Sunday, April 13, 2014

Empathic Rationalism Begins At Home

Let me begin by wishing all of the Jews and Christians out there in cyberspace a Happy Passover and Easter.   My hope has been to be able to celebrate Passover with my family, but unfortunately, this may be difficult due to a lower-back problem that has seriously flared up in the past few days.   Accordingly, I have decided not to write a lengthy blog post this weekend and instead to spend my time lying in bed rather than typing on the computer.  But hopefully, I will be back to normal next week, or at least healthy enough to offer you all some provocative thoughts about an interesting topic.

Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore (Part Two)

Sports scandals are a dime a dozen.   But they can generally be put into two categories.   First, you have the scandals that are primarily about the sports world.  These include stories about athletes who take performing enhancing drugs, referees or judges who take bribes, or sports leagues that cover up the mind-boggling health problems caused by their product.   In each case, I don’t doubt that there are broader societal tie-ins, but these problems center around the games themselves and not the society at large.  

I don’t wish to poo-poo the importance of those classic sports scandals.  But candidly, I am even more interested when a scandal appears in the world of sports that focuses your attention less on the actual competitions than on the outside world.  Recently, two such scandals come to mind.

Have you seen the latest edition of Golf Digest?  Here’s the cover: It kind of leaves an impression, doesn’t it?   The scantily-clad hottie is Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend.   Paulina is not an accomplished golfer.   In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s not even a sports bra she’s wearing; it’s just a plain old bra.
When my wife saw the cover, she said “I assume she’s not a golfer.  She’s the prize at the end of the  course.”   More precisely, she’s the prize won by professional golfer Dustin Johnson, who is now Wayne Gretzky’s son-in-law.   My wife, a former high school valedictorian and Harvard Law School graduate, is surely used to living in a society where men see models as more prize worthy than scholars.  But I would have expected that a prominent magazine like Golf Digest would have ducked that whole brains-versus-beauty debate and focused instead on athletic prowess.  Couldn’t they have found a really bright or really pretty woman who actually played on the LPGA tour?   Did they really have to bypass women’s golf entirely and just adorn their latest issue with an unbridled tribute to T&A?   Apparently so.

I was listening to ESPN yesterday morning when they were talking about this scandal.  Mike Golic, one of the two men to whom that network entrusts its coveted morning drive-time slot despite being an admitted steroid abuser, was explaining the reason for Golf Digest’s decision.   According to Golic, true golf fans will buy the magazine regardless of who they put on the cover.  But if they show Paulina Gretzsky’s skin and curves, perhaps they will also attract another element of “reader.”   I see the logic in that position.  Then again, I also see the logic in taking performance-enhancing drugs.   Do I see the logic in unabashed sexism?  Or, for that matter, racism?  I suppose so, as long as there is an election to be won or a dollar to be made by trading in filth.

Truth be told, Golf Digest is no different than many other well-established institutions in American life.  These institutions focus more on what’s on the outside of a woman’s head than what’s on the inside.   If this magazine had simply applied its attitude toward women with a bit of subtlety and ambiguity, it would have stayed under the radar screen, but it just couldn’t help itself.  It had to announce itself and its motivations – greed and disrespect come immediately to mind.

If you want to read about the magazine’s rationalization for its cover-girl decision, be my guest.  I haven’t bothered.  I know racism when I see it and I know sexism when I see it.  Golf Digest has just announced itself as a sexist rag.  It’s really that simple.  

Before I change topics, I have a simple message for Mr. Golic: this is one golf fan who has no intention of reading Golf Digest in the future.  I encourage the rest of you to follow suit.

At the risk of sounding indifferent to sexism, the second scandal that I’d like to discuss is even more disturbing to me than the first.   It has also been around a few weeks longer, and yet for some reason, I never seem to hear about it on TV.   Perhaps that’s because the behavior at issue is so old hat and accepted that it’s no longer scandalous to the society at large.  But if that’s not an indictment of our culture, nothing is.

The story to which I am referring is known as the University of North Carolina Fake Classes scandal.   You can read about it at the following link:   According to a non-anonymous whistleblower, that venerable institution has created all sorts of ways in which “scholar-athletes” can get university credit for doing middle school work, if in fact they choose to do any work at all.  Allegedly, the problem begins with admitting athletes who have not demonstrated the skills to handle the academic rigors of college coursework.  Then, with the approval of university administrators, an entire network is created whereby athletes are allowed to negotiate their way around the curriculum without having to exercise their minds.  Rich or poor, and regardless of whether they pick up a book or attend a class, they get full rides to attend the university and keep their scholarships, while sometimes even getting As for their non-efforts.  The “scholars” at issue must feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.   You get to play the game you love, you don’t have to go to classes, you don’t have to accumulate debt, and you can make all sorts of business contacts with the university’s well-heeled boosters.   What’s more, increasingly you can listen to talking heads wax eloquent about how you should actually be PAID to play college sports.   Oh, those poor exploited scholar-athletes.

This story wouldn’t bother me so much if I thought the problem was confined to the “Tar Heels” of North Carolina.   Unfortunately, I fear the nicotine stain that surrounds that school’s athletic program can be found, to different degrees, in most universities with big-time athletic departments.  The joke that is the modern American student-athlete will be most blatantly on display this weekend at this year’s Final Four.  There, you can see the University of Kentucky trot out its latest group of freshmen basketball players who entered the university with the understanding that they will literally be “one and done.”   That’s right – no sophomore slump for them.   After their freshman year, they will be off to the NBA, and another group of scholars/roundball players will take their place on the hardwood and NOT in the classrooms.

It was the immortal Captain Renault who proclaimed to be “Shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”  Well, I’m no Renault.  I wasn’t shocked to read about the University of North Carolina and its separate track for athletes.  But I am dismayed at how little the media seems to give a damn.  Don’t you get it?   Thanks to an articulate, courageous whistleblower, the voices of truth and justice now have the University of North Carolina right where they want it.    Those voices can make an example of the university, shut down its football and basketball programs for years, and fire any venal administrator who can be demonstrably tied to the scandal.  And then, when other whistleblowers arise at other universities, these schools’ athletic programs can be shut down as well and their deans can be sent packing.  Sounds good, right?

Sounds like utopia to me – which literally means, “no place.”  Here in the USA, college football and basketball programs are the geese that lay the golden eggs, and I don’t foresee any developments that will threaten to shut down that egg-laying.  The same universities that think nothing of taking gobs of money from students who already are deeply in debt will continue to roll out the red carpet for their jocks.  And the media moguls who control the way stories like this one are covered will continue to look the other way, while at the same time expecting their underlings to refer to the ballplayers as student-athletes or scholar-athletes.  In so many cases, they are neither.  They are simply frauds, just like the coaches, deans, and “sports-journalists” who enable them.

Sorry for the depressing post.  But hey, nobody ever promised a rose garden when it comes to talking about scandals.  In my next post, there will be no scandal-mongering.  I promise.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore

This week, I saw an op-ed in the New York Times that reminded me of what the mass media should be reporting.   It’s a huge scandal, only it doesn’t involve an act of terrorism, inappropriate sexual conduct, or a celebrity homicide.  As a result, we have no face to associate with this scandal.  We cannot even point to an evil corporation.   It’s no wonder, then, that the scandal is receiving little publicity.   And yet it is truly disgusting.

The op-ed, which was written by Nicholas Kristof and is entitled “A Nation of Takers,” should be discussed in every high school social studies classroom in America.   Here’s the column:  As you see, it is exposing a broken democracy – the scandal of living in a welfare state where the beneficiaries are millionaires and billionaires.  Yes, we have come a long way in the USA since the time when our laws identified African Americans as 3/5th of a person.   But we still have a long way to go before we can boast with integrity about having a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.”   

None of us should have to wonder about why it is that we have, in the words of Kristof, “welfare subsidies for private planes … yachts … [and] hedge funds.”  The reason is simple:  wealth buys political power.  What puzzles me, however, is how the public is allowed to remain ignorant about these subsidies and how the politicians who permit them are not required to explain why.   I had always thought that the central purpose of a free press is to expose the inappropriate use of power.  Unfortunately, whenever the wrongdoer isn’t a single face but an entire infrastructure of lobbyists and politicians, the only thing that gets exposed is an out-to-lunch media.  

Kristof’s column is but a voice in the wilderness.  In this society, such columns tend to vanish shortly after they appear – like stones skipping on a lake.   By contrast, when a celebrity is caught misbehaving, the story can last for days or even weeks, and every reporter gets a few swings at bat.  Perhaps the public is partially at fault because it seems to have an insatiable appetite for stories about celebrities behaving badly, whereas structural problems with our tax system or our political process may be seen as too abstract to be interesting.  But I’m not buying that excuse.   You see, before I can absolve the media of responsibility for doing its job, I want to see them launch en masse into a scandal like welfare-for-the-rich as vigorously as they would talk about Anthony Weiner’s underwear or Eliot Spitzer’s socks.   I want to see them haul in one politician after another to the offices of a TV network and ask them to defend their decision to permit Mitt Romney to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.  And most importantly, I want to see them conduct interviews of “regular Joes” who actually do pay high tax rates and have them explain just how these welfare programs affect their own feelings about their government and their country.  Then, after a few weeks of attention to this scandal, the media may move on – for surely there will be plenty of other examples where the rights of the many are being abused by the interests of the few.  

That's the kind of American our founding fathers expected.  That's the kind of America Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Nicholas Kristof is a  dinosaur.  For one thing, he still writes for a newspaper, and most people no longer read newspapers.  For another, he still focuses on exposing abstract scandals at a time when it seems that every scandal must have a public face.  But his column is a reminder that our Mount Rushmore is composed of men who cared deeply about the welfare of sharecroppers and shopkeepers, not to mention the environment.  If we share in their concerns, we had better open our eyes to the true scandals that plague our nation and assume personal responsibility for confronting them.  Kristof can accomplish nothing by himself.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


I confess that I have little spare time this weekend – so I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I confess that all this Putin-worship on Fox News absolutely confounds me.   Isn’t this guy just another macho strongman who isn’t weighed down by scruples?  Isn’t he just another clownish politician who stages phony photo-ops in order to show off athletic prowess that he presumably doesn’t truly possess?  So why are so many of our talking heads celebrating him as some sort of role model for leadership?   Is that really the kind of statesman that Americans should admire?

I confess that, just because I have distaste for Putin, that doesn’t mean I think Hillary should be comparing him to Hitler.  Do we really see this Russian punk in the same league as a man who gave us the worst atrocities in human history?  Doesn’t someone need to have more blood on his hands than Putin in order to warrant the Nazi comparisons?  Let’s please stop comparing every international bully or madman to Hitler.  It just trivializes what the Nazis did.   

I confess that despite my fascination with the tragic disappearance of flight MH 370, I’ve long ago lost patience for watching TV news coverage of the event.   Every day or two we get a bit more information, and that info is appreciated, but cable news channels aren’t satisfied with reporting one or two tidbits.  They feel the need to bring in “experts” and other yentahs to speculate ad nauseum about the situation.   Is there possibly a reason to listen to such endless speculation?  Tell me, when you’re driving and notice a wreck on the highway, would you want the guy in the passenger seat of your car to launch into a fifteen minute discourse on the possible causes of the wreck and the likelihood of each possibility?  If that prospect defines monotonous, why would you want to tune into cable news coverage of MH 370 these days? 

I confess that as a Democrat, I am more than a bit nervous about the upcoming midterm elections.   Even under the best of circumstances, my party tends to struggle in midterm elections because we have difficulty getting out part of our vote.   The problem is worse when the incumbent President is a Democrat.  And this year, the problem is particularly profound because the Dems are generating precisely zero excitement. They’re essentially allowing this election to become a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, and whoever’s job it is to hype that law to the nation is doing about as well as the gang responsible for the website rollout.   For starters, it was dumb that the President encouraged the law to be referred to as “Obamacare.”  But if he’s going to own it, he can at least speak more soulfully about what makes him proud of the law.   Right now, the Republicans have placed the President and his health care law at the middle of every corner bar in this country and invited the public to throw darts at it.  Do we Democrats care to respond to that invitation?   Or are we content to just “wait for Hillary” in 2016?   At this rate, if and when she does get elected, she’ll be dealing with one ornery Congress, and the only winners will be the conservatives who enjoy governmental gridlock.

I confess that the prospects of another failed effort to bring about Middle East peace scares me.  Next month, our Secretary of State is expected to announce that the parties have reached yet another stalemate, and once again we will have nothing tangible to show for the efforts of the past several months.  Next time we bring the parties to the peace table, can’t we please set some achievable, interim goals rather than putting all of our eggs in the Final Status Agreement basket?  I’m afraid that without any accomplishments for the peacemakers to point to as beacons of hope, this latest round of negotiations will leave the Jews and Palestinians with little more than their mutual distrust and the opportunity to build settlements and blow up buildings. I pray that sanity will prevail, but we can’t exactly count on that, now can we?

I confess that, on a personal note, my life over the past several months has been missing something vital. Late in 2013, I watched sadly as my sole surviving pet lost his battle to old age.   On December 31st, he was put down, and ever since, my family has been dog-less … and I’ve been cranky.  Hopefully, I’ll remedy this lack soon enough, and maybe it will make my posts more uplifting.  It will certainly lift up my spirits.

Finally, I confess that in my NCAA basketball pool, I picked against all three of my alma maters (Stanford, Harvard, American) and the first two actually won their games.   That is just another reminder that disloyal people get what they deserve.  I bet if I still had a dog, I would have taken Harvard and Stanford to reach the round of 16.