Sunday, December 29, 2013

In Benghazi, No Good Deed Unpunished

In the lethally labyrinthine politics of the Middle East, the murder of four Americans in Libya on September 11, 2012 continues to roil American opinion with partisan accusations of blame that resist the reality that Americans are simply beyond their depth in such ancient internecine murderous hatreds.

Now we have a new attempt to untangle the morass:

“Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

“A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment.”

Republicans who have made a crusade of blaming Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton for it all are quick to counterattack. Fox News dredges up a month-old interview with the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to insist that the Benghazi attack was an "Al Qaeda-led event."

Anyone with the patience and strong stomach to read the full Times account can glimpse its complexity against the “fair and balanced” Fox rebuttal, with such fascinating figures as a 42-year-old “leader” who has spent most of his adult life in a Tripoli prison for Islamist extremism and now insists “God would have helped us. We know the United States was working with both sides” and considered “splitting up the country.”

When will we learn that in such situations no good deed goes unpunished, that ignorant hatreds will propel “leaders” who can gain power by railing against American intervention, no matter what we do or how we do it?

And when will Republicans at home stop trying to make political capital out of the blood and sacrifice of Americans we send to represent us in this moral swamp?

How many Benghazis will it take, in Syria and elsewhere, to find some balance between use of American power for good in the Middle East and being thanked for it with murder of our own people?

Spying, Suffering and Other Good Stuff

The year’s last TV Sunday morning is dominated by Snowden backlash and Obamacare bashing, of course, but tired ears yearn to hear about other issues from quirkier voices and get their wish on the “Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2013: The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves.”

Reading them with fascination, I am reassured that diversity is not dead, and neither are human voices to offset the canned commentary from DC. As always, I am fascinated and grateful to be included, even though I accuse myself of chickening out by choosing my own post about NSA spying.

But others happily go further afield. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happy Holiday Depression to You, Too

In the dying days of a hard year, those who are feeling low can take heart. Their reaction may be a sign of good mental health.

Anyone who isn’t depressed may just not understand what’s happening. The young may be excused for not knowing how much better American life has been and could be again. The despair of the old can be disregarded because they have so little time left to hope for real change, but what about everybody else?

In the wake of a holy day of hope and charitable feeling, made more poignant by close encounters with seldom-seen relatives, a long-standing suspicion returns that the world is divided into those who feel the pangs of reality and those who feast on life with little empathy for others.

If this sounds self-righteous or simple-mindedly leftish, it is more a characterological than political distinction. There is a difference between people who are satisfied simply to eat the world smugly and those whose empathy for others induces at least mild depression in a time when there is so little regard for so many who are in real pain.

Despite pharmaceutical TV commercials, depression doesn’t have to mean despair or helpless torpor. Turning inner rage outward to try to change the world can relieve the symptoms. (It’s worked for me over a long lifetime. Once I hired a President's daughter and put my magazine on the front pages and Evening News out of frustration with a clueless Board of Directors.)

For example, an angry response could be used to turn on a Congress that is about to kill unemployment benefits for a million Americans to score ideological points with the hopelessly selfish or to encourage serious discussion of a single-payer system for health care instead of continued point-scoring over the deficiencies of Obamacare while people go untreated by insurance-company greed.

At the very least, such efforts would help them feel alive rather than numbed by happy pills.

Two cheers for productive depression.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Tale of Two Shoulders

During this season of aches and pains, the Obamacare battle resumes in full fury with little direct relevance to millions who are hurting and want relief.

Lost in the political clamor is any sense of how American health care really works in a cockpit of special interests and free-lance greed that permeates a “system” of patient choice but no protection.

As a metaphor and cautionary tale, I offer two ancient shoulders. My story may bore you but it has a point.

In excruciating pain a decade ago, I called several orthopedists recommended by my primary physician and was told I could have an introductory appointment in two or more weeks.

In desperation, I searched on my own and found “a physiatrist,” an orthopedic doctor who specializes in relief rather than surgery. He examined my shoulder and gave me a cortisone injection that stopped the pain.

After several years and injections, he recommended rotator cuff surgery. Reluctantly I agreed and went through a six-hour arthroscopic operation in which I could hear the surgeon and his associate debating their moves and the anesthetist stepping away to call his stock broker.

That night I had to go back to the emergency room for a morphine drip to finally stop the unbearable pain. A year later, after many Medicare dollars and even more of my own for physical therapy, my shoulder still hurt and I was not able to raise the arm above my head.

Flash forward a few more years. When my other shoulder acted up, I went to a new physiatrist who had helped me with back pain. She suggested acupuncture, which Medicare doesn’t cover, and I agreed. To this day, that shoulder has more motion and hurts much less than the other.

What does my story suggest? Not a condemnation of rotator cuff surgery but as my second physiatrist says, “To someone with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

There are 27,700 orthopedic surgeons in the US and 8,000 physiatrists. What are the chances of avoiding inadvisable surgery on the basis of this disproportion?

Beyond that, add all the other “specialists”—-podiatrists who clip toenails and bill for surgery, dermatologists who do more cosmetology than skin care, and so on down the line—-and national health care costs become clearer.

A Boomer generation reared to believe that every problem has a solution and a price is not going to change its attitudes late in life. Before them, people of mine did not expect so much, and those who survive still don’t.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Take Heaven, Take Peace, Take Joy"

I can’t gift-wrap this, but it’s a Christmas treasure I have to share. Decades ago, I published it twice in different magazines.

Eric Sevareid was a talented writer who spent most of his life as a radio and TV journalist working with Edward R. Murrow during World War II as part of “a band of brothers” and later at CBS-TV in its glory days. He was a hero and a role model to me.

Herewith, excerpts from Sevareid’s essay:

"Christmas offers us peace in one hand but in the other it carries a sword. The peace it offers is the love we felt in childhood and may still feel again if we have lived our lives as we were instructed in our early days. The sword is our conscience, glittering as sharply as the icicles on the Christmas tree.

"Christmas is an anticipation for the children; it is memory for most adults. It fastens the grip of truth upon us and will not let us go. Implacably it demands of us that we regard our work and what we have made of our lives, our country and our world.

"By the glow of the soft lights, by the sound of child voices in song, piercing us with an almost unendurable purity, we are obliged to remember that our first and only commandment was to love, and we have not truly obeyed; that men were so commanded not to improve them, but to save them from themselves, and we have not truly understood.

"Of course, we say as the moment of truth approaches, 'Christmas is really for the children.' Suffer the little children to take this burden from us.

"Perhaps, were we to know the realities of our own deepest motivations, we would conclude that this is why we have made of the Christmas occasion an immensely complicated business. It is the sheer busyness of Christmas, not so much its commercialization, that has changed its forms and rituals. Perhaps we have lost not only the art of simplicity but the desire for it as well. But not, I think, in our deepest beings. And as long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, then Christmas is.

"The sophisticated may belittle the almost assembly-line transaction of the printed Christmas cards that swamp our parlors in piles and windows. It is impersonal, yes, as compared with the old-fashioned family trek down the street for greetings at the door. But each little square or rectangular printed card is a signal of human recognition, a reassurance that we live in part, at least, of their consciousness, however small a part, and so are not alone...

"We cannot live, in our families, in our nations or in the world, if we cannot open our hearts. I do not know how this compressed, elbowing and suspicious world is to go on in peace if this cannot be done. I see no ultimate security in any 'balance of power' or 'balance of terror' peace. We know instinctively that in the end only a peace through a balance of kindness will preserve us...

"There are a few words I read every time the Christmas season comes around...[perhaps] written by Fra Giovanni in the year 1513...which sometimes I think of as the most perfect passage in our language...

"'There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give you, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy. And so, at this Christmastime, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.'"

From Sevareid, long gone now, and me, wishes to all for a day of heaven, peace and joy.

The Least-Known Christmas Classic

Despite critics and commercials, movies are rarely art. Yet, one such undisputed work exists but is rarely seen in the season of Dickens and “Die Hard.”

It is “The Dead,” by John Huston, an acknowledged master of craft who directed Oscar-worthy entertainments from “The Maltese Falcon” to “Prizzi’s Honor” over almost 50 years. For what would be his last, he chose a short story by James Joyce about a Christmas dinner in turn-of-the-century Dublin, with a script by his son Tony and starring his daughter Angelica.

It is art, acknowledged as “perfect” by critics on every level, evoking deep feelings of longing and loss. For Huston, a man with a disorderly life who was portrayed as irascible by Clint Eastwood in a movie about the making of “The African Queen,” it was the summing up of a span that started with being the son of an actor and ended with this benediction of a movie about life, longing and loss made with his own children.

“The Dead” is available by streaming from Netflix. Those whose tastes run deeper than Dickens have it waiting to entrance them.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Best American Business

With the economy struggling slowly upward, many families across the country are reminded these days of the most recession-proof business of all. After weeks of supplication, they are being told whether or not they will be permitted to pay as much as $200,000 or more (mostly in loans with interest over years to come) for a four-year product with no guarantees.

College admissions letters are bringing news of where beloved children will be going, leaving home to start their adult journey in life. (“Who,” I remember a middle-aged friend once asking, “was that 18-year-old kid to decide I was going to be a dentist all my life?”)

College education matters, perhaps even more so than ever in hard times. Yet, even with a slowdown in the rate of tuition increases, it is the largest blind item most Americans will ever buy and comes fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.

The President and his Secretary of Education are among those expressing doubts about the “prestige value” of a degree and urging a more realistic approach to higher education, instead of rewarding colleges for “gaming” the ratings and raising costs.

A laudable aim, but it can it be any more effective than Obamacare will be in containing hospital charges?

Paying for major surgery and college tuition costs are lofty and laudable aims but, somewhere between government intervention and free enterprise in which consumer choices are constricted and manipulated, there have to be ways to protect both the interest of individuals and the social benefits of higher education.

For those who will be outraged by any such suggestion, I can offer only anecdotal and biographical evidence. Were it not for tuition-free education at the City College of New York in the 1940s, I could not have dreamed of higher education.

Neither could have Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, Colin Powell and dozens of Nobel winners as well as thousands of other scientists, physicians, teachers and others who spent their lives contributing to the general welfare.

Society may not afford to make such investments in its future today, but can it afford not to try and control some of the abuse and waste in the recession-proof college business we have now?  

Update: On the other hand, as some universities lower standards, there is faculty pushback against the creating “Walmarts of higher education—-convenient, cheap, and second-rate” by dropping crucial courses to improve graduation figures. In any event, it is long past time for serious national discussion about making colleges a source of serious learning again rather than a consumer product.

Homicide for the Holidays

“Die Hard” is one of the all-time great Christmas movies. Who knew?

Yet, according to such diverse opinion makers as the Christian Science Monitor and Forbes Magazine, the 1988 Bruce Willis shoot-out makes the list because the mayhem takes place during an office Yuletide party at an LA high-rise.

Despite the tinsel and trees, the old-fashioned may see the Christmas spirit lacking in mass murder, but that might just be a result of the generation gap that makes me impervious to the charm of vampire movies (no taste for a blood-sucking Lincoln).

With all the digital choices available in the coming week as well as on good old reliable TCM, you can still find an unperverted version of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” One of the best is the 1938 MGM take, which ranks high in memory, with an asterisk to protest liberties taken with the plot, including Bob Cratchit heaving a snowball at Scrooge and being fired before the holiday (always a touch of Andy Hardy in the Louis B. Mayer era).

Arguably the best is a 1951 darkly beautiful British tour de force with Alastair Sim, a grand actor who was born to play Scrooge, or for my Yuletide guilty pleasure, the 1970 musical with Albert Finney.

With an undistinguished score (we're not talking Stephen Sondheim here), the singing and dancing somehow seem just right for a tale to lift our hearts and make believing children of us all. Peopled with great actors--Edith Evans, Kenneth More and Alec Guinness as the campiest Jacob Marley ever--it's a thing of visual beauty, culminating in a joyous scene of dancing, bell-ringing celebrants against a snowy background that is pure Breughel.

Then again, if your tastes run more toward Bruce Willis and exploding buildings, “Die Hard” can keep you entranced if not inspired. Christmas is no time to be snobby or exclusive.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sisters Get Under the Skin

With the passing of Joan Fontaine at 96, a record for sibling rivalry is finally set in stone. In Hollywood’s heyday, she and Olivia de Havilland were movie stars who won Academy Awards and openly despised one another.

At the 1941 Oscars, Fontaine beat out her sister, a year older, and later wrote in a memoir, "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back...I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”

For an ancient movie-goer, there are multiple ironies here. De Havilland is best-known now as the saintly Melanie Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” an acting feat even more impressive in light of her unforgiving off-screen nature. At news of her sister’s death, she had her agent issue a statement that she was “shocked and saddened.”

Born in Tokyo of British parents who divorced when they were young, the sisters went their own ways in Hollywood, Fontaine taking her mother’s maiden name. She was less of an actress than her sister but lucky to have been chosen as a Hitchcock “blonde” in “Suspicion” for which she won the Oscar playing the dim-witted wife of rascally Cary Grant.

That followed Hitchcock’s far better “Rebecca,” in which she was the nameless second wife of Laurence Oliver. When TCM shows it in the inevitable retrospective, watch the first half hour for her work as a love-blinded innocent before it all spirals into a Gothic mess. Oscar or no, that was Fontaine’s best feat on film.

The sisters lived a world apart, Fontaine in California, de Havilland in France. She has always been a tough cookie.

In middle age, when de Havilland fell and injured her ankle at home, she didn’t yell for help. “I knew nobody would come,” she said, “so I yelled ‘Fire’ instead,”

Now that’s a survivor.

The President Joins a Pitiful Pantheon

Year-end lists are not my thing, but 2013 undeniably places Barack Obama in a category that overcomes admiration with judgment.

“They Must Know What They’re Doing or They Wouldn’t Be Where They Are” is the title of an imaginary volume a leading book publisher and I conceived half a century ago to show the captain of the Titanic, the designer of Ford’s ill-fated Edsel, LBJ directing the Vietnam War and other examples of low acumen in high places.

Since then, the list has grown with Nixon at Watergate, Jimmy Carter's bumbling on Iran captives, Bill Clinton and Monica’s dress, George W's Iraq occupation, Alan Greenspan handling the housing bubble and Heckuvajob Brownie during Katrina with new candidates arriving warp speed.

This year the most intelligent man to occupy the White House in decades sadly takes his place in that pitiful pantheon. Is there any other explanation for Obama’s botch of health care reform and mishandling of the legality of NSA spying  than incompetence triumphing over good intentions?

“You can’t beat brains,” JFK liked to say, but emotional intelligence--“the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups”--is something else, a skill not easily compatible with this President’s background as a law professor.

Recent personal experience prompts me to recall a lifetime of pain over the inability of lawyers such as Washington’s ruling class in all branches of government to deal with the human outcomes of what they instinctively do. Winning an argument is not justice. Outmaneuvering others is no guarantee of fairness.

Sadly, Barack Obama has the spiritual qualities to overcome such shortcomings but has been hobbled by a bad economy not of his making, thinly disguised racism and an unprecedented breakdown of decency in Congress.

But in looking back at the year, there is no alternative to putting him in the company of the inept. The White House must reboot to save the President's remaining two year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole

Obituaries will recall the actor who has died at 81 for his bravura role in the 1962 epic, “Lawrence of Arabia” and rightly so but, in an old movie lover’s heart, he will be treasured for more modest qualities of witty self-deprecation.

Those whose tastes predate the Cineplex can savor that in “How to Steal a Million” (1966), a romantic comedy available on Netflix, and as a bonus, be introduced to the ethereal Audrey Hepburn at her most magical.

But for full appreciation of the O’Toole gift for parodying his own propensity for hamminess, nothing will do but “My Favorite Year” (1982), in which he takes himself over the top as a laughing stock and lands on his feet with warm-hearted sentiment.

Not recommended for those who can’t get enough of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller but who might harbor a vulnerability to retro human comedy.

Why and How Magazines Will Survive

With fewer readers and less advertising, periodicals of ink on paper seem doomed to disappear. But they won’t.

A survivor of an even more acute crisis at the dawn of TV can testify that magazines will adapt and survive. The reasons are embedded in the human desire not only to know what’s happening in the world but understand its deeper meaning.

The Internet stuffs Americans with information but leaves them starved for understanding, a task that has moved up the media food chain to newspapers like the New York Times. Yet beyond that daily context lies a complex world unseen by sentient members of the best-educated generation in human history.

Magazine editors are unique among journalists in that they invent their readers. Rather than report news over which they have no control, they fill pages with whatever interests or obsesses them and, like magnets, draw attention of those who find the results to their taste, delivering what one editor called an attitude toward the world on a regular basis.

TV arrived in the 1950s and took away magazines’ function of comforting entertainment, killing off many but nudging survivors toward special interests by age, gender and sophistication. Fiction-filled women’s magazines gave way to Cosmopolitan and Self and later Ms.; Esquire went from barber-shop pinups to sharp cultural comment.

It was soon joined by New York, which last week suffered half-death in print, giving birth to the New Journalism to mirror a new kind of politics with a new kind of reporting. Tom Wolfe wrote about Radical Chic and Gloria Steinem profiled the man who was moving into the White House in 1968 ("When Richard Nixon is alone in a room, is there anyone there?")

As a magazine editor during that time, I learned that the job meant more than telling people what they want to know. More important was telling them what they don’t know they want to know until you tell them.

That opportunity still exists and is filled by digging under the surface from magazines such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone along with hundreds of smaller circulation and unfamiliar names that cater to those who want to go beyond what social critic Lewis Mumford a century ago called “deprivation by surfeit” in our society,” the increasing production of everything that ignores “the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation.”

Unseen but important, in a society that has made a profit center out of Attention Deficit Disorder, thousands of magazines will continue to produce context and correction for those who want and need it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tea Party Overboard, Finally

The House passes a two-year budget deal to release Congress as a hostage from sequester insanity by a vote of 332-94. Half the naysayers are GOP diehards, half liberal Democrats.

This sudden lurch toward two-party give-and-take should come as no surprise, according to a new Gallup poll that finds the Tea Party dropping past a tipping point, with a slim majority viewing them unfavorably for the first time.

Now the real work in Washington begins: finding government’s way back to some semblance of traditional rationality. One sign is Speaker John Boehner, who for two years has let extremists hogtie his House is now pushing back, solemnly asserting he is now “shocked, shocked” to find there has been gambling in the casino.

"You know, they pushed into this fight to defund 'Obamacare' and to shut down the government," Boehner tells reporters. "Most of you know, my members know, that wasn't exactly the strategy that I had in mind...

"But if you recall, the day before the government reopened… one of these groups stood up and said, well, we never really thought it would work. Are you kidding me?"

Democrats too will have to adjust to a new climate, as Nancy Pelosi tells her troops to “embrace the suck” and get on with moving forward next year to regain some of the ground lost in the long Washington siege.

If there is a seismic shift back toward traditional American government next year, it could be helped by new leadership on both sides of the aisle. Congress may be leaving Washington less depressed for the holidays, but the true tests will come when they come back for a new year.

Can sanity survive the holidays?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Will Paul Ryan Replace Boehner?

The Deal is even bigger than it appears on the surface. As the first break in two years of wall-to-wall Tea Party obstruction in the House of Representatives, it forebodes a new alignment there.

Paul Ryan, who ran for VP last year as a policy wonk and ended up exposed as an habitual liar, is now in line to pull the House GOP together as the next Speaker. Lying can be a disability one heartbeat from the Oval Office, but it’s part of the job description for a leader in Congress.

“It is clear that the conservative movement has come under attack on Capitol Hill today,” says a broadside from the hard Right, and John Boehner as Speaker in taking most of the heat for the deal with Patty Murray and the Democrats while Ryan is exempted from their anger.

All this suggests that Boehner’s two-year straddle of Tea Party zealots and saner GOP members of his caucus is approaching its end. Under the circumstances, it won’t be his even loonier Iago, Eric Cantor, who will be replacing him to pull the party together.

Would Ryan be any improvement? Judging from his performance this week, his ascension would be a step in the right (or center) direction. The man who gave up his life-long idolatry of Ayn Rand in a heartbeat has demonstrated some aptitude for flexibility.

“He has been a marvelous soldier in coming to this agreement,” enthuses a House Tea Party member.

The way things are going, it will be no surprise to see him leading the troops after Congress reconvenes early next year.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Pope and the President

Year’s end finds Francis I enshrined as Person of the Year and Barack Obama consigned to opinion-poll Hell.

How many reflections on life today crowd into that comparison?

Words are easier than deeds. As admirable as the spirit and pronouncements of the new Pontiff are, he dwells in symbolism, aspiration and hope, a realm Obama occupied five years ago when he was chosen Person of the Year for 2008 before moving into the White House.

Power corrupts but absolute power can be liberating. In the Vatican, Francis I reigns supreme and, with dazzling humility, sets a new tone for the Catholic Church. In Washington, the new President encountered a cockpit of hate to be thwarted at every turn into five years of political impotence.

To err is human and forgive divine but not in politics. Francis I tells an anxious world that sins of selfishness can be overcome by modesty and love of fellow humans while Obama is pummeled for attempting to save people from suffering and death with an imperfect solution, originally prompted in large part by wall-to-wall political opposition.

Time Magazine can exalt but time itself diminishes. Francis I occupies a magazine cover in his first months on the world stage. As he moves into making pronouncements and decisions about issues that have racked the Catholic Church for years, will near-universal admiration survive? Barack Obama can tell him all about loss of faith by fervent admirers.

Human hope never dies. Even at the low point of his tenure, the President can glimpse some daylight in a bipartisan budget deal that the House will vote on tomorrow. Miracles may never cease.

For the New Year those imbued by good feeling can only wish Persons of the Year past and present the best of luck in their spiritual and mortal endeavors on behalf of us all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How Good Does the Economy Have to Get?

Numbers improve, but the President gets no credit. So deeply is the anti-Obama narrative embedded in the debate over income inequality that, even with better numbers, 61 percent of Americans continue to be negative about the economy--a majority at all age and income levels, most independents and 80 percent of Republicans.

Only among Democrats, people with a postgraduate education and blacks do a majority see anything hopeful.

To break through all this resistance, the President is recruiting Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta, who has been in private life at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy research group.

Even before he joins the White House, Podesta lays out the Obama argument in Politico:

“Income inequality in the United States today has reached levels last seen during the Roaring ’20s. Over the last three decades, the top 1 percent of incomes have risen by 279 percent, while the bottom fifth of workers have seen an increase of less than 20 percent. In 1979, the middle 60 percent of households took home 50 percent of U.S. income. By 2007, their share was just 43 percent.

“These trends have continued since the end of the Great Recession. Ninety-five percent of income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent of earners. In 2012, the top 10 percent took home more than 50 percent of the nation’s income—a record high. After a brief period in the late 1990s during which incomes rose across the board, median wages stagnated during the 2000s, and have remained depressed during the economic recovery.”

The President himself made the case for attacking income inequality, but it fell on deaf ears.

What will it take to get most Americans to listen to and understand what is in their best interests for the future?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Person of the Year Pyramid

That sound under the earth’s surface is Henry Luce, founder of Time, spinning in his tomb as an Egyptian General, Turkish Prime Minister and Miley Cyrus win his creation’s popular poll for Person of the Year.

In a Twitter coup, the Sphinx roared from the Middle East to outvote the editors’choices, including Pope Francis, President Obama, Ted Cruz, Edward Snowden and a gay rights activist who sued for inheritance rights.

Why not? In a world where notoriety is amok, attention knows no national boundaries, political meaning or moral distinctions. Anyone can be Googled up to the heights of fame.

When he started Time 90 years ago, Luce’s aim was to make sense of “the million little chaoses of raw news.” That time is long gone. Now his inheritors just dive into it and stir the publicity pot.

Miley Cyrus may be the best symbol for our culture after all.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Why Shouldn't Magazines Die?

One of the best around goes bi-weekly because not enough readers and advertisers are funneling money into it every week.

In a postmortem, Megan McArdle, a former magazine writer who now labors for Bloomberg News, writes, “Hearing that New York magazine can’t make it as a weekly is, for a professional journalist, rather like being told that your teddy bear has cancer.”

But something more vital than a comforting childhood relic is expiring. In the age of being flooded by instant information, as magazines die, Americans are losing one of their few ways of understanding what it all means.  

A century ago, social critic Lewis Mumford pointed out that, although science and technology assume constantly increasing consumption of goods and knowledge is desirable, it can lead to “deprivation by surfeit.”

With increasing speed and productivity, Mumford wrote, “we have ignored the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation.”

Today’s journalism validates his theory as clearly as do the clogging of highways, the overwhelming of air-traffic control and the breakdown of political discourse. We are in a hurry to get somewhere without being sure of the destination and how to keep from falling over one another.

Relegating magazines to dentists’ waiting rooms and airline flights morphs them into the same kind of time-killers as the media causing the confusion.

In the half-obituary for New York, as cynics smarmly cluck over the passing of “dead-tree journalism,” a retired practitioner may be forgiven for lamenting what Americans are losing in their psychic landscape.

A Day That Lives in Infamy and Me

On December 7, 1941 I was the age my twin grandsons are now, 17. Along with the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11/2001, it is etched in memory as the world-shaking time of a long life. For those their age, it is ancient history. For me, remembering in detail is a way of hoping with all my heart that they and their generations will never have to experience anything like it.

It was a different America then. News of the Japanese attack came from bulletins that broke into radio programs and spread by word of mouth over the phone, on streets of cities and house to house in small towns.

That Sunday, I was a college student with a part-time job in a New York hospital, standing next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window at a nurse in a white mask holding up a swaddled armful inches from our eyes. She gently shook the sleeping baby into a red-faced wail, then drew the curtain.

In those days, fear of germs kept newborns in a nursery while mothers spent a week in hospital beds. The babies were brought in to be breast-fed, then carried back to their cocoons. During that time, the new father would get only one quick look, and my job was to lead him to the window. The babies were all alike. The real show was on our side of the glass: a man’s eyes flooding with pride, wonder and worry.

But on December 7, 1941, sudden death six thousand miles away shattered the tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. My stomach churned as I climbed to the Third Avenue El to go home. As the train hurtled over familiar streets, I felt cold and exposed.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College, holding a half-eaten sandwich, my eyes on a huge glowing mural behind the stage, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing the way to a bright future.

From a loudspeaker the voice of the only President I could remember (FDR took office on my ninth birthday) was telling of a day that will live in infamy and announcing we were at war. I was suddenly wrenched into a world beyond my familiar slivers of the Bronx and Harlem connected by a subway ride.

The following days were a thrilling blur of rumor and fear. A history professor stopped a lecture on Victorian life. “You’ll hear the Japanese have poisoned the water and Nazi subs are off Staten Island,” he said, with a reassuring grimace. “Nothing will happen. Go home, do your homework.”

Every night at 8:55, breaking into the flow of radio comedy and dopey drama, the chilling voice of Elmer Davis told of battles in Europe and the Pacific. Older boys from my neighborhood were fighting in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.

World War II came to us in slow motion and seemed unreal until we read the next day's newspaper. Why, then, did that unseen war affect our lives so much more deeply than the 24/7 images and endless words about the Middle East, which now so easily slide out of national consciousness?

World War II was everybody's war, fought by our fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and those of the people next door and down the street. In little more than a year, I knew I would be among them. We were all in it together.

If my friends and I had known we would be called "The Greatest Generation," we would have wondered what was so unusual about doing what we had to do. And it would have saddened us to know that our children and grandchildren would have to fight and die when the nation's survival was not so clearly at stake.

Now Japan and Germany are among the least warlike nations on earth, but what have we the victors learned? 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Mandela's American Connection

As he passes from life into legend as the remarkable man who went from 27 years in South African prisons to the country’s President who would end apartheid and reunite his nation with spiritual grace, Nelson Mandela is for most Americans a distant figure.

In his lifetime, we watched from afar and marveled. It is only now, in celebrating him as an historical figure, that Americans are reminded of his connection to their own racial odyssey during those momentous years.

On the PBS NewsHour, much of the tribute to Mandela’s passing is taken up by his interviews over the years with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, now 71, a remarkable American journalist who, to those of us who knew her, embodied our own racial struggles and went on to celebrate his.

Daughter of a US Army chaplain, in 1961 Charlayne Hunter became part of the civil rights movement when, after court battles, she and Hamilton Holmes became the first two African-American students to enroll in the University of Georgia and were met by jeering crowds who, after smashing her dormitory windows with bottles and bricks, had to be dispersed by tear gas.

Naturally she was suspended “for her own safety” but returned to campus by a court order days later.

She graduated in 1963 after meeting and marrying a fellow journalism student secretly, because he was white and they could have been prosecuted under existing Southern laws against miscegenation. They had a child and the marriage ended amicably when she moved to New York to start a journalism career that would span reporting for the New York Times to PBS.

After winning awards, she moved to South Africa in 1997 and her life work fused with Mandela’s in the remarkable interviews now being seen on the PBS tribute to him.

Now in the New Yorker Hunter-Gault recalls: “I interviewed Mandela in 1994, a few days before he was to be sworn in as President of the Republic of South Africa. I apologized to him for not being able to be at the inauguration itself, explaining that there was hardly anything on earth that would make me miss that historic occasion, but that my son Chuma was graduating from Emory University, in Atlanta, on the same day. And I needed to fly back for it. At that, Mandela relaxed his stiff, about-to-be-interviewed posture, leaned forward slightly in his chair, and smiled, with an enveloping warmth.
“’Of course you have to be there. You can always interview me,” he said.’

“I found myself responding, ‘Thank you, Tata’-—just what a child of Mandela would have called him.”

Those of us who watched from afar are reawakened and heartened by reliving Nelson Mandela’s story and reminded of his American counterpart, Martin Luther King, and a journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, whose own life was touched by both.