Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bonanza Column 252 - The IVGID Election

I was out of town on business for the IVGID candidates discussion last week, so what I know about it is what I read in the Bonanza’s printing of their responses to three selected questions and what I’ve heard from people who were there. From what I can tell there were no real surprises, with the candidates reiterating the positions they took in the primary race.
As the regular reader of this column is aware, I believe that local (community and county) issues require a different set of standards than state and national issues. My fundamental philosophy remains liberal/progressive, but on local matters the best interests of the community is the highest standard and as is well-known, Jim Clark and I often find ourselves on the same side of issues.
The problem with this standard is that what is in the best interests of the community is a wide-open question at this point given we have never come to a consensus or a decision on what we want the community to be. From the early Independent Incline efforts through Incline Vision and Pathways 2007, to the current Incline 2020 work, groups of well-intended residents have collected data to the best of their abilities about what people in the community want. All of these efforts have been interesting and none have been definitive. All have been subject to criticism based on the sample they used, and none so far have been followed up with any process that would have resulted in a charter for IV/CB going forward. Our subjection to Washoe County adds a further layer of complexity to the picture.
In the Bonanza’s report, one of the questions asked was “What is the view of recent financial losses at district venues, and should they should self-sustaining?” Frankly, I don’t know how any of the candidates could respond to this question. Any answer would have to be based on some coherent view of what the character of the community is to be going forward – for example, if we are to be a destination resort, then it might be reasonable to expect the venues to be profitable. On the other hand if the community is to exist primarily for the residents, then maybe breakeven makes sense. I don’t know how anyone can attempt to answer the question without having this as a basis. The TRPA Regional Plan Update makes this question, the most important thing this Board will have to deal with, along with hiring a new General Manager.
Notwithstanding all this, every two years we have to elect IVGID Trustees and the IVGID Board has to govern the District to the best of its ability, and the IVGID staff have to execute the policies the Board adopts. This year we have six candidates running for three seats. Three of these candidates make very similar cases for their election bid, the other three are running on platforms that, while similar to the first three in some respects, contain important differences. It behooves us as voters to look beyond simplified slogans and posturing and to investigate thoroughly before we vote. With only one incumbent seeking re-election, it’s possible that we’ll elect a new majority to the Board, so this year’s election is likely to be more impactful than usual.
For that reason, and for what it’s worth, I am only endorsing one candidate. The two Trustees who are not up for re-election are in their first term. Bea Epstein, the incumbent who is running has been on the Board, including stints as Chair, since 2004. While I doubt that anyone agrees with every decision she’s made and every vote she’s cast, few would disagree that she has worked hard, done her homework diligently, and been willing to listen to all views and think objectively about the issues. The Board needs continuity and, particularly with the prospect of a new GM, the institutional memory she provides is especially important.
Whatever your views one thing is sure: your view won’t be represented unless you vote. Early voting begins October 20 – be sure to vote.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bonanza Column 251 - The FBI and Free Speech

In the past couple of weeks’ columns we’ve been looking at the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, particularly freedom of speech. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, has always seemed interesting to me. The Constitution, as originally adopted in 1789 addressed the structure and function of the Federal Government and its relationship to the States, but was thought by many to be deficient in its protection of individual rights. The Bill of Rights, introduced by James Madison immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, was aimed at rectifying that omission.
The primacy of freedom of expression among the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights reflects the degree to which this freedom was suppressed under British rule. It was a remarkable guarantee then, and remains unusual today in its scope. Even in the freest of the rest of the free world, freedom of speech is not absolute; restrictions may be loose, but they are there nonetheless. Here all expression is protected and any attempt to restrict it is subject to the most rigorous scrutiny before it can be instituted. Error, if it occurs, is meant to be on the side of greater, not less restriction.
As a result, as we’ve noted, if you are seriously committed to this most foundational of American freedoms, you have to be willing to tolerate expression that is repugnant to you – the cost of my freedom to speak is my having to tolerate yours no matter how objectionable I find it. To again ( (mis)quote Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Actually, while this quote is always attributed to Voltaire, it was probably said by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall).
Because of the breadth of this guarantee we Americans have never been 100% comfortable with freedom of speech. We are fine with it for expression we find agreeable or irrelevant to what we care about, but less so to the degree that what is said or written or depicted diverges from what we hold dear, and some even go so far as to try to find reasons to deny the freedom to those with whom they disagree. The FBI, particularly under the long reign of J. Edgar Hoover, was notorious for collecting dossiers on those whose speech they (read “Hoover”) found objectionable, whether it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, or anti-war protestors during the Vietnam Era.
Recently, here in Nevada, we have seen what may be a recurrence of this Hooveresque behavior on the part of the Bureau. According to an Associated Press report, the ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what federal agents reported learning about members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Northern Nevada and the “No Bear Hunt” group. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny that they are investigating those opposed to the Nevada bear hunt. This seems to be based on some heated exchanges at meetings of the Washoe County Wildlife Advisory Board and the Nevada Wildlife Commission in March, which included a County Board member saying he didn’t want to hear from the Native Americans because he didn’t want to “hear of bows and arrows,” a comment for which he later apologized. In the FOIA request, the ACLU cited reports by media, community organizations, and the public that the FBI had been “engaged in a deliberate plan to harass and intimidate those who speak out against the hunting of bears in northern Nevada.”
One could easily wax satirical about the FBI and the right to arm bears, but what is going on here? No threats have been made, the AIM is not Al Qaeda, and despite some history of militancy on the national level, the Nevada AIM branch has a different outlook and objectives than the national organization. Humor aside, this seems to represent a continuing effort by the FBI to suppress any expression they don’t like – J. Edgar Hoover’s ghost seems to still roam the halls, or at least the minds of the FBI.
To paraphrase Jefferson, the price of freedom of speech seems to be eternal vigilance, including watching those whose job it is to protect that very freedom.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bonanza Column 250 - The Price of Freedom of Speech

When I wrote last week’s column about the effects (or non-effects) of the adverse court decision on Aaron Katz and his friends I stressed that America’s foundational core value of freedom of speech made any attempt to stifle these folks, however objectionable their utterances, untenable. Little did I imagine how much the week since that column would test my and all of our commitment to that value.
In case you’ve spent the last week in a cave, there was a 12-minute video on YouTube, ostensibly a trailer for a 2-hour film called “The Innocence of Muslims.” (Whether a film exists beyond this “trailer” is one of many questions.) The clip is amateurish, badly filmed, badly acted, and above all, an unmitigated piece of anti-Islamic propaganda on a par with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for credibility. Before the clip was taken down, it was dubbed in Arabic and viewed in the Muslim world, provoking protests, riots, and deaths, including the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi.
The film is the work of one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an LA service station owner with a checkered criminal history. Nakoula, who used the pseudonym “Sam Bacile” on the film, is apparently an Egyptian Coptic Christian. Others were involved, including Terry Jones, a Florida preacher who helped promote the video. Jones first drew international attention when, in July 2010, he announced on social media websites his intention to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States by holding an "International Burn a Quran Day.” He eventually did burn a copy or the Quran, sparking his own set of riots in the Arab world.
Once again we have a case of protected free speech causing enormous negative repercussions. Ambassador Chris Stevens was considered by Libyans to be a real friend and advocate for them and a very positive representative of the US. The others killed were another State Department officer and two ex-Navy Seals. It is impossible to find anything but waste and destruction in the deaths and damage done by the riots, and equally impossible in my view to lay the responsibility anywhere but with the film’s makers, distributors, and publicists. I cannot conceive of any motivation these people might have other than to foment violence by Muslims so that they could then say “see, I told you!”
And yet, as Americans, we must protect their rights to speech, however abominable that speech may be. The rest of the world, particularly the Arab world, has trouble understanding this. Simultaneously with (and unrelated to) the riots over the film, an Indian cartoonist was charged with sedition for publishing cartoons pointing out government corruption. As in India, the world’s largest democracy, so in most of the world - there are limits on speech and governments do not hesitate to enforce these limits. No wonder, then, the “Arab Street” looks to the US government to punish the makers of this nasty piece of work, and our not doing so adds fuel to the notion that the government and people of the US agree with these vermin.
If you take a principled stand, the world will test your resolve, and this is quite a test. The problem with freedom is that it requires responsibility. As Justice Holmes said, “your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” Similarly, your right to say what you want ends at incitement to riot, but barring a direct call to arms, that requires proving intent, which is hard to do, so we have to err on the side of protecting speech under the First Amendment rather than restricting it.
When the actor Patrick Duffy’s parents were murdered, he said that as practicing Buddhist he could not demand the murderer be punished as the act was self-punishing – the murderer would suffer for thousands of lives for what he did. I’d like to believe the same for Mssrs. Nakoula, Jones, and their ilk. Living under the US Constitution is a gift and a privilege, and abuses such as this give ammunition to those who would take those rights away so that their voice is all that can be heard. We allow that, we pay with our souls.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Bonanza Column 249 - Enough

In a rational world, Aaron Katz would go away, if not slink away with his tail between his legs.

After being soundly defeated in the election primary and Washoe County District Court Judge Patrick Flanagan striking down 10 of his 12 causes of action against IVGID (and the PUC denying an 11th), you would think he would have had enough, but if his comments quoted in the Bonanza last Thursday are any indication, we have not heard the last of Mr. Katz.

In a confabulation worthy of Paul Ryan, Mr. Katz is quoted as saying that Flanagan’s rulings because “It basically says that no citizen has any right to challenge what IVGID does.” Now I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a fair hand at reading English. I read the Judge’s rulings, and can’t find anywhere it says that. It seems to me that the fact that Mr. Katz got his day(s) in court and the attention of a District Court Judge shows that a citizen can, indeed challenge what IVGID does. As my late Rabbi used to say, “all prayers are answered, and sometimes the answer is ‘no.’”

Living in a country founded on the importance of free speech is not without its problems. If you’re serious about free speech, you’re pretty much stuck with Voltaire’s maxim “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” That can leave you in the uncomfortable position of having to defend people’s right to say some things you find repugnant, but that’s the price of free speech. So I will assert that Mr. Katz has the right to say anything he wants, and to file any suit the courts will accept. At the same time, Mr. Katz and his Village People cohorts don’t seem to hew to that standard – they have tried to impinge on others’ right to disagree with them, whether in the form of t-shirts or letters to the editor.

Still, I don’t think it is inconsistent of me to wish Mssrs. Katz, Wright, et al. would give it up and get the message. While I’m sure there are people who agree with them, they seem to be few and far between, and the court clearly took a dim view of their efforts. It seems to me that there comes a point when one says enough – I’ve fought the good fight, I lost, it’s over. Somehow I don’t see that happening, so I’d like to remind the so-called Village People that sometimes the public good overrides the righteousness of your cause. I don’t think your cause is right, but you are definitely being righteous about it. Even if I impute to you the best of intentions, you have to see that your continued campaign has done no good and arguably has done harm. You have accused many good people of wrongdoing but the “evidence” of this wrongdoing has been non-existent or unconvincing and no one, up to the court, is persuaded. Notwithstanding this, people have been hurt, the District has lost good staff, and your efforts have been tiresome and divisive, though not as divisive as you might have liked.

You seem to want us to judge your efforts by your intentions – OK, fair enough – but you don’t seem to extend that same consideration to those who disagree with you or to those whom you are attacking on the IVGID Board and staff. You impute to them dark, if unspecified, intent, and judge them by your questionable interpretation of their behavior. That’s just not fair, just, or right.

We have a surfeit of legitimate issues in this community on which we have far from clear agreement – education, recreation, taxes, the character of the community, and more. I assert we don’t need to add flimsy accusations of wrongdoing by elected public servants who serve as volunteers and by dedicated District staff. Please, Mr. Katz, let it go. Enough, already.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Bonanza Column 248 - Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Last week’s Republican Convention was a masterpiece of bumbling by a once-great party that has been taken over by a “win at any cost” faction. While Clint Eastwood’s feeble attempt at an attack on President Obama (while failing to mention that he, Eastwood, is on record as pro-choice, believing that climate change is human-influenced, and pro-marriage equality) got a lot of attention, it was VP Candidate Paul Ryan’s speech that was the most egregious example of disregard for the truth and for voters’ ability to tell truth from lies. In the words of no less an authority than Fox News, “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
Counts of the lies in Ryan’s speech vary, but it was not an isolated instance of lying in the Romney/Ryan campaign. Ryan has also lied about or grossly exaggerated his athletic accomplishments, and as recently as this weekend, Romney accused the President of “throwing Israel under the bus,” despite the fact the both Israel’s President and Defense Minister have praised Obama’s support for the Jewish State and said that relations have never been better between the US and Israel.
In 1984, George H.W. Bush made up a quote about Walter Mondale’s campaign that was both damaging and untrue. Bush's press secretary said: "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it"; when newspapers point out the lies, "So what?" he said. "Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000, or 20,000.'' Clearly this cynical disregard for the truth has become part and parcel of the GOP’s campaign strategy. In the words of W.C. Fields, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with b******t."
To be fair, a Politifact analysis of the two campaigns so far has rated 28% of Democratic campaign material as untrue to at least a degree, as against 46% for the GOP, and I don’t mean to condone only Republican lying, though a good deal more of the GOP side seems to lean toward outright falsehoods, vs. exaggerations or misstatements.
When did outright lying become acceptable in American politics, and what does it say about our putative leaders’ respect for those whose votes they are pursuing? And what does it say about us as voters that we are willing to excuse, condone, or even accept lies as true even when they are proved otherwise? I’m not talking here about the lunatic fringe that still believes the President is an alien or a Muslim – I mean otherwise intelligent people who believe and spread stories without bothering to check them or even after they’ve been checked and proved untrue.
I received from a friend last week a photo purporting to be of Michelle Obama and her daughters at the London Olympics, with the two girls wrapped in South African flags. The accompanying email read “Michelle & the girls at the Olympics. Gee thanks for supporting the United States, their country. What a bunch of losers. See your tax dollars at work!!! How patriotic! The Obamas display their colors at the Olympics…Really? South Africa? Gee, ladies, thanks for your support!”
In fact, the picture was taken a year ago when the First Lady, her daughters, and others in her family made an official visit to Africa in June, 2011, to “focus on youth leadership, education, health, and wellness.” The photo was taken when the group landed in Pretoria, South Africa, and the girls were presented with blankets in the South African colors by a group of children as a welcome gift. June is mid-winter in South Africa, and having just returned from there I can tell you it gets chilly – it was about 51 degrees that day and the girls wrapped themselves in the blankets to keep warm.
This photo is now circulating as further “proof” of the Obamas’ other-ness and is a blatant lie designed as a dog-whistle to racism.
At what point, I wonder, will we as the voting public say “enough” to both parties? Come on, people, run on the substantive issues, run on your real record, and stop trying to lie your way into office. Who cares if Paul Ryan ran a marathon in 3 hours or 4? Mr. Ryan, is that something you want to stake your integrity on? President Obama did NOT remove work requirements from welfare – Mr. Romney, is it worth your pandering to the anti-poor people vote to run on that lie? Obamacare is Romneycare – do you really want to disown a program that has worked and helped millions in Massachusetts just to court the ultra-right?
I don’t know about you, but for me integrity and respect in the leader of America and the world as do policy and leadership. I will proudly vote for President Obama and most Democrats, not because they are perfectly honest, but because they have shown far more respect for the truth and for my ability to discern lies from honesty than has the GOP and Romney.