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Sunday, December 19, 2004

I’ll be taking a blogging break until at least after Christmas - maybe until the end of the year. This is vacation time at chez Smith and I want to concentrate on activities that don’t tax the mind. On the other hand, if something comes to me between now and next year that strikes me as being too important to put off, I might find my way to a keyboard and impart words of great wisdom to an anxiously waiting world.

Gee, it’s exciting living on the edge like this. Also fun to babble nonsense in print.

But to be serious for a moment, some closing thoughts for the year - and since we’re a few days away from Christmas, some thoughts about that holiday and one of my favorite topics that I come back to again and again - religion. The two of course go hand in hand, but at this time of the year there are always complaints that our society is moving further and further away from that concept - and this year is no exception.

I like the Christmas season. I like the decorations and the music - religious and non-religious alike - and the good feeling that most people have at this time of the year. But there always seems to be the need by some people to gripe about what the holiday means or doesn’t mean and how it should or shouldn’t be celebrated.

I want to take up two "letters to the editor" on this topic to illustrate what I mean, and rather than paraphrase them, I’ve reproduced them here in their entirety. The first purports to offer "proof" of the "divine" origins of Christmas.
The Christmas season is perhaps the most written about time of the year in America. There are stories about everyone from Ebenezer Scrooge to the Little Drummer Boy; reports about everything from retail store sales to the consumer price index; talk-show hosts analyzing our holiday fatigue and dysfunction. But when we peel off each of the many cultural layers that have coiled around this holiday-holyday, what finally do we find?

We rediscover the 2000-year-bright tale of an infant born to peasant parents in a hilly hamlet hidden on the far edges of a great empire, an empire totally ignorant of and indifferent to his arrival.

Yet somehow--by historical serendipity say some, by divine intervention believe others--the child grows up to fulfill ancient prophecies and in time make that empire tremble with awe.

You can be a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Muslim, or an agnostic scientist insisting that there is no room in the rationalist methodology for the historically/archaeologically unprovable claim of a god becoming a man. Still you will not easily be able to explain all the wonderment nor refute all the faith of 20 centuries of true believers.

All of which means that the non-believer has two options this season: Stick with the facts, which are, admittedly, pretty spare. Or ask yourself why these non-rationalist, data-ignoring believers so often seem so much more grounded in moments of both cheer and crisis, especially during each new Christmas season.

If the doubters are so inclined, they might even want to ask one of these believers directly. Better yet, they might want to watch their children as they cling to their parents during a Christmas Eve service or as their eyes pop at the sight of a Bethlehem scene.

To be sure, none of these experiences will be proof for the doubters. They will, however, constitute palpable evidence that something unique is going on during these Christmasy days. Has been from the very beginning.

And although that infant's followers have tragically lost their way time and again since that first starry night, they seem to keep trying to find it.

Perhaps they know the journey is worth the effort, because they sense the destination is out of this world. Which seems to be exactly what those shepherds heard on that long ago night.
Well, the letter writer certainly makes his argument in poetic terms - but what is his argument? That the fact that Christianity has lasted for 2,000 years is "proof" of something? As I have written on this blog before, the history of Homo Sapiens covers a microsecond of the history of the earth, and two thousand years covers an infinitesimal fraction of that microsecond. So "twenty centuries of true believers" is an argument for nothing more than that - that there have been twenty centuries of true believers. Come back in two hundred thousand years, when we have perhaps moved out into the cosmos and have met beings from other worlds and the scientific knowledge of today is looked upon as primitive forms of voodooism - and tell me about two thousand centuries of true believers - and I’ll grant that it’s an argument for longevity - but hardly for the truth of what the "true believers" believe.

The letter writer talks about "doubters" and "options," but these aren’t issues for me as I enjoy Christmas. Nor are they for millions of other people who enjoy and even participate in the Christmas season without believing what he believes. Any more than they are for Jews who enjoy celebrating their traditions and holidays without "doubting" or believing in the miracle oil that kept a menorah burning for eight days - or in "plagues" that forced the Egyptians to let their Hebrew slaves go free.

And finally he talks about these "doubters" and "non-believers" being unable explain the "wonderment" of the season or to "refute" the faith on which it is based. Heck, worrying letter writer, no one wants to refute the faith or spend time trying to explain the wonderment of Christmas. We all enjoy it, specially the wonderment of the children that he talks about. But that isn’t proof of anything - and of course the purpose of the letter writer is to offer his rationale - if you can call it that - as proof of the divinity of Jesus. I’m sure kids evinced the same sense of wonderment during the celebration of trees and the lights and the gift giving of Saturnalia that took place at this time of the year, before there was ever a Christmas. And I’m sure you could evoke the same sense of wonderment in children with a half way professional magic act.

The stories, myths or whatever you want to call them on which religions are based, are for the most part intriguing and uplifting and enjoyable, but there’s really nothing more "unique" about one than any other. They all I am sure, induce "wonderment" and we’d be a better off species if we could just accept and enjoy that wonderment and stop trying to convince each other that "ours" is the true religion.

The second letter was from a woman and complains that the celebration of Christmas has become too secular and this writer wants public celebrations of all religions!!
"Tolerance." "Diversity." "Inclusion." Throughout America, these words are being used as the measuring sticks for what can and what cannot appropriately be said and done in public places. Sadly, while these words appear to promote a society that disenfranchises no one, they are being applied in ways that are frequently dividing us.

It is no longer socially acceptable to express a moral or religious belief because, seemingly by definition, this implies intolerance of another person's beliefs or disbeliefs.

"Webster's Dictionary" defines the word "tolerance" as "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own."

This sounds very American, doesn't it? It should, because we are a country built upon the principles of liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, yet these freedoms are increasingly being denied to us in the name of tolerance.

Christmas and Hanukkah have a way of bringing these issues to the fore. For years, legal debates have raged about nativity scenes or menorahs on public property and the singing of Christmas carols in public schools; but now the issue has spread to non-governmental institutions in support of the new highest morals--tolerance, diversity and inclusion.

At my office, a barbershop quartet, which has had a tradition of singing Christmas carols in the lobby in years past, was instead asked to sing at a "holiday" party for employees, where cookies would be served. They were also asked, of course, to avoid any songs of a religious nature, which others might find offensive. So "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" is acceptable, but "Silent Night, Holy Night" is not.

Apparently uttering a religious word or thought might offend someone, or perhaps make someone feel left out, so the only solution is to avoid these words and thoughts altogether.

As a Christian, I am offended by the hijacking of one of my faith's most important celebrations by those who disdain my beliefs. For decades, non-Christians and nominal Christians have celebrated the holiday in a mostly secular fashion. This is something that most Christians, including me, accept and tolerate. But when Christmas or "holiday" celebrations include only Santa, elves and Rudolph while specifically excluding my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, whose birth is the very definition of the holiday, labeling references to him as offensive, it mocks both him and my faith, and ultimately excludes me from the celebration.

If tolerance, diversity and inclusion were the true goals, then Christmas and Hanukkah could be publicly celebrated, along with Diwali, Ramadan, Visakah, Puja and others, and it would be those who complain about these celebrations and strive to suppress them who would be properly branded as intolerant.
There are of course very public celebrations of religion in some countries. They are theocracies - where political power rests with the clergy.

Whether this letter writer likes it or not, we have done a fairly decent job of keeping religion and the state separate from each other despite powerful efforts to make it otherwise. In doing so, to borrow a word from letter writer number one, we have indeed achieved something unique. We have managed to expand Christmas to the point where we are able to celebrate it on two levels - a joyous religious level and, to many, many people, an equally joyous secular level.

The secular celebration, which includes Santa and Rudolph and elves and trees and lights, and just good feelings toward each other, doesn’t amount to a "hijacking" of the letter writer’s faith, nor does it mock her faith or the historical figure that she believes to be a deity. On the contrary, it offers a compliment to the power of the faith which has given birth to such celebration.

She should be pleased that non-believers have embraced the joy of the Christmas holiday and are able to celebrate that joy, even if they can’t celebrate it as she does.

I’m sorry that she’s offended by her office celebration being confined to non religious songs - but there are countless places where she can join with others to sing and listen to religious Christmas carols, including her church and many public places. And of course television stations and radio stations up and down the dial.

Both of these letter writers sound as though they’d like to live in a different kind of country than the one we have - though they’d never admit it or believe it of themselves - and both are expressing some measure of intolerance for the non-believers, perhaps even bordering on bigotry, though again they’d never admit it or believe it of themselves. But I’m sorry to say that it’s the impression I get and it’s kind of sad to see the Christmas season bring out those kinds of feelings.

To them and to everyone, I wish a Merry Christmas (Not Happy Holidays) - and a wonderful New Year.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

It’s hard to know what to make of John McCain. Trashed by the Bush forces during the 2000 primaries, he became a subservient puppy to his tormentor for the next four years and a semi-permanent prop for Bush throughout the entire 2004 re-election campaign.

At the same time, he made no attempt to hide his friendship with John Kerry and indeed defended him against the scurrilous "Swift Boat" attacks.

You had to get the impression that he was positioning himself for another run at the presidency in 2008.

But lately, one has to wonder if he isn’t positioning himself to be the national gadfly or the Jesse Jackson of the Senate, showing up everywhere with opinions on everything.

His last couple of pronouncements have been doozies. First he jumps in to the baseball steroid mess with the ridiculous suggestion that government should get involved in baseball rules. Anabolic steroids are controlled - not banned substances and can be prescribed by a doctor. Technically, the non-medical use of steroids for body building purposes is illegal, but athletes who use them aren’t criminals - just over ambitious dummies. There’s no question that the baseball authorities need to do more than slap these people on the wrist. They need to impose severe penalties - maybe expulsion from the game for unacceptable repeat offenses. But we don’t need narcs swarming all over the nation’s baseball parks trying to catch them in the act.

McCain might be a baseball fan and might be upset at the revelations about Barry Bonds and other stars, but you have to wonder if he wasn’t under the influence of some illegal substance when he threatened to introduce legislation to set standards for baseball players. What would be next I wonder? Laws to make roughing the passer a federal offense? Punishable by time in the hoosegow? Congress should never be involved in the rules of sports and McCain should start smoking a different brand of joy juice.

His latest profound pronouncement is to say that he has no confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. Zero. Zip. Nada. A big time public announcement. The guy’s doing it all wrong. Screwing up big time. Not one nice word about the Secretary of Defense. And I couldn’t agree more with the Senator from Arizona. Rumsfeld needs to go. And sooner rather than later.

But when McCain was asked if Rumsfeld should resign - or even if he thought he was a liability to the Bush administration - he had no opinion. That’s all up to the President, he said. Maybe so, but it sure sounds like someone playing semantic games to avoid giving a direct answer to a direct question. If you think the guy is no good, you have to have some opinion on what should be done about him - and if you’re an honest player, you’d give it when asked. It gets a little confusing when you’re trying to play fearless warrior and subservient lackey all at the same time.

Maybe Senator McCain needs to spend some quality time with Senator Fritz Hollings before he leaves the Senate.
Straight talking Senator

It was refreshing to hear the retiring senator from South Carolina on "Sixty Minutes" last Sunday. It’s rare to hear the kind of honest answers that he gave to all of the questions asked of him.

How many senators would say that they voted in a particular way on a critical issue, not because of the dictates of their conscience or the merits of the issue, but simply to avoid being defeated for reelection? That was his answer when asked why he voted against Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court. The bigots of his state would have been all over him like flies on a pile of manure. He didn’t put it quite as colorfully, but the meaning was there.

And as to who really writes legislation? The lobbyists. As if we didn’t know.

And that Condoleezza Rice is a disaster and should go back to teaching whatever it is that she taught.

It’s a pity he’s leaving. We need more people like him in the Senate, not less.

If you didn’t see "Sixty Minutes" last Sunday, it’s worth clicking on the link above to read the transcript.

Keep confidential sources confidential

Interestingly, on the same Sixty Minutes program, there was another segment that - in a way - ties in with the Hollings interview and with another story that’s been in the news lately. Ed Bradley was interviewing a convicted killer who claims innocence and may indeed be innocent - and asked him, "did you kill so and so?."

You didn’t have to have seen the program to know the answer. It was really a silly question because the whole purpose of the segment was to air all of the doubts about the guy’s conviction. But even if the guy did the dirty deed, there was no way he would ever admit it to Bradley in front of a national television audience or at any other time.

So what’s the tie in to Hollings? Just that the kind of direct question that Bradley posed to an alleged killer would almost never produce the kind of answers that Hollings gave in his interview if posed to most Senators or Representatives. Which is why a great deal of what we watch on television on Sunday mornings, hoping to pick up some insights on important national and international issues is a waste of time. I’ve commented on this before, particularly when the guests are government spokespeople who are there to give the administration’s "spin" rather than provide honest and direct information. Was there ever anything more than that from Condoleezza Rice when she appeared on these programs?

Which leads me to the other tie in to both of the Sixty Minute segments - that of the case of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, reporters who are facing jail terms for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

Gregory House, the subject of Ed Bradley’s piece, might have told either of those reporters more than he would ever have told Bradley about the murder for which he’s been convicted, because they could have given him a guarantee that he would never be revealed as the source for the information.

Senators, Congressmen and Cabinet members might tell either of these reporters things that they would never say on one of the Sunday morning programs for the same reason.

To this day, Woodward and Bernstein have kept the identity of "Deep Throat" confidential. If some judge had hauled them into court when they began writing their Watergate stories and demanded that they reveal their sources and then thrown them in jail when they refused to do so, Nixon might have been able to ride out the scandal.

There may be extreme cases where reporters need to reveal a confidential source - to prevent a crime from being committed for example. Or to save an innocent person from going to jail or worse. And perhaps, if it wasn’t done voluntarily, a judge would be justified in pressuring them with the threat of jail or with jail itself.

But outside of such extreme cases, the confidential news source should be as sacrosanct as the confessor who pours his heart out to a priest. It’s one of the ways we can be reasonably sure of getting true answers to tough questions. Who knows, with another four years of the super-secretive Bush administration to endure, maybe the only way!!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

It isn’t often that I make room in this blog for lengthy quotes from another source - and certainly not on two consecutive days. Nonetheless, I’m going to do exactly that because of the subject material involved - religion, particularly evangelical religion and one of its most bizarre beliefs.

I’ve commented here many times about religion in general and about the religious right and its influence on American politics and on government, and on April 30 of this year, I asked the question "Do we have a Presidential theocracy?"

At a recent event in New York, Bill Moyers was presented with an award by the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. His acceptance speech, naturally, was about the environment, but it included comments about members of the religious right whose attitude about the environment are dictated by their religious beliefs.

As a specific example, Moyers recalled the comments of James Watts, Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, who said that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the "imminent return of Jesus Christ." In public testimony he said, "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." Moyers said that there was snickering and that the press corps didn’t know what he was talking about, but Watts was serious. So were his compatriots across the country. And Moyers went on to say the following:
They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true - one third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That's right - the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding). Once Israel has occupied the rest of its 'biblical lands,' legions of the antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the Messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I've read the literature. I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That's why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It's why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels 'which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.' A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared, but welcomed - an essential conflagration on the road to redemption
There’s nothing really new in what Moyers said in his speech, but his description of the origins of the belief in the "rapture" illustrates the flimsiness of religious belief origins in general. All are based on "fantastical concoctions" by theologians with vivid imaginations, but over time they become accepted "truths," and these are "truths" that govern much of our lives whether we like it or not.

It is likely that the "concocters" along with those who come to accept their concoctions, are motivated by the same thing - the need to believe that human life consists of something more than living and dying like the other creatures that inhabit the earth. Because we have awareness of our mortality, we cannot accept that it just ends when we die - and so we create belief in a totally different scenario where we don’t die. We simply pass from one level of existence to another - and all of it is described in elaborate concocted detail by various religious authorities - refined and added to over the years and centuries. Including the passage to an after life by way of the "rapture."

There’s nothing wrong with any of this if religious belief was no more than that - a personal belief, to be held quietly and passively, not to be imposed on others by force or coercion. I’ve said before that religion serves a good purpose when it allows people to cope with the fear of death - and thus with life.

It’s when it starts to intrude on logical thought - indeed on sanity, that the good becomes totally outweighed by the madness. History is replete with such intrusions, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust to the Irish "troubles" to the madness that is going on in the Middle East today.

In a country where religion and the state are supposed to be completely separated from each other, there are persistent efforts to move us in the direction of countries where religious and secular life are so intertwined as to make it difficult to separate the two.

For example, at the moment, no politician can get elected to national office without professing a profound religious belief, and as we saw in the recent election, the candidates tried to outdo each other in professing their belief and reliance upon an almighty God. And of course, President Bush has pretty much said that his political decisions are guided by his religious beliefs. So in a sense, secular and religious life has already become intertwined in this country.

Where it will go from here should be a matter of concern for all of us, but if the numbers are close to correct that we hear about that believe in the "rapture" or believe that the Bible is the literal truth, or simply believe that there is a God and an after life, it’s going to be hard to turn that direction back to the Supreme Court interpretation of the first amendment to the constitution - that it calls for "a wall of separation" between the church and the state and requires government to avoid any involvement in religion.

Maybe we should take a look at what’s happening over in France. Not only did they go in the opposite direction to us when it came to the invasion of Iraq, but they seem to be going in the opposite direction to us when it comes to building a wall of separation between the state and religion. And they seem to be doing it because they perceive a danger in allowing religious beliefs and customs to become too much a part of the fabric of national life.

Let’s hope common sense will prevail in this country and we’ll stop the erosion of our already porous wall of separation.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Every time you think that Donald Rumsfeld has reached the pinnacle of inappropriate and nonsensical terminology that he offers as examples of his profound wisdom - darn it, he goes off and tops himself and the Guinness Book of World Records has to put out yet another addendum. It’s cheaper than printing a whole new edition every time he sets a new record , but the paper can pile up any way.

You remember some of his past gems I’m sure. Like his know/known explanation:
"As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
I don’t know about you, but I still don’t know what he knew and what we were supposed to know after listening to him tell us about knowing and not knowing.

But I absolutely understood what he said to the troops in Kuwait the other day when he was asked the question heard around the world about why our troops aren’t properly equipped. His answer?
"You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
One would think that if you "go to war" that’s of your choosing, at a time of your choosing, you would make certain that you do indeed have the army that you want rather than the army you have and that you wouldn’t proceed until you have it in place. But of course we are dealing with Rumsfeld logic here

And just to make the troops feel better about not having the kind of armor for their vehicles that they’re having to scrounge through landfills to find, he delivered this gem:
"If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up."
I have to admit that he has a point there, but he was probably also making a point that he didn’t know he was making. (There’s that know/known thing again). And that point is that armor and military might isn’t going to win a war against insurgency.

A lot of people are saying it, including the authors of "Mideast On Target" who said the following in a recent newsletter:
The US military is facing a military crisis in Iraq far deeper than that reflected by the pointed questions directed at Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld earlier this week by troops awaiting deployment to Iraq. The questions, as well as Rumsfeld’s answers, which focused on the lack of sufficient armored vehicles for patrol and supply duty in Iraq, showed that the military is still attempting to fight the war that it anticipated and prepared for during the half century of conflict with the Soviet Union.

While it is certainly true that troops sent into a combat zone should be provided with the best equipment available, it is equally true that, to quote the secretary of defense, "you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up." But the questions and answers point to a more serious issue: the military approach to the Iraqi insurgency is dangerously off the mark.

Fighting insurgency is not the role of armor, and the reliance on defensive steel, concrete and bulletproof glass in an insurgency environment is a certain recipe for disaster. Counterinsurgency warfare is the role of well-trained, properly equipped and highly motivated infantry whose flexible and aggressive operations must be based on initiative and innovation.

When the tank revolutionized ground warfare at the beginning of WWII, its contribution to the battlefield was its mobility; it successfully prevented the return to WWI style trench warfare that was feared by all sides in the conflict. Recently, however, faced with an even more mobile and flexible enemy in guerrilla forces, tanks have come to be used as heavily armed and armored motorized fortresses, rather than the shock-delivering strike weapons they were meant to be.

On the battlefield, one takes on either the role of the predator or that of the prey, and in that context it is certainly better to be the predator. Predators do not hide behind fortifications, nor do they surround themselves with barbed wire. They ambush, hunt and pursue their prey. Routine is the ally of the terrorist, and is the marked behavior of the prey.

The loss of two IDF Merkava tanks to Palestinian booby traps in two separate incidents in Gaza illustrates this point. Even these heavily armored vehicles were vulnerable to the 1-ton bombs that were detonated beneath them as they drove along a repeatedly used track. Ultimately, there are only two ways to thwart booby traps: avoid them or interdict the terrorists before they place them. The latter is preferable, but both require creativity and initiative.

Counterinsurgency operations require rethinking some of the basic rules of the battlefield and the way force is used. In contrast to the orderly geography of front lines and rear echelon, the Iraqi front lines are the entire country, and military behavior should reflect this fact. Better armor for vehicles may offer some protection against small arms fire and near misses, but it will not solve the problem, as the insurgents will simply graduate to bigger bombs.

If America is serious about combating and defeating the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, it must clarify the goals and methods of the US military in that country. As Eisenhower once said, "There is no victory at bargain basement prices." An army whose primary objective is to protect its troops will inevitably fail. The military must aim to accomplish its mission with minimum losses, not to protect its soldiers from harm. For the US forces fighting in Iraq, it would be far more effective, and safer, to keep the insurgents under constant pressure, eliminating their bases and hunting their personnel in well planned and executed operations that keep American losses to a practical minimum, than to hunker down and try to safeguard every soldier from attack. The most effective way to do that is to bring them home to the US.
Of course, the difficulty of being proactive rather than reactive is not knowing where the enemy is from day to day. Clearing out Fallujah might have removed one stronghold, but as we can see, the attacks have been on the increase since that costly proactive operation. But I agree that the authors have a point. We’re fighting a "war" that we can never win in the traditional sense of the word. At some point we have to leave it to the Iraqis to work it out among themselves. If the plan is to stay in Iraq until there is peace and democracy, we’ll be there forever.

Friday, December 10, 2004

There isn’t a day that goes by without newspapers printing letters from readers that make me want to scream. Seems I’ve been saying that a lot lately. About screaming. And sometimes, I actually do. Usually it’s at the television. I talk back to the television a lot. I’ve even got my wife doing it now. Some sort of marital boob tube osmosis I guess.

A couple of themes have been repeated lately. One is brought up by red, white, blue and purple in the face patriots who are concerned about people who aren’t happy with the way the election turned out. It’s over, they say. We all need to get together now and support the President.

I’m not quite sure what they mean by that. I’m not about to send Mr. Bush fifty bucks of my hard earned money for his personal use. He’s not going to run again so he doesn’t need any campaign fund. And besides, if he could run again, I’d probably give my fifty to the other guy.

No one ever calls me to ask if I approve or disapprove of the way he’s doing his job either - so I can’t "support" him that way - give him good approval ratings. Heck, if everyone polled about his job performance gave him their "support," his approval rating would be 100% - and heaven only knows what he’d do with that
support - on top of all the "political capital" that he’s about to spend. He might declare himself emperor of the western hemisphere and crown prince of Don Rumsfeld’s "New Europe."

I think what these patriotic letter writers mean is that we should stop criticizing Mr. Bush. We should stop talking about the election and why he won. We should stop expressing concern about who he might want to put into key cabinet positions or who he might nominate for the Supreme Court when the inevitable vacancy occurs - maybe more than one. And we should be 100% in favor of everything we’re doing in Iraq.

If only they would spell that out. But maybe if they did, the papers wouldn’t print their letters. "Let’s all support the President" sounds a lot better than all that specific stuff.

Then again, you never know what "letters to the editor" editors will select for publication or why. I’ve talked about that on several occasions in the past. On May 7, 2003 for example.

This is the Christmas season and we’re going to see a lot of letters about Christmas - and one theme that we’ll see repeated, as we do every year, is the complaint about "leaving Christ out of Christmas." Major - and minor newspapers are going to print such letters. We are after all, a Christian country - or at least enough majority Christian to call ourselves a Christian country. And we have just seen a born again Christian reelected to the White House with a lot of help from Evangelical Christians. So the complaints of Christians who see too much secularism in the Christmas celebrations and not enough religious references, are going to get special consideration from newspaper editors.

Having acknowledged all of this, I have to ask what in earth possessed Dodie Hofstetter, the "Voice of the People" editor of the Chicago Tribune, to publish the following letter, which appeared in the December 9, 2004 edition of the paper:
"X" marks the spot where something is missing. To place an X before "mas" indicates the erasure of Christ in "Christmas." We are now to celebrate the "holidays" instead.

Yet the holy day we are neglecting is still prevalent in our actions.

If Christ is not relevant today, why do we still put up thousands of Christmas trees (a reminder of Christ's death on a wooden cross), decorate them with lights (Jesus is the light of the world), place a star at the top (a star led the wise men to Bethlehem), shop for and give countless gifts (like the magi), hear Christmas carols played in the stores and malls (telling of Christ's birth) and attend church services?

We use all the Christian symbols but deny Christ's rightful place in our celebrations and public displays.

The holidays would not be exciting and worth celebrating without these blessed symbols.
Almost 40 years ago, on January 24, 1965, Winston Churchill died - and of course the news was reported extensively by all of our media. Seeing the above letter in my newspaper yesterday, reminded me of one such report from a local news anchor on a local television station in Chicago. In recalling one of Churchill’s memorable lines - "never has so much been owed by so many to so few" - a reference to the heroics of the RAF - the Royal Air Force - the anchor attributed it to lend lease!!

He was reading from a script that had been written by a newswriter and O.K.’d by a news producer and listened to in rehearsal by a director, a stage manager, a studio technical crew, probably a studio news producer and several stage hands. And yet the totally incorrect attribution went out over the air. I don’t know how many people called in to complain. I suspect not too many because I got through very easily. There was no busy signal.

Although I was reminded of this incident by the letter I’ve reproduced above, there is a difference between the two. The misinformation about Churchill got on the air because no one involved knew it was misinformation.

The "absence of Christ in Christmas" was deliberately selected for publication by an editor, presumably well aware of the misinformation it contained.

The writer may wish to attribute many of the trappings of Christmas to events depicted in the Bible, but most were of course adopted from ancient pagan rituals.

As I’ve said in the past, the "letters to the editor" section of a newspaper can say a lot about the paper you’re reading. It may reflect some biases of editors that they are restrained from revealing elsewhere in the paper. It may reflect wishful thinking of those editors. And it may reflect the same kind of ignorance that occurred 40 years ago in a television newscast.

Oh, and in answer to the question posed about why we use all the symbols of Christmas if "Christ is not relevant," it’s because the Christmas holiday has become more than a celebration of the birth of Christ. It’s a holiday celebrated by people who follow religions other than Christianity and by people who have no religious beliefs at all. It’s just a fun time of the year.

And we enjoy using all of those ancient pagan symbols from Saturnalia, which was celebrated at this time of the year.

I have to believe that Dodie Hofstetter knows that. But maybe not. Maybe she believes what the letter writer believes. And that’s why the letter got selected for publication. Think about it the next time you see a letter from a Tribune reader offering proof that the earth is flat and that we never went to the moon.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

I think I’ll have to start compiling a list of all of the "excuses’ that are given in radio and television business news report for why prices of stocks or commodities went up, down or sideways. And to have the excuses make sense - which may be something of an oxymoron - I should probably correlate them with market movements For example, when oil prices go up and the market goes down, the oil price increase might be given as the "excuse" for the market movement. However, if both the oil and and market prices go up - or both go down, some other excuse has to be found for what happened

I would imagine that a list compiled over a period of several months would make very interesting reading - and could provide some base material for a college psychology course. It certainly wouldn’t be very helpful in a business course - unless the professor is teaching the "random walk" theory of investing.

Interestingly, it’s the broadcast medium that seem to need to provide a daily explanation for daily market movements. The newspapers have more room to report what actually happened, so probably don’t feel the need to dress it up with speculative "whys."

Lately, the fluctuating prices of oil and the steady descent of the dollar have been making news. I’ve commented here about oil prices before. I don’t pretend to understand the oil business, but I’m disappointed at the absence of any discussion in newspaper business pages or on those broadcast media business reports, of the trading in oil futures that determines the per barrel price. Like who are these people and who are they to determine the price of oil? If you decided to open a children’s high char factory, you’d look at the market place, see what others are charging, measure the quality of your chairs against others that are available - and set your sales price accordingly. You’d be a little upset I’m sure, if the pricing was taken out of your hands and determined by a bunch of speculative traders in New York and London and Tokyo. Your customers might be pretty upset too when they suddenly have to pay $125 for a high chair that you started out pricing at $29.95 retail.

But I don’t want to spend time talking about fluctuating oil prices today. I’m more interested in what’s happening to the dollar. Not from the point of view of what its fluctuating price does to international trade but from the point of view of the curious layman who wonders about the dollar the same way he wonders about oil prices.

Who decides what any currency is actually worth against another currency and how on earth do they come up with amounts that make no sense at all in the real world of average citizens?

I have a particular interest in the dollar versus the British pound for a couple of reasons. One is because I get a couple of small amounts paid to me every four weeks from the UK which of course get translated to dollars when they hit my bank. And the other is because I like to go there as often as possible and naturally, I’m concerned about what my dollar can buy while I’m there.

Years ago, the exchange rate between the two currencies was fixed. There were no speculative traders deciding what it should be from day to day. In the 1940’s, the rate was around $4.03 to the pound - and it was about right. In the 40’s, ten pounds a week would have been a pretty good salary in England and $40 a week wouldn’t have been a bad paycheck here either.

In 1949 it was devalued to $2.80 - a better deal for us - and down to around $2.40 in the 1960’s. Still, even with the devaluation, there seemed to be parity in terms of the real value of the currencies. A pound bought about as much in England as $2.80 could buy here and so there was no sticker shock moving back and forth across the Atlantic. That held until the late 1970’s when it, along with other world currencies was allowed to float, fluctuating according to demand. The traders took over.

It’s been all over the place since, from close to one pound to one dollar to where it’s trading today, close to one pound to two dollars!! And it makes not one lick of sense. It has almost nothing to do with the relative value - the relative buying power of the two currencies. The buying power of course changes with the change in exchange values but for the past couple of decades when I’ve traveled back and forth across the pond, there has never been a correlation that made any sense.

Right now, I doubt if the pound buys as much in England as you could buy here for less than a dollar, but if I want to buy some pounds to spend over there, I’m going to be paying around $2. I need to get back over there for a visit, but I’m going to hold off until there’s a little more sense in the exchange rate. Of course when it falls, I’ll be getting a little less on my income transfers from over there, but on the other hand, I won’t spend all my discretionary funds before I can even get to a hotel in London. Cab fares from Heathrow to central London are advertised on the Internet as being between 45 and 50 pounds, which would be close to $100 for a 45 minute to a one hour ride - but the last I heard, it was costing closer to one hundred pounds - or close to two hundred bucks. And that’s before a tip!!

Another situation where regulation would seem to make a lot more sense than "market forces."

Speaking of money matters, there’s another radio commercial that I’ve been hearing too much of lately and that makes me want to scream. It’s from a mortgage company singing the praises of "interest only" mortgages. It speaks in glowing terms about how much you’ll "save" with this kind of mortgage - and indeed compares the monthly payments for a "conventional" mortgage and an "interest only" mortgage - and of course the difference is substantial. The spokesman for the commercial says that the difference is savings and that he has his own mortgage in the program.

Of course if you’re only paying interest, you’re not reducing your principal one dime. The lower payments may make sense if it will allow you to buy the house you want but can’t yet afford - and you have a guarantee of a future increased income that will allow you to start making much higher payments when the interest only period is over. But if the incentive to take on an interest only mortgage is just to have more money left over for things other than mortgage payments, you’re going to get hit with a serious case of sticker shock when the bigger payments kick in.

The ads concentrate only on the reduced monthly payments and how much you’ll be "saving." It’s the kind of ad that is likely to pull in precisely the kind of home buyers who shouldn’t take on this kind of mortgage. It’s disingenuous.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A few days ago, "inspired" by all of the attention lavished on "Black Friday" - the day when retailers begin to be "in the black" with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, I dug out and published an ancient work of fantasy fiction that I originally used as "filler material" in a company paper that I once wrote and published for the ABC television station in Chicago - WLS, or in olden times, WBKB. The story was about Christmas, entitled "The Price of Mistletoe."

As readers of this blog may know, I am Jewish by heritage if not by religious belief, so today I’m giving equal space to a Jewish festival - that of Hanukkah which starts tonight. Thirty five years ago, I was persuaded to write a playlet about Hanukkah for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois, (JRC). The members of that group liked to get involved in creative activities and one year, they decided they’d like to put on a Hanukkah dramatization.

I wrote it as a news report. About a dozen or so congregation members performed it and it went over rather well.

Eleven years ago, I dug out this ancient script - I’ve been doing a lot of "digging" lately - and gave it to WGN radio in Chicago. They added an introduction, a male/female anchor team, lots of sound effects, some additional dialogue, and just about all of the on-the-air WGN personalities. It played twice and it sounded pretty damned good. Next year will be the twelth anniversary of its original airing and I’m going to try to persuade them to air it again.

Meanwhile, here is the original script on which it was based. I’ve thrown in some imaginary names for a couple of the reporters and the anchor of the report. Poetic License.


The program normally seen at this time will not be seen tonight in order that we may bring you this special report from JRC News. Here is correspondent Isaac Jennings
Good evening. For the first time in many years, the lights of celebration are burning in Jerusalem tonight. With the recapture of the holy city by the rebellious forces of Judas Maccabeus, Middle East experts agree that Syrian King Antiochus has lost his battle to eliminate the Jewish religion in Judea. Few would have thought that the small band of Jews that fled to the hills of Judea when Antiochus imposed his ban on Jewish customs and traditions, would be able to resist the might of the Syrian military, least of all Antiochus himself, who was questioned about the rebel movement shortly after the ban was imposed.
Reporter #1
Your majesty, there have been persistent reports of organized resistance to your recent ban of Jewish religious traditions in Judea. Would you care o comment on this?
Well let me just say this. I’ve heard the same reports and I can tell you that the people that you’re talking about do not represent the mainstream of thinking in Judea. There are many intelligent Jews - leaders of the community I might say, who understand the necessity for religious unity in this area. These so called rebels are just a bunch of agitators. They don’t contribute anything to the welfare of the empire, and you can be sure that we’re not going to let them come in and disrupt the city of Jerusalem or any other part of the country. I think that the great silent majority of the people have had enough of all of this civil unrest over religion, and I have ordered our military to crack down hard on any further uprisings
Reporter #2
Your majesty, is there any possibility that the religious ban might be relaxed?
Absolutely not. It should be obvious to you gentlemen that the actions of this fanatical minority are a threat to the very foundation of law and order in our society. We tried to cooperate with the Jews. I appointed a very capable high priest for them - Menelaus - and the only result was a civil war. No gentlemen, the ban will remain and it will be enforced.
Reporter #1:
Your majesty, we understand that some Syrian units have been defeated by a rebel leader known as Judas Maccabeus. Are you aware of these reports?
Yes, I’ve heard of Mr. Maccabeus and his brothers. It’s true that they’ve imposed some casualties on our troops, but I can assure you gentlemen that they pose no threat to the might of the Syrian army.
Thank you your majesty.
But despite the contention of King Antiochus that the Maccabean forces posed no threat to his military might, the growing band of rebellious Jews continued to attack and defeat Syrian units. Then, just a few weeks ago, with most of the Syrian army engaged in an expedition in Parthia, Maccabean forces attacked Jerusalem. JRC’s Judean correspondent Jacob Rather was in the Maccabee camp shortly before the attack and spoke with Judas Maccabeus and his father Mattathias.
Reporter #3:
Mr. Maccabeus, what is it your group hopes to gain by fighting Antiochus?
We’re not fighting for any gain Jacob. We’ve stated repeatedly that we have no ambition for territory or power, nor do we have any taste for war. All we ask is that we be allowed to worship our God in our own way. It’s inconceivable to us that this could pose any threat to the Syrian empire.
But doesn’t your resistance border on the edge of fanaticism Mr. Maccabeus? After all, the vast majority of the people in the empire worship Zeus, and large numbers of your own people have assimilated without fuss and are trying to enjoy the fruits of what the empire has to offer. Isn’t your attitude in fact contributing to the misery of your own people?
Jacob you surprise me. Since when was misery something new to Jews? And since when was our misery a matter of concern to the rest of the world? Perhaps it’s only coincidence, but this concern does only seem to arise when we offer some active resistance instead of bowing and scraping before our persecutors. As far as what the majority want to do - I can only say that might never has and never will automatically make right.

Just look at history. Was there ever an idea or a discovery or a principle that wasn’t attacked, scorned or vilified by the majority? Believe me, it would be hard to find one. Yet those ideas and discoveries and principles somehow survived and they made the world better. And why did they survive? Because individuals - or sometimes groups of individuals - refused to give in to the majority. It wasn’t easy for them. In fact, they caused themselves a great deal of misery. But if misery is the price of keeping truth alive - then it must be paid. There are no bargain basements where you can get it wholesale. As to us being fanatics. Just look at what Antiochus and his military machine is trying to do to one minority religion - and then ask yourself - who are the fanatics?
But how do you explain the fact that many of your people have assimilated into the majority culture?
That’s no great mystery. They’re human. They have human weaknesses. It isn’t easy to stand up and voice an unpopular view, especially when doing so can put your life in danger. So they take the easy way out. They go to that non-existent bargain basement I was telling you about. They rationalize that they’re keeping up with the times by becoming assimilated. Frankly I feel sorry for them, because I think they know that they’re living a lie, and believe me, there can be no greater misery than that.
Reporter #3:
Well… assuming that you have morality on your side, do you seriously believe that you can defeat the Syrian army? After all, you’re outnumbered, surrounded… militarily, isn’t your position somewhat hopeless?
We don’t think so - and for a very simple reason. We’re fighting for our very right to exist. Every soldier in this camp knows this and every one of them is willing to die for it. I think it’s time the world realized that Jews will no longer be led meekly to the slaughterhouse. And now if you’ll excuse me, we have a great deal of work to do.
Thank you Mr. Maccabeus. This is Jacob Rather reporting from the Maccabean camp outside the walls of Jerusalem.
And so the stage was set for the battle of Jerusalem. The small band of Jews that King Antiochus had called malcontents and agitators were now a formidable army determined to retake the city and restore their holy temple. Correspondent Shana Sawyers was inside the walls of city just before the attack began and asked high priest Menelaus how he felt about whet appeared to be the inevitable success of the Maccabean forces.
Success? I don’t think you can classify a single battle as a measure of success or failure in war. Judas and his brothers may take Jerusalem, but eventually they’ll be defeated. I have no doubt about the final outcome. No doubt at all.
Reporter #4:
I take it sir that you are a strong advocate of assimilation.
Well, let’s say that I’m both a moderate and a pragmatist. I think I represent those Jews who work hard and pay their taxes and don’t have time to march in the streets like spoiled schoolchildren.
Reporter #4:
Why is it that you think the Jews should assimilate?
The question is, why shouldn’t they? Why should Jews insist on being so different from everyone else? What did it ever get them - and what is it getting them now? As Antiochus pointed out in his press conference, we live in this great society. We enjoy the benefits it has to offer. Why should we make such a great fuss because we’re asked to worship like the rest of the empire. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
But since it is such a great society, isn’t it capable of accepting some religious dissent?
Antiochus isn’t against dissent. Far from it. But there’s a big difference between dissent and this fanaticism nonsense. Look at this woman Hannah. She and her seven sons killing themselves rather than accept Zeus as their God. That’s not dissent. That’s madness. No society can accept that sort of thing. It could lead to a complete breakdown of law and order.
Reporter #4:
One last question sir. Do you think the sort of religious independence that Mattathias and Judas are advocating can survive - assuming as you say that they’ll eventually be defeated by the Syrian army?
I would say it’s impossible. It’s true that the Jewish faith has survived some severe blows in the past - but this time the odds against them are simply too great.

No, I think that assimilation is inevitable. Perhaps some parts of the culture will survive, but not so that you’d recognize it. I think if you were to pick up a history book two thousand years from now, you probably wouldn’t even find the word "Jew" mentioned. Certainly you won’t find the name of Judas Maccabeus.
The words of Menelaus - the man appointed by King Antiochus to be the High Priest of the Jews. Were his words prophetic? Perhaps - and perhaps not - because as all the world now knows, the Maccabean forces did successfully recapture the city of Jerusalem and restored the holy temple.

But perhaps even more significant than the military victory itself, were the events that allegedly took place in the temple after it had been restored. Judas Maccabeus was asked about these events when he appeared on the JRC program "Meet the Scribes" earlier this week.
Reporter #5:
Mr. Maccabeus, we understand that after you had restored the temple in Jerusalem, a Menorah was lit and that a celebration was held for eight days. Would you care to comment on that?
Certainly. Even though the war wasn’t over - and in fact still continues at this moment - we felt that the re-capture and re-cleansing of the temple was a turning point in our struggle and that it should be commemorated. We have celebrated for eight days and we are designating the event as an official celebration of our calendar to be called the feast of Hanukkah.
Reporter #2:
Sir, there’s an unsubstantiated story about the Menorah burning for eight days on a single jar of oil. Does this have any basis in fact?
Well, let me substantiate the story for you. When we decided to hold a celebration, we searched for oil in the temple. Not unexpectedly, the oil, along with everything else in the temple, had been defiled. But we did turn up one jar of oil on which the seal hadn’t been broken.

Now there were factions who contended that the oil would only last for a single day and that it would put a damper on the celebration because it would take at least eight days to get a fresh supply of oil, and so we’d be seven days without any lights. Nevertheless, we lit the Menorah using the single jar of oil - and it was still burning when the new oil arrived eight days later.
Reporter #6:
Mr. Maccabeus, are you saying that a miracle was performed in your temple?
I am saying that the jar of oil we found burned for eight days.
But you would agree, wouldn’t you Mr. Maccabeus, that what you are describing would amount to a miraculous event. You are, in fact, asking us to believe in miracles.
I don’t think so gentlemen. As I recall, when we first took to the hills of Judea after Antiochus banned our religious activities - you reported that it would be a miracle if we survived.
Reporter # 4:
Yes but…
And then just a few months ago, I think all of you gentlemen suggested that it would be nothing short of miraculous if we recaptured Jerusalem.
Reporter #4:
But surely Mr. Maccabeus, there’s a difference between our use of the word and the events you’ve just described.
I think not gentlemen. In both cases, I think we’re talking about the tendency to equate quantity with quality - or as my father once said - to confuse might with right.

We triumphed - miraculously you might say - because we fought for a principle. The fact that we were outnumbered or that our views were unpopular was of no significance. There are no numbers that can destroy a principle. The truth of any principle cannot be destroyed in battle, so one way or another, we were bound to survive. That was our miracle.

The oil - burned for eight days. Perhaps it was a superior oil. Perhaps it too had a principle. We do not question it. It happened. If you wish to term it a miracle, that is your privilege.
Reporter #5:
Mr. Maccabeus, what are your future plans?
I intend to return to the battlefield and continue the struggle until we have won the right to exist as Jews.
Reporter #6:
Sir, High Priest Menelaus is quoted as saying that it’s impossible for the Jewish faith to survive. He cited the blows that the religion has received in the past and the pressures it faces today, including those from within its own ranks. How would you answer his analysis?
I would agree that Menelaus makes a strong case. There are great difficulties facing the Jewish faith and I do not say for one moment that it will be easy for us to survive. But I think that we must - because if the world cannot recognize our right to exist in our own way, then no man - no nation can ever be sure of their right to exist.

Is our goal impossible? I think not. One of your own great leaders put it rather well gentlemen. He said "Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?"
And so with the lights burning brightly in the temple in Jerusalem. Judas Maccabeus returned this week to continue his struggle for the rights of Jews to worship in their own way. Will he be successful - or will his name, as Menelaus said, be forgotten and not to be found in the history books two thousand years from now? JRC News is not wont to make predictions, but somehow we feel that the superior quality of the oil that Mr. Maccabeus found in his temple, has shed a light that will not so easily be extinguished.

This is Isaac Jennings wishing you goodnight - and Happy Hanukkah.

Monday, December 06, 2004

I had planned to take a short blog break for a while, perhaps until the end of the year, and I still plan to do that, just not starting right away. I have too many scribbled notes about things that cry out for comment.

The other day, I zeroed in on a couple of commercials that I didn’t think should be on the air - and indeed I plan to ask one major radio station that’s been running the "Cortislim" ads for weeks if they’ve looked into the company, the product and the pitchman and I’ll give them some web sites to look at that will give them a great deal of background information.

This same station - it’s one that wakes me up in the morning and that I listen to on and off during the day - has been running another ad that really knocked my socks off the first time I heard it and my reaction hasn’t changed after hearing it a half dozen times more. In fact, my incredulity grows a little each time I hear it. I should make it clear that the ad is running all over the place, not just on the station where I happen to hear it.

It’s an ad for an SUV. A Hummer. They’re trying to persuade you to buy it - or at least to make you aware of its alleged virtues - and they’re doing it with as much of a soap opera as can be crammed into a one minute time slot. In this little slice of life, a young man - obviously a teenager - has arrived to pick up his girl friend to take her out on a date. The implication is that it is the very first date for the two young people. The opera begins with the father greeting the young man and "apologizing" for not answering the doorbell right away. In stern and decidedly unfriendly tones, he explains that he didn’t hear the bell because he was busy sharpening his steak knives.

(Better watch it kid. This man has a thing for sharp knives).

The father then shows the kid his Hummer and asks him if he likes trucks. The kid says yes and the father then goes into a spiel about how he’s the kind of guy who accepts absolutely no compromises and goes on to describe some of the features of the Hummer, including how much room there is inside - room enough to put this six foot kid in the back, close the tailgate and take him out to the middle of nowhere!! And just to make clear that the kid understands what he’s saying, he repeats that he really does mean "the middle of nowhere!"

He then asks the kid what time his "first born" will be home, and the obviously nervous and by now thoroughly intimidated kid quickly says 9.30, which brings a word of approval from the father.

And an announcer says a couple of words about the Hummer to round the sixty seconds off.

So what is going on here? Obviously General Motors is trying to sell Hummers - and this commercial, like commercials for many products, embeds its sales pitch in imagery having little or nothing to do with the product. This "first date soap opera" is just a setting for the character of the father to point out some of the selling features of the vehicle, including the fact that a tall man can stretch out and lie down in the back. But how is that point made? By making a not very veiled threat to the kid that if he doesn’t bring his girlfriend home at an early hour, bad things could happen to him.

What kind of bad things? He could be put in the back of the Hummer - it’s big enough to accommodate him lying down - that point’s already been made - and transported to the middle of nowhere. And the father really means "the middle of nowhere."

Where what will happen? The kid will be tossed out of the Hummer and made to walk home? Or, since this is a vehicle that can really take him to "the middle of nowhere," perhaps never to be heard from again?

There isn’t any question that the character of the father in the commercial is threatening and intends to be threatening. He’s first introduced telling the kid in decidedly unfriendly tones, that he didn’t hear the doorbell ring because he was busy sharpening his steak knives. What would be the point of that bit of information if not to establish that the father is someone to be feared? And his words and tone get more threatening as the commercial unfolds.

Why would I be unhappy with that kind of commercial? After all, the scene of an anxious father of a teenage girl and her nervous date meeting him for the first time, is as common as apple pie and reciting the pledge of allegiance. It’s a part of Americana. A perfect setting for a commercial for America’s love affair with automobiles - and particularly with sports utility vehicles.

But I guess General Motors or its advertising agency or both, thought that the ritual of the nervous male duo in this little slice of life wasn’t "biting" enough. The "Sopranos" are a big success. Let’s throw in an implication of a "hit" if the kid doesn’t behave properly. That will send Dads everywhere rushing out to their local Hummer dealers.

Of course, that may never have been what GM’s advertising people had in mind at all. Maybe they thought it was just a bit of humor that would give people a warm feeling about Hummers. Maybe they figured the image of the vehicle being used to transport the kid "to the middle of nowhere" would just bring chuckles.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the inscrutable minds of advertising types.

We have an FCC that leaps into the fray when commercial television shows a glimpse of a female nipple or when a radio host gets too raunchy or scatological. And we have networks that will reject an ad from an organization like The United Church of Christ because "they don’t accept paid advertising that espouses a particular religious doctrine." (Read "fear of Christian right backlash with the idea of accepting gay couples as church members.")

But apparently there is no agency or radio or television network that scrutinizes commercials from the point of view of "what in the hell were they thinking?" And hopefully sends them back for sensible re-writes.

There should be, and I’d be willing to cut back on blog commentary to head one up.

Friday, December 03, 2004

I can’t get the image out of my mind. It was a house fire with tragic results. Three small children were trapped inside and perished. It was widely reported on television newscasts. And on one of those newscasts, some sort of clergyman was shown offering words of comfort to those grieving for the children. He may have been the family pastor. I really don’t remember. What I do remember and what I can’t get out of my mind, was what he said.

Those horrible deaths, he said, were part of God’s plan!! That was the solace he was offering to the grieving family. That the death of these kids wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t really a terrible accident or the result of criminal neglect . The kids died because it was part of God’s plan for those kids to die on that day, before they could experience the joys and the sorrows and the wonders of growing up.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to reach inside the television and grab that excuse for a clergyman by the neck and shake him until his guts fell out. But it wouldn’t do any good because standing behind him and backing him up, are hundreds of thousands of "men of God" spouting the same nonsensical, irrational, dangerous garbage.

And those of us who would openly question such nonsense are scorned and vilified as if we were the ones out of touch with the reality of the way things work.

Although religious belief has been the cause of great harm throughout the history of the world, it has also done great good. It has provided standards for civilized behavior that people may not have adopted without their beliefs. It has helped people to face great hardships that they might otherwise have not been able to bear. People with strong religious beliefs aren’t burdened with the torturous struggle to make sense out of human life. They see death as a passage from human life to an eternal "afterlife," so they don’t question or fear it, as those of us do who believe that death is just that. The cessation of life. Total oblivion. The status that existed before we were born.

So in a sense, believers are to be envied. They know there is nothing to fear. And if that’s as far as religious belief went, it would be an unquestioned asset to human life, specially if the believers and non-believers respected each other and left each other alone with their beliefs and non-beliefs. Unfortunately it goes a lot further, including wars to establish the supremacy of one group’s concept of God and religious belief over others. I don’t have to recount them here. They’re part of mankind’s dark history. And they’re still going on.

But I have to comment on this nonsense about whatever happens in the world - good or bad - being part of "God’s plan." I’d like to be able to ask that pastor if he thought the Holocaust was part of "God’s plan." Or what is going on in Darfur. Or Iraq.

Surely if what happened to those little children is part of "God’s plan," then there is no such thing as free will, or judgment, or ambition, or luck - good or bad, or serendipity or venality. A murderer can claim "compulsion from above" as the reason for his crime. Those who speak of "God’s plan" are probably those in the forefront of putting murderers to death. Doubtless they would say that the crime and the punishment were both part of "God’s plan."

How crazy can religious belief get? Pretty damned crazy. Think about what the "God’s plan" implies. And toss in the closely related "God isn’t finished with me yet" or "God has more for me to do" crowd. They’re the ones who survive an accident where everyone else is killed. It wasn’t chance that killed the other people and not the lone survivor. God was obviously "finished" with the ones who bought the farm but not the one who didn’t.

It implies that every single being on earth is being observed 24 hours a day by an omnipotent being, existing somewhere beyond our vision, and that that omnipotent being has devised a plan for the life of each of those billions of beings, over which he, she or it has total control.

The thought boggles the mind, but very likely not the minds of those who believe that to be the case. The thought doesn’t boggle their minds because they don’t think about it. Thinking interferes with belief because belief asks you to suspend reason and logic. Religion cannot exist if it has to meet any test of reason or logic. Certainly, that aspect of religion that calls for belief in a sentient, observing, controlling God, cannot coexist with rational thought.

I have nothing against the concept of some sort of "higher power" that guides the evolution of the cosmos and all that is contained therein. I would tend to lean in the direction of there being some sort of rhyme and reason to it all. And I see nothing wrong with the idea of trying to determine if there is any evidence of intelligence behind the natural laws of space and time that we continue to uncover.

What I have trouble with is people like this pastor who decide upon a manifestation of that "higher power" as some form of a sentient being, and then create a whole set of activities for which it is responsible.

Back in the days of so called "primitive" religious belief, people worshipped multiple Gods, each having dominion over some aspect of life. If it rained too hard, it was because the "Rain God" was weeping. If there was thunder and lightening, another God was angry. Good or bad harvests depended on the mood swings of a God. And Gods controlled the sun, the moon, the sea and the stars.

Now of course we’re more "civilized," and we’ve distilled all of these Gods down to a single entity. We’ve arrived at the conclusion that our ancestors were wrong and there is really only one God, though we have different groups believing in different versions of that "one" God.

But apparently, we haven’t managed to break loose from the "primitive" idea that anything that happens - good or bad - is because "God" wants it that way - and this nonsense, devised by people who, over decades and centuries, have created volumes of rules and regulations for religious belief and worship, is now offered to people looking for solace after a tragedy, with the same authority as a medical doctor prescribing an antibiotic for an infection - and, what is really tragic - accepted in the same vein.

As I say, I can't get the image of that pastor spouting that same kind of nonsense to the grieving family of those dead kids out of my mind.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if we have progressed at all from the days and beliefs of our so called "primitive" ancestors.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

I must admit that I have not been a viewer of Tom Brokaw over the years, so his departure meant very little to me. I did, out of curiosity, flip over to NBC for about 10 or 15 seconds while he was doing his final newscast, just to say that I was one of however many million may have witnessed his departure from network news.

Frankly, I have always been astonished at his success as a news anchor given his marked speech impediment - often mocked and imitated over the years by comedians and impressionists. One would think that one of the essential qualities required of a network news anchor would be the ability to speak clearly and distinctly. In that regard, Brokaw was almost a joke.

Still, you have to give him credit for lasting as long as he has and for his many talents beyond being able to deliver newscasts with a speech impediment As a writer for example. I haven’t read "The Greatest Generation" but I know it has been well received and some people are saying that he will be remembered more for this work than for his newscasting career.

I’ve never met Brokaw or the other two current network anchors. Back in the dark ages when I worked in television, network news anchors that I met and sometimes worked with included John Daly and Frank Reynolds - although when I worked with Frank, he was still local, only in Chicago. I once worked with John Cameron Swayze, but that was in a recording studio where I was directing him doing commercial voice overs.

In the Chicago Tribune this morning, columnist John Kass wrote about Brokaw. He didn’t say anything nasty about him but he asked the question - who was watching - his point being that at 5.30 p.m. when network news starts in Chicago, most working slobs have yet to get home from work.

Obviously enough people are watching in the mid-west or network news wouldn’t be telecast at 5.30 - and of course in the east, it’s 6.30 and a lot more working slobs who are on the nine to five treadmill are very likely at home. The west coast of course, doesn’t get its network news live. On the left side of the country, the news is on tape and re-broacast at whatever hour they like to schedule network news.

All of which reminds me of a story, as so many things do nowadays. Is that a sign of old age I wonder - when everything you see or hear or read reminds you of something else , usually from way in the distant past? Maybe that’s a subject for some investigation and commentary on a future blog post.

May 31, 1962 may not be a date that means too much to most of my readers. Some of you weren’t born yet. But it was a date I’ll always remember. The day that Adolph Eichmann was executed in Israel.

Anchoring the evening network news on ABC at that time was Ron Cochran, and as I recall, network newscasts in those days were only fifteen minutes. I guess in the early sixties, news wasn’t considered to be an important enough money maker to be allotted more than a fifteen minute time slot. Still, Cochran always seemed to find time to end his newscasts with some kind of joke or humorous news story. Nowadays, about the only person who does that on any kind of network news broadcast is Paul Harvey. But readers of this blog know how I view Paul Harvey as a "newsman" - and if they don’t, they can read that view here.

Just as today, the Cochran evening newscast was broadcast live to the east coast and the mid-west and taped for later broadcast to the mountain states and the west coast.

Eichmann had been sentenced to death by hanging on December 2, 1961, but on May 31, 1962, the day he was scheduled to die, an appeal of the sentence was still pending as the evening news began. Cochran dutifully reported this as the last item in his broadcast and then finished with his usual funny bit.

By the time the program was being re-broadcast to the west coast, Eichmann’s appeal had been denied and he had been put to death. And, just as it works today, programming was interrupted to announce the news. In this case, the programming that was interrupted was Ron Cochran’s taped newscast and the way it was interrupted was that the tape was left running, the audio was killed, a slide was put up on the screen saying special news bulletin or something like that, and an announcer from Chicago gave the news of Eichmann’s execution.

The brilliant technicians and directors and news directors and news writers and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men of the ABC Television Network had carefully crafted this vital news bulletin so that it would substitute for the earlier recorded news item that an appeal of his sentence was pending. The idea was that the broadcast would return to the closing credits of the taped newscast - which remember was left running - after the announcer had finished reading the bulletin.

But somehow, all of the brilliant technicians and directors and news directors and king’s horses and king’s men, miscalculated how long the copy of the special bulletin should be to coincide with the amount of time that would elapse on the still running taped newscast before the closing credits appeared. And as the announcer concluded his bulletin with words of the appeal denial and execution - something like - "and so, Adolph Eichmann was put to death tonight for his crimes against humanity," the order was given to punch back into the still running tape of the evening ABC Network News.

Just in time for Ron Cochran to say , with a smile, to the folks on the west coast, "And that’s our shaggy dog story for today. This is Ron Cochran. Thank you and good night."

I may have the copy a bit misquoted there. I don’t remember exactly how he signed off. But I do remember the :"shaggy dog" sign off as the "close" to the Eichmann execution bulletin.

I don’t think push button ‘phones were available in those days, but Ollie Treyz, President of ABC Television, must have set a world record for speed dialing on a rotary ‘phone because I was told that he was on the ‘phone to Chicago almost before the Cochran tape was off the air.

I don’t know why I never sent that story to the Reader’s Digest. Maybe I’ll do that yet.

And thank you Tom Brokaw and John Kass for jogging my memory. It helps slow down those constantly flaking gray cells…..

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

One of the nice things about radio and television broadcasting is that watching and listening is voluntary. We’re able to operate the on/off and mute controls and so there is no way we are ever forced to watch or listen to any program or individual or commercial.

Still - as fast as we may be able to use the television remote or get to the on/off control on the radio, there are broadcast annoyances that we are unable to completely avoid and that hammer away at our sensitivities like the sounds of a fork on a plate until we are ready to scream at the offending broadcast instrument - stop, you’re driving me crazy.

One such offender that I’ve just about had up to the proverbial "here," is the campaign for "Cortislim" - an alleged diet supplement that is supposed to help you reduce weight, featuring a pitchman who is identified as "Dr." Greg Cynaumon . On the television commercials, there is some small print that appears briefly at the bottom of the screen identifying Cynaumon as a Ph.D., but the inference in his pitch is that he is a medical doctor.

On the radio commercials, he is introduced simply as "Dr. Greg." Clearly a fraudulent attempt to make you believe that he is a medical doctor.

The commercials are all over the place. It is a massive advertising campaign and apparently very successful. I don’t know whether or not the product has any value. I ran across one web site that claimed you could get more benefit eating a tree than taking Cortislim. But my concern is less with the efficacy of the product than it is with the annoyance of the commercial campaign and what appears to be an attempt to make you think that it is being recommended by some kind of medical expert.

I have long been an opponent of people having PhD’s in subjects as far removed from medicine as championship tiddlywinks, using the title "doctor" in front of their name. It’s pompous and misleading, and outside of the halls of academia, it should be made illegal.

But apparently, Mr. Cynaumon is not just guilty of trying to make you think he’s a medical doctor instead of a Ph.D. - he doesn’t even seem to be that!!

There are all kinds of web sites about this man and the product he is hawking. The one I like is that of Gary Adams, Ph.D. and my favorite link from that site is the challenge that Adams hurls at Cynaumon to prove any of the claims he makes about himself or the product he is hawking.

If you read this, you’ll shake your head in disbelief. There seems to be overwhelming evidence that the man is a fraud. There is a class action law suit against the company that produces Cortislim. The Federal Trade Commission and the FDA are all over their case and there are links on the Adams web site to all that is going on.

Now here’s the bottom line of my complaint. Yesterday, I wrote about colleges and professional sports team owners being less interested in the intelligence and integrity of the athletes they recruit or hire than they are in their athletic abilities. Now it seems that the broadcast media is operating with the same kind of blinkers. They obviously don’t care whether Cortislim is a scam or whether its spokesman is a doctor of anything. The only thing they seem to care about is that the Cortislim people obviously have money to pay for their advertising campaigns.

It’s amazing really. Michael Powell and the FCC are shocked, shocked - when a momentary glimpse of a female breast appears on the television screen, and are quick to impose fines on the offending broadcasting company, but have no interest in someone masquerading as a medical doctor and making false claims about a putative health product.

I’m all for as little regulation as possible over the broadcasting industry, but the industry doesn’t make much of an argument for less regulation when it welcomes the money of scam artists and turns a blind eye and ear to what they show and tell.

And that’s in addition to political campaign advertising!!

Another series of ads that absolutely drive me crazy are those for Crestor, a cholesterol lowering drug distributed by AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, licensed from a Japanese company, Shionogi & Co. Ltd.

This is one of the "Statin" drugs that have raised serious concerns about dangerous side effects and has been given a place of dishonor on the "worst pills" web site.

You would think that with all of the problems that have been revealed as being associated with these drugs, any commercials advertising them to the general public would be dignified and medically correct, with emphasis on presenting a fair balance of the claimed benefits and the potential contraindications.

Instead, we are being assaulted with a campaign of silly "Seuss light" poetry. Yes, poetry. The visual images show people running around and looking unhappy while the narrator tells their sad story of trying to lower their cholesterol without success until they try Crestor, at which point their lives change and they live happily ever after.

Isn’t that special?

But what makes it worse is that the silly poetry, done in fairy tail sing song style - what I meant by "Seuss light" - is narrated by Patrick Stewart, the distinguished British actor, perhaps best known for his role in the Star Trek television series and motion pictures.

The ad is insulting to the intelligence

Why Stewart would abandon any pretense of pride in the integrity of his profession to do these commercials is beyond me. He surely can’t need the money, though I would imagine the Astra Zeneca people are shelling out big bucks for one of the English speaking world’s most recognizable voices. Maybe it’s a national loyalty thing. I don’t know where Stewart spends his time nowadays, but he is an Englishman and Astra Zeneca is based in London.

I have nothing against well known actors with highly recognizable voices doing voice overs for television commercials. I thought it was a stroke of genius years ago when Eastern Airlines hired Orson Welles as its commercial voice over spokesman. The delivery was captivating and at times overwhelmed the commercial, but the copy was dignified and to the point, as it should be. As are today’s voice over words of Richard Dreyfuss for Honda vehicles and other commercial campaigns using well known actors.

In my opinion, congress and the FDA ought to get together and come up with some strict regulation for advertising of ethical pharmaceuticals to the general public. And for damned sure they should ban any ads that used fairy tale poetry to persuade a patient to bug his or her doctor to prescribe a drug.

Personally, I would like to see prescription drug advertising to the public banned altogether. It was bad enough when doctors used to get wined and dined and invited to junkets as a way of persuading them to prescribe certain drugs. It’s a lot worse when pharmaceutical companies are allowed to advertise those same drugs to the general public the same way that toy makers might aim their ads at children so that they can nag their parents to death to buy them .

That’s two calls for government regulation in one blog post.

The line for responses from the red states forms on the right. Where else?