Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Good Deeds Punished III

by Jim Reed

Listen to an audio version of this article

[In two previous columns, I presented transcriptions of secret meetings held in the city by employees L.G. and G.L., whose sole purpose is to attract additional revenue to the city through the imposition of SHOPPING PENALTIES and VISITORS PENALTIES without the annoyance of putting forth public relations, goodwill, good manners and the like. The following is a third transcript.]

Read Part I
Read Part II

L.G. is sitting in the empty conference room, mopping up coffee that has dripped from his pastry. He is startled at the abrupt entrance of fellow employee G.L.

“Hey, sorry I’m late. I forgot to pay my parking meter and had to cough up a $15.00 penalty,” says G.L.

L.G. is amazed. “Why did you park at a meter? Your parking is covered here at City Hall, in the deck.”

“Oh, I had to stop at Goodyear Shoe Hospital to pick up my wife’s slippers—usually I’m in and out so fast, the meter maids don’t catch me,” G.L. is annoyed that he’s had to pay a fine that he originally helped impose, better known as Birmingham’s SHOPPING PENALTY aimed at discouraging Downtown retail. But the annoyance doesn’t last long. G.L. is basically an optimist, just trying to please his employers.

“Okay,” L.G. pulls out his dog-eared legal pad. “What do you have for me today?”

G.L. consults a napkin upon which notes are scrawled. “Well, I’m trying to figure out more ways to penalize all the different categories of people who come through Downtown each day.”

“Wait a minute,” L.G. is starting a column. “Exactly which groups of people are you addressing?”

“It’s quite a list,” says G.L. “Each week, we have an amazing variety of visitors.” He begins calling them out:

1. Shoppers
2. Professionals in town to meet with clients
3. Layovers (that includes accidental visitors who come through via bus, train, airplane, tour bus...and are trying to entertain themselves while they’re waiting for their connections)
4. Tourists
5. Loft dwellers’ families and guests
6. Customers who patronize retail and professional businesses
7. Students who are attending classes (Birmingham School of Law and various company and non-profit seminars, for instance)
8. Vendors who are selling services to everybody who works, lives or visits Downtown
9. Drive-bys, people who are on their way someplace else and want to take a break
10. Jurors on break from the courts
11. Museum patrons who want to see what else is Downtown (museums include Sports Hall of Fame, Civil Rights Institute, Jazz Hall of Fame, Museum of Art, Museum of Fond Memories, Central Library Archives, History Museum)
12. Attractions attendees (McWane Center, Alabama Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Imax Theatre, Carver Theatre, etc.)
13. Suburbanites who are touring the Downtown area as part of their civic club excursions (Shepherd Centers, church groups, etc.)
14. Explorers (people who want to visit the icons and landmarks they’ve heard about, such as the Peanut Depot, hot dog stands, shops such as Reed Books and Sojourns and Charm and What’s on Second, Railroad Park, etc.)
15. Walking tours (architectural, historical, civil rights, urban studies, school groups, etc.)
16. Foreign visitors who are here on tour or as exchange students, etc.
17. Conventioneers who take long breaks to explore the town

“Okay, okay. What’s the point?” L.G. blurts out.

G.L. explains, “Well, we usually try to see what kinds of penalties we can extract from shoppers and people who live and work here, but this list proves that there are a lot more folks to consider.” G.L. knows that L.G. needs to have it spelled out. “My point is, these people basically slip through the cracks—they aren’t just citizens of Birmingham, they come from all over the world.”

“So, how does this apply to our job—which is to please the Big Bosses with more ways to bring in revenue?”

G.L. is trying to be patient. “Our main plan has always been to fine people who stay too long—you know, overtime parkers, jaywalkers, folks who turn the wrong way on a one-way street, panhandlers, public nuisances, etc. But the categories on this new list are mostly people who can’t pay a fine—they just won’t be available to send a ticket to. They don’t live here, and they don’t park where we can ticket them (they walk, take a cab or a tour bus or a shuttle, are dropped off, etc!)”

L.G. is beginning to feel the warmth of a light bulb floating above his bald head. “Oh, man! I hadn’t thought about that. We usually pick the easy marks—folks who have to pay a penalty for breaking a rule they aren’t aware of.” His brow wrinkles all the way to his pate.

There is silence while L.G. tries to think and G.L. fiddles with his pencil.

At last, L.G. is ready to pronounce. “Hmm…we can’t catch most of these people, so we’ll either have to make up new rules they can break…OR we can do something else…”

G.L. has an epiphany: “We can charge ADMISSION to Birmingham!”

L.G.’s jaw drops. “Way cool!” he shouts. “If we charge admission to Downtown, we won’t have to worry about chasing tickets, we’ll just collect up front…AND we can keep on penalizing for parking and the usual activities we already raise revenue from.”

In the heat of the moment, both G.L. and L.G. have forgotten to stay calm and carefully analyze what they’ve just invented. Both men are breathing heavily as they try to calculate how much fundraising they can report to the Big Bosses.

L.G.’s first goal is to survive and maintain his job, so he finally flips back to basic instinct. “Okay, I think we have something here. But don’t tell anyone else about it!” L.G. means to take full credit wherever and whenever he can.

G.L. needs direction. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Just keep adding groups and categories to that list—the longer the better,” L.G. concludes. “And bring it back to next Friday’s meeting. I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with effective ways to implement our plan.”

G.L. is hungry and ready to break up the meeting. “Sounds like a winner. I’ll bring an updated list.”

The meeting is adjourned amid L.G.’s visions of Big Bosses’ approval dancing in his head.

Stay tuned next time for PART FOUR…GOOD DEEDS PUNISHED

Friday, May 18, 2012

Letter to the Editor: Women's Health and Equality

Alas, men will never know what it’s like to have menstrual cycles, experience endless vaginal and uterus examinations, or become pregnant. So it is uniformly disconcerting why so many men in the Alabama State House are obsessed about what women physically have to go through for all of these things, but especially what happens when women want to control their own reproductive destinies. Are men jealous of women?

The Legislature is in the middle of trying to introduce no less than 12 different bills concerning women’s reproductive rights, none of which involve the introduction of mechanical objects into male reproductive orifices, mandatory readings or verbal interpretations of photographic male medical procedures, or refusal to provide legally available male medical services, including approved pharmaceuticals used by men.

As if the current laws on reproductive health are not enough, these bills are championed by 29 white Republican males, with 4 Republican white women scattered throughout (3 of which appear to be past childbearing years), and one token black democrat woman (shame on her, at whatever age). While we applaud democracy in action, these 34 elected officials need to take this obsession just one step further, for the benefit of all Alabama males, not just the Republican ones in the State House.

To ease the male jealousy of female reproductive parts, we would like the Democrats to waste valuable congressional session time with just one more new bill, such bill shall require all males capable of participating in a reproduction of human life (approximately ages 15 to 19 with parental consent, and 20 to 95) to undergo a government-required but not government or any insurance-paid, manual and machine examination of the male reproductive systems and related orifices, at least annually, but in all cases, every time the male is involved in activities involving potential procreation.

During each and every examination, the attending physician shall be required to read or provide other verbal communication and visual evidence to the male on the entire procedure(s), step by step, including computer screen imaging in real time or other visually graphic methods. Further, should said male patient be unwilling to undergo such procedure, said patient shall be forever excluded from any insurance or state provided medical services, including legally available pharmaceuticals (i.e, Viagra-type assistance, or STD assistance), to alleviate conditions involving reproductive health, and said patient shall also be excluded from receiving any type of government monetary assistance for any resulting offspring.

Additionally, any physician who may refuse at any time to abide by the law, by reasons of conscience, shall post daily, in a prominent place of their individual or collective place of practice, a notice of sufficient size that will catch the attention of a 15 year old and a 95 year old male explaining the conscientious objection and reasons therefore. Conscientious objections shall be limited to religious, not medical, reasons.

Responsibility for one’s reproductive health is a two way street, ladies and gentlemen. You cannot have your obsessions without consequences. We will work proactively and financially to elect any male or female, Democrat or Republican, who will balance legislative efficiency of reproductive health.

Or we could just leave well enough alone, and get back to the real issues in this state, like poverty, jobs, infrastructure, county bankruptcies, and open government. Republicans, please understand that LESS government means just that. If getting felt up by TSA at the airport doesn’t offend us, then having a 35mm telephoto lens inserted into your reproductive organs shouldn’t offend you either. After all, it’s for the common good.

 -Carol Moore, Birmingham

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diverse City

by Gendanken

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a country whose gross national product was its citizens.

These people were truly disgusting, and the feeling of being repulsed throbbed in direct proportion to how much closer one got to a Southerner. Because this giant country was cloven in two, people naturally acquired the courtesy all decent, God-fearing citizens have for separating themselves on the pettiest stupidity so that a Yankee could look down on a Redneck because Yankees only despised your low class, while that idiot Southerner hated your skin color.

Both had opinions on everything from abortion to glue, to how many licks would it take to make a Republican vote blue, that they blurted even in sleep their cherished ideas each clutched like a blankie, so soothing was the sound of Hearing One’s Own Voice.

Thus did the Goddess Baubo grow to detest her creation: Man.

“Meh,” thought Baubo. “I’ve created a monster” and this mischievous god with the heart of a sadist that gave us the platypus, kudzu, and Benin summoned the demiurge named Gendanken.

“Gendanken”, she said, “I have a mission for you. I’ve grown tired of Man. He’s a scoundrel who’s stolen my laughter, and I wish him destroyed.”

Gendanken listened with the fear of Jonah scratching the days on the flesh of a whale’s anus.

“What do you wish me to do?” asked a timid Gendanken.

“Live among them,” replied Baubo. “Observe and write a report on their worth. On that, I will decide whether to destroy such a dumb little creature. Go.”

And so Gendanken flew down to live among men, walking the battered roads of their mind, settling among a clot of Southerners watching the playoffs. Here, where women cackled like chickens and laid eggs they called ‘men’, she found a strange people far more educated on “punts” than they were “punctuation.”

They were loud, rude, and obnoxious; they fried butter and used words like yonder. They passed laws outlawing employment, then whined that work was not being employed; laws that barbarized humans as “aliens,” yet alienated humans with a barbarized understanding of law.  Not above dragging the past from its swamp, the Southerner made old laws into new ones again by garnishing their language with modern vocabulary, like plucking a dead fish from a bog and sprinkling the nasty thing with a ransom of spice to camouflage the foul odor. Strange above all, Gendanken noted their sewers and realized these people somehow managed to make defecating the most expensive activity in the world.

She met a mayor who sold his city for a Rolex; she met pudgy little lobbyists paying millions to teach senators that c-a-s-i-n-o is spelled b-i-n-g-o, education directors no different than children, and an illiterate hobbit who was voted to the state senate because, though he’s a liar who’d steal a quarter off a teacher and then all the children, it’s obvious to any good Christian his moral authority with a name like Shadrack McGill. And, so, Gendanken grew  hateful as she could no longer believe anything in this insane little city, and therefore the world, was worth keeping alive.

So, a period away from signing Man to his doom, she heard a curious sound through a window. Peering in, she found people hunched over a keyboard. To her delight, the tapping noise was that lovely music of writing. This meant that in a hungry sea of stupidity swallowing the last of the sane, a tiny island persisted where men fought the madness with an armada of humor and, above all, curiosity and thought. She discovered they were writing this newspaper, a little attempt at breaking the sameness and glut. This paper you hold embodies what Mark Twain wrote about horses:

“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.”
Gendanken, in short, discovered she could not wish mankind destroyed.

Not knowing what to do now that she found such a people, she decided to shred her report and instead collected all the metals and stones in the world.

And from this mongrel diversity of precious stones and base metals, she cast from a mixture of mud and gold a most beautiful statue studded with diamonds and gravel.

Gendanken then flew back to Baubo and handed the Goddess this statue and asked her, “Would you destroy such a statue?”

And Baubo, her sharp tongue for once blunted by the glow of being surprised, only wept that she ever wished to destroy Man.

Who would destroy a beautiful statue simply because gold is mixed in with mud?

This is what little Gendanken taught Baubo, a little lesson on diversity: value is an appraisal of opposites. Intelligence shines brightest among bigots.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Community Cannibalism

by Ian Hoppe

We are inundated with daily reports of the economy. Most of the time they are negative or apocalyptic, but other times they seem to be taking on a bit of an optimistic flare. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, the country was thrilled to receive the news that the monthly job numbers had been aggregated and compiled by whoever the hell does that sort of thing and had improved to a surprising level. This bit of refreshing information, however, was quickly picked apart by the various pundits and talking heads until it resembled a banal carcass after a funeral pyre. They had determined, through references and inductive reason, that the numbers were not that great after all and may, in fact, signal a coming collapse of this market or that market. So we sit and wait for the coming good news which should be on the way, since we’ve supposedly left the recession in our wake.

The relief from nervousness never seems to come, though. So I would like to offer you a different rubric on which you might be able to measure where we are in our upswing or total collapse. This rubric is only a local measurement tool, but despite our steadfast allegiance to national news, we all live, work, and shop in a local setting. Even the prices at the national franchises we frequent are subject to local demand. So you might think of this measurement as a more practical one than the high and mighty job numbers.

To what degree has the community turned in upon itself for sustenance?

Depending on your socio-economic status you may be wondering what I am talking about. But take it from someone who has worked in and has close ties to the blue collar communities in and around the Birmingham area: If you want a gauge on the viability of a local economy, watch the scrap yards.

The working poor are the first to lose their jobs when an economy tanks and it just so happens that they are the most resourceful of us all. In the past couple of years we have seen an uptick in copper theft. In December of 2010 the lights from the city Christmas tree were stolen for the copper wiring. Later that year, hundreds of people in West Birmingham lost telephone service for hours when a chunk of the telephone grid was stolen. The Mount Zion Baptist Church in West End was hit three times, with thieves stealing the copper from the air-conditioning units. And then just last month seven air-conditioners were ransacked at Fairfield City Hall.

These are only the higher profile cases. There have been many thefts since the economy crumbled. AT&T says that Alabama has the highest rate of telephone line theft in the country.

Vacant warehouses too are a major target, offering larger wire and more cover than outdoor theft. Many of these thefts require a bit of knowledge of electricity and competence with tools. As businesses close and leave their buildings unoccupied those marginalized at the bottom of a society turn inward for fuel.

When the economy is growing people are working outward. They go to work, help to build wealth and cultivate a region. But when that growth is stifled and scarcity takes hold, the community consumes and recycles itself in a very natural turn of events.

So next time you wonder what the state of the local economy is, ask yourself: What is your community’s current rate of cannibalism?

Read more from Ian Hoppe at his blog Polymath Moshpit.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Connecting Civil Rights to Gay Rights in the Heart of Dixie

by Stephen Blevins

[Ed Note: This article was written and published in our print edition before President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, causing many in the media to compare the statements to landmarks in the Civil Rights movement. Interracial marriage was legalized in 1964.]

Our country’s best and brightest tend to want to live in places that are tolerant. It is well documented that Alabama suffered financially as a direct result of its past race problems. For those who haven’t followed the history, this is the reason Atlanta has an international airport and Birmingham doesn’t. Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, recently reminded us of this when he was interviewed for an Atlanta Journal Constitution piece that dealt with the history and progress of southern cities. According to that article, “Reed compared the situation in the early 1960s when Birmingham was the Southern leader in commerce, but lost that title to Atlanta because of its attitude on civil rights.” Reed also stated the obvious fact that Birmingham still hasn’t caught up from that major blow.

Alabama’s conservative politicians and the citizens who support them seem to be making the same mistakes all over again with regard to gay rights.

When the Birmingham Free Press asked her about the state’s progress on gay rights, Representative Patricia Todd, the state’s only openly gay legislator, responded, “Equality Alabama is working to pass a non-discrimination bill, amendments to the hate crimes law and also working on making sure LGBT is covered in the student harassment law. We are moving forth on marriage rights. That, unfortunately is a lost cause in Alabama.”

Six years ago, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, which banned civil unions and marriages for gay couples. The bill, among other things, lists marriage as “a sacred covenant, solemnized between a man and a woman, which, when the legal capacity and consent of both parties is present, establishes their relationship as husband and wife, and which is recognized by the state as a civil contract.” Phrases like “sacred covenant” reek of a disregard for the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

Many of the law’s defenders like to quote Leviticus 18:22, which says “Homosexual acts are an abomination to God.” Leviticus 25:44-46 reads, however “You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.”

Um, I wonder what time in Alabama’s long and not always pleasant history this quote was used.

The UAB university and health system, as the largest employer in the state, has been one of the few bright spots in our local economy. Apparently, though, economic survival means little in this state. In 2009, UAB and a few other universities in the state began offering same sex couples health insurance plans similar to those offered to married heterosexual couples. The hysteria was sad and predictable. Representative Duwayne Bridges, (R-Valley) and others in the state immediately began pushing to ban UAB and other state-supported institutions from offering benefits to gay couples. Despite what Representative Bridges might think, it can only help the state to encourage the best doctors, researchers, and professors from around the county to make Alabama home for their work, not to mention the grants and capital it would bring to the state. But, hey. Who cares about money, bankruptcy, and all that kind of stuff when you’ve got the best football team three years in row! Take that financially solvent, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and a lot of other states.

Much like the Civil Rights era, the general acceptance of gay culture in Atlanta is a far cry from what we find in Birmingham. It’s well known that Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of GLBT in the nation (third highest in fact at over 12%). It’s hosted a gay rights parade for over thirty years and there are plans in the works for an even larger GLBT community center. How Atlanta treats its gay population should be of concern to Alabamians because Georgia’s capitol is home to economic engines like Emory and Georgia Tech, which directly compete with UAB in the medicine/general science research fields. Emory alone contributed over 775 million to the Georgia economy. With universities like Vanderbilt, Nashville is also a direct competitor with Birmingham and is also generally more tolerant of the GLBT community. Last year, The Music City passed a municipal law specifically banning discrimination based on a person’s sexuality. In contrast, Larry Langford, the now infamous and imprisoned former mayor of Birmingham, was sued in 2008 by gay rights activists for not allowing city workers to hang signs for a pride parade.

It took the power of the federal government to turn off the fire houses and quiet the dogs, but the ghosts still remain. It the end, maybe it’s the federal government to the rescue again. Proposition 8, a ballot measure that outlawed same sex marriage in California was recently overturned by an appellate court, and the legality of gay rights across the Alabama and the nation will inevitably be settled behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court. Until then, as a state that likes to view itself as gung-ho outsiders who buck the trend of a decadent America while standing up for morality perhaps a quote by Clint Eastwood, the famous Republican and iconic tough guy, will us overcome the sickness of homosexuality in the twenty first century: “They go on and on with all this bulls--- about ‘sanctity’ — don’t give me that sanctity crap! Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.”

On Romney's Electability

by Gaije Kushner

After all the surprising drama of the Republican primaries, the Iowa lead shifting minute by minute between Romney and Santorum, Gingrich’s big North Carolina win, Romney’s struggles to eke out victories in Wisconsin and Ohio, the result seems to be an entirely unsurprising Romney victory. As a diehard liberal, I know I’m supposed to be concerned now, about the presumptive nominee’s alleged electability, in comparison with his opponent’s. But aside from being disappointed the festivities are over, I find myself feeling, if anything, relieved by the outcome.

Romney’s electability has always struck me as wishful, almost magical, thinking. Something his supporters hope will become true, if they just want it badly enough, assert it often enough, but lacking any basis in reality. He’s run for office four times, not including his current effort, and only won once. Yes, it’s true, he won as a Republican in the generally Democrat- leaning state of Massachusetts, but he did so by espousing Democratic positions, not by somehow winning voters over despite his conservatism. The Romney Massachusetts voted into its governor’s mansion in 2002 was pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-stem cell research. That guy’s appeal to swing voters and independents has nothing to do with the Romney currently running for president.

His electability depends on some imaginary appeal to just those voters though. Despite having espoused positions every bit as conservative as any of his rivals during the primaries, his supporters insist he’s perceived as a more moderate candidate than they would have been. Perhaps they don’t think the swing voters and independents have access to television, the internet, or the written  word. There’s really no other explanation.

Well, there’s one, but it’s almost too crazy to be believed. Throughout the primaries, Mittens tried to overcome conservatives’ skepticism about his current conservative positions. He asserted his new beliefs were deeply felt, not a matter of political expediency, not at all. Still, one friend of mine who’ll be voting for Obama anyway said she wasn’t all that worried about the prospect of a Romney White House, because she just didn’t think he really meant his current homophobic, misogynistic, generally evil, statements. So maybe Romney’s planning to try an unlikely balancing act, convincing conservatives he really, truly, shares their values, while leaving some space for swing voters and independents to maintain some skepticism.

A better candidate might have a shot at pulling something like that off. But Mittens is a truly terrible campaigner. He either doesn’t understand the differences between the world in which he lives, and the place the rest of us hang out, or he doesn’t understand why, or how much, those differences matter. He can’t seem to stop himself from making references to his fancy Nascar and football team owning friends, dismissing the $300,000 he earned in speaking fees last year as not much money, or trying to make $10,000 bets with his competitors on live television. He claims some special understanding of the economy, but he’s never experienced the economy most of us are stuck with. He may well have an excellent understanding of how to make corporations more profitable, but that benefits a relatively small pool of people. For all his insistence he knows how to create jobs, while he was governor, Massachusetts ranked 47th in job growth. Not so impressive.

Mittens’ inability to connect with people isn’t just about his vast fortunes. He endlessly refuses to acknowledge any imperfections, any cracks in his happy shiny facade. The things people need to feel that illusion of intimacy that so often wins their votes.

Ultimately, Romney’s dos and don’ts hardly matter. Presidential candidates selected for their supposed electability never win. They don’t elicit the kind of excitement necessary to push them across the finish line, the enthusiasm that gets people volunteering, making endless fund raising calls, handing over funds of their own. John Kerry comes to mind, which he rarely does these days.