Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Conversations, Part 2

This is part two of a series of stories I started earlier this month. It revolved around two friends who meet at various times throughout the year to discuss the topics of the day. Interspersed within the conversations, are real life events of my past which were shared with my best friend, Jim. 

Here is a link to part one if you are interested.

                                                    The Conversations

Mark moved quickly thorough the restaurant after requesting their traditional dining location. He took his seat, sipped a bit of water, and breathed slowly, consciously, aware of his breath entering and leaving his body. It was a technique he had been using for decades, one which often occurred without thinking, as if his body felt his frustration from today's events, and was taking the lead to relax his mind.  

Through his business, Mark had often been involved in meetings with bureaucrats at various levels, local as well as state. He acknowledged that they had a job to do, that they most likely thought that the roadblocks and endless list of requirements they presented  were necessary and proper towards maintaining the public good. But he had been engaged in his business through a revolving door of these men and women, and often times wondered if they passed along notes and thoughts from one to another. If reinventing the wheel was an Olympic sport, well, he had encountered a number of gold medal winners.

The thought of an Olympic competition pitting the various bureaucrats from each country against one another to see who could turn a good idea into a cluster f*ck, made him smile, and reminded him why he was here today.

Forty-five years ago, no, more like almost fifty years ago now, he had been introduced to Bob who had organized a trip to the Montreal Olympics. When his high school soccer friend, John, told him that he had an extra set of tickets for those 1976 games, and asked if he would be interested in the experience, Mark had responded with a resounding yes. It didn't matter that the young men's starry eyed dream needed a lot of details filled in, like how to get there, where to stay, how to travel around Montreal to the events, not to mention all the things they didn't know enough to know they didn't know. He was in!

In the intervening eighteen months, Mark got to know Bob, and their friendship bloomed to a degree that after their shared adventure, Mark and Bob continued sharing adventures while John slowly became someone Mark and Bob once had a crazy and memorable experience with, but in the past.

One of the obstacles conquered by the trio was how to travel to Canada, and where to stay once they arrived. Mark's parents agreed to let him use one of the family cars upon which they had a hitch installed, and through John's family who had spent many a night in RV parks, they decided to purchase a pop-up trailer, then booked 2 weeks at an RV park about 40 miles outside Montreal. They even researched the metro mass transit system that served the city, and concluded that they could drive to one of the outer terminals from the RV park, then take the metro into the city for their events without having to fight traffic and parking.

All in all, by the time the morning arrived for them to leave, the young men had presumably filled in the details, and drove off to the goodbyes of John's family where they had spent the night so they could get off to an early start. 

Mark shook his head, wondering if it would even be possible for three high school boys to plan and embark on such a trip today, then shook his head again, wondering how many of today's youth might benefit from such an escapade.

"Are you agreeing or disagreeing with yourself?" asked Bob as he sat across from his friend. "I can't tell if you were shaking your head in assent or dissent."

"I was just thinking of those months leading up to our summer trip to Montreal, and how amazing it is to think how we planned it all as high school boys, convinced our parents to let us go, bought the trailer and booked our camp stay. And how it is a shame that young people today most likely wouldn't or couldn't do what we did."

Bob also smiled at the recollection. It was certainly a unique time in their lives, but also a sign of things to come for both of them. 

After a quick update concerning their respective families interspersed with visits from their server to take their order, the friends began the discussion which they had planned.

Confidential files.

While neither man had voted for the former president, their past conversations did include political disagreement. Still, they were equally shocked at the events of January 6th, disappointed with the apparent reversal of the GOP leaders who condemned the violence, laid blame at the feet of the former president, yet still bent the knee to that infamous resident of Mar-a-lago. Not to mention the revelation that after 18 months of requests, a vast number of secret documents were found in the former president's Florida residence, despite his lawyers having signed an affidavit that a thorough search was conducted and everything had been returned.

However, like many Americans, the recent revelations that President Biden also had confidential and top secret government files in his possession, at multiple locations, caused them to wonder. 

"I can't help comparing the Biden Administration's handling of their revelation that documents were found with a sports team that has the best players, home field advantage, and momentum from previous wins, then wastes their advantages by not showing up for the big game," began Bob. 

"Instead of full transparency, instead of telling the public right away that some documents had been found, that further searches would be undertaken, and that everything would be done in full compliance with the Justice Department and the National Archives, all in direct opposition to how Trump acted, first denying having them, then claiming he declassified them, and could do so just by thinking about it, then asking his lawyers to lie that all the documents were returned, which ultimately led to a warrant signed by a federal judge to retrieve them, Biden tried to hide the fact that they were found back in November, all for political reasons related to the upcoming midterms."

"Both had confidential documents, but for the most part, one handled it legally and one did not. Biden should have trusted the electorate to understand the difference in the cases."

"I agree," began Mark, "but remember, the full story of each situation requires accurate reporting on both sides, and it requires the electorate to want to know the details, want to know the differences and similarities so they can make a judgement. With today's polarized political environment and biased news media, far too many people either won't get the full story, or, if they seek info from multiple news sources, won't believe the one which does not confirm their already entrenched biases."

"Biden and his team were wrong not to trust us, but realistic in knowing that too many Americans don't seek news for information, they seek it for justification for their already deep seated beliefs."

Both men thought echo chamber without either having to say it.

"What I find interesting is that not enough air time is being given to the obvious holes in the dissemination, storing and organizing of our national secrets." Bob said those last two words, national secrets, with as satiric a voice as he could muster.

"I mean, just think of it. The former president either had started to squirrel away documents here and there in the last year or two, or just grabbed a boat load of them the last few months, without anyone knowing, or worse, with their help. But regardless of the timing, he was obviously given those documents by someone, yet they never asked for them back. Don't they keep some sort of record as these secret documents are distributed, and then follow up to get them back? Do they just assume the documents will be returned?"

"Perhaps part of the problem is that there are just too many secret documents," said Mark. "Without going too far down the rabbit hole of all the conspiracy theories out there about what the government isn't telling us, aliens, JFK, 9/11, Pearl Harbor, etc, it seems to me that not only is there too much information being kept secret for 'national security', but that many of those secrets remain so long after the release of the information would matter."

"I agree," said Bob. "I think I read that there are literally millions of these documents, and that the number has grown exponentially in the last 50 years. There are appears to be little or no guidelines for something to be 'classified' other than someone believes it should, and even less of a system for declassification. It almost seems that the most powerful driver of removing the 'secret' from secret information is when some group or individual files a Freedom of Information request. In other words, our government institutions only release data when forced to, as opposed to on some kind of schedule."

"Another revealing circumstance of this controversy, is the fact that, while many of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago were actively being sough after, many were not known to be missing. And, I don't think anyone knew any of those found in Biden's possession were missing."

Bob nodded his head at this remark.

"Do you remember," he began, "when we got that flat tire on the pop-up trailer on the way home from Virginia. Not the first one, the one that happened on 695 after we spent the night in the trailer in the parking lot of that gas station in Dundalk, Maryland?"

Mark smiled remembering all too well that they had spent the last of their money on rum and quarter-pounders, stuck at the gas station because they didn't have the money to pay for the tow and tire repair. The first flat had happened on the interstate, the tire was changed, but not far from there, while on the Francis Scott Key bridge, the tire came off and lodged in the wheel well. By the time they stopped, the bridge was marked with a long rubber streak, then a 20 foot gouge where the axle bit into the roadway after the tire's rubber wore away. When the maintenance truck stopped to help them, the bridge worker had made a point of measuring the rubber mark and gouge, the results being communicated with a snarl and comment about damage and cost and an invoice.

Bob continued, "the original patched tire got another flat, and, not having a spare which we left smeared on the bridge, we drove to a nearby department store to buy a new tire."

"But we still didn't have any money" injected Mark, his parents having given them a credit card number over the phone to pay for their debt at the gas station. "We  tried to buy a new tire without money, even managed to get a meeting with the manager of the store, who promptly told us there was nothing he could do for us, even if we left a driver's license or some other type of collateral. He took one look at us, and that was the end of the story."

"Perhaps, in reverse, that is the problem with our classified document system. Everyone is trusted to return what they are given. No one asks for collateral, or a signature, or anything. Sounds like they need a really hard-assed bureaucrat, or team of them, who know what is missing, know who has it, and has the balls to get it back, regardless of whether it is in the hands of a subcommittee freshmen  representative or a general or the president."

Mark laughed at the thought of a government employee who was empowered to harass any other public servant to return national secrets. It was just silly enough to be necessary.

"I also think," he began, "that there is probably a funding and manpower issue here as well. I bet if we researched it, we would find that the budget for the National Archives has not been increased to match the gargantuan increase in classified documents, so even if they had a real task master in charge, it still might be an insurmountable job to keep it all straight."

"I wonder how it would go over, if someone proposed a voluntary search of the office and house of every congressmen, Senator, Department of Defense, NSA, FBI and DOJ employee to see just how many 'secret' documents are floating around out there, unbeknownst to the National Archives, or to the employees themselves, not to mention the ones that might have been conveniently not returned by someone with nefarious intentions. I know, guilty until proven innocent is not our normal mode of operation, but as public servants, shouldn't they be required to be fully transparent to us, the american public?" asked Bob.

"If we want 'no one is above the law' to be more than just a nice platitude, we need to hold everyone accountable, especially the rich and powerful who have all kinds of resources at their disposal to avoid justice for their errors."

"We had to drive home, leaving the trailer on the side of the road, buy a new tire, then drive back to get the trailer all because we weren't trustworthy to borrow a $40 tire, yet we trust those at the highest levels of our country to handle what they decide as secret information merely on their say so, and without having to prove that trust through some type of check and balance."

As they contemplated the idea of actually holding our political and business leaders to a higher standard, they finished their meal, and settled the dinner bill, unaware that a news crawl was appearing on a number of stations, concerning the disclosure that some classified documents had been found at former Vice President Pence's home.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

A Refugee Story

Currently reading the Jan/Feb edition of the Smithsonian, and specifically an extremely inspiring story about the Krimml Pass in Austria.

Most people might remember the famous ending scene in The Sound of Music where the von Trapp family leaves the stage one by one which then morphs into their eventual passage over the mountains to freedom. A wonderful story, despite the fact that the real life von Trapps were not Jewish nor did they traverse the Alps. However, a similar trek to freedom was undertaken by thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany (and other countries) via the Krimml Pass. Unlike the more well known Alps crossing areas (Brenner and Reschen passes), the story of this escape route was not well documented or even known outside the small town of Krimml which is located about 90 miles southwest of Salzburg.

What is inspiring about this story is two fold. First, this route was far more dangerous than the more well known routes, but became necessary when those routes were closed to the Bricha guides who had been leading those escaping to freedom. (The Bricha story itself is a wonderful example of people, Jews and non-Jews, who banded together to help those fleeing persecution and I recommend anyone interested in more details of this brave band of heroes research them as well).

The article details one of the men who was tasked with finding this alternate route, Marko Feingold. He is a prime example of a person that history had largely forgotten but who was instrumental in aiding thousands of people in his lifetime, in this case in their attempt to escape death.

Another inspiring revelation in this article is the fact that in 2003 a man named Ernst Loschner, a lifelong resident of Austria in a town not that far from Krimml, was first introduced to the history and importance of the Krimml Pass, a fact that astonished him given his proximity to the home of such an important historical event. Since then, through a group called Alpine Peace Crossing (APC), Loschner has made it his mission to not only remember the people and guides who made those dangerous crossings, but create a mind set that links all past and current refugees, in an attempt to teach the lesson that anyone could find themselves in such a situation.

For instance, and despite some dissenting voices within the Jewoish community, including Feingold, APC had invited Syrian refugees to participate in a crossing. This was controversial for some given that many Muslims are taught that the Jewish nation is their enemy, yet people who may share that belief were being asked to walk the route which saved thousands of Jewish lives. But as Loschner explained, APC is about openness towards all, and that only through inclusion and dialogue can such dangerous prejudices be defeated. The fact that those same Syrian refugees also faced persecution, just as today's Ukrainian refugees are being systematically cleansed by Putin's invasion force, the Ukrainian people being predominantly Christian, delivers the most compelling reason why the message and mission of the APC (and all such global organizations) is so important.

Not to mention, the recent rise in acts of violence, and antisemitic statements being given air on American airwaves, and abroad, let alone the continued promulgation of Holocaust denial articles and essays. 

Which brings me to immigration. 

It continues to amaze me when I hear Americans, many first and second generation Americans, railing against immigrants, illegal and otherwise. Perhaps it is another example of phrasing. If we called all people who were leaving their country refugees, whether it be to escape true persecution or just for a better chance at economic advancement, would that make a difference?

To me, in the end, it is not a big step to take to perceive anyone who wishes to come to America (or any country that features more freedom or economic opportunity) as a refugee. Does it really matter if their state of refugee-ness (I know that is not a word) relates to religious, racial, gender or economic issues? Do we not wish all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference or the luck of the birth lottery, the chance to pursue happiness? Are the words of the Declaration only for Americans? 

I mentioned above that I am amazed at those Americans whose heritage is barely American yet have such prejudice against today's immigrants. But I am also angry at those who insist that their are only against illegal immigrants, as if people truly chasing freedom should have to worry about arbitrary rules that are generally based in prejudice and fear. Immigration quotas by their nature punish those without resource to bypass them, and those without influence to alter them. Not always, but too often, that rationale is a way to hide behind an obvious or hidden bias against "others".

I touched on immigration in the past, and have added a link to three of those posts below. In them, written as far back as 2014, and as recently as last June, I mention some solutions to our immigration problem. But sadly, that is part of the problem itself, that we think we need a solution to an issue which makes it illegal to seek happiness and prosperity in a country other than the one in which we were born, a simple fact that no one has any control over. 

I would like to think that the Creator is not so close minded to think that her creations would have different levels of freedom and opportunity solely based on where she placed them on earth. Perhaps the real challenge of life is demonstrating that birth country, gender, race, sexual preference, or any trait that makes for diversity in our species is an opportunity to glorify the Creator, not restrict other people from seeking freedom and happiness.      

In the meantime, better woke than asleep.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Who Goes Nazi

A while back, I read what I thought was an excerpt from a book written by Dorothy Thompson, titled Who Goes Nazi. As I was compiling my list of books to buy this Christmas, I began to look for this book, only to discover that it was from an essay she wrote for Harper"s Magazine in 1941. After some research, I was able to cut and paste this essay. My recreation is not true to Thompson's paragraph breaks, but here are the words as I found them.

Who Goes Nazi? by Dorothy Thompson 

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis. 

It is preposterous to think that they are divided by any racial characteristics. Germans may be more susceptible to Nazism than most people, but I doubt it. Jews are barred out, but it is an arbitrary ruling. I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance. There are Jews who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis”; there are full-blooded Jews who have enthusiastically entered Hitler’s secret service. 

Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind. It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation—the generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war. This is as true of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans as of Germans. It is the disease of the so-called “lost generation.” 

Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work—a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected. 

At any rate, let us look round the room. The gentleman standing beside the fireplace with an almost untouched glass of whiskey beside him on the mantelpiece is Mr. A, a descendant of one of the great American families. There has never been an American Blue Book without several persons of his surname in it. He is poor and earns his living as an editor. He has had a classical education, has a sound and cultivated taste in literature, painting, and music; has not a touch of snobbery in him; is full of humor, courtesy, and wit. He was a lieutenant in the World War, is a Republican in politics, but voted twice for Roosevelt, last time for Willkie. He is modest, not particularly brilliant, a staunch friend, and a man who greatly enjoys the company of pretty and witty women. His wife, whom he adored, is dead, and he will never remarry. He has never attracted any attention because of outstanding bravery. But I will put my hand in the fire that nothing on earth could ever make him a Nazi. He would greatly dislike fighting them, but they could never convert him. . . . Why not? 

Beside him stands Mr. B, a man of his own class, graduate of the same preparatory school and university, rich, a sportsman, owner of a famous racing stable, vice-president of a bank, married to a well-known society belle. He is a good fellow and extremely popular. But if America were going Nazi he would certainly join up, and early. Why? . . . Why the one and not the other? Mr. A has a life that is established according to a certain form of personal behavior. Although he has no money, his unostentatious distinction and education have always assured him a position. He has never been engaged in sharp competition. He is a free man. I doubt whether ever in his life he has done anything he did not want to do or anything that was against his code. Nazism wouldn’t fit in with his standards and he has never become accustomed to making concessions. Mr. B has risen beyond his real abilities by virtue of health, good looks, and being a good mixer. He married for money and he has done lots of other things for money. His code is not his own; it is that of his class—no worse, no better, He fits easily into whatever pattern is successful. That is his sole measure of value—success. Nazism as a minority movement would not attract him. As a movement likely to attain power, it would. 

The saturnine man over there talking with a lovely French emigre is already a Nazi. Mr. C is a brilliant and embittered intellectual. He was a poor white-trash Southern boy, a scholarship student at two universities where he took all the scholastic honors but was never invited to join a fraternity. His brilliant gifts won for him successively government positions, partnership in a prominent law firm, and eventually a highly paid job as a Wall Street adviser. He has always moved among important people and always been socially on the periphery. His colleagues have admired his brains and exploited them, but they have seldom invited him—or his wife—to dinner. He is a snob, loathing his own snobbery. He despises the men about him—he despises, for instance, Mr. B—because he knows that what he has had to achieve by relentless work men like B have won by knowing the right people. But his contempt is inextricably mingled with envy. Even more than he hates the class into which he has insecurely risen, does he hate the people from whom he came. He hates his mother and his father for being his parents. He loathes everything that reminds him of his origins and his humiliations. He is bitterly anti-Semitic because the social insecurity of the Jews reminds him of his own psychological insecurity. Pity he has utterly erased from his nature, and joy he has never known. He has an ambition, bitter and burning. It is to rise to such an eminence that no one can ever again humiliate him. Not to rule but to be the secret ruler, pulling the strings of puppets created by his brains. Already some of them are talking his language—though they have never met him. There he sits: he talks awkwardly rather than glibly; he is courteous. He commands a distant and cold respect. But he is a very dangerous man. Were he primitive and brutal he would be a criminal—a murderer. But he is subtle and cruel. He would rise high in a Nazi regime. It would need men just like him—intellectual and ruthless. 

But Mr. C is not a born Nazi. He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practicing a carelessly brutal snobbery. He is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism. He would laugh to see heads roll. I think young D over there is the only born Nazi in the room. Young D is the spoiled only son of a doting mother. He has never been crossed in his life. He spends his time at the game of seeing what he can get away with. He is constantly arrested for speeding and his mother pays the fines. He has been ruthless toward two wives and his mother pays the alimony. His life is spent in sensation-seeking and theatricality. He is utterly inconsiderate of everybody. He is very good-looking, in a vacuous, cavalier way, and inordinately vain. He would certainly fancy himself in a uniform that gave him a chance to swagger and lord it over others. 

Mrs. E would go Nazi as sure as you are born. That statement surprises you? Mrs. E seems so sweet, so clinging, so cowed. She is. She is a masochist. She is married to a man who never ceases to humiliate her, to lord it over her, to treat her with less consideration than he does his dogs. He is a prominent scientist, and Mrs. E, who married him very young, has persuaded herself that he is a genius, and that there is something of superior womanliness in her utter lack of pride, in her doglike devotion. She speaks disapprovingly of other “masculine” or insufficiently devoted wives. Her husband, however, is bored to death with her. He neglects her completely and she is looking for someone else before whom to pour her ecstatic self-abasement. She will titillate with pleased excitement to the first popular hero who proclaims the basic subordination of women. 

On the other hand, Mrs. F would never go Nazi. She is the most popular woman in the room, handsome, gay, witty, and full of the warmest emotion. She was a popular actress ten years ago; married very happily; promptly had four children in a row; has a charming house, is not rich but has no money cares, has never cut herself off from her own happy-go-lucky profession, and is full of sound health and sound common sense. All men try to make love to her; she laughs at them all, and her husband is amused. She has stood on her own feet since she was a child, she has enormously helped her husband’s career (he is a lawyer), she would ornament any drawing-room in any capital, and she is as American as ice cream and cake. 

How about the butler who is passing the drinks? I look at James with amused eyes. James is safe. James has been butler to the ‘ighest aristocracy, considers all Nazis parvenus and communists, and has a very good sense for “people of quality.” He serves the quiet editor with that friendly air of equality which good servants always show toward those they consider good enough to serve, and he serves the horsy gent stiffly and coldly. 

Bill, the grandson of the chauffeur, is helping serve to-night. He is a product of a Bronx public school and high school, and works at night like this to help himself through City College, where he is studying engineering. He is a “proletarian, ” though you’d never guess it if you saw him without that white coat. He plays a crack game of tennis—has been a tennis tutor in summer resorts—swims superbly, gets straight A’s in his classes, and thinks America is okay and don’t let anybody say it isn’t. He had a brief period of Youth Congress communism, but it was like the measles. He was not taken in the draft because his eyes are not good enough, but he wants to design airplanes, “like Sikorsky.” He thinks Lindbergh is “just another pilot with a build-up and a rich wife” and that he is “always talking down America, like how we couldn’t lick Hitler if we wanted to.” 

At this point Bill snorts. Mr. G is a very intellectual young man who was an infant prodigy. He has been concerned with general ideas since the age of ten and has one of those minds that can scintillatingly rationalize everything. I have known him for ten years and in that time have heard him enthusiastically explain Marx, social credit, technocracy, Keynesian economics, Chestertonian distributism, and everything else one can imagine. Mr. G will never be a Nazi, because he will never be anything. His brain operates quite apart from the rest of his apparatus. He will certainly be able, however, fully to explain and apologize for Nazism if it ever comes along. 

But Mr. G is always a “deviationist.” When he played with communism he was a Trotskyist; when he talked of Keynes it was to suggest improvement; Chesterton’s economic ideas were all right but he was too bound to Catholic philosophy. So we may be sure that Mr. G would be a Nazi with purse-lipped qualifications. He would certainly be purged. 

H is an historian and biographer. He is American of Dutch ancestry born and reared in the Middle West. He has been in love with America all his life. He can recite whole chapters of Thoreau and volumes of American poetry, from Emerson to Steve Benet. He knows Jefferson’s letters, Hamilton’s papers, Lincoln’s speeches. He is a collector of early American furniture, lives in New England, runs a farm for a hobby and doesn’t lose much money on it, and loathes parties like this one. He has a ribald and manly sense of humor, is unconventional and lost a college professorship because of a love affair. Afterward he married the lady and has lived happily ever afterward as the wages of sin. 

H has never doubted his own authentic Americanism for one instant. This is his country, and he knows it from Acadia to Zenith. His ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and in all the wars since. He is certainly an intellectual, but an intellectual smelling slightly of cow barns and damp tweeds. He is the most good-natured and genial man alive, but if anyone ever tries to make this country over into an imitation of Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, or Petain’s systems H will grab a gun and fight. Though H’s liberalism will not permit him to say it, it is his secret conviction that nobody whose ancestors have not been in this country since before the Civil War really understands America or would really fight for it against Nazism or any other foreign ism in a showdown. 

But H is wrong. There is one other person in the room who would fight alongside H and he is not even an American citizen. He is a young German emigre, whom I brought along to the party. The people in the room look at him rather askance because he is so Germanic, so very blond-haired, so very blue-eyed, so tanned that somehow you expect him to be wearing shorts. He looks like the model of a Nazi. His English is flawed—he learned it only five years ago. He comes from an old East Prussian family; he was a member of the post-war Youth Movement and afterward of the Republican “Reichsbanner.” All his German friends went Nazi—without exception. He hiked to Switzerland penniless, there pursued his studies in New Testament Greek, sat under the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, came to America through the assistance of an American friend whom he had met in a university, got a job teaching the classics in a fashionable private school; quit, and is working now in an airplane factory—working on the night shift to make planes to send to Britain to defeat Germany. He has devoured volumes of American history, knows Whitman by heart, wonders why so few Americans have ever really read the Federalist papers, believes in the United States of Europe, the Union of the English-speaking world, and the coming democratic revolution all over the earth. He believes that America is the country of Creative Evolution once it shakes off its middle-class complacency, its bureaucratized industry, its tentacle-like and spreading government, and sets itself innerly free. 

The people in the room think he is not an American, but he is more American than almost any of them. He has discovered America and his spirit is the spirit of the pioneers. He is furious with America because it does not realize its strength and beauty and power. He talks about the workmen in the factory where he is employed. . . . He took the job “in order to understand the real America.” He thinks the men are wonderful. “Why don’t you American intellectuals ever get to them; talk to them?” 

I grin bitterly to myself, thinking that if we ever got into war with the Nazis he would probably be interned, while Mr. B and Mr. G and Mrs. E would be spreading defeatism at all such parties as this one. “Of course I don’t like Hitler but . . .” 

Mr. J over there is a Jew. Mr. J is a very important man. He is immensely rich—he has made a fortune through a dozen directorates in various companies, through a fabulous marriage, through a speculative flair, and through a native gift for money and a native love of power. He is intelligent and arrogant. He seldom associates with Jews. He deplores any mention of the “Jewish question.” He believes that Hitler “should not be judged from the standpoint of anti-Semitism.” He thinks that “the Jews should be reserved on all political questions.” He considers Roosevelt “an enemy of business.” He thinks “It was a serious blow to the Jews that Frankfurter should have been appointed to the Supreme Court.” 

The saturnine Mr. C—the real Nazi in the room—engages him in a flatteringly attentive conversation. Mr. J agrees with Mr. C wholly. Mr. J is definitely attracted by Mr. C. He goes out of his way to ask his name—they have never met before. “A very intelligent man.” 

Mr. K contemplates the scene with a sad humor in his expressive eyes. Mr. K is also a Jew. Mr. K is a Jew from the South. He speaks with a Southern drawl. He tells inimitable stories. Ten years ago he owned a very successful business that he had built up from scratch. He sold it for a handsome price, settled his indigent relatives in business, and now enjoys an income for himself of about fifty dollars a week. At forty he began to write articles about odd and out-of-the-way places in American life. A bachelor, and a sad man who makes everybody laugh, he travels continually, knows America from a thousand different facets, and loves it in a quiet, deep, unostentatious way. 

He is a great friend of H, the biographer. Like H, his ancestors have been in this country since long before the Civil War. He is attracted to the young German. By and by they are together in the drawing-room. The impeccable gentleman of New England, the country-man—intellectual of the Middle West, the happy woman whom the gods love, the young German, the quiet, poised Jew from the South. And over on the other side are the others. 

Mr. L has just come in. Mr. L is a lion these days. My hostess was all of a dither when she told me on the telephone, “ . . . and L is coming. You know it’s dreadfully hard to get him.” L is a very powerful labor leader. “My dear, he is a man of the people, but really fascinating.“ L is a man of the people and just exactly as fascinating as my horsy, bank vice-president, on-the-make acquaintance over there, and for the same reasons and in the same way. 

L makes speeches about the “third of the nation, ” and L has made a darned good thing for himself out of championing the oppressed. He has the best car of anyone in this room; salary means nothing to him because he lives on an expense account. He agrees with the very largest and most powerful industrialists in the country that it is the business of the strong to boss the weak, and he has made collective bargaining into a legal compulsion to appoint him or his henchmen as “labor’s” agents, with the power to tax pay envelopes and do what they please with the money. 

L is the strongest natural-born Nazi in this room. Mr. B regards him with contempt tempered by hatred. Mr. B will use him. L is already parroting B’s speeches. He has the brains of Neanderthal man, but he has an infallible instinct for power. In private conversation he denounces the Jews as “parasites.” 

No one has ever asked him what are the creative functions of a highly paid agent, who takes a percentage off the labor of millions of men, and distributes it where and as it may add to his own political power. 

It’s fun—a macabre sort of fun—this parlor game of “Who Goes Nazi?” And it simplifies things—asking the question in regard to specific personalities. 

Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes—you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis. 

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them. Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.


So, what do you think? Remember, this was written in August, 1941. Hitler and his Third Reich were already on the march through Europe, had already taken over a number of countries. Despite the obvious human rights violations of the day (before they were called as such), America did not have the appetite for another war, plus the Great Depression was not completely over for many citizens. Not to mention the fact that there were many powerful Americans who were attracted to the idea of a dictator, someone strong who could get things done. America First was not wholly invented by the former president; the concept has always had a following, understandably so as the early 20th century was marked by one World War, an horrific epidemic, and more than a decade of high unemployment, home ownership decline, and homelessness.

Thompson makes a reference to a "lost generation" which I find interesting. The generation unborn or just born as WW1 came to a close. I read a few novels (and discussed them in past posts) written by Vera Brittain, a woman who participated in WW1 as a nurse, and victim of its horrors, and she also touched on people who seemed to have forgotten the lessons of this horrific war, although she did not refer to them as Thompson does.

As a parallel to this thought, current nomenclature aside, will historians of the future relabel the generation born after WW2, the so called baby boomers who were born between 1946 and 1964 with a  name which includes the word lost. I have expressed my disappointment with this generation, my generation, before from the standpoint of a lack of appreciation for what we were given, and what we didn't do with those advantages. A lost innocence, perhaps, in light of events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, but also an unholy obsession with the material, with possessions, with wealth.  

So, back to Thompson's essay. Was she on the mark? Can you translate the "types" of people she was certain would and would not go Nazi to examples today? Has anything changed? Do we not still feed the body and mind, but ignore the soul?

If written today, would the nationalistic personality be identified as a trait which might lead one to go Nazi? Clearly, the people who attacked the Capitol building 2 years ago, represented a large swath of Americans, with the advantaged leading from the top, and the everyday person in the streets, busting the windows, fighting with the police, chanting for the heads of those in government with whom they disagreed. They were more than eager to jettison the basis of our democracy, the peaceful transition of power, for a cult personality, and an ideology that placed aspects of race superiority, might makes right, and a blind allegiance to a concept of America that was only attainable if one was the correct gender, race, and background. 

It is not a political thing on the face of it, but I do believe that one party has worked tirelessly to convince its followers that our  government is not a positive force for its citizens, but rather a hindrance to true freedom. This ethos, is you will, then makes its followers more likely to embrace a message that extends beyond simple mistrust and careful monitoring of one's government to active removal of the institutions of that government, sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. However, it is this framework, separation of church and state, the three equal branches of government, free and fair elections, that maintains the very freedom they wish. Not a divine right, not a populist leader, but rights and freedoms granted by a government that serves its citizens.  

What I particularly liked about this essay, is that Thompson's estimate of who might go Nazi includes a privileged business man, a labor leader, an intellectual, a Jew, a matronly woman. Again, no predetermined list based on stereotypes, just personal evaluations based on character. And the only German in the room, never a Nazi in her estimate because he has adopted America, its spirit, as opposed to being handed the privilege through birth.

It reminds me of the ridiculousness of the anti-immigrant crowd who would toss away our democracy for a "strong" leader, yet decry the influx of people who, like their own ancestors, seek a home in America for the chance to experience freedom and opportunity. The fact that the greatest generation, those that survived the Spanish Flu, the Depression and fought off Hitler's advance was composed of a myriad of immigrants and/or sons and daughters of immigrants who arrived in America between 1890 and 1920 seems irretrievably lost on them.

Thompson ends her essay by reinforcing her belief that going Nazi is all about having, or more critically, not having, something that forms a person, guides them. "Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—, these are the people who are more prone to go Nazi."

Of course, today, we wouldn't frame it as going Nazi. Or, I should say, it may not be productive to frame it that way, as we have inculcated our population to such an extent that we believe America is the land of the free, and that labeling someone Nazi seems more like hyperbole typical of our polarized discourse. 

But regardless of the label, there are far too many people in our electorate, in our boardrooms, in our factories and in our Congress who seek stability, affordable prices, and an imagined return to "better" times, and are willing to scuttle the foundations of our republic to attain them. 

The real danger, as I am sure it was in 1930's Germany, is that many people today who seem to be going Nazi, are oblivious to the damage their actions have and will cause. Let's hope the veil is removed from their eyes sooner rather than later.


Saturday, January 7, 2023

The Conversations, Part 1

I had an idea quite a while back to do a multiple part series called The Conversations. The concept behind it is to attempt to discuss the topics of the day through the lens of a long-lived friendship between two men. As usual, the conversations will reflect real life discussions between myself and my friends, although there is one friend, Jim, who inspired me to attempt this project. I have known Jim for over 45 years, and am grateful for his friendship, his intelligence, his generosity, and his ongoing presence in my life. While the setting is fictitious, and the conversations an amalgam of the innumerable exchanges we had over the years, all of the experiences described will be based on true events. Here is part 1.                                 

                          The Conversations

Bob walked slowly through the restaurant, glancing side to side as he checked to see if his friend was already seated. Both knew the drill. First to arrive would request a table which did not have a view of any of the TV's scattered towards the front of the establishment as an acknowledgement to their shared penchant for glancing at whatever current sports event was showing. They valued these meetings, and the conversations in which they engaged, but also knew that sports could be a distraction.

Mark had not arrived. Bob chose the chair which would enable him to view the path Mark would take, asked for 2 waters, then gazed around the room once the server had left. As was their custom, their meeting time was planned to beat the dinner rush, and the added noise a crowded dining area would create. They also knew from past experience, that being separated by even a few dozen feet from those who gathered to more intently watch the bank of TV's, would enable discussion without raised voices.

Over the years, they had tried a few other places. Better restaurants which did not offer TV entertainment, yet generally cost a bit more than they liked to spend. But, as time passed, they discovered that watching people occasionally became part of the discussion, so a place with a wider variety of patrons was more in line with their purpose. Also, table turn rate was not as assiduously enforced at sports oriented restaurants, so if their "date", a term their wives often used, both derisively, and sometimes jealously, in conjunction with these get-togethers, ran 2 or 3 hours, they were rarely pushed to leave.

Bob knew Mark for far more years than he did not, a relationship that traversed young adulthood through their current status as soon-to-be senior citizens. While they did experience a gap in their communications about 15 years after their introduction, they also shared a host of important life changing events, from a trip to the Olympics in Montreal in 1976 after Bob's high school graduation to being each others' best man, with a host of innumerable events in between and afterward. 

A few years back, they diverged from their normal routine and spent much of the evening recounting the highs, sometimes literally, of their relationship. The fact that it took much of the night to cover the best of the years was a testament to the strength and longevity of their friendship. But for the most part, these confabs were designed for conversation, with nothing held back, but also with the knowledge of utter secrecy, an understanding established in the infancy of their meetings. 

The bro code. Bob smiled when he thought of the concept. Men, in general, did not share their lives the way women did. Bob did not doubt that his dear wife shared things with her gal pals that he did not know. He knew that women spent far more time cultivating and cementing their friendships with revelations about their emotions, their fears, their passions, their doubts. It was the rare woman who did not need the companionship of someone of their same gender, whereas many men could exist without sharing their lives with other men. Whether it was for fear of compromising the appearance of manliness, or the simple belief that in competition, vulnerability was a loss leader, men generally shared their emotions as one sees an iceberg, while women opened themselves to each other, and the world, at far more depth, as an iceberg extends far below the surface of the water.

In their case, in their particular version of the bro code, Bob and Mark shared like women share. Bob had stopped wondering long ago how many men would have benefited from a version of the bro code that focused far less on who was conquered in bed, and more on why men chase women, money and power, and how much true happiness one can find in those pursuits.

"Why are you smiling?" asked Mark. Bob had been so lost in thought that he hadn't seen Mark enter the restaurant. His smile widened as Mark sat across from him. 

"Nothing in particular, and everything", replied Bob.

Mark was the more successful of the two, having pursued a business opportunity that proved very rewarding. He often paid for their sessions, not because he necessarily knew Bob was less capable, but because he could easily do so, and had learned long ago that sharing one's good fortune was the point of having resources. He had often allowed Bob to rant about the selfishness of the rich, because even though he was in far better financial shape that Bob, he understood that Bob's frustration was leveled against those for whom Mark proved to be the example that proved the rule. 

In general, Bob and Mark planned the topic or topics of their evenings either at the end of the previous one, or in the week or so before the next one, especially when a personal, or world event occurred that should be addressed. It was not lost on them, these last few years, that their planned topics were often jettisoned these days in favor of the latest political or social crisis. 

Today, for instance, they were planning to continue the discussion they had begun at their last meeting concerning the aggressive interest rate hike policy being implemented by the Federal Reserve to combat inflation, but Bob had decided yesterday to delve into the topic of money in sports, having been reminded again earlier in the week how sad it is that so much attention is paid to salary, while sportsmanship and respect among participants has declined.

"Did you see that article in Sportico about the 100 highest paid athletes in the world?" began Bob.

Mark smiled, took a sip of water from his glass, then settled comfortably in his chair. It was not unusual for Bob to begin their meetings in such a way, especially when he was about to launch into a topic of recent interest. His perception of the world was critical without being cynical, doubtful without being hopeless. Mark knew that there was an agenda behind Bob's opening question, and that it would go beyond the point of the article he was referencing.

"How is the family?" Mark responded.

Bob smiled, took a breath, then they both chuckled. 

"Everyone is fine, how about yours?" Bob said.

After exchanging pleasantries about their wives and children, and ordering their usual fare from the menu, Mark returned them to the topic which Bob had broached upon his arrival.

"So, tell me about the article in Sportico that has you wound up today"?

As a sophomore in high school, Bob and two of his friends at the time, Chuck and John, had decided to attend the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada. They researched how to buy tickets, picked out events they wished to see, then sent in their order form and the money. Eventually, their tickets arrived in the mail, but unfortunately, Chuck had to bow out of the adventure. At this point, John brought in Mark to take his place. As time progressed towards the day the three young friends would leave for Montreal, the friendship between Bob and Mark grew immensely, while John slowly drifted to the periphery of the triad.

"The article listed the top 100 highest paid athletes, salary and endorsements for last year" began Bob. "Guess how much they earned between them?"

Mark was all too familiar with this approach, knew the total amount was only the tip of the point rattling around in Bob's head. But Mark liked numbers, was good with numbers, so he thought about it for a few seconds.

"Well, I would imagine that $100 million total compensation for some at the top would not be unreasonable, down to about $25 million for those at the bottom, so assuming about $40 million average times 100, my guess would be about $4 billion".

Mark smiled when he saw Bob's face droop a bit in disappointment, knowing that he must have been pretty close, but Bob quickly gained his composure. 

"Just a bit under $4.5 billion actually, good guess. And I suppose you also know how many entire countries had a GDP of that amount or less"?

Mark didn't have a good reference for this question, but figured it was more than a couple or Bob wouldn't be asking.

"Maybe 12, or 15?" he guessed.

Bob's face brightened. 

"According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund, 47 countries had GDP less than those 100 individuals". 

Both Bob and Mark enjoyed sports. Bob was an avid consumer of all the popular US sports, while Mark had played soccer in high school and college. Like most young men of their generation, they grew up playing sports in their schoolyards and neighborhoods, traded stories of their favorite athletes, and engaged in Monday morning quarterbacking when their home teams fell short. One of the highlights of their Olympic trip was the bronze medal game for soccer. Mark's love of soccer, which continued into adulthood via men's leagues, and trips to see the World Cup a number of times, also led Bob to see soccer matches in 1984 when he was fortunate enough to attend the Olympics in Los Angeles that year.

"Do you remember what year professionals were first allowed to compete in the Olympics?" asked Bob.

This was not the tack Mark expected next after the GDP question. He used the few moments during which their food was served to think about the question while also trying to deduce Bob's direction.

"Perhaps in the eighties or nineties?" 

Bob nodded, not because he knew the exact answer but because he did know that it was after their mutual Olympic adventure and his 1984 trip. 

"I remember, particularly for the popular sports like basketball and hockey, how upset fans and certain sports commentators were in those days, before professionals were allowed to participate, at how the United States would be beaten in sports where we knew we had the best athletes but were unable to send them. Now, in retrospect, I wonder if all that turmoil, all that angst, which was clearly motivation for the change to allow professionals in the Olympics, was a good thing." 

"When we went in 1976, the athletes were amateurs, competing for pride and country. Yeah, sure, some knew there might be a payday some day, or endorsements that come with a medal, but most of them, the vast majority of them, knew it was about the competition and a once in a lifetime chance to represent their country. It was about pride in one's performance, but also a chance to gauge oneself against athletes from other countries who faced the same challenges, the same grueling routine of 5 AM training sessions before school or work. And then, whether first or twentieth, the camaraderie of sharing the results with fellow participants from places all over the globe, different cultures, different beliefs, different foods and music, but all happy to experience those differences in a shared event."

Mark was used to these soliloquies from Bob, but never tired of his sincerity. He was opinionated, sometimes aggressively so, but rarely self righteous, or gratuitous. While his beliefs may evolve, even on occasion be altered in a 180 degree fashion, he believed what he said and said what he believed with only cursory regard to trends or popularity.

"I concur that there is too much money in sports, too much emphasis on who is highest paid, too little reminders of the importance of sportsmanship and of learning how to win as a team, but isn't the genie already out of that bottle? Do you think there is a way to reverse the trend?"

"Well, you know how I feel about excessive salaries and income inequality", began Bob. "If I were king, I would limit salaries so that CEO's made no more than 100 times the salary of their lowest paid employee, athletes no more than 100 times the salary of the people who sling drinks and dogs at the games, entertainers no more than 100 times the salary of those holding the camera, applying the make-up or creating the sets. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that top salaries were no more than 30 times the average salary, so 100 times is still much more than that, just far less than the 300 and 400 times we see today."

"But you are not, will never be king", said Mark. "And we both know that there is no chance that any type of salary reduction or restriction law will be passed anytime soon. So how do we get to a place where those at the top are well paid, rewarded for their outstanding accomplishments or leadership or innovation, but not so much that the everyday workers who help achieve the end results do not struggle to put food on the table, pay the rent, and provide for their families, let alone create the opportunity for their children to accomplish more than their parents?"

"It will take an awakening," began Bob. "A sea change in our culture that recognizes that how one becomes wealthy is more important than attaining great wealth, that the greatest economies are those built from the bottom up, and that money and resources should be shared, not hoarded."

"A spiritual awakening?" teased Mark.

Neither of the friends were church-goers, nor had they raised their children with an affiliation with any mainstream religion. But spirituality was an altogether different subject, one which they often strayed into regardless of the topic.

"Sure, we can call it that," Bob quickly responded before he caught the nature of Mark's response. "When I hear anyone from our generation, or older, complaining about 'today's kids', I recoil, but I do think our entire culture, top to bottom, needs to examine its seeming turn to more and more selfish behavior. Frankly, rather than proclaiming that kids don't want to work, or expect everything be given to them, it might be better for us boomers to admit that we are as spoiled a generation as any in history. We were given it all after WW2, and have wasted it on self destructive habits and vapid  possessions."

As if on cue, they glanced around the restaurant to see a bank of TV's with various sports events and sports talk shows in progress, being watched by patrons wearing home team jerseys, drinking $8 beers and snacking on $12 appetizers. 

"Well, it is Friday night, and people deserve a night of mindlessness, here and there, right?" said Mark, with little conviction. 

"It is not the occasionalism, if that is a word," began Bob, "but the fact that it can represent the goal of their work week, to be here, to watch someone else play a game, to cheer and groan, then replay it ad nauseam in the next few days until the next game. Or the next reality show, or contrived contest, or whatever one's particular poison."

A silence followed this comment, both men focused on their meal, while reflecting on all the times in their own past when time, and life, was taken for granted. Youth is wasted on the young was not just applicable to the boomers or millennials or any other generation before or since. It is the lament, the jealous lament, of all people or groups of people as they grapple with advancing age, and the inevitable ending of life.

"Dessert?" asked Bob.

"Well, considering that we barely scratched the relationship between your Sportico article and the GDP of 47 nations, and how we can solve the income inequality problem, I think dessert is a given", responded Mark.

They smiled. They both knew that discussion, and specifically, these discussions in which they had engaged over the years, would continue to undertake in the future, was their mutual diversion, a pleasure that would never solve any social ill. Was their version of time coasting any better than drinking a beer at a local watering hole while watching football?

While eating dessert, Bob and Mark compared schedules towards arranging their next meeting. It would be a while, with holidays on the horizon, although they would certainly see each other in other settings, with their wives and/or other friends. They tentatively chose a Friday, 4 months away. 

A sudden cheer permeated the restaurant, the home team having scored a pivotal touchdown. 

"By the way, what was your planned conversational direction relating to the 100 highest paid athletes and that GDP fact?" asked Mark.

"Well, you know me", started Bob. "Obviously, I thought it obscene that there are 100 rich athletes, mostly men by the way, which is another issue, who make more money than the GDP of 47 countries which encompass hundreds of millions of people. But this simple fact, which I imagine would not surprise most Americans illustrates two critical things."

"First, most Americans think this reflects how it should be using phrases like manifest destiny or God favored, which is fine, if we were to then act to try to help those people who through no fault of their own, were born in those countries (which by the way, means we are fortunate, through no merit of our own, to have been born here). But instead, we do the opposite, claiming ownership of this result of the birth lottery, as if we made our births happen here, or somehow earned those births because we are favored by the creator."

"But worse, we take the next step by assuming we deserve this advantage, and then more insidiously, assume they deserve their disadvantage. And so, when people of these countries, leave their lives behind and travel, sometimes despite the potential of death, certainly with no guarantee that the risk will be worth it, instead of figuring out ways to assist them, in their country, or here, we demonize them, call them rapists and criminals, actually spending more money to keep them out than it would cost to assist them. All the while, claiming to be a Christian nation."

"People are innately xenophobic", answered Mark. "It takes effort to welcome 'the others' even when your own grandparents and even parents were the scorned "others" in the recent past. But look at the progress that has been made. It wasn't that long ago that white men openly firebombed black churches to demonstrate their resistance to civil rights. And, or course, we have had an African American elected twice, by large majorities to be President." 

"That is pretty amazing, considering that Congress didn't even have all that many women, despite the fact that they represent half the population, until the very recent past. Almost one of every three women who ever served in Congress is serving right now." 

"Also, I remember reading that this outgoing Congress has over 50 Hispanic representatives, and I bet there are more this time. Again, the number serving this very minute is a significant percentage of the total who have served in history."

"Not to mention that about a dozen openly LBGTQ+ people were elected, or were already seated in Congress for the upcoming session. In other words, while 'firsts' still occur, like the first black woman US Supreme Court Justice appointed just last year, they are becoming fewer. Americans, particularly American white men, are becoming more used to, more accepting of the fact that anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, country of birth even, can run for office, and, if elected, share in the governing of our country."

"We are impatient for the progress, for the continued reduction of prejudice and discrimination, and we should be. It is only through persistence that America can truly earn its moniker of home of the free. Acknowledging the accomplishments while still striving towards the goal is always a difficult balance."

The friends left each other with this thought, and an embrace.   



Tuesday, December 20, 2022

World Cup 2022

The World Cup, a once every four year event to determine the champion of soccer, just finished this past Sunday. It is a national event, although many players play for club teams outside their own country. Even some US players are employed overseas in the more prestigious European leagues, a situation which leads to participants taking penalty shots against goalies that they are very familiar with, either from league matches or as teammates. The event that just ended was the men's tournament.

Before commenting on the final game, I thought it also important to mention the dark side of this year's World Cup. The host country Qatar, was chosen more than a decade ago by FIFA, the ruling commission of international soccer. At the time, the choice was very controversial, not the least because there were no large stadiums in which to play the matches. Generally, host countries must demonstrate they have the infrastructure in place before being awarded such an important event. 

Additionally, most World Cup tournaments are held in the summer, yet Qatar's summer weather was far too hot to have world class athletes competing in such a physically demanding sport. This is why the tournament was held in December, so that the temperature was acceptable for the participants, again, a concession to a host country that was unprecedented.

Also, the fact that Qatar does not have the best human rights reputation, resulted in a number of protests and boycotts, especially from the LGBTQ+ community, but also from women in general, since Qatar has only a slightly better record of treating women than its other Middle Eastern neighbors.

Finally, workers rights was seen as a black mark on the country, since, with the number of stadiums and accompanying buildings that needed to be constructed, immigrants were imported by the tens of thousands to provide the labor, often paid wages not in line with the difficulty of the work, and housed in poor shelters with inadequate room and sanitation facilities. 

Lastly then, many people claim there must have been some bribery and corruption within FIFA, to allow such an ill prepared country without much of a soccer reputation and with a questionable labor and human rights record to be the showcase for the most widely watched sporting event in at least 4 years, if not more.

Yes, America, football and the Super Bowl are popular with over 100 million people worldwide tuning in, but over 1 billion (that is billion) people watched this past Sunday's final match.

Still, and despite these obvious reasons why a Qatar boycott was justifiable, I caught a number of matches during the tournament, including the entirety of the final match between Argentina and France, the defending World Cup champion. And I was not disappointed. 

The game itself was remarkable.  The best player for Argentina, Lionel Messi, is one of the top 3 players in the world, but also at the end of his career, trying to win his first World Cup. On the other side, Kylian Mbappe, also one of the top 3 players in the world, was looking to cement his legacy as the best of today, and, by winning his second straight World Cup become only the second in history to win two by the age of 22, Pele having won 2 by his 21st birthday.

In other words, not only was there the drama of the World Cup itself, but history would be made regardless of who won. 

Now, many Americans disdain soccer as too slow and not enough scoring. I was fortunate enough to have played backyard soccer in my youth, and also to have known a few soccer enthusiasts who played in high school, and one who also played in college. Additionally, when I went to the Olympics in both 1976 and 1984, I saw multiple soccer matches, including one in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. For those who have never been to an international soccer event, there is nothing like it, the constant cheering, singing, rise and fall of the crowd as the game progresses. 

Sunday's final match was the ultimate example. Argentina dominated the first half, ney, most of the first 75 minutes, yet, while substantial in soccer, only held a 2-0 lead, one of the goals belonging to Messi. Then, lighting struck as France scored twice in less than 2 minutes, both by Mbappe! When the game went to overtime, tied at 2, Argentina scored in the second 15 minute overtime, Messi with the lead goal, but since soccer overtime periods are not sudden death, France still had about 12 minutes to go. So, of course, Mbappe scored with just 2 minutes to go, making it 3-3. This would have been enough excitement, except that both teams had excellent chances to score in those last few minutes, France especially being thwarted by an unbelievable save in close by the Argentine goalie.

So, off to penalty kicks. Now, again, some Americans don't like penalty kicks to decide such an important season ending match, but watching a world class soccer striker stare down a goalie from only 12 yards away, each attempting to out psyche the other, is tense. Each knows the others' tendencies, which corner the striker likes to aim for, which side the goalie likes to guess for his lunge. Multiplied by 5 players for each side, barring saves and misses, perhaps even more if neither side gains an advantage after the first five players.

In Sunday's finals, France won the toss and went first, analytics indicating that the team that goes first wins more than half the time. And, when Mbappe's shot found net, the choice looked good. But Messi evened the score with his penalty shot, then the Argentine goalie made an amazing save on France's second shot, and when the third French shooter missed the net, Argentina found itself up 3-1 after 3 rounds. France made in 3-2 but when the fourth Argentine shooter hit the back of the net, the celebration was on, and Messi had his first World Cup championship in his (perhaps) final match. Talk about going out on top! Perhaps Tom Brady should have spoke to him after winning Super Bowl 55.

As I have said before, I enjoy watching sports, having passed my playing days, backyard and otherwise, many years ago. Sports, when done right, can help develop team goals, teach graceful winning as well as losing, create long lasting friendships, and, sometimes, even bring nations and people together when other topics do not. But there is far too much money in sports today, which bothers me greatly, as I see money's influence tarnishing sports itself, and bashing the concepts I refer to above as the positives of physical competition. 

Is there hope? The fact that a country like Iran still sent its soccer team to the competition, and that some competing teams felt, at least for a few weeks, an affinity to those men who were just like them, just living in a different country, is the kind of thing that sports can do. The fact that most likely, the choice of Qatar as the host country was influenced by power and money, takes away from that accomplishment. 

In the end, whether it is the face of a 10 year old peewee football player who just scored his first touchdown, or that of a 35 year old man who won his last international competition, the joy that sports can create for the victorious, and the tears for those who didn't win, is priceless when followed by a shared ice cream cone, winners and losers, at the local DQ, or a beer by competing rugby teams at the local pub. 

It is the shared humanity of fair and tough competition with respect for each other,  and the shared act of having left it all out on the field that makes sports worthwhile, and as long as that stays in the forefront of the innumerable games that take place in the thousands of communities worldwide, it is what will continue to make our ball fields and pitches the place where life lessons can be taught to our kids. And, even more critically, (hopefully) remembered by adults when competing in those adult arenas of work and relationships and politics.     


Thursday, December 8, 2022

A last look at the Midterm Elections, and a look forward

With Senator Warnock's victory in holding his Senate seat, it is time to put this election cycle behind us, and look for lessons for the 2024 campaign.

First, although scant time remains before the end of the current federal legislative term, I would hope that the Dems can propose and pass some type of election reform that attracts a few GOP representatives who are interested in preserving our democracy. Nothing fancy, but certainly, at the least, laws that specify the role of the Vice President in certifying the electoral counts, and that require states to honor the votes of the citizens (no alternate electors). And, if possible, federal baseline standards that require some sort of early in-person voting, automatic mail-in ballots to be distributed for the general election when a voter participates in the primary of that year, automatic approval of a request for a mail in ballot (no reason needed), and perhaps a drop dead receipt date for mail-in and absentee ballots, say the actual day of the election, although I would want this requirement to be a part of a state's extended in-person voting. 

In my decades of political discourse with friends and family, making voting easier was never a partisan issue. GOP and Dem alike almost to a person thought that retaining Tuesday as voting day was absurd, weekend long availability being the most common opinion, and eliminating the obstacles to requesting a mail-in ballot being second most popular.  When my wife and I applied for our mail-in ballots this past election cycle, a reason needed to be offered. Why? My right to vote should not require a reason to be given if I want to vote via the mail. 

And, now that I have done it twice, I find voting by mail to be much better. Receiving a ballot up to a month before election day gave me  much more time to research the candidates, in addition to not having to worry about the weather, unexpected sickness within the family, work related issues, long lines at the polls, or any other of the innumerable reasons why someone might encounter an obstacle to voting, especially when there is no early voting option. 

For consistency, I reread my first post related to the mid terms, which you can read using the link below.

One interesting tidbit that you may have missed, is that with Warnock's victory, this was the first mid term in about 80 years that the party holding the White House did not lose a Senate seat. In this case, the Dems gained one with the flipping of the PA Senate seat to John Fetterman.  As for the House, the GOP gained 9 seats, from a minority position of 213 to a 4 seat majority of 222. (218 is needed for control). Certainly, good news for those in the GOP who wish to derail any other legislative efforts by Biden in the next 2 years, but no where near the landslide that was expected as recently as 6 months ago. 

To put this into perspective, in the last 11 midterms which encompass 1 Biden term, 1 Trump term, 2 Obama terms, 2 GW Bush terms, 2 Clinton terms, 1 Bush term and 2 Reagan terms, only GW Bush in his first term and Clinton, in his 2nd term, didn't lose House seats. The other 9, including Biden this year, lost an average of just under 31 seats. Biden's 9 puts him just behind Reagan's second midterm of 5, and the first Bush who lost 8. By contrast, Obama lost 63 seats (a true red wave) in his first term, Clinton lost 52 in his 1st term, Trump lost 40, GW Bush lost 30 in his 2nd term, Reagan lost 26 in his first term and Obama lost 13 in his 2nd term. 

So, despite the highest inflation in 40 years (since Reagan's first term), in this years midterm election cycle, the Dems lost the least amount of House seats in a midterm since 2002, and gained a Senate seat for the first time since 1962 when JFK gained a 3 total seats. 


Well, clearly, the Supreme Court's decision to return women's reproductive rights to the individual states had a lot to do with it. But also, as Mitch McConnell alluded to back in November, candidate quality also mattered. A lot! No better indicator of that reason is the Georgia Senate race where the GOP candidate under-performed as compared to the GOP Governor candidate by 200,000 votes, then lost by about 100,000 votes in the runoff, an increase in deficit when compared to his loss by about 37,000 votes in the original election. 

And who hand picked that Georgia Senate candidate? Like the word loser, his last name also has 5 letters. As I said in my original post, it is past time for the GOP to jettison its association with the former president. This is especially important in light of the fact that in 2024, the Dems must defend multiple Senate seats that they hold in red or purple states. It is clearly possible for the GOP to retake the Senate in 2024, but only if they run candidates that are not beholden to the former president's lies and treasonous actions. Like this election cycle, there will be seats to take back, but only if they choose candidates that can put two cogent sentences together, who believe in a women's right to choose, and who believe in election results even when they lose. 

In the meantime, inflation will continue to cool. While a recession is still a possibility, by November 2024, economic hardships may not be as prevalent as they were this year. This makes it even more critical for the GOP to acknowledge that they got what they wanted from their 2016 presidential election win (a 6-3 seat majority on the Supreme Court), but need a new direction if they want to win the White House.  

I firmly believe that the current GOP agenda has little to do with governing and more to do with an emphasis on grievance and culture war issues. We will see how this plays out in the next 2 years in the House; will there be bills passed which address our national problems, or will it be 2 years of interminable hearings and posturing. If the latter, that will make it all the more easy for the Dems to fend off further legislative losses. While I believe that more people lean right than left, I also believe that more people want effective government, and want their public servants to pass laws that help the everyday American citizen, not just the rich or influential.

Like life, politics is cyclical although sometimes the cycles lag behind what is needed on Main Street. Regardless of the party you prefer, we need to demand from our public servants that they put us, the 90% of people who can not buy TV ads to voice our opinions or send our lobbyists to DC, front and center.  

The majority of Americans believe in freedom for all, including women to control their reproductive lives, and all Americans to marry whomever they love, to worship the god of their choice, and to use birth control, but even more importantly, to not pass laws that discriminate against others in the name of one particular religion. 

Whichever party embraces these basic rights, is the one which, hopefully, will win more then they lose, both in 2024 and moving forward.   

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Today's Witches

Just started reading the latest monthly edition of Smithsonian. One of the Prologue articles touched on the history of witch trials in the Catalonia area of Spain, and a fairly recent decision by its parliament to officially apologize to the victims of the witch trials which occurred there over the course of 300 years.

While Catalonia was not unique in its participation in torturing and killing witches in the 14th through 17th centuries, it's lack of proximity to the central authority in Madrid, the power of local feudal lords, and widespread illiteracy, combined to create its renown as the center of witchcraft trials in Europe. As a result, over 700 witches were condemned to die beginning in 1424 when Catalonia enacted the first law prohibiting witchcraft.

Today, of course, witches are not tortured and killed. But then again, those (mostly) women who were murdered as witches, were not  witches at all. They were either people who were used as scapegoats to explain bad events of the day, or people who were different from most, which again helped justify their being treated without compassion. Back then, it was easy to convince the uneducated that people like that were expendable, especially when the institutions and powerful of the day were the ones telling them so.

Today, we see similar efforts by those who seek power and influence to marginalize certain segments of our society. Specifically, we are in the middle of another concerted effort by some religious and political groups to rally their believers into thinking that the LGBTQ community is to blame for all of society's ills. 

I wrote a few months ago about this topic, what I called Different VS Special. In it, I discussed how there are two ways to perceive people who are not like ourselves. As different, which creates a negative connotation, or as special, which evokes a softer, perhaps even desirable perception.

I recently spent some time with an acquaintance whom I hadn't seen for at least 20 years. During that time, we broached a number of subjects, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, but always remaining civil. One particular topic in which we disagreed, was related to the LGBTQ community. 

Now, this person is not one of those evangelicals who demonstrate their Christianity by telling us who God hates. Still, while he understood the necessity of allowing gay people to marry, understood how our marriage laws benefited individuals and society meaning that laws against gay marriage were certainly discriminatory, he also felt that the "gay agenda" was being forced upon him, and that it had gone too far. 

In other words, a very fine man who, in general, follows the spirit of his religion, yet believes that gay people do not deserve the same rights as straight people. When I countered that I believe the vast majority of gay people, especially men, were created that way by the very God he worshiped, he only grudgingly seemed to accept that position. In his mind, acting on their urges, was clearly forbidden by his holy book, and, while they might have been born gay, they were forbidden to have sex with someone of the same gender. 

I didn't pursue this anymore, but later, I regretted not asking him why God would create people with sexual desires that they would be  forbidden to exercise? And, if true, wouldn't that make them special? Special to the point that we, as a society, would do our best to support them, and show them special deference? 

It wasn't that long ago that people born with below average mental capability were hidden away, at best, sterilized and institutionalized, at worst. Even now, there are societal barriers for people with mental challenges to overcome, but at least there are not media pundits telling their followers that granting them the same rights to pursue life and liberty are what is ruining America, or has gone too far.

It is always easy to blame those that are different for the problems of the day, especially when those listening prefer not to look in the mirror. Whether it be witches, or the gay community, or people who worship a different god, power hungry people, those without real solutions to society's ills, can always find a segment to dehumanize and blame. 

I believe that my friend will be welcomed into heaven despite the blindness he displays towards those born with a different sexual orientation. His goodness, his good acts outweigh his bad, and, in the end, isn't that the math we will all face and answer to? Still, if someone as good as he continues to believe that people born with a different sexual preference are condemned by god if they act on their desires, is it any wonder that witches were burned at the stake hundreds of years ago? 

The negative acts perpetuated by good people.

Many people complain today that there are those among us who try to evaluate those from our country's history using morals of today. And, to an extent, I agree, that we should not negatively judge those founding fathers who owned slaves while penning our great documents of freedom. I believe it is possible to carry two thoughts in our heads at once and that despite those original signers being products of their times, despite their biases, they achieved greatness. It seems to me that believing that people can accomplish and/or inspire historic accomplishments, and who do so even though they are flawed, allows all of us to strive towards our own goals, knowing it doesn't require divine intervention or extraordinary genetics or unlimited resources.

Perhaps though, a better retort would be to ask, why do we judge people today based on the standards of 2000 years ago? When someone says their holy book condemns homosexuality, well, that certainly doesn't surprise me since most of those tomes were written by men centuries ago. 

When Jesus was on earth, there were leprosy colonies. At the time, and for centuries afterward, victims were isolated from regular society, not just out of fear of contracting leprosy but because most of society was ignorant of the causes of the disease, many concluded that victims of leprosy were moral degenerates being punished by God. Jesus walked among them to illustrate that his God loved all men, and that all men were worthy of salvation. While I may be musing a bit outside the lines here, I imagine that a Jesus walking among us today would demonstrate the same anti-establishment behavior by supporting those being marginalized due to their own special way of expressing their love, and who they love. 

Perhaps it is time for an even newer Testament, one that recognizes that condemning people in the name of a god, is as out of date as burning witches and calling leprosy a divine punishment. At the least, maybe we should tone down the arrogance that is reflected when we speak, judge, condemn and praise in the name of the creator.