When the laughter ends

I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember comedian Jackie Mason. His career was on an upward swing when in October 1964, he crossed the line during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. When Sullivan, who was standing in the wings, signaled Mason that he had to cut his routine short (this was a live show) Mason gave him the finger. Sullivan, who had a lot of power in the entertainment industry, didn’t think it was funny and Mason didn’t work on television for almost two decades after. He was essentially blackballed by the industry. A long time later, Mason had a comeback of sorts, but he said, “It took 20 years to overcome what happen in one minute.”

While the envelope is constantly being pushed these days, there remain at least some constraints that reasonable people take into consideration. You don’t, for example, make jokes about the Holocaust or thalidomide babies. And you don’t make light of presidential assassinations. Comedienne Kathy Griffin’s attempted parody that featured the severed and bloody head of President Trump, crossed that line and she knew it. As I watched her tearful explanation as to what her intent was in the tasteless and unfunny skit, I saw a woman not sorry for what she had done but one who could clearly see that her career had probably ended.  I suspect that is the case. He claim of artistic freedom was almost as if Jackie Mason had tried to explain that his one finger salute was meant to let Ed Sullivan know that he was going to be finished in one minute. Griffin’s emotional news conference  was phony and self-serving. Those who flocked to her defense as a heroine of free speech–and there were many, should be ashamed of themselves.

There have been other comedians who have skirted the boundaries of good taste. Eddie Murphy and George Carlin come to mind.  But I have to say that their routines were actually very funny. No so Ms. Griffin. Billing herself as the Queen of the “D” list of entertainers, I’d say that she got an “F” for what she did earlier this past week. Perhaps in 20 years or so, Griffin, like Jackie Mason will have a chance for redemption.  But for now I’d guess that she’ll be lucky to be a headliner at a Holiday Inn lounge. She should remember Mason’s words: “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute.” We might also ponder the wisdom in those words.

Looking at the toll of foreign wars

I was a bit late in getting to the cemetery in my hometown to place an American flag on the grave of a friend who was killed in the Vietnam War.  I had obligations this year on Memorial Day and the rainy and cold days since then prevented me from doing what I do each year and that is, remember a young man who never got the chance to experience the lives that our generation has been able to lead.  It was sad looking at the grave and thinking about what he had missed. And I think it bothered me even more to have the feeling that he really died for nothing.

Vietnam, like the rest of the conflicts our military forces have been engaged in since World War II, was no threat to the United States. It was one of those political wars that have become so much a part of American strategy in our own times. Like the post WWII falsehood perpetrated by our government that the U.S. was lagging behind the Soviet Union in the development of strategic weaponry, Vietnam was  sold on the basis of the “Domino Theory.” The fact that China had gone communist just a decade earlier, made politicians worry that if Vietnam fell to the Reds, it would continue the fall of other democracies across southeast Asia.  You could lose elections if that happened on your watch. So we followed the French in trying to prop up an unpopular regime to thwart that end.

Almost half a million U.S. soldiers were pumped into Vietnam over a ten year period. They fought valiantly.  Almost 60,000 of them never came back. One of them was my friend. But despite his contribution, there was no light at the end of that tunnel. In the end, the failed military effort was summed up in an image of the 1975 final evacuation by helicopter of the American embassy in Saigon.

Now we have troops engaged in combat in places that the Average American citizen could not locate on a map. Many are on multiple deployments. We are told that their mission is to bring democracy to people who have a great desire to be free. Out troops, we are assured, are defending the American homeland.  It has a familiar ring to it.  My generation heard the same message half a century ago.  As I stood at the gravesite in the quiet of this morning, I couldn’t help but think — what a waste. My friend really didn’t die for any high-minded ideology. His bravery was wasted on a false assumption. The sacrifice made by all those soldiers did not make this country safer, nor did it prevent what ultimately happened — Vietnam became a communist dictatorship. Today we can go to WalMart and buy shirts and sneakers made in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. My friend’s death had nothing to do with that.



Beach access denied

If the rain ever stops falling and it finally warms up enough for people to start thinking about going to the beach, good luck finding much access to the sand to put a towel. Not only are the public beaches almost impossible to get into during July and August because of crowds — even with the high prices that towns charge for parking, but if a shoreline walker is lucky enough to get on a beach and strays off the public sand, he can expect a private police person to flag him down and direct him back to where he came from. That’s because here in Massachusetts, an old colonial law allows shorefront property owners to restrict access to the low water mark.  Back in the 1700’s, in order to encourage dock building and other commercial activities, the legislature made what was called “King’s grants” to people who owned the beach. Today, unless you are toting a shotgun or a fishing pole (the old fishing and fowling exception) you are not allowed to walk on a private beach.  Technically, that could mean a place like the Brewster flats where the tide goes out about a mile and a half is off limits. I’ve seen shorefront houses with TV cameras on the roof providing 24 hour coverage against trespassers. That is true even in the winter!

So it was good to see a win for the little guy in New Jersey.  You may recall that a couple of years ago Hurricane Sandy devastated the coast, washing out beaches, parking lots, and many of the adjacent houses. To re-build the beach, the Army Corps of Engineers spent millions of public tax dollars building dunes and trucking in loads of sand.  And guess what?  The homeowners that benefitted from this didn’t want outsiders to use the beaches when the job was done. But the state of New Jersey, to its credit, is making these homeowners share the sand with the people who actually helped pay for it. This is because the state ruled that a reconstructed beach had to have a public easement.  In other words, if private property owners wanted to have the Corps fix their beaches, they had to let the public use them.

Reading about this reminded me of how the Massachusetts town of Sandwich had to deal with beachfront property owners when two years ago the Corps agreed to move some of the sand being dredged from the Cape Cod Canal to a badly eroded section of vulnerable shoreline. When the property owners learned that to get sand on their section of beach, they would have to sign a public easement to let regular people sit on it they balked and took the matter to court. The delay in sealing the deal cost the town an extra million dollars and limited the sand replenishment just to a section of public beach. It was a classic case of “I’ve got mine, screw you” on the part of the beach property owners. If only we were in New Jersey.




Statues are made for tumbling

American patriots took great glee in watching the statue of King George III come down in New York City in 1776. More recently we’ve watched as Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad a few years ago. Since 1989, lots of statues of Soviet leaders have been demolished. Poland, for example, is dumping a lot of Russian monuments to the liberating armies from Moscow during World War II.  That isn’t making the Russians happy. And now the important leaders of the Confederacy are being removed. It just proves that sometimes you are up and at other times you are down.

There is a lot of anger whenever a former icon is removed from public ground. In our own country there are many who feel that getting rid of Jefferson Davis, P.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee is an affront to a valued southern heritage. Maybe they have forgotten that about 350,000 Union soldiers died during the four year struggle to get rid of the rebel leadership. They were traitors after all. The Confederacy stood for slavery and class division built by and for a planter aristocracy. Abraham Lincoln saw the great struggle of the 19th century as a test whether this country would be built on the sin of slavery or the promise of freedom. The statues of Confederate leaders rose in city squares and in town parks across the South about 30 years after the war ended. They symbolized a desire by the white population to preserve the memory of the noble “lost cause.” For black citizens, the statues, rising ever so high on their columns and bases, were a message in stone that white supremacy had not ended with the war. Reconstruction did not bring equality and the era of Jim Crow began. Over a century later the statues remained in place. Now they are finally coming down.

I can buy the argument by some southerners that the statues represent a part of their heritage. There is no denying that. But what should not be happening is that these symbols, including Confederate flags, continue to be desplayed on public ground. They are an affront to minority citizens who live and work near them. Frankly they are also an affront to the descendents of those who fought to preserve the Union.  If the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy want to preserve their Civil War heritage, they can create museums on private property so that they can be visited and appreciated by those that revere that part of our history.  In the meantime, the statues need to go.




An unsavory ally

Our president is off on the initial leg of his first foreign policy trip.  It is interesting that Mr. Trump will be visiting Saudi Arabia first, perhaps the most unsavory — and I’ll add, untrustworthy ally that the United States presently has in the entire world.  Turkey, under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Erdogan, is rapidly headed in the same direction.

So let’s look at our staunch “ally” Saudi Arabia.  It is not a democracy, but instead a theocratic monarchy headed by King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud.  Under the rule of the House of Saud, women are treated as property. They cannot leave their houses unescorted. They cannot drive. They have no choice in who they marry. Education is limited and the possibility of an independent economic life is zero.  Saudi Arabia produced 19 of the twenty airplane terrorists who killed over 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. If you were around in 1973, you will remember when OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, caused long gas lines in America by stopping oil exports as a way of exacting concessions from the U.S. government. There is no religious freedom in Sunni Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is the dominant strain of  Islam in the country.  It believes in a strict interpretation of the Koran.  In the past, Saudis have exported and financed this radical form of Islam to countries that become centers for Islamic terrorists. That support continues today.  In Saudi Arabia there are periodic be-headings of law breakers, done publicly so as to impress citizens as to the severity of any kind of dissent. People forget that the House of Saud was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II.  They’ve never recognized Israel’s right to exist and they continue to obstruct efforts to bring an end to the Palestinian refugee problem, claiming that it’s all Israel’s fault.

So Mr. Trump will be kissing the hem of King Abdulaziz’s traditional thaus tunic just to let him know how much we love his country and value it as a supporter of U.S. policy in the region. It doesn’t hurt that Saudi Arabia wants to purchase over $100 billion dollars of military equipment from us. That just a side benefit of doing business with this “ally.” If you wonder why we do this dance with a country that has it own agenda, it’s not about oil.  That used to be the excuse.  Now it’s about Iran.  Both the United States and Saudi Arabia fear Shiite Iran’s growing influence in the region.  The official line is that we need them as much as they need us.  It’s the old “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” idea. It’s really nonsense.  We never should have gotten in bed with the Saudis.  We’ve gained nothing and Saudi Arabia continues to perpetuate its authoritarian rule that limits human rights.  You would think that Mr. Trump would recognize this.  But perhaps he does and really doesn’t disapprove of the Saudi system of government all that much anyway. Sad.

Freedom of the press

The name of John Peter Zenger is one of history’s footnotes. As the owner and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal in colonial New York, Zenger openly criticized the royal governor and his administration for corrupt practices.  To silence Zenger, the governor instituted a libel case against him. The year was 1734. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, establishing a principle of American democracy wherein the press is free to print whatever it wants – even if it isn’t true. That principle was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of the press. It has become part of the checks and balances in our democracy. In a case in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea.  However pernicious an opinion may seem we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.”

The above quote gets to the heart of the current topic of “fake news” and the media. When we watch CNN or Fox news we should know that there is an agenda being pushed by each outlet. Same with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The interpretation of “facts” is largely a measure of that agenda and consumers should recognize that. The key is to be aware of how the news is being spun and to be able to counter ideas with the “competition of other ideas.”

The greatest danger, in my view, is when the media is portrayed as “an enemy of the people.” This kind of charge is really the first step toward an authoritarian non-democratic system. Remember that in all dictatorships, the first target is control of the media. State-run news outlets are common in countries where there is little political and personal freedom. Without an independent media one of the pillars of our checks and balances system is lost.  While not a part of government, the press has been rightly called the “Fourth Estate.” This reference to the French Revolution is appropriate in that the press assumes the role of watchdog over the other three groupings (the head of state, the legislative assembly, and the people themselves.)

Attacks on the press have accelerated around the world.  Almost 200 investigative journalists were killed last year because they were doing the job they were supposed to do. And that was to get at the truth. Just because consumers don’t like or agree with what the press finds, it is not an excuse to demonize the media. Read widely. Know the positions of the media outlet that you favor. Recognize the bias. And if you don’t like what the news is reporting, combat that reporting with competing ideas.

My three moms

Today, if we are lucky enough to still have our mothers with us, we celebrate their role in our lives with them. If they’ve passed on, we take the time to remember them. In reflecting on Mother’s Day, I can say that I actually had three mothers. As unusual as that sounds initially, I suspect that many will connect with my willingness to credit other non-biological “mothers” as having profound influence on my life.

My mother was a professional women in a time when most women were managing the household. That was the default role of married women more than a half century ago. She was actually the breadwinner in our house and because she commuted to work, leaving the house early and arriving in time for supper, I really didn’t see much of her. There was no going home from school at noon to have her there with lunch ready. No after school cookies either. She didn’t read me a story at bedtime. My mother wasn’t into the PTA or the cub scouts like other moms of kids I grew up with. She never cooked a meal. That was my father’s job. She expected me to always do what was right and to never embarrass her. To say that I had a pretty strict regimen to follow is an understatement. For my mother a grade of “B” in any school subject was never good enough. “You can do better,” she would say when I brought my report cards home. She instilled in me a discipline and a sense of responsibility that has served me well in life. I believe that in her own way, she loved me but I was never really sure.

My mother had two sisters and they supplemented her guidance, providing me with real love and direction. The younger sister was my Godmother and it was she that I always went to when I wanted to discuss personal issues. She had no children of her own but she understood kids. I could bring up just about anything with her. She answered my questions without judgment letting me know that she understood why I often had conflicted feelings about things in my life. She was a sympathetic sounding board and a wise counsel when I was very young and it continued as I matured into a husband and a father.

My mother’s other sister was older.  A very simple woman without much education, she was the one who showed me complete and unfailing love. As a young child, I spent more time with her than I did with my mother.  She treated me like her own son. In college, I lived with her for more than a year as I commuted to school. I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. Later, when I had my  children, she was the one who gave them just as much loving attention as she had given me. They loved her as much as I did. She was indeed special.

So I think it is possible to have more than one mother. I know I had three.  And I know that I am the beneficiary of things that I gained from each one of them.  All three contributed to who I am and I remember them today for that.