Friday, August 28, 2020

MEMORIES FROM WISCONSIN



On August 23, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back by a cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This reminds me of some of my own experiences with racism in that state when I lived there: Nothing as horrific as the Blake case, but “interesting” even so:

In 1968-69, I had my first job as an assistant professor at a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin. - Stout, in the godforsaken town of Menomonie.

I had just gone through a nasty divorce. I was broke, miserable and lonely, renting an apartment in the snowbound college town. My girlfriend Nicole lived in Chicago. I tried to visit her most weekends and holidays.

To save money, I advertised for a roommate to share the rent. Several students applied. I ended up selecting Clark Dawson, a fine young black guy.

Clark dated a white girl. Her name was Sylvia and she was an attractive, intelligent, soft spoken, brown-haired, bespectacled girl. The first time Clark brought her back to the apartment, I recognized her immediately, because she had taken my introductory Sociology class.

At first I thought that Clark had brought her home for a study session, but my roommate promptly dispelled that misunderstanding by saying, “Hi Prof. Kando (he still didn’t call me by my first name), let me introduce you to my fiancĂ©e, Sylvia.”
To tell the truth, I was briefly taken aback. Not because I disapproved, to the contrary. All my life I have had the unswerving conviction that the future of mankind lies in the total integration of the races at all levels, social and biological. However, the percentage of interracial couples was still infinitesimal in 1969, certainly in the upper Midwest. I was just surprised by a statistical anomaly.

I liked both Clark and Sylvia a great deal and I only wished them the best. Soon, the three of us were close friends. When Sylvia came over to the apartment, we would have drinks and chat for a while, before going about our separate business.

One afternoon, Clark came home alone, visibly upset. He said, in an agitated voice, “Those motherfucking rednecks! I wish I could kill them!”

“Whoa! Calm down,” I said, “tell me what happened?”

“Shit man!” Clark began to explain, “I’m walking home, minding my own business, and this pickup truck corners me. Then, two guys jump out in front of me and block me. Then one of the assholes says, ‘Boy, you stop seeing that girl if you know what’s good for you, or else.’.”

“No shit?” I said, stunned. “They told you to stop dating Sylvia?” “Right,” Clark said, “and they meant business, too. One of the them grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘You see that shotgun in the pickup there boy? Think about it boy.’.”

“Fuck,” I said, getting angrier by the minute. “I didn’t know the KKK was big in Wisconsin. Tell you what, Clark. We are not gonna take this lying down. First tell me exactly what happened, what the motherfuckers looked like, the whole nine yards. I’m sending the whole sordid story to the university newspaper today. Once the shit hits the media fan, these assholes will crawl back under their rocks.” 

So Clark described the incident to me in detail. The two guys had accosted him right in front of Fritz’s hardware store. They were driving a Chevy pickup and wearing hunter caps and the red plaid winter coats worn by half the men in rural Wisconsin. Two shotguns were hanging in the back of the pickup.

Three days later, the Wisconsin State College paper printed the article. Clark and I wrote it together, and the byline said ‘Clark Dawson and Tom Kando’ The title read: KKK ALIVE AND WELL AT WISCONSIN STATE.

Of course, there was no proof that it was the KKK or that the yahoos had anything to do with the college. They were just as likely to be two local idiots. There were plenty of racists around.

* * * * * * *

Over Thanksgiving recess, I drove to Chicago to see Nicole. The windy city is about 350 miles away from Menomonie. Many of the students -most of whom came from all over Wisconsin - were going home to their families for the holiday. I gave rides to two of them in my beat up Volkswagen. One was a black guy from Kenosha and the other one a white girl whose parents lived in Madison. Madison and Kenosha were both on the way to Chicago, so this was no trouble.

So we get to Madison and drive to the girl’s home to drop her off. Her parents invite me in for a drink before I hit the road again, but they refuse to let the black student into their home! Astonished, I refuse to go in as well, of course.

Anyway, maybe the two men who had threatened Clark weren’t members of the KKK, but I didn’t care. It’s not like the KKK was likely to sue me for libel, was it?

As I predicted, the incident died down after the article appeared. Clark and Sylvia continued to date and they were never threatened or molested by any of the townspeople. Whoever the racists were, they ‘crawled back under their rocks’, as I had phrased it.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

My Trip to the Stars




I have been traveling quite a bit over the past few weeks. In fact, I have never been as far away before. It all started with an innocent trip through the first few chapters of a book called ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson. I resigned myself to spend my evenings with a 600 page popular science companion instead of watching the boob tube, but I never made it to the last stop. I got stuck in the first few chapter of the book, where the author writes about Space.

The problem with reading about a subject you know nothing about, is that there are so many hurdles. I kept stubbing my toes against a new concept in just about every other sentence. I had to take detours to visit Wikipedia, which led me to You tube, which led me to an inventor’s site and so on. As you can imagine, I got completely lost on the back roads of my trip and I didn’t even have a GPS with me. It took mother nature to help me find my way back. There was this big storm that zapped my router and I was staring at black nothingness. No, it wasn’t interstellar space, it was my computer’s black screen.

But I was hooked. As soon as I rebooted, I found myself back in Youtube land, gorging on videos about space until my head started to spin.

I knew of course that space is BIG, but on this trip I realized how incomprehensibly big it is. Even physicists have a hard time coming up with new units of measurement to describe the incredible distances out there. The measly Astronomical Unit (AU: 92,955,000 miles), or even the light year (5,878,625,400,000 miles) fall short of measuring intergalactic space. We now have the parsec (3.27 light years), the kiloparsec (1000 parsecs) and megaparsec (1 million parsecs). The center of our galaxy, for example, is about 8 kiloparsecs away, which equals 8,000 parsecs, or 26,160 light years. Adding all the required zeros to convert it to an earthly measurement, only makes it more incomprehensible.

Not only are distances mind blowingly large, but the stuff in space, the stuff we are exploring, is by far the exception rather than the rule. That is why I am in such awe of what scientists have discovered. Looking for stuff and sending a probe to observe it, is like finding a pebble in the Pacific Ocean, sending a diver into shark infested waters and expect him to faithfully come back with important information without being shredded to pieces.

Take Pluto, for instance. It took the New Horizons space probe 9 years to reach this dwarf planet, which is smaller than our moon. It is inside the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut shaped region beyond Neptune. Pluto is a mere 3.67 billion miles from the sun, which is 40 times further than the earth!



I cannot decide which is more fascinating: the images that the probe sent back, or the probe itself. It was launched in 2006 and on its way to Pluto, New Horizons was put to sleep, to save energy, but not before it did a few gymnastics tricks called ‘gravitational slingshots’. Those are ingenious maneuvers to increase a space probe’s speed. The probe gets as close to the planet as possible without being sucked in and by using a planet’s orbital speed, it catapults away from it. It shaved 3 years off of New Horizons’ travel time. Read more...

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fake Problems and Real Problems



I recently read one of those rants about how we have lost our common sense, i.e. the old verities that served us so well in  the past. To quote some of this piece: We used to live by “simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you earn) and reliable parenting strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).  Then, well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. We hear that  a six-year-old boy  was  charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student...schools are  required to get parental consent to administer aspirin,  but they may not inform the parents when a student becomes pregnant and wants to have an abortion. The Ten Commandments have  become  contraband  and criminals  receive  better treatment than their victims. Nowadays. you can’t  defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar can sue you for assault.” The author goes on to argue that we must return to common-sense. “Let us get back to some basics and let common sense rule.”

This is precisely the sort of thinking that we don’t need.  It cherry picks a bunch of anecdotes and claims that they are real problems. Most of these stories have to do with political correctness. So there have been a few excesses here and there. Big deal.

I can guarantee  that  90% of the people who enthusiastically  embrace this sort of thinking are  the same folks who’ll vote  the wrong way and who’ll perpetuate the serious problems we are currently facing. They are the people who can only see value in past practices, past habits; people who long, in knee-jerk fashion, for a fictitious  past. People who can think of no other solution than  going  BACK, even if the past to which they wish to return never existed.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unraveling of America?



I just read another article about America’s demise. This one is titled The Unraveling of America . It is written by the Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis (RollingStone, August 6). There are many such articles. They all have to do with (1) America’s disastrous response to Covid-19, and (2) Donald Trump.

These doomsday scenarios about America’s future are usually written overseas, gloatingly, expressing profound anti-Americanism. You get to read about “pity” and contempt for America, about “America giving up” about America being “finished,” or at least the American century being finished. Any compassion, as our country’s death toll approaches 200,000, and perhaps half a million by next spring? Zero.

But this is not what I want to talk about today. What I wish to address is whether the point made in the title of this article has merit or not.
While I find gloating about America’s misfortune despicable, I do agree with most of the criticism voiced by these authors.

It is true that America’s response to Covid-19 has been THE most inept one in the world. Our country has the highest number of infections and deaths, both in absolute and in relative terms (apart from a few small city-states such as Bahrein, Qatar and San Marino). Make no mistake about it: We are number one.

Davis is not far from the truth in labeling us a failed state at this time. Items: (1) The country is incapable of controlling the epidemic. (2) It is ruled by a tin pot dictator who would be laughed out of office even in backward Third World countries. (3) The government cannot even pass emergency legislation to rescue the dozens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, who are about to become homeless, who cannot access medical care, even in the middle of a pandemic, and who can no longer feed themselves and their children. (4) The criminal-in-chief is attempting to knee-cap the country’s postal service so as to steal the election, brazenly admitting what he is doing, destroying a service which delivers hundreds of millions of essential mail items to the people, including life-saving medication, paychecks and other essentials.. Is this not a failed state? Read more...

Friday, August 14, 2020

Wearing a Mask Makes us More Free

By Madeleine Kando

‘Why should I wear a mask?’ you might ask. Does it not infringe on my individual freedom? We live in a free country, and freedom is enshrined in the Constitution.

In a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal entitled The True Face of Freedom Wears a Mask, professor Kwame Anthony Appiah concludes that having to wear a mask does NOT infringe on a person’s liberty. However, he comes to that conclusion after asking the more basic question: ‘what do we mean by freedom?’

According to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, there are 2 types of liberty: ‘negative liberty’ which is freedom from external restraint on one's actions, which he calls ‘ freedom from’ and ‘positive liberty’, which is having the power and resources to fulfill one's own potential. This he calls ‘freedom to’.

The seeds in my garden are a good examples of these 2 types of freedom: seeds have the potential to become wonderful plants. They need space to grow (negative liberty), but without care and food (positive liberties), they will die.

The problem with living in a free country, is that people forget how much we rely on positive freedoms to enjoy our negative freedoms. In Jack Kerouac’s famous novel ‘On the Road’, nobody stops Sal and Dean from barreling down the interstate highway. They enjoy their negative freedom. But they couldn’t have been free to do so if the Government hadn’t built the highway in the first place, giving Americans the resources to drive cross-country (positive liberty). Read more...

Thursday, August 13, 2020

What Should the Left Do?



I just read an article by Jan Sowa, titled “After Populism.” The gist of it is a certain ambivalence about “populism.”

Populism is the growing right-wing, anti-elitist movement currently under way in many countries. It expresses itself in support for strongmen and politicians  such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, most prominently Donald Trump in the US, and several others.

Populism shares some of its conservative values with Fascism. These include nationalism, authoritarianism, the veneration of the military, a love of fire arms, traditional patriarchal family values, homophobia, denying women their reproductive choice, Christian religiosity, hostility towards intellectual and media elites, and a racist and xenophobic attitude that favors the white race over people of color, Jews, Muslims, other non-white people and all foreigners and immigrants.

 Sowa’s article is good. Unfortunately, he treats populism with velvet gloves. He equivocates, because he sees (correctly) that dozens of millions of white men have been taking it on the chin for several decades, certainly in the US. Year after year, inequality and poverty have been rising, affecting not only people of color but the entire population. Life expectancy of white American men is now declining, and their death and homelessness rates are skyrocketing. Sowa therefore feels that the resulting rage and the growth of populism are understandable. He does not claim that Populism is a desirable response to white suffering, but he urges us to understand it.
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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Super Hero or Wimp? The Staying Home Dilemma

Photo: Ed van der Elsken
By Madeleine Kando

Being on self-prescribed ‘lockdown’ since the pandemic began has not been very difficult for me. Why? In order of importance, I would rate my age, my life style, my expectations and my lack of social contacts.

My friend Jane, on the other hand is a social butterfly. She is only a few years younger than I, but I would qualify her as a ‘lockdown rebel’. When we first realized that there was this killer at our doorsteps, targeting the most vulnerable in the herd, Jane and I prepared ourselves for a Coronavirus long distance run. Time will tell if she is the hare and I the turtle, or vice versa.

While I am sitting at my desk, sweating profusely in the summer heat, reading New York Times articles that scare the bejesus out of me, Jane is running along the Charles River. She goes swimming across Spy Pond, flies to L.A. to see her sister and invites her many friends and neighbors over for social distancing dinners in her backyard.

I am sure Jane thinks I am a wuss. She keeps asking me over, but I always find an excuse so I won’t have to drive the 20 minutes to her house. Me, who in her younger years, hitchhiked across half of Europe, lived and worked in England, Holland and Spain, who most recently went deep sea diving in Belize and hiked in the jungle of Kauai where Jurassic Park was filmed. When did I turn into such a fraidy cat? Read more...