State of the Union – Inside John’s Head

Focus, dammit!

No matter what happens, must not applaud. It’s what we all agreed to. Wouldn’t be a good example for the younger guys if I was up here applauding.

He just talked about our servicemen. What the hell do I do now? Just sit. Wait it out. He’ll be onto something else in a minute.

Well, crap. The Joint Chiefs are up and clapping now. Can’t just sit here. Got to clap now too. Crap.

Okay, he’s back to the economy. Won’t need to worry anymore. Budget this, economic opportunity, that. Doesn’t this guy ever get tired of hearing himself speak? Blah blah blah…

Can’t look bored. Those Goddamn TV C-SPAN cameras always get me when I’m yawning. I’ll look like I’m listening, just to be polite, but can’t look like I’m listening too hard.

Here he goes again, introducing some “regular” American in the gallery.  Going back to school to learn a new-economy trade. Hmmm. Good sounding story. No. Must not react. Wait a second, is that college in my district? Damn. Well, now I have to applaud.

Talking about energy. Natural gas. Oil shale. Renewables. Who gives a shit? Now, no one is listening. Even Chu is glazing over. Christ!

How long’s he been talking? Can’t look at my watch. Goddamn C-SPAN. I look at my watch, and that’s exactly when that Goddamn camera guy is sure to get me. Damn.

More crap. Is he winding up? Please. And here it is…”God bless the United States of America.” Finally.

Now we can get back to pursuing the people’s business. Hahahahahahaha. Little joke there. I say “pursuing the people’s business” when we all go into the caucus room for cocktails after a session. Pretty funny, huh? Hahahahahahaha.

God, I hate this thing.

By bread alone

A completely fun post, unless you’re a part of the motion picture industry, in which case, this is blood, isn’t it?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced nominees for the 2012 Academy Awards (Oscars). Here they are, as listed in The Atlantic.

Did the Academy get it right? It looks like I have a great many more movies to see. You?

Paying attention to our state

There was a time, now long ago, when the American people might have listened to the president’s State of the Union message huddled around the family radio. Now, many more Americans will be watching (no longer listening to, of course) basketball’s Toronto Raptors take on the Phoenix Suns.

The State of the Union address, once the president’s primary vehicle for telling Congress and the American people of his take on our country’s current situation and priorities for the future, is now generally considered little more than a pro forma snooze. There are plenty of other communication vehicles available to the president that don’t carry all the ritualistic baggage.

That said, I’ll be watching, and watching carefully, with a group of people who might still appreciate the event for its potential seriousness of purpose. Like voting, paying attention to our elected representatives as they go about their work is an obligation of living in a democracy – which I, for one, still like doing.

If you’re so inclined, and don’t have a bet on any NBA games, you can watch the president’s address here.

Paterno, Penn State and sexual abuse

[Self-disclosure: I have worked on several sexual abuse cases as a public relations and communications professional.]

Following his death after a long battle with lung cancer, many questions have been raised about the life and lasting legacy of long-time Penn State University football coach, Joe Paterno.

My friend, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane, wrote today about social media and reactions to Joe Paterno’s death. Slate’s Torrie Bosch wondered if it was even appropriate to mourn the death of Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno was a man, a human being. He had all the flaws, the mixture of positive and negative characteristics the term “human” suggests. Among coaches of big-time college football programs, he was known to care deeply about the welfare of his players, as people and students, in addition to athletes. This set him apart from the majority of his peers, who have obviously come to care more deeply about wins, losses and revenues than school, who tend to think of their programs as little more than college-sponsored pre-professional athletic camps. To many observers of college athletics, the Ivy-educated Paterno was always one of the “good guys.”

How does this image square with the coach’s indifference, or worse, about allegations of his former colleague’s sexual abuse of children?

In all my experience with sexual abuse, and it has been more than plenty, the human reaction I have seen, for the most part, is not active engagement but denial. People will tell themselves all manner of tortured narrative to avoid seeing evidence of abuse that stares them directly in the face. It’s only after the fact that people turn themselves into steel-eyed, bare-knuckled avengers – asserting their courage and forthrightness:

  • “I would have punched that guy’s lights out.”
  • “I would have taken a tire-iron to that guy.”
  • “I would have called the cops right then.”

Some form of that is what a great many people said when they heard about what Joe Paterno did (or didn’t do) when informed of allegations about his former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

These people may, indeed, have acted that way when faced with an allegation of sexual abuse aimed at an old friend and colleague, but it has not been my personal experience of people’s behavior in the actual moment. My direct experience tells me most people, if faced with the same situation, would have:

  • Told themselves they didn’t actually see or hear what they did
  • Told themselves someone had misinterpreted some innocent activity or other
  • Told themselves someone else must have told the appropriate authorities
  • Told themselves it wasn’t like their friend and former colleague to do that

Since that’s what my experience suggests to me, I’m inclined to accept as plausible both the Joe Paterno who didn’t push the allegations of his former assistant’s sexual abuse as vigorously as he should have, and the Joe Paterno who seemed to care for his charges like the benevolent grandfather his players and former players describe.

And, today, I believe it is right and proper to mourn that human being.

The regression effect

In today’s Opening Shot article, “When a party flirts with suicide,” Salon’s Steve Kornacki supposes that the GOP is about to put a gun to its own head by moving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich forward in the primary process. Furthermore, Kornacki compares 2012 with 1964, the year Republican elites were unable to stop their party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater, who barely moved the electoral needle in the general election against incumbent Lyndon Johnson.

To be sure, this year has revealed significant changes in the Republican party. (Are they permanent? Who knows?) Constituencies on the fringes are again becoming the more vocal and visible in the party. The mainstream, corporate or main street Republicans, call them what you will, that have been mainstays of the party’s leadership, philosophical and otherwise, seem waning in energy and influence. But I wouldn’t say that’s the result of party elites’ action or inaction.

All institutions change over time but tend to return to their general character and purpose. Orbits aren’t circles, but ellipses; they may stray from the center but tend to veer back, stray then veer, in repetitive cycles. It’s natural and it’s happening again. Statisticians call it the regression effect, observations tend to move back toward the average, eventually.

Will Gingrich’s continuing and energetic candidacy kill the GOP? Time will tell but I wouldn’t bet on it, anymore than Goldwater’s did. Will it be as a result of a lethargic or impotent elite? More likely the result of routine statistics.

Look westward

My grandfather Vasilios, who would much later call himself Bill, landed on Ellis Island with ten dollars in his pocket. That’s not some kind of romanticized family legend, by the way, but a documented fact; I’ve seen the ship manifest with my own eyes. At that time, all immigrants had to declare the cash they’d brought with them and it was clear that Vasilios was operating on a crazy-thin shoestring. And he wasn’t alone.

They came west across the Atlantic by the hundreds of thousands each year and took up jobs and lives in the American experiment – over eight hundred thousand in 1921, the year Vasilios made his way – and powered one of the greatest economic and social engines in the history of the world.

For my grandfather, it was clear, to him at least, that his life was going to be made in California; there was going to be no other place for him. It was, he felt, meant to be his final destination from the moment he saw a crudely printed flyer in his village coffee house announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. So, west became the direction of his attention, his immigration and his dreams.

And west he came, until there was no more land to cross and he stopped, where all like-minded crazies and dreamers stopped, at the far ocean of the American continent. The societies they built here reflected that combination of insanity that convinces a person it’s a good idea to leave home forever with ten bucks in your pocket, and the nervous tension created by running out of land to cross.

Wave after wave of immigrants have come to California and the west since, and they continue to come – even though now they more frequently travel north from Latin and Central America or east from Asia and the Pacific Islands to get here. And with them have come the unending hard work and blazing innovation and constant reimagining of the country that this region represents.

The pioneers of Silicon Valley, like David Packard and Gordon Moore, destroyed previously held ideas about the reality of technological boundaries. Alice Waters, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan re-imagined how we should feed our kids and ourselves to achieve healthy lives and a healthier society. A long line of activists stretching from Harvey Milk to his legion of successors has completely redefined, not only who can hold elected office, but human rights and the very idea of family.

It’s no great wonder to me that our country so frequently looks to the west for innovations and new ideas; I walk out my front door, turn left and can see the same mighty Pacific my grandfather saw and find myself feeling the same crazy combination of feelings. Our country and the world still look west for yet unrealized, but worthy, dreams to pursue.

May we always.