Monday, February 28, 2000

Week of 02/28/2000

Real Life Cruel Intentions
- by David Matthews 2

Once upon a time, there was an easy way to make yourself look like a fool for millions. You and either a friend or a loved one could go to Los Angeles, put on matching pair of costumes or wear a silly sign, and then to the studio where they taped "Let’s Make A Deal" and hope Monty Hall spotted you. Or you could go to wherever Willard Scott is appearing to do the weather on the "Today" show and hope he picks you out of the crowd to talk to on camera.

Waving a silly sign can get you a few seconds of national attention, whether it’s for the Today show, MTV, or professional wrestling. But you have to have that sign stand out. The last time I went to see professional wrestling as it was being broadcast, there were so many signs in front of me that I had to stand in the isle just so I could SEE the wrestling match. If I ever go to one of those events again, I’m going to sneak in a pair of hedge clippers and a lighter!

But for some people, it’s more fun to make others look like a fool. After all, they’re a little bit sensitive about how they’d be seen by their friends and family. Not everyone wants to be known as the person who dressed up like Raggedy Ann or held up a sign that said "Rock Me Rocky!" So rather than making themselves look foolish, they get others to play the fool.

And there, television has plenty of ways to make other people look like fools. "Candid Camera" and all the various offshoots of that successful show certainly come to mind. My personal favorite of that prankish kind of series has to be "Playboy’s Really Naked Truth" - for obvious reasons, of course.

There are other shows that are borderline prankish, including "America’s Funniest Home Videos", which gets its chuckles from showing other people’s actions and reactions when life pulls a practical joke. Watching someone’s toupee get snatched by a bird, or watching a bride throw the bouquet and having it shredded by the ceiling fan. The kind of things that just make you want to laugh at how comical the world can be at times.

Not everything is as comical, though. Sometimes, one becomes a fool on television through some rather cruel tricks by others. Certainly daytime talk shows know this, especially since Jenny Jones was slapped with a huge lawsuit after one such "ambush" show resulted in the death of one guest at the hands of another just days after a taping.

That brings us to the latest fool-making show - "Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire."

The people at Fox Television thought they had a hit. After all, it combined the craze over so-called "millionaire" game shows with the ceremony protocols of a beauty pageant, and threw in a legendary Nevada quickie wedding to boot. And indeed, it seemed to be a hit. MILLIONS of people tuned in to see which of the fifty women would end up marrying a man they have never seen before and only knew that he was worth a few million dollars.

The lights on the stage weren’t even cold, however, when people started to suffer from the dreaded "guilty pleasure syndrome". They started to think about just what it was they took pleasure in watching.

The first group who started to balk, naturally, were the moralists. After all, they’re the ones who claim to champion the institution of marriage. So they raised their snooty, pious noses up in the air and proclaim that Fox cheapened marriage by letting two strangers get married simply because one of them is worth a few million. Never mind, of course, that there was once a thing called "arranged marriages" - which powerful families married off their children who usually did not know each other until the wedding.

Then came the allegations against Rick Rockwell, the multi-millionaire groom. While the newlyweds were off in the Caribbean, the website "Smoking Gun" revealed Rockwell’s restraining order by a former fiancée almost ten years ago. His financial credibility was put in question, and his past as a B-movie actor and stand-up comedian flew in the face of his current status as a real estate investor and motivational speaker. Even when he tried to refute the allegations of past violence, he made things worse by commenting that he simply took the air out of his ex-fiancée’s tires, and that whole business about wanting to kill that woman was just a figure of speech. Yeah, right.

But then came the punch line in this pathetic prank from Hell. The twist that would make this whole charade complete. When Darva Conger, the bride, got before the media and played the "poor victim" routine.

"I don’t think I was thinking clearly," she told "Good Morning America." "I committed an error in judgment."

Oh please!

Let’s get brutally honest here - Darva Conger KNEW what she was getting into! This is not something you choose to get into after a few hours of drinking and then arbitrarily say "I didn’t know what I was doing!" It took four days of preparation and rehearsals for each of the contestants. You would think that the title ALONE would be a hint as to what would be expected if one was the winner.

Ask Jay Thomas, the host of the show - and who had to spend some time with the fifty women over that four day period - if it looked like Darva Conger was just one of those women who was competing for the hell of it. At one point, Thomas said that she corrected him on a certain question, making sure she wouldn’t lose out on her chances to win. That’s not someone who would compete "on a lark." That’s someone who WANTED to win.

What was she thinking? WE KNOW what she was thinking. She was thinking this was one hell of a way to get a free trip to Vegas, to be on television, and to win an expensive diamond ring, a Caribbean vacation, and an SUV for her troubles.

Too bad she had to put up with the guy to get it.

One has to feel sorry for Rick Rockwell. After all, here is a man who is reportedly worth millions on paper, and yet his life is SO desperate - despite his looks - that he has to appear on a television show in order to get married. Then, rather than leaving him alone, his past is dissected by special interest groups and morning talk show hosts. And to top it all off, his bride slams him on national television. Certainly a man who was made to look like a fool.

When one thinks of a gold-digger, they usually have this vision of a young woman marrying this senile old guy who is rich beyond expectations. They think of Playboy Playmate and Guess model Anna Nicole Smith, who married a very wealthy man who died months later, and now has to fight her in-laws for her share of the inheritance. And even though Rockwell’s wealth existed mostly on paper, certainly Darva Conger acted like a gold-digger in every aspect. Cold and unfeeling towards someone she just married, and cutting him loose once she has what she wanted.

A lesson that women should learn is that men don’t like to be disrespected any more than they would like to be. Women complain that they are more than just the sum of their body parts, and yet some women have no qualms about treating a man as nothing more than just the sum of his assets.

Maybe once we get past that double standard, we can stop trying to get our jollies off of making others be the fool.

Monday, February 21, 2000

Week of 02/21/2000

It’s Still The Economy!
- by David Matthews 2

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

Those were the words that were the bane of President George Bush in 1992.

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

Those were the words that helped promote a slick career politician from Arkansas to beat President Bush in the 1992 presidential elections.

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

Back then, America was in the midst of a recession. The businesses that were on marathon merger sprees in the 1980’s were paying the bills for those mergers by laying off people and streamlining their services. In fact, the serious layoffs started around 1988 under President Reagan’s watch. The banking institutions were still recovering from the Savings and Loan failures. The "mother of all military overkill" - otherwise known as the Gulf War - was a great PR campaign for the power of the armed forces, but it didn’t produce the economic recovery so desperately needed. And rather than staying at home to encourage businesses to invest in the American workforce again, President Bush started his "New World Order Tour" to show the world just how proactive America could be.

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

So President Bush took the heat for America’s economic recession (which largely were from factors that started before he became president), simply because he choose to focus on his worldly neighbors instead of his own political lawn. That let Slick Bill Clinton sweet-talk his way into the White House with the four words that stood as the unofficial banner of his campaign.

"It’s the economy, stupid!"

Presidents, it seems, are forever linked to the winds of the economy. Franklin Roosevelt’s career was forged as the man who would get America through the Great Depression. Jimmy Carter was hit by both bad foreign policy and a bad economy, which made it easy for someone like Ronald Reagan to win in 1980.

By the way did you notice how all the talk about the economy disappeared once Clinton took office? Oh, he had this BIG meeting with business leaders even before his inauguration, but basically very little came from it. Business leaders told him that was how things were, and government can’t do anything to change it. But that really didn’t matter to Clinton. He had his big meeting - problem fixed!

Those four words, though, have continued to pop up occasionally.

"It’s the economy, stupid" was one of the reasons behind people believing that Clinton should stay in office in 1996. The economy is doing great, the Clinton evangelists told us, so let’s keep him in office, or else it will all go to pot.

"It’s the economy, stupid" was the exact same reason given by Clinton to urge he not be voted out of office in 1999 at his impeachment trial. It was also the same reason that so-called political "experts" gave to explain why there wasn’t as much of a public calling for his ouster. It didn’t matter that we rate lying to Congress the same as Congress does in lying to the American people. It didn’t matter that we thought Clinton should’ve been impeached for more than lying about a dalliance with an intern. According to those experts, we just didn’t want to disrupt the economy.

And true, the economy has been strong in recent years. A whole new source of wealth has been found in the electronics and information market. Prices have been low, the stock market has been on a winning streak, and people have been feeling good about themselves.

But now here’s something that people don’t want to hear.. and certainly something that either the President or any of the presidential contenders want you to hear: The good times are coming to an end.

Now let’s get brutally honest here… I’m not a financial expert, nor do I pretend to ever be one. I’m just a regular guy, like the rest of you, who are working their butts off trying to make ends meet. But just like a farmer who can work the land and forecast the weather a little bit better than a meteorologist, sometimes regular people can have a better feel of the economy than so-called financial experts; and what I’m getting a feel of is an economy whose successful climb is at an end, and the decent is about to begin.

How do I know? Well just like the experts, one has to look at the signs.

For starters, there’s the amount of government being brought into our lives. Like any cheap hustler looking for a quick buck, politicians are eager to use the good times as an excuse for more government programs, more government regulations, and more taxes to pay for them all. After all, we’re told, we can afford them. And this year’s financial wish list from President Clinton, otherwise known as the Federal Budget for fiscal year 2001, is perhaps the best demonstration of that political largesse.

Of course, our politicians would be ever so quick to say that any tax increases would be foisted on those "evil, filthy, rich corporations" and not on the average, hard-working American. But even if that was the case, we would still get screwed. Businesses simply transfer that additional cost to their customers in terms of higher prices. It’s called "overhead", and it’s something that businesses can do, but the average, hard-working American cannot.

The second sign that we’re about to hit an economic downturn is in job layoffs. And there have been some serious layoffs announced in the past year by major corporations. However, unlike previous downturns, these announcements were not to take effect for several more months, which gave economists the time to simply wave their hands like Marie Antoinette and say "oh, the job market can handle it.."

Maybe the job market CAN handle it, but with what? Temporary and seasonal work, which are plentiful, but does not bring the kind of financial stability that allows people to do things like take out a loan for a new car or home. Temporary work means people will have some spending money to keep their current bills paid and put food on the table, but that’s pretty much it. As one who has worked the temporary job market, I know that it is very difficult to plan for your future for things like college for your kids or your retirement if you don’t know how long your current job will last. That’s one reality that so-called financial experts have little comprehension of.

The next sign is in the price of services. The OPEC nations have once again taken control of oil production, and as a result, oil prices are over $30 a barrel for the first time in almost a decade. Gasoline prices at the pump have soared. This price increase has already led to higher airline prices. Other such transportation prices will soon follow. That will lead to higher prices for other services because businesses will have to absorb the cost in their overhead.

Then there is the one other activity that the federal government can control - and that’s federal interest rates. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has raised interest rates over a point in the past year alone, on the pretense that this would slow the economy down and offset inflation. That would be nice if the economy was still on a roller-coaster climb, but not now, when the economy is at the peak and about to plunge.

Increased interest rates for things such as loans mean additional costs on consumers and businesses. That means businesses will have to pass that additional cost - the overhead - to the consumer. Consumers will have to pay more money for their loans, which means less money they can have to spend on other things.

Chairman Greenspan hasn’t stopped inflation, he’s fanning it like a fire.

So now here’s the $64,000 question… why aren’t you being told this from the so-called "experts"?

Remember what I said before.. presidents are linked to the winds of the economy. Bill Clinton doesn’t want to be remembered for causing the next recession any more than President Reagan would want to be remembered for causing the recession of 1989. And certainly the current crop of presidential wannabes do not what to be the president who inherits this coming economic downturn. Can you imagine the headlines should Texas Governor George Bush become president and he inherits this? Four words come to mind: like father, like son!

Of course, there is a way to change that. Most people didn’t realize that we were into a recession in 1982, partly because of what the federal government did back then, and that was to cut taxes and start cutting down on the level of government. But given that even the most conservative of our politicians don’t want to do that, it’s very likely that we will have to ride through these coming days of famine without them.

So the next time our political leaders come by to talk about how things are and ask how they can help us, perhaps we can remind them of the four little words that once put a slick politician in office. The four words that matter more to us than ethical politicians. The four words that matter more to us than foreign aid. The four words that matter to us more than South Carolina’s flag or Elian Gonzales or Braves pitcher John Rocker’s comments in Sports Illustrated. The four words that sum up all of our concerns for the future.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Monday, February 14, 2000

Week of 02/14/2000

The Persecution Game
- by David Matthews 2

Two boys were brought home by the police for breaking a neighbor’s window. Their father apologized to the officer and said he would take care of all the damages. With the officer gone, he turned his attention to the boys.

"Okay, I want to know who broke the window," he said sternly.

The gruff boy turned towards his brother, a rather mousy-looking lad, and said "Mickey! He’s to blame! It’s all his fault!"

"No, it’s Timmy!" Mickey replied in a whiny voice. "He’s the one who broke the window!"

The father turned towards Timmy. "Is that true?"

"Yeah, but it’s all Mickey’s fault!"

The father started with disbelief. "And why is it his fault if you’re the one who broke the window?"

"Because I threw a rock at him!"

"So WHY is he to blame for breaking the neighbor’s window?" the father asked incredulously.

With a straight face, Timmy replied "Because he ducked!"

Once upon a time, bullies were unapologetic to their situation. They were thugs, and they never tried to rationalize their behavior. They simply did what they have always done, preyed on anyone who wouldn’t fight back. The only way you could deal with it was to either fight back or to simply put up with the abuse.

But today, things have changed. Bullies are no longer seen as predators, but rather as victims of yet another group of bullies. We’re told we shouldn’t blame them for being who they are, that they’re just acting out their own victimization.

One such group of bullies who are playing the "poor victim" game are the religious crusaders. Specifically, Christian crusaders.

Now once upon a time, Christians really were the persecuted ones. They used to be a source of sick entertainment for the Roman Empire. Those were the days when Centurions were Centurions, and Christians were lion food.

But then something strange happened. In the course of a few centuries, Christianity went from being the scorn of government to being the power in government. And where Christians used to be humble people simply wanting to spread their message, they quickly became prideful people on a quest to convert everyone.

And because pride is one of the seven deadly sins, it was quite often the catalyst that turned humble believers into zealous persecutors and crusaders.

Now let’s fast-forward a few centuries. There is no doubt that Christianity has entrenched itself in Western government. And there is also no doubt that the pride that has infested that once-humble belief has not been abated in those centuries either.

But now there is a mechanism in place to try to keep that Christian pride in check when it comes to government. That mechanism is the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution which states that while government cannot prohibit the freedom of religion, they also cannot favor (or "establish") one religion over another.

Of course, those full of religious pride refuse to acknowledge that little fact. They take the "non-establishment" clause to mean simply prohibiting a public "recognition" of one religious sect over another. So for many years, those religious crusaders have used government to do what the Constitution so prohibited them from, establish the doctrines of their religion without specifically mentioning that religion. They mandated that all public schools and school events have prayer sessions. They put the Ten Commandments in every public building, and put statues and other symbols of their dominant religion on public property. They manipulated Congress to add the motto "In God We Trust" on US currency, and to include the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950’s. These were supposedly designed to counter the "God-less" Soviet Union, which is ironic since the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written by a self-professed Christian communist.

However, in recent decades, that dominance was questioned, and the US Supreme Court wisely agreed that some of the efforts by the religious crusaders DID in fact violate the non-establishment clause of the US Constitution. And that reality has restored some of the humility back into those with religious pride. Some, but not much.

So the religious thugs have come up with a new tactic to maintain their dominance. They have once again proclaimed themselves as the "persecuted" people.

They claim "persecution" when they cannot have mandatory prayer sessions in public schools. They claim "persecution" when they cannot put the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, meeting hall, and classroom, unless it is only in context with other historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Magna Cater. They claim "persecution" if they cannot have special Bible studies on public school grounds, using taxpayer funds, and to the exclusion of any other religious studies.

In short, they claim "persecution" whenever they are not allowed to have their way. Much like little Timmy blaming his brother for ducking, the theocrats in America claim to be persecuted simply because they are not being allowed to pound in their doctrines through government.

Let’s get brutally honest here… this is a pathetic excuse by the religious wrong and a travesty on those who are genuinely and legitimately persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Ask Nicholas Beckner who the real persecuted people are. When several students, parents, and government officials knowingly and willingly violated the First Amendment and put in a prayer session in his high school graduation ceremony, he walked out in protest, only to be forcefully barred by the police from returning to his own graduation.

Ask Ryan Green who the real persecuted people are. He was forced by teachers to hide his Star of David necklace - the symbol of his Jewish faith - because school officials "claimed" it was a gang symbol. This same school, however, had no problems with students wearing crucifix necklaces.

Ask Crystal Seifferly who the real persecuted people are. Like Ryan Green, she was also barred from wearing a symbol of her religion. But in her case, the religion is Wicca. She was barred from wearing her pentagram necklace because school officials deem that to be a "cult" and not a "legitimate" religion.

These young people were legitimately persecuted for their beliefs. And who where they persecuted by? The same group of self-righteous Christian theocrats who claim to be "persecuted" themselves.

What is embarrassing is that when those self-righteous Christians wrongfully proclaim themselves to be persecuted, they do so in mockery of their own history. They do so at the mockery of Saint Peter, who was crucified upside-down for his beliefs; and at the mockery of Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake for believing to follow the word of God; and to all of the other martyrs who choose to give up their lives rather than give up their beliefs. Compared to what these folks went through, today’s Christians are complaining about nothing more than a theological hangnail.

It makes you wonder sometimes how these people can sleep at night.

Look, the freedom to believe in God as you see fit is one of the key elements in the First Amendment, and one that I myself would defend just as fervently as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association. But when there is a clear history of one dominant religion - such as Christianity - pushing itself into all aspects of government, one has to be skeptical of their claims of "persecution".

I would only hope that the day never comes when they themselves will know what true persecution is like.

Monday, February 7, 2000

Week of 02/07/2000

When The Price Is Freedom
- by David Matthews 2

There is an old saying concerning purchases that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. If you ever get the chance to visit some of the more expensive stores in cities like Atlanta or New York you’d know exactly why that saying is all too true. There are some beautiful things up for sale, but only to people for whom money is no object. The kind of people who saunter down the isles like Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack" saying "I’d like one of these, two dozen of those, five or six of that, and whatever else you want."

That saying is not just limited to purchases, though.

Complain as I can about the two dominant parties in the American political system, the one thing that Americans have not had to worry about is coalition-formed bodies taking dominance in government. The zero-sum policies to exclude third party groups from gaining any kind of ground in Congress can be both thanked and blamed for that. The last time such a wildly diverse group got together to decide the direction for the nation, it was the electoral college in 1860, which ended up electing Abraham Lincoln president.

However, such coalition-building is commonplace in many other legislative bodies around the world. Wildly diverse groups end up selling their political souls for a slice of power on a regular basis. In these countries, the key word in politics is not "sucking up" but rather "let’s make a deal".

In Austria, one such deal-making has allowed a rather controversial political group to gain a voice in the legislature. This group is called the Freedom Party, and at the heart of this group is the source of the controversy - the Freedom Party’s leader Joerg Haider.

What has attracted the Freedom Party much scorn has been Haider’s past comments concerning Austria’s participation in World War II as an annexed part of Nazi Germany. Unlike countries like France and Poland, which opposed Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party, some Austrians joined Hitler’s forces and served as members of the Waffen SS. Haider believed that those Austrians who ended up serving Hitler were also victims of the Nazi atrocities which led to the imprisonment, torment, and outright murder of millions. He even commented about some of the things Hitler did to impose order, which he deemed to be benefits.

Even though Haider has attempted to expand on those past statements to show how he himself condemned the atrocities of Nazi Germany, world groups still took offense to what he had said. The European Union, the new continental body of government there, is moving to punish Austria for even allowing Haider’s Freedom Party to gain a dominant voice in government.

Even President Clinton has ordered the recall of our ambassador there in support of the condemnation by the EU. Of course, I’m still waiting for some newspaper to run the headline "CLINTON OPPOSES FREEDOM PARTY." I won’t hold my breath, though.

Now let’s get brutally honest here… take away the Nazi elements of Haider’s past statements and what do you get? Comments about an orderly society, swift in punishment, and praise for their veterans. Comments that would make any politician proud to utter.

Most people like to have some semblance of order in their world. They’d like to know that things are going well, that criminals would be punished, and that they can feel safe and secure wherever they go.

What many people forget, though, is that such safety and security comes with a price tag on it. It doesn’t come for free. Safety and security often comes as part of a package deal, much like a cheap toy in the McDonald’s Happy Meal box. If you want the prize, you gotta buy the meal. If you want safety and security and order in the world, you have to take the political plan offered to you and pay the price they demand for it.

To some people, price is no object. Safety and security are far more important to them, and they would pay any price to get it. They would take whatever political package is offered to them as long as they get their safety and security.

That’s why there are still people today who talk about the good things Nazi Germany had. That’s why there are still people in Russia who yearn for the old days of the Soviet Union. That’s why there are still people who talk about Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, and how he was able to get the trains to run on time. To them, the price of such social control was not a problem.

And what is the price our politicians ask for such social control? Quite often, that price is freedom. The freedom to decide for ourselves how to live our lives.

Take driving. We’d like to get to our destination as fast as we could, because more often that naught, driving is annoying. But we also like to get there safely, and with our car intact. So we’re told if we want that, we have to accept some limits on how fast we drive. That’s the general basis for speed limits on all public roads - to protect the safety of all drivers. That’s the price we have to pay - the limit on our freedom to drive as fast as we want to.

Quite often, though, the freedom people are willing to give up is not necessarily their own freedom, but rather the freedom of others.

Case in point can be found in a recent article in MSNBC about credit card thieves operating in Internet chat rooms. The reporter of this article quite frequently made mention that Internet chat rooms are open because of the First Amendment, and implied that somehow law enforcement should access such chat rooms, as if they were somehow barred from doing so. What was more disturbing was the MSNBC poll that was placed on the page of the article which asked people whether or not they wanted law enforcement to monitor all chat rooms. More than half of the people who took part in that poll said yes, they’d be willing to. Free speech be damned, according to these people, they want their safety and security!

Of course, it’s easy to relegate freedom away, especially if the freedom that is given up is not one you yourself enjoy. That’s why most Germans didn’t care what happened to the people who were persecuted when Hitler was in power. It didn’t affect them personally. It was only after the full price tag was shown - when the full extent of the Holocaust was exposed - did people realize the cost was way to high for anyone to accept.

That’s why the mere inference of praise towards anything associated with Nazi Germany is met with such hostility. It reminds people that at one point in their lives they were willing to sacrifice a whole segment of their own countrymen for their own sense of safety and security.

And yet, somewhere in the back of the minds of certain people is the knowledge that they would be willing to make a similar deal again. All one has to do is look at places like Bosnia and Kosovo to know that such a deal could be made despite our own assurances that it wouldn’t.

Well, we need to remind ourselves that every time some politician offers us safety and security it always comes with a price tag, and while we may not think that the cost won’t affect us, at some point it will. Too often, we don’t realize it until after the damage has been done, and we can see the full scope of the price that has been paid.

If we truly wish to prevent another Holocaust, it’s not enough to simply say "never again." Abusive spouses tell themselves that as well, but they keep on abusing. We have to ask ourselves what that political price tag says, and we need to ask ourselves whether or not such a price is worth it BEFORE any damage can be made.

And when the price is freedom, what our politicians are asking for is way too expensive.