every day, adding to the anxieties of those who produce the traditional versions.

There are already some types of food name protections that are active today. Margarine was developed to alleviate shortages during the Napoleonic wars in 1869, but the closest it has come to using the word “butter” (as in “corn butter” or “soy butter”, perhaps?) is in the modern product I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. In fact, for most of the decades that margarine was available, its producers were prohibited from adding the yellow food color that is now used to mask its natural unattractive whiteness. And for fruit drinks, the use of the word “juice” is strictly regulated. Note: Anything that is labelled “juice drink” most likely does not contain much real fruit juice.

But now the food label police could be coming after two of the staples of the modern diet. I’m not sure I see the point—perhaps it’s simple desperation. Somehow I don’t believe that forcing the makers of soy milk to call their product “white soy drink” or some other non-milk title will stop its devotees from drinking it. In fact, the company that sells Silk soy milk has done quite well despite the fact that the word milk is not prominently featured on its label. So unless the dairy consortium can come up with a deeply unappealing alternative work and can force it to be used—something like vegemurk or soy slurry or something latin-derived like “oleo” for margarine—there doesn’t seem to be any way for them to encourage people to give up the use of alternatives to milk. No offense meant, but the fact is that most of the makers of soy milk and oat milk have already done what they could to make their products as un-milk-like as possible, sweeter and more viscous than the real cow product, and there’s little likelihood that those who drink them are mistaking their pseudo-milk for the real thing.

The same probably can be said about alternative meats, althogh in this case the newest offenders such as the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, are doing their best to make their product as indistinguishable from real ground beef as possible, even at the risk of making them less . Still, we must recognize that virtually all of the options commercially available at this time are being promoted as “burgers”, not as meat. So is the effort to restrict the word “meat” an advance warning against those lab rats who are developing chicken nuggets and solid “real-beef” muscle tissue from stem cells? It will probably be a while before we find out. In the meantime, a trademark registration for “meat” will probably do very little to slow down the transition to veggie substitutes.

There’s also a historical note to the idea of a meat trademark. The word itself is derived, with minimal change in pronunciation, from the Old English word “mete”, a synonym for food. It retains much of this early definition in references to the edible parts of some non-muscular foods, as in references to “nut meats” or the meat of an egg. It also is used to refer to the central portion of a concept or an experience, as in the phrase “the meat of the issue”. The industry that wants to control the word we use to refer to animal flesh, interestingly, is simultaneously applying the same word to something they call “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) or “boneless lean beef trimmings” (BLBT), a melange of pulverized beef byproducts that is often added to ground beef. If you haven’t heard of this additive, look it up under the less positive term “pink slime”. It is obvious that the representatives of the meat industries are not always acting in the best interests of the consumer.

Our national trademark system is not broken, but there are many cases in which it has been misapplied and misused. Unfortunately, the process is a relatively closed one that we cannot influence directly. We must rely on the views and actions of the appointed leadership of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the employees they hire to advise them. This is just another example demonstrating that we should be concerned about who we elect as president of these United States.

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Religious Reversal

The phrase “freedom of religion” has long been used as a substitute, of sorts, for the protections included in the first amendment to the United States Constitution. As such, it has always been considered to describe a positive concept, a contrast to the undemocratic and often despotic systems that the English colonists rejected when they wrote that document. The wording of the first amendment proscribes the government from “establishing” an official religion and “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Prior to the adoption of the constitution in 1789 the thirteen original colonies had held a mixed record regarding religion, most of them enforcing bans on anything other than Anglican or Congregational practices. Only one (Pennsylvania) had maintained an unbroken record of religious freedom and many had repeatedly prosecuted members of unapproved religions. The First Amendment was viewed by its authors as a solution for colonial persecution as much as European.

The United States has not always lived up to the ideal set out in the first amendment’s establishment clause. Official policies often have negatively targeted the customs of minority religions, including those of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, and Native Americans. Many government bodies at all levels have carried on a tradition of beginning their meetings with a Christian prayer. When government-funded schools were established across the country after the civil war almost all of them were saturated with Protestant assumptions and doctrines; that is why the Catholic Church soon established its own widespread educational system. Creeping secularism, largely enforced by legal challenges and the resulting court decisions, has gradually removed the most blatant of these examples of Christian preference. But there has always been, and continues to be, a backlash from some elements of the Christian majority.

In most cases the resistance has come from local opponents, groups that resent losing the sectarian prayers that had “always” preceded their city council meeting or that were broadcast daily over the intercom with the morning classroom announcements. In their summation the courts are chasing God out of our public spaces and accelerating moral decay within our society. They have often threatened and shunned anyone who insisted on removing “their” prayers or other religious displays. At times, as now, these local efforts become part of a nationalized movement and obtain support from nationally-funded legal and propaganda organizations.

Resistance to a secularized government reached a high point during the first decade of the cold war, a dogmatic battle often framed as being against “godless Communism”. Much of the early rhetoric emphasized religion, and especially Christianity, as a primary weapon against the enemy. The pledge of allegiance to the United States flag was adopted by Congress at the beginning of World War II, but that version did not contain the two words “under God” until 12 years later, in 1954. Although the phrase “In God We Trust” had been added to some coins during the civil war in an effort to demonstrate that the supreme being was, indeed, on the side of the Union, it did not become the official motto of the United States until 1956, and was not universally applied to all currency until one year after that. This burst of pro-religious fervor subsided somewhat after the collapse of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the exposure of Senator Joe McCarthy, but it was soon revived and nurtured by the rise of the Christian Right movement.

The United States now finds itself in another active period of pro-Christian intrusiveness. We have well-funded organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council that use media and legislative lobbying and legal challenges to promote what they view as Christian policies in government. Conservative television and radio outlets reinforce such efforts, pushing a narrow sectarian doctrine in verbal crusades ranging from attempting to ban abortion and gay marriage to expanding public prayer to the posting of the Protestant Ten Commandments and the phrase “In God We Trust” in government buildings. In most cases, their efforts take form in laws passed by state legislatures, laws which have been almost universally challenged in court and rejected as being unconstitutional.

With the election of President Trump, however, the agenda of the Christian Right has expanded upward into the federal system. The Republican-led Senate has prioritized the appointment of federal judges who are approved by the Federalist Society, an arch-conservative organization. This preference began in the late Reagan years, but appointments of conservative judges has exploded with the elimination of the filibuster rules that used to control judicial approvals. Five members of the current Supreme Court (Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts) are, or have been, members of the Society, a fact that has newly inspired those who believe in enforcing extreme religious doctrines in the form of reversing the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and many of the recent expansions of LGBTQ protections.

The Christian right agenda has also moved into the federal bureaucracy. Most recently, a rule promulgated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has turned the concept of religious freedom on its head. It is titled “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care,” and it states that any health care worker can refuse treatment to anyone who offends their own personal religious or moral beliefs. The HHS rule places no limits on what would constitute a religious or moral objection. It also states that any medical facilities that try to keep their employees in line by enforcing their own non-discrimination policies may be subject to loss of any federal funding. This is an agency of the federal government, in effect, promoting specific sectarian doctrines by encouraging health-care employees to apply them to any patient who requires their services, whether that patient believes in that doctrine or not.

We must recognize that there is potential for conflict here. Government efforts to reduce discrimination in commerce and services have increased enormously in recent decades. Where once it was common-place for people to refuse services to a variety of minorities—Jews, Muslims, black people, LGTBQ people, and even, further back, Irish and Italians—it is now largely illegal to do so. The conflict can come from the part of the First Amendment that says “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Does a person’s religious freedom imply the right to apply their preferred doctrine or sectarian interpretation to the detriment of others who do not share their preferences? Is the government constrained from enforcing a non-discrimination statute if it conflicts with the personal religious preferences of a person who wants to discriminate? This is a serious question, especially in health care, a field in which the very lives of patients can be endangered by the decisions of individual workers. What if an ambulance driver refuses to transport a trans or LGBTQ person? What if a hospital refuses to treat a woman with an ectopic pregnancy because it would end the life of the fetus? Some pharmacists have refused to dispense specific birth control drugs that they regard as abortifacients, even to customers for whom that drug is prescribed for unrelated medicinal purposes. What if that pharmacist is the only one available in a small town?

The HHS denial of service rule is a threat to the lives of many different people whenever they interact with any aspect of our health care system. It is wrong to allow any people who are tasked with providing a public service—of any type—to discriminate on the basis of race or sex or religion or sexual preference. It is especially wrong, and especially dangerous, to allow someone in the health care business to do so. Yet this is what the leaders of the HHS are planning to do. Freedom of religion is a vitally important concept, but it should not be twisted into a freedom to discriminate against others.

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