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2

Regarding citizenship and media stupidity

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For some unknown reason, we have to talk about the citizenship rules that allow a person to be qualified to be the President of the United States again.

The stupidity of this discussion boggles the mind.  It was stupid when it was brought up when Barack Obama first ran in 2008, it was even dumber when issues about John McCain’s Panamanian birth arose, and now is compounded with a new level of stupidity based on the recent disclosure of Sen. Ted Cruz’s birth certificate.

Furthermore, the trolls in the media that have nothing better to do than discuss established law without understanding the law they are discussing are roping in Conservatives, who are falling for the trap.  My good friend Leslie P has an excellent piece on this at the Liberty’s Torch.

There are some subtle rules in here, but here is the basic gist of the situation:  if you are a child of an American citizen, and you claim American citizenship upon your birth…you are a naturally born citizen of the United States.

There are some minor hurdles however.  For example, before a certain date, you needed that parent to reside in the U.S. during some period within 5 years of the birth. And you cannot immediately claim another country’s citizenship, and the later proclaim U.S. Citizenship…that would renounce your American citizenship as natural born.

If you want an extensive run down on the legal case, this was an excellent article from Redstate.com, in two parts.  Many little details and nuances are in the laws, but my gestalt is pretty much accurate.

Now, the media has jumped on another little nuance…that Cruz (who is, by all legal criteria, a Natural Born Citizen) is also potentially a Canadian citizen.  This actually may be true, based on what some legal scholars in Canada are stating.  This is, additionally, also completely irrelevant to the discussion whether Cruz is eligible for the Presidency.  Nothing in the Constitution precludes a Natural Born Citizen from having dual citizenship.

What is really intriguing about this is that, if the media had any inquisitive nature at all, that Barack Obama, under Kenyan law, was a KENYAN citizen by birth until the age of 23.  Because his father was a Kenyan citizen at birth, Obama automatically was a Kenyan citizen with dual citizenship until the age of 23.  At that time, he either had to become a Kenyan citizen in toto, or automatically lost his claim on his Kenyan citizenship, because adults cannot have dual citizenship in Kenya.

Intriguing how the media never picked up on that.

Don’t let the media drive a silly narrative.  This is strategic on their part; they think that they can use the birther issue to divide the Right.  We conservatives should always base the decision on what the law specifically states.  And in this question, there is no debate.

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Obama/Hillary Doctrine In Tatters

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Egypt burns.  Syria lies in ruins.  Libya is falling apart.  Iraq may be close to civil war itself.  And Afghanistan never really improved after the Obama surge.

Here lies the remnants of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama’s largest foreign policy vision, the Arab Spring.

President Barack Obama, aided by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believed their own audaciousness could push many of the world’s hot spots into more peaceful methods of dialogue and understanding.  This was most prominent in what ended up to be called the ‘Arab Spring’.  Obama tried to take credit for those results, by pointing to his now famous/infamous 2009 Cairo speech.  That speech basically was an apology for the 8 years of George W. Bush, and letting the world know that there was a new order, led by his compatriots.

This month, we can pretty much evaluate the Obama policy: it is a complete and utter failure.

Egypt has always been a troublesome partner.  But the Obama people simply misread the situation over the past couple years; and the results are horrific.

When they helped urge the ouster of Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the results could have been predicted.  Countries don’t just evolve like a phoenix from the ashes of totalitarianism.  It takes time and effort to build the democratic infrastructure necessary. With Mubarak gone, there was no one other than the Egyptian military to do that.  The military is a force of stability throughout the Middle East; the naive mistake for the Obama State Department is, that does not make them necessarily a force for good.  They forget the history that the military was largely responsible for placing those totalitarian dictators in place in the first place.

So when Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Military was unhappy, and it showed. There was immediate friction.  And of course, the US had no interest in maintaining Morsi; however, despite how the media wants to spin it, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi did clearly win the election (not that the election was anywhere near perfect; what election is in the Middle East?).  So we side, once again, with the Military, this time against Morsi (and refuse to call it a coup in the process)…and believe our standing among the Arab street would improve?

Now, the Military acts like they always do…they have a problem that looks like a nail, and they hammer it.  They will try to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.  The problem? If you believe surveys and polls, the Brotherhood’s support is growing. It was already about a third of the country, and may be pushing 40% now.  You cannot wipe out 40% of the nation.

You can see the incompetence repeated time after time after time; Egypt is just the newest example.  In Afghanistan, Obama took Bush’s successful surge concept from Iraq, and used it…and failed.  Afghanistan is probably more unsettled today than before Obama took office.  In Iraq, we have left the country; and as such, the only stabilizing force there no longer exists.  The country teeters on the edge of civil war, and we have no power to stop it.  In Syria, we could have helped by getting involved three years ago with simple outside assistance; today, there is full-blown Civil War, where both sides are actually our enemies.  Only a fool would try to get involved there.  And Libya has been spiraling from the moment Obama claimed victory there after Qaddafi’s killing.  The country is basically a failed state.

The Hillary Clinton/John Kerry Secretaries of State tandem may go down in history as one of the most incompetent ever.  They had an unsurpassed amount of good will upon Obama’s election in 2008; and they have squandered it.  The US is now less respected  in most countries than it was…under Bush.  That is quite an accomplishment.

Kerry travels around and makes ignorant statements, which the administration the next day has to rescind or alter just to save face.  As for Hillary, she begins her campaign for 2016; tell me, has anyone ever been more undeserving of praise than her?  It is the Democrat equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld failing at the Defense Department and then running for President.  Hillary, by every metric, failed at the State department, from Benghazi to Syria to Russia to China…and yet here she is, the presumptive favorite for her party’s nomination.

By every metric known to man, the Obama Administration foreign policy in the Middle East has failed.  It will take time for the media to catch on, as they are slow learners.  It will take even longer for Democrats, because they must at all costs protect Hillary’s legacy. But the truth is there to see, today.

 

This was crossposted at the Liberty’s Torch

1

How To Fix Detroit

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So following my piece on Detroit’s bankruptcy, including my editorial in the National Post, I got a lot of email with a very reasonable question:  “You complain about the problems, but you have no solutions!”.

That is true, at least so far.  So, it is now time to turn to the future, and come up with solutions to make the city of Detroit great again, and to allow its people to thrive.

Let us begin by understanding that this is a problem that took 2/3 of a century or more to culminate in filing Chapter 9 bankruptcy.  So there are no quick solutions.  This is a generational battle.

Next, let us stop being naive.  I have heard a bunch of platitudes like “Detroit will be back!”.  Sorry, but there is no inherent reason why Detroit should recover.  We should make sure it will recover, but with continued incompetent leadership, it will fail. I will give you a perfect real life example:  Flint, Mi, about 60 miles to the north of Detroit.  They have been saying they will return to prosperity for 30 years…and their situation simply worsens and worsens, to the point now that it is unlikely Flint will ever be more than a monument to the Rust Belt cities of America.

So, putting aside such silliness, how do we actually solve Detroit’s problems?

First, there is a short term hurdle.  Detroit is approximately $18 billion in debt, and has no way to pay for it.  It is buried under pensions and other obligations that cannot be met. Much of this will be determined by the bankruptcy court, based on legal regulations and bylaws.  But a couple points.  First, Detroit should try not to sell off valuable assets that could help Detroit recover in the long term.  Short term debts should not be paid by long term treasures.  The best example is the Detroit Institute of Arts, which contains one of the country’s greatest collections of art and historical pieces.  Many creditors want to raid the D.I.A. to pay off bond holders.  There may be a few pieces in the collection that may make sense to sell off, but for the most part, this should be a protected asset, the basis of a future cultural center in a city that needs to recover.

Other assets probably should have long been sold off, or at least, leased for significant cash value.  Belle Isle, a lovely island in the Detroit River, could be a mecca of residential, commercial, and other mixed use business.  Instead, under city control it is a wasteland, benefiting virtually no one.  Another asset?  The Detroit Public Water system, which supplies most of the water and sewer services for much of the metropolitan area.  This must be divested, and removed out of the city’s control.

Second, you must fix the broken system that remains in Detroit, left by years of neglect and incompetence.  This will, sadly, cost money, but you must invest to get return.  There are various estimates of what it will cost to fix the essential infrastructure, clear abandoned buildings, fix the roads, etc.  But the most recent estimates are anywhere from $1-2 billion.  This is the one piece of the puzzle where the Federal government may have a small role.

The tough part of this will be choosing what parts of the city simply must be let go.  This process started long ago out of necessity, but not must take on a more logical process.  For example, in 2008, Detroit had 317 active parks. It now has just 107 — and 50 of those parks are set to close, although civic donations are keeping them open through the summer.  Some of these parks should be given away, while others consolidated, in order to make best use of limited funds.

Another example is Detroit’s antiquated payroll department.  As I said in my previous piece, it has the highest cost per employee in the country, or $62 per check, to process Detroit payroll expenses. It has multiple payroll systems that are not integrated with each other. Much of this processing should be privatized…the average private payroll company only charges about $10 per paycheck.  Yes, there are 150 employees in this department, and tough cuts are going to have to be made.  This is the reality; a tough reality.

Some of these problems are much more complicated however,  Look at emergency services (including police, Fire, and ambulances).  They simply don’t have the money to cover the bulk of the city. On an average day, only 10 to 14 of the city’s 38 ambulances are working. The average Detroit fire station is 80 years old, and maintenance costs often exceed $1 million each year.  Approximately 40 percent of Detroit’s street lights do not work.

It takes an average of nearly an hour for Detroit police to respond to any emergency, whether it be a routine call or an active emergency.  The average nationwide?  11 minutes.  A systematic overhaul of the police department is necessary to focus resources where needed.  However, this gets into a much bigger problem…

Third, the city needs to reorganize; and I am not talking about the bureaucracy.  I am actually talking about the bricks and mortar, littering the city, much of it falling apart from disuse.  If you drive through the city, you can go from neighborhood to neighborhood where only a few houses stand, where dozens or hundreds used to exist.  The city is trying to provide emergency coverage in these areas, and cannot reasonably ever attain the type of coverage necessary for a city.  It is more like living in rural America than in a metropolis.

Mayor Bing actually proposed a radical (some would say ‘insane’) proposal to bulldoze up to one quarter of the City, centralize businesses and residents, and focus on the people in a way that made sense.

Now, this plan has huge problems. One, it takes money.  Second, it would be a massive use of eminent domain, as you forcibly transfer residents from their current home into an equivalent home in a centralized neighborhood.  There would be numerous lawsuits, protests, etc.  But on the other hand, Detroit may not have any choice.  The alternative may be to leave individuals where they are, but tell them they are on their own…without sufficient emergency services in their area.

So this would be a massive undertaking.  But what are the benefits, if it could be done?  First, emergency services would be less costly, and much easier to maintain.  It would drive down costs.  Infrastructure costs would plummet.  But the additional benefit would be turning large swaths of the city into green space, agricultural use, or other potential uses.  You could turn Detroit into one of the greenest cities in America.  One proposal had a contiguous park along the border of downtown, that would be along the same lines of Central Park.  Detroit currently is one of the grayest, dirtiest looking cities you will ever see; this could transform that image.

The burdensome pension system also must be dealt with.  This will be painful; many of the residents of the city are former employees.  To be sure, pensioners should be the last creditors to face the axe; but they cannot be spared.  The pension system currently allows long term employees to retire at almost 100% salary.  No system can survive such payouts, especially with a dwindling population and shrinking workforce. The pensioners will have to take a hit, the same way those at GM and Chrysler did.  Of course, the unions will fight this tooth and nail, because pensions are the bedrock of their value to their members.  But there simply is not the money to pay for it; it is a numbers game, and that is a game the unions will ultimately lose.

The final piece of the puzzle may be the hardest, because in some ways, it will take self governance out of the hands of the residents of Detroit.  The city council and city government must be fundamentally reformed.  And if one thing has been proven, the current regime is unwilling to make those reforms.

Gov. Rick Snyder will have the tough duty to tell the residents that the State of Michigan will do what is best for the residents of the city of Detroit.  All vestiges of the government of the past half century need to be washed away…as well as the remnants of decades of corruption and incompetence.

To Snyder’s credit, as well as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, they are confronting this problem head on.  Orr is in talks with the Ford Foundation and New York University’s new Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment, among others, for recommendations to improve the city’s governance structure and operations.  These kind of intellectual exercises are exactly what Detroit needs to rethink its future.

These are the choices left to Detroit.  They have a large budget deficit, enormous long term debts, and no way to pay for them. Detroit is at the statutory limit in its ability to tax, so even if that was a viable solution (and it is not), that avenue is not open to them.

Detroit must make fundamental changes to its pension system and bureaucracy.  There is no other answer available to them.  They can try to leverage what assets they have, but those are few and far between, and certainly not enough to fill the hole they have dug.  Even the immense wealth of the Detroit Institute of Arts would hardly make a dent in that debt.

Once the city emerges out of bankruptcy, its citizens must focus on the immediate needs of the city:  emergency services must be re-established, the city’s regulations and tax structures must be made more business friendly, and a street by street analysis of long term sustainability must go forward.

Some on the right have proposed a ‘Hong Kong style’ economic reform plan, with pro-business tax rates and enterprise zones. I favor such reforms, but I am not sure that would be a ‘magic bullet’ in a city like Detroit, which fundamentally depends heavily on manufacturing and import/exports.  Detroit must maximize its advantages.  It is the major thoroughfare from the U.S. to Canada.  The metropolitan area is ripe with intellectual and financial capital, and if the city once again welcomed its rich neighbors, money could flow into the city, and help spur investment and growth.  The city still has a large manufacturing base that can be rejuvenated, if the unions are willing to adapt; I realize that is a leap of faith, but it must happen.  Detroit should become a hub of manufacturing innovation and trade.  But to happen, the city must enter the 21st century.

Detroit can emerge from the ashes.  But it must choose to make the hard decisions.  Those choices do not get any easier with the passage of time.  Many chances to save Detroit have been missed.  This time, there is no time nor chances left.

2

Detroit: A Progressive Utopia

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I grew up in Detroit. I went to high school in what can be considered an ‘inner ring’ suburb, went to college at the University of Michigan nearby, and did my graduate work at Wayne State University downtown. After medical school, I came back and did residency outside of Detroit, and even finished my residency up in Flint, MI.  My parents still live in the suburbs.  And in many ways, I will always be a child of the Motor City.

It is rough, it is grimy, it is tough nosed. It is also the definition of blue collar, hard working Americana. All the greatness of America’s past and all the ills that it now bears can be summed up by the city of Detroit.

And in that respect, the bankruptcy of Detroit, now the largest in the history of the United States of America, is an extremely sad event for me.  But, it was an event whose time has long been expected.

I graduated high school in an inner suburb of Detroit in 1991.  I remember discussing with my U.S. government teacher (who happened to be our local teacher union representative, and a proud liberal) about the long term expectations of Detroit economically.  I remember his words to this day: “Son, Detroit is circling the drain; it is just a matter of time.”

I guess by that, he meant 22 years.

Everyone in Detroit knew that without enormous, radical change, the city was dying.  They have known this since at least the early 1980s.  That radical change has never come.  The city’s population peaked at almost 2 million in 1950, during the boom times of the post-war era.  It had the highest media income of any city in the U.S. at that time; it now ranks 66 of the largest 68th cities.  Detroit, other than New York City, was considered the national center of culture, arts, and music.

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Detroit Institute of Arts…one of the great art museums in America

That population now hovers at just over 700,000 people today.

The city in 2000 was acting like it still had 2 million people.  Despite drastic cuts since 2000, Detroit is still one of the most overstaffed cities. As of 2011, one city employee for every 55 residents…by far the most in the United States.  The public services were bloated, and bureaucracy clogged with numerous useless union workers who could neither be laid off or fired, and who would all achieve full pensions after 25 years of service.  And once those people retired, the cycle continued, because someone would have to pay for those pensions.

Pension reform is a dirty word in Detroit, for a very simple reason:  a large proportion of the population of Detroit lives on city pension money.  Simply put, it is a hamster wheel; the city must run faster and faster to attempt to keep pace with itself.

How did Detroit become like this?  Well, progressives made it that way.  From 1961 on, Detroit more than any other city in America became the crucible in to which progressives poured every utopian idea imaginable.

Detroit spent more on education, welfare, and infrastructure than almost any other city in the U.S.A. during the sixties and seventies.  The city passed tough regulations, allowing city leaders to manage which businesses could open in the city, and which could not, largely basing those decisions on political leanings.  Money flowed into the education system, as some of the largest public schools in the country were built in Detroit.

The cycle was kept alive during this time because of the boom times of the auto industry.  Of course, the gas crisis of the 1970s put an end to that, as General Motors, Ford, American Motors, and Chrysler all struggled through out the latter part of the century.

Furthermore, race issues became paramount.  Mayor Coleman Young was considered a leading African American progressive when he became the leader of Detroit in 1974.  But from the very start, Mayor Young was one of the leading race baiters of the Democrat Party, blaming many of the ills of the city on the rich white upper class.  That white group was already fleeing the city after the riots of 1967…Mayor Young just helped speed up the process. In his inaugural address, he stated, “I issue this warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road!”.  Many mark it as the moment at which whites were no longer welcome in the city of Detroit.

So white flight began in earnest.  The Detroit suburbs, primarily along the north corridor adjacent to the now famous 8 Mile Road, grew at astonishing rates.  Wealth fled the city of Detroit, leaving an underclass of both African Americans and Whites that remains to this day.

To this day, African American progressives still applaud Mayor Young…despite his complete and utter failure to improve the city he controlled. Crime, poverty, lack of education, and corruption all spiraled out of control under his tenure…and Democrats cheered.

As the city started hemorrhaging money, how did it react?  First, it increased local taxes up to the constitutional limit within the state of Michigan.   To this day, it has the highest tax rates in the state.  It increased union protections to the maximum; almost nothing can be done in the city without union oversight.  And it refuse to scale back city services, despite a bloated bureaucracy whose size could no longer match the small size of its populace.

There are numerous examples of this.  For example, it costs Detroit $62 in administrative costs for every paycheck if cuts. That’s 3.5x the average for municipal government, and 4x the average private employer. Why?  Because instead of privatizing the business (which many do), it takes four times as many employees to do the payroll in the city…because of union demands. Out of the 149 people working in the payroll department today, 51 are uniformed officers of the police department…for some unknown reason.

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Such excesses run rampant through the city services.  Another example is the demolition of abandoned properties in the city.  There are approximately 78,000 vacant structures in the City. Approximately 38,000 structures are considered dangerous.  Should be an easy job to move forward on, with the mixture of state and Federal money to clean up the city, no?  Of course not, not in Detroit. Because of barriers in the city administration, legal hurdles, etc., it costs $8,500 on average to demolish the average city home.  These homes, on average, only cost about $5,000 on the open market. If you tore down only the 38,000 structures in Detroit considered “dangerous,” it would cost about $350 million, mainly because of the bloated bureaucracy remaining in the dysfunctional city.

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Detroit is now a largely abandoned city.  The population is only 700,000, and will likely drop below that mark in the next census.  Far more people reside in the suburbs today than within the city itself.  Large swaths of the city are completely empty.  This has become so much of a problem, the city recently tried to relocate individuals in sparse areas in order to restructure city services in a way that made some fiscal sense.  Many of the residents refused to move, even when given new homes to move to.

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To be fair, it isn’t like there haven’t been rays of sunshine in the city.  Dennis Archer became mayor in the 90s, and led a resurgence, cleaning up corruption and trying to streamline the city.  But it became too much for him to fight the entrenched interests, and he left, leaving possibly the worst mayor in America, Kwame Kilpatrick (who is on probation after serving time in jail for corruption charges).  Mayor Dave Bing, a former basketball star, has numerous bright ideas, but has to fight the City Council for every inch.  No good man can fight the corrupt and the incompetent for very long without becoming burned out.

I am still an idealist though.  I believe that Detroit can survive and even flourish, given the right leadership and focus.  The auto companies are doing relatively well.  Other companies are trying to move to the city to diversify its businesses, led by Dan Gilbert (owner of Quicken Loans, and the Cleveland Cavaliers).  Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the Henry Ford Hospital system, among others, employ tens of thousands of dollars and bring billions in research dollars into the city. If planned correctly, the Detroit/Suburb/Ann Arbor corridor could become a center of medical and scientific research…only lack of imagination and will prevents it from becoming so.

But the entrenched progressive interests that have dominated Detroit for the past 70 years are a powerful force, that fight tooth and nail any reform that would make serious progress in the city.  City employees must be drastically reduced, and city services diminished to fit a city of 600k people, instead of one of 2 million residents.  Portions of the city need to be bulldozed, possibly created into potential green space or farming uses. Pension reform is a must, because the city cannot afford the bloated pension system it currently uses.  And a tax system that promotes business and innovation is a must.

Bankruptcy, as painful and embarrassing as it is, could help bring about those reforms. But every one of these reforms are fought by the old time progressives, who still envision the city of the 1950s instead of the reality of the 21st century.

So despite all the hopes and dreams of a formerly great city, progressive lead the city forward into the future; as my former teacher once said, the city still appears to be circling the drain.

 

Please note:  an edited version of this piece appeared in the Editorial page of Toronto’s National Post on July, 20, 2013. 

 

 

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Trayvon, Zimmerman, and the Man in the Mirror


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First, let me start by saying I didn’t pay that much close attention to the George Zimmerman murder trial.  To me, it didn’t much matter, because as we now see, it solved nothing.  Half the country still thinks Zimmerman is a murder, while the other half believe justice was done.  Zimmerman was found not guilty, but is considered a murderer by half the country…so what did the trial ultimately achieve?  Who knows.

From the beginning of this case, I knew this is where we would end up.  There was no satisfactory ending here.  If Zimmerman had been found guilty, I am sure there would be a large segment of the population decrying the end of the right to self defense in this country.

The legal aspects of the case are of little consequence to me at this point.  I think the jury did what it had to do, and there was little prosecutors could do otherwise.  I don’t believe Zimmerman is innocent though…he is not guilty under the view of the law.  But common sense, in hindsight, would say that Zimmerman should never have left his car that night.  I wonder, in his most honest moments, if he wouldn’t admit that himself.

But moving past the legal arguments, what is of more consequence is how this reflects on us as a nation.

After the election of Barack Obama, many people believed we had reached a ‘turning point’ on race relations.  Of course, we now see that maybe no such thing exists.  We once again are faced with a highly charged teachable moment, showing us that under the calm demeanor of the public, the angst of the African American community is unchanging.

In many respects, this is the mirror image of the O.J. Simpson trial.  After O.J.’s acquittal, Black communities cheered, regardless of the fact that few believed that O.J. was really innocent.  It did not matter; it was a victory from the legal system that minorities so distrusted, and that was preeminent.  They won; the facts were irrelevant.

Today, those same communities feel betrayed.  They feel Trayvon was murdered, for no cause, and justice was not done.  We complete the circle, and appear to not advanced one inch.

I wish there was some possibility of closure, some moment of clarity, a beam of sunlight that would make this better.  There isn’t.  We currently have leaders unable to bring any divergent groups together.  We as a nation are as divided as we have been at any time in my lifetime. There is no grand conciliator waiting in the wings, to bring Americans of all stripes and colors together, to morn for a young man’s death, while accepting the ruling of the Justice system.

What is even more frightening is that Zimmerman is not really even a great example of the oppressive white majority that the media would like to make him out to be. Zimmerman’s father is white, a US Army veteran who became a magistrate in Fairfax County, Virginia.  Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian, and her own grandparents were…of African descent.

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Zimmerman’s maternal grandmother, Cristina, who had lived with the Zimmermans since 1978, worked as a babysitter for years during Zimmerman’s childhood. For several years she cared for two African-American girls who ate their meals at the Zimmerman house and went back and forth to school each day with the Zimmerman children.  Zimmerman dated African Americans in high school, started his first business with an African American friend…this was no skin head bigot we are talking about here.

George Zimmerman is a member of a minority, a liberal Democrat.  Zimmerman is about as a mixed ethnic child of America as you can provide…and now, he is the definition of the racism in America.

Does it matter?  Does it matter that Zimmerman, a white/hispanic/and even partially African child of America is supposed to be a white oppressor of African Americans?  I have no answers.  I simply don’t know.  I do know it makes me immensely sad. I have tears in my eyes when I see Trayvon’s parents, who I am sure are unable to bring any closure to this tragedy.  And yet, I am not sure the justice system did anything wrong, in which case…what the hell are we supposed to think?

I do know this:  for all the supposed honest talk about race we are supposed to be having, there is a lot of dishonesty going around.

At the end of the day, a young African American teenager is dead, for no good reason, with his family’s life torn apart; Zimmerman is technically free, but his life will forever be defined by those four minutes in a dark sidewalk in his neighborhood, so in many respects he will never be free.  And moreover, the country once again regresses, as the race baiters and race dividers in our country once again score a victory.  And we as a nation learn nothing.

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Pacific Rim: Movie Review

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There are few genres of movies that can unite geekdom quite like the megamonster flick.  Since the days of Ray Harryhausen and stop action, to Godzilla stomping around tiny Japanese people in Tokyo, it has been at the leading edge of science fiction.

Of course, in many ways, this genre has died off as special effects have become more computerized.  The last Godzilla movie was an unmitigated disaster.  The only decent movie of this type I can think of in the last several decades is Cloverfield, and even that was more about the individuals involved then the drama of seeing monsters play out on the big screen.

No such worries in Director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.

Del Toro makes the monster movie relevant again, and for that, the geek in me is overjoyed.

In this tale, an interdimensional portal opens deep along the floor of the Pacific Ocean, through which come a myriad of aliens…each a hundred feet tall, and ready to smash the most convenient coastal city available.

Humans respond by building a giant robotic fighting machine that can match the aliens size and strength.  The technology is so complex, a single human pilot cannot handle it; thus, you have a pair of co-pilots, who allow their consciousness to intermingle and control the machine through a process called ‘drift’.

Initially, the program fails…and the nations of the world resort to enormous walls to try to keep the aliens out.  This, obviously, also fails, and all that is left is to stand and fight with the megamachines available to the world.

The bulk of the movie is pure action, though not totally devoid of some character development, sentimentality and intrigue.  But this is a monster movie, dammit!  And things must be stomped, smashed, and destroyed.  As well they are.  This is geekdom at its finest.  Del Toro goes all out in the breathtaking fight scenes that are seen in cities and oceans, as robot and giant alien collide, head on.

Clearly, this movie is targeted to a certain demographic, and if you are not of that demographic, you are probably going to be disappointed.  But if you are a fan of the classic Godzilla movies and other films of this sort, this will be pure, unadulterated joy. Those of us that are fans of this movie, I am guessing, will want to see this over and over again.

 

 

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Monsters University: Movie Review

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It has been more than a decade since the original Monsters, Inc. opened in theaters.  Amazing how time flies.  The first movie was in many ways one of Pixar’s most ambitious adventures: they had to successfully create an alternate universe of monsters that frightened children as a basic part of their culture…and make those characters lovable.

Obviously, they succeeded.  Monsters, Inc. still remains the most watched Pixar film of all (in a close race with Cars; but I am willing to bet that is because I have two young boys). My younger son has been addicted to the movie for almost a year…still can’t say ‘Sully’, so he calls him ‘Bear’.

Surprising that it took them this long to come up with a concept for a sequel though, considering the mega-success of the original.

All things considered, it seems like they hit another homerun.

This movie is technically a prequel, as it shows Mike Wazowski (Bill Crystal) entering college, into the prestigious ‘scare program’.  There, he runs into James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), who becomes his roommate.

And they immediately…hate each other immensely.

Mike is the classic know-it-all…brilliant, book smart…but has none of the characteristics to make a good ‘scarer’.  Sully is a natural, but lazy and not intellectually strong.

One of the really cool characters is Randall (Steve Buscemi), who if you remember plays a villain in Monsters, Inc., but here, is early on a prime candidate to become one of Mike’s friends.  An interesting character development.

There are numerous new characters, some boring, some fascinating.  But the story revolves around the development of Mike and Sully’s relationship as best friends, as they prepare for the ‘Scare Games’, and must succeed to move on to achieve their dreams to reach the Scaring floor.

I would say this film is a half step behind the best films in the Pixar library, including Monster’s Inc.  It is fun to see how Sully and Mike become friends, and there are some great gags in the film.  It doesn’t have the emotional depth of the best Pixar movies.  However, there is still some great life lessons for children, including the fact that sometimes the goals you set are not necessarily what will make you happy in the end.

But still, compared to most of the animated choices you have out there, this is brilliant entertainment for both adults and children alike.  I am sure I will end up seeing this a few times more, getting dragged to the theater by my youngest, to see ‘Bear’ one more time.

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World War Z: Movie Review

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Lets get one thing straight right now:  this has very little to do with the book World War Z, written by Max Brooks.

Just get that out of your head right now.

I am a big fan of the book; in many ways, it transformed the entire genre of zombie fiction, and led to the renaissance of zombie flicks on TV and elsewhere that we see today.

This movie?  It might as well be named ‘Generic Zombie Flick 2013′.  The name means little else.

That said, if you have read the original source material, you know that there was no way that book was ever really going to be made into a movie.  Maybe a miniseries, but not a 2 hour long Hollywood flick.  (Though, I will still admit, the Battle of Yonkers is something I really wanted to see on film; oh well).

This is in many ways a more traditional Hollywood disaster movie. We have our spectacular hero (played by Brad Pitt) who basically, for some practically unknown reason, is the only person on the entire planet that can halt the scourge of this disease. He does, like the hero in the book, travel from site to site across the globe, but in this iteration of the story he is doing it real time, as the plague expands to devour humanity.

To be fair, there are some interesting twists here that the book, nor most other zombie fictional portrayals, do not use.  For example, these zombies are as fast as humans, run at full speed, and cannot be avoided easily.  Furthermore, they act almost like insects, tracking their prey, instead of almost unintentionally coming in contact with other humans, as we see in other zombie films, including the Walking Dead.

But in the end, this is not much better than many other attempts at the genre, including 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, or even the Romero zombie flicks. In that respect, unlike the book which transformed the entire genre, this movie is a yawn.  It is ok to waste a few hours on a Sunday afternoon…but nothing more.

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Man of Steel: Movie Review

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Superman was the first superhero that excited me as a child.  I remember watching the Richard Donner movies starring Christopher Reeve, and being hooked.  But as I grew older, there simply wasn’t enough depth in the character and plot line.  What fun is a superhero that is virtually invulnerable?  What suspense is there in that?

And that pretty much defines the arc that Superman franchise has gone through over the years.  In the more innocent era of the mid-portion of the last century, Superman fit the ideal we were striving for.  Truth, justice, and the American way.

Today, in a darker, more dreary, a more realistic and fatalistic era, Superman seems as out of place as milkmen and paperboys. .

And the repercussions show.  Superman is largely ignored by the young set.  My son, who is seven, barely cares about Superman at all.  Even when watching cartoons of the Justice League, he gravitates more to Batman and even the Flash before Superman.

It is into that environment that Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and screenwriters Christopher Nolan and David Goyer (the Dark Knight film trilogy) bring Man of Steel.  They were, because of reality, forced to update the Superman/Clark Kent saga for a new era.  First, the bring this new version of Superman, played wonderfully by Henry Cavill, into the modern era. Some of the changes are at first shocking.  For example, Clark Kent is almost a depressing figure at the beginning of this movie.  In the prior era, Clark was at times goofy, honest…a Boy Scout.  Here, Clark is brooding, and not always on his best behavior.  This actually fits with some of the comic book interpretations of the character, but we certainly haven’t for the most part seen that side of Clark on film.  Second, even as an adult, he seems to have a general distrust of humanity…something former iterations of the genre of lacked.

But in many ways, Snyder/Nolan/Goyer make the changes that are necessary to bring this character back to life.  Superman/Kent lives in a world where governments are not to be inherently trusted, and humanity can be its own worse any enemy.  In other words…the real world.

The other fascinating tactic they take is to give much more depth and time to the Kryptonian back story.  Some of my friends have mixed feelings on this, but I loved it. I loved seeing more texture given to the planet of Krypton, including its culture, government, history and people. And Russell Crowe (Jor-El) virtually steals every scene he is in.

On the other hand, the Smallville angle of Clark Kent’s history is basically told only in passing, mostly in flashbacks and other storytelling techniques.  We get brief scenes with Pete and Lana Lang, but nothing substantial.  Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) is another depressing figure in this movie.  In the past, he was at the heart of the good hearted nature that is at the center of his son’s character; in this film, he is dreary, and is much more concerned about his son’s safety than the future of the planet.

Michael Shannon as General Zod is fantastic.  He gives the character depth, and is able to portray a rigidness and single mindedness that is essential to getting to the heart of the character.  Not to get too political, but Zod is the classic statist; everything, including war, cruelty, and violence, are acceptable for the common good.  And the common good in this case is the survival of the Kryptonian people…and if a few humans get in the way, what matter is it to him?

Without giving the plot away, the directors also flip many of the plot points of former Superman story lines on their head.  I absolutely loved Amy Adams as Lois Lane; she isn’t some hot bimbo that the last film portrayed her as, but is a thoughtful, deep personality that is the definition of what a good journalist is supposed to be.  And her relationship with Clark Kent/Superman is, in many ways, unique to the way it has been portrayed before.  The ‘reveal’ at the end of the movie, in many ways, shows the heart of the way the writers took a new look and all new angle to the entire approach.

The final scenes, which of course result in a massive battle, are spectacular.  You seen Superman and Zod basically destroy the city of Metropolis in, what is ultimately, a grudge match.

Now, is this movie perfect?  Far from it.  Some of the plot details were probably unnecessary.  There are scenes in the movie that seem like they are a good idea, but in retrospect really add nothing (if you see the movie, pay attention to the church scene with the priest).  And some of the dialogue, especially for Cavill, is clunky.

Additionally, one wonders in hindsight:  what powers do the Kryptonians really have that make them ‘Supermen’?  The plot goes back and forth on what really gives them their strength, speed, etc; and thus, in battles, you come to wonder:  why are some battles even an equal match?  Shouldn’t they obviously be weighted to one side or the other, based on the premise of the source of their powers?

But ultimately, fans can get past these small qualms.  The movie delivers on all the levels that matter.  They gives us a Superman with depth, a character dealing with the realities of the world as it exists in the 21st century.  We have a Clark Kent that is not goofy but is thoughtful and emotional, and hides from humanity as much as he can.  And you have Superman coming into his own with a threat from his past, where he must face his ultimate limitations.

I have already heard comparisons of this movie to the Dark Knight series, which is unavoidable with Nolan’s involvement in both films.  Let me say this: this is a far superior film to Batman Begins, the first film of that trilogy.  I would say it is at least as good as the first Iron Man as well.  My point is:  Snyder et. al. have done their job.  They have established a platform for future Superman movies (and may I dare dream:  Justice league movies?) and the real first entry into the wider DC comic universe.

So, an imperfect movie, to be sure, but still a movie that must be seen, and a movie that hits all the high marks.  The future for the DC Universe is now bright.

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It’s Not Paranoia If They Are Really Out To Get You

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I am anything but a conspiracy theorist.  In fact, I basically reject most conspiracy theories?

Why?

Simple:  conspiracies require secrecy, and humans for the most part are terrible at keeping secrets.  Oh, sure, one or two people can keep a secret. But 50?  100?  Not a chance.

And thus, vast government conspiracies don’t interest me all that much.

But that doesn’t mean sometimes the paranoid among us aren’t right.

The specifics of the various scandals floating around the Obama Administration will be parried and argued, prodded and pulled, until some version of the truth comes out.  It will take years or longer for us to really understand the depth of what has happened to our ever increasingly hidden big government apparatus.

Whether we are discussing the IRS scandal in targeting conservatives, the DOJ scandal going after reporters, the NSA kerfuffle about wide ranging wiretaps, the AP and other reporters being targeted by our Department of Justice…it all comes down to a simple truth.

Our government is so massively large, no one knows what is going on.

This is, of course, the ultimate result of an ever expanding Executive branch, rarely if ever checked by the Legislative branch and the Judiciary, and even less commonly checked by the voters of America.  When you have an entity that grabs power in the name of the greater good, without anyone asking if their reasons are relevant or just, corruptions ensues.  It is the nature of humanity.

Some of these ‘scandals’ really didn’t occur out of malice, in my humble opinion.  The discussion over the National Security Agency’s massive data trove of cell phone and internet records, I honestly believe, began as a way of trying to track down terrorist infiltrators.  It began as a just cause; an honest attempt to protect America.

But at some point, the problem is the leviathan feeds itself.  The system is top secret, so the public is blocked from knowing its inner workings.  Congress is supposed to be the check-and-balance, but according to numerous Senators, including Democrats Senator Ron Wyden, they are not told everything either, because of the need to remain in the shadows.

You often get exchanges like this, when the legislative branch questions the executive:

Here’s another congressional-subcommittee transcript highlight of the week. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois asks the attorney general if he’s spying on members of Congress and thereby giving the executive branch leverage over the legislative branch. Eric Holder answers:

“With all due respect, senator, I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue.”

Senator Kirk responded that “the correct answer would be, ‘No, we stayed within our lane and I’m assuring you we did not spy on members of Congress.’” For some reason, the attorney general felt unable to say that. So I think we all know what the answer to the original question really is.

And even when they ask questions, they get misleading or outright falsehoods, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did in a Senate hearing when questioned by Sen. Ron Wyden (D).

And so, a program that began with good intentions grows, and grows, feeding upon itself, until one wonders if it s achieving its goals, or for that matter, what its goals are anymore.

Here is a simple question that must eventually be answered:  what personal information is the government not allowed to obtain, store, and mine?

President Barack Obama tried to put the horse back in the barn last week, to no avail:

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.” Obama added that the National Security agents behind the surveillance programs “cherish our Constitution…You can shout Big Brother or program run amok, but if you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” he explained.

He may be right, but there is an inherent problem:  trust is not blindly given, but earned.  And what trust was earned by this President’s administration in last year’s election is quickly melting away.

Big bureaucracies inherently are corrupt.  It is a fact of humanity.  There isn’t a single example of a growing government that isn’t rife with such backstabbing and intrigue.

Maybe we  should keep that in mind every time we choose big government to supposedly fix our societal problems.

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