Friday, August 28, 2009

Obama Letting Corps of Engineers Drown New Orleans Again, Experts and Locals Say

Entertainer Harry Schearer, who has spent enough time in New Orleans since Katrina to consider it his adopted home, says in a CNN commentary that experts believe the Army Corps of Engineers is repeating the same mistakes that allowed their levee system to fail in more than 50 locations--and that like George W. Bush, President Obama is doing nothing to stop them. Excerpts from the commentary:

New Orleans, hit so hard by what so many (including President Obama in his Sunday interview with the local newspaper) still see fit to describe, mistakenly, as a natural disaster, is making remarkable progress, while the agency that so disastrously failed at building a protective system mandated by Congress -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- may be making some of the same mistakes in rebuilding that system. And the White House, for the second consecutive administration, seems not to care.

Me? I'm a humorist, a comic actor, a sometime musician-filmmaker-novelist-blogger. What the hell do I know about what happened to the city I love?

Since the levees collapsed, I've been reading the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, watching and listening to the local media, which, post-disaster, have rediscovered their mission to make local news more than a recitation of the previous day's murders, car crashes and celebrity misbehaviors.

While the national media packed up and moved away after the initial orgasm of anger at FEMA, the local media reported something remarkable: The Corps was claiming that the flooding was due to the "overtopping" of its levees and floodwalls, while two teams of pro-bono forensic investigators were finding evidence that no overtopping had occurred.

As the Corps started denigrating these investigators, they kept digging, and kept coming up with the real story, available now for all to see (though all too few have) as the ILIT report from the University of California at Berkeley and the Team Louisiana report from Louisiana State University.

Their conclusions: The "hurricane protection system" built by the Corps had serious design and construction flaws, baked into the system over 40 years under administrations of both parties, that caused catastrophic failure in more than 50 locations under storm surge conditions markedly less than the system was advertised to withstand.

You and I, federal taxpayers, had paid to flood New Orleans.

Since the Obama administration took office, the Corps has: announced that one part of the new "system" will be built using a "technically not superior" solution, because of funding problems; and, defying a Congressional mandate, delivered a report supposed to offer a post-2011 plan for so-called Category 5 storm protection 20 months late and lacking a specific plan, offering only a menu of possible options. It's almost as if the Corps is inviting someone else to do the job.

Someone else can. A New Orleans architect, David Waggonner, has been convening a group of local architects and planners and engineers and their Dutch colleagues to mine the eight centuries of collective wisdom of the Netherlands about the challenge of living with water.

The resulting plans, published as the "Dutch dialogues," make for inspiring and depressing reading; inspiring because they offer a vision of a city that has stopped fighting a war against water and has learned to use water both to enhance value and to enhance safety, depressing because there is so clearly no federal impetus, from the president on down, to embrace such a new approach.

President Obama, who has mainly limited his comments about New Orleans to feel-good boilerplate, did pledge to make good on President Bush's promise on that eerie, floodlit night in a deserted Jackson Square in 2005, to rebuild New Orleans better and stronger. But he has yet to actively intervene to make sure New Orleans gets state-of-the-art flood protection and robust and timely coastal wetland reconstruction. Like President Bush, President Obama so far seems to be acting as if just saying it makes it so.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Even Some Gun Rights Advocates Question Brandishing Guns at Presidential Appearances

This man, who would not give his name, carried an AR-15 rifle near an Aug. 17 appearance in Phoenix by President Barack Obama.

On Sunday Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. seconded my August 13th thoughts on the fascist intimidation tactics being used by protesters of health care reform proposals--then focused on an additional tactic I've wanted to highlight anyway: people bringing firearms, including assault rifles, to the sites of town hall meetings and even presidential appearances. He said the tactics tell us just how much some very conservative Americans fear the change President Obama was elected to bring. Speaking of the election of the first African-American president, Pitts wrote:

If this was regarded as a new beginning by most Americans, it was regarded apoloclyptically by others who promptly proceeded to lose both their minds and any pretense of enlightenment.

These are the people who immediately declared it their fervent hope that the new presidency fail, the ones who cheered when the governor of Texas raised the specter of secession, the ones who went online to rechristen the executive mansion the "Black" House, and to picture it with a watermelon patch out front.

In the debate over health care reform, they are the ones who have disrupted town hall meetings, shouting about the president's supposed plan for "death panels" to euthanize the elderly.

Now, they are the ones bringing firearms to places the president is speaking.

The Washington Post tells us at least a dozen individuals have arrived openly--and, yes, legally--strapped at events in Arizona and New Hampshire, including at least one who carried a semiautomatic assault rifle. In case the implied threat is not clear, one of them also brought a sign referencing Thomas Jefferson's quote about the need to water the tree of liberty with "the blood of...tyrants."

It remains unclear...what the substance of the president's supposed tyranny might be.

When and if the implied violence comes, perhaps its author will explain. Meanwhile, expect those who stoked his rage--i.e., the makers of Internet myths, alarmist rhetoric and blatant lies--to disdain any and all moral responsibility for the outcome.

These are strange times. They call to mind what historian Henry Adams said in the mid-1800s: "There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land and whether one government can comprehend the whole."

Our challenge is less geographical than spiritual... Such as when you look at a guy who thought it is a good idea to bring a gun to a presidential speech and find yourself stunned by incomprehension. On paper, he is your fellow American, but you absolutely do not know him, recognize nothing of yourself in him. You keep asking yourself: Who is this guy?

This isn't liberal vs. conservative, it is yesterday vs. tomorrow, the stress of profound cultural and demographic changes that will leave none of us as we were.

And change, almost by definition, always comes too fast, always brings a sense of stark dislocation. As in the woman who cried to a reporter, "I want my country back!" Probably the country she meant still had Beaver Cleaver on TV and Doris Day on Your Hit Parade.

Can one government comprehend the whole? It may be harder to answer now than it was then.

The distances that divide us cannot be measured in miles.

Of course the implied threat is not only to shoot President Obama but also for the fascists to have their way by violent revolution. The only consoling developments I've seen on that came in a report Tuesday from MSNBC that at least some gun-rights activists are actually questioning the wisdom of bringing guns to these events. Excerpts from the article follow:

As much as any issue, open carry reveals divisions within the gun-rights community, often characterized by gun-control advocates as a monolithic force that is led in lock-step by the powerful and well-heeled National Rifle Association. But you won’t find the NRA weighing in on this issue; the 4-million-member group did not respond to’s requests for an interview.

“They’re obviously avoiding taking a stand on this one,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nationwide advocacy group for “sensible” gun laws. “It’s a no-win for them.” If NRA officials criticize those who open-carry near Obama events, they run the risk of irritating their “rabid membership,” Helmke said. If they support the behavior, “they’re going to lose all credibility not only with the public but with the elected officials who usually vote their way.”

Other gun-rights groups, however, have not shied away, offering a range of reaction.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, another staunch defender of gun rights, was not applauding. Gottlieb said the open carrying of firearms near presidential town hall meetings on health care “is not the time or the place for it. I’m not for disallowing them to do so, I just don’t think it’s politically intelligent. … I would like to see gun owners think twice before they go to a rally like that with a firearm strapped on. It doesn’t necessarily put our best face forward.”

John Pierce, co-founder of, a social-networking Web site for gun owners that catalogs weapons laws across the nation and chronicles efforts to loosen and remove restrictions against the public carrying of firearms, praised the low-key response of the White House and the Secret Service to the incidents. But he also worried a bit about the actions of those who wear guns near presidential venues.

“I absolutely believe open carry should be legal anywhere that a citizen can legally be,” he explained. “Having said that, one of the things that I find a little bit less than perfect about the recent situation is not the fact that citizens were open-carrying, but rather that they were there as a form of open conduct to disagree with a political position that the president has taken, whether it’s about health care or the economy.” Doing so with a gun strapped on sends a “very mixed message,” said Pierce.

It is to say the least refreshing to see some voices of disagreement in the usually monolithic drive to bring guns into every nook and cranny of American life. It would be even nicer if these individuals who see the political folly of trying to intimidate the American public with guns would also appreciate how much telling lies about the president's plans for change fuels that political folly.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health Detractors "Bearing False Witness," Say Obama, Columnists and Fact-Checkers

Reporters, columnists and independent fact-checkers are all but univocal in confirming what President Obama told 30 faith-based groups yesterday in a conference call streamed on the web at the loudest detractors of the specific health-care reform proposals being considered by the White House and Congress "are, frankly, bearing false witness."

CNN said the groups had about 140,000 people on the conference call. Quoting Obama, CNN said:

He referred to some assertions as "ludicrous," and cited as an example rumors that the government is planning to set up "death panels" to determine the fate of the nation's elderly.

"That is just an extraordinary lie," he said, adding that it was based on a provision in the House legislation that would allow Medicare to reimburse someone who voluntarily sought counseling on how to set up a living will for the end of life.

"It gives an option that people who can afford fancy lawyers already experience," the Harvard-trained lawyer said.

In addition, the plan does not provide health insurance to illegal aliens, it does not represent a government takeover of health care and it would not lead to government funding of abortion, he said.

"These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation: that is, that we look out for one another; that is, I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. And in the wealthiest nation in the world right now we are neglecting to live up to that call."

CNN was not alone in this reporting. In fact, reporters on all of the broadcast networks and the preponderance of the cable networks have said for several weeks that all of these claims are false. NBC said so explicitly in discussing the latest poll results, which showed, unfortunately, that large numbers of Americans have been stampeded into believing them.

Over the course of this week, several print columnists have also picked apart such claims, and found them bogus.

On August 17th Houston Chronicle political columnist Lisa Falkenberg reported on lies she had heard in person while attending a local medical support group in Katy. In a printed handout that purported to be a plain-language "translation" of one of the House health care reform bills, several of the bogus claims were represented as fact. Falkenberg traced the wording of the handout to "Peter Fleckenstein, a prolific conservative Tweeter whose blog, Common Sense from a Common Man, is filled with anti-health care reform analysis." She said Fleckenstein's claims had been checked by, "the St. Petersburg Times' truth-testing Web site." Politifact found each of the claims false--most of them with no basis whatsoever in reality, one of them with a basis that Fleckenstein had totally distorted.

On August 16th Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. zeroed in specifically on the falsehood of the "death panels" claim. He said the conservative detractors of the health care reform plans had no real objections of substance, and so "the only thing they have to sell is fear itself." Some excerpts from Pitts' column:

So excuse me, beg pardon, but it would be really valuable to hear an explanation of the bill by those who presumably have read it, followed by vigorous questioning. Instead, the circus has come to town.

I refer, of course, to the chaos that has erupted at townhall meetings as Democratic lawmakers try to sell the bill. The New York Times reports shouting matches, fistfights, threats, injuries and arrests. Georgia Congressman David Scott says he's had death threats and a visit from vandals who painted a swastika outside his office.

Conservatives would have you believe this pandemonium is spontaneous. Truth is, it's about as spontaneous as a shuttle launch. The Times account tells us a banner appeared on the web site of Fox News host Sean Hannity inviting people to ''Become a part of the mob!'' A group calling itself Tea Party Patriots advises its members to pack the hall and "yell out.'' This is manufactured outrage.

And that's fine. If people choose to become part of a synchronized protest, they have every right to. Nor is there anything wrong with dissent. As many of us pointed out when George W. Bush's enablers sought to silence his critics, dissent is patriotic.

But shouting down those who disagree with you is not. Neither is threatening, shoving, hitting, painting swastikas or otherwise rendering reasoned debate impossible. That's not love of country, it's not dissent, it's not even civilized. It's boorish, oafish and crude, the rantings of people panicked beyond reason.

In other words, conservatives. OK, not all of them. But too many of them? Definitely.

By now, it has become reflex, this instinct of theirs to manipulate the debate and muddy the waters by stoking people's primal fears, whether of gays, Muslims, Hispanics or now, health care reform.

"I'm afraid of Obama!" screams a woman. And doesn't that just say it all? Doesn't that speak volumes about the intellectual bankruptcy and decayed moral authority of the political right? With apologies to Franklin Roosevelt, the only thing they have to sell is fear itself.

And no, that's not patriotism. It is the cynical behavior of people who have little faith in their ability to win the debate. So they pick a fight and try to win that instead.

Also on August 16th, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman took on the bogus claim that Obama wanted to turn American health care into a British-style government-run system. Krugman had some fun with the editors of Investor's Business Daily, which, he said

tried to frighten its readers by declaring that in Britain, where the government runs health care, the handicapped physicist Stephen Hawking “wouldn’t have a chance,” because the National Health Service would consider his life “essentially worthless.”

Professor Hawking, who was born in Britain, has lived there all his life, and has been well cared for by the National Health Service, was not amused.

However, what Krugman found more entertaining was that none of the proposed reforms is modeled on anything like the U.K. system--even though our Veterans Health Administration is already run somewhat like it. Nor are they modeled on the Canadian and French systems, which leave "actual delivery of health care in private hands, but the government pays most of the bills"--even though that's close to how Medicare already works. The actual model for many of the House proposals, already emulated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, comes from Switzerland:

Everyone is required to buy insurance, insurers can’t discriminate based on medical history or pre-existing conditions, and lower-income citizens get government help in paying for their policies.

If we were starting from scratch we probably wouldn’t have chosen this route. True “socialized medicine” would undoubtedly cost less, and a straightforward extension of Medicare-type coverage to all Americans would probably be cheaper than a Swiss-style system. That’s why I and others believe that a true public option competing with private insurers is extremely important: otherwise, rising costs could all too easily undermine the whole effort.

But a Swiss-style system of universal coverage would be a vast improvement on what we have now. And we already know that such systems work.

So we can do this. At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.

Krugman allows that "costs are running higher than expected" in the Massachsetts program. From other reports, that's more than a little understated. Indeed, whether other states have adopted models that are more affordable is one of the legitimate issues we should be debating--if only the shouters would stop drowning out all discussion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's Time to Tell the Fascists: This Was Never Your Country, and You Can't Have It Back

Health care reform protesters make their point outside the office of Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., who is black.

It's time we called a spade a spade. I realize those words are emotionally charged. But I use them quite intentionally. Why?

Because the people who are yelling so passionately against health care reform could really care less about the topic. If they cared, they wouldn't be so eager to shout down all debate. What they're really angry about is that their fascist vision of America lost at the polls. And what really frosts their watermelon is that they were defeated by a black man—who has no place in the America of their twisted dreams.

Occasionally one of them slips up and shows their true colors, like the Nazis who defaced the sign above in Smyrna, GA, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
What they painted in the dark gains crystal clarity in the light: this is not about health care; it's about making sure that our first black president fails, and that we never ever have another one. Only then will their true America be restored.

Vilifying the stimulus package wasn't working. As part of the saying goes, you can fool all of the people some of the time. But most of the people are keenly aware that the bulk of the current federal deficit was caused by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who simultaneously (1) launched their misadventure in Iraq, (2) let business charlatans go unchecked, and (3) pushed tax revenues to record lows. What the Bernanke-Geitner-Obama stimulus added to the deficit, just to begin cleaning up the conservatives' mess, was peanuts, compared to the trillions in damage done by the end of 2008. The American people grasped those facts. But still the fascists wanted their way.

They tried to get it by attacking Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. She had been part of an appeals-court panel who had agreed with the city of New Haven that it could not discriminate against black firefighters (a ruling eventually supported by four of the Supreme Court justices) and who had declined to apply the Supreme Court's bogus, sloppy 2nd Amendment decision to the states (even though the Supreme Court itself had not done so). And she had dared to suggest that the experience of a "wise Latina" might be just as valid in making judicial judgments as the experience of a white male (wise or not). But that got little traction. Even a few Republican Senators found it too much to swallow.

So then they joined the "birthers"—those odd birds who believe with absolute conviction that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, making him constitutionally not qualified to be president. They decline to face the stubborn fact that the State of Hawaii has sworn in public multiple times that it has the original of Barack Obama's birth certificate and has issued the same certified facsimiles that have been required in most states for decades. And the stubborn fact that local newspapers announced the date of his birth and his complete name. And the stubborn fact that multiple courts confirmed that documentation, and Obama's natural-born citizenship, during several years before the November election. And so they appear at town hall meetings, shout down elected members of Congress and everyone else, and proclaim with blood-curdling passion, "I want my country back!" Well, that didn't work too well either. Even a few conservative Republicans had the good grace to find it embarrassing.

So now the tactic is to bring down Obama over health care. The not-very-subtle message is that a black man insured by the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan does not care about the health care security of white Americans.

And so they tell outright lies: he wants to take away health insurance that current beneficiaries find worthwhile; he wants to abolish private insurance by making a public option compete with the insurance companies for services and costs (like the U.S. Postal Service competes with FedEx and UPS); he wants to create "death panels" to euthanize grandma and babies with physical or mental birth defects; he wants to ensure health coverage for poor blacks and poor Hispanics and illegal immigrants and reduce it for everyone else; he wants to explode the federal deficit to the point the future generations will never be able to repay it. And he wants to do all this because he's an uppity black intellectual who thinks he knows best and, as an alien outsider looking in, could never understand what white working-class Americans need.

The American people rejected all of this in the November election. The American people decided that Barack Obama was qualified to be president and best equipped to attack several persistent issues that stymied every president since FDR. We understood, when we had our wits about us, that chief among them was health care—that the current system is a sinking ship, getting ever more costly and dysfunctional, swelling the ranks of the uninsured every day, relentlessly on collision course with a future moment when only the very fortunate and the very rich will have any health insurance at all.

But the fascists still won't take no for an answer. They still want "their country" back. And so the American people now face a choice: did we mean what we said in November, or did we not? If we did, we need to say it again today: as a country, we have turned away from racism, and we will not turn back.

We need to support all who show a genuine commitment to salvaging the American health care system. And we should not be dissuaded by insurance companies who have duped us so many times, or the fascists who buy their propaganda.

Above all, we need to tell the fascists, if you don't like American democracy, find another home. If you insist on being loud-mouths who deny others' freedom of speech, we will provide you the aversion therapy of a jail cell. If you perpetrate hate crimes—like using racist, Nazi symbols to intimidate the rest of us—we will shun you promptly and insist that you be prosecuted as our laws require. We are the real Americans and you need to understand: this was never your country, and we will never let you have it back.