Thursday, July 30, 2009

Obama: Illegal President?

Generally, the main reason that a conspiracy theory exists is that it's difficult to disprove. So you may think it strange that this year's big one has been able to survive. I'm talking about the notion that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States and that there has been a conspiracy to cover that up. Obviously, if he wasn't born in this country, then he couldn't legally be President. Even though this has been disproved over and over again, that hasn't stopped a small but vocal minority from passionately buying into it. This week, Congress took time out from avoiding the health care issue, and declared that Obama was, indeed, born in the United States. I'm sure this won't be enough to satisfy the birth doubters. These people are out there. They probably don't just believe that there was a conspiracy to kill Michael Jackson so that his music would sell more CDs; they believe there was a conspiracy to kill Walter Cronkite so his music would sell more CDs.

The President has provided a copy of his birth certificate indicating that he was born in Hawaii. The conspiracy folks responded, "Yeah, but it's just a copy." Well, who has the original of their birth certificate? Almost a year ago, Hawaii's state health director, Dr.Chiyome Fukino, and the registrar of vital statistics, Alvin Onaka, personally verified that Hawaii's health department has Obama's original birth certificate as it should.

Remember the acrimonious Democratic primary? If the Clintons thought this story had been even the least bit credible, don't you think they would have brought it up? And then there was the general election. Are we to believe that John McCain and Sarah Palin were also part of the grand conspiracy to conceal where Obama was really born?

And yet, some TV and radio talkers, along with a handful of Republican officials have kept this thing alive. So finally, when Congress passed a resolution ostensibly celebrating the 50th anniversary of Hawaii becoming the 50th state, there was a clause in there that read, "Whereas the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961." It was passed unanimously, but that doesn't mean this thing is over.

It probably won't be over until everyone in the world believes that we really sent astronauts to the moon, and the whole thing was not staged on a movie lot. It will be over when nobody believes that people met with extraterrestrials in Roswell, New Mexico. It may not even be over until nobody believes that John Dillinger's penis is in the Smithsonian, but they aren't allowed to show it to anyone.

In other words, this ridiculous story has become part of urban legend. However, there is an ugly side to it. There has been so much anger, so much venom behind this contention that I can't help thinking that hatred and intolerance are involved. It seems that those who just cannot accept that an African American is their President have to find reasons to reject his legitimate right to have that position. They can't believe that someone other than a white guy was elected President, so they conclude that he must have cheated.

It would have been nice if more Republicans hadn't been just passive about this. It would have served them – and us – well if they had stepped up and said, "Let's end this nonsense now. We have more important things to deal with. Of course, Obama was born in the United States." It's like during the campaign when John McCain famously told that woman at the town meeting that Barack Obama was not a Muslim. Maybe it wasn't the best thing for him to do politically, but it was the right thing to do.

While we're on the subject of conspiracy theories and Obama, here's a message to those who see a plot wherever they look: the "beer summit" involving Henry Louis Gates, Police Sergeant James Crowley, and the President was not secretly put together by Budweiser to increase beer sales. Of course, I can't prove that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Air Travel, Gone To The Dogs

It had to happen. In the last several years, Americans have spent more and more money on luxuries – for pets. We've seen the arrival of gourmet foods for pets, hotels for pets, and even bikinis for pets. So I shouldn't have been s0urprised the other day when I learned that there is now an airline for pets. That's right, all of Pet Airways' passengers are animals – and not the kind that sit next to you and snore or spill their drinks on you. I'm talking about the kind that you feed and take for walks.

I don't blame anyone for not wanting to put their pets in a crate that goes with cargo or luggage. I wouldn't want our dog to travel like that. But somehow, we've all gotten along for many years without asking our pets if they want a window or an aisle seat.

Americans will spend an estimated $45.4 billion on their pets this year. That's more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world. That's more than we spend on movies, video games, and music combined. I don't think we're going to hear about the pet industry asking for a bailout.

Of course, in these tough economic times, there are people who can't afford to have pets. But there are still others who will pay over $900 for their dogs to have testicular implants so they can still look "macho" after they've been neutered.

We spend more than twice as much on our pets as we did a decade ago. There are probably all kinds of reasons why this is so. More people work at home, so maybe they want the company of a pet. Maybe more single people have decided they don't need to be alone. And maybe as our world gets more mechanized, there's a desire to have something that's actually alive – something that you don't have to plug in 0or reboot.

For whatever reason, pets have increasingly become part of the family. More than half of all dog owners say they consider their pet's comfort when they buy a car. (I wonder what percentage considers their in-laws' comfort when they buy a car). People buy clothing for their pets, celebrate their birthdays, and put braces on their teeth. That's a bit over the top, don't you think? Sure, I leave the TV on for our dog, but I can't help it if he likes sports.

Having your pet fly as a passenger on Pet Airways isn't any more expensive than putting him or her on a regular airline. It falls into the coddling "let's have him be more comfortable category" like the car a pet owner might buy. The seats have been removed from the plane's cabin, and pets travel in air-conditioned comfort in their own private kennel crates. A veterinary technician checks on them throughout the flight. When the plane lands on an in-between location, a flight attendant takes them for a walk, looking for the most convenient patch of grass. For their in-flight entertainment, they probably get to watch something like "Milo and Otis" or "Old Yeller." It all sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

But I worry about what problems might develop, and I wonder if the owners of Pet Airways have thought this whole thing through. Of course, there is no first class and coach distinction on these flights. But how long will it take for some ritzy pet owners to request that their fancy cats or dogs fly up front, away from those that came from the pound?

I'm also concerned about the possibility of "ethnic profiling." With concerns about security so high, will an American spaniel or an Irish setter be waved right onto the plane, while people in uniform stop and search a Russian wolfhound or an Afghan? And you know they're going to be suspicious of a cat who happens to be a Persian.

There are bound to be some civil rights, anti-discrimination lawsuits brought against this pets-only airline. They'll be brought by people who want to get on that plane along with the pets. Here's why: the passengers travel comfortably, there's no line for the bathroom, and every 15 minutes, the airline's president walks down the aisle with kind words and snacks. When was the last time you were treated like that on a regular airline?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Was Bush Right About Iraq?

Some of the criticism George W. Bush and his administration received when they began the war against Iraq was that they were trying to force our culture on the Iraqi people. President Bush might not have even disagreed with this, since he seemed to preach that our culture was the best culture in the world. However, many people felt that our value system just wouldn't work in Iraq. They said that the Iraqi people would never adopt Western values and customs. Some were very condescending about it, and said that Iraqis "weren't ready" for Western ways. In at least one area, these critics were wrong. Our country's policy can probably take credit for the fact that something Western has definitely been embraced by the Iraqi people: nose jobs.

In today's Iraq, cosmetic surgery is "in." It wasn't that long ago that Iraq's plastic surgeons were busy trying to repair the ravages of war. Now that things have calmed down somewhat in certain areas, these doctors also spend some time lifting rear ends, performing liposuction, and "fixing" noses. In fact, the most popular cosmetic surgery in Iraq is the nose job. The cost, as cited in the "Los Angeles Times" is between $600 and $1,000. I don't know what accounts for the $400 cost range. I hope the doctors aren't charging by the inch.

It's ironic that cosmetic surgery is on the rise while Iraq has become so religiously conservative. While this type of surgery is not condemned by Iraq's clerics, surgeons are instructed to adhere to religious law. That means the doctors are not supposed to look at the "forbidden" parts of the female anatomy, even while they perform surgery. So if a woman is having a breast reduction or enlargement, the doctor is supposed to abide by the principle, "You can touch, but you can't look." Obviously, in this area, they haven't quite adopted Western ways, since what men in our society often hear is the exact opposite.

So how are we, how is the United States, how is President Bush responsible for all this cosmetic surgery? Before the war, Iraq was a much more insulated country. However, since 2003, Iraqis have had the opportunity to watch satellite TV. And what have they seen on satellite TV? I'm not talking about ""Becker." They've seen Egyptian and Lebanese celebrities who apparently look like they go to plastic surgeons about as often as you and I go to the bathroom. Hard to believe that celebrities would use artificial means to enhance their looks, isn't it? And just like in our country, there is a frenzy in Iraq to have phony looks that imitate these phony looks.

Iraqis are also able to watch Western-style music videos on their TVs now. Some people in Iraq feel that the desire to change their looks is the result of Iraqis seeing beautiful people, dancing and singing on the tube. One Iraqi woman, a 45-year-old mother of two, said that she hoped her liposuction would make her look more like Beyonce´. So look what our culture has given them: an obsession with looks and celebrities. And you didn't think the Bush policy was working.

Most of the Iraqis who want cosmetic surgery say that it is because they think it will help them get married. See? They've adopted the notion from our culture that plastic surgery will lead to love. And some of you didn't think they were ready for Western values.

When the war in Iraq started, the pro-war folks said that we wanted to give the Iraqi people things that all the people in the world were entitled to. What they really meant was that we wanted the Iraqis to have the right to remake themselves in our image. And that's what they're doing. Kind of. They're not imitating the way we look, they're imitating the way we imitate the way people look.

It is pretty amazing. Here's a culture that refused to wilt for thousands of years despite the sandstorms of the winds of change, but they can't resist breast jobs and tummy tucks. I guess the war's been a success.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Virtual Rejection

For the past couple of months, I've been feeling a great deal of shame and embarrassment. Now it's gotten too difficult for me to hold those feelings inside, so I'm going to spill my guts: a woman on Facebook unfriended me.

You've all heard of Facebook and its brothers and sisters – MySpace, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. Fans of these social networking sites point out that it's a way for more and more people to connect to each other. In this day and age in which people apparently don't have time to leave their many screens and meet actual humans, they can make virtual friends and have a cyber social life. The thing these enthusiasts don't talk about is the possibility of rejection. I know all about it, and it hurts, virtually.

To the few of you who are not on one of these sites, let me explain how this friend thing works on them. The object is much like that which some children have -- to have as many friends as possible. So you search and find people that you know and ask them to be your "friend." It doesn't stop there. You can ask a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend to be your friend. They almost always say, "yes." They're very friendly. So you end up being friends with a John Smith who lives in Guam whom you have never met and whom you can't remember what the connection to you is. Then when your real-life friends look at your list of Facebook friends, they may become friends of John Smith from Guam, too.

To be more accurate, in the vernacular of these sites, you don't "become friends" with someone. You "friend" them. That's right. They use "friend" as a verb. This aspect of virtual grammar is really annoying. However, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised by this linguistic evolution. All kinds of words are used as verbs these days. I think this whole thing started when somebody decided that it was okay to use "parenting" as a verb (as in, "I was up all night, parenting my kids"). That opened the floodgates. Soon, after spending the night on the sofa, people will be saying," I couched last night." There's no use fighting it. Too many people are languageing it to go back to the way things were.

Anyway, these people friend you, and you friend others, and everybody is supposed to be happy with their new friends. I thought all of my virtual friends were happy with me, until one day a woman wrote me that she no longer wanted anything to do with me, and she was "unfriending" me. Until then, I didn't know you could be unfriended. I didn't even know the word existed. But, alas, it had happened. My relationship with a woman I had never met had come to an unhappy and an ugly ending. That's the way unfriendings are.

It seemed so abrupt, so cruel. There was no, "I like you, but not in the way you like me." There was no, "I'm the one who has the problem, not you." And there was certainly no, "I'm sorry, but I'm tired of just having an amazing physical relationship with you."

What had I done to anger this woman that drove her to unfriend me? I'll tell you what I did: I had asked her – along with my other friends – to check out my latest column. She said that she was offended that I used Facebook to promote my writing.

I couldn't believe it. Most people use these sites to promote themselves. They'll talk about a job they have, or one they want, a concert they're giving, or one they want to go to. But she thought I was crossing the line by asking people to check out my latest column.

On Facebook, people will tell you important things like, "I think I'm getting a headache," "I had a great weekend," "I miss Jay Leno," "I spilled salad dressing on my skirt," and "I really hate traffic." But asking her to read my column offended her?!

So I had my virtual heart broken. For a while after that, I didn't friend anyone. I just wasn't ready. But now I'm back in the cyber saddle again, friending people left and right. As for my "Unfriend," I don't know if things will ever be the same with us again. But I do hope at least that someday we'll unenemy each other.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Straight-Shooting Pastor

Whenever I write a column about guns, I get at least a few responses from people who don't call me names, who use proper grammar, and present their arguments in a reasonable manner. So when I heard that a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky had a "Bring Your Gun To Church Day" last Saturday (June 27th) I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't easy.

(Before you start firing your angry emails at me, let me make a few things clear: I'm not saying this was illegal, and I'm not calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment. I'm trying to understand why a pastor would want guns in church, because well, it seems a tad inappropriate to me).

I spoke to Pastor Ken Pagano of the New Bethel Church, and he seemed like a nice, intelligent guy who just happens to think guns are a very important American tradition, an excellent means of self-defense, and are not out of place in a church.

He pointed out to me that you could see paintings of ancient, medieval, and Revolutionary times in which people who were at church had weapons with them. I reminded him that there were many things that were done hundreds of years ago that aren't done today – like sacrificing goats, having slaves, and avoiding baths.

I had read that people were supposed to bring unloaded guns to the church. He clarified this. If you didn't have a license to carry a concealed weapon, you could bring a "cold" (unloaded and holstered) gun. If you legally could carry a concealed weapon, of course, you could bring that gun.

Pastor Pagano said that since concealed weapons are concealed, he had no idea how many people in church were armed.

And all these guns make the pastor feel safer for his congregation. Obviously, it's an individual thing, but would you feel the calm and peace that you want in a house of worship, knowing that some of the people around you might be carrying hidden guns?

A house of worship is not just a building like any other, as Pagano implied before the gun gala. That's one of the reasons why when there is violence in a church, a synagogue, or a mosque that it may seem that much more disturbing to us than when it happens on the street or in a bar. A sanctuary is a special place. That's why they call it a sanctuary.

I'm no expert on Christianity, but I believe Jesus was known as the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Carrying A Piece.

One of the purposes of the event was to celebrate the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. The pastor feels the church was an appropriate place to do that. I pointed out that since he loved the Constitution and American traditions so much, what about the "separation of church and state?" Is a church really an appropriate place for making a political statement about weapons?

Here's another thought: How would people have reacted if an Imam at an American mosque asked people to bring guns to a service? In fact, how would those same people who went to Pagano's church have reacted? Would they have said, "Good for those Second Amendment-loving Muslims. America needs more Muslims to be carrying guns?" Uh, probably not all of them would have said that. Some would have condemned the act: "You see what a violent people they are? Muslims even bring guns into their house of worship!"

But if it takes place in the New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky, it's okay?

I had my Bar Mitzvah in a temple in Chicago which, coincidentally, was also called Beth El. Perhaps it's a geographic or a cultural thing, but I can't imagine anyone bringing guns to a service at the Beth El I went to. Maybe some people might sneak in half a sandwich, maybe someone would carry in a picture of that good-looking guy their daughter's engaged to, but a gun? No way.

So I guess for me it comes back to inappropriateness. In Hebrew, "Beth El" means, "House of God." It doesn't mean, "House of Guns" in any language.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by