The Great Misdirect

A plane crashes. We spring to life.


The airwaves fill with callers. Tom Ashbrook leads his followers through a chorus of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Wolf Blitzer commissions experts on the topic. Anderson Cooper digs for the human interest angles about the children, the soon-to-be-wed teacher, the mother’s only son.
Worrying about death by plane, like death by ebola, Muslim or cop, seems so big because it’s really so small. We can get our arms around it, unlike the things that really kill us.
One of my kids recently said that ‘older’ people dying of cancer was the same as dying of ‘old age.’ A new name or a timeless thing. Cancer: normal. Heart Disease: normal. Inner City Murder: normal. Climate change: irrevocable if not normal.
Is it factory farming, pollution, genetic modification…that’s causing tens of millions to die unnaturally? Don’t now. Is is social policy, education, job availability or something other that’s bifurcating society like never before? Unclear.
It hurts our heads to think about the grey, insidious, creeping deaths that await most of us. We sense it’s avoidable, or at least can be pushed further out, but we’re unclear how. So we perseverate on that one in a million fate that almost certainly will not befall any of us. We glom onto media accounts of the fantastic because thinking about our ordinary fates is just too depressing and overwhelming.
Bummed out? Look! A shiny thing!

Off Label

A tragedy of judging and getting it all wrong. A defense of satire. A work of fiction.

The boat is packed this morning— mostly with Protestants of all flavors. (Can anyone really tell the difference?) I suppose the fact that it leaves from a town called “Hingham”, named after a tony Puritan-founded village in the English country, tells the whole story. That people think of the South Shore as the “Catholic Riviera” is as outdated as it is preposterous.

I got on and assumed my position in the corner (do they all know I’m a lapsed Catholic and former altar boy?) dutifully staring at my phone, trying to blend as best I can. A big guy with somewhat doughy features stands beside me, a bit too close for my liking, doing the same. Of course. My guess is Presbyterian, but could be any one of those clannish sects.

In front of us sits a tallish, thin man. With a camel-colored pea coat, Burberry scarf, watertight boots, and brown hair slicked back and parted with a precision even a dreadlocked Rastafarian would have to appreciate, he is the Episcopalian’s wet dream. If he isn’t an Episcopalian, then there are no Episcopalians left in existence. He came directly from Oxford Street to the boat this morning by all appearances. Should any tragic circumstance befall the boat on this trip, surely he’ll rise from his seat, receive total calm and quiet from both commuters and crew without even having to ask for it, issue a few orders in a somewhat nasally voice, before heading to the wheelhouse, grim faced and determined. (If the ship does go down, he would almost certainly be the first to be saved, coincidentally.)

Then there are the other Catholics. An Italian woman, shortish and a bit ‘hippy’ but undoubtedly a fantastic cook and a passionate lover. There is no shortage of Irish Catholics. The white haired thirty-two year old lawyer archetype chatting away with the red-nosed, stocky, wire-haired McSomething the probable bond trader. They likely prefer tea, but choke down coffees with two skim and three sugars to keep up appearances.

The head door slid open a minute ago and a Germanic looking (or was it Scandinavian?) twenty-something woman hurried out. 3-2-1…There it is— the smell only blonde-haired woman can make in public and get away with. If she were Czech or Polish the crowd would have tossed her overboard for her ill-timed Lutheran log. But her black boots and blonde hair sashayed right through the crowd as we held our breath and plunged our noses into scalding hot coffees.

Bringing us to Jews. There are some curly haired women who push their glasses up their formidable if not enormous noses repeatedly while reading paperbacks. Does the Torah forbid mobile? But I’m not so confident in my Oyveydar to accuse them in public. I do, however, have my suspicions.

It’s a statistical anomaly that there are no Asians or Hispanics. Then again, this is the early boat. There is one black. He works on the engines or something and is usually in the boiler room or whatever it’s called. There, he probably sings his negro spirituals in the Southern Baptist tradition begun when his forefathers ran away from their mostly Methodist slave masters.

As we disembark, white Protestants, a few Catholics and possibly a couple of closet Jews, the air is sharp and stinging. The WASP next to me shoots me a glance that says, “You thinking what I’m thinking?” I am and give him a knowing grin.   Time to find a Paki or Ethiopian cab driver. It’s freezing out here.

(RIP Charlie Hebdo. Our labels aren’t working. Can’t we all just get along?)

Simple Syrup

“Here’s a good idea – have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!”
One of my favorite lines from “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” John Hughes was never as good as Harold Ramis, but he was no slouch either.
I thought of it the other night (in a decidedly unfunny context) when watching Bill Maher. His guest, Ben Affleck, took great umbrage at Maher’s assertion that Muslims were disproportionately violent, prone to terror, and repressive (my words.)
At first, I was right with Affleck. It’s absurd on its face, right? Maher and another guest broke down the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims into various buckets based on their stated views toward things like adultery, honor killings, apostasy, and so forth. The numbers, if accurate, certainly painted a picture of a close-minded and backwards-looking group of people to be sure.
Firstly, anyone who works with data knows how very fungible it is. It takes relatively little skill to plug it into any argument you like.
But the larger issue is who cares if it is true? What’s the point? What’s gained by pointing it out? What should we do— convert them all? Wipe them out? What exactly? It’s truthy in the way that saying 98% of all rapists have penises. Should we keep an eye on them all (the men, not the penises)? It’s functionally useless.
Rather, I’d like to see the data cut more finely. Let’s look at the question of stoning and break it down by education and income levels. If they’re uniform…I like Ben but his heart’s trumping his head. I deeply suspect you’ll see stoners are disproportionately at the lower income and education levels.
So what?
So that means prejudice and terror and stonings can be mitigated through education and opportunity. Maybe instead of dropping bombs on “them” we should drop books. Have a look at some figures to see what I mean.
Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan are somewhat “challenging” places prone to unspeakable violence. Their estimated household incomes are $1,100, $2,500, and $3,100 respectively. Syria tops the bottom of the list at a whopping $5,100. Is it surprising that they’re somewhat dour?
Conversely, Qatar, Brunei, and Kuwait are all equally Muslim heavy-majority yet not major ‘sponsors of Terror’. Why? Might be that their household incomes are $102k, $54k, and $42k. These countries are not immune to unrest and even violence. Neither is ours.
To address the issue of violence and terror we must first understand it. Overly simplistic and convenient theories, however well-intentioned, might actually create more problems than they solve.