Monday, June 30, 2008

On Taking a Deep Breath about the Economy

Some years ago a sermon I heard from a priest trying to buddy up to the congregation began with the words, "we all cheat on our taxes." What better moment to thread back to my series on a nonreligious ethical decalogue, and its economic morals, than right after a stock market low and an oil price peak.

Professionals of religion, like conservative politicians, spend way too much worry on sex and too little on economics. Yet the reality that undergirds the only reasonable way to live is that we can all survive only if we focus on respecting the means by which our fellows weather the challenges of ill fortune.

This is the problem with the chain events leading to both the stock market plunge and the oil price surge. Watch the market go up now that I've written this ... and here comes the oil price drop. It actually doesn't matter if the fluctuation reverses, the point is that we are at an unstable moment brought on by unsavory doings.

Some of those are the deeds of the "they" we're always complaining about. "They" unloaded houses on people who couldn't afford them, with mortgages obtained with at least significant omissions of fact, a debt which was then resold and finally repackaged as securities that were sold at values that criminally understated the risk.

In my view, the stock market is reacting to a string of write downs reports of losses that are likely to continue for a year or so. The fluctuations come with people who rush in at each low, buy cheap, then sell quickly. Thursday, it seems, there were fewer buyers, perhaps because people are running scared.

OK, there's all too much greed at the top of the anthill. We knew this, no?

But then there's "Us." You know, you and me, the "little people," as Leona Helmsley put it. Or, as my favorite Catalonian singer, Joan Manuel Serrat, puts it in his song
Uno de mi calle me ha dicho que tiene un amigo que dice conocer un tipo que un día fue feliz (A guy on my street told me he has a friend who said he knows a guy who was happy one day):
a man as any:
contaminated as any,
bored, yet a little daring
when you least expect it
That's us, right? We reach for happiness with our cars and our homes and our fast, faster, fastest computers -- a lifestyle that daily guzzles down in minutes fuel formed over millions of years from prehistoric plankton and algae.

Our SUVs consume it, the plastic in our CDs comes from it, the electricity that powers our computers would not be possible without it.

OK, the Chinese are gas guzzlers, too. So? Most of them are like us -- "ignored, disoriented, contaminated" -- it's their faces, too, that show up in the mirror when we search for who got us to $4.61 a gallon gasoline. (That's the price at my corner, if it's cheaper than yours, come visit.)

In a way, we're as bad as the bad actors on Wall Street. Because every drop we burn comes thanks to an exploitative system that gives rise to the irrational rage of suicide bombers.

We have a choice here:

We can be greedy and fearful as our society bids us to be, striving to accumulate in order to consume things to make ourselves popular and good-looking and smart-appearing, all to stoke the machinery that keeps everything going just as always.

Or we can stop. Take a deep breath. Consider what respecting the means by which we and our fellows live really amounts to in hard, practical terms.

This need not mean becoming an anchorite in a cave.

It may mean reconsidering property, what is legitimately private and what remain our common legacy for future generations.

Or we may have to recalibrate pay differentials (I'm of two minds as to whether differentials should exist) as we know them so that they make sense. For example, shouldn't garbage collectors, who do the most odious work, be paid more than people whose work is pleasant or even enjoyable?

At a less lofty macro level, it may simply mean regarding the just wages and fairly held property of others with the same respect we regard what we claim as justly ours, meaning that perhaps we all need to winnow out what we don't need so that we can all have enough.

We can all have enough. I believe that and the facts supports me. Moreover, we can turn greed and fear into the joy of sharing and the hope of loving.

I'm not certain that we can eliminate all differentials, nor that we would want to, nor much less that I know how to do it, anyway. But I am certain that we can all survive together.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cliché Criticisms Cripple Themselves

Discussing the role of the United States in World War II with a cyberfriend, I found myself sighing with the exasperation of one who could make her case ten times better, yet would never choose her terms. This happens whenever someone ventures into an area in which I feel comfortable about facts my interlocutor treats much like a bull amid eminently breakable china.

Say a European spouts clichés about the USA. "You Americans are, how do you say ... [insert cliché here]."

Or how about your gringo out of central casting who spouts something like "Well, [Latin American country here] is so backward because those people just don't know how to [insert Ugly American truism here]."

Then there's the bloody Prod who repeats some 500-year-old false canard such as "the Jesuits [add heinous act here]."

Critics often think that my reaction means they've touched a nerve. They decide that I am "emotional" (goodness, let's not spill emotion on the clean carpet, shall we?) in much the same way there-thererer men dismiss women who get legitimately annoyed.

My problem is not always that I disagree.

Americans have customs and habits of mind that may seem quaint or unusual to Europeans or even Canadians. Latin American countries are socioeconomically behind the United States by almost any conceivable measure. And even one Catholic joke has it that not even the Holy Spirit knows what the Jesuits are up to.

Nor is it that my feelings of attachment to the country of my birth, the region in which my ancestors lived or the the religion in which I was brought up (to which I no longer assent) prevent me from accepting their blemishes, scars or even fatal flaws.

Actually, the problem is that most Europeans have no effing idea of the depth of criticism to which I am capable of subjecting America. Nor do average Americans know enough to understand my exasperation with Latin American societies. Nor, finally, does the average Protestant even begin to plumb the faultlines I see in Catholicism.

To the contrary, pseudo-savants such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the recent author of an essay on the United States, which was expanded into a book, are exasperating for the little they understand. They richly deserve every kick in the pants they get precisely because they provide the best rationale for the Republicans' idiotic renaming of French fries as "freedom fries."

That's the problem. But how does one convey this to those who feel they already know the truth and even know what I am thinking? Moreover, I am not exactly incapable of provoking a similar reaction.

Sometimes, men and women are the worst discussants in the world. I wish I could talk to my dog -- if I only had one.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Being Angry

The hullaballoo over Michelle Obama's alleged anger points to an American problem no one ever wants to acknowledge: our society's inability to deal with anger. As a reformed "angry" person who has acknowledged personal problems with anger, I still believe that becoming angry doesn't make anyone wrong.

Yet that's the way society decrees life must be. It's even a trick some extremely malicious people use: drive someone to distraction until they "lose it," so everything they say or do can be disregarded as words and deeds of a lunatic.

Let's be clear that I am not talking about irrational, unmeasured, violent anger of the kind that suppressed anger will sometimes become. I am talking about what the Bible calls "wrath." This is something that can even be divine. Jesus was enraged at the vendors at the Temple.

Granted, we all like to think we are Jesus and Isaiah. Our anger is righteous. But the true prophet is not merely someone who points at others but someone who includes himself and all those dear to him in the condemnation. That said, there is something far more evil and pervasive than raising one's voice in indignation or frustration at not being heard. It is the smugness of a modulated, uncaring voice.

In U.S. society, this is one of the chief legacies of Britain, the conceit that all reasonable and true discourse is subtle and indirect, all of its conclusions carefully balanced compromises. Never show pain or rage; don't give your adversary the pleasure.

This may be fine for a culture of fat dogs and scrawny children, such as England's, in which a shy people from a dim clime has always lived so uncertain of its own worth as to need the boost of calling some others -- the wogs of every stipe and color -- its lessers.

Is it suitable, however, in a land in which the Anglo-Saxon, himself a mongrel of uncertain pedigree, is a minority in a sea immigrants from as far back as 10,000 years ago across the Behring Strait or barely yesterday across the Rio Grande?

Timbre and gesture are, after all, the language of culture.

There is nothing as culturally relative as the difference in demeanor between legendary Baghdad bazaar rug merchants and the equally paradigmatic thin-lipped New England bankers. Why should one be deemed coarse and the other refined, when in the end both go at their customers' wallets with equal zeal and trickery?

As Woody Guthrie sang, "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen." Similarly, a mystery writer once remarked that there are two kinds of murder.

There's the murder in a manor in the English Midlands, in which the disinherited younger son gives his rich uncle drink laden with poison that cumulatively does its work. Then there's the Sunday dinner in Naples where a soccer argument heats to the point that an enraged young man seizes the carving knife and plunges it 18 times into his cousin's chest.

It took me years to realize that women's tears are shed more often in rage than in sorrow or joy.

Often, as with Michelle Obama's reputed anger at injustice in U.S. past and contemporary history, it is anger that should be heard, not dismissed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hispanics and Obama

Bloguera's headline "Latino artists who can't vote support Obama" raises one obvious issue with regard to the Hispanic vote -- while nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, we make up only 8 percent of eligible voters -- but not the much touchier question of whether the browns will vote for a black (which Hillary Clinton answered "no").

Logic would suggest that la güera Clinton is wrong, as I have argued. The spunky Bloguera, however, did point to a fact worth underlining: Hispanics are not all alike.

Clinton won a majority of Hispanic votes in Texas and trounced Obama in Puerto Rico. Yet there you have a video of Hispanic artists who sing praises of Obama.

How to explain this?

First, Clinton and her husband had good advice and years of building bridges into the Hispanic community thanks to that advice. However, some of that bridge building was largely symbolic and opportunistic.

I will never forget the stupid dog trick of a Clinton White House adviser who tried to wow a group of Hispanic journalists by having his pager buzz so he could excuse himself at about quitting time by saying he had to go to the Oval Office. The contempt had been visible from the first moment.

Secondly, the Hispanics who vote are largely union members. We do know that the union leaders on the ground went all out for Hillary, despite her husband's North American Free Trade Agreement betrayal. (Is it any wonder that AFL-CIO unions are shrinking?)

OK, so you knew this.

Thirdly, and what we do not often admit, despite Virgilio Elizondo's multiracial, multicultural theology of mestizaje (or blending or races), is that, yes, Virginia, some Hispanics are racist.

For example, I will never forget the embarrassing Cuban minstrel show to which I was treated in the presence of a Cuban-born bishop whom I was visiting in Miami. This was not in the Al Jolson era but in the 1980s, when the very white Cuban exiles looked down their noses at the darker, more newly arrived Marielitos -- to say nothing of their disregard for the Negros of the Liberty City slum.

In my parents' country of origin, Argentina, I heard university professors joke about how they trimmed points off the score of certain students' work, merely because they were Jewish.

Sotto voce, some of the darkest Dominicans in new York City still have hatred for anyone of African origin, due to the 19th century invasion of their country by the first black-ruled nation in the world, Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

Are these obstacles insurmountable for Obama insofar as the Hispanic vote? Why should he care?

Like Hillary, Obama will learn, sooner or later, that there are differing Hispanic constituencies. He probably won't win the Cubans, but he can probably win the Mexican-American vote and the Neorican.

Some of the Hillary connections can be transferred through the party. Certainly, the unions, are unlikely to oppose the anointed Democratic nominee and likely to see common cause in someone who as recently as last spring was defending the notion of an accelerated union certification process in the halls of the Senate.

As for the racists, they're not really American in the finest tradition of America, and they are not the majority by a long shot. The majority of Hispanics have good reason to see common cause with the son of an immigrant than with someone who courts the border-wall party.

The question that remains open, to my lights, is whether the Hispanic vote will matter. Those in the business of promoting Hispanics have been crowing that this vote is "pivotal" since 1980 -- to little discernible effect.

Hispanics make up 8 percent of all U.S. voters. However, if their turnout follows the pattern of past elections some studies estimate that they will make up only about 6.5 percent of those who actually vote next November.

Of course, Hispanics are not distributed evenly and made up more than a tenth of the electorate in the past primary season only in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Recipe for New Politics

Jim Johnson, who recently resigned from assignment as Barack Obama's VP-vetter-in-chief, is memorable to me not for his insider influence, but for his inside-the-Beltway humor, including one of his favorite recipes: "Palm Steak."

Back when Johnson was Walter Mondale's campaign chief, he made his recipe public, which as I recall went like this: go to Palm Restaurant, get seated, order steak. The Palm, as people with wallets much fatter than mine call it, is a swanky Washington eatery at which I have partaken of the Johnson recipe only when someone else was footing the bill.

His resignation saddened me partly because I knew he was probably an asset to Obama (even though in 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was not such a hot choice), but mostly because it highlights a stupid and annoying political truism that, slogans notwithstanding, is completely off the mark: Washington is the problem.

By "Washington," the unseen people John McCain likes to address as "friends" are said to mean not the actual capital city, not its African American majority which they hardly even realize exists, nor much less the federal employees who stream in from Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

No, the Washington routinely accused in the hustings of being the core problem of the American body politic is an echo-system (pun intended) populated by congresscritters and White House rats, along with slithering lobby larvae and pontificating wonki illuminati, all of whom seek to engage with celebrity media figures in a mating ritual of mutual pandering and preening.

Of course, what most people outside the Beltway rarely realize is that this fauna lives on only due to its parasitical relationship to the worker bees of the capital: the network of professionals touched in some way on a daily basis by the capital's chief sacrament, policy.

This includes the phalanx of lawyers and editorial professionals who make sure the text of laws and regulations is precisely as intended and no more, the army of specialists who explain to the decision-makers the complexities of a million branches of human knowledge, and the participant observation of hundreds of off-camera print journalists of little renown, such as myself, who often spread within the policy hive the information that brings about necessary self-correction.

Let's face it: elected officials haven't run the truly necessary parts of government for years. If they did, things would be immensely worse. There would be no bean counters to remind the Bushies that they do need some taxes, if only to pay their own salaries at a minimum. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers might be running around in Iraq naked, not merely with deficient armor. And pollution standards, such as they are, would never have become practicable.

Crazy things occur to politicians, lobbyists, wonks and even the occasional TV newsreader. Remember Star Wars and the flat tax?

In Britain, the use of thalidomide in the early 1960s as a sedative prescribed to pregnant women to combat the effects of morning sickness led to the birth of children with birth defects such as missing or shortened limbs. That drug was never approved for similar use in the United States thanks to a brave physician I once met, a middle level bureaucrat who fought pharmaceutical companies tooth and nail. (The drug is now used successfully in the USA for treating leprosy.)

What prevented such crazy things was Washington, too.

It's the denizens of that Washington who will have to tell President McCain (cough, sputter) that tax cuts for the rich just have to be rolled back or explain to President Obama that not everything in his program can be accomplished at once.

The recipe for new politics may well involve some of the "old" Washington, that part of Washington that has always worked in the boiler room of the ship of state.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Meet Depress

As much as I liked newly deceased Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, NBC's hour-long farewell Friday night and "celebration" on Sunday went so far over the top with bathos as to make me want to join a choir of Munchkins for a rousing chorus of "Ding, dong, Tim Russert's dead" (to the tune of The Wizard Oz's "The Witch Is Dead").

The Friday special ran out of original material about 10 minutes into the program and by Sunday so much had been printed, posted and broadcast about Saint Russert that only some Afghan villager hiding in the Tora Bora caves would not have heard every last possible cliché available.

Yet anchor Tom Brokaw continued the death march into banality with his demand for "no tears,"a decree he telegenically broke in a transparent -- and desperate -- play for ratings.

The two "tributes" struck me as tasteless as the tons of unwrapped flowers piled on the Buckingham Palace mound of mush after the death of Princess Diana, a woman far more celebrated for far fewer accomplishments than Russert's.

The best tribute to Russert would have been to get on with the show.

Brokaw, or someone who could interview without a script, should have faced some policymaker who had something substantive and mildly original to say about some topic other than the personal trivia of a newscaster who had barely missed becoming a twinkie, just as he was dangerously en route to becoming one. (In case you don't know, "twinkie" is print journalese for on-camera broadcast news figures: blond on the outside, fluffy on the inside.)

Let's be clear: I have nothing against Russert.

Russert was entertaining and had some pointed questions (though I found his quizzing of Condoleeza Rice on running for president a bit of dead-horse beating). He did his job reasonably well for one of the few people in journalism with a multi-million-dollar salary. So?

Also, my goodness, he died pretty much at his desk, at 58, of a heart attack. Is it that so surprising for a man as obviously overweight as he was? My own father, whose figure matched Russert's, died at 59 three decades ago. I myself am only two years younger than Russert was, and I have struggled to lose 35 pounds in the past year -- with hope for more -- precisely to avoid a similar fate. Yet ... who knows?

In the end, where was the news here? Someone, tell me, please!

Besides, what was so startling about Russert, after all? Russert was a lawyer, a former aide to powerful politicians, then one of the suits in the NBC corporate suites. Only someone with that combination of connections could have parlayed just a few years of back room "journalism" experience into a 17-year gig in a prime public affairs television slot.

Sorry, but I don't see material for sainthood there.

Russert's Sunday television cortege was also pathetic. Led by a man whose chief talent is being able to read on camera, accompanied by an alleged historian accused of plagiarism whose first splash in publishing was the gossip she heard as a White House intern (remind you of someone?), along with a Washington "power couple" no one has bet a plugged nickel on for years, and yes, the obligatory token black face to pretend that Washington's white elite establishment isn't.

What wisdom did these individuals have to impart?

Then again, who were we mourning? A great man of letters, a jurist who had defined complex issues, an engineer who had built a new marvel, a scientist who had found a cure? No, just an overweight, middle aged guy who parlayed influence into TV celebrity. Period.

Tim Russert was probably a nice guy to his dog, if he had one. I'm sure his family will miss him. Still, in a world with serious problems (which, admittedly, his work sometimes helped illuminate), was his death worth endless repetition of mediocre quotes?

I'd like to think he would say no. Except ... I did note that the Sunday show billed Tim Russert as managing editor. Did he script his own televised obituary? I don't know and I would rather not find out. I've had my fill of Tim Russert for a while.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Just One Word: Plastics

Who does not recall the title's words as the quintessence of sage advice of the 1960s, from the film The Graduate? What would we tell the graduates of today, among them my son, who is getting his bachelor's degree from Harvard this morning? Computers? Homeland security? A young man wants the answer, but he wants to find it on his own.

My recollection of this period of my life involves a healthy dose of anxiety. The first lesson I learned in the job market was that everyone wanted someone experienced. How the hell was I going to get experience unless someone hired me?

Besides, what was wrong with these people? They were merely interested in making money, when I brought the wisdom of the ages.

Yes, what one is going to do with one's future -- asked of The Graduate's Ben as of everyone at that stage -- seems the important question, but it really isn't. Much more important than a job and a future, it seems to me, is learning and the present.

What have you learned? I toted up 17 years between kindergarten and my university graduation and, at the time, I asked my good friend Michael what I had learned.

"Never to do it again," was his reply. Three decades later, my son laughed at the words, as I tried to help him make sense of his moment.

One hopes a university graduate has learned how to learn. Perhaps a graduate has a rough map of stored human knowledge and where it is to be found.

A few graduates have particular, occupationally specific skills. Yet in a world in which most people can expect to change careers, not just jobs, several times in a lifetime, this is not all that meaningful.

Besides, making a living is predictably easier than it seems at first blush. Anxious graduates remind me of fretful mothers who worried whether their babies would ever walk and talk. After all, how many people never learn how to walk and talk?

Even at the depths of the Great Depression 78 percent of all able-bodied available U.S. workers were employed. That wasn't good news for the 23 percent that weren't, but it meant that you had a 4 in 5 chance of having a job. Today U.S. national unemployment stands at 5 percent. This means that 95 percent of all people able and willing to work hold jobs. You have more than 9 out of 10 chances of being employed.

My son and his peers will get jobs, likely get married, have kids, "the full catastrophe" as Zorba put it. Anthony Quinn, who played the Nikos Kazantzakis character, rendered the adjective with a faux Greek accent that lent the phrase delicious ambiguity. In his mouth it sounded as "the fool catastrophe."

So the first concern is what one learns, not what one can do with it. The wise and honest answer is perhaps that of Socrates: that one knows nothing.

The second is like it: who one is. A young man or woman at the age of graduating from university is most clearly no longer a child. Graduation is the modern bar mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for the educated classes in the Western world.

My son's grandfather was given $100 in 1923 and told to make his way after he came out of Princeton and set out for business in New York. According to the inflation calculator, that's $1,227.31 in 2007 dollars.

So, who are you at this moment in which parents watch you fly off the nest for the last time? There's a different answer for everyone.

I would like to suggest that we are all, at any given point in our lives, somewhat more than what you look like, how much you earn, the kind of work you do or the kind of mate you attract. In some ways we are all less unusual and unique than we would like to think, less free to be individual; in others, we have made choices that define us -- rarely irrevocably.

If you or someone you know is graduating this season, take a moment to take stock, an unhurried pause, without thinking about a job and the future. Just revel in what you understand and who you are this moment.

Before you know it ... it will be gone.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Blogging vs. Journalism

This week Alex Fear won a round of beer from me when someone made the 250th comment on my post concerning a catfight two barmy1 Englishwomen decided embark upon in the blogosphere. In all the British verbal diarrhea, one recurring theme is the mistaken view that this blog -- or any other, for that matter -- amount to journalism.

This is now espoused by one of those immensely tiresome British commenters who asserts that she is a "journalist" and how dare I blog without reference to the canons of the trade to express compassion for Felicity Jane Lowde, a woman who obviously could use some. I strongly suspect the alleged journalist is none other than Rachel Whatszername, a celebrity victim du jour in Britain back in 2005, but that's neither here nor there.

No one who has actually earned money reporting facts in print or broadcast -- as I and my journalism colleagues do in our respective news journals and bulletins -- would confuse such work with blogging, essentially an unpaid hobby in which people "log" their thoughts in essays of varying length on matters large and small. Essayists are not journalists, any more than entomologists who write multiple scholarly volumes about insects are journalists.

Journalists who blog are not doing journalism when they blog; they are blogging. This is much the same as with entomologists, who are not engaged in entomology when they are bugged by bloggers.

Now it's easy to see how a Brit might be confused about this.

The British press treats facticity with a fair amount of latitude. Having had the temporary misfortune a number of years ago to work as a journalist in Britain, I discovered this the hard way. As in most of Europe -- Brits don't know they are European, so keep this on the Q.T. -- the British press is first and foremost opinionated.

The Times is conservative, The Guardian is liberal. The tabloids are mostly fascistoid, sexist and mostly devoid of truly useful or significant information -- like the telly2.

Much as with our own public lack of information in North America, the British public is grossly misinformed, but their disinformation arises out of corporate policy harkening back to forever (read Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" for a time-tested sendup). Most newsrooms in Britain have a creature unknown in these shores, known as a "sub-editor" whose job is to make sure not merely that the syntax is correct, punctuation clear and word usage consistent with style, but also that the "editorial line" is reflected in the set of factoids conveyed.

As if this were not enough, since 1912 the Ministry of Defence [sic] has routinely issued something called a "D notice" to any journalistic scribe the bureaucrats want, without accountability or reason, let alone rhyme. Upon receipt of the "request" not to publish whatever it is officialdom wants not published for reasons of "national security" (no one has ever abused that phrase, of course), reporting ceases instantly.

Not only that. The British legal system is so tilted in favor of money that courts notoriously reward the most inane nuisance suits to the point that most British journalists are not allowed to mention a traffic accident without a police report to source it on -- no matter what they or other witnesses saw with their own eyes!

In brief, freedom of the press as we know it is nonexistent in Britain. The D-notice exerts what we in the USA regard as unconstitutional prior restraint, to which the practice of libel law adds an economic muzzle.

So, to the average Brit, your run of the mill blog is a veritable font of journalism. All you need is a typeface and -- presto! -- you're a journalist!

But wait! We haven't even examined the difference between opinion and reporting of fact. Of course not! The average Brit is utterly unable to distinguish between the two, given that he has been served up opinion as reportage all his life.

In sum, to all you Brits agog about Rachel and Felicity, stay after class and write on the blackboard 100 times: Blogging is just a hobby.

1 Britishism for "nutty."
2 'nother one, television.