March 2017

Easter House, Phil Hendrie, Pizzagate

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WIOD is an AM radio station in Miami. On one afternoon in 1995, a talk show host was interviewing a guest, Roland Schwinn, who was on the show to promote his charity, called Easter House. Easter House in Coral Gables was running an interfaith program and Easter egg hunt for children that year. Parents interested in the program needed to drop their children off at the facility. No adults, other than Easter House staff, were permitted on the grounds. The children should wear only their underwear. Roland and other Easter House staff would be naked with Easter Eggs hidden on their bodies. The children would be invited to search for Easter Eggs in order to win prizes. 
A listener called the police, who came to the radio station to arrest Schwinn. There they found that Schwinn was just another character created by the talented Phil Hendrie, the show's host. There was no Easter House and no Easter Egg hunt. There still is a Miami charity for the homeless called Camillus House, so using the word "house" as part of the charity's name at least sounded familiar. The outrageous details of the fictitious Easter Egg hunt were accepted uncritically by many listeners, one of whom felt it was his obligation to save the children by calling the police. 
In the Pizzagate matter, a group of conspiracy theorists connected unrelated dots and reached the conclusion that Bill and Hillary Clinton were part of a ring of pedophiles operating in tunnels underneath a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. To save the children, one of them armed himself and drove from North Carolina to the scene of the tunnels to stage a daring rescue. There were no children to rescue, of course. Whether you like or dislike the Clintons, you have to ask yourself how anyone could believe such nonsense. Does our dislike for a person make us blind to outrageous claims? And if those claims are repeated enough, does the repetition make them true? If enough people believe, does that make the claim true? 
During an aggressive interview of Noam Chomsky, Chomsky turned the tables on the interviewer by asking, "do the facts matter?" The answer to the question should always be "yes." Unfortunately, these days the facts are but "claims" because the truth is relative. 
The mayor of France complains about Trump's comments about Paris; the press picks that up and calls Trump a liar (yet again); yet the French election is very much about what is going on in the Parisian capital's suburbs. A casual glance at Youtube videos shows French police under attack. So who is right? 
One of the problems with Americans is that for us everything has to be black or white, right or wrong, up or down. Paris' mayor complained that Paris intramuros hasn't changed much and that is true; but there are areas of the capital region with street scenes out of West Africa and where the daily call to prayer drowns out weekly hymns sung at crumbling cathedrals. 
Clearly, both views are correct. But that doesn't work for us. One or the other has to be right; they both can't be. Some has to lose the debate whether Donna Brazile has leaked the questions in advance or not. 
The press must redeem itself and this redemption will only be achieved by a rigorous, almost fanatical dedication to the truth. Repeating rumors of Russian election tampering without evidence, claiming that the political dismissals of politically-appointed office holders is somehow sinister and cheerleading the strategy-less continuation of foreign wars combines to affect the press' credibility. In the age of Trump, a vigorous, free and respected press is needed. The press has not done enough to win that respect back. 
And in a strange case of life imitating art, Hendrie hosted another fictitious Middle Eastern guest named Raj who berated Americans for failing to understand their own Constitution:
Raj: The Americans, they do not know about their own Constitution. Most of them could not tell you what the Bill of Rights is. But ask the American piggy where the McDonald's is and he can tell you. Ask him what the #2 is at McDonald's and he can tell you.
Phil: Isn't it the cheeseburger?
Raj: See, there you go.
Fast forward ten years and a real Middle Eastern immigrant holds the Constitution up in the air at the Democratic National Convention and challenges Trump to read it. 

Trump, India and the NFL

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Mason Crosby had to kick the winning field goal twice in the Green Bay Packers win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL semi-finals. A second before the ball was snapped Jason Garett, the Dallas coach, signaled for a time-out. But by the time the referee blew his whistle, the ball had been put into play and Crosby kicked a field goal. No matter: the play was invalid since time-out had been called and had to be played over. What did Garrett do with his time out? Nothing. His sole purpose was to interrupt play and rattle Crosby. The tactic failed. Crosby promptly kicked a field goal again. Garrett tried to game the system and failed. 
Before his run for president of the United States, Donald Trump had leased his name to a real estate developer in Mumbai who planned a signature building modeled to the Trump organization's standards. There was only one problem: the land selected for the development already had tenants. All of these tenants accepted generous buy-outs save for one. He researched the law and found that the laws of India granted him the right to substitute housing in a luxury development. Sensing that he was dealing with a tenant who was gaming the system, the developer balked. The tenant sued. Litigation took six years. During this time, the building was not maintained--after all, it was going to be torn down. Power outages were common. The tenant and his wife did without running water for most of this time, putting up with the hardship of not being able to bathe without hauling water up multiple flights of stairs. 
Perhaps the inability to regularly bathe was tolerable because the tenant and his wife sensed that there would be a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow: a luxury apartment in a Trump-branded complex in India. Doing without electricity and cooking over charcoal fires was a small price to pay for such a goal. By the time the lawsuit reached a resolution, Trump had pulled his name off the deal. Without Trump, the developer decided that the project was no longer economically viable and cancelled it. There would be no luxury apartment after all. Like the NFL coach Garrett, the Indian tenant had tried to game the system and failed. 
"Gaming the system" can be defined as "following the rules in order to obtain an unjust advantage." Many believe that this behavior is clever and worthy of praise. Lawyers, those people who traffic in rules, are particularly susceptible to this behavior. If the rules permit me to file a motion to dismiss in order to gain time, I should do so. After all, I am only following the rules. What could possibly go wrong? The term "sharp practice" has gone out of fashion. There are often no immediate consequences suffered when someone tries to game the system. But in a not-surprising number of cases, the minor skirmishes that are won lead only to wars that are lost. 
Can fairness simply be ignored? Consider then, whether fairness has a role to play in any contest. Consider whether cleverness can result in catastrophe, whether on the playing fields, in the courtroom or on the streets of Mumbai. 
The tenant in one of the world's narrowest buildings (shown) didn't accept a buy-out either.

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