Book fan, Barack Obama

tumblr_inline_ojtrxn3ovw1rowsy7_500There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them (Joseph Brodsky)

Regardless of your political views, our former president, Barack Obama, was a phenomenal book fan.

How he found time for his passion baffles me, given the pressing demands on his time as president of the United States.

And I admire the books he’s read and recommended, among them classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks and Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always  up to date, in an interview with the New York Times (January 18, 2017), Obama gives high praise to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Lauren Gross’ Fates and Furies; Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon; and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Last, but not least, William Shakespeare:

I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that is fundamental for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

As Michiko Kakutani of the NYT comments, “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, conviction and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

I think I know why our president often preferred the company of books. An introvert by temperament and consciously aware of his biracial heritage, books helped assuage a loneliness and provided a source for not only finding his identity, but  enlarging his mind and perspective through exposure to those ambiguities incumbent in the human make-up.

On a personal note, I confess I haven’t read a single one of the books I’ve just mentioned. I read a lot, but never enough, though I should be kind to myself and remember Edmund Wilson’s sage comment on the singularity of our reading experience—that “no two persons ever read the same book,” so even if I had, and you for that matter, we’re always individuals, and that’s the greatest gift of a good book–its capacity to reach each of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives.

Still, when I read that 27% of us never pick-up a book at all, I can’t really get my head around it. For me, we short-change ourselves when we do this. It’s like not giving plants the soil, light and water they need, resulting in stunted growth and preempting full bloom.

Books not only have the potential to reshape our lives, but make them better.

I say this first hand, knowing that they’ve saved me from a parochialism that doubtless would have channeled me into a lifestyle of narrow thoroughfares prodigious in polarized generalizations, born of the emotions, rather than seasoned judgment through exposure to reasoned perspectives, crafted in careful scrutiny, fostering balanced conclusions and wiser living.

Books not only provide pleasure and inform, but the ability to transform us.  In short, anyone who says they’ve only one life to live, needs to sit down and read a good book.


The Heart of Darkness: The Syrian Inferno


The civil war in Syrian, which began in March 2011, drags on with all its madness and no end in sight.  In that time, 125,000 (latest figures) have died and 2 million of Syria’s 6 million population fled, spilling its human burden into refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

All wars are destructive, but civil wars usually are among the worst.  In our own civil war, 600,000 died, which is more than all our wars combined; more than a million perished in Spain; 2 million in Algeria and Korea.  One of the worst scenarios missed by the media is the loss of 5 million lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2008.

The present conflict proves no exceptionWhile we normally associate casualties with the military waging war, the truth is that civilian casualties nearly always exceed military losses by a wide margin; for example, an estimated 20 million European civilians died in World War II.

Syria 3

In Syria,  a good many of these casualties are children.  Consider these recently released findings (UN High Commissioner Report):

11,000 children killed.

More than half of 70,000 families now without a father.

4000 children separated from their families.

Hundreds of children born in refugee camps stateless (unregistered births and no birth certificate).

Most children cut off from school.

All wars are tragic enactments of the primordial vestiges still resident in Man. This conflict, however, has seen some of their worst manifestations, with children deliberately targeted by sniper fire and even tortured.

Horrendous as all of this is, no one seems to have come-up with a chokehold to halt the carnage.  Maybe it’s too late anyway in a struggle that seems to have come down to attrition.  While the Assad regime has gained momentum lately against the rebels, the war has become more complicated with jihadists, including al Qaeda, pouring in from other nations. Increasingly, the struggle has turned sectarian, with Shiites pitted against Sunni. It’s Iraq all over again with long term, intractable violence the likely fallout even after any settlement is reached.

In my view, it needn’t have turned out this way had we armed the moderate rebels from the beginning, even as the Saudis had wanted, and before the entrance of Iranian-supported Hezbollah and al Qaeda in large numbers.  While the Obama administration finally did opt to supply at least light arms to the rebels, it turns out that after a year it hadn’t shipped any.  It’s simply too late to help now, since the old alibi that weaponry might fall into extremists hands has gained a validity that didn’t initially exist.

I blame President Obama for much of Syria’s pro-longed anguish.  From the very beginning, he has been ambivalent, or unable to come to a decision, despite his often pointed rhetoric should the Assad regime use chemical weapons:

We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons (August 2012 News Conferences).

Then came his notorious aborted cruise missile launch in response to Syria’s calling his bluff with its chemical assault on civilians, resulting in a thousand deaths.  As it turns out, there had been previous, smaller scale chemical attacks and the President had not acted.  In mid stream, naval vessels off the Syrian coast ready to launch, the whole world watching, he did an about face, passing the puck to Congress, only to withdraw the vote option when Russia came up with its initiative to negotiate the destruction of the government’s chemical stockpile with Assad.  Got Obama off the hook, to say the least.

Imagine my surprise in all of this!  A Hamlet in the White House, this president suffers from an inability to act.  We should have seen this coming.  In election year 2012, he had the gall to use the bin Laden hit for political fodder, though the truth is he knew of bin Laden’s hideout  since  the summer of 2010, or nearly two years earlier, thus risking his escape.

As liberal Arianna Huffington shared with CBS: ‘We should celebrate the fact that they did such a great job. It’s one thing to have an NBC special from the Situation Room… all that to me is perfectly legitimate, but to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do” (Daily Mail).  It turns out that the White House had drawn up a contingency plan with a general for a fall guy should the assassination go awry.

Returning to the cruise missile fiasco, I like how House Democrat Adam Smith, a key member of the House Armed Services Committee, put it:

I don’t think you draw a line like that, that is not well thought out.  You do not say, ‘If you step across this line, we will commit U. S. Military force,’ unless you really mean it, unless you know the full implications of it.

Under the cover of the chemical weapons agreement things have gotten considerably worse for the rebels, with Assad’s forces launching daily bombing raids on the rebels and civilians in the areas they control.

Sadly the American public seems in lock-step with Obama, despite dissenters on his own White House team.  If you dip into Google and Twitter commentary, you’ll find Syria virtually absent as a search or discussion item.  We’re much more into Miley Cyrus.

I think of Auden’s poignant depiction in his “Musee des Beaux Arts” poem with its ironic undertones of the corner existence of human grief in the public world:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.


In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I think of Syria’s children.


Hamlet in the White House: Obama Blinks


I had tuned in on Friday to President Obama’s Rose Garden appearance before the media, expecting an updating of data justifying a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria.  After all, Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken forcefully to the issue, calling it an act of “thieves and murderers.”  How preternatural it seemed for someone who had so vociferously opposed the Vietnam War, throwing his own medals away, to now be advocating a military strike.  There must be something here.

What I hadn’t counted on was the residue from the UK Parliament rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s plea for a military option.  Cameron hadn’t originally planned on asking for Parliament’s permission, only to yield to the reality of low public support in the polls and vociferous objection among even his Labor Party cohorts. He simply wanted to protect his hide, an idea that’s proven to be contagious.

Casting a dark specter over everything was doubtless the protracted war in Iraq, now largely deemed the folly of unreliable intelligence and an understandable passion for taking action following the terrorism of September 11, 2001.  While it’s often been remarked how history repeats itself, it’s not a given that we must repeat its madness.

The psychology in Obama’s turnaround in imitating Cameron fascinates me.  Sometimes we say too much and get ourselves into tight places, with anticipated fall out  locking us into responses our better judgment, tempered by time and reason, tells us are wrong.  From this angle Progressives seem justified in calling Obama’s new mindset courageous.

I see it differently, however, as a failure in will, abetted by a compliant media and a war- weary public.  We have a president who has difficulty making decisions.  For six months he knew the location of Osama bin Laden before taking action.  We’re still awaiting the Keystone decision.  Just the day before, we had heard a horrific litany of the deaths of 1400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, by the Assad regime’s use of chemical agents on its own people.  British, French and Israeli intelligence also corroborate the culpability of the Assad government.

Oddly, the President in his Rose Garden appearance told us he had determined to strike Syria, yet wanted to put it up to the Congress.  I think it unlikely that Congress will approve a strike, perhaps the Senate, but not the Republican House with its contingent of Tea Party isolationists.  This may even play into Obama’s hands, giving him an opportunity to extricate himself, or to climb down the ladder as it were.

But he isn’t going to do so without impunity or a severe loss in credibility.  Even more serious, he’s placed our nation in danger, emboldening aggression abroad by rogue governments.  No one’s talked about it, but the present imbroglio is really about Iran.  His paralysis can only encourage Iran’s efforts to achieve a nuclear arsenal.  If I were the Israelis, I would be deeply troubled.  It’s conceivable that Israel may now see itself as needing to launch a preemptive strike on its own, given the unreliability of the U. S.

Given Obama’s hesitancy towards Syria, what’s the script for Iran?  Do you tip your hand, asking Congress for its permission for a preemptive strike?  Or is it you do nothing, accepting the reality of a nuclear Iran with whom we must learn to live with as we do with North Korea?  Meanwhile, a hostile Iran that sponsors terrorism develops a delivery system potentially targeting Tel Aviv and, ultimately, America.  Let’s face it, as a corollary of the President’s pattern, the odds are that Iran gets its Bomb, despite our stringent embargo.

In the present circumstances, Obama has set a dangerous precedent.  Presidents must be free to act in dealing with contingencies that may arise, and this is what the War Powers Act allows with its 90 day allowance before Congressional oversight kicks-in.  A limited strike on Syria does not violate the Constitution, contrary to what some liberals say.

Mr. Obama is known to admire Lincoln.  But maybe he’s forgotten his history.  Lincoln didn’t ask Congress for permission to war against the eleven successionist states.  In fact, the legality of succession wasn’t allowed to be presented before the Supreme Court.  Lincoln rightly knew he couldn’t win in either the Congress or before the Supreme Court.  My point is, strong presidents lead.

A very good argument can be made that any response now planned would be ineffectual and inflammatory anyway, since the strike is so limited and considerable time has elapsed for Assad to move his military assets into the mountains and his troops into   exempted civilian areas such as schools.  Even more important, the Syrian civil war has now largely turned sectarian, with Sunnis vs Shiites, compounded with the entrance of Hezbollah and al Qaeda insurgents, both of whom target Christians, who comprise 10% of the population.

But this gets us back to square one and our ineffectual president.  Obama created this morass with his dilly-dallying over the last two years, giving extremists time to move in.   His red lines mean nothing, as seen in Assad’s emboldened aggression.  While Syrian dissidents lamented the absence of international outcry following the chemical attack of August 21, Obama was silent for 72 hours.  Later,  he played his usual rhetorical slight of hand, stating the situation defied easy answers.

Mr. President, if we’re reduced to this scenario, then you are its creator, having squandered your options and not acted on your own warnings.  Awful as these deaths from chemical weapons are, they’re minuscule in a sea of 100,000 deaths, most of which could have been prevented had you armed the rebels from the outset.  By the UN’s own estimates, we now have 2 million refugees, 1 million of them children.

Playing Hamlet–to act or not to act–is unbefitting a commander-in-chief and poses grave dangers for America.  As Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel comments, “He seems unable to make difficult decisions. This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad.”

With one utterance, Obama has inaugurated a template for disaster, diminishing the powers of the Presidency, making a mockery of American credibility, abandoning Syria’s freedom-fighters, and putting  America and Israel under increased threat from a belligerent Iran ultimately armed with nuclear weaponry.


Obama’s assault on Social Security

Although vociferously claiming entitlement programs aren’t on the table in securing deficit reductions, the President’s recent actions prove his rhetoric to be little more than political chicanery in upholding the integrity of Social Security, for an example. In an effort to stimulate the economy by putting more money into our pocketbooks, President Obama has proposed continuing the payroll tax reduction (now 4.1%) for Social Security. In fact, he wants to cut the Social Security payroll tax still further, or to 3.1% of earnings below the traditional maximum of 6.2% on $106,800 income. This amounts to a $240 billion dollar funding hit on Social Security, a program already in trouble due to changing age demographics. In 25-years, it will only be able to pay out $75.00 on every $100.00 owed in benefits.

More specifically, his proposal represents a direct raid on the Social Security Trust Fund, short-changing our young people. As is, his proposal cuts $175 million from the employment payroll contributions and $65 billion in employment contributions. The President’s new, massive stimulus package before Congress, $440 billion, draws 55% of its funding from Social Security funding. You do the math. It’s simply untenable, an indulgence in political opportunism, betraying American workers and their future.

Compounding the demographic and political pressures on Social Security, today’s massive unemployment has ignited a rush in applications for disability income (SSDI). According to the government’s own figures, applications showed a 21% increase just between 2008 and 2009. While the rising number of aging baby boomers may account for some of this increase, it seems more likely this sudden swell has is origin in our down economy. Frankly, one has to suspect Social Security is being used as a ruse for welfare in many instances. Obtaining benefits also qualifies one for Medicare, no matter one’s age.

In its defense, the Social Security administration argues it has strict monitoring procedures in place to assure legitimacy in the application process, with only 30% of applications approved. This is true, however, only at the initial application stage. While denied applications going through the appeal process can take up to 2-years, persistence pays and ultimately most applicants, or 67%, get their benefits approved before an Administrative Law Judge. Meanwhile, legal representation for applicants has turned into a lucrative specialty.

What’s mind-numbing is that this deluge in disability applications is leading some trustees of the Social Security disability program recommending Congress reallocate money from the Social Security Retirement program to offset deficits in disability funding!

As is, the present and proposed cuts in Social Security payroll taxes don’t offer assistance to the many unemployed, retired, disabled or those, like teachers, who are ineligible for SS. More substantially, short-changing Social Security exacerbates its perilous future.

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