Saturday, August 1, 2015

How do you prepare for this GOP debate?

Thursday night there will be ten debaters with Donald Trump at center stage, following the presidential debate tradition of having the front runner in the center spot, the next two on either side, and on down.   So Jeb Bush and Scott Walker will be on either side of him.  Then reasonably assured of a spot will be Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz.

Then it gets dicey for those "on the bubble," as they say.  The maybe group that could round out the 10 would be Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.   The long shots would be Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal;  the also-rans:  George Pataki, Carly Fiorino, and the just-joined-in former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

That's the question of Who? and it won't be settled until Tuesday, two days before the debate, when Fox announces which polls it considered the "last five national polls" that pick the winners.

But then there's the question of:  How do you prepare for a two hour "debate" split ten ways?   And, even moreso, with Donald Trump in the leading role?   Will he throw insult bombs?    Should the others use valuable time responding to him -- or ignore him?

His campaign says he's going to "be very nice and respectful."   But is he capable of sustaining that?   Increasingly, Trump's poll numbers indicate that he is striking a responsive chord in the electorate.   What we thought at first was the novelty of it seems now more that you disparage him at your peril -- not because of his counterattack -- but because he is obviously speaking for a lot of people when he talks about immigrants and criticizes our government.

Nevertheless, "how to handle Donald Trump" in a debate is producing some entertaining suggestions.   Reportedly someone has advised Jeb Bush not to engage with him, because: "Never wrestle with a pig.   You'll get dirty and, besides, the pig will love it."

And a political operative sent John Kasich a message saying that preparing for this debate is like a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race when you know that one of the drivers will be drunk.

The real winner will be Fox News, because the anticipation for what might happen will drive the ratings off the charts -- at least for a first debate 15 months before the election.  And Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, gets to play king-maker once again.


Desperate Christie resorts to jaw-dropping flip-flop

When Chris Christie became governor of New Jersey in 2010, one of his first acts was to pull the plug on plans to replace the 100 plus year old North River tunnel connecting to New York.  That defiant act -- the tunnel had been a major project of his Democratic predecessor -- splashed across the news and made Christie a name to remember.

What was less publicized at the time, but became known later, was the dishonesty involved.   First, Christie used falsely exaggerated cost estimates to justify the decision;  and, second, his inside men in the Port Authority then diverted funds from the tunnel project to other transportation projects.   This allowed Christie to avoid having to raise taxes, which he then crowed about as a major accomplishment of fiscal management.

That was far from the end of the Christie administration's use of transportation antics for political purposes.   Three years later, they closed two lanes of the most heavily traveled bridge in the entire world that connects New Jersey with New York, causing unprecedented traffic jams all the way back to Fort Lee, NJ, delaying commuters for hours and bringing the town to a standstill that lasted for four days. 

So it comes as a jaw-dropping maneuver, even for Christie, when he said this week -- as if none of that had happened -- that, if he is elected president, he will make sure that a new tunnel is built under the Hudson.  He even outlined how he would go about it with his transportation secretary and the two governors, and just get it done.

Not only did he cancel a similar project in 2010, but as recently as last year he was still deriding the project as just "a train to Macy's basement."   One can only conclude, from this reversal, that it is the desperate move of a failing campaign for president, where his polls numbers continue to drop, putting him in 8th place.    After all, it seems second nature to Christie to use transportation policy as his personal prerogative for political purposes.

I would suggest that dishonesty and blatant flip-flops won't save him.   I'm not sure that anything will -- or that his campaign should be saved.   Actually, I'm sure it should NOT be saved.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Mockingbird Part II: Controversies over publishing the (pre)sequel

[For the first installment of this series, see ShrinkRap, July 29, 2015.  "Mockingbird Part I:  Deconstructing an American Icon:  Atticus Finch.]

In 1957, a 31 year old Alabama woman, Nelle Harper Lee, submitted a manuscript for her first novel to her agent, who sent it out to publishers, including J.B. Lippincott, where it landed on the desk of experienced editor Tay Hohoff.    Ms. Hohoff recognized that "the spark of a true writer flashed in every line," but that it was "more of a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel" (quotations are from Jonathan Mahler's New York Times article, "Invisible Hand That Nurtured an Author of a Literary Classic").

Over the coming months, Ms. Hohoff worked closely with Nelle (everyone who knows her calls her Nelle) in trying to shape the manuscript into a novel.   Out of this collaboration, the story took shape;   but eventually Ms. Hohoff advised her to start over and rewrite it from the point of view of the 8 year old "Scout" Finch.  

She would tell of events as they were happening in the 1930s, rather than in flashbacks through the eyes of the grown-up 28 year old Jean Louise, who returns home after living in New York and is shocked (as are readers of Mockingbird) by the racist attitudes in both her friends and family -- including her own beloved father Atticus.   The action of the earlier version took place in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating schools.

The result was a very different novel.  It was published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's only published novel -- until now.    For 55 years, Nelle said she did not intend to publish anything else.  An executive editor at Lippincott at the time,  Edward Burlingame, said that the publisher's "sales department would have published Harper Lee's laundry list." 

But Ms. Hohoff, until her death in 1974, was protective of Nelle and her literary reputation.   There was never any discussion of publishing the earlier manuscript, according to Burlingame, who added that "[Tay Hohoff] was not going to allow any commercial pressures or anything else to put stress on her to publish anything that wouldn't make Nelle proud or do justice to her.   Anxious as we all were to get another book from Harper Lee, it was a decision we all supported."

So now, in 2015, we have the publication of that manuscript that her editor and publisher, her older sister Alice, and the author herself all resisted for 55 years.  

Alice was totally protective of Nelle, but she died last November at the age of 103.   Publication plans were announced three months after her death, but obviously were already underway.  What we don't know is whether Alice knew about the plans.

What happened?   First, everyone involved but Nelle herself has died.   She is 89 years old, blind and deaf and residing in a closely guarded assisted living facility.    Her sister Alice once said of Nelle, "She can't see and she can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence."

Her affairs, managed until just a few years ago by Alice, an attorney, have been taken over by the 50 year old Tonja Carter, an attorney in Alice Lee's law firm.  Ms. Carter began there as a young secretary and became a close friend of the two sisters.    They helped support her in going to school to get her own law degree, which she got in 2006.   In 2007 Alice made her a partner in the law firm, and she gradually began managing Nelle's affairs and now has her durable power of attorney.

A great deal of suspicion has been directed at Ms. Carter:   (1)  She manages Nelle's affairs and everything about her life.   (2)  She discovered the manuscript and contacted the publisher.  (3)  She has told differing, conflicting accounts of that discovery, as to when it took place and in what form the manuscript was found.  (4)  No one is allowed to see or talk to Nelle without Carter's express permission and, usually, in her presence while they visit.   (5)  Any statements purportedly from Nelle come through her. 

Wayne Flynt, Alabama historian and a friend of Ms. Lee, thinks that she is mentally fit, but has memory problems.   When he asked her about the new novel, she at first asked "What novel?"   Reminding her and saying "You must be so proud," he recalled that she responded: "I'm not so sure anymore."  This was reported by the New York Times on March 11, 2015.   Other friends (there is an approved list of 12 that are allowed by Ms. Carter to see Nelle) give differing accounts of her mental state.   Some friends are no longer allowed to see her.

A journalist, Claire Suddath, wrote about the publishing of this new book from a business standpoint for the July 9, 2015 issue of Bloomberg Business Weekly.  It's called "To Sell a Mockingbird Sequel:  Harper Lee, Her Lawyer, and the Ethics of Consent."  After extensive interviews with friends and townspeople, including Carter herself, Ms. Suddath is obviously suspicious about that "consent."   She also interviewed a long-time friend of Nelle's in her New York apartment and says that, during the interview, Ms. Carter called five times to ask how it was going.

Back in March, an anonymous call to the elder abuse hot line of the Alabama Department of Human Resources resulted in a visit by investigators at the home where Nelle is living.  They were specifically asked to evaluate whether she was mentally capable of making decisions related to the publication of her book.  They determined that she is.    But they have also pointed out that they are not mental health professionals.  Their usual focus is on physical abuse of elders and whether their finances are being mishandled.

Responding to the investigators questions of whether she wanted the book to be published, they say she replied:  "Why the hell would I write a book and not want it to be published?"  That is not the same mind that, for 55 years, did know why she did know why she didn't want it to be published.

Of course my suspicions are circumstantial, but they are strong.   There is a world of difference in being able to answer a few questions that show you know where you are and what is happening to you -- and being able to appreciate the subtle significance of publishing a book that you have, for good reason, resisted releasing for for all those years.   

What -- or who -- changed her mind?    And can we trust the words of the person who seems now to be in total control of every aspect of Harper Lee's life?

Tonja Carter has also -- supposedly with Harper Lee's approval -- started a non-profit called Mockingbird Co, which Carter seems to be using to control all aspects of the Mockingbird enterprise.   The director is listed as Harper Lee;  the vice president is Tonja Cartet.  On the surface that makes complete sense.   She was an intimate and trusted friend of both sisters.   She is said to be a very good lawyer.  

Her motives may be solely to protect Nelle and her legacy and her wealth.    But she also could be manipulating the whole show for her own benefit -- or perhaps not even for personal gain but simply not understanding the literary significance of the effect of publishing Go Set a Watchman on the literary legacy of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.

What does seem clear is that Carter's approach is entrepreneurial and marketing rather than literary and cultural.   She may turn the Mockingbird enterprise into an even more profitable venture than it has been for 55 years.   But she is fast losing the loving support of the home town crowd and of the Harper Lee's adoring fans.    Even with Alice and Nelle's small-town, old-fashioned approach, To Kill a Mockingbird has done very well indeed.  Why try to milk it for more?

What is known to the public is that Nelle's only heirs are two nephews, who seem to have been only peripherally involved in her life.   It's not the public's business to know what's in Nelle's will, but she must be very wealthy.  No figures have been released about the value of the estate, but even before all the publicity surrounding this new book, royalties from Mockingbird are said to continue to be $2.3 million per year -- 55 years after its publication.  And over a million copies of the new book have already been sold;  and then there are the movie royalties and residuals.    It must be in the hundred million range.   Harper Lee has never been known to be a big spender.

Who knows what the truth about all this is?   After all, "she will sign anything put before her" -- if she trusts you.  And Nelle Lee apparently trusts Tonja Carter.

Should we?


Thursday, July 30, 2015

FoxNews/GOP debate -- a suggestion

On Thursday, August 6th, Fox News is sponsoring the first debate for Republican presidential candidates.   There are 16 who are nationally recognized.   Debate criteria limit the number to the ten who poll the highest in an average of the five most recent national polls as of August 4th.

Fox then announced that it would also hold a second, one-hour debate at 5 pm for the others.   Originally, it was to exclude any who did not poll 1% or more, but they relented and decided to include all of the 16 recognized in national polls.

Here's a suggestion that I think would be preferable.    Hold two equal-time debates, with 8 candidates in each.   

How to choose which for which?   Here's what a simple alphabetical division, would look like.   Numbers are from the latest CNN poll.

          Group A                          Group B
Jeb Bush  15 %                  
John Kasich  4 %
Ben Carson  4 %                 George Pataki  2 %
Chris Christie  4 %             Rand Paul  6 % 
Ted Cruz  6 %                      Rick Perry  3 % 
Carly Fiorina  1 %              Marco Rubio  7 % 
Lindsey Graham  2 %       Rick Santorum  1 %
Mike Huckabee  5 %         Donald Trump  18 % 
Bobby Jindal  2 %              Scott Walker  10 %

Looking at how this turns out, however, Group B has three of the four front-runners (Trump, Walker, Rubio), leaving only Bush in Group A.   So then I regrouped them according to poll numbers, trying to balance the numbers A = total of 45%, B = 45%.   Of course, I based this only on this one CNN poll and the final group might differ.   But this seems fairest to me.  As for the loudmouth balance, Group A has Trump, while Group B has Christie.  For the outrageous comments balance, Group A has Cruz and Group B has Huckabee.
         Group A2                           Group B2
Donald Trump  18 %           
Jeb Bush     15 %
Marco Rubio    7 %               Scott Walker   10 %
Rand Paul     6 %                    Ted Cruz     6 %
Ben Carson   4 %                    Mike Huckabee  5 %
John Kasich   4 %                  Chris Christie   4 %
Rick Perry  3 %                      Lindsey Graham   2 %
George Pataki   2 %               Bobby Jindal   2 %
Rick Santorum  1 %              Carly Fiorino   1 %   

Will Fox News take my advice?    No.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mockingbird Part I: Deconstructing that American Icon -- Atticus Finch

Every year, millions of high school students read Harper Lee's beloved 1960 classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.   After 55 years, royalties still amount to $2.3 million a year.  Oprah Winfrey has called it "our national novel." A 1962 film starring Gregory Peck immortalized his portrayal of small town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch as the idealized hero who stood up to white supremacists to defend an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman.

For 55 years, To Kill a Mockingbird has stood as Lee's only published novel.   She had been widely quoted through the years as saying that she did not intend to publish anything else.  Now 89, deaf and almost blind, she resides in an assisted living facility.   Her privacy is protected by loyal friends and by her attorney Tonja Carter, who took over management of her affairs after Lee's older sister Alice died a few years ago.

So it came as a surprise last year, when Ms. Carter announced that she had found a long-lost novel by Lee -- in fact an early version of what became Mockingbird, although its action takes place 20 years later.   It was "found" by Ms. Carter in a safe deposit box, attached to the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbord, although her story about exactly when and who else knew about it has varied with different tellings.

It was even more of a surprise when Ms. Carter announced that Harper Lee had agreed to the publication of what amounts to a "sequel" that was actually written first.   She quoted Lee as having said, when asked about whether she wanted it published:  "Hell yes.   Why would I write a book and not want it published?" 

It was reported that the newly found novel was actually submitted to a publisher as Harper Lee's first novel in 1957.  But the editor advised that she rewrite it to change it from the perspective of Atticus's 28 year old daughter looking back on her childhood, to the 8 year old daughter relating her childhood experiences as they happened.   The result was what we have known and loved for 55 years as To Kill a Mockingbird.

This has of course raised many questions:   (1) Why now, after refusing to publish for 55 years?   (2) What are the circumstances of its suddenly being "found" now?   (3)  Is Harper Lee of sound enough mind to have made a reasoned decision, or is she being taken advantage of?  (4)  Did she ever conceive of the two novels co-existing, or is this merely a first draft that was transformed and of interest only to scholars of writing/rewriting?  (5) What are we to make of the radical change in the character of Atticus Finch as portrayed in the two books -- from idealized good man to bigoted racist

New York Times book critic, Michiko Kaketani, wrote about the changed image of Atticus Finch in her review of the newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Of the Atticus depicted in Mockingbird, Kaketani wrote:
". . .  [H]e was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness.   In real life, people named their children after Atticus.   People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

"Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman, . . .  Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

In the coming days, I will take up these questions and -- now having read Go Set a Watchman myself -- I'll give my point of view on these controversies.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What if they gave a parade . . . and nobody came?

Cavan Sieczkowski writes on Huffington Post:

"Blogger Anthony Rebello was the organizer behind the Heterosexual Parade at Seattle's Capitol Hill on Saturday. Over 2,000 people were invited on Facebook to attend the event created 'in the name of equality [and] equal rights ... to celebrate our right to be heterosexual, and to encourage younger heterosexuals that they should be proud of their heterosexuality.'

"While 169 responded "yes" to the event, just one person showed up, according to Seattle Gay Scene: Rebello. Photos of him marching with balloons and a cardboard sign reading 'Straight Pride' were posted on Facebook over the weekend."

*   *   *
Well, it makes a catchy story.    But I wouldn't make too much of it.   I think what it most indicates is that people just didn't feel the need to demonstrate -- because sexual orientation just isn't a big deal issue any more . . .  either for gay people or straight.


The Equality Act would eliminate all discrimination

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has introduced a bill in Senate -- the Equality Act -- that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.   It also extends protections from discrimination against women and prohibits the use of religion to discriminate.

It would apply broadly to include employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, and jury pools.  It specifically states that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act can't be invoked to override any of the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

Sen. Merkley was able to pass a similar bill in Oregon in 2007 when he was Speaker of the Oregon legislative House.    Thus far, the federal bill has 40 co-sponsors in the Senate and 155 in the House.   All are either Democrats or Independents.   With Republicans in control of both Senate and House, it probably won't even get a committee hearing.

But, if the Democrats retake control of the Senate in 2016, the Equality Act will be ready.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Gun control laws, gun ownership, and gun violence -- some stats

Want some solid statistics to back up the intuitive assumption that fewer guns means fewer deaths?    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Center for Injury Prevention and Control.    Data from there has been analyzed by the Violence Policy Center and come up with some correlations that seem pretty important for the efforts to get sensible gun control laws passed.

In other words, it's some ammunition to counter the lobbyists from the NRA.   Here are some facts, based on data from 2011, the most recent year for which such data is available:

1.   States with weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership have the highest overall gun death rates in the nation.

2.   States with the strongest gun violence prevention laws and lower rates of gun ownership have the lowest overall gun death rates.

3.   The five states with the highest per capita gun death rates were:   Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana.    Each of those states has very lax gun control laws and higher than average rate of gun ownership.

4.  The five states with the lowest per capita gun death rates were:  Rhode Island, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.   Each of these states has strong gun control laws and a lower than average rate of gun ownership.

5.  The U.S. nationwide gun death rate was 10.38 per 100,000 -- with a high of 18.9 for Louisiana and a low of 3.14 for Rhode Island.   Compare that to other industrialized nations and we dwarf them all.   In 2011, the U.K. had a rate of 0.20 per 100,000 and Australia had 0.86.

The conclusion drawn by the VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann is:  “Gun violence is preventable, and states can pass effective laws that will dramatically reduce gun death and injury. . . .  Our analysis also shows that states with weak gun violence prevention laws and easy access to guns pay a severe price with gun death rates far above the national average.” 

Try to tell that to a politician running for office.   Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said yesterday that, if people had been allowed to carry guns into the theater where the mass shooting occurred last week, the killer could have been stopped.   That's the mentality that reflects the problem.   They say the only solution to gun violence is more guns in more places.

If repeated mass shootings do not move our legislators to action, will a few statistics?   Probably not.    I have become extremely pessimistic and cynical about this.


Thanks to Leslie Salzillo of Daily Kos for posting this information from the Violence Policy Center release.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Obama's bold stand for LGBT rights in Kenya

President Obama is on a trip to Africa, including a visit to Kenya, home of his father's family.  In a joint news conference with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama spoke out forcefully for LGBT rights.   In Kenya, as in many African countries, simply being gay is illegal.
"I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. . . .  I'm unequivocal on this. . . .  the idea that they are gonna be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong, full stop."
He added: 
"When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. And as an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law. . . .  All sorts of rationalizations were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery and they were wrong."
President Kenyatta appeared unruffled by this.   He told reporters: 
"There are some things that we must admit we don't share. Our culture, our societies don't accept. . . .  This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people. . . .

"Maybe once we overcome some of these challenges [status of women, the economy, health, infrastructure] we can begin to look at new ones."
Ever since he got past the 2014 midterm elections, we are seeing Obama Unleashed.   As the old saying goes, "freedom means having nothing left to lose."