Friday, May 3, 2013

Thanks, Jolie Justus!

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: So it’s May 3, 2013, and it’s snowing in north Missouri. Rhonda says they have 5 inches in Chillicothe and Kirstin said 6 inches in Hale. So, last week, on my vegetable farm, we planted potatoes and then it started raining and I started to worry about rot. Turned out I needed to worry about freezing! All my fruit trees have bloomed—peaches, cherries, pears, apples, plums, all of them. Frozen fruit trees are fairly common in Missouri, but usually in mid-April. Early May? Not so much. If you wanted two years contrasting against each other, last year, 2012, when we had a drought and excessive heat by mid-May is a good contrast with this one, 2013. But it’s the same old politics. Tomorrow I talk to the League of Women Voters annual meeting in Jefferson City. What a delight to talk to activist women from all over the state. My text: Lessons from the suffrage movement. Lesson one: Persevere. Yeah, it takes decades, but at some point the stupids realize how ridiculous they are and they just give it up. Trouble is, when it comes to food and agriculture, they have the potential to change everything on the planet while they’re diddling around on the bad side. My state senator, Jolie Justus, has figured out that her constituents want the planet to last and want rural life to be here for the future and our kids, in a non-poisonous way. She has stood up for us in the face of the stupids, paid off to support HJR 7 and 11. So I called her at the end of the day to say thanks. Hope she knows I mean it. That’s all for today. It’s May 3, 2013.

The “prom ask” becomes new ritual for which to buy stuff and use consultants

It’s the American Way, or perhaps I should write, the American Process: create a new ritual to display a human emotion and then develop a range of products and services to help people express the emotion.

But now that we’ve run out of major emotions, like love for mother, father or significant other, we’re moved on to the trivial. Evidently asking someone to the prom has become a big deal. Young bucks are outdoing themselves in constructing elaborate asks—making fortune cookies with “ask” messages, creating flash mobs or appearing at the young lady’s front door in a giant teddy bear costume. One parochial high school is running a “best ask” contest.

The New York Times article in which I discovered this trend pays close attention to the consumer aspects of the phenomenon, detailing how “romantic events” companies and “etiquette coaches” are jumping on the trend. Since real holidays such as Christmas have devolved into a potlatch of spending, it makes sense that manufactured holidays or life events would quickly become commoditized into a series of goods and services—it’s another opportunity to meet an emotional need by spending money.

A few things strike me as interesting about the development of the elaborate prom “ask.”  The Times article and all the thousands of other stories about asking someone to go to the prom that are in the news media this week all assume that it is the boy who asks the girl. Not only could I find no reference to a gay individual asking someone to a prom, there was not one mention of a girl asking a boy. Shocking, but perhaps just to me, since in the late 1960’s I was asked to go to my prom by a girl.

Surely, some girl somewhere in the country asked a boy in a cute enough way to make the evening news this year.  Yes, there was one: a heart-warming story about a girl who asked a boy with autism to the prom as an act of kindness.  Admirable and maybe worth a human-interest feature in the evening news, but the hidden message about normal expectations is pernicious. My take is that the editors and writers who specialize in prom-type stuff are always striving to confirm a set of traditional values, including the “boy asks girl” principle, which is a corollary to the principle that “boy decides.”

Beyond the covert sexism in the reporting of the cute “prom ask” trend, there is the essence of the event—the anxiety that many teenage boys and girls feel when asking someone for a date. Of course, it’s not just teenagers who when dialing the phone suffer a deep fear of rejection even as they feel an exhilaration considering the possibilities. It’s typical for American companies to create anxieties or needs and then fill them with products and services. The “prom ask” is ready-made, since the anxiety always existed. Retailers, consultants and trend-setters just needed to channel that anxiety into a situation that required making purchases.

With or without the “prom ask” ritual, the prom gets too much attention nowadays: dresses have gotten too expensive and prom night has flowered into a series of rituals like the after-prom party, the hotel stay and events the following day, each of which raise the cost of participation.  The prom has come to exemplify Thorsten Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, which means the spending on luxury goods and services to demonstrate social status.

The prom has also become a stage for acting out social issues, as each year the news media uncovers stories about segregated proms, prom dress restrictions, anti-proms, use of social media in prom planning and the cost of proms.

In total, some 13.4 million stories popped up when searching for “prom” on Google News; “prom ask” yielded 49,700 of them. A search for “global warming” yielded 76,700 stories; “college loans” yielded 1.3 million; “Plan B,” which refers to FDA plans to allow the over-the-counter sale of Plan B birth control to prom queens and any other girl aged 15 or older, yielded 21,7000 stories.  In other words, in the narrow slice of time covered in any standard Google News search, more media outlets cared about how teens ask other teens to go to a dance than about a breaking news story related to sexual freedom for teenage girls.

Of course, there are so many possible ways for the mass media to cover proms: asks, dresses, corsages, decorations, social issues. But read closely:  virtually all the stories soon reduce to discussions of shopping for goods and services.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Can we go a month without GMOs?

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Last night on Farm and Fiddle, the radio program that celebrates and explores rural life for today and tomorrow, we began our second annual "month without Monsanto," also called, "Nonsanto May" and "month without biotech." Dan rigged up a Facebook page for people to check in and we reviewed the rules. For the month of May, we try hard to delete biotech products from our lives. That means, basically, no processed foods, because they mostly contain GMO corn and soybeans, unless they are marked "USDA organic" or "GMO-free". Also, no cotton clothing manufactured after 1998 when the first GMO cotton was introduced. Even though we had prepared, we all had to admit exceptions. I was wearing linen pants, rayon shirt and linen jacket, leather shoes, BUT I had blown it by wearing cotton socks. Dan had a cotton t-shirt and Hannah had taken an ibuprofen after she fell off her bike. Hannah and I were both worried about animal feed. She has new chicks and was starting them on leftovers and grain from the health food store. I was able to give her some leftover wheat from 2011, which is non-GMO. But I have 2 bottle baby lambs eating formula. I know I'll have to buy that, and it contains soybeans. Today, I saw Dan at Cafe Berlin. He was wearing a vintage t-shirt. I had put on some wool socks. We congratulated each other. But what to eat? Luckily, the cafe has a good variety of vegetarian foods, but they generally cook with canola oil. I ordered an egg and tempeh, fried in olive oil. It was delicious.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Missouri Senate Bill 9

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: It happens that I just returned from a meeting at the county health department, learning the new rules of food handling for our county, when an e-mail appeared in my mailbox about Missouri Senate Bill 9. The notices says that Representative Casey Guernsey, Chair of the House Agri-Business Committee, has inserted anti-local control language onto numerous bills, and one of those bills, Senate Bill 9, is moving—It is slated to be heard on the House floor anytime! Here’s another example of the corporate ag community throwing local control under the bus. If it passes, in order to pass any local health ordinance, order, rule or regulation regarding factory farms, BOTH the county commission and the county health board must agree to and pass identical measures. That means that if there is an emergency spill into public waters, the health department could not act until the commission meets and passes a regulation with identical language. As the e-mail states: This mandate infringes on Local Control and creates an additional and unnecessary level of government bureaucracy.

When it comes to unscrewing the lid off the public information vault in Virginia, size matters

Over the past 24 hours, the mass media has devoted tons of paper, billions of bytes and miles of videotape to commemorating a very small step in the progress towards emancipation of a minority group representing from 2.5%-10% of the population. The media has trumpeted the opinions of elected officials, political and sports pundits, sports stars and the man-and-woman in the street, virtually all supportive of current professional basketball player Jason Collins coming out of the closet.

Meanwhile, the news media has practically ignored yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that confirmed the right of any state to restrict access to public files, a decision that takes a fairly significant step backwards when it comes to freedom of speech, open government and civil rights for everyone.  In the decision, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Commonwealth of Virginia to prohibit nonresidents from applying for state information under its freedom of information law. That means that Virginia and any other state can deny nonresidents access to public files. 

The chasmic difference in the amount of coverage of these two legitimate news stories is truly stunning. My morning search of Google News revealed 85.9 million stories mentioning Jason Collins. A mere 10 mention the Supreme Court case, McBurney v. Young. That’s ten—five plus five or five times two—the number of fingers and thumbs on both hands. In fact, total mentions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Google News for literally hundreds of different issues and cases comprised a mere 33.6 million stories.

It is easy to understand why we have placed too much importance on the one act of a sports figure publicly revealing his sexuality.  It’s a feel good story to most Americans and it confirms the current mainstream view of the country as open and tolerant. At the same time, the Collins leaves the closet story gives the intolerant right-wing another wrong around which to rally its dwindling troops.

It is also easy to figure out why the Supreme Court decision drew so little coverage. The many small but significant attacks on civil rights since 9/11 seem to get short shrift in the mass media all the time, unless the right to bear arms or publicly proclaim a Christian faith is at issue.

Moreover, while many news organizations filed briefs in favor of the two separate people who sued Virginia, the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t really affect the mainstream news media.  Virginia’s law makes an exception for newspapers and magazines with readers in Virginia and for TV and radio stations that broadcast there. The big national media and the networks can still tap Virginia’s shrove of public information. It’s just the little media and individuals who can’t.

My conclusion: when it comes to unscrewing the lid off the public information vault in Virginia, size matters.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dow and Monsanto: The Invincibles Against Consumers

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: As I wrote yesterday, HJR 7 and 11 have been dubbed the “Monsanto/CAFO protection act.” That’s the Missouri law that would “forever” guarantee “modern” farming methods in our state, regardless of what “modern” means. Robots caring for animals in confinement? Poisons sprayed all over the land to kill weeds? We don’t know. But, now, I see that maybe citizens should call HJR 7 and 11 the “Monsanto/Dow/CAFO protection act.” Because last week, Dow and Monsanto announced a “cross-licensing” deal that would stack the world’s largest chemical company and the world’s largest seed company in a ruthless “next generation” coalition. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch lined it out: “The world’s biggest seed company and the country’s biggest chemical company announced Thursday a cross-licensing deal intended to bring next-generation seeds and chemical mixes to farmers combating increasingly stubborn weeds and insects in the field. Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co. and Dow Agrosciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co., said Thursday that Monsanto will allow Dow to use a corn technology Monsanto is developing to kill corn rootworm, a major agricultural pest. In exchange, Dow will give Monsanto access to its new Enlist brand corn technology, which enables crops to survive applications of the chemical 2,4-D. The deal is the latest move in an emerging pattern that has seen major rivals in agricultural biotechnology license technologies to one another. The existing SmartStax corn product, for example, already contains eight biotechnology traits developed by Dow, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience.” That, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a “response” to the problems farmers are having in the battle against increasingly chemical-resistant pests and weeds. I guess “response” is one way to put it, but to be honest the problems are due to increasing amounts of chemicals on the land to grow the seeds that the biochemical seed companies are creating. What’s really crazy about all this is that nobody has tested the “traits” on consumers, so if you buy these weird products, you’re ingesting the “traits,” whether they’re good for you or not. And, to make matters more complex, scientists can’t get permission to run tests on lab rats or even on worms or bugs because the “traits” are protected by patents. So who are the lab rats? Well, if you’ve eaten anything today made with corn, canola, soy, sugar beets or cotton seed, you can raise your hand now.

Treat Terrorists Like Common Criminals

The Obama administration made the right decision when it decided to go ahead and charge Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in US District Court on charges related to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We have mixed emotions about the Department of Justice reserving the option to question Tsarnaev under a “public safety exception” before reading him his Miranda rights — but federal officials recognized that any information obtained during that interim questioning might end up excluded from any judicial proceeding against Tsarnaev.

Officials said they had no choice but to prosecute Tsarnaev in domestic court because he is a naturalized US citizen. Republican members of Congress had demanded that the 19-year-old suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings be turned over to military courts to be held and tried as an “enemy combatant.”

The death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old brother, after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., spared authorities a more dicey determination of how to proceed with the older brother who probably was the mastermind of the plot but had not become a citizen. In our view, the feds should not have the option of sending foreigners suspected of criminal activity in the United States to a military court system, where they can be denied a lawyer and other normal rights of due process. Republicans who sought that move, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Peter King of New York, ought to know better.
We agree with Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil LIberties Union, who said the public safety exception to providing the “Miranda” warning, when used, should be read narrowly. Romero noted that, after Tsarnaev was arrested, law enforcement officials indicated that there was no more imminent threat to the public. “The curfew had been lifted. And whatever the suspect’s connections to other possible accomplices, the government had ample surveillance powers to track their phones and access their email and Twitter accounts,” he said.

But as a practical matter, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been in the United States for a decade, he was graduated from high school in Cambridge and was attending the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. In that time, if he had not learned about the Fifth Amendment in his courses, he probably had been exposed to episodes of Law and Order, or other police procedurals, where the Miranda warning is frequently recited. [Editor's Note: After this was written, it was reported that after Tsarvaev was informed of his rights, he stopped talking. Apparently he was not a Law and Order fan.]

More important, every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. As Romero said, “We must not waver from our tried-and-true justice system, even in the most difficult of times. Denial of rights is un-American and will only make it harder to obtain fair convictions.”

Ever since 9/11 Congress has been seeking to protect us from the remote threat of terrorism at the expense of civil liberties. It is encouraging that a Washington Post poll conducted nationwide April 17-18 and released April 22 found that a plurality of 48% said they fear the government will go too far in compromising constitutional rights in order to investigate terrorism, while 41% fear the government will not go far enough to investigate terrorism because of concerns about constitutional rights.

Neither the habeas corpus clause in Article One, nor the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments detailing the legal rights of persons charged with crimes distinguish between the legal rights of citizens and those of non-citizens. Any prosecution that assumes such a distinction is on shaky legal and moral ground.

Americans seem willing to set aside basic constitutional rights to confront the threat from terrorists, which is the biggest victory the terrorists have scored. Chris Hayes of MSNBC noted that terrorist attacks in the US claimed 3,033 lives from 2000 through 2010, but our nation appears to be less troubled by the 60,394 Americans who died in workplace accidents in the same period and 335,609 people who died from gunfire in the US.

Four Democratic senators are coming in for harsh criticism from gun-control advocates for voting with the National Rifle Association April 17 to block expanded background checks for gun buyers. The proposal had a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but it needed 60 votes to proceed. (Majority Leader Harry Reid supported the proposal, but switched his vote to opposition so that, under Senate rules, he could bring up the proposal again.)

We think the expanded background checks was the least Congress should do in attempting to check the epidemic of gun deaths, which have totaled more than 30,000 per year during the past decade (with two thirds of those deaths accidental or suicides). The measure would force more gun buyers — particularly those who shop at gun shows and over the Internet — to pass a background check to make sure they had not been judged mentally unstable, felonious or otherwise ineligible to own a gun. But the NRA has demonstrated its willingness to lie about the amendment, claiming that it was just the first step toward the feds seizing the nation’s more than 300 million private guns.

Many Democratic senators made that tough vote to expand background checks, knowing that they will come under fire (figuratively, we hope) for that vote at home. But we don’t blame Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) or David Pryor (Ark.) for balking.
Even if all four of those out-of-line Democrats had voted for the amendment, the measure would still have fallen one vote short of advancing. But they would be resigning themselves to spend the next two years fighting Republicans and NRA members claiming that the Democrats had voted to grab honest people’s guns. And even if the gun control forces had found another Republican vote in the Senate, to join the four Republicans who voted for the “bipartisan” deal, all that victory would have accomplished was send the bill limping to the Republican House, where gun control advocates would be lucky to get a committee hearing before watching the bill die.

If 80 to 90 percent of Americans really support expanded background checks, as some recent public opinion surveys report, and if substantial majorities also support limits on magazine size and/or a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, voters are going to have to defeat Republican members of Congress in 2014 to show they are serious. But a recent Associated Press-GfK poll conducted April 11-15 shows waning public support for tighter gun laws, as 49% said gun laws should be made stricter while 38% said they should stay the same. The last time a Democratic Congress passed an assault weapons ban, in 1994, Democrats lost control of Congress in the next election. Backlash against gun control was a major issue in that turnover, particularly in rural areas. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since then. If you think you are going to advance gun regulation by defeating Democratic senators in Alaska, Arkansas and North Dakota (Baucus is not seeking re-election in Montana), you are fooling yourself.

Proposals to limit magazine capacity on semi-automatic guns and to ban assault weapons also fell by wide margins in the April 17 round of Senate voting. Ironically, an amendment that came closer to passing was Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) NRA-backed proposal to require all states to recognize out-of-state permits to carry concealed handguns. That received 57 votes, with 13 Dems joining 44 Republicans (all but Mark Kirk, R-Ill.) in supporting the pro-vigilante measure. If your senators include Baucus, Begich, Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Pryor, Mark Udall (CO), Tom Udall (N.M.), Jon Tester (Mont.) or Mark Warner (Va.), let them know you’re disappointed.

States should have the authority to regulate who is packing heat in public — and even our right-wing Supreme Court appears to agree that states can regulate the carrying of firearms. On April 15 it refused to hear an NRA challenge of a New York law limiting concealed-carry permits to those who demonstrate that they have a special need for self-protection — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2013
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Selections from the May 15, 2013 issue