Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cooked Books

At last, a scandal that may actually have some impact on the Obama Administration. Whistle blowers have confirmed what we have known for decades -- that the Veterans Administration's healthcare system is a cesspool of incompetence, corruption and sheer disdain for human suffering and need. 40 veterans have so far been identified as having died for lack or care, and because of abuse and neglect. And what began as one VA hospital in Arizona having been exposed for cooking the books to hide its incompetence and inhumanity, so that bureaucrats could collect their performance bonuses, has now grown to an investigation of over 30 facilities across the nation. The sweet little scam that these bureaucrats have been running is to create false lists of veterans who are claimed to have received medical care so that the bureaucrats might be rewarded for meeting their performance quotas. Meanwhile, the vets have been made to wait weeks, even months, for an appointment to see a doctor, and, in some cases that we now know of, have died as a result.

The president, of course, has claimed, as he always does, that he learned of this shocking state of affairs only when he read about it in the newspapers. Now, he has said the same thing with regard to several other scandals, declaring days or even weeks after the fact that the situation is "unacceptable," and that he is "mad as hell" about it. Empty rhetoric, lack of leadership, incompetence and unconcern: these are the Obama style. But, having campaigned on his determination to correct the disgrace at the VA, and having been in office for five and a half years, these particular chickens have come home to his Oval Office to roost. He cannot claim he knew nothing about it (his habitual excuse), since his administration had been warned several times about the situation at the VA hospitals, specifically in 2010 by the Government Accounting Office, which cited the phony waiting lists and faked treatment numbers. No, Obama cannot smile and shinny his way out of this one with the help of the media, for, even if some of us don't much care about reporters being harassed by the government, or citizens groups being targeted by the IRS, or guns being sold illegally to drug cartels in Mexico, or massive NSA spying, or American citizens being marked for summary execution without due process, or even about a U.S. ambassador being murdered in Libya, everybody cares about veterans and how they are treated. So this albatross, at least, has fallen firmly around President Obama's neck, and even his servants in the press can't seem to shake it off him.

But to me, the larger question is this: Who in this nation can fail to understand that the same kind of bureaucrats with the same attitudes toward their jobs and the public who created the scandal in the VA will also be responsible for the healthcare of all of us under Obamacare? If they would do this to veterans who need care urgently, what do you think they will do to the average guy who needs an appendectomy or just a routine checkup? Let me make this clear: Obamacare is in the charge of the federal bureaucracy, and, by and large, federal bureaucrats, as they have shown in the VA scandal, don't give a damn about people or their suffering or their rights. They care about their jobs, their bonuses and their pensions.

And if you think for one moment that such bland, anonymous functionaries aren't going to ration care and set up panels to enforce the rationing, and watch your dear Aunt Millie waste away and die because she's 85 after all and in chronic ill health and the quality of her life doesn't merit the effort to keep her alive, all you have to do is read Barack Obama's response to a journalist who asked him what we should do when an elderly and ill relative is denied the care she needs because there is not enough to go around. Did he outrage against the idea? Did he even try to deny it? No, he said in so many words that all you can do is help the person come to terms with her death and say goodbye. And this is because Obama is, himself, the uber-bureaucrat, incompetent, uncaring and capable only of phony, staged ire at the very behavior which he models from the top down.

The knee-jerk reaction of the liberals to any challenge to socialized medicine is to say (as was recently said to me), "So, you want to see people die!" No, I do not. But the foolishness of the assertion does not, apparently, dissuade leftists from making it. However, we are now seeing people die -- people who have served and, in some cases, risked their lives for the nation -- in the only government-run healthcare system that currently exists in America, the model for the single-payer national system that so many on the left desire. And if I am right, that Obamacare was merely a Potemkin-style way-station on the road to socialized medicine, then the VA system is what we all have to look forward to. Though the media will try to deny it, this is more than just another scandal of this corrupt administration: It is a warning to all of us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Cable News Nothing

I have just watched CNN for an hour, and I feel I must comment about it. There was a time, during the Iraq war, when I admired CNN and counted on it for reliable news. That time is gone. During the past hour, the best that CNN has been able to manage is an extensive coverage of the first openly gay professional football player, and an interview with disgraced LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling.

In the first, openly gay anchor Don Lemon questioned a supposedly expert panel about the player's now viral kiss of his boyfriend upon learning that he had been drafted by the NFL. This incident, which ought to have merited a passing comment at most, was the subject of nearly half an hour of national TV time. The expert panel admitted, each in his or her own way, that they had never seen anything like this phenomenon, and, so, could not possibly be experts upon it. Leaving aside the point that this is now professional football player burst into tears and kissed his boyfriend, the fact that Lemon -- the same news anchor who asked a guest whether the missing Malaysia airliner could have been swallowed by a black hole -- felt that it deserved the nation's attention for an entire news program, when children are missing in Nigeria, innocents are being slaughtered in Syria, missiles are being launched in North Korea (over Stalinist prison camps), Vladimir Putin is trying to morph into a latter day tsar, and Democrats are refusing to participate in an effort to learn what really happened the day an American ambassador and three others were murdered in Libya, represents a new high in journalistic lows.

Then there was the continuing public pillorying of 80-year-old Clippers owner Sterling, who had the misfortune to make a damn fool of himself in an illegally tape recorded phone conversation with his girlfriend, who is less than half his age. I have read the transcript of that conversation, and if he could not tell that he was being baited and set up for exposure by a resentful mistress, he does not deserve to have a professional sports franchise, let alone two billion dollars. For those offenses he ought to be dismissed out of hand by the news, not to say by the NBA, but Anderson Cooper felt it was essential to scoop the other cable-gapers by interviewing the hapless octogenarian at length, and to the exclusion of all else that is plaguing our world these days. Who cares?! Sterling is a very foolish, fond old man, as Shakespeare said, who ought to resign in shame and be forgotten. But such is the fodder of cable news these days, which has such low standards that it cannot resist twisting the knife in any open wound.

Add to this the fact that CNN has striven almost singlehandedly to keep alive the missing Malaysia airliner story for nearly two months, pointlessly reporting every day and night that there is nothing to report, while parading the same "I really don't know anything new either" panels of experts. I submit that CNN, which has ceded its news pedigree to cooking shows and faux-documentaries in a feckless search for ratings, has ceased to exist as a serious source of news. This is news as social networking, hash-tag journalism, with stories driven by twitter. It is, quite simply, a bad joke.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Birthday logic

Another birthday has gone by, mercifully unnoticed. However, as I get older (and I am certainly doing that), I find that I appreciate the example and spirit of children more and more. I am fortunate in that I have an eleven year old, a fact which keeps me in touch with young children. I started, and mentor, a literary magazine at his school, and I work closely with the children in its preparation and publishing. We meet at lunchtime once a week, and, while in production, I spend hours with them at weekends. Doing so is more than enjoyable and rewarding; it is inspiring. This year, from a student body of some 330 children, we had over 1000 submissions, and reading them and discussing them with our staff of middle-schoolers was a real joy.

The imagination and native creativity of children far surpass those of most adults, whose consciousness has been narrowed and cowed by the exigencies of daily life and work. Somerset Maugham said that the writer is the only truly free person. Children are the free-est of the writers. Their imaginations can fly to any height or mold themselves to any conceivable (or inconceivable) shape or logic. They are as unrestrained as seagulls, or as the butterflies which seem to fascinate them so, and about which they often write.

This year, for example, we had a first grader who was asked to write about his fears. He stated that he feared only two things: swimming, "because it takes so much power," and... super-massive black holes. How he put those two things together defeats me, though I suppose both are powerful threats, one from the Rose Bowl aquatics center, and the other from interstellar space.

Another first grader wrote about the first Thanksgiving. The winter was so bad, she declared, that "only fifty-two and a half Pilgrims survived." Now, I suspect that I have met the descendants of that half-Pilgrim: they are liberals. And a pre-K child, perhaps four years old, wrote, as so many do, about butterflies; yet in her single paragraph essay, she managed to take the subject from monarchs to megalodons, a kind of pre-historic great white shark, apparently without any mental strain. I submit that no adult writer could have achieved this feat; certainly not with the ease and grace of logic that she exhibited.

Tolstoy famously asked: Shall we teach the children to write, or will they teach us? To me, the answer is obvious: we must go to school to them. However, I fear, we grown-up writers are far too wise, and life and our craft have made our imaginations far too ossified, to allow us to slip back gracefully into the fluid logic of the child. And literature is the worse for that.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Rutting at Rutgers

I was a student for many, many years. In college and in grad school, I was proud of my status as student -- I thought it one of the highest callings of humanity -- and I took my role very seriously. My goal was to learn as much as I could from as many thoughtful people as I could find. It didn't matter to me who they were nor what their backgrounds; it mattered not at all whether I agreed with them or not. In fact, I rather sought out people with whom I disagreed, to test the validity of my ideas and take the risk of acquiring new ones that might change my point of view. This, to me, was what a student was and did. A learner.

Today I was both dismayed and disgusted by the news that Condoleezza Rice has been obliged to decline her invitation to speak at the commencement ceremony at Rutgers University. This, as a result of a protest by a minority of students whose voices were more active than their intellectual curiosity. It was, ostensibly, her role in shaping the U.S. invasion of Iraq that prompted the protests, and the craven response by the faculty and administration which enabled it. This is, or ought to be, viewed by anyone who values free speech, as a disgrace of the first order.

Through years of post-secondary education, both in this country and in France, I had been forced to listen to the ranting, often hysterical, of leftist professors, while I was simply trying to construct for myself the best education I could manage. I will state frankly that many of my professors in college and grad school were socialists, indeed, some even communists, but I endured their strident, irrelevant and occasionally insulting diatribes for the sake of learning what they might have to teach me that would be of value to me in my later life. I recall distinctly a professor of cinematography at the Paris Film Conservatory, a self-professed communist, who was in the habit of singling me out, as the only American at the school, for particular disparagement. I endured it all in silence, because he was a good film teacher, and I needed to learn from him how to calculate the hyper-focal distance of a lens, and how properly to roll up the cable of a 1000 watt light. These things he did teach me, but with a gratuitous condemnation of the Bill of Rights in between.

My favorite professor of all was a far-left socialist who taught Russian Literature. In his classes I was much more interested in his views on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I was in those on the Polish labor movement or American imperialism. I valued what he had to teach about War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, and not what he personally believed about American capitalism. I craved to learn from him about literature, and I ignored the political propaganda that came with it.

In my decades of education, I learned to filter out the politically-driven nonsense and focus on the pedagogic core. Much of what my professors said -- even those I most admired -- was nonsense-inspired ideology, but that did not mean I did not listen, and think, and debate, and absorb. Because that is what a student does -- that is what a student is. A learner, above and before all else. And it was for this principle -- the right to listen and debate and be exposed to every point of view, regardless of what those in authority believed -- that I, and many others in the student movement of the Sixties and Seventies, fought and sacrificed for, and strove to establish as a vital principle of academic freedom.

Now, in the twenty-first century, to hear that a student body refuses to listen to someone with whom they disagree is repugnant to me. Do they not understand that, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the era of Watergate, we fought for the right of students to listen to opposing points of view? That some of us put our freedom, and even our lives, on the line so that others might be exposed to unpopular speech? Do they not understand that their intellectual and spiritual predecessors in protest fought for the right of free speech and discussion, even, as at Kent State, at the point of a bayonet and bullets?

These so-called students at Rutgers, who have said to Condoleezza Rice: We do not want to hear what you have to say, and we do not want anyone else to hear it either, are backtracking. They are undoing what we, in the generation of the students' rights movement, sought to create: the right to be heard no matter how much we, or our superiors, might disagree. These alleged students at Rutgers are not progressives -- they are fascists; they are not new millennials, they are Mussolini. They represent everything we in the Sixties and Seventies, whom they claim to admire, fought against. They are the enemy.

Condoleezza Rice is a woman of extraordinary accomplishments: a concert pianist who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, a Phi Beta Kappa, a professor at Stanford, the first black woman Secretary of State, a personage admired around the world for her achievements. Whether or not you agree with her foreign policy decisions in the Bush administration, any intelligent person must bow to what she has achieved though her race, her gender and her politics were against her. I say to the so-called students at Rutgers: No matter what you think of her foreign policy decisions, this is a woman from whom you can learn -- this is a human being whom you, as students, ought to hear.

Now, on the question of who you would invite to your precious commencement (which you have already discredited), I would ask the following:

Franklin Roosevelt prepared, and Harry Truman carried out, the nuclear bombing of Japan. Would you allow them to speak?

John F. Kennedy got us involved in Vietnam, disgraced the presidency with his sexual profligacy, and brought us to the brink of World War III in Cuba. Would you allow him to speak?

Bill Clinton presided over a war in Yugoslavia, launched a cruise missile attack on a baby formula factory in Sudan, and had against him credible allegations of rape. Would you allow him to speak?

Of course you would. And that fact reveals the essential hypocrisy of your protest, and the naked cowardice of the professors and administrators who have allowed you to prevail: Condoleezza Rice has the temerity to be a black woman who is also a conservative. And it is for that you will not forgive her, and for that you will forbid her even to speak at your temple of learning. You are not students: in the words of Holden Caulfied, on whom you cut your cultural teeth, you are phonies.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Porgy Perplex

Last weekend I attended a pre-opening performance of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Though I had sung tunes from the show to my eleven-year-old when he was little, I had never seen a live production of it. And so, when it moved here from Broadway, I took him to see the source of the singing which I had once inflicted upon him.

It was a very good production. The voices were uniformly wonderful. Bess was the highlight of it, her voice full, moving and operatic in quality; Porgy's was rather less so, but it, too, was clear and emotive. Also, the women who sang Serena and Clara were exceptional. The dance numbers suffered from the fact that the Ahmanson stage was too small to allow them to breathe properly. However, they were done in a spirited fashion. The acting was of a high quality across the board, and the orchestra, while understaffed in my opinion, did well.

I had read that the show has been controversial from its inception, having been denounced even by black singers and actors, some of whom refused to participate in it. However, it received a new life, and a new respect, when it was revived in the Seventies, and it is now considered an established part of American musical literature.

I must say that there were moments even in this new-millennial production when I understood the original dissension. Especially in the dance numbers, one could see vestiges of stereotyping that must have been more pronounced in earlier stagings. One of the dances in particular - a funeral dance - was reminiscent of arm-waving, hip-strutting voodoo dance, which I found discomforting. I cannot imagine why the performers agreed to do the number this way; why they did not insist on something less cliched and more creative.

Beyond this, the cast did a very good job of keeping the tone dignified despite the archaic language, and concentrating on the emotional power of the story and the music, while deflecting attention away from the 1930s racial ethos which lurks behind the text. Still, there were moments, as in 'It Ain't Necessarily So,' when I felt that more energy and mischievousness were called for, and I found the villain, for all his physical bulk and booming baritone, to be a bit over the top. Nonetheless, when he was killed, the audience actually cheered - the highest accolade for any stage villain.

Having seen it live on stage in a first-rate production, I find I have mixed feelings about Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin's music is of a very high order for what one could call a popular opera or an operatic musical. It combines European opera with folk tunes, jazz and gospel music in a way that is creative without being condescending. In the blending of traditional and contemporary styles, I was reminded often of Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera. Porgy, I think, falls into that narrow niche between popular and classical, rather like Bernstein's West Side Story, for example, or his Candide. It is not Oklahoma, but neither is it Don Giovanni.

However, there can be no doubt that Porgy has benefited from the perspective of time: We now see it after eighty years as much a historical artifact as a brilliant work of musical theater. There is no question in my mind that if such a piece were written today it could not find a producer, and, even if it somehow did, it would be howled off the stage by the forces of political correctness long before history had a chance to decide on its social and artistic merits. In short, for all its virtues, Porgy would not be possible today.