Friday, July 31, 2015

New Hampshire: The Indifferent Parent

University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH

NPR had a report on New Hampshire and it's university system yesterday which was pretty depressing. It was actually a report on student debt nationwide and the outcomes for kids who had borrowed to go to college, invested in themselves and in their own futures, kids who had done all those things we've all been told are good for the kids and good for the country. The distress and ruin taking that advice has caused was the focus,  and they were using New Hampshire as a case in point because as a state it is the worst in the nation in providing support for its college system and its students. In-state tuition for New Hampshire residents is, cost adjusted, the highest in the nation.

They interviewed two graduates of UNH, a young woman who graduated with a double major in political science and English, minor in Spanish and her boyfriend who got his BA and then his law degree from UNH. He is currently working for $10 an hour at some job in a law firm. They didn't say if he'd passed the bar, but presumably, he's not an associate at the firm; likely he's doing clerical work. A paralegal would make much more. 

The woman has yet to find a real job, but cobbles together jobs in retail, jobs which do not require college degrees. From a financial perspective, they'd both have been better off not going to college which only served, thus far at least, to burden them with debt.

One might say, well what did you expect--with a BA in English?  

On the other hand, there is the story of my friend who worked as a welder at the GE airplane engine plant and moved up quickly through the organization until they wanted to elevate him to management, to run an entire section of the plant. But they called him in and told him he couldn't have the job everyone knew he could do well, in fact the job he was already doing well as an acting chief, because he didn't have a college degree.

So industry can be part of the problem, by sheer stupidity. There are industries which require some certification or another when the employee has already demonstrated competence in a much more meaningful way.

College degrees become important for all the wrong reasons: Because the people who run industry are too lazy to think of what real quality means, are unwilling to think about how to identify and reward real talent and initiative and effort among employees. Just shuffle paper--if the employee has a paper for the wall that's all that counts.

All education is a leap in faith:  The student studies things for which there is no apparent immediate reward, from learning what sounds go with which letters when you are learning to read, to reading Shakespeare or Camus or learning calculus, there is often no real world benefit evident at the time you are in the classroom. As a student, you have to trust the adult doing the instruction this is all worthwhile. 

But the English department sees things differently:  We teach Hemingway because it broadens the experience of the student. We are not here to do trade school training.  Literature courses are not apprentice training.  You want that, go to tech school. Liberal arts has less direct benefits. 

When you watch a show like "West Wing" you see what verbal people think is the power of the word, the power of emotive writing. Peggy Noonan, Dee Dee Myers made good careers out of spinning images, out of writing stirring phrases for Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton to deliver. So when Reagan spoke of touching the face of God, Noonan wrote his script for him and people were uplifted. But, fact is, about as many people make a living by writing inspiring stuff for politicians or corporate heads as make it in professional sports, percentage wise.  It's the rare, lucky, talented person who can actually translate the liberal arts into a viable living. 

The fact is, we probably ought not be encouraging so many people to go to college. But the fact remains, for those who have the financial backing to do so, it can be life changing for the individual, and the engineers, scientists, mathematicians, linguists, economists and psychologists we train at universities benefit the nation at large.  In New Hampshire, we hear, well, but why should we spend our money on these kids, who may get their educations and take their skills elsewhere?  Let other states do that. 

When veterans returning from World War II went to college in droves on the GI bill, people who would never have gone to college got degrees. This is frequently cited as a prime example of how investing in the work force, investing in higher education benefits the nation at large.  But was it college or was it simply the return of a lot of eager workers which fueled the sustained post war economic boom?

As someone in the NPR piece noted, New Hampshire, compared to most states, has no tax base. It is a state which has chosen to not support it's citizens, especially its children.  If providing grade school through graduate school instruction for New Hampshire children means an income tax or a sales tax, well, no thank you.

I have friends like this. They had kids and they said, "They got public schooling through high school, but we need to provide for our own retirement. We can't afford to pay for college. They want college? That's on their own dime. They got to get loans."  And these same people owned summer homes, went on cruises and trips to Europe. But they did not have money for college.

They are the parental equivalents of New Hampshire. 

Keene State College, New Hampshire

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Explorers: Making the Shire Go Global

T.E. Lawrence

A good friend from Nashville visited last week and she wondered out loud why New Hampshire is allowed such an outsized role in our nation's politics. This place is so...White! It's so homogeneous.  Tennessee  may be more representative of the push and pull going on in the country than this state of happy little shires populated by Hobbits. 

She is not the first to make that point, but in a way I like the idea of New Hampshire, the prototypical Hobbit shire sending it's people and ideas out into the world. There are some, admittedly small in number but large in heart and mind, who launch themselves from their shires into the world and go to China or South America or Europe and see all that through the clear lenses they developed in Hampton and return with that and they bring what they grew in New Hampshire to the places they explore.

She is actually unusual in that she had the intellectual daring to learn Japanese, having grown up in North Carolina, and she made an impressive career working for law firms and various groups as an American who was fluent in Japanese and who understood the culture. Getting an American mind to bend to the Asian world is challenging and requires courage and persistence. 

People who leave the comfortable and explore have often been malcontents, restless because they did not feel they really fit into the safe, comfortable world their parents had organized for them.  

Lawrence of Arabia was typical in that sense--said to have been homosexual and certainly not enamored of British imperial culture, he sought the exotic and embraced it in Arabia. 
Hemingway and Friends

Hemingway was not happy and snug at home and that led him to Europe, where he learned French and Spanish and rejected the familiarity of the American Midwest and he discovered the joys and risks of life in Spain, France and Germany. And he brought home those adventures and insights and made his home country more aware and educated in the process. 

Douglas Paal
In the roiling sixties, many college kids began questioning whether America really was the best place on earth, but our generation had not had enough experience of other places to be very sure what we could take from the rest of the world which was of any value. Back packing through Europe had its vogue, still does. Those brief forays, with the security of supportive parents back home, likely helped broaden minds back home in provincial America, but did not change the basic insularity of American thought, especially in places like the South and West and Midwest where few people ever ventured out into the rest of the planet.  At college, Doug Paal was a thoughtful, but clearly detached observer of what was swirling around him. He was on the college newspaper, which brought him into the campus whirl and buzz, but he remained apart in many ways. He wound up going to China, learning the language and served in the White House and now in a consulting capacity to help America deal with that inscrutable power across the Pacific. He managed to be an expatriot who remained oriented toward America, to bring home China to the United States.

Deb and James Fallows
Neither James nor Deb Fallows could be described as outsiders in their own country--Harvard educated, products of nurturing families, they nevertheless felt compelled to explore.  I think of them as something like members of that Explorers Club Jules Verne described in "Around the World in 80 Days" seated in London, where explorers returned to their plush leather chairs and their port wine to regale their colleagues with tales of what they saw in India, Polynesia and Africa. James Fallows provided a significant service to his homeland when he wrote "More Like Us" in the midst of the era when Japan seemed to be overtaking and replacing the United States economically and as a world power. Presciently, Fallows said Japan actually has more demons and burdens than we did and their culture of conformity and suppression of dissent and insistence on harmony when self criticism would be healthier did not put them in a good position to adapt to a changing world. He argued America, with its capacity for self examination and improvement would ultimately do better if only we decided to be "more like us," i.e. to cleave to what makes us strong--our diversity and energy and imagination.

Gauguin brought home his colors and his palate from Polynesia to France, where van Gogh learned from him and the world is in debt to that intermingling.

We are told we are living in the new global economy, but exploration and interaction is as old as mankind roaming out of Africa, as old as the Silk Road and men in ships heading from Viking land toward Newfoundland and from Spain to the Caribbean. It has occurred, for much of man's history as part of war, from the Crusades to World War II. 

The difference now is that a boy who grew up in North Carolina and became an accountant for a big American firm now finds himself in Hong Kong and Beijing with some regularity and he brings all that home to his workplace, his community and his family.  The numbers in this group will overwhelm the numbers of artists, academics and government types. They may actually change America and the world. 

But it takes courage and it takes vigor and persistence. The question is, will we have the wisdom to support those who are willing to launch?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Planned Parenthood in the Cross Hairs

"I’ve seen these two videos. They’re gruesome and I think they’re awful. That’s why the Energy and Commerce Committee and Judiciary Committee are doing an investigation. I expect that we will have hearings, and the more we learn, the more it will educate our decisions in the future.”
John Boehner

Videotapes, surreptitiously obtained by anti abortion groups, and cut artfully, suggest that some Planned Parenthood officials negotiated to sell the tissue obtained at the time of abortions (D&C, dilation and curretage or vacuum extraction) for fun and profit. Ah, now we see why Planned Parenthood does abortions: They are selling body parts for profit! The truth about these videos was exposed by the New York Times and it turns out the officials rejected some offers and asked questions about others. Planned Parenthood, and most university hospitals, provide tissue from such procedures for stem cell research, among other things, but does not profit from this practice.  The whole video scam was just that, a set up and a fraud.

But Republicans are asking no questions: It's something they want to believe--Planned Parenthood is a wicked organization whose bird ought to be the Red Tail Hawk because it rips its victims limb from limb.

What mystifies me is why anti abortion groups and the Republican party are so determined to kill Planned Parenthood. By far the greatest number of patients they see are not for abortions but for the very thing which makes abortions unnecessary: Effective contraception.

I understand, if you think abortion is murder and some Planned Parenthood facilities do abortions, you'd want to protest that and try to shut them down, but most PP facilities do contraception not abortion, so why attack those?  If the patient has a festering wound in her thigh, would you stab the patient in the heart to kill the abscess? 

Just another line of reasoning in the Republican hymns and verses which mystifies.

The Other: Obama and Fear of the Alien

 “We have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.”

Senator Pat McCarran 

When Donald Trump says he sent agents to Hawaii to investigate the authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate and "You wouldn't believe what they are finding." He was correct. I do not believe what Mr. Trump was implying and, in fact, Mr. Trump never released what they "found," presumably because it would have been too disturbing to the American psyche.

This is not a new phenomenon in American life. Ever since the first English colonists arrived, people who arrived earlier than the next wave of immigrants expressed alarm and resentment about those who followed.  So, in one era "No Irish Need Apply" signs were posted in store and factory windows. 

In fact, as current as Senator McCarran's remarks (above) may seem, they were made in 1952 in support of his "act" which set quotas for immigrants from various (undesirable) countries of origin.

Of course, President Barack Obama will always seem like an alien to some: He was born in Hawaii, our most remote state, to a Kenyan father, and he came of age in Chicago, a very American city, but Obama was working with the dispossessed and the flotsam of our society, and he grew up, in part, in Indonesia, on the far side of the world, consorting with Muslims.

But for me, oddly, he seems far more familiar and understandable than Mr. Trump and certainly I'm more comfortable with him than with George W. or Lindsay Graham,  Rick Walker or any of the Republican jackasses who bray and say such offensive things in virtually every utterance.  I could see sitting on the sea wall with Barack Obama,  eating lobster bisque from the Beach Plum and talking about things, the world, life, where I cannot imagine I'd have much to share with Trump, Graham, McConnell, Boehner, Limbaugh, or virtually any of the haters who comprise that part of American society who want to preserve America for the good, White, Christian people they think belong here and who they think should own this country. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Brian Encina and Sandra Bland: Is It Any Wonder?

Here is a portion of the dash cam recording for Sandra Bland's arrest:
Officer Brian Encina (while writing ticket): You seem very irritated.
Sandra Bland: I am, I really am.....(something slightly unintelligible, about how she was just "getting out of your way")
Encina: Are you done?
Bland: You asked me what was wrong and I told you....
Encina: Mind putting out your cigarette please?
Bland: I'm in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?
Encina: You can step on out now.
Bland: I don't have to step out of my car.
Encina: Step out of the car....
Bland: You do not have the right....
Encina: Now step out or I will remove you...I'm giving you a lawful order get out of the car now or I'm gonna remove you...
Bland: I'm calling my lawyer.
Encina: I'm gonna yank you out of here....
Bland: Don't touch me, I'm not under arrest.
Encina: You are under arrest.
Bland: I'm under arrest for what ? For what?...
Encina: Get out of the car now!
Bland: Why am I being apprehended?
Encina: I'm gonna drag you out of there....I will light you up!
Bland: Wow...failure to signal, doing all this for failure to signal?
Encina: Get off the phone, put your phone down...right now.....
Bland: For a fucking failure to signal my goodness y'all are very interesting....feeling good about yourself don't you?....Why am I being arrested, why won't you tell me that part?.....
Encina: You are not compliant.
Bland: Not compliant cause you just pulled me out of my car....
Encina: If you would have just listened...stop moving!
Bland: I can't wait til we go to court...ooh I cant wait....You gonna throw me to the floor? Feel better about yourself?....
Encina: Now you're going to jail!...
Bland: You about to break my wrist....about to fucking break my wrists.....
Encina: You started creating the problems!...You are yanking around, when you pull away from me you're resisting arrest.....
Bland: For a traffic ticket...for a traffic ticket!....Gonna slam me, knock my head into the ground. I got epilepsy motherfucker...
Encina: Good, good.
A new female cop on scene: You should have thought about that before you start resisting.

When those bewigged, 18th century men who wrote the Bill of Rights wrote it, they were reacting to experience with officers of the Crown who acted imperiously, arrogantly, who demanded "respect" and exerted their will upon citizens. These officers were the face of subjugation for American folk who had to bow down, genuflect before the authority of these petty thugs, these school yard bullies, who may not have lived in palaces but who could strut about any community and exert their will over the Crown's "subjects."

How different is this police officer from that?  When freedom from "unreasonable search and seizure" was listed as something which defined what freedom meant for Americans, were they not thinking of police like Brian Encina and the "female cop" who joined him?

This reads like an out take from the movie, "Crash."  

Do you find yourself disagreeing with Sandra Bland?  She may not have played her role as the submissive, compliant citizen now under the power of the police who can order her to do whatever they like, but was she wrong in anything she said or did?

The policeman asserts he is giving her a "lawful order."  Who is a policeman to give an "order" to a citizen?  Neither is in the military.  Since when can a policeman start giving orders to citizens, outside a circumstance which encompasses a threat to public safety or a violation of law?  What law does she violate by refusing to step out of her car?  

She in fact asks the officer to state clearly what law she has violated and the charge for her arrest and he does not answer but shouts another order, "Get out of the car! I'm going to light you up!"  She says she wants to call a lawyer and he ignores that. 

Is there not a Constitutional requirement for a charge to be registered when someone is arrested? Do we not have the right to know what the charged offense is?  Is there something called "Habeus Corpus?"  (Well, not in Gitmo, of course, but then that's not actually a prison in America--it's just run by Americans. But I digress.)

Remember when George W. Bush responded to the Abu Gharib torture by saying, "This is not who we are" ? Well, maybe that was and is who we are. 

Oh, what sort of state do we live in now?

All those Second Amendment fanatics froth about the tyranny of having their guns muzzled. 

What about the tyranny of police gone wild? 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Heroes: The Donald and McCain

Responding to somebody's assertion that John McCain is a "war hero," Donald Trump harrumphed  he did not think a soldier who got captured is a war hero. It's the guy who does not get captured and wins the war who's the hero Trump said. Trump, of course, never wore a uniform and was clubbing with beautiful women while McCain was spending his time at the Hanoi Hilton. Of course, Trump never claimed to be a war hero.

In a way, Trump has a point: that phrase "War Hero" is thrown around so promiscuously it has lost all meaning. Anyone who peeled potatoes during the war and never had a shot fired in anger at him is now a "war hero," because he wore the uniform.  In that sense, the tone deaf, politically incorrect Trump had a point.  We cheapen the meaning of "war hero" by applying it to  anyone who went through basic training. In McCain's case, he did considerably more than peel potatoes, but did his getting captured constitute heroism? The Japanese considered surrender and capture profoundly dishonorable. Americans consider survival as a POW honorable. Suffering for your country is considered "heroic." 

What is a "hero" anyway?  In my book, it's someone who does something exceptional, risky, effective and brave.  But the notion of a person being a hero
as opposed to being "heoric"   has always struck me as bogus.  Men may do heroic things, but to be a hero, one ought to be a paragon of virtue.

 Babe Ruth is referred to as being a "hero."  But he was also a rowdy, womanizing, boozing wild man. George Patton was a "hero" because he was daring and relentless and he pushed the Germans back across Europe. Of course, he was not the one getting shot at. Ol' "Guts and Glory" was sneered at by his own men who said, "Our guts, his glory."  And he was a racist and a reactionary. Very flawed men can do heroic things, but to be a "hero" implies a sort of thorough going virtuosity, as in, "You are my hero."

People are complex.

During the Vietnam war, many soldiers fought valiantly for a Lost Cause, whatever that cause may have been, but they served their country with their bodies not their minds. Anyone with a functioning brain in that era should have been capable of seeing we had no business fighting in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese posed no threat whatsoever to America and we were there only because Lyndon Johnson did not want to be the first President to lose a war and because Henry Kissinger liked the feeling of power and it allowed him to date supermodels and Richard Nixon was a cold warrior who could not get past that foul idea of "honor" initially, and he bombed Cambodia and did other ruthless, stupid and ineffective things, but he was at least smart enough to eventually know futility when he saw it

For my money, the people who did the most heroic things of the John McCain era were not the men who fought the Vietnamese but those who opposed the war.

William Fulbright was a United States Senator from Arkansas and he opposed the war early and often and he gave Lyndon Johnson fits.  Fulbright was a segregationist, and had signed the Southern Manifesto. He was a conservative from a conservative state and yet he opposed the war as an exercise in hubris.  He also opposed blind fealty to the state of Israel, when he thought it was against the interests of the United States. For these transgressions he was soundly defeated.  He took principled, unpopular and risky stands, for which he paid a price. He did heroic things. But he was flawed the way many Southerners of that era were flawed. 

Tom Hayden opposed the war in Vietnam and he visited my campus when I was an undergraduate. He laid out our options for us: 1/ Get drafted and kill babies. 2/ Flee to Canada.  3/ Go to jail.  He spent a lot of time in court, having been arrested for crossing state lines to do various unsavory things, like inciting a riot and draft resistance.

Daniel Berrigan, the renegade Catholic priest, broke into draft offices and poured blood over the files--this was before computers--and he spent years on the run from the law.  Those were heroic acts.  There may have been some self aggrandizement  wrapped up in this but he did some brave and righteous things. 

Most of my friends who went off to that war did so because it was the best bet among a lot of risky and bad options.  Although 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam, that was mostly over 5 years and most people who went there did not die. If you were lucky, you went over and came back in one piece. That now qualifies  you as a war hero, although in the 1960's and 1970's that qualified you as a baby killer. Later, you could talk about how you did it for patriotism, when, in fact, you did it because you were too afraid to risk jail, exile to Canada or Sweden and loss of the life you had come to know. 

Trump, of course, is a buffoon, but occasionally he says something that is the kind of thing you might say to your drinking buddies in the bar, rather sticking to the tripe that politicians cleave to because it resonates well with the focus group pablum most politicians stick to. In that sense, at least, Trump is refreshing.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Tobacco, Sin Taxes and CVS

Yesterday's New York Times  carried a story about CVS stores deciding to not carry tobacco products in a significant number of their stores and, in fact, charging a surcharge to customers who opted to stop in CVS stores which do continue to carry tobacco.  This is because CVS is evolving from a drug store to a provider of health care (via it's nurse practioners, Doc-in-a-Box) stop in clinics for sore throats, blood pressure monitoring etc. CVS is now a big player in mail order pharmaceuticals, through which insurance plans reduce costs by contracting with a big player who can negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. 

So this company, which had humble beginnings in Lowell, Mass and then acquired a group of drug stores in suburban Washington, DC, has continued to merge and grow and gobble up health related corporations and is now a conglomerate of health related companies. No doubt it will soon be offering health insurance. 

The interesting thing is how it's corporate strategy, as a health care provider drove it to do something which could actually lose it money in the short run--refuse to sell tobacco products. But even that was a financial calculation. In the 1960's or even 1980's around 40% of Americans smoked; now it's down to 18%, so throwing aside a dwindling market in hopes of looking good to a bigger demographic makes dollar sense. 

In "West Wing" something similar in a political calculus was portrayed: Josh, the President's assistant, lets loose a torrent of invective against some balky Congressmen who are refusing to vote out of committee  funds for a lawsuit against tobacco companies. He gives a very Aaron Sorkin speech about all the kids who will start smoking and all the people who will die from smoking, trying to shame the Congressmen, some of whom are Democrats, into funding the Justice Department's suit.  Some of them object, on principle:  How can you sue the tobacco companies for trying to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking when you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know about the dangers and every package carries a warning from the Surgeon General? 

It is curious watching this, knowing how that actually played out: The tobacco companies wound up having to fund lots of programs, had to pay for some of the healthcare problems attributed to smoking, so, in the end, the companies had to accept a share of the responsibility for making a product which injures people.  Not that the companies were alone in the blame, but they were part of it and they had to pay a share. So Josh was wrong but he was also right, as judged by the outcomes.

Later, Josh realizes that politically, he made a mistake by getting the Congressmen to vote out the money--it wound up giving them cover for their upcoming elections. Some of the Republicans proved to be vulnerable because their constituencies had changed to an anti smoking sentiment and their resistance to suing the tobacco companies might have cost them the election as "nicotine pushers."  In the end, Josh had saved Republicans in key swing states by making them do the "right" thing.

Which reminded me of that visit Fred Rice made to the Hampton Democrats where he defended lowering the tax on cigarettes in New Hampshire. "We'll make less per package, but people from Massachusetts will come across the border for cheaper cigarettes, so we'll wind up making a lot more. Fewer cents per package, but a lot more packages. Lower profit margin but way higher volume."

"So, what you are proposing," someone asked him. "Is to export lung cancer to Massachusetts?"

"Well," Fred Rice said with palms held upward. "Cigarettes are legal."

That made sense to Fred. If they are legal then profiting from taxing a legal product is nothing to be ashamed of.

"The thing is," his interlocutor persisted, "We tax some things to drive behavior, to reduce their use, to motivate people to avoid expensive, destructive habits."

"They are legal," Fred repeated. 

And that is all that matters, where money is concerned, as far as Fred Rice could see.

Of course profiting from something legal may not be enough of a cover in politics.
The question is: is that still all that matters in commerce?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

New Hampshire Summer

Looking out my study window, I see my neighbor and her daughter kneeling in their vegetable garden: leafy things, lettuce, spinach seem to be doing well, but the tomatoes are not yet there. 
This morning, my baseball game ran from 9 til noon and I drank three quarts of Gatorade. It was hot enough I did not need to pee after three quarts, which meant, over the course of the game, I was three quarts down.
After the game, I took my bicycle down along Route 1 A, which hugs the sea coast. I had ridden this road hundreds of times, but had never taken the "Beach Access" streets in Rye until today.  This provided something of a shock. 
It was low tide at 3 PM and the side streets crossing 1A were jammed with cars and the owners and passengers of all those cars were on the sandy expanse on the other side of the cottages which line the road and block the view of the ocean and beaches.  From Hampton through North Hampton through Rye, beaches were packed, but you could never tell it from the road. New Hampshire is unusual this way.  You would never know how much humanity is flocking to that surf, traveling the coastal road. 

There are berms and sea walls and even a walled off Beach Club, and coves, lots of coves, where bathers pick their way down the rocky banks to a strip of sand. 

Some hardy souls, mostly New Hampshire natives I am sure, actually swim in the water, which is now warm enough to not turn white skin blue in under two minutes. 

It stays light until almost 9 o'clock now and the sun is up  by 5 AM. 

I'm pretty sure winter is over. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Becoming a Cohesive Group: Movie Night at Hampton

Lincoln Chaffee As Captain of the Wrestling Team

Hampton, New Hampshire Democrats have been meeting for some years monthly, usually in the basement of the Methodist church, or in a room at the town library, but this year Chris Muns, the president of the group, decided the meetings lacked something and he initiated a "movie night."  

The meeting is usually attended by about a dozen people, but movie night drew more than twice that number. It had been advertised in the Hampton Union newspaper and popcorn was provided, along with bottled water. The demographic of the group divided neatly into the half which was older than 80 and the half in the 50 something range.  Everyone sat on the padded folding chairs which can accommodate the human skeleton comfortably for about 30 minutes before low back pain emerges. 

Last night the assemblage remained in their chairs for over two hours.

Before the movie, Lincoln Chafee, a Democratic candidate for President of the United States visited and he gave his stump speech for about 10 minutes before the movie, and then left. Before leaving, he fielded a few questions, in particular he denied he ever supported privatization of Social Security, which Wikipedia said he had. His voting record in the U.S. Senate had been reviewed by some of the audience, so they knew he was for gun control, against the death penalty, for same sex marriage and he was the one Republican Senator to vote against the war in Iraq.  Then he became a Democrat. So he was on friendly ground. He was not at ease. He seemed just a little too fragile--his voice quavered when he talked about post traumatic stress syndrome among soldiers.  I could believe he felt great sympathy for their suffering; I was not convinced he had the steel to fight Republicans. On the other hand, he had been captain of the Brown University wrestling team, so one might expect he had some steel in him, even if being captain of that particular wrestling team was not like being captain of, say, the Iowa State team.  He certainly radiated empathy for the underclass and the under-served. I did not see as much fight in him as I was looking for.

The movie, Food, Inc. explored the nexus of politics, science, technology, mores, and government policy which underlie our American industrial food chain. It was a sobering affair, but its effect was dissipated a little by a tendency to veer toward the screed, the polemic. A little too much, "the big corporations don't want you to see this..." sort of thing. It also included a segment on the death of a child from pathologic E. coli in hamburger meat. Sad as this case was, it is not clear it signifies callus disregard of public health by moneyed interests. It is likely true government meat inspection has been bought out by corporate meat packers, but this is nothing new in public health and is more a problem with the vulnerability of low level government hacks than with corporate avarice. 

When I was a medical student, I went on a field trip with a New York City meat inspector. We arrived at a packing plant and the inspector never left the office of the plant manager. We all got posters to take home and hang in our dorm rooms. 

My professor of Public Health asked me what I had learned from my day with the meat inspector.
"Nothing," I told him. "We never even saw where they handled the meat. They could have been dragging meat slabs across the floor and we never would have known. It was a total waste of time. If that is what passes for meat inspection, I'm going vegetarian."
"Then you did learn what we sent you out there to learn," the professor said.

Food, Inc. shows a part of America which is not comfortable to think about--apart from the way cows are stuffed together, standing in their own manure so they need prodigious doses of antibiotics to prevent overwhelming infection, and for chickens it's even worse, there is the way food workers are treated, not much better than the animals they kill and butcher. There is collusion between corporate bosses and immigration officers which allow for meat processing plants to function with low wage illegal workers; there is the "company store" system by which chicken farmers get deeper and deeper in debt to Tyson's Corp.; there is the outrage of Monsanto being able to sue into oblivion the farmer whose fields get pollinated by Monsanto genes, blown in from neighboring farms; there are the  bizarrely unconstitutional laws which make it a felony to criticize Colorado meat or vegetables from a variety of states, the so call "veggie libel" laws. 

The octagenarians did not leave their seats watching chickens getting decapitated, or cows being conveyed on hooks above a butchery. When the movie was over, there were a few expressions of outrage and people walked over to the table with the water bottles and drank the way cops used to drink stiff shots of whiskey after a tough day on the beat. 

Old people talked with young people and bonding occurred among Democrats. 

Chris Muns had been successful. He had stirred the pot. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Toy soldiers and Real Patriotism

 Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it may be
    The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.
--Henry David Thoreau

Today is the 4th of July. Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826 at his plantation in Virginia, and, improbably, his fellow revolutionary and comrade, John Adams, died in Massachusetts the same day. Now those two were Patriots. Even the least mystical and most cynical among us must admit, dying on the 4th of July, before the internet and instant communication, hundreds of miles apart, after all they had done to get America started, having risked hanging for treason against the king--that may just mean something. 

This is a day for ceremonies of faith, patriotism, emotion. The military is good at ceremonies; they relish ceremony and get all into it, especially ceremonies of death. "Duty, honor, country." Who has heard those words at a military funeral and remained dry eyed?

But, what I don't get is the robotic movements of the soldiers. They try to transform themselves into machines with those stiff, jerky little movements, like boys impersonating solemnity.  Why do we want men imitating machines?

I understand, I think, the importance of indoctrinating the sense of team, of group in a bunch of men (and now women) who have to run ahead into danger. There are ways of getting people to forget themselves, to push aside 18 years of conditioning at self preservation to get to a place where your relationship to the group becomes transcendent. Unit cohesion is not an empty phrase when you are under fire. I get that.

But I do not get the emptiness of robots as an ideal.

For me, and I know I'm repeating myself, but whatever patriotism is, it cannot be easy; it cannot cost nothing or demand no real sacrifice.  So putting your hand over your heart at the ball game when they are playing the national anthem, or pledging allegiance to the flag, or wearing an American flag lapel pin are not patriotic acts or gestures. These things cheapen patriotism. They suggest patriotism can be risk free and easy.

The most patriotic thing I do every year is to pay my income taxes, without grubbing for every last deduction or listing questionable deductions or not reporting income. That involves some, however minor, sacrifice and faith.

Whatever patriotism is, it begins deep within the mind, some would say the soul, and it surfaces in action, but not pre formulated action on a script written for you by others. It's not a performance and has no artifice. And it means something.