To ‘Stir with love: surviving the class of 70

Be forewarned, this is one of those “in-my-day-things-were-different” columns. And, of course, “different” means better. And “my day,” undoubtedly, will seem like code for light years ago to some. It comes with having lived at another time and not having thrown away the minutes of previous meetings.

Anyway, such musing was prompted by a movement earlier this year in support of an amendment to Florida’s constitution that would require smaller classes for students in public schools. For example, the limit for grades 4 through 8 would be 20 students per teacher. The current average is roughly between 23 and 27.

As a former secondary teacher in Philadelphia and Tampa, I know the import and impact of student-to-teacher ratios. The lower, the better, whether physics or phys ed. But as a former student, I’m still tempted to shake my head incredulously over having survived elementary classes where the ratio sometimes hit 70-1. That’s not a typo.

I take you back to yesteryear, in this case the late ’50s, to St. Timothy’s, a blocky, stone-gray Catholic school in a working-class, row-house section of Philadelphia called Mayfair. We were the sons and daughters of WWII-vet families who couldn’t afford Levittown, but were upwardly mobile enough to escape the temporary, post-war project housing that dotted the city.

The intra-city migration was sometimes referred to as “Welfare to Mayfair,” which was much more a function of self-conscious, self-deprecating humor than accuracy. That’s because all fathers worked — mine was a city bus driver — and all moms stayed home raising ever-burgeoning families.

In my case, three brothers and a sister. And, yes, all parents came in pairs.

For demographic diversity there were variations on a Caucasian Catholic theme: Irish, Italians and Poles. Tolerance was shown in acceptance of the odd Protestant family — incongruously nice folks for infidels, we thought.

We all walked to school and came home for a lunch of baloney sandwiches while watching “Tic Tac Dough.” Whenever we left the building — lunch or dismissal — it was always in well-disciplined lines till we crossed the big streets that abutted the school.

The crossing guards were like extended family. The nuns, with stentorian voices, meat-hook hands and martinet manners, were the enforcers. (Even for fire drills. Never know when you would need to walk in straight lines — at a prudent pace — from a burning building.)

Our eighth-grade class was 35 school-tied boys and 35 uniformed girls. Boys on the left, eight or nine to a runnered row of desks; girls on the right. Some, undoubtedly, with all kinds of undiagnosed learning disabilities.

The Ten Commandments were posted prominently to remind us that there was yet another layer of authority beyond our parents and teachers.

Sister Charles Mary of the Order of St. Joseph arranged us according to academic average — if you can believe such pedagogic heresy. I was a fixture in the first row, periodically switching places with James Krawczyk for the highly sought first desk, which meant that you also doubled as the doorman who personally granted entrance to the Monsignor at report-card time.

Sister or “‘Stir” — as in “No, ‘Stir, I didn’t do it; in fact, ‘Stir, I didn’t even know it was a sin.” — presided as only a stocky, tough-love nun could. Doubt if she had a college degree, let alone a teaching certificate emblematic of a dozen courses in educational psychology. She taught everything — religion to math. All day long. No time off for our good behavior. She gave a lot of homework and never failed to collect it and promptly return it with some sort of comment.

She was the first, last and loudest word on all subjects — from what made a sin mortal to what made a rhombus relevant. You memorized; you recited; you applied; you learned. That was your job.

Amazingly, even David Massucci learned. David had been left back one year and struggled more than most. He anchored the class from the last desk on the boys’ side.

Years later we met up and he was married, the father of two, owned a house and made a good living as a General Motors salesman in Cherry Hill, NJ.

As you might infer, corporal punishment was more than permitted. More than condoned. It was mandated. No parental permission necessary. No Polaroids of black-and-blue butts. Your parents were on the same side as the teacher. And they hit you at home, because they knew what you were like. So parents couldn’t be used for intercession, let alone leverage, against ‘Stir.

Another form of punishment was staying after school. It meant, however, more than heel cooling. You had to do windows, clap erasers and clean the room, including inside and under every desk while ‘Stir checked homework and your buddies played audibly in the adjacent schoolyard. For those deserving hard time, there was heavy lifting at the convent next door.

‘Stir had a ruddy face and fleshy hands. Otherwise, she was all black robes, white habit and rosary beads that made an ominous swishing sound when she bustled down an aisle with hands-on discipline topping her agenda. She was probably about 40 years old, give or take 30 years. Just couldn’t tell with nuns. Most days we were convinced her assignment on earth was to make us learn — whether we hated it or just disliked it. Or her.

Of course, much has changed since that class of 70. The meltdown of the nuclear family, erosion of discipline, drugs, guns, an Eminemed culture and curricula that treat self-esteem as a goal rather than a by-product of learning.That eighth grade year at St. Timothy’s, frankly, was no fun. Thanks, ‘Stir.

Cuba’s “Savior” neither tourism nor Marxism

HAVANA — For Americans, there’s no place like Cuba.

And it has nothing to do, of course, with pineapple farms, banana groves, banyon trees or thickets of majestic royal palms and sugar cane fields forever. Neither does it have anything to do with remnants of magnificent, neo-colonial architecture, world class baseball without commercial interruption and obscene salaries; spandex-clad young (and not so young) women; infectious music; and the absence of cell phoniness.

It has, however, everything to do with Fidel Castro.

As in nationalization, expropriation, Bay of Pigs, missiles of October and exiles of South Florida. As in embargo, revenge, assassination plots, the mob, and ego. As in Alpha 66, Brothers to the Rescue, Elian and political pandering.

We rebuilt the Axis powers of World War II and normalized relations with the Soviet Union of Stalin and the China of Mao. We’ve kissed up to Vietnam and cut deals with North Korea.

But Cuba is different; it’s the Cold War relic that won’t go away.

It’s also safe, must-see history still in the making.This much we think we know regarding Cuba: at some point America’s unilateral, counterproductive embargo against it will end. And the impetus likely will come courtesy of the “biological solution.” That’s mordant, euphemistic, Cuban shorthand for the mortality of the 74-year-old Castro.

This much, however, we do know. Cubans will retain their characteristic, coping-device sense of humor — and remain among the world’s most resourceful people. In addition, the compromises made to keep the Cuban economy afloat via tourism will continue to mock and erode a failed socialist experiment — like so many “Patria o Muerte” (“Country or Death”) signs incongruously proximate to dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn lots.

This was ever more apparent in a recent visit, this one legal — and the second in two years. This was under the auspices of the Friendship Force, an Atlanta-based organization that promotes private citizen exchanges worldwide. The reciprocal organization was the Cuban Council of Churches, which arranged home stays in Havana and Santa Cruz del Norte, about 100 miles east of Havana.

Revolution in defeat — not transition

Whether the venue was a public housing-ambienced apartment in Havana or a small, plumbing-challenged, adobe-like row house in a small town, this much was clear: Cuba appears increasingly as a revolution in defeat, not transition. Its people deserve better than grim lives offset by hustling for the table scraps from tourism.

There is no more fitting metaphor for Cuban ingenuity, of course, than its stock of well-maintained, vintage American cars. It’s the first thing you notice in Havana after faded facades and laundry-bedecked balconies.

The ’50s fins are still there, but the Cubans have typically removed the gas-guzzling engines and replaced them with Romanian or Russian diesels. These are not museum pieces; they are transportation, many of them private cabs relegated to local peso-paying fares. With gas at more than $3.50 a gallon, siphoning hoses are as necessary as jumper cables.

In all, there are an estimated 150,000 cars, including barely-within-memory Ramblers, Studebakers and Edsels, that are older than the Revolution itself.

There are also the much-maligned Russian cars, notably boxy Ladas and the more recent, less reliable Moskviches. The latter has become the familiar butt of a Cuban joke that has been making the self-deprecating rounds: “Who’s the most deluded person in Cuba? Answer: The owner of a Moskvich; he thinks he owns a car.”

But most urban Cubans still get around on over-loaded, exhaust-spewing buses, bicycles, motor bikes and side-car-affixed motorcycles. In the provinces, animal-drawn transportation remains much in evidence.

Those without transportation can always hitchhike.

Government vehicles, from jeeps to flatbed trucks, routinely stop for those in need who queue up along main roads. It’s not at all unusual to see well-dressed women and girls in school uniforms, called botelleras, flagging down rides with impunity. It’s part of the make-do mentality brought on by the economic hardships of the “Special Period” — as the post-Soviet and Eastern Bloc-subsidy epoch is known.

Make-do mentality

For a number of Cubans and their children it also means living with the occasional rolling blackout and without hot water and reliable toilets. Wood scraps with ill-matched wheels become ad hoc scooters. There is always somebody who knows somebody who can tap into a TV satellite– and see what foreigners see, including CNN and HBO, at the tourist-only hotels. Ditto for those needing an E-mail address to communicate with the outside world. Currently, there are an estimated 60,000 Cubans with E-mail accounts, mostly through universities, workplaces or computer clubs.

Official Cuban television (two stations) is used effectively in the service of the state — furthering such government priorities as public health campaigns and English language instruction.

That resolviendo (making do somehow) mentality is notably evident in moonlighting, Cuban style. With the tourism-inspired influx of visitors — and the legal tender status of the dollar since 1993 — many physicians, attorneys, engineers and teachers can be found working for tips as waiters, bartenders, tour guides and cab drivers. To paraphrase Willie Sutton: That’s where the dollars are. Especially if you’re not fortunate enough to have cash-wiring family in Miami.

Without access to dollars, the professionally educated can’t expect to make much more than about 400 pesos ($20) per month. Plus, anyone who owes his education to the government — which is virtually everyone — is forbidden from seeing patients or clients privately. Those with lesser state jobs average half what professionals make. Pensioners receive $3-4 monthly.

The “internal” embargo

Even those in business for themselves, such as it is, find themselves governmentally hamstrung by what is cynically called, by Cubans, the “internal embargo.” That is the incentive-stifling system of surprise inspections and relatively stiff fees and taxes for small, private restaurant (paladar) owners or venders.

For example, Ofelia, a middle-aged artisan, pays $15 a day for enough room to set up a small rack for her inexpensive, hand-made sweaters near the resort beaches of Varadero in North Cuba. That’s whether she sells anything or not. By decree, she works half the month: a pattern of two consecutive days on, then two days off. She also had to pass a rigorous exam after two years of studying Cuban folk art and prove to the government that she was, indeed, the artisan — not some capitalistic hireling.

Ration-card subsidies, which range from modest rice, beans and bread allotments to cigars, cigarettes and matches, will typically need supplementing from the parallel markets, Cubans tell you, at four times the price.

Increasingly, churches are playing a supplementary role to the erstwhile atheist — now “secular” — government by helping get food and clothing to the most needy. It’s hardly a windfall, but the modest aid is the quid pro quo Castro exacts for having eased off religious oppression.

In Old Havana there are scores of mostly benign hustlers making the rounds. The crackdown on prostitutes has been effective.

Some hustlers, called jineteros (“jockeys”) impassively inquire about your taste in cigars or whether they can direct you to a paladar, which are literally part of a family residence, seat no more than 12, and employ no one outside the family.

Others ask, on average, for a dollar “to practice” their English. The rate is the same for those crooning “Guantanamera” or posing for photos in Colonial garb.

Dollar dichotomy

Thanks to tourism (nearly 2 million visitors — predominantly from Europe and Canada — that now generates (at $1
.3 billion) more than half of the country’s revenue, and joint-ventures, Cuba’s gross domestic product is expanding in the 5% range. It was contracting severely in the early ’90s.

Castro, for example, has sold half of Cuba’s cigar export monopoly to the Spanish. Canada is buying into the nickel sector and Europeans into oil. Israel has a citrus export agreement. Sol Melia, an international Spanish hotel chain, is building its 14th Cuban resort. UNESCO underwrites some historic restorations.

But the down side of an economy that is barely off life-support is a societal issue no less threatening — if you think about what causes revolutions in the first place.

Cuba, Marxist ideology notwithstanding, now sports three blatantly distinct classes. High-profile foreigners, both tourists and joint-venturing investors, who have dollars; Cubans who have access to dollars; and Cubans who don’t. It’s an incongruously complicating position for a country grounded in command-economy principles and egalitarian tenets.

The juxtaposition of average habaneros — typically crammed into aging, tiny apartments within large, crumbling neoclassical structures — with affluent Canadians and Europeans coursing around town in Mercedes cabs could, one would think, foment frustration, disillusionment and bitterness.

Ruben, a 40-something Havana friend with four children, two jobs, a wife and a 15-year-old Moskvich, wouldn’t argue the point. He’s already been turned down for a visa to the U.S., and he knows he has no future in Cuba.

“Do you know what it’s like to live your life under socialism?” he asked. “To see those ‘Socialism or death’ banners every day. Ughhh

Election 2000: Not Networks’ Finest Hour

One final note about the bizarre, Byzantine business that was the election of the 43rd president of the United States. The networks need to clean up their act.

The misuse of exit polls and skewed early returns to project a Florida win for Vice President Gore — before folks in the Central Time Zone Panhandle had even finished voting — was unconscionable. “If you can’t be right, at least be first,” seemed the media mantra. Instead, it should be “First, do no harm.” Then the herd instinct kicked in, and everyone ran with the same irresponsibly incorrect information.

Here’s some advice: Leave the exit polling to political scientists, who don’t have to play beat the clock and conquer the competition. But, more importantly, remember who you are and what your function is in a democracy. To wit: Report the news and even analyze it. But don’t make the news. It’s not good for credibility; it shouldn’t be good for business; and it’s definitely not good for America.

It’s A Mad, Mad, Madeleine World

There was an overseas ceremony recently that should give all Americans cause for pause and reflection, if not an irony fix for the ages.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright formally dedicated a new U.S. consulate building in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The new American consulate reestablishes a diplomatic foothold in the erstwhile Saigon for the first time since 1975. That’s when U.S. diplomats fled the advancing North Vietnamese forces that overran the American-backed South Vietnamese army in the last stage of that tragic American misadventure.

In her prepared remarks, America’s Iron Lady said, “The United States and Vietnam will forever be linked by history. But by continuing to work together to transcend that tragic legacy, we can add to our shared history bright new chapters of hope and mutual prosperity.”

That shared history, of course, includes more than 50,000 dead GIs and another 2,000 service personnel still listed as missing in action a generation later. It even brought down a president.

Meanwhile in Washington, House and Senate negotiators are still trying to wrangle a compromise that would at least permit an easing of the embargo on sales of food and medical supplies to Cuba. Through four decades and nine presidents, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Americans have been banned from selling much of anything to Cuba. To those who have questioned presidential guts in dealing with the South Florida Cuban-American lobby, the Administrations’ responses have been, in effect: “That’s the way it embargoes. We don’t want to be known as the Administration that ‘gave in’ to Castro.”

Because Fidel Castro has refused to die off, the embargo lives on. Its impact, especially in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion, hurts nobody but American business interests and the Cuban people who, like people everywhere, are hardly responsible for the government they’re saddled with.

We’ve never been to war with Cuba, and the island was never a killing field for American soldiers. The embargo is a counterproductive, foreign-policy incongruity that induces global alienation and ridicule — and that’s from our allies.

Yet, inexplicably, a new chapter of “hope and mutual prosperity” applies only to Vietnam, not Cuba. Explained Albright: “It will help us better serve the American business community, which is concentrated here in the south (of Vietnam).” That eclectic business community, it should be noted, even includes the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. Perhaps JWT should pitch the Cuba account.

But back in the states, farm groups and agribusinesses continue to clamor for their piece of “mutual prosperity” and permission to move a glut of grain that has been depressing commodity prices. Such beseeching is belittling when the rationales of humanitarian aid, enlightened self-interest and common sense should be carrying the day.

So, while American officials in Vietnam say they now expect to receive up to 25,000 requests each year for permission to live permanently in the United States, Cuban smugglers continue to traffick in those fleeing from the deprivations ensured by the U.S. embargo.

Isn’t it, after forty years of failed policy, time to “transcend that tragic legacy”?

Links Between Sausage And Political Conventions

As predicted, the Democrats answered the Republican Convention — stagecraft for stagecraft, defining-moment nominee speech for defining-moment nominee speech. Marketing mavens pitched the two major political parties. Whom we saw was what we got.

However, having watched both conventions, the Republican in person, I think it prudent to remember an applicable adage: some things are best viewed only as final products, for the process isn’t pretty. The list is short: laws, news, political conventions and sausage.

Sausage can speak for itself. As to the rest:

*The wheeling, dealing, back-scratching, horse-trading and quid pro quoing of politics is unseemly up close — regardless of the resultant law, from Jim Crow to Great Society. Compromise is too genteel a term.

*Deciding what is TV news is often a function of what doesn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor. Editing is critical, subjective, problematic and hurried. Ambush interviews and leading questions too often set up punchy, context-free sound bites. Print reporters’ trails and travails of inquiry are typically tedious and boring. Style, however, is as polite, ingratiating, deceptive, intimidating or beseeching as necessary to get the story — and get it first.

*Focusing on silly hats, infomercial ambience and hard news deficits is an inane intrusion into the essence of any convention — in-house cheerleading, incessant back-slapping, non-stop networking and, in this case, celebrity gawking. Unless you’re on assignment for People Magazine, this should be unworthy of media scrutiny.

The networks pretty much got it right by drastically curtailing their prime time coverage. They pared it back to a total of approximately 25 hours, which still left time for over-analysis. In Philadelphia, they largely focused on key elements of the final product — Colin Powell, John McCain, Dick Cheney, anybody named Bush and a couple of acceptance speeches. It was more challenging in Los Angeles where the Democrats were encumbered by Pacific Time and the need to spotlight a lot of Kennedys and a couple of Clintons.

Would that the rest of the media had adopted a relatively minimalist approach. PBS and cable networks CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN combined for an additional 375 hours of TV tedium. Too many media — from multi-staffed daily newspapers and yada yada dot commies to celebrity talking heads — chasing too little substance. The result: inordinate attention paid to goofy garb and a continuous loop of pep rallies and schmoozing delegates — the sausage-making of any political convention.

In Philadelphia, for example, appearances by Bo Derek, still a near 10 despite some weird, faux-British accent, and The Rock, still a mixed-message mistake, seemed almost newsworthy for a party that is still celebrity challenged beyond Charlton Heston.

But just because the nominees have been pre-selected, platform planks pre-set and elephant hats prepared, doesn’t mean these quadrennial gatherings are nothing more than atavistic, pre-coronation exercises in pomp and partisanship — without much value.

“One of the biggest problems we have in this country is voter apathy,” opined Florida delegate Al Austin from the cacophonous floor of Philadelphia’s First Union Center. “An event like this is an opportunity to get people focused on the fact that there’s a presidential election coming up. It’s a way for voters to get aware and interested — and introduced to candidates.”

Austin, a Tampa developer, consummate insider and finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, also pointed out that, as with any convention — from hardware to pharmaceuticals — it’s the perfect forum to energize the troops to go forth and, well, sell.

“It fires these folks up and generates a lot of enthusiasm for carrying the message,” pointed out Austin. “If you’re a delegate, this is an honor. They feel like they’re a part of something big.”

Added University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus: “This convention is a reward for the county organizations, for those who labor in the trenches, for those who are the backbone of the party. These are the people who can make or break a campaign between now and November

Was it media’s nature to be a Coe-conspirator?

No, you haven’t read this before — although the subject is painfully familiar.

In the aftermath of the still shocking, self-inflicted death of State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III, the post-mortems have been both profuse and predictable.

No one, of course, denies the tragedy of it all. No one doesn’t lament the sad demise of a good man.

There certainly was a consensus that the late Judge Coe was an eccentric, complicated, conflicted, loyal, powerful prosecutor with a track record of bizarre behavior and conscientious public service. The aberrant antics inevitably invited controversy as well as scrutiny, initially from the media, eventually from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In time, the unflattering attention would overshadow the 30 years of service Coe rendered as a judge and Hillsborough state attorney.

At his death, Coe was better known for quirks and questionable practices than community contributions as an effective juvenile court prosecutor and stalwart in the struggle against spousal abuse. He also had an incongruously private side rarely seen in public officials.

Also among the post-mortems was an acrid, accusatory chorus of public sentiment blaming the media, both print and electronic, for the suicide of the harried Coe. For using its coverage to push him past the perilous precipice he had been teetering upon.

Predictably enough, the media responded largely with knee-jerk, self-serving rationalizations articulated by editors, columnists and news executives. “We’re just doing our job” and “Don’t shoot the messenger” became the media’s shields and shibboleths.

There is, of course, truth in those responses, but it must be qualified. That’s because the media did play a major, albeit unwitting, role in Coe’s suicide. It wasn’t by design — but by culture.

An anecdote involving Walter Cronkite is illustrative. In answer to a question regarding the media’s seeming obsession with all things bad and scandalous, the erstwhile dean of TV journalism replied: “Most people don’t care about all the cats that did not get stuck in trees today.”

Cronkite was correct. That which is supposed to happen is not news; the unexpected is. The uncrashed plane or the unmurdered convenience store owner is as much non-news as a safe intersection or a squeaky clean public official.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than insiders’ gallows humor. It’s local TV news dogma — and won’t change unless tabloid competition disappears and TV news reverts from profit-center and network lead-in status to the loss-leader standing of television’s early days. Or somebody does some serious soul searching.

The question begged, however, is who can reliably draw the line between informing the public and pandering to it? The First Amendment permits both; the bottom line doesn’t always favor the former. And more to the point here, who, if anyone, credibly defines that line between holding a public official accountable and hounding him during “sweeps” month? Presumably, the people’s right to know about Coe’s greyhound gambling and $12,000 in loans from office employees last year would be no less important in a non-sweeps period. Moreover, imagine the coverage if a crime had been committed.

Most TV newsrooms are hard pressed to make the tough calls on the side of sensitivity, especially where a high-profile, “good copy” person is involved. Reporters are, by training and inclination, skeptics; many eventually morph into cynics, and we’ve all seen the results. And everybody lives and dies by ratings.

The crashed plane is obvious news, but is there a compelling public interest in knowing, say, how the disaster feels to next of kin? We’ve all seen and heard that question asked. How do you think they feel? Viewers don’t need to become voyeurs in the name of their right to know.

It is absolutely the media’s “job” to report that crash, murder, traffic accident or alleged public-trust violation, but it needn’t be anyone’s “job” to sensationalize or serialize it. And that goes even if it’s July sweeps, and you’ve got an investigative series to promote and tease around the clock. Is it possible Harry Coe caught some of that tabloidy, investigative hype?

While TV news has a sense of relentless ubiquity, the daily newspapers were more of a drumbeat the week leading up to Coe’s death. The morning that Coe’s body was discovered by a Channel 8 investigative reporter and photographer, both dailies had page one stories of the FDLE’s preliminary investigation of those repaid employee loans and allegations that Coe may have visited greyhound racing Web sites on his government-issued laptop computer. Among other front page stories the Coe pieces took layout priority over were: findings that most cancers are caused by lifestyle not genes; a proposal that pushes an improved Medicare drug plan; news that huge profits are being reaped by oil producers and refiners; and a FAA report that finds nothing amiss in the controversial lease of TIA-owned property to a mall developer. All important stories, to be sure, just less so than another Harry Coe update.

The following morning, the front-page headline in the St. Petersburg Times actually asked: “Why would he do it?” Part of the answer might have been directly below that incredulous headline. It was a large, color crime scene photo showing the covered, yet still obviously outlined and slumped body of Coe. Nice touch.

That’s why.

And one final post-mortem. Would that the local media look inward in the aftermath of the Harry Lee Coe tragedy. If so, this is what they should see:

That the continued need to not pull any reporting punches is compatible with putting away the brass knuckles until they’re needed.

That while theirs is a highly competitive business, it’s still the only one with a sacrosanct First Amendment mandate to inform — not pander.

That there are human beings behind their news-product stories — and that skeptics can be empathetic.

If this were to happen, Coe’s death would be much more than a tragic footnote in the governmental annals of Hillsborough County. It would be an ironic tribute.

Iran: More in common than conflict

TEHRAN– “Some places you have to see for yourself.” That was my stock, terse-to-a-fault answer, and I stuck with it when queried about plans to spend some time recently in Iran.

THAT Iran.

Of American hostage-taking fame. Of “Death-to-the-Great Satan” renown. Of state-sponsorship-of-terrorism repute. Of Satanic Verses hitmen. Of teenage “martyrs.” Of dyspeptic, stern-visaged mullahs. Of sepulchral, chador-shrouded women. Of Luddite license toward the Internet. Of Koranic cops. Of heavy-handed censorship. Of institutionalized anti-Semiticism. Of public executions. Of earthquakes. Of awful television. Of squat toilets. Of no beer.

What’s not to dislike except for world-class worry beads and nickel-a-liter gas?

“You are American, yes? I’ve been to Kansas City. America is a great country. Americans are great people. These are my children.”

The longer answer says that too much that matters to America — and the rest of the world — has happened here. The fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini made us examine our culture as well as our foreign policy.

The short list of America’s favorite autocrats was subsequently downsized. It also forced us to acknowledge Islam beyond knowing it has something to do with Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan and a bunch of black bouncers in bow ties.

To know a country and a people only through the filtered lens of the American media is to court collective ignorance. Arguably, too many Americans are already there on matters historical and geographical.

“Mister — you American? Welcome. You-like-Iranian-people-we-like Americans.”

A civilization — Persian –that has been around for 2,500 years and weathered invasions by Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and McDonalds has some kind of staying power. It is the only country — Persia officially became Iran in 1935 — invaded by Arabs that retained its language — Farsi — and culture.

Its 64 million people — from Third World, desert-dwelling nomads to first-among-equals nabobs in the gated communities of North Tehran — are as proud as they are stubborn. They are also young. Half the country’s population wasn’t around for the Khomeini-led revolution of 1979.

Although 20 years removed from the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the 444-day, hostage ordeal understandably remains — for many Americans — a defining, viscerally humiliating and enraging image in the demonizing of America. For many in the West — especially the U.S. — Islam has replaced communism as the Cold War villain. And nobody among the one-fifth of the planet who practice Islam has been more villainous than the theocracy from hell, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But a funny thing happened on the way to reinforcing an unflattering stereotype of the country so many Americans love to hate. The Iranian people wouldn’t cooperate.

“HELLL-o, HELLL-o. Sorry for my English not so good. Good bye and welcome.”

Not in Tehran, a noisy, nondescript, motorcycle-and-car-clogged city of more than 10 million people — most of whom appear to be crossing the street at any given time — and hundreds of abandoned construction projects. Nor in the sprawling, time-warp bazaars of Shiraz and Isfahan, the latter an oasis of beauty in an ancient ruins, desolation-dominated countryside. Not in scores of produce and spice shops; not in mosques; not at newsstands; not near universities; and not by ad hoc soccer fields.

The Iranian people were uniformly open, gracious and typically taken aback. Some NATO allies wouldn’t have been so hospitable. Old and (especially) young, male and (even) female; civilians, clerics, cops. And yes, there are mild-mannered mullahs and disarmingly friendly soldiers.

Iraqis, afterall, are the real, eight-years-worth-of-devastating-war enemy in Iran. And if Iranians just want to feel superior, there’s always the lowly Afghanis, currently straining resources as refugees from Taliban barbarities.

“Welcome to Yazd. We like Americans. Do you like futbol? World Cup? Iran 2, USA, 1. But America is good team too.”

Americans, however, seem viewed more as intriguing curiosity pieces, unwitting hostages, so to speak, of Middle Eastern stereotypes and a government still officially inimical to their own. Erstwhile support for the Shah is more a colonial footnote than a reason to dislike Americans now. And it’s been 11 years since the USS Vincennes downed a commercial Iranian airliner.

It’s as if a decade removed from the death of ultimate zealot Khomeini, there’s a sense that so much of what impacts Iranian lives today — U.S. trade sanctions notwithstanding — has increasingly little to do with America and nothing to do with Americans. It has much more to do with depressed oil prices, refugee problems, a population explosion, xenophobic attitudes and governmental meddling in the economy.

“Mister. Can we speak English to you? We-like-Americans-do-you-like-President-Khatami?”

Sure, the Iranian government is restrictive and paranoid, but who can explain governments anyhow, including our own? And yes, the name Monica Lewinsky, embarrassingly enough, did surface but only to buttress the contention that government leaders are rarely worthy of those they govern.

Right now Iran is undergoing serious, sometimes strident, internal debate on just how much to open up to the West and how much to ease up on its citizens without running afoul of Islamic guidelines. The personally popular president, Mohammad Khatami, does a high-wire act daily over the political mosh pit of religious hard liners and pragmatic reformers.

“I think what you have experienced in your travels is a true reflection of how Iranian people feel about Americans,” summarized Akbar Heshani, the owner of one of the myriad Persian carpet shops in the Isfahan bazaar. “You are admired as a people because of your many accomplishments and your country, of course, is the only super power,” he said. “The Iranian people are surprised and probably flattered you are here.

“All that’s happened in the past is between governments,” he added. “We are different, but we can still be friends.”For now, that will have to do.

There are no official diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Only recently has the U.S. government backed off its embargo on all trade with what is still considered a pariah state that supports terrorism and fancies weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions are being waived on a case-by-case basis on the export of food and medicine.

As for Iran, although President Khatami has called for better relations with the U.S., he has stopped short of endorsing an official dialogue. But the good news is the reminder that individuals will always have more in common than in conflict.

What’s amazing, however, is that we have to keep relearning that basic lesson in human nature. People not caught up in governmental power politics tend to get along.

Which means that diplomatically, a friendly “salaam,” a courteous smile and an extended hand will just have to do — nicely as it turns out.

Let the (Friendship) Force be with you

The U.S. State Department officially — and euphemistically — warns all U.S. citizens to “defer” travel to Iran. There are no formal diplomatic or consular relations between the U.S. and Iran, although the Swiss government, through its embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests there.

But nobody pretends a surrogate government can “protect” an American the way an American Embassy can — provided, of course, no one swarms its grounds, scales its walls and takes its citizens hostage.

The Iranian government, however, does grant visas to American citizens and operates an Interests Section in Washington. Application can be made there — and a visa granted subject to review by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. The understandably few Americans interested in traveling to Iran are advised to allow at lea
st several months for the visa process to run its bureaucratic course.

In my case, there was also the travel vehicle of the Friendship Force, a non-political organization that fosters friendship among private citizens worldwide. I traveled with a contingent of 24 other Friendship Force “ambassadors.” The Friendship Force expedited the visa paperwork by utilizing the good offices of Canada, which often intercedes for the officially estranged countries.

Co-founded more than 20 years ago by former President Jimmy Carter, the FF is based on the premise that friendship — facilitated by direct people-to-people contact — can be a catalyst for improved world relations. Atlanta-based Friendship Force International now includes clubs in more than 350 communities around the world — from Brazil to Belarus.

Additional information on The Friendship Force is available at (404) 522-9490.

Land of contrasts, country in transition

Some things you can’t blame on an all day, all-night, twitchy-limbed, bleary-eyed flight from Tampa to Tehran via New York and Frankfurt.

For instance, upon the approach to Tehran there was an abrupt morphing of all the women aboard Lufthansa flight 405 into a sea of cloaked, scarfed specters. No manner of eye-rubbing and double-taking could change it.

One moment you’re next to a woman; the next moment you’re beside a speed bump. For some, make-up became even less prominent. Whether Westernized Iranians returning from overseas or non-Islamic Republic visitors, they were all gearing up to cover up.

Since 1983, public “veiling” has been mandatory for all women in Iran. And there are no summer-color loopholes. Earth tones rule.

Then there’s the Customs Declaration for Arriving Passengers. “In The Name of God” is emblazoned at the top of the form to remind all that the Deity is also the Ultimate Bureaucrat in Iran.

Anyhow, you’re asked to declare that not only are you not bringing guns, ammunition, drugs, alcoholic beverages and glossies of the late Shah into Iran, but you’re also not toting cassettes, CDs, books, magazines and films that are “in violation of public order and decency and national and religious values of the country.”

Party on.

After a two-hour airport welcome — disguised as a paranoia attack by officials at the sight of 25 Americans — it’s on to an official briefing. To quote a government tour guide: “You must remember that there is no alcohol available here. It is forbidden. Not in the hotel. Not in restaurants

The Times, they are a changin’ in Iran too

This summer’s pro-democracy protests in Iran took much of the West by surprise. It did so because we know so little of that country beyond its image as a terrorist state that sanctioned the taking of American hostages.

Its most recognizable images are anti-American demonstrators, androgynous, chador-shrouded women and grim-looking clerics — all seemingly trying to repeal the 20th century.

What most Americans don’t know is that most Iranians weren’t around for the Revolution of 1979. In fact, two thirds of its 64 million people are under age 25. Its youth, who can start voting at age 15, are the most educated generation in Iran’s history. From 1979 to 1999, literacy went from 58% to 82%. Not surprisingly, they want what most people want — a better life.

This generation knows the revolution unshackled Iranians from an authoritarian dynasty, and that Islam was the vehicle. What many of them also know is that the revolution against a dictatorship was hijacked by the most conservative clerics.

These reactionary mullahs, in turn, crafted a constitution delegating ultimate power to a supreme religious leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his 10-year successor, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Purges, opposition bashing and rigid social restrictions have followed.

When the opportunity came, however, to popularly elect a president in 1997, a mandate for the reformist Mohammad Khatami resulted. Khatami, who favored an opening to the West and democratic reforms at home, won 70% of the youth-skewed vote in a four-way contest. He’ll likely be re-elected next year as well.

While the students respect Khatami, they’ve grown restless for rapid results. They want more republic and less theocracy in the Islamic Republic. And that’s what Khatami, ever mindful that his hard-line opposition ultimately controls the police, the judiciary and the media, can’t deliver at more than a prudent pace. This uneasy state of discontent was shattered when police and vigilante-type activists stormed a Tehran University dormitory and set in motion a series of demonstrations and riotous behavior in a number of Iranian cities.

Journalist Joe O’Neill was traveling in Iran prior to the outbreaks, and he reports on a populace that, for all its recent history and alien Islamic ways, has more in common than conflict with Americans. He was also privy to some of the frustrations simmering among Iranian students.

Now playing: “Valessa: Poster Child for Parricide”

For those of us who have had enough of “Parenthood Vs. Politics: All Elian All The Time,” we’ve now been privy to “Valessa: Poster Child for Parricide.”

For those who can’t wait for the supermarket tabs, HBO and “48 Hours,” there have been the daily print and electronic news accounts. But even they, of course, couldn’t keep up with the sheer newsworthiness of Valessa Robinson’s notoriety nor the presumed demand for more details, both mundane and ghastly.

That’s why the St. Petersburg Times ran a serialized feature — during jury selection — on Valessa, the former Sickles High student who was on trial here in Tampa for helping her boyfriend and another chum to murder her mom in a particularly gruesome fashion. The Times’ multi-part report, teased on its newspaper racks and through tabloidy radio ads and available on its Website, was laid out colorfully with lots of photos — some relevant and in focus. (And yes, you can order extra copies of the series from the Times.)

Even columnists, need I say, have proven voyeuristically challenged in the process of decrying the media circus.

It’s not just the allure of the lurid, however, that makes us all stop and look — not unlike knee-jerk rubberneckers at an accident intersection. It’s the human fascination with the ultimate, unthinkable crime: killing the one who gave you life. Moreover, perpetrators, no matter how grizzly or senseless their crime, can morph perversely into a societal celebrity.

Thus we have, sensationally yet simply, “Valessa.” In this culture, someone has truly arrived as a media staple when they join that special pantheon of one-name personalities that includes Cher, Madonna, Sting, Hillary, Junior, Fidel and Jeb!.

Thanks to her public-defender attorney, Valessa Robinson was decked out demurely every trial day like Becky Thatcher looking for Tom Sawyer on the set of a slasher movie. Her defense team knew there was always the chance that a jury, especially one that claims it doesn’t know enough to be anything but impartial, would buy the child-victim makeover.

Too bad Valessa really wasn’t the preppy schoolgirl she so resembled. But that, of course, would have been boring and unworthy of the Jerry Springer Show, let alone a notorious, first-degree murder trial.