Monday, March 29, 2004

1776: That's Not The Spirit


"1776" is the greatest historical musical Broadway ever produced. It brings to life the patriots of the Continental Congress, who struggled to kick-start this country's freedom and write the Declaration of Independence.

The movie version should be televised every July 4th to celebrate the birthday of this free nation. It should be mandatory viewing in every school social studies curriculum in this country. Through its stories, songs, and sense of humor, "1776" brings history to life. But in the middle schools of Fairfax County, Virginia, "1776" has been banned. Why? Because of a mild verbal exchange in the screenplay.

John Adams (William Daniels, in a tour de force performance) and others are trying to convince Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard, also excellent) to write the Declaration. Jefferson rebuffs Adams, explaining he is leaving Philadelphia to return to Virginia, because "I've not seen my wife in six months." Adams replies, "Jefferson, will you be a patriot, or a lover?" Jefferson pauses and announces his choice: he'll be a lover. Adams -- who is obnoxious and disliked -- won't give in. He insists, demands, and cajoles until Jefferson complains that he "burns" for his wife.

It is that word, "burns," that is apparently too much for the Virginia schools. How ironic that this mild innuendo -- and that's elevating it far beyond its rightful level in the lexicon -- would be deemed too much for students in Jefferson's home colony to hear. That this is happening in the year 2004, when real sexual language is pervasive in music, TV, radio (and certainly in the schoolyard), makes it even more ludicrous.

What are the Virginia school bureaucrats afraid of? That they'd have to explain the meaning of the words in that scene? It's not like Jefferson says he burns because of his wife (then you'd have to explain STDs to the kids), but rather for his wife, a concept which can be easily explained, without even bringing sex into it. Tell any inquisitive kid that it is Jefferson's love for his wife that burns inside him. That's simple. So simple, in fact, that if you can't handle this one, you shouldn't be an educator.

Of course, it's not the educators who made this decision.

As one teacher protested in an anonymous e-mail to the school board and community leaders: "Teachers are far better able to determine what material is suitable for teenagers than administrators who have not been in the classroom for years or attorneys whose job it is to protect the school system from the complaints and concerns of a few parents who have a political axe to grind. In the last 10 years, [the school system] has increasingly based educational decisions on fear instead of strength."

My wife and I own a DVD of "1776" and have shown it to our elementary-school-age daughter. She loved the songs and the story. When we traveled to Philadelphia last summer and went to Independence Hall, she saw the very rooms where the Continental Congress met and remembered everything about them, thanks to the movie. We plan to watch it with her many more times.

If the parents of Fairfax County, Virginia, are smart, they'll rent or buy a copy of "1776" and show it to their kids. Then everyone can understand how contemptible it is that a great movie about liberty is being denied to those who are learning about liberty and who could benefit from it.

This column originally appeared as an op-ed piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Die, Scum!

I agree 100% with an editorial in today's Chicago Tribune, explaining why Israel owes no apologies for the missile attack that killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas.

Anyone who thinks there can ever be a "Road Map To Peace" in the Middle East is out of their mind. It's a region where logic and rational reasoning play no role whatsoever. A place where men fight back against armed soldiers by picking up rocks in the street and throwing them. A place where gravity is of no concern, as bullets are constantly being fired in the air with no regard for where they'll fall. A place where one side believes it can win a war by being the first to die (you'd think at least one Hamas suicide bomber would have read about why there are no more Japanese kamikaze pilots!).

It's also a place where tens of thousands of people marched and rallied in the streets to protest Yassin's assassination. Do the Palestinians really want this to be the poster boy for their cause? A man who sent his minions to kill innocent people in nightclubs, aboard buses, and elsewhere? Showing public support for him would be the equivalent of Americans rallying behind two other murderous thugs, John Muhammad and Lee Malvo.

I'm not saying these things simply because I'm a Jew who supports everything Israel does. In fact, I don't support everything they've done. That's because I don't give my blind allegiance to anyone but my immediate family. I can't stand when people throw their unwavering support behind a nation, group, or person based solely on beliefs or background. When blacks supported OJ Simpson simply because he was black (ignoring the skin color of his female companion choices), it was wrong. When Catholics gave blanket support to the church in light of the pedophile priests scandal, it was wrong. When basketball fans gave Kobe Bryant a standing ovation in the face of his rape charges, it was wrong.

Blind obedience to your heritage, your religion, your skin color, or anything else is wrong. Be your own person, make up your own mind. Nutcases come in every race, creed, and color.

That said, it's good that we have one fewer nutcase on the planet today. I'm no sadder that Sheik Ahmed Yassin died than I was when Uday and Qusay Hussein died. Or when Timothy McVeigh died. Or I will be when Osama bin Laden dies. Or when any homicidal maniac is forced to take a dirt nap.

Better all of them than one more innocent life taken on their orders.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Barry Blaustein "Beyond The Mat"

The director of the wrestling documentary "Beyond The Mat" was on my show today to talk about the WWE (formerly WWF), its top guy Vince McMahon, stars like Mick Foley, The Rock, Jesse Ventura, and others, and what makes these guys do what they do for your entertainment.

Listen.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Discomfort At 35,000 Feet

This weekend, we had the unpleasant experience of flying on American Connection.

That's the brand name used when one of the smaller airlines -- Chataqua Airlines, Corporate Airlines, or Trans States Airlines -- operates service for American Airlines between markets that used to be served by the big company with the big jets. Since downgrading St. Louis last year from a hub to just another airport, more of American's flights in and out of here are on these smaller carriers and their baby jets.

I hadn't personally experienced the downside to this reverse supersizing until I flew with my wife and daughter to Hartford, Connecticut.

Our flights there and back were on just such a plane, the kind that Steve Miller never sang about. It held only 50 or 60 passengers, with one seat on the port side and two on the starboard side in each row. The ceiling was so low that, at 6'4" I had to walk like Quasimodo to get down the aisle. Little did I know this contortionist act was a mere prerequisite for sitting down.

As a tall person, I'm used to being in airplane seats where I have very little leg room. I don't want to say the rows were in greater proximity on this flight, but I could intuit the vital signs of the person in front of me because my kneecap was wedged into their spleen.

This height problem wasn't the worst of it. Unlike the larger jets, the seats were not only closer together, but narrower, too. It's a good thing they don't serve meals on these flights anymore, because even an ounce of food would inflate your average passenger far beyond the limits of their cramped assigned seat. Combine that with the oppressive heat they pumped into the cabin -- apparently, the standard equipment does not include a thermostat -- and we're talking one very uncomfortable flying experience.

We purposely don't check our bags when we fly, because we like to move things along by not dealing with baggage claim delays. We were stymied on these flights because the interior was so small, there was no room for carry-on luggage (ours or anyone else's!). The overhead bins could hold a coat or two, but we -- and most of the other passengers -- had to leave our bags at the end of the jetway, where a baggage handler took them and placed them in the cargo compartment. They were returned to us at the same jetway location upon arriving at our destination. This meant that if we had anything in our carry-on bags that we needed during the flight, we were out of luck.

I like to travel by air, and do so several times a year but, for the first time, the size of the aircraft will now directly affect my future travel plans. I doubt that I'm alone in this attitude. Conditions like this will drive business away from an already reeling airline industry, and will be bad for this town's image, too. I can see why corporations considering relocating would reject St. Louis because of its new non-hub status. If I had to fly often on business, I'd hate having to squeeze into one of these flying cigar tubes several times a week. And once on board, space is so limited, you couldn't get any work done!

If that occurs, St. Louis' Lambert Airport will begin looking more like Hartford's Bradley Airport. When we arrived there -- in the middle of the day on Friday -- the place looked like a ghost town. As the passengers disembarked our plane, there was no one else around. We were literally the only flight arriving or departing within that hour. We passed gate after gate with no people, no planes, no nothing. I joked to my wife that they must be conducting a fire drill. It was almost spooky.

Outside, we took a cab -- which provided a lot more room and comfort than the flight we'd been on -- and when we arrived at our destination, my wife asked the driver if she could pay him with a credit card. He said the company did accept them. However, he'd really appreciate it if we would give him cash, because he had been at the airport for five hours, but hadn't seen anyone or had a single fare all day, and needed the money to just get through the afternoon!

As we handed him the cash, I thought to myself that Hartford, like St. Louis, must be proud to be an American city.

Friday, March 05, 2004

'Til An Amendment Do They Part

This will be remembered as the watershed year for the gay marriage question, and I think, in the long run, the opponents have a losing cause on their hands.

Regardless of the President's support, there won't be a federal marriage amendment this year. A head-count this week shows not enough senators in favor of it to even make the vote close.

If it can't happen now, it certainly won't happen a couple of years from now, because the history of our nation shows that, as time passes, the USA progresses. Restrictions are removed, rights are extended, tolerance grows. At this point, the horse is out of the barn. She may not have made it all the way around the paddock yet, but she's not going to be forced back into that stall.

We're not just talking San Francisco here. In the last week alone, local leaders from Sandoval, New Mexico, to New Paltz, New York, to the heartland of Chicago, Illinois, have all expressed support for and/or begun the process of allowing gay couples to marry. Major corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Kodak, ChevronTexaco, and Wells Fargo have long offered benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Meanwhile, since there won't be any further action at the federal level, the opposition is moving forward with proposals in the state legislatures. My guess is that those will be temporary measures that will last a decade at most.

As for the arguments, I get calls and e-mails on the topic from both sides of the cultural chasm. Since I'm a supporter of keeping government out of the private lives of its citizens, I'll share with you some comments from opponents who have called or written me.

Some of it is as simple as, "you just don't understand that's what wrong is wrong." My reply is that we have different definitions of what's wrong. Others are opposed on religious grounds, which is fine, but in this country, we don't play majority rule with religion.

Another e-mailer wrote, "I don't want my children growing up and thinking there is nothing wrong with this lifestyle, which is chosen and not cast upon by birth! This is what's wrong with the world today! No one has any morals anymore. Seems like every other TV show today has a gay on it. These people can go back to the closet as far as I'm concerned!"

Frankly, you can't have a rational conversation with anyone who refers to any group as "these people." That phrase harkens back to so many previous battles over prejudice, including not so long ago when interracial marriage was a touchy subject. However, I did ask this guy one question -- if being gay is a choice, then not being gay is the other choice, so at what point in your life did you make that specific decision? Was there a day, maybe in your teens, when you could have gone either way, being attracted to either someone of your sex or the opposite sex, and consciously chose to be heterosexual?

He didn't answer.

One of my other questions, to which no opponent of gay marriage has come up with a logical, reasoned answer, is: when you say "allowing gays to marry will destroy the institution of marriage," what does that mean? It's a cute catch phrase, guaranteed to rally the already-converted, I'm sure, but what exactly will the implications be? Would straight couples stop getting married? Will more currently-married couples begin getting divorced? Will it lead to a national outbreak of adultery?

Then there's this one, from another e-mailer: "Human reproduction would stop if we were all gay." Of course, no one is suggesting that we should all be gay, but this is part of the "marriage is about procreation" argument. That's another fallacy.

Marriage -- in legal terms -- is not about procreation. No law requires that a married couple produce offspring, nor is their union voided if they don't, nor do you have to be married to have a child. If you're only going to allow people who will procreate to marry, you must force couples to take a fertility test along with their blood test, and make them sign a document swearing that they will have at least one child.

While you're at it, you also have to stop licensing the marriage of every post-menopausal woman! Not very likely, is it?

Gay marriage will be a hot-button political issue for pundits and politicians to scream about in this election year, but the real bottom line is that most Americans don't care. Sure, they'll express an opinion (evenly divided nationally) when asked directly by a pollster, but they're much too busy with what's going on in their own private lives to worry about what other people are doing with theirs -- and wish politicans would address more important issues.

Let's be honest. If anyone is responsible for "weakening the institution of marriage," it is us, the heterosexuals. We're the ones who make hit shows out of "The Bachelorette," "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé," and who can forget Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger?

We're also the ones who allow teenagers to marry. There are many places in the US where you can legally marry at age 16. Sixteen! We're all still idiots at that age, not yet familiar with the harsh realities of the adult world. At 16, you can't enter into most other legally binding agreements, yet you can get a marriage license (in Alabama, until 2003, the minimum age for marriage was fourteen -- you were so young you had to have someone else drive you to the ceremony!).

How can we tell high school kids they can enter this "institution," but a lesbian couple in their forties that's been together for years and years that they can't?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get a wedding gift for Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter. I hear they're registered at Steak & Shake.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

James Randi vs. Sylvia Browne

James Randi took on Sylvia Browne today on my radio show. He came right out and called her a liar.

Browne is one of the self-proclaimed psychics who claim to be able to speak to the dead. Of course, she has never offered any definitive proof, because she can't. She did agree, three years ago on CNN, to take Randi's Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, but has never lived up to that promise. Instead, she's been spreading lies about Randi, who has been holding his tongue, but has now decided to fire back at her both on his website and on my radio show -- with no holds barred.

Randi is one of my heroes. Known as The Amazing Randi during his years as a magician, he's long been the top advocate for rational thinking and debunking psychic and paranormal claims. My wife and I have supported the James Randi Education Foundation for years, both on and off the air. The world needs more people like him.

Unfortunately, people like Sylvia Browne, John Edward, James Van Praagh, and others have taken so much money from their many victims (Browne charges up to $200 to see her "talk to the dead" and around $700 for a telephone reading!) that their side is very well-funded.

Our side, the side of reason, has to struggle to get the word out. My show is one of the few media outlets for the voice of skepticism. Johnny Carson used to give Randi a platform on the old "Tonight Show," Penn & Teller express it on their Showtime series "Bullsh*t," John Stossell goes after it on "20/20," and there a few others. But there are far too many other shows -- particularly on radio -- that accept these paranormal and psychic claims as fact, just because it's good for their bottom line.

It's one thing for a magician to deceive you for entertainment, because you know you're going to be deceived going in. That's the fun of it, and you're enriched by the entertainment experience. It's another thing to have someone exploit your beliefs in order to deceive you and enrich only themselves. Shame on the law enforcement community for doing nothing about these frauds -- psychics, faith healers, etc. -- who prey on the emotions of their victims to make a cheap buck.

Ironically, if these paranormalists really had the powers they claim to have, they could make a million dollars just by proving it. The James Randi Educational Foundation continues to offer that big money prize to anyone who can prove, under carefully observed conditions, that they have psychic, paranormal, or supernatural powers. But just saying it and making a heavily-edited TV show isn't enough. As Randi says, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."

A couple of years ago, I was talking about this on my radio show, and a man called to say that he was a psychic who gave readings for many people. I asked him if he wanted to go for the million bucks. He said no, money wasn't important to him. I asked him if he charged his clients, to which he replied that he did (interesting, since money's not important to him!). So, I suggested that he try for the prize and, if he could prove his ability but didn't care about the money, give the million dollars to a worthwhile charity -- Children's Hospital, for example. He mumbled something and hung up. I've never heard from him since.

Randi tells me this is not uncommon. Logic, it appears, is the enemy of the psychic.

You'll find details about the million dollar prize at the JREF website. While you're there, if you're with us, please consider donating to and supporting the James Randi Educational Foundation. Your brain will feel better.

Here's my conversation with Randi about Sylvia Browne. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!