Friday, October 31, 2008

Maverick News: Reality Checks

This Week: Obama on drugs, Mexican decriminalization plan, preemptive raid in Syria, the stages of loss and the future of rail travel, banning masks in Missouri, defining socialism, and a comment on expectations. Live Broadcast Friday, October 31, Noon EST, on The Howie Rose Show (WOMM), streamed on The Radiator.

ENLIGHTENED HYPOCRISY. Here’s a sign that either we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift – or getting close to the End Times. White House drug czar John Walters has backed a proposal to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana – in Mexico.

On Oct. 22, The New York Times reported Walters' support for a drug decriminalization proposal by Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Of course Walters added, "I don't think that's legalization." Under Calderon's proposal, individuals caught with small quantities of marijuana would receive no jail sentence or fine – and no criminal record -- as long as they complete either drug education or treatment. The Mexican plan would also decriminalize possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

"It's fantastic that John Walters has recognized the massive destruction the drug war has inflicted on Mexico and is now calling for reforms there,” said the Marijuana Policy Project. “But he's a rank hypocrite if he continues opposing similar reforms in the US."

Case in point: Last March, a press release from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy called a modest New Hampshire proposal – a $200 fine rather than jail time for a small amount of marijuana – "a dangerous first step toward complete drug legalization."

OBAMA ON DRUGS. Things will be different with Obama, right? Not exactly. Where does The One stand on our longest war, the war on drugs? During a Democratic primary debate, moderator Tim Russert asked the candidates who opposed decriminalization of marijuana to raise their hands. Barack Obama hesitantly raised his halfway, then quickly lowered it again. But in 2004, when Obama was running for the US Senate, he told Illinois college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession. "I think the war on drugs has been a failure, and I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws," he said. "But I'm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana."

When the Washington Times recently confronted Obama with a video of that debate, his campaign offered two explanations in less than 24 hours. First, a spokesperson said he had "always" supported decriminalizing marijuana, reiterated his opposition to full legalization, and called the sentencing of nonviolent offenders for drug crimes “blind and counterproductive." But after the video was posted, the campaign said he doesn’t support either decriminalization or legalization.

By the way, a CNN/Time-Warner poll shows that 76 percent of Americans agree with Obama's original position – eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use – not to mention the 48 million who smoked pot in 2007.

PICK A STAGE (OF LOSS). Some people are bound to be disappointed next week. So, here’s some advice for those dealing with loss, courtesy of Scientific American. You may not need to go through all the stages of grief. You just need to make some sense of what feels like a chaotic and desperate situation. Maybe two stages of loss will be enough. Or maybe just a good story you tell yourself.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. You’ve probably heard this list, the so-called five stages of grief, introduced in the 1960s by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross. She had studied the emotional state of dying patients. But there’s no solid evidence that most people go through most of these stages, in this or any order. According to Russell Friedman, co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, "no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can't be called stages…. No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships."

Still, we humans like to reduce the complexities of life to clear stages. Freud insisted that we move through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Erik Erikson countered with eight: trust vs. mistrust (infant); autonomy vs. doubt (toddler); initiative vs. guilt (preschooler); industry vs. inferiority (school-age period); identity vs. role confusion (adolescent); intimacy vs. isolation (young adult); generativity vs. stagnation (middle age); and integrity vs. despair (older adult). And Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg says our moral development progresses through six stages: parental punishment, selfish hedonism, peer pressure, law and order, social contract, and principled conscience.

Why stages? Maybe we’re just pattern-seeking, storytelling primates, struggling to make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world. Stages fit well into a chronological sequence, stories with set narrative patterns. They impose order on chaos, offer predictability over uncertainty, and optimism over despair.

So, if you’re in some early stage of grief next week after the election, tell yourself a good story. Maybe just pick a stage – say anger or denial, if that’s your thing – and go with it. Personally I recommend acceptance. But most people will probably go with blame.

THE FUTURE OF RAILS. By now we know the problems: congested highways, high fuel prices, dependence on foreign oil, pollution and global warming. But the good news is that this combination may be creating conditions for reforming transportation policies. Americans are already cutting back on driving and turning to trains in record numbers. And Congress recently heard that overreliance on the airline industry is no longer the best way to move people around states or across the country.

In October, with little fanfare, Congress passed the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act by a veto-proof margin. Among other things, it authorizes $3.4 billion to create high-speed passenger rail corridors and provide rail capital-improvement grants to states. The project proposed for the Midwest would cover 3,000 miles in nine states, with lines radiating from a hub in downtown Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, the cost of a fully completed Midwest network will cost up to $8 billion. Modern, comfortable, double-deck trains with wide seats and large windows would churn along at top speeds of 110 mph. That’s up from, an average of 79, and much slower in and out of Chicago itself. Faster trains would shave hours off trips, delivering passengers from one downtown to another hundreds of miles away. It’s not futuristic, but does sound like a move in the right direction.

MASK ATTACK. If you’re excited about Halloween, thank whatever god or goblin that you’re not living in Belleville, Missouri. Why Belleville? Because last week Mayor Mark Eckert signed a new law that sets weirdly strict rules for dressing up on Halloween – and any other day of the year. It happened because some homeowners were scared or irritated by late-night trick-or-treating. Some of the solutions:

* Ban anyone above the middle school level from trick or treating unless they are a "special-needs" child accompanied by a parent or guardian.

* Limit the hours of trick-or-treating from 5 - 8:30 pm.

* Children 12 years old or younger can wear a mask or disguise any day of the year. But anyone older than that can only wear a mask or disguise on Halloween, and not on any other day of the year.

The City Council spent a year discussing ways to protect children on Halloween night, and, to be fair, also added a provision to discourage child predators. But the concerns of a few, irritated by teens who apparently knock on their doors late at night, pretty much takes the fun out of Halloween for anyone over 12, and may well infringe on a basic right – the right to wear a mask. Superheroes, take note.

A LAST WORD ON SOCIALISM. We’ve certainly heard enough about it during the presidential race. But let’s give a conservative the last word on socialism. George Will puts it this way: “Ninety-five percent of what the government does is redistribute wealth. It operates on the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Case in point: we have sugar subsidies. Costs the American people billions of dollars but they don't notice it it's in such small increments. But the few sugar growers get very rich out of this. Now we have socialism for the strong - that is the well-represented and organized in Washington like the sugar growers. But it's socialism none the less and it's not new.”

LAME DUCK PREMPTION. Last week the US staged a bold helicopter raid inside Syria, using two dozen U.S. commandos, killing at least eight civilians, and ratcheting up regional tensions. Syria condemned it as an “aggressive act,” but Iraq said the area targeted was used by militants to launch cross-border attacks inside Iraq. Assuming that’s true, the question remains, why now?

Some commentators speculate that the raid was designed to be an "October surprise"— an attack designed to sway voters prior to the election into fearing the threat of terrorism from Syria, and therefore voting for John McCain. But even if not, the Bush administration is orchestrating a late expansion of the so-called "Bush Doctrine" of pre-emptive war, adding unprovoked military strikes across international borders. A September raid inside Pakistan falls into the same category.

Robert Dreyfuss explained it this way in the Nation: “A parallel new Bush Doctrine is emerging, in the last days of the soon-to-be-ancien regime...this one also casts international law aside by insisting that the United States has an inherent right to cross international borders in "hot pursuit" of anyone it doesn't like. They're already applying it to Pakistan, and this week Syria was the target. Is Iran next?”

When asked about cross-border operations by the Senate last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "'We will do what is necessary to protect our troops.” Under further questioning, he said he wasn’t an expert in international law, but assumed the State Department had consulted such laws. Not an expert in international law? He'll leave it to the State Department? This is the guy that Obama's advisers want to stay on at the Pentagon under an Obama administration.

Bottom line: The US attack inside Syria sets a precedent for future expansion of the "war on terror," and there’s no sign yet that Obama disagrees.


LOWERING EXPECTATIONS. We’re only a few days from E-day – otherwise known as the most important election in at least 40 years -- and there’s no sign of the coup some were predicting, or the capture of bin Laden, or the invasion of some convenient target. Plus, as far as we can tell, the elections are going to take place. So, some expectations are on the verge of being shattered.

Of course, there have been those strikes inside Pakistan and Syria. Iraq remains a powder keg, the war in Afghanistan is intensifying, and US hostility to Iran shows no sign of fading. In other words, more war is still a real possibility – whether it’s McCain or Obama in the presidency.

According to John McCain and Sarah Palin, electing Obama will be a big step toward some kind of socialism, with terrorist sympathizers taking up residence in the White House. But reality is bound to intrude not long after the vote. There will be change, but it will look more like a gradual return to the center than a lurch to the Left. If you’re expecting universal health care, an abrupt end to the war on terror – and the war on drugs, or even a bunch of new faces in the next administration, prepare for disappointment.

On the other hand, we may see something like a new New Deal – major public works programs – and a roll back of some of the worst Bush ideas. The Supreme Court will have several new members, and, with Obama, they’re likely to restore some moderation and protect precedents like Roe v Wade. More important, the Court will be less likely to go along with the executive power grab that’s been underway since Cheney and Bush took charge.

But don’t expect miracles. Or an end to the deep cultural and political divide in the US. As the campaign has revealed, anger and resentment are roiling in many parts of the country. And that won’t end soon. Let’s also not forget that Democrats, even with control of both Congress and the White House, are just as capable of corruption and war-mongering.

In the end, our elections are more like a movie in which we’re manipulated into a state of high tension and anticipation, then let down by an anti-climatic ending. Very likely, the bad guys will get away – expect some last minute pardons – and the good guys will turn out to be not nearly as noble as they look.

That doesn’t mean the outcome isn’t important. But it’s probably going to be one of those end-of-season cliffhangers, and we’ll have to wait until the next season to see if the show has a satisfying twist. Most likely, it will be a letdown.

I could be wrong, but the best bet is to lower our expectations now. The new boss may not be the same as the old boss. But more than likely we’re going to be fooled again.

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