Friday, September 25, 2015

For Shame Scott Pelley, For Shame Erik Kirschbaum, For Shame New York Times

We have a warped sensibility when it comes to news reporting and commentary and I am not talking about some right wing or leftist news organization. I am referring to CBS News with Scott Pelley and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times as exemplified by an article submitted by Erik Kirschbaum.

On Thursday Pelley went ga-ga over Pope Francis. He devoted nearly half his broadcast to the pontiff's day in Washington, DC, and arrival in New York City. Now, I, too, am captivated by the prelate's visit. You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate the extraordinary humanity exuded by Francis and the courage he displayed in standing before many congressmen and senators who, even if they are Catholic, clearly do not agree with his positions on climate change, aid to the indigent, the need for diplomacy rather than confrontation, the end to the death penalty and acceptance of immigrants.

Pelley was obviously enthused by the papal visit, seemingly recognizing his newscast was tilted toward the bishop of Rome. He noted there were some other major stories to report and cut away from the pageantry to update viewers on two vehicle accidents that killed four people in Seattle and two in Houston. But the deaths of more than 700 Muslims in a human stampede outside Mecca in Saudi Arabia? Not a single word! Not a single word on a tragedy that also injured more than 700! Are the lives of six dead in America more important than 700 who died in minutes as they innocently tried to fulfill one of the sacred rituals of their faith?

I kept waiting for Pelley to mention the tragedy. Nothing. Not a word. For shame. For shame.

Earlier in the day I got around to reading an Op-Ed piece from Wednesday's Times. Erik  Kirschbaum noted that Americans of German descent comprise the largest national ethnic group in the country yet they rarely pronounce their heritage. He explained that reticence in historical terms, spending nine paragraphs describing how the fear of being challenged for dual loyalty during the first world war led many German-Americans to change their names or otherwise deny or subsume their teutonic background.

As for the impact of Nazi Germany and the Bund movement that was sympathetic to Hitler as possible causes of German-American antipathy to their fatherland Kirschbaum provided a mere six lines of mention. Are you kidding?

Okay, I can excuse Kirschbaum as he was trying to advance an argument. But I wonder how The Times could ignore the obvious downplay of one of the most traumatic periods in recorded civilization when a heretofore culture considered to be educated and civilized turned barbaric and inhumane. How could The Times run such an obviously incomplete commentary? For shame. For shame.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Questions For the Next Debate

I fell asleep watching the second Republican presidential debate—the main event, not the preliminary—an hour into the program. Frankly, the schoolyard taunts and tit-for-tats did not become our democracy. But I really don’t blame the candidates. No, the fault lay squarely on the shoulders and reporter’s notebook of moderator Jake Tapper of CNN whose questions were geared to bait the candidates into infantile attacks on each other rather than engage them in serious dialogue about the issues confronting our nation and the world at large. 

To be sure, some of the would-be-presidents tried to refocus the discussion, but they were could not succeed in elevating the evening into anything resembling a Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Here’s what I was hoping the candidates would be asked (in random order) so that America could better gauge their competencies and strategic visions:

*Since all said they would tear up Obamacare upon assuming office, what health coverage would they immediately provide those who are presently covered by the Affordable Care Act? Are there provisions of the ACA they would keep? What provisions would they jettison and why?

*What is their strategy for dealing with Iran in the absence of a unified international coalition? 

*What should Europe do about the refugee crisis? What should the United States do? 

*Ronald Reagan amnestied illegal aliens. Would they? If not, why wouldn’t they follow the example of Ronald Reagan?

*Reagan raised taxes. Would they, if it meant reducing the $18 trillion national debt?

*Infrastructure in our country is deteriorating. What would they do to reverse that trend so that our roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and rail systems are up to 21st century standards? How would they fund any improvements they would propose?

*What should be done about the minimum wage? Should it be increased, reduced or stay at the current level which many economists believe cannot sustain a family of four above the poverty level?

*How do they view current race relations? What steps, if any, are needed to improve them?

*Is there a need for OSHA to protect the safety of workers? The FDA to protect consumers? The SEC to protect investors? The EPA to protect the environment?

*What is their vision about the way we can improve the education of our children? Is there any role for the federal government in this process?

*In 2008, would they have signed on to the auto industry bailout?

*Given their support of Israel, what is their position vis-a-vis a two-state solution incorporating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Should it be demilitarized? Should Israel be permitted to retain strategic defense positions within the Palestinian state? 

*What role would alternative energy programs play within their administration?

*Should the federal government endorse equal pay for women? If not, why not?

*What changes to Social Security do they advocate and why?

*Should those 18 and older be required to perform some form of public service, be it in the military or some other program that benefits us all, such as the WPA programs of the New Deal?

*What specific changes to the federal tax code do they want enacted? 

*What social welfare programs would they eliminate or sharply reduce in their budgets?

I’m sure I could think of other questions, but in the interest of time and space, let’s end the list here and hope that during the next debate the moderator and other journalists asking questions will concentrate more on substance and less, much less, on style. We are, after all, looking for the next president, not the next Miss America (or in Donald Trump’s world, the next Miss Universe). 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Thoughts on Hillary, Bernie, The Donald, Pope Francis, The Yankees

Before Hillary Clinton officially declared for the presidency, whispers abounded she was too old. If elected, she would be 69, two months and 25 days old by inauguration, January 20, 2017. Ronald Reagan was 69, 11 months and 14 days old when he took office.

How do you think she feels about Bernie Sanders who is seven years her senior? Or Joe Biden who was born five years before her?

I’m still unconvinced Bernie-mania will prove viable in the long run. Fringe candidates are good for raising important issues, but it is the center that wins national elections. What we are witnessing in Iowa and New Hampshire are small states influencing the national dialogue. Hillary is suffering from diminished expectations. Everyone thought she would win the nomination in a cake walk (as they also expected of Jeb Bush). Having to fight for what she wants is a good thing. No one should consider a nomination an entitlement. 

I’m not as sanguine on the Republican side because that party is comprised of crazies who care not about the proper role of government. Several of its contenders would like to shut the government down. Others would like to subjugate the Constitution to the Bible. Benjamin Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, doesn’t believe in evolution. If he has such irreverence for science, imagine what support a Carson administration would have for scientific research and development. 

Trump almost sounds sane compared to them. By the way,  The Donald is 16 months older than Hillary.

The Christian Way?: To secure a free ticket to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia later this month one had to be swift and lucky. The 10,000 tickets allotted to the masses were scooped up in 30 seconds.

But if you really want to see the pontiff pontificate, it could cost you $500 or more to buy a “free” ticket on various Web sites. Now I ask you, is that very Christian of the sellers?

At first blush I thought not. But upon further reflection I wondered if The Holy Father’s visit might in some way be a blessing for the less fortunate who might be selling their tickets to secure food for their family or some other staple of life. Sure, some quick-buck artists might want to make a fast $500. But even if just one of the sellers is indigent Francis would have contributed, indirectly, to their benefit. 

I’d like to think positively about this one.

Bronx Cheer: I think it is time to write about the New York Yankees. They deserve a real Bronx cheer, not the euphemistic “boo” commonly associated with the phrase. Regardless of what happens in their four game series beginning Thursday night with the front running Toronto Blue Jays, it must be said the Yankees have made the summer surprisingly pleasurable.

A few weeks ago, after the Blue Jays swept the Bronx Bombers at home, I thought the team we expected to see this season—too old, too slow, too frail—had finally shown up after overachieving in the first 100 games of the year. Yet, despite injuries and the dogs days of August, the Yankees have shown true grit, refusing to play their age. They have the third best record in the American League, just 1-1/2 games behind Toronto in the AL East. 

I was a huge Derek Jeter fan. Early this season his replacement seemed lost on the field, a perfect manifestation of the leaderless Yankees. Over the summer, however, we have witnessed the transformation of Didi Gregorius from a scared, overawed replacement into a full-fledged diamond at shortstop. 

Didi has grown up before our eyes. He has made plays darting, dashing, lunging and throwing that Jeter could not make even in his prime. At bat, he has become a deft hitter to all fields. What he hasn’t done, so far, is develop Jeter’s knack for the dramatic. Jeter’s signature moments came in important games either in the post-season or against arch-rival Boston. Didi’s legend will grow if his teammates help get him to the stage. He can’t do it alone.

Yankees fans should be grateful for what we have had this season. Who would have thought we would be in  first place for the better part of the summer? Who’d have thought Mark Teixeira would enjoy an MVP season until a leg bone injury sidelined him a few weeks ago? Who would have thought Alex Rodriguez would resurrect his career? We were ready to boo him. Instead, we’ve imagined him leading us to the promised land of playoff and championship baseball.

George Steinbrenner’s children have instilled financial accountability to the team. But at a cost to attaining the goal of ultimate victory. George would never have stood pat at the trade deadline. He would have recognized the need for more starting  pitchers, for more young bats. George would not have let the Mets outshine him. 

When the season ends and free agency begins, it will be fascinating to observe what the Yankees will do. Will the team try to snatch Yoenis Cespedes from the Mets? Will they go after another slugger or a top tier pitcher or two? My guess is they will pick up two quality starting pitchers and either a power hitting third baseman or outfielder.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Harknesses Left an Enduring Legacy

Among my enduring memories from the first several decades of my life are periodic visits to see my mother at what she called her “home away from home”—the Harkness Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Mom was in Harkness more times than I care to recount. She stayed in the building dedicated to those who could afford private rooms.

The visits to Harkness were never memorable except for two instances. During an early visit, perhaps before I was 10, I peered out a window overlooking the West Side Highway. It was raining that evening. The tail lights from cars appeared like unbroken red lines extending deep into Manhattan.

The second instance occurred during the winter in the mid-1970s. Gilda and I had driven down from Connecticut, arriving after dark.

We parked on West 168th Street near Broadway. We had to walk a long block down to Ft. Washington Avenue plus a short distance to the entrance to Harkness. New York was not the safest of cities back then, particularly the Washington Heights area around Columbia-Presbyterian. I nervously looked over my shoulder every so often to check out anyone who might be following us.

As we headed west on 168th Street I spotted a bearded man in a dark pea jacket with an upturned collar walking briskly behind us. I whispered to Gilda not to be afraid. He was, I told her, one of her favorite actors—Al Pacino— still looking very much like Frank Serpico, the biopic role he played of a New York City policeman/detective who testified against departmental corruption. She didn’t believe me. We debated even as he approached us. As he passed us he asked how we were doing. I replied, “Fine, if you are who I think you are.” He said yes and scooted past as we rounded the corner onto Ft. Washington Avenue.

It took a moment for the moment to register with Gilda, but then she blurted out, “It’s Al Pacino.” She scurried after him as he entered the Harkness Pavilion. Once inside, he vanished from sight. My mother had always said celebrities stayed and visited others at the Harkness. She was right.

All those years going in and out of the Harkness Pavilion I never indulged any curiosity as to its namesake. It took one of Gilda’s many talents to fill in the blanks.

Among my bride’s numerous accomplishments is a knack for planning informative, picturesque day trips. Recently, a scenic tour took us to Waterford, CT, outside New London, to Harkness Memorial State Park (with lunch at Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock on Hamilton Street in New London where locals and out-of-towners line up to savor crustaceans of all types). But I digress, even as my mouth waters at the memory of that succulent meal.

On the grounds of the state park is Eolia, one of the seven homes Edward and Mary Harkness owned. Overlooking Long Island Sound, Eolia was their summer residence. Situated on 230 acres, the neoclassical mansion named for the island home of the Greek god of winds has 42 rooms including 20 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms and 11 fireplaces. Unlike the stately mansions of Newport, RI, Eolia presents as a very livable home.

By now you may be wondering, who were these Harknesses? Why have I not heard of them before? From where did their wealth emanate? First a little tease: In 1918, Forbes magazine ranked Edward Harkness as the sixth richest man in the United States.

His father, Stephen, for whom the Harkness Pavilion was named, was, among other vocations, a banker in Ohio. Twice he lent more than $70,000 to a fledgling businessman who suggested Stephen become his partner. Stephen demurred, not wanting to have any limelight shine on him. He agreed, however, to be a silent partner. Shunning publicity became a family hallmark.

Harkness was the company’s second largest stockholder. The enterprise? Standard Oil. The businessman? John D. Rockefeller.

Edward Harkness’ brothers died, leaving him, after his mother passed away, the sole heir to the fortune. In addition, his wife, Mary Stillman, came from a well-heeled family. Her maternal grandfather owned much of what we now call Mystic Seaport.

The Harknesses had no children. No heirs, unless you consider the citizens of America their beneficiaries, for they truly left a legacy across many philanthropic arenas.

Ever marvel at the wonders of ancient Egypt displayed inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art? You can thank Edward’s fascination with Egypt for much of the collection, including artifacts from King Tut’s tomb.

As the story goes, when Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 he was accompanied by George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose castle we now recognize as the stage for TV’s Downton Abbey. His ancestral home back then was in disrepair. To fund its renovation Herbert offered his collection of Egyptian treasures to the Met. Edward already was a benefactor of the Met’s Egyptian department, so it asked if he would pay for some of the earl’s treasures. Edward replied he would underwrite all that was offered.

Ever been to Yale? In 1930 he gave his alma mater $11 million to build nine residential colleges, this after funding eight residences for Harvard.

Founded in 1918 by his mother and later administered by Edward and Mary, the Harkness family established the Commonwealth Fund, one of the longest running, continuous foundations to improve public welfare.

I could go on but this already is a long post. With the notable exception of the Harkness Pavilion and Camp Harkness adjacent to the state park where Mary first started a retreat for children afflicted with polio and now used by special needs children, almost none of the gifts the Harknesses made (more than $2 billion in today’s dollars) bears their name. Just as they were to John D. Rockefeller, they mostly remain silent partners to us all.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the U.S., Man's Law Outweighs God's Law

Are we free to choose which man-made laws we will or will not follow?

Yes, as long as we accept the consequences of non compliance (the same may be said for God-given laws, assuming one believes in an Almighty).

As all of you probably do, I have been known to drive faster than the posted speed limit. I do so with the hope I won’t be caught by a policeman; if I am, I further hope he would be kind and lenient and not ticket me. But if he does, I must be prepared to pay a fine even if a judge reduces the violation to a charge less than speeding.

Few people like paying income taxes. But most pay what the government says they owe. Those who choose not to pay do so at the risk of prosecution even if their inaction is based on a conscientious dissent. Quakers, for example, cannot withhold taxes based on their objection to war and the government’s funding of armed conflict around the world, be it a just war or not.

Public servants like Kim Davis, the county clerk of Rowan County, KY, who has chosen jail over issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, are in unique positions. They may have to act in opposition to their personal beliefs. Policemen, for example, must honor the civil rights of protesters even if their first instinct is to bash some heads with a billie club. If they succumb to instinct they run the risk of prosecution and loss of their job.

Federal Judge David Bunning had to subsume personal beliefs on gay marriage to uphold the law as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

No one is permitted to inject their beliefs in deciding which laws may be followed without accepting the consequences of their refusal to accept laws duly upheld by the courts.

It has been argued that Kim Davis was adhering to an authority higher than the Supreme Court. She was following God’s laws. I would, at this juncture, usually cite the relevant biblical text. The Bible lists many prohibited unions in Leviticus, such as a man marrying his sister, but is silent on same-sex marriage other than to say it is an abomination for men to lie together as a man would with a woman. 

But what about a platonic relationship? If we accept that a man and woman could join in marriage without sex being a part of it, as would happen if one were paralyzed or impotent because of age or other medical condition, why could we not accept that two men or two women want to live together in a legal union without the necessity of intercourse. 

Marriage does not require a sexual act. It is a human construct that marriage must be consummated by intercourse. First night blood-on-the-marriage-bed was not decreed by God. 

Marriage, according to Isaac Klein in A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, also is “a contract between two parties of equal legal capacity, creating mutual rights and duties that terminate either with the death of one of the parties, by mutual consent, or at the insistence of one of the parties following the breach by the other of one of the warranties or fundamental conditions of the contract.” 

Gays just want the same rights accorded to straight people.

Elsewhere in Leviticus, God commanded his adherents not to eat pork. Pagans could, but not God’s followers. As a practicing Jew, Jesus would not have eaten pork. 

Seems to me lots of pork is eaten in this country. How is that? Why don’t Christians follow these words of God and other commandments, such as tithing, or leaving fields fallow every seven years, or returning property to its original owner every jubilee year, the original income redistribution plan sanctioned by God? Because men, in their infinite wisdom, chose to amend them. Or ignore them. Or reasoned they no longer applied. Or needed more modern interpretations in keeping with the values and mores of the times.

The West decries fundamentalist Islam and its Sharia law as outdated. Cut off a man’s hand for stealing? How repulsive! Stone an adulterer? How barbaric! Blow up a pagan antiquity because it blasphemes one’s idea of religion? God forbid the intolerance!!!

Which brings us to the Founding Fathers and the brilliance of their work. They devised a system wherein freedom of religion was paramount to an individual’s rights but the practice of one’s religion was never intended to infringe on the rights of others. There would be no state-sanctioned religion, no bias for or against one’s beliefs. 

Elected officials swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. They aren’t given the choice of which laws they may enforce or circumvent. They aren’t given the choice of selective adherence to the decisions of the Supreme Court. 

They can disagree. They can dissent. But they cannot reject by their actions the consequences of those decisions. So Kim Davis and all who agree with her can only bite their lips and follow the law, unless they can mount a successful constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Trump Turns US into Chumps; Not a Principled Stance in KY

Let’s be honest about Donald Trump’s appeal to too many Americans—Republicans, Independents and even some Democrats.

Some of it may be attributed to his anti-politician stance. Some to racism. or nativism.

But the bottom line to me is that too many Americans are just flat out dumb. Stupid. Too ignorant to realize they often vote against their best interests. Why else would they choose to elect candidates from a party dedicated to keeping the rich rich and making them richer at the expense of the majority, those mired in the working and middle classes?

Trump makes outrageous statements. Who among us doesn’t? But the consequences of private comments pale in comparison to the polarizing, often inaccurate and bombastic views expressed by a candidate who hopes to lead not just our country but the civilized world. 

The Donald speaks his mind, no doubt about it. His fans, I believe, care not that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. After all, they too probably couldn’t differentiate between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or know the names of leaders of different terrorist factions, as Trump failed to do on a Thursday radio show with conservative host Hugh Hewitt ( His fans just want someone to voice their frustrations with a system that does not seem to be working for them.

That alone doesn’t make them dumb or stupid or ignorant. What crosses the line for me is that they don’t see beyond the façade. His vision of leadership is that he would be able to do it all himself. As he told Hewitt at the end of their interview, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”

My head is spinning in disbelief not just at Trump but at the chumps he has made of so many of our fellow citizens.

Principled Stance? I Don’t think so: Our country was founded on several principles—that no one was above the law; that religion would not supersede government; that opportunity would be available equally to all.

What we have witnessed in Rowan County, KY, has been an elected official who tried to impose her religious beliefs on others in direct conflict with the adjudicated, constitutional law of the land. 

One may disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of same-sex marriages, but failure to adhere to its determination is a usurpation of someone else’s rights.

Kim Davis’ denial of a marriage license to gay couples because it violated her religious beliefs was not a principled defiance of an unjust law. She was not practicing freedom of religion. She was the incarnation of religious extremism no less severe than that practiced by ISIS and other Muslim reactionaries who choose to exercise religious intolerance rather than inclusion. 

Taken to the next level, Davis or some other fanatic could come up with religious beliefs that would deny rights to any class they disapproved of, such as Hispanics, Jews, Afro-Americans or Jehovah Witnesses. Her resistance to changing times and mores is personal, not to be countenanced in an elected official. 

Or by an elected official. Which leads to the more troubling reaction of some Republican presidential candidates who profess allegiance to the Constitution but apparently not if it conflicts with their views. Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and others want a government defined by Christian values as contained in the Bible. 

So tell me, if you substitute the Koran and Sharia law for the Old and New Testaments, how is that different from what ISIS wants in its mostly Muslim sphere? 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Traveling Through Budapest

How ironic!

Budapest is serving as the transit point for Middle Eastern refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other parts of the Muslim world.

How ironic that Hungary is the clearing house of humanity caught up in the savagery of war. How ironic that the human tide wants to flee to Germany (

Hungary, specifically Budapest, possesses an infamous history when it comes to exporting casualties of war. During World War II Hungary was aligned with Nazi Germany. Yet, through 1943, Jews were relatively safe within its borders. It was only after the government was replaced by a more Nazi-sympathetic regime in March 1944, after Hitler’s troops took control of the country, that mass deportations of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp began.

As per Wikipedia,  “On March 19, 1944, German troops occupied Hungary, prime minister Miklós Kállay was deposed and soon mass deportations of Jews to German death camps in occupied Poland began. SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann went to Hungary to oversee the large-scale deportations. Between 15 May and 9 July, Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” 

In all, an estimated 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered during the war. Most of the dead came from the countryside, not Budapest.

When our family visited Budapest during the summer of 2008, we learned first-hand the logistics behind the deportations. Budapest served as a way station for the doomed who were brought in from all parts of Hungary.

Budapest was a central railway hub because of the oddities of the European rail system. Located in central Europe, Budapest had two rail systems with different track gauges and separate railroad terminals across the city, one to serve passengers and freight headed west toward Poland and Germany, one for travel east toward Russia. When Jews would arrive from the eastern provinces of Hungary, they would be marched cross-town to the western-oriented station for immediate transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau. An estimated 12,000 souls were shipped out each day with the enthusiastic help of Hungarian Nazi sympathizers.

For centuries Jews had thrived inside Hungary but the country fostered deep anti-Semitic prejudices which linger unto today. It is ironic to see Arab refugees— Semites—flocking to Hungary for a chance to escape oppression. It is ironic to see them trying to reach Germany for a chance for a better, safer life.