Friday, June 26, 2015

The New City Seal: Stars and Fleurs-de-Lis Forever

Portsmouth's New City Seal

If there’s one thing Portsmouth should not want to commemorate with a new city seal it’s the new U.S. Grant Bridge, which took longer to build than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The businesses in downtown Portsmouth threatened to sue the Ohio Department of Transportation for 8 million dollars for the profits they claimed were lost because of the inordinate time it took to build the bungled Grant Bridge. The Golden Gate  Bridge took four years to build; the Grant Bridge took six, even though the Grant is half as long and doesn’t contain any pedestrian or bike paths, and is two-lane rather than six. And not long after the Grant was built there were "oops" occasions when the bridge had to be closed for inspections and repairs, on the Kentucky side. It was as if the points on the Ohio and Kentucky shores, which the bridge was supposed to connect with, were not perfectly coordinated.
      Wikipedia reports, “ It should be noted that the bridge was critically under-designed and not constructible until C.J. Mahan stopped construction and awaited a near complete redesign by the design consultant.” Mahan was suspected of having more political connections than business acumen. He was not much better when it came to barges than he was with bridges. At one point a barge sank that was carrying a large crane that was to be used to construct the center of the bridge. This was the cause of one of many delays. It was as if the bridge was being built not on the Ohio but on the Amazon River, in the jungles of South America, or on the Khwai River, in Thailand. The hungry and abused prisoners of war who built a railroad bridge in the Oscar winning 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai were efficiency experts compared to those who built the new Grant Bridge. 
      Its embarrassing history notwithstanding, there at the heart of the new city seal is the Grant Bridge, wrapped in the American flag no less, which brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s remark that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Who is the scoundrel  responsible for making the Grant Bridge the center of the city seal? Who dared to besmirch the American flag by having it wrapped around the boondoggled Grant Bridge? Without claiming I am  sure of  the answer to that question, I will call your attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in the new city seal. I refer to the tiny fleurs-de-lis, if I am not mistaken,  alternating with stars, in  the outermost circle of the seal. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Manager-Council Government: Less Democracy, More Hypocrisy

     I see that our officious First Ward council member Kevin W. Johnson is at it again, once more donning his Mussolini hat to modernize government the way the Italian dictator did, which was by undermining democracy. As if he had not done enough harm when he engineered the change back to the less democratic manager-council form of government, Johnson is proposing five more amendments to the city charter. For someone who is telling people as he makes his political rounds that he will be moving from Portsmouth as soon as conveniently possible, wouldn't you think he would stay around to live with consequences of these charter amendments he so freely and underhandedly proposes?
      What  apparently motivated Johnson to go on his latest amendment binge was the recent election in the Sixth Ward primary in which the incumbent Jeff Kleha finished third in the voting, disqualifying him from being a candidate in the general election. What Johnson and City Manager Derek Allen claimed to be disturbed by was that Sixth Ward voters were allowed to vote for two instead of just one of the three candidates. That is unusual. Usually voters vote for only one candidate. It may be unusual to vote for two in a primary in which there are three candidates, but that is not an infringement of democracy nor a  violation of the city charter or state law, which doesn’t specify how many candidates an elector can vote for in a primary. I think that what  really upset Johnson and especially Allen was not the irregularity of voting for two candidates, or the allegedly bad precedent the Sixth Ward set that Allen claims may haunt us for fifty years. That is not the bottom line in all this.
     What really upset Allen was the defeat of Kleha,  whom the city manager  was counting on for continued support on city council. If Kleha had not lost,  I doubt Johnson or Allen would have been the least upset. If Allen was acting on principle and not on selfish political motives, why did he wait until after the election, after Kleha’s loss, before making a public issue of the primary by writing a letter of protest to the Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn? As Kuhn pointed out in his ruling on the Sixth Ward primary, no one, including Allen, had objected in a timely manner to the unusual voting arrangement. And what was the city manager doing involving himself in the issue in the first place? Wasn't that as Kuhn pointed out the responsibility of the Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas, the city's chief legal officer?
      What Allen found most  disturbing, if truth be told,  was  that the top vote getters in the primary, Tom Lowe and Shawn Stratton, have been critical of Allen’s performance as city manager, Stratton vehemently so. Since Allen could be terminated if the required number of the city council decide he has to go, he cannot afford to have even one member of the council who thinks he's not up to the job. If there was one council member against him, there might be more, and it would only take four to be a majority against him, and what then of Allen's job security? When  Allen told the Daily Times “he has no opinion regarding the outcome of the election or on the ruling of the Board of Election,” I believe he was not telling the truth, as I think is obvious in other things he said about the primary election. As city manager he knows he is supposed to be above politics, to be impartial. Was he lying when he claimed he had no opinion? Do you think a city official who would lie under oath as a public official in his hometown, as Allen had in Piqua, would such an official hesitate, in a city in which he is a commuting city manager,  hesitate to lie to a local newspaper reporter? If Kevin Johnson is something of a Mussolini, Allen is something of a Machiavelli. I don’t mean to imply that either of them is a fascist, but they both have a fine Italian hand, showing a contempt for the democratic process and for the intelligence of the electorate, which may be why they are so underhanded. 
     Speaking of undemocratic tactics I will have something alarming  to reveal about the undemocratic tactics that supporters of  the  manager-council form of city government resorted to in 2011 to get the change-in-government amendment passed. All I will mention at this point is an acronym. No, I don't mean SOGP, which blessedly is no longer with us, but ICMA, which unfortunately is.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Dreamland: What's in a Name?

      Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction (2015), has been rightfully acclaimed for detailing and regaling how America became hooked on opiates. Quinones shows how the venal pharmaceutical industry with the assistance of the medical establishment sold the country on the fatally mistaken notion that opiates when properly prescribed and managed were not addictive and dangerous. Free Market Fundamentalism, which is an article of faith with rightwing Republicans, is not a religion Quinones subscribes to. One of the valuable lessons to be learned from his book is that the profit motive, rather than being a  panacea, is at best a necessary evil.
      But Quinones does not stop there, for in an apparent attempt to provide a happy ending to Dreamland, he claims that the tide of opiate addiction in America has been turned around and that we are on our way to controlling if not eliminating what he calls frequently, with his fondness for alliterative phrases, “the morphine molecule.” That part of his book, the happy ending part, I find unpersuasive. It is a tall tale. And in particular I find the dreamland theme, enshrined in the book’s alliterative title, when it is not puzzling and confusing, to be wishful thinking if not a marketing gimmick. One  of the perennial  schemes in American marketing is using the American Dream, or one of its many variations, such as  “dreamland,”  to sell almost anything, even, in this case a  book on the subject of opiate addiction.  
      Quinones apparently felt his  narrative about opiate addiction needed the  dreamland ending to provide the uplift that American readers, with their incorrigible faith in the future,  appreciate and to some extent expect. Both in their own lives and in their narratives, Americans require  uplifting, Horatio Alger endings, unaware that Alger’s life was anything but happy and successful, marred as it was by the long shadow of his father’s bankruptcy and by his own hushed sexual molestation of boys.

Portsmouth as Dreamland

      Quinones’ very questionable claim is that  the turnaround of the opiate epidemic began and is continuing in Portsmouth, Ohio, our rustbelt river city  that in the last quarter century has gained the reputation  of being, per capita, the most drugged, the most addicted, the most  OxyContined  city in Ohio, if not America. That the putative  turnaround of the opiate epidemic is  taking place in Portsmouth is  all the more surprising to me because I have lived in  Portsmouth for the last quarter century, and I have found it to be, as I have been pointing out in my blog River Vices since July 2004, not a dreamland—whatever that may mean—but the most vice-ridden and drug-ridden city I have ever lived in, and I’ve lived in my share of American cities. I only wish that Quinones’ dreamland claim was true, for if the opiate tide is being turned around in  Portsmouth, then it probably could be turned around anywhere. 
      Unfortunately, a turnaround  isn’t what’s happening in Portsmouth, especially in my historic Boneyfiddle neighborhood, close to the Counseling Center. If OxyContin is no longer easy to obtain and if the neighborhood pill mills are no longer flourishing in Portsmouth, the old-fashioned meth labs and heroin have taken up some of the slack caused by the lack of OxyContin. As I wrote about in a River Vices post titled “From Pill Mills to Counseling Centers,” the counseling centers with their sub-Oxycontin Suboxone solution have taken up some of the slack created by the departure of the pill mills (click here). 
      Portsmouth isn’t a nightmare; there are good people and positive things happening here, but it is light years away from being a dreamland, whatever Quinones may mean by that term. The crooked ruling clique and  the addicts, many of whom were attracted and even lured to Portsmouth, are still here as are the people, like Ed Hughes of the Counseling Center, who got in on the ground floor of the business of  luring and exploiting addicts. Though the Counseling Center has not been raided yet, Hughes’ local rival in the drug rehabilitation racket, Paul Vernier, had  his operations in Portsmouth raided by local and state police and Vernier himself  was indicted for cooking the books of his operation (click here). 

Once a Dreamland, Always a Dreamland

      As evidence that Portsmouth is now a dreamland, Quinone claims it previously had been one at least once in the not too distant past. He quotes  former residents (who sound as if they might have been coaxed)  who say the city was a dreamland when they were growing up there about forty years ago. Why do  they remember it as a dreamland? At least partly  because there was a swimming pool back then that they loved that was named Dreamland. But the former residents who told Quinones  they loved this Dreamland were all white. Dreamland was a  private segregated pool that excluded blacks. White kids may have loved Dreamland, but black kids didn’t. How could they love it when they couldn’t get in? One black kid who was excluded from Dreamland drowned swimming in an unsafe stretch of the Scioto River. When a new, public, integrated pool was later opened, it was named McKinley, after the drowned boy. Quinones knows all this, but he downplays racism in Portsmouth because it tends to undermine his claim that the city once was, and is becoming again, a virtual dreamland. “Virtual dreamland” is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as “deafening silence,” “definitely maybe,” or to go no further than the title of Quinones’ book, a “True Tale.” A dreamland by definition is unreal, a never-never land, a contradiction that exists only in someone’s imagination. Just what Quinones  thinks the word dreamland means he never makes clear. Does the dreamland in Dreamland exist only in his imagination?
      In 2013, in River Vices, I wrote a brief history of the Dreamland  pool and of the tradition of coverup in Portsmouth when it comes to racism (click here). One of the most infamous incidents in Portsmouth’s history, the expulsion of all blacks from the city in January 1830, on what was called Black Friday, was soon forgotten, as if it had never happened. The same denial and coverup occurred about drugs until Portsmouth became so notorious not only in Ohio but across the nation, that it could no longer  be ignored. A pill mill doctor, the daughter of one of Portsmouth’s prominent medical families, tried to dismiss and ridicule the uproar about opiates by treating it as hysteria, but that did not stop her and her father from being indicted for illegally prescribing an astronomical number of OxyContin pills. 

The Roots of Dreamland

      Quinones’ history of opiate addiction, at least in regard to Portsmouth, is a little—and I emphasize little—like Alex Haley’s novel Roots, published in 1976, which became a phenomenally successful book and television mini-series. It would not surprise me if Dreamland was turned into a movie, but it not likely would have been without its intriguing packaging as Dreamland. What's in a name? Everything. Haley insisted his novel was based exclusively on history, on facts, on roots, but that turned out to be untrue. He used his imagination rather extensively and he plagiarized from The African, a novel published in 1967. He also talked to Africans who answered his questions by telling him not the truth but what they believed he wanted to hear. The Wikipedia entry on Haley says subsequent researchers “cast doubt on whether Haley tracked his ancestry to a specific village and individual, or was being told what he wanted to hear by people who lived there.” To some extent that may be what Quinones was told when he was asking questions of carefully selected Portsmouth residents, known as "Portsmouth boys," and at least one Portsmouth girl, in the carefully selected city of Portsmouth. He was being told what he wanted to hear, which was that Portsmouth was a dreamland city.
      In tracing the history of the opiate epidemic, and tracing in particular the idea of Portsmouth as a dreamland, Quinones at times appears to be more a novelist than a historian. A dreamland is indispensable  to the plot of DreamlandQuinones went back not to Africa but to Ohio, a half dozen times. To resort to  an old cliché, if Portsmouth the dreamland had not existed, Quinones, the  novelist,  would have had to invent it. He needed Portsmouth as the cure to America’s opiate epidemic on which to end his “True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” “True Tale”—isn’t that another oxymoron? He needed “dreamland” and the “Portsmouth boys,” which is a term of endearment in endogamous Portsmouth, to balance the heroin dealing “Xalisco boys” of Mexico, who Quinones, characteristically, claims were not so bad after all. 


      Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction: Thinking about  Quinones' book in retrospect and especially its peculiar, alliterative  title, with those hypnotic t's and lulling l's and that oxymoronic "True Tale,"  set me to wondering whether there weren't Freudian slips of alliteration as there are Freudian slips of the tongue, and whether the title of the book alone unconsciously tells the true tale about the tall tale, which is that it is fundamentally, when taken literally, not true. Whoever came up with that title was unconsciously linguistically spilling the beans about opiate addiction and about Portsmouth. Opiates are far more insidious and Portsmouth far more corrupt than Quinones is prepared to admit. If Quinones is not prepared to admit it, the title of his book is. To rework another cliché, "Trust the title, not the teller.'' Dreamland is a tall tale.