Archive for December, 2014

Guns in the New Hampshire State House, Round Two – posted 12/21/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/26/2014

December 21, 2014 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on December 26, 2014 under the title “Gun Crazy”.

On December 19, the Concord Monitor reported that a House Committee voted to allow legislators to carry concealed weapons on the House Floor. It looks very likely concealed carry will pass when the legislative session opens in January 2015.

The gun vote is a replay of 2010 when the Republican-controlled House voted to allow concealed carry in the House Chamber, cloakroom anteroom, and adjacent areas including the visitors’ gallery.

Concealed carry stayed in effect until the Democrats regained control of the House in the 2012 election. On the first day of the session in 2013, the House banned concealed carry.

With all due respect to our legislators, concealed carry in the State House is a very bad idea. The majority seems to confuse that idea with doing something. Being a legislator should not be about macho showboating and posturing about packing heat. How about focusing on doing something for constituents?

I do not think the dark side of legislators bringing guns to committee or session meetings has been adequately explained. Whatever gun proponents subjectively think, the presence of guns is objectively threatening. Armed legislators may feel they are proudly standing up for their Second Amendment rights but their guns, in this context, are intimidating. They have a bullying effect on those not carrying.

Some of my feelings about the bullying effect of guns comes from past life experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence. In the world of abusers, there are some creepy ones who always have guns or knives on their person. It is a power and control thing. The abuser uses the weapons as a fear factor to intimidate the victim into submission. The weapons seem to have the effect of making the abuser feel more powerful relative to the victim. Guns and knives keep the victim in line. There is an unspoken message: obey or face the consequences which are typically physical and emotional abuse.

Whether intended or not, I do think legislators packing has the same bullying effect.There is a subconscious, my way-or-the-highway message.

The Legislature should be a place for calm deliberation. Legislators bring vastly differing policy agendas. It is no surprise that many legislators feel passionately about the rightness of their ideas. We know passions can run high during legislative debate.

I would argue that the presence of guns in this context is a net negative. Legislators should be equal and no one should have a leg up because of intimidation. The proponents are oblivious to the effect of their gun possession. Maybe they like the power of wielding weapons but they overlook the bully part.

Guns do carry an implied threat and menace. The House is not a shooting range. Neither is it the OK Corral. Guns do not contribute to an atmosphere of reasoned debate.

The proponents of concealed carry in the Legislature have argued guns are necessary for self-protection there. They have fantasized active shooter scenarios with armed legislators saving the day. They seem to be expecting a Wild West shoot-out.

I would point out that in the over 200 year history of the New Hampshire Legislature, there has never been a shooting incident. In the 40 year period prior to 2010, the House had rules banning deadly weapons in the State House. As noted, there were no incidents in this lengthy time period which spanned countless committee and session meetings.

While anything is possible, the legislators arguing the need for armed self-protection are, based on the evidence, paranoid. One can only speculate on the psychological reasons for the paranoia. Is it baseless suspicion, persecutory delusions or feelings of sexual inadequacy which produce these feelings about the need to be armed? Maybe the legislators have simply watched too many violent TV shows and they have conflated TV with real life.

As someone who has spent plenty of time in the area around the State House, it also needs to be reiterated that the area is not scary. The dark alleys of Concord are not very dark. Anyone who tries to paint the area as some kind of danger zone is out to lunch. That is a bad joke.

The presence of guns in the Legislature is much more likely to lead to an accidental shooting than anything else. Witness the 2012 accident when a state representative dropped his gun on the floor at the start of a meeting of the House Criminal Justice Committee. Fortunately, the gun did not discharge. That story made national news.The representative said he had given blood that morning and the blood donation made him loopy. That representative routinely wore two guns in shoulder holsters to legislative meetings.

So I guess I would ask: how about assault rifles and machine guns in the House? If the proponents believe there are no limits on the Second Amendment, do they want legislators to have the right to carry those weapons too?

It is a misconstruction of the Second Amendment to see it as an unlimited right not connected with any responsibility or civic duty. Nothing in the Second Amendment prevents reasonable regulation of that right. There is no legal problem with Legislatures banning deadly weapons in State Houses. In fact, very few state legislatures allow it.

I want to make it clear I too support the Second Amendment along with reasonable regulation. I accept that the US Supreme Court has made clear the individual right to carry arms and use them in self-defense. The right is also outlined in the New Hampshire Constitution. That said, as I make clear in this piece, I think a state can do some things in the interest of public safety.

We sensibly keep armed litigants out of courtrooms. The General Court is really no different than a courtroom. Legislators need a safe place to argue and disagree.

If legislators feel insecure or fearful, aren’t metal detectors at more restricted entrances a better way to go? We could have that. In addition we could beef up our state police presence at the State House. I expect our state troopers would be far more expert at handling any incident than legislators.

I would predict that bringing guns back to the State House will end in embarrassment for New Hampshire. I am not sure how exactly but we will likely end up as fodder for the Daily Show and a punch line for jokes.

Remembering My Mom Four Years After Her Death – posted 12/14/2014

December 14, 2014 10 comments

I was in Alaska in 2010 when my brother Rob called to tell me that Mom was back in the hospital and things did not look good. I never saw her again.

It is now four years since her death. Levine’s, the funeral place just north of Philadelphia, sent me a little blue postcard reminder saying Mom’s yahrzeit is to be observed on December 26.

Not being religious and being unlikely to go to synagogue on December 26, I wanted to do something else to remember my mom. Writing about her is my way of honoring and remembering.

In the world of memories, I think about my mom’s passion for food. It was certainly a joy for her to prepare food for her family and friends.

My mom used to make special food she knew I liked when I went back to visit at the old apartment in Wynnewood Pa. She would also bring food when she came to New Hampshire to visit. She would make roast beef and apricot noodle kugel. For dessert, she would make yummy crumb cake. She did not deviate too often although she did try some different crumb cake recipes.

It is funny to think about but when I was a kid this gourmet chef made me bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch at school all the time. I had that all through elementary school and I teased her about it in later years. I used to joke with her that I was only 5 foot 6 inches tall because she smoked during her pregnancy with me and then she fed me bologna sandwiches. I think she got tired of that joke.

That was before health food consciousness. Mom would also pack little Tastykake pies. For those unfamiliar with Tastykake (it is a Pennsylvania thing), they made a variety of desserts. My favorite was cherry pie but I could also go with lemon, blueberry or peach. I think I developed my original love of crumb cake from Koffee Kake Juniors.

Mom knew what I liked and she always made sure I had it. Now that seems like love.

Mom actually did that for everybody in the family, I think. I do remember meal times with Dad. Dad also liked Tastykake. He was partisan to Chocolate Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes and Butterscotch Krimpets. He famously would ask for “a mouthful” which was usually a lot more than a mouthful. He liked to have something sweet with coffee after dinner or Sunday lox and bagel brunch.

I am not doing justice to my mom’s serious cooking expertise. She had fantastic capability both as a cook and as someone who cared about food presentation. Mom was very artistic and her food often looked like something from Gourmet Magazine. That was not an accident since she was a subscriber.

In later years, she was something of a follower of celebrity chefs on TV. She liked Barefoot Contessa and Michael Chiarello but her absolute favorite was Mario Batali. We used to laugh about my infatuation with Giada. My mom was not a big Giada fan.

Mom seriously thought about marketing her struedel. Her struedel was a unique creation with coconut and currants and a puff pastry dough. She used a pastry marble slab that weighed like 50 pounds. Those who have tasted it know I am not exaggerating when I say it was out-of-this-world good. Mom had her own closely held family recipe which she was not willing to share. She had practiced and perfected this recipe for decades.

The struedel was very labor-intensive. I think the only two people who obtained the recipe were my niece Molly and my wife Debra. Both watched my mom make the struedel many times.

The struedel could never fly as a business proposition both because it took so much labor to make it right and because the cost you would need to charge would be too high. My mom did consult with business types about the project. They too raved about the product but it was not financially viable.

My mom returned to making it for family – not such a bad outcome for family members and close friends. The struedel was certainly not her only specialty. Her fruit salad known as “nana fruit” was a labor of love. She went to a nearby produce market and she would get seasonal fruit. There is fruit salad and fruit salad and as with anything, there are gradations of quality. Mom’s fruit salad was superior.

There are many things she made that were easy to take for granted but were really superlative because she was a pro. In this category I would mention her matzo ball soup. Her matzo balls were very light.

I remember very critical discussions about the relative merits of different matzo ball soup efforts by family members. My grandmother, Molly Keiser, was the gold standard. No one else could touch that level. Here I should note that Molly Keiser, my Nana Keiser, was a superb cook herself. She had a powerful teaching influence by example.

I remember my mom’s excellent latkes and she could make good gefilte fish from scratch. That was an accomplishment.

One other breakfast thing I wanted to mention was dippy eggs. For those who have never had the experience, you soft boil eggs and dip strips of buttered toast into the egg yolk. For my boys, Josh and Eric, Mom always got “little boxes”. That is cold cereal but those guys loved their little boxes.

My wife Debra reminded me of how often my mom would take care packages of her food to relatives who were sick. She did this repeatedly for my Aunt Ellie, my Aunt Arline and my Aunt Jane. She also often went to visit all of those I mentioned plus my Uncle Mort at a time they needed the company. Mom was a Florence Nightingale.

For my mom, food was a way to bring people together. At that she excelled. Young or old, people would come together when my mom cooked. She made food a communal experience. Some people have the unique capacity of being a glue to hold family together. My mom had that and no one can replace her.

I do want to thank my wife Debra for jogging my memory in preparing this piece and helping with her own recollections.

Noam Chomsky: An Appreciation – posted 12/6/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014

December 7, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014 under the title “Truth to Power”. Jon

For Americans of the 1960’s generation, I can think of no intellectual who has been as important or influential as Noam Chomsky. For nearly 50 years, Chomsky has written voluminously on a wide array of political topics. I think it is fair to say he is either loved or hated.

I wanted to write an appreciation of the man and his political work. Although he may be the most famous intellectual in the world, here in America he is not exactly a household name. Chomsky generally gets the silent treatment from American mass media. His books are ignored and he is rarely given any air time.

We do not banish our writers to Siberia. Even blacklisting which arguably has happened to Chomsky is not necessary. The volume of media creates a new, more benign form of intellectual banishment. Serious works are swallowed and disappeared in a flood of infotainment. Inattention can also lead to obscurity even for someone as globally famous as Chomsky.

In his wonderful essay, “A Writer’s Credo”, Edward Abbey wrote:”…the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture.” That is Noam Chomsky. He has challenged and educated many people to see America differently.

Even more impressive, Chomsky has been an unrelenting activist. For years during the Vietnam War, I can personally attest to the fact Chomsky was a fixture at anti-war demonstrations in Boston, since I was often there and watched his speeches. He has sided with oppressed people internationally. That is part of what sets Chomsky apart from the majority of intellectuals who Abbey has described as “passive non-resisters to things as they are”.

I find Chomsky’s political writing and advocacy in opposition to the Vietnam War has been his greatest achievement. Context matters and Chomsky started opposing the war at a time it was overwhelmingly supported. It is hard to recreate that more narrow-minded time. I am old enough to remember it.

There really was no Left in the United States. Political conformity reigned. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the spectrum of acceptable opinion was not broad. The civil rights movement was waking up the country to racism but American foreign policy was not critically discussed. The nation still suffered a Joe McCarthy hangover.

Most commentators, whether liberal or conservative, went along with the Vietnam War. The domino theory held sway.

I mention this history because it reflects on Chomsky’s bravery. He, along with some others, broke from the pack. He vociferously critiqued conventional wisdom about the war at a time that was exceedingly rare. He articulated a coherent and sophisticated anti-war perspective. No one could consider this a career move as far as pecuniary gain was concerned.

For his role, Chomsky will always be a hero to me. I particularly would mention Chomsky’s books, “American Power and the New Mandarins” and also “At War With Asia”, a collection of essays he wrote many of which had previously appeared in the New York Review of Books. These works hit with the force of a lightning bolt. Chomsky demolished apologists, supporters and justifiers of the war.

At the time, proponents of the war started from the premise that the war-makers had good intentions. As the war unravelled in its awfulness, they then evolved to thinking the war was a too costly mistake. The war ended being seen as the least bad of all bad alternatives. It had to be fought to stop a communist takeover.

Chomsky showed the systemic reasons for the war, the economic and political reasons. He placed the war in historical perspective and argued it was a continuation of our history of racism that began in the war against the Native Americans. He was careful to place blame and responsibility on the war’s powerful architects. Early on he recognized that our foot soldiers were also victims of the war.

In his book “At War With Asia”. Chomsky made the case for a complete and unilateral immediate withdrawal of all American troops and materiel from Vietnam. I am not sure if that case was ever argued more passionately and persuasively.

From the perch of 2014, the power of Chomsky’s critique is even clearer. He correctly saw the Vietnam War was essentially a savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population. The volume of violence unleashed by the American war machine was off the charts. Much effort went into mystifying the American public in an effort to sell the war. That effort still continues.

Fortunately, we now have meticulously researched works like Nick Turse’s book “Kill Anything That Moves”, a book that looks back on the Vietnam War. Turse documents the staggering loss of life, especially civilian casualties. Turse argues that the My Lai massacre was no one-of-a-kind event. Rather it reflected war crimes that were widespread and attributable to American command policies.

I do believe history will vindicate Chomsky on Vietnam. While public awareness about that war is woeful, more people recognize the war was both immoral and fundamentally wrong. Maybe someday Americans will honor critical thinkers like Chomsky who did not delude themselves into believing propaganda and lies.

I think in a more rational world there would be a national Noam Chomsky Day to celebrate the importance of critical thinking. Being modest, I expect Chomsky would hate that idea. Still, I do not think it is a crazy idea. I like the idea of honoring our most courageous truth-tellers who have been motivated by a simple love of justice.

In writing this piece, it was not my intent to defend every position Chomsky has taken over the years. He can do that quite well himself, I expect. I do think it is sad that he does not get the recognition here that he receives in the rest of the world. That says something not so good about us.