Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 30, 2015--Burn, Baby! BURN!

"Burn, Baby! BURN," during the 1965 Watts riots, was the trademark of on-air rhythm-and-blues DJ, Magnificent Montaque. He and others proclaimed, some said encouraged insurrection as a large section of Los Angeles was in fact burning. During the 60s and 70s, so-called race riots spread to many American cities and to some, Burn, Baby! BURN became a rallying cry for the violent minority. Others protested peacefully, most stayed safely out of sight and were only marginally engaged.

As a much smaller section of Baltimore was being looted and torched on Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake uttered a 2015 version of Burn, baby! BURN. She said--
While we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to deescalate, and that's what you saw.
What we also saw was a three-hour period when the rioters and looters had free range--or should I say had "space" "to destroy"--what we saw was an almost complete absence of police and not even a glimpse of Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

I can only conclude one or two things--she was ether cowering somewhere not able to think clearly about what to do or, more likely, was closeted with her political advisers since her primary preoccupation these days is not being mayor but how to launch a campaign for the U.S Senate seat about to be vacated by long-serving Barbara Mikulski.

After this week, I think she can forget about her Senate dreams.

But is there something to think about in her psychobabble about giving young people "space" to do their thing?

Much of urban America has missed out on the recent improvements in our economy and the steady growth in new jobs. As someone said, if a rising tide is to lift all boats, first you have to have a boat. Too few in the ghettos do.

Unemployment among the under-educated, especially young men of color, looms imperviously at at least 25 percent. Local schools are dysfunctional, families are shattered, street thugs rule the neighborhoods, and there is little left to do other than attempt to act as "cool" as possible, not to show concern about one's reality and sad prospects.

As with most of us, in order to become reconciled to our position in life, our reality, we find ways to validate and flaunt our circumstances, no matter how impoverished. And it doesn't help in Baltimore, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, to see the glittering city meant for and protected for other people--those of us who through fortune and effort have done well.

In everyones' faces, if they choose to look up, is evidence of the widening inequalities that are manifestly worsening.

So what to do with that frustration, anger, hopelessness, and rage? With so few on-the-street examples of friends and neighbors making it (except in the underground economy) where and how is that pent-up pressure going to express itself, get some relief? In what private and public space?

This is not to find bleeding-heart excuses for criminal behavior but rather to ask, if social remediation is not likely, what do we expect of people whose lives are so full of insult and despair? In the absence of hope what is the appropriate response to oppression and containment by the criminal justice system--the police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons?

Listening to Wolf Blitzer and Jeffery Toobin on CNN in real time Monday when the looting and arson was occurring, not so much from their words but from their tone they conveyed nothing but disgust as mainly young men looted a CVS pharmacy. They didn't deserve sympathy, but they were not the "animals" Blitzer and Toobin implied them to be. How many viewers privately agreed with them?

More likely, they were desperate people who felt the world had no respectable place for them. That too needs to be part of the narrative.

What would we expect them to do? In their circumstances, what would you do? For myself I do not have a good answer. Or one that makes me feel good.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 29, 2015--The Dead Who Know Brooklyn

We've been to Brooklyn four times this month. To the new hip Williamsburg Brooklyn and the other of my childhood neighborhoods, memories, and misdemeanors

There's a garden center we've been back and forth to right by Kings County Hospital where my gang used to hung out by its lunatic asylum wing--no euphemisms back then--to shamelessly taunt residents who, to get a breath of air summers, in their pajamas and robes, would come out onto caged-in terraces, screaming at the elements in their private languages. It was a first experience with unfairness and inhumanity. Ours.

Deeper into Brooklyn there is Butler Street which, opposite the toxic Gowanus Canal, was where the borough's ASPCA was located. it was one of my father's favorite places, not because he was an animal lover, quite the contrary--we were forbidden to have pets-- but because after a week of not being adopted, dogs and cats were, he said, gassed.

To exorcise that memory I drove-by last Sunday and brought to vivid recollection how my father used to take me there after I had seriously misbehaved to let me know that if I didn't shape up, he would drop me off there and after a week . . .

He would pull over in front and we would just sit in the car for half an hour with the motor turned off and the windows rolled down, in any weather, so I could hear the desperate yelping leaking through the door.

I got the point and instantly stopped my misbehaving. Or at least continued it more surreptitiously.

I found that the ASPA is no longer there--the neighborhood is fully gentrified--and the old dog pound has been converted into million-dollar, open-space lofts. The Gowanus, however, is still nearby and deadly to all forms of life.

Not far from Butler Street is Sterling Place where, at 7th Avenue, my father owned a four-story parking garage. He should have held onto it as real estate values subsequently soared but his partner, Uncle Herman, decided he wanted to cash-out and my father couldn't pay what he asked. Just another in a series of failed ventures. All involving family-member partners.

The Sterling Place Garage, while still in my father's and Uncle Herman's hands, before its conversion also into lofts, had a brief history in the tragic and morbid.

On December 16, 1960, high over Staten island, a TWA jet crashed into a United Airline jet, with the fragments of one plummeting onto the Island while the other, the United flight, crashing in Brooklyn, the fuselage and body parts, falling in Park Slope, most right at the corner of 7th Avenue and Sterling Place.

There was only one survivor, an 11-year-old boy who was thrown clear of the wreckage. He lived only one day and then succumbed to his injuries, saying, before he died, from his hospital bed, that moments before the collision, he had looked out the window at the snow falling on the city, "It looked like a picture out of a fairy book. It was a beautiful sight."

One hundred-twenty-eight were killed. Most had been on the United plane. My father's garage became their temporary morgue.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April 28, 2015--Auto-Correct

When working on yesterday's blog about student achievement tests, I followed my regular routine. This involves going to and typing the text and then, after cleaning it up, publishing it.

But while typing, for the first time, I paid close attention to the spell-check and auto-correct functions built into the Blogger system and had some fun with what came up, especially via auto-correct.

I am a notoriously poor speller (the loser of many third-grade spelling bees) and wasn't at all surprised to notice how many words were underlined with red dots, indicating a misspelling. So, as usual, I clicked on the word and a list of spelling options popped up. If a poor speller, I am a good reader and was quickly able to pick from the list of suggestions the spelling I wanted. Spell-check for me is liberating, my favorite feature of word-processing.

There were misspellings such as--

Hundrads rather than hundreds
Unpecking instead of unpacking
Snach rather than snatch

Much more fun was what auto-correct imposed. And I mean "imposed" since the auto in auto-correct means what it says--it automatically changes misspelled words to correctly-spelled ones. But some of the suggestions/corrections, though they make no contextual sense, turn out to be unintentionally amusing.

For example, just now, when attempting to spell correctly correctly, I typed correlty which was auto-changed to courtly. Thus the originally-typed phrase became--[It] changes misspelled words to courtly spelled words. Cool, no?

Here are a few examples from yesterday's bog--

I typed taest when I meant tests and via auto-correct wound up with yeast. So my corrected sentence became, "Whose fault is it that we have all this yeast?"

I meant to type values but wrote valus which was transformed into vales so my new sentence included, "guided by meritocratic vales." Sort of poetic.

When attempting curriculum I mistyped it curricum and the corrected sentence included, "the controversial Common Core currycomb." 

I had no idea what a currycomb was so I googled that and found it is a type of comb used to curry a horse. "Groom a horse," the second definition informed me.

What is the etymology of that, I wondered? And what is the relationship between the spice curry and the curry that means horse grooming?

Etymologically, I learned, the curry that applies to horses derives from the Old French correier, which means to put in order. Whereas the spice curry comes from the late 16th century Ceylonese Tamil word kari.

Auto-correct, incidentally, kept changing correier, which I methodically spelled correctly, to courier. In fact, it just did it again. Additionally,  I was so flustered with the correier-courier business that I misspelling horses (orses) and wound up with roses. I like it, but go figure.

Auto-correct took me so far afield that I forgot what I had meant to say about high-stakes testing. No matter since I now know about currycombs.

But then, I mused, what would spell-check and auto-correct do with the first sentence of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake?
a way a lone a last a loved a long the/riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth castle and Environs
Number 23 could have been me at PS 244

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Monday, April 27, 2015

April 27, 2015--Testing One, Two, Three

All over America school kids are being tested. Some are taking tests that derive from what their states require while others are being tested to see how well they have absorbed the material associated with the controversial Common Core curriculum which 44 states have adopted.

And then there are the hundreds of thousands of children not taking any tests at all. This, for many, to protest the importance assigned to tests that supposedly call for rote learning or have high-stakes consequences. Consequences for the kids, their schools and districts, and for their teachers.

Let me be clear that in virtually all instances it is the parents lodging these protests by keeping their children home, not the kids themselves making these decisions. Sort of like the anti-vacine parents.

There are many layers that require unpacking in order to understand what is going on. It is not as simple as it may seem.

First, whose fault is it that we have all these tests? Some say it's former president George W. Bush's since he allegedly wanted to break teachers' unions by holding them accountable for the results. And Teddy Kennedy's, who wanted to show he could work in a bipartisan way and made a deal with Number 43 when he signed off on Bush's signature school reform program, No Child Left Behind that required universal testing and meet certain standards in order for states to leverage federal funds. And, of course, like everything else people do not like, it's Barack Obama's fault since he has a radical agenda for the federal government to snatch authority from the states and take over the education of our children, very much including indoctrinating and testing them. Some feel, through the imposition of Common Core.

If you live in New York and watch TV, you are being flooded with ads paid for by the state's teachers' unions that claims it's governor Andrew Cuomo's fault. He's doing a Scott Walker, they say, by showing how tough he can be on teachers, using testing as a way to fire teachers he doesn't like. All this presumably to get ready to run for president if Hillary Clinton continues to falter.

And then there are those (me included) who feel requiring some forms of achievement testing is one way, one way, to see if kids are learning and to use what the tests show as part of the mix, part of the mix, of evaluative tools available to hold everyone involved accountable for how well students are faring--individual teachers, school principals, school districts, states, and the children themselves.

Then there is the matter of using test results to distinguish between the achievement of individual students. This is very complicated business in a society that conservatives sees as guided by meritocratic values--that there is a natural hierarchy based on talent, hard work, and success--while at that same time to others, progressives, there is the belief in human equality and thus call for polices to assure not just equality of opportunity but equality of results.

This in a society that often overpraises children, awarding trophies to all, including to those who come in last. Awards for showing up and trying. Or maybe just for showing up.

Often the anti-testing people are the very ones seeking advantages for their own children at all levels of schooling, especially those that can afford to supplement what is available even in private schools to assure their own children's ultimate advantages.

Some years ago when the arguments about testing first roiled discourse about schooling and its outcomes, I had a colleague at the very progressive Ford Foundation, actually the vice president to whom I reported, who was a fierce critic of traditional forms of testing and a strong advocate of what was thought to be "authentic assessment." Approaches that called for more nuanced and three-dimensional methods to measure student achievement. Including non-traditional forms of assessment where student outcomes would be evaluated by things such as portfolios of their work. It was felt that this was a fairer approach than the usual testing and would thus contribute to narrowing the achievement gap.

She at the time had high-school-age twins who attended a selective private secondary school. At that school, as you might imagine, they emphasized authentic assessment. One Saturday mornings we ran into my colleague on lower Broadway. We stopped to chat. It turned out that she was there, far from where she lived, to take her daughters to an SAT-prep workshop.

I not-so-innocently asked her how come, if she rejected the validity and fairness of tests such as the SAT, she was paying for her daughters to prep for it.

"Because I want them to do as well as possible," she said, "So they can get into good colleges."

I asked, "Then in your Ford Foundation role how come you resist funding programs that would help low-income students have the same test prepping opportunities?"

She stammered something I couldn't quite hear and ran off to an appointment.

I am still waiting for her answer.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

April 24, 2016--Someone Other than Hillary

The about-to-be-published Clinton Cash, Peter Schweizer's critical examination of the nexus between the cash pouring into the Clinton Foundation; their out-of-sight speakers fees; and, the politically most damaging allegation--that by contributing to the foundation big donors could not only "buy" access to Bill and Hillary but could also influence her official behavior when secretary of state, what is revealed in the book may wind up destroying her campaign for the presidency.

As my grandmother used to say, with yesterday's detailed disclosure in the New York Times that major Canadian donors to the foundation were able, with Hillary's support, to sell their uranium company to Russia even though that gave them control of 20 percent of America's access to enriched uranium, as she would say, "Something about this stinks to the high heavens."

Hillary may still manage to win the nomination (more about this in a moment) but with detractors such as the Koch Brothers willing to spend many hundreds of millions to tear her down and support their current favorite, Scott Walker, she may be seriously vulnerable.

Vulnerable because many of the allegations may be true, vulnerable because even if only half-true they support the narrative that the Clintons play by their own rules, are secretive about things that the public has a right to know, and that they have only self-interest at heart while posing as public servants and concerned citizens of the world.

Recall, when leaving the White House after eight years, they were "caught" loading moving vans with furniture that belonged to the American people. It was a metaphor at the time about what they at essence were. And perhaps continue to be.

Clinton Cash is no Whitewater (an insignificant though phony Arkansas real estate deal) or cattle-futures scandal (where Hillary netted $100,000 with a $1,000 "investment"). It's not Travelgate (where the Clintons purged the White House travel office staff so they could install cronies in the vacant jobs). It is not even Benghazi or e-mail-gate. It may turn out to be much more serious than any or all of these small tempests. What is apparently about to be revealed in the Schweizer book goes to the heart of the Clinton problem and may have enough smoking guns to bring her down.

So rather than Democrats waiting around to see where all this may lead, isn't it time for someone to step forward to challenge her for the nomination? Someone like a Eugene McCarthy who challenged Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 nomination. And ultimately drew Bobby Kennedy into the race. For Democrats then, they offered an alternative to LBJ who otherwise would have secured the nomination without a struggle, without any opposition, and then would have gone on to be defeated because of the public's disenchantment and lack of support for his Vietnam policies.

Democrats not ready for Hillary need a place to register their dissent from yet another Clinton, especially a Clinton who could realistically be defeated by Scott Walker or Jeb Bush.

Those disaffiliated Democrats include me. My problem, our problem is as always the who. Joe Biden? A certain loser. Elizabeth Warren? Plausible but timid. Jim Webb? Who's he? Andrew Cuomo? No chance. Bernie Sanders? Dream on.

Get the point? That's why, help us, I continue to predict Walker in 2016.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 23, 2015--The Rapture

Here's why we have to hope Michele Bachmann has a seat in the Republican clown car. Yes, we'll have The Donald and perhaps Herman Cain, but without her things will not be the same.

Here's why.

The Huffington Post reported the other day that in a radio interview with Jan Markell, host of End Times, the former congresswoman predicted that the Rapture is very near and it's all Barack Obama's fault.

The Rapture, as you know, is something many messianic Christians believe will mark the beginning of the End Times, Armageddon, the rule of the Antichrist, the destruction of nonbelievers, and after 1,000 years of violent suffering, the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgement, and God's eternal kingdom.

All this is Obama's fault?

I know some on the delusional fringe have called him the Antichrist, though with Hillary Clinton emerging as a possible president, some are now seeing her in that role. (Ironically, on these eschatological matters they appear to be able to view things in more gender neutral ways than most other issues.)

Bachmann laid out the case against Obama--it is all about his Middle East policies, especially his alleged mistreatment of Israel. She said: "If you look at the president's rhetoric, and if you look at his actions, everything he has done has been to cut the legs out of Israel and lift up the agenda of radical Islam." And thus because of him, “We need to realize how close this [countdown to End Time] clock is getting to the midnight hour.”

What she didn't spell out, but which is understood by Millennialists, is the requirement that all Jews return to Greater Israel, convert to Christianity, and through those actions set in motion the events that will lead to the Rapture and all that follows.

Those Jews who do not convert, alas, will be slaughtered. This unique role assigned to the Jews is why those who believe this are such strong supporters of Israel. It is not because Israel is the lone western democracy in the region. It is because of what the Jews and Israel must do to help bring about the ultimate Second Coming.

But here's what I do not understand--

Why, if these events are foretold and, to these believers, will intimately lead to Christ's return, the Last Judgement, their salvation, and the eternal Kingdom of God, why are Obama's polices, which are supposedly advancing their unfolding, a bad thing? Shouldn't Bachmann and those like her feel hopeful and thankful about what Obama is helping to bring about? Is the Rapture, which his policies are supposedly advancing, a bad thing or a good thing?

As I understand the Millennialists, the Rapture is a very much a good thing since it not only is the initial indication that End Times are coming but also true believers (and I assume this includes Michele and her pray-away-the-gay husband) would be Raptured. That is, at the very beginning of The End, they will be whisked up to heaven, leaving all and everything behind, including their neatly-stacked clothing and jewlery.

So I am confused--if Obama is playing such a crucial role in all of this, instead of excoriating him, shouldn't Bachmann and her co-believers be expressing their appreciation for all he is doing?

You see, then, why I am so eager for her to make another run at the presidency. It is only during the debates that all of this will get straightened out. Minimally, it would also be good for a few laughs.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April 22, 2015--That's the Way It Was

Little remembered, Roone Arledge did more to shape contemporary TV network sports and news than anyone better known.

From 1968 through 1986 he was president of ABC Sports. In that role, to personalize coverage, especially for women, he was responsible for adding "up-close-and-personal" packages to ABC's airing of the Olympics games and, for an almost broader audience turned ABC's Wide World of Sports into a mega-hit that weekly featured everything even quasi-sports-like, including barrel jumping from various hotels' ice rinks in the Borscht Belt, cliff diving from Acapulco, and demolition derbies.

With all that success ABC executives in 1977 made him the network's president for news and the rest is history.

Up to that point on places such as the Tiffany Network (CBS) the news was presented as serious business--wars, famines, revolutions, presidential nominating conventions (wall-to-wall coverage was the norm), and the occasional natural disaster. With the understanding that to deserve air time the disasters had to measure at least 7.0 on the Richter Scale. No mudslides in Malibu could pass the Walter-Cronkite test.

So when Cronkite signed off each night with, "And that's the way it is," that was the way it was.

Cut to 2015.

We live in a very different news universe where what is "reported" weeknights on the three network news shows is no longer that much about news. And no longer appeals to a mass audience. Particularly does not appeal to young viewers. Thus all the Lavitra commercials.

Almost as many get their news from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show as from Scott Pelley on CBS. And many more than that get their news on line via so-called mobile devices.

Network news mavens have figured out that all day long people with smart phones check their favorite websites to see what's happening and when doing that tend to click on things that offer more visual than written content.

So, last week there was a lot of exciting footage, mainly shot by bystanders with iPhones, of out-of-control police that went viral. From video of a policeman in Arizona careening intentionally onto the sidewalk to run down someone fleeing from the police and other repeatable footage of a 73-year-old police volunteer in Oklahoma who shot and killed an alleged suspect with what he thought was his taser, mistaking his service revolver for it.

And just the other day there were vivid images of a young black man being subdued, shackled, and tossed into a police van by three white cops where he may or may not have had his spine snapped, which in turn led to his death.

Knowing all these images, and thus "stories," had been in wide circulation long before 6:30 P.M. and knowing that their residual Baby-Boomer audiences do not search the Web all day seeking the amusing and lurid, the networks began their broadcasts and filled half their time with these videos. In effect to help their aging, tech-phobe viewers catch up with what the more wired had been looking in on through the day.

So this is what network news has devolved to--showcases for viral videos for the unplugged.

On ABC, where news as entertainment was invented and reached its apotheosis, where no distinction is made between fun, the grotesque, or the urgent, David Muir is the least credentialed, most unabashedly hunky, blow-dried "anchor" of all time. On his show one day last week (and "show" it is), though Barack Obama was meeting in Panama City with other North and South American leaders, we saw the police videos over and over again--in slower-and-slower slow motion and closer-and-closer detail (including the pop shot--the police cruiser slamming into the fleeing suspect) there was literally no mention of the historic meeting between Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

April 21, 2015--Back Tomorrow

Back tomorrow with a piece about the networks' evening news.

Monday, April 20, 2015

April 20, 2015--Minimum Wage

Republican candidates for the presidency are being asked about the minimum wage--whether they are in favor of raising it. This in the context of concern about inequality.

Even GOPers are taking note of widening disparities in income and saying we have to do something to help the middle class close the income gap. Basically what they recommend is cutting corporate taxes and taxes on job-creating high earners and getting government off the backs of small businesses so they can grow and then hire more people. In other words, 2015-style trickle-down economics.

Hillary Clinton and other Democrats for the most part see raising the minimum wage as one part of a strategy to reduce inequality.

There is a lot of demagoguery and made-up economic theory and data being flung around--mainly by conservatives--that are going substantially unchallenged by the press covering the various campaigns.

Jeb Bush, for example, campaigning in New Hampshire late last week, was clearly uncomfortable when asked by Kasie Hunt of MSNBC if he favored raising the minimum wage. In addition to claiming it's a issue for the states, not the federal government, he added that he personally is against it since it will cost jobs. Rather than being required to pay a few more dollars an hour companies will take their businesses overseas. Just how a McDonald's in Tulsa might do that he both wasn't pressed about.

Also unchallenged by Ms. Hunt was his claim that raising the minimum wage costs jobs and leads to more unemployment. There are challenging questions to ask about that, challenging questions derived from a myriad of studies that show doing so does not lead to loss of jobs. In many instances, the opposite. More motivated workers are generally more motivated and productive than those who feel underpaid and taken advantage of.

Before glancing at some of these studies, what is at issue in regard to the current situation?

The federal minimum wage as of July will be $7.25 an hour. (A number of states such as California and Massachusetts  pay more--$9.00.) This means that if someone works a 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, her or his pretax income in July will be $290 a week or $14,500 a year. Far from enough to live with even a modicum of security or comfort.

The poverty rate, as a point of comparison, for a family of four is an annual income of $23,283. So working full-time at the July minimum wage will mean living considerably below the poverty line. Not impressive in a country with the strongest national economy in history.

The best study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics of the effects of raising the minimum wage is by a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of North Carolina, and UC Berkeley, "Minimum Wage Effects Across State Borders: Estimates Using Contiguous Counties." It closely analyzed 16 years of employment trends among various categories of low-wage workers in the retail and food services industries, where most minimum-wage workers are concentrated.

Key to the study was to track data from geographically adjacent counties where the wages were different to see if there was a migration of employment opportunities to the higher-wage sides of the borders and as a result an increase in the unemployment rate.

The study shows conclusively that increasing the minimum wage had no negative effects on high-wage employment, significantly increased the income of workers, and had no impact on unemployment rates.

There are many other studies that reach similar conclusions. So when candidates such as Jeb Bush claim the opposite to be true they should be confronted by the findings of studies of this kind and pressed to move beyond their factless talking points.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

April 17, 2015--Long Weekend

I will return to this spot on Monday.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

April 16, 2015: Germany, Japan, Cuba & Iran

They bombed Pearl Harbor and after we defeated them in World War II, with great loss of life and limb as American's invaded island after bloody island in the Pacific, after just few years of occupation, Japan became one of our closest allies.

They invaded and conquered most of Western Europe; exterminated more than 6.0 million Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies; and mercilessly bombed civilian populations in England and elsewhere. After we entered the war, they killed more than 300,000 U.S. soldiers. And yet, again, after the allies defeated them and after just a relatively few years of occupation, with our help Germany was rebuilt and became one of our closest allies.

As with Japan, this relationship endures.

So why is there such a big problem with Cuba and Iran?

We were versions of allies with both until 1959 when Fidel Castro seized power and quickly thereafter announced that Cuba was in fact a client state of our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. And, in Iran's case, we related well (perhaps too complicitously) until 1979 when the Islamic Revolution erupted and the new government, dominated by ayatollahs, captured and held hostage 66 American embassy workers.

Now, via his executive power, President Obama is moving rapidly to resume normal diplomatic relations with Cuba and there is evidence that Iran wants to make a deal with the West by agreeing to scale back its nuclear weapons program.

The former, normalized relations with Cuba, is long overdue and now all but certain to occur. The most significant resistance to such a deal is the demagogic posturing of presidential candidate Marco Rubio, whose parents were born in Cuba, and his pandering to the remnants of the Cuban-American community in the hope that they and other American Latinos will rally to support his ambitions.

There are also Cold-War-minded dead-enders who are still fighting the Soviets through its former proxy, Cuba.

Then of course there is the on-going resistance to anything Barack Obama wants to do, especially if it is potentially historic and would burnish his image as president.

Much more troubling is the widespread opposition among virtually all Republicans, and sadly many Democrats, who oppose the semblance of any deal with Iran, out of fear that they will be smitten politically by the Israeli lobby or yelled at by Benjamin Netanyahu.

If things were not to work out with Cuba, it would not be catastrophic. They are not strategic players and are no longer military allies of the Russians. No Soviet missiles with atomic warheads remain on the island and they are not in any way a threat to our security.

But unless the West is able to consummate a deal with Iran it is likely that we will be maneuvered into a war with them, siding with the Israelis and egged on by congressional hawks and passionate evangelical supporters of Israel. So this is quite serious and should not be a venue for political striving and demonologizing.

If we managed to overcome our hatred for the Japanese and Nazis and established sound and enduring relations with them, we should be able to do something similar with Cuba and especially Iran. But it is very much a we'll-see situation.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April 15, 2015--Ladies of Forest Trace--The Battle

The other day when I called my mother sounded quite good. Better than she had for quite some time.

So, I said, "You sound very good today. What's going on?"

Very deliberately she said, "I'm engage in the battle."

I liked that, felt that was enough to say and hear in one day, and so I rang off.

Later, I told a friend about the call. He too knew about having an ancient mother. His died last year at nearly 105.

"Very impressive," he said. "She's still fighting to stay alive. My Mom did as well. Right to the end."

"I'm not sure that's what she meant."

"What then was she saying?"

"She's not fighting just to stay alive. There is that too, but I think she meant much more."

"What's that?"

"That she was also engaged in the battle to have a life. That's not really the same thing as just wanting to live on."

"Sounds right to me," he said. "And amazing."

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 2015--Going Commando

We've come a long way from Mr. Wipple, the spokesperson for Charmin who admonished us not to squeeze.

Now Cottonelle is running a series of commercials to introduce a new line for those who go commando.

"Go commando?" I asked Rona. "Do you know what that is?"

"Of course I do. It's an old expression," she said.

"Well I'm old," I said, "but have no idea what it means."

Ignoring that, she said, "I haven't noticed the ad. Next time it's on let me know and I'll see if I can explain it to you."

Frustrated, I paid more attention to the commercials than reruns of Married With Children, still my favorite corrosive sitcom.

After about 45 minutes, the Cottonelle commercial ran again. "Check it out," I said. "I have no idea what's going on."

Rona narrated--

"You see the announcer holding a couple of rolls?"


"And how she gives them to those two young women?"

"Got it."

"And now they're going into a tent?"

"Yes. I can only assume what they're going to do in the tent."

"Now they're coming out."

"That was quick. It usually takes me much longer to . . ."

"It's only a commercial. Not Hamlet."

"They have big smiles on their faces."

"The announcer is asking them how they liked the new clean-ripple paper."

"They seem pretty happy to me. Now, pay attention. Check out what those two girls do next."

"They are pulling down the tops of their pants and pointing to their exposed upper thighs."

"That's the funky part. But, again, what I'm not understanding?"

"Didn't you hear the announcer, an attractive woman by the way? No Mr. Whipples this time."

"I think she has a British accent. Classy."

"Again, as you said, she's mentioning something about how this new product is for those going commando."

"Which means?"

"Look it up for yourself. I can't believe you never heard about it before."

"Well you know me." I trailed off and went downstairs to the computer so I could google going commando.

Here's what the every-reliable Wikipedia had to say--
Going commando, or free-balling for males and free-buffing for females, is the practice of not wearing underwear. Some people choose not to wear any underwear for several reasons, including comfort, to enable their outer garments (particularly those that are form-fitting) to look more flattering, to avoid creating a panty line, or because they do not see any need for them. Some people find not wearing underwear to be sexually exciting, and some people regard knowing their sex partner is not wearing underwear to be erotic.
Next I checked Cottonelle's website. Sure enough--
Only Cottonelle® has CleanRipple® texture to get you clean, giving you all the confidence you need to Go Commando.
When I reported this to Rona, including that going commando as an expression originated in the 1970s, she rolled her eyes as if to say, "You really are out of it."
Later that day, at the Fairway market in Red Hook, Brooklyn, we needed paper towels. While Rona searched, I checked out the Cottonelle. Sure enough, there was shelf full of CleanRipple.
"Looks like sandpaper," I muttered.
Rona said, "Get with it. Life is passing you by."
I promised to try.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

April 13, 2105--Kosher Section

Everyone has their airline stories. Mostly not good ones.

Mine include a flight from New York City to Buffalo where my seat mate--a 10-year-old--threw up all over me; another between Atlanta and Newark where to my left there was a chimpanzee in a suit and fedora (yes, that really happened); and one from Washington, again to Newark, where the passenger in the cramped middle seat (I had the one by the window) weighed at least 300 pounds and took up so much room that if there was an emergency, he couldn't get out of his seat without significant help and I would have had to climb over him. And we've all had cranky, screaming babies behind us who spent the entire flight kicking our chair backs.

I could go on. As I'm sure you could

With the very overweight passenger, I rang the call button to let the cabin crew member know how his bulk created a safety hazard. I asked that he be relocated or required to purchase two seats. But it was a full flight and my protest was to no avail and so I held my breath for the entire flight. Fortunately there were no incidents, it was on time, and after a couple of hours I was able to extract myself from my seat and stretch my legs.

I was reminded about these flights the other day when the New York Times reported about another seat-assignment problem--ultra-orthodox Jews on flights to Europe and Israel who refuse to sit next to any women not their wives.

This is not some quirky thing for Hasidic men. They are forbidden by their rabbis from having pretty much anything to do with women to whom they are not married, including family members. And even with their wives there are strict rules about courtship (there is not much--most marriages are arranged), touching, and sexual behavior.

For example, at Hasidic weddings the men and women party in separate rooms, dancing with each other, and for that small part of the celebration where the men and women come together and even dance they are not allowed to touch each other's bodies, any part of their partner's body. In place of hand-on-hand touching, partners use a handkerchief that the groom holds at one end and his bride the other. It's all spelled out and choreographed in great detail.

About sexual practices, I leave that to you to do the googling. One tease--check out how husbands' and wives' beds are to be arranged, allegedly including a sheet separating them so that . . . Well, do your own research.

And when the ultra-orthodox need to interact with the world beyond their self-imposed ghettoes, there are all sorts of other rules they are required to follow, including behavior on airplanes.

In addition to not being permitted to sit next to any women to whom they are not married, I have been on flights to Israel where I witnessed all the Hasids on board organizing themselves for evening and then, overnight, morning prayers. God help you (pun intended) if you need to go to the bathroom at those times.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, disputes about seating are increasing. So much so that it is now routine that flights between the States and Israel are routinely delayed as Hasidic passengers request and even insist on seat changes. And more and more secular flyers are refusing to give up their seats. Some women, for example, find the whole matter sexist and for that reason alone do not agree to switch seats to enable an ultra-orthodox passenger to protect himself from inadvertently touching a female seat mate.

I have a solution--set up a kosher section on planes to Tel Aviv. Just as there used to be smoking sections. One can already order kosher food so why not kosher seats?

And while we're at it, let's have a section for children and parents. The maybe another one with bariatric seats for the obese. And perhaps a special section for . . .

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Friday, April 10, 2015

April 10, 2015--Ready for Your Closeup?

Though I hate the proliferation of surveillance cameras that make me feel that wherever I am under scrutiny--on the street, in my car, going through a red light, in my Manhattan apartment elevator, getting coffee at a 7-Eleven--I am having some second thoughts about being tracked and continuously videotaped.

All our traditional notions of privacy have been obliterated by these cameras, urban crowding, social networks, big data mining (check out the explosion of ads targeted to you on Facebook), and a youth culture that thrives on self-promotion and exhibitionism.

Then of course there are all the people whose smartphones are also video cameras, the hackers and, more than anything else, the various domestic surveillance programs of federal agencies such as the CIA, FBI, and especially the NSA. Pretty much everything that someone wants to know about you--from the sources and amounts of your income to your medical records to your shopping and reading habits--are readily available. Thus, though some may hate knowing this--and for whom the only alternative is to live in the North Woods off the grid--by now there is virtually nothing one can do to retain any shred of privacy.

And then there are the benefits that are less discussed--how these images and data enhance legitimate efforts by the police and justice system to keep us safe.

In the news in the last day or two are glaring examples.

First, in Boston, at the conclusion of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with his brother one of the Boston Marathon bombers, we were reminded of how large a part surveillance cameras on the street where they placed their pressure-cooker bombs contributed to their being tracked down and apprehended in only days, which thwarted their plans to explode more bombs in New York City. Without the images of them walking calmly in lockstep toward the bomb site it would have likely taken many days or weeks to apprehend them.

And also a few days ago, in North Charleston, SC, a white policeman, Micahel Slager, was caught on a smartphone camera when he gunned down and murdered a black man, Walter Scott, who from the images it was clear was posing no threat to the officer. Without the video it is likely that it would have been easier than it will be at the eventual trial to cover up the truth of what occurred.

So how to think about this is complicated.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

April 9, 2015--Running Against Washington

It is tempting to do so. Pretty much everyone thinks that "Washington" is broken and that to run against it as a presidential aspirant is a smart political idea.

Ronald Reagan did so successfully ("Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem") as did Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. And now we have Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and other Republicans proclaiming that they are outsiders (though at least two thus far are government employees, U.S. senators) and will either get the government to work, get it off our backs, or promise to do a combination of both.

I was reminded of this when reading, in The New York Review of Books, about David Axelrod's political memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.

In 2008, in a debate before the New Hampshire primary Axelrod recalls Hillary Clinton, by implication criticizing Barack Obama, declaring that she had been fighting for change all her life and "We don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered."

Axelrod, and through him his candidate, seeing the political opening, jumped on her claim that it is difficult to bring about real change. He writes--
I recognized the opportunity that Hillary handed us. She was too much a part of the system in Washington ever to change it--and without changing the politics in Washington, real solutions to big problems would never come.
This may be a good way to win nominations and even get elected but it is a terrible approach to governing.

Like it or not, if we are to have a government (and even Tea Party people want some government--their Medicare, their Social Security, their military, their border police, their courts, their jails, their tax cuts) the only way for it to function is through various forms of bipartisan deal making. Deals between the President, his (or her) administration, and Congress, whichever party controls it.

Hillary was right--you have to be part of our system to get anything done. Forget changing it. And maybe she'll get a chance to try to function the old fashioned way. She may be boring, less than likable, and past her prime, but when she was a senator she did work this way and was able to get quite a lot accomplished.

The three presidents who got more of their agenda approved than any of their successors (whether or not you like their policies) were able to figure out ways to work with Congress. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan. Privately, very privately, for the most part they expressed little respect for specific members much less the system itself. But they held their noses and figured out ways to work with Congress, including, if they could, through intimidation.

To get things done, the lessons of history suggest, those willing and adept at working the system do better than those who claim to be outsiders. It's not sexy but it works.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

April 8, 2015--Finally the Final Four

Others can focus on the last few games where Wisconsin defeated odds-on-favorite Kentucky and then lost to Duke in the final. I will continue to pay attention to the hypocrisy surrounding big-time college sports and the money that doesn't get to the student-athletes without whom there would be no show.

Most of the money--mainly TV money--goes to fund the schools' athletic programs and the coaches. Especially coaches such as Kentucky's John Calipari and Duke's Mike Krzyewski, Coach K.

Coach K pockets a cool $7 million plus tons more for endorsements and bonuses for getting his team to the Final Four. In Duke's case, almost an annual event.

Coach Capillary (as I'm sure my mother would call him) does even better. He gets about the same base salary as Krzyewski and then receives another $3 million or so for going along with the university's endorsement contracts. Endorsements for everything from sneakers to "official" beverages. Using and not paying for campus facilities, he runs an annual summer basketball camp in a deal that allows him to keep all the income. His Final Four bonus is close to another half mill. Then he gets annual signing bonuses of $1.25 million when he agree to return for another season.

Not bad for a job that involves coaching overgrown boys to run around in their underwear while tossing or slamming a ball through a hoop.

Do not despair for the Wisconsin coach, Bo Ryan. In a state where the governor, Scott Walker, has turned himself into a national political figure by beating up on state employees, state employee Ryan pockets at least $3 million a season. The university chancellor? She makes about $500,000. She obviously needs a new agent.

Something is out of whack. What did the Romans call it? Panem et Circenses? Bread and Circuses? They had it about right.  As a nation we're doing pretty well with the circenses, less good with the panem.

John Calipari

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

April 7, 2015--Back Tomorrow

Still not perfect after more than 10 days of fighting this deep cold so I will return tomorrow with thoughts about why presidential candidates running against Washington is ultimately self-defeating.

Monday, April 06, 2015

April 6, 2015--The Iran Deal

I just heard this on Face the Nation.

Without blinking Senator Lindsay Graham said that the deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program is not acceptable because it was negotiated by Barack Obama. He didn't cite one specific disagreement with the outline of the agreement (he didn't appear to have read it), rather he said that if Obama had anything to do with it by definition it is flawed and that we should not do anything regarding Iran until we have a new president. He mentioned that Hillary Clinton and all the Republican candidates except Rand Paul could do a better job.

Not do anything, I assume, means that before president-elect Cruz is inaugurated it would be OK if Obama decided we needed to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. That is, if Graham's favorite chief executive, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now running the Republican Party, offers his approval. And of course his bromantic pal John McCain gets out his bomb, bomb, bomb Iran dancing shoes.

Netanyahu, also, made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to attack the agreement, revealing that he as well hasn't read it since everything specific he mentioned was either not true or, in true demagogue fashion, totally made up by Bibi.

Republicans led by Graham are foaming at the mouth that Obama may very well have pulled off something historic. First the historic Obamacare, then a substantially restored economy, and now this. Something no one thought possible. What if half-African Barack Hussein Obama were to go down in history as a near-great president. Not just the first President of color. What will Lindsay and all the over-50-year old white boys think about that? Nothing good.

We used to be closely allied with Iran. It was one of Jackie Kennedy's favorite places to visit and all Republicans until Ronald Reagan couldn't say enough nice things about the Shah and his dictatorial leadership--just what was needed to keep those Wahhabi extremists in line. And recall, Reagan almost got himself impeached when his administration got caught playing footsie with the Ayatollahs in order to get arms sent illegally to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Whatever one thinks of the Shah and the current leadership, Iran is a real country (not created by colonial powers after the Second World War) with a proud history as Persia. Persia which back in the day dominated much of what we now refer to as the Middle East or the Islamic world. And, not so between the lines in the agreement just negotiated are allusions to that remarkable history and the unexpressed hope that if Iran behaves itself in regard to ratcheting back its nuclear program, and thereby is once again welcomed back into the community of nations, maybe, just maybe they will begin to step back from funding al Qaeda, ISIS, and Hezbollah.

Hidden in the details of the proposed agreement between Iran and the group of nations that negotiated it is a note about what is to become of the centrifuges in Fordo, Iran's most secret, best protected nuclear fuel concentration facility. Most of the centrifuges will be deactivated (and inspected regularly to avoid cheating) but some 1,000 will continue to spin.

Here's what's revealing--though they will remain on line they will not contain any fissile material. They will continue to spin and spin impotently but, for the sake of Iranian pride will not produce anything but continue to fuel Iran's image of itself as a great and powerful nation. Which it was and is.

Hopefully over the decade, in other ways, Persia will act more and more that way.

So it's time for the big boys, the few adults in Congress to step up, swallow their hatred of President Obama and grab a bit of history for themselves. Our security and future may depend on it.


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Friday, April 03, 2015

April 3, 2015--Best of Behind: Good Cop, Bad Cop

First posted November 25, 2013, would it be nice if this fantasy were true?

Thinking about the deal just struck with Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for some loosening of sanctions, wouldn't it have been brilliant if Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu had had this conversation three month ago--

Obama: Bibi?

Netanyahu: Barry?

Obama: Can you talk?

Netanyahu: As long as your NSA isn't tapping my phone. (He chuckles.)

Obama: Or your Mossad. (He chuckles.)

Netanyahu: I told them to take the afternoon off. I'm all ears, Barry.

Obama: So here's what I'm thinking, Bibi.

Netanyahu: Shoot.

Obama: That's why I called.

Netanyahu: I'm not following you.

Obama: About shooting. Actually bombing.

Netanyahu: Go on.

Obama: Look, we both know we don't want to bomb Iran.

Netanyahu: True. Though we have to keep the heat on them and the best way to do that--we both agreed--is to convince them we're prepared to do so. Israel especially.

Obama: That's what we agreed to. You'd be the bad cop and we'd be, sort of, the good cop. You'd publicly put pressure on me to draw red lines. To state that though we want diplomacy to work every option is on the table. Including military action. But we'd emphasize negotiations while you'd press for bombing.

Netanyahu: And I'd keep prodding, critiquing your Iran policy, and playing your Israel Lobby both in Congress and the Jewish community in the states. To convince the Iranians that though you might be rational and reasonable we're out of control. Particularly your control. That we're prepared to go it alone, go rogue--to quote one of your favorite politicians. (Obama chuckles.)

Obama: So, here's my new plan.

Netanyahu: I'm listening.

Obama: We get Kerry to start talking with the new Iranian regime, telling them that our Congress, including all sorts of Democrats, are chomping at the bit to increase the sanctions--they're so serious that they're even willing to override my veto--and that you guys are getting ready to arm your nukes. He tells the Iranians that if we don't get some sort of deal done in the next few months who knows what the Israelis will do. That I can't keep you on hold.

Netanyahu: Great plan! So as soon as we hang up I'll give the order here to move to a higher state of readiness as evidence of our seriousness or, if you prefer, our craziness.

Obama: Exactly, Bibi. The more we ramp up the diplomacy the more crazier you behave. We have to scare the you-know-what out of them.

Netanyahu: I love it. You'll work out some kind of deal that's good for us--at least the beginning of a long-term deal--which will also be good for you. It will get the Republicans off your back--talk about crazies--at least for awhile.

Obama: Maybe for half an hour. (Netanyahu chuckles.)

Netanyahu: I hear clicking on the line. Are you sure the NSA doesn't have this phone bugged?

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Thursday, April 02, 2015

April 2, 2015--Religious Freedom Restoration Act

All of a sudden in Indiana they're not talking so much about the Final Four who will square off there this weekend to determine which team will win the NCAA basketball title. This in spite of the fact that institutional prestige is at stake (though why this sort of renown should be for "institutions of higher learning" is beyond me) as are big bucks--win, lose, or draw, all four teams stand to earn up to $10 million dollars each for having clawed their way to Indianapolis. (The unpaid players, by the way, come away with at most a free pair of sneakers.)

What is really at stake Down Home In Indiana is a fight for the soul of the state--whether or not they want to remain a part of the 21st century or begin to impose a theocracy just slightly more tolerant than the Religious Police in Iran would allow.

Of course I am exaggerating. The law recently passed by the state legislature, signed by potential GOP clown car Governor Mike Pence, and almost immediately condemned by various rights organizations and just as quickly endorsed by Ted Cruz, Mark Rubio, and Scott Walker (no surprises there) as well as by Jeb Bush (I guess, sadly, no surprise) would reaffirm that Indiana supports freedom of religion while at the same time wants that freedom to permit Hoosiers by the law to be able to cite religious belief as sufficient reason not to serve, among others, gay people.

Just as one pizzeria did yesterday when it announced that if you're gay there will be no pepperoni pizza for you. Because, as they proudly proclaimed, "We're a Christian establishment."

So in spite of the hemming and hawing that this law in Indiana as well as dozens of others around the country is just a simple assertion of religious liberty, it is more a measure to allow and justify overt forms of discrimination.

Do not most all states' constitutions affirm freedom of religion? Not that they or we really need that--after all, we have a Constitution that in its very First Amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting the establishment of religion or impeding the exercise of religion.

What is interesting is that the establishment of religion was an intense issue during the early years of our Republic because a number of colonies did have state-sanctioned and supported religions--official religions, if you will (as in England), and the Framers wanted to end that practice. Freedom of religious practice, which we focus on today, was in a sense a secondary matter.

Though increasingly politicians pandering to the religious right are not reluctant to assert that, "We are a Christian nation," as if we have an established religion. To me as a Jew/non-beliver this sounds like the beginning of a theocracy or, at the very least, unconstitutional.

Just as we thought the racial and cultural wars were abating (Barack Obama's election and reelection are still the best evidence for that as has been the momentum in support for same-sex marriages), here they are raging again.

In virtually all the states that have been enacting religious freedom restoration acts there has been other legislation to suppress the voting rights of low-income citizens. An unabashed strategy to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. I should say, vote for Democrats.

And just as states such as Indiana have been required by the federal courts to permit same-sex marriages, we have this spate of legislation that allows businesses to refuse service to gays and others Christian pizzerias will refuse to serve. Not that anyone who knows anything about pizza would order one in Indiana.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

April 1, 2015--Day Off

I am still feeling under the weather and so will be taking the day off. I plan to be back tomorrow with thoughts about Indiana.