Defeated by the war on poverty

The big story in the big media today is assessing where America stands 50 years since LBJ issued a battle cry against poverty.

LBJ signs the Medicare law in 1965.

LBJ signs Medicare into law in 1965.

His State of the Union Address on Jan. 8, 1964, helped establish the Economic Opportunity Act, the Office of Economic Opportunity, food stamps, Job Corps, Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare and a slew of programs aimed at bridging the wealth gap. Not socialism, just a healthy dose of social consciousness.

How are we doing? The prosperity in this country is ridiculous. Yet so many of us get shortchanged that even our perceptions are skewed. We literally don’t know what we’re missing.

The bottom line: America is bottom-heavy, and I don’t mean our obesity crisis. This is not just about the suffering poor, but the nouveau impoverishment of the rest of us. You’ve heard it all before: The middle class is being squeezed, as all of the wealth is concentrated at the top. Still, most of us have no idea how much disparity exists.

As legislators split and pull hairs over what makes a fair minimum wage, check out the hair-raising reality exposing the imbalance. This went viral, but not everyone is down with the sick facts. In the past 20-30 years, during the prolonged war on poverty, the top 1% went from bringing home 9% of the income to 24% and holding 40% of the nation’s $54 trillion booty. What does that look like?

Watch this and weep.

No matter how many federal initiatives or programs get thrown in as filler, the wealth gap seems to be widening, not closing. I wouldn’t be surprised if those of us paying the highest tax ratio end up depending on the very programs they fund to survive. That’s called “implosion.”

Forbes recently asked: “Could America’s wealth gap lead to a revolt?” It’s certainly revolting.

The nearly 7-minute video on YouTube I just shared has “only” 13,819,456 views (out of 317 million Americans, and three of those views are mine). So I know not all of you have seen it. Well, all six of MY readers have seen it … Meanwhile, the “Best VINES of September 2013 Compilation!” — a 10-minute video that includes 100-plus short-attention-span, dumb-ass VINE videos — has 34,878,552 views. Maybe that tells part of the story.

Hey, I’m not opposed to VINE videos or creative expression. One of those views is mine. There are even people who make money from such endeavors, getting sponsors, hoping somehow to strike it rich. Sadly, artists are rarely rich, although they’re the ones who most enrich our existence.

And sure, the people making up the bottom of the barrel or the middle chunk of society aren’t the same year to year. We have folks moving up and down the ladder all the time, trading places, falling off.

But that ladder leads into the stratosphere where, as the chart shows, nine out of 10 have lost sight of reality based on a false “ideal” — not a New Deal, but a Bum Deal.

You can keep your war on poverty. America’s wars cost too dearly. I’ll wait for the rebellion.


A bread line in 1937.


Birds in popular culture: Flicks, ’toons and tunes

For those who missed it, I reported in USA TODAY last week on the big birding news that many likely missed.

Bird fans twittered for days about my statement: “Arguably no animal — not even man’s best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.”

That bears out in popular culture. A sampling.

5 great under-the-radar bird flicks that aren’t Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (which turned 50 last year):

1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). This documentary explores the bond between an unemployed musician squatting in San Francisco while tending to a flock of feral cherry-headed conures.

2. Kes (1969). Based on the 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave, this British film about a boy’s hardscrabble life buoyed by a bird is told in such accented English you might need subtitles or repeated viewings to get all the dialogue. The universal emotion cuts like a knife.

3. Fly Away Home (1996). A Disney-esque tale of a father (Jeff Daniels) and daughter (Anna Paquin) attempting to lead orphaned Canada geese on their migration route.

4. Winged Migration (2001). This spectacular French documentary in the vein of 2005’s must-see March of the Penguins will literally change your worldview.

5. Birdy (1984). Based on the William Wharton novel of the same name, two Vietnam vets deal with their post-traumatic stress in this Alan Parker pearl. One, an avid canary keeper (Matthew Modine), takes his obsession too far and finds sanctuary in believing he is a bird, while the other (Nicolas Cage — aptly named) is enlisted to help free Birdy from his illness.

5 most inspiring TV cartoon birds

1. Road Runner Has an uncanny ability to escape every scrape with danger.

2. WoodstockNamed for the legendary 1969 three-day music and peace festival on Yasgur’s farm in the New York Catskills, Snoopy’s loyal sidekick is famous for busting through pretensions.

3. Woody WoodpeckerVoiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also did Tweety Bird), he’s a rascal who even inspired young boys to imitate his comb-forward hairstyle. (And if you’re still trying to identify what type of woodpecker he is, here’s the definitive word.)

4. Daffy Duck & Donald DuckYou’d think the Looney Tunes mascots might include a loon, but these two resilient comic fowls are linguistic marvels, showing kids everywhere that they can become thhhhomebody even with a thhhhhhpeech impediment.

5. Toucan SamThe mascot for Froot Loops cereal since 1963, he defies birds’ typically inferior sense of smell with an ability to sniff out sugar anytime, anywhere while showcasing an advanced bird brain capable of speaking Pig Latin (OOT-fray OOPS-lay).

6 signature bird songs by humans (selecting just one per decade)

thunderbird11. 1960s: “Surfin’ Bird” — The Trashmen
Released in 1963, it soared to No. 4 on Billboard Hot 100. Its wide appeal and longevity might be explained by it being a blend of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Bird’s the Word, which was sparked by Red Prysock’s radio jingle advertising a cheap brand of wine, Thunderbird: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.”

2. 1970s: “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Debuted in 1973, it is “the most-requested song in the history of rock music,” says music reviewer Lorry Fleming. The band itself is a bit like a mythical phoenix, having made a comeback after losing key members in a fiery plane crash.

3. 1980s: “The Chicken Dance” — In the repertoire of any wedding band worth its salt
Composed by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, the translated name is “The Duck Dance.” The accompanying fad dance, often performed at wedding receptions and safe for the whole family to embarrass themselves with, was introduced to the U.S. in 1981 at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest by the German Heilbronn Band. They wanted to perform it in duck costumes, but couldn’t lay their hands on any, so a local TV station donated a chicken costume, hatching the new name.

4. 1990s: “I Believe I Can Fly” — R. Kelly
Featured on the soundtrack of 1996’s “Space Jam” and forever linked to NBA superman Michael Jordan, the song gained universal fame when used as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and, later, on Oct. 13, 2012, as Endeavour’s theme song when the space shuttle program was ceremoniously retired. Given that birds first piqued humankind’s aspiration for flight, this fits even though birds aren’t mentioned (but images of a hawk are overlaid with images of a young basketball player in the official music video, and there were plenty of animated birds in the movie, like Daffy Duck).

Beirne Lowry's eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Beirne Lowry’s eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

5. 2000s: “Where the Stars & Stripes & the Eagle Fly” — Aaron Tippin
Hard to pick just one country song mentioning eagles. Released Sept. 10, 2002, this hit embodies post-9/11 patriotism and the allusion that the eagle and the mystical phoenix are synonymous with the American spirit that continually arises from the ashes.

6. 2010s: “I Like Birds” — The Eels
With childlike awe, this ditty reflects a gentle sensibility and hipster evolution of our love of birds — as understated as a Facebook “like.”

But no song can rival the calming magic of actual birdsong. Happy exploring!

In search of The Word Detective

“The Word Detective” has gone missing!

That beloved site run by Evan Morris on the Web since 1995 has not posted an update since October, and instead of dissecting words he told of battling primary progressive multiple sclerosis — quite the mouthful — and struggling to pay his bills.

He’s the one who charmingly answers such reader questions as this:

Dear Evan: I was spending a day at the beach recently, and, taking time out from reading a book, spent some time watching seagulls. I noticed that these gulls did a great deal of walking around and picking up things that they seemed to think would be edible but weren’t, such as candy wrappers. They did not, in short, seem very bright. Is this where we get the word “gullible”? — Katherine Mercurio, New York, NY.

Since I am only remotely related to any seagulls myself, I shall answer your question, but first I’ll let you in on an old lexicographer’s secret — “gullible” is one of the few common English words not listed in any dictionary.

I’m tempted to let that sentence stand as is, but I get enough irate reader mail already, so yes, I’m pulling your leg. “Gullible,” meaning “easily tricked or deceived,” is in all decent dictionaries and does indeed have a connection with “gull” the bird. Lest I inflame my avian correspondents in Brooklyn, however, I should note that most authorities feel that the “gull” in “gullible” is not a seagull, but comes from an earlier sense of the word, meaning a young bird of any species. And young birds, as you seem to have discovered, are easy to fool.

For those of us enamored with language, it would be dreadful to lose his fulgent voice. My own, pathetic column riffing on language, “Word Whoops,” is an occasional distraction, but Morris’ livelihood depends on his lively linguistic probes.

They tell young people to pursue what gives life meaning, and they’ll find the means to live. They tell writers: Write what you know, and you’ll be successful. They say: Do what you love and never work a day in your life. Here’s Morris, trying to cure a poverty of knowledge, or at least enrich our ability to communicate, and he faces impoverishment? Then suddenly — ex-communication?!

Seriously, I’m concerned. If anyone gets word, please spread it. And if you have the means, please support his effort to bring more meaning into our lives.