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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Freedom and Government

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States. (United States Constitution, section 8)

Hmm! Lay and Collect taxes and pay the Debts: Republicans refuse to raise (lay) taxes and  insist on paying our colossal debt simply by slashing the budget. Both parties incurred in creating the humongous deficit, though Bill Clinton was the last President to balance our accounts. Two wars and 11 years later, they(Congress) keep hiding their head in the sand as if the trillions owed could magically disappear. Did I mention that Washington's credibility is the lowest it has ever been?

Common Defence (British spelling): Does it say "Offence" ?  No, defense only. With the creation of Homeland Security, a department that supposedly embraced all agencies involved in gathering intelligence, we gave up some of our freedom and individual rights, as aptly described by Mr. Ron Paul. "National Security" is a moniker that allows its agents to arrest and detain anybody in the United States who fits a certain description; they can call you a terrorist for whatever reason and keep you in jail and even make you disappear without answering to any superior power. That's a definition that can be applied to any repressive regime in the Arab world. However, the Constitution clearly states the concept of  habeas corpus: "The basic premise behind habeas corpus is that you cannot be held against your will without just cause." Did we give up that fundamental right? Can an American citizen be held in a secret jail without access to a lawyer?

Presidential Directive NSPD 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-20, sometimes called simply "Executive Directive 51" for short), created and signed by United States President George W. Bush on May 4, 2007, is a Presidential Directive which claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a "catastrophic emergency (Wikipedia). Few people are aware of its exact contents but what we know is frightening: Only the President can declare a national emergency, whatever that means, and he/she will coordinate actions among the three constitutional powers, thus placing the entire government under the control of the executive power. Nothing is said about individual rights, but we can safely assume that those would be suspended. I cannot understand how such all-important usurpation of the legislative branch's function has not been examined by the Supreme Court and declared illegal. In other words the President is allowed to create his or her own laws with no oversight from the other two government bodies.

There is growing concern among the States that Washington is taking too much power to address natural catastrophes; we have all seen the disastrous response of FEMA after Katrina. Local authorities have much better knowledge of what is needed and would spend the available funds more wisely. Remember all these emergency mobile homes to house victims of hurricanes? They turned out to be contaminated and millions of federal dollars were wasted that could have been given to the States. FEMA, by the way, is a part of Homeland Security which also includes all Border Patrol, Coast Guard and Customs. Such an unwieldy agency cannot function efficiently and we have seen multiple examples of mismanagement of resources. Its components are:

Do you think such "bureaucratic monster" can handle all these functions well? Of course not. I have requested a green card for my daughters 5 years ago; due to the accumulation of paperwork, read inefficiency, my lawyer tells me that it may take another 14 years. What's the point? I may well be dead by then!

To end this essay with the words of a very wise American, Henry David Thoreau:

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Can we aspire at getting a better government in November of 2012?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's a Hero?

Some of my readers will hate me for saying this: Let's stop calling every soldier a hero! We are offending those who really deserve the name, those who risked everything to save their friends, those who survived and those who didn't. As a veteran who has never felt bullets flying overhead except in basic training, I can recall some heroic tales by those who were in WWII and in Korea. None of them thought that he was a hero for doing what a soldier does, his duty.

As we fortunately near the end of combat troops in both theaters of war, Afghanistan and Iraq, we must recognize our volunteer-soldiers, those who served honorably; others, the abusers and killers of innocent civilians, must be tried in an American court and sent to prison for a long time. An Iraqi life is just as precious as an American one, and we, as soldiers, carry the great responsibility of representing our country's ideals of freedom and democracy.

I remember vividly the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; I was walking the streets of a German town where my unit was stationed, when I suddenly ran across locals, men and women, openly weeping at the fatidic news. I ran back to my quarters to listen to the military channel on the radio and heard the sad confirmation that our commander-in-chief had not survived. We were immediately placed on alert, thinking that the 50 armored Soviet divisions might cross the border between East and West Germany. Luckily, they didn't and WW III was avoided. But I knew that the Germans respected the American G.I. because of what we represented.

We had no choice during the Cold War; we had to demonstrate our military power lest the hotheads in the Kremlin thought they could destroy us easily. Today, we have a choice. Our troops no longer have a good reason to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan. To those who say that President Obama is wrong in announcing the date of our pull-out, I say:"Are they threatening our country's shores and borders?" No, the Taliban are a rag-tag army that only wants us out of Afghanistan. Let them have it! On the other hand, Iraq is stable enough to fight its own wars without our help. They have a government that has asked us to, no, told us to get out this year. Let them have it and stop repeating the same political sing-song of sacrifice made in vain. We got rid of Sadam Hussein and his murderous sons, didn't we?

We have to recognize two important concepts: We still have the best military in the world, but we can no longer afford to play the policeman of this Earth. We have urgent problems at home, such as making sure that every returning soldier gets all the help he or she deserves. So far, we have failed in that mission. Going back to civilian life after facing death during years, after losing your buddies to IED's, and after killing human beings who also had loving families, is no easy task. Let's remember that when we interview veterans for a job they urgently need.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Can We Afford To Stay Out?

As Europe moved closer and closer to war in the late 1930s, the United States Congress was doing everything it could to prevent it. Between 1936 and 1937, much to the dismay of the pro-Britain President Roosevelt, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts (Wikipedia)

Presidential candidate Ron Paul is enjoying a lot of support with his "stay out" attitude. According to the latest CNN numbers, he is the best of the single-digit contenders, above Bachmann, Santorum and Huntsman, with 9%. He is in fact asking us to go back to the isolationist days cited above. Let's bring all our troops home, he adds, including those stationed in more than one hundred bases around the globe. None of the other candidates has come even close to his proposals, except perhaps Rick Perry who offered the "novel" idea of cutting all foreign aid to zilch.

But the burning and essential question remains:"Can we afford to stay out of the world's conflicts?" As a man born in tiny neutral Switzerland, I have always wondered why my native country spends a ton of money maintaining an army and air force (don't laugh). My grandfather mentioned a military tradition dating to Swiss mercenaries being hired for their prowess during the Middle Ages; we can still see the remnants at the Vatican.

Actually, the United States, except for the size, has a lot in common with the 800 year-old country of William Tell. Remember the first Articles of Confederation that fizzled after a few years (1781 - 1789)? That was copied straight from the Confederation Helvetica (the actual name of Switzerland). And except for the Napoleonic invasion in 1815, my country of birth has successfully avoided being drawn into wars. Can America, or rather, should America do the same?
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Mr. Paul's 10 million followers seem to think so; he even had the temerity of suggesting that 9/11 was caused by our military presence in Arab countries. It's hard to agree with him, but let's not forget that we used to help bin Laden during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. We supported Iraq's murderous dictator Sadam Hussein in his war against Iran. We tolerated and helped Cuba's infamous Batista before the bearded rebellion in 1959. Examples of our international mischiefs abound, as we lied to start a war in Vietnam and in Iraq. That's what happens when a country becomes so powerful that it often turns into a bully.

 America, Mr. Paul, cannot and should not isolate itself from what happens in this globalized world. We must not let rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea threaten their neighbors with nuclear weapons. We cannot let China and Russia push us around; we should not abdicate our immense responsibility toward Latin America, where signs of unrest could lead to local wars. We cannot allow drug cartels to grow into military juggernauts. On the other hand..

American cannot intervene as the policeman of the world; we will never end global injustice and poverty. We must not engage our brave military in foolish actions such as Iraq and Vietnam. Direct terrorist threats must be solved with limited force; just enough to let them know that we will chase and eliminate them wherever they hide.

We have the economic clout to apply sanctions that hurt; we have the military deterrent that makes potential aggressors think twice before attacking us. But we must also focus on our number one priority: the American people.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

12 Million Human Beings

All men are children, and of one family. The same tale sends them all to bed, and wakes them in the morning. (Thoreau)

Newton Gingrich, during the National Security Debate, took a valiant stance when asked about the undocumented immigrants in this country. He advocated AGAINST deportation, the official Republican position, citing humane considerations. It may cost him some points in the race for the White House, but one has to admire his gumption and audacity. To begin with, he will certainly gain the favor of Hispanic groups who are tired of waiting for the Democrats to show some backbone and present a comprehensive immigration bill. The former Speaker (I'm tired of people calling him Mr. Speaker after more than 10 years of leaving the post) surprised everybody and once again took the limelight in the debate.

I remember talking to old, very old Mexicans many years ago and asking them about the border with the U.S. They were adults when Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican dictator, was still in control. They spoke with nostalgia of walking into American border towns to buy a few trinkets with nary a custom agent in sight. In those days, the border was more a line on the map than a reality on the ground. Today, of course, it has become an object of contention due to the threat of terrorism and drug cartels. Some Mexican friends who came over for a visit on November 20 (a holiday in Mexico) complained that a checkpoint manned by the Mexican army delayed them for 2 hours before reaching the bridge. That's how bad it is on the other side.

This lengthy historical introduction has one purpose: Mexicans were here long before the White Man took over. Latino last names such as Martinez and Hernandez are just as American as Sandford and Smith. Yes, the Alamo still rankles in our minds as a mindless massacre and a heroic stance by a few Texans, but the days of hostility and resentment are over; at least, they should be when we consider how much the Hispanic community has contributed to this country which is also THEIRS. The two countries, the U.S. and Mexico are joined at the hip by a 3,000 miles border and by a common history of trade and cultural exchange. Thousands of American families live in the Aztec country where life is cheaper and simpler. Thousands of retired winter Texans still go to Mexican border towns to get cheaper medical treatment and drugs. We cannot undo centuries of blood ties with the stroke of the pen.

Deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants would be, first of all, totally impossible; the logistics are simply too complex. When we stuck Japanese-Americans in concentration camps at the beginning of WWII, a blot on our country's history of compassion and tolerance, we had to deal with far fewer human beings who were betrayed by their Asian factions. Today, identifying people by their last name or their skin color as potential illegal aliens would be unacceptable racial profiling, an action that has taken place in Arizona numerous times while harassing legitimate American citizens. I can just imagine the plethora of lawsuits against the government, all paid by our dwindling tax dollars. In addition, the world at large would condemn our lack of compassion; we can scarcely afford more damage to our reputation.

There are better ways to enforce immigration laws; we could offer a monetary incentive to return to their country of origin; we could offer citizenship to mothers with children born in this country; we could allow the brainiest young people without documents to earn their green cards (Dream Act) the American Way, by joining the Peace Corps for 2 years; we could offer citizenship to young men willing to join the military for 5 years; we could reignite the bracero program by allowing illegal aliens to work for 6 months in agriculture if they pledge to return to their countries the other 6 months; we could allow green cards for those who have been here for more than 10 years and who have been model citizens.

Let's accept the fact that undocumented aliens have always been (in our modern history) a part of our work force. Even if we could deport all of them, most would find a way back. We cannot secure the border against illegal immigration, that's a pipe dream. Let's concentrate on the real problem: drugs and terrorists.

Monday, November 21, 2011


If you think things can’t get worse it’s probably only because you lack sufficient imagination.

The super-committee, as predicted, reached NO agreement that would have benefited American citizens by finding a way to cut spending. As usual, the 12-member group was evenly divided between the two major parties: the Democrats refusing to cut without raising taxes and the Republicans refusing to raise taxes, even on the super-rich. All of them were thinking about getting reelected and not hurting the cause of their main contributors, i.e. lobbies. Not one even suggested the possibility of listening to the people; now that would have been a change and it means that we absolutely need to use referendums when politicians reach an impasse. Very Frustrating!

}} Politicians should look at this flag, really look!

Speaking of listening to protesting masses, Mr. Newton Gingrich once again played the decisive card when analyzing the Occupy Wall Street movement; without any hesitation whatsoever, he put his foot in his mouth once again. He showed his true colors, which means pandering to the Tea party followers. He said that the OWS people were no better than a bunch of dirty hippies who should look for a decent job after taking a shower. He repeatedly emphasized the fact that they didn't pay for the park they occupied and the toilets they used, even though these are public property. He characterized the movement as extreme left gone amok. Very Frustrating!

Republicans, led by their fearless and occasionally emotional leader Speaker Boehner, have declared war on anything that President Obama has proposed, including his much needed job bill. They don't even bother to offer a compromise or an alternative; granted, Mr. Obama is a Democrat (gasp), so whatever he says is automatically suspect (I wonder if race is a factor in this dislike). So we can be sure that nothing of importance will be done during the last presidential year and the President is quite aware of that. He has taken the only avenue left to him:  presidential decrees that do not require Congress' approval. How Frustrating!

Are we supervising big banks to make sure they don't lead us to the brink of economic and financial hell as they did in 2008-09? Are we keeping an eye on large financial institutions that sold us toxic instruments 3 years ago? The answer is depressing; they have hundreds of well-paid lobbyists in Washington who make sure no such bill reaches the floor. The only way for us, ordinary citizens, to fight back would be to have our own lobby to defend our interests, just as AARP defends senior citizens with success. Why not? All we need is an incorruptible leader to start a new association called "Citizens for Change". But who would be selfless enough to grab the standard and fight for us? It's an idea that deserves more attention; however, the silent majority, the ones who refuse to vote, will remain passive and let "others" do the work. How Frustrating!

The growing Occupy Wall Street movement has lacked a unifying voice that can offer concrete ideas of change; maybe, just maybe, they could be the core of the new NGO "Citizens for Change", a powerful NON-partisan lobby whose exclusive task would be to fund campaigns for those politicians willing to listen to reason and to the People. But, would its leaders be sucked by the Washington insiders and by the existing corruption? Where are these saviors? Do they even exist? How Frustrating!

Ladies and Gentlemen: I declare this blog to be the leader in the fight against political passivity. If we want a good government and a functioning democracy, we must unite and demand action. Are you willing and ready?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Me, Now, Here

Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country (John F. Kennedy)

Many of our politicians in Congress would do well to revisit this truth by one of our greatest Presidents. Their vision is limited to ME, NOW, HERE. It should be, of course, THEM, THEN, THERE, wherein Them are the suffering people of this powerful nation, Then is the next 50 years and There is our devastated environment.

The powerful lobbies have taken over our federal government; we have, in effect, ceded the control of all branches to large corporations. Even the Supreme Court is not immune to private interests. Some of its august members dine and play golf as guests of honor of wealthy executives, which makes it difficult if not impossible to remain unbiased when called upon to act on appeals involving large conglomerates.

The President offered during his campaign to eliminate the influence of lobbies and to veto any bill that had special interests attached to it. Alas, he was caught in the web just like any newly minted Congressman. "Do what I say, but not what I do" seems to be the motto on the Hill. Legislators make fiery speeches against legalized corruption, i.e. lobbying all the while opening their coffers to anxious donors.

Their weapons now are BlackBerries and cell phones. But connections, savvy, and fundraising clout are still the keys to the influence wielded by the city’s 50 top lobbyists. (Washingtonian, Kim Eisler, June 1, 2007)

Does the name Abramoff ring a bell?  "We need to entirely eliminate any contribution by those lobbying the government, participating in a federal contract, or otherwise financially benefiting from public funds" says the disgraced lobbyist. He should know a thing or two about how the system works. But unfortunately, Congress is the only organism allowed to make laws and it will never agree to pass anything that hurts its individual pockets. Ideally we should have an outside agency, a sort of ethical watchdog, that forces changes upon the legislative branch, but, again, such agency would have to be set up by the very people it would supervise. No Way, no How!

 We? The People?? Or They, The Special Interests? The Founding Fathers would be aghast at the business-like atmosphere in Congress which apparently has become a branch office of Wall Street. The venerated television program 60 minutes devoted a segment to insider trading by some Congressmen, asking pungent questions to embarrassed legislators who vehemently denied any personal involvement. Or course, they have experts doing the financial work for them and the report from CBS implied that they have advanced knowledge of bills that may impact the value of some companies or portions of real estate. It would be quite revealing to ask Congressmen to publicly declare their fortune at the beginning of their hallowed representation and at five year intervals thereafter. "How did they become rich?" is the burning question in every middle-class member's mind.

"We have the government we deserve", said a wise philosopher and the solution to the present problem is to get rid of every incumbent next November and elect fresh faces who may or may not give us, the people, some hope that Washington will regain the confidence that has been lost. Recent polls indicate a new and shameful low for Congress: 9% of the respondents said that they trusted that federal organism. Wow! Is that a message that will be heard next year or will most of us stay home and then complain that government doesn't work? If you don't vote, you deserve the government that is in place. So stop whining and prepare to act!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

So Much To So Few

It's insane! It's crazy and cruel! Where is the sharing, the moral conscience, the gratefulness, the Christian ideal, the compassion, and the generosity that must accompany wealth in all Americans? I am not pointing the finger at Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates, or at any of the giving and considerate wealthy members of our society. Rather my indignation signals to the incredible waste of resources by those super rich athletes, singers, actors, politicians and scions of great fortunes who carelessly throw money at extremely expensive baubles while millions of Americans are suffering the shame and humiliation of foreclosures, loss of jobs, loss of pensions, loss of 401K's, loss of savings, and loss of dignity.

Panther Brooch (House of Cartier): 1.1 Million
Diamond Watch (Chanel): 1.9 Million
Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Watch: $113,000 
2005 Ferrari 430 Coupe: $130,000

These are but a just a few of the outrageous gifts bought by celebrities who apparently are oblivious to the urgent need to help American families who have no home, no job and nowhere to go. What kind of economic system gives so much to so few?

Communism was a wonderful concept but the selfish nature of man rendered the idea unusable. People want to OWN something, a piece of land, a house, or even a pet, without government intervention. Nevertheless, the idea of a just society implies that citizens who, through no fault of their own, fall into desperate financial straits, should be helped by an official agency. After all, private charities cannot handle so many hardship cases; church groups and social clubs do help as much as they can, as do charitable volunteers. But when the scope of the problem is so great, when the evident cause of such catastrophe can be placed squarely on rapacious Wall Street vultures, only the government has the means and the resources to save these citizens in distress.

After all, don't we help the victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, wild fires, contagious diseases, epidemics, wars, famine, drought, earthquakes and any of the global disasters that every year affect millions of human beings on this planet? Why in the world can't official agencies help the innocent victims of barefaced manipulation of toxic financial instruments and political corruption (those politicians who passed laws to favor big financial institutions in exchange for campaign contributions)?

Why do you think the "Occupy Wall Street" movement has lasted so long and has spread so far and wide to so many cities and countries? It has surged from a profound dissatisfaction and outrage at the capitalistic system that robbed the poor to give it to the rich. Agreed, there is no sin in becoming rich; it is accepted and admired in those who legitimately earned that right. Most create jobs and opportunities for their communities. The problem surges when that fortune has been acquired through dubious means, whether unconscionable bonuses to failed CEO's, bribes to politicians disguised as campaign contributions, finance conglomerates that invent so-called derivatives that include the mortgages of millions.

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The numerous financial ties between Congress members and lobbyists are creating laws that favor the already rich at the expense of the middle class; a review of pension laws shows clearly that thousands of retirees have been cheated of their earned income through legal shenanigans in which both corporations and political leaders worked together to cut pension benefits, never with the consent or knowledge of the employees.

Our most important citizens, the ones that prepare the next generation, have salaries that would make a Wall Street broker cringe in financial pain. Yet we throw millions at athletes, most of whom have no idea what to do with it, example Mike Tyson. They buy lavish gifts and sumptuous mansions until the IRS comes knocking on their tax doors. Meanwhile, another 100 families have been thrown into the streets.

Unjust financial and economic system? Of course, that is why the government is the only recourse most people have; witness the enormous importance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Washington says that these social programs are running out of money when billions are squandered on stupid wars, generous tax breaks for the rich, enormous subsidies to wealthy farmers and unneeded foreign aid.

Something must be done and something will be done, next year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

If Not Now, When?

Given the success of the article "To Give or Not To Give" (9/12/11), I feel motivated to add to the present picture of American Society. The main question is: Are we raising a new generation of couch potatoes, corrupt politicians, greedy CEO's, lazy workers, incompetent leaders, careless parents, and unmotivated teachers? Or are we creating a group of Steve Jobs geniuses who will astound us with their creativity and inventiveness? The answer is complex, given that both possibilities are very real, dividing the population into two very separate categories of citizens.

The lack of traditional discipline in most families (not to be confused with physically hurting children, which is abuse) has created a generation of teens who feel entitled to total support without having to work for it. I asked some of my students who are close to 18 what plan they had to survive: Almost no one associated that milestone with becoming an independent adult. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say "Whatever happens, happens." Fatalism is a quality associated more with the Muslim religion than with the Western culture. It usually leads to a lack of ambition and effort, a sure road to welfare.

I vividly remember the heydays of sexual liberation and antiwar movements between 1969 and 1979. Hippies and communes sprang in various places in our country where smoking pot and enjoying free love was the norm. Everybody wanted peace in the world and a greater permissiveness in our society; we searched for the meaning of life through transcendental meditation with the help of Indian gurus. The Beatles were all the rage and colorful clothing changed fashion forever. College students had rebelled and wanted a voice in the governance of universities. Women were at last free to make love without fear of getting pregnant thanks to the pill. The suffocating bonds of straight-laced parents were finally broken, announcing a happier and freer society. However..

Reality asserted itself in the eighties with the recently discovered AIDS virus; families who sought the new freedom were broken up, divorce rate rose, and many young adults decided that marriage was not really necessary in order to have children. As a result, permissiveness turned to neglect and the loss of essential values which hold a social group together. Women wanted their place in the sun and tried to combine work with raising kids, a difficult proposition that created latchkey children. These came from school to find an empty home; others were raised by relatives, nannies, or daycare centers, where social values were not the priority. Deprived of parental love, many youngsters looked for attention and affection in other social groups where they learned how to reject the accepted norms.

There is nothing more important than a united family where lessons are taught with love, patience, and tolerance. I remember a single mother telling me that once a week she gathers all seven children around the dinner table to discuss and try to solve any problem that may have arisen. Everybody's opinion is welcome no matter what their age or gender. This type of strategy makes every child feel important and strengthens the bonds of affection and respect among its members. Whenever possible, close relatives such as grandparents should be invited to participate given their extensive experience and wisdom. elderly_lady6.gif

We have lost the ability to talk face-to-face in our modern society; we text mother that we will be late tonight. We send e-mails to friends, relatives, and acquaintances as a replacement for a meaningful conversation. Yes, these are important communication tools, but they should not substitute the need to sit down with a child or parent and examine real human issues. How can we detect non-verbal clues, such as a frown, a smile, a gesture, a shrug, a wink, or even a tone of voice if we can't see the person?

Going back to the initial question regarding what kind of society we are creating, the answer lies not in technology but in recuperating the warmth of human contact. Hugging a child or a friend cannot compare with a cleverly designed e-card or an affectionate e-mail. To parents who claim that they can't afford to give more time to their children I say "If not now, when?" Quality and quantity are both essential when raising kids and nothing can replace the mother the first two years, nothing! Dad must be available to answer questions or settle disputes or simply to give a sense of security that nobody, nobody else can give.

Children who grow up feeling self-confident in their abilities and secure in their emotions may well be the next Steve Jobs; at the very least, they'll make good citizens, and that's something our country will need in the complicated future that our country is facing.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Have We Lost Our Sense of Morality?

Our country is clearly focused on greed, as evidenced by the most successful game shows on television; people cry, scream, and jump for joy on Wheel of Fortune, The Price is Right, Deal or No Deal, The Million Dollar Password, Are you Smarter Than a 5th Grader, Jeopardy, etc. But greed is not the only vice flooding the land; sexual permissiveness flourishes in high school (sometimes even in middle schools), in magazines, in our fascination with movie stars, in our movies and videos, becoming outright porn which knows no boundaries ever since the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment included the right to produce and watch the filthiest behavior humans are capable of.

I am no prude; as a man, I enjoy watching sexy women. Eroticism is in intricate part of our psyche. We have witnessed what happens to a society when its rulers repress all healthy  sexual tendencies and expressions, whether in literature or in film; the early Puritans come to mind. Today's women use make-up to look more attractive and desirable to the other sex. Men inflate their pectorals and flex their biceps to express their readiness to wed and reproduce, just like peacocks display their magnificent colors. That's normal and necessary. On the other hand, homosexuality is a reality, not a sick condition that can be cured, but I don't see why gay people should demand the right to marry just like an ordinary heterosexual couple. They should keep their activities private; most of us agree that a marriage is a ritual that precedes reproduction and thus should not be misused for other purposes.

The next vice that seems to become more prevalent in this nation is hypocrisy, starting with our politicians. It is almost impossible to obtain a clear answer from any of them. The media marvels at the few straight-talkers, which is why people like Hermann Cain and Newton Gingrich seem to have the upper hand in debates. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and even Jon Huntsman, struggle to answer a simple Yes or No question. There is nothing more irritating than a Congressman being interviewed: he or she hems and haws around the question until the reporter presses for a clear answer. Politicians often claim to espouse a certain position when in reality they support another: It is called political expediency. Mitt Romney is a clear example; he goes with the wind, flip-flopping like a kid during recess. Let's not forget the apogee of hypocrisy: the so-called religious men and women who beat their chests, claiming to be good Christians, going to church regularly dressed in their Sunday best, and cheating their fellow citizens on Monday. Somehow, I can't help thinking about bankers and financiers; right, Madoff?

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Lies and cover-ups abound in this great nation. We desecrate the bodies of fallen soldiers by dumping their ashes in a common grave: cover-up by the brass. We humiliate Iraqi prisoners in Abu-Dhabi and responsible officers try the quash the scandal: cover-up. Penn State explodes at the sordid news: A coach rapes innocent boys and the man in charge, Paterno, apparently doesn't take the necessary steps to protect other kids. A New York congressman, Wiener, lies about sending lewd photos. A governor lies about going to Argentina to visit his mistress. Bill Clinton lying to Congress about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Catholic priests and their superiors covering up their scandalous sexual behavior. Is it surprising that modern youth consider "normal" what their grandparents view as outrageous?

Our present society, as I have mentioned before, has become far too permissive. Discipline is now seen as a "dirty" word that parents should avoid, except maybe for the flogging judge and his followers. We haven't been able to define the limits of what we can and can't do to raise our children. As parents and teachers, our hands are often tied by government regulations, thus creating teens who say:" I am going to call the police if you punish me or if you leave me alone tonight."

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As a result, children are exposed to defective role models through television, movies and video games. Our role as a father or mother, if they care at all, is to limit the damage by trying to explain that it's not O.K. to lie and cheat and have uncontrolled sex. As difficult as raising a child may be, today's society has made it much more challenging. The real heroes are those who manage, against all odds, to raise kids who will be an model of morality and good citizenship.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let Them Die

Some Republican candidates have shown little mercy for very sick people and for homeowners who face foreclosure. If they can't pay, let nature, i.e. the free capitalistic and cruel market take its course. The Michigan native, Mr. Romney, even condemned the bailout of GM and Chrysler, saying that if they failed and if thousands lost their jobs, that was the way it had to be. Too bad, added Mr. Huntsman, a man I expected to show some compassion for the unemployed. When faced with the question of what to do with banks that are "too big to fail", none of the contenders was able to offer a solution in last night's debate. In summary, everyone, even the bumbling Rick Perry, recommended a return to the heartless days of savage capitalism, probably because they all receive a lot of financial support from big business. The real winner was without a doubt Newton Gingrich who had the temerity of scolding one of the moderators, Bartiromo, for giving him 30 seconds for a topic that would require several hours, health care.

The real problem among the candidates is that they seem to be out of touch with the feelings of the population at large. The majority of Americans strongly believe that the rich are getting a free pass when it comes to paying their fair share of taxes. Outrageous bonuses to CEO's of failing (bailed out) companies compound the ire of the middle class which occupies Wall Street. Ms. Bachman ceaselessly rewinds the tape (she clearly memorized the spiel) of wishing they would go and manifest in front of the White House. Romney coldly tells people who have "underwater" mortgages to keep faith in the capitalist system, just as Marie-Antoinette regally enjoined hungry Frenchmen to eat cake instead of bread. Ron Paul and his supporters would let very sick and uninsured people die of their disease. Their ideal government would consist of a few employees collecting taxes and distributing the funds to the States. What United States?

Apparently a few very large companies are responsible for 90% of the country's GDP. However, they don't pay 90% of the taxes as they have scores of lobbyists who "convince" key lawmakers to introduce a few more loopholes in the tax system. Just look at insurance companies, drug manufacturers, financial companies, and farmers; they all have either subsidies or tax exemptions or outright donations from the Federal Government and they make obscene amounts of profits as they exert a virtual monopoly on their respective market. Did any candidates even suggest closing the loopholes in the tax code? Yes, they did, but with great cunning, they offered to compensate by lowering the capital gains rate 10%. The bottom line is going to be even better for these huge conglomerates. And Joe Smith, or Jane Doe, who make a living with great difficulty in the middle class, who represents them in Washington? What influential lobby defends the middle-class? Oh, that's right, that's why we elected our Congressmen and women, to defend and protect our interests (place sarcasm here!)

That's the key point; money has taken over the political representation. The power resides not in the hands of the people, as the Founding Fathers had desired, but in the greedy palms of thousands of speculators, large companies and politicians.

The OWS movement wants that, precisely: A major change in the way we do politics and stop enacting laws that favor the few and crush the many. That will require the elimination of lobbies, gasp! What happened to the first amendment? (place irony here).
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All men, or just a few?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Inner Eye

To be aware of a single shortcoming in oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else.
- Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

How little we know about our own shortcomings and how fully aware we pretend to be about others' faults. Many of my teen students have complained about parents being hypocritical; they don't do what they preach. The same can be said for many teachers who present a different persona in class than they do in their private life. Students are quick to detect fakes; they have that special sixth sense in youth that seems to disappear as they get older. As a result, they shut their minds to that particular individual, and that includes parents. Trust is lost and communication suffers.

Honesty and Awareness are priceless tools in human communication, especially with children and adolescents. Psychotherapists know this very well and make it a center pillar of their treatment. Yet we fail to teach the Art of Communicating with our fellow humans in schools, whether public or private, just as we fail to teach the Art of Parenting to future fathers and mothers. A wise philosopher once said:" We have two ears and one mouth. That means we should listen twice as much as we talk." Regrettably, we do just the opposite with our most cherished people, wives, husbands, children, students and close friends. We have this urge to tell them what we think and the reasons for it. Seldom do we take the time to listen, actively, to their own position on the matter. Seasoned and successful diplomats know this and apply the appropriate strategy to achieve results.

How often have we heard our students say :"I wish my father would listen to me."? How many times does a wife complain to her best friend about the husband who never has time to talk, meaning of course serious discussions about important matters? How can we reach a good decision if we act without using the Inner Eye, the tool our conscience offers us to examine, weigh, assess, and analyze our motives, our emotional reactions, and our own shortcomings?

Remember the judge who was filmed whipping the back of his daughter of 16 with a belt? He was clearly enraged, out of control, and yet he justifies his actions as needed discipline. As parents, we should never, ever, punish while angry; the consequences will be disastrous for the child. He or she will cower in fear every time they hear their father coming home; their self-esteem will be shattered and their ability to love and care seriously affected even after they grow into adulthood. Humiliating a child, or an adult for that matter, can result in permanent emotional damage, not to mention the creation of distrust and maybe even hate. It takes a superior being to forgive his parents and/or his teachers for their past abuse, both emotional and physical.

Yes, there is a strong  need for discipline in any family; but too often, parents confuse discipline with severe punishment. Again, the need to prepare future fathers and mothers must start, believe it or not, in elementary school. Children 6 year-old or more are quite capable of expressing their feelings regarding good parenting. Using dolls as make believe children, these kids can be taught how to teach discipline with love and patience. We expect our dogs to behave, but if we use blows and intimidation to achieve that goal, the animal will eventually turn on his master. Should it be any different for human beings?

Monday, November 7, 2011

That's the Way It Must Be

Given the numerous visitors to my latest post "Keep Going, Don't Despair" (I give thanks to all of you), I feel motivated to continue sharing my 25 year experience as a teacher. I noticed as I grew older and as I became a grandfather that we tend to forget how we behaved as children and as teenagers. My mother, 94 year-old, reminded me that as a teen I often stayed in bed till 11:00 o'clock on Saturdays, a lazy memory I had conveniently forgotten. My own grandchildren often keep me on my toes as they behave the way happy teens do: They experiment, they investigate, they want new adventures (while I enjoy my cozy fireplace), they explore and taste life to the fullest. Yes, they make mistakes, yes, they act foolishly sometimes; heck, they even get into fights with each other, they scrape their knees when falling off the skateboard or climbing trees, scaring their mothers, but that's the way it must be.

Connecting with a child or a teen, actually it's more difficult after puberty sets in, represents a challenge for us older adults. They see the world with different eyes as their growing years have been filled with television, movies, videos, and documentaries. They are truly the visual generation, whereas parents and teachers over 40 tend to be more auditive and reflexive. We were reading books and pulp magazines; today they watch shows and play video games. We were listening to songs; today they watch the video of the song. When we marvelled at the prospect of going to the moon, today's blase youngsters ask why not go to the next galaxy. We wrote on a typewriter, cussing the ribbon that ran out of ink; they flash their fingers on an electronic keyboard and instantly send the message. It is as if a more advanced civilization had suddenly invaded the Earth to teach us, primitive humans (you and me), how to enter the age of modern communications.

My father didn't want me to go to college; he used to say with great conviction that books do not teach us how to live in the real world. I went anyway, as soon as I became independent, because I recognized the fallacy of his argument. Books reflect reality as they are written by men and women who want to transmit their own experiences and mistakes. Without books, we would live as nomads on the prairie chasing buffaloes.

Communicating with teens requires a lot of patience, a good sense of humor, and a genuine interest in their goals and interests. It is also essential to show respect for their ideas, however irrational they may appear; some of the no-nos include:

1)    Laughing at their misadventures with the other sex
2)    Yelling  at them to finish whatever task you gave them
3)    Revealing their "secrets" to other adults or teens
4)   Telling them that they will never succeed
5)   Heaping ridicule upon their ambitions
6)   Forcing them to do anything
7)   Not listening carefully when they talk to you in private
8)   Not keeping promises
9)   Favoring one sibling over another
10) Beginning a sentence with :"In my days.."

Adolescents go through phases as they progress toward adulthood; a teacher or a parent must be aware of the changes so as to know what can be expected and what not. Not all teens mature at the same pace, especially boys. The acquisition of complex abstract thinking takes place between the ages of 14 and 18. When the youngster starts asking questions about the meaning of life, you know that he or she is ready to talk about the most important aspects of  human development on this Earth. If you cannot answer those questions, get somebody who can, as young minds can easily stray from the right path by seeking answers from the wrong people.

Most important "Do's":

1)   Answer all questions or tell the teen that you will find a solution (and do it)
2)   Watch carefully for any sudden change in behavior; it may indicate the use of drugs or alcohol
3)   Make sure you are always available as a teacher and parent; it may be something urgent
4)   Study carefully their body language; it may tell you much more than their words
5)   Be frank and honest; they spot "phoniness" immediately and clam up
6)   Admit your mistake if there is one; you will impress them as a teacher or parent
7)   Become their friend but not their buddy
8)   Demand respect at all times
9)   Model the behavior you expect from them
10) Use democratic strategies in the classroom and at home; they will feel that their opinion is important

More than ever we must connect to the younger generations; the present conditions in the world augur a vast change in all areas of human endeavor and our children and students must be ready to face it when their time comes.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Keep Going, Don't Despair

It doesn't matter how slowly you go as long as you don't stop (Confucius)

One of the problems I have observed as a teacher in high school is kids giving up and dropping out. No matter how many times I tell them that every student learns at a different pace and was born with different skills, they feel that they are not smart enough. "Why do I have to read Shakespeare or Mary Shelley or Lord Byron or Edgar Allan Poe; I won't need that in adult life, I can make money anyway", they answer. It is, of course, very difficult to visualize your life 10 years from now when you are 16, 17, or 18. My standard response is to plant the seed of doubt (about their life plan) by giving examples of older adults working in menial jobs that pay very little. There is no point in simply trying to persuade them that we know better as parents or as teachers.

We can also point out that reading classical British poetry and plays by famous authors is not "necessary" to be successful in life, if you define success as material possessions. Savvy English teachers will mention that human nature hasn't changed since the first man walked on two legs; reading the master psychologist William Shakespeare will teach us lessons that no psychotherapist can equal. Studying complex mathematical problems may develop the brain to a new stage of performance that will allow its owner to aspire to well-paid professions. Learning about physical and social sciences will bring an unequaled insight into the mystery of life and the endless complexities of human relations.

He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger (Confucius)

 One of the many strategies available to parents and teachers is to pair the dedicated student with the at-risk one; if the combination is girl-boy so much the better. Women are more mature at the same age as teens, and boys usually react more positively to the other sex than to their male counterparts. Must be some "macho" gene kicking in! Another way to bring the reluctant student into the learning mode is to dedicate a few minutes a day to simply talking to him or her. Showing genuine and respectful interest in their life often brings a positive change in their responses. We frequently cite the need for teachers to make a difference in young people's lives; unfortunately that is not always possible. The way the school day is set up, students run to the next class or once to lunch every 50 minutes. Ideally, there should be no bell and no time pressure. They would go to the next teacher whenever all students have proven that they have assimilated the needed knowledge and skill for the day in that particular topic.

School administrators will react strongly to that suggestion, not always favorably; and yet, that is what we must eventually reach: a school day during which all types of learning styles and speeds are attended to. Students would shoulder more responsibility for their acquisition of skills under an honor code. If we started the new type of school with the first year of elementary, the learners would reach high school already trained in actively seeking knowledge instead of sitting passively on a hard plastic seat during 8 hours. Modern technology (I call it "teachnology") such as iPads and tablets would be available to every kid of every social class. A lot of self-learning can be accomplished with such wonderful tools. Let's imagine futuristic intelligent school desks that respond to the youngster's needs. A teacher would be become more of a guide than a lecturer, a supervisor of learning processes, a resource rather than an authority figure.

We must absolutely change our way of teaching to the lowest common denominator. Let's make every teacher a full-time partner in education, listening to his or her suggestions. They know as nobody else what's going on inside the classroom and they want every student to be successful. But they need the right tools to achieve that goal. Our country's future leaders are in elementary schools right now. We need them well-prepared.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Winners and Losers

Badly does an enemy treat his enemy, a foeman his foe: worse is the havoc wrought by a misdirected mind (Buddha)

 President Obama appears, as of today, the winner of the 2012 election a year from now. Republican bigwigs committed a terrible faux-pas that surely will haunt them long past Halloween. At the beginning, they berated, insulted, ridiculed, scolded, and belittled the OWS movement (Occupy Wall Street). Some right-wingers accused the crowds of being communists, imagine that! Anybody who is against Wall Street bankers and financiers, the ones responsible for the financial meltdown, must be a closet Socialist, hell-bent on nationalizing the largest corporations. For these Republicans, there is nothing in between; it is black or it is white, no grays allowed!

The protesters simply want justice; the manipulators of toxic instruments must be tried and go to jail. The laws have to be changed to prevent banks from speculating on Wall Street with their customers' resources. Big corporations and millionaires must pay their fair share of taxes. Calling this "class warfare" is simply stupid or simple-minded (Right, Mr Cantor?). Yet some Republicans fail to see the danger to their cause, including the main White House candidates such as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. Ms. Bachmann is already out of contention, even though she has tried to re-direct the OWS movement toward the White House, a clumsy effort that exhibit the limited thinking process in the Minnesotan Representative.

In all the brouhaha caused by the accusations of sexual harassment against Mr. Cain, the umpteenth flip-flop by Mitt Romney, the bumbling performance in New Hampshire by Rick Perry (they even asked him if he was under the influence of pain killers), President Obama is emerging as the clear winner of the first rounds in this heavyweight fight. He also picked up a lot of points during his trip to the key voting states by showing up Republicans as denying jobless Americans much needed help from the federal government. He kept harping on the fact that his opponents reject his proposal of increasing taxes on millionaires as class warfare, and yet..

In one of the recent polls, most Americans support taxing millionaires more: "The Elon University poll found that two-thirds of the people polled support raising taxes on Americans with incomes over $1 million per year, an idea Democrats have floated to pay for job stimulus and debt reduction."
Even though I would like to see Mr. Huntsman win the primaries, his numbers are still very low compared to, for example, Ron Paul and Newton Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House under Clinton has surged recently both in preferences and money, a fact that may convert Mr. Gingrich into a severe threat for Mitt Romney and Cain. He is a brilliant orator, a quick witted debater, and possesses a great analytical mind. He is however handicapped by his past relations with women while still married. The religious right wouldn't like it one bit.

At the end, the populist manifestations against Wall Street have lasted longer than anybody had suspected. Just like the Tea Party, these protesters will exert a strong influence on next year's elections; whether this will help the Democrats or their opponents remains to be seen. But I suspect that given the present improvement in the economy, however slight it may be, voters will conclude that Mr. Obama can perform better than anybody else until 2016.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not So Bad

Yes, we all know that the country is not in the best of shape: 14 million Americans without a job; close to 4 million foreclosures this year alone; more than 100 failed banks so far this year; countless small businesses have closed due to lack of customers who can't afford to buy their products; and politicians spend their "valuable" time bickering like turkeys before Thanksgiving. We lack leadership in the White House, in Congress, and in many bankrupt states. The most important news is the latest divorce of Hollywood flesh or the family jewels of some over-the-hill rock star. Did I mention the "reality" show, read comical confrontations, offered every two weeks by would-be Republican contenders who act more like school children than responsible and mature adults?

And yet, when you look at the big picture, this mighty country has retained its appeal for millions of potential immigrants. Why? Because of freedom, the real kind, not just paper-like freedom. Because the American Dream, a little red house with a white picket fence, is still accessible and affordable for newcomers willing to work hard. What about the millions unemployed you will ask? I recently read an article about Alabama where thousands of jobs are suddenly open ever since the new immigration law was passed. The sad part is that farmers could not find enough people to do the work. Many jobless Americans are unwilling to relocate and unwilling to catch any job related to agriculture. That's the reason why so many farmers swear that illegal immigrants are absolutely needed to pick up lettuces and potatoes. Did I mention that the price of produce has gone up due to the scarcity of laborers... from Central America?

In spite of all these negative factors, America is still the Land of the Free, the Land of Opportunities, although perhaps not as attractive as it was 50 years ago. Consider the alternatives: Are any of you willing to move to Russia, where "Ras"Putin holds all the cards, where you may be thrown in jail without bail and without valid reasons? Do any of the South American countries attract you? They don't like Americans and they let you know about it, unless you go there as a rich tourist! Canada is another possibility with its vast, enormous territory and free health care; they take in immigrants every month, but there is a little problem: the bitter cold during 6 months. If you like it, go ahead, move there. Think of ice road truckers and the risks they take.  How about Alaska? Palin can see Russia from her window, together with polar bears and snow bunnies!

Africa has enormous empty spaces, but, again, they don't like us too much. Actually, there are very few countries who really like Americans, and that's because they envy us, they envy our wealth, our low taxes, our way of life, our energy, inventiveness, and unequaled military power. Since 2001, nobody has dared mount another attack on us; they know the response would be pitiless and devastating.

Consider this: There are many jobs available in these United States. Maybe not what you consider ideal jobs, but they'll give you enough to make a decent living. How many unemployed people prefer to continue drawing their monthly check from Uncle Sam instead of taking a job they consider beneath their dignity? Hey, I would sell corn on the cob (roasted) in the local flea market if I had to; or sell insurance door to door or anything that would allow me to survive. Opportunities are there, all you have to do is open your eyes and muster the needed energy.

This country is still the best in the world and if you don't believe that, move to another place.