Monday, January 25, 2016

Even in Our Cyber World, Real Newspapers Still Matter

“He who is without a newspaper is cut off from his species.”            --P. T. Barnum

I still have ink on my hands, smudged black newspaper ink, from my time as a newspaper delivery boy, in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in the nineteen-seventies. For six years, six days a week, I arose well before dawn, sleepily stumbled out to my front stoop, and picked up a huge pack of fifty or so tightly twined Springfield Union newspapers. Then I’d roll them all up, stuff them into my canvas bag, get on my bike and make my early morning deliveries, often arriving back home just before sunrise. 

It was my first real job and other than the pocket change I made as pay, the one thing I enjoyed the most was my daily ritual of reading that newspaper after my route was done.  On warm summer mornings I’d sit out in our driveway and lean back against the garage door and then open up the paper to find out what had happened in the world in the past 24 hours.  First the comics.  Then the sports.  Then the front page. 

I still vividly recall the hot summer of 1974 when, as a budding news junkie, I read all I could about the Watergate scandal and the downfall of the most powerful man in the world, President Richard Nixon. It was two newspaper reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and one gutsy newspaper, The Washington Post, which brought down Nixon, exposed his lies.  Told the truth, in black and white and column inches.

I hope you can excuse my newspaper nostalgia.  It’s easy these days to see the notion of a physical newspaper as somehow quaint, old school, retro, maybe even just the stuff of our grandparents.  Who reads the newspaper anymore?  Who needs to depend upon a real item, made of newsprint and ink, when virtual news is available so readily and handily and inexpensively and conveniently, on the screens of our phones and computers and tablets and TVs?

These are tough days for print journalism and newspapers. Since the early two-thousands, newspapers have been in steep decline: in circulation, readership and revenue.  Right now New England’s largest newspaper, The Boston Globe, is having a delivery nightmare. It decided to switch from one delivery vendor to another at the end of last year. The outcome has been a disaster, with thousand of customers left without a trusty paper at the end of the driveway in the morning. This debacle could not have come at a worse time.

Yet here are some newspaper truths.  We may get our news in differing ways from our forebears, as we surf the information superhighway. We may imagine that in 2016 news is now “free” and so we don’t have to bother anymore with plunking down a few bucks for the latest New York Times or Wall Street Journal.  We may even think that a post newspaper world is a better place: no more messy ink, and so anyone with a computer and an idea is a journalist, right?     

Think again. 

Newspapers and the reporters who work and write for them, who write for us: newspapers still matter and still make a huge difference for the good.  The child sex abuse scandal in the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese?  Who discovered the story, wrote the story, doggedly pursued the story, went the distance to uncover the awful and ugly truth?  Print reporters, who armed only with curiosity, a pad of paper and their questions, tracked down the answers.  (Go see the film “Spotlight” for this amazing tale.) Who asks the hard questions of our Presidential candidates, uncovers the secret folks and groups who pour billions of dollars into our elections? Who first reported the story of Volkswagen cheating?  Who covers your kid’s Friday night game and then shares their name with the world?  Who sits through boring civic meetings for hours on end to make sure the citizenry knows what government is really up to?

Newspaper reporters and newspapers, more than any other media or medium or high priced star TV reporter.  Even the most visited news websites—Yahoo news, Google news, the Huffington Post—these most often aggregate and collect stories from print media sites.  We may imagine as consumers of news that we are now liberated from ink and print but the reality is that almost every story we read, every tidbit of gossip we consume, every game day fact we pore over, begins at the end of a pencil, held in the hand of a newspaper reporter.  A real live person whose vocation it is to seek the truth and then share that information with the public and readers, so that they might be better informed as citizens.

So here’s to newspapers, real newspapers.  Dailies and weeklies and hometown mailers.  Small town tabs and big city tabloids.  We may not get that ink on our hands anymore, may not even subscribe, or pay the freight for the news.  But the next time you read a story and think, “I didn’t know that…” remember this. A newspaper probably made your enlightenment possible.

And that’s the real news.

Monday, January 18, 2016

President Grumpy? It Takes More Than Anger to Change the World

Harrumph (noun) 1. An exclamation of annoyance, exasperation, rage or other negative factor or to expel anger, disgust, disappointment, etc.

It’s a miracle that up until this past weekend, I’ve been able to avoid what may be the worst part of Presidential campaign politics: the TV commercial, the 30 or 60 second spot that packages a candidate, right in between pitches for Viagra and Bernie and Phyl’s Furniture. But to watch playoff football, it was impossible for me to escape the onslaught.  So as an experiment, I viewed these mini speeches with curiosity, even hope, wondering if, perhaps, these videos might actually give me a sense of the spirit and tone of the upcoming election. 

Maybe the commercials might even uplift me with their soaring rhetoric and positive platitudes, get me really excited about all the possibilities a new President might offer. Who among these fifteen men and women, on the tube and on the ballot in nearby New Hampshire, will be our next Lincoln, or Washington, or Roosevelt? 

So I watched TV and…

Report: no matter who wins next November it feels like there’s a very good chance he or she will be an absolute world class harrumpher.  A harrumpher.  The kind of person who given the chance will always see what is wrong and then insist on telling anyone within earshot of their complaints. Watch the candidates’ commercials (and debates too) and it’s easy to get depressed about just who wants to lead us for the next four years.  Harrumphers.  Eye rollers, lip pursers, head shakers, arm crossers, heavy sighers, and finger waggers.  I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a bigger group of pessimists or doomsday sayers on the air, at one time, ever. 

It’s like Eeeyore is running for President. It’s as if the cranky old guy who lives in your neighborhood and is always yelling at the kids to “STAY OFF MY LAWN!”: he wants our vote.  The lady at the library who SHUSHES you with an angry glare. The self righteous college professor who glares at you from the podium in the midst of a tedious lecture.  The bullying used car salesman who warns you that the deal is off if you leave the lot.  The preacher who harangues from the pulpit.          

HARRUMPH!  America is besieged at every turn by its enemies.  HARRUMPH! America is going to hell in a hand basket.  HARRUMPH!  The rich hate the poor and the poor despise the rich. HARRUMPH!  If you elect my opponent(s), she or he will ruin our country for generations to come. HARRUMPH!  Immigrants, global warming, ISIS, income inequality: pick your poison.  We’re all doomed…and oh, by the way?


Funny thing about harrumphing and harrumphers.  They are always better at tearing down than building up. Always ready to light in to someone and then self righteously dismiss an opposing viewpoint, without even bothering to listen. Harrumphers make for good copy in the press and great sound bites for the news and juicy grist for the mill of social media, but harrumphers usually fail as leaders. And not just for nations but in families and communities and neighborhoods and religions and companies too. 

Harrumphers prove again and again that it is always simpler to trumpet bad news rather than actually share some good news.  Harrumphers love to throw rocks but often don’t know how to then put the stone down and bring people together. Harrumphers appeal to the worst in us, not the best.  Harrumphers use seductive arguments to convince us that there’s nothing better than self satisfied anger to stoke the fires of partisanship.

To be clear: I’m not endorsing any candidate or party or philosophy.  Instead, I have just  one hope and prayer. As we seek to build and rebuild the world, to do the hard work of community and face into our problems both locally and globally, we’ll demand that the harrumphers do more than just harrumph. The challenges we humans face in 2016 are too big and too serious to leave it all to the harrumphers. 

We need a positive vision. We need to be called to our better natures, not our cranky selves.  We need leaders who can actually lead us. Lead…the greatest number of people to do the greatest good for every last citizen and child of God. Lead and unite in us in cooperation and in hope.  Heck—maybe even inspire us!

So enough with the harrumphing already.  It’s time to grow up and get to the real work of making this world a better place.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

America's Best Defense in An Age of Terror

Pop quiz. 

What’s the most powerful weapon in America’s vast arsenal, as our nation seeks to defend itself against enemies like Daesh (ISIS), and domestic enemies too? What’s the one force that more than any other has the power to defeat those who would seek to threaten the United States of America and its citizens? Those both home grown and foreign, who’d like nothing better than to make us all afraid, tempt us to question our place in the world?  Or to put this question another way, what makes America strong, great?

Some hints.

It’s not boots on the ground. It’s not drones dropping bombs from on high. It’s not Navy Seals stealthily carrying out assassinations in the dead of the night. It’s not heightening our government surveillance of, or paranoia about, those we deem as “different”, or “the other”. It’s not bowing to the bellicose, xenophobic, divisive declarations of Presidential candidates who use fear as their electoral strategy of choice.

Have you guessed yet what America’s “secret weapon” is? 

One truth which more than any other makes us great as a people. Strong and true. Sober and wise.  A leader in the world, a country which other peoples in other places can look to for inspiration and as an example.  It’s not our stupendous wealth. It’s not “Star Wars”.  It’s not even the amazing diversity of our nation, the fact that we are the most eclectic collection of religions and ethnicities and races and cultures in the world today.

There are strange and fraught days in our civic history. We are in the election season now and in many ways America seems to be literally running scared. Looking over our collective shoulders in fear. We are a people in terror about terror. Gun sales are at all times highs. Presidential candidates all vie to out macho each other as to who is tough enough to confront and overcome our opponents.  And so you might think that our most potent weapon is a real weapon. Lock and load.  Take aim. Kick some butt. BOOYAH!

Have you guessed yet what makes the United States, even still, a “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan once declared?  Some final hints.

This “weapon” is very old, 227 years to be exact. Much of the time it’s made of just paper, as seemingly flimsy as the parchment it was first printed upon.  Any citizen can use it and every American, every single last one, is protected by it.  It can bring down a President or a pauper and it applies equally to all, regardless of their life status. Though originally created by an elite group of educated wealthy men, its defensive capabilities are egalitarian and more powerful than any gun or mob or rabble or politician.  It’s stable and yet it can also be changed, amended when necessary, by the people. 

It’s the United States Constitution. 

It’s what makes us powerful in the best sense of that word.  It embodies the hope that we live by laws and not by lynch mobs, by statutes and not stacks of campaign contributions. It’s what marks us as a unique people in the history of the world and it’s not clear to me that many, or even any, of our current Commander In Chief candidates truly understand this reality. At just 4,400 words long, this one document may be the most potent symbol of true American power and true American greatness which still exists. 

There’s a wonderful scene from the recent Steven Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies”, which tells the true story of lawyer James Donovan, who was charged with defending the accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, at the height of the Cold War, in 1957.  It was a time when we were very afraid: of enemies foreign and domestic, of certain immigrant groups and peoples, of political ideas which did not adhere to certain narrow definitions.

Donovan goes to a bar and meets a CIA agent, who asks the lawyer to not be such “a Boy Scout”, forget the rulebook and instead reveal what Abel is talking about to Donovan, a clear violation of the right to counsel and the right to confidentiality in that constitutionally protected relationship. 

Says Donovan, “My name is Donovan, I’m Irish, on both sides…father and mother… you’re German, right? But what makes us Americans? Just one thing, one, one...the rulebook. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans. So don't tell me there’s no rulebook.”

What makes America strong? What makes America great?  When we are most afraid, what can save us from ourselves and our enemies?  The rulebook.  The Constitution.  The document our elected leaders pledge to “protect and defend”. 

Now that’s a weapon.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Resolution Maker or Resolution Breaker? The Decision Is Always Up To Us.

“Do nothing, and nothing happens. Life is about decisions. You either make them or they're made for you, but you can't avoid them.”       --Mhairi McFarlane

This is the year I really want to do it.  Really will do it. No. REALLY!  I’m serious.

I am absolutely going to…lose twenty pounds…go to the gym three times a week…pray each day…find a life partner…quit smoking or alcohol or drugs…switch careers…end a relationship…mend a hurt…forgive an enemy…live a life different than the one I want to leave behind in 2015.  Sound familiar? It should. We are in the season of resolution making and, also, resolution breaking.  Just days ago the odds are almost fifty percent, that you and I, many of us, made New Years’ resolutions.  Drew up a ‘to do” (or “not to do”) list with pencil and paper or on our computer or smart phone. 

So…how’s that going? 

If you are like most folks, probably not so great.  According to a study published in the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45 percent of Americans made New Years’ resolutions, to change a behavior or habit, in the next 51 weeks.  Yet the same study also reports that the long term success rate for major life changes like these is about eight percent.  Need proof? Check out the overflowing parking lot at any local gym.  In a matter of weeks there will be plenty of spaces to pull in to, but right now the place is packed.  Alcoholics Anonymous? The rooms are full. Dating sites? Record numbers of new subscriptions. Diet books are flying off the shelves too, along with nicotine gum and patches to help smokers, who are desperately hankering for a butt.

For those of us resolved to change, our hearts are certainly in the right place.  Ask someone who’s hooked on a substance (food, alcohol, pills, booze, cigarettes, etc.) if they are aware that what they are doing is unhealthy, and guaranteed most will say, “Yes!” The hard part of personal change isn’t making the resolution. It’s doing the resolution, keeping the resolution, and perhaps most important, making a final decision to stop or to start or to begin or to end.  I know this because I am one of those sad sacks who have gone into many Januarys with the sincerest of resolve, only to fail days or weeks later.

But if we are still ready and willing to try and make the change, whatever that might be, here are some hopes and ideas to consider.  First, remember that change is often hard, very hard.  Pushing back against our human will to change is something scientists call homeostasis: the force which underlies all of our behavior, the urge to perpetually return to the status quo, the familiar, the comfortable, regardless of whether or not it is “good” for us. 

Netflix and ice cream or a chilly car ride and the treadmill? A long drag off a familiar cigarette or tenaciously waiting until the itch to light up passes?  That second glass of wine or a seltzer instead? Another Saturday night at home alone or diving into singles night at the local tavern? Always, our habits will call out to us to come home. To do the same old, same old. Still want to change? Then steel yourself.  Expect it to be difficult.  If you are a person of faith, ask God into that struggle too to give you the power to change. 

And then make the decision.  Choose to change. Decide. 

We can buy all the self-help books we want, attend all the support classes we desire, use intricate strategies and tricks to help us change, but finally people change when they decide to change. One of the greatest of God given gifts is human free will.  God does not make us puppets, tugged along by some unseen Divine strings. God does not throw us into the winds of so called fate or fatalism. God does not play dice with our lives. God does instead give us life and then empowers us to make decisions both large and small about how we will live each and every day.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”  That I do believe. So in this relatively new New Year, let’s all confess.  We each know the ways that we need to change. We know it will probably be hard: take commitment, discipline, the support of others and the support of God.  Change beckons. 

The decision? That, my fellow change seekers, is ours’ alone to make.