Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

How I Almost Met Neil Armstrong

In American Society, Current events on August 27, 2012 at 12:42 am

I met Neil Armstrong last year – almost, sort of. I was waiting tables at a fairly nice restaurant here in Cincinnati; it paid better than the teaching I was doing – a shame really that a waiter can earn more than a teacher in this country, but that’s a rant for another day. Anyway, a large party came in and took a table in the corner. The group appeared to be a large family – three men, all 50s or 60s, two or three women I assumed were their wives, and a fellow maybe 80 years of age who seemed to be the family patriarch. He took his place at the head of the table – which meant he faced the corner and it was almost impossible to get a direct view of his face.

There was something about the demeanor of the entire family that made those of us nearby suspect that somebody at the table must be famous – they were gracious but guarded, polite beyond fault, never talking down to the waiter, but punctuating every request with a please or a thank you, ordering modestly but well from the menu. It wasn’t my table, but I was close enough to help keep the water glasses full, remove a few empty plates.

With the Bengals and Reds playing their home games just a couple of miles away, I assumed that someone must be a sports personality, or perhaps a team owner or something like that. I’ve waited on current players a time or two – catcher Ryan Hannigan, second baseman Brandon Phillips, even the infamous wide receiver Chad Johnson a.k.a. Ochocinco. A couple of the 50-60 somethings looked so familiar – Johnny Bench? Who was that pitcher in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series? We couldn’t quite figure it out.

After the plates were cleared away, the check was delivered, and the patriarch folded it around his credit card and handed it to me. Several of us gathered around the register to take a peek at the name, see if it would give us a clue as to whom we had been waiting on for the past hour.

Neil Armstrong.

Working in the hospitality business throughout my 20s, I’ve chatted with a few celebrities over the years – Lyle Lovett, Bernadette Peters (gotta be my age to remember her), Lee Majors, more professional athletes than I can remember, maybe one or two others if I thought about it long enough. But knowing that Neil Armstrong was in the room left me speechless. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve visited 26 foreign countries, and lived abroad for over a decade – but this guy has been to the moon, for God’s sake! I wanted to shake his hand, say I really admired him – something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. And today, reading the eulogies and articles that inevitably appear moments after someone famous has passed on, I remembered why.

 

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

 

I read a snippet of an interview in which Armstrong was saddened by the cutbacks in the space program. His reason? The fact that American space exploration had been so inspirational to students, had motivated so many children to do well in school.

I was definitely one of those kids. I was 5 years old when Neil Armstrong made history, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only tyke who decided at that moment that I was going to become an astronaut. My Mom, always the amateur psychologist, informed me that I’d have to make straight A’s when I started school in a few weeks – they didn’t let anyone become an astronaut if they didn’t have good grades. Her ruse worked – I made straight A’s almost every term for the next 10 years. And every toy I asked for – a chemistry set, a model of the human brain, etc. – had something to do with science.

Over the years, what I wanted to be when I grew up would change many times – marine biologist, opera singer, television evangelist – you name it. But Neil Armstrong made me want to be the best student in the class, made me want to stop at the library after school and read further about things we had talked about in class that day, let me see the wonder of scientific discovery. Although we moved around a lot when I was a child – I went to nine different schools in twelve years – I was always one of the top students. It was part of who I was as a kid, what gave me confidence – what helped to shape me into the person I am today.

Neil Armstrong made me want to be smart, something it seems so many students aren’t interested in today. They want to be rich, or famous, or if that’s not possible, at least have their own reality TV show. Why work so hard for an A when a C will get you by? Today’s heroes wear bling and have ‘tude. Anyone emulating Armstrong would definitely be a geek.

I thought I knew pretty much everything about this great American hero – that he was chosen to be the first man on the moon mostly because of his perceived lack of ego, that he didn’t give autographs or get publicly involved in politics, that he didn’t approve of the US being the world’s policeman, that he once sued a barber for selling a lock of his hair. But today I read something that made me like him even more.

On an application he made to lead a Boy Scout troop, he wrote in his religious affiliation as ‘Deist‘.

There seems to be a belief – perhaps a fear – commonly held by religious folks, that if our nation doesn’t get back to its ‘Christian roots’, that we’ll cease to do great things or that we’ll spiral into an immoral abyss. Men like Neil Armstrong – and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and other famous agnostics – are evidence that this simply isn’t true. You can live an exemplary life without organized faith. Many of our great American heroes achieved what they did by casting off the ancient superstitions that have bound men’s minds for so long in order to further our grand experiment in democracy.

It seems appropriate that the moon appeared so huge and bright in the twilight sky last night.

If only America had more men like Neil Armstrong.

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Make That 12 Ways to Fix America

In American Economy, American Society on August 25, 2012 at 2:34 am
Wall Street

Wall Street (Photo credit: b00nj)

Last week, I started talking about a few things that would fix our broken country. Sure, the world’s not perfect, and there are a lot of messed up countries out there. But if America wants to maintain its ‘special’ status or avoid becoming the next Greece, we need to make some big changes. I started with a list of eight things that would make us better, but as I continued to think about it, I came up with a few more.

Make everyone go to public school. I’m thinking in two different directions here, one being that nothing is dumbing down future generations more than homeschooling. When did we decide that it was a good idea that people who barely finished high school should teach their children? Now, you might think that what you teach your child is your business – but it’s not. Because that child will eventually grow up and vote, it’s vital to the survival of our nation that they know how to think critically, to know when someone is trying to baffle them with bullshit, or to be able to see when the numbers just don’t add up. If some poor child’s mom is their only teacher – and she barely got through high school, couldn’t locate France on a world map, and doesn’t have the mathematical skills required to balance a checkbook, how might we expect that individual to grow up and make informed choices?

The other side of the ax I’m grinding has to do with mutual understanding in our multi-faceted society. When kids go to private schools,  divided by religion, race, class, economic level, etc., and are never exposed to people and ideas from outside their own group, our pluralistic society ceases to be the melting pot that it has always been. I don’t like to talk about ‘Christian children’ or ‘Muslim children’ because the children in question have not made any decisions for themselves – they have been indoctrinated, not persuaded of the moral validity of their parents’ arguments. But children of all faiths need to understand that there are good people from other faiths, that those people want the same wholesome lives that they themselves want for the most part, and that the other groups aren’t really so different from their own group. A Christian kid who plays soccer with kids from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds will probably be more tolerant of different religious beliefs when he gets older.

And if all kids go to public school, all parents will have a stake in making them better. Rich folks don’t care if teachers are fired due to tax cuts – their kids won’t be affected. Public education has been one of the foundation stones of our society; it’s time everyone is faced with improving it, not just the poor.

Bring back the draft. Why is it that WWII lasted six years, yet we can’t get out of Afghanistan after ten? How is it that American presidents are able to mobilize troops first, then get Congressional approval later? One of the main reasons is that the wars are almost always fought by those Americans with few economic opportunities, and the burden of responsibility is not spread out evenly among the different socio-economic groups. If every war – or military excursion, or whatever presidents call our wars in order to skirt the constitutional stipulation that Congress alone can declare war – if every war required that a draft be formed within 90 days of the beginning of the conflict, we’d never be in another long, drawn-out, pointless military excursion again. Those millionaire congressmen and TV pundits wouldn’t be so fast to release the warhounds if their own sons might end up on the front lines. This is the only way to keep us honest when it comes to military interventions around the world; we need to be forced to decide if whatever it is we’re fighting for is worth the death of our own family members. I’m betting that we’d decide ‘not important enough’ more often if those soldiers were not nameless faces but instead our own flesh and blood.

Break up the huge media conglomerates. The fourth estate plays an important role in our democracy – we need to have real journalists doing real news reporting so that we can make informed decisions. Every report has some bias, to be sure, but it’s just plain wrong that four or five huge corporations decide what gets reported and how it is represented. The major channels today are filled with commentary – both MSNBC and Fox News fill up 90 percent of their programming with politically-driven opinion. A democratic society needs information – not partisan sniping.

Break up the big banks. Nothing to me is more dangerous than financial institutions and other companies that are larger than small countries and carry much more political clout. We don’t get to vote for the chairman of the board or the CEO, so we need to make sure that they don’t have an inordinate amount of power. And we need to make sure that if any business is too big to fail, it shouldn’t be allowed to exist. Free markets depend on the fact that inefficient companies will go belly up; if something has become so big that the world can’t afford for it to collapse, then that entity needs to be dismantled, end of story.

Put the government in charge of health care and retirement. It used to be that your job provided for your health care and retirement – but most corporations aren’t interested in doing so anymore. And why should they be? American businesses are competing against Asian companies that pay a pittance and offer no health benefits at all – paying for pricey benefits for American employees simply hinders their ability to compete. And we are up against European companies as well, many of whose employees receive generous health care and retirement benefits from their governments. In short, not only do I think that everyone deserves access to decent health care, I also don’t want to see our American business bogged down by providing it. The clear answer is to let the government take over these areas, so that businesses can be more competitive.

Think a moment about how we do this now. Our health – or lack of it – is a for-profit business. Why should some investor somewhere make a profit when I’m sick? I understand that the people who take care of me ought to be paid a reasonable salary, and that any insurance company who takes me on as a client needs to charge me enough to cover possible costs. But notice the share prices of insurance companies in the back pages of the Wall Street Journal, check out the dividends they are paying; go downtown if you live in a mid-sized city, and have a look at the tallest buildings there -if one or more of them don’t belong to an insurance company, I’ll eat my ball-cap. There are fortunes being made daily off of the misfortunes of others – it shouldn’t work this way.

Notice I’m in favor of government-sponsored, single-payer health insurance for two reasons; 1) everyone has the right to be healthy  – I’m not saying that we should all have access to the most expensive kind of experimental medicine, nor do I think taxpayers should be financing six-figure medical procedures for octogenarians. But I also don’t believe that people should be dying in their 60s because they didn’t have the money to pay for routine check-ups in their 40s and 50s. 2) Relieving business of the burden of health care and retirement would allow them to be more competitive internationally.  How would you pay for this? Well –

Have a national discussion about taxation, then radically alter the tax code. It’s ridiculous that a multi-millionaire would try to reassure as by letting us know that he’s paid at least 13 percent per year over the past decade. Mitt Romney isn’t rich because he’s smarter than you – he’s rich because he was lucky enough to be born into a multitude of advantages that most are beyond most people. Why does a janitor have to give away a quarter for every dollar he makes breaking his back, when the ultra-rich pay half that percentage on ‘invested’ money? Or they pay zero by sending the money to the Caribbean or Switzerland.

This country has never been about inherited wealth and privilege, and in fact, most of our ancestors fled Europe and other locations across the globe to escape the tyranny of aristocrats. When we allow people to accumulate millions, tax-free, then bequeath fortunes to their heirs, again tax-free, we are creating an aristocracy.

And while we’re at it, let’s eliminate ALL tax deductions and then vote on which ones we want to put back in. Why are we subsidizing home owners with tax breaks? What advantage does it provide for society that we are willing to lose billions of revenue every year? Our tax code should be encouraging only those behaviors which have been proven to be beneficial to society as a whole.

End rhetoric in favor of research. These days just about anyone can get on television and spout off their own personal facts to support pretty much any political viewpoint, It’s time we started holding people accountable. We had that clown Todd Akin making up his own medical and biological facts last week in order to justify his opinions about limiting access to abortions. He’s a computer engineer. This is how it works in America now. We have people who’ve never worn a uniform a day in their lives convincing us of the necessity of military engagement. Dentists get on TV and tell us that global warming isn’t real. Former used car salesmen try to convince us that tax cuts create jobs.

When a guy called Joe the Plumber gets to lecture about the intricacies of our tax code – and people listen – you know the country is really screwed up.

8 Ways to Fix America

In American Economy, American Society on August 19, 2012 at 2:50 am

I just ran across an article from a year ago entitled Eight Ways to Fix Our Politics, which was posted in Newsweek and the Daily Beast. There are some excellent ideas that would get rid of the gridlock we currently have, namely –

  1. Stop letting the political parties determine how congressional districts are divided.
  2. Change the way elections are funded.
  3. Eliminate party primaries in favor of open primaries.
  4. Let the popular vote determine the outcome of elections.
  5. Change the way congressional committees are put together.
  6. Eliminate secret holds on appointees.
  7. Change or eliminate the filibuster.
  8. Eliminate the debt ceiling.

Most of these have something to do with weakening the present two-party political system, something that I am very much in favor of. Did you know that political parties are not even mentioned in our constitution? Why do they play such a big role today in our politics? It seems that the GOP and Demos are locked into an endless cycle of fighting and one-upmanship, where the goal is for the party to win – the country itself be damned. The others have to do with money arguments – and that got me thinking about some of the larger problems in politics and in the country in general.

Our capitalist economic system – when working well – is the best system the world has ever seen.  However, it does have its flaws, which have been on display the last 2-3 years. Democracy is the best political system in the world. When these two systems are working as they should, operating in a check-and-balance sort of competition, America is hard to beat. The problem is that over the last decade or more, the two systems have been involved in a destructive, incestuous make-out session, a Wall Street / Washington love-fest, in which the interests of anyone who doesn’t have power or money haven’t mattered very much.

Because of this neglect, there are a lot of things that are broken in this country, not just our politics. This got me thinking about how to fix some of the other ills we are facing as a country as well. I agree with the fixes in the Newsweek article, but I think we can do even better.

Get the money out of our political system – all of it. CNN’s Jack Cafferty reports that Congress’s wealth has increased by more than 25% during the height of our current recession. Peter Schweizer’s recent book Throw Them All Out  details how almost everyone in the legislative branch is using insider trading, cronyism, and land deals to enrich themselves at our expense. We can’t really have a democracy – and we can’t really accomplish any of the other things we need to accomplish – as long as our government servants are not looking our for our interests. Federal elections should all be federally funded – all donations or use of personal wealth should be illegal. PACs should be transparently funded. We all need to realize that a dollar and a vote are not the same thing – everyone, no matter how rich they are – has only one voice in our political forums; no one should be allowed to have thousands.

Congressional Elections are Fixed in America

(Photo credit: davemakkar)

Require that everyone vote. Australia, Belgium, Singapore, and at least two dozen other countries around the world make voting mandatory. It’s ridiculous that a country with as much international power as ours often elects its leaders without even a majority in this country participating. Both political parties are constantly trying to disqualify certain voters, or qualify certain others to their political advantage. If everyone voted, these kinds of shenanigans would come to an end, and the politicians would have to promote ideas that appeal to everyone, not just partisan wingnuts.

Do everything possible to weaken the two-party system. The Newsweek article sort of beats around the bush on this point – it’s time someone came out and said it. George Washington was very unhappy that the nation began to develop two very strong parties right from the beginning. We either need more viable political parties – or none at all. Our country is locked into a perpetual Yankees-vs-Red Sox rivalry that is destroying us. The future of our country is too important to leave it up to political gamesmanship. We’ve got to end the polarization that the parties are encouraging and figure out how to work together again to solve some of our biggest problems.

Fix our ailing infrastructure. Living in Beijing for 3 years before coming back to the US, I got used to roads with no potholes, modern bridges and superhighways, state-of-the-art trains and airports, clean, bright, modern buses that run on natural gas – and a host of other conveniences that make life in an American city downright medieval by comparison. Our business can’t compete in the coming century when our grandparents were the last ones who bothered to pay to build a new runway or port. I think it’s Thomas Friedman who said that if a person who knew nothing of history were asked to look at the infrastructures of Germany, Japan, and the US, and, based only on those observations, ascertain which country won WWII – he’d come up with the wrong answer every time.

Stop empire building / financing expansion of big oil. Many Americans may be unaware of how India became part of the British Empire. There was a joint stock company called the British East India Company that began investing in spices, tea, and other commodities in India and in other places in the Far East. The success of this company made its investors – including many members of Parliament – fabulously wealthy, and provided cheap raw materials to England’s factories. Every time there was a skirmish of some kind between the Company and the locals, the British Army would arrive to pacify the area, and turn it into a ‘protectorate’. The British government ended up colonizing all of India this way – not because there was a public discussion and decisions were made that empire would be best for the country – but because big business decided that’s the way it should be.

Our situation is the same – big oil and other industries make investments abroad that bring enormous wealth to a select few investors – and to countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Venezuela, countries that do not share our democratic vision – and then tax dollars are spent to protect our ‘national interest’ in these areas. Why do we stick our military noses into Iraq and Afghanistan, yet ignore similarly belligerent regimes elsewhere? Oil, money, the interests of big business. It’s time we do a bit of nation building here in our own country, if you ask me.

I’ve got a few more ideas that are much more controversial, including making everyone go to public school. But it’s 3am and I have to work tomorrow, so I’ll save those for my next post later this week.