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?