Monday, April 30, 2007

April 30, 2007--Vive Le Rudy!

So John McCain’s been married twice (do I have that right?) and Hillary’s been cheated on and Rudy and Newt have had at least three wives each, including, in Rudy’s case, a cousin. Albeit, a second cousin. Mitt Romney, though a Mormon, has had only one wife—thus far that is. We’ll have to keep an eye on him.

Who cares? Certainly not the French.

They too are in the midst of a presidential election. Next weekend there will be a runoff vote between the two surviving candidates—the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialist Ségolène Royal. Their private lives make Rudy’s and Newt’s look like Sesame Street.

Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia has basically absented herself from the campaign. No Little Lady here, gazing adoringly up at him as he delivers his stump speech. When asked if she would move in with him to the Élysée Palace if he is elected, Mme Sarkozy refused to answer. In fact the French press has been speculating that she may have moved out on him already. As she did in 2005 when she apparently ran off with a public relations executive. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Ségolène Royal has had an even more interesting private life. She is not, never has been married to the father of her four children. Making home life additionally complicated (they apparently live together), he too is a prominent Socialist who contended with her for their party’s nomination for the presidency. Clearly he lost; and though he is supporting her candidacy, at times, when speaking publicly, he has staked out positions on some issues that are contrary to hers. And he has said that if she loses this election he plans to run on his own in 2012. One can only imagine the depth of his current support for her.

Then of course none of the spouses of Presidents George Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, or François Mitterrand moved into the Élysée Palace. In fact, neither did any of their husbands—they all lived in private residences.

I wonder if this is what Judith Giuliani has in mind—not moving into the White House. Sure! It’s rumored that she’s already looking at paint chips.

Friday, April 27, 2007

April 27, 2007--Fanaticism LXXIX--Credenialitis

We should care that she lied about her academic credentials. We should care about anyone who lies. But do we need to care that she doesn’t have any degrees?

I am talking about Marilee Jones, who until this week was MIT’s dean of admissions. When she was hired by the admissions office 28 years ago, on her resume she indicated that she had three degrees. Ten days ago someone ratted on her and it turns out that she doesn’t even have a bachelors degree and she was fired.

Does this discovery also call into question that she has been an effective admissions dean? It would appear, in fact, that in all ways she has been very effective. When she arrived, MIT was an almost all-male preserve—just 17 percent of the students were female; under her leadership the undergraduate class is now nearly 50-50. And she has managed to preside over ever-higher admissions standards—every elite college’s dream.

Also along the way, Ms. Jones became a leader in the larger field of college admissions. She is best known as a proponent of reducing the incredible stress that high-aspiring high school students feel when seeking admission to the nation’s most competitive colleges. As one example, she limited the space on the MIT application where students are ask to list their extracurricular activities, in effect to say to them you don’t have to be perfect. (See NY Times story linked below.)

And she wrote a book on the subject, Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Getting Your Teen Tthrough College Admissions and Beyond. Ironically, in that book she forcefully calls for students to live with integrity: “Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners.” I suppose these insights came a little too late to her.

But again, though her lies should not be overlooked, if she has been as effective as all have said, is not having these credentials a valid reason to let her go? Shouldn’t she be evaluated by now, after all these years, primarily by her performance?

This also raises questions about our raising the credentials bar in virtually all lines of work—from technicians to university professors. In the not-so-distant past, one could become a lawyer, physician, teacher, or architect through apprentice training—by learning by doing. Frank Lloyd Wright for example, just like Ms. Jones, never went to college. But through the years we have been obsessed by raising standards in all fields and in most this has meant requiring more formal education, more testing, more credentials, more certification. This, in spite of the considerable evidence that shows that these so-called higher standards do not produce more effective practitioners.

In fact, by allowing a university-industrial complex to emerge, an alliance that permits universities to become the advocates for more credentialing while at the same time having a monopoly on the supplying of these credentials, we may inadvertently be doing a poorer job of preparing people for success than we would like to admit while at the same time driving away from critical fields people who could otherwise be exemplary—people, for example, such as Marilee Jones.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 26, 2007--Gone Fishin'

In my old neighborhood I was famous for my fish tank. I created such a realistic environment with coral and rocks and live plants that some of my friends even called it an aquarium. It had a heater, a pump to add oxygen to the water, and a couple of catfish whose job it was to scour the gravel, eating the fish poop, as a natural way to keep the tank and water clean. But since it was set in our dining room close to the window, the sun that streamed in created an algae problem. Thus, every other day I used a scraper to remove it from inside the glass and then siphoned it out.

But the glass was never clean enough to satisfy my mother, who valued clean almost as much as rectitude. Actually, she saw a connection between the two. So one day, when I was off in school, she gave my fish tank a proper cleaning. I think she used Babo-O and fine steel wool to get off every last bit of the clinging algae. It worked—the tank and water gleamed.

The only problem was that the next day, when I went to give the fish their morning feeding, I found all of them were floating belly-up in the tank. My Guppies, my Betas, my Neons, my Angel Fish.

So I was not surprised to learn that the world’s largest aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, has a version of the same problem. Fish are dying there also because of what the staff needs to do to keep things spic and span and to try to keep the fish alive in the simulated “natural” environment. This includes force feeding through tubes pretty much all the fish, from the giant 60-foot long whale shark to the tiniest sea horses. (See full NY Times story linked below.)

And thus, this aquarium as well as all others which do the same unnatural things to “replicate” nature have their critics. While aquarium founders and directors claim that by attracting millions to view fish in their more-or-less natural habitat they serve an educational purpose, alerting visitors to our contributions to the degradation of the oceans, others say that these mega-aquariums do just the opposite—because endangered marine species are “preserved” in aquariums, the very fact of these incredible displays suggests that oceans are disposable. Who needs oceans when we have this wondrous facility?

Not deterred by this criticism, Bernard Marcus, Home Depot’s co-founder and the principal funder of the Georgia Aquarium, shot back when Ralph, one of his whale sharks died after he stopped eating as the result of the tanks having been treated with chemicals to kill an infestation of parasites, Mr. Marcus said that his gift to the city would “improve on nature” and that “if you asked the fish if they want to go back to the ocean, you know what they would say? ‘Are you crazy?’”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

April 24, 2007--Our Second Black President

A funny thing may be happening to Hillary Clinton as she attempts to become our second African-American president. (Recall that her husband was deemed our first by some black leaders.)

In her case, her problem is not just that the black accent she turns on when appearing before African-American groups is as phony as her southern accent, in the current situation African Americans and the rest of us have a credible, real black candidate to support.

Barack Obama is not only gaining traction among white progressives but as he “introduces” himself to the black community the polls indicate he is attracting support at Senator Clinton’s expense. Including in New York. So now her and his appearances before Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network turned out to be something less than a coronation for her and something more than a courtesy for him. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Obama even got off the best joke—one that was startlingly authentic when in most other instances even a candidate’s jokes are scripted and tested by consultants. When Sharpton’s cell phone went off, Senator Obama muttered, “It must be Hillary calling so you’d better answer it.”

The room erupted in laughter with the reverend joining in. Some have been speculating that he is in the Clinton’s hip pocket, in part because of whatever it is that they may have promised him but also because he does not want a rival in his efforts to assume leadership of the black community.

On this latter point—is there in fact a “black community” anymore than there is a white one? And why is it that the (white) media always seem to insist that there be only one African-American leader for the black community at a time? Martin Luther King was followed, after a struggle, by Jessie Jackson who is now in the process of being supplanted by Al Sharpton.

If the week before last when Don Imus was fired we were having what the press called “a national dialogue about race.” If we ever return to the subject, add this to the list—why white America appears to need to believe there is a homogeneity among African Americans and why we are capable of hearing the voice of just one black leader at a time.

Monday, April 23, 2007

April 23, 2007--Atwitter

At 10,000 feet and descending to West Palm Beach there was an announcement to turn off all electronic devices. At touch-down there was another that said the use of cell phone was now permitted. One could feel the plan rocking back and forth on its wheels as at least two-thirds of the passengers squirmed in their seats to retrieve their phones and Blackberrys. In an instant there was a cacophony of electronic beeps as these devices sprang to life.

The woman seated directly behind me placed a call, “Yes, we just landed. I’ll call you back.” She hung up. As the plane taxied toward the gate she placed another call, apparently to the same person, “We’re getting close to the gate. I’ll call again.” Once more she rang off. The plane slowed to a crawl, came to a halt, and the engines were quickly switched off. “Hello. It’s me again. We’re at the gate. I’ll call you later.”

She and we retrieved our luggage from the overhead compartment and with her still behind us we entered the terminal. I couldn’t hear her anymore in the crowded waiting area but she was once again placing a call and I can only imagine that she must have been saying, “I’m in the terminal and heading for the exit. I’ll call again.”

So when I read about a new, free communications service called Twitter, I assume my plane-mate would be among the first to sign up. It allows Twitterers to send and receive short text messages at no cost via the Web or cell phones. For the most part, Tweets in response to the prompt “What are you doing?” are routed among networks of friends and strangers called Followers who can tune into Tweets from people who they find interesting. (See NY Times article linked below.)

I suppose this means that my traveling companion, if she was using her cell phone to send Tweets, could have be letting thousands of folks know that the plane was at the gate. And I think I now know what most of the people I see in the street every day glued to the cell phones are “communicating” to their friends, children, and parents—“Hi. I’m on my way to class. I’ll call you when I get there.” Or, “Yes, it’s chilly out. I’m happy I wore my jacket.” Or, “There’s this really neat red car that just drove by. I think it was a Beemer.”

We know what happened last week when the Blackberry network went down for 10 hours. Many Blackaholics reported that they nearly had nervous breakdowns, literally, during the time that they were cut off from their e-mails and whatever.

And we also seem to be discovering that a major reason that nearly half the honey bees in the U.S. have died off is because the wireless signals emitted by cell phone towers are interfering with the bees’ ability to navigate back and forth to their hives. This may not seem as important as all the Twittering; but when a pound of peaches costs $50, it may be the result of everyone wanted to know when our plane landed.

Friday, April 20, 2007

April 20, 2007--Fanaticism LXXVIII--All The News That's Fit to Sell

At the risk of seeming insensitive or worse, can’t we move on from our national immersion in the massacre at Virginia Tech?

Everyone has been appropriately horrified, outraged, and grief-stricken. In truth, many have also been fascinated, not able to get enough of the media coverage that includes even dramatic audio of the actual shots being fired. The only thing better for those besotted by the gory details and the endless ruminations about what “caused” Cho to act this way or what the university should have done to protect its students and staff, the only thing more appealing to those who can’t seem to get enough of this would be for the coverage to shift from the news networks to the TV series CSI.

If we are patient this too shall come to pass. By while we’re waiting for that, we’ll have to make do with what the so-called news media are serving up. Thanks to the killer’s sending his “multi-media manifesto” to NBC there’s a lot to keep us titillated. Including the frankly hypocritical spatting about the “appropriateness” of airing the images and videos within the very same media that were eager to pick up the NBC feeds and print them (above the fold in the NY Times’ case) and air them.

My favorite thing about the other networks broadcasting the materials that NBC received is their literal outrage that NBC had the audacity to put its call letters on all the materials it released. So that when CBS or ABC or Fox of CNN broadcast them, embossed in vivid three-dimensions and full color in the upper left-hand corner was the NBC logo.

Paul Friedman, vice president of CBS News, showing faux-understanding about NBC’s plight, was quoted in the Times as having claimed that he “thought about calling NBC executives to suggest that they remove the logo to distance themselves from the material.” (Article linked below.) Spoken like a true heir to the legacy of Edward R. Murrow and custodian of what remains of the Tiffany Network’s journalistic traditions.

NBC contends that it thought long and hard about whether or not to put the pictures on the air and came to conclude that they had “news-value.” Steve Capus, who last week was busy clawing his way to the moral high-ground when firing Don Imus, archly shot back against his media colleague detractors, saying, “Every journalist is united [in agreeing that the images were newsworthy]. You can tell by their actions.” In fact, though NBC embargoed the distribution of the photos and videos until after 10:00 pm eastern time to give its own stations an “exclusive” until then, all of the other news organizations ignored it and some even broadcast the material before NBC could get them on the air!

And weren’t some of those images riveting? Especially the one the Times put on its front page which has become the logo for this tragedy—the one of Cho Seung-Hui glaring defiantly into the camera with his arms akimbo, guns blazing in both hands, cut-off shooter’s gloves, black vest, the whole gangster deal. How long before T shirts with that image show up in your neighborhood?

And, by the way, did the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams beat out ABC’s World News Tonight in the ratings? And how did Katie Couric do? I didn’t watch but I understand she did her show from Blacksburg, VA without makeup.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

April 19, 2007--Just Say Yes

A lot is going on in America and the world right now which means that some things are being overlooked. Abstinence for example.

When I was growing up pretty much everyone practiced it. Not so much because we believed it was the moral and ethical thing to do but rather, though we tried hard, because we couldn’t “get” any. And thus there was no need for a federal abstinence program.

But things have changed since those frustrating times; and in 1996, when Congress overhauled the welfare system, money was slipped into the legislation for abstinence education. President Clinton signed the bill. I recall that it was thought that if we could just get kids to say no to sex (since saying no to drugs was working so well) there would be (1) fewer children on welfare and (2) no need for abortions.

Though Congress has been criticized for not providing adequate oversight for its appropriations for things such as the war in Iraq, in the case of the abstinence program they called for an evaluation of how well it was working. The results of that study by the Mathematica Policy Research group have just been released. And the situation is not looking good. (See linked NY Times article.)

For example, students who participated in the program were just as likely to have sex as those who did not. That sort of jumps out. And, the study found, they had just as many sex partners and began having pre-marital sex at exactly the same age as those kids who did not take the abstinence classes.

Not to be deterred by these disappointing findings, officials of the Bush administration, who we assume are more passionate about this program than Bill Clinton must have been, claim that the treatment was too limited—how can one expect students to abstain from sex by running them through just a few sessions. To quote Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the federal Family and Youth Services Bureau, “This report confirms that these interventions are not like vaccinations. You can’t expect one dose in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth’s high school career.”

You may wonder how much taxpayer money has been squandered on these efforts—about $176 million per year. Thus, I assume that Mr. Wilson will ask Congress to increase that appropriation so he can run these classes right through high school. And perhaps he’ll be calling for a new program to see if scientists can come up with an abstinence vaccine.

One more thing—the Mathematica report found that all who were studied, both the treated and untreated, began to have sex at 14.9 years of age. How envious that made me feel because in my old neighborhood the only one having sex that young, actually at any time before twenty-one, was Heshy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April 18, 2007--Shit Happens

How could such a thing happen on, of all places, a college campus? It is unfathomable.

The media, criminologists, clergy, the person with whom I just had morning coffee are all desperately attempting to understand how something like this could have occurred. And of course, equally important and understandable, struggling to think what might have been done to prevent the massacre—a better university alert system, more campus security, gun control, preemptively treating or incarcerating the murderer.

Nothing seems to make sense. We have the Second Amendment which guarantees our “right” to bear arms. We have philosophers and anthropologists and psychologists and molecular biologists who have for centuries attempted to understand the nature of Human Nature—do we have immutable capacities which were essential to survival during prehistoric times but in the modern era are no longer required and are thus dangerous. Etcetera.

And for others there is religion which tells us that in spite of Virginia Tech and even more horrific events we are still fortunate to be blessed and protected by a “compassionate and loving God.” To explain human atrocities such as this there is also the Devil and he is in the business of perpetrating Evil. No matter, there is no contradiction to those who believe that their all-powerful God appears to be powerless in this world in the face of the Devil’s agenda. Though many believers struggle with this as well.

We’ve heard all of this during the past three painful days. What we haven’t heard may be closer to the explanation, to the “truth”: Shit just happens. All the time.

It may be that since we instinctively understand that almost all things are fundamentally, astonishingly unfair—think from where you and I are perched in the world what it means to be living in Darfur—for these reasons we are desperate to find rational or supernatural explanations for the seemingly capricious ways in which life’s cards are dealt and how our days unfold.

There is no true way to make sense of a world in which one child is afflicted with cancer or another does not have access to potable water while still another is touched with mathematical or musical genius.

Just at the moment that they were having the memorial service at Virginia Tech I was at an unrelated event at New York University. While thousands of students in Blacksburg, VA assembled to mourn, a few hundred other college students in New York City bobbed to the beat of a jazz band. As if nothing had happened 300 miles to their south? For some, perhaps. From most I sensed that they too grieved but that they also understood that since who-knows-what this is what we have and we have to do the best we can.

As Kurt Vonnegut was famous for saying, “So it goes.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April 17, 2007--Cry Me A Bridge

Now you say you're lonely
You cry the whole night through
Well, you can cry me a river
Cry me a river
I cried a river over you

While the pundits were searching for the political and psychological meaning of John McCain’s “stroll” through the market in Baghdad; while Congress and the White House were locked in a fight over funding the “surge” while at the same time attempting to assess the early signs of whether or not it was “working” (or how long it would take to “know” if it was working); while Move On’s on-line debate among Democratic candidates led to a poll that placed Hillary in fifth place behind even Dennis Kucinich, wondering if it would have mattered if she had “apologized”; while all of this was going on, insurgents in Iraq blew up the Sarafiya Bridge.

And people who used it to get to work or visit friends and relatives stood near the ancient Tigris River, which along with the Euphrates formed the first civilization’s Fertile Crescent, they gathered along its bank and wept.

To quote from Alissa Rubin’s little-noticed piece in the NY Times:

More people have died in many other bombings, but the destruction of the bridge struck at the city’s soul, at its lingering romance with an all but vanished image of Baghdad as a Paris of the Middle East.

From the look of the Sarafiya Bridge, an undistinguished 1951 structure made up of riveted steel girders, with none of the aesthetic pull of the Ponte Vecchio or the Brooklyn or Tower Bridges, what might have been its appeal? In what conceivable ways could it have evoked Paris?

Because it anchored and connected two distinct communities—on the east bank, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood; on the west Sunnis. Both substantially untouched since the American invasion and occupation. But now, the bridge that served to connect these communities, in more than physical ways, is no more. It had symbolized the unlikely possibility of Sunnis and Shiites living side-by-side, and even having a life together.

Riyadh Yosif, a day laborer who regularly walked across the bridge in search of jobs said:

This bridge is so important to us. We cross it every day to look for work. What shall we do now? They have destroyed us as well.

Crying, he added:

I wish they had killed one of my children rather than destroying the bridge, which I consider part of my heart.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

April 16, 2007--The Real Ho's

Although we are about to be moved on from Anna Nicole, the Duke lacrosse team, and even Imus because another media event is about to absorb all the oxygen—Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ Senate testimony—I’m not ready to move on or willing to agree that we took care of our race problems last week.

The political and media elites who were frequent and all-too-thrilled guests on Imus’ show for decades, either ignoring or guiltily chuckling along at his “humor,” spent the weekend looking for ways to spin the reasons for their own Imus-enabling involvement. There were three full columns in the “Week In Review” section of the NY Times on Sunday, one by I-Fave Frank Rich, and both Time and Newsweek put Imus on their covers (at least a half dozen Newsweek writers and editor Jon Meachem—all white men—were regulars) in which these folks went through various contortions of self-forgiving self-reflection as a way to find the larger “meaning” in the situation and of course ultimately excuse themselves. (A sample article is linked below which claims that Imus got in trouble because his racist comments weren’t funny enough!)

By the end of Week One, after Imus met with the Rutgers basketball team and was “forgiven,” attention began to shift away from Imus toward the larger “political” and “cultural” implications. It was perfect timing that the North Carolina attorney general declared the three Duke athletes “innocent” because it gave the networks an opportunity to move the focus from Imus to the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton—why weren’t they apologizing to the Duke students for joining the outcry to bring them to justice; and while we’re on the subject Rev. Jackson what about your calling New York City “Hymie Town”; and Rev. Al, why haven’t you ever apologized for your role in the Tawana Brawley outrage?

The good Revs managed to tap dance around that so the media folks again shifted their attention, this time to Hip-Hop as the incarnation of all cultural evil. This not only promised to set a context within which to “explain” why the “good Imus” might have made his Ho comment (he was trying to be youthful and cool) but is also served to identify a place to assign blame for the corroded minds and values of our youth. Especially our white youth, since 80 percent of the Rap audience is now apparently white. Tim Russert’s kid listens to rap for God sakes! When it was just 20 percent, who cared?

Then, while on the subject of Hip-Hop, the media turned again to Jackson and Sharpton—you all of a sudden got interested in the H and N words when Imus used them, but where have you been during the past decade when Gangsta Rap ruled? Isn’t it hypocritical, Jessie and Al, to be beating up on Imus and ruining his livelihood and career when there are even more powerful (black) cultural criminals out there?

So today, while getting ready for Alberto Gonzales, we’ll still have time to continue to talk about and solve the Hip-Hop problem. We know that Al Sharpton will be out on the streets this week, maybe even picketing the Black Entertainment Network, and there will probably be a 90 second spot about it on the NBC Nightly News. But what do you think will be covered and we’ll be talking about next week? I’ll wager not much about Imus or race because, you see, we’re getting all of that solved this week.

If this turns out to be true, who are the real Ho’s? If we really want to talk about and do something about race in America, it’s time to end the self-congratulatory spinning and posturing and look for, find, and do something real about racism. If you want to figure out where to do that I direct you toward—

Virtually any big-city emergency or classroom; half the street corners in Newark; behind the counters of Burger King or behind bars in Attica Prison; down in the basement mailrooms of NBC, CBS, the Pentagon, New York University, and the Ford Foundation; and of course in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

April 14, 2007--Saturday Story: Still On Sick Leave

The flu hung in for most of the week and so I have nothing worth posting. Next Saturday for sure . . .

Friday, April 13, 2007

April 13, 2007--Fanaticism LXXVII: Gay Wheels

Here I was all excited about the car we rented for an upcoming trip to Europe. For years I’ve had my eye on the Mini Cooper, thinking it’s not only fuel efficient but also pretty cool. I’ve been fantasizing about tooling around in one along the shores of the Mediterranean.

But now I read that if I’m seen in a Mini everyone will think I’m gay. At least according to the NY Times (article linked below). They report that everyone on the TV show The L Word drove around in Minis so what will they think of me? I’m pretty secure in my sexuality, but then again . . . Maybe I should switch to a Land Rover.

If I’m reacting in this homophobic way, you might think that the last thing in the world an auto manufacturer would want would be to have one of its models come up on’s list of “Top 10 Gay Cars” or on’s. You will be surprised to learn, then, that a number of car makers are unabashedly pitching their products to the gay market. For some years, Subaru most prominently featured Martina Navratilova in print ads with the double-entendre nature-nurture tag line “It’s not a choice. It’s the way we’re built.” The campaign was so effective that Subaru Outbacks have become known as Lesbarus.

This could easily be seen as sign of progress. Not only have more and more gay people become liberated by emerging from the closet but many are becoming increasingly comfortable either throwing off or embracing homosexual stereotypes by driving, for example, cars such as black Mazda 3 hatchbacks that they consider butch.

On the other hand, some nervous straight guys drive “gay” Miatas by day but when dating rent Escalades to fend off the perception that they might be . . . you know what.

And I naively always thought that the dudes who drive Muscle Cars are the gay ones.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 12, 2007--Guilty Pleasures: Glued to the Tube

When sick in bed with the flu, the only thing worse than the hacking cough is daytime TV. Unable to read or do e-mails because of the fever, what else is there to do but turn to the tube? That describes me during the past four days. But wasn’t I lucky that there was so much Breaking News.

After enduring Live with Regis and Kelly and incapable of watching more than an hour or two of the Soaps, I had no choice but to turn to the cable news channels. Expecting endless discussions about the unfolding scandal in the Justice Department, but with little choice—it was either this or waiting for Joan Rivers to show up on the Home Shopping Network—I was perversely happy that that other scandal involving Don Imus pushed that to the side and I knew that immersing myself in that would help get me through the morning.

I also quickly learned that the afternoon would prove to be even more diverting because, after my next after-lunch medication, all three networks were announcing that they would cut to the Bahamas for live coverage of the court hearing that would settle once and for all who was the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. What a one-two. It doesn’t get much better than concurrent coverage of two stories of this kind. Even before the next dose of Z-Pack, I could feel my symptoms abating.

The next day, I found myself still riveted to the split-screen where on one side various media folks and rights advocates were tearing themselves and each other apart over Imus’ racist/sexist comments (and in many cases their own participation on his show) while on the other side of the screen Imus himself was shown to be engaged in a series of torturous apologies. Just as I was feeling my way into the meaning and implications of all of this and how it might or might not help race relations to have a full airing of the issues surfaced by his cruel joke, the TV screen lit up with more Breaking News—at 2:30 in the afternoon, the attorney general of the state of North Carolina would be holding a news conference about the Duke lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting an “exotic dancer.”

So it was clear that the theme for the day was to be race, with a strong emphasis in sex. An unbeatable combination for a sick shut in. I was beginning to think that maybe the flu wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

During sick-day three, the ripples from the Imus “incident” were approaching tsunami proportions when it was reported that sponsors such as Staples and GM were suspending all advertising on MSNBC, the TV outlet for Imus In the Morning, and from that alone it was clear to me, in spite of my fever, that it would be only a matter of time before they would fire him. Just as I was contemplating that possibility and its implications, the cable channels cut to still other Breaking News--at the Pentagon Defense Secretary Robert Gates was announcing that regular army troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan from now on would be required to serve for “no more that 15 months at a time” before being rotated home for a year of “dwell time,” rather than the 12 months in combat that was the deal when they volunteered.

But just as the implications of that were sinking into my over-heated brain, the news channels began to include stories and gossip about something else—whether or not Sanjaya was going to be voted off American Idol later that evening. Now I must confess that I not only knew who he was but, again desperate about what to do with myself the night before, I had for the first time watched a full episode of Idol and thought Sanjaya had actually done a pretty good job with Bésame Mucho. And, though I hadn’t text-message in my vote, I hoped America would keep him in the competition.

While waiting to see how things worked out for Sanjaya, I shut off the TV for a while to think about all of this and maybe even take a nap.

The Anna Nichole Smith business seemed familiar—Anna Nichole was a perfect choice to be turned into a pseudo-celebrity, someone famous for being famous. For years she has been paraded around as a quintessential gold digger who got a besotted a 90 year-old billionaire to marry her and then conveniently up and die, leaving all his money to her. While loving that part of the story the public was then titillated by the court battles that ensued—all the way to the Supreme Court where there was all sorts of snickering about how justices such as Scalia and, especially, Thomas, would handle her, so to speak. And then it got even better when she gained and lost 100 pounds, got pregnant, had her first born drop dead in her hospital room, and then she herself OD’d. So the fascination with her I understood.

I also got the lacrosse team story. Though even if what was claimed in fact had happened, as horrendous as that would have been, considering the competition among horrid situations that the news media might have pounced on, they chose this one to elevate because it combines the irresistible, intoxicating mix of sex and race and class and privilege. Here were a bunch of rich, spoiled, white, frat-boy jocks with nothing better to do than hire and then assault a lower-class black woman who was just trying to make her way in an unfair world by working part time as an exotic dancer. A perfect tabloid story.

The Imus situation is more complicated. His show is an unlikely combination of serious political dialogue and adolescent locker-room humor. His audience is so vast and loyal that journalists and politicians as diverse and exulted as John Kerry, John McCain, Dick Cheney, Joe Bidden, Frank Rich, and Tim Russert, to name just a few, have been frequent and comfortable guests on his show that intersperses interviews with them with course jokes that through the decades have offended Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, women, fat people, homosexuals, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Who have I forgotten?

Everyone knows this is his show, including those who eagerly appear on it and especially NBC and CBS executives who have profited so greatly. So for the president of NBC to have said last night that though he has listened to the show for years, last week was the first time that he heard Imus say anything racially offensive suggests he is either deaf or a liar. Ditto for the media and political elite who have forever looked the other way. And then for the Rev. Al Sharpton to be leading the moral outrage is another outrage when he launched his own career by tearing New York City apart along racial lines by committing a literal felony in the Tawana Brawley case, a felony for which he has never apologized.

The situation with the Bush administration changing the deal with the brave young people who are risking their lives in the army is also business as usual and replete with its own hypocrisy. Secretary Gates announced this bait-and-switch policy as a way to bring “predictability” to the soldiers and their families—rather than the “uncertainty” of not knowing if the 12 month deal they signed up for would or would not be honored, now they will know for certain that it won’t be. They will know for sure that they too have been lied to.

But let’s get back to the good stuff—American Idol. Blame it on the medication but I confess to having tuned into last night’s show to see what the fates had in store for Sanjaya. No surprise, in contrast to all the Breaking News, this was the only place where I there was no hypocrisy to be found. It was clear that though Sanjaya may not be the best singer, many feel he is the worst, he is the star. Everyone realizes this. The producers may be concerned if he wins it would undermine the “credibility” of the show, whatever credibility means in this context, the one thing they know how to do is count and the numbers say that a good part of their audience tunes in to follow the Sanjaya saga. So they shamelessly promote him and make sure he doesn’t perform until all the others have, and they don’t reveal his fate until the last moment so the audience will hang in for the full hour. And they are certain never to interrupt with Breaking News.

One more confession—I have listened to Imus In the Morning for years and although I write lots of letters to the NY Times and Congress, I have never written to Imus to urge him to cut out the sexist-racist stuff. And I can’t blame that on the flu or the antibiotics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April 11, 2007--Behind Returns Thursday

Getting better and I expect to be back in action tomorrow.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

April 7, 2007--Sick Day

Been coughing and wheezing all week. More Staten Island next Saturday.

Friday, April 06, 2007

April 6, 2007--Fanaticism LXXVI--The Boys of Spring

The last time I went to Opening Day of the baseball season the men wore jackets, ties, and fedoras. So you know how long ago that was and how old (very) I am. Of course a seat in the bleachers then was a buck and a half and hot dogs 50 cents.

But since the old Yankee Stadium is soon to be replaced, what the hell, we went for a couple of good seats behind home plate that cost $71 each. (Bleacher seats, by the way, now cost $12, dogs $4.75, and beers $8.) And the only man I spotted wearing a suit was Rudy Giuliani.

The Yanks won 9-5, A-Rod hit a two-run homer (though three nights later, in the second game of the season in the bottom of the 8th, he popped up with two outs and the bases loaded and the Yanks lost 7-6); and Mariano Rivera was perfect, striking out the side in the 9th inning. (See linked NY Times story.)

Beyond the obvious, a lot of other things were different. There were many more women there than years ago and most did not appear to be indulgent spouses or girlfriends who had agreed to be dragged along to the game, but rather genuine fans who knew as much about what was going on as the men. The woman to my left, who brought her 17 year-old son along with her, after Mariano’s first strike out, said, “It looks as if his slider is working.”

No one seemed to be able to sit still. Even during innings people were constantly leaving or returning to their seats, often with another beer, but just as frequently empty-handed. True, though most in the crowd were men, they appeared to be too young in general to already have leaky plumbing. Maybe they just couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes at a time. Or perhaps, as reported by educators and others, people can’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute or two. For whatever reasons, this ceaseless stirring about turned what for me has always been a relaxing and leisurely game, best enjoyed during the languid dog days of summer, into a fidgety affair.

There seemed to be plenty of room and good locations for fans in wheelchairs. I’m sure state or federal legislation requires this—back in the day, at the original Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field, anyone gutsy enough to try to get into the ballpark in a chair was lucky not to be chased away by the cops from wherever it was that they found a space to settle.

And though baseball as the National Pastime has always been suffused with various forms of patriotic display, beginning always with the public address announcer asking all to rise for the singing of our National Anthem; and after 9/11, during the Seventh Inning Stretch, replacing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, we have been asked to “honor America” by joining Kate Smith in singing God Bless America, the other night, in contrast to the tearful fans who did then sing along with her, everyone stood, but no one appeared to be singing.

Perhaps that had to do with the announcer asking us to stand and sing in symbolic support of our “fighting men and women around the world.” Not that I or any of the other 55,000 who were there do not support them, but maybe we stood silent as a way of acknowledging their service but also to protest why they have been asked to make their disproportionate sacrifices.

Now if we could only take that to the streets. In the meantime, Play Ball!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

April 5, 2007--Name, Rank, Serial Number, and Head Scarf

Though the world would be a safer place if no one in either the U.S. or England had volunteered to serve in the military—there would have been no troops to send to Iraq much less to participate in the Surge—and though I do understand that the vast majority who do enlist come from low-income families and see serving in the army as an opportunity, in spite of this, when soldiers gets captured I expect that until and unless they are tortured they are supposed to give only their name, rank, and serial number when being interrogated.

So in spite of the relief that many feel that the15 British sailors and marines were released yesterday by their Iranian captors, I am appalled by their behavior during the past two weeks. Barely a day went by before they began to show up on Tehran TV smilingly “confessing” to have been in Iranian waters when captured. Then the day after that, they were on TV again happily chowing down—the female marine now wearing a headscarf while smoking.

Media pundits and government apologists immediately began to look for signs that their amiable behavior was forced—that they were winking to us while apologizing to the Iranian people or deliberately misspelling words in their written statements—anything to signal that they were behaving in this seemingly-cooperative way as the result of having been beaten, water-boarded, or not allowed to sleep for 48 hours. But no, it appeared as the days went by that they were having a good-old time.

So when President Ahmadinejad set them free yesterday, as an “Easter gift” to England, and in celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, it was not entirely surprising to see them, still in Tehran, nattily decked out in Ahmadinejad-style suits and then later, in England this morning, back in military garb, but toting designer bags from what I can only assume was from a shopping spree at Tehran Airport’s duty free shops. (See NY Times article linked below.)

I can’t wait to see what happens next. In the past, they would have already been trotted off to court marshals or, minimally, would be held in disgrace by their peers and the public.

Whatever their reasons for volunteering in the first instance, what did they think they were signing up for? Free college tuition? Didn’t they realize that their country, England, was a member of the Coalition of the Willing and that they would likely be sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan and once there they were certain to be in harm’s way?

OK, so they didn’t realize that. But once they were captured, without a shot being fired on either side, what had they been trained or instructed to do? Get ready for their close up? If what they wanted was 15 minutes of fame, rather than standing like a news anchor man before a map of the war zone and pointing out, while being sure to face the camera like a well-trained TV weatherman, where their boats had strayed into Iranian waters, they should have waited out their captivity and when they got repatriated, tried out for British Idol.

Forget stiff-upper-lip and Dunkirk, the RAF and blood, sweat, and tears. Today everything is YouTube.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

April 4, 2007--Dapravity Idol

With evil in the headlines, like in the Axis of Evil, there has been an increase in discourse about evil itself—does it exisit; if so, are there ways to distinguish between differing manifestations of evil behavior; even, is there something genetic about homo sapiens that give us the capacity to commit evil acts as there is a genetic capacity to acquire language? There are of course biblical notions, but there are also secular scholars and researchers who have for some time been grappling with these daunting questions.

A professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia has developed a 22-part taxonomy of evil that ranks various types of murder on an ascending scale of evilness—near the bottom are those who kill in self defense; near the top are your psychopathic torture-murderers. His work is essentially theoretical—he did not develop his rankings in order to assist courts and juries which are often charged with the responsibility of making these kinds of distinctions when recommending, for example, if a convicted murderer is to live or be executed.

For them to use in these circumstances, there is an emerging Depravity Scale, also the product of a professor of clinical psychiatry, but this one from NYU. When it is ready to be rolled out for the use of juries, it will supposedly help them distinguish between, in the words of a NY Times report, “the worst of the worst from the really bad.” (Article linked below.) Though it is as yet unpublished, Professor Michael Weiner disclosed to the Times that on his scale one is just “depraved” when intending to inflict “emotional trauma” but is “especially depraved” when seeking to prolong the duration of a victim’s suffering.

Courts for some time have been struggling to find ways to make these kinds of distinctions, particularly when it comes to imposing death sentences. In Arizona, for example, defining “depraved” includes taking into consideration the “senselessness” of the crime, the “relishing” of the murderer, “needless mutilation” (as opposed to, say, the needful mutilation of slashing someone’s throat to commit the murder), etc.

But what to me is most noteworthy about Dr. Weiner’s work is his methodology. Unlike Dr. Michael Stone, the Evil Theorist, he is creating his scale in pretty much the same way the American Idol folks select who to eliminate—Idol has the public phone or text message their votes and then publicly dismisses the contestant who gets the fewest; similarly, Weiner has a Website ( where you can participate by ranking a murder committed with “bare hands” vs. one in which a “customer” kills a prostitute vs. one in which the killer was “inspired” to do so by his or her mother.

These are of course life and death questions that should not be taken lightly (as admittedly I have); but at the moment I’m hoping that Sanjay tonight is finally sent home. And gets a haircut.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April 3, 2007--$9.69 A Gallon

My first job, before I was "hired" to deliver prescriptions for Dr. Smith, was to make cartons of milk Kosher for Passover. This may shock you considering I was only ten at the time and not a rabbi. But since the neighborhood grocer didn’t have enough money to hire a real rabbi to kosher his milk, cheese, and other dairy products, he turned to me.

Here’s how it worked: to make things legitimately kosher for the holidays grocers would have to dispose of all perishable items for the eight days during which Passover is observed and engage a koshering rabbi to restock his store with products specially prepared for the holidays. This was quite expensive to do—first, one would have to throw away anything that could not be keep unspoiled for the eight days and then one would have to pay a premium for the Pesach dairy goods because in addition to the actual cost of the milk and cheese the rabbi also had to be paid for his services.

That’s where I came in—at virtually no additional expense (I think I was paid two dollars for my “services”), grocer Ginsberg bought stick-on labels that said in English and Yiddish, Kosher for Passover. And then, three days before Passover began, after the store was closed, I would put labels on all milk cartons, tubs of butter, and packages of cheese.

I have never before confessed this and have through the decades felt considerable guilt about this sacrilege. That is until the other day when the NY Times reported about kosher gasoline for sale in Teaneck, New Jersey (article linked below). If someone could get away with this, charging $9.69 a gallon nonetheless, what was so terrible about what I did as a young boy? (Of course, a lot but that’s for another day.)

Kosher gasoline? Like so much else that’s wrong with the world these days it’s all the government’s fault. Gasoline companies are required to add some ethanol to their gas as a way to reduce our dependence on imported oil. But ethanol is made from corn; and during Passover Jews are not allowed to eat or, here’s the point, “benefit” from corn which is not considered kosher for Passover.

Thus, an enterprising gas station owner in Teaneck is offering to sell gasoline that does not include any ethanol. What’s more, for an extra charge, he will siphon out of your tank any old gasoline which includes ethanol, thus koshering your tank in pretty much the same way that orthodox families are required to cleanse their homes of any leavened products--bread, cracker crumbs, etc.—prior to the first night of the holiday.

Since kosher gas became available in Teaneck the orthodox Jews who live there have been engaged in a debate about the meaning of the corn prohibition—are we just not allowed to eat anything that contains corn or are we also forbidden to benefit from corn, whatever that means. This in a town where there is a Glatt Kosher Smokey Joe’s Tex-Mex Barbecue.

With people smarting about non-kosher gas costing about $3.00 a gallon, you can only imagine the upset about having to pay more than three times that.

The good news, though, is that this was all a Purim hoax. Purim is sort of Jews’ April 1st when pranks are encouraged. But this was a good one because it got many to think that, in spite of the extra cost, maybe kosher gas is not such a bad idea after all. At the end of the Passover service, observers say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” In Teaneck some are adding, “Thirty years ago no one knew what kosher water was. Now we have it. So who knows . . . ?”

Monday, April 02, 2007

April 2, 2007--Good King Abdullah

If I were Machiavellian-minded, which of course I’m not, I would be suspecting that the Bush family, behind the scenes and pulling his strings, had arranged for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to label our involvement in Iraq as an “illegal foreign occupation.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

What’s more I would be sniffing around for evidence that what the king is attempting to carry out diplomatically among the key players in the region is the Bushes’ secret plan for the Middle East. This would be nothing that new since the Saudi royal family has been doing the Bushes’ bidding for their mutual benefit for three generations.

If I am correct about this, it would of course be Old Man Bush, Number 41, who is moving in to once again rescue Junior from a self-inflicted mess. This time a much bigger one than just DWI.

I suspect this Bush involvement because the King’s plan is so subtle and sound that it smacks of the nuanced kind of thinking characteristic of the Bush Family consigliores. And it perhaps represents the only solution to the fiasco we helped create in the region but which, in truth, has been incubating since at least the end of the First World War when the current unnatural map of the Middle East was created by the “victorious” British, French, and American business interests.

Many feel that a number of problems have to be addressed if there is to be any hope of avoiding an even greater conflagration:

First, there must be a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. To that end King Abdullah recently brokered a deal between Hamas and Fatah to share power and called for the end to the international boycott of the Palestinian government. The Israelis of course are already on record rejecting this but maybe the current Bush administration can rescue itself from the dustbin of history by “forcing” its ally to accept a deal that would bring them regional diplomatic recognition and a sense of security.

Second, Iran’s soaring power and reputation in the region need to be contained. The Sunni royal Saudis feel appropriately threatened by Iran’s Shia muscle flexing and successful support for radical groups such as Hezbollah who ultimately will come looking to overthrown the Al-Saud Dynasty. Thus, in early March King Abdullah hosted President Ahmadinejad in an attempt to reduce tensions in Lebanon by dealing directly with Iran and Hezbollah.

The Bush administration was so upset by these “renegade” moves by the Saudis that they publicly disavowed them and King Abdullah promptly cancelled his planned trip to Washington. Which set the stage for his condemnation at the Arab League meeting of the U.S.’s illegal occupation. In the streets, not wanting to appear to be America’s homeboy, this would be called building cred. Which they will need lots of if they are to have a chance to succeed in their efforts.

You may think King Abdullah has left the ranch, but I smell the handiwork of Jim Baker. The King’s plan for the region makes too much sense for it to be anything but.