Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Al Jazeera America

            It’s been too long since I last published a blog entry, and that’s not good for me.  But a warning:  I’ve been told that my entries are too long.  I think they’re especially too long for any audience who has trouble with a thought requiring more than 140 characters.  So I probably won’t attract many of that audience.  But some people don’t mind a longer story.
            So here’s a glimpse of an issue I believe to be significant:  Al Jazeera America.  It’s at least a third incarnation of Al Jazeera Arabic, which then spawned Al Jazeera English.  It is based in Doha, in Qatar, a tiny Middle Eastern state that is awash in oil money, and has explored ways of leaving a mark on the world proportionate to its financial strength and not its geographic size.
            First, for those like me who have wondered—“Al Jazeera” is transliterated Arabic for “the island,” which in this context refers to the Arabian Peninsula.  No mystery there.
            I don’t remember why I stumbled over it, but it’s at Channel 347 on DirecTV.  I tuned in, and was immediately fascinated.  It wasn’t like any news programming I’d ever seen, both visually and in content, and the differences taught me much about what I was accustomed to—and what I’ve had a surfeit of.
            For one thing, it’s mostly about news.  Who knew?  Take today, for example.  I turned to CNN first—and saw a story about the clever way in which some high school boy went about inviting the girl of his choice to the prom.  I kid you not.  That was what CNN thought was high news on a Wednesday morning.  If I hadn’t had AJA available as an alternative, I would just have given up and turned the set off immediately.
            Instead I turned to 347, and immediately saw an up-to-the-minute story about today’s twists and turns in the struggle for control of the eastern Ukraine.  And that’s not the first—or the tenth—time I’ve seen that kind of contrast.
            I think of The Today Show and Good Morning America, for example.  They usually do have a bit of news at the beginning—and then quickly lapse into what’s really interesting, like what pop starlet is pregnant, which actor just divorced which actress, and which channel is currently scooping (forgive the pun) the most utterly charming new cat videos.  So much of what is labeled “news” programming is little more than People Magazine in video.  And I do understand that there will always be a market for that kind of entertainment.  But what about those of us who prefer actual news?
            Nobody lives up to their stated values perfectly.  But when we announce our stated values publicly, we ask to be judged by how well we live up to them (ask your local Catholic bishop!).  And AJA says that their vision is “To be recognized as the world's leading and most trusted media network, reaching people no matter who or where they are.”
            They say that their “mission” is “To deliver captivating content to the world which informs, inspires and entertains . . .”
            And among their stated values are integrity, respect, a pioneering spirit, excellence, and “impartial, accurate, and comprehensive” reporting.
            That, I would submit, is not a bad set of standards by which to invite judgment.
            Wikipedia quotes AJA’s president as saying (if this is still current) that “the channel would feature less political discussion and celebrity news, and that newsgathering will take priority over maximizing profits (the network will air only six minutes of commercials per hour, a rate far fewer than competing networks).”  Unless you really love commercials (an ad guy assured me this week that most people do), this is a welcome shift.
            Further, “Its three-hour morning program will have a different format, focusing on hard news and not "a group of anchors chatting on a couch."
            So I wrote to friends, urging them to give Al Jazeera America a try.  I don’t know how many did. 
            But the subject got my attention again this week when I read that AJA was making significant layoffs, due to a lack of viewers and income.  And I suddenly became aware that I should never take for granted having this alternative (actual) news source available.
            I’ve wondered about why this important (though certainly imperfect) organ is having a struggle, and three things occurred to me immediately.  One is that it’s still not available to a great many American viewers.  Apparently Fox News is available in something over 100 million American homes.  AJA is available in less than 50 million.  So many people who might enjoy watching AJA can’t get it.
            A second is to wonder whether AJA’s decision to air fewer commercials than the competition is backfiring.  If so, perhaps we’ll soon see something more like the standard penetration of news broadcasting with the latest cash cow of one of the fabulously wealthy pharmaceuticals.  Sad, but perhaps when you need cash, the only place to go is to the big guys who have it by the trainload.
            But the elephant in the living room, it seems to me, is its Arabic name.  Americans certainly have no monopoly on racism or xenophobia, but we have our own versions.  And especially since 9/11, Arabic-looking (or –sounding) people (including anybody we think looks like them, such as Sikhs) may arouse hostility (or even violence) in the US, just by breathing the air.
            So can Americans ever be persuaded to trust an organization with an obviously Arabic name to be their source for news?  Isn’t it obvious that they would be biased toward Muslim values?  After all, aren’t “Arab” and “Muslim” synonymous?
            Well, no, actually, it’s not obvious at all—not, that is, to anyone who’s learned just a bit about how to think. 
            For one thing, take a look at their executive staff.  There are, mercifully, a couple of “Arabic-sounding” names among them—but most of them are of every ethnicity you can think of—and some you couldn’t.
            Before AJA was even launched, Wikipedia reported of its parent company that “In the 2000s, the network was praised by the Index on Censorship for circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world, and by the Webby Awards, who nominated it as one of the five best news web sites, along with BBC News, National Geographic and The Smoking Gun.”
            An article by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic is not recent, but many of his observations on Al Jazeera English still apply.  He refers to its “eclectic internationalism” as “a feast of vivid pathbreaking coverage from all continents.”  He notes, “Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions.”  He criticizes Al Jazeera’s biases, but concludes that they are no more egregious than—and refreshingly different from—the biases to which we’ve become accustomed.
            But since actual, logical thought is still an endangered species in public conversation, the thought that an organization with an Arabic name might provide news coverage superior to Fox or CNN will involve too much logical thought to be credible to many Americans. 
            But what do Americans want from their news channels?  One answer to that is that according to the latest figures I can find, Fox News draws more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined.  And most of those who love Fox are going to find little to love on AJA.
            But AJA doesn’t need to outdraw Fox.  AJA will always be at best a minority report, no more a favorite of the masses than C-SPAN or NPR.  It only needs to gain a foothold among thoughtful viewers, and apparently that job isn’t done yet.
            So think giving it a look.  My most experienced and informed media-savvy friend had kind things to say about AJA.  Since you’re reading this, I think you will too.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father’s Day

            Celebrating either Father’s Day and Mother’s Day can be unsettling.  We know about flawed but still unspeakably wonderful parents.  But we are also uncomfortably aware of parents who range from ineffective to downright demonic.  And we don’t get to choose our parents—we get who we get.
            My own father—Pat Milligan—is gone.  I wish I could talk with him today.  My brother and I believe that he was an abused child, who suffered greatly.  But he overcame much of it, and was a devoted and responsible father—even though, like most of his generation, he was never verbally demonstrative.
            I was asked once, in mid-life, how I got along with my father.  I was (as sometimes happens) surprised at what came out of my mouth:  “Oh, my father and I are friends.  We get along fine.  My father from childhood is still my enemy, and I haven’t forgiven him.”  I’m glad to say that now I have—perhaps because now I know more about the limits of my own ability to protect my own children from the wounds of my upbringing.
            My father was, essentially, an only child.  He knew nothing about being a sibling.  He had four kids, and reared them successfully.
            To the best of my knowledge, my father was the first one in his family’s history to get a degree.  His four children have ten degrees among them.  That’s an enormous achievement on his part.  He reared us in a home in which we were surrounded by books and magazines, and he read “Time” magazine religiously.  He was in church every Sunday, and accepted posts of leadership in the church.  He paid his bills, never smoked or drank, and to my knowledge was never unfaithful to his wife.  That’s a lot to say about a father.
            So he was flawed.  But I could have done far worse in the luck of the draw.
            But on Father’s Day, when we’re celebrating fathers, I don’t hear enough celebration of the privileges of being a father.
            And the terror.
            I’m a father times five—three genetic offspring, and two step-kids, who have most generously and marvelously adopted me as an additional father (and I wouldn’t take anything for the privilege!)  I didn’t have much of a hand in rearing them, but I was smart enough to marry their mother, and they have open-heartedly let me into their family. 
            Not every man gets to be a father.  But we who do learn things—and find joys—that we could never experience in any other way.
            During President Kennedy’s time in office he and Jackie lost a baby to “hyaline membrane disease.”  (I was blessedly unaware later, when our third child was born with “respiratory distress syndrome,” that that was essentially the same thing.  We did not lose her!)  But my memory is that at the press conference after the baby died, the President said (apparently paraphrasing Francis Bacon), “Having children is giving hostages to fate.”
            The chilling reality of that quote has struck me many times through the years.  Becoming a parent means putting out there into the world people who are part of our very selves—flesh of our flesh, bone of our bones—and we are finally powerless, no matter how hard we try, to protect them from the dangers of the world.  (And, sometimes, even from ourselves.)  What happens to them happens to us, and nothing can stop that. 
            But oh, the joys of being a proud parent—about which so many volumes have been written.  All three of my children finished college degrees—one of them with high honors.  Three of my five children are parents—and I’ve told them both that they are better parents than I was.  How gratifying is that!  And all seven of their children are people I’m proud to know, and to claim as kin.
            It’s often been said that children don’t come with a manual, and we don’t have to have a license (so far!) to become a parent.  We have less formal training for parenthood than we do for driving a car.  It’s a gigantic undertaking, and nobody gets it completely right.  It’s always a dizzying blend of euphoria and worry, pride and terror, fun and guilt. 
            In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”  Every parent needs forgiveness from their children—for the things we did wrong, for the things we failed to do, for the things we failed to understand, for the times when we put ourselves ahead of our sacred duties as parents.  The lucky ones among us get that forgiveness. 
            SO!  On this Father’s Day, I want to say a huge thanks to all five of my kids, for the joys and the privileges of being their father.  I want to ask them once more for forgiveness for my shortcomings.  And I want to tell them how proud I am of every one of them.  Without them I would never have known the rich joys of fatherhood.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The dogs of war

A cherished old friend recently sent me the following e-mail:

“US Navy Carrier ... no wonder the Iranians want this vessel out of the Persian Gulf. This is a great example of technology, teamwork and strength in action. This is impressive... Go for the ride! Just click HERE

If you don’t want to watch the video right now, it’s enough to know that it’s a ten-minute Discovery Channel video showing an American aircraft carrier in action.  It’s a very impressive display of hardware and skill.  And as the captain says during the video, that one aircraft carrier has a larger and more powerful air force than 70% of the countries in the world.

It brought back memories.  For three years I lived within a few hundred yards of what was then Lakehurst Naval Air Station, in New Jersey—also, incidentally, the site of the famed von Hindenberg disaster, in 1937 (?).  One of the benefits of having the NAS nearby was that we merited a yearly visit from the famed Navy stunt-flying team, the Blue Angels.  They put on a performance every year that was breathtaking, and I always looked forward to it.

It was not just grandstanding.  Having such powerful machines moving at such speeds, so close together and so close to the ground, posed real risks, and once in a while one of the pilots died—in what was clearly a noncombat situation.  So the Navy had obviously calculated that the risks involved were justified by the positive visibility they gave to the U. S. Navy before the civilian population—and, I assume, the base personnel as well.

But as I watched with awe and admiration the beauty of these huge and powerful warplanes, I couldn’t help being aware that this display was not why they were designed, built, and purchased.  These were warplanes—designed both to kill and destroy, and also to make clear to the world that they were ready and able to kill and destroy.  And I wondered, over and over, at the irony that some of the most beautiful machines built in the history of the world were built for purpose of killing and destruction.  Missiles, drones, helicopters . . . there is a great deal of military hardware that carries the same paradox—esthetically beautiful, but designed primarily to be deadly to human life and property. 

What I thought many times, as I watched the Blue Angels perform, was that I would have liked to have seen an additional show, after the first one.  I wished just one of the Blue Angels, fully armed, could designate a nearby hillside as its target, and allow us to see what a single plane and a single pilot could do to a small town or village.  I imagine that it would have been terrifying—not the sort of impression the Navy might want to leave with the civilian population, though perhaps far more accurate as a representation of what those planes were.

Americans are incredibly good at building and operating gadgets, especially big military gadgets—among the best in the world.  It’s a skill in which we can justifiably take pride, and that ability has had a significant impact on the history of the world.

The aircraft carrier, astonishing as it is, is just one facet of American military power, and we civilians never even quite know all the dimensions of the power that has been built and is being operated in our name.

But it’s also quite clear that we tend to be far better at designing and building the gadgets than we are at dealing with the ethical dilemmas posed by having them.  The possession of power always, always, always, changes things.  And the decisions regarding whether to do the things we are capable of doing is, for all of us, full of pitfalls and temptations. 

If we are unhappy with a small country (or even a larger one) somewhere, and we know that one of the solutions is simply to bomb it into submission, that inevitably raises the question of whether that is the wisest solution to the problem.  And the decision never rests (and should not) with the American citizenry.  It rests with our leaders, military and civilian, who bring their particular information, wisdom, and ethics to the table.

My point is a simple one:  having this much power at our disposal means, almost inevitably, that at some points it will be used in ways that are less than wise.  There will be times when wiser voices would point to the actual (and lasting) costs of using military power as the solution to the problem, and to the wisdom of working harder to find other solutions before resorting to that one.  Those voices are not always listened to.

So when we’re confronted with a video hymn of praise for American military technology, or a bumper sticker appealing to me to “Support our troops”—it’s appropriate to remain aware of the dangers posed to us by our very possession of this much power.  And it’s appropriate always to “support our troops” by doing all we can to ensure that they are never “sent into harm’s way” unless it’s as clear as possible that no less destructive an option can be acceptable.

The availability of a military solution to international attention must never cause us to forget the price—to us—of using that power.  We must always be cautious, careful, and when we unleash the dogs of war, do so with foreboding and regret, not just punitive rage.  To do less means that we have forgotten what war really is.

Monday, March 12, 2012


     My second entry is a day late—apologies if someone was paying attention!
     Since I’m just beginning this work, and have much to learn about how to do it well, I want to note that this will probably not be the place to come for facts.  In a way that’s a pity, because facts are much harder to come by, and opinions are a dime a dozen.  Nonetheless—not all opinions are created equal, and not all opinions are labeled as such.  What I will pledge is to keep my opinions 1) honestly labeled as what they are; 2) as sweet-spirited as possible (not nasty or attacking); 3) based on available facts as much as possible; and 4) the best insight I have to offer.  My experience suggests that there are those who will value these contributions, even with my limitations.
     A note:  I have no interest in hosting an “open debate,” in which every angry attack or uninformed knee-jerk rant is granted equal space. There are places where you can do that.  I do want to be welcoming to all who want to discuss these subjects--especially those who disagree with me.  If you want to contribute but find it difficult, please let me know.  That’s why I set up - to ensure that anyone who wants to get in touch on one of these subjects is able to do so.  If it seems to be wise to change the way access is set up here, I’ll do that.

     A place to start?  I want to start with “magic.”  I suspect that a significant majority of Americans would say they don’t believe in magic—but that a significant minority would admit that they do.  My central concern here:  there are far more Americans who believe in magic than would readily admit it.  It seems to be a very difficult addiction to kick.
     Follow me for a moment . . .
     --I don’t know what percentage of American newspapers (remember them?) still print a horoscope.  It looks to me to be very high.
     --I don’t know how many American buildings still don’t “have” a 13th story (for fear that renters won’t want space there).  Presto-chango, the 13th floor has now become the 14th.
     --The market for “lucky numbers” for lotto games, and for the numbers that previous winners played, may be small, but it’s always visible to those who look.
     --As I drive across America, the billboards advertising the service of “psychic readers” (or some variation on the theme) continue to flourish—so apparently some people are making money offering that service.
     Obviously I could go on at some length.  I think that’s enough.
     I once got a wake-up call on this subject in a workshop on gambling addiction presented by a specialist, for a group of United Way executives.  During the meeting she suddenly said, “How many of you are feeling lucky today?”  I thought it a bafflingly dumb question—till I looked around, and at least a third of my fellow executive directors had their hands in the air.  I was astonished—and as she played out the exercise, it became clear that (no surprise!) she knew her audience far better than I did.  She managed to whip up a small frenzy around who would be “lucky” enough to win the small prize she was offering.  And these were not uneducated people.  I won’t forget.
     My point is that there are many, many people who walk around, earn a living, and vote (!), who trust their decisions and some portion of their substance to magical forces around them for which there is not the slightest evidence, and who don’t see that as irrational.  My point is, further, that I think that’s important.  If I’m lucky, I’ll write next about some of the influences that help to create that situation. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


      One of my real pleasures has been the steady urgings of some family and friends that I do some serious writing—either for publication or for friends.  One of my real frustrations has been how difficult it’s been for me to make that happen.  Here’s a start.
      I don’t like writing letters to the editor or large pieces for Facebook.  I want to offer my thoughts to people who want to read them, and a blog is one logical way to do that—I don’t inflict my writings on you, you come to read them if and when you wish!  After many efforts to get Blogspot to work for me, my friend Diane in Louisiana has helped me get the bugs worked out, and to get this up and running.
      SO.  I’ll wait a few days after this initial post before posting again, to give friends time to check in.  Then I hope to be posting at least several times each week.  I’ve built up a huge backlog of topics I’m interested in, and I’ll be dusting those off and offering some for what they’re worth.  Here’s a hint of the kind of thing you’re likely to see dealt with here—if you come back.
      I’m not much interested in “preaching”—in the sense of offering advice and supposed wisdom into a marketplace already full of self-appointed gurus.
      What I think I do better—and what I believe to be more useful—is to offer thoughts, into which I invite people to thoughtful conversation and discussion.  I like to draw comparisons, point out distinctions, raise points often neglected, and in general participate in efforts to understand.
      My friends know of me that I’m a man who hates repression and injustice, and those are issues that will get my attention often and quickly.
      But I’m also one who has spent much of my life as a psychotherapist, dealing with feelings and relationships, so social issues are for me never just macrocosmic or theoretical, legal or judicial.  They are rooted in our hopes and fears, our awareness, our ignorance, our learned and inherited ways of understanding, and our yearning to grow in “liberty and justice for all.”
      But I don’t want just to deal with unpleasantness and conflict.  I also, often, see wonderful things going on around me, and I want to celebrate those.  By no means all the good things in my life are connected with Judaism—but I’m astonished by such things as the fact that Charlotte’s “Woman of the Year” is (drum roll, please!) a rabbi!  Or the fact that a rabbi e-friend of mine does stand-up comedy, often with a Muslim friend!   Or my vivid memory of a local imam delivering a Thanksgiving prayer (last November) in Arabic . . . in a synagogue!  My world is full of much more than just bad news!
      So check back from time to time.  Share the URL with people you think might want to think about the things you find here. 
      I’m aware that anyone who puts their thoughts into the public realm raises the possibility of some very rough—sometimes even unfair—treatment.  I hope I’m ready for that, if it comes.  But much more, I look forward to corresponding with friends as we look together for ways to help our country, our people, our world, grow toward more loving and mature ways of living together.  Hope to see you around.
      Comments?  Questions?  Suggestions?  Write me at