Friday, October 27, 2017

Veep Said It Best

Last week we learned that there are up to 1000 US troops stationed in Niger, a force level that even key senators were not aware of. This follows Donald Trump’s earlier announcement that he will send additional troops to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Such news makes me think of a certain scene from “Veep”, the Emmy-winning farce about a West Wing in disarray. By the way, it’s a portrayal that is looking more realistic and prescient every day.

In this particular scene (season three, episode nine), White House strategist Kent Davison travels to New Hampshire to deliver some urgent news in person to Vice President Selina Meyer. Feeling the full gravity of what he’s about to say – that President Hughes has unexpectedly decided to resign and that Selina will shortly become president – Kent has difficulty beginning.

Noticing Kent’s solemn look, Selina quickly asks him, “What is it? Are we at war?”

Without skipping a beat, he answers, “Ma’am, we’re America. We’re always at war.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Stupid Question

This is a stupid question, but also a serious one. 

Why is the National Anthem played, and people expected to stand, at every pro sports event in the US? As far as I know, this doesn’t happen at hockey or soccer games in Finland, unless it’s an international game. 

If this happens at sports venues, why not at other places where Americans gather in public? Like at movie theaters? You could imagine that after the commercials and trailers of upcoming features, just before the lights go down for the movie itself, a giant American flag would fill the screen and the Anthem would start in surround sound, while the audience rises to its feet. 

Likewise, why not at the ballet, the opera? Why doesn’t every university class begin with the Anthem? Or every business meeting? Or the beginning of every workday in the office? Or the beginning of every shift at the factory? Or every church service, so that before the preacher steps up to the altar, the congregation would stand, forget about God for a moment and gaze lovingly at the flag while the choir sings a lovely rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? 

And should it be only at gatherings? Why not in out in public? There could be speakers on every street corner that would blare out at regular times, or even randomly, a recording of the Anthem, forcing pedestrians to stop and display their patriotism by standing with their hands over their hearts for a couple of minutes before hurrying on down the sidewalk. 

Why only at sports events? 

Thursday, October 5, 2017


As part of my ongoing struggle to learn Finnish, I have now and then tried reading various books suomeksi. One of these I recently took a stab at (once again) is “The Thousand-mile Walk to the Gulf” by the legendary 19th century naturalist and conservation evangelist John Muir. It’s the account of his walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, just after the Civil War.

One passage I ran across about a man he encountered along the way struck me as surprising resonate to today:

Matkasin muutaman mailin vanhan tennesseeläismaanviljelijän kanssa, joka oli hyvin kiihtynyt juuri kuulemistaan uutisista. ”Kolme kuningaskuntaa, Englanti, Irlanti ja Venäjä, on julistaneet sodan Yhdysvalloille. Voi, se on kamalaa, kamalaa”, hän sanoi. ”Taas on sota alkamassa, ja vielä näin äkkiä oman ison tappelumme jälkeen. No, ei kai sille mitään voi, enkä mä voi muuta sanoa kuin eläköön Amerikka, mutta parempi olisi, jos mitään kärhämää ei tulisi.”

”Mutta oletko varma, että uutiset pitävät paikkansa?”, minä kysyin. ”Kyllä vaan”, hän vastasi, ”sillä mä ja muutama naapuri oltiin kaupassa eilen illalla, ja Jim Smith, joka osaa lukea, luki tän jutun sanomalehdestä.”

I traveled a few miles with an old Tennessee farmer who was very excited about news he had just heard. “Three kingdoms, England, Ireland and Russia, have declared war on the United States. Oh, it is horrible, horrible,” he said. “Again, war is coming, and yet so soon after our own big fight. Well, I don’t suppose anything can be done about it. The only thing I can say is hooray for America, but it would be better if there were no squabbles.”

“But are you sure that the news is correct?”, I asked. “Sure,” he answered. “Me and a few neighbors were at the store yesterday evening, and Jim Smith, who can read, read the story from the newspaper.”

Needless to say, no such war had been declared. Ireland? Really?

In today’s environment -- where reality itself seems to be in dispute at every turn and what you think really happens in the world will depend on which media you consume -- the farmer’s falling for a 19th century version of fake news somehow feels familiar.

From this you might be tempted to think Muir's account shows that, in this regard, there’s nothing new under the American sun. But, still, you can’t blame an illiterate farmer for trusting his friend Jim’s recitation of an erroneous newspaper story. It’s not as if he could Google “Ireland declares war”!

Today’s Americans, with so many ways to receive and double-check the news, have no such excuse for falling for stories that are demonstrably false (like Trump's claim that at least 3 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in the US election, depriving him of a popular-vote victory), while at the same time crying “fake!” every time they encounter legitimate news (such as Russia’s election meddling) that goes against their politics. 

But that doesn't stop many from doing it anyway. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trump at Sea

I admit this is me being nit-picky, we go.   

To explain why emergency aid has been seen as arriving more slowly to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria than it did to the similarly affected areas of Texas and Florida, Trump said this: 

“It’s an island, sitting in the middle of the ocean. And it’s a big ocean. It’s a very big ocean.” 

Now it must be said, Trump is correct, at least in his first three words. Being an island means Puerto Rico is much harder to reach. The logistics are completely different from sending aid to Houston. 

But rather than just stating this simple fact, Trump couldn’t resist adding a rhetorical flourish that is so characteristic of him: unnecessary exaggeration, hyperbole that puts Trump in the best possible light, or explains away his shortcomings. It’s something I find so infuriating about him. 

Puerto Rico is not in the middle of the ocean. It’s not Bora Bora. It’s about 1000 miles from Mar-a-Lago, about the same distance as between Mar-a-Lago and Manhattan, a distance I’m sure Trump can easily grasp. Trump probably really does understand Puerto Rico is in America’s backyard, but it suits him to downplay that fact. 

By informing the American public how incredibly remote Puerto Rico supposedly is (“I can tell you, it’s remote, so remote. You won’t believe how remote it is. Nobody knows how the hell to even get there. Believe me. It’s so far away that everyone speaks Spanish!”), Trump hopes to get a pass for making Puerto Ricans wait so long for some presidential attention. 

Of course, this is Trump's go-to tactic of distorting facts (or making them up out of whole cloth) to fit a narrative in some way positive to himself. Some may call it "being disingenuous". Others may call it lying. He does it all the time. 

If Trump thinks exaggerating the “remoteness” of Puerto Rico lets him off the hook (somewhat) for a slow relief effort, God help the folks in Hawaii (2300 miles from the US mainland) if they ever need help. Or consider poor Guam, now in the nuclear crosshairs of Kim Jong-un. That tiny US territory really does sit in the middle of a very big ocean, 5500 miles from the West Coast (though a bit closer to Alaska). 

In the world according to Trump, those places might as well be on Mars.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Funny what you do and don’t remember from your childhood.

As someone who grew up in Georgia in the 1960s, I have no concrete memory of ever pledging allegiance to the American flag in school. Maybe we did it every day, and did it so routinely and mechanically that there was nothing memorable about doing it. 

(In the same vein, I don’t remember putting on my pants every morning before school – except the one morning when there was a scorpion in my jeans, something which I remember very well indeed  yet, I’m confident I never went to school pantsless. Despite all those dreams.)

It makes me wonder whether we actually ever did recite the pledge, as many conservative friends so often fondly recollect doing, if their Facebook comments are to be believed. I really do wonder.

What I do remember very plainly from those days was the glorification of a different flag.

Regularly, we students at Southwestern Elementary would gather in the cafeteria to watch educational films. These are the kinds of seriously earnest films that many might be considered hokey today. I remember only a couple.

One was “A Desk for Billie”, a story about a bright, young girl named Billie from a migrant family (in this case a family of Depression-era agricultural workers constantly on the move from place to place across the country) and how a sympathetic teacher helped her adjust to yet another new school and unfamiliar classmates. At least, that’s how I remember it. Another film was about a man who failed to heed his own wise and fatherly advice to his children about safe driving habits and got himself killed.

In any case, every one of these edifying little movies we watched began with a few seconds giving credit to the Georgia Department of Education for providing the film. These few seconds consisted of the image of the state flag of Georgia suddenly filling the screen, while the blackface minstrel tune “Dixie” blared from the speakers.

It is one thing I clearly remember from my school days. It’s as if it was seared into my brain. Which, of course, was the purpose. Keep in mind that, at the time, the Georgia state flag mostly consisted of the Confederate battle flag, a favorite symbol, then as now, among white supremacist groups.

That symbol had been added to the state flag just a few years before I started school, during a time of increased agitation over segregation (the American version of apartheid). The US government was in the process of trying to end segregation. The Georgia government was trying to keep it intact and resented any interference from Washington in the matter.

By prominently exposing (you might say “subjecting”) school kids to the new, segregationist flag  all to the accompanist of “Dixie” – the state government no doubt hoped to drive home a certain message. And it was not that “all men are created equal”. 

The fact that I don’t remember a morning ritual of pledging allegiance to the American flag, but can still vividly recall the propagandization of a symbol of racism makes me wonder:  where exactly were we impressible kids being taught our allegiance should lie.