Saturday, June 30, 2012

Obama and equality for LGBT Americans

This official video from the Obama-Biden campaign, “Keeping His Word: Equality for LGBT Americans”, briefly highlights what President Obama has achieved toward equality for GLBT Americans. The YouTube description spells it out:
Four years ago Barack Obama promised to stand with the LGBT community. As President he repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, appointed more LGBT people to his executive branch than all of his predecessors combined, expanded hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners, directed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and affirmed his personal support for marriage equality.
It’s a pretty impressive list, accomplished, it must be noted, with the help of Democrats in Congress. None of it would have happened if McCain had won, and Republicans, including their presumptive presidential nominee, take the opposite position on all these issues. Which means that if President Obama is not re-elected, we could go backwards on some or all of these issues.

I’m posting this video because it’s a good and positive way to end Lesbian and Gay Pride Month for 2012.


I often laugh at my adversaries in the anti-gay industry because what they say is so hilariously stupid. It’s also true that everything they say, do and believe is built on certain myths that they constantly preach to their supporters to keep them in line. What they desperately want to avoid is any critical thought or analysis of those myths because they know how flimsy they are. On this last day of Gay and Lesbian Pride month, I’m going to talk about their most cherished myth.

The professional anti-gay industry loves to spread the myth that homosexuality is a “choice”, that otherwise heterosexual people have simply “chosen” to be gay. Our side, of course, can see the absurdity of that and often ask in return, “when did you choose to be straight?” (this retort is also ironic, since so many anti-gay activists turn out to be secretly homosexual).

I don’t think our side understands the anti-gay industry’s underlying assumption, namely, that not only are all people heterosexual, but also that gay and lesbian people have chosen to be gay in the same way disobedient children defy their fathers. Their view of sexuality is childishly simplistic, assuming all people are one thing, and that one thing only, and that only ornery wilfulness accounts for people being gay.

Their myth persists for two reasons. First, they add a layer of non-theological “evidence”, arguing that since scientists haven’t discovered a “gay gene”, homosexuality “must” be a choice. Putting aside the irony of people who angrily reject science using it to “prove” their opinion, the reality is that not finding a gene doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist. In fact, the best scientific evidence to date suggests that there must be a genetic component, at least, to sexual orientation, possibly a “gay gene”, possibly not. But whether or not such a gene exists doesn’t mean that homosexuality isn’t a natural variation of sexuality because all the evidence to date proves it is.

The other reason the myth persists is because heterosexual people who don’t understand gay people are often predisposed to assume it’s a wilful choice, particularly if they’re also religious. That’s mere prejudice and is usually ameliorated when they get to know real gay people.

But what if the radicals were right, all the scientific evidence was wrong, and human sexuality really was nothing but choice. So what? Religion is undeniably 100% choice, and yet we guarantee the right of people to be free from discrimination based on their religion. If they really want to go down the road of not protecting a choice, then surely they’ll also argue we shouldn’t protect religious choice, either, right? Right?!

Human sexuality is a complicated thing, but the only choice involved is whether or not we will be true to ourselves and to our nature. That’s not always an easy choice to make, particularly because some people choose to try and oppress those who don’t believe as they do.

While we don’t choose our sexuality, we can choose whether or not to be good people. Those persecuting gay and lesbian people have obviously made the wrong choice.

Contempt for America

Yesterday, for the first time in US history, The House of Representatives voted to hold a member of the President’s cabinet in contempt of Congress. Well, Republicans voted to do that: Most Democrats walked out in protest.

The photo above was posted to Facebook by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In it, she’s shown joining the Congressional Black Caucus in leading Democrats out of the US House of Representatives chamber in a protest of the Republicans’ political grandstanding against US Attorney General Eric Holder by voting to hold him in “contempt” of Congress. She wrote:
“I am joining my fellow Democratic colleagues and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in walking out on this hyper-political contempt vote. This is a shameful act by the House GOP.”
The walkout had been unanimously endorsed by the House Democratic Caucus, and also included the Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Progressive Caucuses.

This walkout has a precedent: In February 2008, the House was voting on holding two Bush aides, Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers, in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the politically-motivated firings of US Attorneys during the Bush/Cheney regime. Then-Minority Leader John Boehner led the Republican Caucus out of the House, declaring: “We will not stand idly by and watch the House Floor be abused for “pure political grandstanding.”

Boehner said that then, but yesterday, when it was his turn, he was more than willing to engage in “pure political grandstanding” on the House Floor. This is about the gazillionth example of the hypocrisy of Boehner and Congressional Republicans because this time it really was “pure political grandstanding” which wasn’t the case in 2008. The truth is, back in 2008 it was Boehner engaging in “pure political grandstanding” by staging his walkout stunt.

The issue is that the Republicans in the House are playing politics on is the whole “Fast and Furious” plan to sell guns to Mexican drug cartels. They’re trying to spin it as a Democratic failing, despite the fact it actually began in the Bush/Cheney regime and the Obama Administration shut it down.

Republicans, led by the almost pathological Darrell Issa, have been crusading on their partisan witch-hunt, demanding that the Department of Justice turn over documents to their committee then, when it did, they’d demand more documents and so on—as if the Department of Justice had nothing more important to do than be at Issa’s beck and call. Finally, the Republicans went too far, as they always do these days, and President Obama invoked executive privilege to shield documents pertaining to current investigations and possible court cases. That was the opening Issa and his cronies were looking for: An opportunity to engage in “pure political grandstanding.”

What this whole incident shows me is that there’s no hope of bipartisanship on the big issues, or probably even any small ones, while the extremists within the Republican Party hold the power. Only two Republicans voted against the motion, and, sadly, 17 Democrats voted for it. However, one other thing underscored by that vote is that the Democratic Party is the only “big tent” party in Congress: Its members can vote against the party leadership, whereas Republicans cannot.

It’s not just Republican Congressional leaders Members were are afraid of: The National Rifle Association, the richest and most powerful rightwing special interest lobbying group in America, ordered members of Congress to vote for the contempt motion, declaring that if they didn’t vote as the NRA demanded, it would be reflected in the ratings of candidates by the NRA. This is probably why most of those 17 Democrats voted for the motion: They couldn’t risk a rightwing backlash in their pro-gun districts.

The NRA’s involvement is indicative of how insane the Republican Party has become: They really do believe that the “Fast and Furious” scheme was an elaborate plot by President Obama and the Democrats to take away Americans’ guns—seriously! The wingnuts believe that Democrats wanted gun violence in Mexico in order to get Americans clamouring for gun control. Some even claim it’s part of a plot by President Obama to “cancel” the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. This last part actually just proves that wingnuts and Republicans don’t know what’s in the Constitution, or else they’d know that the Amendment would have to be repealed by another amendment, and that’s utterly, completely and totally impossible, gun violence in Mexico or not.

The worst part of all of this is that it’s only the beginning. Unless Americans wake up, these nutjobs will be back in Congress after the November elections, and emboldened—no matter who is elected president. Worse, they may sieze control over both houses of Congress and the White House.

And that all means that we may end up with the Republicans moving on their partisan contempt for America, its people, and the US Constitution. Elections have consequences, and much is riding on this one.

About that ruling

I think the US Supreme Court ruled correctly on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), but for the wrong reason. According to Gallup, half of Americans agree with the ruling, half don’t. Those numbers will change.

I never had any doubt that “Obamacare” was constitutional. Never. Nor did I have any doubt it was good law—well, as good as was possible, maybe. I would have preferred to see the US join other industrialised nations—including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom—in adopting single payer universal healthcare, but the healthcare, insurance and pharmaceutical corporations (and their money) make sure that can’t happen.

What I thought was wrong about the ruling was the assertion that the Commerce Clause in the constitution didn’t permit Congress to require the purchase of health insurance: It clearly does. John Roberts was wrong about that, but right that Congress clearly has the right to impose a tax.

Writing on The Daily Beast, Chris Geidner wonders if Roberts was deliberately harkening back to Marbury v. Madison, the landmark Supreme Court case that established judicial review in the first place. He points out that in Marbury, then-Chief Justice John Marshall avoided the intense political fight between President Thomas Jefferson’s administration and William Marbury by striking down the law that Marbury’s suit was based on. And the Supreme Court has been reviewing laws ever since.

Whatever Roberts was up to, America’s apoplectic rightwing has turned on its former hero. The right has been going, as one site put it, “completely freaking nuts”. One of my personal favorites is the leading wingnut who claimed Roberts ruled as he did because he was affected by medication—basically, the drugs made him do it. Oh, those wacky wingnuts!

The fury on the American right isn’t surprising, really: They won’t tolerate ANY dissent or disagreement—you’re with them or against them. But in the vehemence of their attack, they often come across as batshit crazy. A prominent New Zealand Randian “libertarian” did, too, declaring “RIP America – and it serves you right,” before endorsing revolution (to read his mad and ignorant rant for yourself, copy and paste this link: bit.ly/LHYoH9). Normal New Zealanders unreservedly apologise to Americans for this nutjob.

Still, there were more or less sane rightwing reactions, too; they were still sometimes laughably wrong, but sane nevertheless. Writing on the pro-big business Forbes.com, Larry Van Horn declared, “Constitutionality Does Not Mean Obamacare Is a Good Policy”. For me, the dumbest thing about this particular rant came at the end when he declared that government spending on healthcare would skyrocket and so would taxes. That’s ideological nonsense, not fact, but predictable for a site that values the accumulation of massive personal wealth above the public good.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Why they’re wingNUTS

I have to admit a guilty pleasure: Watching the mass freakout of America's rightwing over the Supreme Court Ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. Some of them believe America died (and, for wingnut bonus points, some even think war is now required).

Adding ignorance to the crazy, some rightwing Americans also declare they’ll move to Canada to avoid “Obamacare”—yeah, Canada, with its single-payer nationalised healthcare system AND—as a special added bonus—marriage equality.

The stupid, it burns…

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

X is for Xe

I was dreading the letter X—well, not dreading, exactly, but wondering what on earth I could do that was different from what others have done or might do. Tall order for a letter that begins only around 137 English language words.

So, I took a punt and chose something slightly offbase: Xe. Among other things, it's an invented gender-neutral pronoun, which means a pronoun not associated with any gender. In English, the usual gender-neutral term is now “it”, but ordinarily only used in the third person, like “its” (compared to his or her).

This is understandably offensive to intersex people and to transgendered people: After all, no human should ever be called an “it”. There are also times when we don’t want to refer to a specific gender for other reasons.

Modern English also tends to favour the universal “he”, at least in what we might call “formal English”. Obviously that’s not always appropriate, either, and the common alternative, “one”, doesn’t work in all situations—plus it sounds rather prissy.

So, what are the alternatives?

Surprisingly for us speakers of Modern English, our language once had gender-neutral terms. Middle English dialects had two gender-neutral pronouns, "ou" and "a". These terms died out as the language grew and changed, though other languages still have gender-neutral pronouns. For some reason, no one has suggested a return to our linguistic history.

One trend has been to invent pronouns, and Xe is one of them. To use the Wikipedia examples, it would be used this way: Xe laughed, I called xem, Xyr eyes gleam, That is xyrs, Xe likes xemself. If all that sounds a little absurd, well, I wouldn’t disagree, though I’ve seen Xe used on the Internet, mainly in forums and on blogs.

I think that this situation is already taking care of itself as English evolves: The answer, increasingly, is they. More and more people are using “they” to mean singular non-specific gender. Many of us do it in spoken English all the time, I do, and I also use it fairly often in written English, too.

So, while correct formal English might say, “every shopper should know what he wants,” we often say instead “every shopper should know what they want.” In my case, I’ll often re-write the sentence to avoid crimes of grammar (“shoppers should know what they want,” for example), I don’t always—sometimes I actually prefer a technically incorrect sentence construction in order to avoid invoking a gender I don’t mean to, as well as avoiding artificial and stuffy formal language.

I love language, and I adhere to the rules—but, not surprisingly, I’m more than willing to break those rules when I feel it’s justified. I don’t use Xe, or any of the other invented pronouns, but I wouldn’t rule it out; sometimes I DO like to be contrary for its own sake.

Among those other things, Xe can also refer to the name chosen to replace the infamous Blackwater private mercenary company. I posted about Jeremy Scahill’s expose on Blackwater back in January 2008. The company is now known as “Academi” precisely because it’s boring, as they hope the company now is.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

The deed is done

Yesterday, the New Zealand Parliament did as expected and passed the National Party-led government’s bill to sell state-owned assets. In the end, a proxy gave National 61 votes to the total opposition’s 60. This was always a given in a Parliamentary system in which nearly all votes are dictated by the party which votes as one.

Labour campaigned on this issue in the last election and lost, so National claimed a “mandate” to sell assets. They’re wrong. EVERY public opinion poll shows that mainstream New Zealanders oppose these asset sales by huge margins. The opponents of asset sales released the graphic above showing how parties that opposed these asset sales actually won more votes that the parties supporting asset sales—not that any of this mattered in the end.

I think Labour lost this issue when National Party Leader John Key claimed in debates with then-Labour Party Leader Phil Goff that what National was proposing was similar to the way in which Air New Zealand is owned. Key pointed out that Labour wasn’t proposing that the government buy back the shares it didn’t already own. Goff never answered that, never had a retort or even an explanation, and he lost the ideological battle through that failure.

But Labour, together with the Greens, mounted a valiant fight. A hopeless fight, maybe, quixotic, even, but valiant. What they didn’t count on was that the one-man “party” Peter Dunne would vote with the government. But he, like the lone Act “party" MP, are Tories at heart, so there was never any real question of how they’d vote. Added to National’s 59 MPs, the result was always a foregone conclusion.

In any case, that’s all over now. Labour can pledge to repeal the law if they win government, they can even pledge to buy back whatever state-owned assets have been sold by then, but ultimately voters will decide if they still care about it then, and I’m not sure they will: The election is in 2014.

National is playing a weird game now. Still claiming their non-existent mandate, they’re also saying, essentially, that mainstream New Zealanders are too stupid to understand the scheme (which is why we opposed it). Maybe they’re just too arrogant.

Democracy means, first, winning elections. Then, it should mean doing what you say you’ll do. National has done both. Now it’s up to Labour and the Greens to do the same, or else, get ready for more assets sales in a third National term.

Elections have consequences.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Cheney hypocrisy

This post will not make me popular with some people. I don’t care. If there’s one thing that will reliably make me angry it’s hypocrisy, particularly when it results in making things worse for ordinary people.

News broke last week that ex-Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary was legally married June 15 to the woman she’s been with for many years. This ought to be a non-issue, only slightly interesting. But the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Cheney family on the issue of marriage equality means that this far more than a little story, it’s a symbol of what’s wrong with them and other Republican politicos.

As vice president, Cheney stood by silently as George Bush advocated for an amendment to the US Constitution to forever ban marriage equality. While this was merely a sop to the frothing religionists who are the base of the Republican Party, it nevertheless emboldened Republican activists to ramp up their anti-gay rhetoric and energised them to fight against the rights of GLBT Americans.

The anti-gay rhetoric and fearmongering was also used by Bush/Cheney as a campaign tactic three times. Cheney said nothing.

Nearly five years ago, in 2007, the Bushes announced that their daughter Jenna was going to be married. I pointed out the stark contrast:
What struck me about the story was the supreme irony: Bush’s daughter will be able to marry the person she loves, something that Bush and Dick Cheney made sure was denied to Cheney’s daughter, Mary. In the Bush-Cheney universe, some people are simply more equal than others, and Jenna Bush is automatically superior to Mary Cheney, thanks to the work of their fathers.

In this tale of two fathers, Dick gave his daughter away—or her human rights, anyway. What George does at the wedding is just symbolism.
Nothing has softened my view since, not even when, in the twilight of the Bush-Cheney regime, Dick and Lynne Cheney allowed that they kind of supported the right of their daughter to marry. So, quite frankly, it pissed me off to read the Cheney’s official statement about Mary’s wedding:
Mary and Heather have been in a committed relationship for many years, and we are delighted that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized. Mary and Heather and their children are very important and much loved members of our family and we wish them every happiness.
Mary can “take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized”, despite the best efforts of Dick Cheney, and he and Lynne are “delighted”. Well, how bloody nice for them! What about the thousands of couples who cannot “take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized” because Cheney and the Republicans made sure they couldn’t? Has this family no sense of shame for what it did?

Of course they don’t—the whole family is filled with hypocrisy on this issue. Lynne Cheney supposedly always supported marriage equality, but, dutiful wife, never said so publicly when it could have made a difference. And if that’s true for her, it’s exponentially more true for Dick, the darling of the far right and neoconservatives alike. Had he spoken out he could have dampened down some of the vile anti-gay rhetoric of the Bush-Cheney years. They both remained silent.

But Mary Cheney isn’t an innocent bystander. She declared that her sexuality shouldn’t be used as in issue by “either side” when she knew damn well it was one, in no small part because the manager of her Dad’s campaign kept making gay people a national campaign issue—successfully. So while Mary wrapped herself in her invisibility cloak, things became much worse for gay and lesbian Americans.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The real illness

It takes a special kind of sickness to go out of one’s way to make other people feel bad. It’s an even worse pathology to spread lies and hatred and, in so doing, to cause pain and suffering to the object of one’s hatred. But to do all of that in the name of one’s religion is something else entirely: It is evil.

My friend Ricky of the Foul Monkey’s podcast took the photo with this post at Sunday’s Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in Chicago. These nutjobs show up whenever there’s a GLBT-positive event, and you can’t get any more positive than Pride. It is the “high holy day” the “national holiday” and everyone’s birthday, all rolled into one.

So I have to wonder, if not mental illness, which it is not, what compels these protestors if not evil? Sure, they say it’s their religion, but how often do we see mainstream religious people carrying disgusting, hate-filled signs like these? Okay, sometimes we do, but not often. And, by the way, hatemongering clearly makes this woman happy, doesn’t it?

There are some poor souls whose religious leaders tell them that homosexuality is a sin, and they obediently fall in line and believe as they’re told to. But anyone who’s ever known a real gay or lesbian person knows what utter hogwash those men are preaching. When they see the truth for themselves, they have no trouble leaving behind dogmas built entirely on prejudice and age old superstitions.

But if the professional anti-gay industry, which I’ve excoriated on this blog many times, is driving people away from Christianity by spreading lies and preaching hatred, and it unquestionably is, then what are these freaks doing if not a shoving normal people out of the church door?

Religion has a lot to answer for: Wars, persecution, crusades, holocausts, terrorism—they’ve all been done in the name of religion. But religion shouldn’t have to answer for freaks like the rabidly anti-gay protestors who pervert religion, nor for every hate-filled religious bigot who seeks to make life for LGBT people worse. Sadly, however, as long as freaks like this spread their hatred, people will see it as just another part of religion. It may not be fair, but it’s a fact.

So, until freaks like this get a life or, at least, a new hobby, mainstream religious people will need to continue denouncing the hate-filled bigots if for no other reason than the preservation of their church: Silence implies consent (and assent) in the minds of most people.

And freaks like this? They just get laughed at everywhere they go—seriously! No GLBT person ever listens to them or suddenly agrees with them—it’s all hatred for hatred’s own sake. Their god had a thing or two to say about that—do you?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Weekend Diversion: 2 Shoes

This video is of 2 Shoes performing a remake of Turn Me On (Turn Me Out), the 1994 #1 dance hit by Kathy Brown. Personally, I like this version better than the original, but that’s just me.

2 Shoes are a duo that appeared on the UK’s X Factor last year, but were the first group eliminated when the live shows began. Still, that didn’t hurt them because they got a recording contract out of it.

Dance music is just meant to be fun, and it’s rarely meaningful or even necessarily very lasting. That’s okay. For now, this one’s fun—and beefcake is never a bad addition.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Together: Stories by Pride & Google+

From the video’s YouTube description: “Pride Toronto and Google+ present ‘Together,’ a series of films by award-winning director Jeff Feuerzeig.” While this two-minute video is interesting in itself, the collaboration with Google+ is what makes this project different from many others. The social network is doing a lot of interesting and innovative things—things that most people don’t seem to know about, yet, anyway. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that they’d be involved.

Social networks, and the Internet generally, make building a political movement so much easier than it was in my activist days, but that means it also makes it easy to build a sense of community, particularly for LGBT people in distant or isolated places who might not otherwise have any community. I think that this is one of the main strengths of the Internet Age, and it’s often enough to outweigh the bad things about the Internet (like the trolls who comment on YouTube videos like this).

This project takes advantage of what the Internet has to offer and connects people by sharing human stories. This is a good thing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Not invisible

This video is of “Invisible”, a song taken from the new Pet Shop Boys album Elysium, to be released in September. It was produced by Andrew Dawson and Pet Shop Boys, and the video is by Brian Bress.

I kind of like the song, though I’ve only listened a couple times (the video, frankly, I’m less sure about…). It’s basically about the realities of becoming an older gay man, people who are often “invisible” on the scene. Or, as a commenter said on one site where I saw this said, they become “gay kryptonite”.

Ah, comments! I’ve often noticed on one prominent gay site how bitchy and condescending some of the commentors can be about pop music. This is amplified when the song is by a young person, or popular among the young, but—without any irony, apparently—many of these same older gay men disliked this song. Whatever.

I have a simple pop culture mantra that I often repeat as a sort of caution for others because it’s kept me out of social media trouble: Everything you love, someone else hates; everything you hate, someone else loves. So, relax and like what you like and forget about everyone else.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to stay out of pointless squabbles on purely subjective matters of taste. We all have far more important things to worry—and fight—about.

As for the theme of this song, well, we’re not really invisible. If younger gay folks choose to make us so, that’s their choice—and their loss. We’re here, we're queer, and we’ve already done that, so get used to it.

Leopards and spots

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) just can’t help itself: It is what it is—and was. It just can’t change.

The venerable SBC has just denounced marriage equality, but if course they went further, pontificating that, "We deny that the effort to legalize 'same-sex marriage' qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender."

Well, fuck you, Southern Baptist Convention. Need I remind you that you only exist because you wanted to promote slavery? Need I remind you that ALL of your ordained positions are available to men only? Need I remind you that you are, by history and by your record, racist, sexist and homophobic? Do I really need to remind you to deal to your own history and nature before you dare to judge others?

The SBC seems to think that by installing a Black man as its president that it somehow proves that its pro-slavery past is behind it. I’m not buying it. A bigoted leopard does not change its spots.

IF—and that’s a very large if—the SBC had kept its illogical gymnastics to itself, within its own church, I couldn’t possibly have cared less. What a church decides to pretend is true is none of my business UNTIL they decide to enter the public sphere to influence public policy: Then they surrender all rights to be above criticism.

The SBC has declared that they are the sworn enemies of GLBT Americans. They are wrong in every way possible, theologically as well as politically, and that’s obvious to all sentient beings. But what annoys me so much about them is that they’ve hoodwinked some Black Americans into buying into the white rightwing meme about gay people not being worthy of human rights protections.

Some three months ago, I wrote about how the SBC was looking to rebrand itself to try and escape its racist past, It’s now clear that effort is doomed to fail. The Southern Baptist Convention cannot help but be what it is: Racist, sexist and homophobic. It’s well past time for it to fade away or, at the very least, for civilised society to carry on as if it doesn’t even exist.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

From Underground to Mainstreet

On Tuesday, I posted a video I found while looking for something else. Well, it’s happened again. This time, it’s a short film looking at the LGBT scene in Carbondale, Illinois, where I went to university.

I never went to The Pit when I lived in Carbondale, and I’m not even sure I ever heard of it. If I did, it was one of those situations where I didn’t know what people were talking about, but I didn’t want them to know I didn’t know. I was young.

I’d heard of the The Underground, though I never went there; by the time I came out, the scene had pretty recently shifted to The New Yorker, a bar that was mentioned in passing in this film (and its virtual omission is my only real complaint with it—the bar was important in its day).

Mainstreet East opened after I left, but I went there when I returned as a GLBT grassroots activist. Before that, it was Chester Street and before that, it was a straight bar, neither of which was mentioned in the film. Chester Street was the bar I went to when the scene moved from The New Yorker. It was named after a bar of the same name in Champaign-Urbana, home to the University of Illinois.

I probably saw some of the people shown at the bar when I lived in Carbondale, though I don’t remember any of them except Paulette Curkin, who I was introduced to on one of my trips back doing activism. That probably has to do with the fact that the bar’s time was really after mine more than faded memory as is usually the case.

The thing about those bars is that they were the one place we could feel free and accepted in what was a very hostile area. In some ways, it was like a secret society, an underground resistance movement in which the chief weapon was dancing. But there, we were safe and free and ourselves—even if only for a few hours.

So, I was thrilled to run across this video and its depiction of a place I knew well, even if the time was different. It was a special time and place in my life, and it looked a lot like what this video shows.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

W is for wh

I have a long relationship with wh. I didn’t need it when I moved to New Zealand, but, then, maybe I will again. I’d better explain.

Wh is what linguists call a voiceless labiovelar (labialized velar) approximant. Labiovelar refers to words with a w sound in them as a secondary characteristic, with the lips ending up in a rounded shape, ready to make a w. In this particular case, the sound is secondary to the h, and all of that is why it’s voiceless (if voiced, it would be a w).

Confused? Yeah, my eyes start to glaze over, too. What all of this is talking about is that wh is pronounced more like hw. So, one starts exhaling, forms a w and says the word.

There should be even more confusion at this point because most variants of English have dropped this sound in favour of a plain old w. In English, interrogative words—ones that begin questions—are the so-called “wh-words”: Why, who, which, what, where, when, and how. At one time, not so very long ago, many of these words actually began a bit like how, in particular: “hwere”, “hwich” and so on.

When I was a boy, my mother used to say, “whether it rains, or whether is snows, we shall have weather, whether or no.” She learned this when she was a child in the 1920s and 30s, and it was meant to underscore the difference in the pronunciation between whether (pronounced “hwether”) and weather (pronounced then the same way as now).

Fast forward many years, and I arrived in New Zealand and encountered Maori words starting with wh, like whanau, or placenames like Whangarei. I was taught that wh was pronounced like f. I was also told many times that this was because the missionaries who first started printing things in the Maori language (Te Reo Maori) ran out of the letter F. Nice story, but it’s not true.

My first clue to the truth came when I saw a book that went with a course to teach Maori. It was published decades ago and said that wh was pronounced hw—just as it had once been in English. This more credibly explains why the English picked wh to start Maori words they were writing down. Nevertheless, everyone I heard in contemporary New Zealand pronounced wh as f.

Then, only a few years ago, a Maori politician, Tariana Turia, said on a TV interview one night that one of her kaumatua (pronounced “koh-MAH-too-uh” – basically, an elder) told her that for their iwi (“ee-wee”, or tribe), wh should be pronounced like hw. So, unlike most other Maroi leaders and politicians then or now, that’s what she uses, not the f used by most others.

Two things fascinate me about this. First, the Maori language never died out, even though it was in pretty dire straits by the middle of the last century, and yet there’s still some confusion and disagreement about how wh should be pronounced for Maori words. The other, more personal, thing is that after all these years, my mother’s little saying taught me to be able to pronounced wh the hw way. So, once it’s all decided, I can pronounce Maori words with wh correctly no matter what’s chosen. Unfortunately, I don’t actually speak te reo Maori, so that’s more symbolic than anything. It’ll have to do for now because I don’t know hwen—or hwether—I’ll be able to learn it.

This week, I made the graphic to illustrate this post because, oddly, I couldn’t find one to illustrate what I was talking about. Funny, that.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Murder in Paeroa

For the second time in my life, someone I knew was murdered. His name was Jordan Voudouris and he owned Mykonos Pizza and Pasta takeaways in Paeroa. His body was found behind his shop around 6am Monday. The NZ Police have now confirmed that Jordan was murdered.

We lived in Paeroa when Jordan opened Mykonos, and it was a very welcome addition: At the time, there were a couple places with Chinese food, an Indian restaurant that did takeaways, and a burger bar, and not much else for nighttime takeaways (there’s more, and greater variety, now). So, Jordan brought something new and good—maybe too good, because we ordered from there often (what can I say? I love pizza!).

As a result, we got to know Jordan a bit, and always found him friendly, outgoing and attentive to his customers. We liked him. It’s plain from reading the news accounts that we weren’t the only ones.

The head of the Paeroa’s business promotion group told TVNZ’s One News, "One act of violence has robbed a community of an awesome man, an awesome business owner, a father, brother and son." They’re planning on having a community memorial service—maybe not untypical for small town New Zealand, but even so, such outpouring for a local business owner is pretty remarkable in my book.

We moved from Paeroa several years ago, but when back visiting family we sometimes still had food from Mykonos, and it was still as good as we remembered. Jordan was there, always busy, always working hard, always friendly. It’s hard to accept that he’s gone.

The NZ Police have released CTV images of two men they’re looking for because they may be connected to this crime, having staged two violent crimes in Waihi and Katikati—both on State Highway 2, as is Paeroa. They urge anyone with any information on the two men, or who noticed any suspicious activity or erratic driving on State Highway 2 between 6am and 6:20am on Monday, 18 June 2012, to contact Waihi Police on (07) 863-8179, or Paeroa Police on (07) 862-8744. Information can also be left anonymously with Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

I hope two things: First, I hope the murderers aren’t from Paeroa, because that would be even harder on the community. Second, I hope they catch the criminals quickly, for everyone’s sake.

Paeroa just won’t be the same, though.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the best things about the Internet is that following links can lead to all sorts of interesting things. Of course, one of the worst things about the Internet is also that following links can lead to all sorts of interesting things because in doing so one can literally lose hours.

This evening, while looking for something else, I followed some links and before you know it, I was at the video above. It tells the story of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, and how it entered pop culture. When I saw the title, it was one of those times I thought to myself, “yeah, where did that come from?” This short film also touches on an answer as to why it’s become such a popular culture phenomenon. However, it doesn’t answer why it happened so suddenly, roughly a decade after re-appearing.

Still, it was an interesting stop on that road leading to other interesting things.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

LGBT Pride Month Reception

This official White House video is of President Obama’s remarks at the June 15 White House reception marking LGBT Pride Month. Progress on GLBT rights has been painfully slow, but it’s always good to remember what has been accomplished:
  • This Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Matthew Sheppard Act to fight hate crimes
  • This Administration ended the ban on HIV+ visitors to the US, and as a result the International AIDS Conference will be held in the US for the first time in two decades
  • Hospitals that accept Medicare or Medicaid (which is most of them) must now treat same-sex couples the same as other couples thanks to a directive from this Administration
  • Health insurance companies can no longer discriminate against gay people, thanks to the Healthcare Reform Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Obama
  • The Administration stopped defending DOMA while trying to repeal it
  • The United States now treats GLBT rights as a human rights issue in international diplomacy, thanks to this Administration
  • This Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
  • This president supports marriage equality—the first ever to do so
There’s much left to do, and President Obama mentioned some of that, too. However, more progress on LGBT rights has been made in this Administration than any other in US history. If the Republican candidate wins the presidency in November, especially if the Republicans also take control of the US Senate, not only will all progress stop, much of what has been done will be repealed—and far, far worse beyond that. The stakes are far too high to change course now.

As an aside, I did think it was kind of funny how all those people held up their smartphones to take photos or videos. Things sure have changed—I hope they don’t go backwards in November.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Then there’s this

Hot, shirtless lads lip synching to a pop hit—why wouldn’t I post this?! This is actually an official video from Abercrombie & Fitch—things were different in my day!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Some June Internet Wading

I always see far more things on the Internet than I can ever comment on, and I’ve been too busy to do one of these Internet Wading posts lately. Well, here’s one:

About ten days ago I posted about Pew Research’s 2012 American Values Survey. I was focused on the electoral side of the survey, but today I saw that Talking Points Memo was interested in numbers indicating “Belief in God Plummets Among Youth”. The headline refers to the fact that “only” 68% of “millennials” agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God”, while 31% disagree. But two-thirds of them still believe in God. While the previous three generations are all above 80% in belief, and that IS a significant difference, it’s not like millennials have all gone atheist. In fact, it’s a continuing trend that’s mirrored in the population generally (88% agreed in 1987, gradually declining to 80% today). As with so many studies, the devil—well, lack of god, anyway—is in the details.

New Zealanders have been shocked—shocked I tell you—to learn that the National Party-led government has been labouring in secret to sign away New Zealand's sovereign rights to gain the “Trans Pacific Partnership” trade deal with the US, among others. The New Zealand Herald reported today on leaked documents spelling out how awful this agreement would be for New Zealand, and Gordon Campbell laid out further evidence—including how awful our Trade Minister, Tom Grosser, really is—who’s he working for again?!

Meanwhile, The Listenter’s Toby Manhire describes “John Key’s worst week as PM”, seven days that began with the government’s backdown on increasing class sizes and ended with the Auditor-General’s office announcing it was looking into Key’s trading pokies (gambling machines) for a convention centre. The Herald’s John Armstrong said that “Even the mere hint of anything remotely dodgy will be a huge blow to his credibility—and quite possibly a lasting one.”

Here in Auckland, self-appointed frontrunner to be the rightwing candidate for Mayor of Auckland next election (yeah, right), Cameron Brewer, is upset that Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development has approved $100,000 in sponsorship for the two-week Auckland Pride Festival and Parade next February. He thinks that business groups could have paid for it instead, despite all the evidence to the contrary and a persistently weak economy. Personally, I thought it was funny how he tried to sound all ordinary-people-championy while making subtle anti-gay comments (the term for that, by the way, is “dog whistle politics”). The festival should be a money-maker for Auckland, which is reason enough to do it. However, if National’s local government attack “reforms” go through, Auckland will be forbidden from spending money on future festivals, so Cam needn’t worry his Tory little head about it. Actually, that’s ironic since the whole thing was basically a National Party idea in the first place.

And that’s enough for now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

V is for Virus

I’d planned something else for today, but life intervened as it did last week. In this case, it’s because I’ve come down with the common cold. Naturally, all I’m aware of is this virus, and how it makes me feel.

The common cold is mostly caused by rhinovirus. Among the other types of viruses that can cause the common cold are coronavirus, so-called because of its corona-like ring. This is the same family of viruses that were linked with the SARS outbreak a few years ago.

The common cold is very unpleasant, but for most people it’s not particularly dangerous. Nevertheless, people often wonder why there’s no vaccine, cure or, at least, effective treatment. The short answer is that it’s because it’s a virus.

Viruses are complicated organisms that can replicate only inside a cell. One theory suggests that viruses are left over from evolutionary processes, what biologists call “horizontal gene transfer”. While this can lead to genetic diversity, it more often results in what we call disease.

Vaccines work by creating immunity in the body, that is, the body’s convinced to attack and destroy the infection. To do that, viruses are often killed, so that they can’t produce disease, then injected into a patient to produce immunity. The problem is that viruses can mutate fairly quickly, and some viruses—like the rhinovirus that causes most human colds—has dozens and dozens of serotypes, or, basically, variations in viruses. Immunity to one serotype doesn’t necessarily give immunity to another, so there’d need to be at least 99 different vaccines to protect against the common cold—that sounds like it would be a big injection or a lot of little ones!

Treatment of viruses is also difficult. The drugs used are called “anti-viral”, and there are none that are effective against rhinovirus. In fact, there are very few drugs that are effective against viruses generally.

People often assume that antibiotics will work against a viral infection, but they won’t: Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections (though sometimes anti-fungal medications are called “antibiotic”, too). Bacterial infections can be serious: Bubonic plague, cholera, syphilis, anthrax and leprosy are all caused by bacterial infection. Many upper-respiratory infections are actually bacterial, tuberculosis being the most serious. But all of these diseases usually respond to antibiotics.

Unlike virues.

And that’s why we’ll continue to feel miserable with the common cold for a long time to come: Viruses are difficult to protect against and difficult to treat. In the meantime, pain relief, keeping warm, drinking plenty of fluids and sleeping is about all we can do for the common cold.

Pardon me while I go do that now.

The graphic with this post is of the “molecular surface of the capsid of human rhinovirus 16, one of the viruses which cause the common cold.” It’s available under Creative Commons License from Wikipedia.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Protecting Voting Rights

In this video, US Senator Dick Durbin, the senior US Senator from my home state of Illinois (full disclosure: I've voted proudly for Senator Durbin), questions US Attorney General Eric Holder about what the US Department of Justice will do to stop the illegal voting roll purges in Florida, in particular. The Republican Governor in that state has ordered purges of voters who he says are not citizens, even though in fact they overwhelmingly have been citizens—as well as registered Democrats and Independents. Funny coincidence, that. Attorney General Holder says they’re going to take Florida to court.

What Senator Durbin is talking about here is, next to union-busting, the biggest priority of Republican officials in various states: Voter suppression. The Republicans have been trying to make it hard for Democratic-leaning voters to vote, as well as busting unions so as to cut off the only major source of funding and volunteers for Democratic candidates.

This will become one of the biggest political issues in the USA, in this post-Citizens United world. I’ll be returning to it again in the future, so this video is sort of an introduction.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A friend never met but lost

Yesterday I checked Facebook and saw two people posted that an online friend of theirs had died. The two people I saw aren’t connected to each other, as far as I know (except through me), and their friends were different people. It was just an odd coincidence.

Today, fate added a twist.

I heard from a podcasting friend that a mutual online friend, who we in the Pride 48 podcasting community knew as Lord Byron of Illinois, died yesterday. I knew he was fighting cancer, but didn’t realise it was that serious. In this particular case, while I trust my podcaster friend, another podcaster friend Tweeted a link to Lord Byron’s obituary, so I was able to “trust, but verify.” It’s something I always need to do, but especially for news I don’t want to believe.

Lord Byron was a friend as well as a supporter of my podcast (in particular). He was always ready with a joke or kind word when most needed. He was a guest a couple times on the live podcasts I used to do, and someone I often traded emails and Tweets with. Because of all that, he was one of my “online” friends I most wanted to meet in person when we go to the US next time, especially because I know for sure we’ll be going to Illinois. It makes me sad that I’ll never get that chance.

Lord Byron is the first of my online friends to die; there have been online people I’ve known of, or been connected to through the flimsiest of tangents, but he was the first actual friend. But one of my most strongly held beliefs, reinforced through my friendship with Lord Byron, is that one doesn’t have to meet someone in real life to be a real friend, that the connections we make in the online world can be every bit as real and as important as those we make in real life—sometimes, even more so.

So, I’m sad at the loss of my friend, and that I’ll never get to meet him in person. But I know he left behind many people who mourn his death. I think that’s a sign of a life well-lived.

Because he never used his real name in his public online dealings, nor talked specifically about where he lived, out of respect for my friend I haven’t used his real name in this post and I won’t link to his obituary (the photo was what he often used for his Twitter and comment icon). Instead I’ll just say, as I would have in life, farewell, Your Lordship! And, thank you.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I want to vote

I think I should be able to vote on whether heterosexuals should be allowed to marry, not just because they so often make a mess of it, but because I’m not personally affected either way by that vote, so if they lose any of their rights, well, what does it matter as long as I get to decide?

Look, I’m totally fair about this: Obviously all other gay and lesbian people can vote, too, and probably asexuals. As long as they won’t be affected by the outcome, they should be able to decide on the fate of people whose lives will be affected.

If heterosexuals say that it’s only fair that they should be able to vote on whether same-sex couples can marry, then obviously that same fairness dictates that GLBT people get to sit in judgement over opposite-sex marriages, too. It wouldn’t really be fair otherwise, would it?

This tired old referendum nonsense reared its head in New Zealand when the “leader” of a rightwing, basically “Christian” “party”, Colin Craig, said on today’s Q+A programme on TVNZ that he “absolutely” would support a referendum on marriage equality. He said:
"If all New Zealanders decide ‘hey yeah we're ready for a change’, fair enough, but I don't think that's where New Zealanders are at.”
Last Wednesday, TVNZ released a ONE News Colmar Brunton poll that showed 63% of eligible NZ voters—nearly two-thirds—think same-sex couples should be able to marry. So, clearly Colin is wrong. But his wording was significant: "If all New Zealanders decide…” [emphasis added]

To the rightwing, there’s no such thing as legitimate support for marriage equality: If a court imposes it, it’s “judicial tyranny”, if their elected representatives enact it, they’re usurping the people’s rights. Or something. The rightwing backs referendums on marriage equality only because they normally win, not because they really believe in democracy. In New Zealand, they’ve already lost on this issue, so I suspect their interest is more for political organising and raising money.

For Colin, it’s about a word:
"What we're talking about here is who has the right to use and define the word marriage. And I believe there's status quo. We’ve got generation after generation marriage has been between a man and a woman… This word [marriage] important and it has great meaning and significance to many New Zealanders, and I think the issue here is not about rights it's about respect it is about respecting what that word already means."
Let’s put Colin’s argument in different contexts: “I believe the word ‘citizen’ has great meaning and significance,” said the racist. “So, only white people should be allowed to use the word because for generation after generation citizenship meant white people only.” Or, how about the misogynist’s argument: “I believe the word ‘voter’ has great meaning and significance, so only men people should be allowed to vote because for generation after generation voting was allowed for men only.” Obviously Colin wasn’t saying any of that, but his arguments don’t look too good when they’re used to justify positions we’d all find abhorrent (including Colin, I’m sure).

The “tradition” argument is the one argument the rightwing uses that’s only quasi-religious (even though it’s based entirely on their religious views). As I’ve just shown, however, tradition is no reason to defend injustice or perpetuate the violation of human rights.

Colin Craig’s most bizarre statement was this:
“Let’s remember that this is not where all homosexuals are at. There are a number of homosexuals who take a different view, they talk to me, and they’re saying, ‘no, look, we are happy with where we’ve got to in this country. We do not want to challenge what marriage means.”
I call bullshit. The gay opponents I’ve heard have been far leftists who think marriage is a sexist and classist institution. The only gay conservatives I’ve heard say anything against marriage equality have argued the “there are more important things to focus on” line, and not about the word marriage. And, come on, what conservative gay person would bring such “concerns” to a rightwing “Christian” politician when there’s a normal conservative political party that’s actually in Parliament—and government?

Colin also opposes change to the adoption law because he apparently doesn’t think that gay people make good parents. He forgets that the whole point of adoption law equality isn’t what’s often called “stranger adoption” (when a couple adopts a child to whom neither parent is related). Instead, most adoptions now deal with blended families—when a couple is raising children they already have. What Colin is actually opposing is parents having any legal parental rights for a child they’re already parenting.

I have no idea why the news media pays so much attention to Colin Craig. He’s a one-man party, and no more significant than that. They obviously pick him because he sounds far more reasonable than most of New Zealand’s rightwing “Christians”, but they ignore that he’s trying to sound far more reasonable than he really is. He’s also desperately trying to hide or obscure his “party’s” fidelity to traditional far right “Christian” positions on issues.

Still, if that’s as good as our adversaries have—and he clearly is—it goes to show how weak their position against civil marriage equality is. Only the state gets to determine who marries and how: It’s none of churches’ business. Churches act only in accordance with marriage laws enacted by the state and with authority granted by the state.

And that’s what this debate is really about: Should the state ensure that all citizens have the same rights and privileges, or will it allow their sub-contractors—churches—to call the shots? New Zealanders have already decided the answer to that question long ago, and none of us needs to vote on that.

This episode of the Q+A programme is available “On Demand” (not available in all countries, apparently). This segment begins some 40 minutes in.

Symbolism matters

President Obama has, for the fourth year, issued a Presidential Proclamation of Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. White House staffers passed out copies of the proclamation at the NetRoots gathering, which is where ├╝berblogger Joe Jervis of JoeMyGod got his copy (pictured – click to embiggen).

Cynics point out that such proclamations don’t actually DO anything, they’re just nice, symbolic words. Of course they are: That’s the whole point.

President Obama issued proclamations in 2009 and again in 2010 and yet again in 2011. That’s actually an indication of why this matters.

GLBT Americans have been marginalised, whether through action or indifference, throughout most of the history of the United States. The modern GLBT rights movement began relatively recently, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, but it has made tremendous progress since then. Even so, there’s still much work left to do to get past that marginalisation.

When any elected official issues such a proclamation, it sends a clear message that GLBT people belong, that we’re part of the fabric of society and we ought to be full and equal citizens. I still remember the first time a Chicago mayor issued a GLBT Pride Proclamation—it seems unbelievable now that it was ever a struggle to get a mayor to do it, but it once was.

When the US President issues such a proclamation, the importance is even greater. It’s not a substitute for action, of course, and can’t undo lack of action or setbacks, but as an aspirational statement, they are important.

Bill Clinton was the first US President to issue such a proclamation. On June 11, 1999, he declared that month “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month”. It was the 30th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and near the end of his second term as president—after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted and after he signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. However, no president had ever issued such a proclamation and he deserves credit for doing so (and he was attacked by the right, of course, for doing it).

Between Presidents Clinton and Obama was George W. Bush, whose Administration was far too anti-gay to ever issue a proclamation like this. It’s obvious that Romney wouldn’t either, being desperate to court favour with America’s religious extremists. The refusal to issue a proclamation also shows us the importance of the symbolism.

So, it’s true that these presidential proclamations are symbolic, but it is their very symbolism that makes them important. I sincerely hope that one day we get to the point at which these proclamations are a yawn, but no matter what some people say, we’re far from that day.

Symbolism matters.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Losers not worth my time

Once again, Al Jazeera-English provides better coverage of something going on in the US than the US-based news media does. It’s ironic, considering how many US cable TV systems refuse to carry the channel. Actually, our pay TV operator doesn’t carry it, either, but I follow the channel on Twitter so I get links to their videos.

The video above is a report about the North Carolina preacher who called for concentration camps for GLBT people, along with another preacher who advocated violence against gay children. These vile and disgusting sermons were in a month that was overflowing with anti-gay hate speech.

In fact, May was so particularly awful for anti-gay hate-filled rhetoric from the USA’s “Christian” right that I planned a post of nothing but some of the most vile examples of their hate speech as a way to show what GLBT people have to deal with from the people who claim to be “victims” of some sort of “religious persecution”. It’s what I was referring to on my June 1 post when I wrote, “One such post, coming up in the next few days, will be the longest post on this blog by far.”

In the time since, I’ve been extremely busy with work and other things, but I kept working on that post when I could. I’ve since decided against publishing it, and here’s why: It repeated the rightwing's religious hatred and bigotry, and I didn’t want to pollute my blog with their venom.

That’s kind of been my response a lot lately: I’ll read about some anti-gay extremist, feel angry—and then I move on. I refuse to give them a place to live in my head or on this blog.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll give extremists a pass: I’ll still call out lies and defamatory nonsense, as I always have, but I’m just not going to waste my time or energy calling out the bigots every time—especially because if I did, I wouldn’t have time to post videos of trains crashing through snowbanks. And besides, in all seriousness, there are plenty of sites where such hate speech is well documented.

I think that confronting and standing up to evil is legitimate and important, but wallowing in the frequent examples of their rubbish is a waste of time. Sure, every so often some bigot will say or do something so heinous that I’ll simply have to respond, but most of the time I’d much rather talk about other things because there are more important subjects than the latest demented ravings of some religious nutjob.

So, this video basically takes the place of that very long post, and it’s also pretty much all I want to say about those particular losers.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Nuclear Free New Zealand

If there is one thing on which nearly all New Zealanders are united it’s this: New Zealand is nuclear free and will forever be so. We have no nuclear power plants, no nuclear weapons and we allow no ships with either in our waters. That will never change, and even the belligerent United States is accepting that fact.

Today is the 25th anniversary of New Zealand becoming Nuclear free. New Zealand’s friends pushed it into it.

In 1984, the New Zealand Labour Party was swept into government, and banned visits from nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships. The US policy at the time was to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on any ship (now, all nuclear weapons are on submarines). So, in retaliation, the United States suspended its obligations under the 1951 ANZUS alliance. New Zealand never withdrew from the alliance.

This had all come about because the French insisted on atmospheric nuclear tests in French Polynesia well after other countries had abandoned such tests. This was in New Zealand’s backyard. Prime Minister Norman Kirk sent a navy frigate to protest such tests. In the 1980s, France resumed them.

On July 10, 1985, two French government agents, Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, planted a bomb on the Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of Greenpeace. The sinking killed Fernando Pereira, so when the French government agents were caught two weeks later, they were charged, appropriately enough, with murder. They pled guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to ten years in prison.

The French government used all of its considerable power to “get “ New Zealand: It worked to keep New Zealand products out of what was then called the “Common Market”, and boycotted New Zealand products. As a result of this enormous pressure, in 1986 New Zealand released the two French agents to serve out their sentences in French Polynesia.

Less than two years later, on flimsy excuses, both French government agents had been released by France—and decorated. While both governments say they’ve moved on from that very dark time, in a real sense, they haven’t: France still resents New Zealand for asserting its sovereignty and New Zealand resents that France has never accepted responsibility for the only act of foreign terrorism ever committed on New Zealand soil.

The French, and to a lesser extent, the US, can claim credit for pushing New Zealand to become nuclear free: Already spit on by two erstwhile allies, why not just do what was right? And, New Zealand did.

The video above highlights what is still held in high esteem by New Zealanders: The Oxford Debate in which New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange took on an American team led by TV preacher Jerry Falwell. Lange clearly won—and he got a standing ovation at the end.

In one of his most famous moments, Lange tells his young adversary, “I can smell the uranium on your breath…” Thanks to David Lange’s Labour Government, New Zealand cannot “smell the uranium”. Even more fortunately, it never will.

Related: The Herbs’ “French Letter” (1995 version), a 1982 hit song which protested the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific: “Get out of the Pacific!”

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Clearing the way

Photographer/videographer Geoff Mackley filmed KiwiRail today as they attempted to clear snow from the tracks from Arthurs Pass leading to Christchurch. It’s great fun, especially because snow is something we don’t see in Auckland.

As a side note, Geoff used to be a cameraman for 3News, and also shot photos of emergency scenes for a magazine I produced for the first company I worked for in New Zealand. He still shoots photos and breaking news videos, often with a bit of action. This work lead to his being featured in the Discovery Channel series, Dangerman.

In any case, I really liked this video.

Prophetic words

BuzzFeed, which posted this video to YouTube, describes the subject as “A blue-collar voter took the news of Scott Walker's victory a bit too hard.” Yes, perhaps that’s all it is. Or, are his words prophetic?

The infamous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited money to buy election campaigns. Technically, it also allows labour unions to do so, too—so naturally the rightwing needed to destroy labour unions, which is what they set out to do after the 2010 elections, and why saving Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker was so important.

Out on the Internet, rightwingers claimed that “labour unions”, which they usually describe as being “out of state”, spent “$60 million” in Wisconsin. After trying to find the source for that claim, I think it’s simply a lack of reading comprehension among conservatives—I’m not convinced they’re deliberately lying.

The truth is, estimates are that all sides in the campaign will have spent more than $63.5 million on this campaign. Of that money, $30.5 million came as campaign donations to Scott Walker, 66% of which—two thirds—came from out of state. Donations to Walker were unlimited, meaning that rich people could make the biggest contribution they wanted to.

In stark contrast, contributors to Democrat Tom Barrett were limited by law to donating no more that $10,000, and that was reflected in his donations: Only $3.9 million, most of which—75%—was raised IN Wisconsin. That means that Walker and the Republicans had a roughly eight to one fundraising advantage, and Walker’s direct contributions alone account for nearly half of all the money in the campaign.

The rest of the money came for “Super PACs”, those large “independent” organisations free to spend up large on election campaigns, thanks to Citizens United. While some are affiliated with labour unions, the vast majority of the money was spent by Republican and corporate-aligned Super PACs. Democrats were outspent around two to one by Republican/corporate Super PACs.

All up, pro-Walker spending accounted for up to around three quarters of all the money spent in the campaign (we’ll have to wait for all the final tallies to know what the final amounts are, but I doubt the proportions will change, except maybe to be worse for Democrats).

Labour unions were the ONE force able to raise large amounts of money and provide on-the-ground support for Democratic candidates. The Wisconsin results show they can no longer do that, which means that Republicans and their corporate backers will be pretty much unchallenged in many places, including Wisconsin. That’s why American democracy is now on life support: Oligarchy and plutocracy are not democracy, but that’s what America looks to be headed for. If so, that “blue collar worker” may prove to be correct.

However, there’s always hope. It’s still possible that the US can reform its system. It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will reverse its own boneheaded Citizens United decision, and it’s even more unlikely that the US Constitution will be amended to do that. Instead, laws requiring transparency along with publicly financed election campaigns are probably the best hope for reducing the influence of big money.

Until and unless reform happens, the US will continue its slide into oligarchy and plutocracy. Other Republican governors and state legislators will be emboldened now to try to destroy unions in their states in order to achieve, in the words of Henry Olsen, a vice president at the rightwing American Enterprise Institute, the “defunding of the Democratic-party shock troops.” (http://tinyurl.com/77d8smp)

I prefer to think the “blue collar worker” and Olsen and the Republicans are all wrong, that democracy will rebound in the US—but it’s getting harder and harder to think that. Hopefully, democracy will be strong enough to surprise us all.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

U is for universe

I’d originally planned another word for the letter “U”, but then something happened: The Transit of Venus, the last one for 105 years. I doubt I’ll still be here for the next one (though never say never, right?). I just couldn’t stay away.

The Transit is among the rarest of predictable astronomical events. By observing it, humans learned a lot about universe, starting with the size of our solar system, as well as the distance from the earth to the sun. It has also helped scientists to understand what to look for in distant stars to see if they may have planets orbiting them. So, the Transit has been a very big deal.

The photo of the Transit of Venus, above, was taken by NASA (Venus is that black dot). The agency describes the image as “SDO's Ultra-high Definition View of 2012 Venus Transit - 304 Angstrom”. I understood some of those words.

And that’s the thing about astronomy: You don’t really have to understand the science to be excited by it. As a kid, I watched the space launches of Project Gemini and Project Apollo (I still think I remember a Project Mercury launch, but I kind of doubt I actually do), as well as the space shuttle launches. As a kid, I had a toy Project Gemini rocket, and later built a model of an Apollo rocket, which had a separate model of the lunar lander and orbiting command module.

I also remember the disasters of Apollo 1, the near disaster of Apollo 13, as well as the shuttle disasters of Challenger and Columbia.

But I also remember the triumphs, none bigger than the moon landing on July 20, 1969, which my family watched live on our black and white television. Those images of distant planets sent back to earth from deep space probes were also breathtaking.

However, much as I wanted to, I couldn’t watch the Transit personally—I didn’t have the equipment to watch it safely, nor the time, really, but even if I did, it was cloudy a lot of the day. So instead, I watched it over the Internet, NASA livestreaming from the top of Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii. This seemed appropriate on so many levels.

My long history of watching NASA broadcasts made watching this through NASA logical, as did watching it over the Internet using my home computer—technology that owes everything to the space programme. I’m sitting in New Zealand, which Captain Cook sailed to as part of an expedition to view the Transit of Venus in 1769 (his actual purpose was supposedly to claim these islands and Australia for England). He met his doom in Hawaii. So, there are numerous connections.

The Transit of Venus is but one small event in this enormous universe of ours. We don’t know how big it is, but it’s at least 10 billion light years in diameter, and it’s at least 13 billion years old. Despite that immense size and immense age, there’s still so much to learn about it. Maybe somewhere some kid watched the Transit, was awed by it, and will now grow up to make all sorts of new discoveries. I just hope I’m around long enough to gush about some of them, too.

Below is a screenshot of what I saw on the live NASA broadcast, near the end of the transit:

Nearly all NASA images are available for use, as long as doing so doesn’t imply endorsement by NASA. Their conditions of use are available online. Oh, and that photo at the top of this post? It's now my desktop photo.

Click the badge above to visit other bloggers taking part in ABC Wednesday—there are a lot of interesting and very diverse blog posts!

Romney Campaign's Double Standard

This latest “Truth Team” video from the Obama campaign points out the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitt Romney’s attempts to make his disastrous economic record in Massachusetts seem like it wasn’t really so bad. Stephanie Cutter, Deputy Campaign Manager for the Obama campaign, sums it up well: “No matter how hard the Romney campaign tries to spin his record, the fact remains: Romney economics didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.”

And that’s the real story.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

About that divide

American Values Survey
In my previous post, I mentioned what I think is an unbridgeable divide in US politics. I think that part of the reason for that can be found in the 2012 American Values Survey, just released by Pew Research Center.

The survey shows that polarisation between the two parties is the greatest it has been in the 25 years they’ve been conducting these surveys. But, then, we all knew that already, didn’t we? It’s not hard to find evidence of it, after all.

What we may not have realised is that while the partisan gap has grown dramatically, other gaps have remained relatively stable. Still, while Republican views on conservative issues—like religion and marriage/family—have remained pretty stable, Democrats and Independents have become more liberal and secular.

Still, the percentage of people identifying with either party is at its lowest point in 25 years, with the biggest number—38%—saying they’re independent. Democrats have 32% support and Republicans have 24%. Independents say they are moderate (43%), while 22% say they’re liberal and 30% say they’re conservative; these percentages have remained relatively flat for 25 years.

Click on the image above to go to a slide show on the Pew site, with some of the highlights of the survey (the complete report is also available from the Pew site). It makes for a fascinating snapshot of the US’ political landscape, and it offers a sneak peek at what’s behind the country’s deep political divide.

Update 6 June: The Daily Beast has posted "The Top Five Takeaways From Pew's Survey of the Electorate". Well worth checking out.

Everyday reality

Didn’t you know? Society ought to discriminate.

In this video, one of the USA’s leading extremist “Christian” radio broadcasters says "It is altogether right to discriminate against homosexual behavior" before going on to urge his fellow religious extremists to “rehabilitate” the word discrimination and use it “unapologetically” because society “ought to discriminate” against gay and lesbian people. Among other things, he says there shouldn’t be any laws to protect the rights of gay and lesbian people, let alone the right to marry.

This is what we’re up against every day.

The chart below shows some of the extra financial costs we have to endure because of discrimination caused by the denial of marriage equality (embiggen to read it, or check out the source). There are hundreds of additional ways GLBT people suffer discrimination and oppression in day-to-day life, too.

But fundamentalist religionists don’t care about any of this, and not just because they couldn’t care less about facts and data. Instead, they don’t care about these social and financial costs to us because they really do think we deserve this second-class (or less…) status, as the extremist was saying in this video.

What the extremist doesn’t say this time, but has said directly or indirectly before, is something shared by all the radicals of the religious far right: They think we deserve this oppression because we won’t do as they order us to do, that is, surrender to their particular extremist brand of religion and just “stop being gay.” Because they apparently know easy it is to stop being straight, they know—they simply know—that we’re just being stubborn, so, some discrimination and oppression might make us come to our “senses” and do as we’re told.

These people are beyond reason, beyond rational arguments. Many have openly rejected GLBT family members. One leading anti-gay bigot said recently about a member of his family who has HIV/AIDS, “the wages of sin is death.” Nice people.

And that is what we’re up against. Every day.

Monday, June 04, 2012

President Obama Celebrates Pride Month

The White House description for this video says simply: “The President highlights the unsung heroes of the LGBT community.” Talk about understatement—no other president has ever done something like this, and I think we too easily lose site of that. Bush 2 could never have done it, and if the Republican candidate was to be elected I can imagine him making a video condemning us, being so desperate to court favour with the most extreme elements of his party.

When I watched the video the first time, I remembered one of my colleagues from back in my GLBT activist days who used to say that his motivation to keep going, to keep fighting in the darkness of the Reagan years was, “how dare they!” He couldn’t accept being treated as a less-than-second-class citizen, and that kept him motivated to continue the struggle.

Much has changed in the 30 years since then, and while there’s been huge progress in changing society’s attitudes, politicians lag far behind the people, as they so often do. Our adversaries have become entrenched, and as their stubborn opposition becomes ever more desperate, so, too, does their rhetoric. They, too, know we’re winning.

And yet those implacable foes have managed to slow progress, to delay the inevitable triumph of fairness, decency and justice. So, while much progress has been made in my lifetime, in many respects GLBT people have progressed only to the level of second-class citizenship. The struggle continues.

Still, never underestimate the power, symbolic and otherwise, that comes from having the president on our side. Among other things, it offers much-needed encouragement to those struggling for simple justice. Of course, it also inflames our adversaries, but, quite honestly, it’s not like they need any encouragement to start another round of rabid frothing—they find their own excuses.

So, this video is far more important than it may seem. President Obama is on the right side of history, moving forward with society. His—and our—opponents are not. The simple act of being with the majority of society, not trying to yank it backwards, says—and helps—a lot.

And, it’s always good to salute our unsung heroes, like my colleagues who fought so hard all those years ago, but who never lived to see developments such as this. Now, let’s finish the work and achieve that inevitable victory.