A lawyer, a judge, and the Pledge of Allegiance

I’ve got a lot of these to slog through. I’ve already deleted two drafts that upon further review just weren’t interesting enough to comment on and post.

There’s very little to quote in this ABA Journal article, which is itself a followup to this earlier article. So I’ll just summarize: A judge in Mississippi (Chancellor Talmadge Littlejohn) jails a lawyer for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The lawyer (Danny Lampley) stood, but did not actually recite the words. He was then asked to individually recite the pledge, and he refused. Judge Littlejohn finds him in contempt and jails him for most of the business day (five hours). The aftermath: Judge Littlejohn is reprimanded and fined $100 for abusing his contempt powers.

And rightfully so. I believe Danny was within his rights to not recite the pledge. Asking Danny to individually recite the pledge after the others have finished was clearly intended to humiliate him. Judge Littlejohn should be ashamed of himself; he damn near got away with a flagrant abuse of his contempt powers. Here’s hoping the next judge that does something this stupid is given a more appropriate sanction, such as a fine in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

Actually the more I think about it, this is a strong argument to actually outlaw the recitation of the pledge in courtrooms. I’ve never been in a courtroom where I was required to recite the pledge; if I am, at the very least, I’m leaving out “under God”. It is this I would like to elaborate on before I close out this post.

My personal reason for omitting “under God” is that it is at odds with the separation of church and state mentioned both in Article VI and the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I feel it is an inappropriate reference to religion that makes too many people uncomfortable.

And there is a solid line of reasoning behind this. According to this story by Dr. John W. Baer on oldtimeislands.org, the gratuitous addition of a religious reference would have been opposed by Francis Bellamy, the Baptist minister who originally wrote the pledge in 1892:

In 1954, Congress after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words, ‘under God,’ to the Pledge. The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.

Bellamy’s granddaughter said he also would have resented this second change. He had been pressured into leaving his church in 1891 because of his socialist sermons. In his retirement in Florida, he stopped attending church because he disliked the racial bigotry he found there.

Think about this for a minute: the pledge as originally written by a Baptist minister did not contain the words “under God”. Does it not fly in the face of logic to stuff those words in there when a minister has implied they don’t belong by their omission?

Fading from the limelight: New York City Opera

As mentioned in a recent New York Times story and an article on artinfo.com, the economy has done a real number on a once prominent performing arts organization, New York City Opera. The anatomy of the downfall of New York City Opera highlights just how important donations are to keeping an arts organization alive, as those new to the performing arts are simply not aware of how little ticket sales bring in compared to grants and endowments.

Even though, again, I’m over a thousand miles removed from where New York City Opera performs, the case study is of relevance to any arts organization anywhere at least in the US, if not the world. From the NY Times story:

Fund-raising has been flat, though in the past year, [New York City Opera artistic director George] Steel said, donations rose to a projected $18 million, up $3 million from last year. Still, that was well short of the $22 million that had been budgeted.

And from earlier in the story:

It realized $3 million in annual ticket revenues, which covered 10 percent of its budget.

Now, compare those two numbers. $3 million from ticket revenues, versus $18 million from donations. In order to get the same amount of money from just ticket sales, New York City Opera would need to sell tickets at about six times their current price. And that’s acting on the very generous assumption that the same people will be willing to pay six times as much, which is almost certainly not the case.

There’s more to it than that, however. The other mistakes New York City Opera made are worth learning from. In 2008 the situation was so dire the company had to raid their endowment fund for cash, which required special permission from the New York (state) attorney general. Now, this year, New York City Opera simply can’t afford to perform in Lincoln Center, instead opting to perform in different locations around the city.

It didn’t exactly help that New York City Opera, known for being a bit more eclectic than the Metropolitan Opera (usually called simply “the Met” and the more prominent of the two opera companies in New York City), perhaps got a bit too eclectic. Again quoting the Times article:

Last year’s eclectic mix of productions — including an updated Donizetti; a Leonard Bernstein New York premiere; a new work by the composer of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” Stephen Schwartz; a lesser-known Strauss; and a bill of three contemporary one-acts — failed to catch on with traditional operagoers or audiences seeking something new.

“Has anyone ever heard of any of those things they were selling?” said Carol Vaness, the soprano and a onetime City Opera star. “They didn’t do the operas people wanted to see.”

While I have not recently had the resources to attend performing arts events in recent months, I admire the eclectic and eccentric productions to a point. It’s okay to push the envelope a bit, but push it too much and you wind up with plenty of red ink on the balance sheet, as New York City Opera found out.

Time will tell what will become of the once-proud New York City Opera. I hope they recover, but even more so, I hope other arts organizations learn from and avoid the mistakes of New York City Opera. While it is painful to watch an organization with such a strong legacy sink into obscurity, the only thing worse would be for that to happen only for others to repeat that organization’s mistakes.

Father’s Day: my thoughts

I have all kinds of news stories in the queue to write about, but I’m going to let them linger there a bit longer to make this timely.

Father’s Day is tomorrow, June 19. By the time you’re reading this, it is probably already here, or maybe it has even already passed. I’m writing this simply to express my perspective on Father’s Day. Maybe a few of you will identify with it.

I never met my father. My grandfather was the closest I had to a father figure; he left this world some years ago. So, normally, I don’t give Father’s Day much thought. I have no idea, but this year, I really got to thinking about it.

And I read up on the history of Father’s Day according to Wikipedia. It’s an interesting read. But it raises the question I’m asking this year: did the people who came up with the idea for Father’s Day ever really think about what Father’s Day really means for those of us (like me) who not only grew up without a dad, but may well never get a chance to be a dad themselves?

Yes, to me, seeing Father’s Day observed and celebrated is a painful reminder of my fatherless past, and a reminder of the likely future that I will probably never get to be a dad no matter how badly I want to. (Please understand that yes, I do try to retain my optimism on the latter point, but it becomes more difficult as the years go on.) I’m sorry if I let it slip “what’s so happy about it?” when asked if I had a happy Father’s Day. I know I’m too young to be seriously considered a curmudgeon (I’m well over a decade away from AARP membership, thankfully), and I will admit I have a fair amount of things not to be proud of. But, I say things the way they are, not the way we wish they were.

Drinking soda shouldn’t be this taxing

In a recent blog entry on Forbes.com, Kelly Phillips Erb writes about the latest item to appear in the “tax gun” crosshairs of Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter: soda. Thankfully, by the time I got around to writing this post, the tax appears to be dead.

Even though I live well over a thousand miles away from Philadelphia, it’s disturbing to read of a plan to single out something I like so much for taxation, on the grounds it’s a “vice.” It’s more disturbing that Mayor Nutter nonchalantly and casually says it’s about money for the schools. Given that Texas is seen as a leader in education (we were the first to pass the No Pass No Play law back in 1984 which was copied elsewhere), it’s easy to see where my concern comes from. (I have quite a bit to say about NPNP and its unintended consequences that I’ll address in a future entry.)

Anyway, Kelly’s post goes on to address the issue that soda taxes disproportionately affect the poor and middle class. I don’t know which, honestly, increases my discomfort more: the “tax it because it’s bad, and people will automatically buy it less” mindset, or the idea that those proposing the tax are probably not in the income brackets that it affects the most.

From Kelly’s post:

I’m not a fan of sin taxes. I think taxes focused on specific products are silly and quite frankly, judgmental. What I think constitutes bad behavior and what you think may be very different. I worry about where we draw the line… What’s next? Video games? Coffee (note to legislators: don’t even consider this one or there could be serious problems)? Candy?

Of particular note: video games (coin-op video games) are already taxed. Most jurisdictions require an occupancy tax sticker to be affixed to each machine. The end players don’t necessarily pay a tax per play, but it’s more money the operators have to take in to break even. It’s another week or two of a new game being $1 per play instead of 75¢ (or whatever they are up to now), or the difficulty level being “hard” instead of “medium”, etc.

Taxing can and does get out of hand. The first (modern) income taxes in 1913 were from 1% to 7%. Today, we are up to the lowest income bracket taxed at 10%; shortly after World War II, of course, the rates were much higher, peaking at 42% for the lowest bracket in 1952 (see the Wikipedia article “Income tax in the United States”). Many states also have their own income tax; almost all have a sales tax of some type (some going well over 10% by the time you add local taxes).

I honestly don’t think most “sin taxes” work in the sense they were intended. What I suspect happens, is these taxes simply add to a growing resent of the government. And that gets people that do potentially irrational things like decide simply to vote against the incumbents, every time (if they bother voting at all).

So either way, a “sin tax” to raise money for education is asking for trouble. It’s a catch-22: if the tax works and gets people to buy the “bad thing” less (soda, in this case), there’s less tax money and the cycle repeats. If it doesn’t work, then you have more people that hate the government. Here’s hoping the likes of Mayor Nutter think it through next time.

The #seriouslymcdonalds incident: a lesson about racism and hoaxes

It is rare I read a story and find it’s so engrossing, so demanding of my attention, that I feel I need to drop everything and blog about it now. This is one of those stories.

A recent Mashable article highlights the latest hoax making the rounds on Twitter (and probably other social media as well) under the hastag #seriouslymcdonalds. It’s a sign posted with official-looking McDonald’s branding (NOTE: Please DO NOT call the number, it DOES NOT belong to McDonald’s):


As an insurance measure due in part to a recent string of robberies, African-American customers are now required to pay an additional fee of $1.50 per transaction.

Thank you for your cooperation,
McDonald’s Corporation
(800) 225-5532

Now, this is an obvious hoax, and it’s obvious because that toll-free number rings a KFC guest relations line. That, and as the reporter for Mashable noted, “[i]t would be career suicide” for a real McDonald’s franchisee or employee to tape this on the door.

Whoever posted this fake sign will undoubedly incur the fully justified wrath of not just one, but two large fast food companies: McDonald’s, and Yum! Brands (which owns KFC), in the form of swift and decisive legal action. If nothing else, this is fraud and trademark infringement. This is a huge PR mess for McDonald’s, which will probably cost them well into five figures (US$10,000+) to clean up. Add to this the time KFC’s call center people will have to waste answering calls from angry customers, and it’s easy to see how the guilty party deserves to get sued.

So, not only is this a tort involving two large fast-food corporations, this was in such poor taste it doesn’t even qualify as a good prank. I, for one, am not laughing. Racism, particularly reinforcing stereotypes that African-Americans are more likely to commit crimes, is not funny. Whoever you are that posted this sign: Shame on you. You deserve to be sued into bankruptcy, and I hope it happens.

According to the story on Mashable, an official reply from the corporate offices is pending. I will follow up on this as I learn more.