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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Scalia, 'racial entitlement,' and the power of history

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been getting skewered - and deservedly so - after his from-the-bench comments calling the protections in Voting Rights Act "racial entitlements." It takes a perverse view of the world, and a blind view of history, to call the still-insufficient efforts of the federal government to protect a minority against a majority an "entitlement." It really makes you wish Scalia would follow his pope's example and retire for the good of the institution. Not to mention the country.

The debate brings to mind a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago about a single civil rights-era murder. The victim was William Moore who, much like Viola Liuzzo, was white and gunned down over support for equal rights.

What propelled me to write this piece was the victim's anonymity in our history books. Much like the book I have since written, this was meant to both explore the echoes of the past, and to try to resurrect a moment that seemed to define its time, but that had fallen out of our collective memory.

The link to the story is here, but pasted below is the "nut graph" - the meat of the piece:
Prosecution in the Moore case was bound to be problematic. Despite legions of FBI infiltrators in the '60s, cracking the secrecy of the most violent cadres of the Ku Klux Klan was difficult. In many cases, local law enforcement aided segregationists and looked the other way as Klansmen killed activists, beat pacifists and burned and bombed homes and churches.

It was not an atmosphere conducive to swift justice. William Rayburn, the Etowah County prosecutor handling the Moore case, predicted privately to FBI officials that, given the local mood, he doubted a grand jury would indict Simpson--even if he signed a confession. Rayburn was right: In September 1963, five months after Moore's murder, an Etowah County grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to charge Simpson.

Sometimes justice does reach back. On May 22 of this year, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, the last of four former Klansmen suspected of blowing up the 16th Street Church, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison one year after fellow Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted for his role. Byron De La Beckwith, Evers' murderer, was convicted in 1994, three decades after that killing, and was sentenced to life in a Mississippi prison, where he died last year.

Emboldened by those successes, prosecutors have dusted off at least 11 civil rights era cases in the South, hoping to bring fresh charges. But countless other killings, including Moore's, have simply faded into history. As time passes and suspects and witnesses die, resolution becomes less likely. Simpson went to his grave four years ago without ever publicly discussing the killing, or his arrest. His wife and children maintain his silence.

Moore's widow, remarried 32 years ago to a quarryman and stone artist, lives on a 288-acre spread in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Mary Moore Birchard still has questions about what happened on that dark road in northeast Alabama, about why the grand jury decided not to indict Simpson despite eyewitness accounts placing a car like his at the scene, ballistics tests that found the killer's rifle was the same make and model as Simpson's, and Simpson's refusal to tell investigators what he had done after 4 p.m. on that cloudy spring day.

''It's always been my prayer that I would know who killed him before I die,'' Mary says.

There's more at stake than a widow's desire for certainty. Moore's murder remains part of the nation's unfinished business, a stain that can only be rinsed out with the truth, even if the guilty are beyond reach.
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Think you're eating healthy? Don't expect the label to tell you

There is nothing more fundamental to our physical existence than eating, which is why a series of recent reports should be extremely troubling for all of us. And an abject lesson in why we need more effective overseers of the commercial food chain. Because people keep proving that profit is a powerful motive for chicanery.

This morning Mother Jones magazine reports that what we thought we knew about calorie counting is likely all wrong, which could help explain why some people have trouble losing weight when they think they’re eating healthier:
Debate over the science of calories comes at the same that time health-conscious legislators are requiring restaurants to how calorie counts on their menus. Following the lead of New York City and California, Obamacare has a provision to make calorie labeling mandatory at chain restaurants across the country. For that to make a difference to our health, however, we have to understand what a calorie really means. At the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week, a panel of scientists presented research that is just beginning to tease out the nuances of the calorie. Whether food is cooked, the energy it takes to break down tough-to-digest foods, and gut bacteria activity all affect how much energy humans actually get from eating.
That follows revelations in Europe that Ikea, whose in-store restaurants are almost as popular as their particle-board furniture, has been caught with unlabeled horsemeat in some of its meatballs, a function of the time-honored business pursuit of finding the lowest price for supplies. The revelation is part of a broader food-source scandal in Europe over distribution of unlabeled horsemeat. From the BBC:
The labeling of the origin of meat and the traceability of the products will be high on the agenda at the EU ministers meeting.

Europe's food retailers depend on a complex network of brokers, cold stores and meat-cutting plants around the continent from which to source the ingredients wherever they are cheapest, says the BBC's Christian Fraser, in Paris.

The evidence of the past few weeks shows that national food safety authorities have failed to identify a problem in the supply chain over a significant period of time, he adds.

While the original agenda of the EU meeting included support for rural communities and the common fisheries policy, it is expected ministers will now try to come up with measures to tackle the horsemeat scandal.

Those could include a pan-European labeling project for frozen food, a move which has the backing of France and Germany.
Here in the United States, Oceana has its latest report from its tests of seafood. And yep, that red snapper you think you’re buying could well be something else entirely. From the New York Times:
In the 120 samples labeled red snapper and bought for testing nationwide, for example, 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that were not even in the snapper family, according to the study, which was released Thursday.

The study also contained surprises about where consumers were most likely to be misled — sushi bars topped the list in every city studied — while grocery stores were most likely to be selling fish honestly. Restaurants ranked in the middle.

Part of the problem, said the study’s chief author, Kimberly Warner, is that there are quite simply a lot of fish in the sea, and many of them look alike. Over all, the study found that about one-third of the 1,215 fish samples bought, from 2010 to 2012, were mislabeled.

“Even a relatively educated consumer couldn’t look at a whole fish and say, ‘I’m sure that’s a red snapper and not lane snapper,’ ” she said.
And then there’s expose from the Sunday New York Times magazine about the manipulation of processed foods to encourage addictive eating behaviors. The piece is an excerpt from the forthcoming book by Times Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss:
The public and the food companies have known for decades now … that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.
Add in the massive marketing campaigns surrounding processed food, from the fast-food restaurants to processed breakfast staples for kids, and the contours of our obesity crisis take shape.

Taken together – hell, let’s toss in Monsanto, too – these stories reveal an industry that we can’t do without, but also the hard-to-digest reality that we, as consumers, can’t trust them. And, by extension, what we eat. Read More 
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The high cost of health care, and the ruin of a society

Time magazine has a lengthy and significant (at least the section I read; too long for one sitting on a busy day) article by Steven Brill on the absurd economics of the modern American health care, from eye-boggling markups on over-the-counter painkillers delivered in an emergency room to the massively inflated salaries of top executives (not to mention doctors). It’s an issue Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez tackled last year, but it needs tackling again. And again. Until we are finally moved to do something about the indefensible pricing practices within health care.

This is the biggest force behind our crisis over access to health care; the cost of medical delivery drives up the costs of insurance (not to mention the rapacious nature of the insurance companies). Yet the power of the health care lobby makes any sort of reform or control politically difficult. Add to that the mystery of the profession; we tend to exalt doctors to a near-religious extreme, and take it for granted that after years of study they are entitled to wage levels exceeded only by CEOs.

We need to fix this. We could start by requiring medical providers cough up a price list before medical care begins. I rejected knee surgery last year in large part because the surgeon’s office would not respond to my requests for information on how much the elective procedure would cost me and my insurance company. They assumed I would just give them carte blanche to charge whatever they felt like.

In what other business, or service, is it not common practice to know the cost up front? And to be able to shop around, thus introducing to the system the thing free-market zealots love most, competition? Yet managed care rules jack up the costs if you try to shop around for doctors outside your insurance system. While the managed-care groups negotiate lower rates, many of us know too well that we often get bills from our doctors for costs above the negotiated rate. And we pay it.

I’ve long believed that by focusing on affordable health care insurance, we have missed the real issue: The cost of health care itself. It is morally reprehensible that in a society as large and vibrant as ours, people who fall ill risk financial ruin to get healthy. In fact, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies. How is that healthy for a society, or an economy, let alone an individual?

Even more reprehensible is the immoral practice of holding health, and life, hostage to a profit margin. We are a society of people, not corporations. We should act like it. Read More 
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About that Super Bowl farmer/Paul Harvey/truck commercial

When the ad popped up during the Super Bowl last week, it struck me as slick manipulative marketing, down to the models-cum-farmers. I mentioned at the time that it must have taken some effort to have done the whole bit on American farming without mentioning the people who do the actual farming, migrant laborers from Mexico.

But this bit gathers up the whole mess of oversights and willful disregard of reality in one piece of razor-sharp satire. Enjoy.
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