May 13, 2018

April 25, 2018

Change in Comment Policy

Beginning today, comments will not be posted until approved by me. I will try to approve comments quickly, but the needed approval time will necessarily be variable.

I take this step reluctantly. Unfortunately, some visitors have used their comment privileges to post off-topic messages that include links to irrelevant commercial Web sites. Rather than removing such comments after the fact, I have decided to prevent them from ever being posted.

Your understanding and indulgence are appreciated.

April 16, 2018

A Pro-Choice Essay and Graphic

To someone who believes that women are not lesser creatures than men and should not lose the right to direct their own medical care the moment they become pregnant, the political fights over the right to abortion are maddening. The anti-abortion crusade was born of the Roman Catholic Church’s obsession with sex and male control over women. Catholics sold their obsession to evangelical Protestants, who bought it for political reasons of their own, rather than out of any abstract or biblical moral reasoning. It quickly became a widespread obsession that now even threatens to outlaw birth control devices.

The anti-abortion folks call themselves “pro-life,” which is ironic on many levels. The same people often seem unconcerned with quality of life, with child welfare, or with capital punishment. To many, a single-cell fertilized egg is worthy of more moral consideration than a one-year-old child. At best, this is illogical, at worst, outrageous. As a rhetorical slogan, however, “pro-life” sounds righteous and compelling. “Pro-choice,” by contrast, sounds selfish and uncaring. Calling the anti-abortion crowd “anti-choice” isn’t any better.

I got to thinking about how the pro-freedom forces can better advance their cause in the abortion wars by altering tactics.

As a rhetorical device, the term “pro-life” is very strong. The anti-abortion side has worked hard to encourage people to view the embryo/fetus (or even the zygote/blastocyst) as a human being. Human beings have rights, so the logic goes, and the developing human in the womb cannot advocate for itself. Implicitly, he mother, on the other hand, who is morally oblivious to the nature of the life she is carrying, can mistakenly act in what she sees as her own self-interest unless prevented by an enlightened and benevolent government.

There are problems with the “pro-life” rhetoric. Perhaps most importantly, is the identification of everything from a fertilized egg to a newborn as a human. In all cases, it is human, but it is not necessarily a human. By analogy, a severed finger is human but not a human. Clearly, a baby is a human just before birth, but months earlier, it has more in common with a fish or a frog. That it may have a heartbeat means little; so do adult fish and frogs. Whether it can feel pain early in life is likewise not dispositive (and is, in any case, debatable). So can fish and frogs. For many pro-lifers, the status of the unborn really hinges on the unstated assumption that the “baby” has a soul. Clearly, many people do not believe this, and the existence of a baby’s soul is hardly a valid consideration in the policy-making of a secular democracy. (No, the U.S. is not a “Christian” country and was never intended to be.) In any event, I find the argument to be made for my cats having souls more compelling than any for the souls of zygotes.

A case can be made—the Supreme Court accepted such a case, after all—that, at some point in a pregnancy, abortion should, in nearly all circumstances, be disallowed. I lack the wisdom to know where that point is, and so do the anti-abortion folks, irrespective of their claims. Save for egregious cases, I’m perfectly willing to leave the matter to women and their doctors.

Returning more directly to rhetorical concerns, pro-choice people necessarily need to place more emphasis on women acting as free and rational beings in their choices to abort their pregnancies. Probably, the most effective pro-choice tactic would be to have ordinary women who have had abortions explain their choices in public—on television, on social media, and in person with their friends. (Acceptance of homosexuality depended on people’s encountering actual homosexuals after all.) There is also a place for sloganeering, a consideration that led me to create this graphic:

You don’t respect women if you don’t respect women’s choices.

This seems like an appropriate message in the age of #MeToo: women are to be respected and their medical choices assumed to be reasonable (or, in any case, ones they should have the freedom to make). The use of “choices” here subtly suggests choices related to abortion, since everyone is assumed to be familiar with pro-choice rhetoric.

I encourage others to use the above graphic freely. A larger version is available by clicking on the one shown here.

Postscript: I first posted my graphic on Facebook and decided that I should put in on my blog as well. I intended to write a short introduction to it but got carried away. I hope people find this essay interesting, perhaps even useful. I invite rational discussion and reserve the right to delete comments that do not qualify.

April 14, 2018

A Brief Look at Fox News

Yesterday morning, I recorded Fox & Friends on my DVR. I have never watched this program—if I’m not listening to Morning Edition while the program is on the air, I’m watching Morning Joe—but I thought that I should take a look at the guidance being given President Trump by his most influential advisors.

When I began to review my recording, it didn’t take long to be gobsmacked. The show’s introduction included the following teaser:
Fired FBI director James Comey slamming our commander-in-chief, attacking President Trump’s integrity and appearance, saying, “This president is unethical.”
What is odd here is the phrase “our [emphasis added] commander-in-chief.” Here’s why:
  1. The “commander-in-chief” title is inappropriate in this context. Trump was Comey’s president, not his commander-in-chief, since Comey was not in the military chain of command.
  2. Stranger is the use of “our,” rather than the more usual “the.”
What do I conclude from these observations?

First, conservatives have a fondness for, if not authoritarian structures, then at least hierarchical ones. 
“Commander-in-chief” suggests more authority than does “president.” The Fox morning team seems to prefer a strong president, as long as he is white and conservative.

It was the use of “our,” however, that really got my attention. In normal conversation among Americans, we tend to talk about the president, not my president or our president. Were we speaking with outsiders—were we having a conversation in South Africa, for example—we almost certainly would refer to our president. This usage is unusual on an American television program targeted to Americans.

The use of “our” on Fox & Friends has a conspiratorial air about it. The hosts are addressing the Fox News audience that sees itself as a tight-knit community assailed by liberal antagonists. Trump is our man, not theirs. Indeed he is!

I didn’t get much further into reviewing my recording. Doing so promised to be painful, and I will need to steel myself for the project. I did watch enough to notice that the hosts assume that Hillary Clinton did something illegal. Perhaps, when my blood pressure is lower, I will watch the rest of Friday’s show. Maybe it was Fox & Friends that gave Trump the idea of launching an attack against Syria on Friday night.

April 11, 2018

Goals for Syria

As I write this, the country is waiting to learn what, if anything, President Trump will do in response to the most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria by President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. This is tricky business, and it is difficult to be sanguine about Trump’s ability to act wisely. Were I advising the president, I’m not sure what advice I would give. If we are capable, destroying Assad’s ability to deliver poison gas would be a good place to start. I don’t know how to do that, and our military may not know either.

In any case, what the president does in the next 24 hours is a tactical matter. More important is our strategy in Syria, which seems nonexistent. What are we trying to accomplish there that could be considered a reasonable goal?

As we consider strategy, we must acknowledge that there are no good guys in the fight. Trump was not out of line in calling Assad an “animal,” and most of those opposing his regime are religious zealots. Even the Kurds have less than pure motives and, in any case, are hardly strong or numerous enough to rule Syria. Russia doesn’t want to lose an ally and certainly not a naval and airbase. Iran is seeking to achieve hegemony over the entire Middle East.

If I were God, I would probably break up Syria. Give the Kurds much of the country, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Let Iran and Iraq split up whatever is left over. I am not God, however, and none of this is going to happen.

If we are to be realistic, we have to choose between Assad and his enemies. There is no candidate to take over the country and to rule in a non-homicidal fashion. Frankly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine why anyone wants to govern Syria; there isn’t much left to govern. Can a whole country be sold for scrap?

Since we clearly do not want a Syria run by religious extremists, Assad seems to be the only game in town. I suggest that our we should work for a stable Syria that includes the following:
  1. Assad remains in power but is chastened by the international community and is disinclined to pursue genocide against his own people.
  2. Russia retains Syria as an ally, retains a naval base, and withdraws all its airpower resources.
  3. Iran is chased out of Syria.
  4. Jihadists are decisively defeated.
  5. Kurds work out whatever deal they can get, perhaps regional autonomy or even a homeland carved out of Syria and parts of Iraq. I wish them good luck.
  6. Syria is at peace and begins to rebuild.
  7. Syria is a democracy, in principle, if not in practice. (“In practice” is unlikely.)
A strategy that seeks a stable result that looks like the above might be achievable. I don’t think we can ask for more.

I don’t have a plan to achieve these goals, but I do think that devising such a plan is possible, though perhaps not be the current American administration.

Pray for Syria.

April 10, 2018

Regrets

We all make mistakes in life. Big decisions may turn out wrong, or, at the very least, we may for years question what might have happened had we made different choices. In reality, however, we can never know what our life might have been like had we chosen a different occupation, a different spouse, a different job, or a different place to live. Even if one choice leads to “bad” results, we can never know whether our having taken a different path—a seemingly wiser path—wouldn’t have resulted in even worse outcomes.

I sometimes think that the small mistakes in life—the actions that likely were not at life’s crucial inflection points—result in the most painful regrets. Little errors create long-lived regret, not because they were so important, but because they could so easily have been avoided—well, should have been, anyway.

The recent fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., got me thinking about this because some of my own small regrets involve Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. Let me explain.

I grew up in New Orleans in a family that was not particularly political. In fact, I cannot recall my parents ever talking about politics, though some of my relatives on my father’s side of the family did. When I was growing up, virtually every voter in New Orleans was a Democrat. Louisiana was part of the Solid South, where an overwhelming Democratic majority was a racist legacy against Reconstruction and the Republican Party. (In defense of Louisiana Democrats, I should add that the party did have its factions, some of which were less reactionary than others.) My earliest political memory is of being at a party at the house of a great aunt when I was about six. Someone expressed the view that, if General Eisenhower were elected president, we would find ourselves in a major war within six months. Ironically, however, having been thoroughly involved in war very much inclined President Eisenhower toward peace.

I became interested in politics in junior high school. I’m not sure just how this happened, but, in junior high, I encountered Ayn Rand; an AM radio program on XERF that, in retrospect, I would classify as promoting Christian nationalism; and an English teacher who was the rare New Orleans Republican. In high school, my best friend’s family were big supporters of Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. I bought the propaganda about “states’ rights” and became ever-so-slightly rebellious by considering myself a Republican in the Southern ocean of Democrats.

I left for college at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1964, excited at the prospect of discussing politics with fellow students. I was to be disappointed. Chicago was a very liberal, though not especially activist, campus, and it appeared that everyone considered Barry Goldwater a nut job and his candidacy a fool’s errand. No one seemed open to a contrary view on the matter, so political discussion was pointless. Nevertheless, I retained my Republican philosophy, but I didn’t have much of an opportunity to expound on it. I was a poll watcher for one election—I don’t remember which one—and the experience nurtured a certain cynicism regarding big-city machine politics.

Regret Number 1

I signed on to Cap and Gown, the University of Chicago yearbook, as business manager. Eventually, I became editor-in-chief. I did so thinking that joining the yearbook staff was my ticket to breaking into the student power structure on campus. As it happened, there was no student power structure, and there was little interest in a college yearbook. The yearbook office was in Ida Noyes Hall, a quaint, uninviting building that served as a student center in an era when student recreation was not considered much of a priority.

I once found myself in Ida Noyes in the company of a group of students sitting on the floor talking. I assume they were discussing politics, possibly about students who had gone South to register black voters, but I really don’t remember. I didn’t know any of the students and wasn’t participating in the discussion. At some point, the group began singing “We Shall Overcome.” I was immediately overcome by a painful ambivalence. There was a strong sense of community and purpose in the room that I found attractive, but I was still a Republican who, although I had no dislike of blacks, also had no sympathy for the Civil Rights movement. Sadly, I didn’t participate in the singing and eventually walked away. I am saddened that I could not bring myself to join the group in song, and I am sad that, for much of the Civil Rights era, I was on the wrong side. (On the positive side, I have since sung “We Shall Overcome” at an NAACP event.)

Regret Number 2

Studying physics at the University of Chicago left me little time for watching television or for keeping up with current events. When Dr. King was killed, however, everyone knew about it. My fraternity brothers were saddened by the shooting and concerned about immediate consequences. The university adjoined a black neighborhood, and rioting spilling over into the campus seemed a real possibility. I was largely oblivious both to the distress and apprehension of my housemates.

My concern was that, having been assassinated, Dr. King would become an instant martyr, thereby achieving recognition I felt he did not deserve. Unable to keep my politically-incorrect thoughts to myself, I wrote an essay expressing my disgust with this possibility and posted it publicly in the chapter house. Friends tried to convince me, though without success, that my actions were, at best, insensitive, particularly since one of the brothers was black.

In no way was the murder of Dr. King going to change my mind about the righteous of his causes, but, in retrospect, I should have at least kept my counsel to myself.

For any reader who does not know, although I went through college as a moderately strong conservative, at some point—curiously, I don’t know just when—I became what Facebook calls me, namely, “very liberal.” I think Richard Nixon may have had something to do with my transformation.

Regret Number 3

After one term in graduate school, I enlisted in the U.S. Army, not out of a sense of patriotism but out of a sense of self-preservation. Graduate school draft deferments were being eliminated, and I wanted to minimize my chances of having to carry a rifle in the jungles of South Vietnam. Following an audition, I was able to enlist as an Army bandsman. After basic training, I was posted to Fort McPherson in Atlanta and, after that, to Fort Shafter in Honolulu. I considered myself a conscientious soldier who, despite the usual gripes of soldiering, was respectful of the chain of command. I was also grateful, of course, to be in Hawaii and not South Vietnam.

As a member of the 264th Army Band, I regularly spent time in rehearsals. playing concerts and military ceremonies, and marching in the occasional parade. Band members did have a fair amount of time off, however. One day, a couple of my fellow musicians and I decided to go on a hike. (Oahu has many hiking trails.) As I recall, the trail we decided to hike was on Fort Shafter, but I don’t recall much about it. What I do remember is that we were apparently missed—maybe we hadn’t shown up for dinner—and someone was sent to find us. That someone was an enlisted man who was not a member of the band and not someone we know. As we were coming off the trail, we saw him walking toward us. He said something that made clear why he was there and that he had then completed his mission. He did something that was unexpected, however; he saluted.

As you may know, in most circumstances, enlisted soldiers are obliged to salute officers. But we hikers were enlisted men and we didn’t require a salute. None of us—I know I didn’t—returned the salute. But to this day, I regret not having done so. The salute was clearly not the standard, obligatory show of respect; it was instead a sign of communal solidarity and perhaps an involuntary expression of relief. To have returned the gesture would have been to acknowledge the concern for our absence and the effort expended to find us. Also, a show of brotherhood.

Final Thoughts

With some reflection, I can think of other embarrassing situations over the years that I handled badly—for example, not recognizing or acknowledging that a person thought he or she was doing something special for me. Well, as I said earlier, we all make mistakes, don’t we? We can strive to be better people though. Certainly, I like to think I am a more sensitive person now than I was in my college days.

Let me, therefore, conclude this little confessional with a quotation from George Bernard Shaw:
As long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it.

April 2, 2018

Bon-Ton and KitchenAid Give Me a Hard Time

Sometimes, the universe just doesn’t seem to be my friend.

The other day, I received a coupon from Bon-Ton of the sort the department store distributes from time to time. The coupon promised $10 off a $10 or more purchase. I didn’t have a pressing need to buy anything in particular, but the coupon represented an opportunity too good to pass up. I thought I might find something desirable in the clothing line or be able to augment my collection of miscellaneous Fiesta dinnerware pieces.

When I got to the store, I went straight for the Fiesta counter, which, distressingly, was not where it had always been. I feared that the store was no longer carrying the Fiesta line. I looked around a bit and then headed for the discount table that occasionally held Fiesta pieces but was usually not very interesting. To my relief, I spotted the relocated Fiesta counter on my way. I found a small bowl—I forget what Homer Laughlin China Co. calls it—to add to my scant collection of similar items. It was marked $10. This was perfect, I thought.

I proceeded to the service counter with my bowl, my coupon, and my Bon-Ton charge card, all of which I proudly presented to the clerk behind the counter. The clerk scanned the label on the bottom of the bowl and gave me good news and bad news. Fiesta was on sale for 30% off. (If there was a sign to that effect near the merchandise, I hadn’t seen it.) I could have the bowl for $7 but couldn’t use my coupon. I said no thanks and headed back to the dinnerware. There, I found a second bowl, identical except in color, marked, perplexingly, $11. Well, I thought, getting two bowls for $4.70 wouldn’t be too bad.

I headed back to the service counter, this time presenting my two bowls, my coupon, and my Bon-Ton charge card, not quite so self-satisfied as before. This time, I was informed that the $10 discount had to come from a single item, i.e., an item that cost, even on sale, at least $10. (The coupon clearly said as much, but I had not read it closely enough.) “Lots of people buy towels with the coupon,” the clerk suggested helpfully. “Or consider kitchen gadgets.” I didn’t need any linens, but, even before the clerk made his suggestion, I had thought of the kitchen department, my next stop.

My kitchen is filled with gadgets, but I scanned the wall of tools in search of something purchase-worthy. My eyes landed on a KitchenAid bulb baster. My ship, I thought, had come in. I had an old, cheap bulb baster whose tip had partially melted in some long-forgotten culinary mishap. I had tried to use it Maundy Thursday to baste a leg of lamb, but I gave up on it, threw it away, and used a ladle instead. In short, I was actually in need of a baster. This one had clear volume markers on it and was of obviously higher quality than my discarded baster. It was marked $18 but was on sale for, as I remember, $12. I bought it at the nearest service counter for $2 plus tax.

KitchenAid logo
All this took place on Good Friday. For Easter dinner, I was preparing a ham, and the new baster was not only useful, but a joy to use. Moreover, the KitchenAid package had declared the baster to be “dishwasher safe.” After dinner, I put the bulb in the top rack of the dishwasher and the clear plastic tube in the silverware basket. Clearly, the tube couldn’t stand up in the top rack and wouldn’t get cleaned lying down. Therefore “dishwasher safe” must mean that it could stand up in the bottom rack. When I unloaded the dishwasher today, the tube had multiple cracks running its length.

Although I usually put warranty information in a file, I had thrown out all the packaging of the bulb baster. Happily, I had not disposed of the garbage, and I managed to fish the information card out of the garbage. It declared
One Year Hassle-Free Replacement & Lifetime Limited Warranty
This fine product is warranted to be free from defects in material and workmanship. For one year from date of purchase, under normal use and care, KitchenAid will replace the product free of charge, if it is found to be defective in material or workmanship. In addition, from year two through the life of the product, any piece found to be defective under conditions of normal use and care will be repaired at no charge or replaced with the same item or an item of equal or better value. Individual products should be returned postage paid to: KitchenAid Products, Consumer Service Department, P.O. Box 9750, Trenton, NJ 08650-1750. You May have other rights, which vary from state to state.
I really didn’t want to have to mail the baster to KitchenAid, so I called the telephone number listed on the packaging for the KitchenAid Customer Satisfaction Center. After a short wait, I was connected to someone who deals with kitchen appliances. That person gave me the number for the kitchen gadgets people—they were perhaps at lunch—and transferred my call. When someone answered, I explained the situation and was told, as expected, that I would have to mail in the baster. I said I could send a picture of the damage but was told that that isn’t the way KitchenAid does warranty satisfaction. I then said something rude and was told that the person at the other end of the line was going to hang up. I guess I deserved that, but I was really upset about the baster.

I found a padded envelope, addressed it, enclosed the baster, along with a memo I had to type, and set off for the post office. Postage cost me $3.75, and I was told the envelope would be delivered in two days. I made sure I had a tracking number, as I wanted to make sure the package arrived. (I once had a dispute about a warranty return that was said not ever to have arrived. The dispute ended amicably, but I wanted to avoid such situations in the future.)

I soon expect to see how good is the KitchenAid warranty. By the way, in my memo, I said that my faith in KitchenAid had been shaken, as indeed it has been. Because I didn’t want to request any more basters in my lifetime, I wrote that I “would appreciate being told what I can and cannot expect of this product.” How I wash my new baster will depend on what I hear back.