Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? Brewing a tempest in a coffee cup

beyond beliefs header

The 2015 Starbuck's cups are red, but they don't say "Merry Christmas"
Starbuck’s coffee cups for the 2015 holiday season look pretty Christmas-y – unless you think the absence of snowflakes or reindeer constitutes an attack on your religious beliefs.

In a misguided bid for respect, Right-wing evangelical Christians carry on their annual tradition of whining

A private company founded and run by a Jewish guy doesn’t print symbols of a Pagan holiday on red-colored paper cups intended to hold a beverage invented by Muslims. But the cups don’t say “Merry Christmas,” so, naturally, right wing evangelical Christians are outraged.

We refer, of course, to the ridiculous manufactured outrage over this year’s Starbuck’s seasonal coffee cup.

Who stole the reindeer?
The modern image of Santa Claus was created by Thomas Nast in 1881.
The modern image of Santa Claus was created by Thomas Nast in 1881. The concept derives from many mid-winter traditions.

In years past, along with the company’s logo – a mermaid – the Starbuck’s cups have featured snowflakes, reindeer and even a stylized caroler in a “Santa Claus” hat. This year the logo stands alone.

The fringe religious right loves to generate political rage, page views and audience shares with its annual bellowing about a supposed “war on Christmas.” This year is no exception, but the pickings are apparently pretty slim.

I mean really … a chain-store coffee cup?

The big whoop always orbits around the claim that, at this time of year, people should be greeting each other with “Merry Christmas,” instead of something more inclusive, like “Happy holidays.”

Seizing yet another opportunity to grab the spotlight, Donald Trump, currently the leading GOP buffoon and presidential wannabe, said if he is elected, he will force everyone to say “Merry Christmas.” He added: “You can leave “happy holidays” at the corner.”

“Merry Christmas” misses the point
St. Nicholas and Krampus the devil visit a family.
St. Nicholas and the devil Krampus pay a call on a family.

I have no idea why Trump, or anyone, would try to turn a friendly greeting into a political fistfight. Doing that seems to mock and diminish the spirit of the season. It would be interesting to learn how he proposes to pull this boast off, but I doubt the matter will ever get that far.

Imagine if every holiday ginned up that much umbrage from its fans.  But let’s not give the “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” crowd any ideas.

I personally have no problem with people saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” as they choose. Any pleasant greeting deserves a pleasant reply, not a combative challenge.

That said, there’s plenty of rationale for using the “Happy holidays” greeting because December is truly a season of holidays! The month is cluttered with holidays, most of them religion based.

Christmas is but one of these, and it derives much of its texture from far more ancient celebrations. Unlike in their early days, Christians can freely observe their holiday. But they should not be proprietary about the time of year. Their religion preaches inclusiveness. Noisily pursuing wedge issues damages that moral stand.

Here is a small sample of December holidays:

  • Bodhi Day: The Buddhist Day of Enlightenment is typically celebrated on or near December 8.
  • Christmas: One of the most widely observed holidays, this Christian tradition is celebrated on December 25. It is a celebration of the birth of Christ, but derives and is adapted from a mixture of holidays celebrated by ancient religions.
  • Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: The Day of the birth of the Unconquered Sun is an ancient Roman holiday celebrated on December 25.
  • Hanukkah: The Jewish Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication lasts eight days.
  • Krampusnacht: In Germanic culture, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas brings a nocturnal visit from a devil named Krampus, who punishes bad children.
  • Kwanzaa: This week-long celebration extends from December 26 to January 1. It honors West African heritage.
  • Malkh: This winter solstice festival, traditionally held on December 25, belongs to the Vainakh people of the North Caucasus region in modern day Russia and Chechnya. They predominantly practice Islam today.
  • Modraniht: Traditionally celebrated on what is now Christmas Eve. The first written mention of this Anglo-Saxon Pagan festival dates to the 8th century The Old English name translates to “Night of the Mothers.”
  • Pancha Ganapati: The five days of this Hindu festival end on December 25.
  • Saturnalia: The Roman festival of the winter solstice, which occurs on or near December 20. It includes family gatherings, partying and private gift-giving.
  • Yalda: This ancient (4th centery BC or earlier) Iranian festival is held on the longest and darkest night of the year – typically December 20-21.
  • Yule: Spelled Jul in Scandinavia, this is an ancient Germanic and Nordic Pagan celebration extending from late December to early January. The “Yule log” and the practice of Caroling come from the Yule tradition. So does the Christian concept of “Christmastide.”

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and a happy Holiday Season to all!

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media.

Retaliation threat against police brutality protester is chilling – and foolish

the goshawk header

Quentin Tarantino in a march against police brutality
Film director Quentin Tarantino participates in an October 24 New York City protest against police brutality. (AP Photo)

Union leader widens divide between police and public

The brazen threat, by the leader of the nation’s largest police union, to retaliate against a critic of police brutality is beyond outrageous. The public warning, clearly intended as an act of intimidation, is the latest indication of how undisciplined and dangerously resistant to civilian authority many police agencies seem to have become.

While participating in an October 24 New York City rally against police brutality, film director Quentin Tarantino denounced the killing of citizens, many of them unarmed, by police.

“When I see murders, I do not stand by,” Tarantino said during the protest rally. “I have to call a murder a murder, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”

Graphic compares the number of people killed by police in Great Britain and U.S.
America, you’re doing it wrong. (The Guardian)

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Washington D.C. based Fraternal Order of Police, took Tarantino’s remarks as an attack on all police officers, and immediately returned verbal fire. Pasco said the union, which represents 380,000 police officers nationwide, is planning a “surprise” for Tarantino. He added that the retaliation, whatever it turns out to be, is “already in the works.”

Pasco didn’t go into detail, saying “We’ll be opportunistic … the element of the surprise is the most important element.”

When pressed on the matter, Pasco said his remarks were not a physical threat, and suggested the FOP might try to do something to hurt Tarantino financially. The union is already boycotting Tarantino’s films.

Trashing their own public image

The nature of the police threat against Tarantino is immaterial. The fact that it happened at all is chilling – as it was calculated to be. And it is damaging to police everywhere.

Pasco, wallowing in petulance and a sense of victimhood, foolishly presented his organization as little more than a thin-skinned organized crime family, thugs willing to resort to strong-arm tactics to avenge a perceived insult.

During this time when public employee unions across the nation are under serious attack, Pasco’s reckless intemperance seems likely to backfire. It is the police who may be in for a surprise.

Police across the United States have lately been killing people at the rate of more than three per day.

The number, already well over 1,000 this year, far outpaces the number of people killed by police elsewhere.

NYPD officers turn their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio
In a show of disrespect, NYPD officers turn their backs to a video screen as Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a funeral for a slain comrade.

It is difficult to determine how many of those killings were truly unavoidable and justified because oftentimes the only evidence is the word of the police officers involved. The incidents are typically investigated (when there is an investigation at all) only by the self-interested police agency involved, or by district attorneys whose close ties to local police constitute at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

An invitation to police brutality

Aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, police in America are granted unusually wide latitude in determining when to use deadly force. The high court has said, none to clearly, that killing by police can be done only with “objective reasonableness.

The Court’s lily-livered attempt to limit the use of deadly force by police has instead done much to make matters worse. The ruling has played out as tacit approval of police brutality.

To justify killing someone nowadays, a police officer need only assert that the person posed a threat to others, or that he (the officer) “feared for his life.”

There is even terms for how to use the tactic: One such is the “phantom waistband maneuver,” as in “It appeared he was reaching for a gun in his waistband…” The claim seems to meet the Supreme Court’s vague “reasonableness” standard and is a common excuse for police gunfire, even when no weapon is subsequently found.

Vague professional standards

For all their machine guns and body armor and combat vehicles and trappings and swagger, nowhere in the United States are the local police anything resembling the equivalent of a military force. When it comes to acting with restraint and operating under rules of engagement, that well-regulated militia, the local National Guard unit, is probably better disciplined.

Their missions are, of course, vastly different.

Unlike military troops, who are closely managed by their officers, local police generally operate with wide autonomy under their department’s rules and guidelines which are, in turn patterned after prevailing local laws.

And unlike military troops, police are basically armed municipal employees who operate in a labor/management relationship with their chain of command. The leadership skills of ranking local police officers conform to no established standard and may vary widely. The police like to think of themselves as professionals, but their standards of conduct do not always measure up.

The veneer of police professional conduct can be thin indeed. Consider the 2014 incidents when many NYPD officers, in a high-profile display of incredible insolence, got away with several union-instigated acts of publicly heckling and turning their backs on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, because they were peeved that the white mayor had cautioned his black son to be careful when dealing with police.

No military unit would have dared such a defiant display of insubordination.

Shredded respect

Police are not the enemy of the public, and the public is not the enemy of police, although in the face of repeated confrontations and openly oppressive behavior it is sometimes difficult to remember that.

Neither are the police some sort of superior, unaccountable social caste with their own rules and ethics, and immune even to criticism. But too often they act as if that were the case.

Without respect and trust, the police/public relationship can never be more than dangerously volatile. Every dubious killing of a civilian by a police officer further shreds that trust and respect.

Quentin Tarantino replied to the union boss’s threat: “Just because I was at an anti-police brutality protest doesn’t mean I’m anti-police.” He said he wants to see police “stop shooting unarmed people.”

It is not asking too much.

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media.

New York State and NYC have their container deposit, scams – and so do scavengers

the goshawk header

A woman with bags of recycleable containers.
A Staten Island woman tows bags of cans to a container deposit redemption center.

Spoofing bar code readers at New York redemption centers is easy money

To hear supporters tell it, New York State’s container deposit law has been a smashing success. So successful, in fact, that it is apparently also helping recycle containers purchased in states that do not collect deposits or offer refunds.

Bottle labels discarded amid leaves on a street.
Labels peeled from no-deposit bottles purchased in New Jersey lie amid leaves in the gutter of a Staten Island street. The bottle scavenger who discarded them will replace the labels with bar codes identifying the bottles as being eligible for a New York refund.

It turns out that spoofing machines at New York container deposit redemption centers into accepting bottles from no-deposit states is easy.

Meanwhile, the effort to reclaim used bottles and cans has strayed from its original promise. The container deposit program has devolved into a consumer-unfriendly bureaucratic contraption. It has become less an incentive than a tax – a deliberate shift in which the city and the state are happily in cahoots.

A worthy goal

Residents of New York State have been nicked a nickel for each of various beverage containers since 1982. The idea was that the five-cent deposit will encourage people to return the containers for a refund, rather than simply discard them.

When trash becomes treasure, free-lance recyclers become outlaws

When empties are returned at a redemption center, a sort of reverse vending machine ingests a containers, reads a bar code on the label to make sure the bottle or can is eligible, then automatically sorts, crushes, shreds or shatters the container and issues a refund. The shards are then carted away to be recycled.

For a long time, recycling made no economic sense. Early in his first term, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg dismissed the city’s deeply flawed, revenue-sucking recycling program as an extravagant waste of money and effort. He suspended it for about a year while the program was remodeled. The landfills swelled.

But somewhere along the way, recycling became worthwhile. Markets appeared, demand for recycled goods rose, and – wouldn’t you know it – shortages resulted. Recyclable materials became valuable.

Hard realities

Despite its feel-good qualities, the recycling of beverage containers has long since run up against some hard realities. The biggest one: People are inclined to throw nickels to the wind, rather than go through the hassle of storing, lugging and returning their empty bottles and cans for a refund.

The overall redemption rate for deposit containers of all sorts in New York State is reportedly upwards of 60 percent. That sounds pretty good until you realize that an estimated 6.2 billion deposit containers are sold in New York State in any given year. That means each year 2.5 billion of the things are not returned for a refund, and end up heaven knows where.

The result, of course, is that hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits, collected five pennies at a time, have gone unredeemed over the years. After a while, the state simply confiscates and spends the unclaimed money.

It’s a very lucrative deal for the state treasury, and a strong disincentive for Albany to improve redemption rates or reduce the number of discardable containers.

New York City, on the other hand, doesn’t give a fig about container deposit redemption rates. City Hall would rather you handed all of your unredeemed empties over to the Sanitation Department, to be sold to recyclers.

In New York City, that approach works in favor of both the state and the city. Fewer container deposit refund claims means more money for the state to grab, and more saleable material for the city’s recycling program.

Rise of the bottle glommers

The container deposit redemption rate would be nowhere near as high as it is, were it not for the army of entrepreneurs scrounging through recycling bins the night before the Sanitation truck arrives.

The lady with the cart

In NYC, and doubtless elsewhere around the state, they ply the streets, their purloined shopping carts loaded to preposterous bulk with bottles and cans, as they work their weekly routes, ending up at one or another of the redemption centers at supermarkets and other stores where beverages are sold.

City Hall does not approve of this sort of industriousness. Because trash has become treasure, the city claims ownership of all recyclables brought to curbside.

Officially, the container scavengers are considered to be thieves, and potentially subject to thousands of dollars in fines. They are seen as skimming from the money stream generated by the city’s recycling program. The glommers are pocketing nickels the state has its eye on by turning in bottles they didn’t buy.

In the final analysis, it is no worse, from a consumer’s standpoint, than what the city and state are doing.

Three can play that game

But it seems some of the bottle-snatchers have their own scam. This one may be unique to Staten Island, although we don’t know that for sure.

A label peeled from a no-deposit bottle
A label peeled from a beverage container purchased in New Jersey clearly states it is not eligible for a refund in bottle deposit states, such as New York. Scavengers easily get around that restriction by spoofing container deposit redemption machines.

Despite the deterrent of bridge tolls, many Staten Islanders routinely shop in New Jersey stores. Sales and gasoline taxes are markedly lower in New Jersey. And since the Garden State does not have a container deposit law, beverages are less expensive there. Inevitably some bottles and cans from New Jersey find their way into New York.

Of course, beverage containers purchased in New Jersey are not eligible to receive a deposit refund in New York, and the label clearly says so.

That problem is easily circumvented. Some container scroungers simply peel off the New Jersey label – sometimes discarding them in the street. They then stick a copy of a New York State container deposit bar code on the ineligible bottle, feed it into the redemption machine and, voila! Free money!

This is quite practical. We copied the label on a NYS-eligible container, then scanned it with the bar-code reader on our mobile phone – to simulate what would happen if the copied label was fed to a refund machine at a redemption center. No problem. Our scanner instantly read the bogus label and correctly identified the product.

We have no idea how widespread this low-tech scam may be. But it does highlight another sinkhole in the fine, costly mess that is the New York container deposit scheme.

Michael W. Dominowski is a contributor to Not For Hire Media.