Sunday, December 04, 2016

My dad, 1919- 2012

My dad, Leonard Lasken, died at 93, shortly after the 2012 Obama/Romney presidential election.   It had been a long slow descent into grief and Parkinson’s for him, ever since my mom died four years earlier.   He told me that one thing that kept him going was that he wanted to “see what’s going to happen.”  He didn't live long enough to see Trump happen (that might have kept him alive another 50 years).

As a life-long Democrat he had recently come to reject both parties, and I felt, as we watched the primary and then the presidential debates together, that the electoral process itself had come to represent corruption to him. He used expressions like “six of one, half a dozen of the other,” to describe the policy differences we heard during the Obama/Romney debates. My dad lived long enough to see the Democratic Party betray him, and the Republican Party shut him out as much as it ever had.

After serving as a naval officer in World War II, my dad got his pharmacy degree from the University of Minnesota, after which we moved to L.A. in 1948, in time for my second birthday. My dad came politically of age during this period. He was hired as a pharmacist by Thrifty Drug Stores (currently reincarnated as Rite Aide) the only pharmacy chain in L.A., at the time, that would hire Jewish pharmacists. We rented a house in South Central (then all white), which my dad struggled to afford on his pharmacist pay of $1.98 per hour. He became an activist in the Retail Clerks Union (which represented pharmacists as well as clerks), running for (and losing) the union presidency, with both support and later opposition from legendary union powerhouse Joseph DeSilva. My dad’s political heroes then included Jimmie Hoffa, legendary head of the Teamster's Union.  He flung our copy of Time Magazine into the trash when its cover featured Hoffa’s face with a caption about corruption. At this time my parents experimented with the Communist Party. I recall a back-yard barbecue and the showing in someone’s living room of a beautiful Russian cartoon. I was enrolled in a communist affiliated pre-school. I had no idea what communism was, of course. To my dad, the party probably represented a rebellion against his father, the retired owner of a successful liquor store and pharmacy in North Dakota and founding member of the Brentwood Country Club (I later expressed my own rebellion by joining the GOP during Watergate). The fling with communism faltered when my dad objected to the party’s practice of putting people in the position of martyr, then hanging them out to dry. The end was confirmed when his local group rejected my dad's application for party membership because, they said, he was “too bourgeois.”

How right they were! Leonard had noticed, as a Thrifty pharmacist, that Thrifty was no longer thrifty, as it had been when it started in the 1920’s. By the 1950's, retail prescription prices were routinely marked-up to exorbitant levels above wholesale- for rich and poor alike- in a tacit monopoly maintained by all the pharmacy chains and most of the independents. My dad hooked up with a membership discount store in Torrance to start one of the first real discount pharmacies in the state, instantly undercutting just about every pharmacy in L.A. County. With this success he was able to secure the pharmacy concession for the White Front Discount Department Stores, which began in the 1920's as a single store in a black neighborhood, started by a white man named Blackman.  When my dad joined White Front it comprised ten successful stores.  White Front was later purchased by Interstate Department Stores (owner of the late Toy's 'R Us) which expanded to thirty White Front stores up and down the state.  My dad's contract forced him to open a pharmacy in every location, but not all were profitable.  The situation started to look bad, but then White Front went bankrupt (from over-expanding) giving my dad a way out.  He relocated the profitable stores to independent locations and sold them to the pharmacist/managers (several are in business today). To my relief, and to the amazement of many around him, my dad landed on his feet, a hallmark of his life.

When he went into business, my dad's life and politics changed. He told the family that he was making money by following his social conscience- he believed that people should not face extortion over life-saving medicine- and his political heroes changed accordingly. He liked his first Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, whom he saw as a levelheaded, business savvy guy. The vagaries of Nixon kept my dad a Democrat, but things started changing when Clinton ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, (which my dad correctly predicted would decimate American manufacturing) as well as the Democratic de-regulation of Wall Street that ended up in the economic collapse of 2008. The Democrats, for my dad, became the slightly lesser of two evils, as opposed to the force for good he had previously supported.

We rather liked Mitt Romney. He seemed to have some of the business sense of a Rockefeller, and hopefully good sense in general. But we shared our dismay that the Republican party had loaded Romney with so much useless baggage that he could not win. In essence, Romney had no choice but to put up and shut up regarding the Tea Party agenda as expressed then by Senator Rick Santorum, e.g. that abortion doctors should be charged with murder; that homosexuality is a sin hated by God; that contraception reduces sex to "mere pleasure."  This left Obama with an easy road to victory. All the Democrats had to do was make a fuss about the Santorum platform- viscerally unpopular throughout Obama’s base and far beyond (most voters are in favor of pleasure)- and Obama would never have to answer the difficult questions (e.g. Why have you done nothing about Wall Street, which, with help from both parties, caused the Great Recession? Since you have done nothing about Wall Street, do you believe, as Republicans do, that we do not need regulation? What is the purpose of your drone strikes? When a drone killed forty people in a wedding party in Pakistan, and not one militant was killed, why did you say nothing? Are you trying to start a war?).

My dad and I marveled together at the clever tricks of party operatives on both sides, placing social issues like gay marriage right next to unrelated economic ideas, blurring the distinctions between voters and robbing them of a voice.

My dad wanted to see what is going to happen to the world, but he had to die not seeing what he most wanted to see: the saving of the American democratic process from the end-game we are now witnessing, a totally manipulated politics, mediated by short-term thinkers for short-term goals.  If there are long term goals, we don't know what they are, or whose they are.  My dad opposed this darkness, and taught me to do the same.

Rest in peace, Dad. We’ll keep up the fight.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Lasken op-ed in the Orange County Register

Prop. 58: A Trojan Horse to stop English instruction

By Doug Lasken

[This essay, re-posted from the Orange County Register- opposed California Proposition 58 on the Nov. 8, 2016 ballot.]

Public memory is short when it comes to complex education policy, such as that concerning bilingual education.  That is why the backers of Proposition 58, which would gut key provisions of California’s landmark Prop. 227 (1998) feel free to re-write pre-227 history.  

I was there and this is the true history.

Prior to passage of 227, native Spanish speaking students in California were placed in classes where the only language of instruction permitted was Spanish. Prop. 58 supporters deny this, but I taught in such classes for Los Angeles Unified and it is true.  The district Bilingual Master Plan decreed that all textbooks for native Spanish speakers must be in Spanish and the language of instruction must be Spanish only.  If the teacher was not fluent in Spanish, an aide, usually without a college degree, taught the academic subjects- math, social studies, history- in Spanish.  Thirty minutes per day was set aside for English, but this was conversational only: No English vocabulary, phonics, spelling or grammar could be used or taught.  The only way for Spanish-speaking students to study English was to pass an extremely difficult test in Spanish.  Most kids could not pass this test until middle or high school, if ever.  The result: the vast majority of Spanish speaking kids received almost no English instruction.

LAUSD had its own flourishes: Native Spanish speaking parents were advised not to speak English with their children because it would confuse them.  At one staff development we heard about “research” showing that people acquire languages better the older they are.  Yes, you read that right.

No wonder then, as a high school teacher several years later, I encountered Hispanic teenagers who asked me why they had not been taught English in elementary or middle school.  I had to explain that 227 had come too late for them.  

The forces behind the misnamed "bilingual education" policies included the textbook publishing lobby, which procured vast fortunes printing Spanish textbooks, and lobbies within teachers unions on behalf of Spanish speaking teachers who made $5,000 a year extra.  The system was also a job creator for administrators, with hundreds of positions like “bilingual coordinator.” 

It is disingenuous of Prop. 58 author State Senator Ricardo Lara to say that Prop. 227 prohibited “multilingual education”.  On the contrary, 227 mandated study of more than one’s native language.  Lara also throws the phrase “English only” at 227, one of the great slanders from “bilingual” supporters.  227 had nothing to do with “English Only.”

Voters should read the text of Prop. 58 carefully.   It starts on a soothing note: “(Prop. 58) preserves the requirement that public schools ensure students become proficient in English.”   

A problem soon appears: “(Prop. 58) requires that school districts provide students with limited English proficiency the option to be taught English nearly all in English.”  Under 227, learning English is not an “option,” but a right.  This significant and unsettling change is followed up with calls for dual-immersion programs (though they are already allowed by 227), and for parents’ right to pick how their children learn English (also provided in 227). 

Because of the distortions of 227 from Prop. 58’s author and the lack of clear need for any of its provisions, voters should be wary of this proposition.  On November 8, vote No on Prop. 58.

Doug Lasken is a retired Los Angeles Unified teacher, current debate coach and freelancer.  Reach him at

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Poem on demand

I told my writing group
I average one poem per year
because of inspiration
or lack of it
(or lack of perspiration?)

But doesn't a poem need to be written
right here, right now?

Of course it does-
It always does
when the heart asks
“Where is my universe?

Is it after this one?”

A poem will know
how to riddle us

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference, 2016

My wife and I attended the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., over three days starting Sunday, March 20.   The purpose of AIPAC is to promote the American/Israeli alliance.  All the major presidential candidates spoke (except Bernie Sanders, who was invited but declined): Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, along with notables like Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The first day was devoted to breakout sessions.  I went to one on the Syrian civil war and one on autistic people working for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The panel of Middle-East experts in the Syrian discussion delivered thorough accounts of the current maze of allies and enemies, a fractured picture of all against all, that "all" including us.  Such chaos can be a useful cover for organized policy that is not as chaotic as it looks, so when the audience was invited to ask questions, I asked, "Three years ago, when President Obama first made moves to intervene in Syria, after Syrian leader Assad's use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, the mail to the White House and Congress ran four-to-one against intervention, and the idea was dropped. With the subsequent ISIS attacks on the U.S. and Europe, that opposition has dissipated.  Would it be fair to say that ISIS has maneuvered the U.S. into involvement in the Syrian civil war?"

The panel deflected the question with unrelated facts and figures, but several nearby audience members said, "Good question!" which I like to think justified the enhanced carbon footprint of my L.A. flight.

We attended a session about the IDF's Roim Rachok ("Looking beyond the horizon") unitwhich employs autistic people to study military surveillance photos. With their enhanced abilities to discern patterns that "normal" people might miss, the autistic soldiers of Roim Rachok make significant contributions.  It was an especially interesting subject for my wife and me because my brother-in-law, Steven (featured in the recent documentary Autism in Love) is autistic.  His uneasy fit with the surrounding culture is striking, as it is with most autistic people, but his talents might be coveted by many: a photographic memory, a mind so quick that the concepts and perspectives behind conventional human language become a pointless burden.  Steven has worked for many years in a factory putting mechanical parts together, the model of a dependable employee, and has derived satisfaction and relief from the daily routine, but we wished he could have found something like Roim Rachok that treated his talents as intellectual human assets.  Autistic author Donna Williams describes autistics as "a people in search of a culture."  These days that might describe us all; why not work together and build a new culture?

Sunday night we heard Vice President Biden.  As with the other speakers, Biden's impact was much more forceful, at least to me, in person than the impact from his sound bites over the years.  He is a compelling and skilled speaker, which I hadn't known.  He projects a paternal image that's almost impossible to resist.  I have to admit a frustration over liking people in person that I have grumbled about after years of seeing them on TV.  After the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Biden gave a speech in which the jingoistic parts, where he shouted and crowed about the death, were widely reported.  It was aimed at an audience that might have believed the assassination would solve any problems, as if it would stop history from unfolding (like the assassination of Hitler might have done).  It's clear now that bin Laden was just another replaceable figurehead for the masses who hate America.  The new figureheads are now in place.  I was displeased by Joe Biden then, but watching him now I was seduced by his fatherly sincerity, by the bravery of his response to family tragedy, maybe by a need to think something positive about a leader.  It was a confusing sensation.

The first event Monday morning, and the payoff for waiting in the long security lines outside in the D.C. chill at the Verizon Center (inside of which was one open vendor, Dunkin' Donuts, with a twenty minute line for lukewarm coffee) was Hillary Clinton's speech.

She wore a red jacket, which, my wife pointed out, matched the red in the American flag graphics inserted around Clinton's face on immense jumbotrons suspended above the stage.  Speakers faced 360 degrees of audience.  The circular stage revolved slowly so no part of the audience saw only the speaker's back.  The screens gave the impression that the giant beaming face of a deity was gazing directly into your eyes.

The crowd of 18,700 filled the stadium up the steep sections, with most of the young people in the cheap seats on top.  From our seats about midway up, Clinton was a red and blond dot beneath her face on the giant screens.  Like all the speakers, she had mastered the talking points: the importance to the U.S. of Israel's security; the many trips the speaker has taken to Israel; the technological prowess of Israel (there was much emphasis on Israeli water technology); Israel's status as a democracy surrounded by dictatorships.  Her speech became interesting when she attacked Trump, which she did by implication when she talked about bullies and people who say they support something, like Israel, but impulsively change their minds later.  These lines received a rowdy and prolonged standing ovation.  Quite a bit of love and support was beamed at Clinton, and at the end it almost seemed that she was crying.  I would understand if she were.  How many people could withstand the ego-busting roller coaster she's on?  Once again, as with Biden, I was chagrined to find that in person, after years of fulminating at her sound bites, like a sucker, I liked her.  No wonder candidates speak in person.

I'm skipping ahead to Trump's speech that evening, because the contrast with Clinton's speech was illuminating.  Trump is not skilled, at least for me, at being likable.  His strategy is to target people with specific positions. He creates widespread support with a shotgun approach in which he addresses as many demographics in the electorate as he can, from left to right, saying at least one thing each group desperately wants to hear but is not hearing from the other candidates, who appear timid and beholden compared to him.  He targeted me when he talked about the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which killed five thousand American troops and up to 500,000 Iraqis without securing a single foreign policy objective- unless our objective has been chaos and danger.  No other Republican candidate than Trump will press Hillary Clinton on her vote for the Iraq War, in spite of the ocean of Democratic votes such criticism would garner, just as no other Democratic candidate than Sanders (a Democrat since 2015) will press a Republican on Bush's Iraq invasion.  It's what we used to call a "gentleman's agreement," Trump and Sanders being the two non-gentlemen. 

Trump had clearly studied Middle-East history for his AIPAC speech, as there were numerous references to dates and events (though, as Cruz mockingly pointed out later, Trump slipped when he stated that "Palestine was created in 1948").  All of the talking points were covered.  The interesting parts came when he attacked Clinton by name ("Hillary would be a disaster!") and then President Obama ("It's Obama's last term, yay!"), both of which received prolonged standing ovations which appeared to match in force the standing ovation Clinton had received that morning when she attacked Trump.  Many people, including us, felt severe cognitive dissonance.  Was the whole place cheering both sides?

Some of the explanation came from our nephew, who was up in the cheap seats, which were not well lit or visible from our area.  He said that everyone in the under-40 seats cheered when Clinton attacked Trump, but that when Trump attacked Clinton and Obama, no one stood or cheered; it was totally silent as people were stunned by the cheering below.  I talked later to a woman who said her 18-year-old son started crying at the cheers when Trump attacked Clinton.

AIPAC leadership was concerned by the situation, by the idea that AIPAC members (older ones) might alienate the powerful people that Jews believe they need to be on their side, and they made statements asking all attendees to avoid encouraging ad hominem and defaming attacks, but the problem goes beyond the AIPAC conference.  There is a generational fracture already at work to accompany the other fractures splitting humanity around the world: men vs. women; race vs. race; religion vs. religion; nation vs. nation, economic class vs. economic class, not to mention human beings vs. the rest of life on earth.  The crazy quilt of warring tribes in Syria matches the pattern.

Are humanity's divisions real?  Or are we manipulated into divisiveness by the One Percent so they can control us better?  Is it true, as I often hear, that secret forces have molded American society so that groups are isolated from each other and disenfranchised?  When I work with Millennials, of course there is a generation gap. There is a teenage world.  There is a different world for people who just turned 70.
You don't have to make up that gap- it's there, but for many people it's not that difficult to communicate across the realms, to find levels where young and old share the common, human perspective.  But then, of course, each side reads the trash on the other.  The young read that their teachers' retirement pensions and health benefits are sucking the lifeblood out of the system, so that when the young reach retirement age there will be nothing left for them.  The old read how lazy and stupid the young have become, that no one reads The Mayor of Casterbridge anymore or learns cursive, and all anyone can do is press buttons on video game controls.  Where do the slanders come from?  I read them all the time in mainstream media.  It's enough to push a guy into conspiracy theory.  

Ohio Governor Kasich, whose claim to moderation comes from his stodgy demeanor rather than policy, stood out poorly against the other candidates- polished speakers all, who barely looked at the teleprompter or their notes and gave the strong illusion (probably at times not an illusion) that they were speaking extemporaneously. Kasich read entirely from his notes, making eye contact with the audience less than a novice high school debater would.  The effect was disastrous, and commented upon by many.  

Ted Cruz said that, while Trump would "renegotiate" the Iran Deal (strongly opposed by AIPAC), he, Cruz, would "rip it to shreds," continuing the kind of useless semantic trop that characterizes this and all of our political campaigns.  But Cruz, to my shock, after I'd reviled his sound bites for months, did the same magic on my hostility as Biden and Clinton had. Maybe it was the prolonged cheer when he referred to "the whole megilla," three days before Purim. OMG, I even liked Ted Cruz!  Briefly.  These guys are good. 

Paul Ryan was poised and likable as well.  He is the most presentable public official associated with what was formerly called the Tea Party.  His trick has been to position himself as a budget expert and not say too many crazy things.  It's understandable that he did not want to be House Speaker.  His recent resistance to cuts in Planned Parenthood funding created his first serious division with the far right.  Now there's no one left but Trump.  GOP, look what you've done.

The Tuesday morning of our departure we and everyone else read about the attacks in Brussels.  One of the speakers we had listened to was from Belgium.  He told how his grandparents had run for their lives from Ukraine; his father had fled Germany, and he had thought that, in Belgium, he would be the first in his line to live his life in one place.  Now he was not sure.  We thought of him Tuesday morning.  AIPAC concentrates on what is called the "existential threat" to Israel (the definition of "existential" apparently having morphed to "relating to existence" from its former "relating to the meaning of existence"), which is presented as a subset of the existential threat to America.  I hope we don't forget that when existential threats approach, it's important to have a quality existence, so you have the will and energy to prolong it.

I also want to mention what a beautiful and wonderful city Washington, D.C. is (the central part, that is, where tourists visit), with gorgeous old structures everywhere, artfully integrated with the new (refreshing for people from L.A., where things aren't so much integrated as jumbled). We'd seen the unforgettable Smithsonians in the past; this time we saw the Newseum and the Spy Museum, both outstanding.  What an advantage to be the seat of empire!  Los Angeles, why can't we do that? With more than the movie industry, I mean.  Washington D.C., watch out!

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Richard Nixon: Bad actor or bad actor?

I came home from school recently laughing about a kid on my debate team whose response, each time his spar opponent made a claim, was: "Honestly, I don't understand what my opponent is saying."  One of the things coaches have to teach students is how to dissemble.  

There's an important life lesson in the need to dissemble, whether in a game or in life.  We claim that we loathe liars, but in fact we expect people to lie, and lie well.  Take President Richard Nixon, for example.  Why is he the poster-child for bad president?  In policy, he wasn't much different from his predecessors or successors, of either party.  He waged war on about the same level of barbarity as they did. His opening to China is hailed by everyone as a good thing.  His economic moves were not the worst or the best.  How does his record merit particular scorn?

Yes, Nixon had an enemies list and supervised a break-in at the Watergate Hotel to get dirt on his Democratic rivals, but this pales in contrast to the National Security Administration's Obama-sanctioned ability to read at will everyone's private correspondence.  Imagine this speech from Richard Nixon:

"My fellow Americans, tonight I am proposing a new department of the federal government, the National Security Administration, whose job will be to monitor every electronic communication of every American, no warrant or other evidence of probable cause or due process required.  Only in this way can we keep America safe."

Anyone who was of age during Nixon's term as president knows exactly what would have happened had he said such words: Riots in the streets.

Yet this hypothetical speech is exactly what President Obama said repeatedly- in so many words- after the Snowden story broke.  Why is the nation so calm?  Because Obama is a good liar. If he says something keeps the nation safe, people believe him.  Nixon looked and sounded like a liar, so words that already carried significant negative weight fell through the floor when he said them. 

It's ironic that Nixon did acting and debate in school, because he must have known the basics of melodramatic presentation: 

A person who is telling the truth will look you straight in the eye, speak clearly and give you a smile that fills you with warmth, and a truly villainous liar will do the same.  

The melodramatic liar, while looking you in the eyes briefly, will frequently glance to the right or left- looking "shifty," like a schemer whose machinations might creep up on you.  Liars sweat profusely and appear uncomfortable.

Nixon played the melodramatic liar, with shifty eyes, bumbling with words as if he were juggling so many stories he couldn't keep them straight.  When he debated John F. Kennedy on black-and-white TV, his "five o'clock shadow" looked like a gangster's. His upper lip and brow sweated under the hot lights and he had to continuously mop them with a handkerchief. One of his nervous slips was: "We have to get rid of the, the subsidies...."  Kennedy was suave and confident throughout.  He did not appear to sweat.

Nixon was a skilled and successful speaker in his youth and early career.  What happened to him later? He faced a tough transition in life from a background of blue-collar religious zealotry to the academic and industrial elites.  Something about that transition may have scared him, perhaps a conflict between rebellion and a desire to assimilate, and it may be that this pressure ruined his acting.

Whatever the cause, Nixon sounded like a liar, so the actual words he said didn't really matter- they were lies, while Kennedy sounded like he was telling the truth, and his words didn't matter, and they were deemed truth.

Thus derives our everlasting scorn of Richard Nixon, who played Snidely Whiplash to the American electorate, tying the widow to the railroad tracks. Barak Obama is trying to play the guy who unties her.  He's got the acting down tight; now he'd better hurry up and untie her.