Thursday, June 24, 2004

Let's Get Rid of John Ashcroft

The Center for American Progress has posted A Declaration Calling for the Resignation or Removal of John Ashcroft. I would encourage everyone to read over this declaration and, if they see fit (I did), to sign the petition that goes along with it. John Ashcroft is, as Paul Krugman of The New York Times put it in at least two of his columns, the worst Attorney General in U.S. history. His affronts to our democracy are legion, and his performance as our country's top law enforcement officer are abysmal.

There are currently questions swirling around the fact that although he will blast the trumpets whenever a person of color or Muslim is arrested on the flimsiest of charges, he has made not one public peep about the arrest in December 2003 and subsequent guilty plea of William Krar, a white supremacist who was caught with automatic weapons, pipe bombs, a stash of cyanide gas large enough to kill everyone in a 30,000 square foot building, and false UN credentials and Defense Intelligence Agency IDs. This man would have been able to carry out the most devastating attack on U.S. soil since 9/11/2001, and our attorney general (along with the vsat majority of our country's media) has completely swept it under the rug. Might this be because Mr. Ashcroft has a history of being supportive of white supremacist groups?

Keep in mind that John Ashcroft was appointed by a president who was illegitimately placed into power by a partisan Supreme Court. Keep in mind also that the people of Missouri so reviled John Ashcroft that he lost his race for U.S. Senate to a dead man.

So let's put John Ashcroft where he'll do us the most good – as far away from government as possible.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Can We Please Hear Some Truth about Reagan?

Let me not be charitable towards Ronald Reagan. So many are doing this for him now, and so undeservedly. Yes, it is fine to mourn the passing of another consciousness, though in this case much of that was gone or at least disastrously altered. But to engage in the wholly uncritical historical revisionism that has been going on is wholly repugnant. Even so-called liberal commentators seem to forget that this was a man that stood against everything they themselves stand for and, in the process, against human decency.

For those who would point out that Reagan started out his political career as a labor leader, let us examine his most important actions within the Screen Actors Guild, of which he was indeed president. His most important activity within SAG was to denounce fellow union members and others in the film industry as Communists during the McCarthy era, destroying careers and lives in the name of a hysterical political witch hunt that even conservatives now invoke as a black spot on our history.

This is the man who, as governor of California (beware Californians becoming Presidents), called out a violent National Guard against free speech protestors. This was the man who vetoed a state bill to allow farmworkers to have the simple right of collective bargaining.

This was the man whose people, in order to put him over the top in a tight race for the presidency, arranged for Iran to prolong the holding of US hostages until after the elections so as to further damage his opponent, Jimmy Carter. It is no coincidence that the hostages finally were released on the day of Reagan's inauguration.

Let us not forget, in this time of war on Iraq, that Reagan's administration actively supported the regime of Saddam Hussein, selling him weapons, including the chemical variety. Many of the weapons used against US troops in 1991 and even today had and have US serial numbers on them. The chemical weapons that we helped provide were not only used against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War, in clear contravention of international treaties. They were also used against Kurds during the infamous episode that has been hauled out repeatedly in order to vilify Saddam and justify our waging war on the Iraqi people.

Reagan is most celebrated by his proponents for his supposed victory against Communism and the fall of the Soviet empire. Oh, how we forget about Mikhail Gorbachev and the people of the Soviet bloc! It was the people themselves, without our help, that made change in the Soviet bloc. Let us not forget how surprised our own government, including the CIA (whose track record suggests the "I" should simply be dropped from its name), was when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union shortly thereafter.

Yes, Reagan did actively fight communism, or what he perceived to be communism. But where did this take place?

In the case of Nicaragua, Reagan's administration violated the very laws of Congress in order to support the Contras, a band of murderous thugs who worked to bring down a democratically elected government. Reagan's "freedom fighters" rarely engaged Nicaragua's military, preferring instead to target civilians in their villages, destroying fields and hospitals and killing hundreds in the process. This strategy was undertaken not only with the blessings of Reagan's administration cronies, but at their urging. And how did we fund the Contras? Ah, yes — with drug money, and arms sales to Iran.

In the name of quashing the communist threat in the rest of Central America, Reagan propped up regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Hundreds of thousands of people died in these tiny countries at the hands of US-trained death squads.

Reagan even conducted an out-and-out invasion of a country in order to supplant a democratically-elected government. As if Grenada would have ever posed a "threat" to the US. And as if it even wished to. Basically, in this case people were killed for a publicity moment, to show that we were big and tough and nobody should mess with us. Especially if they were from small, poor, defenseless countries.

While he didn't seem to like democratically elected regimes, Reagan's record elsewhere suggests he never met a righ-wing dictator he didn't like. From Marcos to Suharto to Pinochet, he and his administration made sure that these blights upon humanity had the backing of the United States of America.

His love of dictatorships extended to the race dictatorship, otherwise known as apartheid, of South Africa. Reagan was not only vocal in his support for the apartheid regime, he actually vetoed a bill to place sanctions upon South Africa. Much to The Great Vetoer's chagrin, and our relief, his veto in this case was overridden. And let us remember he labeled Nelson Mandela — yes, the Nelson Mandela — a notorious terrorist, along with the ANC, which now rules South Africa. Reagan's policies served to lengthen the time apartheid held sway, and he himself is therefore responsible for the prolongation of death and suffering in that country.

Not that Reagan wasn't active on the home front. Of course he was. Why, under Reagan the homeless population in this country rose from relative negligibility to two million. How's that for making an impression? Reagan also has the distinction of being the president under who the US for the first time became a debtor nation. The massive amounts he spent on weapons, including the nuclear kind, surely aided in that. How ironic it is that vocally "small-government" Republican administrations these past decades have been the ones who have been the most profligate in their spending! Reagan is at the root of this pattern.

This is also the president who took the unprecedented action of firing all of this country's air traffic controllers who had gone on strike. This was not only a blow to the right of working people in the US to organize, but also left our skies much more dangerous by bringing in, en masse, a whole cadre of barely-trained controllers to manage the air lanes.

This is the man who consistently attacked civil rights, and then affirmative action, from the time he was president of SAG to the time he was president of the USA. He even began his 1980 presidential campaign in the infamous Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists ahd been murdered in the 1960s, without so much as acknowledging the incident.

So as people remember Ronald Reagan, we should not only remember the cheerful face, but remember that this face masked a combination of bullheaded ignorance and outright malevolence. Let's remember that this is the man who nearly brought us to the brink of nuclear annihilation with his funny little aside that he had outlawed the Soviet Union and bombing would commence in five minutes. His personal charm masked a hateful boorishness that is reenacted now, more baldfacedly, by George W. Bush.

Ronald Reagan, go away and leave us in peace. And take George with you.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Have You Had Your Trip Today?

When I was a child, my parents took me to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Making even more of an impression on me than an original stand-up arcade version of Pong and simple laser light demonstrations was a curious little device that demonstrated the power of optical illusion. The entirety of this highly sophisticated machine consisted of a foot-diameter black-and-white spiral rotating slowly. 60 Second Trip brings a slightly more complex version of that spiral to your Web browser. Little Fluffy Industries says "This neat optical trick will give you the same trippy feeling you'd get from spinning around real fast," but it's actually much cooler than that. Bascom-Bob says check it out.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Why Don't They Think of Ways to Make Our Rides More Pleasant?

An open letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (New York City and surrounds) regarding some of their proposed new rules:

To the MTA:

I strongly object to the proposed ban on photography in the New York City subway system. This will NOT enhance passenger security or safety. It will do nothing to keep a determined person from using such devices as cell phones, Palm Pilots, and the like from taking pictures. Instead, it will insidiously extend a culture of fear into our transit system. It will prevent passengers and visitors from taking with them a little of the romance of New York City. I have been taking spur-of-the-moment pictures in the subway system for the ten years that I have lived here, and they have been important in showing my friends elsewhere in the US and the world what makes NYC such a great city. Diverting police resources to enforcing a no-photography rule will only keep them from work that truly keeps us safe, and will make the atmosphere more hostile for everyone down below. Please do not play into the culture of fear that the Bush administration wants to impose on us.

I must also object to your criminalization of frustrated passengers who have to deal with your extremely imperfect Metrocard technology. While I have never jumped a turnstile, I would sympathize greatly with those who do so due to a malfunctioning card. I sometimes wonder what real-world testing you actually did with Metrocards before setting them loose on us. I am not opposed to a card-based technology in principle — indeed, I got along famously with the SF Bay Area BART system's cards. But your cards have caused me to miss trains more than once, and because of the often unreliable nature of your train service, one missed train can eventually mean delays of up to 20 minutes, when missed transfers are factored in, during the day. Late at night, the waits can be even more disastrously long. So my suggestion is to get your own technological house in order before criminalizing your paying passengers.

Finally, do not prohibit people from transferring between train cars. I know of many cases when people transfer because a car that they entered is hostile in some way: there is no air conditioning in the summer, there is an especially foul smell, there are people acting in a threatening manner. In addition, people in New York work to squeeze whatever efficiency they can out of the subway system, getting themselves to a car that will leave them closer to a transfer point (see above point) or to their exit. Why not instead come up with ways to make those inter-car transfers safer?

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Bascom Guffin
Brooklyn, NY

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Regarding Bishop Sheridan's May 1 Pastoral Letter

I just sent the following letter to Roman Catholic Bishop Michael J. Sheridan regarding his call to deny communion to politicians who support issues that violate specific Roman Catholic teachings.

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
The Diocese of Colorado Springs
228 North Cascade Avenue
Colorado Springs, CO  80903

Dear Bishop Sheridan,

I am trying to understand why, in your call to deny communion to Catholic politicians and voters who support abortion, stem cell research, or same-sex marriages, you do not call for the same measures to be taken against those who support the death penalty. As you yourself state, "As Catholics we have the further obligation to give assent to the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church because 'to the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.' [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2032 and Code of Canon Law 747.2]."

One of these moral teachings reads thus:

"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

"If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

"Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm--without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself--the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are rare, if not practically non-existent.' (NT: John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56) [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267].

What this teaching tells us is that the death penalty, especially as practiced today in the United States, is morally wrong. Why, then, do you not call to account the many politicians who so strongly support the death penalty, especially in the face of a growing mountain of evidence that many innocents have been put to death by the state in this country?

If you think this question smacks of partisanship or particularism (i.e., why single out the death penalty to be against), then mightn't the same be true of your own pastoral letter? Why not simply, in your letter, call for a denial of communion to those who support violations of any of the Church's teachings? This would at least give some sense of consistency and fairness to what you propose.

I look forward to your reply.

Bascom Guffin

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A Subway Wish List

What follows is a wish list of some ways the subways in New York City can become more pleasant. I am putting these down without regard to cost-effectiveness, though if the subway system is more pleasant, there is a good chance ridership, and therefore revenue, would go up:

  • Make them quieter. What is especially loud and disturbing is the express trains hurtling through local stations. Maybe there are new wheel technologies that could be applied on the current tracks. The Paris Metro runs on rubber wheels. Another option would be to fit ceilings and pillars (including those separating tracks) with sound-absorbing materials. It is possible that there are hard rubbers or polymers that could do this while at the same time being extremely durable and easily washable.

  • Fix the sound systems. The loudspeakers in the stations sound like tin cans. Coupled with the echo-chamber nature of the stations (see above), this makes announcements at most locations incomprehensible. Make sure that the system is set to the appropriate loudness.

  • Include digital visual signage for announcements. New York City is far behind almost every other metro system when it comes to this. The signage can normally give the current time, and wait times for trains coming to that platform. It can give announcements about delays or route changes. Up-to-the-minute visual signage is also critical for people who are deaf. By the same token, it should not replace voice announcements, which are critical to blind people.

  • Daylight stations more. Those with darkening grills that let air in might be replaced by something that allows more light through. Or the ceilingway between the grills and the stations can be modified to allow more light. Utilize plexiglass, metal grilling, and maybe even mirrors to get more natural sunlight into the train stations, and maybe even along the tracks. Along with more sunlight will come lower energy consumption, as well.

  • Electric lighting should use full-spectrum bulbs, meaning light bulbs that emit the same spectrum of visible light as the sun. Alternately, or as a complement, various colors of lighting can be used in various arrangements to make the lighting of stations and trains more interesting and inviting, while still conveying a sense of comfort and security.

  • Make them free. This contradicts my argument about revenue going up, although there might be a way to obtain more public moneys as ridership inevitably goes up. Making subways free will eliminate turnstile jams. It will eliminate frustrations with faulty Metrocards, Metrocard readers, and vending machines. Stress levels associated with using the subway system will decrease.

  • Have personable employees at every station, and maybe every platform, to give information to riders. They could be stationed at small kiosks on each platform, and would also serve as a visible sign of security for riders at all times of the day and night.

  • Make all stations and trains easily wheelchair accessible. This will not only aid people who use wheelchairs, it will also be a boon to the many people who push carts and baby carriages and the like. And will allow ambulatory people with difficulties walking to get around the subway system more easily. This will also mean less jams on stairways, that now act as bottlenecks trying to get to and from trains.

  • Make the system much more extensive. Add the Second Avenue line, yes. But also add lines in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. And not simply all radiating out out of Manhattan. It should be easier to go places between and within boroughs outside of Manhattan.

  • These measures, and more, would make people's subway experience more agreeable, and possibly even pleasurable, and would go far toward upgrading the quality of life in New York City.

    Tuesday, June 01, 2004

    A Hero Retires

    Nelson Mandela, icon for those who value freedom, compassion, and humanity has announced that he will effectively be retiring from public life. This is a sad day for all of us. I wish him well as he finally takes time to be with his family and himself. We salute you, Madiba, for all that you have done for us and inspired in us, the world over. May you live to be 115, always in good health. Amandla!