The Thinker

Review: The Butler

It’s good to see black directors claim movies about the African American experience. Unsurprisingly since the legacy of slavery and oppression are burned into the experience of African Americans it’s a story that they want to tell.

A month or so back I got around to reviewing 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, an African American. The film won Best Picture, but I found it excruciatingly hard to watch, probably because of its challenging subject. An African American, Lee Daniels, also directed The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was never a slave, but he grew up in the Deep South so segregated that he might as well have been a slave. Any Negro perceived as uppity, and some that weren’t, were lynched with impunity. It’s part of Cecil’s world growing up as a boy on a cotton plantation.

The slave-holding mentality died hard. His parents and he worked on the plantation sowing and picking cotton. One day one of the owners of the plantation drags his mother off to the shack where he unceremoniously rapes her. When Cecil prods his father to protest what happened, his father’s epid protest leads to a bullet in his brain. Of course, there is no justice for this murder. The plantation workers have to act like nothing unusual just happened.

Fortunately this is about as gruesome as the movie gets but racial injustice is its constant theme. In Cecil’s unusual case, his father’s murder leads to him being trained as a “house nigger” at the plantation, where he learns how to act proper and take care of white folk. Memories of his father’s death and being in the same house with his murderer leads him to escape as soon as he is old enough. A series of fortunate coincidences leads to a job as a butler in a hotel and eventually to one in Washington D.C. where his professionalism, as well as his ability to be attentive but always deferring leads him to a position in the White House as one of its butlers. There Cecil attends the president, his family and friends over many administrations starting with the Eisenhower Administration.

Cecil may be just a butler, but he has reached close to the pinnacle of professional jobs for blacks at the time. His new life could hardly be any more different from his boyhood of picking cotton on the plantation. He lives a middle class life in Washington D.C., marries a fine woman named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and settles down into a lifestyle many whites would envy.

Of course, being black, even with the privilege of serving the president and first family, he is still a victim of discrimination. He is denied promotion opportunities available to whites within the White House and his boss is fine with paying blacks less than whites. Still, Cecil is intoxicated with his position and access and works long hours. This leads to marital strain and eventually infidelity from his resentful and neglected wife. Meanwhile, his son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) grows up and becomes active in the civil rights movement. He is among the group of blacks that dare to sit down at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworths store in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and marches with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Much of his college and early adult years involve getting roughed up by whites. He is lucky to escape alive, and he has a close encounter with death when his bus tries to pass a bridge into Alabama. His choices though deeply disturb Cecil, to the point they become estranged over them. These add to the reasons his wife is hitting the bottle so much.

This butler’s story is thus quite an interesting contrast. He works for presidents who generally sympathize with oppression against blacks but are still uncomfortable around them, even with their butlers who see them intimately all the time. While mostly presidents give lip service to civil rights, some take up what looks like a dubious cause, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Cecil gets to know his presidents too intimately at times, handing President Johnson the toilet paper for example (Johnson was notorious for using the bathroom in front of staff and guests) and even consoling a distraught Jackie Kennedy just hours after her husband’s assassination, with her husband’s blood stains on her clothes and legs.

Mostly though he has reflexively learned to keep his mouth shut. Nixon (played by John Cusack) tries to convince the butlers to vote for Republicans in 1960 by giving them campaign buttons. President Reagan discusses his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa right in front of him. Cecil seems to understand though that real equality for blacks is a long way off, while he is sensitive to the notion that the presidents he serves generally are moving the civil rights issue as quickly as they can.

The adventures of his son in the South form a major backdrop to the story, as does his wife’s many issues. Much of the movie concentrates on the crazy 1960s, including the rise of the Black Panther movement (which sucks in his son) and the race riots, including scenes of the rioting in Washington D.C. after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. It moves too quickly for Cecil, who is estranged from his son in part because he cannot sort through his own feelings on racism given the dual worlds he inhabits.

The Butler certainly has a lighter tone in general that 12 Years a Slave, but in many ways it is more informative, and certainly more topical as many of us remember the crazy 1960s and the civil rights era. Cecil’s juxtaposition provides an interesting perspective by being at the boundary between two worlds. Of the two movies, The Butler is actually the more interesting and certainly the easier to stomach. It’s nice to see Oprah Winfrey in a movie again. She has lost none of her acting ability due to her talk show years. Overall Daniels does a convincing job of rendering the times, portraying the White House and finding a fine ensemble of actors to carry it out.

Curiously the film was never even nominated for an Oscar, perhaps because 12 Years a Slave sucked all the oxygen from competing films about racism. It did win a number of other awards. It is also worth two hours of your time, particularly if you were born after the civil rights era. If you were, it will give you an intimate look into those times as well as introduce you to a number of presidents you probably only read about. The casting is sometimes curious – Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower? – so in a way it’s better to be ignorant about these ex-presidents as us older folk knew them. The movie does manage to entertain, inform and for the younger crowd to enlighten as well.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Same story in Gaza, just different year

It’s not hard to be an accurate prognosticator when it comes to wars between Israel and Hamas. Does this post from 2009 sound eerily familiar?

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

It’s hard to keep track of the body count in this latest battle in the extended war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Today’s press report says that at least 1060 Gazans have been killed as a result of this twenty-day (so far) battle between Israel and Hamas. It’s hard to estimate the number of wounded, but conservatively it should be at least six times as many people as those who were killed. Let’s round the number of dead and wounded to 10,000. With approximately 1.8 million people living within this 139 square mile area bordering the Mediterranean Sea, that’s roughly 1 in 200 people killed or injured within the Gaza Strip as a result of just this latest battle. To put that in perspective, if the same thing happened proportionally here in the United States, that would be 189,000 Americans dead and 1,589,000 wounded from 22 days of fighting. Over the course of this endless conflict of course, these numbers would be much higher. It would be on par, at least, with the casualties in our own Civil War, which at least ended definitively after four years.

Syrians embroiled in their own civil war can at least become refugees. Life may suck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, but at least you are alive and in relative safety. There is no such escape for Gazans. Of course Israel won’t take them in. Egypt won’t let them in either. You would think they could become boat people, but the Israelis have banned even fishing and their navy would sink anything that dared to leave the Gaza Strip by sea. Residents there are trapped, with nowhere to escape to. They are doomed, it seems, to spend lives traumatized by war and made more miserable by poverty and a continuously degrading infrastructure.

Living in Gaza is sort of like living in a huge concentration camp, only it lasts much longer than the Second World War. Rather than dying in gas chambers or in work camps, the dying occurs principally during these battles, all occurring at close range, or afterward from wounds or as a result of the generally pervasive poverty. You would think Israelis would know a thing or two about concentration camps, but they seem thrilled that their army is inflicting punishment on these defenseless people, cheering from the highlands as their air force drops bombs on Gazans.

Not that the Israelis are getting off scot-free. As these battles go, it’s been painful for their army. 43 soldiers have died so far, and three citizens have died from rockets lobbed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Most missiles are mistargeted but those that aren’t are generally picked off by their Iron Dome defense system supplied by the United States. From Hamas’s perspective, they are doing well in this disproportionate battle. For a change the Israelis are hurting, at least a bit. None of this though is doing much to establish a cease-fire, at least one that seems likely to endure.

During the January 2009 battle I noted:

Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

Curiously, these are the same demands both sides are making to “end” this latest battle. It should be noted that this battle was wholly avoidable. Supposedly it was the natural reaction to the murder of three Israeli youth by Hamas, as claimed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But that claim appears to be false. As a reaction some extremists Israelis killed a Palestinian youth. That was all of a spark necessary for this latest battle to get underway.

Not only is this war unspeakably cruel, it won’t affect any meaningful change and will actually make things worse. It is the definition of insanity, which is to try the same thing again expecting it will render a different result. Israel lives in the fantasy that if it were somehow destroy Hamas, the remaining supplicant sheep in the Gaza Strip will somehow forever accept Israeli control and domination. You can see how great this is working out on the West Bank. The truth is that every time Israeli has yet another battle with Hamas, they only exacerbate their long-term problem. Hamas looks like a crazy government, but whatever replaced it is likely to be much worse. Hamas is at least reasonably secular and coherent. Israel does not have to look too far to see what would be worse than Hamas as it is emerging now in Western Iraq, and now goes by the name of the Islamic State. Hamas is not al Qaeda, but if they actually destroy Hamas, something like the Islamic State will likely replace Hamas, and it will be on Israel’s doorstep.

Conflicts like this generally succeed in hardening the positions of both sides. Israel of course is swinging more toward the right, having the effect of reducing the possibility of a solution that might actually achieve peace: a two state solution. Instead, Israel is busy tearing down more homes in the West Bank, a cruel policy of retribution against the relatives of those who hurt Israel. It’s doing this while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and more recently by picking fights on the West Bank. All of this simply inflames passions more, making future conflict and war more likely, not less.

The “clear-eyed realists” in Israel are simply shortsighted thinkers, not looking at the larger dynamics and demographics. Peace is in their long-term interest. Indeed, it is the only way the nation of Israel will survive. But peace simply cannot be achieved wholly on Israel’s terms. Momentum is already underway internationally for nations to boycott Israel, since it is practicing apartheid, not against blacks, but against non-Jews. So Israel can expect more sanctions and economic boycotts as its positions harden. As I noted in 2009, their survival is dependent on us giving them the means to do so. The United States will not support Israel the way it does not indefinitely. As some point the international outrage will be too large for our country to stomach, just as happened with South Africa.

Israel has the chance, looking increasingly far away, to change the dynamic now through a two-state solution. It’s their only hope to still be a state a hundred years from now. Stupidly, Israelis are letting their emotions rather than logic dictate where they should be going. They are sowing the seeds for their own second Diaspora. However, during the next Diaspora there may not be an escape. The Islamic states that surround them will probably not let one of them out alive.

 
The Thinker

Improving public administration one course at a time

Retirement is good, or so I’ve been told. I’ll let you know when I arrive after August 1. They say that it beats working for a living.

As I hang up my career though, I sure didn’t expect the opportunity to share my wisdom in any meaningful way. You expect cake in a conference room (got that), a dinner with colleagues after work (got that) and a farewell luncheon (that comes tomorrow). It used to be you expected a gold-plated watch, but as I’m a federal employee I won’t get that. Anyhow, in what feels sort of like a consolation prize, last month found me in Landsdowne, a conference facility northwest of Washington D.C. I was invited to help create a better curriculum in their masters of public administration degree.

My invitation came from my friend Tim, who got me into the federal civil service in the first place. Tim didn’t spend that long in the civil service. He did go back to school, got a PhD, ran a couple campaigns for Congress as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red district (and lost badly) and most recently ended up on the staff of the American Public University System (APUS). The online university teaches careers in public administration, which is kind of what I spent the last thirty-three years doing. Since Tim knew me and knew I lived near Landsdowne, he convinced me to come and educate these educators on what public administration today was really about.

These days, you would think the last career anyone would aspire to is public administration. These people run governments: state, county, local and the federal government. Actually, they don’t so much run governments as administrate them. The sort of graduates APUS puts into the workforce aspire to positions like City Manager, where they get down and dirty into issues like making sure the city picks up the trash on time and fills the potholes. Some aspire to state or federal service, and it was the latter that made me of value to them.

Only I wasn’t sure I should have been there in the first place. For example, I was sitting in a room next the former mayor of Kansas City, Mark Funkhouser. Mark is an impressive guy and I could see how he managed to be mayor for four years. He is smart, grounded, political and pragmatic, with a clear understanding of what governing is really about. The other guy at the table was Andrew J. Duck, another friend of Tim who like Tim had run two campaigns for Congress, and lost. Mr. Duck now works for Northrup Grumman, which sells his expertise on intelligence issues to the Pentagon. Two guys, a facilitator, a note taker and the rather obscure me: a nerdy guy who manages a public information system. We were there to answer the question: what should APUS do to make their curriculum more relevant? The prize, such as it was for a couple of hours around a conference table, was an insulated coffee mug and a really good catered lunch.

I felt like the odd man out. Mr. Duck, for example, had not just keen insights into the intelligence business, but totally got public administration and the imperfect art of governing including the crazy disconnect between what the public expects and what is actually possible. (Attention citizens: with limited taxes not all problems can be solved instantly.) Mr. Funkhouser had actually walked the walk, managing a huge and diverse city and walking the fine line that politicians walk: being effective and political at the same time. It’s hard to be both. I felt outclassed. We browsed the course curriculum and were asked a number of leading questions while guys with cameras and microphones occasionally came in and captured our images and voices.

Their curriculum did not particularly surprise me, but a lot of it seemed marginally relevant. At least in the federal government, public administration is a very different beast. Citizens are less in your face than they are at the local level, while the amount of rules, regulations and policies you are supposed to adhere to often feel overwhelming. It’s a wonder we manage to do any governing at all. How many people would knowingly choose to spend thirty or more years of their lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy?

It was never my explicit choice; it just sort of worked out that way because I lived in the Washington D.C. area. How do you prepare someone for a life in the bureaucratic trenches? How do you inspire them? Most importantly, how can they be effective in this environment? It’s a grinding and grating world for most of us inside it, pulled between irreconcilable forces. There are the rules, which frequently change. There is your senior leadership, which is also frequently changing and who will push political agendas of the current president, which are often counterproductive and downright wacky. (Bush’s faith-based initiatives was one of the wackier ones.) There is Congress, which consists of people who generally belong in rubber rooms and most of whom haven’t a lick of common sense about how the real world works. There is the workforce consisting of generally good people who are often treated shabbily. And there is the bureaucracy itself: hard to understand and appreciate until you are stuck in the middle of it, where it sort of makes sense after a while, but makes no sense to an outsider.

Fortunately, I was able to contribute a few ideas that look that it will actually make it into their program in a year or two. First was the strange absence of acquisition education in their curriculum. Governments spend boatloads of money and much of it actually goes outside the agency to the private sector for goods and services. At least in the federal government, there is this confusing rulebook, the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It was hard for me to imagine anyone doing public administration without knowledge of how to procure these things legally and get a genuine best value, and also do it intelligently.

Being in information technology, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of education in this area too. You are training to administer government, but you have no idea of an information technology life cycle? No idea that you will have systems written in house, and others that will be pulled off the shelf, and they all have to talk to each other all the time? No idea that systems are born and die, and their replacements have to be carefully planned and paid for? No appreciation for what a CIO or a CTO does? No one expects a public administrator to write code in C++, but you sure need to understand that solid and reliable information pins together public administration and something about the architecture that makes the magic possible. It all has to work together seamlessly and tell you things that are relevant. If it doesn’t, you can’t do your job.

So I did my part for future bureaucrats and administrators. If you are crazy enough to want to do this stuff professionally, thanks to Mark, Andrew and me, perhaps future public administrators will have the skills they need in today’s crazy world of government.

Okay, I gave back. Now maybe I’ll take up golf.

 

 
The Thinker

Changes to subscription services

Sorry if this is a somewhat geeky post.

I am using the Feedburner feed service. It allows many of you to acquire this blog through various mechanisms that don’t actually require that you to come to the site, a great way to read the blog if you are busy and/or lazy. It either emails my posts to you or by caching it on the Feedburner site makes it highly available in your feed reader.

Feedburner was the first to succeed in this market. It hadn’t been in operation too many years before it was acquired and Google and stuffed into its vast holdings. There it has been languishing, still working, but ignored. I can tell it is not being maintained because Google turned off the Feedburner API. In addition, it can’t even bother to maintain the documentation on the site. For example, it references Google Reader and iGoogle, which it retired a year or so back. This means that Feedburner is becoming untrustworthy. Google will probably get rid of it at some point.

Syndication is an important way for me to distribute my blog posts. Feedburner says I had 118 subscribers on average over the last week. This includes 22 active email subscribers. Given Feedburner’s problematic and untrustworthy status, I need to take some actions.

Those of you who subscribe via email will start receiving posts from my blog instead. Mail will come from m...@occams-razor.info. It’s possible your email program will move this into spam or trash. You may need to create a rule or filter to put these in your inbox. Each email should contain a link allowing you to unsubscribe.

Those of you that subscribe via news aggregators like feedly.com may need to change the feed URL. Rather than get it from Feedburner, you need to get it directly from my site. This generic feed URL should work fine: http://occams-razor.info/feed/.

You can also choose feeds for a specific feed protocol:

Thank you and thanks for reading the blog.

 
The Thinker

Review: Jersey Boys

Now late in his career, director and actor Clint Eastwood seems to be steering away from pictures that demonstrate that he can produce landmark films. After all, he already has. The 83-year-old director already produced a best picture: 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, which won Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood and a nomination for Eastwood for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Most of his career has been in acting. He has made his mark in a number of landmark and unforgettable films including many Dirty Harry movies, The Eiger Sanction and The Bridges of Madison County.

With life still ahead of him Eastwood has the luxury of directing movies that will probably not add another Oscar trophy to his wall, and will be seen as less than stellar, but are still quite good movies in themselves. Jersey Boys, a movie that chronicles the life of Frankie Valli and the other members of singing group The Four Seasons falls into this category. It’s very well done, quite engaging, with excellent acting and flawless directing. Still, aside from telling an interesting but not too surprising story about the various flaws and conflicts of the men in this 1950s and 1960s singing group, there’s not much here to write home about. It’s simply a very well done human-interest story.

Eastwood did not have to spend too much time on this movie. The music of The Four Seasons of course is burned into the brains of any of us fifty-plus, plus this movie is heavily based on the Broadway musical with the same name as the movie. Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is known not so much for his face as for his voice. His voice was utterly unique for his time: a falsetto voice so high-pitched that you expected it came from a woman, or perhaps a man who had not quite finished puberty. His voice sure was distinct and powerful. You could not hear it without it drawing your attention. As distinct as it is, it was made better by the blended and contrasting lower registers of the other men in the band, including the group leader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter, lyricist and backup vocalist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

The band went through many names before they standardized on The Four Seasons. All of them came from New Jersey, known for its large number of Italian immigrants and their descendants and its Mafia. These boys, and Frankie is a minor at the start of the movie, are frequently getting in trouble with the law. They have Mafia connections as well: specifically Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who has shady connections that are never made clear, but who seems a benign sort of mobster, and who eventually befriends Frankie.

Success eludes the group, but their otherwise spendthrift manager Tommy at least is smart enough to sense a lot of talent in Frankie and brings him onto the group. Still, his presence is not enough. Their most critical problem is a unique sound, and it is not until the shy, virginal but business-savvy songwriter Bob is integrated into the group that their breakaway hit “Sherry” emerges. From then on their career takes off something like a rocket. But unsurprisingly they often grate on each other. Tommy insists on being in charge, even though he squanders money and hides their financial troubles. Tommy and Bob share hotel rooms and snipe at each other. And Frankie rightly feels that he is the breakaway star of the group, and wants recognition that Tommy won’t give him.

It’s all this plus they’re Italian, so they are used to dealing with issues with fisticuffs and cursing. Inevitably, they enter into a number of bad relationships with women. Frankie largely succeeds in at least being faithful to his wife Mary (Renée Marino), but she resents his time mostly on the road and expresses her feelings in explosive arguments and by hitting the bottle. At least on stage, these Jersey boys give quite a show. They eventually land gigs on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. They do manage to hang around together for more than ten years, but inevitably they can’t keep up appearances. Tommy’s squandering of their income leaves their band deeply in hoc to a gangster and the IRS. Meanwhile, Frankie’s children grow up, and his daughter goes through major crises caused by his absence, and she eventually kills herself.

I hope I have not given away too much of the plot. The plot though does not matter so much, as its devotees know it anyhow and this is simply a human-interest story. These are the sorts of squabbles we all have to deal with, but that happen to more prominent people. Aside from the excellent acting and singing, Eastwood makes it shine with a flawless rendering of the 1950s and 1960s and by keeping our attention on the oversized talents and vulnerabilities of these young men arguably from the wrong side of town.

So it’s the combination of the directing and the frequently toe-tapping singing and dancing that makes this movie memorable in spite of its rather pedestrian plot. Stay through the credits, because the clever dance number during the credits may be the movie’s high point. I haven’t seen the musical but I suspect its ending came from the musical. You may want to wait until the final credit scrolls past the screen because the music of The Four Seasons is instantly infectious, even fifty years later, and you’ll want to hear every note.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The real solution to the child refugee crisis

Approximately 60,000 children so far have traveled alone across our southern border recently to find safety and sanctuary in the United States, with doubtless many more on the way. Just the very idea of doing something like these parents have done – sending their children away alone on their own on a long and dangerous trip to get into the United States — leaves us American parents reeling. How could any parent do this?

If you take the time though to read articles like this one, the only question is why these parents waited so long to do something so desperate. Countries like Honduras are impoverished but that’s hardly new. What’s new are the drug lords, the intense competition between them, and the lawlessness it has caused, which is much worse than anything the Taliban has inflicted. In much of Honduras there is no functioning government and those that function as government are in cahoots with the drug lords. In attempts to gain dominance among rival lords and cartels, children are being forcibly recruited. Failure to say yes could lead to death, rape or many other atrocities. When recruited you may be required not just to peddle drugs and extort people, but maybe kill them as well. Getting to the United States is of course highly dangerous, not to mention expensive to their parents, but it is a rational decision for these parents. It is not just the United States that is getting an influx of child refugees, but other Central American countries as well. These children are fleeing toward safety, not opportunity. They are simply refugees.

The drug trade in Central America is hardly new, but what is new in the increased drug trade in this corridor. This is largely due to success by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Caribbean at bottling up more traditional ways of transferring illegal drugs via small aircraft and boat. This is not an option in autonomous and landlocked countries in Central America. You know what happens when supply goes down and demand remains the same. Prices go up, which makes it easier to accept risk. Right now that route is through Central America.

The crisis in Honduras has become our crisis on our southern border. It is happening largely due to our country’s addiction to illegal narcotics. When you need a fix, you don’t think about how the drug will get to you, just that you must get high. But money for your fix is being funneled through the fingers of the worst kind of scum, including beasts masquerading as human beings in Honduras who will kill and rape kids, and maybe hack them to death in the street.

It’s reasonable to ask why our country is addicted to these drugs. All countries have this problem to some extent, but our addiction is very high compared to the rest of the world. Some of it is due to the fact that we are relatively prosperous, so we can afford to get high. Of course many of our drug addicts are very poor, and these are typically the ones looking for cheap highs. Heroin seems to be their drug of choice right now.

I believe that much of our addiction to drugs is because so many of us live really painful lives. Our lives are quite stressful, not as stressful as those of children in Honduras obviously, but one constant stress after another. This was made worse of course by the Great Recession when so much of our safety net disappeared. We live in a society that doesn’t cut us much slack. We are expected to do it all. Many of us simply don’t have the skills, education and other talents it takes to fend off this much adversity, if it’s possible at all. The stress becomes oppressive and unrelenting. Aside from the many people who were unemployed from the Great Recession, other traumatic pains are making us reach for a high: feelings of worthlessness, abuse from our spouse, screaming kids and bad neighborhoods. And so we look for escape. Drugs along with other addictions like food, booze, cigarettes and dangerous sex provide a temporary escape from crushing pain. To really feel better many of us need a living wage job, a decent place to call home in a decent neighborhood, and a little TLC from society at large. These are in short supply, in part because our collective wealth has moved toward the wealthy, who don’t feel inclined to spend it on charitable causes like us.

While many Republicans continue to tell us that we must somehow all by ourselves through grit and gumption solve our personal problems, this child refugee crisis proves just the opposite: that we are all related. Worse, because the actions of one affect others, it goes both ways. Our relationships can channel hurt or healing. When our inner pain causes us to visit illicit pushers to get a high, the chain of our pain extends down to the lives of terrorized children and their parents in Honduras, among other places. The relationship is not something symbolic. It is quite tangible. It is the dollar bill.

This refugee crisis is thus best understood as a crisis of failed relationships on many levels. On the national level, it demonstrates our political failure to do the pragmatic thing, which is to legalize drugs. This will not remove the pain of our drug addiction, but it will make addicts get cheaper and probably safer highs. It will squeeze the profit motive out of the drug trade, probably ending it overnight. It’s reasonable to assume that if drugs were decriminalized and regulated within the United States there wouldn’t be a flood of children from Honduras desperately trying to get across our border. And that’s because there would be no drug trade in Honduras, at least not one that would funnel high profit margin drugs into the United States.

I believe decriminalization and hopefully the legalization of these narcotics is the permanent way to end this refugee crisis, not to mention the pointless drug war. Our drug war has always been one where we simply refuse to face the reality of our human nature. As states like Washington State are discovering, legalizing marijuana can be a substantial revenue source, and that money can be used to do lots of good things: like build roads, bridges and schools. That sure beats making miserable the lives of traumatized children in Central America!

Our other option is to send in our army to occupy Honduras. This is at best a temporary solution but it should at least dramatically slow this refugee crisis. It’s the underlying problem that needs to be fixed. Drug decriminalization won’t stop everyone from trying to get across our borders, but it will act as a fire extinguisher and solve the root of this problem.

I wish President Obama had the nerve to tell us Americans the truth and advocated for drug decriminalization and legalization. I am confident that he understands this too but is unnerved by the political incorrectness to say so. If he wanted to be remembered as a true leader, this would be the time to tell us the truth.

 
The Thinker

Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.

 
The Thinker

The countdown

I haven’t been counting. Really.

Counting down days until I retire, that is. It’s sort of expected, like you are chomping at the bit to begin a life of leisure. It’s the natural question from colleagues at work, all of who know I am retiring at close of business on August 1st. “How many days is it?” I hear regularly. It’s either that or “Where’s your countdown clock?” Some people get so anal about it they have one on their desktop computers telling them precisely how many days, hours, minutes and seconds they have left.

That’s not to say I’m not thinking about it. I certainly am. In a lot of conversations where I voice an opinion, I chime in, “but of course it won’t matter to me after August 1st.” A colleague in another office messaged me today. “Sixteen days,” she told me. Really? I hadn’t known. But since I was forced to run the numbers I realized she was off. Since I work a 5/4/9 schedule, I have tomorrow off, and two weeks hence I’ll have that Friday off as well. Which means fourteen workdays left.

I’m keeping busy trying to check out. I’m in middle management and run a national system, this one and that one to be specific (two different aspects of the same system, really), but only through August 1. Disgruntled employees of retirement age can simply retire abruptly and let those behind clean up the mess. That’s not my style. The engineer in me would not permit it, but this engineer is also pragmatic. I realize I can’t leave everything neat and tidy. In the ten years I have been working for USGS, a great place to work, by the way, my job has never been neat and tidy. Middle management never is. It’s about managing the chaos and herding the cats, and I have quite a team of talented but peculiar cats to herd. Mostly, at least in my case, it’s more about triaging the chaos and trying, however incrementally, to make systems and processes work in a more ordered manner. There is so much stuff to do that neither you nor your staff can possibly do it all. After a year or so on the job I realized that while I could be ambitious, I had to be realistic. My accomplishments, such as they were, could not be done on a fixed schedule, but would be spread out over many years. And being a manager, they would be accomplished by others. Mostly what I did was herd the cats. It’s that part of my job that I will gleefully give up. I love them all, but herding cats is hard work and arguably someone with better people skills can do a better job of it.

I certainly have an appreciation for middle management now. In many ways it’s where the real work gets done. Executives get to set goals. Those in the trenches get to dig them. Middle managers have to sweat through the murky business of turning goals into reality, as they are entrusted with resources (people and money) to make real things happen in the real world, but never close to enough of them. It’s challenging and pretty good paying work, but it is also draining. When earlier this year I realized I could retire this year with essentially no loss in income over my planned retirement in 2015, it became easier to say yes to retirement. I could another year wading through the middle management slosh, but there was little point.

So this is Entry #1 in a retirement journal of sorts, a prequel perhaps to set the stage. I know what I have to do before I retire. I have to give my employees a final performance appraisal. That’s always challenging since many employees take an assessment of how they do against some business goals as a certification of self worth, when it’s really just business and has nothing to do with how I think about them as people or professionals. It is tempting upon retirement to give them with a higher rating than they deserve. But that would simply make things more challenging for my successor. I don’t plan to do that. It’s also unethical. My last boss Susan trained me well on that.

Beyond that, any effort I give toward my job is in some ways optional, because getting fired at this point is pretty much impossible, short of downloading child porn at work or something. Yet I plug away as if I will be doing this work forever, trying to maintain all my old habits, enjoy my work and revel in these last weeks of life in the office. We have a release to get out in a few weeks, hopefully before I officially retire, which was one reason I chose August 1st to retire. So with luck and hard work my team and I can check off that one. As for the stuff this team will have to do next year, which is supposed to be planned this year, I managed to jump through all the daunting travel hurdles to get one last meeting of my team last month to do the planning. This involved multitasking because I had another team of testers from out of town in an adjacent conference room testing.

There were other larger issues I did not want to leave to my successor, and for a while they will have “acting” in their titles. I brainstormed with my boss on who will act for me when I retire. We pondered the usual candidates inside the team and outside it. I was noncommittal on my preference. Their pick was from inside my team, but it only occurred after many meetings and nagging them like I was a henpecked wife, something that does not come naturally to me but which I learned was necessary skill for a middle manager who actually wanted to get things done. The other major problem was the looming crisis in project management, with one project manager about to retire and the official team lead detailed elsewhere for about three years. I found a logical candidate inside my team who I had mentored. Between them and the operations leader they will have to steer the ship until the next captain comes aboard.

I’ve also been working on transition notes. They will help those acting for me, but will be more useful for my permanent replacement, assuming he or she gets them. I won’t officially care once I am off the payroll, but I’ll make sure my boss gets them while I am on the payroll. He can figure out what to do with them, if anything.

It’s been a great ride steering this national system for ten years, but it’s past time to move on. Upon my actual retirement there will first be an eleven-day vacation. When I get back, I won’t be wholly unemployed. I have some consulting I can do as clients demand and interest allows. I won’t be starving in any event, so it’s something I can mostly pick up or put down as fancy takes me. I don’t want to become socially disengaged. I will teach one course on Tuesday nights at the local community college.

When not doing that, there are things to do to our house to prepare it to sell next spring. And daily walks and/or bike rides to accomplish. And I hope to see movies on discount days. I am not eligible for most senior citizen discounts, being just 57, but I can get a discount on coffee at McDonalds (a perk when you turn 55). Perhaps I will make that a weekly habit, as my parents did for many years, just to get out of the house.

Keep reading in the weeks, months and years ahead to learn how this goes. I should have a lot more time to blog in general, and it certainly won’t all be about retirement. I am hoping with the bulk of my professional life behind me, I’ll have time to breathe and blog more.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: July 2014 edition

Those wondering if I would stop these monthly reviews of Craigslist’s casual encounters area now have an answer: no, at least not quite yet. I count at least 311 page requests for my Craigslist content in the last thirty days, which is more than ten percent of my overall page views, so it’s reason to keep at this. Moreover, 31 of those were for June’s post and 18 were for May’s. These posts also write themselves; so I don’t have to think too much, just scan the ads for more lurid titles and flag the ones that look particularly unusual. For statistics purposes I see in the first page of listings:

  • 44 men looking for men
  • 38 men looking for women
  • 5 men looking for couples
  • 5 men looking for transvestites/transgender
  • 5 women looking for men
  • 5 women looking for women
  • 3 couples looking for women

While this content is clearly not high art, it does appeal to those of us with prurient or just bizarre tastes and I have some. So here we go with an Independence Day weekend review of the Northern Virginia edition of Craigslist Casual Encounters:

  • There seems to be an oversupply of wimpy husbands these days. Women want a man to take charge. Here’s a 27-year-old woman who rather than seek some marriage counseling wants you (a guy) to come on over and show both of them who’s boss, i.e. screw her while he watches, except he doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with this. I don’t care how horny you are, you can feel the bad karma. Just how many times do you want to reincarnate and go through these pathetic scenarios anyhow?
  • Most women on their period simply take out the Kotex. Some women though see mensuration is an opportunity for kinky sex. If the idea of mensuration plus cunnilingus appeals to you, check this 48-year-old woman out. Perhaps this would appeal to you if you like your steaks cooked rare.
  • Here’s a woman, age unknown that wants a date. She is looking for romance. Clearly she has no idea of what Craigslist Casual Encounters is about. Doubtless from her inbox stuffed with crass one-liners and penis pictures, she does now. She apparently is a firefighter, but I don’t think she is trained to put out these kinds of fires. Maybe she should hook up with this firefighter who may be sleeping in the next bunk.
  • Ms. Right Now wants her orifices filled up right now and you can see some of them in her X-rated picture. It has to be tonight and it has to be in Titusville, yes Titusville, Florida, not Northern Virginia, which is 841 miles away and 12 hours and 11 minutes away by car according to Google Maps. Good lucks guys. May the fastest hot rod win.
  • There are actually some successful casual encounters on Craigslist. This 27-year-old woman from Alexandria fondly remembers those with a man named Michael S. Apparently they were well acquainted with every NoTel Motel between Alexandria and Fredericksburg. She’s actually hoping he hasn’t reformed because she wants one more close encounter of the kinky kind.
  • She is probably a guy but anyhow he’s looking to sell his girlfriend’s panties while she is out of town. He promises that you can at least see a picture of whose intimates you will be sniffing. I’m gathering he ran out of drug money and I am hoping she is running away from this loser for good.
  • Another bi-curious 21-year-old blonde looking for a woman, but whose picture will break men’s hearts. She wants to be shown the ropes, but curiously doesn’t indicate any curiosity about bondage.
  • I’m trying to figure out why a guy would buy a Sybian. Moreover, from the title of the ad he’s only 20 years old. If you actually read the ad you will learn that he’s actually in his early 30s. In any event, it looks cheap and no matter how good the vibrations, this doesn’t look worth $1,345.
  • She’s a very generous 26-year-old wife: she wants to give her husband the pleasure of a threesome. You must be a woman under 35.
  • The whole adult nursing relationship thing is new to me, and I’m pretty sure I was weaned too early. Here’s a 32-year-old man from Fairfax Station who must have skipped the experience altogether and wants to make up for lost time. Apparently all the woman has to do is take her top off. It’s not sex I guess if it’s only breast play.
  • I’m not sure but I think he’s an aspiring actor for The Bing Bang Theory. Anyhow he’s 26, geeky as all get out, with big dorky glasses and he wants his first anal experience, presumably with a woman.
  • He’s a 21-year-old “straight” looking for oral sex from a guy, but only with a condom on but to hedge his bets you must also be clean. This “straight” guy needs to watch Kinsey because he ain’t.
  • Ugh. This nearby 60-year-old gay man is looking to perform oral sex with Latino guys only. It’s not their ethnicity that bothers me, but that he also wants to be urinated all over. Oral sex I understand, but I just don’t get the whole urination as kink thing. Uncircumcised is preferred.
  • Can 35-year-old men be “boys”? I guess they can in the crazy world of Craigslist. This submissive “boy”, who is actually 40, is still looking for his daddy. I hope he isn’t bothered if his older man has erectile dysfunction too, because that’s likely to be the case.
  • Bi-curious goes both ways. A local 48-year-old married man is looking for a guy for oral sex. He won’t host naturally and car play is not his thing. I’m hoping he doesn’t have regular sex with his wife.

More next month.

 
The Thinker

When did conservatism become so radical?

Halloween should be rescheduled for the last week of June. This is the last week of the Supreme Court’s annual session and they tend to leave their juiciest and most controversial decisions to the very end. The Supremes did not disappoint this year with two decisions yesterday that should leave sensible people reeling.

I’ll concentrate on the first, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and leave the public unions decision Harris v. Quinn perhaps for a future post. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, we got a decision that grants “closely held corporations” religious rights. Previous Supreme Court decisions had already granted corporations personhood status, a preposterous assertion given that corporations do not breathe, have children, die, get checkups, walk, talk or vote. On the latter, given the court’s breathtaking decision in this case, it’s probably only a matter of time before corporations get the right to vote as well. (Given the way the Supreme Court sees these things, they will probably get a number of votes proportional to their status, maybe based on the number of employees.) Justice Alito went so far in his decision as distinguish between corporations as people and actual human beings, “natural persons” as he calls us. You have to ask yourself: WTF? Was he sober when he wrote this?

All this, you see, is to protect the precious rights of the people that own these companies, as if in their role as “natural persons” they don’t already have the right to vote, or to spend their own money on campaigns, or speak out at rallies or take out ads in the newspaper. This means, of course, if you are an executive of a corporation you effectively get twice the rights, but effectively a lot more as you can wield the assets of your company to the extent you have money or can borrow money to speak out as much as you want. The Koch Brothers epitomize the ability of the very moneyed to drown out much of the rest of us. And now because your corporate personhood is so precious, you can also take away the rights of others. Unsurprisingly, certain companies like Hobby Lobby feel the need to screw it to women, which thanks to this decision means that they can prohibit contraceptive coverage from being covered in their health insurance plan. Why? Because it’s against their religion. Like corporations can go to church!

You would think this decision could not possibly make the pigs any “more equal” than the other farm animals (that’s an Animal Farm reference, in case you missed the allusion), but you are forgetting one of last year’s stunner decisions. Almost a year ago, on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law required certain states like Mississippi with a long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth to get preclearance for their voting methods. Mississippi was one of many mostly Southern states to set up more onerous criteria for voting: you had to show an approved photo ID, something that is difficult, expensive and inconvenient if you are poor. The Justice Department didn’t like it, of course, so it nixed the idea, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court. Of course, keeping blacks and minorities from voting was the whole intent of the law in Mississippi. By this decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was written specifically to get rid of decades of Jim Crow laws that made it hard or impossible for minorities to vote.

So the Supreme Court, which claims to be so concerned about maximizing freedom of speech, gives virtually unlimited speech to corporations which aren’t even human beings while allowing states to make it harder for certain actual human beings, minorities and the poor naturally, to exercise what limited speech they have due to their financial state. In other words, it’s more freedom for those who can afford it, including entities (corporations) that are legal fictions, something Justice Alito in his decision candidly acknowledged. And due in part to last year’s decision, it’s less freedom for those that can’t. This is not surprising from a court that was very plainly equated money with speech. Last I checked, a dollar bill did not have lungs, a tongue and lips.

This is conservatism? This is not radically changing what has worked in the past? I don’t know what word it is, but it is not conservatism. It’s crazy and radical stuff. Rather it was the Supreme Court that inferred that corporations must be treated as people. These latest shocking decisions take this to a further absurd and quite frightening level.

Given that these radicals will be on the court for some time a harder a more permanent solution is needed. It’s already underway but as a practical matter to actually make it happen will require Democrats to have large majorities in both the House and Senate. It is simply this: we need a constitutional amendment that unambiguously states that corporations are not people and only have such temporal rights as Congress deigns to give them. If I were in charge, corporations would be forbidden from giving a dime to any political candidate, any PAC or any group that works to influence public policy on any level whatsoever.

What kind of glue are these conservative justices sniffing? Have they read the preamble of our constitution lately? It simply starts, “We the people”. There is no “We the people and corporations”. That is original intent. The so-called constitutional conservatives on the Supreme Court who voted for these unwise and radical decisions have simply proven the opposite. Instead, they are part of a cancer that is killing our democracy.

 

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