Archive

January 4th, 2016

Privilege, Pathology and Power

    Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.

    And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances, and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he could become almost pathologically self-regarding and unconcerned with others.

    So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?

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Lessons of Tamir Rice's death

    "On November 22, 2014, at 3:30 p.m., Tamir Rice, age 12, was shot and killed at Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio by on-duty Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) Officer Timothy Loehmann." Thus begins Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty's report on Rice's death. This week, a grand jury decided not to charge the rookie Cleveland police officer. It was a perversely fitting end to a year of law-enforcement controversies.

    The Tamir Rice case was rife with errors from the start, all compounded by race. The 911 caller told the dispatcher that Rice was "probably a juvenile" and that the gun he was seen brandishing was likely fake, yet the dispatcher didn't pass on that seemingly crucial information. Loehmann and his partner estimated Rice's age as at least 18 - not surprising, given that studies have shown that police officers often perceive black youths as older (and less innocent) than they are. Though Loehmann has said that he told Rice to "show me your hands" multiple times before shooting, surveillance footage shows that fewer than two seconds passed from when the police car reached Rice until Loehmann opened fire.

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Knowing Who's on Your Airplane

    I don't know about you, but I'd like to think that the feds have screened the other passengers sitting on my airplane. To do that, they also have to screen me. That's the deal.

    In America, any state-issued driver's license had long been acceptable ID for passing security checks at airports. That lax attitude changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists turned four commercial jetliners full of passengers into missiles, killing thousands more on the ground. All four planes took off from U.S. airports.

    On the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the Real ID Act. It tightens standards for state driver's licenses used to board flights. Among other information, applicants must provide their Social Security number and immigration status. The licenses must also contain a chip or other technology that can be read by a computer. The deadline for compliance is approaching.

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Cubans have spirit; what they need is money

    In the oldest part of the city, near the famed Parque Central, stands a building that's being restored from top to bottom.

    The project has been under way a long time. Possibly it began before the last time I was here, 21 years ago.

    One can only guess the height of the building because it's been swallowed by vines that now obscure all the scaffolds. From blocks away it looks like a masterpiece of topiary.

    Much of Cuba is like this, exotic and deceptive at a distance. Some things change. Some things remain stuck in a time warp.

    U.S. tourists are here now, practically everywhere you go. Both enchanted and sobered by what they see. They're coming in droves. Thousands upon thousands of Cuban-Americans make the trip, too, visiting family.

    The hotels in Havana are packed. Every charter flight from the States is full. This is new and revolutionary.

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2016: Another chance for me and the country to get it right

    Here we are, another turn of the calendar, another chance at those resolutions.

    I will make the Fitbit more than a stylish bracelet. After I find the Fitbit charger.

    I will Kondo-ize my entire house. After I find the Marie Kondo book telling me how to master the art of decluttering.

    I will pay every one of those speed camera tickets before they double. After I find a way out of the anger loop that consumes me every time I run afoul of a ridiculous speed trap designed not for public safety, but to pad the city's budget.

    And I will find my happy place.

    All these things are reasonable. All doable. I know I can do better if I just try harder.

    The same thing applies to our country. In 2016, we can do better if we just try harder.

    How about we vow, as Americans, to tackle a few collective shortcomings this year?

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Your health records are supposed to be private. They aren't.

    Seven years ago, I sat across from Farrah Fawcett in the living room of her Los Angeles condo. In what would be her last media interview before she died in 2009, the actress described her suspicion that an employee at UCLA Medical Center had shared details of her cancer treatment -- and the setbacks along the way -- with the National Enquirer.

    Whenever she sought treatment there, the tabloids were quick with a story, even if it wasn't right.

    "I actually kept saying for months and months and months, 'This is coming from here,' " Fawcett told me in the summer of 2008. "I was never more sure of anything in my life."

    To prove her theory, Fawcett set up a sting: In May 2007, she withheld news of her cancer's return from nearly all of her relatives and friends. Within days, the story was in the Enquirer. "I couldn't believe how fast it came out," Fawcett said.

    A UCLA employee was caught and charged with selling information to the tabloid. She pleaded guilty but died before she was sentenced.

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When Life Makes Resolutions for You

    Last year, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. But it appears that life made them for me.

    Two changes occurred in my life, and I responded. In retrospect, 2015 produced more personal growth than perhaps any other year of my life.

    The first change occurred shortly after New Year’s Day. After months of therapy, I was able to feel my feelings in a more intense, genuine way than ever before.

    In the past, I’d tried to cut myself off from all unpleasant feelings. It’s not fun to feel sadness, anger, or fear — and it’s inconvenient, too. But they don’t go away when you do that. Repressing them isn’t benign at all.

    Now I’ve learned to recognize when I need to take the time to address my own difficult emotions.

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The Nation That Forgot

    Once upon a time this nation comprised of refugees and their descendants was a welcoming mecca for the downtrodden. Admittedly, the welcoming was not so open as we like to think but certainly a long way from today's fear.

    How quickly we forget. In recent years we have recognized the injustice of imprisoning--that really is the correct word for it--those of Japanese descent, citizens by birth, in 1942. There they stayed until the end of World War II with little thought of how they could return to the life they had been forced to leave behind. Compensation or readjustment of any sort, except for the kindness of a few who maintained the property left behind, was not to come until decades later.

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The GOP Candidates Know Nothing about Syria

    Like many political animals, I was glued to the latest Republican presidential debate.

    For the most part, there were no surprises: Donald Trump railed against Muslims, Chris Christie lamented that the NSA can’t intercept Americans’ phone calls and emails as easily as it used to, Ben Carson remained confused about foreign policy, and Carly Fiorina yelled loudly that nobody was paying any attention to her.

    That’s great entertainment. But one ongoing theme bothered me — a lot.

    It seemed to me that none of the Republicans running for president had even the vaguest understanding of what’s happening in Syria.

    I learned during my nearly 15 years of working on the Middle East at the CIA — and after earning my college degree in Middle Eastern Studies — that nothing in that region is easily accomplished. Almost no issues are black and white. Alliances shift constantly, and sometimes politics makes for strange bedfellows.

    Syria is no exception.

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January 3rd

For-Profit Colleges Are Scandal Machines

    The nation’s for-profit, private college industry is a study in horror.

    Start with the fact that it actually calls itself an “industry.” Excuse me, but education is a social investment — not an industrial product.

    Next, this so-called “private” industry depends almost wholly on government money. It generates practically none of its revenue from the free market. Instead, it cons students into taking expensive government-backed loans to invest in educations that seldom deliver increases in their earning potential.

    “For-profit” colleges are just that. They maintain that their obligation isn’t to serve students or society, but to deliver profits to their corporate shareholders. These things are scandal machines, as proven by the latest for-profit college conglomerate to be exposed as a fraud.

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