Here we come a-waffling, Part II

Like everyone else who believes that having access to the Internet makes him smart, I have a lot of opinions. Some of them, of course, make no sense. Those are the ones I try to keep to myself, only letting them roam free when someone makes the mistake of asking me.

I can get away with that: I’m not running for president.

But in a speech in Manitoba yesterday, Hillary Clinton, who IS running for president said that since the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has not been resolved she would not comment on it. “We have differences,” Ms. Clinton said, “and you won’t get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I’m not going to express an opinion.”

In the absence of her opinion, let me give you mine: she has to form an opinion and she has to express it. Now.

It’s not as if any new facts need to be gathered. We all know (warning: opinion ahead) that this project could easily become the single most ecologically disastrous event of the still-early 21st century, both in terms of carbon emissions and the rape of the Alberta landscape. That’s my opinion, and since I plan to vote in the next presidential election, I’d like to know the opinion of the frontrunner.

Her assertion that “you won’t get me to talk about it” does not exactly inspire confidence. Instead she sounds very much like just another indecisive politician waiting to see which way the wind blows. Of course she doesn’t want to alienate millions of people (many of them members of her own Democratic party) by coming down on one side of a controversial issue, but she’s going to do that on a daily basis throughout the election cycle. Some people are not going to like things that she says: since that fact is undoubtedly true, coming out and exposing Keystone XL for the disaster that it is might be good practice.

Granted, the 2016 presidential election is 600 some-odd days away, but I need more than this brand of “taking the fifth” from a candidate who, it appears, plans to run and hopes to win.



Here we come a-waffling

(This was on my website ( last week—it’ s reproduced here with some edits and additions.)

The recent murders at the Charlie Hebdo publishing site in Paris have sparked a good deal of controversy about satire and its functions. It has also provoked a lot of absurd comments—like “journalists should not be murdered for what they print.”

Good call there.

Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. A more important question is this: within what restrictions should responsible journalists operate? And this: is a newspaper like the New York Times wise or cowardly for opting not to reprint the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons? First though, I thought it might be a good time to underscore the distinction between the two basic types of satire—Horacian and Juvenalian. It’s more of an academic distinction, I guess, but it is a distinction.

Horacian satire, so named after the Roman satirist Horace, is tolerant, amused, witty. It gently ridicules human foibles without anger or contempt. We’ve all read Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed Twain’s skewering of the mores of society. Yes, he was brutally honest, even indignant, but Twain generally attacked the conventions and not the individuals. Like all good Horacian satirists, he preferred to make us smile at how foolish we are than make us angry at the weaknesses or beliefs of others.

Juvenalian satire, however, is always on the attack, and though it may at times make us laugh, wit and humor constitute only a small part of it. The Juvenalian often addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and ridicule. When we read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we don’t smile very much as we witness the savagery of human nature and the young boys’ willingness to turn away from goodness and compassion. (For contrast, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 does make us laugh—just as television’s M*A*S*H did, even though the overriding theme comprises the horror and absurdity of war.)

Most people would place Charlie Hebdo in the second category. Some would say it’s out of bounds entirely. I hate to be a waffler, but I am one on this issue. First off I hold with those who say if you don’t like it, don’t read it (or watch it, or listen to it, etc.) But by the same token, are the publishers going after religion in general or have they centered their attacks on the founder? To me there’s a difference. Comedians have gotten plenty of mileage out of satirizing different faiths; to wit how many jokes (tasteful or not) have been made about Catholic priests and their sexual preferences this past decade? But very few have been made about the founder of Catholicism. Is Jesus off limits then? And if so, shouldn’t Mohammad be in the same category? And Martin Luther? And Buddha?

And the other matter is that innocent people died, and though I did not see the entire post-massacre edition of the magazine, I’m not aware of any regrets being expressed within its pages. I could be wrong—I hope so. No matter what, there will be blowback. After 9/11 there were was nothing but sympathy for the United States—every country seemed ready to come to our defense. And what did we do? We took that goodwill and used it to start a decade of wars: who loves us now? I expect similar results in France, especially when the world begins to read about the living conditions many Muslims face in the shadows of the big cities. ( see We’ve heard so many times this past week how these terrorists were French—lived and grew up in France. But there’s the France of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and there’s the France of the banlieues. They might as well be on different planets.

I’m waffling—sorry—but I will say this. Journalistically right or wrong, it would have been wise for Charlie Hebdo and all such publications to be just a bit circumspect for a while—to let the anger diminish a little. I know that sounds like censorship and capitulation; others might say it sounds like responsible journalism.

This is going to require a lot more waffling.

$400,000 to burn

Buried in the seamy tale of the UConn music department—included almost as an afterthought—were the salaries of these two accused vis-à-vis their current status. David Woods, the former dean of the School of Fine Arts, who is apparently still a professor in good standing currently receives a salary of $237,547. He is the man alleged to have ignored years of formal and informal complaints against Robert Miller, his department member who we now know was behaving in a reprehensible manner for what appears to be decades. Miller, currently on administrative leave and barred from campus, is receiving a salary of $140,907.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would almost be funny. Here’s a university whose tuition rises every year—which has recently stated openly the desire for more out-of-state students because they would pay more—frittering away close to $400,000 a year (or this year anyway) on two employees, one of whom has allegedly harmed students directly, and the other who has harmed them, it appears, by omission. I understand that there are contracts that need to be honored—that unless formal charges are brought against Miller (or less likely against Woods) they cannot summarily be drummed out of Storrs penniless and debased. What I don’t understand is why an individual music professor—even one at a large university—deserves twice the salary of a high school music teacher whose responsibilities are possibly more diverse.

Most high schools—even larger ones—have fewer than five music teachers, and very often have but two—one for instruments and one for voices. The instrumental teacher becomes ex officio the orchestra leader, the band leader, the marching band leader, and probably the supplier of music for every assembly, event, and theater production in the academic year. And since the likelihood of the school having a music librarian is nil, he’s that too. And he teaches.  The voice instructor handles everything that involves singlng, from the holiday concert to the graduation exercises and every National Anthem in between. He’s at everyone’s beck and call. And he teaches. I’d be willing to bet that Robert Miller has never had that number of responsibilities in any given year; instead they are probably spread out among fifty staff members in the music program at UConn. Most of these instructors are undoubtedly performing their jobs at a high level but not earning anywhere near $140,000 a year. Half that. Less.

Centering this discussion on UConn is unfair: every major university must have its share of staff members turning a blind eye and men and women who exploit and abuse their roles as instructors. And harping on salaries can sound cynical, for it’s very likely that real harm has been done here—done to a lot of young people over a long period of time. (And before anyone reminds me that the acts were consensual, let’s remember that the word loses its meaning when one of the so-called participants holds a position of authority over the other.) In the end there’s that $400,000 which could be put to better use—maybe to set up a fund to counsel the victims who, now that the story has broken, may very well appear in greater numbers. 

Quantifying artistry

What I don’t now about winter sports could fill a container ship, but I do know this: there was something amazing about the ice dancing of Meryl Davis and Charlie White last Monday, something that differentiated them from all the other couples. If I knew all the terms, I’d include them, but as I said, I don’t. I would venture to say that most people who watch the skating events are a lot like me—we can appreciate the beauty and the grace, but we don’t always know why. Because of that our praise is generally reduced to comments like “They were really really good,” while we wait for the results and hope they corroborate our opinions.

On Thursday, in something called the long program—I have some idea how it received that name—Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova outpointed the favorite, Yuna Kim of South Korean. The Russian went first, her program breathtaking in its energy, athleticism, and risk. The crowd of course was raucous, rooting for one of its own, and after the performance littered the ice with bouquets purchased for just that use. (Emerson would have wept, but that’s a complaint for another time.) When the Russian skater’s results were announced. and even more so with the announcement of Yuna Kim’s, the place erupted. (In other circumstances I’d say exploded, but with all the worries about security, that may not be the best choice of words) As for my reaction, just remember the container ship.

Immediately there was controversy: Had Yuna Kim fallen victim to home-judging? Had Adelina Sotnikova been the recipient of audience-motivated largesse? On Friday the experts spoke, the consensus being that Sotnikova had accessorized her program with so many leaps and spins that her point total became insurmountable, this despite any lack of artistry. (This failing the experts ascribed to her youth.) Not a fix then, just numbers.

Earlier this month when Seattle beat Denver in the Super Bowl, Seattle had many more points. That’s how they won. Maybe a more apt analogy would be Olympic hockey where the teams from Canada seem able to score more goals. I’m fine with both those situations: in competitive team sports  winners and losers must be defined by totals. But in figure skating, I come down on the side of artistry. Yuna Kim was elegant, graceful, and evocative—every gesture told us something. Adelina Sotnikova was athletic. Yuna Kim was the NBA player weaving through defenders and driving the baseline for a reverse layup, then quietly racing downcourt without contact; Adelina Sotnikova was the winner in the slam dunk contest, rattling the backboard and amassing the oohs and aahs. Yuna Kim belongs in the same conversation (and on the same podium) as Meryl Davis and Charlie White; Adelina Sotnikova doesn’t—not yet.

…but it isn’t news…

It’s hard to decide what’s more annoying—this winter’s weather or the reaction by our local news outlets. Here in the central Connecticut area the ratings war has always been fought by Channels 3 and 30. Downstate we have that New Haven news which, no matter how “capital city” they try to be, most of us will always associate with that place nobody wants to drive to…or in. And of course there’s the early news which gets the jump on everyone else and provides a slew of good field reporters, but they’ll always be the other other news, behind the other news. So there’s 3 and 30, and the battle over who can be more annoying rages.

The Channel 3 detractors will fall back on the inanity of naming winter storms—something that station has done for around four decades. Admittedly it only became excruciating when the Weather Channel began the same practice, but it’s always been annoying, especially when we consider that the weather is an adjunct of the news (even though this winter it seems to be the news.) But as news it doesn’t need a cute name—or any name. We don’t go hanging labels on news items unless they are self-generated: 9/11, Pearl Harbor, Columbine. We don’t, apparently, feel the need to label a robbery at the local convenience store Criminal Act Sally or a house fire Conflagration Steve, even though there may have been eighteen previous conflagrations. At least we don’t feel the need…yet.

Channel 30’s critics need look no further than See It-Share It—a device by which unskilled photographers with little sense of newsworthiness snap pictures of dogs with snowy coats or children with…uh…snowy coats and submit them as news, thereby relieving the station of its responsibility to provide actual news while verifying something we already knew: we don’t really have to know anything so long we can smile at our animal friends or our offspring. See It-Share It is pretty much the opposite of news and very much the opposite of what a television news department should be doing. I suppose blurring the lines between Facebook and local news is financially beneficial; after all, the ratings for social media will always outstrip those of a local TV outlet. And it’s certainly thrifty—why hire someone when you can employ the willing public for free.

Every day we hear of newsprint dying, of the written word residing in a kind of limbo, of nobody under the age of thirty bothering to read a paper. If that’s true, then it’s just as likely that our ignorance of world affairs today is still in its rudimentary stage—twenty, thirty years from now, imagine how little we can know. We have this mistaken idea that we’re informed because we’re always connected, but we’re connected to nothing more than storms named after cities and Golden Retrieves in snow drifts. Maybe it’s time to disconnect and pick up a newspaper.

Guns and butter, but mostly guns

I don’t know anybody with a serious mental illness—at least don’t think I do. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in seventeen Americans suffers from either major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or borderline personality disorder. That means either I, one of the neighbors to my left or right, or the family across the street falls into that category.

I also don’t know anyone who owns an assault rifle. Again, same caveat. But published reports this past week indicate that of 50,000 registered assault rifles in Connecticut, only 47,000 have been registered. So I guess that’s bad, and everyone agrees that all these scofflaws should stop scoffing. But according to people in the gun industry, that 50,000 total may be as little as fifteen percent of actual assault-rifle-owners in this state. In Connecticut. Little eighty-by-sixty mile Connecticut. I wouldn’t have thought there’d be enough room to store them all, but somehow people are finding adequate space.

So let’s be conservative here (in the non-Tea Party sense of the word) and settle on 250,000. And let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that each owner possesses ten. That may be a bit high, but once you start collecting them, well, they say it’s kind of like eating popcorn…sans butter. So we have 25,000 people with assault rifles, that’s about the population of New London, and one out of every seventeen is depressed, schizophrenic, etc. By my count, that’s about 1500 people with serious mental illnesses who also have assault rifles—in our state alone. And yet the “problem” is they’re not registered? Seriously? That’s the problem? If we think a small state like ours that contains within its borders 350,000 assault rifles isn’t a problem in and of itself, then we aren’t merely missing the point, we’re missing the entire pencil…and the eraser…and the tree it came from.

Gun apologist constantly deflect criticism of their pastime by claiming that we need better mental health more than we need gun laws. But it doesn’t have to be either-or, nor does it have to be one then another. But that’s a battle for another day. At least the state should make a concerted effort to get these guns registered so that, if by chance, the one-in-seventeen crosses databases with the 350,000, maybe we can pull some of those guns off the streets before the next mass killing.