Just who IS listening?

I’m always suspicious when everyone stands four-square against something or, in this case, for it. You have to admit, it’s pretty difficult to find anybody unwilling to dance on Donald Sterling’s grave these days. The Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, banned from the NBA for life for incendiary racist comments, enjoys about the same level of popularity here in America as Osama bin Laden did for the first decade of the century. And his ignominy is well deserved. (Incidentally, don’t think I don’t realize that there are many Americans who share Mr. Sterling’s views but who, in the light of public opinion, have opted for a somewhat lower profile.)

I have no problem with his banishment or his disgrace—to allow him to manage people of any color is a travesty—but I do have a problem with how this came about, as well as how conciliatory the NBA owners had been toward Sterling throughout his twenty-nine year tenure as owner of the team. (He bought the then San Diego Clippers and moved them to Los Angeles in 1984.) During that span he has made no secret of his disparaging views of black people. As recently as 2009 he was sued by former NBA great Elgin Baylor for age and race discrimination, Baylor claiming that the owner ran the team with a “Southern plantation-type structure.” Baylor lost the suit. Sterling continued on as owner. If there was any NBA mortification, it was feeble and muted. That same year Sterling settled a housing-discrimination suit brought by the Justice Department on behalf of African-Americans, Latinos, and families with children. Sterling paid out $2.76 million to settle—there’s no indication that his attitude changed as a result. Nor did the NBA’s.

Now there’s a new commissioner—Adam Silver has replaced David Stern—and the new sheriff in town is patrolling the streets with a little less flexibility. He has banned Sterling for life and pretty much threatened the other owners to follow that lead and force Sterling to sell the Clippers. And if this were some kind of fairy tale, Sterling would admit his flaws, wear the scarlet R around his neck, and sell Oprah his basketball team. (She, apparently, has expressed interest.) But this isn’t a fairy tale, and Donald Sterling doesn’t seem the kind of man to go gently into that good oblivion; and although I can’t abide any of his beliefs, I can agree that, ironically, his rights have been violated. Not civil rights—that would make it more ironic, but his Constitutional rights. In the eyes of that document—yes, the one gun owners are always brandishing—he has a right to express himself in a private conversation, no matter how offensive his words might be. He wasn’t plotting a government overthrow or a terrorist attack—he was just being ignorant. How many of us, in private conversations, have said things we don’t necessarily want to read in the N.Y. Times, or hear repeated by Brian Williams on the NBC Evening News? Don’t bother raising your hands—I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

There is no place for Donald Sterling’s bigotry in a progressive society, one that intends to move forward toward the betterment of everyone’s lives. But I don’t think there’s room for phone dialogues to become public discourse which are then used as philosophical proclamations in order to relieve someone of his position. It’s offensive in its own right; worse, it’s gutless in light of the NBA’s prior knowledge of Sterling’s actions and willingness to turn a blind eye.

I want Sterling gone. I want him to unload the team. I want his attitudes to go away. But I want billion-dollar industries like the NBA to address bigotry because they should, not because a stray conversation leaked to the public made it easier to do so. And I want to feel free to carry on a private conversation, no matter how stupid or politically incorrect, in a country that purportedly guarantees that right.

Not a pastor—not a church

Took a little Internet junket to the Westboro Baptist Church home page recently. In case you’ve forgotten about that little organization (and most of us have) they’re the folks that came to prominence a decade and a half ago when they picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral. And if you’ve forgotten him too, well shame on you: Shepard was the young gay man, a student at the University of Wyoming, who was tortured and murdered in Colorado by two men subsequently arrested, charged, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. At Mr. Shepard’s funeral a contingency from the WBC appeared bearing homophobic signs and other indications of their highly developed intellects. We all know that funerals don’t get picketed that often, mainly because insulting the deceased is usually a waste of breath. But the Westies hadn’t really thought that through; besides, they were more interested in getting their message out. And their message is pretty much summarized in the name of their website—Godhatesfagsdotcom. (I didn’t leave that in link form because I wouldn’t want anyone to go there by mistake—or actually to go there at all.)

It’s probably important to note here that the Westboro Baptist Church is neither baptist nor religious, though their leader, Fred Phelps himself was ordained a Baptist minister in the forties, a decade or so before he founded Westboro and declared himself a Primitive Baptist, someone more in tune with the Calvinists of the seventeenth century than the Baptists of the twentieth. Of course even hinting at that connection is a gross insult to Jonathan Edwards, the Mathers, and other zealots of pre-Revolution America, though anyone who has ever read The Crucible might not agree. The modern zealot Fred Phelps was 84 when he passed away, much to the jubilation of modern thinkers everywhere.

They’re wrong to celebrate.

Anyone who believes that the death of one man will change attitudes is not paying much attention. People like Fred Phelps do not exist in a vacuum from which they send out their baleful ideas in the hopes that someone somewhere will listen. He has plenty of followers who, were there no Fred Phelps, would merely create one. That kind of lunatic fanaticism exists on all sides of the spectrum, but at least men like Fred Phelps gave the rest of us the opportunity to gauge middle ground, to align our own thoughts with what we perceive to be an area of compromise and moderation. Much of our hate-crime legislation is the result of open, often heinous, treatment of people deemed different for whatever reason, and when Fred Phelps sought to make hatred our national pastime, our leaders had little choice but to balk and legislate against it.

Fred Phelps and his followers allowed us a long peek through the window of hatred and intolerance—allowed us to see just how far into degradation and inhumanity bigots could sink. Now that he’s gone we’ll have to keep a sharp lookout for the next Phelps who may not give us as clear a view and who, because of that, may be even more dangerous.

And just a postscript: Cal Thomas, Fox News reporter and syndicated columnist in the Courant, excoriated Phelps in a recent editorial, and did so (don’t wait for it—it’s not a big surprise) without ever mentioning homosexuality or gay-bashing. This is akin to a Boeing exec commenting on 9/11 yet refusing to mention airplanes. Since Mr. Thomas is so certain of Phelps’s repugnant behavior, couldn’t he have taken a few strides away from the ultra-conservative Foxies at least to mention the group that suffered his greatest scorn? Would that slight incursion into humanity really have been such sacrilege?

No, I didn’t mean RECKless

Last weekend John McCain accused the president of carrying on a “feckless foreign policy” that has led Vladimir Putin to have his way with Ukraine and not worry about pissing off the Americans.

It should be noted that he made the statement in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and any time a politician talks to an interest group you have to, almost automatically, dismiss what he says. And his making the statement on the same day the president was supposed to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further impugns his motives. Then there’s that whole Sarah Palin thing…but, as Arlo Guthrie once said, “that’s not what I came to tell you about.”

I want to talk about words. Years back when I was teaching English full time, I always attached a great deal of significance to vocabulary study. I often appended the students’ prescribed word lists with some of my own: Götterdämmerung was a favorite. And apocryphal. Even tsunami way back when the word was more hypothetical than disastrous.I liked the ones that we appropriated from foreign countries and the ones that had fallen into desuetude…like desuetude.

And feckless—a perfectly good word which had spent its entire existence stuck in an expression with youth, much as lunatic has been imprisoned with fringe; foregone with conclusion. As for Feckless, it seems to derive from an old Scottish word, pretty much the same word as our effect. In a sense then, we could define feckless as effectless—it even sounds the same. But more accurately the word implies a lack of character or strength—cowardice in the face of important decisions. To translate that into McCainspeak—it’s the unwillingness to start a war even though we’re overdue for one.

To Senator McCain (whom many in his own party consider too far left…really) manpower and weaponry are the only solution to crises like the current one in Ukraine, even though this essentially mirrors Putin’s approach. And the other day some of the senator’s compadres, patriots all, offered to pitch in and help our feckless president if he promised to get tough with the boldly unfeckless Russian president. Getting tough is the way conservatives do things—they get tough with the immigrants, with the poor, with minorities, with low-income wage earners. So far they haven’t gotten tough with the insurance companies or bankers, but I’m sure those people are on the list. After all, getting tough proves you’re not feckless.

Getting tough also means forgetting certain facts, like seven-thousand American soldiers dead in battle since 2001; close to 120,000 Iraqis, civilian and military—dead; somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 Afghan civilians killed during the first four months of U.S. air strikes. (We’ve been there 150 months.) Numbers sometimes become meaningless, but if you want some perspective, go to the following site:

http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties/index.html?country=iraq

Attaching a name and face to a casualty list makes the avoidance of war seem a lot less feckless, doesn’t it?

John McCain, for all his history of service, has become pretty much a caricature of himself, and under ordinary circumstances I would ignore him just as most others have learned to do. But when he starts rattling that saber in hopes that Russia will respond, and seems to have forgotten about our recent thirteen years of war, well…Götterdämmerung—the twilight if the gods—was one of my words. I’d hate to have to put it to use out of necessity.

 

Merge Ahead

Something really bad is about to happen to us. I guess that’s true most days, but this time it’s not a Democratic debacle or a Republican fiasco or a Tea Party disaster, so you can’t just settle comfortably into your FoxNews or MSNBC niche and await further instructions from Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Although…it is kind of about television, who owns it, and who decides what you watch.

You’ve undoubtedly heard that there’s a merger in the works. Comcast wants to purchase Time-Warner for $40 billion. That’s a four with ten zeros after it—in case you haven’t written this on a deposit slip lately. After said purchase Comcast will control about 30% of the TV market and 40% of Internet access. Now companies don’t spend $40 billion without some certainty that they can eventually make more than that. It’s an investment, and the investment will be financed by the people with shallow pockets—you and me—but there are so many of us that the pockets might as well be…well they might as well be the Mariana Trench.

Even without Time Warner, Comcast has been raising our cable bills unabated for  decades. Lest we think the merger might in some way benefit us, the new giant—which hasn’t even been born yet—has already stated there will no decrease in monthly bills, and won’t even promise any decreases in the rate of increases. Points for honesty, Time-Warner-Comcast. No points for us. And if we’re not offended in our bank accounts, we should be offended in our intellects. A country like ours depends upon the free exchange of ideas, even ideas that most of us find distasteful. House of Cards, for instance, manifests Washington and many of its players in a most abhorrent light. But what if Netflix’s next series exposed similar corruption in the cable TV business, pointed out the huge profits and unconscionable bonuses, brought to light the chicanery, the duplicity, the gouging and monopolizing? How would we get to see that when Comcast decides Netflix will no longer be accessible because of some “price structure” Comcast won’t accept? And what would be the motivation for Netflix even to produce such a series and bite the hand that bites it…but only bites it occasionally?

One way or another, we lose.

And we probably lose even if we all rise up and demand that this merger never take place, but I don’t think we lose as badly. We might at least salvage some of that self-respect we seem willing to give away every time we complain about our cable bill, then quietly pay it. Writing to a legislator is a quaint throwback to a previous century, but this might be a good time to resurrect the practice. It’s your money, and soon enough your intellectual freedom also.

$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.