Deacon Patrick Moynihan

Deacon Patrick Moynihan

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

Articles by Deacon Patrick Moynihan

Pay taxes; pay bills; spend locally and wisely

May 13, 2011 / 00:00 am

How can we help our nation’s economy continue to turn around? We can pay our taxes, pay our bills, especially our mortgages and credit card bills, and spend locally and wisely. We can do these things without inventing new political parties, staging demonstrations or pointing fingers— the latter of which serves only to give inappropriate support to fanatical positions on both sides of the aisle.

The importance of the right preposition

May 6, 2011 / 00:00 am

I applaud Secretary Clinton for knowing where to stand when offering U.S. help to partner nations. She most recently demonstrated her impressive diplomatic skills when she chose to stand side by side with Michel Martelly, Haiti’s president-elect, on the stage in Washington and state, “We are behind him.” Unfortunately, her husband (possibly an occupational hazard of his former job), several other globetrotting celebs, and many of the large international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) too often end up standing in front of the leaders of developing nations whom they claim to be helping. 

Swiftly fifty

Apr 29, 2011 / 00:00 am

I must admit, I don’t feel any real apprehension about turning fifty, which I will do in about three years. I have seen six siblings, three sister-in-laws, three brother-in-laws and scores of colleagues and friends cross the great Rubicon with little or no psychological or physical damage.In fact, being born just at the end of the Baby Boomer generation, I have had the advantage of observing the largest collectively labeled generation — a journey that has been chronicled by the media and entertainment industry ad nauseam. Just think of John Travolta in “Wild Hogs.”Regardless of my steel for aging, I have decided to get prepared for the trip across the divide between youth and old age. My decision is motivated by my recent realization that I cannot remember turning sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, thirty or even forty. I am bothered by my amnesia of these rites of passage far more than I am about aging itself. How can I have breezed through those events without a memory of them?It is not that my life lacks memorable moments. I remember lecturing at my Confirmation in 8th grade. I remember getting married. I remember the births of my four children. I remember my ordination as a permanent deacon and my graduation from Providence College with my masters. But, I don’t remember any of the traditionally important birthdays. I am not sure why I am bothered by passing all these major age thresholds without any particular memories, but I have promised myself, “Never, never, never, never again!” To make sure, I have a created a detailed, three year plan to prepare for my fiftieth. Year one: I am going to get back in shape. As I lamented a few weeks ago, I have recently been losing the battle of the bulge. I am fat, again! Regardless of the fact that I could now authentically deliver the line “Fifty years of pain for a moment’s glory” from Harvey Firari’s “Patio II,” a line which I faked and intermittently botched in high school, I am going to work my rugby abused, aching joints one more time in deference to my waist. When I am fifty, my waist is only going to be 36!I am also going to take up yoga. I cannot believe how inflexible I have become over the years. The other day I caught myself coveting my octogenarian parents’ shoe horn. As my joints have frozen up, I have also noticed that I get cranky more easily. I am convinced not being able to bend physically causes grumpiness. I am going to be limber and happy by my fiftieth. Year two: I am going to read like a fiend. I am going to devour 50 classics — one a week for a year, excluding the weeks containing Christmas and Easter. I am not entering my second act without more reference material to reflect on. One person’s life, no matter how exciting, could not possibly provide enough interesting material for prolonged rumination in one’s twilight years. Before my eyes go and my mind’s ability to concentrate declines, I am going to learn a few more things from the likes of Hemingway and Voltaire. Year three: The Mustang will also turn fifty in 2014. If my son will lend me his, I plan on turning 50 in a Mustang GT 5.0 while driving with my wife to some wonderful Americana site. I am thinking of Lebanon, Kansas which claims to be the mid-point of the US. There is a marker there. Maybe that can be my half-way marker as well. I also hope there is a hotel with a comfortable bed suitable for the recently gone over the hill. Some will argue that sixty is the new fifty. But, that’s just not true. Even with better health and nutrition, few people live to a hundred, let alone beyond it. Fifty is still the Lebanon, Kansas of life. So, I am getting ready for this milestone. My soon to-be-more-wizened advice to the young, on whom, I agree more and more, youth is largely wasted, is to celebrate your early big birthdays well — fifty comes swiftly.

One nation in debt

Apr 26, 2011 / 00:00 am

At first, I was a bit hesitant about adding to the deficit/budget debate.  But, that was before President Obama decided to discuss the issue on Facebook with its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, as the host.  I was especially inspired to write by the President’s claim of victory for getting the usually t-shirt clad, multi-billionaire gossip facilitator to wear a jacket and tie. 

Battle of the bulge, the sequel

Apr 15, 2011 / 00:00 am

No war is more recurrent than the battle of the bulge. I am not referring to the famous WW II battle, rather the constant struggle to keep trim. Unfortunately, as a nation we seem to be losing, as each year more Americans become casualties in the great weight fight. Now, nearly two thirds of us are overweight. Of late, even our children have been dragged into the fray. Unfortunately, I am no exception. Several times since I turned thirty, I have taken the challenge to get my weight straight with my age and height. Over the past decade and a half, I have had several victories, some even prolonged, but, I am losing the war. Today, I am again far closer to being obese than fit. During my last valiant attempt, I lost 50 lbs. Faced with entering into the ever expanding “waist-land,” I dropped from 225, borderline obese for me, to 175, the target weight for my build. I felt great. I may have looked a bit too thin, but it was nice to be my lesser self. Unfortunately, I have regained 80% of that weight — which is not uncommon. I am back to sore joints and nagging back. I look at my midsection in embarrassment and disbelief. Fat just seems to appear spontaneously around my waist. I wonder, “Is there fat in the air?” Likewise, over time, we have gained weight as a nation. As the Baby Boomers have gone from protesting to retirement, obesity rates in the United States have increased by 50%. We have gone from a heavy nation to, pardon my candor, a fat one in just twenty years. The Centers for Disease Control toss the word epidemic around in connection with the issue. Their website states, “American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity.”  The CDC believes that policy changes are needed to change our poor food culture and increase our physical activity. I agree. Hold the burger altogether! Let the elevator go. It is time to face the music on being fat before it becomes a dirge for us and our economy.  Speaking of music, maybe Uncle Sam should re-release Meredith Willson’s “Chicken Fat” song. A favorite of my dad’s for waking up the family, this song was also an attempt by the government to address childhood lethargy in the 1960’s. Adolescent inactivity is now a major contributor to obesity among our youth. Maybe, Eminem can rap it back to the top of the charts. I applaud the First Lady for launching “Let’s Move” and convincing the President to set a goal to end childhood obesity in one generation. Given that we have gotten fat with the rise of fast food and video games, the First Lady’s simple two punch solution of healthier eating habits and increased physical activity could be the solution. It may seem odd for the government to take on an issue that is generally regarded as personal. Yet, the ramifications of obesity go far beyond the physical and psychological damage to the individual, which are appreciable and regrettable. Reports vary, but there is basic agreement that obesity costs more than 100 billion dollars a year in unnecessary health costs. At the time she presented the “fight on fat,” Mrs. Obama estimated it to be $150 billion — that is more than the annual direct cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The magnitude of the issue, as well as its ubiquity, makes it government business. There is the need for transparent, objective, well-funded research to answer several nagging questions. Why is obesity so widespread? Why did it take off so fast? Has the food industry, especially those responsible for highly processed foods and High Fructose Corn Syrup being in everything from Ketch-up to sport drinks, hooked us on non-healthy food? Certainly, the tobacco industry provides a precedent to make an earnest inquiry. And, if real research proves that there is something at work here other than our own lack of discipline, it is time to put the finger on the food junkies pushing fat-laden cupcakes and breakfast meals encased in syrup-flavored buns. I am willing to do my part — again — but, I want the odds back in my favor if someone has been stacking the deck. That will take hard-nosed policies. That’s the government’s part.

The Divine opportunity

Apr 8, 2011 / 00:00 am

George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” popped into my mind the other day. I have to admit that, at first, I remembered the quote as “those who cannot remember history” or “those who do not know history” are condemned to repeat it. I also thought Winston Churchill may have had said it. Google quickly set me straight on both accounts.  I also learned in the course of my search for the proper wording to Mr. Santayana’s quote that his full name is Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás. While he studied and did much of his writing and teaching in the US, ergo his Anglicized name, he was born in Spain and returned to Europe for the second half of his life. He was always a Spanish citizen. I mention this because Spain, which has been very important historically to the formation of Western culture, just doesn’t get much notice these days — unless the World Cup is going. I also mention Mr. Santayana’s nationality as a small apology for having thought momentarily that his well-known quote belonged to a British curmudgeon like Churchill — something as a Spaniard he may have found hard to take. It was a wry comment by my oldest son that brought the quote to mind. In the middle of watching together the film “Frost Nixon,” a docudrama on the planning of Nixon’s most candid post-resignation interview, my son blurted out, “What’s the big deal?” I suddenly felt very old as I realized that while my own life had only been tangentially touched by Watergate and Vietnam, I still grew up in the culture those events created — a culture dominated by disillusioned people who knew the history of Nixon and the failed war all too well. I responded, “It’s a very big deal.” My son was not convinced. For him, these events are as old as Elvis and the Civil War. All the past is equally distant to the young. History is dead and dead is dead. The present has its own scandals and villains. Not surprisingly, at eighteen my son has no reference point for these events nor do his friends. But, does this mean that these events will repeat? Can failing to appreciate history really cause its repeat? After all, how much history can a person know? Certainly, we cannot know all of it.With all due respect to Mr. Santayana, I do not think that simply knowing the past will keep it from repeating. In fact, there are plenty of well-known, undesirable historical events which repeat. There are recurrent economic failures, for instance. Our knowledge of the Great Depression may have helped us limit our current crisis, but it did not keep us from adding a Great Recession to the recycled history pile. Clearly, knowing is not sufficient for avoiding recurrent negative events altogether. Moral change is the real agent for stopping the repetition of past failures. In the end, the only negative events of history that we can be sure will not repeat are those that precipitate a societal conversion or moral advancement of sufficient magnitude and cultural significance to be passed on to subsequent generations. In other words, history changes for the better when we change for the better. Some things are about our character, not dates and events. The abolishment of slavery provides a good example. Institutional, government sanctioned slavery did not end with a history lesson. No, slavery, which had been far too long a part of history, far too long obscured by the so-called complexities of history, required something much harder than a history lesson to bring it to an end. It required the admission of grievous wrongdoing. It required a moral shift of tectonic proportion. (Hopefully, soon, we will have the same global response to abortion.)Fortunately, we humans, while we will never have a perfect history, still have the opportunity to make a more perfect future. This is the divine opportunity provided to us by a Creator constantly interested in supporting our pursuit of self-improvement. Moral change is difficult. It requires discipline and humility. But, it alone has the ability to keep the failures of the past from repeating. Maybe that is why Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás decided to live his last years with the Blue Nuns instead of historians.

Relief Incorporated

Apr 1, 2011 / 00:00 am

Having climbed over, sifted through, and shoveled tons of refuse created by Haiti’s 7.0 earthquake and, more importantly, having seen the dead waiting for burial and the emotional and financial impact on the families who lost loved ones in the earth’s spasm on January 12th, 2010, I cannot help but feel deep sympathy for the Japanese families who received the brunt of the earth’s recent, stronger and longer disturbance. Subsequently, I am a bit uncomfortable with using the matter even tangentially to illustrate a negative point.

Respecting authorship

Mar 25, 2011 / 00:00 am

“What we have here is failure to communicate,” drawls the prison warden played by Strother Martin in the film classic “Cool Hand Luke.” It is a great line that kicks off an important, but less memorable soliloquy by the warden. Cool hand Luke, played by Paul Newman, repeats a variation of the line near the end of the movie.

Last resort

Mar 18, 2011 / 00:00 am

This subject requires two disclaimers. First, in the fifteen years we’ve been missionaries to Haiti, we have only gone on vacation in the Dominican Republic three times. Frankly, the logistics are not that easy and it’s difficult to find the block of free time necessary to make it worth it. It is also hard on the sensibilities. Somehow, the stark economic disparity in the world packs an even bigger wallop when it is manifested right on the same island.Second, all discussions about the resort beachwear of our fellow vacationers is a purely dispassionate, sociological analysis. There is nothing prurient about skimpy or missing clothing at a resort populated largely by middle-aged people — myself included — suffering from too little inhibition. To put it simply, it’s not pretty.On the first point, sadly, it is truly night and day between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I first experienced this gut-wrenching difference in the way I imagine most Haitians do: I drove over the border expecting the island to be somewhat equal in its condition from end to end. Not even close. The DR is another world all together. To start with, there are highways and high-rises. Having spent three or four years in Haiti before making my first trip, I was sad, hurt and angry when I saw the inexplicable difference between the two island-sharing nations for the first time — and to a great degree, I felt the same this time. I can’t imagine how a natural born Haitian feels, especially those old enough to remember that Haiti was once developmentally ahead of the DR. In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail,” Jared Diamond gives a very plausible reason why the mountains cutting Hispaniola in two mark more than a border. Even from the air, one can see they make a line between two disparate environments: one forested and the other unnaturally barren; and two economies: one developing the other staggering. Diamond blames the difference on the nations’ most notorious dictators, Trujillo and Duvalier. He postulates that Trujillo invested in his country and Duvalier did not. My experience confirms Diamond’s theory.  It may seem odd to mix thoughts of stark economic disparity with revulsion over resort wardrobe fiascos, but the visual assault of overweight men walking around in Speedos only adds to the rotten feeling I have in my stomach for how far Haiti has fallen behind its island partner. Intellectually, I tried to understand this flaunting of poorly maintained bodies as the physical manifestation of the difference between our British sense of liberty and the European concept of freedom, which is more French.  But this puritanical rationalization failed to lessen the impact of this in-your-face proof of the grotesque character of inequality here and in the world.   The resort’s invisible management technique for handling dissatisfied clients added to the poignancy of the metaphor. In the five days at the resort, I never saw a person higher up in the management structure than a desk supervisor. There were no captains on the ship to address about the issues of no hot water in the showers, running out of beach towels before noon and not having two rooms next to each other to accommodate a family. I could not help but think that it was by design that disappointed guests were faced with only overworked staff with whom to register their complaints. Planned or not, this shrewd, inside-out application of economic disparity did effectively quell complaints. It also reminded me of the real world where those who benefit most from exploitation stay in the shadows and leave the people they have divided to be consumed in civil war.  Maybe, I will feel more comfortable enjoying myself in the DR when development on the lagging end of the island, my end, catches up. Regardless, I am through with all-inclusive resorts where, after a few days, the tortured Speedos lose their comedic value and become, like the overly abundant food, just tasteless.

Of human value

Mar 11, 2011 / 00:00 am

Chilled by yet another article by TIME’s tech writer Lev Grossman, I emailed one of my genius friends and asked, “What do you know about the Singularity?” I was comforted when my friend, who has a degree from MIT, as does the central figure of Grossman’s article, replied, “Never heard of it. Why?”

A clear tax

Mar 4, 2011 / 00:00 am

My taxes are done and I am mad. Before the Tea Party jumps to add me to their mailing list, I want to be clear. I am not happy because I am getting more money back than I had withheld for federal income tax! Thanks to the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, our share of the stimulus package, and the Child Tax Credit, Uncle Sam is paying me to be a citizen. That makes me mad.  I do not believe that a person should be able to earn an income from work or investments in the United States without paying at least some federal income tax.  It’s is not right that 40% of the population does not pay federal income tax. Everyone benefits, rich and poor, from at least some of what our federal income taxes provide. We all need national security, education and roads. If we earn a dollar, we should pay some part of it to the government. I suggest 10% as a minimum tax. Call it a fee for services rendered. That’s not the only problem with our perennially messed up tax code. We all know that. Nobody likes its current complexity — except maybe accountants and tax lawyers. It’s too difficult. It’s muddled with too many exemptions for special interest groups and vote-buying tax credits. It is undoubtedly purposely unclear. What I want is a Clear Tax. For me, this is a progressive tax with three levels of fixed personal income tax. A Clear Tax means very few deductions and all revenue is income. Any deductions would be based on documents provided by a third party, such as mortgage interest, purchase price of a US manufactured car, or an IRA contribution — nothing difficult to compute and nothing that would allow one to hide income.A Clear Tax would not have social deductions. The IRS should not be involved in social welfare.  I believe in social welfare, but it should be provided by a government office specific to the task, not through the tax code. This means eliminating Child Credit, Earned Income Credit, credits for medical expenses, etc. The tax code should consider only exemptions aimed at specific areas of economic growth.To be sure that exemptions and credits are limited to those that would actually stimulate growth, a new agency should be created based on the Supreme Court — call it the Supreme Board of Economists. This group of nine economists appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the House of Representatives would have to approve deductions and credits unanimously.  Each tax level would apply to a level of household income, such as 20% for households with incomes 50% above the poverty level, 25% for households with income in excess of two times the poverty level, and 30% for households making four times the poverty level or more. The poverty level would be established annually by the SBE. The best argument for a progressive scale is the widely-held belief that those who earn more benefit more from the infrastructure and social programs of the country. I subscribe to this as well as to the belief that to those who are given more, more is expected.Those households earning less than or up to 50% over the poverty level would be required to pay a minimum tax. Above, I suggest 10%, but I am open to discussion on this point. However, all income earners should pay income tax even though they may need social assistance to keep their household afloat.  It is as much a social responsibility to support one’s government as it is a government’s responsibility to assist the economically disadvantaged. I also believe that while we have a national debt, the government should collect an extra 5% debt tax during presidential election years. The proceeds from this quadrennial tax must be applied to the national debt. If there is no national debt, the tax would not be collected. The economic and accountability benefits of such a tax are obvious.  Tax morality is simple. Taxes need to be fair, to be equitable and to provide for the common good. Much like forms of government, no one particular form of taxes is absolutely better than another. The concern must be to raise sufficient money for the community chest without dampening interest in industrious behavior. Sounds simple — so, why aren’t taxes?


Feb 25, 2011 / 00:00 am

The universe may be headed toward entropy. Humans, however, seem drawn more toward absurdity. I suppose it is just part of our fallen nature to be bent toward the ridiculous. Call it the karaoke principle: given the choice between obscurity and absurdity, hand us the mic, and we’ll take our fifteen minutes of fame at almost any cost.   Often, the highest level of absurdity follows folly. It seems whenever a public personage has careened off a social normative cliff (which seem to get lower each year), he or she feels a great compulsion to add insult to injury by providing either a ludicrous explanation or a self-aggrandizing admission of guilt. It just seems easier to continue along a path of idiocy than to turn back and humbly say, “Wow! That was dumb.”The most recent case of this absurdity is US Congressman Christopher Lee’s resignation statement. Instead of quitting by simply declaring that he made a sufficient fool of himself to require stepping out of public eye by falsely claiming to be a single, 39-year-old lobbyist in order to connect with a woman via Craig’s List, he felt compelled to also add, “The challenges we face in Western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, and so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately.”Clearly, his transgression merits leaving public service. Who wants to trust a guy that is absurd enough to hide being a politician by claiming to be a lobbyist? On top of that, he adds additional absurdity by suggesting that the real issue is that he fears the distraction created by his dalliances may jeopardize Congress’s ability to meet the challenges of Western New York and the country. What ever will the people do without him?  Not all absurdities are uttered in defense of embarrassing mistakes. Some come in the form of bravado or the revealing of too much information. This has been greatly facilitated with the advent of social networks like Facebook and by a mutating press that is slowly replacing relevancy with sensationalism.  In a recent TIME article about the newly-elected mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, we were treated to a too complete description of Mr. Emanuel’s daily workout as partial proof of his mayoral competency. In summary, according to the magazine, he swims on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at “the elite, perfect-for-networking East Bank Club”. Tuesdays and Thursdays, he uses a bike and an elliptical and does sit-ups. Saturdays, he hikes or jogs. Sundays, he has private yoga instruction. What am I supposed to take from this absurd amount of detail? Am I supposed to note how incredibly un-Chicagoan he sounds, or be concerned that my 14 year-old son can do a harder workout than Chicago’s new tough guy? I am going to go with, “A private yoga teacher? Really?” Not to be outdone, The American Red Cross’s recent handling of a rogue tweet provides another excellent example of how social stupidity spawns absurdity. In a tweet heard round the world, an American Red Cross worker announced that her colleagues were uniquely capable drinkers and ready to get “slizzerd.” For those who wisely abstain from using the online “Urban Dictionary” of slang, slizzerd means drunk beyond cognition.  The poetic absurdity of the tweet merits its repeating. This slightly edited rendition is taken from TIME magazine online. “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer....when we drink we do it right…(expletive symbol) getting slizzerd.”Instead of just stating that the tweet was an embarrassing mistake, the Red Cross reported that the brewery had promised to make a donation and the folks at Twitter had promised to give blood. Red Cross’s PR guru opined victoriously, “While we're a 130-year-old humanitarian organization, we're also made of up human beings. Thanks for not only getting that but for turning our faux pas into something good.”How absurd to suggest that all is well that ends well when it starts out with someone, who is supposed to be trustworthy in an emergency, professing an exceptional ability at getting blind drunk. There is no silver lining here, just absurdity obscuring accountability. That is what absurdity has become. It is make-up for any blemish — a useful screen to obscure the real nature of something or someone. Once though, it was just known as nonsense.


Feb 18, 2011 / 00:00 am

This past Sunday was a true Sunday — we had nothing to do but Mass. So, I took my two youngest children to a nearby hotel for a swim. We have frequented this establishment for over a decade and our loyalty has paid off: The owners give us a free swim with breakfast. We greatly appreciate the gratuity and the opportunity to grab a quick break without having to drive a long distance.

Send in the missionaries

Feb 11, 2011 / 00:00 am

Hollywood has released a mixed bag of films about missionaries. Two of my favorites are “The Mission” and “Mosquito Coast.” “The Mission” juxtaposes the good and the bad missionary. “Mosquito Coast” provides mostly the ugly in the form of two dueling zealots, one a crazed genius inventor and the other, a ludicrous evangelical preacher. Although both are well-acted and worthwhile, neither movie gives a realistic presentation of a missionary nor the range of positive contributions that missionaries have made in lesser developed countries over the years.

Planes, trains, automobiles Part II

Feb 4, 2011 / 00:00 am

Due to an overlapping mixture of college interviews and work related meetings spread between Boston, Providence, West Point and Washington in a 72 hour period, my son and I had to execute a complex set of logistics involving planes, trains and automobiles during one of the Northeast’s worst winters in decades. At one point, our itinerary involved splitting up. I have to admit that I felt some trepidation when I dropped my son at West Point for his overnight interview knowing that our successful reunion would require the on-time performance of another set of buses, trains, and planes. I also had to drive back to Providence through the snow that had started to fall during our ride up the mountain to the Academy. Nonetheless, with a tear in my eye and bit of apprehension in my gut, I left him to the care of the Army. The plan was to meet up at Union Station after I finished my meetings in Washington and he completed his interview. For my part, I would return to Providence and fly to Washington in the morning. He would take a bus to NYC and then a train to meet me by 4:00 PM in DC, at which point we would go to the airport and rent a car to drive to see his sister at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA.   I was both relieved and amazed when we were sailing down I-66 on schedule in light traffic. By 7:30 PM, we were having coffee with my much surprised daughter. Unfortunately, my son had to admit that to his little sister that, although he had navigated the route from West Point to DC successfully, he had been pick-pocketed in Grand Central Station. At 4:00 AM, short a hundred dollars and a driver’s license, but with all mission objectives accomplished, we were at Reagan National ready for our flight back to Haiti via Miami.My mom would credit the Holy Spirit with our success. While God does love fools — and you would have to be a fool to try a travel plan like ours in January — the truly amazing US transportation system deserves credit as well. Since what most of us remember is being stuck for hours on I-5 in bumper-to-bumper traffic or being delayed for two days in Philadelphia with no hotel or just missing the rush hour commuter train that was surely two minutes early, we are more likely to curse than to praise our amazing inter-modal transportation system. This is because painful memories outlast good ones and they also make better stories. However, the reality is that we have little reason to complain about the transportation system in the US. I realize my view may be a bit biased by the fact that I spend a lot of time in a country with roads pocked with potlakes, not just potholes, and an international airport that has a habit of closing for days at a time due to political unrest. But, I am convinced that the US has the best overall transportation system in the world. Our world-topping, interlinking roadway is larger than China’s — at least for now. Its grand scheme is said to have been inspired by Eisenhower’s envy of Germany’s ability to quickly transport troops on the Autobahn during WWII. Even if it was originally built with national defense in mind, our immense national road system has helped launch our economy into the number one position. It has also made it possible for going to grandmother’s house to become a national pastime.   Thanks to the development of both regional and international airports and a plethora of ever-competing commercial airlines, which were originally established to carry the mail, there is not a city in the country that cannot be reached in a timely fashion. We may complain about delays, but no country gets planes back in the air as fast as the US, because no country has as ubiquitous coverage. Granted we have allowed our rail system, which has been relegated largely to freight for the past 60 years, to decline too far. Hopefully, with the push of rising fuel prices and the desire to go green, we can catch a little Japan envy and grow our high-speed rail to match the quality and usability of our roadways and airways to maintain our advantage in transportation. If we do, my son will be able to do the same schedule in two days with his son!

A forced marriage

Jan 28, 2011 / 00:00 am

In her article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, "The Rise of the New Ruling Class: How the Global Elite is leaving You Behind," Chrystia Freeland provides a new vocabulary for understanding the approach to philanthropy being practiced by more and more of today’s global billionaires. This approach differs not only in magnitude, but also in methodology from that practiced by the national multimillionaire captains of industry of the last century. To make her point about how the culture of big philanthropy has changed, Freeland nimbly replaces the terms plutocrat and philanthropy with meritocrat and social engagement. She argues that the self-made, genius billionaires are different from the philanthropists of the past. They not only want to pay for the bus to the promise land, they want to drive it. In some cases, they are even willing to quit their day job to focus on solving the world’s worst problems. She calls this new generation philanthrocapitalists.   Freeland credits the term philanthrocapitalism to Matthew Bishop and Michael Green who published a book by the same name in 2008. According to Bishop and Green, philanthrocapitalists (Soros, Gates, Buffet and the like) approach the business of doing good in the same manner that they approach doing good business. The authors gush, “Today’s philanthrocapitalists see a world full of big problems that they, and perhaps only they, can and must put right.”  If this is really how philanthrocapitalists see the world and their role in it, clearly their personal wealth is not the only thing that is oversized. It also is no surprise that Mr. Clinton wrote the forward to the 2009 edition of Bishop and Green’s book. Who else would think himself tall enough in the world of doing good to put the cherry on top of a book about giants like Gates and Buffet? Mr. Clinton even claims a certain parentage for the movement. He declares, “CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) is, in many ways, the laboratory in which the authors’ ideas about philanthrocapitalism are tested.” It is not the hubris and superlative claims surrounding the new philanthropy that concerns me the most. That comes with every human endeavor. It is how philanthrocapitalism not only creates a will, but one with enough capital behind it to make sure that it can choose its own way. Big money attracts more money, which eventually narrows the approach to solving social problems.The easy marriage of two very legitimate, but different pursuits — philanthropy and capitalism — also blurs lines. It argues that the world can improve without authentic conversion or change. It ignores the fact that real, sustainable progress must be transformational for all parties. The idea that we can all stay as we are while the mega-billionaires make the world right simply by applying their innovative minds and big capital is spurious. Yet, this is the philosophy projected by some of the most popular of the philanthrocapitalists. Case in point: a recent ad in TIME magazine showed Bono and wife Ali Hewson headed to do good in Africa, toting Louis Vuitton bags — not so ironically, the bag of choice for fleeing dictators and their wives with little time to pack up valuables. Evidently, we do not even have to change style to do good.  Freeland points out that the most “coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation…one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping their world.” It is a bit of a chilling sensation to think they may also be intent on reshaping it in their own image. Evidently, we do not even have to curb our egos to change the world.Green and Bishop recount an odd scene in their book that takes place at the close of the 2007 CGI meeting: “Shakira’s hips don’t lie — and Bill Clinton can’t keep his eyes off them.” So, never mind all those mothers trying to convince their provocatively-clad daughters that they do not have to put themselves on display to get a man’s attention. Evidently, we do not even have to change our baser instincts to do good.Maybe we really don’t have to change for the world to improve. Maybe the second coming will be sponsored by Coke, and Jesus will emerge on stage as a tech giant, hedge-fund manager, diva model, sporting a Vuitton original and singing a chart-topping pop song.

In the absence of comedians

Jan 18, 2011 / 00:00 am

This past Sunday evening, a close Haitian friend called to let me know that he had just heard that Jean-Claude Duvalier, known dis-affectionately as Baby Doc, would be landing at the international airport in about 30 minutes. Exacerbated, he asked, “Do you have any idea why he is coming to Haiti?” I didn’t. But, in the hopes of distracting my friend from his grim thoughts, I said, “Maybe he has heard that the International Aid Organizations are paying a lot for local drivers. With the EU economy the way it is, the jobs cannot be too good in France.” He laughed — at least for a moment.  I was being intentionally flippant to give my friend some comic relief. I meant no disrespect for his justified displeasure at learning that the son of Haiti’s infamous father-son dictator duo was soon to arrive in Haiti. The diminutive Duvalier had been in exile in France since his ouster in 1986. Nobody, big or small in the political landscape of Haiti, seemed clear on why that wonderful arrangement had come to a close. And, nobody I knew was happy about it either.Even though I came to Haiti a decade after the murderous Duvalier regime had been brought to an end, I shared my friend’s revulsion to the visit. Indeed, it seems unconscionable that Baby Doc would be allowed to set foot on the soil his family had soaked with others’ blood. The only purpose could be to add insult to Haiti’s many recent injuries. An earthquake, cholera, a failed November election and now a slap in the face to boot — it seemed inconceivable. Even Graham Greene could not have concocted such a twist.   There turned out to be one small comfort for U.S. expats like myself. Baby Doc had made his way to Haiti on Air France via Guadeloupe — not on American Airlines via Miami. At least my first country had not played a direct role in this “piling on” to Haiti’s already long streak of misfortunes.I knew enough from reading books about Papa Doc and hearing first-hand accounts of the Duvalier family’s near three decade reign of terror to also have a sick feeling in my gut when I heard about the unexpected visit. But, this wasn’t the first time I had this feeling. I felt it, albeit to a lesser extent, when I first read “Bon retour Jean Claude” scrolled in black graffiti on random walls around Port au Prince. The eerie phrase started appearing here and there shortly after the earthquake. Once, I even saw the salutation to the exiled dictator on a commercially printed banner hanging over a street which leads to the well-known Mevs Clinic in Port au Prince, which is just off the main route to the airport. It included a birthday wish as well. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in the minds of the people who had this banner made. I couldn’t help thinking, “Why would they take the risk to hang it so prominently? Who do they hope to impress?” Little did I know!What makes Baby Doc’s visit doubly confusing is that one would think Haiti would be a source of pain for him as well. In “Written in Blood,” an excellent detailed history of Haiti written in English, historians Robert and Nancy Heinl provide pages of embarrassing accounts of the once-puppet dictator’s struggle to break free from his conniving mother, his controlling, shopaholic wife and his father’s leftover cabinet in order to be his own diabolical man.Unfortunately for Baby Doc, his only truly independent act was his resignation — and even that was reported to have been carefully orchestrated by others. His tragic life would almost inspire some pity if it weren’t for his own many depraved, criminal contributions to Haiti’s ongoing suffering. My favorite passage in the Heinls’ 800 plus page tome recounts Baby Doc’s habit of falling asleep while being instructed in law by the tutors his mother handpicked for the task. Again, I mention this not to make light of the pain of those who suffered and lost family during the cruel reign of the Duvaliers, but to lampoon the man who is so obviously clueless of his own ineptitude and inglorious history that he could actually suggest that he has come “to help his country.”I, too, wish Monsieur Duvalier a bon retour—en France!

In your Facebook!

Jan 14, 2011 / 00:00 am

It may be a bit foolish to kick sand in the face of a behemoth with over a half a billion friends and a company behind him that is estimated to be worth $50 billion dollars; however, one can always hope to be a modern David.  So, with the faith that in God all things are possible and with the courage of Quixote, I again throw down the gauntlet before the goliath Mr. Zuckerberg and lower my lance at the empty windmill that is Facebook.  To date, my only victory in the fight with Facebook and its creator is the ransoming of my daughter from the network. This took a second intervention over Christmas break because her teachers and friends, all of whom I think are suffering from Stockholm syndrome, had convinced her to rejoin for academic and social reasons. Thankfully, I was able to detoxify her of the false belief that there is no life without Facebook and was proud to watch her hit the delete button a few days before the end of vacation. In a broader attack, while attending a speed-think conference on technology held by a friend who has proven to be a guru on forecasting what will stay and go in the constantly changing world of technology, I proffered that social networking would stay, but Facebook would be punished as a brand. It would go. This would be the price, I said, for being the first and most unabashed violator of privacy.I remain confident that Zuckerberg and Facebook will someday pay the price for their hubristic attack on personal privacy. But I must admit that his recent selection as TIME’s Person of the Year and the company’s securing of $500 million additional dollars in investment are clear setbacks in my campaign. To add to my woes, the honor of Person of the Year came complete with a PR makeover by TIME’s popular Lev Grossman, who all but gushes as he paints Zuckerberg as the Beaver with genius. Hopefully, this is only a temporary boom before the bust.  However, there is some hope for my cause in the article. Grossman, though he adamantly denies any connection between the real Zuckerberg and the Sorkin-created, malevolent, vindictive schemer Zuckerberg of the unauthorized biopic “The Social Network,” admits that the boy genius “does have a blind spot when it comes to personal privacy…” As we all know from driving, it’s what is in the blind spot that gets you. Score one for David.  Grossman also sheds a bit of light on the negative social fallout from networks like Facebook, albeit late in the article. He points out that more than three-quarters of the members of The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers report a recent increase in divorce involving social networking, and two-thirds cite Facebook “as the primary source of online divorce evidence.” Funny, embezzlement also went up with riverboat casinos and they have turned out to be such charming social centers, too. Grossman also quickly covers the possibility that Facebooking can be addictive — duh! What else can explain the 700 billion minutes spent monthly on Facebook? That is the equivalent of 15.7 million people being on Facebook every minute of their lives. The result of this massive dedication to self-promotion and social networking is that youth are more narcissistic and less concerned for others than ever. I thought only real drugs could isolate an adolescent and make him or her stare into space.  What’s my problem with Zuckerberg and his virtual meet and greet machine? I still believe that there is more pathology than genius in the mix when it comes to Facebook. A social network can be as morally neutral as a bar or a library. It all depends on the culture of the place, which is decided by both the owner and the frequenters. I think Facebook is a pick-up joint run by a pusher using the enticements of self-promotion, acceptance and gossip to cover his tracks into the personal lives he mines for cash. It is the very youth of those involved, again as creators and users, that hides this darker, meaner side of the blunt instrument Zuckerberg has developed. Maybe it takes a little maturity to see Facebook for what it is, just like it does to tell the difference between a social drink with friends and Everclear laced trashcan punch at a frat party. 

The significance of insignificance

Jan 7, 2011 / 00:00 am

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but man hates insignificance even more. Poverty, failure, defeat are nothing compared to insignificance. History contains the names of several famous figures who were at one point poor or who failed, or were beaten, but none who were not seen as significant. History also contains stories of people who have fallen hard as a result of desperate acts to avoid becoming insignificant. Society puts a lot of importance in significance, evidenced by the plethora of lists created by the media to recognize significance even when it may be fleeting. There is Fortune’s Five Hundred and Forbes’s annual list of the richest people of the world. We have Time’s 100 Most Influential People and People magazine’s list of the most beautiful people. The Wall Street Journal has the list of the top paid CEOs. There is a Who’s Who for just about any category of profession or academia. Yet often it is the acceptance of insignificance that has created some of history’s most significant figures. I was recently struck by this irony while watching for the third time the wonderful HBO series “John Adams”. This is one series that is worth watching annually. The script is expertly adapted from David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on Adams, which is based primarily on his personal letters to his wife and Thomas Jefferson.    Before serving as our nation’s second president and after playing a very significant role as one of our nation’s founders, John Adams spent two un-glorious terms as George Washington’s vice president. He wrote in a letter to his wife, “My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” However, had he not accepted to serve in this insignificant role, he may never have become president, nor would have his son for that matter.Mother Teresa also comes to mind. She left her work teaching very bright students to focus her life on caring for the most insignificant in society’s eyes. She did not take time to study to become a doctor or a community activist in order to help the poor. She purposely chose the simplest and most immediate path: love. For years, people questioned her choice and her insistence that the sisters who join the order do the same. Today, she is the most recognized icon for authentic service. Her adherence to insignificance is what makes her witness so significant.  Mother Teresa was not the first to decide to take the insignificant path. St. Francis chose a similar route. He also insisted his followers adhere to simplicity and shun education. He felt the poor did not have need of learned men, but men ready to join with them in solidarity. He wanted his followers to not only help the poor, but enter into their life. By changing poverty into simplicity, he made the insignificance of his actions significant enough to be recounted nearly a thousand years later.  One could claim that accepting or pursuing insignificance is merely a form of humility. However, that would be a mistake. McCullough does not present Adams as a humble man. In fact, his wife seems to always be reminding him to not succumb to vanity. I am not so sure that Mother Teresa and St. Francis were all that humble either. Rather, they share with Adams a certain type of rare stubbornness that suggests something other than simple humility was at work in their character as well.Certainly, humility is a virtue we should all practice. However, I believe what allowed John Adams, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and St. Francis to accept insignificance was their devotion to service. More than humility, they had singleness of mind to stay the course no matter how insignificant the world regarded their actions or roles. In the end, they defeated our fallen nature’s corrosive concern for significance by maintaining a resolve to serve. Personally, I find this a challenge and a comfort. After all, if we are really about service, there is little time left over to consider if what we are doing is significant.

Moving from the exception to the rule

Jan 3, 2011 / 00:00 am

Just before Christmas delivered us a much needed rest from fractious politics, a USA TODAY/Gallup poll claimed just over a third of Americans doubt that President Obama believes in American Exceptionalism. In the USA TODAY article that accompanied the poll results, Newt Gingrich, along with a few other notable Republicans, took the opportunity to revive their criticism of Mr. Obama for what they perceive to be a lukewarm belief in the United States unique nature and status in the world.Before I hazard to even scratch the surface of the very real issues caused by our zealous adherence to our national exceptionalism, I first want to state for the record that I feel that Mr. Gingrich and his cohorts have gone overboard with the tea on this one. Doubting President Obama’s belief and pride in his country is a bunch of poppycock. I am sure that he is as proud of the exceptional nature of our country as his 43 predecessors — maybe even more so given his personal experience of the unique opportunities found in our great nation. And, Mr. Gingrich, before you accuse me of being a sleeper Tory, please note that poppycock is a perfectly good US word of Dutch derivation, not British vernacular. Be assured, I am a patriot, too, even if I see some downside to our national ego-centrism. There is no doubt that the United States is a uniquely successful experiment in democracy, capitalism, rule of law and personal freedom. However, our national compulsion to see ourselves as a Tigger with nary a peer in the world, future or present, may not be altogether positive for our future. In fact, it may eventually isolate us and, therefore, ultimately leave us weak and vulnerable. Even the word American in American Exceptionalism presents a problem. On a fundamental level, our insistence on calling ourselves American inadvertently clouds our ability to see the other countries in our hemisphere — which are all American nations as well — as future equal partners. As a result of this myopia, we waste time and resources on erecting barriers to protect what we believe is exceptional rather than working to establish positive links with our fellow American nations. Therefore, we have missed many opportunities to make that which we believe makes us exceptional, the rule rather than the exception in our hemisphere.  The concept of a bonded hemisphere is not new. I have written before of how Pope John Paul II spoke of the common history and, by natural extension, common future of the nations of the Western Hemisphere. A century and a half before, Jefferson had the same vision of America as one. In a letter to Alexander von Humboldt about the emerging nations in what is now called Latin America, he boldly wrote, “But in whatever governments they end they will be American governments, no longer to be involved in the never-ceasing broils of Europe. The European nations constitute a separate division of the globe; their localities make them part of a distinct system…America has a hemisphere to itself.”  Understandably, what is clear to prophetic popes and prescient founders is not always clear to us common folk or every national leader. However, it is hard to let us ourselves off the hook too easily when Europe has already fully realized the destiny Jefferson envisioned for it while we continue to stand largely alone in our part of the world.  Could our adherence to American Exceptionalism be the hold back? Certainly, a nation that believes it is unparalleled is less likely to reach out to build relationships with other nations, especially those that are currently less developed. As a simple step forward, maybe we can make it our New Year’s resolution to refer to ourselves as the United States, not as America. If it works, we may also find ourselves one day very proud to be un-exceptional.