Off the (campaign) trail

Away from the goofy and madcap planet of Trumpiana, the world continues to spin. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Here’s proof—a quick look at some page two stories:

One

Brian Witham is 45 years old. If you don’t remember the name, he’s the one who devised the plan to rob a credit union in New Britain last year—a plan that went awry before it could be carried out, but not until he’d terrorized some people with guns and a fake bomb. He was arrested and, on February 19, was charged with bank robbery by extortion. Mr. Witham then waived his right to a trial and took a plea bargain—42 years in prison. At least 42.

I don’t claim to know how the legal system works, but I know enough abut basic math to know that his “deal” guarantees room and board until 2058—at which time he will be 87 years old. I know that 70 is the new 50, but I think 87 is still 87. And if this was the end result of the “bargain,” it might be time for a new agent. And Mr. Witham faces other charges in other states, so things could actually get worse. Global warming will raise the sea level above the prison guard towers before he gets out.

He’s not a stranger to prison, that Mr. Witham. After his release in 2008, he went to work for his accomplice in a group called Prisoner Assistant, which purported to offer financial consulting for inmates by helping them to open bank accounts and such. They apparently kept it solvent by using nearly $400,ooo from previous robberies, but when they started to run out of money, hatched this new plan. Maybe Mr. Witham will be able to avail himself of Prisoner Assistant…in 2058…or later

Two

A substitute teacher in South Windsor apparently peppered his students with the n-word recently in a class that was reading “My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery” by Belinda Hurmence, a recent history compiled from the personal accounts of North Carolina slaves. I used the word “peppered” though I really don’t know if sixteen times in one class qualifies. But somebody was counting—apparently the offended student. Now everyone is going to get a strict talking to so that this never happens again. (Yes, I get the irony of the book title and the reaction. I’ll write about it in my next blog: my friends don’t ant me to blog about blogging.)

From here on in the offended’s mother wants to be notified whenever sensitive material will be discussed in a classroom. Considering we all have different flash points at which we’re offended, there could be a lot of notifying going on in South Windsor. But I will say this—if that teacher did not say something to the effect that he was going to be using an offensive term that he also found personally offensive, and if he did not also alert his students as to the history and repugnance of the term, then he was wrong.

Apologies from the superintendent came at lightning speed and with shotgun accuracy, but I can understand that too. What does annoy me is this: the parent also complained that her daughter was called the “n word” on a South Windsor school bus. This is not the fault of the schools, but more the fault of other parents whose personal instruction of their children may be falling short. Maybe if they write “I will not tolerate bigotry in my home” and did it, oh say sixteen times, we wouldn’t have to worry about a repeat performance.

Sssh. You’re offending me.

“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke,” he said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”

And there you have it—Donald Trump. He doesn’t know anything about anything except making money—which he also doesn’t know anything about. (Trust me. Read. it’s true.)

Later that same day, when Trump realized that even his Teflon coating could not repel the poison of David Duke, he altered his opinion, tweeting “I disavow.”

A tweet. No denial of Duke’s long-standing white supremacist views or connection with the Ku Klux Klan, the hate-mongering or unabashed segregationist views—just a tweet. My bad. Oops. OMG. 

That’s how Trump runs his campaign—on soundbites and tweets that bully and intimidate, mixed with just enough ignorance of the facts to make him sound new and refreshing. But ignorance is neither new nor refreshing. Ignorance, I’m pretty sure, is still ignorance. If it’s not, I want all my high school and college grades changed to reflect that fact, for if I had answered an exam question concerning David Duke as follows: I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I have ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him, I can guarantee that my professor would not have suggested I run for president.

And that’s not the worst part. At the risk of having buried the lede, there’s more, and it’s scarier, and it’s something we ignore at our own peril. On a night when Spotlight won the Oscar for best picture, when we realized how important it is for the press to protect our rights to basic human dignity, Donald Trump wants to weaken the libel laws so that he can sue anyone who criticizes him.

You need to read that last paragraph again and understand how that contradicts our basic right of free speech. Not the Boston Globe’s right, or Fox News’s right, or MSNBC’s right—yours and mine, and maybe SNL’s, and Rush Limbaugh’s, and Bull Maher’s, yes and even David Duke’s.

Claiming ignorance of some Klansman won’t hurt us—we know who  is and what he stands for. Claiming ignorance of the fascists who fought to control Europe and the rest of the world seventy years ago and murdered upwards of ten million people in the process—that’s not something we should laugh off. It’s not Trump being Trump—it’s Trump stealing a basic freedom that generations of Americans have fought to preserve.

Whenever someone mentions gun control, the firearms brigade rallies behind the Second Amendment. Could they also please rally behind the First? If they do, maybe we can find some common ground and keep the remainder of the Constitution from being shredded.

 

The Beach House of Academe

Okay, so there was ghetto party at a beach house rented by Fairfield University students last weekend. I once attended Fairfield University and lived in a beach house. We opted not to have any ghetto parties—we found equally stupid things to do to offer up as proof that we were college students. And by the way, it’s not that collegiate types have cornered the market on stupidity, it’s just that some of them feel more pressure.

But aside from learning that my alma mater has its share of questionable behavior like other universities, I was disappointed to learn that only 2.7% of the school is black. Maybe if I did research I’d learn that this is typical, but data and statistics aside, it doesn’t seem right. I attended Fairfield in the 60’s and at the time I could probably identify and name the black students on campus. For better or worse they’d been recruited as athletes, and because we went to the basketball games, we came to “know” them. I wish I could say I saw the injustice in that—I do now—but I don’t think the system has changed that much in colleges nationwide.

Again—not even three percent.

Connecticut, from which Fairfield draws many students, is 11% black; America itself, 12%. The major state university is 5% black. To its credit Fairfield does boast a Spanish/Latino populace of over 7%, but even there UConn has them by one. I guess the most telling statistics involve the percentage of white students at Fairfield: 70%.

I’m not going to pretend to know all the factors at play here, and I’m not being critical of my former school. But I am surprised. And I guess I can understand why, in that sort of environment, a ghetto party would not be considered that bizarre or outlandish. A few months back I dismissed the Halloween flap at Yale about racial sensitivity as being over the top: I thought the protest was specious at best. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m thinking that it’s an easy step or two from hijinks to intolerance to all-out, unabashed bigotry. In college, in the workplace, anywhere.

An overdue apology

The recent death of Harper Lee reminded me of an almost forgotten failure—one to which I hadn’t given much thought recently. (There are always new ones fighting for supremacy.)

I spent most of my teaching career in the good company of high school juniors and seniors—we had an English faculty basically locked in to its favorites and strengths, and I was no different. Then one year in the early nineties I was called upon to teach a sophomore class—new literature, new vocabulary, new reading lists. I looked forward to it—change isn’t always good but teaching a new class always energized me.

The group was considered academic, which at the time meant short of high-achieving but not by much. College bound. Motivated. Mature…at least as mature as fifteen-year-olds can be. We plowed through the curriculum—memory (or lack thereof) prevents my remembering everything we learned, but the Odyssey comes to mind, as does Romeo and Juliet, and the original basis for Hitchcock’s Birds—a story by DuMaurier. But what does stand out clearly is the month or so we spent on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Don’t laugh—I know people finish that book in a day. But we were writing compositions and learning vocabulary and mastering (or dabbling in) grammar and usage at the time. We didn’t rush—we were having a fairly good time, this despite the fact that there could not have been many in the class unaware of how the novel would end.

Now some twenty years later I have to confess—I didn’t do as good a job with that novel as I should have. I look back now and find countless writing prompts and discussion topics that I let slip by, all because I came at it wrong: I treated To Kill a Mockingbird like a quaint history lesson of how things used to be but weren’t any longer. I realize now that the timelessness of the novel emanates from its connection to today—today in 1960; today in 1992; today in 2016. Individual integrity and respect have not changed and Harper Lee knew that.

And so, after too long a delay, my apology to those sophomores (now, no doubt, meandering through their thirties with sophomores of their own) who probably know now from experience what they could have—and should have—learned from me.

Addendum: A few years ago my wife and I saw a stage adaptation of this novel in Hartford. While we waited for the curtain go up, we heard another audience member talking on his cell, telling someone at the other end that he was waiting to see “How to Kill a Mockingbird.” I can only imagine the depths of his disappointment when, two hours later, when he still didn’t know how.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

Robert Frost penned those words in “Mending Wall.” But enough culture and gentility—let’s talk politics.

To keep up with the almost unprecedented ignorance of Donald Trump has become a full-time job, one in which I wasn’t going to involve myself because I always believed that the American system of checks and balances would preclude the possibility of any one man, no matter what his depth of bungling incompetence, from destroying the country.

Now with Congress an ongoing battleground, the Supreme Court without a majority, a presidential election only eight months away, and djtrump.com in the lead, I’m not so sure.

(I like “djtrump.com”—it makes him sound less real, and these days I need that.)

But first things first: the Pope’s opinion in matters unrelated to Catholic doctrine is no more or less valid than djtrump.com’s. Or mine. Sorry, that’s the way it is. And if the Pope wants to call someone a non-Christian (see my previous post—”Why Boxers should Box”)—then that’s his prerogative. And if said non-Christian.com wants to defend himself, again—his prerogative.

But to claim that a proposed wall between Mexico and the U.S. even remotely resembles the wall of the Vatican is not only illogical, but shows such a failure to grasp history and culture as to disqualify anyone who believes it from being president of anything. Now I’ve never visited the Vatican, but apparently a few people have—none of them shot at by guards posted above them; and unlike djtrump.com’s wall, no one needs a passport or visa to get through—or to leave. It’s a bit like Washington D.C.: we can come and go as we please, but there remain restricted areas—administrative offices and the President’s living quarters, to name two. Same with the Vatican.

If candidate.com is claiming that all such separations should be removed, then I’d like to be able to fly his plane sometime. Anytime. I’ve always dreamed of lowering the flaps, holding above stall speed, and gently touching down before I engaged the reverse thrusters and came to a stop. I’ve done it on the computer—how hard could it be?

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. In Frost’s poem a nearby farmer—cemented in his ways—holds to an old belief that good fences make good neighbors; but when the narrator calls him on it, he can’t defend the belief.

Sound familiar?

 

 

Why Boxers Should Box…or Bark

“[E]very Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?” —Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance” 

I don’t necessarily blame Manny Pacquiao—former boxing star turned Philippines politico—for his comparison of homosexuals to animals. Actually it was more of a contrast: Mr. Pacquiao pronounced animals superior because they are able to distinguish male from female and don’t have same-sex relations. Now I could offer proof that homosexuality exists in all species, but that’s not really the issue. And pointing that out makes me feel, well, dumb.

I don’t even care that much that Pacquiao is ignorant and shouldn’t hold a high office: we have enough United States Senators and Representatives and governors and mayors who feel the same way, and they have jobs.

As for animals being superior to homosexuals, he’s half-right; but animals are also superior to heterosexuals in that

  • They don’t build weapons of mass destruction.
  • They don’t send other animals out to fight their battles.
  • They have never interned an ethnic group.
  • They don’t bomb hospitals and schools.
  • They don’t slaughter people on the streets of Paris, or in a business in San Bernadino, or a school in Newtown.
  • They don’t hide behind their religion when they do something wrong.

That last one bears repeating: They don’t hide behind their religion when they do something wrong.

And this is what bothers me most about this whole affair. Here is Pacquiao’s apology:

I’m sorry for hurting people by comparing homosexuals to animals. Please forgive me for those I’ve hurt. I still stand on my belief that I’m against same sex marriage because of what the Bible says, but I’m not condemning LGBT. I love you all with the love of the Lord. God Bless you all and I’m praying for you.

Really? I love you all with the love of the Lord? What exactly does that mean? Because if it means what I think it means, then he loves you because he has to, but he hates you because you’re you. Thanks, Manny, for proffering a good dose of evangelical nonsense we can all ponder. The truth is, if you hate someone because of his beliefs or his race or his sexual orientation, you’re just not a Christian. Sorry. You can still attend mass, get palms, ashes, all that good stuff, but being an actual Christian demands a little more.

We live in a so-called Christian country and gird ourselves against incursions by other religions, but when people like Manny Pacquiao threaten to love us all with “the love of the Lord,” and I know that his particular lord hates gay people, I don’t exactly get a warm feeling. And when he offers to pray for us all, maybe I’ll pass on that one too.

 

Grammy Bloat (it’s not a person)

A friend once reminded me that he would never watch an award show, that it was all self-congratulatory claptrap.

In spite of this—and in spite of the fact that he’s basically right—I do occasionally tune in just to keep up with pop culture, though it’s speeding away from me so rapidly that I can only hope to catch occasional glimpses of it.

At eight last night I caught a glimpse of Taylor Swift. No. I’d heard about her before, but her opening number was so energized, so dynamic, so nearly perfect, that I thought, well maybe this whole Grammy extravaganza won’t be so bad.

One of the reasons I made the effort was that I had the Times crossword left over from Sunday—something to distract me during the endless commercials and close-ups of audience members I didn’t know. I also had an iPad which provided a constant stream of tweets from wry and clever viewers, tweets that I kept sharing with my wife, tweets that increased in acerbity and sarcasm after Adele’s performance.

When it comes to Adele, I’m not an adoring fan. Actually I’m not a fan of too many performers born after the Korean War—but that’s just pop culture running away. Still, I’ve heard Adele sing, and her voice is crystalline. I mean really, it is just amazing. But last night—well the sound men and lighting crew that sabotaged her performance are probably scanning the want ads today, and rightly so. But I could nitpick another dozen failures and screw-ups and embarrassments; they would obscure the simple truth that the show was too damn long.

Two-hundred ten minutes plus. Plus what? I don’t know. I turned it off as Pitbull made his appearance at 11:30 (isn’t that Johnny Carson’s slot?) and watched The Talking Dead which I’d recorded the previous night—only to find Carrie Underwood on the panel. In truth she seemed happier to be on TTD than on the Grammys. And since she’s a Walking Dead fan, she gets a pass.

As does Lady Gaga. Terrific. Then again the Hollywood Vampires were just baffling, and Justin Bieber—the one Canadian that people want to deport even more than they do Ted Cruz, was actually pretty good. But the show was too long. And it wasn’t an awards show. Eight awards? That’s one every 25 minutes.

But I did learn something. Some fifty-years ago a group called Danny & the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” and I believed it. Why would they lie? But when Alabama Shakes won the award for best Rock song, I thought, well rock and roll, you had a good run. But that pop culture thingy—it’s left you behind too.

Unelectable? No Such Thing.

He has been described as pugnacious, hot-headed, and occasionally vulgar.

He has told a state chapter of the NAACP to kiss his butt.

He has warned schoolchildren against reading the newspaper.

He promised to cut taxes by curtailing welfare services for the poor…and did.

He eviscerated environmental and labor regulations.

He refused to expand Medicaid.

He removed a labor mural from a state building because it was “unfair to corporations.”

He repealed laws restricting big-box stores and mining.

He denies climate change.

When a newspaper cartoon painted him in a non-flattering light, he promised to shoot the cartoonist.

And on…and on…

Let’s eliminate the mystery—that litany of horrors does not belong to Donald J. Trump. It belongs instead to Paul LePage, Maine’s Republican governor, considered in most circles the worst governor in the nation; in others an embarrassment to the state, and as the Daily Beast calls it: “The Idiot Thug Running Maine.”*

Why should you care? Because if you thought that list above referred to Trump, then we have a problem. And if you think Trump is unelectable, let me disabuse you of that idea. Paul LePage won re-election in 2014. He won because of bears. No, they didn’t vote, but on the ballot in 2014 was a question as to whether or not said bears could be baited with donuts and then trapped. (God, do I wish I was making this up.) The outdoorsmen and tea party diehards voted in huge numbers, and with three candidates splitting the votes and the unpopularity of the President and the fact that the bungling Maine democrats had no cohesive platform, LePage won. The bears’ loss was…well…Maine’s loss.

When I think of Maine I see a vast and unspoiled vacation area with a rocky and picturesque seacoast dotted with beautiful little towns like Camden, Castine, Bar Harbor. But there’s another Maine and Paul LePage is its governor.

When I think of America I see a vast and often-beautiful country with the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Loop, the Golden Gate. But there’s another America, and if we’re not careful, Donald Trump will be its president…and ours.

That’s why you should care.

*http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/06/the-idiot-thug-running-maine.html

The Best Concession Speech

I still don’t know which way to go in this Democratic Primary season, but with baseball starting soon, I’d better make a choice before I become distracted.

But not today.

Funny, though, how Bernie won New Hampshire going away and—three days later—he’s the one struggling to keep his head above water. It isn’t surprising though. Bernie does have plans, but no real way of effecting them—at least none that he has shared other than a plan to tax the wealthy. But wealth is a relative term, and it might be difficult to place it within certain parameters.

I read an editorial today in which the writer pointed out that in Wisconsin (for instance) Bernie’s free college initiative would cost the state tens of billions of dollars: it’s the same state in which its governor, union killer Scott Walker, has just slashed $800 million from public funds. Something doesn’t add up, and I’m afraid the same might be said for other Sanders plans.

Another commentator talking about the primary in general noted that the idea of electing a woman president has faded because, he said, we think we’ve already done it. Obviously we haven’t, but Hillary ran in 2008 and seems to have been running again since 2012, so maybe in our psyches she’s already held office. She hasn’t, and I’m curious why women themselves haven’t become more vocal. I hear things like “I’m not going to vote for her just because she’s a woman.” Why the hell not? How many men have you voted for just because they were men? Oh, sure they were one of the two major parties’ nominees, but how often were you really enthusiastic about the choice? How many times would you rather have voted for a woman?

I’m not bailing on Bernie—though that would make nice Hillary t-shirt—but I’ve been looking past Bernie’s feel-good speeches and a little more deeply into his policies. I’m not sure if they hold up, or if he has a world view other than a philosophical one. Let’s take power away from Wall Street sounds good as a rallying cry, especially since 2007 is fresh in our minds. But then where do we place that power. Do we give it back to the people? Sounds good, but if we do, does that include the people who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge? I don’t like those people; in fact, I don’t like them even more than I don’t like Wall Street.

Hillary’s so-called concession speech in New Hampshire raised some eyebrows. She laid out a policy filled with specifics and strategies: she was absolutely in control, and has been since. Of course Madeline Albright did her no favors, nor did Gloria Steinem, but neither one of them was exactly wrong.

There’s a long way to go, and I’ll be doing a lot more waffling before November. But if Bernie peaked in New Hampshire—and that’s a distinct possibility—then this whole primary gig may be closer to being over than we think.

The Bullying Pulpit

I was asked, probably in jest, to write an addendum to my recent blog: “Dos and Don’ts, the Primary Edition.”

In that one from February 3, I took Donald Trump to task, and a reader wondered if could do the same for Chris Christie—or to Chris Christie? (Once I looked up the meaning of addendum, I was ready to go.)

All any of us really need to know about Mr. Christie is that he used New Jersey public service workers to disrupt and jeopardize an entire city to satisfy his appetite for vengeance. We all know the details—a slight from Fort Lee’s mayor and political payback in the form of phony lane closings to the George Washington Bridge which effectively shut down the city for a day. Funny stuff, eh?

It was the act of a bully, and a peculiarly nasty and dangerous bully at that.

Now Trump’s threat evolves out of the missing filter between his brain and his mouth. People admire him because he says what he thinks. Of course so do most two-year-olds: we don’t elect them president.

Ted Cruz is dangerous because he wants to lead the country forward by standing still. His only plan is to win and hope for the best.

But Chris Christie is dangerous because he’s ignorant of so much and that fact doesn’t concern him. So far in this primary season he has

a) promised to work with King Hussein of Jordan to fight against ISIS. (King Hussein died in 1999.)

b) vowed to shoot down any Russian plane that violated his proposed Syrian no-fly zone. You may also remember Rand Paul’s retort: “Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.”

c) threatened major cuts in Social Security benefits. If there’s one thing Americans of all parties and ages hold sacrosanct, it’s Social Security.

d) alienated himself from the young progressives (to whom he claims to speak) by promising to reverse recent efforts to decriminalize marijuana.

e) vowed to get Iraqi forces out of Yemen. Iraq has enough to worry about without becoming involved in Yemen.

f) bullied a worried young girl who asked what he was doing about the damage all over New Jersey from last month’s blizzard. (She was receiving grim pictures from family members.) He said,” : ‘All over the state?’ Really? There’s been one county that’s flooded, one county, Cape May County, so I don’t know where you’re getting ‘from all over the state,’ since we have 21 counties where that’s happened. Um, second, I don’t see co… what you expect me to do, you want me to go down there with a mop? (Empathy is, apparently, overrated.)

g) blamed a mother and her one-year-old child for dying of carbon monoxide poisoning because they weren’t smart enough to clear the snow from their tailpipe. Notice how he interrupts their “eulogy” to have some fun with “Jennifer.”

Look, I’m a democrat, a liberal, a progressive, whatever, so I’m coming at this from a certain perspective. But while I find other candidates goofy or foolish, I see an opportunistic insensitivity in Christie, a sense of privilege that makes it okay for him to take federal aid in the aftermath of Sandy, then refer to the president who provided it as a feckless weakling three years later.

Yes, it’s politics. But a bully is still a bully. And nastiness never plays very well, no matter the venue.