Trust no one!

Paranormal conspiracy theorists and science fictions fans from Area 54 to Roswell will recognize my title as the motto of FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, whose whimsical escapades have returned to television.

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On a less amusing note, it’s the American attitude toward virtually all institutions, according to journalist, Jeff Greenfield, whose essay,”In Nothing We Trust,” aired on the PBS Newshour on Friday, February 5.

Greenfield cites a recent Pew Research poll showing that Americans mistrust most institutions; only 19% of us trust the government to do “what is right most or all of the time.”

In 1964, with a strong economy, the passage of the Civil Rights bill, and an easing of the cold war, the number was 77%. Ten years later, after a decade of war in Viet Nam and a scandal that drove a president from office, the number was 36%, and it has never topped 50% again.

It isn’t just our government, according to Greenfield. We don’t trust churches. Labor Unions. Banks. Large corporations.  Medicine. Greenfield notes, in his TV news segment, that only 21% of us have “a lot of faith” in TV news.

In great measure, says Greenfield, there are good reasons to mistrust these institutions. Think of the movie, Spotlight. The government of Michigan and the City of Flint.  Yesterday’s congressional hearings on 5000% price hikes in the pharmaceutical industry.

In a similar editorial, I once heard a journalist say that the first act of colonial governments was an attempt to discredit all the institutions of the colonized people; “obviously your god, your army, your government are not as good as ours or we wouldn’t be here.” We may be, said the journalist, the first nation in the history of the world to have colonized itself!

Our pervasive mistrust, according to Jeff Greenfield, makes things especially difficult, in a political year, for those seeking to gain the public trust. It may, in fact, reward those who fan the flames of discontent.

But how, he asks, can a republic long survive when it’s motto is, “In nothing we trust?”

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R.I.P. Professor Snape

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Creative Commons

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Creative Commons

We’ve lost another British luminary to cancer at the too-young age of 69.

Alan Rickman, whom Harry Potter fans remember as the tortured and acerbic Professor of Potions, is gone.  Tributes have poured into social media sites from those who knew and worked with him.

Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry, wrote “As an actor he was one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child.”

J.K. Rowling offered a tribute, and Emma Watson, who played Hermione said,“I’m very sad to hear about Alan today. I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor. I’ll really miss our conversations. RIP Alan. We love you.”

That about says it all.

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The 2015 Pinocchio Awards

pinocchio

The Washington Post released it’s annual Pinocchio Awards for the year’s biggest falsehoods. To no one’s surprise, the 2015 winners are all involved in politics. No one gets to feel smug; all parties and political persuasions were represented.

I’m sure lying politicians are as old as politics. What was disheartening this year was the blatancy of the lies. Fifty one years ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” In 2015 we may have seen the ultimate corollary of that:  if you say it on TV with enough bravado, swagger, or apparent sincerity, some or many will believe you, regardless of facts. We, as a culture, prefer easy answers to truth.

Here are the winners:

Donald Trump for false and repeated assertion that he saw thousands of Muslims on TV celebrating the fall of the twin towers. Only in Trump’s fevered imagination did such an event play out.

Hillary Clinton for her defense of her husband’s signing of the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” with an assertion that it headed off an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. There may have been talk, but there was no momentum for such an amendment.

Donald Trump for his claims that immigrants commit more crimes than American citizens. While some on this list have cherry-picked their statistics, Donald apparently never looks at statistics at all.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) for saying in June that there have been 128 school shootings since Sandy Hook. His stats came from an anti-gun violence advocacy group with a flawed methodology that included suicides and accidents in the numbers.

Donald Trump for his claim that Obama wants to admit 250,000 Syrian refuges to the US. The number is 10,000 Syrians, and the US maximum figure for all refugees is 180,000 over the next two years.

"Freedom of Speech," 1943. In Norman Rockwell's America, truth and respect for all viewpoints mattered

“Freedom of Speech,” 1943. In Norman Rockwell’s America, truth and respect for all viewpoints mattered

John Kerry for claiming he and Al Gore organized the 1988 Senate hearings on climate change. He was not even there.

Mike Huckabee for stating that “global freezing” was a serious concern 40 years ago.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren ( D-Mass ) for proposed regulations for car dealership loans based on “wildly” exaggerated statistics.

Rudolph Giuliani, former NY City Mayor, for saying Obama has never called America a great or exceptional country. Apparently Mr. Guiliani has never listened to an Obama speech.

President Obama for “dubious” claims about the Keystone pipeline.

Sen Rand Paul (R-Ky) for claiming an elderly man was in prison for “putting dirt on his land,” when in fact he was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and environmental violations such as selling land with illegal sewage systems that were likely to fail.

Democratic legislators: On the house floor, staged a demonstration of solidarity with a black youth, shot by a white police officer in an incident that various investigations determined was legitimate self-defense.

Sex Trafficking Statistics:  “There are not 300,000 thousand children at risk in the US, nor  100,000 children in the sex trade, nor is human trafficking a 9.5 billion dollar business, nor do girls become victims at an average age of 13, nor has the government arrested hundreds of perpetrators.”  All of these were claims made by “politicians, advocacy groups, and government officials” in 2015.

I’d love to feel smug and wag my finger at the politicos, but I can’t.  To paraphrase the Master whose birth we celebrated yesterday, “Let he who lives without falsehood cast the first aspersion.”

Politicians behave like this because it works for them, it gets them elected and reelected. For that, We the People are responsible.  We can do better than this…

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Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens

It’s like coming home 30 years later.

Minor spoilers – nothing you won’t see in other reviews.

The Empire is gone, but the First Order has risen to menace those who would live free. A young woman named Rey lives as a scavenger on a barren planet, waiting for her family, taken by First Order when she was a child, to return.  She has little else to live for until a mysterious droid, bearing a critical message for the Resistance, appears in the desert, followed closely by Finn, a First Order defector, with storm troopers hot on his heels. The pair make a narrow escape on the Millennial Falcon, which had been sold for scrap.

Sound familiar?  It is, down to such elements as a bad-ass intergalactic bar and a woman of Yoda’s race, but it works, for the faces and circumstances are fresh, and the story of young people waking up to their courage never grows old.

And there is plenty for those old enough to have seen the original Star Wars in theaters. Leia and Han have split up, and the latter is back with Chewie in his familiar role as a rogue, sought by intergalactic bad guys for non-payment of funds. Necessity calls him back to the aid of the Resistance, however.

The Death Star is gone but a new, bigger and badder planet-killing weapon threatens all that is good.  Vader is gone, but Kylo Ren, son of a pair we know and love, has gone to the dark side and wears a mask.  The battle is joined. Rey and Finn team up to battle Kylo, but this is only the start of their fight.

In the end it is Rey who finds Luke, last of the Jedi, in exile and brings him the message, “You are needed.”

To be continued:  serious cheers for that!

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The Big Lie

“The great masses will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one” – Adolf Hitler

I crossed the green mountain / I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head / I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up / Out of the sea
Swept through the land of / The rich and the free” – Bob Dylan

In their wildest dreams, demagogues of the past never imagined how easy television and social media would make it to use lies as means of persuasion. We can all quote our favorite absurdities from the political arena, but no one relies on the power of falsehood more effectively than the current Republican front runner and former star of a type of television that large numbers of people mistake for “reality.” The efforts of so called “fact checkers” are doomed from the start; studies have repeatedly shown that rational argument is the least effective means of persuading anyone of anything.

The lie that prompted me to write this post hasn’t yet caught media attention, but it’s one we’re likely to hear quoted more frequently as the election circus continues.

It goes like this:  “China is stealing our jobs.” The reality is, “Corporations are offshoring them for profit.”

A decade ago, when I worked at the Intel campus in Folsom, I took a half hour walk every day on my lunch hour. When it was too hot or cold or rainy, I’d walk inside, through through seven interconnected buildings, up one flight of stairs, down another, and so on. One day I noticed that an entire floor in one of the four story buildings was empty. “What happened?” I asked a manager. “Those jobs have moved to Shanghai,” he said.

I’ve had relatives and friends in different industries compelled to train their Asian replacements in order to get a severance package. A decade later it’s still going on. Beware of any politician with “a plan to create jobs” or who blames illegals from Mexico for out-of-work software developers.

This is old news. I’ve already discussed it in 2013, in a review of The Unwinding by George Packer, an account of the dissolution of the bonds of mutual loyalty that once seemed an integral part of corporate life in America. I mention it now because one of the friends with whom I ate Thanksgiving dinner this year recently saw his job move to India after a buyout.

My hero in this is a 40 something software developer named Bob who outsourced his own job to Shanghai. Working through an outsourcing company, he paid his Chinese counterpart one-sixth of his salary, spent his days surfing the web, especially cat videos, and occasionally introduced errors into the near-perfect code he received, lest his employer, Verizon, get suspicious.

When the story broke, a Verizon spokesperson simply said “Bob no longer works here.”  Too bad – he’d be a great fit in upper management.

“You can take my soul, but not my lack of enthusiasm!” – Wally, in Dilbert.

 

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Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

Drinking in America

The Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower were headed toward Virginia, where they had a land grant from King James.  Instead, they landed illegally in Massachusetts because they were running out of beer.  So says historian, Susan Cheever in her just-released Drinking in America: Our Secret History.  Cheever, a sober alcoholic, documents the pendulum swings of our national love-hate relationship with alcohol as she explores an important but little-known aspect of our past.

Alchohol was a factor at critical turning points in American history.  It is likely that the shot heard round the world was fired by one of the seventy militiamen awakened by Paul Revere, who passed the time while waiting three hours for British troops at the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green.

According to Cheever, for all the volumes written on the civil war, no one has documented the considerable effect of alcohol on this conflict.  General George McClellan wrote, in February, 1862, “No one evil so much obstructs this army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness.”  McClellan, who did not drink, was relieved of command for indecisiveness in battle – or sanity, as Cheever suggests, while “His colleagues who succeeded on the battlefield – Grant, Meager, and Hooker, for example – were drinkers whose performance was often affected by their whiskey intake.” 

Most who have studied the war know about Grant, but not as many realize that because of the riotous condition of his camps, some credited General Hooker for lending his name as an epithet for prostitute.  General Thomas Meager fell off his horse while drunk as he led his troops into action at Antietam.  He drowned in 1867, after drunkenly falling off a riverboat in Montana.

Grant managed to sober up before his election as president, while Richard Nixon is revealed as an angry blackout drinker whom National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had to protect from his own drunken rages.  They “danced around the president’s homicidal, drunken orders to bomb the shit out of this or nuke the shit out of that – orders usually not even remembered the next morning.  ‘If the president had his way,’ Kissinger told his aides, ‘there would be a nuclear war each week.‘”

Cheever’s survey not only covers political and military history, for drinking plays a part in our folklore and arts as well. John Chapman, aka, Johnny Appleseed, did not tramp around the countryside planting apples for pies, but for cider, and five of the seven 20th century American writers who won the nobel prize – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck – were alcoholics. That there is no inherent connection between writing and alchohol is shown by a similar list of 19th century literary greats who did not drink to excess: “Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, the Alcotts, and…Whitman.”

This underscores the paradox of the poles in our cultural history:  “temperance and intemperance, drinking and abstinence, liquor and sobriety, addiction and recovery.  Our country has been, at times, the drunkest country in the world; our country has been, at times, one of the least drunk countries in the world.”

As she sums up the “objective” view of modern historical authors, Susan Cheever notes that the “broad, dispassionate view,” often misses the “moments that make up our lives.” One of those things often missed by American historians is the effect of drinking on our history and national character.

“What is history?: a way to sift through the past in an effort to comprehend the world we live in; a way to understand ourselves; a way to make meaning of our lives by finding meaning in the past. How can we do that without acknowledging something many of us do every day, the thing that we use to punctuate our lives in celebrations and in sadness; how can we do it without acknowledging that glass of wine or whiskey neat or dry martini that has been such a powerful and invisible part of our life as a nation?”

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American Tragedy of Greek Proportions?

The word, “tragedy,” is one of those words, like “awesome” that overuse has drained of meaning. It parallels the way overload has numbed us to the realities behind the headlines, so that our horror, just three years ago, over Sandy Hook has become a shake of the head and a, “Shit, not again,” as we grab our busy morning coffee. And maybe look over our shoulder at the sound of a backfire. And even listen to morons who say, “This is a hunting state,” as if that has anything to do with anything.

Yes, when I lived in Oregon, not far from Roseburg, you would sometimes see cows in the outlying fields, with COW written in big red letters during hunting season, by farmers who had no great trust in the wisdom of “hunters.” But that is another story.

To once more quote the great Walt Kelly, and Pogo, his voice, “We has met the enemy and he is us.”

ipledgeafallegiance

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14th, 2012 over 80,000 people in the US have been shot dead. There have been more than 140 school shootings over that span of time, and more mass shootings this year (298) than there have been days on the calendar (293).

There have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths since 1968, compared to 1,396,733 cumulative war deaths since the American Revolution. That’s 120,130 more U.S. gun deaths than U.S. war deaths. And that’s including the use of the most generous estimate of Civil War deaths, the largest contributor to American war deaths.

And even though homicides represent a minority of all gun related deaths, with suicides comprising the biggest share, that’s still a lot of people shot and killed with guns. According to CDC data, 63 percent of gun-related deaths were from suicides, 33 percent were from homicides, and roughly 1 percent each…

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Happy 90th Anniversary to…

…the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, founded October 31, 1925.

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Here’s some info from the brochure at the celebration lunch last Saturday:

“Club history lore is that the founding of the California Writer’s Club emerged in part from picnics and companionship of Jack London and his writing friends up in the Oakland Hills, home of Joaquin Miller…”

Miller was a celebrated poet at the time.

“In 1909, those informal outdoor  salons (‘a blanket’ and a basket of chow’) evolved into the CWC.”

The Sacramento Branch was the first of a number of branches founded throughout the state.  CWC President, David George, presented us with a new charter, as the original one was long lost. Margie Yee Webb, our branch president, showed an archival print of the founding Sacramento members – the men in suits and tuxes, the women in dresses and evening gowns.  In those early days, they met for dinner and discussion, then adjourned to someone’s house for more conversation and drinking.

CWC old

The schedules, conventions, and mythologies of writer’s and poets have changed over the last 90 years; now we meet for breakfast or lunch, usually in jeans, and coffee is the libation of choice.

Jack London – who once worked as an oyster pirate and was jailed for a month for vagrancy – was the first creative artist, in any medium, to earn a million dollars from his work. One of my early blogging efforts, posted five years ago this month, was the account of a trip to Jack London State Park. I recommend a visit to all who enjoy his work.

The final presentation of the day was by literary agent, Laurie McLean, of the Fuse Literary Agency, who discussed why no writer needs an agent on the road to publication anymore. She also discussed those things an agent can do for us.

The gist of her talk was that we are only witnessing the start of the new forms of storytelling digital media will enable. She cited one example, popular in Japan, of serialized novels for cell phone apps that one can purchase 2,000 words at a time – a 21st century version of the way Conan-Doyle released Sherlock Holmes, a chapter at a time, in The Strand.

“What and who are you writing for?” Laurie asked.  If we need the assurance that comes from acceptance by a traditional publisher, then we need to play the traditional game, but if our goal to get our story into the hands of readers, then new, more direct avenues are opening all the time.

Despite Jack London’s success as a writer,  one of his greatest legacies may be the California Writers Club. It has nourished writers all over the state for the last 90 years, and hopefully will be here at the century’s end, encouraging those who have not been born yet, who will work in media that have not yet been invented.

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