Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Holding the Mao


I was watching a golf tournament on a recent weekend when I spied a guy in the gallery wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The image of a Cuban Marxist revolutionary amid a crowd of wealthy people watching even wealthier people at play at a club whose green fees exceed most people's mortgage payment was, well, unusual.

Of course, Che is much more than a romanticized guerilla fighter these days. He's a full-blown pop icon whose image appears on coffee cups and baseball hats, all for sale at a tidy profit. Nothing says "boutique revolutionary" like Che on your chest.

But Guevara is not the only dead Marxist to get the rock star treatment.

The image of Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao if you will, is the most reproduced in history this side of Jesus Christ, according to some scholars. His likeness adorns restaurants, taxi cabs, tourist trinkets of every size and shape. Books spin Mao's wartime survival tactics into management tips and hip-hop music recordings are made of his trademark theories.

It comes as a bit of surprise, therefore, that the city of Alhambra pulled an artistic Chicken Little act this past week and removed a painting of the former Chinese communist leader from a lunar new year celebration. Someone found the painting an act of "moral perversion" that makes light of a tyrant.

The city, acting in its own tyrannical fashion, decided the sky was falling, yanked the painting, and in the process touched off a loud debate over censorship and the arts. As a result, every artist in the exhibit packed up and left.

The picture in question was no heroic depiction of Mao. This was not the Mao of the Long March. Instead, it was Mao juxtaposed with George Washington, both their faces imposed on piggy banks. It was done in the style of Andy Warhol, whose original Mao portraits made him the darling of the pinot and pop art set some years back.

Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that the debate took place in the San Gabriel Valley, home to America's largest population of Chinese immigrants. Many fled the oppressive yoke of the Communist regime. Others, however, take a longer view, that Mao made China into a global power.

One wonders what kind of civics lessons the immigrant community received from the city of Alhambra.

In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, which has been extended to a generous sense of "expression" - verbal, non-verbal, visual, symbolic.

In China, government censorship, while not total, is pervasive and highly effective, and denies Chinese citizens the freedoms of speech and of the press guaranteed to them in the Chinese Constitution, according to Congressional reports.

If those who are convinced that a fanciful portrait of Mao will somehow result in mass historical amnesia by the Chinese people, here's a suggestion.

Have your own exhibit. Get Mao off the coffee cups and into people's consciousness. Show how his Great Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of much of China's cultural heritage and the imprisonment of a huge number of citizens while creating economic and social chaos. Show how his Great Leap Forward economic reforms resulted in the starvation of millions of peasants.

Use our hard-earned freedom of expression to make your point.

In the meantime, Alhambra city officials should remember this point, made by scholar Sheila Kennedy:

"The government that can determine which ideas are worthy of consideration and which are not is a government with power over the most important of all human functions - the power of the intellect."

Prisoners on a Plane


LAST summer, I sat in the Denver airport for nearly four hours waiting for my flight to take off.

It was maddening. The entire United Airlines terminal was packed with angry travelers whose flights were on hold. There were no weather delays. There were no explanations.

But I was lucky. I waited in the terminal where there was fresh air, food and functioning bathrooms.

With increasing regularity, passengers are being held prisoner on airplanes for eight, 10, even 11 hours while they wait to fly. Air conditioning fails, flight attendants run out of food and toilets back up.

It happened on American Airlines when passengers sat for eight hours in Austin, waiting for heavy storms to dissipate in Dallas.

It happened in New York where some JetBlue passengers sat for 11 hours in a snowstorm.

It happened in Detroit when passengers sat on planes for eight hours because of weather.

And it culminated when JetBlue, through a series of admitted missteps, had its flight schedule paralyzed for nearly a week, throwing the plans of thousands of passengers into chaos.

Now, a "Passenger Bill of Rights" is in the works, being endorsed by frustrated travelers and politicians eager to make capital out of a bad situation. JetBlue, reeling from a public relations disaster, has introduced its own plan which would compensate travelers for delays.

So weather happens. Icy conditions and severe thunderstorms can cause delays anywhere, anytime. We've all been there. But it's how airlines are reacting to those unexpected delays that has become an issue.

Consider this from a JetBlue passenger: "The plane was like a `sound-proofed coffin' when the windows were iced over," she told CNN. Another said she and other passengers were getting testy because the flight attendants told them they couldn't hand out food or water until the plane had been grounded for at least four hours, citing a Federal Aviation Administration rule. At least two of the passengers were diabetic.

Another passenger said there was no power, and flight attendants had to keep opening the doors so they could breathe comfortably.

Or this, in the case of the American Airlines flight in Austin: "There was a woman who was having to make diapers out of torn-up T-shirts for her baby," said passenger Tim Hanni, a Napa resident who together with his wife, Kate, launched a blog and an online petition calling for passage of a new Passenger Bill of Rights.

How did it come to this?

Sure, customer service isn't what it used to be. In fact, it's damn near nonexistent in most industries.

But there are other factors at play.

Since 9/11, airlines have engaged in massive cost cutting to offset losses. There are fewer flights with more passengers on those flights. That makes it harder to rebook passengers when large amounts of flights are canceled. So cancellations are avoided. Planes will load up and wait for a break in the weather. If it comes

Now, here come the feds to the rescue. California Sen. Barbara Boxer said she plans to introduce a Passengers' Bill of Rights that would give passengers the right to deplane when an aircraft has been on the ground for more than three hours past its scheduled departure time.

"... To keep passengers - which usually include infants and the elderly - on a plane for 11 hours in the worst of conditions is absurd," Boxer said on her Web site. "If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely."

Currently, there are no government regulations limiting the time an airline can keep passengers on grounded aircraft.

But like the problem it seeks to eliminate, this bill may end up grounded. Powerful airline interests will fight it. Security concerns will be raised. A pro-business president will be reluctant to endorse it. And the government has had a checkered record of helping people in need. Just ask the people of New Orleans.

Holding people hostage is intolerable. And we clearly can no longer expect the airline industry, which has been allowed to become unaccountable to the flying public, to do the right thing.

Hail to the Also Rans


IF you think Nov. 4, 2008, is a long way off, it is clear that you are not running for the office of president of the United States. If you are a candidate - and it appears that almost anyone who owns a suit is - you've already broken into a full gallop.

As of this writing, 11 Democrats, 15 Republicans and dozens of assorted aspirants from other political spectrums have either declared, formed exploratory committees or expressed enough serious interest in the office to attract some attention.

And we're just warming up.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being raised, liaisons are being formed, strategies are being developed, platform planks are being sawed and hammered, all with the intent of grabbing and holding your attention when you walk into the polling place next year.

Election 2008 will be notable for two reasons. One, it will be the first presidential election since 1928 in which neither a sitting president nor vice president will be a candidate. Unless Dick Cheney changes his mind and decides to run - unlikely since he can't bank on the support of the Dixie Chicks.

Second, it will be a billion-dollar baby. Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner has already declared it to be "the most expensive election in American history." Toner estimated that to be "taken seriously," a candidate will need to raise at least $100 million by the end of this year.

Big hitters like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, John McCain and John Edwards have that stashed in petty cash. But that price tag is going to leave a lot of aspirants stuck at the starting gate. So, as a public service, we hereby bestow awards on some presidential pretenders that won't win the grand prize.

Winner of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Award is Michael Charles Smith, a Republican from Oregon who describes himself as "zealous moderate." He has a wife, two kids, a house and a mortgage and a job at Hewlett-Packard. He plays the tuba in the community band. His goal, he says, is to nudge his party back toward the center from what he sees as an extremist brand of right-wing rhetoric. It seems running for president is an odd way of getting heard, but maybe that's what tuba players do.

Tonight We're Going to Party Like It's 1920 Award: To Gene Amondson, a prohibitionist whose platform is simply stated: "Prohibition was America's greatest 13 years. Drinking responsibly is like teaching a pig to eat with a spoon. Can't happen."

Don't Tread on Me Award: To the Personal Choice Party, whose candidate, Charles Jay, ran in 2004 and is contemplating another try. The party expresses the philosophy of "live and let live." Personal Choice demands that, "as long as I am not hurting anyone else, only I have the right to choose how I spend my time, my wealth, my life, my honor." Spending her time and honor as their vice presidential candidate in 2004 was porn movie star Marilyn Chambers.

The Whatever Happened To Award: To Michael Moriarity, the Emmy and Tony award- winning actor who starred as Benjamin Stone in "Law and Order" from 1990 to 1994. It seems Moriarity became disenchanted with the United States and moved to Canada, declaring himself a political exile. He, nonetheless, intends to run from afar in 2008. A passionate foe of abortion, he was quoted as saying, "Like the collaborating Vichy government in France under the Nazis, America will surrender to laws and ideologies that contradict the American Constitution and the most simple Human Rights. The Supreme Court took a once individually free nation and corrupted it by the lie of science that fetuses are, in their first two trimesters, no more than egg yolk. Ultimately, our American Intellectual Supremacists bought the `Population Problem,' in the same way Europe fell under the thrall of the so-called `Jewish Problem."'

The Maybe This Isn't Such a Bad Idea Award: To David Koch and his running mate Ken Goldstein. Despite their political differences - Koch professes to have a conservative outlook, and Goldstein balances his outlook to the left - they are longtime friends who often debate their political viewpoints. When they conceived their plans to run for president, they found these differences to be an advantage, according to their Web site. Rather than the traditional choice of running mates from similar political viewpoints, they built their campaign with a team with alternate viewpoints. Koch claims the pair has a strange ability "to argue through issues we disagree on and come to common ground." "Neither left nor right, but what is right" is their slogan.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

All Anna, All the Time


AMERICA Held Hostage by Anna Nicole Smith: Day 6.

I take no satisfaction in the passing of a human being at the young age of 39, especially one that leaves a baby motherless.

Bt at the same time, I am slack jawed at the fact that the death of a Grade B celebrity whose claim to fame was a pair of oversized breasts and a sketchy marriage to an aging oil billionaire continues to dominate the media.

Welcome to the brave new world of tabloid-driven news where tawdry trumps substance time and time again.

Consider: NBC's "Nightly News" devoted 14 seconds to Iraq compared to 3 minutes and 13 seconds to Anna Nicole, according to one report. CNN referenced Anna Nicole 52.2 percent more frequently than it did Iraq. MSNBC was even worse - 70.8 percent more references to Anna Nicole than Iraq.

Over this weekend, almost every cable network I saw wallowed in the Smith story, highlighted by Fox News' hour-long special "Anna Nicole: Tragic Beauty."

This, of course, occurred at the same time Barack Obama was announcing his historic presidential bid and a trial involving the outing of a CIA agent was winding its way toward the vice president of the United States.

The heck with that.

Anna had them all coming out of the woodwork. Geraldo Rivera and Greta van Susteren were pulling 24/7 shifts since Smith died Thursday. Panel discussions were formed. Windbags described as experts were interviewed. The contents of Smith's refrigerator qualified as breaking news.

Boxing promoter Don King held a press conference to reminisce about Anna Nicole Smith. Zsa-Zsa Gabor's 59-year-old husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, proclaimed he was the father of Smith's 5-month-old daughter, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern. So have assorted other characters in her life. Can O.J. be far behind?

The luckiest woman in America is NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, whose alleged attack on a romantic rival was headline news until Smith's death booted her off the front page and into relative obscurity.

Does anybody watch this stuff, read it, revel in it? Apparently, and unfortunately, yes.

Fox's prime-time viewership on the night of Smith's death jumped to 2,225,000, an increase of at least 400,000 over a typical weeknight, the cable station said.

Traffic on entertainment and personality Web sites leapt 54 percent compared with the day before Smith's death became public, Matt Tatham of Hitwise, a firm that tracks Web traffic, told the Los Angeles Times.

More than 14,000 blogs posted information, opinions and rants about her death, according to another tracking service,

"I loved her," one blog gushed. "I miss her," others wrote. "She was beautiful."

"I truly believe she had a lot of love to give and just wanted to be loved back," a blogger said. Added another, "We'll certainly miss her charm, her on-cam blunders and bloopers and we'll pray she's making the sandy shores in the hereafter very happy."

Here, on the rocky shores of journalism, we are left scratching our heads. Do we watch what we are fed? Is the drive for ratings the altar at which all media worship? Or is it what Newsweek calls the "Girls Gone Wild Effect," a combination of out-of-control celebs and online sleaze?

Or does the life and death of a stripper turned Playboy bunny turned Marilyn Monroe wannabe turned wealthy widow provide a brief respite from the agony of Iraq and Katrina?

If so, it's an odd exchange to make, one sort of tragedy for another.

Soon enough, Iraq and Katrina and Barack Obama and Dick Cheney will dominate our news and our thoughts again.

Until then, rest in peace Anna Nicole.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Let the Sunshine In


EVERY spring when daylight-saving time rolled around, my grandmother would draw a distinction between "God's time and Mr. Roosevelt's time."

Not that she minded the extra sunshine.

It's just that grandmother was a Southern-born, rock-ribbed Republican, and the words "Mr. Roosevelt" would roll off her tongue with the same disagreeing tone usually reserved for "Yankees" or "canker sores."

I mention this because, love it or loathe it, daylight-saving time is just around the corner. In case you didn't notice, under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. will begin observing daylight-saving time from the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November beginning this year.

Most of Canada will also observe the new period to avoid possible economic losses from confusion with the United States. Which gives the Canadians another reason to dislike us.

And if you don't like it, it will give you another reason to dislike President Bush. It happened on his watch.

Whether this remains permanent depends on studies conducted by some faceless government bureaucracy that will undoubtedly consider the effects of extra daylight while meeting in some windowless room.

In the meantime, come March 11, we can all spring forward.

Not that there is anything new under the sun.
Benjamin Franklin, living in Paris, first conceived the notion of daylight-saving time, according to David Prerau, who wrote "Seize the Daylight: A Brief History of Daylight Saving Time."

He wrote that he was awakened early and was surprised that the sun was up, well before his usual noon rising. He humorously described how he checked the next two days and found that, yes, it actually did rise so early every day. Imagine, he said, how many candles could be saved if people awakened earlier, and he suggested firing cannons in each square at dawn "to wake the sluggards and open their eyes to their true interest."

Franklin, as usual, was ahead of his time, even if he was engaging in a bit of whimsy. Some historians even attribute Franklin's dictum "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" to his experience.

Next on stage was British builder William Willett who was known to lament that few people enjoyed the "best part of a summer day," and he came up with the idea of moving the clocks forward in summer to take advantage of the bright beautiful mornings and to give more light in the evening.

What was unsaid is that he wanted his workers to arrive at construction sites earlier and to labor longer. He died never seeing his idea adopted.

It took World War I to get the concept off the ground. The Germans adopted it, followed closely by the British. The U.S. followed, but the law proved unpopular because it obliged people to rise and go to bed earlier than had become customary since the advent of electricity. It was repealed in 1919, when Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto of the repeal. After fits and starts, it was revived during World War II and continues to this day.

Whether daylight-saving time works as an energy saver is open to some debate. The U.S. Department of Transportation insists that daylight-saving time trims the entire country's electricity usage by a small but significant amount, about 1 percent each day, because less electricity is used for lighting and appliances.

However, there are complaints about the inconvenience of changing many clocks and adjusting to a new sleep schedule. Some argue that the supposed energy savings is offset by by those living in warm climates to cool their homes during summer afternoons and evenings. Others contend that more evening hours of light encourage people to run errands and visit friends, thus consuming more gasoline.

The bottom line, however, is that the majority of people like daylight-saving time.

What is clear is that it leads to some unusual occurrences.

Example: To keep to published timetables, trains cannot leave a station before the scheduled time. So when the clocks fall back one hour in the autumn, all Amtrak trains in the United States that are running on time stop at 2 a.m. and wait one hour before resuming. Overnight passengers are often surprised to find their train at a dead stop and their travel time an hour longer than expected. At the spring DST change, trains instantaneously become an hour behind schedule at 2a.m., but they just keep going and do their best to make up the time.

Another example: In September 1999, the West Bank was on daylight-saving time while Israel had just switched back to standard time. West Bank terrorists prepared time bombs and smuggled them to their Israeli counterparts, who misunderstood the time on the bombs. As the bombs were being planted, they exploded one hour too early, killing three terrorists instead of the intended victims, two busloads of people.

Everyone in to the Pool


IF the California state bureaucracy were a reality TV show, it might very well be called "American Idle."

Two news stories that appeared over the weekend underscore the point:

One reported that there is so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that even if concentrations remained at current levels, the effects of global warming would continue for centuries.

That grim assessment came from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which also concluded that the world was in for centuries of climbing temperatures, rising seas and shifting weather patterns.

There is still hope, the panel concluded, that prompt and decisive worldwide effort could blunt the most serious consequences of global warming.

The other story told us that the state Department of Motor Vehicles had issued all 85,000 car-pool lane stickers available to hybrid drivers under a state law passed in 2005.

The passes allowed drivers of hybrids that get at least 45 miles per gallon to drive in freeway car-pool lanes, even if they are alone. Three vehicles qualified: the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight and the hybrid Honda Civic. But no more. Those still contemplating a hybrid purchase have one other option: buying a used hybrid that already has a sticker. The stickers stay with the vehicles when they are sold.

Taken together, we can can surmise the following from these two stories: At the same time the world teeters on an environmental precipice, the folks in Sacramento led by our Hummer-hugging governor are telling potential owners of cars that reduce gasoline consumption and air pollution to put it in park. Incentives? We don't need no stinking incentives.

Lawmakers, it seems, are becoming concerned that car-pool lanes are filling up with those pesky hybrids. They want to reserve those lanes for car-poolers. Of course, car-pooling in this country has never exceeded 20 percent of the commuting public, according to studies by the Transportation Research Board which used census data to determine its findings.

The fact is that 85,000 carpool stickers is not a big deal in a state that has nearly 33 million registered vehicles. Indeed, a California Department of Transportation study revealed that only about 4 percent of car pools showed more congestion between April 2005 and 2006.

According to a published report, the study said there was "no clear indication" that car-pool lanes were becoming congested after stickers were introduced.

So here's a plan: Not only should current and future hybrid owners have continued access to car-pool lanes, they should be given free and unlimited parking whenever feasible on public streets and they should receive substantial savings on their insurance - plus a generous tax break on top of that.

If we are going to get serious about global warming - and it would appear the time has come to do exactly that - it is folly for the state of California to throw up a roadblock at hybrid transportation.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Road to the Super Bowl


THE first Super Bowl. Jan. 15, 1967. I remember it well.

Not that I was in attendance. Nope, the tickets were going for the unheard of price of $12 a head, way too rich for this young man, fresh out of the Army and newly employed.

Worse, the first Super Bowl was blacked out on television locally, even though it was broadcast on two networks, NBC and CBS.

That's because it was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum and a blackout seemed like a good way to boost ticket sales.

So what is a football fan without the price of a ticket to do?

Road trip, that's what.

A buddy and I hopped in my car and took off for San Diego, where a friend lived and the game was on TV.

Other people I knew were headed for San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield to take in the game. That's what you do when you're young and stupid.

The contest featured the legendary Green Bay Packers coached by Vince Lombardi against the upstart Kansas City Chiefs of the relatively new American Football League.

We rooted for Kansas City. It was the '60s, after all, an era when people embraced underdogs and sneered at the establishment.

Sentiment doesn't win football games, however. The Packers were a machine and crushed the Chiefs, 35-10.

Strangely, what I remember most about the game didn't take place on the field. It took place outside the house where we had gathered to watch it.

It turns out my friend lived on a hill directly under the flight path to San Diego International Airport.

Like clockwork, jets would rumble over his house at 15-minute intervals, so close you could count the rivets in the wings.

This, naturally, skewed the television reception, calling for frequent horizontal/vertical/focus adjustments. At times, it looked like it was snowing in Los Angeles.

But at least I can say I saw it. Intermittently.

Now, it's 40 years later. This year's contestants are the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, and the game will be played in Miami.

Face value for tickets are $600 to $700, but brokers are charging - and getting - as high as $3,000 per seat.

A 30-second commercial that cost $42,000 in 1967 will go for $2.6 million this year.
Prince will be the featured entertainment. In 1967, it was trumpeter Al Hirt backed up by bands from the universities of Arizona and Michigan.

There will be only one network broadcast, CBS. But networks from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Denmark, South Korea, Brazil, Germany, Russia, China and Sweden will televise the game.

I'll be traveling again, but this time on foot. Older and wiser, I'll be in my own den, watching in high definition and eating too much junk food.

Life is good, even when you mark the passing years in football games.

Complex Problem, Simplistic Solution


IN a society where it has become fashionable to dress like a prison inmate, glorify violence in song and lyric and converse like a street thug, it should come as no surprise that gang membership has soared and the body count along with it.

Just for the record, law enforcement officials are aware of more than 1,300 street gangs with over 150,000 members in Los Angeles County. Gangs account for approximately 51 percent of all homicides in Los Angeles County. Of the 1,156 homicides in 2001, 587 were gang-related. The majority of gang homicides are committed with handguns.

What to do is a complex problem. What not to do is what the Los Angeles City Council did.
That council this past week voted unanimously to ask voters to cough up $50 million through a new property tax to fight gang violence. The money, collected through a $72-per-parcel levy, would be spent to expand anti-gang and prevention efforts.

If one was cynical enough, one might consider this civic extortion. Pay protection money or get run over by murderous thugs.

But more likely it was a typical politician's solution: appear to be solving a problem by throwing money at it.

Whatever else it was, it was a lesson in tortured governance for us all.

"We have 40,000 gang members in this city and only 61 gang workers," complained L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn."

Not to split hairs, Janice, but aren't all law enforcement personnel - from cops to parole officers to prosecutors - "gang workers" if that's what the moment demands? And don't we already pay their salaries?

There are 23 anti-gang programs currently in operation in the city of Los Angeles, with an annual budget of $86 million. That suggests there are plenty of dedicated people and money, but what is missing is a single, comprehensive strategy.

In the meantime, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, pumping the feds for millions to aid in the fight against gangs.

Against that backdrop, do city officials really expect property owners in Los Angeles to believe that taxation trumps better government as the answer to the gang crisis?

Next, they'll be telling them that when the problem is past, the tax will be rescinded. Yeah, right.

I couldn't help but notice a story in the Los Angeles Times the other day that a police crackdown in Skid Row has dramatically lowered the crime rate. Last year, an aggressive Sheriff's Department crackdown led to a dramatic drop in killings in Compton.

"I think the more gang members realize that that level of field force is present, it's going to cause them to back off," Capt. Ray Peavy, who heads the sheriff's Homicide Bureau, told the Times.
"Everyone says: `What are we going to do about the gang problem?' It's the same thing you do about cockroaches or insects; you get someone in there to do whatever they can do to get rid of those creatures."

That strategy is at least a start. More jobs and better education are the long-term solution.
Said Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor and gang expert at UCLA, "Until we get those gangsters into real jobs, we are going to have a lethal ongoing problem, pure and simple."