Saturday, March 28, 2009

Random Thoughts

I’m wondering whether we are heading into a different world. I guess that’s probably silly, since we are always heading into a different world from some perspective. But, for example, today we received no mail at all.  None. And that’s a first. We’ve been married 53 plus years and we have always received some mail, Monday through Saturday. The Mail Person picked up our outgoing mail, so it wasn’t the case that our delivery person was ill. Nope, she arrived right on time, but without any mail for us. It immediately set both of us to thinking, maybe we really don’t need to get mail six days a week. I mean, for the past few months, it has become the norm that our daily mail consists of commercial advertisements, which we normally discard without reading. Perhaps every other day, or maybe less, say  once a week on average, we receive a bill or two. A few times per month, we receive a magazine or two.  Once every two months, or maybe every three months, we receive a personal communication from someone. And that’s our mail. So, why would we need six day a week delivery? Perhaps twice a week delivery would be more than adequate; even once a week would be ok. 

And then there’s our incredibly shrinking newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. I keep expecting to go out one morning and find no paper, because none was produced. We note here too, that the percentage of news in the paper to news we don’t already know is shrinking. The NPR radio summaries we get on awakening generally covers half the morning newspaper. Another quarter is news we received the prior night on NPR.  There’s the obligatory story about someone blowing up something or somebody in Iraq, or Afghanistan, a counter story to our side blowing up somebody or something. Increasingly, we see stories about the inflating unemployment rate and how people formerly employed are now unemployed and can’t find a job, or are having too much fun to look for one (their bank accounts are not yet empty, I guess). And then there’s the comics, which I read daily. Totally, we might get the equivalent of 15 minutes of new news. So, maybe we don’t need a daily newspaper either (although NPR won’t give me the comics, so that’s a bummer). We now receive the Sunday New York Times, and maybe that’s enough

I’ve thought for a long time that we have waaaay too much TV/radio news programming chasing way too little news. Do we really need all those Fox-MSNBC-CNN Murdoch parrots shouting at us? We don’t of course listen to them. They’re idiots on parade, so why would we watch/listen to them?

And then there’s our “entertainment” cable TV, digital and all that, capable of receiving the several hundred channels we theoretically can receive on Time-Warner. But do we watch many of the several hundred? Well, no. We Tivo Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Bill Moyers. So, if we are not watching a NetFlix movie, we are watching one of our Tivo programs, fast forwarding through the commercials. Then, if it’s getting late, and we’re almost ready to go nighty-night, we turn on one of the several rerun channels to watch MASH, or Seinfeld, or Home Improvement. It doesn’t matter much, because typically we are unable to watch a complete show. I say unable because a) we might just fall asleep, or, b) we are unable to watch 10-15 commercials per break. We simply can’t do it. In the old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth along with modern man, we used to watch network TV and they would hit you with a commercial, or two each break. Now, I guess because they’ve dropped the per-minute rates to attract cheapo companies to TV, they hit you with 10-15 per break. And that’s just too many. So, in frustration, we simply turn them off.

And then there’s the Internet, where we actually get most of our news of the world and of friends and family.  Stuff we used to get through the mail or by telephone, we now get through E-Mail, blogs, Facebook, and daily infusions of news summaries and news alerts from BBC, Australian Broadcasting, Thai-India News, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Manchester Guardian, Salon, Slate, and several “progressive” or science-based Internet outlets. Many of them also carry commercials, which we largely ignore and no longer even see. Since you can comment on the content of these media outlets, there is at least the possibility of merging your own views with those of hundreds of others into the stream of public commentary. And generally, you can see your comments along with the hundreds of others. You can even easily e-mail the White House with your views—I used to mail comments weekly to Bill Clinton when he was president. He never read them I’m sure, but I guess someone did. But now, I can just e-mail them.

So this brave new world into which I see us heading poses a lot of questions for me.

·         Are we getting all the news we need to be good citizens, and what does it mean in this weird electronic world to be a good citizen?

·         Since we know the media routinely lies to us, especially the Fox-CNN crowd, and we know with certainty that our politicians lie to us whenever it suits them (“we don’t torture”), how can we be sure that we actually know what’s going on in our neighborhood, no less the world?

·         Does it matter whether we know what’s going on in the world . . . I mean, how differently would the world operate if we didn’t know?

·         What is entertainment in this brave new world, and should we care? Are MASH reruns good enough, especially for we old folks? Do I really care who the latest Idol bimbo might be?

·         And finally, suppose the powers that be simply shut down all these news and entertainment outlets because nobody was paying attention any longer? Wouldn’t that just give me more time to read a good book, or smell the flowers? I guess it's a different take on that old 1960s theme, suppose they gave a war and nobody showed up? Yeah, just suppose.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Cuckoos

Spring really is here. All the Spring Cuckoos, sometimes known as Republicans, are out and about shouting about Obamaland and how our Prez is ruining America. The Spring Cuckoos, remember, are the birds who never uttered a peep during eight years of the reigning Boy King, during which he started an illegal war, corrupted every agency in government, stood by while New Orleans went down the drain almost literally, and then oversaw the most destructive assault on the American Economy since Herbert Hoover. This morning, we had a Spring Cuckoo from the Cato Institute whining about “cap’n’trade” and how Obamaland was going to ruin everything by insisting we do something about global warming. Earlier, George Will was whining about tax policy. Note please, he forgot to whine when Reagan (for whom he wrote speeches) and the Boy King were attacking progressive tax policies and running larger budget deficits than any presidents in our history. No, apparently George just awakened from his eight year nap.

But what the hell, I guess we need to take the good (actual Spring) with the Bad (Spring Cuckoos). Smell the flowers, assuming it’s stopped snowing in your part of this grand nation. Look for the arrival of robins in your neck of the woods. In fact, fill your bird feeders, assuming you have some. The birdies are hungry, but please ignore the Spring Cuckoos. They won’t go away, but do whatever you do with the annoying calls that want you to buy something you don’t need or want, or to donate to causes in which you have little interest.

Tune them out. Turn them off. And if you remember that standard advice for people about to engage in public speaking, who are a bit nervous about it all—they’re told, "just imagine the audience is sitting there with no clothes on”. In my case, I’m sitting here, imagining that George Will and his cohort of Spring Cuckoos have just discovered that their entire retirement portfolio was invested with Bernie Madoff. Then I can relax and smile. Spring is here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dear Bernie Madoff

I didn't write this. I wish I had. I simply believe it speaks truth.

A Rabbi's Open Letter to Bernie Madoff

Dear Bernie Madoff:

I don't think you know what you have done.

Life inevitably inflicts upon us different kinds of wounds. Very few people can live connected lives and not occasionally fail those who depend upon them and trust them. However, these are failures not betrayals. They come from trying to do the right thing and not being able to do it. A betrayal is different than a failure. A betrayal is an intentional wounding. It is born of cruelty, not ignorance. Most of us know of failures and betrayals. What you have done, however, is to radically expand the scope and viciousness of betrayal. You betrayed not just your friends, but your closest friends. You betrayed the trust of those who entrusted you with everything they had saved. You betrayed charities whose good works you have extinguished in an afternoon. These betrayals are epic in their scope and dazzling in their utter lack of remorse or responsibility. There must be some new word invented to describe the way you have redefined betrayal. The Bible calls such things a toevah, "an abomination". It means an act so alien to our
values and our natures that it cannot be understood or explained. You have committed an abomination. This is what you have done. 

Another thing you did was make life incredibly more difficult for people who sell real and honorable and legitimate money products. Now every stock broker and money manager and hedge-fund operator and insurance rep who has already had a tough time convincing prospective clients that what they are selling is good and honest must now also convince them that they are not like you. An entire world economy we now know is based to an immense degree on simple trust, and you have done more than any single person to destroy that trust. You are a financial terrorist. Your attack has toppled the foundations of trust in our financial markets. Although you are not by any means the only financial terrorist, you are its most reviled attacker. What has brought us down are not worthless financial instruments, but worthless people. Many business people have always known and have never forgotten that trust is all the collateral they have ever placed against a loan. Your name is on people's lips now, but the ones out there selling honest products at a fair price ought to push your name into the gutter where it belongs.
This is what you have done.

 One of the very worst things you did has to do with the Jews. You are responsible for reviving the "Jew game." I heard of the Jew game from a boy who became a man last Saturday. I asked him once if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in school. That is when he looked at the floor and told me about the Jew game. The game, played by anti-Semitic kids in school, was one in which they would hide around a corner, throw a quarter down the hall, and then when somebody picked up the quarter, they'd run at the person, shouting, "You're the Jew!" 

You did not cause the anti-Semitic insults about Jews and money, but you caused them to be revived. Not since Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union has one person so damaged the image and the self-respect of American Jews. I am not comfortable with the fact that so many of the articles about you specifically identify your prominent place in the Jewish community. Ken Lay of Enron shame was never identified as a "prominent Protestant energy broker." The most aggressive accusers of the governor of Illinois seldom describe him as "the prominent
Serbian-American governor of
Illinois." Yes, it is unfair that your Jewishness has become part of the storyline. But you just reminded the bigots who grew up playing The Jew Game that it still strikes a familiar chord. You wiped out Joe Lieberman's accomplishments. You revived ancient bigotry against our people. You gave credence to the horrid accusations about Jews being untrustworthy and greedy. One offensive paper has a column called "Jews in the News," which focuses on some Jewish criminal or other to remind their sickening readers of the legitimacy of anti-Semitism. You are not just one of the "Jews in the news" they seek. You are the apotheosis of their hate-filled world. You have given the Jew-haters material for a decade of hate gardening. You single-handedly revived the Jew game. This is what you have done.
Most of those you've deceived will learn to live and give in new and perhaps more modest ways. Unlike your evil, which has been stopped, nothing will stop their courage and compassion. Some of your victims will no doubt be more severely wounded in circumstance and in spirit, but none of them, I pray, will surrender to your assault. Their friends will not leave them. Their children and grandchildren will not refuse to hug them and kiss them. After their initial trauma subsides, they will, I believe, move on to cling to the blessings that cannot ever be stolen. 

You, on the other hand, will lose everything-everything! From this day to the end of your life, there will be none who will trust you. To be mistrusted by everyone is an enormous curse and you have brought this all upon yourself, and for what purpose? You were supposed to be the master of risk and reward and you risked everything from everyone for what reward? You have not just made a bad calculation about how money works, you have made a bad calculation about how life works. You gave no value to what matters and all value to what does not matter at all. This is what you have done. 

Shame on you Bernie Madoff. Shame on you.


By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Saturday, March 14, 2009


We watched Bill Mahrer’s "Religulous" last evening.

I know, I know, his film was, to say the least, controversial. Basically, he interviews a bunch of people about their views on religion, and then uses those interviews to make fun of their religious beliefs. It’s basically a series of hit and run incidents. This kind of a film always makes me wonder why the people being interviewed agree to the interviews. Why would they do that? Do they not understand who Bill Mahrer is?  Kind of like the White House Correspondents’ dinner show inviting Steven Colbert to be their featured speaker. Huh? Do any of you ever watch his show? And then, gasp, they’re shocked . . . shocked to hear him run down the current president. Their reaction tells you everything you needed to know about their competence as “journalists.”

Then we have other similar shows—remember 60 Minutes, that original hit and run “news” show?

But a program making fun of religion. Wow! That’s an entirely different kind of hit and run. Were I Mahrer, I would be worried about one of the big-time Islamic clerics issuing one of their many death fatwahs against him. They seem to have no sense of humor about themselves or their chosen profession. Making fun of them is sort of like making fun of the National Association of Mafia Hit-Men.

Still, however well or badly his performance, I had to marvel at how utterly inept were the people with whom he spoke, about this subject. Most seemed just dumbfounded (hmmm . . . an apt phrase in this instance). When challenged (Mahrer had done at least some homework for this assignment) most were unable to respond with anything like an intelligent reply. They mostly sputtered—perhaps he chose his subjects well for their inarticulateness.  Actually, the most intelligent responses came from some reformed clerics, one of whom was still a cleric. They explained away much of the bible stories as just “stories.” One went on to explain the great gap between when much of the bible material was written and the beginning of science. So (duh!) the people who wrote the bible stories were largely ignorant white males who simply didn’t understand most of what they heard, witnessed, or wrote about.

I was heartened by one statistic, also reported in this morning’s newspaper—the growth in people who claim no religion—the percentage has doubled in North Carolina over the past 20 years, and nationally, it stands at about 16% of the population.

The other interesting thing about the film was that it wasn’t really about God. He has no position about God, except to say, “I don’t know.” But the religious believers claim to know, and equate their religious beliefs with God. None seem capable of separating the two subjects--God and religion.

All interesting, even if the film was as anecdotal as most of the religious belief systems he ridiculed.

Oh, and on a final note, Mahrer never even mentioned Buddhism. Maybe they just don’t kill enough people in the name of their religion.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thinking About a New World

I wonder if we shall ever return to a period of relative comity in this country. Perhaps it is “the times” in which we live. Perhaps we have never lived in a period of harmony. I keep hoping that common sense, or perhaps a seeking of the greater good will arrive, or return(?) to the country to allow us to manage these troubled times without shrieking at one another.

I have given up watching televised news altogether, mainly because what passes for news on any of the main media channels is content-free. As old Will said, it is all “full of sound and fury, and, in the end, signifying nothing.”

But it is not simply the dreadful talking heads of the Fox media pseudo-news outlets. I read recently of a suicide bomber in, I think, Pakistan (but it matters little exactly where). The bomber was a young teenaged boy. In an interview, his father acknowledged his role. He had oriented (brainwashed?) the son, and had strapped on the dynamite vest. He had sent his son off to die, and, more to the point, to kill more innocents. And I sat there listening, beyond belief. It requires a theatrical suspension of disbelief to listen and pretend to understand how a father could raise a child so as to die in the cause of some irrational belief system. How could anyone do that? And how could any religion sanction such an action? Are we in some kind of time warp that people would act this way toward one another?

And how do we reverse such an awful trend?

The talking heads don’t personally strap dynamite vests on young children. That requires a sacrilegious madness. And we seem to have a never ending supply of such madmen. But the talking heads do inspire fear, and they inspire anger toward, in our case, the people at the top of our government who actually are attempting to solve the mess created by the prior ideologues of the right. Whether they will indeed succeed, or the world instead collapses of its own debt load remains uncertain. But somehow, we, the world at large who sit by daily and watch and listen to the madness around us, need to consider how we can begin acting in an enlightened manner towards one another.

Morality does not mean bending others toward your will. Morality requires listening to the grievances of the poor, the sick, the children, the elderly and then thinking about what mankind can do to alleviate hunger and disease, and suffering. Morality does not involve telling gays and lesbians that they cannot and should not live like the rest of mankind. Morality requires that we attempt to understand rather than condemn them. Morality does not require trying to convince non-Christians to become Christian.  Instead it requires us to rejoice in the knowledge that others have found for themselves their own paths to enlightenment. 

Before George Bush and his supporters, the United States was the wealthiest nation on earth. Should we ever return to such a position, perhaps we should consider how to use some of that wealth to alleviate distress, rather than using it to build bigger and faster bombers. It is not that bombers will never be needed, but that they should be the last resort, rather than the first.

And the make-believe news media. Ahh, yes the media. They make too much money and spread too much distress. They are our Chicken Littles. We need to switch them off.

Yes, that’s it. The little channel changer, or maybe even the off switch.  Go get a book instead, preferably not one written by that Coulter creature.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hope and Fear

We spent the weekend in Chapel Hill, where UNC was playing Duke in a final men’s basketball game for the UNC seniors. All in all, it was a stimulating and entirely lovely weekend. Good conversations with our hosts, Val and Ric Steinbacher, and a lovely springtime feel in the air, with some cherry blossoms and other assorted flowering trees much in evidence on campus.

Walking around the campus on Sunday, and, observing the fresh excited faces of college students anticipating this big game, I felt refreshed--the now daily drumbeat of bad news from the Nation’s leadership and bad faith from the Nation’s not-so-loyal opposition is a true downer after all. All in all, we needed this dose of young life , excited about something beyond war and economic disaster visited upon all of us by the world’s economic malenfants.  And it was nice to be able to hear jokes expressed about college athletics as opposed to political idiocies.

We had much time to simply sit and chat, throughout the day and over a splendid meal at a lovely French provincial restaurant in Chapel Hill. The conversations invariably focused on these tough times. At one point, sitting in the living room, voicing our concerns and listening to theirs, I found myself thinking that we probably needed to change the conversation. I kept looking at their young teenage daughter, only half listening, as she sat with her I-Machine plugged into her ears. As I watched her, I thought, hmmm, maybe we really need to change the conversation. Will she become overly fearful, listening to our talk about the economic gloom and doom? Isn’t this like exposing your youngster to gory movies?

Then I relaxed bit, realizing that mostly, our conversation remained at a rational level, with at least some periodic expressions of hope—that there are opportunities mixed in with the challenges in this sea of troubles. People in different settings view the troubles from multiple points of view.  While sticking your head in the sand, and plugging your ears might work for a few, most thinking people need to express their outrage, their perplexity, and their hopes in rational settings, where fear mixed with hope provides some relief from the drumbeat of bad news. Even teenagers, I understood, need to understand that something serious is afoot in the land. That the world is more than I-Tunes and Facebook and that, whether the Jonas Brothers suck, or not, is largely irrelevant in the overall scheme of things.

It brought me back a bit to my own world as a child—WW II was going on, only dimly perceived by me. The Great Depression still had its grip on the land and the populace, although it was fading from view, driven out by other equally bad things and bad people. But throughout my childhood, I realized that somewhere, adults were dealing with these bad things. In some cases, the adults were far afield—FDR telling us things on our radio that I barely understood; Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading us the Sunday funnies over that same radio. I think I understood that we were going to be ok, despite all that gloom and doom, because some adults, somewhere would make it ok.  

Hopefully, our hosts’ teenaged daughter, only half listening, is thinking the same thing—“the world sucks at the moment, but the adults in my life are going to make it all ok again.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Financial War Crimes Tribunal

These days, even when our President tries his best to put a smiley face on the Nation’s financial distress, we dig the hole a bit deeper. The stock market, seemingly a completely dysfunctional and non-rational system at best, takes a nose dive whenever President Obama opens his mouth.
Having been born during the depths of Global Depression I (The Great Depression) I am now left wondering whether this Second Great Depression—the one they said couldn’t occur any more-- will outlast me, or perhaps more to the point, whether we will outlast our money.
I still remember my Scottish grandparents literally running out of money. There of course was no Social Security system in the late 1940s, when they ran out of money. Family members were expected to care for their elders. That is still the case today, except that our elders are expected at least to pay for part if not all of their expenses.
I am left with this question, though. Do the perps (bankers, economists, and other financial detritus) who created the bubbles that have now all burst have any understanding of the true magnitude of their misdeeds? “Mistakes were made”, that plaintive cry of the Bushies, is simply not good enough. There really needs to be an accounting. Much as people are beginning to demand an accounting of Bush anti-democratic and unconstitutional mismanagement of our government during a time of crisis, we need some kind of Truth Commission, perhaps a Global one, since we are not the only nation affected, nor are our Perps, the only ones who committed these vast crimes against humanity.
We need something like the War Crimes Tribunal after WW II, this one concerned with global financial miscreants who have destroyed lives and perhaps even whole nations. We need an accounting of “who did what to whom” and who allowed these vast misdeeds to be perpetrated. We kept repeating over and over again that the Great Depression could never again occur because of the safeguards built in after that cataclysmic event. But then we slowly but surely eliminated the safeguards, because economists kept assuring everyone that private sector money managers the world over would never be stupid enough, or greedy enough to repeat the mistakes of the past.
But with the safeguards eliminated, they did precisely that. That they were both stupid and greedy now goes without saying. But this needs saying—such people will always be both stupid and greedy. ALWAYS.
Now they need to be held to account.
We need a Commission that will speak Truth to Power.
It is Time.