Category Archives: Journalism, Writers

Go Know

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Writer and editor Dan Rottenberg responded to my post about why my experience teaching school in Philadelphia gradually changed me from a liberal to a conservative. He wrote that I was being illogical in believing that because liberals are wrong about something, they must be wrong about everything. But I speculated (an opinion) that they must be wrong about and responsible for many other failures, not everything.

I wrote: “If … most of the left could be so wrong or dishonest about the schools, what other aspects of society could they be wrong or dishonest about? That is a question I asked myself, not a statement of fact. And in the last paragraph I concluded: “If they are so wrong about education, they must be wrong about and responsible for many other failures. The dictionary defines the word must as meaning “logically inferred,” and it defines infer, “to form (an opinion) from evidence.” What I wrote in the last paragraph is an inference (a guess) from evidence – my thirty-five years of teaching English in urban schools.

Still, Rottenberg’s criticism is interesting. It reminds me of the time in 1990 when I got into trouble because of the articles I had written about my experience in the schools. I won’t go into the details, other than it inspired almost every Philadelphia Inquirer opinion writer at the time to attack me in their columns. Donald Kimelman, who was then the deputy editor of the paper’s editorial page, said to me:  Just remember, in this dispute between you and the Inquirer columnists, you are the only one who knows what he is talking about. He meant that none of the columnists had any real experience teaching in big city schools.

So compared to those who have not taught in urban schools, I “know what I am talking about,” but when it comes to other subjects, I only know what I read in the papers, magazines and books, all of which are colored by the authors’ biases. To use Don Kimelman’s words, I don’t know what I am talking about when I infer that liberals must be wrong about and responsible for the failure of many other institutions besides urban schools. It is merely an inference.

Of course every opinion journalist holds forth on subjects that he doesn’t really know anything about. Take my afore mentioned former editor and critic Dan Rottenberg. He recently wrote a piece in which he diagnosed Donald Trump’s psychological disorder. Dan asked the question, “Why…is America’s new president acting like a sore winner?”  And he declaimed himself “uniquely situated to address that question.” Why? “As a financial journalist, I have followed Trump for more than 30 years…” So according to financial journalist Dan Rottenberg, Trump “likely suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).”

Dan first tells us the symptoms of NPD and then gives some examples of behavior that, he says, support his diagnosis. The first one is the way Vice President Mike Pence responded to criticism from the cast of the show Hamilton and being booed by the audience. Trump responded to what I consider rude behavior by the cast and audience by calling it rude and insulting. Dan then tells us how Pence responded, “That’s the sound of democracy.” Indeed, that may be the sound of democracy, but it is also rude and insulting. I am not carrying water for Trump, but I don’t believe that Trump’s calling a spade a spade is evidence of mental illness, nor do I believe that Pence’s reaction is evidence of mental health. In any case, Dan does not criticize the bizarre behavior of the actors towards Mike Pence and the obnoxious behavior of many in the audience. Just ask yourself how Dan and most other observers would have reacted if the same behavior were directed towards Barack Obama instead of the present Vice President.

Another piece of Dan’s  diagnostic evidence is that Chase Manhattan and Citibank lent Trump millions of dollars “without ever conducting an audit of [Trump’s] finances.” Although he does blame the media and the banks for “swallowing Trump’s act,” shouldn’t Dan be interested in why these large, prominent banks did what they did? Perhaps this is evidence of the bankers’ NPD.  I surely don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to big-time real estate developers and banks, but I do know that very rich people borrow money to finance large projects, simply because it pays off in tax deductions to use other people’s money. And isn’t it possible that the bankers’ experience with Trump is different from Dan’s speculation that the bankers merely swallowed Trump’s act. Perhaps these big city bankers have had other dealings with Trump, and they felt confident that Trump would pay them back with interest on time.

Which brings me to something I wrote in an earlier post entitled “Is Trump Crazy?” There are lots of articles out there claiming that Trump regularly “stiffed” contractors, and Dan mentioned to me that he had learned that while “covering” Trump. In the earlier post, I mentioned that I had a relative whose father’s engineering firm worked on most of Trump’s buildings in New York.  When I asked her what her now deceased father thought of Trump, she said that he liked Trump because he “always paid him on time” and was “very straightforward.” That came from a person whose father knew what he was talking about. That makes me wonder about Dan and all the other journalists who  “swallowed” the accusations of some contractors. Is it possible that those contractors may have tried to “stiff” Trump? I doubt that those financial journalists were much interested.

Again, I am not particularly enthusiastic about Trump. I also like and admire Dan Rottenberg. But “covering” someone as a journalist does not qualify one to diagnose mental disorders. Even a professional diagnosis from afar of a political figure like Trump (or Obama) would almost always be drenched in politics. Like me and the world outside of urban schools, Dan doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

 

Trump Nervous Disorder

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With apologies to the late Art Linkletter (Who remembers him?), people say and write the funniest things. The funniest are those that are unintentionally funny. A couple of articles, one in the magazine of The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the other an op-ed piece in the New York Times assert that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is causing major, clinical depression with anxiety among at least half of the U.S. population. If that isn’t unintentionally funny, I don’t know what is. The Times’s weighing in on the idea of mass depression and anxiety over Trump guarantees that the rest of the media will follow up with front page pieces of their own; tv news, talk tv and radio will follow. Thus a “crisis” is born.

The source for the idea of what might be called Trump Nervous Disorder is the mental health community. The members of that profession at least can’t say that Trump didn’t do anything for them; business must be booming, which usually makes for a sense of well being, not depression. So I doubt that they are suffering from Trump Nervous Disorder. They must sleep very well at night with Mr. Trump in the White House.

The JTA article begins with “The text messages started pouring in at 6:30 a.m., as Tracey Rubenstein was getting her kids ready for school. By the end of the day, the Boca Raton, Florida-based social worker had spoken to most of her clients…They were shocked, disappointed, sad and scared.” The reason:  It was the morning after the election. Rubenstein claimed that “This is anxiety on a national level, on a level of existential crisis [My emphasis] for some people of national identity.” It’s an apocalypse!

Seriously, isn’t that a bit much? After all, Ms. Rubenstein practices social work in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country, where most of the residents are retired. They thus have a great deal of time on their hands, after their daily round of golf, to think about such things. In addition, research on retirees has found that retirement greatly increases one’s risk of clinical depression and anxiety, by as much as forty percent. Now that’s a crisis, at least for those who suffer from depression as well as the medical system that must treat the ever- growing number of elderly people.

The article goes on citing the opinions of various “mental health workers” and victims of Trump disorder, as well as well as a novelist. It ends where it began, with the Boca-Raton social worker who says, “I think there’s something very extraordinary going on with this president, and I don’t want to normalize erratic behavior, or behavior that’s not grounded in reality, or policies that are openly discriminatory or harmful [My emphasis].” Ms Rubenstein’s last phrase is partisan, not scientific. Rather than taking these complaints seriously, Rubenstein should advise her patients to join the club: Those who are politically engaged are always unhappy when their candidate loses; they may even experience some very mild depression for a while. Besides anyone being treated by a “mental health professional” has “issues” that pre-date an election.

The New York Times op-ed says pretty much the same as the one cited above: “‘So much is coming at us,’ said Sue Elias, a psychotherapist in New York City. ‘There’s a chronic sense of anxiety among my patients that I have never seen before.'” One psychiatrist cited, “A couple of patients…[who] were incredibly stressed and embarrassed to tell friends they had voted for Trump, as they felt they would lose their friendship…”  So this is a bi-partisan crisis, although the mental illness, unsurprisingly, afflicts more Democrats than Republicans, 26 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats.

Personally, I am concerned about Trump for many of the same reasons that trouble the people suffering from Trump Nervous Disorder. But I have never been depressed and anxious over who is president. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama and consider him to be devious, nasty, untruthful, and intellectually overrated; but he never made me feel depressed because I believe that whoever is president usually doesn’t matter that much. The President of the United States is often called “the most powerful man in the world,” but all that really means is that the United States is the most militarily powerful nation in the world. In reality, the president’s powers are relatively weak when it comes to domestic policy because both Congress and the courts have the power to thwart the president’s policies. The only time a president has domestic power is when his or her party controls Congress with a veto-proof majority, and even then he can be stymied by factions within his party, as we have recently seen when the so-called Freedom Caucus of Republicans killed the Republican health care bill. The real power of the Presidency is in foreign affairs, but even that is limited, as we have seen, when an unelected judge halted Trump’s immigration policy despite the fact that immigration policy has always been considered an executive branch responsibility. Although Congress has the constitutional power to declare war, that power has not been used for a long time. Still there is always tremendous pressure on the President to get a vote of approval from the Senate when he commits troops to battle.

To be sure, there have been times when the occupant of the White House had a powerful emotional impact on people, and it is always during or immediately after catastrophic events. The country was lucky to have Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II.  His sunny disposition and self-confidence made people feel that better times were on the way, even during the war. We were also lucky to have Eisenhower in office after the Depression, World War II, and Korea. His even temperament and low-keyed manner made it possible for the country to return to normality after the terrible events that preceded his administration.

Most historians revere Abraham Lincoln, but I have always felt ambivalent about him. Undoubtedly he was a brilliant speech writer and politician, but I find it hard to accept the idea that the Civil War was necessary. I find it hard to believe that slavery in America would have continued into the 20th century. All of the civilized Western nations had pretty much banned slavery and the slave trade before the Civil War. The South must have realized that slavery’s days were numbered because of anti-slavery public opinion among the Western nations as well as the advent of new technology. The South’s stubbornness was based on their strong aversion to being dictated to by Washington. Given that, I often wonder whether the deaths of more than 600,000 young men was worth it (6 million in today’s population). Regardless of whom one voted for in that election, I think it would have been completely normal to have been very anxious about the Lincoln presidency.

Finally, there were other popular presidents about whom we should have been anxious and worried, but weren’t. John F. Kennedy’s  recklessness and indecisiveness in the Bay of Pigs invasion set off a series of events that eventually led to both the brink of nuclear war over Cuba and the Vietnam War. And we now know that he was a very sick man, and a philanderer. However, the only time Kennedy made me anxious was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that had more to do with the fear of nuclear war, not Kennedy himself.

You can certainly make a case against Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W, Bush, and Barack Obama. We knew that Nixon was an angry, perhaps unstable man, that Bill Clinton was a womanizer (making him a prime target for blackmail), that Bush was perhaps not that smart, and that Obama was inexperienced. Still, there were no reports of mass depression over their elections and during the controversies of their administrations.

Many have strongly criticized Trump’s reference to what he calls “fake news.” The media characterized that as a major part of what they portentously called Trump’s effort to undermine the news media. That may be so, but the media’s attention paid to claims of a wave of mass clinical depression sweeping the country is a good example of either media gullibility or, yes, fake news. Still, it’s pretty amusing.

Who You Calling Angry?

Saul Bellow Portrait Session

Saul Bellow – used his novels to attack his ex- wives.

Gore Vidal Portrait Session

Gore Vidal – attacked America, other writers, and just about everybody.

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Philip Roth – attacked his ex -wife, Claire Bloom and her daughter, the GOP, Israel.

Angry Writers

The world is in a state of fury because of our last presidential election. In America, more than half of the adult population despises the winner as well as the yahoos who voted for him. The supporters of the losing candidate view those who voted for the winner as retarded (excuse me, mentally challenged), sort of like the hillbilly banjo boys in the movie Deliverance. Those who voted for the winner see the other half as elite, unpatriotic snobs who wanted to turn the country into a socialist state in which the government provides everything one may want for “free.” The fury is palpable; you can feel it at social events like weddings, funerals, and parties.You can also see it on the street where one side or the other wears their sometimes obscene views on their shirts or on the cardboard signs they brandish.

While the commotion raged outside, I had lunch recently with Dan Rottenberg, my editor when I submitted essays during the 80s and 90s to a Center City paper, then called The Welcomat. Most of my essays were about my experience as a Philadelphia public high school teacher. The Welcomat was fun to write for because Dan loved to publish articles on controversial subjects that were almost sure to provoke a usually angry response from readers who would then submit letters or articles themselves. He saw it as a kind of public forum where writers could engage in spirited arguments. Dan believed that conflict was at the heart of the best opinion writing.

I hadn’t seen Dan in years and I enjoyed talking with him about various subjects. I met him at his office and the first thing he brought up was a satirical article that he had written and published in the Welcomat many years ago lampooning me and my essays as angry and bitter. He wrote that I was winner of the “Nobel Prize for Bitterness.”

I don’t remember the details of Dan’s Welcomat piece back then, but years later in 2011 when he became the editor and then president of the on-line Broad Street Review, he wrote about me again. This time he compared my articles to the posts of a blogger named Natalie Munroe, an 11th grade English teacher who was then in the news . Munroe wrote, for example, “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” She also described her students as “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” She added that if allowed, “Her report cards would include comments like, ‘Dresses like a streetwalker’ or ‘I hate your kid’…etc.”

As I said, most of my essays were about my experiences as a teacher and they were sometimes critical of my students, but I never used disrespectful language like that Dan attributed to Natalie Munroe.  Moreover, most of my “angry” criticism was aimed not at the students but rather at the many administrators in the system, from the principal on down to the assistant to the assistant to the vice principal in charge of whatever.  My essays sought to expose the large number of personnel in the schools who did not teach (or did not teach very much) and who typically were contemptuous of classroom teachers. A number of them were what Tom Wolfe called flak-catchers; that is, they saw their job as appeasing students, parents, and community activists. That their efforts to appease ended up in undercutting teachers was rarely considered. I can think only of one administrator in my years of teaching who considered the poisonous classroom environment such knee-jerk appeasement created.

One example concerns a friend (now unfortunately deceased) who taught Spanish. A student was unhappy about the “unsatisfactory” behavior grade she had received. She went directly to the principal who told her to discuss the grade with the teacher. The teacher explained why he had given her that grade, but that was not enough for her. She went back to the principal, this time with her father. The principal told them to return again to the teacher and discuss the grade with him. They did so, and the teacher explained again. They then went to the principal (this process played out over many days) and demanded a meeting with the principal and the teacher. The principal once again agreed to their demand. Before that however, the principal sent an official summons to the teacher ordering him to attend the meeting and advising him to bring union representation. At that point, the teacher wrote to the principal that he had decided to change the unsatisfactory behavior grade to “excellent” rather than merely satisfactory. He explained to the principal that he was very busy and thus was not able to attend the meeting.

The principal had achieved his goals. He happily cancelled the meeting and informed the student and her father of the “good news.” What the principal wanted was not only to pacify the girl and her father by indirectly forcing the teacher to change the grade, but  also to allow the girl and her father the opportunity to figuratively kick the teacher’s rear end a few times. Thus they, the principal hoped, would be satisfied and the principal would be shielded from criticism and reprimand from higher school system officials (whose job was also to appease) and the ever-present community activists to which the student and father would certainly have gone if their demands were not met. Although I remember being unsurprised by my friend’s ordeal, I was still angry.

Back to Dan’s comparison of my essays to the blog posts of Natalie Munroe. Dan asks, “…was Ron James a dedicated teacher venting his legitimate frustrations with a broken system? Or was he taking out his anger on his students and their parents, having ceased to think of them as his clients?” For one thing, public school students are not a teacher’s clients; the taxpayers who pay the salaries of the teachers and everyone else who works in the schools are the clients. Yes the parents are clients, but only to the extent that they actually pay taxes.

Dan said that I sounded “very much like Natalie Munroe” when I wrote that “Many of the students I teach behave as if they have no responsibility at all for their education.” I never saw Munroe’s blog, so I can only go by the examples Dan gives that I cite above. Thus I would conclude: To compare my analysis to Natalie Munroe’s name-calling is nothing short of ridiculous. The examples are not in the same ballpark; they are not even in the same universe!

As I said before, Dan likes to create conflict (and anger). He often does this by baiting people. He is certainly correct that conflict is at the heart of interesting writing, mostly because it provokes anger which produces response. In the Welcomat Dan allowed all sides of an issue to be aired (even responses that were incomprehensible or inane). In doing that, Dan provided a valuable public service which wasn’t and isn’t often provided by “mainstream” newspapers like the Inquirer and (the most powerful exponent of one-sided opinion) the New York Times.

Still, isn’t anger a prime motivation for writers? George Orwell, considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists, wrote:  “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” I wonder how today’s university students would react if Orwell were alive and invited to speak at their schools. That line might make even Dan Rottenberg hesitate to publish it. But, to his credit, I think he would.