Friday, November 29, 2013

“Knockout” Attacks Are Anything But a Game

here has been a succession of media reports over the last few weeks about pedestrians being sucker-punched by a single attacker or one among a group of passing youngsters. The series of episodes reported in New York and several other states are being carelessly referred to as “the knockout game.”
How the media can collectively — and blithely — keep referring to these sporadic attacks as “the knockout game” is absurd. Whether or not the youths responsible and law enforcement apply that reference is one thing, but for the media to repeatedly use the trendy vernacular is appalling and unnecessary, as it subtly glorifies that sort of violence as the latest craze.
Regardless of its origin, and no matter what these random acts are called, the term is utterly incompatible with what is certainly a crime, not a game, particularly when there have been at least two deaths, according to ABC News, linked to such acts.
The assaults typically target unsuspecting victims with the intention of knocking them out with a single punch. Not a single victim was robbed or provoked their assailant, therefore, the only clear-cut motive seems to be amusement.
Have movie and video game violence or brutal gang initiations gotten so monotonous, this is what some youths now resort to get their kicks?
For whatever reason, the “game” seems to be occurring with more frequency lately, with at least seven incidents reported in Brooklyn, including a black woman in East New York on Tuesday.
What’s next, an app for “knockout game” so anyone can effortlessly access videos of related attacks or take a look at techniques to pull them off?
If, as some speculate, this trend is expanding due to copycatting, how is it we rarely hear of constructive crazes spreading as quickly?
In an attack last Monday, possibly connected to these assaults, a 72-year-old Starrett City woman with a walker was punched in the face by a man described as in his early 20s who fled the scene.
Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council of Canarsie, noted on his Facebook page the next day, “…It takes a coward to hit a woman with a walker.”
Earlier this month in Crown Heights, a youth reportedly fled after he punched a 78-year-old grandmother in the head and knocked her to the ground. There have also been incidents linked to similar unconscionable attacks in Midwood and Borough Park.
For those who may recall, the current attacks, albeit on a smaller scale, bear a striking similarity to “wilding” events several decades ago. In those attacks, a group of about 30 rampaging teenagers, also referred to as “wolf packs” in the media, assaulted and robbed victims in Central Park, on subways and streets and in restaurants. Police at the time said the term “wilding” was coined by some of the youths they subsequently arrested.
After a brief Internet search, I noticed that every so-called “knockout game” episode has been committed by a black youth, mostly against white victims, though Asians Hispanics, and now a black woman, have also been victimized. The racial factor has more substance in Detroit, as similar out-of-control behavior has been referred to as “polar bear hunting.”
Before these incidents created a wider rift between New York’s black and white communities, several black leaders swiftly denounced them at a Monday press conference.
The New York Post reported that Rev. Al Sharpton condemned the assaults last Saturday at his weekly National Action Network meeting in Harlem.
“This kind of behavior is deplorable and must be condemned by all us,” he said. “We would not be silent if it was the other way around. We cannot be silent or in any way reluctant to confront it when it is coming from our own community.”
In contrast, when outgoing City Councilman Charles Barron joined several East New York activists on Wednesday to condemn the attacks he went too far in assessing responsibility. In a News12 Brooklyn report, Barron said it is “the lack of jobs for these young people” that is the root of the problem and jobs would help keep them out of trouble. Perhaps time spent looking for or preparing for potential employment are more practical, rather than roaming the streets looking for victims to knock out.
How can Barron think such activity enhances a resume? Or, that these youngsters having nothing better to do with their idle time is a convincing justification for committing a violent crime?
Regardless of the rabble-rousing activist’s misguided rationalization, the reckless youths committing these acts are just as likely to be the same types who carry out similar or worse crimes that make life in their own communities so frightful.
The lame duck councilman would be better off sending a message to those goons that they’re making life worse for the majority of young black men who never commit crimes, yet may be profiled walking down the street and accused of breaking the law even more than they already are.
If the thugs engaging in this cruel activity enjoy knocking someone out, perhaps they should visit a local gym and step into the ring to spar with some amateur boxer to feel what it’s like to suddenly be knocked on their ass.
But then, the youths committing such acts in the streets probably don’t have the guts to face a peer who could flatten them with a single sucker-blow.
While randomly punching someone casually walking along a street may be a “game” to young men bowing to peer pressure or imitating comparable violent acts, the victims, as well as attackers, who prey on the weak, are all losers. Without a precise winner, it is definitely not amusement and, accordingly, in the rush to label such crimes, all media should be more responsible and cease from labeling these brazen acts a game.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK Assassination Remains A Defining Moment For Many


oday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of the most unsettling signposts in American history that remains a defining moment for many Americans over the age of forty, especially the post-World War II generation.
Certainly, no episode from December 7, 1941 until September 11, 2001 so deeply affected America’s shared consciousness as JFK’s assassination. For the first wave of baby boomers — including yours truly — who were teenagers at the time, the death of the nation’s 35th president remains a disturbing recollection. In a few short years, Kennedy projected a measure of optimism that motivated a budding, politically naive generation, which represented the largest demographic shift in U.S. history.
The bullets fired on November 22, 1963, not only altered American history, but shattered the post-World War II/Korean War period of peace and prosperity. Moreover, that incident was the prelude to a progressing, turbulent decade marred by protests, riots, a controversial conflict, and assassinations of other respected leaders.
After reports of the assassination jolted the nation, a period of shock and mourning set in and echoes today as it did that Friday afternoon when a bulletin interrupted the program I was watching. The lunchtime report was soon followed by the most dreaded news possible, “President Kennedy is dead.” That breaking news from Dallas, due to the era’s limited technology, was delayed to the East Coast by nearly 30 minutes.
From the instant when correspondents Walter Cronkite on CBS and Robert McNeil on NBC relayed the awful news, and for the next three, numbing days, my family, and, indeed, most of the nation and world, sat glued to televisions and radios anxiously waiting for any bits of information about the tragedy’s unfolding aftermath.
Some moments and images from that somber weekend continue to stand out: Jack Ruby lunging, shooting prime suspect Lee Harvey Oswald point blank; thousands passing the coffin lying in state under the Capitol rotunda; the precise, painstaking funeral procession moving oddly silent, aside from the synchronized clip-clop of six white horses pulling the flag-draped coffin and the muffled drumbeats, through the ordinarily congested streets of the nation’s Capital; the isolated riderless black horse; an impeccably poised Jacqueline Kennedy holding her young children’s hands; and the poignant image when John-John saluted his father’s casket (below left) as it passed by on his third birthday (and my 17th).
My singular Kennedy experience was when the senator, after winning the Democratic nomination, campaigned in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1960, for New York’s 45 electoral votes. My friend Larry and I went to the rally along Kings Highway that stretched from Ocean to Coney Island avenues, and onto several side streets, and waited hours among the jam-packed crowd. As we stood at the East 16th Street intersection, opposite Dubrow’s cafeteria, we were constantly pushed and shoved by others impatiently awaiting the candidate’s motorcade.
As the police escort cleared a path, the presidential limousine convertible with Kennedy, headed east on Kings Highway, got closer when it passed under the elevated subway platform when we saw him. I remember his full head of reddish hair and appealing smile. Larry and I tried to inch forward, but we never got nearer than 50 feet or so. We wanted to be one of the lucky ones to shake his hand, but were impeded by the crunch of supporters in front of us. The entourage stopped, JFK made a few remarks, but, in minutes, the car moved towards Ocean Avenue.
JFK campaigning on Kings
 Highway, summer of 1960 
Though it was nothing more than a glimpse, Larry and I were, nonetheless, thrilled and felt we’d gotten close to the man who might be the next president. In the frenzied crowd dispersal, Larry lost a shoe and my shirtsleeve was torn. Minor damage for an incomparable experience.

In the month before the election, Kennedy made several campaign stops in Brooklyn. This is an excerpt from one of several speeches the senator made on October 20, 1960: I come over here to Brooklyn to ask your help. I run for the Presidency in the most difficult time in the life of our country, but with the greatest confidence, that if this country is given the kind of leadership which I believe it needs, if we are willing to go to work again, this country can meet any obstacle and can serve as an inspiration to freedom around the globe. So I come to Brooklyn to ask your help in this campaign, and if we are elected, we are going to go to work.

Last week, in one of our periodic get-togethers, Larry and I, along with Steve, another lifelong friend, and their wives, Lynne and Sharon, went to see the detailed Newseum exhibit, in Washington D.C., which chronicles John F. Kennedy’s presidency, family life and death.
That exhibition convincingly attests that the four days of around the clock coverage of the assassination and funeral accelerated television as the primary source of current events — until the advent of 24/7 cable news and the immediacy of the Internet decades later.
The emerging electronic medium had already influenced the 1960 campaign and election. Kennedy effectively used television to project an image of vitality and appeal that was sorely lacking in Dwight Eisenhower, the older president he was trying to succeed, as well as his discernible comfort on camera. That was more than evident during the first ever televised presidential debate as Kennedy seemed confident and composed, while his GOP opponent, Vice President Richard. M. Nixon, visibly perspired under the hot stage lights and was perceived as edgy and tense. That difference undeniably attributed to Kennedy’s narrow victory, one of the closest in presidential election history.
Subsequent blemishes on the private Kennedy legacy regarding womanizing, extramarital indulgences and ties to organized crime that surfaced after his death, notwithstanding, cannot erase Kennedy’s public triumphs such as establishing the Peace Corps, advancing the space program, marshaling federal troops at the University of Mississippi that helped facilitate a steady end to segregation and equality for black Americans and, in what was perhaps his finest hour, facing up to the Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a 14-day nuclear confrontation that sidestepped devastating global consequences.
While the portion of his inaugural address that focused on foreign policy depicted the new president as a Cold War advocate, Kennedy’s position had changed several months before his death, when he said, “…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future…”
Despite holding office for a mere thousand days — too fleeting to sufficiently evaluate a presidency — and few legislative achievements, the sense of hope and anticipation that John F. Kennedy conveyed to many, who were too young to vote for him, is immeasurable. Consequently, Baby Boomers willingly accepted the symbolic torch he passed to a generation preparing to face a changing world. In the ensuing turbulent decade, as they matured, the nation was plagued by protests, riots, a divisive conflict and more assassinations of popular leaders.
The tragedy of Kennedy’s unfinished life has had a lasting effect on the way he is remembered. Traditionally, we commemorate distinguished historical figures, like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, on their birthdays, but, when it comes to our 35th president, his death, not his birth, is observed.
The bullets fired half a century ago altered American history, and also cut short the promising optimism ever fulfilled, but also helped exaggerate the mystique about the fallen president.
My photo taken in 1989
Nevertheless, like the eternal flame at his Arlington National Cemetery grave (at right), JFK kindled a spark in a naïve, nascent generation that represented the largest demographic shift in American history.
In the final analysis, John F. Kennedy’s characteristic vigor and public persona were beacons that not only induced the initial political encounter for an up-and-coming generation, but motivated a lasting consciousness that impacted our lives and, more significantly, our social perspectives.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Put Politicians On Do Not Call Registry!

The end of the 2013 political campaign season surely delighted many — whether or not your candidate was elected — as it brought renewed serenity from annoying, unsolicited reaching-out-and-touching calls from political campaigns.

Even if you added residential land line and mobile telephone numbers to the national Do Not Call Registry, which limits most telemarketing calls you’d rather not receive, politicians continue to bombard us with live and robocalls since they are exempt from the ruling.

It’s time to amend that regulation and punish politicians, like telemarketing violators, up to $16,000 per complaint! Well-financed campaigns could set aside funds to cover this, while those with smaller campaign chests can just continue the cut-rate alternative  stuffing our mailboxes with brochures and leaflets.

Some may insist it’s a Freedom of Speech issue, but that’s Bullshit  with a capital “B”! Politicians commonly support and enact legislation that specifically excludes them from rules and regulations that apply to those who elect them to serve.
There’s little argument that one of the most appreciated byproducts of the technological age is the national Do Not Call list. For those who may be unsure how to stop telemarketers from inundating you with inconvenient calls, log on to, and enter each of your phone numbers. Within 31 days, most, but not all, telemarketers are supposed to stop calling. Except for political messages. Like the Energizer bunny, they just keep coming and coming, particularly in the weeks and months before an election.
According to the Federal Trade Commission website, political solicitations are not covered by the agency’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) that was part of the 1991 Telephone Protection Act. Political spam, according to the regulation, is not considered “telemarketing.” Just more political skulduggery that sets elected officials apart from the population that elects them.
Also excluded from the registry listing, the site notes, “are charities and telephone surveyors, and calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationship, or those to whom you provided express agreement in writing to receive their calls.”
Calls from non-profits can be annoying, too, but may be more tolerable since they generally solicit donations for beneficent organizations.
When they first introduced the Do Not Call register in 2004, it seemed like a scheme that would not work. I registered my phone numbers, but was skeptical that telephone spam would decline. At the outset, I was not conscious of it, but offers to reduce my electric bill or somebody hawking one product or service that I don’t want or need progressively stopped.
Nonetheless, like clockwork, from Labor Day to Election Day, the phone rings relentlessly, with most having no or an “unknown” caller ID. That’s the first clue not to answer, but, sometimes, it’s irresistible. Right off, I know it’s not urgent when it takes 10-15 seconds for the message to begin or for someone to come on the line. As a rule, these calls are recorded announcements reminding me to vote or from a recognizable individual electioneering for a particular candidate. I hang up when there’s more than five seconds of silence.
Politicians should not be excluded from the Do Not Call list. In fact, earlier this year, a North Carolina Republican, who does not use the method, said her office received complaints from constituents, so she introduced legislation, known as Robo COP (Robo Calls Off Phones), to include only political robocalls, not live callers, on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. As expected, the bill, which had a measly five co-sponsors, went nowhere fast and is unlikely to gain momentum unless more people complain to their representatives or the FTC.
While researching this column I learned about the non-binding, run by the non-profit Citizens for Civil Discourse. This registry is specifically to discourage political campaigns. The group maintains it has commitments to cut the calls from several political campaigns. You can be added to this list for free, though there are also paid options.
Some years ago, the quickest way to end telephone spam was by pressing press pound (or hash tag to the Twitter generation), but that no longer works. Some robocalls politely direct you to press a specific number to opt out from future calls, but I that doesn’t always work and may subject you to follow-up calls.
The easiest thing to do is to hang up, get the number of the spam caller, if possible, and file a complaint with the FTC at Furthermore, even if you’re on the Do Not Call list, the businesses and organizations that call again and again aren’t likely to comply with the law or the Do Not Call list, so those complaints may help the FTC trace and prosecute them.
On Election Day, robo-messages, promoting the New York City mayoral, City Council and borough president candidates didn’t stop until after 6 p.m. In the days leading up to November 5th, I averaged about six robocalls a day. I stopped answering the phone when my caller ID didn’t specify the caller. In some instances, however, there was a number but no ID.
A partial solution to the live calls dilemma — albeit farfetched — parallels a premise from the Season 4 “Seinfeld” episode (“The Pitch”).
Jerry receives a call from a long distance service telemarketer and asks if he could call back. The caller replies that he’s “not allowed to do that,” so Seinfeld responds, “I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.” The telemarketer answers, “No,” to which Jerry says, “Now you know how I feel” and hangs up.
If we could only turn the tables on our legislators. Politicians, who want to remain exempt from the Do Not Call Registry, would be forced to publicize their home numbers, so we can call them six times a day during a campaign to clarify their stand on the issues. There’s little chance this would ever happen, but then we’d see how expeditiously they’d sanction inclusion on Do Not Call lists.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bye, Bye Bloomberg—Bumps Aside, It’s Been a Triumphant Trip

Is the mayor contemplating his
wealth or the city's future?
For more than a decade, Michael R. Bloomberg governed the Big Apple. Entering politics after years as a business entrepreneur, he adapted to the process and departs with conspicuous accomplishments. To paraphrase an iconic line from a Grateful Dead song, it’s been a long, sometimes contentious, yet triumphant trip.
Some Election Day exit polls indicated that more than half of those surveyed approved of Bloomberg as mayor, but they also felt it was time the city had a new direction. And while no can predict the future, a change is gonna come.
As the quality of life appreciably improved under Rudolph Giuliani, who had a knack for alienating those with whom he clashed, New York advanced even more under a mayor with a more agreeable demeanor. However, Bloomberg, too, sometimes heavy-handedly snubbed dissent.
The toughest jobs for New York’s 109th mayor, Bill de Blasio, may be to maintain that level of achievement and attain the ambitious progress pledged throughout his campaign. To accomplish that will be nothing short of a miracle, especially moderating the city’s income inequality.
There’s no question that the city prospered under Michael Bloomberg, even when he made tough, unpopular choices. Many feared the worst when Bloomberg ordered city agencies to trim budgets, to layoff and reduce staffs and services, including 20 percent of City Hall workers, to help shrink the city’s huge deficit, but they eventually proved to be the right moves.
Nonetheless, Bloomberg exits with many municipal union contracts in limbo. Those leftovers will be one of de Blasio’s first dilemmas. The outcome of those settlements, which will undoubtedly involve concessions, could set the tone for his entire administration.
Unlike his predecessors, Bloomberg took control and stabilized a beleaguered education system and restructured its bloated bureaucracy that had been mismanaged for decades. While some argue that public schools are better off today than a decade ago, they see eye to eye with opponents who contend it will be quite a while before significant improvement is evident. Even so, Bloomberg deserves credit for putting what many believed to be an unmanageable system on the right track.
Crime under Bloomberg reached lows not seen for almost half a century. In spite of this, the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy needs to be modified to end its palpable unfairness without undercutting police routines. Statistics confirm that Stop & Frisk had minimal impact on overall crime reduction.
Another Bloomberg success is the 311 phone system that has weathered its share of problems, but generally works efficiently for handling New Yorkers’ complaints.
He irritated smokers and business owners when he raised cigarette taxes and subsequently banned the habit in public and private establishments. But, it was a breath of fresh air and the first of a few decisions that has boosted health citywide. His unwelcome trans fat ban a few years ago has gone nationwide as the FDA this week called for similar limitations. Yet, his effort to mend New Yorkers’ health by limiting oversized sugary drinks proved to be unpopular with the masses, who most likely celebrated the state’s Appeals Court decision to reverse the city’s Health Department’s order with a Big Gulp.
Bloomberg rankled motorists when he doubled parking fines and changed midtown traffic patterns to ease the flow of vehicles, and, of course, to bolster city revenue. Traffic grids are better, but will never be tolerable in compact, heavily-congested areas, like midtown. The higher penalties are avoidable if conscientious drivers don’t double park, which does obstruct smooth traffic flow, and remember to feed parking meters.
When the mayor shut down a city landfill it was embraced by Staten Islanders, but he left the ongoing debate, whether or not to build a waste transfer station on the Upper East Side, for his successor to resolve.
As de Blasio pointed out, Bloomberg set a pattern that largely benefited big businesses and higher-income taxpayers, but marginal prosperity barely trickled down to small businesses or the masses. Bloomberg, the mayor-elect charged, neglected working class New Yorkers. Combined with the national economic recession that course helped widen the separation between rich and poor.
De Blasio slammed Bloomberg for leaving behind “a tale of two cities” divided by economic inequality under the pro-business, pro-development agenda that readily cooperated with real estate developers. Even after community hearings, which turned out to be futile, builders were accommodated to construct luxury dwellings as neighborhoods became unaffordable, forcing current residents to relocate. 
Nevertheless, under Bloomberg, the city survived and somewhat thrived during a recession that arose in the wake of the lingering nationwide financial meltdown and the aftermath of 9/11. In good economic times or bad, few citizens like tax hikes or budget cuts and layoffs, but, early in his administration, Bloomberg had no alternatives and those decisions proved worthwhile.
A Boston native, who became a billionaire entrepreneur behind his eponymous financial data and media empire, lifelong Democrat Michael Bloomberg switched to the Republican Party in 2001, and spent $73 million to win election over Democratic challenger Mark Green. Bloomberg topped that outlay by $12 million against his next Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, in 2005. He later became a political Independent and, after he convinced the City Council, by a 28-22 margin, to make him eligible for a controversial third term, he defeated Bill Thompson, with a whopping campaign spending tally that topped $100 million. His vast wealth afforded him the opportunity to self-finance campaigns, at any cost, while dodging campaign finance laws his opponents were compelled to obey.
As a journalist there were a few occasions when I covered Mayor Bloomberg in Canarsie. Though I never directly spoke to him, I sensed the Manhattan-centric mayor appeared at these obligatory Brooklyn events just for the photo opportunities. In the end, he came, he posed, he hit the road.
Bloomberg foes felt this was his attitude
for most of his 12 years in office.
The departing mayor’s public persona was personified by his detachment from New Yorkers in the outer boroughs. Intentional or not, some critics attributed that to Bloomberg’s billionaire status, which left him out of touch from most New Yorkers. More often than not, he seemed to barely make an effort to empathize with problems from which a man of his standing was disconnected.
 Maybe the finagled third term was one too many. Regardless, there’s no denying that Michael R. Bloomberg walks away from City Hall on December 31st with the kind of legacy most predecessors should envy and most successors will find hard to emulate.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Homophobia Remains Our Most Accepted Prejudice (First published on February 22, 2007)

As usual, there was little defense in last weekend’s NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas with more than 270 points scored. But days before the tip-off, a controversy erupted that almost overshadowed the weekend’s festivities if not for the swift action of the league and Commissioner David Stern.
More than a week before All-Star weekend, John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to admit he was gay. Amaechi’s motive for coming-out wasn’t exactly selfless since he was promoting his new book, with the double entendre title, “Man in the Middle,” in which he details his closeted experience in the macho-dominated professional sport.
Several days later another former player, Tim Hardaway, who was a five time All-Star and scheduled to make several public appearances on behalf of the NBA before Saturday’s game, candidly admitted he was homophobic in a radio interview, emphatically saying, “I hate gay people…I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people.”
He also said that if he ever knew a teammate was gay, he would have requested the player be removed from the team.
Hardaway had every right to make those remarks and admit his homophobia, even though he later apologized and said he regretted it. Accordingly, the NBA had every right to suitably respond by banishing him from any league-related activities last weekend and for the future.
Upon barring the former NBA veteran for Miami and Golden State, Stern said it was “inappropriate” for Hardaway to represent the league.
Tim Hardaway undoubtedly said what a lot of people think, but keep to themselves — they just don’t like gay people. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but discretion is advisable, especially for someone in a public position. As an NBA representative, he would have been wiser to keep his feelings to himself. Moreover, for an African-American living in a society where racial bigotry still rears its ugly head more than 40 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it would have been more practical for Hardaway to keep his homophobia to himself.
The Hardaway hullabaloo comes in the wake of another anti-gay incident that occurred last fall on the set of the hit ABC-TV series, “Grey’s Anatomy.” Actor Isaiah Washington, who, coincidentally, is black like Hardaway, allegedly referred to fellow cast mate T.R. Knight as a “faggot.” Another member of the ethnically mixed ensemble cast, Patrick Dempsey, who is white, reportedly objected to Washington’s name calling and got into a brawl before the scuffle was broken up. However, tempers on the set reportedly remained heated for days, as cast members shunned Washington, who later entered rehab (for bigots?) during a short leave of absence. Incidentally, after the incident, Knight revealed his homosexuality in a magazine interview rather than have the tabloids taunt him about it.
The fact the show’s producers took no punitive action — whether temporary suspension without pay or outright dismissal — against Washington is inexcusable. If another cast or crew member blurted “nigger” at Washington, it’s almost certain that individual would have been fired on the spot! While two sexy white characters in the show are called McDreamy and McSteamy, no one would dare refer to the muscular Washington’s character as McDarky.
It would seem that our civilized society overwhelmingly condemns racial prejudice, but still tolerates an uncalled-for degree of bias towards homosexuals.
As a matter of fact, in reporting the “Grey’s” incident, several newspapers spelled out the F word, while most media refrained from spelling out the N word when reporting the Michael Richards nightclub outburst several months ago.
Two prejudices, two different standards.
Some argue that being biased against blacks is different from hating gays because the former are obviously born with their skin color, while men and women, some believe, choose to be homosexuals.
That’s an illogical load of crap!
Our religious institutions and our schools are supposed to teach the Golden Rule, but obviously, some people missed or prefer to ignore that essential ethics lesson.
Blacks can’t conceal or change their skin color, but many young men would likely choose to when they’re racially profiled, stopped and frisked by overzealous police officers.
Science has confirmed that one does not choose his/her sexuality. Homosexuality may be latent in some cases because society and culture tend to disapprove of those who prefer same sex relationships, so they opt to remain “in the closet” until they openly admit their sexual preference or are outed in some manner.
While homosexual activity is abhorrent to some, prejudice against them, blacks, Jews and other minorities is a judgment of the ignorant.
One man or woman’s pleasure may be completely repulsive to another, regardless of sexual preference. Except for devoted friends, and even then, unless you have a vivid imagination, few of us know what goes on behind closed doors between homosexuals or heterosexuals.
While Tim Hardaway maintains his homophobia, perhaps an interviewer should ask him his opinion on NBA players and other professional athletes who occasionally make headlines off the court when they cheat on and beat their wives, have babies out of wedlock and regularly hang out with strippers.
Surely, many Americans frown upon that type of behavior, but don’t let it get in the way of enjoying the sport. But when a player, movie star or politician is labeled a homosexual, they are reviled and scorned.
In a free-thinking culture, at the end of the day, we should remember that there is something terribly wrong with that!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Balance Between Spying & Privacy Is Essential

At the same time the Obama Administration frantically fiddles with Affordable Care web site glitches, it’s been dealing with a conceivably more precarious dilemma that affects our global relationships and reputation.
As invasive surveillance, in part sanctioned by the controversial Patriot Act, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, passed from one administration to the next, it appears the National Security Agency routinely intensified its vast spy network since Barack Obama took office.
Following revelations last spring of extensive domestic surveillance by an unrestrained NSA that provoked selected outrage here at home, subsequent disclosures of eavesdropping on dozens of America’s allies rippled across the Atlantic to spawn a degree of bitterness not witnessed since the Cold War.
Indiscriminate spying on foreign leaders and their citizens by the agency responsible for keeping an eye on international targets is problematic, but it is not as serious as the breach of trust the agency engaged in by spying on citizens not suspected of activities that might jeopardize the nation’s safety.
The can of worms — or deadly snakes, depending on your viewpoint — was set in motion last spring when former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the world the extent of America's electronic surveillance programs. As a result, it now appears likely that nearly all communications, everywhere, were accumulated and scrutinized for suspicious patterns.
‪ ‪Despite an era constantly vigilant of terrorist violence, there is something appallingly un-American and openly undemocratic about government surveillance with a security-at-any-cost mentality. ‪
 Several months ago, New York Times columnist Charles Blow summed up the matter when he wrote that allowing security fears to outweigh Constitutional considerations amounted to “burning down a house to rid it of mice.”
‪Since 9/11, we saw George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, engage in extraordinary executive powers that lack sufficient justification and undermine civil liberties, all in the name of “national security.”
Even in the aftermath of an attack when security measures are heightened, it is irresponsible to disregard basic constitutional rights. When that transpires, it not only weakens democracy but it bestows minor-league success on the terrorists.
‪Months ago it was revealed that the NSA, a branch of the U.S. military that deals with foreign threats, was collecting phone calls made or received by Verizon customers in the U.S. More recently, according to additional Snowden leaks, other companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Apple, reportedly voluntarily gave the agency access to their computer servers so the NSA could access all sorts of information without any kind of court order.  ‪
‪That not only violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure, but also the First Amendment right to free speech. ‪
  “National security” is the government’s customary pretext to supersede civil liberty objections. It was hoped that the worst abuses of the Patriot Act would end after the Bush era, but President Obama has maintained and, perhaps, expanded President Bush’s policies. ‪
The first order of business is to examine and rein in rampant intelligence community exploitation by a bipartisan Congressional Committee empowered to investigate the NSA and examine all U.S. intelligence programs. Then, those findings should be made public before bringing those agencies under supervision that will restrain future misuse and restore the protections of the Bill of Rights.
Since its enactment, the Patriot Act has led to reckless and flagrant abuses of power that should, at least, be modified by substantial legislative action or, at best, retailored to end unwarranted spying to make certain no government agency can capriciously violate constitutional rights with an ambiguous motive.
In 1975, long before the Internet and ubiquitous computer use, Senator Frank Church chaired a committee charged with investigating and making public the abuses of American intelligence gathering agencies, said of the NSA:
“…we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 I previously condemned the Bush Administration for domestic spying. While some defended the president, advocating the right to break the rules to preserve the nation’s safety, others unashamedly defended domestic spying tactics used since the dawn of the Cold War. No government or private agency should be given the authority to blatantly wiretap and circumvent the liberties guaranteed by our Constitution without a court order. That’s anarchy.
Technological advances have afforded us a trove of benefits, yet it has also unlocked a Pandora’s Box of unlawful activity introduced as “Big Brother” in the George Orwell classic “1984.”
Regardless of what one thinks of Edward Snowden, he clearly violated the terms of his employment agreement by publicly disclosing classified details. On the other hand, he did direct the spotlight on the excesses of an American intelligence agency.
The practice of spying on one’s own citizens used to be commonly associated with totalitarian  governments, like Russia and North Korea, and have no place in a democracy, unless lawfully approved.
What must be done, sooner than later, won’t be readily acceptable, but, even so, it is absolutely necessary. As the Obama Administration repairs the glitches that have plagued the onset of national health care, it should also be more transparent about surveillance requests, as it develops a strategy that strikes a proper balance with key measures to safeguard national security without unreasonably impinging the privacy and abusing the civil rights of law-abiding citizens.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

When It Comes to E-Fraud, I Won’t Get Fooled Again

You’ve probably heard the expression, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Whoever said it was wisely precautious and I nearly found out how accurate that phrase is.
Someone with my fundamental awareness of ID theft tricks, telemarketing and sweepstakes scams and other forms of electronic exploitation, as well as a prior victimization, should never fall for a second scam. But, to paraphrase that insufferable pop song — oops, I almost did it again.
Nonetheless, anxiety, and an opportunity for supplemental income, almost led me into a fraudulent business relationship. Before I made any commitment or revealed too much personal information, I realized it was a rip off-in-progress, parallel to the notorious Nigerian money transfer scam. Ultimately, common sense, a little savvy and advice from a friend triggered internal red flags and taught me an indispensable lesson without any loss.
My identity theft was discovered after I E-filed my 2011 federal taxes, when I learned that my Social Security number had been used to file a bogus tax return.
An IRS representative informed me it would take “up to ninety days” to investigate. However, 90-days later the IRS Fraud Unit informed me it would take “several more months” to resolve my case and issue my refund.
After several more months passed, I contacted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to see if they could expedite my delayed refund. Within a week, an IRS Taxpayer Advocate Unit counselor called to inform me my case was “still being researched.” She also revealed that a return with my stolen SSN had been filed and that a refund was direct-deposited into a bank account that was subsequently closed, which prolonged the probe.
Last November, the counselor told me my refund check would be issued by month’s end, almost eight months after I filed my return. It arrived just before Thanksgiving — with an additional $11.40 in interest that I had to claim it on my 2012 tax return.
My recent close encounter of the E-fraud kind resulted during my job search. I was receiving a handful of E-mails a week concerning potential employment. Most were incompatible with my experience or preferences, but, as frustration set in, one for a “personal job assistant vacancy” appeared in my mailbox a year ago. I previously ignored “easy money” work-from-home and similar schemes, in addition to reading dreadful stories regarding such arrangements, so I opened this one, albeit with misgivings.
The first of more than a dozen E-mails I received over a five-day period promised me “up to $1,000 weekly” to do personal errands such as “pay bills, shop for gifts, send packages via the US Postal Service and accept deliveries at home.” It stipulated I would not have to spend “a dime of my own money.” The sender said he would to meet me two months after our association was underway.
Many E-rip-offs I’ve heard about involve contributing a small amount of money, with the promise of earning a lot more, so when this one promised no contribution on my part, I thoughtlessly became more interested. I now realize that was the enticing “too good to be true” bait that should have warned me to stay away.
First, I questioned what items he would ask me to mail. (I wanted to be reassured I would not be sending anything illegal.) He said the items would be art materials, paintings and/or business and personal letters for which he would give me his UPS account number to charge for all shipping costs. He needed an assistant because he was “constantly out of town and owned an art gallery in London.”
The sender asked for my name, address, telephone number and a resume. Considering that information was not difficult to obtain, I sent it to him, except for the resume, which I promised to hand over at our first meeting. He supplied me with his cell phone number and his name.
I called him, but got a voice mail. He replied in an E-mail in which he wrote he would not be able to pay me for the first two weeks, which instantly added to my wariness.
I then did an Internet search but could not find the gallery he claimed he owned. While engaged in the search, he called and said I would have to comply with his rules because he was “not supposed to do this on his own.” Another red flag.
When I asked him how he found me, he claimed he found my name and information on When I checked, I discovered my name was not on the site, nor did the company have my name in their records when I contacted them by telephone.
He revealed his name and said he preferred to pay me by wiring funds into a joint checking account that he asked me to open, so he could “monitor” my spending his money. That also set off alarms because then he’d have access to any information I gave the financial institution to set up the account.
Consequently, after several phone and E-mail exchanges, I told him I was no longer interested.
I then called a friend who told me that she had received similar E-mails at her job and home and it looked like a scam to her, too.
I then received an E-mail in which he understood my reluctance, but pointed out that he was the one making the financial commitment and I “sounded desperate.”
He contacted me the next day and said he reconsidered and would deposit $2,000 into a joint account for his “errands,” plus another $500 for my first week’s salary to get things started.
I again told him of my reluctance and suggested he get someone who wasn’t so “desperate.”
When I informed him I was about to contact law enforcement, the E-mails stopped.
I contacted the Secret Service fraud unit, explained my experience and forwarded them the E-mails from the fraudster. When I called last summer to determine the stage of the investigation, an agent said it was among the thousands of similar complaints they had received in the last year.
Four days later, a new E-mail was in my inbox for another personal assistant job. I opened it to determine what it offered. It had the identical wording as the previous one and indicated it got my name from an “online recruitment center,” then deleted it.
Perhaps the most important warning sign of a potential scam is one’s own misgiving. Not only have I become more vigilant for potential scams and promptly delete dubious E-mails from strangers, but I’m also more conscientious about personal data and financial records, which I check almost daily. Even if you’ve never been an identity theft victim, that mind-set might prevent a criminal encounter of the E-kind.
Basically, there was nothing I could have done to prevent the SSN theft. An IRS agent said it was most likely a random choice. As for the second encounter, I should have ignored the job vacancy E-mail.
Here are some basic anti-ID theft tips I’ve learned in the course of my encounters: 1) Do not provide a Social Security number or date of birth to someone claiming they represent a legitimate organization. Contact the business or company to verify if they’re seeking such data.
 2) Do NOT keep your Social Security card in your wallet, because if it’s lost or stolen it may be used to access personal and financial records.
3) The AARP alerts members to protect Medicare cards, too, since it includes your SSN. The organization advises to only carry the card for planned medical checkups and suggests photocopying and carrying the copy, then black out all but the last four numbers of the nine-digit SSN.
Older Americans, according to the AARP, are conned out of about $3 billion annually. That figure is likely to increase as baby boomers with good credit ratings retire with modest nest eggs.
According to Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, from 2010-2012 his office received more than 1,000 complaints from individuals whose SSNs were fraudulently used to obtain tax refunds.
I hope to never utter “Oops, I did it again” concerning ID theft or an Internet scam. The next time something sounds too good to be true, I’ll stick to the notion from a classic rock song title and won’t get fooled again.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tea Party Madness Needs To Be Restrained

Now that the federal shutdown is over and the U.S. government will not default on its financial obligations, let’s hope no one in this do-nothing Congress or in the White House — even though President Obama held his ground and refused to negotiate — has the audacity to gloat about such a short-term victory. For sixteen days a wave of futile negotiations underscored a stalemate as Republicans attempted to overturn the landmark health care law and demand budget reductions.
We can breathe a sigh of relief, but no celebrating, please. This fiasco has no real winner.
Guilt, however, should be directed at the Tea Party, the small Congressional caucus that engineered the shutdown, driven by a hard-nosed ambition to wreck the Affordable Care Act and, in turn, humiliate Barack Obama.
For some, “tea party” conjures up a gathering of rich, white-haired old ladies sitting around, properly sipping the brewed liquid — with their pinky fingers slightly extended — in an old-fashioned china tea set placed on a delicate tablecloth as they speak in gentle tones about the finer things in life.
Alice's Tea Party was not nearly
 as mad as the one in Congress
For others, and in classic literature, the image suggests the zany scene from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” when the characters, including Alice, the Chesire Cat, the March Hare and The Hatter attend a Mad Tea Party where time stands eternally still at teatime.
The 2013 Tea Party is the radical wing of the Republican Party, which orchestrated legislative sessions marked by bickering and blame with no avenue for compromise to the government shutdown. It’s quite obvious that the group’s playbook, from the day Barack Obama took office, and nurtured by bitter disappointment after he was re-elected, went from a daydream to harsh reality with a solitary fixation to eradicate anything proposed by this president. As a result, two dozen or so members of Congress exerted undue influence to create the impasse that shutdown the government on October 1 and who, even to the casual observer, were averse to restarting it.
After all, they must be mad to make a nation endure what were avoidable circumstances. Millions not getting paid, federal agencies and government offices closed for business. One of the most inexcusable results, which was rectified after an outcry and media headlines, was cutting off funds to families to pay for funerals of family members killed while serving overseas.
Since the shutdown, polls have shown that most of those surveyed blame Republicans for the current Congressional stalemate, even as the Obama’s ratings took a hit. However, some conservative and GOP mouthpieces went on talk shows to criticize the liberal media for influencing the national debate in favor of the Democrats. Yet, that lame excuse is never used by conservatives to explain why that bias dissipates when surveys show that a majority of Americans are not in favor of Obamacare. Despite its flaws, lack of a public option and sickeningly inflated drug prices due to excessive lobbying, the Affordable Care Act will, nonetheless, finally give access to medical care for tens of millions of uninsured Americans, as well as for those with pre-existing conditions.
The Tea Party advocates less government and a reduction in the  national debt  by reducing  spending and taxes, but the chaos they caused achieved the exact opposite.
The 16-day shutdown excluded critical functions, but proved the federal government is essential.  Besides the backlog of work that has piled up since October 1st and the hardships endured by thousands of furloughed federal employees, the crisis left an estimated $24 billion hole in our economy. For a faction in favor of welfare reform and maintains that people should not be paid for being idle, civil servants who didn’t work for over two weeks are now due back pay. How cost conscious is that?
Perhaps now the less-government advocates grasp the fact that our central government plays a crucial role in American life, which became incredibly evident when it was idled.
The shutdown has left an unmistakable black mark on American politics. Tea Party legislators held the government hostage and refused to set aside their self-absorbed ambitions to resolve critical concerns. Congressional Republicans allied with them simply because they don’t like the Affordable Care Act, which they approved, the president signed and the Supreme Court upheld.
Aren’t those kinds of checks and balances supposed to be the way our democracy works?
Though this crisis manufactured by an irrelevant group of troublemakers is over, one way to avert revisiting this sort of impasse is to stifle Tea Party extremists. They have the right to assert their views, but such a small minority should not be able to manipulate the entire GOP and stall government operations.
When midterm elections roll around next year, let’s hope conscientious voters remember that it was the GOP, led by Tea Party extremists, who aggressively refused to end the stalemate. If voters overlook the past two weeks of chaos, they’ll only have themselves to blame when another such government crisis surfaces.
The defiant contingent of legislators, who nearly led the country down the road to ruin, should be reminded that the preamble to the Constitution does not begin with We the Tea Party, but We the People. In the final chapter of the classic tale, Alice awoke from her bad dream, but as long as the Tea Party wields its right-wing pressure, the nation will teeter on the brink of another potential nightmare.