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.