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 from 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.