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Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 12:52 PM PDT

The Great Gay North

by Richard Riis

As the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments whether there is a Constitutional right to gay marriage, some conservative justices have expressed their ambivalence about leading the country into what they consider unknown territory and an uncertain future.

But just how unknown is that territory and uncertain that future? We need only look north of the border to envision what may lie ahead for the United States.

Gay marriage was legalized in Canada ten years ago, in 2005. You know what happened then?


There were no divine floods or earthquakes. No social upheaval or economic collapse. No pandemic of moral terpitude. No bands of marauding gays in the streets. No straight people forced to marry farm animals. No pious Christians spontaneously bursting into flame.


Well, nothing except people continuing to go about their business as they always had been. People going to work. People going to school. People going to church. People watching Hockey Night on television. People respecting other people's right to live their own lives without hurting anyone else.

Nothing at all for ten years now and counting.

Crazy Canadians.

America lost a towering genius this week, and I lost a personal idol. Stan Freberg was a legendary voice-over artist, comedian, satirist, puppeteer, impressionist, recording artist, and songwriter. Turning his gifted mind to advertising, Freberg transformed the way everything in our culture is marketed, from prunes to politics. Freberg, to me, stands alongside Mark Twain in shaping the American sense of humor.

Here are but twenty awesome things to know about the late, great Stan Freberg:

1. At an assembly in high school, Freberg performed a skit he had written himself, performing all the characters. He received a standing ovation from his schoolmates.

2. He turned down a scholarship from Stanford to pursue a job in radio. Showing up without an appointment at a Hollywood talent agency, Freberg learned there was an opening at Warner Brothers for a performer who could imitate animal sounds. Taking a bus to the Los Angeles Zoo, Freberg spent the afternoon observing the animals. The following day, he showed up at the Warner Brothers audition and won the job.

3. He was the original voice and puppeteer of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent on "Time for Beany," Albert Einstein's favorite television program.

4. His career as a voice-over artist for animated films and television spanned 69 years. Over the years Freberg lent his voice to such films as “Lady and the Tramp,” ‘’Alice in Wonderland,” and “Stuart Little,” as well as dozens of "Looney Tunes" cartoon shorts.  

5. He was a pioneer in recorded comedy, and a six-time Grammy nominee. One Freberg classic, "St. George and the Dragonet," a spoof of the "Dragnet" TV program, even went to number one on the best-selling singles charts. Most of Freberg's records are just as funny today as they were 50 or 60 years ago, and they are damn funny.

6. His 1961 album, "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America," has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the "finest comedy albums ever recorded," and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. One critic has dubbed it "the Sgt. Pepper of comedy albums."

7. The Beatles were huge fans. Paul McCartney, when asked in a 1984 Playboy interview about how the Beatles came by their sense of humor, answered, "Listening to Lenny Bruce and Stan Freberg records." George Harrison knew all of Freberg's songs by heart, and John Lennon found inspiration for the track "John and Yoko" on his Wedding Album in Freberg's 1951 comic masterpiece, "John and Marsha."

8. "John and Marsha," for which Freberg provided both the male and female voice, was banned on many radio stations for it's aural simulation of a couple (seemingly) having sex.

9. Others who have cited Freberg as a major influence include George Carlin, the Smothers Brothers, Garry Trudeau, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, David Mamet, Weird Al Yankovic, and Penn Jillette.

10. In 1957's "Elderly Man River," Freberg was one of the first to skewer the concept of political correctness, decades before it even had a name.

11. Freberg's 1958 "Green Chri$tma$" was one of pop culture's first lampoons of the commercialization of Christmas.

12. Even though it cost him his 1957 CBS radio program, Freberg refused to accept advertising from tobacco companies.  

13. Freberg was the father of the funny television and radio commercial. Many of his most memorable commercials ironically poked fun at the product being advertised. Freberg's classic commericials for Sunsweet pitted prunes ("They're still rather wrinkled, though") boosted Sunsweet's sales by 400% in one year.

14. Freberg had the audacity and good humor to name his production company "Freberg Ltd. (But Not Very)."

15. Each of his contracts included this clause: "The decision as to what's funny and what is not funny shall rest solely with Mr. Freberg."

16. He won 21 Clio Awards, the advertising industry's highest honor.

17. One of his most creative commercials was a 1958 radio spot titled “Omaha," an elaborate, eight-minute musical production that didn't even mention the name of the product - Butternut Coffee - until the very end.

18. He was one of the very few "establishment" media personalities or businessmen to openly criticize the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.

19. He produced a series of radio spots encouraging support of the McGovern–Hatfield Amendment that called for the end of U.S. military involvement in the war and criticized the Nixon Administration's "winding down" strategy. When one of the spots was chided by opponents of the Amendment as being "in bad taste," Freberg replied, "The war in Southeast Asia is in bad taste."

20. He is a member of the Radio Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Animation Hall of Fame. The Advertising Hall of Fame has so far refused to induct Freberg due to his outspoken criticism of what he called an "inept" industry.  

21. Brash genius that he was, Stan Freberg was also a very humble man. In his later years, Freberg was dining in a restaurant with a fellow comedy writer. His companion called for the bill. The waiter informed the pair that the bill had been taken care of and handed Freberg a note. The note, from a fellow diner, spoke of how much Freberg's work had meant to the diner and how honored he felt at the opportunity to offer this small gift in return for a lifetime of enjoyment.

Freberg read the note and wept.

Rest in peace.

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Thirty-five years ago today, on February 24, 1980, the United States hockey team defeated Finland, 4-2, to capture the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, delivering a much-needed lift to a downcast America.

The improbable journey to victory of those eager young amateurs – which included the defeat of a heavily-favored Soviet team to earn a place in the gold medal game – galvanized a nation and made, for a week or two at least, hockey fans of all of us. The so-called "Miracle on Ice" provided Americans a joyous emotional release in the midst of our anger and frustration over countrymen held hostage in Iran, outrage at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the burden of soaring energy prices and interest rates. The USA hockey team served as a reminder that, with hard work and the right kind of chemistry, it was possible to overcome long odds, stare down adversity, and reclaim what politicians today promote as “American exceptionalism.”

With the benefit of hindsight one can see the victory in Lake Placid for what it was in the world beyond sport: a propitious crack in the ice of the Cold War. One can also make a case that the feel-good nationalism unleashed that night helped set the stage for Ronald "It's Morning in America" Reagan's defeat of Jimmy Carter in the presidential election the following November.

For that moment, though, it just felt great to cheer for one kick-ass American hockey team.

The Roma makes its first flight in the United States at Langley Field, Va., on Nov. 15, 1921. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Fifteen years before the crash of the Hindenburg galvanized the nation and effectively put an end to lighter-than-air commercial travel, the fate of the Roma made headlines – and then was forgotten.

Built in Italy in 1919, the Roma's speed, payload and range had drawn attention throughout Europe before the airship was purchased in 1921 by the United States Army Air Service for $200,000, the equivalent of $2.6 million in 2015 dollars.

The Roma was enormous - 410 feet long, 92 feet tall – and capable of carrying 100 passengers and cargo at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. The airship was designed for trans-Atlantic crossings and was the largest semi-rigid airship in the world at the time.

The semi-rigid airship was a cross between a zeppelin, those cigar-shaped airships with a light metal skeleton beneath a fabric skin, and a blimp, which depends on pressurized gas within its skin to maintain its form. The Roma lacked a skeleton, but its 1.193 million cubic foot gasbag was held somewhat in shape by a metal-ribbed nose cap and an articulated keel that ran along the bag's underside, from nose to tail. Within the keel were housed the control room, navigation space, passenger cabin, the outriggers on which the engines rode, and, fastened to the back, a box kite-like construction that served as the ship's rudder and elevator.

In addition to the eleven cells of hydrogen within its skin, the airship housed six cells of air into which additional air could be pumped if the gasbag were to droop or flatten.

The Roma made its first flight in the United States from Langley Field, in Norfolk, Virginia, on November 15, 1921.

Three months later, at 12:45 p.m. on February 21, 1922, 45 men, including the crew, a few civilian mechanics, and government observers, boarded the Roma at Langley for a short demonstration flight.

One hundred fifty men gripped lines holding the airship to earth as the airship’s six engines were fired up. The lines released, the Roma pitched upward then leveled off.

At an altitude of 500 feet, Captain Dale Mabry of the Army Air Service, the airship’s skipper, ordered cruising speed and the Roma began making for Chesapeake Bay. Upon reaching the Bay, Mabry ordered the ship south along the shoreline. The crew waved to people below at Fort Monroe and at a crowd of spectators watching the awesome spectacle from the government pier.

At Willoughby Spit, the Roma headed out over the water toward the Norfolk Naval Station. One thousand feet above the Naval Station, crewmembers noticed that the upper curve of the gasbag's nose was flattening.

The nose of the Roma began to pitch downward at a 45-degree angle. As the stress on the airship increased, the keel began to buckle, and the tail assembly began to shake loose.

Captain Mabry turned the Roma away from the Naval Station and toward the open water. The passengers and crew tossed a shower of equipment and furniture from the keel’s windows to lighten the ship’s load. But nothing could stop the Roma’s rapid descent.

The airship plummeted toward an open field alongside the Station’s depot - and a high-voltage electric line.

As the Roma’s nose struck the ground, the enormous gasbag brushed the electric line, and in an instant the skin of the enormous airship was engulfed in flame. The eleven gas cells, loaded with more than a million cubic feet of hydrogen, exploded in a colossal fireball.

Amidst a rain of fire and debris, sailors and depot workers rushed to the wreckage, only to be driven back by the heat and flames. Three fire companies spent five hours battling the blaze. When the smoke cleared and the twisted metal wreckage cooled, thirty-four bodies were recovered from the remains of the Roma. Amazingly, eleven individuals on board survived, three of them completely unharmed.

The crash of the Roma marked the greatest disaster in American aeronautics up to that time. The Army launched an inconclusive investigation into the accident, and a great public debate arose about the safety of flight and the Roma's reliance on hydrogen.
Although there were photographs, there were no newsreel cameras on hand to capture the moment the Roma exploded. Dazed survivors and shaken witnesses told their stories to the press, but there was no on-the-spot radio coverage to bring the death and destruction into listener’s homes. Newspapers covered the story for a few weeks, but eventually the Roma slipped to the back pages, then out of the news altogether. In time, the Roma disaster faded from America's consciousness.

There are few reminders of the disaster today. Langley, now a major Air Force base, still refers to a parking lot where the Roma's hangar stood as the ''LTA area,'' an acronym for ''lighter than air.' Roma Road runs nearby.

At Norfolk International Terminals, the commercial port of Norfolk, not far from the site of the crash, stands a small monument, its perfunctory inscription telling little of the Roma and its fate, and nothing of the lives lost aboard it.

Most adults can remember those ubiquitous tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on television and radio: “This is a test. This is only a test.”

Forty-four years ago today, however, it was not a test. It was the real thing… or so it seemed.

Established in 1963 by the Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Civil Defense, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was designed to transmit an Emergency Action Notification (EAN), on all broadcast stations – television and radio – allowing the government to communicate swiftly and directly with the American people in the event of a national emergency.

In the event of an emergency, such as an attack upon the United States, an ENA would be initiated by the National Warning Center, located at, by not managed by, North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Using the teletype circuits of United Press International and the Associated Press, the National Warning Center would transmit an Attention Signal (at alternating frequencies of 853 and 960 Hz, for technophiles) to decoders at relay stations that would activate an alarm, alerting station operators of an incoming emergency message. The message was accompanied by a code word, to be verified by the individual relay stations. Each station would then transmit the Attention Signal on the air and rebroadcast the emergency message. Code words were changed daily, and the EBS was tested twice a week to assure preparedness, but only at scheduled times, to prevent misunderstandings.

Or so it was thought.

At 9:33 AM EST on Saturday, February 20, 1971, at the commencement of a scheduled test, a teletype operator at the National Warning Center inadvertently fed the incorrect tape into the teletype transmitter, sending out an emergency message to 5,000 radio and 800 television stations across the United States. The message was accompanied by the authenticator “hatefulness”, that day’s code not for a test, but for an actual national emergency.

The teletype message read:




20 FEB

And thus began what one radio announcer later remembered as “my longest five minutes in radio.” (You can hear an archived aircheck of that announcer, Bob Sievers, broadcasting the EAN on WOWO, Fort Wayne, Indiana, here.)

There was chaos and confusion in the nation’s newsrooms. No one had ever seen an actual Emergency Activation Authentication before. The fact that the message came at the same time as a scheduled test added to the confusion. (As one New York radio station manager was quoted anonymously, "If the Russians want to attack us, they should do it at 9:33 on a Saturday morning.") Others argued that an actual emergency alert was supposed to be preceded by ten bells on the teletype; this alert had followed only three bells. While hundreds of radio and television stations followed the instructions and went off the air immediately after broadcasting an EAN message, many more did not.

The alert revealed system-wide weaknesses in the EBS. Many stations did not know the correct procedure; others chose to check first if other stations in their area had gone off the air before deciding whether to follow the alert. Some stations couldn’t find the authentication word on their lists; others couldn’t even find their lists. Some stations failed even to receive the alert at all. The White House Communication Center fielded dozens of calls from radio and television stations looking for confirmation of the alert. The White House could only say it knew nothing of the erroneous message but likewise had no knowledge of an actual emergency.

Staff of stations that had followed through and broadcast the emergency alert, however, were seriously on edge.

David Skinner, news director of radio station WEVA in Emporia, Virginia, recalled, “I thought I was going to have a heart attack trying to open that damned envelope [containing the authentication codes]. I haven’t felt that way since John Kennedy was killed.”

Station manager Chuck Kelly of Brazil, Indiana’s WWCM, told a reporter, “I saw the authenticated message and thought, ‘My God, it’s December 7 all over again.’”

Larry Best of KXEL in Waterloo, Iowa, gave this account: “I knew it [the test] was coming through. But I didn’t pay much attention to it until I went to rip it off the wire. Then I noticed the message authenticator. It was the right one all right. It kind of shook us up a little. We immediately left the air and went into the instructions for emergency programming and played the tape we have of it. Immediately, in seconds, all three telephones in the office were jingling like mad.”

Many of those listening to or watching stations that responded to the “national emergency” were terrified. Wherever word of the alert message was broadcast, people panicked. According to United Press International, police, radio and television stations across the United States received thousands of calls from people asking what the national emergency was.

Fairly quickly after the emergency alert was sent out, the National Warning Center realized the error. A message was sent saying: THIS IS THE NATIONAL WARNING CENTER – CANCEL EAN TAPE SENT AT 9:33 EST. Since the message did not include a code word, though, conscientious stations were obligated to ignore the retraction.

At 9:59 EST the National Warning Center tried again, using the code word “hatefulness.” However, since “hatefulness” was the code word to initiate emergency action, not conclude it, many stations again ignored the message.

At 10:13 EST, 40 minutes after the initial emergency alert had been transmitted, the Center found the right formula, issuing a retraction along with the day’s correct authenticator to cancel action, "impish."

President Nixon declined to comment on the incident, but the Pentagon released a statement placing the blame solely on the Office of Civil Defense, overseers of the National Warning Center. The Center’s own investigation concluded that it was simple human error. It seems that the tapes, for both tests and actual emergencies, had been hung side-by-side on pegs in front of the teletype operator at the NWC, almost begging for the wrong tape to be pulled and transmitted.

Sometimes mistakes just happen, was the conclusion. It’s hard to disagree. Thankfully, for most of us, our mistakes don’t portend World War III.

Minor procedural changes were made in the EBS, and the emergency alert tapes were separated out and hung in a cabinet some feet away from the teletype so that deliberate action had to be made to retrieve them. No heads rolled, no one was fired or punished. The teletype operator on duty that day was a 15-year Civil Defense veteran with an otherwise spotless record; he was exonerated.

The EBS was retired in January 1998 and replaced with the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which provides access to broadcast stations, cable systems and participating satellite programmers for the transmission of emergency messages. The EAS uses digital codes to activate decoders and send emergency warnings without the need for human interpretation.

For, as we all know, computers never make mistakes.

On this date in 1986, one of the most powerful public service ads in television history, featuring a beloved stage and screen actor speaking from the grave, was aired for the first time.

When his lung cancer was diagnosed in June 1983, Yul Brynner, then 63, was one of the world's most recognizable and respected actors. Defying his doctors' orders, Brynner continued to perform despite fatigue from radiation treatments and chemotherapy.

In January 1985 Brynner went on the ABC television program “Good Morning America” and discussed his illness. He told of taking up smoking at the age of 12 and how he had smoked as many as five packs a day before quitting in the late 1960's. He spoke with passion of his opposition to smoking after discovering it could cause cancer even 15 years after quitting. What he really wanted to do in his remaining time, he declared, was to film a commercial that implored others to quit smoking or never take it up.

On June 30, 1985, Brynner retired from the stage, giving one final performance of his most famous role as the King of Siam in a revival of "The King and I" on Broadway.

In health in rapid decline, Brynner never made the commercial he wished to make. But shortly after his death on October 12, 1985, officials from the American Cancer Society approached Brynner’s widow, Kathy Lee, with a proposal. Actor William Talman, who played the district attorney on ''Perry Mason,'' had taped taped a spot for the American Cancer Society three weeks before he died of lung cancer in August 1968. What about using the footage from "Good Morning America," the officials suggested, to create a similar public service announcement? Kathy Lee consented.

The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by New York advertising agency McCaffrey & McCall.

The announcement, which first aired on ABC-TV on February 19, 1986, is arresting from the start (the actual public service spot can be viewed here). Over a black screen with the inscription "Yul Brynner 1920-1985,” an announcer intones,"Ladies and gentlemen, the late Yul Brynner."

What follows is an excerpt from the "Good Morning America" interview. Brynner’s advice against smoking is followed by his own statement: "If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn't be talking about any cancer. I'm convinced of that."

"Now that I'm gone,” he concludes, looking directly into the camera, “I tell you: Don't smoke. Whatever you do, just don't smoke."

The spot had a powerful impact on viewers, both smokers and non-smokers. The American Cancer Society was deluged with letters from viewers who said the announcement had moved them to quit smoking. Many told of how their children had seen the spot and implored their parents to quit, or how they'd convinced their friends or family members to quit. Within months of its debut, the announcement had been shown repeatedly on all three American television networks as well as in Australia, China, Japan and Israel. The International Film and Television Festival of New York awarded the spot a silver medal for achievement in the field of advertising.

Brynner's anti-smoking ad ranks among the most striking and memorable efforts ever made to address a public health issue. It maintains its impact today. As a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society said, "There's nothing more forceful than when someone dead looks into the camera and says: 'Don't smoke. I did.'"

Scene from Holiday Highlights (1940)
Larry: Where is everybody?
Curly: Maybe it's the Fourth of July.
Moe: The Fourth of July in October?
Curly: You never can tell... Look what they did to Thanksgiving!

Dialogue from No Census, No Feeling (1940), starring the Three Stooges

Today's political environment may seem hopelessly polarized, but it wasn't that long ago that Americans were so divided over the issue of when to celebrate Thanksgiving Day that there were actually two Thanksgivings each year: one for Republicans and one for Democrats. Now that’s an epic political divide.

It all began in the summer of 1939 when Lewis Hahn, general manager of the powerful National Retail Dry Goods Association, wrote to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins to complain about the calendar. The United States was just pulling itself out of a recession that had badly hurt retail sales in 1937 and 1938, and Hahn was certain that the date of Thanksgiving that year was going to have an adverse effect on retail sales for the all-important Christmas season. In keeping with the custom established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Thanksgiving was traditionally observed on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving 1939, though, was going to be as late as it could be, falling on November 30, meaning a the shortest possible Christmas shopping season. You have to understand, younger readers, that in those quaint times it was considered in poor taste for retailers to display Christmas decorations or hold Christmas sales until after Thanksgiving Day.

Secretary Hopkins relayed Hahn’s concern to President Franklin Roosevelt. Mulling it over, Roosevelt, never one afraid to tinker with precedent, decided there was something he could do. On August 14, 1939, the president announced in a news conference that this year, 1939, the second-to-last Thursday in November - November 23 - would be Thanksgiving. Subsequent Thanksgivings would be proclaimed using the same schedule.

That’s when the, er, "stuffing" really hit the fan. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the last election, called the decision “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt] impulsively has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." 1939, and already the Republicans are using over-the-top Hitler analogies.

While not all critics were political opponents of FDR, most parts of New England, then a Republican stronghold, were among the most vocal areas. “Roosevelt to Move Thanksgiving: Retailers for It, Plymouth Is Not,” trumpeted a headline in the New York Times. James Frasier, chairman of the selectmen in Plymouth, Massachusetts, “heartily disapproved” of Roosevelt’s plan, reported the Times, because “we here in Plymouth consider the day sacred.” The observation of Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, emphasized the President, and there was nothing sacred about the date.

The short-notice change in dates affected the holiday plans of millions of Americans. Some college athletic conferences had rules permitting football games only through the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Schedule makers scrambled to see what could be done to prevent those teams from having to cut the season one week short. Many of those teams stood to lose big holiday games with a major rival.  

A September 1939 Gallup poll found that Democrats favored the date switch 52% to 48%, while Republicans were opposed, 79% to 21%. Overall, Americans were not inclined, by 62% to 38% overall, to move up the date of Thanksgiving.  

In a partisan response that foreshadowed that of some Republican governors in our time to Obamacare, fully half the states simply refused to go along with the new date. That year, 23 states, predominantly those with Democratic governors, and the District of Columbia observed what right-wing wags took to calling “Franksgiving” on November 23 while 23 states, the majority with Republican governors, celebrated the holiday on November 30. Colorado and Texas, politically stumped, chose to observe both dates.

The controversy continued into 1940, with 31 states and the District of Columbia observing Roosevelt’s proclaimed date of November 21 while 17 carrying on with what some were now calling the “Republican” Thanksgiving on November 28.

A 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, spoofed the situation with a segment about Thanksgiving showing the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and another a week later "for Republicans."

The confusion was similarly satirized in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn. In a brief animated bumper a turkey hops back and forth between two weeks on a calendar page before finally giving up and shrugging his shoulders at the audience, a reference lost on many viewers of the holiday classic today.

1941 again saw the states divided, with 32 states and the District of Columbia observing the holiday on the November 20 and 16 states on November 27.

But the handwriting was on the wall for “Franksgiving” when the results of a survey by the Department of Commerce of New York City, released in March 1941 found no significant expansion of retail sales attributable to the earlier holiday, as well as only 37% of surveyed retailers supporting the earlier observance. The results of the survey were put before the United States Conference of Mayors by Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and led to similar surveys in other cities with corroborating results. The U.S. Department of Commerce subsequently conceded that the expected boon to retail trade by lengthening the Christmas shopping season had failed to materialize.

On May 20, 1941, Roosevelt announced that his experiment in changing the date of Thanksgiving had been a failure and that beginning in 1942 the holiday again would be observed on its traditional date, the last Thursday in November.

On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution setting the fourth Thursday as the official date of Thanksgiving. In 1944, the next year with five Thursdays in November, eight states continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the final Thursday. By 1945, though, nearly all the states had fallen in line with a uniform date. Texas, stubborn to the last, was the final holdout, observing Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November for the final time in 1956.

Seventy-plus years removed from “Franksgiving” at least we can be thankful today's Democrats and Republicans both sit down to Thanksgiving dinner on the same date, if not always at the same table.


The most powerful and provocative film I've seen in recent years is Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," an Academy Award-nominated (Best Foreign Language Film) drama in which Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a Danish kindergarten teacher with a spotless reputation who becomes the target of mass hysteria after he is falsely accused of sexually abusing a child.

Lucas instantly loses his job and is shunned by the community. His friends abandon him. His family is torn apart, his son threatened by neighbors. Even after the allegations are proved false, there is no repairing the damage, no way to remove the stain on his reputation. Lucas' dog is killed, a stone is thrown through his window, and he is beaten by grocery store employees when he tries to buy food. "The Hunt" is a courageous film and it's message is clear: There are some accusations that cannot be undone, certain accusations that are as as damning and permanent as a guilty verdict in a court of law.

I don't know if Bill Cosby is guilty or innocent of the things of which he is being accused these days, but there is one thing of which I am sure: when it comes to certain crimes, legal conventions no longer seem to apply.

There are two categories of crimes - rape and child molestation - in which the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" has gone out the window and asking pertinent questions is no longer allowed. There is no presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion, no evidence sought or required, no questions asked or even permitted. For these crimes, to be accused is to be found guilty.

Rape and child molestation are heinous and indefensible crimes of violence and terror. This is not in dispute. Those who commit such crimes must be brought to justice. But justice requires truth, and how can we ascertain truth when keeping an open mind is considered an affront and standard lines of inquiry are strictly forbidden?

When Cosby's attorney, Martin Singer, commented on the long criminal history, including jail time for fraud, of one of the alleged victims, the outcry was predictably swift and one-sided: "The woman's past is irrelevant!" "How dare he victimize the victim!" I have no wish to victimize any victims, either, but - really - any and all questions are off the table? If the woman were accusing Cosby of robbing a bank, you know everyone from CNN to TMZ would be examining the woman's credibility. In the present situation, such a question is evidently taboo.

I cannot and do not defend Bill Cosby or any actions he may or may not have taken; I have no way of knowing what he did or didn't do. What I do know is, for the moment, Bill Cosby - in the eyes of the law - is as innocent as you or I. But it says something disquieting about our society when a select category of alleged crimes are protected from any whiff of scrutiny and the normal paths of justice are subordinate to the public's distaste for those crimes.


Wed Nov 05, 2014 at 06:23 AM PST

OK, GOP, Now Put Up Or Shut Up

by Richard Riis

OK, Republicans, you've taken control of the Senate and strengthened your majority in the House of Representatives. For the last few years all you've done is bitch about what's wrong with the country while putting obstacles in the way of every attempt to fix things and, as the "Party of No", making a seized-up mockery of democracy.

Now it's time to put up or shut up. You're bought and paid for. Lobbing spitballs from the back of the classroom is easy; leading the class from the front takes a bit more effort. You have two years to end the wars, vanquish ISIS, rid the world of terrorism, cure Ebola, bring back $2 gasoline, and send the scary brown people who mow your lawns and harvest your arugula back to wherever they came from.

But don't even think about coming after my Obamacare. You'll have to pry that out of my cold, dead hands. Sound familiar?

Two years. You're on the clock. The ball is in your court.

Oh, and the next Benghazi? That's on you.

See you in 2016.

Leave it to the long-past-irrelevant Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) to use this morning's major earthquake in northern California to take a jab at President Obama.

McCain, appearing on "Fox News Sunday",  compared the earthquake to the President's handling of ISIS in the Middle East.

"The president has to understand that America must lead and, when American hasn't, a lot of bad things happen," McCain told host Chris Matthews.

"This is not like the earthquake in San Francisco," he said. "All of this could have been avoided, like leaving a residual behind force in Iraq. And obviously the challenge is now much greater than it would have been."

Republican opportunism at its most boorish.  


“But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14

A public meeting about a proposal by a church to temporarily house immigrant children turned into a heated standoff between church leaders and outraged community members.

The Rev. Dennis Walker of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in suburban Commack, New York, cited Bible passages about welcoming the stranger and referred to the United States’ history as an immigrant nation to try to rally support for the church’s proposal to host some of the tens of thousands of immigrant children crossing the United States’ border with Mexico mainly to reunite with family here.

The proposal called for about 40 children, aged 4 to 17, to be housed at the church for between seven and 30 days at a time. The children would be in transit from federal immigration detention facilities to relatives in the New York area, and would only leave church property for medical appointments or other important issues. The children would be subject to hearings before federal immigration authorities and could ultimately be deported.

“We are an immigrant nation. We are an immigrant church,” Walker told the standing-room-only crowd that filled the meeting room at the local public library and spilled into the hallway.

But the Reverend’s comments and those of another pastor, as well as the head of a program housing immigrant children in the nearby town of Syosset, was not what the crowd wanted to hear.

Commack is a predominantly white, predominantly middle class bedroom community some 30 miles east of New York City. A rural farming town until its population exploded in the post-war suburban migration of the 1950s and 1960s, Commack is a sprawl of cookie-cutter neighborhoods and aging shopping centers. Ironically, the town’s name is a legacy of its Secatogue Indian origins, although one would be hard-pressed to find any Native Americans living there today.

One by one, opponents of the church’s plan spoke passionately of their concerns and fears.

“We don’t want them, and we’re not going to tolerate them!” shouted a middle-aged man (“I’m a dentist!”) with an Italian surname as the crowd applauded.

“If you’re seeing this outrage… why don’t you just drop it and think of another solution?” pleaded a woman with an Italian, or perhaps Greek, surname.

A woman with a Hebrew first name and German last name offered to volunteer at the church to help develop other projects as long as they do not involve housing immigrants.

“The property is too small,” she implored. “It is not a safe environment for the children to be caged in like animals 24 hours a day. It’s inhumane.” Unlike the federal immigration detention facilities, one supposes.

Many in the audience expressed concerns that the children could bring crime, disease or gang activity.

Commack is a part of Smithtown Township. Smithtown is frequently described in the local newspaper as succumbing to the growing scourge of heroin use and trafficking by affluent, suburban white teens, although perhaps this is not the sort of crime the woman has in mind.

“It’s scary,” said another woman of Italian heritage who identified herself as a special-education teacher. “I have two little kids. Who’s to say my house is going to be safe?”

“It’s basically going to be a hotel right next to my house!” wailed a New York City firefighter with an English surname.

Rev. Walker defended the plan as the church’s opportunity “to do the Christian thing.”

But it the end, faced with a withering wall of opposition, Rev. Walker and the church shelved the plan. “Doing the Christian thing” won’t cut it in this town, and the good Reverend just got schooled.

“We saved Commack!” bellowed the dentist as the crowd filed out of the room at meeting’s end.

As his Italian immigrant ancestors might have put it, “Abbiamo salvato Commack!”

Or perhaps they wouldn’t have.


For the first time in his life, Sgt. S. is afraid.

Sgt. S. served ten years in the United States Army, including two tours in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm and third in Somalia. He’s experienced battle and seen brothers in arms fall. He can poke fun at himself for once getting his military vehicle lost on the wrong side of a fortified border and still managing to make it back with all his men safe and sound; he couldn't say the same about his vehicle. But he also knows intimately the mind-numbing trauma of war. When a Somali interpreter he was standing alongside was killed by a sniper, he sadly admits his first thought as he hit the blood-soaked ground was that he no longer had any clean uniforms. Sgt. S. would be the last to claim he is a hero, but he served his country with honor and pride.

But now Sgt. S. is afraid for his life. This time the enemy aren't Iraqis or Somalis, it’s his own body, and the damage has been done by his own side. And he’s not the only one fighting this battle. Nor will he be the last.

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