Sunday, May 05, 2019

Trump and the Kentucky Derby

President Trump today tweeted his explanation for the controversial decision that disqualified the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby on a rules violation. The second place finisher was awarded the victory after the judges ruled that the violation was severe. As the debate ensued, Trump stated that he disagreed with the officials and attributed the whole thing to political correctness. 

Here is Trump’s tweet:

The Kentucky Derby decision was not a good one. It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch. Only in these days of political correctness could such an overturn occur. The best horse did NOT win the Kentucky Derby - not even close!

When I read that, it occurred to me that the words in the post, with just a few changes, could be applied to him and his 2016 election.

My suggested rewrite (without textual redactions) is as follows:

The Trump Electoral College decision was not a good one. It was a rough & tumble race on a wet and sloppy track, actually, a beautiful thing to watch. Only in these days of Constitutional correctness could such an upholding occur. The best candidate did NOT win the American election - not even close.

Thank you, Mr. President. Your thoughts on the upcoming World Badminton Tournament will be eagerly anticipated. 

Monday, October 08, 2018

"Fare Thee Well," Joan

Thursday night, as the United States Senate was in the final throes of ceding its soul to voices of fear and deceit, Joan Baez walked onto the stage of the Chicago Theatre for the last time, having willed her 77-year-old voice to one final tour across the country and around the world.

This was Chicago's turn for a "Fare Thee Well” concert, and that magical voice pierced the warm rain of the city's night with haunting lyrics and familiar folk tunes lamenting the raspy disharmony of hate and daring to confront it with the perfect pitch of love.

Baez did what she has done throughout her life, and mine. Born during World War II, she grew into one of the country’s most persistent critics of all wars, a passionate pacifist but a forceful, opponent of injustice and violence.

She wrote the songs that were nested in her heart and sang the songs written by her fellow travelers in the protest movement that defined her life. And so the phrases resonate—diamonds and rust, houses adorned with rising suns, hard rains soon to fall, driving old Dixie down, Bobby McGee, Michael rowing his boat ashore, forever young, sweet chariots, amazing grace, and gypsies everywhere.

Joyce and I were there that night, along with our son Jeff and his girlfriend Julie—Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers sharing a journey across this cultural divide. It was a pre-planned but still prescient trip (including the astonishing musical experience that is Hamilton and a raucous improvisational treatment of Shakespeare). We were anticipating the best of America--the mystique of the big city, jazz, dance, the arts in many forms, Uber drivers from Ghana with tales to tell, and hotels overlooking baseball's Wrigley Field but without a game to play.

But alas, the country was in the midst of a protracted and vicious battle over a controversial nominee to the Supreme Court. We needed an escape from what this debate had revealed -- presidential smuggery, congressional cowardice, and a political culture poised to slide into moral bankruptcy. 

President Trump and his beleaguered nominee
for the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court
There was a sense of urgency in the theater. The audience skewed older—silver hair, slower steps, canes, and walkers in abundance, including mine. But there were granddaughters too, accompanied by grandmothers who hope they will one day understand. There were fathers and sons talking about being a man.

| Vol. LXXX No. 21

Perhaps it was predictable that this dark shadow would be cast across our land when Joan Baez was booked for this final appearance in Chicago on this final tour of her career. Every one of us had come to celebrate the contributions of her life and witness and to enjoy the beauty of her music. But from the first song, it was clear that her voice that night was not about past sit-ins or marches on Selma. It was not about past campaigns for human rights or women's rights or voting rights or civil rights of any kind. 

The set of songs she sang, no matter the familiarity of the lyrics, was about present-day injustice, politicians without values, history without context, and a culture that is increasingly coarse and bereft of moral leadership. It was about now, not then. It was about us, not them.

What we got from Joan Baez was not an antidote or a cure. But it was a response, powerfully sung and passionately felt. 

And now she needs to say farewell. How can she go? The hard rain is still coming. Michael's boat is not ashore. There are many more Bobby McGees. There are promises to keep out there blowing in the wind.

But this is one of those promises:

Oh fare thee well, I must be gone
And leave you for a while
Wherever I go, I will return
If I go ten thousand miles
If I go, if I go, if I go ten thousand miles

(Songwriters: David GudeFare Thee Well lyrics © The Bicycle Music Company)

So fare thee well, dear Joan. You have served us well, loved your world, found the light, and given us hope. It is the fulfillment of a life well lived.

By amazing grace you found your way, and by amazing grace you go.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Taxes, Jobs, and the Pit Bull Effect

The news was good this week when the Labor Department submitted its monthly report on new job growth and declining unemployment rates, signaling an economy steadily recovering from the economic collapse of 2008.

I am trying to understand why my reaction was tepid at best, more like a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I think it's the pit bull effect.

It's like a family who keeps a pit bull in the house to scare away solicitors, despite the fact it keeps biting the children. When the monthly report comes out the family is thrilled that there have been no pest control salesmen, kids peddling candy for a school fundraiser, or Jehova's Witnesses distributing the latest issue of Watchtower. The children appear to be recovering, but they flinch every time they hear a dog bark.

I'm sorry if this offends pit bull fans who will come rushing to their defense, citing tales of lovable pits who have rescued children from drowning and posed for Christmas cards. Maybe so, but keep them away from my grandkids. I'm just using them for illustration purposes. See below for my penance.

I'll speak only for myself, although I don't believe I'm alone. When I think of pit bulls, Donald Trump comes more readily to mind than Florence Nightingale. And that's why I'm less than thrilled by the current economic news. Apparently, in order to get economic growth, improved wages, full employment, and other desirable outcomes, we have to tolerate in the White House a deeply flawed leader who is self-absorbed, misogynistic, racist, dangerously uninformed, culturally insensitive, and intellectually lazy. And worst of all, he is a pathological liar, unlike anyone we have known in public life for generations.

A pit bull is sitting in the Oval Office, watching cable news, destroying the environment with the click of a pen, offending global partners with tariffs and broken treaties, waving nuclear missiles in his hands like they were popsicles, enriching the monied class with unconscionable tax breaks, rescinding in one fell swoop consumer protections that have taken decades to secure, and handing out pardons to personal friends and celebrities implicitly threatening to use them to save his own neck. And at a more foundational level, he attacks the cherished institutions of our republic, including, most dangerously, the separation of powers.

But that's okay. We got a tax cut. (If you have received yours, please raise your hand.)

I know that political campaigns run to a large degree on economic issues. James Carville, a senior political strategist for the successful 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign, is famously known for coining the phrase, "The economy, stupid." I am as happy as anyone to see my taxes reduced and my unemployed friends secure a job. but I cannot allow myself to celebrate financial gains that crush the social contract that guarantees fundamental freedoms, equality of opportunity, and the promise of a society that works every day to provide our children with affordable education, healthcare for all, safety in schools, security from threats abroad, and the privilege of living in a world where we are admired for our values and honored for living them in our everyday life.

A pit bull sits in the Oval Office, staffed with a chorus of complicity. He brags about the economy and ignores the trail of broken lives that are this administration's refuse. Some say his bark is worse than his bite. It is not. His bark may come as a tweet, but it is ferocious nonetheless.

Don't ask me to rejoice in a growing economy. As long as the pit bull is in the White House, the cost is way too high.

This is my penance for treating pit bulls in an unfavorable light.
I kind of like the image of the nurturing pit bull. Wish we had one.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Just One Day of Greatness

A Modest Proposal for an Ambitious Bumper Sticker

For some time now we have been living with a slogan promising to "Make America Great Again." Appearing first as the catchphrase for the Trump primary campaign, it then extended to the general election and ultimately became the mantra for the Trump administration as they began to govern the nation.

It has appeared on baseball caps, t-shirts, lawn signs, television screens, podiums, and other surfaces, some of which one would never imagine and I would avoid describing. It has been analyzed ad nauseam, become a stimulator of cheers and jeers, and likely will be soon forgotten depending on how successful are those who proclaim its message and program.

The phrase appeared unbidden on America's cultural landscape, promising much and delivering little. In fact, one could argue that its adherents have done more to divide than unite, more to coarsen the public discourse than to inspire it. Once considered the leader of the free world, America has become a bellicose bully without principles, an undependable ally and a dangerous foe. 

I have a modest proposal.

Let's try for just one day of greatness and see where it leads us.

Making America great again is a pretty daunting task. We bring mere humans to the job. At best they are imperfect vessels for virtuous objectives and worthy ideals. The realities of governing in this political climate make consensus elusive and succumbing to one's own self-interests very tempting. Given all the forces that conspire to derail our highest aspirations, maybe we should try something that is a little less demanding. Let's pull the target closer in, put suction cups on the arrows, and cheer all the archers for their best efforts rather than the sum of their bullseyes.

I don't pretend that shortening the distance simplifies the task. In some respects it might require us to stop something rather than do something.  Sometimes that is hardest of all.

Here for starters are a few things that might get us going toward our one day of greatness.
  • One Day of Silence. It is essential that we begin with 24 hours of all listening and no talking or communicating by our president and the White House staff. Not one word. Not a single tweet. No campaign rallies or backroom deals. No press-baiting or media schmoozing. He can discuss supper with Melania but that's it. No chatting with the kids about their latest fashion line in China or their plan for a branded hotel in Puerto Rico. For one blessed day, the only message to emanate from the White House is silence. On this foundation, the whole concept stands or falls.
  • One Day of Globalism. To the global community of friends and foes, we will send one message spoken with one voice, assuring the world that our country is committed to peace, justice, and to the common good. We will state unequivocally that putting America first is a statement of patriotism and not isolationism. We will hire on that one day experienced ambassadors and diplomats to fill critical vacancies representing our country around the world. We know who they are. Call them.
  • One Day of Decency. This an appeal to demonstrate sensitivity and common sense in matters of culture and politics. No berating pleading mayors of cities devastated by hurricanes, with bodies rotting in the streets, while you are playing golf at a luxurious resort. No instructions on using one's celebrity to get away with crotch-grabbing, especially while seeking election as leader of the free world. No dehumanizing name-calling for the leaders of other nations and one's own political opponents, or political friends for that matter. No commenting on professional athletes exercising their rights to free speech, threatening another culture war with no reason or value. If this cannot be achieved with the NFL and NBA, limit it to water polo teams, then let the courts sort it out. And finally, and this will be a tough one, no lying.
  • One Day of Equality. All three branches of government will affirm equal rights under the law for all persons regardless of race, religion, gender, and other basic human characteristics. Racism and white supremacy will not be tolerated in this society and all branches of government will act accordingly. If there is a question as to whether a certain person or group is eligible for inclusion under the equal protection clause of the Constitution, include them. 
  • One Day of Ecology. We will acknowledge the virtually unanimous consent within the international scientific community that human activity is largely responsible for global warming and other factors that question the long-term viability of the earth. For one day we will suspend the enforcement of devastating executive orders that repeal regulations essential to the earth's survival, including the Paris Accords. For this day all politicians will be forbidden to speak about science. Just to be on the safe side, this will include politicians who think they may actually be scientists.
  • One Day of Civility. While some of these ideas may be difficult for every American to connect with, this is one that every single person can do. Speak softly. Seek forgiveness. Do not judge. Try to understand. Seek the common good. Embrace pluralism. Try to compromise. Respect the religion of others. Be a global citizen. In respect to the president alone, the requirement to be civil shall extend to two days.
  • One Day of Kindness. I write this in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. The only response to such horrific events is to do what we saw our friends and neighbors do as they risked their own lives to assist victims, usually people they did not know. In such times we "appeal to the better angels of our nature" (Lincoln's First Inaugural). To be kind is to draw not so much from one's mind as one's heart. It is the outward measure of greatness.
I humbly offer this proposal, complete with occasional diversionary witticisms lest we take ourselves too seriously, as an encouragement to focus on the right things. Therein lies a viable future worthy of our nation's grand experiment in freedom, broken and fragile as it may seem right now. I welcome additions, suggestions, criticisms, even recommendations that I never write another word.

There is one response that I will neither welcome nor consider, and that is to tell me it is impractical. Practicality has snuffed out way too many dreams. We need much more than stifling predispositions and boring predictability. 

If we can do this for just one day, however imperfectly, we can demonstrate possibility, which is the pathway to hope.

Then perhaps we truly can make America great again.

Or proud again. Or kind again. Or respected again. Or inspiring again.

Not for the first time. Not for the last. But perhaps for our slice of human history, we should just take it one day at a time.

Monday, June 05, 2017

World Worry

I'm at a point in life where I've got plenty to worry about. I've had doctors screwing appliances into my back where discs should be. Like most seniors, I fret about whether we have sufficient income and savings to make our way to the grand exit without adversely affecting our family. I've got two marvelous grandchildren and I want them to live as full and meaningful lives as possible. I've been disfavored with an insidious disease (Parkinson's) that has its way with me without warning, slowing me to a snail's pace for a while and then sneaking away to visit another day. There's more, but I don't want to whine.

All of that is sufficient to make me feel that I've got enough on my plate. Surely someone else can worry about the world? Aren't there some people out there who are smart, responsible, and caring and who have the expertise to fix the big problems? If an asteroid is heading our way, somebody would shoot it out of the sky before it hits us, right? We are doing everything we can with our abundant resources to prevent famines, right? We'll keep atomic bombs out of the hands of dictators and deranged leaders, right? We understand the fragile nature of our world and will join with the international community to deal with climate change on behalf of the next generation and others to come, right? We realize that we live in a global society and cannot possibly exist as a country that proclaims a "me first" policy and ignores the larger world of which we are a part, right?

I'm right, right? Please tell me I don't have to worry about that stuff. I'm kind of busy with arthritis.

Alas, I'm beginning to feel that I'm not right, that our world is slowly coming apart and that it is time to worry about that world. I might even suggest a mild panic. 

The nexus of the problem is with the incendiary and divisive leadership of our president and his unprincipled administration. This piece isn't a critique of Trump. Pundits smarter than me have written about this incompetent and dangerous president, his litany of deeds and misdeeds, the twittering away of a privilege the American people have bestowed upon him to lead our nation and represent our values and interests on the world's stage. 

It has become an embarrassment of epic proportions. It's less than five months since inauguration and this country's stock in the world has dropped like a rock into the sea. A bully dressed up like a diplomat/negotiator has been to one meeting of European heads of state and managed to threaten the very existence of a coalition that has served the security interests of its members since 1949. Promised health care reform has become a sham, with the lives of millions in the balance. So-called tax reform has the wealthy lined up with wheelbarrows at the Federal Reserve or whatever agency dispenses welfare checks for the rich. (Photo ID's are recommended but not required; they know who you are.)

I could go on. I want to go on. But as I said, this isn't about him. It's about me and how this sudden sense of World Worry is burrowing into my soul and raising troublesome questions about the fate of our planet and the survival of the human race. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I'm dead serious. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Back in August 2015, I posted on this blog a piece entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Up." This is how it began:

Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.
This was obviously something that was significant to me. I mean, how often does one awaken sleeping children on an early morning to watch the news? I have referred to it in several places, but the impression that historic event made on me was not how wonderful it is that the Cold War is over and our enemy Russia is coming undone. Instead, I was set to pondering about how quickly these powerful adversaries had fallen. In the twinkling of an eye it happened, or so it seemed. If it could happen to them why couldn't it happen to us? 

I began to worry about our world.

I think of World Worry as a time when ordinary people going about everyday life begin to experience fear about the stability of their world, concern about their overall well-being, and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. Some might call it angst, which one dictionary defines as "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one, about the human condition or the state of the world in general."

That comes pretty close to what I've been feeling these days. But why?

It seems to me that there are a few things that lead to World Worry these days. Here's a beginning list:

  • Lack of confidence in leaders. Regardless of political or philosophical differences, there is a general belief that the world's leaders, and certainly our own, have our best interests at heart, seek the common good, and despite a few bad apples will generally do the right thing. When that bond of trust is broken the social contract we depend on can crack or even shatter. I worry about this.
  • Things seem out of control. Whether it's climate change that threatens to do damage to the earth or a terrorist culture that proclaims that no one anywhere is safe, there is a feeling that things are happening that we cannot control, leaving all of us to wonder who will be affected next. Perhaps it will be a tourist in New Orleans when the floods come, a third grader doing multiplication tables in the presumed safety of her school, or a modest investor unaware of the coming bank collapse or hedge fund fraud. Things happen, and the fact that we can't anticipate or stop them gives us abundant reasons to fret. I worry about this.
  • Random interpersonal conflict. We seem to be in a time when internal struggles are expressed as external anger. An ill-advised turn in front of someone on the highway results in a hail of bullets from the offended vehicle. A fired employee returns to his workplace with an AK47 and sprays ammunition everywhere, killing and maiming those who don't even know the termination occurred. Confrontation is commonplace, no longer limited to drunken bar fights, but in the grocery store, the library, even churches. These days anyone can be my enemy, even if I don't know who they are. A sense of community is broken down by suspicion and fear. I worry about this.
  • Economic disparity. The vast gulf between rich and poor, the middle class and the top one percent, is growing by leaps and bounds and threatens to worsen if proposed "tax reforms" make their way into law. While horrendous problems like ethnic cleansings, pandemic viruses, and widespread famine contribute to worldwide concerns, the income disparity probably has the most damaging impact in the United States. In other nations, this has led to violent protests in the streets and there is no reason to think we will escape the same result if we continue down this path. I worry about this.
  • Lack of respect for cultural diversity. America has always been the melting pot, embracing religious and ethnic differences and believing that cultural diversity strengthens our nation. But now there is movement at the highest levels of government to ban certain religious and cultural groups from entering the country, despite clear evidence that they pose little or no threat to national security. Acts of violence toward mosques and synagogues are increasing, fueled by ignorance and hatred. Calming words from respected leaders are muted and shouted down. Normal people are confused, wondering whether to succumb to their fears or support voices of reason. I worry about this.
  • Science gets replaced by politicians. This is a startling development. We have an issue such as climate change for which there is widespread and global agreement among scientists, but people are clamoring to hear what Trump thinks. He, of course, has not a clue and his opinion is totally irrelevant, but we wait breathlessly to see if he supports the almost 200 signatories of the Paris Agreement, including ours. He doesn't. Remember how Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Same thing, except that Trump twittered while the world burns. I worry about this.
  • When words become bullets. I have a high regard for the power and importance of words. Properly used, they can inspire and encourage and challenge. Improperly used, they can become a cudgel reaping hate and fear and confusion. Incredibly, we find ourselves at a time when 140 character tweets shape foreign policy or denounce political adversaries from the White House at three o'clock in the morning. Words lose their beauty and nuance and are transformed into fake facts and alternate truths. One yells by typing in all caps and emotes by clicking a smiley face. No one believes what is written anymore. I worry about this.
Nobody likes a worry wart. Chicken Little was convinced that the sky is falling. Jewish mothers are stereotypically depicted as sitting in the corner, steadily rocking away, fretting about the family. But on the other hand, worry is not an intrinsically bad thing. It is a side effect of caring. When a loved one is sick it is reasonable to worry. It's hard to imagine a parent who doesn't worry when they send their kids off for their first day of college. And it is impossible to read the newspaper without growing concern about violence in the streets and epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse everywhere. This is natural worry stitched into our everyday life.

World Worry is of a different order. It comes when those bigger, cosmic concerns become personal, indistinguishable from your kid's ear ache or figuring out how to afford a new car. It's when we internalize climate change, religious persecution, and leadership failures, making them seem like our problems. The difficulty is that we can do something about ear aches, much less about global warming. And that's where the angst sets in.

I watch several hours of news and analysis every day. It's probably more than is good for my mental health. World affairs are frequent points of discussions within my circles of friends and family. Some people think we should "get a life" if that's all we can talk about. They're wrong; I can talk about my pills and Medicare Plan B. So there!

But there is no question that I'm suffering from early stages of World Worry. Am I losing hope for our earth and its people? Have I lost trust in the folks I once counted on to give me hope and to infect me with a heart filled with joy and laughter? Is my soul too jaundiced to be surprised by the best instead of succumbing to the worst? Can I live today with an eye on tomorrow rather than incessantly glancing back at yesterday?

I don't know for sure about any of it but I'll tell you one thing. I worry about this.