Counterfactuals

Although there are few movies that I bother to see more than once, around this time of year my wife, Lisa, and I have seen, on many occasions, the Frank Capra movie:  It’s a Wonderful Life.  In the movie, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, has a run on the bank he owns due to a large sum of money that had been stolen from his uncle.  He is in a state of despair and angrily leaves his wife (Donna Reed) and his children at home as he storms out of his house.

At the brink of ending his life, his guardian angel, Clarence, appears.  George cries out that his life is worthless wishing he had never lived.  Clarence grants his wish of never having been born. George then discovers what the town he grew up in, Bedford Falls, would have looked like without the good deeds he had done throughout his life.  This is the essence of this film:  The influences of one good soul instrumental to the well-being of the town and its people.

Counterfactual #1: Now let me apply this counterfactual to the existence or non-existence to America.  I sometimes believe many of my fellow Americans believe the world would have been better if our country didn’t exist or existed in a different way.  Let’s take the latter:  Would the world have been better if the Spaniards and not the English settled in North America.  I doubt it. 

The Spanish civilization, at the top of the world in the 15th and start of the 16th century, never fully comprehended the banking system, introduced by the Medici Family, that spread to Northern Europe.  The Spanish conquistadors fell in love with the metal, gold, they had plundered in what is today Latin America, not credit.  Niall Ferguson, in his book the Ascent of Money, describes this by writing: “Now money represented the sum total of specific liabilities (deposits and reserves) incurred by banks.  Credit was the total of banks’ assets (loans).”  This allowed money to circulate on a much broader scale than previously.

Moreover, the corruption of the leaders in Latin America not only have helped destroy many natural resources, but has also led to rampant poverty.  Americans are not crossing the border in hope of a better life, but rather foreigners from Latin America and many other parts of the world cross our borders in hope of a better life.

Counterfactual #2:  If there had never been English colonists and explorers coming to America, how would the world look?  I will not deny that the founders of this country treated neither Native Americans nor Blacks from Africa well.  On the latter point, however, America’s forefathers did not create slavery.  Since the beginning of recorded history, slavery has been an ugly part of humanity.  What the founders did create was the concept of freedom and liberty where the people had the power to decide their fate rather than follow an autocratic leader.  This system of governing was described by the visiting French Foreign Minister, Alex de Tocqueville, to America in 1835 and 1840.  He saw in America a system of governing where individuals were able to act freely while respecting others’ rights in contrast to the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic rule.

George Washington, the first president of the United States, had no desire to retain his powers as head of the government, but he rather happily passed them on to John Adams.  On the contrary, Washington eagerly returned to his life on his farm where he spent the rest of his days. The idea of authority being passed on through nepotism, that is one’s children or descendants, was never a part of America’s origins.  Given the underlying foundation of a democracy (from the Greek word demos where the people elect their rulers), the accoutrements of power such as wealth and land, would reside not only in the hands of those elected to govern, but also in the people themselves.  It was this feature of America that has attracted so many from different lands whose form of government did not permit upward mobility.

Counterfactual #3:  I can’t imagine the world faring better in both World Wars without the participation of America.  Moreover, the Marshall Plan, after WWII, allowed Europe, and, especially, Germany to rebuild in a much more peaceful milieu than ever previously.  America has provided the much-needed cohesion that Europe and the rest of the world has needed.

As I mentioned, I do not wish to say that America has been perfect. The template of American governance has helped us maintain our country for almost 250 years.  Let us hope that this grand experiment that had its birth in 1776 does not sink from the internal tensions that we presently encounter.  It would be a great loss to the world if America drowned itself in the heated passions of its extremists.  Let us not forget that although America has experienced brutal partisan battles in the past (e.g., Hamilton’s time), we have created new political parties and changed enough to maintain our democracy.  I believe we can learn from the past, and still move forward, perhaps even as a stronger nation, in the future.

 Zelenskyy Comes to Washington

                                                   

Inflation, increase in crime, increase in drug related deaths and the ongoing problem at the border with an explosion of new immigrants attempting to enter the United States have cast a pall over much of our lives.  And now this week over 200 million Americans have been affected by blizzards and unusually cold weather causing a multiple of flight cancelations or delays.  Amidst all this mayhem, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, current president of the Ukraine, made a surprise trip to America to visit with President Biden and address the Congress in Washington D.C.  He did this at great personal risk insofar as he had a take a train from Kyiv, and the war-torn Ukraine, to Poland, before boarding a plane to the United States.   

The battles between Republicans and Democrats in both Houses of Congress have been relentless with neither parties’ members mincing, in any way, their harsh language toward the other.  This made the Ukrainian President to Washington D.C. that much more outstanding.  When Zelenskyy pleaded his case, it was a sight to see both sides of the aisle applauding him.  Granted there were a few Republicans that did not stand up and applaud, but they were not in the majority.  President Zelenskyy’s visit appeared to unite both sides, the left and the right, to his cause.  Moreover, the President has boldly stayed in Kyiv, not fleeing for his own safety under Russian attack, exhorting his fellow Ukrainians to face the enemy in their fight for freedom.  

Speaking in fluent English, he knew that he needed to speak in such a way to compel the American people to hear the urgency of his requests. He made sure to let the Congress know that the aid received should not be considered as charity, but rather the weapons are so crucial in helping defend the Ukraine from the tyranny of Russia.  The assistance in helping Ukraine would be instrumental in telling the rest of the world that America is behind sovereign nations that are striving for liberty and freedom.  Furthermore, he made it clear that he didn’t want Americans to risk their lives and fight his country’s war, but instead provide him with the weapons essential in defending Ukraine from the brutal Russian forces.

Zelenskyy has been compared to Churchill coming to America in December of 1941 when the latter came to America to underline the importance of America’s joining in with the allied forces.  Moreover, he evoked the American Revolution when he stated: “We will go though our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.”

Clearly, Zelenskyy showed the diplomatic skills and understanding of American politics to deliver to the Congress a very moving plea for assistance.  Apparently, he was most successful in his visit here inasmuch as U.S. lawmakers have approved 45 billion dollars in additional aid with total aid coming to nearly 100 billion of war aid to the Ukraine.  It was ironic that the only ones that showed some grievances toward this package are some Republicans who believe this money would be best spent on the current immigration crisis at our borders.  It was not that long ago when the late President Reagan referred to the U.S.S.R. as the “evil empire.”  True Russia is not as powerful as it once was, but Mr. Putin is far more dangerous a leader than Mr. Gorbachev ever was. To the protestations of the Republicans, I would agree with a recent Wall Street Journal editorial affirming that support for the border should not preclude helping Ukraine in their struggle for freedom.  The underlying point of this article is that both situations deserve the utmost of American intention.  Rest assured, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, along with other dictators, are waiting to see how successful Russia will be in an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation.  Let us not give them give them any assurance that America and the West will not stand up and put down such invasions.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

After the U.S. fiasco led by the late President Kennedy to overthrow Castro in 1961, in what is commonly referred to the Bay of Pigs crisis, Kennedy understood that he needed to have both foreign and military policy advisors that did not necessarily agree with him.  This way he would be able to be more objective in his ability to more accurately make the strategic decisions essential to America’s well-being.  These changes helped buoy up Kennedy’s actions vis-a-vis foreign policy.

Former President Trump chose a much different path in the selection of his advisors.  The manner in which Trump governed reminds me of the parable created in 1837 by Hans Christian Andersen about the emperor’s clothes.  In this tale, he emperor has chosen two swindlers to weave him a magnificent garment that would appear invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent.  When the outfit was not delivered in a timely fashion, he sent one of his courtiers to check on the progress.  Much to his surprise, the loom from which these two weavers worked had no thread, so, naturally, he inquired where the thread was.  The tailors assured him that they were making good progress and not to worry inasmuch as they were creating an invisible suit for the emperor.  Not wishing to give the emperor bad news, the courtier reported to the emperor that what he saw matched the emperor’s expectations.

Because after some time the two charlatans still had not completed their work, the emperor sent other officials to give him a report on the making of his royal attire.  When each official sent saw the two men sitting at an empty loom with no thread, neither wished to upset the emperor by appearing ignorant or stupid.  When the garment was finally completed, the two counterfeit weavers called the emperor in to try on his new clothes.  They continued to perpetuate the hoax when they pretended to dress him with his “invisible” raiment.

The emperor, in believing the two swindlers, proceeded to parade his new clothes to the townsfolk.  Insofar as the followers of his regime do not want to appear inept or stupid, they praised the outfit of their king.  But suddenly a child cried out that the emperor was wearing nothing at all, and the others immediately realized that they had been fooled by what they had believed was an authentic garment.  All came to the understanding that the emperor had been tricked and that their leader was the most foolish of them all.

In retrospect, we know how the former President Trump made decisions.  He would only listen to those who shared his opinion on strategic issues of the day.  If he disagreed with his advisor’s ideas, he often would terminate and replace them with officials that agreed with his ideas, though they may have been impulsive rather than thoughtfully deliberated.  Although there were a few “children” ( such as Liz Cheney) that challenged Trump’s leadership, many Republicans feared his power with the American public and did not voice any dissent they may have had.

Republican candidates maintained their support of Trump to a preposterous degree.  An example of this was Trump’s insistence that the election results in 2020, determining that Biden had won the election, had been rigged.  However, Attorney General William Barr, a man of conservative bent, and officials in each of the 50 states found no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.  Furthermore, Federal agencies overseeing election security said it was the most secure in American history.  Whether Trump’s supporters believed in Trump’s assertions or whether they didn’t believe in them and were afraid of alienating Trump’s voter base, did not matter.  The Republican candidates that supported Trump’s distortions were soundly defeated in their election bids across the boards.  The final straw occurred when Raphael Warnock defeated Herschel Walker, who Trump had backed, in the runoff of the senatorial election in Georgia.

I believe that many on the Left, as well as the Right, underestimate their fellow Americans.  Trump, like the emperor, refused to believe that under no condition, his flock of followers would sever their ties with him.  Just like the emperor, the more that Trump paraded around speaking obvious falsehoods, his loyal adherents began to see through the nakedness of his rhetoric.  The public eye had reached a point where it no longer could accept the alternate truths that Trump had put forth.

  Fighting Antisemitism

        

The overt antisemitic comments by rapper, Kanye West and Net basketball player, Kyrie Irving flashed danger signals to such Jewish organizations as the American Defamation League.  Because these two Black performers are so well known their comments that support antisemitic tropes, such as Jews controlling the banks and Hollywood, it can cause their huge numbers of followers to accept these tropes as a truth.  But what I found even more annoying and perhaps even more dangerous was the fact that David Chappelle went on to both normalize and reinforce these beliefs in his monologue on Saturday Night Live (S.N.L).

In an earlier blog I posted, I had complimented David Chappelle for pointing out how Jussie Smollett, a Black American actor, had hoodwinked the media and the police department in believing that he had been mugged by three whites wearing MAGA (Make America Great Again) in downtown, Chicago in the wee hours of the morning.  I lauded the fact, that as a Black comedian, he did not pull any punches when satirizing the actions of another Black.  This has rarely been done by other Black comics. 

Mr. Chappelle, however, disappointed me in his recent routine on SNL, when he audaciously stated many negative stereotypes about Jews. To illustrate one:  He pointed out when he first came to Hollywood, he learned never to say the following two words together: “The Jews.”  The underlying stereotype is that there are so many powerful Jews in Hollywood that you must be careful what you say.  In an attempt to dismiss this statement, he said there are also a lot of Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri.  But although this was meant to be funny insofar as he is alluding to the fact that Blacks have little power or influence in Ferguson, it does not lessen the implication of his basic message that Jews control Hollywood so beware!  He concluded his riff by saying:  “It’s not a crazy thing to think Jews own Hollywood, but it’s a crazy thing to say it out loud.”

In the past, Jewish comedians have dealt with ethnic humor.  Here I am specifically thinking of Jackie Mason.   But when Mason satirized any other group, he would be sure to start his routine by pointing out the foibles of his fellow Jews.  So first it would be Jews that were satirized before he would hit on non-Jews or Gentiles.  Moreover, even in today’s politically correct society, it is deemed appropriate to criticize your own ethnic group rather than other groups.  Imagine a Jewish comedian putting down Afro-Americans as part of his/her routine.  I don’t think that individual would last too long on the comic circuit.  And heaven help any non-Black who utters the “N” word, a word that has become sacrosanct in the English language, where only Blacks can say it in vain.     

Now we come to the interview that Jon Stewart (nee Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz had with Stephen Colbert, late night show host.   Previously the two of them had hosted The Daily Show in which leftist political satire became the core of their comedic content.  This show actually set a milestone of sorts inasmuch as earlier T.V. hosts, and here I am thinking of Johnny Carson (one of the all-time best comedians in my opinion), avoided any kind of political commentary.  Stewart’s dialogue with Colbert focused on the recent rants of antisemitism by Kanye West (now called Ye), Kyrie Irving, and David Chappelle.  In an effort to satirize the idea of Jewish control of Hollywood and banks, he said: “I hope to see a Christian president in America.”  Stewart’s underlying satire reflects the irony that if Jews are so powerful why hasn’t a Jew ever been elected president.

Rather, than censoring Ye and Irving for their antisemitic diatribe, Stewart thought a better approach would be to understand the Black perspective.  Furthermore, he mentioned the censoring of someone’s thoughts will not erase these thoughts.  However, the obvious problem with this is that both Ye and Irving, who may carry a huge amount of influence on others, let their thoughts go public.  And yes, it’s a free country, but people in a free country also have a right to react negatively to such comments.

Stewart pointed out the importance of reacting to antisemitic tropes by denouncing their invidious fallacious roots. But in admitting that Chappelle, in his routine, normalized the antisemitic tropes of both Ye and Irving, he made no comment.  In the past, when Stewart received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Chappelle told the audience how Stewart had mentored and inspired him when he first started out.  What a chance this would have been for Stewart to set the record straight, and criticize the ugly stereotypes of Jews that Chappelle had normalized in his routine.  Coming from a person he highly admired, I believe Chappelle may have reconsidered and even apologized for his “bad humor.” 

Censoring and penalizing individuals that have a huge public following is one way of handling hateful speech.  However, I have a better idea.  Clint Smith, a Black journalist, recently published an article in the Atlantic Magazine titled:  Monuments to the Unthinkable.  The article refers to the plaques and central city monuments that have been built in Germany to memorialize that were murdered in the Holocaust. Rather than censor Ye, Irving and Chappelle (the latter, who, to date, has not been censored), why not have them take a trip with Mr. Smith, as their guide, to the places (i.e., concentration camps etc.) where the Holocaust took place.  I would add Donald Trump to that tour, who recently hosted two virulent antisemites, Ye and Nick Fuentes, for dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

Stewart concluded his interview with Colbert by saying he has been called an antisemite because he’s against certain policies of Israel toward the Palestinian movement.  No, Jon, I don’t consider you an antisemite if you disagree with certain Israeli policies as many American Jews, including myself, feel the same way. One can only wish that Mr. Stewart would speak out as vociferously against antisemitic comments, even if made, by friends of his. Mr. Stewart was asked why he changed his birth name with one response being that “it sounded too Hollywood.”  Rather than hiding from his Jewish roots, I think Mr. Stewart might revert back to his birth name of Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz for the next month as his penalty for shying away from defending his people.

Autumn

 

Fall marks the beginning of an end of a seasonal cycle. The name itself conjures up the image of leaves dropping from their home, the trees. Although I currently live in Southern California, I was raised in New Jersey where seasons are much more clearly differentiated than where I presently reside. Toward the end of this past October, my wife and I had been invited to the wedding of my roommate from college who lives in the Boston area. Because I knew we were going to be in Boston, I contacted my two female cousins, the daughters of my mother’s younger sister and only sibling, both of whom live in Lee, Massachusetts where they grew up. The elder of the two, Marcia, cordially invited us to stay at her house.
Lee is on the Western side of Massachusetts, about 130 miles from Boston. The surrounding trees covered with their multicolored leaves created a panoramic view of a majestic autumn.

It is not like my wife had never seen fall foliage before, as my sister-in-law, Gudrun, had driven us through upstate New York on a fall day a few years earlier. But when your environment does not provide the climate necessary to accommodate the annual falling of leaves from their trees, such a sight can be breathtaking. As we drove across Massachusetts, the setting sun surrounded by multicolored leaves lessened any annoyances either of us had due to traffic jams marking the beginning of the weekend.


The highlight of the visit was when Jane, Marcia’s younger sister, drove us to Williamstown to visit the Clark Art Institute. While Jane drove us through the Berkshires, Lisa and I appreciated the splendor of a New England fall in the Berkshires. Massachusetts, is not only home to Harvard and Radcliffe, but also to several small very prestigious colleges one of which is Williams College. Upon arriving at Williamstown, my cousins took us to a most pleasant lunch café prior to heading over to the Clark. There we briefly chatted with a husband and wife, both wearing sweatshirts bearing the name of Williams College. They told us they had met at Williams. When I kiddingly inquired whether Amherst was a better school than Williams, they replied in unison “no,” declaring they had an excellent education with the good fortune of meeting one another there.


The Clark has a huge collection of European and American paintings along with sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs. Lisa and I are both fans of Impressionism of which there were many pieces. Neither of us were terribly familiar with Winslow Homer but there were ample works of his that caught our eye. The natural feel one gets from beholding his landscapes of the Maine seacoast provides one with a distinct sense of his American background. As we departed from the museum, we walked out to a beautiful sunset veiled by the glow of russet and golden leaves. Coming from California, it was a delicious moment standing there among the trees, in such a peaceful and calm ambience, visiting with cousins I rarely get a chance to see.

The 62nd Home Run

Although I am not a New York Yankee fan, Aaron Judge, the Yankee outfielder, has thrilled me along with so many others in his quest to break the American League season home run record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961.  In an earlier blog, I pointed out in the current and recent baseball seasons that pitchers have been the dominant force.  I argued that too many strike outs are not a good thing for baseball.  The sound of a bat connecting with a ball hurled at an extraordinary speed is the source of much fan excitement. 

The Major League batting average of players in 2022 was .243.  I remember, not all that long ago, when a .250 batting average was considered at best mediocre.  Yet many hitters hit below .250 this past season.  This makes Judge’s feat that much more special.  During the month of September, Judge’s performance at the plate was almost superhuman.  His batting average was an astounding .417 as he hit 10 home runs in 25 games.  Almost every time I would be watching a Yankee game that month, Judge connected.  Judge rarely missed any pitch delivered to the middle of the plate.  It was quite a sight to see.

In October, Judge’s performance at the plate cooled off.  Perhaps it was the pressure of doing what no player has done since baseball banned steroid use and started checking players randomly for drug use.  Nevertheless, the fans came out in droves watching in anticipation every time Judge was at bat.  Isn’t this what athletic events are about:  Seeing the greatest of the great perform.   And, finally, on the 161st game of the season, with his first at bat against the Texas Rangers, Judge hit home run number 62. 

What makes Judge such a great hitter?  I remember from his early days, when he first started playing with the Yankees, he often would swing at bad pitches.  Watching him play now, I have observed that he is much more patient before he commits to swinging the bat.  Rather than allowing the pitcher to seduce him into swinging at bad pitches, he forces the pitcher to throw good pitches.  If he doesn’t see a good pitch, he will let the count run up pressuring the pitcher to throw him a very hittable pitch or give up and walk him for fear that Judge will nail him for a home run.  This plate discipline is the hallmark of a great hitter.  Ted Williams, who played with the Boston Red Sox, rarely swung at a bad pitch.  When a batter doesn’t strike out a lot, he is much more likely to get on base.  This was the reason that Williams’ lifetime batting average was .344, a mark almost unheard of in today’s baseball.

No matter who you root for, I believe a player like Aaron Judge is good for the game.  Any player that can achieve his level of excellence in baseball, a sport dominated by strong pitching, is worth coming out to see as he adds to the fun and excitement so integral to sports.

On Academia

The death of Queen Elizabeth II along with the much-publicized seizure by the FBI of classified documents in former President Trump’s Mar Lago Resort, have overshadowed a decision made by the Ohio Court of Appeals against Oberlin College.  The Ohio Supreme Court refused to take the case on further appeal that the Gibson Bakery had filed against the school on charges of defamation and tortious interference.  The final judgment, made by the Appeals Court, awarded the Gibson Bakery 36 ½ million dollars.  The Gibson Family, whose bakery is located across the street from Oberlin, has had a 137-year history in the town of Oberlin.

Oberlin College is by no means a rinky dink college.  Historically, it’s admissions’ policy has been stringent in accepting only students who can handle a rigorous academic schedule.  It is clearly one of the most touted and prestigious schools in the Midwest.  Nonetheless, shoplifting by Oberlin students has existed there for years.  However, the present case went beyond the typical adolescent pranks.  The troubles began on November 9, 2016, when Allyn Gibson, who is white and both son and grandson of the owners, caught Jonathan Aladin, a Black student at Oberlin, trying to buy a bottle of wine with a fake ID and holding two wine bottles under his shirt.  When Aladin fled the store, Gibson chased him outside whereupon two of the student’s friends assisted him in attacking Gibson.  Subsequently, the three students pled guilty to various charges.

End of story, not quite.  Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students, along with other members of the Oberlin administration, rather than investigating the validity of student discontent, actively participated in their protest.  Fliers sent out by the students were further supported by the administration.  Moreover, the message about the Gibson Bakery, written in bold capital letters, said:  RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”  As Neil Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky commented: “It wasn’t so much the students speaking; it’s the institution accepting that statement uncritically.  Sometimes you have to take a step back.”

Another twist in this case was the University was not fighting a big corporation, such as Walmart or Amazon, but rather a small family business that had long served the community and college.  However, this type of small business is not equipped to sustain the losses from such a protest.  Oberlin, whose tuition is around $62,000 per year, not including room, board and books that amount to at least another $20,000, is neither a school for the poor or those hurting in money.  The financial resources of Oberlin, as compared to the Gibson family, make the latter’s victory in court appear similar to that of David when he slew Goliath. 

There is a sense of youthful idealism and romanticism possessed by students of college age.  Many of us were there at one time in our lives.  Corporate America and its capitalistic proponents are forever being questioned along with the status quo by an age group given to challenge and rebellion.  Often both university and faculty give too much encouragement to the grievances and protests that adolescents may have against such institutions. Teaching students critical thinking in viewing the world with an open and curious mind is an asset of any  liberal education.  However, this goal can lead to very unhealthy consequences when racial categories, embodied in identity politics, presume guilt on the “other,” in this case, a young white male who was attempting to thwart a robbery at his store.

   Two Memorable Events

       

Two memorable events this past week held my attention:  The first was Serena Williams’ challenge to defy all odds and add to her record of 23 major tournament wins in her quest of winning the U.S. Open.  The other was the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of what was at the time the Soviet Union.

Prior to the Open, Serena had said she was prepared to accept the post-tennis phase of her life and pursue other interests she has developed in her business and in spending more time with her family. Regardless of the outcome of her performance at the Open, she was receiving plaudits for her contribution to the tennis world. Her showing on the courts opened the gates for other players of color, female and male, to participate in what, with few exceptions, formerly had served as a cotillion for white competitors.

Insofar as both white and Black Americans alike cheered Serena on, Americans, for a brief moment, had suspended their angry discourse embodied in identity politics.  I, like so many of the rest of us viewing the U.S. Open hoped that somehow, she could pull off the unlikely feat of beating players of a higher ranking that were far younger than her 40 years.  And after she defeated Anett Kontaveit, the second seed of the Tournament, we started to believe that she might do it.  However, all hopes were dashed in her next match, in which she fought valiantly, but lost to Ajia Tomijanovic.  Even the great ones, such as Serena, are subject to the passing of time and its effects on the human body.  You could see that she was struggling in the third set of the match by her bodily movements and facial grimaces, but given her competitive nature and strong determination, we were kept hoping. 

The death of Mr. Gorbachev recalls what this very unique and brave man tried so hard to accomplish during his management of the Soviet Union.  He was a leader who saw the decay and rot of the society he attempted to repair.  And with the crumbling of the Soviet Union precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many countries that had been a part of the Soviet bloc now crying for freedom and democracy, to the West he looked as if were a savior. The abrupt changes creating what appeared to be newfound democracies served as the thesis of the philosopher, Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama postulated that human history was moving toward an idealized form of government through the mechanism of liberal democracy.  Now that idea appears more like a fairy tale than any sort of utopia that Fukuyama had predicted.

Prior to Gorbachev’s arrival on the scene, because Western leaders had been continuously disheartened by his uncompromising predecessors, there was little trust, at first, in this new head of State.  But Mr. Gorbachev looked at the empty store shelves, surrounded by the gloom of his fellow Russians, due to the waste inflicted by the command-bureaucratic system.  Furthermore, much of the expenses contributed to the military machine at a steep cost to the well-being of his people. So, he began to introduce what was termed petroiska or rebuilding and glasnost or openness. In implementing this totally new vision of the Soviet Union, he knew he had to alter the past strategy of his precursors that underpinned the Cold War.  Consequently, Gorbachev initiated a thaw in the relations of his people with the West.  After meeting Gorbachev, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England, relayed to President Ronald Reagan and the world the following message: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”  Soon after, Gorbachev and Reagan engaged one another in an historic agreement to dismantle much of each side’s ballistic missiles. 

The Daily News, a popular tabloid paper in New York City, reflected the sentiment of the West when it’s headline in the late 1980’s read:  Gorby Comes to New York.  it felt like a cataclysmic event.  There was joy in the streets.  Indeed, Gorbachev, or Gorby as he had become affectionately called, proved to be a much different leader than his political forbears, and had won the hearts of his former Western foes.  Unfortunately, his own people did not share this very high regard viewed by the West.

So, what went wrong? Several years ago, Lisa and I were on a trip to New York in which we had to change planes in Charleston, North Carolina.  Upon boarding my wife and I sat next to a woman who had led a management training in Charleston.  Although fluent in English, she had a slight accent that sounded to me Russian.  When she showed us her card, her last name Romanov, verified my thoughts.  When I inquired about her name, she confirmed that she was related to the very distinguished Romanov family that had belonged to the reigning house of Imperial Russia for about 300 years until the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Intrigued by both her name and person, I asked her if she had lived in Russia during the time of Gorbachev and the breaking down of the Soviet Union.  She nodded yes and, she then related a rather sad story about her life during her teenage years.

She revealed to me that her father had been in the Russian Navy and had secured what sounded like a sinecure in the Politburo.  However, when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed, he lost his job, became despondent staying at home, not knowing what to do with himself.  Almost overnight he went from having a prestigious job to having nothing at all.  The consequence of this loss resulted in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage insofar as her father had apparently lost all sense of purpose and value. Because many Russian people suddenly found themselves out of work, she told me her father’s plight was not unusual.  Although I don’t recall how she came to America, it was evident that in New York City she had gained a modicum of success as a management consultant with a program she had designed on her own in conjunction with being an athletic trainer. I believe the situation she described about her father reflected the underlying chaos that must have existed in Russia when Gorbachev was at the helm.

I think what this woman experienced, though a microcosmic event, helps illustrate the reason Gorbachev, though freeing the Soviet Union, did not save it.  Deep down Mr. Gorbachev still considered himself a member of the Communist Party so his intention was not to eradicate what currently existed but to reform it. So, he was not a revolutionary with the intention of tearing down a system and replacing it with something better.  To reform a system whose foundation has been one of coercion, fear and corruption is a tall order for anyone human to fulfill.  Gorbachev came to understand this in his later years when he commented: “The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working, and the crisis in the society became even more acute.”  It would have required a great deal of strategic planning and cooperation to fill the vacuum of so many positions lost.  Perhaps it actually would have required a revolution of sorts to accomplish this goal.  But Gorbachev did not want to sever, completely, the ties he had with the Politburo.  Sadly, Mr. Putin, a successor, has replaced the goodwill and hope of Mr Gorbachev with a reign of war and terror.

Comedy of Errors

  

Recently my wife, Lisa, and I were greeted with a slew of back-to-back mistakes by people that we had paid for their services.  The itinerary of errors began when I contacted a moving company to transport a car from Connecticut to a younger brother’s home located North of Daytona Beach.  The salesperson I spoke to indicated that the charge would be $1029 of which the driver would receive $850 with the remainder of $179 going to the company.  I arranged for the driver to pick up the car that Thursday.  When I asked when he thought the car would arrive in Florida, the company rep told me probably 3 to 4 days after the pick-up date.  I alerted my brother to expect the car Monday or Tuesday as I had been informed most drivers prefer not working on Sundays.  That Friday morning, I received a voicemail from the driver, Vince, saying he would be arriving that evening inasmuch as he wanted to make it home to Miami that same evening.  Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with my brother to let him know he needed to be home that evening and to pay the driver $850 upon arrival of the driver.

The early pick up went well but the story does not end here.  A few days later I saw on my credit card a charge of $239 rather than the quoted $179 from this same firm.  A call to the company indicated that I had been quoted the wrong amount and, the truck driver was only supposed to receive $850 and not $800.  The agent’s supervisor told me that they had sent the correct amounts in an attachment but when I looked at the original email, in which I had signed my name accepting the deal, there was no attachment.  When I asked him to check the email he sent me, he explained that once I had opened the attachment, it was no longer available on his end.  Although I am not a computer maven, this sounded like pure balderdash. Before filing a dispute with the credit company, I contacted my brother who told me the truck driver only had asked for $800.  Because my older brother and I had agreed to pay the shipping expenses, no money was lost as the total of $1029 remained the same.  Consequently, I did not dispute the charge.  My miscue was not insisting that they send a contract that apparently never had been attached to the email I received.

The next string of errors occurred when my wife and I were confirming plans with a hotel before starting our trip that was to begin right after the negotiations with the moving company.  Our trip to Washington State included visiting a friend who lived in Everett, Washington and then proceeding to Port Ludlow where we had gone every summer for 20 years prior to the pandemic.  When I called to confirm our stay, I was utterly surprised in discovering the hotel in which I had booked the reservation had no record of it.  Insofar as it was a Hilton Hotel that we were to stay at, I thought it would facilitate matters by doing it through Hilton Honors.  Luckily, we were able to keep our reservation because we had the email confirming it sent to us by Hilton Honors.  Initially, one of the staff was going to charge us $250 more than the original reservation I had made for the same two days.  But upon sending the confirmation of the reservation, the staff member connected us with the manager who acknowledged our reservation! We had made these reservations before inflation had imploded throughout the economy.  

But, once more, it doesn’t end here.  I had made a reservation with Hilton Honors that I had canceled before making the reservation in the lodging preferred by both my wife and I. But a few days before leaving we got an email from that hotel confirming our stay.  Hilton Honors clearly were not acting honorably inasmuch as they had never canceled this reservation after stating they would.  I immediately contacted the hotel and, fortunately, they did not charge me for canceling the reservation.   A word of caution to all would be travelers:  Beware.

Next, we arrived in Seattle and went to pick up the car I had contracted to rent for our 2 ½ week stay in Washington.  All set to go, luggage in the car, I turned on the ignition and to my surprise (at this point, nothing should surprise me) there was barely one quarter of a tank of gasoline.  When I reported this to the attendant, he said he would mark it down and all I needed do was return the car with a quarter full of gas.  However, I explained to him that I had prepaid the company for a tank of gas rendering his offer worthless.  The attendant scratched his head, said I was right (agreement at last) and told us to wait, 5 no more than 10 minutes, and he would fill the tank for me. No future contact for reservations in the immediate future, I took a deep breath, we got in the car ready to begin our vacation.

Par for the course these days appears the plethora of errors one faces as a customer.  I suspect part of this has to do with the fast pace of society brought on by the internet.  The lack of physical contact distances the customer from the server creating an impersonal sense of connection.  The one personal touch I felt was when the attendant at the car rental willingly went to fill the car with gas.  Rather than just being an internet contact, I actually had met him.  The other errors committed were made by people with whom I had little or no contact with beside the phone.  The frequent poor performance of people I have interacted with on the phone has reduced the level of trust I have had in their following through with the results promised.

Such experiences make it easier for me to identify with how and why many people have lost trust in our institutions as well as the business world.  So, in actuality, this is less a comedy or errors than what seems to be a sad commentary on the state of customer service in today’s fast paced world.

Categories
Baseball

Tribute to a Baseball Hero

When we think about baseball greats names such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, among many others, come to mind.  The late Vin Scully never played in the big leagues but he added as much, if not more color to the game than all of the many great baseball players.  I only wish the American League, because as many of you know, I am a diehard Red Sox fan, would have an announcer whose skills were equal to those of Scully.

Mr. Scully impressed me the few times I heard him broadcast.  He drew an unforgettable picture of Roberto Clemente, the amazing outfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he once described his throwing arm: “Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”  But an even more memorable statement from Mr. Scully came when the Los Angeles Dodgers played the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta on April 4th, 1974. Hank Aaron, the modest but great star of the Braves, had 714 career home runs and was tied with Babe Ruth for the most home runs ever hit by any player.  At the time, many fans viewed Ruth’s record as sacrosanct, and he who dared break this unbeatable record would be committing an act of heresy.  Aaron received many death threats.  Sad, but unfortunately quite true.  When Hank Aaron hit the 715th home run against the Dodgers, Mr. Scully was broadcasting.  His reaction to this momentous occasion was the following:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball.  What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the State of Georgia.  What a marvelous moment for the country and the world.  A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all time baseball idol.”

Living in Southern California I am surrounded by Dodger fans.  Needless to say, I have heard and read much of Mr. Scully since he died a few days ago.  The many good deeds he did for others have been echoed by friends I know.  Growing up on the East Coast, I was a Red Sox fan with my second favorite team being the New York Giants.  However, once the latter team relocated from New York to San Francisco I lost my allegiance to them.  Nevertheless, my two favorite players of all time remain Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Willie Mays of the Giants.  Much to the woe of Dodger fans, Mr. Scully proclaimed Willie Mays to be the best player he’d ever seen, and it was Willie Mays who joined Mr. Scully, in the broadcasting booth for the latter’s final game on October 2, 2016.

Thank you, Mr. Scully, for making the great game of baseball that much greater.  And thank you, Mr. Scully for making baseball so understandable and exciting to those who listened to you over 67 years.