I have a bug in my ear. And not a VW Bug.
The VW scandal is baffling enough. Did anyone seriously believe that a clever scheme that fooled emissions testing equipment would remain secret? The utter stupidity of this scheme is almost greater than the fraud itself.
In terms of immorality I don’t believe VWs misconduct can be compared to that of General Motors, whose employees willfully ignored reports of a faulty ignition switch. That misconduct appears to have cost lives.
By contrast, the software engineers over at VW were merely playing a little adolescent game.
Thank God one of the engineers at VW had the presence of mind to take a selfie video while they were designing how to circumvent those pesky little emissions rules. You’d think the cameraman would have been more careful about airing dirty laundry, but hey, it’s not as dirty as the exhaust pipe, right?
Here’s the transcript:
Friedrich: Wil. Herr Kommandant. Do you think anybody will find out about this?
Wilhelm: Are you kidding?! Have you seen one of these testing garages? They just want to move the cars in and out. For a cool 20 euros they’ll pass a farting cow!
Friedrich: I don’t know. Something about this makes me squirm.
Wilhelm: Vas? Because a few diesel cars are putting out a few more CO2 molecules? Nobody’s getting hurt, right?
Hans: Exactly, Herr Kommandant. Besides, everybody does it. Look at the bankers over at Barclays. So they reported phony LIBOR trades. Sure it cost people money. But nobody was hurt.
Gunter: And look at those solar developers, telling their customers that they will save millions in future energy costs. If their customers believe they can predict the future, so what? Would anybody stop them from selling crystal balls?
Hans: Or Ouija Boards?
Wilhelm: Or astrological charts? Of course not!
Hans: And what about Whole Foods short-weighing its customers?
Wilhelm: That’s LOL funny! Customers are already paying an arm and a leg for a bag of lettuce. Do you think they really care if they pay a dime more for the plastic bag?
Hans: Wunderbar! Nobody gets hurt. It’s a beautiful thing.
Gunter: Remember Chrysler in the 80’s? When they disconnected the odometers on 60,000 cars and drove them around for 400 miles? Who cared?
Hans: Darn. I wish we had thought about that.
Friedrich: It might have saved the VW bus!
Wilhelm: So let’s get on with it, shall we? Schnell, schnell! We’ve got numbers we have to hit.
Friedrich: Jawohl, Herr Kommandant. Who said diesel was for weasels? Let’s move these cars out the door!
In 1966 Lenny Bruce was arrested for uttering nine obscene words. Most of them you would still not utter in polite company although three or four of them you probably heard sometime between breakfast and your second cup of coffee this morning.
Then, in 1973, George Carlin uttered his famous “Seven Dirty Words,” words that he claimed could not be uttered on television although in fact there was no such rule. Carlin (or was it the broadcaster?) was sued for obscenity. In a close Supreme Court decision the obscenity laws were upheld and broadcast television and radio have been kept antiseptic ever since. Today all seven of Carlin’s “dirty words” remain verboten.
I seem to recall that Carlin added an eighth word around that time: “Bomb.” It was the Vietnam War era and Carlin was making the point that “bomb” might be more obscene – particularly when preceded by the word “napalm” – than any of the obscene words that were prohibited. They were, after all, only words.
I hope Bruce and Carlin will not be offended if I add another four-letter word to their lists. Unlike their words, the word that I have in mind is permitted on television and radio. It is in widespread use in Board rooms. Politicians utter it from the podium. It is found in white papers and articles in sober academic journals. It appears in newspaper headlines.
Despite its widespread use the word has been proven to be more dangerous than bombs, verbal or incendiary. It has the power to defeat armies, the strength of a football squad, the kinetic force of a rocket on the launch pad.
You might say that it’s, well, just a word. Not even a noun or a verb; more like a modifier, designed to minimize the significance of an event or a challenge.
The word is “just.”
As in: “This building will just take a year to build.” “That upgrade will just take a few weeks.” “That contract just requires a small revision.” “I just have one more question.” “I just had one drink.”
How many times have I groaned in despair upon hearing that insidious four-letter bromide.
No word does more to raise expectations and then shatter them without mercy. No word does more to puncture one’s ego, burst one’s illusions, destroy one’s fondest hopes. No word makes it seem so easy and yet is just so hard.
Ironically the word’s secondary meaning is so useful: Fair, even-handed, honest, good.
How much better if the word “just” had just one meaning connoting all that is right and pure and objective in the world. Sadly that is just not to be. The word has an uncomfortable tendency to creep into just about every idea we express. We may just have to ban it. For try as we may to use the word “just” to mean just “just” I fear that we will continue to just forget that the primary meaning of “just” must be to be honest and transparent and continue to just use it as a modifier of what comes just after.
No, we must learn to do without “just.” We need to adopt an international English language convention to eradicate the term. It’s just too damn tempting. We should criminalize the use of “just.” Then we must just enforce the prohibition. We must just erase it from the lexicon. We must just omit any reference in our dictionaries.
“Just.” Highlight. Double click. Back space. Delete.
Today such Philistinism – ok, look it up; it means ignorance — is inexcusable. There was a time when if you didn’t understand a word you crossed the room, lifted a 20 pound tome of Webster’s Third Dictionary off the shelf, heaved it on to a rickety table and rifled its tissue-thin pages as the six inch binding shifted like a heaving sea.
Today one need only double click on the irritating word and – voila – instant definition courtesy of a search engine.
Easy enough. But today I am engrossed by a conundrum. Alright, I’ll keep it simple. I am confused.
Last week I attended two gatherings. The first was the thirtieth anniversary celebration of a mentor of mine. I have only known Peter for ten years and in that time he has had an enormous impact on the way in which I approach business problems. With simple, supportive, humane and provocative questions he has helped guide me to creative and fair solutions.
Appreciating the impact that Peter has had on my life it was a surprise to learn that he had been having a similar impact on others for two decades previous to my meeting him. I have always had enormous respect for my teachers. But until last Sunday it probably never occurred to me that their lessons were not intended for me alone. Like a rapt fan that thinks the singer is singing only to him, I think I reveled in being the teacher’s pet. I guess I now have to share that privilege with Peter’s hundreds of other mentees.
Several people walked to the podium and showered Peter with well-deserved praise. Peter blushed with embarrassment and wiped his eyes from time to time. When he rose to thank everybody he was no less modest than he normally is. One of the lessons he taught me was to lead by listening, not by speaking. To be authentic. And to remember that character counts more than accomplishments — in business, as in life.
“We are human be-ings,” Peter always says, “not human do-ings.”
At the end of this commemoration of Peter’s 30 years I shook his hand and reminded him that he had a meeting with me on Tuesday. “Don’t think this is a retirement celebration,” I said. “A lot of nice things have been said. Now it’s time to get back to work.”
The following Saturday I attended a different gathering. This, too, was a commemoration, not of thirty years but of thirty-five years. But there was to be no meeting on Tuesday.
Angela was a remarkable woman. Straight out of college she went to work as an intern for a non-profit organization in Bridgeport, CT, helping to resettle political refugees who are seeking asylum from war-torn conflicts or are victims of torture or of sexual trafficking.
Angela quickly rose through the ranks and at the age of thirty was named executive director. She was a natural leader. She inspired her colleagues with her focus, warmth and humor. She communicated brilliantly with her board and with contributors. And she stretched herself, never satisfied, acquiring new skills, taking on new challenges.
Most of Angela’s clients, the beneficiaries of her agency’s work, do not speak English when they arrived in Connecticut. But gratitude has no language barrier. They are all deeply appreciative of what Angela’s team does for them. Many go on to earn their college degrees, to start successful businesses, to raise families and to put their kids through school.
Angela suddenly took ill – one of those illnesses for which there are no words of comfort that can possibly sound sincere because the diagnosis is so dire. Angela fought valiantly. True to character she worked tirelessly to the end. Thirty-five years young with so much accomplished and so much to give.
Like Peter, we commemorated Angela. Her best friend read a letter that was a testament of friendship. Her brother captured her personality. Another speaker spoke of her determination to change the world. Unlike Peter, Angela could not acknowledge the tribute.
I left Angela’s service grasping for an explanation. Each of these wonderful people we commemorated in much the same way, remembering their achievements, basking in their attention, even laughing at their humanity. How could each of them be the focus of a commemoration – and only one have a meeting on Tuesday.
I may have found an answer in the etymology of the word “commemorate.” According to the dictionaries the word comes from the Latin compound: “con” meaning “together” and “memora” meaning memory. We come together to remember.
But still I was perplexed. In one ceremony I felt joy; in the other only a sense of emptiness.
It was at this point that I turned to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1776. There I found this definition:
“An act of publick celebration; solemnization of the memory of any thing.”
“Celebration” seemed peculiar in this context. Today celebration connotes joyfulness. But if we look at Johnson its meaning may have changed. Johnson has three definitions of “celebrate,” one of which caught my eye:
“…3. To mention in a set or solemn manner, whether of joy or sorrow.”
So there was my answer. A commemoration can bring us together to share our joy. And a celebration can break our hearts with sorrow.
I can thank Dr. Johnson’s dictionary for giving me a moment to pause. The etymology was not an irritating distraction after all.
We can never know what life will throw at us. But we can always take a moment to remember. To praise. To commend. To perform the solemn rites. And to experience the joy and sorrow.
Forget your login? No problem. “What was your mother’s maiden name?” That was easy.
Then came phishing. My 4 number password – child’s birthday, of course – no longer was acceptable. “Passwords should be a minimum of 8 characters and should include at least one capital letter, 2 numbers, and a non-alphanumeric character with the exception of /, ?, or &.”
OK. It was a little harder. But I kept a careful log of all my passwords – despite all the warnings not to! – and – again despite the warnings – I tried to use the same password as often as possible. If I found myself locked out of a site and received the ominous warning “Incorrect user ID or password” I typed in a cycle of all the permutations I had used over the past few months and eventually entered the pearly gates.
Along the way other nasty messages awaited me: The infamous “Choose a password that has not been used in the past 6 months” was a particular letdown. “Your User ID has been taken” was always a blow to my ego. “This site will be locked down for 3 days” struck hard and put me into a deep funk – not to mention resulted in a bounced check – but I survived.
Until today. I sit in front of a new obstacle. I feel like Lewis and Clark at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Is it too late to turn back?
A brokerage firm would like to deliver my statements on line. They tell me it will benefit the environment. Thousands of trees will be saved. My grandchildren will not face the horrors of global warming. Birds will continue to sing in springtime and the ocean’s waters will not rise and inundate Long Island. I will join the thousands of other customers who have taken the responsible step of reducing waste and deforestation.
Simple enough. I pull up the email instructions. I fail at my first two attempts to access the secret archives that contain my pitiful account statements. Perhaps I should be grateful that I am being saved from the humiliation of my inept investment choices over the years. I write the firm and receive more instructions.
At last I get through the first iron doors. All it took was the first 3 initials of my mother’s maiden name and the last 4 digits of my social security number. Now I need to select a picture that will be shown to me in the future to reassure me I am in the right place. I’m not sure why – I would probably know if I had mistakenly entered Warren Buffett’s account statement.
I scroll through the pictures of people and monuments. I don’t see any monuments I like – they all look like tombstones in the thumbnails – and I can’t select a picture of somebody I don’t know. That would sort of be like putting a new picture frame on the shelf with the stock photo that comes with it. So I choose the picture of the rainbow, thank you very much.
Wait. Another barrier. (I am reminded of the opening credits of the sitcom “Get Smart” where Maxwell Smart enters the phone booth and proceeds to go through a dozen doors to get to Control.) I need to select a phrase. Hmmm. Does this call for a snatch of poetry? A favorite aria? The opening line of an Ayn Rand novel?
I choose “Now is the time” from Tom Payne: I am thinking: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country and throw out the screens.”
I am feeling pretty good about myself. I have risen through several stages of Nirvana. I should be on the verge of divine enlightenment.
There is one more step. I must choose four private security questions from a list of 30 or so choices. I pop open the menu for the first question. I scan in vain for “What is my mother’s maiden name?” and “What was the name of your first pet?”
“What was the first name of your elementary school principal?”
“What street were you on when you first kissed?”
“What was the color of the bridesmaid’s dresses at your wedding?”
“What was the name of your first boss?”
“What was your first pet’s favorite food?”
“What was your salary in your first job?”
The list goes on. I feel this cold sweat breaking out. I can’t answer these questions. Is this a sign of early dementia? If I make something up will they catch me? And how will I ever remember what I said? Will I be arrested for lying about the town I first went skinny dipping in?
My heart is racing. Emotionally I am feeling somewhere between discovering that my bank account has been cleaned out by the Russian mob and serving time for ripping off the mattress tag.
Where is Sacagawea when I need her? Who can find me a pass through these mountains? Is it too late to turn back?
I stare at the screen a few moments before searching for the tiny oval with its “Log Out” button in the corner of the page.
I find the email instructions from my broker. I reply.
Homeowners investing in real estate with nothing down. Builders’ stock prices take off. High pressure salesmen tout big savings and profits in the real estate market. Government programs incentivize people to take on long term obligations. Business reporters post stories about the new paradigm and ignore warning signs.
Sound familiar? If it sounds like the housing bubble in 2005, think again. It’s the growing market for rooftop solar.
Solar, you said? Isn’t that like motherhood and apple pie? What could possibly be wrong with free power from the sun? Isn’t it the holy grail? The pot of gold? The brass ring? A free lunch?
That might be the case if solar were, in fact, free. But while it is affordable – in fact, it is an incredible investment – it is not free. Not any more than houses in Las Vegas being purchased for nothing down in 2007 … and under water today.
There are two basic ways for homeowners to enjoy the benefits of rooftop solar: Buy it or lease it.
Buying a solar system usually requires forking over a deposit. That may seem like a headache but the returns are enormous. The federal government offers a tax credit equal to 30% of the cost of the system – a dollar-for-dollar credit, not just a deduction. From then on the savings from solar are terrific, and go directly to pay off the homeowners’ financing charges or directly into their pocket.
You can buy a solar system from many local contractors. They size up the project, order the equipment, and install it in as little as a day and a half.
Alternatively, you can lease your solar system. This usually requires nothing down. A third party owns the solar panels on your roof and charges you for the electricity that the panels generate.
Several companies will lease you rooftop solar for nothing down. The most notable are SolarCity, SunRun, and Sungevity, as well as numerous installers that use the larger companies for financing.
Over 70% of all new solar systems are leased. On the face of it leasing sounds like a good deal. Solar for 20 years with nothing down.
But the devil is in the details. And with leasing there are two devils lurking in the background.
The first devil: You may end up paying more for your solar than you would pay to your local utility for the same amount of electricity! Most contracts with companies like SolarCity let you pay less than the local utility price in the first year. Thereafter, your costs escalate, often as much as 4% a year.
If utility prices escalate more than 4% you win. But if they do not escalate that fast you lose.
Not surprisingly, high pressure salesmen from SolarCity and other companies claim utility prices have been increasing for over 20 years at 6% or more. Many of their websites make the same claim. Not so.
Since 2008 utility prices throughout the country have dropped dramatically. Cheap natural gas produced from shale has driven down the price of electricity, most of which is generated from gas.
If utility prices rise slowly, your solar may cost more. Not the slam dunk savings you’ve been promised. And if that happens what do you think will happen to the price of your house if you want to sell it? How willing will buyers be to take on higher operating costs than they would pay the local utility?
And most importantly, will homeowners continue to pay their bills if solar is higher than the local utility’s price? Or will buyers default, like they did on subprime loans?
Of course, the leasing companies will argue that it’s not all about price. After all, your solar panels come maintenance free. Somebody else owns them. But the fact is that solar maintenance is negligible. There are no moving parts. And most panels carry warranties for 20 years or more.
They will also say that you can prepay your lease and avoid the escalator. But price up a prepay and you’ll find it’s about the same as buying it outright…without having the risk that 20 years from now you have to pay to remove the panels from your roof.
The second devil: You may end up paying twice; first as a homeowner leasing rooftop solar panels, and then as a taxpayer. That is because the third party owners of most rooftop solar – companies like Google, Goldman Sachs, and Bank America – take advantage of the investment tax credits and depreciation allowance that such systems receive from the federal government.
In order to calculate tax credits and depreciation the companies must place a value on the solar system. The higher value, the more the credits and depreciation allowance available to the owners of the panels. These credits and allowances reduce their taxes, thereby increasing what the rest of us taxpayers pay.
Trouble is that the costs can be easily inflated. And it looks like they have been. Congress plans hearings on SolarCity’s claims. The Inspector General of the IRS is inspecting the whole industry.
A casual look at reports to Connecticut and Massachusetts regulators, not to mention reports from Arizona and California, appear to raise legitimate questions. If it costs $3.50/watt on average to build a solar system in Connecticut that somebody buys, how can make sense that it costs $4.90-$5.10 to build a solar system in the same state that somebody leases?
The answer is that it can’t. Unless you are claiming a 30% tax credit based on the higher number.
Like the housing bubble, third party solar is hot. Homeowners are snapping up the offers. The stock of SolarCity is soaring. Some call it the Tesla effect, after Elon Musk, the genius behind the electric car and a major stockholder of SolarCity. Reporters are in love with the stock. Analysts tout it. The green media swoon over it.
But it may be time to start looking under the hood. Sometimes when a deal is too good to be true … it’s not.
As with subprime mortgages, it is not only homeowners that may be affected. Taxpayers, too, may pay the price. And if the solar industry gets a bad name, perfectly legitimate solar deals may be shelved.
SolarCity and the companies financing third party solar are enjoying free power from the sun. The question is whether their customers – and the rest of us — will get burned.
For many years Yale University has published the Environmental Performance Index or EPI. Columbia University publishes a similar metric known as the Environmental Sustainability Index or ESI, but it is far less user-friendly.
The folks at Yale rank nations based on a number of factors relating to the environment, public health and the eco-system. The goal is to help governments develop environmental policy goals.
According to the EPI, Switzerland, Latvia and Norway score high among the 132 countries ranked while Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq bring up the rear. The United States – with its aggressive strip mining of coal and fracking of shale gas — is a modest performer at 49 whereas China – whose capital is generally shrouded in toxic haze and whose major rivers are open sewers — ranks 116.
None of this should come as a surprise if it weren’t so unfair. Why is the air of Europe so pristine? Because its factories shut down long ago. And why is the developing world so bleak? Because it is exporting its pollution-producing goods to the rest of the world.
Is it any surprise that Bangladesh barely squeaks out China at 115 or that India ranks close to the bottom at 122?
On Sunday the New York Times reported this from Bangladesh:
“On the worst days, the toxic stench wafting through the Genda Government Primary School is almost suffocating. Teachers struggle to concentrate, as if they were choking on air. Students often become lightheaded and dizzy. A few boys fainted in late April. Another retched in class.” Jim Yardley, July 14, 2013.
Genda is not far from where a garment factory collapsed in April. At least 1,127 people died. It was both the worst garment-factory disaster, and the worst structural building failure, in history.
Companies manufacturing in Bangladesh or importing garments from there – Benetton, Bonmarche, Walmart – are now investigating their supply chains. Calvin Klein and Timberland have signed on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Hopefully others are taking proactive steps as well, including paying more for their goods to subsidize factory upgrades – something that Walmart has resisted for a couple years as importers reviewed their options.
Is there a principled distinction between the factory collapse and the poisoned air foul water that people breathe and drink?
A fair evaluation of environmental rankings would measure the carbon content or pollution component of goods and services that are consumed. By that measure the developing world would rank high – and much of the consuming world on the bottom.
On October 12 last year, masked gunmen boarded a school bus in the Swat District of Pakistan and asked a 15-year old girl to identify herself. They then shot her and two friends.
Malala Yousafzai had won international attention for her blogs about the rights of girls to an education. The Taliban had issued an edict in 2009 banning girls from schools. Malala’s father continued to operate the school she attended and she wrote an anonymous blog supporting him. Later she began to write for the BBC, giving interviews.
Hers was a quiet voice expressing a hunger for learning felt by millions of girls around the world.
When the Taliban tried to silence Malala, they underestimated her tenacity. She recovered from her wounds. And Friday she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday. Her speech was an extraordinary statement, a calm, reasoned argument in favor of the universal right to education embodied in international law. You can watch her speech here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/news/world-asia-23291897 .
It was not always so. Neither the right to education, nor the contents of that education, have long historic antecedents.
The education of middle class young men was not embraced until the 1600s. Influential writers like John Milton and John Locke wrote about the moral and social value of education for males. But even Locke, a proponent of individual liberty, dismissed the education of the poor, suggesting they should be trained for factory labor as early as three years old. Schooling for girls was not even addressed.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an early advocate for women. But even her curriculum for girls was designed to prepare them for motherhood and matrimony. It was another hundred years before government-sponsored schools were open to girls and even then curricula was often skewed; boys learned mathematics and science while girls studied home economics and typing.
Today we take universal education for granted. The rights to an education is enshrined in numerous constitutions, statutes, and international compacts.
Of course not everybody agrees. The Taliban took credit for Malala’s attack. One of her attackers was reputed to be a 23-year old chemistry student. How ironic. The word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto. Malala’s attacker was a science student. Clearly education means something different to her attacker and his fellow Taliban.
The Taliban advocate a form of ideological ignorance. According to them, women must be isolated from contact with men. With few exceptions, they should not be employed. They should not be educated. Education is a threat to their beliefs and to their culture.
The day Malala spoke the New York Times published a story about more bombing attacks on Pakistani girls’ schools. In her speech she called on us to protect her rights and those of over 70 million other girls around the world. We can do no less.
Several Taliban factions have sought negotiations over the past couple years. Accepting Malala and her father’s school must be a necessary condition of any discussions.
Meantime I hope Malala’s speech did not fall on deaf ears. We cannot be silent witnesses to this outrage any longer.
Somebody once observed that God made us with two ears and one mouth for a reason. But today I heard somebody say it better:
“Listen fast and speak slow.”
I’m sure most of my friends would say that I have failed miserably on both counts. But they are my friends. They’ll forgive my compulsion to entertain them with dreary war stories they have heard often.
How I admire Silent Cal Coolidge, our laconic president. Dorothy Parker was said to have leaned over to him at a dinner party and said, “Mr. President, I made a bet with somebody that I could get you say more than two words.”
“You lose,” he replied.
Mark Twain, who was as prolix as Coolidge was silent, reportedly observed: “If I had more time I’d write shorter.” Good advice
When I ran for political office years ago I thought I was supposed to persuade the voters to agree with me. After all, isn’t that what the great stem-winders do?
My first few outings at the train station consisted of throat straining exercises in pontification. Needless to say I spent a lot of time alone. It was a performance worthy of Hyde Park Corner. I could have been standing on a fruit crate, declaiming to the multitudes.
Perhaps it was while sucking on a lozenge I realized that voters did not want to listen; they wanted to talk.
In fact, it soon became clear that election campaigns are not about the education of the voters but the education of the candidate. I started to listen more and speak less. I started to learn what was on peoples’ minds. And I won.
Great salesmen are like that: They let the customer sell themselves. “What do you need?” they ask. “Maybe I can help you.” Nobody wants to listen to a boring sales pitch.
Listening also helps you ascertain whether the other person has actually heard. It’s human nature to assume that because we’ve taken the trouble to communicate we’ve been understood. It’s an illusion. Our audience is probably thinking about what to buy for dinner.
Come to think of it, my readers probably tuned me out minutes ago. And I’m just prattling along.
Maybe I’ll take a breath here. And listen.
I miss my morning newspaper.
I still read the “paper” of course: a screen of pixelated words I pull up every morning on an iPad. Or, in the case of the Wall Street Journal and FT, at the office on a desktop.
But it’s not the same thing. And the reasons have nothing to do with some Luddite nostalgia for newsprint.
Sure I miss the sound of the rolled up paper dropping on the stoop, the anticipation of reading the lead story, rifling through to the op-ed page, scratching at the crossword with pen or pencil.
I miss that skillful flick of the wrist with which subway riders in New York or Paris could take their Times or Figaro and artfully work their way through its intricate narrow column-width folds like a child’s Origami fortune teller. (When I tried it I usually came close to taking out the eye of the commuter sitting next to me.)
And after it was read it was dumped in a corner where it came in handy to house train the dog. The other day I piled wood up on the grate and then looked in vain for a paper to start a fire.
I don’t miss the newsprint… or those inky smudges on my fingers that invariably transferred to my white shirts and my khaki pants and pretty much everything I touched the rest of the morning.
But I do miss the content. Not the content of the headlines that I looked for, or the sections that the editors have chosen to organize stories in categories of interest: “US,” “World,” “Politics,” “Business,” “Arts.” But the content that I did not expect, the stories that I was not looking for.
Many people have complained about the way that cable news channels have led to a degradation in public discourse. Arguably the network news anchors reached a broader political spectrum and hence were obliged to deliver a balanced, apolitical view of events. With cable came channels that appealed to narrow political viewpoints. Viewers are often exposed to viewpoints that are consistent with their preconceived notions and so are less likely to be exposed to contrary points of view.
Call it the fractionating – and factionating – of news.
One can argue that the network news stations were never balanced. And I can vouch for the fact that at least this news junkie watches numerous and conflicting cable stations.
But whether or not cable is politicized, online newspapers have become trivialized. Even a highly politicized and polarizing paper would be a relief if one could find in its columns and pages unexpected news and features.
I suppose I could click my way through all of the sections, scroll through the stories, read stories of interest. But though a headline may catch my attention I have no way of judging a story’s length. The section’s editor has no way of communicating to me – by its placement on the page – how noteworthy it is. Pictures or graphics that used to draw me to a particular story are invisible until I click on the story … which I probably now won’t read!
Alright, it’s time. I will revive the subscription to the real newspaper. I may not be able to keep the buggy whip factory going. But I might be able to keep those rotary presses working a little later into the night.
Yesterday the world watched thousands of fireworks exploding over Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Army had just deposed Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt who had presided for a year. The crowds rejoiced.
The Obama administration is perplexed about how to respond. How can we applaud a military coup if we truly believe in the principles of democratic government? Yet how can we ignore the will of the people – millions of Egyptians, including many who voted for Morsi – gathering in public squares around the country to express their dismay at the theocratic hijacking of the Revolution of 2011?
We need not be so confused. The fireworks over Tahrir are the same expression of freedom that American families are enjoying in the skies throughout their country today.
July 4 is not simply a celebration of American freedom. It is a celebration of human freedom. It marks the adoption, two days earlier in 1776, of the Declaration of Independence, a document that was published at a time when large populations were chattel and nearly everyone else lived under the scepter of despotic and arbitrary hereditary rule.
Its context was rebellion by colonists of a European power. But its overarching themes were grander:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—
It speaks directly to the Egyptian people and to the role government plays to secure their freedom.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Interestingly, the Declaration was not self-enacting. Words on paper can light a spark but they do not burn by themselves. They may require centuries of bloodshed and tears to become a reality. A war with Great Britain. A war between the states. A social war in the streets of Selma, at the convention hall at Seneca Falls, outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street.
The talking heads agonize over the mixed messages of Tahrir. Over time these messages will gel. The Declaration of Independence was drafted over a year after armed hostilities began between the American colonists and their English lords.
It is not democracy under siege in Cairo. The election of 2012 was a false start. The Egyptians are asking for a do-over. And they are entitled to it.
Democracy is an evolving process, not a book gathering dust on the shelf. The election of 2012 was part of that evolution in Egypt, no less than the oppression of minorities in the United States was part of that evolution there.
The fireworks in Tahrir yesterday remind me of flying years ago across the United States at night on the Fourth of July. The fireworks exploding came from thousands of towns that had united in a common destiny.
Now imagine for a moment the sight of fireworks exploding over Tahrir, Taksim, Red Square, Tiananmen. It would be a lovely sight.