Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A New Decade, Are You Serious?

I kid you not, until about a week ago it hadn't occurred to me that by midnight tonight we would be entering a new decade. What happened to the old one? One of the funny things about getting older is how we define time. It would have been unthinkable when I was younger that I would have overlooked such a milestone.

The decades of my youth are well defined. Starting in 1963, I can define every year of the sixties by momentous events, most of them bad.  Let's see. in '63 JFK was assassinated, in'64 The Beatles came to America, in '65, Malcolm X was assassinated, in '66 Richard Speck killed eight student nurses in Chicago, in '67 let's see, there was the the Six Day War, EXPO 67 (which we visited) and the Detroit Riots (the aftermath of which we drove through en route to EXPO). In '68 whoa, there was the Tet Offensive, MLK, the riots in Chicago, RFK, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the notorious Democratic National Convention and Nixon becoming president. In '69 there was the moon landing, Woodstock, and Fred Hampton's assassination by the Chicago Police to cap off the decade.

Wow, those glorious sixties!

Everybody breathed a sigh of relief fifty years ago today when that turbulent decade was about to come to an end. I had just gotten a Super 8 Movie camera and projector for Christmas and my first project was to film the New Years Eve party my parents threw in their basement. I captured the TV screen (black and white of course) on film as the clock struck midnight and the caption read "Happy 1970!" My other distinct memory of that night was burning a hole in my father's shirt with my hot halogen movie light. I don't know if the film I made exists today but boy I'd sure love to get my hands on it if it did.

I don't remember the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1980 but that year will always be remembered for one event, the death of John Lennon on December 8th, the moment my childhood officially ended. Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of that event. Oh my God.

We define decades by all sorts of things, fashion, hair and car styles, politics, sports, news events, you name it. Most profoundly we define them by the people who come into our lives. The important ones may come and go physically but they never leave you.  My dear friend Scott, who just reminded me of all the splendid New Years Eve celebrations we spent together, (I joked with him that I was so drunk I could only remember the mornings after but that couldn't be farther from the truth), has an extraordinary talent. Well actually he has many and this is perhaps the most trivial of them. He can hear a song released within at least a span of thirty or more years starting in oh lets say 1963, and immediately tell you the year and possibly the month it was released. I have similar talent only greatly limited to a window of about four or five years worth of songs. Generally speaking though I can probably pinpoint a song to within about a half decade of its release for a good number of popular songs of the late twentieth century.

I don't know about Scott, but for me, I couldn't even come close for any song released after the year 2000, the last momentous New Years celebration I can remember. Perhaps it was because I had just turned forty and middle age was setting in. Much more likely it was because hands down the most momentous event of my life was about to take place, the birth of our first child. More than anything these past two decades, this century and for that matter this millennium for me have been defined by the lives of my children. Now, rather than placing an event as having taken place in such and such a year, my wife and I define events by how old our kids were at the time.

Fortunately for me, I now have the archives of this blog to help me keep track of the years since it was created, almost eleven years ago. I'm somewhat of an obsessive person when it comes to my passions and when a new passion comes along, it tends to push aside the previous one. So when I started writing in this space, I had no idea how long I'd be able to keep it going, I figured in all honesty I'd be happy if it lasted a year or two. But I also have an almost superstitious compulsion not to break a streak once it gets going. I attribute my current hip problems to my daily obsession with running about twenty five years ago. It became so out-of-hand that even if I got home after midnight, (I was a bachelor at the time), I would still have to put in my 3.5 miles before going to bed. I actually had to force myself to break that obsession as it was seriously interfering with my life and my health.

In that same vein, this year I made the conscious decision to cut back on the number of posts in this blog to two a month. As I'm a painfully slow writer, it was cutting into time I needed to spend doing other things. Yet I'm very proud of the nearly eleven years of posts on this blog and as a New Years resolution of sorts, I plan to keep on keeping on with it, by posting at least twice per month, as that has been the minimum number of monthly posts for the blog's entire life in this space.

I was never big into New Years resolutions until recently. Another tradition I've only recently picked up was making the proverbial "bucket list." A few months ago my son and I were walking together when we overheard a ten year old boy say to his dad that such and such was on his bucket list. That made me laugh as a ten year old God willing has a whole lifetime to pursue all sorts of dreams. On the other hand, life goes fast and before you know it you begin to realize you have more yesterdays than tomorrows. That's usually when most people start making lists of things they'd like to do before they "kick the bucket."

One of my biggest frustrations is that despite having studied several languages, I never learned how to properly communicate in any of them. So top on my bucket list is to finish what I started and properly learn Spanish, Czech and German (in that order) and to get to at least an intermediate conversational level in all the three. I chose Spanish first as that is the language in which I have the most competency. It's a tall order I know, and I may never get there but in the past two thirds of a year, I've learned enough Spanish to be able to read newspapers, getting the gist of most of the articles if missing some of the subtleties, and can carry on a basic conversation with native speakers who have patience with me.

Say what you will about social media, but there are now a ridiculous number of resources out there absolutely free of charge in which to learn a language. I recently joined a Facebook group run by one of my favorite Spanish teachers on You Tube. Within a week or two I was having a conversation in Spanish with a Japanese woman who was writing about a magical place in her country that I had visited over twenty years ago.

Now those of you who are bi-or multilingual may take something like this for granted but for me at my age, to for the first time have an exchange with a total stranger half way across the world about a very special place for both of us in a foreign language to us both, well to put it simply, words can't describe the thrill for me.

"Vale...", as mi profesor de español would say: "me enrollo otro vez" (I'm rambling again).

Perhaps another resolution might be to not ramble so much.

ANYWAY, with that I wish you all a very feliz nový Jahr.

Peace, joy, heath, hope and love to you all.

¡Nos vemos!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Agree to Disagree?

Recently I did something to an old friend that I swore I would not do, I de-friended him on Facebook. My friend has come up before in this space. Writing that I valued a free exchange of opinions, especially ones that differed from my own, I noted how our arguments over social media gave me insight into another point of view and helped shape my own opinions. A slightly less charitable take on him was that his faithful representation of the opinions of ultra-right wing celebrities such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh meant that I never had to:
watch or listen to those mouthpieces of the (current) administration, (as) both of them give me a bad case of indigestion.
So what changed? Well as best as I can describe it, we were at an impasse because he and I were clearly talking from two alternate universes, consequently each of us refused to accept the stated "facts" of the other universe , not opinions mind you, but facts.

In the past three years I've asked myself time and again what actually constitutes a fact and how are we to know what separates a fact from an opinion. This is what inspired my recent post about people who believe the earth is flat. Going against common sense and literally thousands of years worth of thought, scientific inquiry, and physical evidence, there are people today, granted not a lot of them, who cling to the belief that our world is flat. As I pointed out in that post, questioning our deepest held beliefs and assumptions is actually a good thing because it forces us to do something that a growing number of our fellow travelers on this planet these days are loathe to do, think.

So that's what I did in the post, spent a few hours thinking about how we actually know, not simply believe that the earth is not only a sphere, but also is not the center of the universe as that flat-earthers believe. And I didn't take the easy way out by saying "look at the photographs" as I don't have a good answer to the flat-earther contention that the photographs made from space definitively showing a spherical earth might have been faked.

Anyway, drawing upon three millennia's worth of thought and evidence from several different cultures, I believe that I presented an air-tight argument in defense of the earth being round and circling the sun. Of course none of what I presented was original, inquiring minds just need to do what I did, draw upon their own knowledge of history and science and fill in the gaps by looking the rest up either on-line, or heaven forbid, in books. The evidence is all there plain as day.

Yet the flat-earthers, as other like-minded contrarians who have a penchant for conspiracy theories, claim that what most people take to be common knowledge is merely a theory, an opinion which can be debated. Now I'm all for debate obviously, but the problem with the modus operandi of most conspiracy theorists, is that they gladly accept evidence that supports their beliefs, and simply ignore evidence that does not. It's pretty hard to debate someone who has a very fluid notion of what constitutes a fact.

So how does this relate to my friend and the roughly 63 million Americans who think as he does? I'll give you two examples. Our last exchange was about the impeachment of the current president. He told me, as the president told anybody willing to listen, to "read the transcript" of the call the US president made with the newly elected president of Ukraine. My friend's contention was that those looking to impeach this president were simply making up the charges that he was abusing his power by twisting the arm of a foreign leader to interfere in the upcoming presidential election by conducting an investigation into his chief rival, Joe Biden. . "In the transcript you will find..." said my friend, "...no mention of Biden," He added that all the US president was concerned about was "the rampant corruption in Ukraine."

So I read the transcript (for the second time) which my friend apparently did not. Not only is Biden mentioned by name in the highly redacted version released by the White House,, but neither the phrase "corruption in Ukraine" nor in fact the word "corruption" are mentioned at all. When I pointed this out to my friend, he changed the subject and brought up something about Barack Obama.

But the straw that broke the camel's back for me was my friend's perpetual insistence that like everyone who does not support this president, my unfounded disdain for him stems from the fact that I am simply angry that he beat Hillary Clinton in the last election. This is the view concocted by Hannity, Limbaugh and others which has been a recurrent theme among supporters of this president who claim that opposition to him is unjustified because it is fraught with extreme political bias, and nothing else.

Now it's true that I voted for Clinton in the last election because I felt then as I still do, that she was infinitely more qualified for the job than the man who was clearly the most stupefyingly unqualified presidential candidate in this nation's 243 year history. OK that may be my opinion but I have plenty of evidence to back it up.

Yet I have left a paper trail, or more accurately a pixel trail of the fact that I have no love lost for the Clintons, Bill or Hillary. The fact is, (yes fact) that I would have voted for virtually anyone against this president, even if push came to shove, any of his challengers in the incredibly weak field of candidates running against him in the 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination.

That said, after the November, 2016 election, mortified as I was that he won, I was still willing to give him a chance as I figured, as many Americans did at the time, that he couldn't possibly govern this country with as much malice and hatred as he ran his campaign.

Well it turns out he is running his government much worse than his campaign. This is also my opinion but merely mentioning place names such as the US/Mexico border, Charlottesville, Helsinki, and most recently Syria, would indicate that I also have plenty to back up that opinion as well. In fact I believe the actions for which he has been impeached do not rank anywhere near the top of the most grievous acts committed by this president.

So no, I am not basing my opinion of this president on the mere fact that he won the last election.

Yet according to my friend, I am wrong about this. According to him, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and he all know more "facts" about me than I do.

Now I may not know much, but I do know the sky being blue on sunny days, Chicago usually getting cold in winter, and the earth being round are facts, not opinions. And I also know beyond a reasonable doubt that I know more about myself than Hannity, Limbaugh and my former Facebook friend.

It is this rejection of facts and the willingness to change the narrative at one's convenience that has me the most worried about the future of our democracy. The current narrative coming from this administration and eaten up by its base is that the real enemy of our nation is not our foreign adversaries, not even radical groups bent on our destruction, but the free press and fellow Americans who happen to disagree with their agenda. And it very much appears that the administration and the Republicans currently in Congress who appear to live in constant fear of this president and his base, will let nothing get in their way of defeating this enemy, not facts, nor the law.

A recent article in The Atlantic evoking the ideals of Vaclav Havel as an antidote for the current political morass we find ourselves in, inspired me to dig this tribute to him I wrote back in 2011 out of the mothballs. As I wrote in that piece, the government of Czechoslovakia after the so called Prague Spring of 1968, was held in place largely through the propagation of fear and lies.

Many have made credible comparisons of the rise of the current US administration to that of the totalitarian regime in Germany in the 1930s. One big difference I see is that this administration, at least the man at the top of it, seems to have no vision for this country other than augmenting his own power and personal wealth. Perhaps a more fitting comparison can be made with the totalitarian regime of Czechoslovakia after 1968. That government, still very much under the thumb of Moscow (sound familiar?) until 1989, had one and only one agenda, self preservation. And one of the chief casualties there at that time beyond basic human rights, were facts, especially inconvenient ones. We're not quite there yet, but eight years ago I thought I was writing about the distant past. Little did I know.

I had an epiphany of sorts a few weeks ago. It may sound like my own conspiracy theory, the difference is, if the facts prove me wrong, I'll be deeply grateful to reject it. The theory goes like this:

An indisputable fact that everyone agrees upon is that in about a generation, white people will no longer be in the majority of this country. It is apparent  that the aspect of a majority-minority country is terribly un-appealing to many Americans who feel their hegemony over the government of the US will come to an end.

The election of Barack Obama, this nation's first African American president, his successful re-election, and his (given the circumstances of having to face a completely intransigent Republican led Congress) relatively productive, scandal free eight year administration, was a clarion call to action for many people in this country. This is not to say the Obama administration was perfect, there were many causes to criticize it from both the Left and the Right. But in that sense it was no different from any previous administration, and it is difficult to imagine the drastic swing of the pendulum that resulted with the 2016 election as being a result of merely policy issues or even ideology.

To many white people, oh I’d say about 63 million or so. given the choice between giving up their hegemony, or giving up our democracy and the basic values that are deeply held in this country exemplified in this nation's motto: E pluribus unim (out of many, one), they would give up the latter in a heartbeat.

The idea that they would prefer a thoroughly corrupt white president and a Republican led Congress willing to ignore facts and the law to protect him, over an African American president who by all indications is a man of integrity, is very telling. This is the message that supporters of this president are sending out loud and clear.

That's my conspiracy theory, go ahead, prove me wrong. I hope you can, but I doubt it.

When I told my friend goodbye, he asked me if we couldn't just agree to disagree on our political differences. I told him there are plenty of things rational people can disagree upon, policy issues like the economy, immigration, restrictions or lack thereof on business in terms of emissions, or trade practices, abortion rights or even really important stuff like who's better the Beatles or the Stones. These are all beliefs and opinions that have no definite answer.

But I draw the line at rejecting irrefutable facts, the rule of law, ethics, morality and common decency. No, climate change, is not simply a theory or opinion, any more than evolution, relativity, or a round earth. No, it is NOT legal for a president to attempt to extort a foreign leader to interfere on his or anybody's behalf in our election. No it is NOT ethical for a president to place the interest of his own business above the interests and national security of his country as he clearly did in Syria by abandoning our allies the Kurds in the fight against ISIS at the behest of the dictator of Turkey in return for his favors regarding the president's hotel in Istanbul. No it is NOT right for the president to intentionally divide this country along racial and ethnic lines for the sole purpose of bolstering support of his mostly all white base. And where in hell did anybody get the idea that it was morally acceptable to separate children from their parents at the border, then house them in conditions that no one would stand for had they been dogs or cats?

I'm sorry but these are ethical and moral issues that I can't agree to disagree upon. As someone recently said, this is not an issue between Right and Left, it is an issue between right and wrong.

The term "existential crisis" has been bandied about so much recently that it has become a cliche. Yet I cannot think of a better term to describe the situation we are going through at the current moment. I truly believe that this president and the politicians who support him, are not committed to preserve, protect and defend the US Constitution, at least not the parts of it that get in their way.  This is not something unheard of in the annals of politics. What worries me are the millions of Americans who gleefully support this mob of miscreants.

For that reason I can no longer support them by listening to the lies, abject hatred and disdain for virtually everything I value about this country, that they help propagate.

That's why sadly, I had to say goodbye to my old friend.