Whitcomb: Turning Schools Into War Zones; Town-Gown Battles; Kettle Was a Kid; Rhode Island’s Venice

Monday, February 26, 2018


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Robert Whitcomb

“Well-meaning Beltway pundits such as David Brooks ask that we show gun owners some respect. But Americans do not need to respect gun owners more, because we already do. We respect them the way we respect a hell-and-damnation preacher or an abrasive, controlling father. We respect gun owners because we are afraid of their guns.’’

-- Teri Carter, a Kentucky writer, in a Feb. 23 Washington Post essay, “In my part of red America, no one sees guns as part of the problem’’


The idea that training teachers to be armed guards in schools would save many kids from a gunman with a high-powered rifle meant to kill as many people as fast as possible is ridiculous, though it’s enthusiastically embraced by the blood-soaked NRA and its political arm, the Republican Party. Preparing teachers to kill a shooter in panicky and chaotic circumstances,  with split-second decision-making needed,  will make things worse. It’s hard enough for intensely trained military people in close combat, as vets will tell you. And of course many mass shooters are suicidal.

So a teacher will have the presence of mind to take a gun out a locked drawer and use it as a shooter suddenly appears firing in rapid fire with a semi- or automatic weapon? Arming teachers could get kids killed in crossfire from the would-be murderer, the teacher and law-enforcement personnel who show up, guns blazing, and not necessarily knowing whom to shoot. Indeed, the cops might shoot the teacher(s) first.


And of course, teachers themselves have been known to go crazy and shoot people to death, too. And kids might get their hands on teachers’ guns.


Hard to remember that the reason for the Second Amendment is so that America has a “well-regulated militia’’. The country continues to slide further into a brutal Fantasyland.


Not surprisingly the armed security guard at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., did not rush in to protect the students from the latest school mass murderer, whose project was made oh so much easier by the fanatic work of the NRA, which is the front of the gun-making industry.




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Sharpe Carriage House

The fierce opponents of Brown University’s plan to tear down four historic houses and move another one to make way for a new performing-arts center have won a victory. The university has decided to move the site of the facility. This would be smaller than the one originally planned and some of it would be underground. Four houses that had been threatened will be unmolested. Meanwhile, the quirky Lucien Sharpe Carriage House Sharpe Building will be moved from its present site to another in the neighborhood.


The people on College Hill want it both ways: They want to live near a prestigious university with a (mostly) beautiful campus but they don’t want to let the institution do some things that a growing university needs or at least wants to do in and around its campus.


It’s Brown, and to a lesser extent the Rhode Island School of Design, that prop up property prices and make College Hill such a vibrant urban neighborhood. But Brown, if it’s to remain competitive with the Ivy League and other institutions it sees as its peers, must continue to build. Expect more battles.


The latest big town-gown battle around here is in Newport, where Salve Regina University wants to build two big dorms to house hundreds of additional students. Some of the neighbors are scared that this would mean a flood of rowdy young people. And the preservationists think that the proposed buildings would be way out of scale for the neighborhood.

But the leaders of even relatively poor colleges like Salve feel that their institutions must grow or die. And even tiny colleges change their name to “university’’ to sound more important.




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RI Tea Party

One thing that the sex, etc., scandal around now resigned Rhode Island Republican state Sen. Nicholas Kettle reminded me of was that he was only 19 when he was elected as a Tea Party type – a sort of descendent of the 19th Century Know Nothing movement. There’s quite enough ignorance and lack of experience in our post-literate civic life without putting youths in important public jobs. The minimum age for legislators should be no younger than 25 or, better, 30.


Of course, a big problem is that politics has seemed so seedy – now worsened by the toxic swamp of social media and cable TV -- that far too many honest and experienced people who would be fine public servants don’t run for office. (Social media has been a particular disaster for civic culture.) The news media should help address this problem by making more of an effort to ladle out praise for good politicians as well as condemnation of the behavior of bad ones.


Meanwhile, could we at least keep callow youths out of public office.



I have been spending a lot of time in recent months in hospitals, where you’re struck by how many immigrants are filling essential and mostly low-paid and messy jobs there – nurses’ aides, etc.  Indeed, many hospitals would have to close without them. Trump would apparently like many to go back to the “{expletive -i.e., badly run} countries’’ where they came from. How many native-born Americans would come forward to take these jobs?




“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’’


-- Matthew 19:21


Up to a point…


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Billy Graham and the Reagans

Billy Graham’s death last week at 99 brought back memories of hearing his stentorian voice on radio and TV over the decades.  What a set of pipes! Loved it! That voice, his charm and charisma and his ability to curry favor with (and sometimes suck up to) the rich and powerful made him rich and for a long time one of the most famous Americans. He sometimes seemed to forget that Jesus is quoted as saying: “My kingdom is not of this world.’’  dHe


In his rather theatrically self-deprecatory way, he wallowed in luxury celebrityhood. And he used powerful politicians to promote himself and they used him to curry favor with the voters, especially white Southerners.

I found some of his biblical literalism idiotic, along with some of his theology, although who knows how much he really believed in himself. And he rephrased some of his views over the years to keep up with some social and political changes and avoid offending too many potential customers.

I have always found people telling us what God thinks to be a bit, well, presumptuous. But it’s good for business from the millions who want certainty in this crazy world and are terrified by the prospect of death. As one wag put it, the Rev. Mr. Graham promised a nice condo in heaven.


Billy Graham was far from the richest man in the evangelical industry, but died with a net worth of $25 million. The lucrative family business continues: His son Franklin Graham runs an outfit called Samaritan’s Purse that for 2014, the most recent year for which I can find his compensation, paid him a salary of $622,252.


Franklin is also a  devoted Republican, and a fan of that Christian gentleman Donald Trump.  To think that Billy Graham used to rail against “wickedness, licentiousness and debauchery.” (I have long wondered, by the way, how many abortions the president may have had something to with….)


The best thing about Billy Graham was that he moved earlier than most of his fellow white peers in the evangelical biz to embrace integration and other elements of racial justice, which discomfited many of his Southern white followers. That took some courage. But then it was also good business: It expanded his customer base. He generally became less judgmental, more tolerant and increasingly ecumenical as he aged. Very admirable!


Meanwhile, it’s predictable that the Republican-controlled Congress would arrange for the preacher/businessman’s body to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Many, many other Americans,  including scientists, physicians, inventors and, yes, politicians, did far more than the Rev. Mr. Graham to improve American lives. But many of those weren’t Republicans. This is all about appealing to the GOP base.




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Barrington, RI

Barrington is one of the richest towns in Rhode Island. So it is particularly interesting to see how much of the town structures are under the threat of being flooded. With no more sea-level rise, 42.9 percent of residential and commercial buildings would be exposed to a  “100-year’’ storm surge in the town, the Providence Business News reports, citing Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council data. A three-foot sea-level rise by 2050 would expose 56 percent of the structures in a 100-year storm. The PBN’s Feb. 16-22 article, headlined “Rising Waters: ‘We’re Pretty Vulnerable,’’ is well worth reading.


When you drive through Barrington, you’re struck by how very, very low it is.  Almost Venetian. Of course, its marshy beauty, with ever-changing colors, is much of its appeal. But how far along is the planning to address the coming disaster there, including for the insurance industry?




Massachusetts’s very own marine “pipeline’’ continues to operate at full speed as Russian liquefied natural gas shipped by tanker helps keep the region’s electricity on as NIMBYs keep out new real pipelines to bring gas from fracking fields in nearby Pennsylvania. The fact is that as policymakers try to move us to renewables we’ll still need gas for a long time. Politicians and others try to make the NIMBYs happy by slowing or stopping pipelines even as they accept the much more environmentally dubious shipment of gas from a fragile Arctic eco-system in an enemy nation. Handy hypocrisy.




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The killing fields of Syria

More and more, it’s clear that President Obama’s failure to act against Syrian dictator/mass murderer Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons after Obama said that such use would cross a “red line,’’ was a world-historical mistake. Obama at the time said he would first seek authorization from Congress before attacking Assad’s forces. But before that authorization debate got underway, Obama fell for an Assad scam in which his ally Russia promised to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Of course, the tyrant continues to use chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas today.


The U.S. is tired of its Muslim World wars. But punishing Assad would have been easy through American air power. He could have been stopped. Obama’s failure to act helped lead to the vast Syrian refugee crisis that destabilized Europe and strengthened its neo-fascist revival there. Later on, Obama’s failure to give military assistance to Ukraine emboldened Putin to invade Crimea and try to seize eastern Ukraine.


And Putin has made himself much more powerful in the Mideast by propping up Assad without fear of a serious U.S. response. And the killing goes on.


France's U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, has said that the world body’s inability (because of Russian opposition) to help Syrian civilians would result in a perhaps fatal loss of credibility. "The Syrian tragedy must not also become a graveyard for the United Nations," he added. Too late?





Poland’s xenophobic lurch away from democracy, and the dislike of many Poles of the socially liberal globalism associated with the European Union, could jeopardize the vast economic benefits that Poland has gotten from E.U. membership. Poland’s (and some other new E.U. members’) drift into a kind of soft fascism shows yet again that citizens are far more than just economic creatures. They’re also motivated by the love of tradition and hierarchy,  religion (Catholicism, which is very conservative in Poland) and anxiety about immigration from the Third World, gay rights and the accelerating rate of social, economic and technological change in general. They’re nostalgic for slower and simpler (if much poorer) times.


Eventually, the E.U. might have to throw out the Poles for failing to adhere to E.U. core principles of democracy and rigorous respect for human rights. For a while, anyway, many Poles would like that.




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Candidate Ted Kennedy

I wonder how much interest there might still be in this infamous case:


Chappaquiddick, a new film about what happened after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off the Dike Bridge on the eastern side of Martha Vineyard on July 1969. His passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned but Kennedy swam to safety. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crash, for which he got a suspended sentence. Many people at the time thought that was outrageously light. The word “Chappaquiddick” quickly became shorthand for the scandal, which may well have deprived Kennedy of the Democratic presidential nomination.


The movie will be shown March 15 and March 17 in the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival before it opens nationally. I expect that it addresses the roles of power and privilege.


The moon landing, the rock festival called “Woodstock’’ and Chappaquiddick were the big U.S. stories of the summer of ’69, as the Vietnam War ground on. At the now long-dead Boston tabloid paper where I worked then in a summer job, Chappaquiddick was the big one, combining celebrity, power and salaciousness.


But the script, direction and acting would have to be mighty good to entice people under, say, 50 to see this movie about such a long-ago scandal.




Onward and Upward: a biography of Katherine S. White, by Linda H. Davis, is one of the best books I’ve read about editing. The late Mrs. White was an early and long-time senior editor of The New Yorker,  and indeed helped create much of its character. She edited many famous fiction and nonfiction writers, including poets. She was also the wife of the famous essayist children’s book author E.B. White. As distinguished as he was, she had far more of an impact on 20th Century literature. Ms. Davis’s book presents movingly the technical and emotional challenges and joys of the editor-writer relationship. And it’s very entertaining.


By the way, her son, Roger Angell, the great baseball writer,  famously quipped of her: “as an editor she was maternal, and as a mother she was editorial.”




"An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth."'


-- Alexander Hamilton, in “Federalist 25.’’


“Sooner or later, the chief of some prevailing faction, more able and more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purpose of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”


-- George Washington


-- ‘’Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’’ 


--  Eric Trump in 2015


“And in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” 


--- Donald Trump Jr. in 2008


Yes,  yes, I know many, perhaps most Americans are utterly sick of the scandals around the most corrupt president in American history and especially about the Russian stuff. So am I. That’s why I am putting this item at the bottom, though it should be at the top.


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President Donald Trump

Trump keeps asserting that there was no collusion between him and the Russians. Given the intimate meetings and other communications between his people and the Russians, that stretches credulity. And the sleaze of the Trump crowd makes the Clinton circle look like a bunch of Puritan clergymen. And why does the President refuse to implement sanctions on Russia approved last year by Congress and why does he refuse to act, as the head of the executive branch, to thwart the current Russian misinformation and hacking campaign against our democracy? The stench of treason.


There are a couple of possibilities. One is that the Trump Organizations owes so much money to the Russians (because U.S. banks don’t want to deal with the sleazy Trumps) that the president dare not offend them.


Another is that the Russians are blackmailing Trump with their knowledge of his depraved personal behavior, of which there are decades of history. I more and more tend to think that the “dossier’’ on Trump’s blackmailable behavior compiled by the very sober-minded high-level former British spy and Russia expert Christopher Steele has a lot of reality in it.


To try to protect Britain’s ally America, Mr. Steele was willing to take the heat of informing U.S. intelligence officials about the danger posed to American national security by Donald Trump. Mr. Steele noted in the dossier that the Kremlin had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting’’ Trump for years and had compromised our sociopath-in-chief  “sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.’’


Trump knows there’s lots of nasty stuff about him that the general public doesn’t know.  No wonder he is willing to violate his oath of office to try to keep it from destroying him.


Meanwhile, we keep hearing the refrain that the help that Russia gave Trump in the form of misinformation spread on media and hacking of the Democrats might have been nasty but didn’t win him the election. Baloney! It won him the election! A total of fewer than 80,000 votes in three states gave Trump his Electoral College victory. The Russian help was more than enough to put their boy in the White House.


Anyway, we’d all like to get away from the Russia scandal and try to focus on, say, immigration, health care and taxes, but the creepy Trump-Russia nexus poses a challenge to our democracy.


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