A Stunning Loss

Attached are two links to articles reporting about the death of Brazilian journalist Lourenço “Léo” Veras, who was murdered on February 12 in his home in front of his wife and two children by an organized crime gang operating at the Brazil-Paraguay border, where Mr. Veras was based. The Washington Post article attached to the first link will make clear how deeply Mr. Veras’ death resonates for our family. I don’t know how many of those that read these pages have access to the Post’s online version, so the second link is to the report of the tragedy appearing on the Committee to Protect Journalists website.

These accounts lay bare – yet again — the dangers journalists across the world face every day.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/he-showed-me-a-lawless-border-town-then-masked-gunmen-killed-him-in-front-of-his-family/2020/02/14/53693762-4eb5-11ea-967b-e074d302c7d4_story.html

https://cpj.org/2020/02/brazilian-journalist-leo-veras-shot-and-killed-in-.php

On 2020

As we enter 2020, it is perhaps easy to be discouraged at the manner in which our national comity appears to be unraveling, the governmental systems that have sustained us are arguably misfiring, and the world around us is seemingly fragmenting. While the problems we face need to be addressed, they pale in comparison to those that our nation has overcome in darker times. I truly believe what Ronald Reagan proclaimed: that we remain the last best hope of man on earth. The coming year provides us with a chance to make adjustments – while recognizing that no changes are sustainable that fail to take into account the rightful values of any segment of our people. 2020 will inevitably be a year of turmoil for our nation, but also one of opportunity. On a personal level, today we are honored to attend the wedding of good friends starting life anew. There is no greater expression of hope in the future than a loving couple’s exchange of wedding vows.

Happy New Year.

Hanukkah … and Happy Holidays

I would suggest that anyone with a center-left disposition read The Point of It All, an anthology of conservative Washington Post Columnist Charles Krauthammer’s works that he assembled prior to his death from cancer at age 68 in 2018. Until I read the collection, most of my exposure to Mr. Krauthammer was as a Fox News commentator, and in that venue he had seemed to me too doctrinaire in his criticism of liberal positions; in reading his compilation, I came to recognize how brilliant and eloquent he was.

The 2019 days of Hanukkah observance began yesterday. In December, 2004, Mr. Krauthammer, Jewish, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, wrote a column entitled, “Just Leave Christmas Alone.” In that piece, he stated, in part, as follows:

“… I’ve got nothing against Hanukkah, although I am constantly amused – and gratified – by how American culture has gone out of its way to inflate the importance of Hanukkah, easily the least important of Judaism’s seven holidays, into a giant event replete with cards, presents and public commemorations as a creative way to give Jews their Christmas equivalent.

Some Americans get angry at parents who want to ban carols because they tremble that their kids might feel ‘different’ and ‘uncomfortable’ should they, God forbid, hear Christian music sung at their school. I feel pity. What kind of fragile religious identity have they bequeathed their children that it should be threatened by exposure to carols?

I’m struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas crèche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public.

To insist that the overwhelming majority of this country stifle its religious impulses in public so that minorities can feel ‘comfortable’ not only understandably enrages the majority but commits two sins. The first is profound ungenerosity toward a majority of fellow citizens who have shown such generosity of spirit toward minority religions.

The second is the sin of incomprehension – a failure to appreciate the uniqueness of the communal American religious experience …. [T]he United States does not merely allow minority religions to exist at its sufferance. It celebrates and welcomes and honors them.”

That said, in his last months, Mr. Krauthammer became sharply critical of President Trump, writing in July, 2017:

“[Mr. Trump’s comparisons between the activities of the United States and a Vladimir Putin-led Russia] was “[m]oral equivalence so shocking, emanating from the elected leader of the United States, [that it should] … not … be ignored ….

The demagoguery of 2016 did carry the day. … That the traditional left-right political divide of the last two centuries is increasingly being surpassed by the nationalist-globalist and authoritarian-democratic divide is disturbing and potentially ominous.”

Given what has transpired in the two and half years since he wrote the quoted passages regarding Mr. Trump, I suspect that Mr. Krauthammer would understand why I say: I agree that the politically correct should quit hyperventilating about public celebrations of Christmas. At the same time, the American “generosity of spirit toward minority religions” of which he wrote in 2004 seems to be both explicitly and impliedly under greater siege now than at any previous point in either his or my lifetime. Therefore, while he fittingly concluded his long-ago column about Hanukkah with the words, “Merry Christmas. To All.”, I — as a practicing (although manifestly flawed) Roman Catholic – today find myself most comfortable wishing my fellow citizens … Happy Holidays.

On The Shallows

If asked to recommend to anyone of high school or greater age only one book I’ve read in retirement, the choice would be easy: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr (not that long; a bit over 200 pages). I consider it a horror story, perfect for the Halloween season; Mr. Carr addresses “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” I would submit that it is yet scarier today than when published in 2010; given another decade’s passage, and even taking into account my readily-apparent Luddite tendencies, the book is arguably a description of what the Internet has done to the brains of many of our people. Delving too deeply into Mr. Carr’s text may dissuade a reader of this note from reading the book; thus, only a few snippets:

“What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what [Online Media Blogger Scott] Karp calls ‘our old linear thought process.’ Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”

“I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me … It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes … Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling.”

“[T]he Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli….If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it.”

“In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.”

“[Researcher Erping Zhu] found that [online readers’] comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their … brain power to evaluating the links … That left … fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.”

The following passage, well into the book, particularly resonated with me:

“In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman [said], ‘I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.” As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” [we risk turning into] “pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”’”

Mr. Carr does describe manners in which we as a people can safeguard against the dangers he trumpets; there is an extensive discussion of the brain’s neuroplasticity – i.e., the brain’s ability to re-form itself in response to new challenges. He acknowledges that “tuning out is not an option many of us would consider,” but offers that if the Web has addicted us with easy fixes of alluring data snippets, making a conscious and concerted effort to focus without distraction for longer periods on complex material can remake our brains in the same manner as one can strengthen muscles through physical training (my analogy, not his). He describes the reactions of Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT, who created groundbreaking programs in the 1960s, and then came to be alarmed by the manner in which even those who knew better came to perceive his creations:

“Weizenbaum had come to believe [that the] … great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers … is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly ‘tasks that demand wisdom.’”

In the mid-90’s an executive in the cradle of Silicon Valley told me that what he loved about the Internet was the “Knowledge” it made available. I came to have the highest regard for him as we worked together; but if I saw him today, I’d gently suggest that the Internet has certainly proven to be an efficient purveyor of Information … but it remains up to us to maintain the mental diligence and discipline to develop the connections that yield Knowledge.

Please don’t download The Shallows – buy a hard copy ;).

On Shepard Smith

Every American that values truth has lost a perhaps indispensable resource. This afternoon, Shepard Smith of Fox News announced that he was leaving the network as of today. Perhaps because of my 40 years as a lawyer, I place the highest credibility upon those willing to speak the truth when the truth is contrary to their own interest. I accordingly considered Mr. Smith’s candid refutations of the endless baseless and/or absurd claims of President Trump and his satellites the most vital on cable news specifically because they were issued from Fox News – which, aside from Chris Wallace and (until today) Mr. Smith (my apologies to any other lone Fox purveyors of truth of whom I’m unaware) – generates its revenues by serving propaganda for Mr. Trump to an audience intent on lapping it up. Mr. Trump has been a vehement critic of Mr. Smith, and indulges in well-publicized fits about any Fox News presentation that is contrary to the fantasy world in which he seeks to live with his followers.

It is no surprise to the readers of these pages that I am generally in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the Morning Joe panel and the rest of the MSNBC lineup (although I’m occasionally surprised that they don’t asphyxiate themselves on their own hyperventilation); I enjoy the relish with which the majority of the CNN talking heads pursue the President’s falsehoods and inanities (although I wonder how they avoid drowning in their own antagonism); but I’m always acutely aware that no matter how sincerely these MSNBC and CNN commentators hold their views, they’re on those networks’ air because their employers’ business models in part involve inciting antipathy toward Mr. Trump and his cohort. What made Mr. Smith different was the fact he was speaking to an audience that generally mostly strongly disagreed with the truth he offered.

I cling to the hope that Mr. Smith’s departure was indeed his own decision; absent contrary indications, I take him at his word that it was. I am troubled by the fact that he leaves very shortly after Attorney General William Barr, according to a New York Times account, traveled to New York to meet with Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch. I can think of no legitimate responsibility of an Attorney General of the United States that requires him/her to meet with a media mogul.

A link to a video of Mr. Smith’s final sign-off is set forth below. Those that didn’t have a chance to regularly see his broadcasts missed something special.  I shall miss him a lot.

https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/shep-smith-leaving-fox-news