NASCAR Takes a New Turn

July 31, Talladega, AL

In a surprise move sure to shake the nation’s largest spectator sport to its core, NASCAR officials announced today that all future races, including all Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series events, will be run in a clockwise direction, ensuring that stock cars will only turn to the right in the future.

“It’s a big change, for sure, but it was really a grassroots effort that brought us here,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France. “Once a critical mass of our fans realized that their favorite drivers were veering to the left, today’s changes became inevitable. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed we didn’t do something about it earlier.”

Fans were generally pleased with the change. “NASCAR’s always been about family,” said Cletus Wheeler, a lifelong enthusiast with a neck tattoo of Dick Trickle. “But once I realized what I was seein’ with all them cars turnin’ to the left all damned day, well, I couldn’t let my kids see that. I had to leave them in the truck with the dog. I mean, in a five-hundred mile race, these drivers are turning left two thousand, even twenty-five hundred times. That just sends entirely the wrong message to the little ones. Hey, y’all don’t know where I could score some meth, do ya?”

Indeed, it was NASCAR’s reputation as a bearer of traditional, American values that was at stake. Or as Brian France explained, “The sport has always strived to uphold the sorts of values our fan based is passionate about, like white male dominance, tidal waves of corporate money, distrust of foreigners with their strange-looking Formula 1 cars, and the wanton, almost reckless consumption of fossil fuels.”

The decision was made public in a small ceremony at the historic Talladega Superspeedway, known for being the longest and fastest of NASCAR’s oval tracks. Lesa Kennedy, President of International Speedway Corporation (NASDAQ: ISCA) which owns Talladega, had this to say. “We picked this track because there’s a lot of history here, but sort of a dark cloud, too. Every fan knows about the Talladega jinx. Ever since Bobby Allison’s wreck back in ’87, we’ve tried everything we could to break it, even had a Catholic priest do an exorcism. But then when this whole going left thing turned up, we thought, maybe we’ve finally nailed it! The last thing anybody wants to see is these athletes going left. You let that go too long and next thing you know the drivers are going to start marrying each other and campaigning for sensible immigration and drug reforms. Then God will really turn the screws, you know?”

There is one group of people who aren’t so happy about the change: NASCAR’s top drivers.

“Right turns? Can cars even do that?” asked a visibly shaken Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’s father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in one of the few recorded instances of a stock car turning to the right in the sport’s sixty-plus year history

America’s Refugee Crisis

Throughout the world today, millions of people are being displaced by war, drought, famine, and political upheaval. And while the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are drawing the most media coverage, the truth is America too is in the midst of its own refugee crisis.

Don’t be surprised. Odds are, you’ve been hearing about this crisis for weeks or months already without realizing it because certain quarters of our media and political class have been very deliberately misrepresenting it as an issue of illegal immigration, instead of a humanitarian crisis that would require a serious, companionate response.

So let me attempt to clear up the spin. This year alone, 70,000  children are expected to be swept up by the federal government after crossing our southern border with Mexico. However, the bulk of them are not Mexicans. Instead, the bulk of this surge in children, some as young as five years old, are coming from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Those children coming from Mexico can, and usually are, deported back to their home country as quickly as the system can process them. However, due to a 2008 law, those unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico must be granted due process to a legal hearing to determine their status in front of a judge.

You see, there has been an enormous spike over the last couple of years in the number of children coming from these central American countries, closely mirroring a huge spike in crime, violence, and gang activity in the same timeframe.

These crime spikes, in turn, didn’t spring up from nowhere. Much of the increase in violence, murder, and kidnapping happening in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala stem directly from shifting distribution networks of the Mexican drug cartels. After many years of coordination between the DEA, FBI, CIA, and the Columbian government, the old center of the drug trade is on the wane. Bogota and the rest of Columbia is slowly becoming a safer place to live and work once more.  But the drug trade hasn’t let up, it has simply shifted further north, bringing the same blight of fear, exploitation, and violence that used to plague so much of South America with it.

And who is to blame for that? America has long been the world’s largest and most lucrative market for illegal drugs. Cocaine, heroine, meth, and pot flow North, while tens of billions of dollars in both currency and illegally purchased weapons flow south. A perfect symbiotic relationship of death and societal collapse.

The number of unaccompanied children coming from Honduras alone in the last two years has shot up almost six-hundred percent. Many of these children have traveled over a thousand miles, through multiple countries, risking beatings, rape, starvation, and death to get away from the ever-increasing horrors they face in their home countries.

America, through both our drug dependency and our utterly feckless policy of criminalization and imprisonment for drug offenses instead of treatment, decriminalization, and legalization in the case of softer drugs like weed, are partially, maybe even mostly responsible for the circumstances that have driven these children from their homes.

Which is where we run into the politicians and protestors at the border trying to muddy the waters by misrepresenting these refugees as illegal immigrants and filling the public discourse with fear of gangs, terrorists, and disease.

The trouble with that narrative is it’s basically all false. Until a child is afforded a trial, their status as either a refugee or illegal immigrant hasn’t been determined. That is the whole purpose of holding the hearing in the first place. Labeling all of them illegals before the trial is tantamount to assuming their guilt and asking them to prove their innocence.

But it gets worse. Stories of “Muslim prayer rugs” on the border have spread like wildfire through anti-immigration circles, stoking baseless fears about terrorist sleeper cells and linking them to these kids. Never mind the fact it turned out to be a soccer jersey, (which, frankly, I’m much more concerned about infiltrating the country than Muslims, but I digress).

As if the possibility of these children being adorable little ISIS or al Qaeda operatives wasn’t scary enough, opponents have also raised the threat of infectious disease as a reason to turn away these kids. You see, these little Typhoid Maria’s are just brimming with every terrible, horrendous disease you’ve ever heard of, including the Ebola virus, despite the fact it’s never been seen outside Africa.

While it’s heartwarming to see so many “conservatives” who continue to try and sabotage the implementation of the ACA suddenly take an interest in public health, this issue too is overblown. As far as communicable disease is concerned, you’re actually at a greater risk hanging around genuine American children because, and I swear I’m not making this up for effect, children in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala actually have better rates of immunization than their U.S. counterparts, (although, to be fair, most of the fault for this falls to anti-vax parents, who are predominantly progressives).

All this disinformation campaign attempts to do is to dehumanize these kids and make it easier to ignore our responsibility as a nation and our compassion as human beings. But that’s not who we are, at least, it’s not who we have long aspired to be. The dedication plaque mounted to the Statue of Liberty reads thusly:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

How do these children not qualify? How, indeed, does any person of good character not qualify? I have always thought that people born abroad, who risk all to reach our shores and throw their lot in with ours have a far superior understanding of the point and the promise of America than those born here who fight to keep them out.

 

MH17 and the Dangers of a Captive Media

As we are all aware by now, last week a Malaysian Airlines 777 was shot down over contested territory in the Ukraine with 298 lives lost. The airliner was hit by an anti-aircraft missile, most likely fired by Russian-backed and supplied separatists. These rebels were not only in control of the territory in question at the time of the attack, but had already shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft in previous weeks using similar if not identical technology they had bragged about confiscating from the Ukrainian military.

All of the available evidence, from radar returns and transponder logs, to U.S. military satellite data, paints the same picture.  While we don’t know who was at the controls of the missile battery that day, the odds that it was anyone but a pro-Russian rebel, or even a Russian military technical advisor, are exceedingly slim.

What I believe happened here was a simple case of mistaken identity.  Emboldened by the recent shoot-downs of a Ukrainian An-25 transport, Su-25 ground attack plane, and an IL-76 troop carrier, two of which were brought down in close proximity to the attack on Flight 17, the rebels simply over-reached.

Being inexperienced, they saw an airplane that would appear on radar to be very similar in size and configuration to the IL-76 they had brought down.  A 777-200 is only fractionally larger than the military transport, and both planes are capable of flying at similar speeds and altitudes. So, they fired on what they believed to be a fat, easy target. And it was an easy target, as easy as they come.

This sequence of events fits not only the facts on the ground and the sequence of events preceding the attack, but is matched by the highly suspicious behavior of the rebels in the aftermath.  Since the crash, the rebels have been scrambling to control access to the crash site through intimidation and theft, “recovering” the black boxes without, you know, turning them over to international investigators, blocking the site with armed guards, and moving the bodies of the victims, all the while contaminating the scene and making it more difficult for the people trying to ascertain the truth to do their jobs. These are not the actions of people with nothing to fear from the truth.

But, for the largely cowed population of Russia, these indisputable, easily-verified facts are nowhere to be found. In an excellent piece in the New Republic, Julia Ioffe details the myriad ways the Russian state-run media has been distorting, omitting, and outright lying about the events surrounding MH-17. Their claims run from the counter-factual, to the outright bizarre.

Among them is the claim repeated by a parade of experts that the SA-11 Buk, (Gadfly in NATO parlance) anti-aircraft missile system is not capable of shooting down an aircraft at an altitude of 33,000 feet. This is patently, pathetically ridiculous. The SA-11 Buk missile system has been in continuous use among the Russian military since 1980, and many other states since not long after. It has a maximum ceiling of  72,000 feet, or more than twice the necessary altitude to bring down an aircraft flying at a typical commercial airliner cruising altitude of 30-40,000 feet.

Military aircraft routinely operate at much higher altitudes than commercial flights, partly because it takes them outside of the threat envelopes of more primitive AAA systems. The Buk was developed in a time when Russia and the U.S. were locked in the Cold War, and decades after Gary Powers U-2 was shot down by Russian anti-aircraft missiles, a plane capable of cruising at over 80,000 feet.

The idea that the Buk couldn’t reach high enough to hit MH-17 is laughable on its face. A dedicated air-defense system that can’t even reach the cruising altitude of planes ferrying drunk tourists to Thailand is completely worthless in the modern threat environment. Either these experts are lying through their teeth, or a whole bunch of Russian arms buyers should be calling the Kremlin and demanding their money back for duping them into purchasing expensive boat anchors.

But that simple truth isn’t going to be heard by the Russian public. Instead, they’re being told outrageous lies such as Flight 17 was loaded with bodies, or Flight 17 was actually the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, captured by the Americans and now blown up to start a new war.

Does that sound familiar? Because it should. The exact same tinfoil-hattery has been forwarded by conspiracy theorists about 9/11. Oh, and Alex Jones has already called it a “false flag” operation, so we’ve gotten that out of the way.

The difference is, instead of being pushed by fringe lunatics like World Net Daily, or Info Wars, these lies are being put forward by the official media channels of a former world superpower, deliberately keeping their citizens misinformed and paranoid through propaganda. Without the knowledge needed to make informed decisions, Russian citizens are incapable of participating in their democracy in any meaningful way. You can’t vote your conscious when everything you’re basing your opinions on is false.

But, before we here in the west, and especially America, get too smug about it, stop to consider what’s happened to our own media.  While our media isn’t state-controlled as it is in Russia, it’s anything but independent. And while it’s certainly true that both sides of the political divide are guilty of it, the reality is one “Fair and Balanced” network has taken their biases to the extreme in a near-parody of its Russian counterpart.

How many times has the objective, verifiable reality about topics like climate change, evolution, the President’s place of birth, the current state of the economy, or the science of human sexuality and reproduction been simply denied by our most popular “news” network and turned on its ear?

The difference as I see it is where in Russia these lies come from the top down for the purpose of aiding the oligarchs who actually run that country, here we have more of a hybrid system. Russia’s media acts as a direct arm of the state, because all pretense of democracy has been ceded to the ruling cabal of businessmen, politicians, and organized crime at the top. It’s their interests you’re seeing represented in the Russian news, not the truth, and certainly not the people.

Here in the U.S. we’re not quite that far down the rabbit hole, yet. The major media outlets do not serve the state directly, but that’s only because the state and the class of proto-oligarchs that own the media outlets remain separate entities, if only by a slim margin. You see, we the people have, over the last two Presidential elections, (actually five of the last six, but who’s counting) refused to play along and put their preferred candidate in office. Which is why today we have an entire network dedicated to the mindless, reflexive debasement and obstruction of the man we dared to put in office.

But in America, the impulse to abandon reality comes up from beneath with just as much force. Our media, both sides of it, has largely given up on actually reporting the news objectively because, to be frank, that’s not what we want. Instead, newsrooms everywhere have found that the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to capture and hold market-share and therefore ad revenue is to pitch objectivity out the window and instead act as engines of confirmation bias.

In an age where information is more freely available than ever before, people make the mistake of believing they are smarter and more informed than they really are. It’s what’s fueling the dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of expertise that is poisoning our politics. In such an environment, facts are just another opinion open to any interpretation, and people wanting to feel smart without actually doing the hard work of becoming competent experts gravitate to the media outlet that tells them what they want to hear. Before long, they’re demanding to be lied to, otherwise they’ll move on toward ever more extreme sources who will.

Freedom to choose becomes meaningless when you don’t understand the choices you’re making. Whether the lies are dictated from on high, or demanded by the grassroots doesn’t matter in the end.

In either case, the fire of democracy cannot burn in a vacuum of ignorance.

Hobby Lobby and Seriously, SCOTUS? WTF?

Oh, U.S. Supreme Court. You were doing so good for a while there. I felt like you were on a real hot-streak, what with that 9-0 ruling against Police searching our smart-phones without a warrant, or the 5-4 decision that it really is illegal to lie on federal firearm transfer paperwork.

It was like an explosion of reasonableness was about to blow up all in our faces.

Thankfully, that threat was avoided today with the Hobby Lobby case, (incidentally, if you don’t follow scotusblog.com, you really should). In a 5-4 decision in which all three of the female members of the court dissented, surprising no one, the highest court in the land ruled that a private corporation has the right to deny healthcare benefits to its employees on religious grounds. Specifically, birth control.

The argument being made by the plaintiffs, in this case the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby, is that it is morally superior and righteous to cover an employee’s unintended pregnancy, as well as the potential of a lifetime of welfare benefits for both mother and child through taxes, than to simply allow women to decide when is the best time to get pregnant.

Maybe that’s not what they had in mind, but that’s the real-world consequences, folks.

Almost unfathomably, the Court agreed. There’s one way which this ruling is very troubling, even ignoring the obvious implications it has for the future of women’s health and reproductive choices.

It expands on the patently ridiculous assertion, first introduced in the now infamous Citizen’s United decision, that corporations are themselves people, and deserve all of the Constitutional rights to free speech afforded to, you know, actual fucking human beings. But the Hobby Lobby case takes it a step further to say that not only do corporations have free speech rights under the 1st Amendment, but rights of religious freedom as well.

This is, to say the least, a new concept in our legal history. And one with no obvious endpoint. The court had found previously that non-profit organizations, or even for-profit companies which served a very targeted religious community, were exempted from the birth control mandate of the ACA. For example, a private Catholic school, or a Christian bookstore, or God forbid a Christian rock festival, could file for an exemption from the requirement on grounds of religious freedom.

I already had some problem with that, as many hospitals are Catholic or another denomination and are, at least on paper, non-profit organizations. When you have only one hospital in a hundred mile radius, you don’t really have a choice where you’re going to get your healthcare. But, as compromises went, it wasn’t all that bad really, so I was willing to sweep that one under the rug.

The Hobby Lobby case, however, is anything but a reasonable compromise. Hobby Lobby does not either employ or sell to a specific religious community. It is not an expressly Christian company or organization. It shares much with say, Chick-fil-A, a company that serves, employs, and profits from a diverse public, yet wants to impose their own version of morality onto their employees.

This is unacceptable in a secular, pluralistic society such as ours.

The Court, sensing the potential for their decision to drive right off the edge of a cliff, included several caveats to try and reign-in the scope of the damage this could cause. First, they held that the decision was limited to only “closely-held” corporations, the mom-and-pop stores of the capitalist system, as opposed to large, publicly traded companies that you or I could buy stock in such as Coke, Boeing, or GE. So apparently, corporations are people, but not all corporations deserve religious liberty. Do you see how tenuous this argument is?

The problem is compounded when you realize that around ninety percent of all the corporations in the U.S. fall under this “closely-held” designation. And while that’s not the same as saying that they also provide ninety percent of employment, it should still give us all pause. Hobby Lobby itself, while not publicly traded, still runs more than five-hundred stores across the country with around 18,000 employees. This is not some indie bookstore or gluten-free cupcake bakery, okay? This is a mid-size company that effects the lives of tens of thousands of people.

The second way SCOTUS tried to corral the impact of this decision was by saying that the ruling “narrowly applies” to only the birth control mandate, and should not be used as precedent in other cases. This is basically an admission that they realized how tortured the logic here really was, and therefore it shouldn’t be used again. It’s the SCOTUS equivalent of ending an argument with your children with “Because I said so, that’s why!”

The problem is, lower courts have a devil of a time actually following that advice. No matter whether the Supremes want their decision to carry any weight outside the argument over birth control, lawyers on both sides of many issues are at this very moment drafting up briefs that will use it. That’s just how this stuff works, guys. When the nation’s anti-sodomy laws were overturned in Lawrence vs. Texas, Justice Scalia predicted in his dissent that the eventual and unavoidable result of the court’s logic would be the legalization of same sex marriage. Eleven years later and gay-marriage opponents have lost in case after case based largely on the precedent set in that landmark decision and those that followed.

Now, obviously social progressives, as well as conservatives like myself who aren’t assholes, see this as a positive development. But while precedent worked for us there, it could very easily work against us here.

Forget about birth control for a minute. What happens when a corporation owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses decides to deny coverage for blood transfusions? What happens when a corporation owned by Scientologists decides to deny coverage for psychological counseling and psychiatric medication? What happens when a corporation owned by Christian Scientists decides to deny coverage for… well pretty much all modern medicine?

Of course it sounds crazy, as well it should. However, if you accept the logic that corporations are people and have the same rights to religious liberty as any individual, what is materially different about these scenarios that would justify a different ruling?

The fact that everyone can agree that denying someone coverage for a blood transfusion on religious grounds is fuckin’ nuts, but can’t agree on birth control, isn’t because they are categorically different things. Both can be life-saving treatments. The only difference is the modern right-wing obsession with all things related to female sexuality and birth control. Hobby Lobby isn’t trying to deny coverage for vasectomies, for example.

And that’s where you’ll find the double-standard. But SCOTUS is supposed to be the place where such inequities are stripped naked through the relentless application of logic and discarded. That’s its whole job. That’s why Justices are not elected, so as to be separate from the passions of the electorate.

So, seriously SCOTUS. What the fuck?

There are many people today saying that the Hobby Lobby case is no problem at all, because no one is being forced to work there. They can always choose to work somewhere else. Well, that may be true to a degree, by the reality we face today is that there is one job opening for every three job applicants. And as long as that’s true, there will be many people who don’t have the opportunity to pick and choose where they work, because they simply have to take ANY job available. And there are many, many people battling chronic conditions for whom healthcare coverage is not a perk, but a matter of survival.

In the ten plus years I sold health insurance, I saw people battling complex health problems that required tens of thousands of dollars per month to manage. Health insurance wasn’t a luxury for them. Without it, they either fell into poverty and onto government assistance, or simply died. So please, explain to me why someone should have to chose between a job that might interfere with their healthcare options, or become yet another welfare recipient or a corpse. Still haven’t heard a good “Christian” response to that question.

If anything, I think this is just another reason that our society should be pushing harder to decouple healthcare coverage from employment. Our health should not be held hostage by our jobs. Now, whether that change should take the form of further changes to the Individual market along the lines pioneered by the ACA, or through a single-payer system is a debate I would welcome between conservatives and liberals alike. But like so many other issues facing our country, it’s time to stop pretending there isn’t a problem.