Remembering Congressman John Lewis, A True Patriot

Last Friday, Congressman John Lewis passed away. Since then, thousands of words have been said and written in tribute to him; praise for his courage, character and unswerving commitment to the rights of all Americans; words describing his belief in America’s continuing potential and his love for this country and all fellow Americans — even those who hated him.  

That’s why on Monday, when NTD President Judy Mandel asked me if I’d like to write a few words about Congressman Lewis, I respectfully declined. I had never met John Lewis, or followed his career that closely. I knew he was a remarkable human being in many ways, but what more could I say that hadn’t already been said?  

This morning I changed my mind. I’m an old white guy who was raised in small Midwest towns that were virtually all white. They weren’t purposefully racist environments. But they were obliviously racist. Since those days, so many years ago, my understanding of the role of race in our society has grown a lot. (And my process continues.) And as I thought about John Lewis this morning, I realized that I owed him a personal “Thank you.” — I would thank him for making my long life better because of his resolute battle against the senseless products of racism.  

Yes, I know John Lewis wasn’t alone in those efforts. There have been many other courageous men and women of every age and race who have battled racist policies. But even among those exceptional Americans, John Lewis was exceptional. His words helped me see America — its flaws and its promise — with a clearer vision. And his perseverance helped bring about the integration of businesses, governments and schools. (Unlike my youngest days, my children did not grow up thinking segregation in parts of America was an accepted fact of life.)    

So…Thank you, John Lewis, for the huge role you played in the positive societal changes I’ve observed in my lifetime. They’ve made America a better nation and, I hope, made me a better person.  

And here’s one final thought: When John Lewis faced death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he wasn’t risking his life solely for Black Americans. He was risking his life for all of us — for the United States of America. He was a patriot in the truest sense and we all owe John Lewis our thanks.

Nels Howard, NTDO Member since 1973

PS: In a year when our democracy is in such danger, I also plan to thank John Lewis by working to remove the racist-dependent Trump administration from the White House and correct the disastrous direction his Republican enablers have encouraged. – Visit our Volunteer Opportunities page for ideas on how you can help.

The NTD Endorsement Meeting Notes

It’s been over three months since I signed off from writing a weekly commentary. But last Sunday I attended the New Trier Dems’ Endorsement Meeting and the experience sparked some thoughts that I want to share. I won’t get into specifics about the meeting results since that’s been covered nicely in another post on our website. My thoughts have more to do with a ”refreshed” perspective that the endorsement meeting gave me.

I have to confess that over the past year, the acceptance of President Donald Trump’s behavior by large segments of the American public as well as, it seems, every Republican officeholder, gnawed at my faith in the future of our democracy. I think that was one of the reasons I needed a break from writing about this discouraging situation week after week.

The truth is, it’s hard not to feel at least a little pessimistic about the state of our nation when the daily headlines and nightly news stories consistently underscore the divisions in our democratic (small “d”) society. It can seem like there’s little hope ahead. I suspect that many of you may sometimes feel that way too.

But Sunday’s gathering reminded me that grassroots political involvement is still an estimable force. And I was also reminded that the values and goals of the Democratic Party are, more than ever, worth fighting for.

I was inspired by the team of New Trier Dem volunteers at the meeting, each focused on their specific task, all ensuring that everything would go smoothly. It’s a cooperative spirit I’ve seen time after time, canvassing for voters, at rallies, on election day. And it’s a spirit that has power.

And when I heard the candidates and their representatives make their presentations, I heard speakers who put people and justice first. — A far cry from the divisive appeals and regressive goals of the Republican Party and its candidates.

So although we aren’t living in a state that’s in the midst of a crucially important presidential primary contest or one that’s an electoral vote battleground, we need to start feeling the energy Democrats in those states are feeling.

We cannot delay getting involved in the fight against forces that would see the United States abandon its vision of a better life for every American. We cannot allow power to remain in the hands of leaders who maintain that power by seeding disharmony and mistrust between regions, races and religions. We must turn back those forces who dismiss values established by our founding fathers as no longer relevant.

Right now, here in our part of Illinois there are plenty of opportunities to become engaged in what I believe may be the most important election year in my lifetime. There are newly won Democratic congressional seats in our region that must be held, and potential Democratic voters in neighboring states who must be reached. And of course, there is a disastrous president in our White House who must be defeated.

Throughout this campaign year, the New Trier Dems, the Tenth Dems, the Democratic Party of Evanston, Sister District New Trier and the Indivisible movement will all be offering potential avenues for your involvement. A scroll through our Volunteering Opportunities page now and in the weeks to come will give you a selection of actions you can take. I hope you’ll get involved in whatever way your can.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

After Ten Years, “It’s A Wrap!”

A bit more than ten years ago I began putting together a newsletter for our New Trier Dems organization. From the start, the primary purpose of the NTD News was to pass on information about events and opportunities that would be of interest to Democrats and Independents living in or near New Trier. Especially those who believe in the power of grassroots political participation. And that is still its purpose today

However, even in those early versions of our NTD News , I found myself writing a brief preface each week to set up those featured events, often encouraging some sort of action.

As the longtime readers among you know, those brief introductions eventually developed into full-blown essays — some much longer than I had planned, and probably longer than any of you wanted. You have my sincere apology for those times when my wordiness got the best of me.

But let’s face it. In the years I’ve been doing these commentaries, there’s been a tsunami of political subjects to get wordy about: The foolishness of George W. Bush, and the evilness of his Svengali Dick Cheney, recurring mass shootings and the insane proliferation of guns in America, the degradation of the world’s environment and the existential threat of climate change, blatant voter suppression in the North as well as the South., the erosion of women’s rights, the cowardice of Republican legislators afraid to do what’s best for our democracy, Vladimir Putin’s mysterious hold over our president…just think how much longer this wordy list could be!

And of course in recent years the most repeated subject for so many of my commentaries has been President Donald J. Trump, a narcissistic, sociopathic demagogue who is quite possibly the dumbest, most ill-equipped, destructive and dangerous president our nation has ever endured. I’m sure I’ve set a personal record for my use of the thesaurus in search of pejorative descriptors for this guy. No number of negative words can do him justice, although there is one word that might — impeachment.

With all that said, on a positive note I also want to point out that over those years, there have been political stories that have inspired us and kept us all hopeful for a better future. Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 was no small feat. Then we saw the defeat of the last remaining Republican legislators representing any part of New Trier. In fact, our region is now blue all the way to the Wisconsin border. The mobilization of suburban women and the Democratic victories across America in 2018 have been a sign of positive things to come — if we Democrats all stay engaged. The energetic new Democratic voices in our U.S. Congress and among our Springfield legislators should fill us with hope. It’s all good stuff.

I know there is plenty more to talk about entering 2020. But as you can probably tell from the tone of my musings, I’ve decided I’m not going to be the person doing it. At least, not so publicly.

Perhaps it’s because I have a milestone birthday coming up that has me thinking about making new commitments and taking new paths. It could also be that I know a weekly commentary in a political world as polarized as ours can freeze a writer into rigid stances. After awhile the points a writer makes begin to sound redundant. Or, my retreat from the weekly ritual of a political commentary could simply be the result of Trump fatigue. Thinking deeply each week about issues being impacted by such a negative force is tiring, to say the least.

I still do plan to be communicating during the upcoming election year as I ring doorbells or write postcards for Democratic candidates. And who knows? There may be an event, a candidate, an issue next year that inspires a personal observation I feel I must share with all of you. In a year as wild as 2020 will be, that could very likely happen.

So now I want to say, “thank you,’” to people who have made my weekly efforts easier than they might have otherwise been: In the earliest days, longtime NTD leaders Joan Berman and Peggy Slater kept me confident I was on the right track. And throughout the press of completing these weekly newsletters I always knew I could ask for help and get it from our NTD President, Judy Mandel and before her, President Priscilla Sperling. I also knew that our NTD office managers, particularly the late, great Sharon Suzda and our present Office Manager Joan Fishman, could always be counted on for help when I asked. And, a couple election cycles ago, NTD Executive Board member Dan O’Brien took over the job of assembling the “news and events” portion of the NTD News , so I could have time to concentrate solely on commentary. (Dan also revamped the newsletter’s entire design to give it a contemporary Internet look.) — Thanks, to you all.

Finally, I want to thank each person who, over the years, took the time to tell me they enjoyed something I’d written. Some of you were old friends, some were people I had never met. You should all know your encouragement has meant a lot to me.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

Politically Passive Is An Oxymoron

The other day I read an article on a financial website that discussed the increasing popularity of “passive” investment funds — specifically mutual funds that represent an entire major stock index such as the S&P 500. Because such funds include shares in all the stocks listed in an index, the fund’s value is dictated by the movement of the entire market. This requires minimal fund management. Oversight is “passive” so management fees are miniscule, hence the popularity.

I started today’s commentary with that financial anecdote because it got me thinking about how appealing it is to find an approach to any situation that only requires passive involvement. Then I thought about that adjective, “passive.” It’s relaxing. It sounds so peaceful and benign — yet in some situations it can be a destructive activity. Doing nothing is doing something. Just look at the 2010 and 2014 election years when too many Democrats stayed home from the polls and we ended up with years of congressional Republican obstruction.

These thoughts led to another aspect of that investment article that struck me as also worth mentioning. We all look for ways to protect and enhance whatever assets we accumulate in our lives. And yet, perhaps the most precious assets we Americans have is our Constitution and Bill of Rights — and the democracy and equality they protect. Many of us take this valuable legacy for granted. And yet, year to year it requires our attention and our involvement. We must never allow an erosion of our democracy that squanders an inheritance that took two and a half centuries to build.

At last Sunday’s NTD Annual Dinner, I was reassured that this battle to protect our Constitutional legacy is not being conceded to the far right. Our Dinner’s guest speakers, Congresswoman Lauren Underwood and Congressman Sean Casten, came to congress in 2018 as a result of hard fought, grassroots campaigns involving hundreds of volunteers. Their words at the Dinner made it clear that they plan to fight even harder to hold on to their congressional seats against an onslaught of right wing money. (We can expect tough challenges to some of our state office holders too.)

So, “passive” is not a word we should even consider as we go into 2020. Democrats, across the country, certainly were not passive in 2018. That momentum has stayed with us. Let’s keep it going.

Scroll down this page and you’ll see a number of opportunities to get involved in meaningful activities. It’s not too early to begin. (The Republicans already have.) And, however you choose to become involved, you will make a difference. Politically, passive never wins.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

P.S.The financial article I mentioned above did warn of some potential dangers that may be inherent in passive funds. You can google “passive investing bubble” if you’re interested. It’s worth a read.

Just Sharing A Few Thoughts

This NTD News commentary is simply some recent thoughts I had on some unrelated subjects. — N.H.

This past week, the tragic betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria has been painful to watch. Some observers have speculated that what we are seeing is simply a “wag the dog” tactic by Trump and perhaps a few of his team, designed to divert attention from news stories about his impeachment inquiry. And, based on Trump’s lifelong history of betraying associates, contractors, rivals, wives, et al, it sounds quite likely to me.

The Kurds fought side-by-side with our American troops to crush ISIS forces. Then our nation’s president, without warning, removed our military from the area, giving Turkey’s President Erdogan a tacit okay to immediately begin an invasion.

And did this tactic to divert our attention work? There’s little doubt that news stories about this new Syrian chaos will stick around for awhile. But it is a certainty that the stream of sordid revelations further justifying Donald Trump’s impeachment will not slow down at all.

So, here is what Trump’s Middle East maneuver really “accomplished”: Kurd villages have been obliterated, Kurdish men randomly slaughtered and thousands of families are now desperate refugees. The suffering will be far reaching. The regional repercussions will be felt for years.

This is just the latest example of Trump’s historic incompetence as president. His impulsive, ill-conceived actions continue to gravely damage the international position of the United States. — Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Another thought I wanted to share, was the result of reading about the Fort Worth, Texas woman who was shot by a policeman through a window of her home. He was dispatched to check on the house because its front door was open late at night. He saw a woman (or her silhouette) in a window with its blind down, and literally a split second after yelling a command from outside the house, he killed her. The encounter, recorded on the police officer’s uniform camera sounded like this: “Put up your hands! Put of your hands! BANG!” The time between his first word of warning and the deadly gunshot was about as long as the time it took you to read the words I just typed. And that is not the way a warning should work. A “warning” means “do what I say because if you don’t I will take action.” Enough time must be given to start heeding those words. — The police officer was removed from his job and has since been charged with murder. 

I’m not mentioning this incident as one more condemnation of lax police training. Instead it started me thinking about why this kind of virtually instant “I felt endangered” shooting by a police officer seems to be occurring more often than ever. —- I think it is the proliferation of guns, especially in certain cities and regions. With guns so prevalent in our strange country, it is understandable that police have become increasingly on guard with every interaction. There is a real possibility that any person they encounter for any reason has the potential to shoot them. If I were a cop, that thought would always be with me. 

Of course the Fort Worth policeman was terribly wrong. Perhaps he was poorly trained. Or maybe he was inclined toward violence. I don’t know. But, what I’m pointing out here is that today’s universally threatening gun environment has not always existed across America, and it can still be returned to a saner level.

The NRA’s mantra that if everyone was armed, we’d all be safer is a fallacy. Just ask almost any police officer.

When satire become reality, we know we’re in trouble. Years ago, I saw the standup comic Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) deliver a tongue in cheek patriotic spiel about America’s international greatness. He said: “When Vietnam had their civil war, we sent thousands of soldiers over there to help them – but when we had our Civil War, how many Vietnamese came here to help us? You tella me!” 

Ludicrous satire, right? Then a few days ago, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters and presented some of the thinking behind his abandonment of our Kurdish allies. “They didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us at Normandy.” — In fact, back then there was no Kurdish government in existence, although some Kurds did fight the Nazis as Soviet soldiers.

When Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State he was reported to have summed up one of his meetings with President Trump with these immortal words: ”What a (blank)ing moron!” — You got that right, Rex.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

P.S. See you at the NTD Annual Dinner this Sunday, October 20? Hope so.

Living In Interesting Times

Most of you are probably familiar with the ironically worded curse credited to the ancient Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” And boy, do we live in interesting times.

Having a president in the White House as dangerously weird as Donald Trump is reason enough to feel that our times are far from stable — Even during the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was a major geopolitical consideration, the ultimate decision makers were, thankfully, rational men.

And what has been almost as disturbing as our president’s conduct, is the behavior of so many of his Republican Party enablers. His defenders in every level of government, his media cheerleaders, his staunchly loyal voter block, all continue to appear oblivious to the long-term harm he is doing to our nation, and the world. They remain unmindful of the repercussions of his behavior, and uncaring about who or how many are hurt by his ego-driven and self-serving whims.

How does he keep getting away with conduct that that would destroy the careers of more conventional political figures?

First of all, it’s wrong to assume you can lump Trump’s supporters into a few general categories to explain their loyalty. (I’ll let you fill in what you think those categories might be.) I’ve concluded that if you scratch the surface of a Trump supporter to see what keeps them loyal you won’t find some blanket mental state, but instead a single issue that they believe Donald Trump is defending for them. Trumpsters are willing to look the other way or remain willfully ignorant of facts, no matter what Trump does, as long as he continues to give lip service to their specific “cause” while thumbing his nose at anything said or done that is “against their cause.”

It’s an effective strategy that has been used to control groups for centuries. So is the United States inevitably destined to be cripplingly divided? — As George Carlin said when asking if we should care about the length of his hair, “au contraire, mon frere.” Things may change for the better sooner than we might expect.

The signs that a growing majority of Americans want to walk away from our “interesting times” grow stronger each day. In 2018, when Democratic voters got their act together to take back control of the U.S. House, Donald Trump’s behavior was their motivation. — Here in Illinois, progressive voters had the added incentive of candidate Bruce Rauner to drive them to action.

Since that important Democratic victory, President Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior is stimulating even more movement toward progressive policies and candidates. Even as Executive Branch operatives stonewall against a co-equal government branch and millions of dollars of propaganda have begun to fill the airwaves, a national poll released yesterday found that 58% of Americans approve of a House impeachment inquiry. 

This is not the direction Trump and his shadowy backers had hoped for. The more Donald Trump reveals of his hollow self, the less attractive he is finally becoming to more people across the country.

And what of the single issues that have held the loyalty of the voters Republicans need in 2020? Well, Democrats are championing issues with the power to win some of those voters. Notably climate change, which can no longer be ignored, despite Trump’s denial of its existence. 

So, we really shouldn’t be pessimistic about the direction of things to come. And here’s one more reason for optimism. At last weekend’s DPOE Dinner, State Senator Laura Fine and our State Reps Robyn Gabel and Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz reported on an impressive list of new legislation they introduced or supported that will make life better for Illinois residents. — I hope you visit each of their websites to learn what has been accomplished in the first year since Rauner’s removal. You’ll be proud of their work.

Yes, these are indeed “interesting times.” But scroll down this newsletter and you’ll find a number of opportunities that will make 2020 and beyond ‘interesting” in a much more positive way.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

How Did We Get Trump?

In another, more calm time in our United States, I might have observed today’s gray October skies and falling temperatures and found myself writing about the arrival of autumn – looking ahead to the blazing fall colors, cozy wool pullovers and warm holiday gatherings. Somewhere in my musings I probably would have woven in some sort of liberal political spin. However, I would have enjoyed my pleasant break from the complicated and combative world of today’s politics. 

But it’s not gonna happen this week. And that pleasant break we’d all love to take may not come for a long time. As long as Donald J. Trump remains in the White House, the possibility for America (and the world) to experience any weeks that aren’t chaotic is quite unlikely.  

Could impeachment remove him from office? Right now, the odds are better than fifty-fifty that Donald Trump will not be impeached by the Republican controlled Senate and will complete his first term as president. If that is the case, the prospect that Trump could be reelected is not out of the question. Some unexpected twist of fate, a disastrous screw-up by the Democratic nominee or his/her campaign, or worst of all, nefarious activities by unknown players, could hand Trump a second term. 

I’m sure that none of us enjoy thinking about Donald Trump virtually every day of the week. But when you have a narcissistic sociopath holding the most powerful office in the world, it is difficult for that situation to not remain top-of-mind. 

The man demands daily attention. That has been his modus operandi throughout his adult life. (Probably earlier than that.) In his younger years he depended on self-generated public relations for his self-promotion. Then along came Twitter, a communications vehicle ideal for a person driven by whim, untethered by facts, unbothered by lies, and obsessed with staying in the spotlight. 

How in the world, did we end up with such a bizarre character as our nation’s “leader?” In my opinion, Donald Trump’s path to the Oval Office began decades ago. Here are just some of the events that have provided him with a highly receptive voter base:  

– Nation-changing civil rights legislation leading to the Republican Party’s polarizing “Southern Strategy” 

– The lost war in Vietnam and a feeling of lost national pride

– The view presented by President Ronald Reagan that government cannot be trusted

– President Reagan’s anti-union stance and subsequent worker wage stagnation

– The widening wealth gap

 – President Clinton’s loosening of financial industry rules 

– The reckless financial practices continuing during the Bush Administration, bringing us the Great Recession of 2008

– Millions of average Americans losing jobs, life savings and homes as a result of the 2008 crash

– Economic globalization with manufacturing and jobs moving overseas

– The growth of automation and robotics reducing the need for physical “manpower”

– A growing awareness of the dangers of carbon fuels and the resulting erosion of jobs

– The 9/11 attack and resulting fear of “outsiders”

– The election of an African-American president (an “outsider”)

– The growth of women’s, LGBTQ and transgender rights, disrupting “the way things have always been”

– The rise of angry conservatives with their view that any political compromise is a sign of weakness

Everything in my list (and it could have been longer) helped build the platform for Trump’s successful demagoguery. 

Of course, during the years represented above, our democracy had a legislative structure in place to address many of those situations. The rebuilding of our national infrastructure could have been initiated with bi-partisan support, creating new job opportunities for millions. The growth of good paying jobs in the frontiers of technology could have been encouraged. Education and skills training in those fields could have been given a much higher priority. — Congressional gridlock stood in the way. 

The Democrats competing for their party’s nomination in 2020 have a promising perspective on the direction our next president must take (some more than others). They’ve all witnessed the avoidable mistakes made by the Democratic Party and candidate in 2016.  

One year from today when I look out my window, the presidential election will be only weeks away. I imagine my thoughts will all be about that event. But I deeply hope that my musings on the Wednesday after Election Day will be positive expectations for the years ahead under a Democratic President — with occasional calm breaks away from the natural competition that is essential for our two party system.

Nels Howard, NTD Member since 1973

Have You Met Greta Thunberg?

On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres assembled a climate summit. His goal was to reinvigorate the Paris climate agreement, originally adopted in 2015 by 174 nations plus the European Union. – President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2017. — And now, sixty-six countries have responded to Mr. Guterres’ call to renew their focus on this crisis, vowing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. (You might notice that’s a potentially-disaster-filled 30 long years from now.)  

Yesterday, I watched a video of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, speaking to attendees of the U.N. summit. And all I can say is, what a remarkable young woman! As I viewed her impassioned upbraiding of that roomful of eminent adults, it was impossible for me to be unmoved. Everything she said was indisputably true and unarguably urgent. (If you haven’t yet seen Greta’s brief speech, you can Google: ‘How dare you?’: Greta Thunberg slams world leaders at UN climate summit. ) 

So what happened after she spoke? Well as you would expect, the right wing immediately belittled her. Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham compared Greta to a character from the Stephen King horror film “Children of the Corn.” Trump mockingly tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see.” 

But despite the push back from our nation’s Bully in Chief and those Fox practitioners of Goebbels-style Journalism, Ms. Thunberg’s words resonated around the world. And — if we were living in a less dysfunctional nation — I think over the coming days they might have resonated much more in our U.S.A. too. 

With thousands of people presently being flooded out of their homes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts (ironically, often Trump-friendly areas), Greta’s words might have started a national conversation and a demand for serious, non-partisan action to address the changing climate. 

Unfortunately, within hours of her U.N. speech, America’s attention turned to a brand new subject, the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. And this time it appears the U.S. House will seriously pursue drawing up those articles of impeachment. This means that in the coming months, along with all the news coverage of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, our country will be further politically polarized. 

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sad page in our history is that the Trump impeachment proceedings, although decidedly called for, will take up valuable time that could have been spent focusing on issues that desperately need the attention of the public and our lawmakers. You know the issues, but among them climate change, the existential threat to all future generations and in fact to life on earth, must be given the highest priority. 

Each year, more of our planet’s living things are brought closer to extinction, more arable land brought closer to becoming desert, more millions of people brought closer to being displaced, more extreme weather events becoming the norm. We cannot accept the path we are on as unavoidable. For the sake of our children and every future generation we must establish continuous and uncompromising policies that will slow down and eventually halt this disastrous process. 

I know we have legislators at the state and national level as well as officals in local offices that have been championing legislation to deal with this crisis. — We must encourage them to continue their work with increased ferocity.  

Greta Thunberg’s message wasn’t just addressing her U.N. audience. Her fiery words were aimed at every one of us and at every person we have helped to elect in every level of government — even the most enlightened, energetic and dedicated among us. We must ask ourselves and ask the office holders representing us, what more can we do?  

It’s good to know that long after Donald Trump and his enablers are no longer present in a world they clearly care so little about, Greta Thunberg and hundreds of thousands of others inspired by her will be around. We must do all we can to make the world they inherit better than they expect.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

An Eye For Irony

The other day, a news item that struck me as especially absurd reminded me of one my favorite Bob Newhart “man on the telephone” routines. It’s set in the early 1600’s. One of King James’ staff is receiving a phone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, calling from America.  

It went something like this: “Hello, Walter. How’s your exploration going?”… “It’s going great? That’s good to hear.” … “Have you found any gold, yet?”… “You haven’t….but you’ve found something that going to be big — worth a fortune”.… “What’s that Walter?… It’s called tobacco? What’s tobacco?”… “It’s a leaf? — Ahh, Walter, we have leaves in England.”… “But this is a special leaf? — What makes it special?”… “You roll it up and put it in your mouth?”… “And then what do you do?”… “Your set it on fire!”… “Walter, I don’t think that’s going to be big…” 

Newhart’s routine pointed out how ridiculous the smoking habit really is. (I can speak to this with authority, having been a smoker for 25 of my younger years.) You put a paper tube filled with dried leaves in your mouth, set fire to it and breath in the smoke. …Seriously!?  

And yet this completely counterintuitive, self-destructive activity has made billions of dollars for tobacco corporations like Altria (Marlboro). And now as profits from cigarettes in the western world have fallen they are pursuing new avenues to profits. Altria’s Juul vaping devices are being marketed to deliver nicotine to nicotine addicts in a “healthier way” while helping them break their unhealthy cigarette habit. Of course Altria’s Philip Morris Co. will continue marketing cigarettes to smokers around the world while Juul users are being saved from the worst evils of nicotine addiction. — Talk about a “win win” situation! — It’s a scenario that could have been written by Joseph Heller or Jonathan Swift. 

And here’s what disturbs me the most. This surreal balancing act is being presented in Juul advertising, in serious business articles and in the mainstream news without a hint of the irony it represents. — At least I haven’t seen any comments on it. 

Why isn’t such irony being recognized? Perhaps in these convulsive times the American public has simply become inured to language and behavior that contradicts itself.  

In some states we have public safety spokespersons recommending that the solution for reducing gun violence is a greater distribution of guns. We have our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency stopping California from enacting stricter clean air standards. We have a Secretary of Education, responsible for our public education system, vocal in her support for private education systems. And yesterday, President Trump nominated a man to lead U.S. human rights policy who was a proponent for torture under George W. Bush. 

Early in its operation, Trump’s White House introduced the practice of presenting “alternative facts,” repeatedly leaning on that concept. Since then, with the endless barrage of tweeted lies coming from our President, I’m starting to wonder if such Orwellian “double speak,” combined with a complete indifference to the appearance of ironic behavior, is becoming accepted by the pubic as normal. 

We know that critical thinking is no longer emphasized in many school curriculums. And when it is absent, recognizing irony is much less likely. Having that ability, as we critique the language and behavior of political figures, has always been a valuable tool for voters. — And by they way, such scrutiny should include the Democratic presidential candidates we are now in the process of choosing for 2020. 

When irony is presented on the stage of Second City, it can be great entertainment. But when you spot it on the political stage (or in the business world), you should weigh what you see very seriously.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973

Where Were You On 9/11?

Do you remember where you were 18 years ago today? If you’re in your mid-twenties or older, I’ll bet you do. — September 11, 2001 was one of those landmark dates in history when the trajectory of a nation’s future is abruptly changed. Or perhaps in the case of 9/11, I should say “abruptly accelerated.” 

That September morning, soon after the attack, I heard a radio bulletin about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center’s towers. I switched on the TV and saw the entire horrible scene unfold as another plane slammed into the second tower and both buildings collapsed. At that moment I imagine most of you, like me, sensed that things would never quite be the same again. Terrorism from a foreign source had succeeded within our boundaries in a big way.  

Immediately, new and more stringent security procedures were established both in the public areas and in the business buildings of our cities. In many cases those measures are still in place today. And we’ve gotten used to them. — Now, we think nothing of being asked to open our business bag or purse for inspection. We accept such intrusions in our privacy as necessary for our safety. (In recent years, the increasing occurrences of mass shootings have also played a big role in our acceptance of such inspections.) 

9/11 made Americans a bit less secure, and a lot more open to whatever steps our government declared were needed to protect us. As we now know, those “necessary steps” eventually included the military invasion of two countries.  

Realistically, it could be presumed that before 9/11 our nation’s international trajectory was already headed toward armed involvement in the Middle East. For several years, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, two bored cold warriors with no Cold War left to fight, had been touting their “Project for a New American Century.”  

This vision for our future saw the United States establishing a “benevolent global hegemony.” (I guess that would mean we would call the shots for all the other nations on earth — but in a warm, friendly way.) To do this, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their fellow hawks believed we should perpetually maintain the United States as the world’s preeminent power. – Incidentally that sort of dream for America would also be a dreamy situation for government contractors like Halliburton, a company close to Dick Cheney’s heart. — Back then it actually was his heart.  

So with the arrival of 9/11/2001, a lot of pieces were already in place for what came next. Of course at that moment in time we had no idea what lay ahead. But we now know that the attack in New York led to our invasion of Afghanistan, a military involvement that has become the longest war is our nation’s history, 18 years long!  

From the start there was some debate about whether the actions of a group of Al Qaeda fanatics should be dealt with as if they were an enemy nation. Should we use military forces to attack them in the country where they were hiding? Or should we, and our allies, deal with them as international criminals, using spies, informants, drone surveillance, all the tools of espionage to track down the terrorists and eliminate them? We chose military boots on the ground. Since then, there have been many casualties – American and Afghani. Would a different path have been a better choice? We’ll never know. 

Our involvement in Iraq began in 2003. Unlike Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was sheltered, the Iraqi government and its people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. However, much of the American public remained angry and open to punishing any Middle Eastern country that might have aided terrorist activities.  

The Iraqis were, in fact, enemies of Al Qaeda, but that fact didn’t get in the way of the hawks in the White House. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush all pushed for intelligence results that would justify an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  

They got their wish, although the intelligence reports they cited were mostly bogus. 16 years later, thousands of American military have been wounded or killed and tens of thousands of Iraqi’s have died. Also, many billions of tax dollars have been spent. Beyond that, the destabilization of Iraq created a power vacuum that allowed the rise of ISIS, resulting in thousands more dead and displaced. And the chaos created by the rise and eventual fall of ISIS has led to thousands of people fleeing Syria and Iraq; creating new problems for Western Europe to the delight of Russia’s Putin.  

On 9/11 as we watched the live TV coverage of the World Trade Center’s towers fall, we couldn’t see where things would lead. But there were people in our nation’s capital who could see where they wanted things to go. These were the cold war hawks who continue to believe that brute power trumps any other approach to international relations. Ironically, today’s news also included a fellow, like them, who never saw a war he didn’t admire, John Bolton. Thankfully, he just lost his White House job. Inexplicably, he still has admirers in high places. 

The national trajectory that September 11 kicked into gear has yet to reach its end point.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973