Saturday, May 26, 2018

Why the Rest of the World is Right to Detest Trumpism

There was a strange, yet morbidly fascinating, trend that has been growing for decades, yet which came to a head once Donald Trump rose to power in the United States. Tensions between the United States and Europe had been growing steadily for decades, even predating the end of the Cold War. There were signs of this tensions when DeGaulle kicked out the American military from France, and again under Mitterand, we saw France express obvious distrust towards the United States, and the American military in particular, when it refused to allow American jets to fly over French airspace en route to a military attack on Libya.

For the most part, these kinds of tensions remained in the background, and often, they were simply examples of the tensions which existed between the French and Americans, particularly. These tensions indeed were real, yet they were not the same as tensions between, say, Americans and the Soviets, or Americans and Nazi Germany, or more recently, the tensions between Iran, or North Korea, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. I actually heard one American - a supporter of Trump, actually - suggest just what kinds of tensions between France and the United States these were, and why they were not as serious as those others. She related them to family arguments, harkening back to this notion that there is more that unites the two countries, more that they have in common, than what separates and divides them.

However, those tensions grew more serious in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War, particularly between France and the United States but, more generally, between Europeans and Americans. This was especially true shortly after the events of September 11th.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States pursued a war of aggression in Iraq, suggesting it was a "preemptive strike." It claimed that it was not just necessary, but urgent to take immediate action. The United States had been attacked, after all.It was a different world, and now, it was necessary to engage in behavior that Americans had mostly avoided to that point. So, Americans suddenly were in favor of wars of aggression, of stretching the definition of torture to allow more, and in building detention centers which bore an eerie resemblance to concentration camps to indefinitely hold what many Americans would refer to as "bad people." Given the long history that Europeans had with such approaches, they were understandably skeptical, but Americans dismissed these concerns, to the point that we had Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggesting that "Old Europe" was out of touch and irrelevant, for all intents and purposes. 

Clearly, the tensions were real, and more prevalent than they had been in many decades.

But those tensions have blown up way out of proportion since the rise of Trumpism in America. The trend towards systematic suspicions and distrust, and the obvious tensions and conflicts that arise from these, has led to a definite break in what remained of goodwill relations between the United States and Europe. Within hours of meeting with now President Trump, several European leaders stated pointblank that they no longer felt that the United States was a nation that they could rely upon, and urged Europeans to rely on themselves. This, of course, was largely ignored by Trump himself, as well as his tens of millions of supporters back here in the United States. Even the Pope looked visibly dismayed and discouraged after meeting with President Trump, who evidently was even able to try the religious leader's patience and hope with his trademark, ridiculous antics.

Obviously, these are not the only examples of nations and leaders of the world acting in alarm in regards to Trump, and Trumpism in general. Trump has been slighted time and time again, with prominent members of the parliaments in both Ireland and the United Kingdom blasting him as a racist, and with him getting the dubious distinction of not being invited to the Royal Wedding. Mexico's leader rescinded an invitation to meet with Trump. Iran feels that Trump cannot be trusted, and that what he did in withdrawing the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal was tantamount to breaking an international agreement, one signed by the United States itself. And, of course, much of the world has condemned Trump's actions and decisions quite consistently throughout this long year and a half or so since he came into office.

So, is the rest of the world being unfair? Donald Trump certainly seems to let it be known that he feels he is being treated unfairly, both by political opponents internally, and by other world leaders. It's almost amusing, frankly, that someone who so quickly blasts others for being delicate and oversensitive "snowflakes" himself seems to have such thin skin that he has a meltdown anytime that he suspects he is being slighted in any way. Seriously, has he ever restrained himself even once from going on the attack with his ridiculous tweets anytime he feels he has a score to settle with someone, even when the criticism is legitimate and, frankly, most deserved?

Let's face it: Donald Trump is a very different kind of leader than anyone we have ever seen in this country before. Everything that he does is done extremely loudly, which in itself is a stereotype of the United States at large. After all, this is a very loud culture. Loud and flashy, and if we are honest, often times crass and even increasingly trashy. With this reality television star now in office and so focused on ratings at every turn - seemingly to the exclusion of all else - that is not likely to change anytime in the near future.

This, however, was not always the case. The United States has, until fairly recently, had some inspired and quite enlightened leaders at the helm. When the thirteen colonies won their independence from Great Britain, the American experiment in democracy began. It was far from perfect, obviously. Yet, things generally consistently got better over time, and our elected leaders represented these improvements.

From the wisdom of the restraint of the Founding Fathers, particularly our first president in George Washington, but also extending to the brilliance of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, the earliest leaders for this nation were men who did the country proud by their example. They were not without their faults, yet they overcame personal egos and put their nation ahead of their own narrow interests, and the nation clearly benefited from this. We had Abraham Lincoln, who saved the country from the brink of an abyss that it very well might never have recovered from, and appealing to the "better angels of our nature," revealing a wit and wisdom that the nation has rightly taken pride in ever since.

Theodore Roosevelt aimed to make America's role in the world larger, and although this also seemed to reveal certain imperialist ambitions, his domestic policies reflected a more enlightened approach. He was a champion of the common man, and worked to place safeguards against big institutions, particularly banks and corporations, to protect the common folk. Also, he began the political conservation movement, establishing some of our first national parks. Woodrow Wilson was a very learned man who made a strong appeal to set up a world government body in order to try and promote peace, and this vision of his became a reality. He receives credit and is honored for this even today, even though we now know much more about his racist tendencies. Franklin D. Roosevelt lifted the nation out of it's worst economic crisis, and he led the nation through the most brutal war in the history of the world. He also championed the common people, and tried to set up an Economic Bill of Rights which was realized in other countries, but not here in the United States, unfortunately. We would be a better country for it had he succeeded. Dwight D. Eisenhower fought tyranny in that same war, and he showed restraint and stability during his years in the White House, and was seen as a war hero and a figure that could be admired and trusted.

Then, of course, we had John F. Kennedy, during the glory days of Camelot. Arguably more than any other modern American leader, Kennedy embodied the very best that Americans had to offer, at a time when the United States was the envy of the entire world. Kennedy seemed to exude a youthful energy, spirit, idealism, and wild image of success, which both inspired and seemed to represent the nation that he led more generally. His words stirred the entire nation, In short, Kennedy was himself the very picture of success, at a time when the American experiment with freedom and democracy as a whole seemed to have come to fruition as the best possible model for the rest of the world.

Yes, the United States seemed to have succeeded on a wild level by the early 1960's, and President Kennedy seemed to symbolize that success. It was far from perfect, yet the United States had seen a consistent expansion of rights to include more and more people. And many of these elected leaders, from Washington to Kennedy, indeed embodied the best that the country had to offer. Unfortunately, the trend largely seemed to end then and there.

I would argue that the leaders in the White House in particular since then, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, have all left something to be desired. Johnson was bogged down by a war that added skepticism to a general public that already had shown skepticism towards the official account of the Kennedy assassination as reported by the Warren Commission. Nixon's behavior and illegal actions cost him his presidency, and added still more skepticism. Reagan was wildly popular, yet he seemed to be style over substance, an actor playing the part that the public wanted to see, while his actual policies ultimately led the country down a road that it has not diverted from since, and which has led to a demonstrable decline in almost every aspect.

Reagan had been seen, quite rightly, as a sharp right turn politically for the nation. Yet his successor, George H. W. Bush, went even farther to the right. Bill Clinton was seen as "Republican light," and progressive politics truly seemed to be dead by this point. Plus, Clinton's personal conduct was reprehensible, and the man was untrustworthy. George W. Bush promised to restore confidence in trustworthy leadership in the White House, but did the exact opposite, lying in order to justify a war that was morally wrong, and fought under false pretenses. His entire approach seemed like a bumbling effort, and corporate scandals and corruption were through the roof. The nation's economy was hurting throughout most of the Bush years, and towards the end, the nation hit the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the economy very nearly was run to the ground. Obama was hailed as a savior and loved by much of the world, yet like Reagan, he seemed to be playing a very specific role, while his actual policies were more of the same, geared towards benefiting the rich and powerful.

You might think that after decades like this, Americans might finally wise up and realize that tax benefits and cuts for the richest and most privileged Americans does not work. Indeed, for a while, the rebel Bernie Sanders, bucking conventional political trends seemed to have momentum in the 2016 Presidential race with precisely this message.

Instead, the wrong rebel won. Trump also bucked political norms, but he did so while touting an even more elitist, more cutthroat extreme capitalist policies and approach. Instead of finally wising up and taking first steps to contain the damage and reverse the trends, we elected a man who, figuratively speaking, put those policies on steroids.

Trump is the most extreme version of what has been a culmination of a steadily worsening standard for our elected leaders. Where Washington showed the wisdom of restrain, Trump champions no limits. Where Jefferson wrote brilliant words and incredible vision, Trump betrays an incoherence and an inability to think beyond what is in his immediate best interests. Where Lincoln saved the country with wisdom and appealed to the "better angels of our nature," Trump divides the country with empty rhetoric and appeals to the very worst that we have to offer. Where Roosevelt championed the common folk at the expense of the elites and worked towards conservation, Trump champions the elites at the expense of the common folk and an attack on conservationist thinking. Where Wilson tried to push the world towards peace, Trump seems intent on pushing the world closer to war. Where FDR lifted the nation out of poverty, championing the cause of empowering common Americans, and also led his nation through the worst war in history, Trump seems intent on bankrupting the nation and returning the same policies that came close to bringing the country to it's knees again a decade ago, and he seems unstable enough that another World War hardly seems unthinkable. Where Eisenhower earned the world's respect and trust with stable leadership, Trump earned the world's distrust with clear instability. In demanding respect, Trump actually undermines the case for giving him that respect. Everything about this man is fake, not real. From his ridiculous hair to his fake tans to his claims of being the healthiest man ever in the White House, and his own claims to being a virtual superman, while he very clearly is as far from that as one can get, this man personifies a lack of dignity and honesty about himself that he carries into his approach towards others, whether in business or, now, on politics.

With Trump, unlike with some great leaders in our past, absolutely nothing is as it seems. He claims to be worth 10 billion, yet most people in the know feel he is worth far less, maybe even a quarter of his claims. Since there is no transparency with Trump, there is no way to know for sure. In short, nothing that Trump says can be taken literally.

In many respects, that is the same with our country at large. We speak of ourselves as being the "shining city on the hill," the example for the rest of the world to follow. Yet, we are the only industrialized nation that fails to provide it's citizens with some form of universal, affordable healthcare. We speak of stability, law, and order. Yet, we are the only industrialized nation that has gun violence on the level that we see it. We speak of being the beacon of freedom, yet we have far and away more people imprisoned here than any country in the world. We still speak of our diversity and our welcoming people into our country from the world over, yet we have seen a decidedly anti-immigrant stance and xenophobia prevail. We speak of inclusion into our society for all races, nationalities, religious beliefs and creeds, yet we have elected someone who wanted a registry for people of a certain religious faith, and who seemed to have a problem denouncing Nazis marching on American streets.

I have used the following quote numerous times already here on this blog, but it seems especially fitting for this post. Here is an incredible summary of what the rest of the world sees in Donald Trump, as expressed by Paul Thomas, a journalist with the New Zealand Herald (quote taken from "The Greatest Threat to America? Republicans" by Paul Thomas, published on July 17, 2015):

"Trump personifies everything the rest of the world despises about America: casual racism, crass materialism, relentless self-aggrandisement, vulgarity on an epic scale. He is the Ugly American in excelsis."

If Kennedy had seemed to embody all that was right with the United States during it's seemingly finest hour, when it was enjoying it's golden age and served as a mostly positive example to the world, Trump represents exactly the opposite. While the American experiment during the 1950's and 1960's embodied an attractive alternative to the previous forms of government tht had oppressed much of the rest of the world, and a lifting of the common folk economically and politically, Trump now embodies a clear rolling back of those lofty standards of living, not to mention human dignity more generally. Trump is the living, breathing stereotype of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He seems to symbolize an enthusiastic intoxication from power, allowing yourself to lose all sense of control, and to simply let your tongue and actions run free, ramifications and the opinion of others be damned. Like many corporations, he manages to make it sound attractive for many people, to make it sound enabling, even while his actual policies work to further erode the standard of living in the United States, all so that he and his friends can line their pockets at the expense of the rest of us. Trumpism champions vulture capitalism, where the elites feast on whatever pieces of the dead carcass  once known as the American Dream, so that they themselves can grow fatter still. This approach has failed the country for decades now, and it continues to take away from the dignity and sense of collective responsibility that many Americans worked so hard to attain.

To me, it seems that the United States has slid into a steady decline, ever since the glory days of Camelot, and the Kennedy White House. But with Donald Trump, we have been hitting all-time lows never before seen. It seems that tens of millions of my fellow Americans not only seem fine with that, but indeed, enthusiastically support Trumpism. Despite his proven untrustworthiness on a personal and professional level, far too many Americans have completely bought into this illusion of success. And we are worse off for it.

But the rest of the world has the valuable outside perspective, and this allows them to see what is happening more fully, and with more objectivity. And they see Trumpism for what it is. Indeed, they are right to reject it, and to dread what is happening here. Understandably, they want to avoid something similar in their own nations.

Can you really blame them?

Friday, May 25, 2018

NFL Caters to Trump & Low Brow Fan Desires & Squelches Free Speech

The NFL made a decision yesterday. A very bad one.

True, many people, especially NFL fans, do not like the players taking a knee during the national anthem. Of course, many of these same people simply do not care about the issues that sparked this protest, and do not take the concerns of Black Lives Matter seriously, and so they do not equate the protest with the inherent unfairness of persistent racial inequalities that not only remain, but seem to be growing, particularly under President Trump.

Of course, by now, we all know President Trump's take on it. Being a lowest common denominator type himself, he uses this as a distraction and a tool of convenience, as he can and does use this as a wedge issue to further divide people. Trump tried to be even more divisive this time around, even suggesting that athletes who kneel during the national anthem "maybe shouldn't be in the country."

Wow. Think about that. The President of the United States is suggesting that those who express their views peacefully, albeit in a manner that many admittedly find disagreeable, basically should not necessarily be allowed in the country anymore. 

That's one of those comments that he says, and gets away with saying, because it is not an actual policy proposal. It is the kind of opinion that will surely fire up the base, yet which cannot seriously be proposed, because...well, it's illegal. Also, he can always say that he was joking, which is his fallback position whenever he says something idiotic and controversial, and which people might take him at his word with. A recent example of that would be his statement that the United States should look into "presidents for life."

Anyway, President Trump has a great big mouth, and he has to let his opinions be known on everything, as we all know. 

But the NFL does not have to give into that kind of pressure.

Yet, they did exactly that, with Commissioner Roger Goodell announcing that all players need to stand during the anthem, or teams will receive fines, with possibly other measures for persistent problems.

Indeed, this reaction is being roundly condemned by many. The glaringly obvious comparisons would be with recent issues that the NFL also mishandled, particularly with some players having beaten women and being demonstrably guilty of domestic violence, as well as the issue with concussions. The NFL seemed to sweep those things under the rug, to the extent possible. Yet, they showed a no tolerance policy on free speech, essentially.


Of course, not everyone agrees. Christopher Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, for one, has already stated that he would be willing to simply pay the fine. 

Here is some of what Johnson had to say on the issue yesterday:

"I do not like imposing any club-specific rules," Johnson says, as reported by Newsday. "If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players."  

"I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players," Johnson continued. "Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we're all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don't want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won't. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I'll have to bear."  

Nor is he the only sports figure critical of this measure. Golden State Warriors coach Steven Kerr spoke out quite eloquently on the issue, suggesting that this is not so much patriotism, but nationalism, and he expressed gratitude with being a part of a league in the NBA that actually does not squelch free speech by the players.

I, for one, was impressed, and so I added a video clip of Kerr's take on this issue below:

Here are the links to the articles that I used in writing this blog entry, as well as using the quotes that can be found in these particular articles:

Trump says NFL players who kneel during national anthem 'maybe shouldn't be in the country' by Adam Edelman / May.24.2018:


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address to the 2004 Lehigh University Class

Yes, I remember the day well. May 24, 2004.

It is amazing, even staggering, to think that this was ten whole years ago. Frankly, it feels like it could have been one year ago, tops, if even that. Those times, and those events, feel so very recent. But I look at the calendar, and it does not lie. As old as it makes me feel, it has indeed been a full decade, and I sound like an old man, talking about how quickly the time goes by.

At around that time, Kurt Vonnegut was probably my favorite author of all. I had gotten into him a few years before, not long after September 11th, and around the time when WMD's and the possibility of an invasion of Iraq, as well as the suspension of civil liberties with the so-called PATRIOT Act and the debate over how much we can get away with before it is legally considered torture dominated the news.

And I read Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-5", an anti-war novel that spoke about time travel, and touched on some other subjects, too. It spoke to me in a way that few novels have before or since, and I began to follow Vonnegut. Suddenly, I was ordering more of his books, and devouring them (most of his books are quick reads). There were online articles that I pursued and read, and before long, I was beginning to be a collector of all things Vonnegut, completely taken by the world of his writings. In a world that seemed to be losing it's way and making less and less sense, Vonnegut's rather weird and wild world, ironically, served almost as an anchor. There seemed to be just a sense of decency about him, reflected in his writings, that felt right in a world that seemed outwardly polite and healthy, but inside, seemed rude, self-centered, and very, very sick to the core.

It would be fair to say that I was quickly becoming a huge Vonnegut fan, and as an aspiring writer, he was one of the few writers that truly inspired me to begin writing on my own. In fact, I might go as far as saying that while other writers made me feel like I could write (most notably Stephen King), it was actually while I was reading Vonnegut all of the time that I truly did begin to write, and believing versus doing makes a world of difference.

There were other authors, and books, that I really enjoyed at that point, and many more that I have grown more acquainted with and gotten to enjoy since. But the two big ones (for me) were Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut. Both had some incredible ideas, for which they are deservedly very well known. The actual writing of Stephen King, the way that he describes characters in particular, breathes life into them, and I aspired to be able to do that myself. As for Kurt Vonnegut, I admired his ideas (and enjoyed the weirdness of them, as well), but was most appreciative of the way that he was able to bring ideas of morality, of simple right and wrong in the midst of a complicated world into his books and stories really spoke to me. That through it all, we just need reminders of the simple ideas of decency, that was something that perhaps society, or even the world culture that has come to dominate this world de facto, is something that Vonnegut was always able to convey, no matter what it was that he was writing about.

But there was one thing: I had never seen the man, and he was well over eighty years old. I knew a couple of people who had seen him, and one of them told me I had better hurry up and see him, because he was no spring chicken.

I kept looking and looking, searching online for Vonnegut appearances. But there was rarely anything to be found. More frustratingly, when there was, it had just happened.

There were times that I came close. Particularly, his play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" began to play in New York City, and I went to go see that. Vonnegut had made an appearance at the show's opening, and answered some questions from the audience. But when I went, some days later, he was nowhere to be seen.

But finally, I found out that he was scheduled to be the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremonies at Lehigh University in 2004. I did some research, and found that this event was scheduled to be held at the outdoor stadium, weather permitting, and that it did not require a ticket. You could just show up.

So, I did.

It was a beautiful day, perhaps the first really warm and sunny day of the year. Before the day was out, I would have gotten a sunburn, and there was a little bit of worrying, admittedly, about what I would say if anyone asked me at work the next day why it was that I had a sunburn the day after calling out sick.

But that is neither here nor there.

I wanted to make sure to arrive there good and early, and so we left quite early (this was with my then wife), and got there early enough. No problems there. We found a halfway decent place to sit at the stadium, fairly close to the field. And I got my video recorder out, because I intended to record all of Vonnegut's speech, if I could.

First, the graduates all lined up, with the special guests, including Kurt Vonnegut, coming just before them.

His speech was not that long, and I was able to get all of it. It was not really the most original speech, amounting to mostly a compilation of some of his written works and words of the past.

Vonnegut started off by claiming that he had uncovered a conspiracy during his brief visit to Lehigh, and claiming that the admissions office allowed only beautiful women to attend. Then, he talked a bit about the previous time that he had spoken at a Lehigh Commencement, back in 1970, when "another unpopular war", started by the martyred President Kennedy, was then being fought in Vietnam, with Nixon as President. He then mentioned the shootings at Kent State University around that time, when four students were killed, and the police not punished, as it was claimed that they had acted in self-defense.

This served as a segue for him to talk about some of the darker chapters of American history, including slavery, inequality of the majority of the population (women), with women only getting the vote a few years before he was born.

Going back to his previous appearance at a Lehigh Commencement, he mentioned that most of the kids graduating had not even been born yet at that time, and how they were about to get "kicked out" of Lehigh, comparing the years of study here for the students as "the Garden of Eden."

He then mentioned that American could and should have been a utopia, instead of a place where it costs an arm and a leg to get a higher education, like the one the young graduates had received at Lehigh. Now, they were leaving "this Garden of Eden", and many of them would be burdened with huge debt, so much, Vonnegut claimed, that he could buy a Hummer with that kind of money and "speed up global warming".

Then, he mentioned that he was sorry that this country did not have a health care system that provided affordable, universal coverage, "like Sweden and Canada", where, he said, "it works much better."

He then applauded institutions of higher learning, and said that these were good to "make war not on terrorism, but on ignorance, sickness, and environmental degradation."

Vonnegut mentioned Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and then, perhaps to assuage his guilt, set up the Nobel Peace Prize, with a prize of one million dollars. That amount, Vonnegut claimed, is "chump change", at least by the standards of the highest paid athletes, CEO's and Wall Street executives. It would make a huge difference in the lives of any graduate  in attendance on that day, but it would not pay the salary of a defenseman on either the Eagles or the Steelers for even one season.

For anyone interested in really irritating their parents, he said, the "least you can do is go into the arts."

"As you leave this Garden of Eden," Vonnegut requested of the audience, "please sing and dance on your way the hell out of here!"

Vonnegut then told the graduates, and those family members attending, that the older you get, the more you begin to ask yourself what this thing life is all about. He mentioned what his son had told him in response, when he had placed this question to him:

"Father, we're here to see each other get through this thing, whatever the hell it is."

So, he advised everyone to write that down, so that they could put it in their computers and then forget it.

He then wondered if he would get away with what he was about to say next, and declared that human beings need extended families as much as they need food and minerals, and talked a bit about how there are no extended families anymore, "with the exception of the Bushes and the Navajo."

That was the root of all arguments, he claimed. When it seemed that a husband and wife were arguing about money or the future for the kids, what they were actually telling each other is: "You are not enough people."

Vonnegut then mentioned his uncle Albert, who once remarked that human beings hardly ever noticed when they were happy. So, he had taken to saying, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

He requested that everyone remember that, and take note when they are having a good time, even repeating these words that his uncle used to say.

And then he made one other request, asking for a show of hands to anyone who had, at some point, had a teacher that had made them feel "happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, then you had previously believed possible?"

He then asked everyone who had such a teacher to turn to the person next to them, and mention the name of that teacher.

Kurt Vonnegut concluded his Lehigh Commencement Keynote Speaker address with these words:

"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is. Thank you for your attention. Take care of yourselves, you hear?"

He received his honorary degree (not his first from Lehigh University) a little later on.

Admittedly, it was a strange way of seeing Vonnegut for the first time, since this was a graduation ceremony for college students, and not really what most people would categorize as a public event. I did not know anybody graduating on that day, although no one seemed to notice.

Still, it was great to finally see him in person!

Afterward, we stopped briefly at Lehigh, driving around the campus, then a bit through the town of Bethelehem. It was perhaps noon time, and after a bit of a visit, we decided to head back, and to Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey, where we could enjoy the beautiful weather. I had taken some Vonnegut books with me to read, obviously, and remember being happy, sitting by the babbling stream, and just relaxing, reading Vonnegut. You can't get a much better late spring day than that!

That day ranked with some of the other memorable days in terms of seeing someone that I had long wanted to see. I would perhaps compare it to the first time that I saw Stephen King, or Jimmy Carter. Or, perhaps, some of my favorite bands, like Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, or Paul McCartney, or the first concert of my own choosing that I went to, seeing Metallica and Guns N' Roses. It felt great!

Now, I should mention that the opportunity to see Vonnegut again did present itself, and I jumped on it! Again, he was no spring chicken.

This one came as an official event, where Kurt Vonnegut would be one of three noted authors in discussion. The other two were Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner. It was called "An Evening With Our Favorite Writers", and was held on Saturday, February 4, 2006, the day before Super Bowl Sunday. I remember that, specifically, because for whatever reason, people kept mentioning the Steelers (it was a pro-Steelers fan base there), and a couple of people on stage (not the authors) were showing their black and gold to support their Steelers! At one point, Vonnegut even asked why people in Hartford, Connecticut, would care about the Steelers so much.

Good question.

In any case, this was more of an event, if you will. In college graduations, speakers like Kurt Vonnegut are special guests, but the stars of the show are the graduates themselves, of course. And deservedly so.

But on that evening, clearly, the speakers were the special guests, and the focal point. And Kurt Vonnegut, arguably, was the biggest draw on stage on that day.

It was perhaps appropriate that this event took place in Hartford, since the comparisons to Vonnegut and Mark Twain, who greatly influenced Vonnegut, can easily be made, including the physical resemblance. Both wrote biting commentary, both used humor richly and had wicked senses of humor, and both contributed greatly to American letters.

When I look back on those times, I find it amazing just how quickly I got into Kurt Vonnegut and his writings, and in such a short period of time! It is almost surprising that I never encountered his writings earlier, like during high school, or at least college! Yet, it happened. But once that discovery was there, I was hooked!

It had taken a while to see Vonnegut for the first time, and less than two years later, the opportunity came to see him a second time, and this time, to hear him in actual conversation, which was particularly special. In between those two, Vonnegut would publish the last book of his that would come out while he was still alive. It was called "A Man Without a Country", and on the cover, it featured his playful autograph. That autograph has his self-portrait in profile, with his signature attached. There are autographs you can get from certain writers (and other people of fame), and then there is something like that, which Vonnegut really "created" for you to enjoy! There are subtleties within it that only a real fan of Vonnegut would be aware of. Or one subtlety in particular - the asterisk, which is Vonnegut's drawing of an asshole. His famous sense of humor bleeds through even in something as simple as an autograph.

A little more than a year after that event, Vonnegut fell at his home, and sustained injuries that would prove to be mortal. He died in April of 2007. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on some of the events that have happened since, such as the economic collapse of 2008, and the controversy surrounding the "too big to fail" banking institutions that were given huge sums of money in the bailout, designed by then President George W. Bush, and approved by, among others, future President Barack Obama. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on Obama, both during the most promising times, during the election season in 2008, as well as the less glamorous reality when he actually occupied the White House. And what about the official end of the war in Iraq, or the coming end in Afghanistan? What might Vonnegut have said about Russia and the Ukraine? About the war in Syria? The genocide in Darfur? We can only wonder what he might specifically have said, although we can probably get a good idea on what his general stance would likely have been. But when you die, you lose your chance to speak on matters that occur afterward, of course.

Since his death, three more books written by Vonnegut have come out. I am reading the last of those three, and will be writing a review of it, hopefully to be published tomorrow. Vonnegut may be gone, but he is certainly not forgotten, and his wisdom and humor remain in his writings, that allow a part of him to continue to be with us still, even though the man himself is not.

"An Evening With Our Favorite Writers" - February 4, 2006 (some links from the conversation that evening):

The Forum Channel

Here is the profile from the program that was given out to those who attended this event:

Vonnegut Clips from the Connecticut Writer's Forum in February of 2006:

Forum Clip: "Kurt Says Writing is a Mystery, Joyce Calls His Bluff"  1:15

Forum Clip: "Vonnegut`s Message to Future Generations: The World is Ending!"  2:37

Forum Clip: "Practicing Any Art Makes Your Soul Grow"  1:41

Forum Clip: "What is the Single Most Beautiful Thing You`ve Ever Seen?"  2:33

Forum Clip: "Kurt and Joyce Have a Great Exchange about Feminism  and  Sexist Pigs"  1:21

Forum Clip: "Serious  and  Funny Answers to: What Keeps You Up at Night?"  2:34

Forum Clip: "Alter Egos and Pseudonyms in Writing"  2:56

Forum Clip: "Kurt Vonnegut: We Are A Disease, Joyce Carol Oates Sees It Differently"  2:12

Forum Clip: "Mark Twain`s Best Books and a Clunker."  1:21

On America' Addiction to Oil:

On War, History, and Women:

Kurt Vonnegut & Joyce Carol Oates on Censorship:

Movie Review - Gattaca

Not long ago, I was watching the movie Gattaca again. I had seen this movie from maybe forty minutes or so in as a substitute, right to the end. But the beginning of the movie still remained a mystery to me.

This week, I had a chance to sub in the same science class, and this time, got to watch the beginning (actually, got to watch the beginning four times). So now, I have indeed finally seen the entire movie. Someday, though (and probably soon), I will watch it in it's entirety from beginning to end. Still, I have seen enough of it now to justify a review of the film, it seems, so here goes:

For those of you unfamiliar with that movie, it is a science-fiction film which is not an especially sunny view of the future. Initially, it takes us into a future where discrimination is perhaps no longer based on race or even economic class, which may sound like a paradise of sorts. However, we quickly see that despite laws banning discrimination, it does indeed exist. 

You see, in this futuristic world, ideal children are engineered by science. Anyone choosing to have a child, flaws and all, out of love is essentially relegating that child to enduring life as a second-class citizen, suitable to work menial jobs cleaning spaces and toilets and such. Meanwhile, the high-paying, most reputable positions all go to those who are scientifically proven to be the most suited to it. They are the tallest, healthiest people, with the best eyesight. Human engineering in this still fictional (for now) world has provided parents with the opportunity to have absolutely perfect children, exactly to their liking, and so parents had better take it. To do anything else is seen as simply irresponsible, and a life sentence in a very real sense to their offspring.

Everything is taken into consideration, including intelligence, health and physical endurance, height, and statistical probabilities that almost assure success and avoidance of any seeming distraction issues, such as depression. It is a complete transformation of societies, and a truly scientific way of picking the favored and weeding out the weaklings, if you will. 

As you can imagine, life for the less desirable, natural (that is to say, not engineered to reach perfection) humans is not only not a picnic, but is a nightmare of sorts. Their possibilities are extremely limited, as there is no real upward mobility. Thus, for something that was never their choice, and which they were born with, they are relegated to that inferior status, and it lasts for their entire lives, without possibility of escape. The exact opposite is true for the children of scientific engineering, who are as perfect as human beings can get, and thus receive all of the very best advantages that society can bestow on people.

Gattaca follows one such child. Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, a child born out of love between his two parents, who decide to buck the trend and have a child of natural birth, with no scientific engineering. The results, however, are a very flawed child, one who has absolutely no chance at a rewarding career, or of making much of his life more generally. Perhaps his greatest flaw is his inability not to dream. He particularly dreams of space, of leaving this world that knows only his limitations, and to see a universe full of what seems like limitless possibilities. But with his official status as an "Invalid" (yes, that is what he is literally classed as in this fictional world), this dream more often gets in the way, and serves to haunt him, more than anything.

Then suddenly, through a series of almost freak accident (but not quite, as we will learn), and almost unexpectedly for him, the opportunity to shed his inferior status and become a "Valid" comes to him. It seems improbable to pull this off, in a world where there is no privacy, and when there are constant, relentless tests of proof of one's status. Somehow, against all odds, he manages to pass himself off as not only a "Valid," but as the most perfect example of an engineered human being. His curiosity and desire to explore space during his time spent as an "Invalid" helps, as he scores perfect scores time and time again, as does his relentless, incredibly intense physical conditioning.

This movie focuses on his struggles, and the challenges of trying to make it in a world where the cards are not only stacked against him succeeding, but where science in particularly tries to make sure to keep him in his place. At times, it is almost like a spy movie, like a virtual thriller. Yet, it is able to transcend some of those kinds of movies, by opening up the can of worms regarding the ethics of this kind of world - a world that, quite frankly, is not as remote of a possibility as it might at first appear to be.

Ultimately, this is a movie to be watched! Admittedly, I had not even heard about this movie until about a year or so ago, when I was first exposed to it during a subbing assignment. Either that, or I do not remember it, because this movie came out in 1997, and I have absolutely no memory of it. But it is actually a powerful movie, and a fascinating one in terms of the implications and questions that arise from it. This is the kind of movie that you want to go to a diner to discuss after viewing it. It is not a happy movie, of course, yet it remains entertaining throughout. But like many other such great movies, such as 12 Monkeys, the beginning might seem a bit confusing at first. The movie might not seem to make sense at first, but if you remain patient, I promise it will all come together, and definitely will be worth your time and effort - promise!

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kudos to Kelly Clarkson!

At the recent Billboard Music Awards, Clarkson was supposed to lead a moment of silence to honor the victims of the recent school shooting in Texas, which had taken place just days earlier.             

She refused, however, but her reasons for refusing were rather stunning and, frankly, refreshing. 
To her credit, Clarkson seems to understand the futility of such symbolic actions like moments of silence, or public figures (particularly politicians) offering their “thoughts and prayers,” only to have to offer them again within months, if not weeks, when yet another huge mass shooting takes place again somewhere else.    

Through tears, Clarkson said:

“I’m so sick of moments of silence, it’s not working, like, obviously. 

“So why don’t we not do a moment of silence? Why don’t we do a moment of action? Why don’t we do a moment of change? Why don’t we change what’s happening? Because it’s horrible.”  

Clarkson did not elaborate on what this action meant, and it was not entirely clear that Clarkson, who once admitted to NPR that she owned nine guns and slept with a Colt .45, had limits to gun access on her mind as at least one potential action to take.             

Still, she did not simply take the easy way out by leading the moment of silence, or herself offering her “thoughts and prayers” to the families of the victims. She has grown tired, like millions of other haves, of lip service and wearing supposed sympathy on one’s sleeves, while offering no real solutions, and taking no serious actions.              

One thing is for certain: this is becoming a source of national embarrassment, even disgrace. The United States has what appears to be the most lenient gun laws of any developed nation in the world. Meanwhile, incidents of gun violence here in the United States greatly outnumber not only the gun violence seen in other countries, but outnumber many other nations combined, in terms of gun violence. Death by gun violence often numbers in the single digits or, at most, the dozens in many other nations in a typical year. But here in the United States, it systematically numbers in the thousands. And many people cannot help but make the seemingly obvious correlation between the ready availability of guns, and the staggering levels of gun violence that plagues the United States.   
Maybe Clarkson did not specifically identify the easy access to guns as the problem, but let’s face it: that sure seems to be the difference between gun violence here in the United States, and the general lack thereof in other countries. After all, the issues that many gun rights advocates and staunch NRA supporters suggest, like mental instability and economic factors, exist in other nations as well. What those other countries lack is the very quick and easy access to guns, like we have here in the United States.              

Here is the link to the article on Clarkson's refusal to simply do a moment of silence, urging some sort of concrete action instead:

Kelly Clarkson, a Gun Owner, Urges Action at Billboard Music Awards by Sopan Deb, May 21, 2018:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Tom Petty's 'Learning to Fly' With Stevie Nicks

A couple of  weeks, or perhaps even months, ago, I was perusing through Youtube, listening to some songs, when a video popped up of Tom Petty performing 'Learning to Fly' with Stevie Nicks. 

It was a good version of one of my favorite Petty songs. A very good version.

Obviously, I enjoyed it, but then kept going, kept listening to some other stuff, and did not think about it again. 

Until that particular version of 'Learning to Fly' came back into my head, and I longed to see it and hear it again. It was even better the second time around. And the third.

This was the first time that I had really made a point of listening to Tom Petty ever since he died a last year.

So, I just thought it would be something worth sharing here. It is an acoustic version, and somehow, this stripped down version seemed to resonate even more strongly than the original version for me. Of course, the original is great, and an awesome rock song. Petty had many of those, and the original version is one of those great driving songs, cruising down a highway on a sunny day (my favorite song to do that with, by the way, is Petty's 'Running Down a Dream'). 

But this version felt deeper, more personable. You can feel that desire to escape the pain of the world, to fly over his problems, his worries, like the song says.

Just an amazing version! Please, do yourself a favor, and take a listen to this version. It is billed as being with Stevie Nicks, and while that is true, she only does back-up vocals. Yet, it still is just an amazing, beautiful, yet very different version of a familiar song. Pretty sure that if you give it a chance, you'll really enjoy it, too! 

It helped to cheer me up earlier today. Maybe it will do the same for you.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Mitch McConnell & Paul Ryan Need to Receive Credit for Roles in Helping Destroy America

Someday in the future, when we are far enough removed from the ridiculous mindset that far too many Americans of both political persuasions are stuck in, we will look at the the types of so-called leaders that the American people somehow kept electing and re-electing, and they will vomit on this chapter of our history. And I am not just talking about Donald Trump, although he is obviously the most extreme, blatant example of just how broken our country is, and how skewed our collective perspective and self-absorption has gotten. After all, we elect leaders who we feel represent us. What does that say when a enough people (even if it was not even close to a majority) voted for a man like that?

However, Trump himself would have little to no power if not for an unbelievably empowering support network of imbeciles. Among the worst offenders are the two men who are in charge in Congress, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Almost everything that they do takes power away from the common folks of the United States, and lines the pockets of the elites. It is such an obvious scam, and again, someday, we will see this clearly as a nation.

It is just that apparently, this is not that day. You might have thought, after the pain suffered by so many during the Great Recession, that we might have learned at least some lessons. Apparently, however, we will need to endure still more pain. So brainwashed have we allowed ourselves to become in this country, that we return to our abusers time and time and time again, and allow them to speak comforting lies into our ears, before once again poisoning us, and revealing the extent of the hatred and disgust that they obviously feel for us.

McConnell and Ryan in particular have transparently taken millions of dollars from special interests, and not surprisingly, they have thus done the bidding of their corporate masters. If that is not blatant corruption, I do not know what is. They are certainly not the only ones, as Senators an Representatives of both major parties have extensive histories like this. That is why I personally view both major parties as the problem, and never the solution (with maybe a few exceptions in very rare instances).

Ryan is obnoxious in many ways. First of all, he tries to portray himself as some kind of sex symbol, while also posing as a viable national figure. He is an extremist, yet he also tries to pose as this reasonable middle man who is above the fray, reluctantly accepting his party's desire to see him become Speaker of the House, and then trying to portray himself as above the fray when some members of his party begin to inquire about him jumping in super last minute into the race fr the White House. He also tries to portray himself as a good, hard-working Christian, when almost every action he takes is exactly what the Bible warns against, hurting poor people and making everyone pay for the tax cuts and other benefits that systematically go to the wealthiest, most privileged Americans whenever Ryan and his party have their way.

Of course, Mitch McConnell is not much better. He does not try to portray himself as some sort of sex symbol, obviously. In fact, he does not really try to pose as some kind of middle figure, ether. He insists on getting his way, and more often than not, when he gets it, you can bet that there are dirty tricks (even for politics, which is saying something) and just a staggering level of hypocrisy along the way. This was a man who was not rich, and had a share of problems while growing up. But you might never know that, considering how elitist and out of touch with the common folk he is. You know, the people he is supposed to be representing, instead of regularly betraying.

Both McConnell and Ryan were critics of then candidate Donald Trump in the race for the White House during 2016. Both looked like they were opposed to Trump leading up to the nomination process, and both were hesitant to attend the Republican National Convention, because it would be Trump receiving the nomination. But since then, of course, both have rarely missed the opportunity to kiss Trump's ass. Sure, every now and then, they seem a bit critical, such as when Trump seemed incapable of strongly criticizing Nazis. How brave they must have felt to not lend the President their unwavering support at that moment. But when push comes to shove, these guys have proven to have the spines of jellyfish when it comes to their support of Trump in terms of policy issues, and the nation is much worse off for it.

They of course both claim to be working for middle class Americans, yet almost everything that they do and work for, and virtually everything that they have managed to pass, has demonstrably benefited the wealthiest and most privileged Americans, continuing the trend of ever growing economic inequality and unfairness in the United States - the very thing that most Americans would suggest had been a major contributor to the general feeling that the country is heading in the wrong direction. How is it that these kinds of slimy politicians are continually allowed to get away with it, time and time again, year after year, decade after decade?

Paul Ryan is retiring, surely to rake in even more dough in the private sector. But who would be surprised if he is called upon by his fellow GOP to make a run for the White House someday? And you can bet that he will puff out his chest while acting like the humble, responsible middle man, reluctant to accept these awesome responsibilities, all while maneuvering in the background to make sure that he is as viable as possible. What a crock! What a farce!

As for McConnell, no one seems to expect him to make any kind of move to run for the White House, in large part because he seems so awkward. Quite a few people have compared him to a turtle, and he just has a style that is a bit too easy to mock. But there is nothing funny about what he has done, and how much damage it has caused to the country.

Here is the article that got me on this topic. It is only about McConnell, although I will probably forever link Ryan and McConnell together, for the damage that they helped to create for the country, which will now have to be coped for many years to come:

Mitch McConnell, the man who broke America By Dana Milbank Columnist April 7, 2017