Milgrom, My Generation, My Students, and Me

March 17, 2013

Due to Mr. Wired’s health problems, the Wired Family spends a lot of time watching educational TV.  National  Geographic, Smithsonian, History and History 2, PBS, and of course, the Science Channel lead the pack.  Last week, on the Science Channel, we had a chance to revisit a cultural milestone I hadn’t thought about in a while—the Stanley Milgrom experiments on obedience, conducted at Columbia University in the early 1960s. I wasn’t personally involved in that study, though it involved students of my age cohort while I was attending another Ivy League school.  But I had occasion to encounter it shortly after I graduated, in essay form, in a textbook I was using to teach freshman English comp at yet a third college. I used the study with my English students for several years. After that, at yet another college, I had occasion to use it again for several years, in a course, required for all psychology majors, on ethics in mental health practice.


Then, last week, thanks to the Science Channel, I discovered that more recent researchers have attempted to duplicate the Milgrom study to the extent possible within the relatively stringent limits of current behavioral science research ethics (see


For the benefit of those readers who have not yet encountered the Milgrom study in either its original form or its more recent incarnation, it goes like this: the subject (S) is recruited for a purported study on the effect of pain on learning.  S is told to read a series of words to his co-subject (C), who is sitting on the other side of a soundproof glass window, wired up to various electrical doohickies.  C is supposed to choose the most appropriate word match within the series.  If he gets it right, S goes on to the next list.  If C gets it wrong, S pushes a button on the electrical doohickey on his side of the glass, which purportedly administers an electrical shock to C. Then S goes on to the next series of words.  Each time C gives a wrong answer, the shock S administers is escalated to a higher voltage.  After a while, C begins to jump and writhe in response to the “shocks.” In the original study, the voltage dial on S’s electrical doohickey  goes into a red zone, marked “danger,” and then to a level marked “extreme danger.”  If S hesitates to give shocks in the danger zone, the white-coated guy (WCG) who appears to be running the experiment tells him, “You must continue,” or “It is essential that you continue,” and keeps saying it until S either continues or pulls out.


The study involved substantial deception, fortunately.  C was actually a confederate in the experiment.  And he wasn’t getting any real electric shocks.  The electric doohickeys were all fakes.  The study had nothing to do with the effect of pain on C’s ability to learn.  Its point was how far the various S’s would go in shocking C. And the finding that shook up most of us in that just-before-the Eichman-trial era was that over sixty percent of the subjects in the original study went all the way to the top of the dial without refusing to continue.


Until last week, I had only read the report on the original study.  But the Science Channel production actually played tapes of some of the original study.  What startled me about them was that even the “refuseniks,” the subjects who had refused to administer potentially dangerous shocks, were painfully polite in refusing.  These were my agemates, my fellow Ivy League college students, just stepping into the wild and blasphemous Sixties.  I couldn’t imagine the refuseniks at my alma mater saying “I’m sorry, but I won’t continue.”  They would have said, to a person (well, to a man, anyway—we women were still a bit more polite) “This is bullsh*t.  I’m leaving.”  Okay, we saw only a few of the tapes of the original study.  Maybe the more forthright speakers got left on the cutting room floor?


The more recent version of the study made several significant changes.  First, the dial on S’s electric doohickey went only to 150 volts, still well within safe limits, rather than all the way into the red zone.  Second, the glass partition between S and C was no longer soundproof. S not only saw C writhing in pain, but heard him screaming and begging to be let out.  Third, the cover on the experiment was blown almost immediately after S either went all the way to 150 volts, or refused to do so.  And finally, the written agreement S signed before the experiment began explicitly stated, and the experimenter repeated orally a couple of times in introducing the experiment to S, that S would be free to stop the experiment at any time, and to leave, without forfeiting any of the money he was being paid for participating.


That last change may have been crucial in motivating at least some of the more recent refuseniks, many of whom cited it when stopping the experiment.  Would the original refuseniks have done the same?  Have we become more law- and lawyer-ridden since the Sixties?  It’s hard to tell.  But the current generation of refuseniks, more or less of the same cohort as my own psychology students, were just as polite about refusing.  No barnyard epithets, no colorful suggestions about where the pay for participation could be placed (viz Hemingway’s deathless telegram advocating that his editor “upshove” an offending book “asswards,”) The numbers came out roughly the same—less than forty percent of the subjects refused to give the most painful shocks.  The white-coated experimenter gave the same admonitions in the same deep, resonating, expressionless voice (“It is essential that you continue”), and nobody appears to have called him a pompous ass. 


I guess we can conclude from this more-or-less-duplicated study that students (the inevitable subject population of most academic studies) have become no better and no worse than their predecessors fifty years ago, and that even the best of us were and continue to be a bunch of mealy-mouthed wimps.  Do check out the videos on “The Milgrom Experiment” if you get the chance.  Or wait for the show to come around on the Science Channel in your neighborhood.




The GOP, Immigration, and Simplification

November 28, 2012

This morning, as I started waking up, I listened to the news on my clock radio, and heard some Republican politicians talking about their latest stance on immigration. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) started by saying, “Latino voters aren’t going to listen to anything we say if they think we want to deport their grandmothers.” So far so good, I thought. “So we need to catch their attention.” Then some other GOP pol said something like, “But on the other hand, the DREAM Act doesn’t work for us, because why would we want to provide a path to citizenship to a bunch of people who won’t vote for us anyway?” Huh? I wondered. “So okay, what we want to offer young people who were brought to the US illegally before they were old enough to know better is legalization, not citizenship.” Legalization, I mused. So okay, they get to go to college or join the Army without being deported, and then…? And then…?

When I was brushing my teeth, I finally figured out the “and then.” At best, they get to be resident aliens for the rest of their lives. They can live here, work here, maybe even go back to the Old Country for an occasional visit and come back here, and, oh yeah, pay taxes. But they can’t vote. What did the Founding Fathers call that? Oh right, taxation without representation. And what else did they call it? Oh yeah, tyranny. The same deal, actually, that Puerto Ricans and DC residents get. Good enough for Latinos and African Americans, I guess.

At times like this, my Latina blood boils. Fortunately, I don’t have much of it, so my average blood temperature is still pretty close to normal. But ICE (formerly INS, colloquially la migra) is my least favorite bureaucracy, second only to the currently-inactive Selective Service. The late Mr. Wired and I used to have serious arguments about this. “My grandparents all came to the US legally,” he would say. “So why can’t these other guys?” I would diplomatically refrain from pointing out that all it took to be a legal immigrant to the US in our grandparents’ day was not having TB, syphilis, a criminal record, or a dark skin. Today it takes volumes of law and regulation which, even after forty years of practicing law, I do not feel qualified even to summarize, much less practice (or explain to Mr. Wired.) I did occasionally point out that INS deprived my paternal grandmother of her citizenship because she married a Brit, and tried to deprive my mother of her citizenship because she had not spent enough of her “formative years” in the US after being born to American parents in Cuba (while her father was on duty in the US Army.) So for me, this is kind of personal.

Senator Rubio and his buddy (whose name I was too drowsy to learn at the time) have not thought this through. Senator Rubio’s grandmother, being Cuban, a good anti-communist, and a dependable Republican voter, is probably safe from deportation no matter what. But the majority of Latino voters in the US, who are of Mexican descent, and generally vote Democratic, will continue to vote Democratic as long as this is what the Republicans have to offer their friends and families.

In the meantime, the Republicans are obsessing about “simplifying” the tax code (more about this in a minute.) What would it hurt to simplify the immigration code, which is roughly the same size and costs at least as much for the citizens upon whom it is enforced?

Let’s talk about “simplification.” As it pertains to taxes, I mean. The simplest tax code is the code of the Old West: Your money or your life. Anything more is technicalities. Using that as a tax code, of course, would obscure the distinction between the IRS and IRA or other terrorist organizations. So we have to at least complicate the matter enough to specify how much of the worker’s money the government will take in exchange for letting her walk the streets and do her job. That’s the tax rate. The Flat Tax advocates say there should just be one rate, for everybody, and no exemptions or deductions. Twenty (or whatever) per cent of Bill Gates’ billions and twenty per cent of the change in the panhandler’s cup.

Some of us (most of us, probably) think that’s still a bit too simple. But in fact, there are ways to make it simpler, short of literal highway robbery. A flat amount for everyone living in the good old USA, for instance. Calculating percentages is hard (as Barbie would say.) Just take the first three thousand (or whatever) dollars from everybody’s income. But what about people who don’t have three thousand dollars? Or who wouldn’t have anything left after paying the three thou? The obvious solution is to revert to the IRA approach, and have any such useless wastrels taken out and shot. Anything we do with the tax code that is more complex than that is going to be considered “loopholes” by somebody. Personal exemptions for dependents? Deductions for medical expenses, mortgage interest, and donations to charity? Why on earth is it the job of the government to encourage having kids, buying homes, supporting churches, and going to the doctor? Either people are willing to do stuff like that on their own dime, or we can accept a society of childless apartment-renting sickly geezers with no charities to ease their lives. That’s the price of freedom.

That won’t completely simplify the tax code, by the way. Not as long as more and more people are starting their own businesses or contracting out their services rather than being plain vanilla W-2 employees. When you run your own business, either full-time or on the side, you have to report your business income, usually on a Schedule C. You want simplicity? You won’t find it on a Schedule C (or the various attached worksheets, subject to the various regulations governing small and large businesses and what they have to report as income and what they can “adjust” as a legitimate cost of earning that income. In fact, you can get in serious trouble with the taxman just for defining your source of income in a way he considers dishonest, even if all your numbers are completely accurate. Politicians who report income received as bribes, but call it “consultation fees,” for instance. Anyway, so far as I know, the Republican party is not advocating “simplifying” the Schedule C. Imagine the reaction of the US Chamber of Commerce if they did.

I don’t have any recommendations for simplifying the tax code, which is occasionally a part of my practice. I can manage with what we’ve got, especially given the software currently available to help. But my vote for the best simplified version of the Immigration and Naturalization Act would be what Emma Lazarus wrote for the pediment of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…” and so on.
Simplify, simplify.

Red Emma

Disgruntling Employees and Scorning Women: Why Would Anyone Do It?

October 2, 2012

Lawyers see a lot of this. A boss puts written reprimands in an employee’s file, repeatedly. Each one of them turns out to be unfounded. The employee responds in writing and with documented proof. But the reprimands keep coming. They keep being unfounded. But the employee is getting more and more frazzled, partly because she has to spend more and more time and energy on the reprimands, and therefore has less of it to devote to actually doing her job. She becomes uncommunicative and subdued in demeanor, less involved in the communal cameraderie of the workplace. The employee suspects that the boss is doing this to get rid of her, perhaps because she is the wrong gender, the wrong age, the wrong color, or in some other legally unmentionable way doesn’t fit in. But she can’t prove it, and in the meantime her personnel file gets thicker and thicker. Finally, the boss begins the process of official disciplinary action, based on several months of reprimands in her file. That action may vary from place to place, but usually involves a progression from oral reprimands to written reprimands to suspension with pay to suspension without pay to termination. At termination, a pair of burly security guards usher her to her cubicle to clear out her desk, and then walk her out in what looks for all the world like a perp walk. If anyone asks why the armed escort, they will be told that you never know what a disgruntled employee may be capable of and we can’t take chances. She will, of course, be barred from the premises forever afterward, and her former co-workers will be warned against communicating with her in any way. If they ask why, they will be told “that’s confidential. We’re protecting her privacy.” The co-workers can be excused for concluding that the lady must really be off the deep end, nuts and possibly violent.

If the employee in question really is markedly different from most of her colleagues and bosses by reason of age, gender, or race, she may have a slender chance of a legal remedy for what has happened to her. That’s where some of my clients come from. But the reprimands in her file, and the aura of danger surrounding her, make a legal remedy hard to come by. The law on workplace discrimination requires the plaintiff to pretty much prove that the defendant’s behavior is explicable only by discriminatory motives. All the employer has to do is generate enough smoke to convince the court that there must be a fire in there someplace.

The employer has yet another advantage in these cases. Not only can the judge be easily convinced that the employee deserved to be fired, for perfectly legal reasons. But in addition, the employee’s testimony and evidence can be subjected to withering doubt because she has obvious motivation to lie. After all, she’s crazy. And disgruntled. And for some mysterious reason has taken a dislike to the boss.

The employer can even admit to most of the plaintiff’s allegations—“yes, I wrote her up all the time, and didn’t always check my facts first, so a lot of those writeups turned out to be mistaken. That still doesn’t give her the right to become sullen and morose on the job. Or to lie about me being a bigot. And it had nothing to do with her being a Pakistani.” He can readily admit to having given her a motive to behave improperly, because legally, he has not given her a justification.

Chances are that some employees subjected to this treatment may actually become crazy and/or violent. It speaks amazingly well for the ordinary working person that it happens so rarely. The documented incidents of workplace violence over the last thirty years have, so far as I know, never been investigated from this angle. Perhaps they should be.

Another interesting sidelight on bad boss scenarios is that the bad boss in question may be engaging in some really serious or even criminal wrongdoing, not against the unfortunate employee who gets in the way, but against the company, the agency, the Big Boss, the public, or the customers. By picking on the particular employee, he has neutralized her as a source of evidence against him in this larger context. And it doesn’t do her much good, after the fact, to be able to point to his subsequent indictment and conviction and say “See, I knew he was a crook all along.” She has still been fired, and will probably have a lot of trouble getting hired elsewhere. The closest thing to a useful strategy she, or her lawyer, can use, is to keep her case dragging out so that it is still going on when the boss gets indicted. This is usually pretty difficult.

Then there’s the “woman scorned” defense. If I were a man, and wanted to commit some perfect crime against, or involving, or at any rate unavoidably witnessed by, a woman, I would first initiate a romantic relationship with her, and then dump her as humiliatingly as possible. Thereafter, it wouldn’t matter what she knew about my nefarious deeds—nobody would believe her because she is a woman scorned, and therefore capable of making up any kind of lie about me. Would the device work if the sex roles were reversed? Dunno. Never seen it tried. Needs further research.

And, once again, The Jerk could take the witness stand and admit on the record to the dirtiest, slimiest behaviors he has ever committed against her, things that would make every woman in the courtroom want to cross the street to avoid shaking hands with him, and his case would only improve with each tawdry detail. Because each detail builds up more and more motive for the unfortunate lady to lie, or to retaliate in some illegal manner, without providing her with any legal justification.

Of course, most of us are capable of jerkitude at work and at play. But we do not usually plan to commit it as part of a setup for a perfect crime or even actionable discrimination. We just do what comes naturally. The most serious jerks generally behave that way, and also commit crimes or torts, for the same reasons—they feel entitled to do so. Often, the use of the “disgruntled employee” and “woman scorned” defenses never occur to them at all, until after the fact when a lawyer points them out. Perhaps only a particularly devious lawyer would think about it ahead of time. The result is the same.

Red Emma

Blessed is Nothing…

September 21, 2012

As my great-grandmother used to say.  She said it, apparently, while preparing to move.   Somebody else (dunno who, but probably not a relative) said that three moves are the equivalent of one fire in terms of loss of personal property.  Well, I’m not moving, and not planning on having a fire.  But I am (as my brother-in-law puts it) downsizing—trying to get rid of roughly one room’s worth of stuff so I can rent the room out and AVOID having to move.  I am also trying to assure myself that the stuff I give away will find a good home, and not just end up burdening the planet in a landfill.  In the process, I am discovering or maybe slowly formulating a system.

You start by deciding which items you want to sell and which ones you just want to give away.  For giveaways, there are places to donate and then there’s Freecycle, and then there’s your friends and colleagues.  Freecycle is like a no-cash version of craigslist, operating in all major urban areas and lots of smaller places.  Places to donate can be googled, and you can also just ask your friends about their favorite places to donate.
Make a list of the giveaway items, or take digital photos, or both.   Ideally, pair the photos with the items on the list.  Give, or send, the list to your friends and colleagues whom you run into on your daily rounds.  Be clear about whether you are trying to sell this stuff or give it away.   If you donate to a non-profit, it’s worth your while to get receipts for the estimated value (which the non-profit will probably take your word for) so you can deduct it from your taxes later on.
I’ve done a lot of the donating already, but I just discovered that my newly-adopted credit union has a place to donate used eyeglasses, so I’m going to pull those together one of those days.  You will continue to stumble across this kind of thing for a while now.  Just carry a notebook to take the information down, and collect it together every so often.

If you are trying to sell an item, you may want to get some idea what people more experienced than you think it’s worth.  I got suggested prices on our audio and video equipment from the guy whose store sold us most of it. Research in craigslist and eBay may also be helpful.  If you’re listing furniture, you may want to pay a call on the Salvation Army and price similar items there. You will discover (I found this out while working on a case involving destruction of a tenant’s furniture by a landlord’s broken water pipe) that “used furniture” is no longer worthless.  In fact, these days, it can be worth a fair amount. The same goes for used clothing—check it out in various resale shops, maybe both upper- and lower-tier. Ditto used books, although a lot of stores just use the rule of thumb of   ½  of the original price on the cover, which saves a lot of time.  You may want to post lists of items for sale (with or without photos attached, and with or without suggested prices—I’m trying it several different ways, and will gladly report on results as I go along.)

Bear in mind that, if you have kept your stuff long enough, it may have magically transmuted from used furniture (or whatever) into “vintage”, or even antiques.  The Immigration and Customs people classify anything older than fifty years as “antique” for purposes of assessing duties.  At that point, you need to check antique and vintage stores for prices, which should be somewhat higher.

    If you resort to eBay and craigslist, take a look at the ads other people have posted, to get some idea what kind of information people supply and how they price items similar to yours.  In any case, a picture is usually worth at least a few hundred words, and even a snapshot from your phone will probably be useable.

    Speaking of freecycle and craigslist, which operate on a local basis, you obviously don’t want to tell utter strangers, online, your name, address, and how many valuable goodies you have lying around.  Most people provide emails for contact, or even have the email hidden by craigslist format.  These days, landline phone numbers can easily be traced to addresses.  Cell phones are probably safer. It helps to arrange to meet prospective buyers in a public place (like the Starbuck’s catty-corner from where I live), and preferably show up there with a large, physically fit-looking guy who can also, if necessary, help in carrying your stuff out to the buyer’s car.  

Ebay, which (unlike craigslist and freecycle) operates nationwide and presumes that most transactions are not face-to-face, has its own systems for protecting your safety, including getting paid from a distance.  Here are some links for dealing with them:
Sometimes the nicest thing about owning something is the opportunity to give it away to somebody who needs it more.  Peace and light to you all.


THE 47% AND THE 99%

September 19, 2012

“Gotcha” politics rules again.  I don’t usually like it.  Searching for and pouncing on gaffes from campaigning politicians is an unattractive pastime. It brings out unattractive characteristics in otherwise reasonable people.  It generates schadenfreude.  (Okay, guys, let us form up our 4-part choir and join in singing, to the tune of the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Schadenfreude:

We indulge in schadenfreude
When the other guy gets screwed,
When the other candidate
Gets caught cavorting in the nude.

Someone else’s team gets faded,
Someone else’s house burns down,
Someone else’s bar gets raided,
Pass the cup of joy around.)

And I really don’t like it when the gaffe has been lying around online since May, and only finds its way into the larger public eye in September.   Not unlike, actually, that dumb anti-Muslim film trailer, which was apparently online for quite a while before September 11 presented the perfect occasion for wild indignation about it.  This reeks of premeditation.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for Mitt Romney for getting caught out saying that 47% of the US population (a) doesn’t pay federal income tax, (b) lives on and feels entitled to government handouts, (c) sees themselves as victims, and (d) will therefore undoubtedly vote for Obama.  How is this horsefeathers? Let me count the ways.  

1. Everybody who takes part in the money economy is paying somebody’s taxes; and almost everybody is paying some taxes in his or her own name.  The push that began in the 1980s to reduce the federal tax burden had the net effect of pushing a lot of that burden down the line to state and local governments, generally less trustworthy and efficient than the feds, and forcing them to raise their taxes, sometimes by more than the federal taxes fell.  

Local governments are now getting really ingenious about raising money and cutting services.  Here in Chicago, it now costs $250 to park illegally in a handicapped parking zone.  And people are getting ticketed for being photographed driving through a red light (that’s an expensive one too.)  

Everybody who works for a living is paying payroll taxes, which cover Social Security and Medicare.  A lot of working people who do pay income tax pay more in payroll taxes.  

Most people pay sales taxes.  Poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in sales taxes than rich people, because they have to spend pretty much all the income they take in.  

All homeowners pay real estate tax, and all renters pay their landlord’s real estate tax, though they don’t get credit for it.  

A lot of people get taxed on their utility and phone bills.  You get the idea.  Most of the people who aren’t paying federal income tax are paying a whole lot of other taxes.

2. The people who aren’t paying federal income tax are mostly exempted for some really good reasons.  Like being in the military in a combat zone.  Or just not having enough taxable income to be taxed on.  The personal exemption and standard deduction now shelter $31,000 from federal tax for a family of four.  That’s maybe 50% higher than the federal poverty level.  But the payroll tax is likely to eat up 15% of that, plus maybe another 10% for state and local taxes.  Which brings that family right back to the poverty line.  Seniors and people with disabilities who are living on Social Security are mostly exempt from federal income taxation, but if they work at all, they are paying payroll taxes, and as you will note from the previous heading, everybody pays sales taxes and most people pay real estate taxes.

3. Which brings us to Romney’s statement equating everybody who doesn’t pay federal income tax with recipients of federal handouts.  Well, yes, if you count military combat pay as a federal handout…  And seniors and people with disabilities…most people do not view Social Security retirement and disability benefits as “handouts.”  If Romney does, he’s likely to have problems with one of the biggest and most serious voting blocs in the country.  Ooops.

4. So we’ve got two groups of people, who may or may not overlap—people who don’t’ pay federal income tax, and people who get government handouts.  Do people in either of these categories “feel like victims” or “feel entitled to housing, medical care, and food”?  I know of no data on these questions.  I’m guessing Romney doesn’t either.  

5. But if they did, would that be so unreasonable?  To the extent that many of the people in these categories are trying to support their families on minimum wage or close to it, they have every right to feel like victims.  If the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living since 1970, it would now be $25.00/hour.  It’s not.  Isn’t that victimization?  (Romney, no doubt, would say that we should be providing minimum-wage workers with better jobs.  He doesn’t seem to have any detailed plan for doing it, and if he did, we would still have minimum-wage worker—just different ones, but, if Romney had his way, still earning the same wage.)

6. And, oh dear me, imagine the nerve of these people, many of them working full-time, or having worked most of their lives until they became too old or too infirm, and now feeling entitled to housing, food, and medical care!  Next thing you know, they’ll be claiming an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

7. And saying that 47% of the population won’t vote for him because they’re lazy penniless deadbeats sounds a whole lot like making excuses for the inevitable—as Mayor Daley the Elder used to say, he’s going to lose the election because he won’t get enough votes.  You don’t excuse that by saying the people who won’t vote for you are all deadbeats.  

8. And finally, what overlap is there, if any, between the 47% who won’t vote for Romney and the 99% who have to split up 60% of the nation’s wealth among them, while the other 1% control 40% of that wealth?  Well, 4 out of 5 of the households among the 47% have less than $30,000 per year income.  And then, of course, there are the 7,000 millionaires who paid no federal income tax last year.  I bet they feel entitled.

So okay, I don’t exactly feel sorry for Romney, I just wish Mother Jones had spread his gaffe on the record a few months earlier.  Waiting until this close to the election smells a bit like premeditation.  

Red Emma

Good Copt, Bad Copt?

September 15, 2012

Okay, so I was wrong about the people who made the anti-Muslim film that caused all the trouble. They weren’t Jewish, they were Copts. Apparently their purpose was to frame the Jews for insulting the Muslims in order to arouse the Christian Evangelicals against the US government. Sorry, I don’t mean to insult the Copts in general, who are probably very nice people, aside from this particular guy and his buddies, whose motivation I cannot begin to fathom.

Anyway, illustrating the old law that all consequences are unintended, the person who came out of this mess looking least commendable was, of all people, Mitt Romney, who had made the mistake of attacking Obama for apologizing to the mob that had killed US ambassador Chris Stevens. Turns out that the speech Romney was condemning had been issued the night before Stevens was killed, and had to do with events in Egypt rather than Libya. So the Carter Moment I had been nervously anticipating never happened.

Obama apparently lost a few points worth of foreign policy trustworthiness in the polls, but not enough to worry about. The election remains neck-and-neck, with Obama handicapped by being a Democrat and Romney handicapped by being wrongfooted.
Every now and then life holds pleasant surprises even for pessimists.

So let’s get back to the rest of the world. Chicago is still in the middle of a public school teachers’ strike. The head of the teachers’ union is a member of my congregation, and she looked just fine this morning, after having told the newsies last night that a settlement was in the offing. All the public school parents I know are getting to the end of their patience, so it better be.

The High Holidays are just around the corner. Because of various screwups on my computer, I have not had time to post my annual message, so here it is, guys: I forgive any of you who may have offended me this past year, and ask forgiveness of any of you that I have offended. Forgiveness is a gift to us from the Holy One. It keeps us from being trapped in the past. Anybody who doesn’t make use of it is missing out on a very good thing. Which is, actually, what seemed just about to happen in Libya last week. We have dodged a bullet. Peace and light.


And a Happy 9/11 to You All

September 12, 2012

Scenario: an Israeli expat produces an anti-Islam film, funded by a bunch of less-than-thoughtful Jewish donors. It plays once in the US, to a mostly-empty house. Then the trailer for the film somehow finds its way onto YouTube, complete with a translation into Egyptian Arabic. Muslims all over North Africa and the Middle East take offense. They storm the US embassy in Cairo, take down the stars and stripes, and raise a black Islamic flag in its place. And the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya is attacked and burned to the ground, and the US ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff are killed while escaping the fire.

And all of this apparently takes place (except the production and first showing of the film, I guess) on September 11, Middle Eastern time.

Background: during the previous week or so, political commentators in the US have been saying that Obama is the first Democrat in decades to be perceived by the public as more trustworthy on national security than the Republicans.

The Paranoid’s Index (fill in whatever numbers you like):

___________ The number of degrees of separation between whoever put the film on YouTube and the Republican National Committee.

___________ The number of degrees of separation between the late unlamented Moammar Khaddafy’s friends and family and the guys who stormed the US consulate in Benghazi

___________ The number of nukes Obama will have to drop on Libya to avoid a Carter Moment.

___________ The odds of his doing it.

___________ The number of anti-US rioters the Libyan government will have to arrest, try, convict, and hang to prevent the nuking of Libya

___________ The number of hours within which they will have to do it

___________ The number of days before the GOP proposes a constitutional amendment moving the national election to September

___________ The number of hours before the Iranians claim the whole thing is part of the international Zionist conspiracy

___________ The number of hours before an International Zionist Conspiracy website appears on the Net

I don’t even know if You Heard It Here First.

The Broccoli Reflex

August 14, 2012

[I originally wrote this in 1992 for a newspaper I contributed to at the time. I understand that this is now construed as auto-plagiarism unless properly confessed, but it still seems relevant to current realities, and is hard to find anyplace else, so I am, modestly, reprinting it here as a public service.]

Quick, what do broccoli, tofu, fruitcake, and Democratic presidential candidates have in common? The first answer is probably most people’s first reaction to all of these: “Eeeeeeuuuww!” The second answer is that I suspet very strongly that this reaction, in all four instances, has been conditioned by, if not a Sinister Media Conspiracy, something at least as effective.

Kids are raised, from the first time they set eyes on televised food commercials, to dislike vegetables, and especially broccoli. Sometimes it is the purveyors of some veggie delicacy themselves who teach this lesson. “You may think broccoli is yucky, but we do something to it that you’ll like!” Tofu is the butt of everybody’s jokes about Japanese cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, vegetarian cuisine, and healthy New Age living. And fruitcake, over the last few years, has become a staple of Christmas jokes. Nobody eats fruitcake, the joke goes; they just wrap it up and pass it around the family from generation to generation, using it as a doorstop between holiday seasons.

In point of fact, broccoli, like any other green vegetable, can be quite tasty if not overcooked. Tofu takes on the taste of whatever it’s cooked with, for better or for worse. Which means that, cooked with decent seasonings, it can be a tasty, no-fat substitute for meat or cheese. And fruitcake–well, I may be prejudiced by the fact that my family recipe for fruitcake starts out with soaking a bunch of dried fruit in rum for 24 hours or so, but I like fruitcake, quite a lot actually, and so do about half the people I know.

Still, the bad press given to these laudable foods is really harmless in the greater scheme of things. What happens to Democratic candidates is more serious. For instance, a poll done shortly after some spectacularly bad economic news last fall indicated that 56% of the population would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate (sort of like a first draft choice, I suppose) against Bush. But the figure dived to well below 50% for any specific Democrat.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan not only succeeded in carrying the popular and electoral college vote against Walter Mondale, but in completely destroying Mondale’s personal credibility. A monogamous churchgoer who had spent twenty-odd years getting regularly re-elected to Senate and Congress from a conservative sobersided state somehow became perceived overnight as a weak-kneed defender of sexual promiscuity and financial profligacy. He has essentially not been heard from since, and could probably not be elected to a local school board.

Then, in 1988, a wide array of well-educated, experienced candidates with a variety of interesting positions on important issues got shot down, one by one, for a spectrum of personal failings ranging through all the Seven Deadly Sins. The lone survivor of the process, Michael Dukakis, was the successful governor of a then-thriving state. But before the campaign was over, he had managed to blow a 17-point lead and came out looking like the patron saint of wimps and rapists. His credibility has been destroyed, and he would have a hard time getting a credit card these days. After these depressing examples, one can hardly blame the electable Democrats for not getting into the race until about two months after the start of the usual season, or Mario Cuomo for being unwilling to get into it at all. In most elections, even the loser gains something, be it only name recognition for a business or professional practice, or a good shot in the next election. When a Republican loses in the presidential primaries or the election, he can live to campaign another day, possibly for another office. Look at Reagan. And Bush. And Goldwater. Even Nixon is surprisingly lively. But when a Democrat does it–at least since McGovern–he’s out of the picture, and out of almost any picture, forever. Clearly, he has very little to gain and almost everything to lose by running. Now that any Democrat with the IQ necessary to sign his own nominating petition has figured this out, we have to assume that those still willing to run are either crazy or very very gutsy and dedicated.

Maybe that really is how we progressives want our candidates selected–the survival of the craziest. But if it isn’t, we need to bring to our own awareness and then the public’s, to the insidious mechanism that clicks into action against any Democrat the instant he becomes known as a possible presidential candidate–the conditioning program to trigger the Broccoli Reflex. Face it, folks, nobody could be simultaneously as vapid and wimpy and corrupt and stupid and insubstantial and dangerous and dull as we always end up believing all of the Democratic candidates are, and still tie his shoes and stay out of jail, let alone get elected to state or federal office and perform even the most minimally ceremonial duties of that office. A Democrat could have the charisma of Franklin Roosevelt, the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt, the devotion and integrity of Mother Teresa, the brains of Albert Einstein, and the good looks of Robert Redford, and the Sinister Media Conspiracy would still find a way to trigger the “Eeeeeuuuww! “reflex at mere mention of his name or party affiliation.

When we hear the current batch of candidates called the six-pack (“all lite, no head”), we need to recognize that this isn’t political satire, it’s operant conditioning. The GOP mastered the trick by accident in 1972 (actually coining the neologism “ultraliberal” for the occasion because even they knew nobody would swallow the idea of McGovern as a radical), and lost by accident to the same mechanism in 1976. (Everybody thinks it was the Nixon pardon that cost Ford the White House. In fact it was Chevy Chase’s persistent portrayal of Ford, on “Saturday Night Live”. as a maladroit malapropist.) Since then, they haven’t faltered once, and nobody has spotted the wires under their levitation act.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democratic candidates do in fact combine all the better traits of a Roosevelt/Teresa/Einstein/Redford hybrid. Obviously, Hart and Biden really did adulterate and plagiarize, respectively, and some of the others made minor but genuine goofs that year. But a Republican can lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, adulterate, and sell out the entire American economy to the Japanese–can have the brains of Dan Quayle, the family life and war record of Ronald Reagan,and the ethics and looks of Richard Nixon–and still be perceived by just about everybody, including most Democratic voters, as “presidential caliber.” There is more going on here than meets the eye. Broccoli, fruitcake, and tofu were only trial runs. The way things are going now, in 1996, the Republicans could run a Big Mac for President–a Big Mac over 35 years old!–and win. Next time somebody says “six-pack” (except, of course, when referring to beer), STOP the conversation right there. And don’t let it proceed until you have forced all participants to ask themselves “Where did I hear that? Do I really want to say it or endorse it? What do I really know about any of these guys?” And let’s be really conscious that there is a real difference between satire and sabotage.

Red Emma

Missing Mr. Wired

July 20, 2012

The night after Marty’s funeral, we had at least twenty people crammed into our living room.  They had come to make a minyan, and to support me with food and talk and prayer and gossip.  The last time I had seen so many people in our place was—hell, I don’t know.  Maybe that time we thought we were going to have just a quiet seder for ourselves at Passover, and then people kept asking if we were doing one, and by the time we got started, we were doing a seder for ten people.  But that was still ten, not twenty.  Last time we had twenty, we weren’t even in this apartment, we were in the one across the hall, and it was an election night party, 1968 I think, and we might even have had fifty people, I sort of remember that. Read the rest of this entry »

See What The Boys In the Basement Will Have

December 7, 2011

The “boys in the basement” are what Stephen King calls his muse, the source of his imagination. Mostly they just hang out, idly, making occasional noise, drinking beer, and every now and then sending messages upstairs. When they are napping, or when the folks upstairs are paying insufficient attention to them, the writer is stuck. “Blocked,” as some of the semi-pros like to say.

The pros often say there is no such thing as writer’s block, there is only laziness. I think that may depend on how one experiences, or defines, the state of consciousness required for writing. For me, it varies, often depending on the context. Back when I wrote regularly for publication, what I mainly required was a topic, a word count, and a deadline, and I believed I could produce just about anything on time. That belief may or may not have been justified, but it worked pretty well most of the time, for the kind of stuff I was expected or contracted to write.

Under deadline, I don’t recall ever being blocked. Often, I would wait until some siege of particularly inclement weather (snow or heat) to wall myself up and produce produce produce. Chicago can be trusted to come up with such onslaughts often enough to keep the writer at work. Sometimes, I would use a long weekend for the same purpose. But working against the clock really helped a lot.

These days, when nobody is waiting on my production to fill space or meet some third-party obligation, it’s harder for me to get going. The boys in the basement are too busy playing video games to communicate with me. When they bother, often, it’s to complain about the brand of beer I’m stocking.

Sometimes, the problem is that I feel as if I’ve already said it all, at least about some particular subjects. Newt Gingrich, for instance. Back when he was just a twinkle in the eye of his Georgia congressional district (which my brother was living in at the time), I thought he was a flake, but a smart flake. I still do. Since then, he has made his bones as a serial wife-dumper and contributed significantly to my opinion of the GOP as a large closet rather than a big tent. He has joined the collection of people I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with (along with Clarence Thomas, but that’s another story.) (People with whom I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands? See Churchill’s “the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”) But mostly, I think I said it all in the 1990s.

Same goes for The Bell Curve, which is now enjoying revived discussion in the Atlantic by two of my favorite writers, Coates and Sullivan. I taught a course using it, and Plato’s Republic, and Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, back in the 1990s, and essentially summarized the course for a review in a small newspaper around the same time. What more could I possibly say? See for yourself ( If they’d just give me some frakkin’ new material, maybe I could think of something new to say about it.

Okay, what about the GOP primary? Is Romney “inevitable”? Maybe. Maybe even in the general election, since it looks as if both sides might actually allow him to govern if he gets elected. Not sure any other candidate, on either side, meets that qualification. That may be all the voters want, these days. Chances are, they would even accept a third-party candidate if he seemed likely to meet that bar. Cain is comic relief; although it bothers me that some commenters see the stories about his affair as being all the more damaging because it allegedly lasted 13 years. I think 13 years is a plus. It indicates that Cain is capable of focused affection, unlike the afore-mentioned Newt, or Rudy Giuliani, who actually managed to cheat on his wife, his official mistress, and his girlfriend within the same short span of months. Maybe that’s just the cynical perspective of a divorce lawyer. But dammit, it’s all old news.

Okay, how about: which is worse, or better, the Tea Party, or Occupy Wherever? (A recent client of mine actually got busted with Occupy Salt Lake City, a mind-boggling concept.) That’s relatively new news, right? I think they draw their passions from the same cultural spring. They’re not quite as easy to tell apart as anarchists (dionysian) versus libertarians (apollonian.) They both have a very healthy dose of localism. And they both have a large dose of dionysian energy and not a helluva lot of apollonian intellect behind them. But they are both, in fact, slightly differing ways of saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Which dates back to Network, in 1976. And which in turn, I think, is a loose translation of “je m’en fichisme,” a French phrase which the New Yorker dates back to 1917 or thereabouts, but which I first encountered in the late 1950s, and which apparently has stuck in my memory because I was studying high school French at the time, and got a kick out of learning a French phrase that the good sisters undoubtedly were never going to teach me.

How about sexual child abuse among college football coaches? Nothing new there, except that none of them are vowed to celibacy, and some of them may even be Protestant. The scandal seems to have erupted on a slow news day and then taken on a life of its own.

Okay, breaking news—our Chicago public radio station has just announced that tonight it is “pre-empting the world” ! How’s that for nerve? Actually, it just means we don’t get to listen to the BBC world news program tonight, because the head of the Chicago public school system is coming on live to answer questions in the same time slot. Not a bad idea, but not exactly world-shaking (or even world-pre-empting) either. Maybe I’m the one with a case of je m’en fichisme.

Or maybe my real problem is that the boys in the basement, kind of like a newborn baby, sleep when I’m awake and available to write, and start jumping around when I’m getting ready for bed. Stephen King, never having been pregnant, seems not to notice the similarity.

Today, our former governor got sentenced to 14 years for corruption. His predecessor, I think, got six and a half years on similar charges. Two of their predecessors also did time, and another one was indicted but acquitted. More not-very-new-news. From now on, maybe I should plan to start writing sheer fantasy of various fictional and nonfictional varieties, just to keep the boys in the basement awake when I have time to write.

Oh, and one more bit of not-very-new-news: Kathleen Sebelius has overruled the FDA and chosen not to make the “morning after” pill more readily available. No doubt the Obama administration is choosing its battles carefully these days. But it bothers me that the religiously-affiliated lobbies that have worked so assiduously to make access to contraception more difficult have not uttered Word One about the evils of prescribing Viagra for unmarried males. So much for a consistent sexual ethic which is not to be viewed as anti-woman.

In the meantime:

Raisin Consciousness

Physicists say that time

Is what keeps everything from happening at once.

But holidays

Are what keeps everything from feeling as if it’s happening at once.

Holidays are like the raisins in rice pudding.

Without them, it turns into a glutinous untextured mass.

The raisins add texture,

And sometimes, sweetness.

A good holiday to you all. Peace and light,

The Wired Family