Living Liberally Blog

Living Liberally Blog

No Cow Left Behind

Eating Liberally Food for Thought by Kerry Trueman

I’m confused. Is today Presidents’ Day, or Groundhog Day? The news cycle’s stuck in a wretched rut: the aftermath of yet another school shooting; another suicide bombing in Afghanistan; another story about how the FDA left a dangerous drug on the market while thousands died needlessly; oh, and yet another beef recall.

But this recall--143 million pounds of beef from a California meat-packing plant—sets a new record. The previous record was a mere 35 million pounds, back in 1999.

Will the meat from the Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino make you sick? Depends on what the meaning of “sick” is. If, by “sick”, you mean, will it give you mad cow disease, or E. coli, or salmonella? There’s only a “remote possibility,” according to Dick Raymond, undersecretary of agriculture for food safety.

If, however, by “sick,” you mean nauseated by the gut-wrenching undercover video depicting Westland employees abusing “downer” cows--i.e. those too ill or injured to stand ( and perhaps not fit to eat)--well, then, the answer is definitely yes. The footage, brought to you courtesy of the Humane Society, shows workers “kicking cows, jabbing them near their eyes, ramming them with a forklift and shooting high-intensity water up their noses in an effort to force them to their feet for slaughter,” as CNN reports.

Westland Meat’s president, Steve Mendell, was naturally shocked, shocked, at the evidence of bovine water boarding and other agribiz atrocities documented by the Humane Society. When confronted about the video by the Washington Post, Mendell “expressed disbelief that employees used stun guns to get sick or injured animals on their feet for inspection:”

"That's impossible," he said, adding that "electrical prods are not allowed on the property."

Asked whether his employees use fork lifts to get moribund animals off the ground, he said: "I can't imagine that."

Asked whether water was sprayed up animals' noses to get them to stand up, he said: "That's absolutely not true."

"We have a massive humane treatment program here that we follow to the nth degree, so this doesn't even sound possible," Mendell said. "I don't stand out there all day, but to me it would be next to impossible."

Well, sure, as the head of a meat-packing plant, Mendell is too busy generating his own brand of bullshit to wade into the fecal matter coating the downer cows his company’s been slaughtering and shipping off to school lunches and programs for the needy (guess they won’t be getting another one of those Supplier of the Year awards for the National School Lunch Program like the one the USDA gave Westland for the 2004-2005 school year.)

With the Humane Society’s video going viral faster than E. coli in a feedlot, Mendell fired the two employees identified in the video, describing their behavior as "a serious breach of our company's policies and training." California prosecutors have since filed animal cruelty charges against the two former employees, who insist, of course, that they were only following orders.

The individual who shot the footage, who’s remaining anonymous in the hopes of infiltrating other slaughterhouses, told the Washington Post, "These were not rogue employees secretly doing these things…Every day, I would see downed cattle too sick or injured to stand or walk arriving at the slaughterhouse. Workers would do anything to get the cows to stand on their feet."

Although the methods exposed by the video are all forbidden by both California law and the USDA, the USDA actually lacks the authority to recall meat; all it can do is ask nicely. Westland has voluntarily agreed to pull all its raw and frozen beef products going back to February 1st, 2006, but most of that potentially downer cow-tainted meat has presumably already been downed.

USDA inspectors were at the Westland plant twice a day and saw nothing amiss, which is to say that these abuses simply constitute business as usual in America’s abattoirs. But is this kind of institutionalized cruelty acceptable in our culture? Our pal Bonnie Powell over at the Ethicurean doesn’t think so:

As the massive outcry in response to the Humane Society’s expose of a California beef-processing plant shows, Americans are extremely sensitive to the mistreatment of animals — even those we intend to eat. It would be nice if we showed we cared even half as much about the human-rights abuses that are epidemic in our cheap-food system.

At least the animals have got the Humane Society working on their behalf to shame the USDA into action; if only the workers who are getting chewed up and spit out by the factory farms had an equally effective, well-funded watchdog looking out for them.

Powell cites a disturbing six-part expose that ran last week in the Charlotte Observer about a North Carolina poultry processor whose workers are subjected to awful conditions and routinely denied medical care. Many of the workers are here illegally and therefore afraid to speak up, making them easy to exploit. Serious injuries go unreported to OSHA, which is supposed to ensure worker safety but, according to the Observer, “is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer."

The Observer’s series followed a strange and scary story in the New York Times about a mystery malady afflicting a dozen workers at a Minnesota pork processing plant. The workers, who suffered a serious neurological disorder, all had one thing in common; part of their job entailed harvesting pig brains, which get shipped to China and Korea, by blasting compressed air into the pigs’ skulls, which, according to the Times, turned “the brain into a slurry that squirted out through the same hole in the skull, often spraying brain tissue around and splattering the hose operator in the process.”

Powell sums it up best:

The meat industry in this country is broken from start to finish. We take ruminants and feed them grain their stomachs weren’t designed to eat, treating them like garbage disposals for our industrial leftovers; implant steroids so they’ll grow faster; feed them antibiotics so they can survive the poor diets and crowded feedlot conditions; then ship them to slaughterhouses where they are killed and processed at speeds that practically beg for bacterial contamination and worker injuries.

Industrial livestock production relies on the systemic abuse of cows, pigs, chickens, and the workers who process them in order to bring us cheap meat. When did Americans develop such a taste for torture, anyway? I’m tired of having to read and write about this stuff; aren’t you sick of eating it?

Fixing the System with Michael Clayton

michael%20clayton.jpg
Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Kia Franklin, Drum Major Institute for Public Policy

We continue our weekly look at the Best Picture nominees with the case for Michael Clayton, as presented by Kia Franklin, Civil Justice Fellow with DMI and contributor to their TortDeform blog.

"Make believe it's not madness."

That's what's scribbled on the wall of the hotel out of which Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a lead partner in a mega class action lawsuit, escapes. The day prior, he had been arrested for losing it at a videotaped deposition, performing a painful strip tease/rant for opposing counsel, and then running naked into a parking lot. It quickly becomes clear that the partner, Arthur, has begun making the case against their client, U North, a chemical company accused of knowingly releasing cancer-causing products into the market.

Michael Clayton has come to clean things up.

Michael Clayton is a fixer for Kenner Bach and Ledeen, a reputable international law firm in New York City. He's the guy who bills his time under "Special Projects," if he bills it at all. The guy who everyone knows is valuable, but no one knows why. What kinds of special projects does Clayton take on? Quelling a big client's budding scandal before it goes public, using his connections and creativity to help straighten out the crooked, and making sure as few people are involved in the process as possible. As valuable as he is for what he does, at one point he makes it clear that he's "not a miracle worker, [he's] a janitor."

In a conversation in the jailhouse where Arthur is being held, Arthur faces the fact that he's been spending a significant portion of his working life defending a company that has knowingly harmed hundreds of families and killed at least 468 people.

"They kill them, Michael," he says.

"You're a legend," Michael returns.

"I'm an accomplice!" he corrects Clayton. "I'm Shiva the God of Death!"

The film explores the flip side of the image of the greedy trial lawyer swindling extra bucks from plaintiff-clients. It looks at the ethical and professional boundaries for defense-side trial lawyers whose clients are not people but corporations. What happens when they have evidence that their client knowingly harmed others? Is there a point at which it is only sensible that this information would drive a top litigator at a top international firm to go loony and strip down to his skivvies on camera?

The film has the suspense, the outstanding dialogue, the cinematography, the stuff that makes a classic. And it makes you think. It makes you think about the role of corporations in our daily lives as well as in the operation of a legal system that we are told is a legitimate place to bring injuries and injustices in search of redress.

As an individual who believes in the civil justice system, who believes that our civil courts are a forum for the little guy to take on Goliath corporations that are harming the public, I appreciate that this film challenges us to think about the limits of this system. The film exposes what we already know but rarely reflect upon about the humanity, and therefore, fallacy, of the people working within the legal system. And it gives us a clear take-home: if the American justice system is to fulfill its purported function of enforcing corporate responsibility and protecting human dignity, then the people operating in the system—lawyers, CEOS, and "fixers"—must grapple with some serious ethical questions. And the people accessing the system—plaintiffs harmed by another person or a corporation's negligence or wrongdoing—must be persistent with their claims if justice is to be served.

This point about grappling with the tough questions is driven home in a telling moment early in the film, when Arthur is on the phone with Michael Clayton's son, discussing a fantasy book. As the adult/child roles switch in this scene, Arthur's desperate need for something to believe in and hope for becomes painfully clear. Asking the child about a fictional fantasy world in which all of the characters have the same dream, but no one talks about it, Arthur asks: "Do they know they're all having the same dream?"
No, is the answer. But, reassured that the characters in the book are "not crazy," that "something larger than themselves is happening, but they aren't ready to admit it," Arthur scribbles down the book's information and thanks the boy, as though he's now got the key to his sanity.

Dream turns to nightmare as the film depicts an unscrupulous chief counsel for the corporation who makes clean, calculated decisions about Arthur's, and U North's fate. In Karen Crowder's (Tilda Swinton) analysis, there is no cost too great for U North's benefit. She calmly breaks into Arthur's trial briefcase where she discovers that U North is in fact, in the wrong, and that its CEO has signed off on documents confirming this. She quickly calls professional "fixers" on U North's side to clean up the mess.

The film also touches on some themes that resonate with current political/legal affairs—it shows us some illegal wiretapping, gives us an eye into the business behind class action settlements, and depicts corporate cronyism at its worst. But in the end, the film's main emphasis seems to be on the human condition. And it reveals that our legal system is just a tool either for making access to justice a reality for other innocent human beings, or for preserving power and privilege for those who hold and abuse it. By following Michael Clayton's journey through the U North scandal and his own personal financial crisis, it chronicles one human being's struggle with loss, temptation, love, responsibility, and with the institutions in our lives that both order and complicate those things for us. I think it also asks us to reflect upon what we think the proper role should be for corporate power in our lives, and to reflect upon how our individual decisions can affect that reality.

In the end, we see Clayton sitting in a cab, driving no where but away from everything. He has performed a feat by taking on a giant corporation. He has probably helped bring justice to hundreds of families. And he has redeemed the memory of his friend. But, interestingly, he could only achieve this by circumventing the law, going against the grain professionally, and facing his near demise as a result. He does it, though. After all, he's a fixer.

The Personal(s) Is Political

Loving Liberally In All The Left Places
by Katie Halper

What's a liberal girl gotta do to get a date around here? I mean it's Valentine's day and I don't have anyone with whom I can share my bleeding heart, exchange fair trade chocolates, recite the poems of Pablo Neruda, celebrate Valentine's Day, and, of course, more importantly, V-Day and Freedom To Marry day. Sadly, you really can't judge a book-- or zine or manifesto-- by its cover. Someone who makes all the right moves politically can make all the wrong moves romantically, as I've learned from many a bad date. Having no luck in my search for Mister Right, or Mr. Left, I decided to search on-line for liberal-friendly dating sites, in the hopes that by taking action, I could get some action. Well, here's what I found:

1. Act For Love stole my aforementioned pun and uses "Take Action. Get Action" as their motto. The site is basically a hipster wolf in an activist sheep's clothing. All it is is a filtered version of the people who are already members of the on-line dating consortium shared by nerve.com, The Onion, Time Out NY, and Village Voice. So if it's snarky love you're looking for, you may be in luck (and get lucky.)

2. Care2.com Singles bills itself as a place to "find others who Care2 make a difference for good causes!" The site is part of Care2.com, the environmentally oriented search engine, forum and directory, with a shopping service that donates a portion of its sales to environmental and progressive causes. This site is not for the rabid horn-dog, because it bombards you with petitions before letting you get to their personals page. But I guess that's a good way to filter out the committed activists from the commitment-phobic wam bam thank you mam'ers. I don't know about the romance potential, but the site is great so I joined anyway. Their motto should be Care2.com Singles: come for the free online dating, stay for the free e-mail account, blog, photo sharing, and action alerts.

3. There are tons of vegan and veggie dating sites for people looking to give or get a hot tofurky injection. Veg Connect describes itself as "Free Vegan and Vegetarian Personals - Make Rad Friends and Meet Awesome Singles." The site features Peta's Don't Be A Milk Sucker campaign a cautionary tail which demonstrates how milk harms people, through Garbage Pail Kids-resembling milk victims like Chubby Charlie, Lactose Intolerant Latoya, Ear Infection Enrique, Windy Wanda, and Pimply Patty. I also caught the surprisingly funny pro- animal, anti-veal, mafia spoof movie Veal: Fughedaboutit. So if you're a meat eater, or a milk sucker, you may want to "fughedabout" this site.

I would have liked to have ended this post with an encouraging 'So what are you waiting for? Liberal love is only a username, password, and "why you should get to know me" description away.' But I guess my mother was right: a good liberal online dating site is hard to find.

For now, Let's just hope I'm not forced to "pull a Leberman" (switch teams) and sign up on Republican Passions (even if it is an oxymoron), DatingRepublicans.com or Hannidate (brought to you by the lovable Sean Hannity)

A Bleeding-Heart...and a Broken-Heart?

We elected a new House & Senate
believing they could end the disaster in Iraq
...yet now the war hardly makes the headlines.

We cheered candidates who stood strong
on poverty, Habeas Corpus & universal healthcare
...but now seem to accept compromise & moderation.

Obama's soaring trans-partisan rhetoric won our hearts
...while that same "bi-partisan spirit" in the Senate
passed immunity for companies that spied on Americans.

Candidates, Senators, Representatives, I beg you!
On this Valentine's Day, live up to liberal ideals!

I'm already a bleeding-heart.
Don't leave me a broken-heart.

Share Valentine's dreams & political themes
while sharing a pitcher & night with new friends
at your local progressive social club.

DRINKING LIBERALLY:
Valentine's Day for the Bleeding Hearts
Find - or start - a chapter near you

A Bleeding-Heart...and a Broken-Heart?

We elected a new House & Senate
believing they could end the disaster in Iraq
...yet now the war hardly makes the headlines.

We cheered candidates who stood strong
on poverty, Habeas Corpus & universal healthcare
...but now seem to accept compromise & moderation.

Obama's soaring trans-partisan rhetoric won our hearts
...while that same "bi-partisan spirit" in the Senate
passed immunity for companies that spied on Americans.

Candidates, Senators, Representatives, I beg you!
On this Valentine's Day, live up to liberal ideals!

I'm already a bleeding-heart.
Don't leave me a broken-heart.

Share Valentine's dreams & political themes
while sharing a pitcher & night with new friends
at your local progressive social club.

DRINKING LIBERALLY:
Valentine's Day for the Bleeding Hearts
Find - or start - a chapter near you

Cinema and Pop Music Therapy for a Valentine's Day Spent Alone

Films For Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, Plus a Few B-Sides:
Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

Are you holding the razor at your throat this very instant? Take heart, comfort is at hand. This is the hour that stretches. Djan karet. We are the cavalry. We're here. Put away the pills. We'll get you through this bloody night. Next time, it'll be your turn to help us.
- Harlan Ellison, "Eidolons"

tomine2.gif

He's not returning the calls anymore. Your mutual friend breaks the news on her behalf. Those six months, or six years, whether spent side by side or gathering the pebble of courage required to ask for a date, are squandered. And besides, no one wants to date you right now, not after that little scene you made at the multiplex last week.

And, normally, this would all be okay - really, it would. But that most detestable of days is approaching, a date whose name stings as it leaves your tongue like arsenic laced in the tea of disgruntled lovers. (Note: love lost has the additional effect of encouraging melodramatic phrasing.)

Valentine's Day.

If your love has been dashed or never was, there are constant reminders at every corner of what you're missing, and if your love is with someone of the same gender, you are granted a nice extra day-long reminder that you can't marry your sweetheart, that in so many American towns you must be careful where you hold the date, and so on.

The only consolation is the sight upon entering the video store of shelves upon shelves of subpar romantic comedies already rented out - temptation averted. But if you are going to spend St. Valentine's night alone with only a few films to keep you company, there is a treacherous path ahead of you. Some films are perfect for the blinding hot anger of the just-dumped, but will eat you alive if you watch them when you feel your most vulnerable; others will work wonders for indulging those holding on to a single crumb of hope, but feel like a cruel prank those trying to push the past behind them.

So, let's take Kubler-Ross seriously for once; I've suggested at least one film for each of the five stages of grief, with a few quotable songs thrown in for good measure.

One exception - I haven't bothered to cater to denial. It's usually too late for denial when you're surrounded by red hearts and gaudy store displays. No. It's time for the hard stuff.

Anger.

The_Shape_of_Things_Poster.jpg

"God damn it; I'm not talking about my heart like it's something you could break. I'm not sick."
- Rainer Maria, "Tinfoil"

"I fell in love with your sailor's mouth and your wounded eyes. Don't you know this is war? And tell me, who are you this time?"
- Tom Waits, "Who Are You"

Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things could quite possibly be the worst first-date movie ever made - which naturally makes it quite possibly the best film ever made for a Valentine's Day spent alone. It is rare to find a film which simultaneously feels deeply misandric and deeply misogynistic, but The Shape of Things somehow pulls it off - and if you doubt for a moment that LaBute is talking on the broadest scale possible about gender roles in relationships, he's done you the favor of naming his two doomed main characters Adam and Evelyn (Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz, reviving their roles from the stage version.)

It is nearly impossible to talk about the plot without ruining it, so I'll just say this - The Shape of Things makes you very, very glad not to be in a relationship. If you're scraping for catharsis by bah-humbuging those couples you see arm-in-arm, going on a tear about how they don't realize they're all fools, how all women are heartless, how all men are scoundrels, you probably don't truly believe what you are saying - but The Shape Of Things will make you believe it, if for only a little while. Everything about the film is acidic, its brilliant writing leaving you convinced that you just swallowed a battery. (Also, the entire soundtrack consists of songs by Elvis Costello - need you know any more?)

Bargaining.

Next_Stop_Wonderland.jpg

"Daydream all day about discovery, lock yourself away, and hope someone breaks down the door."
- Pollen, "Caramel"

"Let's not talk about it, or breathe a word about it, because you don't want to hear what you can't see."
- The Mendoza Line, "Let's Not Talk About It"

"If I just say I'm sorry for that last conversation, he'll take me back." "Someone will call any instant - I just know it." And on and on. You're merely bargaining with St. Valentine now - constructing elaborate and unlikely fantasies of rescue predicated upon the hope that your true heart will be seen after all. With any luck this stage will be mercilessly brief, but so long as you're in a bargaining type of mood, Next Stop Wonderland is the bittersweet film of choice for those indulging rescue fantasies.

The conceit of Next Stop Wonderland is custom-made for these flights of fantasy: Erin (Hope Davis) and Alan (Alan Gelfant) are twenty-something blue-collar workers living on opposite sides of Boston, going about their daily lives, navigating their careers, searching without much luck for someone to love...all the while entirely unaware of the other's existence. Which is a shame, because they are literally perfect for each other, and keep on missing each other. The film is a knowing play on the notion that there is one person for us out there, perfectly complimenting ourselves - it's almost a suspense film, where instead of waiting for the killer to brandish the knife, we're waiting for these two people to finally meet each other after coming oh-so-painfully close. Will they? Or won't they?

Depression.

"I brush my teeth until they break. Until I start bleeding. So when I smile I'll know, I'm almost good enough for you."
- Jawbreaker, "Sea Foam Green"

"So red turns into green, turning into yellow, but I'm just frozen here in the same old spot. And all I have to do is press the pedal. But I'm not."
- Aimee Mann, "It's Not"

There are two routes here - finding an equally miserable film for empathy's sake, or tormenting yourself with the happy coupledom that's just out of your reach. The latter is simple - rent Say Anything, put "I Know It's Over" by The Smiths on repeat, have a fun time tormenting yourself tonight and be done with it. But the former - well, the former is a bit more complicated. The flavors of lovelorn heartache are so particular that no single film will be universally acceptable.

Are you mourning a love that should've been but was not to be? It's become a cliche, but Lost In Translation is hard to beat for melancholic, borderline-lugburious wandering (spoiled whisper or no), as is Brokeback Mountain, although Blue will more or less guilt you out of your funk. Wallowing in a harsh break-up? Try watching Living Out Loud. Not gone on a date in months? Sulk in Billy Wilder's best film, The Apartment. Asking the heavens why no one will love your hideous form? Try not cringing in empathy as you watch Heavy.

Acceptance.

Thirteen_conversations_about_one_thing.jpg

"I meant every word that I said, it's true. I wasn't talking to you...Somebody is waiting for me."
- Juliana Hatfield, "Somebody Is Waiting For Me"

"Only a phase, these dark cafe days."
- Joni Mitchell, "The Last Time I Saw Richard"

Here is a cliche we are all familiar with: when the heartbroken man begins the story of how he met the woman who crushed his dreams, it begins with him wondering out loud, "The funny thing is, we met by accident." We also hear the same phrase when the frantically happy couple relates their origins. Everyone seems to think it's amazing how they met their partner by accident.

Which is funny because, if you think about it, everyone meets everyone else by accident. The most preordained of blind dates is predicated upon a superstructure of chance and circumstance, of friends who knew friends and websites created on a whim and prior hang-ups, that it is dizzying to think about. It's so easy to assume, on an emotional level, that the accident that led to your heartache is part of some grand cosmic conspiracy to ruin you. Part of getting over the worst of heartbreaks is accepting that we live in a universe of chance - that a non-deterministic universe isn't out to get us. (Whether a person is out to get you, I leave to your judgment.)

Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is one of my favorite films about accepting life for what it is, with its happy accidents and insurmountable flaws. And yet, unlike so many slice-of-life films, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing has a driving narrative that hooks us, characters that make us care. A look at four characters in New York over the course of a week, all realizing just how little a role skill plays in their lives and how much is up to chance, it could be a paean to the need for a welfare state. But, instead, the film sidesteps politics and focuses on the philosophical implications of a neutral universe - including what it means for how we look at love.

There is only so much one can say about a film of vignettes without spoiling the whole thing, but I want to relay this single moment of the film. Gene (Alan Arkin), an unhappily divorced insurance claims agent, shares the story of the last pre-divorce conversation he had with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He could have smiled as he said goodbye. He didn't, still annoyed over some minor trifle. And for the rest of his life, a small part of him wonders if this sourness on his part was the last straw on the camel's back, if he had tipped the scale ever so slightly the other way, maybe he could have held back the consequences long enough to rebuild their relationship.

An almost obsessively minor thing. But it's so often the minor transgressions that stick at the forefront of our minds when dissecting the aftermath of a relationship, and learning to grow from them as a human being - even if a small part of us always wonders. It is, surprisingly enough, a moment of comfort.

And, if all else fails, there's always, always the final minute of Annie Hall.

The McCain Tapes

veal-1.jpg
Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

How much do I hate Valentine’s Day? Let me count the ways. Oppression is the hallmark of this Hallmark Card holiday: the cheap chocolates made from cocoa beans harvested by child slave labor on the Ivory Coast; the fungicide-filled flowers picked by exploited Ecuadoreans; the sleazy lingerie stitched together in a Jordan sweatshop. Only in the lexicon of the Great American Lemming could these global grotesqueries say “I Love You.”

Pity the poor man or woman who feels obligated to buy all these dubious consumer goods to demonstrate the depth of his or her affection. And let’s not forget all the folks who are forgotten on this high holy day for heterosexual couples, i.e., everybody else. Valentine’s Day sets off annual spasms of loneliness for the unattached and the bereaved, and reminds gay people how far they still have to go to achieve social acceptance in our culture.

If only we could strip away the tacky and toxic trappings, there’s a not-so-awful holiday waiting to be revived. Why couldn’t Valentine’s Day be a more universal celebration of love? I’m not the only one who feels this way. In Deborah Solomon’s Q & A with former Daily Show/Colbert Report producer Ben Karlin in Sunday’s NY Times, Karlin expressed a similar desire:

Do you observe Valentine’s Day? It’s not part of my faith, if that is what you are driving at. I loved the idea of Valentine’s Day when you were a kid and you made a card for everyone in your class and everyone in your class had to make a card for you. So you walk away that day with, like, 35 Valentine’s Day wishes.

Are you saying you wish Valentine’s Day could be more inclusive now? Yeah.

Me, too. Fair trade chocolates and pesticide-free flowers for everyone! No made-in-China teddies, though, whether polyester or plush. Some species deserve to be endangered.

My Phony Valentine

veal-1.jpg
Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

How much do I hate Valentine’s Day? Let me count the ways. Oppression is the hallmark of this Hallmark Card holiday: the cheap chocolates made from cocoa beans harvested by child slave labor on the Ivory Coast; the fungicide-filled flowers picked by exploited Ecuadoreans; the sleazy lingerie stitched together in a Jordan sweatshop. Only in the lexicon of the Great American Lemming could these global grotesqueries say “I Love You.”

Pity the poor man or woman who feels obligated to buy all these dubious consumer goods to demonstrate the depth of his or her affection. And let’s not forget all the folks who are forgotten on this high holy day for heterosexual couples, i.e., everybody else. Valentine’s Day sets off annual spasms of loneliness for the unattached and the bereaved, and reminds gay people how far they still have to go to achieve social acceptance in our culture.

If only we could strip away the tacky and toxic trappings, there’s a not-so-awful holiday waiting to be revived. Why couldn’t Valentine’s Day be a more universal celebration of love? I’m not the only one who feels this way. In Deborah Solomon’s Q & A with former Daily Show/Colbert Report producer Ben Karlin in Sunday’s NY Times, Karlin expressed a similar desire:

Do you observe Valentine’s Day? It’s not part of my faith, if that is what you are driving at. I loved the idea of Valentine’s Day when you were a kid and you made a card for everyone in your class and everyone in your class had to make a card for you. So you walk away that day with, like, 35 Valentine’s Day wishes.

Are you saying you wish Valentine’s Day could be more inclusive now? Yeah.

Me, too. Fair trade chocolates and pesticide-free flowers for everyone! No made-in-China teddies, though, whether polyester or plush. Some species deserve to be endangered.

Mitt Romney Quits Race to Spend More Time With His Wives



And you think ONE wife is time-consuming. Just kidding. This is not an anti-Mormon post. Some of my best friends are Mormon. But if Mitt can dish it out, he should be able to take it. By it, I mean, of course, intolerance. In other words, I don't care what religion he is. But I do care that Mitt has said he wouldn't have Muslims in his cabinet. The Mormon's were, indeed persecuted. But if Mitt's sensitivity and acceptance in restricted to Mormonism, it's hard for me to feel sorry for him. Mitt's religious-tolerance preaching and JFK comparing is opportunistic, in light of his less than tolerant stance on Muslims and atheists. It's as hypocritical as, let's say, preaching immigration tolerance, while at the same time advancing immigrant-intolerant speech and policies. If that sounds familiar, it is. During the Republican debates-- sorry, during the Florida, Youtube, debates, Mitt slammed Giuliani for being the mayor of a sanctuary city, and bragged about his own 0 tolerance for "aliens" stance

If you're here illegally, you should not be here. We're not going to give you benefits, other than those required by the law, like healthcare and education, and that's the course we're going to have to pursue.

When Rudy shot back that New York's "sanctuary city" didn't hold a candle to Mitt's "sanctuary mansion," which was maintained by Mexican gardeners and lawnmowers, the Governor reverted to his Bostonian alter ego, delivering a multi-culti, celebrate-diversity, envision-world-peace diatribe vindicating his tired, his poor, his huddled landscapers.

Are you suggesting, Mr. Mayor--because I think it's really kind of offensive, actually, to suggest--to say, look, you know what, if you're a homeowner and you hire a company to come provide a service at your home--paint the home, put on the roof--if you hear someone that's working out there... if you hear someone with a funny accent, you, as a homeowner, are supposed to go out there and say, "I want to see your papers." Is that what you're suggesting? That you now are responsible for going out and checking the employees of that company, particularly those that might look different or don't have an accent like yours, and ask for their papers? I don't think that's American, number one. Number two--

But then, much to the releif of all God/ immigration-fearing people, Mitt, without skipping a beat (well, OK a few beats, during which Anderson Cooper reminded The Governor, in vain, "We got to move on"), Mitt continued his enumeration of good deeds against bad aliens.

Let me tell you what I did as governor. I said no to driver's licenses for illegals. I said, number two, we're going to make sure that those that come here don't get a tuition break in our schools, which I disagree with other folks on that one. Number three, I applied to have our state police enforce the immigration laws in May, seven months before I was out of office. It took the federal government a long time to get the approvals, and we enforced the law. And Massachusetts is not a sanctuary state, and the policies of the mayor of pursuing a sanctuary nation or pursuing a sanctuary city--

So I apologize for making fun of Mormonism, which no longer permits polygamy. And their whole racist things is so 1970s; in 1978, after a vision from God (and pressure from the IRS), the Church of Latter Day Saints lifted their ban against Black priests. I am going to miss watching Mitt preach religous tolerance (for Mormons only) and practice intolerance towards atheists, Muslims, gay people, and immigrants. But, as a great man, prophet and failed presidential candidate once said, "I felt like I had to say something because I simply cannot let my[self] be a part of aiding a surrender to [hypocritical and sanctimonious] terror."

No Country For Old Men - a Reagan-Era Parable

Screening Liberally Big Picture by Ben Weyl

(This is part of the 5-week series reviewing the nominess for Best Picture)

A sheer callousness toward human life pervades “No Country for Old Men,” an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture. That the film takes place in 1980 is perhaps no coincidence; the moral void of the Reagan Administration provides a perfect backdrop for this kind of inhumanity and begs an analysis of the film through the filter of the Reagan years.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the film’s sort-of-hero, is a fine example of the rugged individual. Off hunting in the Texas desert, he stumbles onto a drug deal gone horribly wrong (where was Nancy?!). Half a dozen men and their dogs lie dead on the ground or in cars. But Moss is looking for the loot. He finds one man nearly dead, pleading for water, but ignores him, finds the money ($2 million) and makes his getaway.

Elsewhere, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is killing. That’s what he does in this movie. With an eerie calm, he aims his air-gun—normally used on cattle—and slaughters people like, well, cattle. Hotel clerks, businessmen, chicken farmers, bounty hunters, they all get the same treatment. He is after the money and will kill whoever gets in his way. At the risk of mixing my 1980s movie metaphors, it’s clear that for these characters, greed is good.

But the money is not Chigurh’s only motivating factor; he clearly enjoys toying with his prey. In a memorable scene at a gas station, Chigurh asks the lonely and unsuspecting owner what the most was that he had ever lost in a coin toss. Chigurh denigrates the man’s very worth as a human being to his face, and we await the demise of another innocent victim. But the coin toss comes up in the owner’s favor and Chigurh spares his life. Life under the Reagan Administration was similarly chancy for the most vulnerable Americans. In 1981, Reagan cut in half the budget dedicated to public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income people, sending hundreds of thousands into homelessness. During the Reagan years, the number of people living in poverty grew by 25 percent in comparison to the previous administration.

Early on, (spoiler alert) the filmmakers (Joel and Ethan Coen) hint that in the end, Moss won’t make it out alive. At home with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), and the bag of money, he can’t seem to forget that dying, thirsty man. His conscience gnaws at him. He tells his wife that he’s “fixin’ to do something dumber than hell,” takes a gun and a jug of water and goes back. Dumber than hell is right. Doesn’t he know about survival of the fittest, about how things work in the ‘80s?

Moss and Carla Jean are good representatives to tell this story because politically, they’re likely Reagan Democrats: working-class people who struggle to make ends meet but buy into the optimism and the cultural trappings that Reagan offered. They’re also the people who suffered most, bearing the brunt of declining wages and high levels of unemployment. Reagonomics was not kind to people like Moss and Carla Jean. Chigurh is worse.

When Moss returns to the massacred scene with the water, he finds the man has been shot in the head. Moss is soon spotted by two men who begin chase, and Moss barely escapes. The two men tell Chigurh and now Chigurh begins the hunt for Moss after, of course, killing his informants.

This hunt drives the film’s bloody story. Throughout the course of events, the aging sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) remains a few steps behind. In this allegory, Bell unfortunately represents the liberal. Appalled by the increasing violence, Bell is unable to stop the carnage; he forlornly watches his worst fears unfold. So too liberals watched with horror as Reagan swung the country hard to the right while wreaking havoc on the lives of low- and middle-income Americans.

In the end, Bell retires, packs it in.

The lesson for liberals in 2008, however, is not to call it quits. Instead, it’s to fight back even harder for our values and to make our voices heard. As the Jewish scholar Hillel once remarked, “In a place where there are no humans, one must strive to be human.”

Ben Weyl lives in Washington, D.C. and blogs far too infrequently at http://benweyl.blogspot.com