Stop Whining––Not Everyone Can be Number One

The picture says it all and it’s just another confirmation of how far the Olympics have strayed from the ideals laid down by Pierre de Coubertin, who spearheaded the revival of the modern games in 1896: “The important thing is not to win, but to take part.”  The official goal of the Olympics is “…building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport….” Still another observer noted that the “true Olympic spirit” is “found in the purest sense in those that come last.”

You’d not infer any of this from the above picture. What we see is a group of young American women weeping because they finished second. Granted, it was a tough overtime loss and that sports can be emotionally draining, but Julie Chu was among the few who expressed any gratitude at all for the silver medal hanging from her neck. She hastened to add, “We wanted to win a gold medal. We've been working for that for four years.” Newspapers used descriptors such as “heartbreaking” and “slip-up” to explain the U.S. loss. The photos came on the heels of Ashley Wagner’s rant about the radical subjectivity of ice-skating judges and her pronouncement that had been “gypped.” She finished a mere sixth.

Excuse me if I’ve no tears for someone who has just been crowned the second best hockey team in the world, or the sixth best skater. What? It’s your birthright to be the best? Where’s the praise for Canada, which won and which has proved to be the best for four Olympics in a row? What’s wrong with being number two? Where’s the love for the Russian woman who skated to gold? If, at the end of my career, I were voted the second, or even sixth best history professor of my generation, I’d turn cartwheels. I’d do the same if I were mentioned as among the best––really. Anywhere in the top third and I’ll be delighted.

I don’t want to sound heartless about the hockey team. Everybody wants to win, but my overwhelming reaction is to recoil from the subtexts of nationalism and entitlement. The Olympics have turned me off for several years now, and not just because of the mawkish sentimentalism of television “profiles” of competitors––though most of these would make a rendering plant worker gag. It’s the damned medal counts that get to me. Is the USA winning the Olympics? Did the US hockey team win? Impossible! There aren’t supposed to be any winners and losers among nations, only individuals. And, as de Coubertin said, we’re supposed to celebrate taking part, not winning. Somehow or other the thrill of competition has given way to the joylessness of judgment.

There’s another thing that bugs me about all of this: entitlement. The saying that hard work will be rewarded is one of those proverbs that are simultaneously true and a lie. I see this all the time in teaching. Students flood my office when they receive a “C” on a paper. The ones I cherish are those that don’t assume they’ve been “gypped” and want to know how they can improve; the ones who bug me are the ones who tell me that such a grade is “impossible” given “how hard I worked.” I know my role: support, encourage, instruct. I also know what I wish someone (not me!) would say to the second student: “I believe that you did your best, but your best is a "C." Ditto here. 

I agree with those who say that it’s better to encourage than to discourage, but as a society, we’ve gone way overboard with the self-esteem stuff. The bumper stickers actually say that “Every child is a honored child,” but we’ve come to read “honored” as “honors” and that’s just not right. Maybe the U.S. women lost because the Canadians are better––there’s no shame in that, ladies. You worked really hard, but you're not the best. Take your "A-" and be happy. And to Ashley Wagner I say, “Get over it, girl. This is how the world works. Sometimes you get judged subjectively.” Is it fair? If you want fairness, join a monastery.

Of course, we all know the real subtext: commercialism. Gold yields gold in advanced capitalist economies. No one who finishes sixth gets put on the Wheaties box. That’s a shame. Anyone who is that close to the top of a profession ought to be honored, even if they’ve not won honors. Still, nobody is entitled to win, cash in, or swagger. Go ahead and feel “gypped” if you want to, but don’t waste your time waiting for a Metaphorical Mother to come by with the Kleenex box.Woman up and congratulation the Canadians.

PS--Later today the Canadian men beat the U.S. men by 1-0. Now the U.S. plays for a bronze. But who cares? These guys are all professionals and shouldn't be in the Olympics in the first place. If you doubt my remarks about nationalism, explain to me why there are NHL All-Stars in Olympic uniforms.


Labor Reform We Need

Hard to imagine, but activists and scholars used to argue whether government should guarantee worker rights, or whether unions should win these by wresting them from recalcitrant employees. Remember labor unions? For the near future at least, American workers are better off using their ballot box power than waiting for unions to revive. Here are some badly needed labor reforms:

·      Affordable Healthcare for all Employees: I surely don’t mean Obamacare; I mean healthcare for all. No exemptions and no exceptions. If an employer doesn’t have enough capital to pay into healthcare accounts, he doesn’t have enough to be in business and won’t be around long anyhow. Enough with the small business blues; down with Big Companies shirking their moral duty.

·      Mandatory Breaks: Ban the working lunch. Now! For blue, pink, and white collars. Workers need breaks and working lunches are just an excuse to squeeze blood from an already blanched turnip. Study after study shows that rested workers are more productive. Companies such as Google are even setting up nap-pods for short rest breaks. Some New Zealand employers require two 20-minute tea breaks and a lunch hour daily. They get more done that way.

·      Mandatory Vacations: Far too many employees yield their vacation rights out of fear of retaliation. This is immoral. Some refuse to take time off because they think they’re irreplaceable. They are fools headed for an early grave. The Big Bad Government should simply mandate that vacations must be taken and that employers must force the reluctant to take them.  

·      Salaried Employees Bill of Rights: This is so overdue I’m shocked that no one’s talking about it. Wagner Act rights largely preclude salaried employees, many of whom routinely work 60-80 hour workweeks. That’s ridiculous. Employers should be required to adhere to their job descriptions, and these should be in line with Wagner Act guidelines. Private business is grinding salaried employees like cheap sausages. What a deal! Hire someone for a seemingly nice salary of, say, $50k per year and then make him or her do the job of two or three people. If the job can’t be done on the clock, hire more help.

·      Job Protection Act: Globalization has become an excuse to slash wages and line investor pockets. Pass a law that forbids employers from closing a profitable business and moving it to East Desperado so they can get even cheaper labor. They can choose to go out of business altogether, but they must offer that firm to an employees/new investor consortium at market value and cannot operate a competing business for 10 years.

·      Offshore Taxation Reform: There may be no bigger tax rip-off in all the land as the one that allows employers to move businesses offshore, take tax write-offs, and then import goods back into the USA while paying taxes in the host country. Time for some tariff reform. How about taxing the percentage of goods that U.S. firms make offshore and re-import? If Brand X boogies off to Botswana to make t-shirts, but sells 80% of those shirts in the USA, tax that 80%. And while we’re at it, end the loopholes that allow employers to write off relocation costs in the first place.

·      Usury Reform: By what perverse logic are banks allowed to charge working people 18% interest on credit cards, dun them for every banking service they use, but pay under 1% when workers actually save money (which banks use for investments)? How about a law that says lenders cannot charge more than three times what they pay in checking/savings/IRA account interest? Think that’s too low? What investment can you or I make that gives a 300% yield?

·      Pay and Windfall Profits Caps: CEOs make, on average, 273 times as much as their employees. Oil firms have suspended the rules of supply and demand in favor of what the market will bear. Insurance firms, hospitals, and colleges have upped rates many times above the official inflation rate. Enough! Since when did “piracy” and “reasonable profit” become synonyms? We need a percentage cap between top and bottom salaries, as well as on profits. Salary caps seem to work in most sports, so let's slap one on CEOs and investors. Anything above goes into a special social fund for infrastructure improvement. In essence, you can get rich, but not as rich as Croesus.

·      A Living Wage: Why is there even a debate over this? There is no economic, social, or moral justification for fulltime workers living in poverty. None. Mention “trickle-down economics” and go to hell. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200,000.

Can this happen? We could vote it in if we don’t let ourselves be distracted by BS social issues, or be swayed by fork-tongued demagogues. I don’t just mean Tea Party whack jobs. I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat–if that person isn’t talking about substantive ways to improve the lot of working people (not the Business Community, which is doing very well, thank you), then that person should not get our votes. We do have choices, whether it’s the Green Party on the left, or protectionist advocates on the right. (Think I’m kidding about the latter? Patrick Buchanan cares about workers more than most Democrats.) Let’s vote ourselves some bread and roses come November, and not be swayed by fakirs promising kind hearts and coronets.


Shauna Burns Album More New Age than Celtic

Red Rock Music 7007
* * ½

I’m not sure if this is a bad album I like more than I should, or a really good one I like less than is warranted. Las Vegas-based singer Shauna Burns is often cited as a “Celtic folk rock” singer, but the out-of-fashion label “New Age” suits her best. She places her soprano in a mix of piano, harp, cello, guitar, and percussion akin to Celtic chanteuses such as Loreena McKennitt and Connie Dover, but with the moodiness of Tori Amos and the atmosphere-over-lyrics ethos of Enya. The album’s 14 songs are originals and there’s nothing particularly Celtic, folk, or rock about any of them. The songs that work well–the fragile “Orchid” and the understated “See Her Again”–do so because they are less orchestrated pieces and ring with honest emotion rather than enveloping us in a studio-enhanced aura. The album’s strongest track, “Portobello,” enchants because James Clark’s hand drums add a jumpy counter to the rain-like piano notes.

There are many beautiful soprano voices and Ms. Burns’ is among them. Alas, there are not many clear sopranos and she does not reside in that august company. The instrumental feel is lush and Burns simply can’t sing through, across, and above the mix like Loreena McKennitt. The songs are spiritual and mysterious, but you’ll experience this from the way the arrangements feel rather than the lyrics. (Good luck reading the latter, which are printed in 2-point cursive.) Like many of Enya’s projects, what we hear are vocalizations rather than vocals–impressionistic voice that creates soundscapes evocative of everywhere and nowhere. Violet is a lovely background album that impresses upon first listen, but like much New Age music, it doesn’t get better when we listen carefully. Don’t get me wrong; I like Enya and this album, but I have to be in the mood because mood is all they give us. Poetry? The universal human condition? These may be there, but there are too many layers and not enough articulation between delivery and reception. And there’s not an ounce of beat-down-boogie rock, so don't even look for it.  Violet is an album with a lot of shading, but not much color. --Rob Weir