Monday, December 19, 2016

Elite Media Blames You and Me for Syria

The mainstream media is angry at us, the American public.

It's not just righteous indignation from elite international reporters, who have a tendency to swagger through assorted geopolitical crises like vagabond proclaimers of lost virtues.  Ivory tower academics, and sanctimonious employees at humanitarian relief agencies, are also mad at you and me.

They're trying hard to refrain from pinning the fall of Aleppo on president Barak Obama.  Since, after all, the media has unilaterally decided that Syrian's president Bashar al-Assad should have been overthrown.

Did those Western war correspondents hold some sort of meeting a while back, in which they determined that rebels fighting Assad somehow merited their favor?  Otherwise, how could it be explained that just about everybody within the sociopolitically liberal mainstream media seems appalled that Assad reclaimed Aleppo from rebel hands last week?  Indeed, Western big media outlets have been seething against Western electorates across the globe who apparently sat at home and did nothing to prevent a key collapse within the rebel opposition.

As if you and I are complicit in Syria's six-year-long bloodbath, and cruel facilitators of what one United Nations official calls "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era."

Consider a headline from yesterday's New York Times as a representative sample of the media's ire:  "Assad's Lesson From Aleppo: Force Works, With Few Consequences."

"It is not the first victory that Mr. Assad has secured with overwhelming force in the Syrian conflict. But his subjugation of eastern Aleppo has echoed across the Middle East and beyond, rattling alliances, proving the effectiveness of violence and highlighting the reluctance of many countries, perhaps most notably the United States, to get involved."

This particular article in the Times bitterly sums up much of the elitist angst that has been smoldering just below the surface in many reports from war correspondents who think those of us consuming their sobering descriptions of Syria's atrocities simply don't care.

"Analysts have begun to add Aleppo to the list of places where humans have failed to stop tragedies committed against other humans, as in Grozny, Rwanda and Srebrenica," we're told.

"Because of smartphones and the Internet," lectures the Times, "the Syrian conflict has arguably been better documented than any armed conflict in history. But that has still failed to bring about accountability."

An expert in the prosecution of war crimes is quoted.  “Aleppo is now the symbol of how far we have retrenched,” scolds that expert.  “It is part of a worldwide move away from a global village.  Countries are turning back into themselves.”

Bad, bad world citizens.  Here we've been, we who are the wise and learned elite media, trying to get you Western peasants to force your leaders and armies to engage in Syria's awful civil war for six years, and all you've done is vote for silly backwards notions like Brexit and Trump.

Read enough of these articles from Syria's front lines, and this is the impression you get from smug reporters who presume their vantage point provides them an accurate assessment of what they think they see unfolding in front of them.

And yes, to a certain extent, we Westerners back home are weary of war news from the Middle East.  It's confusing to us, and incessantly bleak.  If we can't get the gist of it from a few sound bites, most of us simply aren't going to get all riled up over what people half a world away from us are getting all riled up over.

Sometimes, isn't another country's war another country's war?

Besides, it's not as if the mainstream media has been a trustworthy resource for all that led up to Syria's current conflict.  Who believes the mainstream media has played a nonpartisan role in the gathering of information during this war?  And who trusts the mainstream media to be objective as victors emerge and battles wind down?

It's no secret that big media, along with many international political and humanitarian groups, make a point of minimizing the religious angles of Muslim-centric strife.  Sometimes this is a strategy on their part so their staffers can simply survive within conflict zones, but mostly it's an intentional campaign to de-stigmatize Islam in the minds of Westerners who already perceive the religion with deep skepticism, if not outright suspicion.

With Syria's civil war, however, to remove religion as a component in the crisis removes most of the storyline.

And it's a dizzying storyline, thanks in large part to that religious component.  There isn't just Islam.  There isn't just radical Islam.  There is Sunni, Shi'a and Kharijite, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali, Ẓāhirī, Qarmatian, Ismaili, Fatimid, Nizari Ismaili, Musta’li Ismaili, Hafizi, Taiyabi Ismaili, Imamiyyah-Ja'fari-Usuli, Alevi, Zaydi, Ibadi, Alawite, Druze, and Taiyabi.  Then there are the Kurds, the Islamic State, the YPG ("People's Protection Units"), the PFLP ("Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine"), Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Ahrar al-Sham, the FSA ("Free Syria Army"), and reportedly dozens more religiously-motivated militias.

Indeed, the list of players in Syria's current war quickly proved to be far more complex than any media outlet could simplistically categorize.  Most mainstreamers took a default position of opposition against Assad, ostensibly since he's a dictator, but it soon became apparent that the rebels weren't just fighting for freedom from Assad's rule.  Most rebels want to enact even more draconian religious-based laws than Assad's, which would further deprive Syrians of basic types of freedoms Western journalists value, but the media couldn't hammer that inconvenient truth into their progressive narrative.

After Russia and Iran vested themselves in Syria's war, it seemed as though the mainstreamers were thoroughly flummoxed over who the good guys were, or the bad guys.

Then there's the whole sovereign nation thing, and the validity of any rogue players who try to overthrow established governments, whether in Syria or elsewhere.  Here in the West, frankly, we taxpayers are tired of being blamed for meddling in regime changes.  We can't seem to pick the "right" side, or win anything anymore; not just militarily, but politically, and socially.  And a lot of that blame over these failures gets levied - rightly or wrongly - by the same international elites that now blame us for allowing Syria to unravel.

Indeed, speaking of sovereignty, the world's major defenders of conventional liberty - the United States and Britain - still haven't finished licking our wounds from our ill-advised foray into Iraq concocted by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  And voters in both Britain and the United States remain reluctant to send soldiers off to another war in the Middle East because it's now obvious beyond a shadow of a doubt that we really don't understand what's going on over there.  Not just us ordinary voters, but even the tenured civil servants within our intelligence communities, and our big-talking politicians.  It's as if we have a different way of processing information within our Western mindsets than many folks do in the Middle East.

We want peace, because peace is how society can flourish.  However, many folks in the Middle East mostly seem to want to settle old scores.  We bargain to achieve shared objectives, they prevaricate.  We generally tend to value human life, they generally tend to value emotions.  We build, they bomb.  We use smartphones to sell consumer products, they use smartphones to recruit for jihad.

Mainstream media operatives jeer at our oversimplifications and stereotypes, but theirs are just as blatant.  Assad isn't the only bad guy in this civil war; in fact, there aren't any good guys that the mainstreamers have been able to identify and idolize.  So they've tried to manipulate public opinion by telling us about the kids being crushed by falling apartment buildings.  They photograph the Boy From Aleppo in the back of an ambulance, and for a moment, the world recoils, shocked at the loss of innocence.

But even President Obama has stood off to the side, after winning a Nobel Peace Prize before completing his first year in the Oval Office!  Nobody on Capitol Hill from any party was ever able to compose a compelling political narrative for why Syria's conflict was anything more than a vicious skirmish between hell-bound Islamists.  And all of those refugees turning tail and running the other way - if this was truly a civil war, why weren't they picking sides and staying to fight for what they believed in?

Much has been made about the West's begrudging acceptance of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.  Yet while a discernible amount of the vitriol displayed against those refugees has been simple ethnocentrism, the rest of it has been uncomfortably legitimate.  After all, who would come and help us if we had a civil war in America?  In Germany?  In Sweden?  And why are grown men not staying to fight for their viewpoint?

Over the years, some reporters have acknowledged that many able-bodied people remained in Syria not because they couldn't afford to flee, but because they support some rebel faction, or Assad.  So all these other refugees are people who don't support anybody?  How does that work?  And if they don't support anybody, how do so many get out of the country alive?

The whole thing just doesn't make any sense to us.  And it obviously hasn't made sense to the mainstream media reporters who have walked the streets in war-torn cities like Aleppo.  Sure, they've seen human savagery that is repulsive to them, but they apparently can't analyze it well either.  They sure haven't been able to package it up and send it back to America and England in easily-digestible bites for the rest of us.  But they also haven't taken the time to objectively parse out the intricacies of the situation that help make it so complex.

Some non-mainstream news outlets have tried doing so.  But in-depth analysis of Syria's quagmire is a undesirable product for advertisers to pay for.

So, then, are we Westerners to be blamed because we need to have international news stories like Syria's civil war broken down in elementary particles?  Are we too busy, spoiled, stupid, or immature to appreciate the many facets of this conflict?

Or has the mainstream media run full-tilt into a wall it cannot scale?  We've already seen how many mainstreamers really don't understand evangelical Christianity, at least as far as their ability to analyze us in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory is concerned.  Maybe the mainstream media really doesn't understand Islam either?  Or, at least, radical Islam?

And just what, exactly, do all of these vaunted journalists think the United States could have done?  We don't even know how many sides were fighting against each other.  How would we have picked a group to win?  To win what?  How do we determine the Assad regime would be worse than any of the other players vying to replace his leadership?

Throwing photos onto social media of kids dying and old women crying doesn't tell us who's right and who's wrong.  Lamenting the plight of millions of homeless Syrians and refugees doesn't tell us whether those folks supported the fighters we should support - or shouldn't support.  Simply observing chaos unfolding in front of you and yelling at the rest of us to do something doesn't give you the right to complain when we don't know what to do.

It's been said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.  Yet how many Americans are genuinely ambivalent over Syria's crisis?  Besides, sometimes, can't doing something just to do something actually make a situation worse?  If you don't know what to do, refraining from involvement can be a good thing.

Perhaps what mainstream journalism has realized involves not just the frustrating dependence most Americans have on sound-bite information these days.  Perhaps mainstream journalism is also realizing that since it's sold its legitimacy to political correctness, it's not an accurate purveyor of news any more.  And the general public has caught on.

Not that popular opinion should determine what's newsworthy or accurate.  The truth should determine that, and sometimes, truth and popular opinion are not the same thing.

But at least when it comes to Syria's bloody war, and whatever brutal scar it has inflicted on the history of humanity, some things will defy our best intentions.

Don't blame the public if you can't convince us otherwise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Another Xmas, Another Decoration Flap

It wouldn't be Christmas* anymore without a Christmas decoration controversy.

This year, a jolly old fight is brewing in the central Texas town of Killeen, home to one of the largest military bases in the world, and hardly a bastion of leftist propaganda or agnostic Americana.  It involves a public school teacher in the local school district, a poster on a classroom door, and a phrase from the classic holiday cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Trouble is, the phrase, which is part of the touching soliloquy given by the character Linus in the 1960's-vintage show, is also holy Scripture:  "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord," from Luke 2.

The school teacher wrote out the phrase on butcher paper, and attributed it to Linus, adding another line from the show, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."  Ostensibly, the teacher hoped her clever attribution would represent enough of a clarification that opposition to it could be deflected.
The schoolroom door in question
It didn't work.

The teacher drew a sketch of Linus, next to the quote, and affixed the whole thing to her classroom door.  And that's when things got nasty.

You can probably imagine how angry some people became when they saw that door poster.  And you can probably imagine how those angry folks pushed their "freedom from religion" agenda, from demanding that the teacher remove the poster, all the way to a school board meeting last night, during which the school board voted to keep the poster off the door.

It doesn't help that Killeen is home not only to that big Army base, Fort Hood, but that Fort Hood is where militant Muslim Nidal Hasan killed thirteen soldiers and wounded thirty others in history's largest terroristic attack on a stateside military post.

So religion may be a particularly touchy subject there.

Nevertheless, Kileen's latest skirmish represents what's become of America's modern Christmas season, with some people wanting to "keep Christ in Christmas," while other people want to remove all traces of religion from the public square. 

And generally speaking, considering how religiously pluralistic America has become - and continues to become - common sense should dictate that Christians need to wake up.  After all, how many professing Christians would want a Muslim teacher to affix a poster depicting a passage from the Koran on a classroom door?  Or a Mormon teacher?  You get the idea.  To be fair, if one religion is allowed a voice, shouldn't other religions be allowed theirs?

Of course, many American Christians continue to believe that the United States is a "Christian" nation, but that is not true.  It isn't!  Would you want a "Christian" nation to perpetuate slavery, for example?  Shucks, read enough of the many debates from our nation's founding and you'll understand that the Founding Fathers did not want to establish a national religion, even if Christianity was the most popular religion in the country at the time.

Besides, even if we were a Christian nation, why does it take a poster on a classroom door to remind fellow teachers and students about the meaning of Christmas?  Christ-followers are to live our lives and "let our light shine" so people around us can see that we actually do follow Christ.  A Christmas poster on a door should be redundant, right?

Meanwhile, the depth of emotion these debates inevitably trigger every year should be enough to convince "freedom from religion" folks that there really is no such thing.  If by "religion" we mean a certain system of beliefs, then we all have a religion of some type, even if it's hedonism, or individualism.  We all possess a world view based on something outside of ourselves.  It's one of those aspects of humanity that makes us different from other animals.  So to presume that by forcing a school teacher to remove a Christmas-themed poster, you're helping make the world just a little bit safer from religion in general, all you're really doing is perpetuating your own religion.

It's a religion of intolerance, actually.  And a religion of fear, since obviously, you are afraid that a poorly-drawn, artistically inferior door poster could actually perpetuate a religion other than your own.

Now, granted, Christians believe in the Holy Spirit, a member of the Trinity, Who can turn ordinary things into extraordinary things to bring God glory.  Which means that somebody could actually look at that poster and be convicted that Jesus really is the Son of God.  So are the "freedom from religion" folks actually lending credence to this Christian doctrine, by getting their knickers in a twist over a door poster?  Aren't they actually admitting that the Holy Spirit does exist, and can turn a door poster into a genuine proselytization mechanism?

Keep in mind that the same Holy Spirit Who, yes, could make that happen is also the Holy Spirit Who can use just about anything else to accomplish the same goal.  So why should a Christ-follower be so anxious about preserving the right of this teacher to display that particular poster?

Is it because Christians, too, fear something - the loss of political freedom?  Of course is is, because we do!  The Christian lobby has been able to flex its sociopolitical muscle within our American culture for centuries, but now that tide is turning, and we're growing uncomfortable over our loss of sociopolitical clout.  A lot of what we used to take for granted now appears to be eroding underneath our feet.  It's tempting to flirt with our own acts of defiance or belligerence under the guise of preserving our brand of religious culture.

Yet if one's faith is no stronger than culture, then these flaps over public displays of Christmas themes provide a critical warning call.  Not for the world around us, mind you, but for those of us who name the name of Christ.  Putting a poster on a classroom door isn't really a demonstration of salvific faith.  Advocating for a manger scene in front of city hall isn't either.  We may like the nostalgia of Christmases past when we could do that kind of thing without recrimination.  Yet aren't we forgetting that our demonstrations of religiosity and our platitudes of faith mean nothing if we're not trusting in the infant from that lowly manger?  And letting Him - instead of our religiosity-  have lordship over our lives?

Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly with God.  Does any of that sound familiar?  Christianity isn't about whether or not we can put a Christmas poster on a school door.  It's about whether we can articulate the broader reason for why we believe that scripture reference of Linus's:

Blessed are you when people hate you
and when they exclude you
and revile you and spurn your name as evil,
on account of the Son of Man!
Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy,
for behold, your reward is great in Heaven...

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also...
And as you wish that others would do to you, 

do so to them. 
- from Luke 6

* By the way; if you're upset that I used "X" instead of spelling out "Christ" in this essay's title, please consider this.

Update:  Bell County District Judge Jack Jack Jones ruled on December 15 that the door art could return, with the phrase "Ms. Shannon's holiday message" added to the poster to make it clear who's opinion it reflected.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Skipping Church on Christmas Sunday?

Here's a simple little quiz for you:

1.  Whose name serves as the root of the word "Christian"?

2.  Whose birth do Protestants traditionally celebrate on December 25?

3.  Where do Christians usually gone on Sundays, and why?

And no, these aren't trick questions.  Christians ostensibly follow Someone named Christ, after Who's name their faith is called.

Although Jesus Christ was born probably in March or April, we've historically celebrated His birth on December 25.

And most Christians set aside the first day of our calendar's weeks to worship Christ corporately, in recognition of His resurrection, which took place on a Sunday.

You knew those, right?  See?  No tricks.

Here are some more basics that you already know.  It's not a Christian law, for example, that we worship on Sundays, or that we can only worship on Sundays.  Nor is it a Christian law that we observe the birth of Christ on December 25 - or that we officially observe it at all.  In fact, some Christ-followers simply do not celebrate Christmas, since the holiday is what's called "extra-Biblical", or something that is not mandated or even suggested in the Bible.

The author of the Bible book, Hebrews, encourages Christ-followers to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves" with the implication being that we should meet corporately on a regular basis.  But what is "regular"?

Historically, Christians have met corporately on a daily basis.  Through the centuries, in some traditions, the number of times per week was whittled down to twice on Sundays and once during the middle of the week.  Then Sunday night church fell out of favor.  Then Wednesday night church.  Meaning that currently, most congregations only get together once a week, on Sunday mornings.  If you're a hip, trendy church, you have Saturday night church.  And technically, at least, it's all good, as the kids say.

Considering the fact that many Christ-followers outside of North America are grateful to be able to meet together whenever they can - whether it's on a Sunday or not - the actual day of the week isn't terribly important when it comes to doing church.  Still, the symbolism of Sundays is most prevalent in parts of the world where freedom of religion is the most widely available.  (And, perhaps, taken for granted?)

Now, regular readers of my blog will remember that I don't hold church attendance sacrosanct.  There are times when I get tired of church and the type of pretentions in which churched people tend to wallow.  We can get so caught up in the programming and the social dynamics within a congregation that our motives fall out of their proper focus on Christ, and more on the logistics of doing church in a post-Christian culture.  Over the years, I've come to wonder how big the gulf likely is between what New Testament writers considered church would look like, and what we've contrived it into being.  We've turned "the assembling of ourselves" into a vast evangelical industrial complex, and it hasn't proven to be entirely beneficial to our holy worship of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

So this is not a lecture on the sanctity of church attendance.

Nevertheless, whether we're ready or not, we're brought this year to the issue of whether or not your church is holding worship services this coming Christmas, December 25th, which happens to fall on a Sunday.  And, frankly, if your church isn't holding services on December 25th because it's Christmas Day, then why does your church exist at all?

We get this same debate every time our observance of Christ's birth - now known mostly as International Toy Distribution Day - falls on a Sunday.  And the triviality with which many church-goers treat the Namesake of their presumed religion is dismaying.  If you're going to celebrate Christ, and if we normally celebrate His birth, is doing so mutually exclusive of our corporate worship of Him?  Especially on the day of the week when we'd normally do it?

Then again, if your church is having a Christmas Eve event, which this year would be on a Saturday night, is it legit for you to do the Christmas Eve thing and skip the Christmas morning gig?  After all, you still get to check off the church box for the weekend.  Otherwise, wouldn't you be risking the drudgery of spending twice the amount of time at church than you'd ordinarily spend on a weekend, and especially on a Christmas holiday?

After all, vacation days don't grow on trees.

Like many things about our personal faith in Jesus Christ, it's not so much what we do that can be right or wrong, but why we do what we do.  Our motivations for doing some things, or not doing others.  God knows those, even if we try to hide them from ourselves, and others.

Some people go to church whenever its doors are open because they want to piously check-off those church attendance boxes.  Worship is a secondary motivation at best, and often not even secondary.  And that's not good.

Meanwhile, some people will have to work straight through the Christmas holiday weekend, and won't be able to attend any church services, even though they might really want to - and for all the right reasons.

So whether your church is holding worship services on Sunday, December 25, isn't itself the question.  The question is why a Christian church wouldn't hold worship services on this particular Sunday.

Would it be because too many congregants wouldn't be attending?  And why wouldn't congregants be attending church services on Sunday, December 25?  Would it be because they want to spend time with family?  Around a tree decorated with ornaments and partially buried behind boxes wrapped in colored paper?

After all, there's nothing wrong with wanting to spend time with one's family, even when we don't really make doing so a priority during most other times of the year.  There's nothing inherently wrong with decorated trees, either, even if the historical baggage behind the pagan ritual is problematic for Christians.  There's nothing wrong with gifts, and there's certainly nothing wrong with giving gifts.

Then, too, many Americans don't spend Veteran's Day concentrating on veterans.  Most Americans don't attend a patriotic ceremony commemorating our war dead on Memorial Day.  We generally only pay token homage to our country on July 4.  We almost certainly don't go to a church service on these days, unless Independence Day happens to fall on a Sunday.  So why should Christmas Day be any different?

That's not a trick question either.

Meanwhile, of all the people who observe Christmas, even in our hedonistic culture, if one claims to be a follower of the holiday's Namesake, what does an empty church on Sunday, December 25, say about the faith of the people who ordinarily attend that church?

Doesn't relevance matter?  Not Christianity's relevance to our culture.  But our faith's relevance to our demonstration of it?

Not because we must attend church on Sunday, December 25.  But because we actually want to.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Trump's the Media's Gift that Keeps Giving

Look who was photographed in the lobby of Trump Tower!  Back in 1988, though...

Be thankful for small mercies.

Ever since he won the presidency, Donald Trump has managed to refrain from mocking the handicapped.  He hasn't taunted Carly Fioria's looks in quite a while, and he's even considering her for a post in his new cabinet.

He's also invited other former opponents from his presidential race to his transition headquarters in New York for cabinet interviews, staging a sort of letting-bygones-be-bygones theater in the lobby of Trump Tower that likely is calculated to convey an impression that he didn't intend for people to take personally all that awful stuff he said about them during the campaign.

Trump is still childishly venting through social media, using his Twitter account as his personal press secretary, but the only people who haven't gotten used to that yet are the talking heads in the mainstream media.

Indeed, the mainstream media seems incapable of understanding what has just happened.  They've asked Trump supporters why they voted for him, and Trump himself has told the media how he intends to run the presidency.  Yet all the Ivy League journalists and the "bubbleheaded bleached blondes," to borrow from Don Henley, can't process the paradigm shift unfolding before them.

Trump told his supporters he would be unconventional.  His supporters voted for him mostly because they wanted an unconventional president.  Trump ran his campaign in an often frightfully unconventional manner.  And now his transition period seems to still be confounding the media.  They just don't get it.

No matter what you think about Trump, you have to agree that he's not a politician.  Yes, he's emotionally immature, and profoundly narcissistic, but those aren't just qualities of many politicians.  Trump isn't even an expert business leader; he's mostly just a glorified real estate developer who knows how to market what he's built.  If he's an expert an anything, it's self-promotion.  He's gotten away with it all his life - a very gilded life, by the way - and until the media finally catches on, he's going to keep exploiting any avenue of self-promotion he can find.

Indeed, the mainstream media gave Trump his win.  Mainstreamers devoted far more column inches, headlines, and tweets to Trump than he deserved, simply because anything Trump-related was calculated to draw lots of click-throughs.  Trump was the ultimate political click-bait for the mainstream media, and they didn't realize it until (for them) it was too late... if they've realized it yet.  Doesn't it seem as though everything Trump says and does even after the election is designed to rub mainstreamers the wrong way, and elicit yet another headline?

The media doesn't like Trump talking with Taiwan.  They don't like his sloppy embrace of Vladimir Putin.  They don't like Trump only getting his security briefings once a week, instead of once a day.  They don't like Trump's dismissive attitude about the CIA's report on Russia's possible meddling in the election.  And they definitely don't like most of the folks Trump has invited to his signature tower in Midtown Manhattan for private meetings.

Meanwhile, isn't it obvious that Trump is playing the mainstream media for all it's worth?  The gaudy, marble lobby at Trump Tower is officially a public space, a concession he made to the City of New York when he was building the tower, and wanting to add twenty more stories than current zoning allowed.  So Trump got his twenty additional floors, the city got a public park inside a prominent Fifth Avenue building, and now Trump can parade whomever he wants in front of the mainstream media's television cameras - and a new webcam from C-SPAN - to generate as much attention as possible!

One wonders how much higher Trump is going to jack the rents at Trump Tower, now that it's the most photographed building in Midtown.  With all of the reporters and photographers camped out in its lobby, Trump Tower's elevator banks have suddenly become a distinctly recognizable background for a who's who in our new era of political intrigue.  It's almost as though Trump is inviting anybody and anybody to simply waltz through just to get the reporters chattering and buzzing.

After all, no matter who they're talking about having seen in Trump Tower, the media is talking primarily about Trump, and that's just the way he wants it.  From his campaign we learned that he apparently doesn't believe there's any such thing as bad publicity.  All publicity is good publicity to Trump.  That's one of the things that's so vexing about him, especially since his appetite for publicity seems insatiable.

Trump also knows that dropping some of the most controversial names he can find into his cabinet mix generates plenty of headlines that keep people talking about him and his unorthodox style.  Part of this scenario is due to the reality that many competent yet less controversial candidates for his cabinet simply refuse to work for somebody like Trump, which makes for a severely limited pool from which he can choose.  Yet it's easy to suspect that much of Trump's motivation in entertaining such PR lighting rods as Rex Tillerson, John Bolton, James Mattis, and Rudy Giulianni involves not so much the individual qualifications of these people, but each of these people's ability to generate attention for Trump himself - as long as they don't overshadow him.

Just as Trump can't resist self-aggrandizing, the mainstream media can't resist reporting on him as he does it.  It's as if the media elites still expect - for whatever reason - that at some point, Trump is going to click into a conventional presidential mindset, and begin acting "presidential" (whatever that means anymore) so they can calculate his every move based on textbook politics.

But Trump has never given the media elites any reason to expect that he will ever do such a thing.  Trump waged his campaign completely unconventionally, he won in a flat-out surprise, and he's preparing to enter the White House with the same unpredictability.  Politics involves give-and-take, and Trump has never given any of us any reason to expect him to give anything.  He doesn't give anybody else the benefit of the doubt.  He doesn't give apologies, or concessions, or deference.  He gives compliments, but only as long as what he's complimenting are things that fit into his very narrow definition of success - and are therefore things that affirm his own myopic worldview.

To a certain extent, it's not a very big leap from Trump's myopia to the self-centeredness of the conventional Washington politician.  So in a way, the mainstream media can be excused for expecting Trump to somehow morph into the type of operative they're more comfortable seeing within the Beltway.  But Trump won based in large part on his outsider status, and even though he appears to be populating his cabinet with insiders, even these insiders are just enough outside to be as rogue as Trump.

The media wants to interpret Trump's moves according to their pre-planned playbooks by which most other political operatives operate.  They're trying to anticipate the calculations they envision Trump is making, because in the political world, two-plus-two should always equal five.  But in Trump's mind, two-plus-two equals something else, and it's not four, or five.  And that's driving the mainstream media crazy.

Not only do they not like Trump, or his cabinet picks, or his views about Russia and China - they don't like the way Trump is careening through this political process without giving them any clues as to his methodologies.  It's also easy to suspect the mainstream media is feeling a new sense of powerlessness, since they can't analyze what he might do next.  Some media elite may also personally revile Trump for exposing our current president, Barak Obama, to some uncomfortable diplomatic scenarios, since Trump can act like a bull in a China shop (pun intended) while somebody else is still around to pick up the pieces.

It will be interesting to see how cavalierly Trump will act on his first full day behind the presidential desk - and the presidential red phone.  We may have to suffer through a couple of his rookie mistakes as a nation before Trump finally gets slapped in the face with the profundity of the role he's just inherited.  And hopefully it will only be a couple of minor flubs, and hopefully Trump will learn quickly about his limitations.

Nevertheless, it seems as though the mainstream media is willing him to fail.  It's almost as if they're reporting on his every move and tweet in the hopes that so many people will so utterly distrust and disdain him that his first day in office will be utterly horrible.  Since Trump is flouting the prescriptives deemed by the mainstream media as proper political protocol, the media would rather gloat over his many inadequacies than consider the possibility that Washington really is broken.  And that some eggs may also get broken turning Washington into a more functional omelette.

No, Trump is not the best person to penetrate the Beltway and perform major surgery on Washington.  And no, Trump is not the most moral, beneficent, charitable, and gracious person to represent the United States on the international stage.  But if anything, the mainstream media should still be very thankful for him.

After all, he's giving them a lot of stuff for them to excitedly report. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

PC Police Slam Humor RX

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

"Okay, like, I was feeling really depressed last night.  So I got on the phone and called one of those suicide crisis hotlines.  And my call was routed to a phone bank in Pakistan, and they got really excited when they heard I was suicidal.  They wanted to know if I knew how to drive a cargo truck."

Is that joke funny to you?  And yes, it is a joke.  Or at least, it's supposed to be.

A friend of mine posted it to Facebook this morning, and I chuckled when I saw it.  It's an old joke, actually; he hadn't made it up.  He's fond of tacky jokes, humorous anecdotes, and silly puns, and shares this kind of stuff all the time.  Actually, I've known him since I was a kid, and he's done it as long as I've known him.  Mom used to invite him over for dinner and he'd entertain my brother and me with his deadpan, intentionally unappetizing descriptions of our meal - his way of actually complementing Mom on her cooking!

Maybe that kind of humor isn't for everybody, but it's well-intentioned, warm-hearted, and completely innocent.  At least, from our friend.

Yet I was amazed at the number of his Facebook friends this morning who were replying with comments of "not funny" or "way out of line" regarding the Pakistani suicide hotline joke.  This afternoon, I noticed he'd taken it down, so I privately messaged him, asking if he did so because of all the politically correct feedback.  And yes, it was.

So am I some bigoted hater for chuckling at this joke?  Am I an insensitive boor?  Let's see, how many people does this joke insult - as if insults are the intent of this joke?  Suicidal people, I guess.  Maybe folks who work at phone banks, or as truck drivers?  Pakistani people.  Even terrorists, perhaps?

If he's a bigot, my friend is a most unlikely one.  He was born and raised in the jungles of South America, the son of American evangelical missionaries.  He and his wife worked for years at an orphanage in Africa founded by his in-laws, caring not for the postcard-perfect children Western adoption agencies advertise, but severely handicapped children and teens who would be a challenge for the most advanced Western therapists.  Their orphanage is located on the fringes of territory that has recently been in the news because of black-on-black terrorism being perpetrated by radical Islamists.

Obviously, then, my friend knows a lot about cross-culturalism, terrorism, racism, and hate.  So for his friends to respond to his joke with complaints about his bias, insensitivity, and lack of Christian charity seemed ironic at best.

One of his other friends joked about trigger warnings and safe places, but the humor was quickly disappearing from that Facebook string.

So, what is humor?  Some people claim God has a sense of humor.  Is that true?  After all, most humor comes at the expense of something.  Something is being mocked, or trivialized, or ridiculed for humor to occur.

Think about it:  What was the last thing you laughed at?  Was it somebody's hair, or lack of it?  Was it somebody else's mistake, or even your own?  Was it a faux-pas, or a double-entendre, or an outright slutty remark?

Humor appreciates the oddities, the misfits, the aberrations, as well as the generalizations and the assumptions.  Humor reminds us that we're human, and prone to mistakes.  Humor also relies heavily on context, including the personality of the person delivering it, the history of its punchline, and the ability of its audience to not take themselves too seriously.

When Abraham's wife, Sarah, laughed to herself in the Old Testament, she was marveling at how absurd it seemed to her that God should say she was going to give birth at her age.  So in a sense, Sarah could be accused of making fun of the elderly or the barren, not just herself.  And isn't it possible that somebody would be so severe as to fault Sarah for not having more respect for herself?

G.K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, "the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it".  But perhaps that's an insensitive comment, too.  Is being politically correct the same as lacking humor?

Let's analyze the Pakistani joke for a moment.  It mocks radical Islam, true; but is there anything intrinsically wrong in that?  Is something that is evil and definitely wrong out of bounds when it comes to humor?  I understand that if we'd had another suicide truck bomb yesterday, my friend's posting of this joke would be inappropriate at best.  "Too soon?" would have been his appropriate rejoinder.

Besides, isn't it understood that this joke is not a blanket indictment of the whole of Islam, or the Muslim world?  Not all Muslims condone suicide truck bombs.  So it's inappropriate only because a small fraction of Muslims actually do practice self-destruction through terrorism?

Or are people afraid that jokes like this perpetuate undesirable stereotypes?  As if most stereotypes are otherwise desirable.  Yet humor is all about pointing out stereotypes, and often mocking them.  Now granted, simply being mean and deploying stereotypes in an insulting manner is not humor.  But again, is it wrong to use humor while depicting the fallacies of somebody like Adolph Hitler?  If so, what makes radical Islam so sacrosanct?

Might humor that mocks stereotypes be acceptable as long as topics protected by the Politically Correct police aren't targeted?  It seems like a lot of "humor" mocking evangelicals is widely tolerated - even encouraged - these days.

Might humor that mocks stereotypes be acceptable as long as specific people aren't called out by name?

And speaking of names, and what's acceptable, why do some black entertainers get away with dropping the "N" word in their jokes?  White people can't do that, but black jokesters can.  How racist is that?

Are suicidal folks being mocked in this joke?  Long-time readers of my blog know that I have been suicidal.  One of the reasons I ended up leaving New York City was because my psychotherapist had me on a low-level suicide watch, and I was having to call in to her every day to report that I hadn't killed myself... yet.  So I have a history with the whole suicide thing, and yet I didn't find this joke offensive.

Quite frankly, having had periods in my life when I was genuinely suicidal, I have to confess that calling a suicide crisis hotline never even occurred to me.  I'm not sure truly suicidal people are looking for somebody to talk them out of it.  They may be looking for somebody to talk them INTO it, or help them.  But when I've been at my lowest, I can categorically confirm that I've never once stopped and reminded myself, "you know, there's somebody you've never met who is working at an anonymous phone bank, wanting to give you pithy advice in a generic context to sweet-talk me into a false assurance that things will look better tomorrow."

Uh-uh.  Nope.  That's not what suicidal people want to hear.  Most of us don't go through with it simply because we don't have the guts, not because of a random counselor on the phone reciting optimistic platitudes.  So I doubt the whole suicide crisis hotline is a legitimate safe place that should be on the official list of "do not mock or make humor of" list.

Yes, there are jokes that may be funny but shouldn't be told because they are genuinely offensive, or rude, or even blasphemous.  Some humor can seem funny because it is so bizarre even according to non-politically-correct sensibilities.  But just because something is funny doesn't make it appropriate.

So does this Pakistani joke fit that category?  Something that's funny but nevertheless inappropriate?

This is where context comes in, right?  Was my friend being intentionally ugly towards all Pakistanis?  All Muslims?  All suicidal people?

If he'd told this joke in a compete vacuum, where none of his audience knew who he was, perhaps it could be argued it was intentionally ugly.  If he'd been on a morning television show based in Karachi and told that joke live on the air, it would more than likely have been grossly inappropriate.

But can't humorous anecdotes sometimes simply be humorous anecdotes?  My friend is a born-again Christian; was he sinning by telling this joke?  He's got Facebook friends from across the racial and cultural spectrum; the only people complaining about his joke appeared to me to be Western Caucasians.  Or were they simply trying to preserve a safe space for the other people who had a more personal cause to be insulted by the joke?

Maybe by taking the time to think this through myself, I'm the one who's afraid that deep down inside, I'm the ugly, racist, ethnocentric boor that my friend was being portrayed as on Facebook.  Maybe I'm ashamed of my initial reaction in finding the joke humorous.  Maybe my sense of humor is utterly corrupt.

Maybe, but I don't think so.  I think it's open season to make fun of radical Islam and suicide bombings, if for no other reason than to remind terrorists that they are the aberration.  And I think that any genuinely suicidal person might actually find some good-natured, goofy cheer in the notion of a crisis hotline being hooked up to a switchboard in such a relatively depressing place as dirty, dangerous Pakistan, where clinical depression is probably far more rampant than in the West.  It's called irony.  And often, irony can be funny.

So I'm LOL.  Ha ha ha.  Take that, you evil terrorists and evil negative thoughts.  After all, isn't humor supposed to be good medicine?

As long as the PC police don't ask to see your prescription, I guess.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Taxing Full Stores Like They're Vacant?

Who enjoys paying taxes?

Sure, every now and then, some hopelessly altruistic person gets all philanthropic about it.  Chirping about how blessed they are to be able to contribute to the welfare of their fellow humanity by paying taxes.

But when you hear people like that, don't you secretly figure they must be expecting an audit by the IRS?

Most of us pay our taxes begrudgingly, with a faint hope that at least what we're paying is somehow fair and equitable.  At least as far as the value and rate we're paying is concerned.  We're probably far less confident that the money we spend in taxes is being spent wisely, but as long as everything else is equal on our end, at least we figure we're well within our rights to complain how the government uses it on their end.

But what if you're not being taxed fairly?  What if, for example, your property taxes are based on an inflated value?  Wouldn't you file a protest, and argue that your property's taxable valuation needs to be lowered?  That would be fair, right?

You might not enjoy paying taxes, but you're willing to pay your fair share of them.

That's the argument big-box retailers have been making recently in what's become a pesky problem for parts of small-town America.  It's not that retailers don't want to pay their property taxes - at least, to hear them tell it.  They just want to be taxed fairly.

After all, they own big pieces of property.  Often, in America's smaller towns, big box stores represent the biggest chunks of taxable property.  Think of the Walmarts, Lowes's, Khols's, and other big box retailers where you live.  At least in terms of retailers in your town, these are the biggest property owners by far, aren't they?

Now ask yourself:  How much are those big stores worth in terms of property values?  Add it all up, including the value of the land, parking lot, bricks and mortar, landscaping; the whole thing.  That's the gross value of the property.

Adjust it annually for however much appreciation or depreciation it has, depending on how robust your locality's real estate market is, and there you have your valuation for taxable purposes. 


Not according to the companies who own those big box stores.  Instead, they have begun to argue in court that their big box properties shouldn't be valued based on how much was spent to purchase the property and construct the bricks and mortar edifice housing their retail operation.  No, they say; the value of that big box store should be based on how much it would be worth if the retailer wasn't there.

In other words, your town should be taxing that big box store as if it were a "dark store."  As if it were empty.

It's called the dark store loophole, and wealthy retailers like Walmart, Lowe's, Khol's, Target, and Meijer have been successfully using it to deeply discount the property values of stores in small towns across Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and TexasMore lawsuits have been filed in Alabama, North Carolina, and Kentucky.  And the valuations are being reduced by hundreds of thousands - often millions - of dollars per property, which adds up to big savings for the retailers. 

Meanwhile, however, when one retailer's lawsuit wins, other retailers operating in the same town often jump on board, winning property tax concessions for themselves that, combined, create a huge hole in that town's operating budget.

Big box retailers claim their argument is realistic and honest, since in reality, all they're doing is occupying the space.  If they weren't in that big box of steel and concrete, wouldn't it just be sitting there, empty?  How many other retailers would purchase that space?  After all, different retailers build their stores based on their company-specific parameters.  Target doesn't build to Walmart specs, for example, and certainly not for Lowe's specs.  You and I might figure a Home Depot could easily move into an unused Walmart store, but don't tell that to the suits at Home Depot who make their living telling investors their special retail strategy requires a specifically-designed space.

Besides, how many national retailers move into empty Walmart stores?  The rationale is - and it's a financially-sound rationale - that if Walmart can't cut it in a particular location, how will anybody else?  So, if Walmart does decide to close a store, that means there's far less value in that property than people thought there was.

So, argue the big boxers, let's assume that all of our big box stores are worth only as much as their concrete and steel shells are.  Never mind how much the place cost to construct.  Never mind its replacement value, if it were destroyed by a tornado or fire.  How much would it be worth just sitting there, surrounded by empty parking lots and sidewalks with weeds growing in the cracks?

THAT'S the value upon which we'll pay our property taxes!

And on the one hand, it's not as outrageous a calculation as it may sound.  If you own a single-family home, the property taxes you're paying are, in large part, based on the presumption that your house is worth something to somebody else.  Depending on how vibrant the real estate market is in your community, it might be worth more, or it might be worth less.  If there is a sizable pool of potential home purchasers that could reasonably be expected to be interested in purchasing your home, then your home's value is based on what most of the folks in that pool of potential buyers would be willing to pay.

If you live in a community which lacks any significant opportunities for you to sell your house, then it will be worth a lot less than if you could readily find a buyer for it.  And that's basically the type of logic big box retailers are banking on.  Although you and I might see big box stores all over the place, there's really only a limited number of retailers who need stores with that amount of space.  Especially in smaller towns, which likely don't generate the sales volume big box stores in larger markets do.

It also works in the favor of big box retailers to re-write deeds prohibiting the sale of their property to another big-box retailer, meaning that even if another company wanted to purchase that empty Walmart shell, they couldn't.  Then there's all of the online retailing that owners of bricks and mortar establishments can use to justify why they need to wring every dime and penny out of their bricks and mortar costs as they can.

Yet, on the other hand, critics of this trend argue that it creates a significant disparity between the large interstate retailers who have lots of money to wage war against local taxing authorities, and the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who have far more limited resources - both in money and time - to file hefty property tax rollbacks for their own properties.  Of course, as the big box phenomenon took hold across America a couple of decades ago, those mom-and-pop businesses were being put out of business as Main Street USA was abandoned.  So, for better or worse, there aren't many of those local business stalwarts remaining to make the big boxers look really bad and cheap.

For municipalities being caught by the dark store loophole, what's more statistically significant is the amount of community resources being spent on their local big box retail locations.  First is the congestion generated by moving the flow of vehicular traffic from the center of town to its outskirts.  Then comes the development of new utilities, with water and sewer services being particularly expensive.  A lot of towns pay big bucks up front to arrange for all of this costly utility work under the assumption that property taxes on the new retailer will replenish the proverbial community pot - which is another rude awakening with the dark store loophole.

But perhaps a community's most significant outlay in terms of safety and security comes in the form of crime, and the amount of crime generated particularly at Walmart stores across the country.  Smaller cities and towns are finding that their local Walmart has become its own precinct for their police departments.

Statistically, across Walmart's 4,500 stores in the United States, about one violent crime happens every  day.  We're talking murders, attempted murders, kidnappings, shootings, stabbings...  It's as if all the crime that used to take place across America's village greens and quaint town squares has moved to the local Walmart.  Not Target, or Lowe's, but Walmart specifically. says Walmart's crime problem is "out of control".  NPR calls it "overwhelming".  The conservative Zero Hedge website estimates Walmart's "rampant" crime wave is costing taxpayers $4 billion a year by requiring local police departments to do what Walmart employees and security personnel will not:  Provide a safe shopping environment for Walmart's legitimate customers.

And big boxers want to pay even less taxes?

At the end of the day, of course, crime isn't exactly Walmart's fault.  And as far as the dark store loophole is concerned, if property taxes are so open to interpretation that taxing authorities have left the back door open with regard to lower valuations, then the baser instincts within capitalism are going to exploit those open doors.  Already, Indiana and Michigan are contemplating new laws that could close some of those loopholes, even if the argument over how big box stores are fairly valued is left unresolved.

Which is still the issue here, isn't it?  Is a property worth a certain mount just because it's occupied?  If your local Lowe's decided to close, and sell its property to, say, an antique mall, do you think the property would be taxed at the same rate it was when Lowe's occupied it?

I'm normally not a fan of big box retailing.  But this time, I'd say they've caught many small towns with an intriguing question:  What's my big box store worth tomorrow if I leave it today?  So why can't I be taxed at tomorrow's rate?  After all, you'd still be getting more money than if this was still raw, undeveloped land.

Of course, the big box retailers look exceptionally miserly here.  But if miserly prices is what their shoppers expect from them, why should those shoppers be surprised?

After all, you do get what you pay for.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Giving Yourself to Amazon Go

With those wails from Millennials rising up to the ears of older voters after our surprise presidential election results last month, many of us scoffed.

"Millennials!"  The very term has become one of derision, a catch-phrase for young adults who seem more young than adult.

"Snowflakes" and "generation snowflake" are other references to Millennials.  The image of a snowflake conjures uniqueness in nature, a quality young people generally act as if it's theirs alone.  But snowflakes also melt easily.  That means snowflakes - Millennials - need "safe spaces" in order to survive (like a freezer), plus trigger warnings so they know when something bad - like 33 degrees - is just around the corner.

Millennials are young enough to not know a world without most modern conveniences, chief of which being mobile phones.  Technology has been evolving at warp speed ever since the Second World War, but it doesn't seem like any generation has embraced it so completely as generation snowflake.  For example, if Baby Boomers are associated with televisions, and Gen-X'ers with CD players, then Millennials are definitely all about cell phones.  Or maybe social media.  It's kinda hard to tell, since cell phone makers and digital content providers have all but become one these days.

Nevertheless, despite their fascination and adoration of all things social-media-related, Millennials generally seem relationally stunted.  Watch a group of Millennials at the same table in a restaurant - or, more likely, an overpriced coffee shop.  They may be carrying on a conversation with each other, but they won't be talking.  They'll be using their expensive smartphone's chat features.  Cell phones for them constitute an absolutely essential component of functional life.

Older, more mature adults are easily bemused by our Millennials and their apparent immaturity, what with their statistical tendency to live with their parents, even after graduating college.  Their preoccupation with technology over interpersonal relationships.  Their trust in government, their inability to process big-picture problems, their preoccupation with technology, their political liberalism, and their preoccupation with technology.

Millennials would love a world with driverless cars, for example.  Uber is really popular with them.  They want to shop from their phone.  They want to work from home, or from space, or from anyplace where they can still think, create, and "Keep It 100" (which is a Millennial term for "keeping it real").

Attention spans are short.  Minimalism is popular, except when it comes to technology.  Millennials can't have enough technology.

Millennials have FOMO (the "Fear Of Missing Out") so they tend to trend-set in packs.  That's one reason they're glued to their social media so much - they have to know what everybody else is doing, even if all anybody else is doing is checking to see what everybody else is doing.

Granted, there's not a lot unique to Millennials that couldn't also have described previous generations of young adults.  Except that with Millennials, the technology factor runs so deep, this really could be the age cohort that helps usher in the type of social controls previous generations have traditionally viewed with skepticism.

For example, we know about the driverless cars.  About how computers hard-wired into these machines will have the capacity to tell a government - and our car insurance provider - all they want to know about our driving habits.  And about how much higher our insurance rates should be, even if driverless cars are supposed to eliminate accidents (yeah, right...).

We already know that smartphones track our every physical movement.  Online banking has already become a hacker's paradise.  Most of us have some sort of Google profile, optical scanning technology is about to make our biology an integral part of our digital identity, and animals already sport microchips embedded under the skin - a creepy One-World advancement that makes End Times theorists blanch.

Yet Millennials don't seem to care.  Technology is their friend, not their foe.  And it's not just Millennials who are adopting this mindset.  When was the last time you ordered something other than books from  When was the last time you posted videos of your young children on Facebook?  How often do you "balance your checkbook" on a mobile app?

More and more, older adults who should have more common sense are opting for ease and immediacy by letting technology strip just a little bit more of their personal privacy away, one click, one search, one photo at a time.

Today, we learned that Amazon is testing a prototype convenience store in Seattle that will be cashless and clerk-less.  If all goes to plan, starting in 2017, customers will be able to enter an Amazon Go store, activate their Amazon Go app on their smartphone, shop for sandwiches and other items, and then leave, without having to stand in line at a checkout, or even swipe a bar code.

Does that sound cool to you?  Or does it send a little chill of foreboding up your spine?

Your entire shopping trip will be secretly recorded and, presumably, archived by computer.  Digital scanners will track your eye movements, and record the products over which your gaze lingers.  Other scanners will record every product you select - and even return to its place on a shelf - during your visit.  Scanners will even be able to detect portions of the store you entirely ignore.

And most shoppers won't care.  What difference does it make, as long as I can get what I want and pay for it in the shortest, least complicated visit possible?  My life is very hectic.  Every minute I can save by eliminating menial tasks is a valuable minute added to my important life.

Except that somewhere, all of that data Amazon has collected on your one simple visit is being analyzed.  It's being cataloged and tabulated and quantified, along with similar bits of data from every other shopper that visits Amazon Go.  Even if you end up purchasing nothing.  Facial recognition software - even for those without an Amazon Go app on their smartphone - will quietly record your visit for posterity.

After all, how altruistic do you think Amazon really is?  Sure, they want to save you time - or make you think they're saving you time:  That's their schtick.  That's what they're selling you.  That's their true product.

Amazon isn't just selling sandwiches, beverages, and other items.  It's selling convenience, making convenience a commodity.  Sure, other stores have tried to sell you convenience, too, like the 7-11's and Walmart's of the retail world.  But they haven't tracked your movements like Amazon plans to do.  At least, not to the degree Amazon wants to.

Amazon is taking the next big leap in retailing, a leap nobody else has yet been able to.  Amazon is creating a profile of you, the shopper from whom money can somehow be extracted, even if it's in the form of information about you that Amazon can sell to the government or another entity.  Your smartphone service provider also has your profile - including the Internet sites you secretly visit! - and who knows how many other entities have access to your profile!

"So what?" you ask.  Walmart probably knows what products you frequently purchase, and if you do online shopping, you already know that your favorite online retailers have detailed records of what you've already purchased, viewed online, and deposited/deleted from your shopping carts.  You've got nothing to hide, you rationalize.  Whatever makes my life easier, that's a good thing.

But what are you giving away in the process?  All of your personal information has value to these companies.  And every click you make, you're adding value to that trove of information that these companies are compiling and leveraging for their own benefit.

The new thing about Amazon is that now, one of the most basic tasks in life - visiting a convenience store - will become an utterly data-driven, data-rich revenue source for that company - even if you don't buy a thing!

Of course, Amazon isn't saying how it will prevent shoplifting in their prototype, if there's no cashier to at least monitor customer flow.  And nobody's wondering what's going to happen to all of the jobs Amazon could eradicate with their entirely cashless, wand-less checkout.  Currently, approximately 3.5 million people work as cashiers, and while those jobs aren't exactly high-paying, they do employ people whose employment qualifications likely won't easily lend themselves to more sophisticated jobs.

Nevertheless, all of this will likely mean little to Millennials who won't have to stand in line to pay for their overpriced organic salads, overpriced energy drinks, and overpriced flavored waters.  And it might not mean much to everybody else who likes to look down on generation snowflake.  After all, won't it be cool to walk into a store, not have to talk to anybody, not have to wait in any line, and just waltz out, having the cost of your purchase automatically deducted from your bank account?

Until we start thinking about what all of this technology is doing to us behind the scenes, we'll be no less gullible than Millennials - people who we joke are generally too dependent upon others to be independent and self-sustaining.

It's not that technology itself is bad, or is only doing bad things to us.  And it's not like we can individually stop the spread of technology into different facets of life.

Still, do we have to embrace it with an ambivalence towards the personal independence technology tends to suck from us?  Not because having computerized scanners record your every move in a convenience store is evil.  But because the time you're supposedly going to save, and the information about how you shop, is being given away by you in the form of your own data.

How fair is that?  Shouldn't Amazon Go be paying you, then?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Falwell Takes Liberty With MacCaw

What a crock.

Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Virginia, has scooped up one of the leading figures behind a sex assault scandal at Baylor University, a conservative Baptist school in Texas.

Yee-haw... Lookee thar, Slim - Ah guess Bap-ists will be Bap-ists, per-tectin' thar own.

Earlier this year, on May 30, Ian MacCaw resigned as Baylor's athletic director in the midst of allegations that members of the school's football team had been sexually assaulting women with impunity.  While MacCaw has not been directly implicated in any proven cover-up, it has been widely reported that he knew of at least one of the allegations, but apparently, failed to properly report it.

The appearance of MacCaw not appreciating the gravity of sexual assault claims against members of his successful football team was enough for Baylor officials to sanction MacCaw, fire the head football coach, and force the school's president to resign.  MacCaw himself resigned four days after being sanctioned.

At the time, MacCaw piously declared that his resignation wasn't to protect himself, but to "promote the unity, healing and restoration that must occur in order to move forward."

Well, now, apparently, MacCaw has healed and restored himself enough to move forward and eastward, up to Virginia, and a similar position at a similar university.

Which, of course, has many in the media howling with cries of "Foul!"  And this time, they're right.

Yes, there is a wonderful doctrine within orthodox Christianity called redemption, and it would be nice if somebody gave MacCaw a chance to redeem himself and prove that he doesn't put male football players ahead of their girlfriends and other innocent women.  Except... MacCaw had a chance at Baylor to prove that, and so far, all we know is that he high-tailed it out of Waco as soon as he could.  Not exactly a signal of personal virtue, is it?

And yes, there is another wonderful doctrine within orthodox Christianity called forgiveness, but forgiveness sometimes involves sacrifice, and it doesn't necessarily mean that there are no consequences. MacCaw might consider his resignation a form of sacrifice on his part, but interestingly, he resigned after he was censured, not when his dropping the ball and not reporting the assault came to light.  And if he is simply a fall guy in all this, why isn't his personal reputation worth more to him than dropping out of sight, only to resurface a few months later, in the same role, at a similar school?

Talk about whack-a-mole.

Plenty of pundits have already castigated Liberty University for hiring MacCaw, at least so soon after the Baylor scandal hit the fan.  At the very least, the optics here appear to be quite sexist, and even a bit misogynistic.  And they're all correct in pointing out that there should at least be some sort of disciplinary period for MacCaw that should last longer than a college summer break.  What kind of signal is MacCaw making about his own convictions regarding the accusations against him, his fellow Baylor staffers, and his football players?  That it really doesn't amount to much, in his opinion? 

Is he desperate for the money?  It's understandable for an unemployed worker to seek further gainful employment after losing a job, but athletic directors at prestigious schools with lucrative sports programs aren't living paycheck to paycheck, are they?  And if they are, considering the size of their paychecks, maybe there's more wrong here than we already know.

Meanwhile, what about Liberty, and its decision to hire MacCaw?  On the one hand, you can't blame MacCaw for trying to find another job.  But Liberty has been skating on might thin PR ice these months, following its president's personal support of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.  Numerous evangelicals - not to mention many embarrassed Liberty students - criticized Jerry Falwell Jr.'s stance, if for no reason than it put an uncomfortable spotlight on Liberty's supposedly non-profit status.  If anything, Falwell's gushing praise for Trump was not wise or helpful in a fiduciary sense.

And what's this "good man" stuff Falwell keeps harping about?  During Trump's campaign, Falwell repeatedly called the thrice-married, proud adulterer, and casino-owning presidential candidate a "good man."  So, Trump is Falwell's definition of a good man, huh?  Doesn't that actually say more negative things about Falwell than it does Trump?

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Falwell also says MacCaw is a "good man."  Shucks, if I were MacCaw, I might take offense at being characterized in the same way as Trump!

What does it mean to be a "good man" in Falwell's eyes?  Is it just a lame figure of speech for somebody who's supposed to be the educated leader of an educational institution?  Or does Falwell possess some wonky interpretation of "good" that diverges from God's holy interpretation?

In an oddly humorous way, however, Falwell does get at least one thing right with his hire of MacCaw.  "I can’t think of an athletic director in the country who is more sensitized to the importance of complying with the intricacies of Title IX than Ian McCaw," Falwell declared in a press release.

Title IX is the United States Department of Education's protocol for providing a clearinghouse for any form of discrimination at schools receiving any sort of federal funding.  And sex abuse allegations fall under the purview of Title IX administrators who are supposed to make sure collegiate athletic programs keep their players (wink wink, nudge nudge) on the sexually-moral straight-and-narrow.

So yeah, Falwell is correct in that MacCaw has personal relevance with Title IX, after his troubled exit at Baylor.  In that regard, Liberty can be pretty confident that Title IX issues won't be a problem there, at least in the athletic department under MacCaw's watch.  Too many people will now be watching extra closely, almost waiting for the very next infraction to be alleged.

Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that, at least for Falwell, the ends justify the means.  And that's not an acceptable testimony for a supposedly evangelical school official to broadcast to the world.

"Ian’s success really speaks for itself," Falwell crowed during a recent press conference.  "You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure.  It fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going."

In other words, we really don't care if anything happened to those women who claim they were sexually assaulted.  We've got our own athletic department that found a good guy who we were actually able to hire on the cheap, since he's got this big blemish on his record from that stuff at Baylor.

And you don't think sports is its own religion?

“My vision for Liberty is to position it as a preeminent Christian athletic program in America and garner the same type of appeal among the Christian community as Notre Dame achieves among the Catholic community and [Brigham Young University] garners from the Mormons,” gushed MacCaw.

Okay, let's see:  "Feds investigate Notre Dame for possible Title IX violations linked to sexual violence."

And then there's this:  "Brigham Young added to list of schools under federal investigation for handling of sexual assaults."

Now, granted, these cases don't necessarily involve football players, or any school athletes.  But as you can see, if this is the direction in which Falwell wants Liberty to travel, his pick of MacCaw may have credibility after all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hot Air Over Trump's Carrier Deal

Nobody seems sure of what president-elect Donald Trump told Carrier Corporation that made the air conditioning manufacturer reverse its plans to transfer 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

But whether Trump threatened the company with something, or offered them something, Carrier has taken a public about-face and agreed to keep those jobs in the United States.  So far, all we know is that the company will get about $7 million in incentives from the state of Indiana, ostensibly as a gift for staying put, but that money will be spread out over a decade.  So for an employer the size of Carrier, it hardly seems like a valid financial tradeoff.

Still, Trump has spent the day today exulting in this grand - albeit token - demonstration of his business acumen.  After all, as he keeps telling us, he's a billionaire, which must mean that he's a savvy businessman.  And yes, he's made (and lost) a lot of money developing real estate all over the world.  But does that necessarily translate into Trump being an economics wizard?

The reason Carrier was going to shift those 1,000 jobs to Mexico was - and remains - a simple one.  Mexican workers cost far less than American ones.  That's been the main reason why our country has hemorrhaged so many manufacturing jobs over the past several decades:  Foreign workers cost American companies pennies on the dollar, compared with Americans doing the same jobs.

It's a dilemma that has stumped not only American workers, but middle class employees living in every post-industrialized country, from Germany to Japan.  And it's a dilemma that has confounded the brightest economists, who can't agree on how - or even if - we can generate new jobs for Western workers at pay rates Western workers want.  With the specter of robotization looming on the not-too-distant horizon, the chances of rebuilding our manufacturing payrolls seem bleak at best, at least in terms of jobs that can't be done in emerging-economy countries.

But Trump won the presidency based in large part on his promises of "making America great again" by bringing jobs back from overseas.  This small victory with Carrier provides Trump with a patriotic photo-op, and a chance to look super-presidential, but how many similar jobs can be similarly saved in significant enough numbers to make Trump look like he's keeping his promise?

The reason companies fire Americans and transfer work to cheap-labor countries isn't because American employers enjoy putting fellow Americans out of work.  The reason has nothing to do with emotions, or frustration over unrealistic workers unions, or a desire to raise the standard of living for people half a world away.  The reason is all about a company's profit margin.

Wall Street wants companies to grow their profits any way they can.  And lowering a company's overhead is a relatively easy way to do that.  It's not complex economics, or new math, or bizarre logic.  It's simply capitalism exploiting some of its baser, less beneficent characteristics.  

Of course, while many Americans have gone through economic turmoil over the years as their good-paying manufacturing jobs have been shifted overseas, many other Americans have benefited financially from all the offshoring.  The rise of 401(k) retirement accounts proves it.  In order to maximize returns on the stock market, a company shedding expensive workers creates wealth for investors, and many of those investors are white-collar middle class American workers who need a robust 401(k) account to fund their retirement.

So isn't this a sticky quandary we've made for ourselves?  If you think about it, aren't our 401(k)'s (I don't have one, BTW) actually working against us?  At least in terms of retaining current American jobs, and creating new ones for American workers?

American retirees benefit from when companies in their 401(k) portfolio fire workers and downsize their staffing, and the hope is that somehow, somewhere, those newly-jobless fellow Americans find some sort of employment... eventually.  But your financial advisor doesn't tell you about all the people who might have to lose their jobs to sustain the growth of your retirement account.

Indeed, Wall Street makes out like a bandit, forcing companies into an incessant downward spiral of cost-cutting to generate an upward spiral of profits.  Meanwhile, aren't these opposing spirals also creating a vicious circle that ultimately pits average American workers against each other?  Who's the only real winner here?  Isn't it mostly Wall Street?  Might this be one of the reasons we're experiencing such a dramatic economic gap between the classes?  Might the middle class as a whole not really be winning anything, because Wall Street is making money while we're being forced to play fruit basket turnover?

Maybe, maybe not.  Nevertheless, if pay scales were more robust for Americans, and people earned bigger salaries, they'd likely be able to invest in more traditional ways, and save more (what a concept) for their retirement.  Of course, the notion of higher pay brings with it the likelihood that our cost of living would also rise, since people ostensibly would have more to spend on, say, even bigger homes, even more expensive vehicles, and all the other ways people have to spend money.  It's probably not impossible for most Americans to save money these days, but it sure isn't a popular idea, since we tend to base so much of our identity on where we live, what we drive, where we dine, and what we wear.

Back on Wall Street, however, doesn't it seem clear that our employment and benefits system is actually sabotaging itself?  To make things even more frustrating, it's not like any significant change in how retirements are funded could be implemented anytime soon, since today's workers need some sort of financial vehicle to make up for what they're not earning in their pay packets.  And 401(k)'s - for better or worse, for richer or poorer - are the most widely relied-upon financial vehicle they've got.

Not that Trump is perturbed by any of this.  For one thing, his investments rely heavily on real estate, which traditionally has proven to be an incredibly reliable wealth generator.  But for the rest of us, who can't afford to purchase a $1 billion Manhattan office tower, the game we're forced to play at the hands of companies like Carrier is the only game in town.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sanctuary Campus an Idyll of Illogic

You've heard of "sanctuary cities."

Now, apparently, comes the "sanctuary campus."

It's a movement by students at universities across the United States that encourages institutions of higher learning to provide consequence-free zones for anyone on campus - student, staffer, educator - who is in the country illegally.

Tomorrow, reportedly, a mass walkout is being planned at several universities here in north Texas, including the University of Arlington, Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, and Texas Woman's University.  The walkout is aimed at drawing public awareness to the need for sanctuary campuses.

According to organizers of this movement here, the need for sanctuary campuses stems directly from Donald Trump's surprise election as the next president of the United States.  During his campaign, Trump repeatedly promised his supporters that he would expatriate people who are in this country illegally.  Then there was his goofy bluster about building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and somehow forcing Mexico to pay for it.  He recklessly maligned Mexicans as rapists, and cavalierly mocked Hispanics in general.

Indeed, this election was a sordid affair on many levels.  And many people in this country have taken to the streets, marching in angry protest over its results.  And many of those marchers and protesters have been young, idealistic, and impressionable (and easily manipulable) college students.

We've heard the stories of professors giving their students a walk (free pass to not attend classes) to mourn the outcome of the presidential election.  We've heard of professors rescheduling exams, or providing counseling information, so that their grief-stricken students have ways of responding to Trump's win.  Many educators and students alike have betrayed an odd misunderstanding of history and governance with their calls for the Electoral College to be abolished.  They've made a spectacle of themselves, marching to protest no apparent human rights violations, or advocating for a change to the Electoral College that would cause more political disarray than Trump's win could.

Yet one of the most puzzling aspects of Trump's win is the vitriol it has stoked amongst some Hispanics against crucial notions of national sovereignty and the rule of law.  Perhaps this vitriol - they say it's fear, but we all know better - has become more potent to advocates of illegal immigration now that somebody as quixotic and bombastic as Trump will be entering the White House.  America hasn't had a president as untested, untrained, ill-tempered, impulsive, and unapologetically petulant as Trump in quite a while.  Nobody is sure what he will try to do.

What is also unclear is the extent to which schools like the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Arlington can adopt any of the principles of sanctuary campuses.  These two schools are state-run and state-funded, meaning that their control ultimately lies under Texas governor Greg Abbott, an ardent opponent of sanctuary cities.  Which makes it hardly likely that he would be amenable to sanctuary campuses, right?

Yet another puzzlement as to the need for sanctuary campuses regards the strict privacy rules already governing any student's stay at Texas universities, whether public or private.  About the only information school administrators in Texas can release involves whether or not a person is enrolled.  Students can even opt-out of allowing that bit of information to be released, if they so desire.  So the specter of immigration officials sweeping onto a college campus and rounding up students in this country illegally seems remote at best.  Unless advocates of illegal immigration suspect Trump can change the laws to allow such sweeps.

All this continues to unfold, of course, under our country's already bleak tableau of an immigration policy in tatters.  Years and years of bickering over our immigration laws have created a system that is overburdened by demand and underfunded by a cheapskate electorate.  Political partisanship attempts to depict emigres to our nation as either desperate or devious, yet the real stories of why real people want to come here without the proper authorization tend to be far more individualized and complicated than any political party wants to acknowledge.  Then there's the whole saga of anchor babies, separating families, employment and wages, refugees, human trafficking, and possible terrorism.  It's become easier for legal Americans to either shrug their shoulders and say, "let them all in," or throw out their arms and, pointing southward, say "they all need to go back where they came from."

It doesn't help that our mainstream media tends to conveniently drop the "illegal" part of "illegal immigration" from the terminology.  Or that our right-wing media tends to forget that "undocumented" immigrants may actually have legal permission to be here while their paperwork situation is sorted out - a process that takes years, since taxpayers don't want to fully fund our immigration bureaucracy.

With all that is confusing about immigration and illegal immigration, perhaps it's no surprise that college students would be some of the most ardent purveyors of misinformation and inaccuracies on the subject.  After all, they're pretty naive when it comes to the complexities of real life.  A student at the University of North Texas wrote a letter for his fellow students to copy and send to university officials, petitioning for their university to become a sanctuary campus.  And it reeks of naivete.

So let's work through this student's letter, shall we?  After all, correcting errors and misconceptions is a big part of the college experience, right?  And since life is one big educational process, couldn't this letter be part of the instructional preparation a college student should appreciate as they move towards becoming a productive citizen?

Yeah, well, let's go through this exercise anyway.  The corrections are in bolded text:

In the wake of the racially charged and divisive election the faculty, staff, and students of University of North Texas have come together to demand that our university take action and declare itself a sanctuary university. We are not alone in our demands; public universities and private colleges across the country are demanding that their campuses become sanctuaries for students, faculty, and staff who are undocumented, marginalized, and/or at risk.  (First, the term "undocumented" is used in error, since it doesn't necessarily mean the person is here illegally.  Second, the term "marginalized" could refer to somebody who has broken any law, but would students want a convicted rapist running around their campus, for example, claiming they can because it's a sanctuary?  Third, the only people who would be "at risk" would be people who have broken the law... and the United States Constitution does not make any provisions for lawbreakers except for due process.  And isn't due process one of the benefits anybody in the USA should expect?  If we don't have due process for only a certain set of people, who else really should expect it?)

Not only is UNT mobilizing for its own sanctuary campus, but we have built a bridge between the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University as we organize this movement and demand these rights together, as one. Without our demands being met, the University of North Texas will be turning their backs on every person who is marginalized and paying tuition. This would include potential students who will be prevented from gaining access to an education because of their documentation status as well as every faculty and staff member contributing their labor to the education of our future.  (Again, the term "marginalized" is problematic here.  Supposedly somebody who's an English major wrote this.  Not sure the university is getting a strong endorsement of its educational merits with this one.  And threatening the administrators with the lack of funds coming from students being deprived from attending because they're in the country illegally is farcical; it's like warning that a bank robber being sent to jail won't be able to pay to attend... even though online classes could be taken from any country with an Internet connection.)

Our demands align with the UNT’s Core Values and Four Bold Goals. Goal One states that the University will “foster an environment of [...] strong support systems to ensure that more students stay in school, engage in service and campus life, and graduate on time”. Making UNT a sanctuary campus will ensure that those students who are undocumented and/or students who face a daily risk remain in school safely and are able to participate in campus life. Goal Three aims for our university to “become a national leader among universities in student support [and] employee relations”. Making our campus a sanctuary supports its students and employees while they contribute through tuition payments and their labor.  (... regardless of their legal status...?  This student needs to take Logic 101 to understand why this entire paragraph is riddled with fallacies.)

This action will place the University of North Texas in solidarity with institutions of higher education across the nation who have declared themselves a sanctuary campus. Prime examples are Reed College, Columbia, Portland State, and all schools within the California State school system. University of North Texas will be breaking barriers for Texas Universities wishing to become sanctuary campuses by taking the initiative to defend and protect their students, faculty, and staff.  (Wow - defend and protect?  From consequences of the behaviors of students, faculty, and staff who've not abided by the law?  What's next?  Protecting the rapists, drunk drivers, etcetera, etcetera?  If you want to change the immigration laws, then change the immigration laws.  Trying to somehow codify the arbitrary protection of certain people who break certain laws is hardly sound civic judgment.)

- Dear Student:  With apologies for the snide tone of your professor's corrections; but even this is for instructional purposes.  You see, for your petition to be taken seriously, it has to argue on the basis of the merits, not on aspirations based on the troublesome logic of ignoring sovereignty laws.  For example, what are the immigration laws of any Central American and South American country?  I understand you are upset with the way illegal immigration is being handled in the United States, but asking governmental authorities to pretend that certain laws don't exist defies the type of government immigrants supposedly come here to enjoy.