1984: A closer look

Written in 1949, George Orwell’s view of the future has proven to be almost eerily on target. From the omnipresent telescreen in our houses that now can listen, monitor, and influence what we think and desire (Think Alexa), to the ” Newspeak” of our days (think “Alternate Facts”)and the Ministry of Truth (think Fox News,)much of what he foresaw has come true. Think for a moment about the following excerpts from the book.

“People could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them. And they were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.”

“The Lottery, with its weekly payout of enormous prizes, was the only event to which the people paid serious attention. It was probable that there were millions of people for whom the Lottery was the principal, if not the only, reason for remaining alive.”

“At every few moments the fury of the crowd boiled over and the voice of the speaker was drowned by a wild, beastlike roaring that rose uncontrollably from thousands of throats.”

“War hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries. And such acts as reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive are looked upon as normal, and when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, are considered meritorious.”

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
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Back to the Future — Again

Coogan’s Bluff                                                  May 6, 2018

Back to the Future — Again

By Jim Coogan

The candidate flew into Westfield, Massachusetts with an eye toward courting disgruntled voters who had seen their jobs and their identity fade as their city’s main industry disappeared in the global economy. The “Whip City” had once thrived as a manufacturing center but now hard times had set in. At a rally in front of one of the long-abandoned buggy whip factories, the candidate promised better things in the future. “China is not our friend.” he shouted to the crowd. “Because of our disastrous trade deals, they’ve been making buggy whips and dumping them in the American market. They’ve put up trade barriers so that you can’t ship your buggy whips over there. They are cheaters. When I’m elected, that is going to change. I can tell you that!” The crowd loved it and shouted “USA!! USA!! Just a day earlier the candidate had been in West Virginia touting his plan to bring back the coal industry. “We’re going to see a lot of miners going back underground around here. Clean coal is the future. You better believe it!”

1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk 

 

The campaign had spent a good deal of time in other areas of the country that had suffered the loss of once prominent industries. In South Bend, Indiana, the candidate and his running mate had drawn cheers from a boisterous crowd in front of the shuttered Studebaker factory. “See that building over there,” he pointed. “We’re going to open it up again. And beautiful cars, like the Golden Hawk will be rolling off the assembly line. And each one will have a stamp on it – ‘Made in USA!!!” In Dayton, Ohio, he told what he claimed to be the largest crowd the city had ever seen, that the National Cash Register Company would be soon hiring hundreds of workers. “Remember those cash registers that when you hit a number the same number came up in the window up top? That’s what I’m talking about. Simple, Right? But you didn’t have to have a college degree to use them. This town is going to be a winner again. In fact, you will be winning so much you’re going to be bored with winning.” In Rochester, New York, the theme centered on bringing back Kodak slide projectors. Heads nodded when the candidate declared that “No one in the world made slide projectors like the people of this city. And it’s going to happen again. I guarantee it!!

In Dothan, Alabama, the candidate held a rally outside of an American Legion hall where he pointed to an F-86 fighter jet mounted on a pedestal near the front entrance. “This is the state of our current military. Look at it!! It’s a disgrace. When I’m elected, we are going to rebuild our armed forces – something that previous administrations have neglected.” His speech was greeted with thunderous cheers from veterans who seemed unconcerned that the would-be commander in chief had escaped military service himself during the Vietnam War with a series of questionable deferments.

On the eve of the election the race was too close to call. The future was out there. But what would it be? Would it come down to voters who saw the future as progressive, diverse, and innovative or would victory fall to others who looked forward once again to flying TWA, shopping at Woolworths, and driving around in Nash Ramblers.

The Bowe Bergdahl outcome

Very shortly –  perhaps this week, the U.S. Army will sentence Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for deserting his unit in Afghanistan in 2009.  It will be interesting to see what Colonel Jeffrey Nance does with handing out punishment.  He’s in a difficult position even though Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to the charge. Guilt is not the issue.  What is creating the problem for the military justice system are the words of our commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump.

On the campaign trail a year ago, Trump said that Bergdahl was a traitor and should be shot.  Just a few days ago, commenting on the trial, Trump said he hadn’t changed his mind on what he thought of Bergdahl and what should happen to him. These ill-tempered remarks have put the sentencing judge between a rock and a hard place. Did Trump’s words place a requirement for a very stiff sentence? After all, the judge works for the president and is part of the chain of command. Civilian authority over the military is something all Americans have accepted since the beginning of the Republic.

Any way you look at it, Sgt. Bergdahl is a pathetic character. His attempt to make contact with the Taliban on his own while in the field made him a captive for five years. He was tortured by his captors and suffered great personal harm. Some of his unit mates were wounded as they searched for him in the belief that he had been captured. The final solution brokered by the Obama administration wherein Bergdahl was released in a swap of 5 Taliban captives seemed disproportionate in the extreme.

But Trump’s comments may have sabotaged any reasonable outcome to Bergdahl’s fate. Desertion in wartime is a serious charge. There should be very severe consequences for what Bergdahl did.  But how will the judge rule? Given how president Trump has publicly stoked the anger toward Sgt. Bergdahl, it is pretty clear that there won’t be a sentence that will satisfy most people. Bergdahl’s life is already ruined by his own actions. My view is that Judge Nance should dismiss the case as tainted by the incendiary words of a commander in chief who seems to ignore the consequence of what he says. Bergdahl should get a general discharge and be released from the military with time served.

 

 

 

 

The pain in Spain

We are once again witnessing the disintegration of a European country as Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region of Spain flirts with secession. The disaffection has seethed for some time in the northeastern section of the country as Catalans have viewed the central government in Madrid with increasing anger. Catalonia is a prosperous region of Spain and provides the country with about 20 percent of its GDP.  Residents in cities like Barcelona don’t like the idea that they must pay taxes to support less prosperous sections of Spain. They have always felt that the central government does not appreciate or respect Catalan culture.  Part of this stems from the history of the region which was once an independent kingdom. There is a long history here and memories keep it alive. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the forces of General Franco devastated Catalonia which had been a republican enclave against fascism. For a long time under Franco, Catalan culture was repressed and people were not allowed to speak their unique language. While things have improved in the last several decades a large percentage (but not a majority) of Catalans want independence.

I visited Barcelona a couple of years ago and saw a vibrant economy and a population of prosperous and healthy people. Beautiful parks were everywhere. The pedestrian walkway called Las Ramblas allows one to walk from the busy harbor along a shaded mid-way with shops and restaurants. The magnficant cathedral created by architect Antoni Gaudi — the Sagrada Familia dominates the skyline. The city is a place of great beauty.

Now all that would seem to be at risk as a group of radicals have pushed the idea of independence to almost the point of no return. After a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish central government and the European Union, Catalans seem poised to take the final step toward dissolving their connection to the rest of the country.

Should Catalonia try and secede, they will face a central government determined not to let that happen. There have already been street demonstrations met by force with some injuries. Violence will only grow if reasonable people do not put the brakes on this movement.  Even if Catalonia could pull off an exit from Spain, where would it leave them? They would be out of the European Union and could not even apply to get in as a sovereign nation because Spain would veto their entry.  All of their trade agreements would have to be renegotiated. The economy would enter a downward spiral as jobs would be lost caused by international businesses relocating out of Catalonia. It would be a disaster.

There are historical precedents to predict just how badly a secession of this type will affect Catalonia. When Quebec made noises of leaving Canada in the 1970’s many businesses left their headquarters in Montreal moving to other Canadian cities. Jobs were lost. That province has not yet fully recovered from it. When Yugoslavia imploded as various cultural groups in that federation in the 1980s decided to go it alone, to pursue their own independence, it led to economic stagnation and eventually a bloody civil war. There’s been little recovery there. The Slovak region of the former Czechoslovakia has not done as well as its former partner since the break-up of the country into two separate nations 20 years ago.

I could add more examples. But the long and short of it is that if Catalonia doesn’t compromise on its demands for independence, there will not be a good ending to this problem. And it should not have come to this.

Military parades

President Trump has floated the idea that we should have a giant military parade, perhaps in Washington, D.C. or maybe New York, to show the world our military might. Thousands of troops marching, planes flying overhead, tanks and missiles passing a review stand. I think it is a bad idea.

We’ve seen a lot of film footage of soldiers on parade in other countries. It’s designed as a show of national might, usually staged to make a statement that the country is not one to be messed with. It’s also often a vehicle to prop up some ruling military dictatorship and keep the citizens in line. Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, and Beijing seem to be good places for this sort of thing nowadays. In earlier times, Berlin and Tokyo used to be the focus point for displays of military might, geared to impress the world. We all know how that ended. 

Washington and New York aren’t not the kinds of places to showcase the troops. True, there were marches of troops military hardware after some of our wars.  The one in 1865 that celebrated the end of the Civil War was a day and a half long.  Crowds cheered as soldiers marched in American cities after World War II. That was a proper time and place.  And in the two examples I’ve given, the troops were actually marching to be de-mobilized after victorious campaigns. They weren’t threatening anyone. Rather they were ready and eager to be civilians again.

President Trump’s call for a show of militarism by way of huge army, navy, and air force parades is not only wrong-headed but unnecessary.  Most countries, probably all, know of our military prowess. There is no need to make an overt show of it with goose-stepping soldiers and missiles. At our best, we have shown that we are a people who resort to military solutions only when provoked to the point where all other options have been exhausted. We can show that conversely, when we resort to a military solution without letting all of the efforts play out, things do not turn out well. 

When I was in the military, I remember liking marching. During boot camp, our drill instructor used to put us on the grinder to march for hours when we screwed something up. I actually enjoyed the measured cadence — boots all hitting the ground at the same time. It was no punishment to me. Perhaps Trump has a thing about the military and parades might would satisfy some of this need.  I’d prefer though to see him marching himself down Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps holding the hand of his youngest son, who like his father and his older brothers, will never put on a uniform and be called to march in a military parade. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) has caused a backlash from supporters of the so-called “Dreamers” — those people who were brought here illegally as children. During the 2016 campaign Trump was quick to latch on to his base’s anger at what his supporters saw as an amnesty program for people who broke the law by coming into the country. He repeatedly said that he would immediately end the DACA program that he claimed had been illegally enacted by an executive order drafted by Barack Obama. Taking such a hard line helped him get elected. But once in office, he seemed to soften his position saying that he sympathized with the dreamers and they had nothing to fear. He has said that he has a love for these people and that he expects that things will turn out all right for them once Congress come up with a “responsible” immigration plan.  It’s no wonder that the individuals who are caught in the middle of this issue are confused by the mixed messages that have come out of the White House. An estimated 800,000 young people are in the crosshairs.

I’m guessing that I’m like most Americans when trying to figure out what to do about immigration. I recognize that we are a country made up of immigrants. My grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Italy. But it’s the “illegal” that stops me from supporting such things as local non-compliance with federal immigration authorities and sanctuary cities. I want the border secured. Obviously, each case is an individual matter and has to be considered as such. But by and large, I believe that if a person did not follow the lawful procedures related to entering this country, I don’t think they should be here.

That said, I don’t favor hunting down people and dragging them out of their homes and separating families. It is not only cruel but it is wasteful of manpower that could be doing more productive things. And I believe that these dreamers deserve the protection that Obama’s executive action gave them. When you look at the situation of a child who was brought to this country illegally, I can’t see a crime that could be ascribed to them.  Yes, the parents committed a crime. But the children did not. They had no choice and there was no criminal intent on their part. This is the only country that they know.

Shifting the responsibility of solving this conundrum to Congress seems the logical thing to do. It is the legislative branch of government that makes the laws, not the executive branch. The move also conveniently gives the president cover if that body cannot deliver a reasonable solution. He can deny that he was the one who was responsible for the fate of the dreamer program. While it doesn’t demonstrate a lot of  presidential leadership, it’s a politically safe strategy.  A deeply divided Congress, however, seems unlikely to come to any agreement on immigration reform in the near term and that leaves the dreamers in Limbo. And that is the real shame of it all.

 

Urban greenhorn

Recently I took some visitors from Europe on a tour of Boston. I shouldn’t say that I took them on a tour as I was just as much a tourist myself. I’m not a city person. Given a choice between New York City and a one bedroom cottage on a quiet lake in Vermont, I’d take the latter.  I figured though that my friends should at least get a taste of the “Hub of the Universe.” Rather than try and negotiate getting into the city myself, I enlisted my cousin who knows his way around Boston. He agreed to set everything up. I was along for the ride.

He agreed to pick up a one-day MBTA pass for each of the four of us. To do that, he had to find an outlet that would sell him the $12.00 “Charlie card.” The first place he went, a convenience store in Weymouth, the clerk said he couldn’t buy one because the computer was down. These ticket outlets aren’t just on every corner.  My cousin had to travel to Milton to find a 7/11 where he bought the four tickets. Strange as it may seem (and it certainly seemed strange to my European friends) when you buy the 24 hour ticket, the clock starts running when you give the money to the store outlet. Our tickets were stamped good from 6:36 p.m. twenty four hours later to 6:37 p.m. Think about this. If we had wanted to stay in the city for supper, our ticket would have expired before we got on the train home.  In Europe, you buy a day ticket from any one of hundreds of outlets and when you get to the station, you have it validated when you board so you get a true 24 hours to ride subways, busses, and trolleys.  In our case, we effectively got about 12 hours of use.  Yes I suppose we could have purchased our tickets on the day we were going into the city but that involved some logistics that made that option less attractive.  If the lottery can sell scratch tickets on every block, why can’t the MBTA do the same to make it more convenient?  As it was, when we got to the North Quincy T station, our tickets wouldn’t work. There was no MBTA worker or official to ask why the tickets wouldn’t work. After repeated tries to get the ticket to open the gates, (There are not any gates in European cities my friends commented. You have your ticket on you and if asked you must produce it or there is a big fine.) we did what a lot of people apparently do all the time. We “jumped” the gate. (Actually we went though on the coat tails of another passenger who held it open for us.)  My cousin had a Xeroxed copy of his transaction showing that our tickets were purchased for the day we were to travel so we were actually hoping that some T official would stop us so we could show it to him. But we saw no one. There was no one in charge.

Once the Red Line train rumbled into the station, it was like deja vu. I think the cars were the same ones that were new when I was a college student in Boston during the 1960s. The stations we passed through looked dingy and dirty. About a half hour later we were in the city.

The day in Boston was actually a good time. We did the Duck Boats, the Freedom Trail, the Public Gardens, Faneuil Hall marketplace, the old statehouse, etc.  We ate lots of food and enjoyed the crowds while watching some good street performers .  We got out of the city before our no-good tickets expired. I guess it didn’t matter. My friends really enjoyed the day.

The experience left me wondering what the purposes of public mass transit should be. Encouraging people to leave their cars at home should be one of them. Route 93 into the city was crawling along at about 5 mph with usually a single person in each of the thousands of cars. Wouldn’t these people prefer a clean, reliable and reasonably priced alternative to sitting in traffic jams every day? Would not a better transit system free up roadways so that we don’t have to build more highways every year that will, in a short time, become overcrowded themselves?  How much pollution and waste of resources not to mention time is wasted trying to get from one place to another? It seemed so obvious that moving people into the city could be done so much better. I can attest that when in Europe I constantly marvel at how good city and travel between major urban areas is. And yet, here we continue to pursue transit policies that actually discourage people from using public transportation. Just from the difficulty of purchasing a transit card to the old and dirty equipment on the different lines and the expense of parking, I had to conclude that people just don’t care enough to change the system.  I won’t be going into Boston again soon. It’s a shame.