Archive for September, 2008

The Importance of Character

Posted in 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Biden, Big Business, blogging, Blogroll, breaking news, cyberspace, Democrats, election, Higher Education, history, international, internet, journalism, Law, Law and Justice, leadership, literature, mccain, media, movies, novels, obama, Palin, pennsylvania, Pit Bulls, Politics, president, Presidential Election, professors, Republicans, Sarah Palin, technology, Uncategorized, United Nations, universities, Vice President, war, war on terror, world affairs, writing on September 26, 2008 by castagnera

I have expressed more than once in this space my reluctance to vote for Barack Obama, because of his inexperience.  John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate complicates the choice for me, since McCain, age 72 and a cancer survivor, might not make it through even a first term.  The carping back and forth between Obama and Palin partisans, about which of them is less prepared for the presidency, only underlined the inescapable fact that they are both neophytes on the world stage.
This week I re-read David McCullough’s 1992 biography of Harry Truman.  The book reminded me that character sometimes trumps experience as a criterion for national leadership.  If any president had character in spades, that president was Harry Truman.  His biography also reminded me of how little experience Truman brought to almost every new challenge of his career.
When he was elected the lieutenant of his artillery battery and, subsequently promoted to captain, led that battery through some hot action during the 1919 Battle of the Argonne, he rose to that challenge from a background spent almost exclusively down on the family farm.  A few years in Missouri’s National Guard marked his only prior military experience.  Prior to participating in this great WWI battle, as McCullough says in an essay called “Character Above All,” Truman “had never been in a fight in his life.  He was the little boy forbidden by his mother to play in roughhouse games because of his glasses.  He was a bookworm — a sissy, as he said himself later on, using the dreaded word.”
After the war, he and an Army buddy started a men’s wear shop that went bankrupt.  Only then did Harry enter politics, running for election to a modest county judgeship.  Although put forward by the notorious “Pendergast Machine,” he conducted himself honorably, later stating that he passed up the chance to line his pockets to the tune of a million or more dollars in construction contracts.  Remarkably, instead of dumping Truman for refusing to play along, the political bosses later put him up for the U.S. Senate.
Elected to Congress for the first time during the New Deal, Truman arrived in Washington tarred with the Pendergast brush.  Some Senate colleagues, according to McCullough, refused to speak to the junior Senator from Missouri.  Harry Truman won them over through straight talk and hard work.  Still, when he ran for reelection, most observers inside and outside the Senate wrote him off.  With few influential friends and little money, he barnstormed his state, sometimes sleeping in his car.  A combination of Truman pluck and sheer luck — his two primary opponents split the anti-Pendergast vote — returned him to the Senate in 1940.
During this second Senatorial term, Truman came of age in national politics.  The Truman Committee, his personal brainstorm, became the Congressional watchdog of wartime spending, arguably saving Uncle Sam billions of dollars by ferreting out waste and graft in defense contracts.  Truman’s face landed on the cover of Time Magazine for the first time.
In 1944 Senator Harry Truman became “the Missouri Compromise” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  After playing coy about his choice for a running mate for his fourth term, FDR dumped incumbent VP Henry Wallace and passed over other leading contenders for the slot in favor of the inoffensive Truman.  Truman was vice president for only 82 days, when FDR died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
As he had always been disparaged, his ascendancy to the presidency was no exception.  Critics — and there were many — considered him a nobody, a lightweight.  Truman himself said, “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”   No wonder: one of his first decisions was to drop the atom bomb on Japan.
He went on to lead America into the Marshall Plan, probably the most important step in saving Western Europe from Soviet domination, and perhaps the only time in history when the victor lifted the vanquished off their knees.  His reelection in 1948 was another instance of Truman pluck overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.  The famous photo of a victorious Harry, holding aloft the Chicago Tribune’s headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” says it all.
As McCullough sums it up, “He was not without flaw….  [but] Principle mattered more than his own political hide.  His courage was the courage of his convictions….”  The question for November 2008 is: who among the candidates can make a similar claim? If I knew the answer to that, I’d know who should have my vote.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University.  A collection of his columns is available at http://www.lulu.com.]

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The Spiders on the Worldwide Web

Posted in blogging, cyberspace, history, internet, Law, Law and Justice, media, Politics, technology, Uncategorized on September 19, 2008 by castagnera

A reader asked me recently, “Where do you get the information for your columns.”  Answer; Lot’s of places (and people).  All too often, I get stuff from the Internet.  The Worldwide Web is a treasure land of insights and information.  But spiders stalk there.
The Liar Spider (Arachnid Fibilius) lays its traps for the gullible.  In this space some months back I reported a $400 million gift from a Saudi Arabian prince to Yale University for the establishment of a new college, this to be located in the Saudi kingdom.  The story came from the Yale Herald student newspaper’s website.  I missed the small print below the article, which warned of the April Fool’s Day joke.  The paper, published in late March and not on April 1st, fooled me.  My bad… but their bad, too.
The Hate Spider (Arachnid Horibilius) waits to pounce.  HS inhabits such sites as http://www.hatecrimestreetwear.com/.  This URL is the website of an Allentown outfit, offering t-shirts with such logos as “Auschwitz Bakery” and “Dachau Pizzeria.”  The firm’s logo features spent, smoking cartridges, extracted, bloody teeth and broken bones.  This spider also lures us to our deaths with “Super Columbine Massacre” http://www.columbinegame.com/.  Here you can pretend you are one of the kids who slaughtered their classmates, as your avatar stalks the classrooms and labs, gunning down anything that moves.
The Columbine game’s inventor writes on the site, “When I discovered a program called RPG Maker, I knew I had to achieve my childhood ambition of designing a video game. The question of what the game’s subject would be came almost instantly; a striking event from my own formative years tugged at my instincts to make the ‘unthinkable’ game. Little did I know as I began to research the Columbine shooting on April 20th, 1999 that the subject never went away in the minds of many others, either. From Germany to Australia and all across the United States, thousands of websites devoted to providing information/criticism/critique of the incident came to my attention. The question at the center of the storm was an elusive one: ‘why did they do it?’”
He continues, “Thus far, video games have been relegated to escapist entertainment—an industry known best for little blue hedgehogs and plucky mustached plumbers bouncing about in fantasy worlds. There is little in the realm of socially conscious gaming—software that does more than merely amuse for a few idle hours. Yet while some low-selling games offer pedagogical education (in geography, math, etc.), games that genuinely challenge social taboos or confront real cultural issues are nearly non-existent. I wanted to make something that mattered; I wasn’t willing to put months of my scant free time into an easily forgotten adventure set in a mythical realm of dragons or spaceships.”
The game’s opening screen tells you that you will be in the role of one of the two killer-kids and “How many people they kill is ultimately up to you.”  Despite the creator’s claim that “Super Columbine Massacre” is intended to teach social responsibility, the game’s original homepage, launched in 2005, described the game as, “A FREE Role Playing Game (RPG) for your PC devoid of malware, spyware or other junk not related to “killing as many f_ _ _heads as possible!” Check it out at http://web.archive.org/web/20050421043040/http://www.columbinegame.com.
Last, but hardly least, is the Booby Spider (Arachnid Putzolius), the prolific species, which captures and cocoons all the stupidest things anybody ever thought, said or did.  Its sting causes verbal diarrhea of the stinkiest sort.  Betty Davis, once asked if the critics and gossip columnists bothered her, wryly retorted, “Yesterday’s newspaper is tomorrow’s toilet paper.”  So far, no one has figured out how to flush all the effluvia out of the net’s 11.5 billion documents.  Once on the web, it’s there seemingly forever, no matter how vacuous.
Is it any wonder, then, that I sometimes suffer from Arachnophobia?  Maybe you do, too.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University.  A collection of his columns is available — where else? — on the Internet at http://www.lulu.com.]

In November, We Will Make History… Let’s Do It Right!

Posted in 2008 Election, Barack Obama, Biden, Big Business, Democrats, election, mccain, obama, Oil Companies, Palin, Pigs, Pit Bulls, Politics, president, Republicans, Sarah Palin, Vice President on September 13, 2008 by castagnera

Barring the unforeseen, in January 2009 America will have either its first black president or its first female vice president. Either way we will have made history.
For this writer, the 2008 national election has the main qualities of a great rollercoaster ride. For me it feels both exciting and scary.
Making history is always exciting, unless one is an utter coward. Come on, admit it. As we mark the seventh anniversary of the Nine/Eleven terrorist attacks, can’t you recall at least a bit of excitement blended with the shock, fear and sadness the attacks engendered? That survivors of tragedies experience a mix of relief, elation and guilt is an historical cliché, so commonly has it been recorded.
But Obama and Palin scare me, too. I put the odds at 50-50 whether one or the other will be our chief executive. If Obama wins, well then he’s in the Oval Office. If McCain wins, then let’s hope that brave old heart keeps beating for at least four more years. If not, well then…
Palin contended in her unforgettable convention speech that being mayor was like being a community activist, only with real responsibilities. Awe, c’mon, Sarah. Neither you nor Barack bore much responsibility until you became a governor and he became a senator. You will both end 2008 with only about two years of meaningful experience. (I don’t count the past two years in Obama’s column, since he spent it all running for president.)
These two political neophytes have been firing off some real zingers, while the two grand old boys on the tickets, McCain and Biden, have conducted themselves in a more restrained, statesman-like manner. Palin’s comparison of a hockey mom to a pit bull with lipstick led Obama to repeat the old saw that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Personally, I think Palin is kind of cute. But never mind that. What fascinates me most at this juncture is how close Barack and Sarah are on the issue of big oil.
Obama says he wants to impose a windfall profits tax on the oil barons. He says he would invest this revenue in researching alternative energy sources. McCain commented that this was Jimmy Carter’s idea during the first oil crisis, which occurred in the Seventies, implying the idea was bad then and is bad today.
Now get this. On September 12th, “USA Today” ran a front-page story on Palin’s gubernatorial record to date. If you missed it the first time around, read it now: “This year, she rebuffed religious conservatives who wanted her to add two abortion restriction measures to a special legislative session on oil and gas policy, even though she supported the bills. Former aide Larry Persily said she didn’t want to risk offending Democrats, whose votes she needed on energy legislation.”
The newspaper story continued, “In her 21 months as governor, Palin has taken few steps to advance culturally conservative causes. Instead,… Palin pursued a populist agenda that toughened ethics rules and raised taxes on oil and gas companies.” So who is Sarah Palin, really? We need to know.
In 1984 Geraldine Ferarro was Walter Mondale’s running mate. Before becoming a Congresswoman, Ferarro was a teacher, a lawyer and a district attorney. She was also the first Italian-American on a major party’s presidential ticket. Mondale’s choice gave the Democrats a short-lived bounce in the polls. The bounce lost its momentum well before November. Reagan and Bush buried the Dems, amidst some nasty sexist and ethnic slurs. Some sexists derided the Democratic ticket as “Fritz (Mondale’s nickname) and T___s” Others impugned Ferarro’s reputation, suggesting her husband had Mafia ties.
Whatever else happens during the next month and a half, here’s hoping that neither racism nor sexism is permitted to play a role in the remainder of this campaign cycle. Enough about lipstick on animals of any sort, thank you very much. We voters need to understand, as best we can, what are the leadership qualities and policy positions of these two mavericks. Since there’s a good chance one or the other will, sooner or later, occupy the Oval Office, we need to get as firm a fix on them as humanly possible.
And that’s never an easy trick from a seat on a roller coaster, in the midst of all the fright and excitement.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University. A collection of his columns is available at http://www.lulu.com.]

In November, We Will Make History… Let’s Do It Right!

Posted in Higher Education, international, middle east, Politics, war on terror, world affairs on September 13, 2008 by castagnera

Barring the unforeseen, in January 2009 America will have either its first black president or its first female vice president. Either way we will have made history.
For this writer, the 2008 national election has the main qualities of a great rollercoaster ride. For me it feels both exciting and scary.
Making history is always exciting, unless one is an utter coward. Come on, admit it. As we mark the seventh anniversary of the Nine/Eleven terrorist attacks, can’t you recall at least a bit of excitement blended with the shock, fear and sadness the attacks engendered? That survivors of tragedies experience a mix of relief, elation and guilt is an historical cliché, so commonly has it been recorded.
But Obama and Palin scare me, too. I put the odds at 50-50 whether one or the other will be our chief executive. If Obama wins, well then he’s in the Oval Office. If McCain wins, then let’s hope that brave old heart keeps beating for at least four more years. If not, well then…
Palin contended in her unforgettable convention speech that being mayor was like being a community activist, only with real responsibilities. Awe, c’mon, Sarah. Neither you nor Barack bore much responsibility until you became a governor and he became a senator. You will both end 2008 with only about two years of meaningful experience. (I don’t count the past two years in Obama’s column, since he spent it all running for president.)
These two political neophytes have been firing off some real zingers, while the two grand old boys on the tickets, McCain and Biden, have conducted themselves in a more restrained, statesman-like manner. Palin’s comparison of a hockey mom to a pit bull with lipstick led Obama to repeat the old saw that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Personally, I think Palin is kind of cute. But never mind that. What fascinates me most at this juncture is how close Barack and Sarah are on the issue of big oil.
Obama says he wants to impose a windfall profits tax on the oil barons. He says he would invest this revenue in researching alternative energy sources. McCain commented that this was Jimmy Carter’s idea during the first oil crisis, which occurred in the Seventies, implying the idea was bad then and is bad today.
Now get this. On September 12th, “USA Today” ran a front-page story on Palin’s gubernatorial record to date. If you missed it the first time around, read it now: “This year, she rebuffed religious conservatives who wanted her to add two abortion restriction measures to a special legislative session on oil and gas policy, even though she supported the bills. Former aide Larry Persily said she didn’t want to risk offending Democrats, whose votes she needed on energy legislation.”
The newspaper story continued, “In her 21 months as governor, Palin has taken few steps to advance culturally conservative causes. Instead,… Palin pursued a populist agenda that toughened ethics rules and raised taxes on oil and gas companies.” So who is Sarah Palin, really? We need to know.
In 1984 Geraldine Ferarro was Walter Mondale’s running mate. Before becoming a Congresswoman, Ferarro was a teacher, a lawyer and a district attorney. She was also the first Italian-American on a major party’s presidential ticket. Mondale’s choice gave the Democrats a short-lived bounce in the polls. The bounce lost its momentum well before November. Reagan and Bush buried the Dems, amidst some nasty sexist and ethnic slurs. Some sexists derided the Democratic ticket as “Fritz (Mondale’s nickname) and T___s” Others impugned Ferarro’s reputation, suggesting her husband had Mafia ties.
Whatever else happens during the next month and a half, here’s hoping that neither racism nor sexism is permitted to play a role in the remainder of this campaign cycle. Enough about lipstick on animals of any sort, thank you very much. We voters need to understand, as best we can, what are the leadership qualities and policy positions of these two mavericks. Since there’s a good chance one or the other will, sooner or later, occupy the Oval Office, we need to get as firm a fix on them as humanly possible.
And that’s never an easy trick from a seat on a roller coaster, in the midst of all the fright and excitement.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University. A collection of his columns is available at http://www.lulu.com.]

“Education is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century”

Posted in blogging, cyberspace, history, internet, Law, Law and Justice, media, Politics, technology, Uncategorized on September 5, 2008 by castagnera

From John McCain’s acceptance speech, the line that stuck out for me was, “Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
He went on to explain that for him that meant offering parents and students a choice among public, private and charter schools.  That choice, of course, only has meaning if parents and students have a variety of schools from which to choose and the financial ability to buy into their schools of choice.  More broadly, while the GOP presidential candidate is right about education’s central significance in the new century, his simplistic solution hardly scratches the surface.
In many major cities, high school graduation rates hover around 50 percent. In a few they dip below the .500 mark.  This dismal fact ensures the perpetuation of what Karl Marx called the lumpenproletariat, which is to say, the ragged or rabble lower class. And this in its turn ensures perpetuation of the drug wars, gang wars and random killings that characterize our inner cities.
Meanwhile out in the land of suburban sprawl, teen obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and the random shootings that periodically plague our schools all suggest that affluence alone does not ensure successful students.  Taken in this context, the issue of education expands to include family issues, such as divorce rates.
Labor policy, likewise, must be included in the mix.  One of the great ironies of our new century is that, while millionaire professional athletes have strong labor unions, workers on the bottom rungs of our economy are often as exploited as their 19th century counterparts.  Labor organizations, such as the Service Employees International Union, have a hard time organizing these folks, given the lopsided way in which our National Labor Relations Act is interpreted by the federal courts and bureaucrats.  Union prevention and union busting are only another cost of doing business for many major corporations, which also outsource what were once the better-paying positions to Asian and Latin American sweatshops.
Immigration policy also must be addressed in any comprehensive approach to American education.  The Supreme Court has said that the children of illegal aliens are entitled to attend public schools.  The law remains unsettled as to whether or not such students are also entitled to attend public colleges and universities and , if so, whether they are also entitled to in-state residents’ tuition breaks.
More broadly, are immigrants filling jobs that Americans don’t want to do?  Or are Americans declining those jobs because of the low wages, lack of benefits, and miserable working conditions?  The use of immigrant labor, legal and illegal, at the bottom of the economic barrel perpetuates the conditions that make these jobs unattractive to anyone but immigrant and migrant workers.
Last but not least is the rising cost of a college education.  Too many of our young people are graduating with “mortgages” on their diplomas.  Inefficiencies plague the higher education industry.  Despite being the only major sector of the economy that can call on its past customers — its alumni — to continue supporting its operations, and despite substantial gifts and grants from donors and foundations, higher education’s tuition rates continue to outpace inflation significantly.  Thus, the proliferation of large student-loan debts.
Yes, Senator McCain (and Senator Obama), “Education IS the civil rights issue of the 2ist century.”  And it is a complex issue, entangled with equally complex and challenging issues of family, labor, and immigration policy.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University.  A collection of his columns is available at http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=1257238.%5D