Family stories: Mac and Mamoo

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

The house was within earshot of the railroad, and whenever we heard a train my grandfather would pull out his pocket watch and note whether it was on time. An old habit after working for the Illinois Central for 50 years.

My grandparents

My grandparents

Virgil Allan McClure went by “Mac” and I never heard anyone use his first name. He spent most of his career as railroad’s telegraph operator in Corinth, Mississippi. My grandfather had lied about his age when he went to work for the Illinois Central and never corrected the employee record. He was pleased with himself when he retired at age 64 instead of 65. Put one over on them.

His job as a telegraph operator was a step into the middle class for a farm kid from Kentucky. Mac taught Sunday school at the Baptist church and was a big wheel in the Masons. He served on the draft board and the housing authority.


Mamoo with her first great-grandson

My grandmother, Ethel Holderman McClure, was always known to me as Mamoo. She was tiny, gentle and always smiling. She, too, was active in church and Masonic activities. On a visit to Corinth many years later, a woman at the local history museum remembered her: “She inducted me into Eastern Star. Little bitty thing.”

Mac was taciturn and Mamoo was quiet, especially in her later years when she was hard of hearing but too vain to wear a hearing aid.

My grandfather was notoriously frugal, a trait my father inherited. He once decided to make some extra money raising and selling chickens, and bought at least 100 day-old baby chicks. Unfortunately, many others had the same idea and the chicken market collapsed. Since selling the chickens would be a losing proposition, my grandfather decided the family would eat them. Mamoo tried every known chicken recipe for breakfast, lunch and dinner for months, and my father disliked chicken until his dying day.

1967: four generations

1967: four generations

Mac and Mamoo visited us in Chicago occasionally because they rode the Illinois Central for free. On one visit my folks took us to Chinatown and introduced my grandparents to Chinese food. My grandfather loved the food and, best of all, it was cheap! On every visit thereafter, Mac took us all to Chinatown for dinner.

Mac was a creature of habit and went to bed every night on the stroke of 9 p.m. Guests who overstayed their welcome got the hint when he would stand up, announce that he was going to bed and leave the room.

In all the years I knew him my grandfather had only two cars, a 1940’s-vintage Ford and a 1953 Chevrolet. Whoever bought the Chevy after he passed away in 1973 probably got a good deal: Since Mac only drove to church and around town, the car was in mint condition with less than 20,000 miles. On one visit, my teenaged brother borrowed the car and quickly came back to report that the Chevy had no brakes. My grandfather had never noticed because he drove at a sedate 15 mph and coasted to a stop.

I credit my grandfather with some of the robust genes that allow me to stay active. After my grandmother died in 1968, Mac lived on his own until he passed away at the age of 89. In his later years he used a cane but occasionally walked off without it. We once found the cane hanging from a tree in the backyard.

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Family Stories: Corinth

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

The house is still there, at 1421 Bunch Street in Corinth, Mississippi. (I found it on Google Street View.) One story, painted white, modest yet gracious with a wide front porch, set back from the street on a slight rise with a concrete-block retaining bunch-stwall along the sidewalk. The big oak trees my grandfather planted are gone and the house shows its century of age, but it’s pretty much as I remember it.

I’m not sure if my grandfather actually built the house, but I was told he finished the interior walls with beaverboard. It was a step up from the farmhouse in Kentucky he left when he was in his teens.

My grandfather (left) at work

My grandfather (left) at work

Virgil Allan McClure spent a long career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railroad. He married my grandmother, Ethel Holderman, in 1910 in Covington, Tennessee, and my father, Marvin Allan, was born there in 1911. The family moved to Corinth by 1913.

Corinth, in the northeast corner of Mississippi, is a railroad crossroads that attracted a Civil War battle in 1862 and my grandfather half a century later. My father dug minie balls out of the old fortifications as a kid, and was one of the Boy Scouts who helped elderly Confederate veterans during the annual parade. Outside the county courthouse, generations of old men sat on a park bench next to the Confederate monument and whittled pieces of wood (not to make anything, just whittle to pass the time). The town’s population was more than 5,000 when my grandparents moved there and is around 15,000 today.

Whittling by the courthouse

Whittling by the courthouse

Tornadoes used to be a problem there. Some of the neighbors had dug storm shelters in their yards. My father claimed a tornado once tore off roofs in the neighborhood and turned a nearby house sideways on its foundation.

According to my father, every so often a visitor to Corinth would stop by the post office and ask if they’d received any letters from Paul lately. People got the joke because practically everyone attended church. My grandparents attended the Baptist church, largest church in town. My grandfather was a big shot in the Masons and my grandmother was a leader in the Masonic Eastern Star.

My father went by Allan and never used his first name. The family had a Negro housekeeper (as most middle-class families probably did) and as a toddler my father thought the dark-skinned woman was his mother. He was a big kid, recruited for the high school football team when he was in eighth grade. He had a younger brother, Jimmy (after whom I am named), who died of appendicitis in his teens.

My father graduated from Corinth High School in 1930, where he was senior class president and participated in the typewriting club, theater and the Masonic DeMolay organization. After high school he knocked around, because his graduation would have coincided with the beginning of the Depression. He told stories about running moonshine in a Model T Ford to a friend who was attending the University of Mississippi in Oxford. And an improbable story about meeting a young William Faulkner in an Oxford drugstore, getting drunk on moonshine and shooting rifles in the backyard.

He got involved in labor organizing, probably through working in the textile plants that were industrializing the South. He told of attending a camp for union organizers that he later realized was run by Communists. My father probably was involved in a series of textile workers’ strikes in Alabama in 1934 and said he landed in jail briefly for union agitation.

At some point he got interested in music and singing. And in the late 1930s my father went to Chicago on a scholarship to study opera.

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Family stories: The Gasperik Grandparents

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

My grandfather spent a night in jail once.


Grandpa in 1903

Joseph Gasperik was a butcher, sausage maker and businessman on Chicago’s South Side. He also had a quick temper and got into business disputes. One business disagreement wound up in court, and when the judge ruled against him Grandpa lost his temper and called the judge a “grafter” among other things. The judge promptly clapped him in jail for contempt of court.

My grandmother initially wanted to bail him out. But another relative said: “Leave him in jail to teach him a lesson.” My grandmother quickly agreed. Whether the experience made Grandpa a kinder, gentler person is debatable.

I just heard another story that my grandfather took his sister-in-law, Mary Nemeth, to court and accused her of going after him with a knife. The judge dismissed the case when he noted that my grandfather was very large and Great-Aunt Mary was less than five feet tall. No one ever suggested that she had not threatened him with a knife (and he probably had it coming).

One of his principal rivals in the Burnside neighborhood was a better-connected businessman named DeHaan. Years later, when I was a freshman at Northwestern University, one of the guys in my dorm was named DeHaan and turned out to be a scion of the same family. We got along just fine.

Grandpa was loyal to the old country and blamed President Woodrow Wilson for the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Whenever he was reminded of this, he would pound his fist on the table, shout “Voodrow Veelson” and curse in a couple of languages.

He was a man of property and would-be tycoon. In his old age, when my parents would drive him around the city, Grandpa would point out a substantial commercial building and say: “I could have bought that property in 1925.” When asked why he didn’t buy it, he would say that it was too expensive, or didn’t think it was a good investment. When he passed away the only property he owned was a few acres of vacant land in the suburb of New Lenox, which is developed today but was practically off the grid in the 1950s.

In his old age Grandpa would drop by our apartment on the West Side, often bringing us some sort of toy (which he had found in some alley, my mother said). He lived alone in the old neighborhood, in an eccentric basement apartment with a ladder through a trap door to his bedroom.


Grandma in the 1960s

My grandfather’s funeral in 1954 was at the Hungarian funeral home in Burnside. It featured dirge-like Hungarian hymns in a minor key. There also were professional mourners, women who would show up and cry whether or not they knew the deceased. Those Burnside Hungarians did grief up right.

My grandmother, Julia Nemeth Gasperik Kristof, grew up in Hungary but her parents settled on a farm just outside Chicago near 127th St. and Cicero Ave. Today the Tri-State Tollway occupies most of that site. My mother used to talk about spending time at her grandmother’s farm.

I did not know my grandmother well because she lived with my uncle and aunt in California when I was growing up and I did not see her often. She and my mother apparently got along better when they were in different time zones. Whenever they were together they mostly argued. My grandmother was hard of hearing, and often turned her hearing aid off because she enjoyed talking more than listening.

She wore her long, auburn hair in braids on top of her head. “Our family doesn’t get grey hair,” I was told. When someone asked if she had her own teeth, Grandma assured them she did. “Of course they’re mine,” she remarked later. “I paid for them.”

My grandmother was the source of much of the culinary heritage that my mother passed along. According to my mother, the only way to make strudel properly was to get three generations of women stretching dough paper-thin across a large dining table. When Grandma came to visit my mother made a special effort to capture the family recipes that had never been written down. She would watch my grandmother preparing something, and would grab her hand to measure the pinch, dab or smidgen of each ingredient.

Grandma came back to Chicago to live with my folks a year or two before she passed away in 1973. By that time the old funeral home in Burnside was closed and the professional mourners were long gone. We held a quiet funeral in Oak Park… not very Hungarian.

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Why classified information is a big deal

It’s been amusing to watch the news coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email woes and apparent lack of understanding of government rules for handling classified information. Especially when politicians and media pundits say it’s not a big deal.

Classified information was a big deal when I was in the Navy, especially when I was assigned to a joint-forces nuclear weapons headquarters in Albuquerque at the height of the Cold War. I needed to show a special pass to get into the building where I worked even though all the guards knew me. Everyone, including the janitor, had a top-secret security clearance.

topsecretVirtually every piece of paper in the office (even the typewriter ribbons) went into a safe at the end of the day whether it was marked classified or not. Safe combinations were memorized and could not be written down. Every safe had a signup sheet that had to be signed by the person who locked it at quitting time and countersigned by a second person who verified that it was locked. A signup sheet at the door certified and verified that every desk and wastebasket in the room had been checked for classified material. One of my chores was to perform a final security check on the admiral’s office after the boss had left for the day, including opening every drawer of the admiral’s desk.

Everybody was security-conscious because there were consequences. Every night the security force checked the safes and signup sheets, and periodic surprise inspections combed the offices for violations. A serious violation (such as leaving documents out or jotting down a safe combination on a desk calendar) meant losing your security clearance at a minimum, and a quick transfer to, say, the supply depot in Guam.

We knew what to safeguard because we had clear guidance on what information was classified. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s claim that that a document was classified only if it bore specific markings misses the point. Even as a green junior officer I had the tools needed to perform security reviews as part of my job. With enough confidence to walk into my boss’ office once and tell him: “We can’t say this, colonel, it’s classified.” Apparently nobody at the State Department said that to the Secretary of State.

Even with a security clearance, access to information was further limited by a need to know. I did not know specifically what my friends in other departments were doing, and we were careful not to talk shop when we were out on the town. When people asked us what the Navy was doing in Albuquerque we couldn’t tell them, so we made up stories about a subterranean channel under the Rio Grande and a secret submarine base.

Classified information was equally serious aboard ship. Radio codebooks were kept in a safe in weighted bags – to be thrown overboard if the ship faced imminent capture. When one of my roommates needed to read one of the secret intelligence publications in my custody he had to sign for it. Ships’ schedules were technically classified even though the bar hostesses outside our base in Japan seemed to know more than we did.

Classified information is still a big deal for the federal government. Most of the time, anyway. Last year a Naval Reservist was sentenced to probation and a fine for putting classified information on a personal electronic device. And General David Petraeus was convicted for sharing classified notebooks with his biographer/mistress (even though she was a military officer with a security clearance).

So while Hillary Clinton’s disregard of security requirements is no big deal for Democrats, I suspect folks who have actually worked with classified information (unlike media folks and pundits) take the issue a little more seriously.

However, I don’t think a Clinton presidency will put state secrets at risk. Her painstaking effort to hide the Clinton Foundation’s influence on the State Department makes Richard Nixon look like a rank amateur. So Hillary Clinton has the potential to to be the most security-conscious president in history. And there’s a bonus: Her eventual presidential library will be really small – without a shred of evidence.

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Family stories: Burnside

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

In the 1890s the newest immigrants to arrive in Chicago – Hungarians, Italians, Ukrainians and Poles — settled on the Southeast Side because that’s where the factories were. Thousands were employed at the Illinois Central Railroad repair shops, the Pullman Car Works and others. The neighborhood where they lived was called Burnside because a nearby railroad station was named for a Civil War general.

l-r: Uncle Frank Nemeth, Elmer Novak and my grandmother

l-r: Uncle Frank Nemeth, Elmer Novak and my grandmother

They made good money and worked up an appetite, those factory guys, and some of their groceries came from my grandfather. Joseph (Jozsef) Hajdu Gasperik trained in Hungary as a butcher and sausage maker, and arrived in Chicago around the turn of the century.

His shop was at 9349-51 S. Cottage Grove Avenue. He arrived in the U.S. in 1903 and married my grandmother, Julia Nemeth, in 1904. The family lived over the store. My mother, Vilma, youngest of three children, was born in 1916.

The Gasperiks in 1910 with sons Frank and Joe

The Gasperiks in 1910 with sons Frank and Joe

The family prospered: My grandfather owned rental property and an automobile. They spoke Hungarian at home, and my mother did not learn English until she started school. Although most Hungarians were Catholic, the Gasperiks attended a Hungarian Reformed church. (My mother told me she was christened Wilhelmina because the minister did not believe Vilma was a proper Hungarian name.)

The Hungarian community in Chicago stayed fairly small: not for lack of immigrants, but because Hungarians assimilated quickly and were more inclined to intermarry with other ethnic groups than did the Italians, Poles and Lithuanians. So the Hungarian community in Burnside that thrived in my mother’s childhood is largely a memory today.

And they had a car around 1910.

And they had a car around 1910.

My mother’s oldest brother, Joe, was 13 years older. She was closest to her brother Frank, who was seven years older but died when he was 18. There were relatives nearby, Gasperik and Nemeth cousins whose families had migrated to Chicago.

And there was drama: My grandparents divorced at some point and my grandmother remarried in 1935. Her second husband, John Kristof, died three years later. The store on Cottage Grove Avenue was a casualty of the Depression, and brother Joe married and moved to California. My mother graduated from Fenger High School.

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The old stories

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff, and that’s fine with me.

My daughter the semi-famous author is researching her mother’s family history. It’s a rich heritage: My wife’s paternal grandfather was a science-fiction writer in the 1940s, and there are boxes of letters, journals and newspaper clippings spanning several generations. It’s fascinating stuff and I hope she makes a book out of it.

My side of the family didn’t leave much of a paper trail. My paternal grandfather only made it through the third grade, and my mother’s folks spoke English in bits and pieces. So my family history is a series of passed-down stories that undoubtedly evolved in the telling.

As the story goes, my father’s ancestors originated in Scotland as part of Clan McLeod. (I have a necktie in the McLeod tartan.) The British moved a bunch of Scots to Ireland beginning in 1610, in the hope that Scots Calvinists would counterbalance the troublesome Irish Catholics. But the Scots were just as unmanageable as the Irish and some made their way to America in the 1700s. There are lots of McClures, and some consider themselves Irish because their ancestors stayed in Ireland for another century or so.

English gentry had already settled the American coast, so the arriving Scots-Irish headed for the hills and pushed the frontier through western Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and so on. Jim Webb’s book Born Fighting traces this Celtic diaspora and his account matches the stories I’ve heard. Including the debatable one that my ancestors came over the mountains with Daniel Boone.

I’ve begun doing some research on that supports this overall narrative. So far I’ve found a Thomas McClure who was born in Ireland and died in Kentucky, Samuel McClure who served in the War of 1812, Mathew McClure and my great-grandfather, Winfrey McClure.

My grandfather, Virgil Allan McClure, was born in Kentucky in 1884 and grew up on a farm in Sherburne. There’s a photo of my grandfather, his parents and five siblings, in their Sunday best outside a white farmhouse. He spent his career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railroad and married my grandmother, Ethel Holderman, in Covington, TN, in 1910. My grandmother was born in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, on the Ohio River (where there actually is a cave but I’m certain Grandmother never lived in it). They moved to Corinth, Mississippi a few years later.

Meanwhile, my mother’s parents emigrated from Hungary around 1900 in the second wave of Hungarian immigrants. The first significant immigration from Hungary followed an unsuccessful revolution against the Austrian Empire in 1848-49. My grandparents were in a larger group of Hungarians who were economic migrants between 1890 and World War I.

My grandfather, Joseph Gasperik, hailed from Budapest and was born in 1874. My grandmother, Julia Nemeth, was born in 1885 in Oroshaza. Unlike the laborers and peasants who made up most of the Hungarians who came to the U.S. during that period, Grandfather was a middle-class tradesman. He was a butcher and sausage maker (and won a prize for it in Europe). I have a photo of the shop he opened on the South Side of Chicago (meat market, cigars, fancy groceries, the sign says) with several people posed in front with white aprons.

My parents met when my father came to Chicago in the 1930s on a scholarship to study opera. But that’s another story.

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Watching the media hissy-fit

Media-watchers and pundits have been debating liberal bias in the news media for decades. Now the debate is over. The national media are in full empire-strikes-back, hissy-fit mode in an increasingly hysterical campaign to not merely cover Donald Trump, but destroy his candidacy completely. They’re getting lots of help from Trump himself, of course, and the result may be mutual self-immolation.

Cue the hand-wringing. Is this the end of objective journalism? Maybe. So what?

The idea that journalists ought to report events with fairness, balance and accuracy did not occur to American newspapers until late in the 19th Century. Early American papers were political weapons, short on facts and long on opinion. Politicians used pen names to attack their rivals anonymously, though most readers figured out that “Phocion” was Alexander Hamilton exposing Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a slave.

It got worse. In the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson was accused of murder and cannibalism. His wife was accused of bigamy and died soon afterward. Donald and Melania are getting off easy by comparison. So when today’s media echo-chamber the Democratic meme that Trump is temperamentally unfit and dangerous, it’s worth noting that America has seen worse.  And survived.

I pay attention to this stuff because I graduated from journalism school, worked briefly as a reporter and spent much of my public relations career fencing with the media. When I started out in the 1960s, the journalism profession had been working for more than half a century to establish credibility and erase the stain of Yellow Journalism.

So I was schooled in rigorous objectivity: Cover both sides, check facts, get the quotes right. Chicago’s legendary City New Bureau made it a slogan: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. But fairness and balance are not easy to achieve because covering the news requires a cascade of subjective decisions. If you go into journalism with a sense of moral mission, you may unconsciously slant a story. I did that myself a time or two.

Objective journalism still thrives at the local level, but has been eroding in the national media since Walter Cronkite decided the Vietnam War in 1968. News outlets are covering more complex issues with fewer resources, have substituted analysis and commentary for reporting, and are more easily manipulated by institutional media wranglers.

We’ve long accepted that the TV networks and national newspapers such as the New York Times are biased in favor of the Democrats (which has been a bonanza for Fox News). We saw a dramatic increase in this perception during the 2008 presidential campaign, when 70% of voters believed the news media wanted Barack Obama to win. Still, media bias has been expressed largely in commentary and editorial decisions to slant coverage while maintaining the appearance of objectivity. Until now.

What’s changed is that the “mainstream” national media now are weaponized as a component of the Democratic presidential campaign, with opinion fully integrated into news coverage. I find this disappointing – hard to forget all those journalism classes – but see no threat to American democracy. If anything, ripping off the cloak of objectivity will help voters better evaluate what they’re seeing and hearing.

In April, before the anti-Trump media jihad began, only six percent of Americans said they had a lot of confidence in the news media: roughly the same disrepute as Congress. Most folks no longer rely on traditional news outlets to stay informed, but use social media instead. That means many voters won’t notice the media attacks on Trump, and those who do are unlikely to believe them.

Most important, the proliferation of Internet news outlets and independent investigative reporters means the news media no longer are information gatekeepers. If the NBC Nightly News refuses to cover the Clinton Foundation scandal, we’ll get the story from the Daily Caller, the Drudge Report and perhaps Wikileaks. Fox News will get even higher ratings.

As I said, we’ve seen this before. Media mudslinging did not stop Andrew Jackson from winning the presidency in 1828 and is not likely to make much difference this year. So there’s no way the New York Times can defeat Donald Trump. He’ll have to do that himself.

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Where’s Ellis Island when we need it?

The immigration issue in this year’s presidential campaign boils down to two extremes: “Build a wall” and “let everybody in.” I keep thinking of the Casey Stengel quote: Can’t anybody here play this game?

The United States used to be good at the immigration game. For most of our history, we had a national consensus that (a) We need immigrants to strengthen our country; and (b) We decide who gets in.

By the time my grandparents arrived from Hungary in the early 1900s, immigrants went through a well-organized screening at places like Ellis Island. Our government was fussy: Only those who were healthy and able to support themselves were allowed into the country. Those who were not admitted (including unaccompanied children) went back across the pond immediately without lawyers or immigration hearings. The feds also tried to screen out Anarchists (that era’s terrorists) with no more success than the Europeans are having in stopping jihadists.

We still need immigrants to avoid the aging-population problems of Europe and Japan. But at a time when a labor surplus and job shortage have depressed wages for unskilled workers, adding millions of mostly unskilled immigrants to the workforce may not be the path to prosperity. We also have forfeited the ability to control who gets into the country and stays here. Whether or not we deport criminals or give my cleaning lady a path to citizenship is irrelevant so long as immigrants continue to cross the border illegally or overstay their visas without consequences.

Some countries manage immigration the way we used to. Canada matches immigrants to workforce needs and gives preference to skilled workers. So Democrats who threaten to emigrate if Donald Trump is elected may not get in. We can do something similar by re-thinking our approach to immigration, regaining control over our borders and setting up some sort of virtual Ellis Island to welcome immigrants who will build the economy.

The immigration issue nobody is talking about is assimilation. European multiculturalism has invited migrants to bring their traditions and cultures with them but has not assimilated them as full-fledged citizens. The result has been multi-generational Muslim ghettos and Sharia-law enclaves that have produced terrorists rather than hyphenated Frenchmen and Belgians.

The United States, by contrast, has been good at assimilating immigrants. Ethnic identity and culture run deep in places like my hometown of Chicago, but the Americanized kids and grandkids of immigrants intermarry with other ethnic groups. Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day and Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.

So when we bring in refugees from the Middle East – and we should – we need to leverage our national expertise in assimilation. Security screening and delegating resettlement to nonprofit agencies are not enough: We’re seeing ISIS recruiting in a few immigrant enclaves in the U.S. such as Somali communities in Minnesota, and that should be a wake-up call.

Instead of dumping refugees on unwilling communities, the feds need to partner with state and local governments to provide a path to assimilation. That means resources for schools, social services, and a bunch of Syrian-American community workers to help immigrants get settled and join our society. We especially need to educate refugees in American customs and enforce our laws to avoid the kind of migrant rape crisis Germany is experiencing.

We’ve done this before. After the Vietnam War, around a million refugees from Southeast Asia passed through refugee camps that gave them a crash course in American customs, job skills and the English language.

There’s a national-security aspect to assimilation, too. No amount of security vetting, much less a ban on Muslims, will stop the occasional terrorist – any more than the Ellis Island screening prevented an anarchist from assassinating President McKinley. Assimilating refugees rapidly will reduce the appeal of ISIS, and establishing strong community connections will make it easier to root out the inevitable terrorists.

Deciding which immigrants to admit is only the first step. We also need a broader process to smooth the transition from immigrant to hyphenated American.

So far, I’m not seeing thoughtful solutions from either party. The Democrats still favor open borders to bring in new Democrats, and I’m not voting for Trump unless he promises to deport Justin Bieber.

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It’s the economy, stupid

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention got lots of criticism for presenting what was described as a “dark” view of the state of the nation. Trump struck a nerve on the economy (among other things) because he contradicted a widely accepted narrative that President Obama got us out of the recession and restored prosperity.

That’s what I might believe if I didn’t read business publications or check my financial statements. Trump presented the “plain facts that have been edited out of your nightly news.” Some of those facts were exaggerated, in typical Trumpian fashion, but most were not.

TV newscasts report the unemployment rate and numbers of jobs created without context. They rarely mention the low workforce participation rate, drop in family income, record numbers of business closures or shockingly low GDP growth. Trump’s speech provoked a reaction because, as he noted, it may have been the first time many viewers heard these facts on prime-time television.

The Potemkin-village media reporting is a symptom of economic divide. National media parrot government economic reports because (in addition to their customary liberal bias and superficial reporting) it’s the reality they see in New York and Washington. The economy has enriched the financial and government operatives with whom the media elite socialize and intermarry.

In addition to media reports, a well-organized social media campaign has been cheerleading for the Obama administration for years. Nearly every day somebody on Facebook posts a canned message with cherry-picked statistics that credit Obama with everything from record job creation to, incredibly, lower gas prices (because of his support for fracking, no doubt). So low-information voters get a steady flow of economic joy from all directions.

The message resonates with the Democratic base because the economy does work for some folks. Government employees, who now outnumber manufacturing workers, have been mostly exempt from the recession. Their job security and benefits are virtually guaranteed, they are not subject to Obamacare and much of the 2009 federal stimulus “created or saved” government jobs.

The perception of economic health also matches the reality of institutions that benefit from government subsidies such as academia, labor unions, film studios and politically favored companies such as Tesla.

Ordinary voters disagree, however. The Gallup Poll indicates that 61% of Americans believe the economy is getting worse. Gallup’s analysis of economic data points to a serious decline for small business. And polls consistently rank the economy as a leading campaign issue.

The disconnect between what people hear and what they experience fuels the claim by both Trump and Bernie Sanders that the system is rigged.

So we can expect the Democratic convention to blow a lot of sunshine. We’ll hear ecstatic reports that the unemployment rate is lower than ever (if you don’t count the underemployed and those who have left the labor force). We’ll hear that the economy added 14.4 million jobs but not that the working-age population grew by 15.8 million. And we’ll hear that the economy is stronger than ever, but not that GDP growth has been revised downward and that the Federal Reserve still believes the economy is too weak to raise interest rates.

All of which proves, they will say, that Trump is telling lies to scare people about the economy. It’s the logical Democratic defense against the potent campaign tactic pioneered by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”


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Self-driving cars and Darwin

Self-driving cars are in the news these days as the technology starts to gel and businesses begin to make strategic investments.

self-drivingCarIt’s certainly an exciting breakthrough. Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce traffic jams and use the road system more efficiently. That could make an immediate difference in my neighborhood, where many drivers have trouble navigating a roundabout and are unclear on the concept of the four-way stop.

Self-driving cars could make a dramatic improvement in public safety by preventing many traffic accidents. Drunk driving could become a thing of the past, and senility would no longer limit mobility for senior citizens.

I have only one quibble. Driving motor vehicles is an opportunity for the least intelligent and most foolhardy members of our species to improve the gene pool by removing themselves from it. I’m a big fan of the Darwin Awards. Self-driving cars will allow the worst drivers to survive and reproduce. This may not be a good thing.

Darwin’s natural selection does not work in my adopted home state of New Mexico because motorists rarely encounter traffic. Our sparsely populated hinterland is safe for inept, inattentive and inebriated drivers who would never survive a big-city freeway. Bad driving may be genetic here, with entire families who have not used a turn signal in generations. That may be why my auto insurance rates went up when I moved from Chicago to Albuquerque.

JaywalkingI have similar reservations about jaywalking laws. In the city neighborhood where I grew up, jaywalking was part of our heritage. Our mothers taught us to look both ways when crossing streets or playing in the traffic, and children grew up agile and smart.

I once attended a conference in Seattle, which has particularly strict jaywalking laws. When I walked back to my hotel late at night, the streets were deserted with hardly a car in sight. Yet lonely groups of pedestrians were dutifully waiting at the curb for the traffic light to change. They gave me incredulous looks as I confidently strode across the empty streets. It was eerie.

I guess it’s compassionate to help people who do not have the sense to look both ways. But do we really want people who can’t cross a street to populate the next generation (or the next election)?

So I worry a little about the impact of self-driving cars and jaywalking laws, but the human race probably will continue to evolve. After all, we still have motorcycles.

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