Monday, May 30, 2011

Regarding Bob Dylan, `Round His 70th Birthday

They say that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t really there, but I was there, and while my memories are sketchy, they’re there, and I’m glad I have them. And some of my fondest memories are of Bob Dylan and what he meant to me as I was growing up. I had this poster of Dylan (left) on one of my bedroom walls for ages. I think it came with one of the rock albums, but I’m not sure. I just know that it, like he, was a constant presence, an inspiration, a yardstick, a spokesman for my times for a long, long time. The fact that he’s still with us and still writing and singing is comforting to me. It makes me feel that I haven’t been set loose into the future like a forlorn balloon, even though I have been – we all have been. May 24th was Dylan’s 70th birthday. I was never aware of his birthday, but his being 70 now – just 11 years older than I – feels important.

I remember reading an extensive interview with Dylan in Rolling Stone (one of the first of many in that magazine over the years), and the interviewer asked him how it felt to be the Voice of His Generation and he said “I don’t see myself that way.” I guess; it’s hard for any of us to see ourselves as others see us. But Dylan has always had public and critical response to him as an artist and a person to reflect back at him. Yet for as long as I can remember, Bob Dylan has always looked like he didn’t quite understand how he got to wherever he was and that he didn’t want the responsibility of being the Voice of His Generation. I imagine it’s hard to have greatness thrust upon you, even if greatness is what you aspire to. It just wasn’t the kind of greatness he had in mind. So it goes.

From the start, all Bob Dylan wanted was to make music, and rock `n’ roll was his first love. He wanted to be Elvis Presley before Woody Guthrie captured his heart, which took him unexpectedly into the folk revival of the 60s. He wanted to be relevant more than he wanted to be political, but he allowed himself to be embraced by the civil rights/anti-war politics of the time and to reflect that in his music as a “protest” singer/songwriter. He allowed Pete Seeger to take him under his wing. He allowed Joan Baez to share her fame and her social voice with him. He may have been sidetracked, but he wasn’t stupid.

Dylan gave the movement some of its most important anthems, but he was never on the front lines. Oddly enough, he wasn’t really a political animal, he was an artist and a poet. And when he went electric (to the dismay of the folk/political purists), he really didn’t understand why people responded with such rage. The man with so much insight and talent to express, the artist cunning and ruthless enough to be an opportunist, never understood what he meant to people, and never saw any obligation to his audience because of that meaning. That he was so clueless in his prime is what made him human. I think he gets it now and has for some time. What makes him human now is his age.

I sort of tell time by his albums, at least up to a point. I remember being about 12 or 13 and buying his first three albums, Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Another Side of Bob Dylan and devouring them. I was among the folk purist audience who booed him at the infamous Forest Hills concert when he went electric in the mid-60s, but I came to relish the Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home albums. He turned me; I got it. I remember sitting in the back of the B-41 Flatbush Avenue bus clutching the Blonde On Blonde album I'd just bought (I still think it was his greatest) and actually tingling with anticipation until I could get home and play it. I remember the seductiveness of Desire and the boldness of Blood On The Tracks (his important, eloquent middle period), and the lively, interesting Shot of Love and Empire Burlesque. Then for a long time he lost me. I didn’t catch up again until 1989's Oh Mercy (which was the soundtrack for a torrid love affair I had in the early 90s) then he lost me again. The man has released more than 50 albums, not counting numerous bootlegs. In 2009 he put out a Christmas album; you can’t buy everything.

It doesn’t matter that as I got older I didn’t keep up with Dylan’s Born Again period, or his cowboy/Pat Garrett period, or his extended Greatest Hits period. I’d shake my head about his odd ventures into different things, but I respected that he dared to try, and to do it in public, too. Bob Dylan taught me to express myself and take risks at every turn – lessons I haven't always lived up to. But he inspired the poet in me and the socially caring person in me and the dreamer in me. I’m grateful for that.

Now, as an old man, the father of six (including the talented, adorable Jakob) and the grandfather of nine, Dylan represents endurance to me, and a willingness to try new things at any age. In the 90s, he created some very lovely Matisse-esque paintings, and he performed in China for the first time just a few months ago. I pray he outlives me. I would feel untethered without the voice, and conscience, and very human confusion of my generation that is Bob Dylan.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Meaningful Memorials

Memorial Day is for remembering the military dead. Veterans Day is for remembering the surviving military. But as far as I’m concerned, this country does a very poor job of remembering, and honoring, the American military, dead or alive.

To start with, all that most people do to remember the military (particularly if no relative of theirs is currently serving) is wave the flag – literally from their homes, figuratively in their political views, emotionally in their hearts of hearts. Some may watch or march in a parade. Some may visit a grave or a memorial. These are all nice symbolic gestures; but aside from offering respect and dignity (not to be sneezed at, I know), they don’t mean anything, they don’t accomplish anything.

In consideration of things that might be more meaningful memorials, I feel compelled to start with something that happened this week that is the complete antithesis of what I'm talking about. Congress decided that military women who become pregnant from a rape by military men shouldn’t have their abortions (should they choose them) funded by the government. Presently, civilian government employees are so covered – minimally, of course, according to the traditional proviso: pregnancies created by rape or incest, or that threaten the life of the mother. This means that a servicewoman in Iraq or Afghanistan who has suffered a rape by a comrade in arms can just bite the bullet: keep the kid or spring for the abortion herself. It’s just our government's way of saying: we remember you. Thank you for your service.

The biggest thing that we don’t do to honor and remember the military dead – We the People and We the Government – is closely, seriously consider what the hell we’re doing before we send American military into harm’s way. Yes, of course sometimes war is necessary. But it isn’t/wasn’t necessary in Iraq, I’m way less than convinced it’s necessary in Afghanistan, it certainly wasn’t necessary in Vietnam. Truthfully, my lack of knowledge about the Korean War doesn’t allow me to assess that one. World War II was necessary; I can tell the difference. Neat, clean, minimal personnel, covert missions like the one that got bin Laden, that’s a contemporary example of putting military to good use. We should remember that.

Another thing we should remember: the military dead have families. They should not be delayed, or nickled and dimed, in receiving insurance and death benefits, and their benefits should be multi-faceted and much greater. They deserve that. If we had mindful decency in crafting and funding and executing these benefits, we would remember that.

The military dead were fiercely devoted to the surviving military. In honoring that devotion, we should remember to treat the surviving military very, very well. If they’re sick in any way, they should get the best care and therapy possible, no expense spared (or delayed). If they’re even just trying to reacclimate to civilian life, they should get the money, services and perks they need (and deserve), no expense spared or delayed.

It’s okay to have picnics and barbecues on the long Memorial Day Weekend. Everyone deserves a little spring break. But later next week, we should think about what we can do to honor our country’s military dead. Maybe it’s a relevant financial contribution, maybe it’s volunteer service, maybe it’s writing to your Congressional representatives. You’ll know what works for you. Maybe it is visiting a grave. But in lieu of flowers, please take good care of veterans.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End of Oprah As We Knew Her

Today was the official end of Oprah!, the daytime talk show that has been a personal Mecca for millions of women in 150 countries. Oprah Winfrey was on the air for 25 consecutive years. She interviewed literally thousands of people. She gave away millions of dollars worth of merchandise to her live audiences (from her own money). She was unique in television – and because of her, the lives and relationships and professional achievements of her viewers were vastly improved.

In some circles, making fun of Oprah Winfrey is s.o.p., but I would guess that those people hardly watched Oprah!, if at all. People make fun of her as an institution, with her daily show and her magazine and her production company and her Everything Oprah – but I think they’re just jealous. People make fun of her fluctuating size, her ever-changing hair, her (often) odd choice of outfits, her interviews with celebrities, the fact that she gave Dr. Phil a platform (the one thing for which I perhaps don’t forgive her), her relationship with her best girlfriend Gayle King, her relationship with her longtime man Stedman Graham. But I think they’re just nitpicking, and in any case, I don’t care.

I was never a daily Oprah! watcher, but I was a frequent Oprah! watcher and I have enormous respect for what she has achieved in her own life, and what she’s helped others achieve in theirs. Whatever Oprah Winfrey was, is and will be – in her next incarnation as the brains behind the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), those who have watched her frequently/regularly know that she is genuine, if nothing else. Her faith, gratitude, sympathy, empathy, and sense of purpose have been totally real.

And in the course of her 25 years, she has helped women (and men) cope with and heal, where necessary, the damage wrought by childhood sexual abuse; adult domestic abuse; drug/alcohol and other forms of addiction; the difficulties of intimate relationships, parenting, and just being a member of a family; care giving; handling finances; and, perhaps most important, achieving one’s best self through advanced education and/or taking personal and professional risks. She has also helped educate her global audiences about critical social issues, from the environment to poverty to the persecution of women worldwide. She provided a platform for broadening the world, and she gave her viewers concrete avenues by which they could help others and not a lot of people can say that.

Oprah has, in many ways, been the mainstream embodiment of the modern women’s movement. She was never overtly political; she transcended politics. She also transcended race, and as a result gave millions of white American women something they’d never had before: a black friend.

She encouraged people to read through her book club. She encouraged people to be grateful for the good things in their lives, and to express it to others and to themselves in gratitude journals. She encouraged people to be health(ier) through exercise, and through forming better relationships with food. Oprah has always been very self-conscious about her own weight and she certainly cheered on womankind in their efforts to diet successfully. I would have been happier if she had accepted herself at any/every size and encouraged others to do the same – but Oprah isn’t perfect, never claimed to be, and weight was/is her Achilles Heel. I don’t begrudge or judge her for that.

Watching Oprah today on her last show – one on which there were no guests, no gifts, no “gimmicks” of any kind, just Oprah talking straight and sweet about what the show has meant to her – I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’d watched her and felt I’d learned something new and useful, even important. I thought of how she made me laugh and cry and feel with utter openness. I thought about how brave she is, how giving, how wise – yes, wise. I’m going to miss Oprah! – but I know that for a long time to come, I’ll have Oprah, and when she’s gone, the whole world will have her legacy. That’s not chopped liver. That’s TV put to its best use. Congratulations, Oprah. Thank you. And good luck.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

America’s Newest Enemy: The Unemployed

I was eagerly awaiting the new HBO movie about the 2008 economic crisis that nearly brought us asunder and to where we are now, Too Big To Fail, so I of course made a point of watching it Monday night. While I certainly enjoyed the performances of the all-star cast and even came to understand a little better how the crisis came to be, my ultimate take-away (as just an ordinary American Jane) was that the people portrayed (mostly men; financial CEOs and political finance big-wigs both here and abroad) were indeed the greedy, crooked bastards we thought they were, and I deeply resented them anew for nearly destroying the world so they could further swell their corporate and private coffers.

Due to the crisis they created, and because of the government bail-out that was initiated by Bush but has since somehow been attributed to Obama, America is still in a crippling recession (although government would have us believe it’s over) and more than 17 million people are unemployed – many of them for a year or more. This is bad, but what makes it worse is that the unemployed are increasingly being singled out as a problem – not because they can’t find jobs, but just because they exist, period.

Current workplace practices and proposed state and federal policies are demonizing the unemployed as lazy, inadequate workers who are draining business and government resources. A May 22 story from AP re-posted on The Huffington Post explained that “Unemployment Benefits Face Duration Cuts In Multiple States” because “Legislators are trying to limit tax increases for businesses to replenish the pool and are hoping the federal government keeps stepping in when the economy slumps.” The problem is, according to The New York Times on May 15, “The House Ways and Means Committee, on a strict Republican vote, recently passed a bill to let states use federal jobless money for other purposes, including tax cuts for business.” It bears noting that the deal the Republican Congress made was to maintain Unemployment Benefits in exchange for continuance of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1%. So much for honor among thieves.

Adding insult to indigence, there is widespread government feeling that the unemployed are living high on the taxpayer hog for as long as possible, rather than looking for work or accepting the (usually lesser) jobs offered them. Indeed, in Florida, “One proposed bill would cut initial benefits from 26 to 20 weeks, deny benefits for employee `misconduct,’ force workers to accept job offers that pay at least 80 percent of their previous wage, or to accept any offer that paid as much as their unemployment benefit, once they’ve been out of work for more than 12 weeks,” the Sun-Sentinel reported on May 17.

These measures are just another example of the Republicans’ inexplicable lack of understanding of how real people live, what they need, and the compromises they make every day in an effort to survive and make the most of any and every opportunity.

There seems to be no official recognition of the fact that there is an increasing number of people whose lifelong work skills have become obsolete and in many instances the opportunities to gain new skills are simply not available. There are people who are willing to relocate for work, but it’s impossible for them to sell their homes – not at a profit, but at all. There are also people who are unwanted in the workforce because of their age; those 50 and older are the ones who have the greatest difficulty finding any sort of new job, let alone one that will compensate them at the rate of their previous job.

And now the unemployed have a new obstacle: potential employers who do not want to hire the unemployed! My friend the career counselor tells me that businesses have it in their heads that the people who’ve lost their jobs are in this position because they weren’t good workers. How this is possible is beyond my understanding. Don’t they know that thousands upon thousands of perfectly competent people have become unemployed because of our miserable economy? Are they totally out of touch with what’s happening?

The other reason companies “don’t want to be bothered” with the unemployed is that they want to reduce the number of applicants they have to contend with; they don’t want to be deluged with a thousand résumés for every job. Inconvenient, I know, but excuuuuuse me! That’s totally reprehensible – and completely unpatriotic.

Ironically, a bill was presented to Congress by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) on Feb. 17: The Unemployment Insurance Solvency Act of 2011, intended to “…provide assistance to certain employers and States in 2011 and 2012, to improve the long-term solvency of the Unemployment Compensation program, and for other purposes.” It was promptly sent to Committee, where it remains.

So long as displaced American workers are treated like goldbricking moochers, while state and federal governments, as well as employers, concern themselves exclusively with the horror of increased taxes, unemployment in this country will only increase. The American workforce is also Too Big To Fail. I hope the powers that be realize this soon.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Challenges of Compromise

President Obama said what was necessary in his Middle East speech today. He spoke truth to the power of change. He spoke of an entire region in transition and the importance of U.S. and global support for peaceful revolution. It was not until the last ten minutes of his 50-minute speech that he addressed the unceasing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in that regard he talked about the necessity for compromise. Compromise sucks. Particularly if you have strong feelings about one side of an issue. That said, the fact that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are especially pleased with his remarks is proof that he found a practical middle ground.

Given what’s been going on in the Middle East for the past six months – and what continues to occur – it would have been impossible for the President to make entirely pro-Israel comments, and indeed, it would not have been in Israel’s best interest. Similarly, had he suddenly placed America in an entirely pro-Arab/ Muslim position, it would have been a terrible betrayal of Israel and, in this instance too, not a stepping stone to a viable peace.

Those who choose to maintain a completely anti-Obama position, such as whoever’s writing the hateful and slanted American Blood Eagle blog, which called him Imam Obama and said he’s an anti-Semite, would do well to get a grip. In general, it would be really helpful if people stopped flinging terms like racist and anti-Semite around as if they were just handy catch-all phrases for things they don’t like. These words and what they represent are very powerful and it’s vitally important to make a distinction between those who take positions with which one disagrees and leveling such strident accusations.

As you probably know by now, the thing Mr. Obama said that upset Israel’s most ardent supporters is that Israel should return to the borders it had prior to the 1967 War, and that "long-term occupation" was untenable. Yes, that stung. But compromise means giving up something you care about. The President also said that Israel’s security interests must be protected, called for a non-military Palestinian state, and acknowledged that it is reasonable for Israel to resist negotiating with parties openly committed to its destruction. Guess who's unhappy about that?

In my opinion, President Obama made the most honest, pertinent and all-encompassing speech about the Middle East ever uttered by an American President. The very fact that he discussed the region as a whole and not just the Israeli-Palestinian “issue” demonstrates that.

There are those who are already dismissing the speech as a campaign tool and disparaging the President’s wisdom and sincerity. This is both disingenuous and counter-productive. There is no denying that Barack Obama is a politician and that as such he has done many things over the past three years that have been a body-jarring jolt to the progressives who put him in office. In a number of important instances, he has given the idea of “compromise sucks” disheartening new meaning.

But with this most-recent speech on the Middle East, Obama has shown an intelligence, understanding and sensitivity regarding complicated issues in an increasingly shrinking and technologically-connected world that is nothing less than laudable. If he’s gearing up for a nothing-left-to-lose second term, presenting us with the Obama we thought we were getting in the first place, America, the Middle East and the rest of the world will be the better for it.

Nostalgia and Literacy

I watched You’ve Got Mail Wednesday night – for the umpteenth time. This is the 1998 Nora Ephron romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as rival booksellers who, unbeknownst to them, are also each other’s secret e-mail pal. It’s set in New York City, primarily in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side, and it’s one of my comfort-food movies, the kind I reach for when I want a soothing slice of yesterday after a hard day in the present.

I distinctly remember disliking this movie when I saw it in the theater way back when. I was irritated by how bright and clean Manhattan looked, a far cry from its real-life appearance. And I was bothered by Meg Ryan’s choppy hair and lifeless, colorless wardrobe and her total lack of jewelry. But now, it reminds me of what New York was like even just a few years before 9/11, before we were aware of terrorism and a cloud of suspicion and fear blanketed the city and never left. It was a time – just 13 years ago! – before all sorts of New Media took over our lives, personally and professionally. There was no Facebook or Twitter or texting or e-books. The Internet was AOL and e-mail was the big thing.

The movie is also an unintended harbinger. Hanks is one of the key executives behind a chain of super-bookstores a la Borders and Barnes & Noble, which are pushing out quaint and once-thriving independent bookstores – like the children’s bookstore Ryan owns. So besides the romance, there are vital messages: about the importance of independent bookstores which, like so many Mom & Pop operations, once gave New York its distinctive flavor. At a rally Ryan orchestrates to try to save her store she asks the assembled crowd: “Do you want the West Side to become one long strip-mall? Do you want to get off the train at 72nd Street and not even know you’re in New York?”

Alas, over the past 13 years, New York has become, in great part, one long strip-mall. Chain stores of all kinds have usurped small, privately-owned shops of all kinds, and the façade of the famous West 72nd Street subway has been altered by renovation and expansion. Taxis used to be sedans; now they’re miniature clown-vans. Neighborhood coffee shops used to abound; now it’s all Starbucks all the time. People in Manhattan used to dress up, or dress crazy; now most people look like they just fell out of bed. All that, along with our Mayor’s numerous Nanny-State laws, has made New York as vibrant and exhilarating as Peoria, Illinois. I really miss the New York I was born and raised in, and the Upper West Side I’ve lived in for 34 years.

The film’s other thread of message is about the importance of books in children’s lives. “I realized that it wasn’t just about selling books,” says Ryan of the lessons she learned when she helped her mother (the store’s previous owner) as a child. “She was helping people figure out who they were going to be, because the books you read as a child affect you like no other books…” Embarrassed, she ends her rant.

But my rant is just beginning, because there was a very disturbing story in the Times a couple of days ago, “A Book In Every Home, and Then Some,” which reports that “some 42 percent of American children — more than 31 million — grow up in families that lack the income to cover basic needs like rent, child care, food and transportation. `These are families that are not buying books at retail,’ notes Kyle Zimmer, the co-founder of First Book.” First Book is “a nonprofit organization…which is spearheading a new market mechanism that is delivering millions of new, high quality books to low-income children through thousands of nonprofit organizations and Title I schools.”

I was fortunate to have lots of books as a kid, both those that were given to me and, as I got a little older, the ones I got for myself in school libraries and local public libraries. The article also explains that public libraries in poor neighborhoods are open fewer hours than those in other locales and also have much smaller inventories. School libraries, of course, are as deficient as the schools they’re in.

Books have been a staple throughout my life. My mother, an English Literature major whose great ambition was to teach (but she got stuck in a series of middle management jobs instead) used to read to me often – and not just from children’s books. At the age of seven I could practically recite Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Peacock complete with Irish brogue. Books were everywhere in our home, along with music of all kinds, and my mother would get framed prints of famous paintings from the library to hang on our walls. That foundation absolutely gave me a leg up into adulthood and it's left me with wonderful memories. I don’t suppose libraries lend framed prints anymore…

It’s horrific to imagine 42% of American kids not having even a modest home library. I’m also not particularly happy about the rest of contemporary homes, where in many instances, books are giving way to electronic toys and tools and texting on colorful phones in elementary school. I shudder to think who these people will become when they’re grown, the clean slates they’ll be without the memory of books and language and imagination to fall back on.

By the way, all of the thousands of books used in the production of You’ve Got Mail were provided by numerous publishers, who then allowed them to be donated to a national literacy organization.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nakba vs Never Again!

I’ve been wanting to write a post about contemporary American views of/positions on Israel, specifically in terms of the American Left and Right, for some time and today seems definitely the day to do it. That’s because, as the New York Times reports, Israel’s borders erupted in deadly clashes on Sunday as thousands of Palestinians — marching from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank — confronted Israeli troops to mark the anniversary of Israel’s creation [in 1948]. More than a dozen people were reported killed and scores injured.” You should know that what Israel calls its anniversary, the Arab world calls “The Nakba,” the catastrophe. Sixty-three years later, it’s still a catastrophe to them.

When I was growing up in the `60s, the American Left – which really existed back then – was an ardent supporter of Israel, largely because of the strong support for civil rights on the part of most American Jews. Over the decades, as Jews – like most other white people in America – became increasingly afraid of increasingly militant blacks and “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs reconfigured the social structure of the country, support for Israel began to wane on the Left.

By the Reagan Democrat 1980s, the Christian Evangelical Right began to embrace Israel – not because they love Jews (they don’t), but because they champion the one Middle Eastern democracy that exists, and which happens to contain important Christian holy sites they want to see protected and to which they want to maintain access. Correspondingly, the Left discovered new-found compassion for the Palestinians, who then, like now, live largely in self-imposed poverty and a complete lack of social/infrastructural development, because all their energy (including the content of their middle schools, the madrasas) is focused on hating, demonizing, failing to recognize, and seeking to destroy, Israel.

In very recent years, most political quarters in Israel have been willing to make peace with those who despise them and support the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Their only terms have been that Palestinians and other Arabs officially recognize the State of Israel and accept its right to exist, rather than dedicate themselves to, as Hamas puts it, “pushing Israel into the sea.” This apparently is too much to ask. So, despite decades of effort on the part of the U.S. to broker a working, lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel’s other Arab neighbors, peace has been unattainable – because the mere existence of Israel, in their eyes, is a Nakba – a catastrophe.

Take a look at the map above, particularly if you haven’t taken a look at a map of the Middle East in a while. Look at the upper right-hand corner of Egypt. You see that little purple bit, scrunched in among Egypt, Syria and Jordan? That’s Israel. Keep in mind that Israel has no oil. Look at the size of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They’re enormous. Even Syria and Jordan, which are none too big, are still larger than Israel. Look at Iran – which is credited with having helped organize today’s four-pronged attack on Israel. It, too, is enormous. Yet in 63 years, none of these Arab nations have offered to give any part of their lands to the Palestinians as a permanent homeland. Why do you suppose that is? Perhaps to keep old hatreds alive?

Instead, everybody (over there) wants to take a chunk out of Israel and over the years they have. This is largely because of Jerusalem, which is the third most-sacred city in Islamic history, practice and tradition. Indeed, Jerusalem holds some of the most sacred Islamic sites in the region. And it bears noting that, like the holy Christian sites, these places have always been open to Muslims who wish to visit and make pilgrimages there. In fact, Muslims who cannot make it to Mecca, for whatever reason, set their sights on Jerusalem, and they have never been made to feel unwelcome. (Just last night, by the way, some PBS stations ran a very interesting program entitled Jerusalem: Center of the World, which is also worth seeing.)

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that it is religion and religious history that have created much of the antipathy between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In addition, I acknowledge that the establishment of Israel was fostered by Britain and the U.N. as a compensation to the remaining European Jews who managed to escape murder in the Holocaust – and in truth, this land was not theirs to give. In the process, as today’s Times also explains, “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes through expulsion and flight.”

This is not a petty matter and making comparisons between whose misery is/was greater is not productive. However, consider the fact that had the Palestinians demonstrated even a modicum of willingness to accept Israel, the Jewish State would have done everything possible to accommodate them and help them prosper. Throughout its short modern history, Israel has turned a tiny patch of the scorched desert into a luscious land of “milk and honey.” They would certainly have helped the Palestinians do the same. But that, apparently, does not matter.

What does matter is that anti-Semitism is alive and well the world over, and is in many ways the substance that feeds the Palestinians and their Arab comrades throughout the Middle East. Nonetheless, the Palestinian cause has captured the compassion of the American Left and others worldwide. I wouldn’t mind that per se, since I can understand how the Palestinians, compared with contemporary Israelis, can seem to be the Underdog, while the Israelis are cast as key allies of Right Wing America.

To the extent that that’s true, it’s unfortunate. But so long as Israel is hated because it is the Jewish State, and so long as Jews are hated, because…because they’re Jews!, it will be my opinion – and that of many other American Jews, as well as Israelis – that Never Again! trumps Nakba. It is time for the Arab world to accept Israel’s presence and its right to exist.

And it’s time for the rest of the world – including the U.N. and the American Left – to regain its knowledge of modern history and, for once, support the Jews. The Arab Spring will turn into a bitter cold Winter indeed if all it accomplishes is a massive new wave of anti-Semitism.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Civics of Health Care - Redux

In July, 2009, I posted the piece that follows: The Civics of Health Care. I have never re-posted a piece, but I feel very motivated to do so, because of a piece on Huffington Post the other day that raised the issue of discrimination against obese people and suggested that this was cruel and unwarranted. Needless to say, as always, the vast majority of comments left by readers vehemently disagreed, citing the ugliness, poor health and high health care costs created by obesity. I am SO tired of this widespread fallacy - and meanness. It has colored my life and continues to do so for millions of others. And so I hope you'll forgive me if I repeat the carefully researched and written piece I created the last time that obesity was named Public Enemy No. 1 by many ignorant people.

I am a fat smoker – and according to the arguments currently (hell, traditionally) being made to define what citizens most need to do to greatly lower the costs of health care is to combat obesity (it’s an epidemic!) and continue to tax, coerce and harass smokers into quitting – which makes me and those like me Bad Americans. I take objection to this Nanny State posture disguised as concern for the greater good, to being made to feel like a social pariah because, in today’s everything-must-be-politically-correct environment, one’s personal “bad habits” have become a legitimate public concern. This doesn’t face or solve the real health care problems and it’s neo-fascist bullshit – and here’s why.

First, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, the cost of health care in the U.S. in 2007 was $2.4 trillion, representing $7,900 per person and 17% of the GDP. Unchecked, this figure will reach $4.3 trillion and 20% of GDP by 2017. The Coalition notes that “Experts agree that our health care system is riddled with inefficiencies, excessive administrative expenses, inflated prices, poor management, and inappropriate care, waste and fraud. These problems significantly increase the cost of medical care and health insurance for employers and workers and affect the security of families.” My being a fat smoker – or not – does not and will not affect the gross deficiencies of the health care industrial complex.

Second, more specifically, according to Pub Med, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, “Recent estimates suggest that obesity accounts for 5.7% of US total direct health care costs, but these estimates have not accounted for the increased death rate among obese people. …Direct health care costs from 20 to 85 years of age were estimated to be approximately 25% lower when differential mortality was taken into account. Sensitivity analyses suggested that direct health care costs of obesity are unlikely to exceed 4.32% or to be lower than 0.89%. Conclusions: Increased mortality among obese people should be accounted for in order not to overestimate health care costs.”

Third, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Methods: We used three life tables to examine the effect of smoking on health care costs – one for a mixed population of smokers and nonsmokers, one for a population of smokers, and one for a population of nonsmokers. We also used a dynamic method to estimate the effects of smoking cessation on health care costs over time. Results: Health care costs for smokers at a given age are as much as 40% higher than those for nonsmokers, but in a population in which no one smoked the costs would be 7% higher among men and 4% higher among women than the costs in the current mixed population of smokers and nonsmokers. If all smokers quit, health care costs would be lower at first, but after 15 years they would become higher than at present. In the long term, complete smoking cessation would produce a net increase in health care costs, but it could still be seen as economically favorable under reasonable assumptions of discount rate and evaluation period. Conclusions: If people stopped smoking, there would be a savings in health care costs, but only in the short term. Eventually, smoking cessation would lead to increased health care costs.”

No honest, reasonable person will deny that there are frequently health problems associated with both obesity and smoking – but it bears noting that because of the physiological dynamics of obesity (such as the development of weight set-points and the fact that one may lose hundreds of pounds but one never loses a single fat cell), there are many fat people who are fat and healthy because of “good” eating and exercise habits.

Similarly, according to Health Clinic: Life Management Health Systems, “New research shows that even among long-term, heavy smokers, the risk of getting lung cancer can vary dramatically – from less than 1% to a whopping 15%. The risk of getting lung cancer was most heavily influenced by age, duration of smoking and how much a person smoked, says Dr. Peter Bach, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist and pulmonary physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. `Before this study, anyone who smoked for 25 or 30 years thought that they were at extra high risk of lung cancer when, in fact, there is lots of difference in risk,’ Bach says. …Researchers then applied the model to a sample of 300 people who had undergone cancer screening at the Mayo Clinic and came up with these sample profiles:

-- A 51-year-old woman who smoked a pack a day for 28 years and then quit has only a 0.8% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 52-year-old woman who smoked a pack a day for 35 years and who continues to smoke has a 2.8% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 58-year-old man who smoked 25 cigarettes a day for 40 years but quit three years ago had a 4.1% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 56-year-old woman who smoked two packs a day for 44 years and continued to smoke had a 8.4% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade.
-- A 68-year-old man who smoked two packs a day for 50 years and refused to stop smoking had a 15% chance of getting lung cancer in the next decade. His risk would drop to 10.8% if he quit.
`At the high end, you're talking about one in seven people,’ he says.”

I’m glad that our smart, skinny, cigarette-battling president is doing all he can to create a sane, workable, economically and medically sound health care system for America, which presently ranks way, way below the fiscal efficiency and medical effectiveness of every other industrial nation in the world. But please, let’s not turn this into a simplistic, finger-pointing process that demonizes fat people and smokers, yet gives short shrift to the cost/care facts associated with extremely advanced age; end-of-life care that regards death as a defeat, rather than a natural and inevitable part of life; the unwanted births of hundreds of thousands of babies who are often doomed to poor pre-natal and childhood medical care and poor nutrition stemming from poverty (not an undisciplined craving for junk food).

Indeed, let’s not ignore the enormous role of poverty (or close to it) in health and health care. It’s easy to sneer at fat people and smokers and say “You’re the reason medical care and health insurance costs are so high!” It’s much harder to take a more honest, detailed, comprehensive look at the problem as a whole and devise a system that cares for everyone, whatever their lifestyle choices may be. Some of us are fat and/or smoke. Others of us breed like farm animals, engage in dangerous sports, or just live longer than humans ever have before. And all of us are victimized by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and the support services they work with. Let’s keep this a medical and financial issue – and not create a false and mean-spirited social/moral divide.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What Does Freedom Mean Today?

Yesterday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day, a day to think about all that print and media journalists do to bring us the news of the day, a task that increasingly puts their lives in danger. The most recent occurrence was the deaths of two noted photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, in Libya last month. Just this past weekend, CBS-TV journalist, Lara Logan, reported the horror and terror of the mob sexual assault she endured during the joyous revolutionary celebration in Egypt. In so doing, she broke the long-established code of silence on the part of women journalists who for years have been routinely and broadly sexually assaulted, particularly in world conflict zones. In addition, journalists being kidnapped, beaten, injured and even murdered has become all too commonplace in Asia, Africa, South America, Central America, and the Middle East. (May 3rd as World Press Day was established by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – UNESCO – in 1993.)

As a news junkie, this troubles and concerns me. Equally distressing is the ever-degraded presentation of the news, by tabloids, but even more egregiously by television news, which is undeniably guilty of sensationalism; so dangerously blending news and entertainment that infotainment has become the norm; misleadingly combining straight news reporting with analysis and opinion; and giving inordinate airtime to people, organizations and issues that are more sideshow than news (e.g., Sarah Palin, Donald Trump/birthers, Charlie Sheen et al).

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that news outlets have openly, even aggressively, struck very definite political postures, so that simpatico viewers can get their news from their own established perspective, rather than hearing other opinions and ideas. This is polarized and polarizing media that fuels political partisanship and eschews all decent journalistic standards. (Social media is a whole other ballgame, but it must be noted that this, too, has become a news source, as well as a platform for political organization.)

To say the least, this kind of news delivery is not what earnest, sincere, committed journalists are putting their lives on the line for. A free press must be allowed to function as such everywhere in the world – but isn’t the idea, as well as the reality, of a free press, being alarmingly corrupted? And therefore, where is the public’s civic freedom?

Indeed, the freedom of American citizens in general concerns me as much as the freedom (and safety) of the press concerns me. Since the successful, covert assassination of Osama bin Laden, America has been engaging in a lot of cloying patriotism, blathering on about democracy and freedom without, I fear, truly understanding what democracy means and what freedom is – and therefore have not noticed that our freedom is being frighteningly eroded.

The causes for this go beyond the still extant limitations imposed by Bush’s Patriot Act as well as the intrusive, lengthy, and deeply flawed methods of national security, typified by what people have to endure in order to get on an airplane.

But the most serious threat to our freedom is speedily increasing income disparity between the rich and everyone else. It’s great that Americans are free to come and go as we please, but if we don’t have the resources to do it, freedom becomes a moot point. It wasn’t like this in the heady youth of Boomers; even with fairly limited resources, we and our parents were quite free.

Politically, our freedom to express our views, say what we want to whomever we want, is in ways systemically useless. Our general election campaigns go on for the better part of two years. Yet despite the countless polls, Americans have no formal, impactful way to express their opinions and tell our leaders/representatives what we want. Yes, we have the freedom to assemble, but the tactic of demonstrations doesn’t carry the weight it once did. We can carry on like yard dogs at town hall meetings and write letters to our reps, but discouragingly too often, our reps are more beholden to special interests than to us. And while we’re told that voting is essential and every vote counts, the arcane Electoral College voids the votes of large blocks of citizens in every state, because states themselves shine red or blue after all the votes are counted, and the minority in each state is discounted.

But I want to get back to the money part, because money is power, money is freedom, which is what makes the poor powerless and much less free than the rich (even the upper middle class, such as it still exists). This is true in ways both big and small. I, for example, cannot afford much-needed dental work, new eyeglasses, and new major appliances to replace ones that are decades old. I also need hearing aids, but I’m likely doomed to spending the rest of my life blasting the TV and asking folks who are talking to me to repeat themselves again and again.

Yet it’s the little things that get to me more. I went out yesterday – something I rarely do – and it was very upsetting. My NYC neighborhood, which used to have a Woolworth’s, small medical building, news/card store, and other local staples, now has more new high-rises (for people who can afford $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment) surrounded by Starbucks, high-priced frozen yogurt shops, high-priced restaurants, gourmet (high-priced) supermarkets, etc. I can’t afford to go into any of them.

So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t see a recommended medical specialist or choose which hospital I go into, because those decisions are determined by my managed health care plan. So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t afford to go to the movie multiplex, or The Theater, or much of anyplace else. So no, I don’t feel particularly free. I can’t travel, or buy clothes in boutiques and top department stores. Cabs are a luxury (and a misery, but never mind that), food prices are going through the roof ($1.50 for a cucumber? Nearly $5.00 for a half-pint of blueberries? More than $5.00 for a box of cereal?). So no, I don’t feel particularly free.

I understand that freedom isn’t just about the things you can buy. But having a solid personal economic base is an important part of freedom. And far worse than my circumstances are those of millions, indeed billions of others around the world, people who live in shacks and tents and wear rags, people who have no fresh water or sanitary facilities, people who are starving, people who don’t get even the most basic health care and education. People who are as free as the air they literally live in – until they die in childhood, or childbirth, or of old age – in their 40s and 50s.

As we wave our flags and sing our songs and take ghoulish public joy in the death of a feared enemy, let us give renewed thought to freedom: what it is, what it’s not, and how we can get it if we don’t have it. And yes, Virginia, class warfare is always a possibility, one might say necessity, when some people are rich and free and most people are poor and not. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin. If she was right, America and soon much of the world, will be the epitome of freedom.