Posts Tagged ‘USA’


Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm” and “Restrepo”, has created a documentary in tribute to the photography, Tim Hetherington who filmed the video for the documentary version of “Restrepo”. Hetherington was killed in 2011 while accompanying a band of rebels in Libya. Junger’s documentary, “Which Way Is The Front Line From Here” is currently showing on HBO.

While being interviewed about the documentary by Terry Gross on her NPR show, “Fresh Air”, Junger spoke about how he had been at home in Massachusetts when the bombs went off at the Patriot’s Day marathon. He described how he was having a conversation about the attack with a friend when, all of a sudden, he zoned out and his mind transported him back to a vivid recollection of battle scene which he’d witnessed in Afghanistan. The tastes, the sounds, the smells, the emotions of that battle washed over him as though he were actually back at that place at that point in time. The experience lasted for only a few moments and then Junger snapped back into reality.

As I listened to Sebastian Junger describe his experience, I wondered how many other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were in Boston that day or in Watertown during the Friday morning shootout, if they experienced similar reactions and, if they did, what the impact of those reactions might be on their lives and the lives of those with whom they live.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Al Gore- The Future
Let’s be honest. Al Gore can come across as a pretentious, pedantic bore. His political enemies have done a great job of convincing most Americans that Gore takes personal credit for inventing the internet. (By the way, he doesn’t. During a 1999 CNN interview, he spoke about taking the initiative as vice-president to foster, economically and legislatively, the technology that we now know as the internet.) But Gore’s formality and stiffness in otherwise relaxed situations along with a tendency to sound self-righteous play right into the hands of those that perpetuate this notion.

That said, as the New York Times reviewer noted, Gore’s latest book, “The Future:Six Drivers of Global Change” is worth checking out for two ideas that it introduces. Reviewer Chrystia Freeland writes: “The first is the premise. Gore believes we are living in a ‘new period of hyperchange.’ The speed at which our world is changing…is unprecedented, and that transformation is the central reality of our lives. The technology revolution, Gore writes, ‘is now carrying us with it at a speed beyond our imagining toward ever newer technologically shaped realities that often appear, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, ‘indistinguishable from magic.’’”

“Gore’s second big argument is based on this first one,” Freeland writes. Since we’re experiencing these major economic and sociological changes, we need to think about the local, regional, and geo-political implications. Gore seems to believe that the nation-state is fast becoming irrelevant and talks about how globalization has really transformed business into Earth, Inc. And, he believes that if America doesn’t lead the rest of the world in developing a viable international reaction to these rapid changes, that the world will stay stuck in the paradigm that we’ve inherited from previous, less complicated centuries.

Of course, Al Gore isn’t the only person who believes that the business world has some issues such as “quarterly democracy” which need to be addressed. There are some, and I include themselves among them, who believe that this period of Capitalism is reminiscent of the days of the robber barons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a recent TIME essay, “The Curious Capitalist” Rana Forooha talks about the short-termism of our system of shareholder capitalism and about those “calling for not only corporate pay and tax reforms but also a more Germanic-style stakeholder capitalism that can spread the benefits of a company’s growth more evenly among labor, management and shareholders.”

For capitalism to remain viable, it’s important that the population be economically productive. However, new technologies are enabling companies to employ “robosourcing” which eliminates a high percentage of workers from the equation. If memory serves, Gore mentions software which can be used by legal firms to do the work of 10,000 legal interns. Not great news for law students who’ve invested all that time, money and effort in their educations.
With people living longer and healthier lives, society is going to need to figure out a way to keep the population productively employed so that they can participate not only as conscientious citizens but also as active consumers who stoke the engines of capitalism with their purchases and contribute to the government coffers via taxes.

Along with unemployment, the overall growth of the world population, the aging of populations in first world nations, “The Future” also addresses water quality and shortages, top soil depletion and, of course, the effects of global warming. I have to admit that the Malthusian in me started wondering about the impact these dilemmas would have on fear and the growth of intolerance which generates hate groups like neo-Nazis, radical Islamists, and the like.

In his New York Times review of “The Future”, Michiko Kakutani says Gore is most convincing “when he refrains from editorializing and sticks to analyzing how changes in technology, our political climate and the environment are going to affect the world, often creating domino and cascadelike effects.” For instance, how the growth of the Internet and proliferation of mobile phones in developing countries has helped closed the information gap and increased the opportunity for “robust democratic discourse” but also increases threats to privacy and cybersecurity. Or how 3-D printing raises questions about intellectual property as well as copyright and patent law and how advances in science technology might soon create ethical dilemmas when parents have the opportunity to create “designer babies” with the ability to choose not only hair and eye color but also height, strength, and intelligence characteristics.

“The Future” is an ambitious project. Probably,too much so. Gore tries to educate us with a comprehensive, holistic overview about how various factors (business, population, environment, technology, information) interrelate but the effect can be overwhelming. Add Al Gore’s wooden and ponderous communication style to the mix and you might find your mind wandering as you wade through it. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort. As Gore observes: “We as human beings now face a choice: either to be swept along by the powerful currents of technological change and economic determinism into a future that may threaten our deepest values, or to build a capacity for collective decision making on a global scale.”

Something to think about.

Oscar, Yes. Promotion, No.

Jessica Chastain won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the CIA operative whose obsession with al-Qaeda’s network of couriers led to the discovery of Osama bi Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. Chastain in Zero Dark 30
However, it might surprise you to learn that the woman on whom Chastain’s character is based was denied a promotion which would have earned her an extra $16K per year.

Apparently, the real-life Maya (not her actual name) is, shall we say, “assertive” and as one of her colleagues explained to a reporter not Miss Congeniality. However, another colleague pointed out that jerks are not in short supply at the CIA so the woman’s abrasive personality shouldn’t be an impediment to promotion.

The CIA says that she received a financial bonus after bin Laden was found but the agency was reticent about discussing why the operative’s promotion from GS 13 to GS 14 was denied.

Here’s the Washington Post story:

You’ll notice that this story was published in early December and it did get some press coverage then. But, as Charles Peters observes in The Washington Monthly, it’s odd that this story hasn’t received much wider media attention. Especially, following Chastain’s Oscar win.

The Price of Politics

Listening to the conversation during the past year about the recent US Presidential elections, I had the distinct impression that many of my fellow citizens equate the belief that the person who holds the office of American president is “the most powerful (person) in the world” with a notion that s/he is omnipotent. It seems like magical thinking. That, somehow, an American president can just declare something   ( wave a magic wand, so to speak) and it will become so. Of course, the world is more complicated than that.

Last April, I attended Bob Woodward’s lecture at Union College and was surprised that Woodward seemed to have a negative attitude toward President Obama. I was recently reminded of that experience while listening to Jon Meacham discuss his new book about Thomas Jefferson and the similarities to our current political situations. According to Meachan, Jefferson explained to his constituents (I’m paraphrasing here) that they should expect to be disappointed in some of his decisions because he had more information about situations than they did. The idealists who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 have been actively critical of some of the President’s actions and decisions during the past four years. In this book, Woodward seems to delight in pointing out contradictions between what Mr. Obama said and what he did. Again, I’m paraphrasing: “The president said: ‘I don’t want to lecture you” and then proceeded to lecture them.”  The guy was a college professor. Is it a surprise that lecturing is his default mode of communication?

This book concerns the negotiations during 2011between the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans regarding the national budget. Woodward’s usual style is to interview as many participants and observers of conversations, both on and off the record, as possible in order to reconstruct those situations. The amount of distrust that Republican political leaders display during these interviews towards President Obama’s attempts to arrive at a bipartisan agreement is disconcerting.  I understand that during negotiations each party positions itself towards the extremes so that they can eventually create a compromise for which each side can save face and claim victory. We don’t get any sense from this book that such was the case during these negotiations. Even when Obama is making clear the administration’s willingness to sacrifice for the sake of negotiation, there’s a sense that the Republican leaders believe there must be some evil intent.

An impression I take away from Woodward’s book is that Obama senior advisors Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emmanuel contributed to this perceptions, perhaps without the president’s knowledge.  Especially following the 2008 election, Woodward reports that both Jarrett and Emmanuel responded with arrogant “Tough luck. We won” attitudes to Republicans while President Obama was working to convey his willingness to create bipartisanship.  GOP leaders presumed that Jarrett and Emmanuel were speaking for the president but, given the problems that Obama was having with the left-wing idealists of this Liberal constituency during the first two years of his presidency, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

There’s one fact I recall from this book which I find to be quite ironic. The Republican leadership’s emphasis was on cutting costs.  Of course, their emphasis was on “entitlements” and they reacted very negatively toward any considerations about to cut the Pentagon’s budget. However, when the Department of Defense was asked how many people they employed, their response was “somewhere between one and nine million”.  When pressed, they couldn’t be more specific.  Republicans are the political party of business. I find it difficult to believe that any company CEO or president would react well if, when asked about the number of people their company employed, HR provided such a stunningly vague response.  If the number of people employed by the Pentagon is “somewhere between 1 and 9 million”, it seems like there much be some fat which could be cut from its budget.

As  I write this in late November 2012, President Obama has won re-election, Republicans are still resistant to returning to Clinton-era rates for those earning more than $250,000, and the “fiscal cliff” looms ahead of us. Let’s hope our leaders have all learned some valuable lessons from the experiences described in Woodward’s book.


Happy Thanksgiving !

May your blessings outnumber your regrets.

Norman Rockwell’s “Thanksgiving”

The Passage of Power

In this book, Robert Caro picks up Lyndon Baines Johnson’s where he left off in Master of Senate.  LBJ was nothing if not a complex person. Victim/bully/ champion of human rights/manipulative politician/devoted family man/adulterer.

Having grown up in predominantly Irish Catholic Southern New England during the 1960s, I was enamored with President Kennedy.  Unofficially, he was sanctified by the majority of New Englanders that I knew.  So, it’s disappointing to learn how the Kennedys and their colleagues treated Johnson. The Kennedys ridiculed and humiliated the man.

Bobby comes across as mean-spirited, self-centered, and a bit of a jerk.  I hadn’t realized that Bobby had been a staffer for Senator Joe McCarthy.  And there’s a scene where Bobby mocks then-Vice President Johnson at a dinner party by sticking pins in a Johnson voodoo doll. And Johnson, who was insecure in his VP role to begin with, feared that Bobby would thwart his ambitions to be the Democratic party’s presidential candidate in 1964 and 1968.

Early in this book, Caro reveals some behind the scenes details about the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Being a teenager who grew up in post-World War II America, I presumed that we had the situation under control and that everything would turn out alright. Apparently, we were a  lot closer to nuclear war and annihilation than I thought we were.  Fortunately, we lucked out.

The dominant theme for most of Caro’s book is the frustration that Lyndon Johnson felt during his time as JFK’s vice-president.  Another VP, who was marginalized by FDR’s charisma, John Nance Garner described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”. There’s little doubt that LBJ, who enjoyed using his power as Master of the Senate, agreed with that description of the vice-presidency.

The story in “The Passage Of Power” is far from boring. As the Washington Post’s reviewer writes: “In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, petty, brilliant, cruel and …domineering.” “Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import.”

The book contains interesting behind-the-scenes details about JFK’s selection of Johnson to be his running mate and about RFK’s efforts to thwart that decision. There’s also the story about how, after being denied the presidential candidacy and being offered the VP position, LBJ has staff members research how many presidents had died in office and, doing the math, calculates that the odds are in his favor that he might gain the presidency under those circumstances. Although Caro’s book cites authorities which make it clear that Johnson had no involvement in the JFK assassination, I have little doubt that the revelation of that particular anecdote is sure to fan the flames for conspiracy theorists.

For those of us who live through it, the story of the hours and days immediately following the events of November 22nd, 1963 are the most riveting part of this book.  Being the personality type who becomes calmer and more focused during times of crisis, I could relate to Johnson’s reactions during those chaotic hours at the hospital immediately following the assassination. Witnesses marvel at how calm and in control he seemed. We also learn the reactions of Bobby and the Kennedy staff who despised Johnson and their unfavorable interpretations of his behavior.  One gets the sense that, even when LBJ was trying his best to be sensitive the Kennedy group’s situation, he just couldn’t win.  And, of course, the fact that the assassination occurred in LBJ’s beloved Texas didn’t help the situation.

In Bill Clinton’s review of Caro’s book, he marvels at LBJ’s political skill and talks about how, after Johnson assumed the presidency, he determined to get JFK’s Civil Rights bill passed by Congress despite the strong opposition of his fellow Southern Democrats. LBJ was advised to avoid squandering the political capital he’d gained as a result of the assassination on a cause that seemed hopeless. But Johnson’s response was: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Clinton says that that’s the question that every president has to ask and to answer. To LBJ, during the final weeks of 1963, “presidency was for two things: passing a civil rights bill with teeth…and launching the War on Poverty.”  It’s LBJ’s knowledge, skill and expertise in schmoozing, bullying, and cajoling Congress which gets the legislation passed by the House and the Senate. One gets the sense that, had John Kennedy lived, his administration wouldn’t have been able to achieve those results. It’s an interesting hypothesis and, of course, an answer which we’ll never know.

One thing that struck me while listening to this audio book is the comparison of how different things were back then when a president and congressional majority leader could use their powers to withhold perks and powerful positions in order to control Congress and get legislation passed. Today, when Tea Party candidates aren’t interested in becoming “professional politicians” and are determined to undermine the legislative system, those tactics can no longer work.  So, I’m amused when I hear pundits criticizing our modern day president for not being able to control Congress under these circumstances.  One only has to look at John Boehner’s frustration at trying to control his GOP colleagues in the House to understand the dilemmas of American political leadership in the 21st century.

“The Passage Of Power” ends  as LBJ is deciding how the USA will proceed with its military efforts in Vietnam. His decisions about that war along with those of his successor, Richard Nixon were factors in creating the divisions between the Babyboomers and their parents’ generation and what Jimmy Carter described as our national “malaise” in the 1970s. As I finished this book, the thought struck me that the erosion of our attitude towards the presidency had its roots in Lyndon Johnson’s administration.




September 11th

Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” –

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?

Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?
Did you burst out with pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?

I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
You the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty ’cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?
Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on “I Love Lucy” reruns?

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Did you stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?

[Chorus x2]

And the greatest is love.
And the greatest is love.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?

(Written & sung by Alan Jackson)




Livin’ In The U.S.A

In his recent TIME essay , The History of the American Dream, Jon Meacham observes: “Strangely, it’s now possible for the French to be move socially and economically mobile than Americans”.

So much for the American capitalism vs. European socialism argument.

Meanwhile, in one of his recent columns, David Brooks writes about America: “Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.”

During the 1992 presidential campaign, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos came up with “It’s The Economy, Stupid” for Bill Clinton. Twenty years later, it’s the economy again. Or, for our more granular 21st century speak, “Jobs”.

The Washington Monthly’s summer issue focuses on the economic debate that our politicians aren’t having, the erosion of the average American family’s wealth and its relation to the country’s future success. In the information overload of our daily lives, it’s easy to respond to the bumper sticker language of campaigns and to forget that America doesn’t live in isolation from the rest of the world. More than ever, it’s a global economy and those in power are frequently not in a position to lead as much as to react.

Personally, I’ve been an advocate for a WPA-type of approach to getting the unemployed back to work while fixing the country’s neglected infrastructure. Rather than extending federal unemployment benefits, it would seem more logical to use those dollars to put people back to work doing something useful which not only helps the country but also provides those involved with a sense of purpose and pride.

However, as the Washington Monthly’s Paul Glastris and Phillip Longman point out: “With household asset levels so depleted, it’s folly to think that the economy can be set right merely by adding more jobs, however much they’re needed. That’s the lesson of the Great Depression and World War II. As James K. Galbraith has pointed out.., the New Deal built infrastructure and put Americans back to work, but failed to spark self-sustaining economic growth. It was ‘the war, an only the war that restored..the financial wealth of the American middle class.’.”

Hopefully, we won’t need to resort to another world war in order to get our financial house back in order. That’s not a solution that any of us wants to ponder. However, watching what’s been going on in Europe and in the Middle East shouldn’t make any of us feel too complacent.

So, if the U.S. is going to get back on track, all of us, you and me included, are going to have to urge our political leaders to focus on uniting rather dividing the country along ideological lines. In his TIME article, Jon Meacham writes: “We are stronger the wider we open our arms… Our dreams are more powerful when they are shared by others in our time and we are the only ones who can create a climate for the American Dream to survive another generation.”

As Aesop noted in one of his fables a long time ago, “United we stand. Divided we fall.”

Political Cartoons-2012 Style

Controversial, sometimes nasty, cartoons have been part of the American political landscape since the pre-Revolutionary War days. They just didn’t have Photoshop. Here are some examples of what’s being shared on Facebook during this year’s presidential campaign:

If you’re an “undecided”, these efforts might persuade you one way or another. If you’re a partisan, they’ll simply reinforce your opinion. And, of course, now that the Supreme Court has upheld Obamacare (The Affordable Health Care Act), the images produced by both sides are bound to become more and more offensive as fears mount that the other guy just might win.

Geographic Literacy

My philosophy is that “it’s all about stories”.

Data is just information. But information doesn’t really mean anything until it’s in formation in the form of a story.

For some reason, we Americans tend to be geographically ignorant. Maybe that’s because our maps have been boring. That’s about to change. Check out Dave Imus’ award-winning Essential Geography of the United States of America.