A Few Random Observations

Three years ago I posted a list of brief observations under the “Commentary” heading.  Recent events have brought a few more to mind.

President Obama has the unfortunate habit of tailoring his remarks to satisfy one overriding concern–that is to say, how well they play politically.  Their content is another matter; accuracy, common sense, and–or so, at times, it seems to me–the national interest are trumped if need be. Whatever it takes to move the needle in his popularity polls.

A case in point is his lamentable news conference of August 20, 2012 in which, it is fair to say, he outdid himself.  When asked about whether he envisioned using the U.S. military to safeguard chemical weapons in Syria, the President expanded his answer to warn Syria against their deployment in its ongoing civil war.  He drew a hard and fast red line threatening “enormous consequences” should it be crossed.  It was an Obamesque moment once again demonstrating resolve and leadership (and, for some of  us on the sidelines, imminent peril)

Apparently his staff decided that their boss’s strong rhetoric would play well with the masses.  Nevermind any future repercussions.  The press of other events and an uncritical media could be counted on to downplay the matter and, they assumed, the Syrian government had no intention of using the weapons anyway.  To make certain that the President’s comments would not go unnoticed, the next day White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, in a briefing reiterated the warning in equally strong terms.

The only consideration that the President’s men left out in their analysis was that someone might call his bluff.  Almost exactly one year later, August 21, 2013, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria opened his winning hand and laid down 1429 dead bodies of his fellow countrymen.

Abruptly, the danger embedded in the President’s previous statements became starkly apparent.  To maintain his credibility–and, by extension, that of the government of the United States–Assad had to suffer the “enormous consequences” promised.  No two ways about it; he had to be punished militarily.  No mean trick when the realities of fighting on a distant battlefield against a Russian-armed adversary sunk in.

In an effort to backtrack from the significance of his threat, President Obama associated it with previous remarks by foreign diplomats in which they had condemned chemical warfare.  But, as it turned out, there were two kinds of red lines.  The diplomats’ had been cautiously drawn in ink; Obama’s had been umistakably drawn in blood.

As I write this on September 22, no one can be sure how the incident will play out.  At the moment, all that seems certain is that President Putin of Russia has emerged as a sober, humanitarian conciliator: Assad is free to conduct his fight against the opposition without fear of US interference; and Obama is stuck with a good-sized flotilla of warships with nothing to do for the next several months but keep redirecting its missiles to keep up with the Syrian’s furious redeployments.

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One would think from the continual pep talks, emanating from campus creative-writing classes, writers’ conferences, literary contest promoters, and award dinners, that all the worry of a shortage of graduate scientists and engineers is grievously overplayed.   The real national crisis is the dearth of nascent writers.  The injunction to “write on, you desperate scribblers, write on!” echoes from the halls of academia to the shores of Elysium.

But to an outside casual observer, all this commotion seems to fly in the face of reality.  Nevermind, it seems to insist, that the literary world is already flooded with a deluge of unreadable manuscripts.  Nevermind that the bulk of the public is too dazed and distracted by the barrage of electronic pixels it absorbs every waking moment to be aware of the concept of a book let alone pick one up.  Nevermind the numbers of bookstores and publishers that are biting the dust on a regular basis.  Nevermind that public libraries are evolving into amusement arcades in which poor children can fritter away as much of their time as rich kids.  Nevermind that only a tiny fraction of writers–professional football offers better odds–can earn a respectable living from their craft.  Nevermind that the only people making steady money in the business are those who prey on the naiveté of the herd.  It’s not a pretty sight.  There are those in charge of the feedlots, those handling the bellowing, crowded  truckloads, and those assuring spectators that the cargoes are headed for fame and fortune.  Entire civilizations have been destroyed by lesser mania.

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I can’t visit an art museum these days without imagining the impressions a visitor from another planet would have upon his first, unescorted tour through its impressive spaces.  Ignorant of our history, he would be dependent on his first-hand observations to sort out our cultural development.  Encountering the halls displaying contemporary abstracts he would likely conclude that these originated in our savage, ancient past.  Advancing into the displays of impressionist paintings, he would ascribe these to a transition period between the primitive he had seen first and the magnificently executed works of the late Renaissance that lay ahead.  Then upon concluding his circuit in a gallery devoted to the work of Etruscan goldsmiths, he would be overcome with admiration of the heights to which modern man had at least attained.  Returning to his spacecraft, now an authority on earthling art history, he would, no doubt, be eager to share his insights and snapshots with his fellow aliens.

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The Greens, understandably, regard themselves as the political party most enamored of nature.  To be consistent then, one would think that they’d find resonance with those in Washington, DC whose approach to governmental operations most closely tracked nature’s methodology–that is to say, the conservatives.  After all, it is the conservatives who expound voluntary–i.e. naturalistic–mechanistic systems as the means to better uplift living standards worldwide.  And, by the same token, one would think the Greens would abhor the liberal’s reliance on artificial, compulsory approach to governance.

Even if the Greens were not persuaded by conservative philosophy, they’d be remiss if they did not consider conservativism’s practical advantages.  As things stand, the Greens must feel frustrated that their alliance with liberals has produced so little actual progress on the ground.  True, they get no end of verbal support from the left, but, when push comes to shove, their presumed partner must cater to its unionized constituency whose policies of immediate gratification are often in direct opposition to the Green’s long term objectives.  Moreover, when it comes to environmental matters, the left depends on persuasion, negotiation, consensus, and unpopular regulation, none of which is as effective as capitalism in getting things done.  The Greens should abandon such efforts and instead ally themselves with the right, demanding, as they have every right, that environmental costs be reflected into the workings of the marketplace.  That argument won, the Greens need only sit back and watch capitalism achieve results that would gratify the most ardent among them.

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According to the Metropolitan Opera, this season I can look forward to their presentation of several favorites of mine all being conveniently broadcast  Saturday afternoons at a nearby movie theater.  Based on previous productions, I’m confident that this season’s shows will be equally entertaining.  Less happily, I can also anticipate that what goes on in front of the screen will not measure up to the performances so brilliantly displayed on it.  The audience will be too small and too old.  Each time I attend one of these operas, I feel compelled to gage how many of my infirm fellow theatergoers have perished since the previous performance.  Based on On-the-Beach-like calculations, I am led to wonder how long it will be before the rows of seats are occupied only by ghosts.

Why does the Met not aggressively bring down the average age of its fans to sustainable levels by handing out free tickets to high school and college students?  If it doesn’t do something to broaden the musical taste of American kids, my nearest neighborhood theater showing opera will be in Shanghai.

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Whenever the question of campaign finance arises, Congress, with the help of the Supreme Court, ties itself in knots.  Who can contribute how much and under what subterfuge are questions that are never satisfactorily resolved.  Nor, from my standpoint, should they be for, whatever their current interpretation, they all lead to the same dismal result–that is to say, a profusion of noxious political spots that do nothing but spread misinformation wrapped in emotionally-charged drivel.  Surely no one contends these thirty-second abominations serve any constructive purpose in our democratic process.  Just the opposite.  They are destructive of it.  By focusing attention on narrow, distorted, tangential matters, they distract attention from the genuinely important issues elections are meant to decide, stirring up, in the process, heightened partisanship.  In short they’re devoid of any redeeming virtue whatsoever except for the enrichment of the television networks with their odious cadre of advertising hangers on.

No one in his right mind would consider these commercials a form of “speech” having anything to do with that enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  They undermine the very concept of “freedom of speech” by corrupting it to “freedom to lie.”  Surely every congressman recognizes this.  Why don’t they do something about it?

*   *   *

Which brings me to another complaint about our election process.  Our current obsession with televised political debates provides the public with a firsthand impression of the candidates’ verbal skills, charisma, telegenic demeanor, and quick-wittedness.  Whereas these are indeed important qualities in a talk show host, they have nothing at all to do with what is truly wanted in the presidency as our recent endeavors in this connection have amply borne out.

If this country is to be well governed, our highest office must be filled by someone who is sagacious, rational, honest, experienced, empathetic, and a good administrator.  Finding a person possessed of these qualities is not an easy proposition, but I believe the following recommendation would yield a better vetting system than we have now.  Why not, in place of the usual debates, require every network to donate fifteen-minute slots in prime time for each candidate to address a single critical national topic–say, education–selected by the network?  The topic would be made known to the candidates in advance, and their responses prerecorded so that none can have prior knowledge of the others’ positions.  Four such rounds–each on a different subject—might then be followed by a discussion among neutral authorities chosen by the candidates.  Such a series should give the public a pretty good idea of how the candidates approach problems and enable it to draw reasonable conclusions therefrom.

Oh, and while we’re at it, another suggestion.  Imagine an executive faced with the selection of a sales manager with no more than a jumble of tens of computer screens on which appear only snippets of information about the job applicants.  It’s fair to say the executive would quit the exercise forthwith and demand that his personnel department reorganize the data so that he could readily compare them on a single spreadsheet– one row devoted to post-graduate studies, another to last job held, anther to the applicants’ age, etc.  You get the idea.  Since picking a president is presumably at least as important as picking a sales manager, voters should demand that they, too, have access to at least one, perhaps several, such sheets prepared by neutral sources from different perspectives.

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Our ever-alert press has, from time to time, exposed the disproportionate distribution of the races in our detention centers.  In unrelated analyses, the same sort of discrepancies have been exposed in the population of college students. Generally lacking in these studies, however, are remedies to the problem.  It remains, then, for this blog to postulate a simple measure that would, in a few simple steps, correct the anomalies.

Beginning with the published representation of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the general population, let us require, as a first step, that each institution of higher learning ensure its student body conforms to these statistics within, say, six months.  Universities with an overabundance of Asian students would, for example, be required to incarcerate as many of these as necessary to achieve the needed redistribution.  To avoid even a hint of prejudice in the process, the students so targeted for relocation would be selected by lottery thus obviating any unfairness or subjectivity.

Similarly, the same procedure applied to our penitentiaries would send a quota of arbitrarily-selected inmates to our colleges.  A few such iterations would soon achieve the wanted proportions and thus achieve racial balance and harmony.  Granted some readjustments would be necessitated by these transfers, but they would be a small price to pay for meeting this country’s number one priority: diversity.

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In everyday life, one expects to be asked to identify oneself all the time. When subscribing to a magazine, seeing a physician, buying property, obtaining a driver’s license, establishing a bank account, enrolling in an educational institution, voting in an election, and in a thousand other everyday routine matters, the first question asked and willingly answered is “who are you?”  With one notable exception: when using the Internet.  Then, it seems, requiring the user to identify himself is considered an unacceptable invasion of his privacy.

Every morning, I get a report of the number of times attempts have been made the day before to hack this blog.  Normally, I can expect one to five but, on occasion, the number rises with twenty-seven having been the record thus far.  Whereas none have been successful, their very repetition has been an annoyance.  What motivates these hackers?  Where are they located?  And who they are?  I don’t know and the Internet doesn’t either.  Anybody can say what they want, do what they want and remain anonymous.

We all want freedom of speech but we agree that shouting “fire” in a theater when there is none goes beyond what was intended in the Bill of Rights.  But what about recruiting terrorists on the Internet or using it to steal  companies’ intellectual property or to break into government confidential files?  Billions have to be spent on countermeasures to protect ourselves against these potentially damaging abuses of the system.  Understandably so.  But what about the possibility of changing the Internet itself?  No doubt this would entail a massive project but it is hard to imagine it more costly than what is being spent now to guard against its vulnerability.  Maybe create a second rational, fee-based, secure Internet in which responsible activities could take refuge and leave the present system to the cowboys.

Personally, I would look forward to the day when my access to the Internet subjected me to the same scrutiny required by my local library before issuing me one of its cards.  An annoyance, yes, but one happily incurred if I could be confident that my industrious hackers were subjected to the same identification procedure and that some adolescent in the Middle East could bring down our national power grid by wafting his thumb across his cellphone.

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