UPDATE, Tuesday morning, September 30. I heard a comment late last night while I was flipping the dial, and I apologize for not being able to give credit where it's due, because credit is surely due in this case. But the gist of the comment was this: If indeed some House GOP members who had originally planned to vote for the bailout actually changed their minds and voted against it after hearing Nancy Pelosi's speech, they should come forward and identify themselves...so that we can (a) impeach them and (b) explore every possible avenue of prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.
To react on the basis of personal pique in a manner that triggers a short-term loss of more than a trillion dollars in the financial markets, and also risks the long-term economic health of America, is repugnant and unforgivable, and should not go unpunished.
So let's take a brief tour through the fractured psyche of one John McCain. Earlier today—before the vote on the $700 billion bailout bill—he takes credit for the measure (no doubt at that point assuming it was a done deal) and castigates Obama for opting out during the attendant discussions late last week. (This, despite the fact that when McCain made his emergency trip to Washington, he insisted he was "suspending his campaign," and that the nation's fiscal crisis was too important to politicize. Uh-huh.) Then, after the measure goes down in defeat—largely due to opposition from 133 members of McCain's own party—he makes another brief speech in which he appears to blame Obama for derailing the bill. The McCain camp riffed on that theme all afternoon long.
I also find it intriguing (and, perhaps, telling) that GOP spin-meisters are claiming that the Republican House members who voted against the bailout did so because they took exception to "partisan" remarks by Nancy Pelosi earlier in the day. Here I have to paraphrase Barney Frank: So because they got their feelings hurt a little bit, they were willing to let the country go down the tubes?
Folks, I said a few days ago that McCain's conduct in this campaign has caused me to lose almost all respect for the man. I'd like to retract part of that statement; I'd like to take out the almost.
Monday, September 29, 2008
UPDATE, Tuesday morning, September 30. I heard a comment late last night while I was flipping the dial, and I apologize for not being able to give credit where it's due, because credit is surely due in this case. But the gist of the comment was this: If indeed some House GOP members who had originally planned to vote for the bailout actually changed their minds and voted against it after hearing Nancy Pelosi's speech, they should come forward and identify themselves...so that we can (a) impeach them and (b) explore every possible avenue of prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.
"Practice. Practice. Practice using your power to take care of yourself, no matter who you are dealing with, where you are, or what you are doing…"And I was reminded of the observation that you can generally tell who's in a codependency workshop: They're the ones who are always sending back the food in restaurants...just because.
For my part, I would've been happier if recovering codependents sent back every single meal—but once at home, didn't use their newfound power to find fault with things (like, say, their mates' minor idiosyncrasies or the routine disappointments of a long-term relationship) that are part and parcel of everyday living.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Here's a more or less random thought that occurs to me as I sit here this morning over my fifteenth cup of coffee, pondering the low chorus beginning to build in favor of Sarah Palin removing herself from the race* (a chorus that, one assumes, would be sung nationally at fortissimo levels if Palin is an out-and-out disaster in this week's debate): What must the 670,000-and-something residents of Alaska be thinking right about now? Do they feel incredibly offended...or just incredibly stupid? This woman—this woman who's the subject of nonstop ridicule, now, on late-night talk shows and in wickedly funny SNL sketches; this woman whom Bill Maher this past week flatly labeled a "bimbo"; this woman whose interview with Katie Couric has drawn comparisons to that beauty-pageant contestant who got lost in her answer about "maps," and whose thoughts on Vladimir Putin may ultimately go down as the low-water mark of all political responses, ever (Maher calls it the "sentence to nowhere")—this woman is, after all, Alaska's governor. Not just that, but a governor with an 80+ approval rating, supposedly the highest gubernatorial approval rating in the U.S.** It appears safe to say that a governor with an 80-percent approval rating truly represents the people she governs. So it could be argued that this is not just a referendum on Sarah Palin, but on the judgment, taste and—well—the smarts of the good people of Alaska.
Hell, they might just secede after all.
P.S. Another thought just occurred to me. Is it possible that Palin will be forced out before Thursday's debate, so as not to risk her utter self-destruction in front of America-at-large?
* Incidentally, this is a chorus that veteran political strategist Dick Morris sagely hinted at as long ago as the GOP convention. He was roundly and sharply chastised for it by Sean ("DMoTV") Hannity and other right-wing types.
** I've seen some controversy over this, however, and hard data seem equally hard to come by. Maybe an enterprising SHAMblogger with time on his hands (more than I've got) can hunt this down for us?
Friday, September 26, 2008
...all I can say is this: If some miraculous bipartisan agreement on the bailout bill is announced 12 minutes before air-time, thus vindicating John McCain's emergency trip to Washington and allowing him to take the stage in Mississippi as a conquering hero, I'm going to be awfully, awfully suspicious.
UPDATE, Saturday morning. Well, the "overnights" are in, and some folks—at least the ones polled by CNN, most of whom were Democrats—appear to think Obama won (though many of the pundits I heard, even the normally left-leaning ones, weren't so sure). Certainly Obama avoided falling on his face, and that's the semi-good news. But I still find myself feeling vaguely unsatisfied by his performance, and left with a growing sense that if this is the best the man can do, he may not sway as many of the undecideds as he needs to, or sway them convincingly enough so that there's no last-minute buyer's remorse when they walk into that booth in November. Obama just doesn't seem to win the points he should as often as he should, and I think it's because there's something in that patrician nature of his that fundamentally resists getting "down and dirty," as one of the commentators observed last night. (And he needs to lose that smirk while the other guy is talking. Today would not be too soon.) Even in the early going, when scolded/prodded by moderator Jim Lehrer—"Do you have something to say to John?" "Talk directly to John"*—Obama would not "engage." For the most part, he kept looking dead-ahead and addressing the camera. And the thing is, McCain gave him some wonderful openings. For example, when McCain said that spending had gotten completely out of control in Washington over the past five years, had I been Obama, I would have looked right at him and said, politely but clearly, "Let's just get something straight here, for the record. Which party has been in charge of the White House during all that time, John? And which party was in charge of both houses of Congress until January 2007, John? And which party do you represent, John?" Something like that.
Yeah, I know, Obama voiced the familiar talking point about the 90 percent voting record, but again, that's more abstract and philosophical; it's not the same as reminding people, over and over, that "this man standing here next to me, John McCain, no matter how many times he uses the word maverick, is part of the GOP machine that brought this nation to the brink of ruin. This man and his party are why more than 4100 Americans have died in Iraq, yet we still can't see our way out. This man's lifelong stance on deregulation is a large part of the reason why the economy is the way it is today. This man's career helps explain why giant companies are going bust left and right, dragging the economy down with them, but their chief executives are walking away with $22 million retirement packages." Et cetera.
And now that I'm getting warmed up, how in God's name does Obama let McCain get away with all that soft-voiced piety about the VA and the treatment of our "brave warriors" when they return from battle? Where was all this concern for our brave warriors up until a few years ago, when a series of media reports highlighted the truly horrific conditions in our veterans' hospitals? If you cared about our veterans, John, why did you let tens of thousands of them rot in their own waste while awaiting badly needed treatment that, in the end, was denied them anyway? Tell me, when did you suddenly discover that our veterans' services are deplorable? When you decided to run for president?
I'm not saying that Obama should've used those words, exactly, because maybe they're too confrontational and broad. (I'm shooting from the hip here on a busy morning.) But he should've prepared a series of "death blows" along those lines, directly blaming John McCain—this man who wants voters to send him to Washington to fix America—for being one of the guys who broke it.
Maybe next time.
* My wife said it sounded like marriage counseling, or a meeting of some encounter group.
So yesterday comes word that my daughter's bank, WaMu, which has been teetering on the brink for a while now, was acquired by JPMorgan Chase after being seized by the FDIC earlier in the day in order to expedite this fire sale. When I say it's "my daughter's bank," I don't mean that she owns it; I wouldn't wish that on her. It's simply where she does her banking in Vegas. JPMorgan paid $1.9 billion, and the acquisition makes Morgan the nation's second largest bank after BofA.
To even begin to appreciate the significance of this, you must understand, first, that the decline and precipitous fall* of Washington Mutual (NYSE: WM) is by far and away the largest bank failure in American history. In pure dollars, this is worse than the next-biggest collapse by a factor of almost 10. But even that doesn't quite capture the magnitude of what just happened here. First of all, WaMu holds some $307 billion in assets ($188 billion in actual deposits), which means that all by itself, the bank (theoretically) controls a sum that is almost half of what Washington is planning to throw into the bailout deal it can't seem to hammer out (even despite the emergency presence of our lord and savior, John McCain). As recently as summer—we are just a few days into fall—WaMu listed a book value (assets minus liabilities) of $26 billion (and even that's a substantial decline from a few years ago). Therefore, while $1.9 billion is hardly pocket change, the JPMorgan deal represents the rough equivalent of you or me picking up, say, a brand-new Nissan Maxima, MSRP around $30K, for the princely sum of around $2100. We could get really technical here, and I'm already oversimplifying as it is, but it tells you something that WaMu changed hands for about a quarter of the value the bank was placing on its goodwill alone just a few short months ago. Of course, you know you're in bad shape when your stock declines roughly, oh, 100 percent. Just before the Feds stepped in, WaMu was trading at $1.69, which means you could've bartered your neighbor a gallon of gas for two shares of WaMu and still gotten change. This was a $45 stock for most of the past few years.
Question: How much bad paper** does a bank with three-hundred-seven-billion dollars in assets have to write in order to go this far down the tubes? And/or how poorly must it mismanage its affairs?
Speaking of the latter, WaMu, which lists as its first core value "absolute fairness, honesty and integrity [in] everything we do," will now hand defrocked CEO Kerry Killinger a parting gift reportedly worth as much as $22 million.
And to think, when I left my last job I got about a month's salary and a sheet with instructions for filing an unemployment claim...
* The highly touted fools at the Motley Fool were still sounding optimistic a year ago.
** You have to scroll way down before you get to the cited term (bad paper, which refers to the ill-advised loans that are politely called "underperforming" in banking circles), but this is really an excellent overview of the whole sub-prime mess.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 7:39 AM
Thursday, September 25, 2008
I'm not a big fan of David Letterman, but I gotta give him props here. So now our intrepid war hero, who doesn't even flinch in the face of extended periods of torture, is doing the right thing for America, putting aside his own selfish political interests and canceling Friday's debate in order to tend to the needs of his beloved nation. Yeah, right. First of all, as has been amply pointed out, John McCain, throughout his long Washington career, has been one of the loudest voices for deregulation. So it's more than a tad disingenuous for him suddenly to declare that he needs to come back to Washington, roll up his sleeves and fix this mess for us. Secondly, what does he think he's gonna do in any case? Saddle up one of the elks Sarah would ordinarily shoot, ride in like some hybrid of Sir Galahad and Jesus, lay his hands upon the Lazarus that our economy has become, and make it all better?
And as Letterman also suggested, even if McCain were going to beg off, why not have Palin act as a surrogate? Wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity for her to prove her mettle, taking on not Joe Biden but the Dem's presidential candidate? OK, I'll give you a moment to stop laughing as you mull that prospect. This, after all, is a woman whose handlers clearly have told her to just keep repeating the same four or five pat lines ("mavericks," "good ol' boys," "hockey mom," "I told 'em they could keep their bridge to nowhere," etc.), no matter what anyone asks. (Per chance, did you hear her performance under questioning from Katie Couric, who, by the way, is hardly the world's edgiest interviewer? OMG!, as your teenage son or daughter might put it.)
John McCain is afraid to face a skilled debater like Barack Obama at a time when he's on the defensive...and he's on the defensive because his party's approach to governance has brought the nation to the brink of disaster. I mean, think about it: Mortgage money and other lines of credit have dried up. Not a few of your neighbors have lost their homes. Some 493,000 of us filed for unemployment last week alone. Our energy woes are such that we rejoice, now, when gas falls to $3.50 a gallon. Wall Street is in chaos; some of its biggest firms, regarded as blue-chips just a year or so ago, have tanked and need a bailout, which will cost America (you and me) $700 billion. Seven-hundred-billion dollars. And not far in the background, lest we forget, is That War, which has: killed substantially more Americans than died on 9/11; failed to accomplish the mission it allegedly set out to accomplish (remember those WMDs?); further damaged our image throughout the world; and, the ultimate kicker, will be revealed as utterly pointless in an almost tragicomic way if we ever actually do pull out and Iraq devolves into chaos and sectarian slaughter.
I can hardly believe that the GOP has the audacity to run a candidate at all. And I'm dead-serious in saying that. If John McCain and the Republicans had a shred of integrity left, they wouldn't just "suspend" the campaign. They'd do what's done at political conventions when there's a clear front-runner: cancel all the politicking, throw their support behind Obama and allow him to become president by acclamation.
Picking up where we left off last time, here's something that astounds me (though I don't know why it should, anymore): In the very same articles where reporters and self-styled pundits wring their hands over the possibility that white racism may obstruct Obama's path to the White House, they neglect to talk about how black racism may ease his path there. In the AP story I took from my local paper, the Morning Call, there is not a word, not one word, about black racism and how it may figure in the campaign. It simply isn't even considered. Time after time, the writer, Charles Babington, uses the term racial prejudice as a shorthand for white prejudice against blacks, as if it's the only kind that exists.
We've talked about this on the blog before, and I won't belabor the point except to remind people that Barack Obama—who, remember, is my guy—won the so-called black vote in the last few Southern primaries by margins like 9-to-1. That's mind-boggling, unheard of. Under normal circumstances you couldn't get nine out of 10 voters to agree on whether they should be allowed to have casual sex with the celebrity of their choice once each month.
I suppose that mainstream writers think it's gauche and impolitic to mention black racism (or even to endorse its existence). This is probably for the same reason that people frown on the work of Charles Murray and William Shockley, whom we mentioned in passing last time: It doesn't fit the liberal, social-justice paradigm. Ergo, when blacks favor the black candidate on the basis of race (see No. 2 in the dictionary definition provided in my last post), we regard it as reasonable and expected—commonsensical—but if whites oppose the black candidate on the basis of race, well, hey now, no fair, that's prejudice. We do the same thing with gender. If some women from the Hillary camp betray their core principles in order to defect to Sarah Palin, we call it "feminism" of a sort. But let a guy say he doesn't like the idea of having a woman in the White House...well, how dare a man still think like that in 2008!
Please don't misunderstand me here. I'm not saying that I, Steve Salerno, know for certain that Obama's 90 percent endorsement by blacks indicates prejudice. It is possible that they like the man for his politics, just as it is possible that some (or many) white Americans dislike the man for his politics. But both are equally possible, and I don't see how any right-thinking reporter, no less a "pundit," can mention the white opposition while ignoring the black support. What makes this all the more ironic is that Obama himself, in an interview last week with 60 Minutes' Steve Croft, addressed that very situation head-on. Asked if it disturbed him that some white Americans might reject him because of race, he replied, more or less, "I'm sure there are black Americans voting for me because of my race, too. So I think that's a wash." Good for you, Barack. I like you even better now. Astute SHAMbloggers will recall that I wished for Obama to address that very point some months back, and I'm gratified to see that he has—though I would've been even more gratified, if not downright giddy, if he'd taken the clear next step and challenged the nation to remove the race card from its politics altogether. He could've said something like, "I don't want whites opposing me for racial reasons, and I don't want blacks supporting me for racial reasons. Period."
In any case, I think Obama is right when he says it'll be a wash. Though there are a lot more white voters than black ones, the intensity of racial feeling appears much less pervasive among whites than among blacks. The 90 percent of black voters should be enough to offset the much smaller percentage of white voters who openly admit they won't "vote black." We shall see.
Lastly, now that Obama appears to have gotten past his squeamishness about addressing the race card as it applies to both constituencies...I wonder when the media will get past its White Guilt and do the same?
NOTE: If you're wondering why I added the rather lame and over-obvious tag-lines to my original headings for this series of posts, it's because I'm now told that I limit my readership by giving the posts the oblique, "catchy" titles I've always tended to favor. Apparently it has something to do with the way blog materials are indexed; so, even though these posts are highly pertinent to the campaign, people using certain search methodologies or news filters would be far less apt to find them if the only heading had to do with tandoori chicken. I suppose I'll have to keep that in mind for all future posts as well. That's disappointing, but what's a guy to do?
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
As per Dictionary.com, here are the first two definitions for the word prejudice:
1. An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.The word and its definitions are on my mind today because of a new poll, out from AP-Yahoo News, that purportedly documents what the pundits have been discussing for the past week: that Obama's path to the White House may be complicated by racial prejudice on the part of whites.
2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable. [emphasis added. We'll come back to that in my next post.]
Keeping the foregoing definitions in mind (and also speaking in terms of the racial conventions that cripple society; see bold-faced text towards the end), it's clear that those interpreting the polls for us assume that all sentiment against blacks is ipso facto unfounded and/or unreasoned—based on preconceived notions rather than evidence or actual life experience. (Read this version of the story, by the AP's own Charles Babington, from my local newspaper, the Morning Call. Note the spin throughout.) I take issue with that assumption. And again, let me be clear: I'm not arguing for racial prejudice. I'm simply arguing against the idea that a dislike for another group is automatically prejudice. There could be more to it than that.
Let me start with an example that doesn't (directly) concern the black/white thing: For the 10 years of my life immediately post-college, I sold custom wall mirrors for a living.* Overall, my sales career was a study in contrasts: The first half of that time I worked mostly in midtown Manhattan; the second half I worked mostly in Harlem and the South Bronx. By the time I switched territories, I'd pretty much decided that I couldn't stand white people with money, which is to say, the sorts of folks who populated the high-gloss high-rises in New York City's elite neighborhoods. I found them smarmy, insufferable, pretentious, arrogant, and often despicable. I saw the way they treated "the help," which was not dissimilar to the patronizing way they treated me, Lowly Vendor-Being. I couldn't get past the casual assumptions they made about life and their deserved station in it. (I was never religious in the classical sense, but these people struck me as profoundly un-Christian in all they did.) Even when they tried to be "nice"—as when they'd offer me a cup of tea, then serve it on china that probably cost more than my car—it rubbed me the wrong way. Which is one reason why I say, still today, that I don't care how much you give to charity, if your lifestyle includes the likes of $25,000 toilets or even $2,500 purses, there is something very wrong with that. I recognize this as a personal gripe, and I also recognize that I may be incorrect in voicing it. But it's a visceral thing. (I'm workin' on it.)
Over the course of five years, I put mirrors in most of the prestige addresses in midtown (as well as any number of major retailers; I once sold $12,000 worth of mirrors to Macy's lingerie department). I met thousands of well-to-do individuals.** I realized by the end of it that with small (expected) deviations here and there, most of those thousands of people were essentially the same person. Wasn't that enough of a sampling for me to draw a conclusion that had personal validity for me? I can tell you that I certainly didn't go into midtown with that attitude. At first I thought the city was way-cool, and that there could be no nicer place to live and work. Until I worked there. So, again, my question: Was I "wrong" in disliking those people? Did I not have sufficient evidence to go on in deciding that the next midtowner I met was probably going to be a gold-plated a-hole, too? I think it tells you something that I was far more comfortable once my territory was shifted to Harlem, even though there were black revolutionaries literally gunning for me (and my fellow white salespeople) at the time.***
Or how 'bout a more pointed example. If you grew up in Brooklyn of my day, and you weren't yourself Italian, you almost surely disliked Italians. At the least, you distrusted Italians, or were vaguely annoyed by them. And it wasn't prejudice, necessarily; it was a reasonable reaction to the way many Brooklyn Italians behaved. A fair number of them were mobsters, and a fair number of the ones who weren't mobsters nonetheless comported themselves as if they were. Young Italian men, as a class, were loud-mouthed, belligerent/prone to fighting, and abusive to their women, even when on their best behavior. (Have you seen the movie A Bronx Tale? There's that classic early scene where the young protagonist-narrator says something like, "...in summer, you'd hear the sound of young Italian men romancing their women." And the action shows a young man cruising slowly alongside a girl who's ignoring him. Finally he says, "Hey Angie, come on, get in the f**ckin' car...!" That pretty much captures it.) Nor did they impress as being especially bright. Now, I'm sure that if you actually sat down with some of the Italian men of that period and were able to open a heart-to-heart dialog, they'd explain a lot of what I've just described as "cultural"; they'd tell you that "it's not really what it looks like." But why would you have been obliged to consider that in your assessment of Italians? Why would you have been obliged to wonder whether Italians who lived in Kansas City or Columbus, Ohio, might act differently? You lived in Brooklyn, and probably weren't ever going to get to Kansas City or Columbus. Brooklyn was your universe and that's all that mattered.
In the case of blacks, we have volumes of troubling data staring us in the face. We know the statistics on violent crime, illiteracy, unemployment, teenage pregnancy. We know the stats on single parenthood and the appalling absentee-father syndrome that blights urban America; the very presidential candidate I support is a product of that syndrome. Can all of those numbers be coincidental, or explained by white oppression? Perhaps they can indeed. White racism was surely virulent in America until quite recently, and is one possible explanation. But there are other possible explanations that we're not permitted to speculate on amid today's unrelenting crusade for social justice. Even research on the link between race and intelligence—a legitimate area of scientific inquiry, or so you'd think—was suppressed, then demonized, because it suggested a hierarchy unfavorable to blacks as a class. Yes, William Shockley's work betrayed crippling flaws that should not have escaped the notice of a brilliant Nobel laureate. But people were offended merely by the nature of his research. So science, too, is not immune: If we don't like the conclusions to which the science may lead us, we call it prejudice.
Which brings us, at long last, to the tandoori chicken. If you've tried 20 plates of the dish at a variety of Indian restaurants, and you disliked each and every version, are you still obliged to keep trying tandoori chicken? Or are you permitted, at that point, to simply decide that you've had enough of it. Now, it's possible that the next plate of tandoori chicken you encounter might be unlike all the rest; it might be delicious. But we don't think like that. Do we? In every area of life we give people license to form judgments based on their own experience. Except this area of life, where we call such judgments prejudice. Even when there may be volumes of data to supplement that judgment. (To be precise about it: This applies in gender politics as well.) Yeah, I know...tandoori chicken is chicken, whereas people are people. So what? The principle applies in both cases, as long as you're using experience and evidence as the basis for forming that judgment. (How many of you out there with small children at home would never consider buying a pitbull? "Too risky," you'd say. And yet from what I hear, most pitbulls are nice dogs. Is that prejudice?)
I am not a racist. I don't even believe in race, for myself. But I can see where some white people would feel that they have valid reasons for disliking or distrusting blacks, and they would tell you that their reasons have nothing to do with prejudice in the sense of the definitions above (or the casual way the media throw the term around). In the same way, I can absolutely see why many blacks feel that they have a valid reason for disliking or distrusting whites...and that's not prejudice, either. Are you kidding me? If I'd been born in Harlem instead of in Flatbush, I could easily see myself jumping to my feet and clapping when Brother Malcolm said, "I don't call it violence when it's self-defense; I call it intelligence."
Look once more at the definitions above. Then tell me what you think about all this. I'm honestly asking.
* the sale of custom wall mirrors being, improbably enough, one of those occupations in which it was possible to earn $50,000 a year in 1970-era dollars. After I launched my writing career in 1982, it would take me the better part of another decade to get back to that plateau.
** Is it possible that I just happened to meet the only 5000 families in all of Manhattan who acted that way? Yes, I guess it's possible. But likely?
*** For a vivid and faithful account of that era, the early '70s, try former DA Bob Tannenbaum's Badge of the Assassin. It's a great true-crime book and a gripping read.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
If you thought you saw a post here having something to do with bigotry and tandoori chicken, you're not smoking something. (Or maybe you are indeed smoking something, but you were right about the post.) At my wife's urging, I've taken it down temporarily so that I can give it another read-through before posting a final version tomorrow.
I have learned to trust her instincts in such matters.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 10:13 PM
FIRSTLY, today would've been my Mom's 90th birthday*, and as I woke up and thought about that, it occurred to me that I almost never write about her. (Here, however, is a loving but probably too-sentimental piece I once did for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.)
In truth, I didn't have that much active interaction with my mother, certainly not when I was growing up. My relationship with my Dad consumed just about all of my time and then some, whether we were playing catch at the park, bowling, working on the math problems he'd devise for me, walking to the ice-cream shop for a malted* or engaging in the free-ranging discussions that, one might say, foretold this blog, many years before blogging existed. But make no mistake, my mother was the glue that held our family together, and our passive interactions—in the form of the ambient, loving tone she set for the household—were as indelible as the ever-present scent of simmering tomato sauce. Even when our family's financial goals dictated that she should take a job outside the home, Mom found work on the graveyard shift at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; that way she could still greet me when I got home from school, make dinner, and be there for the early-evening hours till my sisters and I went to bed (i.e. what became known as "quality time" among the have-it-all set.) Then my father would drive her to lower Manhattan. Come to think of it, I wonder when she slept, exactly...?
In time, my mother became the first female department head at FRB-NY, working directly for the man who would later become the chairman of the entire Fed system—at which point she was out-earning my dad by a substantial sum. So in a sense she was both a liberated woman and a stay-at-home mom; I don't know if she "had it all," but she certainly did it all.... Anyway, you can read more about all this in the above-linked piece, if you care to.
Happy Birthday in Heaven, Mom, as Kathy would put it.
More later, as time permits, on an eye-opening new poll that supposedly documents the role "racial prejudice" is apt to play in the forthcoming election.
* a not-unattainable milestone for many women of her generation, though she left us at age 77, in 1995.
** no wonder I weighed 150 pounds by the time I was 12! And I wasn't even that tall, yet.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 9:29 AM
Monday, September 22, 2008
For some reason that escapes me, I've begun receiving "Morning Thoughts" from an entity calling itself Life Changers International: Your Pathway to Personal Peace, Your Portal to a Better Life. So far as I can tell, this particular Life Changers International is unrelated to this one, but I guess the whole thing could be a spiritual franchise op, with my LCI handling the territory surrounding 6379 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, PA. That's the address listed at the end of the piece. I don't really need the address for the purpose of fully energizing my spiritual self—the classes to which the piece invites me take place via free webinars on the "Science of Mind Principles"—but LCI informs me that "We do accept donations...thanks for asking." (?) The physical address is where I'm supposed to send my check.
The Morning Thoughts themselves aren't very useful to me, in the morning or any other time of day, except as another marvelous object lesson in what an intellectual house of cards SHAM's spiritual wing uniquely is.
The first Morning Thought I received, on September 17, began thusly:
"As we approach Autumn, let us reflect on the Summer. Reflection has a way of providing inspiration and insight." The piece went on to talk about the Summer Olympics, and the lessons thereof. And so a few sentences later I came upon this description of what that event (the Olympics) was really about: "It is focusing on the task at hand, giving all that you have in that moment, for that moment is all there is...."
OK now, wait a sec. Which is it? Am I supposed to be "reflecting on things"? Or just living in the moment, because the moment "is all there is"? In posing such questions, I don't think I'm being nitpicky, pedantic, or unduly harsh towards our friends at LCI; I'm not the one who decided to put that line at the very top, the one about how "reflection has a way of providing inspiration and insight." So tell me, then, how are your garden-variety Now-Livers supposed to know when they're allowed to "reflect" and when they're not? Which subject areas are worthy of "reflection," and which should be considered off the table, reflection-wise? Real-world example: Many of us who are grandparents spend a fair amount of time thinking back to when we were younger and raising our own children. Is that kind of reflection permissible—say, as a way of gaining deeper insight into how you should help raise your grandkids, now? Because once you open the door to that kind of reflection, you're also going to reflect on things that, just maybe, you'd prefer not to remember. You're going to reflect on long-ago angst, or things you did that you wish you hadn't done, all of which is going to interfere with your appreciation of the Now. (A famous lawyer I once interviewed made a similar point in referring to certain tricky areas of trial testimony: "You can't open the door and let just the fresh air in. The bees and flies may come in, too."*)
But long before any such considerations, of course, the very idea of "reflection" is incompatible with "Living in the Now."
I used to tell my writing students all the time, "The fact that you have two or three paragraphs separating a pair of seemingly contradictory ideas in your essay doesn't relieve you of the burden of [a] explaining why it isn't really a contradiction after all, or ideally [b] eliminating it." That applies in spades here. If you're going to present and sponsor a philosophy of living...wouldn't it be nice if it made sense?
Later in my missive from LCI, there's this inspiring graph:
"I will attend to myself so that I may truly Know Myself. I will control my thoughts and emotions and experience the freedom to make responsible and positive choices. I will continue on my journey, I continue to grow with ever new Truths, pointing in the direction of my True Self..."To which I can only say: HUH? People—New-Agers above all—read that paragraph again. Really read it, and think about what it says, and the fact that there are only about 19 separate contradictions and incongruities contained therein. And then by all means get back to me and share your thoughts. I'll be happy to post them.
What I find most laughable is that my Morning Thought uses the famous quote from Socrates as an epigram at the top: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I'm sorry, Morning-Thought People, but Socrates would have laughed his Greek ass off at your view of life. And after examining it, he probably would've been motivated to drink the hemlock that much sooner.
Finally, it occurred to me late last night, as the strains of New York, New York rang down the curtain on Yankee Stadium, that maybe there are certain poignant, wistful memories you want to hang onto—that maybe life without nostalgia, or even the dull, sweet ache of remembered pain, is life without depth and meaning. Further, if every day is an ice-cream cone slathered in chocolate syrup, do you still taste it after a while? At the very least, do you still taste it quite the same way? Or do we sometimes need the contrapuntal bitterness for full appreciation? More to the point, do we sometimes need the bitter tastes to relate to others whose lives aren't ice-cream cones slathered in syrup?
All right, I grant you, it's not all that profound. So maybe we could just call it—I dunno—a morning thought?
* Now of course some wise-ass is going to write and say, "Get a screen door..."
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Looking over what's transpired on SHAMblog this past week, it's hard not to see it as a sad microcosm of the problem confronting today's America: the utter polarization of viewpoints and the inability (or unwillingness) to talk to one another in productive ways. And let's be fair here: Though we can all point fingers and talk about who started what, in the end, every one of us indulged. We all found the lowest common denominator.
But again, this isn't really about SHAMblog; I wish it were. You see the same thing on Hannity and Colmes. You see it once or twice a week now on the spirited and famously acerbic political panel discussions hosted by a grinning Larry King as a form of blood-sport. As I write this, you can see it on the Sunday-morning talk shows—venerable, intelligent shows like Face the Nation, Meet the Press and This Week. You see it daily on The View. I like Elizabeth Hasselbeck and I think she serves a vital role as a counterweight to the others; without her, the show would deteriorate into a tiresome ersatz meeting of the People for the American Way. But I swear, if John McCain went out tomorrow and raped three young female campaign workers and set their bodies ablaze, Hasselbeck would defend it as part of McCain's personal crusade to find and test alternative fuels.
Worst of all, you see this in Congress and on the campaign trail. The Republicans act as if any idea that emerges from a Democratic mouth is, by definition, foolhardy and offensive. The reverse is also true, of course. Increasingly, too, politicians attack not only the spoken idea, but the motives, intelligence and even the moral character of the person who spoke it. The resulting pettiness and negativity, the fanatical drive to make hay out of even the most innocuous statements, can be hard to believe. Let one of the candidates mention in passing that he likes apple pie, and within 24 hours the other candidate will whip up an ad in which he argues that apple pie is sending American jobs to China.
The saddest and scariest part of this is that today's rules of political engagement behoove each side to reserve its ugliest tactics and strongest counterattacks for the programs that stand to do the most good. If the Democrats think the GOP has actually come up with something that might benefit America, they'll work that much harder to undo it or derail it (even if it's a non-partisan issue where both sides more or less agree in principle). They'll bloviate and filibuster and generally be as obstructionist as humanly possible. Both parties do this because they can't let the other guy have a plum achievement to point to in the next election season. And how tragic is that?
And so my question on this glorious first Sunday in fall: How do we rise above all this? How do we open up a useful and, yes, hopeful dialogue amid today's "gotcha" thinking? And please don't tell me that the answer is for Democrats to wake up and realize that they're being Pollyannaish naifs, or for Republicans to admit that they're venal narcissists. That doesn't help.
As regulars know by now, I'm a sentimentalist. I tear up not only at weddings and funerals, but also at dog shows and motions-to-dismiss. I'm sure that tonight I'll be wiping away tear or two (dozen) during the ceremonies honoring The Last Game at Yankee Stadium.
Is there not something slightly silly about all this, when you consider that they're moving right next door? And that the Steinbrenner family's new showplace is called—drum roll please!—Yankee Stadium? And that many of the most revered touches of the old Stadium (like its monuments) will simply be carted over to the new one?
I dunno. I guess I'm just among the many fans who feel that they should've remodeled the Stadium again, as they did in the early 70s. Yankee Stadium, along with Wrigley Field and Fenway... Those are mythic places to true fans—hallowed ground—and should be left alone. It's not like the Yanks weren't drawing. And now, of course, seat prices will go up again to help defray the new Stadium's $1.3 billion price tag. And baseball—which once stood alone as Everyman's sport—moves a little bit farther along on its journey to becoming just another elitist "entertainment experience." Some call it progress.
Friday, September 19, 2008
The more I think about it, the more it galls me that John "Original Maverick" McCain and the rest of the GOP campaign machine are anchoring their economic pitch in the strategy of distancing themselves from pretty much everything their party has stood for up till, like, 3:09 p.m. yesterday. (Weren't many of the politicos and delegates cheering wildly for McCain at Convention the same people cheering wildly for Dubya four years ago?) Take, for example, the idea that the GOP is going to reform Big Business; that it's going to emphasize transparency and build bridges of understanding between Wall Street and Main Street. The GOP is going to do this? Are you freakin' kidding me? And it's not even that I disbelieve them, necessarily; I think by now even Gordon Gecko would agree that certain areas of the free market have gotten out of hand and need to be reined back in.
The thing is, sincere or not, that just isn't how it goes in real life. If you break it, typically—if you screw things up this badly—you forfeit the right to fix it. You had your chance and you blew it. Isn't that the case nowadays in any given corporation? Let's say a man we'll call John McBain is the chief financial officer at a major company when the controls fail and the P&L turns to crap and there are even suspicions of fraud and other questionable activities. When the board of directors finally wakes up and realizes that something drastic needs to be done (and/or the regulators come a-knocking), what's the customary first step? Do the directors go to McBain and say, "Hey, John, how's it hangin'? Listen, we'd like you to reexamine what's been happening on your watch. Would you mind very much? Could you take care of that for us and report back in—oh—four years?"
Uh, no. The first thing the directors will do is fire his ass and bring in someone new.* And if it's a highly visible public company, that "someone" will preferably be from outside, a person with no standing allegiances in the company and no trail leading back to the existing procedures and controls. (In fact, in such a scenario, the shareholders might even "fire" the board of directors.)
But somehow, McCain and the GOP, at least to date, have managed to sell as schizoid a message as I've ever heard in four decades of watching politics: They're Republicans...but they're going to reform some of the very realms that are most closely identified with Republicanism. They're Republicans...but they're asking the nation to allow them to be the ones who implement some of the very agendas the Democrats have been urging all along. And if the polls count for anything, they may get away with it in the end.
Unreal. I guess we are that stupid after all.
* I'm oversimplifying the chain of command here, but the example is valid in the overall.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Caught Palin's whistle-stop appearance in Ohio yesterday, and here's what I took away:
She's blessed and she's ready, oh boy is she ever ready, so ready, so ready and eager, eager because she doesn't blink—no blinking allowed in this administration!—and that's because, again, in her blessed state of perpetual readiness...
Thing is, I want Sarah Palin to blink. I want her to blink because sometimes you're better off blinking than, say, sending 150,000 troops on a wild goose chase that bankrupts the nation and leaves 4160 mothers, now, hugging folded flags instead of their precious sons and daughters. I also want her to blink because she has five kids, one of which is five months old and handicapped*, another of which is 17 and pregnant (and apparently is being thrust into the arms of a studly hockey player who represents himself on his MySpace page with thoughts that read like lyrics from 50 Cent), and still another of which, adorable 7-year-old Piper, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, replies "a baby-sitter." (Did anyone else who saw that clip wonder what might be going on in the little girl's head? Sure, I could be making something out of nothing; this could be Freud's cigar all over again. But couldn't it be telling us something, too?)
I also confess that the more I think about it, the less I understand this whole feminist thing about "having it all." Who gets to have it all? I don't care who you are or of what gender, life is about trade-offs and sacrifices. Derek Jeter can't be both the Yankee shortstop and a top-flight OB/GYN (though from what I hear he takes an earnest stab at the latter, at least on an ad hoc basis). Baseball teams travel too much and women want their regular doctor there when they're having the baby. A (male) entrepreneur who's working 80 hours a week to launch his business can't be a great father; just can't happen. As I think I mentioned some months ago, Harry Chapin captured this fatherly predicament for us decades ago in his song, Cat's Cradle.
I hear women say (most recently Geraldine Ferraro) that this is about Choices. If you look up the word choose, as I just did on Dictionary.com, it says "to select from a number of possibilities" or to "pick by preference." I hate to belabor the obvious, but if you're selecting and picking and preferring, that means there are other things you're not doing, or you're not doing them as well as you might otherwise. And yet we have so much trouble facing that simple reality in this country. The other day I heard Gwyneth Paltrow, on the verge of tears, explain to Oprah's audience why she was working far less since becoming a mother. Though she could easily find people to look after her baby, said Paltrow, she couldn't bear the thought of being on a distant movie location while someone else got to look into her infant son's eyes as little Moses awoke from a nap. "You can't replace those moments," said Paltrow. "Not for you or your child."
If you believe in Options and Choices, then Sarah Palin, five different times, chose motherhood, with all that it connotes and demands. Tell me why it's so unspeakably wrong for some of us to wonder whether that should limit her options in other areas.
* let's use the real words, OK? Instead of the euphemisms we so often use to avoid facing the truth.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
First of all, yes, I know this is an oversimplification, so if some MBA type or expert in government or municipal finance feels compelled to write and tell me where my reasoning went astray, that's fine—though I think you're missing the forest in the trees. Now, with that out of the way:
It's ironic, isn't it, that the excesses of the free market seem to be nudging us towards a form of passive communism, i.e., wherein so many major companies and other elements of financial infrastructure are controlled (or at least propped up) by the government—and thus, in essence, owned by the masses?
Anyway, I thought so.
Also fascinating how John McCain still can't seem to make up his mind whether the U.S. economy remains "sound" or is in "total crisis." I guess his polling data, focus groups and other campaign research haven't yet yielded a firm handle on which imagery he's supposed to be selling. I'm at a loss to understand why he doesn't just release an ad that says both. To wit:
John McCain: Because the American economy—while in total crisis—remains sound.
It wouldn't be any sillier or more insulting to anyone's intelligence than the stuff he runs now. Speaking of which, and to give my wife credit once again for a hilariously insightful remark.... She's watching TV last night when That Ad comes on, the omnipresent one that gushes about how Palin supposedly nixed the "bridge to nowhere," claims that McCain "reformed Washington," and ends by promising "real change."
"But if he already reformed Washington," says Kathy, deadpan, "what do we still need change for?"
Yanno, I'm thinking she should start her own political blog—and she's not even really into politics.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
A few readers have inquired as to what would've motivated me to "abandon [my] unique niche" in cyberspace, as one emailer put it, in order to preside over "just another political blog," to quote a second emailer. First of all, long-time readers know that I've always reserved the right to comment on this and that; even back in the days when I was hard-core into the SHAMscape, I found time to dabble in matters of sports, music, pop culture, etc. But I guess my fascination—obsession?—with the current political season has to do with the subhead of this blog, especially the part about "scams" and "shames." I don't think there's anything in life that bugs me quite as much as an insult to my intelligence. And when it happens over and over, day after day, I get angry and want to punch walls, which isn't a very good idea, since I work in an unfinished basement and the walls are concrete.
That brings me to something Bill Maher said during one of his opening monologues early last year. He wondered what the Republicans could possibly run on, this time around. "I mean, what are they gonna say?" he mused sarcastically. "'Four more years!'?" As it turned out, of course, Maher gravely misunderestimated the GOP. Watching the usual procession of negative ads during dinner yesterday, I realized that Maher didn't give the Republicans enough credit for imagination (while at the same time he apparently gave the American public way too much credit for insight). More specifically, what Maher did not foresee was that the GOP would try to position itself as the real party of change in 2008. He did not foresee that the McCain camp would actually run ads—not SNL-like parodies, mind you, but serious political ads—that describe Barack Obama, of all people, as "more of the same."
Barack Obama is more of the same.
Is it just me...or isn't that a little bit like, well, if Obama ran ads that characterized McCain as an unpatriotic black draft-dodger who's way too young for the job, and who wants to give your hard-earned money to the Panthers?
All of which is a long way of explaining why, this morning, as the nation weathers a succession of economic upheavals at a scale that probably hasn't been seen since the Great Depression, I wasn't even that shocked to hear John McCain tell GMA's Chris Cuomo that American workers have been "betrayed by a casino on Wall Street of greedy, corrupt excess—corruption and excess that has damaged them and their futures." The man said this exactly as if he weren't the candidate of the "house" party, which is to say, the folks running that casino; the party whose central tenet is the motivating power of unchecked self-interest.
I guess the only thing that did surprise me was that McCain didn't find some way of blaming the whole thing on community organizers.
Oh, by the way: Bush this morning declared himself "confident" that we're going to pull out of this in fine shape. So relax. We have nothing to worry about. George Bush is confident. Just as he's been confident about any number of things, notably including the war in Iraq.
See what I mean about expressions of optimism? How easy it is to throw the words around? And how little they mean, when you come right down to it...?
Finally: LBO = leveraged buyout. The concept has fallen out of a favor a bit since the real heyday of junk bonds and KKR, but LBOs remain a symbol of questionable investment financing for the wheeler-dealer set.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Think about it. A Cat-3 hurricane is bearing down on the nation's fourth-largest city. The NWS takes the unprecedented step of promising "certain death" to any foolhardy coastal residents who intend to brave the storm. And Geraldo makes the story about him.It is for similar reasons that if you pick up almost any major magazine nowadays, the opening of almost every feature story (what is known in my world as the "lede") spends less time setting the scene of the actual story than establishing the writer's place in the narrative and/or his feelings about it. To wit: "I'm sitting in Donald Trump's office, and my agitation grows as The Donald takes phone call after phone call while I tap my note pad with my pen..."
Tight-focus reporting has a disturbing tendency to create what epidemiologists call the "Texas sharpshooter" effect, described by Jonathan Harr in his masterful and absorbing work, A Civil Action. The book* deals with a sensational lawsuit stemming from an apparent outbreak of childhood leukemia in one section of a Massachusetts town called Woburn:
"...[A] man shoots at the side of a barn and then proceeds to draw targets around the holes. He makes every shot into a bull's-eye. If an epidemiologist were to draw a circle around, say, the greater Boston area, he would find an incidence of leukemia comparable with the rest of the United States. Draw a circle around Woburn and he'd find a worrisome elevation. Draw a circle around the Pine Street neighborhood and he'd find an alarming cluster. Was it a real cluster? Or was he just drawing bull's-eyes where he found bullet holes?"
Aside from its prominent role in Disease-of-the-Month reportage, the sharpshooter effect also turns up in the alarmist coverage of all sorts of random events that may have no meaning beyond the fact that "such-and-such happened today": plane crashes, product safety defects, prescription drug side effects, surgical risks, etc. Random events don't always occur in random-looking distributions. An uneven/unexpected distribution skew doesn't mean that "something is going on here." And it certainly shouldn't provoke a rush to judgment on the media's part.
** and later, a flawed albeit entertaining film starring John Travolta and a pre-Sopranos (but just as riveting) James Gandolfini.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
First of all, this morning as I worked, I toggled between MSNBC's real-time replay of the 9-11 attacks and today's live ceremonies at Ground Zero. The reading of the names, one by one, alphabet letter by alphabet letter, unfolding over a period of hours, drives home anew the magnitude of the tragedy, especially juxtaposed against MSNBC's images of the buildings coming down. I still gasp at the sight. I've seen it a hundred times by now, and when I see it in context like that—as NBC's Today Show hosts were seeing it for the first horrific time, seven years ago—I still gasp.
What struck me above all this morning was the way the honor guard, consisting of New York cops and firemen, stood stoic and expressionless in the background as the names were read by the friends and family of the victims, each group of names punctuated by a short, heart-rending tribute to the person the reader had lost on that day. There is no way on God's green earth that I'd be able to keep my composure. I'd be a wreck before they finished with the second group of names.
I've been thinking of what a remarkable thing it is that Barack Obama is positioned to become the next president of the United States.
Consider, for starters, the resistance that Obama had to overcome from some segments of the population. I'm not just talking about the kinds of folks who have Klan hoods tucked away in a drawer somewhere, but people like a certain older matron in my own extended family. This is a very nice lady who I can't imagine hurting or even slighting a black person she actually met in a store, but who nonetheless, upon first seeing the Obamas together on-stage, shook her head and said, "They just don't look like a President and First Lady to me." It was a candid observation voiced without malice. She's just not used to seeing brown faces in command of the White House; the imagery causes cognitive dissonance.
Now consider the number of living-rooms throughout America in which that scene, or one like it, had to play out. And as others have observed, the task facing Obama was not made any easier by his name. I'm fairly sure that even those of you who thought you might see a black president in your lifetime did not imagine that his name would be Barack HUSSEIN Obama. How much more difficult did that make it for him to be accepted (especially out in the great heartland, where some folks probably wonder about Kobe Bryant's ties to Al Qaeda) than if he were named John Sanders or even Leroy Jackson? Add to that the deeper reservations that he had to overcome, with the successive revelations about his links to Rev. Wright, and Rev. Farrakhan, and former domestic terrorist William Ayers.
Ever since McCain tabbed Sarah Palin, we've heard in-your-face arguments from the GOP that draw a parallel between Palin and Obama: "If our v.p. candidate is unqualified, well, so is your top guy. So there!" Such arguments overlook a number of important points, but most of all they overlook Obama's remarkable journey to the nomination. At the time of the first Democratic debate in April 2007, Barack Obama was just one of eight individuals seeking his party’s endorsement, the others being Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. If that group were ranked by experience in public life, Obama would have finished dead-last. The groundswell of support that helped him vanquish the rest of the field—including everyone's presumptive nominee, Mrs. Clinton—evolved spontaneously and organically from the grassroots as Democrats and the rest of America got a chance to see the man, to hear the man, to read the man's own words.
Over the course of more than a year, people's qualms gave way to a deeper sense of what the senator stood for as candidate and man. Democrats (and others who were permitted by local law to vote in Democratic primaries) got a chance to decide for themselves whether Barack Obama's personal and political attributes were sufficient to offset any natural concerns about his circle of friends, his agenda and, last but not least, his readiness for the nation's top job. Realize: As far back as Iowa, had voters concluded that candidate Obama, for all his charisma, needed further seasoning, he would've been routed in that caucus and the ensuing primaries, and that would've been that. Thus when Sen. Obama says in his acceptance speech, "This election has never been about me; it's about you," he's only partly right. In some respects, this election is quite pointedly about him. It's about one unique individual being examined at great length and adjudged the right person at the right time.
Now... Is Barack Obama technically qualified to be president, using the benchmarks of public service we're conditioned to expect in our chief executives? Maybe, maybe not. I'm just not sure it matters anymore. The point is moot. Precinct by precinct, state by state, America-at-large decided that this candidate's vision, intellect, fair-mindedness and can-do spirit were the operative credentials here. Obama stands before us having survived the ultimate job interview, and having been validated by the ultimate exercise in democratic (small-d) process. And though one hates to drift into purple prose, if Obama prevails on November 4, it might fairly be said that his credentials were certified and upheld by no less an entity than We the People.
That is a wholly different kettle of Alaskan salmon from what we have in Sarah Palin, who was anointed to her place of honor on the GOP ticket. There was no protracted assessment period during which tens of millions of constituents had an opportunity to weigh in, to vet her or reject her. The nation has been asked to accept on faith that she is up to the task, and to do so merely because John McCain has ordained it: I got ya candidate right heah, as we might have said it in Brooklyn. On Thursday, we knew nothing about the woman who, on Friday, was placed a heartbeat away from the presidency, assuming a GOP victory.
It also occurs to me that the difference between Sen. Obama and Gov. Palin can be expressed in more whimsical fashion. If the ascendancy of Barack Obama was a love affair with the voting public that bloomed mutually over time, in contrast, the selection of Sarah Palin was... Well, the term "shotgun wedding" comes to mind.
(And in more ways than one, perhaps?)