Saturday, December 29, 2018

Last Times

(A year ago, I wrote the following to myself.)

In the past year or so, I have had the rare and bittersweet pleasure of observing myself do or experience a variety of things for the last time. It has been a season of last things that ended today as I left my final employment, my office and the company I owned for the last time ever.

How often do you get to observe this? When was the last time you changed your child's diaper, hugged a deceased parent, made love to your last lover? Most often we don’t realize it’s the last time.

When last December ended, however, I suddenly realized that it was only a matter of months before I retired. That January and February, with that bitter wind on the walk to the bust stop five blocks away, was happening to me for the last time.

March I filed my last corporate tax return. I’d surrendered to my successor a number of editorial and production tasks and decision making. This year I would slowly surrender corporate operations. I have been a business owner since 1997. By year’s end, no more.

May I had my last board meeting in that season. July I took my last short vacation. When you are the boss, you’re always in. In November, I extended banking privileges to my successor, along with running the payroll.

Then came the inevitable last month.

Dec. 14 I put to bed the last issue of my weekly publication that I would have a hand producing. It would be the last issue before the Christmas break. It was my 1,525th issue.

“Putting to bed” is a journalism expression meaning to complete all editorial and layout work on a newspaper or magazine so that it is ready to go to press; it comes from an old printing phrase to lock up the type form of a publication in the press’ bed, before printing. My publication hasn’t been printed since 2006, but I was still putting it to bed on this day two weeks ago.

On Dec. 15th, I last saw my favorite luncheon checker, with whom I played the game of trying to find out what happened on the year matching the amount due; for example, if the lunch cost $14.92, the year was 1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Dec. 19, I last saw my favorite street person outside the luncheon place I go pick up something to eat at my desk. We exchanged the daily refrain. His was “What’s the word? Thunderbird!” For that he got my ritual $5 “tip.”

On Dec. 22, I finished writing the last story I would ever write for my publication, no longer under my byline (just as the first one didn’t have my byline, both for institutional reasons).

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Central Americans are an "illegal-alien invasion" and Europeans weren't?

The great hue and cry among U.S. Americans watching northbound Central American emigrant caravans probably resembles what the North American natives thought as hordes of Europeans from Britain to Spain started arriving some 500 to 300 years ago.

See what I just did? I turned a bunch of poor, brown, mostly Indo-American, emigrants from Central America and Mexico into peers of the august Thanksgivings' Day Puritans and the celebrated Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus.

"This was organized so that the illegal-alien invasion into the country would occur right around the elections in mid-November," exclaimed my Facebook friend Joe Tiernan in a post yesterday early morning (10/18 at 8:33 AM).

Perhaps we might envision a Native American response to the enterprises of Columbus, Purtitans and other European migrations organized without the slightest thought given to the American natives' rules.

A part-Chippewa scholar at Berkeley's essay draws on Desmond Tutu's famous words about European missionaries to offer the following reflection: "When the white man first came to this land, we had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them again, we had the Bible and the white man had the land."

“Your mouth is of sugar but your heart of gall,” said more succinctly, the Abenaki leader Atiwaneto to a British official in 1752.

The caravan movement started with an original 1,000-person group in Tapachula, Mexico, this past March. Most of the caravans have been reportedly organized by Irineo Mujica, the Mexican-American director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), who sought for them asylum in the United States for Central Americans fleeing gang violence and turbulent elections.

Out of that experience, in more or less spontaneous local bursts of outrage in response to the separation in the United States of children from parents, still ongoing, in recent months others have started caravans that Mujica and a string of local migrant help centers along the route to Mexico have decided to aid as a matter of humanitarian concern.

Tiernan, a retired television news executive, posted a Reuters story announcing that the governments of Honduras and Guatemala had agreed to halt caravans of would-be Central American emigrants. The emigrants have journeyed from as far south as Honduras to, so far, Mexico — triggering a spate of nervous Trump tweets threatening dire consequences if they try to enter the United States.

One would think Tiernan was waving red flags at a happy herd of Republican bulls. However, his associates, think he is "grossly minimalizing" the politics.

They come with ready-made explanations as well. "[The emigrants] are encouraged to come to America because of our totally insane and mostly unenforced border policies, as well as the decades of dirty politics by Progressives to flood the country with Illegal Aliens," writes one Sabra Merle, from California.

Tiernan himself offers as an explanation against immigration that "European American culture will be a minority culture in America by 2050. America was 85% White in 1965." He does not go so far as to suggest, as Dana Littlefield, a self-described former IT professional at Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, who declares: "Time to start deporting all illegal invaders, put the military on the border, and defend it at all costs."

Lost in all this is current immigration patterns from south of the U.S. border exhibit a combination of push and pull factors. The magnetism of the world's largest and most transparent economy on a per capita basis pulls would-be immigrants, while a combination of economic and political instability, high crime and corruption in their poor home countries pushes them out.

There are always transitory waves caused by events on both sides of the border. Civil war in several Central American countries the 1980s pushed emigrants to the USA. Both the Great Depression and the Great Recession caused massive departures of immigrants to south of the border.

Moreover, every study of the economic effects shows that except for slight job competition with the least schooled Americans, immigrants have a positive effect. Those without papers, moreover, leave billions in tax, social security and medicare contributions, from which they are barred from taking the slightest advantage.

One still is left with at the contrast between the great bemoaning of newcomers today and the North American natives' rumination on shore at the first arrival of Europeans at Manhattan Island.

As it was related to John Heckwelder by "aged and respected" Delawares, Momeys, and Mahicaanni, they wondered: "These arriving in numbers, and themselves viewing the strange appearance, and that it was actually moving towards them, concluded it to be a large canoe or house, in which the great Mannitto [or Supreme Being] himself was, and that he probably was coming to visit them."

Friday, October 05, 2018

Trump's Great Favor to the Republic

By becoming the obvious boil in the body politic and personifying the most venal characteristics of U.S. plutocrats, Donald Trump has done the republic the enormous favor of stripping bare the power relationships in our society. This is becoming ever clearer with every new outrage as the midterm elections of 2018 approach.

This is one reason that, rather than respond with epithets and anger, the true small-d democrats in the United States must vote against Trump's allies and work to undo the plutocracy in every way. Not for the first time, there is a broad awareness of this reality. We need to defend the civil rights won so far and expand democracy to include economic and social rights.

History teaches us that it is doubtful that the United States was ever a democracy — that is largely an as yet unrealized aspiration.

At its founding, the states, which regulated voting rights, allowed only male, free property owners to participate in electing political decision-makers. By law, this was in theory overthrown with finality by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a 1972 Supreme Court decision (Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533); however, this is being undone by clever, largely Republican-inspired voter suppression tricks.

Moreover, even among the participating great unwashed, there existed a broad group of Americans of Northwestern European origin who lived in a near-poverty of under-education and underemployment. These Americans directed their resentment not at the wealthy who kept them down, but at the easy marks whose skin was darker and spoke with accents other than their own.

Nor has the United States honestly and deservedly been a land of milk and honey with streets paved with gold for anyone with pluck.

Sure, some younger sons of the English nobility, who inherited nothing, became wealthy thanks to slaves. Also, some landless English, German and Irish people became small farmers thanks to land theft from the natives.

Even the great American bonanza after 1945 came at the expense of a Europe mired in rubble and was merely a temporary accident — rather than the fruit of American know-how"; the broad middle class was a temporary myth, it had never existed before and it is vanishing now. Until the New Deal's and Great Society's mildly heroic soft capitalism, it was sink or swim for everyone and most sank.

The true story of American wealth is more aptly told by a famous epigram of Balzac's: "Behind every fortune lies a crime." The American crimes of slavery, land theft and industrial warmaking made a few very wealthy and these few convinced a broader less fortunate group of "whites" that they shared in the bounty, when they never did.

It's the classic Trump con.

Trump inherited money — we now know that it was more than he should have thanks to tax dodges. His own business acumen expanded that by little more than an ordinary savings account would have yielded — as shown by his now discredited feverish attempts to misrepresent his fortune to financial reporters. Moreover, he has publicly spoken of his own base as "stupid," women as something to grab and ethnic minorities as criminal escaping effective outhouses.

Thank you, Donald Trump. The scales have now fallen off our eyes and we can see the work that remains to be done to make the United States reasonably closer to its historic aspirations and goals. First, let's get rid of you and your allies.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Lessons Unlearned 17 years after 9/11

Nothing invites rebellion and doubt more than the ritual and the dogma of the American Civic Religion's new Holy Day, September 11.

I remember September 11, 2001. I was working two blocks from the White House when news started arriving. However, the idea of the alleged military heroes and the supposed patriotic meaning that is widely spread today rings hollow and false.

First of all, let's recognize that the attackers committed a crime but were never subjected to anything resembling justice under the U.S. Constitution, in part because they were willing to die in furtherance of their purpose. Instead, international goodwill toward Americans was squandered by the fake arms industry "patriots" who lined their pockets inflicting "vengeance" on Afghanis and Iraqis — over a million of whom were killed  — who had nothing to do with the crashing planes in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Second, the Twin Towers were artless slabs that destroyed the classic Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building as its topmost point in a central location. I was born in Manhattan and that skyline was one of the first things I knew. Long before 9/11, I regarded the World Trade Center as an eyesore. If there is an icon for 9/11, the towers are not it. Moreover, the professionals who died in the various buildings were not heroes. Most of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were bond traders, thus not exactly worshipers of anything but Mammon.

Third, the fact that any unarmed plane could crash into the Pentagon without the slightest interference is a monument to the stupidity and overall incompetence of the U.S. military. The event told the world what idiots we are to spend gazillions on it. A few guys with box-cutters could destroy the building without meeting a single counterattack. As a consequence, the thousands of Americans who signed up to kill Afghanis and Iraqis were chumps — 9/11 vets, get what you were promised while you can because the guys who promised you lollipops are about to take them away.

As to real heroes, I propose the Flight 93 passengers, who saved the United States from government by presidential fiat alone, under no less that George W. Bush, unquestionably the second worst president we have ever had. The plane is known to have been on a trajectory headed straight for Capitol Hill. As for one-man rule, this is not mere surmise: the Dubya White House sent Congress a message within days of 9/11 asking for extraordinary powers to act in case Congress was attacked. The legislative branch wisely declined.

But there is an anti-hero who should be studied. Mohammad Atta, the on-site leader of the hijackers, exhibited a moral and philosophical consistency and cogency, and even an asceticism and conviction sadly lacking among American leaders at the time and since. To Atta, the United States was the cause of much suffering in the Middle East. We can debate whether his view was correct — it hasn't been seriously examined: why did they think what they thought? — but given such an opinion, what he did was consistent with his beliefs. Moreover, it was brilliantly planned and executed.

In considering the possible grievances that people in lands far away may have against the United States — meaning the government, mostly, and its most deluded followers — 9/11 offers an intriguing paradox. On September 11, 1973, with CIA collusion and U.S. military and financial support, Chile's military overthrew the elected president of that country, Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist. Might not the Chileans who were subsequently terrorized by their government see with some sympathy the claims of aggrieved Muslims from a vastly different culture many years later?

In sum, we still need to learn the real lessons of 9/11, which I fear the current pageantry and slogans only dim.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Human Crisis

We are always in crisis. Things around us, and even ourselves, are changing in unexpected ways. We find the present troubling because it never quite conforms to our hopes and dreams.

Instead of climate change and autocracy, we could be facing the black plague and feudal lords. It's just a matter of century.

It always seems we are on the edge of doom. We are. Our self of yesterday has died and at the end of the day today's self will become history.

Crisis comes from the Greek krinein, to decide. We are always deciding to take the next breath. Or not.

Trump may yet serve, as a foil, to awaken the greatest egalitarian movement the United States has ever seen. Or not. Climate change may usher in the most careful and generous resource use in history. Or not.

This is fraught with uncertainty, for we must always face the decision: do we go on or give up?

In the end, the present is the only time in which we decide to act and be.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Dan Rather vs Sinclair

I hate to break it to all the people enraged by Sinclair Media anchors reading a script criticizing “fake stories”: the lowest common denominator in news reporting was reached by television (and radio) decades ago. Sinclair is merely the laziest version of an intellectual void called broadcast news; it is broadcast, but it merely summarizes what a few people decide should be told as news.

You will never see news that embarrasses an advertiser, or seriously calls into question capitalism or even the Constitution. All the biases of society are affirmed: non-whites are criminals a priori, whites make mistakes; women are emotional, men are rational; and so on.

I have been an economic journalist focusing on unemployment and poverty for more than three decades. I have fired and hired reporters. I have edited news.

A journalist is not someone who reads a collection of facts in front of a camera from a script someone else has written. Anyone can do that in bed with the newspaper. 

A journalist is someone who goes out and finds news, then reports on it, by finding a balanced variety of sources to provide as even-handed a story of what happened in the time allotted before the deadline. Ben Bradlee, a man whose personal ethics and privilege were questionable but whose journalism was not, called journalism "the first rough draft of history." That's what it is.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, to name the two most famous investigative reporters of our time, spent hundreds of hours finding, obtaining, then poring through excruciatingly boring documents to find the chain of corruption that unseated Nixon. That's reporting!

In contrast, most broadcast news reporters are generally airheads. They have one go-to question they parrot at every news conference: "What do you feel about [topic or event]?" I shall never forget the dumb blonde at a press conference who, cameraman in tow, asked an economist how he felt about the unemployment rate. Who cared what the guy felt? Joblessness is not about the feelings of economists. This is why their nickname is "twinkies" (blond on the outside, fluffy on the inside).

Many network news anchors may have once been reporters. Although if they were broadcast reporters, they were really in show biz from the start. You don't really think radio and television actually goes out to find out anything, do you?

Dan Rather was a small-town wire service stringer for almost 8 years. It may not have been famous or groundbreaking work, but that was legitimate journalism. Then he became a sports newscaster. Imagine the investigative reporting involved in saying who passes the ball to whom! After that, he was almost continuously an on-the-air TV figure who got lucky and was in the right places at the right time. At best, he read the news script and edited two or three words of it before airing. That's not journalism.

The actual reality of television and radio news is that they are, at best, headline services that provide shapeless, emotion-stirring stimuli read by people with mellifluous voices and handsome faces and makeup. In the seconds you hear one TV news lead with generalities aimed to make you happy, sad or angry, you could read at least three detailed print paragraphs with lots of actual and necessary facts needed to think and make decisions.

Print journalism is dying because Americans don't want to read and think. They want fluffy entertainment that requires no thought and all the hard thinking done for them and spoon fed by telegenic actors who look serious but don't really know what they are talking about.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Cinderella Goes to the Ball On Her Own

In response to my last post, a reader suggested an inverted one, in which the thorns become roses and the crows fly off as butterflies: so here there are no fairy godmothers. The life I had beginning with my days, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti memorably put it in his poem "Dog" (click here), when I was "a real live barking democratic dog."

Indeed, I was once a real, live soaring freedom-seeking teenager. The 1931 film "The Front Page" inspired me to consider journalism as a career and a bout in the university newspaper confirmed this vocation beyond anything I had studied. I did not major in journalism but in political science, specifically international affairs, but journalism was where I felt I soared.

It was, after all, the era of Woodward and Bernstein, and Washington, D.C., was my home town. Even as a university student in frigid Canada, I could dream at the typewriter, although I mostly wrote about Latin America because ... "write about what you know."

My writing, then and now (I think), had a way of "soaring," according to my good friend and older colleague, Charlie Ericksen. Founder of Hispanic Link, Charlie kept me in the journalism game while I was an in-house writer for the U.S. conference of bishops. His group was a peculiar news organization that began as a column syndication service, later a newsweekly, that unfortunately did not survive his retirement not very long ago.

However, while I was drafting a national pastoral letter that all the U.S. bishops ultimately approved, meaning that a sitting pope had to chance a glance at possibly one of my words (popes have to approve such things), Charlie accepted me writing about a variety of ideas about the U.S. Hispanic identity. Stuff that came out in newspapers across the country.

With a little imagination I was for a while a kind of Hispanic James Reston. (Who? The British-born James Barrett Reston, nicknamed "Scotty," an American journalist between the mid-1930s and early 1990s, who was so senior when I started that his columns adorned the op-ed pages of The New York Times.)

Married and with two young boys to feed, I eventually had to set my sights on a more prosaic career in specialized publishing for a weekly on employment and unemployment. We covered the labor market and the poverty joblessness inflicts, including the vast panoply of strategies, services, policies, programs, proposals and research on ways to lift people chronically unemployed into the Eden of a working life.

In the meantime, I managed some extracurricular writing, op-eds in The Washington Post, occasionally carried by the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and other related papers, mostly on Hispanics.

The U.S. Jesuit magazine America ran some news analyses of mine on welfare reform and topics I covered in my work. In one story (click here) I revealed that I coined the phrase "welfare-to-work program" in the 1980s. Then a friend and colleague made my name known to their book review editor, who was looking for a reviewer who could read economic and social works intelligently.

Clerics and churchy people talk a great game about "blessed are the poor" but most don't understand economics or social sciences worth spit. It was my good fortune to have studied social sciences (I had a major in sociology until I switched to political science, fleeing a subject called statistics) and in my work I had learned to grasp a poverty coefficient almost as well as Corrado Gini (look him up). Maybe I exaggerate a bit on that last one.

One of my early contributions (click here), which came at the 40th anniversary of the War on Poverty, was a little gem that was badly mangled in editing. For example, I had written "Johnson successor Ronald Reagan" meaning that Reagan was a successor of LBJ's. They changed it to "Johnson’s successor, Ronald Reagan," which makes it sound as if I never heard of Richard Nixon. America magazine really needs better copy-editors. (During the Nazinger papacy, America was overrun by conservative Jesuit clerics, as hard to believe as that may sound, and I haven't published a comma there for years.)

Meanwhile, at work, I rose to my level of incompetence, getting promoted to managing editor of the weekly. Later, the firm that published my weekly, which was a subsidiary of the venerable Bureau of National Affairs (eventually swallowed whole by Bloomberg), gained its independence from BNA as a result of a spat with the congressional Periodical Press Gallery that I had a hand in. I became executive editor.

Twenty years ago I purchased the company through a very leveraged transaction and became president (and CEO, a term I detest). One of the things about being president of a small corporation of 10 employees is that you have all the legal obligations of the head of General Motors, without an army of lawyers and accountants to advise you and help you do it. I taught myself business; another feat.

However, as I told some of my Argentine friends, I didn't quite get to be president of the United States, but I did become president in the United States. Hey, it's something.

Of course, as I lucked out to be in an industry that has been decimated by the Internet, over the years the enterprise dwindled so that eventually I was a corporate one-man band running a staff of 2 and 2/5ths, myself included. However, even that was a kind of triumph.

All my competitors have long vanished. My publication survived because at its helm sat someone like me who could learn to do the accounting, marketing, write and edit articles, layout a publication and write programs to keep up some basic electronic distribution systems. Not many like me around.

My retirement on Dec. 29 has started a new phase in which I am turning my other blog into a book, revising my 500-page family history, all still hoping that one day I will leave a mark.

Just as with Ferlinghetti's dog, I see myself "head cocked sideways at streetcorners as if he is just about to have his picture taken for Victor Records." In my case, however, I am being photographed flashing a V, for Victory herself.

Friday, February 16, 2018

If She Had a Magic Wand

Offered the image of a fairy godmother's magic wand giving me the life I would want to have had, I decided to take up the challenge.

I wish I could look back on a life of accomplishment. The dictionary tells me that accomplishment means bringing something to completion, doing so successfully to the point it is an achievement or having acquired a skill or expertise.

Thinking about it, I did none of the three. Sure, I have brought to completion some repetitive or routine tasks. I have bathed and eaten to completion.

I have written an article to completion (or have I?); for the many years I was my own chief editor I may have thought the article was complete, but it wasn't. No one told me otherwise; indeed, so few people have ever commented on anything I have written that I might as well never have written anything. Maybe nobody read anything I wrote.

I have attempted novels that turned out to be terrible and meaningless. I have written a family history its intended readers could not bring themselves to read. I have been writing a book on Christianity I realize I am morally and academically unqualified to even attempt. Aquinas called his work "straw" at the end of his life; I have written nothing worth a comma in the Summa Theologica.

I would have liked, also, to have done some tangible good. I can think of endless things I have done that were plain wrong, morally or practically. I can point to nothing I did that is a good I performed. Oh, sure, I spawned two children who are fine grown men, thanks to their sane mother. I may have gotten up in a crowded bus to give an elderly lady a seat. I gave street beggars money. I assure you, I am no Albert Schweitzer bringing modern medicine to the hinterlands of Africa.

I would have liked not to have my many character flaws, including my temper and my depression. People might be drawn to me, as I see them drawn to others. Instead I repel almost everyone.

I could wish to have skipped many misadventures but that would make me even more pointless, useless and selfish. What if I achieved nothing and did no good after an idyllic childhood, instead of my own? At least I can fall back on plain bad luck, to some extent (I did not live in a Calcutta slum, so I can't call myself that unlucky, either).

The terrible thing is that I am of an age in which my capacities are waning and nothing awaits me but death. I am not going to make up for a useless, pointless, selfish and disagreeable life ever. My chances are all gone.

I would gladly have stepped in the path of those bullets at the school in Florida or Connecticut or wherever. My death in place of that of promising children might at least have had some redeemable value.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

As of December 29

"As of Dec. 29, 2017, I will no longer be working for [publishing company] or [specialized economic publication]. If you wish to reach me with a personal message, please email me at [email]."

When you're setting up something like that up it's almost like writing your own obituary. If you're retiring and letting go of a company you headed for decades and a publication you wrote for longer, it might as well be.

On my last week, a think tank sent me a canned email in name of a wonk I knew -- how my inbox used to bulge with press releases and urgent messages from advocates! I had picked her brain about technical matters that I was writing about. She'd done well taking over the duties of a famed economist, I wrote her, and later in a high-level federal position. She replied thanking me and wished me well even though she probably did not really remember me.

As for me, not one professional who actually knew me remarked on my departure.

"The graveyards are full of indispensable men," said Charles DeGaulle, himself having laid claim to the title once or three times. Truman said it best about my city: "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."

Frankly, my kind of journalism was never glamorous. No Kardashians. No sex. No violence. No rock and roll. The company continues, the publication goes on. My "battleship of a desk" as one editor put it -- emptied of my ephemera -- remains in use.

Me? I'm just an dispensable man, writing for my pleasure on my laptop, in the public library.