Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30, 2009--Arlen Specter and the Dixiecrats and Whigs

Arlen Specter switched parties just as we were about to head north and so I got a direct dose of how my Florida Republican friends took the news.

One said, “Good riddance. All along I suspected he was a Democrat.” Another added that now Obama “will be able to get away with whatever he wants to do, including imposing socialism on the country. One opined that this is the end of the two-party system. And a close friend put it simply, “He’s a whore.”

When I pointed out to him that there is a long history of politicians changing parties—in fact more from the Democrats to the Republicans—he didn’t agree that maybe they too had sold their bodies for committee chairmanships or by doing so had made it easier to get reelected. He liked the idea, he reluctantly but refreshingly admitted, that these switches gave Republicans more votes in the House and Senate. “It made it easier for us to govern.”

I said, “Ditto with Specter. I don’t like him, but I’ll take his vote, thank you.”

While driving toward New York yesterday, I began to think about the future of our two-party system. Not that I agreed it was ending. After all in the past other parties—recently the Democrats—had lost congressional majorities and the White House and then came roaring back into office. The Republicans dominated our politics for decades before Obama’s remarkable win and had controlled both houses of Congress until the Democrat resurgence two years ago. Being out of power doesn’t mean the end of a party.

But what is more worrisome for and about the Republicans is that they have fewer and fewer registered voters. Only about 21 percent of Americans now consider themselves members of the Grand Old Party. One of just two moderate Republicans who remain in Congress, Olympia Snowe, wrote an op-ed piece yesterday in the New York Times in which she claimed that the GOP no longer is a party with a big tent; but rather, because they have driven away so many social moderates as they struck Faustian bargains with the religious right, that the Republicans no longer need a tent to house them--since their numbers have shrunk so much all they now require is an umbrella. (Column linked below.)

I surprised my friend when I said that I too am concerned about the continued viability of the Republican Party. To keep the Democrats from becoming as out of touch and corrupt as the Republicans have been for at least the past eight years when they had so much power, Democrats, when they have large majorities, also need to be kept in check.

But, I realized, until and unless they unshackle themselves from extreme social conservatism and return to a sincere policy of fiscal restraint more will leave their ranks and become Independents or Democrats. Arlen Specter, in a moment of remarkable candor, admitted he was switching parties in order to make it easier for him to be reelected in 2010. He noted that just this past year alone 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans had become Democrats.

Since the GOP will not be able to distance itself from its ultra-right wing base, what they need to do is form a new party—the Conservative Party.

This sort of party evolution has been common in our past. A massive party switch occurred in the 1800s and 1810s when many members of the United States Federalist Party joined the United States Democratic-Republican Party. When this party fell apart in the 1820s, its members all switched to various political parties, including the Whig Party, as well as the Democratic, National Republican, Anti-Jackson and Anti-Mason Parties.

The current version of the GOP was also formed by a massive switch in 1854 when northern members of the Whig, American, and Free Soil parties, along with a few northern Democrats, formed the Republican Party, and many Southern Whigs became Democrats.

There’s been lots of this sort of mixing and matching; and, during the 20th Century at times strong third parties emerged. In 1948, for example, a Democrat who ultimately became a Republican, Strom Thurmond, ran for president as a Dixiecrat and did quite well, carrying four states in the South.

In spite of the vitriolic way in which Senator Specter blamed the Club for Growth for driving him out of the Republican Party—they had endorsed and raised money for his rival in the Pennsylvania primary six years ago and were threatening to do so again next year—the Club has the right agenda for a new Conservative Party: legitimate fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, and small-government, especially in regard to social issues.

They call for reforming the Tax Code and reducing taxes for all (not, like Republicans, just for the wealthy); across the board drastically limiting government spending; maintaining a strong defense (with the emphasis on defense—keeping us safe—and not, like Republicans, stressing offensive pre-emptive wars); and, most important to their future political viability, reducing government’s role in the lives of private citizens (read: an end to an obsession with homosexuality and a woman’s right to choose).

It is this latter betrayal of Republican’s traditional libertarianism principals—keeping government out of our bedrooms and hospital rooms—that has driven voters away from the GOP, particularly people of color (actually, Hispanics), the better educated, and the suburban middle class. And there will be no way to bring them “home” unless the party enlarges its tent or, better, forms a new, true Conservative Party.

It might surprise some of the folks back at the Green Owl in Delray Beach, but I might on occasion vote for this kind of genuine Conservative. As, I suspect, would millions more who now consider themselves Independents and even liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Pepi

“I know you will be leaving for New York in an hour.” It was my nearly 101 year-old mother calling, I presumed, to wish us a safe trip. For decades this has been a tradition which by now has assumed ritualistic proportions. I know she feels that if she makes a call just before we depart, it will assure that we arrive safely.

“I've been waiting until now to tell you something that happened two weeks ago.” From the tone of her voice, I immediately grew concerned. She has been in remarkably good health, but with someone her age this could change in an instant.

“What’s going on Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I didn’t want to upset you.” She sounded so down in the dumps that I could barely hear her.

“You know we always want to know what’s going on with you. I’ve told you many times not to hold things back from us.”

“I only wanted for you and Rona to have a wonderful time while you’re here in Florida.”

“We did have a wonderful time, but we also want you to tell us when anything is wrong and . . .”

“Nothing is wrong.”

“Then why do you sound so upset?” I assumed she was feeling as blue as we were about our having to leave.

Upset. That’s the right word for how I’m feeling. Actually, worse than upset.”

“Tell me. Please.”

“You remember Pepi, one of my ladies? She has been at my table for dinner for three years. Poor thing.”

I sensed where this was going—considering the age of the residents at Forest Trace, during the 13 years my mother has lived there dozens, perhaps hundreds have taken seriously ill, needed to move to assisted living, to nursing homes or back with their children, or worse. “So what happened to Pepi, Mom?”

“I didn’t want to tell you until you got home. Back to New York,” she quickly added since she knew we were feeling that Delray Beach was becoming more and more our home.

“That’s OK.”

“I didn’t want to spoil your last days here.”

“Please Mom. I want to know what happened.”

“She died.”


“Yes. Two weeks ago. She had been so perfect. We had dinner together, she was so full of life, and then the next morning she didn’t come down for breakfast.”

“I’m so sorry Mom. I know how fond of her you were. Why didn’t you tell us? We would have . . .”

“As I said, you’re here on vacation.”

“No, Mom, we live here during the winter. That’s different than being on vacation. So we . . .”

“You know how I adored her. We worked so closely together during the election. She was the Democrat Party’s representative here. We helped more than 100 of the girls fill out their early ballots. All but two or three of them for Barack Obama. You remember I told you how wonderful she felt when he was elected? How she said that we had exonerated ourselves, after 2000, by helping him win a majority in Florida?”

I did remember that. They had assisted nearly 150 to fill out complicated paper ballots and, in shopping bags, took them to the Broward County election office and turned them in. Many ballots from women who had been born before women were allowed to vote. Many from people who had fought to unionize garment workers. Others from political activists who had marched in the Civil Rights Movement. All, from people who vividly remembered the cruelties of segregation and Jim Crow laws, including dozens who had lived in Florida at a time when blacks were not allowed to remain on Miami Beach after sundown or drink from the same water fountains as whites.

“You know at a time when it was rare for a woman to have a career, Pepi not only taught school, but was one of the first women to become a public school principal in Brooklyn. She was an inspiration at that time and continued to be until the day two weeks ago when she passed away.”

I thought, from the memory of Pepi’s life and death, that I could hear my mother weeping softly. It was not as if death at Forest Trace wasn’t a too familiar daily reality, but Pepi was remarkable. All are special, but Pepi was especially so.

I didn’t know what to say that would be meaningful or helpful, so I simply stammered, “At least she is no longer suffering.”

“She wasn’t suffering. I told you she was fine, how she was her own self until the end, but just didn’t wake up the next morning.”

“So at least she died peacefully, without suffering. You always say that . . .”

Ignoring me, my mother continued, “Even after she retired and moved to Florida with her husband, who died six years ago of Parkinson’s, poor thing, she continued to work in the public schools. As a volunteer. Tutoring children who were behind in reading. A local school used to send a bus here to take volunteers back and forth. But even when they stopped doing that because of budget cuts, Pepi kept going to the school on her own. By car service, which she paid for herself. To tutor one girl, a girl from Haiti who Pepi felt was very gifted; but because she did not yet know adequate English Pepi knew she would fall behind and be forgotten. She saw so much potential in her that even when her arthritis acted up, and it could be very bad, she managed to get herself there. And then when that girl graduated, I think her name was Jeanne, because of Pepi’s help she won an award for excellence in English. Isn’t that something?”

“It really is. What a wonderful final legacy.”

“But Pepi refused to take any credit for this. All she talked about was Jeanne this and Jeanne that. That was Pepi for you.”

“Amazing. She will be long remembered, which is the best . . .”

“And you remember when Barack Obama was in Europe recently?”


“And Michelle was there with him? She is such a darling. I think they were still in England when Michelle visited a school. For girls, wasn’t it? And the speech she gave. It was a very emotional speech. I think she had tears in her eyes. I could hear it in her voice. How she spoke about how the girls were like jewels waiting to be discovered and appreciated. It was very moving and that night, that last night at dinner Pepi said that that was also true about Jeanne.”

“She was right. And about so many other children who attended her school.”

“And then she went upstairs and never returned. Some Pepi.”

“It’s wonderful, Mom, that you remember her this way. I am sure there are many, many more who could say these kinds of wonderful things about her.”

“Yes, but there are no more Pepi’s here.”

“You’re wrong,” I said, “There is at least one more.”

“Not true.”

“I mean you.”

“Now, you’re making me cry, and here I am holding you up when you want to get started. I really called just to wish you a safe trip. As I always do.”

“But I’m glad you told me about Pepi.”

“Go safely, and in June when you come back for my birthday, come safely.”

“I’m sure we’ll talk before then,” I joked, “Like every day! And, as you always do, you can tell me that the day before we leave.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28, 2009--Dr. Zagat

The first Zagat Guide was created by Tim and Nina Zagat in 1979 as a way to collect and correlate diners’ ratings of New York City restaurants. In the spirit of unfettered democracy, where the voice and votes of the people trump professional expertise, for this initial guide, the Zagats surveyed their friends.

It became so popular that as of 2005, Zagat guides covered 70 other cities, with reviews based on the input of hundreds of thousands. After that, in addition to rating restaurants, Zagat guides evaluate seemingly everything from hotels to nightlife and shopping to zoos, music, movies, theater, golf, and airlines. The guides are sold in book form, via software for personal digital devices and mobile phones, and by paid subscription on the Web. It's hard to avoid them.

And recently we learned that the ubiquitous Zagats will soon publish guides to their readers’ top-rated doctors. (See New York Times article linked below.)

To the doctors, who swear by these guides to discover the latest downtown hotspots, this is taking participatory democracy a step too far.

One doctor who agreed to speak on the record self-congratulatingly complained that the Zagats are “treating medical care provided by dedicated and caring physicians as if we are preparing a meal.” Another condescendingly opined, “Are patients the best judges of health care? They notoriously ignore their doctor’s advice to eat well and exercise. Often they quit taking their pills when they are feeling better. They usually don’t understand the technologies and skills needed for treatment.”

Putting aside for the moment the complaint of some that "ordinary" citizens lack the capacity to do something really important--like vote for a president--this moaning on the part of doctors sounds a bit disingenuous because I’ve never heard any of them complain about patients of theirs referring new patients to them. Even patients who might have stopped doubling up on the Lexapro they prescribed. This voice of the people, as long as it fills up their appointment book, is just fine.

And they don’t have to worry about the Zagats publishing physician reviews that are as pithy as the ones they print about restaurants. To quote Nina Zagat, there will be no, witty remarks about a “doctor’s icy hands” or how a “crowded waiting room made the examination a downer.”

It may reassure doctors that they won’t be treated like Robert De Niro’s Japanese restaurant Nobu where comments such as “very accommodating to Sushi-phobes” are common, but it doesn’t reassure me.

I do want to know about hand temperature. When Dr. K___ asks me to assume the position for my annual prostate exam I do not want his freezing fingers to make matters worse.

So, just as the restaurant guides give numerical ratings for Food, Décor, Service, and Cost, how about assigning ratings for doctors for Time Spent With Patient, Quality of Magazines in Waiting Room, Prescription Handwriting, of course Out-of-Pocket Cost, and, yes, Hand Temperature.

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27, 2009--Snowbirding: Sojourning Among Republicans

It is almost time for these Snowbirds to head north.

There are the expected things that I will miss—the sun rising in the window near where I do this typing; the migration of the Spinner Sharks and nesting Sea Turtles that track up our beach; the endless walks there at low tide; Rona’s swelling collection of seashell oddities; Baby Samantha who learned to walk while we were in residence; working with Doug and Charlotte on the daily Sudoku and crossword puzzle; Friday night’s fried oysters at Granger’s; the crawfish salad at the Old Dixie Seafood Shop; my homemade Moroccan Chicken, B’stila, and Chicken Scarpiello; all the books; three-days-a-week Pilates with the ever-demanding Kirstin; languid afternoon naps; sundowners with Suzie and Jack; drinks at 6:00 with Ticket, the 97 year-old matriarch who presides over this enchanted place; close-by cousins; brother Len and sister-in-law Holly in Miami; the Ladies of Forest Trace who, with my 101 year-old mother, have been my political and moral guide; and daily mornings over coffee at the Green Owl where the talk drifted from basketball madness to illegal immigration, from the Florida Marlin’s quick start and just as sudden collapse to the origins of the Cold War, from Tiger Woods’ return to competition to Obama’s first 100 days, and from local gossip to the fine distinctions between “harsh interrogation” and “torture.”

All enhanced by the endless wisdom and good cheer of Megan and Traci and Fatch and Vanessa and Jen and Dave and Mike and Troy and John and Ernst and Dad and Tommy and Bob and Tom and Joe and Harvey and Jack, yes relentlessly engaging Jack, and . . .

But then there are the unexpected things I will miss. None more unexpected than how much I have enjoyed, been provoked and stimulated by sojourning, by residing temporarily, among so many Republicans.

Back in my hermetically sealed downtown New York City universe, where everyone is self-proclaimedly above average, our infrequent disputes are about movies (“Do you really mean that you thought Slumdog was politically regressive?”), music (“I much prefer Jonathan Miller’s St. Mathew Passion at BAM to Nikolaus Harmoncourt’s serviceable version. Miller makes it so much more, how shall I put it, contemporary.”); theater (“I hated Raúl Esparza in Homecoming. How could you say he was better than that deliciously scabrous Ian McShane last year in London?”); or when the disagreements are political they involve simply nuances such as which Democrat we preferred during primary season. (Reggie: “It is so obvious--John Edwards is the authentic Populist.” Lisa: “But don’t you see that Hillary is the only one with real experience.” Me: “I don’t know about that, but shouldn’t we be seeking to present a new face to the world; don’t we need transformative ideas: don’t we therefore need Barack Obama?”)

Down here, when we discuss politics or political history we argue. We do more than disagree or dispute. And we do so vociferously, at times so heatedly that everyone at the counter in the Owl, like it or not, gets drawn in. At times we make such a ruckus that we have been with a smile told, since others are waiting for our seats so they too can have their coffee, to “Take it out onto the street.”

Which we then do, fully caffeinated, continuing to thrust and parry about taxes and spending, weapons of mass destruction and yellowcake uranium. Passersby on Atlantic Avenue must wonder how anyone could be so riled up so early in the morning as the clouds begin to dissipate in anticipation of the promise of another perfect day. “Be cool, man. Be cool,” some say, “Just let it happen.”

I don’t know if during these months I’ve convinced anyone of anything. Perhaps Harvey, one especially bright and well-informed fellow, has come away, on one issue at least, with a more nuanced (to my perspective) understanding of the nature, effectiveness, legality, and morality of torture or, as he prefers, “coercive interrogation techniques.” Just Saturday, I hope after losing some sleep over this maddening set of issues, I sensed the emergence within him of some personal doubt.

He will I hope forgive me when I attempt to quote him:

I still believe there are good coercive interrogation techniques; and if some deem it torture, well so be it. When pressed, however, would I hedge my bet and say maybe waterboarding or other coercive techniques aren't such a good idea, and, for example, could I conduct them myself? I've often asked myself could I actually pull a trigger to end someone’s life even during warfare or in self-defense? Usually the answer is yes, but when I think long and hard about it, the answer doesn't come so easily.

But, with this important piece of self-confessed angst aside, I do not know if Harvey and his cousin David and Bob and a number of others have simply overwhelmed me by their numerical superiority or made a few good-enough cases to teach me a thing or two.

But before saying more about the latter, here are a few things about which these Republicans are still dead wrong.

(You can see from this that I’ve learned from them to be less equivocating than in the past when I would have tended to say, “On the one hand blah, blah, blah; but on the other hand . . .” We progressives pride ourselves on seeing the many complex sides of issues and so we sound this wimpy way, even to ourselves. Except, of course, when it comes to those things about which we are indisputably right. Which includes most subjects.)

No, I still say, the Soviets were not the only bad guys during the Cold War. I remain convinced that the Soviets had reason to fear that we might attack them when we had a nuclear monopoly. So this history is more contested than quick slogans would suggest. I tell them to read any decent biography about Harry Truman to see that plans to do this very thing were seriously debated during his presidency.

I continue to contend that opinions that are not fact-based are just that—opinions. And not very good ones at that. You cannot say, for example, that there is a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 unless you can point me to credible sources to support that conclusion. I am still waiting to see those.

It cannot be seriously asserted that Barack Obama is a socialist until you can first tell me in detail what you mean by “socialist” and then show in what specific ways any of his policies and proposals, by that definition, are socialistic.

I will not be convinced that expanding tax cuts for the wealthy will actually stimulate the economy and reduce the deficit until I have an explanation about the effects of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. In both instances, I have evidence to share, the economy contracted and the deficit grew by record proportions.

It is not historical fact that government stimulation of the economy never worked when in fact it was effective here in the U.S. in the 1930s (the New Deal during its first years cut the unemployment rate in half) or in Japan during the 1980s where millions were put to work on massive infrastructure projects or, more controversially, shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany.

And no one has been able to convince me that recent immigrants, including those here illegally, do not want to work, only seek welfare benefits, and resist learning English. Though I have passed along data from numerous studies that show just the opposite and call for evidence that what they claim is evidence-based, they have not refuted what I circulated by sharing proof of their own to support their views.

And have crimes of violence declined here since people have been able to easily become licensed to carry concealed weapons; or have they increased, as the record shows, even as Florida citizens exercise their 2nd Amendment right to bear assault weapons?

Then no one has been able to convince me with actual facts, though some who are less thoughtful complain passionately about being tired of “paying for things for people who refuse to work,” they and others who are more rational on the subject have been unable to make a persuasive argument that it is more cost-effective to pay for the uninsured to get their basic medical care through the use of high-cost emergency rooms than figure out a better national healthcare plan that is not, as they label it, “socialized medicine.”

So I haven’t made a lot of progress. Nor have they. We remain mainly dug in, they and I, but are still very much friends because though we have battled it has always been, mostly been, with respect and mutual affection.

But, I must admit, I have seen some shifting in the ideological tectonic plates that support my social and political views. Slight shifts. But to me welcome ones, though I do not want Harvey and his posse to get too excited by this confession. I’m still the Commie they have, I hope, come to like. Or at least tolerate.

I can see that we tend to agree about the need to fix our broken public schools and to do so requires more accountability throughout the entire system; that if we fail to do so we will continue to slip downward in the now more competitive globalized economy.

Though we do not agree about all the causes of global warming, and Al Gore remains the butt of some of their best jibes, we do agree that “man” does in fact contribute to its acceleration and that we had better do something about our role in it if we don’t want to see our grandchildren, who live inland here, to find themselves in 50 years with waterfront property.

And though they may draw more comfortably from Biblical sources than I, we agree that we all have a responsibility to “till and tend the garden” that is Earth. As a form of “creation care” for our planet, which after it was “created” was deemed, by God to be “good.”

So, as usual, things are less stereotypical then they can at first appear, especially when there are disagreements. If we can keep the heat down and avoid the ad hominem, not always easy, there are things we can stipulate, as in a trial where both sides agree to a series of facts before staking out their differing opinions and interpretations.

Perhaps more than anything else I learned during this sojourn is the lesson not to insist that only Harvey and his associates be required to argue from evidence--that I too am obligated to adhere to this, my own sanction. And in the privacy of these sunrise mornings (the sun right now is just fully above the horizon), after I too have lost sleep, I have been forced to learn that I also am sometimes prone (“sometimes” is as far as I am willing to go), I at times also put opinions before facts

Thus these struggles I will sorely miss when back in the safe confines of my New York breakfast place, Balthazar, where the only Republican we ever encountered was the young waiter Steve, who, by Election Day was almost ready to vote for Obama. Some Republican!

And he only worked there for three months before drifting off to graduate school at . . . a Jesuit university.

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24, 2009--Snowbirding: Haircut

As you can see from the photo on the right, I am not well blessed in the hair department. But even someone such as me with only an ear-to-ear fringe, once every month or two needs to get a haircut.

In order to reduce the traumatic effect of walking into a barber shop where all the other customers are from hairy Nordic or Mediterranean stock and to justify my spending twenty or more dollars for a job that should on me not take more than five minutes, I always show up at least a half hour before the time of my appointment in order to have some quality time with the magazines.

At home, of course I subscribe to The Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and the indispensable New York Review of Books; and so during my monthly visits to the barber, or as most now prefer to call themselves--the hairdressers, unlike at a doctor’s office where their magazines tend to run from the New Yorker to Fortune to Newsweek, at barbershops, one of the few remaining male sanctuaries, they are more likely to have Sports Illustrated, Maxim, and of course Playboy.

So you get my point. What can I tell you, I’m a guy.

But the other day, when it was time for a trim, I forgot for a moment where I was—near where we are in Florida, at J___’s Men’s Hair Stylist; and so the magazines stacked neatly on the side table next to where I had settled in for my thirty minutes of perusing things soft-core were GQ and Road & Track and Car & Driver and Golf World and Flying and World War II, yes Maxim, and most intriguing, Garden & Gun.

I glanced quickly at Maxim, not much that was titillating there, and then took a closer look at Garden & Gun, wondering how the editor would combine the two subjects—would there be articles about shooting deer eating the shrubbery in the garden of your estate? I then took a closer look at the magazine’s subtitle—Garden & Gun: Soul of the New South. Got it.

And thus I was not surprised to see articles about “The Southern Home” and “A Portrait of the Architecture, History and Spirit of Where We Live” and “Down Home: Memories of a Childhood Escape in Kentucky” and “Southern Exposures: From the Cottage to the Plantation,” which, to its credit mentioned that some of those “cottages” were formerly slave quarters. Then I got to the gun part with articles such as “Yankees: A Northern Company Renews the American Double-Gun Tradition” and, my favorite, “Thirteen Ways of (Not) Looking at a Turkey: Finding Poetry, Peace, and Humor in the Hunt.”

From this, snowbirder that I am, I was reminded about where I was and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t all that unhappy to be pulled away from my reading by Inez, when it was my turn to hop up onto her barber chair.

I remembered her from my last visit nearly two months ago and so we skipped the small talk about the perfect weather here versus the still-damp-and-chilly weather up North and how lucky we are to be able to be here this time of year, and got right back to talking about her son, Roberto, who I learned last time was near the end of his junior year in high school.

“So, is he still doing well?” I asked. “Still thinking about college?” I am an inveterate educator. “I recall your telling me that he’s a good student.”

Inez was tightening the snaps at the neck on the gown that was to protect me from cut hair, and I could feel her tensing. “Well,” she said, “I remember not to make it too short in the back.”

It was obvious from her deflecting my question that all was not well with her son and so, not to invade her privacy, I simply said, “Yes. That’s the way my wife likes it. I don’t want to go home looking scalped.” She liked that and laughed while affectionately rubbing my extensive bare scalp.

She began to snip away at the hair that after two months was beginning to grow over my ears. But then she leaned close to me, pressing her body against my leg, and whispered, “To tell you the truth, I’m worried about him.”

In a soft voice so the man in the adjacent chair couldn’t overhear us, I asked, “What’s going on? I thought he was serious about his schoolwork and was hoping to take the SATs and think about which colleges to apply to.”

“He was. Now, all I do is worry about him.”

“What happened? Just two months ago he . . .”

“I know. But he turned 16 a few weeks ago and now all he cares about are his friends and the car. Do I need to say more?” I didn’t respond, thinking she had more to get off her chest. “I told you we came here five years ago from Panama?” I nodded. She had told me that when she was still a little girl, on weekends, she had learned to cut hair there in her father’s barbershop. It had not been an easy adjustment for them coming here, but they both knew good English and had assimilated in about a year, living in a nearby community among other Panamanian immigrants. Her husband after two years went back to Panama, he just one day picked up and left, to rejoin his girlfriend, abandoning her and Roberto. To make ends meet, she had told me, she’d been working six days a week in J____’s and at another place closer to where she lives.

“It’s beautiful here, no? I come here in the daytime where there is all sorts of activity in town and then I go home, only 25 minutes from here, where there is peace and quiet.”

“That does sound nice.”

“It does, but there is no peace for me any longer.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“You know, there are Panamanian gangs where we live; and though Roberto had been able to avoid getting involved with them, now that he thinks he’s become a man, I think he is running with one of them. I’m not sure, but he’s always wearing something red, a scarf or bandana or something, and I understand that’s what some gang members do.”

“I understand. That’s how they tag and identify themselves. It’s very hard for young boys when they reach puberty. There’s a lot of pressure on them to be . . .”


“Yes, that.”

“I give him the keys to the car and tell him he must be back by 10:00, but he ignores me and comes home much later. When he’s out with those other boys so late I can’t sleep. Look at the rings under my eyes.” She pointed to them with her scissors. There were in fact deep, dark circles.

She continued to trim around my ears and for a while didn’t say anything further. I remained silent and still in the chair. But then, as if to herself, she said, “I don’t know what to do. I have no other family with me here. At times, to tell you the truth, I think about going back. To Panama. Taking Roberto with me. His grandfather, my father, maybe could help with him. But he has a condition. With his heart. He now can only work three days a week. So what could I expect from him? It would be unfair. It would kill him. Roberto was his only grandchild. He loved him so when he was a boy. He was such a good boy. Before we left. But now . . .”

“Is there any possibility of moving? I mean to a different neighborhood? To get him away from the gangs?”

“I haven’t the money to do that. I own a small house and couldn’t sell it now for anything. Half the houses on the block are for sale or foreclosed. What could I get for mine? Nothing. And then where would I go to? There are these gangs everywhere.”

To that I had nothing to suggest and so I again said nothing.

Inez by then was nearly done with me. She was gently shaving the few remaining hairs on my neck and behind my ears. After that, which only took a moment, she patted me dry, unsnapped the gown, and shook the cut hair from it onto the floor next to the chair. This was the signal for me to get up and pay her. But since there was no one waiting I remained seated, thinking maybe I could find something helpful to say. Last time I was so full of suggestions about how Roberto could prepare for the SAT and ACT exams. That now seemed like an eternity ago. This time I couldn’t think of anything useful or comforting. The magazines were long forgotten. Feeling I had to try to say something, not making eye contact, I said, “Maybe he could get some counseling. You know, at the school. There should be . . . “

“There are no counselors there. The one they had she was let go. Budget cuts. I thought of having him go to one privately. I would pay.”

“That sounds like a good idea.” I began to slide out of the chair, thinking it could be a good time to leave. On a positive note.

“With these kids that’s the last thing they would do. Again, it’s the macho.” I of course knew that was the problem. How could he face his friends if he was seeing a counselor? That’s the way it is some times. There’s nothing you can do but hope.”

“Time sometimes . . .”

“He’s young, that’s true, but time also is not kind to these boys. I could tell you stories about that. From my neighborhood.” But then quickly she smiled brightly and looked more like how I remembered her from my last visit. “You didn’t come in to hear my troubles.” I tried to wave that thought away. “But it’s true. You’re here on vacation. To relax, to get away from troubles, and here I am burdening you with mine.” Again I gestured that it had been all right for her to confide in me. “But as I said,” she was her radiant self again, “it is beautiful here. At least I have that.”

“Yes, it is lovely here.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“And you will come back to see me? You said you’d be here in June again for your mother’s birthday.” I had told her that. “You’ll need another trim by then. You’ll want to look nice for her.” I smiled and nodded.

After paying, as I was leaving, she waved and said, “I’ll still be here.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23, 2009--The House That Greed Built

Though we’re just two weeks into the new baseball season, there are already four things we know about the Yankees and their new $1.5 billion stadium:

Pretty much everything having to do with the Yankees is about money.

During the off season they signed and spent more on two high-priced free agents than any other team in baseball history—left-handed pitcher C.C. Sabathia got $171 million over seven years; and first baseman Mark Teixeira signed an eight year contract worth a cool $180 million.

From them we are already learning that money doesn’t always lead to stellar on-the-field performance. Teixeira is batting only .222. The Yanks would expect him to be hitting well over .300 and bashing home runs into the short porch at the new stadium (more about that in a moment). He has hit three, which is not too bad. And C.C., who has had four starts, should be at least 3 and 1 and have a positive strike-out-to-walk ratio is struggling to get anyone out—his record is 1 and 1, he has an ERA of 4.81, and he has struck out only 12 while walking 14.

Their other mega-priced superstar, Alex Rodriquez, (he is being paid $275 million over 10 years) has yet to play in a game—he is out after having hip surgery. And their recent number-one pitcher, their ace, Chien-Ming Wang, is off to one of the slowest starts in Yankee history: he has pitched in three games but completed a total of only 6.0 innings and has a staggering ERA of 34.50. Some wag calculated that he would have to pitch something like 35 scoreless innings in a row to get his ERA down to his lifetime average. No one in baseball history has every pitched that many scoreless innings in a row.

Then there is the problem of empty seat at the Stadium. The Yanks and New York City euphorically poured money as well as concrete into the new ballpark and, since the business plan to make this profitable was draw up while times were still good and many in New York were wallowing in their private era of excess, the Yanks not only filled the edifice with dozens of so-called “luxury suites” (the real justification for abandoning the old stadium was that the old place, the House that Ruth Built,” which was good enough for the Yanks to win 26 World Series didn’t have enough of these pleasure palaces for the corporate princes of Wall Street) but they also put a price tag of $2,625 for many hundreds of the “best seats,” those in back of home plate and behind the two dugouts.

But most of them were empty during the first six home games. There they were staring you in your face. On TV, from the camera in center field, which is used for every pitch during every at-bat, to the embarrassment of the Yankee organization, there was no avoiding seeing them.

At first I thought everyone was out at the bathroom or dining at one of the numerous new fancy restaurants, but inning after inning, there was no denying it, they remained empty; and I realized that I wasn’t witnessing either price resistance or an epidemic of prostatitus but rather one consequence of the collapse of New York’s banking and real estate industries.

And if these missing fans had actually been out rummaging for food, they would have had to shell out $5.00 for a small bottle of water, $6.75 for a hot dog, and $9.50 for a paper cup of tasteless, watered-down Miller Lite. If during the seventh inning stretch they rose to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the peanuts and Cracker Jacks made famous in those 100 year-old lyrics would have cost them $4.50 and $5.00 respectively.

Most ignominiously, after just four home games, the House that Greed Built is turning out to be a virtual Homer Dome. Through the first four games, a total of 20 homers were belted. Most by the visiting Cleveland Indians—who, by the way, still sport that offensive logo of theirs, the caricature of the grinning Indian. That’s an average of five per game. Among all other stadiums, the average is just 2.2.

These are the Yankees who used to Field Murderers’ Row, teams that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Guys who hit homers before steroids and the juiced-up ball. It is looking like the current Yanks are playing in a Little League bandbox of a field.

Before laying the first brick the architects did all sorts of studies to determine how wind currents coming off the adjacent Harlem River would affect play on the field. Since they were attempting to replicate the old ballpark, it was important to know this even though the new place was just literally across the street from the original. They were convinced that there would be no significant changes.

But over the weekend when every other ball seemed to be jumping out of the park—even those that should have been pop fly outs—the announcers and sports journalists began to speculate about the winds. Were they blowing out to right field with such forces that if The Babe were still playing he’d hit 150 a year? Or was there something in the dimensions of the new field that was contributing to all the homers.

The Yankee brass were adamant in asserting that the footprint of the new playing field is identical to the old. The distances to the fences are the same and the fences are of exactly the same height.

But, according to blogger Greg Rybarczyk, who laid satellite images of both the old and new park over each other, the new field, especially in right filed, is considerably smaller. To be specific, out by the Yankee bullpen, the new field is nine feet shorter. On average, he proves, on average, right field is five feet closer to the batters box.

This, he further demonstrates, is because the Yanks, to accommodate the humongous new scoreboard, straightened the fence. In the old stadium, from the right field corner to center field, the fence made a gentle, graceful curve. (Check this out on the New York Times article linked below.)

So for the remaining Miller-Lite-besotted fans behind home plate who are too busy texting to watch the game live, they can now watch the key plays almost three dimensionally on the monstrous new Jumbotron.

In the meantime, little Melky Cabrera already has four homers, including yesterday’s winning walk-off shot. Poor Babe.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22, 2009--Cheney Agonistes

People have been wondering what Dick Cheney has been up to since leaving office.

His boss, in a manner of speaking, George W. Bush left town and in the tradition of former presidents has kept his head down and carefully refrained from criticizing his successor.

The last VP to leave office, Al Gore, slipped away after the Supreme Court dismissed his lawsuit in the 2000 election, gained 50 pounds, and grew a beard. It wasn’t until years later that he remerged, slightly slimmer, to collect his Nobel Prize.

Cheney, on the other hand, has remained in Washington and has been vocal and relentless in his criticism of Barack Obama, claiming, notoriously, that he has “made America less safe.” And he is among those decrying the Obama administration’s release of Justice Department memos that justified (forgive the pun) the use of waterboarding and other “harsh” interrogation methods when questioning “enemy combatants” and others suspected of participating in terrorist activities.

Without getting too deeply into the debate about these memos, let me suggest the relationship between them and Dick Cheney’s recent unprecedented behavior.

He may be concerned that as the news about them continues to unfold or Attorney General Holder appoints a special prosecutor to investigate what happened during 2002-03 or Congress sets its own investigation in motion, that he will be shown to have been in the thick of things, perhaps even be subpoenaed or indicted and prosecuted.

He of course recalls what happened to his deputy, Scooter Libby, who was convicted of taking the lead in “outing” then-CIA-operative Valerie Plame, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson who found that the story that Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger was bogus. He recalls that President Bush resisted calls to pardon Libby at the time and did not submit to Cheney’s pressure at the end of his presidency to pardon Libby and a host of others, many, like Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Meyers who were in the middle of fabricating legal justifications for the invasion of Iraq and the use of perhaps illegal interrogation methods.

And of course Cheney recalls his own central role in building the intelligence case, post 9/11, that Saddam not only had weapons of mass destruction but also had close ties to the World Trade Center attackers. Not getting the intelligence he wanted, he went back and forth to the CIA director many times, pressing him to “sex up” the evidence to justify the invasion.

All of these moving pieces are connected and are likely to come into fuller focus as the various investigations and potential prosecutions get under way. (See the important New York Times article linked below that unpacks some of these connections.)

Cheney also knows that Barack Obama is reluctant to open this can of worms, concerned that it will further inflame partisanship and so distract the media and Congress that it will get in the way of their dealing with his economic and social agenda. Obama, until yesterday when he hinted that it might be appropriate to look at the higher up’s who shaped our Iraq and War on Terror policies, has seemed to many, including Cheney, as timid on this subject; and thus Cheney likely sees a chance to “roll” the president, by keeping the heat on him and thereby make him back off from going further.

He probably paid close attention to Obama’s behavior at the recent Summit of the Americas where he appeared to be reluctant to confront Hugo Chavez and Manuel Ortega who are “enemies” of the United States. If Obama would sit quietly for an 80 minute speech by former Contra leader Ortega and then not respond in kind, and if he could exchange smiles with bad-guy Chavez, would weak-appearing Obama have the cajones to take on fire breathing, Dark Vader Cheney?

The former vice president has also undoubtedly been following reports that Obama is not fighting hard enough to advance his own legislative priorities, caving in to some Senate leaders who have successfully challenged important parts of his budget proposals, including on health care and agricultural subsidies.

Cheney knows how these kinds of investigations and prosecutions work. Start with the small fish at the bottom of the chain of command. In this case with Jay Bybee and John Yoo former director and deputy of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, among the authors of the “torture” memos. Squeeze them and hope that they then turn on their boss, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Various investigations are already closing in on him. Squeeze him, and like the others he might come to conclude that he could face further disgrace, disbarment, and perhaps years in jail. Who knows what he might say if forced to testify under oath?

Confronting this prospect one or more of them might turn into a contemporary John Dean and blow the whistle on who really was in charge, the person to whom they all ultimately reported. Who might that be?

Dick Cheney? The sexer-upper.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21, 2009--Obamanomics

Barack Obama’s announcement yesterday that he would be asking his cabinet members to cut $100 million from their budgets was a political stunt that backfired.

As Wolf Blitzer pointed out on CNN, considering that next year’s budget deficit is projected to approach $4 trillion (most of that the residue of the Bush administration), this is the equivalent of reducing the sticker price on a $37,000 car by one dollar.

Obama acknowledged that this was a proverbial drop in the bucket. But he was wrong--in fact it’s more like a drop in the ocean. He should have rejected the idea altogether unless he was going to announce that he would be asking his cabinet secretaries to cut at least a few billion. The Republicans now don’t know how to attack him first—should they make fun of these “savings” or should they beat up on him for smiling at that villain from the Venezuelan axis of evil, Hugo Chavez. Obama lobbed both of these political softballs their way.

But in a speech earlier in the week, at Georgetown University, he outlined the fullest version yet of his economic vision. It’s a talk worth reading in its entirety because he comes out of the economic closet to make his case as to why capitalism needs to be nothing short of redefined.

For openers, though our economy for decades has been largely sustained by consumption, he wants to shift the focus away from that—putting aside how excessive spending erodes our culture and values—and more toward savings and investment. In his words:

We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity—a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest, where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

New York Times Week in Review columnist Richard Stevenson wrote that this means the rest of the world would no longer be able to assume that the United States will continue “to snap up imported goods or run up large trade deficits.” This Obama approach would take us well beyond just weaning ourselves from dependency on foreign oil. We would also be weaning ourselves from dependency on the latest in flat-screen TVs, fads in children’s toys, computer games, and other ephemera.

In an attempt to save American capitalism by redefining it, Obama also wants to move the economy from its ruinous boom and bust cycles. And from the belief—which is more an ideology—that the Market can be depended upon to be fully self-correcting.

According to his economic advisors, again in the words of Stevenson, “The president’s approach is based on the belief that recent economic cycles were driven too much by financial engineering: reserved most of the fruits of good times for the wealthy [through tax policy]; relied excessively on foreign capital to finance domestic debt; and ultimately gave way to painful busts.” (Article linked below.)

And Obama admitted that he sees a permanent, though limited role for government in helping steer the economy. By no means the socialist that right-wingers who know little about actual socialism claim, he is nonetheless not shy about the role he envisions government needing to play.

For example, in addition to the necessity for periodic stimuli, he also unabashedly is a redistributionist. His tax policy does in fact redistribute income from the wealthiest five percent to the rest of us, primarily to the middle class. He recognizes that taxation by its nature is redistributionist. Unless each of us pays in exact proportion to the income of everyone else (i.e. everyone is taxed the same in percentage terms), money though taxes flows either upward (thus Reagan and George W. Bush were among the biggest redistributionists in history) or downward—Obama’s preference.

Lawrence Summers had it about right: “It’s a strategy directed at having a somewhat different and healthier expansion than we’ve had in the past [read, no more bubbles], driven by a sense that the expansion is likely to be more secure and its benefits more widely shared.”

In a sentence, Obama himself summed up his vision, “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.” We’ve seen what that yields.

Whether or not he is able to flex the political muscle and mobilize the public support necessary to bring this about—and the forces arrayed against such fundamental change are formidable, including within his own party—is obviously an open question. But at least we now know where he stands and what he is attempting to do. This in itself is refreshing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20, 2009--Cutting Back . . . Literally

Yes, Barack Obama is right that there are glimmers of hope about the economy. Some of the largest banks are showing profits, GE’s numbers came in better than expected, and jobless claims, though they continue to rise, are rising at a slowing rate. All good news . . . I think.

But in spite of this, though our investments are looking perkier, we continue to cut back. Late last week, for example, I again saved half an onion and wound up using the remainder in a sauté of leftover mushrooms and okra. It made a nifty side dish. And we did take home and freeze three slices of pizza from Anthony’s, which made for a satisfying lunch. Oh, yes, since there was about a quarter of the onion still left, I sliced it thin and tossed it on top of the pizza to freshen it up.

Around the country, many are doing versions of the same thing. Most out of necessity, but it also appears that there is a cultural shift under way against some of our recent profligate ways.

Over the weekend I tuned into to watch parts of the first games played at the new Yankee Stadium. Thursday’s home opener appeared to be sold out. But by Saturday, when the Yanks gave up 14 runs in the second inning—an all-time team record of ineptitude—and on Sunday, it was clear that there were whole areas of the stadium where the seats were empty. Mainly behind home plate and the two dugouts where it cost more than $2,500 per seat.

Yes, I did see a father with three kids sitting two rows back and wondered what kind of values he was teaching those youngsters by spending more than $10,000 on those seats. But it was clear by the empty seats that others who would otherwise have been there on those balmy early spring days were not willing to spend so lavishly on tickets to what after all is just a game. It’s not college tuition. It’s not a down payment on a house. It’s not for a new car.

Then I read a piece in the New York Times about “the gleefully frugal.” These are people who can still afford to go to Yankee Stadium or buy $3,000 Prada handbags but prefer to look for bargains.

Becky Martin, who is a real estate investor, whose husband is a successful plastic surgeon, and who lives on a golf course in a country club community in Cincinnati, recently cut up her ten credit cards, takes DVDs out of the library rather than renting them, and grows her own fruits and vegetables, said, “I’m loving this. It’s a chance to pass along the frugal lifestyle that my mother gave me.”

In contrast to the past, Americans are not spending their way out of this recession. We are saving more. Since the 1980s, savings rates plummeted to just 1 percent, but now we are putting away 5 percent of our money. According to Martha Olney, a University of California economics professor who specializes in the Great Depression, consumerism, and indebtedness, this new behavior may signal a cultural shift, “It implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value.”

As my grandmother used to say, “We’ll see.” Cultural shifts occur only infrequently and take more than a few months to establish themselves.

If the Yankees can get their act together and play competitive baseball I’ll keep watching them. On TV. And I’ll be keeping an eye on those first five rows of seats.

But there is one other way Americans appear to be saving. And this method is not so easily reversible—according to another article in the same issue of the Times (linked below), the number of men having vasectomies is experiencing an uptick

Accurate statistics are hard to come by. No group or organization gathers vasectomy data. It’s hard to even imagine what such and organization might call itself—The UC, the Unkindest Cut?—but in 2006 a study published in the Journal of Urology estimated that each year about 527,000 are performed. More anecdotally, Planned Parenthood in Southern California, where the Great Recession has hit very hard, reports that requests for vasectomies have risen by more than 30 percent during the first three months of this year.

So we may be seeing the beginning of an important new trend. After learning she was pregnant, one woman quoted in the Times piece, said, “Another baby—how wonderful!” After a moment’s thought she added, “Another child—how EXPENSIVE!”

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009--Citizen Fatch: Part II

Tom must have had an early appointment at court. Or, opted not to show up this morning at the Owl. He, as well as Harvey, had been forewarned that I would be bringing in my own version of a citizenship test, that Fatch would be scoring it, and so perhaps wisely he decided to go to Starbucks for coffee and thereby avoid taking any more abuse from me.

This in spite of his bragging last night, when I emailed him a prep-test, “I have never had problems [when at Princeton] passing a test that was handed out a month beforehand, just like the football players at the University of Florida,” which I knew was a dig at Harvey who is a Gator.

Harvey, on the other hand, who had been practicing hard, though looking a little bleary-eyed from the all-nighter, showed up at the stroke of 8:30.

He too had written me about the results of his preparations. Obviously feeling pretty good about himself and unable to pass up a dig at me, he wrote about the 100 U.S. government supplied practice questions I had sent to him (linked below):

I won’t take credit for the number of Amendments which I didn’t know yesterday morning but knew by the time of this test (#22); #43 is obviously dated – Chief Justice John Roberts; I missed (#44) one of the 13 original states (I thought possibly Vermont and not Georgia), I missed #72 about the INS Form 400; I missed the purpose of the U.N. (question 82) which I said was to be corrupt, ineffective, impotent, and bash the U.S. at every turn; I disagree with #78, we are a Republic form of government which isn’t a pure Democracy – bad question. All kidding aside, in the end I missed [only] three. (Emphasis added)

He of course knew I would be trying to trick him with my questions, or minimally I would attempt to take a few cheap shots at his beloved Republicans. In that regard, he wasn’t disappointed.

He managed to get the right answer to question number 1—“Which US president increased the national debt by the largest percentage?” Not (a) Thomas Jefferson or (b) James Polk, but (d) Ronald Reagan.

And he knew the answer to question 4--“Who was president when the US lost the war in Vietnam?” He ignored Bill Clinton who, smart ass that I am and since Republicans like to blame him for everything, I listed twice—(a) and (c)—and circled (d), Richard Nixon.

Though another of his friends observing Harvey rip through the exam claimed that we didn’t lose the war, we simply withdrew. Touché.

But Harvey did mess up number 8—“What does the 28th Amendment to the Constitution sanction?” From yesterday’s fiasco about the number of Amendments, not knowing there were only 27, he should of realized this was a trick question and answered (e) Other, and filled in the blank, writing “There is no 28th Amendment.” Instead, he picked (c) Cross Dressing.

I knew, though, that he was puling my leg. And so did Fatch, who was still glowing with pride over what she had achieved earlier in the week.

As he was leaving for the office, Harvey promised he would try to get to her swearing in and bring Tom along with him.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16, 2009--Citizen Fatch

At the Green Owl a few days ago, debate was raging again about, what else, immigration. The usual suspects were lined up as before staking out their usual positions. Me included.

Lou said, “Most of them don’t want to work and those that do are taking jobs away from real Americans.”

I said, “But how many of your so-called ‘real Americans’ are willing to pick lettuce all day in the hot sun much less clean up public toilets?”

He said, “If we would arrest them and send them home, then we’d find out. In the current recession, I’ll bet lots of Americans would line up for those jobs.”

Pete joined in, “Yeah, just the other day thousands lined up in Miami to apply for a handful of jobs.”

I said, “Sure, working for the city. Those are good jobs. Not cleaning up our messes.”

Pete added, “And none of them want to speak English. Spanish this and Spanish that is all I hear all day.”

I said, “Well, when your people arrived here I’ll bet all you heard was Italian.”

He rejoindered, “But they learned English. At least their children did.”

Exasperated, I said, “And are you telling me that Mexican kids who are now in the U.S. don’t want to learn English? I doubt it. All evidence shows that they are eager to learn English and do so quickly.”

You get the picture.

All the while, off in the distance, smiling and taking this in, was Fatch, a young and beautiful Brazilian woman who has lived legally in the United States for about ten years and who was planning soon to take her citizenship test. She’s one of the Owl’s crew of extraordinary waitresses. Like the rest of them, she's salt of the earth, hard working, good humored, not complaining.

Yesterday morning, with an even broader smile, she told us she took the test earlier in the week and just learned that she passed.

We were thrilled; and after the applause and celebrating, the discussion turned to the meaning of citizenship itself. I asked Harvey, who studied Constitutional law while in law school, why it was that anyone born in the USA, even to parents who are here illegally, is automatically an American citizen. He told me he didn’t know and that he’d do a little research about it and get back to me.

Fatch said she’d also do some research; and then asked, “How many of you know how many amendments there have been to the Constitution?”

I guessed about twenty and looked over at Harvey and a friend of his, Tom, also a lawyer, to get the right answer. Harvey avoided eye contact and Tom just kept smiling his usual ironic smile. He’s a Princeton man and most times keeps above this kind of banter.

“No, I’m serious,” I jibbed Harvey and Tom, “You guys went to law school, passed the bar exam on the first try, and don’t seem to know the answer to this pretty basic question. I don’t know it either, I admit that, but you should. No?”

Harvey said, “The bar exam here focused on Florida’s constitution, not the federal version.” But realizing that wasn’t going to get me off his back, quickly added, “You know how it is—you learn so many things that you tend to forget a lot of them.” Tom kept his head down, still smiling.

“There are twenty-seven.” It was Fatch again. “I don’t think very much about that one. But the 26th was important.”

“Do you agree with Fatch?” I needled Harvey. He didn’t say anything. Usually, he has the good arguments and manages to shut me up. At least for a while.

“Why’s that Fatch?” I asked. I knew I had Harvey this time.

“We’ll that one gave 18 year-olds the right to vote.” She beamed at us, understandably pleased with herself, and went off to bring more coffee to one of her customers.

Rather than continuing to fool around with Harvey and Tom, I switched gears and asked them both if they thought they could pass the same citizenship test Fatch just took. I confessed that I probably couldn’t. Harvey got back into his how-much-we-forget riff. I told him that at my advanced age I agree with him about that. At this Tom looked up for the first time from his coffee and nodded his head in agreement.

“I’ll see if I can find out more about the test on the Internet and send you—and Tom—what I find. We’ll see how well we’d all do. I suspect not that impressively, which I think raises some interesting questions about what it means to be a U.S. citizen—just being born here, never being subsequently tested or asked to demonstrate any basic knowledge of civics. Does that make sense?" Harvey and Tom shrugged their shoulders, I think in agreement.

Back at the apartment I did find some information (linked below) and sent it along to them. I also promised that if they show up at the Owl tomorrow morning, I’d have my own version of a citizenship test for them. We’ll see how well they do. I'm hoping they'll test me too.

If you want to find out, check this space tomorrow, Friday the 16th. Maybe it will turn out to be interesting.

And, the Owl will be closed the day Fatch is sworn in as a new citizen. I'm certain Harvey and Tom will be at the ceremony. And I suspect Pete and Lou as well.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15, 2009--Tax Day In Florida

I'm surrounded here by folks who, over coffee, will soon be attacking me for my "tax-and-spend" politics. So I think I will lie low and take the day off from blogging so I will have the strength to defend myself. And my president.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14, 2009--"Good Luck" At Sea

The Iran hostage crisis was a diplomatic disaster. Islamist students took over the American embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution and from November 4, 1979 held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days.

The episode reached a climax when, after failed attempts to negotiate a release, the United States military, authorized by President Jimmy Carter, attempted a rescue operation, Operation Eagle Claw, on April 24, 1980, which resulted in an aborted mission, the crash of two aircraft and the deaths of eight American service members and one Iranian civilian.

Republicans excoriated Carter for this failure, claiming it symbolized his ineffectiveness and wimpiness. It was the political end of his presidency.

Some years later, in October 1993, nine months into his presidency, suspecting the presence of Islamic terrorists in Somalia, Bill Clinton ordered U.S. troops to battle fighters loyal to al Qaeda protector, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

The assault force consisted of nineteen aircraft, twelve vehicles and 160 men. During the operation, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, and three others were damaged. Some of the soldiers were able to evacuate wounded comrades back to the compound, but others were trapped at the crash sites and cut off. Throughout the night in Mogadishu an urban battle ensued. Early the next morning, a task force was sent to rescue the surrounded soldiers. They assembled more than 100 vehicles and were supported by additional Little Bird and Black Hawk helicopters. They reached the first crash site and led the trapped soldiers out. The second crash site was overrun and the pilot, the lone surviving American, was taken prisoner.

It was a tragic fiasco. Seventy-three Americans were wounded and 18 were killed. Many of their bodies were dragged through the streets by celebrating Somalis. As with his predecessor, Bill Clinton was castigated by Republicans and right wing talk show hosts as being ineffective and, as the results of this military disaster and his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War, he was seen as not fit to be Commander in Chief. This perception haunted his remaining seven years in office.

There was an emerging consensus after the Carter and Clinton presidencies—only Republicans had enough grit and will to protect American interests. After all, Ronald Reagan had successfully invaded the tiny, inconsequential island of Grenada to show off his macho.

Putting aside the military vision and prowess of the Republican Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration (and forgetting that they had been in office for eight months when we were attacked on 9/11), it is frankly fun to watch how some ideological Republicans are now squirming to explain away the spectacular rescue Sunday of Captain Richard Phillips from his Somali pirate captors.

Never mind, they are in effect saying, that the FBI and all of our armed forces behaved magnificently, forget that we struck an appropriate and subtle balance between quiet diplomacy and military confrontation, never mind that throughout the crisis Barack Obama was briefed five times a day and was in executive command of the strategy, ignore the fact that he alone as Commander in Chief authorized the use of deadly force—neglect to give him and his team any credit for this.

Leading up to the rescue, they seemed to be saying, “I knew the Gipper, and Barack Hussein Obama is no Gipper.” Some even called him a "panty-waist,” whatever that is.

The explanation for the quick and satisfying results, they are now claiming, is the result of . . . luck.

It’s as simple as that. And can you imagine what his critics would be saying if the mission had been botched. Use your imagination. I’ll give you a hint--the answer is not bad luck.

Monday, April 13, 2009

April 13, 2009--Doggie Deuteronomy

This has been a week suffused with religious observations. There was Birchat HaChammah at dawn last Wednesday, which for orthodox Jews occurs just once every 28 years and marks the astronomical alignment of the sun and moon and stars that, it is claimed, replicates their position on the fourth day of Creation; then two days later it was Good Friday and on Sunday Easter.

In interfaith style, we celebrated Birchat and Easter on the beach, among friends, just before sunrise. The former silently with just the sound of the ocean and the later, without words, accompanied by the plaintive strains of five musicians—four drummers and a tenor saxophonist.

And last Tuesday, the first night of Passover, along with other Florida-based family members we were hosted at a Seder by my nearly 101 year-old mother. She no longer is able to make her famous matzo ball soup or gefilte fish, but the place where she lives does a good job and she is more than capable of presiding and holding forth during the reading of the Haggadah, the traditional meal, and well into the night after dinner hosting all eleven of us back in her apartment.

It has been quite a week. Divine, literally, but which also has its ridiculous side, which I cannot resist exploring. We do need diversions.

Back in our secular apartment, I noticed a piece in the New York Times (linked below) about dogs who eat only kosher food. I mean, who are fed kosher food by their owners.

To tell you the truth I had long wondered about that—what do Jews who observe the food laws outlined in Deuteronomy do about their pets? While they are careful not to mix meat and dairy dishes and are forbidden to consume any meats that come from animals with cloven hooves of go out for Chinese food and eat shrimp with lobster sauce (both of which are considered to be traif—not kosher), what do they then feed their pets?

If you’ve ever read the label on a can of Alpo or a box of Purina Cat Chow to find out what they contain, you can quickly see the problem. Almost all contain grains of one kind or another; and during the days leading up to Passover this presents a special challenge because many Jews make a great effort to rid their homes of any food products that contain them, taking a full month to do so and going so far as to rummage around in all their kitchen drawers and closets the night before the first Seder with a candle to light their way and a feather that they use to brush up even the tinniest of crumbs, which in turn they collect and sell to a non-Jew.

After that, for all the days of Passover, when all this chametz has been gathered up and the house has thus been rendered Pesachdik, and everyone who lives there eats only unleavened matzos, what to do about Puff and Spot?

Not to worry, there are entrepreneurs out there filling the kosher pet food niche. For example, Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company (which is endorsed by the Chicago Rabbinical Council), produces a full line of kosher pet foods. In fact, to promote their line of products, last week they sponsored a doggie Seder at a Windy City pet store called Wigglyville.

The Council did not require the meat in the Evanger’s kosher dog food to come from kosher cows—the Bible, they said, does not require that; but they did insist that Evanger’s include a note on the cans saying that they are not for human kosher consumption, which is probably a good thing these days when people wiped out by Bernie Madoff might be tempted to . . .

Others, also wanting to get in on things to market to Jewish pets, are trying to cash in. Alice Lerman, who owns Barker & Meowsky, a Chicago pet store advertised as a “paw firm” (terrible puns are out of control with these business owners) sells pet Judaica—tiny yarmulkes and tallits (prayer shawls) as well as toys made by a company called “Chewish Pets.”

These are also in hot demand for increasingly popular “Bark Mitzvahs.” So, as they are prone to say around Barker & Meowsky’s, “Muzzle Tov.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10, 2009--Day Off

The sun's up and I'm going for a long walk. So, I'll be back typing on Monday.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

April 9, 2009--Reading, ‘Riting, and Data

Harvey was saying the other morning that of all the outrageous things going on, the failure of our public schools to provide a good education is the most egregious. Maybe he didn’t use the word “egregious,” but if he had thought about it another minute he would have.

I said to him, that though we don’t agree about a lot of things, about this we are in complete agreement. “Maybe, though,” I added, “we don’t have the same view about why this is true.”

“Try me,” he said.

I took another sip of coffee and tried. “There are actually a lot of reasons why the schools are not as good as they used to be. To begin with, in the past teachers were trained to teach. Now they're educated to do so. They used to go to Normal Schools or Teacher Training Institutes; now they go to Colleges of Education. They used to learn practical methods of instruction; now they spend a lot of time on theory.”

“And,” Rona leaned over to add, “they are now encouraged to be creative in the classroom rather than employing methods and techniques that work.”

“Also,” I said, “though it may not be politically correct to say this, in the past when talented women did not have that many career options as they do today, those who wanted careers were directed toward teaching and many of them turned out to be exceptional.”

“Look, I started this,” Harvey jumped in to interrupt Rona and me before we got fully on a roll, “so let me add something that I’m sure you don’t agree with.”

“Go on.”

“A lot of the failures of our schools are the fault of the unions. They care more about protecting teacher’s prerogatives than student achievement. I have a friend who was a high school teacher and he invited me to a union meeting and I didn’t hear one word there about students. All they spoke about was their salaries and working conditions. I used to think of teaching as a calling. People entered the profession knowing they wouldn’t get rich but because they were dedicated to the education of young people. Much of that has changed, and not for the better.”

“Well, it may surprise you,” I took the floor back because Harvey was beginning to get all worked up, “but essentially I agree with you. I’m quite a liberal, as you know,” he stopped gulping down his eggs to nod his head so vigorously that I was concerned he might choke, “Teachers are entitled to a living wage and good working conditions and their unions have helped with this, but they need to be at least as concerned about the welfare and progress of their students as their prep time and the length of the school day. In New York City, for example . . .”

“Ugh, New York, union central,” Harvey blurted out.

“Indeed,” I said, “There the collective bargaining contract between the union and the city runs to many hundreds of pages and almost all of them are devoted to governance issues such as who has the power to assign teachers to classes and the number of hours and even minutes teachers are required to spend in the classroom.”

“Let me tell you what happened to my teacher friend,” Harvey said, “He tried to restrain a 9th grader who was threatening his classmates. To do this, he put a hand on his shoulder and asked him to stop and sit down. When he wouldn’t, he told him to leave and report to the principal’s office. To make a long story short,” which for Harvey is a bit of an unusual offer, “the boy’s mother complained and my friend was made to apologize to the student for touching him ‘inappropriately.’ As you might imagine, after that he lost his sense of mission for teaching and soon thereafter quit and went into commercial banking.”

“Incredible,” Rona jumped in again, “I’ve heard a lot of those kinds of stories. Another problem is that too many teachers want to do their own thing, no matter how well or poorly it works, rather than be required to use effective methods—techniques that have been measurably proven to work. And to be held accountable for how well their students perform.”

We were all nodding in rare agreement and decided to pay our checks and leave the Green Owl before we found something about which to disagree. Tomorrow for that would be soon enough.

Back home there happened to be an article in the New York Times (linked below) that could have served as a text for our discussion. It reported about how Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that nearly half of the economic stimulus money designated for public schools will be doled out to the states if and only if they provide accurate data about the academic achievement of their students. Data, however, that are likely to prove embarrassing.

This is because many of the quantifiable failures of public education are routinely hidden from public view since school administrators, including at the state level, routinely obscure the true nature and extent of the problems (which is a polite way to say they “lie”) in the methodology they employ.

For example, before releasing federal money to the states, among other things, Duncan is requiring that they report about the number of students, high school by high school, who enter, graduate, and complete at least a year’s worth of college credit.

This sounds pretty simple for state commissioners to do—push a few buttons on computers in Sacramento and Albany and the data will pop out.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this were true? Instead, we have 50 methods of keeping track of these kinds of data, including many different ways of defining who in fact is a high school graduate. In some states a graduate is defined as a student who begins the senior year and graduates a few months later, ignoring all who dropped out earlier. Other states create their databases by counting only those who graduate after beginning their junior year, also ignoring dropouts. These deceptive methods present a much more positive picture than would be the case if all who begin high school were counted. And, to make matters worse, virtually no states have integrated data systems that track high school graduates who go on to college. Incredibly, not all school districts, even fairly large ones, keep their records electronically. To monitor student progress they have to do it manually, paper transcript by transcript.

All of this is not just the result of incompetence. Much of it is designed to hide the truth of school failure from the public. Now that’s what I call egregious.

This shell game has been going on for decades so good luck Arne Duncan.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

April 7, 2009--ברכת החמה Birchat HaChammah (Blessing of the Sun)

Stan and I got into another argument at the Green Owl the other morning.

It started out benign enough. He had just been to church, a new one he told us. The Methodist place, “Where I like the priest,” he said.

“What happened? I thought you went to the Episcopal church.”

“Well, I used to. Until the priest there began talking about how he would marry gay people even though it’s against the law here in Florida.”

“Are you sure that’s what he said? I know there’s been controversy about ordaining homosexual priests, and some Episcopal priests agree to perform gay union ceremonies, so maybe that’s what he means.”

“No, he’s in favor of marrying them. I’m OK with allowing gays to come to the church but not get married there. I’ve been giving him a whole stack of things to read. Articles that show people choose to be gay. He keeps saying to me that it’s not a lifestyle choice. So I gave him some medical articles that prove it is, and that it can be cured. By giving them testosterone shots.”

“I know what you’re referring to Stan,” I said as calmly as I could—my food had arrived and I didn’t want to get so riled up that I’d lose my appetite, “I’ve seen that stuff too. And it’s pretty much bogus science. There is no credible evidence that lack of testosterone causes homosexuality.”

“And,” Rona added, trying to defuse the situation, “I know plenty of gay men back in New York and none of them have a testosterone problem. Quite the opposite, if you know what I mean.”

Stan didn’t get her little joke, and without missing a beat said, “You know, I’m beginning to think that the only religion that makes any sense is Judaism.”

This really caught us by surprise and I could barely think of what to say. “So,” I sputtered, “you’re always welcome but I think you’d find many rabbis who are openly gay and would also perform gay marriages.”

“Though,” Rona chimed in, if you did become Jewish (though it takes a long time to convert) this coming Wednesday at sunrise, you could participate in what some Jews call the Blessing of the Sun.” I looked over at her skeptically, she, like me, being a non-observant cultural Jew. “Really, I read about it in the New York Times. You’re bible,” she said to me with a playful look.

“It happens rarely, only every twenty-eight years. It is claimed to be at the same time and on the same day of the week as it was during the fourth day of Creation. When the sun and moon and stars were created.”

Stan and I agreed about one thing—Rona was making this up—so we stared at her skeptically. All the while our coffee was cooling.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “So here, take a look at this.” She reached down for the Times, which was already folded back to the weekly “On Religion” column, and passed it to me.

Stan looked over my shoulder as I read about Birchat HaChammah, the very holiday Rona had referred to—one at which right after sunrise orthodox Jews recite the Blessing of the Sun.

Tomorrow, April 8th 2009 is one of these infrequent times when, it is claimed, at dawn the celestial bodies will be in that special alignment. By the calculations of the sages who think about and keep track of these occurrences, tomorrow will be astronomically equivalent to that remarkable Fourth Day. At 6:28 a.m. Eastern Time to be especially precise.

According to the most literally orthodox Jews this has happened just 206 times since Creation—all seven days of it—since that took place “only” 5,769 years ago. In 3760 B.C. according to our secular calendar.

I could see the implications of this slowing sinking in with Stan, who tends in his religious beliefs to be quite literal-minded. “You see, you’re making my point for me.” He winked to show us that though we disagree about most everything, we still share much affection, “About Judaism, I mean. Maybe I’ll be coming over to your church one of these days.”

“You mean synagogue,” I corrected him, also displaying my literal-mindedness, “But if you want to participate in a ‘service’ with us, since we don’t go there at all, you might want to come join us tomorrow morning on the beach. I’m sure we’ll be there at 6:28. It’s the kind of ceremony we can believe in.”

“And,” Rona added, “you never know.”

(If you doubt any of this about Birchat HaChammah, the Times article is linked below.)

Monday, April 06, 2009

April 6, 2009--Food Fight

In late November 1990, members of the World Trade Organization gathered in Seattle. As at the recent G-20 meeting in London, anti-globalization protesters demonstrated in the streets

Via images broadcast around the world from Seattle, those who tuned in saw up to 40,000 representatives from anti-free trade groups, anti-capitalists, environmentalists, and animal rights groups clash, often violently, with the police. Again very much as in London last week.

But there were differences.

In Seattle, targets of the protesters included American clothing manufacturers whose products they claimed were made in overseas sweatshops (Nike, Levi’s, Old Navy, and the Gap) and fast food companies such as McDonald’s, who it was claimed contributed to the destruction of rainforests and the slaughter of animals; and Seattle’s own Starbucks, who, in the over-heated words of the protesters, were called out for being “peddlers of an addictive substance [caffeine] whose products are harvested at below-poverty wages by farmers who are forced to destroy their own forests in the process.”

In London, though, American global companies were substantially ignored (perhaps because of the popularity of our new president) while the Royal Bank of Scotland was the target of most of the action, including window breaking. Because RBS is Britain’s A.I.G., their financial institutions’ poster child, it was attacked specifically and symbolically for being responsible for the economic meltdown in England.

Meanwhile, a world away in Italy, while all of this was happening in London, in the walled medieval town of Lucca, the center for olive oil production and other forms of culinary delight, another kind of street protest was underway.

In Lucca’s case, against the proliferation of kebab houses.

Though this may seem trivial by comparison to the heavy-duty issues that were at stake in Seattle nearly 20 years ago and recently in London, Luccans were also, in their own way, protesting globalization. The politically center-right town council, ignoring criticism that they were being racist, recently passed a law prohibiting the establishment of ethnic food restaurants in the town’s historic center. (See New York Times article liked below.)

Lucca is “very closed,” said Rogda Gok, a native of Turkey and the co-owner of Mesopotamia, a kebab restaurant. “In Istanbul there’s other food, like German and Italian, it’s no problem,” she added. “But here in Lucca, they only want Luccan food.”

And if you think Lucca is only xenophobic about anything not Italian, it is so conservative a place that even restaurants that want to serve Sicilian food are discouraged.

But times they are a changing in Lucca and elsewhere in Italy. No longer are the populations as homogenous as they were back in, say, Etruscan days. In virtually every city there are growing populations of immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere. As a result, Siena and a number of other Tuscan cities have enacted similar bans. And lest you think foodstuffs of Turkish origin are the only “foreign” products being resisted, Venice recently acted not to allow Coke machines to be placed along the canals of that magical city.

How in the first place did Lucca get into this mess? Though no one feels entirely comfortable admitting this, the first four kebab joints opened under the radar of town magistrates because they didn’t know what kebabs were. To them, a bit out of touch with the culture or cuisine of the globalizing world, for all they knew these were a new kind of scarf or pocketbook.

Not surprisingly, the ban has actually been good for business. Luccan youth, who see themselves more wired up to their iPods than interested in pappardelle in wild game sauce, want their freedom to partake of this forbidden food and so they have been flocking to the kebab restaurants that have been allowed to remain open since they predate the prohibition.

But to tell you the truth, though as a liberal I support the preservation of all sorts of freedoms worldwide, if you served me some of that pappardelle topped with a generous portion of sliced white truffles, you could probably convince me that the kebabs have to go.

Friday, April 03, 2009

April 3, 2009--Hitler's Stimulus Package . . . Yes, His

A few days before the Republican Party offered its own fleshed-out version of a budget, one that includes actual numbers and calls for the repeal of Barack Obama's stimulus package, the New York Times published a column by David Leonhardt that takes an historical look at various national stimulus efforts. (Linked below.)

He looked at the impact of FDR’s during the Great Depression and Japan’s during the 1990s in an attempt to see if they actually were effective. Both have been criticized recently as not having worked to turn either the US or Japanese economies around; and so why, if this is true, should we believe that Obama’s approach will be any different. Skeptics ask, why spend so much money on a failed approach?

Well, according to Leonhardt and many non-ideological economic historians, the New Deal did not fail. True, as has often been asserted, the Depression didn’t fully end until the institution of the massive jobs program that has otherwise been referred to as World War II. But, even before the economic boost that the war provided, as the result of two years of FDR-initiated stimulus activities such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the salvation of the banking system, the unemployment rate that he inherited when he took office was cut in half, down from about 25 to 12 percent.

Just to show how distorted the presentation of history can be, the economist often quoted by Republicans who oppose Obama’s programs—just as their political antecedents resisted FDR’s—Amity Shlaes in her book, The Forgotten Man, fails to include people employed by New Deal programs as employed. She, like many on the extreme right, does not consider public works jobs to be jobs, but rather make-work.

Other critics of the New Deal accurately cite that even if you grant that WPA workers were in fact workers, the unemployment rate began to rise again during the final years of FDR’s first term. This, in the view of most who do not have a political axe to grind, is less the result of the failures of these forms of government intervention than the failure of Roosevelt, under political pressure to reduce the mounting budget deficit, to keep his proverbial foot on the stimulus pedal. It worked when he funded the New Deal; but it didn’t when he backed off.

Japan’s efforts to restore its stalled economy during the 1990s is a more current case and is thus cited widely as evidence of how a government-sponsored economic shot in the arm won’t work. True, in retrospect, this turned out to be Japan’s “lost decade,” but not all parts of the economy failed to respond to government spending. The government made huge investments to rebuild the country’s roads, bridges, and rail system; and this not only brought them to world-class standards, but also put hundreds of thousands to work. What didn’t work were efforts to rescue the banks. In fact, Japanese efforts to deal with the problems of the financial community, compared to FDR’s and Obama’s, were paltry. And as a result the banks’ troubles have still not been remedied. As we have been experiencing, there is reluctance on the part of Japanese bankers to lend; and thus the economy, still the second largest in the world, remains substantially stalled.

So today there are lessons for us to take from both the successes and failures of two of history’s most ambitious stimulus efforts. From the New Deal we should learn the importance of bold, consistent, and long-term action. In other words, keep the pedal to the metal. And from Japan it is obvious that the Obama administration has learned to place equal emphasis on job generation and bank viability.

But, Leonhardt says, if we want to look at the most successful stimulus program of the last hundred years we have to consider Germany in the early 1930s. Yes, when Hitler became Chancellor. Hopefully you will not mishear him or me—this is not a piece of repellant revisionism. Just a glimpse at one ironic historical truth.

Hitler, like his henchman Mussolini, did not just make the trains run on time (Il Duce in fact didn’t), but his programs for massive government spending on military rearmament and infrastructure (building the autobahn, facilities for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and monuments to glorify himself and the Nazi Party) these programs, plus his interventions in Germany's financial institutions, did reduce the hyper-inflation he inherited and, excluding slave labor, put millions of unemployed German’s to work.

Not that anyone in public office is likely to cite the Nazi experience, but there in fact it is.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

April 2, 2009--Day Off

Back on Friday with some surprising news from history about economic stimuli--which have worked and which haven't. Any guesses?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April 1, 2009--A Ways to Go, Baby

We have come a long way. Especially women. Thus it was disturbing to read an article in the New York Times about how too many girls and young women are still stuck in old cultural traps.

Jan Hoffman interviewed and reported about how 9th grade girls who attend Hostos-Lincoln Academy in the Bronx are thinking about the alleged assault on 21 year-old pop singer Rihanna by her boyfriend, equally popular rock star, 19 year-old Chris Brown. Both known to the public for their wholesomeness. His nickname among fans is “Sweet Chris Breezy” and he has appeared in a video with Elmo from Sesame Street. (Article linked below.)

“I thought she was lying,” one girl is quoted as saying, “that the tabloids made it up.” Even when shown the photos of her battered face and reading a transcript of her frantic call to 911, they said, “She probably made him mad for him to react like that. “You know, like, bring it on.”

This blaming-the-victim response is not unique to teenagers in the Bronx. A recent survey of 200 adolescent girls by the Boston Public Health Commission revealed that 46 percent held Rihanna responsible. And the Internet has been full of chat about this, much of it also finding fault with her. “She probly [sic] ran into a door and was too embarrassed so blamed it on Chris,” one asserted in a Facebook discussion.

Of course there are deeper lessons and concerns. As African-American performers they are inevitably viewed, fairly or not, as part of the world of Hip-Hop. Tricia Rose, who teaches African-American culture at Brown, says that Brown and Rihanna come from and appeal to a generation permeated by Hip-Hop’s “smack-down tone,” which stereotypes “an aggressive. physical, often misogynistic masculinity that often justifies resolving conflict through violence.”

Marcylienna Morgan, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard adds that these girls’ response to young women being abused by their boyfriends reflects a “learned social signal”—they have been taught that what matters is that “we don’t destroy boys.” If girls speak out about this violence they will shatter boys’ futures. And since the community needs these boys to succeed, girls will go a long way and absorb a great deal of humiliation to protect and cover for them.

There is a lot on Barack Obama’s plate, but this too is something he is concerned about and in part, by the example of his own life, is attempting to influence.