Are we being played?

Most people I know agree that Donald Trump is a political nightmare. I long thought the GOP planned to block him at the convention, but I think the primary structure ended that before it could get off the ground. But are we now seeing that goal achieved by a Republican October surprise on its own candidate?

Think about it. Trump’s tax records were leaked just three days before the first debate. Rumors have been flying that the leak came from the Trump camp. But godawful “brangelina” pushed it out of the news and Trump went about shooting himself in the foot over Miss Universe so it didn’t have as much long-lasting weight as might have been expected, even though Hillary scored some points with it.

Yet Trump’s ensuing Twitter tirades and fixation with Miss Universe may have created a new opening for GOP loyalists. Again, just days before a dedate, a tape appears of Trump wanting to jump an entertainment reporter’s bones and explaining his “style” with women (you know, kiss ’em when you want and grab their vagina). In almost record-breaking time, mainstream Republicans abandon ship and call for Trump to leave the ticket, even in South Dakota.

Now consider that Mike Pence is perceived to have done well at the vice presidential debate. Debasing Trump to the point the GOP can force him off the ticket would allow Pence to come to the rescue on a white horse. Chances are many Republicans who wouldn’t have voted for Trump now will check that box on their ballot, as well as the thousands who currently view Hillary as the lesser of two evils.

I know this sounds highly conspiratorial but if my idle speculation is right, watch out. People know little about Pence. So here’s just a few tidbits.

Pence’s record from his 12 years in the U.S. House “reveals scant tangible achievements.” Rather, he “saw his role much more as being a super-magnet trying to pull his party and policy away from the center and toward the right.”

At the beginning of his speech at the Republican National Convention, Pence told everyone he was, above all else, a Christian, an evangelical one to be precise. Now I don’t care if someone is religious, but when it’s going to dictate national policy, it’s a major problem. And his religion clearly dictates his policies:

  • Earlier this year, Pence signed a bill with a laundry list of abortion restrictions, including requiring the remains of miscarried or aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated. As governor, he also funneled $3.5 million of the state’s assistance program for needy families with children to crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel women against having abortions. And in Congress he worked to cut off federal funds for Planned Parenthood and to end tax breaks for insurance providers that cover abortion.
  • In 2015, he signed a bill allowing Indiana business owners to cite religious beliefs as a reason to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers. When running for Congress, his campaign website not only opposed gay marriage and discrimination protection for gays, he wanted public money to be used for conversion therapy, a discredited form of anti-gay therapy.
  • As a congressman he gave a speech denying evolution and calling for teaching creationism in schools.

As the latter indicates, science evidently befuddles Pence. He’s a climate change denier, voted against almost all environmental legislation and, in fact, wrote on his congressional campaign website, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”

So my cynical prediction is the latest imbroglio over Trump is simply a step in playing the American people to put a fundamentalist Christian in the White House without most voters realizing it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to polish my tin foil hat.

Now, I’m not into conspiracy theories, except the ones that are true or involve dentists.

Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare

Get off my dead trees!

Last week, a college friend and I got together for coffee. During the course of about two hours, we noticed several times we had reached the “you kids get off my lawn!” age. As he, too, is a former newspaper reporter, one of those times was our discussion of the newspaper business and the number of people we knew who had been subject to staff layoffs, buyouts or cuts in staff overall. As serendipity will do, the next day I saw a piece at Columbia Journalism Review that reinforced how dramatically newsroom ranks have been decimated.

In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, “In June 1990, there were nearly 458,000 people employed in the newspaper publishing industry; by March 2016, that figure had fallen to about 183,000, a decline of almost 60 percent.” The BLS noted that employment in Internet publishing and broadcasting increased from 29,700 to nearly 198,000 during that same period. Note that these figures are for all sorts of jobs in newspaper publishing. Thus, the CJR article observed that that growth in online publishing “pales in comparison to the number of journalists laid off in the newspaper industry. And in recent years, the number of journalists at digital-only publishers seems to have actually plateaued.”

When it comes just to news professionals at daily newspapers, the journalism industry long looked to an annual survey by the American Society of News Editors. ASNE’s 2015 survey reported that those employed in news functions at daily newspapers declined from 56,900 in 1990 to 32,900 in 2015, a drop of 42%. Notably, ASNE has stopped estimating the number of journalists working in newsrooms because “the structure of modern newsrooms makes it impractical and error-prone to try to estimate the number of working journalists.” I guess that can happen when an editor becomes a “content strategist,” a reporter an “audience analyst” and a photographer a “consumer experience director.”

While today’s technology may make this sound like lamenting the loss of telegraph operators, there are real world consequences. For example, the number of full-time statehouse reporters working for newspapers dropped 35% between 2003 and 2014. As one observer noted, that means “[t]he public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”

Moreover, as of 2014, 20% of all reporting jobs in the country were in DC, LA or New York. This means that citizens outside of these areas — in other words, more than 90% of the population — “have fewer reporters acting as local watchdogs.” “For the first time in American history, we are nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation’s size) dedicated to reporting the news.”

I, though, look as much at the human cost as the high-minded ideas. Various commentators have noted that amidst all this “remarkably little attention has been paid to the plight of individual journalists.” As another commentator noted earlier this year, “the tale of today’s discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes.” Yes, plenty of people feel discarded today.

While not a Luddite, I am a grumpy old man when it comes to the “good old days” of journalism. After all, it would certainly come in handy in an “news” environment populated by ideological websites and social media.

Real journalism can always be identified by the way it makes normal people sometimes feel very uncomfortable about the world.

Charles M. Madigan, “The problem with today’s ‘journalism'”

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare

Book Review: The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights

The Serial podcast about Adnan Syed’s murder conviction sparked a profusion of so-called “true crime” podcasts, many focusing on unsolved murders or assessing whether particular deaths were the result of foul play. While several of those are worth listening to, The Murder of Sonny Liston displays the advantage of the written word.

The question of whether boxer Sonny Liston’s heroin overdose was actually a murder has been a subject of speculation for decades. While author Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights can’t settle that question, the book portrays a Las Vegas on the verge of its listonheydays. There’s the wealthy casino investors, such as Howard Hughes, and the mob influence in the city. There’s the office run by Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb, one of the most powerful men in Vegas, if not Nevada. There’s the seedy underside of the Las Vegas Police Department in a jurisdictional muddle of the city’s explosive growth. There’s the de facto segregation of the community. And while Liston spent much of his time in African-American West Las Vegas, the man considered by many to be the angriest black man in America lived in an exclusive area of the city in a home once owned by Debby Reynolds.

Given the poverty in which he grew up, the fact he came into boxing while serving time in the Missouri State Prison and his later addiction to heroin, gentrification wasn’t something that fit Liston. The home and opportunities his celebrity brought didn’t cast out the variety of shady characters who were regular elements of and influences on his professional and personal life.

Assael clearly portrays these elements of the story. Unfortunately, while there are several candidates who may well have wanted Liston dead, that theme often seems to get lost in the emphasis on Vegas itself. Although Liston’s story makes the book a satisfactory read for those interested in him, the book is as much a history of 1960s Las Vegas as a thorough analysis of whether Liston was murdered. In fact, the latter focuses in large part on a police informant’s claims some 12 years after Liston’s death. At least the detail Assael provides elevates his exploration above the cursory views taken in most genre-related podcasts.

For all the distance he’d traveled, he was still fighting for chump change

The Murder of Sonny Liston, Shaun Assael

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare

It’s BBW 2016

No, not B-Dubs. Banned Books Week, a frequent topic on this blog. It is a frequent topic because of my views on how crucial books and reading are to life. This year BBW runs from today through October 1.

Each year, the American Library Associated publishes a list of the year’s top 10 most frequently challenged books. Two things struck me about this year’s list. First, none of the books were on the 2014 list. Thus, several books that seemed perennially challenged don’t appear this year, such as And Tango Makes Three (on the list seven of the last eight years) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (seven of the last 10 years). stand-up-badge-2Second, the Bible ranks sixth on the 2015 list, the first time it has appeared this century. That seems noteworthy given many book challenges seem to stem from religious beliefs.

Before getting to the complete list, a bit of background. Note that the ALA uses the word “challenged.” A challenge is a documented request to remove or restrict materials in libraries or the curriculum. A “ban” occurs when the materials are in fact removed. The ALA and others, myself included, view this as a threat to freedom of speech and choice by restrict access to information and ideas. The importance of something like Banned Books Week is shown by the fact that, in a majority of cases, the challenged books have remained available. Finally, it should be noted that the annual lists aren’t scientifically compiled. Instead, they are based on reports received by the ALA. With that in mind, here’s the 10 most challenged books of 2015, along with the reasons given for the challenge:

  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
  3. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
  6. The Holy Bible. Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
  7. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
  8. Habibi by Craig Thompson. Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter. Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
  10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).

Despite the importance of this issue, 40 percent of states apparently don’t have events planned for BBW. They include South Dakota, even though the annual Festival of Books began Thursday and ends today. But you can always check out the Banned Books Week YouTube channel.

To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list.

Memoir of John Aidkin, M.D., John Aidkin

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare

Ruminations of an old dog

Today is my 60th birthday so I declare myself officially OLD.

While I’m far from the brightest bulb, I’ve not been oblivious over the six decades. Particularly over the last couple years, hindsight’s allowed me to assess what is important in life. It amounts to four things: family, dogs, books and music — in that order. Anything else — status, money, possessions, etc. — is essentially insignificant.

Family is somewhat self-evident. I’d never be where or who I am today had I not married well (although marrying wealthy would have been a bonus). Anyone who can put up with me over 36 years is a saint or crazy — actually a bit of both. Whenever and whatever I needed — support, solace, castigation — my wife provided. If anything, we’re more in love today than ever. (“All that I am/All that I ever was/Is here in your perfect eyes/They’re all I can see”).

dog-yearsMy wife was also the moving force behind us having children. I grew up an only child so have never been accustomed to sharing space with siblings or even having other kids around for an extended period of time. I’ve even told my kids that if it had been up to me we’d only have had dogs. They listen better and are less trouble. What’s interesting, though, is that my daughters helped me discover my purpose in life. I won awards as a journalist and unquestionably significant cases as an attorney, such as this or this (although I’ve probably made just as much bad law). But if you ask me why I am here or about legacies, the answer has become very plain. I helped shape three strong, independent women who love each other more than anything. While no one is perfect (“You’re so much like me/I’m sorry”), each has her own unique talents and skills and they will undoubtedly do a better job of improving the world than I.

Some may be surprised to see dogs as second on my list. But to me, dogs are virtually family. I grew up with them and they taught me how to care for another living being as well as the grief that comes with death. Dogs provide both joy and comfort, asking little in return, a little food and water and some attention. Dogs perceive when you’re down or ill and commiserate with you. The adage “be the person your dog thinks you are” is more than simply aspirational.

Books should come as no surprise. Books go beyond entertaining; they are powerful and transformational. My daughters learned early that reading and books give you the power to learn and do almost anything. They also learned not only that a bookstore stop is a must in any city but that I was a sucker for “Can I have this book?” But it isn’t just what you can learn from books. They introduce you to people you’d never know and places you’ll never see. As Joyce Carol Oates said, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Music is akin to books in that it can be inspiring, escapist or comforting. It’s actually more mood- or attitude-setting than reading. (“You’re never alone, ’cause you can put on the ‘phones/And let the drummer tell your heart what to do”). Undoubtedly, everyone has songs that expressed just what they were thinking or feeling. This helps make music unique as a soundtrack for our lives. I couldn’t count the number of times songs will trigger a memory or a particular person, place or event. Music can even create a certain consciousness. Albums and songs have accompanied the highs and lows of life in ways I greatly appreciate.

Hopefully, this isn’t too mawkish. But not only does 60 bring home being old, it has an underlying connotation. There’s an adage that people hate birthdays but they’re better than the alternative. Given I had a heart attack at 35, I long doubted I would see this birthday. So while I bitch about the aches, pains and other physical manifestations of age, they reinforce that I’m still here. And they remind me of the important things in my life.

Is that really me in the mirror, is that me in this picture?
Could it be I’ve lived through all those years?

”Is That Me?”, The Uninvited

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare

Patriotic cognitive dissonance

For a variety of reasons, I don’t follow or even watch NFL football. I didn’t even watch the last Super Bowl. So I paid no attention to items on the internet about some football player not standing during the national anthem. But a piece on the CBS Evening News Thursday reminded me of the cognitive dissonance of some “patriotic” Americans.

For any who, like me, may not know the background, Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Although he’d done the same at two prior preseason games, he drew national attention when he sat during the national anthem at a preseason game on August 26. Kaepernick, who is biracial, said after the game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” During a preseason game in San Diego last night, he was on one knee during the anthem, joined by another teammate.

Naturally, the story blew up with people on both sides. But last night’s game was the Chargers’s annual Salute to the Military night. This, of course, drew more attention. One thing jumped out at me in the CBS story about the game. “If he’s not for our country and the United States flag, get out of my country,” one veteran said on camera. While this clearly hearkens back to the old “love it or leave it” that arose during the Vietnam War, it is most striking that it is a veteran who said it.

We always praise the military and veterans for “defending our freedoms.” Yet a core freedom is the right to protest; it stems from something called the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long recognized this when it comes to the U.S. flag:

  • 1943 — “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn.” (Compulsory pledge of allegiance to flag unconstitutional).
  • 1969 — “We have no doubt that the constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedom to be intellectually . . . diverse or even contrary,’ and the ‘right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order,’ encompass the freedom to express publicly one’s opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.” (Conviction for verbal remarks disparaging the flag unconstitutional).
  • 1974 — Displaying an upside down American flag with a peace symbol taped on it, “was not an act of mindless nihilism. Rather, it was a pointed expression of anguish by appellant about the then-current domestic and foreign affairs of his government.”
  • 1989 — The unconstitutionality of convicting someone for the expressive act of burning the flag “is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as [the defendant’s] is a sign and source of our strength.”
  • 1990 — “[T]he mere destruction or disfigurement of a particular physical manifestation of the symbol, without more, does not diminish or otherwise affect the symbol itself in any way.” (Holding federal Flag Protection Act unconstitutional.)

People are entitled to announce they are offended by or object to Kaepernick’s actions. They are simply exercising the same right he does. But it is antithetical to claim the NFL or anyone else should punish Kaepernick for his actions because they insult what the flag or military stands for. “Love it or leave it” is fallacious. Americans tend to criticize their country because they want to correct its failings, to see it realize its aspirations. And Kaepernick says his actions came about because “this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” Seems like he’s trying to champion the same rights veterans and the military seek to protect.

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Google GmailDiggRedditStumbleUponFarkShare