Sunday, November 23, 2014

Spike Lee was correct: just Do the Right Thing. Please.

Lately we see all this hand-wringing, throughout society and on every news channel, about the way criminal suspects are treated, the way unruly protestors are treated, the way people on Death Row are executed. And similar/related topics.

Those are not insignificant matters. I don't like to turn on my TV and see handcuffed suspects who look as if they've just been interrogated with a closed fist; I don't like to see protestors met on some downtown night-time street by the equivalent of an armored assault battalion that appears to have been photoshopped in from newsreels of Afghanistan. So yes, we must address those issues as part of our journey to the fully civilized society we aspire to be...a society in which we can all take pride, regardless of gender, color, creed, etc....

But can we agree that before any of that, arguably the premier building block of a civilized society is a general recognition and acceptance of The Rule of Law? Watching CNN of late, I feel as if we're ignoring the elephant in the room while we get caught up in the mice emerging now and then from the baseboards.

To start with the Death Row issue, folks, know that I am a lifelong crusader against capital punishment, which I deem barbaric. I cannot believe that in 2014, we're still invoking that hoary, biblical "eye for an eye" crap as a justification for state-sponsored killing. But, yanno, if you don't want to have to worry about the second-rate chemical components of the mysterious cocktail the state is using to bring about your barbaric demise, don't commit a capital crime. Does that seem reasonable? A recognition of the Rule of Law—and the law itself—obviates your need for the teams of specialty attorneys who try to keep people from being strapped to that damned table.

Similarly, if you don't want to risk being manhandled by cops—who are, after all, fallible human beings (in many cases profoundly jaded after receiving way too concentrated a dose of the ugly side of life)—then avoid becoming a person of interest in a criminal investigation. If you must have an encounter with law enforcement, by all means handle it as if you were a paleontologist handling the rarest and most precious intact dinosaur egg ever found at a dig. 

Let's get to the case at hand, the case that has catapulted these questions to the forefront of our collective consciousness. I feel for the parents and loved ones of Michael Brown. I have three grown kids of my own, two of them sons, and I can't imagine what it would be like to lose any of them to such a tragedy. That said, I have to believe that in their heart of hearts, even Mike Brown's parents would agree that their son is miscast as the poster boy for white racism and police malfeasance. He apparently robbed a convenience store just prior to his fateful encounter with Officer Wilson, and then—even the family's attorneys have not denied—tried to wrest the officer's gun from Wilson during some altercation that evolved in the police cruiser. Does that, in and of itself, give Wilson carte blanche to execute the kid? Of course not. And if the grand jury rules that the crisis was already past by the time Wilson fired the fatal shots, I'll be the first one cheering for the officer's arrest and conviction of...something. Maybe not first-degree homicide, but something. Still, if I could go back in time and speak to Michael (Gentle Giant) Brown, I would say to him, "Mike, Mikey, look, don't grab those cigars from the counter in that store, and don't strong-arm the clerk; because then, if you should get hassled by some cop for walking down the street a few moments later, you won't have to worry that the cop is hot on your trail. And if you do get stopped—as African-Americans will, for no good reason, too often—then Jesus Christ don't go for the cop's gun! Because if you come out on the short end of that struggle, what the hell do you think is gonna happen next?"

(Has it occurred to anyone in the Brown family that even if Mike survived his meet-up with Wilson, he'd still in all likelihood be going away for a good while as a result of whatever happened there?)

The Rule of Law. If we all did what we were supposed to do in life, if we didn't steal, stab, shoot, punch, rape and so forth, we'd have little reason to fear the civil-rights infringements that tend to flow as consequences from such untoward behaviors. Why does that so seldom come up? Why is Don Lemon (or one of his hand-picked guests) not making that point nightly? Is it somehow impolitic to talk about law and order? To reinforce its importance in the social contract?

If you throw a bottle at a police tank during some chaotic protest melee, you do not deserve to to be shot in the head. Nevertheless, if you throw a bottle at a police tank during that melee, you risk being shot in the head. So don't throw the bottle.

While I'm on a roll, I would extend that logic to other counterproductive behaviors that are not, strictly speaking, illegal. Forgive me if I sound judgmental—and I know I do—but young woman: Please don't have six kids with four different absentee fathers and then complain about America's insensitivity in the face of poverty. (That admonition "applies double" to demagogues: Just STFU. I don't want to hear it.) Does that mean that I want the woman and her six kids under age 7 to live in squalor and in a constant state of what social scientists call "food insecurity"? No way. I want her and her kids to be housed and fed (even though to some degree such largess incentivizes the ongoing behavior). But, young woman, why would you put yourself—and me, and society, and hateful Tea Party types—in the position of having to make those calls about your life and well-being?

Director Lee said it best in his title so many years ago....

Monday, November 17, 2014

What's the opposite of an affirmation?

Three more refutations of the optimism-is-everything mindset, two of 'em courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. Linked here, here, and here. The latter piece comes pretty damn close to implying that the unbridled positive thinking of The Secret etc. is physiologically bad for you. Who knew?

Answer: I did. And so did you if you found this blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

He says we're 'Mishandling Rape.' I agree.

As a postscript to our incendiary discussion of the alleged sexual-assault crisis on America's college campuses, I thought I'd recommend this insightful and (to my read) eminently fair-minded piece from today's New York Times by Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld. Make no mistake, I agree with Rubenfeld (as well as with women and/or those who presume to speak for women) that even one rape is unacceptable, and also that there are far too many guys, especially in scholastic sports programs and from affluent backgrounds, who feel "entitled." But naturally I tend to perk at the professor's broadside against the overkill character of today's countermeasures, and the blunderbuss-style impact such countermeasures are apt to have on all men...including the millions who'd never dream of raping a woman in the classic (violent) sense...and who'd be aghast to be informed that they had (technically) done so, under the convoluted (i.e. nonsensical) terms of said countermeasures.

Here are two passages that are central to the author's point, and also to mine:

"Now consider that one large survey showed that around 40 percent of undergraduates, both men and women, had sex while under the influence of alcohol. Are all these students rape victims? And what if both parties were under the influence? Asked this question, a Duke University dean answered, 'Assuming it is a male and female, it is the responsibility in the case of the male to gain consent.' This answer shows more ideology than logic."
[No kidding! Both parties have been drinking, yet only the male is required to proceed responsibly and with caution?]
"...students need to be told clearly that if they are voluntarily under the influence (but not incapacitated), they remain responsible for their sexual choices. Moreover, sexual assault on campus should mean what it means in the outside world and in courts of law. Otherwise, the concept of sexual assault is trivialized, casting doubt on students courageous enough to report an assault."
Read the piece and see what you think.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The most explosive entry in my resumé.

As some of you will know, I was once the head honcho (formally publisher/editor-in-chief) at The American Legion Magazine, the house publication of the veterans-service organization and the biggest little magazine that no one ever heard of, with a monthly circ of slightly over 3 million at the time. (That number has fallen considerably in the intervening years.) If you've seen my (skeletal) Facebook profile, the round-table discussion depicting a giddy Bill Clinton took place during my TALM period. So did other confabs with Clinton, Gore and/or various cabinet members and military higher-ups. These were among any number of wonderful perks that came with the job, which also included accommodations in top D.C. hotels and the opportunity to rub elbows with international dignitaries at glossy State Department a gorgeous ballroom* overlooking the steel-blue Potomac...while lifting fan-tail shrimp the approximate size of a catcher's mitt.

Anyway, I was thumbing through a bound volume of some of the magazines we put out during my nearly three-year tenure, and I came across the June 1997 issue, pictured here.

You should have no trouble reading the cover headline: "We Lost New York Today."

It's an investigative piece by Susan Katz Keating, and it describes a hypothetical future scenario in which New York City is victimized by a nuclear terror attack. The central action differs from that of 9/11, of course, but on balance the piece is remarkably prescient. (Even the illustration commissioned by long-time art director Simon Smith presages the truly spooky cover of that rap album produced just months before 9/11**.) Ms. Keating alludes to tantalizing areas of inquiry that don't even appear in the exhaustive 9/11 Commission Report, which had the considerable "benefit" of the 20/20 hindsight brought about by 9/11 itself.

We did some nice work then, I say without false modesty. Another piece that comes to mind is "St. George is Expendable," staff writer Ken Scharnberg's poignant and award-winning examination of the (literal) fallout from our nuclear testing program in the Nevada desert; said radiation wafted over parts of northern/western Utah in the 1950s and residents later cited disastrous long-term health consequences that are hard to dismiss as a "coincidental cluster." (Here's a link to a "bootleg" version of Ken's haunting piece. I can't vouch for its word-for-word accuracy as I no longer have a copy of the original, but I'm sure it's close.) But that causal relationship is still disputed in official precincts, just as the government and the VA have stonewalled at every turn in cases where large blocs of U.S. citizens or veterans claimed some ongoing hazard connected to government/military service. See under "Agent Orange or, more recently, "Gulf War Syndrome." In the latter case, I once stood in the back of a meeting room in a Boston suburb and listened as a VA functionary basically explained away the constellation of symptoms that the 100-or-so Persian Gulf vets in attendance described, one after another, in heartbreaking detail. The official offered a torrent of politicized, well-chosen words that seemed to reduce to one word, psychosomatic.

It was all in their heads

I'm pretty proud of my time at the Legion, in retrospect. A damn shame that TALM was never even in the conversation when my esteemed Manhattan colleagues*** got together over $17 martinis to celebrate our industry. One of our interns who went on to do quite well for herself in the magazine biz even omits TALM from her resumé, no doubt deeming it downmarket and declassé . Sad. Our reporting helped people who badly needed help, or advocated for people who badly needed advocacy... Tell me why such journalism is not at least as worthy of note as some shameless, overlong paean to an aging rock star or an advertiser-driven comparison of this fall's flashy new cars.
* Officially it is known as the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room.
**I believe the album was pulled from shelves and redesigned before its scheduled November 2001 release.
*** for whose august publications I also freelanced on a regular basis, as per my arrangement with the Legion.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Should there be more boinking at your place of business?

UPDATE, NOV. 12... So this "scandal" has now apparently cost several dozen jobs. Unreal. Not all that surprising, given the tenor of the times. But still unreal.


I once kick-started the process of losing a high-paying management job by telling my 17-member department that I didn't care if they had sex in their offices during lunch as long as they were reasonably quiet and hygienic about it. And I was willing to compromise on the quiet part. I did not just say this out of the blue, by the way. The company was in one of those periods when there's a hyper-emphasis on productivity, and we managers were obliged to communicate that top-down agenda to staff; I was simply trying to be a good guy by underscoring that as long as my team gave me 100% when it counted, what they did during their, uh, down-time was none of my concern. I encouraged them to use their breaks to decompress...and that's when the sex idea hit me. I was half-kidding. I think.

Word got around and a few days later I was summoned to the office of the boss of bosses and informed that by merely putting that notion “out there” I'd opened the company to massive liability under hostile-environment statutes, which were just then reaching critical mass in HR circles. I did not help my cause when, during this dressing-down, I pointed out that among the company's 300 employees were a dozen or so who'd have these notoriously loud arguments with their spouses, both on the phone and in the staid corridors of the building.

Ergo, I smartly asked (or so it seemed to me, anyway), “Which would you rather hear on a regular basis, fighting or fucking?” Unimpressed by my alliterative flair, my boss went into anaphylaxis.

This decades-old episode comes to mind in the context of several recent news items, notably an escalating scandal here in Pennsylvania over racy emails, images and videos circulating in the state Attorney General's office. It is hard to exaggerate how overwrought the coverage of this matter has been. Daily we locals are treated to some new revelation involving two or three more officials who received and may have even—God help them!—looked at these materials, which apparently are so graphic and appalling as to augur the fall of Western civilization as we know it. There have been a half-dozen forced resignations to date. Among the casualties is a state Supreme Court judge. More departures are expected.

Is there anyone who can survey what's going on in the world in these times of Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson and the rest, and tell me that sexy emails are worth worrying about?
The attempt to police sex at work technically took life as part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but was catapulted to national prominence a decade or so later as women increasingly moved out of the steno pool and into careers with a management track. They began voicing objections, thoroughly legitimate ones, about the odious abuses they encountered on that very boys-clubby path: unwelcome groping, tacky references to female body parts and, worst of all, quid pro quo harassment, wherein a women's professional advancement would be tied to her willingness give the boss a sexual thank-you. But as typically occurs with major cultural reforms—once windfall-minded tort lawyers get involved—the core concepts were soon expanded beyond all reason. HR departments scrambled to keep up with precedents established in the latest “hostile environment” lawsuit: “Don't you dare touch” became “Don't you dare make people uncomfortable.” Worse, discomfort was defined as an eye-of-the-beholder offense. Risk-averse HR managers began crafting policies to placate even the most sensitive beholder's eye.

Now, I am not implying that employees should be free to devote large parts of their workday to surfing porn. But an occasional joke, cartoon or, yes, a glimpse of Web-flesh can be a great tension reliever and a pleasant diversion from an otherwise taxing day. I see no reason to punish such diversions.

Moreover, the most bizarre and frustrating aspect of our “hostile environment” statutes is that they never even attempt to punish actual hostility: that is, the garden-variety verbal and procedural assaults that can make 9-to-5 life an unremitting hell regardless of gender. Bullying, degradation, general nastiness and even utter assassination of an employee's self-worth are all just fine, as long as they don't target someone in one of the familiar protected categories enumerated in the Civil Rights Act.

So I urge you to put aside your preconceptions and your social conditioning and ask yourself which is honestly worse—you ready?—are the preconceptions and social conditioning safely put away?—OK then, so again, which is honestly worse: hearing a coworker orgasm or hearing a coworker sliced into tiny pieces of humiliation by a boss with a machete for a tongue?

In any case, when did exposure to sexual themes become hostile? You certainly wouldn't draw that inference from the rest of the culture. Have you seen the figures on the growth of the porn industry since the advent of the internet? (The link takes you to a Google topic page, but be careful what you click on; some of the site results made my antivirus howl.) Regular TV, too, gets steamier and steamier: Its biggest hit shows revolve around who's sleeping with whom, who wants to sleep with whom or, in the case of those proliferating “special victims” shows, who was forced to sleep with whom at knifepoint. Even the geeky Big Bang Theory is loaded with double entendres (beginning with its title). Pop music? Do we really need to go there? Beyonce and Jay Z practically had sex on-stage at the Grammy's. More people have probably seen and admired Miley Cyrus' butt and boobs than can correctly identify the present Secretary of State on this, the eve of Election Day. Critics and film-goers alike made “happenings” out of books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl, both of which overtly mate sex and violence. Now that's sexual hostility.

In fact—spoiler alert—I'd bet women would rather look at pirated clips of Ben Affleck's johnson from that scene in Gone Girl than at those pix of your kids or grandkids that you inflict on everyone at work. I'm even thinking that most women, if they're going to be honest, enjoyed that glimpse of Anthony Weiner's eponymous appendage.
Still, it's as if we've come to a point where, in our public lives, we need to pretend that sex doesn't exist. It's laughable, and it's maddening.
Anthony Weiner is of more than passing relevance because he demonstrates that our faux puritanism has very real costs. In Weiner's case, a brilliant and seemingly uber-dedicated public servant was rendered unelectable for the great sin of sexting. Granted, his situation was complicated by infidelity, but infidelity is a private matter between husband and wife that should not cast a pall over the rest of a man's (or woman's) public oeuvre. Similarly, Eliot Spitzer was a devout crusader against Wall Street excess at a time when the nation needed every such crusader it could find; he too had to go. Bill Clinton, by many measures a successful president, barely survived impeachment. What would've happened if JFK's “workplace” indiscretions had been made public? Or what about beloved FDR? The iconic Thomas Jefferson? (Did you know that Sally Hemings was barely into her teens when ol' Tom took her with him to Gay Paree?) The fella did an okay job as as statesman, though, I hear.

Which is why I'd urge everyone reading this to tear off the PC strait-jacket and press for an end to the hypocritical charade. Bring it up at the next staff meeting. Then by all means enjoy your lunch hour, and tell 'em you got the idea from me.