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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mutual Sacrifice

Bob Herbert in today’s (11/23/10) NY Times reflects on the meaning of JFK’s candidacy, inaugural and presidency, as short as it was.

Herbert: “What Kennedy hoped to foster was a renewed sense of national purpose in which shared values were reinforced in an atmosphere of heightened civic participation and mutual sacrifice.”

As so many have pointed out over the years, we are currently engaged in fighting two wars that directly affect only a small percentage of US citizens—those doing the fighting--troops, support forces and commanders-- and their families, relatives and friends.

Nobody has asked us to do much of anything to support these troops. They were hardly mentioned during the 2010 mid-term elections. No controversy?

At this time of Thanksgiving I like to remember what my parents did during WWII:

1. Used ration stamps for food and gasoline

2. Flattened tin cans and contributed them

3. Conserved water, especially in the bathroom

4. Dug and cultivated Victory Gardens

In addition, my mother, Elizabeth Barell, knitted black watch caps for sailors on the deadly convoy runs from NYC (or Norfolk) to England and/or Russia. Remember these were convoys of cargo vessels carrying much-needed war supplies that were stalked by Nazi U-boat wolf packs. Thousands lost their lives in terrible explosions from torpedoes.

She donated blood on 26 January 1944 and 27 June 1945.

And, finally, like her father, she became what we might today call an air-raid warden, trained to spot enemy planes over her community, Hartsdale, NY. She became an “authorized member of the Air Defense Command Filter Center Staff” in White Plains, NY, not far from our home. This card was “Not Transferable,” which means, I guess, that she had special training that could not be passed on to my father or others.

Today, what have we been asked to do?

Former-President Bush said he thought we were sacrificing because we have to take off our shoes in the airports, and now we go through full body scans to reach our destinations.

President Obama hasn’t asked us to do anything in terms of “mutual sacrifice” that I can identify. We hardly ever hear about these wars.

The point, I think, is that we have men and women implementing our foreign policy in two distant countries where in one, Afghanistan, we’re spending upwards of 1.6 billion a week and we’re not paying for it.

Former Senator Alan Simpson (Co-Chair of President’s Debt Commission) said we’ve always paid for wars even back to the Revolutionary War with revenue enhancements, call them taxes. Today, we’re using other peoples’ monies.

What can we do? Follow the lead of Betty Barell and millions of others.

I leave specifics up to our imaginations.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"How do you know?"

Upon reading Tom Friedman's column in yesterday's NY Times (11/17/10), I was reminded of my mother's oft-spoken question to me--"How do you know?" She first asked this when I showed her a picture of the Eagle Nebula on my computer and told her this was a “stellar nursery.”

In an unusual column about tv and cable news broadcasters/showmen, Friedman quoted at length a program by CNN's Anderson Cooper. Cooper evidently examined the claim made by many of one political persuasion that President Obama's recent trip to Asia would and did cost about $200 million per day. Yes, per diem.

When Cooper heard this claim he did some digging around and found that the first mention of this charge came from some not-well-known individual in India ("an alleged provincial Indian official") and then it made its way to the US, into the House of Representatives, onto cable tv news and the radio airwaves. No one could identify who this "official" is.

Like so many tall tales, new versions got added as people spread them: Obama's trip turned into a "vacation" guarded by ten percent (10%) of the entire United States Naval forces with an entourage of 3,000.

Cooper said on his CNN show: “. . . no one really seemed to care to check the facts." No one was curious enough to ask any one of the political figures, “How do you know it’s going to cost $200 million a day? Where did you get your information, your facts?”

Reminds me of the claims of WMD in Iraq. Who was fact checking the stories emanating from the same NY Times about their presence in Iraq before our invasion?

Friedman concluded, "When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem."

How did we get into this kind of situation--absent people who have a high regard for Elizabeth Barell's question--"How do you know? How do they know?"

Perhaps it’s the presence of the very 24/7 cable and radio news networks on which people of very strong political views voice their judgments. Or, can we really call them "judgments"? My definition of that term, especially when used to educate our young, involves drawing a reasonable conclusion supported by good reasons and very specific facts/data/evidence/information.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote once that we need to "teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed." It's OK to say, "I don't know."

Some of us seem to be very certain of just about everything leaving no room for doubt nor for that confirmatory question that Elizabeth Barell used to ask, "How do you know?"

I’m often found ranting and raving at the television set where some politician is making a modest, grand or outlandish claim. “How do you know?” Tell me the facts behind your claim, if there are any.

Rigid certitude may be the hobgoblin of small minds and what we need are more skeptics in the press, in government, in politics, at home, in the world of work and at play.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

No frigate like a book

Emily Dickinson wrote "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. . ." And this was my feeling on first opening a new book yesterday, Madison and Jefferson by Burstein and Isenberg (2010).

As I read the Preface, there was a frisson of freshness that overcame me as I realized I was venturing back to the 18th century and the founding of our country. There is always such a thrill when reading about Washington, Adams, Jefferson and their forging a new nation out of the thirteen colonies.

The authors make a point of telling us what historians do, that is challenge conventional wisdoms, assumptions and preconceptions about people in history and the events they helped initiate. "The discipline of history exists to reexamine time-honored treatments of people and events, and to separate myth from reality."

They warn against celebrating these men "blindly," for this invites "massive self-deception."

In other words, what the authors want to do is take a fresh look at the relationship of these two former Presidents, third and fourth, to hold them up to the light of new scholarship, new questions about what they did and didn't do.

One thing we learn right off the bat is that "Jefferson sought to undermine the [Constitutional] ratification process--to Madison's severe embarrassment." (xix) But Madison went on to champion Jefferson for the presidency, to battle John Adams, thus becoming his "campaign manager."

What's exciting about this literary/historical adventure is to witness two first-rate historians using their craft to scrutinize old misconceptions about two very famous men, founders of our country.

If we think today's politics are sometime brutal, one should learn more about the battles amongst the early men of the Revolution and the founding of this country.

Questioning the common wisdoms might not always be popular, but we need men and women who will accept this challenge, not just as historians but as critical friends within the parlors and corridors of power.

In the recent past too few questions were asked about major policy undertakings and with new memoirs afoot, we need all the inquisitiveness we can muster lest we thickly varnish reality.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chancellor's Realm

Here in NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed Cathy Black as new school's chancellor. Already opponents are saying she's not qualified because she's never been an educator, doesn't have appropriate education credentials (degrees and the like).

The Mayor obviously prefers to run the schools with what he considers to be excellent managers, people who have a proven record of leading large groups of people toward organizational goals--in the world of business.

This appointment raises many questions:

Would a potential chancellor benefit from experience in teaching and running schools?

Does knowing something about how kids learn, how they grow intellectually and emotionally help us organize large numbers of teachers and administrators toward being successful in school and beyond?

Do we not have anybody within a school system across the US with leadership credentials to govern the NYC public schools?

Does an "outsider" have more potential for effecting change within a very complex organization than and "insider"?

Can such a person create a strong team of educators to school her in the complexities of curriculum, instruction, school change/management, negotiating with unions and setting a vision for the future?

These are some of the questions we might ask about Bloomberg's choice.

His choice seems to say that anybody like Gerstner (formerly IBM chief), Iacocca (Chrysler), Gates/Balmer (Microsoft) or Mulally (Ford) could lead the NYC school system.

It makes an educator like me take pause, wonder about what it takes to lead a complex organization of professionals who pride themselves on knowing how to challenge students to become deeply involved, intellectually and emotionally, in their own learning, setting goals for their own improvement, asking good questions and pursuing thoughtful answers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Beyond Andromeda

During the summer I went out on our deck on eastern Long Island, looked up at the sky and surveyed the several constellations I'd learned back when I was a navigator in the Navy. There was Orion, the Big Dipper, Perseus, the Pleides, Gemini and Andromeda. And I looked for various stars I had used to navigate around the Pacific: Sirius, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Arcturus, Capella and several others.

But it was Andromeda that captured my fancy, because with a pair of binoculars I spied the famous companion galaxy to our own Milky Way, Andromeda. There it was as a slight, black and white fuzzy presence in the sky, some 2.5 million light years distant.

And speaking of our galaxy there it was directly overhead. For some reason I had missed it during the more than 30 years Nancy and I have lived in Shinnecock Hills near Southampton, NY. An arching band of stars, unmistakable in its majesty and splendor, with our solar system about 25,000 light years from the turbulent center that houses a massive black hole.

I start this blog with "Beyond Andromeda," because on this early August evening at about 10 PM I wondered what lay beyond our nearest galaxy. I wanted to know more about the galaxies receding from us. While Andromeda and the Milky Way speed toward each other, other galaxies recede, thus, according to astronomers, giving us some evidence of the very existence of the Big Bang.

My wonderings on that peaceful led to this blog posting. For in the days to come, I want to share various wonderings on a wide range of subjects, trying always to identify my own perplexities as Socrates claimed was his only purpose, not to lecture but to infect the youth with the perplexities, mysteries, puzzles and doubts he felt himself.

Wondering is my stock and trade these days--about nature, politics, human life and the great beyond.