Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Chilling Path to Assassination

The recent “crashing” of a Presidential State Dinner by a couple of wannabe celebrity publicity hounds sends chills up my spine, especially motivated by the picture of them being greeted by President Obama. It inspires the unthinkable.

It recalls the unavoidable “A” word, assassination, and to my mind, it is the most serious breach of security in recent memory, the consequences of which might have resulted in the most disruptive act in the history of our country. Indeed, the life of our President, whether we agree with his policies or not, is our most cherished living symbol, the jewel of our democratic aspirations.

If this sounds alarmist it should be, and I am appalled at this lapse by the vaunted Secret Service charged with the protection of the President. In this case, heads must roll and the procedures for the protection of our President reviewed and severely tightened. The celebrity-obsessed media, in my opinion, have been too kind to both the perpetrators and the protectors. It is a dangerous flaw in editorial management and exposes their ignorance and historical illiteracy.

Perhaps I am too sensitive about the subject since it formed the basis for the first book in my Fiona FitzGerald mystery series, “American Quartet”. The title refers to the assassination of four of our Presidents, McKinley, Garfield, Lincoln and Kennedy and a failed politician who replicated these assassinations by random murders that referenced the circumstances of these four assassinations.

While the motivation for these terrible acts were based upon whatever inner demons were torturing these murderers, the fact is that a determined assassin of single-minded purpose can be stopped only by an equally determined and aggressive defense.

Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker who intruded on the President’s party while they waited to board a train in Washington D.C. Obviously he was not well guarded and the assassin easily mingled with the Presidential party. McKinley was shot by an anarchist who had disguised his weapon with bandages. He was well guarded when he stood greeting well wishers at the opening of an important event in Buffalo, New York.

Lincoln as we know, was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth. He, too, was guarded, albeit lightly, but Booth, a familiar face at the Ford Theater knew all the entry and exit points and was easily able to insinuate himself behind the box in which Lincoln was sitting watching the play. He also knew the applause and laughter high points which guided his timing to shoot.

John Kennedy was extremely well guarded by dedicated secret service agents whose ring of protection was easily penetrated by a determined assassin acting out of personal rage. Assassination attempts at Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Ford were miraculously aborted by sheer luck. Reagan unfortunately did suffer the pain of a direct hit by a mentally unstable youth, but survived. The attempt on his life forced a revamping of Secret Service protective methods and changed forever Presidential access in every situation. Apparently it needs even more severe tightening.

What this tells us is that a dedicated and determined killer will, if he or she is so motivated, find a way to activate his or her mission unless thwarted by the most psychologically and technologically sophisticated methods of defensive interdiction. Of course, the Secret Service knows this and all its agents are brave men and women who understand that, if it comes down to it, they will take a bullet meant for the President or anyone else in their charge. They know too, that however efficient their protective ring, it is imperfect and at times luck and coincidence can play their miraculous and mysterious part in the process of protection.

They know too, that it is impossible to prevent all scenarios and surely have gamed all the possibilities of penetration by foes determined to achieve their terrible objectives. Indeed, we often fail to realize how difficult their task is. On a larger landscape, think of how our intelligence agencies must react to counter perhaps untold numbers of terrorists plotting ways to penetrate our defenses and achieve another Twin Towers disaster or kill our leaders.

One shudders to remember that the plane that hit the Pentagon might have been originally aimed at either the White House or the Capitol building with even more horrendous consequences.

Unfortunately, what is dead certain, despite whatever denials or rationalizations that memory often misinterprets or gets glazed over by time, is that there is someone or groups of someones out there bent on an act of assassination or terrorism that is chilling to contemplate. There are those who might call such a statement, unfettered paranoia. I call it acknowledgement of historical precedent, which has illustrated time and again the thin line that separates the human species from evil impulses.

Whether we like it or not we are living our lives in America under a sword of Damocles and are ultimately largely dependent upon government agents to protect us and our leaders.

There are those who might interpret the laxness of our protective ring around the President as representing a creeping paradigm of denial. The high minded absurdity of giving the perpetrators of 9/11 the soapbox of a New York trial in a civilian court, that will certainly stir the hearts of our enemies and encourage them to greater heights of creative destruction, seems to come directly out of the playbook of our enemies.

The argument that such a trial will illustrate our moral values pales beside the ultimate value of the human species, which is survival. Yes, I can still thrill to the great injunction of Patrick Henry and his over-the- top rhetorical cry of “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” Despite its heroic trappings it is an odd and hopeless choice. Death presumes there can be no hope of liberty. And the absence of liberty assumes that death is the only option. How about “Give me liberty and the courage to fight for it by whatever means necessary”.

But the case of the White House crashers whose names I will not use as a personal protest to their sick celebrity drenched ambitions must be examined with relentless energy. The next crasher might achieve the unthinkable that will surely unhinge the nation in ways too horrible to contemplate.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sarah Again

One should be given combat pay for defending Sarah Palin in Manhattan. The other evening at a lecture, a s0-called distinguished author of political tomes reflected on the declining state of conservatism and cited Sarah Palin as the reincarnation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who stirred the ire of the country by accusing a huge swath of the State Department as being card carrying communists.

Hearings were held and eventually the Senator, an authentic alcoholic, was exposed as a liar and a fraud, chastised by the Senate and tossed into the rubbish bin of history where he belonged. The ugly comparison ticked me off enough to challenge the author much to the consternation of the passive audience who had been nodding their approval throughout the lecture, which struck me more like a rant against Governor Palin, and despite being cloaked in snobbish intellectual certainty seemed far more virulent than I had heard in other Manhattan venues.

Aside from the emotional and inexplicable ugly abuse heaped on the Governor, the characterizations of her as stupid redneck trailer trash, a lousy mother and ignoramus, the final fallback position comes down to this: Is she qualified to be President of the United States?

In defense, I often try to answer the question with another question which goes something like this: Would you deem qualified for the Presidency a failed small businessman of limited oratorical talent who had never gone to college? A puzzled expression usually falls over the face of my interlocutor, then a wary grimace suggesting that I am asking a trick question, which, of course, I am. When the answer is a doubtful shrug, my riposte is that “you probably wouldn’t have voted for Harry Truman.”

It is important to note that when Harry Truman was President he was excoriated as being a hack politician, an ignoramus, a dumb Midwestern hick and hardly fit to step into the shoes of President Franklin Roosevelt who had chosen him as his Vice President for his fourth term for purely political and demographic reasons, and then rarely consulted him or met with him in person. Truman is now revered as an iconic President who led us into the postwar era, saved Europe and opened America to its greatest prosperity in history. History is always a better judge of “qualifications” than under the pressure of contemporary political events.

In dealing with this conundrum, I have been recalling the suggestion of my great late friend John David Garcia whose seminal book “The Moral Society” was conceived by him as a lasting testament to save our society from ignorance and eventual decline. In that book, amplifying a suggestion by Plato, he recommended that people who stood for office in a democratic system should first be formally educated in governing, certified by a degree, then only those who had been certified should be further credentialed by running for a legislature at the lowest level in a town council, for example, or running and being voted in as a Mayor, then moving on to run at the State level and after election to gain experience in State legislatures or the executive branch as Governor.

Only after being vetted by that experience would a politician be qualified to run for the national legislature or for President. One assumes that there would be a pool of certified politicians eligible to run with the experience in governing that would assure that they have the qualifications to participate in the complicated process of governing.

If that system were adopted we would not be conflicted on the question of qualifications, in much the same way lawyers or doctors are licensed or qualified by testing and a board of their peers. In the system we employ today, the only qualifications are age, citizenship, ambition and the ability to come up with enough money to buy staff and time and space in media.

In our present system, any jackass with the ability to raise a potful of dough can run for office and get elected to influence the most important decisions that impact directly on our lives. A wealthy person who has made a splash in business or has inherited family money can buy his way into Congress or an executive position like Governor at his whim. His election is not guaranteed of course, but his chances are directly proportionate to his wealth or the ability to raise money and hire people to fashion his or her presentation designed to manipulate the voters.

The goal is to package and brand a politician to fit the demographics of his target audience, the voter, and get him to “buy” the manufactured brand. Anyone with enough money can hire the people who are experienced in packaging and branding. We only learn hat we have been hoodwinked after the fact when we discover that the person we voted for was a mirage created by experienced manipulators. It is the Achilles heel of our current system, imperfect, messy and often insulting and destructive. But, as Churchill, has opined, the best of the worst.

I have always believed that John David’s Garcia’s idea was an improvement of our present system.

Obviously, we are very far from his dream of a qualified and credentialed pool of politicians from which to choose. Nevertheless the vetting process of starting at the bottom at a town council and working one’s way up the ladder does exist. Tip O’Neil was dead right when he concluded that “all politics is local.” To me it suggests that governance is learned at the lowest levels, where the give and take, the balancing of views the compromises and small battles are fought which hone the skills and credentials of politicians and qualify him or her as someone worthy of our support.

Which brings us back to Sarah Palin and her qualification for higher office, at least by the standards suggested above.

Palin was a member of the Wasilla, Alaska city council from 1992 to 1996 and the city's mayor from 1996 to 2002. After an unsuccessful campaign for Lieutenant Governor of Alaska in 2002, she chaired the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from 2003 until her resignation in 2004. She was elected Governor of Alaska in November 2006. Palin became the first female governor of Alaska and the youngest person ever elected governor of that state.

Oh yes, and she does have an undergraduate college degree, unlike George Washington, Harry Truman, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland and others. And for all you teachers out there, the alleged trailer trash’s Dad was a teacher of science in the local public school system. And to all those hard edged alleged feminists, to my mind she qualifies as well as a poster girl of the feminist movement, going head to head in a man’s world while balancing the rigors of being a wife and mother. And she needs no defense as an inspiration to parents with physically challenged children.

‘Nuff said. Frankly, I doubt if the dyed-in-the-wool Palin haters will change their minds. Hate is the most difficult of all human emotions to expunge.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go Sarah

In my daily Manhattan world, where most of my friends and acquaintances are old style political groupies of a distinctly liberal bent, nothing gets them more riled, really riled, hyper-irritated, when I mention that I admire Sarah Palin.

They fuss and fume to such an extent that I have serious qualms of the effect on their physical health. Some, I can tell by the clenching of their fists and the sudden burst of color on their complexions, are on the verge of combat.

Frankly I am baffled by the extent of their antagonism. It is visceral, mouth foaming and indicates a kind of existential hatred I have rarely seen in the political arena. In my view it is completely irrational and fed by the snobbery, elite exclusivity, and a circumscribed media of like-minded, anti-Palin views that feed, reinforce, inflame
and buttress their antagonism.

Up front let me tell you why I admire Sarah Palin. I like the fact that she has a point of view of many of the women I met in my many years of living in the West: independent, family oriented, tough, opinionated, fearless, unafraid to air their grievances, and, above all, comfortable in their own skin.

She reminds me of the kind of women, heroines of yesteryear, who pioneered the western frontier and were willing to take on all the hardships inherent in putting down stakes in an unforgiving and dangerous land. I know this will sound absurd to many of my friends, but in some way, she reminds me of Hubert Humphrey who had been dubbed by the media as “The Happy Warrior.” Hubert, an old style liberal, jumped into the fray with a smile, a sense of humor and an unshakeable optimism. Unfortunately, his political future was trashed in Chicago by ugly protests and overreaction by the authorities.

I like Sarah’s competitive spirit and love of sports, her joy in the outdoors and its many wonders, including fishing, hunting, (yes hunting for all you effete New Yorkers who love eating red meat) skiing and hiking. I like the idea that she took on the good old boys who ran their fiefdoms in Alaska politics and bashed them at the polls. I like the idea that she took on the challenging balancing act of being a working mom in a demanding political job, and I have no doubt that she is fiercely devoted to her kids, to her country, to her parents and her friends.

Although she has obvious old fashioned values which I grew up with and understand, she has not shied away from modern mores and has grappled with the difficulties of raising children like most families dealing with the perils of child rearing in this ever more permissive society. It amazed me that she didn’t go into a depressive funk at the way the media treated her daughter, especially the ugly ridicule of Letterman.

Harry Truman, one remembers, was so pissed off with a music critic at the Washington Post who dissed daughter Margaret’s singing debut that he wrote a nasty letter to the critic in which he called him a son of a bitch. Frankly, Sarah showed remarkable restraint and should have kicked Letterman in his overactive you-know-whats for insulting Bristol.

Parents are often blindsided by adolescent peer pressure and their children’s foolish self-inflicted mishaps. She was also roundly criticized for exploiting her kids by taking them to the convention and on the campaign trail. Would it have been better to have left them home with a caretaker or a relative? Ask that question of millions of working mothers and check their response.

If anyone took the trouble to really delve into her record as both Alaska Governor and her excellent work and acknowledged expertise in the energy field, it would dispel the notion that she is stupid, which is the way the elite media has portrayed, pummeled and persecuted her. She is a realist, frank and open, big hearted and decent.

Maybe she wasn’t quite up to par on current events at the time of her hatchet job interview with Katie Couric, a fading media star who insults the fact that the great Walter Cronkite once held sway on that network. Anyone with experience in the news business knows that it’s pretty easy to make a jackass out of someone if you’re determined to do it, especially if you also control the editing.

Oh yes, she is enormously attractive, with movie star good looks, which, in her case, might actually be a political negative. Still, she has done wonders for women in specs who were often categorized as less than pretty. Remember all those Hollywood movies where the bespectacled woman removes her glasses and her boyfriend suddenly swoons with rapture over her beauty. I think she looks just great in glasses and probably has done wonders for the optical trade.

I may not agree with all of her political views and statements, which is par for the course, since I often disagree with everything in the lexicon and views of most politicians of whichever party. Review the campaign promises and rhetoric of the present occupant of the White House and compare it with the reality of those promises and you will know what I mean. He is hardly an exception. Few, if any politicians, will ever get passing grades on that test.

What I take issue with is the utter nastiness and Sarah bashing in the media that this woman has endured. It is far beyond the pale of political combat. It has been hateful, riddled with snobbery, bigotry and pure mean-mindedness.

When Sarah Palin is discussed in my social circles, she is characterized as trailer trash, ignorant, unfit, uneducated, downright stupid and worst of all, a lousy mother. Not only is she accused of exploiting her children for political gain, she is blamed for her daughter’s early sexual promiscuity and her family is characterized as hopelessly dysfunctional. And this passes for political dialogue in modern America?

To counter these rather disgusting comments, especially when they are particularly venomous about her family life, I ask these brilliant nose-in-air critics to look to their own families and honestly confront their own foibles and imperfections. It becomes dangerous territory since most people are rather touchy and in denial about their family histories, especially if they are divorced, have less than perfect children, and have squabbles that have poisoned their own lives. I put half the families in America in that category.

Then there is the matter of her intense Christian faith which has been fair game for the media. These are the same folks who once supported and gushed over the born again Jimmy Carter.

Women seem to be the most vitriolic and outspoken in their critique of Sarah. Indeed, isn’t she the personification of what women have struggled and fought for, someone who follows her passion and ambition in the work place, competes vigorously with her male counterparts and manages to fulfill all the rituals of motherhood and maintain a loving family life? Isn’t that what women wanted when they burned their bras in Atlantic City and started their long delayed revolution for equal treatment?

To depersonalize my inevitable counterattack I will often cite the family lives of some of our revered politicians of both parties and heroes of the snob media, stalwarts of the marriage tradition of “faithfulness”, e.g. the Kennedy brothers, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and (sorry folks) Thomas Jefferson, a certified pedophile and a host of others whose personal lives are less than stellar, far less. As for parenting, I’d declare that off limits in this discussion.

This defense of Sarah is not rooted in her presently perceived qualifications to become President of the United States, a possibility that induces apoplexy in my social circles. I’m not beating the pots and pans for such an outcome, but I don’t completely rule out the possibility.

We have elected the allegedly qualified who turned out to be monumental duds. Recent history has Jimmy Carter’s Presidential legacy to reckon with and there are many of older vintage who have been disappointing examples of Presidential leadership. Indeed, the overqualified often stumbled. John Adams comes to mind.

None of these comparisons will matter to the Sarah haters. They will continue to spew their hatred and declare this admiral woman a danger to America as if she was the female reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. She will continue to be harassed by the same media elitist snobs, continue to be treated with disdain. If I was an Alaskan who voted for Sarah I would be offended as hell by people who think I was some Neanderthal moron for voting for Sarah as my Governor.

But then, the people in my daily circles in the isolated precincts of Manhattan will never surrender their prerogatives as masters of the universe, poseurs and keepers of the flame of intellectual superiority. Truth to tell, I often fall into that category and love the contention and combat of my peerless native city. Growing up in the old Brooklyn, before gentrification, and rooting for the old Dodgers, I guess I’m programmed for an underdog defense, and rooting for Sarah stirs my juices.

Frankly, Sarah needs no defense from me. She has the stamina and feistiness to rise above the endless array of targeted torment being spewed over her by the media snobs, many of whom will die off as their vaunted power bases splinter and break up into a thousand niches by the onslaught of digital technology and the Internet.

A Presidential perch is a long shot for Sarah. Out of my social circles in the alleged wastelands between the coasts, she has found a vast crowd of ordinary Americans, often described as the great unwashed, made up of working folks, many of them unemployed and disillusioned by the empty promises of the smooth talking and elegant speechifying of the people currently in charge, who feel some kinship with this very exotic political orphan.

The great Ivy Leaguers of both genders who are leading America over the cliff to financial ruin and their colluders in the worst Congress in recent history, who apologize for American exceptionalism, butt kiss our enemies and deny the ongoing phenomena of brutal Jihadist terrorism, will one day have to reckon with the likes of Sarah Palin.

Monday, November 2, 2009

SONY Reader to Offer Special Promotion of Fiona FitzGerald Mysteries

On Tuesday the SONY reader will begin a promotion that bundles all of Warren Adler’s Fiona FitzGerald mysteries into a special price download that is a “must read” for anyone who really wants to know the truth about what happens behind the scenes in the nation’s capital.

The Fiona FitzGerald Mysteries

Fiona FitzGerald is a single, smart, sexy, strong-willed woman in her early 30's. who is a D.C. homicide detective. Because of her expertise in the mores of Washington she is given the assignment to solve those homicides that involve important Washington political and diplomatic figures. This acclaimed series has been hailed by critics as providing rare insight into the American power structure and the deviousness and corruption that occurs behinds the scenes.

Never underestimate the power of failure. Four seemingly unconnected D.C. murders stimulate Fiona FitzGerald's sense of history. She delves into a disturbing obsession of a socially prominent but failed politician.

Fiona FitzGerald uncovers a political sex scandal of massive proportions. Who could concoct a sexual conspiracy involving six men from the highest offices in the country - a great American Sextet!

When an infamous reporter whose poison pen had destroyed many careers, is found hanging from her Watergate apartment, the elite of Washington rejoice. Fiona FitzGerald is on the case again.

The rain uncovers two bodies and Fiona FitzGerald is baffled. Both murders points to a powerful man dubbed as "Senator Love." Besides solving the mystery, will Fiona submit to him?

A powerful pro-life Senator is found dead in her nightgown. Looks like suicide but Fiona FitzGerald knows better. Things get more baffling when one shocking clue contradicts the whole case.

A Supreme Court Justice that Fiona FitzGerald once had a past with is the target of her investigation into the brutal sadomasochistic murder of the daughter of a prominent lawyer.

Washington, DC’s struggling underclass and the U.S. Capitol’s socially prominent and politically aggressive upper strata collide in a horrifying crime. Homicide Detective Fiona FitzGerald once again battles prejudice and privilege to uncover the truth, confronting her own demons – and the violet-eyed wife of a powerful politician determined to erase the sinful secrets of the past.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mainstream Media is in its Death Throes

The so-called mainstream media, once defined as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the three major network TV stations, no longer have a monopoly on the opinion making process in American life.

Why belabor the obvious? We all know why. Eyeballs are migrating to the Internet, that vast endless, timeless cloud of information that assaults us 24/7 from every corner of the globe. When eyeballs migrate, the money as defined by the advertisers migrates with them. The less eyeballs, the less revenue, the less revenue, the less investment by the media.

When the revenue decline reaches the tipping point, money dries up, shrinkage occurs until there is nothing left to shrink and the media entity dies or morphs into something else. That is what is happening now. The old media is dying. The new media is building on the corpse of the old media and it is too early to tell if the business paradigm for the new media will ever prosper. It might even die faster than the old media.

Television and radio has split its audience into tiny pieces. There are now hundreds of television channels and thousands of radio channels, and gazillion channels on the Internet. The Tower of Babel now extends into infinity.

Mainstream journalists, many of them now in save-the-world mode (ever since Watergate made celebrities out of investigative journalists) truly believe that we are losing our ability to prod the government into transparency, to uncover corruption and generally serve the public good. Thus, they contend, that the resources to expose the sins of government are drying up, splintering, becoming less effective. They have a point.

The new media now on the Internet e.g., the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Politico and on and on believe that they will fill the gap and become, if not what was once known as the mainstream media, the go-to media. Maybe. Politico is now morphing back into print with a local angle news sheet. They had better have deep pockets.

Those of us who grew up with the traditional mainstream media have, to say the least, mixed feelings about its demise. With fewer outlets we were more like a family, more connected. We knew what each outlet stood for. The public conversation was limited by comparison with today, but comforting since those of us who cared could embrace the information flow. We thought we were getting all sides of all arguments, that our press and speech freedoms were secure. We probably were. Sooner or later, corrupt politicians were exposed by the press and many removed or incarcerated. It amazes me that one crop of crooks are quickly replaced by another crop.

In New York when I was growing up there were eleven dailies. Now, there are three and who knows how long they will survive?

Were we unduly influenced by those who controlled the media? I’m not sure, since the line between the business side of the press and the news side seemed like a pretty wide chasm. Economic desperation may be diluting that ethic. Ideological lines have blurred and the media appears to manipulate its content and layout to favor the particular bent of its sixties influenced editors and reporters. Their nostalgic output seems a lot less subtle than it used to be.

As an ex-newspaperman, I know that editorial placement, headline writing, and the way stories are constructed by length and detail, can make spin often hard to spot. As a former practitioner both as editor and reporter, I can spot a bent story at a hundred paces. On the Net, the same process holds, but usually we know the ideological zone upfront.

In today’s media environment a few big public companies actually control a vast array of competing media. When one conglomerate owns a big basket of unruly entities, it is difficult to get them all to dance to the same tune. Besides, it doesn’t really matter to the operators. Their principal objective is revenue and profit. By and large, they are not selling ideology. They are selling eyeballs and ears. The more they deliver, the more they can charge advertisers. That’s business, and the business of business is business. If it sounds crass, it is.

So far, the migration of the mainstream traditional media to the Net has been a rocky road. It is also a rocky road for the so-called new media e.g. Politico, Huffington, and many others. I’m sure they’re credible but I’m not certain that they have as much influence as they claim. They, like many of their on-line competitors are still in start-up mode and have not yet reached a sustained profit, without which they will eventually fold or become something else.

An exception is the Wall Street Journal, which has paid subscribers on the Net, a lucky early choice with its mostly upscale target base. But most of the on-line media is free and dependent on advertising. I’m still uncertain, despite the hype, whether the advertising is paying off. In other words, everything on the Net that is defined as media e.g. the news business, and other forms of information peddling is still up for grabs.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain. Everything, not only media, is changing. And I do mean everything; delivery systems, marketing, content, medicine, the whole ball of wax. No sooner than we think we have it in our grasp then it moves somewhere else with the speed of light, perhaps faster. Everything that is, perhaps even what is commonly known as human nature.

The center is not holding because there is no center. Marshall McLuhan was spot on. The media have become the message. Google has proved the point. It and its copiers are swiftly becoming the media.

I suppose the trick will be how to keep up. Even this attempt at analysis will be obsolete the moment it is written. Remember that play: Stop the World- I Want To Get Off.

Forget it. It’s spinning too fast. It’s making me dizzy.

How about you?

Next Blog: The Dying of the Celebrity Culture

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dumb and Dumber in the White House

Growing up in New York in the thirties and forties, there were at least eleven daily newspapers, all spouting varying opinions from both left and right perspectives. Offered by the news organizations were a potpourri of praise and anger, mostly anger, at perceived abuses, both social and governmental.

The din was loud, a Tower of Babel of opinions. There were public parades and protests. The Daily Worker was at its zenith. Hate speech and hate news outlets were commonplace. It was one big free speech and free press orgy, a massive free- for-all.

Having grown up in that atmosphere, I am appalled by the White House’s attempt to put the squelch on Fox News. Free speechers and free pressers should be up in arms. Every media outlet in America should be castigating the administration for instigating such a desperate act of deliberate discrimination. It cannot masquerade as merely depriving access. You and I both know the dirty word, censorship, the enemy of free speech, the scourge of a free press.

Indeed, the first act of a dictatorial power grab is to silence critics. Hitler did it. Stalin did it. Chavez is doing it. Castro did it. And on and on, wherever a nation is under the heel of a dictatorial government. If the so-called powers that be can get away with this, then every outlet for free expression will soon be under siege.

This is the way dictatorships acquire absolute power. If it works, expect other outlets to follow. It’s like a virus and, heaven forbid, it might even extend to the Internet, as it does in such places as China, Iran, Russia, and other nations that restrict free speech, especially in many Arab lands and Africa.

By the so-called acceptable media not standing up to this distasteful and dangerous act by a new and obviously inexperienced administration, the media is collaborating in this travesty. Where the devil are the critics? Where is the outrage? Does the President get a pass on this?

And since when does the White House decide who qualifies as a news outlet? Obviously their definition is based on a blatantly false and ridiculous premise that Fox is “merely” nothing more than talk radio. Is that the next step? Muzzling talk radio hosts?

My defense of Fox News is based solely on their right to say whatever they damned please, whatever their biases and predilections. I once got into a fist fight in a Washington bistro with a major newscaster after alleging that TV News was becoming little more than entertainment. Pow! was the newscaster’s immediate response. He considered himself a serious journalist and he was. It happened around midnight and we were both two sheets to the wind, but, in an odd way, we were both partially right.

Nor is this the first time that Presidents have tried to isolate their critics. Imagine if George Bush decided to take action against his critics. His press conferences would be the least attended events since Mark Twain cancelled a performance because of a sore throat.

It was Harry Truman, when President, who said if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. Our new President and his advisors, who are obsessed with control, just can’t get it through their heads that an open society demands differing opinions, debate, protest, rudeness, emotional outbursts, loud noises, strained nerves and bad tempers. Democracy is a sloppy form of governing. But our shrewd founding fathers instinctively knew the dangers of forced censorship and made the free speech and our free press the very first amendment to the Constitution.

Don’t think our Constitution came easy to those august participants. They were a recalcitrant group of strong minded cunning argumentative individuals and what they hammered out was nothing short of a miracle. The sycophants around the President should reread the travails of President John Adams and how his attempt at censorship trampled his political career.

The President has said he doesn’t lose sleep over this attempt to throttle a free press. He might slumber peacefully, but there are a lot of us out there whose worries about encroaching governmental attempts at censorship interfere with our tranquility and do induce some bad dreams.

Frankly, I do believe that there are many journalists who are offended by the White House’s heavy-handed tactics. It has got to make them uncomfortable, even if their bosses are not losing any sleep over this tactic. The fact is that trying to pull the curtain down over Fox news, whether you agree with their predilections or not, is an egregious wrong-headed stupid, dumber than dumber and chilling idea.

Perhaps this rant might seem somewhat hysterical. No, I don’t believe the White House has a sinister long term plan to control the media, although it certainly might want to slap down its opponents. But perception presents its own dangers and to be perceived as deliberately punishing one’s critics does induce in some of us an inflammatory reaction….like this one.

Worse, as was true of all Presidents who tried this before, it does reflect a certain naivete and inexperience and is bound to create, aside from outrage, a loss of credibility.

Maybe some smart staffer should poke the President in dreamland, disturb his sleep and tell him that this action was a stupid idea.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The President's Secret Thoughts-a Speculation

Perhaps it is merely force of habit, but I often find myself imagining what powerful public figures are really thinking as they act in ways that impact on our lives. Unlike psychologists and psychiatrists, who make a lifetime study of human motivation and rely on data that has been acquired scientifically by repetition, experimentation, observation and insight, the novelist operates purely on instinct and imaginary license.

That said, I can’t help wondering what our President is thinking as he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize. He surely knows in his gut and admits that the prize is aspirational, based on his rhetoric and not on his accomplishments.

In his private thoughts, I truly believe he is sincere in that he wants to do everything he can to realize his aspirations as he has defined them in his speeches; to make the world a better place, to persuade people to put down their arms, to compromise, to rely on peaceful means to resolve conflicts and bring warring factions together for the common good. Surely, he is sincere when he aspires to ban all nuclear weapons, and, in general, help banish starvation, disease, and inspire governments to operate with compassion and decency.

His thoughts, too, surely reflect the obvious, that he is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, with the persuasive clout to provide the guidance to accomplish his sincerely stated goals. Yes, he thinks that the Nobel Peace Prize, while premature at this stage, puts a respected world stamp on his intentions and gives him permission to take bolder steps to bring peace to the world, and to create a legacy that will celebrate his name as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, peacemaker in the history of the world.

That is certainly a noble goal and why shouldn’t he privately think that this is within the realm of possibility. After all, he has risen from obscurity at practically warp speed to become the most powerful leader in the world. He has got to think that he has been blessed, that he has been chosen, anointed perhaps, to save the world. People have responded to him with worshipful adoration. Does this baffle him? Perhaps it did at the beginning. Surely he must be asking himself: “Why me? Where has all this adoration come from? Have I been anointed?” Dare he deny by whom? It is impossible for him, or anyone with such a record, to deny the spiritual component of this question.

He has got to be thinking: “I have been chosen to achieve a mission of peace. I must now do everything in my power to fulfill that mission.”

To do this, he surely thinks and believes that people are more good than evil; that the various manifestations of cruel manipulation by tyrants, dictators, despots and oppressors can be ameliorated without bloodshed; that cruelty, selfishness and fanaticism can be banished by reason and example; that suicide bombers and those who brainwash them can be rehabilitated; that borders can be redrawn and protective walls demolished by reasonable compromise; that terrorists can be reborn into good citizens--that fanatical religious leaders can be redirected into tolerance and respect for other faiths, and that through powerful rhetoric and eloquent persuasion, mortal enemies can learn to live peacefully with one another.

He must believe that he now has been given permission to move ahead and attempt to force compromise, assure warring parties that there is more to be gained by peaceful negotiation and cooperation than by bloody confrontation. He must think that to do this, America has to act more like a brother among nations, an equal partner, rather than an elite exception. He must think our hope for a peaceful future lies with the concept that created the United Nations, which he believes is still the organizational structure, the ultimate forum, that will bring about world peace.

It is time, he must believe, that America must exercise humility and dispense with any action that might seem heavy handed or self-righteous by others. He must see this not only as a rejection of his predecessor’s legacy, but an endorsement of his own stated ideas.

He must believe that he has been licensed as preacher, moral arbiter, a kind of world trigger for mass inspiration which commands that we must all learn tolerance for all religions, and accept our differences and our various ways to acknowledge a supreme being. Instinctively, I sense that he believes in such a divine force, which would cover the mystery of who anointed him.

Surely he has read the Old and New Testament and is reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s immortal words: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

As a politician, he believes he is a realist, understands history, and knows that the story of civilization is a long blood drenched narrative of good versus evil, with good, in the end, destined to be the ultimate victor. Indeed, the word destiny he knows lives deeply in his psyche. He must see his destiny as a well-lighted path ahead, which he has been called to follow. Indeed, is it possible for any man to resist such glorification? I don’t think so and it is a cause for concern.

Yes, he knows that he is wise to the ways of politics and he has assembled a team of experts to advise him about how best to implement his message into action. He trusts them to tell him the practical truths but knows that he must make the hard decisions. He is well aware that the buck stops with him. Or, he speculates, is there some mysterious force that guides him?

Of course it is impossible to know the truth about his secret thoughts. Nevertheless, considering his miraculous rise, his visible glorification, the admiring crowds, the endless applause, the magical wonder of it all, can he resist the temptations of this mass adoration and the illusion of anointment?

How he answers that question within the deep confines of himself and acts on its personal implication, can very well determine the fate of America and, perhaps, that of the whole world.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Google To The Rescue

If you are a living author or the heir of a dead author, the confusing legal battle between those who support and those who oppose the Google objective of digitizing all out-of-print books must be a daunting task indeed.

As someone who has been wrestling with the idea of keeping my works “in print” for more than a decade and has attempted to keep my authorial name viable via the opportunities afforded in cyberspace, I will attempt to wade through the mucky underbrush and offer my own assessment of the process. Bear in mind that I am an author not a lawyer.

The bottom line is that Google will digitize all out-of-print books both in copyright and out of copyright, published by, one assumes, companies or individuals, whether still in existence or long gone. Most of the books will be “orphans”, the product of long dead authors and disappeared publishers that have been moldering on the shelves of libraries, public and private.

How far back they will go is anybody’s guess. My assumption is that Google will begin the process in the English language and go from there. Indeed, Google’s maw is infinite and it will undoubtedly attempt someday to put every book ever written in every language into its digital coffers.

For the author or his or her heirs, the process is a cause for celebration. The fruit of their mind, their writing and their good name will find its way into a data bank. Their work will indeed be rescued from obscurity, neglect or anonymity. There is a provision for the author or his or her heirs to opt out of the registry of author royalty recipients if they so choose . If the authors are registered, they will share a royalty with Google, who will, of course, have what could amount to a virtual monopoly on this vast cyber library.

Google’s investment in the process will be enormous and, realistically speaking, it is doubtful that any company presently constituted will expend the energy and investment required to back this vast chore. Google’s financial recoup strategy will be through advertising and sharing in the royalties of those digitalized books that will be bought. In my opinion, it will be an eventual bonanza of enormous proportions. Knowledge and information is a valuable commodity and bound to attract entrepreneurs with ideas beyond one’s present conception.

After all, Google is a business, a public company, and quite obviously it sees in this move an excellent financial opportunity. While they might couch this idea in high- minded terms of being a boon to humanity, which it is, the business aspect cannot be ignored. In my opinion, the risk for them will be well worth the reward.

As for the individual authors and their heirs, the financial benefits will be more problematic. Those books containing passed over but valuable knowledge and missed innovation will undoubtedly attract consumers. Marketing by interested parties, meaning individual authors, rights holders and publishers will be critical and expensive.

Fiction writers like myself might find miraculous resurrection based on unpredictable and unintentional consequences. Such a hope has very long odds even if the living authors or their heirs are willing to risk making a major investment to re-acquaint a fickle public or to revive an author’s name long forgotten by a living generation.

The Authors Guild and other organizations who were adversarial to the Google idea at first did negotiate a royalty settlement that seemed fair to authors, although, in my opinion, few, unless they can enlist marketing skills that are costly and innovative or through as yet unknown miraculous events, will ever see much in the way of royalties.

That said, it is better for an author to have one’s works alive and available, then dead and forgotten. Yes, Google is bound to recoup its investment and probably make a respectable, perhaps a giant sized profit. Good for them.

In many ways, what they are doing is astonishing and bold, and for an author, dead or alive, it is a gift that is priceless. An author’s work will be accessible and swiftly available to anyone who is interested, whether by accident or design Only an author knows how difficult and all-consuming a task it is t0 write, the hours of sweat and toil, the research and energy required to produce a book. Most come on the scene like a butterfly and quickly disappear into oblivion. No longer if Google’s plan goes ahead. If the planet lives so will an author’s work.

Every author who ever struggled to create form and content to an idea or a story through words should applaud Google for its courage and innovation. They stepped up to the plate and are taking the risk. Let them reap the rewards.

I’m not quite certain I’ve got it right or considered all the ramifications. I speak as an author delighted by the prospect. I hope that all issues can be resolved and move this remarkable task forward.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

By Hook or Crook, Now Comes The Vook

The new charge by the panicked book publishing industry to combine video with text and create a hybrid book, cutely named a “Vook”, reminds me of that great line from Superman comics “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman.” Or is it?

Such an innovation was, of course, inevitable considering the astounding success of electronic books and its various delivery devices, led by Kindle and the SONY Reader now penetrating the market. It is certainly worth the experiment, especially for instructional books where movement might be helpful to explain the text.

Indeed, I can understand the marketing concept. Let’s attract book straying younger readers who are habitués of the short video format of YouTube and texting and try to win them back to reading longer works, meaning real books that have been the staple of the industry since Mr. Gutenberg came up with movable type. By real books, I mean traditional “content”, whether distributed via electronic text or through the printed page.

The concept, as it evolves, might be a way to partially fill the hole developing in the publishing business during this transitional phase between the decline of the paper book and the rise of the electronic book.

But for the dedicated reader who glories in delving into the world of fiction, and is the core consumer of works of the literary imagination and responsible for the bulk of adult fiction sales, I doubt if the Vook will penetrate this group. I base this assumption strictly on my own experience as both a reader and a writer of such works.

This does not mean that there might be a growing appetite for the Vook among those who yearn for the next new thing, and there is a good chance that it might become a profit center, although I wonder about its long term durability.

Speaking for what I believe is the majority of dedicated readers, I do not want my reading interrupted by an intrusion on my imagination as I immerse myself in the author’s story by someone else’s idea of how the characters appearance, background and reaction to whatever turn of events the author may want us to follow and understand.

The author’s purpose in creating his or her story is to bring us behind the scenes of a character’s life, his or her thoughts, emotions and an understanding of why he or she is acting in a way that motivates the action. It is exactly this insight that motivates the dedicated reader and gives literature its life force.

When reading a work of fiction, I want to imagine myself what the character looks like to me, what the environment in which these characters operate appears to my mind’s eye, and what and why the character portrayed is thinking while he or she acts.

I don’t want a middle man, via a video clip, actors and contrived sets, to tell me how to see the author’s story. In my opinion, such an intrusion is a diminishment of the author’s intention and waters down the reading experience. It suggests putting a steak in a blender and drinking it instead of getting the real thing, sizzling in bulk on the plate.

Having had three of my books made into films, I offer some modest authority on the process. Filmed content has its place. It can keep you interested for a couple of hours, even enthralled, but no matter how you slice it, it is not the real thing, meaning a true rendition of the author’s intent. Frankly, as a dedicated reader, I prefer the figurative movie in my mind, based on the way my imagination “sees” the author’s work.

This may be a convoluted way of expressing my point of view. As an author of works of the imagination I am obviously biased and conflicted, perhaps even somewhat stiff necked in my opinions. Bottom line: The Vook might work well for others, but it won’t work for me.

I doubt it will make younger people, addicted to the short blip, become dedicated readers, although they certainly might buy the idea at the beginning, perhaps long after. Brought up on low attention spans, this demographic is always in danger of enthusing mightily then coasting quickly away looking for whatever else is coming down the pike.

After all, this group has certainly bought into the “graphic novel”, an idea I personally could never embrace since the product strikes me as a comic book in a reincarnated binding. Having grown up as a pre-teen on comic books I can’t quite embrace it as serious fiction despite its pretensions, nor does it absorb my interest. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but having once read bible stories in classic comics garb I can’t bring myself to take it seriously.

I know this will offend devotees of the genre, but I suspect that the dedicated reader might eschew such a contrivance, despite its obvious success. There is certainly a fertile market out there for this kind of “reading.” Indeed, its popularity, judging from the way it’s eating up book catalogue and shelf space, seems to be burgeoning.

As for the dire warnings I have been hearing for years about the declining reading public, especially among young people, I have always rejected such alarms. It may be that the offerings are not attractive enough to induce the younger people to step forward. Who knows?

As many of us know, the quality of a thing is not always to be judged by its popularity. For example, while I congratulate Dan Brown on his popular success, I wish I could be complimentary about its quality. In my opinion, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the narrative drive is B-movie exploitation, the clichés are beyond count and the mystery seems stilted and far fetched. On the other hand, the hype was beautifully executed and if money is the great measure of success, then good for Dan and his publisher.

Hell, I bought the book for my electronic reader and slogged through it determined to show my loyal support for a fellow author. Indeed, many of my publisher and writer friends believe that anything that brings people into the reader’s tent is a plus. I suppose the business bet is that the Vook will also increase traffic to the tent. It might.

As for its contribution to the wonders of books consumed by the dedicated reader, I doubt it will make the slightest dent.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Address before NYU Alumni after receiving Alumni of the Year Award

Address before NYU Alumni after receiving award as Alumni of the Year for 2009 on October 3rd.

Dean Santirocco, fellow alumni, students, family and friends:

It is with great humility and some measure of astonishment for me to accept this wonderful honor 62 years after earning my degree at NYU. I guess Woody Allen was right when he said you earn your success by just keep showing up.

Nor am I the only alumnus in my family. Sunny, my lovely wife of more than half a century is a graduate of the School of Commerce and my son David, then a tiny embryo was present at her graduation ceremony.

I can remember vividly my college days at University Heights, that stunningly beautiful campus in the Bronx that was regrettably sold by NYU in 1973 .

I entered the Heights in February 1945, the only graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School registered. I knew nobody in my class. I was 17 years old and my prospects were dim since I expected to be drafted soon after my 18th birthday. World War 2 was still raging.

When I first visited the Heights, I was overwhelmed by the sight of those architectural jewels of that campus, Stanford White’s peerless Gould Library, its attached Hall of Fame of Great Americans and the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. For an urban boy raised in the neighborhood ghettos of Brooklyn at the height of the depression, I really felt that I was entering the kind of sublime college life depicted in the movies of the thirties to which I was, like all the kids at that time, totally addicted.

My parents somehow begged and borrowed the three hundred dollars a semester for tuition, 12 dollars a point, and I worked odd jobs at 50 cents an hour after classes. Be aware, the value of money was different. A subway ride was a nickel, a Broadway show was 55 cents. Textbooks were a little over a buck. And I was more than sixty years younger.

I’m beginning to sound like an object to be evaluated for the Antiques Roadshow.

I would leave the family apartment in Brooklyn armed with the lunch my mother made me each morning, two egg salad sandwiches and an apple. I suppose, from a loving son’s now politically incorrect perspective a stay at home mother was a most treasured gift. Armed with my sustenance I would walk the six blocks to the subway, spend the hour and a half on the journey to Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, walk another ten blocks to this little campus oasis plunked square in the middle of a very urban environment.

It was hardly a hardship since I used the subway time for reading and homework. Marching soldiers in uniform in the army’s officer training program attended classes and were housed in the dormitory. I was automatically registered in the ROTC program and we drilled daily on the campus.

I truly felt that I was going to what my parents would describe as an out of town college. My mother believed that there were only two places in the world New York and out of town. Having lived out of town for forty years wandering like Moses in the desert, I can honestly say she was right.

In fact, I was so inspired by the Heights campus that I ran for President of the Freshman class on the platform of bringing back the old customs of college life that I had learned from those Hollywood versions. I actually remember a reference from that strange campaign speech, something about the romance of gold fish swallowing and wearing pork pie hats. I must have touched a weird nerve and was miraculously elected.

My father carried the clipping of my victory from the Heights newspaper in his wallet until the day he died, as if I had been elected President of the United States.

My freshman year was rather eventful to say the least. I entered in February. The Germans surrendered in May, the atomic bombs were dropped in August and soon after the Japanese surrendered freeing me from the immediate prospect of military service. I’ve spent the last six decades searching those Times Square victory celebration pictures hoping to find that skinny NYU student. I was there, both times, mostly shouting with joy and kissing strange girls.

Ironically, four years after graduation I was drafted serving two years during the Korean War. It was, after all, the only war we had at the time.

I was in an accelerated program and spent summers attending classes in Washington Square and because of the time frame never attended graduation ceremonies but picked up my degree in one of our campus buildings.

So what did I get from my college years at NYU? Treasure beyond words. For it was here in this institution that I discovered my calling.

My freshman English teacher Professor Don Wolfe set the course for my future, as if he had lashed the tiller of my life’s sailboat in a fixed position. I’m sure he never knew it, but it was his little complimentary scribbling comments in red ink written on my compositions and the way he had taught us the power of the written word and introduced us to that vast mysterious world of the creative imagination that set the course my life would take.

Believe me, that is a gift beyond rational comprehension. Like love, you only know it when it happens.

No, I was not singled out as being anything extraordinary, but somehow the light of providence found me and embraced me ever since. Thanks to this inspired teacher, I knew almost at once who I was and I knew what I absolutely needed to become. That moment alone is enough to endear me to my alma mater forever. I’m sure I am not alone. To have the astounding luck to find a sainted Professor who impacts powerfully on one’s life is, I truly hope, not as rare an experience as I describe.

Instantly, I became an English major and reveled in those wonderful classes taught by Professor Ranney who introduced me to the European novels which I still read again and again to re-charge my literary batteries and the course in the Bible as History taught by Dean Baer. To this day I am an avid student of literature and the bible, in my view one of the greatest novels ever written whose narrative drive continues to engage my interest.

Perhaps I am still trying to figure out how a book written nearly three thousand years ago continues to be a best seller.

Yes, I am gratified to receive this honor, but somehow I believe the award should be in reverse. The real honor should go to NYU, the college that provided the environment and those inspiring teachers who gave me purpose and stubborn unfailing and enduring aspiration, however modest my achievements.

In fact, I stand here as a living symbol for those who choose the teaching profession here in this great school and why it is a truly worthy undertaking. Indeed, the folks who chose violet as our school’s colors were prescient.

Violet, after all, is the most vivid color in the rainbow. It has been called the color of creativity, strength and spirituality. It was a great choice for a great school.

Esteemed faculty and administrators of this institution-- this isn’t my award alone, it’s yours as well.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hitler at the UN

Among the many instruments in the fiction writer’s toolbox is one
whose principal function is to re-imagine past events and personalities and present them in a reconstituted reality created in the writer’s mind.

The recent meeting of the UN General Assembly and the appalling speeches and conduct of many of its participants suggests just such a scenario.

What if the United Nations had been created in the thirties and one of the principal speeches was delivered by the then leader of Germany, Adolph Hitler in say, 1936? What would he have said and how would that have differed from what numerous speakers inflicted on the Assembly in 2009?

He would have pointed to Nazi economic policies with pride, citing that the profit motive was now regulated by the Nazi state in accordance with its needs. Copious use of taxes and subsidies was the policy of the state and he would brag about its progress. What he would not have said was that compliance was mandatory and based on terror. If you didn’t comply you were kaput.

But his principle point would be to extol the ethnocentricity of his regime and what he would term as the principle obstacle for creating that pure ethnicity, the Jew, and its alleged international cabal. While he might not have used the term Zionist, he would blame this Jewish cabal for Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the international financial depression of that time and all the other ills on the planet.

Even to the bitter end he was berating the Jews for engineering his downfall, notwithstanding that he had systematically exterminated most of the Jews in Europe in the most disciplined documented government sponsored killing spree ever devised.

He would have cited The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which continues to be a best selling book mistakenly categorized as non- fiction in Iran, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. He would cite the contrived lies in that absurd book as exposing the truth of his assertion that the Jews were planning the takeover of the world and, in the context of his time, that the rise of the Bolsheviks was in accordance with that grand plan.

He would have cited the Arab Jihad as another necessary tool to eliminate the Jews and extol the logic of such a necessity. Indeed, it would be remarkably similar to the existential threat hurled by Iran’s sinister President Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Is not its echo chilling? Hitler’s speech would certainly be eloquent and to most of the audience electrifying, soaring would be the operative description, inducing extensive standing ovations.

Most of the delegates would have remained in the auditorium since everyone was doing business with Hitler in those days despite his anti-Semitic rhetoric, including the United States.

Put it in the context of the recent speeches at the so-called United Nations and you would look hard to find any difference in subject matter of a number of the participants and speakers. After all, more than half of the UN formal condemnations have been about Israel’s alleged atrocities while real violators of human rights, too numerous to list here, have gone unmentioned.

One shudders to think of the future of our world dependent on such vapid and clueless leadership on display at the General Assembly. The posturing and absurdity of some of the speeches, particularly those of Ahmadinejad, Chavez and that Libyan clown as well as those whose speeches were filled with silly repetitive fatuous feel-good clichés about working together in peace and harmony, as if the bloody landscape of our contemporary world did not exist.

Just think of what some of these fools would do if they had at their disposal a weapon to wipe out civilization as we know it.
Perhaps, the faux geniuses of Hollywood have it right in presenting their doomsday scenarios that will soon flood the screens in a neighborhood theater near you. Imagine, too, what might have happened if that aforementioned and easily diagnosed psychopath Adolph Hitler had won the race to the atomic bomb. Indeed, the evidence of the UN General Assembly suggests that psychopaths continue to stand at its rostrum and spew their horrendous invective.

Worse, some of them, like the religiocentric Iranians, owing to the paralysis and lack of historical hindsight of those who have the ability to abort an impending horror, will soon have their own doomsday weapons. Considering that their religious convictions decree that they will get their reward in some after death pleasure palace, one should have little doubt that the use of these weapons will not be deterred by the fear of death or the concept of mutually feared destruction.

To those of us who have lived long enough to remember history beginning in the thirties and to those who study it, the idea that the past is a precursor of the future is a relevance that cannot be denied.

Remember that famous quote by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Indeed, the idea goes back even further. There is a passage in Deuteronomy in which, Moses urges the Israelites, to “ Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you.”

So the lesson of history was there from the beginning. Unfortunately not too many people paid attention.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Race Card, a Joker

You do not have to be an expert in history to know that hatred, blind, bigoted, ignorant, cruel hatred is a pervasive element in the human psyche. Perhaps, given the bloody record from the beginning of time, it is one of the most dominant features of the human condition.

The litany of hatred is infinite. Yes, there are people who hate blacks because they are black. People hate Jews because they are Jews. People hate Moslems because they are Moslems. Buddhists hate Moslems, Moslems hate Buddhists. There are endless sub categories, Shiites hate Sunnis, Hutus hate Tutsis. The point has been made. The sad fact is that this endless menu of hate has had horrendous, appalling, painful and murderous consequences, resulting in the deaths of millions of our fellow creatures.

Even in enlightened America where our Declaration of Independence proudly proclaimed that “all men are created equal” it has taken more than two centuries and a bloody civil war that took 700,000 lives to begin the process of “equalizing”, a condition that is still a work in progress. Even the most dispassionate observer can point to this progress with pride, optimism and impatience.

What prompts me to offer these historical and contemporary clichés is the current absurdity that any criticism of President Obama is a litmus test on racism. That is an insult to the innate intelligence and maturity of the American people who, despite all the parsing and hullabaloo gave a resounding electoral slap in the kisser to the idea that we are still an ignorant racist nation.

In a strange way, I feel sorry for President Obama, who wisely has rejected the characterization. The attempt to racialize his Presidency is a direct blow to his credibility and legitimacy. People who attempt to use this sledgehammer of stupidity are doing all of us a disservice. Yes, there are white people out there who continue to hate blacks and black people out there who continue to hate whites. We all know they are on the fringes, hardly mainstream considering the evidence of the last election.

Besides, the President is neither all black or all white, which makes the charge ludicrous. Indeed, the situation is made even more bizarre by a senile and increasingly shrill ex-President, Jimmy Carter, our worst chief executive in modern history, making overheated and absurd statements that tend to embolden rather than cool the ever-present forces of bigotry. The poor man is obviously suffering from a galloping case of white guilt caused by generations of his southern ancestors who abused, tortured and enslaved black people.

President Obama is right not to dip his toe into this simmering and bitter cocktail. Indeed, the growing middle class of black Americans should slap down such criticism before it gets out of hand, especially by some black politicians, who seem to be sprouting increasingly desperate methods to assure themselves re-election.

Sure there are minefields out there that continue to inhibit people’s aspirations because of prejudice and bigotry, but there are multitudes of people who have learned how to pick their way safely through these aberrant minefields of nastiness and hatred and take advantage of the vast opportunities offered in our multi-cultured, multi-layered, multi-racial landscape of opportunity.

It is both dangerous and foolhardy to label anyone who disagrees with President Obama a racist. It is time to declare it outside the rules of political combat. Such an act is antithetical to our concept of democracy. Worse, it sets up a false barrier to protest.

I, for one, would fight vigorously against anyone who would inhibit my right to protest, however vehemently, against the policies of any President, including our present one.

In my lifetime, I have seen all Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt publicly praised, lauded, vilified and disparaged. I have seen them cursed and satirized and burned in effigy in the streets and castigated in the media. So what else is new? Why should Obama be given a pass? Besides, he is well aware that he is the target of the opposition and is undoubtedly prepared for the virulent antagonism to his policies. He also knows that race is the joker in the deck and that most card games are played sans jokers. Race, for him, is a joker. It must be thrown out of the deck.

I will always remember the ugly hatred of my colleagues in the Pentagon, during my service in the Korean War, who berated President Truman for multifarious sins of commission and omission. He was characterized as the stupid haberdasher way out of his depth when he ascended to the Presidency after Roosevelt died in office. He is now a revered ex-President.

I keenly remember Johnson literally driven out of office by anti-war protestors and, of course, Richard Nixon who was roundly and universally condemned in the Watergate affair, which forced his resignation. And then there was Carter, contrived in his folksy sweater, telling us we were, to paraphrase, lazy and worthless, because we didn’t harken to his clarion bleat. History has proved us right on that call which moved him forthwith out of the White House and left him free to grouse, carp and castigate.

I often wondered how George W. Bush, could get up to work in the morning after the withering whipping he took from the media and the political left and right. History is still out on that one, although his Vice President can’t seem to shake off the lingering anger and personal animosity.

So now we have Obama, the ambitious upstart, black-white President, an amalgam of all of us, making a grand attempt at changes that most of the American people are not sure they want. Whatever the merits of his program, he is indulging in public relations gone amuck. It is one of the cardinal rules of public relations, of which I was once a practitioner, to know when to walk, albeit temporarily, off the stage. We’ve all heard his act so many times that he’s getting too repetitive and his speeches and pronouncements are quickly becoming somewhat boring clichés.

I know that sounds harsh, but he is really squandering his capital at breakneck speed. For the record, I am worried about the consequences of our astounding deficit, the terrible unemployment numbers and his ambivalent and dangerous foreign policy.

You can call me a horse’s ass or worse for my opinions. I will take no umbrage. But call me a racist and I will go along with Helena in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, don’t “bait me with this foul derision.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Back in Print

For authors who are elated by Google’s action to digitize all out-of-print books and pay out royalties it is, of course, a welcomed development. Despite the challenges by others who fear Google’s power, the concept of out-of-print digitization is here to stay.

Unfortunately, for those authors and their copyright heirs who see themselves as potential financial beneficiaries, I would suggest they don’t break out the champagne.
The primary reason for those books to be out-of-print in the first place, with few exceptions, is because they were deemed by their original publishers as a no longer promising investment, taking up precious warehouse and catalogue space. This is not to say that they did not merit preservation as viable entities, perhaps masterpieces, but for a variety of reasons, some patently unfair, they were relegated to the so-called dust bin of the book trade.

There were also many books lost to posterity when their publishers expired through death or business failure or simply got lost in the shuffle of history.

In many cases, these books do enjoy a modest life-cycle in second hand bookshops and Internet used books dealers. In libraries, they are eventually discarded. Libraries rarely rebind old books anymore. No additional royalties are ever paid to authors by any of these existing venues.

What authors can expect from this massive digitization is, above all, availability. The out-of-print books will join the millions and millions of digitized books in cyberspace, tiny particles in a vast crowd of text, novels, plays, poetry, and textbooks on every subject known to man, the contents of countless libraries. To quote the great Bard, “words, words, words,” an avalanche of words. It will be a Tower of Babel reaching to infinity.

With this endless rejuvenation will come the hopes of living authors, the heirs of dead ones, and other assorted claimants that they will enjoy an unprecedented revenue flow from readers who are just aching to download out-of-print books on the devices that are now exploding worldwide.

By what technical miracle will these digitized books come to the attention of the potential reader? This is the key issue for those who see in this process resurrection, rediscovery and perhaps, a big perhaps, some revenue flow.
As an author of works of the imagination, novels and shorts stories, I rescued my books from out-of-print status a dozen years ago by having my rights returned from the many publishers involved in the original publications, both in English and foreign languages. I resurrected them in all digitization and print formats and they are, of course, available now wherever books are sold.

My objective was to keep my authorial name alive in the only venue that can guarantee, at least theoretically, perpetual survival—the Internet. The objective is to keep the brand alive for as long as possible hoping that a new breakthrough book or rediscovery of an old one will create interest in all of my past works, which will never ever go out-of-print and, with luck, be recycled into movies or capture the imagination of future generations. Everyone has fantasies, hopes and aspirations. That is mine.

The problem is how to find a way for these works to rise above the incessant chatter, to be noticed, bought and read. That is the central challenge for both the author and the publisher, finding readers in an environment that has become a patchwork of a jillion niches.

With mass media outlets in print and television which can set the marketing fires ablaze with their reviews and best-seller lists declining precipitously, one can speculate with reasonable accuracy that they will slowly disappear as mass communication portals. The once dominant newspapers that were the target of choice to disseminate news and cultural happenings will morph to the net, shrunk to niche proportions along with a vast array of competitors that will splinter any attempt to make a big blast marketing push for a single book.

Marketers in the near future will be faced with how to carpet bomb the niches to gain attention, a challenge of epic proportions. All of the creative juices of the advertising and marketing world are attempting to meet this challenge and few have come up so far with an economically feasible plan.

Book publishers use the mass media to ignite the spark of word of mouth, which is the way most books gain real traction. Sometimes it happens naturally, albeit miraculously. But with the big box bookstores wrestling with present and future decline what will be left is the Internet which, so far, Amazon has mined successfully to sell its huge basket of books through its enormously successful portals. But when the time comes when the original kindling, no pun, of the mass media slowly loses heat all the Internet portals selling books will need to revamp their focus to satisfy the swiftly growing e-book audience. Of course, none of this will happen overnight, but my own best guess is that it will, indeed, happen sooner rather than later.

Publishers, too, will have to reorient their marketing strategies as they are faced with a cyberspaced distribution setup. Undoubtedly their strategy for survival will be to hone their communication skills and use the money saved on warehousing and printing to carpet bomb the Internet to gain exposure for their books. It seems a logical ploy but no one can be sure it can work successfully in such a moving target environment. Nevertheless, they will have the bucks to experiment.

Perhaps the day of the best-selling author will expire, lost in the Tower of Babel of the future. Branding authors will be harder and royalty advances will, as a consequence, decline. Serious novelists bent on a lifetime career and financial stability will have a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

Internet bookstores will depend strictly on volume and price wars are sure to proliferate. Publishers, who still control the commercial content gateway, will use the Internet to publish more and more digital books to chase their cash flow. Certain genre categories like romance fiction, mysteries, science fiction, series books and others will probably do well on the Internet although they, too, will run into problems of scale as more and more content comes into the infinite digital marketplace.

For the individual author, which is my focus, the challenge will be monumental. Can the major publishers one day discover the technique of carpet bombing the niches and get the word out for their authors? Or will they abandon their reliance on their few star sellers and bow to the lure of the niches by increasing their content output in every genre and category?

Will the individual author who tries to beat the odds through self-publishing rise above the chatter to gain enough audience to sustain themselves economically? At this moment there are thousands of sites offering self-publishing and promotional services to writers, ignored by the commercial publishing community, who thirst for self-expression, ego satisfaction and dreams of literary celebrity, fame, and fortune and who yearn to make their mark on an indifferent world.

The publishing business is not alone in gaming the future revolutionized by digitization and the Internet. Yes, fellow authors your books will never go out of print ever again, they will be available. That is no small achievement.

Reading is a two way communication system. This means that creating the text is only half the process. The challenge is to connect the two halves. It will not be easy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Our Short Story Contest

We have just chosen the winner and the runner-ups for the Fifth Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest. Our submissions have been steadily increasing and the aggregate of submissions in the five years of our experience has been running into the thousands.

My motivation for establishing this contest was to enhance the popularity of the short story which was once a staple of American literary output with numerous magazines offering them to their readers. Indeed, it was once possible for a fiction writer to earn a good living by having his or her stories published in these venues. Sadly, that market has dried up.

Nevertheless, the art form endures and will surely catch on again in the age of electronic reading, which stresses brevity and compactness, although making a living from writing short stories is probably a very dubious possibility.

My observations from reading these submissions is that there is quite an array of literary talent out there and, more importantly, a palpable desire to be read. I have been amazed at the geographical reach of our contest. This year’s winner has come from Tel Aviv and we routinely receive submissions from all corners of the world.

I have found the quality of the writing running the gamut from fair to excellent and the sincerity, passion, discipline and devotion of the writers quite inspiring. I have been somewhat astonished by the number of stories that dwell on some terrible and traumatic circumstance of raging emotional intensity.

It appears to indicate that today’s writers view the world from a dark and gloomy perspective and prefer to explore those life and death issues that we face in our daily lives. It tells us that as we move further into the 21st century we are living on a fault line that might, at any moment erupt and send us all into oblivion. Few of our submissions offered escapist themes that inundate the popular media.

The fictional artist relies on deeply imagined circumstances and characters to create his narratives. He cherry picks from incidents and characters that have populated his or her real life. It takes talent to weave these details and experiences into the tapestry of fiction to create a genuine work of the imagination.

In the end, winners were chosen through the subjective interpretation and eventual collaboration of each judge in the traditional collegial manner. All of our decisions took into account the narrative drive, insight and imagery that underlie the creative process and were expressed in these submissions. We judged every story on the merits and are very happy with our choices. Although we judges came from different backgrounds and perspectives, we were remarkably similar in our tastes and in our selections.

When we started our competition five years ago we were pioneers of sort with a specific agenda. Today there are numerous short story contests as well as contests for novels and plays being mounted via the Internet. The key to the validity of these contests is the integrity and expertise of the judges of these contests. Without revealing who these judges are and merely using a generic term like “a panel of experts” is, in our opinion, worthy of caution for any submitting writer.

Note that the names of our judges Thane Rosenbaum, a respected novelist, and Kirsten Neuhaus, a literary agent, and myself, are freely offered. We are experienced people who understand good writing as well as the realities of the literary market and our judgments have been made based on our experience and very diligent evaluation. As in all such cases, we have made our selections based on how these stories have resonated and the skill by which they have been presented. Others might choose differently, but we stand by our choices.

What we have learned after these five contest ventures is that there is a great appetite for creative writing, which we celebrate. Even as the marketplace shrinks for fiction in every mode, the urge to create stories seems to be expanding exponentially with the ease of dissemination on the Internet. There are voices out there itching to be heard and we are proud to help in some small way to find a venue for these urges.

The next competition will be announced shortly and we thank all those who have submitted their work and will do so in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The End of Life Debacle

At the risk of throwing a figurative match into a giant batch of kindling, I would like to weigh in on the subject of “end of life issues” that has prompted an angry response by citizens at town hall meetings in which they confront their elected representatives.

The issue is deeply embedded in the human psyche touching on the most basic philosophical and religious tenets that are fundamental to our concept of mortality. We know from the very moment when intelligence dawns on the human brain that we are going to die.

So what is all the mystery about? Of course people are angry. It is the paramount issue of human life. We are well aware of the inevitability of death. We are well aware too that the highest expenditures of government health care occur in the last year or so of life. Couple this fact with the necessity of saving money on our health care programs and what you get is the logical progression that leads inevitably to the of economics of dying. It is a costly business.

This is the ultimate decision for all of us. If we are useless, unproductive, terminal, hopeless, how are we to be ushered into the great beyond? Are we to be cast out like human garbage or given the dignity of survival for a time? If we are comatose and brain dead are we still people? Who then will make the decision about the speed of our demise now that we have developed the technology of life extension? Doctors can advise, but the choice is up to the living, the progeny, the loved ones, who have a compassionate stake in the speed of the outcome.

It is a deeply personal issue, so painful, so fraught with guilt and contradiction, so scary that it tempts denial. It is a decision that pits the concept of murder against that of love, compassion and the sacredness of the life, however diminished.
Many of us have spared our loving survivors the decision by coming up with written directions on how and when to stop artificial life support. In some countries governments have sanctioned assisted suicides arguing that the human being has a right to make his own decision regarding the termination of his or her own life.

Considering the technological advances in medical technology and the fact that we are living longer, there is a certain logic in end of life counseling. We are all living longer and in a very short time there will be a giant glut of people crowding the corridors to oblivion. The costs will be astronomical especially when the baby boomers hit the end of their life cycle. The bean counters will be tempted to follow the logic of swifter end of life disposal, an utterly ghoulish thought.

What scares people is not necessarily the logic of such counseling, but the very idea that such counseling could be sponsored and paid for by THE GOVERNMENT. People instinctively know that once this issue becomes part of a government program, no matter how benign at first, it reeks of danger. If there is an issue that the government should not intrude itself, this is it. Yes, it is alleged that all language about exit counseling has been stricken from the thousand page draft circulating everywhere as a kind of stalking horse for a permanent bill.

In my opinion, the mostly clueless legislative bureaucracy on Capitol Hill shot themselves in the foot when they inserted this language in the health care plan. How obtuse are our so-called Congressional leaders? Don’t they have any insight and awareness into the deeply felt fears of their constituents?

This is not a partisan issue. It strikes deep into the heart of our psyche. Will there come a time when the powers that be decide who shall live and who shall die based on their productivity and their cost to the community?

Maybe to dub it a “Death Panel” is a stretch at this point, but that, too, has a certain logic if one projects it over time. However depressing, the issue must be confronted, hopefully not by the government. Not everyone will have the good fortune to die a swift and painless death. Some will linger in pain, under sedation, still clinging willfully to life with the help of technology. Few of us will be free to choose our method of expiration.

That is the issue and the dilemma that frightens us and provokes our anger. What it tells us is that most of us do not want the impersonal government and its army of indifferent bureaucrats to be a party to this profound decision.

What seems benign at first could one day morph into a directive, a legal requirement that might force us into some action that inhibits our having any choice on this matter. Worse, we might be told some day that government directives requiring certain actions to terminate life are for the common good.

It is futile to be accusatory and point to deliberate conspiracies and false rumors. Fear and hysteria are inevitable when this subject is raised, especially in a proposed bill before Congress.

Losing control over our destiny when we are most vulnerable is a frightening prospect. Intoning the biblical suggestion, this is one issue that we must keep out of Caesar’s hands.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

But Is It Good For Authors?

On the surface, the surge in the popularity of e-books and the proliferation of devices on which their content can be read seems like a boon to authors. At first blush the benefits seem too good to be true.

Books will never go out of print, a term that will have to be revised. In fact, all books that have been out of print, via Google’s vast undertaking, will be reincarnated. Everything ever written and published will be available to everyone who is tethered to cyberspace, which means the bulk of the literate world.

Moreover, everyone who creates content, whether it bears the indicia of a traditional publishing house or is self-produced, will be able to enter the world library, easily accessible to the eye-balls and minds of every literate person on the planet. Soon, very soon, the availability of e-books will permeate every electronic device across the full spectrum of gadgetry from laptops to cell phones to e-book devices to whatever new technology bursts upon the scene.

Thus the bound paper book as we have known it over the centuries will no longer dominate the business of printing, distributing, wholesaling and retailing content. That cannot be good news for the best selling author, book stores and traditional publishers and it may or may not be good news for the average author who has managed to eke out a living writing content of every category in fiction, non-fiction, and self help for every age and demographic.

It will seem like good news for the writer who will finally be able to have his work available for access by the multitudes. At last, the traditional gatekeepers to the world of publication will be demolished. All fences will be down. Anyone who believes their work should be read by others will have this opportunity for mass dissemination.

Unfortunately, the economic reality for the author and publisher is still illusive. The marketing challenge will be enormous. The day is coming when the marketing universe will shift almost completely to the Internet. Print media as we know it is in its death throes. Television and the Internet are swiftly merging. Availability of entertainment media is proliferating to infinity.

From the point of view of the individual author who cherishes the exclusivity of his lengthy copyright, who has labored with fierce determination to compose original content which he or she hopes is meaningful, important and for the ages, the outlook is somewhat cloudy. In fact, downright discouraging.

Considering that the marketplace will be glutted with perhaps centuries of out of print books with hundreds of thousands added by the vast army of wannabe writers from every corner of the planet, how will it be possible to rise above the cacophony to be heard, noticed and ultimately read? Worse, how can an author’s work expect to be monetized in an environment in which reading matter is mostly offered free of charge.

There is, of course, an opportunity to advertise in various ways on websites where eyeballs will temporarily reside, but the fickleness of an amorphous public will require a complete rethinking of advertising strategies. The cost per thousand measure used for years by advertising agencies is swiftly becoming irrelevant as a measure of real penetration.

How then will the individual author’s work be noticed, huckstered, promoted and monetized? I have been wrestling with that problem ever since I had the notion to digitize my then published novels more than a dozen years ago. Frankly, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that digital books disseminated over the Internet was the future and that original work could be protected through the life of its copyright and forever in the public domain via cyberspace.

Being ahead of one’s time has its psychic satisfactions, but the pace of creation will quickly outrun it. Surely, someone will figure out how to rise above the chatter and find the illusive key to the marketing dilemma. We all know that word of mouth is the only sure fire method of wide dissemination. But what happens when everyone is working their mouths at the same time?

It is obviously a boon to have one’s work available. You might even be able to forward it to vast multitudes. Much of these offerings will land in spam files. Publishers determined to stay in business will hurl fusillades of advertising at hundreds of websites hoping to score sales. They will go on a niche hunt, much like trout fisherman pick the right fly to match the ever changing insect hatch to lure their prey.

The on-line bookstores will be happy to take your money to place your material front and center and allow reviews, both biased and unbiased to analyze your effort. Lots of books will be sold somehow at much lower prices than the traditional paper book. Price points will be vastly changed.

It is still too early to tell what works and what doesn’t in today’s transitional environment. The phase out from the printed to the electronic book is just beginning and will take time to make the shift. The fact is that the book industry is entering a dark tunnel. There might be light at the end, but the chances are it will be greatly diffused with niche bright spots here and there.

At this moment in time many authors should be delighted that their books will be available for readers. That is certainly good news. To be “back in print” is a lot better than oblivion. At least the author will have a fighting chance for recognition, if not fame and fortune.

Dream on.