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On Assessing Risk, Or, Swine Flu: Is It Time To Panic? April 30, 2009

We are going to be talking a lot about swine flu over the next few weeks.

The conversation about the politics of the thing is already well underway, engulfing those who sought to remove funding for infectious disease control out of the “stimulus” bill.

We are lacking, however, an examination of the science of the thing, and that’s the point of today’s conversation.

How dangerous is this infection?
Why is it killing people in Mexico but not here?
Exactly what is a pandemic?
Do those facemasks really serve any purpose?
And what about closing the border?

They’re all good questions; and they are all questions we’ll try to answer today.

“I’ve always been a hypochondriac.
As a little boy, I’d eat my M & M’s one by one with a glass of water.”

Richard Lewis

Why don’t we define a pandemic first, then move on to the “what we knows”?

A pandemic is a global event characterized by the emergence of a new virus that readily spreads from human to human. When humans are exposed to new viruses, the lack of previously developed antibodies means we lack biological defenses, making new viruses the most dangerous to human health.

(Vaccines are designed to safely expose humans to diseases. The body makes antibodies based on that exposure, making it better prepared for the next exposure.)

So here’s what we know: a swine flu outbreak that seems to have begun in Mexico has claimed more than 150 lives and sent more than 2000 to the hospital in that country as of Tuesday morning.

As of Wednesday, there are 91 laboratory-confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States, with 81 of them occurring in New York, California, and Texas. There has been one confirmed death in the US as of Wednesday, a child who had come to the US from Mexico to be treated for this infection.

In an ordinary year, the CDC reports, about 36,000 people die from influenza in the United States (during the 1990s, the number varied from 17,000 to 52,000).

There are a smaller number of infected individuals in numerous other countries.

The World Health Organization had, early this week, declared a Phase 4 alert, meaning that we have:

“…verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza…virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic…Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.”

As of Wednesday that has been raised to a Phase 5 alert, which:

“…is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”

We also have suspicions about a number of things.

We suspect that a pig farm near La Gloria, Mexico was the source of the outbreak.

We suspect (with very high confidence) that the number of confirmed infections will grow substantially as labs are able to complete the testing that changes probable and suspected cases to confirmed ones.

We suspect there will be additional deaths in the United States from this infection beyond the one that has already been confirmed.

Because at least 45 of the confirmed cases in the US are associated with a group of spring breakers just back from Cancún, we are suspicious that they might be the group responsible for introducing the virus into the country….however…the CDC reports that cases were first seen in San Antonio, Texas, and in Southern California in late March and early April.

Because the health authorities in Mexico might not have been tracking minor infections, it is suspected that the very high death rate currently associated with this infection in that country is overstated.

There is, as you might imagine, an entire list of things we cannot as yet explain.

The question of why young and presumably healthy Mexicans are dying at an alarming rate while citizens of other countries are not is first on that list. There are several possible explanations besides the potential statistical problems we note above, and one of those is the question of air quality in Mexico City.

The amazing level of air pollution in Mexico’s capitol city has created a childhood asthma problem of such long standing that it has now also become an adult asthma problem. It is known that people with compromised respiratory systems are predisposed to become victims of opportunistic respiratory infections, lending credence to this supposition.

It is possible that nutritionally compromised individuals in Mexico are becoming targets for more severe infections than individuals in the US who are getting sick but have more robust overall health due to better nutrition.

There is confusion due to an inability to accurately track the infection in Mexico. It is possible that new infections are still occurring, that the virus is in regression, that it is has mutated in new ways, or that another, as yet unidentified virus is now circulating; but due to a lack of reliable information it is impossible to tell which, if any, of these events are actually taking place.

The US public health authorities seem to be better able to respond to this health event than Mexican authorities have been. For example, there are reports, confirmed by Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordoba, that people who had close contact with individuals who have died from swine flu have not had access to medical or epidemiological follow-up…or access to antiviral drugs.

There have been questions as to whether border screening should be intensified to prevent infected persons entering from Mexico. In testimony before Congress Tuesday it was pointed out to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison that infected persons might not show any symptoms while crossing the border, rendering such screening techniques as temperature monitoring ineffective.

Now let’s talk about this virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the same hearing room, gave us a lot to worry about. He points out that this is an almost unique virus, in that it has, within its structure, genes from bird, pig, and human influenza viruses (the process of these genes combining themselves in new ways is called “reassortment”); and seeing a “triple reassortment” is highly unusual.

The H1N1 virus that is the basis of this new virus is inherently capable of human-to-human transmission, he tells us, which is particularly problematic.

We will talk about what drugs might be effective in a moment…but first, a word or two on uncertainty.

There is no way to know if the virus we are dealing with today will mutate into new forms, nor can we predict if the virus will become relatively more dangerous if and when new populations are exposed. (It is also possible that the virus might mutate into a less harmful form).

We have no way to predict whether this virus will return, even stronger, in the fall, which would not be uncommon.

We cannot predict what other influenza viruses might appear, or if the two other currently circulating “seasonal” viruses might mutate in ways that cause greater concern.

We cannot predict the potential for further reassortment caused by the current seasonal flu viruses that had been circulating before the emergence of swine flu interacting with this new virus.

We cannot predict where the virus (and its antecedents) will crop up.

We cannot say for certain that the virus will not develop resistance to currently effective antiviral drugs.

These are problems associated with influenza management every flu season, and they are not particular to this virus.

“Excessive calm…may be a symptom of swine flu.”

Stephen Colbert

Because things can change on literally a day-by-day basis, some of our comments on drugs will be correct as of today, but not necessarily correct in the future.

There are four antiviral drugs available, and two of them are rather ineffective in dealing with certain strains of influenza due to the fact that those strains have developed resistance to those drugs.

That leaves two useful drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza.

When deciding what drug to prescribe for someone who shows up at the doctor’s office, the doctor needs to have an idea what kind of flu you have. If you show up with swine flu, today, a doctor might be inclined to offer you Tamiflu…but if you showed up with an infection caused by the “seasonal” Type A H1N1 virus from 2007-2008, Tamiflu would be the wrong choice, as that virus is resistant to Tamiflu.

Why not just dose the entire US population with Tamiflu or Relenza right now, you might ask?

It’s partly a question of side effects and the damage they can cause, multiplied by 300,000,000 patients.

In the case of Relenza, there are significant side effects for those with respiratory diseases, and the drug is not normally recommended for those patients. The FDA recommends that patients who do use this drug have ready access to a fast-acting inhaled bronchodilator at the time it is administered. Some patients have experienced “transient neuropsychiatric events” (specifically self-injury or delirium) after using the drug.

Roughly 10% of Tamiflu users experience vomiting, and there are also patient reports of transient neuropsychiatric events with this drug (“confusion, paranoia, anxiety attack, nightmares” were among the listed symptoms). The use of this drug by children under one year of age is not normally advised, but on Wednesday an Emergency Use Authorization was issued for such use.

It’s also, to some extent, a question of uncertainty about this flu: will this virus turn out to be less harmful than the impact of those side effects? Will it, in other words, “just fade away”?

Beyond that, to try to prevent these viruses from developing resistance, we need to use these drugs as sparingly as possible; with that in mind, if we can avoid mass administration of these drugs it would be to our advantage.

The preferred approach would be to vaccinate…and it is hoped that by this fall a vaccine will be available…and it is hoped that the virus that is in circulation this fall will be roughly the same virus that was “designed into” the vaccine between now and summer.

Now a quick word on facemasks and respirators:

The CDC recommends facemasks for those in crowded settings…but they strongly suggest limiting the time in which you are in those settings more than they do the use of facemasks. They also strongly emphasize handwashing, covering your mouth when you cough, and washing hands after shaking hands.

It is also noted that airborne droplets can get around the edges of facemasks, rendering them fairly ineffective.

Respirators, on the other hand, can be effective, and are currently recommended for people who cannot avoid contact with infected persons. The “all-day” use of these respirators, however, is a challenge simply because of the increased effort involved in breathing while wearing such a device.

An artist asked the gallery owner if there had been any interest in his paintings on display at that time.

“I have good news and bad news” the owner replied. “The good news is that a gentleman inquired about your work and wondered if it would appreciate in value after your death. When I told him it would, he bought all 15 of your paintings.”

“That’s wonderful!” the artist exclaimed. “What’s the bad news?”

“The man was your doctor.”

–From Doctor Jokes at “Resources for Attorneys”

So what good news, if any, is there to tell?

As of right now we have no reason to believe that this flu is more likely to cause fatalities than the seasonal influenzas that we would normally see. (Keep in mind, however, that this could quickly change.)

If the pattern we have seen so far were to continue (and there is no particular reason to say it will or it won’t) we could end up with a virus that is widely transmitted but no more dangerous than what we are used to seeing in normal years.

Ironically, the virus’ wide dissemination would itself be good news; as it would expose more of us to this new virus, enabling us to develop antibodies to the infection even before a vaccine is developed for the fall.

We have covered a lot of ground today, so let’s wrap it up:

An influenza caused by a nearly unique virus is moving through the population of Mexico, that infection has spread to several other countries, and so far the number of fatalities worldwide has not exceeded 200. (We expect more than 35,000 deaths annually from influenza in the United States, by way of comparison.)

Because it is a virus to which humans have not been previously exposed, there is heightened concern among The Experts.

There is no reason, at this moment, to believe this influenza will be more lethal than the seasonal influenzas currently circulating among the US population.

This flu can currently be controlled by administration of either of two readily available antivirals. (By the way, don’t forget all that handwashing, covering your mouth when you cough…and handwashing….is pretty helpful as well.)

This type of virus (H1N1) is generically known for its ability to transmit readily from person to person, and not for its inherent lethality. (It is not yet certain, however, if this specific virus will follow that pattern.)

It is possible that a useful vaccine will be available for fall—and it is also possible that this virus will have morphed into a form that will be resistant to the newly developed vaccine.

Closing the borders isn’t logical, facemasks don’t really work, respirators do, but they’re not the sort of “all-day” accessory that a lot of us will enjoy…and avoiding crowded places is what the CDC today feels will work best.

There are a host of unknowns that could change all of this, and there are no predictive tools that can reliably give us reasons to be either sanguine…or scared to death.

All of this can and will change rapidly—sometimes on a day-to-day basis. In the time I spent putting all this together, the WHO raised the alert to Phase 4, then Phase 5, the number of US cases doubled, and the CDC has changed their recommendations for antiviral drug administration twice.

Put it all together, and at the moment things are nowhere near as bad as they could be, with a whole lot of uncertainty ahead.

Warning—commercial message ahead: I’m competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I could use your support. Just head on over to the Democracy for America website, click on the “Add your support” link under “Grassroots Supporters”, and offer a word or two…and with that, thanks very much, and we return you to your regular programming.

 

On Netroots Nation Nominations, Or, Uncle Consultant Wants You! April 25, 2009

It has not been my practice to engage in a great deal of self-promotion in this space, but I’m going to make an exception today…which means you are hereby warned that a commercial lies ahead.

I promise I won’t be asking for your money, only for a couple of minutes of your time.

What are we selling?

Your friendly fake consultant is competing for a scholarship to the Netroots Nation Convention this August in Pittsburgh…and I’m looking for your support.

“Things are more like they are now than they have ever been.”

–President Gerald Ford

What is Netroots Nation?

To put it simply, it’s the annual gathering of Progressive bloggers…and those who seek to reach them…and those who help make the Progressive movement happen. The meetings were originally incarnated as YearlyKos in ’06, but by the ’08 event in Austin, the name had changed to Netroots Nation; the Nation having grown into a partnership that now includes the Democracy for America community among its members.

Attendees last year heard from General Wesley Clark, some guy named Howard Dean (who I understand had been registering voters in Crawford, Texas, earlier that same day…which I assume was why they invited him to speak), and Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, who shared the stage for their presentation.

Panels included “Growing the American Dream Movement” with David Bonior, Markos Moulitas and Harold Ford’s “Keynote Discussion on Party Infrastructure”, and “Energizing America: Setting an Agenda for Progress”, which featured former mayor, and now Alaska Senator, Mark Begich, former Speaker of the Oregon House, and now Oregon Senator, Jeff Merkley, and one of my favorite bloggers, A Siegel, who publishes the “Get Energy Smart! NOW!!!” blog.

As they did last year, the Netroots Nation community is awarding 30 scholarships to bloggers and Progressive activists—and I would like to convince them to award one to me.

And that’s where you come in.

The fine folks at Democracy for America have posted pages with information about all the candidates for scholarships, along with pages that allow you to see the information about each candidate (and where you can, for the first time ever, see my actual picture), and also allow you to “voice your support”.

I would very much appreciate it if you would swing by the site and say a few nice words about the blog, or whatever other supportive words might come to mind.

You need to be registered at Democracy for America to offer support, and this is a great time to get involved over there if you’re not already…so, register, already (and yes, it’s free…).

“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’.”

Vice President Dan Quayle; December 6, 1989

So what’s in it for you?

For starters, we hope to make these conversations better by reaching out more directly to the people who are the source of our news…and with any luck, we can make contacts at the Convention that help make that possible.

Beyond that, signing up at Democracy for America will get you access to the most excellent “DFA Night School” archive, which is created from an ongoing series of practical political training classes, the most recent of which was “Building a Better County Party”, held just a day or so ago…which, if you watch the videos, will make you a smarter activist.

Finally, you’ll get a chance to find out about what happens at Netroots Nation not just from the inside…but from your very own fake consultant’s “just slightly skewed” inside view of the thing.

So there it is: I’m a candidate for one of the Netroots Nation scholarships, you can offer your support at the Democracy for America website (and it won’t cost you a dime), and by signing up at Democracy for America you can get access to lots of practical, professional, political education…that also won’t cost you a dime.

And with that, we thank you for your time and attention…and we return you to your regular programming, already in progress.

 

On Angst, Or, We Meet A Tea Party Protester April 17, 2009

So if you’re like me, you have been wondering just exactly what all this “tea party” stuff is about. There’s going to be some sort of protest, that we know; but beyond that the whole thing seems a little…vague.

Alternatively, it’s possible that you were unaware that “tea party” has recently become a word reborn in conservative political circles.

Well, whether you knew it or not, April 15th was indeed a day of protest, with citizens gathering for what were reported to be a series of grassroots events across the nation that was intended to invoke the spirit of the Boston Tea Party.

In an effort to find out exactly what is motivating these folks, and to find out what they are trying to accomplish, I took my handy recorder and captured a conversation with a “tea bag” protester.

We will review that conversation, and we will follow it up with a few thoughts about how this group of voters might impact electoral politics going forward.

Let’s begin by setting the stage: the city of Issaquah, Washington (population about 17,000) is more or less 15 miles east of downtown Seattle, in eastern King County. It’s a bedroom community, for the most part, with some light industrial and stores like Home Depot. The Costco corporate headquarters is located over where the old skydiving airport used to be, and I-90 bisects the city.

Seattle’s eastern suburbs have been a good source of reliable Republican voters, and the Representative from the District (WA-08) is former Sheriff Dave Reichert (R-Ineffectual), who defeated Darcy Burner in one of the more closely watched Congressional races of both the ’06 and ’08 cycles.

It was a lovely not raining afternoon (this time of the year, that’s a real treat), and the steps of the Issaquah City Hall create a nice backdrop for a gathering. At noon on a Wednesday about 120 people are gathered, holding signs, and reacting to the honks of passing traffic. A “patriot”, in blue coat and tricorner hat, was present.

After a period of standing out in front of City Hall, most of the group left to march up and down the street; and it was at this point that I approached a woman who had chosen to remain behind to see if I might ask her a few questions about the event.

Where you see quotations, they are exact transcripts from the recording.
Her comments are in boldface.
Ellipses (…) are used only to indicate pauses in the conversation, not to indicate “trimming” of the quotes.

One of the first things we addressed was her concern that her rights to gather and speak freely might be threatened:

“…You bet they are” she answered, “Obama is about, he’s more like, a, a he wants to be a leader himself, he’s the leader, OK, but he doesn’t speak for America…and he is not really, really, the President of the United States.”

I asked her how she had reached that conclusion:

“He hasn’t proven that he’s a citizen, he hasn’t proven that he’s a citizen, he’s a liar…he, he, says one thing and he does another all the time…so, you know…he is not a patriot. I was born and raised in America, even people I grew up, with, that became Americans, love America. People come to America to be free. You know what I feel he’s taking away from us? Our freedom.”

I asked her what laws are being proposed that would make her feel that way, to which she replied:

“Taking all that money and doing with it as he pleases, without confer–, letting people take a vote on it on the right to do this that’s the Constitution, the 9th and the…”

“So Congress didn’t vote on any of that…”

“He is getting them to do what he wants, people are doing what he wants, because, he has people like Farrakhan, he has a lot of people behind him that are not for America. OK, and he’s a Muslim, let’s just remember that, OK, he’s not an American patriot, he’s a Muslim—“

“He’s a Muslim?”

“Yes, he claims to be a Muslim—“

“So you’re not worried about that Reverend Wright thing, then?”

“Oh, no no no no, Reverend Wright is a radical in his own way, too…”

“But he doesn’t have any influence on Obama, apparently, because…he’s a Muslim—“

“Well, he does, you know all about it, don’t you…”

At this point she began to ask a series of questions designed to determine my organizational affiliation, to which I had to again explain that I am but a humble blogger, and not really affiliated with any organization, and that my purpose in coming was to try to gather an idea as to what was going on so that I could explain it to others.

To which she offered this reply:

“Mr. Obama’s a liar…But we’re here today…just as Americans to say we want, we don’t wanna pay for what he wants us to pay for with taking all that money away from America.”

She reports that she went to Washington, DC, “and even called the President” to express her displeasure about the growing deficits during the Bush Administration; and we found a point of agreement when she noted that not voting can be a political statement, just as voting is.

She then went on to say:

“…the people, according to our Constitution and what I’ve always known is the Government was for the people, by the people, and of the people. We the people have the right to make those decisions at State levels, each State…”

At this point I asked her if that wasn’t the function of Congress, who are our elected Representatives, and that if that was true then how is that taxation without representation? (And no, I did not mention the whole Gettysburg Address “thing”. Sometimes you just have to let someone say what they want to say, and not get in the way…)

“…well, we have voted in a lot of people who are liars; that get in there for the wrong reasons. We have to start paying attention…and learn about these politicians…”

(A point with which I wholeheartedly agree—but to be honest, I don’t think she has a desire to learn that Mr. Obama is actually a real live, no-kidding, American citizen.)

I then asked her about the 2007 Federal Budget.

My understanding of that budget is that about $2.4 trillion was spent, and more or less $2.1 trillion of that was spent on Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and Defense, leaving roughly $300 billion for all other spending.

Since the deficit for that year was above $300 billion, my question to her was which of the three choices above was she ready to start cutting?

“They’re not gonna go anywhere, they’re never gonna be used for those things, hardly…”

I explained to her that this is not a matter of conjecture, but that this was how the money was actually spent that year:

“Obama does what he wants with it—“

“Well, what I’m saying is that—“

“That’s the way it looks—“

“That’s how the money was spent—“

“Don’t you know about…how—“

“In 2007, that’s how the money was spent—“

“Are you a Republican?”

“No”

“Are you a Democrat?”

“Not really…”

“Are you a libertarian?”

“I don’t think the idea of having no government works very well, no ma’am–”

“So you don’t vote at all?”

“I do vote, and I don’t vote based on any party…”

“You don’t?”

“No ma’am, I don’t think Democrats or Republicans have a monopoly on ideas.”

Eventually, as I tried to get an answer from her about the Budget, it came to this:

“That’s not the true issue. The true issue is we don’t want our taxes going up because they’ve taken so much money and bankrupted America…we don’t wanna pay for that, we want him to leave that money alone, not bail out AIG, and let America resolve its issues…amongst the people.

They think everybody’s stupid. They think everyone’s stupid except them.
What’s your opinion?”

At this point I tried to explain that stimulus seems to make sense, and that the Great Depression offered an historical example of why.

“You don’t mind if I spend your money then, can I take all your money and spend it the way I want to?”

“Well, I don’t think I’m going to let you take all my money—“

“But that’s what Obama did. I don’t mind paying some taxes—“

“So you don’t have any money at this point?”

“Ye-, of course I have money—“

“So he didn’t take all your money?”

“I work, OK, I, he, he, if he has taken that money because he has stolen a lot of money from the United States of America—“

“How did he steal it?”

“You know exactly how.”

“Well, I’m confused…”

“Well, if you’re confused go watch him, OK. You’re for Obama, right? Isn’t that who you believe in?”

“Well, I did vote for Obama, but I wouldn’t say I believe in him…”

“Well, good-bye. Yeah, you do believe in him, and if you’re a person who doesn’t vote, and you say you vote, I’m confused, I know who you are—“

“Who am I?”

“You’re trying to deceive, that’s why you’re here. You’re not American, you’re one of these radicals the other way. I believe that this President is not the true President, OK, I believe that he is not an American citizen, he’s a liar, he’s a liar and he’s a thief. He got homes through…all kinds of discrepancies…he has never admitted to anything, he wasn’t a good politician, all he is, is a Socialist, he’s a Socialist, don’t wanna work, just do your own thing, take what you want, do what you want, live off welfare…”

At which point the interview concluded.

So what have we learned here today?

Well, let’s start by presuming that this sort of voter is not a likely “get” for any future Democratic candidate…and with that in mind, let’s have a look at what her impact might be on a Republican candidate seeking office.

Republicans should be aware that there exists a significant community of voters who are clearly upset with Mr. Obama. These voters are upset about issues they can’t (or won’t) exactly articulate, and they are not exactly sure how to fix “what ails them”…but they are genuinely upset, and they seem to feel that they no longer have a sense of control over, or attachment to, their Government.

You might see good news for Republicans when looking at this woman, since she represents, as far as I could tell, a group seeking a leader; but I see instead a substantial group of individuals who have the potential to vote for candidates of third parties—in other words, voters who feel alienated from both major parties, which would not be good news for Republicans.

To “recover” these voters, I suspect, will require Republican candidates to go quite far to the right—and I suspect that if the woman I met today becomes the Republican “target market” Republicans will have even more problems attracting centrist voters than they have now.

If the world does not come to an end, economically or otherwise, by 2010, and there are no huge tax increases, it will be even tougher to make the arguments we heard today, suggesting the woman I interviewed will become a more isolated part of the electorate than she might be today.

If the economy actually improves, it suggests that finding a voter outside of the 15-30% of the electorate these voters might represent who will vote Republican–particularly in statewide and Federal elections–will be tougher and tougher.

What does all that mean?

It means, absent a major economic collapse, that the Republican future, at least for a few cycles to come, might be as a Congressional minority, with several States still available where they can maintain control of Gubernatorial and Legislative positions…but with a declining number of those States over time, and a decreasing chance of electing a President because of the inherent problems they face retaining centrist voters.

Of course, there is also the possibility that these voters will cleave off to support a Bob Barr or a Ron Paul or a Mike Huckabee, who might seek a third party candidacy, which, ironically, could help Republicans gain centrist voters, even as they lose this group of voters. In all probability, this would also cost the Republicans the chance to elect a President until a “centrist/rightist reconciliation” of some sort can occur.

It puts Republicans in a tough spot, and as a political geek I can’t wait to see how they approach working it all out.

 

On A May-December Romance, Part One, Or, Las Vegas, Segregated April 15, 2009

There may be no more recognizable icon of “Retro-Cool” than that photograph of the Rat Pack standing in front of the marquee at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

They’re right there, lined up in front of their own giant names on the marquee: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.

Night after night they would gather with friends such as Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson, and Johnny Carson, to deliver some of the greatest nightclub performances in entertainment history.

Today’s story, however, focuses on what happened after the show: when four of those five could leave the showroom, drink at the bar, gamble at the casino, and go upstairs to their rooms.

In a town sometimes known as the “Mississippi of the West”, however, one of those five performers could not do any of those things.

Our Journey In Two Parts literally crosses over to the “wrong side of the tracks”, tells a story of segregation overcome, and recounts the six-month history of a Las Vegas hotel that has a 55-year history: the Moulin Rouge.

“…We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations…will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

–Justice John Marshall Harlan, from the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

So let’s start with the “literally” part: Las Vegas’ “Westside”, which was the original Vegas townsite, was located across the “Cement Curtain” of railroad tracks from “new” Las Vegas, and it was the only place the black population was allowed to live.

This was not a new situation in Nevada, or unique to Las Vegas: when the Six Companies built what became Hoover Dam in the ‘30s, some say only 30 blacks are estimated to have been employed on the entire project. (Others put the number nearly 50% higher, suggesting 44 out of the workforce of 5000 were black.)

World War II had swollen Las Vegas’ population, and the “new” Vegas—the white Vegas—included the land that would eventually become The Strip. While blacks were allowed to work out of the Westside, beyond that area they could not own property…and they most assuredly could not be guests of the hotels and casinos in which they worked.

In fact, blacks who owned businesses beyond the borders of the Westside were “motivated” to move them there during the ‘40s.

By the early 1950s the Thunderbird, the El Rancho Vegas, and “Bugsy” Siegel’s Flamingo, among others, were drawing big crowds from Los Angeles and points beyond for the floor shows, lounge entertainment, and casino gambling.

With the exception of Josephine Baker’s performance at the El Rancho, blacks were generally not allowed among those crowds; and performers such as Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. were forced to stay in rooming houses or other accommodations on the Westside.

“In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again…the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.”

Sammy Davis, Jr.

At this point, a few words on Rat Pack history (and if you only click on one link in this story, this might be the one…).

Humphrey Bogart was the founder of the first Rat Pack; then called the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack”, after the Los Angeles neighborhood in which he and Lauren Bacall lived following their 1945 marriage. These Rat Packers included Judy Garland, “Swifty” Lazar (still considered one of the most notable agents in Hollywood history), and, eventually, Frank Sinatra.

This members of this group were not “Hollywood Society” types; as a result the Rat Pack spent a lot of its time up in the Holmby Hills…laughing at Hollywood Society over cocktails…making the odd trip to Vegas to spend a night out…and occasionally adjourning to fellow Rat Packers Mike and Gloria Romanoff’s restaurant…where the Hollywood Society types vied to be seen with them.

Upon Bogart’s death in 1957 Sinatra, partly because of his friendship with Bacall, was able to continue the Pack (at one point called “The Clan”; a name that was quickly dropped) with new members (and old friends) Dino, Sammy, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford (Not-Yet-President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law), while still keeping continuity with Bogart’s Rat Pack. (Some might also describe Sinatra and Bacall’s romantic relationship following Bogart’s death as another part of that continuity.)

We’ve come a long way to get to this point, and we have a long way to go—which makes this a perfect “rest stop” between Parts One and Two.

A Barstow, if you will.

Way back at the beginning, we learned that blacks in Las Vegas really were living on the wrong side of the tracks, that separate was in no way equal; and that even if you were Louis Armstrong, or Lena Horne, or Sammy Davis, Jr., you might be allowed to work in white Las Vegas, but you weren’t going to be allowed to eat there, drink there, or sleep there…and you weren’t going to be allowed to gamble your paycheck away there, either.

In the meantime, Las Vegas was attracting entertainers—black and white—who would chafe at these rules. The group that would become the new Rat Pack was going to be at the heart of that change…and in our next installment, we’ll talk about six months of Las Vegas history that ultimately, despite great resistance, forced that change to happen.

 

On Tradition, Or, Same-Sex Marriage, Seen Through A Telescope April 10, 2009

Dangerous Things are happening in America these days, we are told, and the once-innocent citizens of Iowa and Vermont have already been exposed to the hazard…and now it looks as though the contagion might spread to States across New England.

But lucky for us, our friends on the Right are here again to save to save us from…(insert horror film music here)…

…The Gay.

The Gay, it turns out, want the opportunity to marry.

Among other complaints, our friends on the Right feel this will destroy religious tradition, which will ultimately destroy first Christianity, then the Nation. Therefore, religious tradition must be protected at all costs.

Well as it turns out, there are some people from our past who know a few things about religious traditions and how they distort reality—and today, we’ll examine the lessons they have to teach us.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

“The King James Bible”, Ecclesiastes 1:5

“…I wish, my dear Kepler, that we could have a good laugh together at the extraordinary stupidity of the mob. What do you think of the foremost philosophers of this University? In spite of my oft-repeated efforts and invitations, they have refused, with the obstinacy of a glutted adder, to look at the planets or Moon or my telescope.”

Through which the satellites of Jupiter were visible, Galileo Galilei

“The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.”

–From the Catholic Church’s indictment of Galileo Galilei, 1633

So you get up every day and look up at the sky, and it’s obvious that the sun starts out over here…and at the end of the day it ends up over there.

Aristotle and Ptolemy figured it all out: each planet was placed on its own “sphere”, the earth in the center, and everything rotating around it; each planet (and the sun) inside the other, with the stars on the outside, in a Celestial Sphere”…all of this resembling Russian “Matryoshka” dolls.

And it’s no surprise that this interpretation of the motion of planets and the sun became not just “common sense”, but the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, it was in the Bible, it was something you could see every day, and as the Greeks would have told you, it was logically “beautiful”—and who could want better proof than that?

To make a long story short, a Polish-born Church Canon named Nicolas Copernicus did. In 1543, near the end of his life, he released the book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), which suggested that all the planets, including the Earth, actually orbit the Sun.

It took another 40 years before someone would challenge Dogma on this point in a “threatening” way, but by 1584 Giordano Bruno’s The Ash Wednesday Supper was considered challenging enough to earn him the Heretic’s Fork…just before he was burned alive on the order of the Church.

By 1616 Galileo Galilei was being warned by the Catholic Church to stop talking about what he was seeing through his telescopes; a moon that was not a perfect sphere and the viewing of the phases of Venus being just two of his problematic observations.

Of course, the real reason all this was so problematic was because there were those in the Church who felt that the Word of God was to be interpreted literally…which meant that anyone who challenged either the text of the Bible or Church Dogma in any way had to be both factually wrong…and an enemy of the Faith.

Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

–Groucho Marx, from the movie Duck Soup

Despite the warning, Galileo wouldn’t let it go. He kept observing, and he kept writing, which led to his attempt, in 1632, to obtain a license to publish the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems…which led to his being hauled before the Inquisition…which led, in June of 1633, to him forswearing any of his previous beliefs, presumably to avoid the Heretic’s Fork himself.

The Church was able to hold all this together for another half-century—but Isaac Newton essentially “won the argument” with the publication of his three editions of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica from 1686 to 1742.

Many of you will recall that the Catholic Church was in fact destroyed by this chink in the armor of Biblical literalism, with the Church actually ceasing operations in 1802.

Obviously, I’m kidding—but the fact that nothing terrible happened hasn’t stopped any number of religious leaders in this country (and their followers, for that matter) from claiming that allowing same-sex marriages will have the same impact on faith in America today.

Which brings us to the moral of today’s story: the next time someone tells you that same-sex marriages will destroy religious traditions…that the world as we know it will come to a horrible end…and that anyone with any “common sense” can see that for themselves…tell ‘em to go get a telescope and get over it.

 

On Reconsidering Racism, Or, This Ain’t Grandpa’s America April 6, 2009

We have a story today that is a big-time reminder of how things have changed in America…and it’s all inspired by a book of jokes.

I am often prowling thrift shops looking for interesting things, and I came across a 1946 copy of “10,000 Jokes, Toasts, And Stories” (edited by Lewis and Faye Copeland), which contains a section of jokes entitled “Races and Nations”…which contains a subsection entitled “Negro”.

We are going to examine some of those jokes…and the world in which those jokes resided.

I warn you now: it will be highly unpleasant; but as we come out the other side the goal will be to show that what was not only acceptable, but commonplace, not so very long ago, would be considered wildly unacceptable today—and that we are a better people for the change.

“Sambo, suppose you were to receive a letter from the Ku Klux Klan advising you to get out of town, what would you do?”

“I’d read it on the train.”

–Joke 6468

“Is your husband a good provider, Dinah?”

“Yessum, he’s a good providah, all right, but I’m allus skeered dat nigger’s gwine to get caught at it.”

–Joke 6458

So the deal is, if you’re under 50 years old, or a recent immigrant to these shores, you probably have little or no familiarity with the overt racism that was practiced against the Americans who descended from slavery.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of covert racism that means the security guard spends more time following the black customers than the white ones…I’m talking about the kind of overt racism that means the black customers aren’t even allowed to enter “white” stores.

Lunch counters were segregated, there were “white” and “colored” water fountains (before you go look at the picture, see if you can guess which one has the cooling unit installed). Fire hoses weren’t used just to put out fires…they were also used to put out school children who didn’t fit the racial profile.

Rastus shuffled into the employment office down in Savannah one morning and said hopefully:

“Don’ spose you don’ know nobody as don’ want nobody to do nothin’, does you?”

–Joke 6351

Rastus was in trouble again, and the sheriff asked him if he were guilty or not guilty.

“Guilty, suh, I think” replied Rastus, “but I better be tried to make sure of it.”

–Joke 6460

As these jokes demonstrate, black people were portrayed as ignorant, lazy, shiftless and quick to steal. To ensure these “undesirables” didn’t threaten white populations, some locales became “sundown” towns…so called because of the signs they posted at their city limits:

“Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in Elwood”

Sign posted in Elwood, Indiana, 1966

(Fun Fact: did you know that Indiana was such a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s that KKK Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson once said about himself: “I am the law in Indiana”? Of course, that was before he went to prison for rape and murder later in the same decade.)

Racism, as defined in law, was extreme and trivial, both at the same time. It’s reported that Birmingham, Alabama passed a law requiring segregated checkers and dominoes in 1935 (presumably after the Great Checkers Incident of 1934, or some similar affront)…and Oklahoma passed a law making it a misdemeanor for teachers to teach in mixed-race schools.

A darkey was examined in a Harlem court, to prove the identity of a white man.
“Did you see the man?” asked the attorney.
“Yes, sah, I seed him.”
“Was he a white man?”
“Dunno, sah.”
“Do you say you saw the man and can’t say whether he was white or black?”
“Yea, sah, I seed him, but dere’s so many white fellers callin’ derselfs niggers round here I can’t tell one from toder!”

–Joke 6376

The Boys of Summer are hitting the fields of their respective stadia this month, and no conversation about race and baseball would be complete without a mention of Jackie Robinson, who everyone knows broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball…except that he didn’t.

Moses “Fleet” Walker, and his brother, Welday Walker , seem to actually bear that honor: in 1884 they played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Black players continued to play until 1890, when owners seem to have decided amongst themselves that there were to be no more black Major League players; a decision that lasted until Robinson became the first player “in the modern era” (1947, to be exact) to join a Major League club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

(Another Fun Fact: remember the movie “Bull Durham”? The stadium used by the Durham Bulls–Durham Athletic Park–was at the center of a segregation and boycott battle during the 1950s…a battle the boycotters won.)

Rastus-“Ef yo’ says anything ter me Ah’ll make yo’ eat yo’ words, man.”
Exodus-“Chicken dumplings, hot biscuits, and watermelon.”

–Joke 6511

So about now you may be asking “what is the point of today’s story?”…and it’s pretty simple:

Barack Obama is president.

Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, where the first battle of the Civil War was fought, is the Democratic House Whip.

Rosa Parks is a national hero for an act of civil disobediance.

David Duke is the Governor of Nothing.

And out of all that change, we’ve become a better people.

 

A Fake Consultant Exclusive: Administration Announces Drug Legalization Plan April 1, 2009

Washington, D.C. (FNN)—In a move some are describing as a “news dump” timed to coincide with the attention being paid to President Obama’s foreign trip, the Justice Department announced the Administration’s plans to introduce legislation to legalize and regulate the manufacture, sales, possession, and use of what are today legally known as Schedule I drugs.

Additionally, Schedule II through Schedule V drugs will be made available to adult members of the public at their request, with a doctor’s prescription no longer being required before such drugs can be dispensed.

The drugs being “legalized” through this legislation would include marijuana, LSD, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy; also included will be all pharmaceutical drugs currently under restricted distribution: among those are Xanax, OxyContin, and Viagra.

“Since the Inauguration, we have received more input on this issue than on any other” reports Department of Justice spokesman Harry Paratestes. “Many people will also recall that the question on this issue garnered a very large number of votes from the public in the run-up to the President’s recent Internet Town Hall meeting.”

Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs continued to maintain this afternoon that legalization is not “a good strategy to grow the economy”; but conceded that questions of cost and the ineffectiveness of anti-drug strategies were driving the push for a new approach.

“it really is ridiculous” Gibbs admitted in an impromptu press availability today, “I mean, we are literally sponsoring a website and ads that claim drugs make you bad at video games, for God’s sake. Whoever came up with that idea must have competed in the Special Olympics of Advertising before we hired them.”

DOJ spokesman Paratestes also noted Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s recent testimony before Congress, in which it was revealed that the Drug War is costing the US Government about $40 billion annually—but not having any real impact on ending a $40 billion dollar a year business.

“This Administration has committed to reducing this year’s deficit by 50% in four years’ time, and if we hope to reach that goal, we have to be willing to eliminate any spending that doesn’t serve its intended purpose—and we absolutely don’t want to continue spending in ways that are demonstrably counterproductive”, Paratestes said.

The legislation would allow the states to choose from several distribution models.

Paratestes reports that states may incorporate any of several elements from the suggested distribution options, or they are free to create a distribution model of their own.

“We assume some states will distribute certain drugs, such as marijuana and hashish, in a manner similar to the way alcoholic beverages are retailed today; with bars or coffeehouses providing a venue for public use, and grocers or other retailers providing an outlet for sales for home use.”

Paratestes went on to comment that the States might look to Canada for an answer as to how other dugs can be distributed. “Drugs such as codeine and Robaxin have been sold over-the-counter by Canadian pharmacists for decades with no serious problems, and there’s no reason to believe such a plan wouldn’t work in the US as well.”

An additional distribution model Paratestes described would channel the sales of these newly legalized products through the State Liquor Stores which are already operating in 18 states.

Paratestes emphasized that an important element of the new legislation is funding for thousands of new spaces in treatment programs throughout the country: “If there is one thing we have learned over the years, it is that money spent on treatment represents a good return on investment for the taxpayer; and as I said earlier, this Administration is absolutely determined to spend every tax dollar wisely.”

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered an additional comment on the proposed legislation at today’s press availability: “In addition to the cost reductions we know we will realize after this legislation is enacted, we expect an almost immediate reduction in cross-border violence from within Mexico as the highly lucrative black market for these products disappears, along with the incomes of the drug gangs who are today engaged in that violence.”

In a most ironic development, Republican Congressman Ron Paul and Fox News’ Glenn Beck have both made statements in support of legalization.

When contacted for a statement, unnamed sources close to Rush Limbaugh said that they would “miss the thrill of picking up” Limbaugh’s various prescriptions; describing the visits to multiple pharmacies on the same day to pick up hundreds of illegal pills as “not quite as big a rush as meeting Ann Coulter, but pretty close.”

One of Limbaugh’s employees lamented the lost relationships as well: “I always enjoyed talking to the pharmacy workers” the anonymous source said “after spending a few years working for Excellence In Broadcasting, they were pretty much the only rational people I would talk to all day.”

The proposed bill already has several potential co-sponsors, and passage, although contentious, should be possible in today’s legislative environment.