Monthly Archives: February 2020

CULTure in America


One need not go back very far in American history to understand the danger of cults.  Consider the following three examples.

On November 18, 1978, 909 men, women and children ingested lethal doses of a poison-spiked powered drink at the direction of Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple which morbidly resulted in the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  (HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE:  Several accounts of the mass suicide suggest Kool-Aid did not deserve this bad rap.  The lethal mixture actually contained the doppelganger Flavor-Aid.)

In 1993, followers of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh chose to make an Alamo-like defense of the order’s Mount Carmel Center in Axtell, Texas.  The siege, precipitated when Koresh refused to honor warrants obtained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to search the premises and arrest Koresh on charges of stockpiling illegal weapons, lasted for 51 days.  It ended in a fierce gun battle during which the Center caught fire resulting in the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians including women, children as well as Koresh.  (NOTE: In testimony before the Danforth Commission tasked with investigating the incident, surviving members of the siege reported that Koresh ordered the perimeter of the Center be set on fire to deter an anticipated attack by ATF armored vehicles.)

Four years later, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate religious order, led by a disgraced former Presbyterian minister Marshall Applewhite, were discovered dead in the sect’s rented mansion which they named, “The Monastery.”  Left behind was a tape of Applewhite assuring his followers they would be whisked to heaven by an alien spacecraft which was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

What is most hard to fathom is not the existence of crazy individuals who profess prophesies and conspiracies absent of any factual evidence.  It is that their followers accept their nonsense as gospel.  If cult leaders kept their “wisdom” to themselves, they would be a minor footnote in history.  Instead of headlines that document suicide/murder of dozens of their followers, reports that an individual who believed in extraterrestrial deliverers had taken his own life would have been on the inside pages of major newspapers, if covered at all.

Which brings us to February 28, 2020 and the realization that Donald Trump has taken on the characteristics of both an autocrat and a cult leader.  What is the difference?  An autocrat imposes his world view on others.  Followers of a cult leader willingly accept and spread his representation of any situation.  This could not have been more clear than when I opened today’s edition of our local paper to the editorial page and found an opinion piece by area financial advisor Steve Nicklas titled, “The fear of coronavius.”  Based on the following three excerpts there is no doubt a modern day Darth Vader would observe, “The Kool-Aid is strong with this one.”

Most health officials will not exaggerate the potential impacts of a malady, but in contrast, Dr. Nancy Messonnier’s performance sounded like a exaggeration on steroids.  She is head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases and is FBI agent Rod Rosenstein’s sister.  (Dr. ESP:  Rosenstein was not an FBI agent, but deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr.  One would think Nicklas could keep his deep state actors straight.)

Trump cited the 15 cases of coronavirus in the U.S., with those inflicted recovering quickly, except for one. (Dr. ESP: I think he meant afflicted unless COVID-19 microbes physically assault their victims before invading their bodies.) In comparison the generic flu causes as many as 60,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.  So you should put things in perspective.  The mortality rate of the coronavirus is in the 2 percent range by the way.

With precautions that have been taken already, such as restrictions on travel into our country from inflicted regions, and the premier U.S. health care professionals tracking the virus’ every move, we are in good hands.

Let’s take this assessment point by point.  According to Nicklas, and the major proponent of this conspiracy theory Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Messonnier’s 25 years at the Center of Disease Control are cancelled out by the fact she is related to a former deputy attorney general.  Nicklas is not the least bit bothered that his fearless leader now requires all messaging about the virus to come through Mike Pence.  Business Insider, hardly a bastion of liberal propaganda, reported this morning that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has served every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, has been barred from speaking publicly about the virus without approval.  So much for public debate about the dangers and responses to what seems more like a global pandemic with each passing day.

Like his idol, Nicklas also chooses to cherry pick data.  Yes, during the 2017-18 flu season there were 61,099 deaths out of 44.8 million cases or a mortality rate of 0.14 percent compared to Nicklas’ own reporting of a current death rate of 2.0 percent for the coronavirus.  But if you take data for the most recent flu season for which statistical information is available (2018-19), there were only 34.157 deaths out of 35,520,883 cases or 0.096 percent.  In other words you are 2,000 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than from the general flu.  One must admit, if there is one thing Trump and his cult followers are good at, it is false equivalency.

I do not know when Nicklas drafted his essay, but he draws heavily on Trump’s Wednesday press conference.  So what has happened since we were assured everything was “in good hands?”

  • Individuals from infected regions of the world were allowed back into the United States contrary to health officials’ warnings there should be further quarantines.
  • The medical teams that attended to those returning Americans did not have the proper equipment to protect themselves from contracting the virus.
  • The first reported case of unknown origin has been documented in California.
  • There are inadequate supplies of testing kits to determine whether a patient has the coronavirus.
  • The CDC has been prohibited since February 10 from reporting the number of “Patients Under Investigation” as possible coronavirus carriers.
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services Alexander Azar, whom Nicklas refers to as “more measured” claimed he was “still chairman of the task force,” even after Trump announced Pence’s selection at the press conference.
  • CDC’s own website continues to assess the situation as “the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States.”
  • And the global equity markets have been anything but calmed by Trump’s assurances with the largest and quickest declines in history.

I suspect followers of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite continued to believe these cult leaders could do no wrong as they partook of toxic cocktails or set fires to forestall their pursuers.  It is that blind deference which gives a leader the determination and belief that he is right even when every thread of evidence suggests otherwise.

It was not poison or flames that killed the inhabitants of Jonestown, the Mount Carmel Center or The Monastery.  It was allegiance to their respective leaders.  Likewise, microbes will not be the major cause of death in the event of a truly horrific pandemic, but lack of transparency and failure to confront power which is more interested in their approval ratings and stock portfolios than the health and safety of the American people.  For no other reason, now more than ever, America needs a president not a cult ringleader.

For what it’s worth.


Laughter Is the Best Everything


NOTE: It is still Ash Wednesday on the West Coast.  And because, at 70 years of age, I may completely forget everything I want to say in this post by the time Yom Kippur rolls around, I ask forgiveness of my Catholic readers for usurping their observance to address my sinful obsession with comics and comedy. 

This evening ended as they almost always do in our household.  I suffer from tinnitus and find it easier to fall asleep by donning earbuds and listening to either music or one of my favorite comedy albums.  My taste in music is stuck in a time warp where the imaginary disc jockey in my head only plays folkies, remnants of the British rock invasion or soundtracks from old movies or Broadway musicals.  In the age of Trump, my preference when it comes to humor tilts toward the politically acerbic ranging from Mort Sahl to George Carlin to Sarah Silverman to Lewis Black to Ron Wood, Jr.

Booga! Booga!But tonight, for some serendipitous reason, “I dug deep down into the old pack of cigarettes” (a phrase coined by John Denver referring to one of his early hit songs) and chose David Steinberg’s 1974 album “Booga!  Booga!” I was on the cusp of slumber when I reached Track #8 titled, “Prejudice.”  And was reminded why so many of my recent blogs begin with an excerpt from a stand-up performance.  The following is the entire three minute, 43 second routine recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC.

The country doesn’t belong to us.  People who signed the Declaration of Independence, they got the country early and the still hold it.  It belongs to the blond haired John Deans, the short haired Bob Haldemans and the no-haired John Mitchells.  And the cottage cheese and ketchup Richard Nixon.

I want them to loosen their grasp, but I’m no one to look at how terrible they are or corrupt because I recognize my own capacity for evil.  I just put it in a different perspective.  What they did is based on a philosophy and  a theory developed by Plato or Socrates.  It’s called, “Save your ass.”

You know why Nixon and his boys can’t believe what happened to them.  Not because of the reenactment of democratic principles.  I don’t believe so. The reason they can’t believe what happened to them is because they got caught by a black man.  A black who, in their minds, they put in his place years ago.  A night watchman at the Watergate complex.  A night watchman with his lantern, just walking, checking out those rooms.  Meanwhile, they’re in California winning the gubernatorial race, beating Helen Gahagan Douglas and the Washington Post.  And he’s just walking, checking out those rooms, waiting for that mystical moment when the door is left open just a crack.  But it’s enough to see the torn underwear under America’s tuxedo.  And when he closes his hand tight on them, he brings a little bit of America back and gets it out of their grasp.  And I find that exciting.

I want to believe John Mitchell was telling the truth, but then his nose starts to grow.  John Connolly is one of those rare instances of a rat swimming toward a sinking ship.  Nixon has the kind of career that every six years self destructs.

Having read numerous books about the Watergate era, none captures the essence of the times better than Steinberg’s less than four minute recitation.  If only someone could do the same when it comes to the Trump years.  Where is David Steinberg when we sorely need him?  And then I realized this 1974 routine was a template for the future, a political version of Mad Libs.  All I had to do was fill in the blanks.

In 2020, the country belongs to the blond haired Ivanka Trumps, the short-haired Steven Millers and the no-haired Wilbur Rosses.  And the KFC and Diet Coke Donald Trump.

Their disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law is based on the philosophy of Atwater and Ailes, “Protect your power at all costs.”

And why are they so angry.  Because briefly a black man (substitute Barack Obama for Watergate security guard Frank Wills) created a mystical moment, cracking open the door behind which they thought they would always be protected.  A black man they thought they had put in his place years ago.  A too short eight year period which took America out of their grasp.  But brought on another glimpse at the torn underwear under America’s tuxedo.

I want to believe Kellyanne Conway is telling the truth but her nose keeps growing.  And Bill Barr is that rare instance of a rat swimming toward a sinking ship.  And like Nixon, every few years, Trump’s career in business, television or politics does implode.

So let me introduce you to the freshest, new comedian on the American scene William Shakespeare.  Tickets to his 30-city comedy tour “The Past Is Prologue” are now available on Ticketmaster.

For what it’s worth.



I’m Tired

I’m tired,
Tired of playing the game
Ain’t it a crying shame
I’m so tired
God dammit I’m exhausted

Mel Brooks/Blazing Saddles (1974)

Madeline Kahn as Lily Von Schtup in "Blazing Saddles" She was hilarious! A very funny lady see "Young Frankenstein" for more hilarity. Merle Oberon, Sean Penn, Catherine Deneuve, Samba, Madeline KahnYou don’t have to be Lili Von Shtupp (portrayed by Madeline Kahn) to know the feeling.  How many of us feel tired and exhausted in the current political environment?  But we do not know exactly what is causing this sensation.  And not knowing only exacerbates the situation  Why?  Because we seek a solution without understanding the problem.  We want treatment without an accurate diagnosis.  That is exactly where I found myself Saturday evening when it came to coverage of the third test of voter preference for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.  Me, the commensurate political junkie.

MSNBC had promised the first returns from the Nevada caucuses would be available beginning at 5:00 pm.  But I could not watch.  Since the fall of 1967, when as a freshman at the University of Virginia, my Government 101 professor Caroline Dinegar  introduced me to wonders of politics in American, I had lost interest for the first time.  And under the worst possible circumstances.  Did I not believe my own hype?  Does the future of American democracy and perhaps the fate of the free world not depend on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?  Yet, I retreated to televised coverage of the third round of a golf tournament outside Mexico City.  (NOTE:  There was some sense of poetic justice when the International Federation of PGA Tours moved this event south of the border after being held at the Trump Doral Resort from 2007 through 2016.)

Was it disappointment that Nevadans boosted Bernie Sanders’ quest for the Democratic nomination?  Or that his heading the party’s ticket in November would be a drag on down-ballot races?  That seemed to be the case with many past Democratic activists.  On Sunday morning, I saw a replay of James Carville, explaining why he does not support Sanders.  “I’m 75 years old.  And at this age, I don’t want to be part of a cult.”  I don’t know if you can describe Sanders’ following as a cult or a movement.  But, at least, Carville had diagnosed his own discomfort.

It was time for Dr. ESP (although lacking any medical credentials or expertise) heal himself.  The process of pinpointing the cause for my exhaustion began with a few questions.  Was it an evolving distaste for politics in general?  Or more focused on specific events or individuals? What triggered this lack of energy? How did I react when I felt this fatigue coming on?  And finally, do the answers to these questions have some common thread or theme?

Step #1 was to gather empirical data which included the following three observations.

  • Based on past blog entries, there is no question how I feel about the numerous debates among the Democratic contenders.  I have not watched any of them.  But I am not disinterested and still read the transcripts the next morning.
  • At my wife’s request, I turn down the sound any time Donald Trump appears on the television.  I now find myself doing the same when Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyers and Trump surrogates (too numerous to name) are speaking or being interviewed.
  • I no longer watch Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow or Chris Cuomo.   My two cable news shows of choice are White House Deadline with Nicole Wallace and The Beat with Ari Melber.

Not what one would call exhaustive research but enough to see commonality which led to my “James Carville moment.”  It is not the substance of the debate, but the tone. I am 70 years old.  I am the beneficiary of 20 years of formal education, 10 years of religious training and being called behind the woodshed on too many occasions for challenging conventional wisdom or business as usual.

As I begin the eighth decade of life, the last thing I want is to be lectured or yelled at.  And that simple truth explains everything.  Debate transcripts lack volume and theatrics.  I am reminded of the dichotomy among those who watched the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960 and those who listened to it via radio.  Viewers saw Kennedy as the winner while listeners chose Nixon as the victor.  Likewise, when you read debate transcripts you come away with a totally different perspective than having watched them on TV.  You realize the most compelling visual moments are often inconsequential when it comes to substance.

When do I turn down the volume on the TV?  Only when confronted by those who can only be described as “the loudest voices in the room.”  Do these individuals think they are addressing citizens of a foreign country?  “If only I speak louder, they will understand me even if I don’t speak their language.”

Yet, most of all, my preferences in cable news shows solidify the diagnosis.  Matthews has turned the art of questioning on its head by spending more time presenting the inquiry than he allows a guest to answer.  Maddow turns every story into a cliffhanger.  And Cuomo pairs guests to amp up the volume with little or no clarity on the substance.  In contrast, Wallace and Melber sit back and give the experts room to share their knowledge and experience.  Wallace often ends an interview by telling a guest, “You just blew me away.”  What a welcome contrast to those who believe they are always the “smartest person in the room.”

Maybe this is an extension of the often subtle debate over the terms “convince” and “persuade.”  Convince means to “move by argument or evidence to belief, agreement, consent, or a course of action.” (  Persuade means “to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding.” (Ibid)  If given those two choices, I find I gravitate to appeals based on reason rather than arguments intended to move me.  However, there is a third choice, commonly referred to as the “Socratic Method.”  According to Wikipedia, this approach is “a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.”

Imagine, instead of a debate among contenders, a forum of voters being presented with a candidate’s position and then encouraged to parse its strengths and weaknesses among themselves. Any law or business professor who employs case teaching, grounded in the Socratic method, as their primary classroom tool will tell you collaborative learning results in a more thorough delineation of the options and often a gradual coming together of the minds.

Radical?  Maybe.  But radical times demand radical responses.  Just make sure the hemlock is stored on the upper shelves in child-proof containers away from those that see the shift of power from the stage to the audience as a threat.

For what it’s worth.


Beating the Odds

If you are a member of the Democratic party, you probably already know there is an inconvenient truth about the party’s performance in national elections.  Democrats lose when they should win.  And Republicans win when everything suggests they should not.  I need not remind readers that 2016 should have been a no-brainer, yet the DNC and the Democratic candidate could not put together a campaign to defeat someone who will go down in American history (assuming there is anyone left to write it) as the most corrupt and unqualified nominee of any major party.

Yet, a better example is the 2000 presidential contest.  Coming into the election cycle, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) averaged 4.5 percent growth during Bill Clinton’s second term, job creation numbers were the highest in the country’s history, the federal budget had been balanced for three consecutive years, the nation was not engaged in any wars and Clinton’s approval rating stood at 66.5 percent in the final Gallup poll taken before leaving office despite his impeachment.

Yet, the Republican Party felt four more years of a Democrat in the White House was an existential threat to the country’s future.  (Hard to believe compared to the current situation.)  How did they deal with an open election which easily could have devolved into chaos with a crowded field?  The 27 Republican governors got together and decided among themselves George W. Bush would be the nominee.  Other governors, especially those who were term-limited, indicated they would give up a run for president to gladly serve in a Bush administration.

The strategy paid off.  With the unified support of the Republican governors, anti-establishment candidates such as conservative activist Gary Bauer and businessman Steve Forbes never had a chance and Bush wrapped up the nomination in short order.  And once elected, Bush appointed five of his fellow state chief executives to cabinet positions:  John Ashcroft (MO) as attorney general, Tommy Thompson (WI) as secretary of Health and Human Services, Christine Todd Whitman (NJ) administrator of EPA, Mitch Daniels (IN) as OMB director and later Tom Ridge (PA) as the first secretary of Homeland Security.

So imagine,  just as Republican governors did 20 years ago, all of the center to left-center aspirants for the 2020 Democratic nomination convened in the spring of 2019 to ensure two things.  First, a unified party would have a consensus candidate who would easily garner a majority of the pledged candidates early in the process.  Second, outsider candidates, particular those who were running as Democrats without previous allegiance to the party, would be a footnote.

Drawing on the wisdom of two historical figures, death and taxes are not the only certainties in life.  If General William Tecumseh Sherman were alive today he would surely remind us, “Politics is hell.”  But, equally important, New York Senator William L Marcy would repeat the phrase he used following Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election, “To the victor belongs the spoils.”

Pete Buttigieg would be a welcome change as secretary of Education.  As would Jay Inslee at EPA.  Or Kamala Harris at Justice.  Or John Hickenlooper at Interior.  But first you have to win.  Sadly, none of the Democratic candidates seemed to realize that.

For what it’s worth.


Breaking the Glass Floor


I can only imagine what  aliens, having landed on earth on February 1, would think of America and how it picks its leaders.  First, they learned  candidates have spent a year crisscrossing two political units which account for one percent of the total delegates who will make the eventual choice at a gathering later in the year.  And they will do that in two other states the rest of the month.  Then they will have THREE days to make a case to 14 additional political units that control 40 percent of the delegates.

Then tonight they watched what could only be called a cat fight over which candidate is the least flawed.  No wonder many of the best potential candidates choose not to participate in this dumpster fire.

Based on their observations, the aliens return to their home planet and report, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, their system of picking their leader by pulling a name out of a hat is a bad way to do it, but it’s better than all the rest.  Though they heard some candidates talk about breaking a glass ceiling, the consensus opinion is the winner will be the one who survives falling through the glass floor.

It’s not like the Democratic party hasn’t tried to make it better.  The first such effort was a commission chaired by Michigan Congressman James O’Hara following the 1968 disaster at the Chicago convention.  The result.  George McGovern and the worst electoral college beating in political history.  And after each successive presidential loss the party has tweaked the system with minimal effect.

Image result for putney swopeAgain, I turn to Putney Swope who, when asked if he, as the new CEO of the advertising company at which he was hired as the token minority, would rock the boat, replied, “I’m not going to rock the boat.  I’m going to sink the whole f***ing ship.”  The time for tweaking has passed.  It’s time to start with a blank slate and put on our MARA caps (Make America Rational Again).

In this post, I will focus on two major elements of the electoral process: the primaries and candidate debates.

PRIMARIES:  First and foremost, the party should ban caucuses.  They violate every democratic principle supportive of an engaged electorate.  Second, the nation should be divided into four contiguous regions with each region consisting of states with approximately one-fourth of the total delegates.  Third, regional primaries should be held no less than 30 days apart.  Fourth, the order of the regional primaries should rotate over a sixteen year period, giving each region a chance to be “first in the nation.”

DEBATES:  While televised debates would still be distributed among the major media outlets, the networks would not choose the format, the moderators or the questions.  The first two decisions would be made by the eligible participants in each event.  The topics would be determined by an independent polling service by asking voting age residents in each region, “What are the three most important issues in the upcoming election?”  The top five answers would be selected as topics for the first debate in that region.  Each participant would be given a chance to present their plan to address each issue.  If there were multiple debates in a region, the second or third event could focus on topics further down the list.  The moderator’s sole purpose would be to ensure rules related to length of answers and questioning between candidates are enforced.

You might ask, when do candidates get a chance to air their concerns about an opponents past performance or statements.  If you look at the transcript of tonight’s debate,  questions about every candidate’s shortcomings were recitations already raised by the media.  Look at the front page of any newspaper or watch cable news.  The headlines were about medical record transparency, buying the election, questionable past statements and actions.

Let the media use their time and resources to fuel a cat fight.  The party should ensure the debates give candidates a chance to tell us how they will govern, if elected.  Bernie and Elizabeth know they have to explain why Medicare for All is not a financial disaster.  Mike knows he has to tell black voters how he will atone for negative impacts associated with stop and frisk.  The party should give them and all the other candidates that chance to make their case about the future and why it makes sense in light of any perceived inconsistencies.

If candidates want to go negative, parroting what is already being reported in newspapers and on talk shows, they have the right to do so.  But make them do it on their dime, not free media access when voters should hear about how they plan to govern, not why they are less flawed than their opponents.

For what it’s worth.