Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Wikipedia defines Compassion as….“an emotion that is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another; to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion essentially arises through empathy, and is often characterized through actions, wherein a person acting with compassion will seek to aid those they feel compassionate for. Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion. Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering.”

Compassion can get us into trouble.  All of us have tried to help someone in our journeys, and have been terribly let down.  Many have found the price of trying to be kind to someone in trouble, is the anger of someone else passing false and untrue judgements on another, or have injected into a situation a reality driven by ego. We see it in terms of policy, defined by phrases like “compassion fatigue” , and in the snarky comments made when you give a panhandler a dollar. It can get someone punched in the face, or judged unfairly by those they love, and occasionally assassinated by bullets and  words. 

Compassion has gotten me in trouble more than once.  For all of us, there are those who simply do not understand why you are trying to help someone they simply do not like, have judged, or are threatened by. They do not understand that compassion has its own rewards, or realize that in the teaching of the great religious traditions, it’s simply an imperative.  It certainly was the lynchpin of the Catholic Social Teaching I grew up with.  And you see it each day, with Pope Francis.

There are millions of people who can argue, that suffering is deserved, that it’s a form of predestination or the fruits of a troubled life. And even if it’s true that the person in front of you has screwed up their world in a million different ways, or behaves in a way most would defined as dysfunctional,  a closer examination would reveal that its roots are found in some great pain. 

Most of us would define evil by 9/11. And I cannot claim to have felt anything but relief when the news that Osama bin Laden passed from the scene. Osama bin Laden was finally dead.  But as the voices began to chant, “I hope he’s burning in hell,” it was actually counter to what our religious traditions teach us, and against everything that Christianity teaches.  What is more difficult to say, is that it is good that Osama bin Laden can do no more harm, and do so with the knowledge that  God may very well have mercy and compassion on the soul of a confused individual.   Paul says in Romans 9:15-16:
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.  It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy.”
Other Scripture passages abound that state that mercy is something that we all may need   to save ourselves.  We are told to ask God to have compassion on those who are self-destructive, even those who harm others us in their misguided and evil ways.  For if you believe that the definitive factor in behavior is environment, it’s because of an environment of ongoing war, that a toxic form of the religious extremism evolved, that evoked a hideously twisted interpretation of God’s Will that misled countless others.  For that reason alone, I am grateful that somewhere in the Universe, there is an agency out there that can untangle our shared human messes.  In the meantime there is prayer and our own search for compassion. We can search far and wide to find a way to understand why people would convince themselves that God would allow an atrocity. We never will. Chris Hayes in the Nation wrote this…. 
“We can say that with his death, we return to the world as our adult eyes see it, shot through with suffering and complexity. We can feel compassion for the thousands of innocents who died by bin Laden’s hand as well as our own, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in places like Bagram and Baghdad. We can remember that just because there is evil in the world that we are fighting—and bin Laden was a mass murderer and war criminal—that does not mean we are purely righteous. We can reject relativism and still embrace nuance. We can have the courage to speak and act like adults, to put away childish things, to once and for all banish the bad guys from our nightmares.”
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” - THE DALAI LAMA
People have spoken of compassion for time immemorial.  But how often is practiced? In an NPR interview I will link, the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, talks of “why religion, which should advocate for compassionate living, is often part of the problem.”  In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong writes of ways to add kindness to daily life.  One quote really sums up why we need compassion and why we need to alleviate suffering for everyone’s common interest “Despair is a dangerous thing, because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures.”
We grew up with a belief that says, “No good deed goes unpunished. “  Business is replete with cautionary tales, about people who were backstabbed by a person they helped. We all have a horror story where someone has taken horrible advantage of our kindness. Amid a world of danger and uncertainty, it often is all we can handle to get through our own lives, much less deal with the details of too many others.  But unchecked despair creates events that haunt our lives.  Think of it globally, we see ethnic cleansing, mass murders, and the other disasters of our time. Locally, we see crime and addiction and homelessness. But most importantly of all, more than a few that cross our paths are living lives of quiet desperation. Occasionally even ourselves. 

Blogger Leo Babuata has  posted on "7 ways to cultivate compassion in our lives.  I highly recommend this link. 

Babuata’s sixth practice deals with compassion for Those who mistreat us. “  It’s a nice way to close.
"When we encounter someone who mistreats us, instead of acting in anger, withdraw. Later, when you are calm and more detached, reflect on that person who mistreated you. Try to imagine the background of that person. Try to imagine what that person was taught as a child. Try to imagine the day or week that person was going through, and what kind of bad things had happened to that person. Try to imagine the mood and state of mind that person was in — the suffering that person must have been going through to mistreat you that way. And understand that their action was not about you, but about what they were going through. Now think some more about the suffering of that poor person, and see if you can imagine trying to stop the suffering of that person. And then reflect that if you mistreated someone, and they acted with kindness and compassion toward you, whether that would make you less likely to mistreat that person the next time, and more likely to be kind to that person. Once you have mastered this practice of reflection, try acting with compassion and understanding the next time a person treats you. Do it in little doses, until you are good at it. Practice makes perfect.” 



Sunday, October 27, 2013


One of the highlights of my time working in the Southwest was being involved with an equine sanctuary. It was a place whose mission was to provide a lifetime sanctuary for neglected horses, mules, and burros. In short, it was one of those places that have sprung up all over the West to address the disaster and tragedy of how ineptly Uncle Sam enforces the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, designed to protect animals as much a part of our heritage as the Eagle. 
Over time I became aware of the fact that equines built this continent as surely as did man. On a human basis, we have reason to understand what cruelty and injustice is about, seeing much of both where we live and work in our journeys. Our human troubles are nothing compared what some of these special souls have been through.

 Burros can tell you their biography in a glance, if you let them. And it is in the eyes a donkey or horse speaks his story, whether the journey has been met by man’s best side or his worst. They speak of the love and fear and abuse and hate they have met on their path.

If I had been asked a few years back if animals had intelligence and souls, I would have thought the person was a new age whack who took a wrong turn on the way to Sedona. As I spent time with my special friends in the burro pens, I learned that by quieting our minds these beings could help us to understand, the things their lives had been about. It’s all there given time: stories of never being given a kind word, a pat or a touch, of being isolated and alone without another donkey or person to simply be with.

You can sense the fear of some who shake if a person approaches. You realize the reason why it takes weeks for some to advance to eat an apple, and know they were probably beaten. It takes weeks to get some to accept a pat or touch, though you can sense the craving they feel at the same time for a two legged to show them love. That is because until they met you or another, a human hand meant pain and abuse, or an object tossed when they brayed . Then there are those whose owners simply chose to open a gate after their work was done, leaving them to the hands of a government and people who want them to die in the name of water for grazing more cattle and myths that burros and wild horses desecrate our environment as much as man.

The magic of these creatures is they forgive with much more facility than man. They communicate in a way that is silent, may be telepathic, but in a manner which is unmistakable to an open mind and heart. I cannot say for certain if there is a place called heaven after we pass, or prove there is a destination for animals to go as well. But it seemed well within possibility each day I saw the small victories won . I learned these beings have found a way to forgiveness of man for all his neglect and cruelty we seldom find for each other. They wish only to be allowed to run free or cared for if we bring them into our world. And like most of us they seek to feel those fleeting moments where we feel a human touch after our own dark nights of the soul.


Sadly there came a messy and inexcusable end, where it was demonstrated exactly why the Wild Horses and Burros in the west live such tenuous existences. Imagine a board that fired the leader of a 150 resident organization for a quarter century, with most choosing to resign the same time. Imagine leaving an animal you own in a place you claim to despise, while moving Heaven and Earth to get donors to stop helping to buy feed. Imagine going to the depths of filing papers listing a fake corporation board, and trying to sell a huge property to another entity for a dollar. Imagine doing anything you can to keep animals from being adopted by loving homes, because it was not a dramatic enough rebuke to its founder.

Imagine an end game hastened by a Board President’s annual Italian Vacation, and a subsequent roundup alleged to have been punctuated by cattle prods, roping techniques banned from rodeos, and several   deaths of the elders  . Picture the anger it must take for a woman to post negative comments on old stories about a place shut months ago. Or the cynicism of sending out fundraising appeals for a place after its closure, to pay an old friends debt.

In the entire morass there was never a thought given to the creatures, most are said to have been taken to Texas for no explicable reason, in a cloud of obfuscation. Why send more donkey's to a state that has thousands of abandoned equines dying of draught, and home of a State Parks department committed to shooting burros whenever they can because of perceived overpopulation?  My friends once again found themselves victim to the same species that messes up so many things that wildlife face.

Over the nearly one year their home was winding down, most all of the residents were offered homes, pastures, and local rescues were interested in assuming operations. Those seeking an adoption policy consistently were thwarted in favor of this Kafka- inspired and rather farcical end.


I have left out names here. The story can be found other places online, and I am certain that karma and conscience have already begun to balance those scales. What happened here happens to too many animal based non-profits each year. In the case of Horses and Burros it looks bleaker each year in terms of BLM’s behavior, which is setting policies on these creatures, while still incapable of actually counting heads to understand how many they manage. Then there is the advent of domestic horse slaughter returning to NM, a picture ripped from “the Misfits” readying itself to be remade again. For real. I learned of the last one personally. There are even Wildlife Parks (hopefully non-domestic) that are alleged to take equines to be fed to the big-cats. In some of those places they are fed alive.

I still am searching for my donkey friends , trying to find what was their outcomes. An effort was made to obscure the true destination of residents, and nobody can say what really happened to my buddy Eeyore. The gather  was executed without any effort to find out names, family groups, or backgrounds. Though a spotted burro is rare and easy to locate, nobody asked seems willing to let us know the true outcome for my dear friend, and really the rest of his herd. Tragically I had a place for Eeyore to go, an escape plan from the uncertainty, a place just around the corner, until we could find him a forever home. It was thwarted by the same sins that sum up this story. Starting with those sins fed by ego. and driven by those darker impulses of the human spirit., Robert Kennedy spoke about during his time.



Monday, October 21, 2013


Over the past weeks the rightist blogs erupted with posts declaring Barack Obama as the worst President ever.  No one deserves intellectual dismissal more than many of these authors but it poses an interesting question.   A few months into the second term, especially after the turmoil of past weeks it is about time to ask how Obama will be remembered as a president.  Thanks to polls of academics and other observers out; we are getting an idea of the potential historical verdict. 

The great sports and political statistician Nate Silver give us some very interesting metrics to peruse that help us to look both at the incumbent’s achievement and the consequences of any shortcomings real and imagined.  It does matter that there is much time left in the second term, but whether you think Obamacare is horrible and that the consequences of the legacy even worse, or the polar opposite, it’s interesting to look at what these results say.   


A starting point to at the recent past and the "Worst President" tag is to look at the most consequential Presidency of the recent past, known by the term “the Reagan Revolution.”  It was broadly defined by lower taxes on the upper income brackets, increased expenditures for Defense, a less shrill cultural conservatism, and the promotion of business, private initiative, and America’s exceptional place in the world. The two Presidents Bush and Clinton operated within the broad outlines in how policy was framed, but in terms of tax and fiscal policy, Reagan’s paradigm remained the dominant theme. 

Though Obama wrote critically of Reagan in his first book, he developed an understanding of his success. By the 2008 campaign it was obvious that Obama understood Reagan than more than his immediate successors may have, but pointed in a direction that sought to restore aspects of the consensus that prevailed in Washington prior to January 1981.  

The long-time keeper of the Democratic flame was Ted Kennedy.  Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 provided the candidate credibility among the traditional party base. Though overshadowed by the memory of his brothers,   it is clear that by length of years, and in terms of the record he was by far the most consequential of the three.  From the 1965 immigration reform, to the vastly expanded federal role in education, he was the most prominent advocate for the creation of a universal entitlement to health insurance and, though he did not live to see the Affordable Care Act enacted, he would have fought fiercely for his top policy priority.  Kennedy worked with Republicans frequently, even while fighting movement conservatism.  An interesting counter factual debate would be what would have happened with the ACA if he had lived. 

The rest of the story is familiar. In the midst of two unpopular wars and a brutal recession, the voter’s association of these events with Republicans elected Obama, and produced large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. In the infamous words of Rahm Emanuel, it was a crisis Obama could not waste.

And the rest of the story is familiar. The new majority went to work, passing a trillion-dollar stimulus, a universal health care bill, and major financial reforms. They built on Kennedy’s work on education policy, and immigration. They reduced the defense spending while increasing expenditures on health care.  

The fragile economy, inevitable reaction to the bailouts of the financial system and the automobile sector (started under Bush), and the health care law contributed to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives after the 2010 midterm elections. The newly elected “Tea Party” Conservatives interpreted this victory as an expression of popular support for their neo-libertarian views on limited government and social policy. What the events of October  2013 demonstrated is that functional control of the House Republican Conference does not equal divided government, where one party controls the presidency and the other controls the entire Congress. The divided government that existed from 1995 to 2001, helped re-elect Clinton’s as it enabled him to run as a centrist on the basis of welfare reform.  The divided government in 2007 through 2009 closed the book on the tragic second term of George W. Bush. The aftermath of 2010 as a consequence has been today’s schizophrenic government. 

The 2012 election result begged the question of which party would prevail. A historic distaste of the electorate for Congress, coupled with the tepid approval ratings of Obama, raised hopes that voters would make a clear choice.  Instead the people returned the failed arrangement of power that had made the Congress of 2011 to 2013 a nightmare. 

The result of the 2008 election was not shocking to Conservatives Republicans. In 2012 they believed the election would be a victory for Mitt Romney. Their stunned reaction when the called the election for Obama, was epitomized by the viral video of denial seen on Fox news.  The stunned silence was accompanied by the growing realization that the country was no longer a place where capture of 60 percent of white voters was enough to win elections. As the Democrats learned in 1980, years of power brought both a misunderstanding of the culture, new media, and demographics. They had viewed the 2006 midterm and 2008 elections as an aberration, much as Democrats had viewed those of 1968 and 1972. Obviously 2012 proved the pundits incorrect. They lost sight of the real country that voted in elections. 

Like the Democrats of 1979, Republicans failed to read the results correctly. They have lost the popular vote in five of six straight presidential elections. Despite the desultory leadership of Congressional Democrats, they have had control of Congress for 10 years since 1992, a result due more to success crafting safe districts in decennial redistricting. More problematical was the perceived bankruptcy of what seemed to be new ideas in 1980 and 1994.  Conservatives failed to limit government and growth in entitlements and reductions in the tax burden for the upper brackets, made deficits far worse in the George W. Bush era.  Americans continued to look to Washington for economic justice and civil rights and guard those entitlements once given.    

More crucially, the battles of the conservative back benchers against immigration reform and other issues seemed to have an undertone of racism. The veiled code words that motivated the base since 1968 produced the desired result in driving Anglos to the voting booths in 2012. Sadly for the Republicans the images of Willie Horton and the continued emphasis of social issues did not work in a demographically changed country that ironically embraced one aspect of the libertarian agenda. They had adopted a laissez faire attitude towards same sex marriage and other matters that meshed poorly with the Christian Right social agenda, while nominating a Mormon candidate that did not excite that dwindling base. In the aftermath of the shutdown of 2013, the Republicans meanwhile have fallen into the infighting and ideological purges that remind one more of the San Francisco Democrats of 1984 than the heady days of the Reagan revolution of 1980 and the Gingrich revolution of 1994. 


Second terms are often toxic to a Presidency. Since the disaster of FDR’s second term attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, we have seen two impeachments in 1974 and 1998, the tragedies of Vietnam and Korea in the days of two elected Vice Presidential successors, and of course the disintegration of the second term of George W. Bush, when unexpected events overran the ability of his and an inevitably less talented second term team to react.  So the following is subject to change.

The 2012 Gallup poll taken February 2–5, 2012, asked 1029 adults in the US, "How do you think each of the following presidents will go down in history—as an outstanding president, above average, average, below average, or poor?" By adding Outstanding and Above Average rankings, Obama is third with 38%, with Reagan at 60% and Clinton at 50%. This is included, as it omits the Kennedy Presidency which is widely at variance with other similarly tenured Presidencies in public polling.

BUSH-  44
Above average
Below Average
No opinion

The Gallup poll about presidential greatness, taken February 2–5, 2011, asked 1015 adults in the US, "Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?" 

The Results:

    Ronald Reagan (19%)

    Abraham Lincoln (14%)

    Bill Clinton (13%)

    John F. Kennedy (11%)

    George Washington (10%)

    Franklin Roosevelt (8%)

    Barack Obama (5%)

    Theodore Roosevelt (3%)

    Harry Truman (3%)

    George W. Bush (2%)

    Thomas Jefferson (2%)

    Jimmy Carter (1%)

    Dwight Eisenhower (1%)

    George H. W. Bush (1%)

    Andrew Jackson (<1%)

    Lyndon B. Johnson (<1%)

    Richard Nixon (<1%)

Nate Silver looks at matters from the same place as the inventors of “Money Ball” I will link his analysis for greater clarity, but looking at this one chart is fascinating as it looks only at those elected to second terms and the correlation of their re-election totals to ultimate rankings

Silver's analysis is as follows:

"Over all, there is a positive relationship between a president’s performance in the Electoral College when seeking a second term, and how the historians have ranked him. (The regression line in the chart below predicts that Mr. Obama will eventually come to be regarded as about the 17th-best president, somewhere on the boundary between good and average.) But it is an extremely rough guide — especially for the presidents who are successful in winning a second term, and who have an opportunity to enhance or undermine their reputations. Voters may judge a president’s first term, but history will judge his second."




Sunday, October 20, 2013


Like most of those reading this piece, I’ll be watching the NFL sometime between now and sunset. After watching the PBS documentary “League of Denial” and reading the companion book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, it will be with a huge sense of moral conflict. The debate has been there for a while. and obviously the League’s agreeing to a $765 million settlement last month with over 4,500 former players and survivors who had sued the league, indicates the NFL knew they had a severe legal problem.  Given the legal tactics detailed in the book, executed in the face of mounting medical evidence , America’s favorite sport has ethical issues on the scale of Big Tobacco.  Those running the planet’s most powerful sports brand have been using tactics to keep the issue hidden, that seem to be torn from the PhilipMorris playbook.
A few weeks ago, I posted a piece on Howard Cosell, who was one of the first to point out that given the amount taxpayers were spending on stadiums,   the amount media was spending on broadcast rights, and the amount we as fans spend on tickets and merchandise,  professional sports was a matter of compelling public interest. Now there is a huge body of work defining the risks of permanent brain damage our entertainers are taking on, in order to provide the masses America’s favorite sport. And knowing that playing in the National Football League can destroy men's cognitive health, leaves us with this  real dilemma, which is that a couple of decades hence, many of the players we watch today will certainly be disabled. And we have not even mentioned all the collision related trauma seen on High School Friday Nights or College Football Saturdays. 
Like millions  of other American young men, I had experience with “having my bell rung” , back in my high school athletic days and coupled with a more recent concussion admit to a small bit of shared  terror.  And this is trivial compared what we will see on Sunday.  I have more than one friend from those days suffering the effects of their participation every day, though thankfully (not yet) affecting cognition.  And you are correct that we knew much of what playing collision sports entailed back in the seventies.   It was a risk many of my contemporaries readily accepted, for an athletic scholarship was their ticket out of places and neighborhoods few escaped by other means.
Football is the quintessential American game, and given the powerful images supplied by the networks and the nearly 50 years of the amazingly effective propaganda of it’s in house organ, NFL Films, it’s become a pervasive part of our national culture .  In a recent Huffington Post piece, commentator Tom Krattenmaker points out another interesting dynamic,  “Now that the lid is starting to blow off, the revelations are sure to intensify the debate over the complicated relationship among faith, morality and football.” I have always loved the classic quote by the football addicted Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, that the NFL was “the last bastion of  fascism in America.”  As Krattenmaker observes, “In recent generations, evangelicals have used football as a huge platform to promote their religious values. And why not, you might ask? The qualities of football closely align with Christian virtues such as sacrifice, discipline and courage.”
When the NFL agreed to the aforementioned three quarters of a billion dollar settlement, it had one very disquieting effect. As William Rhoden noted in the New York Times, “By settling, the former players and their families won immediate financial assistance for pressing and sometimes costly medical problems. However, they lost a golden opportunity to learn more about what might have caused them.” Rhoden also points out these parallels between the NFL and Big Tobacco:
“A trial would have forced the N.F.L. to make a concession similar to the one made years ago by the tobacco industry. That industry was ultimately forced to agree with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases like lung cancer than non-smokers. There is no safe cigarette.”
There also is no safer football helmet. By settling the league stopped short of having to admit that mind boggling collisions by behemoths at full speed has a causal effect on later life for players. Absent the discovery process, the can has been kicked further down the road, and for now the league will go on.  Though it’s a matter of dwindling time before Riddell and other helmet manufacturers have to face their own encounters with product liability suits and the same legal process  begins for  the other taxpayer supported colossus benefitting from big time football, which is the college and even high school game.
As far as the NFL is concerned, the settlement comes without admission of liability. As Rhoden notes, in taking the settlement offer, “the former players — and by extension current players — have spoken: they know what they signed up for and are willing to take the risks. Without admitting guilt or revealing what it might have known about head injuries, the N.F.L. agreed to pay for the outcome of those risks. The settlement was a game-changer in the discussion about head injuries and player safety, and for the N.F.L., it came with a relatively cheap price tag.”
The NFL alone is a 10 BILLION a year industry. The settlement is a fraction of the annual monies the league and the BCS series receives in TV revenues. The league has actually gotten off cheaply compared to Big Tobacco, for we never really will know what they knew and when they knew it.  One thing that is fascinating, is that the “League of Denial’ project began as a joint venture between ESPN and PBS. Given the fact that in the days leading up to the Frontline broadcast, the ABC/ESPN moniker was removed from the project, is indicative of both the leagues reach and the fact it is carried by the 4 major networks. At least for the foreseeable future, it’s doubtful there will be companion pieces on 60 minutes, NBC Dateline, or Faux News.  
It’s doubtful many will lose much time thinking of concussions come game time. At least for now the games are still there, and let’s face it nobody watching will dwell on stats like this one, 45 of the 46 brains of NFL players autopsied to date show the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disorder. Some players have also developed Lou Gehrig’s disease. Given the ongoing progression of athlete’s size and speed it’s hard to be optimistic that coming years will demonstrate any result but a deepening list of causalities.  With the recent settlement, there may be a hundred more cases like Junior Seau and the settlement will be cited as representing  a proportionate solution.  For now.
As consumers we are now the only entity that can effect  events.  For now.  As time goes on increasing numbers of parents in America will hit the point future Hall of Famer and frequent concussion victim Kurt Warner did, and start forbidding their kids to suit up.  Though the settlement may have addressed the NFL’s issues for now, it’s doubtful it will stop product liability suits against equipment manufacturers or the colleges benefitting from the BCS gravy change. And whatever way we personally address the dilemma of continued support of our beloved games, our grandchildren may yet join the rest of earth as soccer fans.  For though the gates may be secure for now, it will be interesting to see how quickly the edifice of professional football crumbles without kids suiting up, especially when state supported universities experience litigation that even the most football addicted boosters will not afford to support.
As far as myself, I plan to post this note and take a walk to the local bookstore.  It’s doubtful  I’ll cease watching the NFL overnight, going cold turkey on my lifelong addiction seems impossible, and it’s impossible to ignore the game’s cultural implications. But it will be from the perspective of a critic ,   and not that of a fan.