Saturday, October 25, 2014

UNC -- University of No Consequences

Four years.   That’s my recommendation.   Men’s basketball and football at the University of North Carolina should be shut down for four years.  That means that an entire class of students – I’m talking about real students, not the fake ones who have played football and basketball for the “Tar Heels” – should be prevented from watching the two marquis sports at that institution throughout their tenure.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about by now, shame on you.  The academic cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina has received enough publicity that it should be known by every American.   Legions of university insiders have now confirmed that athletes were encouraged to take courses in the African and Afro-American Studies Department (AFAM) in which they would have to do essentially no work and for which they would receive top grades.  This went on for years.  And the publicity has now been going on for months.   What hasn’t been happening is any sign, even a sniff, of consequences for that university.

Let’s be candid here.   UNC has a reputation of being one of the better state schools on the east coast if not the nation.   It has always prided itself in having the same relationship to Duke (the South’s most prestigious private university) that Cal Berkeley has to Stanford.  Supposedly, UNC offers state of the art academics at public university prices.  What’s not to love, right?

But look a bit under the fa├žade of academic excellence, and you’ll see something truly disgusting.  Allegation after allegation has been made by university insiders that the athletic department has allowed “students” to evade the responsibility of classroom learning – not simply to pass classes but supposedly to excel at them.   One big time basketball star has spoken about making the Dean’s List at the same time that he did essentially no work – he just slept late and then practiced his hoops.   And worse yet, the university has taken a discipline like AFAM, which supposedly was created for the holiest of reasons – to finally treat Africans and African Americans with dignity and with justice by recognizing that their story is every bit as important as the story of white people or Asian people – and instead used it as a vehicle to further another recognizable principle:  massive fraud.

Why is the NCAA doing nothing about this?  Why, when ESPN covers the story, does it merely report on the existence of this scandal without asking the obvious question: what should the consequences be?   Why the conspiracy of silence when it comes to the ramifications of the tar heels behaving like tar heels?

Is it because, as some conservatives have suggested, political correctness prevents anyone from confronting AFAM departments because that would appear to be racist?  Is it because UNC’s basketball program is so historically revered and so centrally placed that it is essentially “too big to suspend”?  Or is it because the idea of college athletic integrity has become such an oxymoron that nobody cares anymore when institutions are caught engaging in fraud on the largest scale possible?

I don’t know the answer.  But this much I do know – people of conscience should boycott watching UNC games.  Just avoid them.  Even if your school is playing the boys in blue, just say no.   In an era when the foxes seem to be running all the hen houses, it is incumbent on the rest of us to take some stands.  We don’t have the power to cause college administrators to put athletics in its proper place and maintain  academic standards for their athletes.  What we can do, however, is control our own viewing habits.  

UNC does not deserve your time when their athletes take the field or the court.  UNC must never again stand for the University of No Consequences.  The change in that name starts with me and you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Smartest Guy in the Room

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression.  And my first impression of President Obama’s handling of the Ebola crisis was that he seriously dropped the ball.  Yes, the Republicans have their share of blame for cutting NIH’s budget over the years, thereby making it much more difficult that we could find a vaccine.  But there’s no question that the current Administration has been slow to act, and that this may have led to the absurd way that the illness has been introduced to the United States via the now deceased “patient zero” and the nurses whom he has infected. 

Frankly, I suspect that if you spoke to him in private, the President would agree with that assessment.  The  New York Times reported yesterday that “Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response.”   Anger is a strong word and in this case, it’s probably mixed in with no shortage of personal shame.  After all, we elect Presidents to be in charge at times like this, not to depend on one or two underlings to get the job done, and until very recently, Obama has resisted calls to bring in a person with the specific charge of coordinating the fight against Ebola.  As a result, President Obama has told the nation in the clearest possible terms that the buck stops here!   So far, he hasn’t even merited a Gentleman’s C.

But that may be changing.

I truly can’t believe what I’m about to say, because it is so very opposite to my initial reaction.   Yet I think I actually support his decision not only to appoint an Ebola czar (which obviously makes sense) but to choose for that czar a man schooled in law and not medicine.   I actually feel somewhat hopeful about Obama’s choice of Ron Klain as the new sheriff in town.

Before I praise Klain, let me first state the obvious: picking that guy as Ebola Czar less than three weeks before a midterm election is a true head scratcher.  Ironically, the choice of a “political operative” to run a medical mission seems politically tone deaf.   The whole country is petrified about this disease -- scared that the media has been down-playing its gravity, scared that the disease will mutate into an airborne form, and scared that a potentially airborne disease with a 21-day incubation period will ultimately affect literally everyone in America who doesn’t live like a hermit.  On the surface, we don’t need a Washington insider to take on this scourge.  We need another C. Everett Koop – a gray-haired, avuncular doctor who could get on TV and reassure everyone that daddy is home, he knows what’s wrong, and he can fix it. 

The key word in that last sentence is “doctor.”  Surgeon General Koop was a medical doctor.  Ron Klain is a spin doctor.  If the subject is medicine, when C. Everett Koop spoke, people listened.  As for Ron Klain, if the subject is medicine, people have assumed that (a) he wouldn’t know what he was talking about and (b) to the extent he had an opinion, it was purely a political one.   Again, superficially, if you’re concerned that the Obama’s Administration’s reaction to date is to minimize the aggressiveness of its response to Ebola based on political considerations, this is the LAST person you’d want as an Ebola czar.

Sure enough, the reactions from the GOP have been predictable.  According to the New York Times, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was hardly pleased.  “Ebola is a health crisis, yet the president has appointed as his new Ebola ‘czar’ a partisan loyalist whose expertise is politics — not health,” Sessions said.  “One would think, faced with the prospect of an epidemic, the president would task an expert in epidemiology, not an expert in political spin.”  Similarly, the Washington Post quotes House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) as questioning “why the President didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background."

That’s an obvious question, one that I asked myself when I first heard about Klain’s appointment.   Why didn’t the President choose a doctor – and not just a doctor, but one with a relevant specialty – to head up this area?   Here’s the answer: because the President recognized that this problem is both complex and momentous enough to require someone with a skill set of a true Commander and Chief.  It requires many of the same skills, in other words, as a President of the United States.  For whatever reason, and perhaps it is because he is simply too busy on other things, Barack Obama is not up to the task.  So he chose the next best alternative – someone who is able to assimilate large amounts of information in a short period of time, put together a team of trained experts and manage them adroitly, and make quick and insightful decisions as soon as they need to be made.  President Obama decided that the name of this person is Ron Klain. 

Am I able to say conclusively that Obama made the right choice?  Of course not.  I didn’t even know who Ron Klain was this time last week.  But this much I do know – he graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School, which means that he isn’t just smart, he’s freakishly smart.  Having graduated from that school a year before Klain, I remember well the guys at the top of my class and how incredibly smart they were.  Moreover, from what I’ve read, Klain isn’t just a book worm.  He’s a people person who has worked Capitol Hill with the best of them.  In other words, he isn’t limited by the introversion that has plagued Barack Obama’s presidency from the start.    

To be sure, Klain is a trained spin doctor – an advisor who is expert on politics.  Now that he has come out of the shadows, he has his own spin doctors in the Administration.  Vice President Biden, for example, has touted Klain as a top notch problem solver and manager.  Those are among the most important credentials for this job, and yet they are precisely the credentials that I have yet to verify after reviewing Klain’s resume.   There is no question that he has held important jobs both in the public and private sector for more than a couple of decades.  So maybe Biden is speaking the truth.   At any event, even if Klain isn’t a picture-perfect choice for this task, you can understand why a guy like Barack Obama might think that a smarter and more extroverted version of himself would be a hell of a good choice.   Ask the Romanoffs – just like presidents, kings and emperors, czars can’t possibly be experts in each type of subject matter that they have to deal with.   What they must be are born leaders.   And it sure helps when they are the smartest person in the room.

We know in the case of Ron Klain that he meets that last standard.  Whether he has the leadership to match his intellect remains to be seen, but I for one am ready to give him a chance.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day

Some people might find it hard to believe that Columbus Day is a federal holiday in America.  You don’t hear so much about Columbus any more.  He must seem to our youth like just another explorer.  But back when I was a kid, he was celebrated – we were all very familiar with the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, the three ships he used to “sail the ocean blue.”   And I get the impression that during the earlier parts of our nation’s history, Columbus was even a bigger deal.   He, after all, was the guy who “discovered” this area for the Europeans, risking his life in the process.  And what he discovered was a land light years away from “civilization.”  It was almost like flying to a different part of the galaxy and finding a habitable planet.   America was notable, perhaps above all else, for its LACK of proximity.   Back then, to a would-be explorer, the Atlantic Ocean must have seemed like the infinite abyss.

But that was then.  Today, we refer to trans-Atlantic trips as “crossing the pond.”  It’s a new world, isn’t it?   Much smaller.   Much more interconnected.   But still scary as hell.

These days, we want to pretend that the folks across the sea are our next door neighbors.   Everyone is obsessed with two twin scourges that were born and raised in the Eastern hemisphere:  Ebola and ISIS.   Back in Columbus’s day, Americans could have ignored those scourges.  “That’s their problem, not ours,” we would have said.   President Washington certainly could relate to that attitude.  He recognized that America’s greatest asset was its geography: vast and remote.  He wanted no entangling alliances with other nations.  He just wanted the rest of the world to leave us alone to prosper.  

There are many who still hold that aspiration.  They are commonly known as isolationists.  Not surprisingly, though, they control neither major political party.   Make no mistake: the days of Columbus and Washington are over.   When Liberia has a cold, America sneezes.

It really shouldn’t be surprising that an out-of-control virus in West Africa is causing a panic in the USA.   People travel, and this virus has an incubation period of literally weeks.   Of course it would move from country to country, continent to continent, hemisphere to hemisphere.  We had been assured that some of the problems that befell Africa couldn’t or wouldn’t happen here, but how could anyone take those assurances seriously?  Was it really plausible that every staffer in every hospital could be counted on to follow “protocol” to a T?  Yeah right.  We are, after all, flawless, aren’t we? 

The best hope against Ebola should have been finding a vaccine, not figuring out a way to “contain it.”   But as was revealed today, the National Institutes of Health lost nearly a quarter of its purchasing power during the past decade because it wasn’t allowed to increase its budget.   So despite the fact that the world is only getting smaller and dangers abound in every direction, we decided to skimp on infectious-disease research.   How’s that for flawless thinking from a nation with the world’s biggest GNP?  Now we have the NIH Director proclaiming that a vaccine for Ebola would likely have been found already if only his budget had been allowed to increase with the cost of living.  I guess when it comes to taking seriously the needs of public health, we are still operating with a Columbus-era mindset.

Not so when it comes to war and peace.  Thanks to 9/11, we’ve become all too familiar with what happens when America ignores the goings on in places like Afghanistan.  We were so paranoid, in fact, that we started a war in Iraq based on bogus “intelligence.”  The result of that pointless war was a huge void, which has largely been filled by the group known simply as ISIS.  Unlike Ebola, ISIS doesn’t yet have a body count on this side of the pond.  But I can’t imagine that any of us are taking its threat lightly.  It seems like just a matter of time before  ISIS-inspired fighters get hold of some weapons and start wreaking havoc in places like Columbus, Ohio, Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus Mississippi – and that’s even assuming that they start their killings in the big cities, like Al Qaeda did.

Last week, I attended a program discussing ISIS and its threat to the homeland.  On the surface, the point of the program was that there are plenty of things we can do to protect ourselves, like developing an infrastructure composed of imams, school teachers, social workers and local police forces who are skilled in noticing the tell-tale signs of would-be terrorists and intervening in productive ways.  I take seriously the suggestions I heard that evening.   I don’t doubt that implementing them can prove invaluable in making our nation safer.   But I also left with a sense that groups like ISIS are a cancer that is spreading, one that we may never be able to eradicate altogether.  There will always be pissed -off adolescents.  There will always be crafty, pissed-off adolescents.   And there will always be crafty, pissed-off adolescents who are attracted to simplistic ideologies that offer a stark choice between the nasty status-quo and some utopian ideology.   We’ve seen teenagers like that turn into Marxists.  Or Nazis.  Or Ayn Rand-style libertarians.  And yes, we’ve seen them turn into religious fundamentalists of various stripes.  Truly, all ISIS is doing is providing a fundamentalist alternative to the alienating aspects of modern, Western life.  They’re bound to grab some of our teenagers.    And if they happen to get any of the especially crafty ones, look out.

Yes, my American friends, the world isn’t totally safe.  These threats we read about in the papers are real.   Problems in Damascus, Syria can become problems in Damascus, Maryland.  This is the new reality.   But let’s not exaggerate the trend either.   Despite all the frightening features of contemporary life, we’re still safer now than we used to be.  People still live longer lives.  And we live with more creature comforts than ever before.  So the smart money is that our species will survive these latest threats, just like we survived the Black Plague and the dangers of pioneer life.  On days like today, let’s take a page out of Christopher Columbus’s book and remember that when we combine intelligence and courage, we can defeat the dangers du jour.

Someday, I suspect, everyone will have forgotten Ebola and ISIS.  But they’ll still remember Columbus.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Holiest Day of the Jewish Year

Here in Washington, DC, a lot of folks are excited about the return this afternoon of playoff baseball.   Others are just happy that this is Friday, and they are about to have two days off from work.  Me?   I’m thrilled that in roughly 12 hours, Yom Kippur will begin.  And this will give me an opportunity to spend a full day in contemplation and in prayer.

In another life, I surely could have been an Orthodox Jew who happily spent a full day every week observing all of the Shabbat rituals.  But for better or worse, that wasn’t the community in which I was raised, and I opted not to take that path in life.   Still, even for us “progressive” Jews, there is a day every year in which we practice Judaism for the 24 full hours.  On that day, the Judaism we practice is all about spirituality.   We refrain from eating, drinking, and having sex, and we spend most of our waking hours in synagogue, talking to God.  For me, it’s heaven on earth.

The theme of the day is atonement.  Every year, it seems, I find no dearth of things for which to atone.   Obviously, the key is to think and feel whatever is necessary to improve ourselves for the future.   It just so happens, though, that no matter how spiritual our Yom Kippur turns out to be, no sooner does it end than the screw-ups begin.  Such is the human condition.   But for one day, at least, we can be holy, and if we take the drill seriously, I don’t doubt that it can have a meaningful impact during the upcoming year.

The Yom Kippur liturgy is wonderful in a number of ways.   To begin, while we might enter the synagogue thinking about “me, myself and I,” our prayer books tell us that we are to atone in the first person PLURAL, not the first person singular.   When one of us sins, we all sin.   For indeed, we are all intimately related to one another, and suffer the consequences of each other’s “humanity.”  

Another thing I love about the Yom Kippur liturgy is that it stresses that we must atone not merely for sins of commission (bad acts), but also for sins of omission.  It is not enough to refrain from engaging in hurtful conduct.  We must go out of our way to help people – fighting injustice, spreading enlightenment, fostering love.  Who among us can possibly say that we’ve done enough in that regard?

But what I love most about Yom Kippur is how it builds to a crescendo late in the afternoon when all the fasting has worn our bodies down, the music seems to get louder, and our spirits are ready to soar.   I’m one of those who believe that the best way to experience the concluding service at the end of the holiest of days is to remain standing.   For the weaker I feel physically, the more intense I feel emotionally.   And at least on late-afternoon during Yom Kippur, the central emotion I’m feeling is compassion – for my pathetic little self, for my fellow human beings, and for my beloved planet.

And what of God?  Should the Divine receive our compassion?   Well, I guess that depends on how you conceive of God, now doesn’t it?   The beauty of Yom Kippur is that as you sit – or stand – in synagogue, you are left alone to contemplate God in any manner you choose.   No rabbi will stand up on the bimah and define God for you, at least not on Yom Kippur afternoon.  

I feel confident in saying that God is the Ultimate.  But I feel equally confident in saying that if any person out there tells you that s/he understands who or what the Ultimate is, that my friends, is a false prophet.   But have no fear.  Thanks to occasions like Yom Kippur, even false prophets can atone and come to recognize that religion starts and ends with humility.   That is another reason why I love this holiday so much – it is blissfully humbling.

For those of you who are celebrating the holiday, have an easy fast.

For those of you who are not celebrating the holiday and have never done so, please put it on your bucket list – whether you are a Jew or a gentile, this can be your day too.