Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is Healthcare Unconstitutional?

So now that the Bush-appointed Federal District Court Judge has chimed in with his opinion that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, it seems like a good time to review some of the basic popular arguments for and against healthcare reform as it stands.

Briefly, we have heard - and Congress agreed - that we cannot have tax-payer supported universal healthcare coverage in the United States because that would amount to socialism. As a result, rather than reforming healthcare costs and cost-drivers, what Congress ended up enacting was a bill that the President signed, mandating that everyone must eventually buy into the completely capitalistic system of contracting with profit-driven health INSURANCE companies.

Now back up a second. What is the basic idea underlying capitalist health insurance? It is to collect and maintain a large reservoir of funds by having a large number of people contribute relatively small amounts of money, on a regular basis over time, into health insurance accounts controlled by capitalist corporations, most of which are euphemistically called Health Management Organizations (HMOs). This system is feasible and necessary in our capitalist economy because only a very few of us could possibly bear the financial burden of getting sick or injured and having to engage with the bloated profit-driven US medical industry, without going bankrupt every time we felt a pain or physical discomfort.

So, all subscribers pay in to those accounts which theoretically make funds available to each one when he or she gets sick or injured and needs to pay for their always-catastrophic medical expenses. These pools of money are supposed to become capital resources, which are presumedly only made available to the minority who are sick or hurt at any given time. All subscribers pay into the pool and continue to pay regularly through their time of illness and after their recovery, ad perpetuum. Whether sick or well, you never stop paying into the system that provides tons of money - unused for medical care at any given time - to the private controlling interests who primarily use the excess funds to pay their top brass outrageous salaries & bonuses and leave plenty to invest in other capitalist corporate ventures.

Universal healthcare would have provided for a tax-supported system of paying for health care that would operate according to the same basic idea as health insurance - spreading medical costs across the widest number of contributors - all US taxpayers - but it would be a radically different system than the capitalist model in that it would naturally eliminate, for one thing, the HMO & Insurance Company profit motive that insures bloated costs and removes most incentives to promote health over illness. And it would mean that the contributions to health insurance that each of us would make, could be equitably distributed, potentially reducing the individual burden we all bear to the absolute lowest possible. This is the (shudder) socialist system that was taken off the table early on in the process of formulating "healthcare reform." But it is not this type of system that was ruled unconstitutional in the Federal District Court.

What was ruled unconstitutional was the idea that our representative, elected government could legislate a requirement that capitalist, profit-driven insurance companies would have to spread the cost of subscribing to health insurance to everyone. In doing so they would accomplish the (quiver) socialist agenda item of minimizing individual costs for health insurance coverage for all of us. This is framed as a matter of infringing on our individual right to decline health insurance coverage altogether -- which we should be able to do as a free people. If we are a freedom-loving citizenry, the argument goes, how can our government force us to pay for any "product" on the free market if we individually decide that we do not want it?

Skipping over many of the inherent absurdities of this situation -- including the argument about whether insurance is a "product" or not (a product you never really get to own, sell, exchange or get any reasonable return on) -- what effect does all this have on the concept of "socialist" vs "capitalist" or "free market" spending decisions when it comes to paying the costs of healthcare?

For one thing, it may be argued that requiring everyone to subscribe to health insurance implies a certain loss of competition and control over price-fixing by insurance company moguls. Being less able to justify gouging us with outrageous rates & premiums companies would instead be compelled to undercut each others' prices to garner the greatest market share in order to stay profitable. If everyone were legally bound to find a policy that they could afford it would shift the whole paradigm around to make insurance largely a buyer's market.

But, sticking with the status quo rather than mandating that everyone subscribe to some kind of health insurance, we all still end up needing medical care at some point and it will have to be paid for somehow. So those who opt out of the insurance game will either be faced with unbearable out-of-pocket costs or they will, as now, have to rely on the limited, inferior care provided by way of public assistance, welfare, medicaid/medicare system or some other TAXPAYER-SUPPORTED system.

Doesn't that mean that all of us freedom-loving taxpayers end up paying for the healthcare of others anyway? If so, then the status quo means capitalist healthcare for those who can barely afford it (for the most part) and socialist healthcare for those who can't pay for it themselves.

Of all the disingenuous arguments we have heard against healthcare reform or even health insurance reform, then, the idea it may be unconstitutional to mandate coverage for everyone, the most insidious is this idea that our "freedom" is somehow compromised by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The politicians and their cronies who oppose this provision of the bill on the grounds they claim are unconstitutional should have the balls and integrity to put forth an alternative bill that would accomplish what will happen by repealing the mandatory coverage provision while totally dismissing universal healthcare.

That is: anyone who wishes to opt out of insurance coverage should have the absolute freedom to do so. But in the name of pure-bred free-market capitalism they will either have to pay the full cost of any medical care they may need or forego medical care altogether. No exceptions.

If universal healthcare is unconstitutional by one means or another then NO taxpayer-supported healthcare should be available to anyone. That would, of course, extend to old people, the indigent and government employees - even military personnel and veterans, judges and all elected officials. Especially members of Congress. Our taxes pay their salaries and benefits, why should we be paying for their healthcare coverage as well as our own?

Fly that up your pseudo-patriotic flag pole and see who salutes!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LGBT Business Owner of the Year: Ed Hermance / Giovanni's Room

Just last week I heard about a this competition for LGBT Business Owner of the Year and figured it would be a no-brainer to make the case for my friend, Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni's Room: the world's oldest LGBTQ bookstore. The deadline was today, June 30th and I'm happy to say we got it together and mailed in this afternoon. What follows is the text I wrote on Ed's behalf, followed by his bio and the two required letters of support from prominent supporters of the nomination. Keep your fingers crossed!

Philadelphia’s Giovanni’s Room is arguably the most successful LGBT bookstore in existence. Founded in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion, when American communities seemed to be sprouting new Gay and Feminist bookstores by the week, Giovanni’s Room continues to thrive in 2010 as the country’s longest standing retail business serving the out & proud LGBT Community at its bricks-and-mortar bookshop and worldwide through www.queerbooks.com. Owner Ed Hermance acquired the business in 1976 in partnership with Arleen Olshan and has been sole proprietor since 1986.

Giovanni’s Room has doubled in size three times over its original 1973 storefront location. Today the business completely occupies a connecting pair of 2- & 3-storey buildings in the heart of Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood.” With shelves holding more than 7,000 books and a database of over 48,000 LGBT titles, Giovanni's Room stocks literally thousands more LGBT titles than the biggest of the general interest mega-bookstores.

While other prominent LGBT bookstores have sadly closed up shop in recent years, Giovanni’s Room continues to grow in significance: an enduring retail enterprise based on an increasingly rare LGBT-focused business model. The basic paradigm underlying this store’s operations is informed by the same spirit that compelled the formation and management of all gay and feminist bookstores that came to be in the late 1960s/early ‘70s. That basic, high-profile, purpose-driven, community-focused independent bookstore prototype was, in fact, the first business model ever adopted for common use by any number of LGBT-identified retail businesses.

Rather than maximizing profits, however, the largely intuitive business plan that still drives Giovanni’s Room is notably predicated on creating markets, which was not an option but a necessity in the 1970s. Few people had even dreamed of marketing to a self-identified LGBT consumer base. In the sense of an “arena where an identifiable group of buyers & sellers consciously seek contact with each other for the purpose of openly exchanging goods and services,” an LGBT market simply did not exist ‘above ground.’ There were no legitimate classes or categories of business operating by, for and in the common interest of Out LGBT people: no self-identified LGBT businesspeople and certainly no official associations of Out LGBT professionals anywhere.

In very real ways, the Out & Proud commercial markets and LGBT professional entities we now take for granted are rooted in the now-anachronistic gay and feminist bookstore movement, the best of which is represented today in the still-going concern known as Giovanni’s Room. If only by its own standards the store’s success can be measured not merely in its longevity or profitability, but more so in the effective role it has played in the very creation and legitimization of today’s lucrative LGBT markets. Consider history…

Giovanni’s Room was among the first commercial enterprises that dared give voice in the marketplace to “the love that dare not speak its name.” When mainstream bookstores, venues, publishers and distributors declined to risk openly promoting talented but little known LGBT “niche” writers to their general interest customers, Giovanni’s Room gave the most deserving among them top-shelf attention. The store promoted their LGBT-themed works through their own critical reviews in the store’s catalogue, through advertising and hosting in-store readings/autograph parties that fueled many a writer’s rise to fame, at times resulting in their ultimate cross-over to a mainstream audience. Many of today’s most successful LGBT writers are quick to acknowledge their debt to Hermance and Giovanni’s Room for assertively marketing their early works.

Older, established writers have also gained new audiences for their work through the leadership efforts of Giovanni’s Room. Authors, editors and publishers of scholarly and scientific works exploring LGBTQ topics; political, religious and self-help books, including those dealing with coming out, relationship and family issues; journals, periodicals, entertainment and news magazines; performing artists and filmmakers: all these and still others owe the management and customers of stalwart LGBT bookstores like Giovanni’s Room a debt of gratitude for creating the markets that made and sustain their careers.

Hermance’s former business partner, Arleen Olshan notes that
“the bookstore also specializes in feminist books and books relevant to youth - young children as well as tweens and teens. In addition, one of the aims of the store has been to be a comprehensive collection of material that has been helpful to scholars and students - we are mentioned in many doctoral dissertations.”

Giovanni’s Room was also a leader in the 1970s and 80s efforts to expand LGBT markets globally by way of its international wholesale business. Always a strong proponent of free speech and expression, Giovanni’s Room alone stepped up to help stock the shelves of newly opening LGBT bookstores in Europe, Australia and New Zealand with lesbian and gay materials at a time when American distributers dared not risk challenging archaic and repressive import laws on the books of our country’s supposedly enlightened allies and partners in free-trade.

Those perceived risks were substantiated in several highly publicized seizures of shipments from Giovanni’s Room at ports of entry in England and even in Canada when foreign printed materials of LGBT content were still legally banned. Hermance and his fellow booksellers abroad fought those seizures each time, waging long and costly legal challenges, eventually prevailing in court, sweeping away those international market barriers once and for all. Of all American businesses and people who may have been able to help bring those challenges to censorship around the world, Giovanni’s Room alone showed the courage and commitment to free expression and international exchange when it counted, which helped ensure the foundation of today’s global LGBT markets.

Other challenges Giovanni’s Room faced through the years stemmed from homophobic reactions to the store’s unapologetic, high-profile LGBTQ identity. Fortunately such actions and threats have abated for the most part, but through the 1980s and into the ‘90 they included instances of:
• eviction from the previous rented store space when the building ownership changed hands and its new owners refused to rent to LGBT occupants (before Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Act outlawed such discrimination in 1983);
• violence in the form of anonymous, window-smashing overnight attacks against the store’s building, purchased in 1979 to avert any further homophobic evictions;
• homophobic pickets, organized by local reactionary radio announcers who called on their listeners to come out and demonstrate in front of the store, and;
• verbal threats of violence/anonymous expressions of hatred delivered by phone and mail.

Ironically, success spawned ever-growing challenges to Giovanni’s Room by way of increasingly competitive, sometimes ruthless conditions in the very markets that the store helped to create. The overall LGBT market grew to a level of maturity in the 1990s, becoming not only commercially viable but quite lucrative as well, drawing the interest of large corporations who always put profits first, not that there’s anything wrong with that! Our community institutions however are known to have become the unwitting targets of extreme predatory marketing strategies by mega/chain/discount stores driven by lust for profit achieved through the virtual monopolization of market share.

These retail monsters mercilessly undercut all independent booksellers, destroying most in the process, siphoning away cost-conscious customers with their volume based discounts on front-list titles (a handful of books that comprises their entire LGBT inventories at any given time). Such tactics are impossible for small independents like Giovanni’s Room to match especially in a tightening economy where consumers have less and less available to spend on “nonessential items,” including books.

The recession is widespread, of course: extending also into the global markets that Giovanni’s Room had opened for exchange of LGBT materials. There is more and bitter irony in the fact that the store’s once promising venture into the export business was effectively displaced by the large American and British distributors who moved in on it once the risks of shipping LGBT materials overseas were relieved, thanks, of course, to the hard fought efforts of Giovanni’s Room. Hermance has risen graciously to all these challenges, implementing sometimes-difficult changes in the store’s practices to keep the business viable. But the greatest challenges the store has faced rose just this past year, including an issue with the store’s 130-year-old building façade, found to be unstable by city inspectors: safety mandated immediate demolition of the wall and its reconstruction, raising the need for an infusion of a whopping $50,000 into store coffers in order to pay for it.

The high regard in which the LGBT literary, scholarly and bookselling worlds hold Giovanni’s Room, along with the largely unsung contributions the store has made to the professional world of LGBT business and commerce in general, tell only part of the complex and layered story that is Giovanni’s Room. The store’s support for local LGBT community organizations, activities and events in Philadelphia is duly considered a foregone conclusion: something taken for granted by community activists, organizers, fundraisers, artists and performers. In this respect Giovanni’s Room still fulfills a traditional role that LGBT bookstores had long assumed: that of community center by proxy. LGBT stores had filled many community needs in the days before actual Center facilities came to exist and may still provide services that are beyond the capacity of LGBT Community Centers, which have by now opened in most of our larger urban areas, including Philadelphia. Hermance still permits use of store space after business hours for reading groups and organizing efforts.

Art exhibits, author appearances, readings and book signings, continue to happen there, as do performances and poetry readings including the monthly “Holler!” open mic night. In addition to providing a safe and relaxed atmosphere for patrons to browse the stock, the store has several community bulletin boards and literature racks where flyers, brochures, and other free materials are made available to help LGBT people find resources to serve them in all areas of life, from job-seeking and leisure activities to housing and health care options. Staff members and volunteers are often called upon to provide telephone peer counseling, referrals and informational services equivalent in many ways to a community center’s LGBTQ hotline.

A high-profile LGBT street presence - still rare in most neighborhoods - has become the norm for Giovanni’s Room through their store window displays. Crossing the store's threshold has been an extraordinary symbolic and emotional experience for thousands of LGBT people just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity. Once inside they invariably find safe space, a welcoming environment and a friendly knowledgeable staff on hand to offer help if needed. In similar fashion the store holds special interest for out-of-town visitors who find a full range of LGBT literature including imported books not likely to be available elsewhere in the United States. Giovanni's Room is the traditional place from which LGBT tourists and foreign visitors begin their visit to Philadelphia. Its “heart-of-the-Gayborhood” location is also centrally located in this historic city: within easy walking distance of the theatre district, major hotels, the finest restaurants, world-class shopping and, of course, the most intriguing sites in the colonial/historic section of the city as well. The store provides city maps, guides, and knowledgeable friendly advice to travelers, free of charge. On occasion, LGBT community activists are known to set up tables outside the store, raising awareness around LGBT civil rights, health and political issues/actions including HIV/AIDS awareness, voter registration and fundraising.

Heshie Zinman, a respected community organizer and fundraiser on HIV/AIDS issues says,
“As well as being an important conduit for LGBT/HIV event promotions and ticket sales Giovanni's Room also provides a critical service to the community by making information about HIV/AIDS Prevention, Treatment and Care available to all those affected by HIV/AIDS.”
Since the tragic passing of beloved former staff member and promising young writer Joseph Beam (ed. In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology) brought home the harsh realities of the epidemic to Giovanni’s Room, everyone closely associated with the store has shared far too many such times of anguish wrought by HIV/AIDS. But times of hope and triumph have been shared in the store as well, fostering a sense of what can only be described as “family,” which remains strong today. In the broader community, too, support for the store was found to still be strong when it was put to the test this year, though customers may have drifted away, taking for granted, perhaps, that the store would always be there, with or without their patronage. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond the store’s control, including a steady decline in the number of periodicals in print, have meant a conspicuous loss in the most dependable revenue generators the store had.

Yet, as word got out that the future of Giovanni’s Room may be in jeopardy if $50,000 is not found this year, an impromptu team of friends, including former store owners, employees and volunteers, began to meet with Hermance on their own time to devise strategies for raising that formidable sum, while also raising awareness -- reminding the world of the special place the store holds in our community, our history and our lives.

As one of the last original Out Gay leaders still in business Ed has devoted over 40 years his life to opening doors and laying foundations for the LGBTQ business community through his groundbreaking efforts with Giovanni’s Room. Since first becoming involved with the store Ed has worked full-time alongside employees and volunteers, sharing in the operation and benefits of the store. We who love him proudly nominate Ed Hermance as Business Owner of the Year – an honor appropriate in 2010 of all years.

For having reached the age in life when retirement may be an attractive option and with printed books threatening to become virtually obsolete, Hermance’s days as a bookstore owner may be numbered, much to our dismay. Ed is frank in his feeling that,
“the LGBTQ community created the store to meet their needs, which are changing all the time, as are the products that Giovanni's Room can offer. The shrinkage of available products, including the uncertain future of printed books makes the future of the store uncertain.”
If the store does not survive much longer he pledges to “return its assets to the community through the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund (a local LGBT foundation).” But the ad hoc volunteer fundraising group is by no means resigned to that eventuality. The group includes some who had risen to the task before, devoting time, talent and muscle to the painstaking creation of an enduring and beautiful space to house ‘our’ store over 30 years ago. Through our recent and ongoing efforts we have been able to pay down the wall reconstruction bill by more than $42,000 so far. That amount has been raised in donations to the Wall Fund, made by individuals primarily in gifts ranging from $5 to $50.

A $5,000 grant will be awarded to the winner of this year's competition for Business Owner of the Year. If Ed wins it he will, of course, apply it entirely to the Wall Fund, helping to complete the fundraising campaign to cover the store’s reconstruction expense.

Biographical Statement: Ed Hermance
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1940, Ed Hermance graduated Dartmouth College (’62, BA, philosophy) and Indiana University, Bloomington (’65, MA, comparative literature). His teaching credits include Auburn University (Alabama), Indiana State University, and Tuebingen University (Germany) where he taught English at the same time as the future Pope Benedict XVI was also teaching there. Fearing that he might never escape the closet as long as he remained a teacher, Ed abandoned academia and joined a hippie commune in the mountains of Southern Colorado, still a going concern with a long history of distinguished perennial guests, including Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and John Corso.

Ed moved to Philadelphia in 1971 to manage Ecology Food Co-op, a natural foods outlet. There he learned how to run a retail business and to manage a largely volunteer staff. In 1973 he met one of the early owners of Giovanni's Room, who introduced him to the collective behind The Gay Alternative magazine for which he soon became treasurer. Consequently, he was appointed treasurer of another organization that would soon open the doors of Philadelphia’s LGBT Community Center. At a Community Center retreat in 1976, he and fellow board member Arleen Olshan agreed to form a partnership to purchase Giovanni's Room. He has since devoted his life to expanding the store’s services as widely as possible. Ed’s interest in foreign languages and European countries led to close relations with European LGBT bookstores. Supplying books and African-made movies to the embattled LGBT community in Uganda this year continues a long engagement overseas.

Selected Publications List

Colletta, Jen: Community rallies behind Giovanni’s Room Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) 07/30/2009

Iorio, Karen: It All Started With a Letter, Gay and lesbian alums have Ed Hermance ’62 to thank for the spark that led to their own alumni organization, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine (DAM), Nov/Dec 2009

Drake, Scott: Giovanni's Room kicks up fundraising efforts, PGN 10/08/2009

Cardwell, Thom: What It Looks Like From Here: An Evening with Christopher Rice to Support Giovanni’s Room, QUEERtimes Weekly, vol.3 #35, 01/22/2010

Colletta, Jen: Historical marker sought for bookstore, PGN 02/11/2010 http://epgn.com/view/full_story/6029431/article-Historical-marker-sought-for-bookstore

Schechner, Karen: Community Support for Giovanni's Room Continues, Bookselling this Week (American Booksellers Association) 06/17/2010

Dunham, Kelli: Our Stores, Our Lives: LGBT Bookstores find a way to survive in hard times, Curve Magazine, Vol 20 #5, June 2010

Letters of Support for Ed Hermance as Business Owner of the Year

Monday, May 31, 2010

Opinion Piece

I am just so sick of hearing and reading about people’s dumb ass opinions, aren’t you?

I mean, sure, we all have the right to form our own opinions and we are blessed in this country with that wonderful Constitutional right to freedom of speech. But, sorry, I am just totally sick of being constantly bombarded by moronic opinions from every Tom, Dickhead and Mary Jane Smoker with a keyboard and an ax to grind. Obviously, this massive over-saturation of uninformed opinion is wholly attributable to these here interwebs.

It is perhaps an inevitable - but somehow unforeseen - consequence of the Internet’s anarchic rise after bursting out of its roots in the closed electronic communications network - developed for military and espionage purposes - to become the ubiquitous commercial network tool that invades every nook and cranny of our miserable lives today.

Back in the day it took a shitload of motivation for illiterate, ignorant and hateful Americans to bother trying to write (write?!) down their thoughts and share them with the world. Back then it took the chancy act of composing a letter and taking it to a mailbox, having invested the dimes for postage and hoping – just hoping! - that it met the approval editor of your local newspaper and that it will maybe appear in some barely recognizable form (after editing) someday not too long after sending it off. Only then you had to identify yourself and there was still no guarantee that your opinion would ever see the light of day in a public forum. That’s the beauty, wisdom and utility of newspapers: they have editors to try and keep moronic ill-informed crap out of print or make sure it was offset with an opposing and reasonable point of view. And may the goddess bless them for sparing us the tons of crap that they surely have for all these years. That is, before all newspapers went online.

Nowadays, any cockamamie online news story is followed by a string of inane comments that normally range from the vapid or merely idiotic to the downright hateful and threatening -- full of misspellings, dreadful grammar and always, always anonymous. Why anyone with half a brain bothers to read those comments anymore is beyond me.

Now everyone has a Blog (like this one), or at least a Facebook or some other Social Networking site. Christ! Now the morons don’t even have to wait for something to appear in print or on the tubes to evoke a jacked-up outrage in response. The 24 hour hyperbolic newsfeeds stream in from Fox and every other irresponsible ratings whore: individuals as well as those organizations not quite satisfied with having thoroughly polluted our TV and radio airwaves to death with their erratic insane-sounding opinions that stupid people (i.e. the apparent majority of Americans) take seriously as FACT and react to predictably and on cue.

The primary function, role and raison d’etre of the Internet, of course, is as a marketing tool. The Internet would be nowhere nearly as vast and accessible as it is if not for its usefulness and profitability to our corporate overlords in big business. Not only does the World Wide Web provide a still new way of advertising and product delivery through online sales, it is even more useful as a somewhat covert data collection system driving the development, availability and pricing of new and useless products based on what we consumers can be sucked into buying, shopping for or even looking at on our home computers.

Besides the “cookie” functions and other clandestine ways they tap into and steal our personal information we are constantly bombarded by customer surveys that tell us how important our opinion is, inflating our pathetic little egos by pretending to care what we think, which stupid people mistake for caring about who we are. What builds us up more effectively than being told that someone cares who we are? Stupid people are thus led to believe that their identity exists within the opinions they are fed (well, what else do they have?).

“Your opinion counts! Your opinion matters! Never mind the depths of ignorance from which your opinion stems. We want it: we NEED your opinion! It is important to us!”

The political implications of this gross inflation in the assigned value of mass opinion over intelligence are far-reaching and very threatening to humanity’s progress as a civilized species.

Sadly, the exploitation of ignorant opinions in this democracy occurs across the political spectrum, stretching from the extreme right to what exists of a far left wing in America. Politicians, Political Action Committees and grass roots organizers alike pander to the basest instincts of voters, trying to outstrip each other with promises so far overreaching that they cannot possibly live up to the campaign hype. The difference between the way this plays out on the extreme right as compared to the left is that right wing neo-cons and ATBCs are far more willing to push the limits of reason for political purposes by blatantly promoting the supposed value of orthodoxy or conformity, where the left tends to shun those so-called “traditional values” in favor of recognizing the value of non-conformity and the reality of human diversity (I hope).

The annoying right wing backlash we’re witnessing today in the emergence of the Angry Tea-Bagger Cult (ATBC) follows directly from the many neat little manipulative tricks of miscommunication and disinformation that neo-cons have practiced for years and with which they honed their skills before, during and after the rise of the Internet.

Oh yes. The neo-cons were poised and ready to take charge of people’s minds through the internet once it became the sloppy and ubiquitous cyber-pig trough we now know it to be. The real-life “newspeak” you hear today spewing from neo-cons on TV & radio, in elected office and behind the scenes may be traced and attributed to the evil talent embodied in whatever Hollywood PR machine that, half a century ago, turned a B-grade movie actor/leading man to a chimp named Bonzo - and Van Heusen Shirt salesman - Ronald Reagan into an absurd caricature: one still called the “Great Communicator” by stupid and naïve people today. Well, that’s the opinion they decided to swallow, and they have every right to it. But they are dead wrong and I don’t see any reason to go along with it. Reagan was no orator. He was a pre-packaged fake patsy and always a really bad actor, IMHO.

Since Reagan it has always been the first trick and prime directive of all wanna-be neo-cons that they master the art of LABELING and re-PACKAGING. While in office, Reagan’s Orwellian handlers used their power to get people in the fourth estate to use words THEY chose to label and rename all kinds of things, usually branding them in a package slapped with a label opposite in meaning to what their real intent, effect and use would be: e.g., they cleverly re-dubbed a gang of brutal right-wing Nicaraguan terrorists known to be death squads as “Freedom Fighters” (and secretely funded them with profits from illegal drug sales). Reagan’s people also conned all the news media to use the phrase “Peace Keepers” when referring to our arsenal of 300-kiloton nuclear missiles. Each of these supposedly pacifist missiles was twenty times more powerful than the bomb used to bring lasting peace to the Island of Hiroshima during WWII. And who can forget when the Reagan administration repackaged the condiment ketchup as a vegetable for purposes of denying sufficient funds for healthful school lunch programs across the country? The list goes on and on… ad nausea.

A not-so-subtle subtext that runs through all the real-life newspeak we have watched and heard sullying ever more the political discourse in this country is the deliberate elevation of opinion over fact.

Never mind that “Peace Keepers” were built for the sole purpose and intent of raining fiery mass death and utter destruction on our fellow human beings. In the Reagan groupthink opinion those missiles were the deterrent that kept the peace during the Cold War. And never mind that “Freedom Fighters” were shown to be nothing more than a bunch of wild thugs who would kidnap, torture, rape and execute civilians, including children, burning down civilian houses and targeting health care clinics and health care workers for assassination. It was the opinion of Reagan’s handlers that the Contras were on the side of capitalism – our side – against the socialist Sandanistas who had overthrown the dictatorship that had long ruled their country and… Oh, Sorry! I know. Blah blah blah! TMI. Too much information! Historical facts getting all up in our opinion grills! Never mind. We can just call them “Peace Keepers” and “Freedom Fighters.” Let’s just go with the opinion that it was all about freedom vs socialism: bringing up nasty and brutal South American dictatorships and nuclear devastation just causes brain freeze.

See how that works? If you let it…

Opinion: noun. A belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty” (Definition #1 at Dictionary.com).

The lack of complete certainty is what is so easy to exploit. It is also the essence of our human condition. We do not really know anything for certain – except most of us believe that we damn well know what our opinions are! The certainty of our opinion, no matter how shaky its base may be, far outweighs the certainty of our knowledge. That’s what makes the opinions of stupid people so ripe for exploitation.

Just look at how certain the so-called “Birthers” are in their opinion that President Obama is not an American citizen. No matter that a verified birth certificate has been produced and that there is not a shred of reason to support their claims, they are absolutely certain in their opinion that Obama was not born in the USA. To paraphrase a common adage, they don’t know what smart is but they definitely know what they like to think.

In the modern era it is “newspeak” from the Reagan era that first elevated opinion over fact as a deliberate political ploy to curry favor with stupid and lazy people in this country – stupid and lazy people who can be nonetheless motivated to vote. After all, a stupid person’s vote is just as valid and valuable as a smart person’s vote. And as Karl Rove will tell you, there is such a huge majority of stubbornly stupid people in this country that any politician would be stupid herself NOT to pander to them as a voting bloc.

That’s why Sarah Palin is so enduring. She appeals to all those stupid people who buy into her professed idea of the “Real America” (though it’s not really her opinion, of course. She’s just whoring for the glamour and glitz of her extended 15 minutes in the spotlight, IMHO).

In the end, power in this democracy is totally based in nothing but numbers: numbers of votes, that is. Votes that can be wrenched out of people by exploiting and manipulating the one thing we ALL have, each and every one: opinions.

It’s quantity, not quality. That was the essence of the architectural plan for which Rove was given due credit, giving the Presidency to Cheney and his sock puppet twice in a row! Pretty simple, really: you don’t try to educate people, don’t befuddle their pathetic little brains with facts, truth, science, or reality. Rather, play on the one thing they definitely have going for them: their OPINIONS!

As the old saying goes, opinions are like assholes. Everyone ‘s got one and everyone thinks that everyone else’s stinks.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Whores of Babylon or Life Imitating Art?

News out of the Vatican brings the "shocking" expose of a huge male prostitution ring being operated by top aides to the highest holy homophobe, Pope Ratzinger Benedict. The only thing shocking, really, is that it actually made the news. Did anyone actually expect that Ratzinger, the aging unreformed brownshirt, would rely on common Italian pimps to secure his boy sex slaves?

Where do I get these images that come to mind of wild Papal orgies involving sex, blood and torture in splendiferous settings - right under the nose of Michelangelo's magnificent paintings and sculptures, between the Bernini Columns involving Powerful Nazi perverts?

Oh yeah! Right out of the great Pier Paolo Pasolini's final oeuvre, "SALO: 120 Days of Sodom."

Perhaps the best, most accurate review of the "Ratzinger Sex Fantasy Film" comes from the Cinema Snob and is worth a look today...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philadelphia! Just like I imagined it!

The thing I love about the city I have grown up in - over the last 31 years - is how here things never change. This nostalgic video from 1955 shows the city and our surrounding neighbors exactly how it all exists today. It's the world that time forgot. Just like Havana, Cuba we don't even have many cars on the street newer than the '56 models in this clip.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Queer Books Save Lives!

A recent article posted at the website CarnalNation.com is titled “Queer Books Saved My Life.” It is worth a read.

I can totally relate to the idea of queer books saving lives, my own included, as well as many up and coming queers I've known over the 35 years that have passed since I came out. And I think the time has come for us long-term survivors to remember and appreciate the people who have struggled to create the environment that brought queer books and queer authors out of the closet. Let us not forget those brave and determined queer pioneers who began to venture into the commercial book world nearly half a century ago and ultimately drew queer literature into the mainstream market where you may find it today. More or less.

To many of us Queers of a Certain Age it was a sad awakening indeed, the day we realized that the phenomenon of the Queer Bookstore, so important to our queer development, has become an endangered species. A dying breed. Almost anyone who wants to buy a queer book today seems to follow an automatic impulse leading them to log on to Amazon.com or, if they’re feeling adventurous, to seek out a Borders Bookstore in some nearby mall. Do they even know how the modern queer book market that everyone takes for granted owes its very existence to an all-but forgotten network of local lesbian-and-gay-focused shops that began to open then in cities across the US and, in fact, around the world?

Is it just me or does anyone else think it's important to preserve the memories of those heady days when it seemed that wonderful new queer bookstores were springing up in every city you'd visit? Queer bookstores were dependable spots to find all the information you'd need to get your bearings in any new locale. This was long before the rise of the mega-chains and their hostile takeover of most storefront book selling and before Amazon.com came along to sack what remained of the market originally created by those now mostly bygone independent booksellers. In those days, kids, only a smidgen of the mainstream bookstores would dare risk carrying the few lesbian and gay titles that came into print before 1973. And few queer book buyers would have even thought to look to the mainstream stores for what they wanted: there were no sections in straight bookstores designated for queer titles. Most positive queer books of the time only came to be by way of self-publishing or in very limited print runs put out by the random independent small press in search of their niche market. The big publishing houses were often tinged with homophobia and, in any case, could not be convinced that there was any real money in queer books.

Into this virginal, but surprisingly fertile field stepped a few bold lesbians and gay publishers with a passion if not a mission. They came looking for themselves as much as to try and fill a vacuum in the market. They risked everything to take chances on a new generation of emerging authors who had begun to create contemporary queer genres – chances the big publishing houses dared not take. As yet unknown and untested, the potential profit in these authors and genres would only be noticed by the big publishing houses after a return on investment was proven through a sound track record of sales. The only place those sales were happening was out of the storefront bookstores that gay people had opened in gay neighborhoods of most major cities. These early shops included Oscar Wild Bookshop in New York, Glad Day Books in both Boston and Toronto, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia.

The gay bookstore movement began in 1967, two years before Stonewall, when Craig Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City. By the late '60s and '70s people were opening gay bookstores in other cities at a time when censorship laws were being repealed.

’After Stonewall, gay bookstores began opening up in different places across the country, and I think that interestingly, gay bookstores grew up at the same time that the phenomenon of the adult bookstores came into being’ says Michael Bronski, an occasional contributor to Bay Windows who is an author, journalist, and scholar of LGBT studies. Around the same time women's bookstores began to spring up around the country, and lesbians began gravitating towards these stores, particularly since they were often underserved by the predominantly male-oriented gay bookstores. Bronski says all of these stores became hubs of different branches of the LGBT community as de facto community centers and as cruising areas, sometimes both at the same time.”
-- From a 2005 article by Tom Jackson @ gaybookblog.net.

Today, Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto, the first such Canadian store, is the longest surviving lesbian and gay bookstore worldwide. A critique in a Toronto city guide says of Glad Day, it is “a pain to find and no fun to browse… (quite cramped), but it does have an astonishing range of queer titles.” This description could have been applied to nearly every queer store at one time, even before there were enough books to fill more than one wall of shelves. Small, cramped spaces were the rule, not the exception, as real estate affordability has always been an issue. Profits from retail book sales, even in the best of times, always limited the status of queer bookselling to that of a labor of love, a de facto not-for-profit enterprise.

Back in time and on US soil, Giovanni’s Room opened shop in a typically cramped South Street storefront in Philadelphia, when rents were still low enough to make a go of it there. It was 1973, almost twenty years after the first appearance of the novel Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, perhaps the most prominent author of the 1950s to deal openly with the subject of homosexuality from a personal perspective. No less typical of books at the time with its bleak portrayal of gay life (Giovanni, a murderer, sits awaiting the guillotine throughout the story) but for once, gay men were presented as complex characters with some room for sympathy.

By 1979 Giovanni’s Room, the book store, had moved to another small, first floor space on Spruce Street, in closer proximity to the gay bar area, though not yet beyond the reach of homophobia. In their wisdom the storeowners would soon decide to take advantage of Philadelphia’s relatively inexpensive real estate market of the time. They signed a mortgage that year on a charming corner-property, a century-old shop in a nice part of town that some would eventually refer to as the “Gayborhood.” This gave the store a permanent home that could not be pulled out from under them for reasons of anti-LGBT discrimination. This happy outcome followed a hateful eviction from their rented space after the Spruce Street property changed hands. Philadelphia landlords were free then to exercise blatant homophobia by overtly refusing to extend a lease if they objected to the renters’ (or customers’) sexual orientation – a practice that was outlawed in the City soon after (1982). For whatever reasons, queer bookstores in other locales facing similar situations did not follow the lead of Giovanni’s Room. No other storeowners chose to invest in property ownership as a hedge against further disruption of business, no doubt due to the commitments required of their time and money. By one (unverified) count I heard recently, there now exist only six queer bookstores in North America.

By the mid-'80s the market for independent bookstores as a whole began to take a downturn. [Former gay bookstore owner, John] Mitzel says one of the greatest difficulties faced by bookstores has been the shrinking availability of affordable real estate. [Boston’s] Glad Day closed down, despite strong sales, when the owners of its Copley Square location decided to transform the location into luxury condominiums. When Mitzel was looking for space to open up Calamus [Books], he was told that no one would rent to him in the Back Bay or South End.” -- Ibid.

An aspect of Giovanni’s Room that may speak of something else unique to Philadelphia is an undeniable sense of commitment to the store shown time and time again by the local LGBT community. When the store purchased its new building an army of volunteers came forward to invest hundreds of hours and quality effort into lovingly renovating the space. Scores of volunteers have devoted time to staffing the store on a regular schedule, some continuing to do so over decades of time without compensation. Like all the other queer bookstores who have suffered in the failing economy Giovanni’s Room has been forced to make steep cutbacks in levels of paid staffing, hours of operation, and certain store amenities. But the Philadelphia LGBT Community and our allies have clearly shown that we are far from ready to lose this beloved landmark. We have rallied once again to keep our Giovanni’s Room from fading into obscurity as so many others have. We will not let it fall victim to the times, a bad economy or - as almost happened last year – to the forces of gravity. You may have heard the story.

The local customer base - hit hard as anyone by the bad economy - has thinned considerably, with many presumably won over by the deep discounts that internet-based services offer through aggressive online marketing. How can you blame anyone for counting pennies, trying to save money? But when word got out that the store was facing extremely tough times due to an overwhelmingly expensive but necessary rebuilding of the façade/supporting wall, the community snapped into action once again. Customers may not have been drawn back to the store in massive numbers yet, but over six months time another virtual army of volunteers and contributors have rallied to help plan and participate in an on-going series of fundraising events to benefit the store. Author appearances, readings, dinners with the likes of Edmund White and Christopher Rice, a street fair and a raffle have all been part of the soon-to-be successful effort to reach the more than $50,000 goal, which is the amount needed to pay the construction bills.

Giovanni’s Room’s affable owner, who everyone knows as Ed, is naturally very encouraged by the community’s response and by the support he’s received from customers and authors from near and far. A number of customers who have never even seen the store have pitched in from their homes as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. They learned of Giovanni’s Room’s problem through the store’s website, www.queerbooks.com. Yes, the store has an online presence and books can be ordered through it as easily as they can through Amazon, which continues to undercut all independent booksellers mercilessly with outrageously aggressive advertising. Amazon has volume, volume, volume! But they certainly don’t have the heart of a queer bookstore owner. Nor do they have the queer community’s interest at heart. Nor do they have any interest in anyting about you other than your money.

It is a sad but fascinating exercise to do a Google search for information on Queer or Lesbian and Gay bookstores. What you’ll find are so many websites that contain outdated information about scores of defunct queer stores across the country and lists of links to websites that just don’t lead anywhere anymore. Some of these sites seem to stand as eerie ghosts of queer bookstores past. You quickly learn not to trust their currency and you’ll find more often than not something like “last updated on Sunday, April 20th, 1997” as you can still see at http://www.qrd.org/qrd/www/media/print/bookstores/glbbnets.html.

This particular website stands as a forlorn monument to the golden age of queer bookstores. Words of warning unheeded, pleading, a cry in the desert is frozen there in time as a prophecy fulfilled, much to our detriment...

Please consider this before you make your next book purchasing decision: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered bookstores exist in a fragile ecosystem made up of the members of our community who support them with their purchases, the small gay, feminist, and lesbian publishing houses which supply them, the authors who write the books, and the stores themselves. This living web is very fragile and easily disrupted. It could possibly even be destroyed if we let the large "discount" chain stores influence us into "discounting" the efforts of all these people and saving a few cents on the purchase of a book, even the latest Times bestseller, at the expense of our sisters and brothers and friends.

Make no mistake our bookstores are under attack, as are all independent bookstores. The large chains (and there are only a very few) want to control all our book-buying decisions and are deliberately targeting areas where large independent stores have a loyal customer base. You'll pardon me, I'm sure, if I say that I believe feminist, lesbian, and gay stores are under particular assault. A recent issue of Ms. Magazine (May/June, 1995, Volume V, Number 6) had a graphic illustration of this in the form of a photograph of the new Borders Bookstore which "just happened" to open up directly across the street from Sisterhood Bookstore in West Los Angeles, California. Look it up if you haven't seen it. It's scary.

Fight back! If you're browsing in a big chain store and see an interesting title your local store might not carry, jot down the name and author and have your local gay and lesbian bookstore order it for you. They need the business and you need them. Many of these stores, and the publishing houses and authors who depend on them to sell their books, may not be there when you want and need them unless you continue to support them with your purchasing power and with your time

RIP Queer Bookstores. You are missed. Long live the surviving stores! Which can only happen with our help, of course. If you're lucky enough to live in a city with one of these gems that has not closed down, please support your local queer bookseller. And when you must buy books online, why not give www.queerbooks.com a look? You may be surprised how good it feels to place an order with one of the last virtual queer bookstores.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

People always talk about the weather

When you're Blizzard-bound there's little else to do, little else to say.
"In summer you wish it were cooler and in winter you wish it were milder. Conditions, they are never in your favor. You can always talk about the weather."

Might as well sing about it. Hit it, Yonderboi.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Corporate What?! You Gotta Be Kidding!

by Al Falafal

In September 2008 I wrote an essay about “The seismic activity rocking World financial markets” as the inevitable outcome of that garden path down which we had been lured nearly three decades prior. 28 years later after we installed Corporate America's Henchman-in-Chief, Ronald Reagan, as President the ultimate promise of “free market” deregulation had been brought fully to term by the outgoing Bush/Cheney Administration.

I had to be fair, noting that the path Corporate America had us treading was actually blazed much earlier than the Reagan Era. In fact, you can trace the rise of corporate domination of American Society to a 19th Century lawsuit taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court which has often been cited - wrongly, but persuasively - as the basis for corporations right to run amok, free of nearly any governmental authority to control them.

It was the 1886 case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad that was purported to be a precedent-setting decision that granted "personhood" to American corporations. Reagan's economic and political voodoo was entirely based on the assumed rights and freedoms that they firmly assert were granted to non-human entities for the first time in history by the Court's ruling in that case.

These rights would include the same Constitutional freedoms of speech and association to which only We The People - living, breathing human citizens - were previously entitled.

On the precedent set by the Santa Clara County case, corporate lawyers argue that the Bill of Rights’ protection of free speech, and of redressing the government extend specifically to that speech and money which all “persons” are free to use to influence political campaigns for representative office. As we know, this precedent was upheld again this week in the devastating ruling handed down in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

But don't we all know by now that that precedent was a total shameless lie? Didn't the Supreme Court know that it's a lie?

The truth is that nowhere in the formal Southern Pacific Railroad decision is the concept of “corporate personhood” mentioned. Not a word. Contrary to generally accepted beliefs and lessons still taught in law school Corporate Law Classes today, and obviously taken as fact by the current Supremes, the Court most certainly did NOT establish corporate personhood in that case or any other - up to this day.

The only place where the concept of “personhood” is referenced in that 1886 decision in a court record "headnote" attached to the case. A “headnote” has no precedential status whatsoever. It is far less relevant, binding or persuasive than a judicial dissent, which is at least penned by a bona fide member of the Court.

Rather than any one of the sitting Justices, It was a hired Court reporter, by the name of J.C. Bancroft Davis, who wrote the headnote for the case of Santa Clara County declaring, on the basis of NOTHING that corporations are henceforth entitled to the privileges of "personhood."

And who was this Davis guy? It just so happens that he was a former railroad executive, clerking for the Court at the time of this ruling! A former RAILROAD EXECUTIVE! See any red flags yet?

Davis’ totally non-authoritative, layman’s case summary begins with this sentence: 'The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.'"

The current Supremes apparently read no further than the headnote in this ruling, which is to say they did not read the ruling at all. Apparently they only read the part that was totally made up by a person with a huge bias and interest in the case - a former RAILROAD EXECUTIVE!

This persuasive revelation was brought to light most famously by author Thom Hartmann in his 2002 book, Unequal Protection: the Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. Hartmann, a prolific author and scholar of the history and textual analysis of the United States Constitution points out that any suggestion that corporate personhood was “provided” by the ruling in Santa Clara County is a gross and deadly mistake that has naturally had devastating consequences, the worst of which we may be experiencing today.

It is vitally important to distinguish what a “headnote” is and is not. What it is is a summary description of a Court decision, written into the casebook by a court reporter. It is not in any way part of the Court’s opinion and holds not an ounce of weight as legal precedent - a fundamental lesson learned on the first day in Paralegal Studies 101.

A “headnote” is similar to an editor’s “abstract” in a scientific journal or a research grant proposal or the executive summary in a business text. Because they are not products of the Court itself, however, headnotes carry no inkling of legal authority; they can never establish precedent in law and should have no real bearing on our lives.

To argue that corporate personhood was supposedly established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1886, Hartmann says, is simply and unequivocally illegitimate.

John Chandler Bancroft Davis, the Court reporter in question, knew exactly what he was doing. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School. And Thom Hartmann knows of what he speaks: 12 books authored by Davis exist mostly as original editions in his personal library. The books reveal Davis’s close alliance with the railroad industry, and they support Hartmann’s implication that Davis injected the personhood statement deliberately, to achieve by deceit what corporations had tried but failed to achieve in litigation before then. It was a brilliant move - install a corporate mole in the US Supreme Court, preferably in a position where he can re-write any legislation that did not favor the industry! But you don't want to over use this advantage. No. It's best to be strategic. Don't do anything that would draw attention but strike decisively when the opportunity presents itself.

Hartmann admits that we cannot determine what was in Davis’ mind on composing the misleading headnote as he left no direct evidence that would implicate him in the distortion. Through the ensuing decades, however, corporate interests have successfully exploited this erroneous interpretation of the record of that ruling as the basis for consideration of “equality” between individual tax-paying persons and U. S. corporations who, coincidentally, are also subject to taxes. Thankfully corporations have never sought to have a right to vote. This concept was still taught as part of the underlying determination of how taxes are levied when I studied tax law at Wharton in the 1990s and in my Corporate Law classes that were part of my Paralegal Studies degree program.

In the last days of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to his friend Colonel William F. Elkins, 'We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. The best blood of the flower of American youth has been freely offered upon our country's altar that the nation might live. It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country.'

'As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.'

Lincoln's suspicions were prescient. "[Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison proposed an 11th Amendment to the Constitution that would 'ban monopolies in commerce,' making it illegal for corporations to own other corporations, banning them from giving money to politicians or trying to influence elections in any way, restricting corporations to a single business purpose, limiting the lifetime of a corporation to something roughly similar to that of productive humans (20 to 40 years back then), and requiring that the first purpose for which all corporations were created be 'to serve the public good.'"

How do you think that worked out? Look around...

Here we are. In the first few weeks of 2010 the fate of our democracy is sealed. Thanks, Surpreme Court. Is this the change we needed? The only thing left is for those huge corporations to bid against each other for absolute control of the government.

If Corporations are persons in this country, would I get the death penalty if I murdered one?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

May You Stay Forever Young...

This movie is surprisingly uplifting - a word I usually despise - but good god, y'all... It's currently playing on PBS - check your local listings. If you think Sinead O'Conner's rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U" is haunting, here it is sung by a lovely 70-something woman in eulogy for a member of the chorus who died during the filming...