Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mr. Peabody and the Case of Rodney King

Mr. Peabody: Sherman, let's set the Wayback Machine to the year 1991.

Sherman: What are we going to study today, Mr. Peabody?

Mr. Peabody: Well, Sherman, we're going to examine an instance of police officers using appalling excessive force in a case that captured the whole country's attention.

Sherman: You mean like in Ferguson, Missouri?

Mr. Peabody: Actually, Sherman, this particular case happened in Los Angeles, and instead of shooting a black man the white officers involved just kept bootstomping him long after he was helpless on the ground. Let's take a look:

(video of Rodney King being beaten to a pulp)

Sherman: Yikes! Mr. Peabody, that is horrible!

Mr. Peabody: Right you are Sherman. What made this case more shocking was that it represented the first time a blatant example of police abuse was caught by a bystander on video tape and shown on national television. Would you like to guess what happened next?

Sherman: The police officers were not convicted of any crime, just like in Ferguson?

Mr. Peabody: Good boy. That's exactly right--and then this happened:

(video of LA riots)

Sherman: Gee Whiz, Mr. Peabody, that looks like what we saw on teevee last night--only worse.

Mr. Peabody: Indeed, Sherman.

Sherman: But, but, but, is that the end of the story? Surely, SOMEBODY could have done SOMETHING.

Mr. Peabody: Well, Sherman, in those days America had an old white Republican man as president instead of a young black Democratic man. What do you suppose he did?

Sherman: Oh, ha, ha. You're funny, Mr. Peabody. He did nothing, of course.

Mr. Peabody: Ahhh...that's where you are wrong Sherman. Let's take a look, shall we:

(video of federal jury finding Rodney King beating police officers guilty)

Mr. Peabody: So you see, Sherman, the old white Republican man president launched what is called a federal civil rights investigation against those cops. And in federal court, which is not as susceptible to prejudice and corruption as state and local courts, those cops got what they deserved--years in prison.

Sherman: Wow, Mr. Peabody, that's great! So, do you suppose that our young black Democratic man president is going to do the same thing in Ferguson?

Mr. Peabody: (Sighs) Not bloody likely, Sherman.

Sherman: But why?

Mr. Peabody: Because sadly, Sherman, America is irreparably broken.

Bonus: Bill does Rodney King (except in retrospect he got Bush's response wrong)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation is Heading into a "Perfect Storm"

One interesting thing I've noticed after my nearly two-year break from blogging is how some of the worst economic news these days gets reported in such a hum-drum manner. You would think that a story as big as a near doubling of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation's annual deficit would generate a huge amount of coverage given that the agency is all that stands between over 40 million retirees and the poor house. But no, you'd be forgiven if you missed it given that CNBC gave it exactly FOUR short paragraphs on its website:
The federal agency that insures pensions for about 41 million Americans saw its deficit nearly double in the latest fiscal year. The agency said the worsening finances of some multi-employer pension plans mainly caused the increased deficit.

At about $62 billion for the budget year ending Sept. 30, it was the widest deficit in the 40-year history of the Pension Benefit Guaranty, which reported the data Monday. That compares with a $36 billion shortfall the previous year.

Multi-employer plans are pension agreements between labor unions and a group of companies, usually in the same industry. The agency said the deficit in its multi-employer insurance program jumped to $42.4 billion from $8.3 billion in 2013.

By contrast, the deficit in the single-employer program shrank to $19.3 billion from $27.4 billion.
Sometimes it also helps to add a little historical perspective. Back in October 2011, I wrote about the the rising PBGC deficit, highlighting this factoid that was on Wikipedia at the time:
During fiscal year 2010, the PBGC paid $5.6 billion in benefits to participants of failed pension plans. That year, 147 pension plans failed, and the PBGC's deficit increased 4.5 percent to $23 billion. The PBGC has a total of $102.5 billion in obligations and $79.5 billion in assets.
At the time, private pension underfunding was reported to have risen to the staggering total of $512 billion. Since then, as you can see above, PBGC's annual shortfall has accordingly nearly tripled in size, which doesn't bode well for the future.

There has been a lot of crowing in the financial media about the falling federal budget deficit (down these days to ONLY about $1 trillion annually). Looks like there is at least one federal agency that's going to be putting lots of upward pressure on that figure going forward.

Bonus: If you have a pension just relax, enjoy this upbeat little ditty and don't worry about where you'll be in five years' time

Monday, November 17, 2014

What do Jerry Brown and Samuel L. Jackson Have in Common?

"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

So says Aaron Eckhart as fictional District Attorney Harvey Dent in the movie The Dark Knight, not long before his kidnapping and horrible disfigurement by Heath Ledger's Joker turns him in exactly the way he predicted. In real life such transformations are far more subtle and usually take far longer to reach fruition. Two such contemporary figures who both happen to hail from the great and wacky state of California but who could not have more disparate backgrounds, beloved actor Samuel L. Jackson and current California Governor Jerry Brown, are living proof that for reputation's sake it is rarely a good idea to hang around too long in the public eye.

Let's start with Jackson, who American moviegoers love for his admittedly intense performances in such movies as Pulp Fiction and the remake of Shaft (can you dig it?). Few popcorn munchers are aware, however, that during his student days Jackson became so outraged by Martin Luther King's assassination that he joined the Black Power movement and in 1969 participated in holding members of the Morehouse College board of trustees hostage on the campus, demanding reform in the school's curriculum and governance. You can readily imagine Jackson going into that battle carrying a wallet with "Bad Motherfucker" etched in the leather. He was later convicted of a second degree felony for his actions, and clearly this was a young man willing to go to jail or even risk his life in order to fight systemic abuse and injustice directed toward black Americans.

Flash forward 45 years later, and the bad motherfucker has mellowed out a bit. In fact he's mellowed out so much that he has become unavoidable on commercial teevee as a pitchman for Capital One, hawking credit cards to already seriously over-indebted American citizens consumers idiots. Not only was Capital One bailed out by the taxpayers during the financial crash to the tune of over $3.5 billion, but the company's current credit card interest rate charged for purchases is 24.9% on money that the bank can, of course, borrow from the Federal Reserve for next to nothing.

It should go without saying that credit card debt most heavily burdens lower income Americans, who are disproportionally black and minority. But more surprisingly is that even middle class black families have come to lean heavily on high interest credit card debt, to the point where nearly four out of five such families are so indebted. Yet there is nary a negative word publicly uttered about Jackson's massive sellout of his previous principles despite the fact that his net worth is currently estimated at $170 million, and he hardly has any financially motivated reason to be out hawking debt to those, especially those of his own race who he once seemed to care about so passionately, who can ill afford it.

Next we have the example of Jerry Brown, who for much of his career campaigned vigorously against the corrupting influence of big money in politics. So how is all that going these days? Here's the Sacramento Bee with the scoop:
Brown began his political career in the 1970s as a radical governor who would take down political corruption and outsized donations from lobbyists. The Brown we see today courts millions in campaign contributions from big corporations and looks the other way when a key government official is caught red-handed trying to protect the company he is supposed to be investigating.

In the case of disgraced PUC President Michael Peevey, Brown has not demanded Peevey immediately resign from office, despite the recent unearthing of his blatantly improper and unethical intervention on behalf of PG&E. The PUC is supposed to hold PG&E accountable and protect the public in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. What we find instead are backroom deals, bribery, questionable rate hikes, and hand-picking judges who will be favorable to PG&E and the utility industry Peevey comes from.


Brown’s governance has failed to set a standard condemning influence peddling in Sacramento.

The changes in Brown’s campaign fundraising over the years are a signpost of the kind of leader he has become. Unlike his first gubernatorial campaign in 1974, during which he attempted to ban direct contributions from lobbyists, or his campaign for president in 1992, when he wanted candidates to cap donations at $100, Brown’s most recent campaigns have been marked by raising some of the largest sums in the country. The $25 million in the 2014 race came overwhelmingly from big corporations, labor unions, oil companies and wealthy individuals known for lobbying state government.

The means by which Brown secures such hefty contributions came under suspicion in January, when he asked the California Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings blocking high-speed rail. Brown filed the appeal just three days after Tutor Perini Corp. – the contractor that won a $1 billion contract for the project despite having the lowest technical rating of those bidding – donated the maximum $27,200 it could to Brown’s campaign.

Is it any surprise that in September Brown vetoed an ethics bill (Senate Bill 1443) that would have required more campaign finance disclosure and reduced the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials?
No it really isn't a surprise given that it has been quite awhile since anyone, even a politician of Jerry Brown's stature, could be elected to a major post like Gubbner of California WITHOUT pocketing vast sums of cash from such sources. At some point "Governor Moonbeam," who during his first stint as governor during the mid-1970s lived in a modest apartment instead of the governor's mansion and drove around in a Plymouth Satellite sedan instead of being chauffeured by limousine, recognized that he either needed to compromise his principles or give up politics, and we can see which route he chose.

I highlighted these two examples to demonstrate just how commonplace and mundane the selling out and/or corruption of American public figures has become these days. In fact, it has become so much so that those involved in it can no longer see that they are just as big a part of the problem as those they may choose to vilify, as shown by this amazingly clueless quote from Jackson about Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas:
He (Jackson) compared his Django Unchained character, a villainous house slave, to black conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, saying that "I have the same moral compass as Clarence Thomas does".
No, Samuel, sadly it is not just your "Uncle Tom" character who has the "moral compass" of Clarance Thomas, but YOU as well. You and Thomas are part of the same massive hypocrisy, and are both useful "tools of the man" as you and your brethren no doubt put it back in the 1960s. And along with your esteemed governor, Jerry Brown, you are hardly alone.

Bonus: "The path of the righteous man is beset on all side by the inequities of the selfish and the tyrannies of evil men"

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lord Kitchener and "The Banality of Evil"

image: Uncle Sam is a piker compared to Lord Kitchener

"The banality of evil" was a phrase first used by political theorist Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi bureaucrat and key Holocaust cog Adolf Eichmann when the latter was finally put on trial for war crimes back in 1963. It arose from Eichmann's claim that what he had done in the service of of his country was not wrong because he was "doing his duty" and "just following orders." Arendt's thesis about Eichmann is summed up thusly:
Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann's actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional. She never denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, nor that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity.
And as a result of such stupidity--the same kind of stupidity that is unfortunately all too common in our own country these days in such places as the Pentagon and Wall Street--did Eichmann become one of the most notorious names of the 20th century.

But what about those who are NOT stupid, and are NOT motivated by the desire for promotion? Those at the top who make decisions knowing damn well millions of people are going to suffer and be killed as a result, yet don't particularly seem to care? Are they not far more hideous monsters than the likes of Adolf Eichmann? After all even Eichmann's ultimate boss, Adolf Hitler, was not exactly history's brightest bulb.

My last post got me to thinking again about the First World War. Unlike the second global conflagration, the wake of World War 1 never saw any serious attempt to hold those whose decisions were responsible for slaughtering over 37 million of their fellow human beings responsible for their actions. And if one wants to talk about stupidity in power, one needs to look no further than the collection of hereditary monarchs and preening fools from Kaiser Wilhelm to British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith who were in charge of their respective countries when the war broke out. Most of these esteemed statesmen stupidly believed that the war would be short and glorious and that the troops would be "home by Christmas," as the popular expression went in those fateful early days of August 1914.

One reason so many of these so called "leaders" were so confident was because Europe had not seen massive continental warfare since the Battle of Waterloo ended the career of Napoleon almost exactly a century before. They truly could not envision (because they were stupid) the wholesale slaughter that modern industrial warfare inventions such as artillery, the carbine, the machine gun, the airplane and poison gas were going to precipitate everywhere from Flanders' "bloody fields" to the Gallipoli Peninsula.

But there was one man in particular who knew the horrible truth even before it all started: British Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Considered at the outbreak of the war to be "Britain's greatest living soldier," Kitchener had already had plenty of opportunities to see up close and personal what the rapid advance of military technology had wrought in the years since the Grand Armee's wave finally crested and broke in the burned out ruins of Moscow.

Kitchener had spent most of his career fighting colonial wars. He was particularly renowned for his victory in the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan, in which by training his Maxim machine guns on horseman charging with spears his forces killed 10,000 enemy soldiers and wounded 15,000 more while losing only 47 of their own. As author Scott Anderson put it in his fascinating book, Lawrence IN Arabia, during his career Kitchener had participated in more one-sided slaughters than probably any man alive. But because he had, Anderson adds, Kitchener also had a pretty good idea what would happen on a battlefield in which BOTH sides possessed the same level of superior military technology.

Thus, while the other idiots in the British cabinet that summer (to include Winston Churchill) were confidently predicting that the war would be over in months, or even weeks, it was Britain's greatest living soldier who sounded the very sobering and completely accurate warning. The war would drag on for years, Kitchener told them, and it would not end "until we have plumbed our manpower down to the last million." Needless to say, it was NOT a message the politicians running his country wanted to hear.

So, knowing what he knew about how the war was likely going to unfold what did Kitchener, whose word carried more weight with British public opinion in all matters military than even King George V, DO once it became apparent that the nation's "leaders" were determined to drive the country into the abyss? Did he resign in protest at a time in which doing so could possibly have halted the insane rush to war? Of course not. Instead, he allowed himself to be appointed Secretary of State for War. Almost immediately, Kitchener's became the very public face of the British war effort, as well as the drive to get young British men to voluntarily sign up to be led off to slaughter (the country did not resort to drafting soldiers until 1916, around the time of Kitchener's death).

Going back to Arendt and "the banality of evil," Kitchener was rare among the "leaders" of his day in that he was obviously not a stupid man. Nor at the time that he helped initiate what for his country was a war of choice knowing that it was going cause many millions of deaths was he likely motivated by the hope of professional promotion. In fact, Kitchener's ambition was to be Viceroy of India, not Secretary of State for War. So if Eichmann represents the "banal" figure who commits massive crimes against humanity because of a combination of burning ambition and no moral compass, what exactly does that make the likes of Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener? Yet one is (rightfully) vilified as a monster while the other has an elaborate memorial monument permanently on display in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Bringing all of this forward to America in the present day, I doubt if I'll get too many arguments if I assert that our current "leadership" features countless figures who are in fact monumentally stupid. But perhaps the lesson we should keep in mind from the example of Lord Kitchener is that it's the rare smart ones who when they do appear that we should REALLY be wary of.

Bonus: "In the fields the bodies burning...as the war machine keeps turning"

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering "Remembrance Day"

"I'd rather be hanged as a traitor than go to war for Wall Street" - Eugene Debs

With all the ass kissing of veterans that goes on every November 11th, a tradition that has gotten particularly annoying in the wake of 9/11, it is worth remembering what the November 11th holiday is SUPPOSED to be remembering. Called "Remembrance Day" in the British Commonwealth, the holiday there pauses to reflect on the over 800,000 soldiers of Great Britain and her Empire who perished in what has to rank as mankind's most fruitless and futile war.

In America, where anything that's happened more than six months ago is considered ancient history, most people have a pretty dim awareness of the First World War, assuming they remember it at all. Go into any bookstore (if you can find one that's still open), and even with the recent "splurge" in publications about the war to commemorate the centennial of its outbreak in August 1914, the number of World War 2 books will still outnumber it on the shelves by at least 20 to 1. That's a shame for a lot of reasons, but particularly because it means that the MOST important historical event of the 20th century is far less well understood even by the tiny fraction of people in this monumentally stupid country who actually still read non-fiction.

In addition to arguably being the first war to feature death on an industrial scale (the last year of the American Civil War also has an argument in this area) it was also the first war to feature airplanes, tanks, massive starvation of civilians (largely in the old Ottoman Empire) and the world's first modern genocide (again, courtesy of the Ottomans). The war's end also redrew the map of the Middle East to the abomination that has led to so much subsequent misery and bloodshed as well as a hideously one-sided peace treaty that created the political conditions that would allow a thuggish young upstart named Adolf Hitler to eventually seize control of what had previously been one of Europe's most enlightened nations.

Taking things across the Atlantic, Woodrow Wilson's decision to plunge America into the European abyss not only tragically and needlessly wasted the lives of 117,000 young men, it also witnessed the unconstitutional political persecution and even imprisonment or deportation of antiwar leaders such as Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who correctly surmised that American involvement was first and foremost to protect the interest of big business in selling war material to Britain and France. It was, in fact, America's first neoliberal war--sold as a humanitarian mission (the "war to end all wars") while fattening the pockets of the wealthy benefactors of America' corrupt politicians. Worse yet, had America ultimately stayed out, World War 1 would have likely ended in a stalemate, which would have meant no Versailles Treaty, no "stab in the back," no Hitler rising to power and no World War 2, at least in the European theater.

But lastly, the First World War is an interesting study in just how far "leaders" of nations will go in slaughtering their citizens in order to maintain their power, as well as how far said citizens can be pushed while their fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews' lives are being fritted away by megalomaniacal and incompetent psychopaths. Yes, many French soldiers rose up against their officers in 1917, and in the same year a revolution finally brought down the pitiful Czar in Russia, finally taking that beleaguered country out of the war, but for the most part the young men of Europe and later America marched suicidally into blanket artillery and machine gun fire like lemmings drowning themselves in the sea while the civilians back home watched in horror but sat on their collective asses and effectively did nothing to stop it.

From this example come the lessons we should take to heart as the American empire lurches ever forward to its eventual collapse: 1). Don't ever underestimate the lengths the elites will go to in order to maintain their power, and 2). Don't ever overestimate the willingness of your fellow citizens consumers idiots to revolt against whatever their "leaders" who say they will do to "protect" the homeland and keep them safe.

Bonus: "It was dark all around...there was frost in the ground...when the tigers broke free"

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Soviet America (Part 2)

(image: Soviet era bread line)

The Guardian published an interesting article the other day called, "As the Berlin Wall fell, checks on capitalism crumbled," the title of which pretty much tells the story:
The immediate cause for the collapse of communism was that Moscow could not keep pace with Washington in the arms race of the 1980s. Higher defence spending put pressure on an ossifying Soviet economy. Consumer goods were scarce. Living standards suffered.

But the problems went deeper. The Soviet Union came to grief because of a lack of trust. The economy delivered only for a small, privileged elite who had access to imported western goods. What started with the best of intentions in 1917 ended tarnished by corruption. The Soviet Union was eaten away from within.

As it turned out, the end of the cold war was not unbridled good news for the citizens of the west. For a large part of the postwar era, the Soviet Union was seen as a real threat and even in the 1980s there was little inkling that it would disappear so quickly. A powerful country with a rival ideology and a strong military acted as a restraint on the west. The fear that workers could “go red” meant they had to be kept happy. The proceeds of growth were shared. Welfare benefits were generous. Investment in public infrastructure was high.

There was no need to be so generous once the Soviet Union was no more. What was known as neoliberal economics was born in the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that market forces reigned supreme. The free market spread to poorer parts of the world where it had previously been off limits, expanding the global workforce. That meant cheaper goods but it also put downward pressure on wages.

What’s more, there was no longer any need to be inhibited. Those running companies could take a bigger slice of profits because there was nowhere else for workers to go. If citizens did not like “reform” of welfare states, they just had to lump it.
The whole article is well worth reading, except that in the second half it starts getting into potential "solutions" to counter the now unchecked rapacity of the world's predatory capitalist elites. The only real solution that could possibly change the status quo involves a violent revolution and overthrow of every government worldwide that has bought into the neoliberal economic policies that insist that enriching those at the top benefits everyone instead of the exact opposite being true.

But let's be perfectly clear about this--violent revolution is no more likely to happen in the West, especially in America--than it was to happen in the old Soviet Union. The Soviets kept the clamps tightly fashioned on dissent, just as is happening now in America. The only difference is that advances in technology and the increasing effectiveness of mass media propaganda means that (so far) our elites have generally not had to rely on tactics as heavy handed as those employed by the KGB in order to keep the masses in their place.

When the Soviet system did finally come apart it miraculously happened from the top-down after Premier Mikhail Gorbachev tried to "reform" the sclerotic Soviet command economy and failed miserably. To Gorbachev's undying credit, once he realized he had failed he did not try to cling on to power at the cost of a potential second Russian civil war, but allowed the Soviet Union to more or less peacefully collapse. It was an act almost completely unprecedented in world history, and the average Russian paid a steep price in terms of plunging standards of living as a result.

"Collapse" is also almost certainly the only way the current corrupt American system, which may not have any bread lines but is approaching late Soviet era levels of inequality between the elites and the masses, is ever going to cease to exist. The problem is that there does not seem to be any potential American Gorbachev out there who recognizes that peacefully dismantling the American empire, even at the cost of a huge drop in our own standards of living, would be preferable to maintaining the system until it experiences a violent collapse that will likely suck many millions of people into the maelstrom. In any event, even if an American Gorbachev did exist it is unlikely that he or she would be able, given how hopelessly selfish and entitled a majority of Americans are, to successfully "land this sucker" before it all goes kablooie.

Bonus: "Sweet communist, the communist daughter...standing on the seaweed water"

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Soviet America

Well, it's election day once again in America and once again I am going to exercise the one meaningful freedom still open to me this day as a citizen of the empire. Despite now being retired and having the whole day to go and "enjoy the franchise" that "brave men (and a few women)" have supposedly "fought and died for," I am instead going to assert my right to not participate in what has become a meaningless holographic (and as the late George Carlin put it: masturbatory) excercise.

We as American citizens may live in a virtual one party state, so under the political control of oligarchs that electoral "change" has become virtually meaningless, but the one thing that separates us from the denizens of the old Soviet Union, or any other totalitarian system that insisted upon having sham elections in a desperate attempt to provide the illusion of legitimacy and democracy, is that we still have the right to not participate--and what's more we won't be fined, imprisoned or fired from our jobs for holding up a stiff middle finger of refusal on election day. Deliberately NOT voting and thus withholding legitimacy, however slightly, from the whole corrupt American political, business and media establishment, is in these "interesting times" the only sensible thing a citizen can still do on election day.

The Democrats have apparently finally given up my support, because I no longer receive solicitations from that corrupt and worthless party asking for money. My dad still does however, and he told me that most of the correspondence directed at him by the Donkeys this year menacingly intones how awful it will be if they lose and the Republicans take control of the Senate. And that's ALL Pelosi, Reid, Biden and Obama (whose names appear on the solicitations) dare to argue with their pleas--there is not one mention from these dubious party "leaders" of just what their party will actually DO if it manages to hold onto the Senate. I think we've seen perfectly well during the current political alignment of the past four years exactly what they will do if they manage to hang on to their slim Senate majority--effectively nothing but continue to allow the billionaires to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else.

There has been a little bit of excitement in the press this election cycle about the unusual number of independent candidates who might actually win their races this time around, as if this is a development of any real significance. It isn't, because even if all of those non-affiliated candidates win they each will be asked to caucus with the two major parties, and they all will with one or the other. For if they don't they won't be allowed to sit on any of the committees that slice up the bacon for distribution to the folks back home. And NOBODY, however well intentioned they may be to begin with, spends the time, effort and money it takes to get elected to congress just so they can become an ineffectual one termer. Nope, before these newbies even move the furniture into their new offices outside their office doors will be lines of lobbyists just waiting to tell them which way to vote and when, and schooling them on how the thoroughly corrupted Washington system really works.

In post-Citizens United America especially, elections have become as big a sham as they were in the old Soviet Union--the one difference being that the voters who went to the polls pre-1991 in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, etc., unlike most of the voters in America today, likely suffered from no illusions that their votes had any real meaning whatsoever.

Bonus: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here...this is the war room"

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Choice I Hope I Never Have to Make

By now I'm sure most if not all of you have heard the amazing story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who chose to end her own life while she still could rather than wait around for the disease to consumer her in its ugly, painful fashion. Maynard's situation really hit home to me because not so long ago I thought I might find myself in the same exact position, and I still might should my cancer return at some point. The dismal reality is that despite the "every day alive is a good day," happy talk, there comes a point where life really is no longer worth living. As someone who has suffered an intense amount of pain and discomfort the past two years, I'm not yet sure I know exactly where the threshold lies, but I think I have some idea. And for anyone who has not had the experience of being in excruciating pain and having been told by your doctors that you are expected to live for only X number more months who thinks what Maynard did was morally wrong, let me be the first to tell to please go fuck yourself with a very big stick.

Before I got sick, I knew two other people with terminal cancer who chose to to end their lives early. One was in her early 60s and was suffering the horrendous agony of having the disease slowly eat away at her spine. The other was a just-turned-40 young woman who initially appeared to have defeated breast cancer only to have the damnable disease return and metastasize. She made the courageous decision to stop receiving chemotherapy because she was told there was little chance it would be able to save her a second time and because the first go-around had made her life nearly unbearable.

During my own treatments I also saw people on the other side of the fence, those who continued to struggle despite there being little or no hope. While undergoing chemotherapy I made friends with Tom, a 59-year-old guy who had stage 4 esophageal cancer. Over the months I had chemo with him his condition continued to worsen. Tom was a big baseball fan, and my wife and I decided to use some connections we had to arrange for him and his wife to go with us to see what turned out to be his very last big league game, with the bonus that we were allowed to go onto the field during batting practice and meet some of the players. Several even signed a ball for Tom.

By the time of that game, however, Tom was already confined to a wheelchair, could not hold his head up without a neck brace, could barely speak above a whisper and was permanently attached to a colostomy bag. He ended up passing on about three months later, and the effusive thanks he and his wife expressed to us for arranging that special moment near the end of his life are something I will always remember. Nevertheless, as I observed him that night my thought was that it was great that he was having fun but I doubted I'd be able to stand to let my own condition deteriorate as far as his already had. Thankfully, to date it never has.

Allowing people to end their lives with dignity is a touchy subject in this country. On the cold, analytical end of the spectrum there's the figure that gets thrown about that says in America two-thirds of the average person's total medical expenses are incurred in the last year of life, which would seem to indicate a way that skyrocketing health care costs could be brought down but for the chilling thought of exactly who gets to make such decisions. On the other end are the fundamentalist religious freaks and right to life lunatics who if they could would force every patient to draw every agonizing breath for however long it takes until they mercifully expire. Because these fucking assholes shout the loudest, they make it nearly impossible to have a reasonable discussion about the right to die and the real necessity for legalized physician-assisted suicide.

Then along comes Brittany Maynard, bless her, a pretty young white woman with incredible courage who, dignity despite the media circus that surrounded her, was able to bring national attention to the issue in such a way that was basically impervious to all but the most unhinged criticism. Yes, it's a shame that the media won't pay attention to many social issues UNLESS a pretty young white woman is involved as the victim, but in this case we'll have to take what we can get. And what we got was an incredibly selfless act from a someone who allowed a huge intrusion into her private life at the worst possible time so that others in the future might be able to end their own lives with dignity and while experiencing as little physical pain as possible. I don't often cite heroes on this blog--mostly because I don't think there are a whole lot of genuine heroes left in this shitty world--but Brittany Maynard was a hero. May she rest in peace.

Bonus: No--suicide is NOT "the coward's way out"