Commodore – A Novel

A novel portraying the extraordinary life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

With the right spin Trump could turn this Khan controversy on its head

By now it’s obvious that  the Trump phenomenon is worth undertanding.  Despite his stupidity, he is appealing to millions of Americans. What is his secret?  The answer isn’t complicated.  He is defying political correctness, which makes him a hero. 
 
 Doesn’t matter how outlandish what he says is, or isn’t.  The media will do a number on him, which he usually handles poorly, but that doesn’t matter.   Like Rocky, he will get up and fight back again and again.  Apparently many people love him for this.  And perhaps they should.  Enough to make him president?  That’s an entirely different issue.  But we are making  a good start if we try to get a handle on the phenomenon.
 
Why is political correctness so infuriating? Primarily because when it rears its ugly head, those meting out punishment speak to the sinner as if he is trampling on holy ground.  They act as if they are in Church and blasphemy is being loudly shouted during mass.
 
In the current narrative, Khan’s father and family should be treated like they are saints.  They have lost their son.  He was a hero, which places the family somewhere in the territory of Mother Teresa.  If she were  alive she would be pounding the lectern with the Constitution, demanding decency from the man.  She would, as Captain Khan’s father did, remind us of his sacrifice.  The script is familiar.  True believers, not wanting to misbehave on holy ground, or more likely inspired to action by the decency of those making their complaint, would demand “off with his head.”  Sinners deserve no better.
 
Donald Trump appears to be the only public figure who again and again stirs up the outrage of political correctioneers and doesn’t go down.
 
At this point I cannot vote for the man.  He’s simply too dumb and unpredictable, but I don’t know if he is any stupider than establishment figures who not only don’t put their foot in their mouth, they won’t venture a toe.  Their career could be over in a flash if they stray from the expected sentiments.
 
The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was banned for life from the NBA for telling his girlfriend in private to cool it. Sterling was irritated over a photo Stiviano had posted on Instagram, in which she posed with Basketball Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson  Sterling told Stiviano: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people.” He added, “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want”, but “the little I ask you is … not to bring them to my games”.
 
Sterling has many black friends and associates, who he has treated with respect and given respect to him until his girlfriend, who his wife was suing for millions of dollars at the time, recorded that private conversation.
To his credit, Trump has steered clear of controversies about black people, but perhaps it is only a matter oft time.
 
Of course it isn’t only NBA owners and sports figures that can be brought to their knees.
 
In March , two members of Bowdoin College’s student government faced impeachment proceedings. What heinous transgression did they commit? Theft, plagiarism, sexual assault?
Nope. They attended a party where some guests wore tiny sombreros.
It was  a birthday party for a friend. The email invitation read: “the theme is tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :).” The invitation — sent by a student of Colombian descent, which may or may not be relevant here — advertised games, music, cups and “other things that are conducive to a fun night.”
Those “other things” included the miniature sombreros, several inches in diameter. And when photos of attendees wearing those mini-sombreros showed up on social media, students and administrators went ballistic.
College administrators sent multiple school wide emails notifying the students about an “investigation” into a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping.”
In 2013, commentary on the broadcast of the Bowl Championship Series national title game between Alabama and Notre Dame included words like “creepy,” “awkward,” “uncomfortable” and “heteronormative.”
The subject was not Alabama’s 42-14 victory, but comments made during the game by the ESPN play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger regarding the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A J McCarron. In the first quarter, ESPN showed McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Webb, who was sitting near his parents. Musburger called the 23-year-old Webb, a former Miss Alabama USA, a “lovely lady” and “beautiful,” and said to his broadcast partner, Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State, “You quarterbacks get all the good-looking women.”
“A J’s doing some things right,” Herbstreit replied. Musburger, 73, then said, “If you’re a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.”
Almost immediately, Webb’s name began trending on Twitter and her account added nearly 100,000 followers within hours, including athletes like LeBron James. Meanwhile, Musburger’s comments, which some saw as harmless fun, struck other observers as off-putting.
“It’s extraordinarily inappropriate to focus on an individual’s looks,” said Sue Carter, a professor of journalism at Michigan State. “In this instance, the appearance of the quarterback’s girlfriend had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It’s a major personal violation, and it’s so retrograde that it’s embarrassing. I think there’s a generational issue, but it’s incumbent on people practicing in these eras to keep up and this is not a norm.”
ESPN planned in advance to mention that Webb, an Auburn graduate, is dating McCarron. But when Musburger’s gushing over her went too far, some staffers in the production truck at the stadium “cringed.” Soon after, John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, told Musburger through the announcer’s earpiece that he had to “move on,” according to a person briefed on the conversation.
The network apologized for Musburger’s comments but that was it for Brent Mussberger.  For decades he had been the voice of ESPN for national events.  He was relegated to broadcasting local events in the South.
For her part, Webb did not seem to mind what Musburger said.
“It was kind of nice,” Webb told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I didn’t look at it as creepy at all. For a woman to be called beautiful, I don’t see how that’s an issue.”
So why does Donald Trump get himself in trouble again and again.  Certainly he is pugnacious.  In his self image he is a macho kind of guy. He doesn’t mind a good fight and maybe even relishes the opportunity to not back down.  From a different perspective,  he’s, too sensitive.  He goes on and on, defending his pride, long after most people would have moved on.  In short he is like a lot of people at home who carry on about issues, even if they know in public they should drop it.
Also, like a lot of people, Trump sees  the world as treacherous and only trusts his family and a small group of  friends.  The average politician has five, ten, twenty advisers, all filling their ears with different spins.  Whatever they might believe personally, before speaking publicly  they first want to hear what these ten or twenty people have to say. They eventually develop good cautious habits even without specific instruaction. Hillary emailed her daughter describing what had happened in Benghazzi, but for public consumption, Obama was playing down the growing danger from terrorists. So her story in public adhered to Obama thinking.  The problem was, she claimed, an offensive video, not terrorism. 
This doesn’t make her a liar, it is what politicians must do, have always done, read the tea leaves of public opinion, and the spin being expected from those with power,  and respond accordingly.  They would never tweet, during a moment of passion, during this era where  political correctness rules.  Although people have come to expect a certain degree of this kind of calming moderate statements, it’s also the reason that people believe very little that politicians say. I don’t love most of what Trump has to say.  I hate most of it, but I love him for taking on the media.  I wish he would hire a bunch of advisers.  This article is a perfect example of the spin he could focus on if he had a bunch of clever analysts working for him. Until that day, he cannot be taken seriously for president, but then he wouldn’t be Donald Trump if he did hire them.  There would be no one taking on political correctness, which like a malignancy, is  spreading and contaminating our public discourse.

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

The Media Must Accept Part of the Responsibility for Dallas

From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men the media has played up the racism of white policeman. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public, then followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun.The angle of the bullet entries showed he did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. Yet Ferguson is cited again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men. There is also the question of whether Michael Brown was the kind of teenager (unarmed, loved by his family) that is his public persona.  Here is a video of Michael Brown beating up an old black man. Here is a video of him stealing from a convenience store and bullying the clerk.  This happened shortly before Officer Wilson confronted him

Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot.

 

So what does this mean? It would be terrible to blame innocent victims of police shootings because of the violence in their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, if we are trying to figure out what is going on we can’t ignore the facts. Undoubtedly some policemen have a racist side to their reactions, but much of the problem is the environment of violence that the police (white, black and Latino) have to cope with. Currently In Chicago someone is shot every 2 minutes, killed every 13 minutes, almost exclusively black on black crime.

 

My uncle who worked in the garment district all his life was assigned guard duty during World War II. In England! He confessed that every time he heard a sound he started shooting his machine gun. He was terrified. The statistics in Philadelphia show that black policemen reacted with fear far more often than white policeman. This is not surprising. Even more than white policemen they know very well that they are operating in a dangerous environment. So do many non criminal black men, who carry a gun not to be macho, or because they are paranoid, but because they might need it. There were 11,000 blacks killed by other blacks (8,300 according to Fact Checker) between Trevor Martin’s death and the verdict in George Zimmerman trial (approximately 500 days).

 

So why don’t most people know these facts. Why does it only appear in right wing publications. Certainly, it would go a long way to cool the anger at policemen.   There are two possibilities. The media likes to stir up emotional issues, to heighten passions. That attracts viewers. There is far more entertainment value in dramatic stories than complicated ones.

 

We also must consider political correctness. They risk being labeled racist if they deny white shortcomings. But what about black moderates? Where was Mayor Dinkins or Governor Patterson, or for that matter Oprah to set the record straight about what happened in Ferguson. Attorney General Holder acknowledged that the white policeman in Ferguson was totally innocent, but he combined the announcement of this fact with a blistering criticism of the systemic racism in the Ferguson police department.

 

And what about our president?  Even after two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

The recent killing of a black man in Charlotte and subsequent rioting was absurd.  The policeman was black and the chief of police in Charlotte was black.  Again and again opportunities arise to set the record straight but the opportunity is ignored.  Too much of the media coverage did not mention the race of the policeman and chose to add it to the narrative of  black men getting shot for no reason by our ugly society.  I don’t mean platitudes about there are good cops, and their work is difficult, and we must respect the law.  I mean having the courage to slam the exaggerations of the Black Lives Matter movement,  sorting out truth from fiction. It is not an impossible task for fair minded people to intervene.  Again, where is our president?

I assume politicians and celebrities must steer clear of having a perspective that exonerates white society. They’d be labeled Uncle Toms. But this would not be true if we had accurate media reports that contradicted the extremes of the Black Lives Matter agenda. Indeed more and more celebrities (most recently Serena Williams) are speaking out about how violent  we are.  I would be speaking out myself if I took what I the media is presenting at face value, but they are intentionally presenting a distorted picture and should be taking the heat for that.

 

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A Plea to Black Moderates (including Oprah)

After Ferguson two New York City policeman were assassinated, then the five at Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. As could be expected from the President, and throughout the black community, the reaction has been both shock and sympathy for the fallen officers and their families. They are calling call for love, not hate, reconciliation not violence, reactions that should be expected of them and the only hope that can see us through.

 

But no matter how heartfelt their reaction has been, we can expect little improvement in the hostility towards policemen expressed by Black Lives Matter protesters and others’ fury about unarmed black men being shot by the police. What can make a great deal of difference is for moderates to straighten the misinformation that animates a good deal of the hostility.

 

From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men, the media has played up racism as the motive. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public, then followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun. He did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. Yet Ferguson is cited again and again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men.

 

Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot.

 

Why has the media not presented the facts about Ferguson? Why has there not been more awareness of the Philadelphia study? Most of us who watch the news know how often they amp up happenings, to capture the most viewers. This is true of hurricane coverage as much as racially charged incidents, but there is another factor operating here. The media has been afraid to appear racist by not going along with the Black Lives Matter perspective.

 

I assume similar motivations exist for someone like Oprah or Mayor Dinkins of New York and I should add President Obama. They don’t want to appear to be on white people’s side in these controversies. It is seen as a betrayal. It should be noted that when the Justice Department’s findings totally exonerated the white policeman in Ferguson, it released this information with a condemnation of the Ferguson Police Department for their racist policies.

 

Even after the two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

 

So I am making a plea to black moderates. Before any more policemen are killed it is not enough to whisper platitudes. Your reluctance to speak loudly is understandable but too much is at stake here for you to hold back. Why does no one bring into the narrative the fact that during the Civil war 360,000 white men from the north lost their lives trying to free black slaves? Your courage is needed. It could save lives.

 

 

 

March 3, 2016
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

Trump Is Forcing Republicans To Own Up To Who They Are And Have Been

 

In an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article, Keven Phillips, one of Richard Nixon’s key strategist made clear what Republicans were trying to do with their “southern strategy” Whatever his personal feelings may have been, his job was first and foremost as a strategist:

“ From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

That doesn’t mean Republicans are out and out racist. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the  NAACP for exploiting racial polarization to win elections, and ignoring the black vote. He was completely sincere.

“Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions,” and, “by the ’70s and into the ’80s and ’90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

It wan’t a passing sentiment. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009-2011, Michael Steele, was a black man.

Many, perhaps the majority of   Republicans, despise racism whenever they see it. Many weren’t thrilled with Affirmative Action and the trillions of taxpayer dollars spent on improving the lot of our poor, but they weren’t furious. They could live with it. Some probably felt, that given our history of slavery, the black poor deserved it. Quite a few voted for Barack Obama because regardless of his politics, black people’s history of oppression, the paucity of successful role models (other than athletes and people in show business) cried out for a man like Obama to inspire them. Furthermore we seemed to have moved beyond racial disharmony and in their private lives, many former Dixiecrats seemed to welcome black friends and acquaintances.

But suddenly Donald Trumps emergence has made Republicans aware of their own silent majority, not just Southern whites but uneducated white blue collar workers all over America.

There are many Republicans who don’t fit that description. For example, Neoconservatives who during the 60’s realized that their Leftist friends were far too critical of America. Too many on the left seem to hate America. They relished pointing out every last way American motives and actions, seemed to be against poor people elsewhere- how we supported corrupt and sometimes violent dictators.  And then there was our lifestyle. They despised our consumerism and crassness.

Neoconservatives found a different history. They lauded the wonder of our empire. Without military conquest, American business ways were being imitated everywhere, bringing prosperity, much like our own, to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and now China. China, for instance now has over 1 million people with a net worth of over 1.6 million dollars. But even back then, they marveled at the magic of capitalism, what it had brought to America, and everywhere it was adopted by hard working people. Their idea and the idea of mainstream Republicans was that, in the thousands of years of world history America, and its effect on other countries, was exceptional. Certainly we had made mistakes, and there were those among us who had been selfish, greedy, and deserving of the criticism leveled at the United States, But on the whole, we were extraordinary. In contrast to the Democrats who focused on our failings, when allowed, Republicans waxed eloquently on what we had accomplished, and would still accomplish, particularly if the Democrats stopped tearing the country down.

Along the way, there were indirect appeals to the silent majority. In 1986, Willie Horton, a black man who had stabbed a 17 year old gas station attendant,19 times before stuffing him in a plastic garbage container to die, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Subsequently, Massachusetts had started a weekend furlough program for prisoners as part of their rehabilitation efforts. The legislature passed a law excluding convicted murderers. Then governor, Michael Dukakis, vetoed it. Willie Horton went out on weekend furlough and didn’t return. Horton twice raped a local woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging her fiancé. He then stole the car belonging to the man he had assaulted. After he was apprehended on October 20, Horton was sentenced in Maryland to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. The sentencing judge, Vincent J. Femia, refused to return Horton to Massachusetts, saying, “I’m not prepared to take the chance that Mr. Horton might again be furloughed or otherwise released. This man should never draw a breath of free air again.”[

In 1988, when Michael Dukakis ran for president, Republicans eagerly picked up the Horton issue after Dukakis clinched the nomination. In cities all across America crime was out of control. People had double and triple locks on their doors, and still failed to stop break ins. The sound of car alarms in the street was constant. Finally, everywhere, much of the inner cities emptied out as white people fled for what they perceived as safety. Without directly or indirectly saying a word about black people and crime, using Willie Horton picture in the campaign was nevertheless considered racist. Everyone knew what was meant. Under pressure, on October 5, the Republicans removed the Willie Horton ad. They replaced it with a another ad, “Revolving Door“, which also attacked Dukakis over the weekend furlough program. While the advertisement did not mention Horton or feature his photograph, it depicted a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of prison through a revolving door. Most of them were not black. The controversy nevertheless escalated when Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and former Democratic presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the “Revolving Door” ad racist.

Following this, black crime, neither directly nor indirectly became a hot political topic. President Clinton joined with Republicans in modifying welfare programs so that they would not be a way of life, but great efforts were made to place the focus on welfare’s downside for both white and black recipients.

The other way Republicans and Democrats fought directly was over life style issues. The sexual revolution, the attack on conventional norms, such as woman’s role in the home, the legitimacy of homosexuality, the far reaching cultural revolution of the 60’s had moved beyond hippies to pretty much become the cultural norm on the media. “Family Values” became the Republican focus point. The Republicans were not only supporting their Southern constituency, evangelicals and other religious Christians, uneducated blue collar workers were generally offended by the liberal agenda. Like Archie Bunker, they hated hippies. So did many conventional Republicans, small businessmen, big businessmen, members of the country club set or plain folk, who, for the most part, had always been turned off by counter culture norms. They understood that the counter culture was counter to everything they held sacred.

The Republicans lost this round. They were totally routed. Illegitimate children were no longer a source of shame. Living together unmarried became a norm. On issue after issue, holding on to the old way of seeing things was, at best, quaint. On issue after issue mainstream Republicans eventually said little. Certainly not loudly. Certainly not passionately.

Meanwhile talk radio stations sprang up everywhere to carry on the fight. Some of them were crazy.  They were often treated as an embarrassment by establishment Republicans but as the Trump campaign is showing, a revolution was brewing.

It is not that Trump has taken a stand that slam bam identifies the issues dear to heart of his supporters. Perhaps immigration. But it isn’t specifically that. It’s his fury. His anger with political correctness. He’s speaking like they would like to speak, like they would like a leader to speak. Their view of things has been totally discredited, treated like only an idiot or Fascist, or racist, or homophobe, or sexist could possibly talk like they  do or think that way.

Where do we start? I guess we can start with homosexuality. Until a few years ago most people thought of homosexuality as strange, or sinful, or repulsive, or if they had conflicts on the issue, frightening.   For a man to put another man’s penis in his mouth, or his anus. Yuck. Many guys had gay friends or acquaintances and could certainly like them or respect them. Or not. But political correctness dictated that even a small amount of ambivalence on the subject was a sign of a disturbed view of the world. No debate, no shades of grey on the subject was acceptable. Transvestites somehow slipped through as “normal” and then in a number of movies “cool”. And then transgenders, men cutting off their penis became A okay. There was amazingly little shock from standard bearers of conventional morality. They wouldn’t dare risk going up against politically correct valid ways to react

Or let’s talk about the hottest topic this year, race. In my generation having empathy for the history and suffering of black people was rightly expected. But from the very beginning of the civil right era there has been ambivalence about a subgroup of blacks that don’t seem able to get themselves out of the bottom rungs of society. There was and still is horrible violence among them, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, teen-age pregnancy. Until Obama stopped the Justice Department in 2008 from collecting this statistic, there were approximately 14000 rapes of white woman every year.

Among intelligent white people, Republican and Democrat, or people of average intelligence and sensitivity, even before political correctness squeezed out valid discussion, no one, would ever mention any of this. They would be thought of as a racist for it to be on their mind. But aware they have been all along. Both liberals and Republicans, if they lived in the city, sent their children to private schools. And besides door men in the city, they have often moved to gated communities. This does not mean black people were excluded. On the contrary, middle class black people were always welcome and indeed reassured the white people seeking protection that race was not the issue.

Recently Republicans have made a big deal that Democrats, beholden as they are, to the unions are blocking their solutions to the educational failure of our inner city schools. At long last, they believe they have a solution. Charter schools can provide the miracle. It is one of many solutions that have appeared over the last 50 years. All have been failures. Community control. No child left behind. Slogan after slogan. That isn’t to say that sometimes, perhaps many times, children emerge from terrible conditions and do indeed succeed. Or that Charter schools aren’t a great idea facilitating motivated parents to help their kids. But as a group, most of the time, with or without charter schools, kids succeed because they have parents that guided them through the hardships facing them, the same as other children, of any color who managed to get something from their school and succeed. Why is this failure of the black under classes automatically a failure of white society? Why is the high crime rate of the black underclass due to racism? Why is the disproportionate number of blacks in prison explained by their treatment by whites. Why is it always whitey that is the explanation.  Every other group of individuals has seen it as their own duty to overcome the difficulties facing them.  They didn’t expect to be favored or treated specially.  It is in fact only individuals who can succeed or fail.

Political correctness has made the harsh indictments and factual distortions of the Black Lives Matter movement  not get challenged. The Justice Department, at the invitation of the Police Chief was asked to study the pattern in Philadelphia. Philadelphia policemen kill unarmed youths three times more often than New York City police. Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for Hispanic policemen it was 16.8%. All of the shootings of young unarmed black men took place in the most violent sections of the city, where danger is rampant. No middle class black neighborhoods had an unarmed black man killed.

And so on. It is impossible to bring these issues up without being considered a racist, impossible to go over the facts of what happened in Ferguson, (where even Obama’s Justice Department found the policeman was justifiably acting to save his life). Political correctness has made any kind of discussion verboten.

Let us cut to the chase. Peggy Noonan recently wrote an interesting article in which she referred to Trump’s followers as the unprotected. For 50 years, Blacks have had the Democratic Party to take up their cause. The elite of both Democratic and Republican persuasion do not need protection. They went to their fine schools and while Republicans may not agree with the conclusions of the politically correct, it matters little. They can take care of themselves. The white working class has had no one. Unlike people on the bottom, who have Medicaid, they pay through the nose for their insurance and can’t afford health care. They pay a lot of taxes and little if anything comes back to them from government programs. And, in truth, throughout America, they are the laborers being displaced by immigrants. In my part of Connecticut, near Danbury, white plumbers and electricians are so far holding on, but the masons, those who cut down giant trees, landscapers, roofers, carpenters, are almost entirely being replaced by Spanish speaking laborers. I have no contact with factory workers, but I imagine the same thing is happening there

So yes, Trump is a moron. He does not have well thought out ideas. I’m not sure he knows what will come out of his mouth next. But his style, his anger is the anger of his constituents. At last there is someone not intimidated by the political correctness of the media. He says what they have wanted to say, what I assume they say to each other, but has been unheard by the rest of society. We can and should fear that some of the positions Trump expresses could turn into Fascism. The vanity and stupidity of his facial expressions are eery in that they remind me of film clips I have seen of Mussolini. But that cannot be used, as it often is used, to shut up unsavory ideas.   More than Republicans ever imagined could happen, their southern strategy, which in the beginning seemed expedient, has metastasized into a force that has surrounded and may consume them.

February 28, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Commodore: Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 1

 

Staten Island 1802

For the last twenty days, the weather has been overcast. It’s April yet the gray dark winter sky seems like it will never give way. Not an hour of sunshine to warm the face. Not a single warm afternoon so that the body can lose its chill.

6AM:   Trailing behind his father Cornelius Vanderbilt, nine-year-old (Cornelius) “Cornele” makes his way across the potato fields. Deep mud from the melting snow sucks at the boy’s boots, making it difficult to climb the incline. Old Cornelius is irritated by the slowdown. He’s had to stop his wheelbarrow several times so that his son could catch up.

Gloomy weather like this would sour the mood of any farmer, let alone Cornelius. The freezing drizzle is also rotten luck for Cornele. He and his father would have taken shelter from rain, but his father insists, cold as it is, a drizzle is not enough reason to leave the fields. 

Making things worse, the farm borders New York’s Upper Bay.  A storm may be coming.   High, mean waves are crashing into the shore, sending sprays of icy saltwater into the air.  This joins the freezing drizzle, as gusts of wind sweep the moisture a hundred yards into the farm.

Cornele’s damp wool coat provides little protection. The wind finds its way beneath it, injecting icy chills that cut right through him.   More meat on him would help prevent the chill from seeping into his chest. Every few moments a sharp frozen, aching sensation reaches his bones, especially his knees.

Old Cornelius started this morning as he does every morning, wanting to call it quits.  After the rooster startled him from his dream, he pulled his quilt tighter, kept his eyes closed, and- if only for a few moments longer, fought to stay asleep.

No luck. As the dream dissipated, it left him all nerves, which increased the longer he lay there.

Now, an hour later, angry energy propels him forward. He parks his wheelbarrow carefully, facing up the hill, so that it won’t fall, reaches for his pick ax, lifts it over his head, and swings it wildly into the mud, trying to free a large rock from the soil. He is a man at war, hurling his fury at the enemy, which is everywhere. Cornele stands nearby ready to help his father, but he is aggravating him more than he is helping him.

When they first went outside, Cornele played with the frosty air. He blew out a thin stream as far as it would go and waved his hand through it as if it were smoke. He tried to make rings. His father looked at him like he wanted like to kill him. As usual Cornele doesn’t seem capable of standing still.

“When you work, you work. No bullshit,” he lectures.

Cornele’s heard it a hundred times, heard the anger as his father said it.   Only lately it’s moved beyond aggravation to a fury firing out of his eyes.

Cornele repeatedly tightens his ungloved fingers into fists, trying to prevent them from freezing.   His knees move in and out rhythmically as if he has to pee. From time to time, his shivering escalates into a tremor, which culminates in a quivering little boy moan. He tried to pass this off as a playful sound the first time, but hearing it a second time further pisses off Old Cornelius. He’s convinced his son is exaggerating how cold he is.   He wants Cornele concentrating on what they’re doing, not on what he is feeling.

“The Princess and the pea. Your mother is raising a princess.”

“I ain’t no princess.”

His father is undeterred. He is intent on showing Cornele his mighty swing. The boy has an unobstructed view. Each time Cornelius’ smashes his tool into the earth, it sends mud flying everywhere. He’s practically covered Cornele’s coat and face.   A fleck of mud hits Cornele just below his eye. He flinches. Old Cornelius stares at him defiantly.

“Who told you to stand there?”

Cornele moves two steps backwards. He stares like a deer caught in the headlights.

  His father scowls “Are you waiting for me to say something?”

Cornele’s eyes begin to water.

“Don’t you cry boy. Damn’ princess with her pea,” he repeats. “How’d I ever get a son like this.”

Cornele’s first tear finally slides down his cheek, and then many more. Old Cornelius has seen enough. He will not stand out here with a crying son. He throws down his pick, and storms away in the direction of the house. He shouts, “It’s your Ma’s fault. Made you a cry baby.”

Watching his father march off, Cornele wipes his eyes with his arms. He’s determined not to let the tears continue.

He lifts the pick lying on the ground and swings it solidly into the earth. Old Cornelius hears him and does an about face. He returns and roughly grabs the pick-ax away from Cornele.

  “Your Ma’d kill me…” he mumbles loud enough to be heard.

His father takes a mighty swing. The huge rock comes loose. “See what I mean?” is written on his face. Happy to have another opportunity, Cornele drops to the side of the rock. He digs his fingers into the cold mud surrounding it, and pulls the huge rock completely free. His father brings over the wheelbarrow. His face turns bright red as he lifts the huge rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow tray. Huffing and puffing he drops it in. This tips the wheelbarrow over.

“God damn’ it,” Cornelius yells. The steam is coming out of every pore. When he manages to get a modicum of control over himself he places the wheelbarrow at a better angle.

“Come here and hold this steady.”

Cornele does as he is told. He holds it tightly, trying to steady it. While doing so, he shifts his feet back and forth still trying to keep warm, which is what bothered his father in the first place.

“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he scowls. He grabs the wheelbarrow tray and shoves it a bit, “Like this! Get it straight.”

With Herculean effort, cursing all the way, Old Cornelius again lifts the rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow and drops it in. The wheelbarrow falls over.

Furiously, he shouts loud enough to be heard in hell, “Hold it damn’ you.”

Cornele pulls the wheelbarrow up, positions it, stiffens his body, and tightens his grip. His father again lifts the rock and drops it down. Using all of his strength, Cornele manages to keep it upright.

“So when you want to, you can do it,” his father observes sarcastically, but as he wheels the rock away, there is a trace of affection for Cornele’s contribution.

Old Cornelius will add it to the other rocks, which form a wall cutting across the field. Each rock represents a separate battle. As has become his habit, he glances at the largest one every time he brings a new addition. On nicer days it serves as a trophy, but usually it is too hot, or too cold, too wet too dry—the biggest rock, all of the rocks, remind him of just how badly he’s been cursed by God.                                                                                                        

“Fuck you Jesus. You son of a whore. Stuck me on this piece of shit land. Fucking rocks everywhere.”

With his father gone, Cornele takes the pick and throws himself at another rock. He is able to get it loosened. He gets on his knees and once again moves the mud away with his hands. Happily he anticipates his father’s admiration when he returns.

Old Cornelius’ reaction is completely the opposite. He grabs the tool.   “You are a fuckin’ idiot. I took the pick away once. I told ya. Ma‘ll blame me if you hurt yourself.”

Still intent on showing his son how it’s done, his ferocious swing further placates his rage. His steady stream of cursing, thousand and thousands of times before, has never been enough to get the job done. He can’t shout as powerfully as he needs to. The vehemence of his pick ax swing, attacking the earth, momentarily makes him feel right.

The rock is not loosening.

“Mother fucker. You mother fucker.”

A boulder under the rock isn’t allowing him to get at the dirt underneath. He slams the pick into the earth a fourth time but it has no effect.

For Old Cornelius it always comes down to the same thing, futility. Why bother? You can’t win. He throws the pick ax on the ground.

One son sick and the other useless. Too many mouths to feed. Daughters not sons. There is nothing else to say or do other than quit. He heads for the house muttering all the way, bitter that Cornele has failed him. He had counted on the future when a strong son would ease his toils.

 “Thinks he’s a prince. Nothing. You hear me Cornele,” he shouts. You’re going to be nothing.” A moment later he adds, “Can’t even hold a wheelbarrow. The world out there ain’t gonna wipe your ass like your Ma.”

When his father is far enough away, Cornele lifts the pick-ax and starts swinging.   In the distance, his father turns around. Hands on his hips, he watches his son with the nastiest scowl yet. As he turns back to the house, he kicks a shovel that had been left in his path. He shouts at Cornele.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shovel there? How many times? Almost tripped on it.”

He picks up the shovel, swings it in Cornele’s direction, and then lets go. It falls far short of its target. Cornele is unfazed. His father has grabbed him roughly many times, but never actually beat him.

   Fussing and cursing, Old Cornelius heads for the house again.

“Nothing! You hear me Cornele. You’re gonna be nothing.”

Phoebe watches him through the window as he returns   She is not happy. She opens the door, stares him up and down.

“Another short day?”

“The weather.”

“So why’d you drag Cornele out there? You already have one sick son. Jacob’s coughing started on a day like this.”

  He doesn’t answer. She isn’t finished.

You managed to come back. Where is   Cornele?”      

Noticing his blue lips, her tone softens.

“There’s hot tea on the stove.”

She’s no fool. He’s regularly disappointed her, but with all his shortcomings, the family could not last 10 minutes without him.   It isn’t easy to chop out their survival against nature’s malevolence. She wouldn’t want to be out there on a nasty day like this.

She shouts for Cornele to come in.   Her voice sounds like it is coming from heaven.   His arms had gotten heavy. He will soon be warm by the fire and sipping tea.

With this in mind he has new energy. He stares at the rock that has been his nemesis, rust colored and smooth. He swings a mighty blow. No luck.   It isn’t budging. He loosens some dirt and takes another swing. Still nothing happens. The next swing does the trick. He is about to lift it when it begins to pour.

He fixes the location of the rock in his mind so he can return tomorrow. Slowed by the mud, he runs towards the house. Hail is bouncing off the ground. That makes him smile. He doesn’t get to see hail very often.

 

It is dinnertime. Cornele’s mother, Phoebe Hand Vanderbilt, and her eldest daughter Mary, are bringing food to the large kitchen table. Phoebe is pregnant. She has a strong face, a straight mouth a little drawn down in the corners, but green eyes that glitter humorously from under thick brows. There is shrewdness in her face, determination, kindliness. But not right now. Jacob, her eldest boy, is coughing the worst yet, hacking away from deep within his chest.

  “Damn’ it. Cover your mouth.” Old Cornelius shouts at him.

  Phoebe brings Jacob a kitchen rag. He hacks away once or twice more, but then coughs more gently before stopping. They settle down. She looks around the table.

“What’s with you Cornele? Why the sad face?”

He glances at his father surreptitiously, before looking down at his plate. Old Cornelius is chewing his food looking as innocent as a priest giving a sermon, making eye contact with no one.   He can keep it up for only so long when she stares him down. She catches his eye for a fraction of a second. That’s enough for him to momentarily lose his composure.

  The portions are meager. There is not enough food for the seven of them. After cleaning their plates, they look longingly at the little that remains. Phoebe takes the meat off her plate and puts it on Jacob’s plate.

  “Here, eat this.”

  The other children stare at the meat.

  “Not hungry,” he replies in a sickly way.

  “Try.”

  “Can’t. I’m nauseous.”

  Old Cornelius and Phoebe exchange a worried glance.

  Phoebe puts the meat on Cornele’s plate.

  “You take it.”

  Charlotte reacts immediately,

  “He always gets everything.”

  “Men’s work requires more meat.”

  “And what do we get? Sugar and spice?”

  “Keep it up and you’ll get the back of my hand.”

Cornele quickly devours the piece of meat. Phoebe pours milk about a third of the way up in each of the children’s glasses.

  Charlotte is not finished complaining.

  “Can I at least have more milk?”

  Phoebe pours the last of it into her glass. Charlotte continues to look expectantly.  

  “There isn’t any more.”

  “I’m hungry.”

  “Talk to your father about that.”

           She still hasn’t let up on his decision to sell Betsy, one of their two cows, for one of   his schemes. As usual, that money brought back nothing. Late at night, in bed, she’s told him a thousand times. She doesn’t mind the booze. It’s the gambling. Just because he loses it over a few months, rather then in one night, it’s the same. He’s gonna land them in the poor house yet. Now with Elsa, their other cow, not producing well…

     Jacob starts to cough again. Old Cornelius stands up and puts on his hat.

    “Where you going?” Phoebe asks him.

     “Out.”

     Without looking back, he closes the door behind him.

  No need for Phoebe to say anything. Old Cornelius storming out is a regular occurrence. She returns from the oven with a plate of steaming biscuits.

“One each.”

  The weather has cleared. The clouds left behind by the storm have made for a magnificent sunset. A schooner, its sails haloed in orange fills their front window.   Almost to touch the color Phoebe goes to the window. She wants to get a better look.

  “Come to the window.”

     Charlotte hardly glances. She knows what’s coming. She’s heard stories about her grandfather a thousand times too many.

   “Like the boat my father had. Some days I’d stand by the shore. Waiting…”

Cornele can’t take his eyes off the boat. In contrast to Charlotte, every time his mother talks about her father he enters into her memory like in a dream. It brings him to a better place. Like songs that sometimes play in his head, his pleasure multiplies each time the story gets repeated.

  The ship’s deep foghorn fills the airways.

  “I could hear him before I could see him. As soon as he entered the harbor, he’d sound the horn extra long for me.”

  The foghorn again sounds its deep extended bass.

“Still sends a thrill through me… It’s why I fell in love with this house… You can hear the ships’ horns, watch the ships come back from the sea.”

  She runs her fingers through Cornele’s hair, as she stares at the boat.

  “He was tall and strong like you…”

  She sees he is uncomfortable.

  “Go keep your father company.”

  Cornele hesitates.

  “He likes your company when he goes walking.”

  Cornele is still hesitant.

  “Believe me. He does. He told me. He used to like it when Jacob could go out with him.”

  She hands him his hat. Cornele takes it and reluctantly puts on his coat.

  Phoebe is pleased. She feels a little guilty for driving Cornelius from the dinner table. This will help. Cornele needs time together with his father when they’re not working. He can be a different person on his walks.

  “Here take this biscuit to your father.” She breaks off another half for him.

  “Preparing for a comment from Charlotte, she goes on the offensive.

“You can each have another half a biscuit.

Cornele catches up to his father. He is deep in a dark mood. They walk slowly, quietly along the shoreline, Cornele kicking pebbles along the way. It is now well into the sunset, the bay slowly changing from orange to red. They stare out over the water as small waves fold into the shore. The sound lures them into silence. It quiets Cornelius’ anger.

Cornele throws a pebble into the water.   A thin ping can be heard as it breaks the surface. Lit by the sunset, circles of color slowly expand from the pebble, becoming less intense, and then disappear.

Cornele measures his father’s mood cautiously. He is still uncertain what will come next. His father throws a pebble. It is again followed by a circle of color.

Cornele lets down his guard a bit. His father takes out a flask and gulps down a swallow of whiskey.

Cornele’s apprehension returns. Could be the beginning of trouble. Then suddenly, another schooner appears, slowly passing them on its way to docking in Manhattan. Ordinarily, Old Cornelius lacks the patience to nurture Cornele’s curiosity. He might begin with an educational purpose, but it too often turns into a lecture.   Interesting details fade, invariably replaced by a lesson aimed at his moral education. This soon becomes scolding, sometimes for things Cornele didn’t do. His father will acknowledge this, but he says its good for Cornele to listen anyway and learn. Old Cornelius can’t help himself. There is so much that needs fixing. There is so much anger in him at the injustice in the world.

   The one exception is ships. Like Phoebe he has a thing for ships. He points: “What is that called?”

  “The bow.”

“That?”   

“The jib sail.”

  The ship’s flag comes into view.

  “What country?”

  “Spain. That’s the Castilla.”

  Sure enough, soon is seen, written boldly, La Castilla adorning the bow.

  “See I told you.”

  “Your Ma says you can name every boat that comes into the harbor.”

“I can.”

“That’s how you use your time? Watching the boats?”

  “They go all over the world.”

  Old Cornelius says nothing but it is clear he is unimpressed.

   “Your Ma also tells me you like to wear your grandfather’s captain hat.”

  Cornele remains silent.

  “You’re too old to play baby games like that.”

  Another ship comes into view.

  Cornele calls out excitedly.

  “That one’s Dutch. It’s Dutch like us.

“Don’t you let your mother tell you any different. The English stole New York from us.” Frustrated, angry, determined he continues, “It should be New Amsterdam.”

  Cornele’s apprehension grows as the anger grows in his father’s voice.

  “Telling ya. I would sell Betsy again. Your Ma don’t understand. Ya can’t get anywhere working with your hands.   No future in it.”

  He looks at Cornele, not sure what he understands. Cornele is, in fact, not listening. He’s planning his escape route, should the drinking continue.

                                                        Chapter 2

                                                                 Late December 1876, a lifetime later.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is sitting on the side of his bed using a cane to support himself. A doctor has just completed his examination. Eighty-four, thin and pale, he groans in pain as he attempts to stand up. Yet, sick as he is, he still radiates authority.   His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it. When he feels irritation in his throat his raucously loud coughs take over the room.

Below his bedroom window, a mob of reporters has overflowed into the street at the front of his Manhattan townhouse. A newsboy can be heard outside calling out the tidings:

“Commodore Vanderbilt dying. Richest man in America very ill.”

Making it to a standing position, Vanderbilt heads towards the window. An extern, dressed in white, tries to help him, but he is waved away contemptuously.

The doctor begins to stir but thinks better of it.

Outside, someone is shouting “Commodore” over and over.

Vanderbilt mumbles to himself as he moves toward the window. He rubs away the frost with his pajama sleeve and looks out at the reporters.

“Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”

An organ grinder, with a leashed monkey sitting on his shoulder, cranks out a tune.

“A fucking carnival under my window.”

One of the reporters catches a glimpse of Vanderbilt and points. The result is a new round of shoving and pushing as each tries to secure a better position. Everyone’s shouting.

“Commodore.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt!”

Vanderbilt leaves the window.

The doorbell rings, a series of gongs.

“Pendleton. Get the door,” he shouts to the butler, as he makes his way to the second floor landing overlooking the entrance.

“Who is it?”

“A reporter,” Pendleton shouts back, “Mr. Michael Burch.”

Burch leans forward and looks up at the landing.

Vanderbilt moves into full view and straightens up.   Like a bear rising on its back legs, he appears doubly menacing.

“I ain’t dying you mother fucker.”

Calmly, Burch shouts up to him, “Sir, it’s Michael Burch.”

He waits for a response, but there isn’t any.

“Michael Burch. You asked me to come here… You liked my story about you in last week’s Sentinel…Said you wanted to tell me the rest…that ring any bells?”

“I read that article.” Vanderbilt shouts to him in a raspy voice. “I don’t remember asking you to come here.”

“Our readers want to know everything they can about you.”

“Sure they do. Especially, how I got my money. Probably think I have a secret which I’ll take to the grave.”

“Well, do you?”

“Just one. I tripped over a chest of diamonds and gold on Treasure Island when I was twelve. Been living off it ever since.”

“You’re a lucky man.”

“I wanted it enough. That’s how I done it.”

“Can’t be that simple.   You started with nothing.”

“Actually it is that simple. It ain’t the stuff you guys write about. I know it’s hard coming up with news.   Still! Ya ever get tired of bullshit?”

“We’re not all like that. Make you a deal. You tell the story straight and I’ll report it that way. Let our readers decide.”

“Decide what?”

“How you did it. That’s what people want to know.”

“There’s nothing unusual about it.”

“Nothing? You were better at making money then anyone that’s ever lived. People want to know about things like that.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“They’re looking for ideas. What’s wrong with that?”

“I ain’t no ‘how to’ person.”

“I’m sure you aren’t. But something made you succeed. It wasn’t just luck.”

“There was plenty of luck.”

“Not the way you kept multiplying your money. You did it for 70 years.”

Normally, flattery would turn Vanderbilt off, but since he’s become ill, he’s been more vulnerable to compliments.

“People want to figure out how come, what drove you on like that?”

“I’m trying to sort that out myself.”

“There’s a lot of stories floating around, not all of them nice.”

“Not all of it was nice. But none of it was crooked.”

“They say you could outsmart anyone.”

“That’s because everyone thought they were smarter than me. Dumber they think you are, the better you’ll do.”

“See that’s what people are looking for, advice. You have some more like that?”

“No. Only other thing is ya gotta be quick. Act before someone else gets the idea.”

“So you are cagey.”

“You want to call it cagey, go ahead.”

“Well what is it?”

“Who the fuck knows. I just do what I do.”

Vanderbilt starts to cough. He clears his chest and gathers his phlegm, forces the gunk out of his throat. He lets the phlegm

fly towards the spittoon. He hits his mark.

“Getting sick brings out new talents,” he says triumphantly.

“Do you see things differently since you got sick like this?”

“Probably.”

“Like what?”

“That I may be dying got me thinking about a lot of things. ”

“Is that on your mind a lot?” Burch asks with some genuineness.

“You really give a shit?”

Burch squirms a bit, which Vanderbilt ignores.

“Some days, it feels like I’m dying. Other days…I feel like a million bucks.   Like today.”

“You know the Herald is printing a daily report on your health. Been running it for the last month.”

“I know. The countdown. You can tell your editor I ain’t dying any time soon.”

Burch isn’t sure what Vanderbilt believes. His physical deterioration is striking, especially his pallor. Burch saw him at a function a year ago. It’s as if the person before him is someone else, taking measured steps, frail like a ghost.

“Since you are feeling good, how about an interview?”

“Truth is when I read your article I thought about doing an interview with you.

Give you this. Most reporters make up stories to fill in what they don’t know.   In your article you didn’t do that. What you wrote about me last week was true. Every bit of it.”

“I do my best.”

“I respect that.” Vanderbilt observes Burch as he absorbs the compliment. He continues.

“I need that. I want to set things straight. Never understood people my age writing memoirs. Now I do. I want the last word.”

“I can help you do that. People trust what I write.”

Vanderbilt seems perplexed.

“Is something wrong?”

“Sounds like I invited you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I really don’t remember doing that. Don’t remember it at all. I’m forgetting a lot of things lately. ”

“I was definitely told to come here.”

Thinking further: “Was probably my son, Bill. You got sons?”

Burch holds up two fingers, “Eight and ten.”

“Wait ‘til they get older and become pricks like Bill…”

“You really didn’t ask me to come?”

Vanderbilt isn’t listening.

“I’m sure it was Bill. The fuck has taken over. Convinced the doctors I’m senile. That’s put him in charge.”

He clears some more phlegm from his throat.

“Probably I’m not all there. But all that means is I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around here…Who wants to? I’m stuck with this body that ain’t worth shit. And the fact is, my memories are a thousand times more interesting than the people around me now.”

He takes several labored breaths, than continues. “I keep mentioning people my son’s never heard of. So what? He thinks my talking so much about the past is proof I’m a goner. The doctor agrees it’s a sign of senility. What they don’t get is, these people in the past happen to be the people I spent my life with.”

He hesitates to catch his breath.

“They mean something to me. I’m sorting things out with them. Finishing things up between us.”

“That matters to you?”

Vanderbilt doesn’t answer.

The extern, a tall young man, has followed him to the landing.

“Sir, I think you have to get back to bed.”

He grabs Vanderbilt’s arm trying to force him back to the bedroom. Over matched, Vanderbilt’s hand tightens on his walking stick as the extern begins to pull in earnest. He

cracks the extern on his head, a sharp glancing blow, and pulls his arm free.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” he spits out. “Who the fuck da ya think you are?”

The extern retreats.   Vanderbilt waits for him to leave the landing, which he does. He returns to the bedroom, leaving the door open.

“Shut that door!”

The intern ignores him. Vanderbilt returns his attention to Burch.

“Believe me, the people I’m thinking about are god damn’ more important than the assholes around here. Including Bill when he pokes his head in.”

He looks toward the bedroom.

“Put that down,” he shouts at the extern. He leaves the landing to retake possession of a urinal from the extern. He grabs it out of his hands. The extern gives him a patronizing glance, the same he gives to all the old biddies that he sees.

With Vanderbilt busy, Burch questions Pendleton, “Is he okay?”

“His mind’s sharp as a bell. Remembers everything. What’s changed is now he tells people things he used to keep private. Doesn’t care anymore.”

“Anything else?”

“The last 7 or 8 years the second Mrs. Vanderbilt had made him into a gentleman.”

Pendleton’s pride swells as he speaks.

“Should have seen him at 80, dapper, erect posture; he looked 60. They made quite a couple…Up until this illness. Now he’s more like he was before he married her, yelling and cursing as bad as he ever did.”

Having defeated the extern Vanderbilt returns invigorated. He shouts down to Burch.

“You can bring your ass up here. Except you gotta do one thing first. Tell your buddies to clear out. I want ‘em off my sidewalk.”

“Sir. The sidewalks are public property.”

“Fuck you Pendleton. Who asked you?”

Vanderbilt waits to catch his breath.

Outside someone shouts. “Burch got in!”

“Try it”

There is a knock on the door.

“Burch?” Vanderbilt yells down at him.

“Get rid of ‘em. And get them off my sidewalk.”

“Sir, most of them are not my friends out there.”

“I don’t give a shit. Next thing – they’re gonna invade this place.”

Two more knocks, this time louder, more insistent.

“Pendleton. Get that door and slam it in the man’s face. And none of your bullshit manners. See if you can catch one of his fingers or his nose.”

“Yes sir!”

“Then send someone to the precinct. Talk to Donahue.”

Shouting like he’d like to slap him on the ass, “Pronto!”

Pendleton mutters to Burch:

“He’s the same man.”

“One other thing, Pendleton. After you send someone to talk to Donahue, I want you to get my revolver from the gun case, walk to the back of the house and blow your brains out. And don’t make a mess!”

Pendleton winks at Burch.

“As you wish, great one.”

He adds cheerfully,“ Burch. You can have my story.”

Burch goes to a mirror, nervously slicks down his hair, straightens his tie, and then rushes up the stairs. The doctor, looking bedraggled, passes him on his way down. The doctor shakes his head in frustration. He has a sympathetic look of “you’re next.”

March 10, 2015
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Does Being Afraid Of An Angry Black Man or Crazy Black Teenager Constitute Racism?

I don’t know what to make of the current heated up denunciations of  racism in America.  I thought we were doing so well, then Ferguson, followed by Eric Garner’s death and all of a sudden white society has again been  on trial.  Is it deserved?   White people, like any other people are no angels.  Still I think the criticism of white people has gone way too far.

I am not happy I believe  that.  At best, defending white society right now is taken by others to be complacent. It hints at a certain insensitivity to black people’s hardships, and what else could that be but racism?  I must be harboring it or else  I would be as impassioned as the commentators on CBS news, NBC, ABC and  PBS, alarmed that racism has not been eradicated.

Yet, the facts about what happened in Ferguson have proven to be irrelevant to the plight of black people, truly a non event, in the great halls of black history.  Compared to the injustice of Selma, and  many other examples of white brutality  in the past, the story of what happened in Ferguson  is not an example of white cruelty towards black people    Oficer Wilson was justifiably defending himself.

After hearing the results of the autopsy of Michael Brown,  it turns out that he was not attempting to give up when he was shot.  He was in a fury.  He had punched Officer Wilson in the face, and tried to wrestle  his gun away from him.  There were powder burns on his hands from when the gun went off as he tried to grab it in the policeman’s car.  The  bullet entry angles unequivocally  proved he did not have his hands up when he was shot.  Those who claimed he was surrendering were not credible witnesses.  Their stories were full of contradictions.   Brown was 280 lbs, and 6’5″ and he had decided that rather then run or hide from the officer, as his friend had done, he would  charge at the officer.  Many witnesses concurred about that. Here is a video of Michael Brown beating up an old black man. Here is a video of him stealing from a convenience store and bullying the clerk.  This happened shortly before Officer Wilson confronted him

Officer Wilson had never used his gun before.  If he didn’t use it, his children would have grown up without a father.  Scared for his life, he shot, and when that didn’t stop the charge he shot again and again.

The local grand jury spent an unusual amount of time studying the evidence.  Grand jury hearings are usually kept private.  Out of respect for the sensitivity of the situation, the evidence was made public.  All of it.  Didn’t matter.  The national  news,  implied that not only was the officer lying, the District Attorney was suspect.  After all, when the district attorney  was a boy of 12, his policeman father had been killed by a black man.  The whole proceeding was a farce, but then what can you expect in white America?

Obama sent his top  Justice Departmentpeopleto check on the grand jury’s conclusions.  Their pathologist did his own autopsy,   They interviewed witnesses themselves, some of whom told them they were afraid of giving testimony that contradicted what was in the news.  When they went over the facts of the case, the Justice Department agreed that Officer Wilson’s account of his shooting of Michael Brown  was accurate.   Defending himself was completely justifiable.  The truth about what happened was clear.  But Holder’s Justice Department report worked a new angle.  The reason that the people of Ferguson would not accept the grand jury’s conclusions was that the Ferguson Police Department was so racist that people from Ferguson couldn’t be expected to accept the facts.  Even after two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

Not exactly Mr. President.  That is not nearly enough. Not even close.  As president of all the people, it is his duty to get at the heart of this story, to proclaim the innocence of the policeman. Especially  after  two policeman were killed in New York City, by a killer enraged by what he had been told happened in Ferguson.  We have a new Obama.  Apparently lately, as we can see with his recent reaction  to Israel, his long standing antipathies are  no longer easily quieted.  Apparently his anger about racism has  far more remaining venom  than we suspected.  I suppose that must mean that the degree of racism in the white community has gotten completely out of hand and he can no longer be silent.  Or have things become more comfortable so that he doesn’t have to try to be objective?

If white racism is out of control I just don’t see it.   True I am white and couldn’t possibly understand what blacks have been through.  But still I don’t see intolerance towards black people growing.  I don’t understand why now, why black people are indignant all over again (although in truth, as opposed to what I see on TV I haven’t been particularly struck by the anger of black people I meet).  I am mostly struck by the media’s anger, their usual mob psychology reaction, their wailing over white people’s racism.  I am struck by  liberal politicians  delight, their willingness to grant pundit status to left wing white and black hot heads, stirring the craziness into a frenzy.

Not just the likes of Reverend Sharpton who was suddenly meeting with President Obama, but every politico spouting phony statistics about white policemen’s war against black men, every black mother frightened that their child might be the next unarmed black victim, The whole package of anger and fear, the claims of injustice are seen as having an understandable reaction.  For those enraged about Ferguson, it  doesn’t seem to matter  that Ferguson, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, remains  a symbol of white racism.  Perhaps it is not true in this case, but what about all the other killings of black people we are hearing about.  Ferguson is the tip of the iceberg critics tell us.  The main point is police everywhere in America are killing unarmed black teenagers.  They are harassing innocent law abiding young black men simply because they are black.  Speaking before he met with President Obama about Ferguson and the Garner incident, Mayor Deblasio of New York had this to say:

We’ve lost so many young men of color, young men who should still be alive and with us today, and its clawing at us—it’s clawing at people of all backgrounds. There’s a sense that there’s something wrong in this country that’s going unaddressed…The broader problems that would be discussed at the White House were due to “centuries of racism.”

To me it is astounding that despite what is known,  Ferguson  did not fade away as a hot item.  It is still mentioned in the media as a civil rights cause?  Never mind the media.  By now I would have thought that moderate black leaders would have stepped forward and tried to calm things down. Where is Oprah?  Where is Mayor Dinkins, and Governor Patterson of New York?  Why aren’t black moderates speaking out about Ferguson.  It’s the question Americans asked about Muslims after 9/11.  I assume moderates  fear being labeled as Uncle Toms, accused of denying just how bad racism is in America.  They would be denounced for having sold out.  They got theirs, so sure, what does it matter what the rest of their people have to go through . They’re as bad as the 1%.  Rich apologists that just don’t get it.  This kind of fear of taking on hot issues has become commonplace in America,  the direct result of  the frenzy, the mob psychology that the  media apparently likes to engender.

Certainly the relationship in our country between blacks and whites is not perfect, but I will dare to mutter a PC forbidden claim, the automatically dismissed claim of apologists.  Black people have come a long way,  far beyond anything I might have expected in the 60’s, when Martin Luther King had a dream.  So have white people in their attitudes.  Americans have elected a black president.  Oprah is one of our most respected public figures.  They have elected Deblasio mayor of New York.  His black wife was irrelevant to the voters. Or, it may have been a  plus with the voters.

The lack of racist  attitudes in white people  goes far beyond that.  Turn on the TV during the daytime.  Put on a few game shows or talk shows. Bob Barker is long gone.  Charming, cheerful, friendly, confident  black men and women are often the host or hostess of these confections.  And not because the networks are trying to do a good deed.  These hosts and hostesses are genuinely welcomed into the homes of Americans.  They wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t do the job.  They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t liked in TV land  And these are Americans’ casual acquaintances.   The signs of progress go way beyond simple acceptance.   Many of today’s heroes, many superstars, the stuff of legends, are amazingly often African American athletes and entertainers.  Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, and before his current difficulties, Bill Cosby.  They are embraced.  Chris Rock fills up concert halls with biting jokes about whites that go to the gut.  He ain’t no goody-goody gooing up people’s feeling with platitudes.  He receives thunderous applause.  Who does not embrace Morgan Freeman, in what has become  one of our most beloved American movies, Shawshank Redemption? It is love we feel for him.  The same love Jimmy Stewart  gets around Christmas time for It’s a Wonderful Life  How can we be a racist society when there are so many examples of how we are not?

I’m going to bring forward some statistics that are rarely mentioned in the discussion of white racism.  Americans have been willing to spend 22 trillion dollars since Lyndon Johnson’s  war on poverty began.  That is not a small sum when we consider how aware we are of the collapsing infra structure around us. We don’t have the money to fix it.  Yet we still elect congressman who place help to the poor as a higher priority than new bridges and highways.  Moreover, a good proportion of the families of individuals taxed by the government to help the poor are like me.  True, as a New Yorker I tend to only know Jews and other ethnics.  But our grandparents came to America long after slavery was abolished.   They cannot be held responsible for what went on in America before they came.  Yet so morally repugnant was American slavery, so great did blacks suffer at the hands of white masters, so horrendous was the misdeeds of Southerners in the century following the Civil War, and so poor have so many black people remained, that even though historically we are not responsible for the terrible abuse of black people, we feel, and  apparently most Americans feel, that special treatment, huge programs costing  huge sums of money  is owed to black people.  It is the least we can do.

True, the money spent on the poor has not only helped black people.  Forty eight percent of the poor are white.   And much of the money has gone into the pockets of  government bureaucrats, many of them white. But I would argue that a significant portion of the  population believed, and still believes, that the government was and  is spending  most of that  money trying to help black people. There is a reason for this belief.

Our vastly ambitious poverty programs only began to capture enormous sums of money in the context of the civil rights struggle.  In many people’s minds, correctly or not, they are one and the same thing .  My point is not to quibble over the numbers.  It is simply the point that accusing  Americans of  being racist, and still being racists,  after their (for most part good hearted) efforts to empathize with, and help black people, does not qualify as a fair assessment of white people’s behavior.  Indeed, no other group in our history has received so much public help.  There were no affirmative action programs for uneducated Jews and Italians and Irish, coming over on the boats.  They, and their children, were expected to make it on their own, come what may.   Kikes and the Wops and  Miks were kept out of country clubs, out of Wall Street, out of executive positions in large corporations.  Their numbers were kept low at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.  Even at Columbia in the middle of New York City, Lionel Trilling was the first tenured Jewish professor in the English Department.  It wasn’t until  the 1940’s that this acceptance was shown to a Jew.  Although he did not, as rumored, change his name, he, like most intellectuals of the time, did not betray his Bronx accent.  And this from a man who was obsessed with authenticity.   The times demanded a certain persona.

Black people have every reason to remember and hate the persecution they have suffered.   Discrimination against meritorious individuals can never be justified.  But given the mistreatment of ethnics, there was never a program to have  Jewish contractors, or Italian contractors shown preference by government programs trying to equal things out.  They  were never beneficiaries of large government programs attempting to eradicate their misfortune.  Nothing compares to what was done, and is still being done to help black people.  Perhaps it is too much to hope for a giant thank you, but at least a modicum of recognition would help the cause of better understanding, rather than incessant accusations that we live in a racist society.

We should not underestimate the effectiveness of our poverty programs. According to the2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, at the beginning of the War on Poverty, only about 12 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Nearly three-quarters have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.[9]
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and a quarter have two or more.
  • Half have a personal computer; one in seven has two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • Forty-three percent have Internet access.
  • Forty percent have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • A quarter have a digital video recorder system such as a TIVO.
  • Ninety-two percent of poor households have a microwave

It is not just gadgets and toys that the poor are managing to obtain for themselves.  When it comes to necessities America’s poor are well served.  Despite impressions to the contrary, most of the poor do not experience undernutrition, hunger, or food shortages. Information on these topics is collected by the household food security survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA survey shows that in 2009:

  • Ninety-six percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.
  • Some 83 percent of poor families reported that they had enough food to eat.
  • Some 82 percent of poor adults reported that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money to buy food.
  • As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and in most cases is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels.
  • Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.[

True enough, the average white person can’t figure out where  all the money is going that they pay  in their taxes.   The left shouts  that it is the Pentagon eating up the money, but adjusted for inflation, spending on the war on poverty  (which does not include Social Security or Medicare) is three times the cost of all U.S. military wars since the American Revolution.

So again I come to the same question, why now is there  incessant talk about American racism?  I really don’t  know. I have a wild theory that the complaints are a sign of how far Blacks have come.  I say this  because  Jews, intimidated  by non Jews, only began to speak loudly  about anti-semitism in the 60’s ( even about the holocaust) when they were, at last,  being accepted into society as a whole.  They were too frightened before that.  Other speculations:  Has the bad economy, in the last few years, hit black people so much worse than whites? Maybe.  I  am still bewildered that  whites in this country  so easily agree with the charges.  Or don’t dare disagree. It is completely against the evidence to  glibly assert that the average American is a racist.    There are   problems between black and whites that can be understood as manifestations of white prejudice.   The average American is not color blind.  He may have one or two friendships with black people, but he may not.  And he may choose to live in neighborhoods where he doesn’t need to worry about low class blacks’ criminal activity.  He may have liberal attitudes about black’s civil rights, but if he lives in Manhattan, he most likely considers it a necessity for his children to be educated in a predominantly white private school.  It is fair enough to say that such people probably would prefer that their kids have exposure to black classmates, preferably middle class black children, but even poor black children are acceptable if the numbers are kept to a reasonable proportion.

It is also fair to say that most white people are afraid of lower class black crime and violence.  And I will push this beyond what white people are allowed to say.  Black crime and violence are the biggest problem for  them.  It is even more of a problem for honest hard working black people .  They  too dream of getting out of their lousy neighborhoods so they won’t have to worry that their kids will get shot on the way to school.  If they are ambitious, they want their children  to be exposed to  children who are striving to get a decent education, without being considered a nerd by the ruffians in their classroom.  That presumably was the point of busing, giving poor black kids a chance to be exposed to white kids’ behavior and  values.  I mentioned black entertainers and athletes as heroes for white people,  Do white people also have an ambivalent admiration for  poor black culture, for gangsta rap and clothing styles.  They do.  There is something exciting, something liberating about people who don’t live according to the rules.  This didn’t begin with black hoods.  Edward G. Robinson, James Garfield, Italian gangsters in Mafia movies similarly  captured the public imagination, just as a century before, Europeans were thrilled by American Indians, noble savages who defied civilization’s constraints.  We all have a part of ourselves that hates having to behave, that would like to go wild as hippies once did, singing and dancing and having sex where and when we choose.

But it also frightens us.  Again, when our minds wrap around the subject we  don’t want to be exposed to the violence of lower class black culture.  The numbers are shocking.  While so much has been made of police “racism” particularly after Ferguson and the Trevon Martin case,  nationwide  123 black people were killed by the police in 2009 and that includes many violent criminals.  Since Trevon Martin’s death, 11,000 black men were killed by other black men.  There is reason for white people and black people to be frightened by this violence.  And this is since the homicide rate has drastically decreased in recent years. There is reason for anyone to not want to live anywhere near it.

Is this “racism?” The term  obscures more than it clarifies.  The problems between blacks and whites are too important to be swept up in categories used   by the mind numbing language  of media hysteria.

If we are going to look at things like they are, we can’t have a discussion about racism without including the effect that black crime and violence has had, not only on black communities ( where the consequences are far worse) but the fear it creates in white communities. The 1988 presidential campaign where Willie Horton became a symbol of  black crime had a powerful political influence that is still behind many white programs   Out of respect for black people, white politicians no longer go there.  But the   criminality and violence of lower class blacks  cannot be dismissed as something that racist America has invented. It is real and has consequences.

Where I am going  to say next is on the taboo list of subjects writers and polite people are not supposed to bring up.  But here it is,  the dirty little secret known by every one but no longer brought up  lest they be considered racist.

Every black person  had to suffer in silence through many years of white mistreatment, so it is understandable that now, as their condition has improved   they are speaking so loudly whenever there is an example of their mistreatment by white society.  And well they should.  The quicker you jump on examples of mistreatment the better off you will be.  It will cut it off before it has a chance to spread. One would think that the same goes in the other direction, whenever black people mistreat white people

“An analysis of ‘single offender victimization figures’ from the FBI for 2007 found blacks committed 433,934 crimes against whites, eight times the 55,685 whites committed against blacks. Interracial rape is almost exclusively black on white — with 14,000 assaults on white women by African Americans in 2007. Not one case of a white sexual assault on a black female was found in the FBI study.”

Though blacks are outnumbered 5-to-1 in the population by whites, they commit eight times as many crimes against whites as the reverse. By those 2007 numbers, a black male was 40 times as likely to assault a white person as the reverse.

How much of that crime is motivated by racism, by black hatred of whites?   Probably, not most of it.  A lot of crime is simply going where the money is, knowing who is easiest to hit.  It has nothing to do with anger at whites.  Given their relative affluence we would expect whites to be the target.  However,  the rape figures, obviously means something more.  What would civil rights demonstrators  say if 14,000 black women were raped and assaulted by white men in one year?  The Tawana Brawley case got a very emotional reception by the media even though it turned out to have not occurred.  What about 14,000 Tawana Brawley incidents that actually occurred ?

My black doorman in Park Slope thought the media coverage following Ferguson, emphasizing the danger that policemen represent to black teenagers  was ridiculous.  When he gets off from work at 2AM and has to return to his neighborhood, he is thrilled to spot a policeman, black or white patrolling the streets.  He used to be nervous when he saw a bunch of teenagers with their sweatpants hung low showing their crack.   That has let up, since most of them are now in jail, an improvement in the community that he credits the police for.  He understands that many completely innocent black teenagers have been hassled by the police as never before, stopped and searched, and still worse, that too many innocent black men (who had jobs!) are now in jail because they  had pot on them when they were frisked.  But he doesn’t see that as a manifestation of racism.  He sees it as an unfortunate consequence of a police crackdown that has resulted in a dramatic decrease in homicides and crime. The streets of his neighborhood are no longer owned by drug dealers with  fancy cars.  Gangs are a horrible problem, but crime is way way down.  Indeed it is so far down, that generation Xers feel completely safe in Harlem, Crown Heights, even Bed Sty.  The decrease in crime has led to a new problem, gentrification.  Segregation is breaking down, which he likes.  He enjoys his increasing comfort with white people.  He and I have become sort of buddies, talking politics and the like.  I brought him latkes on Chanukah, and birthday cake from my wife’s birthday party.  I’ve learned a lot and so has he.

Growing up in the 50’s I had little contact with black people, but when  I thought of them it was with uniformly positive feelings, mainly the result of my Jewish upbringing.  The Jews knew what it was to be hated, to be an underdog.  So that was extended to black people automatically.  In junior high school there were few black students, but invariably one of them was elected president of the class, by their Jewish classmates.  In college the few black students on campus were members of Jewish fraternities .

Coming from that kind of background, in my leftist days I was Bronx chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights.  I did tutoring.  Began a lead poisoning project.  I started a health careers program,  which mentored   280 kids  from the slums with 70 counselors, medical students, social workers, inhalation therapist  even some of the professors at Einstein.  The kids were let into the operating room while surgery was being performed.  They spent an afternoon with X ray technicians.  Etc.  It was a spectacularly successful program run on a budget of 0.  Later it was funded by the Macy foundation, but I founded it with no grants, no help, just good intentions.

But I must also report that my idealism was soon greatly tempered by reality. In 1967  I had a surgery rotation at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.  That same year the 41st precinct in the South Bronx had been named Fort Apache, a name that lasted until 1975 when the area was essentially burned down.  I was astounded by what I was seeing in the emergency room,  the number of patients being brought in with gunshot wounds, stabbings, women and children, old people and young men, their faces smashed in by heavy blunt instruments, or repeated punches to their  face.  Everywhere was rage and  hatred.

I had never witnessed anything like it.  It was impossible to maintain my sentimental liberalism about black people after that.  I had read about all of this and knew it existed, but until then it was never real.  I could easily dismiss it as a consequence of the way black people had been treated.  This was a time when firemen answering a call in the Bronx often had rocks thrown at them.  On the streets cars were double and triple parked, many of them abandoned, windows broken, stripped of their wheels and any other hardware that could be sold or destroyed.  Graffiti was the least of the problems there.  Garbage was everywhere.  On the few occasions when white people drove through these areas, their car  doors were always locked.  And indeed the doors of neighborhoods throughout the city had double and triple locks and iron bars on the windows.

Growing up, before the violence got out of hand,  my mother actually had a  black friend, a woman at work, Viola, (coincidentally she was Rap Brown’s aunt)  She liked Viola because they had a lot in common, but that was it. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t, like other Jews (actually everyone but the Italians,who guarded their streets as if defending their country)  flee to a safer neighborhood when black people began to move in to the neighborhood.  We have  cities everywhere where downtowns were deserted by whites out of fear that black people were moving in.  And  it wasn’t, as is often said,  property values.  For the most part,  the abandoned neighborhoods, for  example  the Grand Concourse in the Bronx consisted of renters rather than owners of property.  I know these people and I don’t remember any snobbishness about black people, any derogatory remarks.  I remember fear.  Was this flight from black people  racism?    Or common sense.   Not just white people but black people wanted out of their poverty stricken neighborhoods if they could afford to pull it off and found a receptive place to move to.

Since so much has been made of the police picking on and killing black people I think tany discussion of their behavior  has to include the part played by black crime and violence.  To begin with, it is unfair to take policemen’s treatment of black people as a reflection of a more general white racism.   Their interaction with black people in crime infested neighborhoods is  a unique situation   It should be   separated  as an entirely independent issue.  Unlike other members of society who can avoid black crime and violence, they can not run in the opposite direction.  They have to directly confront disorder, drunk and angry individuals, bring them under control.   We can avoid them.

I am no fan of policemen.  Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the street with his stolen cigars, which is what attracted the attention of the Officer Wilson in the first place. All hell broke loose, when  Officer Wilson ordered him on to the sidewalk.

Obviously this young man was looking for trouble. Videos of him in the convenience store where he openly stole cigars show him forcefully shoving a clerk who tried to stop him.  He made no effort to sneak out with his stolen goods.  Is it possible there was a certain degree of racism in the voice of the policeman, that as some claimed, he told him to “fucking” get on the sidewalk?   Had the man been white and drunk, walking in the middle of the street,  would the officer have spoken more understandingly? I think it is entirely possible, but I have seen a white boy speak disrespectfully to an officer in Forest Hills Queens 30 years ago. I watched as the policeman went crazy, jumping on top of the white boy, hitting him over the head again and again with his nightstick with every bit of hatred the policeman had in his arms.

I have had run ins with the police myself, over nonsense. Afterwards, I played the scene in my head. How dare he speak to me like that. I am a physician, an upstanding member of the community. I was standing on my front lawn.  Didn’t he know who he was speaking to? The creep wasn’t going to back down.  He became angry when I tried to reason with him. He threatened to arrest me if I didn’t shut up and he would have.  Without going into the details I was in the right, but that is irrelevant.  In that kind of situation with the police, the only option is to obey.  It is obey or else.  Most people  may not like it, but they know how they are expected to act.  The policeman is  in charge.

There is no question that some police are bull headed and bullies.  They have the power and they are all too ready to use it. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that if I punched the policeman on my lawn in the face, and I was twice as big as him, and I just might be out of my mind with fury, I’d have been a dead white man.  I’d be one of the statistics for white men killed by the police. According to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the span of more than a decade, (1999-2011) 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks.

Policemen have dangerous jobs.  They face the worst elements of our society again and again and again. Possibly, Officer Wilson,  if he kept his cool,  could have shot Brown in the legs.  Policemen who lose their cool  should be assigned desk duty. The same applies to soldiers who, during a war situation go ape and start shooting wildly, possibly killing innocents. Such people  might be fine men  in ordinary circumstances but if they can’t keep their cool should they have a gun? My Uncle Lester ordinarily a sweet man,  never left England during World War II.   While on guard duty there he kept discharging his machine gun every time he heard a suspicious sound. Terrified people don’t think things over. They react from their gut. That doesn’t make them criminals. Certainly Officer Wilson  didn’t start out his evening thinking; “ I think I’m going to go out and kill me an unarmed black teenager.”  To reiterate, this was the first time he ever used his gun.

After the Justice Department indicted Ferguson, they were asked by the police chief of Philadelphia to take a look at his department.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25.

So what does this mean?  Obviously, white policemen should have maximum exposure to black members of the community in situations where there isn’t a confrontation going on.  They have to put a human face on the individuals they are asked to control.  They have to learn disciplined responses to disorderly situations. Training, training, training. But, in the real world, a lot depends on the individual  experiences the policemen might have had.  A few of the policemen may have begun their job with a prejudice against blacks that carried through whatever their experiences.  But I have to assume that even if a policeman began with a very sweet attitude towards blacks and the rest of the human race, seeing the worst behavior of human beings day in and day out, is going to toughen them up, and greatly decrease their ability to empathize  with the plight of black ruffians.  Old black people, children, abused women, sure compassion is easy to be elicited  by them. This is the reason they are there, to help the victimized. But clearly the statistics I cited above show that faced with situations where suspects are out of control, the issue is not racism.  Given their willingness to try to bring violent and chaotic situations under control it is unfair to treat them without regard for where they are coming from.

One other point.  The news is full of videos depicting policemen losing their temper and punching suspects while they are already subdued.  This shouldn’t occur.  Everyone was furious at the choke hold put on Eric Garner.  He should have never died.  It is truly a tragedy for his family.  But does anyone seriously think the policemen were choking him when he kept saying I can’t breathe?  He had asthma.  The officers arresting him could have been more verbal in giving him directions about what they expected, but what I saw on the video was an awkward situation where a 300 lb man fell to the ground taking everyone with him.  I can’t believe the hatred implicit in the belief that the police intentionally were choking him to death.   I have seen a  video on CBS News of a black honor student with a bloodied forehead.  He was apparently drunk and arrested.   Scott Pelfrey of the CBS  showed the bloodied forehead and immediately went to Ferguson and the Selma march (the anniversary of which black people were commemorating at the time).  Quite a dramatic story.   Let me explicitly take my position.  I wish police arrests were always smooth and considerate.  I wish if physical force is necessary, the police would have exquisite control of their arms and legs and bodies, and be able to  to subdue an uncooperative suspect with laser like accuracy with not a mark on them.  I wish their hands would never form a fist, and they  would never lose their temper  and take out their frustrations  on the person they are trying to arrest.  I don’t doubt if, on that particular day, they had some very nice interactions with suspects, they might be more gentle on the next person.  But if the last time, they got punched hard or had an elbow in the eye, it is very possible that they will take it out during the next arrest.  Should they try to be rational and calm at all times?  Should they receive training to do so?  Should we never give up on trying to improve things?  Of course  But fair is fair.  The media has no right to stir up the hatred they seem to love  to engender.  It doesn’t solve the problem.  If I were a policeman right now I would have long ago quit.  But then I am a sensitive type and policemen can’t afford to be sensitive.  They’d land up dead.

The Philadelphia statistics  throw the ball back to black  communities.  These situations between the police and black young men and teenagers are going to keep happening until black violence subsides.  There is hope.  I remember when I was young, when us Jews in junior high did not fear black people.  We feared Italians.  They picked on us.  They were in gangs.  I remember the Corona Dukes.  There was lot of violence coming from them.  They were the tough guys, the boxers and mobsters.  And I remember the police picking on them.  That is all over now.  I assume the same thing will eventually happen with black people.

As I started this essay, I noted that I am very impressed by how far we have come.  Rocks are no longer thrown at firemen.  Neighborhoods are no longer being burnt down (except in Ferguson where 9 stores were set ablaze after the grand jury decision).

It goes much further than that.  The last 25 years has seen an enormous improvement for a sizable number of black people.  Members of my children’s generation have had, and still have good black friends.  There is intermarriage.  They have marched into black neighborhoods, perhaps hoping for gentrification, (as an investment) but have had very little fear.  (My son lived in Bed Sty.)  They wouldn’t walk the streets at 3 AM, but otherwise they feel reasonably safe with black neighbors all around.  There are reasons for that.  Crime rates have dropped enormously.  Most of the punks in the bad neighborhoods are no longer strutting about, spreading fear everywhere, including causing black people to be afraid.  The really bad dudes are in jail.   The local drug dealer is no longer sporting his fine wheels  on the street corner.   He is in jail.  Tough guys have had to join gangs for protection.

I’ll know things have improved even more if I were to see non gay black men in Prospect Park walking  Laboradoodles instead  of  pit  bulls or Rottwillers.  Or if there are no longer reports of black athletes  having to carry guns at nightspots.  Obviously fear motivates the dog walkers in Prospect Park with gangster dogs or macho or some other persona, but in my admittedly infrequent contacts in the park with black dudes, I am usually not  frightened in the slightest.  The culture of the before 9 AM off the leash dog walkers of Prospect Park is extremely peaceful  and harmonious.  For that matter so is the subway from Park Slope to Manhattan.  White people are outnumbered 10:1, but  I haven’t once felt fear in the subway in the last 10 years.  No need to look at the floor.  Most black people are friendly.  I imagine because the bad ones are in jail, but still there is real black-white community on the 2 and 3 train and the Q.  The black teen agers are either on their way to work (or a party), or trying to earn a few bucks by doing acrobatics on the poles or overhangs.    They are not looking to scare anyone and they are not scared of the white faces they meet.  I think they are the greatest.

Even though what Republicans have to say more often appeals to me than what Democrats vote for, I voted for Obama not because I agreed with his policies, but because I thought his election would do a lot for the self esteem of black people, particularly young people.   I am still rooting for them, for their nightmare to be over, for them to feel they can fight their way out of the hopelessness surrounding them.  I am not unusual in having those sentiments. Like many Americans I teared up at Obama’s inauguration.  I was proud of America, optimistic about our future.  I don’t expect kudos for my generous hopes for black people.  I’m sure there are elements of prejudice hiding beneath the surface of my self scrutiny, like there undoubtedly are among most white people.  And black people in their attitudes about white people  But I will defend myself and white society when our good intentions are dismissed as bullshit

When my father was very sick, my elderly mother told me she grew to love Nan, this black woman who helped care for him.  She was moved by this woman’s  love for my  father and her desire to help my mother.  She felt genuine grief at Nan’s funeral. You don’t meet that many people who you love.  That wasn’t my mother being sentimental because Nan was black.  Nor was it an attempt to strengthen her liberal credentials.  My mother couldn’t care less about political nonsense.  She just loved Nan.

That is the only way.  One on one.  I am not asking my liberal Manhattan friends to take their kids out of private schools and stop bullshitting about their liberalism.  One relationship at a time.  That’s how the real thing happens, when it becomes silly to categorize feelings as racist or not racist.  People are just people.  Do I wish I had known more black people over the years?  I suppose, but I also wish I knew more Italians and Japanese, and more Goyim.

 

 

 

 

February 12, 2015
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

About my book: The Fear of Death

                                         The Fear of Death  

An argument  with Freud, and a reconsideration of his  ideas.  This book is an attempt to   introduce the obvious into psychoanalytic theory, that the fear of death plays a seminal role in our psychology.   Freud had a powerful  fear of death.  Yet he dismissed its importance in his theories about our motivations.  This despite the fact that  it was, by far, his most pressing neurotic symptom.   It was the lurking monster in his most frightening and famous dream, the Dora dream. He looks into his patient Dora’s throat and discovers a horrifying lesion that he had missed. Like the Pharoah questioning Joseph, he has to understand what that dream means.

It takes hold of him, drives him to work on what  will become “The Interpretation of Dreams.”   The extent to which Freud had no choice  about this undertaking can best be appreciated  from his  letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  He describes a process of working   “to which every effort of thought has to be given and which gradually absorbs all other capacities and the ability to receive impressions– a sort of neoplastic substance that enters into one’s humanity and then replaces it.  With me it is even more so.  Work and earning  are identical with me–so that I have become wholly carcinoma…my existence from now on is that of a neoplasm.” (Jones 1953)

A strange image describing one’s work, work that was later to be  recognized as inspired.    Eventually, what his dream meant became clear.  The location of the lesion in the back of Dora’s throat was to be the exact spot that Freud’s throat cancer developed many years later. Had he felt a tickle there from his cigar smoking and then dreamt about it.  Apparently. He had looked into the mouth of death.  The cancer eventually killed him.

“The Interpretation of Dreams” is usually considered the birth of psychoanalysis.  Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” He  brilliantly wrestled with what he found there,  asked many of the right questions. He  came up with many right answers.  But if his search for clarity about  dreams, and the working of the unconscious,  was induced by the Dora dream, what influence did it have on the body of his work ? He correctly discovered that in their dreams, unencumbered by the  deliberate mind  that occupies our daytime consciousness, his patients’ unsatisfied sexual cravings push to be fulfilled.  The evidence was everywhere.  But what about their fear of death? Certainly, many people are awakened by a dream in which they are about to die. There is much to learn from these dreams.  Appreciating the reality of death, makes life more meaningful.  It makes one’s relationships, one’s work, one’s discoveries all the more valuable.

Or trivial.  But whatever one’s reaction, it is not possible to understand a person through their  dreams without considering their relationship to their death.  How could someone  describing their work as a cancer, with an openly admitted  powerful fear of death, ignore this aspect of the dream’s meaning and dismiss the fear of death as a major part of our psychology.

I have no answer, but clearly, he was wrong. It is not hard to find the fear of death constantly addressed in men’s thinking.  It is usually transformed, put in a  positive perspective. The best example is religion; to get rid of the fear of death, the Aztec’s practiced human sacrifice to appease the angry Gods.

Century after century, Christians worried about their future after death.    Transformed by religious doctrine, they were tormented  with the dark possibilities awaiting them when they died. They were pious (or resolved to follow that path) in order to assure a  place in heaven.   But that wasn’t easy.  Few men are entirely innocent.  Especially in the past they were terrified  that their moments of giving into temptation might land them in hell.  

Even those quietly pious had their moments.  Immortality is the cornerstone of Christianity, its most powerful ideal.  Hundreds of millions of Bibles have been read, studied and  held dear. (in contrast to this book which makes no promises)   Christ promised his believers would live forever. What else has to be said to the fearful flock?

 Today we see a revival of that passion.  Isis members have been willing to  fight ferociously and fearlessly,  offer themselves for suicide missions, with the belief they will achieve the opposite result of their fear. They are guaranteed a heaven that is  quintessentially the opposite of a revered Muslim life.  Life as they have known it has centered on strictly imposed  sexual suppression.  It drives them crazy.  Makes them turn on those who have given in.  Yes they stone adulterers, but their own path is not a bed of roses.   Young men, trying to defy their powerful hormonal push,  pray several times a day to keep themselves under control.

How difference it is in Allah’s dynasty, where they will receive their reward.   Not one, not two, 72 virgins await them in heaven after they die.  It beats the promises of Jesus where heaven has never been adequately imagined.  Angels playing harps?   I suppose that means, paradise consists of innocence completely restored.  Essentially asexual composure awaits the virtuous  Is this the best reward Christ can offer?

 Modern Western secular consciousness is quite different.  Since the existence of God is dubious,  happiness  in this life is all we have.  So that is what we pursue.   The fear of death is resolved very differently.  Virtuous behavior is redefined (exercise, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and the most virtuous of all,  “organic” food).  This belief system is transformative  in religion’s usual ways.    Fantastic beliefs are bought and believed,  logic and evidence tossed away.

That is not a problem.  Whatever bargaining, compromising, and self deception is required, when it comes to religion, the mind is up to the task. Faith and spirituality invariably trump common sense.  Or any and all evidence. Information about nutrition and exercise,  has run in a thousand different directions,  with an astounding number of  easily tested ideas going unchallenged.   

 As might be expected, when it comes to religion, people can  go over board.  In its modern incarnation some people become fanatical about the organic purity of their food.  They become “glaat” kosher.  Many become sanctimonious, outraged by the lack of healthy eating by others. Or they are angry that corporate agribusiness is poisoning them. The inventory they do of their soul would not be recognizable by the conventionally religious  Their virtues and vices are measured  by whether or not they gave in to temptation and ate that slice of pizza, or whether they forgoed their morning workout.

Whatever language we use, the fear of death insinuates itself into our consciousness, demanding solutions.   Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer a  solution to the basic problem.  As Woody Allen put it  “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work.  I want to be immortal by living forever.”

 

P.S.   Readers seeking great wisdom, (or any wisdom at all) about how to cope with death or dying should look elsewhere.  This book is specifically concerned with developmental psychoanalytic theory.  Twenty-five years ago that was  my passion.  I spent five years writing this book.  It is an interesting primer for those wanting to dive into Freud’s and my thinking about a host of subjects too varied to easily summarize.  I hope it has my usual passion to lay bare mysteries that are unnecessarily ineffable.  I once believed that truth is unmistakably helpful and important,  a virtue of the highest order. I have had no choice.  It is what I must do for reasons unknown to me.  Now I only half believe it is crucial.  Kindness is more important.

January 10, 2015
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

Ending Insurance Companies Control of Mental Health Care

 

My retirement from psychiatry has allowed independence from fears that caused temperance in my opinions about issues, which all along deserved a passionate campaign for change. This is an article about the stranglehold that insurance companies have had on health care, particularly mental health care, for more than 20 years. First a description of what can only be described as atrocities that I personally witnessed.

I got a call from a social worker at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. The following day they were discharging a female patient, a second grade teacher from New Milford with three children. The social worker begged me to see her the day she was discharged. I agreed to do so. The patient appeared in my waiting room as scheduled. The only problem was that she was so afraid of me that she would not come into my office. To no avail I tried everything I could think of to convince her that she would be safe. Only when my next patient appeared in the waiting room did she agree to enter my office. There were only 5 minutes left in her session, but in that time she told me that she had ruined her life, and all was hopeless. As best I could, I tried to reassure her, but it was obvious that nothing I said was having an impact. We made an appointment for the next day, which she did not keep. I called. Her husband answered. She had blown her brains out the evening before.

This was early on in the HMO era when I didn’t immediately understand the desperation in the social worker’s voice. She clearly knew that the decision to discharge this patient was completely insane.

I was called to the New Milford Hospital ER to see a young woman, holding a baby, who was experiencing her first psychotic break. She was convinced that a spying device had been put in her baby’s vagina. She kept checking her baby’s vagina hoping to find it. Oxford (an insurance company in the Northeast) would not approve hospitalization. They said she was not a danger to herself or others. They wanted her treated at Danbury’s Day Hospital. At the time there was no public transportation between New Milford and Danbury, but even if there was, this woman was not sane enough to commute there every day. I insisted on speaking to a supervisor at Oxford, then to his supervisor. They wouldn’t budge in their decision. The next day I was summoned by administration in New Milford Hospital. Oxford had called them to complain about my rudeness. I confess that I was guilty as charged. As Chief of Psychiatry there I was expected to set an example. This incident also happened early in the HMO era, a time when hospitals were worried about remaining in the insurance company’s network. Early on doctors were also worried about being labeled as a provider who gave unnecessary care. Certain insurance companies let it be known that they were keeping tabs.

I was seeing a woman in her 40’s for psychotherapy who had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. The gods were not favoring her. She had also had a heart attack. Her grown son was drinking too much and her daughter had had an affair, which led to the end of her daughter’s marriage. This woman’s husband was tired of listening to his wife’s troubles. After 10 sessions her insurance company, PHS, decided she had enough psychotherapy. I went through their chain of command appealing the decision. Finally I got to talk to the head of their psychiatric division, Dr. Robert Dailey from Bridgeport Hospital. He told me this woman did not need psychotherapy. She needed hospice. Astonished, I argued that she was not a terminal patient. She was still working and struggling to keep her family afloat. He would hear nothing of it. Case closed.

The situations cited above came from my direct experience. I could describe ten others.   Most psychiatrists have similar stories to tell. Indeed, this article was originally prepared for Psychiatric Times. They felt it was unsuitable because it was old news. As one reviewer put it “everyone has their own horror stories no different than these.” All across America, when it started, it was if a plague had descended on the field of psychiatry. Except this plague had been paid for by our patients, or else it was a benefit bestowed by their employers.

Mistreatment was not confined to mental health care. Patients unfortunate enough to have M.S., or those who had had a stroke, were learning that after initial treatments, they could no longer have physical therapy, the one way they could do battle with the calamity that had befallen them.

Dr. Linda Peeno was the medical director at three different insurance companies, including, Humana. When she came to the conclusion that the first company was unethical she moved on to the next and finally the third before concluding the problem was industry wide. Her conscience was bothering her. She felt directly responsible for the death of several people. This is not why she went into medicine. Although she liked the hours provided by a job at an insurance company, she could not continue. The opposite. She felt she had to reveal to the public what was happening. With a secure job as an professor of ethics at a local university taking on the insurance companies became her life’s work. She has written extensively and well about the problems she observed. Writing for U.S News and World Report in 2002 she described a typical scenario at her job:

“The staff of our medical department had attached questions as the letter passed through its maze to me, the HMO doctor at the end of the decision-making line. If something has to do with medical necessity, I am the final word. Our nurses could make denials if something was a benefit decision. Cosmetic surgery, for example, would be excluded in the certificate of coverage. The number of notes on the letter signals that this request falls in the gray area between outright necessity and clear-cut exclusion–the danger zone for the patient.

The decision is now mine, and I feel the pressure to find a way to say no. If I cannot pronounce it medically unnecessary, then I have to find a different way to interpret our medical guidelines or the contract language in order to deny the request.

A bright-blue square catches my attention. It is from a particularly cost-conscious staffer and contains a handwritten warning to me: “Approve this, and it will be your last!” It is common practice to use removable stickies. After we have finished passing any document around, we can remove all the comments. Official records will reflect only the final decisions and not the process by which we made them.”

From that same article:

“A doctor had called to tell me that his patient was almost 80, lived alone, and could not handle the preparations he would need to make for bowel surgery. Besides, we had already told the doctor that the surgery would have to be done in a hospital over 60 miles away from the man’s home. There was one in his town but they weren’t affiliated with the company. The local hospital had not yet learned to buckle under.

Without the pre-op admission the night before surgery, this frail man would have to drive himself to the hospital almost in the middle of the night, after hours of laxatives and withholding of fluids. When I approved the request, I got a call from my physician supervisor, angrily telling me that we did not pay for creature comforts. I told him I had already done it, but in the future…”

Linda Peeno testified before a Congressional subcommittee on Health and the Environment on May 30, 1996. Her testimony, and many thought provoking articles by her, can be found on the internet. Showtime produced a film Damaged Care that tells her story. She had accomplished a lot. Except about what mattered. Despite her Congressional testimony, her well placed articles, and the Showtime movie, very little changed.

In 2001 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a lawsuit against an insurance company written in what I thought was a disparaging tone. I understood the sentiment behind the reporter’s attitude. Lawsuits have gotten out of hand. There are far too many of them that are built on lies and exaggerations. In our litigious society, small mistakes, which we all can make, can be exaggerated into a million dollar payoff. The result? Enormous energies directed to covering your ass, which means the multiplication of professionals adept at that noble aspiration. Lawyers and their enforcing bureaucrats get to tell workers what they can and cannot do, which means programed rigidity from the top, the last thing needed in a service based economy.

The suit that the reporter was dissing was not frivolous. I knew the person who was suing. He had lost his 16 year-old son because his insurance company determined that his son must leave Danbury Hospital. It was clear to his father and everyone that knew the boy, that he was  in grave danger and could not be discharged until his condition improved. The boy’s suicide attempt was for real. It was sheer luck that the pipe he put his rope over broke. My patient knew his son still wanted to die and if let out of the hospital he would finish the job. He reasoned with the doctor, he pleaded with him.  He begged.

I called the reporter Milo Geyelin and we spoke for 3 ½ hours. I gave him the details of how what had happened in this case was happening everywhere. Necessary care was being rejected as unnecessary. Several months later he called me. He had written, the lead story in the Wall Street Journal of May 8th 2001. a story about HMO’s control of mental health. That story was particularly focused on Magellan,  the largest mental health managed care company. It was gobbling up all its competitors, particularly less profitable, but more ethical HMOs.  By the journalistic standards of the day Geyelin’s duty was to be “balanced”.  He allowed Magellan to respond. The gist of their defense was mistakes happen, but they were being corrected.

I thought the article allowed Magellan to come across as sincere, as trying their best. From direct experience I knew they were not trying their best, anything but, when it came to siding with their patient’s best interests.  They perceived those who had become seriously ill as a plague on the company, understandable from the insurance companies point of view.   But from the patient’s point of view, insurance companies were a curse, one that had to be combatted along with the illness.

His story didn’t stop there. Magellan sold contracts to large insurance companies (as a mental health carve out, a company that specializes in managing psychiatric care). They contracted to produce providers that would take care of any insured patient in need of care.

They didn’t deliver what they had promised.  In many parts of the country they had no providers available at all. Many on their list of psychiatrists had once been providers but they had long ago given up on Magellan after submitted insurance claim forms were repeatedly “lost.” It required a lot of energy to get paid, and it just wasn’t worth it.

Magellan had their patients in a no lose situation for them. They allowed their patients to only see providers in their network and there were practically no providers available.  That didn’t bother them at all.  Moreover, if, by luck, a patient found a provider, treatment had to wait until the insurance company approved of it. This could take weeks. And too frequently there was no reply at all. They accused the provider of not sending in their form, (usually a lie) or they accused the doctor of filling the form out incorrectly. Probably true given the confusing directions and triviality of the form.

I can attest that it was impossible to reach the insurance company to try to straighten things out. Not only did they choreograph a long musical, “your call is important to us” wait, if you did get through, the people handling the calls were minimum wagers with no authority , little intelligence, and zero energy to climb the mountain of rules, the operational chaos that awaited them should they choose to truly help the caller with his problem.  They were trained to deal with forms. They knew their list of approved symptoms, as designated by DSM IV.  Anything that didn’t fit on that form was like Chinese to them.

It should be noted that, the form had very little room for the doctor to individualize his case, explain things as he saw it. It didn’t really matter. If he were to try, he would be passed right over.  There wouldn’t be a call back even if he had made his case. Clerks have very little tolerance for outliers.

Essentially the process was a scam. Totally legal but a scam nonetheless.  Entirely within the law  medical care was being shaped by purveyors with criminal motives and intent. Patients, who had lost it, forced to finally acknowledge that they needed help, were out of luck if they tried to get that help. They had to meet criteria that were sacrosanct, prepared by experts, hired for the purpose of making sure their patients didn’t cash in on their policies

The amazing part of the story is how Magellan had come out of nowhere, and overnight they were everywhere. It was formed out of the ruins of a failing company Charter Behavioral Health systems. At their height they were a Wall Street darling, a chain of 90 psychiatric hospitals from which they were making industrial profits. In the end Charter was investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare Fraud.  As they closed up shop, selling off their hospitals provided the capital to allow them to quickly become a huge player in managed care.

The irony is striking. One of the very companies that had, on a massive scale, overcharged for care, billed for care never given, with very little difficulty became in charge of what care would be allowed or disallowed. Businessmen to the core, they stuck to first principles. They followed where the money had gone. The denial of care business was now more profitable than the delivery of care. Of all people, they were now deciding what was, and what was not, “necessary” care. The fox was  guarding the chicken house. Every dollar they saved by denying care was money that went into  their pockets..

Managed care companies do not compete in the quality of work they deliver.  The only thing that matters is numbers. Particularly in the 90’s CEO’s were moving from rubber companies to cupcake bakers, to oil drilling companies, with little knowledge needed about the products of the companies they were leading.   As long as every quarter they could deliver the right numbers,  their job security was golden. Magellan was confident that the money they made from selling off the hospital chain would be multiplied by their new business. The sale of ninety hospitals leaves you with a lot of capital, the muscle required to buy up  competitors.

Numbers can also work against managed care companies. For example, an audit of American Biodyne which contracted for 14 million dollars to provide mental health services for Ohio state employees for 2 years found that the firm had actually spent $2.1 million on treatment claims in 1991 and $2.6 million in 1992. The rest of the $14 million went to American Biodyne.

The need to keep medical costs down was the original impetus for HMOs.  This is a real issue. America’s 3 trillion dollar health care costs were, and still are, wildly out of control.   We spend far more than any other country and the results are far from obvious. There is waste and unnecessary procedures anywhere you look.

The problem I am addressing is the decision to put for profit HMOs in charge of cutting costs. Taking care away from ill patients and putting these savings in to the pockets of an HMO amounted to legally stealing care from those least able to defend themselves. It was breathtaking in its audacity.

The head of Oxford, a relatively small company, was paid 28 million dollars a year, the majority of it pinched from sick patients. US Healthcare’s CEO, a former pharmacist, earned 900 million dollars when he sold his cost cutting company to Aetna. His daughter and other family members also got millions not to mention the 25 million dollar jet Aetna gave to him. Inside Edition featured him in an expose on the lifestyles of wealthy HMO executives.

US Health Care executives were put in charge of the company. Changing their name back to Aetna was easy. It took years for Aetna to extricate themselves from the chaos US Health Care had wrought

The Wall Street Journal in 2006 ran an expose, “Health Care Gold Mines.” It was reported that William McGuire, CEO of one of the larger health insurance companies, United Health Care, had unrealized gains on stock options worth 1.8 billion dollars. He had been given the right to “time” his stock option grants. His timing was so extraordinary that questions have been raised that he backdated his purchases. His associates call him “brilliant.” Very brilliant. The Wall Street Journal’s analysts concluded that if the options were granted to him blindly, the chance of his guessing as well as he did, was 1 in 200 million.

Not only have congressional committees long ago had the unscrupulous practices of insurance practices revealed to them.   Newspaper and national magazines have made reports about it, again and again in exposes. Yet the issue has no legs. Nothing changes.

Frankly, at first glance, the quiet on this issue is a mystery. Politicians, and columnists have so often carried on about abortion rights, or gay marriage, or some other higher cause that these issue have become de rigueur in the politically correct playbook. Yet neither abortion nor gay marriage materially affects a great many people’s lives. Health insurance practices do. Why is there silence from media pundits and politicians who love any exposure they can get?The strange thing is that what’s going on in the health insurance industry is no Enron. It isn’t a secret. If not personally abused, most people know people who have gotten screwed by their health insurance company. They have heard stories from colleagues or family members, anguished stories if the illness has been severe. People have come to expect that somehow they will be done in by the small print in their policies.

The absence of a public outcry, the failure of news stories and Congressional hearings to halt the HMOs was one of the reasons I wrote a  novel After Lisa. I had written articles for years with suggestions about how I thought psychiatric care could be improved.  This was, I felt, the most important way my writing could make a difference.  If enough of the public could identify with the Russells, the protagonists in my story, there might be a possibility of change.  After Lisa is based on the story of the case I contacted the Wall Street Journal reporter about. I was seeing a father who had lost his 12 year-old daughter to cancer. His 16 year-old son tried to hang himself. He was hospitalized at Danbury Hospital.

From day one they had started discharge planning. In those days insurance companies had a little trick they pulled. They pressured doctors to get their patient to “contract for safety,” have the patient put in writing a promise that they would not commit suicide. Once this was signed out the patient would go.

AS I noted this boy’s father was convinced his son’s attempt was completely serious. He was desperate.  One of his friends, a social welfare worker said to legally abandon his son. That way they couldn’t discharge him. The hospital answered that his son would be sent to a shelter. I will cut to the chase. The day he was discharged his son successfully hung himself. With two children gone my patient’s opening words to me, when I first met him, was “I am a dead man.”

My hope was, and still is, that my novel, or better, a movie based on the story, might translate the issues enough to arouse the public. When I started I thought discussing the  book on Oprah would bring forth thousands of people with their own story to tell. But, my fear is that even if the best result occurred, with the long history of public exposure about this issue, it too will have no effect.

December 14, 2014 60 Minutes ran a story Denied. It was well done, detailing what other stories like it have done, dead patients the result of insurance company indifference. Has the  60 Minute expose had an  impact? It’s been three months.  The usual silence on this issue continues.  There is no reason to think it will be different than all of the exposes that preceded it.

There is one angle that could have an enormous impact.  What was not covered by their story, or the others documenting insurance company malfeasance, is the fact that insurance companies have no fear of making bad calls (e.g forcing a patient out of the hospital who soon after kills himself).  The embarrassment is minimal (no news story) and the legal consequence nil. The parents and spouses of those who have lost a love one cannot sue an insurance company.   Federal ERISA law forbids it.

This issue has a history. In June of 2001 (see June 21st 2001 Congressional record) the Senate debated and passed the McCain Kennedy Bill, a health care “bill of rights,” that would have allowed lawsuits against HMOs. The vote was 59-36. Changes were made on this bill in the House and then the bill mysteriously disappeared from the political landscape!

Subsequently, several states passed legislation allowing suits against insurance companies. But, on June 23, 2004, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that while congress could pass legislation allowing lawsuits against health insurance companies by injured family members, states could not do so.   There are suggestions that the unusual 9-0 vote was an indication that this issue was too important, the pressure was too great for the justices to allow controversy.

Nevertheless, the success of insurance company lobbying to not only defeat this bill, but successfully end all discussion of lawsuits is a mystery that I do not fully understand. After all, the media and politicians have vigorously gone after other powerful industries, Banks, Wall Street and Oil companies. Despite their power they have not been as successful at keeping a lid on their controversies.

Because 60 Minutes has not responded to my repeated attempts to reach them about the ERISA law, I am including the phone number of the executive director, Kevin Tedesco, 212-975-2329 in the hope that one of the readers of this article will have better luck. Or perhaps call volume will have an impact. If this were to happen, if 60 Minutes were to take up the issue of the ERISA law’s prohibition of law suits, and if this led to the law being changed, so that insurance companies had to live in fear of being sued, it would change mental health care for generations to come.

But I am not sanguine about the prospects. The issues are in fact complex.  Ultimately the real issue, the debate that has to take place is how we, as a nation, are going to restrict health care to keep costs under control. Managed care companies have been hired to do the dirty work. They are not simply dirty. They are filthy. Powerful forces are lined up to keep things as they are. For instance, when the the Erisa Law was up for discussion in Congress the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  lobbied along with other powerful groups   to not allow the ERISA law to be changed. I assume they are still working hard to keep this issue submerged.

When the Democrats stuck their nose into regulating health care, so health care costs could be reduced, the Republicans rightly identified the “Death Panels” they were looking to set up. The Republican solution was HSAs, high deductible medical plans. This has been partially adopted in ObamaCare. Faced with  four or five thousand dollar deductibles smart middle class shoppers have delayed seeing their doctors and their expensive procedures.

But ultimately we have to bring  the issue front and center. What should and should not be covered?   HMOs have been a disgusting solution. We can do better.

 

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

After Lisa: Chapter 1

Based on a true story

Chapter 1

October 1999

New York City

Glittering crystal chandeliers brightly illuminate the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom as the sound of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz sweeps through the room. Sipping cocktails, guests lightly applaud the MacDonalds as they glide around the center of the ballroom, the floor to themselves. Several dance partners stand at the edge, gathering courage to challenge the MacDonalds for the spotlight. At the tables, gossip is cheerfully exchanged, as, here too, they check on the MacDonalds from time to time. Standing off not far from the bar, spicy singles in their 20’s flirt, their eyes searching through the crowd for the opportunity to find a still better partner.

Strauss has been a great choice for tonight. Retro worked. It’s made the evening grand, not what the guests expected when they received their invitations.

Very high up in the vaulted ceiling, a sniper has positioned himself. He looks through his high-powered rifle, moving through the room, one table at a time.   While the women have spent weeks preparing for tonight; putting the perfect shoes, hair, and make-up together with the right dress, they didn’t expect to be examined through a rifle’s telescopic lens. At the head table, the assassin’s sight focuses on one after another of the guests.  He lingers on a matronly lady covered with serious jewelry, but tonight his goal is narrow. He settles on the MacDonalds as they return to the table. Mrs. Martin MacDonald is a stunning blonde in her thirties. The assassin’s only interest is her dance partner, Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club.  Killing MacDonald is the whole purpose of the evening.          

The rifleman is perfectly positioned in a utility room above the ballroom.  Perched as high as he is, behind the glare of the chandeliers, his protruding telescopic rifle is a speck in the filigreed façade. Unnoticed, he will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, carefully aiming without drawing the slightest attention.  His escape plan should also go smoothly.   He is dressed in a nicely tailored tuxedo. The sniper is confident that after he’s killed Macdonald his dapper appearance will allow him to easily disappear among the guests. He was born with good looks. He enjoys using them.

Joe Tolley, from Channel 2 News, gently clears his throat into the microphone.  People eyes are drawn to the now lit up dais. This part of the evening is the reason they are here.  Everyone returns to their seats.  Tolley clowns a bit, gets some nice laughs.

“Our speaker tonight needs no introduction.  He is a man of our age, a captain of our decade…

Applause. Tolley has prepared well. Leaving little to chance, in front of the mirror he practiced the casual smile he is now presenting during the extended applause. As it dies down he continues.

“Martin MacDonald is the personification of who we are and have become.”

Cheering.

This brings a smile to MacDonald. As he gets up from his chair, he bends forward over the table, and, whispering an imitation of Tolley’s voice, he captures his lisp perfectly.  The men seated nearby find this funny.  Not the women.  They draw back from MacDonald’s meanness, an effect that MacDonald seems to regularly elicit from the fairer sex.

MacDonald winks at his wife. She returns an encouraging smile, which he doesn’t notice. He long ago stopped seeing her. Jauntily he dashes for the stage.   Skipping up the steps he is soon at the lectern.  With his reading glasses low on his nose, patterned after an image of John Adams he saw on TV, he shuffles his papers, looks over the audience from far left to right.

MacDonald is hot. Buoyed by increasing opportunities, at this point materializing daily, he, more than anyone, knows exactly what he has done to create his good fortune. He is proud of it. He looks upward, to his Sicilian grandfather in heaven. He wouldn’t be here today without him.

He smiles broadly at the audience, feeling among friends.  They are completely captured. Who wouldn’t want in on MacDonald’s phenomenal profits?  Who wouldn’t want the wife he has, beneath the glittering chandeliers at the Plaza.

Business Week ran a feature on MacDonald in its May issue. His story is quintessential 90’s. A startup in his garage, an office consisting of a file cabinet, desk, and telephone. MacDonald answered the phone himself.  He did the filing.  Later, as the business grew, he sweated through payrolls, wondering where he would find the money for his 12 employees.  Today he’s unfazed by billion dollar figures. The one caveat? He went into the health insurance business knowing nothing about health insurance. Like so many of the new wave of CEOs his expertise is with numbers. As long as they work he remains the golden boy.

For CEO wannabes in the audience MacDonald offers magic.  For actual CEOs he offers lessons in how to hit the bottom line out of the ballpark.  He’s someone to study closely, figure out whether he’s doing what he claims to be doing.  In not very long they will be expected to replicate Cambridge Health’s profit. If they don’t they’ll soon be gone, replaced by a CEO who will get the right numbers. Anticipating platitudes they don’t expect to learn much tonight. But just in case, Martin MacDonald has their total attention

It’s been 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s never lost his boy wonder quality. Probably it was the football.  Being a second team All-American linebacker did a lot to shore up his identity. Thrown into the lion pit, he emerged a lion. He has kept the momentum going. He takes great pleasure smashing an adversary in his teeth. It has served him well. Winning is the only acceptable result in his encounters. When the need to fight his adversaries temporarily abates, he has fun. He is a wiz with numbers. There is special satisfaction when the numbers are large. Lately they have been huge.

Growing up he was hugely influenced by his mother’s scrappy Sicilian father and her two brothers, who lived nearby.  A Sicilian style wouldn’t ordinarily work in the insurance industry.  But MacDonald is also Scottish. On the face of it he seems an all American regular guy, a team player, a boy scout, very unlike his ruffian uncles, an insurance man through and through.   Only savvy.

He saw his father, Robert MacDonald, only during the summer, but those summers  powerfully influenced his persona. His father’s cheerful Scotch veneer is what others knew him by and respected.  MacDonald’s adulation of his father made it possible to effortlessly emulate him. It also spiritually connected him to his father’s Scottish clan, one with a long tradition of money cleverness invariably bestowed on the eldest son. So his take no prisoners uncles from Sicily were well camouflaged.

He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then, with a strong voice he begins.

“My thanks to the American Insurance Association.  I am honored that you are having me here to tell you what you already know.  We need to stick together.  Stand as one.  Be strong. We share the same mission, to put a stop to runaway medical spending, to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.”

Happily, the audience applauds.

Ever so slowly the rifleman scopes MacDonald between his eyes. A voice from inside him urges.

“Now!”

He can’t trust that voice, a hard lesson learned again and again when he made the mistake of trusting his impulses.

The sight is fogging up. He pulls his rifle back into the utility room, and wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. All the while he keeps an eye on MacDonald. (an unobserved target can disappear.)  He double-checks that everything else is in order.  Nervously his tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. That was item one in his plan. An identifier that had to be removed. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further.   He cocks the trigger mechanism: cutting through the utility room’s silence, the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency.  He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.

Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered.  Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull. He can imagine the sweetness of that moment

There is a noise somewhere down the hall.  The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for it to repeat. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.

“Stay with this,” he commands himself. He must follow a series of steps that have been practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic.   His finger tightens slowly.  Slowly.   He is almost there.

MacDonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. Laughter, cheers, happy shouts interrupt his talk. This has seduced MacDonald into letting it all out. The rhythm of a revivalist preacher rings out in the ballroom.

“Our fight is the good fight, our goal necessary…”

The audience’s enthusiasm pisses off the rifleman.   That stops him.

During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.”     Focus requires brain silence.   The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target.   Anger is the natural emotion before and during a kill, but not for a professional. It undoes your skill.

He learned the hard way. In his first battle he got excited, terrified and furious at an adversary who had killed Arnie, his friend standing 3 feet away from him. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing.   Fortunately, cool as a cucumber, one of his buddies shot the man dead.

It was the closest he came to getting killed. He had no trouble picturing himself as rotting flesh six feet under. That image subsequently, kept him completely professional.

Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the basic method of training was simple and absolute.   Every step was repeated again and again, again, and again until nothing else is possible other than the next step.   The final decision to kill doesn’t reside with the sniper. It is muscle memory.

That’s not happening now.  The opposite. Normally obstacles to a plan, which inevitably arise, are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, unexpected events, like the sound of the mouse, rattle him. His concentration is shot. In the army, the sergeant sometimes fed the men greenies, amphetamines to improve their concentration. Given their level of stress it helped them even more than kids with ADHD.

His chin tight, “Focus,” he says to himself in a nasty whisper.

He began so determined.  Righteous anger can move mountains.  Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First grief, then blame, endlessly assigning it to one person after another including himself.

Then that dissipated. His anguish completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald were thought out in detail. Setting it up took over. He went from inactivity, practically in a coma, to energy harnessed by having a purpose.

Getting things done their way. The army had taught him how to stay organized. Concentrate all efforts on the first step before going on to the next.  He needed a well-camouflaged spot with complete vision of the target. As soon as he learned MacDonald was going to speak in the Plaza ballroom, he went through twelve utility rooms located in the ceiling before finding the perfect one. The next thing on his check list-finding a MacMillan Tac 50 rifle was easier than he expected. The Tac is extremely accurate and able to be broken down into a compact form. Fortunately, Marty, his pal at work knew exactly where to find one. It took only an hour and a half to find the guy. And contrary to the image he had, based on Hollywood versions of gun salesmen, the guy who sold it to him was a character, an educated friendly enough black man with a wicked sense of humor. Next he had to find the right size satchel. The first one that he bought was too small so he had to return it and try out another size.

No problem. The view of the dais was so perfect, like a gift from God, it energized all the other steps. Everything fell into place. It may have taken two times on one of the items, or ten. Didn’t matter. It got done.

His smile returned.   At last justice would be done.

Except it isn’t happening tonight.

In truth, even in the army it got more complicated. At the beginning of his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger.  He carried out three missions successfully without a second thought. He killed whom he was assigned to kill and took pride in his accomplishment.

His fourth assignment brought that to an end. He noticed his target’s red hair.   That did it.  His precision, so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him.   There was no flow. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one.

It wasn’t a morality thing, at least not that he was aware of. He had no specific thoughts about right and wrong. He knew it was right to kill this particular bad guy, with or without his red hair. There were no thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind.

A therapist taught him how to shut that off. But it didn’t matter.   He’d still miss his target again and again.

When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made clear that was to be his plan.

Once again the gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room.  We get a better look at him.  He’s sweating.  His face is alive with emotion.   As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.

“Take your time,” he commands himself. That does nothing. Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another, without rhyme or reason.

He had imagined the exact instant in detail.    MacDonald, just after he’s made a clever observation, bathed in adulation, a split second before the applause erupts, the audience smiling, congratulating themselves for being there.

Bang!

Blood is the perfect punctuation.

A single shot.

Sweet!

Bang.

It will put them on notice.  Someone’s watching.  Someone

sees what you’re doing.

MacDonald ends his talk. Like a politician at a convention he waves to the audience.

As he returns to his table, the rifleman’s frantic.

He still has a good shot. Now!

He doesn’t pull the trigger.

The rifleman soon makes peace with the new facts. His fantasy about the precise moment of MacDonald’s death was self-indulgent. The joy of catching him at a glorious moment in front of the audience isn’t all that important. Reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose, trying to catch the eye of one of the attractive women at his table-any moment will be okay. Shot and killed is the main point. If the deed gets done, the meaning will be clear.   Dead is dead.

This last thought enables the rifleman to cool off. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.

Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy, his shirt and underwear are sticking to him.  He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits himself on the floor against a huge cable roll stored in the room. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his chest with air.

No luck.  His clammy shirt is bothering him. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. More doubts. He closes his eyes, drifts through his memories…