Monday, November 12, 2012

Let's not forget our debt to vets

FOR THE PAST dozen or so years, no matter where I'm working, at half past noon on Nov. 11 I can be found at Front and Spruce streets in Center City, the site of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
And every year as I stand on the grass directly behind the curved, charcoal-gray wall, I'm always struck by a combination of reverence and awe while watching the older generation of soldiers facing forward during the annual Veterans Day observance, their jackets boldly proclaiming the names and emblems of the military branches in which they served our country.
The ceremony is always the same: various elected officials, a congressman or councilperson - but always the mayor - offer words of praise and thanks. There's always a special guest speaker (last year it was Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan) and an honor guard of khakied, aging warriors, standing with stoic dignity while bearing colorful flags. The rifle team's 21-gun salute pierces the crisp fall air, followed by the traditional, somber "Taps."
The touching moments are the same, too, as the once-young men, humbled by passing decades and graying hair, greet each other with affectionate smiles, hugging like long-lost brothers. Gold Star moms, easily identifiable by their gold-rimmed white caps signifying a son lost in battle, totter about the amphitheater on canes, in bereaved solitude.
But what's also the same is the absence of men and women like me in their 40s and 50s who have been largely untouched directly by the loss and horror of armed conflict.
We late- and post-baby boomers - those who have and have not served - owe a debt to these veterans as Vietnam, the only war this nation has ever lost, was America's last innocent war.
Because of Vietnam, never again would our political leaders be issued a blank check to cast America's finest unabated and without question into harm's way. Because of Vietnam, whose veterans were denied a welcoming parade of thanks, never again would our soldiers in uniform be greeted with scorn and contempt upon arrival back home.
And yet, last year, among the 200 or so gathered to pay tribute to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, the absence of middle-aged adults - or anyone under 30 - was as dismaying as it was obvious.
Along with the names of the 646 Philadelphians etched into the memorial's polished granite walls is the motto, "It is our duty to remember," a lesson apparently not imparted on the post-Vietnam generations who ignore - or, most noticeably, teens who ignominiously skateboard around or vandalize - what should be exalted ground.
In his last official appearance before Congress concluding his 52 years of service to the nation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur quoted the refrain of a military ballad, declaring, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
Let's hope we render those words untrue for the Vietnam veteran. They, and all our veterans, deserve so much more from the rest of us.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Of Mosques and (American) Madness

As we debate the right and the wisdom of an Islamic center and mosque being built in the shadow of Ground Zero, Americans of all ages would be mindful to acquaint themselves with two names from our recent history: Norma Greene and Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan; one citizen from our shameful past, the other from our painful present.

In 1942, Greene, a second lieutenant nurse in Tuskegee’s medical corps, was savagely beaten by a pair of police officers who broke her nose and blackened her eyes following a shopping trip as she prepared for overseas duty. Greene’s assault, an indignity suffered by many a black soldier during WWII, stemmed from her refusal to exit a “white” bus in the segregated south.

Over the centuries blacks have served our country in its wars, fostering the American values of freedom and equality abroad – even when those same “inalienable” rights were not afforded their countrymen on their native soil.

And what American can honestly say they have not marveled at why the “darker brother” – the most loyal citizen among us – has done and continues to do so even today.

The rationale is not difficult to comprehend; because despite the inequitable treatment endured by their race for hundreds of years, the African American truly believes in the promise of this nation and its Constitution which, in its First Amendment specifically guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Which renders the current brouhaha questioning the patriotism and the right of our Muslim brethren to construct a house of worship when and where they please even more unfathomable.

Imperfect as it is, this grand experiment that is our nation has always been a beacon of hope that has propelled us ever forward; a hope so eloquently expressed by our third President Thomas Jefferson “that all men are created equal” – despite his moral flaw of being a slaveholder.

It is this same intangible longing that over the decades has compelled millions from all corners of the world to sacrifice life and limb for the chance of a better life they aspire to encounter on these distant shores.

This sacred bargain is now being threatened by the illogical conceits of those who take our country’s founding document for granted by not living up its words.

However, those citizens of good conscience who do sincerely believe in the continual, positive evolution of this nation shall not be deterred from the path clearly set forth some two centuries ago.

Americans of all faiths – including Muslims – perished in the embers of that fateful day nine years ago.

As such, it is shameful that our President, on the eve of the 9/11 commemoration, was placed in the unfortunate position of chiding our countrymen with the understanding that Muslims are indeed serving in our nation’s military – in Afghanistan and Iraq, no less – and that “part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us. It’s just us.”

The responsibility and duty of being an American – E pluribus unum, “out of many, one” – and comprehending what this solemn trust genuinely entails, is an appreciation that ought to be inbred within and lived to the marrow by each and every one of the citizens of this great nation. It is an ideal we should all strive to achieve. Each and every day.

If not, then one would do well to be enlightened by Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a 20-year old New Jersey native who sacrificed his life in Iraq three years ago in service to these United States.

The photograph of his grieving mother draped over his tombstone – adorned with a crescent moon and star – at Arlington National Cemetery, would be a most potent reminder of this obligation.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Obama’s Nobel Decision

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan”, mortally-wounded captain John Miller, leader of a squad dispatched to collect a soldier whose three brothers have been in killed World War II combat, utters to his rescued charge with his dying breath, "James... earn this. Earn it."

President Obama, nominated a scant 11 days into his presidency for a Nobel Peace Prize that he clearly did not deserve, faces a far weightier matter than that of Mrs. Ryan’s surviving son, who 50 years later ponders whether or not he has been worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and the others who died while fetching him.

American involvement in what Obama called a “necessary war” in Afghanistan ultimately hinges upon how his administration decides what constitutes a victory in what is clearly an unmitigated mess.

Call me naïve but my idea of a military success involves a desk arrayed with papers and pens, a man dressed in crisp khakis and a big grey boat. That notion apparently has been supplanted by retired general Wesley Clark the former top NATO commander, who over the summer offered a hallucinatory assessment of the Afghan war, saying, “It's theoretically possible to achieve success. The question is how you define it.”

Propping up a corrupt government with a cipher of a leader whose main attribute appears to be the ability to sport an über-snazzy chapeau and flowing robes is not in the interest of American “national security” nor worth one additional drop of American blood; especially given how, by agreeing to a runoff, Afghan President Hamid Karzai tacitly admitted that August’s presidential election was fraudulent. Plus, an adversary willing to suicide bomb the dedication of a mosque – as was done in September when the country’s deputy intelligence chief and 23 others were slaughtered – is an enemy that cannot be defeated with military might.

In the absence of what General William Westmoreland, U.S. forces commander in Vietnam, termed the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel," President Obama would be wise (and courageous) to bring the 63,000 troops already in Afghanistan home immediately – even at the risk of having to return later. The current course of action is not the ballyhooed “change” he articulated during the campaign and that the American people voted for.

Or, unlike the elderly James Ryan, he’ll be staring at a lot more than one tombstone and wondering the same about his prematurely-bestowed award.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Haiku for the King of Pop

Now, two months later.

I still can't believe you're gone.

We miss you, Michael.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The BET Awards Show

was the biggest coon, chicken-and-biscuit eating, rub your head when it doesn't it itch, laugh when it's not funny, we sick boss?, stepin' fetchit, uncle tom, handkerchief head, aunt jeminah, lawn jockey, stoop your back when it ain't broken, Bones and Tambo minstrel show I have seen. Sad what hip hop has degenerated into.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The White House, The Black Prez, The Watermelon Patch and The Resignations

For the second time this year, a high-ranking government official has lost his job after forwarding a racist email to his colleagues.

In February, the mayor of a California town quit his position. This week, North Carolina's governor asked for and received the resignation of the state's top liquor regulator, who had forwarded a photo illustration depicting the White House South Lawn converted into a watermelon patch and captioned "There goes the neighborhood…"

"E-mails and images of this nature are offensive and unacceptable," Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement.

Los Alamitas Mayor Dean Grose's caption read, "No Easter egg hunt this year."

Now if you're black and laughing at these punch lines join the club. Tacky, in poor taste and racist to boot, like it or not the joke is funny whether you're a 44 fan or not. (And if you are black and laughing can you genuinely be offended and amused at the same time?)

This cartoon has been floating around the internet ever since President Obama won the election and I'll bet plenty of black folks have been on the sending or receiving end of this same email.

The problem with emailing this cartoon illustrates a dilemma that has bedeviled computer users since we started communicating via the internet; the separation of the public from the private message.

When using Outlook I always employ one rule before sending out email: would I be comfortable if someone stood in the middle of the city hall courtyard reading it while shouting at the top of their lungs? If not, then I reconsider before sending it out, usually by softening the tome of the message.

At the same time, I'm very cognizant as to the email's audience; I simply don't routinely forward messages to my list of the usual suspects. Because that's where a lack of judgment can lead to a job loss, which in Alcoholic Beverage Commission chair Douglas A. Fox's case, evaporated a six-figure salary.

And yes, I've been guilty of sending a racy email or two (or three or four) to work colleagues, but you've got to be careful with who you can trust and with what. And who can and who cannot take a joke.

I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that the lobbyist who called the guv's attention to Fox's email was white (another conversation). And Fox, bless him, might have been a civil-rights marcher and NAACP member in the past, or perhaps joined a certain secret society that wears pointy white hats; regardless, his stance on racial issues isn't the point in this instance.

The reality is that as a public official Fox - and Grose - can't send out potentially offensive email like this, just as he wouldn't (or shouldn't) place the same cartoon in an envelope embossed with a work address and toss it in the snail mail.

But the internet makes such transgressions oh-so-conveniently-easy to carry out before common sense takes over. In Grose's case, the cartoon was sent from his personal email to a black businesswoman and volunteer he serves with on a community board; he has since apologized, explaining that he didn't know about the sterotypical connection between black folks and watermelon. (Huh?)

Like the Facebook photo of the college student chugging from a beer bong, smoking a joint or showing a wee bit too much skin that pops up when the human resource department does a google search, I suspect we'll continue seeing examples of internet dos and don'ts as people sort out netiquette.

But do you really need to take a $110,000 hit to figure it out?


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wake-Up Call for Black Folks

Last year, Philadelphia’s new mayor initiated an idea he thought up on the campaign trail to spur the hiring of the ranks of ex-cons and drive down the crime rate.
For three years, businesses would receive a $10,000 a year tax break, a credit against the city’s business tax for each ex-offender they hired. To make it even more attractive for employers, the ex-cons had to work for just a six-month minimum.
Sounds great except for one problem; not one single business has applied for the $5 million program – enough for 500 ex-offenders – during the first year.
Service providers and city officials speculate that the re-entry program has failed for a number of reasons including the recession, confusion and a lack of information about the benefits and requirements, including rules that the ex-cons would be paid 150 percent of the minimum wage, and that employers must provide $2,000 worth of tuition support.
So far, just two unnamed companies that have hired 15 ex-cons are due to apply for the credit next year. Why so little participation? According to a city official, companies are willing to pitch in, but don’t like the requirement that they would be identified publicly.
No kidding.
Blacks and whites make up about 44 and 45 percent respectively of Philadelphia’s nearly 1.5 million population. But 74 percent of the city’s nearly 9,700 prison inmates are black. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that lots of black men are in prison, the majority of whom will be released back into society someday.
And this is what they can look forward to when they get out of lockup?
Some say the failure is the mayor’s, that he’s not effectively using the clout of his office to make the program a success. And of course, there’s the tanking economy. But those outs are too easy.
Can you really blame employers who must pay the ex-cons more than their (unionized) workers, and are forced to let everybody know they’ve hired former inmates? Some might think that’s a pretty naïve attitude to take since, every day people who’ve served time serve the general public at all levels of employment.
But honestly, would you blame customers if they were hesitant to patronize an establishment knowing that jailbirds are working there? That’s just human nature and sometimes human nature doesn’t cut folks much slack regardless of good intentions.
At the same time, this cauinary tale should serve as a wakeup call to all the knuckleheads out there who view a rap sheet as rite of passage. Sometimes they cast shadows lasting a lifetime.