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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The shutdown, and some other bits

I know, I know, the blog's been quiet for too long. But I have the usual excuse firmly in grasp: I've been busy. Today I could be busier, but a certain faction of political loons (yes, I mean you, Tea Partiers) seems to have shut down the federal government right as I'm researching a new book topic.

So work I was planning to do today I now can't because the Library of Congress website is shut down, one of many bits of evidence that puts the lie to right-wing claims that a federal government shutdown doesn't have much effect. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers out of work indefinitely - and likely now hoarding cash amid the uncertainty - is a big deal for a sputtering economy, not to mention family budgets. Bureaucracy, as much as we might hate it, keeps the country moving. But now that's stalled.

And researchers like me find ourselves at loose ends. So yeah, there's an effect.

One of the reasons posting has been light here is that I've recently signed on as a contributor to the Truthdig online news site, where, not coincidentally, I blogged this morning about the shutdown, and the failed political system that made it possible. Who's really to blame? We all are, for putting up with this garbage:
And this is where the real blame lies—in ourselves, and in our failure as a body politic to end gerrymandering. With the major political parties setting the ground rules for the geographical shape of congressional districts (the process follows each decennial census), they ensure that incumbents face easy re-election by gaming the system through amoeba-shaped districts that collect the optimum number of voters for each respective party. So the only real elections at the congressional level are often the party primary, in which very few people vote. Which means minority extremists like the tea party, with some organization and the help of a compliant media that fails to call out lunacy when it sees it, can seize control of the U.S. Congress. Or at least enough of it to shut down the U.S. government.
So why do we put up with this? Read More 
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Joseph Stiglitz on Detroit: He gets it

One of the most misunderstood cities in the country right now is Detroit. Yes, the city government filed for bankruptcy, but as regular readers know, I argue that is just a symptom of the broader problems facing the city. Many people discussing Detroit seem to be caught up in a vein-pulsing fury against unions, corruption, black political leadership, Democrats, and political liberalism. None of which has much to do with what's happened to Detroit.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is among the few who understand the great stresses and policies that have left Detroit mired in devastation, which he spelled out the other day in the New York Times. Among his many key observations:
Detroit’s travails arise in part from a distinctive aspect of America’s divided economy and society. As the sociologists Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have pointed out, our country is becoming vastly more economically segregated, which can be even more pernicious than being racially segregated. Detroit is the example par excellence of the seclusion of affluent (and mostly white) elites in suburban enclaves. There is a rationale for battening down the hatches: the rich thus ensure that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and services of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status.

The trend toward self-reinforcing inequality is especially apparent in education, an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility. Schools in poorer districts get worse, parents with means move out to richer districts, and the divisions between the haves and the have-nots — not only in this generation, but also in the next — grow ever larger.

Residential segregation along economic lines amplifies inequality for adults, too. The poor have to somehow manage to get from their neighborhoods to part-time, low-paying and increasingly scarce jobs at distant work sites. Combine this urban sprawl with inadequate public transportation systems and you have a blueprint for transforming working-class communities into depopulated ghettos.
I highly encourage you all to go read the whole piece. And think about it. The demise of Detroit is a national problem, not a local one. Read More 
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Florida, and a law that protects racism and criminals

Like most others, I awoke this morning with a sense of outrage over the Florida verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, and his acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Social media, as you might imagine, has been buzzing over this, and it’s chilling to see how some of our fellow citizens view the case, and the verdict.

Two lines of thought have emerged from some of the conversations. First, that the prosecution booted the case and didn’t provide the necessary evidence to counter the provisions of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The second is an undercurrent among some whites best summed up by a comment posted on a friend’s page responding to a statement of confusion and desire to hear some of the jurors explain their thinking. The response included:
Truthfully, I had no horse in the race myself, and speaking of race I can't stand how people make everything about race. There's how many black boys killed in cities by senseless violence like Chicago every wkd and no one says a peep? I just think you don't convict a man just because people want him convicted. The charges of Manslaughter and 2nd Degree Murder weren't proved and reasonable doubt was all over the place in this incident. I'd rather live in a country a man/woman walks free any day than in one which we convict an innocent man/woman of charges they aren't guilty of. The law is the law, whether I like it or not, I can't stand some of the laws we have on the books in our great country but I must learn to live with them, and under them. I hear you though. I will say though you can't go attempting to kick the %$#& out of the neighborhood watch guy and expect him to roll over and cry Uncle. So, we ought not act like the kids an angel... it's a shame he was killed. I was 17 and had I done that at that age I woulda expected trouble if I were messing with a man with a gun.
One can defend this verdict only from the bizarre perspective that "stand your ground" is in some way a defensible law. Which in itself is a perversion of the concept of freedom, and justice. That a person with a gun can chase down someone and then claim self-defense in the subsequent confrontation is Kafkaesque. And to defend the verdict as just is the result of intellectual acrobatics. To say "I can't stand how people make everything about race" misses the point (and evidences a racist world view) that this case was all about race. That was what made Zimmerman "suspicious" of Martin in the first place. Suspicious of an unarmed black teenager who had every right in the world to walk unmolested down that street that night. The central issue: Do we as American citizens have a right to walk the streets without being provoked and attacked by fellow citizens?

In Florida, the answer is, "no." Especially if you’re a black man spotted by a self-appointed, gun-toting neighborhood guardian.

The chances are slim that the federal government will intervene here by charging Zimmerman with violating Martin’s civil rights. But it should on the grounds that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is vague enough to grant legal cover to the antagonist in a confrontation, and ultimately is a license to kill. Read More 
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Back in the saddle after a weekend of nothing but books

You couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – temperatures in the low 80s, nice breeze, some 150,000 people, and endless talk of books, and writing.

I moderated a panel on “Landscapes: Real and Imagined,” which was one of those amorphous themes that made for an engaging talk among three authors, and that was broadcast live over C-SPAN’s BookTV (you can watch it here). The authors were Julia Flynn Siler, a wonderful writer and fellow journalist whom I’ve known for a number of years, talking about her recent Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure; T.D. Allman with his Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State; and Greg Goldin, co-author of Never Built: Los Angeles, about grand dreams and plans for the city that died on the drawing board.

The best part of the festival for writers like me is the chance to sit around and talk about this odd business we’re in, the different projects we have underway, and to drop in on panels talking about both current books and how we go about doing what we do. Plus it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and former colleagues.

I also managed to cover a couple of the panels for the Los Angeles Times, one on American Arguments and the other on gun control.

All in all, a great way for a writer to spend a weekend. Now, back to Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero. The first draft is done and now I’m diving in for rewriting, tweaking, backfilling and trimming. Which, honestly, is a lot more fun than it sounds. Read More 
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On marriage, gay and otherwise

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week doing a final round of research for my Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero book project, and by sheer happenstance wound up renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court building. And if I wasn’t heading back into the archives, I’d love to stop by the court today to witness the long-overdue judicial look at gay marriage.

Given the deep conservatism of the majority, I don’t have a lot of faith in the Court to make the correct legal and moral call. But I’m hoping they put prejudice aside and decide the cases before them – California’s Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act –based on common sense, and belief in a true separation of church and state. They should find that gays and lesbians have as much right to marry as anyone else.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which focused on state laws barring interracial marriage, that marriage was a fundamental civil right and government could not restrict it based on race. The government should not restrict it based on sexual orientation, either. All are equal in the eyes of the law, or so we are trained to believe (and lord knows that often proves not to be the case), and that should apply to the legal institution of marriage.

I’ve long believed that marriage should not be the state’s business in the first place. It is a religious rite and belongs in churches. But it is also in society’s interest, and thus government’s interest, to have a system that allows for the legal unification of lives, which is the legal side of marriage. I’d like to strip the word “marriage” from the legal documents – all of us who marry should be partners in civil unions. And the faithful can also be married in the eyes of their church.

But that isn’t likely to happen. “By the powers vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank)” is too much of our culture now to change in such a fundamental way. But the wording of that time-honored part of the marriage ceremony, when uttered by a minister, is meaningful. “Power vested in me by the state,” not by the bishop or other church higher up. There is no separation between church and state when the state gives authority to ministers to sanction legal unions.

But I digress. A right is a right. Marriage is a right. Gay marriage is a right. Let’s leave our Puritan past behind and move on as a nation. We have a lot of intractable problems in this country, from economic inequality to a government hijacked by corporations to a world standing built on violence rather than diplomacy. But this issue is an easy one to fix. And I hope the Supreme Court does so. Quickly, and decisively. Read More 
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On NPR, and looking at the problems of Detroit

I had the pleasure earlier this week of sitting through a 45-minute interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea to talk about the current state of Detroit, and the result of that session aired during Saturday’s “All Things Considered” weekend edition. Naturally, given the time restraints and multiple voices in the piece, they only used a couple of snippets of what I said, but I appreciate having my voice added to the national discussion – and am glad for the thoughtful attention NPR paid the issue.

Gonyea, incidentally, is an old Detroit hand himself. We used to run across each other while covering various Detroit stories in the 1980s and 1990s, and then again on the presidential political campaign trail after he joined NPR and I was working for the Los Angeles Times. Solid pro.

This link takes you to a story about the segment, which includes a transcript. The podcast of the show is available here. A catalyst for my book, Detroit: A Biography, was my desire to explain to people who don’t know Detroit what has happened there, that it is much more than tailfins on Cadillacs, Motown, sports teams, “ruins porn,” and drugs and crime. So I hope my inclusion in the program will bring some of that awareness to more people.

The only point I wish they had picked up from the interview and included in the segment is my argument that the current city government budget crisis – as significant as it is – is a symptom of Detroit’s problems, not the problem itself. The fiscal manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder – an abrogation of democracy, in my view – will likely use draconian measures to balance the city budget, primarily by selling off potentially profitable assets to the private sector, slashing services, and laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of people – adding to Detroit’s unemployment and poverty problems.

Those “fixes” will do nothing to help Detroit, the community, and far too many people conflate the two problems. By the time the manager is done, Detroit will still be a city of staggering poverty, and urban emptiness, with dysfunctional schools, massive areas of violence and blight, and no plan for improving the conditions under which 700,000 people live. It is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, but it is also a national problem that we, as a nation, have ignored for far too long.

None of that will change under a balanced city budget. Read More 
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Punk revisited: Richard Hell reflects on a surly birth

For music fans of a certain age - namely, mine - Richard Hell remains a key figure. He was among the founders of the punk era in music, and his torn shirts and spiked hair helped set the fashion tone for what became a cultural movement. And as a part of the bands The Neon Boys, Television, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, then, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he claims paternity for a whole lot of noise.

I interviewed Hell a few years ago when I was still writing for the Los Angeles Times and met up with him at restaurant in his East Village neighborhood in Manhattan. That piece was tied to the release of a semi-autobiographical novel, Godlike, and you can read it here.

I got Hell on the phone a couple of weeks ago for another interview piece, this one a Q&A for about his latest book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, a frank autobiograpy of his life up until the time he got clean of heroin and left music, for the most part, behind.

The piece is here, but this is a bit from it. And I gotta say, I really enjoy talking with Hell:
ESQ: What propelled you to write the autobiography?

RH: Since my 40s — which is now 20 years ago; I'm 63 — I've been disturbed and fascinated by having outlived my youth. When you're young, you don't especially think of yourself as being young. You're just alive and everything's interesting and you don't think of things in terms of age because you're not conscious of it. But then you hit your 40s and you realize, well, you're still alive but you're not young anymore. And things start taking a different kind of aspect. And you start getting curious about what it all adds up to. What does it mean to outlive your youth? I wanted to hold my life in my hands and turn it around and look at it in different ways to figure out what the hell had happened, to see if I could put it outside of myself and make it into a material object that I could grasp. So that was part of it. And the other part was I like writing books.
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On Detroit, and the wrong answer to difficult problems

Photo: Scott Martelle, 2010
The Los Angeles Times today published an op-ed piece I wrote over the weekend about the governor of Michigan moving to name a financial overseer for Detroit. At its heart, as I wrote, this is an abrogation of democracy, a managerial coup d'etat. And it is shrouded in race - majority black city, majority white state - and politics - Democratic city, Republican state government.

Appointing a financial manager might resolve some of the city government's current cash problems, but it won't do anything to fix the city itself, which, as I point out in the piece - and in my Detroit: A Biography - has been declining since the 1950s. Detroit's troubles demand creative solutions, and a mix of actions, not this expected dismantling of the city and selling off of assets.

There are some hopeful stirrings in Detroit, from the investments in downtown buildings and businesses to the growing economic vitality of the midtown area, anchored by Wayne State University and a cluster of hospitals. But these are just stirrings, and fragile ones at that. They should be cheered, and nurtured, but aso recognized as baby steps in a place that needs giant strides.

We have a tendency in this country to turn our backs on failed communities, and to blame the victims alone for their problems. But Detroit is a national problem, and a national responsibility. We should be marshaling national forces to not only fix it, but to use Detroit to begin to re-imagine what a city can and should be in this post-industrial economy of ours. For far too long our governments have looked first at the health of corporations, and last at the health of communities, which in itself strikes me as an abrogation of democracy.

From the op-ed piece:
The emptying of Detroit stems from a complex mix of intractable racism, corporate and governmental decisions, failed institutions and crime levels that have driven most of the middle class to the suburbs. Local governments have regularly undercut each other with tax deals to lure jobs (much as Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to do on his recent visit to California). These deals have helped corporations at the expense of communities like Detroit, causing the city's tax base to shrink faster than the city government could adapt and leaving it with massive debt, annual operating deficits, a demoralized workforce, an impoverished population base — and no plan for how to fix things.

It's time for new ideas. But the type that Snyder, a former venture capitalist (and onetime executive with the Irvine-based Gateway computer company) is likely to favor aren't what's needed.

Although the new financial manager for Detroit hasn't yet been named, it is likely that he or she will move to abrogate union contracts for city workers, gut city management ranks and sell off assets, thereby privatizing such government services as public transit, streetlights and trash collection systems. These things have the potential to reduce the city's costs and alleviate the immediate cash crisis, but they are disastrous over the long term, and they'll be done without approval by the city's elected leaders.

This kind of managerial coup d'etat is at heart an abrogation of democracy and a failure of vision. Slashing spending and privatizing assets won't fix Detroit, or any of the nation's other troubled cities. This crisis calls for reinvention.
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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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