Deepening the quagmire

I dislike writing about the Middle East. It’s a quagmire in which all sides stubbornly resist serious efforts to reach a peaceful compromise. Lots of blame to go around.

But let’s be honest: Benjamin Netanyahu is grabbing for an extra share of blame. And let’s let him have it. Really. First, you’ll recall, he stepped into U.S. foreign policy — aided and abetted by a core of right-wing Republicans — to try and sabotage a nuclear agreement with Iran. That was despicable, and it was a crucial part of Netanyahu’s pitch for re-election, and one in which he was successful. Of course, his last-minute political denunciation of any hope for a two-state agreement in the Middle East sabotaged any prospect of meaningful peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Winning election on the backs of political sabotage is shameful. Right-wing radicals in Israeli are pleased with the results; everyone who thinks and cares about Israel’s future is or should be worried.

Netanyahu’s actions now threaten Israel’s stability in the world. Some leaders in Europe are now discussing imposing economic sanctions on Israel for its anti-peace decisions. The United States may well decide not to oppose support for a Palestinian state in the United Nations. Political backing for Israel in this country is slipping. And don’t blame that on anti-Semitism; that’s a canard. The reason is opportunistic politicians who are endangering their own country.

I’m not suggesting the United States abandon its support for the Israeli nation. Israel remains and should remain an ally. But we should not accept our ally’s political behavior when it pushes against the best interests of our country. We must do what is best for America. I can’t conceive under any circumstances for that to include abandoning Israel, but I can see us asserting our own needs on the world stage even when that alarms right-wingers in Israel. Nor can I see all of the nations of the Middle East remaining America’s enemies forever. Eventually there must be a peace, one that not only ensures Israel’s survival but also allows for others to live in peaceful proximity — if they will.

Netanyahu’s words this past week sadly and regrettably suggest to the rest of civilization that peace is now farther away. And — this is important — do not forget that Netantahu has been bankrolled all the way by the American Jewish gambling casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson owns a partisan newspaper in Israel which toadies to Netanyahu and the worst instincts of the radical Likud political party. What seems so disgraceful is that in his actions Adelson has been guilty of selling out America in order to encourage Netanyahu’s feckless, irresponsible behavior. In doing so, he and his Jewish allies may find a serious backlash developing in American attitudes towards Israel. And Adelson could find himself with another label by a lot of Americans: a Judas.

Deserving Bedfellows

With friends like Israel, do we really need enemies? It seems an understandable question to ask after the embarrassing, empty and condescending speech to Congress by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday. But of course the answer is that Israel is a friend, a close ally of the United states. It is necessary, however, to recognize that there is a difference the state of Israel and its leaders. We support Israel – but Mr. Netanyahu deserves little.

Everything about his address smelled badly. First, he should never have been invited. That the invitation came from an incompetent simpleton named John Boehner — whose recent behavior makes me wonder if he is becoming unhinged — was nothing less than an insult to the President and to this country. Which, of course, was exactly what Boehner intended. The invitation was extended because the irresponsible Republicans in Congress (that’s not all of them, just a big majority) oppose the President’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, and anything that might prevent that is acceptable.

The insult was real. Can you imagine the reaction of those same shameless Republicans had a foreign leader been invited to address Congress in 2003 opposing President Bush’s Iraq invasion? Their whines would still be heard, and rightly so. But they are without decency and common sense in this instance, swooning over Netanyahu as if he were a rock star instead of a careless, unprincipled politician whose actions have done as much if not more to block Middle East peace than George Bush.

In his address, Netanyahu sharply criticized current negotiations with Iran, warning they imperil the safety of his country. Do we need the leader of a foreign nation telling us what our policies should be? As long as our President is a black man named Obama, I’d say the Republicans would answer with an almost unanimous “yes.” It is to me condescending, rude and insulting. And wrong. Netanyahu offers nothing, only opposition to negotiations. He doesn’t and trust the Iranians. Well, neither do we, but a negotiated deal is better than nothing, allowing the Iranians to spur development of nuclear weapons, They’ve already made clear addition all economic sanctions won’t prevent them. And no one in their right mind currently suggests we start bombing Iran to stop it. Oops, did I forget John McCain?

Netanyahu says we can’t trust and work with the Iranian government. So if they are so intent on dominating the Middle East, no nuclear agreement will stop them, right? So what’s left to keep them from getting the bomb? Regime change? Well, yes, that was the unspoken part of his address, unspoken because he knows that after our misguided Iraq invasion, we’re not about to throw tens of thousands of Americans into a war with Iran. And if Netanyahu is so intent on securing peace in the region, how about putting an end to continuing Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

Nope, no mention of that in the speech. No touches of political reality entered the conversation between the Prime Minister and the Republicans. Opportunism was the dominant element of the day. Shameless, senseless Republicans and a crooked, smirking politician from Israel make unsurprising bedfellows, don’t they?

Enjoy Your Flight

The airlines are the most reliably honest corporations doing business these days. I know what you’re thinking — I’ve done nothing but rant against the airlines for years now. And you’re right. But the fact is the airlines are laughably up-front about their greediness and lack of interest in customer service (exception: if you purchase first-class seats for your flights, you are on their “treat-’em-right” list and should disregard the following).

What prompts this is the news that Delta — the airline I flew all the time since it overwhelmed other carriers at the Atlanta airport near my home — has made a lot of money in 2014. Profits at Delta are up, up and away, driven in part by higher fares, exorbitant fees and lower gas prices.

In fact, Delta reports it saved some $52 billion last year because of lower prices the airline had to pay for gasoline for its planes. So, you wonder, will Delta lower its fares as part of its concern for its passengers? You are surely joking, right? Delta says it will use the money to make its bottom line look better. Listen to Delta’s DEO, Richard Anderson:

“The first order of use is to continue to reduce our net debt, and the second order will be higher cash returns for our owners.” You have to really appreciate that kind of corporate honesty: Screw the customers, we’re looking after our investors. Of course, given Delta’s lack of interest in reducing fees and making seats comfortable — even tolerable — what else should we expect? And, to be honest about it, Delta is not alone; these words could as easily echo from the mouths of the CEO at any other American airline.

With strong demand, packed planes, reduced in-flight services, customers willingly paying outrageous fees and tolerating increasingly uncomfortable flying circumstances, why should Delta or any other airline be worried? Beats me — it seems a near perfect collision of greed and need. Don’t look for any changes anytime soon. Enjoy your next flight.

Looking Ahead with Trepidation

A few thoughts about the American economy c. 2015 …..

Can we please stop with all the caterwauling about how falling oil prices are ruining the economy? They aren’t ruining anything. And they’re helping tens of millions of Americans save millions of dollars, thereby improving the economy. This is not a rant–it’s factual. The federal government estimates that the typical American household is on track to save an average of $750 on fuel bills in 2015. If you’re a billionaire — or a Republican voter — that apparently won’t enter into your thinking. For the rest of us, however, that’s a huge boost, the equivalent of a major tax break for America’s middle class.

So why the whining? Well, stock market investors in oil companies have taken a hit. Big oil companies have slowed their digging. They have warned of job reductions if low prices continue. And you know what? There’s no way in hell or anywhere else that that is more important than the good news for so many Americans. The savings for American families has more than offset — by ten times at least — the gross domestic product represented by oil and gas industry development, according to The New York Times.

Now a lot of people are celebrating this. Republican congressmen seem to be alarmed by it, expressing fear that a shortfall in production will cause prices to jump. Well, prices are going to go back up because oil prices will rise eventually. The rise and fall is part of the capital market. We’ve all suffered when prices were up (and oil companies were making huge profits) — and those same Republican congressmen griped about it — but now that it’s down and the middle class is reaping benefits, the Republicans (John Boehner, Ted Cruz and the rest of you, I’m talking to you) are sounding concerned.

These are the same party which has reduced federal food stamp benefits for millions of poorer Americans. This is the same party that has fought to stop Obamacare, charging that it will drive up costs for everyone when the facts now show it is lowering costs for millions. That’s not a face — that’s what’s happening. This is the party that hurls its utmost energy into battles to keep the wealthy from having to pay any more in taxes while showing scant concern for the middle class.

This is also the party of the climate change deniers. The party whose platform opposes gay marriages. The party that opposes women’s birth rights. This is the party on the wrong side of almost every important social change in the United States in the last 30 years. And this is the party that controls both houses of the U.S. Congress.

That’s the hardest part to explain — why have voters supported politicians whose interests are so aligned against those of the middle class? These congressmen — admittedly like too many of their Democratic counterparts — have shown their only interest lies in getting re-elected. And in condescending to the basest of their constituents. And their constituents have fallen for it. Thinking about it, you have to bemoan the intellectual state of the Republican voter in this country.

There is no way to connect intelligence and thoughtfulness and compassion with people like Congressmen Louis Gohmert, Ted Yoho, Ted Cruz, Steve King and … well, sadly, it’s way too easy to go on with a listing. It makes for a depressing commentary on the state of American politics and the state of American voters. There’s a dumbness about too many of them that is frightening for this country’s future. And that’s not elitism, either. Far from it. It is rather speaking to a narrowness, a callowness, a willingness to place personal interests far above national interests. Our founding fathers would surely find this almost unimaginable and those who perpetrate it — politicians and voters — to be disgraceful and undeserving.

Enter 2015

What a year 2015 promises to be!

Americans bringing back cigars from Cuba legally. Eating French fries again instead of those “Freedom” fries. A year year free of presidential politics. OK, I may have misstepped with that last one. In fact, since Chris Christie has spent more time in Iowa than New Jersey in the last 12 months suggests I am not just overly optimistic but downright bonkers. We are in full-bore presidential freak-out even though it’s a year before the primaries.

It’s somewhat amusing to think about the possibilities for Democrats, but blessed folly to consider the Republicans. For the Demos, as we know, it will be Hilary against the field, which at the present time includes only Jim Webb (who?). Will a long-shot show up a la Barack Obama in 2008 to take away the Clinton’s marbles? I have no idea.

Nor do I really have an educated guess about the Republicans, but then again who does? It’s just dizzying fun to consider the options: Rick Perry (memory loss?). Rick Santorum (Google him). Scott Walker (who?). Jeb Bush (can’t see the forest for the Bushes). Chris Christie (America needs a bully). Mike Huckabee (good for book sales). Herman Cain (oh please, please yes). Marco Rubio (ready to lead the Roughriders back to Cuba). Ted Cruz (when hell freezes over. And over). Mitt Romney (you’re kidding, right?).

Take a deep breath and look over that field — is there anyone, really anyone, you want to cast a vote for in 2016? My hope is that we’re looking at the wannabes and not someone who may actually run and win. Someone qualified. Someone intelligent, outspoken, progressive, capable, someone with a vision for this country that includes all strata of its citizens, from the poorest to the richest, from the neediest to the least deserving. Someone with passion, compassion, leadership and … oh who am I kidding. Forget that and let’s all just get behind Ted Yoho.

OK, I’m kidding again. I just like writing the name Ted Yoho.

007 Comes to New Hampshire?

The online headline really grabbed my attention last week: “James Bond Sequel To Film in New Hampshire.”

Talk about WOW! The story reported that fans of the Bond movies were having mixed feelings about the surprise change of locations for the upcoming 24th film in the hugely popular series. “A Bond film is known for its exotic locales, so I get a little nervous when I read about director Sam Mendes securing the rights to shoot in downtown Concord and scouting covered bridges for the opening action sequence,” fan Peter Harris said in response to the absolutely astonishing news.

The film, according to the article, will feature Agent 007 tracking a shadowy terrorist organization through conservation centers, hiking trails, maple syrup farms and craft museums throughout the rural state, culminating in a final confrontation at the Franklin Pierce Homestead. Fans were also reportedly divided over the decision to change the name of the film from “Spectre” to “Live Free Or Die.”

OK, by now, even the densest of readers must have realized something is amiss. As indeed it is, since this news report appeared in The Onion, the satiric newspaper that re-imagines the news as sort of a parallel universe. (Other recent headlines: “Elderly Woman Begins Freezing Meals Husband Can Eat While She’s Passed Away” and “Desperate GOP Spotted in South Dakota Trying to Build Keystone Pipeline Themselves.”). You get the idea, I’m sure.

But stop and think about it for a moment. Why shouldn’t 007 traipse around our beloved Granite State disposing of spies and various and assorted bad guys? What better place for the villains to hide than somewhere in the Great North Woods where the lakes are called Connecticut Lake 1 and Connecticut Lake 2? Who but Bond would ever figure out they’re actually in New Hampshire and not The Nutmeg State?

I see a lot of opportunities for James Bond’s escapades in New Hampshire to thrill the most sated of adventure-loving moviegoers.

Can’t you just see the drama and surprise afoot when Bond pursues the evil ones up Mount Washington? They’re all dressed like Palm Beach tourists at the base, but as they proceed upward — using the cog railway would give everyone plenty of time to admire the gorgeous scenery — only 007 understands the temperature will drop by 40 degrees and it will be snowing by the time they get to the top, the villains now helplessly shivering and easy prey for the master spy.

When something as harmless and charming as Keene’s Pumpkin Festival goes awry, who better to resolve all the issues than 007 with his amazing array of gadgets (like a pumpkin device that wraps would-be miscreants harmlessly in an orange, gooey substance that smells a lot like a pie)?

And for that big finish for the film at the Franklin Pierce Homestead, wouldn’t it be thrilling to have the film’s stars taking time during the derring-do to talk about the accomplishments of the nation’s 14th President, skipping over only those parts about his excuses for slavery, his denunciation of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and his generally high ranking among America’s worst Presidents (talking about you, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan).

Heck, maybe the fabled secret agent could somehow even manage to penetrate the ultra-secretive offices of FairPoint Communications to bring an end to the onerous strike that has crippled phone service for many Granite Staters. Wouldn’t that be worth at least a standing ovation in the theaters?

Frankly, I can’t wait for the filming to start. I’m already smiling at the prospect of Daniel Craig jostling for space with the likes of Hilary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and everyone else who’s spending some serious quality time in New Hampshire.

I’m not sure we’re big enough for all of them to co-exist. In which case they may spillover to Vermont, which could lead us to a round dairy farms, maple syrup stands, cheese makers and unpaved roads. And — could you imagine the bad guys trying to make a successful getaway anywhere during our mud season?

The Joy of Losing

The start of a new basketball season brings back dismal thoughts of my own hoops career, an experience even shorter than Scott Brown’s New Hampshire political career.

It would have been longer — my career, that is — had I just been a little taller, a tad faster, a better shooter, more energetic, more interested and owned a decent pair of gym shoes. Of course, no one on my team had many of those things either. We were pretty pitiful, really. Even considering all the other junior high school teams.

We went winless for the one season I was on the team. Mercifully, I don’t recall any of the scores — or much of anything else, thank goodness — except that we were, to put it pleasantly, slaughtered every time we ventured on the court.

Recalling those painful memories recently brought up another group of losers: the 1916 Cumberland College football team, a squad I could have played for had I been alive in 1916. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how many of the Cumberland players were alive once their game with Georgia Tech was finished.

If you don’t happen to know, Cumberland College (located in Tennessee) set a record that October day in 1916 that stands unchallenged almost 100 years later and seems certain to remain forever in the record books: they lost to Georgia Tech 220-0.

That’s not a misprint. 220 to zero. And you think you’ve had a bad day? I know all about it because I used to attend some Georgia Tech football games and followed the team’s history. When I came upon the story of that Cumberland game, my jaw dropped in laughter. Moments later, however, I was almost overcome with a rush of sympathy for those Cumberland players, seeing them in the light of my own miserable basketball experience.

How could anyone get beat so badly? Cumberland trailed 126-0 at halftime, so Tech clearly took no pity on its hapless opponent and outscored them 96-0 in the second half. Talk about piling on. So why did Tech go for such a massacre?

I at first assumed it was because Cumberland was so bad And they were, to be sure. The school had given up football the previous year but was obligated by contract to play Tech, so they rounded up 14 players — some of them law students, and any of whom probably would have qualified to be on our junior high hoops team — and went to Atlanta. The odds were obviously against them. But there’s more to the story.

The Georgia Tech coach, John Heisman (for whom the Heisman Trophy is named), was also Tech’s baseball coach, and his team had been clobbered 22-0 by Cumberland earlier in that year. Heisman was angry about that and also believed Cumberland had used a few professional players in its rout. He apparently determined his revenge and got it. His Tech team scored every time they had the ball, and they never threw a pass. The didn’t have to; they ran for an amazing total of 978 yards.

The official records of the game are few, the anecdotes are many. Coach Heisman is reported to have told his team at halftime — leading, you remember, 126-0 — that
“We`ve got to be alert, men . . . you just can`t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. Hit `em clean, but hit `em hard!”

The good news to take away from this absolutely true tale — you can look it up — is that not a single member of the Cumberland team died on the field. In fact, in later years some of those who participated reminisced fondly about their experience. They recalled that as a warmup for Tech a several weeks earlier, the little band of volunteers played Sewanee and lost 107-0. I suppose there’s a moral in there somewhere; you can figure it out.

Anyhow, my basketball team never got embarrassed on that scale. Nope, we just got plain old embarrassed game after game after game. Our player’s parents started finding excuses not to attend the games (“Your sister has to have new ballet shoes; we’ll see you back at home”). I do believe one of our assistant coaches actually faked being sick one afternoon so he didn’t have to show up.

It was, I suppose, on the whole, sort of a learning experience. I learned what it was to be a loser. And to share being part of an entire team full of losers. And please spare me thoughts about “everyone’s a winner” in competing; that’s hooey. We were losers.

But more importantly, I learned from that awful season that I really wanted to be the sports editor of the high school newspaper. It is, I found out, a lot more fun to write about losers than to be one. Not much of a moral there, I guess, but it worked out pretty decently.

A Welcome Decison

In a decision ending decades of irrationality and brining the United States squarely into the 21st century, President Obama has wisely decided to recognize Cuba. The fact that Cuba is a mere 90 miles from the U.S. mainland attests to how silly this non-recognition policy has been ever since the 1960s. Of course, we had to punish Fidel Castro for his rebel-led rebellion that thwarted the best efforts of the CIA back in the ’50s, when that agency was overthrowing legitimately elected governments all over Latin America. Surely you didn’t think CIA torture program was the agency’s only mishap, did you? Try reading “The Brothers” by New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer for a grim and revealing look at the CIA’s work with the enthusiastic backing of the government back in the ’50s and early ’60s.

But back to Cuba. The President’s action is being hailed by everyone with some common sense, which of course excludes the anti-Castro community in South florida, Which has held this country’s policy hostage for five depressing decades. Representative of that is Florida Rep. Marco Rubio, who, sounding like a Cold War relic, warns of how this decision will threaten America’s national security (a Cuban military invasion of Key West?). Rubio, naturally, is just spouting politics; he wants to secure the electoral votes of Florida for his 2016 presidential bid. Ironically and entertainingly, incoming Senate President Mitch McConnell says his thoughts about Cuba are whatever Marco Rubio thinks “because he’s the expert.” So much for Mitch’s intellectual chops; whatever someone else thinks works fine for him. Keeps him from having to think very much, which apparently is both painful and too often comes up empty.

Anyhow, re-establishing relations with Cuba will prove a boon to the Cuban people our policy has professed to help but which has in actuality only hurt economically. Of course Cubans are happy about it along with the prospect of an end of lessening of the fault-ridden and unsuccessful boycott. It will ultimately prove good for U.S. businesses and tourists. It already is having a positive impact on U.S. relations with the rest of the continent. Think about that, Mitch.

Of course a lot of Republicans will oppose this. After all, it comes from President Obama, who is the Satan of America. Maybe, just maybe, common sense will win out. It’s long overdue.

One Christmas at a Time, Santa Belichick

Imagine the scene. It’s almost Christmas at the North Pole. The elves are scrambling here and there on their many tasks, and ‘ol Santa Claus himself is overseeing the blur of activities. During a break in the afternoon, Santa agrees to hold a press conference to answer questions about the holiday preparations from eager members of the media.

Here’s a transcript of that press conference between media members and Santa, who is disguised as Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, wearing a Christmas hoodie and an impatient scowl.

Santa (Belichick): OK, let’s go.

Media: Santa, how are the preparations coming?

Santa: Everything is fine. We’re taking it one toy at a time.

Media: How would you characterize your mood Santa?

Santa: I’m not interested in moods, only in the job we have to do.

Media: Oh come on, Santa, how is your mood on this eve of the big holiday.

Santa: (unsmiling) Jolly.

Media: What special things are your elves up to today?

Santa: We want to keep everyone focused on getting ready.

Media: Are some toys in demand this season?

Santa: I’m just focused on getting ready.

Media: We notice one of the elves appears to be hurt. Will he miss out on the fun?

Santa: I’m not going to talk about that.

Media: Why not?

Santa: We are focusing on the upcoming holiday.

Media: How is Mrs. Claus doing this year?

Santa: (extra scowling) No comment.

Media: Will Mrs. Claus be making you some cookies and cakes for your long journey?

Santa: We are taking it one toy at a time.

Media: How is Rudolf? Will he join the other reindeers this season?

Santa: I’m not going to talk about personnel.

Media: What are you willing to talk about Santa?

Santa: Staying focused on the job we have to do.

Media: Could you tell us how you plan to get down all those chimneys in one night?

Santa: I’m not going to say anything that might give away our game plan. Are there any more questions?

Media: How do you manage to get everything done year after year Santa?

Santa: We’re making one toy at a time.

Santa: Is everything alright here Santa?

Santa: Next question?

Media: Santa, how come you’re wearing a hoodie and not that red suit.

Santa: (Silence) (Serious scowling)

Media: Is there anything else you want to say, Santa?

Santa: No.

Media: Well then, Merry Christmas, Santa.

Santa: We’ll see.

(End of Transcript)

Helping the Few

The Manchester (NH) Union Leader, our state’s comically Republican newspaper, is on a mission. Fix the economy. Fix it while there’s still time before the Granite state becomes a New England economic afterthought. Bring back the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s when we were a leader among our neighbors.

That’s the clarion call, urged in a front-page editorial by the newspaper’s publisher in support of an interesting Republican/Libertarian column written by Charles Arlinghaus, who is identified as associated with a free-market (surprise!) think tank in Concord. His column contrasts the days of yore when the state’s economy surged to the last 10 years when it has lagged. Let’s see now — does that reflect economic trends at any other state in the Union? Well, generally speaking, about 38 of them, nearly all outside the South and Southwest.

The column by a no doubt well-intentioned and intelligent man — and the publisher’s declaration — pinpoint New Hampshire’s high business tax rate as the prime mover in the state’s “disintegrating” business economy. And the solution, they write in phrases that could easily have come from any chamber of commerce manifesto — is to lower the tax rates so more businesses will come here, more jobs will be created, high energy costs will evaporate and everyone will be happier. It’s a win-=win proposition if you don’t involve the people of New Hampshire who aren’t well-off Republicans (or like-minded) like the newspaper publisher and his columnist.

How will cutting the tax rates for business help maintain the expanded Medicaid program that provides at least some health coverage for 50,000 or so Granite Staters? How will be pay for getting our roads and bridges — indeed, our entire infrastructure — repaired and maintained? And where’s the evidence that the number of these new high-paying jobs to be created will amount to anything meaningful for the unemployed, minimally employed or elderly population? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to talk about minimum wage increases to help New Hampshire’s most needy get by a little easier?

Actually, no, not in the plans espoused in the Union Leader. Theirs is a simple Republican agenda that hasn’t worked in the past: help those so-called “job creators” make work for others. There’s been precious little work as a result of these efforts, and no one in the white, well-off, entitled community of Republicans and their sympathizers has shown that these job creators do anything other than improve their own situations.

Wouldn’t it be nice to read a front-page editorial that called for anything — anything — that would actually help the profound majority of Granite Staters and not just the privileged few? It won’t be coming anytime soon from the editorial pages of the Union Leader.