Thursday, June 30, 2016

A president needs a vocabulary

Has there ever been a major-party political candidate with a more restricted and infantile vocabulary than Donald Trump? Regardless of what you think of the man's political positions, his use of words is reminiscent of a kindergartner's. Does he read at a second-grade level?

Trump's favorite words seem to be "huge," "beautiful," "big," "bad," "horrible" and so on. These are all vague, nearly meaningless words. As a newspaper editor and occasional journalism teacher, I have reminded writers to use words with concrete meaning, to be precise, not vague, and to avoid cliched, meaningless words. The words from Trump's speeches would earn no better than a "D" grade in a high school English or freshman composition class. Too vague. Too meaningless. Use words that truly describe, not words that mean different things to different people.

One of the tasks of a president is to inspire the nation, and that is most often done verbally — using words that evoke emotions and insight, words that transcend moments and lift spirits. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could do that. Even the sometimes tongue-tied George W. Bush could make his rhetoric rise to the occasion at times.

Imagine Donald Trump standing on a platform in the cemetery at Gettysburg or in the well of the House of Representatives, calling for war against Japan, or standing by the Berlin Wall or on the cliffs at Normandy. Imagine Trump evoking "government of the people, by the people," proclaiming "a day that will live in infamy," telling Germans, "I am a Berliner," or praising these "boys of Pointe du Hoc."

It cannot be imagined.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Presidential nominees' age doesn't seem to matter

We who remember the 1980 presidential race recall the anxiety being expressed about Ronald Reagan's age. The Gipper would turn 70 just a few weeks after the inauguration. That was a matter of real concern. Would he be able to complete his four-year term? Would old age catch up to him before he completed his term?

As it turned out, Reagan had plenty of stamina for his first term, and he was overwhelmingly elected to a second term, when he made a joke about the age issue, telling Walter Mondale he would not hold the younger candidate's youth and inexperience against him. But there has been some speculation that unforced errors and slip-ups near the end of Reagan's second term might have been related to early signs of the Alzheimer's disease that he announced less than six years after leaving office in a public letter that is one of the most touching and profound documents in presidential history.

Where is the concern about the age of presidential candidates this year? Donald Trump is 70 already. Hillary Clinton will be 69 before election day. Bernie Sanders is 74. Of these three candidates, concern about age has been limited to Sanders, whose popular support lies with younger voters.

Should voters be worried about the age of presidential nominees? All of us have known people who had physical and mental limitations in their early 70s, but we have also known people who were physically fit and mentally sharp well into their 80s. Baby boomers (including me) are counting on 70 being the new 50, 80 being the new 60 and so on. We think, at least, that we are aging more gracefully and with better retention of our faculties than previous generations. So a 70-something president isn't such a worry, even one who follows the youthful Barack Obama.

This election year, voters have plenty to worry about concerning the party nominees without being concerned about their ages.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Identifying crime victims by race or sexuality

When the first reports of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando first appeared, I was surprised to see the club identified as a "gay nightclub." Throughout my newspaper career, I was taught — and taught reporters who worked for me — that irrelevant identifications should not be included in news stories.

For too long, newspapers had racially identified people in news stories, obituaries and in other places as "colored" or "Negro." This was a blatantly prejudicial means of separating people, especially in crime reports. When the unfairness of this irrelevance was identified and banned in most newspapers, other identifications were added to the ban on race or color. We didn't identify people as white, black, Jewish, Hispanic, immigrant, married, homosexual, straight or whatever unless it was relevant to the news story. Sometimes, race and other identifications are relevant to the story, but usually they are not.

In those first reports of the Orlando shooting, the relevance of Pulse as a LGBT hangout was not apparent, but it appeared in nearly every news report. Later, when the shooter was identified as someone who hated gays or who had struggled with his own sexuality, the relevance became clear and the identification of Pulse as a gay club was fully justified.

But those first reports, and the pervasiveness of the identification of the club as a gay club, made me wonder: Is there an exception to the usual rule about not identifying people by race, creed, color, etc. when sexual orientation is involved? The crush of the 24-hour news cycle can sometimes blur the rules of journalism, and it's possible that's what happened here. Some reporter or reporters might have assumed the club patrons' sexuality was important and included in an early report, and that addition would be picked up by others. Or it may be that reporters made the assumption that this shooting had specifically targeted LGBT people, an assumption that appears to have been correct.

Monday, June 20, 2016

She just wanted some services

The caller wanted to know what services our organization provided. I asked her what she meant. "I need services, and I wanted to know what you offer," she said. I asked her what services she needed. She needed lots of services, she said.

We finally got down to specifics, and she ran down her list of needs. Our organization was not able to provide any of those services, and I suggested some other organizations she might try in hopes of gaining those services.

After the call, I began thinking about the caller and her need for services. This was a woman, it seemed to me, who expected to be served by others — in this case by other nonprofit organizations. Rather than tackling the problems herself — good old American self-reliance — she wanted someone else to do the heavy lifting and, I suspect, provide the capital to pay whatever expenses her needed "services" might entail.

Nonprofits see a fair number of people who simply want to be provided for, without ever having to provide the initiative, work or funding for what they need. This attitude is not limited to the poor who have become accustomed to generations of governmental services, ranging from food to housing to educational assistance. It's also evident among those who play the state lottery in the expectation that they will hit their lucky number and never again have to expend any energy.

You will also see this attitude among businesses that want taxpayer-financed incentives for opening a factory or a store or hiring a work force to operate that enterprise. They don't want to take a financial risk without a guarantee of rewards from state or local government. On a larger scale are the industries that lobby Congress for start-up money to create new products, such as solar energy.

Everybody wants services.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another divisive political year

Has America ever been more divided?

As the presidential election looms five months in the future, the normal divisions between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, men and women, young and old, seem broader and more hopeless than ever. Political rallies turn into riots. Candidates and their supporters use words that are more suited to a middle school playground than to political debate. A national campaign against "bullying" in schools has shifted to a celebration of bullying on the campaign trail.

In 1968, America was more divided than at any time in a century. Two wildly popular leaders (one a presidential candidate) were assassinated in a span of two months. The Democratic convention in Chicago was besieged by street protests that turned into riots as police brutally beat back the protesters. The presidential election was razor close and failed to eliminate political differences. After the 1969 inauguration, the "Silent Majority" counter-marched against anti-war protesters. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets of the nation's capital as they attempted to stop the government from functioning and force an end to the Vietnam War.

This year's rallies and riots have not reached 1968's scale, but the battlegrounds have shifted. Today's animosities are played out on Facebook, Twitter and other social media on the Internet. The comments are no less angry, no less vile and no less myopic. The Internet has helped broaden the political divide as digital users select the bombastic opinions they agree with and rarely ever have to read facts, if the facts are even available in the places they look. They never have to read contrary opinion

This year, we have a presidential candidate who bans seasoned news organizations from his speeches. Other candidates or supporters compare a candidate to the worst tyrants in history.

An educational system that "deconstructs" great literature to discover its prejudices and that destroys great leaders of history for failing to follow the mores of a society 200 years after the leaders' deaths is partly to blame for a political system that equates celebrity with competence.

This year is not the worst election year in history. 1968 was worse in many ways. 1860, however, takes the prize for a divisiveness that even 600,000 deaths could not mend.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The evolution of Muhammad Ali

My feelings toward Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali changed over the years, reflecting the predominant American opinion over those years.

My earliest memories are of the brash, loud-mouthed, seemingly "crazy" young man headed for a stomping at the hands of Sonny Liston, who was being touted as one of the greatest, most ferocious and unstoppable heavyweight champions of all time. Disbelief followed Liston's loss to the smaller, conceited, wild, younger challenger known as the "Louisville Lip." Then Ali, as he was known by that time, defeated Liston a second time.

His conversion to Islam, actually to an unconventional sect of Islam, made me uncomfortable. Like most American Protestants, I knew little about Islam, but what I knew about the Nation of Islam was that it considered white people devils, and that was scary. I knew that Christian armies halted the Islamic invasion of Europe some 500 years earlier and hoped that would be the last trouble that European and American Protestants experienced from Muslims.

Ali continued to fight and continued to brag. He belittled his opponents and humiliated at least one former champ who refused to call the new champ by his new name. But I also got to see clips of Ali boxing and found myself amazed by his speed, his footwork and his punching. He really was an amazing athlete. As for his braggadocio, I was reminded, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up," and Ali could.

When Ali refused induction into the military, like most draft-eligible males of my time, I found his action cowardly and unfair. The vast majority of Americans supported the war in Vietnam, though they knew little about it and had been misled by authorities. I was prepared to go if drafted.

A few years later, I understood Ali's logic about the draft. He had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, and, I realized, neither did I. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and to 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" he asked. Soon, the great majority of Americans come around to this line of thinking.

They would also realize that the denial of a boxing license to Ali because of his refusal to be drafted — before the case was adjudicated (and thrown out by the Supreme Court) — was an injustice that denied him the best years of his boxing career. He came back from forced retirement only to lose to Joe Frazier — a match that mesmerized my college buddies who were all convinced that Ali would "whoop" Frazier on the assumption that this was the old Ali, before the layoff, before age began to creep in.

Out of the ring, he became a humanitarian, a man almost universally respected, in part because he had been right about Vietnam and had the courage to stand by his convictions. He also left Nation of Islam with its hatred and corruption and embraced both conventional Islam and a universalist deism.

At Ali's memorial service, Billy Crystal provided an astounding eulogy that only he could do; it's worth 14 minutes of your time to watch it.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sad and sorry presidential politics in social media

The presidential primaries had been settled for only hours before the attacks and counter-attacks began. I don't mean the presidential candidates or Democratic or Republican officials. I mean the people on social media passing along unfounded rumors and totally incredible (i.e., impossible to be believed) accusations about the "presumptive" party nominees.

Scrolling through Facebook (never a good place to get your news), I ran across a photo of Bernie Sanders holding up an obviously Photoshopped sign endorsing Donald Trump and what was alleged to be a news report (check the sources of these outlandish "news" items) claiming Chelsea Clinton had discovered that Bill Clinton is not her father. It reminded me of an unbelievably gullible woman who used to visit me at the newspaper office. She told me one day that Boris Yeltsen, then the president of Russia, was Bill Clinton's father. "Look at them," she said. "They look exactly alike."

Other social media posts are not quite so outlandish as these, but they are unapologetically harsh and mean-spirited in condemning the "other" candidate. Can we have a civil election in this atmosphere?

If there was ever a hope for a civil discourse and debate of key issues facing the nation and the world, that hope was quashed to dust by the Republican candidate debates, which focused more on political correctness, personal flaws and genitalia than on the major issues of the day.

Some of the fault lies with the news media, which increasingly sees news as entertainment with little concern for facts or seriousness, and with the American people, who have too little patience and too short an attention span to examine complex issues and serious topics.

Give 'em pablum; it's what they want.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why vote when the system is twisted?

I voted yesterday, though I'm not sure why. The only race on the ballot was a state Supreme Court contest with four candidates. I knew very little about any of them, and I was left to wonder once again why we vote for judges. "I want my vote heard," say proponents. "The right to vote is sacred." But what good does it do you to vote when you don't know anything about the candidates?

Each time someone defends voting for judges, I ask him or her to name the judicial candidates on the ballot. Can't do that? Then name the last judge you voted for. Can't do that? Then what good was your voting? You may as well draw names out of a hat.

There is a better way: Have state judges appointed by the governor, perhaps with advice and consent of legislators, from a list of qualified candidates vetted by the State Bar. Reserve for the public the right to recall judges before their terms expire and the right to approve or disapprove of judges (and thereby remove them) in a referendum at the end of a six-year or eight-year term. This system would preserve public influence without the corrosive effects of judges begging for and potentially being influenced by campaign donations.

While we're fixing elections, let's fix the corrupt system of allowing legislators to gerrymander their own electoral districts. This system has given us a Congress and state legislators in which few incumbents face serious opposition and where many incumbents face no opponents at all. The districts are rigged by legislative redistricting. A couple of states have taken legislators' manipulative options away and turned redistricting over the non-partisan commissions with mandates to create compact, impartial districts without regard to their impact on incumbents' future electability. A bill to do the same in North Carolina has been sent to committee, where it will assuredly die without ever being considered. Fixing redistricting would go far in fixing the impasses in Washington and the animosity between the far wings of both parties.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The new 'Roots" doesn't measure up

In 1977, along with millions of other Americans, I watched "Roots." Watching the eight-night spectacular took a commitment, but it was one that millions of us gladly accepted. I was eager to see miniseries because I had read Alex Haley's book and found it moving and enlightening.

The miniseries captivated Americans, helping them to understand the African-American experience and igniting an explosion of interest in genealogy. It was genealogy that prompted Haley's research and his years-long quest to find the person behind the family legends about The African — the first member of the family to arrive in America. Kunta Kinte arrived in chains, but his story and the lives of his descendants tell us much about all Americans.

Although skeptical about a remake of a miniseries widely viewed as a great classic, I decided I would watch the 2016 version of "Roots" partly just to see what a new generation would do with Haley's masterpiece. After two episodes of the four-episode series, I've packed it in. The new "Roots," despite excellent cinematography and some production techniques not available in the 1970s, cannot compare to the original series.

Haley's book and the original TV production were all about a family's "roots" — genealogy, discovering your family's past to help us understand the present. The new series from the History Channel seems more interested in examining the shame of slavery and extolling life in pre-colonial Africa while adding as much violence as possible. The new Kunta Kinte repeatedly flashes back to his African heritage, even decades after his arrival in America, and each flashback is inspiring.

Kunta Kinte of 2016 borrows from the popular superhero movies on this decade, creating an African immigrant who conjures super strength, super endurance and super determination by recalling his Mandinka warrior past. But I found the explosions, mindless cruelty and torture far too dominant and repulsive. Haley's family survived the cruelty and oppression by finding strength in family stories about a noble ancestor for whom family was everything and not simply by enduring great violence.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Lower tuition principles get lost in arguments

A bold proposal to cut tuition at five University of North Carolina campuses is in retreat after suspicions that the proposal was an insidious attack on historically black colleges and universities. The latest plan is to remove the three HBCUs in the proposal and cut tuition at only two campuses — Pembroke and Western Carolina.

The bold plan would have cut tuition to $1,000 per year ($500 per semester) at the five campuses, all of which are struggling. The state would make up the loss of tuition revenue by appropriating up to $70 million for the cut-rate schools. Skeptics pointed out that legislators could guarantee the funds to fill the tuition gap next year, but no legislature can guarantee action by future assemblies. HBCU supporters had no confidence in legislative promises.

Some of the HBCU arguments cannot stand up to scrutiny. Supporters argued that lowering tuition might attract more students seeking lower-cost college, and that might change the culture of the HBCU campuses. That argument is no more valid than complaints 50 years ago that integrating traditionally all-white university campuses would change the culture, achievements and public support for those campuses. Federal law and court decisions swatted away that complaint. HBCUs have played a huge role in the state's educational history, but that role cannot be frozen in the pre-integration past.

What no one has asked so far is this: Why doesn't the legislature reduce tuition at all 16 campuses of UNC? After all, the state constitution calls for public higher education to be offered free to the extent practicable. Cutting tuition to $1,000 a year would get closer to the state constitution's lofty goal and would adjust the burden of higher education costs from the students (and their parents) to the general public, which benefits from the university and the education of state residents even if they do not take advantage of educational opportunities. The state could make up the loss of tuition revenue (hundreds of millions of dollars) but only with a renewed commitment by legislators to provide higher education for all North Carolina residents at all 16 university campuses.