Archive for October, 2012

SNAKE EYES

Following last Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders offered sage advice. “Foreign policy is an oxymoron. When U.S. presidents deal with countries like Libya, Syria or Iran, whatever they do is a roll of the dice.”

The Middle East is a complex place. We must navigate it carefully. But calling for pumping up the United States’ already prodigious military muscle at any cost and urging the commander-in-chief to jump into every fray can quickly roll snake eyes—generally a losing proposition.

I’m delighted that Ms. Saunders saw Governor Romney moderating his position Monday night. But I’m troubled that over the last year, the Romney campaign—and all the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nod—continually accused President Obama of being too soft regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, and abandoning Israel.

Of course, Governor Romney may disagree with the Republican base he had to impress to win the nomination. He may always have been more hesitant about the use of force. But politics often leads candidates to take positions they personally reject. The logic is simple. The candidate can help the nation only by being elected. And the candidate cannot be elected without support from the party base, which may espouse extreme or aggressive positions. So the candidate must uphold those positions until reaching office—then maintain them to assure re-election. Finally, after four years in office, an enlightened president can move the country forward.

Politics—the need to look tough—can get the nation into war. But politicians don’t fight. President Obama, who has shown restraint, never served in the military. His daughters are too young. Neither did Governor Romney nor his five sons who, he said some years back, served their country in better ways—by campaigning for him. (If you’ve forgotten, the draft ended in 1973.)

Not only can politics start wars, politics can lead to military disaster. Our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan set a standard for ineptitude not on the part of our troops but on the part of Washington. Going back, internal politics—getting tough on Communism—got us into Vietnam and kept us there.

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and author of Matterhorn, a magnificent novel of the Vietnam War, informs us that politics shapes the battlefield. Washington imposes unworkable policies on the military. Just as bad, officers from general down initiate foolish battles to enhance their prospects for promotion. In Matterhorn, it’s all about body counts. American commanders inflate them while manipulating American casualty numbers to minimize their impact on Washington and the electorate—and their careers. The grunts in the bush pay with blood.

Americans have produced remarkable books and films about war. They include The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War along with the Oscar® winning The Hurt Locker written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. None are “John Wayne” versions of glory in combat. They defer to the truth.

I hope our presidential and congressional candidates will read or see one before again rolling the dice. Because snake eyes again could be the outcome.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and a coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

OLD

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman in Anatevka declares, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor, either.” In America, however, poverty often is viewed as shameful. And poor or rich, so is growing older. The old—however you define them/us—are made irrelevant. Popular culture offers many examples. Of late, three caught my eye.

— In a TV commercial for Captain Morgan Rum set in a 17th-century Caribbean palace, a beautiful twenty-something woman dances at a formal reception with an older, bewigged and obviously lecherous man. Her face expresses disgust. His age definitely is a factor. He’s way too old—and way not cool. A dashing young Captain Morgan rescues her and takes her down to the basement and a hip party.

— A Samsung TV spot features young adults lined up for an Apple iPhone 5. One young man, a Samsung user, holds a spot in line. His parents show up to claim it. Dismay and revulsion sweep across the young people’s faces. How can an iPhone have any real worth if people fifty or older use it?

— In the last episode of the first TV season of Louie, the Emmy-winning comedian Louis C.K. hangs out with younger Black comics, who easily pick up three beautiful women. The women learn that Louis is forty—forty-two, he confesses. Their faces express horror. Louis has no shot. Wonderfully, the episode ends with Louis and his two young daughters enjoying a pancake breakfast at four in the morning. Yes, it’s late. Or early. But Louis has his priorities straight.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I too believed that my parents thought and acted old. They couldn’t possibly know what really mattered because I was in the process of discovering just what was and wasn’t important as defined by my generation. They’d lost touch—if they’d ever been in touch. In my thirties and a parent myself, I saw my parents as much more human. Wherever I was going in terms of the basic aspects of life—making a living, caring for a family, finding a place in society—I realized they’d blazed a trail before me.

I love the energy of youth. I had it once. But growing older generally means transitioning to a more settled life. I can’t stay out until three in the morning. I’m beat the next day if I’m up until midnight. Yet age often brings more wisdom and self-awareness. Not to mention humility. Having gone around the block a few times, we have fewer answers and more questions.

I was a much happier, more grounded person at fifty than at twenty. I’ve even made more progress towards becoming a reasonable human being in the eighteen years since I hit the half-century mark. No question, I still retain many weaknesses. Some I’ll never overcome. To a degree, I’ve learned how to cope. But I don’t delude myself that I’ll ever become a model for humanity. And I don’t worry about it. That’s the gift of growing older.

I certainly don’t encourage the young to embrace old age. There will be time for that. But I do encourage them to embrace their elders. And there’s no time like now.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and a coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

FLASH AND MALALA

As a kid, the televised run of the 1936 Flash Gordon sci-fi serial with Buster Crabbe fascinated me—particularly the contrast of technology (rocket ships, two-way TV) and medieval environments. Today’s world maintains that contrast—including here in America.

When I was growing up, the U.S. had TV, satellites, manned space flights and, yes, hydrogen bombs. At the same time, many countries couldn’t provide their people with clean water and indoor plumbing. George Lucas, only two months older than me, presented the same complex meld of technology and ancient cultures in the first Star Wars. I recall Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi taking Luke’s anti-gravity landspeeder into the desert. They’re attacked. Luke believes Sand People to be responsible. Obi-wan tells him that the shots fired at them were too precise; the Sand People lack discipline and frighten easily. Imperial storm troopers are the villains here.

I’ve always believed that Lucas—he’s free to correct me—was taking a direct shot at the Arabs and the Greater Middle East. Negative stereotypes truly can be misleading. Yet in today’s world with a manned satellite orbiting earth, a Martian Rover and anyone posting anything on You Tube, Islamists go out of their way to portray themselves as primitives.

Case in point: In Pakistan last Tuesday, the Taliban shot and badly wounded 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. A 14-year-old girl! Why? Because Malala, who wants to be a physician, promotes education for Pakistani girls.

This was one of many recent dark moments in the Greater Middle East. Islamists of all stripes continue to mount atrocities on virtually a daily basis. They kill, maim and terrorize not only non-Muslims but more often fellow Muslims in God’s name. And all as the “infidel West” probes the secrets of the human genome and links humanity through advanced communications devices.

There may at least be a ray of hope. Pakistanis are outraged. “Malala is our pride,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik. “She became an icon for the country.” Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani condemned the attacks, as did Jamaat ud Dawa, the charity wing of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In full disclosure, it must be said that neither of the latter has ever taken a clear position against Islamist terrorism.

A vexing question remains. What about the rest of the Muslim world? Will Muslims in other nations rally in protest against such savagery as they did against an obscure video that painted Muhammad in such a negative light? So far, there’s no news. And that’s bad news.

But let’s not get too self-righteous in the high-tech America of which Flash would be proud. In the last week or so, Arkansas State Representative Jon Hubbard claimed that slavery was a “blessing in disguise.” A book by Republican state House candidate Charlie Fuqua proposed that all Muslims in the United States—citizens included—be deported. And Georgia Republican congressman and ardent Christian Paul Broun, a physician, called evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory “lies straight from hell.”

Decades ago, Flash Gordon battled the Shark Men and the Hawk Men to save Earth from the clutches of Ming the Merciless. That fantasy is no wilder than our own reality.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and a coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

THROW THE FLAG

Like tens of millions of Americans, I watched the presidential debate on Wednesday night. Before then, I’d been thinking about how these debates might be structured to better serve voters. Only after the debate did I come up with a solution.

My thinking pre-debate was that the candidates play to the crowd—not only to the TV audience, which is huge, but also to the live audience. It would be difficult not to feed off the energy of people sitting in front of you, people who can be sensed—and heard—if not necessarily seen. Regrettably, playing to the crowd lends itself to bombastic claims and sharp put-downs. The candidates tend to shed far more heat than light.

Wednesday evening’s debate took the live audience out of the picture. Moderator Jim Lehrer ruled that following applause accompanying the candidates’ introductions, the audience could not make any audible responses. The audience followed his instructions.

I’d also had another idea. Have the candidates discuss—rather than debate—the issues with either one moderator or, better yet, two or three. The discussion would take on the aspect of a Charley Rose show with the candidates facing either the moderator or each other but not the camera. This might eliminate grandstanding in front of the TV audience. Wednesday night’s format was not quite the same, but silencing the live audience did keep the debate civil.

Yet a disturbing problem remains. Whatever the format, presidential debates provide a forum for candidates to bend or distort the facts—and more importantly, the truth. Whoever the moderator(s) may be, whatever the questions, the candidates feel entirely free to lie. The debates may give voters a good idea of a candidate’s “presidential demeanor” and the ability to express such traits as “warmth” and “concern.” But they leave us clueless as to whether what a candidate says is actually so. The candidates know they can deceive. They exploit such opportunities with frequency and gusto.

So I propose that all further debates engage the candidates both with one or more moderators and a panel of fact-checkers—on stage or in studio. As in the NFL where a coach may elect to throw a red flag to challenge an official’s call, the candidates will have their own red flags. Hear a fib? Toss a flag.

But wait, as they say in infomercials. That’s not all. Even if the candidates don’t throw a flag, the fact-checkers will. Every statement is up for review. As soon as a candidate utters a blatant falsehood or distortion, a red flag will be tossed into the air. The fact-checkers will then provide the truth to the moderator, who will read a statement of fact or unbiased third-party evaluation to the candidates and the audience.

I like this approach. Because the problem with the debates is that while one candidate or the other often is declared the “winner”—Mitt Romney came out on top in my opinion, at least in terms of style—the American people end up the losers. As constituted, the debates undercut the presentation of clear, understandable policies. And that’s the truth.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.