Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
In a Rose Garden speech earlier today President Obama announced the very sensible reversal of long-standing American policy. People who entered the United States illegally when they were under 16, who’ve lived in the country for more than five years and are under 30, will no longer be deported. Rather, they’ll be granted work permits and, presumably, a way to citizenship, formalizing what they already do: attend college, hold jobs, pay taxes, serve in the military, keep this country vibrant and true to its heritage. The policy directive mirrors the Dream Act, held hostage to congressional demagogues for years. Obama’s breakthrough doesn’t trump congressional prerogative. Human rights trump gridlock. Congress can sort out the details while human beings are no longer unjustly deported. If Obama is buying votes in an election year, there are cheaper, much less politically risky ways to do it.
The decision is worth debating—if there was room for that debate. It’s not just Congress that’s refused. Obama’s announcement was itself hijacked by a reporter who, five minutes through Obama’s 9-minute speech, heckled the president. That story, on the strength of a single reporter’s crass act, is now more fatly headlined than the immigration breakthrough.
The reporter is Neil Munro, who works for the Daily Caller, a legitimate, D.C.-based online news and commentary website created by Tucker Carlson, the columnist and former co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, where interruptions were part of the show’s gimmickry. That the Daily Caller is conservative is irrelevant. It has a reputation for being aggressive. Its readership is broad. Its legitimacy unquestioned. That’s not at issue in today’s incident.
Munro’s method, and Carlson’s justifications for what Munro did, are at issue and ought to be.
The Rose Garden announcement was an Obama speech, not a press conference. He might have taken questions at the end. He might not. When presidents deliver speeches—or governors or county commissioners or aunt Hilda’s great-uncle at a bar mitzvah for that matter—interruptions are not acceptable. Heckling, an accurate description of what happened today, even less so. Not even if the president being interrupted is Richard Nixon (which he never was during a speech, even in his decomposing phase in the summer of 1974. When Dan Rather had his famous exchange with Nixon at a broadcaster’s conference that March, it was during the Q&A phase, and the exchange was prompted by applause from the audience when Rather rose, and by a snide jab of Nixon’s own).
Munro was not a reporter at that moment. He was a heckler, even though his question—“Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over Americans?”—while clearly baiting and tendentious, was legitimate. As is ridiculing, lampooning, lambasting, bitching out or even calling the president a liar, but in the proper context. Shouting it out during a State of the Union address, as Joe Wilson, the degraded South Carolina congressman, did three years ago, is adding insult to grandstanding. The attack on the president is of much less consequence than the attack on the office, on the moment, on the process, of which Wilson is allegedly a part: the insult was as much on himself as it was on republican principles (note the small ‘r,’ please.)
So it was with Munro. He wasn’t asking a question. He was grandstanding, insultingly and purposely, and mostly for the attention it would trigger, effectively derailing the moment. He succeeded. Carlson’s defense added to the ploy. In fairness to Carlson, who was traveling on a plane when questioned about the incident, he hadn’t seen the speech. He was reacting to what he was being told. He came to his reporter’s defense. But he did it badly. He’s not a fool. He knows the difference between heckling and asking questions. He’s been to innumerable speeches and news conferences. He also knows the buttons to push to frame the debate his way, on the sympathies of uncritical audiences who’ll only hear the Woodward-and-Bernstein spin of Carlson’s explanation, not its Joe Wilson boorishness: “He was doing what reporters are supposed to do — get their questions answered,” Carlson told Politico. “Presidents come out and they expect the press to act as stenographers — dutifully take down their every word and they retreat back into the White House. It’s very frustrating that they sit there every day and act … as politicians’ stenographer.”
The press, the right-wing and left-wing press both, did exactly what Carlson was describing from 2001 to 2003 and beyond, when—in press conference after press conference, and with Carlson in the amen corner—President Bush’s giant follies in Afghanistan and Iraq were indulged by reporters who’d abdicated their responsibilities in the name of the White House’s version of vote-buying, which back then took the form of patriotic pandering.
So Carlson is right. But he’s also being deceptive. Carlson is not only conflating method and circumstance, and hoping the public doesn’t notice. He’s slurring journalism by equating means and ends, by erasing the difference between method and propriety. No one is asking his reporter not to ask the tough questions, to be a ball-buster if necessary. Politicians and their handlers are asses by nature: it takes being an ass to crack the slime and get at the slivers of truth they’re occasionally capable of. But that’s what one-on-one interviews are for, or even news conferences, however phony and controlled those tend to be. Munro isn’t for that sort of grub. So he goes for a rhetorical Molotov cocktail.
And Carlson fuels it up, with superb effect. An “illegal” immigrant would have behaved more honorably.
Friday, June 15, 2012, Rose Garden, 2:09 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just — specifically for certain young people sometimes called “Dreamers.”
These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.
That’s what gave rise to the DREAM Act. It says that if your parents brought you here as a child, if you’ve been here for five years, and you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, you can one day earn your citizenship. And I have said time and time and time again to Congress that, send me the DREAM Act, put it on my desk, and I will sign it right away.
Now, both parties wrote this legislation. And a year and a half ago, Democrats passed the DREAM Act in the House, but Republicans walked away from it. It got 55 votes in the Senate, but Republicans blocked it. The bill hasn’t really changed. The need hasn’t changed. It’s still the right thing to do. The only thing that has changed, apparently, was the politics.
As I said in my speech on the economy yesterday, it makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians.
In the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, what we’ve tried to do is focus our immigration enforcement resources in the right places. So we prioritized border security, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history — today, there are fewer illegal crossings than at any time in the past 40 years. We focused and used discretion about whom to prosecute, focusing on criminals who endanger our communities rather than students who are earning their education. And today, deportation of criminals is up 80 percent. We’ve improved on that discretion carefully and thoughtfully. Well, today, we’re improving it again.
Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.
Now, let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is –
THE PRESIDENT: — the right thing to do.
Q — foreigners over American workers.
THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, sir. It’s not time for questions, sir.
Q No, you have to take questions.
THE PRESIDENT: Not while I’m speaking.
Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs — reform that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty about the workers that they’ll have. Reform that gives our science and technology sectors certainty that the young people who come here to earn their PhDs won’t be forced to leave and start new businesses in other countries. Reform that continues to improve our border security, and lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
Just six years ago, the unlikely trio of John McCain, Ted Kennedy and President Bush came together to champion this kind of reform. And I was proud to join 23 Republicans in voting for it. So there’s no reason that we can’t come together and get this done.
And as long as I’m President, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy — and CEOs agree with me — not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do, period. And I believe that, eventually, enough Republicans in Congress will come around to that view as well.
And I believe that it’s the right thing to do because I’ve been with groups of young people who work so hard and speak with so much heart about what’s best in America, even though I knew some of them must have lived under the fear of deportation. I know some have come forward, at great risks to themselves and their futures, in hopes it would spur the rest of us to live up to our own most cherished values. And I’ve seen the stories of Americans in schools and churches and communities across the country who stood up for them and rallied behind them, and pushed us to give them a better path and freedom from fear –because we are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.
And the answer to your question, sir — and the next time I’d prefer you let me finish my statements before you ask that question — is this is the right thing to do for the American people –
THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t ask for an argument. I’m answering your question.
Q I’d like to –
THE PRESIDENT: It is the right thing to do –
THE PRESIDENT: — for the American people. And here’s why –
Q — unemployment –
THE PRESIDENT: Here’s the reason: because these young people are going to make extraordinary contributions, and are already making contributions to our society.
I’ve got a young person who is serving in our military, protecting us and our freedom. The notion that in some ways we would treat them as expendable makes no sense. If there is a young person here who has grown up here and wants to contribute to this society, wants to maybe start a business that will create jobs for other folks who are looking for work, that’s the right thing to do. Giving certainty to our farmers and our ranchers; making sure that in addition to border security, we’re creating a comprehensive framework for legal immigration — these are all the right things to do.
We have always drawn strength from being a nation of immigrants, as well as a nation of laws, and that’s going to continue. And my hope is that Congress recognizes that and gets behind this effort.
All right. Thank you very much.
Q What about American workers who are unemployed while you import foreigners?
2:17 P.M. EDT
Angels don’t make a habit of visiting Upstate New York, particularly to talk books, even more particularly one called Mornoni, and in late September at that, when it gets pretty nippy in Upstate, so it was quite unusual that one did in 1823, dropping in on a young Joseph Smith with a preview of the Book of Mormons. It was a warm-up act to another revelation that starred no less than Jesus and God, neither of whom had ever made an appearance for, say, Mohammed in his dreamy phases, or Black Elk, or the encyclopedic number of men and women who, before Hollywood serialized storytelling on screen, imagined visions for millions.
With that advantage Smith pulled a Horace Greeley and went west, but only as far as Missouri and Illinois, where his bent for authoritarianism and silencing dissenting opinion got him jailed before fanatics of a different sort murdered him in his jail cell. It was left up to Brigham Young to carry on to Utah and carry through the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints, now 12 million strong worldwide and one of the fastest-growing Christian sects in the United States, ahead of Catholics (Islam currently holds the Speedy Gonzales title worldwide; Presbyterians are in the loss column). Joseph Smith begat Mormonism, Mormonism begat–as cults from Catholicism to Southern Baptism to Shiitism usually do–its share of mysterious rituals, elaborate belief systems, famous progenies, not least among them Mitt Romney, Harry Reid and Glenn beck. Roseanne Barr used to be a Mormon but didn’t like the male totalitarianism of its one-way streets and quit.
Romney’s prominence of course is giving Mormonism plenty of publicity, good and bad. J. Spencer Fluhman, assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘A Peculiar People’: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America, takes on the “fear” of Mormons in a column for The Times today. The column, oddly, lays out the many peculiarities and prejudices of Mormonism without refuting them. Rather, Fluhman appears to justify them by way of relativism: “Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good,” he writes. “By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian. Mitt Romney’s candidacy is only the latest opportunity for such stereotypes to be aired.”
But religions making Hatfields and McCoys of each other is the oldest trick in the book, the books of Mormonism included (“let them apostatize, and they will become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil,” Brigham Young writes in a double-whammy at religious transgressors and blacks. Among the innumerable dogmas Mormonism and Islam have in common is the disdain for those who leave the faith.) Fluhman at any rate doesn’t corrrect the record, but rather diagnoses it: “Any religion looks weird from the outside, but the image of Mormonism seems caught somewhere between perpetual strangeness and strait-laced blandness,” he writes. “Liberals were outraged by Mormon financing of Proposition 8, the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage in California. They scoff at Mormonism’s all-male priesthood and ask why church leaders have yet to fully repudiate the racist teachings of previous authorities.” Yes, but what about that financing? what about the all-male priesthood (no different, let’s be clear, than Catholicism) and the absence of repudiations for past bigotries? Southern Baptists crossed that line back in 1995.
“Some big-hearted evangelicals have recently reached out to Mormons with genuine understanding, but they must now fend off charges of getting too cozy with Satan’s minions,” he continues, a set-up for a swipe: “Because evangelicals are hard pressed for unity to begin with, and because they have defined themselves less and less in terms of historic Christian creeds, their objections to Mormonism might carry less and less cultural weight.”
He concludes: “Many conservatives, in fact, seem more concerned with Mr. Obama’s political heresies than with Mr. Romney’s religious ones. It may be that Mr. Obama’s unpopularity will prove a key factor in Mormonism’s continued mainstreaming. With politics and religion so inextricably linked in our culture, a Romney presidency would entail lasting effects for Mormonism and its image. Segments of the religious right might finally make peace with, if not quite accept, Mormonism’s various heterodoxies. The left may struggle to comprehend a steadily diversifying faith that has increasingly global reach. [...] But until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon.”
Especially if the contradictory impulses are inherent to Mormonism, and primarily unresolved from within.
In an interview with Oui, the late porn mag, in April 1975, the soon-to-be-late Gore Vidal was asked: “Why do you despise the heterosexual dictatorship?” Because it is a dictatorship, Vidal replied: “To hear two American men congratulating each other on being heterosexual is one of the most chilling experiences—and unique to the United States. You don’t hear two Italians sitting around complimenting each other because they actually like to go to bed with women. The American is hysterical about his manhood.” Why is that, Oui asked. “A lot of it,” Vidal replied, “is bullshit from the old frontier, where the only way you could judge a man was if he could knock somebody down—and of course the heterosexual male’s obsession with cock is far beyond that of any fag.”
It’s fun to see that what was once the domain of porn magazine interviews does on occasion descend to the somewhat lower form of journalism known as the Sunday chat show, as it did on Sunday when the Vidalesquely eponymous Dick Gregory played Oui to Joe Biden, the nation’s occasional vice president who, on Sunday, bared his pair on national television and sent the Obama White House scrambling. Biden, you see, had declared himself “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.
Obama is not absolutely comfortable with gay marriage. Obama, supreme hypocrite that he can be on some issues, still thinks Plessy v. Ferguson has validity when it comes to gays: they can have their civil unions, but they can’t marry. The bigotry rests on two untenable assumptions, if the Constitution is of any concern: gays are second class citizens; and government may define marriage from a religious, as opposed to civil, perspective (the entire crock about marriage being “between a man and a woman” takes its legitimacy from religious writings, not law). It’s almost a given that Obama will, or would, in a second term, make a turn for gay marriage, but one of the reasons his second term looks unlikely is precisely because of the kind of spineless stunts he’s been pulling on ay marriage: he’s a president of calculated half-measures, not a president of altar-worthy convictions.
The administration immediately described Biden’s comments as off-the-cuff, though they didn’t at all appear to be off the cuff in the Gregory interview: Gregory set up the subject carefully, narrowed it precisely, and asked Biden directly–as directly as he’d asked him about his certain place on the Obama-Biden ticket for 2012 moments earlier, as certainly as Gregory had asked him to describe what would be wrong with a Mitt Romney economy before that. The administration didn’t scramble to unscramble Biden’s comments when he said the rich need another tax cut “like they need another hole in their head.”
Here’ by the way, is the word for word transcript of Gregory’s Oui act with Biden:
DAVID GREGORY: You raise social policy. I’m curious. You know, the president has said that his views on gay marriage, on same-sex marriage have evolved. But he’s opposed to it. You’re opposed to it. Have your views– evolved?
BIDEN: Look– I just think– that– the good news is that as more and more Americans become to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what– what all marriages, at their root, are about. Whe– whether they’re– marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.
DAVID GREGORY: Is that what you believe now? Are you–
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: That’s what I believe. I– I– look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction– beyond that.
DAVID GREGORY: In a second term, will this administration come out behind same-sex marriage, the institution of marriage?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, I– I– I can’t speak to that. I– I– I– I don’t know the answer to that. But I can tell you–
DAVID GREGORY: It sounds like you’d like to see it happen. If that’s what the president would get–
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, the president continues to fight, whether it’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or whether it is making sure, across the board, that you cannot discriminate. Look– look the the executive orders he’s put in place. Any hospital that gets federal funding, which is almost all of them, they can’t deny a partner from being able to have access to their– their– their partner who’s ill or making the call on whether or not they– you know– it’s just– this is evolving. And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far. And I think– people fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand. They’re beginning to understand that this as a base–I– I was with– speaking to a group of gay leaders in– in Los Angeles– la– two, two weeks ago. And one gentleman looked at me in the question period and said, “Let me ask you, how do you feel about us?” And I had just walked into the back door of this gay couple and they’re with their two adopted children. And I turned to the man who owned the house. I said, “What did I do when I walked in?” He said, “You walked right to my children. They were seven and five, giving you flowers.” And I said, “I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys. And they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.”
DAVID GREGORY: Let me ask you on another topic about the politics– of national security.
I’m reminded of a different exchange, in December 1952, at the United States Supreme Court, when Paul Wilson, the Kansas assistant attorney general, appeared before the court to defend school segregation in his state. He told the court that separate but equal was the law of the land, unless 21 states and the District of Columbia “have been wrong for 75 years.” That’s the very same argument Islamists and their Christian equivalent brandish today in the face of gay-rights arguments: could the Bible have been wrong for two millenniums, or the Koran wrong for a millennium and a half? The natural-law answer, as opposed to the scriptural cop-out, being a resounding yes, echoed in the Supreme Court’s own answer as it re-interpreted the 14th Amendment in 1952, in a squirm out of the bleak box it had built for itself and the nation under Plessy v. Ferguson. Here’s that exchange:
JUSTICE BURTON: Don’t you recognize it as possible that within 75 years the social and economic conditions and the personal relations of the nation ,ay have changed so that what may have been a valid interpretation of them 75 years ago would not be a valid interpretation of them constitutionally today?
WILSON: We recognize that as a possibility. We do not believe that [the] record discloses any such change.
JUSTICE BURTON: But that might be a difference between saying that these courts of appeal and state supreme courts have been wrong for 75 years?
WILSON: Yes, sir. We concede that this court can overrule the [...] Plessy doctrine, but nevertheless until [it is] overruled [it is] the best guide we have.
At that point Felix Frankfurter, one of the squirliest justices in the court’s history, tried to sound like Solomon and ended up sounding like an Obama in training wheels, slicing hair in four instead of owning up to 75 years of idiocy and moving on (as the Warren decision finally did a year later): “As I understood my brother Burton’s question or as I got the implication of his question, it was not that the court would have to overrule those (separate but equal) cases; the court would simply have to recognize that laws are kinetic, and some new tings have happened, not deeming those decisions wrong, but bringing into play new situations toward a new decision.”
And you thought Bill Clinton, that beefy heterosexual, was being imaginative with his definition of is.
The parallels with the early 1950s were all over that Meet the Press interview on Sunday. Moments before going into the gay marriage business, Gregory had also asked Biden: “What’s more important to this administration? Standing up for freedom in China or maintaining a very delicate relationship with this emerging power?” Biden’s answer: “Standing up for freedom.” That had been FDR’s answer to fascism in the 1940s and Truman’s and Eisenhower’s answer to communism in the 1950s, even as blacks were being terrorized, lynched, murdered, and reminded at every turn that they were second class citizens. Let’s stand up for freedom for 1.3 billion Chinese today, just as long as 30 million gay Americans are still asked to bend over and take legalized discrimination up their Vidalias.
Sandra Fluke is a third-year law student at Georgetown University. Last week she testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on contraception, after she was blocked from testifying before another committee the previous week (in a hearing that featured only male panelists testifying on women’s health).
Her point: excluding contraception from health insurance coverage is a discriminating penalty on women. (Anti-impotence pills like Viagra, incidentally, are covered by most insurers, most insurance companies being led by older men on intimate terms with flaccidity.) “Without insurance coverage, contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that’s practically an entire summer’s salary. Forty percent of female students at Georgetown Law report struggling financially as a result of this policy.”
She went on: “In the worst cases, women who need this medication for other medical reasons suffer dire consequences. A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy. Under many religious institutions’ insurance plans, it wouldn’t be, and under Senator Blunt’s amendment, Senator Rubio’s bill, or Representative Fortenberry’s bill, there’s no requirement that an exception be made for such medical needs. When they do exist, these exceptions don’t accomplish their well-intended goals because when you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose aren’t, a woman’s health takes a
back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.”
Most of her testimony focused on just such stories. Needless to say, Fluke wasn’t speaking for unbridled sex (though it wouldn’t have been anyone’s business to judge her if she were, there being no difference between sex in the missionary position on Mondays and Thursdays, and sex at the drop of a drawer and whenever fancy strikes, except in the minds of those who can’t get any and will do their damndest to ensure that others don’t either). Nor, incidentally, did she speak about sex–hers or others–in terms of frequency: you won’t get less pregnant if you take more contraceptive pills, contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s understanding of sexuality (“She’s having so much sex, she’s going broke buying contraceptives and wants us to buy them,” is how he put it).
Fluke wasn’t even speaking for sex, though that’s how her testimony has been debauched on the shout-radio circuit, with Rush in lead. She was there speaking about fairness in contraceptive rules, and against the latest joint Republican-Catholic assault on women’s health. (You can watch Fluke’s full testimony below.)
And for that, Rush Limbaugh called her a slut. In full: “Well, what would you call someone who wants us to pay for her to have sex? What would you call that woman? You’d call ‘em a slut, a prostitute or whatever.” The defended his remarks. Then he piled on, with a few lesbian fantasies to boot:
Is it any wonder, Clinton wanted to go to this law school and why Hillary went to Wellesley? Is it any wonder? Where are the guys here? Do they not have a role here? We assume they’re having sex with guys. (interruption) Well, we’re talking about birth control, Snerdley. So you gotta assume having sex with guys. So, do they not have some responsibility? (interruption) Well, two women… I have to ask sex expert Snerdley on this, but I’m not aware that two women without another device can get pregnant on their own using naturally endowed accoutrements. I don’t think times have changed that much. (chuckles)
Now, I am 61. Maybe something I haven’t heard about that two women together would need contraception. That’s a whole new ball game if that’s the case. But I don’t think we’re talking about that. So it means there are men involved and that would mean there’s some responsibility on the part of the men. Do they not have condoms? Why don’t these women go ask the men to buy them contraception? Why go before a congressional committee and demand that all of us — because they want to have sex any time, as many times and as often as they want, with as many partners as they want — should pay for it? Whatever, no limits on this. I mean, they’re going broke having to buy contraception! They’re getting back-alley pills, folks. That’s what this leads up to.
They’re getting back-alley pills, folks. This from a pill-popping addicts who, while excoriating drug addicts on his show and hiding his pill-popping from his wife but not hesitating to use his maid (a woman, of course) as his runner, had bought 30,000 hydrocodone, Lorcet and Oxycontin pills and illegally fed his addiction. Now, this paragon of honor and integrity–whom cops subsequently detained a few years ago for carrying Viagra pills he’d not been prescribed–is calling Sandra Fluke a slut.
There was not so much as a disapproving murmur from the Catholic church, naturally–women, with Eve’s apple-seduction for evidence, being natural-born sluts in the church’s eyes–or from those congressional Republicans who’d been trying to give religious organizations and private businesses the right to opt out of including birth control–but not Viagra–in their insurance plans. Not so far, anyway, though condemnations from less reactionary circles have been more promiscuous.
At least the Senate stopped the exclusionary ploy Thursday. But that farce of a controversy over contraception isn’t over. Not with Rush whipping it out and Republicans, delirious over their disappearing chances to have a competitive run at Obama in November, scrounge for bogus issues to keep the illusion of opposition going. If there ever was a need for a prophylactic to syphilitic discourse, this is it.
It’s not enough that Palm Coast is unemployment and foreclosure central in the national eye. Add now wife-shootings by husbands dumb enough to be playing with their AK-47s during a child’s bath time: I just finished taping a half-hour segment on Nancy Grace—CNN’s equivalent of a prosecutorial Panzer division of one—who’s taking on the case of William Merrill’s shooting of his wife in tonight’s show. So much for Palm Coast urging Americans to find their Florida here.
She wanted FlaglerLive to provide whatever scraps of information may not yet have been over-reported by now. None has. (The story is making the rounds of the world’s time zones and should by dawn reach Voyager II in the Kuiper belt.) I was happy to oblige anyway, my previous CNN appearance having taken place in the dead air of a Saturday afternoon (during oil-spill season) when a total audience of seven in North Dakota might’ve been watching. So it was nice to hear FlaglerLive’s name repeated a few times for a prime-time double-header (she’s on at 8 and 10 p.m.) Not to worry: I declined appearing on camera, the idea of shlepping it to Jacksonville again to speak 73 words in exchange for losing four hours out of my work day having about as much appeal as, say, hearing Hannity howl for five minutes, and my Skype connection–CNN’s other option–being too annoying to bother with. Stick to phone line and mug shot.
I might have dropped in three sentences here and there when she asked what we know so far—nothing you don’t know by now—and a couple of words about Merrill’s arsenal (he had 20 guns in his house, 14 of them rifles, counting the AK-47, including a .50-caliber piece). But Grace, who had me silenced at “20 guns,” was already at the sentencing stage.
I gave an answer she did not seem eager to hear when she asked whether it was true that Merrill had changed his story: the version on record so far is that he was pointing the gun at his wife, Stefanie, and chatting up the brightness of the laser beam when he pulled the trigger, supposedly not knowing it was loaded. Somewhere along the way a TV station reported that he’d initially told detectives that he was cleaning his gun, though there’s no word of that in the 7-minute 911 call where he describes himself pointing the gun at Stefanie.
Grace asked me what there was to the story. We don’t know that, I told her. Cue the editing shears. She turned to one of her producers for more fleshy details about the cleaning-the gun angle, then took that and went at one of the two defense attorneys she’d invited on the show, ridiculing the oldest excuse in the book: “I was cleaning my gun.” She does not like defense attorneys.
References to the AK-47 dropped like bullets in Beirut (I really should update that simile to something more current). She had a weapons expert on the show, who showed the weapon and how to chamber a bullet. When she asked him what the AK stands for, he didn’t know. She filled in the answer: “It stands for assault.” Close: Automatic is more like it (though it’s been mis-reported as standing for Alexander, after the gun inventor’s name, but there is no Alexander in “Mikhail Kalashnikov,” and the guy got his K in there for recognition. The 47? That was the year the gun was approved for mass production in the Soviet Union by one of the century’s great mass murderers: Josef Stalin. I’m surprised Nancy didn’t drop his name for effect, the show being nothing if not about effect.
I would have loved to bring up a disturbing detail in Merrill’s past: In July 2007 (a year after he was arrested for head-butting his wife, a case dropped when Stefanie asked the State Attorney’s office to drop the charges), when he was arrested for grand theft, he told the investigating officer that he was a felon—and that he had two .22 caliber Lady Derringers at his home. The officer asked him if he knew that it was against the law to own guns as a felon. Merrill knew. “Mr. Merrill stated that he would call his wife Stefanie Miller to gather the guns and turn them over” to the officer. The officer went to the Merrill house at 61 Westminster Drive and collected two .22-caliber Lady Deringers “and several boxes of bullets.”
The state attorney did not pursue charges.
One other detail, which Nancy Grace would have had no reason to be interested in, but which should be relevant to Flagler County readers: the arresting agency in the grand theft and weapons charges was the Bunnell Police Department. And the arresting and investigating officer? None other than John Murray, the same John Murray who, three days after the fatal shooting of Stefanie Merrill, copped a plea in Flagler County Circuit Court on six felony charges, down to a no-contest plea on a marijuana possession charge. He’s now on 18 months’ probation.
I never got the chance to tell her about “finding my Florida.” In light of what William Merrill was doing, literally playing around in his Palm Coast home, the opening lyrics of that clunky little jingle now serving as Palm Coast’s marketing pitch have a sound too ominous for comfort (see below). Considering the attention this case is getting, and may continue to get, the city’s marketing platoon might want to think about a little rewrite of that opening line: “You can feel at home while you play as you please.”
Tell that to Stefanie Merrill.
Palm Coast’s Unfortunate Jingle:
Frequent commenter Will dropped a few lines last night about the Jason DeLorenzo-Waste Pro matter, referring to today’s Observer re-endorsement of DeLorenzo as “fair and balanced with a historical perspective that’s completely missed by most of the writers above.” From the looks of it the fair-and-balanced talking point is the Sesame Street parody of the day (see the full comments here and here).
Invoking the Palm Coast Observer in these pages and knocking my commenters all in one breath was ballsy of Will if not quite with a full pair. In these matters signing one’s name and affiliations would be nice, considering the irony of speaking of objectivity and disclosures behind a fake name. Speaking of disclosure: I have nothing against Jason personally and little against him politically. Based on his less-than-Methuselahan age alone I’d have been happy to give him my vote unreservedly. If there’s an issue with his campaign with the $500 donation he pocketed from Waste Pro, as there must be, it’s entirely of his own creation.
So is the reserve he’s inspiring in those who’d have otherwise voted for him, though this morning Jason told me that he will (unequivocally) return the $500 to Waste Pro. That’s a good re-start.
Back to you, Will. Since it’s not only Jason’s judgment that’s in question here but how and why this story is being reported and commented on, I have to jump in. The historical perspective you’re referring to is a red herring. This is about the timing of a donation in the here and now that raises serious questions of ethics and judgment, questions that should be raised even more by Jason’s subsequent explanations and hedging. And that history of yours is no feather in Jason’s cap. To the contrary. The Observer’s contorted explanation about Jason’s opposition to the 10 percent franchise fee on commercial haulers (the bit about the fee giving national haulers an advantage and benefiting Waste Pro has to be a distinguished entry in the classics of disingenuity) couldn’t have made the point better: he was a shill for those companies and against the city’s financial soundness. Residents pay that franchise fee, masked as it is in the city’s 7 percent skim off the Waste Pro contract. Why shouldn’t commercial haulers?
Jason later said that I’d misunderstood: It’s not the franchise fee that gave the large haulers the competitive advantage, exactly. He had a problem with the fee because it was a tax hidden as a fee. “If you’re going to tax me, just tax me, don’t hide it in my garbage bill.” Agreed. Nor would the haulers have been allowed to line-item the fee. The annual fee would have been about $2,500 a year, a steep fee for smaller haulers, and the haulers would have had to show the city their books. I still don;t have an issue with the fee, let alone with haulers showing their books: they’re doing what is essentially a very public business. They should show their books.
The Observer piece then argues against itself again and again with its examples: “Holsey Moorman is on the board of the Florida Hospital Flagler. Does that mean he can’t be trusted to vote on issues regarding the hospital?” Of course not. Example: last year, without ever mentioning for the record that he was on the board, he unsurprisingly dissented in the 3-2 vote preventing the hospital from having its electronic sign out front. He just took a nice $400 donation from Dave Ottati, the hospital CEO. The Observer quotes Frank Meeker’s employment with the St. Johns River Water Management District. “Does that mean he can’t be trusted to speak objectively on lawn-watering policies or desalination?” Meeker’s uncritically swallowing desal’s boondoggle-rich potential aside, you really think he could have regained his job at the district with all that lobbying he did—after being laid off a few months ago—if he hadn’t been the district’s advocate? You get the idea, though to say that we live in a politically dirty town isn’t saying much. Dirty politics is a tradition as old as the first humanoid habitats of East Africa. So is the papering over of the dirt—in this case, with the convenient intercession of a trash hauler—with ingenious rationales, kind of like those Clinton invoked in ’93 and Cain is invoking now against their bimbo eruptions. Let’s just not pretend that those rationales make everything hunky-dory.
You’re right: the Observer piece is as “fair and balanced” as any work of journalism that lives down to that conceit can be, understanding that it was a re-endorsement: papers have a long tradition of doing what they can to get their favorites elected. More power to them, but let’s not confuse the meaning of endorsement from a paper whose owner’s daughter is running Jason’s treasury.
And there is that matter of journalism, and that snide little jab at Dennis Cross in the second graph—Cross “who first noticed the donation,” as if to suggest that Cross was up to a little smearing all on his own, though these financial reports are detailed and public for the asking. Again, the Observer argues against itself and the quality of its journalism—and mine, and the News-Journal’s: the failure here is ours as local media. That financial report came out a couple of weeks ago. I’m in the habit of looking at those reports religiously. I failed in this case. I hadn’t even requested it. The donation had to be pointed out to me (hold your britches: it wasn’t Cross, though it would have been irrelevant had it been him), the point being that the Observer, the News-Journal and FlaglerLive should have been falling all over each other in their analysis of those reports and reporting their findings immediately. Instead, we were asleep, displaying once again the reliably shoddy quality of our local journalism and having to play catch-up. No wonder dirty politics thrives in this town. With media like ours, the foxes must be ecstatic.
I’m no fan of Herman Cain, the latest-day saint of the GOP’s basic-cable reenactment of the Ziegfeld Follies. But I am a fan of his latest campaign ad, the one featuring Mark Block, his campaign’s chief of staff, taking a lusty drag on his cigarette after making a conventional pitch for his man (“We’ve run a campaign like nobody’s ever seen, but then America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain”). Have a look:
The video went viral after being mistaken for a hoax. A smoker? in 2011? And that impish grin Cain spins out at the end, like a slow-mo Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” but without the mess (Cain is, after all, proposing to exorcise America of its latest liberal witchcraft: dial 999.)
But it’s the smoking part that’s got a few people riled up with that how-dare-he sense of self-righteousness so common now when it comes to some of life’s most pleasurable but nevertheless still legal vices. I’m not a smoker, at least not cigarettes. I like to have an occasional pipe or a cigar, but only when the temperature falls into the 40s. Cigarettes, which killed one of my fathers, tend to make me a bit sick even from a distance, and also nostalgic, having grown up around broods of smokers who thought nothing of lighting up–whether pregnant, at bedtime, at the dinner table or at the latest funeral for the latest victim of cigarette-induced cancer.
What makes me sicker is the judgments about smokers, whatever they’re smoking, and the way smokers have been marginalized, forced to virtually hide their habits or segregate themselves on side stoops and side alleys. We have no more lepers to ostracize, so we go after smokers. Sure their illnesses cost more. But so does butter. So does red meat. So does Republicanism’s dopey modern version. So does I-95, for that matter. The Cain ad seems finally to say the hell with it.
“You walk into a veterans’ bar in Iowa and they’re sitting around smoking, and yeah, we are resonating with them,” Block told Fox News. “I’m not the only one that smokes in America for God’s sake. It’s a choice that I made, and was at the end of the ad.” Why should he even have to justify it?
Don’t forget who else smokes: Barack Obama. He claims to have quit once he entered the White House. Hard to believe. We’ll find out sooner or later that he’s still sneaking his sticks left and right about as much as Bill Clinton was sneaking his whoppers and fries. And why the hell not. His choice. His rights. His lungs.
Not to mention the very best argument for a shorter lifespan these days: a brief look and whiff of any nursing home of your choice, where the stink of miserably prolonged life is worse than any cigarette smoke ever likely to cross your nose. Poor inmates in those worse-than-prison homes. They forbid them to smoke, too. Wouldn’t want the checks to stop prematurely. For nursing homes, at $78,000 a year per patient, a life prolonged, however tortuously, is money in the bank for those who nail the no-smoking signs to our liberties’ coffin.
Now, if we could only get the smoke to clear out from Cain’s gray cells and his remarkable ability to ridicule simple math, maybe we’ll have something.
Here’s Betrand Russell, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, who lived to be about 767 years old, declaring: “I owe my life to smoking.”:
FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam’s weekly commentaries are broadcast on WNZF on Fridays just after 9 a.m. Here’s this week’s.
Let’s take a break from collapsing economies, collapsing presidential administrations, poll numbers, consumer confidence, stock markets and peace initiatives in formerly holy lands and talk about something a lot more hopeful and enriching in our own backyard: our theater scene right here in Flagler County.
- “The Laramie Project” at Palm Coast’s New Repertory Theatre: This Is Who We Are
- Laughs in a Trance at Flagler Playhouse’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”
- Sbordone’s Next Act: Ex-Playhouse Director Opens New Theater With Poetry Clash
- The Flagler Playhouse Archives
Last night I attended a preview of the Flagler Playhouse’s 33rd season opener, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Theoretically it has nothing to do with neighboring Putnam County, though the play could be set in any of America’s 3,145 counties. The musical comedy opened off Broadway in 2005 and went on to win five Tony awards, for good reason. It’s a hilarious and freshly modern look at the lovable squareness of early-teen misfits through the unlikely setting of a spelling bee. What’s usually a nail-biting bore here turns into a two-hour attack of one-liners with punch-lines for every ethnic- and gluten-free denomination—Presbyterian, Jewish, gay, nerd, weird and a few others that can’t be defined except by boys wearing sandals and white socks stretched to the knees. There’s also a cameo by Jesus Christ and, for added surprises, the Playhouse is throwing local celebrities, co-called—I hear Mayor Jon Netts may be one tonight—up on stage as mingling participants with the rest of the squares.
On the more serious side of theater-town, there’s the new City Repertory Theatre’s excellent staging of “The Laramie Project,” the story of Matthew Shephard, the gay University of Wyoming student tortured and murdered in 1998. The City Repertory Theatre is the creation of John Sbordone, who used to be at the Playhouse until last year. His new theater is operating out of the Hollingsworth Gallery at City Market Place, behind Walmart, in a setting reminiscent of 1970s storefront theaters in Manhattan’s SoHo.
That a play like “The Laramie Project” is being produced here says a lot about how far this town has come. That the first three performances filled the theater says a lot about how starved this place is for serious theater. There are just two performances left, tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
JJ Graham, the owner of Hollingsworth Gallery, painted “Somewhere Between Love and Hate” (see the painting above) especially for the “Laramie” showing: the painting is going to be given away in a raffle. It’s just $10 to enter.
You can read more details on “Laramie” here, and a review of “Spelling bee” here. Since we’re talking books and words, let me also use this opportunity for a shameless plug. If you’re into banned books, I’ll be delivering the Friends of the Library’s Banned Book Week address at the Flagler County Public Library next Monday at 2 p.m. Naturally, the lecture will be ban-worthy. See you there.
Last Updated: 10:30 p.m.
10:30 p.m. update: US Supreme Court has rejected Davis’s final appeal.
9:01 p.m. update: Absolutely disgusting, the Georgia State Police’s display of force–100 troopers in riot gear, choppers, more cop cars than in Sugarland Express, eyeballing the crowd. How can that be necessary? How can that not be inflaming? Details from the Journal-Constitution: “A convoy of troopers in at least 15 cars arrived to join their colleagues at the site. Meanwhile, officials from the Atlanta University Center and Savannah State University asked their students at the protest to return to their buses to return to their respective campuses. The departure of at least three busloads of students appeared to reduce the crowd by about a third or more.” So the crowd thins. Cops swell up.
8:20 p.m. update: The Supreme Court is taking an unusually long time to make its decision–or to take no decision, though legally speaking, Georgia could go ahead with the execution–and could have done so as of 7 p.m. The delay from the court suggests wither that all nine justices have not had a chance to weigh in, or that some disagreement is in play. Meanwhile, this is what the Journal-Constitution reported a little while ago: “MacPhail’s mother Anneliese, surrounded by friends and relatives at her home, was leafing through photos of her son, and in her words “smoking like a steam engine” as she awaited word on whether the execution would proceed tonight.” No word on what’s going on inside the prison, where the last hour and twenty minutes could not have been anything less than torture for Davis: another illustration of the barbarity of it all. Outside the prison, cops in riot gear lined up as if it were Kent State, circa 2011, though the protesters throughout these days and weeks of protests have never been anything but peaceful. It’s the state whose violence is in question, as it is again with this contrived display of force.
6:56 p.m. update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting in a headline that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Davis’s appeal. But no other news organization has that development yet, and the Atlanta paper itself doesn’t elaborate past its headline. Nevertheless, because of the last-minute appeal, the execution has been delayed past its scheduled 7 p.m. time.
As it turned out, at 7:05 p.m., the paper corrected its headline, reverting back to its previous headline saying only that the Georgia Supreme Court had rejected the appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is still pending.
6:02 p.m. update: From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Davis’ chance to be spared execution suffered a blow this afternoon as first Superior Court Judge Thomas Wilson declined to issue a stay and then the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected Davis’ final bid. Davis’ lawyers will now appeal to the the U.S. Supreme Court, his last chance for relief.”
At 7 p.m. tonight Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at the Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga.
- Times: A Grievous Wrong
- Amnesty International: Too Much Doubt
- The Troy Davis Petition
- Capital Punishment As a Crime More Dreadful Than Murder: Dostoyevsky on the Guillotine
- Florida’s Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional
- Executions Should Be Televised
It is the latest death penalty case involving a conviction that does not pass the reasonable doubt test: a mountain of doubt has accumulated since the conviction. Those doubts include revelations of slapdash, intentionally contaminating and manipulative police work, seven of nine witnesses’ recanting their testimonies (let’s be precise: partially recanted part of their testimonies), the confession to the killing by the man who first accused Davis, and race, never a distant motive in capital-case convictions in the South, again playing a role. The required standard for the death penalty is not merely that the victim is guilty of a capital crime, but that guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. It is beyond doubt that that standard was never met in Davis’s case, and that a steady stream of new evidence has only intensified the doubt.
Still, the Georgia Parole Board, which alone can stop the execution at this point, said it will not do so.
Davis will have spent six of his last 10 hours (from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) with family. He’ll have had his last meal at 4 p.m. Unlike some states, Davis won’t get a choice. Georgia death row inmates eat the same meal as the rest of the 2,100 inmates at the Jackson prison. Today’s dinner: a cheeseburger, potatoes, baked beans, slaw, cookies and a grape drink.
As always with death row inmates, Davis has been on death watch for several days: in one of the more scabrous of many scabrous features of the death-penalty ritual, prison guards don’t want inmates taking their own life. That would be giving them too much freedom. They want the fun reserved for the dirtied solemnity of the state’s routine of what amounts to to state-sponsored murder, a more premeditated and indefensible sort than the kind that lands murderers on death row to start with. Today’s planned killing heightens the barbarity of the spectacle, and of the government’s crime, which in this case very likely exceeds that of Davis.
He wouldn’t be the first, nor the hundredth, victim of a wrongful execution. According to the Innocence Project, 273 people facing the death penalty have been exonerated since 1989 through DNA testing in the United States. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of those exonerated were minorities, who are disproportionately represented on death row.
Eyewitness testimonies, alone used to convict Davis, is often unreliable, and certainly was so in Davis’s case.
On August 19, 1989, Mark MacPhail, an off-duty cop, was working security at the Greyhound Bus Terminal connected to the Burger King at 601 W. Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah. At about 1 a.m., MacPhail went to the Burger King parking lot to breakup a fight. McPhail was shot and killed: a bullet to the face, a bullet to the heart. He was married, he had a 2-year-old daughter and a younger son. Four days later, Davis surrendered to police in connection with the events that night, which involved a lot more than that particular shooting and several other people. He pleaded not guilty to the killing.
“This case has attracted worldwide attention, but it is, in essence, no different from other capital cases,” The Times writes today. “Across the country, the legal process for the death penalty has shown itself to be discriminatory, unjust and incapable of being fixed. Just last week, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for Duane Buck, an African-American, hours before he was to die in Texas because a psychologist testified during his sentencing that Mr. Buck’s race increased the chances of future dangerousness. Case after case adds to the many reasons why the death penalty must be abolished.”
Davis is facing execution for the fourth time. His killing was scheduled three times before: July 17, 2007, Sep. 23, 2008 and Oct. 27, 2008. It’s unlikely to be halted this time, ensuring a miscarriage of justice.
Amazingly, at two minutes to 7 p.m., CNN ran the cheeky story of a woman with a big Afro whose hair was searched by airport security. The story ran all the way to 7 p.m. And we wonder why few people give a flying fling when something like today’s killing takes place. The woman with the Afro, incidentally, was flying out of Atlanta.
Below is a letter from Troy Davis published by News One for Black America, to which I was alerted by Brad Davis at our the FlaglerLive Facebook page. (Thanks Brad).
I want to thank all of you for your efforts and dedication to Human Rights and Human Kindness, in the past year I have experienced such emotion, joy, sadness and never ending faith. It is because of all of you that I am alive today, as I look at my sister Martina I am marveled by the love she has for me and of course I worry about her and her health, but as she tells me she is the eldest and she will not back down from this fight to save my life and prove to the world that I am innocent of this terrible crime.
As I look at my mail from across the globe, from places I have never ever dreamed I would know about and people speaking languages and expressing cultures and religions I could only hope to one day see first hand. I am humbled by the emotion that fills my heart with overwhelming, overflowing Joy. I can’t even explain the insurgence of emotion I feel when I try to express the strength I draw from you all, it compounds my faith and it shows me yet again that this is not a case about the death penalty, this is not a case about Troy Davis, this is a case about Justice and the Human Spirit to see Justice prevail.
I cannot answer all of your letters but I do read them all, I cannot see you all but I can imagine your faces, I cannot hear you speak but your letters take me to the far reaches of the world, I cannot touch you physically but I feel your warmth everyday I exist.
So Thank you and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country.
I can’t wait to Stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form, I will one day be announcing,
“I AM TROY DAVIS, and I AM FREE!”
Never Stop Fighting for Justice and We will Win!
It was a morning of celebration, of self-congratulations, of ironies and crossed fingers: the very people who wanted to be done with South Bunnell’s Carver Gym a little over a year ago—the members of the Flagler County Commission—were back Saturday at Carver Gym, applauding each other, and particularly applauding Commissioner Barbara Revels, for not only giving Carver a reprieve from their planned execution, but for rebuilding it into a glittering community and youth center.
The applause is deserved. The short attention span isn’t, particularly in South Bunnell, where history is a recurring whitewash to the benefit of those who’d rather not hear it. That’s why, after covering this story for the last 15-odd months, I have a hard time applauding without at least some reserve.
- Revels: Carver Gym’s Journey from Legacy to Ashes And Back–and How To Sustain It
- Youth Center II: Carver Gym Rises Again As School District Takes Over Management
- How Race and Deception Are Cleaving the Fate of Bunnell’s Carver Gym
Over those months Carver Gym managed to be a symbol of both the insensitivity and hypocrisy of local governments’ attitude toward the poorest and most persistently ignored section of Flagler County—and, not coincidentally, its blackest—and those same governments’ willingness to correct their course and vastly improve on it. They created the very crisis they surmounted, which makes today’s applause a bit self-serving, but they surmounted it so well that the crisis is now a footnote. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The cooperation between governments that made the revival possible is rarely seen in this county. But to say that Carver’s revival could not have happened without that cooperation is a stretch: the county could have easily continued its commitment on its own. It cost less than $120,000 a year to run the gym—a pittance in a $65 million budget, especially when compared to, for example, the $400,000 a year the county is now willing to spend on its amorphous gamble on “economic development” (a sum that would likely have far greater impact on the development of South Bunnell’s ghetto youth). To its credit, the county invested large sums in improving the physical structure of the gym, building gorgeous classrooms upstairs and game rooms downstairs, and using donated money—including $5,000 from the Kiwanis Club—to stock the place with a gigantic television and an entertainment system that would be the envy of every couch potato from here to Garfield. (This is the work of an unsung workhorse in the county administration, Heidi Petito.) The ID and security systems have yet to be installed.
Several educational programs will operate out of the gym, including the school board’s GED classes and the VOICE program, which teaches young people modes of expression through photography and writing.
But let’s not overdo the self-congratulations, either: the county did nothing less than what it should have been doing all along. There’s something distasteful about a government, or a bunch of governments, finally doing what they’re supposed to be doing—providing decent recreation and community centers, air conditioning, cleanliness, bathrooms, computer access—then turning the whole thing into some sort of stupendous achievement for which they should be praised. You don’t award medals for finally showing up, though show up they did: today’s event featured the entire county commission (one of whose members, Nate McLaughlin, was not on the board when it sought to end funding for Carver), four members of the Bunnell City Commission (where were you, Elbert Tucker?), three members of the school board (again with the absence of a Tucker), and even Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts.
Today’s rededication is a story of contrasts between what dismal place Carver had become, and what a fantastic place it now is, though it’s doubtful that if it had been, say, on the greener, leafier grounds of Palm Coast Parkway and Clubhouse Drive, or on the campus of FPC, it would not have been allowed to decay.
And let’s not forget that the county is scaling back. The county’s financial commitment to the day-to-day operation of the place has been cut considerably. The involvement of Bunnell, the school board, the sheriff’s office and the Carver Center’s own non-profit foundation are picking up a large portion of the $75,000 the county is no longer contributing. Revels led the foundation’s extremely successful fund-raising, including an electronic auction that involved government, private and business individuals from across the county. But six times the money she raised was blown on that $7,000-a-day “facilitator” the county hired to lead those serial and endless economic development summits that led nowhere earlier this year. The county (Revels included) thought not one iota of spending that money, yet Revels’s foundation must now slave to raise comparatively minute amounts that nevertheless mean the difference between life and death for Carver.
Revels, whose role in making the revival possible can’t be understated, knows it’s not about the gala opening. It’s about sustainability: what happens next, and whether contributors will stick to their commitments. “This is where the rubber meets the road,” Revels said after today’s ceremonies, “this is where we’ve got to really persevere and keep the enthusiasm going from the whole community. People are telling me that they’re going to be engaged, and we just have to keep that happening and do it for the betterment of our youth.”
In a stark irony, those youths were absent today: not a single neighborhood child or young adult—the very people for whom the gym is ostensibly being rededicated—was in the audience. They were supposed to have been invited. Fliers were made and should have been distributed door to door. Eddie Johnson, the soccer star and Bunnell native, who spoke some moving words about his connection to Bunnell and the gym, should have had younger people there in droves. But three young men standing on the porch of a house across the street from the gym during the audible festivities, including Shaquille Neal, 18, who spent his life in the shadow of the gym, hadn’t heard about the rededication. Neal was wondering what was going on inside. Little did he know that it was, in part, about him, or for him.
“I’ve seen it for, like, 18 years,” Neal said of Carver Gym. “At least they didn’t tear it down. That’s the best part of it.” He’d played a tournament there while it was being rebuilt, but he hadn’t seen the playrooms and classrooms yet. Neal is the nephew of Elijah Emmanuel, better known as Sugarpops, the county staffer at Carver Gym all these years. Neal was with Davon Smith, and Javon Heath, both 17 and of more recent vintage in the area (all three are students at Flagler Palm Coast High School). None had heard about the rededication. They all hope to use the place (though Heath isn’t into basketball: football is his game), but they couldn’t understand another irony about the rededicated center: it has no set weekend hours, and it shuts down at 7 p.m. on weekdays. For high school students who get home in late afternoon and are expected to do their homework before going out to play, that doesn’t leave much time for use of the center, Neal said.
Cheryl Massaro, director of the Flagler County Youth Center on the FPC campus, is now also the director of the Carver Center. She says the schedule is limited because staffing is limited—which is to say: money is limited. The county cut one position in its scale-back. This is where small government’s rubber meets the road. There may be special activities on Saturdays, but for now, absent a strong corps of volunteers, something Revels wants to build up, the gym will be closed when the youths it’s designed to serve could use it most.
No money? Keep in mind that the $400,000 the county just dedicated to “economic development” (and will re-dedicate next year, and the year after that, in likely fatter sums but without ceremony) will be spent on very expensive salaries for a few individuals with very important titles who know all the economic development buzzwords and how to photoshop splendid reports that talk about economic development and summarize economic development conferences they will have attended in wonderful venues on per diems that could easily pay for a couple more of those entertainment centers at Carver every year. For an eighth of that $400,000 the county could also pay for weekend hours at the gym, providing a place for Bunnell’s youths who presumably have their future ahead of them.
Let’s preferably believe there’s no money. It’s easier. And there’s still plenty of applause.