March 05, 2015

It's not all bad

There's a little more than a week to go in WV's legislative session and things are not great by any means but they aren't nearly as bad as they could have been. (Not counting snowstorms, freezing temperatures and floods.)

Some real howlers, like the bill that would ban local anti-discrimination ordinances, got smacked down pretty hard. A bill that would fine teachers for teaching inappropriate subjects didn't go anywhere.

Some other bad bills that died--or appear to have died at this point--are drug testing for TANF recipients, bringing back the death penalty, and right to work (for less).

Some really bad ones got a little better, like scaling back rather than repealing prevailing wage and a wide open campaign bill that threatened to open the floodgates to corporate money from anywhere.

The jury is still out on other issues, like water protection and access to courts for workers and survivors of those killed on the job.

There might even be a decent bill or two passed, like reforms to truancy laws and the juvenile justice system.

I have a pretty wise yoga teacher who once suggested that we use the following mantra as we observe what is happening outside and inside of ourselves: "It's like this now."

So, yeah, it's like this now.

March 04, 2015

The whole widow/orphan thing

While WV's deeply religious Republican legislature contemplates legislation that would make it harder for workers maimed on the job or their widows and orphans to have access to legal remedies, I decided to let my fingers go walking through the Bible. Here's what I found...and it's very incomplete.

* Exodus 22:22: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.”

*Deuteronomy 10: 18 “For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.”

* Deuteronomy  24:17 ”Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.”

*Deuteronomy 27:19 "’Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow’." Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’"

* Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

* Isaiah 1:23 “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them.”

* Jeremiah 5:27-29: “Like a cage full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich. They are fat, they are sleek, they also excel in deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people?' declares the LORD, 'On a nation such as this shall I not avenge Myself?”

* Malachi 3:5: "’So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

* James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a pattern here, although some elected officials don’t seem to have gotten the memo.

In any case, the final vote on this bill will be one to watch. And to remember.

March 02, 2015

A WV political art form

The WV legislature has been driving me crazy lately but there's one thing about it I like: the public hearing. It's kind of an art form, an example of political theater.

Sometimes public hearings are consolation prizes, as in "your bill won't pass but you get to vent." Sometimes it's an excuse for killing a bill. Sometimes, I suppose, it can even move one forward, although that doesn't seem to happen as often.

I've spoken at two since Friday morning and enjoyed the challenge.

The way the game is played is something like this: once the decision has been made to hold one, people show up early and sign up to speak for or against the measure in question. Generally, there is a time limit for the hearing and the time allotted is divided by the number of speakers to derive the time per speaker.

Some people don't seem to get the whole time thing. They get to the stand and and waste time establishing their bona fides  only to run out of time before they get around to the message. This is where the famous advice attributed to William Faulkner comes to play: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."

I had to do that on the spot Friday, when the number of speakers limited the time of each to one minute. I had put together what I thought was a fairly eloquent rank in favor of killing a bigoted bill. My darlings, some of which I was kind of proud of, had to go out the window. Today, I had a bit more time and could hit all my points.

As is the case with haiku and other defined forms of verse, sometimes the very constraints imposed by the genre can be a source of creativity.

If I had the job of training writers and speakers, I think one exercise worth trying would be a mock public hearing on an important topic with a short time line.

March 01, 2015

Will we learn?

This op-ed of mine about the need for the state legislature to protect WV's water appeared in the Friday Charleston Gazette:

I was traveling out of state last January when I got an email from a friend at the Council of Churches about a chemical spill in Charleston.

At first, I didn’t think much of it or have any idea of how huge that event would turn out to be.

After all, things like that happen fairly regularly in West Virginia. A sludge leak here, a shelter in place there, a tank, a truck, a train … we kind of get used to it.

Shame on us for that.

I remember a line from Dostoevsky that goes something like “Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel.”

If there was any silver lining in last year’s Freedom Industries spill, it was in the fact that this time the effects of a disaster weren’t confined to rural people up a holler in southern West Virginia. The spill inconvenienced some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the state. Legislators of both parties had to look at signs in the Capitol warning that water was to be used only for flushing toilets.

Adversity, like wealth, is something distributed very unequally, although it tends to be concentrated on the other end of the spectrum.

That experience of shared adversity, all too rare, gave a sense of urgency last year as legislators labored throughout the session to come up with a workable bill that had pretty much universal support.

Now, it looks like the lessons of that shared adversity are in danger of being forgotten. Several bills have been proposed that would weaken protections on our drinking water.

One argument in favor of that is that the Freedom Industries spill was an outlier far beyond the norm. That’s true as far as it goes. But then the recent oil train wreck, Upper Big Branch, Buffalo Creek, Farmington, and Hawks Nest disasters were outliers too.

Come to think of it, West Virginia itself is a bit of an outlier. In the language of statistics, I think you could make the case that we’re a standard deviation or two away from the arithmetic mean.

For that matter, things like severe winter storms and structure fires are outliers of a sort. Fortunately, they don’t happen very often, but we still need snowplows and fire departments.

We hear a lot these days about improving West Virginia’s economy so that it’s easier for families to stay here and thrive. But I know of several young families that have moved out of state or are planning to because of the spill. I know plenty more who have said one more thing like that and they’re out of here. The people I’m thinking about are young, educated, smart and productive, i.e. exactly the kind of people we need more of.

We also hear a lot about making West Virginia more business friendly. However, it would be very hard to calculate the harm done to hundreds of local businesses by the chemical spill. Thousands of workers, particularly those in the service sector, lost work and wages. And these are people who don’t put their money in an overseas hedge fund: they spent all they get right here. Along with that, thousands of school children missed classroom instruction and many of these missed the only nutritious meals they were likely to get those days.

West Virginia’s tourism industry, which generated well over $4 billion in 2010, took a hit as well. Further, incidents like that, not to mention the latest mishap, make the state less attractive to new business investments, particularly those that don’t involve trashing the place.

While any piece of legislation or policy can be improved, any changes to state water laws should not come at the expense of public safety or water quality.

There are many thoughtful people who believe that water will be to the coming century as precious as oil was in the past. And water is something our state is blessed with. It would be nice to think that we’ve learned something from last year’s mess and over 100 years of the exploitation of our natural resources and people.

The jury is still out on that.