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In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two

October 9, 2017

As school kids, the chant “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rang out in classrooms all across the land each October. One of the first encountered among the pantheon of heroes we celebrated, we learned how Christopher Columbus bravely sailed across the Atlantic to discover the New World in spite of the fear that anyone who tried would fall off the edge of the Earth. We colored pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Some of us even got the day off from school.

Thus Columbus was installed as an icon of American lore. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the mythology overshadowed the reality, and the superficial treatment given to students at a young age had never been rectified as they moved on through the grades. Though largely undeserved, this grandiose image carried forth into the adult American psyche. We are now seeing the manifestation of this on the part of some in the current issue concerning the public honoring of Columbus.

It should boil down to a question of worthiness, for here is a historical figure who, at closer examination, didn’t really do what he is given credit for having done. Of even greater concern is what he did do, which was to inflict abominably cruel mistreatment on the indigenous people he found in the Caribbean islands that he accidentally stumbled upon.

The first problem is with the very idea of “discovery,” the foundation for his tribute. How is it a discovery if there were people who had already been living there for centuries? When Columbus made landfall, he erroneously thought he’d circumnavigated the earth and reached the Indies by sailing westward, his mistake becoming forever manifest in the name he gave to the people he found who would be henceforth called “Indians.” His goal of finding the westward passage in actuality resulted in failure. The prevalent concept of this being a triumphant achievement is due to the colonial mentality inherent in the traditional Western historical perspective. Additionally, falling off the edge of a flat Earth was not even a consideration. At the time Columbus sailed, the knowledge that the world was indeed round was widespread, something known since the time of the ancient Greeks and long recognized by observant sailors.

As a matter of fact, the Columbus expedition was not even the first to accomplish a cross-Atlantic journey. That honor goes to Leif Ericson who accomplished the feat over 400 years earlier, though in actuality, neither arrived at mainland America. Ericson’s Viking exploration in the 11th century brought him across the North Atlantic to Greenland and Newfoundland thus making him the first European in the “New World.”

Once Columbus had arrived in the islands of the Caribbean, his quest focused on gold and other resources that would result in his and his backers’ enrichment. In trying to accomplish this end, abysmally cruel treatment of the native people transpired, the record about which is clear based on well-documented firsthand accounts of the atrocities. The senseless brutality perpetrated upon the native people — rape, enslavement, dismemberment, beheading, and mass murder of men, women, and children — is indefensible, especially in view of his Catholic faith which he had been mandated to spread.

Today Columbus Day is misguidedly billed as a “celebration of Italian culture.” Many Italian-Americans rail at the suggestion of removing statues of Columbus, viewing it as defamation of an Italian hero. This overlooks several salient facts, not the least of which is that his actions were far from heroic. Columbus hailed from the Republic of Genoa (Italy did not even exist as a country until 1861) and he sailed under the flag of Spain, so calling him an “Italian” hero is a stretch. Celebrating the Italian culture (or any other, for that matter) in America should not revolve around any one man — particularly not this one. Italian-Americans already have so much about which to be proud as key constituents in the building of our nation. The hollow honor bestowed upon Columbus isn’t needed to justify this pride. The reality of what he did is far from the image created after the fact, and it is hardly something worthy of acclaim.

 

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Erasing Symbols, Not History

August 19, 2017

Statues and flags are not history. Only history is history. History exists in many forms and in many places: books, videos, museums, exhibits. Though history goes far beyond the physical manifestations which represent it, some artifacts can be invaluable for the study of past civilizations and cultures. Statues erected after the fact, however, are not the true artifacts of history but merely symbols created with one purpose: to aggrandize.


When Saddam Hussein’s statue came down, it did not erase the history of his reign, not for those he oppressed, not for those who were his cronies. That history remains. However, the statue which honored that leader became a symbol for the defeated regime that had oppressed a significant portion of Iraq’s population, and the reason to publicly honor it or him no longer existed.


This is the flag that signifies the fascist regime of Adolph Hitler. It is no longer flown because that regime has thankfully perished. It too is part of history, one which can be seen in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. Though it no longer has any actual function, it remains a symbol of supposed race superiority and the horrendous application of that despicable philosophy which resulted in the denigration and mistreatment of an entire group of people. It is not a flag that should be displayed publicly for that very reason. The sight of it in that context triggers intense feelings of outrage to all people who recognize what it now represents.

This is the flag that signifies the Confederate States of America that existed during the Civil War. It is no longer flown because that regime has thankfully perished. It too is part of history, one which can be seen in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. Though it no longer has any actual function, it remains a symbol of supposed race superiority and the horrendous application of that despicable philosophy which resulted in the denigration and mistreatment of an entire group of people. It is not a flag that should be displayed publicly for that very reason. The sight of it in that context triggers intense feelings of outrage to all people who recognize what it now represents.

The astute reader will notice that these preceding paragraphs are the same. The parallel is not accidental.

The fact that these two banners are currently used by those hate groups that still cling to the shameful idea of race superiority is an indication of why they should not be part of a public presence. Though statues are not as blatant of a symbol, they still represent ideals that are repugnant to the standards of the nation. Their images belong in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. They do not belong in places of public honor.

I just got back from a trip to the South. One of my stops was at Petersburg, Virginia, site of one of the critical battles of the Civil War. It is now designated as a National Battlefield Park. There are various sculptures and memorials located throughout this park, and that is as it should be, for these are the sites where the events happened, and they should be commemorated in this place. There are memorials to the soldiers and their leaders on both sides. Here, it is fitting and proper.

I also visited Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, which has a long boulevard called Monument Avenue. Statues of Confederate icons such as Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee can be found here. They serve as a reminder of the old South, one that no longer exists (other than in the minds of a hard-core fringe). Let us not forget that regardless of any other accomplishments, they were the leaders of the fight to perpetuate the abominable institution of slavery, and for that reason should forfeit any public honor.

Removing any remaining public vestiges of the era of slavery should not be an issue any more than removing swastikas and Hitler statues should have been. The only real question is why they were allowed to stand for as long as they did.

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Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???

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An Unfortunate Step Backwards

June 5, 2017

On this World Environment Day we are left to ponder the latest chapter in human irresponsibility, the decision by Mr. Trump to have the United States, the second greatest polluter in the world, withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

This decision manifests the President’s unacceptable lack of understanding of reality. After hearing his comments and speech, one is left to wonder if he actually read the agreement. Trump’s assessment of the Paris accord and its supposed effect on our nation once again displays his “willful ignorance and disinterest” and “failure of intellectual virtue” as columnist David Brooks (a Republican, no less) aptly phrases it.

This is an agreement involving a non-binding timetable for the reduction of carbon emissions. No country is imposing restrictions on any other country, contrary to Mr. Trump’s assertions. Under the agreement, we already have the freedom to make adjustments as dictated by our circumstances without penalty.

Trump claims that the accord “would effectively decapitate our coal industry.” For those who pay attention, the coal industry was in decline long before the accord because of the availability of cleaner and cheaper energy sources. As a matter of fact, even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky, switched to solar power in order to save money.

He said in his speech that he “was elected to represent the people of Pittsburg, not Paris”. It is of some interest to note that the people of Pittsburg voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton and is a green city of its own volition.

Economically, there is widespread agreement that any short-term gains made by the fossil fuel industry will be greatly offset by our inability to capitalize on the inevitable world-wide shift to renewable energy. By leaving the Paris agreement, we jeopardize our potential to be at the vanguard of clean technology and the economic gains that come with it, a vacuum sure to be filled by other industrial nations, notably China.

This withdrawal seems to be more about sending a misguided “nationalist” message to the world (courtesy of the unelected Steve Bannon) than about global warming. It is the product of the bunker mentality of a man who sees not facts or points of view but instead a pantheon of enemies composed of any person or group who disagrees with him.

Mr. Trump has chosen to put us in the company of only Nicaragua (who voted against the accord because it wasn’t tough enough) and Syria in the world community. He has basically abdicated the leadership role the United States had formerly embraced in this critical issue. Instead of forging ahead in the field of sustainable energy, he has chosen to go backwards in spite of the opposition of a large number major corporations (including, amazingly enough, Exxon), 211 mayors representing 54 million Americans, and his own Secretary of State.

By now there should be no question about climate change being affected by carbon emissions caused by mankind (though some in the current administration still have their heads in the sand on this one) and no question that an immediate concerted effort is needed to curtail the damage being done before it is too late. Any negative impact this may have on our economy (and that is indeed disputable) is far outweighed by the positive impact we could and should make concerning the future health of this planet and the future generations that will inhabit it.

The Paris accord is by no means perfect, but at the very least it takes a step forward in uniting the nations of this planet in a common cause, one that is critical to us all. To abandon it is an act of self-absorbed fantasy which only serves to accelerate the advance towards an incomprehensible cataclysm. The reality is that we are all in this together. It is a time for America to step up, not take this unfortunate step backwards.

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The Hundred Day Hustle

May 2, 2017

“My fellow Americans, I truly believe that the first 100 days of my Administration has been just about the most successful in our country’s history.”

Just about the most successful in our country’s history!? Talk about hyperbole!

Donald Trump hustled a large portion of the American voters with his sales pitch during the election campaign, and now one hundred days into his administration, he is still at it.

He has resorted to his histrionic campaign-style speeches as of late, full of inflated and often inaccurate assessments of accomplishments, patriotic platitudes, and attacks on anyone who disagrees with him, particularly the press. But on closer examination of the facts — something foreign to the normal Trump modus operandi — one gets a far less rosy picture.

For example, let us examine Trump’s 28 bills signed, something he points out with quite a bit of puffery as being second only to Harry Truman’s 55. Closer scrutiny, though, reveals that most of these are not of great significance.

Three of the bills appoint individuals to the board at the Smithsonian Institute, two of them give names to buildings, and one designates a location for a National Memorial.

Thirteen of the bills are reversals of Obama regulations rather than ones breaking any new legislative ground. Though these reversals affect important issues, they are the product of the mechanism of the Congressional Review Act that requires such reversals to get through Congress in the first hundred days.

Conspicuous by their absence are the ten pieces of legislation that Trump promised during the first hundred days in his much-ballyhooed “Contract with the American Voter,” such as a repeal and/or replacement of the Affordable Care Act (the only one of the bunch to actually make an appearance and which couldn’t make it through a Republican-controlled Congress), tax reform (in spite of the rushed presentation of a one page outline proposal lacking any salient clarifying details), infrastructure investment, school choice, military spending, and affordable childcare and eldercare, to name a few.

On the economic front, there are many instances of taking credit where credit is not due. The incorrect claim of 500,000 plus jobs created by the Trump administration included the final months of the Obama presidency; the actual number was 317,000. For one who claimed to be the Great Job Creator, Trump’s average for the two months of his reign thus far is 158,500 compared to Obama’s average for 2016 of 187,00 per month. The much-touted Keystone pipeline is expected to employ only 35 people permanently; the estimated 42,000 other jobs would be temporary (3,900 of them in construction) lasting only while it is being built. Additionally, the investment and job creation in the auto industry is not in actuality Trump’s doing. The Ford decision of canceling its new plant in Mexico in favor of Arizona was made in 2011, and the billion dollar investment plans that General Motors and Fiat Chrysler announced had been years in the making.

An extremely problematic though less talked about issue of this new administration concerns the vacancies yet unfilled by Trump that are critical to the day-to-day functioning of government — the deputy secretaries and undersecretaries, chief financial officers, ambassadors, general counsels, and heads of smaller agencies — which are causing anxiety and frustration for his Cabinet secretaries. The Senate has given confirmation to 26 Trump picks in these first hundred days, but there are 530 senior-level jobs that have remained vacant, and Trump has advanced only 37 nominees for those. The turmoil within the Trump team certainly has not helped to expedite this critical task.

Another supposed feather in Trump’s cap, the Tomahawk missile attack on an airbase in Syria as retaliation for a sarin gas attack by Assad on his own people, turned out to be more spectacle than substance. With no real strategy formulated to deal with the Syrian situation, it was a one-and-done operation, and the airbase was up and running the following day.

Even the centerpiece of Trump’s “success,” the confirmation of a conservative to the Supreme Court, is not so much the accomplishment of Trump as it is the result of the ethically indefensible obstructionist tactics used by the Republicans in Congress to block the Obama appointment of the eminently qualified Merrick Garland.

Clearly the first one hundred days of any endeavor is at best an arbitrary yardstick by which to measure success. However, Trump apparently wants it both ways. To proclaim his “tremendous accomplishments” during that time period while at the same time downplaying the importance of that benchmark is ingenuous and hypocritical. But then again, what else should we expect from the master of the hustle.

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Now More Than Ever

April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017 comes early in the current administration’s assault on the environment. Now more than ever we need to be increasingly diligent in the protection of our vulnerable planet for it is abundantly clear that preserving it has taken a back seat to the unfettered and irresponsible expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

The Trump cabinet has been called “a nightmare for the planet, and the fossil fuel industry’s dream come true” (Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club). It is filled with those who have a history of denying climate change  (including the President himself), most of whom are directly from the petroleum industry.

Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (which he built a career suing on behalf of the oil industry), is busy filling it with other climate change deniers in an attempt to roll back environmental regulations which they narrowly view only as harmful to business. The fact that these penny-wise and pound-foolish actions will be detrimental to the health and welfare of the Earth and its inhabitants seems to be besides the point.

Natural resources such as oil, gas, and coal are finite entities. However, they have become nothing more than a valuable commodity to be manipulated for the benefit of national power, corporate stockholders, or personal convenience by those in the business of resource profiteering. Modern man has exploited the gifts of this Earth without regard for their potential depletion or the destruction that is the byproduct of their acquisition. We have disregarded the interconnected nature of all things that make up the ecology of this world, and in doing so, have created an imbalance that is spiraling out of control.

History shows that we constantly overestimate our ability to safely extract the materials that we want and dispose of their waste. The result has been the pollution and destruction of our only environment. How many oil spills, deforestations, slag heaps, chemical contaminations, oceanic plastic “swamps,” animal extinctions, fouled wells, toxic dumps, poisoned water sources, and smog-choked cities do we need to understand this?

Half of the equation is the need to decrease our copious consumption. We have become energy gluttons who value convenience over conservation. How about downsizing the gas-guzzling vehicles we seem to covet? How about using more mass transit or even walking or biking? How about foregoing the wasteful McMansions and living in reasonably sized houses with moderately controlled temperatures? How about greater support for developing and making use of the technologies that would allow us to produce energy without destroying our planet in the process?

The idea of stimulating much-desired job creation by focusing on the fossil fuel industry is constantly being heralded. However, it is actually in the area of renewable energy industries that more jobs can be provided without adversely affecting the environment. According to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, $1 million dollars worth of oil and natural gas output directly creates 0.8 jobs and $1 million dollars of coal produces 1.9 jobs. However, wind power creates 4.3 jobs per million, solar power 5.4, building retrofits for energy efficiency 7.0, biomass power generation 7.4, and mass transit services 11.0.

We need to return to our instinctive reverence for the natural world and a realization of its delicate balance. It seems that “civilization” has made us arrogant, for the view that the land and all that is upon or under it is merely there for our exploitation is now prevalent. This is a shame that can become a tragedy, for humans have ignored this stark reality: if we do not take care of this planet, we will destroy it, and us along with it. This is not crazy talk. It is not the doomsday rambling of some overzealous tree hugger. It is science. It is common sense. And, in the long run, it is a matter of survival.

So today, April 22, the day which has been designated as Earth Day, the citizens of this nation are once again reminded to reconsider the shortsighted intrusions being made upon this delicate sphere. We do not have unlimited time to solve the problem even if the skeptics and deniers change their views. The very things that make life on Earth possible are being endangered, and the damage that is being done now to our land, atmosphere, and waters cannot be reversed. And unlike the dinosaurs, we will have no one to blame for our extinction but ourselves.

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The Myth of “The Mess”

March 1, 2017

There was something different about Donald Trump’s address to Congress Tuesday night. He seemed presidential, something that is notable only because it is an aberration from what has been the case throughout his campaign and his first month in office. But there was unfortunately something that was the same: his unnecessary diminution of the previous administration. He made a point of cherry-picking “facts” which would portray the supposedly dire circumstances he inherited (from which he, of course, will now grandly extricate us). He had referred to this previously as the “mess” he was left.

Yes, indeed. What a mess Donald Trump was left. Let’s take a look at it.

When Barak Obama took office (when there was a real mess), the Dow was at 6,626. When he left, it was at 19,875. The country had 82 straight months of private sector job growth — the longest streak in the history of the United States — and 11.3 million new jobs had been created. Unemployment went down from 10% to 4.7% (the intentionally misleading 94 million “out of the labor force” statistic used by Trump includes high school and college students, people with disabilities, stay-at-home parents, and retirees — the actual number of unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is about 7.6 million). Consumer confidence had gone from 37.7 to 98.1 The U.S. auto industry was saved — the number of American cars sold at the beginning of his term was 10.4 million and upon his exit 17.5 million. Corporate profits were up by 144%. U.S. exports were up 28%.

Additionally, homelessness among U.S. veterans has dropped by half and billions of dollars were added to mental health care for veterans. Reliance on foreign oil is at a 40 year low. Solar and wind power are at an all time high. Abortion is down. Violent crime is down. High school graduation rates hit 83%, an all time high.

Are things perfect? No, they’re not, nor have they ever been. Are there problems that need to be addressed? Absolutely, as there always are.

Are things a “mess?” Sorry, that’s just not the case.

It is good that Mr. Trump laid out his vision and gave us his plans (though a few specifics would have been nice) and most importantly acted like a president (hopefully something that will become a daily occurrence). However, it is too bad that he chose to spend time pointing a finger of blame at the “mess” he was left. Taking shots, particularly undeserved ones, at the previous administration in this address — purportedly one in a spirit of unification —  is beneath the office Mr. Trump now occupies.