Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A LITTLE ENCOURAGEMENT FROM NIETZSCHE

A REFLECTION

Sometimes I wonder what all my writing will lead to. I never intended to make a career from my writing. People tell me: "Go write a book." But then they say: "You need to have a story that people will like, etc., etc." In other words, to be a successful writer I need to stop wandering and get focused. If I want a bestseller, I need to Grishamize.

If you read my blog, you know I'm no John Grisham. I simply write what occurs to me. But my writing is thematically consistent. An identifiable core runs through everything I write here. I think it's possible to glean my life philosophy from the topics I choose to discuss. That might not be a recipe for bestselling commercial writing. But what have I ever cared about commerce? If anything, I recoil from it. I'm an Aristotelean in that regard: Philosophy and commerce just don't mix.

Still, it's a lonely road sometimes. I look at authors who achieve commercial success and wonder why no one ever notices me. Maybe I am just too weak or too preoccupied to promote myself. On the other hand, I know that most Americans really don't care about--or care to think about--the issues I typically address in my writing. So my commercial non-viability is really twofold: (1) I do not promote; and (2) My substance is largely unpalatable.

To be clear, I am not complaining. It is exciting to write only about things that stimulate me. For the longest time, I lived life without commenting on it. Commentary simmered in my mind all the time; work just never gave me a chance to write it all down. This blog has given me the chance I always craved. It has transformed me. So even if this blog does not pay me in U.S. dollars, it pays me in emotional satisfaction. If I die tomorrow, people would know who I am. My voice would not be lost. This blog is as much a testament as it is a forum.

I always find inspiration and encouragement when I need them most. Yesterday, I sat thinking about the fact that no one will ever read what I write, at least not in my lifetime. It frustrated me a little bit. I even thought about my philosophical archetype, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche never achieved commercial success in life, either. His books barely sold a thousand copies. When he was 45, he lost his mind and never recovered. He died young. I don't think I'm losing my mind yet, but I identify with what happened to Nietzsche: I am defiantly proud of the fact that I am anti-commercial; but it nonetheless hurts to know I will likely never receive wide recognition.

So I felt a little down yesterday. It was cold, gray, windy and rainy outside. I reflected on how poor I am. I can barely pay my rent. In fact, this month I can't even pay it at all. I need to budget out my money to buy food. Plus I need to care for Steve, who is incapacitated. It pretty much sucks. I still experience joy these days. But it only peeks through like tiny patches of blue sky on a very cloudy day.

I decided to crack open Nietzsche's Human, All-too Human. I paged through the aphorisms. I stumbled on this one: "121. A Vow--I do not want to read any more authors about whom people say: 'He set out to write a book.' Rather, I only want to read authors whose thoughts became a book by accident."

Is this me? It sure sounds like it. I just write my thoughts. I never set out to write a book. I simply allow myself to pour out impressions on things that fascinate me or incite me. There is consistency in my thoughts. But they do not reflect a conscious plan to "write a book" in the conventional sense. Could they "accidentally" become a book? Perhaps. As a whole, I like to think that this blog resembles a collection of Nietzschean impressions. Nietzsche's unconventional thoughts transformed into books. Perhaps mine can too.

That was encouraging. Without even trying, I fit into the category of "authors" whom Nietzsche might have wanted to read. I am not one of those authors who "set out to write a book." I do not sketch plots or try to cram my writing into a conventional format that people like. I am not John Grisham. John Grisham's thoughts do not become a book "by accident." No, when he sits down to write, he knows what book it's going in. He's just fleshing out the formula he laid down before he starting writing.

I'm glad I stumbled on Nietzsche's aphorism when I did. I was feeling low and worthless. I was losing hope. But after discovering that Nietzsche, too, faced similar struggles in his time, I felt encouraged to face mine. I felt freshly secure in my writing. It did not bother me that I am not a bestseller. Rather, I felt hope that perhaps one day--like Nietzsche--my thoughts would "accidentally" transform into a book. That thought brightened me, even if the "book" appears after I die. I do not really value my life too much anyway. I would rather have people remember my thoughts than my "too too solid flesh." As the Germans say: "Wer schreibt, der bleibt" : "He who writes remains."

I blog because it is the only way for me to publish without editorial control or commercial pressure. Nietzsche wrote longhand and hoarded his writings in his desk. He found a publisher who printed a few editions. I can publish over the internet, even if my audience is small. At least it's something. And I will continue. That is my vow.

Monday, March 29, 2010

ANOTHER BUSY WEEK

Well, it looks like I won't have too much time to write until late this week. In a way I'm disappointed, but in another way I'm happy to see that times are changing. For almost two years, I wrote this blog every morning because I literally could not leave the house. Now, as my partner heals, I have more and more time to pursue life outside. I might even make a few dollars this week. Who knows? Believe me: I need the money; I live in New York and landlords don't take excuses for long.

So against that background, please forgive my minimal production this week. I still have a long list of issues to discuss. I just won't get to it until Thursday!

Thanks for your patience. And thanks always for reading my catalog.

Oesterhoudt

Saturday, March 27, 2010

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL : A BAD ARGUMENT, AND AN EMBARRASSING DOUBLE STANDARD

OESTERHOUDT STRIKES

Last week, former Supreme Allied Commander (Atlantic) General John Sheehan testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether it was prudent to repeal the American military's ban on openly gay soldiers. General Sheehan argued that the military should not alter its policy. He said that openly gay soldiers reduce morale, combat effectiveness and unit cohesion.

To support his assertion, General Sheehan referenced an incident in which the Dutch army failed to defend a Bosnian town against Serbian aggression during Yugoslavia's Civil War in 1995. Although he could not directly attribute the Dutch army's failure to individual gay soldiers, General Sheehan explicitly said that Holland's "socialized" and "permissive" attitude toward homosexuality in the military made its armed forces "ill-equipped" to fight battles.

Dutch officials reacted with surprise to General Sheehan's remarks. They found it bizarre that anyone could link military ineffectiveness to a policy permitting openly gay men and women to serve in the military.

I find General Sheehan's argument bizarre, too. Moreover, I also find it foolish, hypocritical and ignorant. I have long criticized the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as reflecting a fundamental double standard. It not only assumes that abstract homosexuality makes a person a bad soldier. It also assumes that there are no gay people in the U.S. military. Anecdotal evidence suggests that homosexuality is rife in the armed forces. It's just that no one talks about it. And yet General Sheehan does not suggest that the U.S. military is "ineffective," even though it certainly has gay people in it. Policies do not change the way people are.

But these are not the only flaws in "don't ask, don't tell." Put simply, the entire policy functions on logically untenable premises. First, the policy purports to "strengthen morale, combat effectiveness and unit cohesion" by eliminating openly gay people from service in the ranks. The argument is that openly gay men might form emotional relationships with one another that could jeopardize a particular "mission." Morale and combat effectiveness, in turn, depend on the chain of command. Morale and combat effectiveness require unswerving loyalty to the chain of command. And if men develop romantic connections to one another, then perhaps they will be loyal to one another, not the chain of command. Thus, it is proper to exclude openly gay men from military service: Gay relationships threaten the chain of command because romantic connections switch loyalties from the mission to individual men.

But what about women? The "don't ask, don't tell" policy assumes that romantic connections are only dangerous to the "mission" when they exist between two men. Yet the military allows straight women to serve alongside straight men. Human beings will develop romantic connections with anyone to whom they feel attracted, no matter the gender. Straight men fall in love with straight women just as deeply as gay men fall in love with each other. In that light, the fact that the U.S. military permits straight women to serve with straight men poses the same theoretical danger to morale as allowing openly gay men to serve. Straight people develop romantic connections just like gay people. And according to the army's rationale for "don't ask, don't tell," romantic connections are "bad" because they divide loyalties. Apparently, however, love affairs between men and women in the army do not divide loyalties as strongly as love affairs between men.

This is just ignorant: If the problem is potential romantic connections between soldiers, then neither straight women nor gay men should be allowed to serve in the military. There is no qualitative difference between romantic connections among gay people versus straight people. According to the army's logic, such connections are equally "dangerous to morale" and "unit cohesion." The fact that the U.S. military presumes that gay relationships are somehow "more dangerous to morale" is logically untenable.

I can see no good reason to keep gays from the U.S. military beyond naked prejudice. The only thing that seems to support "don't ask, don't tell" is a historical animus directed from straight men against gay men. Straight men feel "weird" when they know they are sitting next to a gay man, so the policy aims to eliminate that awkwardness. Yet there is no principled reason for this. It functions on the bare assumption that "gay people are different" and therefore must be excluded. To quote Justice Stephen Breyer's observation from the oral argument in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 538 (2003)(the case striking down State gay sodomy laws), "don't ask, don't tell" invokes this reasoning: "I do not like thee, Doctor Fell; the reason why I cannot tell." Straight people in the army just plain don't like being around gay people. That's the only reason for the policy.

I also question the military's assumption that gay relationships could somehow damage unit effectiveness. Leaving to one side the consideration that thousands of gay people already serve in the military without saying so, divided loyalties dominate military service. Men (and women, too) form extraordinary bonds with one another under the stress of combat. Their camaraderie deepens from the moment they enter training to the toughest moments in battle. I have written that the military is inherently socialistic because it cares about its own people; and soldiers are also socialistic because they are all willing to die for their brothers. In fact, they are all willing to die helping to save their brothers, even if their actions "endanger the mission." Put simply, soldiers will always divide their loyalties because they care for each other, romance or not. Allowing openly gay people to serve in the army will not change all soldiers' natural commitments to each other.

Finally, General Sheehan implied that the mere presence of gay people in the Dutch army made it a poor fighting force. This is ridiculous. There is simply no historical correlation between homosexuality and military ineffectiveness. Alexander the Great, Peter the Great and Frederick the Great were all allegedly gay, yet they went down in history as model soldiers. To suggest that an aesthetic sexual taste for members of one's own sex somehow renders a person "effeminate, weak, womanly and unsoldierlike" is simply rank stereotyping. Although history has placed restrictions on the manner in which gay people express their sexuality, it is indisputable that they have served with distinction as soldiers, officers and even conquerors. In that light, General Sheehan's argument that "the presence of gay people" in the Dutch army made it "weak" ignores history.

In conclusion, there is no logical or historical reason to continue the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It makes pernicious assumptions about the relationship between sexuality and military competence. And it also functions on a double standard because another policy permits straight women to serve alongside straight men. The policy identifies "romantic connections between soldiers" as a reason to exclude openly gay men. Yet it allows straight women to potentially compromise straight men with "romantic connections:" "Romantic connections" are only dangerous among gay men, not straight men. The U.S. military offers no justification for the differential treatment. In that light, it is logically untenable. It simply reflects gross and outdated adolescent stereotypes. Romance is romance; it poses the same "dangers" whether it exists between boys and boys or boys and girls.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

GERMAN BREAK

In 1999, I lived with a German family in Berlin. In retrospect, it was probably the happiest year of my life. I was still very young, but I just remember feeling exhilarated every day in my new environment. My German "parents" seemed to respect and understand me better than my own parents. It broke my heart to go home when I did. Although I have been back to Berlin many times over the last 11 years, I have never recaptured the pure joy I used to feel when I lived there.

As the years passed, I gradually lost touch with my German parents and their two daughters. I regretted this very deeply. I tried several times to contact them but to no avail. That is, until yesterday. My sister called me from Brooklyn to tell me that my German mother had called looking for me. She gave my sister her number. I was overjoyed.

I called my German mother early this morning. She was busy and couldn't talk, but we agreed to have a nice conversation tomorrow morning. I was a little disappointed that we could not talk at that moment, but I'm so glad we've reconnected. Now, I'm just full of memories and old emotions. I can't concentrate at all on my writing, so I'm going to take a day off. Tomorrow I might take another day off so I can talk to the German parents I haven't seen in 7 years.

I'm really quite excited! Hopefully I will have time to write a post, too, but if I don't, you know the reason.

Thanks again for checking in!

Oesterhoudt

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AN ETHICAL PRESIDENT? OBAMA, LINCOLN AND THE HEALTH CARE VICTORY

AN ESSAY

While the moment is fresh, I must write a few words about the monumental health care reform bill that passed Congress this week. It is really quite a surprising--and inspiring--development. I had to temper my usual cynicism when I realized that the United States actually took a serious step toward reforming its health insurance system. Although President Obama always said he wanted to change health care, I gradually lost faith that he could penetrate furious Republican resistance. But against all prognostications, he did penetrate the resistance. He may have won only by a small margin. Nonetheless, Obama's principled win over private health insurance companies is unprecedented in modern American history.

Still, I am not writing about the health care bill today per se. I am not going to exhaustively discuss its intricacies, loopholes or missed opportunities. True, it is not fundamental reform. It does not create a European-style "single-payer" government-run health insurance program that guarantees coverage to every citizen as a matter of right. Nonetheless, as President Obama noted, it is "major" reform. It regulates private health insurance companies in significant ways. It prevents them from refusing to cover people with "pre-existing medical conditions" (ie, "most people"). And it mandates that everyone obtain health insurance. Uninsured Americans (including me) will benefit because the legislation provides extremely low-priced coverage from a "high-risk, government-supported" insurance company. In other words, health care won't be free for uninsured people. But it will be close to it.

For almost a century, no President has achieved such meaningful reform to American health care. And it is not just the legislation's substance that bears mention. In my view, the most memorable thing about Obama's health care victory is the ethical manner in which he conducted himself throughout the debate.

Public faith in American politicians is virtually nonexistent. People expect them to lie, hoodwink, steal, gladhand and enrich themselves at public expense. They expect politicians to sacrifice all their principles to save their jobs. When a politician says something, the natural response is to assume that he will do the opposite. In short, most people think that ethics is completely foreign to Washington politics. Promises mean nothing. People expect politicians to break them as soon as the water gets hot. In a word, people are extremely cynical about politicians in America.

But then along came Obama. In 2008, he won a landslide victory by promising "change we can believe in." He seemed a breath of fresh air in the noxious political marshland, a man who did not seem ready to engage in backroom dealing or pork barreling. He talked about principles and truth. He was a "white knight;" he was an uncorrupted soul. Although cynical Americans always have a hard time dropping their natural suspicion about politicians, they did when they elected Obama. They really thought that Obama meant what he said. They thought he would hold to his promises. He promised to reform health care.

In 2009, President Obama began the push for health care reform. Despite his good intentions, mean-spirited Republican resistance undermined his popularity. As the year wore on--and as the economy continued to falter--even Democrats began to question whether Obama could get anything done. They wondered whether all his campaign promises had just been rhetorical fluff. Republicans caricatured Obama as a "law professor," a man who thought too much and did too little. Critics castigated him for being "too polite for Washington." They blamed him for giving too much deference to opposing arguments. In other words, he was too weak to survive Washington's ruthless, dog-eat-dog political atmosphere.

Yet President Obama stayed true to his heart. He did not turn into a conniving Washington technocrat. No, he stood by his promises. He swore to push through health reform no matter the political cost. He did not care whether his commitment to his word would cost him a second term. He said he would fight for health reform. So he kept fighting. And he did not become an ogre in the process, either. He retained his composed decorum, even as Republicans hyperventilated around him and spread outrageous horror stories about "Obamacare."

Obama's fidelity to his own word paid off this week. Despite all the tempests and scares in Congress over the past few months, both the House and Senate passed a substantial reform bill. Although every vote along the way split sharply down party lines, the reform effort pressed forward. Something larger was at work beyond mere politics. Obama's commitment to his word seemed to vault Congress past its stifling political slavishness. What was it? It was the power of ethics.

It is no surprise that Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln the day before the House voted on health care reform. Obama quoted: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have." Put another way, it is always more important to do right than it is to worry about your political future. And there are deeper rewards to be gained from ethical fulfillment than mere reelection. No words could have encapsulated Obama's extraordinary commitment to ethics in Washington more poignantly.

Abraham Lincoln is the most inspiring President in American history because he was the most ethical President. He took office as the Nation faced its single worst crisis. He then transformed a War for Union into a crusade to end slavery in the United States. He did this because slavery was simply "wrong" as an ethical matter. His decision was politically unpopular. Someone assassinated him for it. But he did it because it was the ethically right thing to do. Lincoln had no personal interest in freeing the slaves. Politically, it was unnecessary. Yet he did it because he did not just care about "winning." He cared about being "true" and "living up to the light he had." That meant following ethics in his heart, not the politics that raged outside him.

Almost no President has dared to jeopardize his political future to "do the right thing." While health reform may not be as significant as ending slavery in America, President Obama nonetheless followed in Lincoln's footsteps by committing himself to an unpopular cause and risking everything to realize it. That is inspiring. And it is almost shocking, because it contradicts the comfortable cynicism most people adopt when thinking about Washington politicians. After all, can you believe what you just heard? A President is willing to risk everything to reform health care because he promised to risk everything to reform health care? You mean he actually takes his word that seriously? Can't be!

But it is, and that's what is so moving about Obama's victory. It was not just a technical victory over unfairness in health care. It was a victory of ethics over politics. It was a victory of principle over expediency. Obama pushed health care because he said he would. That is almost unprecedented in modern American political history. And it is even more inspiring that he did not let the "turkeys get him down" along the way. He kept his composure. He maintained his respect and dignity. He remained a "law professor," no matter how much people ridiculed him for it.

He didn't just care about winning. Rather, he was "bound to be true." And suddenly I find myself with an anomaly: Ethics just prevailed in Washington. That makes it harder for me to scowl and wax cynical about America.

Now, I'm actually inclined to smile. I feel strangely justified today. I love it when ethical people prevail, even if just for a day.

As I have always said, there is more to life than winning games.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

TEXAS ANNOUNCES "WORLD WAR I THEME" FOR UPCOMING EXECUTIONS

TEXAS TALK

By : Mr. Brad Livingston, Executive Director, Texas State Criminal Justice Agency (Austin)(2005-present); Former Chief Financial Officer, Texas Board of Criminal Justice (1997-2001); Former Deputy Director, Financial Services Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (1997-2001); Accounting Expert; Christian.

Here in Texas, capital punishment works. We are not afraid to swiftly execute offenders. Our prosecutors, judges, legislators and administrators are all on the same page on this: We don't have mercy for killers, rapists, drug dealers and thugs. So we get them out of the community in the surest possible way we can: By lethally injecting them after a couple pointless appeals.

Our State criminal justice system is the best in the Nation because Texans support it. Criminal justice doesn't work without strong backing from the community. Thankfully, our system is both effective and efficient because every Texan knows where criminals belong: Strapped to a gurney in the Huntsville death house. Here at the Corrections Department, we think like Texans. We don't forgive and forget. We inject first and ask questions later.

Capital punishment works in Texas because it brings our community together. Texans love a good execution. Although we do not hang people in public like we did in the old days, we nonetheless widely publicize our executions "21st century style." Texans can stay current with day-to-day executions by logging into our "Executed Offender" database. See http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm. That site provides accurate information about offenders who got their judicially-prescribed dose of potassium bromide. It shows their faces. It describes their crimes. It tells you what they said before they bought the farm. It even tells you what they had for dinner before taking a mosey down the death chamber. Basically, if you want to hear about the latest about executed offenders in Texas, just click on the link and you will get the whole story. Enjoy!

We are committed to bringing Texans a satisfactory capital punishment experience that is both invigorating and entertaining. At the same time, we must note that executions are not cheap. Although the State provides executions free of charge, our capital punishment delivery system has historically operated at a loss. We recently made that fact known to Texans in a local television broadcast. To our great relief, we found that millions of Texans were willing to pay a price to watch a good execution. We even received substantial voluntary donations from private citizens. Those donations defrayed our costs. As Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, I can assure you that Texas will always give you the executions you expect and deserve.

We are thankful that Texans support our criminal justice system. We also know that many Texans wish to directly participate in future executions. We have received many letters from victims' family members requesting the opportunity to push the button that releases chemicals into the offender's bloodstream. Other citizens have requested introducing some new execution methods "just to spruce things up a little bit." Still others have petitioned for larger spectator venues to accommodate all the people who want to see an offender die.

In response to these queries--and to reward Texans for their support--we have decided implement some positive changes to our capital punishment delivery system. Effective immediately, we hereby designate 2010 the year for "World War I Fun" in the Texas criminal justice department. Until further notice, we will execute offenders with vintage World War I weapons. Additionally, we will allow victims' families to directly participate in the execution for a small administrative fee. We believe that this program will bring Texans even closer together, while at the same time teaching a valuable history lesson about World War I. It will give families the chance to take personal revenge on offenders, deter future misconduct and raise funds for the State. In sum, we believe that "World War I Fun" is a "win-win" for both Texans and Texas.

But we need your support to make "World War I Fun" work. To that end, we would like to introduce the various new execution methods available under our new program. If you are a crime victim or a crime victim's relative, carefully review this information to determine which method best suits your needs and your budget. Although we wish we could allow every crime victim to choose the most expensive execution method, we must always observe budgetary constraints. For that reason, we list execution methods in ascending order of price.

1. TRENCH SHOVEL - $50 per execution

Get back at your girlfriend's murderer with this trusty old steel spade. For just $50, you can grab this vintage 1917 shovel and smash that convicted varmint to your heart's content. Notice that the shovel has a sharp edge as well as a flat surface. It also has a good heft for crushing skulls or severing arteries. At just $50 per execution, the trench shovel is an economically wise--yet emotionally fulfilling--way to exact justice on a real Texas bandit. If you wish to bring a friend (or parent) to the execution, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will provide another shovel for just $25 more--that's a 50% discount! With two shovels, you and your friend can really give the convict a walloping. After you've finished clubbing the criminal to a bloody pulp, corrections officers will add insult to his injury by using the brain-smattered shovels to dig a grave for him out back.

2. BAYONET - $100 per execution

Cut right to the chase with a REAL World War I bayonet! You'll make a slicing impression with this genuine German antique. Your mother's killer will be trembling in his socks when he sees you coming at him with a foot-long silver blade. He'll wish he never raped and shot your mom as you thrust the shiny bayonet into his abdomen. Imagine how scared he'll be as he sits there helplessly strapped to a chair as you slash and stab him to death. You can do anything you want with the bayonet. You can scalp the criminal. You can stab him through the top of the head. You can saw off his fingers. Hell, you could even cut open his stomach and stuff his kidneys in his mouth while he's still alive. Go ahead! Knock yourself out! Do justice! We'll even throw in rubber gloves and a wetsuit for just $50 more so you won't get your nice clothes all bloody.

3. SPRINGFIELD MODEL 1903 - $250 per execution (plus additional ammunition beyond 5 rounds)

If you prefer firearms to close-quarters weapons, then the Springfield M1903 is the choice for you. Don't get your hands dirty. Be an old-fashioned Texas marksman. Line the child rapist up in your sights, get the range right and BLAM! There goes the back of his head. As an added bonus, the Texas Criminal Justice Department will provide an ENTIRE CLIP of ammunition for your amusement; it is our way of saying "thank you" for your support. That means you can take your time with your criminal. You can fire your first shot through his shinbone. Then the next through his hand. You know, whatever you like. Give him a nice gutshot and ask him how he likes it now. But if you do not finish the convict off in five rounds, you must pay $10 per additional bullet. Despite the cost, we are certain that all you Texas sharpshooters out there will really appreciate going round for round on a scumbag with a Springfield. Go for it! Ready, aim, fire!

4. MUSTARD GAS - $500 per execution

Maybe you liked chemistry in high school. Maybe you'd rather use science on a punk than a gun or a knife. If this fits your bill, then Texas Corrections has the solution for you: A genuine mustard gas grenade. For just $500, you can REALLY make a bank robber squirm by tossing some lethal chemicals directly into an airtight container. You can watch him squeal like a pig as he tries to hold his breath. But you'll just laugh, because the mustard gas will burn away his skin at the same time. That'll teach him to touch little girls at the playground! At the same time, you'll learn why most countries outlawed mustard gas after 1918! For the more adventurous citizens out there, mustard gas is the way to go. In Texas, we don't just shoot 'em, beat 'em or stab 'em. We gas 'em, too!

5. MAXIM MACHINE GUN - $1000 per execution (includes 250-round ammunition belt)

If you're a marksman but prefer rapid fire, don't settle for a single shot. Get behind this VINTAGE 1911 Maxim machine gun and UNLOAD into a child molester with a full belt. Learn how the machine gun changed the face of warfare as you demonstrate what 250 30-caliber bullets can do to a Mexican gangster tied to a chair. Have fun with it! Hold down that trigger and roar! Let the machine gun do the talking. Cut the bastard in half if you want to. We regret that the Maxim costs more than other execution methods. It is difficult to find working models that do not jam. Additionally, it takes time to set up the Maxim and calibrate it; this thing weighs a lot. Your $1000 contribution helps defray all these costs. And believe us: Once you squeeze the trigger on this baby, you'll say: "It was worth every dollar!" So what are you waiting for? RAT-A-TAT-TAT, bitches!

NOTE: If the Maxim jams at any time before you complete your 250-round belt, we pledge to refund your $1000 contribution pro rata ($4.00 per round) depending on how many rounds remain in the belt. We also pledge to lend you a Corrections Officer's service pistol to administer a final shot to the offender free of charge.

6. FLAMETHROWER - $2000 per execution

It's time for an old-time Texas barbecue! Take fiery revenge on your wife's lover by toasting him like a stuck hog. For just $2000, we will give you an ORIGINAL 1918 flamethrower with a full tank. Don't mess around with shovels or pistols. Burn the sumbitch alive! Light up the starter, twist on the fuel flow and reduce him into a pile of ashes. Don't worry: He won't turn into ashes before he struggles in vain to escape the flames. Torch him! If you really want to make him regret what he did, don't hose him down right away. Shoot a fireball above his head first. Make him sweat. Then shoot another burst to his left, then his right. Finally, give him just a little scorch. Make him live for a while with peeled-off skin. See how he likes being a victim now. See how fun flamethrowers can be? Nothing says "Ouch" like a full-body burn. And you can only give a full-body burn with a flamethrower. So get in there and start cookin'!

7. BIG BERTHA - $5000 per execution

For Texans who have some money to spare, why not blast a criminal to smithereens? Chances are the offender changed your life forever. Chances are he stole something from you that you can never replace. You probably want to make his life as empty as yours, don't you? If this is the way you feel, BLOW HIM AWAY WITH A BIG BERTHA ARTILLERY GUN! When you pull the firing cord on this baby, there won't be anything left of the man who ruined your life. There won't be anything to bury. Nobody--and no body part--walks away from a 16-inch, 2100-pound high explosive direct hit. When you really just can't stand criminals, nothing says "I hate you" more than landing a Big Bertha shell on his head. For just $5000 (credit available), the Texas Corrections Department will set up a secure firing range, as well as the VINTAGE 1908 "Big Bertha" artillery gun. It will load the weapon, place the offender downrange and allow you to say "FIRE!" before pulling the firing cord. Then, via closed-circuit television, you can watch in slow-motion as the shell falls on the offender. One moment he is there. The next moment he is gone. We will even give you a complimentary DVD recording so you can watch the moment as often as you like for the rest of your life.

In closing, I would like to personally thank Texas for its commitment to criminal justice. Here at the Department of Criminal Justice, I can assure you that we will continue to make executions accessible to the public in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and economically sensible.

Thanks again for your support.

Monday, March 22, 2010

LAWYERS : WHAT'S IN A NAME? MORE THAN YOU THINK

AN ESSAY

Lawyers are always in the news. They like talking to the press. And the press likes talking about them. They always have something to say; lawyers are pretty glib. They like free advertising, too. So they are happy to speak up when cameras roll.

But no matter how much press lawyers get, it's usually bad. In most cases, news stories involving lawyers discuss their avarice, moral bankruptcy, hypocrisy or outright criminality. Most recently, for instance, several newspapers reported on the proposed settlement between New York City and 9/11 workers. Apparently, the lawyers in that case (it's a big class action suit) advised the 9/11 workers to settle for around $675 million. That would give the lawyers at least 33%, or $225 million. The 30,000 workers would get the rest. A judge rejected the proposal. The press described it like this: "Judge refuses to bow to greedy lawyers. Rejects 9/11 settlement."

People expect lawyers to be greedy in America. That's their reputation. That's what they do. They intervene in private disputes, work mysterious magic behind the velvet curtain then take their fee. That's just how it works. At the same time, people expect lawyers to break rules as often as they enforce them. Vulgar punners like to cross the word lawyer with "liar;" and the pun is not too far off the mark. When hearing about lawyers, people expect elusiveness, craftiness, dishonesty, theft and nasty-spiritedness. It's all part of the public image. It is no wonder that the public does not respect lawyers. Viewed in the abstract, they are a lousy bunch.

But it's all part of the trade. Lawyering is a lousy business. Government tries its utmost to cultivate respect for the law as a beneficial social construct designed to bring about good. Yet a quick brush with lawyers undermines any respect a citizen might have developed for the law. With lawyers, it's not about doing good. It's about winning. And if winning means subverting good--or even allowing evil to prevail--then so be it. That's business. After all, that's what the client wants. As law firms like to say: "We are result-oriented." How true: Lawyers get results for their clients, even if those results seem despicable to everyone else on earth. The word "result," after all, does not necessarily imply "good" or "ethical." Results depend on who's getting them. A good result for the labor baron is a bad result for the workers. A good result for the State is a bad result for the Defendant. A good result for the employer is a bad result for the employee.

Lawyers sell results. They get them however they can. That is why people don't respect lawyers; they are crass partisans who zealously go to bat for scoundrels. In the process, they milk everyone for money and accuse everyone of lying--except themselves.

Maybe our language has something to do with lawyers' poor reputation in America. Yesterday I thought about the word "lawyer," as well as its interchangeable synonym, "attorney." Then I thought about the German word for lawyer, Rechtsanwalt. I have often uncovered compelling conceptual relationships among English words by comparing their equivalents in foreign languages. Perhaps I could understand why lawyers have such a bad reputation in America by making some linguistic comparisons.

Literally, Rechtsanwalt means "rights advocate." That sounds somehow more detached than "lawyer." Although lawyers are not the most respected members in German society, either, their name reveals something more transcendent than "lawyer." After all, a "rights advocate" is someone who stands up for rights. Rights are principles that mean something greater than individual self-interest. Rights stand for something beyond commerce and winning. Rights symbolize personal worth against government intrusion. Rights are somehow "sacred" and "inviolable." When someone violates a right, the aggrieved person has a claim against the violator. We enshrine rights. They exist beyond life. They encapsulate our deepest values. They express our fundamental expectations as individuals in society. Men have gone to war over rights. They have written philosophical treatises about the "Rights of Man" and launched revolutions to secure "inalienable rights." While rights may just be a human invention, they nevertheless represent something larger in people's lives. People willingly fight for rights. While it is ignoble to die for money, it is noble and just to die for rights.

In this light, a "rights advocate" seems a much nobler name than "lawyer." While lawyers in America--just like Rechtsanwälte in Germany--make their living by defending clients' "rights," their name suggests something far less honorable. "Lawyer" is embarrassingly common. It says nothing about "advocating for rights." Rather, it sounds like just another petty craftsman. In English, after all, the suffix "-yer" historically connotes a street-level artisan, like a "sawyer" (man who crafts wood with a saw) or "bowyer" (man who makes bows). Linguistically, then, lawyers fit into this tradition as "petty craftsmen who bend the law just as a journeyman bends a bow."

This interpretation goes beyond mere mockery. It is surprisingly appropriate in describing the lawyer's role in America. After all, lawyering is all about results in America. It is commercially straightforward. It is no different than manipulating tools to saw planks or build bows. People who want to buy plywood and bows don't care about others' rights. They merely want products to be crafted and built. And lawyers hawk the law in stores, just as sawyers hawked sawcraft in old England.

In a word, the word "lawyer" perfectly expresses the commercial nature of legal practice in America. It is not about "transcendent rights for all." Rather, it is about tailor-made products for particular clients who want particular results. The word's origin conceptually places lawyers exactly where they belong: Among street peddlers and common craftsmen.

But what about "attorney?" Does the synonym save the concept "lawyer" from moral destitution? To determine this, we must examine its etymology. "Attorney" derives from French. It takes its form from the French verb "tourner," meaning "to turn," then adds the Anglicized prefix "at-", meaning "to" or "toward." In French, the past participle of "attourner" is "attourné," meaning "turned to." The suffix "-ey" indicates that at some point an Englishman changed the French past participle into letters he could pronounce: He transformed the foreign-looking "é" into "-ey." Behold: Attorney. Literally: "Person turned to."

So how does this differ from "lawyer?" Is it any "better?" Not much. If anything, the word "attorney" refers to the lawyer's role as confidant and advisor in times of trouble. People need to "turn to" others when something bad happens to them. In some sense, the word "attorney" is paternalistic because it implies that people are too weak to fend for themselves and they need a "father-like" lawyer to shepherd them through difficulty. But in another sense, "attorney" implies that a lawyer is a partisan mercenary who will do anything his client tells him. After all, why would you "turn to" a lawyer if not to win your case at all costs?

In my view, the word "attorney" represents the lawyer's role as adversary in the American system. People "turn to" lawyers when they have a commercial problem. They expect their lawyers to vigorously advance their interests, even if those interests stand at odds with all the world. As a partisan, the attorney will "bend the law" in whatever way he can to win. In this way, the words "attorney" and "lawyer" mutually reinforce the commercial--and result-oriented-- nature of legal practice in America. People expect lawyers to do their bidding, so they "turn to" them. And once they do, they expect lawyers to sell them a ready-made product without quibbling over larger issues like conscience or ethics.

This is not to say that some American lawyers are not "rights advocates." On many levels, they are. Every legal case involves rights. But not all rights are noble. In fact, most legal rights involve contracts, property and other social mechanisms designed to maintain private ownership. As a consequence, legal rights perpetuate unfairness because those who can assert them generally have much more power than those who do not. To speak broadly, those with more riches often have substantially more legal rights than those without riches.

But these are merely "technical," private legal rights. There are public rights, too. And those rights have a largely positive connotation. Most people think about public (constitutional) rights when they hear the word "rights," like the right to free speech and the right to equal protection under law. That is why the German word Rechtsanwalt conveys a more positive connotation with regard to the law than the English words "lawyer" and "attorney." It focuses on rights, not commerce or craftsmanship.

In America, people "turn to lawyers." Yet that is the reason why lawyers always get bad press. No one likes a crafty, small-minded, contentious partisan who bickers and backstabs for a fee. Yet that is what lawyers do here. They are crafty craftsmen who bend bows for a set price, not noble "rights advocates." They sell products, just like any other peddler. But unlike other peddlers, they are paid to fight for one person's "rights"--and trample you if you get in their way.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

REVERSE STEREOTYPING IN ADVERTISING : MORE INSULTING THAN REGULAR STEREOTYPING?

OESTERHOUDT STRIKES

Stereotypes fascinate me because everyone taught me to revile them. It is a dirty word. You are not supposed to stereotype anymore. But what is stereotyping, actually? It means making generalizations about particular people or things, then exaggerating those generalizations in a pejorative way.

Stereotypes are pernicious when applied to "disfavored" groups. They are even worse when a person in "superior social position" directs the stereotype against a person in an "inferior social position." In other words, it is "politically incorrect" for a wealthy white man in America (i.e., a person with a historically "superior social position") to stereotype against a poor black man (i.e, a person with a historically "inferior social position"). Yet when people in traditionally inferior social positions stereotype those in superior social positions, it is somehow more forgivable. After all, who gets up in arms when black comedians say all white people are awkward? No one: Because everyone knows that white people have historically enjoyed a "superior social position" over blacks in America. In this sense, stereotypes are objectionable only in context: They are "bad" only when directed downward from a superior social position against an inferior one.

Still, it is hard to talk about stereotypes without inviting anger. Even outside the racial context, stereotypes raise emotions because they depend on uncomfortable--and sometimes remotely true--assumptions about others. No one likes to be mocked for their intrinsic characteristics, even if their intrinsic characteristics are less than praiseworthy.

It is even difficult to analyze the stereotyper. Ten years ago, I angered the American government when I applied for a Federal scholarship to study the systematic way in which American media stereotypes Germans. I did not get the grant. Apparently, the Federal government did not want to fund a paper that would tell it how shortsighted, ignorant and simplistic most Americans are when thinking about Germany. At the time, I was disappointed I did not get my grant. But it taught me a valuable lesson: Neither the proponents nor the victims of stereotypes like talking about them.

Whether or not the Federal government chooses to recognize it, stereotypes are everywhere in this country. They surround us. We even buy into them without even knowing it. To start, it is hard to watch American movies without encountering some condescending racial, sexual or national caricature. Even in a sci-fi action movie like Transformers : Revenge of the Fallen, the "hip" robots have black voices and banter in ebonics. Most gay characters are pathetically effeminate, with the lisps, hair and flamboyance to match. And people from other countries? Forget it: Germans are merciless, icy, calculating, humorless villains (Schindler's List; Hellboy II). Italians are lusty, hairy, slicked-back tough Guidos who use big hand gestures and talk about their families all the time (Saturday Night Fever). Russians are crafty, suspicious tyrants with thick accents (Rambo III; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). The French are perfumed, well-dressed, snotty, red-lipped, arrogantly petulant metrosexuals with perfect hair who usually wind up buying baguettes or espresso at some point in the movie (The Matrix : Reloaded, Ronin)(Jean Reno is the default American choice for a Frenchman). The British are absurdly prim, polite, insistent on protocol, silly or villainous (The Patriot). Arabs are maniacal terrorists who wear turbans, shout "Allah, Ackbar!" and blow things up (True Lies). Asians are generally kung-fu-fighting, sword-wielding comic relief with funny accents (any Jackie Chan movie).

Of course, not all American movies support racial, sexual and national stereotypes. There are exceptions in every category. But the fact that so many mainstream films thrive on stereotypes means something. It means that America has an appetite for them. They like laughing at smooth-talking black robots and silly gay men. They expect Italians to be gangsters and Germans to be killers. After all, stereotypes are easy to grasp. They distance "us" from "them." They allow "us" to feel secure in our identities by condescending toward the way "they" speak, act and move. Stereotypes unite through ignorance.

Hollywood films are not the only medium that supports rank stereotypes in the United States. Even so-called "neutral" news networks reinforce racial and national generalizations. Whenever news agencies report on street crime, they usually point out that the suspect is a "black male," or they just show his face onscreen: Just another scary-looking black guy with unkempt facial hair. Whenever news agencies report about China or Russia, they usually make ominous comments about sinister motivations and repressive governments. And when they report about destitute Third World countries, typically they focus on some ridiculous sideshow, like peasants cooking dirt shavings or worshipping a river bank.

In short, Americans get their stereotypes from multiple sources. Stereotypes help them order their world. They help them remember who "they" are. Yet no matter how much Americans love their stereotypes, and no matter how often they buy into them, they also hear a countervailing message: "Stereotyping is bad." Students learn that it is wrong to make sweeping generalizations about ethnic, national, sexual and religious groups. Even corporations instruct their employees that it is "wrong" to generalize about "others." It might not be wrong to exclude "them" from the workforce or relegate "them" to the mail room. You just can't make callous remarks about their low station.

We have lived in the era of "political correctness" for several decades now. Some people have gotten in trouble for breaking the official rules about stereotypes, like Don Imus and some other indiscreet white men. But despite the "official" stance against stereotyping, it survives. It lives on in men's hearts. People can dutifully watch what they say in public without privately abandoning stereotypical thinking. It is very easy to be "politically correct" in observance, yet politically incorrect in spirit. Even the worst bigot can navigate the sparse minefield of forbidden phrases that demarcates "politically correct speech." You just need some minimal public discretion.

But what happens when traditional stereotypers try too hard to show their political correctness? In advertising, for instance, I have noticed an increase in so-called "reverse stereotyping," namely, painfully obvious attempts to portray traditionally stereotyped roles in the opposite light.

Take these examples: A major garment company runs an ad showing a married black man in a very nice home choosing a white starched shirt from a hickory-paneled closet. In the next ad, a home security company shows an affluent black family in a very nice home being terrorized by a white burglar, then calling police. In another ad, a life insurance company hawks its wares by showing an extremely well-dressed black man behind a desk in an office building. He is an "insurance executive;" and a desperate-looking white man calls him to ask about life insurance options. In yet another ad, a trade school notes that "times are tough," then it shows an unemployed white man struggling to find a job. It suggests that he get an education in order to stop receiving public assistance.

What is significant about these ads? In my view, they are even more condescending to "disfavored political groups" in America than flat-out stereotypes. After all, pernicious stereotyping generally operates in a "downward" manner, from people in a "traditionally superior social position" against people in a "traditionally inferior social position." In all the social contexts relevant to these ads, black Americans generally occupy the inferior position: They do not have nice homes; they do not wear button-down shirts; they are not even married; they are the burglars, not the ones who call police; they do not buy life insurance, let alone run the insurance company; they are unemployed and need educations to get off welfare. A flat-out stereotype would have shown white people buying button-down shirts, calling the police on black burglars and running an insurance company. But here the ads simply reverse the stereotypes, placing black people in the traditionally superior positions, while white people fancifully occupy the traditionally inferior positions. This "racial reversal" so obviously contradicts predominant social realities that it invites scorn.

It is easy to see why the corporations did this. They did not want to "appear stereotypical" by portraying blacks in "traditionally inferior social positions." They wanted to comply with "political correctness." But in attempting to avoid stereotypes, the corporations came off as even more patronizing than they would have had they simply stuck with the generalizations everyone expects to see. Americans expect to see black burglars; that's what they see on the news all the time. Americans expect to see white insurance executives; after all, insurance executives are basically all white anyway. And Americans expect to hear about unemployed black people on welfare; laziness is a classic racial stereotype that has long fueled resentment between racial groups in America.

In sum, anyone can see that these ads do not correspond to social reality in the United States. That fact confirms that Americans like their stereotypes. It makes them uneasy--and even disbelieving--to see black people portrayed outside their traditionally inferior social positions. No one will ever believe that black people will run insurance companies. Nor will anyone believe that white Americans will commit street crime in the same proportions as black Americans. Americans are too comfortable with their stereotypes. A few advertisers will not change anyone's assumptions by reversing stereotypical roles that have existed in Americans' minds for generations.

No, Americans still have a voracious appetite for stereotypes. Just go to the movies or turn on the news. And ironically, attempting to be "political correct" only worsens stereotypical thinking. That's because telling Americans that "stereotyping is bad" is like telling a star baseball player that baseball is bad: Stereotyping is what we do--and we really like it. Telling us to stop doing what we like will result in confused, disingenuous absurdity, just as we see in these ads.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

H.I.R.E. : HEALTH INSURANCE RESISTANCE EDUCATION

A MESSAGE FROM THE F.B.I.

"JUST SAY NO"

By : Mr. Robert S. Mueller III, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C.

Americans face threats every day. Foreign terrorists plan violence against us. Domestic thugs commit robberies and senseless killings in our midst. Organized gangs intimidate and extort honest businesses. And psychopaths brutally beat loved ones, including their own wives and children. In a word, crime is everywhere.

Here at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we are committed to protecting you from criminals. We hunt down killers and thieves. We bring them to justice. But that is not all we do. We try our best to prevent crime, too. While we cannot stop a hardened shoplifter's decision to filch from a store, we can at least help protect potential victims from crime. To that end, the FBI believes in education.

Not all crime is obvious. Everyone knows it's wrong to put on a hoodie and pry into a nice-looking home with a crowbar. Everyone knows it's wrong to smash an elderly woman in the head with a hammer as she struggles to cross the street. These are visible crimes. But not all crime is visible. Crime happens all over the place. Well-educated executives might be committing monumental financial crime two stories above your head as you toil for minimum wage in a corporate copy center. Traders might be illegally fixing prices on a proprietary computer program somewhere down the block. Although these crimes might not be as obvious as bashing an old woman in the skull, they still pose a threat to Americans everywhere. And the FBI is determined to informing Americans about all crime, not just visible crime. We believe in a simple motto: Because information is the best protection™.

Today, the FBI wishes to inform Americans about a pervasive criminal threat: Health insurance sales. We do this because many Americans do not realize that they are being victimized by ruthless health insurance gangs masquerading as upstanding corporations. Until Americans receive the information they need to protect themselves, health insurance gangs--including the notorious "Cigna Hustlaz" and the most-wanted "Blue Crips Blue Shield Brothahood"--will continue to rain unrestricted economic terror on millions every day.

To combat health insurance gangsters, racketeering and economic intimidation, we have instituted a new program directed at Americans of all ages: HEALTH INSURANCE RESISTANCE EDUCATION, or H.I.R.E.

Let's start with some basics. Everyone likes health insurance. Health insurance gangs know that. Health insurance gives people a high; it makes them feel secure that someone else will pay their medical bills if they get sick. In recent years, private employers stopped giving employees health insurance because it made them lazy, unproductive and apathetic. Gangsters like the Cigna Hustlaz stepped in to fill the supply vacuum, selling exorbitantly-priced health insurance at street rates. Once hooked, a health insurance addict can't get enough. He wants more and more insurance. He wants more and more free medical care. And when the gangsters see this, they just keep raising the prices, knowing the addict will pay. In the end, health insurance gangs reap fantastic profits, while addicts waste all their money paying whatever price the gang demands.

Until now, health insurance gangs have tyrannized Americans with relative impunity. For one thing, they do not look like regular criminals. They are generally not African-American or Hispanic. Rather, they are not people at all: They are corporations. Their senior leaders are generally white men between 40 and 60 with suffixes like "IV," "Jr.," "Sr.," and "Esq." after their names. Some health insurance high-ups even have street nicknames, like "Chip," "Skip," "Tad," "Dodger," "Lil Princeton," and "Biggie Witherspoon AKA Tha Kash Docta." Many live in the suburbs and pay their taxes. Most Americans have no idea that these friendly-looking white men are actually vicious health insurance thugs determined to drive them into bankruptcy, addiction and early death.

But the FBI knows all about these gangsters. We have a Most Wanted List for Health Care Thugs. And today we declare that we will protect average Americans from health insurance gangs all over the country.

America's addiction to health insurance has reached epidemic proportions. It has destroyed homes and fortunes. It has ruined marriages. It has even led to imprudent surgeries and haphazard medical care. It has driven hard-working people into homelessness. Now, destitute beggars roam the streets, desperately seeking their next health insurance fix. Citing "cost concerns," health insurance gangsters have caused children to forgo needed doctor visits. And they have forced millions of Americans to deal with vicious health insurance gang "employees" ("wiseguys") who torment them every day with unfair appeals, denial letters and various other petty indignities. Many Americans fear telephone calls from these health insurance "wiseguys." In most cases, they learn that the gang has once again rejected their request for a heart transplant because it is "not covered."

Health insurance gangs have almost succeeded in reducing the American public to dependency. They have laid their hooks into American families from coast to coast, wringing them for excessive premiums every single day. When they don't pay, "wiseguys" threaten them with collection action and illness. Health insurance gangs know that Americans can't get enough health care. They know that Americans crave the health insurance high. So they just ignore the law and common decency to throttle Americans for everything they own. At the same time, they shrewdly cover their tracks by complying with corporate laws, paying taxes, making political contributions and advertising on television. No one thinks they are gangsters. And this all works to their advantage.

We refuse to tolerate health insurance gangsterism any longer. Through our new Health Insurance Resistance Education program, we are confident that we can save America from health insurance thugs. Information will always win over crime. That is why H.I.R.E. will begin teaching America's children how to spot health insurance hustlers. It will teach them to JUST SAY NO to street peddlers like "Holla Humana" and "Dem Anthem Playaz." It will teach them to talk to their parents about health insurance alternatives and fair prices. And it will teach them that strength in numbers is the best way to resist a lone health insurance dealer. When our kids take H.I.R.E., they will learn that health insurance is not cool.

But H.I.R.E. is not just about children. Adults have a lot to learn about health insurance crime, too. We plan to educate all Americans about health insurance thugs, including how to spot them. Health insurance gangs only became strong in America because they hoodwinked Americans into thinking they were "respectable businesses." But through H.I.R.E., we will teach Americans that companies hawking basic doctor visit coverage for $900 a month plus a $50,000 deductible are not "respectable businesses," but rather vicious health insurance thugs. We will inform America about our Most Wanted list and what the worst criminals look like. We will make Americans less naïve about trusting white men who work in the Cigna tower. And we will offer addiction treatment programs to help Americans cope with the fallout from health insurance abuse.

In the end, we are determined to tell America the truth. We refuse to allow health insurance gangs to ruin any more Americans lives. We refuse to see Americans driven to bankruptcy and homelessness because they could not cough up the monthly health insurance vig. We refuse to allow shameless thugs get away with extortion while pretending to be "just another corporation in a skyscraper." That is why we started H.I.R.E. And we are confident that we will put these crooks down once and for all, along with all their "wiseguy" call center enforcers.

America needs health care without health insurance gangsters. Health care by itself is not dangerous. It is only dangerous when sold on the street. We can save America from dependency on street health insurance only by bringing health insurance under government oversight. Just as food used to be dangerous before the government intervened to regulate food production, so too is street-level health insurance dangerous without government supervision. Health insurance is too important and too harmful to entrust to profit-hungry street gangs. Everyone wants health insurance. Everyone needs health insurance. That is all the more reason for the government to ensure that people receive quality-controlled care in a fair, honest manner.

But we will not achieve health insurance safety without first defeating health insurance gangs. Only education will win the war against them. H.I.R.E. is the first step to helping America understand the danger they face. Once Americans see that they are being exploited, bamboozled and extorted every day by so-called "respectable health insurance corporations," they will understand that government regulation is the only way to protect them from gangsters. While we appreciate that many Americans hesitate to support government control over health care, we are confident that H.I.R.E. will show them that the health insurance street market has victimized them, not helped them.

For decades, America has lived at the whim of health insurance thugs. That time is about to end. Here at the FBI, we are determined to protect you from exploitation and violence, even when you do not realize that you are a crime victim. Health insurance gangs have been victimizing you for years and you don't even know it. No more. That is why we promise to win the war against the health insurance gangsters who now tyrannize your life.

One day, every American will have health insurance at very low cost. Education will pave the way. The FBI will do its part. And we promise that no criminal gang will ever profit from your addiction to health care.

This is America. We do not tolerate unfairness or exploitation here.

Watch out, health insurance thugs. We know who you are. You can run but you can't hide.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

COMMERCE VERSUS JUSTICE : A REAL LIFE EXAMPLE

A REFLECTION

It took me a while to name this blog. I wanted to make it memorable. At the same time, I wanted it to reflect my life philosophy. I didn't want to sound pretentious; rather, I wanted to alert the reader to the big questions that animate me. And I also wanted to hint that I am at heart a "satirical rogue." That's why I added "free beer" at the end.

I chose "Reason," "Commerce" and "Justice" because those subjects focus my critical energy. Everything I write in some way relates to those three concepts. No matter what style I choose, those concepts unite my work.

Reason interests me because it encapsulates the human capacity for thought. Reason allegedly separates human beings from other animals. I write about reason's limitations, as well as its less-than-reasonable corollaries: Emotions, reflections, memories, impressions. My fixation on language also involves "reasoned" analysis. No matter the specific subject, however, I cast a critical eye on reason. I do not praise it as an inexorable pathway to truth. Indeed, I maintain a healthy skepticism for reason. I am a qualified empiricist: Reason is just one tool to help me understand existence. But I certainly don't put all my money on it. Too much unreasonable stuff happens in life. In that light, putting full trust in reason is not only unadvisable; it's also really disappointing.

Commerce offers me plentiful material for both satire and commentary. I define myself against commerce. Its values repel me. I do not like promoting myself. I do not like circulating resumes or kissing ass in interviews. I don't like wearing little costumes and going to work for private employers. I also don't like unfairness, inequality and hypocrisy. Commerce is rife with all three. Commerce also interests me because it is all about instrumentalism; and that clashes with my steadfast respect for the individual. In commerce, people play roles to make money: Master, servant, employer, employee, officer, director, customer, client…the list goes on. In the process, they lose their humanity. They also tend to exploit one another for crass personal gain. Commerce is the stage upon which to showcase my ruthless cynicism. It allows me to ironically brandish my own colors while criticizing things I fundamentally don't like.

Moreover, commerce is the perfect context in which to explore the tension between flexibility and principle. I often write about principles and honor. Commerce weighs against both. And sadly, my satires take doubled strength from the unfortunate truth that most people live for commerce rather than honor. Just listen to the radio or watch television. You will see and hear a lot more commercial messages than honorable ones.

Finally, justice draws me because it represents something larger than commerce. Justice has obsessed philosophers for millennia. I am just continuing down the road. In my work, justice stands as something hopeful, something better than ourselves, something transcendent, something to achieve. Justice is that great, intuitive feeling that something is right, not wrong. I do not identify a source for it. It just "is." I am no theologian. But in my heart I know when a situation is just. And I know when a situation is unjust. Injustice reeks. It seems to revolt against nature.

Justice is about ideals. It is about striving for something more than mere convenience or comfort. In that light, I use justice to champion my zeal for principle, honor, equality and "better" things. I use it to underline the key distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, because justice is largely subjective and cannot be objectively measured.

I also use justice as a backdrop to criticize the law. My fascination with ethics relates to my suspicion toward law. Justice and ethics go hand in hand. Ethics clashes with law. Therefore, law and justice clash, too. If you've spent any time studying my writing, you will know that I have very little respect for the law. If anything, I relegate law to the "commercial" category. And that it is ultimate insult, because law claims to advance justice. I make a few exceptions in my criticism for law, especially in cases where the law protects individual rights and enforces principles that restrain commerce. But I castigate everything else. In fact, law in most cases does not serve justice at all. To the contrary, in most cases it serves commerce--my perpetual theoretical foe.

In essence, then, my writing boils down to a battle between justice and commerce. I even thought about renaming my blog "Commerce Versus Justice," because that dichotomy really dominates my arguments. Something is either "just" or "just commercial." No matter what subject I address, chances are good that it involves hopeful ideals and crass realities. I lament the crass realities and wish for the hopeful ideals. The hopeful ideals are "justice." The crass realities are "commerce." In the "real world," commerce usually wins. In my eyes, it is usually an "unjust victory." And that "injustice" provides me fuel for criticism, commentary and satire.

But I decided against renaming my blog. Although I consistently allude to the struggle between commerce and justice, I refuse to abandon my commitment to "reason." There is a significant self-exploratory element to my writing. I write about people, their motivations, thoughts, dreams, hopes, happiness, unhappiness and machinations. While these things often involve commerce, they also implicate reason. I need to retain my focus on "reason" in order to continue writing about human beings--myself included. That is why I am going to keep my original three-part title. Well, four-part when you drink the free beer.

I sketch my thoughts about my blog's title in order to provide background for an important story. After all, one of the reasons I opened this blog was to therapeutically resolve difficulties that began to arise in my mind around 2006. In 2006, three critical events occurred in my life: (1) I finished my legal education; (2) My father died; and (3) I rejected law practice on principle. In essence, my life expectations completely changed. For one, I began thinking about death more than I ever had before. Second, after spending three years submerged in legal study, I recognized that I had no place in legal practice. That forced me to reevaluate my life in a very basic way. Beginning in 2006, I started to understand the distinction between commerce and justice. And when my father died, I used my reason to reflect on life. My philosophical fixation on reason, commerce and justice had begun.

I was not a child anymore. I was suddenly an adult. And life was full of trouble. Wrenching, inscrutable trouble.

In 2007, my focus on reason, commerce and justice sharpened even more. As I have written in several other contexts over the years, 2007 was the year in which my life partner, Steve, suffered a life-altering accident. I have not gone into great detail about the event. Neither has Steve. Yet I am painfully aware of it because I lived through its aftermath. And in truth, Steve's story perfectly illustrates the tension between commerce and justice. In this sense, Steve's story cemented my theoretical focus with a real life example.

Late on August 1, 2007, Steve went to work out at an all-night gym in Chicago. Back in those days, we used to go our own ways. We stayed out late alone sometimes and it never mattered. I went to bed about midnight. At about 2:15 AM, I got a phone call from the Illinois Masonic Hospital. "Are you Steve's partner?" someone asked. Half-asleep, I replied: "Yes. What is it?" "Steve has been badly burned. He wants you to visit him." I could not really understand what that meant, but I was stunned. "I'll be right over," I think I said. Then I hung up. I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or two thinking. Then I got up and pulled on my jeans. I had no idea what was in store.

I got to the emergency room about 3:00 AM. Steve was laying on a cot, incoherent, drenched in sweat. They had wrapped a huge bulky bandage on his right arm. I could see dark-red bloodstains on the upper part. It looked like his skin had peeled right off midshoulder. Steve managed to tell me that he had been burned in the gym's steam room. He said he had just walked in when suddenly a jet of steam burst from the wall and scorched his arm.

I did not really know what to make of his story at the time. He was delirious. He must have been in shock. He talked about our dog and his clothes. I stayed with him in the emergency room for about two hours while the hospital arranged a transfer to a burn center outside town. I dozed for a while on a folding chair. I remember when the emergency room staff wheeled him away and put him in the back of the ambulance. He was smiling. He said he would be fine. He told me to go home and get some sleep. He told me to meet him at the hospital the next day. Then they closed the ambulance doors. The ambulance rolled off into the brightening summer dawn.

I had a meeting with my law school dean later that morning. I think I wanted to talk to him about getting a job with a federal judge. I somehow managed to attend the meeting with a straight face. At the time, I thought Steve would be all right, so I don't think the meeting went badly. The dean told me he would "put a word in" for me with several judges. I was out within an hour. I immediately hopped in the car and went to visit Steve.

Steve was fine when I arrived. They had his arm suspended above him in a sling. The doctors said they were going to perform skin graft surgery on him at 9 AM the next day, August 3. I spent about 8 hours in Steve's hospital room, assuring him that everything would be all right. Steve was cheery that day. He was happy that I was at his side. I went home about 8 PM. At 9:30 PM, he called me and thanked me for being at the hospital during the day. I told him I wouldn't abandon him for the world. I also told him I would be there as soon as he came out of the recovery room after his surgery. He cried when I said that.

I went to bed that night confident that Steve would be fine. I thought they would just do the surgery, then he would be home in a week or so. I was tired, sure, but I did not think life would be much different after that day.

I got up on August 3 waiting for a phone call to let me know I could visit Steve after his surgery. At about 11:00 AM, I got a call from a nurse who told me the surgeon needed to speak with me. I figured the surgeon was just going to tell me that the surgery had gone well and I could visit. So I called the surgeon back. I didn't reach him. After two more tries, I did reach him. He told me to come to the hospital right away. That was all he said.

I was a little nervous at this point. I had never really spent much time around hospitals. I did not know the procedure for getting news about surgeries. I thought maybe the surgeon could only tell me details about the surgery in person, not on the phone. So I headed back over to the hospital. It was about a 40-minute drive. I remember George Benson's "Affirmation" was on the radio during the trip.

I made it to the hospital and parked my car. First I went to the gift shop. I bought Steve a "Get Well Soon" balloon and a teddy bear. Then, holding the balloon in one hand, I went to the main desk. I said I was here I visit Steve. The guard tapped the keyboard and said: "Burn ICU. Seventh floor."

Now I was getting more nervous: Why is he in the ICU? Why isn't he in the recovery room?

I followed the signs to the Burn ICU. I went through a few automatic double doors into a large room with a nurse's station in the middle. Patient rooms lined the walls in a big circle around the station. I asked one nurse: "I'm here to see Steve."

She pointed to a room on my left. It was full of doctors, nurses, interns, even executives in suits. I pushed my way in. Steve was unconscious on a bed, angled up. He was on a respirator. A thick silver tube stretched from the respirator into a hole punched through his throat. There were two tubes lined into his nostrils. More tubes funneled out from his arms. Wires were tacked on to his chest and legs. There must have been about twenty wires and tubes attached to his body. His mouth was wide open and his eyes were as if glued shut. His tongue was protruding from his mouth slightly and it looked completely parched. There was blood caked on the edges of his lips. Bleeping, whirring machines and monitors ringed his bed.

I let go of the balloon and covered my mouth with my hands. I left the room for minute to reflect on what I was seeing. At that moment, the anesthesiologist approached me and explained nervously that something went horribly wrong during the surgery. Apparently, Steve had a strong reaction to a particular anesthesia and it stopped his heart. He told me that he had jumped on top of Steve to perform CPR and that he finally got his pulse back after 53 seconds. After reviving him, they stabilized his blood pressure and rushed him to the ICU. He told me he was in an induced coma. They wanted to keep him motionless until they could place a stent in his heart. Apparently, his body had convulsed uncontrollably after his heart stopped.

I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing. Here was the man I had loved for seven years, reduced before me to a motionless vegetable. Here was the man who just two days before was strong, enterprising and courageous; and now he was on the verge of death. I felt utterly broken. I immediately thought about my father. Was I going to lose Steve, too, just a year later? What was this life? What was the point? Was I doomed to lose everyone I loved?

At that moment, I thought that Steve would die. At the very least, I thought he would never recover his brain function. The doctors were all very grave. They said: "We have no idea what will happen with him. But he did go without oxygen to the brain for over a minute." I just paced around the ICU all day. I made phone calls. Our best friend was flying in from New York that day. I took a break and picked him up at the airport. That was a good distraction; I needed support that day, and he gave it to me. We spent the rest of the day staring hopelessly at Steve on the respirator. We worried every time a machine made a noise. Finally, we left at about 8 PM.

Over the next two days, Steve was in critical condition. He could not open his eyes. I just sat at his side for hours at a time listening to the respirator and the other beeping machines that kept him alive.

On the third day, however, Steve suddenly opened his eyes. The paralytic had worn off. He looked around as if in a panic. Then he turned and saw me. His face glowed for an instant, then it crumpled into tears. He grabbed for my hand as the nurses struggled to keep all the tubes attached to his body. Tears streamed down my face. I clenched his hand and told him everything would be all right. I tried to explain what had happened, but it was obvious he could not comprehend what was wrong. He could not speak. He could mouth words, but the tracheal tube blocked his throat. Still, as pitiful as he appeared that day, I knew he would survive. It was a huge relief.

Ultimately, Steve stayed 33 more days in the hospital. I was there every day from morning to night. He got the stent he needed in his heart. He underwent three more skin graft surgeries to repair the arm. They had to shear skin off his thighs to replant it on his arm. At one point, the graft did not take; so they had to put cadaver skin on his arm as a "bedding." Toward the end of his stay, they took out the tracheal tube and he could speak again. His voice had changed and he lisped, but he could speak. There had been no brain damage. He was handicapped and slower, but he had survived. He went home September 5, 2007. The hospital bill came to something around $2,000,000.

In the months that followed, Steve pursued a legal case against the gym that caused his injuries. We hired a law firm to investigate and prosecute the claim. As a former trial lawyer, the case seemed a winner to me. There was nothing wrong with his arm before he went into the steam room on August 2. When he came out, he was permanently injured. His "special damages" amounted to at least $2,000,000, not to mention the "loss of a normal life," "disfigurement," "pain and suffering" and "mental anguish." There was no quarrel that the gym's facilities caused these injuries and Steve had no control over those facilities. Based on my experience, I estimated Steve's case at around $7,000,000.

Despite these compelling facts, the case went poorly. For its part, the gym denied it had done anything wrong. It actually came forward with some questionable "incident reports" that said that Steve "laid down in front of the steam vent" and "caused his own injury." The gym manager--who was not there on August 2--claimed that Steve must have "passed out in the steam room," then fallen in front of the vent for a long time. Yet the medical records all corroborated Steve's story. And the emergency responders who took him from the gym said nothing about "fainting" or "falling." They did not treat him as they would have treated someone who had just fainted. Steve's surgeon even said there was no evidence of a fall.

Still, our lawyers found the gym's self-serving reports troublesome. For some reason, they thought that if the gym's story were true, then Steve could not win the case. Yet Steve always told the same story about how he was injured: He walked into the steam room and a jet of steam suddenly burst from the wall. The gym did not provide warnings anywhere about steam vents. It was a very big steam room with several blind corners and crannies. I had been in it myself and often found it difficult to determine where steam was coming from. That is why it did not surprise me when Steve said the steam took him by surprise.

And no matter what story people believed, the logic of the case seemed obvious to me: You shouldn't allow access to something on your property that can cause an injury as bad as Steve's. It's almost like letting a wild animal loose in your house during a dinner party.

But our lawyers did not see it that way. They said they could never sell Steve's story to a jury. They said they could not convince people that steam could emanate from the wall when the pictures showed the vents were only at ankle level. They did not acknowledge the fact, however, that they took the pictures almost a year after the event. Who knows what "improvements" the gym had made in the intervening time.

Yet all these rationalizations took a back seat to an even more compelling problem for our lawyers: They discovered that the gym did not have any liability insurance. Liability insurance means that an insurance company pays if someone gets injured on your land. If you don't have liability insurance, an injured person can go directly after your assets. But if you have no assets--or if the assets are insufficient to cover the injury--it makes little sense for an injured person to pursue you. After all, it takes years to win a judgment, let alone collect on one. Insurance companies shorten the time needed to get money from an accident. Without insurance, most injury lawyers don't waste their time on cases, even if they are meritorious. After all, they don't get paid until they win. If they spend 5 years working a case, then discover no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they will have wasted 5 years for nothing. That is a terrifying prospect for a lawyer trying to pay his rent.

So our lawyers fired us. They never said that the gym's insurance situation was the reason they turned us away. But it was obvious to me. The gym got away scot-free because it strategically decided not to buy liability insurance. The gym knew that no personal injury lawyer would waste his time pursuing an entity without insurance, so it just did not buy insurance. In essence, it insured itself against lawsuits by refusing to insure. It understood that civil litigation is a time-consuming, expensive business. So it correctly guessed that most lawyers would avoid a case that does not promise a quick insurance payout.

In short, the gym acted in a commercially prudent manner. It minimized its liabilities. It saved money.

But Steve suffered injustice for it. Steve's life changed because of the gym's conduct. It offered its facilities to the public for a fee. Those facilities nearly killed Steve and gutted his entire existence, not to mention mine. And due to the gym's strategic failure to buy liability insurance, Steve will not even receive the psychic satisfaction that the law avenged the hurt he endured. Put simply, Steve did not get justice. The law failed him.

Or did it? Steve's case confirms me that the law does not serve justice. If it did, lawyers would have flocked to represent him. Yet none did. From an intuitive perspective, Steve suffered a gross injustice due to another's negligence. No one should ever have to endure such clear wrongs in life.

But the lawyers did not flock to his aid because justice does not motivate them. Avenging injustice, after all, does not necessarily pay the bills. Paying the bills is a quintessentially commercial function. And lawyers did not take Steve's case because they could not assure themselves that it would be "worth the investment." It did not matter that he suffered injustice. Rather, his case was not "commercially viable" because the gym did not have insurance.

In Steve's case, commerce won out over justice. That's a lesson in law for you.

I have no more illusions about the law. It is a business like any other. If a case doesn’t promise a quick profit, no lawyer will take it, even if a person has suffered obvious injustice.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

HOPEFUL TIMES

I've been getting a lot of phone calls lately. Never fear; there's been no bad news. On the contrary, I have lately reconnected with many old friends and I hope to see them over the next couple weeks. Additionally, I have received a few offers to do some "paying" work from home, and with my finances as critical as they are, I am loath to turn them down.

Against that background, I am going to do my absolute best to keep up my writing schedule. But in the coming weeks, I may have to without a post for a few more days than usual. I apologize for that. On the other hand, I am grateful that I am starting to spend more time out of the house. For the first time in over a year, my partner is feeling well enough for me to reasonably start pursuing some additional interests, seeing more people and rekindling a social life that has been dormant for quite some time now. To put this all in perspective, I have not been able to leave the house for more than a few hours at a time since late 2008. That is changing now.

My life is getting richer every day. I know that richness will aid my writing. This is certainly not to say that I am going to stop writing. In fact, I am committed to this blog more now than I have ever been. I am grateful for my readers and I always look forward to hearing from you. I am proud to have amassed so much writing about so many subjects.

Having said all this, I will be branching out a bit more in the coming weeks. If that means two and three posts per week rather than the customary five, I am willing to pay that price. It is simply a question of free time. When I have it, I will write. When I have something else going on, I won't. But all in all, I think time off the blog will be my exception, not my rule. I just want to keep the option open. And I wanted to let you all know about it.

Thanks again to all who stop by for Reason, Commerce, Justice and Free Beer! I am excited about the future. And even when I don't write, I experience, observe and analyze my surroundings. Experience always delivers me onto fertile creative grounds; life is never really dull when you dare to live it.

See you all soon!

Oesterhoudt