Monday, April 26, 2010

Congressional twiddle-deeing

By Don Klein

One of the first jobs I was assigned as a member of a New York congressman’s staff was to write a speech for the annual observance of "Captive Nations Week." I had never heard of the subject and decided research was necessary before putting hand to typewriter.

This was back in 1962. John F. Kennedy was president. I had just finished a five year stint at The Baltimore Sun and was now a proud staff member of the national legislature in the seat of the most powerful government in the world. I walked with a lilt in my step. I was among the privilege few who worked on Capitol Hill.

I now realize I also was young and foolish to think such things meant anything.

My experience of writing remarks about this "all-important" Captive Nations Week, which was to devour hours of my time and ended up with my boss putting it into the Congressional Record under his name, is a story of how Washington spins its wheels on useless work just to provide for preposterous constituent pandering. In the end the copy that went into the record was not even mine.

I learned that captive nations was the phraseology established in 1959 to describe nations under Soviet domination during the Cold War. For those just emerging from caves I remind them that the Soviet Union dissolved about two decades ago and countries it once controlled, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and so on, are now free and no longer are under foreign domination.
Yet today we still observe Captive Nations Week in Congress. Allegedly it continues to describe nations under undemocratic regimes.

But what does the observation actually do to help these countries, wherever they may be? Nothing significant. It is all political eyewash.

Still every year hundreds of congressional staff members compose glowing comments about the needs and aspirations of dominated countries who, despite congressional concern to the contrary, are no longer dominated. Does that make sense when there are so many pressing issues for Congress to be concerned with?

Don’t let that bother you though. If they scrapped captive nations week today, there would be plenty of other meaningless, time consuming commemorative weeks, days and months to keep them busy doing essentially nothing. There still remains the Save Your Vision, National Hurricane Preparedness, National Safe Boating, National School Lunch, National Character Counts and National Family weeks.

Also a sprinkling of national months consecrated by Congress every year and signed into existence by the president: National Donate Life in April, Older Americans in May, Mental Health Awareness in May, Great Outdoors in June and National Family Care-givers in November, to name just a handful.

Most of these were established at varying times over the past century and continue almost automatically every year. It reminds me of US troops stationed in Europe and Asia after World War II. Originally there was good reason for them to be there. The post-war world was in shambles, life was out-of-control and there was a need for the stabilizing force of the American army.

But that was sixty-five years ago. Since then Europe has been rebuilt, the war-torn nations are on their feet again, they have no real need for our troops, but they remain on guard (against who, for what?) more than six decades later. Once government starts something it is hard to stop.

There is a humbling end to the story about the nonsensical captive nations speech I prepared for my boss, a Republican named Seymour Halpern, a liberal back in those ancient times when there were still moderates in that party. Although cut in the political mold of famous New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Halpern often sounded more like Senator Claghorn. As I already stated I knew diddle about captive nations so I did the routine maneuver of calling the Library of Congress reference department for help. Shortly I had a ton of material delivered to my desk.

It didn’t take long to realize that declaring support for these unfortunate people was all talk and no action. It made the ethnic minorities inside America representing these foreign groups feel better, but it produced no tangible effect. Everyone knew it and still they wasted time on it.

The script that I finally came up with was, to my opinion, far superior to any of the prattle that had gone before on this subject that I found in the files of the Library of Congress. Apparently I took the matter seriously while none of my predecessors did.

Halpern was not even going to read the statement from the floor of the House. He would follow the procedure designed by Congress to disguise the work of its members by dropping it in the hopper and having it printed into the record as if he actually made the speech on the floor.

The worst part of it was when I got my copy of the Congressional Record the next day, I looked up Halpern’s official comments and was shocked to find he did not use a word of what I prepared for him. He placed instead his previous year’s bland statement into the record. Then I checked our files and discovered that it was the same remarks he made since 1959, three years earlier.

I was dismayed and thought I failed to produce adequate work for the man, when his long time secretary offered solace. "Once he finds an acceptable formula he doesn’t change it," she explained. I learned that his first insipid remarks on captive nations received plaudits from the ethnic voters in his district and that was that.

Then why did he ask me to write a new message? I figure that’s the Congressional version of twiddle-dee, twiddle-dum.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is that Saddam's ghost we hear?

By Don Klein

Could it be the ghost of Saddam Hussein we are hearing in the current American affliction for the overstated and exaggerated political statement? An attempt to say what is not true in such ominous words that any casual listener might possibly believe it.

Remember before President George H.W. Bush launched “Desert Storm” in 1991, the Iraqi dictator warned the world that he would unleash “the mother of all wars” if attacked by the West. It was an Arab bluff, just another occasion of bully bluster, because when American troops eventually rolled into Iraqi territory, Saddam’s army collapsed within days.

The army which was to provide Hussein’s mother of all wars turned into nothing more than an outlandish third cousin, twice removed, who no one in the family ever believed. That army was so shattered one element surrendered to a passing group of war correspondents riding in a military vehicle.

The Saddam prediction was his brainless effort to make Iraq seem more powerful than it was.

Fast forward to today’s demonstrators – Tea Party and others – who scream at the top of their lungs about “taking back their country,” swearing they will not let “big government” come and take their precious Second Amendment rights from them. What are these people talking about? Where are they getting this stuff?

The government has made no attempt to remove the protesters of their cherished weaponry. In fact, one fully armed group demonstrated in a federal park in Virginia where carrying guns is allowed because President Obama signed into law their right to do so months ago. What are they complaining about?

Could it be the Saddam Hussein affect? They are exaggerating and overstating their complaint with the current administration because it makes them appear to be a victim when they are not. One demonstrator interviewed by Chris Matthews on the MSNBC show “Hardball” was irate because he was not allowed to carry a pistol to defend himself while standing on the grounds of the Washington Monument where guns are banned. No one has been attacked on those park lands in memory. Why the fear?

These are clearly bizarre actors – Saddam Hussein and park demonstrators. But now these exaggerators are infiltrating the ranks of what we normally think of as responsible political sources. The GOP talks about the country turning to socialism with a health bill that opened a market of 33 million new clients for the private insurance industry. Does that sound like socialism?

Or is it the ghost of Saddam speaking again, this time on the new subject of health care. The Republicans say they will repeal it because it is unconstitutional, but if it is unconstitutional they will not have to repeal it. The Supreme Court will erase it from the books. What they really mean is they will repeal it because they don’t like it.

Now comes Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, taking up the Israeli side in the current dispute with Washington. As I see it the clash is between Obama’s view of the Middle East and Benjamin Netanyahu’s. It largely revolves around the continued building of Jewish settlements in disputed territory which leads to one result – a failure to advance a glimmer of hope for peace for the area.

It is more than a difference of opinion between two friendly nations. It is a case of the client nation, Israel, trying to wag the tail of the US, its steady sponsor for more than sixty years. Obama wishes a halt in the settlements and Netanyahu wants the settlements to continue and seems to delight in sticking it to the US on every occasion.

The latest fissure started when Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel for peace talks only to be greeted by an announcement of expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing. He was poking his thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye. Obama’s response was to give the Israeli head the cold shoulder when he arrived in Washington weeks later.

So what does Koch do. In an article published in the Jewish World Review he never refers to the diplomatic affront by Israel but only talks in highly emotional terms about the survival of the tiny Middle East democracy. He recalls the courageous story of Masada Jews who held off Roman Legions almost two millennia ago. Then he talks about the atrocities inflicted on Jews through the ages. None of this is in dispute or relevant to the issue of settlements.

To Koch’s disfavor he did not try to explain how Netanyahu’s recklessness in insulting the United States upon an official visit by the vice president. Even in the worst days of the Cold War, the USSR never acted that discourteously during visits of officials from this country.

Natanhayu is arrogant and deserves the silent treatment he is getting. US foreign policy should be operated in the best interests of the US, not any other country. Too long Israeli supporters like Koch have reveled in the belief that US Middle East policy should be formulated by the Israeli foreign office. Obama is right to be irritated.

But what does he get from Koch? -- Claims that Obama made outrageous verbal attacks on Israel, which he never did.

“I weep today because my president, Barack Obama, in a few weeks has changed the relationship between the US and Israel from that of closest of allies to one in which there is an absence of trust on both sides,” Koch moaned.

I’m surprised Koch didn’t elevate the rift to “the mother of all disputes.” Oh no, Saddam Hussein already used that approach and it didn’t work.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The tea and sympathetic party

By Don Klein

Tea Party rhetoric rings in my ears daily and for long time I have resisted writing about them because I felt they were inconsequential. I thought of them as a bunch of wacks who were roused by harum-scarum fears and madcap folly from their nesting deep in the underbrush to blow off steam. They were not worthy of comment.

Then I recalled that people also thought the National Socialist Party of Germany was made up of a bunch of crackpots and if no one gave them much attention they would dissolve into thin air and things would go back to normal. We all know that led to the most horrible of all consequences in the last century.

I am not equating the Tea Party with the Nazi Party -- yet, primarily because the former has not yet tasted real power. But there are many similarities. The Tea Party is so out of line with the rest of America it is shameful that they get so much national attention. They are mostly stingy older people who are very comfortable in life and want to protect their cushy existence at the cost of others.

Their motto should be "Me, me, me." I call them the party of shrill and no sympathy. Their ostensible leader and national icon, the ex-governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, who has proved herself to be a shade less well-informed than a simpleton, speaks in a shrieking voice as an authority on whatever subject she thinks will rally her phobic, racially bigoted and gun-toting followers.

They fear a self-concocted creeping socialism, they hate the thought of a black president and will do whatever is necessary to derail his programs, they love their second amendment rights and their bibles.

Naturally, Palin’s biggest target is President Barack Obama and her major objective is to save America from what she calls encroaching "big government." In Palin’s view, by pushing through the health care legislation Obama was robbing the citizenry of their freedom.

Not sure what freedom is being denied us poor souls, as Palin contends. She never explains anything. It doesn’t fit into her sound-bite delivery from the various podiums. In-depth interviews are out of question for her. She is still licking wounds from her disastrous interview with Katie Couric on national television a year and a half back.

Palin doesn’t like what she terms "gotcha" journalism and claims that asking a candidate which newspapers she reads was a gotcha moment, especially when the candidate didn’t know how to respond to such an evil query. She prefers fiery short to-the-point statements in battling health care – "don’t retreat, just reload."

The TP goes way beyond the inanities of Palin. They carry signs depicting Obama as a fascist, a socialist and a communist all wrapped up in one, thinking that will discredit him when it has the exact opposite effect. They forget he was elected by an overwhelming majority of voters to do just what he is doing. It shows how out of step they are, not him.

They also lie by the hour. They say the economy is worsening when in fact the recession has leveled off and the stock market is back over 11,000 for the first time in years. Also joblessness is slowly diminishing.

They were the ones that propounded the death panel talk and questioned whether Obama indeed was an American citizen. They continued that nonsense in the face of factual evidence to the contrary. They feel overtaxed and demand relief while being so ill-informed they don’t realize that taxes for most people last year was less than its been in years.

To the TP, the answer to all questions is to cut taxes and cut spending, except for the military.

The TP is made up of mostly older, white males who seem to fear that their privileges and status will be harmed by new social and economic programs. They are full of contradictions. They all speak of smaller government but none want to give up their Social Security or Medicare.

Their biggest fear is wrapped around what they call the tendency towards socialism in this country. I doubt if many of them can define socialism, but it is the bugaboo they dread will eventually take away their rights. Although almost all of them have adequate health care for themselves and their families they resent the program to provide health care for the uninsured.

Their political nemesis is Obama and the Democrats, even though most say they don’t like either major party and do not seek a third party. The overwhelming majority of TP members are extremely conservative and are unhappy Republicans.

They like to describe themselves as a grass roots movement but I see the TP as the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, on par with the evangelicals. That’s why you never hear a GOP hotshot challenging anything the TPs say. Fortunately, the TP is a small percentage of the country and has no current leader.

This is where Sarah Palin, and such outlandish purveyors of screwball ideas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, pose a danger. If either of these oddballs manage to latch on as a TP leader, watch out.

The sad truth about Palin and Bachmann is that they are unfit to hold any public office, but despite their ignorance and lack of curiosity about the world around them, they are potent figures by virtue of their charisma, their political cheerleading and their good looks. They are attractive candidates to a certain misinformed and disenchanted element of the electorate.

It would be a tragedy if either of them became national decision-makers. I can’t image either one in a seat of power here or anywhere, but it has happened before. Remember George W. Bush? One Bush in one lifetime is more than enough.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Uncaring adults, deadly result

By Don Klein

When a teenage girl was found hanging in the stairwell of her New England home not too long ago it was not just the tragedy that all adolescent suicides are. It was a failure of the adults in her life to face up to their responsibilities, not to mention the fault of her malevolent adolescent counterparts.

Phoebe Prince, 15, may have been a victim of abusive peers in her high school but she died because the grownups in her life never stepped up to protect the child, as all children should be protected, from the hurtful behavior of ruthless school mates.

The abusive teenagers who drove the poor child to her end are shameful products of adolescent quirks driven by hormones raging through bodies placing them somewhere between child and grownup. But the question I ask is when will adults start acting as adults and accept their roles as guardians of youth?

Why didn’t teachers and school authorities act when they learned of, or witnessed, the harmful taunting and threats hurled at this student. Phoebe’s friends knew about it, her young provocateurs knew, the girl fled in tears to the school nurse, she knew, and her family knew. Teachers witnessed attacks on more than one occasion and Phoebe pleaded to administrators for help.

Yet no one did anything. No adult stood by her. Shame on them all.

When we send children to school they become temporary wards of educators, they become the responsibility of the teachers and school administrators. School officials are surrogate parents while the children are in their care whether they like the role or not. They are obligated to see no harm comes to them, they must care for their safety and good health. Most educators do.

If not, no parent would allow their child to go to school if they are on their own with no oversight by tending adults. Yet that seems to have been the failure in Phoebe’s case. No one took custody for her well being. No one nipped the abuse before it reached the fatal level.

Three 16-year-old girls are being held in this case for taunting and bullying young Phoebe, an immigrant girl from Ireland. The intimidation was gross and intense and drove the victim to despair. Why? Apparently it was that curious explosive energy that drives most teenagers – boy-girl relationships.

Prosecutors in Northwestern Massachusetts have charged the girls as youthful offenders with felonies including violation of civil rights and stalking, and have also accused them with similar crimes under juvenile laws. Three other students have been charged as adults, two of whom being accused of statutory rape.

Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools including South Hadley High School, where the abuse took place, said he could not discuss some of the pertinent matters in the case because of "privacy rules." How many times have we heard that lame excuse to cover-up their own failings.

Privacy my foot. A young girl’s life is ended in suicide. Those feeble rules no longer exist.

Teenage bullying is a lot more dangerous than any adult would suspect. What if Phoebe had turned the tables on everyone and somehow got her hands on a gun. That is not very difficult in a country whose gun laws and virtually written by adherents of the National Rifle Association. What if she took that gun to school to even the score with her tormentors and in the process shot many uninvolved innocent kids and teachers.

That would get national attention and we would be asking why?

Don’t say that is far fetched because it already happened. Remember the Columbine High School mass murder in Colorado brought about by teenagers who felt abused and ostracized by their peers. It also happened elsewhere where kids attacked schoolmates and teachers with deadly weapons after feeling they were picked on incessantly.

Oddly enough there is only one group of adults who usually can spot these antisocial trends brewing in youngsters. They are teachers. They spend more time with the kids than their parents do. In many cases parents don’t have a clue about their children because most teenagers don’t confide in them.

The teachers at Columbine and other schools where youngsters resorted to shooting up the place and causing grievous human damage were, in essence, negligent in their duties by spotting disturbing trends among their students and not doing anything about it. That is the case at South Hadley High School.

There is no one who respects teachers more than I do because they are the ones who mold the future for us all. Their work is the most honorable you can imagine, but they have become aloof when it comes to dealing with the behavioral problems of students. The parents ignore them when they point out problems and the administration usually backs down and hides behind rules and regulations.

Without the support they deserve teachers often develop the attitude whereby they do just what the lessons require and leave issues like pupil interaction and deportment for others to solve. In the end it is really the parents who must change. They should support teachers and maybe then they will find dividends in the outreach of teachers towards troubled students.

The Associated Press reported that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in a radio interview said that "adults did not seem to have acted like adults" in the case. He did not distinguish between school administrators or the parents of the teens charged.

How right he is. We cannot afford to ignore children as they continue to victimize each other.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An unholy comparison

By Don Klein

"The use of stereotypes, the passing of personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," read a high ranking Vatican priest quoting from a letter written by a Jewish friend.

Wait a minute. Was he equating the public scorn aroused by the Vatican's protection of Catholic clergyman who abused children with the ageless Christian theme of unremitting bigotry against Jews? Does this cleric have his head on straight? Why would he read out loud such a ridiculous conclusion?

Father Cantalmessa, the priest making the remarks, holds the title of preacher of the papal household. Is there any wonder that respect for the Catholic priesthood has dropped so precipitously. They are now almost as low in public standing as members of Congress.

Let’s look at this comparison factually. Just the truth please. Jews have been victims of discrimination throughout history by Christian clergy, specifically the Catholics, for no other reason than being Jewish and not followers of Jesus. Their conversion is high among Catholic targets.

It wasn’t until Pope John XXIII that official anti-Semitism ended.

If it wasn’t for this dishonorable and ageless hatred of Jews, chances are the Holocaust never would have happened. Hitler probably would not have had the support of most Germans for the slaughter that killed over six million innocent non-Christians.

That was anti-Semitism at its peak. There were hundreds of other less horrible examples. Christians imposed laws that denied Jews the right to own land, to work in certain employment, to travel freely, and Jews were expressly and regularly branded from the Sunday pulpit as heretics and worse.

Even in the US where all men supposedly where created equal, Jews in my lifetime could not live in any neighborhood they chose, could not work in any industry they preferred, could not even be elected to public office until they overcame this built-in prejudice through education, by moving gingerly through life and by hard work.

Now compare that with the priests who for generations sexually abused children in their charge with the knowledge that if they were caught they would be transferred to another diocese where a whole new array of virginal youngsters became available prey for their lust. They understood that the church’s predominant concern was protecting its image, not its flock.

After decades of ugly revelations of what it meant to be a Catholic youngster in numerous American cities and being victimized on a regular basis, the focus now turned to Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and even the pope’s home territory in Germany. It was no longer "an American problem" as the church liked to claim in kissing off the previous abuse allegations.

It seems that Irish kids, German youth, and children from other areas of Europe were also being victimized by beguiling clergymen, who after being caught, were not punished, nor defrocked, nor arrested, but hidden away by church elders at a new location to protect the "reputation" of the church.

When this was revealed to have happened in the diocese under Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger’s authority, wasn’t it natural for the public to demand the truth especially since the erstwhile cardinal is now the pope? But as it has been many times before with this pope, the issue has been stonewalled.

In the case of the horrors of the Irish priesthood’s authority over the infamous work houses for the destitute young people and other sexual abuses there, the pope apologized and said he is sorry for the pain they caused. But not a single clergyman responsible for the frightful conditions was disciplined.

As for the abuses in his German home grounds, the pope had a different answer. He said he didn’t know about it even though many have claimed they reported the circumstances directly to his office. Pope Benedict is beginning to sound like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifying before Congress not too long ago.

How these different scenarios equate to religious prejudice is beyond most thoughtful people. To describe criticism of the pope as similar to centuries of anti-Semitism is a crock.

"Father Cantalamessa chose to equate calumny against the Jewish people as the same as criticism of Pope Benedict," said Kristine Ward, a spokeswoman for the National Survivor Advocates Coalition told The New York Times. "It is incomprehensible that Father Cantalamessa did this and that Pope Benedict, the ultimate authority in this church who presided at the service, did not stand during the service to disavow this connection to anti-Semitism."

The church quickly disassociated itself from Cantalamessa’s remarks, The Times reported. Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Father Cantalamessa’s sermon represented his own thoughts and was not an official Vatican statement. Lombardi said the remarks should not be construed as equating recent criticism of the Catholic Church with anti-Semitism.

"I don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison," he added.

And, of course, then there was what I consider justifiable reaction from Jewish sources. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, attributed the remarks to ignorance, not malice. "You would think that a senior priest in the church would have a better understanding of anti-Semitism than to make this hideous comparison," he said.

It really doesn’t matter whether it was ignorance or malice on the priest’s part. In either case it was an incomprehensible statement and the fact that the pope was sitting in the room listening to this idiocy without reaction is a telling message to me as to where his thoughts are at this time of church strife.

It is a classic case of making the offender into the victim.