Mike Kueber's Blog

March 31, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #19 – Love and Other Drugs, Sex is Comedy, The Bucket List, and Shakespeare in Love

Love and Other Drugs is a 2010 romantic comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.  It is based on the real-life memoir of Jamie Reidy called Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.  Although I love romantic comedies like the 1986 film Working Girl starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford, I think that sometimes the comedy gets in the way of the romance.  It’s hard to get your serious romantic juices stirring when too much comedy is interjected.  That is the case with the early part of Love and Other Drugs, with Gyllenhaal and his dorky younger brother have scenes that are unbelievable and excessive.  But that problem is minimized later in the movie when girlfriend Anne Hathaway starts dealing with her early-onset Parkinson’s.  This causes the movie to shift from a romantic comedy to a romantic drama that is evocative of 1970’s Love Story, with Ali McGraw the sick girlfriend and Ryan O’Neill the dashing boyfriend.  Both Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are wonderful.  Love and Other Drugs starts lamely but finishes strongly.  It earned a 48% from the Rotten Tomato critics and a 54% from its audience.  I disagree and give it three stars out of four.     

Continuing with sex-based movies, I next saw Sex is Comedy.  According to Netflix’s thumbnail description, this French film is a movie director’s semi-autobiographical tale that captures the making of a cinematic sex scene in all its awkwardness.  Well said, except that the tale stars two incredibly unprofessional, childish actors.  Not surprising for a director’s semi-autobiographical tale, the only adult in the room appears to be the director.  The film received a solid 70% from the Rotten Tomato critics, but only 50% from its audience.  As usual, I lean more toward the audience than the critics, but I think the audience was too generous.  I give it only one and a half stars out of four.

The Bucket List has become a cliché, even for those who haven’t seen the movie.  The reference makes its way into a variety of philosophical discussions, and I always felt a bit guilty discussing the concept because I hadn’t seen the movie.  Now, because of Netflix, I no longer feel that guilt.  But watching The Bucket List was not time spent particularly well.  Although Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman acted proficiently, the movie contained no great insights or delightful nuances and nothing surprising.  Rotten Potato critics gave it only 40%, while the audience gave it 81%.  I don’t recall seeing such a divergence of opinion between critics and audience.  Although I tend to agree with the audience review, in this case I agree with the critics, and give it one and a half stars out of four.  I suspect the reason is that at my current stage in life I prefer movies that involve finding romance (like in Love and Other Drugs) rather than movies that deal with end-of-life issues.        

Shakespeare in Love made my viewing list because it won an Academy Award as the best 1998 movie, with Joseph Fiennes starring as William Shakespeare.  Gwyneth Paltrow played his love interest, and she won the Best Actress Academy Award.  The British movie is a fictional comedy that revolves around Shakespeare writing his play Romeo and Juliet while he having a similarly star-crossed relationship with Paltrow’s character.  As I have previously mentioned, I am not a big fan of serious comedies (Is that an oxymoron?), and I am not a big fan of this movie.  The actors, especially Fiennes, are too effeminate for my taste.  And although the ending was appropriate, it was disappointing.  As I expected, Rotten Tomatoes critics liked it more (93%) like it more than its audience (76%).  I would give the movie only two stars out of four because of its weak story and characters.     


March 29, 2012

An open letter to State Board of Education member Ken Mercer

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:17 pm
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Dear Ken,

Hope things are going well for you at work.  Have you heard that Rebecca Cervera is running for Congress in the Valley – District #15?  I think she has the Right Stuff.

Regarding your avocation – the Texas Board of Education – I have a suggestion that I wish you would consider.  While reading a new book about decision-making called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I was intrigued by the author’s suggestion that high school students should be taught the generic subject of decision-making.  I use the term “generic” because I am referring, not to a particular subject-matter like making financial or personal-relationship decisions, but rather to a way of thinking that identifies and overcomes common decision-making flaws like having too little information, too much information, stereotyping, etc.  This is the kind of education that will benefit our high school graduates for the rest of their lives.

Of course, teaching decision-making as applied to particular subject-matters would also be helpful.  I suspect that there already are classes to help kids make intelligent financial decisions.  If there aren’t, there should be.  I would be surprised, however, if there are classes to help kids in making relationship decisions, and I can’t think of anything that would improve their lives and help them avoid mistakes more than a class on developing and maintaining good relationships and avoiding or ending toxic ones.

One of the goals of a high school education should be to prepare our kids for a productive and satisfying life.  And making good decisions, especially concerning money and personal relationships could serve as a cornerstone.


Mike Kueber

Is there too much talk of religion in politics?

Filed under: Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 1:25 am
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An article in the San Antonio Express-News last week reported on a nationwide poll that found a slight plurality – 38% – of Americans think that politicians talk about religion too much.  But 30% think politicians don’t talk about religion enough, and only 25% think the amount of talk is just right.    The article also noted that only two years ago the numbers were almost reversed with on 29% thinking there was too much talk of religion by politicians and 37% thinking there wasn’t enough talk.

Although the numbers reveal declining support for the religious right, I would be careful not to read too much into them.  In my opinion, poll results like this one are misleading because they don’t reveal the passion or lack of passion for a position.  I am reminded of that bumper sticker that said, “Pro-life candidate will always get my vote.”  Some voters care deeply about one or a few issues, and a candidate’s position on that issue controls the vote.  Other voters don’t feel deeply about any particular issues and no particular issue controls the vote.  Even more importantly, voters who care deeply about an issue are much more likely to vote than someone who doesn’t have that deep concern.  That is why the NRA and Pro-Life lobbies have so much clout.

Thus, even though the pro-religion voters appear to be outnumbered by the anti-religion voters in the latest polling,  I don’t expect them to be outnumbered at the pools in November later this year.

March 27, 2012

Geraldo and hoodies

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 5:39 pm
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Geraldo Rivera has caught a lot of flak for suggesting Trayvon Martin might have avoided his demise if he hadn’t been wearing a hoodie:

  • “[I] am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.  When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin, you know God bless him, he was an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”

An op-ed piece in the LA Times provides a comprehensive analysis of Rivera’s comments, but in my opinion it reaches the wrong conclusions.   For example, it mentions the analogy of provocatively dressed women who are assaulted, but then dismisses the analogy without discussion.  And it refers approvingly to a column in Time magazine by a guy named Toure (I recently blogged about the column) without considering the similarities between Rivera’s and Toure’s recommendations – i.e., staying safe by avoiding troublesome situations.  What is the difference between Rivera recommending that kids don’t wear hoodies and Toure recommending the following:

  • If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive….  You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black.

Toure seems to be having it both ways by saying that black kids should wear what they want at the same time he advises them against being defiant and dead. 

I don’t think there is any question that wearing a hoodie over your head is threatening to a lot of people, just like tinted windows in cars are threatening or just like the burqa that many Islamic women wear.  In fact, some European countries have banned the wearing of burqas, most famously France. 

I am not suggesting that burqas or tinted windows or hoodies should be banned.  I’m just suggesting that the practice has some practical implications that are difficult to legislate away, even if all of the Miami Heat players try to popularize the hoodies. 

As some wag said, hoodies are like tattoos in that they come from gangster/convict/ghetto culture, and if a kid wants to adopt the gangster/convict/ghetto look, then don’t be surprised when other people are on edge around you.  That is in our DNA.          

March 26, 2012

Stand Your Ground

The Trayvon Martin case has brought attention to a legal concept I had not previously heard of – i.e., the “Stand Your Ground” defense or immunity.  For a thumbnail description of the concept, I turned to Wikipedia and found the following:

  • A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat. Under these legal concepts, a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the “stand your ground” law would be a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit. The difference between immunity and a defense is that an immunity bars suit, charges, detention and arrest. A defense permits a plaintiff or the state to seek civil damages or a criminal conviction. More than half of the states in the United States have adopted the Castle doctrine, stating that a person has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked. Some states go a step further, removing the duty of retreat from any location. “Stand Your Ground,” “Line In The Sand” or “No Duty To Retreat” laws thus state that a person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Under such laws, there is no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be.  Other restrictions may still exist; when in public, a person must be carrying the firearm in a legal manner, whether concealed or openly.

Texas hasn’t adopted a Stand Your Ground law, but it adopted the Castle law in 2007, and that has proven to be controversial in the local news whenever a homeowner shoots an intruder.  A neighbor of one of my best friends relied on the law a few months ago when he was prosecuted for shooting in the back and killing a young man who intruded into his house.  As with the Trayvon Martin case, the San Antonio case was controversial because the victim was arguably totally innocent – i.e., he might have accidentally gone into the wrong house and then was shot as he ran toward the street.

As conservative as Texas is, it is surprising that we lag behind Florida on this issue.  In 2005 Florida already had the Castle doctrine, but because they thought that didn’t sufficiently empower its citizens, they expanded the law to include Stand Your Ground.  As reported by the NY Times in 2005, Jeb Bush signed the Florida Stand Your Ground law after it received overwhelming legislative support.    

Wikipedia provides the rationale for Stand Your Ground laws:

  • In a Minnesota case, State v. Gardner (1905), where a man was acquitted for killing another man who attempted to kill him with a rifle, Judge Jaggard stated: The doctrine of “retreat to the wall” had its origin [in Medieval England] before the general introduction of guns. Justice demands that its application have due regard to the general use of and to the type of firearms. It would be good sense for the law to require, in many cases, an attempt to escape from a hand to hand encounter with fists, clubs and even knives as a justification for killing in self-defense; while it would be rank folly to require [an attempt to escape] when experienced persons, armed with repeating rifles, face each other in an open space, removed from shelter, with intent to kill or cause great bodily harm.
  • Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared in Brown v. United States (256 U.S. 335, 343 (16 May 1921) a case that upheld the “no duty to retreat” maxim that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” 

I have only been following the Martin/Zimmerman case for a few days, and inexplicably most of the news reports have not attempted to report the underlying facts, so today I went searching on the internet for some of those facts, and found an interesting report on Slate.com.  According to Slate’s Emily Bazelon: 

  • The only evidence the police have that Zimmerman acted in self-defense is that he said he lost sight of Martin—after following him despite the 911 dispatcher’s instruction not to—and was going back to his truck when Martin attacked him. That’s it. The only evidence supporting Zimmerman is Zimmerman’s claim about what happened.
  • But there are at least four reasons to doubt what Zimmerman has to say. First, there is the tape of his own 911 call, on which he is agitated by Martin merely because the 17-year-old was walking through the gated community where Zimmerman lives, and then grumbles, “These assholes. They always get away.” Second, this wasn’t Zimmerman’s first phone call like this. He has placed other 911 calls, 46 over 10 years, in which he reported black people for hanging out and children for playing in the street. Third, and most important, is the account of Martin’s girlfriend, who says he was talking to her on his cellphone in the moments before he died. She says Martin told her, “I think this dude is following me,” thought he’d lost Zimmerman, and then said, “He is right behind me again. I’m not going to run, I’m going to walk fast.” The girlfriend claims she next heard another voice say, “What are you doing around here?” to which Martin answered, “Why are you following me?” She then heard Martin get pushed and sounds as if his phone was hitting the ground. Last, there’s just the sheer unlikelihood of a teenager afraid he was being followed, and trying to walk away fast, suddenly turning and pouncing on a much bigger man. (Zimmerman weighed 100 pounds more than Martin.)

And CBS News provided some insights from the two authors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law:

  • It is the fact that Zimmerman ignored the 911 operator’s advice not to follow Martin that former Sen. Peaden says disqualifies him from claiming self-defense under the law. “The guy lost his defense right then,” Peaden told the Miami Herald. “When he said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense.”
  • Rep. Dennis Baxley, Peaden’s co-sponsor in the Florida House, agrees with his former colleague, telling the newspaper that the law does not license neighborhood watch or others who feel “like they have the authority to pursue and confront people. That is aggravating an incident right there.”
  • Both co-sponsors told the newspaper, however, that they did not think the law needed to be re-examined. “If you want to pass something, pass something that limits their ability to pursue and confront people,” Baxley said. “It’s about crime watch,” he said. “What are the limitations of crime watch? Are you allowed to jump out and follow people and confront them? What do you think is going to happen? That’s where it starts.”
  • But during the town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson promised the law’s repeal would be a top priority for the state legislature’s black caucus. “If vigilante justice becomes the norm, will visitors feel comfortable coming to our state?” she asked.

I think Rep. Thompson has focused on what will be the ultimate issue in the Miller/Zimmerman matter. It is not, as many opine or Obama suggests, Miller’s hoodie or police harassment of black males or white profiling of blacks. Instead, it will be the narrow issue of what conservatives call citizen self-defense and liberals call vigilantes. Both sides think the public is on their side, but I think the liberals are wrong on that.

March 25, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Staying Alive, and some context

Filed under: Culture,Media — Mike Kueber @ 6:46 pm
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In the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, an op-ed piece by someone called “Toure” in this week’s Time magazine suggested to black Americans “How to Stay Alive While Being Black.”  The piece was subtitled, “Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.” 

Most of Toure’s points consisted of practical tips such as avoiding trouble-spots and defusing troublesome situations, but the underlying theme was that America is full of racists who continually profile and stereotype.  These people will perceive a violent thug when in fact all they see is a black male.

As I was reading “Toure’s” column, it occurred to me that I have not seen any context provided regarding the scope of this problem – i.e., vigilante, otherwise law-abiding types who profile an innocent black male and then commit violence.  I remember reading in the past about how relatively uncommon white-on-black violence is compared to black-on-black violence.  I also remember reading about good black kids being indiscriminately murdered by black gang members who resent the Uncle Tom good kids.

Maybe its time for the media to provide some context to the Trayvon Martin case.  I suspect the danger created by gang members is a thousand times greater than the danger from vigilantes.

Sunday Book Review #68 – Grant’s Final Victory

Filed under: Book reviews,History — Mike Kueber @ 5:42 pm
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The first book in my to-do queue list this week was On What Matters, a book with in-depth discussions of various philosophical issues.  The book’s table of contents was irresistible – rationality, morality, values, universal laws, etc.  A few hours into the book, however, I realized that it contained much more depth than I was able to handle, and I pushed it aside.  Part of the ease in doing this probably had to do with the next book in queue – Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood.  After recently reading and greatly enjoying Bill O’Reilly’s book on Lincoln and Glenn Beck’s book on Washington, the Grant book promised to be a lot lighter than a dense 500-page book on philosophy.

Grant’s Final Victory was incredibly light.  Although I don’t know enough about Grant to challenge the author’s credibility, I am highly skeptical that Grant walked on water like this book suggests he did.  The book focuses on the last year of Grant’s life, when he was afflicted with tongue and throat cancer shortly after his betrayal by two financial criminals had left him penniless.  That story arch reminds me of Texas governor John Connally. 

Like Connally, Grant faced his financial and health crisis with courage and dignity.  During his last year, while under great pain, Grant wrote his Memoirs, which provided for his family’s financial salvation and is sometimes recognized as one of the best American memoirs every written.  As Grant himself sardonically noted shortly before he died, his writing skills had greatly exceeded expectations, just as his soldiering and political skills had done.      

But the book does not focus exclusively on the final year of Grant’s life.  Instead it often refers back to earlier times in Grant’s life.  And although it does not completely over-look Grant’s failures, such as his early military-career setbacks or his dismal business career just prior to the Civil War, these items are given only a few sentences.  Even the financial incident that left him penniless after the presidency is depicted as Grant having reasonable faith in two close associates who betrayed him.  By contrast, most facts in the book suggest that Grant was nearly a saint with respect to his character. 

Grant’s Final Victory was an enjoyable read, but I suspect the author did as much spinning as Beck and O’Reilly do.




Spineless politicians

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:04 am
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The biggest issue in this year’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is whether Mitt Romney is a dependable conservative or someone who is running as a conservative but will govern as a moderate.  This charge resonates with Romney because he has a history of governing as a moderate when he was governor of Massachusetts, and now his campaign positions are more conservative.  As all litigators know, whenever individuals have given two different answers to the same question, they are vulnerable to charge that they were either lying then or they are lying now.  Either way the individual is shown to be a liar.

A Texas example of shifting positions was recently reported in the Texas Tribune.      Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is planning to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, but such a run is problematic because she started her career as a pro-choice state rep in Travis County, where being pro-choice is acceptable.  Such a position is not acceptable, however, in a state-wide race for lieutenant governor in the Republican Party.  Not surprisingly, Combs changed her abortion position last year and now opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or the life-threatening complications.  But the true believers wonder whether Combs is dependable.

President Obama is in the process of doing the same conversion thing in connection with the issue of same-sex marriage.  During his campaign in 2008, he opposed same-sex marriage because otherwise he would have been hammered by Hilary Clinton on the issue.  But the country (and even more so, the Democratic Party) is moving left on this issue, and President Obama last year started laying the groundwork for reversing his position by declaring that his position was beginning to “evolve.”  I don’t think there is any question the he has always favored same-sex marriage, but declined to take a principled position because it would hurt him electorally.  Now he is making an electoral calculation that being in favor of same-sex marriage will no longer hurt him.

I agree that voters have a right to be skeptical about politicians who significantly modify their positions to accommodate political considerations.  But ultimately that is what politicians should do in a democracy.  Politicians retain their legitimacy only as long as they faithfully represent their constituents.  Furthermore, although politicians might occasionally take principled positions contrary to the wishes of their constituents, they can’t do it very often if they want to retain the support of those constituents.

March 24, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #18 – A Separation, Black Swan, The Constant Gardiner, and Fahrenheit 9/11

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:05 pm
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Since joining Netflix, I thought my movie-theater days would be over.  But I’ve also joined eHarmony, so my movie-theater days may be shifting into high gear.  My first movie-theater film in a long time was A Separation.  I picked it because it won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.  (The Iran-based movie is in Persian.) 

A Separation revolves around a middle-class couple experiencing a marital separation while trying to deal with a parent who has advanced Alzheimer’s.  Then to make matters worse, the husband gets caught up in a trumped up murder charge related to the miscarriage of his father’s caregiver.  I was surprised to see that Iran had a middle class, but even more to see that its judicial system operates relatively effectively even with its heavy overlay of extreme religiosity.  When I suggested to my date that the only thing it was missing was romance, she suggested that romance was probably not a big thing in Iran.  Perhaps. The movie earned a Rotten Tomato critic’s rating of 99% and an audience rating of 94%.  I give it four stars out of four.  I was impressed that Iran could produce such an outstanding drama. 

Black Swan is a so-called psychological thriller that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011.  Although the film didn’t win the award, its star Natalie Portman won the Best Actress award.  I’m not sure if I don’t like psychological thrillers or if I just didn’t like this one.  Portman and her co-star Mila Kunis are stunningly attractive, but neither captured me.  The Rotten Tomato critics were 87% favorable and the audience was 86%.  I give it two and a half stars out of four.

Rachel Weisz (pronounced “vice”) was showcased in Time magazine this week in advance of her new movie, Deep Blue Sea, which comes out this weekend.  The article mentioned that Weisz had won an Academy Award for her supporting performance with Ralph Fiennes in the 2005 thriller The Constant Gardener, and that was enough reason for me to give this Netflix streaming movie a try.  The movie concerns humanitarian activists fighting corrupt capitalism in poverty-stricken Kenya.  Weisz is wonderful in the movie as an erratic, passionate activist, but Fiennes is at least as good as a sensitive, decent civil servant.  Their love for each other, however, is what makes the movie click for me.  Rotten Tomatoes gave it 83% by critics and 81% by the audience; I give it three and a half stars out of four.   

Fahrenheit 9/11 made my viewing list because this 2004 award-winning movie by Michael Moore is the highest-grossing documentary of all time.  It earned an 84% rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics, but only 69% from its viewers (mostly liberal, I presume).  I give it only one and a half stars out of four because it consisted mostly of anti-war (Iraq) and anti-Bush propaganda – a perfect example of Moore preaching to the choir and doing nothing to persuade the undecided.  Despite the film’s commercial success in mid-2004, Bush-43 was re-elected several months later in November 2004.

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, “The title of the film alludes to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian view of the future United States, analogizing the auto-ignition temperature of paper with the date of the September 11 attacks; the film’s tagline is ‘The Temperature at Which Freedom Burns.’”

Trayvon Martin

Filed under: Culture,Issues,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:04 am
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President Obama today went out of his way to interject himself into the Trayvon Martin affair.  Although I wasn’t familiar with the tragedy, I made the following comment on my Facebook wall:

  • What does President Obama mean when he says his son would look like Trayvon? And what does that have to do with this tragedy?

A USAA friend responded with the following comments:

  • What he meant by saying it is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, race is still a being issue in today’s society. This type of incident certainly wasn’t the first and surely won’t be the last. Parents should never have to bury a child under these circumstances. I of course don’t know the whole story, but I hope the right thing is done.

I responded as follows:

  • No, Steve, I don’t think it is obvious what he meant. I am reminded of his comments about the Harvard professor, when he said it was obvious that the police had overreacted. I think Obama overreacted in the Harvard incident, and I think he is over-reacting in personalizing this matter.

My friend responded, “But Mike, isn’t it almost always an ‘over reaction’ to a black male being accused, harassed, or killed?”  I responded – “Yes, it’s an over-reaction to claim racism every time a black male is accused or killed.”

I continue to believe that President Obama overreacted by interjecting himself into this matter, but the Washington Post disagrees.  In an article in today’s edition, the Post attempted to distinguish between President Obama’s reaction to Harvard-gate and his reaction to the Martin killing:

  • Calling Obama’s response to the Gates arrest “a disaster for the president” because he passed judgment on what had happened, Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, said Obama’s message Friday was a welcome contrast.  “There really is an issue of whether if you are black in America today, if you are dressed the way you are dressed, that that can make you a victim.  These are society’s most delicate issues, and I thought the president handled it delicately.”    

I disagree.  By suggesting that America needs to do some “soul searching” over the Martin incident and that Martin looked like Obama’s son would look, President Obama is prejudging the matter and implying that racism by Zimmerman result in Martin’s death.  Let’s await the local, state, and federal investigations before coming to that judgment.

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