Sometimes you can’t look away

We are confronted with so many tragedies these days that we hardly know how to respond anymore, and yet it seems we summon up different reactions for each one.

At the massacre in the Charleston Church we were horrified.

At the shootings in the army recruiting center we were shocked.

We were stunned by Columbine, saddened by Newtown, chastened and embarrassed by the killing in Ferguson, and sickened by the ongoing murders committed by Middle East terrorist groups.

Very seldom are we heartsick, but I think many of us felt that way last week when we witnessed the deaths on air of that young reporter and her cameraman. Maybe it’s because they were so young and had their whole lives ahead of them—but then again they shared those qualities with the victims of Newtown. Maybe it was the young lady’s father appearing on television in terrible emotional pain and challenging the president to do more to combat gun violence, but we’ve seen that before too. Or maybe it was the fact that we heard the gunshots and the screams and saw the results, and having been witnesses ourselves made it impossible to erase the images from our minds.

Yes, that’s what it was. Welcome to the world where anyone can buy a gun and record himself killing other human beings with it.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other. For all of us for whom gun violence seldom comprised more than headlines and news reports, the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward near Roanoke last week were our experience.

Close and harsh and horrible.

We can no longer claim ignorance or innocence.

Right now somewhere there’s an earnest and well-intentioned gun owner preparing to remind us that guns don’t kill people—people kill people. That’s not going to work anymore: last week we saw and heard exactly what kills people, and we’re not likely to forget.

No Smorgasbord, No Work!

My father never worked for Amazon, so I doubt if he ever cried at his desk. In truth, he didn’t have a desk. For that matter I never heard him complain about the food service either, not in the factory one town over where he worked as a machinist.

He never talked much about his working conditions at all, or maybe he did and I wasn’t listening because, hey, this was the way the country ran: men worked in factories so that their baby-boomer children could go to college and not have to work in factories. The children were meant to do better.

My father followed the plan, retired at 65, and died three years later.

It’s too late for remorse, but it’s not too late to scoff at the all the breast-beating and lamentation in progress over the New York Times series on the so-called mistreatment of the white-collar Amazon employees. And though I don’t want anyone to suffer in his job, I’m sure that the mistreatment of blue-collar workers deserves a lot more coverage. They’re the ones who, since Ronald Reagan blamed the unions for all that was wrong in America, have suffered a diminution in buying power and a total stagnation in their standard of living. They’re going nowhere, and with anti-union candidates like Scott Walker crowing about their anti-union records on the campaign trail, the American worker seems doomed.

And by the way, the children no longer do better.

So Amazonians, buck up. The lack of daily free food buffets or regular snack supplies may indeed be a hardship, but the whiteness of your collar presages a brighter future than that of most American workers who show up for their jobs not quite so nattily dressed.

Welcome back, Know-Nothings

Just a bit of history—bear with me.

In July 1844, riots broke out in Philadelphia where anti-immigrant Nativists battled Irish immigrants. When it was over two Catholic churches and a Catholic school had been burned by mobs. At least 20 people died in the mayhem. In New York City a rumored attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was staved off when these so-called Nativists, afraid to confront a large group of Irish parishioners, ran off before they could attack the building.

By the 1850s this anti-immigrant movement had crystallized into several political parties, two of which were the American Republican Party and the Nativist Party. At the same time, secret societies with the same anti-immigrant philosophy began to spring up. One of them, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, swore to keep immigrants out of America; and its members were instructed to answer all questions about the organization with the following words: I know nothing. History records their trivial and embarrassing moment in the sun as the “Age of the Know-Nothings.”

Well, folks, they’re back.

It should be noted that the original Know-Nothings ran a candidate for President in 1856—Millard Fillmore. During the campaign Fillmore himself shied away from the vitriolic attacks on Catholics and immigrants, losing the election in one of the worst Presidential election fiascos of all time. Abraham Lincoln claimed that if the Know-Nothings ever took power, the Declaration of Independence would have to be amended to say that all men are created equal “except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” (The 2015 crop of Know-Nothings is already making noises about altering the Fourteenth Amendment.)

As I said, they’re back.

In 1917, Congress enacted legislation requiring immigrants over sixteen to pass a literacy test. (Poles and Italians need not apply.) The Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that restricted entry to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census–a system that favored immigrants from Western Europe–and prohibited immigrants from Asia. (Sorry Jews and Russians, Chinese and Japanese—no soup for you.)

Now it’s the Mexicans.

It seems there are always some Americans unwilling to accept the fact that their being born in the United States was no more than an accident of birth—that they could just as easily be the Mexican family trying to make a life for themselves in Texas or—on a broader scale, the Iraqi family looking to Germany for a new beginning and a chance at a better existence. The arrogance is unfathomable.

Of course the term “accident of birth” may be difficult to comprehend for someone who knows nothing and is perfectly happy to admit it.

 

 

Honoring Cecil the Lion

Glen Hisey, the curator of the Pope and Young Records Programme which, by way of a brief description, documents the killing of big game, is quoted as having said the following: “…it’s a personal achievement to harvest any big-game animal with a bow and arrow. It is a way of honoring that animal for all time.”

I’ll give you a minute or two to take your anti-nausea medicine.

Welcome back. Now that your stomach has ceased turning over (or is turning over more slowly) can we just take a critical look at that statement, and maybe stop first at the word harvest? Are we supposed to equate the killing of a living animal for sport with the gathering of a few acres of wheat? For that matter, and because I don’t want to be a hypocrite, is it okay to harvest cattle and chickens? That can be an argument for another day, but I do understand that we can’t pick and choose one animal victim over another because one is majestic and the other is just another cow.

But if the euphemistic harvesting isn’t cynical enough, do we really honor something for all time by killing it? If so, we may have to reexamine the historic roles of James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald. Let’s include Charlie Manson and those cops on Staten Island and Ferguson, Missouri–these are all people who, contrary to what we believed, were apparently honoring their victims.

Look, if you want to hunt, hunt. If you feel a sense of achievement by using your superior mental ability to bring down an animal, go for it. If you want to claim that hunting animals is all tangled up with the history (and prehistory) of man, be my guest. But can you just do it legally? And can you just shut up about it instead of exalting it as some sort of sacred mission?

Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, paid upwards of $50,000 to shoot and kill a lion in Zimbabwe. He probably did it illegally—he possibly didn’t know it was an illegal kill—he more than likely doesn’t care–and I’ll bet he’s right now planning his next harvesting expedition. I don’t like it, but I’m not going to lose my mind over it. The story is repulsive and horrific, but people are “harvesting” other people and “honoring them for all time” at a much more rapid rate. That should make us just as angry.

As for Walter Palmer, big-game killer from Minnesota, I can only hope that in this rapidly advancing technological world, someone invents the selfie-stick for the crossbow. And soon.

Saving Grace

Remember 2004 and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? No?

It could be because they had nothing to do with truth. Let me refresh your memory.

In 2004 the SBVT formed to discredit the military record of then-presidential candidate John Kerry. The group, financed by T. Boone Pickens and others who never served in the military, made a serious of fraudulent allegations, becoming so notorious that we now use the term swift-boating for any unscrupulous, virulent, and fallacious attack. (Read about the bet Mr. Pickens made with Mr. Kerry to learn just how morally bankrupt people can be.)

Remember 2008? John McCain ran for president.

Like John Kerry, he was a war hero. When people began to question McCain’s military record, one of his supporters, retired Colonel Bud Day, defended him, guarantying that this would not become another John Kerry event because Kerry was a liar and McCain wasn’t. (For anyone who doesn’t understand begging the question, that’s an example.) It might be noted here that Bud Day had helped to produce the SBVT slander four years earlier, while McCain, to his credit, had condemned the act.

2015. Remember Donald Trump? I choose the verb remember because Mr. Trump will soon drop so far off the political radar screen that we’ll hardly remember him as anything other than an aberration–one whose vitriol and arrogance far exceeded his humanity. Yesterday, more desperate every day for a nomination he will never receive, he declared that John McCain was not, in fact, a war hero.

I guess I should take some pleasure in one Republican throwing another under the military transport, but this is so far beyond the pale that I can’t. I also don’t pretend to know what constitutes a war hero, but I would guess that McCain possesses more of the qualities than Mr. Trump ever did or ever will. I’m not a McCain apologist–his politics sometimes annoy me–but all that does is place him in the same category as every other politico from Caligula to Obama. And I’m long past being shocked that people like Donald Trump exist. I am, however, somewhat surprised at the number of supporters who have yet to jump ship, though the numbers may have increased noticeably today. (Note to Christian conservatives–the life jackets are in the cabinet and it isn’t locked.)

Of course, as I’m writing this, someone somewhere is composing another paean to Mr. Trump’s honesty and courage. I hope that unknown writer includes in his piece the fact that Mussolini made the trains run on time and Hitler provided the impetus for the Volkswagen. Sometimes it’s hard to find saving grace without digging a little…in the mud.

One small pat on the back…that’s it

Sometimes we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back that we fail to grasp the simplest truths.

When we elected Barack Obama in November 2008, we thought we had finally entered the world of nations—a world in which a minority could ascend to the highest office in the land. We trumpeted the end of racism, the beginning of a new era of equal rights.

Equal?

In the thirty-five years since Ronald Reagan took office, the rich have become astoundingly wealthy,  the poor have languished in a society that renders their situation worse every year, and the middle class has struggled to remain an entity at all. The election of one man has not reversed anything. I’d like to think it’s made a dent, but if it has, the dent is pretty hard to discern–and it has come with continuous Republican obstructions. All those pats on the back we gave ourselves seven years ago were probably premature. And if we ever elect a woman president, try to remember that, while it may mean something symbolically, it means nothing to the vast number of Americans trying to make a living.

Fast forward to 2015 and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again we’re congratulating ourselves for an act which, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing. I get that seeing that flag was an affront to many people black and white, and that flying it on public grounds gave it undeserved credibility. But it’s a piece of cloth on a pole. If it’s a symbol, and it is, can we agree that a symbol can, by definition, mean different things to different people? In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter the letter A may signify adultery, but may just as easily symbolize able, or angel, or even ambiguity. And perhaps people whose ancestors were brutalized by Christianity look upon the cross as a symbol of abhorrence and hatred while others view it as the focal point of their lives. So who’s right? And who gets to decide which symbols endure and which ones don’t?

I don’t care if I ever see the Confederate flag again—I’m a white northerner born eighty years after the Civil War and I feel no personal revulsion or admiration for the thing. But that’s me. Others feel differently and, as I said, I get that. But the mania to remove every vestige of it (Walmart won’t sell it? Walmart?) is the result of the same kind of panic that afflicted us after 9/11—the panic that gave us Homeland Security and authorized torture and sent close to 9,000 US and Coalition troops to their deaths between 2003 and today. Impoverished and downtrodden Americans, black and white, southern and northern, face many more dire problems than a flag waving atop some pole or a smaller one held by a racist murderer in a photo. When we can address the real problems of prejudice and poverty in some meaningful way, then we can give ourselves maybe one pat…a small one…and then get back to work.

 

It’s in the water.

My wife and I have been trying very hard to enjoy Grace and Frankie, the new Netflix (I guess you call it a) series about two older men who leave their wives for each other. It’s an interesting premise with a good cast, and it raises many interesting issues about sexual orientation and marriage. The two gay men bickering and the two abandoned wives (presumably they’re straight) are funny…once. After that, it’s just acting and I don’t believe a word of it anymore. If the the script were dangling in front of them, it couldn’t be more obvious that these are not four characters facing a crisis—they’re four actors playing four characters facing a crisis. Comedy requires truth, and if you maintain that this not a comedy but an observation of modern life, then that requires truth also.

I mention this now because Philip Austin died a few days ago. You may not know the name, but to those of us who latched on to the Firesign Theater in the 70’s and never let go, we know Phil Austin. He was a comic genius in a troupe of four of them, producing memorable characters on phonograph records(!) in performances that mimicked everything from old radio broadcasts to on-the-spot news coverage.

Everyone has a different story about “discovering Firesign.” For me it came in 1970. I had just begun teaching high school English—I wasn’t that much older than my students and therefore very hip. One day a student asked me if I listened to Firesign Theater. I was suddenly unhip—I had no idea what he was talking about. He brought in the record and let me take it home where I heard a game show called “Beat the Reaper” and a history of America called “Temporarily Humboldt County” in which Native Americans come out on the short end of the stick and end up as extras in a Hollywood movie providing “Indian” sound effects. Everything was rapid-fire—there was no time for them to revel in their own jokes: another one was right there waiting.

This morning I read the tributes to Mr. Austin on the Firesign website

http://firesigntheatre.com/philaustin/index.html

and laughed almost as hard at them as I did at many of those wondrous skits—Nick Danger,: Third Eye, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, Porgie and Mudhead at More Science High. I first heard the word clone on a Firesign Album and listened intently as daredevil Rebus Knebus (whose last name resembled the popular smoking product in the 70’s) tried to jump his motorcycle into the center of the earth. Firesign poked fun at education, at jingoism, at Madison Avenue, at television, and of course themselves.

In that tribute list are many listeners in their twenties, in a sense a third generation of fans already planning to share Firesign with their own offspring. As for me, forty-five years past that vinyl on my turntable,I have one friend who understands any of my references, but knowing there is such a legion of them makes me feel better. As one of the tributes reads: “We are like members of a secret society without the evil intentions or onerous dues.” When I tell this friend that the Antelope Freeway is only 1/128 mile from here, he actually knows what I’m talking about. As Nick Danger would say, odd but strange.

So rest in peace Phil Austin, and thanks for creating such memorable characters, so many quotable lines, and mostly for the truth you gave us. You and your three partners were, in fact, four guys with scripts in front of you, but we listeners never thought of you that way. To us you were Uh, Clem, and Rocky Rococo, and Audrey Farber (though everyone knew her as Nancy). This afternoon I’ll hoist a Bear Whiz Beer in your honor. It’s the least I can do.

Besides, it’s in the water.

Next time, don’t apologize

A recent statement by Connecticut House minority leader Themis Klarides compared the state’s democrats distancing themselves from the Governor to a “battered spouse support group.” The analogy probably drew an uneasy laugh from a few people, but one who didn’t laugh was Karen Jarmoc, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She decried Klarides’s comment as insulting, citing the number of women facing the threat on a daily basis, adding that some even face the threat of homicide.

So far this is pretty much de rigueur, right?—politician says something questionable, gets called on it, apologizes. End of story.

But sometimes the apology is even better than (worse than?) the original gaffe. In this case, Representative Klarides said she absolutely did not intend to be insensitive, adding, in what has to be the worst clarification on record, “I certainly didn’t intend to diminish domestic violence.”

Well Ms. Klarides, I think we all know what you meant—that you didn’t want to diminish the seriousness or the danger of domestic violence. And I don’t represent the PC police with some sort of gotcha based on an obvious or presumed insult. But politicians—people who make decisions for us—shouldn’t get a pass on something like this. They shouldn’t be able to simply say well you know what I meant.

I’m going to assume that Representative Klarides would in fact prefer to diminish domestic violence, especially since I don’t know of any political party platforms that support it. So I don’t require another apology—none of us does. (Come on though, folks, aren’t you curious about what the next one would be?) But maybe a better alternative to unclear and inaccurate apologies would be diminishing the number of insensitive and thoughtless comments in the first place. I do realize that for many elected officials such a stricture would leave them with nothing to say, but that’s the kind of “diminishment” I’d be willing to support.

Look who’s shooting to improve mental health

Just a note to gun enthusiasts: thank you for your sudden and deep concern for mental health issues in our country. No really. Thank you so much.

It seems that every time someone uses firearms to murder people  (nine in Charleston, twenty-six in Sandy Hook, twelve in Aurora, thirteen in Littleton, etc.) gun enthusiasts express their outrage at the state of mental health in America. I’m pretty sure they don’t do this on a daily basis or implore some big lobbying group like the NRA to fight for better psychiatric care, but whenever someone picks up a gun and goes “crazy” with it, then it’s time once again to deal with “craziness.”

It’s not easy. With over 300 million firearms in civilian ownership in the U.S. and over fifty million guns manufactured or imported and sold in the U.S over the past seven years, it’s impossible to keep anyone, sane or insane, from simply stumbling over one. (see HBO’s Requiem for the Dead for the depressing proof.)

But what if…what if we instituted some sort of prohibitive tax on guns and ammunition, a tax so high that no sane person would pay it. For instance, a pack of cigarettes costs roughly thirty times what it did back in the sixties and now fewer people smoke. Economic hardship can be an effective deterrent. But a gun that cost about $100 in 1970 now costs $500—only five times as much. If it had gone up commensurately with the “dangerous and deadly” cigarettes, one might be paying $3,000 for a handgun, or $21,000 for an AK-47. If you’re willing to spend $21,000 on a gun (and you don’t work for the Defense Department, you’d have to be crazy. If you’re crazy, you can’t have a gun. That would probably mean some rudimentary background checks, but hey, if you’re upset at the “craziness,” that’s a small price to pay.

As for the recent terrorist act in Charleston: I did read the assertion that anyone with a bomb could have done just as much damage. Maybe, but when I look in the vacant eyes of Dylann Roof, I don’t see someone who could have constructed a bomb without blowing himself up, or even found a way to obtain a bomb…without blowing himself up. I do however see someone whose birthday money would have been insufficient to buy a thousand-dollar weapon, and to whom the gun dealer would have said (and should have said) “you’re crazy if you think I’m selling you a gun.”

Some cynics might claim that gun enthusiasts are keeping the mental health of Americans in the forefront to ensure that the real problem keeps getting buried. But you’d have to be crazy to believe that…and if so, sorry—you can’t have a gun either.

 

 

 

Break out the asterisks

The cry among Patriot fans these days, faced with the very real probability that their team cheated their way to the NFL Championship, is that they didn’t need special footballs to beat the hapless Colts.

45-7, they claim. They could have used beachballs!

There may be an element of truth to that boast—New England was a heavy favorite going into that AFC championship game, and the Colts seemed to lag behind their opponents in every statistical category. Fans may have been surprised at the lopsidedness of the score, but nobody was terribly surprised that the Patriots won. I doubt if the Colts themselves were that shocked.

If that’s true, why would a team that seemed destined to win cheat to do so?

The answer is obvious: because they thought they could get away with it.

And why did the NFL postpone any investigation for two weeks until after Super Bowl had passed? That’s just as obvious: same answer.

Let’s face it, 2014-15 was not a stellar season for the National Football League. From Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to the admission that maybe being smacked in the head over and over for ten years might just possibly destroy the brain—last year’s NFL season seemed a constant struggle between the actuality of the league and the public image it tried to convey. What better end to the contentious season than to have Tom Brady, football’s golden boy, lead his team to victory and put a stop to all the extraneous minutiae clogging up the sports pages? (I use the term “golden boy” intentionally—it was once used to describe Paul Hornung a few generations ago. Look up his fall from grace if you’d like.)

As for the fact that the game was a “blowout,” , let’s not forget that football, like basketball and hockey is timed—a team falling behind 17-7 at the half (as the Colts did) knows it has thirty minutes of football to recover. For contrast, a player could lose the first two sets of a five-set tennis match, maybe even the first five games of the third set, yet still win the match. Time doesn’t run out. Three times a baseball team has scored nine runs in its last at bat to win a game. Nobody kept an eye on the clock. But falling behind in football determines the pace and strategy of the second occurred.

Will this be a soon-forgotten blemish on the reputations of Brady and Belichick (already accused of previous chicanery) or will it be an ongoing stigma with which their names will always be associated? From what I’ve seen of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Lance Armstrong, I would hold with the latter. And though football is not so statistics driven as possible, it may be time to open up a big bag of asterisks for Brady and the Pats.

A week ago the partisans of Fenway took Alex Rodriguez to task for sullying baseball’s good name, sending a deafening chorus of boos his way when he came to bat. I hope these strict moralists will greet Tom Brady with the same disapprobation and disdain when he takes the field this fall.