Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dead Cops as Stage Props: Pat Lynch and NYPD Blue Union

The head of the police union, which has been working for some time without a contract with the city, said the blood of the two murdered policeman, shot in their car by a lunatic, is on the mayor's hands, because, presumably, the mayor did not say enough to defend his police officers who were video'd killing a large black man with a choke hold.  The police, some police at least, are also upset about the mayor's ending "Stop and Frisk" procedures, whereby Black and Hispanic men can be thrown up against a wall and searched for weapons, despite the Constitution's constraints about unreasonable search.

If only, Lynch was saying, the police had been able to throw that maniac  up against a wall and search him, they would be alive today, but instead they had to be sitting in their patrol car, looking the other way,  just waiting to be killed.

Or so Mr. Lynch would have us believe.

Mr. Lynch thinks the mayor should ask forgiveness. The police turn their back on the mayor.

Mad Dog, however, believes it is Mr. Lynch who should ask forgiveness, from the families of these two officers, who he has used as a stage prop for his own political agenda. Mr. Lynch is torn from the pages of "House of Cards," as cynical and nakedly manipulative as any character, and once again life imitates art.

Mad Dog is reminded of that famous scene from the Army/McCarthy hearings where the defense counsel, a Mr. Welch, looks Senator Joseph McCarthy in the eye and says, "Have you no sense of decency, at long last? Have you no sense of decency at all."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Biggest Stories of 2014: Labor Unions, Lost in the 21st Century

As the governor of Wisconsin recently demonstrated, running against labor unions is good for the bottom line.
In “Citizen Koch,” a documentary about the Koch brothers, these two concerned citizens loathe labor unions as demons from the darkest pits of hell and they make clear their money sent to the governor of Wisconsin to defeat his recall and to win re election is drawn from the well of their contempt for labor unions.

          Full disclosure: Mad Dog’s grandfather was an ardent union man.  He suffered for his union and one of his favorite quips was that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on either end. The real struggle in the world, from grandfather’s point of view, had little to do with nations but with classes: workers vs bosses.
           Anyone who has read Howard Zinn knows how ruthlessly captains of industry have fought unions and how they bought all the politicians they needed to do this.
            Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union and Maggie Thatcher broke coal unions and virtually every union she could get her hands on. And it wasn’t just the owners and barons of industry who thanked them: They were hailed by the general public for their efforts.
         But, even Mad Dog’s own father, looking at a strike by professional football players said, “I’m all for the workers. But these guys aren’t workers. They’re millionaires fighting with billionaires.”
         There are some unions which simply fail to win public support.
         On a recent trip to France, Mad Dog heard many stories, from many sources about the evils of unions.  When the lock workers, who operate the forty odd locks along the Seine went on strike, it meant the barge captains and workers could not haul their loads on the river; it meant the cruise boats and restaurant boats and all their workers could not go to work.  When pilots for Air France go on strike, thousands of people sleeping on floors of airports become easy converts to the Koch brothers’ point of view.
            There was once a time when a strike by one set of workers triggered sympathy strikes from other workers; no longer—the workers who are idled by another worker’s strike resent the loss of pay. They see no brotherhood with other workers; all they care about is how much they have been inconvenienced.
           When Market Basket employees went on strike, the customers were not much inconvenienced: They could shop at some other store. The farmers who relied on Market Basket were hurt, but there were not all that  many farmers.
            Union workers can strike without alienating the public at large when they are in manufacturing, when the company they work for produces a product for which there are competitors. If the workers hold up production, then the company suffers, but not the general public. That puts the workers in a good position to pressure the owners without losing public support.
             But in the 21st century increasingly, most workers do not produce a product in a competitive environment;  air traffic controllers, airline pilots, city garbage collectors, river lock operators, city school teachers are in the service economy and often in positions where the strikes they impose create widespread resentment and public antipathy. Members of these unions have shot themselves, not just in the foot, but considerably higher up, and the unions have hemorrhaged crucial public support.

          Union rules, it must be admitted, have too often  thwarted the mission of the companies they work for: when a hospital needs to clean out operating rooms quickly but the housekeepers’ union refuses to allow workers to get the job done in 30 minutes (which is what it takes in non union hospitals) but insists on 60 minutes so only half the number of surgeries can get done daily, that hurts the hospital, and ultimately, if the hospital goes into the red, it hurts the workers.

Unions exist to defend the rights of the workers, but when they forget that the mission of the employer is also important and, ultimately, important for the worker, they wind up hurting everyone, workers included. When a union stage hand has to move a chair on a set rather than allowing an actor to simply pick it up and place it down in a better spot, the definition of work and who can do it reaches absurd proportions.

          Unions have, over decades, done far more good for this country than harm. Safety at the workplace, a fair wage for a day’s work, the emergence of a strong, stable middle class all owe much to union strength.  Structured working groups of workers have identified inefficiencies in production, which would never have reached the managers had the institutionalized system of worker in-put not been forced by the unions—so cars, airplane engines and a whole range of things have been produced better as a result of unions. Even the five day work week, not to mention overtime, has meant workers can actually have enough time to shop, recreate and, by their spending, drive the economy.
      But, philosophically, Americans love to hate groups, and Americans love to believe they can make it on their own. We do not like to think about the idea Elizabeth Warren has emphasized: We are all using stuff made by others,  from roads to education. We are all interdependent. The hard driving capitalist wants to think he is special and he deserves all the money he’s made because he’s worked harder and smarter. Admitting we are all in this together and that even when we excel, we have stood on the shoulders of others to do this--well, that's something we find hard to swallow.

       The welfare queen, that mythical woman who lived the high life without working, by simply exploiting the welfare system remains a fixture in the American mind. When uneducated or less educated people exploit the system, they are reviled. When someone who has graduated from Harvard summa cum laude succeeds, well, he’s earned it. But he didn’t go to Harvard on his own dime. When two engineers invent Google or Microsoft or Apple or Facebook, well they are simply the cream rising to the top. And there is some truth to that. But cream cannot form in a vacuum. You need a pot.

          Mad Dog has no solution to offer, and likely all of the above is well known to union leaders, academics, politicians and corporate boards. It is a rare day when the little guys can win in this environment. The Market Basket story was the exception which proved the rule: Here, an avaricious goon of a corporate oligarch tried to wrest half of the cash reserve of the company for his own bank account, with, predictably, the acquiescence of a board of directors.  But he was opposed by the “good Arthur” who said the money belonged to the workers, to the corporation, and, ultimately to the customers, before it belonged to any stock holders. This was a new idea, that a company has more than a single raison d’etre: That is it exists, yes to make money for the shareholders, but it has other obligationsm  to its workers, to its customers, to American society, to all those who make its continued viability a success.

          Capitalists have successfully argued that the only thing which should matter for every company listed on the NYSE is to generate profit and return for investors. This position has the virtue of simplicity and clarity.  It is an idea which should be dissected and butchered and hung out to dry.

          For Mad Dog’s money, the Market Basket story was the story of the year.
          Long live King Arthur (T).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Torture R US: Who the We Is

In her New Yorker piece, Janet Mayer reviews the 500 page report from the Senate Select Intelligence Committee which details the systematic torture program carried out by the CIA, in the name of protecting the American people from another 9/11.

"Before it was released, [it] came under attack from Republicans, including Dick Cheney, who, although he hadn't read it, called it 'full of crap.' Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, castigated it as 'ideologically motivated and distorted."

Mad Dog well recalls when President George W. Bush responded to the photos from Abu Gharib prison from the oval office saying, "This isn't who we are."

But, in fact, it turned out it is exactly who we are. The question, of course, is who the "we" is.  You and I may be repelled by torture, but the sadists who find work at the CIA are also "we."  So are the Congressmen and Senators who support torture, if not in name, in practice. So is Joe Sixpack, who snarls at the wusses, mostly Democrats, who shrink from doing the unpleasant but necessary thing. 

Now, Mad Dog hastens to add, he knew scores of people who worked at the CIA, although, for the most part, they were not on the "operational" side of the agency. They were analysts, and they were, typically, erudite, analytic, and not, at least overtly, cruel or sadistic.  

But then you have Dick Cheney raising the specter of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb in Washington, DC or New York every time anyone questions the centrality of torture to protecting the homeland.

What the report shows, in fact, "In all twenty cases most widely cited by the CIA, as evidence that abusive interrogation methods were necessary, the same information could have been obtained, and frequently was obtained, through non-coercive, methods. Further, the interrogations often produced false information, ensnaring innocent people, sometimes with tragic results."

And, forgotten in all this are those people still held at Guantanamo, without charges, without trial, let alone due process. What the Congress has said--and if the Congress isn't a "we" who is?--is that we do not have to honor the principles of the Constitution when it comes to what we do as a government, as a people off shore. The Constitution only protects US Citizens when they are on US soil.

There is something bizarre about the release of Alan Gross after five years in a Cuban prison for the crime of trying to help Jews in Cuba to hook up to the internet. Mr. Gross was abused, lost most of his teeth, and emerged, at age 60 something, just barely alive. We all look at the Cuban regimen which would do this and decry their ruthlessness. But just down the road, at the other end of the island, we have American held prisoners, who have never been charged with a crime, never had the benefit of even a kangaroo court, were just simply imprisoned--oh, excuse me, they are not "prisoners" they are "detainees." Some for more than a dozen years. They are our "guests." We do not believe in due process for these people, because, you know, they were captured in Afghanistan and they must be bad.

So, who are we? 

Who we is, apparently, is a nation of people who can be stirred into a frenzy of fear, and once that happens all restraints are dissolved and we can bring people to near drowning, torture them in other creative ways, hold them prisoner forever, as long as folks in the homeland can sleep well at night, secure they live in the home of the brave, land of the free.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Postcard from France

When people say, "I had never been here before but I felt like I was coming home," what they are really saying is, "I felt very happy just being here."  There are so many places where and people whom you simply have to endure in life, but there are some people and places which make you happy simply by their presence.

For Mad Dog, New York was one of those places, but not London or Rome or even Dublin. Paris is one of those places, for Mad Dog , as it was for Hemingway and for James Baldwin and for David Sedaris and for so many other Americans. Hemingway said, "The only problem in Paris was deciding where to be happiest," and Mad Dog now understands.

Paris has the energy and eccentricity of New York; but it is  as if New York were run by the Catholic Church. France is very Catholic. Mad Dog is not sure how seriously the French take the teachings of the Church, but they do not ignore it. There is no separation of church and state here enshrined in law, and Mad Dog prefers the American approach, but he has to admit, the presence of the Church here adds a creative tension.

France has been a surprise:

French economy: The country looks affluent and well groomed. The roof of every house is so superior to what we have in New Hampshire. No asphalt shingles: Every roof is slate. Along the Seine, in Rouen, is a long asphalt road and it is filled with affluent looking joggers in Spandex, and along the river are one sports club after another, with people jogging on treadmills overlooking the Seine. No jogging in basements in front of TVs running sappy Netflix movies.

French women: Their faces show bones, zygomatic arches. They have great style. They dress in black with spalshes of color. They wear high heeled shoes in the streets of Paris and Rouen, and the streets are cobblestone, which means they have to be determined to wear those heels. They take off the heels when they get to the office, but in the street, they are on display.
In conversation, Parisian women make prolonged eye contact; Mad Dog was thrilled a little by this, until  he realized there was no seduction there--they were simply thinking, "What language is it he is speaking? Certainly, not French."

Normandy:   For an American, this  is different.  Falstaff looking at a soldier's rotting corpse  held his nose and said, "That's glory for you. It stinks." Elizabethan audiences laughed knowingly.  But that would draw no laughs from an American  at Antiem or Gettysburg or at Normandy.
It matters little that most of the American soldiers who died here had no idea what a monstrous evil they were attacking. They were fighting for their friends and, yes, for some idea of country.  They knew they had become part of something much larger, and that ennobled them. 
Have there been any other wars or military deaths like those of World War II, since World War II?  
Most of the American warriors in 1944 could have been at home, did not need the paycheck. 

Food:  The French eat smaller portions. And they have some things we do not have in New Hampshire. His first day, Mad Dog was served some sort of hot chocolate which was heroin in a cup. From that moment onward, all he wanted was another fix. He has yet to discover the name of this stuff, tragically lost after that first sample.  The bread and cheese are also unlike anything we have in New Hampshire. 

French rain: It is the type of rain which invites the use of an umbrella, and couples walk along in a sort of umbrella intimacy one rarely sees in the States.

In New Hampshire, we are comfortable. We walk along the seacoast, and we love it, as we ought to love it. But sometimes, we have to remind ourselves we are part of something bigger. Mad Dog looked out from Omaha Beach and realized, on the other side of that ocean lay Plaice Cove.

Going to France is tame compared to travelling to China or India--there is much more here to give you your bearings. Paris  does not take the same courage as Beijing or Calcutta. But it's a start. It's worth the effort.