Saturday, March 27, 2010

America's Immigration Woes- Nothing New!

"Get out of here, you low life, you scum!"
"Go back to the country you came from."
Go away, America doesn't want you."
"America is for Americans!"

Hey. Who's doing all the shouting? Who are they targeting? Mexicans? Guatemalans? While that kind of rhetoric is felt and wielded quite often in America today, it is nothing new. It's been going on for nearly two centuries now, and one of the earliest targets of anti-discrimination backlash were the Irish.

As a fourth generation Irish American, that kind of reaction, well, seems foreign. Generations away from those kinds of taunts, it's a little hard to believe that my ancestors were greeted so coldly, and reviled so heartily. Compounding the heritage problem was the Irish's Catholic faith. The Irish were seen as a quickly multiplying scourge in America - a new form of fast breeding locust.

But it's true, and characters like Bill the Butcher in Martin Scoreses's 2002 film Gangs of New York, nativist sentiment ran high and virulent against the Irish. You were only an American if you were born here,the nativists argued, nevermind that that privilege was a direct result of some brave souls fleeing an oppressive Europe in a boat generations before. Apparently, only the first generation of ships docking in harbors counted for anything.

In mid-19th century, the Irish immigrants were the lowest of the low. If the Irish had any use at all to society, it was servitude. A fascinating account of America's immigration history can be found in the 1992 book Low Life- Lures and Snares of New York, by Luc Sante. Sante describes the horrific conditions of tenement life in New York City. I was surprised to read how hated the Irish were when they reached New York's harbors. The Irish weren't alone, almost every immigrant group has had their turn at being the latest low life. This is brutally honest portrait of NYC, politics and the history of immigration that is only glossed over in history text books. Often suggested reading along with the Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury, unless you are an indigenous Native American, there is likely something in this book about your family's history..

Each May in New York City, Sante writes, families would move en masse, to a new and hopefully better tenement lodgings, incrementally inching their way up from the bottom rungs to decent housing and respect as Manhattan and its boroughs grew. The move would make room for the new wave of immigrants and low lifes. If one could survive New York City long enough, one might get lucky enough to occupy a building with shared plumbing, wasn't a fire trap, or live a private enough existence so as to not be put on display, like zoo animals, for New York City society who toured the tenements ostensibly for philanthropic reasons, but really only came to gloat and gawk and take souvenir photographs.

The Irish were considered animals. Fast breeding base creatures under the complete influence and control of a Roman Pope. Noted illustrator Thomas Nast, a German Catholic-turned-Protestant immigrant who came to America at the age of six, and considered to be the father of the political cartoon, repeatedly depicted the Irish as monkeys - sub humans with simian features.

Nast's problem with the Irish, was their growing multitude - and their usefulness as voters to a corrupt city manager known as Boss Tweed. Tweed a Scottish Presbyterian, was no fan of the Irish, but he saw political value in their numbers and often sided with the Irish's demands for public funding of their Catholic schools. Causes like that outraged Nast and many others. His cartoons in  Harper's Weekly were eagerly awaited with each new issue and strongly influenced public opinion.

In one of his most famous cartoons, The American River Ganges, Sept. 30, 1871, the Catholic bishops are depicted as ravenous crocodiles, scrambling to the shore to gobble up innocent American children. A Protestant preacher valiantly tries to defend the children from the slithering papal onslaught. Nast drew the bishops mitres as salivating jaws eager to clamp down and feed upon a WASP America. At top center, U.S. public schools can be seen crumbling due to the fact that Tweed diverted public funds to a Roman Catholic institution seen thriving in the distance. In a revision of the cartoon, Nast added Tweed safely perched atop the cliff looking on as his Tammany Ring of corrupt cohorts sent down innocent children for feeding. No, they are not rescuing them!

Nast's cartoons are credited for causing the eventual undoing of Boss Tweed, but the Irish would persevere beyond Nast's pen and ink. Slowly but surely, the Hibernian menace assimilated and moved up the social ladder, most notably through politics and law enforcement, though never quite as high a level as Protestants. Some vestiges of Irish prejudice remain today. The term "shanty Irish" is still bandied about and the alcoholic stereotype persists, though mostly through humor or in celebration surrounding St. Patrick's Day. But by and large, those of us with Irish-American heritage are far removed from the unwelcoming catcalls - blissfully unaware of how difficult it was for our ancestors to gain acceptance as Americans. It is important we do not forget our history and the journey endured to become American. It is important because that history is being repeated.

Today, the Irish today have cleared the ladder to the platform of acceptance - the lowest rungs since filled by other cultures, who like the Irish before them, follow in historic footsteps in an arduous effort to call America home. Some things are different today- immigrants escape for different reasons and from different regions now, and seldom dock at harbor by ship. But if you listen to the immigration rhetoric today, it's clear some things, sadly, haven't changed a bit.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Textbook Tyranny in Texas!

"If we are so timorous of ourselves, and so suspicious of all men, as to fear each book and the shaking of every leaf ...if some who but of late were little better than silenced from preaching shall come now to silence us from reading, except what they please, it cannot be guessed at what is intended by some but a second tyranny over learning." ~John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

Conservative factions of Texas' Board of Education recently announced a revamping of its textbook policy, mandating that content delivered to school children reflect the conservative values possessed by a majority of Texans, with an emphasis on Judea-Christian principles championed by our nation's founding fathers.

Well, some of them. Thomas Jefferson's enlightened thoughts, musings and questions, which arose from his profound curiosity, would be eradicated from Texas' textbooks and students would not be permitted to appreciate that there was great debate in the beginning and aftermath of forming our nation's identity. The founding fathers represented a diverse group of men, who constantly re-evaluated their thoughts, tested their principles and endeavored to consider equal, all forms of religion, freedom of speech and exchange of new ideas.

John Milton was before their time, and never set foot in America. But he was a revolutionary. The famous English poet and essayist of the 17th century, and practicing Puritan, was no stranger to censorship and thought control. He lived in angry and revolutionary times. Decades after kicking out the Catholic Church, Protestant England sought to control all publications through its chief agency of censorship, the Stationer's Company.

If Milton were today's Texan, how would he react to this news? Would he be for the Texas textbook decision? In very simplistic terms,one might think so - the Puritans were the Renaissance version of the Tea Party movement. They were against big government, were suspicious of the liberal arts, and preferred to live plain and wholesome lives, practice their faith, and have direct participation in their governance. They viewed the English monarchy as excessively hierarchical, and the state religion, the protestant Anglican Church of England, as corrupt and full of needless pageantry. If Milton were a Texan, one might assume he'd be the Matt Drudge of his day, blogging furiously to advocate the return of the state to the people.  Well, think again!

Today, Milton is remembered as the poet who wrote the great Epic poem, Paradise Lost. Few realize, most of Milton's early notoriety and written work was issued in the form of self-published pamphlets-the 17th century's version of the modern blog. He lambasted what he observed to be crooked governmental excess. He wrote about controversial topics, religion, and revolution, and during the reign of Charles I, did so anonymously for fear of serious (execution) retribution. He was difficult to shut up. To look at him in the few austere images of him that exist, in his plain Puritan-like garb, one might assume he was a virulent ideologue, an at all cost  champion who mixed up the political Kool-Aid of the day and served it convincingly.

But as ardent as Milton was with his personal religious beliefs, he did not preach, advocate, or practice intolerance. As Milton ventured into written communication he was horrified to find that getting anything published in England required state/church approval. He was disturbed when fellow Puritans, when they assumed control after the regicide of Charles I, tried to control society in a similar fashion.

The act to control printed material and censor heretical ideas was, in itself, heresy to Milton. Staunchly protestant, Milton nevertheless devoured everything he could get his hands on - all tenets, all history,all points of view. Fluent in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Italian and English, Milton committed to memory original texts not tainted by the slant of dubious translators. He appreciated the old with the new, weighing the classical lessons with modern literature and opinion.  He read everything! More importantly, he wasn't afraid to yield to his unquenching curiosity by reading everything!

Any position Milton eventually adopted was proclaimed after a full investigation and solid course of academic study of all sides in debate. By doing so, when Milton would argue his point, he did so convincingly, with facts at his disposal. Few could match his wit and method. Those who vehemently disagreed with him still tipped their hat in respect for the manner in which he presented his positions.

Ideas other than his own - those materials that the ruling power regarded as controversial, subversive or heretical, fueled his curiosity and bolstered his credibility during civic debate. As the Puritan movement gained momentum, eventually causing England's most enduring revolution and regicide of King Charles I, Milton was initially encouraged by a new day when intellectual freedom would reign instead of kings. The commonwealth, led by Cromwell, would finally serve the people!

Reality did not play out as Milton might have hoped. When the Puritans gained power, absolute power corrupted absolutely.  Censorship began anew and the Puritan leadership was as intolerant as the Anglicans they had replaced. The Puritans shut down theaters, were suspect of most entertainment and freedom of expression, and imposed their culture and way of life on the entire population. One evil was replaced by another. One extreme replaced another - and rational thought in the middle had few defenders.

Milton detested the micro management of expression. A physically demure man who was going blind, he treasured every form of written word and understood the power packed in language. Milton's personal faith was so resolute - he did not feel threatened by the beliefs of others.  He argued passionately and reasonably for the inclusion and availability of all thought, even heretical opinion, for the "whole people."

His message to censors: What are you so afraid of? If you live your life by your standards, if you are true to your tenets, why should you be worried about those who think differently? Shouldn't your faith provide ultimate protection from heresy?

Milton's famous essay, Areopagitica, still taught in law schools today, is a freedom of speech masterpiece. His reasoning is well-positioned and warrants a modern audience. Milton writes that censorship ultimately has the opposite effect in a society- that suppression of creative thinking and expression breeds rebellion, and removes the ability to choose freely.

"A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy," Milton wrote.

Censorship, he continues in Areopagitica, "hinders and retards the importation of our richest merchandise, truth."It is the greatest discouragement and affront that can be offered to learning."

Milton argues that if societies wish not to be comprised of "backwater scholars" then citizens need to hear all sides of debate and thought. If not to agree with other points of view, then at least be familiar with them, and be able to talk intelligently about them.

Part of learning and expanding one's mind (and I would argue, to be intellectually competitive), is "to be still searching what we know not by what we know," but what is still out there to be discovered. Milton recognized the need, and encouraged his readers, to move forward to the "light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things."

In his epic poetry, Milton expanded on characters familiar to all Christians. Adam, Eve, God, Christ, and Satan.With his extraordinary and well-fed imagination, Milton created complex and multi-layered protagonists and antagonists.These characters have intrigued scholars and students for four centuries. The reason Milton is still read, studied and admired today, is because he included real life conflicts and ideas into his stories and plot lines. Milton could write about evil because he studied it. Christ's rejection of Satan's temptations in Paradise Regained, is all the more compelling when Satan is explained and understood. If your faith is above reproach, then nothing ought to threaten it.

On the face of things, 10-gallon hat notwithstanding, Milton could have been a Texas kind of guy. And while he might agree with Texas' endeavors to maintain a wholesome, conservative, back to basics lifestyle, he would likely decry the Texas method of trying to get there.  Milton would view their Board of Education as yet another institution using censorship to further a singular educational, cultural or theological agenda.

There was no place for censorship in Milton's world. The vast reservoir of philosophies filled Milton's mind with incredible visions and passages - ideas swirled inside his brain and illuminated his vision, so that when his eyes finally did fail him, this plain and simple revolutionary, was able to compose his masterpiece in total blindness. He had access to every point of view. He worked diametrically opposing philosophies into his drama. Milton drank no one's Kool-Aid!  He grew his own tree of knowledge, with many branches, rooted in in the soil of objectivity and fertilized by study. That tree fed his brilliance, his angst, and cemented his expertise and enduring respect. Letting it all in for consideration never damaged him, except perhaps to his eyes.

But with physical sight removed, Milton continued to see and appreciate the spectra of voices that brought enlightenment. He did not fear the exploration of diverse thought nor the exchange of ideas. He advocated the seeking of not one singular truth, but of finding light in the common truth of many.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dooooooooooo! Okay...all right!

For all you Beatle fans out there, allow me to introduce you to "The Amazing Stevie Riks." Riks is a multi-instrumental, multi-vocal, and multi-identity performer who obviously studies his subjects and presents them with great affection and tongue in cheek humor. Riks hails from Chester, UK, not to far from Liverpool, and has reached across the big pond through YouTube, where he reigns over devoted fans, Beatlemaniacs, and almost anyone who has been touched by the Sixties' first British Invasion. In the parlance of the Brits, he is "very cheeky!" Riks records all of his videos at home, and records all the background music you hear in accompaniment. With an oft-used split screen trick, you get  Rik's inside look into the most famous songwriting duo of the 20th century.

He does a kickin' Lennon and McCartney, and the only person I know who can replicate Harrison's thick, Liverpool scouser accent with uncanny accuracy. He nails Harrison's subtle expressions and smirks- the only one I know who can!

Unlike tribute bands and Beatlemania events that seem to mindlessly parrot Beatle tunes and Beatle stereotypes, Riks actually puts a lot of thought into his work and gives us something more-something original to the presentation-his exceptional talent as a musician and singer is blended with careful examination and deep, deep affection of his subjects. They are the qualities, cultural and musical, that aficionados immediately appreciate, and which provides Riks with a solid, and growing fan base.Riks' impersonations may be filmed inexpensively- but they are never cheap. The short, small screen vignettes are rich in detail and authenticity that fans recognize.  He is very funny too! Those of us who grew up with the Beatles, lived for their videos (they called them film clips back then) that they randomly released to the world. Now two of them are gone. But thanks to Riks, they live again through two to three minute clips of humor and good music. It's good to see them back again!

The Fabs are not the only musical celebrities in Riks' repertoire- (He does an absolutely AMAZING David Bowie too- Just listen to his rendition of Life on Mars.) Fans of the Bee Gees, Queen, Rolling Stones and Oasis, and countless others will find something to delight them. For me, it was the Teach Yourself series for John, Paul, George and Ringo, that first led me to discover Riks on YouTube...and now, well, I can't dust the house, or pull up weeds, without "dooooooing!"

Unusually accessible to his fans, Riks takes suggestions and requests and in addition to YouTube, can be found sharing his wares freely on Facebook and Twitter. Everything, from drafting his wife to play sidekicks (like Yoko) to his adoring passion for his dogs, gives a good indication that Riks is a genuinely nice guy, whose talent and well-deserved recognition, hasn't gone to his head. No one that silly could ever be stuffy! It's doubtful one could ever hope for a personal, return e-mail from Paul McCartney, but with Riks, you just might get the next best thing, and it's a pretty great replacement at that!

Give yourself a bit of a treat Luv, and become a fan or subscribe to the very talented Mr. Stevie Riks!

Pulse pens are a godsend, but privacy an issue?

I am one of those people who can't decipher her own handwriting, so when I saw a colleague using Livescribe's Pulse Smartpen- I just had to have one. I got it last week and it appears to live up to the hype. For students and journalists,of which I am both, the digital voice recorder is a godsend. The Pulse Smartpen does more than write and record- it synchronizes what you write to what is being heard, and the two combined can be uploaded to a PDF and shared with individuals free of charge without additional software on Livescribe's community page. has some great video demos of the pen in action.

But I do see one or two drawbacks in the academic community regarding privacy. If students upload their notes to Livescribe's sharing site, do the people who are being (unwittingly) recorded (classmates and instructors) need to be notified that you are recording them and sharing their lectures, class participation and private asides with others?  Imagine yourself a student in a classroom. Your teacher or professor is being difficult. You lean over to your Pulse pen-owning classmate and utter, "so and so is a real A-hole." or "this assignment is boring, stupid..." or maybe you are sharing non- academic revelries from the night before "man did I get s-faced last night." Not that students would ever say such things to their friends (wink), but if they did, would you want that blasted for all your other classmates, and possibly a wider audience to hear?

Professors need to be concerned too. Students with digital pens can record voice, lecture, and intellectual property and share their notes and audio with others. We've all seen what YouTube does with 30-second gaffes, what happens when off-color remarks are made? What is going to happen with jokes and when clever college wit is taken out of context and made public?

Instructors at the high school and college level should consider a digital pen policy in their course syllabuses. One option to consider would allow students to record and post to fellow students on the roster, but the Pulse owner cannot share with non-students. Pulse owners should also openly disclose to their class that they are recording. In fact, instructors would be wise to simply ask on the first day of class, "Who here has a digital pen?"  All notes should be cleared from the upload site once the course is completed. Should professors be added or invited to the shared site so they can examine how their intellectual property is being managed?

For me, the device will help during interviews, when quoting someone accurately is paramount. Digital storage allows you to go back to your notes at any time for complete retrieval and accuracy, or if someone were to challenge that you got the quote all wrong,, the Pulse Smartpen has your back!

Pulse pen owners can also upload multi-language dictionaries.This is wonderful in business and for travel. But in a Spanish class discussion, a digital scribbler can write a word in English receive instant translations with just the tap of the stylus. If that student is shooting up his or her hand with the right answer every that fair? Is that student really learning?

The pen works with specially embedded digital paper so exam fraud is not an issue. On any other paper, the Pulse is just a thick pen.  Pulse Smartpens do not have to record voice either. The pen will continually scan as you write, allowing the notes to be uploaded without sound.

I can't be certain, but I don't think that when University of Delaware's journalism professor Dr. Ben Yagoda, wrote his best selling writing guide, The Sound on the Page, he had digital pens in mind!

Toe tags with a larger purpose!

Okay, the cover got me. I needed something to read for the beach a couple of years ago, and romance novels not being my thing, grabbed Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers on a lark. Yes the subject is rather macabre, but Mary Roach presents various essays, and tales of how the human body is used post-mortem, with irreverent, but not ill-placed humor. It opens with an array of human heads in supermarket aluminum lasagna pans! (I will leave that there- you will have to read to find out more). It's oddly comforting to know our bodies can be useful after death, rather than taking up square footage as another embalmed unit of coffin-enclosed landfill. Nevertheless, I was a little shocked by what I read - I had no idea there were so many options in the afterlife! As Roach opened each chapter with an innovative use of corpus de homo sapien, I tried to envision my body taking the place of  one of her featured cadavers. I can't say any of the scenarios appealed to me! I've loaned this book out so many times, I eventually lost my copy. Hope who ever has it, passes it on. This book will evoke a "oh my gosh, I had no idea" reaction!" Informative, entertaining, and most of all humbling.

What is your mother's maiden name?

Social networking sites are here to stay, and membership and participation in them is growing exponentially. I've jumped on the Facebook and Twitter bandwagon, and I have to admit, the allure is very real, the draw to share bits of wisdom and engage in exercises of narcissism is very strong. For those who are so inclined, they provide a format, as do these blogs, to share a lot about oneself-and indeed, people are sharing more private, intimate details than ever before. What we don't realize is, we are opening ourselves up for a very real possibility of getting hacked- and being invaded by evil doers intent on stealing your identity.

If you are like me, it is hard to keep track of all the blog, various e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Internet passwords. I've heeded all the advice out there, and I have a strong alpha -numeric-symbolic- based password. Because I have a laptop, I have stopped the practice of letting my browsers store my passwords despite all their offers to save them for me. They must know my mind is leaking like a sieve. Sometimes I regret that - my mature and aging brain isn't good at retaining alpha-numeric-symbolic phrases. I've locked myself out of many a new account because I couldn't remember the password I created only days earlier.

Ah, but there is an Internet savior! Thank goodness for that little "Forget your password?" link found at the bottom of most log-ins. They were made for people like me-and many of times they have bailed me out of a memory pickle. You have used them too, once or twice, I am sure!

In most cases, clicking on the password reminder feature brings you to the secret question you created when you first opened your account.  Web-based services aren't the only ones who use this feature- I recall getting asked my secret question many times when I have had to call my bank to verify information or make a transaction. Think about write a check, you are passing out your routing number. What is to protect you?...your secret answer!
The secret questions are usually offered in an array of drop down options, a tried and true one is the ubiquitous, "What is your mother's maiden name," which is ridiculously easy for a hacker to determine. Or "What is the name of your favorite pet?" and so on. Should you have a synapse relapse, all you need to do is  enter the answer and Voila! the secret question is there to rescue you.

Now keep that in mind as we return for a minute to to social networks, in particular Facebook. Here we are, sharing our life away in status reports, news feeds, and that most indulgent feature of FB, the profile page, where we list who we are, what we like, where we live, what our birthdays are, who we are in a relationship with, how we vote, and who our friends are. You've set your privacy to "just friends" so you have nothing to worry about right?

Those friends...those 1300 friends- do you really know who they are? Are these Mob War playmates or true and trusted friends? And it is not just your friends who are peeking into your privacy!

Any application you allow in FB, grants the developer of that application access to your profile. The annoying snowball fights, the hearts, the candy, the flowers, the adorable kitten pictures, the quizzes, (what Rolling Stone song are you?) horoscopes, and your lucky day meter..all of them are written by third party developers with little or no oversight from Facebook. All my FB friends must think I am a snoot, because I never accept the invitation, though I do thank them for the thought via a wall post.

I am not snooty- I'm smart. Anyone with the time and interest can gather a pretty reliable picture of who you are- enough to take a good stab at the secret answers. I hate to spoil all the Farmville fun, but you should stay away from Facebook applications!!!

So here is what you should do. Create an incredibly incongruous phrase, e.g., "hot dog mamogram," and that phrase becomes the answer to any, ANY secret question. The phrase should not have anything to do with you, but it has to be something you will remember - something a hacker could not figure out. "Hot dog mamogram" would not be a logical answer for "Where did you spend your honeymoon?" so therefore it is a perfect answer for YOU to use. Some sites are now giving people the option of creating their own secret question- and that is good, but if you do select that option, please write a question that no one but you could answer or presume to even guess at.

Another practice I endorse is creating your own Internet birthday date. For instance, if your real birthday is July 1, 1965 create a new date that is one day and year higher or lower than the real one...July 2, 1966, and use that across the board when you are queried for your date of birth. Why should that be anybody's business? Facebook does not verify your information with your state's Department of Vital Statistics, at least not yet! Facebook uses your DOB to target ads to your news feed, and it provides valuable demographic data to all the owners of business pages you have fanned.

I have seen friends leave off the year, from their DOB. I guess they think that is a level of protection. But in the same profile, they will state the year they graduated from high school. Hmmm, you might as well just put up your DOB for everyone to see because you are not fooling anyone?  So, tweak that DOB just a little. I don't advocate putting up a false face. Making yourself 21 when you are 16, or shaving 10 years off to attract a romantic partner is dishonest. But a one day or year adjustment is a necessary little white lie and it is not going to shake up your virtual world- its purpose is meant to protect your privacy and identity. True, this technique goofs up all the Facebook well wishing a little bit- you will get your greetings a day late or early- but what is more important? a virtual slice of birthday cake or knowing your identity is protected?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Review: Game Change by John Heilemann, Mark Halperin

I've always been fascinated with national politics. I have landed on both sides of the political aisle, worked on campaigns and received personal correspondence from a president! When I heard about the buzz that proceeded this book, I was eager to get my hands on it the first day it was published. Some have called it sheer gossip. Others have called it an insider's look at how modern campaigns really operate. I agree with the latter. Politics and politicians are presented to Americans through short sound bites, carefully managed interviews, and staging designed to offer focused group dependent points of view. But what really goes on behind the scenes? How do the players maneuver through their handlers, react to pressure and cave to or rise with public opinion?

What surprised me most about the accounts in this book, the R's and the D's alike- is that rarely, does the public see who they really are. They are not politically correct behind the political stage curtain. They curse, they tell off-color jokes, they slip up, sell out, and do what ever is necessary to win.

An almost audible switch flips when politicians step up to the podium or when the red record button signals "Action!" The change from private to public is demonstratively dramatic- and the revelations in this book are fascinating to read. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was! Our leaders are imperfect human beings. They talk, sigh, and get frustrated just like we do. If only we could see that side more often, it might be shocking, but it would be very real and like Game Change offers, a refreshing, raucous revelation.

This is a fascinating and well-written account. No one, nor any side is spared from the authors' scrutiny and excellent old fashioned reporting.