Archive for May, 2019

Donald L. Baird, Ten Years Later – posted 5/26/2019

May 26, 2019 4 comments

It has now been over ten years since my dad, Don Baird, died. He died on May 4, 2009.

Time provides perspective and I have a better appreciation now of how good a dad my dad was. In my work, I see the range of parents out there from extraordinarily good to bad beyond belief. I guess it is luck of the draw where we all end up but I lucked out, as did my siblings.

My dad was a conscientious parent, fiercely devoted to family. Maybe, in part, because he suffered some neglect when he was young, he was determined to do better. It is amazing what my dad overcame.

His family was poor when he was growing up. He talked about putting newspaper in his shoes. When my grandfather went to prison for arson and interstate robbery, my dad had to live with some stigma. He told me that some girls would not date him because he was the child of an ex-con. He would recount for me how he would take cream to the prison where his dad was incarcerated and he would pay off a guard to smuggle in the cream so his dad could have cream in his coffee.

Growing up, he got no advantages. His parents were not in a position to help him with the cost of a college education. He always worked from the time he was 12. From very early on, he provided for his parents. He even paid for their summer rental at Stenton Place in Atlantic City where they went for years. That was a pattern that lasted until my grandparents died.

My dad had drive and motivation. After serving in the army, he come back and started his own international textile trading business. There was opportunity then. It was the late 1940’s. My dad was very successful in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He made a lot of money. He brought his brother, Carl, into the business and for a long time, they did very well.

We moved from Rock Glen Rd near City Line Ave in Philadelphia, to Prescott Rd in Lower Merion to 284 Melrose Rd., also in Lower Merion. Our house was lovely and spacious.

My dad travelled extensively, especially to Italy, Japan, and Hong Kong. I do think that travel broadened his perspective. He and my mom did things that were quite unusual for Americans of that period. They travelled to many countries, including India and Pakistan, off any beaten path. My dad went to Italy and Japan maybe 50 times. Often my grandparents were at our house, babysitting us kids because mom and dad were away.

I remember my dad’s international phone calls from home. He would call business associates Aldo Fantacci and Vitaliano in Italy and his trading partners in Japan. He talked really loud and you could hear him all over the house.

He would often have foreign guests staying at our house. I remember when my sister Lisa walked in on one who was in the bathroom.

Dad was a very generous man. As one of his children, I have to say that that was a great thing. Private school, camp, college tuition were all covered. He would literally do anything for his children. I do not think he was the best judge of character. He was repeatedly ripped off by people in his business whom he hired and trusted. This was a pattern that went on for years and never changed.

Still, because of his knowledge, his business acumen, and his deep international connections, he was able to rebound. My dad never stopped working. He was 88 when he died. In the last 20 years of his life, he suffered business reversals including two Chapter 11 bankruptcies. Dad struggled financially and he and my mom had much stress about money and paying bills.

The business reversals never stopped him though. My dad had amazing optimism. He was a glass half full kind of person. He was able to come back from being knocked down. Maybe this is naivete on my part but I never stopped believing in my dad and the possibility that he might turn his business situation around. This is true even when he was in his 80’s.

Looking back now, I probably should have known he was in an impossible situation with his business. Somehow though, he kept things going and was able to generate enough business that he did not go under. I think that determination offers a valuable lesson about the importance of resilience and persistence. It took him far.

I did want to mention my dad’s Jewish identity. He had feeling for things Jewish. He rebelled against his Orthodox upbringing and he was not much of a believer. He used to tell me that religion was a crutch for weak people.

When we kids were younger, my dad was pretty active in our synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pa. I remember him making pizza at a Purim party. He could speak Yiddish. He was steeped in Jewish tradition and he had an appreciation of the liturgy and the music. I can remember him singing along with “My Yiddishe Mama” on Sunday morning Jewish radio. He did sometimes fall asleep during Friday night services and Lisa and I sometimes had to kick him if his snoring got too loud.

He and I clashed frequently when I was in my 20’s. He said going to law school was the first sensible thing I ever did (I did not go to law school until I was 31). We had some blow-out arguments back then. I remember one in a restaurant near Atlantic City, Mac’s in Somers Point. It was a show stopper. My dad was doing business in Chile after the Pinochet coup. I was appalled. We were loud.

We worked through those things. I think my dad changed later in his life. All the adversity he experienced made him more empathetic to people who experienced hardship. I also worked to repair the earlier damage.

I am grateful that my dad did not live to see the death of my sister, Lisa. She died about five months after he did. He and Lise had a special bond. He was especially pained by Lisa’s troubles.

Dad was a man of many passions. I need to mention golf. Dad was a student of the game. Probably at his best, he shot in the 80’s which was pretty good. He belonged to Green Valley Country Club and Atlantic City Country Club. There were other clubs too. He loved to play with my brother Rob and me. We used to be pretty competitive although I think Rob was the best golfer of the three of us.

Dad had other enthusiasms: horses, flying planes, playing tennis and sports generally. In his horse period, he would go to a stable in Fairmount Park and we would ride horses on trails that overlooked the Schuylkill Expressway. I remember Dad subscribing to Appaloosa Magazine at our house. Lise was also an excellent rider and he and Lise did that together.

In their later years, Dad and Mom watched every Phillies game on TV. They were die-hard fans and seeing the Phillies win the World Series in 2008 was fantastic. After all, the Phillies were the first team to lose 10,000 games. As I have written before, Dad used to call me many times during Eagles games. He loved football. We had Eagles season tickets for a few years when I was young. Those memories are indelible.

I especially remember a trip to Clearwater Florida. Dad and I took my friend Hank Fried. We were about 8 years old at the time. Clearwater was home to Phillies spring training. We saw a couple games and we got autographs from Phillies stars of that era, Curt Simmons, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn.

It does not feel like ten years since he has been gone. Dad was a force of nature. He loved my mom, his kids and his grandchildren. He offered praise in a big way. It is impossible to think I could ever have had a stronger supporter. I expect his children and his grandchildren would agree that he was that way with them as well.

To have such a dad was a blessing.

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Italy and new models of authoritarianism – posted 5/18/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/2/2019

May 18, 2019 2 comments

I just spent the last two weeks in Italy and while there are many, many things to love about that country, politics is not one of them. Italy is now under the control of two far right political parties.

As is true of the far right here in the U.S., the Italian parties have risen to power by demagoguing about immigration. Their answer to many complex social problems is simple: increase the number of immigrants to be deported.

Sound familiar?

These quasi-fascist groupings, the League and the Five Star Movement, are often dismissed as bullying clowns but they should be seen as deadly serious. Given Italy’s tragic history with fascism in the 20th century, they must not be taken lightly.

The Italian economy is weak. It is highly focused on tourism but very large numbers of young Italians are going abroad because of the lack of job opportunities. Unemployment is extremely high and career prospects for too many are poor.

Since 2013, it is estimated that almost 700,000 immigrants have arrived in Italy by boat, most from sub-Saharan Africa. Some have papers but others are in the country illegally. With the economy precarious, Italian politics have become very combustible.

Italians, like many Americans, seem to need something to define themselves against. Illegal immigrants, less than 1% of the population in Italy, are the current scapegoat. The Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who is head of the League party, has said, “Italy cannot be Europe’s refugee camp”.

There is a current dispute about whether Italy will take in immigrants found in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters. Sea-Watch, a relief and rescue agency, reported on May 15 that 70 people drowned in the last week and 240 were forcibly returned to Libya. Salvini has proposed that the Italian government fine shipmasters 5500 Euros for every person they rescue and take to Italy. Italy has already cut back on search and rescue operations, delayed or refused to take people rescued at sea to Italy and has supported efforts of the Libyan Coast Guard to interdict asylum seekers and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Italian proposal drew fire from Human Rights Watch as it conflicts with international law. The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to safe places.

I am reminded of a quote I saw from the Italian writer and survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi.

“Every age has its own fascism and we see the warning signals wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system and by spreading in myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”

This quote captures the important insight that we must not expect 21st century fascism to be a reincarnation of what happened in the past. We are seeing new versions of authoritarianism in many countries, including Italy and the U.S.

Here is how I see the new internationally-operative authoritarian model: start with a charismatic leader who fills the popular need for a strong man. The strong man needs a winning brand that can be the basis for a cult of personality. He constantly self-advertises his wealth and power. He seems most offended by accusations that he is not filthy rich.

Loyalty of followers is forged through an emotional tie to a glorified leader, not a set of principles.

The leader creates an us versus them narrative to justify his actions. He poses as a victim of a witch hunt. He expresses utter contempt for the law and the press. He succeeds in weakening democracy through aggressive expansion of executive power. He weakens and bypasses Congress and parliamentary bodies so they can only impotently respond to his actions which become fait accomplis.

Unlike fascism in the past, he feels no need to create a one-party state or a dictatorship. He can accomplish his goals through a combination of executive orders, stacking the courts, and voter suppression. He marginalizes his opposition.

As a master marketer, he uses the principles of propaganda, especially repetition and saturation. The Big Lie becomes the truth when it is repeated enough.

Optics matter and twitter is a high intensity means to manipulate how we view reality. It is a way to de-legitimize evidence-based inquiries with accusations of fake news. The leader is anti-intellectual and anti-science, denying climate change and indulging in conspiracy theories.

Everything that the leader says is a trial balloon, testing to see the popular response. As the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written, even the leader’s jokes are trial balloons. He is testing to see what he can get away with and what rights he may be able to infringe. Such fascist tactics normalize things previously considered rogue.

He makes dominant groups feel like victims. The leader promotes anger and resentment to get people to buy into the fantasy version of reality he is selling.

The leader uses racism to designate people of color as his adversary and as an other. He plays on demographic changes and the increase in immigration to heighten fears. When convenient, he will traffick in antisemitism. He plays on the perception that he is protecting the white Christian heritage of the nation.

He embodies a toxic form of masculinity where he postures as a macho male who acts outside normal boundaries. The fact that multiple women may have sued for sexual harassment is of zero consequence because he sees himself as beyond law. Consent is for the weak. Remember: “When you are a star, they let you do it.”.

When accused of corruption, the leader always remains unrepentant and boastful. He counterattacks and accuses his opponent of the accusation of which he stands accused. He acts like integrity is for sissies and lying is kosher. In the face of detailed and factual exposes of his own corruption, he responds by lambasting opposition.

Too much of conventional political discussion misses the reality that we are in a new paradigm internationally and at home and we need a new openness to talking about and describing the new models of authoritarianism. Trump, Putin, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Italy’s new leaders are playing by an authoritarian playbook that has no respect for democracy or civil liberties.

We can expect the authoritarians to introduce and float more reprehensible ideas to see if they can expand their power and marginalize dissent. The authoritarian goal is to normalize what was previously unthinkable.

The struggle in the world is now between those who support some form of political/economic democracy and those who favor extreme right wing authoritarianism. With our deep-seated commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality, Americans will not be easy prey for the authoritarians. In the words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize.”.

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