Thursday, June 29, 2017

From Worst Cabinet Secretaries to Monuments Supporting Upholders of Slavery

Did you see results of the unscientific poll as to whom is the worst member of Donald Trump’s cabinet?

As reported by Gail Collins in The New York Times last week, the “winner” was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ( 

I disagree. For me, it is a three-way tie.  

Cabinet picks are both political and enabling choices. A president selects people who supported his election and who are willing to carry out his agenda, especially if it parallels their own. 

So Betsy DeVos was a perfect choice by Trump as secretary of education. However, she is not his worst pick as she is doing exactly what she has always professed to believe. As is Scott Pruitt at EPA. 

The winners, yes winners, for worst cabinet members are Rex Tillerson at State, James Mattis at Defense and Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the first two because they have subjugated the best interests of the United States to their loyalty to an incompetent leader set on a course of destroying the credibility and standing of America throughout the world, and the third for not realizing his obligation is to be the chief legal officer of the country and defender of the Constitution and not to be the servant of a president with little or no allegiance to rights won through years of sacrifice both at home and abroad.

Tillerson, Mattis and Sessions are the true enablers of the Trump presidency. 

Trumped by Spellchecker: Having railed against spelling mistakes generated by an over-reliance on Spellchecker and a lack of proofreading context, I was hoisted on my own petard the other day. 

Spellchecker didn’t catch that I misspelled “countermand” when stating nobody is able to overrule a president’s nuclear strike order. I had written “counterman,” not countermand. 

No one advised me of my mistake except my brother who wrote, “As they say in the old country, please don’t countermand the counterman. He knows what you want to eat.”  

For me at the deli it’s usually a tongue sandwich on seeded rye with a side of cole slaw and french fries or potato knish. Washed down with either a Diet Coke or diet Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. 

Right now I’m eating crow.

Spellchecker isn’t the only application that’s done me wrong lately. My British friend Dave Banks sent me a note, meaning to end it with a “Thanks, Mur.” When I received the email it read, “Thanks, Murban.” 

Asked, “Where the heck did Murban come from?,” Dave replied, 

“I wrote MUR!
“I hate predictive text!!!”

So do I.

In case you’re wondering, murban is a term for a man’s turban ( Or it could refer to the Murban Bab Oil Field 84 kilometers northwest of Abu Dhabi Islands. 

Frosted Glasses: Another one of my early adulthood touchstones has disappeared. 

The last Lum’s restaurant, a freestanding unit in Bellevue Nebraska, outside Omaha, closed May 28 (if you’re wondering how I found out about the closing, Gilda read an article in the Omaha World-Herald. She reads it every day. It’s her way of staying current with what’s going on where Ellie, Donny and CJ live. Here’s the article that Gilda uncovered in The World-Herald: It’s an interesting story about paying back a long-term debt.). 

It was in a Lum’s on Route 5 in Dewitt, east of Syracuse, NY, in 1971-72 that I learned to love beer served in a frosted goblet. I would go there with Steve Kreinberg, a fellow graduate student at the Newhouse School of Public Communications of Syracuse University. 

Lum’s was a chain of family restaurants whose signature dish was hot dogs cooked in beer. I preferred their basket of fried shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce, but what made a visit to Lum’s special was the frosted mugs used to serve the beer. To commemorate those days I keep a few tall glasses frosting away in the freezer. Here’s more on the history of Lum’s:

Monuments to an Infamous Past: During the Civil War, 11 states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy in defense of slavery. The South has many monuments to “the cause.” Richmond, VA, is the latest city considering removing Civil War monuments from positions of prominence.

Sounds reassuring. So how do you explain that, according to USA Today, there are between “700 and possibly more than 1,000 Confederate monuments in 31 states—in public parks, courthouse squares and state capitols”?

Many, said USA Today, “were created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was advancing the spurious idea that the South left the Union and fought the Civil War over states’ rights, not slavery.” (

Those 20 non Confederate locations include Union states, such as “Massachusetts, Iowa and Pennsylvania and states that in 1861 were mere territories, such as Montana, Arizona and Oklahoma.”

North Carolina, once considered a template for a New South of tolerance and equality, has added 35 monuments since 2000, according to a University of North Carolina survey, USA Today reported. 

We have a long way to go as a country when we still venerate soldiers who fought to keep fellow human beings as slaves. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Sad Movement Toward Theocracies

Two of the countries I most care about—The United States and Israel—are creeping toward becoming theocracies with conservative, repressive, anti-egalitarian laws more in concert with rigid Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Depression hardly describes my mental response to this dual tragedy. I’ll repeat a statement I made February 16 in a previous blog: “A nation cannot claim democratic values while denying rights to those within its areas of jurisdiction.” That statement was written about Israel’s protracted Palestinian problem. (Read the previous posting for my earlier thoughts: But it applies to the current crisis as well.

Sunday, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s government reneged on an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It capitulated to extremism from right wing, ultra Orthodox members of his coalition, thus challenging the Jewish legitimacy of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular and unaffiliated Jews throughout Israel and the Diaspora. Even Orthodox Jews not recognized by the Haredi ultra Orthodox would have their standing and actions questioned. (

Reaction has been swift and negative from the affected groups. It threatens to undermine support for Israel (

In Israel’s multi-party parliament, the Knesset, religious parties have long held power disproportionate to their size because they often are the linchpin of a majority government. When the continuation of his coalition has been threatened by the demands of religious parties, Netanyahu has been willing to forsake basic rights a majority of Israelis should possess. Even after Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled against the religious right, Netanyahu has supported overturning court decisions (yes, the Knesset can do that in Israel) to preserve his hold on the prime minister’s office.

The religious right’s outsized influence on Israeli life—control over officially recognized marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and transportation—originated at the start of the state in 1948. 

The secular leaning David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, ceded religious authority to the chief rabbinate. Today’s ultra Orthodox rabbinate is far different than its predecessors. It is now backed by religious political parties whose values are not shared by most Jews in Israel and around the world. 

Here in the United States, extremist views threaten to undercut equality and civil rights. The Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear a case from Colorado. A baker is appealing a decision that faulted him for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. He claimed providing the cake would violate his religious beliefs.

The danger of the baker’s winning a judgment from the Supreme Court is that it could open the door to more discrimination based on religious grounds. Could other businesses or organizations claim their religions prohibited them from serving non caucasians, or non Christians? Once one group is legally excluded from equal service or opportunity, it is a slippery slope toward permitting discrimination based on “religious values.”

Donald Trump is rewarding evangelicals for their support of his candidacy and now his presidency. He wants to do away with a rule that prohibits tax-exempt entities from engaging in political campaigns or endorsing candidates from the pulpit. It would make it easier for other religious groups, as well, to advance their chosen candidates. Hasidic sects, for example, often vote as one in cult-like fashion for the politician favored by their rebbes. 

As the debate over the repeal and replacement of Obamacare reaches a crescendo this week, it is noteworthy to recall that earlier this year Jerry Falwell Jr., the evangelical president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, praised Trump for trying to get rid of Obamacare. 

One wonders how Falwell could be considered a good man of faith for siding with regressive government over alleviating the suffering of the poor and afflicted? How could any religious person fail to support universal health care or the closest program we have to it? How can they reconcile what god or Jesus instructed about compassion for and aid to the needy (the ultimate objective of Obamacare) with their opposition to a government mandate? Are they willing to support legislation that would strip more than 20 million people of health care coverage thereby inevitably leading to unnecessary poverty and deaths? 


Friday, June 23, 2017

Retailing in the Age of Amazon Will Not be Devoid of Human Contact

By now you probably heard or read about Amazon’s pending purchase of Whole Foods Markets, what business analysts are projecting as the tipping point in a retail revolution that may well transform consumer transactions into experiences almost devoid of human interaction. With your smart phone you will be able to circumvent dealing with store personnel, they say, resulting in massive layoffs of workers at the lowest rung of the labor force, many who are unskilled, or elderly, or handicapped, or immigrants with tenuous English language skills, or combinations of the above (

Analysts point to the the example of Amazon Go, an experimental store for its Seattle employees. Customers scan their phones upon entering, sensors remotely monitor what they put into their shopping baskets, and exit without the need to stop at a checkout stand and interact with a cashier for their purchases to be charged to their accounts.  

It reminds me of a technology I witnessed back in 1990 at my first EuroShop exhibition of store equipment and technology in Dusseldorf, Germany. A shopping cart haphazardly loaded with products was wheeled through a box the size of a compact refrigerator. Presto, all the items were scanned and ready to be taken home by the customer. So here we are more than a quarter of a century later, nowhere near the promise of yesterday, much like the flying cars we expected to be riding had we believed the future as portrayed in color newspaper inserts of the 1950s and 1960s. Heck, we haven’t even been able to create the flying hover board Marty McFly rode in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II set in 2015. Our earthbound hover boards are fire hazards.

But I digress. The point is, despite Moore’s Law and its corollaries to the rapid adoption of technologies, we are decades away from widespread implementation of Amazon’s futurescan. For several reasons.

Not everyone who enters a store buys something. Not everyone wants their whereabouts and their identities known and cached in some unknown database à la Minority Report. Civil libertarians would have a field day if such technology becomes ubiquitous, implemented without the authorized consent of the public.

Perhaps most socially and culturally relevant, eliminating the human factor in retailing would exacerbate the bifurcation of society already underway. While smart phones are ubiquitous in most neighborhoods, checking accounts and credit/debit cards are not. 

Three times a week I drive into Manhattan along Fifth Avenue, from 142nd Street in Harlem to 98th Street, one of the tonier sections of New York. From 110 Street, where Central Park begins, to 98th Street, Fresh Direct trucks double park as drivers deliver groceries to the wealthy. Above Central Park, over nearly three years I have yet to see a Fresh Direct truck servicing the population.

When visiting a supermarket, I opt for self-scanning in Stop & Shop. Except, not all Stop & Shops in my sphere of buying offer self-scanning. Stores in less desirable neighborhoods do not. Hmmm. I don’t really need to wonder why.

At upscale stores, such as Trader Joe’s, where friendly, knowledgeable service, along with exclusive products, are differentiators, I cannot foresee management abandoning their unique service proposition. 

Stacy Torres, an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, provides real-life examples of why robots replacing humans has its drawbacks as long as we remain social animals:

The most dynamic growth retailers are deep discounters in food and general merchandise. While Trader Joe’s concentrates on the upscale market, its sister company, Aldi, aims low. It is a German-based no-frills, generic low-priced grocer sweeping across our country. So is Lidl, another German discount grocer with aggressive U.S. expansion plans.

Dollar stores, among them Dollar General and Dollar Tree, though the former is not a true dollar store purveyor as its price points are not restricted to 100 pennies, are the growth vehicles of challenged America. They serve a class of customer that will always be handled by store personnel.

Just imagine going into a Home Depot or Lowe’s. Not that it’s easy to find someone to help you right now, but it is doubtful they will do away with sales floor assistance. Cashiers? Sure, they’ve already eliminated many. But don’t expect to be walking into cavernous buildings barren of staff. The same can be said for electronics stores.

For sure, apparel and department stores are prime candidates for downsized labor costs as long as technology inhibits five-finger discounting from destroying a retailer’s bottom line. Consumer affinity for off-price apparel stores amply demonstrates that help is not necessary on the selling floor. Even Macy’s is now finally embarking on a Backstage off-price concept in an attempt to prolong its corporate lifespan, having let Nordstrom Rack and Saks’ Off Fifth enter the battle with Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and Ross Stores decades ago. 

It has been noted that even as store-based personnel are vanishing the number of warehouse staff is multiplying. Amazon, if not already there, is the number one apparel retailer, with all sales coming from its warehouses or those of its vendors. The reduction of apparel outlets will continue. 

Some retail innovations take years, even decades, to catch on. Thirty-six years ago a retail industry guru named Alton F. Doody decided he had preached enough. During his illustrious career he had counseled such groundbreaking retailers as Walmart and Target, but now he wanted to test an idea for a store of the future: Investment Clothiers. It was a concept where men and women could try on samples of suits, jackets and pants, then leave empty-handed with the knowledge that their selection would be pulled from a warehouse and ready for pickup or delivery the next day. 

Doody chose Cleveland, where I interviewed him, as one of his test markets. Cleveland, after all, was a very corporate city back then. Lots of men and women needed affordable business wear. Alas, the experiment failed.

Doody was decades ahead of his time judging by the positive results enjoyed by Bonobos, a menswear retailer just purchased by Walmart. Begun as an Internet retailer, Bonobos has opened dozens of stores where goods are showcased, customers are measured and fitted, but product is shipped at a later date.

If you’re old enough you might remember a hot concept of the late 1970s and early 1980s—the catalog showroom. Sales from companies like Service Merchandise, Best Products and Luria’s ranked among the top 100 retailers. They displayed hard goods in showrooms, fulfilling customer desires on the spot from extensive behind-the-wall warehouses. 

Okay, sometimes, often actually during high traffic periods, the wait for your purchase to be pulled off the back room shelves was exasperatingly long. And small showrooms meant fewer model options could be offered compared to those available at a traditional discount store. So it was not surprising the catalog showroom concept disappeared when Walmarts and Targets, not to mention Kmarts, appeared at virtually every crossroad. 

What all this means is retailing is among the most evolutionary of enterprises. As The New York Times related in two articles on April 15 ( and, retailing is evolving faster than perhaps in any previous time. It is too early to seriously consider mass retailing on a robotic scale, but there surely will come a time when a segment, too soon to say how small or large, will accept automated, non human service. I just don’t see its widespread implementation during my transactional lifetime.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Let's Hope Trump's Trigger Finger Isn't Itchy

I spent a chilling 45 minutes Wednesday afternoon listening to the author of Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die be interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air.

Garrett Graff’s book fills in the details on what most of us have taken for granted, namely, that in the event of a nuclear holocaust a few chosen elites from government and business will be whisked to impregnable fortresses  to survive and keep our country functioning with, for example, a stash of $2 billion, mostly in $2 bills the public rejected when re-introduced back in 1976 but will have little choice but to use in the absence of most other legal tender. The Federal Reserve, Graff reports, estimates it would take about 18 months to produce more currency.

Sounds funny but it’s a deadly serious book. Here’s the part that really shook me to the bone: According to Graff, there is no one who stands between a president and an order to launch a nuclear strike. No secretary of state or secretary of defense, no chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. No one is needed to validate, confirm, authorize an order. No one can counterman it.

It is not like in the movies. The “nuclear football” carried by a military aide is always near the president. “Contrary to pop culture or public perception, there is no such thing as the red phone or the nuclear button,” said Graff. “What the nuclear football entails is basically a bunch of binders with different plans. One military aide compared it to a Denny’s menu. You can go through and point at different pictures and that’s the type of nuclear war you would order.” 

When asked why and when safeguards from a would-be mad-bombing president were stripped from the protocol, Graff said, “The way that these procedures have evolved over the years is to remove any middlemen that could slow the process down, because the decision-making window would be so short as it is. The president might only have 8 to 10 to 12 minutes to make a decision about launching a nuclear weapon. There wouldn’t be any time to double check with someone else, so we have very carefully crafted a system that ensures that there’s nothing that slows down a presidential launch order. 

“Those plans were always predicated upon the idea that the person giving the launch order is the most thoughtful, most intelligent, most sober-minded individual that you could possibly imagine atop the nuclear command and control system.”

Not once did Donald Trump’s name get mentioned. But the more than 240-pound orangutan in the room could not have been far away from any listener’s thoughts. 

Located in Waynesboro, PA, not far from Camp David, Raven Rock is but one of many havens hollowed out of mountains. Some 5,000 “lucky” personnel would be assigned sanctuary there. 

I’m not sure how comforting it might be to you, but Graff said even after Doomsday the IRS would continue to collect taxes. How would it know from whom to collect? Apparently the Postal Service would be charged with compiling lists of who died and who survived.

For those who would like to hear the Fresh Air interview, including the ability of a president to declare a state of emergency that would suspend many rights and permit the state to incarcerate anyone the president judges to be a dissident, here’s a link:

Friday, June 16, 2017

Keeping Up With Trump and Other Dangers to the Republic

The president is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice, but like watching a duck swim serenely on a pond, there’s a whole lot of action—in Washington—going on under the surface, much of it hazardous to the progressive state of the last 80 years.

Last week Politico initiated a new feature: “5 things Trump did while you weren’t looking.” It is difficult, depressing, but required reading, for it goes beyond the orange-topped menace. Trump or Mike Pence or any Republican in the Oval Office would be doing much the same.

Here are links to the articles for first two weeks: 

 If you’re not already reading Politico, this series is a good reason to begin.

If you’re not already too bummed out, spend 35 minutes listening to Nancy MacLean tell Leonard Lopate of WNYC about the origin of the conservative movement’s plan to deconstruct government. MacLean is the William Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Here’s the link:

A Breadth of Fresh Air: I listened Thursday to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interview former vice president Joe Biden. It was refreshing to hear a reasoned discussion absent of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement. It got me wondering if we have become enmeshed in an era when intelligent, civil dialogue no longer is expected or the norm. 

Let me not give a wrong impression—neither Gross nor Biden hid their disapproval of Donald Trump. But they did so in articulate, non abusive language and discourse, so different from what so often passes for acceptable practice on talk shows and during public forums.

If you have 40 minutes, do yourself and the country a favor by listening to their discussion: 

Talk To Me: Whenever the subject of talking to oneself comes up I volunteer that I do. I talk to myself, I say, whenever I want good conversation.

Now that The New York Times has published results of studies showing the benefits of talking to oneself (, I guess we can expect more public displays of private patter.

For some 20 years or more we have seen lots of people babbling as they walked. General reaction at first was that more crazy people were walking among us. It was as if Elwood P. Dowd had developed the procreative trait of his friend, Harvey, the 6’ 3½” rabbit invisible to all but Dowd ( Only upon closer inspection did we come to realize cellular phone technology was at play.

Of course that meant it was harder to pick out the actual crazy people talking to themselves as they ambled among us.

For all the benefits of talking to oneself noted in the studies perhaps the perils of internal conversation can best be observed from the public admission of our fearless but scare-inducing talker-in-chief. In his famous or infamous interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump made the following admission about his reason for firing FBI director James Comey:

“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

And that’s how we have arrived at the point where Comey went before a Senate committee to say before the American public and the world, with klieg lights shining and cameras rolling, the president of the United States is a liar.

Many of us may have thought it but few if any would have had the courage and the character to say it in so public a forum.

Many of you might also have thought Trump is an idiot. In case you missed it, here’s an Op-Ed piece that explains the origin of the word “idiot” and how it might be conferred upon our fretful leader:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Beauregard Sessions Cares More for His Honor Than for Info on Russian Election Interference

The news business being what it is, the attempted assassination of Republican congressmen Wednesday morning in Alexandria, VA, pre-empted the horrific, deadly London apartment house fire as the lead story throughout the day. Both events co-opted our attention from the more important ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the Trump administration’s seeming lack of interest in safeguarding our national heritage.

Perhaps the most damning piece of testimony from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee was his admission that he knows nothing more about Russian activity “than what he has read in the (news)paper.”

Asked by Senator Angus King (I-Maine) asked if he believed Russians interfered with the election, Sessions said, “It appears so. The intelligence community seems to be united in that. But I have to tell you, Senator King, I know nothing but what I’ve read in the paper. I’ve never received any detailed briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign.”

Sessions went on to acknowledge he never asked for or attended a briefing from the intelligence community or read a report of their findings. 

Is it possible that our standards for public officials have dropped so low that our top law enforcement officer cares not a whit about actions that could destroy our democratic ideals? And that Trumpettes, masquerading as U.S. senators, coddling favor with their egotistical, autocratic chief, do not show any inkling of consternation or anxiety about the assault on our most cherished right as citizens?

His voice dripping with righteous indignation, Sessions defended his honor against any suggestion he colluded with Russians or knew of any such activity by Trump campaign associates. If dueling were legal, you could easily picture Beauregard—that really is his middle name,  his full name being Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III— slapping the side of Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) face with his glove and demanding satisfaction for his persistent, some might say impolite and impolitic, questioning. 

Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) had hoped his colleagues “would focus their questions today on the Russia investigation,” but he might have been equally well-advised to ask Sessions to be similarly focused, as the attorney general revealed little interest in uncovering the veracity of Russian interference in the 2016 elections or even the widely reported contacts by campaign officials with Russians. That incredulous position prompted comedian Stephen Colbert to say Tuesday night Sessions “really seems to know nothing, which explains why he was the first senator to endorse Trump.”

As political theater the hearing provided some fireworks and little by way of information as Sessions invoked a premature claim of executive privilege on behalf of Trump, an odd practice as executive privilege, which can only be invoked by a president, usually must be cited prior to testimony before Congress. As Trump did not make such a claim, Sessions refused to answer questions just in case Trump would at a later date seek executive privilege. 

What the hearing did provide, however, was the complicity of Republican senators in the administration’s efforts to reject the validity of the allegations that the Trump campaign had contacts with Russians and that former FBI director James Comey was fired because he aggressively pursued an investigation into such activity. GOP senators failed to seek the reasons behind Comey’s dismissal, why Sessions would not answer questions about conversations with Trump, and why he had not immersed himself in the details of the intelligence reports.

The hearing also provided another example of Republican antipathy toward female senators, particularly if they are Democrats. For the second time in a week Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was interrupted, admonished, during her questioning of a witness. Earlier this year Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was cut off on the Senate floor when she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King. And let’s not forget that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) chose a group of 13 men–not one woman—to draw up a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Six Day War Memories 50 Years Later

Where were you 50 years ago today, June 5, 1967? 

A freshman at Brooklyn College, my normal routine was to drive from my parents’ home to school and plant myself at the Knight House table in the cafeteria in the basement of Boylan Hall. There I’d sit for the better part of the next six to eight hours, schmoozing with friends, only occasionally vacating my seat to attend class.

Around 10 that morning, word started to trickle in that war had broken out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This was not the era of instant worldwide communications, of CNN or cell phones, of 24-hour news cycles. Israel controlled the dissemination of news from its territory. In those first, terrifying, stomach-churning hours, the only reports we heard were those coming from Egypt, communiqués about Arab troops advancing on Tel Aviv, of Zionists falling in a jihad of epic proportions.

The 1967 crisis in the Middle East had been building for months. Egypt expelled United Nations peacekeepers who guarded the Sinai border with Israel. It closed the Straits of Tiran to ships bound for Eilat. A blockade is considered an act of war. Arab countries vowed to drive Israelis into the sea, to dismember the Jewish state. 

Jews the world over feared another Holocaust. Anyone with relatives or friends in Israel were doubly worried. My sister, Lee, was in Israel, studying at Hebrew University.

All day my friends and I held small transistor radios to our ears. It was not until well into the afternoon or early evening that the true picture of the day’s events became known. The startling revelation of Israel’s air power superiority, coupled with its armored division successes, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of the 19-year-old country’s supporters. 

I tapped into Lee’s memory bank earlier today, asking her to recall the period before and during the Six Day War. Weeks before June 5, Israel called up military reservists including her boyfriend, Hanan, a fellow student at Hebrew U. in Jerusalem, who asked her to take good notes so he would be up to speed with classwork once he returned from service. Instead of hundreds attending a political science class, just 30 or so students, mostly Americans or other foreign born, Arabs and those physically unable to serve in the military, showed up in the  lecture hall. 

One student, Lee remembered, asked the professor what would happen if Israeli troops were able to succeed in capturing Cairo. His response—they should get out as quickly as possible for it would be difficult if not impossible to rule over any area where Israelis would be a minority.

About two weeks before war began the university closed down. Lee went with Nava,  an Israeli roommate, to her home in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. They worked in her father’s Matzot Aviv factory packing k-rations, hard crackers Lee said were harder than bullets. They joked they could be used to throw at an enemy if hand to hand combat were necessary.

Going out for a walk at night Lee observed how empty the streets were of youths. All the young men and girls had been called up for military reserves duty.

Just as in America, Israelis were in the dark as to the progress of the war when it began. Lee could hear the constant roar of jets. She could not understand why so many planes were flying overhead with no shooting or bombing, not knowing at the time that Israel’s air force had achieved air supremacy in the first hours of the war.  

To relieve her tension, Nava’s mother cleaned, re-cleaned and cleaned again her refrigerator, inside and out. When the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem started on the third day of the war, Nava’s mother kept up a steady lament (“Oh how many boys we lost”) for the soldiers who died in the battle to take Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948.

Proficient in Hebrew, Lee could follow radio broadcasts once news of Israel’s successes became known. But when descriptions of battles in the Galil, where she thought Hanan was stationed, were transmitted, she inexplicably could not comprehend what she heard. Panic had muted her comprehension. It was only after he returned from the war that she learned he was in the Sinai, not the Galil, during the fighting.

By June 7, some normalcy had returned. People went shopping in Tel Aviv. Lee bought her first bikini that day. As memorable was a scene she witnessed on the bus ride from Ramat Gan. A horse drawn cart was by stopped on the side of the road, the horse injured. It would have to be put down. Amid all the trauma of war, passengers on the bus expressed their grief and pathos that a creature not involved in the existential war that surrounded their prayers and hopes would lose its life. 

Sometimes it is hard for contemporary observers to fully appreciate the fragility of Israel’s existence in 1967. From being considered a David facing the Arab Goliath in 1967, the roles have been reversed in the ensuing 50 years. Yet even today a visitor to Israel cannot be anything but wary when hostile borders surround the state, which is but a speck of green in an otherwise sandy expanse. Artillery fire could easily reach Israel’s population centers back in 1967. As it can today. It’s too much to expect friendly neighbors. Secure, peaceful borders, however, are legitimate demands. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

It Might Be Time for a Communal Sing-along of "Who's Garden Was This?"

In lieu of Donald Trump’s uncertain belief in global warming and commitment to saving the planet, perhaps it would be timely to recall Tom Paxton’s haunting song “Whose Garden Was This,” written for the first Earth Day in 1970. Here’s a copy of the lyrics and a link to his rendition followed by the more well known cover by John Denver:

Whose garden was this? 
It must have been lovely.
Did it have flowers?
I’ve seen pictures of flowers,
And I’d love to have smelled one.

Whose river was this? 
You say it ran freely?
Blue was its color?
I’ve seen blue in some pictures,
And I’d love to have been there.

Ah, tell me again I need to know:
The forest had trees, the meadows were green,
The oceans were blue and birds really flew,
Can you swear that was true?

Whose grey sky was this?
Or was it a blue one?
Nights there were breezes?
I’ve heard records of breezes,
And you tell me you’ve felt one?

Whose forest was this?
And why is it empty?
You say there were bird songs?
And squirrels in the branches,
And why is it silent?


Whose garden was this? 
It must have been lovely.
Did it have flowers?
I’ve seen pictures of flowers,
And I’d love to have smelled one.

Here’s Paxton’s early recording:

And here’s Denver’s more pulsating version:

Who knew birds were publicity shy? It is three days since I wrote about my build-it-up-tear-it-down tussle with nest building bird(s) without new construction appearing behind our awning. Who knew all it would take to scare them away was a blog post? 

Or maybe the female got tired of carrying around her eggs and couldn’t wait for me to give up so she found a less troubled spot to start her family. Whatever. I’m just hoping the bird(s) don’t come back this season, though I expect a new attempt next spring.

Writing 101: For those would-be fiction writers, The New York Times a few days ago published a list of writing tips from best selling author John Grisham (

Not to suggest I know more about writing than Grisham, but does anyone else have a problem receiving writing tips that include a grammatically incorrect sentence—no doubt, unwittingly, but still part of Grisham’s exposition and, sadly, not corrected by The Times

Here it is: “There is nothing original about this list. It has all been said before by writers much smarter than me.”

For those wondering, the correct wording should be “smarter than I.”

On the subject of books, does anyone seriously believe Trump read the set of Martin Luther King Jr. writings he gave to Pope Francis during his visit to the Vatican? And does anyone believe he read the Pope’s encyclical on the environment before making his decision on the Paris climate agreement? 

On the subject of correctness, sartorially speaking, can someone, perhaps Melania or Ivanka, please tell The Donald to button his suit jacket when standing up and strutting about. He appears rather boorish, not to mention paunchy, when his jacket is open.

Lest someone think I am picking on him because he’s a Republican, be advised that early during Barack Obama’s presidency I railed against the “shins of the president.” I criticized him for wearing ankle length socks that exposed his shins while sitting with his legs crossed for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. 

Shortly thereafter the fashion miscue was corrected. Hopefully, the stomach-in-chief will be advised how better to conceal his girth.

Political Correctness: Uh-oh. Trump unleashed a flurry of profanity and unacceptable behavior with his Access Hollywood bus talk about grabbing pussy. In the end he didn’t pay for his vulgarity, but the equivalency police that permits equal time to climate change deniers is not ready to forgive comedians who graphically express their feelings about our grabber-in-chief.

Stephen Colbert escaped censure or worse after he said Trump’s mouth was a holster for a male part of Putin’s anatomy. But Kathy Griffin’s career may not recover from her visually bloody display of a decapitated Trump head.

And now there’s clamor for Bill Maher’s head after he used the “N-word” in a repartee with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) during his Friday night show Real Time (

Maher apologized the next day for using the “offensive” word, but the fallout, particularly from black activists and conservatives who are eager to stifle his progressive, libertarian anti-Trump voice, is not likely to fade away in the short term.  

I don’t condone his remarks but viewed in context I cannot support calls for his dismissal from HBO. Maher has been among the most supportive of Afro-Americans both in terms of prior comments and inclusion as guests of his show. Nor do I think Sasse has to apologize for not reacting immediately to the N-word. 

After Saturday night’s terrorist attack in London Trump called for more security and the abandonment of political correctness. “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse,” he tweeted.

He also tweeted, “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”,  apparently not understanding that the courts stayed imposition of his travel ban because it infringed on rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

As for relaxing PC standards, does that imply Trump is okay with what Colbert, Maher and Griffin said and did? After all, Trump hosted Ted Nugent at the White House despite the entertainer’s vile and suggestively threatening comments about President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

So sad. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Perilous Times for "Fake News" Purveyors

For journalists covering the Trump administration the pressure to get it right all the time is beyond exaggeration. Not unlike the pressure of NASA scientists and technicians to get it 100% right. Or airline pilots and ground maintenance crews to get it 100% right.

Unlike the two other examples, a mistake by a journalist generally would not incur any immediate loss of life. Rather, any error, no matter how small, buttresses the false narrative the fabricator-in-chief is spewing that undermines our democracy and its foundational principle that an objective, responsible press, protected by the First Amendment, is vital to the health of the republic.

Journalism, it has been said, is the first  draft of history. Yet, it might also be said that too many of our citizens are oblivious or ignorant of our past.

Listening to an interview of the author and Harvard professor Graham Allison on WNYC a few days ago I was struck by his comment to Leonard Lopate that our country would be more aptly named the “United States of Amnesia” because we collectively forget what has transpired just a few years past, much less decades ago.

It is a line of reasoning I subscribe to, with one important elaboration. I believe most Americans are ignorant of details of our heritage because their education failed to instruct them properly in an attempt to burnish patriotism and gloss over any shortcomings in our national story.

Rightfully, present day progressives pooh-pooh attempts by the Trump administration to expel undocumented aliens and to restrict entry by Muslims from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But how well known was the forced removal of up to two million Mexicans during Herbert Hoover’s and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidencies on the pretext it would ease relief roles? Many were American citizens! So much for constitutional protection. 

As for restricting access to the U.S., we have a sordid history of denying entry to Chinese, Eastern Europeans and southern Italians, the latter ethnic the subject of a compelling Op-Ed in The New York Times ( Eugenics was an accepted theory in America, discredited only after Nazi Germany employed it to the extreme. 

I recall learning about the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the first decade of our republic during the presidency of John Adams. But how many learned about the Sedition Act signed by Woodrow Wilson in 1918? I know my teachers never discussed it, never taught that during World War I you could land in prison for up to 20 years if you criticized the war effort or interfered with the sale of government bonds. Imagine how full our penitentiaries would have been if the law had been in effect during the Vietnam War. 

Staying with Wilson, he was hailed for his ideas for world peace, for conceptualizing the League of Nations. We learned that isolationists rejected U.S. entry into the League. Wilson was cast as a visionary.

But I only recently learned that Virginia-born Wilson was a racist who had countless Afro-Americans cast out of federal jobs. He originally opposed extending voting rights to women. He was not an unblemished progressive.

For as much as I am revolted by the actions taken by Trump, I cannot claim to be surprised. He is doing what he campaigned on. My anger, my disappointment, my anxiety are with the American public and with Republican politicians who are enabling a backward march, an American retreat from the values and global leadership that made our country the envy of the world for the last 100 years.

In backing out of the Paris climate agreement Trump lumped the United States with Nicaragua and Syria—Syria!!!—a blot on our standing in the world, but what does it matter to Trump? While in Saudi Arabia he linked our values with those of the leaders in Riyadh, never mentioning its repression of non Sunni Islam religions, its anti-Semitism, its adherence to Sharia law, the second class status of its women, its lack of freedom of assembly and the press, its rule by an oligarchic monarchy. Shared values? Ha!

Wall Street reacted favorably to Trump’s decision. Not surprising given the Street’s myopic, short term allegiance versus support for long term strategies. Traders care only for immediate gratification, not for the quality of life 50 or 100 years from today.

These are perilous times for truth sayers, for the so-called “fake news” outlets. As Trump demonizes the media, attacks like the one in Montana by a GOP congressional candidate on a Guardian reporter seeking his views on the proposed health care bill will become more common. 

Trump is dehumanizing reporters. Anyone who has studied the Holocaust or any genocide knows that before the knives come out the intended victims must first be made to be sub-human. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

You Decide: Who's the Birdbrain?

I’m at war with the birds I feed. Not all the birds. Just one sparrow and his or her mate.

The sparrow(s) want(s) to set up house—that’s a nice way of saying build a nest—in the superstructure covering our retractable awning. Several weeks ago the bird(s) favored the corner of the awning over the door to the patio. Once, twice, even three times a day I had to yank down the makings of a nest. 

Gilda suggested we hang old CD discs, hoping the reflected light would deter nest building. We left the patio lights on overnight. It worked for a day or two. 

One time a bird was on the construction site when I started hacking away at the nest. That chased it away for days, but not forever. He, she or they relocated to the other end of the awning. Our duel for ownership of the awning property continued for a few days until he, she or they doubled back to the other end. 

So I did what most everyone does these days—I consulted the Internet for bird nest remedies. Someone suggested placing a rubber snake nearby. For $8 I bought a realistic looking serpent which I tied to the crossbar near the nesting area. 

Worked like a charm. That is, until I realized the nest had relocated back to the other end of the awning. Eight dollars later, a second snake was tied to the crossbar, only this creature failed to induce the desired effect. Indeed, after giving up on the second site the bird(s) went back to the space above the door in total disregard of the rubber snake. 

We are now in a stalemate. Two or three times a day they build, I take apart. Often I mutter under my breadth that you would think the bird(s) would be smart enough to learn their quest for residency behind our awning was not going to happen. I smile and say to myself, that’s what we call a “birdbrain.” Then I laugh at and to myself for thinking I can alter the procreative laws of nature.

So, you decide, who’s the birdbrain?