Monday, April 30, 2007

Remembering the Forgotten

Instead of the self-imposed silence of blogs over the media-fabricated bathos surrounding the shooting at Virginia Tech, today I would like to dedicate my blog to the death of someone I knew, who died as part of a significant tragedy for an entire generation of an entire continent.

Her name was Constanza Paz, although I always called her Connie. I met her in 1969 in Buenos Aires when she was 17, just like me.

Back then, she was in an "Up With People" singing group, which she joined with her younger, more talented sister, who could play the guitar and sing beautifully. Connie had trouble staying on key and there wasn't an instrument whose sound she couldn't mangle; she was assigned the tambourine.

When I saw her perform, she moved around a lot, but mouthed the words.

We were thrown together in a church group that organized one of the first a folk Masses or "Misa de la Juventud" (Youth Mass) in Argentina. She was with the music committee; I was with the committee who led discussions on the topics of the gospel after the service. I was the designated contrarian: even then, my best talent was to arouse opposition -- hence debate -- in response to nearly anything I said.

For years Connie and I exchanged letters after I moved away. I always recalled her smiling and dancing and shaking her tambourine. When I spoke with her, in 1973, she made fun of many of our ideals of adolescence, the spirit of which I have never really given up, even to this day, whatever the changes in practical applications. I sensed that we were parting ways, but I never dreamed how far our paths would diverge.

Connie was taken from her home by the military regime in April 1976 and was never seen alive again.

Her aunt told me, when I ran into her by chance, that Connie's bullet-ridden body had washed ashore. Her family believed she had joined a Trotskyist guerrilla group known then as the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (People's Revolutionary Army). Her body was probably one of many dumped by military torturers in the ocean, as described in the book The Flight: Confessions of a Dirty Warrior.

None of this squared with the Connie I had known, although I found out later that a few of those I knew back when later took similar paths.

Yet the Connie I knew had tender thoughts. For years we engaged in a playful exegesis of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, especially the story of the fox, which was her favorite. You recall the one: the fox who seeks friends asks the Little Prince to tame him, else he cannot play.

Sometimes I wonder whether she would be alive today if we had been older when we met and a more solid relationship could have developed from our friendship.

Connie is, of course, emblematic of the thousands who disappeared under the military regime of 1976-83 in Argentina in a cowardly "war" against civilians that even the army officers described as "dirty."

Thousands more disappeared, were tortured and killed in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and El Salvador under a doctrine enunciated by one Cesar Augusto Pinochet in a 1965 article in the military journal Estrategia: seguridad nacional (national security). According to Pinochet and the officers in many military regimes of the era, the military were the anointed saviors of Western, Christian civilization against the onslaught of godless Communism.

These strong men, very virile when torturing unarmed women and youths, were in those dark years taught, encouraged and financed in the latest techniques of dictatorship and torture by the Central Intelligence Agency under the cover of a "traffic school" run by the U.S. Agency for International Development -- all supposedly in the name of "democracy."

An entire generation marred, ideals that initially were really very simple -- justice, equality, dignity for all -- became, through polarization caused in large part by the U.S. government's lack of subtlety, slogans of insurgency and counterinsurgency. All for naught: the generals are dying, their victims died, the poor still cry out to the heavens without receiving solace.

Ironically, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the proof that those men were cowards and military bumblers: the Malvinas / Falkland War, in which the torturers sent untrained boys to die, then ignominiously surrendered when their own skins were at risk.

If Connie were here, she would smile ironically, then laugh. Those tin men didn't really kill her.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Information-free Society

Recent irking experiences as a working journalist remind me of a problem I have watched developing to the point that it has become epidemic: nearly every institution has developed a myriad of ways to stonewall reporters and, partly as a result, almost all news publishing operations have come to offer thinner, more poorly verified factoids. It's reached a point that I wonder how the average person in the street finds out anything of significance.

This is not a matter of a loss of innocence. I have long instructed new reporters not to believe government officials if they say the sun is out without first going to a window to see for themselves. Government officials lie as a matter of practice; it must be in the manual: when in doubt, lie.

In my experience covering religion, I have learned that people in religious institutions lie even more egregiously, albeit more stupidly. Professionals of religion don't understand that they can get caught lying, especially if they lie in writing. Clerics think people will be buffaloed about anything they say, so long as they use the right mumbo-jumbo.

Corporations, however, are among the most secretive, most bureaucratic institutions when it comes to information. Since the Reagan era, the private sector's art of secrecy has permeated public discourse.

Even unions, whose officials were once the brashest, most quotable figures in American society, now have layer upon layer of public relations officials to hide just how little their members get for their dues and how much high-paid union executives are in collusion with their highly paid golfing partners in business.

Time to turn shine the third-degree lamp on journalism.

In the world of print journalism, it's no longer a secret that declining portions of the American get their news by reading -- a real loss for democracy. Indeed, we all now know that the majority of people under 30 get their first-hand news from a television program devoted to satire of news, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Most people do not understand the difference between the information content of a written news story and a broadcast newsflash and the consequent effect of the public shift to broadcast news, let alone the effect of learning about something from a comedic version of the news.

Allow me to explain.

An efficient reader can scan about 1,000 words in just about the time it takes to read out loud 50. Because journalistic style writing is crafted to pack as many facts as possible in few words -- wire services typically do not accept lead sentences longer than 30 words -- written journalism has it all over broadcasting when it comes to conveying facts.

This is why print reporters have traditionally called TV reporters "twinkies" (blond on the outside, fluffy on the inside.) I will never forget the twinkie who launched a press conference with the momentous question, "How do you feel about the national unemployment rate?"

But that's not all.

The broadcast news industry, because its is an expensive medium, is controlled by an ever smaller number of investors and holding companies with little real interest in delivering information of actual value and meaning to watchers. If newspapers were reluctant to investigate advertisers, imagine the pressure for broadcasting.

At least one network, Fox, has become a purveyor of all the news conservatives want to hear. I would not object quite as much if there were a counterpart with progressive news.

In England, I learned while working there, the news business has always been explicitly ideological. There is even a job title for the person in charge of protecting the "line," the sub-editor, a creature who does not exist in the U.S newsrooms.

You pick up the London Times and you know you'll get the Tory story, while you pick up the Guardian and you'll read the Lefty take. British journalists have come to regard facts as somewhat of a nuisance and the British public muddles through as it always has.

My point is that broadcast news not only does not convey too many facts, increasingly it misinforms or disinforms.

"Disinformation" (dysinformatsya in Russian) is a Soviet term used in the art of espionage for deliberately conveying false information to an adversary. The Allies used the practice in World War II to mislead the Germans into thinking the invasion of continental Europe was taking place in a variety of sites other than Normandy.

Modern disinformation is more subtle.

In a recent Fox broadcast, for example, a Chris Wallace interviewer asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) about the alleged "conflict of interest" in heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while investigating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. When a clip of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) voicing the charge was shown, the word "SCANDAL" was blazoned across the screen.

(The almost complete transcript -- minus the broadcast banner -- is available here.)

In the same show Chris Wallace allowed Newton Leroy Gingrich, former right-wing bomb-thrower in the House of Representatives, to explain himself concerning his calling Spanish a "ghetto language." Wallace described that bit of racism as "something of a flap."

So, according to Fox "news," when a Democrat politician is involved in -- oh, surprise! -- politics it is a "scandal" calling for resignation; when a Southern right-wing white Anglo politician from the party known to have used the famous "Southern strategy" to gain the votes of white bigoted Americans denigrates than language of an ethnic minority, that's "something of a flap" and the politician is allowed ample time, with little interruption, to explain.

This is how we come to the point at which, between stonewalling news sources, a declining general readership press (I work in the specialized trade press, which also is in decline) and a corrupted general audience broadcast media, we are left with a few wire services and the Internet.

How good are these sources? Just last week ago, I watched Reuters blare to the world through the Internet the news headlined "Women's group to stop sponsoring workplace event," leading many newspapers in the Midwest to proclaim that Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work, celebrated April 26 this year, was coming to an end.

The actual story was that this was the 15th anniversary of the event. More importantly, this year sponsors (the Ms. Foundation) were asking parents and children to text message Congress in support of legislation mandating a minimum 7 days of annual sick leave for every U.S. employee. The minor organizational future news, with which Reuters chose to lead, was that the event would henceforth be run by another organization as it had taken on a life of its own.

Never mind that 35 million parents and children participated. Let's proclaim an ending to this.

Result: Reuters eviscerated a feminist event and pushed a major labor legislative battle to the bottom of its story. They even got a woman reporter to do it!

This is the sad, sad state of information in our society. How can we expect citizens to be able to see through the web of lies and deception of businesses, churches and government in these circumstances?

We have reached the information-free society.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Blue for Elizabeth Hartman

Few pieces of music have expressed my own recurrent melancholy over the years as well as the Jerry Goldsmith score for the 1965 black-and-white film A Patch of Blue. Few actresses enfleshed the feeling of sometimes being "like a motherless child," as the spiritual has it, better than Elizabeth Hartman, who played the young and blind Selina D'Arcy.

Music, directing and acting meshed particularly well in A Patch of Blue.

The score is dominated by a soft, soft piano used in the impressionistic manner of Erik Satie and a wistful harmonica, at the time a Goldsmith score trademark, which distinctively Americanizes the sound. As Aaron Copland once remarked of his own Appalachian Spring suite while in rehearsal, Goldsmith achieved a sound that is "Amerikanisch ... the sentiment's not expressed on the face."

The director specifically chose black and white, when color was readily available. It made a point crystal clear against the backdrop of the then-growing civil rights movement.

The fresh-faced, freckled and pale Hartman was aptly chosen over Patty Duke and Hayley Mills to play a blind urban Southern adolescent girl who lives in her drunken grandfather's grimy tenement apartment with her tawdry mother (Shelley Winters). She plays her handicaps the way the music plays its sentiment, in a restrained, accepting way that is all the more touching, without ever crossing over to the cloying.

Taken to the park one day by the kindly employer for whom she strings cheap necklaces, she chances to befriend an educated professional man whom she does not realize is black (Sidney Poitier).

I won't spoil the film any further, but perhaps the premise hints at the poignancy that was brought to mind a few days ago, when I brought out the film score vintage record (yes, vinyl LP) sitting in my collection.

Then I realized that I had never again seen Hartman on the silver screen.

Hartman was nominated for the Oscar in 1966 as best actress for the performance. However, it was headliner Winters, then a veteran, who was given the film's only Oscar (the score, cinematography and setting were also nominated). Hartman's work on the film did, however, win her a Golden Globe for most promising female newcomer.

What was Hartman, who turned 22 on the year of the film, up to now?

A little bit of googling gave me a quick answer: she died on June 10, 1987, in a fall from her fifth-floor apartment in Pittsburgh, in a suspected suicide while undergoing psychiatric treatment for depression.

She had told an interviewer in 1969 that Patch had the ironic effect of beating her down, as she never met similar success ever again, despite a number of roles opposite famous actors for roughly 20 years after that film. Hers was an understandable feeling in the cutthroat world of acting; perhaps it was made worse by the collapse of her marriage several years before her death.

So few people, however, have the chance to make a similar impact on such important topics at such a key historical moment. In the minds of all who watched her for just that one film, I would venture, she remains a success whose demise turns a little patch of our hearts blue.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Human Life Math

The grief-fest over 33 students in a mediocre U.S. university has overshadowed the murder of 140 men, women and children in Baghdad two days later in an open air market, not to mention the neatly tucked away story of 2 workers killed in yet another unconscionable mine collapse yesterday. Which loss of life is worth more coverage, more anguish?

In this Bush era there appears to be a formula that allots value to human lives, so that the closer they are to the centers of power and wealth, the more valuable they seem to be. Yet seen in other terms, the value could be different.

The Virginia Tech students were, after all, not likely Einsteins. In broad social and historical terms, their deaths are remarkably insignificant.

Indeed, at least some of the luxury in which the Va. Tech students lived was paid for with the blood of the people of Iraq. And if you think 3,000 dead U.S. soldiers are too much -- as I do -- consider estimates ranging from President Bush's low-ball 30,000 Iraqi deaths since the U.S. invasion to the 600,000 deaths calculated by a group of Johns Hopkins University scholars. (See here.)

Does anyone think the 140 killed in Baghdad two days after the Virginia Tech shooting didn't have mourning parents, relatives and friends who regarded them as typical boy- or girl-next-door to whom nothing so untoward should have happened? Where are the pages after pages after pages of maudlin lament over them? Where are the television specials?

Dirty little secret: many Americans don't think Iraqi lives count.

Truth: historically and socially, Iraqi loss of life is much more significant than that of Virginia Tech, as it is the door-hinge upon which hangs the power of a U.S. government that lied itself into what is plainly an illegal and immoral -- worse, completely unnecessary -- war.

Last but not least, the same lying government is derelict in the protection of the lives of U.S. citizens at work. Mine safety is at an all-time low. The two miners killed in a collapsed shaft are also much more significant in social terms, than the Virginia tech 33. Their deaths sound the knell of the entire U.S. workforce, their salaries left to languish, their working conditions left to deteriorate.

The society that ignores the rampant deaths in Iraq and the U.S. workforce cannot wash itself clean by a mere Supreme Court decision to ban so-called "partial birth" abortion. A society that structures itself to feed off the death of foreigners and its workforce, who are visible and tangible, cannot absolve itself from guilt by a largely symbolic attempt to save children who are unborn.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Is it coincidence, American stupidity or are "they" really that clever? Just as the Bush Administration begins to die its richly deserved death of a thousand cuts for policies that are idiotic, arrogant and incompetently executed, up pops Don Imus and the Duke lacrosse exonerators to provide convenient circus entertainment for the masses.

There is, of course, something that makes a pseudoissue, such as the "ho-dom" of allegedly "nappy haired" athletes a biting controversy. Unlike the significance of the bombing in Baghdad's supposedly safe Green Zone or the widening gap between the middle class' stagnated household incomes and those of W's pals or the abuse of authority in firing prosecutors or ... one need only have an elementary school education to opine on Imus.

That's the real issue: the dumbing down of America.

Only a nation mired in reality television would confuse evaluating the use of rap language in sports commentary with debate within a polity of self-governed citizens. Only a duped populace would demand that privileged university athletes obtain retribution from a mentally ill woman poor and degraded enough to work as a stripper.

My concern is what it says about the future. How can a nation awash in trivial fantasy confront the real rapes and the real insults perpetrated by the present occupants of the White House?

Think I'm exaggerating? Consider the rape of Iraq, a nation that never did the United States any harm whatsoever. Or think about the insult of taking tax money that should have been preserved to pay for the retirement of the baby boom generation to give it to the richest 2 percent of the population.

I'm only scratching the surface. It's not clear to me what will happen to America, only that hope is the only thing we have left. Let's not let the media manipulators distract us from that hope.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Love, Fear, Words, Deeds

A friend I know as a truth teller writes in response to the last post, that maybe we shouldn't love everyone, since there are predators. Even more trenchantly, my correspondent questions whether people who say they love everyone can be trusted.

In my mind this raises two sets of problems in the application of the principle of love.

First, of course, is the fact that we live in a dangerous world. Turning of the other cheek is the least frequently applied of all the teachings of Jesus. In the weeks after September 11, I do not recall reminders of this teaching; instead, most pulpits dripped with words of rage and vengeance. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the nation is still paying the price for that sort of sentiment.

Perhaps the reason why turning the other cheek doesn't work is that it's thought of in isolation from everything else. The average churchgoer may be a law-abiding citizen and behave with good manners, but this is not what the point of the challenge to love is about.

Love as described here was unstinting, disinterested merely for the reason that the loved one exists. This is not business as usual except for an hour a week in church.

This involves a whole change of perspective. Here the Buddha's surrender is meaningful. The bodhisattva (or Buddha-to-be) can love everything and everyone without fear because he or she has shed attachments and desires.

So what it there are robbers, no possession matters to the bodhisattva. So what if there are those who would harm the body, it is a passing thing. So what if someone would cause me pain, all the world is full of pain. (One of the Four Truths.)

Granted, I'm not there myself. I'm just saying that I understand why detachment makes sense. Detaching is the ultimate protection. As Janis Joplin put it: "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Or, more conventionally, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt preached from the presidential bully pulpit in 1933: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

It seems to me, then, that we need to add one more qualifier the universal ethical principle: we are speaking of fearless love.

Secondly, when we attempt to establish this goal for our behavior, it must go beyond words. Love is a verb best performed without much fanfare.

The Sermon on the Mount says; "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6,3-4)

"When we give, we should not be attached to the giving itself, nor take too much pride, nor brag about our giving," writes Venerable Tsang Hui in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. "Having wisdom will not give us too much conceit. Only through cultivating wisdom can we cut off our mental defilements."

Our rational mind cannot read into the thoughts and feelings of others, but it can grasp deeds. When words and deeds are at odds with each other, as my correspondent noted, it is evident.

These things are my yearnings, rather than my accomplishments.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


What can one say about disinterested, unstinting love of everything and everyone other that it's a very hard value to embody? Just finding the words to describe such a love doesn't make one change to become loving in this way.

I'm still a flea-bitten observer of politics: the plainest "good morning" makes me wonder about the greeter's agenda and as much time as I devote to thinking of systemic solutions for humanity's ills, I don't much like the real individual people on the street. Can a misanthrope be loving?

The traditional paths to loving, abrahamic, dharmic and taoic, speak of some kind of inner change that leads to the adoption of a set of rules or goals.

Christianity's metanoia takes the ancient Greek term for changing one's mind, or retracting a statement, and imbues it with the notion of repentance and a continuing transformation. From the gospels' Beatitudes to early Christianity's Didache, the essentials replace the human order with a divine one and the habitual response to reality with an intentional one.

In the dharmic mode, Buddhism has it four truths and its eightfold path through which the believer reaches enlightenment, although at the core is renunciation, even of the desire for enlightenment. In the end, as Herman Hesse's novel Siddartha spells out to the Western reader, even the rules, rituals and mental structures of Buddhist teaching can stand in the way.

The Tao calls for a oneness with the flow of the universe that keeps everything in order. Out of this arise the compilation of maxims of the Tao Te Ching and the endless prescriptions of Confucianism.

Then there's the fourth traditional, non-religious set of paths, those that stem from reason, Platonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and more -- take your pick. Reason calls, at a minimum, for coherence between one's understanding and one's actions.

Intuitively, however, a believer or rule-follower feels quite short of a lover. I have been a believer, not a particularly good rule-follower (although I know some who are).

My experience tells me that believing and following rules falls short of utter, blissful, disinterested appreciation of others for themselves. I'm thinking of the sort of thing one tastes at a first kiss, when the other is unknown but lovely. Or the magical moment in which a child opens up for a grandparent a tiny window into wisdom.

These are moments of youth and of old age, rather than the in-between, where most of us find ourselves still.

I am left uncomfortable, where I started, which I suppose is what this realization is all about.

Like the ego-boundary shattering experience of orgasm, the mere notion that an utter love transcends everything and transforms everything yields a high. But the post-coital feeling while Lady Wisdom has her cigarette leads to wondering whether she will respect me tomorrow, and the little mental worm eats up the unstinting face of love.

Is the answer to begin with self-love, a love that radiates from one's core and slowly loses itself in others? Why do I think I must stay at that moment, that rain will never fall again, that all suffering will cease, that time will stop?

Perhaps the answer is to find one's way to integrate love into life, with its ups and downs. Easily written, harder to live out.