The price of principles vs. rhetoric of empty platitudes

lone-bird

When white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine blacks inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston in 2015 there was a gnashing of teeth among some about how white society was complicit in Roof’s actions.

One journalist, a South Carolinian writing in the Washington Post, pulled no punches when describing how whites, particularly Southern whites, were responsible:

So I and every other white South Carolinian who has let the racist jokes go unchecked, who has looked the other way at some sanctioned act of bigotry, who has not taken the time and effort to listen to what black people have to say about their experience, is, in some sense, responsible for Dylann Roof – even as he remains responsible for his own actions. Every white South Carolinian … is responsible for Dylann Roof. He is our child. We should have never let him fall into whatever hell he occupied when he decided to go into that church. Of course, 99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does. We white southerners – those of us who left, the others who stayed, and even those millions who have migrated to the Sun Belt – are all Dylann Roof. We are all responsible. We cannot shirk it. We cannot go forward until we fix ourselves. We must organize ourselves, educate ourselves and come together to fight against white supremacy. If we don’t, there will always be another Dylann Roof around the corner. And in the mirror.

At the time I disagreed, and I continue to disagree with the idea that every white South Carolinian, or every white Southerner, or all whites – take your pick – is responsible for the heinous actions of one, or a handful, of extremist bigots.

I was reared by parents who actively pointed out the errors of racism and bigotry, and I have done the same with my children. I was told right from wrong, warned of the perils that would befall me were I to commit such idiotic acts as using racially charged terms and expected to live it. My children have been imbued with the same expectations.

I’ve instilled in my children the idea that while we can’t undo the past, we can make the present more tolerable by realizing that we’re no better or worse than anyone else just because of our background.

We need to listen to those different from us, recognize that their experiences and backgrounds give them different perspectives, but also understand that self-flagellation for sins we did not commit doesn’t move the ball forward in terms of reconciliation, either.

Our society has many flaws, including racism, but I am not going to bear the cross of hateful acts committed by the intolerant, even if others insist I do.

So where is this going? Last week one of my daughters got a glimpse of ugliness that I never witnessed in my many years of schooling.

She attends a magnet high school in a well-regarded school district in South Carolina. I will not name the school, for reasons that hopefully will be obvious.

The weekend before last she received a group text from a friend’s boyfriend. It said simply, “Join me and (his girlfriend) as we kill all blacks with the KKK.” It was followed with a second text, an attachment that was an application for the Ku Klux Klan.

My daughter was upset by the texts and told the boy that it wasn’t funny and that he was to stop.

She showed it to me later and we contacted the school. The school took the matter seriously and took action against the boy, though it would not disclose what action.

However, my daughter is now being harassed by the kids who were part of the group text, and others, being called out in particular for being a “snitch.” Already shy, she now dreads going to school.

I can tell her all day long she did the right thing, but it’s not much consolation when she walks into class and kids are talking about her, or are sending her text messages about how she’s ruined someone’s life because she went to school officials about something she knew was wrong.

I can tell her that we don’t get many chances in life to do the right thing in truly difficult situations, and that most people take the path of least resistance when those few opportunities present themselves, but it doesn’t make it any easier to handle the glares, the whispers or being blocked on social media when you’re 16 years old.

I don’t know how this happens, that a 16-year-old boy, whether simply showing off in an utterly misguided fashion or displaying some very serious problems, thinks it’s OK to voice such views, never mind send them to others via technology.

Where does someone at the age of 16 even get such ideas? I don’t know.

But I do know that if anyone ever tries to pin the blame for the racially motivated actions of others, past of present, on any of my children, especially my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently dealing with being ostracized for speaking up when everyone else failed to so much as utter a peep of protest, they’re going to get a stern word or three from a certain father.

Bottom line: if we’re ever to reach any sort of understanding regarding the past, it will be through compassion, empathy and standing up for right, not by ladling out, or taking on, heaping doses of collective white guilt.

Protecting monopolies under the guise of reducing risk

tucson-homeless

To paraphrase English playwright William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an occupational licensing board catching wind of an “nonprofessional” practicing said profession.

In Arizona, for example, the state board of cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving a complaint that he gave free haircuts to the homeless.

Montesdeoca committed the deeds on Jan. 28 at a downtown Tucson library, after organizing the event through a Facebook group and soliciting help from volunteers. He did it “out of the kindness of my heart,” and in memory of his mother, who loved her hair, he told Tucson News Now.

That didn’t set well with the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which began an investigation after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

What one man views as charity another sees as unwanted competition, apparently.

The Arizona board is pulling out its big bag of disjoined logic in an effort to keep Montesdeoca and other “do-gooders” like him from helping those unable to afford haircuts.

Those getting their hair cut outside a licensed salon by an unlicensed person run a real risk, according to Donna Aune, the board’s executive director, adding that state law prohibits a person from practicing cosmetology without a license.

Remember, we’re talking about haircuts, not letting back-alley butchers remove gall bladders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those who wanted to braid hair legally in South Carolina had to demonstrate 300 hours of training. If one decided to use hair extensions as part of said braiding, regulations required a full cosmetologist curriculum, some 1,500 hours of class.

I’ve seen youngsters learn to braid hair in 15 minutes. What possible reason could there be to have required 300 hours of training, or to force someone who wants to apply extensions to take a 1,500-hour cosmetologist curriculum except to winnow out competition?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the costs of occupational licenses outweigh the benefits. For hair braiding, as for many other occupations, licensing appears to do little more than prevent some people from earning an honest living in the occupation of their choice.

In 2012, Mississippi, which requires zero hours of training, had more than 1,200 registered braiders. Neighboring Louisiana, which requires 500 hours, had only 32 licensed braiders – despite its larger black population, according to the Institute for Justice.

Reason.com had some pithy comments regarding the potential risks involved with having an unlicensed individual cut the hair of the homeless in Tucson:

“The risk of getting a bad haircut is certainly chilling. But these were free haircuts. Free haircuts given to people who were in no position to pay for one. I’m sure they were aware of the risk they were taking by letting the unlicensed Montesdeoca cut their hair outside of a licensed salon environment, but they were probably okay with that level of risk considering they were homeless and were getting haircuts for free,” according to the magazine.

A problem many homeless have when it comes to job hunting is presenting well when it comes time for an interview. A decent haircut can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and making a good first impression.

But the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, whose members likely weren’t serving these individuals in the first place, is more interested in making sure absolutely no one infringes on their monopoly.

(Top: You could give this homeless man in Tucson food, money and a job, but not a free haircut – unless you’re a licensed cosmetologist – thanks to the heavy hand of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.)

Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire

zzyzx-road

Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.

To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.

The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.

Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.

Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.

Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.

By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.

Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.

He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.

“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”

In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.

He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.

He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.

For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.

While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.

First woman senator progressive and regressive, all in one

rebecca-ann-latimer-felton

When the 115th Congress is sworn into office next month, it will include 21 women senators, a record, and there will be three states where both senators are women.

Of the 46 women to have served in the US Senate since its inception, fully half have taken office during the past 20 years.

But one doesn’t hear a whole lot about the Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate. It may partly be because she served just a single day, but it’s also likely that she’s little recognized because she espoused views that today are decidedly out of tune with society as a whole.

Felton was born in 1835 in Decatur, Ga., the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant. Unusual in the antebellum South, she was sent to Madison Female College, in Madison, Ga., which was essentially a finishing school, incorporating both the last years of secondary education and the first year or two of college. At Madison, she finished at the top of her class.

She married young, in 1853, to William H. Felton, and moved to the latter’s plantation just north of Cartersville, Ga. Like most plantations in the Deep South, the Feltons had slaves.

On the plus side, Rebecca Ann Felton was a prominent women’s rights advocate, pushing for women’s suffrage long before it was popular. In addition, she was a proponent of prison reform and educational modernization.

Also a lecturer, writer and reformer, Felton was considered the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era.

Felton’s involvement in politics went beyond being an advocate. Her husband was a member of the US House of Representatives and Georgia House of Representatives, and she ran his campaigns.

In 1922, when Felton was 87, she was named to the US Senate through a bit a political maneuvering, though not all on her part.

Georgia Gov. Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate when sitting Sen. Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat and also looking for a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his earlier opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the right to vote), Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator in early October 1922.

Despite Hardwick’s tactics, Walter F. George won the seat. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on Nov. 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be sworn in. This was due in part to the efforts of Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.

While Felton was a solon for but a single day, she became the first woman seated in the US Senate.

As such, she was oldest freshman senator to enter the legislative body, at 87 years, nine months and 22 days; was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner; and is also the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia.

Unfortunately, Felton’s “progressivism” only went so far. Felton was, quite simply, a virulent white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed, wrote Leon Litwack in the 1999 work Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.

Felton considered “young blacks” who sought equal treatment “half-civilized gorillas,” and ascribed to them a “brutal lust” for white women, Litwack wrote, adding that while Felton sought suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.

Felton was among the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching and on at least one occasion stated that white Southerners should “lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary” to “protect woman’s dearest possession.”

“She’s a puzzle to us now because we would have expected a woman who was committed to expanding the opportunity for women to have been sensitive to the plight and oppression of African Americans,” Fitz Brundage, an expert on post-Civil War Southern history at the University of North Carolina, told The Wall Street Journal. “She never had a moment of introspection.”

(Top: Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, in all her conflicted opaqueness.)

Zimbabwe could be retracing road to hyperinflation

zimbabwe-bond-notes

Zimbabwe introduced a new currency Monday, but citizens of the foundering African nation aren’t exactly embracing the so-called “bond note” money.

Zimbabwe has been operating to a large degree on US dollars since 2009, after the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned following some of the worst inflation in world history – peaking at something akin to 500 billion percent – that left residents barely able to buy such items as a single egg with a 1 billion dollar banknote.

The government introduced the new currency in the form of 1 dollar bond coins and 2 dollar bond notes to address the shortage of US dollars and to boost exports. But many say they aren’t buying into the government’s plan.

“They are only giving us bond notes because they don’t have real dollars,” Lovemore Chitongo, 40, a shoe salesman in Harare, told Agence France-Presse. “There is no way the bond note will be equal to the US dollar. The market will determine the exchange rate.”

Proof that government dictates and reality often don’t match up could be seen in the fact that Chitongo was charging $20 in US dollars per pair of shoes but 25 dollars in bond notes.

He would use the difference to buy US dollars on the black market, he told AFP.

What will shortly begin happening in Zimbabwe if citizens lose confidence in the new currency is that bond notes will be refused, or, if citizens are legally required to accept them, they will keep the US dollars and pass the bond notes on to someone else as quickly as possible.

Following the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 the country switched to a multi-currency system, according to Newsweek. At least nine currencies are now legal tender in Zimbabwe: the US dollar, the South African rand, the euro, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Botswana pula, the Japanese yen, the Indian rupee and the Chinese yuan.

Not all are accepted by Zimbabwean traders, however. The US dollar is the most widely-used currency.

Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed under President Robert Mugabe’s chronic mismanagement. The nation’s leader since 1980, Mugabe sped redistribution of Zimbabwe’s farms from white landowners to blacks through forced confiscation beginning early last decade. Coupled with corruption and misconduct, droughts and an AIDS crisis, the nation of 13 million collapsed economically in 2009.

In fact, inflation was so bad it’s not certain whether anyone knows the exact rate at its peak.

While Zimbabwe officials cited an official inflation rate of 11.2 million percent in August 2008, the International Monetary Fund stated the country was suffering from 500 billion annual inflation rate and Newsweek asserted that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reportedly peaked at “around 90 sextillion percent – or nine followed by 22 zeros.”

In an effort to win citizens to the new currency, the central bank recently launched an advertising campaign trying to allay people’s fears, saying retailers and businesses had agreed to accept the new currency.

However, opposition to bond notes has sparked fierce anti-government protests which have resulted in brutal police crackdowns.

Police on Monday broke up a protest planned by the pressure group Tajamuka in Harare and arrested the group’s spokesman, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The government is only treating the symptoms without attending to the problems,” Antony Hawkins, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe’s Business School, told the wire service. “We are not earning enough foreign currency and bond notes are not going to solve that. It will make the situation worse.”

In past few weeks, many Zimbabweans slept in lines outside banks so that they would have a better chance to withdraw US dollars from their accounts. Many are concerned that their US dollars were going to be converted into bond notes.

Banks, however, put severe limits on daily withdrawals, just $50 a day, up to $150 a week.

“I will take payments in bond notes but the big question is what do I do with them since some shops are refusing to accept them?” Lewis Mapira, a taxi driver in Harare, told AFP.

(Top: A Zimbabwean holds up 2 dollar bond notes, which began circulating Monday.)

Digging into the numbers behind my 1,000 followers

1000-followers

This blog recently passed a milestone, logging its 1000th follower. It should be noted, however, that the landmark follower was a blogger whose site was titled Chinese Numbers, which describes itself as “Chinese, language, learn, speak, write, textbook, contract, beginner, advanced, intermediate, commercial, marketing, correspondence, characters, radicals, decomposition, business, numbers, numerals, contract.”

Blog posts on Chinese Numbers include “Read Chinese Numbers 1-10 for Fun.” How could I resist? I clicked on the post and got what appears below (I erased the link that appeared behind “more information”).

read-chinese

What fun, indeed. The exclamation points were utterly superfluous.

Also, when you click on the “about” section of the blog, used to provide background on the blog or author, it reads: “This is an example of an about page. Unlike posts, pages are better suited for more timeless content that you want to be easily accessible, like your About or Contact information. Click the Edit link to make changes to this page or add another page.” So, no one bothered to even describe what the blog was about. Sounds legitimate to me.

Apparently, my blog is popular with the Chinese self-help crowd. Follower No. 999 is a blog titled Chinese for Beginners, while No. 998 is Chinese Commercial Correspondence. And right before that is the delightfully titled The Earth of Brain, which describes itself as “Chinese, language, learn, speak, write, textbook, contract, beginner, advanced, intermediate, commercial, marketing, correspondence, characters, radicals, decomposition, business, numbers, numerals.”

Others that have begun following my blog in recent months include the usual mishmash of sites selling male enhancements products, art, photography, architectural designs, books, publishing services, etc.

These sites apparently believe there are people randomly seeking poorly maintained, poorly written blogs for odd products. I’m not sure what sort believes this is part of a solid business plan, but they’re likely the same type who approach an advertising agency and tell the firm, “I don’t know what I want, but make it ‘pop!’”

(And to the recent follower who thought up the name FoxxyMobile Investment Services Limited – I say, good luck. Points for the use of “Limited,” but where I come from anything with “foxxy,” whether it’s spelled with one “x” or two, unless it has to do with omnivorous vulpines, is a likely sign that mischief is afoot.)

On the other hand, you have the particularly focused blogs that are quite fascinating. Sharks Parasites and Zoology comes to mind, along with Crusader History and To the Sound of the Guns.

I’m certainly no expert in, for example, sharks, parasites or zoology, but find all three interesting, having caught sharks, attracted my fair share of parasites and enjoy seeing, catching and studying animals in general. I have much respect for individuals who specialize in a legitimate area of study, and are able to cogently express their knowledge and interests in words the average person can grasp.

There are also a handful of high-quality writers out there who are able to touch on a wide range of topics.

Waldo Lydecker’s Journal, a North Carolina blogger who succinctly writes on a variety of political and social issues, An Sionnach Fionn, who describes his site as “Irish Republican news and opinion” but is so much more, The Venomous Bead, who describes her blog as “themeless” but writes with both knowledge and wisdom on myriad topics, and roughseasinthemed, a Brit who lives in Gibraltar and Spain, and adroitly mixes common sense with a desire for justness, all come to mind.

Unfortunately, for every one of the above, all of which I have followed for some time, there are at least 50 blogs set up solely to sell merchandise or services, push spam or for simple self-aggrandizement.

I equate the above 1,000 figure, as compared to the actual number of legitimate bloggers who follow this blog, to an idea I would sometimes espouse when I was a journalist. There is an old theory that if an infinite number of monkeys were left to bang on an infinite number of typewriters, sooner or later they would accidentally reproduce the works of Shakespeare. When I occasionally turned out a particularly pathetic bit of prose as a reporter, I would turn to one of my co-workers and say, “Three monkeys, 10 minutes.”

In other words, of the 1,000 followers listed for this blog, it’s likely at least half are nothing more than shills for products, services or worse.

That said, to those of you who have taken the time to read this blog since it began eight years ago, you have my thanks.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to deliberate with you who have both agreed and disagreed with me, and on more than one occasion I have been forced to rethink my position(s). I’d like to think I’m a better writer and a better person for having embarked on this enterprise.