Posts Tagged ‘America’


Number Seventy-two

November 11, 2017

As the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick played out on TV last month, I found myself glued to the screen. It exploded with images of fierce battles and the great social upheaval both in Vietnam and the United States. An amazing assemblage of reminiscences of soldiers and TV clips from the news gave such depth to this complex subject. There was much I didn’t know and much I couldn’t know not having been there myself. But there was also much I remembered of that time, and as I sat riveted, I couldn’t help but to think back.

During high school, only snippets of our growing involvement in Vietnam entered my consciousness, some from the news and some from a few teachers who spoke of it. It was a far-away occurrence, one of little importance to most  teens whose minds were on more immediate concerns. That all changed once I reached college.

My freshman year began in the fall of 1966 as the crescendo of protest was building on campuses throughout the country. I began to pay attention to the news stories which grew more and more prominent. I heard the protest songs that were the soundtrack of those times: Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Richie Haven’s “Handsome Johnny.” Back home the “silent majority” made their voices known too. It was a period of extreme social tension and moral reckoning for us all.

I had always believed in the Kennedy ideal manifest in his inauguration speech: “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what can you do for your country.” Ever since I became aware of the Peace Corps during high school, joining had been my goal. It would be my way of contributing to my country and a world that clearly had great need. That dream came into greater focus during college, especially when one of the upperclassmen I admired joined. My correspondence with him overseas only whetted my desire more. I gathered up all the brochures I could get my hands on and then finally in the beginning of my senior year sent in my application.

That year also brought about the first draft lottery, and I was part of the pool of 19 to 26 year olds involved. Numbers would be drawn based on one’s birthday. The draft order would be established from low number to high. The fate of each rode on the luck of the draw.

On December 1 of 1969, I can still remember the anxious souls milling about the hallways in the dorm awaiting the results of the lottery. Those who drew numbers above two hundred were considered to be safe. I got number seventy-two.

I proceeded with my plans to enter the Peace Corps undeterred. Although this would not excuse me from the draft, it was a commitment I had made to myself to honor the spirit of Kennedy’s service ideal. I knew I would be a better teacher than soldier, and to serve in the interests of peace took precedence in my mind over participating in what was widely considered to be an ill-advised and unjust war. My letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps arrived on April 13 just before my senior year drew to its tumultuous conclusion with the Kent State shooting and its aftermath of violence on my own campus.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1970. During my service there, I received my draft notification. The best the Peace Corps could do was to have my induction postponed until I finished my two-year tour.

When I arrived home in 1972, two significant events occurred. I discovered that my draft board had violated their own rules while drafting me when I had been overseas thus exempting me from being inducted. I then discovered through a routine medical test that I had been born with only one kidney which, had I not already been exempted, would have classified me 4F and unable to serve.

A few months later, in January of 1973, Nixon announced an accord had been reached which would end our involvement in the fighting in Vietnam. This closing chapter was painfully depicted in the documentary, those final weeks tainting what was to be “peace with honor.”

I think about those of my generation who ended up going to Vietnam, those who did so out of a sense of duty, and especially those who were drafted out of small town or inner city America. I met some of these while in the Philippines, mostly young guys who had never been out of their state no less half way around the world fighting a war they didn’t understand. I could hear in their conversations a sense of unreality of their situation. Most of them sought escape at the bottom of a bottle, some worse.

There is still much debate about the legacy left by this conflict. However, whatever conclusion each individual believes, there can be no doubt that this war left many scars, scars in those who fought, in the families of those who fought, and in a nation that was shaken to its core.


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.


Welcome to Trump World

February 26, 2017


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.


Black History Matters

February 19, 2017


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.


Remembering Those Who Served

November 11, 2016



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.



June 20, 2016


“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

This is the common refrain of many “gun rights” proponents. It’s catchy, but it’s incomplete. What it should say is “People who have guns kill people.”

The following corollaries apply:

People who have assault weapons kill many people.

People who have assault weapons with high-capacity magazines kill many people in a short period of time.

Yes, I know, people who have knives also kill people. Same goes for blunt objects, automobiles, boomerangs, and bolos.

And yes, most people who have guns don’t kill anybody.

However, any rational member of society should be able to accept that limitations must be put on anything that is dangerous. This is why we have licensing laws for motor vehicles. This is why we have speed limits. This is why vaqueros and aborigines are not allowed to hunt in public parks.

And guns are dangerous. Assault rifles are extremely dangerous, dangerous beyond the justification for their public availability. Regulating them is not an infringement on rights. It is common sense.

There are already governmental limits applied to guns on the books. One of these applies to duck hunting. In order to protect the wildfowl population, weapons used to hunt them are limited to carrying only three shells. This is to protect the duck population. But somehow assault rifles with forty-five round magazines being used against the human population cannot be controlled?

Assault weapons were designed and built for one purpose: assault. They are not hunting rifles. They are not target rifles. They are not self-defense rifles.

They are assault rifles. Weapons of war.

These weapons simply have no place outside of the military, just like RPGs, mortars, and hand grenades. Their sale should be unequivocally banned.

Mikhail Kalashnikov developed the infamous AK47, the progenitor of this type of rifle, “to create a weapon that would drive the Germans from Russia.” Not to bag a deer. Not to hit a bullseye. Not to protect a home (from what, I would ask, a horde of marauding Huns?). The manufacturers of the more recent permutations of this gun (such as the popular AR 15, a “civilian” version of a military weapon, the M 16) have made claims for it to be other things, but that is merely trying to put a wolf in sheep’s clothing. To argue otherwise is insulting.

A ban on assault rifles is akin to a speed limit on a highway. It does not infringe upon your right to drive. It is meant to control dangerous driving. Rational people accept this concept.

The counter arguments by gun-rights zealots are that banning guns won’t prevent gun violence from happening (though this flies in the face of the evidence from other countries). That even if a weapon is banned, bad guys can still get their hands on them. That if one weapon is banned, then another will be, and another, and another until all I’ll have left is my Bowie knife.

First point. Do speed limits always stop people from driving dangerously? Not always. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. Will a ban on assault rifles totally prevent the types of mass shootings we have seen far too much of in the past few years? Perhaps not completely, but it will sure as hell make them far more difficult to  accomplish. Any obstacle we can put between people and assault weapons and thus mass shootings would be beneficial.

Second point. Bad guys sometimes do manage to get their hands on weapons they shouldn’t have. But if these particular weapons are unavailable for purchase — by anyone, anywhere — it is highly unlikely that the kind of people who have used them to cause deadly mayhem (Aurora, Newtown, San Bernadino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and now Parkland) would have been able to obtain them.

Third point. The fall-back position of unlimited access to guns of any type is always the second amendment. I wish I could feel confident those who use this argument have actually read it and understand it.

This is what it says: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

There are two parts to this statement, and too little consideration is given to the first (and most critical) part, the very reason for the amendment. In 1776 a militia (and not just any militia, mind you, but a “well-regulated” one) was necessary to ensure the security of our new “free state.”  It is now 2018. How does anyone in their right mind accept the notion that this still applies the same way in an era with a professional military? Those paranoid enough to worry that an armed citizenry is a necessary balance to ensure that our military will not turn against the people of America are sadly delusional. Those unrealistic enough to think that an armed citizenry would be an effective protector of our country against outside forces have watched Red Dawn a few too many times after a few too many beers.

The second part states that the right “to keep and bear arms” shall not be infringed. It does not say the right to bear any and every type of arms. Even the “strict constitutionalists” by their own standards can not insert those critical words into the argument.

The Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 proposed to ban weapons with the ability to fire many bullets rapidly without the necessity of reloading. This by and large is considered to be reasonable by most law enforcement officials. It is also acceptable to a vast majority of Americans, including gun owners.

If such a ban were to go into effect, those who wish to can still buy guns. The list of guns still available to them would be too long to include here. Guns for hunting. Guns for target shooting. Guns for self-defense.

And yes, some of these will still be used in the commission of crimes. There is probably no way to stop that in a free society. But the kinds of mass shootings that have occurred using assault rifles will most certainly be curtailed. And that is a necessary step forward in a sane society.


Deep Roots

September 15, 2015



“So, your name is Ruiz. That’s funny, you don’t look Spanish.”

“I’m not. People who are Spanish are from Spain.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from here, but my parents were from Colombia.”

“So you’re Spanish then…”

Being Hispanic in the United States means many things. It means being part of a vibrant culture with a rich heritage of history, art, literature, and music. It means enjoying cuisines that are as varied as they are flavorful. It means family and the recognition of a collective inheritance preserved in names and stories and blood. Oh, yes, and it means a linguistic background of Spanish.

But being Hispanic also means other things. It means frequent confusion over national identity. And it often means to be plunged, rightly or wrongly, into the controversy over immigration.

Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, something which many people are barely aware exists. I believe it is quite necessary in order to increase awareness of the place this heritage occupies in our nation’s lifeblood.

When one examines the multi-cultural entity that is America, its Hispanic roots run deep. Most of the earliest arrivals to this country were Spanish. Over one third of the land — all of the southwest, most of the west, and Florida — were under Spanish control in the early period of colonization, and that influence still remains in the culture of those regions to this day.

But beyond that, the modern history of this nation is being impacted by its citizens of Hispanic heritage, currently accounting for seventeen percent of the population, making it the largest minority in the country. It is projected that by 2060 that number will rise to thirty-one percent. They are the product of the original Spanish exploration and colonization, people from Mexico and the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean as well as a new wave from Spain itself. Each has its own individual cultural characteristics with language as its common denominator. A better understanding of who these people really are is needed to offset the all-too-often negative images pervasive in the broader society.

It is certainly not a new phenomenon that a cultural group be branded by the stereotype of the lowest strata of its kind. Italian-Americans have been broadly painted as underworld mobsters in spite of the vast majority who are honest and hard-working. Irish-Americans bore the stigma of being drunken brawlers and Polish-Americans the dim lightbulbs, neither of which applies to most of those populations.

And so it is with Hispanic-Americans. The majority of Mexican-Americans are not cholos in lowriders. Not all Central Americans are gun-toting gang members nor are most South Americans drug-smuggling cartel members. And, contrary to common belief, most are not illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, the presence of these stereotypes in popular media belies this truth. I suppose a TV series about a Mexican-American gardener or a movie about an industrious Peruvian roofer or a news story examining the success of a store clerk of Dominican descent would not be as enticing to the viewing public, and that only serves to underscore the need for some accurate portrayals of this population.

We still labor over this question of exactly who is an American, and many continue to harbor the Archie Bunkerish idea that there are somehow “real” Americans that are different from these other folks who also populate our land. Somehow the concept that every person here other than the Native American Indians is in essence of immigrant stock seems to escape these “real” Americans.


And just what is it that makes us American? Our skin color? The country from which our predecessors came? The food we eat or the religion we follow or the music we listen to? The amount of time that has passed since our familial forebears first arrived? Far too often such faulty criteria are used, and the result can only serve to perpetuate the gulf between us.

I would like those who are detractors to come visit my adult ESL classes some time to meet the people I teach. They are hard-working and right living, ordinary folks who happen to be Hispanic. They are good neighbors, attentive parents, and contributing members of society. Some of them toil all night doing the kind of jobs “real Americans” won’t take. After arriving home in the morning with just enough time to wash up and change clothes, they come to class to improve their English, trying to better themselves and in turn ensure their children a better future in their new country, a situation that has been a common thread throughout the long history of this nation.

I have come to know many of their children over the years, and they are as American as any of the other kids in their neighborhoods and classes. They speak English and love Disney World and join gymnastics or basketball or Student Council just like your kids did. And, as ought to be the case with every American, they should be able to be proud of their heritage just as you are of yours, for that is the true American way.