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Obama and Sunday Morning Talking Heads

Bashsir al-Assad
Bashsir al-Assad

Bashar Hafez al-Assad has caved in and, under the tutelage of his Russian arms suppliers, has agreed to give up his entire stockpile of chemical (gas) weapons. Incredibly, some analysts thought that Obama was weakened, or at the very least “appeared weak,” by negotiating a deal with Russia under which Russia’s client state, Syria, would give up its stockpile of poison gas. Weak? The Syrian government, under the pressure of a threatened attack, gives up it’s poison gas, and Obama appears weak? Does that make any kind of sense?

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

Or, again incredibly, some analysts asserted that by “partnering with a terrorist,” meaning al-Assad, Obama was legitimizing the Syrian regime. The US is partnering with Russia in this deal, not Syria. Furthermore, no one can “legitimize” or “de-legitimize” a government that holds power. Popular power or military might does that; nothing else matters. And, of course, this deal weakens al-Assad.

And, finally, there was talk that Vladimir Putin had emerged as a

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

leader of great stature by pressuring his clients in Syria to give up their chemical weapons. Oh? Putin had repeatedly blocked US efforts to handle this matter in the UN Security Council, but when US missile warships moved close to Syria, he came around to the US position. That raised Putin and reduced Obama’s stature? Really?

But surely the dumbest remarks were made those who wished that President Barack Obama could be more  like Lyndon Johnson. Now, about Lyndon Johnson, they said, “There was a man who really enjoyed politics, a man who got his way with  Congress because he knew how to twist arms, how to make deals, how to win. ” And that’s true. But either those commentators are purposely leaving out a crucial fact or they’re simply ignorant — Lyndon Johnson had the luxury of working with a Congress that was dominated in both chambers by his own Democratic  Party.  But even with a House and Senate of his own party, Lyndon Johnson finished his presidential term so politically ruined by his Vietnam policy that the only places he could give a speech without being heckled and booed and swamped by protesters were military bases.

Maybe you know the opening lines of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” — When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all. Some of the grumps at Critical Pages feel that way after listening to the talking heads on Sunday morning news shows.

As American as Apple Pie, Or …

By the end of the day, most of us had heard the news  — somebody had gone on a shooting rampage at the naval Sea Systems Command and thirteen had been shot dead, including the gunman. But this is the United States in 2013 and though most of us heard the news, most of us weren’t absolutely shocked, weren’t stunned that such a thing could happen here. Unfortunately, we’re getting used to it. This is the way we live now. This is who we are.

Rachel Maddow

The night of the shooting, Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel MaddowShow,” pointed out that the Washington Post’s timeline of the 12 most lethal shooting incidents revealed that the first six occurred over a period of 50 years, but the most recent six have taken place in the last six years. “The first half of this awful list happens across half a century,” she said. “The other half-dozen of the worst killings in our history takes only half a dozen years until today. From Virginia Tech to the Navy Yard. The bloodshed of half a century is compressed into this blink of time.”

Nationals Park is just a few miles from the scene of the shooting, and a scheduled game between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves was postponed because of the carnage. The day after the shooting, the game went on as the teams played a split double-header, and prior to the start of the first game the players and spectators observed a minute of silence for those killed at the naval base. A  British newsman from the BBC, broadcasting on BBC America that evening, observed that mass shooting were getting to be as American as baseball.

Beautiful Nature

Now, while the world of the Middle East is falling apart, while innocents are being undone by nerve gas or set afire by something very much like Napalm, yes, now we’re taking time out for a poem by Marilyn Robertson. Sometimes it seems that not thinking at all is best. Here’s her poem “Beautiful Nature” with its epigraph by Thomas Jefferson.

Beautiful Nature

The object of walking is to relax the mind.
You should therefore not permit yourself
even to think while you walk.

—Thomas Jefferson

It is Saturday morning.
A man, a boy, and a dog are out walking
in the woods. They stop to rest beside the trail.

The boy, dressed in camouflage, is chattering on
about AK47s and all the bad guys he killed
in a video game he played before breakfast.

But here we are in beautiful nature, says his father.
Can we talk about something else?
No, says the boy.

Two sighs drift into the ravine.
The boy is thinking,  Sheesh! Parents!
The father is thinking,  We are doomed.

The dog, waiting patiently for the walk to resume,
is following the advice of Thomas Jefferson
and thinking of nothing at at all.

content to watch a woodpecker pounding his beak
into a bay laurel, trying to find the nut
he left there last fall.

—Marilyn Robertson


College Costs Rise Faster Than Anything

On the PRS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff, talking with Mark Shields and Rich Lowry, asked Shields about the cost of college tuition nowadays.  Shields responded with his usual vigor, plus some interesting economic statistics.  Is there a problem with college costs today? His reply:

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

“I think it’s a real problem. To be very frank, since 2001 in this country,the cost of a four-year college, a public university, room and board, tuition, has gone up 73 percent, 73 percent in 10 years, between 2001 and 2011.  At the same time, the median household income in this country has dropped by $3,400. So, I mean, is it a problem? Is the cost of college a problem?”

Mark Shields’ figures are probably based on a recent report by  the National Center for Education Statistics.  The big picture is even more dramatic. (We would say worse, but we don’t want to discourage you.)  FinAid, an objective site devoted to information about college costs  and college financial aid, notes that “On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years.” In other words, if you have a nine-year-old child that you hope to send off to college, you — or you and your child — will be paying twice as much as you’d pay today.  Here’s a graph displayed by FinAid showing that for thirty years the cost of going to college has always risen faster than the general rate of inflation.Tuition IinflationBy the way, keep in mind that the graph displays the rate of inflation, so when the line turns down that doesn’t mean that the cost of college tuition declines; it’s still going up, but the rate at which it’s going up has slowed.

And, as if you needed any more bad news on this subject, here’s a chart showing that workers have been getting more and more productive, but their wages have remained essentially flat. In other words, workers have been getting better at turning out goods and providing service, but their income hasn’t risen and the cost of sending their kids to college has gone through the roof. Wages have been essentially flat for decades.Productivity vs Wages for last  13 years ECI is the abbreviation for Employment Cost Index, and ECEC is the abbreviation for Employer Cost for Employee Compensation. The chart comes from the Economic Policy Institute.

Ins and Outs in the MIddle East

Rabaa Square before and after military assault.
Rabaa Square before and after military assault.

There are always a couple of Republicans ready to help the President make difficult decisions. Right now the pair is Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Yes, that’s the same Senate pair who urged Obama to intervene in Syria, decrying the President’s “lack of leadership” in that conflict. Thus far no American men and women have died in combat over there,  due to our not being engaged in that utterly confused, horrific sectarian war. President Obama is showing leadership. He’s just not leading where McCain and Graham want to go.

Now Senators McCain and Graham are urging the President to “suspend U.S. assistance to Egypt and make clear to the current leadership of the country what steps we believe are necessary to halt Egypt’s descent into civil conflict and ultimately to restore our assistance relationship, which has historically served U.S. national security interests.” The statement continues, “The interim civilian government and security forces — backed up, unfortunately, by the military — are taking Egypt down a dark path, one that the United States cannot and should not travel with them.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly made it’s objections quite clear to the generals in Egypt and the President has already held back a shipment of aircraft and has most recently canceled a joint military exercise with Egypt. The generals  see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their very existence and — no surprise — they haven’t changed course to satisfy the U.S.

As the Senators point out, “our assistance relationship” with Egypt “has historically served U.S. national security interests.” That assistance began when, under the guidance of President Carter, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty and — again, no surprise — Israel urgently wants that aid to continue.   We’re giving 1.2 billion in assistance; other states in the Arabian Gulf area are giving a total of ten times as much. No one thinks that our cutting off aid will cause Egypt to change it’s current use of force to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s military appears to have massacred civilians.  On the other hand, the Brotherhood appeared to be subverting a fragile democratic Egypt to a radical Islamic caliphate. The U. S. isn’t in charge of events and apparently can’t even influence them much, but if we cut off aid to Egypt we’ll have played our last card and we’ll no longer be in the game at all.  It’s easy for Senators McCain and Graham to call for pious action, especially if the goal is to demonstrate our nation’s purity.  But Egypt presents us with a confused, ugly mess when inaction and watchfulness is best.  We’re free to act later.

Dr. Gupta and the Weed

Dr. Sanjy Gupta
Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, one of the most visible and popular medical doctors in the United States, a popular face on television, has just announced that up to now he’s been wrong about marijuana. He’s discovered that marijuana isn’t the terrible destructive drug he had previously said it was. And now he has a CNN special, called “Weed,”to  explain why he’s changed his mind.

Back in 2009 Dr. Gupta wrote in Time magazine about the perils of marijuana. Back then he opposed prescribing marijuana even for severe medical problems where it would have provided relief. Because back then he was being misled. But it turns out that Dr. Gupta recently did some research on the subject.  Better late than never.

Well, he didn’t actually do the research, but he read a lot of articles and medical papers about it by others who did the research, and it turns out he had been misled.  He doesn’t say so, but we think maybe he also researched the election returns and discovered that public opinion and laws about usage of marijuana have begun to change and some states have already legalized the weed.

Marijuana leaf
Marijuana leaf

Writing on on August 8, 2013, he said,  “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that. “

That’s a very interesting sentence. When Dr. Gupta says “we” he seems to be including himself among the people who have been mislead, but in the second half of the sentence he apologizes “for my own role in that.” For his own role in what? His role in being misled? Being  misled doesn’t require an apology unless, of course, you were willfully blind to all the easily available articles giving an alternative view of marijuana. Maybe he’s apologizing for his role in misleading us.  Because he did mislead.

We can’t judge Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s smarts as a doctor, but we do know he’s  a media savvy TV personality. We find it hard to believe that this highly educated doctor, who is himself part of our popular culture,  didn’t know the other side of the marijuana story.  In his article on he says, “I hope this article and upcoming documentary will help set the record straight.” We hope so, too.


 Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau is an original and penetrating look at class in this country. We’re pleased to present this review which not only examines this book, but also places it in the context of other works in the field. Our reviewer, Robert Greene, known in the academic world for his studies of French literature, has long been interested in the subject of class in America. Line horizontal halfpoint 460 X 10

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Second Edition, with an Update a Decade Later. By Annette Lareau. 461 pp. Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2011.

Unequal Childhoods book coverAnnette Lareau’s ground-breaking Unequal Childhoods shows us what social stratification consists of in the United States and how it perpetuates itself. In effect, the process of sorting ourselves by social/cultural/economic class begins in childhood and never really ends.  We may be unaware that we are nudging the process along, but in fact we are doing precisely that.

As parents, we practice, basically, one of two types of child rearing, “concerted cultivation” or “the accomplishment of natural growth.” (More about these terms and concepts in a moment.) Lareau draws her thickest line of socio-economic demarcation between the middle class, on the one hand, and the working class and poor, on the other.  For Lareau, only two classes count in American society, shape how most of us actually live our lives. She proposes the two different styles of child rearing she has identified as distinguishing the first mode of living from the second, as dividing us into two distinct socio-cultural groups. She concedes that family income and assets play a large role in directing our lives, but the determining factor for her is how parents view and carry out their responsibilities as parents. This, in turn, reflects the parents’ own education and occupation, as well as their aspirations for their children. Here is where “concerted cultivation” and “the accomplishment of natural growth” enter the picture:

Middle-class parents who comply with current professional standards and engage in a pattern of concerted cultivation deliberately try to stimulate their children’s development and foster their cognitive and social skills. … For working-class and poor families, sustaining children’s natural growth is viewed as an accomplishment. (5)

Lareau maintains that “these different philosophies and approaches to child rearing … appear to lead to the transmission of differential advantages to children (5).” She then spells out these differences:

The white and Black middle-class children in this study … exhibited an emergent version of the sense of entitlement characteristic of the middle class. They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings…. The working class and poor children, by contrast, showed an emerging sense of constraint in their interactions in institutional settings. They were less likely to try to customize interactions to suit their own preferences. (6)

Lareau’s method is ethnographic. She has studied 12 families in depth, focusing each time on the fourth-grader in the family, a child of about 10 years of age (boy or girl, black or white, middle class or working class/poor). She and her team members (graduate students in social sciences under her supervision) spent a month closely following the daily life of their subjects, at home, in school and participating in activities outside home and school. A team member, Lareau or one of her trained assistants, would visit each child’s family for several hours at a time, and once for an overnight, engaging the child and his or her parents in conversation, or silently observing the child interacting with his or her family. (Team members found that, when observing their subjects, their own presence soon went unnoticed.) Team members also talked with the children’s teachers and accompanied the children to their extracurricular activities and medical appointments.  The schools the children attended were located either in a city or a nearby suburb, reflecting the family’s socio-economic circumstances.

The most salient difference that Lareau and her team noted between their middle-class and their working class or poor subjects involved how language was used in the children’s respective worlds.  The team observed, for example, that for middle-class children conversations with parents (and other adults) were usually give-and-take dialogues, often speculative or playful in nature. In contrast, for working-class or poor children, the speech of parents (or other adults) almost invariably took the form of directives that anticipated no response from the child other than compliance. It became clear to Lareau and her team that middle-class children, while still in childhood, acquire linguistic confidence and sophistication via their conversations with adults. The skills thus learned would serve them well in adult life and would give them a distinct advantage over individuals from working-class or poor backgrounds. (more…)

Horizontal line 460pxIs the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art?  Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man  deeply interested in these questions:

I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

                                      —The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & DocumentHorizontal line 460px

Grow Your Own Garlic

Garlic shoots in spring
In spring, garlic sends green shoots up through last autumn’s leaves.

Americans are using more garlic than ever in the history of the Republic, so we’re going to talk about garlic. There are many types of garlic, but essentially they come from two big garlic families – hardneck and softneck. Maybe you’ve seen garlic braided together in a long bunch and hung over the counter in a specialty food shop or an Italian restaurant. Those are probably softneck garlics. We at Critical Pages are located where the winters are honestly cold, suitable to our grumpy temperaments and the growing of hardneck garlic.

 Garlic is easy and rewarding to grow, so long as you remember to plant it in the fall. Around here, we do that around October 15th. Plant the garlic cloves about two inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, putting the root end down and the pointy end up. Cover them with autumn leaves or some other kind of mulch, lay a few light twigs over the leaves to keep them from blowing away, and that’s that. Some weeks later, before the hard frost, you can peek under the leaves — very carefully and only once! — and you’ll find a small green shoot has emerged. Now forget about them.

 In spring the garlic will sent up a strong green shoot, up through those decaying brown leaves or mulch, and that shoot will rise through the early summer, unfurling into long leaves and eventually sending up a long scape that curls as it grows. If you want, you can cut this when it’s about 6 inches or so, when it’s tender and before it begins to curl, and it’s edible – when tender, cut it into salads, and when less tender, sautee it and toss it on pasta.

Garlic ready for harvest 235
Garlic ready for harvest.

 The Big Question for garlic growers is when to harvest. Around here, in mid-July the lower leaves begin to turn yellow and dry. There’s lore about precisely how many lower leaves you should see turning yellow or brown before you harvest, but at Critical Pages we’re messy gardeners and know we’re not going to be perfect, so when it’s clear the lower leaves are dying, we harvest.

 Don’t harvest the garlic up by grabbing the stalk and pulling it up! And don’t cut off the leaves. Gently loosen the soil around the garlic and dig it up carefully, because at this point the bulb is delicate and easily bruised. Shake off the dirt gently, don’t wash it off; you can clean the bulb later.

 Now there’s even more lore about how to cure garlic bulbs. If you go online you’ll find authorities differ but, for us, curing means laying the garlic plants — remember, you haven’t cut anything off yet — in a place where they won’t get rained on, where it’s neither hot nor cold, and arranged so that air can circulate freely around each garlic bulb. We laid ours out on a soil screen, a crosshatch wire net — you know, something that lets air pass freely,  something reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. Anything will work!

 A couple of weeks will do it. You can gently remove the dirt, but washing the bulbs is asking for trouble. Store them in the cellar or some other cool shade-filled place. You’ve grown your own garlic and it’s yours to enjoy.

Garlic harvested
Some harvested garlic.

Horizontal line This week the Pope and the President of the United States said that it was time we paid attention to the great inequality of income among people. The Pope was speaking in a favela in Brazil, the President in Galesburg, Illinois. The papacy doesn’t have the military power it once had — Joseph Stalin once derisively asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” — but the Pope is assumed by around 1.2 billion Catholics to have powerful friends in high places. And President Obama is Commander in Chief of the most powerful military machine on the planet. So maybe something will get done about economic inequality. Possibly….. OK, maybe never.Horizontal line

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.