Monthly Archives: October 2016

Your Words Matter

black-lives-matter 

 Of course blue lives matter. Of course all lives matter. Just don’t say it that way, or use those words on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, unless you want to announce to the world that you think blacks are second-class citizens, and should shut up now and accept their place as permanent suspects in American society.

Because that is what you are really saying when you respond to a legitimate movement with words clearly designed to negate or belittle it.

Words have meaning, and the contexts in which they are used have meaning. The same is true of images and symbols. As an aside, I’ll give you an example.

I do not, and likely never will, display the American flag on my home, car, or clothes.

I must hate my country, right?

Wrong. I like my country. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes it disappoints me. I don’t believe in nationalism, or American exceptionalism, and I do think some countries do certain things better overall than we do, but dammit, I was born here and I live here and I’ll stand up for it in many ways. (Constitutional freedoms and protections: Yes. US World Cup team: Yes. Most wars: No.) I also love its many great cities and its beautiful mountains and lakes and seashore—and its wonderfully diverse people. I don’t think I’d be as happy in Russia, or wherever it is conservatives tell liberals to go and live these days.

But none of that has much to do with why I would never fly the American flag. The reason is, I understand its symbolic meaning. So do most people, whether they realize it or not.

For as long as I can remember, the Republican Party has claimed to be the party of patriotism while portraying their opponents and critics as being soft on communism (then) and terrorism (now). They claim to be on the side of God and country and family values. They wave their flags and talk about making America great again. And they blame tree-huggin’ war-protestin’ welfare-cheatin’ gay-lovin’ Black Lives Matterin’ liberals for the nation’s supposed moral decay.

It doesn’t matter how wrong or hypocritical they may be. It does matter that they have succeeded in associating the display of the American flag with right-wing beliefs and bluster and intolerance. In my opinion, that is the tone of the message that displaying the flag sends. I don’t identify with that, so I wouldn’t fly a flag. That’s all. No disres7pect to you, United States of America.

Back to Black Lives Matter, a protest movement that sprang up when the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men became too much to bear any longer without speaking up. A young black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by police than his white counterpart, according to a ProPublica study of more than 30 years of statistics reported to the FBI by local police departments. Because the numbers are self-reported, and many departments don’t report at all, the disparity could be worse.

In any case, the statistics validate the anecdotal narrative we see played out over and over in the news: Police kill unarmed blacks with frightening regularity, perhaps because the ones who pull the triggers know they will almost always get away with it, and also, perhaps, because they harbor an irrational fear that all black men are inherently dangerous. Whatever the reasons, it is an epidemic, and trying to cure it needs to be a national priority.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a lot of people, black and white, saying enough is enough. Hard evidence supports the need for this movement. To counter with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” is just a way of saying you don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement—and that deaths of innocent blacks are the acceptable collateral damage of robust law enforcement. If your cause really needs a movement, maybe you can come up with an original slogan that isn’t just a smack in the face to an entire race.

***

Have you shared a fake news story on Facebook today?

If you’re a Facebook user, you should be aware by now how many fake (or extremely distorted) news stories are pinging around the Internet—stories to discredit Democrats, stories to discredit Republicans, stories appearing to discredit Democrats but actually meant to discredit Republicans for being so outrageously false, etc., etc. And of course, wacky and sensational stories that don’t shape opinions so much as they fatten some geek’s bank account because they get so many shares and click-throughs. I don’t know if this by-product of user-driven content will affect this election in any discernable way, but it has never been this bad, has it?

Facebook has tried, and failed miserably, to dam this flood. And for the really gullible people who actually believe Obama was born in Kenya to Muslim parents from Mars, and that Hillary is sending drones out to confiscate your guns and poisoning your water supply with drugs that will turn your children gay, what will this mean after the election when the crazies are looking for reasons to start an armed insurrection?

All I know is, something is terribly wrong when a story from Fox News looks refreshingly credible.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

Random Thursday

jimmy-carter

Jimmy Carter did graduate work in nuclear physics at Union College in 1953. The Navy man was preparing to become an engineering officer for a nuclear power plant (previously, he had helped shut down the Chalk River reactor in Canada after a partial meltdown, and then worked on a nuclear submarine at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna). With this background, it may seem ironic that he had trouble pronouncing “nuclear” correctly (like George W. Bush after him, Carter said “nuk-u-lar”), but he has been defended by people in the industry who say that the “nuk-u-lar” pronunciation is common inside the labs.

But Carter, who had graduated from the US Naval Academy, did not finish his graduate degree at Union. His father died and he inherited the peanut farm, so he, Rosalynn, and their children left Schenectady and headed back to Plains, Georgia, to become farmers.

I hope you enjoyed this little diversion from bad hombres, nasty women, and “bigly.” So much has been said about last night’s debate that I can’t possibly add anything to it.

So instead, just for fun, I prepared a little timeline of recent presidents and their postsecondary educations, followed by a few more random observations—including one at the end I haven’t seen written about anywhere else, yet.

The presidents and their degrees:

Ronald Reagan, the only US president ever to have been divorced, graduated from Eureka College in Illinois.

George H.W. Bush served in the US Navy during World War II, and then graduated from Yale University.

Bill Clinton graduated from Georgetown University and Yale Law School.

George W. Bush graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School. He is the only US president to receive an MBA.

Barack Obama attended Occidental College for two years before transferring to, and graduating from, Columbia University. He also graduated from Harvard Law School.

hillary

Next up: Hillary Clinton, graduate of Wellesley College and Yale Law School.

Notice anything? Of course you did. For at least 32 consecutive years, beginning in 1988, the academic pedigrees of US presidents will have been concentrated in Eastern, elite, Ivy League schools (Georgetown and Wellesley aren’t technically Ivy League, but they still fit the profile).

I’m not drawing any particular conclusion from this. But I do know that people already are talking about Michelle Obama as a future presidential candidate. And she graduated from …

Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

Moving on …

Donald Trump’s rhetoric on not accepting “rigged” election results is troublesome for one reason only: the possibility that he could whip his most malignant supporters into frenzied, terrorist mobs on November 9 or thereabouts. That is something Homeland Security should be watching out for.

Other than that, what’s to worry? If Hillary wins by a landslide, what’s Donald gonna do? Not call her? Try to have her arrested? Send out a storm of “loser” tweets at 3 AM?

Maybe he’ll just wait till January and try to move into the White House. Good luck.

Trump is hardly the first person to call the election process rigged. He’s not even the first one to call it rigged this year (Sanders campaign, anyone?). It’s just that Trump is using his sour grapes to potentially dangerous ends.

As for voter fraud, the kind that he (and Fox News, et al.) whines about barely exists (unregistered people voting, dead people voting, people voting three times, etc.). Voter suppression, on the other hand, is a huge problem, especially in Republican-controlled states where election laws are designed to discourage or stop certain types of people from voting.

And let’s not forget that electronic voting machines themselves can be rigged and hacked—something Republicans, who have close ties to voting-machine manufacturers, and also control the statehouses in more swing states—don’t like to talk about. Some researchers believe that machines in some Ohio counties were flipped to Bush in 2004, and that the reason it wasn’t an issue in 2008 was that Obama was too far ahead to credibly be hacked out of the presidency. It seems like a lot of people have forgotten about this issue, and I believe we forget at our peril. At least, compare the counted results to the exit polls.

(Professional exit polls are generally very accurate; funny that the movement to discredit them coincided with the advent of electronic voting machines.)

A final thought for the day:

There are 19 days until the election. Hillary Clinton will win by a landslide. To all of the passionate Clinton supporters out there:

On November 9, unless you’re busy barricading your homes against flash mobs of violent Trump supporters, you will celebrate the win, gobble up all the juicy news you can find, make lunch plans and party plans and what-not, and basically enjoy the afterglow of sweet victory.

But within a few days, your soul will be filled with a hole the size of Trump Tower. Your Facebook feed will go blank. You will have so little to do or think about that you will find yourself focusing on things like your job and the weather and what to serve for Thanksgiving dinner. You will not suddenly find Syria or Kim Kardashian fascinating. You will try to alleviate the boredom and lack of purpose by going to the movies, shopping for new clothes, or taking walks in the woods. You’ll momentarily consider whether to re-friend any of the people you unfriended. You’ll do crossword puzzles and look up new words. You’ll open Facebook again, only to find posts about workout routines, bad landlords, and adorable pets.

Your dream candidate, Hillary Clinton, will be headed for the White House, but you’ll be feeling something like empty-nest syndrome, only worse—as if all of your children had left for college at once.

Don’t worry, it will pass.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

The Bankers’ Secrets

wells-fargo

John Stumpf walked away from his job at Wells Fargo this week. The CEO, under heavy fire for failing to monitor the bank’s opening upwards of two million customer accounts without their consent, is cleaning out his desk, going home, and taking $134 million with him.

With bonus incentives dangling in front of them for opening up as many customer accounts as possible, Wells Fargo employees for years created extra bank and credit-card accounts their clients hadn’t asked for. This cost customers millions in unexpected account and overdraft fees, while benefiting the employees and their superiors. A secretary who caught on to the scam reported it to HR and other Wells Fargo officials, and got fired for her trouble.

Of course, some consumers actually notice when they’re getting charged fees on accounts they never willingly opened. The scheme eventually came to light, and Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees—isn’t it funny who always feels the pain first?

Meanwhile, the head of the bank’s community banking division, Carrie Tolstedt, tried to retire quietly in July, taking with her $125 million in contractual company stock and options. In August, while the bank was being investigated for fraud by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Stumpf sold off $61 million in Wells Fargo stock, pocketing net proceeds of $26 million. In September, the bank agreed to pay the largest penalty ever imposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, $185 million. And we got to see Stumpf publicly flogged by Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Stumpf departs with an additional $134 million, not a “golden parachute,” but money he already has accumulated, mostly in vested company stock and options. He did voluntarily forfeit his 2016 salary and bonus, and $41 million in unvested stock. How sorry you feel for him over that is your own call.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has been trying to strengthen rules calling for companies to punish executive misconduct with compensation “clawbacks.” Observers of the Wells Fargo scandal are wondering if the bank will pursue more clawbacks from Stumpf and Tolstedt—and not necessarily holding their breath.

To most of us who live in that parallel universe where a $134 million payday could only mean a winning lottery ticket, this is just another (fill in your own adjective here) reminder of how members of the 1-percent club accumulate their wealth.

But wait, there’s more! In delving into Stumpf’s once-respected tenure at Wells Fargo (he is credited with steering the bank successfully through the last major financial crisis), I learned that he also makes significant income sitting on two corporate boards. Specifically, the retail giant Target pays him $272,521 a year to serve as one of its directors, and he rakes in another $375,737 annually as a director for the energy company Chevron.

This is a behind-the-scenes word most people don’t know or think much about, and maybe they should. According to the Boston Globe, median annual director pay at the 200 largest US public companies is $258,000, and some directors make $1 million or more. Most are (or were) corporate executives themselves, most are white men, and some sit on as many as five or six boards. The time they actually spend on board work, including meetings, is generally estimated at a few hours a week, give or take. And yet their pay packages have been increasing at a rate far higher than the typically stagnant wages of the average American worker.

Why should you care? For one, because highly paid corporate directors and the highly paid executives they hire tend to take care of each other, sometimes in a manner at odds with the best interests of the company and its shareholders and the general public. If you don’t believe me, I’ve got a Google search for you: “Enron.”

And for another reason, maybe we’ll have a better democracy if more people understand why they have so much and the rest of us have so little.

Or, you can just shut up and go back to your cubicle. And forget all about John Stumpf and others of his ilk. Which is exactly what they hope we’ll do.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

The Boys Club

trump-and-bush

Cap and Gown Club looks like it could be some wealthy family’s mansion in Westchester or Fairfield County—or perhaps a Normandy chateau, a comparison once suggested by its architect, Raleigh Gildersleeve. The stately, three-story, brick-faced clubhouse, completed in 1908, sits back from tree-lined Prospect Avenue, where you can find most of Princeton University’s famous “eating clubs.” A young man of 18, strolling down Prospect for the first time, unaccustomed to such trappings of wealth and power, might easily be dumbstruck with awe.

I was that 18-year-old once, a small-town boy who knew nothing of Westchester or Fairfield Counties, or Philadelphia’s Main Line, or prep schools, or social registers. Secretly envious of the Princeton students who came from such backgrounds, I made fun of them to my friends back home. But time and familiarity have a way of smoothing out the rough edges of social awkwardness, and by sophomore year I was liked and accepted enough to find myself welcomed into Cap and Gown, one of several “selective” clubs where admittance of new sophomores is determined by junior and senior members voting in closed sessions.

What a thrill it was to enter the club on initiation night, the heavy wooden door held open for me by an upperclassman, and to walk across to foyer to the wide staircase leading to the second floor. Up there, new members gathered for the initiation rites. I remember being led into a small candlelit room, where the president, his voice hushed and solemn, formally welcomed me into the club, wrote my name into an important-looking book, shook my hand, and sent me back out into the hallway. There I was handed a tall glass of beer, and someone dropped a shot of whisky into it. Once I had drained the entire contents of the glass, I was hoisted into the air by the junior and senior men who now filled the wide staircase, and passed down to the first floor on their hands. When I landed, a female club officer slipped an official club tie around my neck. Let the party begin.

The membership of Cap and Gown Club was mostly male in those days, but Cap was the first selective club to go coed, and at that time admitted about 30 women each year. I never gave much thought to the fact that none of the women were on that staircase passing down the new members, but then, women shouldn’t be expected to do the heavy lifting, right?

But lifting wasn’t the only thing going on that evening on that wide staircase. Before I got lost in the party, I happened to see I sophomore woman I knew (I’ll call her Mary) emerge from the candlelit room, chug her boilermaker, and begin her descent on the arms of the upperclassmen. Only they didn’t just pass her down the stairs and let her down at the bottom. When she got close to the bottom, they reversed her course and pushed her back up toward the top. This went on for a few minutes: up, down, up, down, until they finally set her down at the foot of the stairs—at which point she walked straight to the front door and left Cap and Gown, never to return.

Amid all the loud music and shouting and laughter, I didn’t quite grasp what was going on, but I later heard that Mary had been groped on her way up and down the stairs. I never learned how many men, or how few, participated in the groping. I don’t recall the incident being talked about openly, nor do I recall any statement being issued by the club president, or any apology being offered to Mary. Not that an apology would have tidied up the reality that some number of men that night decided it was perfectly okay to grope a defenseless young woman. But the silence afterward underscored the way such incidents were swept under the rug, and tacitly condoned even by the nonparticipants who chose not to speak up.

***

Who is teaching our sons to respect women, to treat them as equals and not objects, and to understand the meaning and the imperative of consent? Or maybe a better question is, who is teaching them something altogether different?

Donald Trump is more brazen and cartoonish than most, but he is hardly an anomaly, as others have pointed out since the recording of Trump’s vulgar conversation with Billy Bush surfaced on Friday. Many women will tell you that demeaning language, sexual objectification, and general lack of respect are an almost daily reality. And there are plenty of men who reject this behavior, who grew out of the adolescent urge to prove their manhood by participating in crude locker-room conversation, who now find it offensive—and who can assure you they hear it all the time.

In fact, men sometimes hear things women aren’t supposed to hear, from men who know better than to speak so coarsely in front of women, but show their true colors behind the closed doors of the boys club. I have been in countless situations in which men assume that, like Billy Bush, I’ll chuckle along with the piggish talk because it’s just us guys in the room. A few that come to mind: a former roommate’s business-school friends making crude and disparaging comments about their female classmates; the total stranger at the bus stop who confided in me what he’d like to do to the girl riding by on a bike; and the businessman, meeting with me privately in his office, belittling his female employees with the c-word.

Now, lewd talk is not the same as sexual assault, but in a society whose institutions have condoned sexist attitudes for so long, one wonders how easy that line is to cross. Some don’t wonder; many believe that generations of social and institutional acceptance of sexual assault have created a “rape culture” in which violence toward women is normalized, excused (look at how she was dressed), quieted by victims’ shame, and ignored by law enforcement. Colleges and universities have finally made some progress toward addressing the problem, but why did it take so long? And even as I write, millions of women are responding to Canadian writer Kelly Oxford’s invitation to submit their “first sexual assaults” on Twitter.

I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to elect a “Groper-in-Chief” this November. But until more men grow up and take a stand against this culture (and if I could turn back time and say something about the incident on the stairs, I would), then Trump’s pig face will still be grinning at us from the corner of the mirror.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon