December 30, 2017

My Movie Project

A couple of months ago, I completed a longstanding project. My goal was to watch every movie on the list of the top 100 American movies compiled by American Film Institute. I was working with the 2007 version of the list, which updates a 1998 list.

AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies
Before I began this project, I had already seen nearly three-quarters of the movies on the AFI list. Most of  the titles I had to find were in the bottom half of the list. Completing the project mostly required my getting DVDs or Blu-ray disks from Netflix. My final movie, Do the Right Thing, was streamed from Amazon. (This turned out to be one of my least enjoyed, by the way.)

Some of my favorite movies were not on the list, as they were not American. (A movie was deemed “American” if it were financed with American money, even if were otherwise “foreign.”) Thus, for example, Truffaut’s Day for Night was not on the list, though it may not have made the list anyway. Neither was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

It is interesting to compare the two lists nearly a decade apart. Certain films moved around on the list, some, both recent and not, were added, and 23 films were dropped. (The Wikipedia article for the first list analyzes differences between the two.) I was surprised that The Birth of a Nation was dropped. For good or ill, it was certainly influential, even though I did not like it. I would like to have seen Doctor Zhivago kept, as well as Fantasia, each of which greatly influenced me personally. My top pick would have been Casablanca, which dropped from second to third place over the decade.

My movie project gave me an excuse to experience some excellent movies I would not have seen otherwise. I now have an increased appreciation of Charlie Chaplin, for example. My concept of the Western was definitely stretched through experiencing Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch. (Watch these at your own risk.) I also saw movies, such as Spartacus, which I should have seen a long time ago.

The movie that was my happiest discovery was F.W. Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The movie straddled the silent and sound eras. There is no spoken dialogue—speech is conveyed through title cards—but there is an original synchronized soundtrack containing music and sound effects. (Sunrise used the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system.) The movie succeeds despite its being a silent picture. It is a touching fable of conjugal love and rural vs. urban tensions. Sunrise won several awards at the first Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Unique and Artistic Picture.

If you are at all interest in cinema, consider a project similar to mine. There are many more worthy movies out there, of course, but the AFI list will help you hold your own in cocktail party conversations as long as the topic of recent movies doesn’t come up. If you are not much of a movie fan and haven’t seen many movies on the list, the project will take a while.

December 21, 2017

More Legislative Reforms

The passage of the Republicans’ tax bill is a complete lesson in how not to create new laws. Nothing about the process that resulted in the passing of this bill can be viewed as desirable, reasonable, or moral. Readers of this blog are likely to accept that as self-evident fact, so I won’t belabor the point.

About three weeks ago, I suggested that Senators and Representatives should actually read the bills on which they vote. (See A Commonsense Legislative Reform.) In this essay, I want to suggest two additional reforms that, though radical, would likely produce better laws and perhaps even better lawmakers.

Reform 1

Every word in a bill should be formally attributed to a particular legislator.

Moreover, if a single word is changed—often a significant matter—that change should be attributed to someone. Crafting a bill is sometimes a committee effort, but someone needs to take responsibility for the words on paper. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to ascribe some text to more than one person, but to attribute it to a large number of legislators would militate against the strict accountability this proposal attempts to create. Voters should know when their representatives are responsible for particular provisions.

This reform is especially aimed at making legislators accountable for last-minute changes to a bill done to help special interests. Such small last-minute changes have a way of sneaking under the legislative radar. The reform would, of course, have more general beneficial effects.

In times past, my suggestion might have been impractical. Computers, however, can hyperlink text in various ways to facilitate this reform.

Reform 2

Each individual provision of a bill should be accompanied by (1) a statement of the issue or problem it purports to address and (2) an explanation of how the particular provision is expected to improve the state of affairs described in the aforementioned statement.

This proposed reform is the more important one. Admittedly, it would be onerous to implement, and it would be useless if the rationales demanded were not required at a very low level. One might go even further, making explicit the overall purpose of a bill and requiring that all provisions address the problems and expected outcomes of the bill generally.

The benefits of this reform are legion. As does my first suggested reform, this one improves accountability. Moreover, it encourages debate about the actual mechanics of a provision, as opposed to mere assertions that one provision is “better” or “worse” than another. It is therefore likely to result in better and more transparent legislation and more edifying debate in the halls of Congress. The required expected outcome provides a standard against which the empirical results of the bill-become-law may be measured. This feedback would encourage the repeal of bad or ineffective laws and the improvement of good or effective ones. Documenting the problems being solved and the mechanisms by which legislation attempts to provide solutions would surely slow down the legislative machinery. Given our recent congressional experience, that would seem not to be a bad thing.


Thomas B. Edsall has provided a depressing analysis of the just-passed tax bill in The New York Times. (See “You Cannot Be Too Cynical About the Republican Tax Bill.”) In it, he points out that some provisions were inserted for the benefit of particular legislators, but, often, one cannot tell this for sure. Additionally, some provisions of the bill have no obvious rationale, and different parts of the bill may actually operate in different directions. My proposals, particularly the second one, assays to head off such anomalies.

Of course, the bill in question was produced by a totally rogue process, and, if Republicans are allowed to get away with this kind of law-making, our democracy is doomed. We can and must do better.

Whither Episode Nine?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster
Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Some have suggested that the Star Wars movies are intended as fairy tales for our times. I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi a few days ago. The ending brought to mind the current state of our two political parties. Think of the First Order as the Trump administration and the Congress, and the Rebel Alliance, whose principals escape with reduced numbers by the skin of their teeth, as the Democrats.

The depressing ending of The Last Jedi raises the question of what will happen in the final ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. It is natural to expect the good guys, downtrodden but not defeated, to triumph in the end. Perhaps a more powerful, relevant, and, at this point, logical, ending would see the final destruction of the Rebel Alliance and the triumph of the First Order.

Will Disney actually forego a happily-ever-after ending?

December 19, 2017

The Tax Bill Cometh

It seems likely that, contrary to all reasonable calculus, the Congress will pass the regressive Republican tax “reform” bill tonight or tomorrow. The cynical interpretation of this is that our legislature is driven completely by self-interest—by the desire to satisfy their donor clients on one hand, and the siren-call of personal financial self-interest, on the other. The most generous interpretation is that our Senators and Representatives are clueless.

What GOP legislators have been saying in interviews is that (1) the tax code is being simplified, (2) the middle class will get a big tax cut, (3) corporations will get a big tax cut, and (4) corporations will repatriate money stashed abroad.

Well, the more than 500-page bill will not simplify taxes. (No doubt, administrative rulings will expand the number of words needed to explain federal taxes.) The middle class, qua class, gets no tax cut. Some will benefit; others will not. Individual tax provisions go away in a few years, in any case. Corporations will indeed get a big tax cut, and there is a bipartisan consensus that a cut is in order, though maybe not a 40% one. No one really knows what will happen to corporate money abroad. (Firms like Apple don’t need the money in the U.S.; they have plenty on hand that isn’t being used.)

Although Republicans mostly avoid saying it, the party has an unshakable, but empirically unsupportable, faith—“belief” is surely the wrong word—in trickle-down economics. Republicans repeatedly tell us that the tax bill will grow the economy, but they fail to explain by what magical process this is supposed to happen. Never have the benefits of reduced taxes really trickled down to those who most need a break. But, of course, history may come out differently this time.

Apparently, large corporations, newly flushed with money, are supposed to invest in new plant, hire more workers, and slash prices, all leading to economic growth and universal happiness.

Yeah, right!

Expectations for tax bill

December 17, 2017

Banned Words

It was reported yesterday that the Trump administration has banned the use of seven words or phrases by the CDC, namely, “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” A secret government-wide banned-word list has not been disclosed before now.

Banned words
Click on image for a larger one

December 11, 2017

On Being a Proud Christian Democrat

The media often act as though “Christian” means “evangelical Christian.” When commentary on current affairs is desired from a Christian perspective, it is more likely than not that reporters will call upon someone from a very conservative Protestant denomination to deliver it. It often seems as though the media, mainstream or otherwise, are oblivious to the existence of more traditional Christian perspectives. When was the last time you heard someone interviewed who claimed to be a “liberal Christian”?

This state of affairs has bothered me for a long time, but two related matters set me off today. First, of course, is the Alabama Senate election that takes place tomorrow pitting Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore. Moore’s strong support among “Christian conservatives” or “white evangelicals” has repeatedly (and properly) been remarked upon. Not much has been heard from Christians who not only do not support Moore but who also reject the sort of Christianity he is known for wearing on his sleeve.

The second thing that upset me today was a discussion on the WAMU program 1A, which is carried by many NPR stations.“What Roy Moore Reveals About The Religious Right” was a conversation among host Joshua Johnson and several self-identified evangelicals. The 1-hour discussion never suggested that there are other Christian perspectives that differ quite substantially from those being expressed.

I believe that evangelical Christians have given Christianity a bad name. Not all Christians read the Bible with mindless literalness, consider abortion murder, believe that the poor reap what they deserve, consider homosexuality a grave sin, and support the Republican Party no matter what it supports or what its members do. Somehow, it is difficult to communicate this fact through the media.

An essay on my modest blog will not change the public perception of Christianity, but I can stake out my own position and make it easier for others on the Web to do the same. This led me to create the graphic below. I realize, of course, that one can be a non-evangelical Christian and still be a Republican, but my picture aims to make as sharp a contrast as possible to Christians who seem joined at the hip to the Republican Party.

For the foreseeable future, my new graphic (see below) will appear on my blog in the right margin. Click on the image below for a larger view and feel free to use it elsewhere to proclaim that you are both Christian and a Democrat.

Staunchly Christian/Proudly Democrat

December 2, 2017

An Atomic Anniversary

On this day, December 2, 1942, 75 years ago, Chicago Pile-1 produced the world’s first artificial self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. CP-1 (see picture below) was built of uranium, graphite, and wood. Control rods, which were intended to prevent a runaway reaction, were fabricated of cadmium. The pile was developed under the direction of physicist Enrico Fermi and was an early part of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program to develop the atomic bomb.

Chicago Pile-1
Chicago Pile-1 (Click on this and the picture below for larger images.)

CP-1 was built under the West Stands of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. By the time I entered the university, CP-1 was long gone. The site is now marked by the massive bronze sculpture “Nuclear Energy” created by English artist Henry Moore.

Nuclear Energy
“Nuclear Energy” by Henry Moore

More information about Chicago Pile-1 can be found on Wikipedia.

It need hardly be said that learning how to create nuclear chain reactions has been a mixed blessing. Its ultimate effect on humanity—indeed on the entire planet—remains to be seen. For now, the concluding words of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body seem appropriate:
If you at last must have a word to say,
Say neither, in their way,
“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”
Nor “It is blest,” but only “It is here.”

December 1, 2017

A Commonsense Legislative Reform

The tax bill nearing passage in the Senate runs to nearly 500 pages and includes text written in nearly indecipherable longhand in the margins. Democratic senators have complained that they have had no time to read the bill. In fact, it is certainly the case that nobody has read the entire bill on which senators are expected to vote.

This reminds me of a legislative reform I have long thought appropriate. It is this:
No legislator should be allowed to vote on a bill unless he or she attests in writing and under oath to having read it all.
This is, I suggest, perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, since senators and representatives have a tenuous relationship with the truth, it would probably be necessary to give legislators a test administered by a non-partisan third party to assure that their attestations are factual.

Lacking such assurance in the present case, I suspect that many GOP senators will regret their votes when they realize what they have foisted upon the American people.

God help us!

Waiting for “Tax Reform”

As I write this, I am waiting to see if there are at least two Republicans in the Senate who will vote against the “tax reform” bill that is a giveaway to the rich and to large corporations. I am not hopeful. Despite the concern of the so-called deficit hawks and the plea for “regular order” from Senator John McCain (who has indicated he will vote for the bill), I expect that the bill will pass in the Senate, perhaps tonight. I pray that it will not, but integrity seems to be in short supply among Republican senators.

It is likely that no senator has read the bill being voted on in its entirety. There have been no hearings where interested parties could express opinions on what should be in a tax bill. There have been no contributions from Democrats. All the independent analyses of the bill say that it will do little to increase GDP and will greatly enlarge the federal deficit. But GOP leaders are marching forward knowing that most voters opposed this bill. The bill is, however, the darling of big Republican donors and the ignorant know-nothings who are Trump’s base.

God help us if this execrable bill passes. That would not make it law, but it would move the process along of writing it into law.

Below is my take on how bills become law in the Age of Trump. It is a sad process. (Feel free to use this graphic elsewhere. Click on it for a larger version.)

How a Bill Becomes a Law: 2017 Edition

November 25, 2017

Support Our …

It has become commonplace for politicians to talk of “supporting our troops.” My own church even prays each week for “those in the armed forces and uniformed services,” presumably our own. Additionally, people have been encouraged to say “thank you for your service” when encountering someone in uniform. (This was said to me for the first time the other day while I was claiming a 10% month-of-November discount at a local restaurant. I protested that I had only been an Army bandsman.)

It isn’t really clear what “support” means or whether ordinary civilians have concrete ways of effecting it. Most of us are not sending care packages of cookies to soldiers or performing for the troops with the USO, though some people do provide monetary support to organizations that help wounded veterans.

I don’t know exactly when we began talking so much about supporting our troops. During World War II, when our troops were truly defending our nation to the death, we supported the war effort by buying bonds, displaying stars in our windows for the fallen, and going without so our troops could have what they needed to fight. Supporting our troops was not so much a slogan as a way of life.

I suspect that the Vietnam War had much to do with the popularity of expressing explicit support for our troops, as the conventional wisdom asserts that we showed disdain for soldiers as pot smokers and baby killers during that war. An unpopular war, somewhat unfairly, made our fighters unpopular as well.

Speaking of supporting our troops focuses attention on those who fight because they are ordered to do so and diverts attention from the policies that cause those orders to be delivered. It also assuages any guilt we may feel resulting from the fact that few us actually serve in the military. All this serves the purposes of politicians.

President Trump seems to have a love-hate relationship with our military, calling it inadequate and its leaders incompetent in one minute and confidently threatening to use it to destroy other nations in the next. In the end, though, the military, to our president, is a major tool of foreign power to back up his own bluster and intimidation. Trump wants billions of dollars more for the military, while his secretary of state, the inexperienced Rex Tillerson, asks less for the State Department, which he is rapidly depleting of its diplomatic resources.

Neither Trump nor Tillerson seems to understand or appreciate diplomacy. This administration seems to have disdain for diplomacy unless it is carried out by its principals. After all, it has the military as backup for any diplomatic failures.

Americans are growing tired of our ever-expanding wars, however, and wondering if our troops are truly engaged in protecting our nation. Why, for example, are we in Afghanistan, where we are in the middle of an apparently unwinnable civil war? What does it mean to support our troops in Afghanistan?

At a time when the world seems increasingly dangerous, why does our government have so little regard for negotiation? Why, for example, does our president insult and attempt to bully Kim Jong-un and effectively refuse to talk with North Korea? Saying that we won’t negotiate with North Korea until that nation does what we want from it gives Kim little incentive to come to the bargaining table.

We should certainly appreciate the sacrifices and made by our troops, but using our military is always a sign that diplomacy has somehow failed. As we watch this administration slowly destroy our diplomatic capabilities, we are more likely to call upon our troops in desperation.

Trump sold himself as a consummate negotiator. In fact, he is a consummate con man and bully whose fatal flaw is his susceptibility to flattery. Trump needs a more realistic evaluation of his negotiating skills, along with a willingness to avail himself of what expertise may be left in the State Department.

Given current circumstances, we should be talking less about supporting our troops and more about supporting, enhancing, and appreciating our diplomatic corps. The Web should contain more graphics like the following:


Feel free to use it elsewhere. Click on it for a larger version.

November 21, 2017

Are North Koreans Terrorists?

President Trump has returned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See New York Times story here.) From any other president, this would seem an odd move. From this president, it’s par for the course.

Mr. Trump is obsessed with North Korea and frustrated with his seeming inability to affect that nation’s course of weapons development. Severe sanctions have been applied to North Korea to no conspicuous effect. Even China has been coöperated in this project, despite concerns that a collapse of the Kim regime would flood China with refugees and put an American ally on its doorstep. What more can the U.S. do?

The answer is not much. But officially labeling North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism allows the president to imagine that he is doing something significant.

DPRK flag
He is not. Not only will the designation have little effect North Korea’s ability to function, but the president’s action degrades the significance of the terrorism list itself. At least as far as the public knows, North Korea has done nothing in years that can be called terrorism. The administration cites the assassination of political enemies on foreign soil and the development of weapons of mass destruction. These are not acts of terrorism, which are acts designed to terrorize a population. If what North Korea has done are acts of terrorism,  the United States is also a state sponsor of terrorism. The CIA has carried out assassinations; President Trump himself has as much as threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea.

Mr. Trump had no reason to label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. He was simply running out of insults to heap on the Kim regime and thought branding North Koreans terrorists was a clever next step. He thereby has called into question whether the designation of North Korea (or any nation) as a state sponsor of terrorism means anything at all.

November 9, 2017

Diocesan Convention Ignores the Needs of the Handicapped

It’s convention time again for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. I have been attending these annual events every year since 2002. The diocese’s 152nd annual convention will be held tomorrow and Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. I'm not looking forward to it.

Diocesan seal
The venue (or venues) for the annual convention varies from year to year, and some facilities work better than others. When since-deposed Bob Duncan was the bishop, at least in the later years of his tenure, the location of the convention was apparently chosen from among churches whose congregations were sympathetic to his theological proclivities. Such preferences led to meetings in churches that were ill-suited to hosting a convention.

Happily, since the departure of Bishop Duncan and his sympathizers, the annual convention has been held in churches that, in large measure, are suited to the purpose to which they are being put. The last five conventions have been held either at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh or at my former church, St. Paul’s, in Mt. Lebanon.

Which brings us to this year’s convention. The last diocesan gathering to be held in North Hills was that of 2011. I have certain negative associations with that church, as I broke a laptop screen at that convention due to my own stupidity, but the church is not responsible for that. However, Christ Church used its basement as well as its worship space. Most notably, the Friday night meal was held in the basement. I was attending with someone who was wheelchair-bound. Although the church proper is handicap accessible, a person in a wheelchair cannot reach the basement from within the building. Access to the basement is provided by a door that opens to the parking lot. An exceedingly steep temporary ramp placed over a series of steps leads down to basement level. Transit over this ramp in a wheelchair is best described as scary as hell.

In the six years since the convention was last held at Christ Church, one might have imagined that either the church would have provided more appropriate access to the basement or the convention would be staged elsewhere. I was told that the church is running a capital campaign which, I assume, will rectify a serious access issue, but the issue remains for this convention.

Why is our church not more sensitive to the needs of the handicapped? The convention need not have been held at Christ Church. I suspect that the fact that the rector of Christ Church is Secretary of Convention and responsible for much of its planning is not unrelated to this year’s choice of venue. That is a poor excuse for making attendance at the convention so difficult for the handicapped.

The 152nd convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh should have been held elsewhere.

Update, 11/12/2017. Convention at Christ Church, North Hills, was even worse than expected for the handicapped. Some of the breakout rooms were totally inaccessible to persons with mobility problems. Displays, refreshments, and box lunches were in the basement (undercroft) reached by temporary ramps. The ramps were solidly built but were nonetheless inadequate. To reach the basement, one had to negotiate two ramps placed over sets of stairs. The ramp from the parking lot to the first landing was outrageously steep and could not be negotiated by someone in a wheelchair without help. Going up alone would simply be impossible—this required two strong helpers—and going down alone could only be done if one had a strong death wish. The second ramp, from the landing to the basement itself, was gentler, if not ADA compliant. It included a surprise at the lower end. A wheelchair invariably ran into a post at the end of a ramp if the notch at the bottom of the ramp was encountered unexpected. My wheelchair-bound friend vowed never to set foot (or wheelchair) in Christ Church again.

The pictures below will make clear how difficult entry was.

Ramp from parking lot
Steep ramp from parking lot to landing

Ramp to basement
Ramp from landing to basement, which necessitates a 90° turn

Sign above long ramp
Sign above ramp to basement (where I hit my head only once)

Bottom of ramp to basement
Notch at bottom of ramp to basement guaranteed to snag a wheelchair wheel

October 18, 2017

The Vietnam War in Four Pictures

Like many Americans, I watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Many have commented on the PBS program, so I won’t try to evaluate it here. Instead, I offer some very personal observations.

I lived through all of America’s involvement in Vietnam, so much of what I saw was familiar. Like any good documentary, The Vietnam War clarified chronology and, to a degree, motivations. I didn’t learn a lot, but there were revelatory moments. I didn’t know how much we had helped the French. I didn’t know that Lyndon Johnson knew before the election that Richard Nixon had discouraged Vietnam from participating in peace talks. I didn’t know much about post-war Vietnam. I was happy to have watched The Vietnam War, but I felt like I was getting my life back when it was over, having been relieved of so much obligatory TV viewing.

A few turning points in the Vietnam War are particularly memorable—Walter Cronkite’s commentary on the futility of the conflict, Lyndon Johnson’s pulling out of the presidential race—but the war, for me, was really captured in four photographs. Those photographs do not summarize the war or present a coherent or chronological picture of it, but they stick in my mind and tell compelling stories. (Click on photos for larger images.)

Execution on Saigon street
Eddie Adams, The Associated Press
This picture was taken by Eddie Adams in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the second day of North Vietnam’s Tet offensive. It captures the summary execution of ­Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnam police. Adams had not anticipated that Loan would pull out his .38-caliber pistol and shoot Lém through the head. Lém was a Vietcong prisoner who allegedly had led a squad of Vietcong that had killed the family of a friend of Loan’s. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize, emphasized the brutality and lawlessness of the Vietnam conflict.

Kent State shooting
John Paul Filo
This photograph was disturbing is a way that not even pictures of the war itself were. It was not taken in Saigon, but in Kent, Ohio, by photojournalist student John Paul Filo. The date was May 4, 1970. National Guard troops had been called to the campus of Kent State University, site of student protests against the Vietnam War. Ostensibly, the troops were there to disperse protesters. It is unclear why they carried loaded rifles and even less clear why they fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding 9. Filo’s photo shows 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the slain 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. This photo, cropped and edited—the fence post over Vecchio’s head was removed—also won a Pulitzer Prize. John Filo brought the increasingly unpopular war home to the United States and raised questions of free speech and assembly under the Nixon administration.

Napalm attack victims
Nick Ut, The Associated Press
 On June 8, 1972, a Vietnam Air Force plan dropped napalm on a group of Vietnam civilians and soldiers mistakenly assumed to be enemy combatants. Nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc was among the victims of this attack. She tore off her burning clothes and was photographed running naked by Nick Ut, who took her and other injured children to a Saigon hospital. Kim Phúc survived, and her picture is seared in the minds of all who have seen it. A cropped version of this photo ran on the front page of The New York Times and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture illustrates the horrors of war and, especially, the ghastliness of the use of napalm. (I feel a special connection to this photograph, having written a poem about an adult Kim Phúc,)

Saigon evacuation
Hugh van Es, Bettmann/Corbis
 Long before anyone in the government was willing to admit it, it was clear that the United States and South Vietnam could not win the war in Vietnam. The U.S. turned the war over to the South Vietnamese not really believing that the South could hold against the North. The situation was even worse than we believed, however, and the U.S. embassy was caught off guard when, on April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers were about to overrun Saigon. A chaotic evacuation of the embassy and of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans was quickly arranged. The above photograph shows an Air America (i.e., CIA) helicopter taking evacuees to safety on waiting American ships. An expensive, ill-conceived, and insincere war had come to an end, but other such wars would follow.

Are these the photographs you remember from the Vietnam War?

Clueless Comcast Technical Support

People seem to love to complain about their cable company. Admittedly, cable service seems universally too expensive, a fact that is causing many to abandon cable for other sources of entertainment media. Price aside, however, I have been very satisfied with the functionality of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 platform, which provides both my cable TV and Internet service. Additionally, I have been generally satisfied with Comcast’s technical support. In my experience, telephone technical support has been provided by savvy technicians who are knowledgeable and patient. In-home service technicians have gone the extra mile to assure that my service was up to par.

Either I had an uncharacteristically bad experience last night or Comcast has decided that providing excellent telephone support isn’t important enough to justify its cost.

I am a fan both of baseball and of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Particularly during the fall playoffs, this presents a dilemma. Last night, for example, the Dodgers-Cubs game began at the same time as Rachel Maddow. My DVR is set to record all the Maddow shows, giving me the option to watch at a later time (often the next day). What I planned to do last night, however, was what I have often done when Pirates games conflict with my favorite political show, namely, watch the game on the television without sound while watching Maddow on my phone or tablet. Last night, I got error messages on my phone and tablet when I tried to access the Maddow Show. I also had this problem the night before as well and had simply put up with it. (I viewed Maddow after the game.) I had encountered this problem some time ago and remember a technician walking me through a fix. Unfortunately, I had forgotten what the fix was, so I called Comcast to solve my problem.

Things went badly from the beginning. In the past, it was reasonably easy to get connected to a technical support person. Last night, however, I was immediately connected to someone who spoke barely intelligible English and who didn’t seem to understand my problem. I asked where he was and was told that he was in the Philippines. We didn’t communicate well, and, without my requesting it, he soon connected me to a woman who seemed to be an American.

After listening to a description of my problem, this next person put me on hold for a while. When she returned several minutes later, she assured me that the problem was an outage in my area that had begun that morning. I asked if the error code I had received indicated an outage and what the nature of the outage might be, since my TV and Internet services were working fine and had been all day. I received no satisfactory answers to my questions and asked to talk to a supervisor.

It took a few more minutes to speak to a supervisor, who, I was told, was helping another customer. After yet another explanation of my problem, I was told that, in fact, the system would not allow me to do what I was trying to do. I could not watch a program on my tablet that was currently being recorded on my DVR; I had to wait until the entire program had been recorded. (Meanwhile, I was missing Maddow and the baseball game, as the telephone call was requiring all my attention.) I protested that what I “couldn’t do” was something I had done many times before. My protestations that I most certainly could do what I wanted to do fell on deaf ears. The supervisor seemed as technically clueless as the last two Comcast employees I has spoken to. At this point, I gave up and said that, no, the supervisor couldn’t help me with anything else.

I looked forward to the telephone quality survey in which I had agreed to participate at the beginning of my call. When I received the automated call-back, I, sadly, was asked only two questions: Was I the person who had called for support? How would I rate the service on a scale from 1 to 5? The answers were, of course, yes and 1.

After my DVR finished recording The Rachel Maddow Show, I again tried to view the recording on my tablet. I received the same error message. About 20 minutes later, however,  I was able to begin viewing my recording on my tablet. However, about 40 minutes in, the recording repeatedly reverted to a position about a minute earlier. I had never seen this behavior before. I finished watching the Maddow recording on my television.

I decided to document the fact that the supervisor didn’t know what she was talking about. I arbitrarily chose an in-process program to record. The program was Ink Master: Angles (whatever that is) on Spike. After a couple of minutes, I brought up the recording on my phone. I then took the pictures below of my phone and TV.

TV and phone screens showing that program is being streamed
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles is being recorded (indicated by the red bar under
the top left image) and being streamed on the telephone.

TV and Phone Screens Showing Same Program
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles on TV screen and being streamed on the telephone.
(TV and streamed content are never perfectly synchronized.)

Clearly, Comcast technical support is clueless and needs to be improved. The people I spoke to last night seemed to be consulting documentation of some sort in an attempt to respond to my problem; they didn’t appear to understand what was happening or what was possible. The next time I call Comcast, I hope I get one of the technical people who knows what he or she is talking about.

October 3, 2017

Post-season MLB Games Begin

Tonight, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play a single game to see which team will be given a chance eventually to play in Major League Baseball’s World Season.  MLB’s regular 162-game season—i.e., a season of 162 games for each MLB team—is complete, and the most successful teams now advance to what is being called the Postseason.

MLB logo for the “Postseason”
As I wrote on my Web site seven years ago, “Postseason,” as a noun, is a horrible neologism. (See “Postseason.”) There is no season having to do with posts. The playoffs that begin tonight would better be designated the MLB “Playoffs” or “Championships” Perhaps “World Series Tournament” would be a good name.

Read the essay on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago and see what you think.

September 25, 2017

Thoughts on North Korea

I had been planning to write an essay explaining why President Trump’s approach to a nuclear-armed North Korea is flawed. But the increasingly hostile rhetoric from both Trump and Supreme Leader Kim requires a special warning and an immediate call to action.

Even if he had the capability to do so, it is unlikely that Kim would try to strike Guam or the mainland U.S. without actual military provocation. Retaliation for such a move would be (and would properly be) swift and decisive. The threat to explode a nuclear weapon in the Pacific Ocean seems less threatening and, therefore, more likely. The threat is real and significant. Korea has no island in the Pacific to use as a target, so the apparent threat is to explode a bomb over water. As Trump has observed, this would create a poisonous fallout cloud that the world has not seen in decades. But would it not, depending upon the circumstances of the detonation, also create a more immediately lethal tsunami? The threat from such a wave would be widespread, endangering not only parts of the U.S., but other Pacific Rim countries, most notably Japan, as well. We cannot let this happen.

Since effecting a brain transplant for our brainless president is impossible, I suggest that Congressional action is called for. Like it or not, we have to live with a nuclear-armed DPRK that possesses ICBMs for the foreseeable future. Kim sees his arsenal as the guarantor of his and his country’s survival. This view is clearly correct, except possibly when the White House is occupied by a madman like Donald Trump.

Congress should pass a law on a bipartisan, veto-proof basis, to the effect that:

  1. The U.S. will not attack North Korea or attempt to change its government unless it or an ally (notably South Korea) is attacked by North Korea; and
  2. No hostile action may be taken by our military against North Korea without a formal declaration of war by the Congress.
Obviously, Trump would not like to see such a bill passed. He might even change his behavior toward North Korea to forestall its passage. If not, such a law would provide North Korea with the guarantee of safety we should be delivering diplomatically, rather than threatening the country gratuitously. 

September 24, 2017

Amnesty Never

It is understandable that people of goodwill can differ on immigration policy. Our national immigration policy has been inconsistent over the years and has been racist as often as not. It is a rational fear that, if the U.S. literally welcomed all comers, we would be overrun, if not by scoundrels, at least by numbers. But draconian restrictions favored by President Trump are clearly excessive. Honestly, though, were I given the task of devising an immigration policy, I hardly would know where to begin.

It is a no-brainer, however, that a good place to start would be consideration of the status of people brought to this country as children by adults responsible for their care. Even in cases where such children may have had some influence over their immigration, they surely cannot be held responsible for it. Children brought here very young have grown to adulthood in America and may have no memory of their putative homeland and little or no facility in its language. These people are culturally American, even if they are not legally American.

President Obama’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) provided some modicum of regularization of the status of children brought illegally to this country, but it failed to relieve their well-founded anxieties or to provide concrete hope of ever become full citizens of the United States of America.

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump’s termination of DACA ultimately will work to the benefit of those the program sought to help or whether it will result in shipping its former beneficiaries off to alien domains. Absent favorable court decisions, the fate of so-called Dreamers is in the (not so capable) hands of the Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed interest in saving Dreamers from deportation, but, since anything that can be called amnesty is anathema to the GOP’s ultraconservative base, Dreamers can hardly be sanguine about their continued residence in America, much less their prospects for actual naturalization.

Fundamentally, the Dreamers are as American as any of us. They don’t deserve deportation, and they don’t deserve any kind of amnesty. What they deserve is citizenship, and they deserve it now. Members of Congress, are you paying attention?

September 19, 2017

Impressions of Donald Trump’s Speech to the U.N.

I watched President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly this morning. I would like to offer a few observations of his performance. By no means is this intended to be a full-blown analysis of the speech. I only want to mention a few things that stood out for me. I’m sure that much analysis will be forthcoming from others in the next 24 hours.

First, I must say that Trump is annoying to watch. He is incapable of adjusting his delivery style to the circumstances of a given speech. He addressed the U.N. in the same fashion as he addresses his rallies. His delivery is always a barely controlled scream that, perhaps except for his most ardent supporters, is hard to listen to. Watching Trump before the General Assembly reminded me, for whatever reason, of Fidel Castro’s addressing the body.

Trump speaking to the U.N.
Trump in a rare two-hand mode
Happily, Trump read from teleprompters and avoided—I sure he was warned to avoid at all costs—his notorious ad libs. His habit of driving home a point through repetition of a word or phrase, or his habit of interjecting his unfiltered innermost thoughts that seem to step all over his message was inappropriate before the General Assembly.

Unfortunately, his use of teleprompters has an annoying side effect. The president looks back and forth to read his text, never looking toward the people directly in front of him. Moreover, when he reads from the left screen, his left hand, with open palm, moves up and down like an American maneki-neko. When he reads from the right, his left hand disappears and his right hand does his little Japanese wave. I suspect that Trump would be struck mute were his hands in cuffs behind his back.

Trump attacked numerous countries by name, some—Cuba for instance—rather gratuitously, I thought. Under the circumstances, one might have expected an American president to say a few negative words about the Russian Federation’s behavior, particularly as regards our most recent national election. One would have been disappointed. At least Trump avoided saying what a great leader Vladimir Putin is!

For the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he saved his biggest insult and most frightening threat. He referred to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” This was, no doubt, intended as an insult and was a shocking departure from what one normally expects in diplomatic discourse. On the other hand, I am not altogether certain that Kim would dislike the sobriquet. (Actually, he might prefer “Nuke Man!”) More worrisome than what seemed a violation of good manners was Trump’s suggestion that, to protect the U.S. or its allies, the president might have “no choice” but to “totally destroy North Korea.” I don’t know if this scared Kim, but it certainly had me thinking about fallout shelters and life after the apocalypse. Someone needs to give this man a shot of testosterone blocker!

Another primary target of our fearless leader was, not surprisingly, Iran. As he has so often, he criticized the Iran nuclear agreement as a terrible deal and intimated that he might withdraw the United States from it. This is problematic, since the agreement is multilateral, not bilateral. Nevertheless, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sitting in the General Assembly, was nodding his head in approval. The reality is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. An agreement involving both nuclear weapon and missile development might have been a more desirable one, but repressing Iranian nuclear weapon development is nevertheless a very good thing in and of itself. Trump spoke instead as though he believes that the current agreement enhances Iran’s prospects for getting the bomb. The agreement does not run forever, but, for now, it seems like a good thing to everyone except Trump and Netanyahu.

For me, the most surprising part of Trump’s speech concerned refugees. It seems that the president has found a way to justify his unwillingness to bring Middle East refugees to this country. It is expensive, he asserted, to resettle refugees in the United States. The money we might spend in resettlement would go further settling refugees closer to where they used to live. Ah, such a charitable man!

Trump made his usual complaints about trade agreements, suggesting that they are invariably not in our own interest. I need hardly say more about this.

The speech was more laundry list than focused address, perhaps because many hands had a part in preparing it. If one were to search for an overall theme, what would be found is a somewhat schizophrenic one: countries should all work together for a better world, but each country should put its own interests first. This seems more about justifying Trump’s own America-first philosophy. It sounds like a plan for us all to retreat into our secure corners and have as little to do with one another as possible. This is not the world I want.

Presidential speeches to the General Assembly are, at their very best, inspiring. President Trump’s speech was anything but that. It was, however, supremely frightening.

September 14, 2017

Baseball Rule Changes for Good or Ill

As the baseball season winds down, I think it a good time to offer some thoughts on aspects of the game.

Baseball diamondThe basic rules of baseball have remained unchanged for nearly a century. Parks have changed shape and size, but the location of outfield fences has never been standard. The height of the mound has been adjusted, but, from a fan perspective, this has hardly been noticeable; pitchers and hitters adjust.

What recent changes there have been have been a mixed bag. Rules intended to avoid injury-producing collisions at second base and home plate, while somewhat annoying, address fairness and (especially) safety concerns. (The NFL should be so concerned about safety.) It is difficult to make a conscientious argument that player safety should be sacrificed for more dramatic player collisions.

The most conspicuous addition to the major league game is the video review of disputed plays. Such an innovation could only be possible when all games are covered by multiple television cameras. The use of replays is frankly irritating, as reviews interrupt the continuity of the game. On the other hand, they largely make the game fairer. I have always been annoyed, for instance, by out calls at second base as part of a double play when the defensive player at second—the shortstop or secondbaseman—is only in the “neighborhood” of the base. (That is, the runner from first has technically not been put out at second but is called out anyway through a kind of gentlemen’s agreement.) The very existence of replays has largely eliminated this unfair stretching of the rules. On the other hand, the ability of one team to lose the right to demand a replay has the potential to allow bad calls to stand. I must grugingly—very grugingly—concede that video reviews have, on the whole, been a good thing.

Of course, the majority of umpire errors involve the calling of balls and strikes, a fact made obvious by the electronic magic employed frequently in televised games. Should balls and strikes be called by electronics, while the home plate umpire’s duties are limited to evaluating swings and misses and defensive plays at the plate? Perhaps, but this might be a step too far from tradition. In any case, allowing video replays of balls and strikes would be a huge departure from tradition and would lengthen games considerably. Nonetheless, it is infuriating when the home plate umpire calls a ball a strike or vice versa. In defense of umpires, however, it must be said that the man behind both the plate and the catcher has a less than perfect view of the plate.

Umpires are human, and they make mistakes. Actually, they make fewer than anyone has a right to expect. In the old days, we simply assumed that their mistakes would even out and not favor one team or the other. There have been some egregious bad calls by umpires, however, and it is probably best that we have a mechanism by which such mistakes can be averted.

The real impetus for this essay is the 2017 rule allowing a batter to be walked merely by declaring the intention that it be so. This new rule is, I think, a bridge too far. Presumably, it is intended to shorten games. (Baseball owners have become concerned with the length of games, which has been increasing of late. Recent rule changes have sought to speed things up, by requiring that a decision to review a play be made within 30 seconds, for example. Frankly, I’ve always felt that a longer game, and particularly an extra-innings game, gives me more entertainment for my money. Apparently, this view is not universal.)

There are a number of reasons to object to no-pitch intentional walks. First, tradition should not be thrown overboard without good reason, and there are, I assert, no good reasons for the new rule. It will not substantially shorten games. Intentional walks are infrequent, and speeding up an occasional game by a minute or two will make no real difference to anyone.

More significant is the fact that the new means of walking a batter relieves the pitcher of throwing four additional pitches. In an era when managers seldom allow pitchers to throw more than 100 pitches in a game, the new rule can have an effect on when a starting pitcher is replaced by a reliever. Realistically, even a soft pitch thrown to complete an intentional walk takes something out of the man on the mound.

Although I have not seen it done in a major league game, I have seen a batter hit a ball while the battery was attempting to walk him. This takes a good reach, but it can be done. The new rule precludes using this unorthodox move. Likewise, a runner on second could conceivably attempt to steal third while an intentional walk is being effected.

Although walking a batter in the conventional manner hardly requires extraordinary skills of pitcher and catcher, it is always possible that a wild pitch or passed ball could allow a runner to advance or even score. Such a surprising and exciting development is not possible if a walk is simply declared.

Finally, I object to the new walk rule as a fan. I was watching a game the other day and took my eyes off the television for just a moment. Suddenly, the batter was on first base. What happened? What did I miss? It was very disconcerting.

Next, I would like to propose a new rule. Bats are shattering with increasing frequency these days. Parts of bats fly off in all directions, endangering both players and fans. Surely nothing is more distressing to a fan than seeing a bat flying in his or her direction (unless, of course, it is being turned around and not seeing a bat flying at your head). The reason this is happening is that, over the years, players have ordered bats with increasingly slender handles. I personally own a bat with a chubby handle and one with a thin handle, and I can tell you that wielding the thin-handled bat is a lot more fun and can result in lots more bat speed. However, the thinner the handle, the more likely the bat is to shatter at the plate.

Hitters like thin-handled bats because they can be whipped around quickly. If the bat splits, the result is often a bloop single. On the other hand—and this is likely not widely appreciated—if a bat breaks, much of the energy that would otherwise go into powering the ball on its way is instead channeled into fracturing and propelling part of the bat. That bloop single could have been a double or even a home run.

My proposal, then, is that bats, whose weight, length, and maximum diameter are already limited, should have their minimum diameter prescribed as well. I don’t know precisely what the measurement should be or whether it should be a function of the type of wood from which the bat is fashioned. Scientific investigation should be able to set minimum diameters for bats that will minimize turning bats into dangerous missiles. (Please don’t anyone suggest that major league baseball should use metal bats!) MLB, are you paying attention?

Finally, I must comment on the designated hitter rule, that abominable newfangled rule that disqualifies the American League from being able to claim that its teams play true baseball. Baseball owners seem to think that a ballgame isn’t exciting unless there is a lot of hitting, particularly home-run hitting. This simply isn’t true, although the spectators who have become addicted to the gladiatorial fight that is football may indeed be bored by well-pitched, low-scoring games. The true baseball fan, I think, is not.

One of the most exciting baseball games I have ever seen was played this past August 23. The Pittsburgh Pirates bested the Los Angeles Dodgers 1–0 in 10 innings. Dodger pitcher Rich Hill was pitching a perfect game through 8 innings. Pirate pitcher Trevor Williams, for the same 8 innings, pitched out of a number of jams while keeping the opposition scoreless. In the top of the ninth, the perfect game was ruined, not by Hill, but by third baseman Logan Forsythe, who misplayed a routine ground ball and allowed Jordy Mercer to reach first. Nonetheless, the no-hitter went into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Josh Harrison hit a home run to win the game for the home team. The Dodgers had 8 hits and one error. The Pirates had one hit and no errors.

That game may not be direct evidence against the designated hitter, but it certainly supports the notion that a game can be exciting despite few runs being scored and lots of hits being made by both teams.

The designated hitter rule is predicated upon the assumption that pitchers, who play much less frequently than position players and who concentrate on pitching rather than hitting skills, are, in fact, poor hitters. This is generally true, though not tautologically so. (Babe Ruth would have been a famous pitcher had he not been such a spectacular hitter that he needed to be played every day!) The American League says don’t let the pitcher bat; put in a non-defensive player who can hit in place of the pitcher. Although this results in more hits in a game, it eliminates a good deal of managerial strategy, thereby making the game less interesting. There are fewer sacrifice bunts and no need to remove a pitcher from the game for a pinch hitter. Managers have an easier job in the American League, but the game is thereby impoverished.

It is my fervent prayer that the designated hitter never comes to the National League and that the American League will eventually come to its senses and play real baseball again. Meanwhile, I am happy that the Pittsburgh Pirates play in the National League.

September 11, 2017

A Poem for September 11

I wrote the poem below on September 27, 2001. It is one of several poems I wrote in response to the attacks of September 11. This poem resulted from my asking the question I’m sure many Americans asked themselves: What was it like to be in the World Trade Center towers on that fateful day? The poem, along with commentary, can also be found on my Web site here.

Falling from the Sky

by Lionel Deimel

My mind rejected the truth it knew when the first tower fell.
Expecting the second collapse, it rejected that reality also.
How many lives had I just seen truncated?
What was it like?
How had they died?

What became of those who telephoned at once to say they were all right but who were never heard from again?
What happened to those on lower floors who waited too long to become alarmed?
Did they know what was happening?
What did they hear?
What did they smell?

Was immolation by jet fuel worse than the fire felt by Joan of Arc?
Those who jumped must certainly have thought so.
The air was fresh,
And one could fly,
At least for a moment.

The second plane penetrated the wall like a heavy object dropped onto a cake.
Was anyone staring out the window as it became larger and larger?
Could they see into the cockpit?
Was the pilot smiling?
Was he serene?

The lucky ones died instantly of trauma,
Hearing only a loud crash before being overtaken by a dark, eternal silence.
Were they spared fear?
Did they gasp?
Did they pray?

Stairwells were filled with smoke and water and people,
Their downward journey slowed by the firefighters and hoses on their way up.
How many almost made it out?
How many fell?
How many gave up?

As steel buckled and failed under assault from the terrible fire,
Was it worse to be above, as the floor slipped away, or below?
Did people understand the meaning of that monstrous roar?
Did time stop?
Did they go mad?

As the end came, space was no longer filled with air but became a maelstrom of angry particles
Fired from millions of machine guns pointed in every direction.
Could any bodies even remain whole?
Was there pain?
Was God there?

Remembering September 11th

September 6, 2017

I Support DACA

I am continuing my postcard campaign of lobbying my senators and representative in Washington. (See “Beginning My Postcard Campaign.”) I am now into my second batch of postcards purchased at the Indiana post office.

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that it was ending the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. This decision is a mean-spirited attack on innocents aimed at fulfilling a campaign promise of which Trump’s base, though not the American people generally, is especially fond. (His base, of course, is indeed base. But I digress.)

Yesterday, I wrote postcards to Senators Toomey and Casey, as well as to Congressman Schuster. (Casey is the lone Democrat of the bunch.) Here is what I said:
Now that President Trump has cowardly foisted on Congress the job of doing something about DACA, Congress should act on the matter before taking up other legislation. We should grant citizenship immediately to current people covered by DACA who are 21 or older and have no criminal record. Moreover, the program should be continued with a similar grant of citizenship once participants reach 21. As Baby Boomers retire, we need these DACA people to assure an adequate workforce.

Show that Americans believe in justice, mercy, and enlightened self-interest, not simply in the rule of law.
In announcing the demise of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the program unconstitutional and asserted the importance of the rule of law in the United States. The constitutionality of the program can only be tested in the courts, and many legal authorities disagree with Sessions’ analysis. Anyway, as I suggested in my missive, legality is not the only matter at issue here.

I was unable to say everything one could say in support of the Dreamers (immigrants for which DACA was engineered). I’m sending postcards for God’s sake!

I Support DACA
Show your support by clicking here.
My guess is that my opinion will have little influence. Congress likely will take up the fate of Dreamers in just under six months from now. Will it save the hundreds of thousands of people who are Americans in every way save the technicality of not having American citizenship? Or will those people be exiled to countries whose culture is completely alien to them? Personally, I’m placing no bets.

September 4, 2017

Additional Labor Day Thoughts

1956 Labor Day stamp

The stamp shown above was issued in 1956. I have used it to illustrate my Labor Day poem “A Labor Day Lament,” which I wrote in 2011. Some of the references in the poem may seem dated, but my lament is still relevant, perhaps more so in 2017 than in 2011.

I selected the image of the stamp to decorate the page containing my poem because it seemed relevant and was readily available. When I was considering using it again in a post on this Labor Day, I decided to look more deeply into the image on the stamp.

To begin with, I was surprised that the government ever issued a pro-labor stamp at all. I suspect that such a subject for a stamp would not be considered by the Postal System today. Incidentally, the stamp was a first-class stamp. In 2017, a first-class stamp costs 49¢, representing something like a 1500% price increase.

Mural in AFL-CIO Washington Headquarters (detail)
Mural in AFL-CIO
Washington Headquarters (detail)
The image on the stamp is derived from a large mosaic in the south lobby of the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C. The mural, which contains elements not shown on the stamp, was designed by Lumen Martin Winter and executed by the now defunct Ravenna Mosaic Company. President Eisenhower dedicated the building containing this art work in 1956. One cannot imagine President Trump presiding at such an event.

What is not shown in the picture at the right (or on the stamp) are representations of work over the ages. (The mosaic is enormous!)

Whereas there is much to be admired in the Winter mural, it is clearly a product of its time and, perhaps, not the best image for our own time. “Labor Is Life,” as the mosaic is generally known—Carlyle is so quoted in the mural—shows a male worker protecting his wife and son. The woman is teaching the boy, presumably about work. There is no suggestion that the woman has any bread-winning chores. “Labor Is Life” is, therefore, rather sexist in its representation of the “ideal” nuclear family of the 1950s.

The labor movement in the United States has, in many ways, been a progressive force in the country. Certainly, it has been responsible for higher pay for workers, for more humane work hours, and for safer working conditions on the job. On the downside, labor unions have been dominated by men, primarily European, Christian, white, heterosexual men. Unions have a spotty record of seeking to benefit all workers and have often engaged in mean-spirited discrimination.

We need unions, however. The lack of union strength has contributed to wage stagnation in the U.S. Unions need to fight for the right to organize, particularly in red states, and need to stand for fair treatment for all workers. On this Labor Day, let us hope and work for a resurgence of organized labor in the United States.

NOTE: My previous post on Labor Day can be found here.

Labor Day 2017 Thoughts

Labor Day 2017 finds most workers no better off than they were a decade ago. Wages are largely stagnant—there have been signs of a slight upturn here—union membership is down; the stock market is soaring, though the rich are its greatest beneficiaries; rights seem to expand for corporations and contract for individuals; and President Trump is hell bent on eliminating regulations protecting workers and the environment. If this administration is able to effect any “tax reform,” it is likely that the rich will be its major beneficiaries.

Labor Day 2017 seems a good day to turn to art for inspiration for producing a better, more just and more democratic America.

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1979 film Norma Rae. Sally Field plays a textile worker turned union organizer who, while waiting to be taken away by the police from her cotton mill workplace, stands on a table showing a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “UNION” to her fellow workers. In response, the machines in the mill fall silent one-by-one. It is a very emotional moment in American cinema.

Norma Rae Webster was modeled on the work of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.

The still below is from that famous scene in Norma Rae.  Sally Field won an Academy Award for her role in the film.

Sally Field as Norma Rae Webster
Sally Field in Norma Rae
In the struggle between labor and management, one advantage of labor is that it has had better songs. One of the most famous is “Which Side Are You On?” The lyrics were written in 1931 by Florence Patton Reece, wife of a union organizer in Harlan County, Kentucky, which saw an epic, sometimes violent, struggle between coal mine workers and coal mine operators.

Which Side Are You On?

by Florence Patton Reece

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there—
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab,
Or will you be a man?

Don't scab for the bosses,
Don't listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
J.H. Blair, by the way, was not a coal company, but the sheriff, who, with his men, were hired to intimidate the minors in the bitter labor dispute.

Many singers have popularized this song, though not all have been true to the original. The version below changes none of the words of the song, though it does omit the repeat in the chorus.

This Labor Day, we should be asking why there is an increasing wealth gap between the very rich and everyone else. The diminished influence of labor unions is certainly one factor. Other factors include the power of corporate lobbyists and the greater voice given big business by the Citizens United decision. One of the most significant changes that has affected the welfare of workers is the notion that the corporation has no obligations save to its shareholders. This idea has been absolutely toxic to the body politic. Making everything worse, of course, is an administration that never met a federal regulation it liked.

What can we do to restore prosperity to all of our citizens? Which side are you on?

August 21, 2017

Anticipating the Eclipse

I am here in Indiana, Pennsylvania, shortly before the much-touted eclipse of the sun will begin to be seen on the west coast. Although the event certainly interests me, I didn’t seriously consider traveling to the path of totality. Seeing the full eclipse would involve both travel and luck. One could be at the center of the eclipse path and still see very little if the sky is overcast. In a few years, a total eclipse will be visible much closer to home, and the odds of not wasting a good deal of effort will be better.

Solar eclipse
Image courtesy of Luc Viatour
A few days ago, today was predicted to be sunny in Indiana. Alas, the reality is that it is a relatively cloudy day, punctuated by occasionally sunshine. I’m still hoping to see a partial eclipse. My eclipse glasses are at the ready. Supposedly, 70% of the sun will be covered by the moon where I am. My DVR will be recording the coverage of the eclipse on television. While I’m outdoors I will probably be listening to NPR, though radio coverage of an eclipse does seem lame.

A solar eclipse is a truly miraculous event. One could never happen were the sun and moon not the relative sizes they are and the distance they are from one another. No other planet in our solar system—perhaps no other planet in the universe—experiences what many Americans will see today.

On the other hand, I do not consider it a miracle that a solar eclipse will be seen across the United States on August 21, 2017. Religion News Service has reported on what various religious people have said about the eclipse, much of which is simply stupid. Anne Graham Lotz—I had thought she was the reasonable offspring of Billy Graham—sees the eclipse as some kind of warning to America about its sinful ways. Well, maybe. But that interpretation suggests more belief in predestination than I suspect Ms. Lotz consciously accepts. Since eclipses can be predicted centuries ahead, God must have known—or ordained—that the United States would need a warning in the twenty-first century. I guess we’re all living the lives God has planned for us, only imagining that we have any control over them. This may, in fact, be true, but it is an idea that really isn’t very useful.

Well, it’s nearly time to turn on the TV. I hope the sky is clear where you are. I’m hoping the same for Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Update, 3:15: The clouds were largely co-operative. Until maximum coverage was achieved, clouds only occasionally covered the sum. Now, however, one can only see clouds. What is amazing is that, even when 80% of the sun is covered by the moon, our star still shines brightly. I’m grateful for seeing as much as I did.

August 15, 2017

North of the Border

 The song “South of the Border” is widely known. It was written by James B. Kennedy and Michael Carr and was featured in the 1939 movie of the same name starring Gene Autry. The song has a pleasant tune and tells a simple story reflecting a plotline of the film. Over the years, the song has been sung by many artists, including Autry, Marty Robbins, Slim Whitman, Frank Sinatra, and others. “South of the Border” has also been the subject of various instrumental arrangements. (Listen to the Gene Autry vocal version here.)

In this season of Trumpism, many people have toyed with the idea of escaping to Canada. Such talk is often in jest, but some have actually left the country, particularly immigrants in the U.S. illegally. This situation invites a parody of “South of the Border.” Hence, here is at least a first draft of “North of the Border”:
North of the border, up Canada way—
That’s where I plan on goin’; that’s likely where I’m havin’ to stay.
I’m fleeing this country; I’m leavin’ today,
North of the border, up Canada way.

That country’s got health care and folks real polite,
Got few religious nuts or people on the alternate right.
Their leaders aren’t crazy, don’t have feet made o’ clay,
North of the border, up Canada way.

I will say to my friends, “I’m returning,”
Not forever declaring goodbye.
By degrees, I am quietly learning
My country will never return.

The States are in trouble, I’m sorry to say.
The country is goin’ to hell because of the fools within the beltway.
There’s peace and there’s safety where the Kochs cannot pay,
North of the border, up Canada way.

I’ll eat at Tim Hortons and learn to say “eh,”
Pick up a little French and take up curling to learn how to play,
But I’ll miss Sunday football and Memorial Day
North of the border, up Canada way.

Aye, aye, aye, aye; aye, aye aye, aye.
Aye, aye, aye, aye; aye, aye aye, aye.
I’m fairly happy with most of these words, though the bridge (“I will say to my friends,” etc.) is a bit ragged. I have tried to mirror the bridge of “South of the Border,” which rhymes imperfectly, at best. (The lines of the original end with “mañana,” “parting.” “mañana,” and “came.”)

Comments are welcome, either here or on Facebook. Help with the bridge would be particularly appreciated.

Flag of Canada

August 14, 2017

The Confederate Flag Revisited

A few days ago, I was returning to my car in the Walmart parking lot and found myself walking behind a woman in jeans, flip-flops, and a top that was not a crop top but was nevertheless too short. Her car was closer than mine and couldn’t escape my notice. It was a Ford SUV with a Confederate flag plate on the front bumper and a large decal at the top of the windshield proclaiming the driver to be a “BADASS GIRL.” The driver, however, was well past girlhood.

Flags at Charlottesville demonstration
The Confederate flag (or some variation thereof) on a pickup truck always gives me an uneasy feeling. On a woman’s modest SUV, it prompted some reflection. Particularly in light of the weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the flag was juxtaposed to Nazi flags, we should reconsider our attitudes and speech related to symbols of the Confederate States of America. What do such badges really mean? (Note: What is usually called the “Confederate flag” is actually some version of a Confederate battle flag. CNN offered a tutorial on CSA flags after the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, which you can read here.)

At the outset, I have to emphasize that I hold the First Amendment to be sacred. It would be wrong to ban the display of CSA or Nazi symbols in our country. One cannot exhibit a swastika legally in the Federal Republic of Germany, but an analogous prohibition in the United States would be profoundly un-American.

To some, perhaps even to the woman in a Pennsylvania Walmart parking lot, the Confederate flag may be a symbol of personal independence or rebelliousness. If that is what is being symbolized—it clearly was not in Charlottesville—it represents an ignorant and unfortunate choice. The flag cannot be divorced from its historical context. Patriotic Americans need to demonstrate that we understand that context and condemn the flag and all that it represents. The situation cries out for what the Alt Right would call “political correctness.”

What we can do is reframe references to the Confederate flag? Begin by countering the notion that it represents “Southern pride.” Pride in what? The flag was the product of the Civil War and, as such, can hardly represent some mythical antebellum pastoral gentility. Besides, the antebellum period in the South was really one that saw much of the white population in poverty and virtually all of the black population in brutal servitude. Even white folks should not be proud of that. Actually, the flag became a symbol of racial animus and Jim Crow oppression following the war, but particular in response to the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Any pride in that is misplaced and needs to be castigated. If Southerners want a symbol of regional pride—the South can legitimately be proud of its musical, culinary, and literary heritage—let them find a symbol that does not call to mind rebellion and the widespread violation of fundamental human rights.

So, what shall we call the “Confederate flag”? I suggest that we appeal to that actual history. It was a flag used by troops that intended to overthrow the legitimate government of the United States of America. Why not call it the “sedition flag” or “treason flag“ or “rebellion flag”? If you like, put “Southern” before one of those names. Whatever it is, the flag is not—should not be—the “Southern pride flag.”

NOTE: I was born and reared in New Orleans and take no pride in the Southern slavery, rebellion, or racial oppression.