Category Archives: Culture

I Think I’d Enjoy Being Rich and Famous

Like everyone else, I spend a lot of time following news about President Trump and his various advisors. I may not agree with everything they say, but I can’t deny that they’ve inspired me. After carefully considering their biographies and their public statements, I have completely changed my life goals. If I had to narrow it down, I guess I would put it this way: I want to be rich and famous.

I thought about just being famous without being rich. It would be nice to have people ask for a selfie with me at Panera. And I wouldn’t mind People running

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pictures of my abs or an Us Weekly poll indicating that I “wore it better.”  I  could probably make a little money from being famous,  but I don’t want to have to appear at the opening of a Mazda dealer or keynote the annual meeting of payroll accountants in Reno. I’d get sick of telling the inspiring story of how I safely landed that plane, or how I showed the world that a 42-year-old man could medal in gymnastics.

I also thought about being rich but not famous. I could just just sit in one of my open floor plan homes looking at my Apple watch until it was time to go to”the club” or some sort of gala dinner “for charity”. Also, I could buy cool stuff from Pottery Barn that looks like authentic stuff but costs more. And I suppose if people saw me at  one of my houses or my expensive replica stuff from Pottery Barn, they would say “hey, he’s really rich! Well, good for him. Huzzah!”

That wouldn’t happen, though, because no one would know I was rich unless I was also famous. That is why I want to be both. I think this might be confusing to people. Yes, I want telephoto shots of my abs in a weekly magazine and I want to have reproduction tchotchkes from Pottery Barn. But being rich and famous is just a means to an end.

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I want to be rich and famous because I have certain beliefs. I believe that black pepper is a topical cure for colorectal cancer, for example. And that the many celebrity deaths in 2016 were actually assassinations – part of Fidel Castro’s terrorism long game (that bastard’s henchmen took two members of ELP in one year, and we did NOTHING!) And I’m convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is the only proper source of a STEM curriculum for middle schoolers.

Are you laughing at me? You wouldn’t be if I were rich and famous. If I were rich like Betsy DeVos, I could set up foundations with lots of staff and media people to publish lesson plans on Jesus-based technology. I could make big donations to politicians who would pass laws banning ropa vieja and rumba unless and until Cuba released all of its files on Florence Henderson. Sean Hannity would probably have a segment asking why scientists don’t admit they can’t prove putting black pepper in your butt doesn’t cure cancer.

Unfortunately, Betsy Devos will get to make schools safer for rapists  and less safe for grizzly bears while my equally factual and useful positions never get heard. Robert Kennedy Jr. compares vaccinations to the Holocaust, which Ben Carson says wouldn’t have happened if the Warsaw Ghetto had more AR-15s.  Are those opinions better than mine? I say Polish immigrants introduced eczema to the US in the 1920s.  National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says that Shariah law is being imposed in Florida. You can’t say these aren’t all equally serious ideas.

What do these people have that I don’t have? Money and fame, of course. It would be so great to just spitball ideas and theories and then have people buy my books. I could meet Dr. Oz! Bill O’Reilly would probably let me finish my sentences! I bet I could get Kid Rock to tweet out links to my YouTube videos! If I became rich and famous, other rich and famous people would want me at their events. I could be on the red carpet and say things like, “yes, I am wearing Brioni. But you know what matters tonight? That all kids have the opportunity to learn what Jesus teaches about trigonometry.”

No one would think that was weird! I could get my teeth capped and use pomade and Americans would think I must be on to something because I was rich and famous. If Meryl Streep criticized me on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough would probably say “but wouldn’t you agree we have to teach both sides of the debate? There are serious questions about the Poles and skin…” and the Meryl would try to answer, but Joe would cut her off because they have to go to commercial.

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The best thing about being rich and famous is that once you become rich and famous, you will basically always be rich and famous. Someone from New York Times might “discover” that my grabbing the yoke didn’t save that plane, and that I was really just lunging for the female pilot’s breasts. And that maybe my gold medal in gymnastics wasn’t from the Olympics, but from  the Ol’ Impiks, a competition my family sponsors every year in Martha’s Vineyard where I’d impishly hired Mary Lou Retton to dress up like me. It wouldn’t matter, because the people who bought my books and admired my abs would say the media was trying to bring a good man like me down.

When you are rich and famous, people think you can do anything – even if those nerds at Vox insisted that all of my money was from my wife’s family who made it selling tear gas in Birmingham in the 60s. I could start a lifestyle brand, or fund a start-up to develop my idea for a car than ran on safe, renewable kittens. Maybe I could even run for President!

 

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A Strong and Belated Opinion About the Lucas Museum

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The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art isn’t coming to Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is very angry about this. Rahm wants you to think he’s angry because Chicago lost a great opportunity for a new public cultural attraction. He also wants you to think that a small group of killjoys ruined Chicago’s chances to accept a very generous gift from George Lucas, the very same man who very generously gave the world Jar Jar Binks.

I love this story. I love that our bullying mayor and the billionaire behind Howard the Duck  could line up the Chicago City Council, the Illinois Legislature, and the Park District, and then get whupped by a troubled advocacy organization, Friends of the Parks. Score a win for the little guys!

mayor1percent-600Or..the little guys didn’t win, and nobody got beat.  Rahm isn’t angry about missed opportunities. Rahm is angry because he needed a win, and he lost. There is one thing our racially divided city agrees on: Rahm sucks. The only thing interrupting news stories about the dire state of our schools are news stories about gun violence and police brutality. He invested his last two ounces of prestige for a legacy project and blew it.

Worse for Rahm, he sided with a raging egomaniac who likes to take his toys and go home. Here’s what got overshadowed in the coverage of the museum: George Lucas, the chinless former wunderkind writer of Willow, quit. Was there a lawsuit to stop the museum? Yes, but it never actually went to trial.  All of the legal action in the case was the city trying to get the case dismissed, and a federal judge allowing it to proceed. The city tried to get the case thrown out twice, and then engaged in some extravagant legal tricks to argue that the case shouldn’t be in court in the first place. Chicago is pretty good about keeping things out of court, usually by paying huge settlements to people brutalized by cops. So I guess you could see why Rahm thought this would work.

The mayor and the writer of Captain Eo insist that the case was about Friends of the Parks preserving a parking lot. Who would want to do that? Surprising answer: no one. The mayor wanted to get his 9.5 fingers into lakefront property that is protected as a public trust. Friends of the Parks argued, and the judge agreed, that building the museum would primarily benefit a private entity, namely George Lucas’ Death Star-sized ego in edificial form. It’s not about a parking lot – it’s about preserving the lakefront for public use. And Friends of the Parks hoped that the parking lot could be returned to public use sometime before the 297 year lease on the museum ran out.

Let’s talk about the ego of the man who brought us Strange Magic.  Who offers a museum with the huge condition that it be built on a waterfront? Even if you think it was dumb to preserve a parking lot, is it any less dumb to offer to build a museum and be completely inflexible on the location?   As the Tribune pointed out “We wonder whether Lucas appreciates the irony that he could hold his 2013 wedding on Promontory Point only because Chicago for nearly two centuries had protected that stretch of lakefront from the kind of development he now demands for himself at another lakefront site.” Not surprisingly, San Francisco rejected this sort of ultimatum, which is why Lucas brought his toys to us in the first place.

Yes, three other museums make up the “campus” on the lakefront, and when the Bears play at home Soldier Field becomes the Museum of Minorities Concussing Themselves. Tiny Dancer said, “museums belong on a museum campus,” apparently forgetting about the non-campused Museum of Science and Industry. And the Art Institute. And the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Children’s Museum. He really wants to forget about the Chicago Children’s Museum. That museum caused all sorts of controversy when it wanted to move onto public land in Grant Park until – wait for it – it was quashed by Mayor Emanuel in 2012. At the time, he reasoned that it was better to keep the museum in Navy Pier “as a strong pillar in the redevelopment vision” for Chicago’s best place to get shit on by seagulls.

Perhaps Rahm could’ve stuck with this idea for redevelopment when the genius who brought you Tucker: The Man and His Dream came knocking. The mayor could have suggested building the museum on the Michael Reese Hospital site. There are two big advantages there: it’s not far from Lucas’ fantasy site, and the city has owned it for seven years. Just look what we’ve done with it:

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The property was bought when Chicago’s previous petit autocrate, Mayor Daley, decided that we really needed the 2016 Summer Olympics. We dodged that bullet, but taxpayers are left holding the bag for the original $91 million plus another $43 million in interest if isn’t sold soon. Instead, Mayor Emanuel came up with a different plan to build the museum on the site of the current McCormick Place. This plan would have required $1.2 billion in state funds. In Illinois. In case you haven’t noticed, state funds in Illinois aren’t easy to come by. And oddly enough, this violated one of the rules of the original site selection committee: that it not cost any money to Chicago taxpayers. 

Let’s pretend that Father Michael Pfleger forgot about the $200,000 George Lucas gave his church in 2014 when he questioned the motives of Friends of the Parks.  Why not move the museum to a site the city already owns and give a boost to development in area south of downtown for a change? It can’t just be because the idea man behind Red Tails had his heart set on being near the water, can it?

Now that the project is dead, we’re supposed to bow our heads at the lost tourists, tax dollars, and jobs the museum would’ve brought. Boosting tourism, taxes, and jobs sounds a lot like the argument Daley used to hype the Olympics and the one used to build sports stadiums, both of which rarely work out well for cities.  First, people have a finite amount WattoHSof money. The dollars spent buying a replica Hayden Christensen Oscar at the Lucas Museum can’t also be spent on whatever the hell it is you buy at Navy Pier. Second, all the traffic caused by the whimsical Phantom Menace: Racist Alien Caricatures exhibit will probably keep other people from going to the Shedd Aquarium. This is already true: visiting the museum campus is a nightmare during a Bears game. But Soldier Field is a Park District building, and the Bears lease it for $6 million a year. The Park District can use it or lease it out for other things the rest of the time. Chicago could wait until 2313 for the same access to the Lucas Museum.

I’m not the sort of creative genius who could bring you Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like George Lucas, and 70% of Black Chicagoans don’t think I suck. But I have an idea: what if Rahm redirected all of his docile allies and the cajoling, bullying, and lawyers, into repairing Chicago’s infrastructure and making people less afraid of being shot? I bet tourists would like that. You know who else would like that? Chicagoans. We could also go for having enough police on the streets and having a reasonable expectation that they were accountable. A new museum would be nice; nicer still would be families not fleeing to the cultural desolation of the suburbs because our schools might not open in the fall. It wouldn’t be as visible a legacy as a new museum, but it would be a great story about the failing Mayor who fixed Chicago – the guy I voted for twice. Maybe Rahm could get George Lucas to chip in – the guy wrote an ok story long, long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading Holy Books and Mourning David Bowie

I used to teach a class on Middle Eastern history. The director of the program wanted me include the Qur’an among the recommended readings. I was against it, but I relented. So I turned its inclusion into a teaching point.  As an exercise for the class, I asked students what books they would recommend to people from the Middle East for an American history course. Some mentioned DeToqueville or Thomas Paine, some mentioned the Bible. If the student did mention one of those, I’d ask if they  themselves had read those books. The discussion went from there.

This brings me to the passing of David Bowie. Social media exploded this week with professions of love for Bowie, heartfelt comments on his influence and the like. There is no doubt that David Bowie was an interesting and influential artist, a compelling personality, and a commercially successful musician. He was not, however, my type of music, though I really enjoyed “Heroes” and “Changes.” Was I being left out? Judging by social media yesterday, I was in the minority in my ambivalence towards the Thin White Duke.

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I don’t think that reading the Qur’an is useful for a Middle Eastern history class for three reasons. First, the Qur’an is a contradictory, vague and very long read. Second, reading a text from a millennium and a half ago to understand current events is insulting to the people in the region, as if they stopped thinking in the 7th century. But never mind those two, because my main argument was this: is it worth reading something to understand people that most of them probably haven’t read themselves?  I would guess that, people being people, most folks either read something about the Qur’an or have it explained to them by someone else. They know the big teachings, the declaration of faith, and the proper celebration of the major holidays

I guess this because of my personal experience as an American. If students suggested the Bible, I asked if they’d actually read it. Most hadn’t. They also hadn’t read DeToqueville or Paine, or any of the other important works they’d recommended.  They’d read things about those books or had the key points of the books explained to them. I would then turn to the books Americans actually read. To judge by the best-seller lists, these are  diet and self-help books, genre fiction, and celebrity memoirs. Things that are much easier and more enjoyable to read than the Bible or the books you skipped the first time in Political Science 101.

If we want to understand America, should we read the books Americans want us to read about themselves, or what they actually read? I vote for the latter, but I’m not certain that I’m right. Your own opinion will vary depending on whether you want to understand people as they are, or as they want to be.

Many people clearly have a deep connection to David Bowie. In addition to admiring his persona and his music, he had a significant influence on popular music. If we wanted someone to understand the popular music of the late 20th century, I suppose you would include his works as a necessary part of the canon. But very few people actually listen to David Bowie. Not one of his albums is featured on the Billboard Greatest 200 Albums of All Time, which measures album sales since 1958. He’s also not on the Top 200 Artists of All Time, also based on sales. He doesn’t warrant inclusion into the BMI 100 Songs of the Century, which is based on radio airplay. When given the choice, we Americans actually listen to things like Journey, Bob Seger, and Toby Keith (nos. 58, 75, and 79 on the Billboard list), the checkout lane genre fiction of music.

You could take this to a very cynical conclusion, which would be that social media is full of people hoping you’ll think of them as having carefully considered musical taste, while they are actually listening to dreck like Rascal Flatts and “Don’t Stop Believin‘.” America is a nation spending a fortune on diet books and exercise wear while we sit at home marbling our hams with Stouffer’s Cheesy Colon Packer Deluxe. We’re lying to ourselves and everyone else.

I’m more positive than that. We all want to put their best self out there in the world.  The self that likes unique art, idiosyncratic personalities, and difficult music. We should like music like Bowie’s, even if our Spotify playlists are pockmarked with Sam Smith and Walk the Moon. More importantly, we aspire to be part of a community that does as well. A newsfeed full of David Bowie is comforting. Trapped in the Trump Nadir, we can be part of a community of taste. We can be people who value art, people who celebrate individuality, and  people who enjoy important music. At least, as Bowie would have it, we could be them – just for one day.

 

50 Jewish Organizations. Barely a Peep. Cowards.

It’s a long running tradition: in the wake of any terrorist attack by Islamist extremists,  talking heads will ask why American Muslim organizations aren’t loudly condemning the attack. Never mind that they are. There’s never a bad time – particularly not with an election coming – to demonize Islam in America.  And there’s a practical problem for the American Muslim community: it’s highly decentralized and diverse, with no recognized voice to speak for the millions of American Muslims.

Though I don’t give a whit about God or Israel , I consider myself part of the American Jewish community. And we’re lucky — we do have a centralized voice, the abundantly named Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the “proven and effective voice of organized American Jewry for more than half a century.” The Conference represents 50 different Jewish organizations, from the AJC and the AJC (really, there are two different organizations) to the World Zionist Organization and the Zionist Organization of America (not to be confused with the American Zionist Movement, B’nai Zion, or Religious Zionists of America).

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My grandmother came to this country as a German refugee in the 1930s. Most American Jews are descended from refugees – whether from Eastern Europe, Russia, or the Middle East. So yesterday, when the governors of 27 states said they were going to try and illegally close their borders to refugees from Syria, where were the official voices of American Judaism?

Absolutely nowhere. There isn’t a single word anywhere on the Conference site or anything I could find in the news condemning the racist, xenophobic pandering of these governors. So I visited the sites of each of the 50 organizations the Conference represents and checked the news for a full throated stance in support of refugees. Just two organizations had statements: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Society. Two of the fifty.

If you spent 30 minutes combing the sites of 50 Jewish organizations, you would find two things: some God-awful web design, and in place of any moral outrage or courage, full throated support of Israel. Israel, which has a per capita GDP higher than Japan, South Korea or Italy. Israel, which is run by a race-baiting, anti-peace extremist, who shows nothing but contempt for the US administration.

An administration which – by the way – is still likely to grant Israel $4.5 billion in military aid, wholly supported by the organizations in the Conference. By the other way, that works out to $3 million for every Syrian refugee admitted to the US so far. That’s a lot of money per refugee — because the US has only admitted 1500 refugees since 2011. No really. America’s governors are threatening to turn back the population of Teutopolis, Illinois.

American Jewish organizations can’t be asked to do more for these refugees, because they aren’t doing anything. Not before the Paris attacks, and not as near as I can tell, on behalf of all the rest of the world’s refugees or migrants either.

It’s not as if Jews’ history as refugees and migrants is part of a lost and unknown past — the Holocaust is America’s #1 favorite point of historical comparison. Just ask Ben Carson. America’s reluctance to take in refugees in the 1930s and 40s is rightly seen as one of the 20th century’s biggest mistakes.

Why didn’t America want to take in a bunch of Jewish refugees? Jews were suspected of being enemy Communists and Anarchists. Also, they weren’t Christian. They might have taken jobs away from Americans during difficult economic times.  Wow, it’s like we’ve been here before.  I thought that the lesson of the Holocaust was “never again.” Not just never again to mass extermination, but never again to the indifference. You can make too much of a comparison between then and now – but you could also be a bit expansive with that lesson, so that it’s not properly read as”never again to us.”

Rather than vocally pointing out how wrong America was then and how wrong the governors and others are now, what are the Conference and its partners doing? Nothing.  Are they afraid that if they remind everyone how close we are to a period of massive anti-Semitism, it will coming washing back? Better to sit back and focus on Israel – something younger Jews don’t care about much, but that is a convenient common cause with the Religious Right – people who used to want to keep us out of their country clubs, boardrooms, and universities.

Years ago, I brought my non-Jewish wife along to a talk I was giving to a group of mostly elderly Jews. Finding me after the talk, a woman from the audience asked if my wife was Jewish. Upon learning the answer, the woman said “Where did we go wrong?”

Back then, I’m pretty sure I said something about the horrors of Hebrew School, but I’ll say this now:  American Jews are organized and well off. They’re in positions of power.  I can’t figure out how organizations that claim to represent the Jewish community see a humanitarian crisis and creeping  xenophobia, racism, and fear mongering and decide that their best course of action is cheerleading for Israel and holding gala dinners.

American Jews insult their co-religionists with the epithet  “self-loathing“. I’ve been called self-loathing on more than one occasion, but I know it’s not myself I find loathsome.

 

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These Clowns Totally Prepared Our Kids. Just Not How We Wanted.

When my eldest son was pre-school age, my wife and I went on a tour of the University of Chicago’s Lab School. It was a formative experience. Here’s what we learned from the mom hosting the tour:

(a)arts classes don’t matter
(b) there is no homework and no grades in the elementary program
(c) the food of  Asian children smells funny
(d) that children with physical disabilities often “feel more comfortable somewhere else”.

I remember that last line clearly. One thing was emphasized over and over again on the tour: : students at Lab were constantly “evaluated for fit” during their careers to make sure they could continue on. Fitting in is important. And you can only do that if you eat appropriately fragrant food, learned piano on your own time, and please – don’t limp. I

You would think this would remove all sorts of kids from consideration at Lab. Heck no. Each person from the school took pains to say how diverse the school was. Mayor Emanuel sends his kids there, as does recently resigned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Diversity: when kids of local and federal officials are at your school. At one point on our tour, I asked our host if “diversity” meant actual economic diversity, or just racial diversity. All I got was a blank stare. And an elbow from my wife. It was a dumb question: the diverse student body at Lab is filtered through a screen of eye-watering tuition: more than $30k a year, plus an expectation that you’ll “donate” more to the school. If a Potemkin village had a school, it would be like Lab.

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The Potemkin Village might also choose Gems World Academy, a school so fancy that it exists in a residential area of Chicago I didn’t know existed – because there’s only one road in and out. I found myself in the lobby a few months ago. On a table near the giant touchscreens was a brochure extolling the diversity of the school, and focusing on their “core values,” which include “global citizenship.” Gems and Lab’s competitor, the Latin School, also wants to “shape leaders” for a diverse world. Francis Parker seeks to create “citizens and leaders…in a global community.” Francis Parker is also where the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Forrest Claypool, sends his kids – though he tries not to talk about it. I don’t know why it’s a big deal, it’s totally ok to run a public school system without actually having kids in public schools.

These elite private schools have tuitions higher than the per capita national income of all but 20 countries (I checked). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the global community. Just not the whole global community. The good parts. The parts without smelly food, limping weird kids, and poor people. And the students they’re turning out are absolutely prepared for a global community. But it’s a gated community.

For schools that make such strong claims about diversity, it’s awfully hard to get data on their demographics. And it seems to be impossible to get information on their expulsion, suspension, and attrition rates -their filters. Of course, if they published it, it might cause a minor scandal, like the when data from Chicago’s charter schools went public. That was especially embarrassing, because even while filtering out the difficult kids, they still didn’t do much better than the traditional schools – the very places where those filtered-out kids land. Charter schools. For parents who want choice. But not informed choice.

All of this makes me feel incredibly smug, since my kids go to a Chicago public school. No filtering here! Well, except for the fact that it’s a magnet school. Getting into a magnet school lottery required some work: a year before my son was to enter kindergarten, we attended information sessions, did research at the library, and filled out a bunch of forms. It was pretty confusing, and I’m a native English speaker used to dealing with public bureaucracy. And the end result is that my kids’ school is much wealthier and whiter than nearly any Chicago neighborhood school.

Nevertheless, our school is facing cuts like every other publically funded school, including the charters. Forrest Claypool, former Cook County Board member, head of the park district, and the CTA, appointee of our angry little Democratic mayor, is asking parents to to lobby the Democratically-controlled state legislature for education funding. You would think a veteran Democrat serving as CEO of the largest school system in the state would take the lead on that. But why should our leaders lead? This is Chicago. Claypool’s predecessor is going to jail, so he’s actually an improvement.  Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Illinois House, who has been in power almost non-stop since 1983, and the Governor, still test driving the office he bought last year, are in an epic pissing match. So this seems unlikely to end well.

Meanwhile, my sons get to ride the listing ship of public education. Nothing is the same year to year. Programs start and then are eliminated. Same with staff. Young teachers have kids and leave for the suburbs, because there’s no guarantee they can get their kids through the lottery process. Oh, and there was that teacher’s strike.

My wife and I sent our kids to public schools for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was this: we knew it was going to be a bit rough navigating the system, and we knew they’d meet people who weren’t like them. We thought that going through CPS would prepare them for adult life in the actual global community – tremendously diverse and more than a little challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding if you pay attention and invest some effort.

It turns out we were right about preparing them for adult life, but we had the context all wrong. In Chicago, a fair amount of money can buy you a gleaming existence free of the systemic failure, difficult people, and occasional unpleasantness everyone else contends with daily. Those without the means do their best to play within the system, selecting among bad choices and watching the value of their efforts steadily decline.

When I think about it that way, I figure that we probably didn’t do a great job preparing kids for the world, but we did a stupendous job of preparing them for America.

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Actually, National Geographic and Fox Deserve Each Other

Last week, news broke that the National Geographic Society had sold its magazine, TV channels, and other media properties to 21st Century Fox. This caused more consternation than your usual media/business story. Fox also runs Fox News, and is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who uses his media empire to deny the science of climate change and is also the devil.  National Geographic magazine on the other hand – as we all remember from our childhoods – is known for its deep commitment to science and exploration. Also, the boobs of women in developing countries. But mostly about science and exploration.

1414525011610_wps_53_CAPTION_October_1978_PhotYour childhood was wrong. As a long-struggling non-profit, National Geographic – and especially its TV channel – has planted its boots well on the tainment side of edutainment.  As a media enterprise, the desire to tell a good story has rarely been derailed by the concerns of experts or the truth. Just like Fox News. 

I started to pay attention to this a few years ago, when I wondered whatever happened to the star of one of my favorite NatGeo stories: Koko, the gorilla who could use and understand sign language. As a kid, I thought her story was incredible. How cool to be able to communicate with a gorilla! And the gorilla had a pet cat! Someday, I would be able to talk to animals!

What happened? It’s been decades and we’re not exactly awash in semi-articulate apes (outside of Republican presidential candidates – zing!). It turns out that  there were a lot of problems with the “science” around Koko – not least of which was the fact that her handlers never released their data to other scientists, and no one has been able to duplicate the alleged results. As far back as 1980, there was pretty fierce debate about how much “science” factored into work with Koko, and how much was intentional or unintentional cueing by her handler combined with some wishful thinking in interpreting the signs Koko made. Also, her first pet cat escaped and was run over by a car.

Then there’s the story of the discovery of the Titanic. I was 11 in 1985 when the oceanographer Robert Ballard and his team discovered the wreck, solving the then-73 year mystery of its location. It’s hard to remember a time when the biggest mystery surrounding the Titanic wasn’t the appeal of James Cameron’s terrible film, but that the ship itself had never been found. And then Ballard and his robots, funded by the National Geographic Society, found it. What a great story. What a great, not exactly truthful, story. Robert Ballard was on a secret mission funded by the US Navy to locate two sunken nuclear submarines. The Navy agreed that if he found the Thresher and the Scorpion, he could use the time left on his contract to look for the Titanic. The fact that he found it was an excellent cover story for the real purpose of his mission, and kept the Navy’s search and capabilities a secret from the Soviets. I won’t deny there’s a different kind of swashbuckling romance to the true story, but it definitely detracts from the “exploration for its own sake” aspect that Ballard peddled for 33 years.

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In the late 90s, National Geographic breathlessly announced the discovery of a fossil that would be the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. But they somehow missed fairly obvious links in the fossil itself- which turned out to be glue joints from the 88 different pieces of various animals assembled by a Chinese farmer. The magazine retracted the story, and admitted they got caught up in the excitement over an animal that – let’s face it – looks awesome. Speaking of awesome looking, do you remember NatGeo’s T. Rex Autopsywhere dignity-free “scientists” cut into a fake tyrannosaur model for television cameras? That’s the kind of hard hitting natural science we usually expect from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.  Sidenote:  it’s called a necropsy when performed on animals. I don’t know what one calls it when it’s performed on fake animals. I also don’t know what it’s called when a National Geographic explorer-in-residence announces the discovery of a new dinosaur, and it turns out it might be a juvenile known dinosaur. The issue remains unresolved because they don’t know where the dinosaur was discovered since it was removed from China illegally.

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In 2014, the National Geographic channel had to pull a series that dealt with excavating Nazi war graves. It was a huge disappointment, because who doesn’t like exploiting graves for entertainment? Zahi Hawass loves it. He’s the famously self-aggrandizing former Minister of Antiquities in Egypt. To be fair, the graves he exploited for his TV shows, clothing line, and branded hats were from Pharaonic Egypt, thousands of years older than the Nazi war graves. More importantly, Egyptian pyramids and tombs are super cool – that’s edutainment! Dr. Hawass knows this, and so did National Geographic, which named him an explorer-in-residence in 2001. Presumably, they didn’t explore his support of the fabulously corrupt Mubarak regime, or how much he was disliked by everyday Egyptians and fellow archaeologists. You might ask if they ignored all this and named Hawass an explorer-in-residence solely to gain exclusive access to Egyptian antiquities for a bunch of lucrative TV shows. The Justice Department did ask exactly that.

Am I cherry-picking just the embarrassing moments of this otherwise esteemed American institution? Maybe. Or maybe National Geographic’s acquisition by Fox is just the last step in a progression that began decades ago, and reached its nadir recently when the channel aired the third movie adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” books. If you lost track, Bill O’Reilly’s ghostwriter has now written five “killing” books, and they’re exactly the kind of history you expect under O’Reilly’s name. Which is to say, less history than heavy moralizing with a thick smear of bullshit. And National Geographic helpfully frames each one with their trademark yellow border.

National Geographic loves grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history because audiences love grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history. Audiences also love manufactured controversies, prattling heads, and the fictitious news stories of Fox News, the most popular of the cable news channels. Why not bring the two together? It’s been a long time coming.

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How to Die, the Chicago Way

Everyone knows that Chicago has a murder problem. Gun violence and my city are practically synonymous. More importantly, we have a problem talking about Chicago’s murder problem. The Tribune starts out each week with a murders-per-hour recap of the weekend. What insight does this provide? None. Most shootings and homicides happen over the weekend – it’s like mowing the lawn. The Tribune also makes sure to compare the current pace of shootings and killings year-on-year. So does the Sun Times.  What do you do with this data? I don’t know, but I like numbers in my news. Murder: it’s like following the Dow Jones!

Being shot is how you die in Chicago, right? Nope. Chicago’s murder rate doesn’t even put us in the top 10 of murders per capita in America. In your face, Kansas City! Of course, the Daily Beast points out that it might be that our paramedics are getting better, or our gunmen are getting worse. So that’s encouraging.

At 407 murders (2014) for a city of 2.7 million, killing in Chicago is a more popular thing to talk about it than it is to actually do (even if you accept that the numbers are cooked). Murder happened to just .015% of Chicagoans in 2014. Put another way: the Cubs have won the World Series twice in their 112 year history. That’s about 2% – 133 times as much. If I threatened to kill you if the Cubs win the World Series this year, would you worry? Of course not! Because you know the Cubs are a tourist trap, not a baseball team, and tourist traps have no reason to win the World Series.

Murder is the Chicago way to die, but it’s not the way most Chicagoans actually kick the bucket. So what is? I wanted to know, so I poked around on the Department of Public Health’s mortality statistics page. You want to die like a Chicagoan? Here’s how:

cubs

Watch a ballgame, drink a bunch, and enjoy some deep dish pizza.

Well, maybe not those exact things, but the combination of alcohol, a low fiber diet, and the three hours of inactivity associated with watching baseball are excellent indicators for colo-rectal cancer, which kills more Chicagoans per year than homicide. My three part investigative series Your Ass: The Killer Behind You, will be published in the Trib this fall.

obama-smoking-460_1121795c

Act like wanna-be academic, short-term US Senator and former Chicagoan Barack Obama.

Lung cancer killed almost 6,000 Chicagoans in a four-year period. Obama has had a hard time giving up the habit, even though one cigarette takes 11 minutes off your life. Of course, if those 11 minutes were to be spent at a Cubs game, you might choose to smoke.

Combine numbers 1 and 2, and give yourself nearly every behavioral risk factor for a stroke.

Death by stroke has been a celebrated Chicago tradition since it provided the demise of Al Capone, Chicago’s most famous criminal never elected to public office. It doesn’t seem like a particularly tough way to die for the guy behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but neither does going insane from syphilis, which also happened to him.

capone

Close the garage door, leave the car running.

You know what’s weird? Spike Lee has rejected my script about people in Chicago dying in poorly ventilated garages.   Unintentional injury kills thousands of people, and the leading cause is accidental poisoning. I suspected the popularity of Italian Beef might have something to with this, but it turns out it’s just boring old carbon monoxide poisoning and drug overdoses.

Eat more salt. Eat more of everything. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most distinctive way to die in Illinois is kidney disease. If you combine kidney disease with the number one cause of kidney disease, diabetes, then you kill a whole lot of Chicagoans.

Ok, fine. Be a male gang member and get involved with the local drug trade.

Why fight the stereotype? If you want to get offed, this is the way to do it. Half the homicides in Chicago in 2014 were gang-related, and 350 of the 393 victims were men. An awful lot of them involved narcotics. After reviewing this information, I have a bold public policy recommendation: limited legalization of drugs, provided they’re bought by women and sold through street gangs, which must be all-female. I bet a lot of things would change if every punk had to give his girlfriend the money to score some smack.

Choose your friends poorly and fight with your family.  

Lots of people in Chicago are killed by their partners, and about half of all people murdered were killed by someone they knew or were related to. This Thanksgiving, look around the table and think about which of those people will kill you when shit gets real. Oh – and if one of your nearest and dearest gets offed, you’re going to want to lay low for a while. A connection to a murder victim increases your chances of being murdered by 900%.

The Chicago Police are worried about who you spend time with. In their characteristically poorly thought-out and tone-deaf way, they suggest that you “be smart about with whom you hang out.” CPD knows that formal grammar really speaks to the kids. The cops also suggest that “before allowing someone in your car, ask if they have illegal drugs or guns with them.” Good idea.  The little jerks in our soccer carpool better fess up.

There’s one other way. 

Be a young Black man. Murder victims in Chicago are overwhelmingly a very small subset of the population:  Black men ages 15-34. It’s the leading cause of death for that cohort.

I’m not saying that we cover homicide and gun violence in Chicago like sports scores and stock market averages because it happens to Black people. Oh yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. There were 52 homicides in Chicago last month, and I can’t name the victim or the perpetrator of one them. But I knew there were 52!

I can, however, name the perpetrators of a number of recent rampage shootings. This essay from NPR points out that if those 52 Chicagoans were killed all at once, the story would be covered as a mass shooting and get full national press coverage complete with profiles of the victims and perpetrator.  We have a “homicide problem” in Chicago, though, and so a few dozen killings a month aren’t a surprise. Mass shootings, though. Those are terrifying and darkly fascinating aberrations.

Unless, of course, you understand “aberration” to mean diverging from normal. Because mass shootings happen all the time, and they’re getting more frequent. Early this summer, mass shootings were averaging one a day. Makes you shudder to think about what normal might be, doesn’t it?

Thanks to the chaos in Mexico, America has only the second highest homicide rate among wealthy, developed countries. But it seems pretty clear that lots more people are going to die the Chicago way.

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I’m Happy to Pay Chicago’s Surcharge on Stupidity

I’m a Chicagoan, and I’m about to face an increase in property taxes, while the city prepares to make $200 million in cuts to the very public schools my kids are enrolled in. Also, on January 1, 2016 it seems pretty likely that my sales tax will be increased by 1% to 10.25%, which means I will start the new year with the satisfaction of paying the highest sales tax in the nation.  As of July 1, I’m already paying a tax on Netflix. The city raised hundreds of millions of dollars from me and my neighbors by shortening yellow lights and entrapping us with otherwise useless red light cameras.  Illinois has the highest state and local tax obligations, the second-highest real estate taxes in the nation, and among the least fair tax systems. Fun fact: Illinois is called the Land of Lincoln not for the president, but for Lincoln Smith, who made a killing running three card monte at Rush and Division back in the day.

You’d think I’d be outraged about all of this., but I’m not. Like everyone else in my city and state, I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and given the choice between paying attention to all of this and paying higher costs for worse public services, I chose the latter. It’s like an ignorance surcharge. I’m a stupid person, and it’s not worth it to make myself smarter. Thinking and learning make my brain hurt!

You. Fork it over.

You. Fork it over.

One of the things I would rather not think about is the property tax increase. It’s coming because the city, abetted by the state, completely mismanaged the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund. The cock-up didn’t start recently. If I were paying attention, I would’ve noticed that they’ve been mismanaging it for 20 years. Here’s an article from three years ago, describing what was then already a celebrated mess. I didn’t read it, though. It has numbers and graphs. I also don’t want to ponder the broader fuster cluck of public pensions in Chicago or Mayor Rahm’s plan to save the city with a giant casino, so I’m not going to. All of this math and finance is interminably boring and depressing. I’m a Chicagoan. It’s July. I’ve got the Sox and Cubs for interminably boring and depressing – and they have the upside of the opportunity for public drunkenness.

I’m a big dummy, and I’m sort of a racist. You know what numbers I pay attention to? The numbers of shootings that take place over the Fourth of July weekend. Shootings of minorities, that is. They’re overwhelmingly the people who get shot in Chicago, and I join my neighbors in comparing how many of them are shot this year vs. previous years. You know, like they were batting averages. We’re not following shootings because we’re scared. We’re following it so we can advance our armchair sociological theories about poor minorities! Don’t believe me? Read the comments section on this article.  Or my neighborhood discussion board. We’re stupid, and worried when the depravity we associate with the (Black) South Side seems to be happening on the (White) North Side. This raises the biggest fear we morons have: declining property values. What will happen if our neighbors flee to the unlimited breadsticks of the suburbs and minorities move in next door?

I've got a theory about this.

I’ve got a theory about this.

I’m too stupid to trouble myself about big picture social problems in Chicago – things like gross inequality, segregation, or failing public education. I’m also too dumb to be worried about aggravating factors like the lack of funding for infrastructure, public transportation, mental health facilities, etc. Smart people might look at these things and think that they’re precisely the sort of thing that our public officials should deal with. But we’re not smart people. When we consider someone for public office in Chicago, the most important question to ask is “are they related to another elected official?”  There’s only one other enterprise in Chicago so tied up with family connections: the mob. If I were smarter, I’d probably make something of that.

I get the stupid politicians that stupid people deserve. Our recent mayoral election was between a dissembling bully and Santa Claus’ slightly less munificent little brother. I’ve got the low expectations of a moron, and my public officials sometimes even fail to meet those. Chicago has the most corrupt politicians in the country. The federal judicial district for northern Illinois has more public corruption convictions than any other in the country – and this is a nation that still includes New Orleans and Albany. In 2013 alone, there were 45 corruption convictions. From 1976 to 2013 there were 1,642!

As a nitwit, I’d rather pay higher taxes than demand more from my public officials. It’s a convenient arrangement, because all of this corruption is expensive as hell. A couple of political scientists figure that it costs Illinois about $500 million a year. The hired truck scandal cost Chicagoans $15 million a year over 10 years. Illinois could potentially knock 5.2% off its budget if it weren’t for all the patronage hiring and bogus contracts. The number I don’t want to think about most is this: in the decade to 2014, the city of Chicago paid half a billion dollars to settle misconduct lawsuits against our police. That’s apparently enough to build “five state-of-the-art high schools and more than 30 libraries, (and) repave 500 miles of arterial streets.” Schools? Libraries? That sounds like stuff for smart people.

I don’t want to know about this, and luckily, our news doesn’t tell us. Like most Americans, I get my news from TV. Less reading. And our local news does a terrible job of covering local politics and government. In a typical 30 minute broadcast, one study found that exactly one minute was dedicated to politics. And thank God, too. Covering stuff that’s going to cost me money and impact my quality of life might cut into the seven minutes of sports and weather coverage. Here’s what I want in my news: information I could get by guessing that tomorrow will be like today. The weather will probably be within a few degrees and the Cubs probably choked in the 6th. Once that’s covered fill in the rest with ads for storm windows and coverage of people who got shot. Done and done.

Given the choice between paying more attention and paying a few extra dollars a year, I’m taking the latter. People say that you get what you pay for. I pay for not having to pay attention to any of this. Seems like a good deal to me.

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Your Fat Child Is Upsetting Me

Tyler Prescott, Father

I have a reputation for being the dad that’s willing to say what the other parents won’t. I don’t know we can’t be honest with each other – we’re all at the same school seeing each other day. I think we should value openness and talk about it when something is bothering us, especially when it has to do with our kids. So I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but your fat child is really upsetting me and a lot of the other parents.

It’s distressing to think that our school has an obesity problem, and frankly I’m upset that you aren’t taking the time to do something about it. We have spent so much effort making Taft Elementary the kind of school we can be proud of. We raised money for the landscaping and Smart Boards and new lacrosse uniforms, just to make the school look attractive to others. A lot of parents are worried that having such a fat student really takes away from the positive image we want the school to project.

You are certainly welcome to raise your daughter any way that you want. But it’s getting a little difficult to explain to my kids what’s with wrong her. The other day, Beretta asked me why I sighed when I saw her, and Dru wanted to know if calling a kid “disgusting” was a ok. There’s going to come a time we have to explain to our kids about the nicknames it’s ok to use for people who are different from us, but I didn’t want it to have to be so soon. All I’m asking for is a little consideration.

At church, our kids learn that we are all beautiful because God loves us and created us in His image. It’s important to us, as I’m sure it is to you, that kids don’t find reasons to question what they learn at church. What am I going to say when Beretta asks me if God is fat? I mean, of course He’s not, because he’s a perfect being. So why would he make people fat? Is this one of those things where God just looks the other way, like the Holocaust or with the gays and Muslims? It’s upsetting me just thinking about it. Imagine what it will do to my kids. My wife and I want them to grow up with faith, not upsetting questions.

Your daughter has no way to understand the body choices that you’ve made for her. Does she even know of the many opportunities that would be available to her if she weren’t so fat? It’s very sweet that she tries to play with the normal kids, and I think it says a lot about our school culture that the other kids try to accept her in spite of her appearance. Thank God for the anti-bullying program, right? Still, I think we can all agree that life would be so much easier if she looked like the other children.

You should think about the example she is setting for the other students. She’s eating what she wants, not even looking at the calorie count or ingredient label. She isn’t even on a single athletic team – is that really appropriate for a third grader? I really don’t know how else kids learn about taking every opportunity to crush an opponent if they don’t play sports. Sometimes she just sits during recess and reads! And do you think she’s really comfortable being the only kid in school who never wears Under Armor? Beretta asked me if this means that she is poor. I don’t want my daughter having to worry that she goes to school with poor kids, especially when she’s already figured out that poor people mean bad neighborhoods, crime, and gangs.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but have you thought about counseling? Maybe your daughter has some sort of issue that makes her want to be so lazy. I’m sure there’s a psychologist that specializes in kids with messed up attitudes about their bodies. Better to take care of this now than when she gets older and has trouble finding a husband or a job, right? She still has a really good chance of having a normal life if  you start now, and we’re all totally ready to support you on this.

I’m glad we could have this talk.

.

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Pentagon: Mistakes Were Made. Zany, Zany Mistakes.

Last week, we learned that the Pentagon accidentally sent live anthrax to nine states and a US military base. One day later, we learned that it was actually 11 states, 2 countries, and a military base. A few days later, they upped the number to 51 labs in 17 states and three foreign countries. A spokesman said they the Defense Department is certain that there are states that did not receive live anthrax spores, but they can’t confirm which ones. They’re pretty sure they might have sent live anthrax to themselves, though.

Oh, Pentagon, Pentagon, you’ve done it again! The Defense Department’s hijinks, mistakes, and inability to learn from them are what make it our most beloved and adorable government bureaucracy. We’re like Ricky and the Pentagon is our Lucy, with all the naive hijinks and mischief-making. Americans invest a kajillion dollars a year hoping that someone will keep us safe from biological weapons, and those same people end up shipping them out like AOL CDs? You have to laugh. The most expensive military in the world has lost three of their last four wars? We can just can’t stay mad at their cute little faces.

Top Pentagon Officials Meet

Remember a couple of months ago, when the Pentagon misplaced $500 million in military aid in Yemen? It was just a few things: 200 pistols,  200 rifles, 1.2 million rounds of ammunition, and 250 suits of body armor. Also, 160 Humvees, four helicopters, and two boats. You’ve probably never heard of a CN-235 airplane. There’s a picture of one below. Each one is 70 feet long and weighs 22,000 pounds. The Defense Department misplaced two of them in Yemen. Whoops!

Have You Seen Me?

Have You Seen Me?

Perhaps It’s not fair to single out the Department of Defense. It’s hardly the only giant federal bureaucracy to make darling little mistakes. They weren’t the ones who accidentally give 1,400 guns to drug gangs in Mexico. That was the ATF. The Pentagon also didn’t once lose 449 guns and 184 computers. That was the FBI. And then those lovable screw-ups did it again!  And it wasn’t Defense that failed to keep explosives and weapons off of planes 95% of the time. That was the adorable TSA. Soliciting Colombian prostitutes? The Secret Service. Seems like there’s lots of agencies looking to be Ethel to the Pentagon’s Lucy.

Still, who can forget last year when the military accidentally airdropped weapons and supplies to ISIS? That was really funny. Then the  Pentagon was then nice enough to let US weapons go to the Iranian-backed militias who are fighting ISIS, so it’s probably a wash. Did you that Hezbollah was so grateful for receiving an M1A1 Abrams tank that they posted a picture of it on Facebook (below)?

hezbollah tank

Most of the weapons the Department of Defense distributes probably go to the right place.  Except for that one time in 2012, when it let $200 million worth of weapons go to Islamist rebels in Libya. In 2011, the weapons sent to Uganda to fight al-Shabaab in Somalia accidentally ended up being used by the al-Shabab militants themselves. But they were probably going to blow up malls and commit massacres anyway. Bygones, right?

At least we know where those weapons ended up. We have no idea what happened to a bunch of weapons in Afghanistan. That’s not as bad as in 2004-2007, when we couldn’t account for 30% of the weapons we gave to Iraq. But let’s be positive: not being able to account for 30% means they could account for 70% of the weapons. If this were baseball, they’d have a .700 average! Sports similes are awesome! (Side note: the general that failed to account for the Iraqi weapons was David Petraeus, famous for the failed “surge” strategy in Iraq and successful “let’s have sex” strategy with his biographer).

By the way, there is absolutely no reason to be concerned about the $90 billion worth of weapons we sold to Saudi Arabia from 2010-14. We have no better repressive, theocratic friends than the Saudis. And it’s not like we’re selling Predator drones to the UAE. Oh, actually, we are. But don’t worry, it’s been at least a couple of weeks since a Middle Eastern country collapsed and rebels seized all of their weapons. And why would they go to all that effort, when the Saudis are generously sending them American weapons already?

Nothing can stop our dear, sweet, befuddled defense establishment. I still smile at the time an arms dealer was caught buying surplus F-14 parts to sell to Iran. The parts were confiscated by customs agents and returned to the US. Then, five years later, they were on the market again. And headed to Iran again. When customs agents seized them the second time, the fighter jet parts still had the evidence tags on them from the first incident. I’m crying over here!

Between 2003 and 2011, the sweet, ditzy Army lost track of 5.8 billion dollars worth of supplies. That’s small beans in an annual defense budget just shy of half a trillion dollars. Still, you’d think someone would want to provide some oversight. But that someone would be Congress, and it’s hard to provide oversight when you go cross-eyed pleasuring yourself at the mention of the words “defense,” “security,” or “troops.”

Senator Graham Readies His Hand for the Mention of

Senator Graham Readies His Hand for the Mention of “Troops”

The Pentagon was supposed to be audited in 1996. It wasn’t. Between then and when Reuters reported on their lack of accounting in 2013, Congress gave the Defense Department $8.5 trillion. That’s a big number, so think of it this way: all 8.5 million residents of New York City would have to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to come up with that amount of money. Late last year, the Pentagon finally said it was ready for an audit – just 24 years after the law calling for one passed.

It will be interesting to see what the audit reveals – if it’s ever done. Last month, an audit of just the Pentagon’s travel credit cards found that in a single year, $952,000 was spent at casinos and $97,000 at “adult entertainment establishments.” Maybe they were paying for dancers to dress up like Senators. Oh, Pentagon.

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