Red Meat for Red Voters, with a side of Rhetoric and Platitudes

The late April sun beat down on the little cadre of restless reporters and, for the first time in 2015, I felt the light tingle of subtle sunburn spread across my face. Some of us were pressed up against the bars of the fence surrounding the New Brunswick Counseling Center, hurriedly scribbling notes as we interviewed the handful of protesters that had been pushed out and gated off moments earlier. The large frame of the well-dressed man who had turned them away cast a shadow across our news cameras and the crowd of raucous demonstrators.

“Can I get your name,” I asked a protester after he agreed to be interviewed.

The Voiceless Black Man was not a welcome participant in the Christie press conference.

The Voiceless Black Man was not a welcome participant in the Christie press conference.

“Voiceless Black Man,” he answered, hanging on the wrought-iron fence as if it were the bars of a prison cell. His group had gathered to protest Governor Chris Christie’s decision to send some 150 N.J. State Troopers to help quell the unrest in Baltimore, which was set off by the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died in police custody after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury. (The next day, Christie extended the State Troopers detail beyond the original 72-hour period.)

“So, what brings you out here,” I asked. I was genuinely interested, but it wasn’t the reason I had come. Christie would soon be stepping out of the addiction treatment center, a depository of Methadone and Suboxone, to sign two bills regarding opioid-based painkiller addiction.

In truth, it seemed like the governor’s decision to send police to Maryland was just an excuse to reignite the Black Lives Matter protests in New Brunswick and keep the pressure on. Why not? After all, the marches that had been seen months earlier had resurged since the latest high profile killings, including one in South Jersey. The protester began his response calmly:

“The first part is holding the people who have the power to make change accountable for their power,” he said, giving a thoughtful glance downward before he continued. “Not doing anything is the same as doing something.”

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In Defense of Mass Demonstrations

Courtesy nydailynews.com

Courtesy nydailynews.com

Mass protests continue to rage in cities across the U.S. after grand juries neglected to indict the police officers responsible for the killings of unarmed men Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Ferguson, MO and New York city, respectively. But it remains to be seen if the outrage and demands for justice and accountability will coalesce into something truly resembling a sustained social movement. The protests, which remain largely peaceful, have been rightfully focused on the extra-judicial killings of unarmed black men by police. But what if this issue, and many others that have surfaced recently in the American psyche, are symptomatic of a larger problem? An economic problem.

Poverty; the elephant in the room. Certainly race and poverty are closely interlinked. In a society where people of color have historically been marginalized time and again, at every turn, it makes sense that the poor will disproportionately be the non-whites. Therefore, wouldn’t it stand to reason that non-whites are also disproportionately victimized in a society which has left its poor behind? While the inherent racism in the structure of our society is a major factor, all who are excluded from the miniscule ranks of the extremely wealthy are at risk as the gap between poor and rich continues to widen. Injustice and exploitation are not simply racial issues. They are the manifestations of an unjust and vicious economic reality. They are human issues.

The utter impunity granted to police in these extrajudicial killings, only two of a myriad in 2014 alone, is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem. At a Dec. 4 summit of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, hosted in the unlikely choice of Monroe Township, a relatively affluent Middlesex County municipality known for its open space holdings and agricultural roots, speakers repeatedly cautioned that “poverty in a nation of plenty degrades everyone.” Georgian Court Professor Katsuri Dasgupta sought to hammer that idea home as she delivered a scathing critique of American society’s apparent inability or total unwillingness to address the structural underpinnings of poverty. Without true reforms to the institutions that perpetuate social inequality, she told the crowd of more than 200 attendees, even a tidal wave of government services, non-profit and grassroots efforts to eradicate poverty could only amount to spitting into the wind,

“The problem of poverty and inequality is ultimately a problem of insufficient jobs. Not just any jobs, but jobs that pay adequately so that people can live with dignity and their well-being intact. But the system of Capitalism is not in the business of providing jobs; at least, not the kind of jobs which allow people to realize their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not because Capitalism has necessarily failed, but because it simply cannot.

            … Capitalism is an economic system which has to continuously increase its profit margin if it is to survive; if it is to compete; if it is to drive its competitors out of market. Wages and salaries drain the profit margin more than anything. In its simple-minded drive to garner increasing levels of profit; finding cheap regions of labor, mechanizing work, diverting more and more capital to financial speculation; [Capitalism will do] anything that minimizes labor costs –and even eliminates the need for labor … But that leaves people and communities empty handed. People need work to survive; to flourish; to get ahead in life.” – Dasgupta, Dec. 4

Courtesy motherjones.com

Courtesy motherjones.com

According to a 2013 report from the non-partisan Pew Research Center, income inequality in the U.S. is at its highest levels since 1928, right before the stock market crash that lead to the Great Depression. Since the early 1970s, income has overwhelmingly gone to the top one percent of American earners. Shocking, I know. Well recently, Fortune reported that wealth inequality, or the actual value of all assets owned, is ten times worse than income inequality. Meanwhile, U.S. household debt has continued to increase, and national student debt easily sailed past the $1 trillion mark in 2013. It’s hardly a stretch to say that minorities have borne the brunt of this consolidation of wealth, but middle class Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds have suffered from this trend. And they stand to suffer more.

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The Vultures are Still Circling the Skies Over Sayreville

Image Courtesy of http://www.gmchoops.com

Sayreville, NJ — Another night, another feeding frenzy. It was after the meeting, and the Board of Education had just upheld Superintendent Richard Labbe’s decision to suspend five football coaches, including the renowned and beloved head coach George Najjar.

The alleged hazing-ritual-turned-sexual-assault among players on the football team had already been ravaging the borough for weeks. Seven players had been charged and arrested during the course of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s investigation, and now the culpability of the coaching staff was unclear. Why had these indefinite suspensions, with pay, been handed down so suddenly? The board president had insisted that no discussion regarding the termination of their employment had taken place, but a unanimous decision to dock their annual stipends seemed to be an ill omen.

Labbe, for his part, was preparing to issue a short statement to the dozens of wild-eyed, frantic journalists that were now encircling him like a group of sharks, each one more desperate than the next to devour the prey. Giant camera lenses were thrust into the superintendent’s face from all angles and, even as he spoke, questions were thrown at him in rapid succession.

When he finished giving some innocuous statement – something like, “we will be beginning our investigation shortly” – a final question came from somewhere within the throng: “Will you comment on rumors that you were overheard celebrating the coaches’ suspensions behind closed doors?”

Labbe shook his head and began to back away. When the group lurched forward and a few cameramen broke ranks to follow him, he finally realized just what sort of grave danger he was in. He turned around entirely and looked as if he were prepared to sprint off in any direction, but in an instant he was surrounded. A few school officials managed to help shepherd him out into the parking lot, where he threw terse and ambiguous responses and ‘no comments’ to the oncoming horde.

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Election Season Comes But All Too Often

The morning was overcast, and eventually the rain came. And then it went. They say a hurricane is on its way, but the sun has fought back the storm at least for now – still, the clouds are lingering. There’s a strange calm that signals we’re on the fringes, for sure. I can feel it in my bones. Some primal beast inside of me can feel the savage movements of nature. There’s a sudden rush deep down when the winds finally pick up and lightning zips through the clouds as if they were a convict taking his seat for the last time.

Everyone can feel that we’re on the cusp. The telltale anxiety and adrenaline underlie every interaction. We all know that something isn’t quite right. That something is just beyond the horizon; something big.

Obama and Christie feign respect in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

The animals in Washington are ramping up their propaganda machines for mid-terms this fall and the 2016 presidential chatter is becoming more prevalent. It’s already starting to feel like campaign season with the ideologies on full display. Here in New Jersey things have been steamy for a while. On-going controversy surrounding the governor hasn’t helped the massive budget shortfall, but it did give him a chance to prove his faithfulness to the GOP by squashing the Democrats’ attempt to raise taxes on millionaires. So, the early stumbling out of the gates for Christie 2016 has a silver lining – at least for the short term. And Christie’s total pig-headedness is a boon for any Republican candidate these days. Bombastic arrogance scores almost as many points with the Republican faithful as AR-15s, or Jesus Christ. The recent showdown might not be such a bad thing to have on your resume when the crowded GOP primary finally comes. But good old Chris using the Port Authority as one of his foot soldiers and reneging on the state’s pension obligations may not be a good track record to bring into a general election. And he’ll be competing in a packed field of diverse philosophies as the Republicans try and put their identity crisis to bed once and for all.

Hillary is unamused.

On the other side of the aisle it already feels like Hillary Clinton is the candidate. The Democrats seem more or less committed to the idea that she’ll be the standard bearer in the next contest. There certainly is a lot of time, but it’s hard to see anybody posing a legitimate threat to her campaign. The blue strategists are adamant – America is ready for a woman to lead her to war. There will be more challengers that come out of the woodwork as things develop of course, but it’s doubtful that they will dislodge Clinton, whose only weakness is a relatively defensible calamity that took place in Libya. It’ll ding her, but it will take more than that to keep Hillary from restoring the Clintons to the White House. Clinton will have to keep her hawkish tendencies under the radar for long enough to keep her liberal base in her corner. But, if Elizabeth Warren jumps in Hillary may have to scramble to make up the difference.

But this isn’t about early projections and predictions of who will be facing off in the far away general election. As the primaries draw nearer we will inevitably start hearing people echo those all too common words: “I’m only voting for blank because I can’t stand blank,” as they always do. Like clockwork, a fairly good cross section of people with different political convictions and various intelligences will utter this statement of uncloaked apathy.

And this apathetic approach is well justified.

In the last 15 years, Americans have had to stand face to face with the reality of the Dream. Many have responded by retreating into a strange patriotic fervor. I believe the folks at AA call this ‘denial.’ Still, the political efficacy of the American electorate seems to be dismal. Nobody seems to have much faith in the government, and the polls show it. And why should we? As if the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq weren’t bad enough, Americans watched in dismay as two presidents from two different parties sold the country out to the bankers and constructed a harrowing surveillance state that spans the entire globe. It’s no wonder Americans feel unrepresented in their capitol. Top that all off with the era of inconceivably large campaign contributions and the systematic neutering of the American press — the public has good reason to believe it has essentially been shut out of the process. Our democracy is not functioning.

This is the sentiment behind the apathy in peoples’ voting decisions. It’s a general discontent that is being directed mainly at one party or the other, instead of at the establishment that empowers them both. This is not such a bad thing. It is this sort of discontent that gives rise to great social movements. In fact, it would be more worrying if people weren’t agitated – given the state of affairs at home and abroad it would be insane to be calm. Focusing the public frustration upon the real source of our problems is the biggest challenge facing the United States. The key is to collectively realize that it’s not about which party you support, it’s about the values you hold. We have to ask, “Are our values being represented by our political leaders?” Disagreeing about how to achieve those values is one thing; strong, contentious debate is necessary in a democracy. But the current divisions between the American people are the reasons our democracy has been wrested from us. Bridging the gaps that we’ve built between ourselves will not come easily, but it must be done if we will once again have a government by the people, and for the people.

As I sit on this grassy hill a flash of lightning touches down off in the distance. The star spangled banners that surround me are starting to flap a little harder, a bit faster. Thunder rolls overhead and I can feel the ground rumbling as the first few drops of cool water land on my wrist. Something big is coming, and it’s bubbling just underneath the surface.

I can only smile. I love this weather.

Mediated: Edward Murrow, Joe McCarthy, and Bill O’Reilly

This week’s Mediated is dedicated to the life and memory of Professor Richard D. Heffner, an American broadcaster and public television pioneer.

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow

This week is a throwback to the days when journalism was still journalism. Everybody who knows the name Edward R. Murrow knows that with it comes the notions of news with integrity and media prestige. Lately, though, I’ve been dwelling on an argument put forth by a guy named Gilbert Seldes. You see, usually when people look back at Murrow’s utter destruction of the crazed alcoholic, syphilitic Senator Joseph McCarthy they do so with fondness. It needed to be done; no self-respecting intellectual could stand by and watch him lead the HUAC crusade to eviscerate legions of folks over nothing more than suspicions of Communist leanings.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Especially not an intellectual with a stage like Murrow’s program See It Now. With the name of that program came credibility – people trusted it. So, when Murrow saw the authoritarian monster that McCarthy had become he decided to take action. The whole thing was dramatized in the movie Goodnight and Good Luck. It’s a good flick for those who haven’t seen it. After verbally tearing asunder all things McCarthy, Murrow offered the senator an equal half hour time period to rebut on a later evening. This was an offer which McCarthy naturally accepted. Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed Commie hunter, the damage was done and nothing McCarthy could say would ever combat the colossal newsman that was Murrow. Shortly after, McCarthy was censured by Congress, his power waned, he faded into the footnotes of history, and fucking died. Good for him, he was nothing short of slime.

But beyond the heroic veneer of Murrow’s actions lies a much more complex and disturbing legacy. This guy Seldes makes the compelling argument that Murrow opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts. Not that what he did was wrong (believe me, there are very few people out there who want McCarthy back) but that what he did marked the first time a major news program was used for pure political opinion. Not only that, but it was used to crush a senator who’s star was rapidly rising on the backdrop of anti-Communism. It was an eye-opener – the news can be used to effect politics! Who knew? Murrow himself expressed private reservations about the can of worms he was about to unleash on the world, but he ultimately reasoned that the danger of unabashed McCarthyism was more lethal than the idea of a politically charged media.

Murrow is rolling in his grave now.

Before he ran that broadcast the idea of a Bill O’Reilly would have been laughable. News analysis would probably have been ridiculed for what it is – opinionated garbage. At a time when editorial and objective reporting were staunchly separated, Murrow’s broadcast blurred the line between the two indefinitely. Now, every reporter is a pundit and we are all forced to listen to the unfiltered opinion of our own choosing when we turn on the news. Biased reports from private companies with proud agendas clog the airwaves, and those of us who are incapable or unwilling to look up the bare-boned facts settle in with whatever vicious “news” appeals to our opinions the most. You get to pick your poison, so at least ignorance really is bliss.  Murrow’s defeat of McCarthy sent us down a slippery slope, and waiting at the bottom was the bubbling puddle of noxious sludge that is modern mass media.

The bottom line is this: Journalism is not a weapon to wield but instead a vessel for factual information. “Spin” is a word used to simply dress up what is at heart a breach of journalistic ethics: distortion of the facts. In the instance of Murrow, no matter how popular or seemingly justified, his attack was just that; an attack is never a balanced or objective thing. While it is true that pure objectivity is a falsehood, as unachievable as perfection, a journalist (especially one with influence) should do his best to convey nothing but the basic facts. And where there is editorial it should be labeled as such. Nothing more and nothing less can satisfy the honor that comes with being called a journalist. For the right reasons, Murrow nudged the news onto the wrong trajectory. Today, media practices lie far from the straight and narrow path once traveled. However, as the ages of Yellow Journalism gave way to a sort of news enlightenment, perhaps we too can rectify the legacy of Murrow’s misguided well intentions. Perhaps, now that the media has been soiled, it is up to the viewer to determine the truth. The trouble is that there seems to be a lot of “truth” to choose from.

Choose wisely, friends.