Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Blowback

Drug war: Time for an exit strategy [Blowback]

Drug war
Daniel Robelo, a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance, responds to The Times' Jan. 11 article, "Mexico government sought to withhold drug war death statistics."
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The Mexican government's reluctant release of updated homicide statistics reveals the grim costs of the failed drug war -- and the growing need for an exit strategy.

As The Times notes, at least 50,000 people have been killed because of the drug war in the last five years -- nearly as many casualties as the U.S. suffered in Vietnam. Many of these victims had no connection to the drug trade.  

Though the Mexican government announced a slightly lower figure (47,515 people as of September), experts and advocates suggest the actual death toll may already be much higher, as only 2% of crimes in Mexico even get investigated. Further, the government has shown a total lack of transparency, exemplified by its drawn-out refusal to make these damning data public.

Regardless of the exact figure, the death toll is incomprehensible and unacceptable. And to this toll must be added the thousands of people disappeared, the hundreds of thousands displaced and the hundreds of thousands of children left orphaned during this same five-year period.

This crisis will only continue unless the U.S. works with Mexico to address the root cause: drug prohibition.

These murders are not drug-related, they are prohibition-related -- committed by cartels that were spawned by drug prohibition, that derive their power from the inflated profits of prohibited but highly demanded commodities, and that operate in an underground economy in which violence is routinely employed to resolve disputes or remove business opponents. It's similar to what occurred in the U.S. during alcohol prohibition, but on a far more horrific scale.

Meanwhile, Mexico's U.S.-backed military response, rather than reducing violence, has resulted in systematic and documented violations of human rights, including rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. Abuses have been so grave and widespread that human rights attorneys have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate President Felipe Calderon for crimes against humanity.

What are Mexicans getting in return for this unthinkable price? Not much. Cartels show no signs of weakening, while drugs remain as widely consumed and available in the U.S. as ever before.

The numbers, of course, cannot tell the true story of what this violence means for Mexico. Each person killed was, after all, a son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. The Times' article highlights one such person, Juan Francisco Sicilia, a 24-year-old student killed last March, whose father, Javier, has become a leader of the national popular movement against the war on drugs.  United with family members of other victims, along with everyday citizens fed up with being afraid, the elder Sicilia's movement seeks to humanize each victim. Drawing inspiration from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, this growing movement has been commemorating each victim by nailing a plaque with his or her name to the walls of public buildings across Mexico. 

Sicilia has also proposed the regulation of drugs as a way to reduce the devastation that prohibition has inflicted on Mexico.

Regional leaders agree that many of these deaths could have been prevented -- not by hitting the cartels harder but by being smarter about U.S. and global drug policy. In late December, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Chile and all of Central America issued a joint declaration urging the U.S. to rein in its demand for drugs or, if it cannot do so, "explore the possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end."

The American public is ready for such a change. According to a Gallup poll in October, 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana like alcohol -- a modest step that could deprive cartels of their leading source of revenue, diminishing their ability to buy weapons, hire recruits, corrupt officials and terrorize the Mexican people.

These U.S. citizens, no longer the minority, wait impatiently for their government to join the rest of the hemisphere in rethinking the failed drug war.  Our southern neighbors cannot afford to wait any longer. 


U.S. blacklisting seems to have little consequence in Mexico

Former drug kingpin pleads guilty to racketeering, conspiracy

Mexico government sought to withhold drug war death statistics

--Daniel Robelo

Photo: A Mexican soldier stands near the bodies of two men found slain in Acapulco in February. Credit: Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images

Prop. 13: Sacrosanct because voters want it that way [Blowback]

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., responds to Jim Newton's Jan. 9 column, "Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?" If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Jim Newton gives high marks to a lawsuit filed by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young challenging Proposition 13 on the theory that the initiative placing it on the ballot in 1978 was a constitutional revision, not simply an amendment. A revision requires approval of the Legislature before going to voters; an amendment such as Proposition 13 doesn't. 

Newton gives the lawsuit too much credit -- and Proposition 13 too little.

Before Proposition 13, virtually all local governmental entities, including counties, city councils and school districts, could tax property in any amount with a simple majority vote of the body. Low-income families and fixed-income seniors were being taxed out of their homes -- literally. It was impossible for anyone to prepare a family budget because no one knew what next year's taxes might be.

Proposition 13 made several changes. First, it capped the property tax rate at 1% of the property's assessed value. Next, it limited the escalation of assessed value to 2% per year.  So if a person buys a house for $200,000 in 2011, he can prepare a family budget for 2012 knowing that his property's assessed value will rise to no more than $202,000 and his property tax will be 1% of that, or $2,020.

If all Proposition 13 did was cap property taxes, however, it would have been a hollow victory for overtaxed Californians because government bodies would have easily increased other taxes in their place. That's why Proposition 13 also required greater consensus for the state and local governments to raise other taxes.

Young's lawsuit, filed 33 years after voters passed Proposition 13, attacks only the requirement that new state taxes receive two-thirds approval in the Legislature. He argues that this change was a revision of the Constitution, not an amendment. Voters can propose amendments by collecting signatures on an initiative. Revisions, however, must be proposed to the voters by the Legislature. In either case, it is the voters who approve or reject the proposal. The difference is in the procedural route the proposal takes to arrive on the ballot. Young wants the courts, based on a procedural technicality, to tear from the state Constitution a provision that has been in place for 33 years.

Newton laments that because Proposition 13 made it harder to increase taxes, governmental bodies responded by creating a "crazy quilt of fees that often make little sense but can be put in place by majority vote." He writes that "getting rid of all that would be no bad thing."

It is naive to think that making it easier for politicians to raise taxes will get rid of existing fees. Rather, if Young wins, it means Californians can look forward to a crazy quilt of new taxes on top of the many fees they already pay.

But Young has little chance of winning.

Because courts are extremely reluctant to undo the expressed will of voters on pre-election procedural grounds, Young's case has two strikes against it at the start. That the will of the electorate has not changed much in 33 years also works against him. When Newton points out that Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds vote to pass "any tax increase," he unwittingly cites Proposition 26, an initiative approved by voters in 2010 that extended the super-majority threshold to fees, levies and other burdens that Sacramento lawmakers use in place of income or sales tax increases. Proposition 26 proved that a new generation of voters still supports Proposition 13.

Most detrimental to Young's lawsuit, however, is the fact that his claim has already been heard and rejected by California's highest court.  Immediately following the passage of Proposition 13, it was challenged on multiple grounds in the 1978 case Amador Valley Joint Union High School District vs. State Board of Equalization. One of the claims was that the initiative proposed a revision, not an amendment, to the Constitution. The California Supreme Court called that claim the challengers' "primary argument."  The Supreme Court upheld Proposition 13 against that claim: "Article XIII A will result in various substantial changes in the operation of the former system of taxation.  Yet ... the article XIII A changes operate functionally within a relatively narrow range to accomplish a new system of taxation which may provide substantial relief to our citizens." 

Young may disagree with that decision, but the decision is on the books. Courts decide cases on the basis of precedent, and the precedent has already been set. That, thankfully, makes strike three.


Could Prop. 13 fall?

Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?

Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley

The reply: Jim Newton responds to reader comments on Prop. 13

-- Jon Coupal

Photo: Howard Jarvis signals victory as he casts his vote for Proposition 13 in Los Angeles on June 6, 1978. Credit: Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times

The U.S.: Still the protector of Mideast strongmen [Blowback]

Obama mideast
Mark Levine, a professor of history at UC Irvine, responds to The Times' Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, "The U.S.: MIA in the Mideast." Levine is also a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, "The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh."
If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Has the U.S. really gone MIA from the Mideast under President Obama? Apparently so, if your knowledge of the region comes from its surviving monarchs, autocrats and assorted military leaders.

These are the people to whom John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and the author of the Jan. 9 Op-Ed article, has been talking lately, and it seems they are not at all happy with Obama's "lack of resolve" in maintaining the decades-old "Pax Americana" that has been crucial to ensuring their hold on power.

Hannah would like us to consider the failures of Obama administration policy that have led to this perception, including "overblown promises" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "betraying" faithful clients such as deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and failing to attack Iran. But the far more pertinent question is why Hannah is attempting to sell a narrative of American retreat that is so at odds with the realities on the ground.

Specifically, Hannah accuses Obama of being a "willing accomplice in the dismantling of a regional order ... that has been the linchpin of Mideast security for decades." In fact, at almost every turn, the president has done everything in his power to preserve the existing system. Setting aside the assassination of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and the surge in Afghanistan, Obama has continued and in many cases increased U.S. aid (most of it military) to clients such as Morocco and Jordan, sold tens of billions of dollars in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, tightened the economic screws on Iran and refused to punish Israel (and in fact just increased aid) despite its continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Most important, Obama has consistently refused to offer more than the weakest support for the pro-democracy forces in the region during the past year of revolutionary upheavals. Contrary to Hannah's claim, Obama never "betrayed" Mubarak. Rather, the sclerotic Mubarak so badly miscalculated the level of public anger at the regime's increasingly oppressive and corrupt behavior that the military leadership was forced to push him from power to protect its dominant position in the country.

Obama has stood behind the Egyptian military since Mubarak's departure despite the junta's deadly attacks on the most fundamental human and political rights of Egyptians. Similarly, the president continues to throw America's weight behind preserving the status quo in Bahrain while refusing to push for a real political transition in Yemen.

More broadly, Obama has deepened American support for the region's corrupt and repressive monarchies. Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries on Earth, is in no danger of being abandoned by Obama, who authorized at least $60 billion worth of arms sales to the kingdom in the last two years. These will, of course, be matched by tens of billions of dollars in extra military aid to Israel and Egypt to preserve the "balance of power" in the region, not to mention the immense profits for U.S. arms makers.

The only country where the United States has been willing forcefully to support anti-government protests is Libya, which was ruled by a longtime nemesis of the United States whose replacement by NATO-backed forces clearly strengthened U.S. interests.

In fact, as the head of a foundation that ostensibly supports the "defense of democracies," Hannah is noticeably silent about the one area where the Obama administration has been woefully MIA -- in forcefully condemning the ongoing abuse of human rights by America's Mideast allies.

If Hannah had chosen to listen to civil society and pro-democracy activists rather than autocratic leaders, he would admit that Obama has remained as engaged as previous administrations in the region, with a similar disregard for how American support for repressive and corrupt governments harms the cause of peace, democracy and development.

But Hannah never once quotes or even mentions a pro-democracy activist or directly discusses the protests that have swept the region. It's as if the last year never happened in his political universe; or, if it has, its implications can only be mentioned obliquely, as a threat to an order whose true nature can't be admitted yet must be preserved.

I have spent the last year regularly meeting with grass-roots activists across the Arab world. In almost a dozen trips, the most consistent message I have heard from activists is not that the United States is in retreat but rather that it remains too supportive of the system many have died protesting. Wherever I've traveled, the goal has been the same, as symbolized by perhaps the most famous chant of the Arab Spring: "The people want the downfall of the system!" ("Ash-sha'ab, yurid, isqat an-nizzam!")

Needless to say, the Obama administration has not listened to such pleas. It has consistently told activists that the U.S. will not abandon longtime military and political allies or a system that has served American interests so well for the sake of human rights and real democracy. 

Sadly, this policy, and not the supposed "erosion" of U.S. power and credibility, as Hannah describes it, constitutes the real tragedy of Obama's  Mideast policy. If the president doesn't change course soon, it will also be among his most ignoble legacies.


Talking to the Taliban

The U.S.: MIA in the Mideast

Obama's modest proposal on defense

-- Mark LeVine

Photo: President Obama in 2010 with, from left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

Follow LeVine on Twitter at @culturejamming.

Cosmetic surgery: Protecting the right to choose -- safely [Blowback]


Jeffrey M. Kenkel, a medical doctor and the president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, responds to The Times' Jan. 4 Op-Ed article, "Is it time to ban cosmetic surgery?" If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Over the last several weeks, the media have published disturbing reports of a French manufacturer that sold faulty silicone breast implants containing industrial silicone. These are implants no U.S. board-certified plastic surgeon could or would ever use.  There is no question that women who received the so-called PIP implants should immediately contact a board-certified (or equivalent) plastic surgeon for immediate evaluation. A listing of plastic surgeons outside the United States who meet the necessary qualifications to be performing any aesthetic procedure can be found on the website of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (isaps.org). To find a U.S.-based board certified plastic surgeon, please visit the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery's website at surgery.org.

An immediate lesson to be taken from this unfortunate and poor medical practice is that all surgeries are serious choices and should be done by and in consultation with a board-certified plastic surgeon, not as part of a whim or medical vacation.  This was a point of agreement my colleagues and I found with Alexander Edmonds' Op-Ed article.

That, unfortunately, was the only point of agreement we had with the medical anthropologist. In his piece, Edmonds uses the fraudulent manufacturing process in France and the experiences of misguided medical tourists as reasons to wonder aloud whether millions of Americans should be denied their right to make choices about their bodies. As president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, I would like to clarify several issues that Edmonds discussed.

Edmonds writes, "It's well known that breast implants of many types can cause burning pain, loss of sensation, hardening of breast tissue and serious infection."  But there is no data in the medical literature to suggest that these complications are a quid pro quo for the millions of women who have elected to have breast implantation, using saline or silicone products.  

Breast implants manufactured in the United States have been proved safe not only by the Food and Drug Administration but through more than 30 studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals that confirm their safety. They are, in fact, the most studied device in the history of the FDA.
Edmonds' statement that "an argument could even be made that aesthetic surgery violates the Hippocratic Oath because it carries a potential for harm without curing or preventing disease" is a worrisome assault on patients' rights. What would be next? Will physicians be banned from performing procedures on cleft-lip children because it does not prevent or cure disease? Or, using the most literal reading of this statement, perhaps Edmonds would prefer to limit the rights of adult women to pharmacologic birth control?

Do patients "benefit" from cosmetic procedures? There are many studies that show the positive impact aesthetic surgery has on a patient's self-image and self-esteem. The practice of medicine involves much more than simply "curing or preventing disease," as Edmonds seems to suggest.   
I find some common ground in Edmonds' notion that medical advances may contribute to a normalization of cosmetic procedures. The scandal in France, and trends even in our country such as "Botox parties," are sobering reminders of the need to keep these procedures in the domain of medical practice. A surgeon manages risk, regardless of the procedure, by focusing on patient safety, whether the surgery is aesthetically based or medically necessary. We should respect a patient's right to choose, and protect that choice through guidance and vigorous participation in the medical process.


Is it time to ban cosmetic surgery?

FDA stands by silicone breast implants

France advises women with possibly defective breast implants

Breast implant scare in France: U.S. doesn't have the same ones

-- Jeffrey M. Kenkel

Photo: A nurse holds defective breast implants manufactured by the French company Poly Implant Prothese, or PIP. Credit: Lionel Cironneau / Associated Press

Obama's real Israel problem -- and it isn't Bibi [Blowback]

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, responds to The Times' Jan. 2 Op-Ed article, "Bibi and Barack." Bennis is the coauthor of "Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer" and the author of "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer."

If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Aaron David Miller is right: President Obama does have an Israel problem. But Miller is wrong about the roots of the problem. 

The problem isn't Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his Likud Party, or even Israel's current extreme right-wing government. Israel's fundamental policy toward the Palestinians is the problem, and that policy has hardly changed, despite the seemingly diverse sequence of left, right and center parties that have been in power.

Just look at the occupation of the territories seized in 1967 -- the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Settlement building, along with all the land and water theft that goes with it, began just weeks after the Six-Day War. And a right-wing government wasn't in power; it was Mapai, the left-wing precursor to today's Labor Party. The right wing wouldn't come to power until almost three decades after Israel's founding, when Menachem Begin led the Likud coalition to victory in 1977. 

Settlement construction and expansion started right after the war and continued under all the leftist (in the Israeli context) governments. By the time Likud came to power 10 years after the 1967 war, there were already more than 50,000 Israeli settlers living in Jews-only settlements in the occupied territories, most of them in occupied East Jerusalem, with smaller numbers in the West Bank and Gaza. Settlement expansion advanced under Labor, Likud and Kadima-led governments. Now there are more than 600,000 settlers living illegally in Palestinian territory, divided between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As Moshe Dayan, a former defense and foreign minister, explained, the settlements were necessary "not because they can ensure security better than the army but because without them we cannot keep the army in those territories. Without them the [Israel Defense Forces] would be a foreign army ruling a foreign population."

The different parties, prime ministers and officials sometimes used different language. Some repeated the words the international community wanted, a "land for peace" deal and "two states"; others insisted that only "peace for peace" or "Jordan is Palestine" was acceptable. Some spoke loudly in defense of settlements, while others only whispered.

But there was no diversity of substance. What happened in the real world, the "facts on the ground," continued regardless of which party was in power.  

Other things continued too -- settler violence against Palestinians, expropriation of Palestinian land and water, illegal closures, collective punishments including massive armed assault, arrest without charge, extra-judicial assassinations and the siege of Gaza. 

Of course, that's just in the occupied territories. Inside Israel, Arab Israelis -- those who survived the dispossession of 1947-48 -- live as second-class citizens. They have the right to vote, but they are subject to legalized discrimination in favor of the Jewish majority. The Israeli human rights organization Adalah reported to the United Nations more than 20 such discriminatory laws, the most important of which deny Palestinian citizens equal rights on issues of immigration and citizenship as well as land ownership. And outside, the Palestinian refugees, now numbering in the millions, have been denied their internationally guaranteed right of return by Israeli governments of every political stripe.

The whole range of Israeli political parties has continued to implement these same policies. They may talk a different talk, but they all walk the same walk.

What none of these governments is prepared to acknowledge is what it will take for a real solution, one that is lasting, comprehensive and just: human rights and equality for all based on international law. It shouldn't be more complicated than that. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies everyone has the right to return to their home country, no exceptions; that everyone has the right to live in safety, no exceptions; that everyone has the right to an equal say in the government that rules their country, no exceptions.

Every law should treat all citizens the same, no exceptions. Every government has the obligation to live up to the treaties it has signed, including the U.N. conventions on human rights, against racism, the Geneva Conventions and more. Israel has signed them all. Yet not one Israeli government, of any party, has implemented them. 

As long as the United States provides the Israeli government more than $3 billion in aid every year, regardless of those violations, and protects Israel from being held accountable in the U.N., regardless of those violations, no Israeli prime minister has much reason to change. That's Obama's Israel problem -- not Netanyahu. Changing U.S. policy should provide the solution.


Bibi and Barack

Middle East states of mind

Settlement outposts at root of Jewish violence in West Bank

-- Phyllis Bennis

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Protest songs: Record labels aren't listening [Blowback]

Singer-songwriter Sheila Nicholls responds to The Times' Dec. 25 article, "For politically aware songs, the '00s were all for naught." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Reading the article about political music in the '00s, I found myself biting my lip.

First, let's be clear: As a person who recently spent two months camping outside City Hall at Occupy L.A., I have always been somewhat of a "radical." When Disney's Hollywood Records approached me in 1999 and wanted to sign me to a recording contract, I refused, even though doing so would have helped changed my residency status after having been here for nine years illegally (I'm a Brit). After some moral deliberations about taking Disney blood money and the illegal alien thing becoming somewhat tiresome, I negotiated a deal in which I asked for final creative say across the board and the full ownership of my master copies, both of which I got.

My point is this: It was not that political songs were not being written between 2000-10; it was whether you could convince a conference room of Ivy League boys that there was any money to be made releasing them. I can only imagine what it was like for artists with no creative control.

Knowing that capitalism is still the only game in town, the dilemma for a non-capitalist often becomes: Do you engage and try to change it from within? Or do you fully disengage and move to the woods? As an avid Ani di Franco fan at the time, I heeded the former under her sound counsel of "smile pretty and watch your back."

The problem is, there are certain things that don't mix well with a system that focuses primarily on profit and acquisition; to name a few, education, healthcare and art. In the case of art, music or otherwise, when artists are forced to also contextualize themselves and what they do as product, it changes the nature of the artist and the art. Big record companies want formulaic, smiley fodder, and large corporations will never fund social change, as it is completely against their interests. So even though I am a good songwriter who appeared on all the late-night shows and so on, you will not have heard of me because I refused to write the three-and-a-half minute, 114-beats-per-minute tracks that record companies wanted.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Rage Against the Machine had already created its own huge fan base, so a profit for its record label was essentially guaranteed. Pink was already famous before she wrote "Dear Mr. President," a great but relatively safe song.

My relationship with Hollywood Records was a weird period of my life because I feel I did, at times, compromise myself. I am so glad to be done with the record labels' ridiculous prism of a reality. So in short what I'm saying is that Bob Dylan would never have been signed today -- or yesterday for that matter.

Rarely taking artistic risks in the '90s, let alone the '00s, the music industry is shrinking because it has marginalized itself. Prioritizing kickbacks and large salaries makes what they do interchangeable with any other corporate executive. Instead, we need fearless stewards who think deeper than profit margins, to hold a space for developing and encouraging true freedom of speech in an artistic form. Indeed, songwriting is a vital forum that fundamentally is of the people.

Good art is from the heart, and it is channeled from somewhere else. It forces the rest of us into new perspectives, which is one of its traditional purposes and functions in society, even if it is uncomfortable. In the past there was no middleman dictating its direction; popularity and relevancy were determined by the collective will. Music and cultural change are traditional bedfellows; we just forgot because we marketed our own delusion to ourselves -- a metaphor, really, for why the whole economic system is failing. 

If I had conformed, I would probably be just as intolerable as the next self-indulgent celebrity. Luckily I'm still on the ground, where I am of more use as I can fully relate to my peers and my conscience is clear, which keeps the integrity in my writing. This is priceless to me.

One profound takeaway from my experience during Occupy L.A. was that the gathering was one big piece of performance art. Beyond the meetings and new levels of social intimacy experienced, you should have heard some of the music created after dark -- profound, eloquent political and socially conscious songs. We all cried and laughed together.

Hooray for real cultural fabric and creative spirit. No one needs a record deal to legitimize these things anymore. Life is art. You can't package it. It always seeps out the sides. We are the 99%, and this is only the beginning.


For politcally aware songs, the '00s were all for naught

Occupy L.A.'s Sunday night cow

Occupy's freeloading freedom fighters

Occuppy L.A.

-- Sheila Nicholls

Photo: An Occupy L.A. participant plays the guitar in front of his tent at the camp surrounding City Hall on Nov. 22. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Vanity plates for a noble cause [Blowback]


Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, responds to Michael McGough's Dec. 13 Opinion L.A. post, "The solution to the problem of controversial license plates: Get rid of them." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Michael McGough expressed his concern over a new, controversial special license plate design in Texas and concludes that states should not have any special license plates at all. For California, adopting McGough's recommendation would be a serious mistake, especially concerning arts funding for our children and local communities.

The iconic special plate design that evokes California -- recognizable worldwide -- is the classic sunset and palm trees motif of the Arts License Plate. Designed by renowned California artist Wayne Thiebaud in 1993, the Arts License Plate has raised more than $20 million for arts programs since its inception. Currently, plate revenues account for more than 60% of the California Arts Council budget and support hundreds of arts organizations, including those in schools and after-school programs. The Arts Council is currently promoting its "Million Plates for the Arts" campaign to raise $40 million for arts education and local programs.

The arts plate deserves much credit for keeping statewide arts funding viable at all. When the California Arts Council budget was slashed by more than 90% after the dot-com bust, the revenue generated by the Arts License Plate saved the agency from extinction. The plate continues to be vital to the California Arts Council's existence today. The Californians who pay extra for the plate know that their contributions help pay for programs for children and local communities. Eliminating specialty plates would deprive thousands of Californians of the opportunity to support arts programs.

Also, the concern that a private organization might seek to push a controversial cause is a moot issue in California. Under current law, special plates are sponsored by state commissions, departments or agencies (like the California Arts Council) and not by private nonprofit entities. So McGough's proposal to eliminate all special plate programs is unnecessary in California and would do more harm than good.

As the old saying goes, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater; or in this case, don't take music, theater, dance and visual arts programs from thousands of children in California because of a minor controversy in Texas.


The solution to the problem of controversial license plates: Get rid of them

Texas approves controversial license plate featuring crosses

A hidden threat to drivers

-- Craig Watson

Image: www.ca.gov

Ringling Bros.: Why we're good for elephants [Blowback]

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus official says activist groups will never be satisfied with animals being presented to the public, no matter how well they are cared for by the circus
Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, responds to The Times' Dec. 2 editorial, "Ringling Bros., they're elephants, not clowns." If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed article, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

For more than 141 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been showcasing the most amazing talent from around the world: clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers and more can all be seen when "The Greatest Show On Earth" comes to town. Animals have always been an integral part of Ringling Bros. throughout the years, and they are consistently one of the main reasons families keep coming back, year after year.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animals are inspected by animal welfare officials in nearly every city we visit. There were 45 inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- in addition to inspections by state and local governments -- from Jan. 4, 2007 to Aug. 25, 2011. This past summer, while in California, our circus had more than 80 inspections by federal, state and local authorities.

None of these inspections found any incidents of inappropriate use of the guide (or "bullhook"). The guide is a necessary tool in elephant husbandry, and it is accepted and used all over the world in elephant care. This tool also allows for the very best veterinary care. Animal-activist groups have distorted the recent USDA settlement agreement as an attempt to further their long-running crusade, bringing up the unfounded allegations of mistreatment by our handlers with a tool they have demonized.

Ringling Bros. resolved the disputed regulatory issues in the agreement with the USDA. We stand by our animal-care program and our people, and we do not admit any wrongdoing. Instead, this is a business decision to resolve our differences instead of engaging in costly and protracted litigation with the federal agency that holds our license to do business. This agreement demonstrates that there are already government regulations and laws in place to help ensure the humane treatment for all animals involved in public display.

Activist groups that distribute misleading information about animal care at Ringling Bros. will never be satisfied with animals being presented to the public, no matter how well they are cared for by Ringling Bros.

Anyone who comes to Ringling Bros. can see that the animals are healthy and thriving in their environment. The full-time Ringling Bros. staff of veterinarians (with specialties ranging from neo-natal to geriatric care) are a critical component of the healthcare plan for all the animals touring on our circus units and at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida.  Moreover, zoos all over the country regularly call our veterinary team for help and advice on their own animals.

While it is true that some elephants in zoos and circuses, like some people, develop arthritis, it is also true that exercise and a physically active lifestyle is the best prescription, and that is what our elephants receive. It is among the reasons that circus elephants tend to live longer on average than their counterparts in zoos

At Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., we are making a difference in the conservation of the endangered Asian elephant. We have donated more than $1.5 million to groups and projects to help conserve this magnificent animal. We are a founding member of the International Elephant Foundation; we consistently donate to research projects, including the Smithsonian Institution's study on the endotheliotropic herpes viruses; and we established the annual International Conference and Research on Tuberculosis in Elephants. We also support zoos and stationary institutions by providing suitable companion elephants to facilities whose elephant herds are diminishing in population, as well as helping researchers in range countries minimize elephant-human conflict

Everyone with Ringling Bros. has been and remains dedicated to two goals: providing for the care and well-being of Asian elephants and all of Ringling Bros.' animals, and producing the very best in live family entertainment that can only be found at "The Greatest Show On Earth." Our commitment to those two goals will never waiver.


Occupuppy L.A.

Let dogs have their day in Santa Monica

Ringling Bros., they're elephants, not clowns

-- Janice Aria

Photo: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus artists and elephants perform in New York in March 2010. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images

Sheriff Baca, why the rush to build more jails? [Blowback]

The ACLU's Peter Eliasberg and Margaret Winter respond to The Times' Nov. 23 editorial, "L.A. County should be careful on jails." Eliasberg is legal director for the ACLU of Southern California; Winter is associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

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Given the mounting evidence that for years a violent clique of rogue sheriff's deputies has been savaging the inmates in Men's Central and other Los Angeles County jails, The Times is perfectly correct in calling on Sheriff Lee Baca to show that he can properly run the jails he already has before asking taxpayers to fund his $1.4-billion building project. But the problem with the sheriff's massive construction plan goes deeper than his inability to control his deputies; a more basic question is whether this staggering spending spree for new construction would actually do anything to increase public safety. 

It would not. Instead, it would be a shameful waste of scant resources in pursuit of the same failed jail expansion policy that has already cost the taxpayers billions. There is no justification for pouring an additional $1.4 billion for new construction into the already bloated jails budget when far better, quicker and cheaper alternatives are readily available.

These alternatives include the sensible use of the thousands of existing empty beds in the county jails system. Less than 20 years ago, county taxpayers paid a fortune for the construction of Twin Towers, a state-of-the-art facility that was supposed to allow the closure of the adjacent Men's Central Jail, then (and still now) a seriously antiquated and unsafe facility. Today, there are about 1,000 empty beds in Twin Towers -- and about 4,000 more in other jails throughout the county system. Indeed, a 1,600-bed jail at Castaic, which is a much newer and better facility that Men's Central, currently houses two inmates. The sheriff has never plausibly explained why he needs another $1.4 billion for new construction when there are so many thousands of empty beds in existing facilities.  

Furthermore, the sheriff is empowered to bring about a safe, rapid and dramatic decrease in the need for more jail space.  As the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out this year in Brown vs. Plata, jurisdictions across  the country are now safely lowering their prison populations through such means as pretrial release of low-risk detainees and electronic monitoring. The vast majority of the inmates in Men's Central Jail are pretrial detainees; many of them are held on charges of low-level, nonviolent or trivial offenses, and most are in jail because their families are too poor to post bond. A very significant number of them -- likely about one-quarter -- have serious mental illness and are receiving little treatment in jail.   

Baca should follow the lead of local governments across the nation that are addressing the fiscal crisis -- and breaking their addiction to mass over-incarceration -- by bringing in experts to identify the low-risk pretrial detainees who could be safely released pending trial. Since 2007, the ACLU has repeatedly proposed that the sheriff and the county retain the most eminent of these experts, James Austin, to help come up with a plan to rapidly and safely reduce the jail population. Until recently, the sheriff and county have refused to cooperate. 

Last month, however, in the wake of the media storm over the violence in county jails, the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors agreed to retain Austin for such a study -- on the condition that the ACLU foot the bill.  The ACLU agreed to do so, and Austin's study will be completed within 90 days. It would be the height of irresponsibility for the county to approve $1.4 billion for a construction project before reviewing the results of the study that may well prove that the construction is simply unnecessary.    


Baca's jails are Baca's problem

L.A. County should be careful on jails

Sheriff Baca was warned about jail deputies' conduct, retiree says

Does L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca get a pass?

-- Peter Eliasberg and Margaret Winter

Photo: A Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy prepares to unlock a security door inside L.A. County Men's Central Jail. Credit: Los Angeles Times

California kids -- not quite as unfit as you're led to think

Time for the annual alarm bulletin from the state Department of Education about the allegedly woeful state of physical fitness among California students. Fewer than a third, it tells us, passed the state's physical fitness test this year.

And it will be time for Californians to take this seriously when the state devises a reasonable system for determining who "passes" the test. Right now, students have to be up to par on all six segments of the test to be considered passing. How many tests do you know that call anything less than 100% a failure?

Able to run a marathon and do stomach curls all day, but lacking in flexibility? You're a failure. Able to jump, twirl and bend for a couple of hours straight in a high-energy dance class, but lacking in upper-body strength? Another failure.

Looking at this a little more realistically, let's examine the pass rates of ninth-graders,  who were the most fit of the three grades -- five, seven and nine -- tested. Only about 37% passed all six tests, but 59% passed five of the six. Five out of six is, in percentages, an 83%, or a B. Close to 80% passed four of the six tests. That would still be a passing grade, though a low one, on, say, a math test.

It's not helpful to the public, students or educators to measure fitness this way, and it tends to mask the more serious problems among the state's youth. In all tested grades, for example, less than 60% of students were within the target range for healthy body composition, and the scores were the worst among the youngest students. Is this a marker of a growing obesity problem among the youngest students? If so, it doesn't represent a failure among school physical education programs, but it's a matter for societal worry. No matter how many pushups an overweight child can perform, serious health problems are more likely to be in his or her future.

The state should set aside its annual headlines of disaster and start measuring fitness in reasonable and informative ways. We can almost always measure results in ways that make schools look like failures, but that's not helping us develop a realistic picture of the ways in which schools should improve. 


Teachers and test scores

Teachers who just don't care

Ex-porn star Sasha Grey in the classroom -- or not

Back-to-school night: A shift away from 'passion for learning'

--Karin Klein

Photo: Students at Van Nuys Middle School do an exercise called the "can can" as part of a self-defense class, one of several fitness classes offered. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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