Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fifty years ago, racism ruled America

I was in a meeting earlier this week with a group of about a dozen people I didn't know. The group leader was decrying the consequences of the Great Recession, which has caused a big increase in requests for help from nonprofits, increased stress on families and an uptick in the homeless population. Along with everyone else, I could only nod my head in agreement. Then she said something that floored me: "I think racism is worse today than it has ever been!"

I started to raise my hand and ask, "Where are you from?" The woman leading the group appeared to be about my age, maybe a little older. Surely, she should be able to remember what it was like 50 years ago, when black North Carolinians could not eat in a restaurant where whites ate, could not sleep in a motel where whites slept, could not attend schools white children attended, could not live in a neighborhood where whites lived, often could not vote in elections, could not drink from water fountains or use the bathrooms used by whites, and would not even be considered for decent jobs. Fifty years ago, none of the eight or 10 African-American women gathered in that room could have held the executive and managerial positions they hold today. The meeting they were attending, in which whites and blacks discussed issues on an equal footing, could not have happened then. If you think racism is worse today than it was 50 years ago, you have a serious memory problem.

That's not to say that racism has been eradicated. Like other forms of evil, it keeps poking its ugly head out of its manure pile only to be beaten back again. Racial prejudice is probably as old as that prehistoric time when humans first differentiated themselves by skin color and other distinguishing features. Racism will continue to plague the human condition from time to time, but its days of ordering society and building senseless barriers are over, at least in this country.

Fifty years after a federal law made it possible for African-Americans to vote unimpeded in this nation, we elected an African-American president. That is an extraordinary achievement! Like other presidents, this one is assailed by critics, and a few of those critics may be motivated, at least in part, by racism, but it is political doctrine, not race, that is the primary divisive force today.

Anyone who remembers the 1960s and before can testify to the lunacy of claims that racism is worse today than ever before. America should proudly proclaim its victory over the evil forces of entrenched racism and never forget how bad, how ridiculous, society was before the civil rights era.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Taxpayers foot bill for campaign 'reform'

In more than three decades in the newspaper business, I made it a point to keep out of politics — no yard signs, no bumper stickers, no precinct offices. And I expected those who worked for me to follow the same rules. Because politics is such an important part of news coverage and carries such volatility, I knew that any degree of partisanship could jeopardize our position as a neutral observer of the political scene.

One advantage of this policy was that I had a perfect excuse when I was approached for a campaign donation. Those donations are a public record, which could be used to question the fairness of an editorial endorsement or news coverage.

Now I'm out of that business and have been approached by an old friend who is running for N.C. Court of Appeals, I'm out of excuses. I met Harry Payne 40 years ago when his twin brother lived on my hall in college, and I had followed his political career with some interest — state legislator, commissioner of labor, and Employment Security Commission director. He emailed earlier this month to say he's running for Court of Appeals.

With taxpayer financing of judicial races, that should be an easy race for someone with Harry's credentials. After all, he has won statewide races before, when he had to raise all the campaign money himself. In this year's race, if he raises $26,000 from 225 or more voters contributing $10 to $500, the state will match his campaign fund on a two-to-one basis. Raising that much money in such small amounts is not easy, he says.

I'm willing to help Harry with a small donation, but the concept of taxpayer-financed elections has always bothered me. Although proponents like to call this system "voter-owned elections," the fact is that government will be collecting and disbursing money for the benefit of politicians. Your tax money will go to support candidates you might like, or you might abhor. Forcing someone to support, through taxation, the political career of someone with whom you disagree seems contrary to American values.

There's no doubt that the present system of endless fund-raising by politicians and the appearance that a wealthy few "own" politicians and call the shots in Raleigh and Washington is disgusting. But there must be a better way to reform the system than by forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for political ads that turn their stomachs. The McCain-Feingold campaign reform law chips away at the First Amendment by limiting political speech. A reform should reduce the influence of the wealthy few, including corporations and labor unions, without prohibiting vigorous political debate.

The low response rate for state and national campaign fund checkoffs on tax forms show how unpopular taxpayer financing of campaigns is. American taxpayers don't want to see their taxes go into political advertising. N.C. politicians have inserted this experiment into low-profile races for judgeships and Council of State races, but widening this plan will only be popular with the politicians who benefit from it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

You go to your church, and I'll find my own

Here's a spiritual experience: Body piercing. This previously unknown Stairway to Heaven has become better known recently since a Johnston County student claimed a religious exemption for her nose stud. The school system said no way. Oh yeah, she said. I'm a member of The Church of Body Modification, which believes that sticking holes in your body where there were none is a spiritual experience.

The News & Observer, ever vigilant for important new trends in religious studies, has done an article about an official minister of The Church of Body Modification. Richard Ivey of Raleigh is a minister who practices what he preaches. He has ear jewelry the size of hockey pucks, the N&O noted, and he has tattoos on nearly all of the exposed skin in the newspaper photo, plus a few more pierces in what can only be called "unnatural" places. He says he gets a new tattoo every month or two, so the clerical pay in this denomination must be all right. And, oh yeah, one of the rituals of the church is to be strung up on fish hooks dug into your flesh. Ivey says just hanging around like that gives him peace.

Although I was, frankly, turned off by the Rev's unusual appearance, the article got me to thinking. Ivey got his ordination by applying online, and church doctrine, which confesses no god and has relatively few restrictions, can't be too tough to master. If you can have a Church of Body Modification, what other spiritual frontiers might be out there, just waiting to be explored?

It didn't take me long to think of a few:

• The Wholly Nekkid Fellowship. Nudists get a bad rap, running around butt-naked all the time, but if being naked is a spiritual experience, well more folks might join in. And all that money you would spend on clothes can be given to the church, says church founder Seymour Butz, who wears a clerical collar but nothing else.

• The Church of Video Games. This church meets only in basements, and its hymns consist of the ping-ping-blip of video game sound effects. "Yea, though I run through the Valley of Death, I fear no annihilation, for I can always hit the reset button," is the church's creed. Church members seek to achieve an ecstatic state of rapture by earning more game points than anyone else.

• The Tea Party Communion. This church worships the glossed-over image of a former Alaska governor as its chief goddess. Its sacraments include drinking tea from demitasse cups and screaming at non-believers.

• The Mother Earth Temple of Truth and Revelation. This religion eschews any god or goddess but considers the Earth in its original state, before homo sapiens, to be the personification of perfection. Church members study ways to rid the world of humans and bring back the dinosaurs.

• The Janis Joplin Experience Hosannah Movement. This sect worships the life of Janis Joplin, who died of a drug overdose in 1970. Sacraments include attempting to drink as much booze as Janis did onstage while also popping pills. Church Hymnody consists entirely of Janis Joplin recordings, which can throw true believers into a catatonic state.

• The Oh Joy for O.J. Worship Center. This church contends that O.J. Simpson was the perfect human specimen who had to be sacrificed on the altar of Hollywood so that less-talented celebrities could have their own paparazzi. Believers await the day when O.J. is released from prison and melts his Heisman Trophy into a Golden Calf.

• The Hedonism in Heaven Fellowship. This church contends that mankind was born to have sex as often as possible. Marriage is condemned as an obstacle to more frequent and more varied sexual encounters. The H in H Fellowship is in negotiations with radical Islamists about the 21 virgins awaiting jihadist martyrs. H in H believers are trying to work out the same deal, for all church members.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Senate campaign mailing sets off furor

If A.B. Swindell, the incumbent in the 10th N.C. Senate District race, wanted to liven up an otherwise dull contest, he has succeeded. His mailing this week portraying his Republican opponent, Buck Newton, as a drug-dealing felon certainly was an attention grabber. The slick mailing with ominously dark background, what appears to be cocaine and a police officer and flashing lights, gets this message across: "Buck Newton. 8 felony drug counts, including selling cocaine. Is that who you want to be your senator?" Inside the flier, the Swindell camp says court records show Newton "was arrested on 8 felony drug counts."

A printout of court records show Newton was charged, but it also shows in each case the charge was "dismissed by DA." That should tell you something, and it should also have warned the Swindell camp to be cautious about this. Moreover, Newton has been practicing law in Wilson for years. If he were a convicted felon, he couldn't be admitted to the bar. Something doesn't click here, despite the N.C. Democratic Party's shocking mailing.

Newton has produced a letter from the district attorney and an affidavit stating that the charges were a case of mistaken identity and that the undercover officer responsible for the charges was dismissed from the police force. All of this happened 20 years ago when Newton was a student at Appalachian State University.

The justifiably outraged Republican candidate has said he is filing a defamation lawsuit against Swindell and the Democratic Party. He says the assertion that he was arrested is patently false, that he was never arrested on these charges and that they were quickly dropped when the mistaken identity became apparent. A friend sent me an audio file of Newton's appearance on the "DP in the Morning" show on the Jammin' 99 radio station. Newton rants for most of the 17 minutes of the file, barely allowing any questions or comments as he expresses his righteous indignation and scathingly critiques Swindell, whom he calls "Alvin," as "a liar."

Newton may be outraged, angry and disgusted, but he probably also knows that he has little chance of winning a defamation suit against Swindell and the Democratic Party. It's hard to win a libel suit — as it should be — and courts tend to give campaigning politicians a lot of leeway. Will a judge or jury make a distinction between being "charged" and being "arrested"? Or will the court find that to a lot of people, there's not a lot of difference? No matter what the outcome, this lawsuit will drag on long after the last vote is counted.

The question is why Swindell, a 10-year incumbent and a player in Senate President Marc Basnight's power structure, would stoop to this incendiary and misleading flier. Swindell has not been seriously challenged before, so he must think it is necessary to bring out the heavy artillery against Newton.

The second question is what will be the consequences. This mailing could well backfire against Swindell if enough voters see it as a desperate attempt at character assassination. For North Carolina legislative races, this is about as low as campaigning gets.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Announcing the autumnal equinox

Last night's bright, almost full moon in a cloudless sky seemed designed to announce today's autumnal equinox. Tonight, the sun crosses the equator, heading south, and today's daylight and night will be evenly divided.

The early morning chill, which we welcome into our homes with open windows, hints that fall is upon us, despite daytime temperatures approaching or into the 90s. The midday heat may be more like August than late-September, but the evenings and early mornings are refreshingly cool. Already, the oaks around our home are shedding their leaves, and soon I'll be up to my knees in leaves as Saturdays turn into raking days.

The lack of rain has turned yards and flower beds into desert-like dust bins, and a rake stirs up little sandstorms of dry debris. Without a change in the clouds, this fall will be tinder-dry, and the threat of forest fires and grass fires will loom over each day, like a torch poking at a kerosene spill.

As the daylight grows shorter and the night grows longer, the unseasonable temperatures will abate, the cool evening gradually conquering the day's heat. Soon, the night will arrive early, helped along by the change to standard time, and the darkness will envelope our off-work hours. Winter's chill will follow in time. Don't be surprised if this winter brings temperatures low enough to balance the summer's harsh heat. And we would welcome some rain or snow to dampen the thirsty dust.

On this day of equality between daylight and dark, we will enjoy the daylight that remains, knowing that it is slipping away silently into dark winter nights.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pleas for help are more frequent now

There was desperation in the voice of the woman who called me yesterday. She wanted to know if our agency could help her. She had been staying with friends since her power was turned off for nonpayment of the electric bill, and then her friends' power was turned off, too. She and her daughter needed a place to go. She was working two jobs and had an apartment lined up, but it wouldn't be available until Oct. 1. Could I help her?

No, I said. That's not something we are able to do. My agency's limited funds are restricted to helping people in disasters, such as house fires. Had she tried the Salvation Army? She had; it had no funds left for utility bills. I referred her to the Wilson Crisis Center and wished her luck.

This scenario is not new or unique. I've been fielding similar calls for months. People in distress are nothing new — the poor are always with us, the Bible says — but this recession has made more people poor, and more people desperate. Help with utility bills (Wilson's electric rates are notoriously high) is the most frequent request, but I've also heard requests for help with phone bills, rent and medical equipment.

It's painful to say no, but you can't help everyone, and if you try, you end up not helping those whose needs are greatest. I didn't ask for the woman's name or how to contact her. If I had, I would have to reconsider my response. I cannot use the charitable funds I'm responsible for to help her, but I'm fortunate enough to have enough money of my own that I could pay for a motel room for her for a few days. Maybe that would give her enough breathing space to get her life together.

Maybe that would relieve the anguish I feel when I remember the quiet desperation in her voice.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A tax controversy that shouldn't be

It's hard to believe that the proposal before Congress to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to everyone with an income below $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples) has become so controversial. President Obama, in keeping with his 2008 campaign promise, has proposed extending the tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans. He would eliminate the 2001-2003 tax cuts for the top 2 percent of wage earners. Restoring the old tax rates (misleadingly referred to by opponents as raising taxes) would help reduce the menacing federal budget deficit.

The Republican leadership in Congress has taken an all-or-nothing approach to extending the tax cuts — either the rich get theirs along with the poor and middle class or everyone will suffer. A recent poll found about half of Americans support the Republican position. I'm old enough to remember (and it wasn't so many years ago) that the Republicans touted themselves deficit hawks — they wanted to balance the federal budget, even if it was painful. Fully extending the Bush era tax cuts would cost the federal government four times what the economic stimulus package and health care reform — packages roundly criticized by Republicans for exploding the federal deficit — would cost combined!

Politicians (and voters) have short memories. One of President Bush's reasons for the 2001 tax cuts was that the federal deficit was running a surplus — it was taking in more money than it was spending. Budget surpluses were projected decades into the future. Bush argued that Washington should let the taxpayers keep the money the government didn't need.

To say the least, things have changed since then. A terrorist attack, two wars and an economic collapse later, the federal government is spending about a trillion dollars more than it takes in each year. A federal commission is looking into ways to reduce that deficit. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, says the problem is government spending, not taxation. But the real problem, as with any business or family budget, is the combination of the two. If Congress cannot find a practical way to curtail spending — and it has been powerless to do that in the past decade — then increased revenues are the only available solution.

Allowing tax rates for the wealthiest Americans to return to normal levels and reinstating the estate tax at a reasonable, fixed level would have no impact whatsoever on more than 98 percent of Americans. It would also begin the process of addressing budget deficits and signal financial markets that Washington can do something about the deficit.

What is amazing is that this proposal is so controversial.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Whirligig Park will give Wilson unique identity

National Park Service historian Dennis Montagna likes Vollis Simpson, Vollis Simpson's whirligigs, and the city of Wilson's plan for installing whirligigs on a vacant lot to create a Whirligig Park downtown. I'm not surprised. Simpson's whirligigs are on display at museums and public parks all over the world, and the works are just about universally admired by art curators and others whose artistic opinions are respected.

But when the city and state announced plans for the Whirligig Park, some know-nothings commented (anonymously, of course) on the newspaper's Web site that they didn't want that "junk" in Wilson. I'm sure they feel the same way about Chicago's iconic Picasso outdoor sculpture.

Simpson's whirligigs have already found a place in downtown Wilson, with two flanking the Nash Street-Tarboro Street intersection and another standing guard at the Employment Security Commission building. With only those installations, the whirligigs give an identity to downtown Wilson, setting it apart from other cities that would like to have unique identifier like those whirligigs.

The Whirligig Park can be a real attraction for Wilson — a place to take visitors and a sort of logo for the city. Wilson is not blessed with many natural wonders, and its trademark tobacco, antiques, trees and fine old homes are all things many another city can boast about. But whirligigs? They set this place apart. Montagna should know what he's talking about: Whirligigs are our Liberty Bell, Rodeo Drive, Gateway Arch or French Quarter — the thing that identifies where we are. Thanks, Vollis!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Payroll tax exemption could boost economy

This Labor Day weekend, there are about 15 million Americans who are unemployed, and job growth is stagnant as economists predict the possibility of a "double dip" recession or a slowdown that lingers for years and years. In his Saturday radio address, President Obama pledged to place renewed emphasis on the economy and jobs. In times like these, Americans expect more from their presidents than they can deliver and blame them for more than they have caused. Both Presidents Bush found themselves blamed for economic problems they didn't create and couldn't solve, the same dilemma Obama is in now.

The economic stimulus Obama proposed had a positive effect on the economy, most economists agree, but could not overcome the many underlying problems. So jobs are still hard to come by, and the housing market has not recovered. Talk of a new stimulus is being viewed skeptically by voters and by members of Congress. Unease over budget deficits and the federal debt is affecting the debate over the expiration of Bush tax cuts and the over any new economic initiatives.

So what's the answer? Robert Reich, who was President Clinton's secretary of labor, is proposing an appealing new approach. Reich points out that 80 percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes (which fund Social Security and Medicare and are applied to the first dollar earned) than they do in income taxes (whose deductions and exemptions ignore the first several thousand dollars of income). He proposes a one-year moratorium on payroll taxes for the first $20,000 of income. This would be offset by applying the payroll tax to incomes above $250,000. Under current law, the payroll tax ends at $106,000 in income. Reich says his proposal would be revenue neutral — the loss of revenue from lower-income workers would be replaced by revenue from those earning more than $250,000 in salaries.

His plan would increase consumer spending because workers would see all of their first $20,000 in income in their paychecks, not the $18,470 they now receive after payroll taxes are taken out. Employers would also save $1,530 on the first $20,000 in salaries they pay their workers, and that would make it cheaper to create new jobs and hire workers. Companies with employees earning over $250,000 would take a hit on the employer match for those workers, but nearly all companies would come out ahead.

It sounds like a solid plan to me. It would have no net effect on Social Security and Medicare, and it would almost certainly put an economic boost into the hands of consumes and small businesses. Why limit it to one year?