The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

THE MEDIA AND THE MOB

Virtually everyone who has attempted creative writing has probably experienced the phenomenon known as writer’s block.  I don’t know if its antithesis has ever been diagnosed or documented, but in mid-January I experienced what I refer to as writer’s overload.

As I sat down to write my next post I heard a story on the news that grabbed my attention.  Dutifully, I saved the half-completed piece and focused on the breaking story which I found more interesting than the post on which I had been working.  As I began developing that post I took a break for lunch.  Returning to my desk, I turned on the news and returned to working on the second piece.  Yet another story broke that day which I felt had even more interest than either the one on which I was working or its predecessor.  Needless to say I began to tackle that subject.  Then, halfway written, I put down that piece and sat back to reflect on what was happening.

I was feeling so overwhelmed by information that I was having difficulty focusing on any of it sufficiently to write something that was either worth writing or worth reading.  The same thing happened the next day and the next.  I was beginning to feel like a teenager who was experiencing an explosion of acne but who only had enough medication to treat one lone blotch.

I remembered an experience when I was in my late teens and went on a two week religious retreat at a monastic community slightly outside New York City on the banks of the Hudson River.  I was going to begin my freshman year in college in the fall and felt that I needed some time to focus and identify my goals and develop a plan of attack.  Part of the discipline of the retreat was living in a small cell with only the bare necessities of a bed a desk and a prie dieu – and total silence other than at religious services.  I left and felt refreshed after fourteen days and boarded the Greyhound bus to return to the city.

As the bus drove to New York I felt very peaceful yet energized.  I read as we sped along and almost before I knew it we were pulling into the terminal.  The time had literally flown by.  Then the bus driver announced our arrival and opened the door to allow the half full bus of passengers to exit.  As I gathered up the small grip which contained my belongings I was suddenly amazed at all the noise inside the terminal.  It was overwhelming – almost deafening.  And I realized that I heard that noise every one of the days I had spent in NYC in my short seventeen years – but that I was so used to it I had never noticed it.  For me and my fellow New Yorkers, noise was normal.

That was in the mid-60’’s.  Television consisted of the the three major networks; news was delivered via the morning and evening newspapers; the latest innovation in telecommunications was the introduction off the “Princess phone.”  Yet even with those limitations in our ability to send or receive information there was so much noise   By today’s norms we were forced to function at a near-primitive information level.  Yet, knowing nothing else, we seemed to get along just fine.

The jury may be out on global warming, climate change or climate instability or whatever current incarnation is in vogue.  But it is clear that our access to information has exploded in the past half century.  I doubt that our ability to process all that information has kept pace.  Perhaps that is one contributing reason that one in ten Americans is purported to have some form of mental issue and the reason that the prescriptions for psychiatric medications are being dispensed at record rates.

The posts which I began during the past month had a common theme.  Whether it was the abuse of power in New Jersey in closing down the George Washington Bridge; the scandal in New York City of firefighters and police falsely claiming disability and collecting monthly payments; our Secretary of State Kerry proclaiming to the world that environmental change is as urgent a concern as jihadists with shoe bombs and bad intentions; the Syrian government’s failure to comply with their “agreement” to turn over their chemical weapons and our government’s inept policy not only in the middle east but globally as the fires burn in Kiev and the people mob the streets in Venezuela.

President Obama alone provided the substance for several posts in his most current revisions of Obamacare through executive fiat which seem to be occurring weekly.  And what is that common theme?  It is not in the substance of the event but in the fact that it will soon be replaced and forgotten as some even newer story emerges and captures our attention  for the next nano-second.  It is in precisely this environment that politicians and poltroons can either get away with bad behavior or just plain ineptitude, knowing that the public’s attention will soon be distracted by someone else’s bad behavior before they are called to account.

Let’s be honest.  The mindless mob would much rather hear or see a story about Miley Cyrus than have a conversation about the Madison papers.  The vast majority of our public would rather talk about the Super Bowl, well perhaps not the last one, than the implications of a Supreme Court ruling.  It’s difficult to be informed unless you perceive a reason to be informed.  And most people would rather be entertained by “Jersey Shore” than be concerned with “justice for all” – unless they are themselves the victim of injustice.

No matter where we turn the airwaves are filled with stories of greed, self-absorption, victims and victimizers, heroes found out to have attained their achievements in violation of the rules of fair play and countless stories of those who feel that the laws made for all were beneath them.  “What’s in it for me” rules the culture and the country.

There is no doubt that this can continue as long as there is left some marrow to be picked from the bones of the doers, the makers and the taxpayers.  The truth of that statement is that it has gone on – perhaps for half a century.  But there is always an accounting – no matter how hard those in the media and those in the seats of power try to postpone it.  Eventually we will kill the last fatted calf and there will be no offspring to replace it.

Whether that day is tomorrow or decades from now is uncertain.  Whether we come to the realization that we have been wanton in our values and our priorities because of an apocalyptic moment or through mass self-examination is also unsure.  It is unlikely that the aegis of this enlightenment will be the thousand channels of cable jabberwocky that are beamed at us each moment and without which far too many of us would see no point in living.

But if  the media suddenly had a cathartic moment and focused on things of importance rather than fluff and sensationalism, the question remains.  How many of the mob would listen – and how many would understand and work for change both personally and in those whom we elect to serve in political office?

THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA

Because my high school English teacher had a philosophy that education was not confined to the school term, each year we were given a summer assignment which we were expected to complete and turn in on our return in the fall.

At the end of my junior year we were told to select an American author, read at least three novels or plays by him or her as well as a biography and write a term paper of no less than 25 pages in length.  When I was given this assignment I selected Sinclair Lewis as my author subject..

I will admit to a bit of deviousness on my part in this selection as I had already read two of his novels, “Main Street” and “Babbitt” and I had asked my parents for the extensive biography which Mark Schorer had written several years earlier as a birthday present.  But I would also have to say that I enjoyed Lewis’ acerbic style and his descriptions of life in America and I looked forward to reading several more of his works.

I threw myself head first into the project by reading “Dodsworth” and by the time that I had finished it my birthday had come around and the Lewis biography was beautifully gift wrapped and ready for my eager eyes.  I tore into it rapaciously.

When I finished the biography I read six more of Lewis’ novels including “It Can’t Happen Here” which was published in 1935 and was a parody of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.  The work was transposed to a sleeping America where the electorate allowed themselves to be seduced by a charismatic populist leader who bought their votes by offering them small sops, (the kitchen in every pot syndrome).

Ultimately, he consolidated his near unanimous support to assume dictatorial powers.  But some few, true stalwarts who saw the insidious nature of this new dictator resisted and so the Second American Revolution was born.  Perhaps you will see a corollary between this book written 78 years ago and today’s events.

Lewis was a fiercely partisan American.  While his books often pointed to the pettiness of small-minded middle American individuals, nevertheless he believed that our people and our country, with all their faults, was the modern Prometheus and the shining beacon lighting the way for the whole world.

But because he was not afraid to tell it like it was, he had no compunctions about insulting anyone whom he felt was tarnishing the American dream and all who were hypocritical in the morality they preached and the immorality they lived.  This caused Lewis to earn the moniker, “The most hated man in America.”

(And you thought this post was going to be about George Zimmerman, didn’t you)?

More on Lewis in the next post.

THANK YOU

As I’m sure all of you know, Word Press issues an annual report.  When I began this blog in October, 2010 I was unaware of that.  And I was equally unaware of that at the end of that year.   The blog had attracted so few visitors that I was not even awarded an “Un-honorable mention”.

This year was a little different.  I received notification comparing the number of “hits” to the European Principality of Liechtenstein.  As you may be aware, Liechtenstein is the third smallest political entity in Europe, Vatican City being the smallest followed by the the Principality of Monaco.  In case you didn’t know, Liechtenstein has issued some of the most wonderfully artistic stamps that have ever been printed.

There are times when I put my heart and soul into a post and there were few responses.  I would be dishonest to say that I didn’t find that discouraging, because I did.

I have always been an admirer of the Impressionist school of painting.  Had it not been for Ambrose Vollard, one of the most important art dealers in Paris, the works of Matisse and Monet, Cezanne and Camille Pissarro might have been years later in gaining the acclaim that they so richly deserve.  Vollard worked diligently to promote these artists, among many others.  He had a vision.

Like Vollard, I have a vision.  I believe that there is a better world that we can achieve through compassion and co-operation and courtesy.  I also know that I cannot convince anyone else to engage in my three “C’s” unless I exhibit them in my own life.

You may not realize how important each of you who has taken the time to stop by and comment or hit the “Like” button is in that effort.  But I do.  Without your support, I probably would have long ago abandoned this blog.  I realize that you are a limited audience – but I accept that I am not writing for or being read by the mass of humanity.

I also recognize that I will never enjoy the popularity of those who would enjoy reading about the latest indiscretion of someone who is currently in the limelight of pop culture.  And I’m fine with that.  To abandon principle in favor of that which is momentarily in vogue is to abandon truth and values and reason.  And I hope that I never succumb to that low level of despair.

And if I should maintain my standards, as unimportant as those might be to the mass audience, it is only because of the support that I have received from you, my loyal readers.

And for that support, I wholeheartedly want to say, “Thank you”.

(NOT YET) FAMOUS QUOTES – XIX

“The water from the fountain of ignorance flows freely – but those who drink from it pay a very dear price.”

– juwannadoright

GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTING –PART II

It is the Tuesday before we turn our attention to our national day of Thanksgiving.  We have a lot for which we should be grateful despite the many challenges that lie ahead of us.

I began writing this blog a little over a year ago.  With the exception of about ten posts which were the work of others and which I re-blogged, the writing has been an expression of my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and my concerns.  There are now over 450 original posts which have been uploaded for your review.

No one either lives or writes in a vacuum.  If a person were to write the “Great American Novel” and no one read it, would its existence matter?  And so I remember that when I began and started to learn to navigate a little bit around Word Press, the excitement I felt when someone first clicked the “like” button on something I had written.  I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, somebody actually read what I had to say.”  I guess we all need a little validation for our efforts.

As my blogging journey continued, I suddenly had a “follower”.  Just one – but that was exciting.  And then another and a few more.  As I began reading other blogs, it was only natural that I noticed how many followers some of them had.  Hundreds and hundreds, which led me to feel that what I had to say was probably only important to me and perhaps a handful of others.

And while I wanted to stop and enjoy a private pity party for a bit, I realized that if what I had to say mattered only to an audience of one – myself – I was honor bound to say it – with or without the acclamation of others.  It seems to me that is what personal honesty and responsibility are all about.

Perhaps one of the nicest compliments I have heard about my posts has come from two different people at the dog park who are not “followers” but are regular readers.  In the past week both of them have commented on specific posts and have described them as being written with “passion”.  I can think of no higher accolade and I am grateful to them for those words of encouragement.

And it is to all of you have taken the time either to click the “like” button and especially to those of you have taken your time to leave a comment to whom I want to express my gratitude and thanks.  Although you may not have realized it, your comments were a sustaining nourishment that enabled me to get as far with this blog as I have.

And there is one more thing about your comments which needs to be said.  You have provided the inspiration for many of these posts by causing me to think about things which otherwise I might have overlooked.  Such is the case with this post’s predecessor – which before reading the three comments that are currently posted, I considered a completed work.  But your thoughtful commentaries have now given rise to this post, and two more which will follow in the next few days.

So with a grateful heart, I say to all of you, “Thank you.”

And now – on to the subject of this post which I dedicate to all those who have taken their time to comment in the past.

When Gracie and I returned home this morning from the dog park I was sitting out back enjoying a beautiful morning and a strong cup of coffee.  Gracie, who in many ways is my muse, was happily munching on a homemade dog biscuit and I was thinking about the comments that “illero” and “irishsignora” and “William Lawson” had left on the first episode of “Government Accounting”.  And then I was inspired.

I agreed in my reply to “illero” that the amount of money deprived our seniors through SSA’s accounting gimmickry was chump change, although we both felt that the practice was petty and wrong.  But then I read “irishsignora’s” comment about how she is teaching her children about the value of things.  The combination of the two caused me to think about the real story here – one beyond that which I reported in the first post on this subject.

That caused me to think about Albert Einstein who understood the importance of “compounding” (read more in the next post) and that led me to think about the implications of this practice not just in one year but over periods of time.

If you followed my logic in “Government Accounting” (I wonder if I have to go back and rename it Part I – nah), SSA is currently saving $200 Million a year through their practice of always rounding down to the next lowest dollar the benefits that they pay out to seniors.  When you have a government running a $1 Trillion annual deficit, that is truly small potatoes.

But think about it for a moment.  According to the SSA, the “average” beneficiary receives a payment for a little over 16 years.  So, assuming that there is an annual increase in benefits of any amount (we just had a three year period where there were no increases – but that is an all time first in the history of the program), each year this accounting gimmick is going to compound the savings to SSA by an equal amount.  So in year two, the savings will amount to $400 Million, in year five, $1 Billion and in year sixteen, $3.2 Billion.  This is no longer “chump change” – and I think the late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen would strongly agree.

And what is the cumulative amount denied our senior Social Security recipients over this sixteen year time horizon?  It totals up to a rather staggering $30.2 BILLION.

Those of our elderly who may occasionally have to resort to eating canned cat food could certainly trade up and buy a whole lot of filet mignons with that much money.  Even at the current market price.

WE CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

I remember as a child, going with my parents to Washington to spend some time with my dad’s brother and his wife.  We made the trip by car and, like all children my age, I probably annoyed my parents by incessantly asking, “Are we there yet?”

Well finally we got there.  Or mostly so.  That is to say, we were in our nation’s Capitol – a city which, for the uninitiated, has to be one of the most confusing places on earth.

I have heard that the city’s circular design was, in part, intended as a matter of defense.  I would advise any foreign entity with aspirations of attacking
Washington by land that they had best bone up on the city’s layout before attempting their assault.

If there were one thing that I remember keenly about my father, it was that he had the most amazingly accurate sense of direction of anyone I have ever known.  Knowing where he was and understanding how to get where he was going was completely natural to him.  He had a built-in GPS system which was more accurate than the ones on which we rely today.

But apparently, there was something in the air in Washington which interfered with that ability.

My Uncle Howard, who at the time was an Assistant Director in the General Services Administration, the Federal agency which purchases most of the goods and services the government buys, had given my father directions on how, once we entered the city, we should proceed to get to his office.  Dad had pulled out the slip of paper on which he had written down these directions and was trying to follow them.

I don’t know if the instructions my Uncle Howard had given dad were inaccurate but we drove as my uncle had instructed and for some reason found ourselves back at our starting point, having looped around the city.  So dad tried again – with the same result.

Frustrated at his inability to do anything other than drive in circles, my father looked for a pay phone on the street so that he could call his brother at his office.  We finally found one and dad spoke with him.

I think my uncle must have sensed the aggravation in his older brother’s voice because he asked where we were, told us to sit tight and drove over to get us.  Apparently we had made a wrong turn somewhere and as my uncle explained, “You can’t get there from here.”

As it was now quitting time for my uncle, rather than going to his office we followed him to his home in Bethesda, MD.  To this day I don’t know for sure that there is a GSA building as I’ve never seen it.

We had a wonderful stay.  It is hard to visit Washington without coming away with a great sense of pride in what the American experiment had accomplished.

The buildings were more than mere structures.  They were shrines to the people who had worked together to show the world what could be accomplished by a rag tag volunteer army who fought and overcame what was then the mightiest fighting force in the world.  And all because of their desire to be free of oppression and to craft their own destiny.

I was especially privileged because my Aunt Rose was the secretary to the Director of the National Archives.  She received permission from her boss to bring me down to the Archives’ vaults where I was allowed to view documents that had been signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

If you have seen Frank Capra’s movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” you will have a sense of the pride I felt viewing these – in much the same way that Jimmy Stewart was overwhelmed when he saw the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials when he first arrived in the city as a newly appointed senator.

And you will understand how, when he is falsely accused of attempting personal gain by a corrupt colleague and the attempt is made to expel him from the Senate, this naïve, idealistic man retreats to Abe Lincoln’s feet at the base of his memorial and weeps bitter tears, so disillusioned by the government in which he believed and the reality that he discovered.

Perhaps I also am too idealistic.  After volunteering in the political process for several decades it is difficult to hold on to that attitude.  Like Senator Smith, I have learned the reality that people in public office are far more likely to be concerned about their personal interests than the interests of those whom they were elected to serve.  Maybe that is just human nature – or at least the nature of many who choose to run for public office.

Unlike Senator Smith, I cannot shed my tears at Lincoln’s feet.  The next best thing that I can do is watch this outstanding movie and write this blog, hoping to reach at least a few other people who care about what is happening in the land.

This country was founded by people who were great thinkers and its existence was secured by people who were great doers.  It was that combination which made America great – and it is the absence of it which is the reason that we have stumbled, and stumbled badly.

If we want the prosperity and the promise to return to this land, we have to make a change both to our political leadership and to our own apathetic attitudes.  We have once again to begin doing – and we need to elect people who are common sense thinkers.

There is one thing that is certain to me.  With the current cast of characters running the show and most of the people who are sitting in the audience, we can’t get there from here.

SUNDAYS WITH SARAH

I called my friend, Sarah on Friday to wish her a Happy Birthday.  It was the 90th time that she got to celebrate this event.

Sarah and I have been friends from the first time that  we met.  She is one of the most delightful and fun people I know.  Well, actually, she is more like two of the most delightful and fun people I know.

It’s almost as though she is a female version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, she is refined, genteel and delicate in the way I pictured Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  But when she gets started on one subject – politics – she transforms into a gruff version of Ruth Gordon complete with the salty language that would embarrass the most hardened merchant seaman.

Sarah and her younger sister were born in Munich, Germany.  Her father was the Cantor at their Synagogue but he earned his living as a diamond cutter.  As a result, both the girls received an extensive exposure to classical music – something which Sarah and I shared and loved.

In 1934, seeing the storm clouds arise in his country, Sarah’s father moved his family to Antwerp.  But after four years in Belgium, the Nazis signed the “negotiated agreement” which annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and he feared, quite correctly, that this was merely the start of something far bigger on Hitler’s part.  Her father, Saul had a friend who owned a  wholesale jewelry business in Chicago and offered him a job – so the family left Europe and moved to the Midwest.

The family settled in Chicago’s Hyde Park.  At the time, a significant percentage of the population in this neighborhood was Jewish – in part because many of them were professors at the University of Chicago.  And directly abutting Hyde Park on the north was Kenwood, a neighborhood that was filled with 10 and 12 bedroom mansions.  K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Temple, Chicago’s oldest synagogue was located there and had a congregation of people who tended to be politically conservative.

But the large Jewish population on Chicago’s south side began moving north, particularly when the “Gold Coast” area became more fashionable.  Unlike some of their fellow religionists, Sarah’s parents stayed in Hyde Park and it was there that I met her 30 years ago.

I was working as the “precinct captain”  of my own precinct, making sure that every Republican vote got to the polls and was voted (if not necessarily counted) on election day that year.  Of course, this was volunteer work and was far from taxing.  Of the four hundred registered voters in the precinct, there were only about 20 who identified themselves as being Republicans.  By comparison to other precincts in Chicago, that was actually a pretty decent showing.

The Republican voters in Chicago’s 5th Ward fell into one of only several categories.

The first were older conservative Jewish voters who had not migrated to the north side, preferring the almost suburban and wonderfully inter-racially mixed neighborhood to the near-ghetto atmosphere which had been crafted by the nouveau-successful about 10 miles north.

The second were professors and students at the University of Chicago’s School of Business.

The third, (and they were few in number) were students at the University’s School of Divinity who had experienced a close, personal encounter with God.  As I said, there weren’t many who fell into this last category.

Sarah was a member of the first group and was the stalwart who rounded up the 10 Republicans in her building so that I could drive those who were too frail to walk to the polls and, when they had finished voting, drive them back to their apartment.

That was how Sarah and I met.  But there was something insightful and interesting in this wonderful lady, substantially older than I, that caused us to become close friends.  In part, it was the Sunday crossword puzzle.

Sarah loved to do the crossword in the Chicago Tribune (and I later was able to talk her into doing the Quote Acrostic as well).  But when she would get stuck on a clue, she would call me, knowing that I always was able to complete the puzzle, and ask me to give her a helping hand with it.  As the years went by we maintained this ritual of speaking at least every Sunday.

I would, if I had plans for Sunday afternoon after church, start on the puzzle early so that I was prepared for our conversation.  We continued to do this for 20 years – until I moved to Las Vegas where I found it impossible to get the Chicago Tribune.

Over the years I noticed that these conversations became longer and longer as Sarah had more difficulty with the puzzles.  A one hour conversation to complete the puzzle became somewhat standard.  At first I would simply create an alternate clue to the one that was given in the puzzle to try to help her out.  But as time went by, my assistance became more direct.  “Okay, Sarah, the next letter you’re missing is a vowel.”

I could see myself, thirty or forty years down the road, hoping that I had a friend who would similarly be able to help me out as my memory faded and although these conversations were a little boring for me, I tried to put myself in her place and realize that there was nothing more special than being able to help out a friend.

Despite her advanced age, Sarah is still vibrant and active – but annoyed that she now has to rely on the use of a cane to get around.  She still takes her mile long walk every day, although I suspect it takes her longer to finish it than when I first met her.  And she is still politically attuned – and incorrect.

I have been sending her copies of my posts as I write them, and she is probably my most severe critic.  She thinks that I’m far too polite in my comments about the President.  I know because she has told me so in no uncertain terms.

As I said, when she gets on the subject of politics she is expressive in a downright earthy way.

On my most recent call congratulating her on her birthday, she said, “What the hell is wrong with you?  You’ve got brains.  Why don’t you talk about that SOB (she used one word implying an illegitimate birth status) in the White House and tell people that he’s the biggest piece of sh*t that we’ve ever elected?  Look how he’s abandoning Israel.”

“What the hell is wrong with all these liberal Jews?  Don’t they remember what the holocaust was all about?  Don’t they remember what happened when they tried to find excuses about why Hitler wasn’t so bad?  Don’t they remember that 6 million off us died in that SOB’s gas chambers – only because he couldn’t find the rest of us and kill us too?”

“This guy is just as dangerous as Hitler – it’s just that people are too stupid to see that.”

As I said, Sarah has some pretty deep feelings when it comes to politics.

I don’t think that I’m going to mail this particular post to Sarah.  But I know that she will appreciate the cartoon.  (I owe credit to Rick and his blog “Billericapolitics.org” for it).  So I guess I’ll just make a copy of the cartoon and send it to her in the packet I’ve already assembled.

I’ll find out Sunday if she enjoyed it when we have our weekly call.

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