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Category: Opinion & Reader Forum

Thoughts & Views: Mars? Tempting but focus on Earth first

After listening to President Obama’s most recent State of the (Dis) Union speech last Tuesday night, I couldn’t help thinking, I’d sure like to be Scott Kelly.

Just to remind you (since none of the TV commentators bothered to point this out), Kelly has been picked to become the first U.S. astronaut from NASA to spend a year in space – possibly a prep for a future voyage to Mars.

Remember NASA? That’s the National Aeronautics Space Administration, although you wouldn’t know that from a quick perusal of the NASA website. But I don’t blame them. Our space agency has lost much of its hype since our government forced it to reinvent itself after discontinuing funding of human flights beyond our atmosphere, although that could change soon.

But I digress.

Kelly will be blasting off in March, appropriately enough, the month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and for our man in space, it will be the very tip “top of the morning” when he goes on his way.

Ironically, as noted by the website space.com, Kelly “is scheduled to launch on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station” where “he and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will live and work on the orbiting outpost for one year.”

I wonder what Comrade Putin has to say about this. I certainly hope the leader of all the Russias (including Crimea) was at least consulted. Given the Kremlin’s expansionist policy, let’s hope that Putin doesn’t extend the Russian empire’s grasp to holding the Space Station – and the American within – hostage. Remember, the U.S. government’s policy is no ransom payments.

Despite the potential risk, I’d still trade places with Kelly because he’s in the forefront of what the President characterized in his address as being in a “race for the kind of discoveries that unleash new jobs … pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay (my emphasis).”

This means colonization, folks. No question about it.

Obama and his advisers are firm believers in global climate change and they know that the timeline for Planet Earth is rapidly winding down, thanks to out-of-control development, coupled with overpopulation and the widening of income inequality.

That’s why Obama is subtly reversing course – abandoning all pretense of developing a domestic policy once aimed at eradicating poverty and enhancing our quality of life – and turning now toward conquering the Final Frontier … Space.

Mars is now our Destination of Choice and I want to be part of the vanguard that will, undoubtedly, be re-shaping the Red Planet as our new home. I don’t know if I’ve got The Right Stuff to make it there but maybe, at the very least, I can become the First Journalist in Space.

Forget about “middle class economics” – how does not charging for community college do anything really to change the high dropout rate? The whole thing is just a smokescreen for the President’s real intent: to create the Great Space Society.

After all, you didn’t hear any mention of gun control, did you? Nothing about immigration reform or the willful emasculation of Frank-Dodd by bank lobbyists. He’s caved on everything – all the remedies for fixing the ills here on this planet.

I’m sure that the Koch brothers, Dick Cheney, Jamie Diamon and probably even Bill Clinton, have their reservations already secured for that expedition to Mars.

But, despite everything, I believe Bill and Melinda Gates will still be down here, giving it their all for this world.

Which, I suppose, is where all of us should be engaged, after all.

– Ron Leir 

CORRECTION

A story in the Jan. 13 issue of The Observer about a fire at Plaque Art Creations in Harrison incorrectly reported what the factory made. It has manufactured plaster moldings.

Today’s vocabulary lesson

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Ready for another column on the Great War? (I warned you I was fanatical about it.) This won’t deal with battles and strategy, however. It’s about the simple things. Like words.

World War I, I have discovered in my research, produced innumerable contributions to our vocabulary: words and phrases still in use today by people who (like me) have had no idea of their origin.

For example: Have you ever been so tired, you just conked out? If so, you were replicating a disabled aircraft.

“Conk” originated with the pilots of the U.S. Army Air Service (antecedent of the Air Force). It reportedly was the last sound the engines of the early bi-planes made before catastrophic failure.

If you did conk out, it would be nice to have done so in a cushy bed. “Cushy” arrived on the Western Front with British troops who had served in India and comes from an Urdu word, “kushi,” meaning “pleasant” or “easy-going.”

If not for WWI, there would be no souvenir shops in Times Square or down the Shore. Until then, such places sold keepsakes. “Souvenir” was the French word for remembrance, incorporated into the English language by the soldiers.

The enemy also broadened our vocabulary, with Allied troops adopting “ersatz,” the German term for “substitute,” and “kaput,” which means the same thing in both languages (although the Germans spelled it with two t’s).

“Chow,” meaning food, became common slang thanks to the British soldiers, who had gotten it from British sailors, supposedly after visiting Asia.

When you’re really getting down to business, you’re “digging in.” Which comes from the description of how all those WWI trenches were made.

And speaking of which, there is the still-popular trench coat, which offered excellent protection against the rain and mud. It made its debut in the British Army, but only officers were allowed to wear them. According to www.worldwar1.com, “The ranks just got wet.”

The ranks also had to deal with other “lousy” conditions. Literally. Lice infestation was inevitable in the trenches.

And haven’t you heard someone say, “That’s over the top”? Meaning “extreme.” “Over the top” referred to the troops climbing out of the trenches to advance toward the enemy across No Man’s Land.

“No Man’s Land,”I had always thought, originated in World War I. But I have since found two sources which state that the term was in use from the 14th century and described “waste ground between two kingdoms.” (I intend to do more research on that.)

And then, we have “doughboy,” which was the slang term for an American soldier. There are apparently innumerable theories as to its origin, and no clear consensus. You are welcome to do your own investigation. But please be aware, it has nothing to do with Pillsbury.

– Karen Zautyk

 If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, the Oxford English Dictionary has compiled “100 Words That Define The First World War,” accessible at http://oxford.ly/ww- 1word 

It only takes a cartoon

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In the aftermath of the massacre at the satiric French publication Charlie Hebdo and, subsequently, the attack at a kosher market, journalists from around the globe and Western government leaders have joined to condemn the actions by Islamic extremists.

But the ugly events have also sparked a debate about whether the French editorial staff’s work reflected freedom of expression or, as suggested by Michigan cartoonist Jacob Canfield, spreaders of “a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” By meaning to offend/shock, without regard for nuance or religious sensitivity, did Charlie overstep?

However you may interpret the publication’s intent, there can be no question that there is no justification for murder. The wonder is that a simple image reproduced for mass dissemination can stir so much hatred.

But it’s happened before – and not just in France.

Among the more noted cases is the assassination of Naji Salim al-Ali, a Palestinianborn cartoonist, who was shot in the head in London on July 22, 1987, and died some three weeks later. Critical of both Arab and Israeli leaders, Naji al-Ali spent some of his early years in refugee camps in Lebanon and created some 40,000 political cartoons.

Perhaps his most iconic was “Handala,” an image of a 10-year-old boy with his back to the viewer and his hands clapsed behind him, symbolizing the exile banished from his homeland. Later images depict a thin miserable man representing “the Palestinian as the defiant victim of Israeli oppression” and a fat man representing “the Arab regimes and Palestinian political leaders who led an easy life and engaged in political compromises,” as explained by Wikipedia.

It is suspected that Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, had advance knowledge of a plot, allegedly by Egypt, to kill the cartoonist but did nothing to prevent it.

New York Observer cartoonist R.J. Matson reminds us in a recent posting that, “In the 1970s, during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ [cartoonist] Hector Oesterheld enraged leaders of the military junta that ruled his country by depicting them as space aliens. He and his four daughters disappeared in 1976.”

New Zealander David Low, drawing cartoons for Britain’s Evening Standard during the 1930s, incurred Hitler’s wrath for his mocking images of Der Fuhrer leapfrogging over European ministers of “appeasement” and later criticized Churchill as well.

And, Matson notes, J. Edgar Hoover was so upset by a 1957 Mad magazine spoof of him that he sent two FBI agents to the magazine to warn the staff to cut it out. By the late ‘60s, however, Hoover had pitched the idea of creating cartoons to disrupt the left wing radicals.

But in the U.S. today, by and large, editorial cartoonists have gone the way of dinosaurs, points out L.A. Times cartoonist Ted Rall. They are regarded as a budget extravagance.

The reality, Rall says, is that, “Most … states have zero fulltime staff cartoonists. Many big states – California, New York, Texas, Illinois – have one. No American political magazine, on the left, center or right, has one. No American political website (Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Slate, Salon, etc.) employs a political cartoonist.”

And in those cases where such a creature does exist, they generally have to tread carefully, Rall and others say.

In the meantime, the craziness in the world continues unabated – as does the often senseless killing.

Sunday’s New York Times carried a story about an individual who had concealed an explosive while walking through a market in Maiduguri in northern Nigeria in a region known to be a Boko Haram hotbed.

The bomb detonated, killing its carrier – a 10-year-old girl – and 20 others, while injuring many more.

And so it goes.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: A lion among leaders

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In its editorial euology last Friday, my alma mater, the N.Y. Daily News, referred to Gov. Mario Cuomo as “the last lion of New York liberalism.”

An excellent description.

Those of you who know me, or think you do, might wonder then why his death left me feeling bereft.

It’s because, once in a great while, there appears a politician who transcends politics. And I have always been one to place more store in the character of the man, or woman, holding, or seeking, office than in the political platform the person espouses.

In other words, what I value most is honesty. Because in the political arena, that can be a rare commodity.

Mario Cuomo, whom I had the privilege of meeting more than once on a professional basis, was someone who inspired trust. He was genuine. Unlike the case with some others in government, who shall be nameless, you could sit in a conference room with him for a couple of hours, listen to him field myriad questions from journalists, and not once doubt the sincerity of what he said. Or suspect that his responses had been fed to him and memorized.

I may not have agreed with his stance on some issues, but I respected the person taking the stance.

Of course, there was also his eloquence. Mario Cuomo, who had the ability to hold his audience spellbound, was also the last (I fear) of the great orators.

I can remember exactly where I was when I heard his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. I was on the M101 Lexington Ave. bus heading south from 42nd St., listening to the coverage on my Walkman. And I was transfixed. The memory is that vivid.

Cuomo had the ability not only to use words, but to deliver them. There’s an echo of his voice and cadence in his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

Another side of the man I had the luck to witness was his quick-wittedness.

Every spring, the reporters covering the N.Y. state capitol, host the Legislative Correspondents Dinner. Unlike the White House Correspondents Dinner that is telecast on C-Span, the Albany event is more than a basic political roast. It is a show. With skits and musical numbers. All the pols are fair game for the journalists’ jibes, but none more so than the state’s chief executive.

The first time I attended, Mario Cuomo was governor, and I was at a table near his. Throughout the show, I could see him scribbling notes.

As is customary, the person who gets the last word at this event is the one who was prime target.

When it was Cuomo’s turn to answer his comedic critics, he delivered a monologue that would have put George Carlin to shame. Point-by-point (which explains those notes), he rebutted the slings and arrows that had been directed at him, and he had the audience laughing ‘til we cried. Literally. The man was a master of comedy. Who knew?

So, even though he had been out of the spotlight for some time, and even though he was a lion of liberalism, I shall miss him.

In that 1984 speech, challenging Ronald Reagan’s image of America, Cuomo said: “Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ . . . . There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit, in your shining city.”

I may not agree with everything in that speech, but I can appreciate the passion of his arguments. The elegance of his rebuttal.

Mario Cuomo had character.

And he had class. T

hese days, what passes for a rebuttal? “Sit down and shut up!”

– Karen Zautyk 

‘The Interview’: Why did they even bother?

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Having been exposed to all the hype over Sony Production Co.’s limited release of “The Interview,” I say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I guess in what passes for mass entertainment today, it makes perfect sense for two TV people to partner with the CIA to blow up the leader of North Korea, the country with which we’re still, technically, at war.

That’ll show him.

Not to mention President Obama egging on Sony not to “back down” from the hackers’ threat of doom that would allegedly befall any theater that dared to screen this “comedy.”

I guess nobody called in the Department of Homeland Security on this one.

Oh well, that’s show biz.

Unless, of course, there are “back channel” conversations going on between Dennis Rodman and Kim Jung-un on and off the basketball court that we aren’t privy to. (Now there’s a movie plot waiting to happen…. Like, maybe the reason the Dear Leader was seen limping around recently was because he tried to box out Dennis and got put down heavy on the hardwood???) Any of the above might’ve been a better call than seeing the Leader’s head go pop, especially a guy who’s got nukes at his beck and call, and especially in a film being given a Christmas Day release.

There’s nothing like a nasty romp with no redemptive qualities to sweeten the festive season, spread good will among nations. Right on, bro.

But hold on. Maybe I’m being unfair. After all, North Korea is a dictatorship, right? (The government, not the people.) Maybe they deserve to be slammed. A lot of American soldiers were killed in that conflict.

Back in March 1942, when we were busy fighting Germany in WWII, United Artists put out an Ernst Lubitsch film, “To Be or Not to Be,” an American comedy, featuring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and Robert Stack, about a troupe of Polish actors who outwit their Nazi occupiers, including Hitler.

Some movie critics of the period, including Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, attacked Lubitsch for, in their view, attempting to extract humor out of a grim war. Lubitsch responded that the Nazis’ bombing of Warsaw was depicted on the screen “in all seriousness.” As for making the Nazis out to be bumblers, Lubitsch said: “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology.”

I tried researching, with Google’s help, whether FDR or anyone in his administration had anything public to say about the film’s treatment of the war or Hitler or anything else but I was unsuccessful. Given how badly the war was going for the Allies at the time, I would guess that the President probably had his mind on other things – like whether the U.S. should’ve entered the war in the first place.

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino offered his take on World War II in 2009 with “Inglourious Basterds,” where, typically for Tarantino, violent killing of advocates for both sides is the name of the game. The film culminates in blowing up a movie theater with the German High Command, including Hitler, trapped inside. The movie won lots of awards but it did nothing for me except make me want to run out of the theater that was showing his movie. Look, I’m not calling for censorship of scripts that call for an assassination of any government leaders – alive or dead – but come on, why be so casual about it? It defeats the whole purpose, deflates the intended humor.

Doing the deed on “The Simpsons,” for example, where everyone gets zapped is one thing, I suppose, but to gratuitously blow up someone – even someone depicted as an obvious caricature – in a time where beheadings and suicide deaths have become the norm – makes no sense.

So would you please stop it. Please.

– Ron Leir 

WE’VE GOT MAIL

NEW YEAR’S GREETINGS FROM THE FIRST COUPLE

To the editor: 

On behalf of my wife Cathy and my entire family, I want to wish the residents of North Arlington a very happy and healthy New Year. I look forward to serving as your new mayor in 2015 and working with the Borough Council to bring you good, efficient government. My door is always open to anyone who has a concern, a complaint, or wants to share their ideas on how we can improve our community. May God bless all of you and our town and help guide us as we face the challenges of the new year.

Joseph and Cathy Bianchi 

North Arlington 

All was calm, all was bright

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In December 1914, the troops of the Allies and the Central Powers have been in combat for several months and had begun to be bogged down (sometimes literally — living in mud) in the trench warfare that was to characterize World War I’s Western Front.

Trench warfare was basically a stalemate. Wave after wave of soldiers would be sent “over the top” — climbing out of the trench and advancing toward the enemy line, only to be mowed down by machine gun and artillery fire. The casualty numbers were appalling. But this did not stop the commanding officers from ordering another charge. And another. And . . .

The stretch of ground between the opposing trenches was called No Man’s Land, and it was marked by barbed wire, shell holes and corpses. The dead might be left there indefinitely, since — depending on the fierceness of the combat — retrieving and burying the bodies was in itself a lethal task.

Sometimes, the trenches were so close — in one area, a mere 30 yards apart — the combatants could talk, or at least shout, to each other.

That first December of the war in the British sector, it had been raining for much of the month, but on Christmas Eve, there came a frost that for awhile coated with white the shell-pocked terrain and the forest of stumps that had once been trees. It was a white Christmas.

And a peaceful one. At least temporarily.

There are multitudinous, and varying, accounts of exactly what happened on Christmas Eve 1914. But all agree that there was a spontaneous truce along some parts of the British and German lines.

How it began is uncertain, too. But my favorite story is of British troops hearing the Germans singing Christmas carols, and then joining in. There is also a report of the Germans placing candles and small Christmas trees on the parapets of their trenches.

The foes began shouting greetings to each other.

Eventually, men from both sides ventured into No Man’s Land — this time, not in an attack, but hesitantly walking toward the enemy. Germans and British met in that desolation, and shook hands. More and more troops left the trenches to meet in the middle.

Amazingly, the truce lasted through Christmas Day. The soldiers exchanged gifts — chocolate, cigarettes, cake, souvenirs. They took photos together, sometimes posing in the caps or helmets of the enemy. Some kicked soccer balls around No Man’s Land.*

But many of the soldiers, from both sides, used the unofficial ceasefire for more solemn purposes, retrieving those aforementioned corpses, so they could be given proper burials.

The Christmas Truce was not universal. In other parts of the Western Front, even along British lines, fighting continued. And the High Command was not pleased with the ceasefire when they learned of it. Strict orders prohibiting future fraternization were promulgated.

Suffice it to say, despite all the friendliness and goodwill, the truce was a mere anomaly. It had to end. How it ended, in one part of the sector, was described by Capt. J.C. Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who wrote:

“At 8:30, I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the war was on again.”

That quote is from www.firstworldwar.com, which has an extensive account of the Christmas Truce — and a wealth of other Great War information, if you are interested in learning more. Which I hope at least some of you are.

– Karen Zautyk 

* Last week, in a soccer match in Aldershot, England, a British Army team defeated the Bundeswehr (German military) team, 1-0. The event was organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce. 

CORRECTION

A story published last week in The Observer misstated the school district where former Lyndhurst school administrator Nicholas Coffaro now serves as superintendent. It is North Haledon. The Observer regrets the error.

Home for the holidays

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With the holidays fast approaching, I know I speak for all my colleagues at The Observer when I wish all our faithful readers, subscribers and advertisers the very best of New Year greetings.

And, if we can manage to take a breather from frenzied, last-minute holiday shopping expeditions, let’s also consider those among us who are less fortunate, those who’ve fallen on hard times and are still struggling to stay afloat.

I’m thinking of the families in Kearny and elsewhere, doing all they can to meet obligations for basic necessities, whether it’s managing to keep a roof over their heads with monthly rent or mortgage and utility payments, medical bills, food and clothing.

But it’s certainly shelter that’s got to be at the top of the list because without that, you’ve got nothing. Living in a car, on the street or in an emergency shelter (assuming you can find one), you’re at the mercy of the elements or those who prey on others.

Homelessness can only lead to instability at best and degradation at worst. And if children are involved, the potential for harm is heightened even more.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nationwide advocacy group whose mission is to prevent homelessness, reports that, “In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.

“Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, and 362,163 are individuals. “

About 15% of the homeless population – 84,291 – are considered ‘chronically homeless’ individuals, and about 9% of homeless people – 49,933 – are veterans.”

These figures are based on “point-in-time counts,” which are conducted by volunteers in each community on a single night in January every other year. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development requires communities to submit the data to HUD to qualify for federal homeless assistance funding.

Obviously, a lot of people end up being homeless because they can’t afford the rents or property taxes being charged in their communities and there’s a lack of “affordable housing” where they live.

Here in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie – who could be in a position to dictate national housing policy by 2017 – hasn’t demonstrated much concern for helping the homeless in the Garden State. In fact, he has pushed for the dismantling of the N.J. Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) which had mandated that developers set aside a certain percentage of dwelling units to accommodate those with lower incomes or donate a one-time payment to a community’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Since 2010, when Christie issued an executive order to squash COAH, the council has been rendered impotent and enmeshed in litigation.

At the same time, the Christie administration has loosened building, zoning and environmental regulations to help expedite construction of big ticket housing developments, along with a smattering of some “affordable” projects for older folks.

Recent examples are the newly completed 15-unit Harrison Senior Residence and the senior citizen building with 137 apartments now under development in Belleville.

While the economy may be showing signs of recovery, the National Alliance points out that, “homelessness is often described as a ‘lagging indicator,’ meaning it takes time for economic and housing trends to impact trends in homelessness.”

National commentators note that while the percent of unemployed may have dropped in the last year, based on jobless claims filed, that may likely mask the fact that many people have simply given up looking for work and, therefore, remain uncounted.

While the Alliance acknowledges that the number of homeless counted fell from 633,782 to 610,042 between 2012 and 2013, does that offer much consolation to those still out there pounding the pavement?

I can reliably report, just by driving to and from Jersey City and Kearny, having seen more people begging along the road at the convergence of Rts. 7 and 1&9 in the past few years. Initially, I would see the same individual who would sleep under the overhead highway. Of late, however, I have seen increasing numbers – men and women – walking somberly and politely alongside cars stopped at the traffic light, hoping for a handout.

When I present an “offering,” it is invariably accepted with a humbling response of “God bless you!” and “Drive safe!” – a fitting greeting for any season. Even better are the words from Dickens’ creation, Tiny Tim, when he exclaims:

“God Bless Us, Everyone.”

– Ron Leir