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Embracing Diversity

Posted on September 10, 2012
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My son has one dynamite fiance, Z.   Z, aside from being charming, is breathtakingly handsome, affectionate, and darkly complected.  He is also a Muslim.  My having lived in NYC for a number of years, neither his being darkly complected nor his being Muslim would seem to me as particularly out of the ordinary.  The average New Yorker’s eye is trained to having no particular image of “the average New Yorker.”  Living, as I do, in Central New York’s dairy country however, the sight of a non-Christian, non-Caucasian is a relatively rare event.  So, I probably typify much of rural America in that regard.  There are a lot of communities that consider just which Protestant European country one’s ancestors hail from as being the measure of “diversity.”

And, in that regard, diversity is certainly in the eye of the beholder.  But, thanks to the federal Census Bureau, we know that American society continues to evolve to a point that within the next 30 some odd years, while we will continue to have minority groups in this country, there will be no such thing as a majority group – except for things like right handedness and brown eyes.  So, while you may have been taken a little bit aback by a President surnamed “Obama,” be prepared for Gonzalez, Chang, Singh, Schwartz, and Littlefoot.

It’s a time I look forward to, eagerly look forward to.  In the early parts of our history, we had the luxury of being racists.  We could afford to see the world as being Europe (the part of the world that people are supposed to come from, if they try hard enough) and everybody else.  In our nation’s infancy, we saw ourselves as the children of Europe.  England was not just the Mother Country; Europe was the Mother Continent.  Our highest echelons of society so clung to that belief through the middle of the Twentieth Century, that even our own concert halls and museums discriminated against American artists and American composers.  Walt Whitman was better loved in England than in the United States.

It is therefore with great interest that I see Bobby Jindal, Governor of Lousiana and, being both of solid Hindu heritage and American born, technically qualified to be President of the United States.  There is little that Governor Jindal says that I actually agree with, but I consider it a major mark of progress in this country that he would be the fair haired boy of the Republican Party.  And, being educated at both the Ivy League and Oxford, he’s no idiot.

We could do worse.

We need more major politicians with more profound ideas drawn from non-European cultures.  It’s a big world we live in.  We need to understand the entire planet.  And if our politicians remain one after another an incarnation of Mr. Mayonnaise, we just are not going to be prepared to understand the rest of it.

Embracing diversity is not just a cool leftist idea.

Our survival depends on it.



Where Did All That Unnewsworthy News Come From?

Posted on August 21, 2012
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This just in:

A urinal leaked in the United States Capitol building, requiring several people to be relocated to rooms that were unaffected by the unwanted water.

Now, that’s the real story.  The headline for it was “People sent fleeing from exploding urinal in U.S. Capitol.”

The day before that one, I read a piece about a horrible gaffe at a beauty pageant.  One of the contestants had the nerve to say that she liked the movie Pretty Woman!

Shocking, just shocking.  The funny thing is that what she said about the movie was spot on.  What the commentator said about what she said completely missed her point.  So, score one for the bimbo who likes bimbo redemption movies.

Consider this headline I just picked up:  “Another Einstein Theory Proven True.”  It is the story about measuring the speed of neutrinos and finding out that they did not go faster than the speed of light.  Had they gone faster than light, it would have disproven Einstein’s statement that nothing can go faster than light.  That these things didn’t do it does nothing to prove that Einstein was right.  It only proves that these things don’t prove him wrong. Something else, theoretically, could come along that does.  My saying that the coin will always land heads up is not proven by the time it does or even by a lot of times it does.  The discovery that heads had been minted on both sides would reasonably well prove it (except to my friend who recently dumped the change from his pocket on a table and one quarter landed and stood still on its rim.  Try to reproduce that one.)

My complaint here is not that the article was wrong.  But the headline certainly was.

And that is what is passing for news nowadays.

There is that old thing about how if you throw a frog into boiling water, the frog will jump out and save its life, but if you put him in cold water and gradually heat the water, he will boil to death.

Well, there is no boiling frog here.  The news was pretty bad until a couple of months ago and then Pow!  it suddenly took this precipitous turn to the incorporation of all of this crap that back in the days of printed newspapers, we used to call “filler.”  Except that filler found its way on page 17 or so of paper newspapers.  Now the filler is right there in with the so-called hard news, bidding for our attention with exaggerated and misleading headlines and formerly respectable news sources are turning into the National Inquirer, except that the stories may actually be true.

I had written some months ago that there would be a process that would naturally lead us news via internet readers to the respectable sources of news like the New York Times.  Now, I finally see what that process is.  The secondary sources of news are so brimming with crap that the Times and publications like it are becoming the only sane answer to find out what is actually going on in the world that is worth reading about.

Day after day, I am assaulted by headlines about non-events that are pumped up to mean something.  Then when you click on the headline and actually go to the article, you want to kick yourself for being so naïve.

It reminds me of the old joke in my family:  Did you hear about the baby who was born without a penis?  Yeah.  It was a girl.

So, I’m finding this utterly maddening.

This just in:

Blogger despairs of finding anything new in the news!



Clearing Up The Mystery

Posted on August 19, 2012
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There are two great mysteries in Roman Catholicism:  Why does the Pope wear red shoes with a white cassock after Memorial Day?  And: Why is the Pope so incredibly deaf to his own outrageous puns?

There is one utter non-mystery (except to the Pope) in Roman Catholicism:  Why have four “state-ordered investigations … documented how tens of thousands of children from the 1940s to the 1990s suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse at the hands of priests, nuns and church staff in three Irish dioceses and in a network of workhouse-style residential schools?”

Tens of thousands.

Just for the sake of analysis, we’ll assume that that was merely 20,000 and that it was merely 50 years.  That’s 400 children sexually abused per year, every year at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.  During that period the population of Ireland was roughly four million.  So, conservatively, one child per year in 10,000 Irish citizens during that period was sexually abused by the Church.  Guessing that during the period half the population was children, that’s one child per year in every 5,000 children.  Further guessing that one-third of those were too young to abuse, we’re at one child per year in every 3,000 or so was sexually abused.  You can see that it wouldn’t take much to adjust these very conservative guesstimates to take it to every year one child in 1,000.  I emphasize the number of children because the statistics make no mention of how many times each child was molested in a given year.  Yet, my understanding of the phenomenon is that it was (as is) both frequent and regular.  So while the children in that time period is in the tens of thousands, the acts of molestations in that same period is in the hundreds of thousands.

To put it in context, that would be the equivalent of 1,100 children being sexually molested by their teachers in the New York City school system every year.

And to me, at least, that is a staggering number.

And perhaps even more disturbing is that the number takes us through the 1990’s without giving us any hope or reason to believe that the pattern of sexual abuse has been put to a halt.

So, while America was celebrating Father’s Day, the Pope was busy in a sports stadium in Dublin proclaiming it a “mystery” that there was such widespread sexual abuse of children by “fathers” and other officials of the Church even though these people regularly received communion.

Let me run that past you again.

The Pope found it mysterious that regular attendance at communion was insufficient to stop sexual abuse of children.  He said, “’How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord’s body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way? … It remains a mystery… Yet evidently their Christianity was no longer nourished by joyful encounter with Jesus Christ. It had become merely a matter of habit.”

So for him, weekly receipt of a wafer and a sip of wine should have been completely successful in countering the effect of decades of the Church finding pedophile priests and simply shifting them to some other parish, covering up the abuse, and paying off the priests for their sins against the children.  And, as we have seen in America, treating the victims as the sinners.

The idea that a pedophile priest was completely safe from prosecution takes no role for the Pontiff in clearing up this mystery.

Really?

And the pun, the bitter, outrageous pun in all of this is that Church doctrine refers to the “Mystery of the Mass” being just how exactly the bread is transformed into actually being Christ’s body and the wine into being his blood.

But for Benedict the Mystery is that this divine act of cannibalism is insufficient to counter the culture that encourages and exonerates the abuser.

It was only recently that the Vatican had dismissed the problem of Roman Catholic institutional pedophilia as “a peculiarly American problem.”  Yet, it was becoming increasingly clear that the “peculiar problem” was that (1) the priests were getting caught and (2) the Church was being made to pay.  The abuse itself appears to be worldwide.

And with those kinds of credentials, I’m not quite sure where the Pontiff finds the credentials to attack gay marriage as an assault on basic human dignity.

But, I suppose, if he thinks he can get away with red shoes with a white cassock after Memorial Day, he thinks he can get away with anything.



The Miracle of Language

Posted on August 16, 2012
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Three tiny, almost meaningless events happened in my life in the space of 24 hours.     Yet, sewn together, they accord insight into one of the things that most makes us human:  sophisticated language.

I was speaking to a client who called and asked me for some quick advice on a case.  She kind of mumbled the name of the case and I started giving her the advice.  A couple of minutes later, I asked her to spell the name of the case so that I could put it in my billing records.  She spelled, “H-E-R-M-A-N-O.”

I said, “Brother?”

She said without pause, “Brother.”

That was event number one.

I then was chatting with a Latina who works for me and I told her the story I just told you.  I had to tell her the story three times before she finally found anything remarkable in the story.  Finally, she laughed and said, “I’ve been bilingual all my life.  That’s just how my mind works.”

What had happened here?

She hadn’t noticed that the client had not spelled “B-R-O-T-H-E-R” but rather “H-E-R-M-A-N-O.”   Seeing that the client had spelled the Spanish word meaning “brother” in English, she hadn’t noticed that the client hadn’t spelled the word “brother” in the first place.

I thought to myself, “Heck.  I’ve been bilingual French/English since long before she was born.  But I would never hear ‘F-R-E-R-E’ and mistake it for spelling the word ‘brother.’”

So, I inquired with other native bilingual friends and they did not share the brain wiring of my Latina associate in this regard.

Note, by the way, that by my saying “brother?” to my client I cut through the “M as in Michael” and “N as in Nancy” thing and simply treated the word as a whole, thus communicating the complete spelling to my client and she equally effectively communicated her assent to my understanding.

Next small incident.

I was speaking to an associate on the phone and he was speaking with his mouth full.

I said, “What is that?  It sounds delicious!”

He said, “Just some fruit, no sugar.”

“Oh, I responded.  Just like me.”

He laughed at the “cleverness” of the line.  I pointed out that it was an old line and told him the story of my son who some 13 years earlier had delivered to me some grapefruits I had purchased as a fund raiser for my son’s band.  My son delivered the grapefruits with the line, “Fruits for the fruit.”

What was remarkable to me was that my associate wondered about how I would remember my son saying that.  “Was that a life altering experience?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Then why would you remember it?” he demanded.

And I told him that my entire life people have been surprised by my capacity to remember the truly unimportant.  My mother has many times turned to me, when she is pleased with my memory capacity to say, “How does such a normal size head contain so much stuff?

When she is displeased, this is converted to, “I’m 90 years old.  How am I supposed to remember that?”

Well, when it comes to my mind, my oft-remarked-upon memory is one of two characteristics to catch folks’ attention.  The other is my tendency to draw connections between the seemingly unconnected.

Well, drawing those connections is one thing.  Convincing someone else of the connection is quite something else.

For example, my sister recently remarked upon my nephew’s studies in “secular religion” in his newly awarded Master’s Degree.  She wrote to me, “No.  That’s not an oxymoron.”

It took no convincing for me.  I have often looked at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and realized that, to my thinking, it is not merely in the shape of an ancient Greek Temple.  It is in effect a Temple to the secular  worship our nation has of the secular “god” Abraham Lincoln.  It is the Ka’aba-like place, the central shrine to which Americans make their pilgrimage at the National Mall, like Muslims do to Mecca.  It is where we proclaim our faith in the principle that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

And, putting politics aside, that is a connection between the concept of belief and affirmation systems in secular society and belief  and affirmation systems in religion that you may or may not have made previously.

It took language to communicate that connection to you.

And that is the thing about this whole thing that is so amazing to me. We are all wired so differently.  We have such different thought patterns.

But we have language that sews it all together and enables me to take my decidedly funky thought patterns and place them in your thought patterns in a way that you can at least understand them if not necessarily either share them or agree with them.

Perhaps we all do march to different drummers.  But somehow, through this miracle of language, we recognize that what the other fellow is doing, although different, is still marching.



The Power of the Constitution

Posted on August 13, 2012
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The American Constitution is arguably the most influential political document ever written.  In the United States itself, it is regarded totemically: worshipped but not often read and even less frequently followed.  But on the international stage, it is the very model for a concept that was peculiarly American at the time of its writing, the idea that a nation should be governed by a fundamental document that sets forth in writing both the mechanics of governance and the areas in which government is allowed to govern.  It and all successful constitutions are very brief in their pre-amended stages and, like all successful constitutions, contains an easy to understand but difficult to follow procedure for taking on amendments.

It was not this nation’s first constitution.  That honor went to the Articles of Confederation, a document hastily drawn up under war time conditions which proved insufficiently robust in the powers it granted the central government and too specific in the details of governance.  While our current constitution suffers some of these same deficiencies, it unarguably suffers them to a far lesser extent than did the Articles.

At the time of the drafting of the Articles, England considered itself to have a constitution, but it was “unwritten.”  It was a national understanding of how things are done, of traditions, based, to a large extent, on certain laws that had been passed by parliament or simply decreed by the Monarch, but free to change at the drop of a hat.  By definition, in the British system, parliament never, ever passes an unconstitutional law.  That is because, to the extent that the law conflicts with prior practice, it is considered simply to be an amendment of the constantly evolving idea of what is and what is not constitutional.

Britain has no supreme court to declare its laws within or outside of its constitution.  So all the laws are allowable under it.  When, for example, that meant an incredibly oppressive regime, as it did under Charles II, it wasn’t unconstitutional.  It was just very unpleasant.  The British sought to break that system by enacting things like their own Bill of Rights, but, that Bill being a law, like any other law, could simply be replaced by another one.

This, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid in the creation of the Articles of Confederation.  And for all its flaws, the Articles do not belong in the dustbin of history because they are responsible for bringing to the political table the idea of writing down the rules and making it hard to avoid them.

Fast forward to the 21st Century.  We are seeing the so-called Arab Spring and the thing that is showing up again and again in the Arab Spring is the understanding that in order for a government to claim legitimacy from both its own people and the international community, it needs not only a Constitution, but one which on its face is meant to be enduring and which is meant to protect minorities.

This is the mistake that the current military junta in Egypt is making.  They are promulgating a “Temporary Constitution.”  But from what we have seen of what a Constitution is supposed to be, “Temporary” defeats its very purpose.  Call it “Emergency Rules of Operation” or whatever you want, but “Temporary Constitution” will not cut it.

In the Arab Spring, people readily understand and cherish the idea of democracy.  That is unfortunate.  Legitimate governments must repress democracy or completely give up on the idea of justice and fairness.

Why?

Because democracy is the pretty word we use to describe “mob rule.”  If you want to see pure democracy in action, take a look at the Los Angeles riots of 1992.  That was pure democracy.  It was a popular expression of outrage over a clearly unjust jury verdict. And in the process all governance broke down for a number of days.  And in certain areas of town where repressed minorities were the overwhelming majority of the folks present, to be a member of the overall majority was to pass on oneself a death sentence.

That is what pure democracy does.

And the idea of it made our Founding Fathers shiver to their very bones.  They filled our Constitution with things to prevent America from having a democracy:  The Senate, the Supreme Court, the Impeachment process, the First Amendment, and so on.

No.  The most important thing a Constitution must do after describing the mechanisms of governance is to set up the mechanisms for reining in democracy so that minorities are protected:  gender, religious, ethnic, racial minorities, what have you.

The Middle East will eventually have a bunch of brand spanking new Constitutions, real ones.  And the grandfather of them all is our current American Constitution, old, creaky, and cranky that it is.  It still sets a powerful example for how to go about setting up mechanisms for government of, for, and by the people.