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An oasis for readers, writers, and thinkers
Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?
|Posted on November 10, 2018 at 10:34 AM||comments ()|
In the early days when he was managing the "Amazon' Mets," Casey Stengel reportedly said, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Looking at the avoidable problems which have surfaced with the midterm elections, that frustrated outburst makes sense to me.
Take my native state of Florida. In 2000, a poorly designed ballot may have been the straw the broke the electoral camel's back and helped place George W. Bush in the White House. The outcome, you will recall, was decided by the Supreme Court. Even taking that as an acceptable outcome, one would think that the elected leadership in the Sunshine State would have pushed through reforms to ensure that future elections didn't become needless fiascos. Apparently, not so. The ongoing joust over vote counting in the races for Senator and Governor makes it clear that it was a missed opportunity. In effect, the state has allowed each county to run elections in a semi-autonomous fashion. For statewide positions, this may not be a wise policy.
In the wake of 2000, Republican spokesmen reminded us that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, elects the President. Yet in a democratic republic, divergences between the EC and the popular vote should be rare exceptions. Consider 2004: John Kerry failed to carry Ohio by about 115,000 votes (if memory serves). If he had, he would've gotten the Buckeye State's electoral votes and would have become President, despite losing the popular vote by a much larger margin than George W. Bush did in 2000.
I haven't even gotten to Georgia, where five generations of my ancestors are buried. It is unacceptable for an elected official to (as Brian Kemp did) stay in a position where he could directly influence the rigor and honesty with which the election for governor was conducted. I don't know who the people of Georgia picked to lead their state over the next four years. I do know that this is not how it should be done.
In my years at the Savannah River Site, we operated under a management system known as "Conduct of Operations." One of the basic principles of "Conduct" is "Don't accept the unacceptable." In a deeply divided nation, the least we can do is to make certain that our conduct of elections does not accept the unacceptable.
That's my two cents' worth.
A question of values
|Posted on June 29, 2017 at 7:01 AM||comments ()|
In one of life's many ironies, I wound up having a conversation last week with a hospice doctor. The irony lies in the fact that Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my nearly-complete next book, has a hospice doctor as protagonist. He listened with interest to what I told him about the plot and offered some suggestions about "how hospice doctors think." This was a bit of serendipity, as I wasn't there to do research or discuss writing issues. I was there to get shaken up, an expectation that was rewarded.
During our conversation, light poured in through towering windows in a hotel ballroom. The setting: Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada range, just a few miles from Lake Tahoe. The occasion: 2017 Carter Center Weekend. For those who don't know, this is a very popular vacation spot for folks from California and Nevada and the resorts were packed with travelers who were there for the hiking, kayaking, snowboarding and skiing (in late June!). The natural beauty of this area is stunning, which can foster a feeling of tranquility, or perhaps awe. It also breeds a sense of tranquility. At such a place, we stand in awe of wonders that exceed the mightiest works of human hands.
There was tranquility, but also concern. Every year, The Carter Center holds a five-day gathering for donors of both money and professional services. We were among the minority of first-timers; the room was packed with those who've made this event a centerpiece of their travel plans. It might seem odd, therefore, that one of the unspoken purposes of the weekend was to shake us up. In his post-presidential life, Jimmy Carter has poured his energies into a variety of good works, focusing primarily in the areas of peacemaking, promoting free elections, and combatting disease. The presentations yanked us out of the affluent trappings of a mountain resort and transported us to distant lands – Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Guatemala – where The Carter Center has active local organizations battling diseases most of us have never heard of: Guinea worm disease, river blindness, trachoma. These were sobering reminders of how many people still live in conditions most of us would consider primitive.
It's part of the American approach to combat disease by attacking it with massive technological resources. The Carter Center has found that, in societies where poverty prevents the deployment of such resources, relatively simple measures can go a long way. The discussion of battling trachoma, a fly-borne parasitic ailment that can cause both intense pain and total loss of sight, noted with gratitude that pharmaceutical manufacturers have donated hundreds of thousands of doses of antibiotics to fight this malady. At the same time, teams of physician volunteers train local doctors in surgical techniques to prevent blindness and other volunteers dig latrines in places where there have never been sanitation systems.
Occasions like this can cause one to think long and hard about one's values. I'm still wrestling with what I can do, and whether my values are in the right place.
The things we remember
|Posted on July 1, 2016 at 3:06 PM||comments ()|
It's probably inevitable, given the fact that we are in the midst of the centennial of World War I, that a number of highlights or lowlights of that epic slaughter get special mention. Today, at the midpoint of 2016, Europe observes the 100th anniversary of the First Day at the Somme.
In a war that saw many days of horror, July 1 is particularly infamous in the English-speaking world. Two hundred thousand men from Britain and the British Empire went over the top. Sixty thousand of them were struck down; over nineteen thousand of them were dead or missing. Casualties were especially heavy among men from Ulster and Newfoundland. In both those places, this day has a special bitterness.
By nightfall on July 1, it was becoming apparent to even the most diehard believers in victory that its cost might be more than modern nations could tolerate. Yet that was only the First Day. Before the battle of the Somme dragged to its ghastly conclusion, the British had lost over six hundred thousand men; Germany lost around four hundred fifty thousand. All the devil's tools which the Industrial Revolution had created - barbed wire, poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery - contributed to the death of the belief that human progress was foreordained (at least in the western world).
One reason why this date has a fascination for me is that it provides another example of Six Degrees of Separation. An English farmer named Martin Middlebrook was so moved by a visit to the military cemeteries from World War I that he wrote a book, First Day at the Somme, which captured the stories of hundreds of men whose youth died on that battlefield. Some years later, he came to the United States to interview flyers who had participated in the massive bombings that destroyed Hamburg in July, 1943. One of the men he interviewed was my father, whose story is told in The Battle of Hamburg. To the end of his life, Dad remembered the time he spent with a foreigner who came a long way to hear his story.
I tell my students, "History isn't something far off. It's all around us." World War I was enormously consequential for the world, with its destruction of empires, its battles, revolutions, and epidemics. Because it was fought far from our shores, few of us Americans have or have ever had a living connection to July 1, 1916. The unending sequence of ironies that the flow of history drags along with it, though, spins a web of connections that, over time, will entangle even those a long way from major events. On that very same day, a young Army lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower married Mary Geneva Doud, their happiness unclouded by the horrors of a few hours earlier. Of course, decades later, that same young lieutenant commanded millions of Americans, British, Canadians, French, and Poles in desperate battles fought not far from the Somme.
Who knows what historians will say about us a hundred years from today? Perhaps it's better that we can't know. Foreknowledge might drive us all insane.
|Posted on June 28, 2016 at 2:17 PM||comments ()|
I will confess: I didn't see it coming. Of course, I'm referring to the vote in favor of Brexit. To my American eyes, it seems like a raspberry toward the outside world, a world that had come to seem heedless of English wishes.
Therein lies the problem: The pro-Brexit vote was drawn heavily from England outside Greater London. Londoners voted to stay in the EU, as did residents of Scotland and Northern Ireland. There have already been rumbles in the latter two regions about a possible breakaway from the United Kingdom.
True to form, Donald Trump managed to start a visit to Scotland on the wrong foot. While it may seem scandalous, Americans putting their feet in their mouths abroad is nothing unusual. This is largely because those who come to the U.S. are much likelier to have learned something about the U.S., whereas many Americans don't feel the need to return the favor for their foreign travels. Since both my wife and I have resided abroad (at different times), we both wince the different ways in which Americans seem naturally to fall into the role of innocents abroad.
To many foreigners, though, we aren't innocents abroad. Rather,we give the impression of being overbearing in our attempts to deal with foreign ways. My wife and I remember the tempest caused on a river cruise in Russia a few years by some of our fellow Americans who expected to be served American cuisine aboard the vessel.
What does this have to do with the Brexit vote? I suspect that, over time, a fair number of pro-Brexit voters may come to believe that their votes were a wish that might have better gone unfulfilled. That's an optimistic reading of the situation. Still, those things that drive people and nations apart are generally not good things, particularly when it comes down to us standing on the sidelines and cheering one side or another in foreign disputes.
The day of, the days after
|Posted on September 12, 2014 at 3:25 PM||comments ()|
The cost of free speech
|Posted on June 3, 2014 at 5:25 PM||comments ()|
In a post on a blog about national politics yesterday, I used the term "Petigru's Asylum." Some readers familiar with South Carolina history might recognize the reference: It's an excerpt from James Petigru, a former SC governor who commented during the secession fever before the Civil War that "South Carolina is too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum."
The post in question had to do with the proposal to repeal South Carolina's archaic statue that forbids liquor sales on election days. Given the number of election days this state has, that's potentially a considerable reduction in business. My typically witty sally was that watching elections in South Carolina is enough to drive me to drink - safely at home.
What I wish someone in a position of power in South Carolina WOULD do is to slap some effective regulations on the blight of election signs that sprout like toadstools after a heavy rain this time of year. Since we have a hot Republican primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, the number of placards and posters wishing bad cess to the incumbent is particularly noteworthy. Given what I know of how Washington works, however, any of the challengers would soon find themselves either having to back and fill on their promises of change or trying to explain why areas that depend on Federal spending (of which this is one) are facing hard times.
Campaigning is easy and fun. Governing is hard work. Making a start on moving from a culture of perpetual campaigning to a culture of responsible governance might be helped by forcing all campaign organizations to pick up ALL their campaign signs within two weeks after an election, under the penalty of stiff fines. I think free speech would survive such a law.
|Posted on December 8, 2013 at 3:50 PM||comments ()|
The death of Nelson Mandela has given rise to a debate of sometimes primal ferocity about how we should remember him. Some have likened him to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King Jr., and other heroes of nonviolent resistance. Others have pointed to his expressed admiration for unsavory types such as Gaddafi and Castro. Apparently, he must be either clad in robes of the brightest hues or consigned to everlasting historical darkness.
Reality is inconvenient. Even heroes have feet of clay. It is true Mandela let his admiration for some tyrants be known. Of course, the perspective from a prison cell, when one is not even allowed to set foot on the mainland of one's own country may be a bit skewed. That, I believe, is the remarkable thing. Mandela sanctioned violent resistance to apartheid. In doing so, he had friendships of which we don't approve. Yet he emerged from his long imprisonment as a changed man. As a leader of his newly freed people, he eschewed the path of vengeance and score-settling. Zimbabwe would be a happier country if Mandela's fellow leader Robert Mugabe followed his example.
How soon we forget. While Gandhi always followed the path of nonviolence, the national passions he aroused were accompanied by bone-chilling sectarian ferocities. At the time of Martin Luther King's assassination, he was concerned about the challenge to his leadership that more militant prophets posed. There is no reason to sanitize history in an effort to remove these facts. Let us give Nelson Mandela no less. A man capable of hatred who rose above it, a man of war who became a man of peace. May his homeland learn the lesson that there is a time of war, a time of peace. We could all use a refresher in that principle.
A nation of kludges?
|Posted on September 25, 2013 at 3:31 PM||comments ()|
There's an odd sort of symmetry in my classes this week. In my Western Civilization class, I'm discussing with my students how Rome developed the first republican form of government. In my American History class, the discussion centers around the move to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.
Which makes it particularly fascinating that I just came across an article online titled "Kludgeocracy in America." You can check it out at www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/kludgeocracy-in-america. Briefly, this article is about our charming national habit of settling for a "muddling through" approach to problems rather than enduring the cost of honest debates and decisions about national policies.
It's my personal thesis that we (as a nation) do this because we've gotten so accustomed to the idea that we must find solutions to national problems that can command the requisite amount of public support while not offending anyone powerful or influential. While we've endured one national trauma (9/11), two seemingly endless wars, and one national financial fiasco in the last decade and a half, we haven't gotten the sort of swift kick in the seat of the pants that may cause us to change our thinking.
While it's possible to nitpick some of the author's points, I have the uncomfortable feeling that this article comes painfully close to the truth. Why do we subject ourselves to such prolonged ineffectuality in our national business? If I could answer that question, perhaps I could also explain why intelligent people ignore the condition of their teeth until they require a root canal. Right now I'm baffled.
The devastation of a small town
|Posted on April 22, 2013 at 3:21 PM||comments ()|
I'm sorry to be so downcast on Earth Day. This above all ought to be a day for celebrating the beauty of the world in which we live, and for renewing our resolution to protect it. Instead, my mind is reeling from the news that the West Fertilizer Company was apparently storing more than 250 times the quantity of ammonium nitrate as divulged to the public. It's apparent the devastation that struck there last week was in some key respects foreordained. What is equally staggering is the word that there are over 1,000 such fertilizer storage facilities in Texas.
In my years in industry, I sometimes participated in process hazards analyses. As we did these, they were extended "what-if" exercises intended to surface all likely hazards from the operation of particular chemical processes. Once identified, an engineer was assigned responsibility for developing controls and countermeasures to push the hazards beyond the horizon of plausibility. News reports indicated that the comparable analysis for West Fertilizer, done in 2011, was cursory, a paperwork exercise more than anything else. At least 14 people have paid with their lives for this corner-cutting.
While Texas is renowned for not putting barriers in the way of most business operations, this seems to be a situation where a documented analysis was done with crossed fingers. However much this approach symbolizes what's sometimes called "commonsense small town values," it's incredible that anyone with any sense of responsibility could confuse this with anything resembling common sense. Letting this nonsense go unrebuked has resulted in death and destruction. Is anyone in authority in Texas paying attention?
|Posted on April 18, 2013 at 4:54 PM||comments ()|
"On the eighteenth of April, in seventy-five." The first Patriots Day marked the time when a group of upstart colonists took an irrevocable step toward making a new nation. On this day, we look at Monday's carnage in Boston and wonder whether something fundamental has broken in our land. From henceforth, admiration for the grit and tenacity it takes to run the 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon will be jostled by hateful images - two puffs of smoke, a runner falling to the ground, police and rescue workers scrambling to render assistance not knowing if or when another blast would occur.
Perhaps this is a week singled out for disaster. Last night, another blast rocked a small town deep in the heart of Texas. Initial reports implicate anhydrous ammonia at a fertilizer plant as the culprit, but we don't know for certain. At this hour, there are even fears that the dead will include volunteer firefighters who were evacuating nursing home residents from a fire at the plant at the time of the explosion.
Many studies have shown that we humans are poor at assessing the relative risks from different activities. In an earlier phase of my career, I instructed trainees in the prevention of flammable mixes in a gasworks, reminding them of the steps required to minimize known job hazards. Objectively, the risks from such industrial hazards are greater, yet we seem to fear the nameless malevolence of accidents less than we do the intentional act of targeting innocent bystanders. Industrial hygienists continue to develop new protective measures against quantifiable hazards. We have very little understanding of how to reach into the depths of human hearts and rip out the embedded malice that considers the murder of an eight year old boy an acceptable price for making a statement.
While we offer prayers and condolences to the victims of both Boston and West, we need to remember that we need to look at ourselves as well. A Russian proverb quoted by Solzhenitsyn states, "You shouldn't have looked in the village [for trouble], but in yourself." Life has enough sorrows without allowing ourselves to be the agents - either knowingly or not - of compounding the sorrows of others.
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