“No more games, no more bombs:” Missing Gonzo

July 7th, 2008 by meg

Hey, there. Yeah, it’s Meg again, still filling in for Steve. How was your holiday weekend? I had a pretty good one, too. Saw a great documentary on Saturday. Oh, I definitely recommend it. How often can you catch a flick that includes the likes of Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe and Johnny Depp talking about a drug-addled, freak-movement journalist?

Sure, I was sad when I heard Dr. Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005. But I was downright depressed after seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

While touching, it wasn’t the on-camera keening of his friends (and enemies) that got me. It was the portions of film dedicated to Thompson’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago and the 1972 presidential election.

These were pivotal moments in Thompson’s life. While he watched the American Dream die off in the deserts of Las Vegas, he saw the death of the promise of both democracy and Flower Power in 1968 and 1972.

My reaction to the part about 1968 was largely visceral. I flinched repeatedly just watching the savage beatings Mayor Daley’s police force meted out in the streets of the beautiful city I call home.

I finally read Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 during primary season this year. It made me feel a lot like reading It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis in the current political climate. The plot points aren’t the same, but almost all of the emotions are.

I’ll admit to not being alive in 1968 or 1972, and to the fact that I may just be projecting. Either way, this new documentary brought all the feelings I felt reading Fear and Loathing… flooding back.

The renewal of hope in Thompson’s literary voice when George McGovern actually seems to have a chance at the nomination was so familiar to me. And, despite his somewhat childish glee, one can perceive an ominous guardedness in the way he writes about it. The book is a compilation that was originally written serially for publication in Rolling Stone, so besides some minor footnotes, there’s no indication Thompson knows what’s about to hit him until McGovern’s campaign implodes just after the convention.

At first, Thompson throws a temper tantrum about McGovern’s supposed sell out to the old-style Democratic machine. Observing Thompson slowly coming to terms with what you know is coming (Nixon’s re-election) is painful. But his sorrow reveals the depth of his patriotic zeal. The filmmakers wisely chose this excerpt from his September 1972 entry in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 :

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes… understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose… Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”

At one point in the documentary, the screen splits. On one side shows footage from the Vietnam war; the other side shows our current “police actions” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The makers of Gonzo aren’t the first to make the comparison by a long shot. But the stark juxtaposition had me curled up in the fetal position in the darkened theater.

After the multiple tragedies of the late 60s, Thompson yearned for change and a candidate he could believe in. Instead, along came Watergate and the country sank into a deep political cynicism from which it may only now be recovering.

Today’s tragedies are less blatant and identifiable. Al Gore wasn’t assassinated, just politically beaten and mugged. FEMA didn’t start riots in New Orleans with billy clubs and police arsenals, but our government left hundreds to die needlessly. Our My Lai comes in cloudy little doses called Abu Ghraib and Haditha.

It’s almost as if someone took the tapestry of recent history and washed it in boiling hot water until the colors ran together and faded, hoping no one would notice we’re wearing the same outfit as before.

I desperately want to believe this election will pull us out of our current malaise. But I’m also afraid of getting my hopes up. For some reason I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t the drugs or alcohol that dulled Thompson’s once-sharp literary sensibilities, but the sheer bummer of it all. And its thoughts like those that get the empathetic coward in me all worked up. I don’t want Barack Obama to be today’s Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern.

Above all, the movie gives the indisputable impression of Thompson as passionate patriot. And despite its long-for-a-documentary run time, the film leaves the viewer wanting more. Maybe that’s because it’s times like these that really scream out for a little Gonzo.

Hey, Gloucester: Where do babies come from?

July 2nd, 2008 by meg

Hey there. This is Meg, filling in for Steve. Want a warm-up on that coffee? You know, it’s weird. That Gloucester High School “pregnancy pact” left me with strange cravings for answers to questions that went largely unanswered in the mainsream media coverage…

In following the media circus that ensued after the 17th teenager became pregnant in a year in Gloucester, MA, I noticed no shortage of theories on what went wrong.

Many articles cite young Jamie Lynn Spears’ early motherhood and the new movie Juno as reasons pregnancy has become “cool.” While the media must share in all society’s ills, it seems to me that the portrayal of pregnant teens in popular culture is a mere reflection of their continued presence. Ignoring teen pregnancy is not the answer.

Some of those same articles also faulted maternity clothing designers for making pregnancy more comfortable for fashion-conscious teens. Until Hannah Montana comes out with her own line of “materniteen” wear, however, I’m not going to fault Liz Lange for making pregnancy chic.

Some blamed depressed economic conditions in the small fishing town. They postulate that the girls felt there was no way to move up from their station in life. Maybe they were so depressed about their future prospects that the teens wanted a baby to love them unconditionally?

Though there is no government data beyond the last census on the growing financial troubles many writers point to as a reason for the increase in childbirth in Gloucester, it can be helpful to look at data from 2000. At that time, the national poverty rate was 12.4 percent, Massachusetts was 9.3 percent, and Gloucester was 8.8 percent.

Even if newer numbers do end up supporting claims of economic depression in the town, I’d caution those who suggest that’s the reason for baby season in Gloucester. Let’s give these girls some credit: They all know a baby is not the solution to financial problems.

Cuts in education funding combined with the constant test preparation mandated by No Child Left Behind meant that the Gloucester High School had to cut their sex education classes. Also, the school’s clinic is prohibited from distributing contraception to students due to protests from the hospital that grants operational money to the facility. In May, the clinic was left sorely understaffed when the doctor and nurse practitioner resigned in protest over the contraceptives ban.

“This is one of the most outrageous things I have ever been a part of in my career,” said Dr. Brian Orr after turning in his resignation.

According to a recent AP report, there are only 28 states still enrolled in federal abstinence-only education programs. Almost half have opted out to avoid teaching restrictions and funding insecurity that have become par for the course in the program, known as Title V.

A House Congressional study analyzing the content of abstinence-only education should give educators considering Title V pause. The 2004 study found that two-thirds of abstinence-only curriculums included errors and distortions about public health, contraceptives, abortion, and basic scientific facts. The report also criticized certain programs’ use of religious language and use of stereotypes about the differences between the sexes.

In comparing two state-by-state studies (online here and here), I found a correlation between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates. In 2006, the three states that received the most funding for abstinence-only programs were Texas, Florida and New York. Those states were fifth, sixth, and fourteenth in terms of teen pregnancies that same year. Vermont and North Dakota had the lowest amount of federal money devoted to abstinence-only programs and also had the least amount of teen pregnancies in 2006.

A more recent study shows students who receive comprehensive sexual education are 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than students subjected to abstinence-only education.

I don’t mean to suggest that sex education will end teen pregnancy as we know it. Young women already know that babies don’t come from storks. However, I’m young enough to remember sex education class, and it’s not the condom-over-the-banana lesson I remember most.

I recall vividly watching a video of a woman giving birth. It was frighteningly real and made it clear that childbirth is not for the weak or unprepared. Not that I was ever really inclined to reproduce, but that video convinced me that any of my potential progeny should come from an adoption center and not my womb.

However, statistics and personal anecdotes bear little on Congressional proceedings on the matter. As Steve wrote last week, Democrats are laying pretty low on the issue. So low, in fact, that they increased funding for abstinence-only education even while more and more states are opting out.

Still, there’s something extra fishy in Gloucester, and it’s not coming from the port. Teen pregnancies have been on the rise nationally over the past few years according to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report.

The report shows that between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years rose 3 percent to 41.9 births per 1,000. This follows a 14-year downward trend in which the teen birth rate fell by 34 percent from its last peak in 1991.

However, Gloucester High School’s average of annual teen pregnancies is still well above the currently heightened national average. According to school officials, an average of four students become pregnant in a typical year, putting their average at more than 60 per 1,000. The national average is about one third less. The 17 pregnancies for this year put the school way above average, at around 280 teen pregnancies per 1,000.

In the Time Magazine article that broke the story, Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan claimed some of the girls entered a pact to become pregnant together.

At a news conference days after the story broke, Gloucester Mayor Caroline Kirk said there was no evidence to back up Sullivan’s pregnancy pact theory.

“He was foggy in his memory of how he heard about the information,” Kirk said. “When we pressed him for specifics, about who told him, when was he told, his memory failed.” No media outlet has been able to reach Sullivan for comment since.

Kirk’s denial of Sullivan’s assertion raised more questions for me. Why would Sullivan make up a pregnancy pact to explain the rising trend? Which is worse: young girls bonding together to make poor decisions or a big spike in young couples independently making unfortunate choices?

But whether a pact was actually made is immaterial. There are multiple reports of students rejoicing at the receipt of a positive pregnancy test. Reporters trawling fast food restaurants and playgrounds found plenty of extremely young mothers who were very happy with their station in life. There is something about Gloucester that turns teen pregnancy from a crisis to a blessing, and the rest of us may never understand it.

Adolescence is a time when young adults get to start making their own decisions. If girls in Gloucester, or anywhere else, decide to pick out onesies for their babies instead of college majors for themselves, we cannot blame the media, the economy, or anyone other than the girls themselves.

However, in order to determine this was a decision made via free will and not the absence of alternatives, we need to make sure today’s young women know what’s out there. They need to have access to college preparation materials and birth control. They need to be told about the multifarious joys and difficulties of post-secondary education, employment, and childrearing.

Childbirth is a miracle and a blessing for many. So are education and birth control.

‘Too big for government to solve alone’?

July 1st, 2008 by christy

Hi cafe kids. Christy here, with a knee-jerk reaction to Senator Obama’s new expression of faith in faith-based initiatives.

As conceived and implemented by the pious George W. Bush, this program seemed to serve primarily as a channel for directly rewarding Bush’s faith-based base and culture-war donors. Of course, faith-based folks should do good deeds, and they have a long history of doing so using their own money. Government, too, should do good for the people, using taxpayer funds. Where’s the good in blending and blurring the two financially and in their missions?

I concur with the Rev. Barry Lynn,  executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told the AP today: “I am disappointed that any presidential candidate would want to continue a failed policy of the Bush administration. … It ought to be shut down, not continued.”

It seems to me that Obama has other avenues for earning the votes of the religious faithful. I don’t see the need for this on strictly political terms, and I don’t like it as a policy position.  What was wrong with separation of church and state?

Obama wants to expand faith-based programs

Coming up at the café (new faces, at least for now)

June 30th, 2008 by Steve

From Steve: as cafe regulars know, every now and then I’m required to abandon my post here as proprietor of The Last Chance Democracy Café to join Dick Cheney in his secure location (or something like that). I expect to be gone, at least for the most part, for the next two weeks.

The good news is that our friends at BuzzFlash have once again kindly agreed to fill in with some (no doubt, better than our usual gruel) guest blogging.

So please be sure to check in regularly and give them a full throated Last Chance Democracy Café welcome!


The irony of McCain playing the fear card: he’s the scary one

June 26th, 2008 by Steve

There once was a man named McCain
Whose speeches could be quite inane.
But no need for concern
‘Cause Obama he’d burn,
When the fear card drove voters insane.
But cruel fate it did hold some surprises
And the fear card would bring no reprises.
Though he huffed and he puffed
Still his strategy muffed,
For it was he caused our frightful surmises.

The Republican campaign message is nothing if not blunt: vote for us or die. None of that prissy Ivy League subtlety and nuance for these guys, boy howdy: nope, just good old-fashioned American scaremongering.

Somewhere Joe McCarthy is smiling.
Let’s touch on just a few recent examples:
Newt Gingrich (yeah, he’s still alive) in responding to the Supreme Court granting limited judicial review to detainees at Guantanamo Bay said, “This court decision is a disaster which could cost us a city. And the debate ought to be over whether or not you’re prepared to risk losing an American city . . .” 
Rudy Giuliani speaking of all the Democratic candidates said, in effect, that if a Democrat wins in November America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the level of Sept. 11.
John Bolton recently predicted that Israel will attack Iran if Obama is elected, since, you know, they’ll be afraid that Obama will simply be too wimpy to hold Iran in check.
And, of course, most recently, McCain campaign honcho, Charlie Black, famously opined that another terrorist attack on American soil “certainly would be a big advantage” for McCain.
Will this “we’ll scare your vote out of you” strategy work this time? There’s certainly some reason for optimism it won’t. After all, similar Republican fear tactics fell flat in the 2006 congressional elections (although they were a smashing success in both 2002 and 2004). And this year, so far anyway, people seem more interested in domestic issues — the economy, health care, energy costs — than in terrorism based scaremongering.
But, lest we forget, John McCain has friends in high places (you know, that big White House) — folks who’ve repeatedly demonstrated moral scruples so low that they would bring swift condemnation from of a two bit con man (including a willingness to misuse terrorism alerts for political gain). So who knows what potentially game changing new “threats” may materialize just in the nick of time this election year.
Clearly, Obama needs to continue to aggressively combat GOP claims that he’s somehow soft on terrorism. And his campaign seems to be doing a good job, though his flip-flop on FISA went too far in the direction of pandering and did more harm than good.

But what about the other side of the fear card? What about the side of the card that features the image of the really scary dude in this race — you know, a guy by the name of John McCain.

When will that side of the fear card become an issue in the race? 
Admittedly, part of what makes a McCain presidency seem so frightening is simply intuitive: as I’ve said before, there’s just something about the man that any time I think of him being president, I’m struck by the uneasy sense that he may wake up in the middle of the night sometime and decide to nuke Iceland, just because he’s pissed off at glaciers.  

But, unfortunately, there’s much more than mere intuition at play here: there’s a mountain of troubling evidence. There’s his famous hair trigger temper, his clear love of all things war and his consistent bad judgment in foreign affairs. This is a man, after all, who was one of the chief drum beaters in favor of a war in Iraq that has proven to be one of the greatest blunders in the nation’s history: yet, he appears to have learned nothing from the experience.

Indeed, he seems bound and determined — eager even — to double down on his Iraq foolhardiness in Iran.

Talk about something that ought to scare the hell out of us.

So there’s the irony: there definitely is a fear card that could quite legitimately be played in this race: it just isn’t the one that everyone’s talking about.

Thank you Senator Dodd

June 25th, 2008 by Steve

Once again Chris Dodd raises his voice in defense of our liberty.

Bush’s (most) unspeakable crime

June 25th, 2008 by Steve

Of all of George W. Bush’s crimes — unnecessary war in Iraq, subversion of the constitution, torture, wholesale looting of the treasury for political gain, political subversion of the Department of Justice and so much more — ultimately, the worst, the most unspeakable, has to have been his refusal to face the reality of global warming. His other crimes have merely damaged the nation and subverted our liberty: this one puts at risk the future of the world.

And if anyone needed additional proof of the criminality of Bush’s conduct, then slap an exhibit sticker on this article from The Times:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

The document, which ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status, was the E.P.A.’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment, the officials said.

This week, more than six months later, the E.P.A. is set to respond to that order by releasing a watered-down version of the original proposal that offers no conclusion. Instead, the document reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.

When I read this, I was reminded of a series of café episodes I wrote a couple of years ago about a fictional trial of George W. Bush for crimes against humanity on this very point: somehow, today, the story seems a good deal less far-fetched.

If you missed the series the first time, or would just like to revisit them, go here:

The Anchorage Trials – 2036

Abstinence only “sex education” and what’s wrong with Democrats

June 24th, 2008 by Steve

Old conservative boondoggles never die, and sometimes – given how wimpy Democrats can be — they don’t even fade away.

Abstinence only “sex education” has been repeatedly proven to be an utter and complete boondoggle. It doesn’t delay the onset of sexual activity or reduce the number of sexual partners teens have. What it does do, however, is to increase the likelihood that early sexual activity, when it does occur, will be unprotected, thereby greatly increasing the risk of both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, federal abstinence funding has served as a giant pay off scheme to ultraconservative pro-Republican religious organizations.

As the ultimate proof of how counterproductive this has been, as discussed in a new AP report, states have been dropping out of the program in droves, voluntarily giving up the federal funding rather than accepting fairy-tale inspired restrictions on what they’re allowed to teach. Barely half of the states are still in the program, an extraordinarily small number considering the usual eagerness of state official s to accept “free money” from the feds.

And two new states, Arizona and Iowa, have announced that they’re now joining the parade of states out of the program.

Let’s add things up: abstinence education not only doesn’t work, it actually harms our children by putting them at risk for unwanted early pregnancies and disease. It also helps Republicans politically by funding far right organizations.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that when the Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, the party’s long suffering base was optimistic that this monstrosity would finally be put to death.


You see, it turned out the Democrats in Congress had a much better idea: instead of abolishing abstinence funding, they decided to increase it.

Why? According to Congressional Quarterly, it was supposed to be the bait to get Republicans to support the budget as a whole:

Lawmakers say the olive branch extended to Republicans increases the likelihood that the bill will pass the House with a veto-proof majority. It also sends a strong signal that Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., will avoid controversial social policy changes this year in the interest of moving bills.

Could there be a better example of what’s wrong with the Democratic congressional leadership? The GOP, during their years in power, would never have dreamed of such a sellout. True, they were always more than happy to loot the treasury for useless programs — but ones that pandered to their base and lined the wallets of their supporters. They drew the line at useless programs (and for that matter useful ones) that pandered to or lined the pockets of the opposing party’s supporters.

While I would certainly never encourage congressional Democrats to model themselves after the gang of thieves who ran things in the bad old Republican days, perhaps in this one respect the Republicans may just have had a point.  

My favorite George Carlin bit

June 23rd, 2008 by Steve

What better way to elegize a fallen comic than to remember his work. I think my favorite Carlin bit, ironically enough, relates directly to the cause of his death.

An update on the comedian health sweepstakes. I currently lead Richard Pryor in heart attacks 2 to 1. But Richard still leads me 1 to nothing in burning yourself up. See, it happened like this. First Richard had a heart attack. Then I had a heart attack. Then Richard burned himself up. And I said, ‘Fuck that. I’m having another heart attack!’

RIP, George Carlin.

Feel free to add your favorite Carlin memories in the comments’

Obama and the day Santa Claus died

June 20th, 2008 by Steve

We knew it had to happen, but we might have hoped it would not happen quite so soon. Barack Obama, the vessel into which so many progressives have poured our own dreams of virtue, is gone. Obama the politician, the real Obama, the one who was actually always there, stands before us now, unencumbered by our illusions.

He’s still the hope of a generation: just not as great or pure a hope as we might have wanted.

I’m disappointed, of course, by Senator Obama’s decision to support the so-called FISA compromise (more accurately described as the FISA craven surrender), but I can’t say that I’m that surprised. This is the Obama of The Audacity of Hope, as opposed to the Obama of Dreams from my Father: the Obama with his eyes well fixed on the prize.

As I said a little over a year ago, in response to reading The Audacity of Hope:

I had an ulterior motive for wanting to read Obama’s book.  It wasn’t the fact that many reviewers have said, very unlike most books by politicians, this one is beautifully written (and it is).  No, I tore into The Audacity of Hope not so much in search of a good read, but in search of the real Barack Obama.

I want him to be as good as he looks.  I want him to be the inspirational leader we need to take us into tomorrow (hell, to catch up with today, for that matter).  But the truth is I don’t know him very well.  Beyond the pretty face and the pretty words much of the man remains a gaping mystery.  So I went looking for him.

But I don’t think I found him in his book.  What I found, instead, is a beautiful, but also very carefully crafted, persona: I found the person Obama wants us to believe he is.  As to whether he really is that person though, this book gives me not a clue.

Why do I say this?  There’s just something far too convenient in where he draws the lines for his deeply felt beliefs.  He thinks (correctly) that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime and is dangerously flawed . . . yet (there are an awful lot of yets with Obama) he still thinks it’s appropriate for society to execute the really, really bad murderers as opposed, I guess, to the only sort of bad murderers.  Being the unquestionably brilliant man he is, Obama must know this is a distinction without meaning, and utterly beyond definition.

But given the public’s view on capital punishment, it is a convenient one to draw.  This convenience of belief recurs often, troublingly so.

And no, of course, this makes him no worse than any other politician.  But you see, I was hoping for something better than no worse.

There is also an unmistakable element of intellectual dishonesty in how Obama tries to paint his self-portrait as the sensible man in the middle — as the one reasonable soul in an ocean of partisan fanatics.  He often commits the sin of false equivalency.  Yes, conservatives are bad about this, he will say, but then he will always quickly add that liberals are equally bad about that.  But the truth, of course, is that usually they aren’t.  How could they be?  As of the time he wrote the book, liberalism had been all but politically powerless for over a decade.

I’m far from giving Obama a thumbs down.  I’m still very intrigued — still very hopeful.

But I’m not sold.  Not yet. 

I eventually settled on supporting Obama, of course, and it’s a decision I don’t regret. But I did it with my eyes open. I believe he has it in him to be a great president, perhaps even a transformative one, but he’s a politician not a savior. 

He’s a politician who today sold out the Bill of Rights — if to only a limited degree — for a few votes.

That’s a tough pill to swallow, although swallow it we must and will. That’s the thing about democracy: all the fancy words notwithstanding, in the end things usually come down, at least in some sense, to a contest between what’s ugly and what’s uglier. And the choice between the two can make all the difference in the world.

Santa Claus is dead! Long live the politician!