Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sanctuary Cities follow familiar strategy

Does the "Sanctuary Cities" strategy sound familiar? It should. It's little different from the "nullification and obstruction" strategies adopted by recalcitrant Southern states to oppose the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring racial segregation in education unconstitutional.

Both strategies were hatched to subvert federal laws. Fifty years ago, the despised law required school assignments to be made without regard to race. In the 21st century, the despised law allows federal agents to deport persons who are in this country illegally. Sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco, have declared that their law enforcement and criminal justice officials will not cooperate with federal authorities. They will not turn over illegal aliens to federal authorities or detain them until federal agents can take custody.

Cities are essentially telling the federal government "you don't have authority over us." But that claim of state sovereignty was fought over and settled 150 years ago. Federal law takes precedent over state laws.

Fifty years ago, some Southern states sought to avoid integrating their schools by withdrawing state funds from public schools and providing those funds to private, racially segregated schools. That tactic and other efforts to avoid integrating schools (such as "freedom of choice," allowing students or their parents to choose which school they would attend) succeeded for a while but ultimately were defeated by federal courts.

When some local governments sought to fight illegal immigration by establishing their own arrest and removal policies, immigrant advocates argued that border security and immigration enforcement are federal issues. Now, they argue that cities should be able to stop the federal government from enforcing federal immigration laws within cities' jurisdictions.

The Sanctuary Cities movement may be headed for a showdown, but it need not be as violent as the showdown over school desegregation. The federal government can withhold federal funds from uncooperative cities and may even be able to arrest city officials if they violate federal law. Make no mistake: federal law takes precedent over local and state laws.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Impeaching Trump will not be easy

With Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI in the special prosecutor's probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election and with new anger aimed at men who fondle and sexually harass women, one has to wonder whether President Trump's administration might truly be endangered.

Articles of impeachment have reportedly been discussed in the House of Representatives. Potential charges include obstruction of justice by firing FBI Director Comey in order to slow down or stop the Russia probe, false statements presented to the American public, either in interviews or tweets; racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other legislation; and bringing disrepute upon the presidency by multiple alleged  incidents of sexual harassment of women.

Congress is far from an impeachment indictment, which is a rare event in the history of the Republic, and should be. However, the special prosecutor is gathering charges and testimony that could readily present an impeachment that easily could  match the seriousness of the charges against Richard Nixon and exceed the impeachment charges against Bill Clinton. Impeachment still seems unlikely, but it is not impossible, perhaps not even improbable.

The House of Representatives, which must vote to impeach the president, is standing solidly with the president on a string of controversial bills, regardless of public opinion. Passing an impeachment bill in the overwhelmingly Republican House has little chance as the Trump administration nears its first birthday. However, more indictments of top Trump aides and more details of cooperation with Russians in disrupting the 2016 election in Trump's favor could force all but the truest believers to vote to impeach.

The odds in a Senate trial, where Republicans have a 52-48 majority, might seem more hazardous for Trump, but the Senate is properly reluctant to remove an elected official from office, and a verdict of guilty to "high crimes and misdemeanors" seems unlikely.

Making the Senate's vote more difficult is the apparent willingness of die-hard Trump supporters of stick with their man regardless of what he says or does. This Trump base does not believe anything they read in the "mainstream media" — if they read anything at all from traditional news media — and blindly accept Trump's claim that any negative reporting about him is "fake news." They won't be moved, even if the House and Senate vote unanimously to impeach and remove the president from office, even if Vladimir Putin admits that he called the shots in Trump's election and helped him win.

This unyielding Trump base is believed to account for about 20 percent of voters, far from a majority but still a lot of angry people. It helps to remember that even after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and was caught on tape trying to obstruct justice, millions of Americans continued to support him, bought his books and held him in highest esteem.

Impeaching Trump may be possible, but it is not likely without a landslide of new facts in the criminal probe. A better, more likely way of removing Trump will come in 2020. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The sex offenders keep coming

Four weeks ago, I wrote a post about the frenzy of accusations of sexual misconduct that followed disturbing revelations about movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Already, allegations were swirling about men in politics, entertainment and professions engaging in various degrees of improper behavior, ranging from unwelcome comments to extortion to violent rape.

A month into this new era, the accusations show no sign of stopping, and the esteem in which some men have been held for decades has collapsed. Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show is the latest incident. Initially, the sudden firing of Lauer based on one woman's accusation seemed lacking in due process. But when details emerged of Lauer's offensive behavior and his use of his own celebrity and power to demand sex from subordinates, a sudden firing was clearly years too late and too little punishment.

I never watched the "Today" show (I don't turn the TV on in the morning) and knew nothing about Lauer, but the next accused offender was a hero of mine — Garrison Keillor. I began listening to "Prairie Home Companion" in the mid-1980s and was quickly enchanted by the imaginary town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average." Keillor, who has written poetry and novels and is a well-known advocate for literature, presented a world as tangible as Narnia or Middle Earth. It was a world as wholesome as Mayberry and just a little funnier with characters who lived through failings and small triumphs — real characters.

The accusation against Keillor, at least as so far has been revealed, is that he placed his hand on the bare back of a female colleague beneath her shirt. He has said that he was seeking to comfort her and that his hand inadvertently touched her bare back. He said he apologized at the time and the two remained friends. But he is not appealing his firing by Minnesota Public Radio and the end of his "Writer's Almanac" daily feature. If that is all there is to this matter, perhaps a firing is too hasty. There is no equivalence between what Keillor described and the accusations against Lauer, and as these accusations pop up non-stop, the public and employers should be willing to distinguish between extorting sexual favors or physically attacking a woman and an inadvertent, unwelcome touch. The former should be punished by firing and, if possible, criminal charges. The latter may be offensive but is not criminal and should not be punishable by firing without warning or even a thorough investigation.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Who is representing "We the people"?

The Republican push to pass a tax bill this year provides a lesson in how things really work 130 years after the creation of the Constitution. The lesson is this: Forget what you might have heard about members of the House of Representatives and the Senate representing the people. (Senators originally represented the states and were selected by state legislatures. The passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 provided for "direct election" of senators.) The voters are not being consulted in this effort to rewrite U.S. tax law. Calling the shots are not voters but corporations and foundations — wealthy donors to political campaigns and the tax-exempt "think tanks" that provide ideas, research and wording for congressional actions.

One look at the tax bill shows the consequences of this shift in representation from voters to big business, from people to money. The winners in the complex tax bill are politically powerful corporations and the top one percent of taxpayers. Despite repeated claims that the "middle class" is getting a tax cut, closer analysis shows the middle-income taxpayers get little or no tax relief. And to provide the tax benefits to rich individuals and richer corporations, Congress is cutting programs aimed at helping the poor and people striving to achieve the upward mobility this country once stood for. Health care, income assistance, education, food programs, low-income housing and other assistance for poor and middle-income Americans are being cut to pay for the tax reductions being given to the wealthy.

Public opinion polls show widespread distrust of the tax bill provisions; the people are catching on to the lies about tax cuts for working Americans. This epiphany compounds long-standing distrust of Congress. Who can blame voters for thinking their opinions and their votes don't matter? If you can't make big donations to political campaigns or establish a tax-exempt research foundation, your voice in Washington is drowned out by those with more powerful amplifiers.

For this system to change, it will take something other than the Steve Bannon strategy of tearing down the congressional establishment and the "deep state" in favor of more government of, by and for big corporations. A slim possibility for major change lies in the likelihood that if the current tax bill passes, voters will find their tax deductions ended, their educational opportunities closed, their health care unavailable and their prospects hopelessly bleak. If that happens, voters may revolt and demand an end to the oligarchy of wealthy donors and corporations controlling Washington. They may demand revolutionary change in campaign finances, lobbying, ethics, party leadership and simple attention to voters' true interests.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Nonpartisan means no party labels

By custom and by law, most municipal elections in North Carolina are non-partisan. There are no party primaries and no party labels on the ballots in these municipal elections. (Most school board elections are the same way.)

But some people just can't abide not having party labels and party officials deciding how things should be run. Republicans in the General Assembly have proposed making all municipal elections partisan so that Republicans can have their own candidates, and Democrats can have their own candidates. The GOP has been riding a powerful wave and thinks it can expand its authority and power by taking control of local government in the same way it has taken over state government.

Democrats are headed down that same path, but without the legislative authority of the GOP. Democrats who want partisan purity have to resort to protests and shaming. The News & Observer is reporting today that some Democrats are upset that former Gov. Jim Hunt endorsed an independent (the incumbent) in the Raleigh mayor's race instead of her challenger, who is registered as a Democrat. These Democrats want to remove Hunt's name from a party fundraiser to punish him for his disloyalty.

If you believe party politics are all that matter in this old world, punishing Hunt makes sense. But a reality check would remind these Democrats that the Raleigh mayor's race was a nonpartisan election. By law there were no party labels. Party registration, whether Democratic, Republican or independent, should not matter. Ideally, party affiliation does not exist in the mayor's race. All that should matter is ability and accomplishments. On that basis, Hunt endorsed the candidate who had proven ability and an impressive list of accomplishments in her three terms as mayor. She has advocated what most people would consider "Democratic" policies, such as low-income housing improvements and buying the Dix property for a landmark city park. Nancy McFarlane won 58% of the vote against her challenger.

The election is nonpartisan. Support for candidates should be as well. The news media have contributed to this insurgent partisanship. The News & Observer frequently mentioned the challenger's registration as a Democrat, even though that is irrelevant in a nonpartisan election. In a nonpartisan election, a candidate's party registration need never be mentioned.

The Democrats who want to "punish" Jim Hunt have short memories. Hunt is the only North Carolinian to serve four terms as governor. His terms were among the most progressive in North Carolina history. If he had not been stopped by Jesse Helms in 1984, he might have been elected president.

And what good will punishing Hunt do? These Democrats would alienate the 58% of Raleigh voters who went for McFarlane, and they will come across as ignorant and vindictive toward a man who should, by all normal standards, be a hero in Democratic politics in North Carolina.

They want an excuse for their preferred candidate's electoral loss. Jim Hunt is not it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A prediction about Alabama's voters

I usually don't make predictions of any kind — sports, weather or politics — but I'm going to make an exception in the case of Roy Moore of Alabama.

Please note that this is not an expression of preference. I would prefer that Moore crawl back into the hole whence he came. This is what I expect to happen, like it or not, folks.

I expect Roy Moore to be elected to the U.S. Senate by the voters of Alabama. These are the people, after all, who elected him repeatedly to be a judge and even to be the chief justice of the State Supreme Court. All of those elections took place before five women came forward to accuse him of misconduct with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. But Moore's constituency is not focused on 40-year-old molesting/harassment/pedophilia accusations.

Moore has only one thing going for him. He swears that he is a Christian and puts the Word of God before all else. That commitment is what prompted him to install a mammoth stone engraving of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court building. Federal courts ordered its removal. Moore defied the courts and was removed from office. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal, Moore defied the highest court in the land and was removed from office. All these removals and embarrassments just made him more adorable to his supporters. Critics might say that Moore is more interested in using religion for publicity and that many of his actions are not Christ-like.

And so it will go with this year's U.S. Senate election. Alabama voters will send Moore to the Senate, and the Senate will have to decide whether he should be seated. Section 5 of Article I of the Constitution provides that each legislative chamber "shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members." Therefore, the Senate can refuse to seat Moore. This authority has not been exercised by the Senate in the past 150 years, but it can be used to deny Moore a seat if Alabama voters elect him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he believes Moore's accusers, and several Senate Republican leaders have indicated they agree. Many Republicans would like to see this embarrassment go away.

If the Senate refuses to seat Moore, the Republican governor of Alabama may appoint another candidate to the Senate in his stead. This course of action will not be completed until some inevitable court challenges are settled.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Local newspapers are still indispensable

For the first time in several years, I am subscribing to the local newspaper. When that newspaper laid me off after 29 years, I saw no reason to contribute to the revenues of a company that had, in my view, mistreated me and dozens of other employees who were laid off as the Great Recession and changing media erased print newspapers' business model.

I continued to take a regional daily newspaper and to read other newspapers online. My interest in public affairs, politics and world events was as strong as ever. I just didn't feel a need to purchase a local newspaper.

As this week's election approached and I saw some campaign signs around town, I realized that my thorough knowledge of city/county politics and elected officials had lapsed. Without a local newspaper, I did not know who was up for election and who the challengers were. I didn't miss late nights waiting for results to come in, which was my practice through more than 30 years as a newspaper editor. I did miss getting to know local and state officials and digging into local/state issues.

As I looked at the newspapers tossed into my driveway, I realized I had missed a few other things, such as local entertainment events, festivals, local obituaries, local art and culture reports. Yes, Facebook posts often include such matters, and I knew about many local events from social media, emails, personal contacts. Likewise, the city government posted news on social media that was sometimes helpful but always giving the government's perspective. I was still missing things, which I hope to be kept aware of if the local paper does its job.

Decades ago, when I was in the midst of my newspaper career, I could not understand how some neighbors and friends never subscribed to the local paper. "How can you get along without it?" I would wonder. Reading a local newspaper was integral to my daily life. The paper provided important news of local politics, governmental actions, criminal activity, life events (weddings, etc.), obituaries, business activity, road closures and improvements, sales at department stores and supermarkets, job opportunities, houses, cars and other items for sale, and legal notifications, such as foreclosures and estate settlements.

Alas, many of these news items are now available more promptly and conveniently than traditional print newspapers can provide them. Want ads used to provide newspapers with a steady cash flow, but nearly all of that business has shifted to internet job sites, the same for personal for sale items. That is a large reason why so many newspapers have collapsed. Another reason is many people's unwillingness to read instead of listening to broadcasts or watching videos for information.

Despite the drastic changes in the newspaper business, I am happy to renew my love of local newspapering and to feel its indispensable nature again.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The British model of taxation

Prompted by the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature, I've been reading "Remains of the Day." It is a Very British novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro. The narrator is an aging butler in a palatial English country house. If you saw any of "Downton Abby," you get the picture. The book was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as the butler/narrator. I saw the movie on TV but had not read the book until now.

British tax laws for generations into the 20th century made possible these huge land holdings populated by a moneyed aristocracy addressed as "My Lord" and "My Lady." America's founding fathers did not want an aristocracy and forbade inherited titles. The Constitution calls for a president, not a king or a duke or a prince. America was to be a land of opportunity and upward mobility.

When the modern U.S. income tax was initiated early in the last century, it was designed to be "progressive," meaning the wealthy paid a higher rate of taxation than the poor and middle classes. With the Republican tax overhaul now before Congress, more than a century of progressive taxation is in jeopardy, and so is the principle that America should have no aristocracy, no landed gentry nor ruling class.

Not only does the tax proposal cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans while reducing funds available for "safety net" programs, it also eliminates the inheritance tax. It is the inheritance tax (deceptively referred to by Republicans as the "death tax" — it is not death that is being taxed but the inherited wealth of the top less-than-one-percent of U.S. taxpayers.

Britain's tax structure once protected the baronial estates and inherited wealth of its aristocracy, but that system resulted in a stagnant, anti-innovation, closed-upward-mobility, anti-working-class economic system as British wealth and power declined. Tax laws were changed to no longer protect the great estates and to encourage entrepreneurs and innovators. 

In the 21st century, members of Congress are trying to resurrect the failed British system of protecting great wealth at the expense of innovation, creativity, and simple fairness. The inheritance tax repeal is especially egregious. The current tax, applied only to estates topping $5 million, affects less than 1 percent of Americans — those who own their own private jets, multiple homes and and enough "bling" to eclipse the sun. Advocates of repealing the tax say it's a tax on assets already taxed as income. But these same advocates want to disallow the deduction of state and local property taxes, sales taxes and other already-taxed assets of the middle class. It is not unusual for assets to be taxed more than once. Each time you purchase something subject to the sales tax, you are paying a second tax using money that has already been taxed. Surely, if the poor and middle class can pay taxes twice, so can the super-wealthy.

Otherwise, the American economy could end up as stagnant as Britain's was 100 years ago.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Weinsteiin and other males

Who's next? Since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a despicable sexual harasser, extortionist, rapist, groper, exhibitionist and other indecent things, there has been no stopping the names added to this disturbing list of men who abused women and the list of women who were threatened, offended or violated. The latest list is of men who harassed, groped or violated other men or boys.

Where will it all end? Whoever knew anything about Harvey Weinstein before all this? People you would never categorize as offensive or boorish are apologizing for past actions. The top guy at NPR News has resigned over inappropriate conversations with women. Dustin Hoffman apologized for an incident 20-some years ago. Former President George H.W. Bush has apologized for patting women's derrieres a long time ago.

Almost as striking as these admissions is the lack of any apologies or admissions from Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — men against whom plenty of evidence exists of their misbehavior.

All of these revelations come as college campuses cope with changing mores and expectations in male-female relationships. Campus rape has become a cause that has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Education. Under the Obama administration, the department ordered colleges to take action against sexual offenders (usually male) and to base consequences on "trials" that deny due process by limiting the burden of proof, denying the accused access to legal counsel and the right to cross-examine their accusers. Some colleges created strict rules regarding consent to sexual contact, extending even to written permission to engage in Act A or Act B. A Trump administration review of the Obama administration rules has sparked a firestorm of complaints and worries about "rape culture."

What can we conclude from all this? Has society suddenly become more libidinous? Have males suddenly become more sexually aggressive? This seems unlikely, even though the ubiquitous access to online pornography certainly must be having some impact on social mores and perceptions of acceptable behavior.

Maybe society should admit that men are naturally boorish, aggressive, hedonist and eager to take advantage of any opening they might find. In past generations, social mores and economic rules kept these male tendencies under control (at least somewhat). Women were expected to be prim and proper and to not enjoy sex. Marital sex (the only kind allowed) was a woman's obligation, not a recreational pleasure. Only men took pleasure from such acts, and they had no obligation of providing pleasure to their mates. Women were protected by rules about dating, which was always with a chaperone or a group that would harshly judge intimacy.

As society has relaxed its rules on male-female behavior and as women have gained equality in education and work settings (they constitute a majority of college students), the natural male tendencies face fewer barriers. Men have more private encounters with women, and some men — apparently a great many — take advantage of these opportunities.

Society is not going back to the Victorian era, so if men truly are boorish and aggressive, other ways must be incorporated to protect women. The first step must be for women to protect themselves by avoiding risky situations and by speaking out against any sexual discrimination, assaults or misbehavior (touching or offensive language). Most of the Weinstein accusers kept quiet for years, even decades, allowing him to continue his extortions. We must also distinguish between misbehavior, which is unacceptable and punishable by loss of job or social status or other consequences, and rape, which is a criminal offense with harsh penalties. If we can agree that all these acts are offensive and that the most egregious of them should be criminally punished, we can go a long way toward limiting misbehavior and the vulnerability of women.

Modern society will never again see women as fragile and helpless, not when they are leaders and managers and admired role models. The Victorian era's responses to sexual crimes — rape was punishable by execution or justifiable homicide, and consensual sex might be followed by forced marriage — are not coming back. A modern balance to the "battle of the sexes" will look realistically at both males' natural aggressiveness and females' independence and capabilities. That aggressiveness must be curtailed, and women's capabilities should be honored and encouraged.

Monday, October 30, 2017

News, nostalgia and inspiration at the Newseum


On our first visit to Washington, D.C., in 25 years, my wife and I went to the Newseum, located at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue. Neither of us was sure what the Newseum would be like, but we paid our entry fee and began exploring the six levels of exhibits about newspapers, news reporting, and history.

It was a worthwhile visit, although the galleries and corridors and stairs could be a maze. Of particular interest to us were a video presentation of reporters talking about their response to 9/11. They were at work in Manhattan when the terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. Watching the scenes and hearing the reporters' disbelief (like all of us) that this could be happening, took us back to that horrific day 16 years ago. Despite the life-risking dangers as the towers fell and thousands died, the reporters swallowed their personal feelings, fears and concerns for themselves, their friends and their families, and continued to report what was happening.

I couldn't help thinking that the current president of the United States called these self-sacrificing reporters "enemies of the people" and purveyors of "fake news." The close-up video of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center was so terrifying and so clearly an airliner aimed directly at the building that I once again could not understand how anyone could deny that this tragedy was carried out by Islamic terrorists who hijacked four aircraft in a well-planned and malevolent plot against the United States. Yet some conspiracy theorists even today say the whole thing was carried out by the federal government.

Another exhibit in the Newseum examined the relationship of President John F. Kennedy with the press. Kennedy seemed to enjoy sparring with reporters at news conferences, and an interview video shows Kennedy saying that the  adversarial relationship between the press and the government is a natural and healthy thing. Another exhibit celebrated JFK on the 100th anniversary of his birth. These exhibits gave me a flood of nostalgia. The grief I had felt in 1963 was renewed hearing this brilliant, articulate, inspiring and short-lived president. I could not avoid a comparison between this man, who wrote books and regularly read 15 newspapers a day, to the current president, who boasts that he never reads books and requires the White House staff to limit any briefing papers, no matter how complex the issue, to one page. How far we have fallen!

Another Newseum exhibit was a 50th anniversary look back at the civil rights era of the 1960s. The cruelty of segregation and the officials who responded to protesters with violence were exceeded only by the murders of many civil rights advocates and bystanders. It's an era worth remembering not only because of the illogical cruelty and oppression but also to be reminded of how far we have come.

The Newseum is a stop to include on your Washington trip. I only wish the museum had offered a discount if I showed my old press pass (I still have it).

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All hail the narcissist in chief

First of all, let's give President Donald Trump credit for holding a long, wide-ranging news conference in which he answered questions from reporters. That used to be something that presidents did regularly, but times have changed. On Monday in the White House Rose Garden, Trump did what he should do more often, answering questions for about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, one unnecessary and uncalled-for comment from the president overwhelmed the good vibes from the news conference. In answer to a question about the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger, Trump asserted that he had written letters to the families of the soldiers killed in an ambush and planned to call them next week. He said he likes to call grieving families "when it's appropriate" (whatever that means). Trump seemed to hedge on just what he had done to comfort families. He said he had written letters but had not mailed them yet. Huh? The ambush occurred two weeks ago.

From there, he claimed that he was doing something — comforting grieving families — that other presidents had not done, mentioning President Obama in particular but also berating other predecessors. Trump's remark, like many of his off-the-cuff comments, is provably false. There are news stories, photographs and video of President Obama greeting and speaking with grieving families of combat casualties. President George W. Bush also made it a point to extend condolences to the families of service members killed in action. Bush has extended his emotional connection to military members since he left the White House, hosting dinners at his Texas ranch for injured combat veterans and publishing a book of portraits he had painted of injured veterans.

This defamation of Obama and other presidents reminds Americans that narcissism is Trump's primary motivation for anything that comes out of his mouth. It is not enough for him to bolster his own image, no matter how false or misleading this effort might be (see inaugural crowds, Electoral College victory margin, legislative accomplishments in the first 30/90/100 days, and so forth). He also has to drag down others, dishonor their achievements and destroy their legacies. 

Trump seems especially obsessed with belittling Obama, whom he claimed for years was unfit for the presidency because he was "born in Kenya" (despite documentary proof of his birth in Hawaii to a mother who was a natural-born citizen). He has attacked every achievement of the Obama administration, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Affordable Care Act, sentencing reform and clean air regulations. His determination to obliterate these actions makes it clear that he cares more about wiping away all that Obama has done than about achieving policy goals. 

On Monday, Trump even had to lie about Obama's condolences to families of military casualties.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dragging your feet again?

"Boy, pick up your feet! You're wearing out your shoes."

That warning from my father some 60 years ago came back to me recently as I realized I was tending to drag my feet as I walked. I heard the scraping sound as the heel of my shoe met the pavement before my foot was fully extended into my stride.

When I was little kid, the concern about my stride was that shoes were expensive, and there was no point in wearing them out prematurely. Today, the concern is that the aging process may have resulted in a neurological issue known as "foot drag." When I worked for the Red Cross, a volunteer underwent spinal surgery to correct his foot drag. That's not what I want for my future.

I'm not a candidate for surgery, but I have become more conscious of my heel dragging into the ground when I step. The condition also manifests itself when my toe snags on the tread of steps as I rush upstairs. I've caught myself with my hands numerous times to avoid a far worse face to the stairs result.

I'm trying to be more aware of lifting my knees when I walk so that my heel does not drag the ground as I step forward, wearing out my shoes and worrying my father, dead 11 years. I'm also trying to pay closer attention as I stride upstairs, which I tend to do at a running pace.

All those years ago, I didn't take Daddy's criticism well. I thought he was being picky. If I did wear out my shoes, I thought, it would mean I'd get new shoes. I never imagined that 60 years later, I'd find the wisdom in his advice. 


Monday, October 9, 2017

In Defense of Taxes, Part 2

In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan famously said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He and his followers sought to "starve the beast" by cutting taxes and forcing the federal government to die from lack of funding.

It's hard to believe, however, that Reagan really thought government, on the whole, is "the problem." Conservatives had long contended that governmental regulations and federal overreach made it difficult for private businesses to operate and for individuals to achieve. But that's not the same as saying "the government is the problem." 

The federal government does many things well. We have the strongest military in the world, though sometimes military leaders (all human) make mistakes, as do civilian leaders. America is a land of opportunity, which is why so many foreigners want to come here and seek their fortunes. The recently announced Nobel prizes show that America is also the land of innovation and creative thinking. In many ways, the federal government encourages this innovation society and makes it possible for start-up companies to thrive in a competitive marketplace. Despite some screw-ups, such as the Hurricane Katrina response, the feds do disaster recovery remarkably well, whether it's the 9/11 attack or Hurricane Nate. The government ensures the safety of food, drugs, toys, travel, construction and workers. Although complaints about over-regulation are common and sometimes justifiable, America has the best worker safety and water and air safety record in the world. Our universities attract students from around the globe.

Even Ronald Reagan would not suggest eliminating the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Labor or FEMA, so the indiscriminate charge to "starve the beast" by eliminating taxes is foolhardy. Rather than the annual efforts to cut taxes at the federal and state levels, political parties should work toward a consensus about what is a reasonable level of taxation and what does the federal government realistically need to do its job. Cuts that cripple essential agencies or eliminate portals of opportunity such as education should be declared un-American.

Let budget debates begin not with a demand for tax cuts year after year but with an agreement that essential government services must be funded even as redundant or anachronistic or infringing agencies or regulations are deliberately defunded. The devil will still be in the details, but at least the debate could shift from tax cuts to funding services.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In defense of taxes

It seems to be true that nobody likes taxes. For nearly 40 years, the Republican Party has built its strategy and its appeal on promises of lower taxes and has largely succeeded with the tax-hating electorate.

But taxes, rather than a nefarious evil, are necessary. Without taxes, government on the local, state and federal level cannot function. Voter ire against taxes can easily be fired up over reports of fraud in federal contracts, bone-headed spending, such as the Internal Revenue Service's $7 million contract with Equifax to prevent hacking and fraud in IRS files. This no-bid contract came just weeks after a massive hacking of Equifax data that had endangered the financial security of millions of Americans.

Taxes need to be cut from time to time. Tax cuts can spur spending and help speed recovery from a recession. Fast-rising wages and salaries can result in surpluses in the federal treasury (but that is rare). John F. Kennedy bucked his own party to pass a massive tax reduction in 1963. Ronald Reagan's tax cuts 30-plus years ago spurred economic growth but also ballooned the budget deficit (because he didn't get the spending cuts that should have accompanied the tax cuts). Since Reagan, every GOP presidential candidate and most GOP candidates for lesser offices have touted tax cuts for whatever ailed the country.

Tax-cutting continues to be the signature policy of nearly all GOP candidates, and Democrats have learned that opposition to popular tax cuts can be politically suicidal. Like nearly all Americans, I wince each time I write a check to the IRS or look at the withholding in my paycheck, but I have to admit that I want those government services my taxes pay for. While tax cuts sound great, consider what things federal taxes pay for:

° National Defense. The United States has by far the largest military budget on Earth, but few taxpayers want to cut the military.
° Medical and health initiatives. Annual flu shots, research into causes of cancer and other diseases, epidemic controls, standards for medical professionals and facilities.
° Highways, airline safety, passenger trains, and other transportation initiatives. Without federal gasoline taxes, modern highways would not exist.
° Food safety. Federal inspectors assure that meat, vegetables and other food items are safe to eat and are properly labeled for buyer safety.
° Drug safety. Federal testing and inspections keep dangerous or bogus drugs off the market.
° Interstate commerce. Regulation of long-haul trucking, shipping, water-borne navigation and port safety are all paid for by taxes and save lives every year.
° Communications. Federal regulations provide the basis for modern communications from telephone wires to WiFi to the internet itself. Without federal rule-setting, these tools we depend upon would never have developed.

State and local taxes go to even more popular and essential services, including:
° Garbage pickup and recycling services.
° Streets, sidewalks, bikeways, hiking trails and parks.
° Regulation of development and construction to prevent annoyances such as a pig sty next door to a residence or disasters, such as a building collapse.
° Public education, paid for locally and statewide, to ensure an educated workforce and a knowledgeable citizenry who can make democracy work effectively.
° Police departments to protect individuals and property.
° Fire departments to prevent and put out devastating fires.
° Emergency medical services that improve chances for victims of accidents, heart attacks and other medical emergencies.
° Colleges and universities that open bright futures for young people, increase upward mobility and improve economic opportunities for the entire state.

Unfortunately, tax-cut fervor at the state level has led to sharp cuts in K-12 and higher education. Damage from these cuts might not be apparent for a generation but could be disastrous.

A quarter-cent decrease in the sales tax or a 0.2 percent cut in the personal income tax will hardly be noticed an individual taxpayer but can make a huge difference in the state's ability to provide services needed and wanted by taxpayers. The cumulative effect of a fraction of a tax can help all residents, including those who are not directly affected in particular government services. All benefit when services help build a caring, upwardly mobile society.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The high school reunion speech never given

Before I went to my 50th high school reunion three weeks ago, I had composed in my mind what I would say to my classmates when the microphone was passed to me in our traditional individual updates. Because I left early in order to get home to my wife, who was convalescing from a broken shoulder, I used my moment with the mic to explain why I wasn't hanging around.

Here is what I would have said if I'd had the time:

At the last several of our reunions, I bemoaned the fact that, unlike a great many of you, I had not yet retired. I blamed my poor career choices made almost 50 years ago. If I had remained in military service or if I had chosen to teach in public schools, I could have retired with a generous pension as many of you have.

Well, now i have joined the rest of you in being retired as of about 40 days ago, and that makes me think back to the best college graduation speech I ever heard. My oldest daughter was graduating from Appalachian State University in 1993, and the speaker was Orson Scott Card, the science fiction writer. He made a few remarks about careers and jobs, as nearly all graduation speakers do. But then he cautioned the graduates not to put everything into their work lives. "If your job is what you are," he said, "what are you when you no longer have that job?"

For 33 years I was the editor. When that job ended, I became the executive director of two nonprofits. Now I am no longer the editor or the executive director. My titles now are more important than those past titles. I am now known as husband, father, grandfather, citizen, child of God. I am not so much retired as taking on more important work.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Vietnam War documentary tells it straight

For the second time, Ken Burns had me transfixed. The first time was his "The Civil War" documentary. The second time was "The Vietnam War." I watched at least some of his others documentaries on baseball and jazz, but I was never addicted to those films as I had been to "The Civil War."

"The Vietnam War" is a fitting sequel to his civil war documentary, and it is just as emotionally draining and factually revealing. Long before Burns began doing his magnificent video documentaries, I had been a student of the Civil War and had read extensively about the war. The difference in his latest documentary is that I lived through the Vietnam War.

The filmmaker had no video or live interviews with participants from 1861-65, but he managed to capture the mood of the era through skilled use of 19th century photographs and sympathetic readings of letters and speeches of participants in America's most tragic war. Using David McCullough as narrator was inspired. His deep, knowledgeable voice set the tone for all of the visuals, and Burns used historians to explain the war and the people. Shelby Foote, a historian and novelist, became a celebrity with his insightful explanations about the war.

"The Vietnam War" includes video shot by news photographers and individuals. Some of the video might spark memories from evening news broadcast 50-plus years ago. Others are less well known, including video shot by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese photographers. For this war, many participants are still alive to tell their stories, and Burns and Lynn Novick found some interesting, experienced veterans of that experience to explain what the war had meant to them and to America (or to the Vietnamese). They wisely did not shy away from veterans who became disenchanted with the war or protested against the war. The participants include black and white, rich and poor, gung-ho and anti-war, a balanced presentation.

A few surprises are included, such as Lyndon Johnson catching Richard Nixon blatantly lying about interference in the peace talks (to benefit Nixon's candidacy) and a U.S. general's admission that the Viet Cong were excellent soldiers. The difference in the war, it seemed, was that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for generations or centuries for their dream of an independent Vietnam.

This latest documentary's answer to Shelby Foote, as the most knowledgeable and persuasive of the characters, is not one person but several. I found myself awed by Marine Karl Marlantes, West Point graduate Matt Harrison, Marine John Musgrave, Army doctor Hal Kushner, Navy pilot Everett Alveraz and Carol Crocker, whose brother "Mogi" did not survive the war, among others. All told their compelling stories eloquently.

Burns and Novick did not ignore the leadership in Washington who pulled America into the war and then kept us there, despite knowing that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and unsustainable. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon knew they were fighting the wrong war in the wrong way, but they kept at it to save their egos and marks in history.

The documentary also shows how shamefully Americans greeted returning veterans. Some spoke of being spat at, bullied and shouted down profanely. That treatment of Vietnam veterans remains a shamefully disgusting black mark against the anti-war movement. Even in a horrific and wasteful war, the vast majority of American soldiers and sailors served honorably and decently.

They deserve this unflinching look at my generation's war.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Protesting the national anthem

I did not watch any NFL games yesterday. My schedule did not allow it. I have followed the disagreements over players' actions during the playing of the national anthem in news reports, so I'm aware of the controversy.

My initial reaction is that I have always objected to the use of non-political public events to promote political views. I have sat through stage productions, fundraisers, school events and, yes, sporting events that were used to promote political viewpoints. My objection is not to the political views themselves but to the exploitation of a captive audience to promote those views. The innocently trusting audience had no way of knowing they would hear a political spiel and had no way of escaping. Welcome to "bait-and-switch."

NFL players have demonstrated their objections to the killing of African-Americans by police (or associated issues) by refusing to show respect to the United States during the playing of the national anthem. Instead of standing silently, hats off and hand over heart (as etiquette prescribes), players have knelt on one knee, turned away or simply ignored the anthem. The protests began with one player and has spread to others.

President Trump greatly magnified the protest when he called on NFL owners to "fire" any player who failed to show respect to the flag. The president's disrespect of players' concerns turned other players and NFL owners against the president and multiplied the number of protesters

Although protests are protected by the First Amendment, this is not so much a legal issue as a respect issue. Football players — or teachers, entertainers or celebrities — should respect the audience that came to see them play or sing or dance. They should exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner that respects others while still getting their message across. Modern media offer multitudes of opportunities for free expression. Millionaire football players have even greater opportunities to claim the spotlight without disrupting events people have paid dearly to watch.

You would think that the powerful and wealthy NFL Players Association could find a reasonable compromise for this issue before more fans are alienated. Let protesting players pass out leaflets at the stadium; let players address issues after the game is over. The NFL could even eliminate the playing of the national anthem, which, until recently, had received little attention. The old baseball joke went like this: "What's the last two words of the national anthem?" "Play ball."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Civil War history is full of tragedy and nuance

Thanks to historian Philip Gerard for providing some historical context to the debates over Confederate monuments. Gerard's op-ed piece in Sunday's News & Observer was about a new Civil War museum planned for Fayetteville. The museum is to be housed on a historic site where a key U.S. and (later) CSA arsenal had stood.

This museum will be about more than the battles and about more than slavery or states' rights or any of the other issues involved in the war. As Gerard points out, North Carolina's Civil War history "is complicated and full of nuance." Many, probably most, North Carolinians see the Civil War as a struggle between slave-owning aristocrats on their plantations vs. enslaved African-Americans and the northern liberators who sought to free them.

In fact, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many were little better off economically than some slaves or free blacks. As N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance admitted, the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” The aristocrats could buy their way out of military service. Even among that elitist population, not all were die-hard supporters of slavery. Many North Carolinians, especially those in the mountainous western part of the state, opposed secession and fought either a guerrilla war against the Confederacy or enlisted in the Union Army.

The stated purpose of the Lincoln administration was to preserve the Union. Only near the end of the war did Lincoln add abolition of slavery to his war goals.

By the end of this ill-begotten war, the South's economy was utterly destroyed. Farms were burned, livestock was claimed as bounty of war, industrial sites were destroyed, wealth in the form of Confederate dollars became worthless. It would take the seceding states most of the next 100 years to catch up with other states in economic health.

The war settled issues that had been simmering since the founding of the republic — slavery and the sovereignty of member states. While slavery was widely viewed as evil and inhumane, it was widely practiced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The question of secession had never been settled in federal courts. The Constitution does not forbid states from resigning from the Union, and those states were less than 100 years from the precedent of the United Colonies' decision to secede from British rule.

The debate over Confederate monuments ignores these nuances and paints everything related to the Confederacy as reprehensible. While some Confederate monuments extol individuals whose views on slavery and the "brotherhood of man" may be repulsive to 21st century minds, other monuments offer gratitude for people who made America's most devastating war less awful. Among these is the monument on the N.C. Capitol grounds honoring Southern wives and mothers who endured incredible hardship, tragedy and sacrifice during four years of war, which included a strategy of destroying the Confederacy's ability to wage war, meaning the destruction of anything of value in Southern hands.

Many other monuments address the sacrifices of nameless Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a cause they had little stake in and hardly understood. Slavery hung in the balance, it is true, but slavery was not the motivation of most of these poor unfortunates.

Destruction of these monuments will not provide context for a tragic war, nor will it improve the plight of descendants of slavery and segregation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Trump the Democrat

Suppose Donald Trump runs for re-election on the Democratic ticket!

After yesterday's new coalition of Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plus Trump's indication that he might eliminate the debt ceiling altogether, Trump seems more Democratic than some Democrats. And he clearly left some Republicans (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) miffed by the Republican president's detour around the party's congressional leadership.

The Trump-Pelosi-Schumer triumvirate got together on a legislative plan that appears to be counter to the Republican Party's interests. Ryan and McConnell wanted to put off debt ceiling and 2018 budget decisions until after the 2018 mid-term elections. Making painful and controversial decisions after the election instead of before would be in the best interests of the majority party. Democrats wanted action sooner rather than later, giving them the opportunity to force Republicans to state where they stand on controversial but essential legislation before Americans go to the polls.

Some Republicans have complained that Trump is not really a Republican, which is true. He is Trump, and what is good for him and his friends is his policy, regardless of partisan concerns. Bipartisanship, if that is what Trump is able to bring about, would be welcomed by many Americans and by some members of Congress in both parties.

Bipartisanship would be helpful in repairing Trump's initiative on immigration. Trump was prompted (by Pelosi) to say some nice things about young immigrants while his attorney general announced the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy of the Obama administration. Trump tweeted (how else would he make an important announcement?) that the "Dreamers" protected by DACA would have nothing to worry about in the six months before DACA expires under the new policy.

Critics are portraying the administration's decision as a cruel betrayal of these young immigrants brought here illegally as children. But what the administration is doing is forcing Congress to pass DACA-type protections into federal law. It gives Congress six months to pass legislation. There is no guarantee that Congress will do its duty, but there seems to be overwhelming support for providing a means for these innocent young people to avoid deportation. Members of Congress who fail to support a fair and reasonable bill to protect "Dreamers" will face political consequences. A long-sought comprehensive immigration overhaul might even come from this motivation.

Both of these actions this week by the president relates to his impatience and impulsiveness. Trump has been critical of Congress for its failure to pass health care legislation and other important measures. He has accused his own party's leadership of dragging their feet. Most successful businessmen have an impatient streak, and Trump's streak is long and deep. If his impatience gets Congress to start things moving, he could salvage his own failing presidency.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three books about death and dying

You might say I've been on a binge lately. In the past few months, I've read three books about death and dying. Twenty years ago, I might have thought of this as a premonition, but I no longer trust in premonitions, and I feel fine, really, for someone my age.

The death and dying books were not part of a plan; they simply came my way in nearly sequential time. Most recently, I read "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe. The book is not so much about books or book clubs as it is a memoir of the author's time spent with his terminally ill mother. They decided that reading books together and discussing them would be a great way to pass the time while she was undergoing chemo treatments for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The book discussions fade in comparison to the plans made and the things done as Mom dealt with the aggressive cancer and the extensive treatments to forestall its inevitable outcome. She traveled extensively to visit her children and grandchildren, to be with old friends from around the world and to strengthen relationships with friends and family. Fortunately, she was given time for all of that. Despite pancreatic cancer's three- to six-month average survival rates (my sister lived just 30 days after her diagnosis), Ms. Schwalbe survived more than a year with good "quality of life" for much of that time.

Previously, I had read Nina Riggs' "The Bright Hour," a book that is excruciatingly sad and at the same time positive and beautiful. Riggs, the mother of two small boys, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. What should have been just a "one small spot" that could be easily removed and destroyed turned out to be highly aggressive and ultimately fatal. Riggs spent the last few months of her life writing this memoir filled with the insights and beauty of a poet. She finds humor in the midst of pain and despair. She celebrates every minute of time she has with her sons and her supportive and brave husband. "The Bright Hour" deserves all the accolades it has received, and I've recommended it to dozens of people. Riggs died only weeks before her book's release.

The first book in my trilogy of recently read death-and-dying books was Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal." Gawande, a medical doctor, examines the way we die in this "civilized" modern world, and he concludes that we are often doing it all wrong. Instead of fighting death, as if it were a foreign invader, he recommends seeing death as both inevitable and part of life. The extreme measures to keep a terminally ill patient alive often result in pain, discomfort and a terrible "quality of life" for the patient and for loved ones. Modern medicine can keep many patients alive but cannot make them well and cannot restore their enjoyment of life. Accepting the inevitability of death can be the first step toward a more humane, less painful and less costly manner of death.

Of these three books, I would recommend that "The Bright Hour" and "Being Mortal" are definitely worth a second reading.

I should probably be looking for some humorous books to relieve the sadness of the last three books. Instead, I'm rereading "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Ecco, which I read about 25 years ago. It's about a series of mysterious deaths in a 14th century abbey. The nice thing about a well-aged memory is that I remember almost nothing of the plot, only that I thought it was a great book when I first read "Name of the Rose." We'll see how a more mature reader likes it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Silent Sam honors students who died as soldiers

For as long as I have visited or lived in Chapel Hill, nearly 60 years, "Silent Sam" has been a part of the University of North Carolina campus. In all those years, I never thought of the bronze Confederate soldier as a reminder of slavery or as an intimidation of anyone. In fact, I rarely even thought of Silent Sam as a Confederate soldier. Like most students and visitors, I saw Silent Sam as a decoration and a landmark. I suspect most students thought of Sam's reputation (every time a virgin walks by, he fires his musket) far more than they thought of his symbolism.

If I took the time to think about his presence, I thought of the UNC students who dropped their books and took up arms to defend their homes, their university and their state from a threatening military force. The statue was dedicated as a memorial to those students who fought and died in the Civil War. Sam was erected as an expression of grief by a population that suffered more casualties in the Civil War than any other state. UNC students were among those casualties, and Silent Sam honors the sacrifice of those families.

Although one speaker at the 1913 dedication, made tasteless and off-message boasts at the dedication, the solemn intent of the Silent Sam statue was to remember the UNC students who died in the Civil War, as Ed Yoder states in an excellent column in the News & Observer.

Andrew Young, the civil rights hero, confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., former congressman, former mayor of Atlanta, told an NPR reporter recently that removing Confederate monuments, as advocated by Black Lives Matter and other groups, is the wrong fight at the wrong time.

"I'm saying these are kids who grew up free, and they don't realize what still enslaves them — and it's not those monuments," Young said. He worries that the next time the political winds shift, crowds may be advocating tearing down monuments to Dr. King and other civil rights icons.

I hope, before the mob psychology takes hold and sweeps away every offending, misunderstood or uncomfortable vestige of the Civil War, the public and elected leaders will listen to voices of reason like Ed Yoder and Andrew Young.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville, destruction in Durham

The only thing more disturbing than the riot that broke out in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend was the American president's ultimate embrace of the neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist mob that sparked the street fighting, injuries and at least one death Saturday.

President Trump first blamed "many sides" for the violence that erupted. The next day, he read a script that laid the blame on the right-wing extremists who came to Charlottesville looking for a fight and who marched through Mr. Jefferson's University chanting Nazi slogans, such as "Blood and Soil." But then, the Real Donald Trump came out the following day and again blamed "both sides" for the violence and defended those using shields, bats and other weapons to attack protesters opposing their march.

This is a free country. You have the right to speech. You have the right to assemble and to petition the government. You don't have the right to assault other people exercising those same rights. White supremacists, KKK and neo-Nazis are reprehensible. Their beliefs are repugnant and uninformed, but they still have the right to their beliefs. What they don't have is a right to force their twisted beliefs on others.

Days after the Charlottesville riot, a mob in Durham, N.C., climbed a pedestal topped by a bronze statue of a non-descript Confederate soldier, tied a rope around the top of the statue and helped mob members on the ground tear down the statue while police watched silently. The hooting as the statue crumbled to the ground was scary. This was mob mentality, spurred on, apparently, by anarchists in the crowd. The next day, police filed charges against the primary actors in destruction of the statue. I hope the leaders of this ugly mob are prosecuted for inciting to riot, destruction of public property and any other illegal acts. To allow this behavior to go unpunished would be an invitation to anarchy, which is apparently what some mob members want.

Confederate monuments have become symbols of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination to many people, but that was not the statues' intent. They were installed to memorialize Confederate soldiers' honorable service in defense of their homes and what they saw as their state's right to leave the United States. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many did not support the "peculiar institution." Slavery was the key consideration of the gentry that led the South into a destructive war, but the common soldier had other motivations than defending slavery from abolitionists. Lincoln's wartime goal was to keep the Union intact, with or without slavery (which remained legal in some Union states until passage of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War).

A discussion of Confederate monuments needs to take place. Shouting, violence and vigilante destruction of property will not resolve this issue. Many of the statues are magnificent works of art that should not be lost. Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., is one of the country's most beautiful boulevards with numerous statues of Confederate officials, who are no threat to African-Americans or anyone else. It would be a shame to lose Monument Avenue. But 150 years after America's bloodiest war, perhaps we have too many statues in too many places, and perhaps some people are intimidated or angered by those statues. Let's see what we can do together.

Across the street from the White House stands a magnificent statue of President Andrew Jackson astride a horse. Jackson was a southerner, a slave owner, a racist who banished thousands of Indians onto the Trail of Tears. Had he lived longer, he almost certainly would have sided with the Confederacy. Can the destroyers of Confederate statues stop with Lee, Stonewall, and the many unnamed, symbolic infantrymen who stand on courthouse lawns and cemeteries, and not also topple Andrew Jackson — and others?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

White nationalists came looking for a fight

Yesterday's violence in Charlottesville, Va., a quiet, sophisticated college town, is appalling, alarming and despicable. This is not the American Way.

Three people are dead (two state troopers in a helicopter crash and one individual on the ground) and dozens are injured. President Trump blamed "many sides," but the violence was between only two sides — the far-right, white nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi side and the individuals and groups who came out to protest the white nationalist rally. Photos and video from the scene show the far right side waving a variety of flags and symbols — the Confederate battle flag, swastikas and flags of various far-right, white-supremacist groups I'm not even familiar with. These flag bearers were also wearing helmets, carrying shields and wielding weapons. They clearly arrived looking for a fight. Some of the people protesting the rally fought back or actively went after the flag wavers.

Police failed to control the crowds. They were overwhelmed. 

About 25 years ago, when a Klan rally was planned in my hometown and grassroots opposition rose to protest the rally, I suggested in newspaper editorials that the best thing opponents could do to the Klan members was to ignore them. They were a pathetic little group of about a dozen white-haired old men, none of them, as far as we could determine, from the local area. They were outnumbered at least 25-to-one by protesters. Some of the angry protesters took out their frustration on innocent bystanders who had stopped to see the Klan march or had just happened to be downtown. Several people were injured or robbed, but no serious injuries were reported. The violence just helped to enhance the Klan's rhetoric about barbaric non-whites.

When a follow-up rally took place a month or so later, local police called in neighboring police departments, Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agents to make sure the protesters and the Klan were kept far apart. The rally again attracted only a handful of KKK folks and hundreds of protesters, but strong law enforcement prevented any violence.

The riot in Charlottesville was far more frightening than those Klan rallies a quarter century ago. The white nationalists were well organized. They were prepared for a fight. They seemed eager for it. Many adopted the swastika and the Nazi salute in disgusting demonstrations of hatred and ignorance of history.
How could anyone adopt the language and symbolism of a regime that murdered millions of innocent people and killed many thousands of U.S. and other allied troops in a six-year war that ended with the discovery of Nazi death camps, extermination facilities, cremation furnaces, mass graves and documents — irrefutable evidence of the inhumanity and total evil of the Nazi regime?

Even without the violence, the flags and other symbols displayed in Charlottesville were shameful and reprehensible. With the violence, the incident was a national disgrace.

Right-wing political groups have every right to protest, and I can understand their frustration over a politically correct world where you can have a Black Student Movement or a Congressional Black Caucus but not a White Student Movement or a Congressional White Caucus. Clashes over Confederate monuments are not all about racism or slavery. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and most Union soldiers did not accept racial equality (a radical concept in the 19th century). Resolution lies in reason and cross-cultural, multi-racial understanding, not in violence or challenges to fight.
 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Reader analytics fail to fulfill role of the press

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I grew increasingly concerned that the press was not living up to its responsibility to inform the public. Marginalized by radio and television, and then by online news sources, anguished publishers and editors tried to make news more interesting, more exciting, more appealing, more entertaining.

CBS, once the trusted leader in television news during the heyday of Walter Cronkite, put its news division under the direction of the entertainment division. Newspapers aimed to become more entertaining, too. Consultants advised against too much governmental coverage, international coverage, political coverage, Washington coverage or science coverage.

The one place newspapers could beat the competition, the consultants assured us, was in local coverage. So front pages that once carried the latest in national and international events shifted their sights to the new supermarket or the lost puppy.

A few days ago, John Drescher, editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, explained a new strategy at the newspaper I read every day. There will be more coverage of what they want to read, he told readers. N&O editors know what readers want to read because they have analytics that show what digital readers are actually reading — something they could only guess at when the N&O was a print-only publication. So if the data show that readers are reading more articles about area restaurants, the N&O will focus its coverage more on area restaurants, even if it means omitting an article on sea level rise or court challenges to new state laws.

Knowing what people are clicking on has worked great for Facebook and Google, so you can hardly blame the N&O and other newspapers for following their lead. But here's the problem: the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment to protect freedom of the press because they knew an independent, free press was the best defender of democracy owing to its ability to inform the public on the key issues of the day.

The United States has relatively lenient libel laws and strong public records laws based, in part on the First Amendment. But advocates of repealing or modifying the First Amendment have grown more aggressive recently, and President Trump has called for revisions to libel laws to make it easier for individuals, even celebrities and politicians, to win defamation cases.

When the news media come to the defense of the First Amendment, their argument about the importance of informing the electorate and being an essential, independent voice had better have more to back it up than newspapers full of entertaining stories about restaurants, puppies and recipes.

Unless the press is fulfilling its obligation to inform the public about important national issues, there is little reason for constitutional protection, and First Amendment opponents will have an easier argument.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A cool August afternoon

The calendar says August, the month of 'dog days" and sweltering heat, but the breeze from the north is cool and refreshing. I sit in the glider on the deck with a book in my hand, reading while the wind chimes play their tune and hummingbirds flit about, performing aerobatics with incredible speed and precision.

To what do we owe this respite from summer? Autumn is still more than a month away. One branch of the dogwood thinks it's autumn already; its leaves have bronzed and stand out against the green forest curtain — willow oaks, a chestnut oak, a Bradford pear, pines and sweet gums — as the yard slopes away from where I sit. A few leaves have given up the fight for life and have fluttered to the ground to lie in the grass awaiting the rake I have not yet unsheathed. The pines know it's nearly time for fall; they are as far ahead as the stores' displays of Halloween and Thanksgiving wares. Pine needles litter the lawn and the driveway. I will collect them, heap them into a pile and use them for mulch in the plant beds.

But raking can wait. Let me savor this afternoon of low humidity, blue skies intersected by high, filmy clouds, and that breeze from the north that blows away all my worries for just a little while.

Monday, August 7, 2017

New sources feed the distrust of news media

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I was bothered by the distrust and even contempt many Americans felt for the news media. Journalists were perennially near the bottom of the "confidence" list, down there with used car salesmen and politicians.

As a child of what might be considered the golden age of print journalism, when most respectable cities had two or more newspapers, when many households subscribed to a morning and an afternoon newspaper, when it was claimed that a printing press amounted to "a license to print money" because newspaper advertising was so dominant and so profitable, when nationally syndicated columnists were closely followed, respected and even beloved nationwide, when Americans didn't believe news until they saw it in their newspaper, I embarked on what I thought was a secure profession. I watched as the Watergate scandal, ably and thoroughly reported by the Washington Post, New York Times and other newspapers, brought down a president.

The lack of confidence in the news media I saw 50 years ago has only gotten worse — much worse. Despite improved professionalism, strengthened professional standards, better journalism education, new codes of conduct and other efforts to improve journalism and the public's opinion of the media, things have only gotten worse.

Why? I've given this some thought through my days in the newsroom and since then about why the public so distrusts the news media. The election of a president whose favorite phrase is "fake news" and who excoriates the news media as "the enemies of the people" hasn't helped, but the problem goes deeper than Trump's tweets.

It seems to me that the advent of the 24-hour cable news format has been bad for journalism. CNN and its imitators have created new jobs in journalism, but they have also overwhelmed the public with information and analysis people have trouble digesting or accepting. Add to that social media and the internet-based news sites of varying degrees of professionalism, accuracy or factuaity. In that corner of the news business, "fake news" is a real thing — fiction created for (usually) political purposes. Beware the unknown "news" sources.

All news all the time requires an enormous amount of talking/writing. The 24-hour news cycle must be fed. "Dead air" cannot be tolerated. Someone must be saying something or showing something or shouting every second of every day 365 days of the year to feed these beasts. There is not enough "real news" of interest to most viewers to fill the 24-hour cycle, so the same news is recycled over and over, and guest commentators are offered to analyze the news and give their insight and opinions. This goes on forever, every hour, every day, every week, every year.

The result has been that cable stations have engaged in more partisan opinion in order to attract more viewers. The more slanted and more angry the commentary, the better for attracting viewers of a certain ilk. Like political candidates who have to "play to their base," cable stations seek out their right-wing or left-wing constituencies and feed them the slanted views they love. Finding opposing viewpoints requires switching channels. Fox News perfected this formula but is not alone in its use of the strategy.

Along with "Talk Radio," in which no claim is too outlandish and every claim evokes anger, cable news, social media and internet "news" sites have created a deeply divided American electorate. And these developments have created an even greater distrust of the news media. Both extremes of the political spectrum can complain about news outlets on the other side, leaving the journalism even more distrusted than ever before.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Escape from the "Dust Bin of History"

President Reagan once famously remarked that the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes were failing and would be consigned to the "dust bin of history." In the 1980s, it seemed that the "arc of history" was bending toward liberal democracy, the principles presented by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment philosophies of freedom, independence, self-government, and the equality of all people. The easing of restrictions under Soviet Perestroika, the Solidarity movement in Poland and the overthrow of oppressive regimes in South America all pointed toward a more democratic future. Soon after, the Soviet empire collapsed.

This week's news, however, seems to point in the opposite direction. Venezuela appears to be falling headlong into authoritarianism, and Turkey, a member of NATO, is turning to mass trials and the abolition of dissent.

Venezuela has declared victory for a proposal from appointed president Modura that will dissolve the national legislature and replace it with an assembly selected by Modura himself. The Sunday referendum, which was nearly universally condemned as illegitimate, approved the sweeping powers and rewrite of the constitution. That was followed by the dark-of-the-night arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. The nation is in turmoil after years of mismanaged, centralized economic policies. Basic necessities such as food and toilet paper are said to be unavailable in Caracas, the capital. The notion that a hungry, oppressed electorate would choose more of the same is a farce. Yet, Modura appears to be winning the battle against the public. The United States is imposing sanctions, but a collapsed economy can only be hurt slightly by economic sanctions.

In Turkey, President Erdogan continues a crackdown that has followed last year's unsuccessful coup attempt. Erdogan has used the coup attempt to justify his arrest of political opponents. Turkey had been one of the few democratic and secular Islamic majority nations, but the continuing crackdown has reversed hopes for a democratic, secular society. This week, mass trials began, featuring 500 defendants dragged into a courtroom for a prosecution with a result pre-ordained. European and American NATO members have to cringe at the obligation they have to defend this dictatorship should it be attacked by any other nation.

Since Reagan's "dust bin of history" remark, the United States has conducted a forceful foreign policy based on America's unchallenged global military power. But with Putin's Russia and Xi's China extending their reach and influence, the United States may no longer go unchallenged in a crisis. Putin is sowing seeds of discontent and doubt in democratic countries and trying to prove that a central authority is superior to a dispersed, federal, democratic system. If Venezuela and Turkey succeed in their transition from democracy to dictatorship, other countries, encouraged by Putin's conniving and China's economic successes, could be tempted to shift their allegiance from democratic ideals to authoritarian practicality. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Better Deal" may be a better strategy

An interesting article in The Atlantic reveals that Democrats have come up with a strategy to take back Congress (or at least part of it) in the 2018 elections. "Better Deal" appears to be a real step forward, one that could, conceivably, be successful.

In all of the post-mortems on the 2016 elections, the one aspect that has chimed true repeatedly is the Democrats' disconnect with working-class and lower-middle-class voters. Democrats did not even know Michigan and Wisconsin were vulnerable to GOP appeals until votes were cast. Too many Democratic political strategists never looked beyond Manhattan or the District of Columbia. 

"Better Deal" will offer a much more populist slant than Democrats have offered recently. Bernie Saunders, whose populism lapped over into socialism, sparked excitement among many Democrats in 2016, but the cards were stacked against him. Even Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" slogan is not populist in the way of "Better Deal," which hearkens back to FDR's "New Deal" and Truman's "Fair Deal." A more populist tone on health care, jobs, anti-trust legislation, fair wages, tax fairness and other issues could resonate with the mostly white, less-educated, hard-working but falling behind, largely forgotten voters who swarmed to Trump rallies with their empty promises and angry insults.

As Democrats such as Chuck Schumer have realized, Democrats need to appeal to that broad spectrum of the electorate who wanted what Trump was selling. Democrats can retake this constituency they once owned by adopting clearly defined principles and goals. Among these should be affordable health care (even if it means cracking down on excesses by the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers and hospitals); restrictions on the size and monopolistic practices of major banks and other corporations; tax law that is simplified and fair at all levels (not slanted toward the super rich and big corporations); public education within everyone's reach teaching history, civics and national pride; treatment for drug addiction (whether it is opioid pain relievers, marijuana or other drugs); strong but fair law enforcement, federal policy that respects science and research; and a return to federalism that respects state sovereignty but is unafraid to step in and to do bold things, such as the Interstate Highway system or the Apollo program.

In doing this, Democrats must steer clear of their tendency to over-regulate. They responded to the 2008 financial crisis by passing Dodd-Frank, which has made closing on a mortgage a paperwork nightmare with each little step strictly prescribed and backed by federal prosecutors. These regulations did nothing to prevent the big banks' gambles with mortgage securities and their no-document mortgages.

Unfortunately, Democrats in recent years have too often relied on dividing the electorate into special-interest groups and setting party agendas aimed at attracting as many interest groups as possible. Meanwhile, disenchanted voters watched big conglomerates destroy their small-town retailers and shut down the factories that provided a decent (but bare) living for generations. Stores disappeared, jobs disappeared, and self-respecting laid-off workers had nowhere go.

Democrats (in fact all of America) must not abandon civil rights and justice. They can still appeal to racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgenders. Political correctness has silenced any criticism or perceived slights of these groups. Thus, a candidate who responded to a Black Lives Matter question by saying "All lives matter" was booed vociferously. At some colleges, conservative speakers are shouted down or assaulted in the name of "free speech." Persons in this country illegally cannot be called "illegal immigrants," though, clearly, their status is illegal. A fair and reasonable immigration policy must protect U.S. jobs and culture while providing procedures for foreigners who wish to become Americans and can contribute to the American economy and security.

A "Better Deal" strategy can win, but it will mean making a sharp turn from Democrats' trajectory of the past few elections. Republicans, meanwhile, may help Democrats if the GOP continues on its trajectory of prescribing tax cuts for the wealthy for any problem the nation faces and ignoring the needs of the very people Democrats ignored in 2016