C’mon, Stop Pimping Your Elders…

I have an abiding dislike for people who make fun of others. I never liked Don Rickles whose act was an avalanche of insults, or Donald Trump who chooses to demean or slander those he disagrees with rather than engage them in debate. Remember Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Sleepy Joe, Crazy Megyn, Pocahontas, or the disabled New York Times journalist he mocked.

Lately it’s Stephen Colbert, one of my favorite comedians, who is getting under my skin. He does an impersonation of Joe Biden that’s not about his politics. He’s mocking Joe’s affect as an out of touch old person.

Yes, sometimes he tries too hard to be au courant and relies on out of date reference. And there are too many instances of “hey, man.” Too many “malarky’s.” Too many “Barack and me” references. But Colbert’s riffs feel mean-spirited. There’s an exaggerated head tilt, aviator glasses, and a jocular crooked smile.

My friend, the writer Delia Cabe, nailed it yesterday when she said, “Ad agencies seem to think being over 55 automatically means you are incontinent, hard of hearing, incapable of dealing with a laptop/smart phone and more. Pisses me off!”

We are in the midst of a global Covid pandemic, but America is also in an endemic of ageism. It isn’t just Colbert or Trump, who play the ageism card. The attitude crosses all categories. Comics, pollsters, advertisers, SNL, employers, developers, film makers – all of whom trade on the stereotype of older people as being “resistant to change, not creative, cautious, slow to make judgments, lower in physical capacity, uninterested in technological change, and difficult to train.” (Wikipedia). It suggests that at a certain age, if we are seen at all, we are regarded as impotent, genderless, isolated, and out of touch. And, contrary more obvious forms of stereotyping, like racism and sexism, ageism seems more embedded and resistant to change.

Earlier in our history and still in other cultures, families were nuclear and crossed generational lines. Today, America’s focus on retirement generally signifies the end of productivity. “Seniors” are “put out to pasture” and given rise to a giant industry that is contemporary society’s way to warehouse the old. How a society treats its own says more about it than it does about them. It’s part of a culture’s social contract.

In the ancient east, the concept of filial piety is one of the pillars of Confucianism. It goes back to 400 BC and in general terms refers to the duty to take care of and respect one’s parents, but in the larger sense to show love, respect, and support for the wisdom of one’s elders. It’s not so long ago that such respect was part of our own ethos. I was raised that way. My parents taught me it was good manners. How we treat others says more about us than it does about them.

Looking at the prevalence of ageism in our culture should take us back to all the recent talk about civility in discourse. It’s related. Filial piety, the Golden Rule, good manners, respect for differences. Maybe the late-night comics should think twice before they poke fun at us. Many of us are still working. Maybe they could cut us a little slack for living productive lives. Poke fun at Donald Trump for his ignorance, lack of empathy, weight, dalliances, and greed but not for his age.

On a more serious note, do you think the Covid response would have been different if 76% of the 876,000 Covid-19 deaths had been 18-35 year olds rather than those over 65? This is the ultimate example and tragedy of ageism. Are those of us over 65 not as important, not as valuable? Would the response have been ramped up if children were dying at the same rate? I doubt it.

Back to the beginning… I’d advise Colbert to think ahead. If 65 is where the zone begins, at 57 his aged targets are only 8 years older than he is. Be careful Stephen. James Corden is 43. Jimmy Fallon, 47. Seth Meyers, 48. You might just be in their sights 10 years from now. C’mon Stephen…man up.

Democrats’ Double Bind…

In a perfect world winners win, losers lose. It’s clean, simple and beyond dispute. There is no confusion. But that’s not the world we live in. In a rational orderly world, disputes arise and are settled in a rational orderly way. Since the turn of the 21st century that’s been the exception rather than the rule. On the streets of America, disputes are being settled with guns. Extreme right-wing factions hold seats in Congress. Philosophical differences are met with rigid hostility. Positions have hardened, and compromise is regarded as weakness. Good faith and the common good are antiquated ideas. Gridlock is the norm. Frustration and anger are common currency in the halls of Congress.

It’s difficult in any discussion of American democracy not to cite Churchill’s dictum that –

‘Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

American democracy, we are told repeatedly, is an experiment. There have always been political differences, but there have been periods where established rules and behavioral norms provided a template for dispute resolution. As a former lawyer/mediator/arbitrator I was schooled to listen first and talk later.

Now, with a 50-50 party split in the Senate and the likelihood Democrats will lose seats in the upcoming midterms, frustration is fueling a rising tide to eliminate that pesky procedural obstacle called the filibuster. There are so many bills – voting rights, infrastructure, childcare, paid leave, child tax credit, climate change, gun control – awaiting Senate action but they are being blocked by Republican opposition. Their tool is the filibuster, and its use prevents a simple majority from passing legislation. The only way around it is a 2/3 vote for “cloture” i.e. a vote to end debate and proceed to a vote.

Both houses of Congress are dysfunctional. Republicans are committed to stonewalling all of President Biden’s initiatives, while House Democrats fiddle over “progressive” versus “moderate” agendas while Rome burns. Unable to modify their own positions to support their own president’s sweeping Build Back Better Bill (stupid name) while at the same time two Democrats in the Senate have stolen the headlines by denying the president his bill. They all look like elementary school kids squabbling on the playground as the tornado approaches.

It’s not simple, but here are Jack’s Notes on the filibuster: The US Constitution recognized that there were certain situations that required more than a simple majority to achieve a convincing consensus in support of an action. Impeachment. Expelling a member of Congress. Overriding a presidential veto. Ratifying treaties, and proposing constitutional amendments were explicitly listed as requiring a super-majority (2/3) vote. Some required it of the Senate only, and some required it of both Houses. Alexander Hamilton argued against it in The Federalist. Aaron Burr, his nemesis, thought it necessary in certain situations to develop a super-consensus.

The name comes from a Dutch word meaning “pirate” and suggests its use takes something unfairly. Implementation of the procedure is governed by the Senate’s rules and is subject to change by a simple majority. The tool itself was rarely used until after the Civil War but came into prominence during the move to enact civil rights legislation in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Southern Democrats used it to stonewall enactment of those laws.

Senate rules have been modified several times in order to modify the filibuster’s use, most notably in 2013 when Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader exercised the “nuclear option” i.e., changed the Senate rule regarding presidential nominees to the Supreme Court. The nuclear option was to carve out an exception granting the majority confirmation authority for Supreme Court nominees. Reid was stalled trying to gain confirmation for Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and this allowed him to move their appointment to the court through.

At this point, it’s good to remember that “elections have consequences,” because as soon as the Republicans took control of the Senate in 2017, Mitch McConnell took Harry’s nuclear option one step further and extended the carve out to all federal judges, giving Trump the opportunity to appoint 3 Supreme Court justices, 54 appellate judges, and 245 district court judges in four years.

The Democrats’ frustration with the current gridlock is understandable, but there are pluses and minuses to eliminating the filibuster or carving out an exception for voting rights? The rule is starting to look like Swiss cheese to me. Too many holes. On the one hand, it’s certain that all of President Biden’s legislation is doomed if they don’t make an exception. On the other, they need to remember that elections have consequences, because it is almost certain that Republicans will take the House and Senate in the upcoming midterms.

My intuition tells me they should “be careful what they wish for.” After yesterday’s vote, the filibuster is still with us. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Arizona’s purple-haired wild card, Krysten Sinema, opposed the rule change in yesterday’s vote. There will be no “nuclear option,” i.e. exception, for voting rights legislation though both senators have declared their support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act awaiting Senate action.

There are a couple of options involving rule changes that could make it slow the opposition, but they are unlikely to succeed. Earlier in its history, the filibuster required a senator or group of senators opposed to the bill to hold the Senate floor by being present and speaking their objections. Called a “talking filibuster” it was made famous in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The opposition had to be present and command the floor, but the rule was changed, and now a senator need only state his or her intention to block “filibuster” a bill to stop its progress. Then a “cloture” vote is taken to close off debate or bring it to a vote on the merits.

Psychologically, the Democrats are caught in a classic “double bind.” That theory, simply stated, posits “a situation in which a person (or group) is confronted with two irreconcilable choices or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” In this case, the two courses of action are (1) to suck it up and accept their failure to enact the legislation, and (2) wait out the midterm elections and watch the Republicans amend the Senate rule to pass their own legislative agenda.

The original Voting Rights Act passed the Senate with a 79-18 vote in favor. That bill stood as enacted until the Supreme Court struck down the provision requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to “preclear” any changes with the Attorney General or the US District Court for D.C. Shelby County v. Holder (2013). That decision effectively gutted the law and all attempts to re-enact the legislation have encountered total Republican opposition. It seems tragic that invalidating a law designed to cope with racial discrimination is now enabling individual states to make it harder to vote. As of October 2021, 19 states had passed new laws to that effect with others in the hopper.

It’s not a perfect world, but we can do better if we want “to form a more perfect union” where everyone is encouraged to vote and every vote is counted. We are at an inflection point. History is cyclical. In less than 30 years America will be a white-minority country. The voter suppression laws now being enacted by the states are a last-ditch effort to forestall the effect of that change. I’m concerned that America is not listening to its better angels, that we are near a tipping point that favors anti-democratic forces. My fingers are crossed.

Reunion Follies…

I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but I’m not a fan of reunions. I’ve always thought they were too focused on the past – and often more sad than joyful. Lately that feeling’s been reinforced as a consequence of Stephen Sondheim’s death. Sondheim’s musical theater work is not traditional in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sense. No tunes to whistle. No catchy one liners. No surrey with the fringe on top. I had a philosophy professor who told me Kierkegaard was hard work but worth the effort. I feel the same about Sondheim.

The more I dig into his repertoire, the more complex and difficult it becomes. First came West Side Story and Gypsy, shows he wrote the lyrics for but others wrote the music. They were big Tony Award winners, but Sondheim wanted to write both words and music. His first successful effort was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but it wasn’t until Company (1970) and Follies (1971) that he found the formless form that became his signature style and marked a sea change in musical theater.

Both productions won multiple Tony’s. I’m especially taken with Follies, a period piece built around the reunion of a group of showgirls from Weissman’s Follies (think Ziegfeld), a musical revue that took place between the two World Wars. The play is set 30 years after their last performance. The “girls” are getting together in the crumbling theater where it all took place to reminisce. 

Follies makes my case for reunions. There’s anticipation and nostalgia for shared experiences and past relationships, but for the most part they disappoint and trigger memories of old resentments and unmet hopes.

At my age, the future has a short horizon but backward is a dead letter file. One of the jokes about reunions is that participants often say “Who were all those old people?” We want to see ourselves as we were in the old days, but we’re not the same people we were 30, 40, 50 years ago – inside or out. We are those old people.

I’m a member of a several groups that get together regularly, grade school (annually), fighter squadron (every two years), high school, college, and law school (every five years or ten years) and Pan Am where I was a pilot for 20 years. I’ve been to a few of these gatherings over the years, but the only ones I’ve enjoyed are the informal ones with old friends. There are relatively few unfulfilled expectations.

The hardest ones, for me, are the annual Pan Am gatherings. Notwithstanding the fact that I dislike reunions in general, this one is a petri dish swarming with anger and maudlin memories of the company’s collapse along with the subsequent loss of income, pensions, friendships, and in many cases identities.

In Follies, the old showgirls, shadowed by ghost-like younger versions of themselves, snipe at each other and clumsily replay their greatest hits. One sings I’m a Broadway Baby. Another one belts out I’m Still Here. They circle each other. They smile and stab, but the curtain came down 30 years ago.

Pan Am collapsed 30 years ago in December. Once the world’s greatest airline, it failed to adapt to a changing environment, was mismanaged, and fell on hard times. An unregulated industry allowed vulture airlines to swoop in and cannibalize its assets. In a few short years it was out of business.

I loved my time at Pan Am and the many friends I made there, but I’m not interested in replaying our greatest hits. I’m not judging those who do attend. I understand wanting to see old friends, but it doesn’t work for me. The crowd is too large. No time to really visit. It feels like we’re the remnant caught up in a time warp and circling the drain. We’re old now, fearful, and dying off. Is that all that’s left? I definitely feel a kinship, but most of my friends have changed and moved on.

Ironically, I received an email this morning from the pilot friend who has held this group together for 30 years. It was to tell us that the reunion scheduled for San Diego last October and rescheduled for April this year has been cancelled. Covid is the culprit, and he, the prime mover, is finished. “Due to my age (90) and physical capability I will not be involved in any future Pan Am social events.”

More than 300 former employees were signed up to attend the gathering in San Diego. His departure probably signifies the end of the Pan Am reunions. He has my deepest sympathies but it feels like the right time for the last curtain call.

Follies is worth watching (as is Company). Both plays hold a mirror up to the past and ask us to examine it and our relationships realistically.

Folly plural follies:

  1. a lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight, as in “his folly in thinking he could not be caught.”
  2. a foolish act or idea, as in “the prank was a youthful folly.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Celebrating Journalists…

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the mob assault on the US Capitol. That its nature and provenance remain subjects of debate is a symptom of the deep division in the American electorate. That President Trump empowered the mob by refusing to accept the results of the election and perpetrating the lie that the election was stolen speaks to his character and the loyalty and gullibility of his followers.
The antidote to this Big Lie is education, accountability, and rigorous investigative reporting. Thanks to a fearless, on the spot, dedicated group of journalists and photographers we were able to see the events unfold. Americans saw live coverage of that violent assault. We watched as the mob knocked down barriers, rushed up the steps, broke windows and doors, stormed into the House and Senate chambers, ransacked offices, erected a gallows, threatened to kill Vice-President Pence, and injured more than 140 law enforcement personnel. Nevertheless, there are those who, to this day, are trying to convince us that what we saw was not what we saw.
Despite a lack of cooperation from Republicans, a bipartisan Congressional investigation is underway into its origins. Trump partisans continue their widespread effort to keep those responsible from being held accountable. If not for the words and pictures of the Fourth Estate, we might never have known the magnitude, carnage, and sequence of that violent attack.
But this story is more about journalism than the events described above, although those events exemplify the importance of journalism and the courage and integrity of its practitioners. Every day, reporters and photographers roam the world and report back to us on everything from climate change and genocide to financial corruption and drug cartels. The world is a dangerous place, and journalists put themselves at risk to tell us about it. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 45 journalists were killed while doing their jobs in 2021 – 50% more than in the previous year.

Three years ago, M and I spent an entire day at the Newseum in Washington D.C., and on this date two years ago, I shared my dismay at its closing. The Newseum was a private institution in Washington D.C. Established by the Freedom Forum, a 501(c)(3) public charity. For 22 years, it educated visitors about the five freedoms of the First Amendment and the importance of a free and fair press. Unfortunately, it was unable to compete with the free museums on the Washington Mall, and closed its doors on December 31, 2019.

It’s an understatement to say I’m disappointed that the Newseum was forced to close. We need, and journalists deserve, a space to honor the profession and celebrate its mission. There is an effort underway to find another site, but it will be difficult to find one as central and appropriate as the one on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was hard to miss the symbolism of that location, with the White House at one end of the street and the Capitol on the other.
Its mission was to educate the public but also honor journalism and journalists worldwide. The tragic deaths of 75 international journalists and photographers in the last two years reminds me how dangerous the profession can be. The Journalists Memorial, in the main hall, was the most striking reminder. Covering a floor to ceiling wall, it was composed of 2344 photographs of reporters, photographers, and broadcasters who died reporting the news. It spoke dramatically of the courage, responsibility, and danger associated with the profession.

I recently noted the number of women reporters reporting from dangerous places. Clarissa Ward (British), Holly Williams (Australian), Christiane Amanpour (British-Iranian), Debra Patta (South African) and Marie Colvin (American) who died in 2012 covering the Syrian war. We see them on the nightly news reporting stories from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Iran, and Gaza. They are not hiding behind men. They’re out front talking to soldiers, victims, insurgents, and warlords. In countries where women are second class citizens, they’re on the front lines with battle gear, hijabs, or burqas challenging those they interview.

The Fourth Estate is vital and active but under attack – and not just from the right. The way we receive the news is changing. More than 1 in 5 newspapers have closed since 2004. Newspapers can’t compete with Breaking News on television and the Internet. Traditional news sources are losing ground to opinion-based cable channels like Fox News. Investigative reporters are fact checked to insure the accuracy of their stories, but news consumers are finding it difficult to distinguish reliable sources of information. Facebook is not a new organization, but the Pew Research Center reports that 36% of Americans get their news there.

The Fourth Estate delivers the news. It monitors, investigates, and reports back on the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. It is society’s conscience, the guardrail that keeps government from overstepping its bounds and its officials accountable… especially in troubling times like these. We should all remember this tomorrow on the anniversary of that near fatal attack on democracy.

Six Years and Counting…

The end of the year, the winter solstice and family birthdays always remind me that we’re at the end of something and the beginning of something else – a convergence of old and new. Normally, it’s a time to review the passing year and prepare for the next. But the last six years have been unlike any that went before. How should we think of them? Our world has changed. The emotional, political, geographic, even the biological tectonic plates we relied on have shifted.

Climate change has brought floods where floods were rare (Western Europe and Arizona), multi-year droughts have depleted our reservoirs (Shasta, Powell, Lake Mead), raging wildfires have destroyed unimaginable amounts of forests and taken out whole residential communities (California and Australia), catastrophic tornados have attached themselves to the ground for never before lengths and devastated everything they touched (Kentucky), shootings have come to neighborhoods never before touched by violence (mine), our nation’s capital was attacked by domestic terrorists (January 6, 2021) because the outgoing US president was determined to retain power by overturning a legitimate election (Trump). Police continued to shoot black citizens while a 17-year-old white vigilante armed with an illegally purchased AR-15 gunned down three protesters before being acquitted of all charges and celebrated by right-wing groups as a “patriot” and “hero” (Kyle Rittenhouse). Worst of all, a lethal virus was loosed on the world, killing 800,000 Americans, while its eradication was effectively prevented due to its politicization by right-wing media and anti-vaccers.

What have these years been like for you? What about the next two or three? What the hell is going on? Issues large and small have us all off-balance. How should we respond and is it possible to right the ship?

At first, President Biden appeared to be managing both the virus and the economy competently. But, of late, the virus has morphed into a new dangerous phase and the president has stumbled, while surprisingly, it appears that one US Senator, a Democrat, is standing in the way of the president’s comprehensive plan to re-balance the social contract – enacting an extension of the Child Tax Credit, financial aid for child care and older Americans’ home health care, reduction in prescription drug costs, paid family and medical leave for private sector workers, universal free pre-school for all 3-4 year-olds, access to affordable high-quality education, an Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, minimum tax for large profitable corporations, and increased taxes for the highest income Americans. And more… How is it possible that one Senator can hold an entire nation hostage? But, of course, it isn’t just one Senator. Congressional factions no longer work to find middle ground in a bipartisan way. The two party system is locked in an “us versus them” power struggle.

I don’t want my year-end reflections to be political, but I find it difficult to sort out what has happened in this country over the past six years. What seemed solid now seems fragile. Institutional norms are being ignored. The unimaginable is now commonplace. Right wing zealots and QAnon supporters hold seats in Congress, while moderate and progressive Democrats are unable to compromise in support  of their own president’s agenda.

Apparently, compromise is seen as weakness. Fairness has slipped from the political vocabulary. State legislatures are enacting voting laws clearly intended to disenfranchise voters of color. Gerrymandered districts now favor Republicans by 39 to 19 giving them 20 more seats than their populations merit numerically.

For two years the world has been fighting a killer virus. Today we have the tools to defeat it. It should be our highest priority worldwide in the near term. Then we can address climate change, an even greater challenge. The past six years have been disruptive and challenging, and it appears the next three – including two more elections – will be just as challenging. Will the great American political experiment survive these changes or will ignorance and selfishness destroy the Founder’s vision? I may not live long enough to know the answer, but I plan to stick around long enough to sense its vector.

As we transition to the new year, my prayers are for peace, wisdom, common sense, and a shared purpose – what used to be our aspirational normal. Here’s hoping for a better new year.