Protesting With Their Feet

Yesterday Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement address at the Notre Dame  University graduation ceremony in South Bend, Indiana.  As Pence began speaking, dozens of graduating students walked out.

22746804-mmmainThe theme of the Vice President’s address was the importance of freedom of speech and tolerance for different points of view, on college campuses and elsewhere.  Many conservative commentators made fun of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech, deriding them as delicate “snowflakes” who simply couldn’t bear to hear opposing views and finding it paradoxical that the students would walk out on a speech that urged them to listen to other, opposing perspectives.

I’ve had a lot of problems with the trampling of free speech rights on college campuses these days, but in this instance I think the critics are wrong.  The Vice President was exercising his free speech rights by giving an address with the content of his choice, and the students were exercising their free speech rights by walking out on the speech as a protest of Trump Administration policies.  The students exited stage left not because they are “snowflakes” who felt they simply couldn’t withstand Pence’s commencement address — a sentiment, incidentally, that many people who have attended overlong, droning college commencement speeches would secretly share — but because walking out was a visible sign of profound disagreement with the views of the speaker.  It’s a form of the kind of silent protest that we’ve seen many times in American history.

In fact, I commend the Notre Dame protesters, because their protest was non-violent and respectful of Pence’s free speech rights.  They didn’t try to shut him up, in contrast to other recent incidents on campus in which agitators have used violence to prevent some people from speaking — such as the mob that shamefully disrupted a lecture by scholars with different viewpoints at Middlebury College and, in the process, gave a Middlebury professor whiplash and a concussion.  The Notre Dame students had every right to “vote with their feet” and send Pence a message that they disagree with what the Trump Administration is doing, and they found an appropriate way to send that message.

I wish more people would listen to opposing viewpoints and try to understand them, but I’m more concerned about people who think that just because they disagree with someone that person shouldn’t be permitted to speak at all — something that is antithetical to one of the most important rights guaranteed to all Americans.  Based on the protest yesterday, I’d say that a Notre Dame education has given those graduates a pretty good understanding of how the Bill of Rights is supposed to work.

A Harsh Screed On Airplane Boarding

I’ve been doing a lot of air travel lately, and I’ve concluded that the boarding process is broken beyond repair.  Inevitably, it produces delays, irritation, and examples of all that is bad in human nature.   And, it even results in situations where normally even-tempered people (which I thought reasonably applied to me, until last night) end up grinding their teeth and resenting people who claim to have some kind of infirmity or other reason to receive preferential treatment.  I’ve reached the point where I’ve jsut got to unburden myself about it.

Last night, as I flew home on a Southwest flight, I saw all of the elements of what makes modern air travel so frustrating.  (Of course, Southwest goes by the A/B/C open-seating  approach, but the “zone” approach to seating now seems to be used by pretty much everybody, so the lessons are the same.)  We start by giving preferential seating treatment to anybody who claims some kind of infirmity.  They roll, hobble, or walk down the jetway first, and always take the choicest seats at the front of the plane — inevitably on the aisle, where they can take their own sweet time about getting out of their seats and allowing people to sit in the window or middle seats in their aisle, delaying the people who are getting on behind.  This always causes me to wonder why they choose the aisle seat, knowing that getting up and down, twice, is going to be a very . . . deliberate process

Then the people coming on behind take their aisle seats first, toward the front of the plane.  When people want to sit in the middle or window seats in their aisles, the aisle seaters have to stand up and block the aisle to allow the others through, further delaying people who are coming aboard.  And, as those people queue up, there are always further traffic jams behind as people try to find room in overhead bins around their seats.  On last night’s flight, some inconsiderate jerk shoved his bag into an inadequate space so that it was hanging halfway out of the overhead bin, which clearly couldn’t be closed, then left it up to a busy flight attendant to lug it somewhere else while claiming that he couldn’t do so because he was sitting inside one of the aged who takes forever to rise from his seat.

And, of course, deplaning is equally bad.  The aged and infirm at the front of the plane take forever to leave, and last night one of them decided he had to be a raconteur as he was oh-so-slowly getting off the plane, chatting up the captain and the flight attendants who had to act charmed by his comments while people who just wanted to get home were stacked up behind him like planes in a holding pattern over O’Hare.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished the codger would shut his pie hole and have the minimal self-awareness to recognize that he was unnecessarily inconveniencing everybody else.  By the time he and the rest of the aged had shuffled off the plane, the tension level of everyone behind them has reached a fever pitch and blood vessels were ready to burst.

So here’s my modest, politically incorrect, screed-infused proposal.  Can we please go back to boarding aircraft from the rear of the plane forward, so we don’t have the inevitable traffic jams that come from allowing people who are seated all over the plane to get to their seats in random order?  And while I understand the need to allow people who say they need “extra assistance” to get on the plane first, how about making sure that they are seated together and not on the aisle, so we don’t have to wait forever while they rise from their seats to let us by?  And how about adopting a first-on, last-off policy, which says that anybody who claims priority in boarding also agrees to wait until everybody else deplanes before they leave the plane?  This would avoid the wheelchair/walker/standing cane-related deplaning snarls that now occur — and might have the incidental benefit of discouraging people who really don’t need the special treatment to refrain from claiming it in the first place.  And if the seniors decide they need to have a long discussion with the flight attendants as they leave the plane, the rest of us won’t have to wait while they do so.

Air travel has really become unpleasant.  The boarding process is a big part of it.  I know waiting for five, ten, or fifteen minutes while these common issues are worked through, flight after flight after flight, isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you just want to get home every moment seems precious, and I’d rather spend them with my family than listening to Grandpa tell some eye-rolling joke to the co-pilot as he exits the plane at a glacial pace.

An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

Tweety Dick

Sometimes modern life in America is so weird it’s hard to really take it all in.  The increasingly bizarre twists and turns of our politics and political leaders, the corrosive effect of simplistic social media platforms, the constant craving for attention and celebrity status — all combine to create a world where the strange has become routine.

57cc54c17b55c9ceef53dff107138873Consider, for example, how the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum reacted to President Trump’s decision to discharge FBI Director James Comey.  Trump’s abrupt firing reminded people of the “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Nixon Administration, in which Nixon’s zeal to discharge Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, resulted in the resignation of the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General.

So what did the Nixon Library do in response to this newfound attention?  Did it supply the press with the actual background facts of the incident that the Washington Post called, at the time, “the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis,” so that people could make their own comparisons and draw their own conclusions?

Nah.  It sent out a tweet that said:  “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”  Ha ha!  Boy, that Nixon Library is a laugh riot, isn’t it?  And a class act, besides!  And it sure helps to be reminded that, before Nixon resigned in disgrace after being impeached, there were some bad and ill-advised things that Nixon didn’t do, doesn’t it?

To its credit, the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers the presidential libraries, issued a statement about the Nixon Library tweet.  It noted that “[a]s a federal government agency, the National Archives does not condone or engage in partisan or political conversations,” added that the tweet “was not representative of the policies of the Library or the National Archives,” and noted that the Archives would be “examining the training provided to employees who post to official social media channels as well as reviewing work flows and approval processes to ensure that our social media efforts engage the public in constructive conversations in line with agency policies.”  Fortunately, there apparently is at least one adult in the room.

It’s hard to imagine that anybody in the Nixon Library gave much thought to the snotty tweet; they probably were reveling in the attention they were receiving in connection with the Comey firing and just couldn’t resist getting in a little dig that would boost the trending line of Tricky Dick and his library.  And that’s really the basic problem these days, isn’t it?  People just don’t think twice, or even try to resist their baser impulses.

In The Cell Phone Lot

Thursday night found us in the cell phone lot of the Columbus airport, waiting for the arrival of a delayed plane at about 11:30 p.m.

When you think about it, the cell phone lot is a pretty weird place.  There you are, cheek by jowl with total strangers, with everyone’s cars packed tightly together.  And yet, while you are in close absolute physical proximity, in the sense that the cars and their drivers are literally right next to each other, there is a strong feeling of near complete emotional separation.  Everyone remains ensconced in their own little tightly controlled, specially heated or cooled vehicular cocoon, typically with their car in park and their engine humming, paying close attention to their cell phones.

In the cell phone lot, no one acknowledges the people in other cars.  No, even eye contact and a simple nod would somehow violate the perverse etiquette of the place.  In the cell phone lot, we’re all just there on our own, waiting for that call or a text, like lost souls in purgatory hoping to be summoned to our final destination.

At the Columbus airport lot, there are two curiosities.  One is a sign that says you can’t stay in the cell phone lot for more than an hour.  An hour?   In the psychically sterile cell phone lot, which gives off the ultimate in transient, leave me alone and get me out of here vibes?  Even 10 minutes in the lot is soul-crushing.

The other is a picnic table located right next to the lot.  I’ve never seen anyone sitting at that table, and I expect I never will.  Leave aside for a moment that a spot right next to a parking lot full of cars in idle, leaking exhaust, wouldn’t exactly be the kind of pastoral setting you look for in picnics — not only does no one in the cell phone lot want to leave their cars, they don’t want to see anyone else leave their cars, either.  If someone exited their car to sit at the picnic table, I’d predict that the other cars would immediately reposition themselves to form an empty buffer zone between themselves and the person who is breaching all perceived rules of modern behavior and is probably an axe murderer, besides.  In fact, the rest of us would probably leave the cell phone lot and take another lap around the baggage claim pick-up zone, just to clear our heads and get away from the unseemly misconduct.

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

The Comey Canning

As Forrest Gump might have said, any day with the Trump Administration is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you’re going to get.  Yesterday, we got the decision from President Trump to fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey.  And, to accentuate the bizarre, bolt from the blue aspect of the decision, Comey apparently learned of the decision when the news flashed across the TV screen behind him while he was giving a speech, and he initially chuckled and thought it was a joke.

The White House says that Trump acted on the recommendation of senior officials in the Justice Department, who concluded that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s questionable email practices and, in the process, caused “substantial damage” to the credibility and reputation of the FBI that has “affected the entire Department of Justice.”

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in WashingtonThe Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, prepared a memorandum citing reasons for Comey’s discharge that stated:  “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”  Among other mistakes, Rosenstein cited Comey’s curious July 5 press conference, where Comey announced that charges would not be pursued against Clinton but then castigated her creation of the servers and her handling of confidential materials.  Rosenstein stated that Comey acted “without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders” and added: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation . . . we never release it gratuitously . . . It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

There is truth the Rosenstein’s statement about a bipartisan consensus that Comey’s handling of the email investigation involved a lot of mistakes; Comey’s actions and his decision to make an abrupt, pre-election announcement of a renewed investigation into Clinton’s email servers were criticized by former attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations.  And only this week, the FBI had to correct misstatements Comey made in recent testimony to Congress about the email investigation.

But there is something very unsettling about the Trump Administration’s abrupt decision to discharge Comey for actions he took months ago, because the decision comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation into Russian influence into the last presidential election and the actions of the Trump campaign in relation to the potential Russian involvement.  Trump’s letter to Comey giving him the boot oddly acknowledged the ongoing investigation, stating:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.’’  And Rosenstein has only been at his Department of Justice post for two weeks, which suggests that his first job assignment in his new position was to consider whether Comey should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are up in arms about the decision, which they compare to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday night massacre” of Justice Department officials, and members of Congress are calling for an investigation.  I think an investigation makes sense, but until then I’m going to reserve judgment and see what develops.  There’s no doubt that Comey had his issues, and it may well be that — unfortunate timing aside — the White House and the Department of Justice had legitimate concerns that he simply was incapable of handling the kind of highly sensitive investigations the FBI must undertake in a non-partisan way.  On the other hand, the timing is unfortunate, and naturally gives rise to suspicions about what really happened here.  A through investigation will help to establish the facts and clear the air.