Friday, May 29, 2015

Who said it - Poetry




It’s been a while since we played the universe’s favorite game – Who said it? It’s a little different this time.  I give you the poem, found somewhere in my library, and you tell me who wrote it out of the four choices I give you. Really, there’s no reason you should know the answers to these questions and I wouldn’t do very well either, except on two.  But give it a shot.  If it was originally in a foreign language, of course I have the English translation.  Answers at the bottom and as usual I apologize for the sometimes odd formatting. It's over my head.
  1. This first one is about a future president’s  schoolmate, named Matthew, who went crazy in his late teens. When the poet returned as an adult to his home town, he found Matthew still alive and I guess wondered why. This is the first three and last stanza.
But here’s an object more of dread
Than ought the grave contains—
A human form with reason fled, mad-man wild
While wretched life remains.

Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright,
A fortune-favored child—
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
A haggard mad-man wild.
Poor Matthew! I have ne’er forgot
When first, with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
And mother strove to kill;            
-  - -
O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thou tear more blest ones hence,
And leave him ling’ring here? 
  1.  Abraham Lincoln   b.  Thomas Jefferson  c.  William McKinley  d.  Franklin D. Roosevelt
2)
Nature
O nature I do not aspire
To be the highest in thy quire,
To be a meteor in the sky
Or comet that may range on high,
Only a zephyr that may blow
Among the reeds by the river low. 

Give me thy most privy place
Where to run my airy race.
In some withdrawn unpublic mead
Let me sigh upon a reed,
Or in the woods with leafy din
Whisper the still evening in,
For I had rather be thy child
And pupil in the forest wild
Than be the king of men elsewhere
And most sovereign slave of care
To have one moment of thy dawn
Than share the city’s year forlorn.
Some still work give me to do                      
Only be it near to you.
  1. Robert E. Lee   b. Jeb Stuart  c. Ralph Waldo Emerson  D. Henry David Thoreau
3)
Dear is my sleep, but more to be mere stone,
So long as ruin and dishonor reign.
To see naught, to feel naught, is my great gain;
Then wake me not; speak in an undertone.
 
  1. Ghengis Khan  b. Marcus Anthony   c. Michaelangelo  d. Einstein
4)

That Gourd I’ll bear wherever I go
That name will be a charm
To nerve my arm ‘gainst ev’ry foe
And ev’ry foe disarm.
‘Mong those whom I can ne’er forget
(let none their worth gainsay)
I’ll prize thee dearest-fondest yet
My Bettie—far away.

       a.  Jeb Bush  b. Jeb Stuart  c. Robert E. Lee  d. Robert Burns
5)



Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.
 
               a. General William Sherman  b. Edgar Allan Poe  c.  Longfellow   d.  J.R.R. Tolkien6) 

 
By one decisive argument,
Giles gained his lovely Kate’s consent
To fix the bridal day.
“Why such haste, dear Giles, to wed?
I shall not change my mind,” she said.
“But, then,” said he, “I may!” 
  1. Dashiell Hammett  b. Raymond Chandler  c. Richard Burton  d. Damon Runyon

7)
 

How every member of Convention,
Tortures his brains and racks invention,
To blast good men and in their place
Foist knaves and fools with better grace:

O’erturn our happy constitution,
Reduce all order to confusion,
With want of laws make mankind groan,
And on their miseries raise a throne.

  1. Aaron Burr  b. Nathan Hale  c. Noah Webster  d. Ethan Allen

8)  I guess the author of this was practiced at deception. Not so nice for the husband, but a revealing poem. 
  1. Arrive before your husband. Not that I can
    See quite what good arriving first will do;
    But still arrive before him. When he’s taken
    His place upon the couch and you go too
    To sit beside him, on your best behavior,
    Stealthily touch my foot, and look at me,
    Watching my nods, my eyes, my face’s language;
    Catch and return my signals secretly.
    I’ll send a wordless message with my eyebrows;
    You’ll read my fingers’ words, words traced in wine.
    When you recall our games of love together,
    Your finger on rosy cheeks must trace a line.
    If in your silent thoughts you wish to child me,
    Let your hand hold the lobe of your soft ear;
    When, darling, what I do or say gives pleasure,
    Keep turning to and fro the ring you wear.
    When you wish well-earned curses on your husband,
    Lay your hand on the table, as in prayer.
    If he pours you wine, watch out, tell him to drink it;
    Ask for what you want from the waiter there.
    I shall take next the glass you hand the waiter,
    And I’ll drink from the place you took your sips;
    If he should offer anything he’s tasted,
    Refuse whatever food has touched his lips.
    Don’t let him plant his arms around your shoulder,
    Don’t rest your gentle head on his hard chest,
    Don’t let your dress, your breasts, admit his fingers,
    And—most of all—no kisses to be pressed!
    You kiss—and I’ll reveal myself your lover;
    I’ll say ‘they’re mine’; my legal claim I’ll stake.
    All this, of course, I’ll see, but what’s well hidden
    Under your dress—blind terror makes me quake.
     
                         a.King Solomon b.  Ovid   c.  Upton Sinclair   d.  LBJ 
9)
  1.  
    What a piece of work is man!
    How noble in reason!
    How infinite in faculty!
    In form, in moving, how express and admirable!
    In action, how like an angel!
    In apprehension, how like a god!
     
            a. Shakepeare  b.  Milton  c.  Upton Sinclair  d.  Freud
10)
In devil’s dungeon chained I lay
The pangs of death swept o’er me.
My sin devoured me night and day
In which my mother bore me.
My anguish ever grew more rife,
I took no pleasure in my life
And sin had made me crazy.
Then was the Father troubled sore
To see me ever languish.
The Everlasting Pity swore
To save me from my anguish.
 
He turned to me his father heart
And chose himself a bitter part,
His Dearest did it cost him.
 
Thus spoke the Son, “Hold thou to me,
From now on thou wilt make it.
I gave my very life for thee
And for thee I will stake it.
For I am thine and thou are mine,
And where I am our lives entwine,
The Old Fiend cannot shake it.”

  1. St. Paul  b. Martin Luther  c. Francis Scott Key  d. Martin Luther King, Jr.
 
Answers
 
  1. A.  Abe Lincoln.  I have no idea if he asked Matt how he was doing first before he wrote a poem wondering why he wasn’t dead.
  2. D.  Thoreau. One of my three favorite American prose authors. But not a great poet.
  3. C.   Michaelangelo, writing about his newly unveiled statue of Night, Michaelangelo decided to write his own. I’ve seen the statue. It’s worth a poem, and has an interesting story. For one, like other works of his, except for her breasts, her body is clearly that of a man – they even have sketches of males done by him for it. It is also argued by physicians that her left breast shows several indications of cancer, and that it seems to be deliberate (for which I have no opinion).
  4. B.   Jeb Stuart, writing of a young love. As good a calvary man as Jeb was, he did not outlive the war and, thankfully, did not become a full time poet.
  5. D.   J.R.R. Tolkien.  That’s right out of The Hobbit. It’s what Bilbo said on returning to The Hobbit after his long adventure. Gandalf, who was with him noted that he had changed quite a bit since they started out a year before.
  6. A.   Sounds like it would be a Damon Runyon thing, as it is comical. But, it was Dashiell Hammett. Though he had a long affair with the playwrite, Lillian Hellman, and they discussed marriage frequently, they never went down the aisle together.  Lucky for her as he was more than a handful. He was impossible.  At least he wasn’t so drunk that he showed her his poems along these lines.  Of course, he was married to another woman, and she and their children are who I feel sorry for.
  7. C.  Noah Webster.  Fascinating man. It almost sounds like he is chastising congress. But it was the opposite. If he was nothing else, he was all for the U.S. and against anyone most who challenged it – in the case of this poem, groups opposed to a congressional act to pay officers more money to make up for the depreciating currency after the Revolutionary War.
  8. D. LBJ, the cad, probably said as much to someone, but it was Ovid a long, long time ago.
  9. A. Shakespeare.  Hamlet. It was my gimme.
  10. B  Martin Luther.  Technically a hymn to be sung, but what’s the difference? I have been fascinated by Herr Luther for a long time. Not that I believe what he did, but he was a revolutionary figure nonetheless.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Coincidence


Every once in a while I go autobiographical here. It is so today.

We all experience coincidence. I don’t know why Gibb’ rule number 39 on NCIS is that there is no such thing as a coincidence, because there surely is.  I only lived my life, and I don't know what other people experience, but it seems to me that coincidences happen to me all the time.  Some seeming coincidences are just mathematical, like meeting someone with your birthday. Let’s face it, there are only 366 possibilities (including Feb. 29th every four years), and  a few billion people in the world, so that might mean some 16 million or so people in the world share a birthday with you and about 900,000 in the U.S. alone, though I doubt there is a really an even distribution across months. But, if you meet someone with the same birthday and your same last name, it is either your long lost twin or it is a coincidence. Those odds are really high against.  I'm not sure what the dividing line is, and maybe it is just subjective, but some things just seem fated, though that is a concept in which I do not believe.

This post is just a recollection of some of the strange coincidences that occurred in my life or that of friends of which I'm aware  – that I think mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!  Nevertheless . . . .

The first coincidence that I can recall happening to me was when I was a very young man, I’m going to guess 8 or younger.  I was playing with a friend in the neighborhood who lived a few doors down. Best I can remember we were just following what we called clues on an imaginary treasure hunt of sorts, making it up as we went along and having fun.  Soon, it became a murder mystery (we played a lot of games with death themes, for some reason). Eventually, we settled on a car down the street as the killer. If that makes no sense to you, try to remember we were stupid kids playing a ridiculous game.  It didn’t have to make sense.  One of us – which one is lost to memory - pointed to the car, which somehow was dictated by the clues as the killer, and said “The Butler did it!”  We raced down the street to the Volkswagen Beetle parked on the roadway, a car which I do not recall ever now having seen before or after that day.  It had been far enough away from us that that even sharp-eyed kids could not read the little things written on the back of the car which identified it in various ways.  But, when we got there, we saw in metallic letters somehow diagonally stuck on the rear was the name of what I now suppose was the dealership name, coincidentally being “Butler,” in raised metallic letters.  Yes, to our amazement and delight, the Butler did do it. We laughed till our sides hurt. Okay, it’s a stupid coincidence, but that’s exactly what this post is about. And even at that young age, we knew a coincidence when we saw it.

When I was in high school, I think 12th grade, I went to a concert at Madison Square Garden to see Elton John. I don’t remember how many of us there were, but a bunch of us. One of our friends had asked a girl to accompany him. She was a nice girl far as I knew, though I doubt I ever said one word to her myself. I think she had gone out with him and another one of our friends a few times, but it wasn’t anything “serious” and she really wasn’t in to him as far as I could tell. Anyway, she said no, she couldn’t go to the concert. I believe she told him that some family obligation had come up. Whatever it was, she couldn’t go.  So he went without her.  Wouldn’t you know it, but that girl and her actual date not only came to the concert but sat so close to us in a stadium that held roughly 14,000 people that if she and our friend had reached out towards one another, they could have touched hands. In fact, if he had sat at one end of our group and she had sat at the same end of her group, they would have been sitting next to each other. This was close enough. How’s that for a coincidence? I give my friend credit. He was a pretty tightly wound guy. But, in a few minutes he got over it and had a great time.  I’m not sure she did.  After all, he wasn’t caught in a lie and she was.

Of course, we run into people we know all the time. That’s not a coincidence. It is the timing and circumstances that make it so.

My friend was not the only one to experience something like that. Jump ahead. I’m in law school. I’m dating one of the few girls I ever met in a bar. We had both come out of uncomfortable break ups and agreed it would remain casual, specifically that if anyone wanted to stop, they just had to say so and there would be no fuss.  We had a few fun dates (although I could not remember her name until she happened to mention it while telling a story about herself – phew). Then her brother humiliated her by calling her a slut or something like that in front of the neighborhood after our last date.  So, she told me one day as the reason she didn’t think we should go out that night. And also, her mother was visiting, and she wanted to spend time with her. That sounds understandable, but I didn’t buy it.  I could tell the thing with her brother had bothered her a lot (I would have been proud if someone called me a slut, but I’m a guy – it’s different).  I went out with two school friends to a movie instead.  But, I told them I felt like I was getting dumped, which could  hurt even if you weren’t crazy about someone and it “violated” our “agreement” to just say so if you were done. There was the usual line outside the theatre – this was before the multiplex days where there is room to stand inside – and as we approached, I saw a blonde on the line standing next to a guy, both about my age. It took me a minute or so as we stood right behind them and the recognition came slowly over me. I motioned to my friends to back away while pointing and mouthing “It’s her.  It’s her.” I felt like a criminal for some reason. We got out of there without being seen. Not surprisingly, that was the end of our dating. I put the two weeks to get over it rule into effect (it's my rule and it works - sort of) and moved on. But, the coincidence was amazing.  I mean – she was right in front of me on line. Right in front. We had to pick the same movie, to the same theatre at the same time on the same day we had that conversation.  What are the odds?  

This post wasn’t supposed to be about girls, but now that I’m writing it, sure seems like it. I’m graduated from law school now and at my first job.  I was dating a woman who was a little younger than me, had graduated college and was working at her first job.  We had dated for about a year, give or take a few short breakups.  Near the end, we had a final apparently not so pleasant break up, which I had realized was inevitable with her. I don’t remember why we were breaking up, but for me a year was a long time to date someone and I think we were both sad and relieved saying good-bye for the last time on the phone.  I still knew her brother, whose wife had introduced us, but, I was pretty sure this was it for us. The next day, I went to the city to do something for work.  I was in mid-town on a very crowded sidewalk in morning rush hour. I did know she worked somewhere in the city but had no idea where.  But, of course, it happened. She was walking down the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me with her brother. Her eyes got big as she saw me.  I couldn’t see what I looked like, but I bet my eyes were doing the same thing. She motioned “shhhh” to me so he wouldn’t see. I wasn’t sure why as we were friends.  Naturally, we spoke later and she said after telling her brother we broke up, she didn’t want him to think we planned to meet there. That didn’t make sense to me, but leaving that aside, how could we plan to pass each other, even if we knew where the other was going to be without meeting at a spot?  It is a big city and millions of people are walking around. There weren't any cell phones. I certainly wasn’t looking for her.  The timing, being on the same side of the road, even looking in the right direction as we ploughed through a mass of pedestrian traffic, just made it so unlikely. And, of course, the thing that made it remarkable was that it was the very next day after we broke up! We’ve never just bumped into each other before or after that.  I think we “got back together” for a short time as a result. After all, it seemed like fate to her and I’m sure I had other motives.

Oh my God. I really didn’t plan it, but this is turning out to be all about women the more I think about it. Now I’m a lawyer a little older.  A paralegal who worked with me was going to law school at night and asked me to accompany her to her school dinner. I even remember that it was around Easter. We sat at a table with one of her friends, who brought his wife. She and I fell instantly in love or at least lust, which was kind of awkward with her husband and my “date” there (not that she would really care - she was usually amused at my adventures), but what are you going to do? These things happen. When we left I was heart sick. You know how it is when you are young.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  But, she was married.  I didn’t know where she worked or lived other than it was on Long Island somewhere.  Even then that was a couple of million people. What was I going to do? Ask my friend to ask her schoolmate if his wife was available? At work the next day, I couldn’t concentrate. Finally, I told my boss I had to go out for a bit to think about a woman (something he understood) and went to a shopping mall for a while just to walk around and wallow in my emotions until I got it out of my system.  I’m walking down the mall thinking about her, thinking about her, thinking about her, thinking - and almost bump into someone.  No.  It would be impossible if . . . but it was. It turned out they not only lived in my county but she worked in an office on the edge of the mall within walking distance of my own office. She just decided to take a walk because she needed to clear her head about something. It wasn’t even lunch time, but mid-morning. What do you think had been on her mind?  Actually, we became close friends for years.  And no, if you are wondering, I never crossed the line (though kind of invited – long story of the sort I don’t go into in this most pious of blogs). But, if not for a strange coincidence, it never would have happened.

Okay, I think that is it for girl stories. Let’s see. Oh, wait, I just thought of another.  Some years later I have a girlfriend who had gone through a bad divorce.  In fact, they did not speak at all, and it had been ugly. We decided to go to D.C. for the weekend with the kids. She knew through the grapevine that her ex was going away somewhere with his girlfriend somewhere too, but I could care less.  We spent the weekend in the capital and Maryland and then headed home Sunday with a million other cars back to Long Island and New York City on I-95, crawling along.  Naturally, my evalovin' gf thinks we are going to bump into her ex because she’s crazy and always thinks things like that are going to happen. So, we are driving along and she looked in the mirror. Yeah. Him. Right behind us. Our cars separate, because there are so many on the road it has to happen unless you are trying hard to stay together and we sure weren’t.  About an hour or so later, we pull into a NJ rest stop to get something to eat, because even though we are an hour or so from home, with traffic it was 3 or more hours. We enter the restaurant. She looks around. Who do you think is already sitting in there? They or we could have stopped at any number of rest stops, but we both picked this one at the same time. It was really uncomfortable, though he was on best behavior because of his girlfriend.  The kids found it amusing though.

All right. Really done with coincidences involving women.  I don’t exactly remember when this next one happened but I was still a young man. I had a brother a few years older than me who is now sleeping forever.  When he moved away from home he got his first apartment in Long Beach, NY. It’s a town on a really, really, really long street that goes on until eternity, or it hits the water – whichever came first. There are really, really, really a lot of houses and apartments on this road. Many people have divided up their homes into apartments to rent out. I went to visit him once or twice. The apartment was so tiny, it kind of tickled me.  He moved out eventually.  A few years later, a friend of mine you may know as Bear also got an apartment. It may have been his first after college too, but I’m not positive. I went to visit him there. I knew it was somewhere near my brother’s old apartment.  It wasn’t. Out of all the little tiny apartments in that gin joint of a town, it was the very same one.

So, again, I don’t think these coincidences mean anything. Some people do, of course. I remember when someone I know who I call Eddie in this evalovin’ blog dropped his daughter off at a small college town upstate.  We met for lunch when he came back. He couldn’t wait to tell me what happened. On his way home, he stopped in a small town for whatever reason – gas, lunch, who knows? He saw a bookstore and went in. He saw an old book there and picked it up. He flipped it open and saw a map of NY. But, it had only two places marked on the map. Somewhere on Long Island, where we lived and the little town upstate in which he had just dropped off his daughter. He was very happy about it.  I asked him why. He said it was because God wanted him to see the map. Naturally, because there is something wrong with me I can’t leave it alone and ask him why would God want to point something like that out to him unless he was going to be a prophet? He said it was because he had just dropped his daughter off there, as if that explained everything. I asked him since God was omniscient and omnipresent, wouldn’t he be aware that Eddie already knew where he dropped his daughter off and in fact, was there himself in all his glory?  Well, he said, it is just to let me know that everything is going to be all right. How do you know, I asked, if it isn’t to warn you that you should jump back in your car and go get her quickly? After all, God didn't send Lot the angels to tell him that it was going to be a lovely Spring.  I don’t remember what Eddie's answer was, but I think you can see why I am so popular with so many people.

But, that story reminds me of one more of my own.  There I was in Virginia a few years back, having just moved there. I was driving around one day to familiarize myself with the area.  I was about a half hour or so away from my little town of Buchanan, driving through a somewhat larger town, Bedford.  Like Eddie, my eye quickly zeroed in on a bookstore. I wasn’t sure if it was open because it didn’t look like the lights were on. It was though and I entered. The only one in there was the owner, who was  a white-haired old man I believe told me he was in his late 80s or early 90s. We chatted a little and finally he said, “Well, with that accent, you obviously aren’t from around here.”
 I said “I guess it is pretty obvious I’m from New York.”

“I thought so,” he said. “Where in New York?”

“Long Island,” I said.

“I thought so,” he said again. “Where on Long Island?”

“I’m sure you never heard of it. Little town,” I said.

“Try me,” he said.

“I’m from Westbury,” I said.

“I'm from Westbury too,” he said.

In fact, he had lived less than a mile from where I grew up on the same street as a number of friends of mine, but he had moved down to Virginia years before we were born.  Still, pretty amazing coincidence.

One more because this good get tedious after a while. I was having lunch in an Indian restaurant with a female friend who happened to be Jewish. She needed something and as the waitress passed by in her sari, my friend asked her for whatever it was she wanted. The woman was indignant because she wasn't the waitress. Now to tell you the truth, I don't know why she was upset because, she was wearing a sari and so were the waitresses, and while yes, once in a while on Long Island you might come across that, not so much. But that's not the coincidence. After lunch, we went to a store called Fortunoff, named after the family that owned it. They happened to be Jewish too and it seemed to me that they hired a lot of Jewish people, which was not so hard to find where I lived. Anyway, we were wending our way through the store when a woman passed by wearing a sari. Different woman than in the restaurant, but we didn't think anything of it until she approached my friend and said, "Do you work here?" Of course, my friend said no, but we found it amazing and hysterical. I mean, the other mistake had happened a half hour or so before and they were both Indian AND BOTH WEARING SARIS!!! Come on.

 

Of course, I hardly invented coincidences. They just seem to happen a lot in my life.  I figured that they happen to everyone more or less the same. But, I’ve asked a few people the last few days and it seems it doesn’t happen to everyone so much. In fact, no one has thought of any they could tell me about. Not that I expect an explosion of responses, but tell me yours if you have one of your own.


Post script: I can't believe I forgot one. When we were teenagers Bear and I liked to play 20 questions. One day we were at his house and I was completely stumped on the name of an actor he had thought of. I had used up my questions and now had one guess. I wouldn't give yet and it went on probably for a half hour while I thought. We were sitting in their den watching tv while this was going on and he got up to go the kitchen for a minute. While I'm thinking and watching, suddenly, the sound goes off for some mysterious reason just as a commercial for The King and I comes on the screen. There, jumping up and down in silence, is Yul Brynner with his hands raised above his head, as if to say - It's me, you idiot, it's me.  "Oh my God," I said, "it's Yul Brynner." Now that one's almost enough to make you into a believer.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The policing thing


I finally want to tackle the difficult subject of present race relations in America, particularly the present debate about policing.  It’s a hard thing to write about, like abortion, because it raises such strong feelings and I do feel a little uncomfortable, not least because many people, including myself, have strong emotional feelings about it, rational or not, and it can be ugly to debate. There is even controversy about what words to use. I am using "black" and "white" to describe groups because I do not like African-American for the usual reasons and no one has ever suggested a word to me that isn’t immediately interpreted in our brains to mean black and white, whatever we may say. Who pictures Charlize Theron when we say African-American or Ayaan Hirsi Ali when we say European-American? In fact, I wonder if even Charlize and Ayaan do?

At the outset, few people could deny with a straight face that blacks in America suffered through slavery, bigotry, discrimination and other unconscionable horrors and disadvantages in the last 400 years or so.  Fewer would argue, but I still think a large majority, that if all prejudice ended today, that the effect of these four hundred years would leave blacks, in general, with a disadvantage in material wealth and connections that lead to opportunity and capital. Again, fewer, but I would still believe a majority agree that the history and stigma attached to that history has a psychological impact too, even on present day blacks who never suffered these crimes and indignities. All groups suffer discrimination at some time or another, but whether others agree or not, I cannot think of another ethnic group other than American Indians who have suffered as much over the course of centuries from discrimination and prejudice in this country.  

But, also, that was then, and this is now.  The years of slavery, oppression, Jim Crow and the like, are over.   Not that prejudice doesn’t exist and can’t be a problem with specific people, groups or institutions.  Of course we still have it.  And probably always will.  But prejudice is no group’s sole burden. There is plenty to go around. A recent Pew Group study found that there is more blacks prejudiced against whites than vise versa.  Some might say that this is only to be expected.  I have learned over time that if someone says that there is still prejudice, but not as much as there used to be, some people hear them say that there is none.  We can’t help what people hear. 

And, of course, most everything I write here is based upon generalities, as people, black, white or otherwise, have many different opinions, not necessarily consistent with those in whatever group with which they identify and I’m not implying any destiny or inherent qualities. But, the question with generalizations is rarely if you should never make them at all (it is almost impossible to speak about many subjects without generalizing some, but people are always more tolerant of their own generalizations) but what is too much and too little a generalization? I do not know what percentage of blacks of whites believe most things, but we can say with a lot of confidence that more blacks believe OJ was innocent and believe that Michael Brown raised his hands over his head and said “don’t shoot,”  than whites do and vise versa.  However, many whites, and they would tend to be more liberal than conservative in most instances (some exceptions), seem to agree with many of the arguments raised by the “black community.” 

The media, which is obviously quite influential, has weighed in heavily on the side of those who want police reform and argue that blacks are being wantonly killed by police on a regular basis. Just as one example, I read an article recently where the headline or sub-head was something like – Our argument is simple – Stop killing us.  I’ve read several op-ed’s or editorials in the NY Times even excusing violent protest and looting by blacks.  After reading sympathetically one article written by a successful author about a painful tale of a sad childhood in Baltimore because of discrimination and police abuse, I was stunned at the conclusion (and amazed the NY Times would publish it), which was a collective threat to burn Baltimore to the ground if the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death were not prosecuted. At first I thought I misunderstood him and read it several times. But he wrote it in that paragraph that peaceful protest and singing kumbaya  doesn’t work and that the city would burn the city to the ground if they were not given what they wanted.  Fortunately, the large part of Baltimore does not agree with him – whether black or white.  I’ll come back to Baltimore later. 

Personally, I have always been more than sympathetic to the sufferings and labors of blacks throughout our history, and have admired numerous civil rights figures from the Quakers to Martin Luther King, Jr. and many who marched with him, as heroic, regardless of skin color. And even now, there are some issues between civil rights leaders on one side and government and the police on the other side, with which I agree with the former.  For one, after reading the decisions on the stop and frisk program in NYC, I had to agree that it needed to be seriously reformed, at best.  And I agree that the war on drugs has been a complete failure (as has the war on poverty) and the penalties for it fall disproportionately on minorities.  And, though I insist on waiting until I can have a fair amount of certainty as to what happened, I absolutely see some of the more highly publicized tragedies – such as with Eric Garner – as strong indication that we need constant police reform.  I would also, had I the power, fire any government employee who intentionally wrote racial slurs, as recently happened in San Francisco. And although I made ethnic jokes when young (and in my mind, the joke was always on the cracker, or the outrageousness of saying something so shocking) I would deserve to be fired too for stupidity if I did it as a government employee.  I have often stated my belief before that though I think parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were unconstitutional, we are a far better country because of it. Not just minorities – everyone.

But, I also believe that the absurd exaggerations surrounding a number of well publicized cases and official reactions to them in the past few years have, for the first time in many years, damaged race relations, which had steadily improved since my childhood (born the middle of ’59) and also damaged the trust of many people in government. These cases include Martin-Zimmerman, the “Duke Rape case,” the UVA race case and Brown-Wilson (i.e., Ferguson, Missouri).   In each of those cases, many in the public and in the media created false fact patterns and held to them against every bit of reason to the contrary as long as they could. In fact, protestors holding their hands in the air and saying "don’t shoot" in imitation of what appears to be a completely manufactured fact pattern from Ferguson damages race relations and decreases or eliminates sympathy for many people who are otherwise sympathetic to the “cause” or feel grave injustices have been done in some of the cases, such as with Eric Garner and, possibly Freddie Gray.

The actions of some political figures also must be called into question. Although I think he’s slowly learning the consequences of his statements and has recently tried to sound more evenhanded, President Obama has been very divisive during his two terms as have been his AG for most of that time, Eric Holder, and others, like NYC Mayor De Blasio, and, of course, professional instigators like Al Sharpton.  You can’t completely blame these people for the deaths of two officers in NY who were assassinated by a deranged man inspired by the inflamed rhetoric.  Maybe instead of the officers he would have killed his girlfriend, who he had already assaulted, or some random people. That I can’t say. But, I do believe that statements by those I just named inflamed him and contributed to why he targeted the officers.

There are many articles out there about what these politicians (and I’ll include Sharpton – he ran for president) have said and I won’t recount them all. I’ll just talk about two – Obama and De Blasio. Obama has made several unfortunate mistakes during his terms. When a black Harvard professor trying to enter his own house was questioned by a white police officer (a neighbor had reported him) and then arrested for disorderly conduct, Obama presumed it was an example of discrimination and said the police acted "stupidly." When he was criticized for getting involved in a local issue and taking sides based on skin color and was at least partially, if not completely wrong, he invited both men to the White House for a "beer summit," to quiet the criticism. But, he didn’t really learn yet. When Zimmerman shot Martin, he said publicly that Martin could have been his son – in other words, taking sides and again based on skin color. He certainly didn’t know the facts. The federal government got involved in Florida (and I don’t know if that was because of Obama or Holder or both) and Zimmerman was prosecuted by a special prosecutor on her own say so – no grand jury. We know the result. He was acquitted.  If you watched the trial, you should know why. Almost everyone, including prosecution witnesses, couldn’t help but bolster the defense.  When Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police, the president weighed in again. His speaking style is usually very mild and he does make statements in favor of most police, urges only peaceful protest and the like, but he never comes out and quite says – "you know, folks, a lot of these claims turn out to be false and in this case it appears that Wilson did not murder Brown" or "I was wrong to say what I did about Martin and Zimmerman – I didn’t know the facts." He just weighs in and when wrong, forgets it.   

De Blasio, of course, really caused himself grave damage with the police, essentially his employees him, and with many in the public who disapprove of his racial positions. Some people still justify his remarks made about warning his son, who is bi-racial, but identifies as black, about the police, but if you look online at his statement, see who he surrounded himself with, and listen to the actual words, he was clearly stating that he was fearful a police officer would kill his son because he is black. It was not a surprise to me that police officers protested when two were killed by turning their backs on the mayor when he spoke at the funerals and protested by temporarily slowing down the "broken windows" approach to their jobs. Eventually it played out and allegedly he has patched it up with the police union leader, but I don’t believe it. The majority of NYers believe the police were being childish or petulant in turning their backs on him. I didn’t think so.  It was quiet and dignified and didn’t interfere with his speaking. They truly believed that he was partially at least, responsible for inspiring the type of anger that lit up the killer of two officers. Should they just forget it? The funeral was more for them than him. He was just making a political appearance. I don’t believe he should have even gone.

Both Obama and De Blasio also do something that makes it very hard for others to take them seriously as speaking for everyone when it comes to race relations.  They both appear to be under the sway of Al Sharpton, if you just go by the number of visits by him to them.  Obviously, he is a close adviser.  I’m not going on a long rant about Sharpton. If you believe he’s a good man who does good things for the “black community,” then you do.  I think he has done as much harm to race relations in this country as virtually anyone and I also believe he thinks it is all right if whites are falsely accused or even go to jail undeservedly, because blacks were so mistreated for so long.

It is critical, of course, that our justice system be as limited in discriminating against anyone because of race or ethnicity to the degree humanly possible, while at the same time – and this is the tough part – using such descriptive terms and profiling abilities as are necessary to combat crimes. As examples, there is nothing wrong with describing a person as white or black or Chinese or Irish or Hispanic, etc., in order to help locate them.  Also, where there are cultural ethnic associations conspiring to commit crimes, it is not discrimination to be aware and investigate this fact, whether it is Islamic terror groups or Russians or Pakistanis exploiting the personal injury market by manufacturing claims, using their own doctors to generate false medical reports, and so on.  You might say, what about Anglo-Saxons or Jews,  and I say, if there is some communally favored crime being committed, then, of course recognize those who congregate by their ethnicity might help combat it. When we investigate gangs involved in many crimes, isn’t that precisely what we do – and need to do?

Let me move on to Baltimore. A few weeks back, as is all too well known, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers after he ran from them. He was put in a van and transported by six officers. At that point it is murky for most of us, but it appears, as best as I can tell, at some point his back was broken.  In addition, it is at least reported that they kept him in the van for an astonishing long period of time, given how short their ride was.  Eventually, some days later, he died of his injuries. That’s a very general description and I am leaving out some facts others might find important either because I don't or because I don’t trust media reports very much.

We all know what happened next - protests, then rioting, much like Ferguson, Missouri not long before.  Buildings looted and set on fire, police vehicles and police themselves assaulted and pelted by rocks. Death threats were made. The mayor told the police – and she can deny it all she wants now – to give the rioters room to destroy – but I heard her say it myself while she was addressing the public, and was surprised by it then, before she walked it back. This has been vehemently criticized by law enforcement and other mayors as a bad idea. And, of course it is.  It goes without saying that this was a small group of people, and likely gangs, involved, while most Baltimoreans were repulsed and protested the violence.

Soon after, not surprisingly, it was reported that six police officers were arrested. Despite all the screams about racism, it turned out that half of those arrested and allegedly involved were black themselves. I haven’t heard as much about racism since.  They were charged, but no grand jury has indicted, or possibly been convened as of yet.  At least, I do not know of one.

Of course, if the officers are guilty of these crimes, they should be indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced. They should not be prosecuted, as was Zimmerman, for political reasons or to pacify the press or citizens.  And that is a possibility too. 
There have been some reactions that are quite discouraging to me.  First, I have read the comments in the media from many writers and heard from any number of good hearted friends, all white, that the rioting was okay, and justified by the desperation of poor blacks in Baltimore. I am astonished by this, though I know it is well intentioned, a product of sympathy for those less fortunate, and possibly exactly how I would have reacted when I was even in my mid-20s. It is also, in my view, spectacularly wrong and dangerous.
The idea that rioting is a good idea is a bad one, whatever the reasons. I do believe in civil disobedience. But, it is when it is based on self-sacrifice and consciousness raising, à la Thoreau, Gandhi and MLK, Jr., that is both admirable and effective (in the right situation).  Looting, destroying and terrorizing, not so good.  The people I feel for during and after the rioting, were the police – and a large percentage of them were black – the employees of CVS and other businesses I saw on television – mostly black or other minority - crying because their livelihood was destroyed, and the people of Baltimore who will have to now live with more blight and possibly even higher taxes to pay for the repair and clean up of all the damage.  I cannot tell you that I believe there is never a time where government acts justifies violent retaliation - it is, for example, when democracy has completely broken down. I don't mind the people in Syria rebelling at all.  I haven’t questioned my friends for the most part, but I could have asked, so it’s okay if a desperate person burns down your house or murders your spouse? Because their belief justifies most violence. And, it is probably not true in many cases. It sure seemed that many of the rioters just wanted to steal stuff. Perhaps the majority. We don't know because it was a riot.

Another thing that has greatly disturbed me about it is the threats that were made by gangs to target the police.  Another is the statement by the attorney general that she heard the “calls” of “no justice, no peace” and responded by her charges.  It sounded like she felt the rioting was justified.  While some people have described some of the protesters as a lynch mob, and others have decried that, this is exactly what it seems like to me. Should the person responsible for law and order in the city be saying that lawlessness and disorder is okay? I don't think so.

Yet another thing that stunned me was the quick call for the federal government to get involved by Baltimore’s mayor herself, especially so quickly after Al Sharpton himself suggested that all the nation’s police should be supervised by the federal government. What mayor wants to so quickly give up sovereignty and ask the federal government to come down on it hard (as former U.S.A.G., Michael Mukasey pointed out – that’s usually what happens) unless she believes that it is out of her control and that such discrimination and abuse exists to justify it. She probably should resign, in that case.  Of course there are other cities and states where the federal government has investigated civil rights abuses by the police. I can think of L.A., Albuquerque, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Cleveland, off hand. And perhaps other cities have requested it themselves before, though I don’t recall any. But, it strikes me in this case that her request was more about ideology than management of the problem. And, Loretta Lynch, the new A.G., has announced a federal investigation. Ironically, of course, they will be investigating a force that is run by a black mayor, a black commissioner and assistant commissioner and is already or nearly made up of a majority of black officers.  The Maryland General Attorney prosecuting the Gray case is black as well.  Some would argue that this doesn't matter because Baltimore’s force has been challenged, and at least once successfully, that there is discrimination in promotions and privileges (such as getting light duty when injured). That may be so, but is hard to comprehend when so many of the leading figures are black. Are they the ones discrimination against minorities? Is the federal government going to determine that a predominantly black run department is violating the rights of blacks? Does this give some clue that this may not be about race at all, but perhaps about income or class?

I do not live in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t live in Baltimore, though I have visited it a bit and a couple of times driven through its slums (hardly making me an expert).  I don’t know if there are systemic material problems on the police end there or not and I am not going to make a judgment based upon some highly publicized cases and media reports, when, in fact, it is possible, that under the conditions, the police, or most, may do a very good job.  Or not. And, there have been my own interactions with the police, thankfully rare enough, and sometimes I was really disappointed in how defensive or even angry they could be.  Mostly though, they were very polite, in fact, sometimes really nice, even when giving me a ticket.  When they were hostile, I tried to remember that so many people are lying to them, that they probably presume most everyone is. That is, after all, my own presumption when I cross-examine someone on the stand.  And, I have heard too many stories from too many black men who are going about their business and are harassed or treated poorly by the police, to think they are all made up in some grand conspiracy, though we never get to hear the officer’s version unless he’s being prosecuted or his neck is on the line.

But, that doesn’t change my mind about the violent confrontation approach to protest, or those praising it. You have to draw a line somewhere.  To excuse violent protest is to ask for more violence in reaction to frustration.  And if it is good for blacks, why not any other group or criminal?  I also am amazed at the certainty people have as to the supposedly beneficial motivation of the rioters in Baltimore, who seemed most interested in wanton destruction of the lives of other black people and enriching themselves, self-glorification and attacks on the police that would have in my mind, justified a very violent response.  Whatever the truth is with regard to police abuse, I thought the police force, restrained by the mayor’s orders, was incredibly restrained, even heroic, in the face of violent provocation.

We can do more than one thing at once.  I believe in permanent ongoing government reform, including for the police and am often shocked at the benefit of the doubt we give both police officers and government officials, particularly in court.  Protest over police abuse shouldn’t be something that is seen as abnormal.  It is something we all have to care about  – when it is real, of course.  But the tactics of the protesters, the coverage of the bad leaders, rather than the good ones, and the sympathy people seem to have for violent protest have created more racial dissension than I have seen in decades. I’m far from sure that the reforms, if based upon the idea that there is a war on blacks or police regularly kill black men wantonly, will not in fact make life harder for poorer people, who will have less protection against crime perpetrated by their own neighbors. Because the part that is being ignored, of course, is that urban police in poor areas spend their days in dangerous, hostile territory.

When I was polishing this piece up for posting, I was also looking at some books online by one of my favorite linguists, John McWhorter, who happens to be black. I was not aware that he had written a book about the problems of the black community called Losing the Race, particularly in their adoption of three cults – victimization, separation and anti-intellectualism, all of which play into one another (in my view, the latter two are a subset of the first), and their choice of leaders like Sharpton. Though the book, with a few additions as to recent events, could have been written today, it was actually published in 2000.  In far more detail than I can provide on a blog, he gives statistic after statistic, anecdote after anecdote, building his case. Among the products of these cults is the conclusion held by many blacks and some whites too, that so many years of oppression insulates blacks from criticism for any wrongdoing. This, of course, is not only bad for victims, but for the black community itself - as they are the usual victims. This is the only way to understand why blacks, who are preyed upon and victimized, and regularly murdered by black men, seem to think the police are their biggest problem.

I highly recommend his book, though not least because I agree with what he writes in it (though, I’m only about 50 pages in, he summarizes it beautifully right at the beginning).  He followed it up with Winning the Race in 2006 which I suppose was supposed to a more positive counterpart to the first, though I haven’t read it and don’t know if I will.  Don’t get the idea he is an “Uncle Tom” or even a conservative (for one thing, I think he is an Obama supporter).  He also writes op-ed pieces and has written for Time Magazine, in regard to Ferguson, for example, “However, in light of what we heard last night, I feel that the Ferguson incident is instructive to America in a larger sense. The key element in the Brown-Wilson encounter was not any specific action either man took — it was the preset hostility to the cops that Brown apparently harbored. And that hostility was key because it was indeed totally justified. [Para.] The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?”

I’ve read a number of his op-ed pieces in the recent chaos and though he remains balanced and a rational voice, I don’t agree with everything he says anymore than anyone else. But, he’s an interesting thinker who is not intimidated by group think.

I have also learned by experience that some who read what I’ve written here would see it as racist or anti-black or that I completely misunderstand the problem.  As McWhorter explains, the culture is that no explanation must be listened to other than that blacks are victims only. But, the whole point is, do we want to make it better for everyone, whites, blacks and every other group, or, do we want to wallow in our own bias and prejudice and make them worse?  I get mocked from time to time by people who know I believe that moderation is often the best answer and I believe it is here. But, it is not the best answer to everything and for every situation. It is not the best answer with a Hitler and it is not with a riot, though when peace is achieved, a spirit of moderation is usually the best way to proceed. Arguably, had that been more so applied after WWI, there would have never been a WWII (which we never would have known, and our world would be somewhat different).  For me, moderation is often a recognition that we are doing our best to deal with balancing more than one value which can never be done perfectly, and often only very imperfectly. What does moderation mean to me in terms of the ongoing struggle? We have to find a way so that       

  • the words “all men are created equal” includes that the power we cede to our governments does not permit them to discriminate against individuals or groups because large numbers of that group, for whatever reason, are hostile to society or predictably dangerous

balanced against

  • the recognition that the most efficient way to protect innocent people and lives is to recognize that culture and ethnicity very play as role in who will most likely be dangerous and not to sacrifice individuals to political correctness, whatever their color.
What I am trying to do, is get to the essence of the problem. You can fit policing, profiling or national security into that same framework. In the end, slowly, painfully and sometimes grudgingly, we will continue to try and make this country a more perfect union. Of course, it must be limited to more perfect, not perfect. 

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .