Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Thursday, January 24, 2008

France finally bans smoking while dining

Zut alors!
(good grief) The French have abolished smoking in restaurants and cafés. French intellectual life will never be the same without smoking in the Parisian cafes where Sartre, Beauvoir and countless writers like Hemingway reigned.

Many French people, unhappy about the ban, bring up the lawyer’s gambit of parading the horrible, detailing what could happen next. The end of café life. Banning wine. Prohibiting all alcoholic drinks. And, horrors, the Americanization of France.

Moreover, it’s just another silly American health craze. Having coffee and wine in a café without smoking is just unthinkable. Why, smoking is the very soul of French cafés.

But for this unabashed francophile, who has suffered from rancid smoke fumes while dining in France, the prohibition is long overdue. I never could understand how the Land of Gastronomy could allow smoking to spoil fine dining.

Boos for Al Gore

Many environmentalists cheered when Al Gore gave his Nobel Peace Prize last month in Oslo, Norway, declaring that global warming is “a real, rising, imminent and universal threat.”

True. And it sounds great even though everyone has long since believed in climate change except ignoramus President Bush. Yet the Reno News & Review keeps reminding Truckee Meadow newspaper readers of the truth behind the speeches and plaudits.

A RN&R editorial last fall said: “It would be useful to recall how much damage the Clinton administration, of which Gore was a very influential part, did to the environment. Boiler plate political rhetoric and Oscar-winning movies after Gore left office are less compelling than his administration’s actions when he was in office.”

The paper cited the pleas of environmental groups that were ignored, the cave-in to ranchers, mining companies and logging interests after promising to curb taxpayer subsidies, and the fact that the Clinton-Gore administration for eight years “dithered, delayed, consensus-built and timidly avoided offending Canada’s gold mining industry in Nevada.”

‘Coalition of willing’ diminished

Membership in the bogus “coalition of the willing” took another hit recently with the election of socialist Kevin Rudd as prime minister of Australia. Rudd has promised to pull Australian troops from Iraq this summer, joining the electorate of such countries as Spain and Italy.

The move is largely symbolic since the Aussies have just 550 combat soldiers in Iraq. But the anti-war message is spreading even if it has yet to reach Republican presidential candidates.

The vote Down Under was a stinging rebuke to former Prime Minister John Howard despite record prosperity in Australia. Rudd’s Labor Party took control of the upper and lower chambers of parliament. The rout was so complete that Howard failed to retain his center-right Liberal Party seat in parliament, the first time an Aussie PM had failed to do so since l974.

Moreover, Rudd immediately made it clear that he will be no toady of Bush by signing the Kyoto Protocal on global warming. The United States is the only industrialized country failing to do so.

Rudd’s pro-labor stance helped bring him the overwhelming victory. But probably more crucial was that younger Aussie voters were bloody tired of Howard’s reactionary politics.

A former diplomat in Beijing, Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin. It should help Australia economically because the 21st century belongs to China, already a huge buyer of Aussie resources.


Can anyone explain why the Pentagon still maintains 40,000 U.S. troops in Germany and Italy?

Letter writing is dead

Leafing through “A Treasury of the World’s Great Letters” published in 1940, I lamented that letter writing is dead, killed by telephone and email. The letters of the famous are an intimate form of literature. To Voltaire the daily mail was “the consolation of life.”

Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ neglected

“Macbeth” by Verdi is a great opera but never given its proper place in the Verdi canon. Indeed, two of my opera reference books do not have scenarios of “Macbeth.” One is the Milton Cross “Complete Stories” (1949) in hardback. The other is in paperback, “Stories of Famous Operas,” (Harold Milligan, 1955).

Feral cats or birds?

An ornithologist in Galveston, Texas, caused a storm of protest a year ago when he shot and killed a feral cat while protecting the endangered piping plovers in Galveston Bay.

The birder, Jim Stevenson, rightly argued: “The American taxpayers spend millions of dollars to protect piping plovers and yet here are these cats killing the birds and nobody’s doing anything about it.”

Stevenson is. Bully for him.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cruel sentences, high prison rolls shame America

“If you give power to the people we’d all be in jail.”
--I.F. Stone
The rage to punish is one of the many dark sides of America.
That rage is fueled by politicians who want to show how tough they are on crime and by vindictive voters. The result: the prisons nationwide are jammed with 2.4 million inmates.
America’s jailing rate is higher than any other country. It has 5 percent of the world’s population yet has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. One out of 31 adult Americans has been in prison or on supervised release.
No wonder Daniel Lazare wrote in The Nation last fall: “America’s homegrown gulag archipelago, a vast network of jails, prisons and ‘supermax’ tombs for the living dead…has metastasized into the largest detention system in the advanced industrialized world.”
So it is a happy development that the Supreme Court in December struck down mandatory sentencing. The court restored the right of federal trial judges to impose sentences on the basis of particular crime and individual defendants rather than on rigid standards.
The court also noted the inequality of sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine, two forms of the same drug. Someone caught with five grams of crack, used in a poor communities, draws the same sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of coke, popular among affluent users. Or, put another way, possession of 50 grams (1 and 3/4 ounces) of crack will get you 10 years. It takes five kilograms (11 pounds!) of powder cocaine to draw the same sentence.
The possession amount is also racist since blacks are predominant users of crack.
In another happy development, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently voted to lighten punishments retroactively for some crimes related to crack. This affects about 20,000 inmates, meaning release for some prisoners within months.
Sentencing in the bogus war on drugs is excessive. They do extreme violence to the idea of letting the punishment fit the crime. And that is why drug offenders account for 31 percent of prison rolls.
Justice Anthony Kennedy told the American Bar Association convention four years ago: “Our punishments are too severe. Our sentences are too severe.”
All too true. But Kennedy the Hypocrite cast the deciding vote in 2003 upholding excessive sentences for minor crimes under the outrageous “three-strikes-and-you’re out” California law. That draconian measure, enacted in a referendum, sends someone to jail for life for a third felony even if the third offense is as minor as petty theft. Earlier felonies might be as minor as burglary or check fraud.
Progressive magazine published an article in 2006 telling how a 25-year-old man was scheduled to remain in prison until 2059 when he will be 78. Murderer? Rapist? Kidnapper? Armed robber?
No. A medium-scale Salt Lake City marijuana dealer with no previous felony convictions. If he had been a murderer or rapist he might be facing a much shorter prison stay.
Long jail terms for nonviolent drug offenders contribute greatly to the nation’s overcrowded prisons. Overcrowding drives up prison costs, now at $60 billion a year. Overcrowding has forced Arizona to hold some inmates in tents. Hundreds of California prisoners sleep in three-tier bunks in gyms or day rooms. California must also carve out cell space from meeting rooms designed for educational and treatment programs.
Another serious problem with incarceration: rape. A 2001 report by the Human Rights Watch said male rape, often accompanied by appalling brutality, is prevalent throughout U.S. prison system. The damning report led to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of Congress in 2003.
The act put it bluntly: “The total number of inmates (men and women) who have been sexually assaulted in the past 20 years likely exceeds 1 million.” No gender breakdown is available but 93 percent of the jail population are men.
Still another prison problem is recidivism. More than 600,000 prisoners released this year will be back in jail by 2010. Why? Difficulty in getting jobs, education and housing. The stigma of having been in jail is often hard to overcome.
Establishment of a federal agency to combat re-entry problems would help greatly, providing training and wider access to drug treatment. But that would cost money, anathema to President Bush even if Congress were to mandate such an agency. Few politicians dare fight for prisoners’ rights. Such a stance wins few votes.
In any case, the excessive punishment of tens of thousands of Americans is one more example of an uncivilized nation.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Church-going as much sociological as theological

A fable--but a wonderful fable! As H.L. Mencken put it in his classic tale, “Christmas Story”: Christianity offers “beautiful consolations.”
That’s what I concluded after attending the Christmas eve candlelight service at the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Reno. The camaraderie, the happy chatting of friends and the religious fervor of some parishioners were striking.
Church-going is as much sociological as theological.
One of the St. Stephen’s readings, from Isaiah 9:6, was familiar: “For unto us a child is born…and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” (The verse sounds better when sung in Handel’s great oratorio, “Messiah.”)
The major reading, as usual in most Christian churches at the Yuletide, was the nativity story related at Luke 2:1-20. Alas, it was not the King James Version.
Modern translations may be more accurate, more precise, but they lack the poetry of the KJV. The poetic “sore afraid” of the KJV is rendered by the commonplace “terrified.” “Being great with child” comes out as the prosaic “pregnant.”
The St. Stephen’s service was blessed by the magnificent soprano voice of Katharine DeBoer in several solos, including “O Holy Night” sung during the communion. (Ms. DeBoer sometimes graces Nevada Opera productions.)
But churches should abandon unison singing. The choir at St. Stephen’s is fine. But when parishioners sing along the words are either mumbled--or worse--sung several syllabuses ahead or behind the choir. It ruins the joy of song.
Memo to the priest of St. Stephen’s, the Rev. Rick Sorensen, courtesy of Schweitzer autobiography, “Out of My Life and Thought”: “The opportunity to speak every Sunday to a congregation about the essential questions of life seem(s) to me wonderful.”
One of the great things about the interiors of Episcopal churches is their simplicity. Unadorned, unencrusted. In contrast the interiors of Catholic churches seem so cluttered. Why? After all, isn’t the Episcopal Church, the American version of Anglicanism, really the Roman Catholic Church without the pope?

When I was a young man I would go to the polls and leave with a great feeling that I had done my sacred democratic duty, that I was privileged to vote.
My, oh my, how naive I was in those days. Today I vote unhappily for the lesser of two evils. And while I always vote for Democratic presidential candidates because I know leftists will not win, the election of Democrats won’t make much difference. Example: the crushing disappointment of the Democratic Congress elected in 2006.

Money is not just the mother’s milk of politics. It is everything. As Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia has rightly lamented: “Money! Money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics!”

One of the most revolting aspects of British politics is the obsequiousness to the queen. During the state opening of Parliament in November you had the absurd spectacle of Lord Chancellor Jack Straw walking backward from the throne so he would not turn his back on Queen Elizabeth II. Straw wore a baroque outfit that included a long, heavy robe trimmed with gold.
Jack Straw, former socialist and once head of the radical National Union of Students! This “man of the people” totally repudiates his past. If only Gilbert and Sullivan were alive to satirize his volte-face and pomposity.
Yes, the Brits love their pomp and ceremony. But to prostrate themselves before an unelected queen who is accountable to no one offends democrats (lower case d) to the marrow.

Speaking of prostituting one’s self. Tony Blair, former British prime minister, made $500,000 for a 20-minute speech recently in China. First, Blair sold out the British Labor Party. Now the boy socialist turns into an obscene capitalist.
Chinese newspapers reported that Blair uttered nothing but clichés for that ridiculous sum. The China Youth Daily noted that China was fast becoming a gold-digging market for international celebrities.

LATEST SPORTS OUTRAGE: Bowie Kuhn, the non-entity baseball commissioner, has been named posthumously to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. Marvin Miller? Ignored. As baseball union leader Miller had a tremendous impact, liberating players from slavery. Yes, Virginia, there is no justice in the world.

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