Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.

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Disappointments

I have just returned from a train ride to Cooperstown and back which gave me time to reflect on many things — and time away from the blog, which was a bit of relief, I must say. One of the things I reflected on was a number of huge disappointments in my life. As one gets older, I am told, this is the way the mind wanders.

I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in (of all places) Baltimore, Maryland. Every year the students put on what were called the “Poly Follies.” It took several days and was well attended. It also required the printing and handing out of hundreds of programs. In my senior year the art department decided to have a contest to pick the cover for the program. It was a big deal and I hurried home after hearing the announcement and spent the entire weekend drawing and painting three covers — at least one of which I thought pretty good. At that time I drew and painted a bit and even submitted several pen and ink cartoons that were included in that year’s Yearbook. In any event, I was sure I would win (of course). But when the winner was announced and the cover placed in a large glass case in the main hall, along with all of the other submissions, none of mine were there. I was stunned. There were the three top covers and also all of the other submissions — none of which I thought as good as mine (!) In any event, I was deeply hurt to have my hard work ignored like that. So I went to the art department and reminded the teacher that I had submitted three covers which had not been displayed with the rest. A sudden look of awareness appeared in his eyes as he remembered my submissions, which he had placed in a cupboard below one of the art tables. I had submitted mine early and he obviously forgot all about it. I sensed that, but it simply increased the pain. I had been ignored and my covers were never even considered: they were in that cupboard the whole time.

The point of this little story, which recounts one of several disappointments I reflected on during the long train ride, is that disappointment is a part of life. The move today, which I have remarked upon repeatedly, to build our children’s self-esteem and help young people avoid pain and disappointment at all costs may be costing them the growth they require to develop as whole persons. It is the pain and disappointment that deepen sensibilities and broaden our perspectives and help us grow. Our society’s determination to disallow these experiences on the part of our children is a mistake of the first order, I believe, and I call on Dostoevsky as an authority on the subject. He was convinced that suffering is essential for the development of the human person. And he should know as he suffered a great deal himself and witnessed it in many others.  It is not something we should encourage, of course, but it is something we should allow as part of the necessary steps in growing up — along with failure from which we learn so much about ourselves. In its place, we try to guarantee our children only pleasure; we have self-esteem movements in the schools and at home where no one is denied and everyone gets a prize, while only a few truly deserve it; this in turn has devolved into the entitlement we see all around us where spoiled children grow into shallow, spoiled adults whose attention is turned only on themselves.

I don’t regard myself as exemplary, by any means; but I am aware that most of the people I admire and respect have had many disappointments in their lives and have suffered at times a great deal. Dostoevsky may have overstated the case by insisting that suffering is essential to becoming fully human, but our attempts to protect the young from every type of disappointment and harm is assuredly misguided.

More Madness

When I was seven years old we moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Dodgingtown, Connecticut — midway between Bethel and Newtown. My sister and I went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was a member of Troop 70 Boy Scouts in Newtown, caddied at the Newtown golf course, walked with a friend of mine every Saturday afternoon to the movie house in Newtown to watch the latest cowboy thriller, and my mother ran a shop in Newtown called “Presents Unlimited.” Newtown, Connecticut is a place I once knew very well.

So when I read about the latest shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, I was touched on a very deep level. I have so many childhood memories of that region. Now those memories are mixed with mayhem. It leaves the stomach unsettled and the mind in a whirl.

The President of the United States fought back tears as he pledged to rise above politics and make sure something is done to stop this carnage. He has said this before, but this time he seems to mean it. Easier said than done: the NRA will be geared up for battle and they are one of the most powerful and effective lobbying groups in Washington. We can expect little in the way of serious gun control to come out of this Congress. But gun control is not the whole answer. To be sure, it is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to stop the craziness that seems to be growing in our population. We need to probe for deeper causes.

Let’s take a close look at the youth in this culture who spend hours each day playing violent games on their Xboxes and watch even more hours of violence on TV and in the movies (which make my cowboy thrillers look like Sunday School stories). Humans are animals and young animals learn from imitation. There can be no question the constant immersion in violence plants seeds in the young. Add to this a weakening reality principle, a thin thread separating these kids from the fantasy world of their games where they rule and the real world where (as things now stand) they also rule: they are told they can do no wrong and they are entitled to accolades and applause for every breath they take. Their sense of self grows as their sense of the world they live in shrinks. They crave fame and glory, like the heroes they play in their games. They learn to expect applause for their every effort no matter how impotent. Their ability to connect with other humans weakens as they become more and more isolated.

These speculations are not far-fetched; they are based on solid data, studies that show our culture is becoming increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed. Combine these factors with the ready availability of guns and one can easily imagine a young Adam Lanza strapping on a bullet-proof vest, grabbing his automatic weapons, and storming into a school pulling the triggers on both weapons as he shoots his “enemies” and emerges a “hero” to the applause of thousands.

Granted, this scenario is a bit of a stretch, but what I say is based on solid evidence and there is a disturbing sense of truth to what I have supposed here. How else do we explain this madness? How else do we explain how a young man can shoot innocent children and their teachers? Only in a world where people get cut off from reality, where the thin thread connecting them to the real world suddenly snaps and their fantasy world takes over. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut cannot be real: it must be a video game — except it isn’t.

The Sky May Be Falling!

The story in The Guardian begins as follows:

The Greenland ice sheet melted at a faster rate this month than at any other time in recorded history, with virtually the entire ice sheet showing signs of thaw.

The rapid melting over just four days was captured by three satellites. It has stunned and alarmed scientists, and deepened fears about the pace and future consequences of climate change.

Does anyone remember Spiro Agnew? I remember him because I lived in Baltimore for years and he was the local boy who made good (as it were). He was in love with witty alliterations such as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” I loved that one; I suppose I am one. I tend to see the glass half empty and many would call my realistic outlook pessimistic. I think I am right and they are wrong! In any event, I do think the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates so famously said, and when one examines the world we live in and the people who seem determined to destroy it, it is hard to see the glass as anything BUT half-empty. “The sky is falling,” said Chicken Little, though people find it tiresome to listen to this little chicken.

Be that as it may, the reason I think my outlook is healthier than that of others who find it comforting to remain in denial with their collective heads up their collective butts, is that even though I may be wrong, I may also be right. If I am wrong, about, say, the environment being in grave danger from human abuse — and if humans were to alter their behavior on the premise that there really is a problem — then this would be inconvenient. It would involve a change in mind-set and perhaps lifestyle.  But if I am right to be concerned the consequences will be terrible indeed. It would appear wise to err on the side of caution even though it may take some effort on our part.

But most people seem determined to hold the course and refuse to see a problem until it is in their backyard — at which point it may be too late to do anything about it. Again, it seems wise to err on the side of caution. So I will continue to see the glass half empty (reminding myself that it matters not whether it is half-empty or half-full as long as there is room for more wine!) and worry less about what people like Spiro says and more about what scientists keep telling us. There is near-unanimity in the scientific community that the sky may indeed be falling as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out:

The change [in climate] is so drastic. . .  that scientists can claim with near certainty that events like the Texas heat wave last year, the Russian heat wave of 2010 and the European heat wave of 2003 would not have happened without the planetary warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases.

Those claims, which go beyond the established scientific consensus about the role of climate change in causing weather extremes, were advanced by James E. Hansen, a prominent NASA climate scientist, and two co-authors in a scientific paper published online on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chicken Little may have had a point!

My Home Town

[Dedicated to my friend Dana Yost who is a small town guy, which is a good thing!]

I live in a small town of around 1200 people in West-Central Minnesota. It isn’t really near much of anything, though there is a larger small town of about 12,000  thirteen miles away. The residents of that town would never admit they live in a small town; they like to think it is a booming metropolis. But it’s really more like a pop than a boom. As one who grew up in Baltimore, I think I know a booming metropolis when I see one. Anyway, the town nearby doesn’t boom. It merely pops, in spite of itself. But it does have a Wal-Mart and a Menards, so maybe I’m wrong.

In any event, I go uptown in my small town to get milk and drinking water three or four times a week (the water that comes from the taps destroys the plumbing; I shudder to think what it would do to my interior). I go to the local grocery store that is hanging on by its fingernails trying to survive the onslaught from the box stores nearby. My wife and I eat low-salt, low-fat, and organic foods whenever possible, and the local grocery store doesn’t stock those items. Or much more as it happens. You know, there are a couple of dozen cans of soup and some cereal boxes on the front of the shelf with a lot of empty space behind them. And four of the six refrigerators have been shut down. But the owner and his son run it and they manage to hang in there. Somehow. I stopped in there yesterday morning and ran into the owner. We had the following conversation:

Hey,  how’s it going?

OK. I see you got two milks and a couple of waters.

Yep. I get two half-gallons of milk because we are saving the caps for our granddaughter.

Oh. Yeah? We don’t drink milk.

Really?

No. just chocolate milk sometimes.

How come, are you lactose intolerant?

Nope, we just don’t like white milk.

Oh, I see. Well, take care.

 ‘See ya.

This is typical of the conversations we have. In fact, I think we had that very same exchange a couple of months ago. The man’s son is usually there and we talk about the latest sporting event. Together we have fixed a number of the problems Minnesota’s  professional teams have had in the past few years. Not much for the mind to grab hold of, I admit. But I have my books, television, M.P.R., friends who read and write well. An amazing number of good writers in the region, in fact. And there are other compensations.

The folks are friendly. The plumber and his father-in-law who worked together for years drove three hours West through a blizzard several years ago to get us a new boiler when ours went out. And the younger man, who now runs the business, has a nifty triage system whereby he takes care of the customers with the more serious problem first. And he will come in the middle of the night if need be. Even came with a jacket and tie once to fix the furnace on his way out to dinner. He is entirely trustworthy and he doesn’t charge an arm and a leg, either.  We seldom lock our doors when we leave town, and while our two boys were growing up we never worried where they were. The town at that time had a siren that blew at noon, six o’clock, and ten o’clock. The boys would come home for lunch or supper when the whistle blew. And any kid under 16 had to be home before the ten o’clock whistle blew or the local cop would take him home! We no longer have a local cop and the whistle only blows for tornadoes so parents have had to rely on alternative modes of communicating with their kids whom they still don’t worry about. You guessed it, cell phones. Yep, even in my small town technology has taken over.

My take on small towns is rather different from that of William Gass who grew up in a small town in Indiana. He found “the rural mind [to be] narrow, passionate, and reckless” in matters of sports, politics, and religion. He was particularly put off by what he called the “surly Christian view,” which breeds prejudice and fear. I think there is some truth in this, though there may be differences between the folks in his rural area and mine. But, if one stays away from certain topics and doesn’t rock the boat too vigorously I find the folks around me to be open and friendly and the things they cherish not altogether different from the virtues practiced generally in this country at its founding — which, according to Clinton Rossiter, are such things as self-reliance, patriotism (shading off into jingoism at times), practicality, industry, and love of liberty. Folks in this town tend to cling to these values with both hands, for better or worse.

We bought our present home for $9,000.00 and had a good deal of work done on it, including an awful lot of our own “sweat equity.” A heck of a deal! Having lived in a truly booming metropolis, I will take this small town any day.