SINCE YOU ASKED

It’s Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

It’s the 115th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, the slaveowner and former U.S. Army general who led bands of insurrectionists seeking to dissolve the nation.

In Texas, the traitor’s birthday is celebrated as Confederate Heroes Day. It’s a state holiday. Other states celebrate the day later in the year. Kentucky, for instance, waits for June 3.

In case you were wondering if what you’ve been seeing in recent years is anything new.

Among those representing Kentucky in Congress is Thomas Massie.

You might remember him from a recent family Christmas picture in which he demonstrated his idea of how to celebrate the birth of “the Prince of Peace” – an event he somehow omitted in his holiday message. His entire family of seven is holding weapons, including one that’s semi-automatic, as he beseeches Santa to bring all of them some ammo. 

Massie is one the harder core insurrectionists in the Republican caucus – a happy warrior against the country from which he draws his paycheck.

Yesterday, in a tweet that keeps with his life’s mission of inducing liberal tears, Massie leaned into the narrative (one I don’t accept, by the way) that his party will gain control of the House this fall. 

He said – and I’m copying here because I’d like to limit this guy’s social media engagement: “What pro Second Amendment legislation do you want the House to pass when Republicans retake the majority?”

Hey, Tommy Gun Boy, thanks for asking.

I don’t own a weapon, would never own a weapon and don’t understand why anyone else does. I’m embarrassed by the fact that my country has one of the highest rates of firearm-related deaths in the world – a large number of them, by the way, by suicide.

But, Tommy Gun Boy, if you think that means I support repeal of the Second Amendment, you’re wrong.

This is what appears in the Bill of Rights: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So, taking you at your word that you want to consider legislation that’s pro-Second Amendment – or “pro-#2A,” as you and your bang-bang loving friends like to say – here are some ideas:

— In accordance with the Second Amendment’s proclamation that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, require every state to do thorough background checks on anyone seeking the right to bear arms.

— In accordance with the Second Amendment’s proclamation that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, require states to mandate that everyone seeking the right to bear arms undergo instruction in firearm safety and consequences – both when they purchase a firearm and then annually thereafter.

— In accordance with the Second Amendment’s proclamation that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, make certain the right of anyone to keep and bear arms is not available to anyone convicted of or legitimately accused of domestic violence. 

Yeah, I don’t think anyone who is the subject of a court protection order should have access to something that can end that dispute sadly. 

— In accordance with the Second Amendment’s proclamation that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms requires protection for the firearm in the home – including making it impossible for children under age 16 to get access to firearms on their own.

Gun accidents and suicide produce more death in America than homicide. That’s pathetic. I can’t understand why even the fondest gun advocate finds that acceptable.

— In accordance with the Second Amendment’s proclamation that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, states that fail to provide adequate regulation of firearms should be subject to financial penalty, such as reduced federal funding.

States that take in more federal funds than they contribute should have their funding reduced to equal levels.

And there should be legal liability for state officials who fail to fulfill their Constitutional obligation to well regulate the right to keep and bear arms.

For instance: Some idiot in Texas should face consequences for the fact that a nut case from Great Britain could hop on a plane, hang around Dallas for a few days, get hold of a weapon, then go into a synagogue and terrorize a rabbi and his congregants for hours while spewing anti-Semitic bullshit.

The problem with the Second Amendment isn’t its existence, Tommy Gun Boy.

Sure, it might be better for all of us if Hamilton, Madison and the gang left it out.

But the problem with the Second Amendment is that we’ve allowed gun crazies like you to ignore the first four words. 

Gun control, pal, is inherent in the Second Amendment. That’s why it’s a more logical solution to the gun violence problems afflicting our country than arming everybody to the teeth and watching the carnage that happens.

But, hey, I suspect that’s not what you had in mind, Tommy Gun Boy, when you asked the question.

So I hope Santa got you the ammo you wanted. Because I’m sure as hell he didn’t bring you any decency.

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UNCASTING THE DIE

— It’s Monday, January 10, 2022. It’s the 20th day of winter – there’s 70 days left.

— On this day 2,071 years ago, Roman general Julius Caesar led his army south across a small river called the Rubicon in what’s now northeast Italy.

That violated an agreement that he stay on his side – a step that resulted in a civil war and his eventual triumph that made him dictator.

Caesar is quoted as saying “Alea iacta est” – “The die is cast” – referring to the games of chance that preceded Wordle as the mass preoccupation in Roman time. The expression now means that you’ve made your move – there’s no turning back.

— In modern Rome, Pope Francis, perhaps the most progressive pontiff of my lifetime, got himself in a flap last week.

He lamented that many 21st century couples shun the idea of raising children or having more than one child, substituting pets for offspring.

“And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity,” Francis said. “And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood.”

I am known among family and friends for my distain – hell, I’ll just say it, fear – of animals. And the behavior of some pet owners who believe their creature’s rights supersede mine drives me crazy.

But the pope’s kinda out of turn here. Especially for a guy whose full-time job proscribes him from contributing to “the richness of fatherhood.” 

If people want Rover or Whiskers instead of Robert or Wendy, that’s their business. Better they’re happy with the choice they make than miserable with a choice they resent.

— One thing that likely won’t encourage couples to procreate is the flap over in-person schooling in the wake of the omicron surge. 

In fact, I can only imagine the strain on parents of preschoolers and school-age children right now.

There are some parents who are angry schools aren’t open. They need to work to support their families – and they are not in jobs or circumstances that allow them to work from home.

There are some parents who are angry schools are open. They don’t want their kids to get COVID, even the milder omicron strain. Who knows what the long-term impact is?

This is a mess.

Forcing schools to open in the midst of this wave puts the kids, their teachers, administrators and support staff at risk. It’s why this idea from New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, that “swagger” will conquer COVID, that people need not fear getting it, is nonsense.

It’s easy for him to say that about your kid. But no one knows how individual children – or individual adults – will cope with illness.

On the other hand, it’s understandable that there’s concern about the impact of two years of school closings and remote learning on the social and intellectual development of children. Many of us – particularly on the left – lament how far behind American kids are in all school subjects compared with their counterparts in other countries.

— At the core of this problem, much as some of the other issues, is the idea that we were lulled into a sense that this pandemic was ending.

Think back to September, when it seemed as though the delta wave was subsiding and cases were dropping fast. We thought we had weathered the storm and that normal was back.

So we didn’t do a bunch of things. We forgot about the idea of developing widely available and reliable home testing or keeping the in-person testing at a high level. 

And we didn’t make contingency plans – the ones we should have made before COVID even broke out in this country – for our businesses and schools.

Thus, here we are. 

The problem with problems in 2022 America is that they’re seen as political opportunities and not, well, problems that warrant solutions. 

— So for those of us who actually want to get this resolved, here’s one idea:

Do you live in a place with a big shopping mall? Or with a large number of strip malls?

Or do you live in a major city with a lot of office space?

Have you noticed how many of these spaces are empty?

Thanks to the pandemic – and to some pre-pandemic trends – there’s a lot of room out there.

Where I live, the only indoor mall has lost two anchor stores and several big box spaces, along with the smaller national chain stores that used to the mainstays of the mall experience.

So why not use that space to solve the COVID education crisis?

Instead of crowding kids into classrooms that are petri dishes for omicron and all the Greek letters that’ll come after it, why not innovate? Honeycomb the empty floor space with sections that can hold three or four kids and an instructor. 

An example: If you take a 2nd-grade class of 40 students, you create 10 cubicles in the abandoned Sears or Macy’s. You separate fully vaccinated kids from those vaccinated to a lesser degree or not at all. 

The regular class teacher supervises and teaches in cubicles within her or his comfort level. The other cubicles are staffed by support staff, administrators, high school or college students looking to be education majors, and parental and other community volunteers.

Yes, you need a lot of “assistants.” A district would need to assess its ability to provide for temporary staffing.

But this gives students the in-person education everyone thinks they need in about as safe an environment as can be mustered.

There are other problems. School buses are an issue.

But instead of wringing our hands and complaining about our dysfunction, let’s do something about it. Consider my idea and see if it’s feasible. Or if it can be reformed to be feasible.

Just don’t stand in front of a microphone and tell scared parents they just need a little more swagger. That’s BS. 

This isn’t an old John Wayne movie. There’s been real sickness and real death in the past two years. And while kids might not face, as a group, more severe consequences from COVID and its omicron variant, some of them do.

Most parents want to enjoy the “richness of fatherhood or motherhood.” They’re not willing to cross a rubicon of risk for the child they love.

So let’s do something to help.

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THE TASK AT HAND

— It’s Friday, January 7. 2022.

— It’s the 17th day of winter, but the first time we’ve gotten measurable snow where I live.

When it snows for the first time each winter, I like to post the words of Lou Grant, the news director of WJM-TV in Minneapolis. This, from a 1972 episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” sums my attitude on this topic.

“I hate snow. I don’t like its color. I don’t like its shape. I don’t like its temperature. I don’t like how it feels. Or what it does. I don’t like it in snowballs. Or on hills. I don’t like anything about it. It’s a soft, wet, white, mushy, melting, freezing mess. I hate snow as much as I hate anything in the entire world.

Two things about this: One, my wife took the shovel out of my 67+-year-old hands and retained someone to plow our driveway. So snow is not a physical burden. That doesn’t diminish its annoyance factor.

Second, this is the first winter season that I’ve sent the Lou Grant quote since the passing of the man who actually uttered it, Ed Asner. It’s been a sad year for fans of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” with the deaths of its four remaining principal actors – Asner, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod and Betty White.

So this quote is part of what survives. It’s an awesome legacy. May his memory be a blessing.

— The December jobs report released at 8:30 a.m. ET today was really interesting to someone like me who has been involved in putting out the news about the numbers.

The general understanding we had was that the more important number was what’s officially called the establishment number, a survey of organizations that hire people. The headline is the change in people working anywhere but a farm.

In today’s report, the number was 199,000. In a simple world, you would think it’s good when the number goes up and bad when it goes down.

But economists and investors don’t quite see it that way. That’s because they’ve spent the past few weeks making forecasts about the number – and they expected something more than twice as big.

So if you’re a novice to this and don’t understand why anyone would be disappointed with a 199,000 gain when, hey, at least it didn’t go down like it did when COVID began, that’s why.

— But the nonfarm number isn’t the only one that’s widely reported.

There’s the number based on a completely different survey – the Labor Department calls people on the phone and knocks on doors and asks them if they’re working. This is the household survey and its headline number, famously, is the unemployment rate.

That number came in this morning a 3.9%, a 0.3 percentage point decline from November.

That is inarguably better. It’s the lowest level since before the pandemic.

— Both of these numbers have some cautionary factors.

The nonfarm reports for October and November were both revised higher, reflecting data received after the gathering deadline in the middle of the named month. October, in particular, was revised higher by 103,000, to an amazing 648,000.

That’s a good thing. There’s a strong chance the December number won’t look quite so weak after it’s revised in the next two months.

On the other hand, a deeper dive into the unemployment rate shows that white, Hispanic and Asian people fared pretty well last month, the same wasn’t true for Black people. The unemployment rate among Black people rose by 0.6 percentage point, to 7.1%.

That’s not a good thing.

— Overall, it would be fair to call today’s report – which includes a lot of other really important data – positive. And now you’re going to get the explanation on why that could be not completely good news.

It’s great when more people are working. And it’s great when, as today’s report also showed, people are getting paid more for what they do – the increase in pay for people who aren’t the boss was 0.7% month over month, an amazing 8.4% if extrapolated over the course of a year.

Can you imagine the glee in your household if you got an 8.4% raise? That actually happened last month.

But somebody’s gotta pay for that 8.4% raise. And it’s very likely that we all did – employees traditionally hike prices when they have to pay more to workers.

You’ve heard a lot about inflation in recent months. That’s one of the ways it shows up.

The Federal Reserve has two jobs. One is to make sure as many people as possible are working. The other is to keep inflation under control.

At a 3.9% unemployment rate, the Fed’s going to get good grades for job one. But a 6.8% inflation rate, as the Labor Department reported for November, doesn’t quite cut it.

Which means that the Fed will need to raise interest rates, probably sooner rather than later. That will slow the job growth – employers will pay more to borrow money to boost their businesses. 

It will also mean if you want to get a mortgage for a new home, you’re going to pay more.

Still, it’s better to have a fast-growing economy that needs the government to apply brakes than a sour economy that requires action to undo individuals’ misery. 

The degree the Fed gets this right will determine a lot about our collective economic situation in the coming year.

— Because the jobs numbers affect the economy so much, there’s always a political component to its reporting.

President Biden, fresh off his widely acclaimed Jan. 6 anniversary speech, gave remarks about the report this morning. And, as presidents or their staff are wont to do, he put the rosiest picture he could on the numbers.

He focused on the unemployment rate, the number that puts the report in the best light. As far as the nonfarm payroll picture, he didn’t mention the 199,000 figure specifically, but included it as part of an annual overview that shows phenomenal total job growth in the first year of his administration – an increase of more than 6 million since last December.

While crowing about the numbers and what his administration to help produce them, Biden also showed that he knows he has to be cautious. He mentioned his understanding the Fed’s role – independent of his administration – to get inflation under control.

Democrats are rightly anxious about inflation. It contributed to undoing Jimmy Carter’s presidency and helped secure Ronald Reagan’s when his administration – aided by the Fed chairman Carter appointed – got it under control.

With all the issues confronting Democrats in a midterm election that could make or break democracy in this country, Biden needs the best possible economy.

The jobs numbers are, overall, a big plus. Taming inflation without weakening those jobs data should be very high on the administration’s list of 2022 priorities.

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THE LONG RUN

It’s Thursday, January 6, 2022. 

In Christianity, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany – or Dia de Reyes – the day the three Magi showed up in Bethlehem with an assortment of gifts that seems a little strange for a 12-day-old boy.

Of course, we had an epiphany of sorts a year ago today.

I was getting dressed for a run in the park on a chilly January day when I saw some social media buzz about crowds at the Capitol. I turned on CNN – the home team, as I call it – and never got my running socks on.

Our notion that the United States is a stable, peaceful democracy shattered in pieces with the glass that surrounded the doors to the U.S. Capitol.

We learned that there really are people in this country who would fight and, yes, kill for a guy who couldn’t make money running casinos. Like trout in a pond – with the brains to match – they bit on the worm of lies Trump told about an election he lost fair and square.

President Biden called out Trump this morning in his forceful, well-delivered remarks at the Capitol.

“The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said.  “He’s done so because he values power over principle, because he sees his own interests as more important than his country’s interests and America’s interests, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution.”

The problem is that few of the people who took part are willing to admit that they were duped. In fact, many of them have doubled down on big lies.

I’m not sure how we resolve this. But I know this: I feel today as I felt on Jan. 7, 2021 – and Sept. 12, 2001. 

I’m not giving in to terrorists. I don’t care if they live on this block.

I know they live around here. When I drive home, I pass a massive sign written crudely in big letters – “DON’T SUBMIT LET’S GO BRANDON” – the latter part of that being the right wing’s oh-so-clever way of saying “Fuck You, Biden.” These self-proclaimed patriots don’t even have the guts to swear honestly.

In the next weeks and months, I’m going to throw some ideas out there for getting this handled. No, I’m not going to advocate violence. 

But facts are facts. On Nov. 3, 2020, more than 81 million voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for president, 7 million+ more than voted for Trump and Mike Pence. (BTW, Mike Pence is a creepy politician, but on Jan. 6, 2021, he acted in accordance with the Constitution at considerable peril, and deserves our plaudits for it. I don’t care if that was what he was supposed to do – Trump was supposed to concede the election and look what happened.)

Anyway, those of us in the majority – Biden got more than 50% of the popular vote and well over 50% of the Electoral College vote – should have some tools at our disposal to fight back. 

This crap has gotta end.

Today, I went for my run. Tomorrow, we need to start running the Lardass of Mar-El-Lago out of body politic forever.

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AS I WAS SAYING

— It’s Wednesday, January 5, 2022. It’s the fifth day of the year and the 15th day of winter.

It’s the 241st anniversary of the capture of Richmond, Virginia, by British forces fighting the American Revolution. They were led by Gen. Benedict Arnold, who defected from the Americans the prior year when he unsuccessfully tried to surrender West Point for a nifty payoff.

Despite other acts of treason against this country – the so-called Confederate States of America comes quickly to mind – the name Benedict Arnold has been synonymous with “traitor” for more than two centuries. 

Perhaps that will change after what happened one year ago tomorrow. If I had to do a word association, the first word I think of when I hear “Trump” is “treason.”

— I haven’t written a post for this blog in a very long time – more than a year. 

I have no answer for why. I’m still pretty opinionated – and I haven’t become any less concerned about things going on around us. But, for some reason, I haven’t been motivated to write.

That’s going to change in 2022. Or at least that’s my New Year’s plan – I don’t like to call it a resolution, but you get the idea.

But I want to start slowly. So I’ll briefly describe five issues I’ve been thinking about that will be my focus over the next weeks and months.

I. THE STUPIDITY OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

One thing compounds the gloom of early January 2022: There’s no certainty there will be a baseball season when spring finally arrives.

Last month, the owners locked out the players. The two sides are supposed to be negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. 

The owners claim to have acted to give some urgency to negotiations – of which there haven’t been any of substance since the lockout began. It could be that the fact there are no games in December defeats the notion of urgency.

Let’s solve this thing, guys. Now.

II. UKRAINE

I don’t know if too many other people noticed, but there’s a realistic chance Russia might invade the parts of Ukraine it hasn’t already occupied.

This is an international crisis. It just doesn’t seem to carry the urgency one would think it should. Will the United States do anything to counteract this? Will it have any allies in doing so? 

These seem like more important questions than whether or not Pete Davidson is dating Kim Kardashian.

III. INFRASTRUCTURE

On Monday, people driving on I-95 in Virginia were trapped – some for more than a day – by a snowstorm.

Yes, there was a lot more snow than was forecast. The weather can pull surprises.

But 27 hours in a car or truck? Really? There was no way to get those people moving?

I find that hard to believe. I’m sitting inches away from a device that can visually connect to my son in South Korea in the next 15 seconds – and yet we can’t get snow off a road.

We have an infrastructure problem. And it’s not just a problem of more – although more would help. It’s a problem of better – we need better ways of traveling, communicating, feeding and powering. 

We are stuck in a 20th century mindset and not thinking of 21st century solutions.

IV. COVID

I’m lucky – nearly two years into this, I haven’t contracted COVID.

I have three shots. I wear KN95 masks. I do whatever I can to stay 6 feet away from people I don’t know. 

I take this damn pandemic seriously. I feel like I’m doing my part. 

But I’m as sick of this nonsense as you are. Again, if I can tap on my iPhone and talk to my son 7,000 miles away in seconds, the wherewithal must be there to end this pandemic. 

And, by the way, if you’re one of these anti-mask, anti-vax nut jobs, congratulations! You’ve prolonged what should have been a short, painful outbreak into a long, even more painful one. 

First prize should be a home in a cave somewhere far away from the rest of us.

V. THE INSURRECTION

When I went to bed early on Nov. 9, 2016, after Donald Trump somehow won the presidency, I thought about how the security I’ve had as an American was about to change dramatically – and actually wept.

Nothing that’s happened since that dark morning has convinced me otherwise. 

We’ve come to expect that people will work, grow old and live in peace. We’ve come to expect that social progress will address long-standing wrongs and make everyone’s life more prosperous and secure. We’ve been living an ideal of equality among Americans, not superiority of some over others.

How do we get back to that concept from where we are right now? Especially after what nearly happened a year ago tomorrow?

I’ll write more about that then.

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STRENGTHGIVING

It’s Thursday, November 26, 2020. It’s Thanksgiving Day.

Although, maybe instead of Thanksgiving, this should be a Strengthgiving.

We should give strength to the people who can’t see how serious this plague is. Who complain about stay-at-home restrictions and mask mandates and bars closed at 10 p.m. That they find the strength within themselves to understand how much we need them to help combat this pandemic.

We should give strength to the people who are on the front lines of this war. The doctors, nurses, medical technicians, EMTs, support staff – risking their lives and draining themselves to the point of exhaustion. The people providing food and transportation and public safety. My former colleagues and rivals in journalism reporting this terrible story to the world.

We should try to give strength to ourselves. When we see how much others have suffered, it makes some of the things we’ve lost – the summer trip, the day at the ballpark, a night at the theater – seem small. 

But it’s OK to understand and bemoan that we’ve lost a piece of our happiness – as long as we have the strength to realize that we’ve done this and are doing this to get as many of us as we can back to those joys we miss so much.

Finally, we should give strength to our friends and family. Those who have lost jobs. Those who have been afflicted with this illness. Those – and, sadly, that includes some of you – who’ve had people taken from you way too soon by a virus that wasn’t an inkling a year ago. You are in my thoughts today and everyday.

So I wish you all strength this fourth Thursday of November. We can give thanks next year when we’re all here to share them.

Happy Strengthgiving!

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PROMISE

It’s Saturday, November 7, 2020. It’s one of the best days ever.

I promised my mom. We’d get rid of him.

She wanted him impeached before Russia and Ukraine and Comey and all the other crap. Every time I saw her between Nov. 9. 2016 until just before she died, she would ask why he was still president.

Weeks before she died, I visited her in the hospital. She was failing and being closely monitored and speaking softly. But when I told her that Nancy Pelosi was looking into impeachment, she let out a cheer that caused all the medical people in the hallway to come running to see what was going on.

My mom died a year ago on Tuesday. I’m only sorry she’s not here to see this – particularly to realize that a woman is about to be Vice President of the United States.

On the other hand, given how much she wanted it, I’m damn sure she had something to do with it.

Thanks again, Mom! We did it. I love you.

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FINAL ARGUMENT

It’s Monday, November 2, 2020. Tomorrow is Election Day.

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Our national anthem fails.

For starters, it’s not great music. It’s hard for a lot of people to sing well.

The words were written by Francis Scott Key after a battle two centuries ago. So it’s about “ramparts” and a “perilous fight” and “the rockets’ red glare.”

The tune was stolen from a song written for a British social club.

Is that who we are as Americans? Really? Is this song the best we can do for this country that we say we love?

I don’t have a candidate to replace it. But I know what I’d love to incorporate in it.

Let’s capture what this country really is. What it has become since the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814.

I want something about the states, each with their own claim to beauty and culture and valor.

I want something about where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day,” as in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” I want something about vegan hot dogs. Also pizza and bulgogi.

Mention the polio vaccine, the Wright Brothers’ airplane, the first telephone. Also: the Ford Mustang, an Apple Mac, blue jeans.

There should be something about a Pete Alonzo homer into the middle deck of Citi Field. A Sue Bird pass for a teammate’s basket. Simone Biles doing a perfect triple-double on the floor.

Something that captures a kid’s joy at all the red envelopes received for the lunar new year. Kids in costume celebrating Purim. Awards day at a Compton high school. 

A tractor pull at a Texas county fair. A quinceañera in Phoenix. The Eid celebration in a Detroit mosque.

Something that reflects the sorrow and gratitude felt as you drive past the neat rows of graves at a national cemetery. The pride of a Colorado veteran saluting at his town’s Memorial Day ceremony.

And the tune?

This is the country that produced Gershwin and Ellington. Brian Wilson and Stephen Foster. Carole King and Dolly Parton. Stevie Wonder and Tito Puente. Aaron Copland and Cole Porter. 

We can’t do better than a British club song?

We are the United States of America. We are greater than the sum of our parts. When we diminish any of them or many of them, as our government and some of our people have for the past four years, we diminish all of them.

It’s time to celebrate ourselves instead of trashing each other. It’s time to get back to the business of being the world’s greatest country. 

We’re better than our national anthem. 

But our national anthem is just fine compared to how much better we are than Donald Trump.

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GOODBYE, COLUMBUS?

It’s Monday, October 12, 2020. It’s 22 days before Election Day.

On this day in 1492, three ships captained by Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island now known as San Salvador.

To mark this occasion, the U.S. government designates this as Columbus Day. You can’t conduct business in federal offices. There’s no mail in your mailbox today – although, thanks to Louis DeJoy, that might not be because the post office is closed.

For the first, oh, half of my 66+ years, no one really questioned this idea. It’s Columbus Day – a day off from school, for sales at department stores and various other little anomalies in the daily routine.

But then the objections of the ancestors of those on Guanahani – that’s what San Salvador was called before Columbus showed up – and the members of tribal nations throughout the Western Hemisphere merged with the scholarship of historians from around the world. And they came up with this:

Columbus was a jerk. He was a slaver. He was a murderer. He was a lot of other godawful things.

But, mamma mia, even though he was working for the Spanish crown, he was Italian.

And that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day.

It has almost nothing to do with what he did. For the first century of American independence, we mostly didn’t give a damn – there were some commemorations of the event, but nobody got the day off.

The making of the holiday came in the 1890s, close to the 400th anniversary of Columbus showing up on Guanahani. Its root is the murder of New Orleans’ police chief – who, in his dying breath, said Italian immigrants were responsible.

At the time, Italians were held in low esteem in New Orleans. How low? Here’s a hint: If you’re an Italian-American who uses the “N” word to slur Black people, you’re betraying your own heritage in the process.

After the chief’s death, as many as 250 Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans were rounded up. Eventually, 19 were charged with the murder. But the trial of the first nine suspects ended with six found not guilty and a hung jury for the other three. 

Unfortunately, all nine went back to jail to spend the night. And that’s when the “upright” citizens of New Orleans rendered their own verdict – attacking the jail and lynching 11 of the original 19 suspects.

This would not sit well with the rising population of Italians in the U.S. – and, in fact, anybody in the whole of Italy. The Italian government made belligerent sounds and threatened to send its navy across the Atlantic to rectify the wrong. 

That sounds foolhardy – except that the U.S. wasn’t the military power it is today. Italy would actually have a pretty good chance of teaching this country a lesson.

So the Benjamin Harrison administration set off to undo the damage. It offered an apology and then, to show its good faith, proposed making Oct. 12 a holiday – a way of paying tribute to Italian-Americans by honoring the man who was, until then, the most prominent Italian ever to visit this side of the Atlantic.

And so it has remained. Until now.

Recognizing that Columbus’ faults weren’t mere quirks, the movement to undo Columbus Day has gathered steam. Chicago took down its statue. Many states renamed the day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Because Columbus is from the same part of Italy as my paternal grandfather and my maternal great-grandfather, I’ve been loathe to criticize. We’re Ligurians. 

There’s one other thing about Oct. 12: It’s my mother’s birthday. So I associate the day with her.

She died 11 months ago – this is the first Oct. 12 that she’s not here. I left out the words “to celebrate” because she never particularly liked getting a year older – I think she preferred celebrating Columbus Day than her birthday on Oct. 12.

So I’ve had to cope with a lot of complicated thoughts about this day – especially this Oct. 12 in the starstruck year of 2020.

And here’s what I’ve come up with:

First and foremost, I miss my mother.

Second, she was passionate about being Italian-American, like my father and her father. I am, too. We deserve a day to honor us as Americans.

Third, however, she was equally passionate about fighting injustice. She believed strongly in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. And if she thought Columbus wronged people, she would have dismissed himself with her patented glare and a wave of her hand.

And so will I.

But instead of just calling this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I think there’s a better alternative.

Something called Heritage Day. 

Something that allows those of us whose ancestors come from Italy to celebrate. Something that allows those of us who were in this hemisphere when strange people in boats showed up to “discover” them to celebrate. 

And, yes, something that allows all people who came here in boats – willingly, under duress as a refugee or as someone’s property – and, in more recent times, planes to celebrate their heritage as well.

Why not have a national holiday that celebrates Italians and Poles and Nigerians and Koreans and Lakota and everyone else who sees this country as a land of dreams and opportunity? 

My mother would like that. A lot.

Happy Heritage Day! And, even though you’re not crazy about the idea, Happy Birthday, Mom!

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EARTH SHAKING

It’s Wednesday, September 30, 2020. It’s 34 days until the Election Day and the final day of 2020’s third quarter.

On this day 79 years ago, Nazi forces wrapped up the Babi Yar massacre in what is now Ukraine.

All totaled, they managed to kill 33,771 people in two days – about 15 people a minute. Most of those killed were Jewish – pretty much every Jewish person living in Kyiv. But there were Ukrainian nationalists, Romas and Soviet military prisoners as well.

A good reminder, especially this morning, of the result of evil fully encouraged.

There were no significant seismic incidents in the United States last night.

Proving that turning over in the grave isn’t really a thing.

Because, if it was, every American who has advanced democracy for 244 years – from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to John McCain and John Lewis – would have done so.

Some observations of the TV show most networks called “First Presidential Debate” – a grossly misnamed program that’s one of the lowest moments in American political history. (OK, I support Biden, so you can call BS if you want.)

  1. Stop with the “both sides” stuff!

Equating Joe Biden’s conduct last night with Trump’s in any way embarrasses the equater.

Biden might have been able to articulate his positions on the important issues facing Americans. He might have butchered his positions and gone into word salads that would have shown he might not have the stamina to serve as president.

We’ll never know. He never got a chance.

It’s easy to sit here this morning and say he shouldn’t have taken Trump’s bait. He should have channeled out the bluster and crap coming from what I hope was more than six feet away.

All I know is that if I were standing there – and Trump kept slandering my son in response to questions about his questionable policies – it would have taken some strong Secret Service agents to stop me from belting the son of a bitch in the mouth.

He did the best he could. If this debate was going on in your neighborhood, somebody would have called the cops. A Taser might have been the only thing that could have prevented Trump from disgracing the nation.

2.  Stop blaming Chris Wallace

I am not a big Chris Wallace fan. I understand that he is seen as a tough but fair questioner, but I think occasionally he tries to draw more attention to himself than the subject.

All that said, I don’t know what he could have done differently last night.

He’s getting pushback from people at Fox (they must give you body armor to protect you from knives in the back when you work at that place) that he was unfair to Trump when he chided him on his incessant interrupting. And, of course, he’s getting flak from Biden supporters for not stopping Trump sooner.

So what should he have done? Stopped the debate and told Trump it wouldn’t resume until he shut up? Walked off the stage? 

Journalists picked to moderate presidential and vice presidential debates consider it a high honor. They should. It means that people across the political and media spectrum believe you to be unbiased, fair and above reproach.

The dissonance must have been strong in Wallace for what must have been among the 90 worst minutes of his career. You expect deference and decorum to reflect the gravity of the moment.

Instead, you get a fool spewing crap. The temptation to get cops to come and use a Taser to subdue this guy must have been enormous.

3. Should there be more of these?

The good news for Biden is that a big chunk of the audience last night won’t be watching “Second Presidential Debate” or “Third Presidential Debate.” (Again, I won’t insult previous presidential and vice presidential contenders by think what they did was the same as what Trump did last night.)

That’s usually the case. But, after last night, if you’re not a political masochist, why would you watch?

The usually even-handed Frank Bruni is saying in The New York Times that Biden shouldn’t show up, that it’s beneath his dignity.

Biden can’t do that. It would open him to charges that he’s weak and unfit for the job. 

Yes, by standing there and taking it, he proved he is. So, by the way, did most of the rest of us.

His campaign says he welcomes the opportunity to tell the American people what he would do as president. It’s a quaint notion that is probably the reason he’s ahead in the polls.

My question is what Steve Scully and Kristen Welker are thinking this morning. Scully, the genial C-SPAN moderator, and Welker, the Weekend Today host, moderate the other debates. As I said, it’s an earned honor for both of them.

Will they insist on protection from Trump’s bombast? Do they think they can manage him? Could they threaten to withdraw or walk off if the situation isn’t different?

You have to wonder what kind of conversations are going on today at the debate commission and at the major news organizations.

4.  Even that’s too many

The CNN post-debate poll showed that 60% of those watching the debate thought Biden won it, while 28% thought Trump did. A CBS poll was closer, 48% for Biden, 41% for Trump.

Why does it offend me that even 28% think what they saw last night was acceptable?

That’s more than one out of four. If you’re waiting in line at McDonald’s for a Big Mac and there are three people ahead of you, one of them sees no problem in berating the workers to move their butts and bring that burger.

These are the people who are perfectly fine with personally insulting Biden and trying to use his son’s battle with drug addiction against him. These are people cool with accepting the idea of violence if Trump doesn’t win.

Most galling to me: These are people OK with the idea that Trump doesn’t need to condemn white supremacists – perhaps because that’s what many of them are.

The people who support Trump are like enablers to an alcoholic. They feed his addiction for attention and deference without showing any respect in return. They could give a damn about their neighbors, except for the ones who look and sound like them.

I know. Biden would tell me that he plans to be president of all the people. Even the ones with the “Trump 2020 Fuck Your Feelings” T-shirt I saw getting takeout one night earlier this month.

He’s a better man than I am. These people seem like a big problem to me.

5.  A long way down

In 1996, the vice presidential debate featured the incumbent, Al Gore, and the Republican challenger, former Rep. Jack Kemp.

Gore was four years away from losing the closest election in American history – when he would honorably protect democracy by ending his challenge once the Supreme Court issued its partisan ruling awarding the presidency to George W. Bush.

Kemp was a movement conservative, a former NFL quarterback who really believed in the free market philosophy and trickle-down economics. 

There was pressure on Kemp to go negative. He and his running mate, Bob Dole, trailed President Bill Clinton and Gore in the polls, and the really partisan Republicans wanted blood from Gore (so to speak) to shake things up.

It didn’t happen that way.

Kemp didn’t flinch in stating his positions and attacking the policies of the Democratic administration. Gore defended himself and his president, explaining what the administration and what it wanted to do.

In the end, Gore was declared the winner of the debate in the polls.

Kemp, who died not that many years later, won that day, too.

I didn’t agree with any of his political positions. But I saw a man who put civility above discord. Nation above self-interest. He argued his points and when he was done, he kept quiet and let Gore make his. And vice versa.

It was, as the Baltimore Sun said, “gentlemanly.” It was edifying. If you were watching that debate trying to decide who to vote for, you got the best representation of each side you could possibly get.

It took 24 years for the Republican Party and Trump to degrade our democracy to what we saw last night. To an unlistenable grievance bearer who pandered to white supremacists and threatened not to accept the results of a democratic election.

Add Jack Kemp to the list of patriots who would have turned over in his grave if that were a thing.

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