Every day Obama's in the White House, the GOP's rabid base gets scarier. And he's only been in office 6 months.[...]
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This Saturday, House Natural Resources chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) jumped out of a plane in service of coal. As he announced in a press release, Rahall’s leap with the US Army Golden Knights parachute team at the Friends of Coal Auto Fair was a “Nick Rahall affirmation of the importance of coal“:
I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to be invited by the Golden Knights to join them for the Friends of Coal event. It is a very special honor for me to be able to show ? in a bold way, my continued support for not only coal, but for everyone who serves the people of West Virginia and our Nation through their service in our armed forces and law enforcement agencies. It is a Nick Rahall affirmation of the importance of coal and an opportunity to pay tribute to those who extraordinarily serve and make personal sacrifices each day for the citizens of West Virginia and our Nation as a whole.
Last month, Rahall voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act because he believed it would not “ensure coal mining jobs for the future,” even though the legislation has “huge subsidies for ‘clean coal.’” Rahall recently cashed a $5000 check from the Coal Miners PAC, $2000 from the Arch Coal PAC, $5000 from the American Electric Power PAC, $2500 from the CONSOL Energy PAC, and $1000 each from the Dominion Resources and Allegheny Energy PACs.
No matter how bad our guys are, their guys are always worse.
The prospect of losing an election he thought was in the bag can make a politician do stupid things. It made Bill Clinton talk like a racist, it made John McCain choose a running mate who guaranteed his landslide loss, and it's making Dan Mongiardo antagonize the voters he can't win without.
Apart for the electoral stupidity, the notion that Louisville isn't the "real Kentucky" rankles in the same way as Sarah Palin's assertions about "Real America." Dividing the country between the pure heartland and the decadent urban cesspools has been a Republican electoral tactic since at least the 1960s, and it still carries a heavy stench of exclusion. One out of every six citizens of Kentucky lives in Louisville, and they're just as real as anyone else in the state. More importantly, their votes count just as much; there is no Electoral College for the US Senate in Kentucky. I detest the notion that rural voters are somehow more authentic than urban voters, and this seems to be what the Mongiardo folks are pushing in order to explain away a weak fundraising quarter.
Cultural commentators who look for trends in unemployment numbers, presidential-approval ratings, or car and housing purchases are missing something fundamental if they don't also consider statistics on drug use. Little tells us more about the state of America than what Americans are doing to get high.
Life in the United States, of course, is similar in many ways to life anywhere in the developed world. But our nation diverges sharply from the rest of the world in a few crucial ways. Americans work hard: 135 hours a year more than the average Briton, 240 hours more than the typical French worker, and 370 hours--that's nine weeks--more than the average German. We also play hard. A global survey released in 2008 found that Americans are more than twice as likely to smoke pot as Europeans. Forty-two percent of Americans had puffed at one point; percentages for citizens of various European nations were all under 20. We're also four times as likely to have done coke as Spaniards and roughly ten times more likely than the rest of Europe.
"We're just a different kind of country," said the U.S. drug czar's spokesman, Tom Riley, when asked about the survey. "We have higher drug-use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society.''
Different, indeed. There may be no people on earth with a more twisted and complex relationship to drugs. Much of our preconceived self-image turns out to be wrong: libertine continentals have nothing on us in terms of drug use, and American piety hasn't prevented us from indulging--in fact, it has sometimes encouraged it. Much of our conventional wisdom about American drug use--that the Puritans and the members of our founding generation were teetotalers or mild drinkers, that the drug trade is dominated by huge criminal organizations such as the Mafia and the Bloods, that crack use has declined significantly since the eighties--turns out to be wrong, too.
If there's one certainty about American drug use, it's this: we're always looking for a better way to feed our voracious appetite for getting high--for something cheaper, faster, less addictive, or more powerful. Drug trends feed themselves as word spreads about the amazing new high that's safe and nonaddictive. Then we discover otherwise--and go searching for the next great high. We often circle back to the original drug, forgetting why we quit it in the first place.
Alexis de Tocqueville spotted it a century and a half ago, sort of. Mix democracy with America's fervent Christianity and you get traditional American values, he wrote. The idea of the American republic as a self-perfecting phenomenon has blended with our religious idealism to shape the way that we've viewed drugs and insobriety throughout U.S. history. "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions," wrote the French social scientist in his landmark nineteenth-century travelogue Democracy in America. "However irksome an enactment may be, the citizen of the United States complies with it, not only because it is the work of the majority, but because it is his own, and he regards it as a contract to which he is himself a party. . . .While in Europe the same classes sometimes resist even the supreme power, the American submits without murmur to the authority of the pettiest magistrate."
Of course, Tocqueville also identifies another key component of American society: individualism. But the combination of religious faith and respect for the law has undoubtedly led to the prohibition movements that have coursed through American culture since shortly after the Revolution. "Societies are formed which regard drunkenness as the principal cause of the evils of the state, and solemnly bind themselves to give an example to temperance," Tocqueville observed, adding in a footnote, "At the time of my stay in the United States"--the 1830s--"the temperance societies already consisted of more than 270,000 members; and their effect had been to diminish the consumption of strong liquors by 500,000 gallons per annum in Pennsylvania alone."
The decision to get high is always a personal one. Ask a fan of psychedelics about drugs and he'll generally tell you that done responsibly, a regimen of recreational mind alteration aids one in living an examined life. But drug use has consequences for others, too, be they the children of the neglectful user or the doctor who handles highs gone wrong. The battle between common good and individual liberty has long defined the American story, and it has always been fought especially hard over inebriation of any kind.
When it comes to drugs, Americans have put precious little stock in the concept of pleasure, at least officially. Speed is acceptable as long as it boosts a kid's attention span and isn't just a good time. "Euphoria" is listed a negative side effect of pharmaceutical drugs. Ours is a nation in which medical professionals who prescribe narcotics face the real prospect of prison time even when staying within accepted medical boundaries. Ronald McIver, a doctor from North Carolina, is now doing thirty years in a federal prison for reducing more pain than the government thought appropriate, though his prescribing habits were well within accepted medical practices. When pleasure is suspected, American drug use gets tricky, particularly when that high might do some real good, as in the case of medical marijuana.
Thus it was in drugs that sixties radicalism found its most visible form of cultural disobedience. While mainstream America took prescription uppers and downers and drank eminently legal martinis, the counterculture dropped a new drug that gave it a perception of reality that matched its revolutionary hopes. "There are the makings here of a complete social division: revolution is in the head, along the highways of perception and understanding. The psychedelic experience, being entirely subjective, is self-authenticating," argues Colin Greenland in his book The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British New Wave in Science Fiction, which posits sixties youth culture as an "alien" society. "It gave its first advocates an inexorable sense of rightness in opposing their holistic, libertarian ethos to the discriminatory and repressive outlook of their elders. In legislating against cannabis and LSD, the governments of America and Europe were not only outlawing drugs that encouraged disaffection among the young but . . . were reaffirming faith in Western materialism and a single objective reality."
Psychedelic drugs give one a very real feeling that there's some type of intangible divide between those who've turned on and those who haven't. The psychedelic experience--with LSD's being perhaps the most powerful--defies credible characterization, largely because accounts of it strike the uninitiated as highly unbelievable and seem to the initiated incomplete. "Non-acid takers regard the LSD trip as a remarkable flight from reality, whereas cautious devotees feel they've flown into reality," writes Richard Neville in his 1970 "guide to revolution," Playpower. "After an acid trip, you can reject everything you have ever been taught."
LSD didn't disappear after it was criminalized. The American government wasn't toppled, either. Rather, the nation was able to absorb acid and the counterculture into mainstream consciousness--probably because there was something fundamentally American about both from the beginning. LSD is for the questers, and Americans have always been on a quest, whether it's to go West, to go to the moon, or to spread democracy around the globe. Timothy Leary, who spent years in prison and was once called "the most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon, went to his end a respected cultural figure in the employ of Madison Avenue. Jerry Garcia's death was commemorated by congressional tributes and fawning cover stories in big-time glossies.
When Barack Obama solicited questions from the public on his presidential-transition Web site and allowed users to vote on the most popular, sixteen of the top fifty questions had to do with liberalizing drug policy. In the midst of war and financial collapse, the question voted most pressing asked whether Obama would legalize marijuana. The media ridiculed the result, but in doing so, they showed how much they misunderstand the importance we currently place on getting high in America. Today, huge majorities support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, and almost half of Americans support legalizing it for everybody twenty-one and older. Such widespread acceptance of exploratory drug use helped lead to the comeback of LSD, pot, and other hippie drugs in the nineties.
* * * * *
America, we like to boast, is an amalgamation of many different cultural strains. One class or community--say, impoverished southern manual laborers--might be doing something completely different to get high from what another group--say, well-heeled northeastern hipsters--would do. Or it might not be: meth has been popular at the same time with both the trailer-park set and the urban gay community. Such odd similarities and stark differences reveal both something particular about a given socioeconomic milieu and something of the essential character of the American people.
In the late sixties Andy Warhol's New York scene was openly driven by meth; the drug only later infiltrated LSD-centered San Francisco. In the spring of 1966, Warhol's performance-art extravaganza/troupe of speed freaks, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, accepted an invitation to play the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, a legendary hippie venue. The result was a collision of drug cultures, reports Martin Torgoff in his book Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.
"We spoke two completely different languages because we were on amphetamine and they were on acid," Warhol follower Mary Woronov told Torgoff. "They were so slow to speak, with these wide eyes--'Oh, wow!'--so into their vibrations; we spoke in rapid-machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into...the American Indian and going back to the land and trying to be some kind of true, authentic person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women--they were these big, round-titted girls; you would say hello to them, and they would just flop on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S&M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves--we never ate at all!"
That disparity had more to do with cultural differences than with drug availability. Warhol and his band had ready access to all the LSD they could have digested, but it didn't fit as well with their lifestyle and values as meth did. The same type of choice was evident among the hippies: bennies and other forms of meth were there for those who wanted them, but the egoism and aggression that those drugs provoke didn't fit the counterculture ethos. Although drugs are often given credit for creating or driving a culture, sometimes it can be the other way around. When a culture can freely choose one drug over another, it will pick the one that fits best with its worldview.
So much has been written on drug use and American culture that it would take weeks to crush it all up and snort it. In much of that writing, the story of American drug use goes something like this: The party started in the sixties, got crazy in the seventies, and got out of control in the eighties, as greed and addiction took over. That was followed by a period of recovery and maturity. Yet America is not a rock band, and its real history wouldn't neatly fit on VH1.
On the other end of the spectrum are the drug policy experts. A lot of smart people have spent careers poring over drug-use data and research, and the insights they've come to have too often been overlooked. But the data have frequently been presented as if they had no cultural or social implications--as if, for example, cocaine just appeared out of nowhere or LSD simply vanished. A lack of cultural or historical context allows partisans on both sides of the drug-policy debate to fill the void with their own stories: the CIA introduced crack to the ghetto; take acid and you'll jump out a window.
In reality, there's no such thing as drug policy. As currently understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a phenomenon that can't be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug policy. Healthcare policy is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always backfires, because it doesn't take into account the powerful economic, social, and cultural forces that also determine how and why Americans get high.
Cultural movements change our drug habits; our drug habits alter our culture. In both cases, the results might not be apparent for years. Yet a sober look at them makes it clear that America's twisted relationship with chemically induced euphoria has left a trail of consequences that have been as far-reaching as they've been unintended.
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Mitch McConnell came on Meet the Press to spew some more Frank Luntz talking points on health care reform, but when asked whether the United States actually has the "best health care in the world", McConnell punts and retreats to the Republican mantra of more tax cuts and then adds this little gem when asked if it's a moral issue that 47 million Americans go without health insurance:
McCONNELL: Well, they don't go without health care. It's not the most efficient way to provide it. As we know, the doctors in the hospitals are sworn to provide health care. We all agree it is not the most efficient way to provide health care to find somebody only in the emergency room and then pass those costs on to those who are paying for insurance. So it is important, I think, to reduce the number of uninsured. The question is, what is the best way to do that?
So in other words, Americans have access to health care because they can go get in line at the emergency room, and the hospital cannot turn them away. I'm curious if Sen. McConnell would care to opt out of his government run health care plan and take a vow only to use the emergency room when he needs to see a doctor from now on since he believes it would mean he has access to health care? Anyone think he'd take me up on it?
GREGORY: We just heard from the secretary of Health and Human Services, and I thought a couple of significant points, the first on timing. Is the president going to get a bill out of the House and Senate by the August recess?
McCONNELL: Well, I don't think he ought to get the particular bills that we've seen out of either the House or the Senate before August, because they're really not the right way to go. I mean, what's going on here, David, it's perfectly clear, this is the same kind of rush and spend strategy we saw on the stimulus bill. We're going to have a deficit this year, $1.8 trillion, that's bigger than the deficit of the last five years combined. They passed a budget that puts us on the path to double the national debt in five years, triple it in 10. And here comes health care on top of it. As you just pointed out with Secretary Sebelius, CBO says it's a quarter of a trillion dollars will not be paid for. And even if you look at the pay force, they're taking it out of the backs of senior citizens and small businesses. This is a bill that shouldn't pass at any point, either before the August recess or later in the year. What we need to come up with is a truly bipartisan proposal.
GREGORY: Will they get what they, what they're working on now, though? Do you think they'll get it passed?
McCONNELL: Well, I certainly hope not. I don't think this particular measure ought to pass either the House or the Senate, because it's not good for the country.
GREGORY: And that's the big factor here in terms of cost. Did you hear from Secretary Sebelius, who certainly recognized the fact that the CBO said that increased costs over time undermines their goal. The president would have to really drive some specific cost-cutting before signing on to these measures.
McCONNELL: Well, if you're going to do something as comprehensive as the president wants to do and you're going to pay for it, and you, you ought to pay for it, there are no easy choices. And this is what they're grappling with right now.
Let me, let me just tell you what I think, David, if I may, is flawed about the whole approach. They don't seem to grant that we have the finest health care in the world now. We need to focus on the two problems that we have, cost and access, not sort of scrap the entire healthcare system of the United States. It's laughingly said around the Senate, "Where would the Canadians go for quality health care?" John McCain and John Cornyn and I were down at MD Anderson in Houston, one of the world's famous cancer hospitals, a couple of weeks ago, having a meeting with their healthcare professionals. They take care of patients from 90 countries who come to Houston to save their lives. We have quality health care now. Surveys indicate that Americans overwhelmingly like the quality.
McCONNELL: So let's focus on access and cost and not try to scrap the whole system.
GREGORY: Well, but wait a minute. You, you say that we have the best healthcare system in the world, you say it as a matter of fact.
GREGORY: But it seems to be a matter of debate. You just mentioned access. You've got 47 million people who are uninsured.
GREGORY: And there are experts, including one expert who is now an Obama adviser, who actually writes about this idea that it's a myth that it's the best health care in the world.
GREGORY: And this is what he wrote along with another expert last fall, saying: "It's a myth that America has the best health care in the world. The United States is number one only in one sense, the amount we shell out for health care. We have the most expensive system in the world per capita, but we lag many developed countries on virtually every health statistic you can name"; life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, death rate from prostate cancer, heart attack recovery. That's the best system in the world?
McCONNELL: That's one expert. If you look at the surveys and ask the American people what they think, they don't think quality is a problem. They think cost is a problem and access is a problem.
Let's look at access, the people who are uninsured that you mentioned. A better way to begin to deal with that problem is to equalize the tax treatment. Right now if you're running a business and you provide health care for your employees, it's deductible on your corporate tax return. But if you're an individual buying health care on the open market, it's not deductible to you. We ought to equalize the tax treatment. Another cost item we seriously ought to address, that the administration only pays lip service to and some of the proposals kicking around in Congress actually discourage, are these wellness efforts that we've seen on display, for example, at the Safeway company, which through their own efforts have targeted the five biggest categories of preventable disease--smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and lack of exercise--and incentivized their employees to improve their personal behavior in all of those areas and capped their costs. They never mentioned junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. We're spending billions every year, billions in junk lawsuits defending, in defensive medicine, defending all these lawsuits. They don't want to do anything about that.
GREGORY: And yet you say that the time is now to act. You think something must be done.
McCONNELL: Oh, absolutely. I'm not in favor of doing nothing. We have a cost problem and we have an access problem. We do not have a quality problem.
GREGORY: Do you think it's a moral issue that 47 million Americans go without health insurance?
McCONNELL: Well, they don't go without health care. It's not the most efficient way to provide it. As we know, the doctors in the hospitals are sworn to provide health care. We all agree it is not the most efficient way to provide health care to find somebody only in the emergency room and then pass those costs on to those who are paying for insurance. So it is important, I think, to reduce the number of uninsured. The question is, what is the best way to do that? The proposals over in the House, according to CBO, not only aren't paid for, they don't really dramatically increase the--decrease the number of uninsured.