Saturday, December 20, 2014

186.5 - And Another Thing: why Christmas is on December 25

And Another Thing: why Christmas is on December 25

So for the rest of the show we're going to go with our occasional feature, And Another Thing, where we step away from politics - or at least almost away - in favor of something else. Usually it's some cool science stuff, but this time it's some cool history stuff. I'm going to give you a very brief history of Christmas - specifically, why it comes on December 25.

Right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe.

It is not expressed by a creche.

Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. The season is because of astronomical patterns.

Now that half of you are smirking and the rest are composing nasty emails, I'll explain.

Canis Major
Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer. Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when game would be plentiful, and so on. They were your almanac, your seasonal calendar.

Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the dog days.

Getting to the real point here, in prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching the Sun get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving the people in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was a promise of the continuation of life and the return of the spring: reason to celebrate.

This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days of the Grecian one, it involved a human sacrifice. The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples, include the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

The Yule Log
In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who put on a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak. Sprigs were cut and families hung then in their in doorways as good luck.

That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

No one knows the date Jesus was born; no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source, we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year: The flocks would most likely have been corralled. In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves, which had lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day or feast day of any sort was listed for December 25th.

In fact, not only did early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries CE here) argue about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25 - some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods, not the one true god.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took some time for that notion to become formalized and a day to be settled on.

In 313, Constantine the Great legally allowed Christianity in the Roman Empire. Actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says "it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best," which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Anyway, the first recorded date of the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th was not until 336, three centuries after he died. It was not until few years after that when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not actually get baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Okay, yeah, all well and good, but let's get back to the point: How did the chosen date come down to December 25? Why that date as opposed to any of the other possibilities? That was the question, after all.

To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which by the 4th century had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.

The date of December 25 brings us back to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia. This was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but over time it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling; houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens; schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, incense, and the like. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with their faces blackened or wearing masks and fantastic hats. Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since a day or at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically, anyway.

(Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.)

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21. But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25.

Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

This new being, this composite of two composites, was Solis invicta, the invincible sun, and Mithra's day became dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the unconquerable sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more - consider all the saints' days; there is no assertion that one of those saints were born on that particular day, it's just a day to make note of them - since it's arbitrary, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia, when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, the birthday of the unconquerable "Son?"

St. Chrysostom
Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."

By the year 354 CE, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed. Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.

And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. In fact, there were laws against it. In his journal entry for 1621, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, writing 10 or 12 years later, recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling has been modernized.)
A page from Bradford's journal
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that it was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
And it wasn't just here: In 1647, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which is known in the US as Pentecost.

In 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked it. Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686.

For many years, Thanksgiving remained the most important seasonal holiday in New England.

Even in other parts of the country Christmas did not become a major holiday until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in Christmas, particularly in the South. In 1837, Louisiana became the first state to make the day a holiday.

New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the very first time Christmas was mentioned in the town’s oldest newspaper wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that "The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday“ in the region, but "We are in a transition state." And so it was: By 1860, just a few years later, that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.


"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, Plymouth, MA, November 15, 1979

186.4 - Subhuman Scum of the Year Award: and the two nominees are....

Subhuman Scum of the Year Award: and the two nominees are....

Finally for now, I had two candidates for Outrage of the Week but I'm not going to pick either one this week because they were both so insanely bad that instead of that they are the contenders for a new, sure-to-be-highly coveted, award, Subhuman Scum of the Year. If you want to chime in on which one of them deserves it more, you know the address:

Our first nominee is a man who not only may well be the embodiment of pure evil, he even looks the part: "The Big" Dick Cheney.

When Chuck Todd recently asked him on Meet the Press about the 25% of prisoners in our Great War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) who turned out to be innocent, some of who were tortured and died, Cheney replied "I have no problem [with that]."

No problem, that is, with torturing and killing innocent people.

He might seem like a shoo-in until you meet our other candidate. He is Jeffrey Follmer, the head of Cleveland Patrolmen’s Association.

He told MSNBC host Ari Melber that the cops who shot down 12-year-old Tamir Rice - who Follmer kept calling "the male" - who shot him down literally two seconds after coming screeching up to him in their car were, Follmer blandly declared while presenting the dead-faced, unblinking stare of the truly deranged, they were entirely, unquestionably, justified.

Sounding like a holocaust denier who insists they sees "no evidence" of the death camps even when it literally is dropped in their lap, he actually claimed that the video of the shooting, the murder, that the video, his words, "clearly shows" the cops did the right thing and what's more, the real victims here are the cops of Cleveland, who are being "disrespected" by calls for justice.

Sounds like another example of Everything You Need To Know: Wanting justice is "disrespecting" cops. Which tells you what he thinks constitutes "respect."

If you want to chip on on who should get the award, by all means do so. It will be given out next show.

Sources cited in links:

186.3 - Things I Never Thought I'd Say: proud of Nancy Pelosi

Things I Never Thought I'd Say: proud of Nancy Pelosi

Next up, I'm sure you heard about the fight - and it actually was a fight - in Congress over the fact that the budget bill contains a provision that undoes part of the Dodd-Frank bank regulations, with the result that it will be easier for banks to engage in exactly the same sort of wildly risky behavior that nearly crashed the world economy in 2008 while again leaving the rest of us on the hook to bail the banks and the bankers out of their greed-driven stupidity.

I'm also sure you heard about Senator Elizabeth Warren's attempts to block the bill unless that provision was taken out.

I mention this here because in the House, the opposition to the bill among Democrats - and there was a fair amount of it - was lead by Nancy Pelosi, and I just wanted to say that I was proud of Nancy Pelosi. I wanted to because those are words which I never thought would leave my mouth together in that order and in fairness I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity.

Sources cited in links:

Friday, December 19, 2014

186.2 - Everything You Need To Know: about why cops get away with murder

Everything You Need To Know: about why cops get away with murder

Next up is an edition of we call Everything You Need To Know, which is where you can learn what you need to know about something in a very short time.

In this case, it's everything you need to know about why cops so regularly get away with what amounts to murder.

First, credit where it's due: I didn't find this. It was found by a poster to DailyKos who goes by the name of "Blue Illini" who has been looking at the grand jury testimony in the case of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager killed by white cop Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

In her testimony to that grand jury, St. Louis County chief medical examiner Mary Case said, and I quote,
Any time I'm involved in an officer involved shooting, be it a fatal one or non-fatal, it is always during my initial investigation listed as an assault on law enforcement.
She insisted that this in no way was meant to be her opinion about what happened, but the fact is that by her own admission, when a cop shoots someone, the default assumption is that it involved an attack on the cop.

And that is everything you need to know.

Sources cited in links:

186.1 - Good News: NRA loses one

Good News: NRA loses one

The show will be a little different this week: I'm going to run through four thing rather quickly so I can spend most of the time on an edition of And Another Thing, where we step away from political stuff for a time.

So let's open with a bit of good news.

On December 15, the Senate confirmed Dr. Vivek Murthy to serve as surgeon general of the United States. A small thing, you would think, and not all that important in the greater scheme of things, except for one detail: Murthy's nomination had been held up for a year because of opposition by the NRA or as I know them, the Nutzoid Rabbit-brains of America.

Yep, the NRA declared it opposed Murthy's nomination. In fact, the rabbit-brains said they would score the vote on his confirmation; that is, they would count it in determining which Senators to actively support or oppose come next election. It was that important to them, all because he earlier said that "guns are a health care issue." So they actively opposed his confirmation right up to the vote.

So it took a year, but the NRA lost. And that is itself enough to make it good news.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #186

YouTube is still not letting me share videos so I can't embed the show.

The URL for the video, should you care to watch rather than read the segments, is:

Left Side of the Aisle
for the week of December 18-24, 2014

This week:

Good News: NRA loses one

Everything You Need To Know: about why cops get away with murder

Things I Never Thought I'd Say: proud of Nancy Pelosi

Subhuman Scum of the Year Award: and the two nominees are....

And Another Thing: why Christmas is on December 25
"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, Plymouth, MA, November 15, 1979

Monday, December 15, 2014

185.7 - Eric Garner and untouchable cops

Eric Garner and untouchable cops

Last week I said there was much more to talk about with regard to the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, MO. Little did I know that that discussion would have to be put aside to address an even more egregious case: the unpunished killing of Eric Garner.

Eric Garner
Back on July 17, Eric Garner was in Tompkinsville, a section of Staten Island in New York City. He was accused by cops of selling untaxed cigarettes, of which he apparently did have a history. He protested that he had done nothing wrong - a claim supported to the police at the time by an eyewitness - but the cops demanded he put his arms behind his back to be handcuffed. When he protested, NYPD cop Daniel Pantaleo grabbed him from behind, wrapping his arm around Garner's neck and wrestling him to the pavement, using an illegal choke hold, and pressing his face into the pavement. The other cops swarmed over Garner, pinning him to the pavement, face down. Garner, in a chokehold with other cops piled on him, several times protested that he couldn't breathe. The cops ignored him. Finally, he went limp. And later he died.

On December 3, a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict white cop Daniel Pantaleo in the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner.

This decision came despite the fact that there is video showing showing everything I just described. Despite the fact that the video shows Pantaleo grabbing Garner from behind, despite the video showing cops swarming over Garner, despite the clear proof of Pantaleo using a choke hold which has been specifically banned by the NYPD for 21 years precisely because of the risk of killing someone, despite the clear view of Pantaleo pushing Garner's face into the pavement, despite the undeniable fact that Garner repeatedly protested "I can't breathe."

Despite that, no indictment. No charge. Not murder, not manslaughter, not even unintentional manslaughter, not even some sort of negligence. No charge.

Despite the clear recorded proof that even the cops couldn't deny, no indictment. No charge.

Despite the fact that the medical examiner called it a homicide and that it was the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, no indictment. No charge.

You want to know how bad this was? You want to know how shocking it was?

Even Bill O'Reilly was troubled by it. Even posters at the leading right-wing website and called the decision things like "baffling" and "infuriating." A writer for National Review slammed it. Even Charles freaking Krauthammer called it "totally incomprehensible."

But there was no indictment, no charge. And again an unarmed black man is dead and again a white cop walks scot-free.

What in hell does it take? What does it take to get a cop indicted? How much evidence is needed? How much proof is required? If video evidence and the report of the medical examiner is not enough, what would be?

This is the other part of this. I talked last week and again just now about white cops killing unarmed black men and getting away with it. But it's more than that. It's cops in general getting away with murder.

I talked last week about the fact that a prosecutor who brings a case to a grand jury and really wants to get an indictment can get one. Despite their supposed independence, grand juries are creatures of the prosecution: The only evidence they see is what the prosecutor shows them; their understanding of the law is from what the prosecutor tells them.

So why are cops the one exception to the rule? Why, when as the saying goes, a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, why do cops over and over and over again walk away free, untouched, uncharged, unindicted?

And yes, it is over and over and over again.

A recent study
by the Houston Chronicle of grand juries in Harris County, Texas - Harris County being where Houston is - revealed that Houston cops involved in shootings have been cleared by those grand juries 288 consecutive times, dating back to 2004. Between 2008 and 2012, Houston cops shot 121 people, 52 of them fatally. More than a quarter of those people, including 10 of those who died, were unarmed.

Officers shot unarmed civilians who “reached” or “grabbed” for their waistlines or held objects such as cellphones or a hairbrush that the cops claimed to have mistaken for weapons.

The paper also noted that in Dallas, 81 shootings involving 175 officers from 2008 to 2012 resulted in exactly only one cop being indicted. No cop in Chicago has been charged in an on-duty shooting since 2007.

US cops kill approximately 1,000 citizens per year. According to a study by Bowling Green State University, those 1,000 shooting produce an average of four indictments. 99.6% of the time a cop kills someone, there isn't even a trial. Even if we were to say that 90% of those killings were clearly, obviously, justified, no doubt, the cop's life was unquestionably in immediate danger, absolutely self-defense, that would still mean that 96 times out of a hundred, 96% of the time even where there is a question, nothing happens. Not even a trial.

In fact, even for small crap, cops virtually never get indicted - if the case even gets as far as a grand jury. As a practical matter, cops are almost immune from legal consequences for their actions.

Why? Why is it so hard to hold cops responsible for their actions?

Because for one thing, grand juries don't want to indict cops. Most people - lord knows why - most people just trust cops more than their accusers, no matter the evidence. Actually, lord does know why: We are socially conditioned to defer to authority, to accept the word of authority over non-authority.

Don't believe me, think you're different? We'll do a little thought experiment. I'll give you two statements. One is by an arresting cop who says "he" - we'll assume it was a he - "was committing a crime and he resisted arrest, so I had to use increased force." The other is by the accused, who says "I was just minding my own business and this cop comes and starts hassling me. I tell him to leave me alone and he attacks me." Who do you think you'd tend to believe based on that? And if you think, as most people would, the cop - congratulations, you've just exonerated Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. Because you assumed that the cop - the official, the authority - must be more trustworthy.

But a bigger reason is that prosecutors do not want to indict cops. They depend on cops for the investigations that provide them the evidence they need to go after criminals. They work with them on a regular basis. They associate with them. They are "on the same team." They have, that is, both a professional need for, and a personal bias in favor of, cops.

And there's one more reason, a legal - or rather legalistic - one. The legal standard for justifying deadly force set by the Supreme Court in the 1980s is "objective reasonableness." A cop who kills someone isn't liable if the killing was "objectively reasonable." What's wrong with that? As civil rights attorney Chase Madar wrote recently,
[I]n actual courtroom practice, “objective reasonableness” has become nearly impossible to tell apart from the subjective snap judgments of panic-fueled police officers. American courts universally defer to the law enforcement officer’s own personal assessment of the threat at the time.
No second-guessing allowed; no hindsight is permitted. If a cop claims they felt threatened, that's good enough. Even if they are demonstrably wrong, as in a 2000 case when two cops shot and killed the occupants of a car which the cops claimed was being driven at them: Forensic evidence proved the car was stationary at the time. No matter. No charge.

That applied to Darren Wilson, too: Darren Wilson's account of what happened cannot be correct. Cannot be.

This is beyond the ways in which he clearly changed his story between his initial statements to police, saying initially that he did not realize that Michael Brown fit the description of someone accused of stealing cigars from a convenience store not long before and that Brown pushed "something" into the hands of Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time, only to tell the grand jury that he did know Brown fit the description and that it was definitely a handful of cigars Brown gave to Johnson.

This is not about that. It has to do with an audio recording that by coincidence caught the sounds of Wilson firing his gun.

It was caught in the background of a video chat by someone who didn't realize its significance until later. The sound clip was analyzed by the creators of ShotSpotter, which is used by police in 65 cities, including Ferguson, to identify and pinpoint shootings. (The ones in Ferguson are too far from the scene of Brown's killing to be of use here.)

Their analysis indicated there were 10 shots fired from a single spot by a single shooter over a period of just over 6.5 seconds.

In his description of the event to police, Wilson claimed Brown "charged" at him from about 30 feet away and when he got within 15 feet, 15 feet, Wilson fired his first shot. However, he claimed Brown didn't even slow down. He fired twice more and then once more, killing Brown.

Okay. The shots covered just over 6.5 seconds. Wilson claims Brown was "charging." But even at normal walking speed of 3 miles an hour, in that time Brown would have covered nearly 29 feet, nearly double the distance Wilson claimed. Wilson's testimony cannot be true. Period.

But it doesn't matter. If Wilson, in an adrenalin-fueled panic, just thought it was true, that's good enough.

We are not only socialized to believe the cop, not only do prosecutors not want to charge cops, we are almost legally-required to believe the cop and we can't even say "unless the evidence says otherwise" because even when we have a video and a medical examiner's report it's not good enough to overcome that triple bias.

Frank Serpico - remember him? - said it recently in an op-ed in the NY Daily News:
In the old days, they used to put a gun or a knife on somebody after a shooting. Now they don't even bother.

But today, we have cops crying wolf all the time. They testify "I was in fear of my life," the grand jury buys it, the DA winks and nods, and there's no indictment.
It's time to stop talking about "a broken system" and how we have to "repair" the "broken system." It's time to recognize that this is the system. These cases are not aberrations of the system, they are the way the system is supposed to work. Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo and the rest are supposed to get off. Because they are simultaneously tools of, protectors of, enablers of, and part of authority, of power, in a society that increasingly sees fewer and fewer having, controlling, more and more  while more and more have, control, less and less and a society that still, despite all our claims to advancement, still values black lives less than white ones.

We don't need "reform." We don't need palliatives and soporifics like body cameras - again, ask Eric Garner how much good video does, except oh wait, we can't. We need an entire, fundamental, dare I say radical, change in how we view cops and the role of cops; more, a radical change in how we view authority, in how we view the distribution of wealth and power in our society.

It needs to be said at this point that most cops are decent people trying to do a professional job, trying to do the best they can for themselves, their families, and their communities. But we cannot trust ourselves, or our families, or our communities - especially communities of color - we cannot trust our liberties and our very lives to the mere hope that those cops will not be corrupted by the cop culture in which they are immersed, a culture that sees the world as "us versus them," of "insiders versus outsiders" in which we are the outsiders in our own communities, a culture that increasingly sees itself not as a community resource but as an occupying force, a culture that engenders in cops a constant terror, a constant fear, an unceasing tension that they are constantly at risk of their lives even though, measured by the actual rate of on-the-job deaths, in this country being a cop doesn't even make the top 10.

That cop culture is why recently, a poster at the website could write that "there are no good cops anymore," "good cops" being defined there as those who "do the right thing, even when it's incredibly hard, even when they have to go up against other cops." That is, he said, cops who do the right thing when they have some skin in the game. Cops, as I say, who have not been morally corrupted, who have not had their ethical compass permanently demagnitized by the polluted waters in which they swim on a daily basis.  And yes, they are increasingly rare.

Now we  just have to wait to see what the excuse will be, why there will be no charges against the cop, in the murder - yes I said murder - of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Sources cited in llinks:

185.6 - Hero Award 3: John Legend and Chrissy Teigen

Hero Award 3: John Legend and Chrissy Teigen

Our third Hero Award goes to musician John Legend and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen.

People have been protesting in NY to express their outrage over the recent grand jury decisions in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A number of celebrities have also expressed their opinions on the matter, but this celebrity couple decided to put their money where their tweets are.

Chrissy Teigen, John Legend
On Sunday, December 7, they hired a whole bunch of food trucks to come and pass out free meals to demonstrators and the homeless. There were a variety of trucks providing a variety of food and each of them gave out hundreds of free meals.

The trucks were organized by Operation Help or Hush, which grew from Twitter exchanges into on-the-streets protests.

And by the way, even though they were publicly thanked - on Twitter, of course - the couple has not directly acknowledged being the source of the money for this.

Taking the action while not seeking the credit is hard for any of us, I expect, we all have egos, and I also expect it's even truer for celebrities since their lives so often are organized around publicity. Which is another reason to say that John Legend and Chrissy Teigen are heroes.

Sources cited in links:

185.5 - Hero Award 2: Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez

Hero Award 2: Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez

Our next heroes are two employees at a now-closed assisted living facility in Castro Valley, CA: Maurice Rowland, a cook, and Miguel Alvarez, the janitor.

This is not new, in fact it happened last year, but I just heard about it and it is certainly worth noting.

In October 2013, the Community Care Licensing Division of California's Department of Social Services ordered the facility shut down as the result of a laundry list of violations including handling injuries improperly and neglecting to hand out appropriate medications.

The residents were supposed to be relocated, but the department screwed up and even though most of the staff had already left, 16 residents - some of them confined to their beds - were left behind to fend for themselves.

That's when Rowland and Alvarez got together and decided they couldn't leave the residents alone. Despite their limited training, they bathed and fed the residents and doled out their medications. They worked around the clock for days - without getting paid, mind you - only taking quick breaks to shower.

Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez
When a resident's condition started to deteriorate, the pair called 911 - and after that happened four times, authorities finally got the message that hey, something is wrong here and the fire department and sheriff's office stepped in.

All the residents were safely relocated and the incident lead the California state legislature to pass laws to hopefully prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again.

Which leaves only one question: Where are the medals for Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, who clearly are heroes.

Sources cited in links:

185.4 - Hero Award 1: Matt Tribe

Hero Award 1: Matt Tribe

In fact, it's been a bad enough week that before I get to what I want to spend most of the time on this week, I'm going to try to cheer myself up by giving out not one, not two, but three Hero Awards, which we give around here as the occasion arises to someone who just does the right thing on a matter big or small.

Our first hero this week is Matt Tribe of Ogden, Utah.

This past fall, Olive Garden ran this promo where for $100 you could get a "Never Ending Pasta Pass," with which you could eat as much pasta as you possibly could over the course of seven weeks.

Tribe got a pass and then figured he couldn't possibly eat that much pasta. So instead, he embarked on what he called Random Acts of Pasta. He went to different Olive Gardens several times a day, got a take-out order of pasta, and, quoting him,
I’d just go show up at someone’s house and brighten their life with some Olive Garden.
By the end of the seven weeks, Tribe used the pass for himself 14 times, and was still able to feed 125 people - including at least 10 who were homeless.

Of course, no good deed goes unsuspected in our cynical age where it's considered the height of hipness to sneer at anything that smacks of unselfishness, so there are lots of people claiming this is just a marketing stunt by Olive Garden. Of course, like all good conspiracy notions, this one requires the perpetrator of the hoax - in this case, Olive Garden - to be both amazingly clever and rock-brained stupid in exactly the correct ways and measures needed to provide the "obvious" proof of the deviousness.

Matt Tribe
Olive Garden denied any involvement except for providing the pasta - which to the conspiracy theorists only proved it was a stunt.

For his part, Matt Tribe responded to all the vituperation by tweeting
I genuinely wanted to do something nice for people and now everyone hates me. Half of the people call me a thief, half of the people say its PR from Olive Garden. I'm having a real hard time with it all.
Not everyone, guy. I think you're a hero.

And you know what? If it turns out it was a marketing ploy, I don't care! It still means a bunch of hungry folks got a hot meal.

Sources cited in links:

185.3 - Not Good News 3: Again devaluing workers

Not Good News 3: Again devaluing workers

Finally for now, on the home front we have a unanimous Supreme Court declaring that if your employer keeps you after your shift is over for a mandatory "security check" - that is, they treat every employee every day as a suspected thief - they don't have to pay you for the time you're stuck there because, after all, you're not "working."

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence "Uncle" Thomas said the screening process is not a "principal activity" of the workers' jobs, “one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.”

The fact that you can't keep your job if you "dispense" with this humiliating check - which would certainly seem to hinder your ability to "perform your principal activities" - didn't matter. Of course.

So not only can employers search your personal belongings, they can do it on your time. I'm sure this has something to do with "the dignity of work," but I just can't figure out what.

Sources cited in links:

185.2 - Not Good News 2: Obama wants no restrictions on his war

Not Good News 2: Obama wants no restrictions on his war

Next up, we have our Nobel Peace Prize Prez swearing up and down that he is not going to expand his lovely little war against ISIS beyond Iraq and Syria and swearing "no boots on the ground" while at the same time demanding Congress not pass legislation saying that he can't do what he swears he won't.

Meanwhile, he insists that he don't need no new stinkin' resolution to do whatever he wants anyway, because he's the Commander-in-Chief, doncha know, and screw all that "Congressional powers" nonsense, all the while using language that would sit comfortably on the lips of George Bush or "The Big" Dick Cheney.

And liberals and faux "progressives" still fall all over themselves over this guy. Unbelievable.

Sources cited in links:

185.1 - Not Good News 1: Torture report shows again we can be as scummy as any other nation

Not Good News 1: Torture report shows again we can be as scummy as any other nation

There will be no Good News to start this week; it's been a really bad week. Just to give a sense of it, I'm going to start off with three pieces of Not Good News.

First, we have the release of the report on the CIA's use of torture in the wake of 9/11 which had to be done over the objections of President Hopey-Changey and his "most transparent administration ever."

The release is a good thing, I expect, even though it really just reminds us of the facts that we can be a really scummy nation that is ready to at the first provocation to descend to the depravity we ascribe to enemies and that for all the torture, the only one who has paid a price is former CIA agent John Kiriakou, sent to prison for the crime of being the one to first tell us about the torture.

Sources cited in links:

Left Side of the Aisle #185

Sorry this is so late but for some reason YouTube is not letting me embed my own videos and yes I made sure all the correct boxes were ticked. So I finally gave up for now and did it this way.

So to see the show, you'll have to do it the old-fashioned way by going to the link:

Not Good News 1: Torture report shows again we can be as scummy as any other nation

Not Good News 2: Obama wants no restrictions on his war

Not Good News 3: Again devaluing workers

Hero Award 1: Matt Tribe

Hero Award 2: Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez

Hero Award 3: John Legend and Chrissy Teigen

Eric Garner and untouchable cops

Saturday, December 06, 2014

184.9 - Outrage of the Week: No indictment in Ferguson

Outrage of the Week: No indictment in Ferguson

Now it's time for our other regular feature, the Outrage of the Week. And this week, I can bet you know what it it.

Okay, so it happened. Just as we knew it would - we kept hoping it wouldn't, but we knew it would. Which is why even though the taste is so bitter, the disappointment so sharp, there is no sense of surprise. Just the aching hurt of seeing it happen yet again.

Another black man - or black teenager - or black child - shot to death by another white cop. Another white cop walks.

It has long since become depressingly, disgustingly, predictable.

"No probable cause." Not even for involuntary manslaughter. "No probable cause."

Darren Wilson did nothing wrong when he shot down Michael Brown, we're told. Nothing at all. According to St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, sounding like a defense attorney doing a final summation, he was just defending himself. He "feared for his life," so shooting Brown down and then leaving his body lying in the street for four hours, never even bothering to call paramedics, that was just, well, it was ... okay. Reasonable. Appropriate. He was just defending himself.

How do we know that's so? How do we know that's the truth of the matter? Because Darren Wilson is a cop. And Michael Brown, well, he was ... unimportant. Irrelevant. Just another black guy who got aggressive - or, often enough, just mouthy - with a white cop. And we all know - or are supposed to know and to accept - that in that case white cops can't be held responsible for what happens after that. Because the cop "followed procedure" or "acted within guidelines," procedures and guidelines that should result in cops' badge numbers starting with double-0, at least when dealing with young black men. Because there wasn't, there almost never is, "probable cause."

There is much more to talk about here, about the sloppy, error-filled non-investigation by the police, who didn't even bother to take measurements or photographs of the scene, about the fact that Wilson clearly changed his story between his initial police report and his testimony to the Grand Jury, about how his testimony invoked racist cliches about the superpowerful black man who made him feel like "a 5-year-old battling Hulk Hogan" and about the black man who looked like "a demon," and a whole lot more, but I will, for the moment at least, end with this:

The legal purpose of grand juries is supposed to be a check on arbitrary prosecutions, a way of making prosecutors show they have enough evidence to proceed to trial. For that reason, they usually only hear the prosecution case: If that's not good enough for trial, a defense case is unnecessary. But in this case, the prosecutor by his own account introduced "everything" - which means instead of providing any guidance, instead of providing a coherent narrative, instead of presenting a case for "probable cause," which is the only standard a grand jury has to meet to justify an indictment, he just dumped it all in the grand jury's lap and said "you figure it out." It also means, by definition, he introduced any exculpatory evidence or testimony they may have had, material that would normally be presented by the defense at trial, not by the prosecution.

As much as grand juries are in legal fantasy independent panels, they are in reality creatures of the prosecution.

In a famous quote from former NY State Judge Sol Wachtler, if they wanted to a district attorney could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. In 2010, the most recent year for which we have records, US attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in precisely 11 of them.

Now, that's not exactly comparable to this case because those are federal grand juries and this is a state grand jury, but the point remains: A prosecutor who really wants an indictment can get one. And a prosecutor who really does not want an indictment and who has gone to a grand jury only because of political pressure or social protest and doesn't have the guts to admit they don't want one, can insure there isn't one.

I say here for the record that I will go to my grave convinced - and there are a good number of legal authorities including defense attorneys and former prosecutors who agree with me - that prosecutor Robert McCulloch wanted Darren Wilson to get off scot-free and manipulated the grand jury system to make that happen. And justice can go to hell.

And. That. Is. An. Outrage.

Sources cited in links:

184.8 - Clown Award: 125 members of the Seattle PD

Clown Award: 125 members of the Seattle PD

Several years ago, the federal Justice Department investigated the Seattle police department after several high-profile incidents of excessive force. In 2011 the investigation concluded that officers use excessive force about 20 percent of the time. It noted that, quoting, the “great majority of the City’s police officers are honorable law enforcement professionals” but that didn't change the fact that a “subset of officers” continued to misuse force.

Which, frankly, is probably true of most police forces.

As part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ, over the past year, the Seattle PD has revised its policies on when police can use force.

In response, some 125 Seattle police officers, about 10% of the police union's membership, filed a lawsuit challenging the new rules. (They did this, I will note in fairness, without the support of the union.)

In their filing, which is in essence a long-winded whine that "it's tough to be a cop," the cops argue that the new rules violate their Constitutional rights under the Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, which I gather are the only ones they've ever heard of or they would have included more.

The brief asserts that cops have a Constitutional right not to de-escalate a situation before turning to lethal force, asserting that their use of force is Constitutionally protected
regardless of whether or not there existed less intrusive means, or alternatives to self-defense or defense of others, such as inflicting a less serious injury to, retreating from, or containing, or negotiating with a suspect.
In other words, these cops are asserting they have a Constitutional right to use excessive, unnecessary force - more bluntly, they can use any level of force, any level of violence, up to and including shooting someone to death, any time they think they should and nobody can say boo.

Happily, these Tonton Macoute wanna-bes had their case summarily rejected by a federal judge who declared that they fundamentally misunderstood, even “grossly misconstrued,” the Constitutional protections they were claiming for themselves. And they very likely will fare no better if they appeal.

But that doesn't change the fact that 10% of the police force of a major city have said in effect that they believe they have the right to beat you, even to kill you, even if alternatives exist. Ten percent of the Seattle police department - not the whole department, but one out of every 10 of them, like the one caught punching a woman in the face - consists of clowns. Dangerous, ignorant, heavily armed clowns - but clowns.

Sources cited in links:

184.7 - Hero Award: Australian newscaster Karl Stefanovic

Hero Award: Australian newscaster Karl Stefanovic

Now we have the happy opportunity for one of our occasional features, the Hero Award, given as the occasion arises to someone who just does the right thing on a matter big or small.

This time, our hero is Australian newscaster Karl Stefanovic, co-host of the Australian version of  "Today," who engaged  in what you might well call some performance art to protest sexism.

His co-host is a woman named Lisa Wilkinson, and she regularly received unsolicited fashion advice and appearance-based criticisms from viewers.

Stefanovic became frustrated and decided to conduct an experiment. Except for, he said, a couple of times required by circumstances, he wore the same blue suit on air every day for an entire year, just to see if anyone noticed or cared.

No one did.

"But women," he said, and I'm quoting him now,
Women, they wear the wrong color and they get pulled up. They say the wrong thing and there's thousands of tweets written about them. I'm judged on how I do my job, basically. Women are quite often judged on what they're wearing or how their hair is.
And for demonstrating that fact so clearly and so cleverly, Karl Stefanovic is a hero.

Sources cited in links:

184.6 - New IPCC report even grimmer than earlier ones

New IPCC report even grimmer than earlier ones

Something I’m not going to spend time on this week but will get to very soon and wanted to mention now: The latest IPCC report came out last month and it sounds an increasingly-loud alarm to a world that still seems determined not to listen.

The growing risks of climate change are so profound, the scientists said, they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at their current pace.

Failure to reduce emissions could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.

And 2014 is looking very much like it will be the hottest year on record, beating out 2010 which beat out 2005 and so much for the “global warming has stopped” bull.

I will stop there because I do want to spend some significant time on this, which I promise to do very soon.

Sources cited in links:

184.5 - Update: So much for democracy, Texas style

Update: So much for democracy, Texas style

A couple of weeks ago, in running down some good news that came out of the November elections, I noted that the town of Denton, Texas, had voted by a wide margin to ban fracking within city limits.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a means of increasing production from oil and natural gas wells by pumping a mix of water, sludge, and one of several different cocktails of toxic chemicals into a well under such pressure that it literally fractures the surrounding rock, allowing more fossil fuel to be extracted from the fissures created.

The residents of Denton, one of the most heavily-fracked communities in Texas, complained about poor air quality, noise, and an increase in low-magnitude earthquakes associated with the process locally. So they voted to ban it.

But to show you - assuming such a show was needed - what happens when right-wingers who screech about "small government" and "local control" do when that conflicts with the desires of big money, just two days after the vote, Christi Craddick, chairwoman of the state commission that oversees oil and gas drilling said she would simply ignore the ban and go right on issuing fracking permits in Denton.

Revealingly, her reasoning was, quoting her, “It’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s. We’re going to continue permitting up there because that’s my job." Actually, Ms. Craddick, your job is to regulate - but I'm not surprised you think your job is to hand out permits like candy to "frack, baby, frack."

She also claimed the vote was the result of “misinformation” and that the oil and gas industry should have done more to communicate with locals. However, according to the Dallas Morning News, the fracking ban question was the most expensive political campaign in Denton’s history, and one in which major oil and gas companies spent $685,000 - remember, this is a municipal election ballot question - outspending environmentalists supporting the ban by close to 30-1.

Right-winger definition of what constitutes an illegitimate election among uninformed voters: one that they lose.

Sources cited in links:

184.4 - Footnote: Invalid immunization fears

Footnote: Invalid immunization fears

As a quick footnote to that, I am aware that there are those in the US who declare that they will not have their children vaccinated on the claim that the vaccines are, or rather something contained within the vaccines is, connected to autism and there is some sort of vast conspiracy of silence within the US government, particularly the Centers for Disease Control to hide the fact. At least some among them say - I have had this argued directly to me - that there is no need to take that risk because so many other children get immunized that there is no chance of their child getting, in this case, measles.

Those people are wrong. They are wrong scientifically and they are wrong ethically and they are wrong practically.

Wrong scientifically because there is no reliable evidence that the substance in question - a mercury-containing compound called "thiomersal" internationally and "thimerosal" in the US - is connected to autism.

Wrong ethically because by their own argument they want everybody else to risk their children so their own children will be "safe."

And wrong practically because the net effect is  to increase the risk to their children of getting measles: After the live measles vaccine was introduced in the US in the early 1960s, the number of new cases plummeted from over 500,000 in 1962 to just 37 in 2004. But by the end of October this year, there were already over 600 cases, already making it the worst year here in 20 years.

And I can't help but wonder how many of those kids had parents who said "I won't get my child immunized because they'll never get measles."

Sources cited in links:

184.3 - Not Good News: Cases of measles sharply up worldwide

Not Good News: Cases of measles sharply up worldwide

I came across this the other day, and it just hurt my heart. It comes under the heading of Not Good News.

In 2000, the World Health Organization embarked on a campaign to get children across the world immunized against measles, still a significant killer of children. The goal was to reduce deaths from measles by 95% by 2015.

By 2012, that goal looked in reach: The number of children who died yearly from measles had dropped from 583,000 to 122,000, a drop of about 81%.

But WHO now reports that in 2013 the number of measles deaths in children went up to nearly 146,000, raising doubts the goal of a 95% reduction will be met by next year.

The greater tragedy here, the real source of the pain, is that the measles vaccine is easily available and relatively affordable - about $1 per child in the developing world - but governments and private partners contributing to the immunization effort have slashed funding, with the result that vaccination programs have been delayed or even stopped in several countries, leaving tens of millions of children, particularly in India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, vulnerable to a disease that potentially can leave them brain damaged or blind even if they survive.

Understand: This is an international program through UNICEF, which means it's internationally-funded. It's not that nations such as India, Pakistan, and Nigeria have cut their funding for immunizations of their own children, it's that the world community has. And the people most affected, as is often the case, are the poor. Which is probably why in the eyes of too many governments, the lives of the children are literally not worth $1.

Sources cited in links:

184.2 - Good News: More local governments recognize workers' rights

Good News: More local governments recognize workers' rights

On another front, more and more states and cities are picking up where the federal government has failed to act and are recognizing the need for greater protection and respect for the needs of workers, particularly low-wage workers. The bad news is that this is necessary at all, that we are more and more becoming a low-wage, part-time nation, but the good news here is that, again, more states and municipalities are recognizing their responsibility to do something in response.

On November 25, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, the country’s first-ever legislation aimed at improving life for retail employees.

Retail chains that have 11 or more locations across the country and employ 20 or more people in San Francisco will now have to provide their workers at least two weeks’ advance notice of their schedules. Failure to do so will mean having to give those workers additional “predictability pay.” Disrupted lives due to shifting schedules posted on short notice have become a major complaint among particularly (but not exclusively) part-time workers, some of who won't even know if they will work a shift until they show up that day.

The San Francisco measure will also require employers to improve the treatment of part-time employees, give current workers the opportunity to take on more hours before the company hires new people, pay "on-call" people whose shifts are canceled, and give part-time employees the same starting wage as those working full time in the same position and access to the same benefits.

And a week later, on December 2, the Chicago City Council voted 44-5 to pass fast-tracked legislation to raise the minimum wage for workers in the city from the current $8.25 an hour to $13 an hour by 2019, with the first hike, to $10 an hour, to come in 2015.

Part of the reason this is happening is that, in another bit of unfortunately-necessary but still Good News, low-wage workers are getting fed up themselves, fed up enough to ignore retaliation and the prospect of getting fired, and are taking to the streets.

For one example: Friday, November 30, marked the third consecutive year of protests and strikes against Walmart. The protests, under the banner of  "$15 and full time" - that is, a $15 an hour minimum wage and full-time work for anyone who wants it - were led by OUR Walmart, a union-backed worker group, alongside community and labor groups in different cities.

Thousands of Walmart employees and labor union members protested at 1,000 Walmart stores across the country. At least 11 workers and supporters were arrested for blocking traffic outside a Walmart in Chicago.

The actions come after a week in which workers walked off the job in 10 states, employees in Los Angeles staged a fast, and workers in D.C. orchestrated a sit-in where the associates wore masking tape over their mouths to protest of Walmart “silencing of employees who complain about working conditions."

Dan Schlademan of Making Change at Walmart, a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union which supports the campaign, said he expects the number of strikers to be in the hundreds by the end of the day. That number is small compared to Walmart's total work force, but do not forget that just a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for it to happen at all.

Sources cited in links:
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