Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Making sure the jets have clean fuel to gulp


    This might seem out-of-left-field. But there is a simple explanation: the Navy asked. Would I like to talk to a sailor from Chicago? Of course I would. And for you PR sorts, a reminder of the importance of timing. As I was finishing writing this Tuesday, I heard from the Navy Office of Community Outreach in Millington, Tennessee: would I, they wondered, like to talk to a sailor from Chicago? It never rains, it pours. This one aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. Normally I would love to, I wrote back, but I've got one, running tomorrow. Must be some kind of military charm offensive. Though there is an important lesson, when it comes to dealing with the media. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. At the right time, of course. 

    Aviation fuel is not spring water. It doesn’t travel in small plastic bottles but through miles of often corroded pipelines, or it’s pumped into greasy truck or railcar tankers, or transferred to enormous, not-quite-clean ocean-going tankers. 
     When the fuel gets to its destination, for instance the USS Abraham Lincoln nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, you cannot simply pump it straight into the belly of a jet fighter about to take off. Not if you don’t want something bad to happen, like the water and sediment the fuel has picked up in its long journey fouling the jet’s engines while it thunders across the carrier deck.
     “Any bad fuel, and the plane will go directly in the water,” said Chief Petty Officer Cory Lee, a 1991 Taft High School graduate who has served his country in the U.S. Navy for the past 22 years and is aviation boatswain’s mate in charge of fuel aboard the Nimitz-class carrier. That means he’s responsible for making sure the fuel doesn’t clog airplane engines or cause any other of the other deadly problems that can occur if it isn’t handled with shipshape precision. 
     His job is “real simple,” Lee said.
Chief Petty Officer Cory Lee
     “We receive fuel out at sea, from a refueling ship,” he said over the phone. “We bring it onboard; we have approximately 187 tanks on the ship. We put the fuel in the tanks where we purify it, send it through a filter, just like at a brewery — the same concept as Budweiser. When we send it up to the flight deck they get clear, bright fuel.”  
While cleaning the fuel, it takes vigilance to make sure it doesn’t blow up. “We have to take a lot of safety precautions,” he said. 
     Lee, 40, grew up on the West Side and didn’t have money for college. But he had a role model: his cousin, Jacqueline Williams, serving in the Navy. “She was telling me all the places she visited,” Lee recalled. “That kind of brightened my curiosity. So I joined the Navy right after high school.” 
     And did he see the world?
     "Oh yes, yes I have," he said. "A very large part of it. Not everything, but I saw a lot."
     And his favorite parts?
     "I would say Spain," Lee said. "Spain and Italy. I like the scenery."
     He gets back to Chicago about once a year to visit his mother, Delores Lee, who still lives on the West Side, and she appreciates what the Navy did for her son.
     "It's helped him, helped him out a lot," she said. "It made a man out of him. I'm proud of him. I tell him all the time."
     The Abraham Lincoln is 25 years old, and saw action around the world, particularly during the Iraq War. It was on its flight deck that President George W. Bush landed for his famous "Mission Accomplished" visit. The ship went into port in March 2013 for three years of top-to-bottom overhaul, from the reactors to the hull, to carry it through the next 25 years. The 2,500-person crew is living ashore - Lee has a house in Newport News, Va. - though several hundred crew members redeploy to various Navy ships to keep their sea legs.
     Lee oversees rebuilding the fuel system.
     "Right now we're in a shipyard environment," he said. "Taking a lot of pumps, motors and valves out of the system, remanufacturing all the equipment."
     The overhaul will take until fall 2016 to complete. By then Lee plans to be close to retiring from the Navy.
     "I'm actually about to graduate with an MBA from St. Leo University," said Lee, who earned his undergraduate degree from Park University while in the Navy. "That takes a big portion of my off-duty time."
     What are his plans when he gets out?
     "I want to open up my own business, maybe financial management," he said.
     What, I wondered, has the Navy taught Lee that he'll bring to his civilian career?
     Lee replied by speaking about the dangers of walking around an active flight deck.
     "You can get sucked into an engine," he said. "If you're real tall and walk without bending, a helicopter can chop your head off. Everyone has to look out for each other. And there's a saying on the flight deck: 'Keep your head on a swivel.' "
     In other words: Take care of your co-workers and be aware of everything around you.
     Good advice for business, and for just about everything else in life.



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Oh no, he's at it again!

     A circle is the collection of all points on a 2-dimensional plane that are  equidistant from a center point. We are all familiar with circles: an LP record is a circle. A hula hoop is a circle. A wedding ring is a circle.
    Many organizations use a circle as their logo. Target, for one, or Pepsi. Imperial Japan used to symbolize itself with a red circle.   
     The circle is one of many shapes. Other shapes include squares, hexagons and crosses. 
     Like circles, crosses are also popular symbols—Christian denominations use crosses to represent their faith. 
     But not all symbolic crosses represent religious groups. Railroad warning signs use a St. Andrew's cross. The American Red Cross uses a Swiss cross. Imperial Germany used a Maltese cross and, when the Nazis assumed power, they seized a Hindu symbol,  the swastika, which is a St. Andrew's cross with each arm turned at a right angle.  
      Oh wait.... I'm in trouble again, aren't I? No, not because I compared LP records to a hula hoops.  But I just ... oh gosh ... compared the Christian cross to the Nazi swastika. I said ... in essence ... that all Christians are Nazis.
     If you're a nitwit, that is.
     Happily, I don't write for nitwits, despite the obvious profit in it. I couldn't do it with a straight face;  my sincerity would trip me up. 
     But I also don't control who reads this. Thus, for days now, in the weird Punch & Judy Show that passes for political discourse in the United States, a paragraph very much like what I wrote above, from this column that ran in the Sun-Times April 18, has been bouncing around the lower rings of the Tea Party media hell, as they try to get traction out of something that was inoffensive to regular folk.
    I was writing about a lady named Hermene Hartman, the publisher of a weekly black newspaper, an obscure throw-away, who nevertheless was given $51,000 by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner to host a few parties. Then she sang his praises in print, never mentioning the cash she pocketed. My colleague Mike Sneed wrote a column deliciously revealing this stunning ethical lapse. The subject was irresistible, unfortunately.
     I didn't want to merely pile on, so I tried to give a little context. Hartman certainly didn't invent the practice. The powerful have always been buying support in the black community. Rauner isn't the first. I talked about black aldermen who spoke out against Martin Luther King. 
     At this point, for the column not to explode in my face like a loaded cigar, it was crucial to show that I wasn't just picking on black people, wasn't singling them out unfairly for special criticism. So I wrote this: 
Let me be clear: As a general rule, individuals will sell out the interests of their groups in return for personal benefit. It isn’t just a black thing. Jews collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, helping them to round up their own people in the hopes they’d be the last to go. The Republican Party will deny global warming until the ocean laps at Pittsburgh simply because doing something about it crosses the immediate profit of the coal burners and oil companies and carbon spouters who write the checks. No tobacco company has any trouble finding people who, at a hefty salary, stare into the camera and say no, all that lung cancer stuff is just fiction.
     I included Jews intentionally, to show that I wasn't saying anything about African-Americans that I wouldn't say about my own team. There are bad apples in every basket. That isn't something that can be argued, in my view. It's just true.  
     But sometimes, trying to dodge the bicycle messenger, you step in front of a truck.
     To me, the most significant thing was not what it said about Hartman, who hardly matters, but what it said about Rauner, tossing fistfuls of money at a nonentity. If he wastes his own money like that, I wondered at the end of the column, what's he going to do when he gets his hands on yours?
      Reaction was muted, at first. Hartman of course called me to complain that I am a racist. (If I'm a racist, then why tell me? What do you expect me, the big bad racist, to do? Agree with you?) A few Jewish readers took exception to my mentioning the fact of Jewish collaboration. Typical was this, from "L Weber":
Isn't there enough antisemitism in the news already do you have to add more?...
I'm glad I was brought up open minded and not a sheep
Maybe you enjoy stirring the pot of hate that already exists, I don't
      The old, "Let's try to look good for people who are going to hate us anyway," argument. I couldn't resist writing L Weber back: 
Do you really think anti-Semites are weighing the facts before them, and then coming to their conclusions? That if we put a pretty Jewish face forward, that somehow we will win them over? That is just so sad. 
     That was Monday of last week. By Tuesday it was past. A pleasant phone call from Rev. James Meeks, who I also mentioned in the column. He didn't talk about the sympathizer analogy, but rather wanted to be clear that he bought his own plane ticket when he visited Rauner at his Montana ranch. We talked for quite a while and said goodbye on friendly terms.
      What I didn't realize is that the Quinn campaign had tweeted my Rauner story. That is really what touched this off, not anything I wrote, but the Quinn team injecting it into the political distortion machine (thanks guys) and then, realizing it had promoted something with a bit of bite, trying to pull it back.  (Ham-handed. Don't try to claw back tweets. Drives folk crazy). The right wing media—Fox News, WLS, etc.—which already IS crazy, picked up, not on the fact that Bruce Rauner paid $51,000 for the friendship of a laughable nobody whose primary skill is a bottomless ability to be insignificant. No, what upset them was, well, let a Fox Nation writer describe it: 
Chicago Sun-Times readers were stunned last week to find that writer Neil Steinberg has penned a column comparing black supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis against their brethren.
      Fabrication. No Sun-Times readers beyond Hartman were actually stunned, and she was pretty dazed to begin with.  When people are reaching to be outraged, they tend to blur—in this case, blacks who take cash to support Rauner morphed into "black Republicans." Readers of this sort of thing made their own, further abbreviations, until I was being accused of calling blacks people Nazis.      
     I heard from mouth-breathing morons from Florida and Texas, none of whom had read the original column, but who were spouting outrage on cue—it's what they do, apparently— and wanted me to know just what they thought of somebody capable of, well, offending them in some manner.
      The paper, I was pleased to see, stood behind me, re-tweeting the original column while it racked up clicks like a geiger counter at Chernobyl.  Meanwhile, I controlled my breaths and practiced calm. I have been working at nurturing a true indifference to the public howl, and this incident felt like a satisfying step in the right direction. Almost a breakthrough. 
     I even took a little pleasure in watching the carnival of buncombe, to borrow H.L. Mencken's delicious phrase. My favorite example was an opinion piece on an Illinois Republican web site by a trustee in Will County's Wheatland Township and—miribile dictu—an actual black Illinois Republican, who started off decrying the "insult" of my column, admitted that it was an improvement over the standard description of black Republicans as "Uncle Toms" and then, toward the end, served up this:
     The Democrats owe their cronies and the unions their campaign promises first; the Black folks can get what’s left over –a few more weeks of unemployment, food stamps, and no jobs.
    The Jews in Nazi-controlled Germany had to wait in line to get their scraps, too.
    Someone comparing black Republicans to Jews in Nazi-controlled Germany! I considered demanding that she apologize, but decided the irony would be lost.
    Are you bored yet? I sure am. I don't know how people spend their lives puffing up false outrage. I guess it's the political version of slasher films—create a bad guy and then enjoy visiting on him the cruelty that supposedly so offended you, because he "deserves" it. I actually heard from a self-described member of the John Birch Society—on Twitter, I sometimes check, to see what kind of person is writing this poison—who called me a racist, among other things. You have to marvel at that. It almost made the whole experience worthwhile. 
     Of course Rauner tried to make hay with the non-issue. He has no background in politics, and doesn't know what he's doing, or what's important and what isn't. If he runs the state half as incompetently as he's running his campaign, we might all be in for trouble. I am, for the record, sorry I wrote it, though not because it offended the complainers, who live in a state of permanent offense anyway, lurching from one supposed provocation to another. Frankly, I wouldn't be sorry if what I wrote consigned them to the fiery pit for an eternity. But rather, I'm sorry because who wouldn't be sorry for accidentally setting off these assholes and then having to spend time gazing in horror through latticed fingers at their cramped little world? 
    Anyway, to sum up, a list of examples is not a "comparison." If I say that many things come in groups of a dozen—eggs, months, Angry Men—I am not drawing a moral equivalence between 12 eggs and 12 Angry Men. Nor between pizza and hula hoops, beyond their roundness. Nor between Christians and Nazis—so go find something else to get worked up about. Enough. I don't like writing about trivial subjects, and this is a truly trivial subject. But it's a Tuesday, and it was either this or the cool knit pink and blue cozy that I noticed somebody put on a garbage receptacle handle on Madison Street. We'll save that for later in the week. 
     In the meantime, Bruce, now I've grouped together, not only blacks who get paid to support you and Jewish collaborators with the Nazis, but record albums and Target logos, and the Christian cross with the swastika. That ought to keep your campaign busy until the summer.




 


     
    

Monday, April 28, 2014

Divvy Diary: The Running of the Bikes


     “Wabash and Grand has only one dock open,” says Rich Ewalt, checking his phone.
     He sits behind the wheel, parked on Orleans, west of the Merchandise Mart, where he has just picked up seven identical bikes, running as he rolls each heavy three-speed up a metal ramp and into the back of a large Mercedes van, the van painted the same shade of robin’s egg blue as the bikes.
     It’s 10:37 a.m. Ewalt is working at one of the newest jobs in Chicago: He is a Divvy Bike rebalancer.
     The city’s 16,414 Divvy members, who each pay $75 a year for the right to ride any of the program’s 3,000 shared bikes whenever they like it, for a half hour at a time, can’t take a bike from a station if there are no bikes there to be taken. Nor can those riding a Divvy drop it off at a station if every dock is filled.
     Hence the need for “rebalancing” — shuttling bikes to and fro, from full to empty Divvy stations, all day long.
     “These things gotta move,” Ewalt says, pulling into traffic. “They’re filling up fast.”
     Though not as fast now, at midmorning, as earlier, during rush hour, when a station can be stripped of bikes or overwhelmed with them in matter of minutes. The customers howl when that happens.
     “If you’re going to work, you don’t want a full station; that’s not helping. That’s going to take time out your day,” Ewalt says. “We gotta fly in the morning and try to get every station.”
     Without rebalancing, docks at places like Ogilvie Station would always be empty in the mornings and full in the afternoons.
     "Some stations self-balance, and others require our involvement," Divvy GM Elliot Greenberger says. "We use a combination of real-time data and intuition to keep the system balanced. But we're also working with some data scientists to develop more predictive modeling that can help us better anticipate full or empty stations."
     Each Divvy bike contains a chip that talks to the docks, which let the office in West Town know how many bikes are at any given station at any given time. Having worked for Divvy since Day 1 — previously he was a security guard at a sporting goods store — Ewalt usually knows what to do.
     "Weekdays, you definitely have a feel that this station is going to be filled by this time, this station is going to be empty at this time," he says. "You get the same back and forth. I can pretty much handle rebalancing without them calling me. They pretty much let me do my thing. But if a station's been at zero for a bit they'll definitely let us know."
     There are five rebalancing vans out Friday: Divvy has seven; two are idle for repairs. While Ewalt carries rags and solvent to go after graffiti - a growing problem - repairs are left to repair techs. Divvy also has roving bicyclists checking and filling tires.
     At Wabash and Grand, another four bikes go into the van, which holds about 24. Ewalt also runs past every bike and gives its seat a tug to make sure the bike is locked in. Though customers are on the hook for the $1,200 bike from the moment it is pulled out of its dock, a surprising number of customers returning their bikes, Ewalt says, roll their bikes into the rack, but not with sufficient force to have the system lock. Thus, not only could the returned bike be taken by anybody passing by, but the customer is still paying and time is rolling.
     That said, no customer has yet been slapped with a $1,200 fee, nor has Divvy lost many bikes — fewer than 30. When bikes go missing, customers often bird-dog them.
     "Divvy people are out there," Ewalt says. "If they see a Divvy bike in an area it shouldn't be, with no station near it, they'll call in.
     "Lots of times we'll find a homeless person using it as their bike. We'll ask politely, saying, 'We know there are no stations around here, do you mind if we ask your name, because you're riding one of our bikes'? Ten out of 10 times they'll just hand the bikes over. We haven't had a problem.''
     The amazing thing about Ewalt is that he runs, 
flying out of the van, racing to the racks, grabbing bikes, sometimes two at a time. He was hired after a Divvy manager noticed him hustling boxes at the sporting goods store. Showing off for the media? No way.
     "It's a great workout for me," says Ewalt, 32, who lives in Jefferson Park with his wife and young daughter. He does mixed martial arts. "I love working out. I train at night."
     He also loves the company for which he works.
     "I can't wait to see what it's going to bring."

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Envy no man



     Envy no man, because you don't know where he has been, or where he is going.
     It was last June, not a year ago, that I stood in the Hyde Park living room of Amer Ahmad and watched him and his family pray.
      I was writing what was on its surface a simple article: I wanted to look at Chicago Muslims, not through the context of controversy, but through the five prayers that a devout Muslim says every day. The story would start in one place -- Fajr, the first prayer, at 4:30 a.m. at the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove—then jump around the city, meeting Muslims at various prayer times. In the process it would look at Islam in Chicago, and say something about the normality of a faith that still seems strange to many Americans.
     I had been to prayers in public mosques, suburban and downtown. I wanted to get inside someone's home. I happened to be talking to the mayor's press secretary, complaining, as I usually do, about their unhelpfulness. "How about a Muslim city worker?" I asked. They must know of one—hook me up with someone.
    They served up Ahmad, the city comptroller. We had a pleasant conversation over the telephone—an open, intelligent man—and a short time later, one evening after work, I visited his luxurious Hyde Park home: newly rehabbed, tasteful, huge. I met his lovely wife, Samar, and their three adorable young children. Looking around, I felt a pang of envy: THIS guy obviously had life figured out. Cultured. Traveled. He had been to Mecca. A rising star. Obviously money somewhere. HE got to live in this swell house in the heart of Hyde Park, across from the Kenwood Academy. While I'M exiled to my decaying ruin of a suburban farm house, hoarding pennies. 
     I don't want to overstate the case. I didn't gnash my teeth and shake my fist at the sky. More like a sigh, standing on the sidewalk after. Some guys have life figured out...
     Within a month he was at the center of scandal, and had quit his $165,000 a year job. Of course I thought of my visit to his house. Perhaps a connection to write about. And I did have the observation that seemed, perhaps, worth sharing. The question arose last summer: did City Hall know this guy was under suspicion? It seemed clear that the mayor's office probably didn't know he was dirty or they wouldn't be dangling him under the nose of the media. But that seemed pretty thin gruel, and, frankly, I didn't want to draw attention to his being Muslim, because that is irrelevant. There are crooks of every faith, in Islam as in all others, but there are people who would try to make hay with this specific situation, and why toss them fodder?
    Ahmad pleaded guilty to money laundering and a receiving kickbacks in Ohio. He is facing 15 years in prison.  It seemed to unhinge him. Since he surrendered his passport, he tried—his wife alleges—to get her to get him a fake passport, and is now on the run, with a warrant out for his arrest. His wife, pictured above, said he has become violent and abusive and has taken out an order of protection because she's worried he'll kidnap their children and flee to Pakistan, where he has family.
     I don't envy him any more.  I hope he turns himself in, finds a way to salvage his life. He seemed a smart man, the hour I spoke with him, explaining how he permitted his daughters to lead the prayers, contrary to strict tradition, but in keeping with the new tradition he was pushing toward. Family was important to Ahmad. I liked him. 
     The house did seem perhaps too nice for a city employee. I wondered about that. But I figured people have money somewhere, from their families. And besides, he was a money guy. Money guys do well. In his case, I guess the house was paid for with the graft money from Ohio. Which meant that I was gazing appreciatively at the tangible manifestation of the ill-gotten gains that would soon destroy his life, and didn't even know it.  
    Stealing was a bad choice, running worse. We all reap the fruit of the choices we make. I hope Ahmad chooses to stop running, report to the authorities, serve his time, and begin the slow crawl back to whatever new life awaits him. Hard work, but it is still possible. Life is a long time, or can be. Me, I'm going to try to remind myself, next time I cast a covetous eye on someone else's glittering lot, that all is not what it appears, and better to put that energy into paddling my own canoe and being content with what I do have, which is plenty and should be enough. Many ills flow from discontent. Better to envy no man. Because you never know where he has been. Or where he is going.
     

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Saturday fun: where IS this?



     Now this rock is something frightfully important, obviously. And as much as I'd like to tell you all about this very important object -- you can tell it's important because of the velvet ropes -- I don't want to give the game away.  Last week, I really thought I had you with the abandoned South Works. So mum, really. Except to say ... it's not located in some obscure place, but in a well-known place. You'd know the exterior on sight. You might just not know that this revered piece of stone is there, hiding.
     Since my stock of posters is dwindling — if you want one, buy one, because once they're gone, they're gone — I'll offer the winner a copy of my 2008 (!) memoir, Drunkard. It's a grim story, as I like to tell people, but it ends well. It must be on my mind because so many of my new readers in American's beautiful Southern states have been bringing up various aspects of the book over the past few days, as a result of a burst of momentary notoriety on various right wingnut websites that I've never heard of before and will never hear of again, if I'm lucky. It's a long story and not worth recounting. Good luck, post your guesses below. 

Location guessed! Very impressive — and I'm pleased it took until noon, which meant that it was challenging but not impossible. If you want the answer where this is, click here and you can read about it. Thanks to all. I'll try to find another mildly-tough one next week. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Racism ended in U.S.! Colleges to judge only by merit


   Two college hunts. Back to back without pause. Even before our high school senior was parading around in a new T-shirt for his future alma mater, we had already begun to aid our junior’s search. Down to Urbana. Up to Milwaukee.
     I suppose some, perhaps many, parents are absentee in this process. Many parents are absentee, period. But we nudged them this far, can’t stop now. So yes, 16 campus visits and counting; 16 speeches of welcome from 16 perky administrators or student hosts. And 16 versions of the following:
     “We are looking for a dynamic, diverse student body. Tell us who you really are, your unique skills and excellence. Because some years, we need a trumpet player in the band, so we wave a few trumpet players in.”
     Last month at Marquette, a student greeter said something like, “We have students from 49 out of 50 states ...” then added, “so if you know somebody from North Dakota, tell ’em to apply.” Everyone laughed. At least I thought it was Marquette; maybe it was U of I; these things blend.
     Either way, is that fair? Should anyone who can complete a form in North Dakota trump some hard-working kid from Illinois or Missouri just to fill a hole in Marquette’s promotional graphic? Of course not. But that is how the strange, random, mysterious, unfair, unscientific, skewed, debated and complex college admissions process works.
     A system that just got stranger, more random, etc. Tuesday, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that says public colleges there can't consider race or sex when admitting students. Trumpet-playing yes, football ability, definitely.  Volunteering, yes. Scores on tests designed to reward certain kinds of smarts? Absolutely. Race and gender? No.
     Because we've all moved past that racial business and are a colorblind nation where all are free to make their own life choices, unfettered by any prejudice or lingering disadvantage. We all start from the same clean slate - it's just some chose to live in an upscale suburb like Northbrook and go to excellent Glenbrook North and study like mad and get a great education, while others prefer to be poor and live in Englewood and see their kids get shot at every weekend.
     Kidding.
     The scary thing, for me, was not so much the Supreme Court quashing affirmative action, which wasn't the ruling. What the majority ruled was worse. They said college race preference is for states to decide, individually, the same states where bigotry smolders through the decades, waiting for the smallest waft of acceptability to burst into flame. If you don't believe that, reacquaint yourself with the choking off of minority voting rights, disguised as preventing nonexistent voter fraud, that the usual suspect states—Florida, Texas, etc.—have recently adopted, because they thought they could get away with it and they were right. Nobody seems to care.
     Now those same states can make it harder for minorities and women to leverage themselves into college, the engine that feeds the middle class. These laws have real results: When California schools became race blind in 1996, the next class of incoming black freshmen fell by 57 percent.
     But that's OK because admissions are based on merit, right? Wrong, as anyone who is going through the process knows, since "merit" belongs in quotation marks. "Merit." It is a social construct, a definition, a game. What is "merit"? The best test scores? On whose test? No college takes the top test takers or top class rank. They want a mixed student body and have reason to strive for balance, especially racial balance. First, diversity reflects who we are and increasingly will be as a country; second, it extends a scarce resource—a diploma—to more groups seeking it; third, and most importantly, it creates a better learning environment for all.
     This is complicated, and I hate trying to wrap it up in fewer than 800 words. For 50 years, the Supreme Court took the lead in transforming colleges, which, left to their own devices, tended to be lily-white enclaves where upper-class kids went to polish the skills they'd need running the world. Being inclusive meant they let in a few Jews. After World War II that changed. Slowly.
     But centuries of oppression were not undone in a few years; it's foolish to pretend otherwise. Access to college is part of the long correction, and colleges will skirt the law, focusing on geography and economics, to achieve the balance they seek. What will be scary is what states cook up next, with the high court's blessing, in their endless effort to return to their beloved past.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Say hello to my new friend, Little Pete


      It was the cap, certainly. A light beige—undyed, natural fiber, so popular among the young. Gathered at top, worn low over his one cyclopic eye. 
      The hat makes the man, as they say, but it also can anthropomorphize objects. Look at Mr. Peanut. Planters was trying to address the problem that peanuts were considered food for swine, almost unfit for human consumption. Trying to solve this marketing challenge, they put a top hat on a symbolic peanut, and suddenly he was halfway to being a "Mister," with a touch of class from the silk topper thrown in as well. White gloves, a cane, the effect was complete.
     Nothing like headgear to suggest personality...
     I was trucking on the way to work one day last month when I noticed this little fellow, in his cap and matching sweater, his lone eye peeking out from behind some thin branches. 
     "Hello there," I said, trying to be friendly, groping for a name. "umm, Little Pete." A laugh—mine. Then I proceeded on my way. Frankly, I didn't give it a second thought. 
     Every day he was waiting for me, with a faithfulness I found touching in these hectic days of dissolving friendships and fleeting, on-line bonds. Strange? Of course. It is a thin line between whimsy and madness, and I like to think my taking this little aqua critter -- okay, some kind of drainage system exhaust pipe with a filter on it, to keep it from spewing sewage-- under my wing as being closer to the former than the latter, more lark than derangement. The human ability to expend sympathy toward the non-living, well, you could view it as testimony to just how big our hearts are, or more evidence of the perverseness of human nature. I march by a dozen beggars every day—their numbers building with the warm weather—averting my eyes, deaf to their pleas. But his pipe....
     More cute than crazy, I hope. I almost paused from writing this, after a few outposts in the conservative press on Wednesday grabbed something I wrote Friday, and twisted it into a pretzel then started waving it over their heads. Not wanting to pile on members of the black community who sell out to Republican politicians, I pointed out that ALL people can sell out, and sought to defuse charges of ignoring my own by mentioning Jewish collaborators during World War II. Suddenly I was saying—talk about imagination—that black Republicans were Nazi sympathizers. You'd have to be an idiot to pull that out of the actual words, but there you go. 
     Still, if they could come up with that, what would they make of old Little Pete?  But one of the few rules I have is to never write for people who hate you—bulletin: they're going to hate you anyway— and if they want to go after me for talking to a drainage pipe, well, I've been called worse, it'll be a change of pace for them, because it'll actually to be true this time. (Sadder than the conservative radio hosts, frankly, were the handful of fellow Jews who complained that by bringing up something negative in our history, I was feeding anti-Semitism, as if it were an area of scholarship where historical data were constantly being gathered and new conclusions formed. Second bulletin: it ain't. Part of being human is the right to be flawed, to look your history straight on with a clear eye; no cringing and cowering and trying to assume a pert profile for those who hate you anyway, as an article of faith).
     I do have company. Lots of legitimate--or at least accepted--social movements depend on anthropomorphism (the ascribing of human qualities to animals or objects, for right wing readers checking out the blog for the first time). The anti-abortion movement, for one, which is really just plain old religious control and oppression of women, trying to skate into the 21st century on the stretch of declaring the centimeter long unformed fetus--which, if you saw it, would look like a red grain of rice-in fact resembles the Gerber baby, the rightful recipient of their care and concern and legal protection glibly denied to the women conceiving them. Compared to that transformation, Little Pete makes perfect sense, like seeing sheep in clouds.
     Not that I'm opposed to conjuring up personalities for the non-living. I just don't want to compel others to share my view. You might not see the stout watchman I see in Little Pete; that's your right. Maybe he's a symptom of isolation, like Tom Hank's soccer ball pal, Wilson, in the movie "Castaway." Though you really should meet Little Pete in person. I'd tell you exactly where he is, so you could see him yourself. But people can be so cold—read my Twitter feed someday and you'd see that—and I worry about him coming to harm. Someone might snatch his smart little hat, and then I would find myself knitting him a new one and, glancing guiltily in both directions, slipping it over his head. "There you go, Little Pete," I'd say. "So you don't get a chill."
      Hopefully that won't happen. Hopefully, we can just continue on now before the inevitable breach occurs. We're friends now.  I look forward to him coming into view in the morning, hailing him with a smile and a hearty "Hey Little Pete!" He doesn't say anything in return. Not yet anyway.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

OK for us to pay tax, why not OK for them too?


     Back in the Gilded Age of the 1890s, the philosophy used to justify the concentration of enormous wealth among a handful of folks was: They had earned it through hard work and moral superiority. God meant for them to be rich. Poor people, on the other hand, also deserved their lot, by being inferior, lazy and prone to vice.
     Plus, there was always the Horatio Alger path, open to all. With pluck and luck, the most humble newsboy could do a good deed, catch the eye of some titan of industry, get a job at the factory, marry the boss’ daughter. Happened all the time, in fiction.
     The social Darwinism mindset hit a rock during the Progressive Era, that asked why people born on the lower rungs of society had to live such miserable existences? Would the American dream really grind to a halt if the law forbade 12-year-old girls from working in thread factories?
     Now we’re in a New Gilded Age and social Darwinism is back. The rich do very well. We all agree on the rightness of that, just in case we ever become rich. The only question is: “How well?”
     A Republican article of faith is that the rich must be allowed to earn, earn, earn with as little interference as possible, and by doing so we all somehow benefit — I guess by being hired to clean their pools. They insist that even if they are asked to do a little bit more, they’ll just huff off to some tax haven in St. Kitts. And we tend to buy that.
     Yet if you look at past eras, taxes were much higher. During the Eisenhower years, the personal income tax rate topped out at 90 percent. Yet CEOs still showed up at the corner office. Look at other countries; they tax far more than us. Combine state and federal taxes and the U.S. hits 47.6 percent. In Denmark, it’s 60 percent. And now their middle class is earning more than ours.
     Among the many people responding to a recent column of mine were former Board of Trade President Tom Donovan, who explained why he passed a law, in 1981, to prevent financial transactions in Chicago from being taxed. To alter that, he said, "You'd have to go to Springfield and change the law." That's exactly what Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, intends to do.
     House Bill 5929 creates the Financial Transaction Tax Act, which "beginning September 1, 2014, imposes a tax on the privilege of engaging in a financial transaction on any of the following exchanges or boards of trade: the Chicago Stock Exchange, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Board Options Exchange."
     "We are merely asking that people pay their fair share of taxes," Flowers told me. "Some of these people do not. As the result of them not paying their taxes after making billions and billions of dollars, the very state we're in is crumbling apart."
     The tax is $1 for commodities contracts - say soy futures—and $2 for stocks and such, with retirement funds exempted.
     The tax is also a will-o'-the-wisp that has been pursued for years at the city, state and national levels. In 2008, the tax was suggested as a natural price to pay for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. Nobody on Wall Street questioned the propriety of government aiding the financial sector; why, then, does putting the shoe on the other foot spell the end of capitalism as we know it?
     But maybe its probable failure, like that of Occupy Chicago, can have a benefit, can leave a lingering question: Is society the way it is now the only way a fair system could be structured? Flowers said most citizens are used to paying tax on the things they buy.
     "We do it every day," she said. "Every day, we pay taxes. If it's OK for us to pay taxes, it's OK for these traders to pay taxes."
     For instance: I bought my beef and broccoli lunch Tuesday. The bill included the 10.75 percent Chicago restaurant tax. I did not move to Liberia. If I can do that, I bet a trader can pay two bucks to buy 100 shares of TechDrek. I just can't believe financiers are really going to pull their kids out of the Latin School and move at the prospect of earning a little less.
     Here's what I find most interesting. Michael Lewis' new book, "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt," looks at the shadowy world of high-frequency traders—those who, with the market's collusion, carved a niche in the few milliseconds between the time a stock order is placed and when it is filled. Adding a few pennies per sale created what could be a $29 billion, largely invisible industry.
     That near-scam gets only a cluck of approval from financial sorts—noblesse oblige, I suppose. Yet direct those same pennies toward the state to keep it from collapsing and you're anti-American. I just don't get it.
    


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

At least Billy Graham never embraced Stalin

     Let's be clear.
     I wasn't sorry about the amazing progress that the United States has made regarding gay rights over the past few years.
     A triumph for human dignity, a breakthrough accomplished far sooner than most would have guessed it might possibly occur.
     But I'm also a newspaper columnist, and one thought did cross my mind, just a few days ago, while gazing at an empty screen: as welcome as it is that all decent people suddenly realized it's cruel to oppress GLBT individuals and their families based on nothing more than musty theology, that does pluck one arrow out of my quiver. Good for society; not so good for those in the opinion business.
    Okay, I know. Boo hoo, it's like a medical writer complaining, after they cure cancer, because battling the disease was so interesting.
    So I don't welcome the news that burying the issue might be a tad premature. That it's too early to tuck away the issue on the shelf of dead social questions, along with Free Silver and the 8-hour workday.
Rev. Billy Graham
Rev. Franklin Graham
    On the other hand, I'm happy to be able to point out this: No sooner did I stand, pouting, over the loss of an issue, then good old Rev. Franklin Graham, Rev. Billy Graham's son, stumbled out of his Appalachian shack (or, more likely, mansion) lets out a howl and starts blowing kisses toward ... ready, wait for it ... Vladimir Putin, who, when he isn't seizing the land of his independent neighbors and denouncing the United States, is oppressing and murdering gay people in Russia.
    In a column in the Washington Post Monday titled "Franklin Graham's detestable anti-gay statements," Jonathan Capehart shines a flashlight into the well of a Graham op-ed from the end of February, where the evangelist muses how America once "held the moral high ground," but now that has been snatched by Putin who, despite being a godless communist, at least has the moral sense to protect children from the evil designs of homosexuals posing as their parents. Graham writes:
    Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue—protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda—Russia’s standard is higher than our own?
     In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.
     "Gay agenda" is a giveaway term, like "lib," which tells you that the speaker has been driven insane by bias and partisan politics. Of course, Franklin Graham only joins a parade of Right Wing haters flocking to Putin. "The Russian president has some curious bedfellows on the fringes of European politics," the Economist wrote this week, "ranging from the creepy uniformed followers of Jobbik in Hungary to the more scrubbed-up National Front in France."
    Birds of a feather.
    Although "driven" insane might be the wrong verb to describe Franklin Graham's journey. At the risk of paraphrasing Lady Gaga, he was born this way, or at least raised this way.
      As much as I don't like to visit the sins of the father upon the son, in Franklin Graham's case, what can you really expect? If you consider the career of the Rev. Billy Graham, what comes into sharp focus is how his faith inspired him to be on the wrong side of literally every significant moral issue of his time. He sat out the civil rights protests of the 1950s, preferring to baptize Eisenhower and turn up his nose at those “addicted to sitting, squatting, demonstrating, and striking for what they want.” In 1960, he rebuffed John F. Kennedy's pleas to tell his Protestant flock that they wouldn't go to Hell if they voted for a Catholic. He linked arms with Lyndon Johnson and mocked those protesting the Vietnam War. He was Nixon's apologist and lackey all through Watergate, nodding in approval and murmuring "amen" while Tricky Dicky raged against his enemies, including "The Jews." If Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins and Sam Harris spent a month in a cabin working feverishly together, they couldn't come up with a greater indictment illustrating the ethical blindness that can go hand-in-hand with fervent religious faith than the career of Rev. Billy Graham.
     “A man in transit between epochs and value systems, he has chosen to disengage himself and distract us by shouting about the end of history,” Martin Marty wrote of Graham in the Sun-Times in 1965.
    Nearly half a century later, that sentence, true for the father, is now true for the son. With Billy Graham in his extreme age—he's 95— Franklin has picked up the baton. Barack Obama obviously won't let him come to the White House and whisper in his ear. Maybe Vladimir Putin will.
     Give Billy Graham credit for that much -- when Harry Truman banned him from the White House, at least he didn't try to make friends with Joseph Stalin. But then what son doesn't want to surpass his father? It is more his tragedy than ours that Franklin Graham has decided to rival his dad in combining moral myopia with fawning over power. Perhaps someday we'll see Franklin Graham standing before the cameras in Red Square, talking to the media about getting on his knees with Vladimir Putin. It's in his blood.

Monday, April 21, 2014

South Shore works site developer vies for Obama library


     It could almost be a lonely spot on the far Michigan shore, with the blue-gray lake and the brown grass, scattered copses, bare trees swaying in the steady breeze. The dunes maybe.
     But north, there’s the skyline of Chicago, looming like Oz, and west, a massive wall, 30 feet tall and 2,000 feet long, which held ore off-loaded from barges when this was U.S. Steel’s South Works. Once the vibrant heart of Midwest manufacturing, it is now, and for the past 20 years, both a white elephant and a tantalizing possibility.
     Nearly 600 acres — almost the size of New York’s Central Park — of prime lakefront, where East 86th Street approaches Lake Michigan. Or remote lakefront, depending on your view. For developer Dan McCaffery, this is where Chicago’s newest neighborhood is about to spring into being, anchored by Barack Obama’s presidential library.
     “It’s so beautiful,” said McCaffery, who has been working with U.S. Steel for the past decade getting the property ready for development — the South Lake Shore Drive extension that opened in October was a major step.
     The Obama library is a greased pig that many are scrambling for: the University of Chicago, in the lead, but also the University of Illinois at Chicago and, trailing behind, Chicago State. A committee of the Illinois House voted Thursday to put $100 million on the table to try to make sure the library doesn’t go to Hawaii, Obama’s home state.
     One benefit of the South Works site: There is nothing there. A velodrome — a banked bike track — somewhat improbably, and the wall, which would have to be blown up. That’s about it. The drawback: It isn’t on the city radar. Not yet.
     “Imagine this,” McCaffery said."If you were getting 1.5 million visitors a year down there. Navy Pier is our number one tourist destination. . . . Put a hydrofoil [boat] station at Navy Pier, and a hydrofoil station right in front of the library, walk up these grand stairs."
     Which raises the question of how many visitors an Obama library would draw. The Lincoln library in Springfield, a Disney-esque attraction built around our most beloved president, pulls in 315,000 visitors a year. Reagan does a little better. But Nixon only draws 90,000. That isn't as many visitors as hit Wrigleyville on any summer weekend. I could see the library kick-starting a vibrant new neighborhood. Or I could see it perched by itself on a lonely, windblown promontory.
     This is an area where I'm a notoriously bad judge. I remember walking along Navy Pier, back when it was a debris-strewn ruin, and thinking, "What kind of idiots are wasting their money by trying to turn this remote stretch of nowhere into some kind of pleasure dome? Nobody is going to want to come out here."
     Most popular tourist attraction in the state — nearly 9 million visitors, about twice as many as second-place Millennium Park.
     McCaffery is pushing the site to "whoever will listen," and is placing a formal proposal when requests are due June 16.
     "It is an area of town that is 2 miles from Michelle's house, 4 miles from his current house," McCaffery said. "A mile from where he was a community organizer."
     Fair enough. But what if history judges Obama as closer to Nixon than Lincoln?
     "His library, I'm quite confident, is going to be a longtime draw," he said. "It is no small thing that this is the first man of color to be the president of the United States."
     He's a lot more than that. Between health care, eliminating Osama bin Laden and ending two wars, Obama's museum will have a lot of exciting stuff in it, and if every Chicago public school kid visits once a year, that's 400,000 visitors right there. You can almost squint and see the buses lining up.

   But is this the place? "Far" is relative. I kept thinking of the Wrigley Building. It isn't an accident that it is gleaming white, glazed terra cotta, lit at night with flood lamps. That was done because, when it was built in 1921, there were no office buildings north of the river. Michigan Avenue had recently been Pine Street, a seedy area of warehouses and factories. The Wrigley Building was designed to catch people's attention, to lure them across the river. It had a restaurant and a bank so tenants could have services nearby. It worked. The city grew around it. That could happen here too.
     "To me, this is more than a site," McCaffery said. "This is an opportunity for a new city, that espouses all of the things he has spoken about during his presidency."
     A daring, future-oriented move that some would immediately condemn as folly. That hasn't stopped Obama in the past. I took a good look around and tried to imagine the library, the townhouses, the neighborhood. Stranger things have happened in Chicago.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Chicagopedia returns! Ballon frame, goo-goo, Chicagoland and more.

The Sun-Times decided to revive Chicagopedia, an occasional definition of words and phrases of particular interest to Chicagoans. I kicked in four for the debut (click on the link to read my take on "Chicagoland"), including the one below, and plan to write a new one every week. I hope they're half as fun to read as they are to write. 

Editor's note: the paper's link is down, and the entries aren't on Nexis, so we'll have to settle for this one. Apologies.




balloon frame: (BAH-loon frehm) adj.
A technique of constructing buildings using a light lattice of sawed timbers, typically two-by-fours, as opposed to heavier posts and beams found in European mortise and tenon construction. Pioneered in Chicago in the early 1830s by carpenter Augustine Deodat Taylor. Detractors coined the “balloon” name in derision, suggesting light construction would make them blow away in the first strong wind. And they were so easy to take apart, they were nearly portable: an early balloon frame building, the city’s first Catholic church (St. Mary’s Church), at State and Lake, was taken down and relocated three times in 10 years to follow its shifting congregation. The technique allowed homes to be built far faster and cheaper than before, permitting the rapid growth of the city, and they spread quickly, not only across the city, but also the world. Today, three-quarters of the homes built in the United States are made of balloon frame construction, and the method is one of Chicago’s greatest contributions to modern life, though few realize it. – Neil Steinberg



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday fun: Where IS this?


     As soon as I stepped into this singular space I thought, "Maybe this will stump them." 
     Not too many clues. We are in Chicago. The structure I'm in is 30 feet tall and 2,000 feet long. It's part of something even larger, or was. You're certainly heard of it, but probably never been there. Few people have, lately. Otherwise, I'll tell you more about it after someone guesses the right answer.
     Or doesn't.
     Where is this? As always, the winner receives one of the ever-dwindling stock of this blog's way-cool, ultra-collectible-someday-perhaps poster. Post your guesses in the comments section below. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting support the old-fashioned way: buying it.


     "The machine,” political guru Don Rose said, years ago, “could get 30 percent of the black votes for George Wallace over Martin Luther King.”
     Though we don’t have to raise hypotheticals. When the actual Dr. King actually did bring his open occupancy marches to Chicago, there was no shortage of black aldermen willing to rise in City Council and denounce King as an unwelcome outsider, their strings pulled by Richard J. Daley.
     Let me be clear: As a general rule, individuals will sell out the interests of their groups in return for personal benefit. It isn’t just a black thing. Jews collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, helping them to round up their own people in the hopes they’d be the last to go. The Republican Party will deny global warming until the ocean laps at Pittsburgh simply because doing something about it crosses the immediate profit of the coal burners and oil companies and carbon spouters who write the checks. No tobacco company has any trouble finding people who, at a hefty salary, stare into the camera and say no, all that lung cancer stuff is just fiction.
     Still, knowing this, I had to smile, broadly at Mike Sneed’s item Thursday on Hermene Hartman, publisher of an obscure Chicago African-American periodical, N’DIGO, who pocketed $51,000 of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s bottomless pail of money and then decided, my God, he’s the man to back, the billionaire with a heart of gold that beats in time to the hopes of the black community. She wrote a lengthy tribute to Rauner’s “fresh approaches,” never mentioning the money she pocketed.
     That’s not a “fresh approach.” That’s the oldest, stalest, machine, buy ’em-a-beer-and-get-’em-to-the-polls approach.
     Though before I get down to the business of mocking Hartman, I should admit my own bias. Not monetary, but emotional. I'm the guy who, in 2011, wrote a column making fun of Hartman for running a poll that, she claimed, showed Carol Moseley Braun would beat Rahm Emanuel. The poll was conducted among readers of her paper—African-American women, mostly— and while 27 percent did pick Braun, 23 percent chose Emanuel. To me, that clearly meant not eventual victory for Braun, but that Emanuel was taking nearly a quarter of black women, and he was going to crush her.
     In doing so, I also took a few choice shots at the local black leadership, which dithered about a "consensus candidate" and pointed out, with respect, that Harold Washington hadn't actually accomplished much as mayor (two readers argued this, citing sidewalks he put in front of their homes).
     Hartman's minions picketed the paper. You can see the video online. Protesters, with signs, demanded that I be fired as a racist, for pointing out the truth.
     Were this mere personal payback, I hope I'd manage to resist. But there is the larger issue here, of Rauner buying not just Hartman but a community. Lots of ministers with roofs to repair. I'd like to hear from any black Illinoisan—who's not in Rauner's direct employ—who thinks that arrogant rich guy is the man to run the state. And yes, Rev. Meeks, letting him jet you to his Montana ranch for a fly-fishing weekend, wine and dine and flatter and promise God knows what, counts as employ, though Hartman cut a better deal. Bad enough to sell out; worse to sell out for scraps. (Asked by Mark Brown about how he met Rauner, Meeks laughed and said, "When I saw how much money he was worth, I said, 'Sure, let the guy come on.' ")
    And come on Rauner has, checks flying.
     Will it work? That all depends. As much as people like to be bought, they still chafe at seeing their leaders bought. I don't think Rauner has raised himself so much as brought Hartman low, or lower, which I would not have thought possible.
     Gov. Pat Quinn has flaws. He's sleepy and shambolic, buffeted trying to keep the state together. But say what you will of him, he doesn't have to buy friends. Rauner is going to run TV ads until your eyes shrivel, saying how being rich, having no experience in government, he's the man to lead us. He's saying we should trust him. But I don't trust him. Then again, I haven't been paid $51,000 by his campaign - please don't offer; I couldn't take it. My boss would get mad.
     Here. I'll give Hartman more sympathy than she ever gave me: She's trying to save that rag of a paper, made a deal with the devil and is ashamed to admit it. I would be, too. Not much help for $51,000. Which leads here: If Rauner is willing to throw his own money away like this, what's he going to do when he gets his hands on ours?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A surprise arrival at this year's Seder: not Elijah, but the Palestinians


     Religion is supposed to impose hardships and obligations. That’s the whole point.  Fulfilling them, you earn your spot on the team. It’s a kind of hazing.
     Thus I look at puzzlement at those who rip through their Seders in an hour. Why not dye Easter eggs while you’re at it? What’s the rush? My kin do the full, six-hour, sail-past-midnight, 14-point, Kiddush-to-conclusion Passover meal, with frequent pauses for questions and comments and readings.
     At the Seder, we tell of Exodus, the flight from Egypt. Thus much about freedom from biblical bondage and from smaller, modern slaveries. Monday we ceremoniously shut off our cellphones. I read Shelley’s ode to the futility of ego, “Ozymandias,” whose shattered pharaoh’s “sneer of cold command” surveys the empty sands. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
     So not just our Egyptian slavery, but slavery in its many forms. My wife read the Emancipation Proclamation, and we spoke about the lingering pernicious influence of black slavery. Native Americans got their due. Other ostracized groups too; women were mentioned. An orange on the Seder plate, used to symbolize the inclusion of women, now is applied to gays and lesbians. We don’t confine our left leaning to pillows.
     One by one, suffering groups were named. Slowly, something began to dawn on me.
     It jelled during the answer to the Four Questions: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Now if God had not brought out our forefathers from Egypt, then even we, our children, and our children's children, might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt."
     Hmm. "Our children and our children's children." That made me think of a particular group not being drawn under the blanket of liberal Jewish goodwill toward everyone oppressed. I sucked my front teeth and pondered. Just my loving family here. No risk. And yet. Should I? Nobody likes someone siding with the enemy. The day before, two Jewish centers in Kansas were shot up; we sympathized with those victims, too, even though they weren't Jewish. Big-hearted people, embattled people, that's us.
     At one point in the Seder, you flick a few drops out of your wine glass to symbolize, among other things, the suffering of the Egyptians, perishing so we could be free.
     "You know, " I finally announced, "we don't have to go back to biblical times to find people suffering so we can be free. Metaphors are imperfect, and they certainly aren't slaves. But as I'm reading this, all the 'stranger in a land not their own' business, I can't help but think of the Palestinians."
     Silence. Everybody looked at me. I pushed onward. "The question I always ask is: 'What's going to happen next?' Because both sides get lost rehashing history. I'm not saying to put a bowl of chickpeas on the Seder plate to represent the Palestinians. But why not mention them? This is about freedom, and Israel is being pushed, however unwillingly, into the Pharaoh role. The world increasingly sees them as Pharaoh, and not without justification. That's bad. We need to do all we can so Israel doesn't become Pharaoh." Or words to that effect.
     Is that bad? What's the point of being Jewish? To eat matzo balls and spend six hours — or 60 minutes — conducting a ritual meal, pausing to recount what a raw deal we had in Egypt 3,000 years ago? And how great it is for us to be free now and how we care so deeply about the freedom of every marginal group on the planet except for the one we have a hand in oppressing, since doing so would question our loyalty to the spunky little nation we so love that has done us proud, the past decade notwithstanding?
     Three choices: The 4.5 million Palestinians either, a) form their own state, b) remain captive in an expanding Jewish state, or c) are assimilated and the state isn't Jewish anymore. The first option is best —75 percent of Israelis support it. The second is the status quo and untenable over time. The third is bad only if being Jewish means something beyond representing just another flavor of self-interest.
     I thought Jews were supposed to stand for something more. I thought, having suffered, we are attuned to suffering. That having been slaves, we should then be reluctant pharaohs. If nothing happens, the problem will be handed to our children and our children's children. Not to minimize the difficulty, but Exodus was easy in comparison. There God helped. This he has left to us. Something to think about while nibbling your matzo this week: If Jews are so smart, why can't we figure this out?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Flight 370 and Samuel Johnson: The Untold Connection

     Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ... is ... umm ... still missing. 
     That said, I ... ah ... wanted to add that its disappearance is an ... umm ... hugely significant cultural moment. 
    Oh wait, my pal, Gene Weingarten, over at the Washington Post, put it best, in an email chiding me for under-appreciating the news value of the plane's disappearance: "I hunger for the story...this is a world-class, possibly never seen before, amp set to 11, bona fide mystery."
    I think that too! Err, now  I mean. I think that now.
    Sigh.
    No I don't. 
    I believe we project our desire for order, for wonder, for elaborate, clever artifice, on sketchy, poorly-understood events, so we can entertain ourselves with the amazing possibilities while the banal truth remains hidden. If I had to bet the ranch on what happened to Flight 370, I would guess the wing fell off. Or something overheated and blew up. Or a pilot spilled his Coke on the controls. We'll probably never know.
     Which I would never even bother to say, here, now.
     So why am I writing about this a second day?
     Well, you see....
     It's like this....
     I happily posted my column here Tuesday on CNN leaping from news coverage into performance art regarding the missing plane, all for a bump in ratings.
     "They're creating a little Theater of Exaggeration, trying to fool us," I wrote, of CNN's constant panting updates about what turns out to be nothing.
     Then Tuesday morning, I glanced at my stats, as I always do. Yowza! Through the roof. Twice what I get on a typical morning.  Fifty people retweeted. My very first, unfiltered thought was: "Geez, I should hit this again."
      Grin of embarrassment. 
      I wonder how many journalists, myself included, if we were suddenly in CNN's position, would do what CNN has done? (I like to think that, even if I did decide to pander, I'd pander more artfully than that. Self-awareness, and reluctance, I hope, balms the sting of today's pandering. Bad enough to be a whore, but to be a desperate, delusional whore...)
     But this is a business. And you have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. If people really want tripe...
     No, no, no. I didn't write that! We can't conclude there. Hypocrisy is a bad thing. Being a hypocrite because it pays is worse. 
    Or is it? There can be a fine line between hypocrisy and ... ah ... flexibility. 
    My hero, Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, produced his namesake dictionary in 1755.  It made him famous but not rich -- that next year, he was arrested for a £5 debt (which, admittedly, was a lot more 250 years ago than today). 
     In 1762, King George III granted him a lifetime pension of £300 a year, which would allow Johnson to pay off his debts and live comfortably, even well. But first he had to get around one uncomfortable point. In his dictionary, he famously defined "pension" thus: "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." 
     He was naturally torn, not only by the stench of hypocrisy, but by the idea that he was being bought off by a government he had criticized. He quizzed his friends. "Certainly the definitions in his Dictionary were not applicable to him," Joshua Reynolds replied. "It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done," said Lord Bute, who had lobbied the king on Johnson's behalf.
    Johnson took the pension. 
    His enemies of course gleefully mocked him, but they were doing that at every opportunity anyway. Johnson later said he wished the pension had been twice as much, so his critics could make "twice as much noise."
     So tomorrow, whatever the ratings, I shift away from Flight 370. It's the right thing to do. And there's no money at stake. That helps.