Thursday, August 9, 2018

Stars and Bars

We live in a bubble up here in Chicago. All the more so for me as I work in the art world, where the vast majority of people I come in contact with on a daily basis are a pretty homogenous group, politically speaking that is.

The last time our family took a road trip out of town was two summers ago, during the 2016 election. Taveling through rural Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, I expected to see scores of bumper stickers and posters supporting Donald Trump for president. Even though the people in the areas we passed through voted overwhelmingly for the current president, much to my surprise during the hundreds of miles we covered on that trip, I could have counted on one hand the number of folks who publicly displayed their pro-Trump sentiments, and still had a finger or two to spare.

This past weekend we took a short trip downstate, to visit a college with our son. The city, Galesburg, IL. and the school, Knox College were founded concurrently by the same man, George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian abolitionist. The first anti-slavery society in Illinois was founded in Galesburg and the city was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Galesburg wears its Lincoln heritage on its sleeve. It was there in front of the building known as Old Main on the Knox campus, where the fifth of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas took place on October 7, 1858. (More on that in a subsequent post). Throughout the town and especially on campus, there are likenesses of the 16th president practically everywhere you turn, so much so that I asked our student tour-guide if she ever became a little weary of all the Lincoln hagiography. She diplomatically kept her cards close to her vest.

If that weren't enough, Galesburg was also the birthplace of the poet and author Carl Sandburg who wrote the most exhaustive biography of Lincoln ever: two volumes alone devoted to "The Prairie Years", and four, count 'em, four to "The War Years."

Clearly Galesburg has serious historical street-cred when it comes to the cause of American progressive politics.

Despite that, I wasn't surprised to find Trump posters and bumper stickers scattered here and there around town. I get it, Galesburg, like just about every other municipality in this part of the country has seen better days. The Maytag refrigerator plant moved out of town in 2004, about a decade after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and took with it about 5,000 well paying jobs, representing one sixth of the population of the city. The company re-located its plant just across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo, Texas to the city of Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. There, factory workers who now build Maytag refrigerators earn on average, $1.50 per hour, about one tenth of what their counterparts made in Galesburg.

Donald Trump campaigned hard on the issue of NAFTA and the disastrous effects it had on American blue collar jobs, while Hillary Clinton all but ignored the struggling blue collar workers of this country. It's not hard to see how Trump's slogan "make America great again", played in a city that could be the poster child for all that is wrong with free trade. And it's not at all difficult to understand why Donald Trump won more votes than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election in countless places like Galesburg.

What is a little hard to understand is why, underneath the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole in front of a business platestered with Trump posters, as well as a few other locations around town, a Confederate flag flapped in the breeze.

The flag, specifically the Confederate battle flag, has been a point of contention for a long time, but the issue came to a head after a white supremacist slaughtered nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. in 2015 after the victims warmly welcomed the killer into their church. After his arrest, authorities gained access to his website which included photographs of the murderer posing with symbols of white supremacy, including a Confederate battle flag. That incident sparked the movement to remove that flag from display from all government property in the south. It was time many people felt, to put the hurtful symbol of oppression for so many people, to rest.

Not surprisingly, that movement ignited a controversy among those who believe that flag is an enduring symbol of Southern pride and culture, both the good and the bad of it. Again, I get, well sort of, why white Southerners feel strongly about that symbol of their complicated history. My question is this: what does it mean when Northerners, especially deep in the heart of Lincoln country fly that flag, especially in tandem with a Trump sign?

I can hear all my liberal friends answer that question with a resounding "well duh." It is in fact quite hard for me to come up with any explanation other than the obvious one: it's because they're racists.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt however, I'll throw out a few other possibilities:
  • Could be the people flying the flags are transplanted Southerners, homesick for the feel of soft southern winds in the live oak trees, good ol' boys like Thomas Wolfe and those Williams boys, Hank and Tennessee. (With sincerest apologies to the memory of the great Don Williams) 
  • Perhaps the Confederate flag flyers are staunch anti-Federalists, who buy into the myth that the Civil War was not about slavery at all, but about denfending states' rights to determine their own destiny against the tyranny of the federal government. 
  • Or it could be simply this: flying the Confederate battle flag is nothing more than one big "fuck you" to us left wing snowflakes who refuse to accept the fact that Donald Trump is our president. Personally I think this is the most credible explanation outside of the obvious one. 
The problem with these explanatonns is that no matter how hard you try, you simply can't explain away the underlying scourges to humanity that flag represents, namely intolerance, oppression, racism, and of course, human bondage. Hillary Clinton made a huge gaffe when she declared a large swath of Trump supporters to be "deplorables." That move backfired as a great many Trumpers picked up that devisive term as a badge of honor for themselves, much as religious groups adopted names like Quaker, Methodist and Lutheran, which were originally unflattering pejorative terms used against them by critics. The difference is that the Trump supporters Clinton was describing, namely KKK members, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, by any reasonable standard, are truly deplorable. By proudly referring to themselves as "the deplorables" Trump supporters are unwittingly or not, either equating themselves with these groups or expressing solidarity with them.

One of the big lies that the Trump camp keeps propagating in an attempt to refute the idea that they may be racist, is to equate themselves with the Republican Party of the past, the party of Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Conversely the Deomcrats are the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Gullible people who have absolutly no understanding of US history over the past 150 years, fall for that nonsense, hook, line and sinker. While the roles of the two American political parties had shifted 180 degrees a century after the Civil War, the coup de grace came on July 2, 1964, when a Democratic President from Texas,  Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law what he hoped would be his enduring legacy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which put an end, at least on paper, to discrimination in this country on the basis of race, religion, sex or nation of origin. That evening, a somber Johnson confided to his then staffer,  journalist Bill Moyers:
I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,
Never have words coming out of a president's mouth been so prophetic.

Then there are the words coming out of the current president's mouth. Time and again during his presidency he has had the opportunity to bring people of different races and nationalities together, and time and again he has chosen to do exactly the opposite.

His latest episode was an imbecilic tweet reacting to a TV interview of basketball star LeBron James, conducted by CNN journalist, Don Lemon. In the interview about James's charitable work in opening up a school for underprivileged kids, both men who happen to be African American, expressed exasperation with Trump, to which the President of the United States responded:
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.
Add Lemon and James to a long and growing list of African American individuals whose intelligence has been publicly questioned by this president. In a measured response, Lemon said this:
Referring to African Americans as dumb is one of the oldest canards of America's racist past.
A long time ago, President Johnson, again speaking with Bill Moyers, de-constructed America racism in a slightly more colorful way:
If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.
As far as Galesburg is concerned, no, the town didn't shrivel up and die as some predicted it would after Maytag moved out. Businesses that benefited from free trade, such as the railroads which were always a major player in town, and distribution centers, began to fill the void left by the loss of the manufacturing jobs. That's not to say that things have returned to where they were before Maytag pulled the plug, not by a long shot, but things are looking up. Barack Obama visited Galesburg several times before and during his presidency. Looking toward the future, he advocated for the expansion and development of industries with a future such as solar and wind based energy. On our drive to Galesburg, we passed several flat bed trucks, each carrying a single enormous wind turbine blade, supplying the numerous wind farms we passed along the way.

Meanwhile President Obama's successor is advocating for the revival of moribund industries like coal, and instituting tariffs that are little more than a detriment to many up and coming new industries. He has also, time and again, aligned himself with the same types of individuals who sold out the city of Galesburg by putting the wants of stockholders ahead of the needs of their fellow Americans, people whose labor made them rich in the first place. Free trade may have created a conduit for greedy individuals and corporations looking for the big payday, to easily pull up stakes and leave communities high and dry, but it certainly did not necessitate the move as the current president would suggest.

Regardless of how you feel about the current president, if to you, the sentiment of making America great means a country where anyone can earn a living wage without necessarily going into years and years of college debt, as well as a country where there is truly liberty and justice for all, then I'm with you one hundred percent.

If on the other hand that slogan to you means taking America back to a time when women and people of color knew their place, say, back before the stars and bars flew over Dixie, well that's where we part company. You sir are a part of the problem, not the solution.

If you truly feel that way then you could not care less what I have to say, but it may behoove you to heed those words of President Johnson's.

Above all, don't forget to check your pockets.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

North Harbor Drive, July 7

Bowmanville, July 9

Rogers Park, July 13

Uptown, July 16
Field Museum, July 17

West Ridge, July 25

Monday, July 30, 2018

Analytically Speaking

This article written by Alan Jacobs for the Weekly Standard, pretty much sums up my feelings about the game of baseball as it has been played at the major league level for the past several years.

In essence, Jacobs says the current scientific approach to the game, the in-depth analysis, the putting into action strategies for the sole reason that they statistically achieve slightly better results than traditional old school approaches, have all made the game for the most part, predictable and boring to watch.

In his article, Jacobs describes his youthful appreciation of the old Baltimore Oriole teams managed by the late Earl Weaver in the seventies and eighties. Going against conventional baseball wisdom, Weaver eschewed traadional strategies such as base stealing and bunting to advance runners, otherwise known as small ball, his logic being that too many things have to go right with that strategy to produce a minimum number of runs. Going for the big inning, Weaver encouraged his batters to get on base any way they could, then let the batter with runners on base swing for the fences to hit a home run, which he believed was a much more efficient way to produce runs.

Conversely he had his pitchers challenge batters with pitches down the middle of the plate, rather than risking walking batters and accumulating base runners. Yes they gave up more home runs, but they were typically one run homers which were usually more than made up for by the big innings his batting strategy was designed to produce.

It was during Weaver's tenure as manager when very serious fans such as Bill James, began to probe deeper than anyone ever had into the inner workings of baseball. James built his passion into a serious career as a writer, analyist, and ultimately a consultant to major league teams. He is considered to be one of the greatest minds in the game, and is probably the single most influential pratitioner of Sabermetrics, a term he coined for what in his words is "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

The Earl of Baltimore's unorthodox strategy was ultimately backed up by Bill James and others who proved that statistically, Weaver's methods resulted in a greater probability of producing more runs for his team, and giving up fewer runs for the other teaam, which of course translated to more wins.

Sabermetricians like James were originally labeled as crackpots by the baseball community. After all, what could eggheads sitting in front of their computers who never played the game know about baseball? That scenario is portrayed brilliantly in a scene from the film Moneyball, where a portly nerd of a Sabermetrician named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), who is hired by the woebegone Oakland A's to be their braintrust, sits at a table with what would become the former braintrust, the old school scounts, coaches and manager of the team. Rejecting traditioanal baseball logic, Brand, a fictional character based upon the real Paul DePodesta, convinces his boss, Oakland GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) to dump over-paid and sabrmetrically under-performing players, in favor of bargain basement players rejected by other teams. Needless to say, the old baseball foagies thought the nerdy fat guy was full of shit. Nonetheless, Beane and Brand (in reality, DePodesta who bears no physical resemblance to Hill) turned a losing team with little capital into a contender for the American League pennant in 2002.

It's hard to argue with success, MLB teams took notice and before long every team was employing Sabermetric analysis for everything from player personnel to the tiniest minutiae of game management. Take for example the lowly bunt. Traditional baseball logic dictates that when there are two runners on base and nobody out, the batter should bunt, in other words square up and tap the ball about ten feet rather than taking a full swing to drive the ball. If the bunt is successful as it used to be nine times out of ten in the hands of a major league player, the two runners advance bases and the batter is usually, but not always, thrown out at first base. In baseball parleance this is called a sacrifice because the batter sacrifices himself in order for his teammates to be in a better position to score.

Thanks to sabermetrics, sacrifice bunts are all but a thing of the past as the analysis of data drawn from hundreds of thousands of situations shows that the probablity of scoring runs while swinging away, is greater than giving up an out in order to advance the runners.

Another victim of sabermetrics is one of the most exciting parts of the game, the stolen base. Analysis has shown that the risks of being thrown out while attempting to steal a base outweigh the benefits of a successful steal. The general rule of thumb with MLB teams these days is if a runner's stolen base success rate is worse than eighty percent, he's better off staying put on base and wait to be advanced by the batter, hopefully by a home run. And with pitchers better at holding runners on base and catchers being able to throw runners out, hardly anybody can steal a base eight out of ten times in the big leagues today.

Slugger Jose Abreu of the White Sox with a home run swing on July 6, 2014.
As you can see at the top right, the result was a very impressive foul ball.
To the best of my recollection, he struck out on the next pitch.
Sabermetrically speaking, the home run is the most valuable outcome of an at bat. That should come as no surprise, as it is the most efficient method to score a run, one swing, one run, plus one run for each runner on base. However there is a definite risk factor with home run hitters as they are typically more likely to strike out. Not to worry say the Sabermetricians, in this case, the benefit of efficiently scoring runs by swinging for the fences, outweighs the risk of striking out. Consequently in current major league rosters, it's not unusual to see power hitters up and down the lineup, taking away the spots previously left for batters who hit for average, or weaker hitters who excel at defense.

It's also not unusual to see dramatic shifts for power hitters, especially lefties. Well detailed spray charts are provided for all MLB players showing the location where every single ball hit off their bat landed on the field. Managers place their fielders accordingly, even if it means shifting the entire infield, with the exception of the first baseman, to one side of the field. One would think this would provide an excellent opportunity for the batter to place his hits, or as Wee Willy Keeler a long time ago suggested, "hit 'em where they ain't", for an almost certain free base. Not so, the analyists say, it's still more statistically feasible to damn the shift and swing away for a home run, rather than settle for a piddly base hit.

To counter all those home runs, MLB teams won't even look at pitching prospects who cannot throw the ball a minimum of 90 plus mph. What used to be a once in a generation phenominon, you can find pitchers who can throw in excess of 100mph on about half of the big league rosters. Consquently, serious injuries to young pitchers have become commonplace and teams adhere to strict pitch counts to protect the arms of their valuable assets. Combined with the relatively recent practice of the situational use of multiple relief pitchers in one game. what was once commonplace, a pitcher tossing a complete game, is extremely rare these days, as we saw recently when a couple of pitchers were pulled from games while throwing no-hitters.

Anatomy of a 100 mph fastball.
Reliever Kelvin Herrera with the Kansas City Royals in 2016.
Another asset the sabrmetricians highly value is the base on balls. In days of old, it was considered unmanly for a batter to be walked as it was thought to be the error of the pitcher rather than the achievement of the hitter to reach base that way. That obviously is foolish thinking, but the premium on the walk is probably the single biggest contributor to the ungodly length of major league baseball games today. That is because batters have become so adept at fouling off pitches that it's not unusual to see double-digit pitch at bats as the rule these days, as batters try to foul off every strike, either to draw a walk, or force the pitcher to make the mistake of offering a hittable pitch. As pitchers get better and better, able to throw pitches that just graze the corner of the strike zone on command, and batters get better at fouling them off, these contests of one foul ball after an other after another, are only going to increase.

There is absolutely no question that ballplayers have never been better than they are today. Current players are bigger, stronger, faster, more agile, and probably smarter, at least in terms of the objective knowledge of the game, than they ever were. As MLB's official historian John Thorn points out, the great players we revere from the past, would never make it onto a big league roster today, (that is if you were to somehow transport them from their glory days to today). Baseball writing is better than ever, in no small part thanks to Bill James, who beyond his remarkable analytical skills is a wonderful writer. The same can be said of the level of scholarly research of baseball history which was once the exclusive domain of jaded sportwriters with a personal axe to grind. And as we've just seen thanks to the work of the Sabermetricians, analytical research into the complicated workings of the game has never been more precise and thorough.

The problem with all that as Alan Jacobs suggests, is that armed with the same data and analytical conclusions, and the universally high level of talent and skill among the players, there is little variation in each big league team's approach to the game. Today, every team plays like Earl Weaver's Orioles, without of course, Weaver's legendary histrionics. Today's game seems to be run by actuaries, risk managers rather than baseball managers.

Perhaps it's inevitable with the quantum leaps of player athleticism and skillsets, and the knowledge of how to successfully win baseball games by the people who pull the strings, that a typical game played at its highest level in the future might look something like this:

Game begins. After a 20 pitch at bat, the batter finally succeeds in either getting hit by a pitch or walking. He stands on first base while his teammate waits at the plate with the other side offereing him a free base hit by placing all their fielders on one side of the field. After fouling off 12 consecutive pitches, he defiantly swings as hard as he can in the fielders' direction in the hopes of hitting the ball over their heads for a home run. He either strikes out on a 110 mph fastball, or lines out to the third baseman perfectly positioned in short right field. Repeat twice. Inning over. Repeat entire process 16 times switching sides with each repetition. On the next iteration, first batter succeeds to hit 750 foot home run of a 115mph pitch. Game over. Final score, 1-0. Crowd goes wild.

Sheesh, almost makes you want to become a soccer fan.

Not to woryy however. Thank God Sabermetrics hasn't found its way yet into youth baseball, which is still the greatest game around.

Now that's better. The game as it was meant to be played.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Rhyming History

Here's an apt quote for the day, one often mis-attributed like so many others, to Samuel Clemmons, aka Mark Twain:
History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The following is an even better quote which is in fact from Mark Twain:
It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
Re-examinging one of the most famous and significant chapters in Chicago history in preparation for a forward to a book I have been asked to write, I've been struck by how issues that tore our city and country apart almost one and one half centuries ago, still resonate today. Not that we re-construct history brick by brick, but it's clear that we create the same problems for ourselves over and over and over again.

The event is the Haymarket Affair, the late nineteenth century struggle for workers' rights which led to a disastrous confrontation between workers and the police on May 4th, 1886. Eight police officers and an untold number of protestors died as a result of a bomb thrown toward a phalanx of officers as they tried to break up an otherwise peaceful rally in Haymarket Square on the near west side of the city. The business community as well as the general public, who were influenced by biased and incendiary coverage in the local media, were shocked and appalled by the deaths and demanded that the organizers of the event, most of whom were not even present when the bomb went off, pay with their lives for the deaths of the police officers. Even though the identity of the bomb thrower was never known, four men, all well known leaders of the workers' rights movement, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer, went to the gallows on November 11th of the following year. A fifth defendant, Louis Lingg, cheated the hangman by committing suicide the night before his scheduled execution. Three other defendants had their sentences commuted and were eventually pardonned.

Today the trial that condemned the five men known to this day the world over as the Haymarket Martyrs, is by and large considered a sham, a show trial, and a gross miscarriage of justice, with neither the judge nor the jury making any attempt to disguise their prejudice against the defendants and their cause.

Obviously we don't hang people anymore for allegedly inciting riots, so we're not, literally at least, repeating that part of history. Yet reading about the buildup to the Haymarket Affair, one cannot help but see the connection to current events such as pitting the rights of one group of people against another, the role and the mistrust of police in society, and most important, the resentment, fear and sometimes outright hatred of newly arrived immigrants to this country. In fact the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by prominent members of nineteenth century society, while perhaps a trfile more bellicose, seems to hauntingly reflect the statements of some current day pundits on the subject .

Consider these words from lead States Attorney Julius Grinnell in his closing argument at the Haymarket trial. Describing how scores of working people in Chicago, mostly German and Bohemian immigrants would react should the "jurymen unjustly acquit the anarchists", Grinnell told the jury...
...all the slimy vermin who have taken cover in the holes and byways of the city during this trial, will flock out again like a lot of rats.
That statement was met by a cheer of approval from spectators at the trial as well as from members of the jury.

A particularly vocal critic of the workers movement was former Chicago mayor and owner of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill who once wrote in an editorial in his paper about the day when he joyfully imagined:
...communistic carcasses decorating the lamp-posts of Chicago.
Granted the threat of violence from the workers as witnessed by the Haymarket Riot was real, but much of it was a reaction to violence committed agaisnt striking workers by the police and by private security companies hired by the companies they were striking against. In fact the May 4th  Haymarket rally was a direct response to the killing of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works complex on the south side the day before. Parsons and Spies, who had both been radicalized by the brutal treament of striking workers, spoke at the rally. It is said that Spies only agreed to speak if the mention of protestors arming themselves was deleted from pamphlets advertising the event. After Parsons spoke to the assembled crowd, he left the rally and was not present at the time of the bomb blast. One of the condemned, George Engel, was at home playing cards during the entire event. Only two of the Haymarket defendants, Spies and Samuel Felden who was speaking at the time the police began their advance on the crowd, were present at the time of the blast.

So what was all the fuss about? The issue was fairly simple; the over-riding concern of the workers was the enofcement of a state law banning companies from forcing their employees to work more than eight hours per day. That law which was put into the books in 1867 had no teeth, and was consequently all but ignored. The argument of the industrialists was that no one was forced to work for them and there were plenty of people in those economically depressed times willing to replace striking workers. The argument of the workers, who were paid on average $1.50 per day which was cut by 25 cents during particularly difficult times, was that such demanding hours, often 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week, essentially enslaved the wage earner to his job which didn't provide him the time to develop other skills in which he could enrich his life and better his situation. In other words, the struggle was between the rights of the capitalists to make the rules in their own compnies and the rights of the workers to earn a fair and living wage under reasonable and humane conditions.

Like Spies and Parsons, the newly arrived immigrants from central Europe and Scandinavia, many of whom were already aquainted with the work of Karl Marx and other writers promoting radical change, were deeply concerend by the over-zealous reaction of the powers-that-be, and the ruthless sometimes deadly force used against them by the police. The few who chose to arm themselves, admittedly encouraged by people like Spies and Parsons, did so for their own self-defense.

Not surprisingly, native born Americans, many of whom could only claim one or two generations of American ancestry themselves, reacted bitterly to this new wave of immigrants. Because of the relative few who committed violent acts, they painted all immigrants who came to these shores with the simple intent to better their lives, with a very broad brush, protraying them as  interlopers who seemed hell-bent on destroying the American way of life.

Sound at all familiar?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Summer in the City

Summer of late has lost its glimmer for me, especially this one which so far has been unfortunately defined by the death of a dear loved one. I remember talking with my late cousin Bob when my children were small about the fate of a parent. He said: "Small children small problems, big children...". He didn't need to complete the thought. Truth be told, my wife and I have been blessed with two wonderful children who hardly give us any problems. Yet it is a fact of life that as kids get older and more independent, parents are faced with ever increasing challenges. but that's a story for another day. The bottom line as far as this story gores is this, summer just isn't as much fun as it used to be when the kids were small.

That said, my daughter and I took advantage of a lovely summer evening last week to go to one of this city's premier summer attractions, a concert in the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. Sadly it's something we don't take advantage of enough as the park is across the street from where I work. The last time we wre there was nine years ago when we attended a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As I wrote in my post about it, that night wasn't exactly my finest moment. I was appalled by the crwod who were practically oblivious of being in the presence of over one hundrend young musicians and chorus members working their butts off performing one of the greatest works of music ever written, Judging by the way they carried on their conversations at full volume as the music played, they could have just as easily been at a barbeque in their backyard.

Anyway, I didn't behave well that evening as the people who were with me at the time, namely my wife and children keep reminding me.

Nine years older and wiser, I now realize that you cannot expect much from an outdoor audience at a free concert, I resolved to behave myself this year during the program that featured works of Haydn, Beethoven again, and Wagner.

Armed with that resolve, it was wonderful, even though the quiet strains ending the obscenely beautiful Tannhauser Overture, the piece that ended the concert, were all but drowned out by the crowd. 

Well at least we got our money's worth and then some, it was a lovely evening, one that I, and hopefully my daughter will remember for a long time.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

My Cousin Bob

This month, my family said goodbye to the finest human being I have ever known, my first cousin Bob Hoggatt. Bob was the eldest child of my mother's only sibling, her late brother Robert. In that role, my Uncle Bob's namesake son was the patriarch of our family. He wore that distinction well.

Bob Hoggatt
I've known Bob all my life, but fifteen years his junior, my early memories of him are sketchy as during our family get togethers, I was more inclined to hang out with his youngest siblings who were closer to my age, my cousins Bill and Betty. I hardly have any recollections of Bob at all without Bridget, who married him when I was ten years old. While it is quite impossible to think of Bob without Bridget, the two were far from being attached at the hip, The couple consisted of two strong minded, strong willed, distinct individuals who perfectly complimented the other. I remember a conversation Bob and I had a long time ago about relationships and the pride he showed when he spoke of how he and his wife were perfect equals, that neither one of them could ever claim to be the dominant partner of the two. Being the wisest person I ever knew however, Bob was quick to point out that in even the most egalitarian of relationships, there are times when one partner is more equal than the other. We had a great laugh over that one.

Bob and I became close around the time I was a teenager, when I began to look for role models who weren't my parents. As I was raised an only child, he was the big brother I never had. Perhaps the greatest of his many qualities was his ability to be attentive to other people. Despite being older and much wiser, he never talked down or offered me unsolicited advice. That is something my children, who were both devastated by his death, picked up upon as well. It didn't matter if you were the Archbishop of Chicago, or the hospital attendant cleaning bedpans, in every encounter with Bob, you came away feeling that you were the most important person in the world. The important thing to note here is the fact that when you were with Bob, you were the most important person in the world to him, it was not an act.

That's not to say Bob didn't have what our grandmonther would have called "a little bit of the divil (sic) in him." Our closest time together was during my father's final days, as he lay in a semi-conscious state in a pallative care facility in Arizona. During that six week ordeal, Bob who was still working at the time and living in Chicago, visited my mother and me at least two or three times.. He provided us immeasurable compassion, comfort and companionship during that difficult time. He also provided a few much needed laughs.

My father's primary care physician at the facility was a man who obviously had a very high opinion of himself. His deep tan and long locks, along with a perfectly pressed western shirt, tight jeans and snakeskin boots gave him an almost movie star-like presence. The only thing that contradicted the effect was the voice. To compare that man's voice to Mickey Mouse would be a gross understatement. It was as if he walked around connected to a tank of helium. Bob first met this doctor at a meeting with my mother and me, where he spelled out all his great plans to prolong (not the word he used) my father's at the time miserable existance. As the doctor went on and on trying to give us what we all understood to be false hope, Bob listened intently, giving the conversation all the gravitas it deserved.

After the doctor departed, my mother asked Bob what he thought. Surprizing us both, Bob, never once breaking from his serious expression replied: "Well the first thing I have to say is what's up with that doctor's voice?" I have to say that I can't remember laughing harder in my entire life. As a devout man, Bob probably wouldn't like to be remembered as someone who got a laugh off of someone else's expense. But the truth is Bob deeply understood where his priorities were; the tremendous gift of laughter he provided my mother and me in our time of darkness, more than outweighed the transgression of poking a little fun of someone's affliction.

Bob in his natural state, yukking it up with family
members this past Christmas
That was how Bob lived his life. He lived the Gospel every day, but was not dogmatic about it. He understood what was important, that the most fundamental gifts spelled out by his faith are love, compassion and generosity. Despite his passionate love of the English language and his remarkable facility with it, he knew the most effective way he could communicate his faith was through example rather than words. 

We've spoken ad nauseam lately over the importance of following reason rather than blind faith. But I strongly believe that faith has a very powerful purpose in our lives, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. On the day he died I got a call on my phone at work. I didn't recognoze the number and as I typically do, considered ignoring it as nine times out of ten, these are recorded sales calls. But something told me to to answer the phone. For a moment my original suspicions were confirmed as there was a long delay at the other end which is always the case with recorded calls. Yet still I hung on the line. After about five seconds a halting, barely audible voice came over the phone. It was my cousin Bill delievering the news. While Bob had numerous health issues over the past five years, his death was unexpected and a complete shock. In fact we had plans to celebrate his 75th birthday the following week, and his health was at the time, the farthest thing from my mind. Think whatever you will but I am convinced it was Bob who told me to pick up the phone, as no one else in the family could bear to break the news to my mother who loved Bob as if he were her own son.

There have been other unusual moments in the days since his death that we are all convinced were influnced by Bob. I know scads of people who would take pains to point out that these events all had  perfectly rational explanations. Well those folks can believe whatever they want.

No matter what you believe, the truth is that our loved ones live on in those of us they leave behind. I'll know Bob is with me everytime I hug my children and God willing, someday my grandchildren, as his family was the greatest joy of his life. I'll know he's with me whenever I listen to those in pain, building up their self-esteem by letting them know what good and impostant people they truly are, as Bob often did. I'll know he's alive whever I treat a stranger like my oldest friend.

Bob, Bridget and their six grandchidren
On the other hand, I realize that neither I nor anyone could ever replace Bob. I doubt I'll ever make a point of visiting the gravesites of my family on their birthdays like he did. It's highly unlikely that I will keep a list of the sick and downhearted, and every night before I go to bed, remember each and every one of them in my prayers as he did. And I'll never have the boundess love and compassion for others that he did.

In her beautiful eulogy for her brother, my cousin Betty, herself no slouch when it comes to boundless love and compassion, reflected upon just that, recalling a particularly difficult chapter in their family's history:
For many reasons, every day was challenging and hard. At one point, I gave up. Most of us had nothing left in us to give. But Bob, just when you thought he had nothing left...he would dig deeper and keep going.
In short, it would take an entire extended family and then some to come close to fill the void of one Bob Hoggatt. His was a life well lived, one that despite our incalculable loss, my family will celebrate for as long as we are on this planet.

It is customary when someone dies to wish them a peacful rest. That will never happen with my cousin Bob. While he is no longer in need of our prayers, we deperately need his. It is my firm belief that wherever Bob is, he is at this moment working tirelessly on our behalf and as always, will never let us down.

And it is my fervent belief that one day Bob and I will see each other again and have a good laugh over this crazy and beautiful world.

Until that day comes, I'll miss you Bob.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Construction of Vista Tower, June 9

Michigan Avenue Towers, June 28

Friday, June 29, 2018


As some of you know, I spent the past school year documenting and learning great things from the students and teachers of Senn High School for a citywide project called CPS Lives.. Here's a little tribute to them:

Nicholas Senn High School has a remarkable history. It was built in 1913 to meet the needs of the burgeoning middle to upper-middle-class neighborhood of Edgewater on Chicago’s far north side. The school was the vision of educator Ella Flagg Young, who at the time, was the superintendent of Chicago public schools. Ms. Young, a social reformer and friend and colleague of Jane Addams, was far ahead of her time in her field. She was particularly concerned with promoting professionalism in the teaching vocation, known for her advocacy of equality between the sexes, and for her progressive vision of public education. Along those lines, Young advocated for the embrace of physical education as an integral part of the curriculum of secondary schools. All these ideas were tested out and ultimately implemented at the new high school. 

The school’s imposing neo-Classical building, designed by CPS Acting Architect Arthur F. Hussander , is a reflection of the “City Beautiful” movement, and has been a landmark of its community for over one hundred years. Senn’s list of notable alumni includes well known practitioners of the arts and letters, participants in the world of sports and entertainment, as well as countless other individuals who have made an important mark on the world. 

The school went through troubled times, most notably during last half of the twentieth century when declining enrollment and gang violence, problems endemic throughout much of the Chicago Public School System , began to challenge the reputation of the proud school.

Despite the difficult times, Senn continued to set precedents and establish distinctions. In 1969, Senn was the first CPS school to establish the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program. Senn was a natural testing ground for that program as in 1978, Time Magazine listed it as the most ethnically integrated high school in the country.

Members of one of the many Senn social clubs at Club Day
Long time Senn institutions and traditions that continue to this day, took hold during that period, such as the numerous student clubs devoted to, among other things, the plethora of ethnic groups represented at the school. Taking place on the first Friday of the school year is Club Day (est. 1972), where said clubs set up tables on the school’s massive front lawn to recruit new members. 

Senn moved into the twenty first century by exploring new directions while continuing its commitment to maintain its first mission as a neighborhood school. In 1999, Senn was authorized to create its selective International Baccalaureate, a rigorous college preparatory program which attracts students from throughout the city. Since that time, Senn IB has been expanded and has significantly contributed to the overall increase in the quality of education of the school. 

A Senn IB Student showing me portraits she made of her grandparents
In 2011 Senn added another school to the mix. Senn Arts is a fine and performing arts magnet school where potential students audition and /or present portfolios for admission. From their mission statement, Senn Arts “provides students with an environment that fosters academic, social, and personal growth to cultivate members of the global community.”

True to that cause, this past school year, Senn Arts students took the lead in organizing protests and other initiatives promoting an end to gun violence, as well as registration drives among students who would be eligible to vote for the first time in the upcoming elections.

Senn students, participated in the production of an original play, Columbinus, performed on the stage of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. The play centered around the school shooting at Columbine High School and its aftermath. Senn Arts drama students participated in the August Wilson Monologue competition, including a young woman who was one of only two students from Chicago selected to participate in the national competition in New York. 
A Senn Arts student rehearsing for her
entry in the national
August Wilson Monlogue Competition

Members of the Senn Arts Chorus were invited to perform in an original one act opera entitled Empower. The opera was written by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Ike Holter, who enlisted the help of several CPS students to create a work depicting young residents of the South Side of Chicago, telling their own stories about their neighborhood, flying in the face of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. The opera was performed on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

In March, members of the Senn Arts band and orchestra, were joined by members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago who individually tutored the students on their particular instruments. The day was capped off by a visit of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who sat in with the combined orchestra and band, taking his place among the second cellists.

In recent years, under the leadership of principal, Mary Beck, Senn High School has regained its standing as one of the highest rated public high schools in the city of Chicago. In many ways, Senn is the best of all worlds, a school with high scholastic standards, set in a metropolitan area which affords countless cultural and educational amenities and opportunities, combined with a student body that represents a significant portion of the world’s population, it’s cultures, languages and religions. With that in mind, the students of all the schools of Senn, benefit in countless ways from this unique combination of attributes.

The tremendous diversity of Senn is what many students cited to me as one of their proudest features of their school. Forming personal bonds and friendships with people coming from vastly different cultures and interests, (thanks to the addition of the IB program and Senn Arts), the Senn experience provides students a unique foundation for living, working, thriving, and leading in an ever diverse and changing world. 

Senn students from Palistan and Somalia attending "International Night"
Looking back on my involvement at Senn over the past six months, I couldn’t help being struck by the notion that these students are our future, and that our future is in good hands.

As it has for over a century, Senn stands at the forefront of progressive education. Ella Flagg Young would be proud.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Anatomy of a Fake News Story

Last week I got into a long-winded social media dispute with my good friend, the Trump supporter, something we do on a regular basis. Unlike our typical disputes which center around the merits of the current administration. this was over a truly pointless and irrelevant issue. It started when my friend posted this meme:

My friend took the point a step further claiming this as proof of the depths of Democratic chicanery, the tale of  a corrupt Democrat, Jimmy Carter, pardoning another corrupt Democrat, and a felon to boot, Bill Clinton

As I am wont to do, with or without any factual basis to back it up, I challenged my friend. The truth is, while I knew that Bill Clinton went to great lengths to not serve in the military during the Vietnam War, I did not know whether or not he was actually convicted of a felony for illegally dodging the draft. One would think I might have remembered it coming up during his first election in 1992, but I was going through the breakup of my marriage at the time so I had other things on my plate.

As you might guess, a few things tipped me off that the message of this meme might be bogus:
  • You can always tell where a meme is going by the image its creator choses to use. Here we have a particularly snarky image of Clinton, displaying a "face smackable smirk" as one commentor remarked, an image that portrays the Clinton described by one of his more colorful nicknames, "Slick Willy.". 
  • The creator chose to capitalize the words "Draft", Dodging", and "Felon", but not the words "bill" and "clinton." This either means the creator has a serious issue with the rules of English grammar, he is tipping off a bias, or perhaps a little of both.
  • Whenever a meme begins with the phrase, "Why do so few people know this fact", you can rest assured that nine times out of ten, it's because it really isn't a fact. 
  • Finally there is the use of the phrase, "look it up." People more often than not create memes to preach to the choir. Everyone knows it's considered bad form for the choir to question the word of the preacher. So no, the intended audience is not very likely to look it up, it's the heathens who question ideas and look things up. Being a heathen of the first magnitude, I looked it up and no, I couldn't find a 60 Minutes piece about Clinton the felon. But I did find several scurrilous anti-Clinton videos including one where during an actual 60 Minutes interview, a studio light fell off its stand and hit Hillary Clinton in the head. The creator of the video went on to praise the light for sacrificing its life in an attmpt to rid us of the evil Hillary.
So why this interest in a president who's been out of office for 18 years? As a Trump supporter, my friend  is deeply offended that his man is often criticized for having himself dodged the draft. From a post I wrote during the 2016 campaign, I said that I don't have a problem with (then candidate) Trump's lack of military service  as he did what tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of men did during that era, that is, everything in his power to avoid serving in a highly contentious war. As I said, I probably would have done the same had I been a little older.

What irks me about Trump is the way he potrays himself as a patriot, both figuratvely and literally wrapping himself around the American Flag, as if that symbolic gesture, and that gesture alone actually meant anything. Beyond that, he has gone out of his way to disrespect veterans whom he doesn't like, most notably questioning the heroism of John McCain, a navy pilot who endured years of captivity in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" POW prison.

The late, great columnist Mike Royko, himself a veteran of the Korean War, had a term for bellicose, hawkish politicians who like Donald Trump, avoided the draft. He called them "war wimps."

My first line of questioning my friend's reasoning was that what he posted was only a meme. As anyone with the slightest bit of social-media acumen will attest, memes are as dependable a souce of information as grafitti inside a bathroom stall. In response God bless him, my friend  linked to a blog post. Now I happen to know a little about blog posts which you might have gathered as you are reading a blog post right now. While I try my hardest to write accurately and honestly, the truth is I have no publisher, no editor or fact checker to keep me honest. For what it's worth, all you have is my word that to the best of my knowledge, whatever I write in this space is accurate. If however I chose to be deceitful, no one could stop me. True you could point out my errors in the comments section but I have a dirty little secret, bloggers can delete comments at their discretion.

Despite that, blog posts are at the very least, one step above the credibility ladder from memes. The particular one he posted, lists a chronology of events involving Bill Clinton's actions regarding the draft, along with the Jimmy Carter pardon.. The post concludes with this:
Bill Clinton is the first pardoned federal felon ever to serve as President.
With that I did a little research. So is it true that Jimmy Carter pardoned the felonious Bill Clinton in 1977?

The answer is no.

Like most fake news stories, this one has some basis in fact. Bill Clinton did indeed dodge the draft, first through college deferments, then with a little help of a connection which got him into the ROTC at the University of Arkansas. which further enabled him to aviod the draft. He then dropped out of the UofA, choosing to complete his studies at Oxford and then at Yale. In doing so he skipped out of his committment to the ROTC. While in England, he wrote the draft board to request a re-classification. They gladly returned his message, giving him a 1-A classification, in other words, a prime candidate, eligible for serice. Luckily for Clinton, President Nixon signed into law a new policy that allowed students to finish their school year before reporting for service. This granted Slick Willy yet another college deferment. By the time the year ended, Nixon instituted a draft lottery which corresponded to days of the year. One's chances of being called depended upon the order in which your birthday was drawn, low numbers being most likely, high numbers the least. It turned out that Clinton's number, like Donald Trump's was in the 300's,, meaning his chances of being drafted by that time, were very low.

One could question the ethics of Clinton's actions, especially his skipping out of his ROTC committments. The blog my friend posted claims that by doing so, Clinton was declared AWOL, subject to arrest, and ineligible for the lottery. Other sources I found claim that no, Clinton's actions, while perhaps questionable, did not violate the law. What is not debatable is that Bill Clinton was never charged with a crime for skipping out of his committments.

As for the pardon, in January, 1977, Jimmy Carter gave a blanket pardon to all those "who were convicted of violating the Military Selective Service Act by draft-evasion acts or omissions committed between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973."

The bottom line is this: since Bill Clinton was never charged with a crime relating to his failure to show up for duty, by the very definition of the term, he cannot be a felon. By the same token, Carter's blanket pardon did not apply to Bill Clinton because Clinton was never charged with or needless to say, convicted of violating the Selective Service Act.

I got this information from the fact checking website, as well as from other sources. My findings were immediately rejected by my friend and other Trump supporter friends of his who insist that Snopes is a part of the biased left wing main stream media and thus, cannot be trusted.

Since there is no arguing with them about that bit of false information, I told them to use a little critical judgement and common sense. The website makes two curious bullet points before it mentions the Carter pardon:
  • Bill Clinton runs for Congress (1974), while a fugitive from justice under Public Law 90-40.
  • Bill Clinton runs for Arkansas Attorney General (1976), while a fugitive from justice.
The word "fugitive" comes from the Latin verb "fugit", literally meaning "to flee". Apparently the author of the blog and the people who buy into his premise never watched the TV show or the movie The Fugitive. The eponymous character of both, Richard Kimball, did a lot of things, but I don't ever recall him running for public office, at least not under his own name. Presumably, if you are fleeing from justice. chances are good that there are people involved with carrying out justice, who are looking for you. And one of the easiest ways to find someone, is if they are running for public office. William Jefferson Clinton, had he indeed been a fugitive from justice, would have been pretty stupid to expose himself that way. He wasn't called Slick Willy for nothing. And the people supposedly looking for this fugitive from justice must have been pretty dense to not have noticed their man was a candidate for Congress. Even worse, in 1976 Clinton won the election for Attorney General, making him effectively their boss. Pretty hard to not notice that. Maybe they thought, "nah that can't be him, nobody would be stupid enough to run for public office, especially for the top legal official in the state, when he's a fugitive from justice."

Anyway according to the blog, Clinton was no longer a fugitive from justice after Jimmy Carter allegedly pardoned him. Which begs the question, was Carter's blanket pardon of all those who violated selective service laws during Vietnam, merely a ruse by "an obviosly corrupt Democrat president to exonerate another obviously corrupt future Democrat president" as my friend insists? Well let's just say that's a bit of a stretch, I haven't found any evidence that Carter even knew the newly elected Attorney General of Arkansas when he allegedy, but didn't really pardon him in 1977.

Lest you think that I'm knocking the intelligence of Trump supporters, let me point out that it works both ways. Trump detractors are just as eager to promote ideas or post articles they like, without checking their validity. A couple weeks ago, Trump was excoriated by his detractors who accused him of calling illegal immigrants "animals."  Listening to his remarks, Trump was clearly referring to members of the notorious MS-13 gang, not to all undocumented immigrants. More recently a photograph has been widely distributed showing a crying young boy inside a cage. Captions claim the child is one of the thousands of children separated from their parents during the new "zero tolerance" sweep of people coming across our southern border. The photograph in fact was not of one of the separated children, but of a staged event in Dallas,  at a protest against the separations.

And finally there is the meme that has been widely circulated since the beginning of the 2016 election featuring a photograph of a young and handsome Donald Trump, taken back in the days when he was a liberal Democrat.. The meme includes the quote: "If I ever ran for president, I'd run as a Republican because Republican voters are so stupid, they'd believe anything you told them" There is certainly no tastier morsel that can be used to justify the resistance of the current president than that remark. The only problem is that he never said it.

How do I know those stories are not real? I listened to the immigrants being animals quote in its proper context, and I checked out the stories of Trump's Republican quote, and the photograph of the child in the cage where else, in

The truth is this, fake news is a mortal enemy to democracy, it serves no one, except people of ill will trying to use it to gain power.  Everytime we post something on social media, we are broadcasting an idea to virtually the entire world. We may not realize it, but that is a very powerful thing, the kind of power our ancestors could never have imagined. We must all do our utmost to avoid spreading baseless information, just because we happen to like or agree with it, even, no especially if we are employing it to counter fake news on the other side.

So how does one know what is real and what is fake these days? Frankly it's not all that hard, it just takes some work. I find fact-checking sites like Snopes to be credible because as we just saw, they point out factual errors on both sides of the political fence. But it is still important to never trust the word of one single news source, no matter how un-biased is may seem, double check everything.

"Main stream media" news outlets, whatever they may be, wouldn't be in business very long if they kept reporting factual errors. Their credibility is judged upon their ability to report facts. All news sources get it wrong sometimes. If a news source rigorously corrects factual errors in printed or stated retractions, that doesn't mean it makes a lot of errors, it means they are committed to getting it right, and should be trusted.

Some news outlets are pointedly biased, I needen't mention them by name. These exist on both sides of the political divide. I think it is important no matter what side of the divide you find yourself on, to check out sources on the other side, and if possible, give them the benefit of the doubt. You might even learn something.

The most important thing when reading or watching the news, no matter what the source, is to use your brain and its inherent capability to make critical judgements and employ common sense.

Ask yourself questions like: "is what they are saying even plausible", or "does it make sense?" Another worthwhile question is "how much is the source willing to give a voice to both sides of an issue?" If commentators keep praising one side and berating the other, chances are pretty good that sorce is not credible. These "news" sources earn their keep by telling their counsumers what they want to hear, rather than reporting the facts.

Independent news sources such as blogs (yes like this one), don't have to answer to anyone to stay afloat. That doesn't mean they are not credible sources of information, it just means you have to work a little harder to verify them.

Memes, while they may contain truthful information,  should be automatically suspect.

My point is this, in an ideal world, we should consider ourselves Americans first, then Democrats or Republicans a distant second. It seems like we've done exactly the opposite for too long. Sadly, the current administration and those who promote it, seem to thrive on such division. But truth be told, both sides are guilty of broadening the divide.  I have no doubt that there are people on both sides of the current political morass who are of good will and truly want what is best for the country.

One of my friend's friends, also a Trump supporter, put it very well. He said that as long as people relentlessly criticize the president, out of anger his supporers will only strengthen their resolve. Which can only mean that their resolve is fueled by emotion, rather than intelligence. For my part I can say that my own anger and resolve are fueled by what I see as the complete lack of regard for facts and reason coming from the other side. And on and on it goes, where it will stop, no one knows. There is a place for emotion in politics, but a very small place. Mea culpa, that is something I need to keep reminding myself.

People ask me why I continue these endless sparring matches when it is clear that neither of us will budge the other's opinion. Thinking about it I have two answers. First, I have no problem with people who have different political opinions from me and I enjoy spirited, well thought out debates, but the core of my being is rattled whenever I encounter an argument that is entirely illogical and catagorically denies substantialted facts. Deep down I feel that the battle for facts and reason is well worth fighting. But more importantly,  I think it is very important to keep an open, and (hopefully) respectful dialog between both sides.  It is important to tap into things we agree upon, rather then just the things that tear us apart. So many relationships have been severed over this divide that I see a spark of hope whenever we can remain friends while keeping our opinions out in the open. If at the end of the day (I hate that cliche but it seems appropriate at this moment), we can find things to agree upon despite our differences, then we all come out ahead by understanding that we're not enemies at all, we just have different opinions.

I may hate their politics but I love the people.
I just have to keep telling that to myself over and over and over again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, below is an interesting two hour PBS documentary on his life. It is not a hagiographic portrait of the man. It doesn't hesitate to discuss some of Kennedy's less than admirable accomplishments:, his affiliation with Senator Joseph McCarthy, his involvement as part of his brother's administration, in the plot to remove by all means necessary, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and his initial reluctance to support the American Civil Rights Movement, to name just three.

RFK was a man of great contrasts, a devout family man, who was nothing short of ruthless when anything or anyone got in his way.

Yet the most remarkable trait of Bobby Kennedy was his capacity to grow and to change. That is the main theme of this film. As a virulent anti-communist hawk, evidenced by his work with McCarthy in the fifties, a staunch early supporter of the Vietnam War, and a man of privilege with little understanding of the suffering of others, the tide began to turn for Kennedy after three momentous events that occurred within a short time of each other in 1962 and 1963.

The first of these was the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962. As part of John F. Kennedy's Cabinet in the role of Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was also his brother the president's closest advisor. At the beginning of the crisis, Robert Kennedy adamantly advocated for military retailiation against the USSR's decision to install missles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, just ninety miles from American soil. But after several days of rigorous debate and soul searching, RFK came to the conclusion that the moral solution, was to negotiate a deal with Moscow that would involve, unbeknownst to the American public at the time, the tit-for-tat removal of US milles pointed at the Soviet Union, that had been in Trukey. That change of heart of Kennedy's could very well have prevented a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Another moment that profoundly changed Robery Kennedy's view of the world took place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, There, the reaction of local authorities to civil rights protests resulted in images broadcast all over the world of firefighters turning hoses on, and police brutally beating and turning dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children. It was Robert Kennedy, at least according to this film, who convinced a still complacent John Kennedy, that acting on befalf of civil rights in this country was not a political, but a moral obligation. As a result, the president addressed the nation on June 11, 1963, with the speech that would prove to be his finest moment, announcing the legislation that would lead to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The event that most profoundly changed Robert Kennedy's life, was his brother's assassination in November of 1963. Out of the depths of despair from which  it took Bobby Kennedy years to recover, came an entirely different man, one of profound empathy for the suffering of his fellow human beings.

During his time of despair over JFK's death, it is said that his brother's widow Jacqueline Kennedy suggested that Robert read the works of the ancient Greeks to help provide him solace. Bobby Kennedy put these words of Aeschylus to good use during the time he had left in this world:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.
Kennedy was once asked why his ideas about civil rights and the Vietnam War had changed so drastically in such a short period of time. It's hard to imagine another American politician, especially one in our own era respond the way Kennedy did. He said, "Becasue I hadn't yet read Aeschylus."

Kennedy used those words to console an audience of African American people in Indianapoilis on the night Martin Luther King was musdered. The six minute speech he delivered that night was arguably his finest moment.

Those are the words of RFK's epitaph, inscribed on his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

And they are the words that inspired the title of the second half, and the closing words of the following film in the American Experience Series:


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Taboos and Double Standards

In our on-going culture wars, the gripe du-jour among white Trump supporters this week is that there is a double standard in the media regarding the treatment of performers who cross one line or other in regards to race and politics. It began, as so many issues these days, with a tweet.

Celebrity Roseanne Barr, who made a comeback with her eponymous sit-com about a working class family with conflicting political opinions, sort of a 2010's version of All in the Family, got into hot water this week when she tweeted that former Obama advisor, Valerie Jarrett, who hapens to be African American. looked like a cross between the "Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes." Now why she chose to pick on Ms. Jarrett who has been out of the spotlight for a while I have no idea, but that's just what she did. After being roundly criticized from a wide swath of the American public, Barr apolgized to Jarrett for the tweet, but the damage was done. Later in the day ABC, the network who broadcasts her highly rated show, cancelled it.

While Barr's tweet was criticized by virtually everyone, her firing was slammed by many for being an overreaction to what was simply meant to be a joke, albeit a tasteless one with racial overtoves. Barr took back the remark and immediately apologized for it, that should have been enough, critics of ABC said. The argument went on that other celebrities make crude and vugar references about public figures all the time and get away with it scott free. Bill Maher for example compared President Trump to an orangutan, and Samantha Bee just this week referred to Ivanka Trump as a "feckless cunt." Bee also apologized for that remark. But unlike Barr, Maher and Bee got to keep their jobs despite doing essentially what Barr did.

Cries of unfiar, and accusations of double standards went up all over the ultra-right airwaves which claimed that Barr was fired and the others were spared for one and only one reason, because Barr is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Not surprizingly, the president also got into the act with his own tweet. He openly whined about Disney, the parent company of ABC. If they saw fit to fire Barr for her comments about Jarrett, and then apologize to the American people for those remarks, why didn't they apologize to him for all the mean things celebrities under their employ said about him?

Putting aside the petty and pathetic nature of the President of the United States making the firing of a celebrity over an offensive comment, all about himself, does Donald Trump have a point? After all, Bill Maher compared him to an ape, just like Barr compared Jarrett, and Bee crossed a line when she used the "C" word to describe his daughter. Fair is fair isn't it?

If there were a creature from outer space who arrived to earth just in time for this story to break, he, she, they, it or whatever the correct pronoun for a creature from outer space is, would certainly see a double standard here, Barr was fired and Maher and Bee were not, for doing essentially the same thing. But in our society, you'd have to be a creature from outer space to not understand the difference, and no, it does not have anythigng to do with the poitics of the people involved.

The issue is race, pure and simple. A couple months ago. I dealt with the issue of reverse racism, trying to find eqinamity beween the way white and black people in the United States relate to each other. My conclusion was that it is simply not possible. In other words, reverse racism does not exist. You can read that post here.

Now you might read that and say wow, this guy is just swayed by the scourge of political correctness. Well several years ago I dealt with that subject as well. You can read that here.

The jist of the matter is this, every society has its own taboos. In Turkey for example, it is considered taboo to show the bottom of your feet in public,, with or without shoes. In Cambodia, it is wrong to take a photograph with three people. Every society, including our own, has its own cultural taboos that are bewildering to people of other cultures.

There were far more taboos when I was growing up in this country than there are now. For example, one would never ask a woman her age. Then of course there were George Carlin's famous "Seven words you can't say on TV." Well you still can't say those words on broadcast TV but they are used so frequently these days in common speech that they go all but unnoticed. As a result, they have all but lost their power to evoke or provoke as the case may be.

But never fear, there are two words that have supplanted them, words  so vile and taboo in our society, that even the slightest mention of them in polite company, with rare exception, marks the utterer of them, the basest of individuals. That's because the two words refer not to bodily functions but are the most derogatory descriptions of specific groups of people, one of them, African Americans, the other, women. And the two greatest taboos in our society today are number one, being a racist, and number two, being a sexist. For all its shortcomings, political correctness is a means to enforce these taboos that deserve to remain as such.

If you believe that reverse racism and for that matter, reverse sexism exists, consider this:, no matter how hard you try to find one, there is no white equivalent for the "N" word, and no male equivalent for the "C" word. Granted there are derogatory words, insulting words, obnoxious words to describe white males, but nothing that comes close to the vile intent conveyed by those two specific words. And for good reason, black people and women have experienced centurites of repression, suppression, and oppresion in our society, white men have not. All the while, white men have called the shots, and for that matter, by and large, still do.

There has been a double standard reagrding race and regarding gender in this country since the beginning. So now the pendulum has swung the other direction and yes indeed, today there is a double standard in regard to the words you can legitimately use to describe another race or gender. As a result there are lines that exist in regards to the words we can use to describe oppressed groups of people, including women, that don't exist in the other direction.

And with that the ultra right cries foul. "Not being able to use words? Why that violates our free speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment!"

Well not so fast. The First Amendment of the American Constitution guarantees that Congress shall not create a law "abridging freedom of speech" (among other things). So yes there is no law against spewing the most vile, racist, sexist or hateful words, as the constitution protects against it. In other words, the police cannot come and arrest you for speaking your mind. What the constitution does not protect you from, are the consequences that may arise from that speech, including losing your job. You are free to say whatever you like without fear of arrest, but your employer doesn't have to ruin its reputation by having to associate with you. And a private company such as Facebook or Twitter is not required to publish your vile words. They are perfectly free to delete what you say, if it does not fall within their well established guidelines, or outright ban you at their discression. So say whatever you like, but remember, you are on your own, at least according to the constitution.

Roseanne Barr a white woman, crossed a definite line when she likened Valerie Jarrett, a black woman, to an ape. She was not arrested, therefore her constitutional rights were not violated. ABC, a company with a reputation to withhold, decided it no longer wanted to be affiliated with her. That decision, right or wrong, is their right, and they acted upon it.

On the other hand, there is no line against making fun of the president or his family, in fact, there is a long, distinguished history of it in this country. Personally I find Bill Maher obnoxious and at times despicable. But he, a white man, did not cross any line by calling Trump, another white man, an orangutan. In fact if anything, I think his remark was more offensive to orangutans than to Trump but maybe that's just me. Samantha Bee calling the first daughter the "C" word, if not crossing a line, came pretty close. I suppose she gets cut some slack because she is a woman calling another woman that word. Frankly it wouldn't bother me if either Maher or Bee lost their job for of their vulgar comments, because that decision is the discretion of their their employer. I may not like it, but it's not my network.

The fact is, if we are dismayed when a TV network chooses to hire or fire somebody, or not hire or not fire somebody, there is something we can do about it. Change the channel. If enough of us do that, believe me, the network will get the message.

On the other hand if a black man cannot walk down the street without being suspected of being a criminal simply because of the color of his skin, he cannot change the color of his skin.

Or if a woman cannot go to work with the full expectation tha she will be treated fairly, justly and with respect at all times, simply because she is a woman, she cannot change her gender.

Nobody ever said life was fair.

Given that, if you're whining this week because you think it's unfair that a network cancelled your favorite TV show because of a racist remark made by its star, I have two words for you.

Tough shit.