Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Newspapers are selling off their real estate

Sometimes newspapers make the news, not just report it. So it was this morning when the News & Observer reported that its owners were accepting proposals to sell the N&O's landmark building in downtown Raleigh.

Other tidbits could be found in the story: The N&O now employs about half the number of people in the downtown building as it did in 2008. The Charlotte Observer is also considering selling its downtown offices.

All of this reminds us of the sad state of American newspapers. All — or nearly all — have sharply curtailed staffing. News isn't being reported. The newspapers' heft is a fraction of what it once was. Classified advertising is almost completely gone. Fat newspaper profits ("a license to print money," it was said) have dwindled. Esteemed newspapers have found their real estate more valuable than their business. The Washington Post has sold its iconic headquarters, lovingly reproduced in the movie "All the President's Men." Now North Carolina's largest papers are looking for real estate developers to give them an infusion of cash they can no longer get from advertisers.

I've been in the N&O building in downtown Raleigh a couple of times, never able to figure out the labyrinthine layout. I'm more familiar with the Charlotte Observer building. In 1970, the summer I interned at the Observer, the big, modernist building was half built. The production department and presses had moved into the new facility. News was holed up across the street in offices that had housed a fraternal organization. One of my jobs, as the lowest on the department's totem pole, was to run "copy" — the typewritten paper news articles — across the street, where each letter would be typeset in lead for the gargantuan presses.

Later, after I had resigned as editor of the Danville Register, I talked to the city editor and editor in the expansive newsroom one Saturday morning about possibly working for the Observer. Nothing came of the interview, but I saw the newspaper office completed nine years after I had couriered paper into the building, which had become a downtown landmark.

The sad state of American newspapers has been recognized since the sudden collapse began about 10 years ago, but the sale of newspaper real estate clarifies just how low once-great newspapers have sunk. Downtown real estate is the seed corn of journalism, the monuments to once-powerful empires now up for sale like an empty Kmart.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Policy toward Cuba needs to grow up

The United States has been trying to run the Castro regime out of Cuba for longer than President Obama has been alive. It hasn't worked. Now Obama wants to try something different — and more sensible.

Obama announced Wednesday a relaxation of restrictions against Cuba and the opening of diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1960 in response to Fidel Castro's coup and his embrace of communism. A year later, President Kennedy went ahead with a plot started by the Eisenhower administration to overthrow Castro through the support of anti-Castro exiles. The Bay of Pigs is remembered today as one of the great debacles of Cold War foreign policy. Cuban troops routed the ill-trained and ill-equipped insurgents.

 An embargo of trade with Cuba has not succeeded in more than 50 years, and it will not succeed for another 50 years. Cuba is a natural trading partner for the United States and was a favored tourist destination in the pre-Castro years.

It is difficult to justify an embargo of Cuba when regimes of similar or even worse human-rights and anti-American policies enjoy free trade and diplomatic recognition. Can the United States continue to isolate Cuba while it maintains normal relations with Russia, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and other nations? If an embargo worked, wouldn't the United States have used it against other nations with totalitarian regimes or socialist economies?

The Cuban embargo was born out of Cold War fears, which were affirmed and exacerbated by the truly frightening 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but so much has changed since the Castro regime's early years. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The Cold War officially ended. Russia and China have embraced capitalism in one form or another. Cuba is no longer sending soldiers to fight proxy wars in Africa. The rationale for isolating Cuba has disappeared.

American interests lie with helping Cuba to reform, adopt more free-trade and human rights policies and come into the 21st century through the example of American freedoms and products. A trade embargo and other restrictions make no sense in 2014.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas traditions include special china

I don't know when, exactly, we started this Christmas tradition, but it has to be about 20 years old. By then, our small children were no longer small. They were teenagers or more, my wife was working, and we had achieved a degree of comfort replacing the monthly panic over matching income with expenses.

We had developed other Christmas traditions. When our children were still sitting on our laps, we began lighting the Advent wreath and holding a family observance each Sunday of Advent. We would buy a Christmas tree on or near our oldest child's Dec. 13 birthday. The children would help decorate the tree, and the youngest would get to place the angel atop the tree.

Our new tradition began when my brother and sister-in-law began giving Cuthbertson Christmas china to each family in our extended family. They started with a pair of dinner plates, adding a couple more each year. My mother and sister took up the collecting and gifting, and soon we had plates, dessert plates, glasses and serving dishes.

It seemed a shame to use these handsome dishes only on Christmas or Christmas Eve, so we began using them every day during Advent, giving us four weeks, plus the days from Christmas to Epiphany to use the plates with their nostalgic, colorful, toy-circled fir. The tradition expanded a bit to include drinking our morning coffee from Christmas mugs, which we had collected by the dozen without ever meaning to.

So, today, with our children long departed and with families and Christmas traditions of their own, my wife and I sip coffee from colorful Christmas mugs. At dinner, we cover the beautiful painted Christmas tree with fish and vegetables and drink water from glasses displaying that same tree below a gilt rim.

How long this Christmas tradition will last I cannot say. The tradition has suffered as the deaths of my Mother in 2006, my brother in 2012 and my sister in 2013 undermined the family bond of precious Christmas china. None of my children have taken up this tradition, and I do not know whether my nieces and nephews might have inherited the China from my brother and sister or my mother.

I only know that my wife and I will continue our odd loyalty to a china pattern for as long as we are setting our own table. Through all the days of Advent and Christmas, we will eat from plates with a big Christmas tree and drink from glasses and mugs with Christmas themes. This exercise gives us Christmas joy and reminds us of our family and all the times we spent together in this time of the year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Loss of memory through the death of others

People die. We grieve. We mourn. The ache lingers. We dissolve ourselves in the routines of life, and still the ache stabs us. Some little thought, a photograph, a song, a place, a flower, a car, a book, a smell, a taste, a sound, a flash of light through the trees plunges a rapier through our calm demeanor and our quotidian routine. We crumble into despair.

When we lose a friend or a family member, we lose pieces of ourselves. What died with them was a part of us, and that part is taken away. Our collective memory loses its fullness. Without others' memories to help keep alive our own, we lose whole parts of ourselves, for it is experience and memory that makes us what we are — social, sentient beings reliant on others to keep our memories straight.

The pain of aging is in losing, one by one, those who have been a part of your life for decades. First parents and aunts and uncles, then your own generation, cousins and siblings, and contemporaries, friends from childhood or later. Each of them carries away knowledge of you in the form of memories, some of them many decades old. With each death, we are a little less of what we had been. We are left an incomplete version of living, a flawed recollection that cannot be supplemented or ignited ever again.

If the elderly seem thinner, more fragile, or slower, it may be because they have seen too many memories buried, too many pieces of themselves cremated. They become an abridged version, a redacted life.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bad news has a new conduit

This is how bad news travels these days: Facebook posts. No more telegrams. No long-distance phone calls. No hand-written letters. Not any more.

A late-night check of Facebook finds three messages obtusely hinting that John Pegg, my closest friend my senior year in college, one of the ushers at my wedding, had died. I had to reread and examine the posts before coming to the realization of their meaning.

John was a freshman that 1970-71 year, and I was a senior, but we bonded somehow. I was the resident adviser on the third floor of the dormitory, and he lived next door. He caroused and partied together. Had it not been for John, who was friends with a student in the adjacent women's dorm, I would never have met my wife, who was the student's roommate.

After I married, graduated and began a family, we remained in touch, even though military service took me to Washington, D.C., and he began a career in business. We exchanged periodic letters and occasional phone calls. My wife and I visited him one football weekend when he was still in school. He came to see our baby, and we would stop at his house in Kernersville on that long drive back to Washington and spend few minutes catching up.

We rendezvoused to have dinner together as my family, three children by then, traveled through the Triad area on our way west several years ago. John, by then, was married. Though our lives had turned 180 degrees, our bond coupled immediately, and we vowed to keep in touch. Sometime later, we met at a UNC football game. I was with my wife, and he had an entourage of friends from home. We were briefly young again, kidding each other as we had decades before.

The last time we talked, I had seen an obituary in the alumni magazine for our friend, John's freshman roommate, and I emailed him to ask what had happened. He told me to call him, and I did. He explained that we had lost our friend to suicide, and we grieved together over the phone.

When I was in Atlanta for a conference two years ago, I sought out the Hyatt-Regency hotel, where we had gone in December 1970 before the Peach Bowl game against Arizona State. John and I and two other men had driven to Atlanta for the game. The road trip began with hearty laughter and shenanigans and ended in an icy rain as we returned home, saddened by a loss on the football field but still excited by our adventures, including a peach daquiri in the revolving restaurant bar atop the Hyatt-Regency. When we left there in a rush to meet an appointment, the line for the elevator curled around the room. We decided to take the stairs down 28 floors. Part of the route took us across a roof line, which caught the attention of security guards, who chased after us down the remaining flights. We laughed for years about that pursuit.

I sent a photo of the Hyatt-Regency to John and asked him if he recognized the place. He did.

Friendships are like flower gardens. They must be watered and fertilized frequently. People, unlike flowers, grow apart. People pull up roots and move. Keeping a friendship thriving across physical gaps of hundreds of miles is difficult. You have to work at it. For both of us, our aging adult lives grew too full of other responsibilities — children, jobs, commitments, grandchildren, aging parents. The fragile twine that bound us together stretched and frayed until only social media posts kept us connected.

I apologize for not doing a better job at being an active, accessible friend. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

College sexual assault echoes earlier scandals

The explosive expose about a ghastly gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house, as reported by Rolling Stone magazine, has some holes in it. Rolling Stone has issued an apology for failing to ask the right questions and interview all involved — practices that are fundamental to good journalism.

Whether "Jackie" suffered a horrific assault by a gang of fraternity brothers, as the magazine reported, has now been called into question. Some of the details of the allegation, as reported, do not appear to be substantiated by facts. Even some of "Jackie's" supporters have some doubts about the veracity of her tale.

So why would a major national magazine be so slipshod in its reporting on such a volatile and potentially defamatory allegation? Rolling Stone seems to have been allured by the notion that any allegation of sexual assault must be true. After all, any woman willing to tell about such a humiliating assault must be telling the truth! So why do the basic reporting of corroborating allegations, allowing persons accused of crimes or misbehavior to respond to charges, and checking details provided by an accuser?

One can only conclude that sexual assault on campus has become the 21st century version of the child sexual abuse crimes of the 1980s and 1990s. For about a decade, police and prosecutors accepted as divine truth the claims that preschool children were being sexually abused by day-care workers and other care-givers. Police added specialists trained to ferret out the sublimated memories of horrible abuse. Many were very successful in coaxing tales of abuse from children who were properly prompted to tell outlandish stories.

Adults jumped aboard this freight train of good intentions and demanded that investigators "Believe the Children," in the words of an often-used picket sign. They demanded that the courts accept the children's stories as true, even if the stories included mutilations, murder, magical animals, secret rooms (which could never be found) and trips on space ships. Nearly the entire staff of the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, N.C. were indicted, and two were convicted in the frenzy to protect children from sexual predators disguised as day care workers, cooks and clerks. In the end, all of the day-care sexual predator convictions were discredited, although the ruined lives could not be restored to the innocent accused.

Claims of how many women are raped on college campuses have taken on the sacrosanct aura of the "Believe the Children" demonstrations. Colleges and advocates for women's safety have created a dilemma. They want to stop sexual assault, but they don't want to turn the allegations over to professional law enforcement, and they don't want assault allegations to be judged in the harsh light of a criminal court. When any boorish or offensive behavior can be labeled sexual assault, the numbers of incidents are astounding, especially among young males and females at the peak of their sexual interest and with easy access to excessive alcohol stimulation.

Sexual assault is a crime that should be prosecuted in criminal courts, not in student-led "honor court" without legal standing, constitutional protections or the authority to impose the kind of punishment sexual assault warrants. At worst, a student court might sentence an offender to expulsion from school. Big deal. There are other schools and other women. Conviction in a criminal court, however, carries more serious consequences — a long prison term and a lifetime label as a sex criminal.

Keeping sexual assault bottled up in student courts diminishes the seriousness of the crime. Today's students will not remember that 50 years ago, conviction of rape could be punished by execution in many states, including North Carolina. Would the victim's advocates now demanding greater regulation of sexual contacts on college campuses be willing to have student courts sentence a collegiate offender to death?

Deciding that in the relationships between men and women on college campuses, there is only one side to the story, as Rolling Stone apparently did, does not advance women's safety or an honest assessment of the seriousness of sexual assault.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

We refugees from journalism

During a round of introductions at a meeting yesterday, I described myself as "recovering from a 33-year in journalism." In retrospect, I think a better description might be as a refugee from a 33-year career in journalism.

Like residents uprooted from their homes by war or famine, I have been uprooted from the career I chose, enjoyed and thrived in (at least to some degree). Like war refugees, I find myself somewhere else, a place I'd never been before, unable to return to the place — the career — I had known for so long. Like any refugee, I cherish the memories of the good times and try to put aside the pain of the final days of my former life. Despite their longing, refugees have to put the past behind them and channel their energies toward new and different goals, never looking back at what might have been.

Across America, there are many thousands of refugees like me, journalists who worked hard, held responsible positions and enjoyed the adrenaline rush of breaking news and time-absorbing investigations. In the past 10 years, great newspapers have become hollow shells, their newsrooms depopulated as if by a neutron bomb (remember that proposal — it was in the news?) that killed off the workers and left the walls and desks and files behind. During that time, the gradual transition away from printed classified ads and print advertising in general became a waterfall as the advertising revenue base collapsed. At the same time, consumers became so inundated with information that the news in print seemed redundant. Readership and circulation fell.

Publishers, many in a panic, slashed newsroom jobs to compensate for the loss of ad revenue. Eliminating news coverage just turned off the remaining loyal readers who still liked to sit down with a print newspaper and absorb the variety of information included. In some cases, even those newsroom cuts were not enough, and daily newspapers dropped back to semi-weekly publication status or closed their doors entirely.

Thousands of us refugees are among the unemployed and under-employed. Many of us are in our fifth, sixth or seventh decade, when getting hired in a new job is about as likely as getting pregnant. The skills learned in a lifetime in a newsroom are not easily transferable to the few jobs that are in demand in a still-struggling economic environment.

But like a war refugee, I'm not going to harp on "the good old days" that will never come again. We refugees make the best of what we can find.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Another birthday never to be celebrated

Had she lived, my big sister would have been celebrating her 70th birthday today. Had the car in which she was riding left a little earlier or a little later, it would not have collided as it did that balmy Sunday night in August. But because she was there, and because two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, she never celebrated her 18th birthday or any day after it.

Timing had always been a little off for her. She was born when our father was thousands of miles away in the Pacific, serving as a machinist mate third class in the Navy. Our mother had gone to live with her parents temporarily so that she would be closer to the hospital when the time came. But when she awoke during the night and announced the baby was coming, she was told she was wrong — the baby wasn't due for another couple of weeks. But she knew she was right. She had delivered two babies in the previous three years, both boys, and she knew what labor pains felt like. Her first daughter came quickly and early.

A year later, when Daddy returned home from the Navy, he came in the middle of the night, having taken a train to Hamlet, a railroad terminal 45 miles away, and then a taxi on the final leg of his long journey back home. He couldn't abide the hours of waiting for the next train to get him closer to home. Mother took him into the bedroom for his first look at his daughter, who immediately raised up her hands to greet him with a hug.

Long after the shock of an untimely death, we are struck at certain dates with thoughts what might have been. When my sister's high school friends married, Mother could not help but think of the wedding she would never attend. When her other children graduated high school and college, there was that shadow of graduations never to be seen. I thought of my sister on her 40th birthday as I became more aware of my own aging and of how she cared for me when I was a toddler. I wondered how our relationship would have matured or changed.

Today I wonder what she would have been like as an older woman with children and grandchildren of her own, of the advice she might have given me as I raised my own children. I regret that she never met the woman I married or held my babies.

I even wonder whether she would still be alive, if she had managed to miss that two-lane stretch of highway 52 years ago. Our brother died at age 70. Our younger sister died at 61.

These encounters with death make me more and more grateful for the years I've had and for the years I hope for but can never be sure of.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The sidewalk is for pedestrians

The encounter between Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown last August went all wrong. As a result, Brown is dead, Wilson's career in law enforcement is over (despite his not being indicted by a grand jury), and millions of dollars worth of property has been destroyed by rampaging protesters.

It didn't have to happen this way. It didn't have to happen at all.

The incident began when the officer encountered Brown and a friend walking down the center line of a street. He called out to them to get onto the sidewalk. Brown responded with expletives, followed by blocking the officer's door and, according to the officer's testimony, blows to the cop's face and a tussle for the officer's pistol.

If Brown had simply complied and moved to the sidewalk, as ordered, he would still be alive today. Regardless of what transpired after that initial order, regardless of whether Wilson was justified in shooting the teen, regardless of whether Brown's hands were raised, regardless of whether he was surrendering, as some witnesses claimed, or attacking, if Brown had simply moved out of the vehicle lane and onto the sidewalk, he would be alive.

What on earth makes teenagers — mostly African-Americans — want to risk their lives, and the lives of others, by walking after dark in the center of streets and roads? I have encountered, with heart-pounding fright, young people riding bicycles in the center of a dark street while bearing no light or reflectors on their bikes. The sudden encounter in your headlight's glare of bicyclists just 10 feet from your front bumper is enough to make a driver slam on the brakes and jerk the steering wheel to avoid a tragedy.

I've also encountered black teens, and, less frequently, white teens, strolling along the street in the middle of the traffic lane. Years ago, returning to work at mid-day from my home in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, a group of three girls strutting (there's no better verb for their movements) down the middle of the street. They took up enough of the street that I could not go around them, either on the left or right. I slowed to a stop and waited. They slowed to a stop and danced. They were not oblivious to my presence a dozen feet behind them. They knew they were preventing me from driving my car toward my destination, and they sashayed delightfully at their power over me, an old white man in a car. I refrained from honking my horn or shouting out the open window for them to move. I waited until they crossed the intersection, and I changed my route, turning instead of following behind them as I had intended.

What is it about the middle of the street that makes young people risk their lives for the opportunity to make the point that they can claim the street for their own. No doubt, some have been injured or died because they refused to give up their claim to the center of the street. Likely, some motorists have run off the road and wrecked to avoid walkers they encountered along darkened streets.

In Ferguson, MO, last August, one teenager who refused to give up his right to the center lane died as a result.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No indictment in Ferguson shooting

A grand jury in Missouri has ruled. There will be no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

That conclusion to an extended grand jury session comes as something of a surprise, despite some predictions that no indictment would be handed up. Details of the shooting are in dispute. The officer's account differs from that of some eyewitnesses. The forensic evidence of gunshot angles and wounds seems to support the officer's version, but it still seemed to leave room for charges less than first-degree murder — manslaughter, perhaps, based on a contention that the officer used excessive force to fend off the larger but unarmed teenager.

The death of an unarmed teenager is tragic and appalling, but what followed the grand jury decision is nearly as appalling, more destructive and less excusable. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in a rampage of destruction, throwing rocks at police, torching a car, breaking store windows, burning buildings and looting businesses. Those who lost their property to the rampage were not responsible for the shooting or for the grand jury decision. Their only offense was owning property. Some have charged that the more violent protesters were not Ferguson residents but had come from far away to take advantage of the rage in Ferguson.

Shootings of unarmed people by police is all-too-common in America. These incidents must be prevented through better police training, changes in attitude and culture and improvements in mutual respect. Violent riots do not improve the situation.

One aspect of this shooting follows a familiar pattern. Initial descriptions of the shooting victim, Michael Brown, portrayed him as a sweet, lovable teen who wouldn't hurt a fly. Subsequently, surveillance video showed him shoplifting and then physically threatening and shoving a much smaller store clerk. The autopsy showed he had been consuming marijuana. None of this justifies the shooting, but it should remind news consumers that not everyone who is the victim of a suspicious police shooting or who is accused of a crime is sweet and innocent. Exaggerations of the victim's character are no more helpful than exaggerations of the shooter's character or perception of danger. 

An addendum to my post:

I have since read testimony given by Officer Darren Wilson, who says the teen who attacked him ran away after he fired shots from inside his vehicle. Wilson then chased him, and the teen stopped, turned and came toward him. Wilson shot him from several feet away, firing the fatal shot into his head as the teen fell to the ground.

While I think it is dangerous to second-guess a grand jury, or any jury, I find it hard to understand why Wilson's actions were not considered excessive force. With the suspect running from him, Wilson was in no immediate danger. The final, fatal shot was fired after the suspect was seriously wounded and likely incapable of further resistance. An indictment for assault or involuntary manslaughter might have given a jury an opportunity to judge the actions of both Wilson and Brown.

Nevertheless, none of this justifies the wanton destruction perpetrated by mobs of protesters last night. Brown's own father appealed for the public to avoid violence and keep any protests peaceful. This destructiveness sullies Brown's memory.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving over the years

On this Monday of Thanksgiving week, my thoughts are fixed on the week's worth of work that must be done in three days at the office. With a little extra effort and wise use of time, I should be able to handle that challenge.

Getting Thursday and Friday off, and enjoying the presence of my children and six grandchildren will make the early week rush worthwhile. Our younger daughter has agreed to host the gathering of extended family at her home in Greenville — a site farther east than any of the alternatives, but her home is spacious and can handle the cacophony whirling, laughing, running cousins, all under age 10.

Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, despite a dearth of celebration when I was growing up. The textile mill where my mother worked did not close for Thanksgiving, which meant that she worked and we children fended for ourselves throughout the Thursday off from school. If the weather was clear and mild, I would head into the woods to explore and pretend, lost in nature and the refreshing, soothing impact of seasonal change, which I did not yet truly appreciate.

The first Thanksgiving after we married, my wife exposed me to her family Thanksgiving tradition, a welcoming of aunts, uncles and cousins into the modest house by the lake. Only five months earlier, her mother had died unexpectedly in that house, still in her forties, never to enjoy her grandchildren or see her children graduate college or (except for the one I stole away too early) marry.

It fell upon my bride, just 19, to preside over the small kitchen, to cook the turkey, to arrange the table, to serve as hostess for more than a dozen guests. My admiration of her capabilities and skills, already high, rose higher as the day progressed. She substituted marvelously for the woman whose absence was so much on her mind. She was determined to live up to her mother's example, and she did so brilliantly.

In 42 Thanksgivings since then, we have often hosted dinner for family — and occasionally, friends — and each time she has provided the welcome and the sustenance everyone needed. A photo album she pulled out over the weekend chronicles the holidays. The first photos are of that first Thanksgiving, in black-and-white. More recent color photos remind us of other Thanksgivings at the lake house or in homes we claimed for a few years or many, with a changing cast of relatives but usually including my parents or hers. One slightly forlorn year, our crowd was only four — our two children still at home and ourselves — but we dressed up and cooked as if for a crowd

This year, we will not be hosts, but we will preside, in a sense, as patriarch and matriarch of the gathering — a reminder that we are older, substantially so, than our parents were at that first Thanksgiving after our wedding. "All of life's a circle," and we are spinning rapidly toward the next phase of the cycle.

Of all the things I have to be thankful for, memories of a life together are among the best.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Winter arrives early

The winter solstice is a month away, and already the darkness slips into the afternoon hours like a blackened fog. My drive home from work requires headlights, and the sun, which had blistered my eyes as I drove toward the western horizon only days ago, is gone now, leaving only traces of red in the sky. My headlights push back the darkness, and streetlights form little oases amid the dark, but the darkness has the advantage and cloaks all around me.

The cold has crept in, too. The forecasters blame an arctic air mass, but I believe it's the calendar, the unpredictability of late November and the misfortunes of chance. I wrap myself in warm toppings and shiver to warm myself through kinetic convection, but my fingers still ache with the chill. The dry air leaves my hands rough and dry as sandpaper accented by tiny white lines, like streams in a Google Maps page.

Despite what the calendar says and where the sun lies along the celestial equator, winter has arrived. Get used to it. Days will be short, and nights will be long, and thermometers will have little but bad news for the next four months. We will grow accustomed to it, not because we like it but because we must.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

UNC's neck is in the guillotine

University of North Carolina alumni and fans are awaiting a verdict from the NCAA a little like a man with his neck in the bottom of a guillotine. How bad will it hurt?

To punish a scandal that essentially sold out the university's integrity for success in athletics over a period of 18 years, presumably giving UNC an advantage over college teams that didn't bend the rules (wink, wink) or forgo the college's agreement to provide a college education to talented athletes willing to toil for the college's glory, what is the appropriate punishment? I'll never understand the logic behind the NCAA's inconsistent decisions, but it seems inevitable that UNC will have many, most, or all of its game victories and championship seasons negated. Roy Williams' stellar record of career basketball victories could be shoved to the bottom of the list, just as Bobby Bowden lost his place in the career victories list after a scandal at Florida State. That might be the least of the consequences.

The NCAA could go for the coup de grace. It could issue the "death penalty," as it did in response to a scandal at SMU in 1987. SMU's offenses were long-standing — a slush fund that had paid players for a decade. SMU was barred from fielding a football team for a year, which stretched into two years because the university had to start over from scratch. UNC's scandal was longer-lasting but perhaps not as blatant as SMU's. UNC did not violate the sacred notion of amateurism, but it tarnished its own academic reputation and integrity. A "death penalty" is not out of the question for UNC.

Ameliorating circumstances on UNC's side might be that the academic fraud was limited to one department and was conceived by and run by a handful of lower-level officials. But that might not be a sufficient excuse. The ability of non-academics to hijack education for the benefit of struggling athletes (and a few others) indicates a lack of oversight by the university administration. Perhaps that fault falls outside the purview of the NCAA — an academic matter rather than an athletic one — but it's of little comfort for UNC supporters who are embarrassed and angered by the indignity of it all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The morning after an election

The morning after has headaches aplenty to go around.

For Democrats, it's hard to find any positives in the election results. Going into Tuesday's voting, they knew the cards were stacked against them in Senate elections — an unpopular president, more seats to defend to keep control of the Senate, and an anti-incumbent mood from coast to coast. Even so, Tuesday's shellacking was worse than most analysts expected. Republicans even managed wide victory margins in races that were supposed to be close in Kentucky and Georgia.

Few people expected Democrats to retain control of the Senate. Republicans needed to win only six seats to achieve majority status. But the GOP's seven gains were more than most expected, with a few races yet to be decided.

North Carolina's Senate race was perhaps the most surprising of the lot. Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan had maintained a narrow lead in nearly every poll leading up to Tuesday's vote. Early returns had her in the lead by single-digit percentages. But Republican Thom Tillis ended up with the most votes at the end of the night. Hagan had been seen as vulnerable almost since she won the seat in 2008. Her Senate record was undistinguished, and she was closely allied with an unpopular president.

And then there was the outside money. More than $100 million was spent on this election, most of it by outside interests on both the Republican and Democratic sides. Nearly all of the advertising was negative — ads attacking Hagan for being too much like Obama or attacking Tillis for controversial laws passed by the state House that he led.

Having Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress will bring changes, but only the naive will think partisanship will wane. President Obama can be combative, and he is likely to veto Republican legislation that comes to his desk, setting off more controversy. The GOP Congress might feel empowered to place limits on the president's ability to establish policy through executive orders and other administrative actions, creating more conflicts.

Clashes are inevitable, and the 2016 presidential elections will hang over every day of the next 104 weeks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remembering the time when I was quarantined

Talk of quarantine for Ebola-exposed people took me back to the early 1950s, when nurses in white uniforms from the Anson County Health Department posted a QUARANTINE sign on the front door of our modest farmhouse.

My older sister had scarlet fever and lay in a darkened back bedroom, so the other six members of the family were forbidden to leave the house. Our term in home detention was a week or 10 days, as best I remember.

The year was 1953 or '54, I think. I was small enough that when I peeked inside the bedroom where all the children, except the youngest, usually slept, I was looking upward at the bed, where my sister's silent, feverish body lay. My mother shooed me out of the doorway promptly. One sick child was enough.

My memory recalls only a couple of scenes from that period of quarantine. My father could not go to work, and the children could not go to school. I could not play with my sister, four years older than I, as I usually did. We could not even go to church on Sunday. My parents could abide missing school, but not missing church. So we all got dressed in our church clothes on Sunday morning, and Daddy preached to the little congregation sitting on the cedar chest and ladderback chairs in our parents' bedroom. We sang hymns and read Scripture.

When our time in quarantine expired, my oldest brother went out the front door and tore the sign down. My sick sister recovered, only to die less than a decade later in a tragic car accident.

About 20 years after that quarantine, my wife called me to say our toddler daughter, our only child, had a raging fever. I rushed home and we took her to the hospital. The diagnosis: scarlet fever. She received a prescription and medication to bring her fever down. She recovered quickly. We were not quarantined.

Medical care had improved, much for the better.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How to atone for academic scandal

It's disappointing and embarrassing. We are beyond shock now after years of embarrassing revelations about athletics scandals at the University of North Carolina.

Blame it on hubris. Blame it on ambition. Blame it on misplaced values. Wherever you place blame, it is deeply embarrassing to the university.

Easy classes with generous grading curves — what some have called "student-friendly classes" — have been around for generations and are present at virtually every university, college and high school. I heard about them when I was a student at UNC 45 years ago, and I was not above taking some courses because of their reputations for minimal work and favorable grading.

But what the Wainstein report revealed goes far, far beyond that universal appeal of classes students could "slide" through. Some members of the academic and support staff deliberately created classes that were designed to ensure athletes maintained their academic eligibility. Academic fraud was committed. The university's good name was trampled in the rush for athletic prowess. Some student athletes were denied a quality education, which many cared little about, in the effort to keep them on track for their true ambition to be stars in professional leagues.

UNC's misplaced values are painfully apparent in the push for more seats in the once-charming and bucolic football stadium. First came lights for night games that television favored. Then came the expansion of the stadium, enclosing the west end of the stadium to form a horseshoe with luxurious coaches' offices and fine training facilities and academic tutoring space. Even that was not enough, and the university raised money to tear down the landmark field house (which dated to the stadium's origins in the 1920s) at the east end of the stadium and build luxury booths, the "Blue Zone," behind the end zone.

UNC also expanded its recruiting in an effort to be a national football power. Enrollment standards had to be relaxed. Exceptions had to be made, and students who were not prepared for college-level work had to be tutored and assisted and remediated and academically coddled in order to stay on the field. Some believed, perhaps rightly, that these athletes couldn't make it without even greater efforts, such as classes that never met and grades that never fell below a B for even minimal effort or plagiarized papers.

How will UNC atone for this embarrassment? Chancellor Carol Folt seems to be on the right track with a new commitment to transparency, a pledge to fire or discipline those most involved in this scandal and an apology to students and alumni. But real atonement must come from a willingness to scale back the athletics empire. Strip athletics from its control of athletic tutoring. Put an end to admissions exceptions for athletes. Raise academic standards for admission. If necessary, drop out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has grown into monster with national ambitions and no standards. Fifty years ago, the eight-member ACC held athletes to high standards — an 800 minimum (out of 1600) on the SAT that exceeded NCAA standards. 

Standards: That's what Carolina needs again, and so do all colleges.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The election is two weeks from today, and at my house, you don't really need a calendar to know that. The imminence of the election is obvious on the television, in the mailbox and even on our home answering machine.

Yesterday, my wife retrieved a message from the answering machine from some unnamed caller who addressed her as "Virginia" — her legal name but one that no one ever calls her. He used the name twice in his message, each time with a brief, awkward pause before enunciating her name. He wanted to tell her about "cap-and-trade," a failed proposal to reduce carbon emissions by creating a global market in emissions permits. The proposal would have cost thousands of jobs, the caller said, and Sen. Kay Hagan voted for it, as if she hated jobs and wanted thousands of North Carolina residents to be unemployed. Never once did he tell "Virginia" to vote against Hagan two weeks from today. Instead, he urged her to call the senator and complain about her vote for cap-and-trade.

The caller's script was eerily similar to fliers we had received in the mail. The slick, brightly colored, over-sized fliers accused Hagan of the cap-and-trade sin and urged us to call her office and complain. Two of these fliers — similar in design and printing but different — arrived in one day.

Yesterday's caller identified himself as calling from "Crossroads GPS," a group founded by Karl Rove, George W. Bush's campaign guru. I believe the fliers also came from Rove's group, but I've thrown them away and can't remember for sure.

These intrusions into our home privacy are evidence of the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent on the North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign this year by both Democratic and Republican supporters. Some of the money is being spent in the traditional way by the candidates' campaigns and some by their respective parties, but even more is being spent by "independent" groups, which have been legalized by legislation and court decisions.

All this makes me wonder about the "opportunity cost" — a term from my two semesters of economics. Opportunity cost is simply what one forgoes in spending money. For example, if you buy a couple of $100 tickets to a rock concert, you forgo the opportunity to spend that money on other things, such as groceries or a car repair or a chair for the living room.

What is the opportunity cost of the billions of dollars being spent on this year's election campaigns? Imagine what a few hundred billion dollars could do to control Ebola in West Africa or to invest in child care for the poor or to improve America's passenger rail system or to reform public education.

One simple lesson I learned from economics (and from life) is that everything has its cost. Are we spending wisely?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Court victories could hurt at polls

Sometimes victories can have negative side effects. If Democrats didn't already have an uphill struggle in next month's elections, a victory in the courts could end up being a handicap at the polls.

Supporters rejoiced at a series of federal court victories that made same-sex marriage legal in a majority of the states, but those victories could cause pain at the polls for Democrats, who have generally supported the "marriage equality" efforts. But victories in court could cause a backlash at the polls. When same-sex marriage has been on the ballot, it has lost in almost every case. Conservative voters might rise up to protest the courts' imposition of a right that most state legislatures and most voters in statewide referendums had rejected. Polls indicate that public opinion has shifted on the same-sex marriage issue with a narrow majority now accepting the gay marriage. But it's turnout, not opinion, that determines election outcomes.

In elections that are extremely close or uncertain, firing up a small segment of the electorate to turn out can sway an election, and that might be what we will see in two weeks. Narrow Senate races, including the one in North Carolina, could be decided by conservative voters who turn out to protest federal court decisions that they see as immoral or unnatural. With the Senate so tightly contested, a shift in one or two states could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Already, some commentators are blaming the Senate for approving nominees to the federal judiciary. Voters don't have a say in judicial appointments, but they do have a say in who serves in the Senate. Blaming a Democratic candidate for the actions of a federal judge might be unfair, even unreasonable, but an emotional, irrational reaction can change an election.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The downsizing of the morning newspaper

My morning paper is downsizing. That's the clearest way of describing it, but News & Observer editor John Drescher took a different angle in his column in Tuesday's edition. He couched the changes as a means of emphasizing local reporting, but there's no getting around the fact that the paper is going to be smaller and, for me, at least, less well organized.

The N&O is eliminating the Triangle section, where they played most of the local and state news that was not worthy of front-page treatment. Drescher says the local/state news will appear in the A section henceforth, but that important news does not get its own section any more, and it will be disconcerting to see articles about the General Assembly mixed in with stories about Iraq and ISIS and typhoons in Japan.

I suspect the N&O had little choice but to cut the number of newsprint pages in each edition. After personnel, newsprint has traditionally been the largest expenditure for daily newspapers. I've been out of the business for six years and haven't kept up with newsprint prices, but I'd wager that newsprint costs are still a major concern for American newspapers.

In the past 10 years, we've witnessed the collapse of the newspaper business. Once one of the most profitable businesses in the country ("a license to print money," some called it), the news business now is tough. Thousands of newspaper veterans have been laid off, and many newspapers have ceased publication. Those that remain have had to make cuts wherever they can.

The heart of their problem is the shift of advertising from print to digital. I can well remember when the Sunday classified section of the N&O ran into dozens of pages — job listings, automobile ads, individual for-sale, services, etc., all neatly "classified" by type. The Washington Post, which was once my morning paper delivered to my doorstep, was so thick and heavy on Sunday, it was a workout just to carry it into the house. But that gold mine of classifieds was doomed. Digital ads made it possible to search through hundreds of thousands of pages for one particular make and model of car or a specific job specialty in a particular place. Print could not match that convenience, and both job listings and other classifieds have nearly disappeared, along with billions of dollars in ad revenue for newspapers.

Alan D. Mutter has followed these issues more closely than I, and he is brutal in his estimate of just how bad a fix print newspapers are in.

For those of us who enjoy a print newspaper (and there still are many of us), this is a sad time. Many newspapers have cut so deeply that news coverage has  suffered badly. Whole categories of news, once covered thoroughly by major newspapers, are largely ignored in this new reality.

I will continue to subscribe because I still find newspapers to be the most effective means of keeping up with what's going on in the area, in the state, in the nation and in the world. Digital searches can find specific items, but turning a newspaper's page can lead you to places you'd never thought of and make you think of things you'd never thought of. 

I have made one concession to the digital news world. When I am out of town and far away from my newspaper lying in my driveway, I can read the newspaper — the actual printed page — using a mobile app. But for as long as I can get my hands on the print edition, I will prefer it, even as it shrinks before my eyes.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

If we hope to compromise, we must speak the same language

No one doubts that Congress has difficulty getting anything done these days, as partisan belligerence bubbles just below the boiling point year after year.

Has anyone considered that there might be a language barrier?

It's not that Hispanic or other ethnic groups have gained seats in Congress or that women have won seats and do not speak (or think) the same way as men or that northerners can't understand southerners' drawl or that wide-open westerners think differently than intellectual, crowded easterners.

The different factions in Congress and throughout the country simply don't speak the same language. They have different words to describe the same issues. For example:
• One side's "Woman's Right to Choose" is the other side's "Right to Life." Pro-choice or pro-life. Both sides avoid the more straightforward word — abortion.
• One side's "Marriage Equality" is the other side's "Redefinition of Marriage."
• One side's "Right to Carry" is the other side's "Gun Violence."
• One side's "Election Fraud Prevention" is the other side's "Restriction of Voting Rights."
• One side's "Balanced Budget" is the other side's "Shredding the Safety Net."
• One side's "Tax Reform" is the other side's "Soak the Rich."
• One side's "Judicial Activism" is the other side's "Protecting the Constitution."

All of these catch phrases are not intended to enhance the chances for compromise. On the contrary, they are designed to further divide constituencies and turn out the vote for either side. Until we can agree on what to call issues and policies — until we speak the same language — we have no hope for reaching compromises on important issues. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Autumn has arrived

The chill in this morning's air signaled that autumn really has arrived. The walk in short sleeves to the end of the driveway to retrieve the morning paper was cold, the temperature below 50. I dug my hands into my pockets. The forecast calls for warming into the upper 70s and even warmer tomorrow.

But autumn surely is here. In the deep black sky this morning, I saw Orion leading his hunting dogs across the celestial sphere. Last night, a half moon shone like a beacon, peeking from behind the pines against the velvet sky.

On Saturday, I had dressed for a warm day on the sunny side of the college football stadium and came home with a "farmer's tan" along my upper arms. But when the sun went down after we arrived in Raleigh later that day for the Bluegrass Festival, the warmth of the sun disappeared, and the brisk breeze blew frigid air that had me wrapping my torso in my arms to keep warm. A borrowed long-sleeve T-shirt gave some relief, even as the musicians on the outdoor stage complained that they were so cold they couldn't feel their fingers.

More warm days are coming, but fall has arrived. Leaves have begun to litter my back yard, and soon they will be as deep as the sea foam at the edge of the surf. I will spend weekend days with a rake in my hand, trying to confine the botanical discards to their assigned places even as a wintry wind stirs them out of place.

Shorter days, harsher light, colder nights are upon us. Today, the briskness is invigorating, but soon the cold will reach my bones, the darkness will shadow my mood, the weather will turn treacherous and we will long for warmth and springtime once again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Referendum is better way to resolve secession issue

On Thursday, the people of Scotland get to vote on secession. They will decide whether to remain a part of Great Britain, and the British, who conquered Scotland centuries ago, will go along with their decision.

How much more civilized than the secession crisis the United States underwent 150 years ago! Suppose South Carolina and the other Confederate states had opted for a peaceful referendum on secession instead of bombarding a fort occupied by what the S.C. secessionists considered a "foreign power"? And what if newly elected President Abraham Lincoln had not taken the bait and declared, instead, that the United States would respect the decision of the Southerners to decide their own destiny and "dissolve the political bonds that have connected them with another" (in the words of the Declaration of Independence). Could a disastrous civil war have been prevented? Would other Southern states follow South Carolina's lead and joined the Confederacy? It seems likely that North Carolina, which initially rejected secession, might have remained with the Union and not lost tens of thousands of its young men and much of its wealth to four years of war.

What if this dispute had been settled by a referendum instead of half a million deaths and the utter destruction from which the South, where most of the battles were fought, did not recover for 100 years? Not everything about this scenario is appealing. Slavery would have persisted in the Confederate States, but that "peculiar institution" could not have long survived the global revulsion toward such an inhumane system. Perhaps a peaceful settlement would have allowed for compensation of slaveholders for loss of their valuable property and compensation of slaves for their generations of bondage and uncompensated labor. The expense would have been tremendous, but probably no more costly than a war that nearly bankrupted the United States and made Confederate states destitute and feeble for decades.

If political ties must be severed, surely the better, more civilized way is through a binding referendum. My Scottish and Scot-Irish ancestors might disagree, but I hope Scotland remains a part of Great Britain. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Republican economic plan flops

The new Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly was going to fix the state budget and the state's economy. It's not working out that well.

Despite boasting by Gov. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's economy is, overall, not much to brag about. Unemployment remains high in many counties, with only the heavily populated and well educated areas around the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte enjoying much of an economic surge. Other counties in the east, mountains and middle of the state are still flirting with double-digit unemployment.

The legislature's solution of drastically reducing the length of time a laid-off worker could draw unemployment insurance and the amount of those payments has not fired up the state's economy. Backers of this change claimed the unemployed were out of work because they enjoyed being idle, not because there were no jobs to be found. The results thus far show the Republicans were dead wrong, but it's the unemployed who are paying the price for their miscalculation.

The latest refutation of the Republican economic strategy comes from the state treasury: the state's revenues are down sharply, and officials are blaming the reduction on the legislature's revamping of the income tax. Legislators cut the state income tax for everyone and did away with any semblance of a progressive income tax. Now all taxpayers pay the same, reduced rate. As a result, the state is getting reduced revenues, and that further cuts the money available for providing state services. Reducing taxes does not automatically increase job creation and spending.

The political makeup of the legislature is locked in until after the 2020 census, when electoral districts will be redrawn, so Republicans have little motivation to admit their errors and get the state back on track. The poor performance of the Republican majority's economic experiment, however, could have an impact on this year's U.S. Senate race. Thom Tillis, the GOP speaker of the House, had planned to run on his record, which he still claims has benefited North Carolina — lower tax rates, reductions in school funding and a punitive attitude toward those who are out of work. Kay Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, has not had a stellar record, but she has not been responsible for the sinking revenues, destitute out-of-work residents and defunding of public education. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Goodbye to malls, all around

Thirty-four years ago, my family (wife and three small children) and I were excited to be moving to a city with a mall. We were moving from Danville, Va., which, despite its charms, did not have a mall. It had downtown retailers and a couple of strip shopping centers with major retailers, but no mall. If we wanted to go to a mall, we had to drive an hour or more to Greensboro or Durham.

We discovered that Wilson not only had a mall, its mall was new (open just a couple of years) and packed with a variety of retailers: Belk, Penney's, two or three restaurants, some local clothing stores, a drug store, a child-magnet toy store, a kitchen store, and a number of shoe stores. We made the mall a favorite destination, whether for the sales at Belk or the ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.

In the ensuing years, Parkwood Mall expanded and added stores and kiosks. It continued to be a favored shopping destination. But things changed. Mall ownership and management changed. Maybe the owners got greedy and charged too-high rent. Some retailers left. Scary-looking, inconsiderate teens turned the mall's open space into a threatening hangout. Customers didn't like being hassled by the scruffy mall inhabitants, and crime in the parking lot rose.

The mall began its steady decline. And now it's no longer a mall. What had been Wilson's prime retail location has turned into a ghost town with only a couple of major retailers hanging on, the mall's interior corridors permanently closed.

Malls have gone out of favor across the country, so maybe Parkwood's decline is not just the result of local ownership errors. The latest owner has even changed the mall's name, to Wilson Mall. Why? A multiplex theater now dominates the former mall site, and the owners have been saying for months that they will demolish the old mall, leaving ... what? A big parking lot? It's hard to believe that these owners might be willing to invest in the property and turn it into a combination retail and residential space, like North Hills in Raleigh (formerly the management company for Parkwood Mall). The owners have allowed bank buildings, a huge failed supermarket building and a tornado-damaged detached building sit vacant and become a graffiti platform.

I have no real hopes for the former Parkwood Mall, but I still have a soft spot for really good malls, where you can go from store to store without getting wet or cold or hot, and a new storefront entices you every 30 feet. It's an era that has passed, apparently, but I enjoyed while it lasted.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Black is the new tacky

It happened again last night. I turned on the TV to catch a few minutes of the Louisville-Miami football game, and the Louisville Cardinals showed up in black uniforms, looking like the 1960s Viet Cong guerrillas in their black "pajamas," only with padding and huge bodies.

Black uniforms — and helmets, too — are the latest affectation in college sports. It's difficult to tune in to a college game any given weekend without seeing at least one team cloaked in black. It's not because all those schools have changed their school colors; it's because they think they're more intimidating in black fabric. This is the deductive reasoning of college graduates?

My UNC Tar Heels came out in black uniforms with black helmets last year — I've forgotten which game it was. I thought they looked silly and tacky. But they were just following the trend. Tried-and-true blue and white were no longer good enough for them. They had to add black. Ugly!

The Duke University basketball team has come out in black uniforms frequently the past few years, and the N.C. State team has tried the same scare tactic.

Someone ought to tell these coaches and athletic gear companies (e.g., Nike) that black uniforms and helmets don't make a team more intimidating; it makes them look silly. Leave the black uniforms to colleges that have formally adopted black as a color, such as Wake Forest. They can have the franchise on black uniforms. Blue, white, red, green, purple, lavender, whatever, should be good enough for everyone else.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seasons change

September 1 sounds like fall, even if it's not, really. Even if it's 90 degrees most days this week, the days are shorter, the nights longer, foliage a bit duller and more colorful.

I welcome fall, as I welcome most every change of season. How dull it would be to live in the tropics or in the Arctic, where seasons might loosen their grip but never change.

I cannot remember noticing seasonal change when I was a child, except that I welcomed the arrival of summer with the end of school and dreaded the return of fall and start of school. Only in college, where I could not help but notice the burst of color on campus trees as the weather chilled and then the blossoming of the azaleas and dogwoods and cherry blossoms all around campus, did I really notice and appreciate the gift of seasonal changes. When I worked in Washington, D.C., the arrival of autumn meant the departure of tourists, the easing of traffic and the disappearance of the smog that could be so thick I could not see the Potomac River from my office window six blocks away.

When I bought my first house, the blossoming shrubs and trees in the yard gave me a greater appreciation of the property, and the cool breeze as I raked leaves made the autumn a sensory feast.

Now I welcome each seasonal change, knowing that my enjoyment of these changes is limited; I have seen more seasons change than I will see in the future. I hope my thankfulness for these changes has been sufficient and my appreciation matches the enjoyment I felt.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Article lays out argument for slave reparations

The notion of reparations for African-Americans in compensation for the sins of slavery is an argument I never found persuasive. So far as I have been able to trace my family history, none of my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were poor farmers whose lives were probably little better than the lives of slaves on some plantations. My great-great-grandfather, who was killed 150 years ago at the Third Battle of Winchester, did not own slaves, nor even land. He was a tenant farmer with an illiterate wife. Should his descendants be taxed for reparations at the same rate as the descendants of plantation squires who owned scores of slaves?

And who would receive reparations? Some African-Americans are recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants (e.g., President Obama) with no ancestry of the deprivations of slavery. Should they get paid, too? And what of African-Americans of mixed races? Some people estimate that large percentages of today's African-Americans have mixed ancestry, either from consensual relations or from rape. Where would these Americans fit in the reparations formula? The 1860 census reveals that some free African-Americans of that year were themselves slave owners. Would their descendants pay reparations or receive reparations?

With this background of skepticism, I read the June cover story in The Atlantic magazine: "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I came away from the almost book-length article with a new respect for the reparations argument. Coates argues that reparations are justified not only by the injustice of slavery but also by post-Civil War oppression, physical, statutory and financial. The stories he tells of unethical real estate developers legally stealing homes from black buyers are appalling, especially considering these practices lasted into the late 1960s. The argument for compensation for these wrongs committed against still-living victims strikes me as far more persuasive than reparations for slavery.

Coates' arguments still fall short on the practical side. He avoids any discussion of the logistics of reparations, but those logistics will have to be addressed. This article by David Frum addresses the practical barriers to any reparations legislation. I recommend reading Coates' argument (and it is more of an argument than a disinterested, objective analysis), followed by Frum's practical reasons why Coates' dream is unachievable. In its current issue, The Atlantic has published a number of well-considered responses to Coates' argument. The magazine should be applauded for leading this national debate.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Historic preservation tax credits: just a liberal plot

It's hard to explain the N.C. General Assembly's killing of historic preservation tax credits on simple philosophical or economic grounds. Since 1998, the credits have fostered $1.5 billion in investments in 2,300 projects in 90 of the state's 100 counties. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is for them. Republican Secretary of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz is for them. Scores of local officials are for them, even outraged at the potential loss of billions in investment while dooming the preservation of local landmarks.

Under the soon-to-die tax credits, owners of income-producing properties qualify for a 20% tax credit for approved renovations of historic structures. Non-income-producing properties, such as homes, qualify for a 30% tax credit. Income-producing properties can also receive a 20% federal credit. The credits have provided the final incentive for the revival of center-city buildings in towns and cities across the state. Look no farther than the Nash Street Lofts, which opened recently in downtown Wilson in a former retail building that was so far gone that it would have otherwise been razed.

 So why would Republicans in the legislature want to eliminate the highly effective and private-investment catalyzing tax credits? After all, what could be more "conservative" than conserving historic buildings, converting structures that already exist instead of building anew?

I can only conclude that some members of the legislature have determined that historic preservation tax credits are a "liberal" cause. After all, liberals such as Jim Hunt, Betty McCain and Richard Moore supported the tax credits. And living downtown in old buildings with loft apartments is a youthful, Generation Y, liberal thing to do. These legislators would prefer to give tax breaks to cronies who run big corporations that pollute North Carolina's air and water, ravage natural beauty and abandon depleted buildings and towns.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Police arrest reporters who are doing their jobs

I have no idea what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, when a black teenager was killed by police bullets. I do know that the police there are not making themselves look good with their military gear and aggressive tactics. They are arresting reporters?

I am reminded, uncomfortably, of the complaints 50 years ago about "outside agitators" stirring up the local populace. Reporters were blamed then, too, and roughed up by police. Karl Fleming, who began his newspaper career in Wilson and went on to cover the civil rights movement for Newsweek out of the Atlanta bureau, wrote in his "Son of the Rough South" memoir about precautions reporters in Mississippi and Alabama took at the height of the civil rights protests. They holed up in motel rooms with the door barricaded and would not open the door at night. They kept watch over the parking lot for suspicious vehicles that might carry gangs out to frighten or kill them.

In Ferguson, police are arresting reporters and bullying them in a McDonald's restaurant for no apparent reason. Perhaps worse is the militarization of local police in the past couple of decades. Even small-town police have armored vehicles and heavy weapons that make them look like a military force instead of local law enforcement.

I don't know what happened to spark the unrest in Ferguson, but I do know that what the unrest has shown us about police there is disturbing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A comedian slips into the black hole of depression

It's not necessary to post any of the hundreds of his hilarious videos to demonstrate that Robin Williams' suicide is a tragedy. Years ago, I laughed so hard at a friend's videotape of Williams' HBO special that I literally fell out of my chair. I don't think any comic — Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, anybody — ever made me laugh that hard.

But behind the humor, behind the manic, non-stop jokes, was a chronically depressed man. The depression finally overwhelmed him, and the humor that made others laugh so hard no longer amused him. Those of us who have never fallen so far into the black hole of depression wonder what could ever compel a person to take his own life, especially a person so full of jokes and laughter as Robin Williams. But for millions of people, that black hole is never far away, and the solid ground around it easily crumbles when circumstances or situations connive to make them lose their balance and slip deeper into that abyss.

Mental health treatment, drugs, and a supportive network of family and friends can sometimes alleviate some of the danger, and an outwardly normal life can be lived. But the black hole never goes away, still grasping at one's feet, still tilting a person off-balance.

Many years ago, I attended the funeral for a friend who had killed himself. I dreaded the service at a fundamentalist church, worried that the preacher might declare my friend to be condemned to hell because he committed a mortal sin with a gun that left no time for second thoughts, regrets or forgiveness. Instead, the preacher declared that God loved my friend and would not judge his lifetime of kindnesses on one final, desperate act.

The best way to remember Robin Williams is to see that all who, like him, lived too close to that black hole, receive mental health treatment and reassurance.

Friday, August 8, 2014

I remember the end of the Watergate scandal

Forty years ago today, I was on vacation in North Carolina, far removed from my subscription to the Washington Post, where I had followed faithfully the reporting about President Nixon's "second-rate burglary."

Instead of being among the throngs who waited outside the White House or who went about their business in the nation's capital while a president resigned for the first time in American history, I sat on the floor of my father-in-law's house and watched Richard Nixon announce that he would resign. I would have preferred being in Washington, reading in minute detail the Washington Post's reporting and hearing the talk of Washingtonians all around me.

As mesmerized as I was by the Watergate scandal and the persistent, detailed reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I did not despise Nixon, as so many of my generation did. I recognized his political skills and even admired the boldness of his foreign policy. But by 1974, after two years of watching the administration crumble under the weight of its own paranoia, deceit and disdain for the law and the Constitution, I was contemptuous of Nixon, who thought he was invulnerable after his 1972 landslide.

As I watched his speech on television, as he spoke of sacrifice and family and his own betrayal of American principles, I felt sorry for the man. I remarked that if he had given that speech two years earlier, at the beginning of the scandal, he might have avoided impeachment.

When Nixon flew off from the White House lawn, days before I returned to my job in Washington and my apartment in the suburbs, I felt a sense of relief that the nightmare was over. Gerald Ford, whom few (including Nixon) ever considered presidential material, turned out to be a reassuring father figure when America needed one. At Jimmy Carter's inauguration, after Ford's crushing and narrow defeat, the new president graciously acknowledged Ford's "healing" of America.

Forty years after Watergate, lesser scandals seem larger, public scorn of elected officials is more widespread and political anger is never-ending. Many pundits in 1974 celebrated by saying "the system worked" — Nixon resigned because the news media performed its watchdog role, the Senate was ready to remove him from office, and a new president took office without a military coup or an insurrection. But the legacy of Watergate is a different outlook from the American public. Politics is seen not as a means of running a democracy but as a slimey, crooked business. The news media, certainly one of the heroes of Watergate, suffer from a distrust almost as deep as the public's scorn for politicians.

Watergate is history, as distant in the past as Spanish Civil War had been when I was a young man in Washington. Like war, its impact lingers long after the big guns have been silenced.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Job applicant shows why unemployment remains high

The hefty young man approached me as I rounded the corner in the hallway to my office.

"That hiring place, they not here no more?" he asked.

"You mean The Budd Group (a human resources agency with an office next to mine)?" I answered. He was standing beside the door with the sign noting "The Budd Group." He nodded.

"They closed?" he asked.

"Their schedule is on the door," I said, pointing to the sign about four feet away. I looked at the sign. "It says they're closed today."

"When they gonna be open?" he asked.

The schedule on the door gave hours for the next day. I pointed it out to him, and he walked away.

I see quite a few job seekers coming down the hallway, looking for a job. Sometimes, they will stick their head in my office to ask about jobs when the HR folks next door are not in. Many of them, but not all, are in the same classification as the young man with all the questions — clad in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, a classic "dress for success" style — and lacking in basic grammar and speaking skills.

In a city with chronic unemployment that often runs nearly double the statewide jobless rate but with vacancies that can't be filled at major high-tech industries, my hallway conversationalist is an example of why so many are jobless and so many quality jobs go unfilled.

Education is the key, politicians keep saying, and it's true. But education begins long before kindergarten. Learning to speak clearly with correct grammar begins early in life, and so does the habit of ungrammatical, slurred half-sentences. Reading — such as reading that sign on the office door — is an essential skill that too many dropouts never developed. It's obvious that reading is not a talent many of these job seekers have. And that human resource agency now takes applications only online. If you can't find your way from power-on to double-click to QWERTY, you won't get a job.

And there's little anyone can do to make up for what you should have learned 10 or 20 years before.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Building a tourism industry on shifting sands

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus calls a man who builds his house on the sand "foolish." But if he has government-subsidized flood insurance and other disaster insurance and can make money on increasingly scarce and increasingly coveted waterfront property, maybe he's not so foolish.

This National Geographic article does a good job of explaining the dilemma of coastal development in an age of sea-level rise. The topic is especially volatile in North Carolina, where beachfront property and the associated tourism industry drives the state's economy. Down at the beach, where fishing is not as profitable as it once was, beach rentals, beach stores, restaurants, and beach real estate constitute a multi-billion dollar business. It's no wonder that people get upset when scientists talk about abandoning the Outer Banks to let the barrier islands reconstitute themselves as they migrate westward.

But the rise of the sea, the narrowing of beach fronts, and the shifting of the sand islands seem inevitable. One does not have to have a long memory to remember beaches that were far wider than they are today. At many beaches, the protective dunes have disappeared, and porches or entire houses are falling into the surf.

The photos accompanying the National Geographic article are especially convincing: The beach is moving beneath our feet and beneath the pilings that support the houses we like to rent and enjoy. The photo of N.C. 12 following Hurricane Irene, which severed Hatteras Island in five places, shows the futility of maintaining a major roadway built on shifting sands.

When I traveled to the Outer Banks a few months ago, I traversed the temporary bridge that carried automobile traffic over an inlet that had not been there a few years ago. As I drove, the ocean poured beneath the raised road, and the wind blew away the protective dunes. Looking out at the ocean and the salt spray mixed with sand that churned the air, I had no confidence that the highway could win its battle against the sea.

North Carolina is defined in part by the Outer Banks, jutting out like a too-prominent chin into the Graveyard of the Atlantic, making a prodigious target for hurricanes and tropical storms traveling from the Caribbean northward. Beaches provide the only reliable economic engine in eastern North Carolina, where tobacco and pine trees no longer drive the economy, small towns wither and unemployment is often twice the state average.

North Carolina cannot afford to abandon its beaches, but as the National Geographic's graphic shows, a one-meter rise in sea level will sink long stretches of the Outer Banks, changing the state's shape. The state's role should not be to simply rebuild N.C. 12 each time a storm rolls over it but to find ways to help the tourism industry adjust to the changes that surely seem inevitable. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

'Botched' executions

Another "botched" execution, and more cries to make execution illegal or at least more "humane." But making executions more "humane" is what brought us to this situation in the first place.

Executions are as old as civil government. Prosecutions have generally offered an ultimate punishment for the most heinous of crimes. From medieval tortures leading to deaths to the more humane reforms such as the guillotine, firing squads, hangings, electrocutions or the gas chamber, society has sought a way of making execution more palatable. Execution by the guillotine or by hanging was often accompanied by large crowds at mid-day in the town square. It was a public spectacle, and these methods were far less painful for the condemned criminals than earlier methods, which involved such torturous means as drawing and quartering (in which the condemned is literally torn apart, limb from limb until their quartered portions bleed out).

America's newest and supposedly most humane execution method, lethal injection, is not working out as well as planned. Several "botched" executions have led to outcries and calls for eliminating the death penalty. But these problems lead to the question: "What is really more humane?" Hanging, which snaps the condemned's spinal cord, should be minimally painful if pain can be felt at all. Electrocution likely includes severe but very brief pain before the electrical charge destroys the brain. Poison gas apparently is no more painful than lethal injection.

So what is the best way to carry out executions, if executions are to be carried out at all? It may be that earlier, less advanced methods of execution are actually less painful to the condemned person and might be reconsidered in the light of criticism of lethal injection.

As some relatives of murder victims have pointed out, no execution method compares to the tortured, grotesque, frightened final moments of their loved ones' lives. So is our concern for humane treatment of condemned killers misplaced?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Paul takes a different approach to presidential candidacy

Sen. Rand Paul is looking more and more like a presidential candidate, after less than a full term in the Senate, but he looks less and less like your run-of-the-mill presidential candidate — the ones intent on shoring up their base and getting "their people" out on election day.

Paul is pursuing a different strategy, one that has been abandoned and disparaged in the past 30 or 40 years. He is making appeals to groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Could it be that he thinks a (gasp!) moderate could win the presidency?

But Paul, whom few people would call a moderate, is really taking an even newer approach. He is appealing to stalwarts on the left and on the right. He has the revolutionary notion that the two groups have some things in common.

Paul has appealed to young, savvy technocrats by lambasting the National Security Agency and the constant spying this nation is engaged in. Paul says Americans have a right to privacy and certainly have a right to mind their own business without government snooping or interference. He has pitched his educational opportunities proposals to African-Americans, not your usual audience for Republicans. He has also appealed to died-in-the-wool conservatives with his stand against budget deficits and runaway federal spending. He has also called for less American involvement in the affairs of foreign governments. Paul sees limited government as serving both ends of the political spectrum.

An age when voters have less confidence in government and more doubts about the wisdom of foreign military interventions might be just the right time for a libertarian, which is the political description that best fits Senator Paul (whose father, Ron Paul, once ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket). Libertarians believe in strictly limited government, and that includes limits on the size of the military establishment and intrusions of government spying. If Paul can temper some of his more strident positions and gain support from both ends of the political spectrum, he could emerge as a force in the wide-open 2016 Republican presidential contest.