Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to Our President-Elect

The dust has settled from the contentious election of 2016 and we are now about to swear into office our nation's 45th President. It is not true to say there has never been as colorful a character as Donald J. Trump to be selected as president. Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are probably great examples of figures also cut from an uncommon cloth.

What disturbs me most at this momentous juncture is the tremendous disconnect that many Americans have for the man who will be the leader of the Free World and in whom we will entrust with the unthinkable nuclear option as our Commander in Chief. Whether we recognize him as "My President" or not, the reality is that he will be the face of our nation for the next four or, possibly, eight years.

My hope is that he will grow into the presidency and that he will give up some of the petulance that has marked his campaign and his transition. All presidents should be aware that their every action is recorded for all time and that every decision they make will be examined under the lens of scrutiny by future generations.

President Obama's greatest legacy, the Affordable Care Act, which he was able to see passed despite tremendous opposition, appears dead on arrival once our new President is sworn in and the Republican Congress has its way. Replacing it with something that approaches the current law may take some time and gaining agreement on both sides of the aisle may be a daunting task. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful.

As we say goodbye to the administration of President Barack Obama, I think on the events of the last eight years - a financial crisis and housing market collapse not seen since the Great Depression that was somehow righted, a disengagement from the Iraq war and the death of Osama Bin Laden and the dismantlement of Al Qaida. Then there were his failures: a significant chill in relations with Israel and no progress made in furthering the prospect of peace in the Middle East, the shaky implementation of the Affordable Care Act (known colloquially as Obamacare) and rising costs associated with keeping it in place, gridlock on Capitol Hill, no end in sight on deficit spending and the inability to get Congress to accept his final appointment to the Supreme Court.  Of course, much of the latter difficulties ranged from pushback from the Republican controlled Congress.

No matter how many times critics vilified his name, the constant questions as to his faith and practice or whether he was actually a native-born American citizen, the one thing he always displayed was grace under pressure. It was always clear that he was a family man, first and foremost, and that he grew in understanding about a number of issues by seeing how they affected his daughters and his supportive wife. Along with Vice-President Joe Biden, who helped push the President's acceptance of the right for gays and lesbians to marry, our nation's 44th President will be judged by the image he presented to the American people and to history.

As the dawn of a new presidency greets us, let us all hope that when this incoming administration is remembered in the past that it shall share a measure of the same kind of respect now enjoyed by the Obamas and the Bidens. Yes, there are those who are delighted that today is their last day in office, but the ax swings both ways. Four years or eight years from now, will we be feeling as secure? Time will tell.

The hallowed office of the President should be open and above board. I am hoping that my fellow journalists will be treated with respect by the administration and that the antipathy that exists at present will mellow in the years to come.

The American people wanted change in November and the Trump campaign, despite overwhelming odds against, knew how to win in the states where it counted and achieved a victory in the Electoral College. Beginning today, the incoming President needs to bring the majority of Americans who voted against him into his camp by his words and his deeds. It doesn't matter if he builds a wall or who pays for it. It doesn't matter is he repeals health care legislation. It doesn't matter if he closes America's borders to immigrants.

There are a great many people in America today who are scared. These include the poor and disenfranchised, but it also includes a great many gay Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews, who see a rise in racist activities and hate crimes by many supporters of the President-Elect.

If Donald Trump wants to truly make America great again, he needs to brings us all together with vision and statesmanship, not rhetoric and grandstanding. Mr. President, myself and millions of Americans who are keeping their minds open, want you to be presidential and lead, not react. We need more laws passed to protect us and less mean-spirited tweets on Twitter that make you feel better.

That said, I welcome you to the White House, the symbol of the highest office in the land which you have earned, and I wish you a successful term to come. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brave Bird

Yesterday I saw a bird on wing
And I thought of you.
You, with your dauntless life,
Are like that bird, soaring ever higher,
Reaching for the stars
Climbing to where the air is so thin
That there is no resistance
To your striving to break free 
Of the bonds of earth and sky.
The only thing you must know,
Unlike that bird, is that 
The only thing that will ever
Hold you back, is yourself.
So, fly with all your might
And let not a tree branch
Or bright sunlight deter you
For you are a bird on wing
Called freedom.

©2016 Alan Smason

Monday, July 11, 2016

Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless

The following editorial was published in the Crescent City Jewish News on July 11:

The very public killing of two black men at the hands of white police officers in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota and the horrendous assassination of five white Dallas police officers by a crazed lone gunman in retaliation – all seemingly captured on videotape – was just another typical bloody week for America.

Coming on the heels of the tragic shootings in Orlando last month and the disturbing killings in San Bernadino, in Charleston and the rioting in Ferguson and elsewhere last year, we might think that our nation’s tolerance for pain would be near the breaking point. And yet we would be wrong. 

Within our republic there are occasional challenges to authority and peaceful coexistence that all too frequently resort to the use of guns and the spilling of innocent blood. We seem to accept this as a necessary byproduct of a free and open society. As President Obama so quickly and rightly pointed out, the black man who thought that killing white police officers would accomplish his goal was no less a racist than the white man who felt compelled to kill the black members of the prayer group in Charleston. Bullets are the least racist of all items on earth. They care not what target they strike and the only color they see is red. 

We have seen so much violence throughout our history. It is a sad commentary played out time and time again. It began with the revolutionary fervor of our young nation, broke out into full-scale civil war, continued in the shoot-em-up creed of the Old West, was part of the gangster era of Prohibition, shaped our outrage during the turbulent period of the Sixties when our leaders became targets and has continued in shopping malls, cinema houses and, sadly, in schoolhouses like those in Columbine and Sandy Hook. 

In an average year over 17,000 American children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and by police intervention. Of that number nearly 2,700 kids die from gun violence and over 1,600 children and teens are murdered. The saddest statistic of all is that all of these are preventable. 

Stopping the squeezing of a trigger finger begins with changing the neurons of a brain that reasons that taking a life will improve life. The mourners left behind and the broken and paralyzed victims of the violence that shatters their lives will attest to the fact that killing is morally wrong, reprehensible and need not be tolerated by right thinking Americans. 

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has guaranteed our right to bear arms in the necessary defense of our families and our country. However, it should not be interpreted as a right to callously kill those whom we find too vastly different from us or with whom we cannot accept for whatever reasons. Heed the admonition that such a philosophy of hate loads those very rifles and guns that mow down our most precious of gifts, the lives we treasure most including our own. 

The time for a national debate on gun violence is long overdue. The cycle of violence will continue to take from us our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters and our children as we await the next breaking news event. Left unchecked this will become the sad epitaph on the experiment called American freedom. Haven’t we suffered enough? At what point do we advocate for change? The stakes are far too high for us to maintain the status quo and our children’s lives literally depend on what course of action we decide today. Do we pray for peace, acceptance and tolerance or do we stand idly by and let our inaction load the muzzles that are aimed at the heart of our democratic republic?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

'Hamilton' Sing-Along newest phenomenon

"Hamilton" sing along members after show

It was bound to happen. With prices for tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda's record-breaking hip-hop musical Hamilton: An American Musical soaring into the stratosphere and availability of same sinking into the abyss of hopelessness, die-hard aficionados have decided to stage their own impromptu sing-alongs to show their fanaticism for the show.

Using technological aids such as a video projector, microphones and a sound system, the organizers of this unusual program splash the lyrics onto a screen while the fans sing along with the original cast recording. The lyrics largely keep time with the music, but few of the singers need the captions for they drop verse with uncanny accuracy perfected by countless times of having heard the work on their handheld devices. Think of it as karoake on steroids.

Sign-up sheets list the titles of songs and the names of the characters in each. As they arrive, attendees, who are invited by emails, are urged to sign in for any and all songs they care to sing along to, allowing them them the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be on stage. Their singing is roundly drowned out by the audience members who gleefully join in. 

The roles in Hamilton specifically call for non-traditional casting of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans as the founding fathers, all of whom the historic record shows were well-connected and prominent male businessmen and planters. The singers who came out for the first of these Hamilton sing-along sessions were mostly young women, shattering yet another barrier of traditional casting the Broadway musical playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre has yet to break.

Mindful of copyright infringement, the organizers were careful not to charge admission or to benefit financially from the gathering of fans. They hold a five-minute bathroom break between acts and even provide attendees with free cream puffs so they wouldn't be famished during the three-hour long event.

This kind of spontaneous outpouring of fan support is reminiscent of the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when midnight shows on Friday and Saturday nights would bring in gleeful participants who wanted to take the movie into the realm of participatory viewing. To that extent water guns became the source of showers and newspapers were whipped out as impromptu umbrellas during a rainy scene on the screen. Rice was thrown during the film's anticlimactic "wedding scene." Eventually, movie theaters got into the act, selling "kits" of water guns, newspapers, rice and more to eager movie goers.

The record breaking Hamilton, which won the Obie Award last year for Best Musical (off Broadway) along with seven Drama Desk Awards, a Grammy Award for Best Theatre Album and a Pulitzer Prize, received 16 nominations for the Tony Awards this year - the most ever - and is the heavy favorite to win top honors at the ceremonies to be held this next month in New York.

Miranda's previous Tony Award winning show of In the Heights (2007) - Best Score and Best Musical - and  Tony-nominated Bring It On: The Musical (2012) never gained this kind of momentum. Now, it seems, Hamilton is set to become even more of a cult phenomenon and can only grow larger as time goes on and demands for tickets continue to spike for its rabid, yet frustrated fans. Who would imagine that a Broadway musical would generate such interest? 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Considering awards and rewards

The deadline looms now for the Rockower Awards, the "Pulitzer Prize" of Jewish journalism administered by the American Jewish Press Association. Presently I am scanning the Crescent City Jewish News website and the two publications we print as part of our brand's media footprint in New Orleans for articles to submit.

The first of these publications, The Best of the Crescent City Jewish News, is published semi-annually and regurgitates many of the local articles and obituaries originally published online. The second is an annual community resource guide, SOURCE, containing several original articles revolving about a specific theme.

SOURCE 5774, published in 2013, won first place honors in the Infographics writing category of the Press Club of New Orleans in 2014. We followed up with SOURCE 5775, with a music theme, which garnered first place in Entertainment writing in 2015 for a feature on local performer Valerie Sassyfras and a third place award for Features writing ("Jews and Jazz") as well. In both cases, the articles were written by me to inform the local Jewish community and to document our history.

It would seem that writing should be a means towards an end - an opportunity to put down in a concise and reasonable fashion all that could or should be said about a topic. The satisfaction one derives from effectively communicating an idea or thought so that others can gain a different perspective or enhance their own should be enough for a writer.

But these days self-approbation is not nearly enough. In the quest for excellence, publications or media are pitted against one another desirous of the distinction of being called "award-winning." The cost of submissions are usually high, but the pressure to be singled out as among the very best cannot be overstated.

That said, if the truth be known, there is no greater pleasure for me than first to compose the words of a review, article or commentary that ring true in my own ears. How well they are received by others is an exterior vindication of my worth as a writer, but not what drives me to write internally. I know that many of my best pieces have never been considered for awards or fall outside the range of specific categories. So my biggest reward is in having written a piece to the best of my abilities and being able to move on to the next task.

Awards are nice, but they cannot be the sole criterion for a writer's production. Were I to start writing strictly to win awards, I might never want to write again. So, while recognizing the pitfalls associated with entering these journalistic competitions, I do so with the intent of promoting my brand, not myself.

We are already an award-winning publication. To win a coveted Rockower Award - something we have never done - would be very special. But that is up to other judges to determine and puts us up against hundreds of other entries. So, while I hold out hope, I know the likelihood of a win is dim and I console myself with the knowledge I have and will continue to do the best job I can while writing under the pressure of my own imposed deadlines.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth and Why I'm Glad We Caught Him

Following the announcement that rock icon, film star and innovator David Bowie had died of cancer on January 10, the Internet and social media blew up with countless memes, photos, quotes from his songs and pithy sayings.

One of the more profound - if there are such things in a universe that values a total character count of 140 as a good thing - was one piece that read: "If you're sad today, remember that the planet is 4.7 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie."

I must say that I am truly blessed to have managed to exist at the same time as many people, not the least of whom are my parents, my wife, my son and many friends. To consider Bowie a major influence seemed trite and certainly a bit on the silly side, yet I found myself strangely drawn back to listening to his music in all of its many shapes and forms.

I can honestly say I listened to more David Bowie music these past few weeks - from the space rock themes of "Space Oddity" and "Starman" to the punk anthems of "Rebel Rebel" and "Suffragette City" to the disco-tinged "Let's Dance" and the exotic and sultry "China Girl" - than I have in the previous decade combined. But I was fine with it. It brought about a sense of closure and a realization that he had made an impact I hadn't fully considered beforehand.

So for all of us similarly affected, I say thank you, my glitter and rock friend, for introducing me and others to Ziggy, the Diamond Dogs, the pitfalls of "Fame" and what it means to be under pressure. Those blue and brown eyes of yours will not soon be forgotten.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Circle Game

Tivoli Circle (via Wikimedia)

The fallout from the racially motivated shootings in Charleston has traveled to New Orleans and reignited a discussion among its citizens about statues and buildings named for heroes of the Confederacy or for former slave owners. This thorny point was addressed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who announced this week that he is now in favor of removing several statues erected to Confederate heroes, including the famous statue of General Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle.  During the Reconstruction era and before the statue of the Confederate general was erected in 1884, New Orleans citizens referred to the intersection of the upriver and downriver sections of town at present-day Howard Avenue and St. Charles Avenue as Tivoli Circle or Tivoli Gardens. This was because of the popular Tivoli Carousel that was there.

With the capture of New Orleans in April of 1862, the Confederacy lost its most valuable port and the longest Union occupation of any city began. While some merchants cheered the arrival of the Federal forces, others did not. New Orleans was made the seat of government for the state. Tempers ran high during the remainder of the war and the institution of a Reconstruction government became a sore point among business leaders. This antipathy came to a head most especially during the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872. The Democrats had claimed victory for John McEnery, while the Republicans held that William Kellogg had been elected.

An attempt to put a new, Democrat-backed government into power was put down by federal and New Orleans Metropolitan Police forces at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1873. After four days of insurrection, the Reconstruction government was put back into place and not one of the 5,000 Crescent City White League members was charged or put on trial for the attempted coup. Union forces only departed under a presidential order in 1877.

It was a decade later and five generations ago, my first family member  - my maternal great-great-grandmother -  fleeing oppression and seeking a better life, arrived in New Orleans. Sometime prior to her arrival, city fathers had erected the monolithic column topped with the former Confederate general at Tivoli Circle as a sign of defiance to the former Reconstruction government. The citizens had dubbed it Lee Circle. Neither my great-great-grandmother nor her daughter or son-in-law and their family had anything to do with the Civil War, nor slavery. They sought refuge in a city that was not always welcoming to them either. My family found strength and comfort in living in what was then the largest Jewish segment of town located near the Dryades Street commerce corridor. My great-grandfather was a barber and all of the family members lived together. Indeed, my grandfather's original drugstore was eventually located just two blocks away from Lee Circle, adjacent to the Jerusalem Temple of the Shriners.

Other than the biblical references to slavery, my family has endured nothing of the savagery of slavery, although it is probable they were persecuted as Jews to varying degrees in the series of pogroms that characterized life in Eastern Europe and the Russias. While my family has been the victim of anti-Semitism in this country, it no doubt falls far short of the organized pattern of discrimination and racism endured by African-Americans, many of whom died for taking their stands against the forces in power.

I am not insensitive to the feeling that runs through the African-American community when dealing with the issue of slavery and the glorification of the Old South.  Jews, too, have been targeted by rebel flag waving hate groups - some in white robes and some in custom-made suits - for a number of generations.

But I recognize that the principles of tolerance and understanding will not generate with the destruction of monuments or the renaming of buildings. The changes that we all seek for acceptance and equal opportunity will not come from without, but from within each of us. The power to forgive the shooter who was so full of hate came rapidly from the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in the face of inconsolable loss. That was the lesson of love that surmounted all of the death and destruction sought by the murderer.

It is an important issue to recognize that reminders of slavery and the War Between the States still exist today and that they still give rise to negative feelings for many of our citizens. However, it is just as important to recognize that even if we were to erase every Civil War vestige and reference or place them in mothballs via museums, we would still have to confront the larger question of how do
we accept each other without prejudice and hate in our hearts?

That will take soul searching, open discussions and, I am afraid, much more than enraged committees and wrecking balls.