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Category: Opinion & Reader Forum

Thoughts & Views: A Labor Day perspective

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On Sept. 1 the U.S. and Canada celebrated Labor Day as a tribute to the working men and women in each country.

Some communities around America mark the day with parades and speeches but, of late, it’s a holiday that’s been more honored in the breech than in the observance.

A brief review of how the holiday evolved might be useful, particularly in a time when the concept of a labor union is distasteful to many. In fact, 24 states – Michigan being the most recent – have passed so-called “right to work” laws as a vehicle to suppress unions.

There was a time – long before the digital age changed the political landscape – when many Americans – even young children – typically worked 12-hour days six or seven days a week in backbreaking, unsafe jobs in factories, mills and mines at bare survival pay.

If workers dared complain, they faced being summarily fired, with no recourse to an arbitrator, court or government agency.

Industrialists like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie ruled the roost and generally had the backing of federal policymakers to stand their ground against labor unrest.

But champions of oppressed labor like Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, Peter J. McGuire and Heywood Broun (founder of The Newspaper Guild) rose up to fight for the rights of working people, many being immigrants from Europe and other lands.

It wasn’t easy, by any means, especially when these early labor pioneers tended to be tarred as “Reds” by the U.S. establishment. In some cases, union leaders did declare themselves as socialists but, by and large, it was not a movement that took hold among American workers.

Organized labor took on the industrialists in several major battles that came to define the struggle between the American working class and the establishment:

In 1886, the Haymarket Riot resulted in the deaths of several Chicago police officers and workers.

There was the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 in which nine striking workers were killed by Pinkerton detectives at the Pittsburgh steel plant.

In 1894, tensions between railroad workers and the Pullman Co. over wage cuts and the firing of union leaders led to the Pullman Strike by members of the American Railway Union that shut down the nation’s trains west of Detroit. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent in troops to break the strike. Debs, who headed the union, ended up sentenced to six months in prison.

That same year, to conciliate the burgeoning labor movement, Cleveland declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a federal holiday and it has been celebrated as such since then.

Disclosure: During my tenure at The Jersey Journal, I served for several years as president of the local chapter of The Newspaper Guild and witnessed the transition from the old typesetting machines to computers that ushered out the International Typographical Union and its members who had the unenviable job of sitting at those infernal machines that fashioned pieces of hot lead into characters that ended up forming our stories onto the pages of the old JJ.

Before and during my tenure at the paper, for the men and women who labored in the JJ newsroom, the Guild – which came into its own after World War II – offered protection against arbitrary firing, decent wages and benefits, and a right to a pension, among other things.

Now, as a result of attrition, the union has been subsumed by the Guild’s New York Local and is struggling to stay afloat.

But I can say I’m proud to have been a union member and I believe, still, in the validity of the union movement to preserve the rights of workers everywhere.

– Ron Leir 

Thoughts & Views: Fanning the flames on social media

By now, you surely have heard of “The Ice Bucket Challenge” wherein people are videotaped pouring ice water over their heads in the name of charity. The stunt is raising awareness of, and donations for, the fight against ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But there is another “challenge” out there, performed in the name of abject stupidity. Or insanity. Or both. It’s known as “The Fire Challenge,” and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re probably an adult. If you are a parent or guardian, you damn well ought to learn about it, because it’s endangering your kids.

The best we can determine, the first “Fire Challenge” video was posted on YouTube back in April 2012. Today, there are multiple videos. And there have been multiple injuries but, amazingly, no deaths. Yet.

Last week, the N.J. Division of Fire Safety issued an alert to first responders in the Garden State. It reads as follows:

“A disturbing new trend is manifesting itself online on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube called ‘The Fire Challenge.’

“The fire challenge involves teenagers pouring an ignitable liquid . . . on their bare skin and igniting it while another teenager takes photos or video of the event. [We have deleted the type of liquid cited, although several kinds are used.]

“The photos and video are subsequently uploaded to the various social media sites for the world’s online community to watch and share. The imbecilic act is supposed to elicit laughter as onlookers and internet viewers watch the reaction from the person who is on fire. . . .

“Several news stories regarding the practice report that when young survivors are interviewed, most say they didn’t give much thought to the possibility of being injured or killed and they didn’t realize the fire would be so intense.

“Since many of these reported incidents involve the ignitable liquid being poured on the chest, emergency responders must be particularly aware of the potential for serious respiratory burns when treating victims, in addition to the obvious external burns.”

Repeat: Kids are pouring flammable liquids on themselves and setting themselves on fire. Repeat: Most say they didn’t give much thought to being injured or killed and didn’t realize the fire would be so intense.

Part of our still semi-sane brain wonders if the whole thing is not some sort of hoax. (The reported death of a teenager in Buffalo was apparently untrue. Apparently true was the Aug. 24 news story about a North Carolina mother arrested after filming her son performing the stunt.)

In the videos, the subject usually stands in a bathtub or shower stall, presumably so water to douse the flames is readily available. Except, when you’re going up in flames, it takes only a millisecond to be seriously burned.

In at least one video, a panicked youth, torso ablaze, runs from the bathroom into another room. How he didn’t set the house, as well as himself, on fire is not known.

If you are seeking some profound analysis of the Fire Challenge phenomenon, you won’t find it here. We are simply dumbstruck.

Perhaps the best summation about the warped mindsets behind all this is in a parody photo we saw online: A hospital patient, swathed in bandages head to toe, is holding a phone. The caption reads, “How many ‘likes’ did I get? #FireChallenge”.

- Karen Zautyk 

Thoughts and Views: Robin Williams: A final act

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The ability of someone to make us laugh, to make us forget the stress we have to deal with every day, is, I believe, highly enviable and enriching. Especially when the individual prompting our amusement can convey that humor in an inventive way, to make us see that so much in the world we perceive on the surface can be mined for infinite “readings.”

Among the more contemporary male practitioners of this art of improvisation are Mel Brooks, John Cleese, John Lithgow (when he’s not doing “King Lear”), Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone, Ricky Gervais … and Robin Williams.

Yes, that extraordinary actor who, at the drop of a hat, it seemed, could take us on a voyage of imagination capable of propelling us through a comic wormhole forever evolving into an as yet unknown realm.

Recall his “object transformation” exercise – prompted by his lifting a shawl from an audience member on a segment of “Inside the Actors Studio” with James Lipton – where he created, on the spot, multiple, distinct characters, using the shawl as a takeoff point.

(Disclosure: As a sometimes actor-in-learning, I find it hard to accept that this son of a Detroit auto executive had laser-like to the world of imagination – or powers of human observation – that he used to enhance the craft he so preciously embraced.)

But then many question whether Shakespeare – given his apparently humble background – had the special gift to write the Elizabethan verse ascribed to him.

Let us simply appreciate Williams for what he chose to share with us – and not just his amply endowed comic persona – but also the dark shadings he dredged out of his soul: There is the mysterious crime novelist in “Insomnia” and the lonely photo technician in “One Hour Photo” to explore.

Or have a look at his quiet, serious, humanitarian side as the dedicated but fragile neurologist in “Awakenings” and the spirited, generous teacher in “Dead Poets Society.”

Williams was only 63 when, according to authorities, he decided to ring down the curtain forever by hanging himself with a belt.

None of us can know the inner pain he must have been feeling that drove him to this sad end. He had struggled with addiction issues, depression and was reportedly showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

As such a keen observer of the world around him and so tuned in to the nuances of the human condition which he could play back for us at any time, Williams may have felt like one of Oliver Sacks’ unfortunate patients, doomed to an irreversible mental slide.

I have striking memories of how a now-deceased favorite aunt, who was a talented pianist and singer and who loved to perform at family functions, quickly declined and I can think of nothing more heart-rending than to see someone who has spent much of their life bringing joy to others being robbed of that gift, because of some type of chemical imbalance.

Perhaps Robin Williams, anticipating such a fate, chose an early exit out of a sense of hopelessness.

This time, though, he used a belt for another type of “object transformation”.

And now there will be no encore.

 – Ron Leir

Thoughts & Views: ‘Wretched writers welcome’

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The Bulwer-Lytton Contest winners for 2014 have been announced, and I feel compelled to share some of them with you. I have written about the contest before, but in case you have forgotten: Named for 19th-century British writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, it is “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” (That is not as easy as you might think.)

It was launched by the English Department of San Jose (Calif.) State University in 1982 and today attracts entries from across the globe. As usual, many of my top picks were Runners-Up or Dishonorable Mentions. So be it. I shall begin with the category closest to my heart: Read more »

Getting a leg (or ankle) up on crooked pols

It has been widely reported that the City of London is tackling hooliganism on the public streets triggered by repeated bouts of inebriation with a pilot program that compels offenders to wear an ankle tag that monitors their boozing.

The device is designed to measure the level of alcohol in the wearer’s perspiration every half hour and readings are transmitted to a base center for monitoring by a court officer.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was quoted as saying that, “Alcohol-fueled criminal behavior is a real scourge on our high streets, deterring law-abiding citizens from enjoying our great city, especially at night, placing massive strain on frontline services, while costing businesses and the taxpayer billions of pounds.”

This strategy has been applied, to a limited extent, on this side of the pond as well, though I’m unfamiliar with any research on how effective it has been in tamping down alcohol-induced misbehavior.

At any rate, as a form of public humiliation, an ankle bracelet rates pretty low on a scale of what passed for common forms of punishment meted out by Elizabethan-era authorities in not so Merry England and by our own Colonial forebears: branding (an early expression of public “advertising” of your crime with hot irons), nailing an offender’s ears to a wooden plank or even encasing a “scold” in an iron mask to silence her.

Not to mention public whippings, stocks and pillories for the types of crimes that might make even Tea Party members cringe. Or not.

Even today, our criminal justice system can still find ways to torture inmates through botched executions. Yes, in most instances, the person sentenced to death certainly merited the penalty for having committed heinous crimes but, in this country, there are constitutional restraints against “cruel and inhuman punishment.”

But I digress.

The notion of a very public reminder that points up the criminality of an elected official entrusted with the public’s welfare – and tax dollars – seems like an attractive alternative to sending the rascal out of the public eye for a prolonged period of time. It’s policy now in Pennsylvania that when a state legislator is found guilty of a crime, his or her official portrait on display in the capitol will be tagged with a “plaque” disclosing the nature of their unlawful activity.

That’s a reasonable move but, after all, how many folks – even in the Keystone State – are inclined to go out of their way to visit Harrisburg and see those plaques?

No, I think we need a much grander vision here – something guaranteed to keep Sen. Squirmy or Mayor Mendacity out in the public eye so we don’t forget what drove them to the abyss.

Otherwise, we end up with Buddy Cianci, the twice-convicted former mayor of Providence, R.I., who did time in prison for corruption charges, declaring on his radio show that he’s running for office again. After all, we can’t count on Buddy to recount his former misdeeds.

So, I have a small suggestion. Nothing makes the heart of your typical politician beat faster than when they’re out there giving a speech – or a filibuster – right?

Well, we should take the next public official found to have taken a bribe, misused campaign funds, steered a contract to a favored firm, or whatever, put them on a bus, and make scheduled stops in key cities to deliver a rousing stump speech to their former constituents, outlining the history of their missteps and asking forgiveness.

In a sense, it’s sort of like campaigning. They should feel right in their element.

Of course, they may well be heckled or pelted with trash by the crowds who turn out for this public penance but I guess that’s better than a turn in the stocks, right?

Oh, I forgot to mention, they should be wearing an ankle bracelet that will be programmed to electronically record their speech and take photos at each “campaign” stop to be transmitted back to their probation officer.

Now I realize all of this will require enormous public expense but the politicians themselves should be forced to foot the bill. Speech might be free, but there should be a price to pay for abusing the public trust.

– Ron Leir 

. . . and don’t call me Shirley

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A few weeks ago, I did a column on “essential” movie quotes, which was prompted by newfound awareness of a growing lack of cultural consciousness, especially among the younger generations.

My “oy vey” moment came when I realized a coworker had never heard of the film “Apocalypse Now,” much less the unforgettable line uttered by Robert Duvall:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

I printed a little quiz, but did not provide the answers, assuming that anyone interested enough would find out for themselves. However, not everyone has ready access to the Internet, even these days, and in any case readers have been requesting answers. So here they are, citing both the movies from which they came and the actors who spoke them:

• “What do you mean, I’m funny? … Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”: Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas”

• “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”: Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”

• “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender”: Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”

• “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”: Peter Finch in “Network”

• “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night”: Bette Davis in “All About Eve”

• “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”: Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”

• “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”: Richard Castellano in “The Godfather”

• “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”: Gary Cooper in “The Pride of the Yankees”

• “Snap out of it!”: Cher in “Moonstruck”

• “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”: Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver”

• “Round up the usual suspects.”: Claude Rains in “Casablanca”

• “The stuff that dreams are made of”: Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”

• “Say ‘hello’ to my little friend!”: Al Pacino in “Scarface”

• “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”: Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry”

• “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”: Robert Armstrong in “King Kong”

• “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”: Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

• “We rob banks.” : Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde”

• “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”: Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

• “The calla lilies are in bloom again.”: Katharine Hepburn in “Stage Door”

• “Attica! Attica!”: Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” I also cited “What a dump!”- – noting that no one recalls the movie, but you should know the actress. I have found that readers did recall both the movie, “Beyond the Forest,” and Bette Davis’ role.

My special thanks to Adele Koci of Nutley, who also knew that the co-stars were Joseph Cotten and David Brian. Thanks, too, to the anonymous gentleman caller who wanted to make sure I wasn’t confusing Davis with Elizabeth Taylor, who parodied “What a dump!” in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The headline on the column, “Go ahead, make my day,” was from Eastwood’s “Sudden Impact.”

In addition, scattered throughout the column were paraphrased quotes. How many of these did you catch?

• “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”: Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”

• “You can’t handle the truth!”: Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”

• “Life is like a box of chocolates”: Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump”

• “I’m walkin’ heah!”: Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy”

•”Houston, we have a problem.”: Hanks in “Apollo 13”)

• “Well, nobody’s perfect.”: Joe E. Brown in “Some Like It Hot” (It was the very last line in the film.)

• “ . . . liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”: Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”

As for, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” if you can’t ID that, you’re hopeless.

–Karen Zautyk 

Thoughts & Views: Check your freedom to fly at the gate

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Much has been made of civilian authorities abusing their statutory powers – and responsibilities to the constituencies they serve – by creating chaos at public transportation hubs.

We have heard the allegations about Gov. Chris Christie and his political associates allegedly seeking to disrupt local traffic flows on approaches to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, allegedly to zing the borough mayor for not endorsing the governor for re-election.

And, more recently, there were charges made by the police chief Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop is seeking to demote that the city’s chief executive had ordered him to have his officers make an excessive number of needless traffic stops on the approach to the Holland Tunnel, reportedly to irk the Port Authority whom the city is suing.

Assuming the charges in either or both instances are accurate, those pale in comparison to the reckless downing of the Malaysian jet over Ukraine and the killing of its 298 passengers and crew. Read more »

Thoughts & Views: The thin blue line

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When the news first broke Sunday morning that a Jersey City police officer had been killed in the line of duty, word was that he had been responding to an armed robbery at a Walgreens drugstore.

Later that day, at a press conference, matters were clarified. Yes, a robbery had been reported. But the “suspect” made no attempt to flee. He waited outside the store for police to respond to the 911 call. And when the first radio car pulled up, he put a bullet in Officer Melvin Santiago’s head.

This was the deliberate targeting of a cop. Just because he was a cop. This was cold-blooded murder.

The killer fired at another patrol car, but was taken down by police before he could wound, or slaughter, any other officers.

On Sunday, the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org) posted the following details:

“Police Officer Melvin Santiago was shot and killed at 4:09 a.m. when he and his partner responded to a robbery call at a 24-hour pharmacy on the corner of Communipaw Ave. and John F. Kennedy Blvd. Read more »

Thoughts & Views: We can all learn from the ‘write’ stuff

In its July 1 editions, The New York Times reported that, starting this month, the Associated Press would use computer automation to “report” about companies’ quarterly earnings.

The computer software company, furnished with data from a research source, will spew out stories “written with the tone, personality and variability of a human writer,” according to the company’s website, The Times noted.

So, we’ll get dry corporate cash reports delivered with a poet’s touch. Sounds intriguing. Read more »

Thoughts & Views: Two bullets, 10 million dead

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There was a seismic change to the world on June 28. Didn’t notice anything?

That’s okay. The change occurred 100 years ago, and back then the majority of people didn’t initially notice much either.

However, what happened that day launched a chain of events that would irrevocably transform nations, society and culture in ways then inconceivable and, even now, astonishing.

On June 28, 1914, on the streets of Sarajevo, a 19-yearold Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

(That’s Franz in the photo.) Read more »