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Five for fighting -- looking back on 2014

Looking back at the best and worst of 2014.

We're big on tradition here at Attytood. Like the tradition of saying "we" to imply there's anything more behind Attytood than just Your Blogger tossing out half-baked rants from his basement while wearing his pajamas ("Does that really happen?" comment.) The reason  is this -- "traditions" give us the phony sense that Attytood has an "audience," and a loyal community of "readers," even though that's only true if you consider "What Media Bias?", "Wok", and the n-word guy a community.

A few years back, I started producing a year-end piece called "Five for Fighting," which pulls up the five blog posts that I think best capture what the year looked like from the warped perspective behind the Breaking News Desk here at Attytood. It was a very strange year -- maybe the oddest since I started the site just short of 10 years ago. On the surface, good things were happening -- certainly in the realm of economic statistics, where the Dow hit an all-time high, the unemployment rate plummeted, gasoline was suddenly affordable and the gross domestic product posted its best quarter in 11 years. President Obama  welcomed this news amid arguably his best two-month stretch in the White House, as he took tough action on immigration, cut a climate-change deal with China and opened the door to Cuba for the first time in a half-century. The Senate at least acknowledged the stain of torture on America's moral fabric, a baby step in the right direction. Closer to home, a flurry of new skyscrapers and condos signaled a boom in Center City and some adjacent neighborhoods.

But, as often happens, progress -- and the raised expectations that come with it -- also made people ponder how far we have to go. The successes of America's first black president didn't change the realities in America's inner cities, where militarized and often repressive policing tactics have run amok and ridiculously high rates of young men are spending the holidays behind bars, often because of a failed "war on drugs." The benefits of the skyrocketing Dow and corporate profits flowed almost exclusively to the top 1 Percent. Here in Philadelphia, gleaming glass office towers reflected a dismal picture for woefully underfunded city schools.

These five blog posts don't tell the whole story of 2014, but I do think they're a snapshot of the way we lived over the last 12 months:

5. "A hearbreaking act of staggering cowardice," Oct. 6, 2014.

No story summed up Philadelphia's political year better than the sudden, no-warning vote by the School Reform Commission to cancel its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It wasn't just the way the move epitomized years of blaming teachers for years of the politicians failing to support or fund urban classrooms, but the slap in the face of the public -- making this move in a way to severely limit input from citizens -- was a broader commentary on a failure of democracy in the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted:

Maybe Corbett figures a tough stance will appeal to suburban voters (although most of them are too freaked out by their own sky-high property taxes to notice). Maybe he's desperate for the chaos of a teacher's strike, which would violate a 1992 state law. Here's a prominent Philadelphia Republican (yes, that's a thing, apparently) who came out practically minutes after the SRC vote saying that a) he hates (yes, hates) the union but b) pleads with them to strike. Another coincidence? A strike (which I seriously doubt will happen -- look for this to be fought in court) would be devastating to tens of thousands of schoolchildren. But, hey, politics ain't beanbag.

But even if you're a Corbett supporter, and even if you think those "pampered" teachers need to be taken down a few notches, you still should be outraged at the massive one-fingered salute that the SRC just gave to the notion of democracy and public discourse, and to the people of Philadelphia. In Hong Kong this month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets because their dear leaders won't allow them to nominate their own candidates to lead local government. But how is what the SRC just did in the fog today any better? This almost-secret, barely legal meeting was a heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice. Every one of them -- SRC Chairman Bill Green (whose grandfather, a post-New Deal Democrat, surely would not have been pleased by this), and members Feather Houstoun, Farah Jimenez, Marjorie Neff, and Sylvia Simms -- is a gutless coward. They should be ashamed of what they've done.

4. "Casey Kasem and the death of American mass culture," June 15, 2014.

Hey, not everything that happens is political...thank God, right? Radio icon Casy Kasem defined two eras for me -- growing up as a music buff in the 1970s, and my more recent era of obsessive nostalgia, listening to the re-broadcasts on satellite radio. But I also thought Kasem's passing this spring at age 82 said something more profound about a nation's pop culture:

But as FM stations proliferated and then finally the Internet with Spotify and Pandora and (yes) satellite radio and of course iTunes provided a home for every musical niche (and non-musical) niche imaginable, and no one could any longer see the purpose of  a shared "Top 40 radio." Why would anyone on the planet listen to Wayne Newton if he didn't have to? In 2014, there's a good chance that die-hard fans of Kendrick Lamar, the Parquet Courts or Lucero have never even heard the other two. Something is gained in the libertarianism of 21st Century pop culture, perhaps, but something has been lost, a sense of community and shared feelings and emotions that many of us feel difficult to even express in words.

So when "American Top 40" ended its run in 1988 (Kasem continued variations of "Countdown"-style shows for another two decades, even on TV!), it wasn't really with a sense of "mission accomplished." It was more like he'd been putting his fingers of the leaky dikes of U.S. mass culture for almost 20 years, but there was nothing more he could do to hold off the flood.

3. "America, what the hell is wrong with us?", June 4, 2014

Ha, shouldn't that be the title of every Attytood post? The funny thing is this...looking back on the year, I wouldn't list the prisoner swap that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from his Talibani kidnappers, or the ensuing uproar, as one of the year's top stories. But I think the spineless, weak-kneed politicking surrounding Bergdahl's freedom said quite a lot about where the American political conversation is at. This was probably the most commented-on post in Attytood history, for what it's worth:

This is a whole disgusting level below the normal day-to-day hypocrisy of American politics. These responses are the product of a moral sickness -- and most pathetic are the ones who call themselves pro-life or who obsess over what they say is the loss of freedom in this country, yet they'd rather see their fellow human Bowe Bergdahl lose his freedom or even die all because of their blind hatred of the man in the Oval Office. Look, if the Army wants to investigate the facts surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance then they should do that (I doubt it would result in more than a slap on the wrist in the reality-based world, but we seem to be losing our grip on who knows).

But the bottom line is that if you see a woman standing in the middle of the road and a Mack Truck bearing down on her, you don't stop to grill her on whether she just used heroin or left her child on a stoop somewhere. You pick her up and swoop her out of the street, and deal with the rest later. So should it be with saving Sgt. Bergdahl. For God's sake, where's the humanity? A couple of decades ago, two Inquirer reporters wrote an award-winning series and book called "America: What Went Wrong?" Today it's more appropriate to ask, America...what the hell's wrong with us?

2. "There's a police coup going on right now in Ferguson, Mo.", August 13, 2014

Regardless of where you are and what you believe, no story defined the contradictions of America more than Ferguson -- the police killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown, and what came afterward. Here's what I wrote on the tensest night on the streets of that Missouri town:

There is a lot to talk about in the days and weeks ahead. For starters, authorities -- not just in Missouri but around the nation -- are going to need to explain the obscene (and obscenely expensive) over-militarization of American police departments, weaponry now aimed at the communities that these officers had sworn to protect and serve. Americans should not have to turn on their TV sets to see news that looks like it's coming from ISIS-held territory in Iraq or Kandahar, until we see the McDonald's arches in the background and realize that we are just 15 minutes from Busch Stadium. And there will need to be a massive conversation about community policing -- especially in Ferguson, a majority black community where 94 percent of officers are white -- but also anywhere where cops are seeing as suppressing communities instead of protecting them. And there must -- and one cannot emphasize this enough -- be real justice and accountability for the murder of Mike Brown.

But that is not the priority tonight. Tonight, someone with a cool head and the utmost respect for the U.S. Constitution -- and frankly, I'm not sure who that is -- needs to take control of the situation on the streets of Ferguson. And the first move is to end this police coup, immediately.

1."Torture and police killings cut from the same cloth of injustice", December 10, 2014

So where are we at now?

Think of it this way. Start with a nation peering over the precipice of empire, afraid of losing everything. Real-life events (9/11, higher crime rates in poor urban communities) are exploited to create widespread anxiety and fear. Authorities declare an endless "war" not against nations but against vague concepts ("terror," "drugs"). The masses are whipped up -- aided and abetted by a ratings-starved news media, including talk radio -- against The Other (Arabs, U.S. blacks and Latinos). That public elects officials who cast a wide net that criminalizes not just the actual bad guys, but entire classes of people. Civil liberties are the first casualty (warrantless wiretapping, stop and frisk). Law-enforcement, at the nexus of these fears, and under immense pressure, responds with brutality (torture, police violence). The end result is state-sanctioned violence against people on the margins, with little or no rights.

And what makes such an unjust moral universe possible? The complete absence of accountability, a rot that's been festering in the American body politic for decades now. It was in the mid-1970s that Richard Nixon shocked TV viewers by telling David Frost that "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal." The 37th president was wrong in the moral sense, but he was emboldened by the pardon he'd been given by his successor, Gerald Ford. Today, it's not just the president, or the vice president, or all the president's men. When a millionaire does it, that means it is not illegal (or at least punishable). Or when a Wall Street CEO does it. Or a cop, or an FBI agent. There is little that the elite, the wealthy, the powerful -- and their protectors -- can't get away with America in 2014. It's what sets elites apart, in an increasingly separate and unequal society. And these elites know it. Which is why it's happening more often.

The devil in the details, but so so much of this comes down to one thing: Who's really running the show around here? The American people, or a tiny sliver of privileged elites. If nothing else, 2014 will be remembered as a year we started asking the right questions. Maybe in 2015 we'll start getting some of our answers.