Category Archives: Culture

Donny Come Lately

 

It started with a Donald J. Trump Tweet on January 4.

….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

There is a lot to consider about his orangeness’ latest knee-jerk reaction.  My first question being, “What if the 53rd target is the one that puts the most Americans in danger?”  Certainly, one of “his generals” told him a military strategy should be based on a desired outcome like eliminating any threat of American casualties or to U.S. assets, not because it is symmetrical to a 40 year old grievance.

The media, however, focused on the potential violation of international rules of engagement which prohibit the targeting of cultural assets.  Even Trump’s own Secretary of State and Defense Department reminded him of this inconvenient truth. Still, the ignorer-in-chief doubled down, telling reporters aboard Air Force One returning from his holiday stay at Mar-a-Lago:

They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.

Never mind this threat and the killing of General Soleimani signaled an admission the use of economic sanctions had failed to bring the Iranians to their knees.   In an effort to up the ante, Trump, in effect, was saying I’ll do something no one else has every been willing to do to achieve my objectives.

But Donny Boy, as much as you wish you were a pioneer in the field of cultural expunging, you are far behind the learning curve.  All you have to do is travel or watch television to see the gradual transformation of cultural assets from icons of history or the arts to commercial props.  During my recent trip to Milan, I did a double take upon spotting a Calvin Klein advertisement, at least 20 feet high, on the scaffolding surrounding the Duomo.  (Maybe CK is considering a new fragrance by that name.) Or the location of a Starbucks Roastery Reserve in a historic building which had served as the city’s main post office for over a century.  (What is it about post offices?  Did Starbucks get the idea from Trump’s conversion of the old D.C. post office into a hotel and watering hole for Rudy, Lev and Igor?)

And how about the appropriation of music to promote products?  It started with the California Raisins and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  How much is lost when we associate Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” with GE rather than the summer of love or the first date with a future spouse?  Or what is so enchanting about shopping at Kohl’s just because their holiday commercial included The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic” in the background?

Image result for mausoleum of Imam RezaSo Donald, maybe you should think twice about targeting Iran’s most celebrated antiquities.  If, for example, you demolish the mausoleum of Imam Reza, among the most frequented tourist attraction in Iran, that would foreclose the possibility of eventually converting it into the Trump Tower Mashhad.  So, please think twice before launching drone strikes on Iranian cultural sites.  It’s not in your own self-interests.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

EUGENEics

 

Campaigns generally end because they run out of money. Candidates fail to garner support and donations for a variety of reasons. But I seem to recall that last summer, when the debates began, Democratic Party pooh-bahs congratulated themselves on how the rainbow array of candidates reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of the party’s base. The debate scheduled for Jan. 14 in Des Moines, however, promises to be an all-white affair.

~Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, January 2, 2020

Image result for eugene robinson

Far be it from me to question the perspective of a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, but when I read Robinson’s op-ed titled, “Democrats are starting to look like a ‘Whites only’ party,” I could not believe he had joined the circular firing squad by which Democrats seem to do everything they can to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in November.  And I understand one of the nation’s preeminent African-American journalists thinks the party should take a second look at the rules which determine who participates in each debate and who does not.  But the issue is much bigger than debate rules.

Let me start by reminding readers, I think presidential debates, by their very nature, are a disservice to voters.  They are not part of a chief executive’s job description.  As I have said before, I would prefer the equivalent of moot court.  Provide each candidate a situation likely to arise during his/her administration.  Then give each 10 minutes to both explain the issue and propose a course of action a la a presidential address to the nation.  Being president is not improvisation; it is about well thought out and articulated actions.

But if you are going to have debates, equating the ethnic makeup of the last five Democratic contenders to qualify for the January event as backtracking on diversity seems a stretch.  At risk of opening some old wounds in the the struggle for civil rights and social justice, Robinson’s words remind me a lot of the debate over quotas versus affirmative action.  I hope he is not suggesting the Democratic Party is not committed to diversity unless it requires a person of color be a finalist for its nomination for president.  Even he admits that the first debates included several non-Caucasian aspirants.  These entrants in the presidential sweepstakes had the opportunity to make their cases.  However,  for whatever reason, none appear to have “garnered the support and donations” to sustain their viability prior to primary season.  There is a difference between a chance and a guarantee.

Yet, I am more bothered by Robinson’s implicit definition of diversity.  The final five include a self-proclaimed socialist, a progressive and three centrists.  There are two women and three males.  There is a gay man.  They all have different life narratives.  And while they may share overarching policy goals, they have presented diverse options by which to achieve the desired ends.

Likewise, assessing commitment to diversity based solely on one person, the president, overlooks what might be a more relevant factor.  I doubt Robinson would be satisfied with an African-American or Hispanic chief executive whose cabinet and White House staff consisted mostly of white males (you know, like the one we have now).  What if the initial 20-person debate stage was a platform for identifying potential cabinet members and policy advisors?  For me, a commitment to diversity means replacing Bill Barr with someone like Kamala Harris (although color is not the only thing that would change).  Or Stephen Miller with Julian Castro.

If you believe, as I do, what used to be the Republican Party is now a cult dependent on the whims of one person, Robinson may be right.  However, if the goal is a presidency that is representative of the country as a whole the color, gender or sexual orientation of the person at the top becomes less important than the team he or she assembles to govern the nation.  The only other option to satisfy everyone is a sexually fluid individual of multiple ethnic origin. Good luck finding one.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

Academic Malpractice

During my time as a professor at Miami University, lunch with my colleagues was often spent sharing stories about students’ less than admirable exploits both inside and outside the classroom.  The student’s name was never revealed and was always referred to as the newest “Harvey.” (I think we picked that moniker because none of us could recall having an actual student with that name.)  You might call it an example of reverse-whistleblower protection, shielding the perpetrator instead of the informant.  At the end of each saga, one or more of those present would remind the group, “Don’t forget.  They are still adults in training.”  And our role as mentors and advisors was to turn the event into a teaching moment.  Or as one of my mentors used to remind me, “The best teaching moments are often outside the classroom.”

Those lunches remain among my fondest memories of academic life as this December marks the eighth anniversary since my departure from Oxford, Ohio for Amelia Island.  They were also a reminder that colleges and universities are not only venues to learn about science, the humanities or business (in my case).  They are a student’s last stop on the road to life as an independent member of society.  It is as much about testing, sometimes by trial and error, the principles of personal responsibility and the consequences when one’s performance or behavior falls outside the norms of academic or personal conduct.  Besides preparing attendees for careers based on technical skills, higher education is akin to military training.  It deserves more credit than it is given for preparing young men and women for the battlefield of adulthood, by letting them practice before they face “live ammunition.”

The American system of higher education has its flaws, but having just spent four weeks as an adjunct professor at an Italian university, I have a new appreciation for the standards imposed upon students in most colleges and universities in the United States.  In contrast, the Italian system, based on both nationally mandated rules and policies of each institution, can only only be described as overly student-centric where the inmates run the asylum.

Image result for university of the sacred heart milanI will share just a few of the most obvious examples.  Upon arriving in Milan, I learned 53 students had registered for my graduate business course titled, “Design Thinking and Startup Launch.”  My immediate concern was how to effectively engage so many students in a class that involved case discussions and team projects.  Such classes at Miami University were often limited to 25 to 30 registrants.  However, I soon learned that 14 of the students had elected the “non-attending” option.  This meant they would never attend classes and their grade would be 100 percent dependent on one exam based on readings assigned by the professor.

Maybe you are asking the same question I posed to the coordinator of the graduate business program.  “Are you telling me a student can get credit for a class based on experiential learning without ever having the experience?”  Without hesitation, she nodded and explained this was based on national policies.  Just so you understand how absurd this is.  Some students would have to prepare analyses of business cases, then write and present a business plan while others would receive the same credit for a three and a half hour written exam.  I’ll come back to this later.

Well, at least I would have a more familiar experience with the “attending” students and prepared the syllabus and lesson plans accordingly.  On the first day of class, I received the second major surprise.  University policy allowed students to schedule their internships at the same time they were taking classes.  Even students who opted for the class-based alternative assumed it was an excused absence from class if their intern host asked them to work during the scheduled class period.  For the record, most graduate business programs in the USA set aside a semester for internships during which students are not required to take classes.

My third example involves deference to students who are not pleased with their grades.  A “non-attending” student can take their exam up to five times (I am not making this up).  To give you a sense of how ludicrous this is, I will share my experience with my first Italian “Harvey.” But first I need to tell you Italian students, by national policy, are graded on a scale of zero to 30.  Again, maybe you might ask the same question I did.  “Why would a nation which measures everything on the base-10 metric system, even the temperature, use a non-metric scale for scoring student performance?”  Chalk it up to one of the sweet mysteries of life as no one I queried had an answer.

Harvey #1, with whom I had no contact or correspondence over the four weeks I was in Milan, took the open-book exam on November 20.  The instructions clearly stated “answers must be supported by specific references or examples from the readings, cases and other material available on BlackBoard.”  For the same credit as an attending student, Harvey #1 submitted a two-page document with just two references to course material, one of which was entirely mis-interpreted.  Giving Harvey #1 the benefit of the doubt, I scored the exam as a 6/30.  Eighteen is a passing grade.  To Harvey #1’s credit, the student did not challenge my assessment and asked for guidance how to better prepare to retake the exam during the next testing cycle.

Which brings me to the last example.  One of the attending students (Harvey #2) missed three of the eight sessions, did not participate in class discussions when he did attend, and a peer review by his project team members indicated he had not made a significant contribution to the team effort.  As is often the case, he was the first student to challenge his grade when they were posted last night.  Which brings me to the final reason why I titled this post “Academic Malpractice.”  The student informed me he would refuse to accept the grade and would take the “non-attending” exam to get credit for the class.  In other words, his performance to date vanished into the ether with no consequences.  Not a great life lesson for an adult in training.

In addition to class participation on the team project, each attending student had a final assignment which included three essay questions.  The last question was, “What do you consider to be the most important traits of a successful entrepreneur?  Based on your answer, how would you assess your own potential to start and run your own business?”  In every article and case covered during the class, a recurring theme was the paradox of freedom versus responsibility.  Entrepreneurs are the masters of their own fate which also means they are accountable for their own actions.  Harvey #2 did not include this in his response to the question yet concluded his essay by saying, “I have all the typical characteristics of an entrepreneur.”

Based on this experience, I believe, Italian educators should be asking themselves the following critical question which addresses the impact of a culture which treats students like children as opposed to responsible adults.  Is Harvey #2 an anomaly or is he a product of a system where students who under-perform or do not commit to their studies are told, in the words of Gilda Radner’s Emily Latella, “Never mind!”

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

E Pluribus Me

 

On two occasions this past week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked Benjamin Franklin to validate the necessity of an impeachment inquiry to determine whether Donald Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” worthy of removal from office.  The specific incident to which she referred was his response to a question upon adoption of the the United States Constitution, “Have you created a monarchy or a republic?”  Franklin’s reply?  “A republic if you can keep it.”

Call me a skeptic, but more than once in the recent annuls of political discourse, the words of the nation’s founding fathers have been twisted or, in some cases, manufactured to fit the needs of those who want history, real or imagined, to justify their actions.  So, I Googled Franklin’s words and the first hit was a commentary on the political process by Dr. Matthew Spalding on the website of that bastion of liberal propaganda (drum roll) The Heritage Foundation.

His July 2002 essay (conveniently for my purposes) titled “A Republic If You Can Keep It” begins with an almost verbatim transcript of Pelosi’s retelling of Franklin’s warning.  (Forget treason, I am surprised Trump has not demanded Pelosi resign as Speaker for committing plagiarism.)  Dr. Spalding goes one step farther.

But what the American Founders did not do-could not do-was guarantee the success of their creation. Franklin and the other Founders knew that their experiment depended on future generations, which meant the education of future citizens. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson once warned, “it expects what never was-and never will be.”

Yet something else is happening in America.  On today’s edition of Morning Joe, John Meacham, Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, suggested that knowledge loses its power if seen through an already biased prism.  He quoted the late political commentator and fellow Pulitzer laureate Walter Lippmann.

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

Related imageSeparated by centuries, Franklin and Lippmann have come together in a time warp to define the challenge we face in the months ahead.  “Poor Richard” reminds us the future of American democracy is not housed in some monolithic entity.  Its power comes from the distributed energy of millions of individuals, much like Skype which connects the capacity of an assemblage of devices under the control of Skype users.  In other words, the motto E Pluribus Unum refers not only to the diverse makeup of our population, but the civic obligation of every American (the pluribus) to uphold the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (the unum)

That would be tough enough if our understanding of current events was filtered through a cultural consensus, a prism with only one wavelength.  But, as we are too well aware, tribal factions, which as Lippmann points out define the way we see the world, explain how there can be two polar opposite interpretations of a partial transcript of a conversation between Trump and Ukraine President Zelensky.

I believe the question before us is not only, “Did Trump violate the explicit oath of office he took on January 20, 2017?”  Have we also, as citizens, violated the implicit oath to which we are bound by the phrase E Pluribus Unum?  When any occupant of the White House declares he or she “has an absolute right” to do anything (as Trump tweeted last night), have we betrayed the founding fathers because we have put ourselves (ME) above the singular principle of individual sovereignty on which America is based (UNUM)?  Have we become traitors when we put the promise of tax cuts and conservative judges above honoring the Constitution?  Do we dishonor Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton when we place our allegiance in an individual, any individual, over the words and principles which have sustained our country for 232 years?

I can only imagine the following exchange between Benjamin Franklin and CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

CUOMO:  Mr. Franklin, based on what Donald Trump tweeted last night, do we still have a republic or is the United States becoming a monarchy?

FRANKLIN:  Chris, I’ll give you the same response Beto O’Rourke gave reporters when asked if Trump’s rhetoric was a factor in the wake of last August’s El Paso shooting.  Why are you asking me when you already know the answer?  Connect the dots.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP

 

The Case for Youth

 

Image result for greta thunbergNever before has the issue of age become such a significant factor within American politics.  At one end of the spectrum is what can only be described as a “children’s crusade” of energized young people on issues ranging from gun violence to climate change.  In an ironic twist on the song “Children Will Listen” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods,” adolescents such as the Parkland high school students or 16-year-old Greta Thunberg have inspired older generations to rethink the consequences of their inaction on matters of national and global import.  The best evidence of their effectiveness is not opposing arguments based on substance, but the willingness of critics to go after them personally.

At the other extreme is the advanced seniority of many of the contenders heading into the 2020 presidential election.  Consider the age of the following major candidates on November 8, 2020.

Bernie Sanders/79 years, 1 month, 26 days
Joe Biden/77 years, 11 months, 14 days
Donald Trump/74 years, 4 month, 20 days
Elizabeth Warren/71 years, 4 months, 12 days

No need to detail the concern raised by their younger competitors about their mental and physical agility. Or not being in touch with the culture and advanced technologies which steer the present and future.

In light of current events, I want to posit one more compelling reason we might want the country’s chief executive to be of less advanced age.  Consider the following.  At no time during these past presidential terms did we have the slightest concerns whether the offspring of the commander-in-chief were benefiting financially off of their father’s position.

  • During John F. Kennedy’s term in office, out biggest worry was whether John-John would get lost under the Resolute Desk or Caroline would fall off her pony Macaroni.
  • In the case of the children of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford our attention was riveted not on business interests, but love interests.  Their activities were more likely chronicled in the Style Section of the Washington Post than on the front page.
  • Amy Carter, nine-years-old when she took up residency in the White House, became a topic of controversy only once, when a radio talk show host commented on her physical appearance.
  • Coverage of Chelsea Clinton had nothing to do with her own behavior, but the situation in which she found herself when her father’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public.
  • Presidential offspring scandals hit a new low when George W. Bush’s underage, twin daughters Barbara and Jenna had a little too much to drink at Chuy’s while attending the University of Texas-Austin.  (NOTE:  Having lived in Austin and eaten many meals at Chuy’s, the bigger scandal would have been if underage UT students did NOT have too much too drink.)
  • Which brings us to Malia and Sasha Obama, perhaps best known for eye-rolling at their father’s “daddy jokes.”

In contrast, history will remember the more chronologically mature children of past presidents for their financial or political activities, not the first family photographs or the trials and tribulations of growing up in the national limelight.

Of course, this is not to say anyone with the foresight to think they will be running for president at a more advanced period in their lives cannot go down a path that puts them in the same category as W. or Obama.  Skip the first wife.  In your late forties, 47 to be exact, choose a trophy wife (or two).  And for heaven’s sake, remember that photo ops with the kids carry more political favor than those with dictators.

For what it’s worth.
Dr. ESP