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Bob Whitcomb’s Digital Diary: Making Voting Dangerously Easy; RI Corruption; & Con-Men Clerics

Friday, October 28, 2016


Bob Whitcomb

Making voting dangerously easy; respite in Vermont; con-men clerics; last days of Tony the Tiger?


“Though many in the modern age have the will to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to political matters, nobody can only concern themselves with the proverbial pebble in their shoe. If one is successful in avoiding politics, at some point the effects of the political decisions they abstained from participating in will reach their front door.’’ 

-- George Orwell


In an effort to make voting as easy as drinking a cup of coffee, an increasing number of jurisdictions are letting people vote  in person weeks before the election, on the Internet and, more than ever, by absentee ballot. These represent a trend that threatens our democracy, already degraded by the celebrity culture and the lies and demagoguery on radio, cable TV and the Internet, and threatened by online sabotage by foreign actors and homegrown crooks.


Early voting lets people vote without crucial information about candidates and their policies that might come to light in the last few weeks of a campaign. It makes a lot of sense in a democracy to have as many people as possible come to the polls on the same day and with the same general information. Certainly there are some cases, such as with shut-ins, of people who can’t get to the polls;  they must be accommodated.  But the overwhelming majority of citizens can easily take the 20 minutes or half an hour required to show up and vote – and yes, photo IDs should be required of everyone to avoid fraud.


Easy Voting

Going to the polls on the same day is a celebration of, and reminder of, the preciousness of the right to vote. We’re degrading that by making the voting experience more superficial,  in the Slob Culture that has taken over America. It’s interesting that voting for many offices has declined even as we have made it easier and easier. We have devalued it.


Internet voting is a huge menace. Nothing, repeat nothing on the Internet is secure from hackers, be they homegrown hackers, including many thieves, those working for the Russian and Chinese dictatorships or such terrorist groups as ISIS. Such individuals, nations and groups are constantly engaging in cyber-war against the U.S. and its citizens. Thus, Internet voting should be banned by all states.


Beyond that, it’s past time for Americans to wake up and push back on attempts by business and governments to get us to do virtually all our transactions on the Internet.  Of course most business executives like the Internet because it lets them lay off more people, rewarding those executives with even more money. And governments  like it because it lets them, too, cut staffs and because it tends to keep pesky citizens with their complaints and questions at more distance.


But this relentless push to make everyone live on the Internet puts citizens in ever-increasing danger of having their information, their privacy and their money stolen and their reputations sullied.  They could start their pushback by as much as possible avoiding online banking and other routine financial transactions and become far more careful about their use of social media. As I have often said, paper is looking better and better.


Meanwhile, the  swelling Internet of Things (e.g., printers, thermostats and power systems connected to the Web) poses a wide range of new threats to governments at all levels, businesses and individuals.

The World Wide Web expanded  far faster than security and now we’re all in peril.
Companies have been ever more heavily selling computer-connected hardware without thinking through the ramifications of what they were doing, such as letting the Chinese and Russians turn off our power.


We already have much  reason to rue our over-reliance on the Internet. Much of that over-reliance has been  involuntary but some of it is a voluntary and myopic quest for convenience above all else.





Politics in Rhode Island, where I live, can be pretty dispiriting because of excessive identity politics, some local corruption and a low level of intelligence, education  and integrity and a  high level of provincialism among too many politicians. (That’s partly due to local journalists and demagogic radio talk show hosts discouraging good people from running for office and very low voter turnout in primary elections.)


So I drove to Vermont last week to see a little bit of Norman Rockwell-style politicking.


The drive to and from Montpelier was a trip up and down memory lane.  I headed west on Route 2 through northern Massachusetts’s by turns pretty and depressing villages and mill towns. The foliage was at its most colorful and the sky was azure. I took a slightly different route than usual, turning off Route 2 well before Greenfield and heading north through unexpectedly high and steep hills and deep countryside near Northfield before getting on Route 91, which runs north up the gorgeous Connecticut River Valley, through which I had driven so many times before.


The farther north I went, the less vivid the foliage; the North Country’s maximum color was about three weeks ago. But much of the landscape still glowed.


In Montpelier, I had dinner with two old friends, Josh Fitzhugh and his wife, Elizabeth. Josh is running as an anti-Trump Republican state Senate candidate for Washington County. We ate in an excellent restaurant called Sarducci’s in downtown Montpelier, which was crowded and cheery. Indeed, the city, although America’s smallest state capital, was surprisingly lively with lots of people on the sidewalks on a mild night.


After dinner we strolled to a small cable-TV studio, where Josh and some rivals had a “debate,’’ though it was really just a discussion, on such big local issues as preventing dirty water from entering Lake Champlain. Everyone was civil. The  candidates had grown to know each other over the years in the intimate and generally friendly and honest atmosphere of the Green Mountain State.


Elizabeth (nicknamed “Wibs’’) and I sat in the waiting room outside the studio but we only heard a little of the “debate’’ on the big screen in front of the room because of technical problems. Sitting with us was a nice man  called  Jerome Lipani, like many Vermonters from New York City, who promoted  some Bernie Sanders-style reforms to us.


Mr. Lipani, an artist, was polite and good-humored and, I inferred, pragmatic, as was now-Senator Sanders, a socialist, when he was mayor of Burlington. Indeed, with a few exceptions, such as outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin’s overreaching for a single-payer healthcare plan, pragmatism rules. Thus the same state will elect such moderate Republicans as the late Gov.  Richard Snelling,  such Democrats as former Gov. Howard Dean (who ran state government as a middle-of-the road fiscal conservative) and a professed (but realistic) socialist  such as Bernie Sanders.  Vermont candidates are judged by their records and characters far more than by their party labels. Given the increasing tendency in the U.S. to vote strictly by party and not by individual this was heartening.


Reliving again the state’s tradition of civility and civic-mindedness was a tonic, and I rather dreaded driving back to the nastiness of megalopolis.




An old book by Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country, might help you get through the New England winter. He sees each month as a season.




The religious right figures supporting Donald Trump comprise a display of staggering hypocrisy given Mr. Trump’s endless public and private depravities. But then again, it makes sense in some ways because so many religious right leaders are con men themselves, getting money from the suckers who send money to their megachurches and “television ministries’’. There they peddle their idiotic theologies to fearful, anxious, angry and willfully ignorant (but often well-armed) people terrified of change and science and, especially, of the inevitability of death.


Donald Trump

Like Donald Trump’s peddling of gilded condos and “reality TV’’ shows, peddling “old-time religion’’ can be very lucrative indeed for hucksters. Some of these ministers are indeed what  the late Christopher Hitchens called that phony Jerry Falwell, who started Liberty University, now run by his  very well compensated son, Jerry Jr.: “faith-based frauds.’’ Then there’s the remarkably sleazy Pat Robertson, a minister who for decades has peddled his hard-right interpretation of the Gospels on TV.


Appearing on CNN a day after Mr. Falwell's death, Mr. Hitchens said, "The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: That you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called 'reverend'.’’


Okay, they obviously hate Hillary Clinton (though they aren’t supposed to hate) but supporting a swindler like Mr. Trump?!


Readers would do well to read the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry, based on earlier Bible thumpers.




And so the casino cannibalization will continue in New England, as Connecticut officials will probably put one or two small casinos in the northern Nutmeg State to reduce the loss of revenue to Massachusetts  when the MGM Resorts International casino opens in poor old Springfield. The Connecticut officials worry about the losses to the two Indian casinos in eastern Connecticut  caused by incoming eastern Massachusetts casinos and a proposed second Rhode Island casino, in Tiverton.


The idea, of course, in all this is to avoid having to get public revenue honestly by imposing and when necessary raising taxes. It’s far easier to get a slice of a casino’s take, much of which comes from low-and-moderate-income people and much of which goes out of the region to distant owners even as it drains money from local business and increases bankruptcies and crime (especially embezzlement).


Casinos are bogus economic development, but as the tele-evangelists and P.T. Barnum knew well, you can always bet on a surplus of suckers.




Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner  has announced an initiative to cut red tape across the Land of Lincoln’s state agencies. His administration has asked Common Good, the nonprofit legal- and government-reform group run by my old friend Philip K. Howard, to act as informal adviser to this effort. Governor Rauner’s office says the project “seeks to save Illinoisans at least $250 million in direct license fee costs over the next decade and save taxpayers and business owners at least 4 million pages in paperwork. ‘’ The initial report is due next May.


I know that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is familiar with Common Good; I hope that her administration gets some pointers from fiscally stressed Illinois in this project.




I felt a slight pang the other day when reading a Los Angeles Times story about the sales decline of heavily sugared breakfast cereals. Such cereals were a staple, so to speak, of ‘50s TV, whose marketers on the three big broadcast networks quickly learned the power of advertising to the kids to get to the parents’ wallets. Most of these cereals were loaded with sugar, although the addition of vitamins was heavily promoted to help defend the indefensible.


The ads were particularly dense on Saturday mornings, prime time for cartoons.


Despite this fattening food, far fewer kids were fat than now, in large part because in the suburbs and exurbia (where I lived, with a farm across the street), kids spent much more time outside playing, usually without parental supervision.


Now, of course, heavily sugared food is known to be very unhealthy and most of us, even many kids, are much more tense about we eat. That’s good, but it also means  that kids can’t enjoy themselves as much as they could have in the heyday of Tony the Tiger and his diabetes driver Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes,  during the exuberant youth of television.


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