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Welcome to Trump World

February 26, 2017

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It is hard to know where to begin to assess the ignominy that has been the first month of the Trump administration (and I use the word administration loosely — only 14 positions needing confirmation out of 549 have been filled, and Trump hasn’t even nominated anyone to 515 of them as of Feb. 21). It is a world filled with misinformation and distorted half-truths (the fact-checkers have needed to work overtime), classless name-calling, continuous narcissistic delusions of grandeur (biggest victories, largest crowds, greatest cabinet choices), incessant juvenile tweeting, and vitriolic animosity directed at anyone who disagrees with him, all of which has created an unprecedented atmosphere of dissent and resistance in what would normally be a period of grace for a new President.

Much of this reflects the attributes Trump fostered after the mentorship of the ruthless and villainous New York lawyer Roy Cohn in the 1970s. Cohn had gained fame during the witch hunt that was the McCarthy hearings, taking great pride in ruining lives, demeaning his adversaries, and freely making things up to suit his cause (sound familiar?).

Trump learned several lessons from Cohn which he had applied consistently throughout his campaign and has continued since his inauguration: don’t let the truth interfere with your agenda; when attacked, hit back viciously and often; never admit you’re wrong; and even if you lose in actuality, claim victory anyway.

The greatest of the casualties of this Trump era thus far (and there have been many) is the truth. He has long subscribed to the infamous fascist method of The Big Lie (no doubt with generous help from his chief goon, Steve Bannon): repeat something — true or not — enough times, and people will start to believe it. His desire to suppress contradictory information coming out in the press is straight out of the playbook of repressive totalitarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to Putin’s Russia.

This is exactly why Trump and Bannon consider the legitimate free press to be the enemy: it is the primary vehicle for uncovering the often unflattering and inconvenient truth. In the words of one of our esteemed founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, “Our first object should therefore be to leave open … all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Trump’s insistent claim has been that the “dishonest news media” has been foisting “fake news” on the people of the country (rather ironic because the majority of it has originated from him and his staff). Reporters, networks, and newspapers have been belittled and shunned, and the smear campaign against the supposed “enemy of the people” has reached a fever pitch.

Sorry, Mr. Trump. You can call any fact that is at odds with what you say “fake news” all you want, but that does not change what it really is. You can malign the press too, but as long as this remains a democracy, their presence will remain a crucial element in maintaining an honest government.

Sadly, some of the easily led (or, more accurately, misled) have swallowed this nonsense hook, line, and sinker. However, history has shown that eventually the truth will find the light of day. And when it does, Mr. Trump will find himself in a different world where veracity and accuracy actually do matter, one where his indisputably unpresidential words and actions shall be held to account.

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Black History Matters

February 19, 2017

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Yes, I know. All history matters.

However, it is necessary to make this proclamation because of the very nature of history itself. It is, after all, not just the telling of what happened in the past. It is the telling of what happened in the past from the perspective of those who are writing the history. In the words of Dan Brown, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ ”

The Arawak, Taino, and Caribe peoples of the Caribbean islands did not get to tell the story of Columbus and his “discovery” and subsequent conquest. Theirs would have been quite a different version than the one we have read for years in our grade school history books. So too did the Cherokee, Chippewa, Sioux, Blackfoot, Apache, and Navajo not get to describe the “taming of the West” as they knew it.

Nor did the slaves during that shameful two hundred forty-six year period in our history or their descendants who bore the oppressive burden of segregation have the opportunity to give voice to their experience for the greater populace to understand and appreciate.

This is the reason black history matters. And women’s history. And that of Native American Indians, Hispanics, and all others that have been traditionally disregarded. To ignore both the struggles and contributions of these groups is to taint the history of this country as incomplete and misleading.

Mention this year of Black History Month has been all too scarce (other than the hollow Trump statement with its ridiculous reference to Frederick Douglas). I would have hoped this is because we have reached a time of greater enlightenment. However, the present climate in which both emboldened intolerance and the phenomenon of “alternative facts” have gotten a foothold would indicate otherwise.

It is unacceptable for the American people as a whole to not have proper knowledge of a significant part of our population, especially since it has had an integral role in shaping the very nation we have become. It is important to recognize the impact — both on the perpetrators and the victims — of the  slave trade: the abject misery of the Middle Passage, the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured, and their ensuing life in America as mere property. For a country which purports to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all, it is necessary to recognize that we imposed such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then after the Civil War, though supposedly free, the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. We as a nation should also be inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice and by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds, lessons unfortunately still applicable to this day.

It is clear that there is work in this area remaining to be done if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.” We will need all members of our society to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of the past and its continued effect on the present. It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough insincere politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize and affirm its past, shortcomings as well as successes. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

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Enemy of the Ocean

January 2, 2017

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“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
― John Muir

The oceans of the world are one of the critical elements of the ecology of the Earth. Their environmental health is a powerful indicator of the health of the planet itself. And that health is suffering because of the actions of one creature: mankind.

At this moment eight massive garbage patches exist in the world’s oceans. The one in the Mediterranean Sea contains about 250 billion pieces of plastic. In the Pacific Ocean, the Great Eastern Garbage Patch is the size of Texas, and the Great Western is even larger at half the size of the continental United States. The Indian Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean have also fallen victim to this egregious phenomenon.

These garbage patches are composed of anything humans dispose of that floats. The greatest portion is plastic: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic containers of all sorts.

This is of particular concern because plastic takes an extremely long time to biodegrade. The average plastic bottle takes at least 450 years to completely biodegrade, and some take as long as 1,000 years. Rather, the plastic is ground down by the motion of the sea and the light of the sun into small particles called “confetti.” This confetti is destined to float around in the currents like a murky soup.

This is further compounded by the fact that these plastics leach out harmful substances such as bisphenol A (BPA). Plastics also absorb PCBs already present in the water. When marine life consumes the plastic granules, the harmful chemicals get into the food chain and affect any organism that eats them (including people).

And just who are the culprits responsible for this?

We are. All of us.

The use of products that end up in the garbage, plastic or otherwise, is pervasive. Since the threat is not immediate or visible, we succumb to the temptation of convenience. In the meantime we are pushing the limits of the planet’s ability to absorb the waste products of our modern civilization.

So what are we to do?

It sounds quite simple, but it requires the breaking of habits, something that in reality always proves difficult — stop (or at the very least greatly curtail) the use of common plastics.

When you shop, don’t use plastic bags. Choose paper or better yet, bring your own cloth bags. If you do end up with plastic bags, recycle them. Most supermarkets have a receptacle for such recycling right by the front door.

Instead of drinking bottled water, get a reusable drinking bottle and fill it with tap water (essentially what you are drinking in the plastic bottle and certainly no less healthy). Whatever plastics you do use, recycle. Virtually every town has a curbside pickup these days, so this practice should not be difficult to maintain. Not to do so makes you an enemy of the ocean.

These are most certainly not major sacrifices in terms of time or money (as a matter of fact, they will actually save money in the long run). But they are major actions that can help save the oceans. And that means saving the very planet we live on.

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Unpreventable?

December 7, 2016

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The war that we have carefully for years provoked                                                                                         Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.

Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.

Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.

The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.

Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.

Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.

At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.

At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.

At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.

Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?

As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”

It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.

So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.

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A Question Of Peace

November 17, 2016

The world has been mired in a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. Nations have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and vengeance. Political, ethnic, and religious groups have been both victim and perpetrator, and vilification of targeted groups has been used to justify their oppression or destruction as the instigators of violence take advantage by exploiting the emotions of the populace. The only thing that changes is the time, the place, and the method.

The lessons that should have been learned from this shared human past are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I understand the need to protect oneself, and knowing one’s perceived enemies and keeping vigilant seems prudent. But each act of aggression by either side of any discord only foments further acts in response. Hatred begets hatred, violence results in more violence, and neither has ever led to any true resolution. The seemingly interminable chain must somehow be broken.

The continuous conflict that has afflicted mankind is deeply ingrained. The question is this: do we as a species intend to live in a perpetual state of combat, or do we find a way to peacefully resolve our differences?

It boils down to a question of tolerance. The intense animosities that have arisen between races, religions, nations, and tribes foster the endless fighting and even the perverse desire to eradicate the opposing group. The focus is always on some disparate aspect of the other group that develops into a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

However, our commonalities as humans vastly outnumber our differences, and the perpetrators of aggression need to be convinced to abandon the old ideologies to which they cling that justify their desire for dominance. The huge task of eliminating the manufactured boundaries between the peoples of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem. It will take a concerted effort by all who believe a lasting peace is both necessary and possible in order to attain this.

And why now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many atrocities inflicted on the innocent can we bear? How many areas of the globe balanced on the precipice or already immersed in armed aggression need to exist? How many threats of potential escalation into the ultimate conflagration must weigh upon us?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology have created more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned the flames of hatred and increased the will to use them, it will take more than hope alone to counteract this madness. This hope must turn into commitment and then to positive action in order to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of humankind.

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Remembering Those Who Served

November 11, 2016

 

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Today is Veterans’ Day, a commemorative holiday that should be of great significance to us all. But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing for far too many Americans.

I believe several factors have contributed to this. The mood of the nation has soured on military involvement abroad. More significantly, the advent of the all-volunteer army has insulated the vast majority of Americans from those who now are put in the position of fighting in our name. We all seem to forget when it is somebody else’s parent or sibling or child who is in harm’s way.

But for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets. This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called upon to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert or the accounts of Owen West in The Snake Eaters, of Nathaniel Fitch in One Bullet Away, of Donovan Campbell in Joker One. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Talk to a veteran, at the very least to express thanks for his or her service. Talk to their family members to perhaps gain some perspective on the situation in which they have found themselves. Do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those organizations which are already doing so. Check out their websites. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today on this Veterans Day, recognize the veterans who are undoubtedly around you. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, I believe we should once again look at it as a privilege to remember and honor those who have served.

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Rigged

November 9, 2016

In perhaps the greatest irony (and there were many) of this Presidential election, Donald Trump’s concerns about a “rigged” election came to pass, though not in the manner that he foresaw. For the second time in the past five elections and the fifth time in our history, the candidate who had the most votes did not win.

Why? Because of the presence in our “democracy” of an archaic system called the electoral college. In this system, the principle of one person one vote is in actuality circumvented.

So why do we have this system in the first place?

One must go back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 for the answer. The founding fathers had thought about a variety of different methods of electing the President, most of which did not involve any direct vote by the people themselves. When they settled upon the electoral college, part of the reasoning was to provide a degree of participation by the population. Tweaked in 1804 by the 12th Amendment and then again by the 23rd Amendment, the system remains essentially the same in that the deciding vote is that of the electoral college and not the popular vote. In this system, it is which states a candidate has a simple majority in rather than the more logical simple majority in the entire nation. It is even potentially possible in the current system to win a Presidential election with under 30 percent of the popular vote.

The 2000 election illustrates the inequity of this process. Before the Florida vote was finalized, Al Gore led George W. Bush in the nation-wide popular vote. He also led in the electoral vote 265 to 246. But a difference of a mere 537 votes gave Florida — and its 25 electoral votes — to Bush, and thus the entire election. How does this make sense?

Perhaps it is time for a change.

Just such a change was considered during the 91st Congress. A resolution proposed a direct election based on the popular vote with the provision that a run off would be required if no one received over 40 percent of the vote. In 1969 the House of Representatives passed this resolution, but the Senate did not.

I, for one, believe such a change is long overdue, not just because of the result of this particular election or any other, but because if we are to truly be a democracy, no other system makes sense.

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